Julian Savulescu & Ingmar Persson

In a nutshell: The philosophical argument for supplementing moral education with biological interventions, including devices and pharmaceuticals that act on the brain.

A basic fact about the human condition is that it is easier for us to harm than benefit each other. Human morality has developed around how this imbalance plays out on the small scale, in the village or nomadic tribe of a hundred and fifty or so people.

So, we feel bad when we cause harm to others within our social groups. We feel more responsible if we caused an outcome. Causing a harm feels worse than neglecting to create a benefit.

Human psychology that was protective in the past, now leaves us open to unprecedented risk in today’s society. We are largely loss-averse, preferring to protect against losses than to seek benefits of a similar level. We focus on the immediate future not the distant future when we make judgments. We feel responsible if we have individually caused a bad outcome, but less responsible if we are part of a large group causing the same outcome.

When we lived in small groups, this moral psychology prevented us harming one another most of the time. But in a global society — where our collective actions have both long-term and distant harms, such as climate change — it cannot protect us well enough.

Moral bioenhancement

Enhancing our moral motivation is one route to getting us to behave better to distant people, future generations, and non-human animals. This is the technique that Al Gore, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam use in their campaigns.

But there is another possibility emerging. Our knowledge of genetics and neurobiology is beginning to enable us to directly alter human motivation, through either genetic selection or engineering, or pharmaceuticals and devices that change the brain. For example, the hormone oxytocin, which acts on the brain, has been shown in the laboratory to make people more trusting and co-operative. We could use these techniques to overcome the moral and psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species.

Here we consider the philosophical and moral objections to such moral bioenhancement.

Objection 1: too little, too late?

Moral bioenhancement is a field in its infancy.

We do not dispute this. Our claim is merely that the requisite moral enhancement is theoretically possible – in other words, that we are not biologically or genetically doomed to cause our own destruction – and that we should do all that we can to achieve moral bioenhancement.

Objection 2: the bootstrapping problem

Bioenhancements will have to be developed and selected by the very people who are in need of them. As with all science, moral bioenhancement technologies will be open to misuse.

The risks of misapplying any powerful technology are serious. A turning point was reached at the middle of the last century with the invention of the atomic bomb. For the first time, technological progress was no longer clearly to the overall advantage of humanity.

But that doesn’t mean we should halt scientific endeavour. Rather, as a society we should attempt to use our science and technology for the better. We’d argue that this should extend to supplying new instruments of moral enhancement, which could be applied alongside traditional moral education.

Objection 3: liberal democracy – a panacea?

Some argue that democratic decision-making, drawing on the best available scientific evidence, will enable government action to avoid the looming threats to our future, without any need for moral enhancement.

However, if the evolutionary biases we have already mentioned – our parochial altruism and bias towards the near future – influence our attitudes to climatic and environmental policies, then there is good reason to believe that a majority will opt for the wrong policies!

Our conclusion

Humans have radically transformed their social and natural environments with technology, while our moral dispositions have remained virtually unchanged. Our growing knowledge of biology could lead to technologies for augmenting moral education via bioenhancements, such as pharmaceuticals or devices that act on the brain.

Last century we spent vast amounts of resources increasing our ability to cause great harm. It would be sad if, in this century, we reject out of hand opportunities to increase our capacity to create benefits, or at least to prevent such harm.


This is an extract of a longer piece that first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.

Julian Savulescu explores the topic further at a public event “Manipulating morality: Using pills, drugs and brain stimulation to solve social challenges in the 21st century,” 10th December.

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The Essentials

  • It may be possible to enhance moral behaviour through brain-altering interventions including genetic engineering, drugs and devices.
  • These philosophers argue that while these processes are open to misuse, we should not reject the potential benefits to society.