Saturday, July 13, 2013

Douglas on Moral Enhancement and Superficiality (Part One)

Oxytocin Spray - A form of moral enhancement?

If you could take a pill that would make you more moral, would you do it? It sounds attractive. I know that I often fail to be as compassionate or as charitable as I ought to be. If there was some way for me to overcome these moral failings I would be inclined to take it. But if I took, say, a compassion-pill would my actions be tainted thereafter? Would they be less morally commendable than they might otherwise have been?

Thomas Douglas’s recent article “Enhancing Moral Conformity and Enhancing Moral Worth” looks at these questions. To be precise, it looks at the complaint — made most clearly by the otherwise redoubtable defender of enhancement John Harris — that moral conduct achieved with the help of enhancement technologies is more superficial and less worthy than moral conduct achieved through traditional deliberative means. Douglas argues that Harris is wrong in thinking this.

Over the next few posts, I want to take a look at Douglas’s arguments. I start, in this post, by setting out some of the conceptual vocabulary needed to understand this debate. I then outline a general “superficiality” or “moral worth” objection to moral enhancement. In subsequent posts, I look at four specific versions of the objection.

1. Brute and Deliberative Moral Conformity
Three concepts need to be mastered in order to understand this debate. The first is the general notion of moral conformity. The second is the more specific notion of brute moral conformity. And the third is the contrasting notion of deliberative (or non-brute) moral conformity. The connections between these three concepts and that of moral enhancement will also need to be mapped out.

Let’s start with the general notion of moral conformity. It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that morality is a reason-giving enterprise. To say that giving money to charity is moral, or to say that torturing innocent children for fun is immoral, is to say that there are moral reasons for doing and forbearing from those activities. Moral conformity can then be defined as achieving harmony between one’s actions and the reasons supplied by morality. In other words:

Moral Conformity: An agent’s conduct, C, can be said to conform with morality if (and only if) C coincides with the moral reasons for engaging in C.

Full moral conformity is achieved whenever a course of action is at least as well supported by moral reasons as any alternative course of action. Such conformity can be achieved over longer or shorter periods of time.

The general notion of moral conformity is deliberately opaque. This is because there are very different ways in which such conformity can be brought about. If I point a gun at your head, and force you to hand over all your money to some well-deserving charity, then it could be said that your conduct conforms with the demands of morality. But that is quite different from the case in which you read Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save, decide that the arguments within it are sound, and proceed to hand over your money to the same charity. There seems to be something less welcome or “moral” about the first case when compared to the second.

The difference between the two cases can be understood in terms of brute and non-brute (or deliberative) moral conformity. Brute conformity arises whenever your actions happen to coincide with moral reasons, but you do not deliberate and reflect upon those reasons. This is true in the first of the two cases. Non-brute, deliberative conformity arises whenever you actually reflect upon the relevant moral reasons and use them as the basis for your actions. This is true in the second of the two cases:

Brute Moral Conformity: An agent’s conduct, C, can be said to conform with morality in a brute manner if C coincides with the moral reasons for engaging in C, but the agent does not deliberate and reflect upon the moral reasons for engaging in C.
Deliberative Moral Conformity: An agent’s conduct, C, can be said to conform with morality in a deliberative manner if C coincides with the moral reasons for engaging in C, and the agent deliberates and reflects upon the moral reasons for engaging in C.

Our intuitive reaction to the two examples given above suggest that there might be important moral differences between the two kinds of conformity. In particular, our reaction suggests that there might be something inferior about brute moral conformity. The question at the heart of this debate is whether this is true and whether it has a knock-on effect on the desirability of moral enhancement.

2. Moral Enhancement
To this point I have been loosely referring to moral enhancement, and hinting that its merits and demerits form the basis of our debate. But what exactly is “moral enhancement”? The concept is vague. Technically, anything that improves moral conformity could be said to be a moral enhancement. For example, going out and buying yourself a copy of The Life You Can Save, reading it, and reflecting on its arguments might be deemed moral enhancement.

But while this is “technically” true, when people talk about moral enhancement — or about human enhancement more generally — they usually have in mind biomedical interventions that manipulate and alter neuro-psychological processes. Hence, the opening example of a compassion-pill is a paradigmatic example of moral enhancement: it is a psychopharmacological intervention that alters our affective states, which in turn alters and improves moral conformity.

You might think that moral enhancements of this sort are impossible, but you would be wrong. On the contrary, they are quite plausible. Consider Young et al’s experiments on the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to alter moral judgments. In these experiments TMS was used to disrupt neural activity in the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ). This was found to change the subjects’ judgments of blameworthiness. To be precise, those with disrupted RTPJ’s were less inclined to ascribe blame to people who intended to do harm but failed to do so.

Now, to be sure, this experiment does not clearly involve an improvement to moral behaviour. But it does show how modern technologies can alter and manipulate our moral judgments. If similar technologies can be adapted to improve moral conformity, then we would have a genuine case of moral enhancement. Indeed, we may have them already. People have, for instance, run experiments suggesting that nasal oxytocin sprays improve empathy and trust, which could be said to improve moral conformity. Furthermore, given that the “morality” of our behaviour is so context-dependent, there is reason to think that interventions that compromise moral behaviour in one context could improve it in another.

The debate then is that moral enhancement technologies might achieve increased moral conformity by brute rather than deliberative means. By directly manipulating and altering our conative and affective states, the worry is that deliberative mechanisms of moral reasoning are bypassed, and hence an inferior kind of moral conformity is brought about. Is this worry a serious one? That’s what we need to find out.

3. The Moral Worth Argument
To answer the question, an argument that supports the view that brute moral conformity is inferior to deliberative moral conformity is needed. One such argument is suggested to us by Kantian moral theory. We can call this the “Moral Worth Argument” (MWA).

The idea behind the MWA is that the causal-psychological history of an act counts towards it’s overall moral worth. Suppose there are two businessmen, each deciding to donate a portion of their income to Oxfam. The first one does so because he wants to make the world a better place, and he had read the blog 80,000 hours which advised him that the best way to do this was to pursue a high-earning career and then to donate a considerable portion of those earnings to effective charities. The second one does so for tax purposes. Whose conduct has greater moral worth?

Surely the first one. And surely the reason for this is that the first one conforms with moral reasons in the right kind of way. The causal-psychological history behind his act warrants more moral praise than the causal-psychological history of the second one’s act. This gives us the moral worth argument:

  • (1) An action A1 has greater moral worth than another action A2 whenever A1 is produced by a causal-psychological process that warrants greater moral praise.
  • (2) Actions produced through brute moral conformity warrant less moral praise than actions produced by deliberative moral conformity.
  • (3) Moral enhancement technologies work by achieving brute moral conformity, not deliberative moral conformity.
  • (4) Therefore, actions achieved through moral enhancement are less morally worthy.

This is the basic version of the argument. Much turns on how we flesh out its premises. In subsequent posts we will consider four more specific versions of it. Each of those arguments points to particular grounds for attributing moral praise/worth to an action, and suggests that action produced through moral enhancement fails to satisfy those grounds.

Douglas responds by claiming that each of these arguments is flawed, either because actions produced through moral enhancement could satisfy those grounds, or because those grounds are not persuasive. We’ll start to see how he does this in the next post by considering the first two arguments: the motive of duty argument, and the causal history argument.

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