“Enhancement” and Moral Development

Oxford ethicist Julian Sevulescu and Swedish philosopher Ingmar Persson argue in their book Unfit for the Future: The Urgent Need for Moral Enhancement that now is the time to introduce neurological and genetic changes in people so they are willing to go along with various agendas.  They note that climate change is a big issue, but when a number of people are apathetic about the cause, it might be helpful to change their thinking by altering their biology.  In their words in a 2012 article in the Sydney (AU) Morning Herald:

”Our knowledge of human biology–in particular genetics and neurobiology–is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or genetic selections or engineering,”

It is rather common in both scientific and philosophical circles to find proposals for altering the biology of people as a good way to change people and their thinking.  Tom Garigan recently addressed these technologies in “What Should We Forget?” on Sept. 9th as they relate to modifying memories:

“To argue that memories should be “extinguished” or excised is also to forget the purpose of memories. We need memories, even the bad ones. In the research cited above, the memory extinguished was that of an electric shock repeatedly received in a specific chamber. How “therapeutic” is it to the mice to forget that they should not venture there again?”

Indeed, it might be helpful to remember that someone is administering an electric shock.  This comment emphasizes that the deeper issue at hand is the concept that being human is more than just the aggregate of brain processes.  I would say there is very much an immaterial, spiritual part of each human being, an aspect which interfaces with the brain chemistry and processing which we examine in the medical sciences but which cannot be wholly contained or defined by physical analysis or terminology.  This is what many religions have termed the soul, or the spirit, and I believe it is the realm of the particular discipline we know as theology.

Classic, Christian concepts of moral development emphasize that morality and ethics stem from the character of God Himself and therefore a person’s moral development is dependent on a human being’s relational activity with the Deity.  In turn, relationships with other human beings who are also soul-ful (likewise bearing the Imago Dei) are essential.  For instance, these types of interpersonal relationships are at the heart of the university experience, specifically that which is commonly termed as liberal arts education.  These disciplines are liberal in that they are freeing, allowing graduates to pursue the profession of their choosing.  It is an education of the human being so as to produce mature persons who not only are equipped to acquire technical skills for jobs but also possess the moral development of adulthood so as to be spouses and parents, citizens and neighbors.

To think we could take a pill and achieve Huxley’s “Soma” bliss or plug in a cerebral flash drive in order to acquire a semester’s coursework is wrongheaded to begin with.  The great learning of higher education is in the development of the person.  This includes the wisdom and insight of colleagues, the difficulty of trials and obstacles, the mentorship of a professor, and the calling of God in Heaven (the vocatio of vocation).

There are real brain diseases out there.  Perhaps we should save our expensive MRI machines and tailored pharmaceuticals for the neurologists working on those problems.  Let’s leave the social engineering to the annals of history.

For Further Study

de Brito, Sam. “Maybe It’s Time for a Little Human Enhancement.” Sydney Morning Herald (AU), December 23, 2012.

Heller, Nathan. “Poison Ivy: Are Elite Colleges Bad for the Soul?” New Yorker, September 1, 2014.

Scott, O. A. “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” New York Times, September 11, 2014.

Moral Enhancement, Uehiro Centre, Oxford University

Transcendence starring Johnny Depp (2014)

 Lucy starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman (2014)





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