The Critic of Moral Bioenhancement Theory : Naoki MORISHITA
First Chief N.Morishita works (2018 09〜2022 12) | 2021.10.14


The Critic


Moral Bioenhancement Theory


“intervening in the brain

to improve morality”


This article is the English Version of Chapter 4


“Ethics of Life and Science-Technology :

Body, Brain, Mind and Society in the Digital Age

(Morishita ed., Maruzen, 2016).


In recent years, with the remarkable progress of research in the field of neuroscience, attention has been focused on so-called “enhancement”, which is to enhance and improve mental and physical abilities through biological and biochemical interventions on the brain. For example, muscle-building agents known for sports doping tests and urgent anti-aging techniques for the elderly are involved in physical enhancement. On the other hand, “Ritalin”, which is prescribed for sedation of children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and improvement of concentration of adults, is an example of cognitive enhancement mainly in psychology. Furthermore, as examples of enhancements related to emotions in psychology, “Prozac” that brings a bright and positive mood and “Oxytocin” that removes anxiety and fear and fosters a sense of intimacy are known (1).

Enhancement In general, apart from the above-mentioned direction of modifying the mind and body as a living thing by drugs, surgical procedures, genetic manipulation, etc. (bio-enhancement), the mind and body are connected to a computer-controlled device/machine. There is also the direction of cybernetics (cyborgization) to remodel. Cochlear implants, external storage devices, or robot suit assistance are examples of the latter. In the future, the two directions will probably converge into one, as in the case where electrical stimulation to the deep brain (DBS) is controlled by a computer embedded in the body (2). At that time, the focus is on the “brain” (synaptic connection). When all movements of the mind and body start with the “brain” and end with the “brain”, what is newly requested is the philosophy of “nerves”, and what is sharply raised is ethics around “nerves”.

“Neuroethics” contains double ethical issues (3). One is the question of the pros and cons of biological and biochemical interventions in the brain. Germ cell genetic engineering in bioethics has had irreversible effects on future generations, whereas irreversible interventions in the brain have become a direct impact on living human individuals. The other is the problem of human psychology related to social or morality, especially the correspondence between feelings of sympathy or empathy and the neural network state of the brain. If, as some neuroscientists and philosophers argue, human moral psychology can be found by examining brain states, and therefore it is not impossible to improve moral psychology through manipulating brain states, methods based on traditional (classical) views of humanity, ethics, and education should be unnecessary. And that would mean a radical and overt challenge to the traditions and common sense that humanity has cultivated so far. But to what extent is such a point of view valid?

Recently (since around 2008), a group advocating moral bioenhancement (MBE) has emerged as an extension of these trends, causing controversy. Of course, even in the past, while psychological enhancement has been a problem, it is not that there was no debate about the improvement of humanity related to morals, and therefore about moral enhancement. But, with the addition of “bio” and the presentation of concrete practical examples, the debate has suddenly become a reality (4). However, looking at the actual discussion, the definition of morality and ethics and the meaning of enhancement are vague, and the essential points such as what is morality, what is enhancement, or where and how to intervene in moral enhancement will be true seems have not been decided (5). In that sense, it can be said that consideration is now required to re-question the premise of the discussion.

Therefore, in this article, I would like to re-examine the premise of the debate over Moral bioenhancement. At the same time, it should also question the starting point of neuro-ethics itself, which returns ethics to the brain. The advocates of Moral bioenhancement are researchers at the Center for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, especially Professor J. Savrescu (henceforth abbreviated title). In 2014, he gave a comprehensive lecture at the University of Tokyo based on various counterarguments to his theory (6). In the following, I will make a constructive and positive argument by scrutinizing the lecture.

1. From moral enhancement to moral bioenhancement

Let’s start by confirming the meaning of “Moral Enhancement ME”. This literally points to increasing the morality of the individual. But what is the morality used there, and what does it mean to increase that morality? According to Savrescu, “morally enhancing” means being able to control impulses, improving cognitive abilities, increasing self-interest calculation, and empathizing. But, I think that’s too partial. Rather, generally speaking, it can be included in the ability to judge and act on the basis of the correct reason (grounds) that one believes, that is, to enhance “autonomy”.

Originally, it was moral education, including emotional education, that was involved in this broad moral enhancement. In traditional societies, regardless of the East or the West, the ideals of the mind (soul) such as “conscience”, “Buddha-nature”, “sincerity”, and “clear mind” backed by religious authority are linked to “health care” and aimed through training. Under such circumstances, in Western Europe, the traditional morality itself had been re-questioned as the so-called modern society is formed after the latter half of the 17th century. 

The start was a bold affirmation of “selfishness” (self-preservation desire) by Hobbes. Inspired by this, new moral ideas such as “moral sense”, “sympathy”, “pleasure calculation”, “equal rights”, “love for humanity”, and “fraternity” are launched one after another. Then, after the latter half of the 19th century, especially in the 20th century, systematic methods were sought for intervention in moral education (with the counter-axis of nation vs. humanity), mainly in the fields of psychology, pedagogy, and sociology.

The issues surrounding intervention in moral education can be summarized in the following three points. 

The first issue is the “focus” of the intervention, what it works on. There are two focal points here. In other words, it is a conflict between intervening in selfishness, self-interest, and ego to limit it, or working on dear compassion. The former stimulates the intellect and fosters long-term calculations and imagination of the situation, and the latter guides emotions and fosters emotional transfer to the other party. 

The second issue is the “achievement goal”, that is, where to intervene. There are two perspectives on this as well. One is to extend the sense of justice and aim for equality of rights based on mutual respect. On the other hand, the other is to aim for a deep sense of communality, that is, the love of mankind or the spirit of love and others that rises above unity and self-sacrifice. In short, it is a conflict between justice and love for humanity. 

And the third issue is the “method”, that is, how to intervene. Here, too, there are two main ways of thinking. On the one hand, there is a recharge of culture that inherits traditional human education (paideia). On the other hand, there are improvements in the social, legal and economic environment. Regarding this method, utilitarians emphasize independence and freedom under the improvement of the social system by legislation, and socialists expect the enhancement of welfare administration for economic relief.

The counter-axis of the above three issues has basically remained unchanged from the 19th century to the present day. However, as mentioned above, recently (after around 2008), moral bio-enhancement MBE was advocated by Savrescu and others who were not satisfied with the conventional moral enhancement. This claim is basically an attempt to link biology to moral education. Of course, there is precedent for this combination. Apart from the classic Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Sexual Selection (1871), if we limit ourselves to the 1970s and beyond, for example, the social biology of E.O. Wilson, who focuses on gene-centric natural selection in social animals, and of R. Dawkins, who pushes the strategy of selfish genes entirely is eye-catching (7). Alternatively, there is the ethnology of K. Lorenz, who focused on the ritualization of aggression, and F. de Waal, who emphasizes empathy (8). However, the newly advocated MBE is different from them. The decisive difference is the “intervention” of an individual’s moral psychology by biological and biochemical methods. This is because we do not find morality in the natural state of human beings as animals as in the past, but artificially aim for positive improvement or negative minimization of morality through such interventions (9). The MBE framework advocated by Savrescu is as follows.

① Global problems are piled up due to rapid changes in society and rapid progress in science and technology. For example, weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons, inequality and poverty, and global warming.

② Due to the limited morality of humankind, these problems have not been dealt with well. On the contrary, various problems have arisen as a result of moral psychology such as aggression, selfishness, and difficulty in cooperation.

③ The focus of morality is sympathy/empathy, sense of justice, and altruism (love and others). However, conventional methods of moral education and improvement of the social environment have not been able to develop them efficiently.

④ With the progress of neuroscience, the mechanism of the neural network that supports psychology and behavior is being elucidated. Through this, it became clear that the brain is the basis of human psychology and behavior.

⑤ As far as we can see the actual examples of applying the research of neuroscience, the predictability and avoidability of behavior can be greatly expected. Therefore, it is not impossible to improve restricted morality by applying those findings.

⑥ Therefore, intervening in the morality of human beings by biological methods is a way of taking moral responsibility suitable for the era of neuroscience.

There are three types of neurobiological interventions (MBEs) that Savrescu considers: That is, A: agent type, B: act type, and C: causal type. Here type A increases the “possibility of motivation” for “correct beliefs and correct actions based on them” in a certain natural and social environment by intervening in biological causality. On the other hand, type B increases the “probability of correct” action “under similar conditions. And the C type “causally” causes the right thing to do under similar conditions.

There should be some immediate questions about the MBE framework. For example, They are the only issues that should be addressed (①)? Isn’t the idea that the psychology of individual or group human beings poses a crisis as it simplifies the matter too psychologically (②)? How to evaluate the presence or absence of the effect (③). How can the fact that synaptic connections in the brain are the basis of morality be explained if it is not just an indication of correspondence (④)? How reliable is the predictability known through the examples (⑤), who (type) is the one who judges “correct beliefs and actions” in the first place, and so on.

Actually, the main focus of Savrescu’s lecture was to refute the numerous counterarguments thrown against moral bioenhancement (MBE). He puts them together in three counter-arguments. That is, the first is the ambiguity of the concept of moral enhancement, the second is the unavoidable adverse effect on freedom and equality, and the third is improper response or improper problem setting. Before critically considering the three types of MBE, I would like to give an overview of their counterarguments and their refutations in connection with the above questions.

2. Three groups of counterarguments to MBE

First, let’s take up the counterargument that MBE’s notion of morality is ambiguous. There are several claims related to this. For example, it is argued that there is a conflict between relativism and universalism over morality because there is no consensus on what morality requires (10). Savrescu, on the other hand, takes the position that there is minimal universalism. Alternatively, there is a claim that the only content of moral enhancement is cognitive enhancement. Savrescu, on the other hand, argues that if so, it is just prudence, the intellectualism of self-calculation prospects, not morality. Also, in response to the argument that MBE is elitism and perfectionism, MBE is limited to negative intervention and only minimizes factors that bias moral psychology. Furthermore, in response to the objection that moral psychology is biologically determined and improvement by intervention cannot be expected, natural normality is only statistical and not normative, and it is already received various physical and biochemical effects in the background (this point will be described later). As can be seen from the above, Savrescu presupposes a certain universal moral framework, which will be discussed in detail later.

Next is the counterargument that the negative impact of MBE on the values ​​of freedom and equality is unavoidable. There are two issues surrounding adverse effects. 

One of them involves two freedoms, “spontaneity” and “autonomy”. For example, Harris criticizes “freedom of autonomy,” including the morally degrading choice of freedom (11). Alternatively, it is Sandel who criticizes from the standpoint of defending “authenticity” (“innocent me” or natural authenticity) (12). Furthermore, it is Habermas who argues that DNA is the source of human morality and that its manipulation impairs morality (13)

On the other hand, another issue concerns equality. Here, infringement of the weak by the powerful (inequality), the danger of domination by morally enhanced minority, abuse of power, the danger of those who should be required to improve moral psychology seek means of enhancement (bootstrapping), potential exploitation, etc. are included. As you can see, not only Savrescu but also “bio-conservatives” are talking about what would happen if moral bio-enhancement were realized. However, even if it is realized as expected, what will actually happen there? Let’s consider this point in detail later.

The third group of counterarguments is that the MBE approach is not only unnecessary, but even inappropriate, for the problems of modern society related to science and technology. This is a counterargument to the problem itself. For example, the criticism that no means of promoting enhancement should be developed is a question of feasibility. Also, the counterargument that there is no need for globalization is the solution of the problem itself. Alternatively, there are criticisms that it is more effective to work on political and social factors for social change, and that social problems should be solved politically rather than by biological intervention. Furthermore, as long as the MBE presupposes moral inequality and power imbalance from the beginning, there are counterarguments that it is not suitable for moral education in the first place and that its intervention denies the value of diversity. However, the above counter-arguments are probably more common sense than criticisms that go inside the MBE. It is necessary to consider MBE internally beyond the level of discussion that only confirms common sense conclusions.

In the following, I would like to narrow down the above-mentioned questions and counterarguments to the following three fundamental problems in order to take a deeper look at how to formulate (framing) the problem of Savrescu. That is, (1) how to perceive morality and ethics, (2) the relationship between global issues and moral psychology, and (3) the issue of feasiblity and freedom. In discussing this last issue, three types of MBE will appear.

3. Morality and <conversion structure> between systems

3.1 Intersection / exchange of various systems and their nodes

First, let’s consider how to understand morality and ethics. Savrescu himself takes a universalist position regarding morality, rejecting relativism and arguing that there are correct moral beliefs and correct actions. He relies on Rawls’s “rational deliberation” perspective. One of the conditions that underpins contemplation here is A. Smith’s imaginative sympathetic knowledge. Judging from the Savrescu quote, Rawls’s early thinking was that kind of sympathy was extremely idealized (14). However, it can be said that “reasonable contemplation” that allows one to imagine the viewpoint of another person as if it were one’s own and to compare oneself and the other while being neutral and impartial is actually an unrealistic assumption.

Rather, before asking whether there is universal morality, what we need to stop and think about is what “morality” is in the first place and how it relates to “ethics”. This has already been discussed in my book, “Systems Ethics thinking”, so I would like to repeat only that point here.

The word “ethics” used in this article refers to “structure (certain semantic pattern)” as a condition that stably connects communication as a semantic connection exchanged between people. People’s communication becomes a “social system” only with this “structure”. However, since this “structure” applies to systems in general, it works as a condition not only in social systems but also in communication of self-interactions in human systems. That is the belief (or the view of life or the way of knowing things), which intersects with the “ethics” of the social system. Therefore, this “belief” may also be called “ethics”, but the word “morality” is specially assigned (15).

Now, let’s take my argument one step further based on the above. The communication of self-interactions (meaning-connections) in individual human systems is directly influenced by the communication of social systems (meaning-connections), from the outside, so to speak, using the same words. At the same time, from the outside, so to speak, the connection of biochemical substances in the life system (chain of chemical reactions) and the connection of emotional images in the animal system indirectly influence. In other words, in the connection of images and symbols within the self, the double external connections are interlaced and exchanged. Let’s extend this point a little more. 

What is spreading outside the communication of the individual’s self-internal dialogue, that is, among others, is the communication of the meaning directed by the structure of the social system. It is face-to-face communication that operates at the basis of the social system. Incorporating this into the organization is the communication within the organization, and this organization is responsible for the functional system. Furthermore, it is the whole society that embraces all those social systems. And at any level of social system, there is a “structure” that stabilizes the connection of semantic communication. This structure is different for each social system, and in the case of the structure of the whole society, it can be called “social common sense”. In any case, the semantic connections oriented (rather than determined) by their structures intersect and interact with the semantic connections of self-internal dialogue oriented by morality (structural beliefs) in the individual’s consciousness.

On the other hand, at the bottom of an individual’s self-internal dialogue, so to speak, inside the outside, that is, inside the organism, there is an emotional connection directed by the structure (instinct) formed through evolution. This works at the basis of the psychological state of living things, and if it is not stable, anxiety, fear, urge, depression, etc. will occur. This emotional network pushes up from within the organism and stimulates morality (belief) in the self-interaction of consciousness. Furthermore, it is the life system in which biochemical reactions are linked that operates at the lower level of the animal system centered on this emotion. When connection troubles such as excess and deficiency occur in the synaptic connections of the brain that control this reaction chain, they affect the connection at the emotional level and lead to an unstable state.

In short, in the communication of conscious self-internal dialogue in individual human systems, the circulation of multiple levels of semantic connection is intruded and interlaced and exchanged, in which multiple “structures” also direct self-internal dialogue. Interlaced with structure (morality). In addition, from the above point of view, it is not Kant’s dual composition of sensibilities (tendencies) and reason that is relatively in line with the actual state of individual moral psychology, but probably Freud’s three-dimensional composition of movement, instinct, ego, and super-ego. In any case, it is certain that the universal and idealistic framework of morality on which Savrescu relies is extremely narrow and biased.

3.2 Toward theorizing the conversion structure

Let’s go one step further and look at the intersection/exchange itself in the circulation of semantic connections between multiple systems at different levels. In general (at different levels), how are external stimuli transformed into each other and incorporated into the individual connection processes within a system in the interplay and interaction of separate systems? At that time, how are the structures of plural systems connected to each other in such an intersection/exchange? Elucidation of these points has crucial implications for the subject of this article. This is because, in the first place, the basis of the matter of “intervening in the brain to enhance morality” is exactly that kind of transformation, especially in the intersection and interaction of multiple systems at different levels.

If the circulation of semantic connections is stably interlaced and exchanged between multiple systems, then there must be a certain structure that transforms each other’s external stimuli. Let’s call this <conversion structure>. There are two types (16). One is when the levels of plural systems are different, for example, between a human system and a social system, or between subsystems inside a human system. Here, separate semantic connections at the micro and macro levels are connected by structuring that can be said to be calculus or fractal (17). Let’s call this a <transformation structure> in particular. The other is when systems of the same level intersect and interact with each other, for example, face-to-face communication between individuals, or functional differentiation systems such as science and technology. Here, a structure occurs in which meanings (distinguishing relationships) are replaced or translated with each other. Let’s call this a <compatible structure> in particular. In short, all systems have internal structures, but the newly formed conversion structure can be said to be a higher-order structure that gently mediates between these internal structures. In that sense, it may be called <hyperstructure> or <inter-structure>. See Figures 1a, 1b, and 1c for the above.

Now let’s focus on the process of semantic connection that follows the acceptance of external stimuli. First, when a particular system accepts an external stimulus, its acceptance is directed by the <transformation structure>, but this orientation is not causal and is loosely conditioned, incorporating contingency and indeterminacy. Second, on the side of the system that receives such transformed stimuli, individual semantic connections are already underway. This internal structural orientation is also loose, with each semantic connection being contingent and undetermined. Therefore, the process of semantic connection following the process of transformative acceptance is neither causally decisive nor conversely completely undetermined in the doubly doubled looseness, but rather a certain gradual width (the expression “semi-structured” may be appropriate here). As a result, the system may or may not self-transform.

Based on the above, let’s clarify the situation of “intervening” from the outside. Here, “intervention” means “change of connection direction”. There are two types of intervention: indirect intervention and direct intervention.

First, indirect intervention is to change the connection direction of the upper level, which is the focus, by changing the connection direction of the lower level. Taking the human system as an example, ingestion of a drug changes the connection direction in a biomolecular reaction, thereby changing the connection direction of emotions in an animal system. Or conversely, it is also to change the focus lower level connection by changing the upper level connection direction. For example, controlling the direction of emotional connection in the animal system through meditation in the self-interaction of consciousness. There is no guarantee that the desired effect will always be obtained with the above two-way indirect intervention. This is because in both upper and lower level connections, contingency and indeterminacy remain within a certain range.

Second, direct intervention is to change the connection direction between the same levels. For example, taking a headache drug to soothe an inflamed area, or meditating under the guidance of a leader may lead to enlightenment. However, even in this case, there is no inevitable guarantee that the conditioning by the intervention will change the connection direction and bring about the desired effect, though not as much as the indirect intervention. Sometimes taking headache medicine does not provide sedative effects, and meditation does not reach the point of enlightenment. It is the effect of complex interplay within the intervened system that self-transforms while interpreting the stimulus of the direction of intervention. See Figure 2 for the above.

3.3 Conversion between human system and social system

Let’s pay attention to the conversion between the human system and the social system (here, transformation) while considering the relationship with moral enhancement and moral education. In this transformation, individual mutations should appear more strongly through individual self-interpretation than between subsystems within humans. However, it should be remembered that individual beliefs and related motivations (emotions) have already become habitual by continuing to be intervened by surrounding adults (common sense) from an early age. In other words, human beings do not start from a blank table, but from a state in which specific content has already been written. And in the subsequent growth, it transforms itself while receiving another stimulus. The following four stages can be assumed for the formation of beliefs (morals) as such a structure. This is just a trivial assumption, but it still seems worth detoxifying the simplified view of Savrescu.

(1) The first stage is unconscious habit formation. While receiving the efforts of the people around us (social environment), the temperature of the natural environment and the rhythm of the seasons are imprinted on the body and mood. The social environment is the first place, but it has been historically formed as a custom in the natural environment. Customs and traditions have a bias towards social good, such as order maintenance, cooperation and obedience. Acceptance and conversion here are involuntary and unconscious, and while using the natural environment as a common medium, the structure of society almost directly directs the beliefs (structures) of the human system.

(2) The second stage is organizational orientation. School education develops children into working people, that is, members who support the nation, with clear goals, policies, and discipline. In particular, moral education emphasizes the aspects of order and goodness, and teaches the expected human image linguistically and nonverbally. It’s all too pre-built, and although it’s almost uninteresting, the stimulus for emotional level motivation is overwhelming.

(3) The third stage is conscious reflection. Adolescents are most sensitive to changes in the times. As a result, they encourage an attitude of opposition to existing customs and organizational orientations. Since it is generally accompanied by innocence, they admire a world in which order is reversed, and does not recognize the middle of good/evil (white/black). In some cases, they may give rise to thoughts that fluidize the good/evil dividing line. Only at this stage will subjective self-transformation begin.

(4) The fourth stage is incorporation into working people, that is, organized people. In order to become a member (adult) of society, it is necessary to understand the historical nature of customs, the weight of organizational restraints, and the responsibility to inherit them. On top of that, it is required to constantly restructure and improve customs and organizational order. Furthermore, a recursive perspective that re-questions the ethics (common sense) of the entire society that includes specific customs and organizations will be required. The above are the ethical responsibilities appropriate for adults.

In this section, we have tried to logically understand the situation where the structures of multi-level systems intersect and interact with each other. In all reductionist theories, including neuroethics, such a logical grasp has rarely been scrutinized (18). Of course, it is certain that the logic here is not out of the realm of drawing. However, even so, it seems meaningful to change the current state of the stagnant theory as much as possible.

4. Global crisis and moral psychology

The second issue is the relationship between global social issues and moral psychology or humanity. Savrescu sees global problems as if they arise directly or indirectly from the limited human moral psychology. Conversely, if the moral psychology is improved, the problem will be almost solved. However, as many feel it, such associations are highly questionable (19). The psychologism that prevailed in the 19th century in the West, that is, the theory of human nature, remains strongly in the idea of ​​Savrescu.

When Comte, J.S. Mill, and Spencer in the 19th century discussed ethics from the standpoint of positivism, empiricism, and evolution theory during the transition to modern society, it was human nature that was questioned (20). Later, the Neo-Kantian dualism (which emphasizes spiritual composition in cognition) prevailed, and Mach, Bergson, and James argued against it the monism of the material and the spiritual. Then, from the 1920s, philosophical anthropology such as Scheler and Gehlen, who re-questioned the traditional view of human beings, appeared. After the middle of the 20th century, sociobiology and ethology emerged, advocating the idea of ​​”phylogenic a priori.”

Is humanity universally immutable in the first place? Or is it relatively plastic for each era, society, and individual? In the light of the scientific knowledge of social animals, it is neither. As long as the direction of formation in evolution is path-dependent (epigenetic) binding, the foundation of the psychological system centered on the current emotional network seems that there is a certain universality and invariance formed historically. And in its formation, the psychological system is intricately interlaced with the social system. As a result, sympathy and empathy are incorporated as instinct in social animals, and the gene pool group is biased toward social intimacy.

Based on the above, morality in human psychology, that is, the core of moral psychology, is emotion. At least we cannot talk about morality without emotion (21). Cognitive and physical enhancements are not directly linked to morality because emotions are not woven into them. In moral psychology, justice and altruism (love) are usually positioned on top of self-consideration, sympathy, and empathy. Justice and altruism are not the same, but, let alone, at a different level from mutual respect between human beings and self-sacrificing self-other integration. What is important here is that no matter how rich an individual’s emotions, especially sympathy and empathy, may be, they do not immediately turn into “ethics.”

Ethics is multi-leveled. Social system and individual human system are at different levels. For example, no matter how accused of the word “alienation” or “inhuman”, there is naturally a certain limit to the scope of humanism in terms of ethics. Sympathy and empathy are limited to the imaginative relationship of individual human beings and do not reach the ethical level of the social system (22). No matter how empathetic a person is, that alone is not suitable as an organization person. Let us show this point further through the example of clinical ethics.

Medical care aims to realize “communality” as the ultimate value idea as long as it is the source of healing efforts for people suffering from pain. Directly derived from this goal is compassionate attitudes and well-meaning behavior. However, that alone is undifferentiated and does not provide concrete clinical ethics. In order to embody it, the method the means to achieve the goal must be chosen while incorporating the requirements related to the three dimensions other than <communality>. That is <practicality>, <integration>, and <transcendence>. 

The technical process chooses the right means to reach a goal. In this process, caring methods and virtues and norms such as harmlessness, truth telling, confidentiality, and study are positioned. To embody ethics is to actually make it technical (23). And an expert is a member of society who can think and act appropriately technically, that is, the means appropriate for the situation (24). It should be noted that what was pointed out about the actualization of <communality> here should also be valid for the actualization, that is, technicalization, of other dimensions of value ideas (ultimate goals).

In short, any social problem, global or not, cannot arise directly from human psychology. This point is related to the third counterargument mentioned in 2. Although omitted here, the interrelationship between functional differentiation systems and their transformation in modern society must be grasped from the framework of social systems beyond the level of each individual. From the point of view of Savrescu, there is a certain heroism and elitist odor, as well as the simplified thinking that is common to natural scientists.

5. Problems of feasibility and freedom due to intervention

5.1 Premise

As mentioned above, Savrescu believes in the existence of minimal universal morality and believes that it can identify the “correctness” of beliefs and actions. According to him, humanity is, of course, not equal when it comes to the ability to achieve the right consequences. However, there are four ways to make up for it: biology, psychology (education), social environment, and natural environment. And since the natural distribution is not ideal, those methods should be mobilized to enhance. Of these, his particular focus is on biology. Organisms are part of a causal network and are influenced by two directions: genes and the environment. At that time, changes in the environment affect us through the modification of the neural network of the brain, and all the events in the mind occur through the brain. Thus, the “final common pathway” of causality is the “brain.” Therefore, if we can directly intervene in the brain to control neuronal activity, we can expect a considerable effect on morality. That is nothing but MBE.

At Savrescu’s MBE, as well as trust in universal morality, trust in scientific knowledge and its effects stands out. In short, the combination of moral universalism and scientific predictability underpins MBE. However, what exactly does “predictability” and “avoidability” mean, and is it feasible in the first place? This is because, as pointed out in 3.2, contingency and indeterminacy are inevitable even in the connection of neural networks in the brain. Moreover, the level difference with the upper psychological system further amplifies the indeterminacy. Therefore, intervening in lower-level synaptic connections does not always cause the higher-level connections to change direction as intended. Therefore, let’s take a concrete step into the “feasibility” of the three types of MBE (ABC) mentioned in 1 below. Repeatedly, the three types are the possibility (A) that “motivates” the “right belief and the right action based on it” through drugs and surgery; possibility (B) that performs right actions, and possibility”(C) that causally causes “right actions”.

Before starting to examine the examples, I would like to confirm the meaning of “possible” used by Savrescu. The “possibility” here refers to the degree of freedom (width) of selection. In general, there are two levels of “freedom”. First, you have the freedom to choose your actions based on certain beliefs and motivations. This is called “autonomy” in a broad sense. In philosophy, “autonomy” usually immediately reminds us of Kant’s “autonomy.” However, “autonomy” in this sense is too high a hurdle because it inevitably implies “correct beliefs and actions” and “good motivation” at a universal and objective level. Therefore, Kant-like autonomy is a part of “autonomy” in the broad sense here. Then there is freedom as a spontaneity to initiate the action (25). For example, it is an action such as getting up and looking around. This spontaneity is a prerequisite for autonomy in a broad sense.

Based on the above, the type A “possibility of (good) motivation for correct beliefs and actions” means “autonomy” in a broad sense. On the other hand, in the type B “possibility of correct action”, not only the right and wrong of the belief and the good and evil of the motivation, but even the existence of the belief is not a problem in the first place. Only attention is paid to whether the action meets the positive criteria of the outside (others). Therefore, it is difficult to distinguish between the type A, which has a certain belief, and the type B, which is unquestioned, as long as we look only at “actions.”

Now, regarding feasibility, Savrescu brings up the following three examples. That is, the first is an example of castration for pedophiles, which has three ways: chemical, surgical, and electronic. The second is an example of DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation) for patients with depression. And the third is an example of prescribing Ritalin for ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) patients. Of these, the Ritalin prescription example is often taken up as a typical case in neuroethics. In fact, prescribing ADHD for children seems to be evaluated as effective in improving learning in some US educational settings because it has a calming effect on impulses. However, concerns have been expressed because it is costly in the long run and its health effects are unknown. Ritalin is also taken by healthy adults to improve concentration.

5.2 Examination

First, let’s consider the example of Ritalin. Is it actually possible for the person (children or adults) to voluntarily take Ritalin for preventive purposes, calm the psychological state and control himself, and maintain the state of “autonomy”? If it is possible, then not only spontaneity but also autonomy is certainly not violated. Also, taking Ritalin is not compulsory as long as you weigh the risks, costs and benefits yourself, and, not being exploited as long as the impulsive behavior and the punishment or punishment for its consequences are socially or legally justified.

Savrescu is, on the extension of Ritalin, conducting a thought experiment over a judge. It reveals problems that were not visible in Ritalin’s example. A judge named James (whose name is reminiscent of a well-known psychologist) is aware of the racist prejudice in his mind. So, to reduce this prejudice, he is willing to take a drug called “propranolol”. By the way, this drug is one of the actually prescribed adrenergic effect blockers, is effective against hypertension and angina, and further suppresses the onset of headache attacks. Now, Judge James is an example of how he was able to overcome the prejudice of racism and direct a fair trial as a result of taking it.

According to Savrescu, James released the true self from the instinctive self with the help of medicine in the conflict between the “true self” and the “instinctive self.” However, the prejudice of Savrescu is shown here. As depicted in 3.3, most of the social prejudice is the result of socialization, not instinct. As long as that is the case, there can be no drug that reduces social prejudice (by the way, “propranolol” can also be translated as A. Smith’s “appropriate drug”). Kant’s composition of instinctive self vs. true self is very straightforward. As I have pointed out many times, it is at a lower level of the lower level of social prejudice (belief) that the drug has a causal effect (which is accompanied by contingency and indeterminacy) for biochemical reactions. For example, as introduced at the beginning of this chapter, oxytocin is well-known as a drug to relieve tension, fear and anxiety, but taking it does not always create a sense of familiarity and trust with strangers. Rather, I would like to say that being aware of one’s own social prejudice is the first step toward changing direction at the same level, that is, overcoming prejudice. Nonetheless, Savrescu ignores that point and suddenly jumps to the lower biochemical levels.

Savrescu has brought up another thought experiment. This is an example in which the neuronal activity of an individual human brain is connected to a device called a “god machine,” through which an individual is constantly manipulated from the outside. This is an example of involuntary intervention. Of course, involuntary intervention methods include gene injection and modification by recombination, but this method remains unknown when it comes to the same level of connection changes and effects on higher levels. In that respect, intervention in the brain is causally more direct and certain. Anyway, by controlling the brain from the outside in this way, the freedom to commit crimes was eliminated, and as a result, great harm could be prevented without invoking punishment.

By the way, this example is based on A. Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1962). In the world of dystopia depicted in this novel (filmed in 1971), those who have undergone “Ludovico technique” have an aversion and nausea to violence, and become defenseless to violence itself. However, in terms of reality, the “ubiquitous society” that automatically controls the optimum environment is probably ahead. Here, it is not the God machine with one transcendental viewpoint that guides the behavior of each individual impersonally, but the cloud computer (Big It) that edits innumerable viewpoints. However, the target of the intervention here is cognitive information, not emotion.

Let’s return to the example of “God Machine” again. The biomedical intervention here blocks the “freedom of autonomy” that can choose “freedom to do immoral things”, that is, “freedom to fall” based on belief, by interfering with and disabling “freedom of spontaneity”. Savrescu asks: Such interventions do undermine freedom in general. But even so, is that a bad thing? Freedom is an important value, but it is only one of many values. In some situations, public welfare and respect for basic rights may prevail. Then the problem is the comparative weight between the values. Moreover, reducing impulsive aggression is not exploitative. As far as that goes, it seems that it is rather preferable to impair the freedom to be bad, this is, to impair the spontaneity itself.

Certainly, there is a reason for Savrescu’s reasoning. However, at least the following two points are not considered there. One is the value linkage structure. Comparing weighs is about balancing (setting the strength of priority), but not eliminating any one of them. The other is the relationship between “voluntary freedom” and the system. If freedom of autonomy is a characteristic of self-internal communication itself in the consciousness system (self-government by belief), freedom of spontaneity is the general characteristic of “a system that self-transforms (interprets the meaning) while transforming outside stimuli,” which embraces the self-consciousness system. Therefore, the erasure of the characteristics of the system in general is not a part of the human system, but the erasure of the human language system itself.

5.3 Summary

Based on the above examination, let’s take the relationship between the “feasibility” of MBE and freedom. First is the type A. In the case of voluntary drinking of Ritalin, the freedom of autonomy is certainly guaranteed by roughly stabilizing emotions. In other words, a stable psychological level ensures a calm time, in which you can ponder your perspective and the meaning of life. The freedom guaranteed here is, of course, “autonomy” in a broad sense. And as long as the freedom of autonomy in a broad sense, the beliefs chosen within it may or may not be in line with the common sense of a particular era or society. Alternatively, it may go beyond the mere restructuring of beliefs and reach a recursive remorse that re-questions the dividing line between good and evil, or it may not even form a certain belief in the first place.

Next is the type B. By taking Ritalin to stabilize emotions, it does guarantee any morally correct behavior regardless of any moral belief? The answer is that certain actions are guaranteed, but they are not always morally correct. As far as the action is concerned, B is on the extension of A, and no difference from A can be seen. Of course, at that time, if intellectual imagination works, it should usually be the right thing to do in the common sense or legal sense. But generally speaking, MBE only provides long-term prudence (a calculation called clever). Here, inner beliefs and motivations are hidden behind the social mask of “personality.”

The last is the type C. There is no freedom in any way as long as the MBE intervenes involuntarily in the context of repeated murderous violence and sexual crimes when the urge to antisocial behavior is uncontrolled. However, the intervention is not always involuntary. For example, in the case of “castration” against a sex offender, the sex offender himself may petition for castration. This is a choice to voluntarily abandon the freedom of autonomy based on the judgment of right and wrong when calm. In addition, castration “chemical” treatment is temporary, even if it impairs spontaneity. From the perspective of value comparison, Savrescu recommends a method of voluntarily choosing measures that cause temporary disgust in order to prevent violence. The remaining question, then, would be which is more effective than the existing disciplinary system.

After all, Moral bio-enhancement is considered ethically acceptable as long as it is used voluntarily and temporarily to maintain or restore affect self-control, on the premise that its effects are not causal and under the condition that abuse and safety considerations are required.

6. Demarcation of limits for MBE

Savrescu advocates MBE’s practical ethics as a conclusion to his lecture. The pillars are the comparative weight of interventions, the rejection of utopian thinking, the predictability/avoidability, the moral responsibility of knowledge and power, and the responsibility of conducting research. Regarding the final study, ethics on the one hand theoretically positions universal morality, and science on the other hand explores methods of enhancement and examines their effects. In short, MBE’s practical ethics is a theory of moral responsibility based on predictability and avoidability (26).

The premise of MBE’s practical ethics, as discussed above, is universal morality, the link between moral psychology and social issues, and its feasibility. However, as we have already considered, there was a serious confusion on those issues. Nevertheless, it should be admitted that it also contains some theoretically important points.

The first is that moral education is usually involuntary. It goes without saying that habit formation and school education in childhood are involuntary. This point has been brought up to justify the MBE’s involuntary intervention. However, it still has significance as a counterbalance to the conventional wisdom that overemphasizes spontaneity and freedom of autonomy. The second is the point about normality as nature There are individual differences in moral psychology, and there is no single natural (normal) psychology. In other words, normal/abnormal is not a normative but a statistical characteristic. If so, the distinction between what is treatment and what is enhancement will be fluid. Third, it is pointed out that human moral psychology is already affected by certain levels of radiation and drugs during evolution. For example, before taking Prozac, serotonin, oxytocin, Ritalin, etc., human beings are already affected by background levels, and there are individual differences. If so, MBE intervention is just an addition. By pointing out the above three points, Savrescu severely criticizes illusions of “Bio-conservatives” such as Kas, Sandel, Fukuyama, and Habermas, who overemphasize freedom, fix nature, and do not recognize evolutionary transformation of humanity, variation and fluidity between individuals.

After all, Savrescu’s MBE is not a realization of perfectionism or positive improvement, but a negative attempt to minimize prejudices on moral psychology. Specifically, it works on the state of loss of control at the emotional level in psychology, and intervenes in the connection of biochemical reactions at the life level below the psychological level in order to control oneself through emotional stabilization and to change the connection direction. To that extent, MBE should be a treatment aimed at recovery rather than enhancement.

Certainly, it is only with a certain degree of stability of emotional connections at the psychological level that humans can calmly think about morals in the communication of conscious self-internal dialogue (27). As mentioned above, “moral” is the way of working of “structure” that stably maintains the connection in self-internal dialogue, and is the governance of one’s way of life by a certain belief as a structure. This “self-governance” is re-questioned, pondered, and newly formed in the passages of life. And for new transformation, in order to continue self-internal dialogue, not only constant structuring but also higher-order restructuring is required. In all of the above connections, at the psychological level, which is lower than the moral level, not only emotions but also cognition and physical exercise are totally mobilized.

Drugs, surgical procedures, and machines used in MBE are supposed to support the stability of the psychological level of morality by intervening in the life level. However, there is no guarantee that intervention at the life level will always bring about the restoration and stability of connections at the higher psychological level. As I have explained many times, the reason is that each level of connection has contingency and indeterminacy in the first place, and even if you want to convert between different levels of structure, contingency and indeterminacy are inevitable. Therefore, there is amplified looseness. In short, what MBE can do is to indirectly stabilize the emotional level. It is a far distant goal (hope) because the moral level of contemplation and self-transformation at the higher level is indirect of indirect. If so, the leading role of intervention in self-communication is not MBE, but traditional moral education. However, the essence of the intervention (moral enhancement) of moral education and its effect are not really well understood. Finally, let me conclude by mentioning this point.

Conclusion: Again, towards moral enhancement

Up to this point, this article has directly examined moral bioenhancement (MBE), but through that, in essence, we have refocused our attention on the matter of “moral”. Where and how morals are located in the first place, what it means to enhance morals, what to do to intervene in morals, what make biomedical interventions possible or impossible? In order to consider these series of questions, from the perspective of the <communication system>, we focused on the intersection and exchange of human systems and social systems, and the intersection and exchange of various systems inside the human system. So, I tried to theorize the <conversion structure> between systems with different levels.

Determining the limits of the MBE scheme through the above studies and considerations also reveals the limits of neuroethics itself. Of course, as neuroethics argues, in the course of biological evolution, the selective formation of neural networks that lean toward sociality (morality) is probably true, and it is considered that the claim that the biological basis of moral psychology such as compassion, sympathy, and empathy is in the brain is not wrong. However, it is impossible for an individual’s moral psychology to become the ethics of a multi-level social system. For that purpose, various mediations are required. The limits of MBE are also the limits of neuroethics.

I would like to take a closer look at the relationship between personal moral and social ethics. Morals (structure of individual self-interaction) are not the same as the “common sense” of moral communication, which is a social system that evaluates “personality”. Moreover, it is different from the ethics (historically formed structure) that is distributed in the world. It is true that individual moral intersects with the ethics of various social systems, but as long as the subtle ambiguity of meaning interpretation is unavoidable, individual moral does not exactly overlap with the ethics of the world. Especially when it comes to sexual drive that stimulates moral (belief and motivation) from inside the body, the gap will be large. Morals are more like aesthetics than ethics of one’s way of life. For Savrescu, morals are just a personal psychological version of social ethics. People live according to common sense, but it is a face for others and only one of several faces. In reality, it varies from person to person, but theoretically it is necessary to keep the complexity (darkness) around it.

If moral enhancement (ME) is a common goal of humans and society, the intervention required for that purpose must be comprehensive, from education to environmental improvement. Of course, any intervention, as long as it is an external action, is merely an external stimulus to promote moral transformation. In personal morality, as in all systems, transformation is self-transformation through the semantic transformation and self-interpretation of external stimuli. Therefore, the expected effect is not straightforward, but is the accidental and emergent result, or positive feedback, of repeated long-term prompting. For example, children in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, are repeatedly taught to make friends with different ethnic groups and heathens from an early age. As a result, people have coexisted there without hatred or prejudice since the Middle Ages (28). There is a typical example of social ethics (customs, common sense, institutions) being handed down while interlacing with individual morals. Compared to this, Savrescu’s thoughts, which give Judge James’ example, are too thin and sadly poor. After all, the basis for promoting moral enhancement is the communication of people, including those close to us, and MBE is limited to conditional and limited aids for that purpose.


(1) For example, “Beyond Therapy” translated by Kuramochi, et al. (Aoki Shoten, 2005), and “Enhancement” edited by the German Information Center for Life and Environmental Ethics (Original 2002, translated by Jun Matsuda and Sohichiro Ogura, Chisen Shokan, 2007).

(2) Regarding this, see Shigeru Mushiaki “Ethical Issues of Ethical Enhancement”, in “Life Technology and Body” edited by the Existential Thought Association, 2012, pp. 83-100, especially pp. 83-85. 

(3) Discussed in the following literature. M.S. Gazzaniga “Ethics in the Brain” (Kinokuniya, 2006, Original 2005), Farah, M. (2010), Neuroethics: An introduction with readings, MIT Press.

(4) This controversy is introduced in detail in the above-mentioned Mushiaki’s paper.

(5) These points are seen, for example, in “The Neurophilosophy of Morality” edited by Naoyuki Imosaka (Social Brain Series 2, Shinyo Sha, 2012).

(6) J. Savulescu, Understanding Moral Bioenhancement: A Philosophical Approach to objections, Lecture, University of Tokyo, 2014.9.4.

(7) E.O. Wilson “Sociobiology” (Original 1975, Kinokuniya,Translated Old Edition 5 Volumes 1983-85, New Edition Combined Book 1999), R. Dawkins “Biology: Survival Machine Theory” (Original 1976), Kinokuniya,1980, renamed “The Selfish Gene” Kinokuniya, 1992).

(8) Lorenz “Attack-Evil Nature Magazine (1 and 2)” (Misuzu, 1970), Fransis de Waal “To the Age of Sympathy” (Original 2009, Kinokuniya,2010).

(9) If it is related to eugenics here, the aim of MBE is not the compulsory eugenics of the group (race) unit, but the extension of the voluntary eugenics of the individual unit. However, the matter is not simple because it also includes involuntary treatment as described later.

(10) The famous dolly or trolley example shows that there is a range from utilitarian calculation to familiar intuition emphasis depending on the person. However, the author of (5) compares and examines the two models on the premise that all the answers are the same.

(11) Harris, J.: Moral Enhancement and Freedom, Bioethics, 2011.

(12) “Why you don’t have to aim for a perfect human being” (Original, Translated by Hayashi and Ibuki, Nakanishiya, 2010).

(13) “The Future of Humans and Bioethics” (Original 2001, Translated by Kenichi Mishima, Hohsei University Press, 2004, New Edition 2012).

(14) Rawls, J. Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics, Philosophical Review, 1951, 177-97.

(15) In face-to-face communication and organizations, the “personality” of each individual is evaluated in a cross-cutting manner using the code “good person / bad person”. This is the “moral system”. Here, “morality” in the “individual” self-interaction is considered through the behavior of a particular person. To that extent, the word “morality” is used, but the “personality” in this case is nothing more than an “individual” captured in the social system.

(16) In addition, Luhmann refers to the connection between systems of different levels as “coupling” and distinguishes it from the “interpenetration” of connections between systems of the same level. See “Social Systems Theory ” (Original 1984, Translated by Tsutomu Sato, Koseisha Koseikaku, 1993, 1995). However, as discussed below, I take a different view from Luhmann.

(17) Hisao Honda’s “Biology of Form” (NHK Publishing, 2010) is helpful.

(18) In addition, one of the exceptions is Waddington. He set an “epigenetic space” between the genotypic space and the phenotypic space in the biological system, and named this characteristic stable time orbit “creodo”. See Waddington, “Modern Evolution: Development into Epigenetic Systems,” edited by A. Köstler, Beyond Reductionism (Original 1968, translated by Yoshiaki Ikeda, Kosakusha, 1984), pp. 473-505. His attempt would be well worth inheriting by incorporating modern mathematical science research.

(19) Regarding violence, Pinker’s “History of Violence in Human History” (translated by Ikushima and Shiobara, Seidosha, 2015) captures the situation much more complicatedly than Savrescu.

(20) Comte, the founder of sociology, draws an idea of ​​progress centered on the development of intelligence on the one hand (three stages), but emphasizes passion on morality on the other hand, especially in the latter half of the year. From the standpoint of elitism, he advocated the religion of love at once. Spencer also envisioned the evolution of social conditions (from military to commercial states) as the driving force behind the development of natural sympathy. In other words, he saw emotion as a function of society. Alternatively, J.S. Mill has two tendencies, self-love and sympathy, which, through the education of intellect, first lead to the communality of collaboration that respects each other, and then lead to the stage of more creative personality and universal human love.

(21) For Kant, the essence of morality is self-government by reason, but the moral feeling of respect is still incorporated in it.

(22) In the “moral system” whose functional purpose is “personality” and whose code means “good person / bad person”, “empathy” is important, but it is only a part of the element of “personality”.

(23) Conventional virtue ethics has “action”, as J. Murata (“Ethics of Technic”, Maruzen, 2006) points out, without “technic” perspectives that embody actions. 

(24) Here is the goal of professional education linked to liberal arts education. Of course, technologicalization is also an unavoidable simplification, so it is necessary to be constantly aware of this point.

(25) The basis for the freedom of spontaneity is <a system that self-transforms (interprets the meaning) while converting external stimuli>. 

(26) In contrast to this, for example, Jonas (“Principle of Responsibility”) and U. Beck (“Dangerous Society”). They also start with a global sense of crisis, but move towards anti-scientism from an anti-expert standpoint. Savrescu, who is not inclined to anti-scientism, stands in the position of an expert. See the conclusion for the ideological position.

(27) The author once named this “background comfort”. See “Health/Illness” (“Series Bioethics, Volume 2”, Maruzen, 2012).

(28) From NHK BS Premium “Somewhere Street Kathmandu” broadcast on January 13, 2015.

(Edited by Y.Maezawa)

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