About the conference

The idea that it might be possible to morally enhance people (and humanity as a whole) by manipulating their genome or the biochemistry of their brains is being increasingly discussed today after the topic was brought up in two papers, one by Tom Douglas, and one by Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, in 2008.

What is interesting about the discussion is that it is typically assumed that our moral constitution will have improved if we have successfully changed people’s behaviour in such a way that they no longer do what we think they ought not to be doing. This is thought to be achievable by manipulating the emotional reactions that people have when confronted with certain morally salient situations. Thus it has been shown that TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) can be used to change the way people feel (and, consequently, judge) about culpability with respect to accidental harm and (unsuccessful) harm intention. Similarly, it appears that by increasing the serotonin level in a person’s brain you can also increase their aversion to (cause or allow) harm (to others). These changes are then interpreted as a moral enhancement, or at least as indicating a viable route to the moral enhancement of humanity.

However, this interpretation faces various problems. First of all, it is questionable whether morality can adequately be understood as a biological disposition. Then there is the difficulty of determining what exactly is morally wrong in a given situation (say, to save five people by pushing an innocent man off a bridge, or to refuse to do so), and the difficulty of changing our emotional dispositions in such a way that we behave better in all possible situations. Making people generally more cooperative or more trusting seems to be an improvement only in certain situations, while in others it might be exactly the opposite. So where does moral judgement come in, a critical assessment of a particular situation in all its complexity? What about duties and rights? What about human freedom and agency? And can it ever be desirable to render people incapable of doing wrong (which seems to be the final goal)?

Despite these problems the idea of moral enhancement through biotechnological means keeps being pushed forward as the most urgent task to tackle today. Clearly more discussion is needed to assess the coherence and viability of the whole project, but for that to be possible the discussion must include those who are not normally directly involved in the enhancement debate. For this reason this conference brings together moral philosophers working on the nature of morality, philosophers of biology, philosophers of technology, and last but not least neuropsychologists whose empirical work appears relevant to the question at hand.