Originally published July 19, 2016
The debate about moral neuroenhancement has taken off in the past decade. Although the term admits of several definitions, the debate primarily focuses on the ways in which human enhancement technologies could be used to ensure greater moral conformity, i.e. the conformity of human behaviour with moral norms. Imagine you have just witnessed a road rage incident. An irate driver, stuck in a traffic jam, jumped out of his car and proceeded to abuse the driver in the car behind him. We could all agree that this contravenes a moral norm. And we may well agree that the proximate cause of his outburst was a particular pattern of activity in the rage circuit of his brain. What if we could intervene in that circuit and prevent him from abusing his fellow motorists? Should we do it?
Proponents of moral neuroenhancement think we should — though they typically focus on much higher stakes scenarios. A popular criticism of their project has emerged. This criticism holds that trying to ensure moral conformity comes at the price of moral freedom. If our brains are prodded, poked and tweaked so that we never do the wrong thing, then we lose the ‘freedom to fall’ — i.e. the freedom to do evil. That would be a great shame. The freedom to do the wrong thing is, in itself, an important human value. We would lose it in the pursuit of greater moral conformity.