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Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Trouble With Moral Enhancement

De Melo-Martín, I. (2018). 
Royal Institute of 
Philosophy Supplement, 83, 19-33. 


Proponents of moral enhancement believe that we should pursue and apply biotechnological means to morally enhance human beings, as failing to do so is likely to lead to humanity's demise. Unsurprisingly, these proposals have generated a substantial amount of debate about the moral permissibility of using such interventions. Here I put aside concerns about the permissibility of moral enhancement and focus on the conceptual and evidentiary grounds for the moral enhancement project. I argue that such grounds are quite precarious.


So far, I have argued that conceptual problems lead the moral enhancement project to be nothing of the sort: insofar as the targets of biomedical interventions are particular dispositions, motivations, or behaviours, it is incorrect to talk about moral enhancement rather than dispositional, motivational, or behavioural enhancement. And insofar as these are understood as piecemeal characteristics or properties, it is mistaken to talk about enhancement rather than simply modifications or alterations.

But the moral enhancement project also rests on shaky scientific grounds. In fact, there are so many problems related to the misuse of scientific evidence that it would be difficult to even mention all of them here. I will thus focus on two of them that are particularly problematic:the use of scientific claims that proponents present as uncontroversial and the weakness of the scientific evidence purporting to show that moral enhancement is plausible.

Moral enhancement supporters attempt to buttress their proposals by appealing to various sources of scientific evidence.  In doing so, they not uncommonly present some such scientific evidence as uncontroversially accepted. In fact, however, many of the scientific claims they present are not only highly contentious but by many accounts simply false. This is the case, for instance, regarding many of the evolutionary psychology claims proponents use to support the moral enhancement project. Many of such claims have been discredited for multiple reasons, from problematic assumptions, to incorrect interpretations of the evidence, to inadequate conclusions.  Some of the claims proponents make in this regard are just plainly ridiculous. For instance, trying to argue that altruism and a sense of justice have a genetic basis, Persson and Savulescu offer the following evidence: It is plausible to think that in general women have a greater capacity for altruism than men. If this psychological difference tracks gender, this is surely good evidence that it is biologically based.