“Moral Bioenhancement” and Academic Blindness

David DeGrazia, professor at George Washington University, has written a peer-reviewed paper for the Journal of Medical Ethics on “Moral Bioenhancement” (MB). The suggestion is to “encourage or require” advanced technologies, including genetic and embryonic “selection” to enhance the moral status of the human race. I learned about this through William Briggs’s excellent blog.

I am struck by DeGrazia’s frequent use of “we,” as in,

The specific questions to be addressed in what follows are these: (2) In view of pluralism about moral values, what sorts of changes, if any, may we confidently and responsibly count as moral improvements? …. (4) What do our reflections suggest about what we should value in moral behaviour? …

In order to consider the possibility of MB intelligently, and not just open-mindedly, we must ask what a moral improvement, regardless of its means, would consist in….

Amid this diversity of views about what morality requires, how can we determine what sort of change should count as a moral improvement? It is not enough to speak of greater conformity with appropriate moral norms, or the insight or motivation that conduces towards such conformity, if we have no idea which moral norms are appropriate. Without knowing the criteria of right (or morally best) action, according to the present challenge, we can’t know what counts as greater insight into what is right or what motivational factors would help us do what’s right….

Somehow he never gets around to identifying who “we” are. It’s a rather stunning omission, in view of one item he includes on his list of traits for which MB would be indicated, and which “all reasonable persons can agree represent moral defects:”

Inability to grasp subtle, complicated details that are of undeniable moral relevance (eg, the ways in which affluent persons benefit economically from the legacies of colonialism and slavery and from current injustices such as treaties with dictators or strongmen who disserve their country-people), a failure of insight

In that light we have to ask about professors who suggest that “we” require the use of high-tech MB, through which powerful persons, benefiting from the legacies of heavy funding and (presumably in this case) political power, would be granted moral power over our species. What is to prevent that “we” from carrying out the usual injustices associated with such unequal power? Who are the “we” whom we could trust with this?

I am often amazed at some people’s blindness to their reflections in their own mirrors.

Other notes of interest:

  • The widespread destruction of embryos (beyond the 55 million already killed in the U.S. over the past 40 years, just for perspective) might be instrumentally valuable in reducing the “threat of truly massive harm,” according to DeGrazia.
  • “All reasonable persons” would agree that this, too, is a moral defect worthy of MB: “Lesser forms of moral cynicism that make one more likely than a good person to be corrupted, to cheat on taxes, not to bother to contribute what one agrees is one’s fair share, etc—a more ordinary failure of motivation”
  • As is this: “Weak will or susceptibility to temptation.” (Anyone here feeling especially safe from being MB’ed now?)

The paper includes a lengthy discussion of human freedom. I doubt the author would dispute that it’s inadequate to its purpose; it’s barely an introduction. That’s of little interest to me, though, in the context of a proposal so blithely willing to take the reins of massive, asymmetrical power over other human beings in the name of moral enhancement.

I close with this quote from near the end of the paper, which perhaps explains it all:

In the absence of a deity who will give us this better world, it is up to us human agents to attain it. Without a substantial improvement in moral behaviour, we are highly unlikely to do so; indeed, there is a good chance that things will get much worse due to our growing destructive power.

No deity? Then it really might be hopeless (though of course I disagree with the premise). One of the more hopeless things about it is that there are academics like DeGrazia who don’t know that MB represents “growing … power,” and that there’s no good way to keep “destructive” out of that equation.

Update 2/11/13: A related item at Uncommon Descent, concerning an Oxford professor’s suggestion that parents have an ethical responsibility to “select” better children


Comments 17
  1. SteveK

    And to help facilitate the business of MB, we have data that “shows” there are evil spots in the brains of certain individuals. Gotta get rid of those people, preferably before they are born, so we can KKKeep the species pure.

  2. BillT

    “Without knowing the criteria of right (or morally best) action….we can’t know what counts as greater insight into what is right…”

    Gee, we’ve got a small problem here. We don’t know what is morally right. Doh!

    And this on top of some serious junk science.

    One question. How many advanced degrees does it take to be this clueless?

  3. Holopupenko


    Not sure, but I think it’s an irrational multiple of the number of sixth-graders packed in a room that equals the intelligence of one Einstein…


  4. Ray Ingles

    He’s wrong for a totally different reason, too.

    One of the (many) reasons eugenics is wrong is that it assumes that it’s possible to identify genes that are bad, and eliminate them. Genetics is more complicated than that, and traits that are ‘bad’ in one circumstance can be literally life-saving in others. For example, a person with two copies of the sickle-cell gene will suffer from sickle-cell anemia and die young. But a person with only one copy does not suffer such ill effects and has a significantly increased resistance to malaria. In a region where malaria is endemic, the risk of having babies die from sickle-cell anemia is offset by the improved chances of other babies surviving malaria. Cystic Fibrosis is another recessive trait where only one copy of a mutated gene apparently affords some protection from Typhoid and perhaps Tuberculosis. A further example is RH-negative blood; there is some evidence that, while RH-negative women are at increased risk of miscarriage, they have an easier time getting pregnant.

    There aren’t genes “for” alcoholism or pedophilia in the same way as there are genes “for” red hair. Mental development is more complex than that, and at most genes may put someone at increased risk for such things. And we don’t know what positive traits such genes might help to enable – perhaps the stereotype of the artist susceptible to drug abuse has a basis in fact, and by working to eliminate alcoholism we would devastate the art world. There has been quite a bit of speculation as to Charles Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll’s) possible pedophilia; if he was a pedophile, he apparently was able to direct his energies away from harming young girls, and toward entertaining them (and adults) with fantastic stories, as well as mathematics.

    There certainly isn’t now, and very probably will never be, a test that can look at someone’s genes and precisely predict their individual future behavior. Lacking that, pre-emptive and involuntary measures are unjustified. Punishment and/or treatment for actual behavior is the only reliable course. Objective examples of people who have been able to overcome such propensities supports this regardless of whether one believes their resistance came from a supernatural origin.

    This leads into another evolutionary argument against such eugenic practices. Diversity in a population is a very good thing. It helps a population cope with all kinds of threats – disasters, disease, variations in environment, and more. If a trait really is “bad”, it will be eliminated in due course without – even in spite of – our intervention.

  5. Tom Gilson

    That’s right, Ray–although I was willing to overlook the flaws in his science in view of his admission that his eugenics idea was “somewhat fanciful” even in his own mind.

    The idea that specifically identifiable genes encode for anything as definite as one behavior remains pseudoscientific at best. Correlations between genes and diseases have been found, but other than some single-gene problems such as you’ve mentioned already, the connections are tenuous and their statistical significances tend to be overly optimistic (to say the least). And that’s for distinctly physiological conditions. For behaviors, it would be even harder to identify any gene to avoid (assuming ethically permissible means of avoidance).

    Down syndrome, though, is one physical/mental/behavioral condition that is already being widely “selected against” through abortion. What a tragedy!

    And how completely disgusting it is (I use the word advisedly) that an idea like DeGrazia’s would see the light of day!

  6. Sault

    I will immediately venture forth, find as many papers about Biblical eisegesis that I can, and criticize them for using the word “we”. After all, they don’t speak for *me* – how dare they take such a liberty!

    Seriously though,

    and assuming MB were safe, effective and universally accessible

    I think that we are all thankful that it is none of these.

  7. Debilis

    Though it’s been touched on, I think it needs to be underlined that this is based on the popular assumption that it is our genetics, rather than environment and (gasp!) our ability to make free choices, that is the key factor in our behavior.

    That this paper can simply assume such a thing says more about the zeitgeist than science.

  8. bigbird

    Apart from the practical flaws in the science already outlined, it seems that David DeGrazia has not considered that “culling the immoral from the herd” is itself immoral (by the moral standards of many).

  9. Tom Gilson

    I’m not sure how seriously you intended the first part of #6, Sault, but I hope you noticed I wasn’t complaining that someone was falsely claiming to speak for anyone. You’ll see that on a re-read if you hadn’t already.

  10. Sault

    (I did notice, Tom, was just poking a bit of fun)

    Are we strictly speaking about genetic filtering and “enhancement” as it regards attempts to improve morality and ethical behavior?

    Could it be ethical to screen a fetus for what can be a very disruptive and difficult mental disorder, like bipolar (aka manic depression)?

    Where does one draw the line?

  11. BillT

    “Where does one draw the line?”

    One doesn’t. Abortion is murder. That much is obvious. Even the pro-choice advocates admit that. Short of a fetus that is guaranteed to be still born there simply is no line to draw.

  12. G. Rodrigues


    Short of a fetus that is guaranteed to be still born there simply is no line to draw.

    That would still be murder. After all, we are all guaranteed to die.

    note: this can rapidly degenerate into a thorny discussion which is OT. So to forestall any such, I will just say that *as you wrote it*, it is still murder for “guaranteed to be still born” is not a valid reason to shorten the life of the human being.

  13. bigbird

    Could it be ethical to screen a fetus for what can be a very disruptive and difficult mental disorder, like bipolar (aka manic depression)?

    It’s not unethical to screen for a disorder if it helps you treat it, of course. It may be that in time many genetic disorders will be treated successfully in utero by gene therapy.

  14. Debilis

    Could it be ethical to screen a fetus for what can be a very disruptive and difficult mental disorder, like bipolar (aka manic depression)?

    This is an interesting question, but my answer is a definite “no”.
    This is why:

    It isn’t realistically possible, before birth, to clearly distinguish between a future mental disorder and a benign personality trait.

    That is to say that genetics would involve a propensity toward certain disorders, not be the direct cause of them. Purposely altering a genetic sequence so that a child lacks a trait that could, given a particular environment, grow into a tendency toward a particular mental illness, seems dubious.

    In fact, it is hard to imagine any personality that wouldn’t tend toward some particular illness under some given upbringings.

    Unless this issue is dealt with, then, treating for mental disorders would not be clearly distinguishable from ridding the population of certain personality types. If all traits are a judgment call between a tendency to one disorder or another (which is very likely), it would then presume a set of moral values about which disorder is “more serious”.

    As such, we’re back to a form of Moral Bioenhancement.

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