Rath - On the Impossibility of Engineering Moral Virtue


Additional Information

Category Lecture
Speakers Rath, Beth
Year 2018

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Beth Rath Borromeo

Seminary / John Carroll University

“On the Impossibility of Engineering Moral Virtue”

Humans do terrible things. It is uncontroversial to think that the world would be better if humans were to commit fewer bad actions. Proponents of moral enhancements suggest that technology may be used to bring about just such a world. Some argue that this may be effected simply by changing the moral behavior of human beings, e.g., by implanting a chip in someone’s brain to control his behavior, regardless of whether his moral attitudes change. Others argue that moral enhancements are a matter of giving humans the right moral attitudes—that they become morally good or have a greater capacity for morally goodness, not just commit fewer bad actions. The latter is the sort of enhancement that I want to address in this paper. The central question is whether such an enhancement is really possible. Is it possible to morally enhance someone such that she becomes virtuous?

There are a couple ways to understand this question. On the one hand, one might understand ‘possible’ in practical terms: Are moral enhancement technologies practically, i.e., technologically, possible? Some, like James Hughes and Mark Walker, think that such technologies have already been developed or are at least plausible. Walker argues that genes influence human behavior, and by promoting or suppressing certain genes, we could “engineer” (genetic) virtue in humans. Both Hughes and Walker see the need to map the “‘consilience’ between neuroscience and the moral psychology of virtue ethics”. Once we discover which genes, areas of the brain, and neurochemicals are linked to particular virtues and vices, technologies like CRISPR-Cas9, embryonic selection, and medications may be used to make someone morally virtuous. A second way to understand ‘possible’, i.e., whether it is possible to morally enhance someone such that she becomes virtuous, is in absolute terms, regardless of advances in technology. This is a philosophical question, the answer to which, I argue, is ‘no’—at least from the Aristotelian perspective. Moral enhancements, including genetic or neurochemical alterations, cannot in themselves engender virtue in us. This is because of the nature of the moral virtues and their connection with prudence. Moral virtues, according to Aristotle, are good dispositions, lying in the mean relative to us, which is determined by right reason, as the prudent person would determine it. In other words, in order to have any of the moral virtues, one needs also to have prudence—right reason that grasps the truth about what is good and bad for human beings. Prudence is an intellectual virtue gained over time and through experience; it cannot be engineered in humans through biological or neurochemical tinkering. Thus, it is impossible to fabricate moral virtue in humans by means of technology. Furthermore, I argue that attempts to morally enhance humans ought to be avoided because moral enhancements devoid of prudence can be harmful.