Have we Reached Peak Moral (bio)Enhancement?

The other day I read an article ‘Procedural Moral Enhancement’ written by Schaefer and Savulescu and recently published in Neuroethics. The argument can be summarized as follows: All things being equal a procedural approach to moral deliberation can improve the quality of that deliberation and the reliability of its conclusions. Moral deliberation that is conducted in accordance with their procedural approach is ‘generally acceptable across a wide range of normative and meta-ethical theories’ (p.2) and, more than this, is said to be neutral with respect to the substantive content being addressed. Thus advocating for moral (bio)enhancement is an ethically neutral proposal when such enhancement targets the abilities or skills (intelligence, empirical competence, openness to revision, empathetic understanding, and bias avoidance) that support procedural deliberation. 

Although this procedural approach is a not uncommon Rawlsian position there is no acknowledgement of the almost equally common critiques of its ‘liberal neutrality’ rooted in feminist perspectives (see Anderson’s fantastic book which does similarly for the related Habermasian attempt to proceduralise moral debate in the public square). Whilst this is a failing of the paper, there is something more interesting at play. Whilst this essay purports to be about moral enhancement and/ or bioenhancement very little is actually said on this point. There is no mention of this, that or the other bioenhancing neurochemical, merely a note that “our proposal suggests a promising approach to moral bioenhancement … [and m]any of the capacities we identify should be susceptible to biological improvement, at least in principle” (p.11). Somewhat drily the authors subsequently state: “much more research needs to be done in this area before interventions can be seen as viable” (p.11). 

The authors also claim that their “framework suggests a useful form of procedural moral education” (p.11). Baldly stated it makes it sound like they have offered a framework for moral deliberation per se. This is not the case, rather they attempt to frame good moral deliberation through the features of human beings that can be thought of as contributing to it. The quibble is, perhaps, minor but it does highlight the fact that if we are to pursue our collective ‘moral enhancement’ via pedagogic means there needs to be much more substantive analysis of this procedural approach to moral deliberation. 

Given that a fair amount of such work exists – but, obviously, goes unremarked and unreferenced - one wonders what, exactly, is the point being made? Other than to equate moral education with moral enhancement – something that is not achieved through any argument but, simply, by treating these terms as synonyms – I cannot discern what is meant to be of real value here. 

Given what this paper has to offer I find myself asking: have we reached peak moral (bio)enhancement? 

On the basis of existing work this paper frames the procedural approach to moral deliberation in terms of human skills or abilities. Subsequently, and without any analysis of the claim, it asserts the (liberal) neutrality of the approach and the possibility of ‘enhancing’ the various abilities and skills that contribute to it. However, some instances of the term moral enhancement can be thought of as instances of the word moral education (or moral development) whilst the suggestion that the relevant human capabilities can be subject to forms of (bio)enhancement are present without any real discussion. 

What, then, is the point? The ‘enhancement’ aspects of this paper say very little and the procedural account of moral deliberation lacks critical engagement regarding its neutrality, something the authors take to be of great significance. At best there is a list of skills or abilities that can be thought of as contributing to procedural moral deliberation. There is plenty of discussion of such things in the moral psychology literature. 

Still, enhancement and neuroethics eh? It must be good.