Elliott Rodger and A Clockwork Orange

Design for a memorial for the victims at Utoya.
Design for a memorial for the victims at Utoya.

Elliott Rodger, Adam Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Loughner, Anders Breivik, James Eagan Holmes,… will there be an end to mass killings by deranged young men?

In a recent post, I asked whether improving the delivery of mental health care would help reduce the slaughter. It might, but unfortunately current psychiatric treatments have limited value in preventing violence, unless you plan to keep the patient continuously sedated.

However, suppose that we developed a medication whose sole effect was to give you better motives, character traits, and overall motivation to do what is right, and it thereby reduced the likelihood that you would commit violence? Would that be an ethical medical technology?

David DeGrazia raises this question in the current Journal of Medical Ethics. He calls these (still hypothetical) technologies moral bioenhancements. He calls them bioenhancements to call attention to the similarity of these technologies to bioenhancements for cognitive performance (caffeine or modafinil) or for athletic performance (erythropoietin or human growth hormone).

Still from A Clockwork Orange.
Still from A Clockwork Orange.

Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange are literary arguments that the biological engineering of human character undermines human freedom. But DeGrazia demands a moral argument for that claim.

According to the ethicist John Harris, biological engineering of character would threaten our ability to make free choices:

The space between knowing the good and doing the good is a region entirely inhabited by freedom. Knowledge of the good is sufficiency to have stood, but freedom to fall is all. Without the freedom to fall, good cannot be a choice; and freedom disappears and along with it virtue.

DeGrazia believes that moral bioenhancement is not incompatible with human freedom. The reason why depends on your theory of free will. On the one hand, you may hold the view that human choice, our free will, is not subject to the determinism that governs the material world. OK, says DeGrazia, then

if freedom involves such radical independence from the causal order, then moral bioenhancement, as part of the causal order, can’t touch it. In that case, moral bioenhancement can’t possibly constitute a threat to freedom.

On the other hand, you may believe that human freedom is compatible with the determinism of the material world. He asks us to first consider how materially-determined people make their (currently unenhanced) choices. We don’t yet understand the biology of this, so we say that our choices are somehow influenced by motivation and character. Now suppose that you have morally enhanced your motivation and character. Your choices will be influenced by your enhanced motivation and character, but they are still your motivation and character and, hence, your choices. You are just as free as you ever were.

There is a lot more to DeGrazia’s argument and there are several interesting responses, including one from Harris, in the same issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics. This will be an important issue as neuroscience progresses. I expect that most of us believe that people should be allowed to voluntarily enhance their own moral characters. Or do we? Suppose someone wanted to enhance a trait that you disapprove of; suppose someone wanted to become more aggressive? And what about coerced moral enhancements? Should parole boards be able to require that parolees accept moral bioenhancements?

We better figure this out. Neuroscience marches on and small arms are only getting more lethal.


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