Why We Probably Can't Use Tech to Become More Moral

A signpost points the way to moral behavior.
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Are there inventions that could make people morally better? A new study suggests that "moral enhancement" technologies, such as drugs or brain stimulation devices aimed at making people better morally, are neither feasible nor wise.

Increasingly, researchers are exploring whether drugs or devices can lead to cognitive enhancement — that is, can boost brainpower. For instance, a 2015 study found that the "smart drug" modafinil can improve some people's performance on long and complex tasks, and a 2010 study found that carefully doled out electric zaps to the brain could enhance people's math skills.

Such work has led some to wonder if drugs or devices could also make people more moral, said Veljko Dubljević, a neuroethicist at North Carolina State University. For instance, when it comes to psychopaths — who typically show a lack of empathy, guilt, conscience and remorse — "a lot of people look to neuroscience for a quick fix," Dubljević told Live Science. [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain]

However, cognitive enhancement research has encountered problems, suggesting that potential moral-enhancement technologies might run across difficulties as well, Dubljević and his colleagues wrote in their study. For instance, although smart drugs might lead to short-term improvements in people's brainpower, a 2014 study found that these medicines might also cause long-term impairments in brain function.

In the new study, Dubljević and his colleagues explored the effects of potential moral-enhancement drugs and devices by examining the existing research on seven moral-enhancement technologies, including four pharmaceutical strategies and three brain-stimulation approaches.

The four pharmaceutical strategies the researchers examined involve:

  • Oxytocin — this chemical is sometimes called the "love hormone" because it apparently can help bond mothers with newborns, and lovers with one another.
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are often prescribed for people with depression. A 2010 study also suggested these drugs could make people more averse to personally harming others.
  • Amphetamines, which may boost people's attention, willpower and endurance. The researchers noted that some people have argued that amphetamines can enhance virtues such as diligence.
  • Beta blockers are often prescribed to treat high blood pressure. A 2013 study also suggested they could make people more likely to judge harmful actions as morally unacceptable.

The three brain-stimulation approaches the scientists investigated were:

  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation, which sends magnetic pulses through the brain. A 2006 study found that this treatment could influence the way people respond to moral dilemmas.
  • Transcranial direct current stimulation, which involves applying an electric current to the brain. Previous research found that this treatment could influence how people respond to unfair offers and tasks involving moral judgments.
  • Deep brain stimulation, which involves surgically implanting a device that sends electrical impulses into the brain. A 2015 study explored whether this treatment might inadvertently alter moral behavior in patients with Parkinson's disease.

Based on their examination, the researchers concluded that all these technologies either lacked the morally enhancing effects that the earlier studies had suggested they had, or caused negative effects. In the researchers' opinion, "moral enhancement is not feasible, and even if it were, history shows us that using science in an attempt to manipulate morality is not wise," Dubljević said in a statement.

Each of the pharmaceutical strategies the researchers examined had problems, the researchers said. For instance, previous research found that oxytocin could promote social behavior with other members of a person's group. However, some studies have shown that when it comes to interactions with people from other groups — say, other races — oxytocin "could lead to prejudicial behavior," Dubljević said.

The researchers noted that SSRIs can boost the risk of suicide and have other troubling side effects. Amphetamines can lead to frightening hallucinations, paranoid delusions and significant risks of addiction, while beta blockers may blunt all emotional responses, the researchers said. [Top 10 Mysteries of the Mind]

As for brain-stimulation techniques, while prior research has suggested that both transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation can disrupt moral judgment, those studies did not show that these treatments can enhance moral behavior, the researchers said. In addition, some previous work on deep brain stimulation suggested that this treatment had no effect on people's moral decisions, with only mixed results on impulse control.

The problems of moral enhancement technologies not only involve whether they can do what they aim to do, but also "very different points of view of what it means to be moral," Dubljević said. 

For instance, the philosophy known as utilitarianism holds that the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people should be the guiding principle of conduct. And some moral enhancement technologies do appear to make people more utilitarian about problems such as the trolley dilemma. This psychology test typically asks whether one should harm a few people to save more people. However, prior work has also suggested that "psychopaths are more utilitarian, in that they are focused on consequences, and no one is convinced that psychopaths are more moral," Dubljević said.

All in all, "these techniques are all blunt instruments, rather than finely tuned technologies that could be helpful, so moral enhancement is really a bad idea," Dubljević said in a statement."I am in favor of research that is done responsibly, but against dangerous social experiments."

Dubljević and his colleague Eric Racine, at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute, detailed their findings May 15 in the journal Bioethics.

Original article on Live Science.

Charles Q. Choi
Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and Space.com. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.