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Moral Enhancement? Acknowledging Limitations of Neurotechnology and Morality

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A JOB Neuroscience
ISSN: 2150-7740 (Print) 2150-7759 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/uabn20
Moral Enhancement? Acknowledging Limitations
of Neurotechnology and Morality
John R. Shook & James Giordano
To cite this article: John R. Shook & James Giordano (2016) Moral Enhancement?
Acknowledging Limitations of Neurotechnology and Morality, AJOB Neuroscience, 7:2, 118-120,
DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2016.1188178
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21507740.2016.1188178
Published online: 18 Jul 2016.
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Open Peer Commentaries
Moral Enhancement? Acknowledging
Limitations of Neurotechnology
and Morality
John R. Shook, University at Buffalo
James Giordano, Georgetown University Medical Center
Nakazawa, Yamamoto, Tachibana, and colleagues (2016)
offer their hopes and concerns about employing real-time
functional magnetic resonance imaging (rt-fMRI)-based
neurofeedback to treat mental disorders and to enhance
moral cognition. Their recognition of limitations to these
techniques is welcome, given exaggerated claims that often
characterize discussions of neurotechnologically derived
enhancements. Discerning the extent to which any type of
enhancement is achievable depends on a number of fac-
tors, ranging from the neurological to the sociological
(Shook, Galvagni, and Giordano 2014; Shook and Gior-
dano 2016). The meaning of “moral enhancement” at mini-
mum depends on the approach(es) used to alter brain
function, the experimental protocols for attaining envi-
sioned goals, and the shared understandings of experi-
menters, subjects, and society about the significance of
those goals for morality. Before attempting to judge the
moral worth or ethical status of any alteration in brain
function, we must first be prepared to explain and justify
how some neurological modification could even be classi-
fied as an improvement upon a person’s morality. How
such a verifiable classification is accomplished will then
provide information required for evaluating whether some
putative improvement to morality is both authentic and
ethical.
As the authors describe them, protocols utilizing
decoded neurofeedback rt-fMRI appear to elicit validly
effective results. Such protocols (i.e., to alter subjects’ abil-
ity to more “accurately” make moral judgments, which
have been preset as targets) do seem feasible. The authors
are optimistic that their technique can simultaneously
affect multiple brain regions, even though they admit that
brain networks involved in moral cognition are as yet only
tentatively identified and poorly understood. This is not a
huge obstacle, since recent studies are discerning details
about brain regions networked in various types of moral
judgment (Cushman 2013; Avram et al. 2014). In fact, rt-
fMRI enables subject-by-subject inquiry into the efficacy
and durability of adjustments to moral cognition, with all
the attendant risks openly declared in advance, which may
contribute to further advances in the field. Nevertheless,
the neurological processes underlying social cognition in
general and moral cognition in particular won’t be ade-
quately understood anytime soon. We still must address
key questions about the capabilities, limits, and value of
the neurotechnology—and method(s)—used (Giordano
2015). Indeed, as the authors note, there are several limita-
tions, mainly arising from diffuse effects upon complex
networks that happen to be involved with moral cognition
and other modes of cognition as well.
We contend that there are (at least) four additional lim-
itations—not coincidentally involving social factors—that
are significant when considering adjustments to a person’s
morality.
First, a subject can produce different moral judgments
without anyone, including experimenters, understanding
which components of moral cognition have been adjusted
and why those adjustments caused differing moral judg-
ments. Subjects would be unable to say why they think dif-
ferently about moral matters, even in the ordinary terms of
folk moral psychology; this might be disorienting and
disconcerting. Confusion could be reduced if protocols
included identifying alterations to affective, motivational,
valuational, or reasoning processes during procedures
(see, e.g., the work of Moll et al. [2014] and Sherwood et al.
[2016]).
Second, a subject undergoing this technique would be
encouraged by experimenters to adjust moral judgment
away from what initially seems intuitive and “right
enough,” toward judgments that can’t, by definition, seem
quite right to the subject. After all, if the subject took some
alternative judgment to be “just as morally good” then the
Address correspondence to John R. Shook, Department of Philosophy and Graduate School of Education, University at Buffalo, 135 Park
Hall, Buffalo NY, USA. E-mail: jrshook@buffalo.edu
118 ajob Neuroscience
AJOB Neuroscience, 7(2): 118–133, 2016
Copyright ©Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 2150-7740 print / 2150-7759 online
DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2016.1188178
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goal or outcome wouldn’t be “moral adjustment.” How
would sincere subject compliance be guaranteed if and
when subjects feel like they must make morally variant
judgments during the procedure, and anticipate becoming
morally “different” or even immoral if the procedure
works for them? Compliance could be enhanced by assur-
ing subjects that the goal of adjustment is only to make
moral judgment more consistently and strongly like judg-
ments they already subjectively regard as moral.
Third, a subject undergoing this technique might suc-
cessfully transition to a new manner of moralizing and
take this new condition to be morally right. As the authors
note, new moral habits may drift away from expected
standards, or even fade away, over time. Subjects might
demand continued treatments in order to “stay moral.”
What happens if those treatments are not available? This is
a real problem because there is little (or no) guarantee that
such drift would revert to a subject’s original morality.
This technique cannot be labeled as “reversible” quite yet.
Sustaining and/or reversing such interventions could pose
a problematic issue, unless reliably long-term techniques
were developed.
Fourth, a subject undergoing this technique might be
informed that the procedure is needed to improve one’s
moral judgment in order to correct a mental disease or dis-
order. Does this offer a way to treat “moral pathologies”?
More importantly, do such clinical-sounding classifica-
tions (which we would hesitate to make) appear to estab-
lish “moral enhancement” as primarily about therapeutic
rehabilitations or reformations? Setting up external stand-
ards of morality rather than subjective standards places
experimental protocols in very different territory, where
sincere and voluntary compliance surely cannot be pre-
sumed. Furthermore, pathologizing many modes of defi-
cient or defective morality can look like the start of a
slippery slope, leading toward social condemnation of
“undesirable” moralistic stances.
Most fundamentally, we urge closer scrutiny into treat-
ing these experimental protocols as genuinely moral
enhancements. Neurological improvements are not auto-
matically ethical enhancements (Shook and Giordano
2016). In this light, we raise four concerns that arise in par-
allel with the four key questions about experimental proto-
cols from the first half of this commentary.
Our first concern attends to the authors’ suggestion
that reducing differences in the default mode network
between “healthy” people and patients with mental disor-
ders offers a route toward moral enhancement. This may
be so, but current justifications of moral improvement of
individuals focus upon their deficiencies in folk moral psy-
chology: A person may not care enough about others, or
not be nice enough, and so on. Suppose that this experi-
mental technique enables a person to behave “better.”
There is no promise that the subject will introspectively
grasp why, and subjects may even report little to no sensed
change in their moral psychology: They may not feel like
they care more, want to share more, and so forth. After all,
terms of folk moral psychology merely represent, and not
necessarily in any closely corresponding way, hypothe-
sized tokens of neurological function and structure(s).
Would we trust this procedure to enhance morality if we
can’t explain why a subject has become morally better?
Improved behavior is not automatically moral behavior,
and it may be far from ethically commendable conduct
(Shook 2012). Something else may be causing observed
behavioral changes and evoking other unanticipated and/
or undesirable side effects.
Our second concern pursues the idea that compliance
could be strengthened if subjects believe that their preex-
isting moral habits were (only) to be strengthened and
intensified. How would society regard that mode of moral
enhancement? Moral pluralism is both a psychological fact
and a tolerated reality in society, to certain limits (Graham
et al. 2011). Would society be comfortable with a large por-
tion becoming more “conservative” and another large por-
tion becoming more “liberal” (to use Haidt’s terms)?
Enhancement does not display an obvious unitary and
unified directionality. Additionally, what if some people
want to calibrate their morality toward some chosen ethi-
cal exemplar? Why be just a little more conservative, if you
could acquire the moral judgment of a right-wing media
celebrity? Let’s not be naive—there will be those who
would seek these “boutique” sorts of enhancement.
Our third concern proceeds from our observation that
moral remediation and rehabilitation may become techno-
logically feasible at the expense of becoming socially dan-
gerous. Those who call for moral enhancement for many
people must worry about who will classify—and be classi-
fied as—the morally “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Who
among us is really so morally healthy? On the other hand,
if we permit people to enhance in their preferred direc-
tions, does that only encourage the moral tribalization of
humanity? The world needs less tribalization, not more,
but homogeneity doesn’t seem right, either. Perhaps this
neurotechnology, along with others, could be used to dis-
cern a statistically average “morally normal” brain by
averaging together nnumber of individuals’ default mode
networks. Yet which individuals, from which cultures,
would be selected for that sample? That “normalized”
moral brain wouldn’t even seem quite moral, or appear to
be morally vacillating or inconsistent, from the stance of
those who expect deontic, utilitarian, or virtue ethics to
dominate a person’s moral psychology.
Our fourth and related concern centers upon how
much ethical responsibility and control must be exer-
cised when this technique is applied on human sub-
jects, no matter how far advanced it may become. To
alter a person’s internal moral sense and judgment is to
manipulate something at the core of who we are as
responsible agents and personal selves. That we already
do this for children (fairly well) and moral deviants
(not so well) does not in any way diminish the signifi-
cance of, and responsibility for, this ambitious
endeavor. To experiment with long-term moral judg-
ment and moral conduct is to undertake nothing less
than social reengineering on a grand scale. The
Ethics of Decoded Neurofeedback
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dystopian literature about political impositions of a
“normalized” morality on populations prompts ethical
unease if not outrage, and rightly so. May we never
surrender that ethical wisdom to neurotechnical prow-
ess or moral expediency. &
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Neurofeedback for Moral Enhancement:
Irreversibility, Freedom, and
Advantages Over Drugs
Hannah Maslen, University of Oxford
Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford
Nakazawa and colleagues (2016) examine potential thera-
peutic applications of decoded neurofeedback for the treat-
ment of psychiatric conditions such as depression, and
developmental disorders. Decoded neurofeedback, they
argue, is particularly promising in this regard, since it can
enable individuals to observe a representation of their
brain activity in real time. Consequently, individuals can
train themselves to intentionally adjust their brain activity,
ultimately in the absence of the visual representation.
Nakazawa and colleagues further hypothesize that
decoded neurofeedback techniques could be used for
moral enhancement, if individuals were able to train them-
selves to adjust their brain states to those conducive to
moral behavior, such as the brain state correlated with
compassion. This, they argue, would be a particularly
appealing form of moral enhancement, since modulation
of brain states could be “personalized, or tailor made” to
the individual’s beliefs about how to live morally.
The article makes an important contribution in draw-
ing the attention of neuroethicists to the prospect that neu-
rofeedback could enable a greater degree of control over
mental phenomena such as emotions or strong desires,
which sometimes frustrate our ability to act in line with
our moral commitments, or prudentially. Although Naka-
zawa and colleagues are optimistic about the way in which
the personalization of neurofeedback preserves moral plu-
ralism, they suggest that there are significant ethical con-
cerns relating to irreversibility, safety, and efficacy.
Irreversibility in particular, they argue, is potentially prob-
lematic in its implications for freedom, since agents are
rendered unable to alter themselves if their moral beliefs
change. This, they argue, is in contrast to pharmaceuticals,
Address correspondence to Hannah Maslen, The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, Suite 8, Littlegate
House, 16/17 St Ebbe’s Street, Oxford, OX1 1PT, United Kingdom. E-mail: Hannah.maslen@philosophy.ox.ac.uk
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... There is no doubt that circumspection should be appreciated to avoid an agitative and delusive argument insofar as its mechanism remains uncertain (Shook & Giordano, 2016). Simultaneously, however, ELSI should be considered in advance and forewarned if necessary, since such issues will have a large influence on our life and society. ...
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