Tuesday, February 20, 2018

One Track Moral Enhancement

By Nada Gligorov

Nada Gligorov is an associate professor in the Bioethics Program of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She is also faculty for the Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine Bioethics Masters Program. The primary focus of Nada’s scholarly work is the examination of the interaction between commonsense and scientific theories. Most recently, she authored of a monograph titled Neuroethics and the Scientific Revision of Common Sense (Studies in Brain and Mind, Springer). In 2014, Nada founded the Working Papers in Ethics and Moral Psychology speaker series–a working group where speakers are invited to present well-developed, as yet unpublished work.

Within the debate on neuroenhancement, cognitive and moral enhancements have been discussed as two different kinds of improvements achievable by different biomedical means. Pharmacological means that improve memory, attention, decision-making, or wakefulness have been accorded the status of “cognitive enhancers,” while attempts to improve empathy or diminish aggression have been categorized as “moral enhancements.” According to Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu (2008; 2012), cognitive enhancement could outstrip our natural abilities to improve commonsense morality. The view of commonsense morality as static motivates Persson and Savulescu (2008) to establish two distinct tracts of enhancement and to argue that cognitive enhancement needs to be coupled with moral enhancement to prevent the negative impact of rapid scientific progress that might be precipitated by the use of cognitive enhancers. To argue that cognitive enhancement might lead to improvements both in science and in commonsense morality, I will propose that commonsense morality is a folk theory with features similar to a scientific theory.

Persson and Savulescu describe commonsense morality in the following manner:
“By ‘common-sense morality’ we mean a set of moral attitudes that is a common denominator of the diversely specified moralities of human societies over the world. We take it that the explanation of why there is a set of moral attitudes that is a common feature of culturally diverse moralities is that it has its origin in our evolutionary history” (Persson and Savulescu 2012, 12)."
To redefine commonsense morality as a folk theory, I will utilize some established views about commonsense psychology and then apply them to commonsense morality. Commonsense psychology can be understood as an empirically evaluable folk-psychological theory that seeks to predict and explain human behavior by attributing psychological states, such as beliefs, desires, and sensations, to individuals (Sellars 1977; Churchland 1992). Commonsense psychology is a folk psychology (FP), with all the features of a scientific psychology. Just like a scientific theory, FP introduces unseen entities or processes to explain and predict observable phenomena. For example, FP introduces psychological states, which are not directly observable, to account for overt behavior. Additionally, similar to a scientific theory, FP explains and predicts human behavior by specifying law-like relations between psychological states, external stimuli, and overt behavior (Churchland 1992).

Image courtesy of Pixabay.
For example: Alex believes that the dog will stop barking if she gives him a treat, so she reaches for a treat and places it in front of the dog. Here Alex perceives a bothersome auditory stimulus, which causes her to believe that the dog will be assuaged by the treat; this explains why she reaches for the treat and puts it in front of the barking dog. In everyday life, we often use similar psychological explanations to describe the behavior of those around us and we can draw the boundaries of our current folk psychology by collecting commonly used and universally accepted psychological statements that feature psychological concepts, such as ‘belief,’ ‘desire,’ and ‘sensation’ (Lewis 1972; Stich 1996). This collection contains both the law-like generalization of FP and the definitions of folk-psychological concepts.

A consequence of this characterization of commonsense psychology is that our shared dispositions to predict and explain overt behavior by ascribing psychological states to others is the outcome of adopting folk psychology. Given that both our observations of people’s behavior and our habit of attributing psychological states are theory-laden, to change them, we need changes in our background theory. In fact, proponents of the view that commonsense psychology is an empirically evaluable theory often argue that it is false, and they make the prediction that FP will eventually be replaced by a neuroscientific theory that does not utilize psychological states at all (Churchland 1992). This change would affect how we observe and describe human behavior; instead of attributing beliefs and desires to people, we would explain their behavior as being caused by neurological processes.

There are a number of ways in which I see this view of commonsense psychology applying to commonsense morality. It is possible to characterize commonsense morality as a tacitly endorsed theory, i.e., a folk morality (FM). Persson and Savulescu offer a way of demarcating commonsense morality as a common feature of culturally diverse moralities, which is similar to the method of identifying the boundaries of FP by collecting commonly known psychological explanations. To identify FM, we would collect generally accepted moral statements that feature moral concepts. To circumscribe the concept of justice, for example, we would identify commonly accepted generalizations that feature the term ‘justice,’ say to describe an individual’s behavior as just, or to describe a punishment as just, or to categorize a certain allocation of resources as just, and so forth. This collection would yield the folk theory of justice, which forms the basis for the concept of justice we use in everyday life. The scope of other folk moral concepts, such as the notions of rights or moral responsibility, could be identified in similar ways.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.
By adopting a folk concept of justice, we become able to make judgments about whether something falls under that concept. We become able to observe certain actions or even certain individuals as conforming to the folk concept of justice. For example, we interpret a person giving money to a homeless individual as just. We perceive certain events, such as an older lady being mugged, as unjust. Familiarity with the concept of justice supports our ability to appraise a situation and to feel appropriate emotions. For example, thinking that you are witnessing a theft, a young man snatching an elderly woman’s bag, will provoke anger; but realizing that the young man was only taking back what was his from the old lady, who stole his bag hours earlier, will change anger to a more positive emotion. Going back to Persson and Savulescu’s characterization of commonsense morality as a set of psychological dispositions, I would argue that instead of those dispositions being the basis of our commonsense morality, they are the result of the tacit endorsement of a folk morality.

As folk psychology could be revised and in principle replaced by a better theory, so could our current folk morality be revised and replaced. Furthermore, just like changes in folk psychology would lead to changes in how we explain and predict human behavior, changes in folk morality would lead to changes in our moral attitudes and judgments. This would run counter to the conclusion by Persson and Savulescu (2012) that our commonsense morality is in principle static and that it is not able to adjust to changes in the world caused by rapid scientific development.

Persson and Savulescu think moral attitudes are static because they maintain that commonsense morality is rooted in and limited by biology. This does not distinguish the ability to be moral from any other abilities, including cognitive abilities, which are also the product of our biology. Even if commonsense morality is limited by biology, this does not undermine the argument that it constitutes a folk theory. Again, I will draw a parallel between folk psychology and folk morality. There are those who accept that FP is a theory, but because they think it is innate, they argue that it cannot be replaced by a more suitable psychology (Fodor 1975; Carruthers 1996). So even if we assume that we have a biological or evolutionary predisposition to develop a particular type of folk morality, it is still possible to maintain that this type of morality is a theory. The question of whether commonsense morality can be revised is distinct from whether it is a theory.

Adopting the view that commonsense morality is a theory, however, can lead to an answer about how to promote changes in FM. If folk morality has the same features as a scientific theory, then cognitive enhancers that would lead to advancements in scientific theories would also lead to changes in folk morality. Additionally, if commonsense morality is limited by biology, as Persson and Savulescu argue, neuroenhancement might be required to extend those biological limits. Redefining commonsense morality as a folk theory would remove the need for two separate tracks of enhancement, one moral and one cognitive because if improvements in cognitive processes such as attention, learning, and memory improve our abilities to generate adequate theories in science, they would have those same effects on our abilities to generate moral theories.


1. Carruthers, P. (1996). Language thought and Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. Churchland, P. M. (1992). A neurocomputational perspective: The nature of mind and the structure of science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Fodor, J. (1975.) The language of thought. New York: Thomas Cromwell

3. Lewis, D. (1972). Psychophysical and theoretical identifications. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 50 (3), 207–215; Stich, S. (1996). Deconstructing the mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4. Persson, I. & Savulescu, J. (2008). The Perils of Cognitive Enhancement and the Urgent Imperative to Enhance the Moral Character of Humanity. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25(3): 162-177

5. Persson, I. & Savulescu, J. (2012). Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. Oxford University Press.

6. Sellars, W. (1977, 1997 ed.). Empiricism and the philosophy of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2

Want to cite this post?

Gligorov, N. (2018). One Track Moral Enhancement. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2018/02/one-track-moral-enhancement.html

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