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What can neuroethicists learn from public attitudes about moral bioenhancement?

By Peter Reiner

Dr. Reiner is Professor and co-founder of the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia where he is a member of the Department of Psychiatry and the Centre for Brain Health. Dr. Reiner began his research career studying the cellular and molecular physiology of the brain, with particular interests in the neurobiology of behavioural states and the molecular underpinnings of neurodegenerative disease. In 1998, Dr. Reiner became President and CEO of Active Pass Pharmaceuticals, a drug discovery company that he founded to tackle the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease. Upon returning to academic life in 2004, Dr. Reiner refocused his scholarly work in the area of neuroethics, co-founding the National Core for Neuroethics with Dr. Judy Illes in 2007. Dr. Reiner has championed quantitative analysis of public attitudes towards diverse issues in neuroethics including the propriety of cognitive and moral enhancement, the contours of autonomy in the real world, and the neuroethical implications of Technologies of the Extended Mind.

Moral behavior is fundamental to human society. Wherever one goes on the planet, one finds a set of norms that guide behavior, and following these norms is a basic tenet of peaceful coexistence with one’s fellow humans. Despite abundant evidence that the arc of human history trends towards decreased violence (Pinker, 2011), a proxy for moral behavior, scholars have suggested that society might be better off were we to enhance our moral capacities, and that using biological methods to do so is warranted (Douglas, 2008; Persson and Savulescu, 2008). This has engendered a vigorous debate that goes beyond the usual divide between bioconservatives and technoprogressives (Reiner, 2013a); in this arena, even ardent proponents of enhancement technologies have registered dissent (Harris, 2010).

The debate has been ongoing for nearly a decade, with no resolution in sight. In an effort to add a new voice to the discussion, Jona Specker and Maartje Schermer of Erasmus University joined me in querying the public about the issue. Our results are forthcoming in the journal Neuroethics (Specker et al., 2017), and I won’t steal our thunder by reviewing the entirety of our results. What I want to highlight here is our key finding – that the public overwhelmingly found moral bioenhancement to be deeply problematic.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Victor.

Our experimental design was intended to make acceptance as likely as possible: we chose an essentially non-controversial form of immoral behavior – bullying – as our target, thereby largely sidestepping the unresolvable issue of which moral framework should be used when considering moral bioenhancement. Moreover, we strove to make the biological treatment as innocuous as possible by describing the use of the natural hormone oxytocin as a means of increasing empathy. The experiment involved both quantitative and mixed-methods survey methdologies (Reiner, 2013b); all respondents read a vignette that described a child in school who had been a bully, but half the respondents read about a treatment program that involved oxytocin use, while the other half read about a treatment program that involved a video game. When asked whether they thought it was a good idea for the bully to participate in a program that used oxytocin as a moral bioenhancer, they resoundingly objected; unsurprisingly, they were no more enthusiastic when the program was described as mandatory. In contrast, there was widespread endorsement of the use of the video game as a means of moral enhancement. It is clear from further analysis of the data that the public welcomes moral enhancement by means of appealing to reason, but they recoil at the prospect of moral bioenhancement in large part because it is reasons-bypassing. Thus, the results provide empirical support for a proposition that Farah Focquaert and Maartje Schermer have previously put forth: means matter morally (Focquaert and Schermer, 2015).

Our study is but one way of exploring the issue, and is open to a variety of critiques; given the tenor of the debate, we fully expect both roses and arrows to arrive at our doorstep. To those who have an interest in the topic, reading the published paper will give you a sense of the full range of its implications.

Image courtesy of Flickr user

US Census Bureau.

What I want to highlight here is not just the results of our study, but rather the importance of querying the public on this issue. In my view, the question of moral bioenhancement is a paradigmatic instance in which understanding public attitudes is critical. While some issues in the field of neuroethics may sometimes seem arcane, changing the mores of society – really, a form of social engineering – is not to be embarked upon lightly. Morality is a highly personal property of societies, and as is evident by the vehemence of the culture wars, is one that many people feel strongly about. The dangers inherent in moral bioenhancement are not limited to the usual side effects of pharmaceuticals; the public also perceives danger in the instrumental bypassing of the sort of moral skill development that has been valorized in the virtue ethics tradition.

Pragmatic considerations also apply. For if there exists a yawning gap between the learned opinion of philosophers and the sentiments of the general public – if the very people whose mores are to be modified reject the approach – then not only must one overcome the normal regulatory restraints on pharmaceutical development but also the desire of the public to use such means of moral enhancement.

There is one final peril worth contemplating. At a moment in history when even in mature democracies autocratic sentiments are on the rise, suggesting that we engage in a form of social engineering that runs counter to public opinion is surely ill-advised.


Douglas T (2008) Moral Enhancement. Journal of Applied Philosophy 25:228-245.

Focquaert F, Schermer M (2015) Moral Enhancement: Do Means Matter Morally? Neuroethics 8:139-151.

Harris J (2010) Moral Enhancement and Freedom. Bioethics 25:102-111.

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 25:162-177.

Pinker S (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature. Viking.

Reiner PB (2013a) The Biopolitics of Cognitive Enhancement. In: Cognitive Enhancement: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (Hildt E, Franke A, eds), pp 189-200. Springer Science+Business Media.

Reiner PB (2013b) Experimental Neuroethics. The Neuroethics Blog Available at: [Accessed January 19, 2013].

Specker J, Schermer M, Reiner PB (in press) Public attitudes towards moral enhancement: evidence that means matter morally. Neuroethics.

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Reiner, P. (2017). What can neuroethicists learn from public attitudes about moral bioenhancement? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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