What can neuroethicists learn from public attitudes about moral bioenhancement?
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.
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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).
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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.
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Reiner, P. (2017). What can neuroethicists learn from public attitudes about moral bioenhancement? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
, from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2017/08/what-can-neuroethicists-learn-from_25.html