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Moral Bioenhancement as a Potential Means of Oppression

By Timothy Brown

This post is based off of a presentation given by the author at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the International Neuroethics Society.

Image Courtesy of Pixabay

It is hard to deny that humanity’s current capacity to harm is unprecedented. We are at risk of causing harms—through (nuclear or biological) warfare and climate impact—that could render life much worse for a majority of us. Proponents of moral bioenhancement—like Ingmar Presson and Julian Savulescu—worry that we, collectively, do not have the moral capacities necessary to address these threats. They insist we ought to make use of biotechnologies that enhance these capacities, before it’s too late. 

Several interventions could be used to improve our moral capacities, some of which are commonplace, some of which are on the horizon. Antidepressants (e.g., selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and mood stabilizers (e.g., Lithium) may, perhaps, reduce antisocial, erratic, or aggressive behavior. Beta blockers (e.g., propanolol) may make people more inclined to avoid harming others. Oxytocin is thought to increase altruistic, prosocial behavior. Neurostimulators (e.g., transcranial direct current stimulation) could be an efficient alternative to pharmaceuticals with similar effects. Some hope these interventions could one day help us become imaginative, empathetic, and social in ways that stave off the greatest threats of our time. Others—like Veljko Dubljević and Eric Racine—argue that these interventions have no real moral-capacity enhancing effects.

Arguments in favor of moral bioenhancement, however, fail to consider how marginalized people have been (and still are) accused of being less moral than their oppressors. As such, oppressions against the marginalized (e.g., mass incarceration) are often framed as an attempt to rehabilitate, reform, or protect them. It seems well-established that, for example, black Americans are disenfranchised in the United States—and this disenfranchisement is both systemic and pervasive. Black children in grade school are targeted for discipline disproportionately more often than their white classmates. Black children are diagnosed with behavioral problems disproportionately more than their white counterparts, and these diagnoses could be motivated by racial stereotypes. For example, diagnoses of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) could be an extension of old stereotypes that blacks are stubborn, angry, or defiant. Law enforcement targets and incarcerates blacks at higher rates—and are overrepresented in most US prisons. These injustices play out on a backdrop of general distaste for blacks in a wide variety of contexts that often peaks into outright disgust. Black folks must constantly (re-)affirm that blackness is beautiful, blackness is excellent, and that there are black people in the future

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The problems above should give us pause. If disenfranchised people are often deemed morally deficient, and if many of our rehabilitative practices disproportionately target the marginalized, moral bioenhancement technologies will likely just perpetuate these old oppressions. We have good reasons to believe that we, collectively, will expect marginalized people to use moral bioenhancements disproportionately more than others, and penalize them if they fail to. We must ask, then, if we can trust ourselves to identify appropriate targets for moral bioenhancement or distribute those enhancements fairly. So far, it seems that we cannot. 

But even if somehow we learn to distribute enhancements fairly, how can we be sure that marginalized people will not be left vulnerable to oppression as a result? One goal of moral bioenhancement is to reduce or eliminate behaviors that stand in the way of being good moral agents. Many of the behaviors that moral bioenhancements would dampen are the behaviors that marginalized people make use of for survival: distrust, disobedience,
and—yes—anger. Black feminist philosopher Myisha Cherry, for instance,
argues that we can use anger to expose, understand, and counteract injustice. In Cherry’s words, “moral anger at injustice is a form of criticism. This criticism is not destructive but constructive. It shows that the object of anger has work to do. […] This anger is truth-telling.” But if moral enhancement technologies endanger these productive uses of anger, they could make it harder for the marginalized to criticize oppressive systems. The project of moral bioenhancement, then, might take away the tools black Americans need to overcome systemic oppression. That is to say, efforts to morally-enhance humanity might also (perhaps inadvertently, but I suspect deliberately) render marginalized people less critical of the injustices they face.

Image Courtesy of Pixabay

In the end, we can see that moral enhancement is not a new concept. We might think of our efforts to rehabilitate one another as moral enhancement projects. If moral enhancement has any chance of success, it’s clear that we must attend to how past enhancement projects have harmed marginalized people and how future enhancement projects threaten to make their lives even worse. Crucially, if we are not cautious, the effort to stave off catastrophe could become an attempt to “enhance away” marginalized peoples’ means of fighting the forces that marginalize them. In a twist of irony, perhaps, we must aspire to develop the moral capacities necessary to morally enhance ourselves without perpetuating oppression. 

Recommended Reading
  1. Persson, Ingmar, & Savulescu, Julian (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. 
  2. Sparrow, Robert. (2014). “Better Living Through Chemistry? A Reply to Savulescu and Persson on ‘Moral Enhancement’.” Journal of Applied Philosophy, 31 (1), 23-32. 
  3. Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: New Press. 
  4. Cherry, Myisha (2019). “Love, Anger, and Racial Injustice.” In Adrienne Martin (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Love in Philosophy. New York: Routledge.

Timothy Brown is an NIH postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Washington. His work explores the role neural technologies—like deep-brain stimulators and brain-computer interfaces—(will) play in our experiences of self, in our interpersonal relationships, and in our societies more broadly.

Want to Cite this Post?

Brown, Timothy. (2020). Moral Bioenhancement as a Potential Means of Oppression. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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