Moral enhancement: illegal brain doping or ethical duty?

Scientists have found ways to improve people's morality. Is this the solution to our alleged lack of sympathy for struggling people around the world or are they influencing our personality? A debate about moral bioenhancement.

25. Sept 2017 · Bettina Zimmermann

In 2015, 800 million people in the world did not have enough to eat. 98% of them live in developing countries.1 Do people from rich Western countries do not show the humanity needed to help solve the problem? Some philosophers connect this attitude with lack of sympathy and altruism.2 But there is more to it: the world’s problems are large and complex; we simply lack the capacity to deal with them. Thus, the further away problems are, the less we care. In the last decades scientists have found ways to improve people’s morality. Could these methods make people more empathetic, altruistic and just? Or are they rather influencing our personality, autonomy and free will? A debate about moral bioenhancement is currently preoccupying researchers from different disciplines like neuroscience, ethics or psychology.

About researching on how to influence moral behavior

Neuroscientists have made great progress in how our brain works in the last two decades. They for instance found out that higher accessibility of serotonin, a hormone produced in the human brain, leads to a better recognition of fear and happiness in the faces of other individuals.3 Thus, drugs enhancing serotonin levels in the brain are used today to effectively treat depression.4 Could these drugs be used for moral enhancement, too?

In addition, neuroscientists found in the early 2000 that oxytocin, another brain hormone, might increase the ability to trust people.5 Delivering more oxytocin into a person’s brain should therefore enhance trust. A meta-analysis from several studies examined the possible connection between oxytocin and trust, and found that there is still no clear scientific evidence supporting the connection between oxytocin and trust.6 More studies are needed to uncover the whole story behind this possible connection.

Back to moral enhancement, there are technical approaches: Neuroscientists can stimulate specific brain regions connected to moral behavior from the outside by a magnetic field or an electrical current. Growing scientific evidence is showing that these “non-invasive brain stimulations” can lead to moral enhancement. However, even though the scientific studies performed so far are overall showing an effect of brain stimulation on the moral behavior, they were not always in a favorable direction.7

About the ethical dilemma of moral enhancement

There are two different levels of application for moral enhancement. One level is to use it for “bad people”, criminals or psychopaths to become integrated in society. A second level is to enhance the general population, so that for example everyone develops more sympathy with the poor and becomes more altruistic in helping them.

Julian Savulescu, a practical philosopher at the St Cross College in Oxford, is convinced that it is a moral imperative to explore and exploit the possibility of moral enhancement on both levels. He and his colleagues argue that with globalization and technological advancements, the world reached a new level of complexity. For each individual, the world grew bigger and we would have to take into account more than just our immediate surrounding for our moral reasoning. Evolutionary, human kind is not trained to do that.2 With moral enhancement we could enhance our ability for empathy, solidarity, altruism, gratitude, forgiveness and other morally desirable skills.

For example, even though knowing that millions of people suffer from poverty and death every day, many people from rich Western countries do not show the altruism needed to solve these problems. Savulescu and colleagues think that this is due to a lack of motivation, because our moral ability to feel empathy is not developed enough. With moral enhancement, it should be possible to increase the motivation to help the poor, because our moral judgment is based on pure emotions.8 However there is another popular position based on the opinion of David Hume, a Scottish philosopher who lived in the 18th century, saying that motivation consists not only of emotions but also of cognitive beliefs that justify these emotions.9 Hence, moral enhancement would only affect the emotional desires but would not give any cognitive belief justifying the desire, and naturally would not have an effect on human motivation to change behavior.

About the freedom of choice

As for every emerging new technology, the decision to use or not can be seen as an expression of an individual’s autonomy to decide to use it or not. That implies that moral enhancement should always be done voluntarily, and no one, not even criminals, should be forced into such a treatment. Moreover, such a decision should be based on reliable information on the actual effects of it. Two recent research reviews that summarize the current technological possibilities of moral enhancement deny that the current knowledge is precise enough to use it in practice.7,10

Another ethical issue with moral enhancement is that many moral problems have more than one solution, and it is a personal, cultural and societal matter which solution is the preferred one. Abortion for example always is a moral dilemma between the interests of the mother versus the interests of the unborn child. It is not given how this dilemma is to be solved, and is highly context-dependent. Moral enhancement potentially cuts down the freedom of choice to solve such a dilemma in its own personal way. It can lead to a determination of our actions. However, other ethical problems such as racism or pedophilia are considered bad by the general public. Thus, this argument is more important for the second-level use of moral enhancement in the general public.

About being patient

Many scientists work in the field of moral enhancement technology. They have made great progress in the last decades. But, as recent reviews conclude from what have been found so far, they are not there yet. There are still many things to be improved, still many unknown factors to be explored. Thus, using moral enhancement outside of research experiments at the moment would only be an expression of impatience. Let’s be patient and wait until science has done its job better. Thanks to ethicists, discussing now what might be real in the future, we will hopefully be ready to deal with any possible ethical consequences.



1.  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), World Food Programme (WFP). The State of Food Insecurity in the World. Meeting the 2015 international hunger targets: taking stock of uneven progress. Rome; 2015. Accessed June 23, 2017.

2.  PERSSON I, SAVULESCU J. Unfit for the future: The need for moral enhancement. 1. ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press; 2012. Uehiro series in practical ethics.

3.  Harmer CJ, Bhagwagar Z, Perrett DI, Völlm BA, Cowen PJ, Goodwin GM. Acute SSRI administration affects the processing of social cues in healthy volunteers. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2003;28(1):148-152. doi:10.1038/sj.npp.1300004.

4.  Crescenzo F de, Perelli F, Armando M, Vicari S. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for post-partum depression (PPD): A systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2014;152(Supplement C):39-44. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2013.09.019.

5.  Kosfeld M, Heinrichs M, Zak PJ, Fischbacher U, Fehr E. Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature. 2005;435(7042):673-676. doi:10.1038/nature03701.

6.  Nave G, Camerer C, McCullough M. Does Oxytocin Increase Trust in Humans? A Critical Review of Research. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2015;10(6):772-789. doi:10.1177/1745691615600138.

7.  Darby RR, Pascual-Leone A. Moral Enhancement Using Non-invasive Brain Stimulation. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017;11:77. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2017.00077.

8.  PERSSON I, SAVULESCU J. Moral Bioenhancement, Freedom and Reason. Neuroethics. 2016;9(3):263-268. doi:10.1007/s12152-016-9268-5.

9.  SMITH M. The Humean Theory of Motivation. Mind. 1987;XCVI(381):36-61. doi:10.1093/mind/XCVI.381.36.

10. Dubljević V, Racine E. Moral Enhancement Meets Normative and Empirical Reality: Assessing the Practical Feasibility of Moral Enhancement Neurotechnologies. Bioethics. 2017;31(5):338-348. doi:10.1111/bioe.12355.


Bettina Zimmermann hat an der Universität Fribourg Medien- und Kommunikationswissenschaften sowie Biomedizin studiert. Nach ihrem Master Molekularmedizin an der Universität Uppsala (Schweden) befasst sie sich nun im Rahmen ihrer Doktorarbeit am Institut für Bio- und Medizinethik der Universität Basel mit dem Thema Gentests und Gesellschaft. Bettina ist Regioleiterin von reatch in Basel.


Der vorliegende Blogeintrag gibt die persönliche Meinung der Autoren wieder und entspricht nicht zwingend derjenigen von reatch oder seiner Mitglieder.