Should We Use Technologies to Enhance Morality?
Our moral ‘hardware’ evolved over 100,000 years ago while humans were still scratching the savannah. The perils we encountered back then were radically different from those that confront us now. To survive and flourish in the face of complex future challenges our archaic operating systems might need an upgrade – in non-traditional ways.
Morality refers to standards of right and wrong when it comes to our beliefs, behaviors, and intentions. Broadly, moral enhancement is the use of biomedical technology to improve moral functioning. This could include augmenting empathy, altruism, or moral reasoning, or curbing antisocial traits like outgroup bias and aggression.
The claims related to moral enhancement are grand and polarizing: it’s been both tendered as a solution to humanity’s existential crises and bluntly dismissed as an armchair hypothesis. So, does the concept have any purchase? The answer leans heavily on our definition and expectations.
One issue is that the debate is often carved up in dichotomies – is moral enhancement feasible or unfeasible? Permissible or impermissible? Fact or fiction? On it goes. While these gesture at imperatives, trading in absolutes blurs the realities at hand. A sensible approach must resist extremes and recognize that moral disrupters are already here.
We know that existing interventions, whether they occur unknowingly or on purpose, have the power to modify moral dispositions in ways both good and bad. For instance, neurotoxins can promote antisocial behavior. The ‘lead-crime hypothesis’ links childhood lead-exposure to impulsivity, antisocial aggression, and various other problems. Mercury has been associated with cognitive deficits, which might impair moral reasoning and judgement. It’s well documented that alcohol makes people more prone to violence.
So, what about positive drivers? Here’s where it gets more tangled.
Medicine has long treated psychiatric disorders with drugs like sedatives and antipsychotics. However, there’s short mention of morality in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) despite the moral merits of pharmacotherapy – these effects are implicit and indirect. Such cases are regarded as treatments rather than enhancements.
It would be dangerously myopic to assume that moral augmentation is somehow beyond reach.
Conventionally, an enhancement must go beyond what is ‘normal,’ species-typical, or medically necessary – this is known as the ‘treatment-enhancement distinction.’ But boundaries of health and disease are fluid, so whether we call a procedure ‘moral enhancement’ or ‘medical treatment’ is liable to change with shifts in social values, expert opinions, and clinical practices.
Human enhancements are already used for a range of purported benefits: caffeine, smart drugs, and other supplements to boost cognitive performance; cosmetic procedures for aesthetic reasons; and steroids and stimulants for physical advantage. More boldly, cyborgs like Moon Ribas and Neil Harbisson are pushing transpecies boundaries with new kinds of sensory perception. It would be dangerously myopic to assume that moral augmentation is somehow beyond reach.
How might it work?
One possibility for shaping moral temperaments is with neurostimulation devices. These use electrodes to deliver a low-intensity current that alters the electromagnetic activity of specific neural regions. For instance, transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) can target parts of the brain involved in self-awareness, moral judgement, and emotional decision-making. It’s been shown to increase empathy and valued-based learning, and decrease aggression and risk-taking behavior. Many countries already use tDCS to treat pain and depression, but evidence for enhancement effects on healthy subjects is mixed.
Another suggestion is targeting neuromodulators like serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is linked to prosocial attributes like trust, fairness, and cooperation, but low activity is thought to motivate desires for revenge and harming others. It’s not as simple as indiscriminately boosting brain chemicals though. While serotonin is amenable to SSRIs, precise levels are difficult to measure and track, and there’s no scientific consensus on the “optimum” amount or on whether such a value even exists. Fluctuations due to lifestyle factors such as diet, stress, and exercise add further complexity. Currently, more research is needed on the significance of neuromodulators and their network dynamics across the moral landscape.
There are a range of other prospects. The ‘love drugs’ oxytocin and MDMA mediate pair bonding, cooperation, and social attachment, although some studies suggest that people with high levels of oxytocin are more aggressive toward outsiders. Lithium is a mood stabilizer that has been shown to reduce aggression in prison populations; beta-blockers like propranolol and the supplement omega-3 have similar effects. Increasingly, brain-computer interfaces augur a world of brave possibilities. Such appeals are not without limitations, but they indicate some ways that external tools can positively nudge our moral sentiments.
Who needs morally enhancing?
A common worry is that enhancement technologies could be weaponized for social control by authoritarian regimes, or used like the oppressive eugenics of the early 20th century. Fortunately, the realities are far more mundane and such dystopian visions are fantastical. So, what are some actual possibilities?
Some researchers suggest that neurotechnologies could help to reactivate brain regions of those suffering from moral pathologies, including healthy people with psychopathic traits (like a lack of empathy). Another proposal is using such technology on young people with conduct problems to prevent serious disorders in adulthood.
Most of us aren’t always as ethical as we would like – given the option of ‘priming’ yourself to act in consistent accord with your higher values, would you take it?
A question is whether these kinds of interventions should be compulsory for dangerous criminals. On the other hand, a voluntary treatment for inmates wouldn’t be so different from existing incentive schemes. For instance, some U.S. jurisdictions already offer drug treatment programs in exchange for early release or instead of prison time. Then there’s the difficult question of how we should treat non-criminal but potentially harmful ‘successful’ psychopaths.
Others argue that if virtues have a genetic component, there is no technological reason why present practices of embryo screening for genetic diseases couldn’t also be used for selecting socially beneficial traits.
Perhaps the most immediate scenario is a kind of voluntary moral therapy, which would use biomedicine to facilitate ideal brain-states to augment traditional psychotherapy. Most of us aren’t always as ethical as we would like – given the option of ‘priming’ yourself to act in consistent accord with your higher values, would you take it? Approaches like neurofeedback and psychedelic-assisted therapy could prove helpful.
What are the challenges?
A general challenge is that of setting. Morality is context dependent; what’s good in one environment may be bad in another and vice versa, so we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Of course, common sense tells us that some tendencies are more socially desirable than others: fairness, altruism, and openness are clearly preferred over aggression, dishonesty, and prejudice.
One argument is that remoulding ‘brute impulses’ via biology would not count as moral enhancement. This view claims that for an action to truly count as moral it must involve cognition – reasoning, deliberation, judgement – as a necessary part of moral behavior. Critics argue that we should be concerned more with ends rather than means, so ultimately it’s outcomes that matter most.
Another worry is that modifying one biological aspect will have adverse knock-on effects for other valuable traits. Certainly, we must be careful about the network impacts of any intervention. But all stimuli have distributed effects on the body, so it’s really a matter of weighing up the cost/benefit trade-offs as in any standard medical decision.
Is it ethical?
Our values form a big part of who we are – some bioethicists argue that altering morality would pose a threat to character and personal identity. Another claim is that moral enhancement would compromise autonomy by limiting a person’s range of choices and curbing their ‘freedom to fall.’ Any intervention must consider the potential impacts on selfhood and personal liberty, in addition to the wider social implications.
This includes the importance of social and genetic diversity, which is closely tied to considerations of fairness, equality, and opportunity. The history of psychiatry is rife with examples of systematic oppression, like ‘drapetomania’ – the spurious mental illness that was thought to cause African slaves’ desire to flee captivity. Advocates for using moral enhancement technologies to help kids with conduct problems should be mindful that they disproportionately come from low-income communities. We must ensure that any habilitative practice doesn’t perpetuate harmful prejudices by unfairly targeting marginalized people.
Human capacities are the result of environmental influences, and external conditions still coax our biology in unknown ways. Status quo bias for ‘letting nature take its course’ may actually be worse long term – failing to utilize technology for human development may do more harm than good.
Then, there are concerns that morally-enhanced persons would be vulnerable to predation by those who deliberately avoid moral therapies. This relates to what’s been dubbed the ‘bootstrapping problem’: would-be moral enhancement candidates are the types of individuals that benefit from not being morally enhanced. Imagine if every senator was asked to undergo an honesty-boosting procedure prior to entering public office – would they go willingly? Then again, perhaps a technological truth-serum wouldn’t be such a bad requisite for those in positions of stern social consequence.
Advocates argue that biomedical moral betterment would simply offer another means of pursuing the same goals as fixed social mechanisms like religion, education, and community, and non-invasive therapies like cognitive-behavior therapy and meditation. It’s even possible that technological efforts would be more effective. After all, human capacities are the result of environmental influences, and external conditions still coax our biology in unknown ways. Status quo bias for ‘letting nature take its course’ may actually be worse long term – failing to utilize technology for human development may do more harm than good. If we can safely improve ourselves in direct and deliberate ways then there’s no morally significant difference whether this happens via conventional methods or new technology.
Where speculation about human enhancement has led to hype and technophilia, many bioethicists urge restraint. We can be grounded in current science while anticipating feasible medium-term prospects. It’s unlikely moral enhancement heralds any metamorphic post-human utopia (or dystopia), but that doesn’t mean dismissing its transformative potential. In one sense, we should be wary of transhumanist fervour about the salvatory promise of new technology. By the same token we must resist technofear and alarmist efforts to balk social and scientific progress. Emerging methods will continue to shape morality in subtle and not-so-subtle ways – the critical steps are spotting and scaffolding these with robust ethical discussion, public engagement, and reasonable policy options. Steering a bright and judicious course requires that we pilot the possibilities of morally-disruptive technologies.
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”