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Useful Notes / Moral Enhancement

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A.K.A Moral bioenhancement


Imagine that there was a pill that could make you a morally better person. It could perhaps make you more empathic and compassionate to the plight of others, give you more self-control so you do not take out your anger by beating the crap out of the person next to you, or make you more intellectually capable in making the best moral decisions possible. Will you take it? Should you take it? Should others take it? Should The Sociopath take it? And which faculty exactly should it actually enhance?


These are the central questions in the debate surrounding moral enhancement (sometimes specified as moral bioenhancement to differentiate it from "traditional" ways of moral development), a growing topic of ethical and philosophical discussion in light of science's ever-growing capabilities to alter the mind and soul, and the growing number of experiments that have demonstrated just that, because The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body after all. But firstly, what is moral enhancement?


Explaining 'Enhancement' and 'Moral Enhancement'

Ever since humanity developed medicine to deal with ailments of the body and mind, it acquired the ability to directly modify itself. Medicine is the science and practice of dealing with disease, a condition stemming from abnormal physiology or psychology that causes all manners of suffering or dysfunction, and the ultimate aim of medicine is to bring a patient to a state free of disease, a state that can be described (though controversially) as normal functioning. But what about making better, or enhancing normal aspects of a person? There is not such a big difference between treating (often by normalizing) abnormal physiology and enhancing normal physiology.

Human enhancement, or augmentation, can be basically defined as the alteration of human characteristics and capacities to make them in some way better, which distinguishes it from therapy which is used in treating disease. note  And this definition can be applied to a very broad range of things, to every quality that a human has, and while "enhancement" often brings to mind Transhumanist connotations (going beyond human capacities), it also refers to things that augment human characteristics within the normal range of the species, of which there are plenty of examples today. Physical enhancement is one that we regularly hear about, usually in the form of doping to gain an illegal edge in sports competitions, but what about optimally designed diets, exercises based on advanced scientific theories, and high-tech running shoes. Sexual enhancement, centered on the drug Viagra is a multi-billion dollar industry. Cognitive enhancement is usually applied to memory and concentration enhancers such as Modafinil note  and methylphenidate note , but coffee also has cognitive enhancing effects.


So what is meant by "moral enhancement"? At the core of morality is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between what is considered right and what is considered wrong. The dry definition of to be moral is to decide, act and have intentions in accordance with a moral system and avoid decisions and actions that are considered wrong (immoral) by that system of morality. Moral enhancement is generally taken as to mean augmenting one's inclinations to choose 'right', and reducing one's inclinations to choose 'wrong'. This definition of moral enhancement though, can also be applied broadly to things such as parenting, education, self examination, and many other processes that produce moral development. However, in this debate, it is specifically taken as to refer to one type of moral enhancement: improving one's ability to be moral through direct neural modulation.

So we now have a rough idea of what moral enhancement is, but what is the science behind morality and moral enhancement?

The Sciency Technically Stuff of Moral Enhancement.

Neuroscience, the study of the brain and all its components, is providing incredible insights into the basis of all our thoughts and emotions, and is continuing to do so with groundbreaking discoveries and developments that are now quite routine. Morality is just one of the aspects of the human mind that is becoming increasingly understood through the brain. And while neuroscience still has a lot to uncover and understand, the revelations brought around by its discoveries challenges traditional notions of morality, rationality and free will.

Research into how the brain creates and regulates moral thought and actions have discovered that morality is governed by a complex network of brain regions that each regulate an aspect related to morality, ruling out a single all-controlling "morality module". Moreover, the regions of this "morality network" overlap heavily with the social neural networks that allows us to know the intentions and mentality of others (i.e. cognitive empathy) as well as gives us the ability to vicariously experience and sympathize with the emotional states and situations of others (emotional empathy). This shows us how integral empathy is to morality, and challenges the notion that morality is the product of rational thought. Our understanding of morality has also not only been furthered by examining (thankfully not directly) the brains of healthy people, but also those of people with various neurological, psychological, and social conditions (e.g. brain damage, psychopathy, prejudice or bigotry) who display aberrant moralities or a severe lack of one.

What each region of the brain that have been identified as having crucial contributions to our morality does to make us moral is explained below:

    Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex 
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is a brain region behind the middle of the forehead. It is responsible for decision-making, emotion regulation, and associating stimuli with rewarding outcomes. The vmPFC is also essential for cognitive empathy, which is closely linked to someone's theory of mind – their ability to attribute mental states to other people.

vmPFC damage significantly impairs social, moral, and harm judgment, increasing authoritarianism and antisocial behavior while weakening theory of mind and the ability to predict the consequences of one's behavior. Higher vmPFC volume, and right vmPFC activity, is linked to better moral judgment. Likewise, low vmPFC volume and activity is linked to behavioral problems like drug addiction and criminal violence, as well as mental disorders like bipolar disorder.

The amygdala is generally colloquially known as "the part of the brain that causes fear", but the amygdala is a lot more complex of a character than that. Its central location and numerous connections means that it influences and contributes to many of the processes that go on inside the brain, from other emotions and memories to facial recognition, and morality is one of those products.

    Insular Cortex 

But recently our scientific understanding of morality has allowed us to study morality more closely by not only passively observing neural pathways, brain region activation, and their correlating behaviors and the like, but by directly modulating neural circuits in the brain. This way of studying the brain allows scientists to establish causal links between aspects of our cognition, emotions, and behavior by changing the activity of different brain regions and seeing how that affects them.

Differing Moral Standards and the Issue of What to Enhance


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