Theological Ethics and the Superficiality of Moral Bioenhancement Discourse

Theological Ethics and the Superficiality of Moral Bioenhancement Discourse

Harris Wiseman, Research Associate, Laudato Si` Institute

Research Fellow, Campion Hall, University of Oxford.


Moral bioenhancement is the umbrella term given to any kind of biological or technological attempt to improve the moral powers or actions of human individuals. Before looking at such bioenhancement in the context of theological ethics, let us take a brief look at how realistic moral bioenhancement might be.

Practical Realities:

Many thinkers immediately rubbish the idea of bioenhancing moral goodness, just at face value, by asking the simple question: “what does ‘good’ mean?” If no one can agree on what goodness is, then it seems somewhat pointless to start thinking about how to enhance it. One must know the thing that one is attempting to enhance before attempting to enhance it. And, pretty clearly, there is no singular, generic thing called “goodness” that can be enhanced or not. More specificity is needed if the project is to move forwards.

Philosophers have circumvented this issue in a range of ways. First of all, it is true that there is a significant range of overlap regarding some moral goods. What one considers morally good is not purely arbitrary, random or subjective – if that were so, there would be no basis for society or community at all. Even so, a range of problems emerge because the overlap in moral goods is always co-extensive with disagreement and change. How stable is this overlap as a basis for grounding moral bioenhancement? In moral bioenhancement discourse one sometimes finds an appeal to “reasonableness”, to the effect of saying: “well, most reasonable people can agree on the following moral goods …” Then, goods like compassion, mercy, justice, and so on, are cited as appropriate subjects for enhancement.

There are numerous problems with that perspective. First, the appeal to “reasonable” visions[1] points to a highly loaded, quasi-Victorian term, containing more than a hint of cultural, moral superiority and the correlative exclusion of people who reason in radically different ways to oneself. In other words, “reasonable” tends to include people who agree with oneself, reason like oneself, or who are at least working in a comparable moral-rational framework. Second, even where people do agree that compassion, mercy and justice, and so on, are indeed moral goods, there is still a huge amount of disagreement over how these goods should be concretely enacted. There are plenty of competing definitions of moral goods like empathy (at least three different forms dominate, from emotional contagion, to various definitions weighing imagination, reflective and affective components very differently) – which specific definition of empathy is one to enhance? By extension, there is much disagreement about what constitutes appropriate and distorted expressions of those moral goods – empathy can be shown in good and not so good ways, and there are times when empathy is not always for the best. Similarly, with justice: what looks like justice to one group of individuals looks like a perversion of justice to another. So, while both groups do certainly agree that justice is a moral good, they radically disagree about what justice is supposed to look like.

This all means that appeals to “reasonable” consensus give way very quickly to dispute, especially when confronting cultures that apply completely different forms of moral reasoning. In the end, moral enhancement enthusiasts get round the issue by simply ignoring it, in effect, and just taking a specific moral good that one likes, defining it anyway one pleases, and thinking about how things might be if it were enhanced. James Hughes proffers the most intelligent form of this position, casting moral enhancement in democratic terms: moral enhancement is a personal choice, and within the framework of acceptable liberal options, one should be free to enhance oneself towards one’s own moral self-chosen ideals. So, in this way, it really does not matter if there is no grand consensus over what moral goods should look like (as long as it fits within the scope of a “reasonable” liberal framework).

That being so, moral bioenhancement enthusiasts have to confront another significant (and arguably decisive) challenge to the possibility of such enhancement: moral goods are shaped by context. It is not just that people cannot agree what “goodness” is in some generic sense (there is no generic sense to goodness), but even if one ignores any lack of consensus and simply chooses one’s own vision of moral goodness to enhance – that does not help one much because all moral goods look different depending on the context in which they are to be enacted. Justice between two individual parties looks different to justice between groups, which looks different to justice between nations, which looks different to justice between rich and poor, justice between genders, justice for war crimes committed centuries ago, and so on, and so on. One could fractionate things endlessly into the range of potential contexts that might be imagined in which justice would need to take different forms (and more importantly: require different powers needing to be enhanced, to different degrees, at different times).

Trying to imagine a biological or technological intervention to enhance “justice” seems completely impossible – and because the idea fractionates so widely depending on its context, one would need another drug or technology for every kind of justice imaginable. Very little imagination is required to see how a reductio ad adsurdum argument could be developed from this point, as one starts to layer on all the different virtues, and all the different contextual forms the virtues might take, and all the different drugs or technologies required to cater for all this, one gets very quickly to the point of ridiculousness. Just how many drugs is one supposed to be taking to become a roundly virtuous human being?

Right from the start then, the idea of moral enhancement seems to be impractical to say the least, and there are plenty more problems to consider. For the sake of brevity, I will consider but one more challenge: the biological perspective. By all accounts, current science seems to be roundly against the very possibility of moral bioenhancement. There has proven to be absolutely no way of directly mapping biological markers onto sophisticated moral goods (and what moral good is not sophisticated, when one comes to analyse the range of powers required for adequately enacting it?). This should be no surprise, there is no portion of the brain that deals with “morality” in general, and all the portions of the brain are used in an integrated manner, all the time, across all sophisticated moral functioning. There is no gene for anything looking like a moral good, and contrary to garish newspaper headlines and the proponents of eugenics, there is no gene for criminality either. Again, this should not be surprising. Like the brain, genes work in an integrated, continually back-and-forth way, interacting with the more plastic, epigenetic factors; whilst also being closely interwoven with environmental factors too (including social, cultural, historical and political realities). Much the same can be said of neurochemistry, and any appeal to something like oxytocin, or serotonin, or dopamine as “moral molecules” is completely misplaced and scientifically nonsensical. Biological operations are much too integrated – both across the body and with external social realities – to think that we could hope to find clear biological levers or switches that allow access to moral powers. This all suggests to me that moral bioenhancement enthusiasts have no real comprehension of how biology works (at least not according to any contemporary measures). Much more could be said on the problems current biology poses for any idea of moral bioenhancement (see Wiseman, 2016: The Myth of the Moral Brain. MIT Press ).

Given the above comments on the problem of context and how widely that shapes how moral goods are to be enacted, the notion of moral bioenhancement seems to be fanciful at best. My own argument has been that there are many different levels on which moral enhancement is to be understood, and the only practicable sense one can make of the idea requires a very loose definition of moral bioenhancement, and only works within a very limited set of remedial contexts (say the treatment of alcoholism or drug addiction), but then only as something couched decisively within person-centred treatment protocols. This is necessary for keeping the primary locus of responsibility on the moral agent for cultivating his or her moral growth. Moral enhancement would then be a very limited pharmacological aid along the often gruelling path of moral change which a person has elected to undertake and commit him or herself to.

What needs to be avoided at all costs is the idea that human beings are some kind of bête machine with biological levers, or that moral defects are some sort of “disease” or “biological breakdown” (and many contributors to the discourse have thought just that, for example, see Joshua Greene’s neuro-philosophy of criminal responsibility, or psychologist Izhak Fried’s construct, “Syndrome-E”, which describes evil explicitly as a disease to be diagnosed and medically treated). Such a view, that certain violent criminals are not really responsible for their behaviour, as Greene tries to highlight, should increase our compassion towards them because they are merely products of their broken down brains. Greene uses the term “faulty machinery” – a problematic term on face value, and on so many levels, given that it seems to bring in a plethora of unwarranted assumptions about what sorts of moral behaviour a “non-faulty” brain machine would likely produce. At the very least, it raises controversial issues about “normalcy” and “health” in relation to moral behaviour. In any case, what needs to be avoided at all costs is the idea that moral improvement should be thought of as a primarily technological endeavour and that the solution to the world’s moral evils should be cast in terms of “fixing” biological breakdowns.

In short, biology should not be the primary descriptive mode through which morality is understood, and (thankfully), all current science only serves to reconfirm that it is completely impossible to place a direct link between any biological factor and sophisticated moral goods. When one looks at the contextual complexities raised by moral living, this is not so surprising. Therefore, it is highly likely that moral growth is, and will remain, a matter of individual and community-related responsibility.

Theological Ethics and Religious Moral Goods:

The idea of bioenhancing specifically religious moral goods should be distinguished from something like “spiritual enhancement” which is a topic covered expertly by Ron Cole-Turner. Turner’s interest in spiritual enhancement, which is a kind of informal moral enhancement by proxy, is to do with how certain pharmaceuticals or hallucinogens have produced intense spiritual experiences, which have led to sincere and genuine conversion-like experiences, leading to long-lasting changes in behaviour which are morally elevated above one’s previous way of living. While certainly a fascinating subject for discussion, it is not exactly what moral bioenhancement discourse tends to be concerned with, which is much more like attempting to find stable, predictable biological bases through which behaviours can be improved (or negative behaviours reduced).

My own interest in the intersection between religious issues and moral bioenhancement is two-fold. First, there are the idiosyncratic qualities of religious moral goods, which are themselves extremely manifold. This helps problematise the more generic moral constructs used in the philosophical and empirical portions of the moral bioenhancement domain. One can contrast a discussion of religious notions of generosity (qua charitable giving), for example, and its various motivations and forms, with the comparatively superficial empirical work on generosity which just puts persons in a laboratory, gives some of the group oxytocin, and then just measures who gives away more money. Christian theological concepts of generosity separate out into a rich and very varied set of discourses capturing two thousand years of reflection on the nature of love, charity, compassion, justice and the nature of reciprocity between God and human beings. In contrast, empirical work into generosity deliberately sets out to look no further than how much money one is willing to donate under a set of very abstruse and unnatural laboratory conditions.

Even the limited form of generosity that is measured in that way is without depth. No understanding is produced about why the person gave what they gave, what their motivation was, where they were coming from reflectively and conceptually, what their relationship with the idea of charitable giving was. All of this is purposefully bracketed out from the empirical work (and bioenhancement discourse generally). The whole point of bioenhancement is the false hope that morality can be described fundamentally in biological terms above all. So, in that sense, reflective and motivational reasons are not relevant – what matters is only that one give generously, and that one find the biological lever to make one do so. In this way, bioenhancement discourse is hopelessly superficial.

Looking to theological discourse on the virtues, where these sorts of complexities are the central elements of the moral life, we see why the juxtaposition of theological ethics with bioenhancement’s treatment of moral goods is so important. The depth and complexity of religious depictions of the virtues help to indicate just how vague are the notions of moral values in enhancement discourse. Indeed, my suggestion has been that moral bioenhancement can only even appear to have any workability if one stands so far back from a particular moral good that it becomes completely generic and vague. It is not so surprising to learn that taking this vague approach has yielded no positive findings by way of real-life bioenhancement interventions.

Another point of contrast between theological ethics and moral enhancement discourse is that the latter is extremely individualistic. It has neither the interest in (nor potentially the ability for) looking into the relationality that moral living presupposes. One profound insight that theological ethics takes as central is the fact that moral living is in some fundamental sense relational, that one’s values are socially learned and socially reinforced. The very idea of reducing moral enhancement to the individual level shows just how little enhancement enthusiasts understand their object of enquiry. In contrast, theological ethics takes the relational aspect of moral formation as non-negotiable. Precisely what is so difficult in moral formation is this balancing act between individual formation and social relational living. The two cannot be separated. Theological ethicists, like Enda McDonagh, make this a central point: moral formation is neither individual nor social, but rather meet in the intersection between personal responsibility and social connection. This is an insight which is so far beyond the ken of moral bioenhancement enthusiasts that one must despair about its relevance in the profoundly interconnected world we live in.

As soon as one starts putting some meat on the bones of how rich are our moral goods, their different forms and the many roles they play across the various dimensions of moral living; also, when one looks at the idiosyncratically religious ways in which cognitive and reflective aspects of one’s faith shape those religious goods; the integral relationship between individual and social moral learning; and let us not forget the larger salvatory edge of religious moral goods (and one’s overarching eschatological hope that there is some justice in the larger universal scheme);  carrying all this in mind, it becomes  very difficult to envisage where moral bioenhancement even has a crack through which to enter into the discussion. The moral constructs used in bioenhancement contexts are really just simplistic caricatures of moral goods.

A point I will return to presently is that there are billions of persons who identify with one religious faith or another – therefore religious persons and religious ways of shaping moral goods cannot be ignored. There is no avoiding the need to confront religious moral goods and no avoiding the need to make them part of the moral bioenhancement debate. If anything, religious forms of moral goods would need to take priority in the discussion because of the sheer number of people who subscribe to a religious faith. These are very people for whom moral bioenhancement must cater, yet for some reason they are completely bracketed from discussion.

There is plenty more to say on these points, for example to do the value of moral cultivation itself – habituation, perseverance and the life of moral growth in the sight of God, which might arguably be threatened by the attempts to find moral biological shortcuts – but for brevity’s sake I will move onto the second important way in which moral bioenhancement intersects (or rather does not intersect) with religious ethical concerns. This comes with the fact that we are living in a closely interconnected, multi-faith world where there are many faiths with billions of persons identifying with one faith tradition or another. Contrary to popular presentation, religion is very, very far from being dead or dying. This means that religious diversity and religious differences in moral values need to be confronted. We are all pressed right up against each other, and the need to find a wisdom for negotiating our differences – being able to disagree with each other without brutally murdering each other – is paramount. The challenge for religious faiths is for their memberships to be able to maintain their own identity whilst still being in conversation with others. Keeping one’s religious integrity without resorting to sectarian retreat (“fortress” versions of one’s faith, as Nicholas Austin put it) is essential, so too is resisting the wish to put up strict exclusion zones against anyone perceived to be different. Returning to the earlier points about “reasonable” visions of the good – the wish to find some central underlying consensus, or to exclude anyone one believes to be “not reasonable” completely falls apart at this juncture – that sort of exclusion simply cannot work in the world we live in. As one scholar suggested to me recently, conversation with those from other faiths is not just important, but must be made part of the very definition of what it is to be a world-facing and responsible religious person today – open dialogue with those that are different. That does not mean accepting everyone and everything, it just means maintaining a dialogue. And, that struck me as a very wise thing to say.

What has any of that to do with moral bioenhancement? That is exactly the point. Nothing.

One of the central ideas I have wanted to communicate is that moral enhancement discourse represents a false way of approaching important, real world problems. It is just the wrong way of going about thinking through evil in our time. Try now to envisage a wisdom of communication for the faiths of which billions are members, all of whom are chafing against each other in today’s world. All of the faith traditions (some more than others) share deep historical and cultural roots – both of enmity and friendship. This shows itself even down to the linguistic level, the shared words and borrowed terms, developed throughout all our variously interwoven national histories. Along all these lines of tension and overlap, friendships and lineages of enmity, moral commonalities and radical moral disagreements, within all of this rich interweaving, with all the wisdom of communication that such divisions now require for respectfully navigating our differences – where on earth can any realistic bioenhancement possibly enter in here? What has bioenhancement to say at all regarding the global issues that really matter?

I suggest that the very concept of biological enhancement is wholly redundant on this global level which requires multi-level solutions across all political, religious, social, and individual levels. Therefore, ironically, it is precisely where moral enhancement is most needed (the global level) that it is most useless. And the same failings mentioned here can be applied to all other global problems, e.g. ecological disaster, war, terrorism, human trafficking, organised crime, corruption, and so on. Moral bioenhancement has nothing at all to say here. Rather, it channels our discussion into completely the wrong order of discourse. It is a distraction, an obfuscation.

Since the subject has been raised, let us at least help frame the moral issue of inter-faith relations at hand and restate it – this at least theological ethics can help us to do. The great inter-faith crisis of our time concerns how we deal with difference in this closely interconnected world where we simply cannot avoid facing one another. How do we remain true to ourselves, while remaining true to our faith, while remaining true to our nation, while remaining true to our common humanity? – and how do we do all this, accepting that we will always have disagreements, without attempting to simply absorb the other, or obliterate the other from the face of the earth? We need to recall that genocide is not a historically distant event, it is not something we can consign to history. We have to recall the worst evils that humans have perpetrated have often emerged from precisely the most civilised populations, and are within living memory for some.

Given the seriousness of the challenges we face, appeals to techno-fantasies are morally offensive. Such flights of fancy diminish the hard won sacrifices and work of people in the real world tackling these issues today. Instead, what is really needed is something that no biological account can capture – wisdom, communication, and willingness to deal respectfully with our differences without either losing one’s core integrity or resorting to violence.

A more detailed exposition of the arguments presented here, including the empirical, philosophical and theological work that composes the moral bioenhancement domain can be found in my monograph, The Myth of the Moral Brain: The Limits of Moral Enhancement published by MIT Press. I invite readers interested in the neuroscience, philosophy and theology of moral bioenhancement to take a look.


Coplan, A. 2011. Will the Real Empathy Please Stand Up? A Case for a Narrow Conceptualization. Southern Journal of Philosophy 49 (s1): 40–65.

DeGrazia, D. 2013. Moral Enhancement, Freedom, and What We (Should) Value in Moral Behavior. Journal of Medical Ethics 25 (3): 228–245.

Fried I., in Spinney, L. Is Evil a Disease? ISIS and the Neuroscience of Brutality. New Scientist 3047 November 11 2015

Goldberg, C. Beyond Good and Evil: New Science Casts Light on Morality in the Brain. 2014.

Hughes, J. 2012b. The Benefits and Risks of Virtue Engineering. http://

McDonagh, E. 1982. The Making of Disciples: Tasks of Moral Theology. Wilmington: Michael Glazier Press

Wiseman, H. 2016. The Myth of the Moral Brain: The Limits of Moral Enhancement. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

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