(Im)Moral technology? Thought experiments and the future of `mind control'

In Akira Akayabashi (ed.), The Future of Bioethics: International Dialogues. Oxford University Press. pp. 113-119 (2014)
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In their paper, “Autonomy and the ethics of biological behaviour modification”, Savulescu, Douglas, and Persson discuss the ethics of a technology for improving moral motivation and behaviour that does not yet exist and will most likely never exist. At the heart of their argument sits the imagined case of a “moral technology” that magically prevents people from developing intentions to commit seriously immoral actions. It is not too much of a stretch, then, to characterise their paper as a thought experiment in service of a thought experiment. In order for an argument involving a thought experiment to progress debate in applied ethics three things must be true. First, the thought experiment must accurately represent and illuminate a pressing ethical dilemma. Second – and most obviously – the central claims of the argument regarding the thought experiment must be plausible. Third, it must be possible to apply or develop the arguments established with reference to the thought experiment to the real world cases the experiment is intended to illuminate. In this commentary, I argue that there are serious reasons to question the extent to which their argument meets each of these challenges involved in the use of thought experiments in applied ethics. While Savulescu et al. succeed in showing how behavioural modification might be compatible with freedom and autonomy – and perhaps justifiable even if it were not — in the fantastic case they consider, there is little we can conclude from this about any technology of “moral bioenhancement” in the foreseeable future. Indeed, there is a real danger that their argument will license attempts to manipulate behaviour through drugs and brain implants, which raise profound moral issues that they barely mention.

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Robert Sparrow
Monash University


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