Enhancing Moral Status?

Technological augmentation of human physical and mental capabilities is and always has been ubiquitous—e.g. through computational devices, pharmaceuticals, communication systems, weapons, and optical lenses. Emerging enhancement technologies, such as genetic modification, brain-machine interfacing, tissue regeneration and nootropics, promise to significantly increase the magnitude and novelty of augmentation that is possible, as well as the extent to which it is accomplished by modification of (or technological integration with) our physiology. Already people are controlling computers with their brain states and have bionic arms that are spontaneously integrating with their nervous system. Researchers are growing functional organs in vitro from stem cells, successfully combining human and non-human genomic material, and significantly augmenting the capacities of non-human animals. For example, genetically modified mice have been engineered with physical capabilities (e.g. strength and endurance), cognitive capabilities (e.g. memory, learning, and problem solving), perceptual capabilities (e.g. trichromatism) and longevity (up to 65% longer lifespan) well beyond those of non-genetically modified mice.

The trajectory of the development of these technologies suggests that it is not premature to begin considering ethical issues associated with robust human enhancement—i.e. creation of people with highly augmented or highly novel capacities through technological modification of (or integration with) their biological systems. Robust human enhancement raises justice, equity and access issues; parental rights and child welfare issues; naturalness and species boundary issues; individual and social benefit and risk issues; personal choice and liberty issues; and public policy issues related to regulation and research funding, for example. Here I focus on only one issue, whether it is possible to enhance (human and non-human) moral status through technological augmentation, and, if so, what the implications are for the ethics of robust enhancement. Addressing this issue requires providing an account of moral status, so that is where I start.

Something is morally considerable if it needs to be taken into account in deliberations regarding actions, practices, or policies that might affect it. There are quite a lot of ways that something can be considered—e.g. as having rights that cannot be violated, as having a welfare (or interests) that needs to be counted, or as deserving of appreciation or gratitude. Moral status concerns how something is to be considered. An entity might be due respect, but not compassion, because it is not sentient (e.g. a tree or ecosystem). Or something might be due compassion, because it is sentient, but lack rights, because it does not have the requisite autonomy (e.g. chickens and trout). Or something might, owing to its particular history, be due gratitude and loyalty, whereas a like entity with a different history is not due these. Thus, morally considerable entities can have different (and multiple) types of moral status.

On this conception of moral status, individuals have the moral status that they do in virtue of their capacities and relationships, rather than in virtue of being a member of a particular species (e.g. Homo sapiens). An individual’s moral status is based on what she is capable of, the sorts of things that are good for her (and so the ways in which she can be benefitted and harmed), her past and present relationships, and the types of value she possesses.

Something’s moral status underdetermines appropriate treatment of it. Dolphins and dogs might both be considerable in and of themselves and, because they are sentient, be due compassion. However, what constitutes compassionate treatment is sensitive to factual differences about their forms of life. It is not compassionate to take dolphins for walks and allow dogs to swim freely out at sea. Like moral status does not imply same treatment.

Given this account of moral status, a technological augmentation does not result in moral status enhancement merely in virtue of altering how an entity ought to be treated. For example, imagine that some mice are genetically engineered for cognitive capacities such that certain handling practices that do not cause stress in non-engineered mice do so in the engineered mice. As a result, compassionate treatment of the engineered mice differs from that of non-engineered mice. However, the mice do not differ in moral status, since both the engineered and non-engineered mice are due compassion (and this explains the difference in appropriate treatment). Moral status enhancement only occurs when an entity is due a type of consideration that it previously was not.

Here is an example of moral status enhancement. Imagine that a series of technological interventions are performed on some chimpanzees such that they come to have comparable capacities for autonomy and practical rationality to that of adult human beings. If these capacities are the basis for “human” rights, as they often are taken to be, then the enhanced chimpanzees will have those rights, a variety of moral status that they previously lacked. This example involves non-human animals, but given that on the capacities-oriented account of moral status there is nothing special about human beings qua human beings, moral status enhancement should be possible for us as well. It is not obvious (to me, at least) what sorts of capacity modifications or additions would result in novel moral statuses for humans—perhaps radically increased capacity for empathy or elimination of physical dependencies and vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, human moral status enhancement seems in principle possible.

Is there anything ethically problematic with moral status enhancement? There is if the enhancement is done in a way that violates the subject’s pre-enhancement status (e.g. is forcibly performed in a way that violates rights) or if it has terrible consequences for the subject or for others. But is there anything problematic with enhancing moral status simpliciter or in itself? It is difficult to see why it would be problematic for the enhanced individuals, since moral status enhancement increases the ways in which they need to be considered. Some ethicists have argued that robust human enhancement is problematic on the grounds that it would diminish or undermine the moral status of non-enhanced humans. However, on a capacities view of moral status, creating robustly enhanced humans does not itself undermine the moral status (e.g. rights or dignity) of non-enhanced humans, since, so long as they have the same capacities and types of relationships they have always had, they will have the same moral status. Thus, there does not appear to be anything in principle objectionable about enhancing human moral status (or, more precisely, technologically augmenting the capacities of human beings so that they come to have novel moral status). What is crucial in every case is that individuals (enhanced or not) are considered in accordance with the moral statuses appropriate to them.

The same is true of technological enhancement of nonhumans. For example, before robust cognitive enhancement technologies are made widely available to humans, they are likely to be extensively tested on closely related non-human animals—i.e. other primates. If the tests are successful, they might (as suggested in the imagined scenario above) result in changes in the moral status of the research subjects. The subjects could come to have capacities comparable to those of human persons and so possess the associated rights. Among the rights that persons have is the right to not have experiments performed on them without their consent. So it may be that robust cognitive enhancement research will result in moral status enhancement of research subjects such that they will have a right to informed consent for continuation of the research (a right that they did not have prior to the experiment). Moreover, it might be very difficult for researchers to determine whether status enhancement occurs and (if they can determine it) to secure informed consent from the subjects for continued participation in the experiment and post-experiment monitoring, particularly since informed consent requires subjects to understand what they are consenting to. At a minimum, procedures need to be put into place so that changes in moral status can be identified (if possible) and to ensure that research subjects are considered in accordance with their (possibly dynamic) moral status throughout the research process. If adequate safeguards cannot be put into place, it may be that certain types of cognitive enhancement research cannot be performed ethically. This does not suppose or suggest that there is anything in principle wrong with enhancing an individual’s moral status. It is, rather, that when moral status alteration occurs individuals need to be considered in accordance with their new moral status, and in some cases this may be so difficult to do that it is better to not perform the enhancement.

So, to sum up, here are the claims that I have tried to motivate: (1) Moral status enhancement through technology is possible; (2) There is nothing in principle problematic with moral status enhancement of either humans or non-humans; (3) Individuals that undergo enhancement must be considered in ways appropriate to their altered status; (4) In some cases, doing so might be sufficiently difficult that it is better not to engage in practices that could result in status enhancement.

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6 comments to Enhancing Moral Status?

  • Hi Ron,
    A nice paper, and I must admit I tend to agree with most all of this. One small thing that comes to mind. You mention the following worry:

    “Some ethicists have argued that robust human enhancement is problematic on the grounds that it would diminish or undermine the moral status of non-enhanced humans. However, on a capacities view of moral status, creating robustly enhanced humans does not itself undermine the moral status (e.g. rights or dignity) of non-enhanced humans, since, so long as they have the same capacities and types of relationships they have always had, they will have the same moral status.”

    I wonder if a variation of the worry remains. Compare a case where many or most chickens are enhanced such that they have the capabilities – and corresponding moral status – of a typical chimpanzee. While the remaining ordinary chickens have the same status as always, they are now at a status below that of their peers. Notice that many people would hold that in distributing scarce goods, etc., that priority should be given to those with greater moral status. For example, if we can either only feed a chimpanzee or only feed an oyster, we should feed the chimpanzee. Given the current case then, it seems like the ordinary, non-enhanced chickens do have grounds to worry, and to see their status as diminished relative to that of others (even if their moral status remains unchanged). Similarly then, could the moral status of ordinary humans be undermined relative to the higher status of robustly enhanced humans in a way that would make such enhancements morally problematic (even if the moral status of ordinary humans remains the same, strictly speaking)?

  • This is an interesting discussion. The issues happen to be explored in Robert J. Sawyer’s recently completed WWW trilogy of novels: Wake, Watch & Wonder.

    Sawyer posits coming into existence of a self-aware being that arises from the operation of the Internet, (dubbed Webmind) which/who then interacts with humanity and comes to see its/his role as endeavoring to facilitate good for the greatest number of humans.

    Sawyer also produces a subplot in which a hybrid chimpanzee-bonobo named Hobo is taught to communicate via sign language and comes to create representational paintings. Some propose to sterilize Hobo to avoid blurring the species lines between bonobos and chimps. But in the end, Hobo takes the opportunity to express his choice publicly, which is adopted due to some clever action by the humans caring for him.

    (Sawyer brings the two plot lines together when Webmind chooses Hobo to serve as his avatar while addressing the United Nations.)

  • Wendell Wallach

    Ron, you raise a number of very interesting questions, which I suspect come into even greater focus when we consider enhancing capabilities of humans who have been denied either rights or responsibilities based on age, mental capabilities, or past criminal activity. One could imagine the development of emotional intelligence, self control, and reasoning ability speeded up in a teenager, who then goes on to sue for the right to drive, drink legally, or vote. Whether or not these rights were granted, would the perception of those capabilities give her more moral status than her peers? Don’t we already make relative judgments about the moral status of teenagers based on judgments about their maturity? How about criminals whose treatment removed cognitive impairments that contributed to unlawful behavior. Don’t we already improve their moral status in the form of greater consideration for parole? The same goes for release from mental hospitals.

    Your essay reminded me of the classic story Flowers for Algernon (1958), which was made into the movie Charly (1968). Charlie Gordon’s moral status certainly goes up and down as he develops greater capabilities and than reverts back to his older self. How might we consider this kind of enhancement in relationship to a great ape. Research funding would get the initial bonobo or chimp educational experiences that demonstrated heightened acumen. But what about the second and third or five hundredth bonobo enhanced. Could well-intentioned advocates sue on her behalf to get the education that would allow the bonobo to realize her potential? The answer to the question might very well depend on whether the courts perceive potential as enhanced moral status. Certainly there will be changing perceptions on questions like this over time. For example, in Buck v. Bell (1927), Wendell Holmes felt free to argue for compulsory sterilization based on future potential, while today we consider such eugenic claims as unacceptable.

    This leads us to your fourth point. Would a court be obligated to educate the bonobo so that she could appreciate what informed consent means, and thus be able to consent or not consent in regards to further enhancement or further education. As you point out, this all gets convoluted enough that it brings into question whether enhanced moral status raises unresolvable issues.

  • I agree that your argument has important implications regarding enhancement research on other animals, but I have a hard time getting my head around what exactly an enhanced moral status for humans would look like–that is, a status that goes beyond the moral status of a “normal” adult human being. Here I’m thinking about humankind as a whole, rather than individual cases as mentioned by Wendell Wallach above. What would a moral status beyond that be like, and what are you thinking would be owed to such super-humans, beyond what is owed to normal humans? In particular, I am thinking about what it is that would be owed to such enhanced humans beyond, say, compassion and respect.

    Perhaps one possibility is that of enhancements that enable much greater levels of empathy, compassion, and so forth, leading to the creation of something like “moral sages.” And perhaps the novel thing that might be owed to them (by us normals) could be something like deference (i.e. in moral decision-making)? (I borrow the idea of enhancing capacity for compassion from a talk given by Thomas Magnell at the 2010 Conference on Value Inquiry.) Something like that?

  • Ron Sandler

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. They raise a number of important issues that I did not address (or did not address in much detail) in the original post. Several of them relate to the distinction between moral status and treatment. As I use the term, moral status concerns how something is to be considered (e.g. being due compassions, respect, or gratitude), but it underdetermines how something should be treated. How something should be treated depends also on its form of life (e.g. the dolphin/dog example) as well as on context and circumstances (e.g. institutions and resource availability). Jason, as you point out, part of the relevant context can be whether there are competing demands or interests, which depends in part on the moral status of others (i.e. what sort of consideration they are due). So, you are right. One of the implications of the view I put forward is that how something should be treated can be affected by changes in the moral status of those around it, even if its own status is unchanged.

    However, I do not see that this is morally problematic. It seems to be a variation on a familiar feature of ethics. Consider, for example, a basic non-enhancement case in which a finite set of goods is to be distributed. Each person is due a fair share, but how large the share is depends upon how much there is to be distributed and how many recipients there are (i.e. how many entities have the moral status in virtue of which they need to be considered in the allocation). More people means a lesser share, but it does not follow from this that there is anything morally problematic merely with bringing about a situation in which people get a lesser share (e.g. by reducing resource output or growing the population). It may be that people want to preserve the size of their share and take steps to do so, which is fine, so long as they do not do so in ways that disregard the status of others (e.g. exclude some people who ought to be included in the distribution). Still, it would not be morally problematic merely to bring about others whose existence would reduce the shares of existing people. The enhancement situation you describe is similar. An implication of robust human enhancement might be that, under some circumstances, appropriate treatment of non-enhanced humans might change, and for this reason it might be that people do not want to pursue it or even take steps to discourage it. But it does not follow from this that if it were to occur it would be morally problematic or that it would undermine the moral status of non-enhanced people. The presence of robustly enhanced humans would (appropriately) change the treatment that is due non-enhanced humans (under some circumstances), just as the presence of more people does so in the non-enhancement case. What is morally problematic, whether it involves enhanced individuals or not, is to intentionally bring about a situation (either by creating demands or reducing resources) in which it is necessary to sacrifice some morally considerable individuals for others.

    Wendell, some of your comments also concern treatment. Suppose there are enhanced chimps or bonobos such that they have autonomy related rights. The question then becomes how do we treat them in ways that are respectful of those rights? As you point out, this gives rise to quite difficult epistemological issues—e.g. How do we figure out what appropriate treatment amounts to?—as well as institutional issues—e.g. Who is responsible for determining it? You suggest toward the end of your comments that these problems could be sufficiently difficult that (as in the experiment case in the original post) it might be better not to perform the enhancements at all, since they are likely to lead to mistreatment. It seems to me (though what I am saying here is tentative) that there is some reason for optimism that in many cases we could determine and execute appropriate treatment. Take, for example, the enhanced chimp or bonobo case. We already are able to determine what is good and bad for non-human primates and have (in many contexts) extended them legal protections based on their moral status. We should be able to communicate still more effectively with robustly enhanced chimps and bonobos, and so be better able to determine their desires and what is good and bad for them—i.e. appropriate treatment.

    Other of your cases—e.g. the teenager case and the parole case—also concerns institutional treatment of enhanced individuals (though not necessarily status enhanced). I agree that there are real challenges for institutions in determining how to treat enhanced individuals; but, as you say, there are already institutional contexts in which decisions are made on the basis of the capacities of individuals. Widespread enhancement might increase the need for capacity oriented evaluation (rather than age-oriented evaluation as in the case of voting, for example).

    Matt, I agree that it is not at all obvious what an additional form of consideration would be, but something like deference on the basis of far superior wisdom and moral sensitivity is a good candidate. It is actually much easier (for me at least) to see how robust technological alteration could result in diminished moral status. Several forms of consideration are due to people because they are vulnerable and limited in certain ways. If a person were enhanced such that she no longer had the relevant vulnerabilities or dependencies, then she would not be due the same consideration. Cases such as this, where technological enhancement increases capabilities but leads to less consideration (loss of a type of status), raise questions that have not addressed here—e.g. whether it can be good, desirable or right to alter people in ways that diminish their moral status?

    Gerry, thank you for the pointer to Sawyer’s novels, which I look forward to reading.

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