Fixing Our Broken Moral Compass

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What if we could fix a broken moral compass? According to bioethicist and sociologist James J. Hughes of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, we’re already there.

In a provocative piece published in the Washington Post last month, Hughes cites dopamine-stimulating ADHD medications as current examples of “moral enhancement,” and argues that other treatments like gene therapies and implants will soon follow, even if usage “will not be voluntary.”

If this sounds unsettling, you are not alone. Elliot Hosman of the Center for Genetics and Society, who previously spoke to BTRtoday about this “socially dangerous” slope, weighs in on Hughes’ claims.

Hosman believes that the field of behavioral genetics is fraught with biases, mishaps, and “conflicts of interest that warp the scientific process.” They assert that Hughes’ characterizations are “reductive” in the way that they misrepresent the nuances of the field; while Hughes believes that “criminality” and “sexual promiscuity” are genetically predetermined, Hosman insists that this is contradicted by both genetics and the social sciences. They further warn of “genetic determinism,” the notion that there is “inherent value” in certain types of people, based on race, class, and gender.

Hosman feels that Hughes “falls prey to a binary of humanity”: those with a “broken moral compass” who must be fixed or destroyed, and those who simply need a moral “tune up.” It’s a creepy dichotomy, and one that “maps closely onto the ideology of eugenic progressives in the early 20th century, the ones who inspired Hitler’s social and biological engineering project.”

These “progressives” saw the world divided into two camps: the “weak and feeble-minded” who were forced to be sterilized, incarcerated, or institutionalized, and the “eugenically fit” who were encouraged to breed more and “improve the human species.”

Hosman is skeptical of moral enhancement via medical intervention, not because it’s “bad for our character,” as Hughes posits, but because of the political and social assumptions that drive it, “the powerful social and political influences on ‘moral behavior’ that it helps us ignore.” Who decides what is good and bad, and even so, what is that person or entity’s agenda?

“Reading the news, I do see a clear pattern of human rights being suppressed to prioritize the rights of multinational corporations,” Hosman explains, “including many pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.” These companies are deeply engaged in “competitive pipelines driven by patent battles and profit margins,” and as such, they cannot be trusted.

This might bring to mind the nightmarish science fiction of “RoboCop,” where a brain-dead police officer is programmed to serve again, only this time as a robot, entirely against his will. The irony of the film is that RoboCop is doing good, but it’s against his own well-being. It’s “good” dictated by the shadowy OCP Corporation, and what does a corporation know about morality?

BTRtoday caught up with Michael Miner, who co-wrote the 1987 classic.

“Better and worse are such relative terms,” he says. “I am suspect of both optimists and pessimists.”

Miner, who is also a photographer, describes himself as a reactionary, one who protests against the “insane optimism which has enshrined the new sciences of telecommunications, neuromarketing, and eternal warfare.”

He argues that there are no absolutes. Human character is “constantly being redefined, specifically by modernists and post-modernists, who have a disdain for history and want to end it.” The moral code fluctuates with the times.

“Cannibalism and incest have been acceptable practices in certain communities,” he points out. “And where do we draw the line? Kosher crickets? Dog burritos?”

If there is such a thing as a universal code, Miner believes it must evolve within our cultures.

“I am not a strict interpreter, like the odious but dead Antonin Scalia,” he says. “Personal sexual and social preferences must be respected, but there is a reason why ‘thou shalt not kill’ has stuck around for so long.”

He believes that moral enhancement is ultimately fueled by profits and scientism. It takes someone who was just a “bad Billy” in the 1950s or ’60s, to be diagnosed now as non-conformist. In Miner’s eyes, “non-conformity is bad for business and bad for ‘progress.'”

Hosman agrees. “When we say that a person is internally deficient as evidenced by their ‘anti-social’ behavior,” they explain, “we are actively hiding the actions of institutions and powerful elites who benefit disproportionally from social engineering programs.” These forces are designing and selling new ways of controlling the masses, and at what cost?

Hosman believes that we are ignoring daily injustices like poverty, crime, mental health, disability, cruelty, and hate, and scapegoating individuals who are already in need. Morality is a complex social, economic, and political issue, and the solution lies in communal behavior, not “hyped pseudo-science.”

It is up to us, therefore, to stand against the corporate elites, be they OCP or Big Pharma. “Our greatest moral challenge is in improving the morality of the institutions that make up our social reality,” Hosman says.

Miner is slightly more Zen about it.

“Clearly, the Hindi age of Kali Yuga is upon us,” he says, referring to the turbulent and demonic final stage of the world’s evolution. But even that will pass, he insists, and we’ll once again be among gods and goddesses in a quest for meaning.

“I think time is a circle, not an arrow,” Miner says. “The next turn in the curve will be very interesting.”