top of page
  • SciVortex

Andrea Kuszewski -- Enhancing Morality by Strengthening the Moral Decision-Making Mechanisms

The Moral Brain: What Is It? Can It Be Enhanced?

March 30-1, 2012

WSQ Campus, New York University, NYC, NY, USA

Conference Website

Friday, March 30th - Sunday, April 1st, 8:30 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.

Location: New York University, WSQ Campus, New York, NY USA

This is a two part conference with the NYU Center for Bioethics, Duke Kenan Institute for Ethics, Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

This event is free and open to the public. However, space is limited so please register here only if you plan on attending.

WE ARE AT CAPACITY FOR FRIDAY AND SATURDAY - IF YOU RSVP NOW YOU WILL BE WAITLISTED. You will be contacted at the end of January if space is available, and we are able to accommodate additional attendees. Currently Attendance on Sunday is not restricted.

Hotel Information

Conference Program

Part I: “The Significance of Neuroscience for Morality: Lessons from a Decade of Research”

Organized by the NYU Center for Bioethics in collaboration with the Duke Kenan Institute for Ethics

It has been a decade since the first brain imaging studies of moral judgments by Joshua Greene, Jorge Moll and their colleagues were reported. During this time, there have been rich philosophical and scientific discussions regarding a) whether brain imaging data can tell us anything about moral judgments, and b) what they do tell us if they can tell us something about moral judgments. In this workshop, we aim to bring leading philosophers, neuroscientists, and psychologists in this area together to examine these issues and to explore the future directions of this research.

Opening Remarks:

Thomas Carew, Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, New York University


James Blair, Chief of the Unit on Affective Cognitive Neuroscience at NIMH

Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology, Yale University

Molly Crockett, Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow, Laboratory of Social & Nueral Systems Research, Department of Economics, University of Zurich

Tamar Gendler, Professor of Philosophy, Yale University

Joshua Greene, John & Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of Social Sciences, Department of Psychology, Harvard University

Jonathan Haidt, Professor in the Social Psychology, University of Virginia; Henry Kaufman Visiting Professor, Leonard Stern School of Business, New York University

Guy Kahane, Deputy Director & Research Fellow, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford

S. Matthew Liao, Associate Director & Clinical Associate Professor, Center for Bioethics; Affiliated Professor of Philosophy, New York University

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman Professor in Practical Ethics, Department of Philosophy & Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University

James Woodward, Distinguished Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh

Liane Young, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Boston College

Session Chairs:

Andre Fenton, Professor of Neural Science, Center for Neural Science, New York University

Laura Franklin-Hall, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, New York University

Don Garrett, Chair of Department and Professor of Philosophy, New York University

Paul Glimcher, Director, Center for Neural Economics; Silver Professor; Professor of Neural Science, Economics and Psychology, New York University

Joshua Knobe, Associate Professor, Program in Cognitive Science & Department of Philosophy, Yale University

Joseph LeDoux, University Professor; Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science; Professor of Neural Science and Psychology, Center for Neural Science and Psychology, New York University

Victoria McGreer, Research Scholar, Center for Human Values, Princeton University

Jesse Prinz, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, City University of New York

William Ruddick, Director, Center for Bioethics; Professor of Philosophy, New York University

Michael Strevens, Professor of Philosophy, New York University


Organized by the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics and the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies. Hosted by the NYU Center for Bioethics.

Should the research on moral psychology be interpreted as suggesting new approaches for improving, or perhaps enhancing, moral intuitions, attitudes, judgments, and behavior or for reforming social institutions? Can we create more effective educational tools for improving moral development? For the last century psychiatry has attempted to medicalize moral failings - lack of self-control, addiction, anger, impatience, fear. But what of engineering ourselves to higher states of virtue? If the enhancement of morality is possible, which virtues or cognitive capabilities will it be safe to enhance and how? What might be the unanticipated side effects of attempts to enhance moral behavior?


Should the research on moral psychology be interpreted as suggesting new approaches for improving, or perhaps enhancing, moral intuitions, attitudes, judgments, and behavior or for reforming social institutions?

Paul Bloom

Molly Crockett

Joshua Greene

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

Joshua Knobe

6:30-6:45pm – Break

SATURDAY CLOSING: 6:45-7:45pm – James J. Hughes – Session Chair

Ingmar Persson -- On the Permissibility of Creating Enhanced People

Abstract: In Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement (OUP, forthcoming 2012) Julian Savulescu and I argue that in order to solve the greatest moral problems of the present time, like anthropogenic climate and environmental deterioration and global inequality, it is necessary to morally enhance human beings, not only by traditional means but also, if possible, by biomedical means. Some, like John Harris, have replied that moral enhancement by biomedical means would undercut our freedom and, so, would not really increase our moral value. I believe that this objection is mistaken, that these means would undercut neither our freedom nor our rationality. However, what I shall mainly discuss in my presentation is a reply which grants that this is so, that genuine moral enhancement could be produced by biomedical means. What I shall discuss is Nicholas Agar's argument in Humanity's End (MIT, 2010) to the effect that it is morally permissible for human beings to prevent the creation of morally enhanced people because this could harm the interests of the unenhanced. I argue that this argument fails because it overlooks the distinction between morally permissible and impermissible harm. The harm that the enhanced would cause the unenhanced would be permissible harm, and it is not permissible to prevent such harm.

Andrea Kuszewski -- Enhancing Morality by Strengthening the Moral Decision-Making Mechanisms

Abstract: How do we determine the moral value of behavior? Is morality based on a set of fixed rules, or is it conditional to the circumstances surrounding the behavior? If we look at moral behavior as being context-dependent, then how can we effectively enhance morality? It isn’t necessary to specifically define “morality” as a construct in order to enhance moral behavior—through resilience training that focuses on emotion regulation and cognitive control, morality can be improved as a byproduct. In essence, we can make it more likely that a person will be able to make a moral decision when confronted with these circumstances if they have the best cognitive and emotional tools to work with. I will discuss a three-part training methodology that can enhance moral behavior by strengthening the moral decision-making mechanisms themselves.



MORAL ENHANCEMENT 1: 9:00-10:30am – Matthew Liao – Session Chair

James Hughes -- The Benefits and Risks of Virtue Engineering

Abstract: In the near future we will have many technologies that will allow us to modify and assist our emotions and reasoning. One of the purposes we will put these technologies to is to assist our adherence to self-chosen moral codes and citizenship obligations. For instance we will be able to suppress unwelcome desires, increase self-regulation, enhance mindfulness and empathy, and expand our understanding our social world and the consequences of our actions. So, contrary to the bioconservative accusation that cognitive enhancement will encourage more selfishness in society, it will probably permit people to be even more moral and responsible than they currently are. The major risks of neurotechnologies that control moral sentiment, cognition and behavior will be their effects on restricting cognitive liberty.

Erik Parens -- Perhaps it would help to distinguish between "engineering" and "cultivating" virtue.

Abstract: According to Plato’s Socrates, if we engage in dialogue, the knowledge we gain can help to give each “module” in our psyches its due, and thereby can cure us of vice and unhappiness. In his hopeful moments, Socrates thought that knowledge, psychological health, virtue, and happiness were, one might say, Siamese quintuplets. And of course in his humble moments, however, Socrates despaired of any of us ever knowing anything. The beauty of Socrates’s dialogical method is that it preserves both his hope that education can enhance our virtue and happiness, and his humble recognition that we don’t know what virtue or happiness is. His dialogical method does not envision wise teachers “engineering” the psyches of students. It does not entail one person doing something to another. Rather, his method calls for a shared activity, aimed at cultivating virtue and happiness in both persons – where with the term “cultivate” I mean to emphasize that both persons respect and work with what is already in their own and in each other’s psyche. In my talk I will suggest that we would do well to embrace such a Socratic conception of education, and that if we do, we may be in a position to begin to distinguish between biotechnologies that would facilitate such an education and ones that would thwart it.

Joshua Knobe -- Seeing a Person as a Body

Abstract: It has sometimes been suggested that thinking of a person in terms of her body leads us to a kind of 'objectification' -- a tendency to treat that person almost as a physical object and not as a human being with a mind. I present a series of new experimental studies that point to a more complex picture. It does appear that seeing aperson as a body leads to a decreased tendency to ascribe certain kinds of psychological states (self-control and planning), but the data also suggests that seeing a person as a body actually leads to an increased tendency to ascribe other kinds of states (emotion and sensation) and can in some cases lead to more compassionate and caring behavior.

Anna Pacholczyk -- What is moral enhancement? The shades of 'moral'.

Abstract: After the recent explosion of cognitive science research about our moral and social functioning, philosophers began to look at the possibility and desirability of enhancing our moral faculty (Savulescu and Persson, 2008, 2011; Harris, 2010; 2011). But what exactly moral enhancement means, and can neuroscience of morality and moral psychology be helpful in finding ways to enhance our moral faculty? I will examine two challenges to the way evidence from moral psychology was so far used in the debate. First, in the current literature the examples of moral enhancement included enhancing empathy, trust and other traits that may translate into dispositions for pro-social behaviour. However, some have pointed out that prosocial does not equal moral (e.g. Chan and Harris, 2011; Pacholczyk, 2011). I suggest that although the point is convincing, there will also be cases when modifying empathy or trust is indeed conducive to moral outcomes. Consequently, simply pointing out whether an intervention enhances prosocial behaviour is not sufficient; there is an additional argument to be made here. Secondly, I will address the difference in the interpretation of what ‘moral’ means. In neuroscientific research moral decision-making or judgement often refers to the decisions and judgements made about morally relevant matters (e.g. Pizarro and Bartels, 2011, Crockett et al. 2010a, 2010b). However, there is also another understanding of moral decisions and judgements – those made on the basis of moral reasons (Harris, 2011). I will explore the implications of this difference in the interpretation of the term ‘moral’ for our discussion about moral enhancement.

Coffee Break: 10:30-10:45am

MORAL ENHANCEMENT 2: 10:46-12:15am – Maxwell Melhman – Session Chair

Jonathan Shook -- Is Ethical Theory Relevant to Neuroethical Evaluations of Enhancing Moral Brains?

Abstract: Judgments on how to 'enhance' moral brains requires premising criteria for what counts as moral conduct and some ideal standard(s) to adjust such conduct towards. Two primary sources for these normative premises are social conventions (embedded in cultures) and ethical principles (from philosophical theories). Neuroethics cannot rely on extant ethical and metaethical theories, as they were designed under conditions of deep ignorance or wild optimism about moral cognition, and 'confirming' how brains are naturally 'deontological' or 'utilitarian' are just exercises in circular reasoning or returns to social convention. Until ethical theorizing is entirely reconstructed, appeals to local social convention will be doing most of the normative work in neuroethics.

William Kabasenche -- Enhancing for Virtue? Towards Holistic Moral Enhancement

Abstract: Some biomedical enhancements are being touted as moral enhancements. More specifically, some are suggested to have the capacity to engineer virtue traits. I will critically examine this claim by comparing a traditional formal account of virtue with the traits that some forms of moral enhancement seem capable of producing. I argue that so-called “virtue engineering” will not in fact directly engineer virtues in a person, or at least not the kinds of traits we have reason to seek. However, I will also examine the role that contemporary biomedical enhancements might play in a more holistic project of moral formation. There are, I suggest, some prospects for using these biomedical technologies in a proper pursuit of moral maturity.

Molly Crockett -- Moral enhancement? Evidence and challenges

Abstract: Could we create a morality pill? Recent work demonstrating how neuromodulators shape moral decisions suggests it may one day be possible to pharmacologically enhance human morality. I will review the evidence for neurochemical manipulation of morally relevant human behaviors and show that the flexibility, context sensitivity, and temporal properties of neurotransmitter systems present important obstacles for moral enhancement.

Wendell Wallach -- The Illusion of a Technological Moral Fix

Abstract: Scientists, philosophers, theologians, and transhumanists commonly fall into error by presuming that moral sensitivity and understanding can be reduced to a single capability. In focusing upon individual facets of moral acumen there is a tendency to misunderstand and pathologize human nature and to thereby empower the illusion that all people can and should be fixed. While it may well be possible to remediate failures in neurological systems that contribute to moral insensitivity, this kind of therapeutic activity differs in kind from enhancing moral acumen. Optimizing individual capabilities has its downside: courage can make one foolhardy, heightened sensitivity can lead to being vulnerable and weak, and trust to being dubbed or manipulated by those who are unscrupulous. Just as there is no center for consciousness or the Self in the nervous system, there is no moral compass or moral subsystem in the brain. In elucidating the various capabilities that contribute to the development of character, sensitivity to moral considerations, and right reasoning, we are only beginning to put in place the pieces for a more comprehensive understanding of moral behavior. Character and sensitivity to the needs of others are not the product of a single faculty. The entire human organism is a moral navigation system.

LUNCH 12:15-2:00pm

MEDICINE 2:00-3:15pm – Wendell Wallach – Session Chair

Patrick Hopkins -- Moral Disease: An Initial Framework for Definition, Classification, Treatment, and Improvement

Abstract: Assuming that moral cognition is biologically generated and mediated and that moral emotions developed over time through an evolutionary process involving adaptation, human moral processes should be understood as capable of going awry in the same way other cognitive and physiological processes can. As such, moral judgment can be subject to disease states. This presentation will examine the concept of disease and show how it can be applied to moral cognition, thus making sense of the notion of medically treating moral dysfunction, preventing moral dysfunction, and improving moral function.

Geoffrey Miller --The Pediatric Physician's Role in Modifying Childhood Behavior. Vendor or Gatekeeper? Facilitator or Judge?

Abstract: More so than in any other area of pediatrics, value judgment is exercised and covered in a veneer of science when the medical management of abnormal childhood behavior is practiced. This is because the judgments applied include attempting to determine indistinct and arguable etiologic boundaries which are contextual, moral and biological, and the origins of the latter are congenital, epigenetic, and acquired. There are, without doubt, pathological behaviors that threaten the child in question, other individuals, and the conduct of society at large. The causes, consequences, and management of these behaviors are legitimate medical interests. However, concern arises when the pediatric physician is asked to distinguish aberrant from eccentric or atypical behavior often in a setting of inadequate knowledge and evaluation and with pressure from caregivers, and the educational system, to “do something about a child’s abnormal brain”, and counter pressure from interested groups that criticize the physician for medicalizing “psycho-social phenomena”. To satisfy and to stay within role expectation the pediatric physician has to have a sound knowledge base, adequate clinical skills, and trusted judgment. That is the presentation of abnormal child behavior to a pediatric physician ought to be managed as a medical problem requiring both scientific evaluation and appropriate value judgment. Furthermore, there remains a societal expectation that the physician is a learned teacher-a doctor-in addition to a purveyor of technical skills. Parents will continue to bring their children to pediatricians and ask “is my child normal, or is there something bad in his brain?”

S. Matthew Liao ---Parental Love Pills: Some Ethical Considerations

Abstract: It may soon be possible to develop pills that allow parents to induce in themselves more loving behavior, attitudes and emotions towards their children. In this paper, I consider whether pharmacologically-induced parental love can satisfy reasonable conditions of authenticity; why anyone would be interested in taking such parental love pills at all, and whether inducing parental love pharmacologically promotes narcissism or results in self-instrumentalization. I also examine how the availability of such pills may affect the duty to love a child.

Coffee Break: 3:15-3:30pm


William Casebeer -- The Neurobiology of Virtue: Leveraging Neuroscience to Improve Character Development Institutions

Abstract: How are habits formed? What are the most effective methods for character pedagogy? How can our institutions ensure that ample opportunities are given for human beings to practice flourishing? While it may not be obvious, our answers to these questions can be shaped by a growing neurobiology literature that explores the neural mechanisms responsible for habit formation and moral judgment and development. Here, I briefly review this literature and discuss what upshot it might have for the structure and function of our character development institutions, concluding that effective character development is enabled--not threatened--by neuro-scientific findings.

Fabrice Jotterand -- Enhancing Criminal Brains?

Abstract: Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by emotional dysfunction and anti-social behavior. There is currently no efficacious treatment but progress in the neurosciences opens the possibility of using neurotechnology for the regulation of moral emotions for the control of human behavior. The use of these technologies, however, present a potential conundrum: they might make criminal psychopaths better from a psychiatric standpoint. But the same technology might make psychopaths better criminals by improving their ability to conform to social expectations and thus, enhancing their ability to engage in criminal activities. This presentation examines the ethical and social implications of the potential use of neurotechnologies for the treatment of psychopaths and their possible unintended consequences.

Maxwell Mehlman -- Moral Enhancement and the Law

Abstract: The invention of a drug that enhanced moral judgment would raise a number of legal issues. What should the impact be of taking the drug, or refusing or being unable to take it, on criminal and civil liability? Could taking it be a condition of parole? How safe would such a drug have to be to be approved by the FDA, and how would the agency weigh risks and benefits? Under current law, to what extent could the government require people to take it? Could parents be required to give it to their children? If not, should the law be changed? Would the drug be covered under third party health insurance programs, including the Obama health reform plan, and if not, should it be? Are there certain types of persons who should not take it, such as soldiers, in whom it might interfere with the duty to follow lawful orders? How should the availability of the drug affect international law?

James Giordano -- Neuromorality: Implications for Human Ecology, Global Relations, and National Security Policy

Abstract: Neuroscience is providing information about human dispositions for ecological interactions that are focal to the so-called "first tradition" of neuroethics (ie.- the study of putative neural bases of relational cognition, emotion, and behavior, viz. - neuromorality). Understanding the substrates, mechanisms and variables contributing to individual, group and even species' interactions may be important to developing more comprehensive models of social, economic, ethical, legal and even political motivations and actions. Such information could allow more meaningful approaches to ethics, individual and group relations (on a variety of scales), as well as the formulation of national security and diplomatic policy. Of course, this calls for a pragmatic assessment of any/all neuroscientific information, and prudence in the application of such information and/or the neurotechnologies employed to assess and access neural systems (ie.- neuroethics in the second" tradition"). As well, this approach should not imply a linear abstraction from the synaptic to the social levels, but rather offers an important contribution to more finely-grained bio-psychosocial conceptualizations of human individual and social dynamics, and the ethico-legal constructs that may be developed and employed to guide, direct and govern them.


Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology, Yale University

William Casebeer, Intelligence Officer & Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Airforce, Former Associate Professor of Philosophy at U.S. Air Force Academy

Molly Crockett, Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow, Laboratory of Social & Nueral Systems Research, Department of Economics, University of Zurich

James Giordano, Director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies & Vice President for Academic Programs at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies; Senior Research Associate, Centre for Neuroethics & Uehiro Centre for Practical Philosophy, University of Oxford; University Affiliate Professor of Molecular Neuroscience, Krasnow Institute for Advanced Studies, George Mason University

Joshua Greene, John & Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of Social Sciences, Department of Psychology, Harvard University

James Hughes, Executive Director, Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies; Director, Institutional Research & Planning, Trinity College

Fabrice Jotterand, Assistant Professor, Clinical Sciences & Psychiatry, Southwestern Medical Center, University of Texas

William Kabasenche, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Washington State University

Joshua Knobe, Associate Professor, Program in Cognitive Science & Department of Philosophy, Yale University

Andrea Kuszewski, Affiliate Scholar of the IEET; Researcher, METODO Social Sciences Institute

S. Matthew Liao, Associate Director, Center for Bioethics; Clinical Associate Professor of Bioethics; Affiliated Professor of Philosophy, New York University

Maxwell Mehlman, Professor of Bioethics & Law, Case Western Reserve University

Geoffrey Miller, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of New Mexico

Anna Pacholczyk, graduate student, University of Machester

Ingmar Persson, Professor of Practical Philosophy, University of Gothenburg; Research Fellow, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

Erik Parens, Senior Research Scholar, The Hasting Center

Jonathan Shook, Director of Education and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, N.Y.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman Professor in Practical Ethics, Department of Philosophy & Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University

Wendell Wallach, Scholar & Lecturer, Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Yale University

bottom of page