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Moral Bioenhancement: Widespread Harm and Broad Cooperation

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Version 2 2023-09-21, 22:39
Version 1 2021-11-15, 09:34
posted on 2023-09-21, 22:39 authored by Wisheart, Morgan

A controversial issue in contemporary bioethics has emerged in recent years: moral bioenhancement (MB). Human bioenhancement in general has seen its share of controversy, but it is generally agreed that there is potential to improve human physical and mental capacities through biotechnological interventions such as medicinal drugs and genetic modification. The discussion has turned to whether biotechnological interventions could similarly improve human moral capacities. Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu have argued that MB is imperative if humans are to survive into the future, because our current moral capacities do not equip us to address future catastrophic problems, Ultimate Harm, which will be caused by modern advanced scientific progress. I suggest related but distinct reasons why MB is appealing: scientific progress and deficient human moral capacities are jointly responsible for enormous amounts of harm all over the world, Widespread Harm, and MB has the potential to reduce that harm. Human moral capacities are deficient because of their dependence on what I call ‘moral intuitions’; evolved psychological traits that shape our many societies’ varied moral values, resulting in moral disagreement and the disruption of inter-group cooperation. Addressing modern problems requires a broader level of cooperation that is unlikely to be achieved by depending on our current moral intuitions. This is why our moral capacities should be improved. However, typical accounts of MB do not describe interventions that will improve our moral capacities in this way. They are focused on the vague objective of ‘making people morally better’, assuming that this will address human moral deficiency and that this will in turn address the resulting problems. ‘Making people morally better’ means making them more satisfactory to our current moral intuitions, which are the root of moral deficiency, so these MB strategies are unlikely to be effective. An alternative MB strategy, which I propose, instead focuses on the objective of modifying current moral intuitions so that they promote broad cooperation. This will result in improved moral capacities in the sense that our moral capacities will be more practically useful to us. However, because this strategy disregards the importance of satisfying our current moral intuitions, it will be morally unpalatable. This is its main disadvantage over the typical MB strategy, though it is better at handling many common objections. Ultimately, there are a number of practical concerns that cannot be completely satisfactorily responded to even by my new MB strategy, such as the issues of mandatory MB and of fine-tuning our moral capacities. These concerns may mean that MB is too risky, and therefore not the best course of action in response to modern problems rooted in scientific progress and moral deficiency, particularly since we have promising alternatives available such as traditional moral enhancement techniques and further scientific progress. The prospect of MB should continue to be investigated, but it should focus on improving upon our current problematic moral intuitions rather than better satisfying them.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

CC BY 4.0

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Agar, Nicholas