Genetic Virtue

Draft 11/17/2003 (Please Do Not Quote Without Permission)

Mark Walker

Research Associate, Philosophy, Trinity College
University of Toronto
Room 214  Gerald Larkin Building
15 Devonshire Place
Toronto
M5S 1H8
www.permanentend.org

 

Genetic Virtue

The idea that the unifying—and justifying—function of all our ethical categories is ultimately to make our lives go better, or to make the world a better place, is one that I find utterly compelling. If that is not the point of the whole business of moral thinking, then I find it difficult to imagine what the point might be. What else could morality be for? And if not for anything—if it has no point—what claim can it have on our allegiance? (Sumner, 1992)

  1. Suppose we agree with Sumner: the point of ethics is to make our lives and the world better. How exactly does ethics contribute to this project? Surprisingly, this issue is not discussed by ethicists as often as one might think. Perhaps the thought is that the answer is too obvious to bear much discussion. Perhaps not. In any event, one line of thinking seems to be that ethical theorizing ought to give us some better understanding of what it would be for our lives to go better, and what it would be to make the world better. The hope seems to be that with this understanding in hand we will use it to transform ourselves and our world. Most ethical discussion concentrates on the former task: figuring out what the “good life” and the “good world” are rather than the practical task of implementing it. Surely at some point we must ask: How is ethical knowledge to be implemented? Well there are a few answers here, but surely a leading candidate is the idea that ethicists would encourage the dissemination of ethical understanding through education. Of course, the hope is that this would lead to us living better lives and living in a better world. In this connection we cannot forget that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, perhaps the single most famous work of ethical theorizing, was also intended as a “help manual” for Aristotle’s students to live the good life. Another possible mechanism for practical implementation of ethical research is through influence on public policy. Here ideas about implementation run the gamut from Plato’s philosopher kings to the “presidential bioethics council”. The Genetic Virtue Program (GVP) is a proposal for an alternate and complimentary means by which ethics and ethicists might contribute to the task of making our lives and our world better. The basic idea is simple enough: genes influence our behavior, so altering the genes of individuals may alter the influence genes exert on behavior. Engineering genetic virtue, then, would mean promoting genes that influence behavior in a manner that will encourage virtue. In terms of actual laboratory practice, this might be realized in several ways including selecting human embryos with desirable genes or genetically engineering human zygotes (perhaps with artificial chromosomes (Stock, 2002)). Whether the GVP can be brought to fruition depends on the resolution of a number of conceptual and empirical issues. The purpose of this essay is to discuss some of these—if only in broad strokes.
  2. One issue that will not be tackled here is the general question of whether we ought to use technology to alter humans and human nature. One hardly needs the clairvoyance of the Oracle of Delphi to see that the question of whether we ought to use technology for the “person engineering project” (PEP), i.e., to engineer new types of humans or persons, is going to be the most profound of our century, if not the most profound that humanity has ever faced. I will not argue the point here, but it seems to me that a proper assessment of the question of whether we ought to proceed with PEP will depend in part on an assessment of the prospects and perils (benefits and harms) posed by PEP. I will argue that GVP is one possible benefit of proceeding with PEP. Of course this in itself does not answer the question of whether PEP ought to develop, but I believe it should be part of the assessment of PEP.
  3. I suggested that the GVP could be seen as a complimentary means to work towards the ethical goal of making our lives and our world better. Surely it may be wondered why we would want to seek out a complimentary means to work towards the goal of ethics. After all, if we are not happy with the progress that ethics has made making our lives and our world better, than why not simply redouble our current line of efforts? While such a redoubling of effort might be a good thing, no amount of effort in this direction promises to make progress against a long-standing source of pessimism in ethics in the way that GVP does. The source of this pessimism goes by the name of ‘human nature’. Let me illustrate this pessimism with a story I heard on the news this morning. A group of about 90 teenagers participated in a vicious altercation involving the use of baseball bats and knives. This vicious incident left one dead and three hospitalized in critical condition. Now if I told you that this altercation happened in some impoverished part of the world we might lay the blame for this at the feet of “nurture”, that is, a failure to provide the right sort of social milieu in which virtue might flourish. As it happens, this was not the case. This tragic event occurred in an affluent part of Canada, and Canada is one of the most affluent countries in the world. Now, the point is not that affluence breeds virtue, but rather, that the incident cannot be explained in terms of something like systemic poverty. Indeed, Canada is consistently rated among the best places on earth to live. If socialization or “nurturing” has failed in Canada, is there any hope that this sort of incident will ever be eradicated from the world?
  4. The worry then is that at least one source of evil in the world is our human nature, a nature that cannot be completely overcome even under ideal conditions of socialization. The implications for ethics is clear: if ethics hopes to advance the goal of making our lives and our world better through processes of socialization and education, than there is a limit to what ethics can achieve.
  5. The idea that our natures are defective, morally speaking, is an idea with a long history, e.g., it is a view that can be found in the Bible and with some of the Ancient Greeks. Suppose we accept this view, what would it mean for how we assess the prospects for humanity? Hegel once famously described human history as a “slaughter bench” (Hegel, 1956:35). In some ways this is a slightly rosy gloss on our history. Slaughter benches are no fun, but they are relatively quick and we can at least imagine them being operated with a minimum of excessive cruelty. At least in terms of the number of deaths we have inflicted upon one another, the slaughter bench metaphor is perhaps apt. On the other hand, it underestimates the extra initiative that so many humans are capable of: the gratuitous cruelty, the senseless killing. A real slaughter bench, after all, has at least ostensibly the good purpose of producing food. If we accept the conjecture that we are innately evil, then we have some reason to suppose that we will never completely escape this slaughter bench. For sure, we may be able to minimize evil through better socialization, but we will never be able to eliminate it, so long as our natures remain unaltered. The conjecture, then, is that various forms of evil, violence, cruelty, injustice, deception, etc., will never be totally eliminated so long as we have the natures that we have.
  6. Is there any reason to accept the conjecture that we are evil by nature? Another way to ask this question is this: is there even the slightest reason to suppose that none of this viciousness lies in our nature? Certainly the latter has some proponents (particularly in the social sciences and humanities, less so in the biological sciences). In this connection the idea is that, at least morally speaking, we are infinitely plastic, so moral failures are failures in our socialization. The evidence against this conjecture is that evil exists in every known human society. This point cannot be emphasized enough. The point is not that evil exists in certain societies, but that it exists in every single society that has ever existed.  To say this is not to deny that nurture has no effect here: it is clear that certain societies can socialize their members to be more evil (e.g., the Hitler youth movement) and societies can attempt to nurture or socialize their members better. But in either case, there are ethical failures. It seems to me that the only sort of response for someone who thought that nurture or education was still going to completely overcome this history would be to suggest that we just haven’t cracked the code yet: perhaps we are missing key ethical concepts that will help our theorizing, or we might somehow get better at disseminating the results from ethics. One reason that this seems like wishful thinking is that we have ample evidence that our genes influence our behavior (see below).
  7. The extent to which evil is due to our nature or nurture is a large question that cannot be dealt with here. I shall assume that pessimism about our human nature is correct to some extent. That is, at least some evil can be explained in terms of our nature, ultimately in terms of the influence of the genes we have inherited. As a consequence, the only hope of effectively removing ourselves once and for all from the “slaughter bench of history” is to alter our natures, and ultimately, our genes. Of course, this is precisely what the GVP suggests.
  8. In some way this conjecture is quite humdrum, for it says that some evil is due to the influence of our nature or genes. This still leaves plenty of scope for disagreement in terms of the nature versus nurture debate. Thus, even if we agree that at least part of the problem lies in our nature, we could argue about percentages: someone heavy on the nurture side of the dispute might conjecture that perhaps our moral depravity is only 10% due to our natures and 90% our socialization, while someone heavy on the nature side might argue that 90% is due to our natures and 10% to our socialization. As we shall see, both are probably too extreme, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. In any event, accepting this conjecture rules out only the extreme nurture possibility: that all evil is due to improper socialization, that is, all evil could be eradicated if only we could socialize ourselves better. Ultimately, it seems to me that this issue is an empirical one, which the GVP may shed some light on.
  9. Let me emphasize again that it would be wrong to consider the GVP and the traditional model of moral education as an either/or. Of course bad socialization can corrupt people, and we should work against this where possible, so we should work to promote ethical education where possible. This is quite compatible with the thesis that some of our moral failures are due to the influence of our natures. Accordingly, the most plausible position is that changing our natures is necessary but not sufficient for realizing the task of making our lives and our world better.
  10. So far I have only discussed (at a very abstract level) the idea that there may be significant limits to what ethics can achieve given our current nature. Given the enormity and scope of the issues involved, I can only outline how the GVP will attempt to overcome this problem. So, I conceive of my task as showing that the idea of the GVP is worth exploring, whether it will bear fruit is a question that we probably cannot answer definitely today.
  11. I mentioned in the opening paragraph that there are a number of conceptual issues involved. Among these is the question of the role of the notion of virtue in a satisfactory ethical theory. Virtue theory dominated ancient ethical discussions but lost its preeminence during the Enlightenment. Virtue theory has made somewhat of a “comeback” in the latter part of the twentieth century (Anscombe, 1958, MacIntyre 1981, 1988). Nevertheless, given this history, one may wonder why virtue theory, rather than some other ethical theory, is invoked. The answer is twofold.
  12. First, in looking for an entry point for genetic engineering into the task of creating better ethical agents, virtue seems a natural choice. The reason is that this provides a necessary bridge between behavioral genetics and ethical theorizing, specifically, in the idea of ‘enduring behaviors’. So, on the one hand, virtue theories typically focus on long-term patterns of actions or behaviors of ethical agents (Lounden, 1984). Virtue, says Augustine, “is a good habit consonant with our nature”, and Aquinas offers a similar definition, “an operative habit essentially good”. On the other hand, “nearly all personality traits show moderate heritability” (Plomin et al. 2001: 235) where ‘personality traits are conceived as enduring behaviors that are stable across time and situations (Pervin and John, 1999). The thought then is that, since genes influence behavior, it might be possible to use biotechnology in a manner that would promote the virtue of agents; and thus, this would be a means to improve ourselves morally speaking. I say ‘a means’ because it may be that genetic engineering can be used to (directly) influence deontic aspects of ethics like ‘ought’, ‘right’ and ‘obligation’. While I do not rule out this possibility a priori, it is not something we shall consider. My thesis, then, is that the GVP is a sufficient condition for improving ourselves morally speaking, not that it is necessary for improving ourselves morally speaking.
  13. Second, although it is true virtue theory has been eclipsed by rival moral theories such as deontology and consequentialism, this claim is open to misunderstanding. Much of the debate between consequentialism, deontology and virtue theory is over which concepts are central to moral theorizing and which are subsidiary. What this means is that consequentialism and deontological theories may have a role for virtue, but virtue may play some derivative role in the theoretical scheme (Hurka, Kant). This in itself does not preclude the possibility that improving our virtue will improve us, morally speaking. That said, it is clear that the argument relies on the view that virtue has some role to play in a satisfactory ethical theory, for otherwise it would not follow that making ourselves more virtuous would be a means to morally improve ourselves. This is something I will assume without argument. What the argument does not presuppose is a view on where the concept of virtue fits in the overall economy of ethical theorizing. Rather, it would be best to say that the GVP is (directly) relevant to all and only those ethical theories that maintain that it is possible to improve ourselves morally by becoming more virtuous, while remaining agnostic on the question of the exact role virtue plays in our ethical theorizing. Thus, some deontologists might subscribe to the view that our virtues help us perform our duties, and if we were to become more virtuous we might be better able to perform our duties, and so, in this way become morally better. Some consequentialists might subscribe to the view that our virtues help us promote the good, and if we were to become more virtuous we might be better able to promote the good, and so in this way become morally better.
  14. A further problem for ethics is formulating a satisfactory list of virtues. As is well known, a virtue such as ‘charity’ appears on many Christian lists but is absent on Plato and Aristotle’s list of virtues. Occasionally, a virtue on one list appears as a vice on another. For example, humility is listed as a virtue by some Christians, but appears to be a vice in Aristotle’s taxonomy. I shall assume that this is not an insurmountable problem, and that ethicists will be able to formulate a list of at least some core virtues. For our purposes here I will assume (without argument) that the following virtues will appear in a satisfactory list of virtues: truthfulness, justice and caring.
  15. Focusing on these three virtues then, the question for the GVP is how to use biotechnology to make people more truthful, just and caring. To achieve this goal will require an interdisciplinary effort between ethics, psychology and genetics. Let me sketch in very broad outlines the contribution required of each.
  16. One of the tasks of ethics would be to describe the concepts of virtue, and the sorts of behavioral manifestations of the virtues. Using our examples, ethics will need to articulate the virtues of truthfulness, justice and caring and describe the sort of behavior that we would expect to see in persons who exhibit the virtues of truthfulness, justice and caring. This is not a new task for ethics, for it is something that the Ancient Greeks attempted.
  17. Aristotle, for example, discusses (all too briefly) the virtue of truthfulness in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle describes the person who exhibits the virtue of truthfulness as occupying the “mean” between boastfulness on the one hand, and self-deprecation on the other. Aristotle describes those who possess the virtue of truthfulness in this way: “He is truthful in life and his speech; he admits to the qualities he possess and neither exaggerates nor understates them” (1127a). Such a person is “truthful in speech and his life simply because it is part of his character” (1127b). Aristotle describes the truthful person mostly by reference to the extremes noted: a truthful person does not overstate his accomplishments like the boastful person, nor does he understate his accomplishments like the self-deprecating sort. Both sorts of persons, says Aristotle, are deceitful, although he finds the boaster to be more worthy of blame. It is ethical exegeses like Aristotle’s that may help us understand the nature of the virtue of truthfulness. However, Aristotle’s short description of the virtue of truthfulness is notoriously incomplete. For example, Aristotle says that “For a man that loves truth and who is truthful when nothing is at stake will be even more truthful when something is at stake” (1127b). Even putting aside the empirical plausibility of this claim—are we really likely to be more truthful when something is at stake, say our careers or our lives?—there are cases where there is serious disagreement concerning what a virtuous person ought to do in certain cases. For example if your Aunt asks whether you like her new pink and purple polka dot dress, do you lie and spare her feelings, or do you tell the truth and hurt her feelings? Similarly, when the Nazis come to your door and ask whether there are any fugitives in your house, do you tell the truth and condemn the fugitives to death; or do you lie? There are a number of ways of dealing with these problems (which we won’t discuss) but the point here is that ethical theorizing about virtue should help us understand the nature of a virtue like truthfulness.
  18. Similar remarks apply to the virtue of ‘justice’. Often justice is thought of as a quality that applies on the social level: a just society or an unjust state, etc. However, the idea that it is a virtue that might be attributed to individuals is not something that has been completely lost. If you are supposed to split a pie evenly with your roommate, and he ends up eating three pieces and you eat only one, you certainly might claim that what he has done is unjust. Aristotle distinguishes a number of senses of ‘justice’ including being “fair”, with the corresponding vice of injustice being that of “unfairness” (1129a). Of course there is much disagreement as to exactly what “fairness” amounts to, and exactly what a just person would do in certain circumstances, and so it is the continuing mission of ethics to understand the virtue of justice.
  19. The virtue of caring refers to behavior that seeks to promote the good of others. A paradigmatic case is the care that parents exhibit for their children (Noddings, 1984). As Slote (2000) argues, a philosophical satisfactory account of caring must consider our obligations not only to those who we are intimately acquainted, but with distant or unknown others: “We must…distinguish caring about intimates from humanitarian caring about people generally, and the real question that faces an ethic of caring is how to combine (in a theory that prescribes for individuals and also in the individuals themselves) these two kinds of morally worthy concern” (337). Slote argues that we must seek to balance the caring of intimates with humanitarian caring, i.e., that we must acknowledge the ethical obligation of each. One advantage of seeing caring as a balance between these two demands is that it seems to have “psychological realism” on its side. Some ethical theories demand that we evaluate our ethical actions in an “agent neutral” way. This seems to demand that we override our natural impulse to preferentially help those that we are intimately acquainted with as compared with those that are distant or unknown to us. For example, if we are to respect the classic utilitarian’s imperative to maximize the happiness of the greatest number of people, and it is determined that the money I intend to spend on Christmas gifts for my family and friends could make many more people in a distant country much happier, then I ought to send the money there rather than spend it on my family and friends.  The virtue of caring about intimates would seem to dictate that I ought to participate in the exchange of gifts on this occasion, the humanitarian virtue of caring dictates that I ought to help those on the other side of the world. Slote says that we must strike a balance here. Supposing we accept this, there is still the question of how to decide how this balance ought to be struck. Perhaps an appeal to another virtue like justice might help here, or perhaps some other ethical principle. In any event, it would be part of the task of ethics to attempt to articulate a theory that addresses such concerns.
  20. Psychology will in effect operate as a “bridge discipline” between ethics and genetics. One task of psychology would be to identify the degree to which individuals exhibit the relevant virtues. With the three virtues we are discussing, it would be a matter of finding the extent to which individuals exhibit the virtues of truthfulness, justice and caring. Discovering which individuals exhibit these virtues and to what degree is certainly no easy task. For example, many personality assessments conducted by psychologists use self-report questionnaires. There may be problems with using such questionnaires with respect to self-reporting of virtuous and vicious behavior that is not present with more morally neutral personality characteristics such as shyness/extrovertedness. Fortunately, psychologist often exhibit great guile in making subjects reveal aspects of their personality that they might prefer to keep hidden.
  21. Another task of psychology is to provide an “analytic of virtue”. The idea here can be seen by considering a parallel. Psychologists sometimes investigate “complex” behaviors, e.g., psychologists investigate the personality trait of “extroversion” yet extroversion includes subtraits like sociability, activity, impulsiveness, dominance, sensation seeking, and liveliness (Plomin, et. al, 2001: 237). The parallel in the case of virtues involves examining the question of whether virtues are ‘complex behaviors’, and then perhaps looking for the component parts of these behaviors. For example, suppose that the virtue of caring is a global trait. Subtraits might include personality characteristics such as nurturing, protection, empathy, emotional and physical comforting, and so on.
  22. The relation between global personality traits and subtraits is a complex and contested issue; different models describe these relations differently. Competing theories of personalities will “slice the pie” in different ways, e.g., two different theories of personality may agree that extroversion is a complex trait, but disagree about which subtraits it includes. Furthermore, there is even an issue of how many levels of analysis are involved. We noted the view that sensation seeking is a subtrait of extroversion, yet sensation seeking itself is sometimes further analyzed into ‘disinhibition’ (sensation seeking in social situations such as parties) and thrill seeking (seeking physically risky activities) experience seeking (seeking novel experiences of the senses or the mind) and boredom susceptibility. The large overlap in subject’s scores on the subtraits of sensation seeking suggests that genetic factors are largely responsible (Eysenck, 1983). In the extreme, an “analytic of virtue” might tell us that what looks like a single virtue from the point of view of ethics, is actually best viewed as two or more virtues. For instance, perhaps a psychology of the virtue of caring will reveal that a virtue of caring is best understood as two quite distinct types of behaviors, if (say) the psychological underpinnings of humanitarian caring turn out to be quite distinct from that of caring for intimates. (Perhaps the former is related to what ethnologists term ‘kin altruism’ while the latter is related to ‘reciprocal altruism’ (McFarland, 1995)).
  23. Psychology would also be involved in assessing whether virtues (or subtraits of virtues) have a heritable component. Measuring heritability is done in a number of ways including looking at evidence from studies conducted on twins, familial lines, and adoption. Here the task of psychologists is to try to assess how and to what degree a personality trait is attributable to an inherited (genetic) component, and how much is due to environmental influence. Looking at the heritability of virtues will require a similar sort of assessment, that is, an attempt to estimate how much the virtue is influenced by our genes and how much by our environment. Of course there is no reason to suppose that the heritability component of all virtues and their subtraits will be the same. It is possible, for instance, that the virtue of caring might have a heritable component with respect for our caring of intimates, but not for our humanitarian caring.
  24. One of the tasks of geneticists in the GVP is to identify the gene or genes associated with the relevant virtues or subtraits of virtues. Having identified the relevant genes the practical execution of the GVP could theoretically proceed in one of two ways. We could use IVF technology in conjunction with genetic screening to select those embryos that show the greatest promise for exhibiting virtuous behavior, or we could use genetic engineering techniques to alter extant embryos to exhibit more of the desirable genes (and fewer of the undesirable genes).
  25. This division of labor is only a rough approximation of what might actually happen. For instance, ethicists may well participate with psychologists in the process of articulating an analytic of the various virtues, so the divisions here are not absolute. Furthermore, there will likely be feedback loops between the various disciplines, e.g., our understanding of how various genes contribute to behaviors may change our taxonomy of virtues, etc.
  26. This tells us a little about how the GVP might proceed, but what evidence is there that the program will succeed? Let me say up front that the empirical evidence is somewhat circumstantial. However, the evidence we do possess points to its potential success. In order to assess this evidence we should note that the GVP embodies two important empirical hypotheses,
  27. At least some virtuous and vicious behavior has a heritable component.
  28. We can detect and control the genes responsible for this heritable component.

Either hypothesis could prove false. And ultimately, whatever evidence we can marshal in support of the plausibility of the GVP, the most definite proof will be the creation of more virtuous offspring. These two hypotheses make clear that in considering the question of the empirical evidence for the GVP, we must disentangle two separate questions. One is whether we have any evidence that virtue and vice are heritable, and the other is whether we can locate and control the mechanisms of this heritability. Let us take these questions in turn.

  1. What evidence do we have that virtues and vices are heritable, i.e., at least partly influenced by genetic factors? We noted that systematic studies of the entire field of behavioral genetics reveal that personality traits typically exhibit a significant heritable component, often in the range of 30 to 50%. That is, a difference in our genes can explain 30 to 50% of the difference we see in personality characteristics of individuals. Psychologists have not extensively studied the heritability of virtues, however, given that almost all personality traits examined thus far show a significant heritability component it would be surprising, very surprising, (but not impossible) if virtues and vices did not exhibit a similar degree of heritability.
  2. Let us look at more specific cases. Is the virtue of truth-telling and the vice of lying heritable? Some suggestive evidence comes from the animal kingdom. Deception is a common tactic among animals and there is a very well developed literature on deception that covers the whole range of biological species (Gintis, 2000). Some apes, for example, have been observed making cries indicating that they have discovered an abundance of food. When others of their troop move towards the source of the cry the “liar” doubles back to the real source of food. Evidence such as this is suggestive but hardly definitive. For a start, there is the question of the relation between “deception” and lying. Furthermore, even supposing that we believe that the ape in this case is lying, it does not follow that this is a heritable trait in apes. Such lying may be a matter of ape nurture rather than nature. Finally, even if we believe that lying in apes is heritable, obviously it does not follow that such heritbility has been conserved in humans. What is nature in apes could possibly be a matter of nurture in humans. What follows is that we should bear these and other difficulties in mind when we examine animal models for possible evidence of the heritability of virtues or subtraits of virtues. What does not follow is that animal models cannot be suggestive of a heritable component to virtues in humans.
  3. There is evidence of a heritable component in certain cases where individuals exhibit the vice of untruthfulness or lying. This vice is part of a subtrait of what the DSM-IV categorizes as ‘anti-social personality disorder’ (ASP). Lying is among the criteria for diagnosing ASP as are other behaviors such as, irresponsibility, aggressiveness, irritability and recklessness. A number of studies have shown that ASP has a heritable component (Niggs and Goldsmith, 1994; Grove et al., 1990; and Loehlin, Willerman and Horn, 1987).
  4. On the assumption that we could reduce the incidence of ASP through the modification of gene frequency in a population, then we may have contributed to the promotion of the virtue of truthfulness. The reasoning of course is that by reducing the incidence of the vice of untruthfulness in a population then the virtue of truth-telling is likely to rise. Naturally, it does not follow from the fact that lying is associated with a personality disorder like ASP that truth-telling shows heritability within the general population. One question that the GVP should investigate is the extent to which truth-telling is a heritable trait in the general population.
  5. Some evidence for the conjecture that the virtue of justice has a heritable component comes from analogies derived from the animal world. For example, Frans B. M. de Waal (1996) has put forward the interesting and controversial thesis that other primates possess a moral life. de Waal argues that social hierarchy in Java-monkey society is not solely the result of an individual’s rank but also a matter of the alliances that the individual is able to form. As de Waal sees it, such alliances are akin to a moral contract much like mutual aid pacts in human society. Alliances are important for maintaining a primate’s position in a hierarchy. de Waal has observed that not honoring an alliance can result in a temporary suspension of the hierarchy while justice is served. Thus, de Waal relates the case of an alpha male who enlisted the help of one of his allies, a high-ranking female, to chase off a rival male. The rival male had a habit of punishing allies of his rivals, so eventually he confronted the female. When confronted with this aggression the female extended her hand in search of support from the alpha male. When no support from the alpha male came she became quite agitated. She barked and chased the alpha male across the enclosure and pummeled him. The troop hierarchy in this case was temporarily suspended while the female “served justice”. According to de Waal, this “moralistic” aggression is not uncommon among primates (p.97).
  6. Further evidence for a heritable component to justice stems from the work of Kohlberg and others. Kohlberg (1984) argues that justice figures centrally in our moral reasoning and that there is an ontogeny to human moral reasoning. Kohlberg describes the (normal) pattern of human moral reasoning as proceeding through six stages of development. An examination of Kohlberg’s theory would take us too far afield here. What is important for our purposes is not whether Kohlberg is correct that there are six stages of development in our reasoning about justice and morality, but the more general claim that humans exhibit some sort of invariant developmental sequence in our reasoning about justice. It is the idea that there are cross-cultural invariants to this progression in our moral reasoning that provides some support to the idea that there is a heritable component to how we perceive and act justly or unjustly. For if individuals develop their reasoning about justice in a similar manner irrespective of the culture they live in, then one seemingly ineluctable hypothesis is that this invariant developmental trajectory is under genetic influence. So, one avenue of research for the GVP might be to look at the evidence whether humans invariably proceed through a particular developmental trajectory in reasoning about justice.
  7. One aspect of the virtue of justice may involve considerations of how we judge and react to those who cheat or renege on social contracts that specify various forms of exchanges. Cosmides and Tooby in a series of papers (Cosmides 1989, Tooby and Cosmides 1990, Cosmides and Tooby 1992) have suggested a bold hypothesis that humans may have developed specialized neurological structures (a mental module) for detecting those who cheat on social contracts. The reasoning, in a nutshell is this: if cheats go undetected they can quickly undermine the coherence and viability of a group, so there may have been tremendous evolutionary pressures to develop specialized structures to deal specifically with the problem of cheats. This is not the place to discuss in detail their evidence for this conjecture, so a single example will have to suffice. One experiment they ran involved having subjects reason using a rule that can be expressed as the logical rule “If P then Q”. When the rule had as its content non-social contract themes, subjects were able to get the right answer only about 25% of the time. When the content was switched to social contract subject matter, subjects were able to get the right answer about 75% of the time. The suggestion then is that the “cheat detecting” module kicks in in cases involving social contract subject matter. If they are correct about the specialized neurological structures then this suggests (although by no means necessitates) the idea that cheat detecting might be heritable. If these specialized structures have a heritable component, and such judgments about cheats are part of the virtue of justice, then we would have some reason to believe that at least some subtraits of the virtue of justice are heritable.
  8. When we turn to the virtue of caring we see (again) analogues in the animal kingdom. Paradigmatic examples are the care animal parents provide for their offspring, but examples are not limited to such cases. Animals extend care in the form of nurturance and protection to others that are unrelated. Consider for instance the following moving example described by de Waal and Lanting (1997). A sick pygmy chimp (Bonobo) became quite upset as it was unable to understand the commands issued by its human caretakers in its new home. Other (unrelated) bonobos took the ill chimp by the hand and led him in the right direction. Nature is replete with such acts of caring between related and unrelated individuals. (In the past it was thought that such care (or altruism) defies the logic of Darwinian natural selection, but thanks to the work of Hamilton (1964) and Trivers (1971) it seems that we have a viable framework to explain such acts of altruism.)
  9. Some evidence for the heritability of the virtue of caring in humans can be seen by considering the personality trait of ‘agreeableness’. ‘Agreeableness’ is part of the “Big Five” or Five-Factor Model of personality (Goldberg, 1990). The “Big Five” include the traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. These are considered complex traits with subtraits. ‘Agreeableness’ includes the subtraits of being good-natured, trusting, helpful, and compassionate. Those that score low on the agreeableness scale are irritable, uncooperative and unsympathetic. Now one of the tasks of the GVP would be to make ethics and behavioral genetics “speak the same language”, but I think it is pretty clear that at least some of what we might mean by the ‘virtue of caring’ is covered by the notion of ‘agreeableness’ as it is investigated by psychologists. Recent studies indicate that ‘agreeableness’ has a moderate heritable component (Jang et al., 1996; and Jang et al., 1998). The implications of this for the GVP are clear: if we could locate the genes responsible for agreeableness, and increase their frequency, then we may increase the virtue of caring in a population and reduce the vice of uncaring.
  10. Suppose for the moment that we have good solid evidence that certain virtues, or at least components of virtues, have a heritable component just as in some of the better-studied personality traits. Since our evidence for this is likely to be twin studies or family studies that show concordance of scores on personality measures, such indications of heritability in themselves say only that there is a genetic component to these behaviors. These studies tell us nothing about how individual genes contribute to the heritability of the traits. We can draw a parallel from the fact that it has been known for a long time that there is a heritable component to gay sexual preference. Only recently have investigators discovered candidate genes that might be responsible for some of the observed heritability (Hammer, et al. 1994; Hammer, 2002). Similarly, if we discover that virtues have a heritable component there is still the question of whether geneticists will be able to discover the genes responsible for this heritable component. The problem here is that complex behaviors like virtues, if they are heritable at all, will likely be the result of a number of different genes interacting simultaneously. The task for the geneticist is doubly complicated, for not only is no gene in such a system sufficient for expression of the trait, often genes can work interchangeably, which means that many genes might not be necessary as well for the expression of a given trait. Geneticists refer to genes that operate in multiple-gene systems quantitative trait locus (QTL). This is not the place to review the problems posed by QTL or the powerful techniques that are currently being used and developed to tackle the QTL problem. No one can say for sure in advance whether there might be unforeseen and insurmountable problems waiting for us. We know, however, that at least in some cases it is possible to discover the genetic correlates of behavior: researchers have discovered some of the genetic correlates of the personality trait of sensation seeking (Benjamin, et al., 1996 and Ebstein et al., 1995). While the problems posed by QTL are not to be taken lightly, recent successes indicate that the problems are not insurmountable.
  11. I have described the empirical aspect of this project under two headings: looking for evidence that virtues (or their subtraits) are heritable, and discovering and controlling the mechanisms of this heritability. Whether this project will succeed, it is too early to say, although evidence we have examined is suggestive of a positive answer. Of course success here is not an all or nothing proposition. It may be that we can find a heritable component to some virtues and not others. For example, MacIntyre (1981) suggests that one virtue is having an appreciation of the historical nature of virtues. Perhaps this virtue has no heritable component, while other virtues have a much higher degree of heritability. There is no a priori reason to suppose that all virtues (or their subtraits) have the same degree of heritability.
  12. What if the empirical evidence does not support the empirical hypotheses of the GVP? Even a negative result might prove useful. For instance, if we found that virtues do not have a heritable component, this might be useful in understanding how to make our lives and our world better. Let me say that this would be an extraordinary finding given the seemingly incontrovertible evidence that many aspects of our personality or character are heritable. Nevertheless, if we were to make such an extraordinary discovery it would at least provide some indication of how our future efforts should proceed, namely: continuing or expanding our efforts to disseminate the results of ethics through education and socialization. A more unfortunate outcome would be if we discovered that virtues have a heritable component, but that we are unable to discover or control this heritable component. This would tell us that there might be limits to how far we might make our lives and our world better. For it indicates that there may be limits to what we can do on the nurture or socialization side, since there is a heritable component to virtues and vices. I mention these possibilities only in the interest of completeness; neither seems likely.
  13. Let us suppose that the GVP succeeds at least in this sense: we are able to identify and promote those genes that contribute to the heritable component of virtues. If this succeeds in helping us to become more virtuous then I believe that most would see this as a great benefit. It is quite possible that we might agree that this is a great benefit even if we can’t agree on exactly why it is a great benefit. That is, it may be that we can agree that a world where individuals exhibit the virtues to a much higher degree than our own, and where the vices are much less pronounced, would be one where our lives and our world are better, even though we disagree why it is better. For example, a world where the virtues flourished compared to our own world might be one where the happiness or welfare of its members is much higher than our own; it might also be one where individuals are better able to pursue excellence. A consequentialist who determines the good of a society based on the level of happiness or welfare of a society would judge this world better than our own. A consequentialist who determines the good of a society based on the extent that its individuals exhibit excellence (e.g., athletic excellence or intellectual excellence) is one that is better than our own. So the welfare and perfection consequentialist can agree that this more virtuous society is better than our own, while disagreeing on why it is better. Of course understanding in more detail the benefits that we might derive from making ourselves more virtuous is one of the tasks of the GVP. That is, we need to look carefully at the question of what contribution the GVP might make to the goal of making our lives and our world better. In some sense, much of the groundwork here has already been done, for many ethicists have studied and agreed on the more general claim that a world where agents have a higher degree of virtue is (other things being equal) a better world. As we said, the GVP merely suggests an alternate (and complimentary) means to achieve this end.
  14. Let me close by considering what might seem a decisive objection to the GVP. Some might think that the GVP does nothing ultimately to improve our moral lives; at best what GVP might offer is a simulacra of virtue, not virtue itself. The reason turns on the thought that a necessary condition for the exercise of virtue is that the performance of virtuous action must be the result of a choice or decision on the part of the agent performing the action. This understanding of virtue goes back to Aristotle. This is one reason why we don’t attribute the virtue of caring to a mother mouse providing nurturance and protection to her pups: her behavior is genetically programmed; it is not a choice on her part. Similarly, if we genetically manipulate individuals such that they are genetically programmed to offer nurturance and protection to others, this will not count as the exercise of the virtue of caring. The reason, obviously, is that such behavior is not a result of the exercise of a choice or decision on the part of the agent.
  15. There are two replies that might be made to this objection. First, the more we learn about the operation of genes in humans, the more it seems clear that genes influence but do not determine personality. So, even if we can find and promote genes that influence the incidence of the virtue of caring, this will not determine (that is, ineluctably make it the case) that individuals with such genes will be caring. In other words, individuals might not exhibit the virtue of caring even when they have the relevant genes. Genes that are associated with the virtue of caring might make it easier for individuals to acquire the virtue of caring, but genes will not necessitate that the individuals exhibit (at least the simulacra) of virtue. This is perhaps an appropriate place to mention again that, at best the GVP is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for realizing the goal of making our lives and our world better. Socialization and education, as always, will be necessary.
  16. Second, even per impossible it was the case that genes did determine the behavior of humans, it does not follow that the behavior is not a matter of choice. For it may be that, while genes determine certain behaviors, the genes themselves might be under the control of the virtuous individual. Genes might be manufactured such that they can be turned on or off by chemical signals, e.g., an injection of tetracycline might be used to turn off a gene (Stock, 2002). Supposing then that the genes associated with the virtue of caring could be turned off this way, then individuals could be said to have a choice in whether they act in a caring way, even though their genes determine that they act in this way. For the choice not to take an injection to turn off the genes associated with caring is a means by which the individuals may express the choice to exhibit the relevant virtue. The parallel with virtues considered as habits of character is quite close. Aristotle, for example, sees the virtuous person as one for whom the virtues have become “second nature” or part of one’s character. The virtuous person acts almost reflexively in a virtuous manner: the virtuous person is almost reflexively (say) truthful or brave. This is not to say that Aristotle believes that the exercise of virtues is not a matter of choice for the virtuous person, it indicates only that it might require some effort and time to undue this “second nature” or aspect of one’s character. In a similar manner, even in the unlikely event that the possession of certain genes are sufficient for the production of certain behaviors, such as caring, this could still be considered a virtue where the agent can turn off the genes and undue the virtue.
  17. We should also consider a modified version of this objection: even if it is conceded in light of the foregoing arguments that in a future where the GVP has been implemented individuals can still be considered virtuous, nevertheless, they cannot be considered as virtuous as unmodified (or unselected) humans. The reason is that our descendents will have a much easier time of becoming virtuous than unmodified humans, and so, to the extent that we are virtuous, we are more worthy of praise than our modified descendents. Since the virtuous among the unmodified are more worthy of praise, a world without GVP is a morally better state of affairs. So, not modifying humans will lead to a more morally praiseworthy future, and hence the GVP ought not to be implemented.
  18. This line of reasoning might be criticized on a number of points. One reason this objection is not persuasive is that it depends on an inference from saying that an agent is morally praiseworthy in a certain situation to the conclusion that we ought to promote such situations. A simple example illustrates that this inference does not necessarily follow. The mad scientist has set a bomb that will cause a massive avalanche on a mountain in 35 minutes. On the mountain is a scout leader with his troop. He reasons that if he leads the children to safety it will take about 30 to 40 minutes. On the other hand, he knows that, if he makes the trek by himself he can probably do it in 15 to 20 minutes, plenty of time to save himself; but this would mean the certain death of the children. So, when the scout leader leads the children to safety we are right to praise his actions. Now compare the identical situation except that the scout leader has accidentally stabbed himself with a needle left by the mad scientist. The needle contains a hallucinogenic that induces the belief that spiders are chasing him, and unfortunately, the leader has a phobia of spiders. Now he must struggle with both the threat of the bomb going off, and his fear and belief that spiders will consume him. When the leader makes it safely to the bottom of the mountain with the children he seems to be more praiseworthy than in the case where he has not been accidentally injected with a hallucinogenic. After all, in the latter case he has to contend with the fear of the bomb and his phobia of spiders. The scout leader displayed the virtue of courage to an extraordinary degree as he struggled with his fears while leading the troop to safety. And while we might heap additional praise on the leader in this latter case, it would be wrong to think that we should try to promote this type of situation. It would be wrong, for example, for the scout leader or some other to inject a hallucinogenic just so that he could exhibit extraordinary bravery. Surely it would be wrong to put the children at greater risk of harm, just so the leader could exhibit greater bravery. So, in this case it would be wrong to infer from the fact that, in one situation the leader is more morally praiseworthy than the other, to the conclusion that we ought to seek to create such situations.
  19. So in the case of comparing how morally praiseworthy we are with our descendents, it does not follow necessarily that, if our descendents are not as praiseworthy as we are that we ought to seek to create or maintain a situation similar to our own. If when we master the relevant knowledge and technology we refuse to apply it to the task of making it easier to acquire the virtues, then we will be like the scout leader who intentionally injects an hallucinogenic in order to make it harder to perform the morally right action. To help secure this point consider a parallel case. Imagine identical twins raised in two completely different social worlds. Bill is raised in a society that has little regard for the virtues, and does nothing to help socialize or educate its members in the virtues. (Any comparison to our own social world is entirely accidental). Phil is raised in a society that goes to extraordinary lengths to socialize and educate its members about the virtues. Other things being equal, if Bill and Phil are equally virtuous then Bill seems more morally praiseworthy, given that he had more obstacles to overcome to become virtuous. Phil has had a much easier time acquiring his virtues because of the opportunities offered by the socialization and education of his social world. Nevertheless, clearly it would be absurd to think that we should conclude from this that we ought not to socialize or educate concerning the virtues. Rather we should believe that a world where socialization and education encourages virtue is a world where our lives are better. By a similar token, a world where socialization and education is supplemented by the GVP holds the prospect of making our lives even better.
  20. The modest conclusion I would like to draw here is this: if we accept the goal of ethics to make our lives and our world better than we ought to explore the plausibility of the GVP. Not because we are sure that it will succeed, rather, because it holds the potential to offer a revolutionary (but complimentary) means to help realize the goal of ethics.
  21. And what of the incident I mentioned concerning the youth who was killed during a massive brawl? Will this sort of incidence be a thing of the past if we were to implement the GVP? Would persons whose natures have been enhanced to make it easier to acquire the virtues of justice and caring renounce such viciousness? I don’t think anyone can safely predict an answer to this question. On the other hand, there is some reason to hope. In any event, the GVP, as far as I know, offers the only hope on the horizon that humans might remove themselves from the slaughter bench of history.

 

 

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