Brain

The possibility that there are people around us who more or less look and act like us but don’t feel empathy like us is enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies. What if we could make psychopaths feel like us too, though?

If we could “fix” psychopaths, should we? A pair of philosophers from Croatia have weighed in on the controversial idea of “enhancing” psychopaths to make them more altruistic with a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

The authors argue that we could justify forcing psychopaths to undergo some sort of hypothetical mandatory medical procedure that would make them more empathetic, and that we could do so by justifying the procedure to psychopaths themselves.

The main point is that psychopaths don’t just give us the heebie-jeebies – they give each other the heebie-jeebies too. According to the philosophers, psychopaths prefer not to interact with other psychopaths – so theoretically, they should be able to get on board with mandatory “moral enhancement” for all psychopaths.

Of course, the procedure couldn’t be voluntary, because then psychopaths would choose to let other psychopaths undergo the procedure without undergoing it themselves, and no one would sign up for moral enhancement in the end.

The idea of biologically modifying psychopaths to make them more ethical comes from the more general theory of moral bioenhancement, which proposes that “enhancing” humanity as a whole to become more altruistic might be possible in the future.

Moral bioenhancement has been put forward as a futuristic solution for problems like terrorism and climate change that seem intractable with current approaches. It could be that making people a little more prosocial would reduce all kinds of suffering in the world.

Granted, this is the kind of idea that screams good in theory, but potentially very questionable indeed in practice. A 2014 review of 85 articles on moral bioenhancement identified six major points of contention, ranging from whether this kind of fine-grained neurological engineering will ever be scientifically possible to what the proper balance is between individual rights and social wellbeing.

In a way, the question of whether mandatory moral bioenhancement for psychopaths would be ethical gets at the heart of the debate about moral bioenhancement in general. If it’s OK to surgically remove the “bad” from psychopaths, why isn’t it OK to surgically remove the bad from everyone?

So what d’you think – could you get down with the idea of medically enhancing humanity to become more altruistic? If not, don’t worry, we’ll just ask you again in a minute, after we perform a small procedure on you…

Image: Flickr/Wellcome Images