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Turning Psychopaths into Nice Guys

By Michael Cook

If moral bioenhancement of psychopaths becomes obligatory, who will benchmark standards?

Our culture is fascinated by psychopaths. Go shopping on Amazon and you will find books like The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success; or Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us; or Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work; or The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry.

Two bioethicists at The University of Rijeka in Croatia, Elvio Baccarini and Luca Malatesti, recently argued in the Journal of Medical Ethics that moral bioenhancement for psychopaths ought to be obligatory.

What is psychopathy? The authors define it as “a personality disorder that involves traits such as pathological lying, manipulativeness, superficial charm, no or little concern for the interests of others, a grandiose sense of self and, usually, a long history of offences and encounters with justice”.

Not the sort of person, in other words, you would normally want as a boss or a babysitter, but also not the sort of person who can be easily identified, even though the pop psychology journals claim that about 1% of the population are psychopaths.

And what is moral bioenhancement? This is the use of biotechnologies, drugs mostly, that improve personality traits and behaviour to make us nicer and less aggressive. Ethicists Ingmar Persson and Australia’s own Julian Savulescu were among the first to discuss the ethics and feasibility of moral bioenhancement. They argued that it will eventually be vital to keep humanity from destroying society or the planet.

Baccarini and Malatesti have more modest ambitions – to keep psychopaths from making our lives miserable. They argue that psychopaths, in general, are rational. They may not have compunction about harming others, but they do realise that other psychopaths could harm them. Therefore, compelling them to take drugs or neurological treatment is ethical, relying on principles of public reason.

The ethicists do not discuss the practicalities of their proposal: how can we distinguish between psychopaths and people who are merely appalling human beings? How would success be measured? What would happen if they refused?

Among bioethicists there is a quiet debate bubbling away over the merits of moral bioenhancement. Rob Sparrow of Monash University is one of its leading opponents. He points out that the government would be required to define what is an acceptable level of morality. Given that we cannot agree on simpler things like daylight savings time, it seems unlikely that a consensus will be forged easily.

Furthermore, people who have been morally bioenhanced might be regarded as socially, personally and even politically superior. This could threaten democracy as we know it.

Like many issues in bioethics journals, debating the merits of whether governments should turn psychopaths into docile hail-fellows-well-met is a tad theoretical.

But there are precedents. Some countries have mandated chemical castration for convicted sex offenders. Whether this works is still uncertain; a chemical solution may not fix a psychological problem.

One government is already using moral bioenhancement with great success – the Islamic State. According to reports in the French media, the terrorists who killed 130 people at the Bataclan nightclub in Paris in 2015 were high on Captagon, a black-market amphetamine.

The killers were almost zombie-like. “I saw a man shoot,” said one witness. “I saw a man who was peaceful, composed, with a face that was almost serene, contemplative, advance towards the bar. He sprayed the terrace [with bullets] as anyone else would spray their lawn with a garden hose.”

This is probably not Baccarini and Malatesti’s idea of successful moral bioenhancement, but it illustrates one of the big hurdles that proposals like their’s face: who will benchmark the moral standards? Some bioethicists have suggested that governments could use moral bioenhancement to make people accept climate change mitigation. The Islamic State is using it to turn young men into psychopaths.

Until we reach a consensus on morality, proposals for moral bioenhancement will go nowhere.


Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter.