Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’    

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 a university 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 percent of the population are psychopaths.

And what is moral bioenhancement? This is the use of biotechnologies, drugs mostly, which improve personality traits and behaviour to make us nicer and less aggressive. Ethicists Ingmar Persson and Australia’s own Julian Savulescu were amongst 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.

“We have radically transformed our social and natural environments by technology, [they argue] while our moral dispositions have remained virtually unchanged. We must now consider applying technology to our own nature, supporting our efforts to cope with the external environment that we have created.”

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?

Amongst bioethicists there is a quiet debate bubbling away over the merits of Persson and Savuselcu’s proposals. The American Journal of Bioethics even ran a special issue on the topic a couple of years ago.

Rob Sparrow, of Monash University, in Melbourne, 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, say, 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.

There is one government which 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 which made them 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? They want to turn psychopaths into nice people; the Islamic State is using it to turn nice people into psychopaths.

Without a consensus on morality, moral bioenhancement makes no sense whatsoever.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.     

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.