1. Introductory: The Purpose of Ethics and Genetic Virtue


Dec 11, 2012 (4 years and 6 months ago)



Genetic Virtue

Mark Walker

1. Introductory: The Purpose of Ethics and 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 t
hat 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
And if not

if it has no point

what claim can it have

on our allegiance? (Sumner, 1992)

Suppose we agree with Sumner: the point of ethics is to make our lives and the world better. Exactly how
does ethics contribute to this project? Surprisingly, this issue is not discussed by ethicists as often as one migh
think. When it is ruminated, a common suggestion is that we should think of this task as a two
step process. In
the first instance, ethical theorizing might provide us with a better

of our moral lives; what it
would be for our lives and wor
ld to be better. In turn, this understanding might be used for

purposes: it might be used as a guide to transforming our world and ourselves. Most ethical discourse
concentrates on the former task: attempting to grasp the nature of the “good

life” and the “good world” and
allied notions, rather than the practical task of implementation. However, if we accept this two
part strategy then
at some point we must ask: How is the ethical knowledge gleaned from our theorizing to be implemented?
rically, several answers have been offered, among them is the idea that ethicists would encourage the
dissemination of ethical understanding through education. In this connection we cannot forget that Aristotle’s
Nicomachean Ethics,
although a seminal text

in the quest to understand our moral lives,

was also intended by
Aristotle to be an “education manual” for his students to implement the good life. Alternatively, it is suggested
that ethical understanding might be implemented through the adoption of soci
al norms, e.g., social pressures to
recycle have increased in the last forty years or so. Another possible mechanism for implementation is through
public policy. Here ideas about implementation run the gamut from Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’ to the present
Presidential Bioethics Council in the U.S.A.

What these efforts share in common is that they are attempts to influence our nurture, that is, socialization
and educational efforts. The Genetic Virtue Program (GVP) is a proposal for influencing our biologica
l natures.
That is, it is an alternate
yet complimentary

means by which ethics and ethicists might contribute to the task of


I would like to acknowledge the help of an anonymous referee for a very d
etailed and challenging set of criticisms on an
earlier draft.


making our lives and our world better. The basic idea is simple enough: genes influence our behaviour, so
altering the genes of ind
ividuals may alter the influence genes exert on behaviour. Engineering genetic virtue,
then, would mean promoting genes that influence the acquisition of the virtues. 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. Whether the GVP can be brought to fruition depends on the resolution
of a number of empirical and conceptual issues. The purpose of this essay is to discuss some of thes

if only in
broad strokes.

One topic that will

be addressed here is the general question of whether we ought to use technology to
our biological natures. At the risk of being accused of waxing histrionic, I would venture to say that the

of whether to use biotechnology to enhance persons may prove to be the most profound of our century,
if not the most profound that humanity has ever had to confront. I will not argue the point here, but it seems to
me that a proper assessment of the quest
ion of whether we ought to proceed with this project will depend in part
on an assessment of its potential benefits and harms. Since I will argue that the GVP is one possible benefit, the
present effort might be seen as a small contribution to a discussion

of a much larger question. In any event, for
present purposes we shall assume that it has been decided that it is morally permissible to use biotechnology to
enhance other (non
moral) aspects of our natures, e.g., to use genetic engineering to boost our i
mmune systems,
to make us physically more robust, and to enhance our intelligence. Our question is whether it is possible and
desirable to add our moral natures to this list of items to be enhanced.

Given, as I have said, that the GVP may be seen as a com
plimentary means to working towards the goal of
ethics, the rationale for the GVP might be difficult to see. After all, if we are not happy with current progress at
making our lives and our world better, then why not simply redouble our current efforts on
the socialization
side? While such intensified efforts may be a good thing, no amount of exertion in this direction promises to
make progress against a long
standing source of pessimism in ethics. The pessimism I am referring to is known
as ‘human nature’.

Let me illustrate this pessimism with a story I heard on the news that in part prompted the
writing of this paper. A group of about 90 teenagers participated in a vicious altercation involving the use of bats
and knives. This violent incident left one you
ngster dead and three hospitalized in critical condition. Now if I
told you that this altercation happened in some impoverished and war
torn part of the world it would be easy to
lay the blame for this at the feet of “our nurture”, that is, a failure to pr
ovide the right sort of social milieu in
which virtue might flourish. As it happens, culpability is not so easily placed: this tragic event occurred in an
affluent part of Canada, and Canada is one of the most affluent countries in the world. So, the incid
ent 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 not succeeded in Canada, which is one of the most
materially advantaged co
untries in the world, it leaves some room to wonder whether we should hold much hope
that this sort of evil will ever be eradicated from the world. I should say that I understand ‘evil’ here in the
generic sense that covers such acts as th
e raping and kill
, battering

of women, torturing
for pleasure, war, and
so on.

This news item is sad in a number of ways. It is sad to think of the teenager who lost his life, and sad for his
friends and family. It is sad to think of the teenagers who were hospitalized,

and sad for their friends and family.
Indeed, it is sad to think of any of the teenagers involved in this incident for they may remember for the
remainder of their lives being part of a murderous mob. Sad too is how this incident is so unremarkable: it is

a small variant on a tale told throughout our world, and throughout our history. Why does this sort of tragic
incident happen with such depressing frequency? One answer to this question is that we have defective natures,
morally speaking. This reply h
as a long history, e.g., it is a view that can be found in the Bible, with the Ancient
Greeks and contemporary anthropological scholars
ip (
Hughes and
, 2004).
Suppose we
accept this, what would it mean for the prospects for humanity? Here
we might be reminded of Hegel’s famous
description of human history as a “slaughter bench” (Hegel, 1956:35). 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
nderestimates the extra initiative that so many humans are capable of: the senseless killing and the gratuitous
cruelty so aptly described by Dostoevsky. A real slaughter bench, after all, has at least ostensibly the good
purpose of producing food. If we a
ccept the conjecture that we are innately evil, then we have some reason to
suppose that we are not likely to completely escape this slaughter bench

. For sure, we may be able
to minimize evil through better socialization, but we may never be ab
le to eliminate it, so long as our natures
remain unaltered. The implication for ethics is clear: if one of the aims of ethics is to eradicate evil, then there
may be a limit to the degree to which this aim can be realized through processes of socializatio
n and education

Should we accept the conjecture that at least some evil in the world is due to our biological nature? Certainly
a negative response has some proponents (particularly in the social sciences and the humanities). In this
connection the
idea is that, at least morally speaking, we are sufficiently “plastic”, so moral failures are failures
in our socialization. As intimated, some evidence against this conjecture is that evil exists in every known


Keeley (1996) estimates, using samples from eight prehistoric societies that about 15% of all men and women born in
prehistoric times died as a result of warfare.


human society

a point made well by Kant (199
8: 56

And this point cannot be emphasized enough. The
point is not that evil exists in certain societies, but that it exists in
every single society.

To say this is not to deny
that nurture has no effect, or only a small effect, for it seems pretty
clear that people can be socialized 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

who thought that nurture or education might yet overcome this history would be to suggest that we just haven’t
cracked the “ethical code” yet: perhaps we are missing key ethical concepts that will help our theorizing, or we
might somehow get bette
r at implementing the results from ethics. One reason that this seems like wishful
thinking is that we have ample evidence that our genes influence the sorts of behavioural traits we might acquire
(see below). I grant, however, that this is ultimately an e
mpirical conjecture that may prove false, after all,
perhaps we will wake up tomorrow and find that country

X has successfully initiated a

moral education that
makes all such evil a thing of the past. Here we might hope that the same moral education might
work in other
countries such that the violent incidence amongst the teenagers described above is a thing of the past. Certainly
this is possible, but the history of humanity hardly provides grounds for a superabundance of optimism.

Notice too that in a way

this conjecture about our biological natures is quite humdrum, for it says merely

evil is due to our nature. This 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.

Whether one is pessimistic or optimistic about the effects of
socialization to
overcome any biological propensity for evil, it seems to me that this issue is an empirical one.
The basic research of the GVP, which seeks to investigate the relationship between genes and moral behaviour,
may provide some evidence to adjudicate here.


Kant’s insight receives s
ome confirmation in contemporary anthropological studies on war and violence
, 2004;
Keeley, 1996).


Thinking in terms of percentages here is simply for illustrative purposes. I don’t pretend for a second that we could ever
e sense of such precise numbers as a measure of “moral depravity”. Even admitting that we have some propensity for
violence does foreclose the possibility of overcoming evil. One might argue, as does Fukuyama (2002) that our propensity
to cooperate might
eventually win out over our propensity to kill one another. Fukuyama offers an optimistic reading of
increasing cooperation amongst liberal democratic states, and the spread of liberal democracies.


. The GVP Division of Labour

Thus far I have discussed (at a very abstract level) the idea that there may be significant limits to what ethics
can achieve with our extant biological nature. Given the enormity and scope of the issues involved, I can only
tline how the GVP might attempt to overcome this problem. Let us look first at how the GVP might proceed
as an interdisciplinary effort, and then in later sections discuss a number of empirical and ethical points raised
by this proposal.

To take seriousl
y the idea of using biotechnology to alter our ethical natures requires some sort of “bridge”
or “common language” between ethics and the biological sciences. Ultimately, we need some way to relate the
ethical ideal of what it is for us to be better person
s on the one hand, with the four molecules of DNA: adenine,
guanine, cytosine and thymine. Cast in this light the task may seem impossible: How could a string of molecules
relate to our ethical ideals?

Despite the seeming impossibility here, I want to arg
ue that we might construct a bridge via the idea of
‘enduring behaviours’. As a first approximation, we can see a connection in the idea that theories of virtue
typically focus ‘on long
term characteristic patterns of action’ (Louden, 1984). Thus, Aristotl
e says that virtuous
acts “must spring from a firm and unchangeable character” (1105a). Augustine writes of virtue that it "is a good
habit consonant with our nature", and Aquinas offers a similar definition, “an operative habit essentially good”.
ed from the side of science, the study of what psychologists term ‘personality traits’ encompasses the
idea of ‘enduring behaviours’: “personality traits are conceived as enduring behaviours that are stable across
time and situations” (Pervin and John, 199

The connection to genetics is based on research that suggests,
“nearly all personality traits show moderate heritability” (Plomin et al. 2001: 235). Since genes influence
enduring behaviours, it might be possible to use biotechnology in a manner that

would prom
ote virtue,

and thus
serve as
a means to improve ourselves morally speaking.

Let us now think in a bit more detail about how this interdisciplinary bridge building might proceed. In
thinking about the contribution of ethics, we will need to make

a couple of assumptions to get started. One is
that we seek to cultivate the virtues of truthfulness, justice and caring for others. We will postpone until a later
section the question of justifying inclusion of these among our list of virtues. The other
assumption is that
exhibiting ‘virtuous
like behaviour’ is sufficient for virtue, e.g., it is sufficient for the virtue of truthfulness that
one exhibits truthful behaviour. This is of course a controversial assumption, one that has been denied by ethical
theorists from Aristotle onwards. Aristotle says that exhibiting ‘virtuous like behaviour’ is necessary but not


sufficient for virtue.

We will refer to this as the ‘behaviourist condition’. It too will be discussed in more detail

One of the prim
ary contributions of ethics would be to describe the concepts of virtue, and the sorts of
behavioural manifestations of the virtues. So, one of the tasks of ethics is to describe the sort of behaviour that
we would expect to see in persons who exhibit the
virtues of truthfulness, justice and caring. This is (obviously)
not a new task for ethics. Aristotle, for example, discusses (all too briefly) the virtue of truthfulness in the
Nicomachean Ethics
. He depicts the person who exhibits the virtue of truthful
ness as occupying the “mean”
between boastfulness on the one hand, and self
deprecation on the other: “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
thful in speech and his life simply because it is part of his character” (1127b). Aristotle characterizes the
truthful person mostly by reference to the extremes noted: a truthful person does not overstate her
accomplishments like the boastful person, nor
does she understate her accomplishments like the self
sort. Both types of persons, says Aristotle, are deceitful, although he finds the boaster to be more worthy of
blame. It is exegeses like Aristotle’s that may help us understand the nature o
f the virtue of truthfulness,
however, Aristotle’s short description of this virtue 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
ng is at stake” (1127b). There is, however, serious disagreement concerning what a virtuous person
ought to do when something is at stake. For example, if your Aunt asks whether you like her new pink and
purple polka dot dress, do you lie and spare her fee
lings, 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

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, and assist in articulating the behaviours that we should expect of individu
who possess them.

Similar remarks apply to the virtue of ‘justice’. Often justice is thought of as an attribute 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 (Slote, 2002). If you are supposed to split a pie evenly
with your friend, and he ends up eating three pieces leaving you only one, you certainly might claim that what
he has done is unjust, and th
at he is characteristically unjust. Aristotle distinguishes a number of sense
s of
‘justice’ including being ‘fair’
, with the corresponding v
ice of injustice being that of ‘unfairness’

(1129a). Of


Aristotle, 1962, 1104a. All further references to Ari
stotle will be given in the text according to the standard pagination.


course there is much d
isagreement as to exactly what ‘fairne

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 and to
articulate the expected behaviours of a just person.

The virtue of caring refers to be
haviour that seeks to promote the good of others. A paradigmatic case is the
care that parents exhibit for their children (Noddings, 1984). As Slote argues, a philosophically satisfactory
account of caring must consider our obligations not only to those


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
scribes for individuals and also in the individuals themselves) these two kinds of morally worthy concern”
(2000: 337). Slote argues that we must seek to balance the caring of intimates with humanitarian caring, i.e., that
we must acknowledge the ethical o
bligation of each. If 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 notion. In any event, it would be part o
f the task of ethics to attempt to articulate a theory that
addresses such concerns, and then articulate the sorts of actions or behaviours we should look for in those that
exhibit the virtue of caring.

As indicated in connection with the virtue of truth
elling, ethics will need to provide some account of how
the virtue operates in our lives. For example, Aristotle points out that the virtue of bravery does not mean
running out to meet any sign of danger. A person who did such would be rash, while someone
who never faced
up to danger is a coward. The virtue of bravery, says Aristotle, strikes the mean between the extremes of these
vices. The point here is that a theory of virtue will require some account of how the virtue operates. To be caring
does not mea
n to provide assistance to everyone indiscriminately, it would be a failure of the virtue of caring to
offer assistance to a serial killer looking for his next victim, or to help a child cheat on a test. As Aristotle says,
it is no easy task to specify ho
w to act virtuously, for this requires us to under

the virtues operating with
respect to “
the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way”
(1157b). Aristotle famously argued that there is no simple

formula for being virtuous, and many contemporary
virtue researchers follow suit. However, Aristotle never doubted that we could identify the virtuous and the

it is simply that such identification does not proceed by noticing who follows a simple
formula for
being virtuous. The GVP critically depends on identifying the more virtuous and vicious amongst us, but it does
not depend on the idea that being virtuous is a matter of application of simple rules.

One of the tasks of psychology is to utilize

the description of the virtues provided by ethics in order to
identify the degree to which individuals exhibit the relevant virtues. With the three virtues under discussion, it


would be a matter of finding the extent to which persons exhibit the virtues o
f truthfulness, justice and caring.
Certainly this is 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 behaviour that are not present with more morally neutral personality characteristics such as
shyness/extrovertedness. Fortunately, psychologists often exhibit great guile in making subjects reveal aspects
of their personality that they

might prefer to remain hidden.

Another task of psychology is to provide an “analytic of virtue”. This type of task is already practiced by
psychologists when they investigate “complex” behaviours, e.g., psychologists investigate the personality trait
“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 behaviours’, and then perhaps looking for the
component parts of these behaviours. For example, suppose that the virtue of caring is a global trait. Subtraits
might include personality characteristics such as nurturing, protection, empathy, an
d the emotional and physical
comforting of others.

The relation between global personality traits and subtraits is a complex and contested issue; different
models describe these relations differently. That is, competing theories of personalities will “sli
ce 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 as to the number of levels of
analysis. 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.

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. 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
ponent with respect for our caring of intimates, but not for our humanitarian caring.

One of

contributions of geneticists to the GVP is to identify the gene or genes associated with the
relevant virtues or subtraits of virtues. Having identified the r
elevant genes, the practical execution of the GVP


could theoretically proceed in at least two different ways. We could use pre
implantation diagnosis to select
those embryos that show the greatest promise for learning virtuous behaviour, or we could use ge
engineering techniques to alter extant embryos to exhibit more of the desirable genes (and fewer of the
undesirable genes). We already have (and use) technology to do pre
implantation sorting of embryos, so there is
no technological reason why this t
echnology could not be used as soon as we identify promising gene
sequences. Genetically engineering humans is not an established procedure today, but promising developments
indicate the possibility that this technology should be available in the first par
t of this century.

It perhaps goes without saying that this schema of the division of labour is only a rough approximation. 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 genes contribute to behaviours may change our taxonomy
of virtues, etc. An analytic of virtue might tel
l 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 disti
nct types of behaviours, if (say) the
psychological underpinnings of humanitarian caring turn out to be quite distinct from that of caring for

Conversely, an analytic of virtue might tell us that what from the point of view of ethics seems like

two virtues, e.g., the virtue of caring and the virtue of kindness, is best understood as a complex trait, if there is a
single underlying genetically influenced psychological character trait. This sort of reasoning is used presently by
psychologists to a
rgue about the relation between traits and subtraits, e.g., the large overlap in subject’s scores
on the subtraits of sensation seeking suggests that genetic factors are largely responsible, and so are properly
viewed as subtraits (Eysenck, 1983).

3. Emp
irical Questions

We have seen, at least in outline, how the GVP might proceed. In this section we will look at the question of
the empirical plausibility of the GVP and then in the next section turn to ethical considerations.

In terms of empirical plausibi
lity, the GVP might be examined in light of its commitment to three key

H1: There are character traits, and virtues (or vices) are among these.


One problem has been to get the desired genes into the appropriate place on the genome. Introducing genes with viruses or
through microinjection has shown sporadic success. A more pr
omising recent strategy is to add a whole additional
(artificial) chromosome that contains the desired genes (Lewis, 2001).


Perhaps the former is related to what ethnologists term ‘kin altruism’ while the latter is related to ‘reciprocal altruism’
land, 1995).


H2: At least some virtues (or vices) have a heritable component.

H3: We can detect and control the
genes responsible for this heritable component.

H1 is so embedded in our folk psychology that it may even be difficult to see that it is indeed an empirical
hypothesis. However, the idea that a person’s personality determines their behaviour has been chal
lenged in
social psychology by “situationist theorists” who argue that a person’s behaviour is determined by their
situation. Personality theorists side with folk psychology in claiming behaviour is determined by the personality
of an individual. A consequ
ence of the personality view, for example, is that we ought to expect people to act in
characteristic ways across different situations because their personality remains (relatively) invariant. Milgram’s
famous experiment (Milgram, 1963) is often used to il
lustrate the difference between the competing theories. In
one version of the experiment, subjects were led to believe that they were participating in an experiment in
learning which involved them as “the teacher” administering an electrical shock for ever
y wrong answer

on a
test to a second subject, “the learner”
. However, “the learner” was actually a conspirator and no electric shocks
were administered. The ominous device for administrating shocks had a dial with settings at 15 volt increments
ranging fro
m 15 to 450 volts. What many found shocking (as it were) was the degree to which subjects were
willing to comply with the experimental protocol. In one round of the experiment, all the subjects continued up
to the 300 volt level, and 26 out of 40 subjects
continued with the experiment right up to 450 volts. This despite
the fact that the device for administrating the electrical shocks had labels such as “very strong shock” at 150
volts, “extremely intense shock” at the 300 level, and “danger severe shock” a
t the 400 volt setting. The
“learner” acted out the part of being shocked by pounding on the wall at the 300 and 315 level and then after
that making no sound.

How should we interpret these well
known experimental results? The situationist says that behavi
our here is
best explained by the situation that subjects found themselves in, the personality theorist will attempt to invoke
some aspect of the subjects’ personality to explain this result. The relevance of this controversy in social
psychology for virtu
e ethics is that, as we noted above, most understandings of the virtues invoke the idea of
enduring personality traits
, so if there are no personality traits then there are no virtues (as traditionally
conceived). The debate over personality traits (obvio
usly) involves enormously complex questions, and not
surprisingly, there is a vast amount of empirical literature on this matter

as well as a growing philosophical

Let me then just make a few brief points.


Indeed, as Annas (2003) suggests, without the idea of personality trait it is difficult to see what remains of the idea of


Helpful entry points to this vast literature include: Ross and Nisbett (1991), Funder (2004) and Funder and
Ozer (2004).


See, for example, Annas, 2004;

2000; Doris, 1998 and 2002; Harman, 1999, 2001 and 2003; Kamtekar
2004; Owen, 1991.


First, between the “pure personality
” view and the “pure situationist” view of the explanation
behaviour there is (obviously) the possibility of a “mixed view”: personality explains some aspects of our
behaviour, situations others.

The “mixed view” seems to be supported even by Wal
ter Mischel’s work (who is
often considered to be the progenitor of the situationist theory (Mischel, 1968)

and by many practicing social
psychologists (Funder and Ozer, 2004). So long as
at least some

behaviour is explicable in terms of agents’
ty, there remains the possibility that personality traits (including virtues and vices) are causally
efficacious and something we may hope to improve upon.

Second, it seems somewhat surprising that the Milgram experiment is so often cited by situationists
since it seems open to interpretation such that it provides excellent evidence of the personality theorists’ view.
The personality theorist might say that people exhibit the character trait (or virtue) of fidelity. In this case
perhaps the subjects see t
hemselves as having made a promise to complete the experiment, and so they are
acting in accordance with this character trait even in this unpleasant situation. This shows how robust the
character trait of fidelity is. Alternatively, it might be thought th
at people have the character trait of obeying
authority. This might be a good thing in many cases, since it is good that people pay their taxes or pull over for
ambulances. However, this character trait is so robust that even in cases where apparent harm i
s caused to
others, people exhibit this character trait. This is not to suggest that the controversy might be settled so easily in
favour of the personality theorist. To the contrary, it is to point out the difficulty of testing specific character
traits (
Funder, 2004; Kamtekar, 2004).

Third, the commitment to the personality view is not a commitment to the view that we have good
characters. Consider, for example, the following comment by Harman:

But can we really attribute a 2 to 1 majority response to a

character defect? And what about the
fact that

subjects were willing to go at least to the 300 volt level? Does

have this
character defect? Is that really the right way to explain Milgram's results? (1999,
p. 171).

Suppose we assume that the

only way to interpret the results of the experiment from a personality theorist’s
point of view is that everyone has this character defect. This in no way bears on the empirical question of
whether the personality or situationist theorist is correct. One
can quite consistently endorse the personality
view, while maintaining that everyone has this character defect, or, as the virtue theorist might describe it,


Indeed, does anyone hold the pure personality view? Even our folk psychology allows for the possibility of p
eople acting
out of character because of their situation, e.g., revealing a secret to torturers.


Mischel’s review (1968) of personality research suggested an average of correlation between behavior and character of


everyone suffers from this vice. In other words, unless it is assumed a priori that research canno
t discover that
people in general have bad characters, the experiment is open to this interpretation (Annas, 2003; Kamtekar,

Fourth, while personality theorists attempt to explain differences in behaviour in terms of differences in
personality, it
does not follow (as it is sometimes thought) that personality theorists have no explanation for
similarity in behaviour. One obvious way to explain this is by the appeal to the idea that many of us share at
least some of the same personality characteristic
s. Milgram’s experiment again may be used to illustrate this
point. His research was prompted by reflection on the question of why so many Germans during World War II
went along with the orders of the Nazi regime. He predicted that Americans would not be s
o compliant when
confronted with authority figures. As it turns out, he was wrong.
It seems to be a universal phenomenon:

non Western so
cieties tend to exhibit a strong

degree of compliance to authority (Smith and Bond,
1999). The fact that ther
e is a certain amount of cross
cultural uniformity here is at least consistent with the
hypothesis that obedience to authority is a personality trait, and indeed, provides some support for the idea that it
might have a heritable component.

Evidently this
is not the place to atte
mpt to decide this almost forty
year old controversy between personality
and situation theorists, and the relatively new controversy about how this relates to the issue of virtues. My
intention here is to indicate that there is at l
east some empirical support for H1. This issue is certainly one that
the GVP would have to address in more detail.

Consider now H2: What evidence do we have that virtues and vices are heritable, i.e., at least partly
influenced by genetic factors? It might

be thought that it would be sufficient to say that part of the point of the
GVP is to see to what extent, if any, virtues have a heritable component. However, it would seem to be asking
too much to ask for research in an area that has no empirical support
, so it is necessary

I believe

to say
something about the current state of empirical evidence. On the other

hand, it must be admitted
up front that the
empirical evidence is somewhat circumstantial. Still, what evidence we have points to an affirmative a
We noted that systematic studies of the entire field of behavioural 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.

Let us look at more specific cases: does the virtue of truth
telling and the vice of lying have a heritable
component? Some suggestive evidence comes from the animal kingdom. Decept
ion is a common tactic among


As Rorty (1997) points out, the
Greeks did not share the widespread contemporary assumption about the egalitarian
nature of virtues.


Milgram (1974) speculates about some of the evolutionary reasons why this trait might have arisen amongst humans.


animals and there is extensive literature on deception that covers the whole range of biological species (Gintis,
2000). Some apes, for example, have been observed making cries signalling that they have discovered an

of food. When others of their troop move towards the source of the cry, the “liar” doubles back to the
real source of food.

Admittedly, evidence such as this is hardly decisive. For a start, there is the qu
estion of the relation between

and lyin
g. It might be thought, for example, that lying involves certain intentional states while
deception does not. 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 ly
ing 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 heritability has been
conserved in humans. What is nature in apes could possibly be a matter of nurtu
re in humans. So, what follows
is that we should bear such 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

heritable component in the virtues of humans.

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 persona
disorder’ (ASP). Lying is among the criteria for diagnosing ASP as are other behaviours such as irresponsibility,
aggressiveness, irritability and recklessness. A number of studies have shown that ASP has a heritable
component (Niggs and Goldsmith, 19
94; Grove et al., 1990; and Loehlin, Willerman and Horn, 1987).

On the assumption that we could reduce the incidence of ASP through the modification of gene frequency in
a population, we may have contributed to the promotion of the virtue of truthfulness.

The reasoning 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, th
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.

Some evidence for the conjecture that the virtue of justi
ce has a heritable component again is derived from
analogies 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 hierar
chy in Java
monkey society is often determined by the alliances that the individual is able to form as opposed to merely their


We should bear in mind that there may

be something to the familiar suggestion that genetic influences may be more
prevalent in the case of negative predispositions such as aggression or lying, and less influence in the case of positive
character traits like honesty. Of course we should bear i
n mind


how flattering this proffered etiology is: genetic
influences explain
the characters of scoundrels but not saints. Whether this is in fact the case, I believe, is an
empirical matter that may be answered by the GVP.


individual physical prowess. According to de Waal, such alliances are akin to a moral contract much like mutual
aid pacts in huma
n society. He has observed that not honouring an alliance can result in a temporary suspension
of troop 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 drive
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 fr
om the alpha male came she
became quite agitated. She barked and chased the alpha male across the enclosure and pummelled him. The
troop hierarchy in this case was temporarily suspended while the female “served justice”. This “moralistic”
aggression, acco
rding to de Waal, is not uncommon among primates (p.97).

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 on
togeny 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 our moral development, but the more
general claim that humans exhibit some sort of invariant developmental sequence in our reasoning about

It is the idea that there are cross
invariants to this progression in our moral reasoning that
provides some support to the idea that there is a heritable component to the virtues of justice and injustice. For if
individuals develop their reasoning and behaviour about justice in a similar ma
nner irrespective of the culture
they live in, then one potential hypothesis is that this invariant developmental trajectory is under genetic
influence. Thus, one avenue of research for the GVP is to gather evidence on the question of whether humans
ably proceed through a particular developmental trajectory in the acquisition of virtues.

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 exchange. 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 thos
e who
cheat on social contracts. The reasoning, in a nutshell is this: if cheats go undetected they can quickly undermine
the cohesion and viability of a social group, so there may have been tremendous evolutionary pressures to
develop specialized structur
es to deal specifically with the problem of social 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


Kohlberg’s original

formulation had six stages, later he added a seventh stage.


One of the most important critics of Kohlberg is Carol Gilligan (1982). Even Gilligan, however, does not question the
idea that there are some cultural invariants to moral reasoning, although s
he does suggest there are gender differences.


ran involved having subjects reason using a rule that ca
n 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 operates in cases
involving social contract subject matter. If they are correct about the specialized neurological structures then this
ts (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 believ
e that at least some subtraits of the virtue of justice are

When we turn to the virtue of caring we see 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) was introduced into a
new enc
losure with other bonobos. As it was new, it did not understand the daily cleaning and feeding routine
and it became quite upset when it was unable to understand the angry commands issued by the human caretakers
in its new home. Other (unrelated) bonobos t
ook the ill chimp by the hand and led him in the right direction.
Here we might think that the chimps exhibited the virtue of caring while the human caretaker exhibited the vice
of uncaring. Nature is replete with such acts of caring between related and un
related 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 altr

Some evidence for the heritability of the virtue of caring in humans may be seen in 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. ‘Agreeableness’ includes the subtraits of being good
trusting, helpful, and compassionate. Those that score low on the agreeab
leness scale are irritable, uncooperative
and unsympathetic. Now as we have said, one of the tasks of the GVP would be to make ethics and behavioural
genetics “speak the same language”, but I think it is pretty clear that at least some of what we might mea
n by the
‘virtue of caring’ is covered by the notion of ‘agreeableness’ as it is investigated by psychologists. Those that
are described by such character traits as ‘helpful and compassionate’ by psychologists may be much more likely
to exhibit the virtue
of caring, while those that are ‘irritable and unsympathetic’ are more likely to exhibit the
vice of uncaring. Recent studies indicate that ‘agreeableness’ has a moderate heritable component (Jang et al.,


1996; and Jang et al., 1998). The implications of t
his for the GVP are clear: if we could locate the genes
associated with agreeableness, and increase their frequency, then we may increase the virtue of caring in a
population and reduce the vice of uncaring.

H3 says that we can discover and control the gen
es that contribute to virtue and vice. What evidence is there
for this? To see what is being asked here, suppose for the moment that we have good solid evidence that certain
virtues have a heritable component, just as in some of the better
studied personal
ity 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 behaviours.
hese studies tell us nothing about how individual genes contribute to the heritability of the traits. We knew
long before the discovery of genes or DNA that there is some heritable component to performance on IQ tests
(Hammer 2002). Of course this told us
nothing about where on the human genome the relevant genes lie.
Similarly, if we discover that virtues have a heritable component there is still the question of whether geneticists
will be able to discover the associated genes. The problem here is that com
plex behaviours 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

for expr
ession of the
trait; often genes can work interchangeably, which means that many genes might not be
for the
expression of a given trait. Geneticists refer to genes that operate in multiple
gene systems
quantitative trait loci

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.

However, some considerable progress has already been
made. For instance, progress has been made by researchers

who have discovered some of the genetic correlates
of one of the subtraits of the aforementioned “Big 5” personality traits, namely, the personality trait of
seeking (Benjamin, et al., 1996 and Ebstein et al., 1995). While the problems posed by
QTL are not to
be taken lightly, recent successes at such an early stage in our investigation of the human genome indicate that
the problems may not be insurmountable.

I have described the empirical aspect of this project under three headings: the analysi
s of human action in
terms of personality traits, 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,


A good overview of the field can be found in Sorensen, D. and Gianola, D. (2002).


MacIntyre (1981) suggests that one vir
tue 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) h
ave the same degree of heritability.

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
eful 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 moral 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 be
tter. 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.

ike the empirical aspects of this project, the potential ethical obstacles are perhaps easier to see at this
stage. To these we now turn.

4. Ethical Questions

It may seem as if the question of whether to alter our biology in an effort to improve oursel
ves, morally
speaking, raises fundamentally new questions.

wever, I will argue that given, as we assumed above,

(1) that
it is morally permissible to use biotechnology for non
moral human enhancements, and (2) that we should
attempt to ethically improve

ourselves by using non
genetic means (e.g., through education and socialization),
there is no reason why we should not do the same on the biological side. Specifically, to clarify the position let
us distinguish between ‘non
indigenous’ and ‘indigenous’ o
bjections to the GVP. By the former I mean
objections that

attempt to implement our ethical understanding seems to face, i.e., whether implementation
is achieved through socializing and educating ourselves and our descendents, or whether biotechnology
is used
in service of this end. ‘Indigenous objections’ refers to problems that arise exclusively in relation to the use of
biotechnology for implementation. My thesis is that there are no good indigenous objections based on a


‘New’ he
re means within
the last century or so. The history here of course involves some of the atrocities of the Nazis.
to may be seen as an early forerunner of such discussions in his proposal in the

for the selective breeding of


‘companions in innocence’ lin
e of reasoning: any objection raised against the GVP has an analogue in
socializing and educational efforts. Since we do not take such objections to be decisive against nurturing
attempts, they should not be considered decisive against the GVP.

Let us beg
in with an obvious point of criticism: the focus on virtues. Why should we accept the idea of
influencing virtue rather than (say) using biotechnology to directly (without recourse to virtue) influence how
agents pursue the right or the good? A Kantian, pe
rhaps, might enjoin us to use biotechnology to make our wills
holy (to remove any contrary inclination to our acting out of a rational understanding of what is required of us
by duty (Kant, 1998a)). A utilitarian might hope to implant in agents an overwhel
ming drive to maximize utility.
So what is the basis for rejecting these alternatives?

In terms of what the argument here presupposes, there are two replies that may be made. First, the thesis
here is that the GVP may prove to be a

condition for

improving ourselves mor
ally speaking, not that it

or even the best means to achieve this end.

If such alternatives could be developed into serious
proposals then we would examine the relative merits of each. Relatedly, it should be noted th
at one thing the
focus on virtues does

commit us to is the endorsement of what is sometimes known as ‘virtue ethics’.
Recently, virtue ethics has joined (or perhaps rejoined) consequentialism and deontology as one of the major
theoretical options in no
rmative ethics.

The debate, and even the appropriate way to cast the debate, is a much
contested issue. One formulation says the primary issue is whether ethical theorizing should take ‘virtue’, ‘the
good’ or ‘the right’ as the fundamental concept of norm
ative ethics.

Typically, however, the question is not
whether one (or more) of these three ethical notions may be dispensed with altogether. What this means is that
consequentialism and deontological theories may (and, indeed, often do) have a role for vi
rtue, but virtue may
play some derivative role in the explanatory scheme. Kant, for example, is often understood as a paragon of the
deontological position but he sees an important role for virtue in our lives (Louden 1986 and O’Neil, 1996). A


, I would add that the direct Kantian strategy proposed (one that avoids talk of virtue) seems to run afoul on

problem that there is a singular lack of persons with holy wills in which to use as exemplars for guiding our research.
Kant does allow that we can make sense of moral improvement, and that some persons are morally better than others, but
these ideas are
intertwined with his discussion of virtue (Kant, 1991). Once virtue is introduced then at least some aspects
of the GVP may be relevant, see below. As for a direct strategy for utilitarianism, one might look for individuals who have
a reliable disposition
to maximize utility. Here we might wonder whether we have a real alternative to a virtue approach,
since a reliable disposition to maximize utility looks very similar to saying that we ought to focus on a single virtue, the
virtue of beneficence.


Of cou
rse there has been enormous recent interest in virtue ethics with the work of
Anscombe (1958) often thought to be
instrumental in this revival. A brief overview of the remarkable “comeback” of virtue ethics can be found in Statman (1997,
pp. 2
3). Schneewi
nd (1990) argues that the idea that modern moral philosophy has neglected virtues may be somewhat


The contrast is sometimes made by saying that virtue theory is concerned foremost with character while deontological
and consequentialist theor
ies are concerned with acts. Alternatively

virtue theory is primarily concerned with the question
“What sort of person should I be?” as opposed to the question “What ought I to do?”. For the “being versus doing” contrast
see, Frankena (1973, 65
6). For di
scussion about how to distinguish deontological, consequentialists and virtue ethics see,
Trianosky (1992) and Watson (1990).


number of co
nsequentialists too, including Bentham and Mill, think there is an important role for virtues in our
lives and moral theorizing.

Very roughly, consequentialists might see virtue as a disposition to promote the
good, while deontologists might see it as a d
isposition to do what is right (Hurka, 2001, 3). So, while our
argument relies on the assumption 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 m
orally improve ourselves, this
does not imply a commitment to ‘virtue ethics’ per se. So, the GVP stands not just with virtue ethics, but with
any moral theory that sees an important role for virtue. This is not to say that this disagreement in normative
thics is irrelevant to the GVP: it may turn out, for example, whether when we examine a virtue like truthfulness
it matters whether we conceive this virtue along the lines proposed by consequentialist, deontological or virtue
ethics. The point here is that

the general question of whether we ought to explore the GVP may be stated in a
manner that is abstract enough not to presuppose a resolution to the disagreement amongst consequentialists,
deontologists and virtue ethicists.

Obviously the ‘companions in i
nnocence’ point applies to the idea of promoting virtue: much of our (pre
theoretic) ethical practice assum
es that virtues are important. W
e spend an enormous amount of energy
attempting to socialize ourselves to be virtuous, e.g., in teaching our children

not to be liars, to be just persons,
and to be caring persons. If the GVP is wrong in attempting to promote virtue as a means to make ourselves
morally better, then much of our current implementation practice is mistaken as well.

Similar points apply to t
he question: Why these virtues? How can we seek to enhance any virtues when
historically there is little agreement on what counts as a virtue? After all, Aristotle’s list of virtues is quite
different from Aquinas’, as are Benjamin Franklin

and Nietzsche
’s list.

One point we can make in response
is to caution against overemphasizing the differences here. To be sure there are differences in understandings of
what counts as a virtue, and our list certainly has a contemporary ring to it, nevertheless there
is significant
overlap between different lists of virtues. The virtue of caring, for example, has taken more prominence recently
due in large measure to feminist theorizing. (Noddings, 1984 and Slote, 2000). However, caring seems to have
analogues in other

more traditional means of describing the virtues, e.g., Foot (1978) includes ‘generosity and
kindness’ which may be very similar to what is meant by the virtue of caring. Once we see this, it seems clear
that the three virtues we have focused on have sign
ificant overlap with more traditional lists. Aristotle, for
example, holds that truthfulness and justice are virtues, and perhaps had some sense of the idea of caring for
others in his idea of the virtue of generosity. Even Nietzsche seems to qualify for h
aving some interest in our list


Hurka (2001) surveys some of the history of consequentialists thinking about the virtues.


We will explore an allied criticism
, there is not univocal agreement about the list of virtues within our own historical
period, in the following section.


of virtues, for example, Nietzsche placed enormous emphasis on truth (1973, sec. 227).
Later in this same work
Nietzsche lists the “four virtues”: “courage, insight, sympathy, solitude” (Section 284). Solomon and Higgins
00) argue that Nietzsche’s list of virtues includes: “courage, courtesy, egoism, ‘the feminine,’ friendship,
generosity, hardness, health, honesty, integrity, justice, ‘presence,’ pride, responsibility, strength, temperance”
(183). So from their list we h
ave at list two of the three virtues discussed (truthfulness and justice), as well as
perhaps some overlap between the virtue of caring and Nietzsche’s virtues of friendship and generosity.
and perhaps more importantly, our companions in innocence
strategy suggests a powerful rejoinder to this type
of worry. Worries about
changing conceptions or lists of virtues do not hamstring us when it comes to the
very practical task of educating our children. Our awareness of changing understanding of virt
ue, and our
admission of the fallible nature of our understanding of virtue (our descendents may improve on our
understanding), does not ultimately impede our education efforts in virtue, and neither should it impede our
genetic efforts.

But it may be obj
ected that the companions in innocence response here misses the point: genetic changes are
irrevocable. In response, we might repeat the mantra that genes typicall
y influence but do not necessitate

behaviour. To see the importance of this, imagine that in
the future the GVP is used to genetically enhance all
citizens for the virtues of truthfulness, justice, and caring. One day a new Aristotle bursts on the ethical scene
and persuades us that we are not acting virtuously after all: we should be untruthful,
unjust and uncaring. There
is no principled reason why the next generation might not be enhanced for the new Aristotle’s list of virtues.
And all may not be lost for extant persons who were enhanced for the ‘wrong’ virtues of truthfulness, justice and
ng. For example, children who were born with the ‘wrong’ enhancements could be sent to Nazi youth
remedial camps where the virtues of untruthfulness, injustice and uncaring are taught and encouraged. Of course
we might expect the succeeding generations wit
h different genetic enhancements to better embody the new
Aristotle’s list of virtues, but there is no reason to think that his contemporaries could not make some moral
reform. So, it is conceivable that we could make radical course corrections in our mora
l understanding and our
moral lives, even if we are genetically enhanced. This line of reasoning is further reinforced when we consider
that extant genomes will be our models for future genetic enhancements. Since we think that everyone now is
capable of s
ome moral reform, there is no reason to suppose that the same would not be true for future
genetically enhanced persons.


Next let us look at several versions of the objection that (at best) the GVP offers only a simulacra of virtue,
not virtue itself. One

way to make this point would be to focus on the behaviourist conception of virtue.

that we assumed above that the behaviourist condition is sufficient for virtue, and noted there is a long tradition
tracing back at least as far as Aristotle that u
nderstands the behaviourist condition as offering only a necessary
condition for virtue.

The thought, then, is that we should reject the GVP because it utilizes an impoverished
conception of virtue.

There are two responses that can be made to this line
of objection. The first is that this behaviourist
conception of virtue is not indigenous to the GVP but has also been invoked by other theorists, e.g., it finds a
natural home in some forms of consequentialism: virtues are simply those character traits th
at tend to promote
the good. That is, at least some consequentialists might think it unnecessary or undesirable to build anything
more into the notion of virtue, for example, the idea that the agent has certain attitudes towards their behaviour.
Thus, Bent
ham writes of virtues: “It is with disposition as with everything else: it will be good or bad according
to its effects: according to the effects it has in augmenting or diminishing the happiness of a community” (1948,
246). So, Bentham does not require th
at the disposition be accompanied by the “right” sorts of intentions;
indeed, he argues that even wishing ill on others is good so long as it is accompanied by pleasure (218). Julia
Driver has recently argued for the following understanding of virtue: “A m
oral virtue is a character trait (a
disposition or cluster of dispositions) which, generally speaking, produces good consequences for others” (1996,
122). Like Bentham, Driver argues that to insist that certain attitudes accompany the exercise of such
ositions is to misunderstand what is “definitive” of virtue (122). And so, the GVP would not need to stand
alone in saying that the behaviourist condition is a sufficient condition.

A second and much more important response is to note that the GVP is not

necessarily wed to the idea that
the behaviourist condition is sufficient for virtue. To see this, let us recall Aristotle’s definition of virtue.
Aristotle argues that a properly virtuous person takes pleasure in his or her virtuous acts, in addition to
other conditions: “…first of all, he must know what he is doing; secondly, he must choose to act the way he
does, and he must choose it for its own sake; and in the third place, the act must spring from a firm and
unchangeable character” (1105a). So,

Aristotle’s conception of virtue is more restrictive than the behaviourist


Assuming that we can even give a remotely plausible account of virtuous action in terms of behavior. Plato describes the
difficulty of

describing the virtue of bravery in purely behavioral terms (

190e 4
6) as does Aristotle (NE 1115b 24


I will not consider here the possibility that the behaviorist condition is not necessary (cf. H
urka, 2001, and Louden,
Presumably if

behavior is not necessary then some attitudinal states are necessary. So long as we are not skeptical
about the possibility of discovering the attitudes of others, then there is still the possibility that the GVP might succeed.

What is important here is t
hat we have some way of sorting the virtuous from the vicious. (See below for more on


conception, for while it includes the behaviourist requirement ‘a firm and unchangeable character’, it imposes
further requirements. What this means is that it is possible that tho
se individuals who exhibit Aristotelian virtue
form a proper subset of those individuals that meet the behavioural requirement. However, so long as we have
some way of ascertaining whether individuals possess Aristotle’s additional conditions, the GVP coul
d work
with the Aristotelian notion. To see how this might be so, let us suppose that there are100 subjects who are
participating in an experiment to differentiate those that possess the virtue of truthfulness from those that lack
this virtue. Imagine furt
her that the first round of the experiment is designed to distinguish those who meet the
behavioural requirement, and 60 of the 100 subjects are found to exhibit truthful behaviour. For those that hold
that the behavioural condition is sufficient, the expe
riment might just as well end here. For an Aristotelian,
further rounds are necessary to ensure that we have discovered the virtuous. We might suppose that a second
experiment discovers that 5 of the remaining 60 do not take pleasure in their truth telling

behaviour, and so are
eliminated from further study. Further investigation reveals that 5 more do not meet Aristotle’s knowledge
condition, and 5 more do not meet his “choice” condition (perhaps we find that they are compulsive truth
tellers). After this
Aristotelian sorting, there would be 45 individuals left, but at this point then the GVP would
proceed as before. The task would be to see if there is any basis for saying that there is a heritable component to
the Aristotelian understanding of the virtue
of truth telling.

Of course the point generalizes to any conception of virtues: so long as we have some way to sort people
into those that have virtue X, and those that do not have virtue X, we can look to see if there is a heritable
component by examining

the two populations. The idea that we can sort people into those that are acting
virtuously and those that are not seems to be presupposed in much of our moral practice and education. In fact, it
would be hard to see the point of talk of educating ourselv
es to be virtuous if we could never tell when we are
virtuous and when we are not. We tend to make judgments all the time such as ‘John is not particularly honest
but Cheryl is’, or ‘Sara is a very caring person but her husband Steve is not’ all the time.

So long as we can
make such discriminations there is a chance that the GVP might work. Conversely, if this assumption is false
then it would be a disaster for the GVP, but it would also be a disaster for most (if not all) conceptions of virtue
that say th
at we might improve ourselves morally by improving our virtue. After all, it seems we presuppose that
in fact we can discriminate when virtues and vices are present or absent, for we often enjoin ourselves and
others to improve at being virtuous.

s it may be thought that this reply does not really speak to what is really troublesome about the GVP:
if we genetically modify individuals to have what we consider to be desirable genes, then we are in effect


Louden (1997) argues that one problem with virtue ethics is that “we do not seem to know with any degree of certainty
who really is virtuous and who vicious
” (187). I cannot address this skepticism here.


programming our descendents through such manip
ulation. If this is the case, then they cannot be said to freely
choose to act virtuously, and so they cannot be said to be truly virtuous. In other words, the objection is that the
GVP violates a necessary condition for Aristotelian virtue: that virtuous
actions are actions that are freely
chosen. This is one reason, for example, why we might be disinclined to attribute the virtue of caring to a
mother mouse providing nurturance and protection to her pups: her behaviour is genetically programmed; it is

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

This objection does not introd
uce any new elements into our discussion, for the reply to this objection is
implicit in what we have said above. What needs to be underscored is that the proposal is to use the genomes of
persons we know to be virtuous as prototypes for making other virtu
ous people. Since, by hypothesis, the
selected subjects are our exemplars of virtuous persons it is difficult to see why those that are selected or
modified to be relevantly similar to the models in terms of genome would be precluded from being counted
ng the virtuous (

because of their genome). Imagine that we have determined that Abdul is virtuous in
exactly the way that Aristotle describes. We then make a genetic clone of Abdul. If Abdul’s genes did not
prevent him from achieving virtue then on
pain of inconsistency we cannot say that the genes of Abdul’s clone
prevents him from being virtuous.

The answer, it seems, is that we cannot; at least not in virtue of his genes. A
similar point applies to the case of using non
cloning techniques to prom
ote certain gene sequences in our
descendents. If we allow that we have discovered the more virtuous amongst us, and this virtuous group has a
certain set of genes, then it is difficult to see how we could deny virtuousness to individuals created with simi
gene sequences. Thus, so long as we have identified the virtuous group correctly in the first place, there is no
reason to suppose that selecting or promoting gene sequences will suddenly lead to a loss of virtue. To think
otherwise, I would suggest, i
s simply bio

A different sort of reply to the “loss of freedom” objection turns on empirical considerations we mentioned
above: the more we learn about the operation of genes in humans, the more it seems clear that genes

but do not

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, individua
ls 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 learn
the virtue of caring, but genes will not necessitate that the individuals ex
hibit virtue. This is perhaps an


This assumes that we can discriminate with a high degree of accuracy who is virtuous and who is not without knowing
anything about their genetics. I take it that most will grant this assumption.


appropriate place to stress yet 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 as best as possible. Socialization and education, as always,
will be necessary. A child that is selected for genes associated with the virtue of caring is not likely to exhibit
this virtue if she is raised by wolves or otherwise cut off from human contact. Similarly, if the child is raised in
an environment where th
e vice of uncaring is rampant (say at our aforementioned Nazi youth camp) then the
child is not likely to exhibit the virtue of caring. As an analogy, consider altering the genome of a child to make
them more intelligent. This in itself will not guarantee
that the child will be intelligent or knowledgeable, a lot
will have to transpire on the education side as well. Nevertheless, if the right environment for learning is
provided we might expect an individual genetically modified for intelligence to learn mo
re and learn it faster
than an unmodified individual. Similarly, it is possible that individuals modified for genes associated with
virtues may, given the correct environment, learn to be virtuous more rapidly and to a greater extent in
comparison to an av
erage unmodified individual. Thus, the hope of the GVP then is not to make persons
virtuous, but to make them better equipped to learn how to be virtuous. In this sense, it is in agreement with
Aristotle’s view that ‘the virtues arise in us neither by natu
re nor contrary to nature; we are naturally receptive
of them, but we are completed

through habit’ (NE 1103a23

To this we might add that some are more
naturally receptive (able to learn) than others.

It is perhaps worth noting that even
per impossibl

it was the case that genes did determine the behaviour of
humans, this would not end the matter. For it may be that while genes determine certain behaviours, the genes
themselves might be under the control of the virtuous individual. Genes might be manuf
actured 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 gen
(Stock, 2002). Supposing
that the genes associated with the virtue of caring could be turned off in this way, then
iduals 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 individual

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 cha
racter. 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 undo 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 certai
n behaviours, such as caring, this could still be considered a virtue where the agent can
turn off the genes and eliminate the virtue.

Suppose it is conceded that in a future where the GVP has been implemented individuals may still be
considered virtuous.

Nevertheless, it might be objected that our descendents cannot be considered

virtuous as
unmodified (or unselected) humans. The reason is that our biologically modified descendents will have a much
easier time of acquiring the virtues than unmodified h
umans, and
so, to that

extent they are less praiseworthy
than we are. The conclusion of this line of thought is that a world without the GVP is a morally better state of
affairs, and hence, the GVP ought not to be implemented.

Our companions in innocence

strategy reveals the absurdity here. Let us suppose that Jill and Lil are
identical twins adopted at birth by two different families that live in radically different societies. Jill’s family
lives in a society that has little regard for the virtues. Acco
rdingly, little is done in her society in general, and
Jill’s family in particular, to help Jill learn how to be virtuous. By and large her moral role models are vicious
individuals. Lil, in contrast, is raised in a family and society that goes to extraord
inary lengths to socialize and
educate its members about the virtues. Other things being equal, if Jill and Lil are equally virtuous then Jill
seems more morally praiseworthy, given that she had more obstacles to overcome to become virtuous. After all,
t Jill is virtuous at all seems a minor miracle given her social milieu, on the other hand we might expect that
Lil would turn out to be virtuous given her environment. Nevertheless, clearly it would be absurd to think that
we should conclude from this tha
t we ought not to socialize or educate concerning the virtues, simply because
someone like Jill might be more praiseworthy. By educating the young about the virtues we hope to encourage
as many people as possible to be virtuous and to be as virtuous as pos
sible. Similarly, with the GVP we hope to
make as many people as possible as virtuous as possible. The reason it seems that we do this on the education
side is that we believe that a world in which the virtues flourish is one in which our lives and our wor
ld are
better. It is difficult to see how this same conclusion could be resisted when we turn to the question of altering
our biology in order to advance the virtues.

It may be thought that one reason to avoid the use of the GVP is that the resulting socie
ty would be
repugnantly bland. If the ‘movers and the shakers’ o
f our world are morally flawed, a

world where people are
much more saintly sounds like a world where so much of what makes life interesting has vanished.
n, in virtue terms, seems
to be a possible tension between self
regarding virtues and other
regarding or
moral virtues. I don’t think this can be ruled out a priori, but it does seem to me to be an empirical question. Are
there persons who exemplify a high degree of self
and other
regarding virtues such that more of their


type would make the world more interesting while increasing the general regard for the welfare of others? Even
if the general tendency in the population is to have one set of virtues or the other (but not

both) this does not
support the objection. For so long as some, perhaps only a few, manage to have both sets of virtues we could use
these persons as subjects for investigation by the GVP. Both Einstein and Ghandi seem to be people who
exhibited both sets

of virtues to a high degree. Neither was perfect by a
ny stretch of the imagination, yet b
exhibited self
regarding virtues, such as humour and intellectual curiosity, along with other
regarding virtues
such as a deep and abiding concern for others.


have found no principled reason why we should not attempt to supplement our socialization efforts to
make ourselves virtuous with biological efforts as well. It should be conceded, however, that there may be
contingent factors that work against this strat
egy. For example, if implementing the GVP is very costly in terms
of resources then perhaps we would be better to deploy these resources on the socialization side. Here we would
be weighing the expected benefit of the program to its cost. Whether this is i
n fact a real concern will require the
resolution of a number of empirical issues like how much increase in the ability to acquire the virtuous the GVP
might deliver. This objection is contingent in the sense that we can imagine a future where the cost of
the GVP
declines, or we have greater resources. Another contingent impediment might be where bio
chauvinism is
rampant. Imagine a future where individuals modified or selected according to the GVP are discriminated
against by the larger society to such an
extent that they are not permitted to engage in the sorts of social
interactions many believe are necessary for the development of virtues. We might then forgo using the GVP
because of the harm it would cause to these individuals.

The Politics of Implemen

We began with a quote from Wayne Sumner that suggested that the point of ethics is to make our lives go
better, or to make the world a better place. If ethics is to succeed in these tasks, then it seems sooner or later it
must face what we might t
hink of as the ‘politics of implementation’ question: how will the results of our ethical
investigations be implemented into our lives? So, if the GVP is to make our lives or our world better, then it
seems we need to say something about how the GVP might
be implemented. The politics of implementation
question is not sui generis to the GVP as is evident from the fact that the question is familiar from more
traditional ethical discussions. For example, suppose you develop a brilliant ethical theory, we would

still be left
with the question of how the results of your theorizing are to be implemented in order to make our lives and our
world better. At which point it seems we would be caught between the horns of a dilemma: If we left


implementation up to the cho
ices of individual parents, then there may be a significant worry that your theory
will be impotent: your writings may lay fallow on library shelves as most people might be content with their
own ethical views, and believe they have sufficient mastery of e
thical matters to educate their children

just as
utilitarians or Kantians today might be disappointed more parents do not teach their children to be utilitarians or
Kantians. Conversely, if your ethical views were legislated in various ways, e.g., imagine
a law is passed that
requires students to master your ethical work as part of their high school graduation requirements, then your
theory would appear to have a better chance of being effective in making our lives or our world better.
Predictably, however,

the suggestion that we should legislate a moral education in this manner would be open to
the dual criticisms of violation of state neutrality and potential for abuse. The former is of course familiar from
the view in some quarters that the state ought to

remain (as much as possible) neutral with respect to the
question of the correct or preferred comprehensive conception of the good (Rawls, 1993). The p
oint about
potential abuse is
familiar from examples like how Marx’s moral vision of an idyllic communis
t future devolved
into the brutal and oppressive regime of Stalin.

The same dilemma seems to apply with at least equal force in
connection with the GVP. On the one hand, if implementation of the GVP is left in the hands of individual
choice, then it seems

open to the objection that it is difficult to imagine enough interest by parents in the GVP
for it to make any difference. On the other hand, in the present moral and political climate of the West, it is near
impossible to imagine a state
sponsored mandat
ory implementation of the GVP gaining any political
momentum. After all, the points about state neutrality and abuse
seem to
apply at least as strongly in the case of
the GVP, and no dou
bt, would be front and centre in any

opposition to efforts to make the

GVP mandatory.

One means to defend the GVP against such thinking is to employ ‘the companions in
’ strategy.
To illustrate this, consider Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument that for our lives and our world to go better we must
return to a virtue

ethics (1981). The impl
ementation of MacI
ntyre’s vision would require a radical
reworking of our current socio
political environment. For example, MacIntyre believes that for the virtues to
flourish we must construct new political units, smaller than the
modern state,

and rid ourselves of capitalism.
MacIntyre is the first to acknowledge that these are no easy tasks, and may take many lifetimes to achieve (if at
all). Indeed,
After Virtue

concludes with the famous thought that we must contend with “
the ne
w dark ages
which are al
ready upon us


MacIntyre’s view is one that says that we are relatively impotent to
make our lives and our world better, at least in the short
term. Even if we accept this, we could still see some
value in MacIntyre’s wo
it could be seen as informing us why our lives and our world are not likely to get


See Gl
over (2000)

for a particularly persuasive retelling of this point.


MacIntyre is purposely vague on the size here insisting simply that it is large

than the family u
nit and smaller than the
state (1999:


The point here is (obviously) not that MacIntyre is right about any of this, but rather, that the politics of
implementation is not necessarily straightforward o
n the nurture side. So, it might be possible to defend the
GVP by similar reasoning: if our lives or our world are to improve in the ways that we might hope then the GVP
will have to be implemented. Current socio
political reality makes the implementation
of the GVP highly
unlikely; thus, our lives or our world are not likely to improve in the ways that we might hope.

We will not explore the companions in impotence strategy further. I have mentioned it here simply to point
out one possible means to defend
the GVP. Like MacIntyre’s view, it is a somewhat depressing conclusion. It is,
I believe, possible to realistically hope for more than this, so the companions in impotence strategy is at best a
fall back position.

I won’t argue the point here, but I thin
k there is a vanishingly small chance that any Weste
rn nation is likely
to make
use of the GVP mandatory in the sense of requiring all children to be genetically enhanced according to
some state approved list of virtues. So, I shall try to show that there
is some chance that a
“liberal” model, one
that permits parents the option of using the GVP, has some chance of succeeding.

The liberal model
, we said, leaves genetic decisions up to individual parents. One obvious advantage of
this proposal, with respec
t to the GVP, is that we (citizens of Western democracies) are generally much more
comfortable with parents, as opposed to the state, making decisions about crafting the moral character of the
next generation. Political liberals may concede that some paren
ts provide atrocious moral education for their
children, but this is a tragic cost of allowing parents to have discretion over this aspect of children’s lives. In part
this is justified by the thought that the alternative of state mandated moral education
is even worse. The liberal
model also seems to pose less of a risk of widespread abuse as compared with the state model. In particular, the
suggestion is that parents are by and large better guardians of their children’s interests than the state, and so th
liberal model offers better prospects that children will not be sacrificed for the sake of some tenuous social goal.

As noted, one reason to worry about the viability of the liberal model of implementing the GVP has to do
with whether the GVP could ever

be effective in changing human nature. To respond to this we should note first
that in thinking about the implementation of the liberal program we are not thinking of the GVP as a “stand
alone” program, that is, a future where the only genetic decisions p
ermitted are those connected with virtue.


The connection between liberalism and paren
tal genetic choices should be
perhaps stated here more diffidently: i
liberalism is consistent with
the application of genetic technologies

to our descendents then the parental responsibility
model seems the best fit. For it has been argued by Habermas (2
002) that genetic decisions by parents would inevitably
usurp the autonomy of our descendents, and autonomy is constitutive of the liberal endorsement of equal political
participation. Thus, liberalism cannot endorse any (non
therapeutic) genetic choices.
The other way the connection between
liberalism and genetic choices might be challenged is if one believes that liberalism must endorse certain values and virtues

amongst its citizens, e.g., the virtue of justice or toleration, etc. In which case, this arg
ument would suggest that the liberal
state might consistently require or promote at least some minimal conception of the good life.
Elsewhere, I have dealt with
the autonomy objection (REF).


Such a future seems very improbable. The reason is, is that if the state permits parents to make genetic decisions
about virtue, it seems likely that parents may have the opportunity to chose gene sequences associa
ted with any
number of desired characteristics for their offspring such as a robust immune system, longevity, intelligence,
etc. The genetics of intelligence may be particularly important for any “genetic revolution”. It seems a
reasonable, but by no mean
s a sure bet, that if some parents elect to use genetic technologies in the hope of
increasing the intelligence of their offspring, this will act as a spur for others to do so in the hopes that their
children will not be left behind. So, the most plausible

question to ask
whether parents will make use of the
GVP if they are already selecting embryos for gene sequences associated with intelligence and other desired
characteristics, or perhaps using genetic engineering to these same ends.

One reason to th
ink there would be little impetus is that most people seem sufficiently satisfied with their
own level of virtue, and so when it comes to creating offspring it seems there may be little demand for the GVP.
Moreover, even those parents who might otherwise b
e inclined to use the GVP might be worried about the fate
of their child in a world where others do not use the GVP. The reasoning here might be something along the
lines of an iterated prisoners’ dilemma. Parents might reason that our descendents might be

better off if
everyone used the GVP, but without coordination and enforcement some might defect, that is, not use the GVP.
This will put those created through the GVP at a severe disadvantage: the virtuous may be exploited by the
vicious. Parents might th
ink that using the GVP in such circumstances is like throwing a sheep in with a pack of

Despite the pessimism of the previous paragraph, I want to suggest that there is some reason to imagine that
parents would seek the use of the GVP. Turning to

the point that parents are likely to be satisfied with their own
level of virtue, it seems that we must admit this at least in some sense. There is a well
known self
bias in the psychology literature: most people are likely to think they are ab
ove average in terms of intelligence,
looks, humour, etc., as compared with objective measures. It seems likely, then, that most parents will think
themselves above average in terms of their moral character. Still, self
overrating is consistent with paren
hoping for better for their children. In a cool hour of reflection parents might think that even though they are
above average, nevertheless, they could be better persons. After all, most of us see ourselves as failing from time
to time even if we don’t

magine ourselves to be
lly despicable
. Furthermore, even those who might self
rate as exhibiting an above average moral character

in their adult life
might rate as sub
par their moral character
as a youth. This connects with our earlier discussion ab
out genetics being instrumental in the educational
uptake: one might wish one had been better as a youth and that one’s parents might not have had to struggle so


I would like to acknowledge a very thorough set of questions a
nd criticisms from an anonymous reviewer that form the
basis of the objections of
previous two paragraphs.


hard to morally educate. This would provi
de some reason to use the GVP:
the wish to avoid the
same struggle
with one’s children. Even thos
e parents who believe
they have embodied the highest standards of virtue

in their
youth and adulthood

may have some reason to use the GVP

if they think their prospective partner struggles now
(or in his or her y
outh) to be virtuous. Finally, even parents
are not concerned about their own or their partner’s
virtue may

have a worry that about regression towards the mean: if the genetics of the child is left to stochastic
processes then there is a chance that the ch
ild will not inherit the desired genes. (As an analogy: couples who
are both highly intelligent may wish to genetically screen embryos in order to ensure
select the one most
likely to exhibit the same characteristic).

The other reason mentioned to t
hink that parents might not be inclined to use the GVP is if it
perceived as
requiring a sacrifice of the well
being of their offspring for some social good. That is, if parents think that the
world as a whole might be better if parents used the GVP but

they are not willing to sacrifice the future well
being of their children for some abstract social good, especially if there is no guarantee that other parents will do
the same. This raises the question of the place of virtue in the good life

a question c
ogitated at least since the
Ancient Greeks. This is obviously not the place to decide this question, but it is enough to point out that this
same logic does not seem to work on the education side: parents by and large tend to educate their children to be
irtuous, at least in part because they think that being virtuous will make the lives of their children better. Again,
the point of the GVP is to facilitate the uptake of virtue education: a project which most parents have a prior

Of course on
e hope of
introducing the GVP is to introduce a new
and better
social dynamic. As noted above,
there is also the concern that this might backfire. Let us think of this in terms of a very general worry, and then a
more specific complaint. The general worry
is simply that introducing any change invites skepticism about the
outcome. For example, reformers in the 19

century who agitated for the emancipation and political equality of
women faced the objection that such a radical change might bring the collapse

of civil society. Such an
objection seems silly to us, since it is obvious to all now that such worries were entirely misplaced. But at the
time the conservatives were right at least on this point: what the reformers
agitating for was a social
ment, and like most experiments, the outcome was not known for certain in advance. Certainly there is no
reason to think that the GVP is any different in this connection: that the outcome of it as an experiment can be
known in advance. Yet, put abstractly
like this, the complaint seems to be far too broad, for the same complaint
can be raised against any attempt to make our lives and our world better. For example: how do we know that
current recycling programs might not make us worse off? It might be argued

that there is the possibility that
such programs might upset existing patterns of economic distribution that could cause social unrest and


eventually a massive war. It is hard to deny that this is
, but this gives us no reason to think that it is
. After all, it seems entirely possible as well that not recycling could cause further environmental
damage that might lead to civil unrest and war. Similarly, if the point is that it is

that the GVP might
make us worse off then this must
be conceded, but this does nothing to show that it is
. For it seems
equally possible that not instituting the GVP might lead to disaster in the future. Mere possibility does not
provide any indication as to how we should proceed. Doubts here need
to be grounded in some more specific

A more concrete doubt is this: if we succeed in creating more virtuous persons this future population will be
more easily exploited by the vicious. If this is the case, then we may have a situation that is muc
h worse than
what we would have had otherwise. This line of thought seems to assume that the virtuous person is meek or a
“pushover”. Whether this thinking is erroneous will probably depend on who we take to be exemplars of virtue,
but consider that Ghand
i is often cited as just such an example. While not violent, Ghandi’s pacifism
atyagraha) is hardly an example of meekness. Ghandi claimed that pacifism requires the virtue of courage and
that those that use pacifism to hide the vice of cowardice are “de
spicable”. Another example is that of
Ridenhour. Ridenhour was one of those that stood up to the US government’s attempt to bury the truth about the
Mia Lia massacre. In his struggle to expose the cover
up, Ridenhour exhibited the virtues of courage
, caring and
justice. Or imagine you are president of Big Oil Firm and the genie comes bearing bad and good news. The bad
news is that one of your oil tankers is going to crash. The good news is that you get to cho
se where: either on
the shores of Virtuou
s Ville or Vicious Ville. To protect your company’s bottom line a crash on the shores of
Vicious Ville seems more prudent: one has a better hope of buying their silence so the shoddy safety practices of
your tanker fleet are not exposed. The point here is
not that there are not serious issues to consider here prior to
implementation, but rather, it is far from obvious that the promotion of individual virtue with the GVP is
tantamount to fattening the flock for the vicious.

Also worth mentioning here in pas
sing is some hybrid version of the state versus the liberal implementation
of the GVP. For example, rather than simply requiring that everyone be subject to the GVP

enhancement of
certain virtues under certain conditions might be specified. One possibilit
y is that while no children would be
required by the state to have enhanced intelligence, those whose intelligence is enhanced must also have the
biological prerequisites for a certain amount of the virtue of justice. The thought here would be that this mi
help mitigate the possibility that the intellectually enhanced might leverage their intelligence for unfair ends.
Another alternative is that there may be sufficient consensus to think that a liberal state requires certain virtues
of its citizens, as a

number of theorists have argued (Dragger 1997, Galston 1991, Spragens 1999 and Macedo


1990). In which case the hybrid version might permit parents to enhance the associated virtues but not to
enhance the associated vices. So, for example, if tolerance is
generally agreed to be a necessary or at least
desirable virtue of democratic citizens, then the state m
y permit enhancement of this virtue, but not permit the
enhancement of the associated vice, that is

no parents would be permitted to attempt to enhanc
e intolerance as
an enduring behavioural disposition. Similarly, it is hard to imagine the continued survival of a liberal polity that
permitted widespread enhancement o
f injustice amongst its constituents
. If this is so, a liberal polity might
permit (but

not obligate) the enhancement of the virtue of justice but prohibit the enhancement of injustice. So,
on a population level this should push us in the direction of increasing virtue even if the decision of whether to
enhance children is left to parents.

In thinking about the politics of implementation, we should bear in mind that if the GVP is to ever fully
succeed it is likely to take centuries. We are only at the beginning of the journey of discovering the biological
basis of morality. That the project
may take centuries to complete ought not be considered a decisive objection
given that battles on the nurture side have taken just as long. For example, the fight against slavery, racism and
patriarchy has crossed centuries.


As we noted above,
the argument that the GVP is worth exploring in more detail is predicated on two
assumptions: that attempting to become more virtuous is a good thing, and that using biotechnology to enhance
human biology is morally permissible. For many of us, reasons for

believing the former are tied to the belief that
there is an intimate connection between the degree of virtuousness of individuals and the degree to which our
lives go well.

We tend to think of the virtues being implemented on the knees of parents, but t
his focus, as
many have argued, ignores many other possible influences on the possibility of individuals learning to be
virtuous. Theorists from Plato and Aristotle to Marx and MacIntyre have emphasized the socio
political realm as
having a great influence

on the possibility of individuals learning to be virtuous. That we should be cognizant of
such influences seems to me to be correct, for it is a specific case of the more general point that we should
examine all aspects of the development of persons if we

hope to make ourselves as virtuous as possible. Of
course I have been urging the view that our genes may influence how readily we are able to learn the virtues, but
there may well be other factors that are important which we don’t normally think of in ter
ms of implementing
the virtues, e.g., perhaps children who suffer from foetal alcohol syndrome are less able to acquire the virtues, as
well, perhaps pollutants in the environment or the food we eat may negatively impact our potential to acquire


This formulation is (purposively) ambiguous enough to allow the thought that virtues are instrumentally or intrinsically
related to the good l
ife, and between a social and an individual interpretation of what it is for “our lives to go better”.


the virtue
s. So, to suggest that the implementation of the GVP may be necessary to make ourselves into the sorts
of moral beings that we might want to be is not to exclude attention to these other aspects of our development,
nor to suggest that genes are the predomi
nate influence.

The other assumption here is that it is morally permissible to use biotechnology to alter human biology. If
there is good reason to show that any attempt to alter our genes is morally impermissible then, obviously, there
may be good reason

to reject the GVP. As we said above, the question of the GVP is embedded as part of this
larger question. I would like to mention in passing, however, one way in which the GVP may be at least
partially divorced from this assumption. Suppose one thinks tha
t even though it is morally impermissible to alter
human biology it is likely that at least some humans will attempt to do so. For example, the search is on for
genes associated with human intelligence. If we think it is likely that humans will try to enha
nce intelligence
then perhaps this might be good reason to proceed with the GVP. Here the thought process might be choosing

(1) Not using biotechnology to alter human biology. (2) Using biotechnology to enhance intelligence
(or some other non
l aspect of human biology). (3) Using biotechnology to enhance human intelligence (or
some non
moral aspect of human biology),

attempting to implement the GVP. So, even if it is thought that
(1) is the morally best option, if (1) is not likely to be en
forceable, then there is still the possibility of thinking
that (3) is a more morally desirable outcome than (2).

In the history of ethics, almost exclusive attention has been to
how to make ourselves morally better
through education and other socializi
ng. This perhaps can be justified by the fact that until recently th
biological aspects of humans we
re more or less “given” or unalterable. The development of biotechnology will
allow us to revisit this assumption. It should also allow us
to better unders

the interactions of o
ur biology
and education
; and so


better able to compare the effects of each. In any event, in terms of making ourselves
as virtuous as possible, it seems that the best hope is for our biology and socialization to “pull in the s

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
implement the GVP? If such evil is
at least partly
rooted in our
biological natures, t
hen the GVP at least gives us some reason to hope.



Annas, J. 2003. “Virtue Ethics and Social Psychology”.
A Priori
, Vol. 2., pp. 20

Anscombe, G. E. M. 1958. “Modern Moral Philosophy”.
33, pp. 1

Aristotle. 1962.
machean Ethics.
Translated by M. Ostwald, Indianapolis: the Liberal Arts press.

Athanassoulis, Nafsika, 2000, "A Response to Harman: Virtue Ethics and Character Traits,"
Proceedings of the
Aristotelian Society
, New Series, Vol C, pp. 215

Balaban, E.
2002. “Human Correlative Behavioural Genetics”, in
Molecular Genetics and the Human Personality,
edited by J. Benjamin et al. American Psychiatric Publishing, 293

Beckwith, J. and J. S. Alper, “Genes for Human Personality: Social and Ethical Impli
cations” in
Molecular Genetics
and the Human Personality,
edited by J. Benjamin et al. 2002 American Psychiatric Publishing, 313

Benjamin, J. et al., “Population and Familial Association Between the D4 Dopamine Receptor Gene and Measures of
Novelty S
Nature Genetics, 12
, 81

Bennett, W. J. 1993.
The Book of Virtues
. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Bentham, J. 1948.
Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.
Edited by W. Harrison. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Cattell, R.
B. 1982.
The inheritance of personality and ability.

New York: Academic Press. 1982.

Cosmides, L. 1989. “The Logic of Social Exchange: has nature shaped how humans reason? Studies with the Wason
selection task”.
31: 187

Cosmides, L. and J
. Tooby. 1992. “Cognitive Adaptions for Social Exchange” in: J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides and J.
H. Tooby, edits,
The Adapted Mind,
pp. 163
228. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dagger, Richard. 1997.
Civic Virtues: Rights, Citizenship, and Republican Liber
Oxford: Oxford University

De Waal, F. 1996.
Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals.

University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

de Waal, F.B.M, and F. Lanting. 1997.
Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.
ey, CA: University of California Press.

Doris, J. 1998. "Persons, Situations and Virtue Ethics,"

32:4, 504


Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behaviour
(Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2002).

Driver, J. 1996. “The Virtue
s and Human Nature”. In
How Should One Live?,

edited by R. Crisp. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, pp. 111

Eaves, Eysenck, & Martin. 1989.
Genes, culture and personality: An empirical approach.
London: Academic Press.


Ebstein, R. P., et al. 1995. “
Dopamine D

Receptor (D
DR) Exon III Polymorphism Associated with the Human
Personality Trait of Novelty Seeking”.
Nature Genetics.
325, 783

Eysenck, H. J. 1983. A biometrical
genetical analysis of impulsive and sensation seeking behaviour. In M.
ckerman edits,
Biological Bases Of Sensation Seeking, Impulsivity, and Anxiety.
Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp.

Flanagan, O. 1991.
Varieties of Moral Personality.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Foot, P, 1978.
Virtue and Vices and Other Es
says in Moral Philosophy
. Berkeley and Los Angeles University Press.

Frankena, W. 1973.


edition). NJ: Englewood Cliffs.

Funder, D. (2004).
The Personality Puzzle
(3rd Ed). New York: Norton.

Funder, D., & Ozer, D. (Eds.). 2004.
Pieces of the
personality puzzle: Readings in theory and research


ed.). New
York: Norton.

Galston, W. 1991.
Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues, and Diversity in the Liberal State.

Cambridge University Press.

Gilligan, C. 1982.
In a Different Voice: Psy
chological Theory and Women’s Development
, Cambridge: Harvard
University Press.

Gintis, H. 2000.
Game Theory Evolving
. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Glover, J. 2000.
Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century
, Connecticut: Yale Univ
ersity Press.

Goldberg, L. R. 1990. “An Alternative Description of Personality: The Big Five Factor Structure”.
Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology
, 59, pp. 1216

Grove, W. M. et al. 1990. Heritability of Substance Abuse and Antisocial Beh
aviour: A study of Monozygotic Twins
Reared Apart.
Biological Psychiatry
, 27, 1293

Hamilton, W. D. 1964. “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour”. I, II.
Journal of Theoretical Biology.
7: 1

Hammer, D. H. 2002. “Genetics of Sexual Behav
iour”, in
Molecular Genetics and Human Personality,
edited by J.B.
Benjamin et al. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.

Harman, G. 1999. "Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtue Ethics and the fundamental Attribution
eedings of the Aristotelian Society

New Series Vol CXIX, 316

2001. Virtue Ethics without Character Traits," in Byrne, Stalnaker, and Wedgewood, eds.,
Fact and Value
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001, pp. 117

“No Character

or Personality,”
Business Ethics Quarterly
13, 87


Hegel, F. H. 1956.
The Philosophy of History.
Translated by J. Sibree. New York: Dover.

Hurka, T. 2001.
Virtue, Vice, and Value.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jang, K. L., et al. 1996. “Heritabi
lity of the Big Five Dimensions and Their Facets: A Twin Study”.
Journal of
64, 577


Jang, K. L., et al. 1998. “Heritability of Facet
Level Traits in a Cross
Cultural Twin Sample: Support for the

Hierarchy Model of Personality”,

of Personality and Social Psychology,
74, 1556

Kant, I. 1956.
Critique of Practical Reason
. Translated by L.W. Beck, Indianapolis: Bobbs

The Metaphysics of Morals.
Translated by Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University


Groundwork of the

. Translated by Mary

Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason
, translated by A. Wood and G. di Giovanni,
Cambridge: Cambri
dge University Press.

Keeley, L. 1996.
War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Save
. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kamtekar, R. 2004. “Situationism and Virtue Ethics on the Content of our Character”.
, 114. 458

Kohlberg, L. 198
The Psychology of Moral Development
. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Lewis, M. 2001. “Human artificial chromosomes: emerging from concept to reality in biomedicine.”
, 59 (1): 15

Loehlin, J.C. 1992.
Genes and environment in personali
ty development
. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Loehlin, J. C., L. Willerman and J. M. Horn. 1987. “Personality Resemblances in Adoptive Families: A 10
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
42, 1089

Louden. 1984. “
On Some Vices of

Virtue Ethics”
, Reprinted in Crisp and Slote, edits (1997),
Virtue Ethics
, Oxford
University Press.

MacIntyre, A. 1981.
After Virtue.
London: Duckworth.

Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues
, Chicago: Open Court.

McFarland, D. 1993.
Animal Behaviour.
Harlow, UK: Longman Scientific and Technical Publications.

Milgram, S. 1963. "Behavioural study of obedience."
Journal o
f Abnormal and Social Psychology,


Obedience to Authority
. New York: Harper & Row.

Nietzsche, F. 1973.
Beyond Good and Evil
. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, New York: Penguin Books.

Niggs, J. T. and Goldsmith, H. H. 1994. “Genetic of

Personality Disorders: Perspectives from Personality and
Psychopathology Research.”
Psychological Bulletin.
115, 346

Noddings, Nel. 1984.
Caring: a Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education
(University of California Press).

Pervin, L.A., and
John, O. P. 1999.
Handbook of personality: Theory and research.
New York: Guilford.

Plomin R., et al.
Behavioural Genetics
, 4th edition. New York, Freeman, 2001.


Rorty, A. 1997. “From Exasperating Virtues to Civic Virtues”.
American Philosophical Quarter

Ross and Nissbett. 1991.

The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology
. New York: McGraw Hill.

Hughes, N., &
, P. (Eds.). 2004.


: An anthology.
Malden, MA:

Shneewind, J. 1990. “Th
e Misfortunes of Virtue”.
, 101, 42

Slote, Michael. 2000. “Virtue Ethics”, in
The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory
, edited by Hugh LaFollette, Oxford:
Blackwell, pp. 325


"Justice as a Virtue",
The Stanford Encyclopedia o
f Philosophy (Spring 2002 Edition)
, Edward N.

(ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2002/entries/justice

Smith, P. and Bond, M. 1999.
Social Psychology Across Cultures
. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.

Solomon, R. and K. Hig
gins. 2000.
What Nietzsche

. New York, NY: Schocken Books.

Sorensen, D. and Gianola, D. 2002.
Likelihood, Bayesian and MCMC Methods in Quantitative Genetics


Spragens, Thomas A., Jr.
Civic Liberalism: Reflections on Our Democ
ratic Ideals

Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Macedo, Stephen.
Liberal Virtues: Citizenship, Virtue and Community in Liberal

Oxford: Clarendon
Oxford UP, 1990.

Statman, D. (Eds) 1997.
Virtue Ethics: A Critical Reader.
Edinburgh: Ed
inburgh Press.

Sumner, L. M. 1992. “Two Theories of the Good”, in
The Good Life and the Human Good
, edited by E. Frankel
Paul, F. D. Miller, Jr., and J. Paul, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1

Tooby, J. and L. Cosmides. 1990. “The Past Explai
ns the Present”.
Ethnology and Sociobiology
11: 375

Trianosky, G. 1990. “What is Virtue Ethics All About?”
American Philosophical Quarterly.

Vol. 27.

Trivers, R. L. 1971. “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism”.
Quarterly Review of Biology
. 46:35

Watson, G. 1990. “On the Primacy of Character”, in Owen Flanagan and Amelia Rorty (eds),
Identity, Character
and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology

Cambridge: MIT Press.