Bioethicist James Hughes on Virtue Enhancement

Ellie McQueen '18

Assistant News Editor

On Feb. 19 bioethicist James Hughes gave a lecture titled “Using Neurotechnologies to Enhance Virtues: A Posthuman Model for Cultivating Character.” The lecture is a part of an ongoing series that explores the intersections between Buddhism and other fields of study.  Hughes’ lecture focused on emerging neurotechnologies that have the potential to improve moral behavior in humans – specifically, moral behaviors that are esteemed in Buddhism.

He began the lecture by speaking about differences between hedonia and eudemonia. Hedonia is pleasant sensation. Eudemonia is happiness that stems from a rational, fruitful life. The goal for Hughes’ approach to neurotechnologies is to end suffering for sentient beings. He emphasized that pleasure is not the end of suffering. Hughes asserted that biotechnology and genetics have the potential to transcend momentary relief or short-term benefits to become tools for the development of an ethical individual, whose effects are long-term and far-reaching.

Transcendence was a common theme in the talk. Similar to Buddhism’s “God realm,” where a person must transcend their current realm to reach Buddahood, Hughes explains how technology will assist in transcending current humanness to reach a posthuman state – a state that will hopefully uphold good values.

Hughes described the many values technology and Buddhism share and seek to enhance – including self control, care, intelligence, morality and fairness – but was careful to mention the danger of a tech-fix mentality. He noted that social solutions to some problems do exist. However, technology can offer better solutions for other problems.

Hughes ended with a reference to Indra’s net, a Buddhist metaphor for interconnectedness, and asked the audience to consider “enhancement beyond the self” and what neurotechnologies can do for society as a whole.

Around 40 people attended the talk. The crowd was fairly diverse with students from all five colleges, faculty and friends from town. Professor Maria Heim from Amherst College brought her Buddhist Ethics class to the event. It was overall well received with a lively Q&A. “It is far from routine for transhumanists to relate their views to Buddhism,” said Susan Levin, Smith philosophy professor “and James Hughes’ lecture on those connections was illuminating and thought-provoking.”