Science and the Self

Advances in genetics, epigenetics, neuroscience, psychology, and computer science are giving us a better understanding of who we are and why we function as we do.
Science now enables us to associate specific characteristics in the brain or genetic traits with inclinations for particular kinds of behavior, such as violence. These findings may revolutionize how we see ourselves, or prompt us to oversimplify complex relationships among our genes, environment, and behavior. This information also presents challenges. Does this mean our behavior is predetermined? Should this change our notions of personal responsibility and our free will?
Additionally, various means of self-alteration have been used throughout history to change how we appear to others and to ourselves. Over the last few decades as our pressure for success has increased, so too have our arsenal of tools for self-enhancement. Each of these enhancers—including drugs to improve concentration and sexual function, cochlear implants, and robotic limbs — directly affects how we interact with each other in every facet of our lives. These alterations also beg us to question whether it is fair to enhance ourselves for a competitive edge. What about those who do not have access to enhancements? Are these enhancements more acceptable if they are used to promote societal good versus self-improvement?

Recent research suggests that new drugs such as oxytocin may enhance moral behaviors and that we may be less likely to harm others if we take a drug that modulates the neurotransmitter serotonin. While we have always aspired to make ourselves better, scientific and technological advances complicate our thinking on how we affect change—in ourselves and in others. The Hasting Center will continue to examine whether the ways that we achieve these goals matters and whether these actions diminish or enhance our humanity.


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