Should we all be popping ‘morality pills’?

Over at the New York Times’ excellent Opinionator blog, philosophers Peter Singer and Agata Sagan ponder whether we should all be prescribed ‘morality pills’ to make us more altruistic (I nicked the amusing illustration from that site as well – it’s by Leif Parsons). The authors write:

Researchers at the University of Chicago recently took two rats who shared a cage and trapped one of them in a tube that could be opened only from the outside. The free rat usually tried to open the door, eventually succeeding. Even when the free rats could eat up all of a quantity of chocolate before freeing the trapped rat, they mostly preferred to free their cage-mate. The experimenters interpret their findings as demonstrating empathy in rats. But if that is the case, they have also demonstrated that individual rats vary, for only 23 of 30 rats freed their trapped companions.

The causes of the difference in their behavior must lie in the rats themselves. It seems plausible that humans, like rats, are spread along a continuum of readiness to help others. There has been considerable research on abnormal people, like psychopaths, but we need to know more about relatively stable differences (perhaps rooted in our genes) in the great majority of people as well.

Undoubtedly, situational factors can make a huge difference, and perhaps moral beliefs do as well, but if humans are just different in their predispositions to act morally, we also need to know more about these differences. Only then will we gain a proper understanding of our moral behavior, including why it varies so much from person to person and whether there is anything we can do about it.

If continuing brain research does in fact show biochemical differences between the brains of those who help others and the brains of those who do not, could this lead to a “morality pill” — a drug that makes us more likely to help? Given the many other studies linking biochemical conditions to mood and behavior, and the proliferation of drugs to modify them that have followed, the idea is not far-fetched. If so, would people choose to take it? Could criminals be given the option, as an alternative to prison, of a drug-releasing implant that would make them less likely to harm others? Might governments begin screening people to discover those most likely to commit crimes? Those who are at much greater risk of committing a crime might be offered the morality pill; if they refused, they might be required to wear a tracking device that would show where they had been at any given time, so that they would know that if they did commit a crime, they would be detected.

Fifty years ago, Anthony Burgess wrote “A Clockwork Orange,” a futuristic novel about a vicious gang leader who undergoes a procedure that makes him incapable of violence. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 movie version sparked a discussion in which many argued that we could never be justified in depriving someone of his free will, no matter how gruesome the violence that would thereby be prevented. No doubt any proposal to develop a morality pill would encounter the same objection.

But if our brain’s chemistry does affect our moral behavior, the question of whether that balance is set in a natural way or by medical intervention will make no difference in how freely we act. If there are already biochemical differences between us that can be used to predict how ethically we will act, then either such differences are compatible with free will, or they are evidence that at least as far as some of our ethical actions are concerned, none of us have ever had free will anyway. In any case, whether or not we have free will, we may soon face new choices about the ways in which we are willing to influence behavior for the better.

This may sound like science fiction, but many young neuroscientists are already researching morality pills, including Molly Crockett at the University of Cambridge; and Julian Savalescu & Guy Kahane at the University of Oxford, who are two of the authors of ‘Enhancing Human Capacities’, published in 2011. I haven’t read that book yet, but it looks absolutely fascinating (actually, just reading it now…not that fascinating). People have also considered the use of Ecstasy / MDMA to enhance empathy. And of course, scientists are now researching the use of psychedelic drugs to help people overcome depression and gain greater meaning in life. Hard to know whether to think of that as a resurgence of spiritualism, or the final triumph of mechanism….

As to the morality of ‘morality pills’…well, what do you think?
One could argue, perhaps, that many of us use personality enhancers – coffee to make us work faster, wine to make us more social (a sort of morality drug). On the other hand, as a friend of mine pointed out, who decides what is moral? What if such drugs are imposed on us without our consent (as they are often imposed on people suffering from schizophrenia to make sure they fit into our socio-ethical system)? What about the case of Alan Turing, the computer genius who was chemically castrated by the British government to stop him being homosexual?

In my opinion, scientists today, and even many philosophers, are far too happy to give up on the idea of responsibility, free will, human rationality etc. When you do give up on it, it very quickly means handing over power to an elite or ‘grand controller’ to steer the automatons of the masses in the right direction. It’s amazing, and startling, how quickly that idea is becoming mainstream and respectable.


  • Anonymous says:

    We can't even necessarily tell, based on an action or inaction, just by looking at it from the third person, whether a person's experiencing empathy. For example, about two years ago I was walking down the street and saw some guy hunched over on a bench not moving. I decided to walk past and not help. But not because I liked the idea of someone needing help and not getting it. But because I thought "what if he had a stroke and if went to see if he needed help, it meant the difference between him dying semi-peacefully or living the rest of his life as a vegetable? Personally, I'd rather just die, that would be a horrible fate, it'd be kinda like being buried alive". And continued to walk past. Now, some people would say that my decision to let someone possibly die was anti-social or psycho/sociopathic. I however believed it to be morally preferable to acting and seeing if he needed help.

  • Anonymous says:

    Also, the person was very old. Further reinforcing my theory that it might've been a stroke. I've seen people who've had strokes before and the results aren't usually very pretty. Were they younger, I would've been much more likely to have seen if they were okay, figuring it might have been something they could recover from more easily than a stroke. This is about where the whole "quality of live vs euthanasia" debate starts

  • Anonymous says:

    ^^someone needs a morality pill ASAP

  • GTChristie says:

    @Anonymous, that is an interesting story. Now if the govt had a mandate to test you and then by some standard measure found you wanting in altruism, and also had a mandate to force you to take an altruism pill, you could have been prevented from using your own moral judgment. So the story is instructive and vividly reveals the fallacies in the whole idea of developing a "morality therapy" (be it a pill or whatever). It would not be justified because it abrogates your freedom (leave aside "free will" — just consider your personal freedom to think and decide as you please).

    In the extreme case, where a "criminally insane" person is involved, some treatment might be justified — but not predictively. I think it is not justifiable to "treat" a mental illness that has no symptoms. In other words, government has no right to treat anyone as a criminal before they have actually committed a crime. If some technology suddenly makes it possible to do so, use of that technology ought to be banned. Some people say science and technology cannot be immoral; they are amoral. That is a copout and hogwash. Counterexample: some inventions have no use other than as instruments of torment or murder (whips, racks, atom bombs). The devices of course have no conscience (they are amoral) but their development is intentional and those intentions are contemptible.

    I won't wait until they "altruize" my water, to object to govt intrusions on my freedom.

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