Moral medicine

Always keen to fabricate spurious definitions of illness in need of treatment on the lookout for problems to solve (so long as there’s a good profit margin involved), the world of pharmacology is looking to the sticky and complex field of human morality for its next conquest. This Guardian piece earns bonus points for including an “it’s a long way from being science fiction” soundbite

… would pharmacologically-induced altruism, for example, amount to genuine moral behaviour? Guy Kahane, deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and a Wellcome Trust biomedical ethics award winner, said: “We can change people’s emotional responses but quite whether that improves their moral behaviour is not something science can answer.”

He also admitted that it was unlikely people would “rush to take a pill that would make them morally better.

“Becoming more trusting, nicer, less aggressive and less violent can make you more vulnerable to exploitation,” he said. “On the other hand, it could improve your relationships or help your career.”

Kahane does not advocate putting morality drugs in the water supply, but he suggests that if administered widely they might help humanity to tackle global issues.

Gee, thanks, Doctor Kahane – it’s good to know you think that spiking our water is a step too far. That’s hugely reassuring. No, really.

I’m far from being the only person to find the whole idea instantly repellent. Elegantly-outfitted author Ryan Oakley sums up my main concerns concisely:

I don’t want any of that. I don’t trust the morality of people who’d make a pill to make moral people.

Besides, morality? What the fuck is morality? Is that like gravity? Some measurable force?

Cops, soldiers or leaders won’t be taking these pills. Just criminals and problem people. And guess who gets to decide who those people are.

Kyle Munkittrick takes a more moderate stance:

… drugs like Prozac and chemicals like oxytocin have the ability to make some people calmer, more empathetic, and more altruistic. Calm, empathetic, and altruistic people are far more likely to act morally than anxious, callous, and selfish people. But does that mean mood manipulation going to let us force people to be moral? And if it does, is that a good thing? Is it moral to force people to be moral?


Some drugs affect, that is, influence or temper a person’s response to a moral dilemma. Your initial response might be, “I don’t want my decisions being influenced by a drug!” We see ourselves as rational beings in control of our emotions. But our mood is often critical to our decision making, particularly in regard to how we react to others.


I might take a pill that makes me more more likely to be empathetic and altruistic, but it doesn’t guarantee that I will be any more than me having a crummy day will make me a jerk to others. Humans are able to exercise reason and willpower over our emotions and moods to control our actions. The great thing about mood enhancers is that they make it so that our reason and willpower don’t have to overcome anger, fear, and angst to enable us to do the moral thing. A person in the right mood has an easier time making good choices when faced with moral dilemmas.

As Munkittrick’s post title summarises: [mood manipulation] != [mind control]. But mood and character are deeply interlinked, and the ceaseless goldrush to identify, diagnose and treat behavioural or emotional “dysfunction”does not fill me with trusting appreciation for the idea of a pill that can “help us be better people”. If some kid chewing at his own lower lip in a rave made the same claim for MDMA, we’d rightfully think he or she was being naive at best, or deluded at worst; why is such a statement more acceptable when it comes from someone who wears a labcoat and (presumably) doesn’t eat their own dogfood, so to speak?

I guess the issue for me boils down to “who gets to define what’s morally good?” Given the historical record, I’m afraid that governments and pharmacology companies would be a long way down my list of reliable authorities on morality.

8 thoughts on “Moral medicine”

  1. Oh well, let’s choose a compromise solution. The mandatory pills will *only* affect our decisions related to taking the (not mandatory) altruism-inducing ones 😛
    More seriously (please note that I’m going to present problems, *not* a position): why do we feel that drug-supported state-mandated good behaviour is so much different from the current system of punishment-supported state-mandated behaviour? After all, many people only behave acceptaby because they think that otherwise they will suffer punishment. So their decisions are *already* being subjected to coercion by the state. Why don’t we have any problem with that, but we recoil from the idea of “morality drugs”? Because they would be administered to “good people” too? So, will our judgement change if they are used to substitute punishment for people willing to undergo such a treatment?

  2. To Confidently Dubious, re: “Why don’t we have any problem with that, but we recoil from the idea of “morality drugs”? Because they would be administered to “good people” too? ” — Yes indeed. And particularly because the drugs (in the suggested scenario) would be forced upon unwilling people who had neither been accused, arrested, tried, nor convicted by a jury of their peers, with due process of the law. At least, that’s why I would object. You may have other objections.

  3. To Robert Koslover: I am *not* advocating mandatory administration of drugs by the state, for whatever reason! (as indeed I pointed out in my previous comment)
    However, sometimes I wonder about the tools that we already use -and quietly accept- to manage society, and ask myself if they are really so “lightweight”.
    For instance: think at the incredible amount of resources, and of our own liberty, that we are willing to give away to prevent attacks from other people. Armies, weapons, police forces, intelligence… As a thought experiment, suppose that there is some way to ensure that *everyone* takes pills that make her incapable of physical aggression (without side effects). All of the above (armies, etc.) would be unnecessary, and the corresponding resources would be free to be used for other things. Our freedom would be significantly boosted, and we will have no more violence in the world (!). I’m not so sure that mandatory “morality drugs” in exchange for all this would really be a higher price than we are paying right now (for a vastly inferior result, too).
    That said, the problem -and the reason why something like this is too dangerous to be really put into practice- is that you would need to put people in charge of managing the drugs: and with such power would come nearly absolute power over everyone else. Unfortunately, absolute power…

  4. To Conf. Dub. hey, no argument! And I don’t believe that I accused you of “advocating” a particular position, per se. I just meant to address one of your specific questions with what I considered to be the most straightforward answer. And I also share your concern that absolute power is extremely dangerous. In fact, I prefer my Government to be limited to the absolute minimum power necessary to fulfill its basic obligations, and no more.

  5. To Robert Koslover: I didn’t think you accused me of anything, sorry if it sounded like that 🙂 I was afraid of being framed into the role of “the supporter”…
    All in all, I can’t shake off the thought that many of our failures as humans are deeply rooted in the way our brains evolved; and that perhaps, until we find the way to alter *that*, we won’t go much beyond what we have already achieved (marvellous things indeed, but also horrific ones). I don’t know if, how and when we will be able to “rewrite” ourselves to edit the parts of our mind that keep us near the ground, but I do hope that we will.

  6. Just for fun, what if we could genetically engineer some kind of approved morality? Would that be better, worse or the same as a ‘moral pill’? Noticed I said ‘approved’, because that’s the most realistic way. Would we be ok with spraying killers or other extremely violent people with a ‘calm-the-f-down’ spray?

Comments are closed.