Moral medicine

Paul Raven @ 11-04-2011

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.