So…last month I did a bit of a rant on climate change. I decided maybe I’d do something a bit more hopeful this time, and focus on future medicine. Medicine is one of the areas where the network effect works wonders and the speed of change is pretty phenomenal. Continue reading Futuristic Medicine: Stem Cells
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.
Ars Technica reports on research into separating the pain-relieving power of tetrahydrocannabinol from its more commonly-appreciated psychoactive properties. You know, because “improving” natural drugs has always worked out so well for us in the past.
I suppose it’s the hallmark of a congenital cynic to suspect that research like this is focussed on finding new things to patent and peddle as safer (and more lucrative) alternatives to something that pretty much anyone can grow for themselves, rather than any genuine concern that folk getting a little baked from their pain relief might suffer ill effects…
We have worked with pharmaceutical companies, most of which spend $1 billion to develop and market a drug, if it is successful. When they go from animal trials to human clinical trials there is a good chance that they will lose the drug. In fact, 65% of the drugs that are developed in the labs that go through successful animal trials are thrown away once human clinical trials commence because what is good for the animal is not good for the human.
We tell them, we’re going to print you a truly 3D little organoid – let’s say a liver from human cells. We take human liver cells and we build a 3D little teeny tiny liver that still can be maintained in culture and we tell them, OK, why don’t you try the drug on the 3D human structure and if the drug does not work and the little liver dies, well then don’t go any further because chances are that when you put it into a human, it’s not going to work. We are already working with some pharmaceutical companies and they realize the value of this.
Even if we’re never able to print an organ, which I don’t believe, because there are already good results, our ability to print expanded 3D structures will have serious and very far-reaching implications and applicability in many other places.
Grimly fascinating reading over at Wired, where there’s one of those infografficky-mashup articles about the international trade in illicitly-obtained human organs and body parts. Even when we’ve reached a point when we can reliably print off spare parts for our meat-machines, the ol’ global wealth gap pretty much ensures that there’ll be a cheaper option overseas if you’ve got the right contacts. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “unbranded spares from China”, doesn’t it?