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.


The homeopathic approach to fixing loopholes

Paul Raven @ 10-01-2011

Here’s an interesting minor story which throws a light on matters far larger: someone discovers a software glitch in casino slot machines that allows him to win big money without any tampering, and he does exactly that, to the alleged tune of US$1.4million. Cue his arrest and trial for “650 felony counts of theft, criminal conspiracy, computer trespassing and other charges” [via TechDirt].

Now, for a start, I have very little sympathy for casinos in general, and that may be colouring my judgement somewhat. But as far as I’m concerned, this guy has done nothing more illegal than picking up money he saw dropped on the floor. Sure, the highest moral ground might have been to return the money to its rightful owners… but when its rightful owners already have a great deal of other money (obtained by exploiting the statistical illiteracy and flawed psychology of the average person), well, let’s just say my cup of sympathy runneth not over.

Moral arguments aside, though, this story is indicative of a common phenomenon wherein the system encourages us to pillory those who take advantage of its flaws but does little to address the flaws themselves. Compare with the current protests here in the UK over big-ticket tax evaders: lots of public shaming of the evaders themselves (which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing), but comparatively little pushing for fixing the perfectly legitimate (if morally dubious) loopholes that allow it to happen.

The cynic in me suspects a lot of our ire stems from a gut feeling best summed up as “why not me?”, and as such we want to punish the transgressors for getting what we didn’t (or avoiding what we couldn’t). Our discontent is misdirected, and the underlying problem goes unfixed… which ends up serving the interests of those best placed to take advantage of it, who are usually those already holding a handful of aces.

We try to treat the symptoms, but the disease reigns unchecked.


Further corrosive effects of networked handheld computing

Paul Raven @ 17-12-2010

Thanks to recent events, it’s almost banal to talk about how the increasing ubiquity of  mobile devices and internet connectivity empowers the average Josephine on the street, but it’s worth remembering that governments aren’t the only hierarchies feeling the burn: the giants of retail commerce are starting to see the playing field flattened by price comparison apps [via MetaFilter].

Until recently, retailers could reasonably assume that if they just lured shoppers to stores with enticing specials, the customers could be coaxed into buying more profitable stuff, too.

Now, marketers must contend with shoppers who can use their smartphones inside stores to check whether the specials are really so special, and if the rest of the merchandise is reasonably priced.

“The retailer’s advantage has been eroded,” says Greg Girard of consultancy IDC Retail Insights, which recently found that roughly 45% of customers with smartphones had used them to perform due diligence on a store’s prices. “The four walls of the store have become porous.”

Some of the most vulnerable merchants: sellers of branded, big-ticket items like electronics and appliances, which often prompt buyers to comparison shop. Best Buy, the nation’s largest electronics chain, said Tuesday that it may lose market share this year, a downward trend that some analysts are attributing in part to pressure from price comparison apps.

The WSJ points out that not everyone has a smartphone capable of doing this sort of on-the-spot comparison, and that it tends to be applied to “big ticket” tech items rather than everyday bits and bobs like groceries. But if we assume that market penetration of handheld tech and mobile internet continues at its current pace, it’s not a wild leap to assume that price comparison will become a standard function, and possibly even the “killer app” that makes mobile internet appealing to those currently uninterested in its more abstract bleeding-edge “social” uses. If the Western recession continues for a few years, tools that save money will become extremely popular, and as a result we may see market forces narrowing traditionally huge profit margins very quickly indeed.

But hey, it’s not all about man-versus-The-Man: ubicomp also lets you single out your fellow citizens for their transgressions against the public good.

DriveMeCrazy, developed by Shazam co-founder Philip Inghelbrecht, is a voice-activated app that encourages drivers to report bad behavior by reciting the offender’s license plate into a smartphone. The poor sap gets “flagged” and receives a virtual “ticket,” which may not sound like much until you realize all the information — along with date, time and location of the “offense” — is sent to the DMV and insurance companies.

Anyone can write a ticket, even pedestrians and cyclists. No one is safe from being tattled on. Even if you don’t use the program, which went live Wednesday, you can’t opt out of being flagged if someone thinks you’re driving like a schmuck. Inghelbrecht is emphatic in saying he sees no privacy issues with the app and insists the end of road-going anonymity can only improve safety.

Now there’s a delightful conundrum for modern morality: we’d all love to be able to shop that douchebag who cut us up while clocking ninety in the fast lane, but we’d hate to be stung for the two minutes we left the car in a no parking zone so we could pop into the post office on our lunch break. The ability to mutually police each other’s behaviour represents a potentially massive shift in the way we think about society… but it also opens the gates to new forms of non-hierarchical persecution, pettiness and holier-than-thou bullshit.

For example, how about an app for reporting non-Christian (or non-Muslim, non-atheist, non-Liberal or non-Conservative) behaviour to a localised public forum? That’s sure to end well! Or an app for reporting people who throw pets into bins for a giggle, perhaps…

It’s a cliché to point out how much power the networked society offers us as individuals. But it’s less of a cliché, I think, to point out that we’re going to have to learn fast about the responsibility of individual and community power – not to mention a new need for mutual tolerance in a transparent world – if we want to avoid descending into a world even more dog-eat-dog than the one technology offers us an escape from. “Look first to the beam in one’s own eye”, and all that.


Eradicate cruelty: “reprogram” predators

Paul Raven @ 24-11-2009

hungry lionI’m sure that almost everyone would rather live in a world that featured less cruelty and pain for living creatures… but what if it were possible to eradicate them completely? Via Accelerating Future comes a provocative essay by one David Pearce, who suggests that not only would it be possible for us to engineer a biosphere without suffering, but that it is our moral duty to do so. Global veganism in the wake of readily available vat-grown meat would be merely the start of the project; next would be the engineered extinction of all obligate predator species. [image by Tambako the Jaguar]

Even the hypothetical world-wide adoption of a cruelty-free diet leaves one immense source of suffering untouched. Here we shall explore one of the thorniest issues: the future of what biologists call obligate predators. For the abolitionist project seems inconsistent with one of our basic contemporary values. The need for species conservation is so axiomatic that an explicitly normative scientific sub-discipline, conservation biology, exists to promote it. In the modern era, the extinction of a species is usually accounted a tragedy, especially if that species is a prominent vertebrate rather than an obscure beetle. Yet if we seriously want a world without suffering, how many existing Darwinian lifeforms can be conserved in their current guise? What should be the ultimate fate of iconic species like the large carnivores? True, only a minority of the Earth’s species are carnivorous predators: the fundamental laws of thermodynamics entail that whenever there is an “exchange of energy” between one trophic level and another, there is a significant loss. The majority of the planet’s 50,000 or so vertebrate species are vegetarian. But among the minority of carnivorous species are some of the best known creatures on the planet. Should these serial killers be permitted to prey on other sentient beings indefinitely?

There’s a whole raft of obvious objections to the idea, of course, but Pearce has covered pretty much all of them with the logic of our obligation to compassionate stewardship of our biosphere. I’m not even close to agreeing with him – frankly, the whole thing seems no less hubristic to me than believing that we have a moral right to impose cruelty by dint of our top-most position on the evolutionary chain, though (as Pearce points out) that’s representative of a fundamental bias toward the biological status quo. But it’s a fascinating and challenging read nonetheless… not to mention a spark for dozens of science fictional story ideas.


Brain-food: white hats, anti-hackers and post-modern political loyalty

Paul Raven @ 12-11-2009

By way of an experiment, I thought I’d round up a handful of links which made for interesting reading, but about which I felt no particular urge to editorialise (or waffle tangentially, if there’s any measurable difference between the two in my case). If you like the format, let me know in the comments and I’ll do more of them in future. Now, let’s see what we’ve got here…

  • Have you ever wondered why it is that the good guys always wear white? If so, MetaFilter has a comprehensive round-up of pieces about the psychological and/or neuroscientific roots of our association of blackness and whiteness with badness and goodness.
  • If you’ve ever wanted an insight to the world of the computer security professional, SlashDot points to an account by the FireEye Malware Intelligence Lab about their recent beheading of the Ozdok botnet. Simultaneously fascinating in the manner of occult literature (e.g. full of bizarre words and phrases for which most of us have no context whatsoever) and mundane in the manner of a corporate progress report (it’s mainly lists of domain names and IP addresses), it’s an insight into the language and attitudes of a profession we largely ignore, and the sphere in which they work. Great research material for anyone writing a story featuring hackers and counter-hackers.
  • And if you’ve wondered about my curious and relentless obsession with charting the withering of the nation-state as the uppermost level of global political structure, the two minutes it will take you to read this post by John Robb will explain it more thoroughly and concisely than I’ve ever been able to do, despite coming to a similar (though much less elegantly formed) conclusion some number of years ago. Here’s the first half:

    Globalization is in the process of eviscerating traditional loyalties. In the 20th Century, loyalty to the nation-state (nationalism, often interwoven with ideology), was supreme. In today’s environment, a global marketplace is now the supreme power over the land. It has drained the power of nation-states to control their finances, borders, people, etc. Traditional ideologies and political solutions are in disarray as the fluctuating and often conflicting needs of the global marketplace override all other concerns. As a result, nation-states are finding it increasingly impossible to govern and the political goods they can deliver are being depleted.

So, there’s some brain-food for your Thursday – tuck in! Do let me know if you’d like to see more of these bite-sized morsels on Futurismic.


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