Morality in a Pill?


One pill makes you nicer

The Guardian has an article looking at a new book, Enhancing Human Capacities, which suggests that new drugs may soon enable people to become more moral. As the Guardian reports:

A pill to enhance moral behaviour, a treatment for racist thoughts, a therapy to increase your empathy for people in other countries—these may sound like the stuff of science fiction but with medicine getting closer to altering our moral state, society should be preparing for the consequences, according to a book that reviews scientific developments in the field….

The field is in its infancy, but "it's very far from being science fiction", said Dr Guy Kahane, deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and a Wellcome Trust biomedical ethics award winner.

"Science has ignored the question of moral improvement so far, but it is now becoming a big debate," he said. "There is already a growing body of research you can describe in these terms. Studies show that certain drugs affect the ways people respond to moral dilemmas by increasing their sense of empathy, group affiliation and by reducing aggression." …

But 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."

As it happens I will be giving a talk at the Stuck with Virtue conference at Berry College in Georgia later this week on the topic human enhancement. One of the chief concerns of the organizers is whether or not enhancements will boost virtues or undermine them. I argue in my conference paper that enhancing capacities such as intelligence, memory, and practical reasoning will tend to enable people to practice virtue more easily. People will likely choose enhancements that increase cooperation:

While competition certainly plays a role in underwriting success in society and the economy, most success is achieved through cooperation – the dominant dynamic in truly modern societies is win/win, not win/lose.

So in the future people in the pursuit of non-zero sum social and economic relations are likely to choose the sorts of intellectual and emotional enhancements that boost their ability to cooperate more effectively with others, e.g., increased empathy, greater practical reason.  Of course, people in the future will have to be on guard against any still deluded folks who think that free riding might work, but there may well be an app for that – the increasingly transparent society. 

With regard to the idea of using drugs to moderate criminality, I warned against the the therapeutic state in my 2005 column, Prozac Justice.

Hat tip to frequent H&R commenter SugarFree.