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Morality in a pill: can science create a drug that improves your ethics?

By in Opinions
Got some bad news for you: it's a suppository
Imagine going to the drug store, buying some pills, taking them and suddenly becoming a better person. As you read this, scientists are busy trying to make this a reality. They hope that someday people will be able to enhance their morals by popping a few pills.

The morality pill is one of modern science’s most audacious attempts to play God. Such a pill attempts to literally redesign the human organism. Because of this, some people (particularly religious folk) might write off the drug as unethical. But where should science draw the line when playing God? Maybe we shouldn’t have developed the atom bomb, or insulin — or Grapples (also known as grape-apples).

Today, neuroscience can explain the biology behind nearly everything our brains do. The field has given us the ability to create drugs that manipulate and “improve” many brain functions. For example, when someone is depressed, we can tell which neurotransmitters are failing. Consequently, drugs (like antidepressants) can be prescribed to “balance” those neurotransmitters.

And now, science can even know “the pathways in our brains that shape our ethical decisions,” according to Guy Kahane of Oxford’s Centre for Neuroethics. He adds we can find genes that lead some people to violence and others to altruism. It is this knowledge that scientists would use to develop their “anti-evil” pill. The science is not that far-fetched. Basically, the pill would tell the “moral” circuits in our brain to work harder.

Still, when I first read this, I didn’t believe it. I thought, “a pill can’t make you a good person. People only become good by working at it: by cultivating a moral code.” But looking around, I see a lot of people who are good at something simply because they take drugs.

Performance enhancers have led to superhuman feats in many fields. Think of steroids in sports, psychedelics in art or “study-drugs” in schools. Considering this, morality pills could very well enhance our goodness. But I wonder how marketable such a pill would be.

I’m not surprised people want to improve abilities like creativity, strength and focus. But who really wants to “enhance” their morals?

Imagine trying to push this morality pill: “It makes you feel totally responsible. You can just hear your conscience nagging you. It’s a real trip, man!”

Kahane admits the pill is a hard sell. “Becoming more trusting, nicer and less aggressive can make you more vulnerable to exploitation,” he explains.

Fortunately, his colleague devised a way around people’s resistance to be good. According to Julian Savulescu, the pills should be “obligatory, like education or fluoride in the water.” Governments doping the masses with drugs that make them agreeable — wasn’t there an Aldous Huxley book about that?

Indeed, science fiction has often cautioned us against miracle drugs. In A Clockwork Orange, Ludovico treaments rewire criminals into model citizens, as this magical morality pill would. In both cases, the drug makes humans peaceful, but it takes away their free will. To me, it’s this ability to choose that makes us truly human. That makes us more than mere computers.

Consider our capacity for love. Isn’t there a huge difference between actually being in love and taking a pill that tells your brain “you are in love”?

Whatever the case, plenty of people already use drugs that, as my friend puts it, “make people seem less shitty.” Some prescription drugs already exist that bare a strong resemblance to the morality pill. Prozac, for example, lowers aggression and hostility. Then there’s Oxytocin, the love hormone. Oxford researcher Tom Douglas says this substance “increases feelings of social bonding and empathy.” That all sounds pretty moral to me.

Some might even contend that psychedelics are analogous to this morality pill. The BBC documentary Psychedelic Science shows mystics and medical professionals alike who have used psychedelics to improve human behavior. Canadian psychiatrist Abram Hoffer, for example, treated thousands of alcoholic patients by administering LSD treatments to them.

In Brazil, the plant-based psychedelic Ayahuasca has been adopted by the Christian church União do Vegetal who give the drug at their services. Charles Grob, a researcher at UCLA School of Medicine, found churchmembers to be mentally and physically healthier than average.

Clearly, the science behind moral drugs has some credibility. It seems possible that one day we’ll live in a strange utopian or dystopian world that takes morality pills. But until that day comes, we’ll have to try being good on our own.

image: Alice Chaos/Flickr

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