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 moving closer to altering our moral state, society should be preparing for the consequences, according to a book reviewing scientific developments in the field.
Drugs such as Prozac, which alters a patient’s mental state, already have an impact on moral behaviour but scientists predict that future medical advances may allow much more sophisticated manipulations.
“Science has ignored the question of moral improvement so far but it is now becoming a big debate,” [says the deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and a Wellcome Trust biomedical ethics award winner, Dr Guy Kahane]. “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.”
Researchers have become interested in developing biomedical technologies capable of intervening in the biological processes that affect moral behaviour and moral thinking, says a Wellcome Trust research fellow at Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre, Dr Tom Douglas. He is a co-author of Enhancing Human Capacities, published this week.
“Drugs that affect our moral thinking and behaviour already exist but we tend not to think of them in that way,” he says. “[Prozac] lowers aggression and bitterness against environment and so could be said to make people more agreeable. Or oxytocin, the so-called love hormone … increases feelings of social bonding and empathy while reducing anxiety. Scientists will develop more of these drugs and create new ways of taking drugs we already know about.”
You should read the whole thing. But I want to call attention to a few sections further down, as they set off all kinds of alarm bells in my head:
Kahane does not advocate putting morality drugs in the water supply but does suggest that if administered widely, they might help humanity tackle global issues.
Meulen suggests moral-enhancement drugs might be used in the criminal justice system. “These drugs will be more effective in prevention and cure than prison,” he says.
So, a lot to unpack here. First, the idea of Prozac and other similar drugs as moral enhancements. That strikes me as wrong, but I also don’t know having not used them.
Also, who was bringing up putting these drugs in the water supply? Scary.
Is moral behavior so hard to achieve that we need to drug people up in order to achieve it? What does that say about Western culture?
Anyway, I’m interested in your thoughts on this.