Drugs for optimising morality

This month’s British Journal of Psychiatry has a fascinating essay by psychiatrist Sean Spence who argues that while most attention has been focused on ‘smart drugs’ and cognitive enhancement, medication is already been subtly used to improve ethical behaviour and we should prepare for a revolution in ‘moral pharmacology’.

Spence argues that the cognitive enhancement debate has an undertone of smarter = better, but that people with high IQs can still conduct atrocities, so perhaps we need to start thinking about focusing on ‘humane drugs’ rather than ‘smart drugs’.

Crucially, the argument does not concern medicating people against their will, an area of constant moral debate. Spence is talking about people taking medication willingly, knowing that it will improve their future behaviour towards others and improving their social responsibility.

Recent considerations of the ethics of cognitive enhancement have specifically excluded consideration of social cognitions (such as empathy, revenge or deception), on the grounds that they are less amenable to quantification. Nevertheless, it would be regrettable if this limitation entirely precluded consideration of what must be an important question for humanity: can pharmacology help us enhance human morality? Might drugs not only make us smarter but also assist us in becoming more ‘humane’?

When voiced in such a way, this proposal can sound absurd, not least since we may suspect that such mental manipulation would render us ‘artificially’ moral. Where would be the benefit of being kinder or more humane as a consequence of medication? This is an understandable (though reflexive) response. However, if we stop to consider what is actually happening in certain psychiatric settings, then we may begin to interrogate this proposal more systematically. I shall argue that within many clinical encounters there may already be a subtle form of moral assistance going on, albeit one that we do not choose to describe in these terms. I argue that we are already deploying certain medications in a way not totally dissimilar to the foregoing proposal: whenever humans knowingly use drugs as a means to improving their future conduct.

For example, someone who may be prone to impulsive actions may take a medication to make them less likely to take irresponsible decisions, or perhaps decides on a drug that reduces their level of aggression.

Indeed, this is part of what psychiatrists assist with at the moment, but Spence suggests that the moral aspect is often couched purely in medical terms when it is clear we need to consider morality to fully make sense of the ethical implications.

Link to essay ‘Can pharmacology help enhance human morality?’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

8 thoughts on “Drugs for optimising morality”

  1. Wow, those drugs sounds quite horrorshow to me. Can I wash them down with a bit of moloko?
    Seriously though: if drugs existed so that it would make us more moral creatures, IMHO something wonderful would disappear… we would lose our ability to choose to be moral creatures. Is it only an ancient romantic ideal that makes the ability to choose an honorable quality? Is it better if people lose this choice for the good of the collective?

  2. This kind of reminds me of what the philosopher David Pearce has been talking about. Using drugs to make people nicer to each other. Increasing empathy by inducing an MDMA like effect in people.
    “When naturally loved-up and blissed-out on a richer cocktail of biochemicals than today, our post-human successors will be able, not just to love everyone, but to be perpetually in love with everyone as well.”

  3. Leadhyena,
    I’m sorry, but I don’t think these drugs would take away our choice to be moral creatures. If exogenous chemicals can control our level of social responsibility, then it would be safe to assume that endogenous chemicals are already a source of control for our degree of social responsibility. Furthermore, if endogenous chemicals control our degree of social responsibility, then we never really had a choice at all.

  4. Leadhyena misses the fact that one major way make-you-moral drugs might be expected to work, is by STOPPING your ape-mind taking over in moments of heated emotion. Not obliterating reasoned choice, protecting it.

  5. This is stupid. These “drugs” (and I use that term very loosely) already exist.
    If you want to have more empathy for humanity and the world, and to become a more balanced person in life, a pill isn’t going to do it. What will do it is psilocybin mushrooms (colloquially termed magic mushrooms)
    I can think of no other substance that has taught me as much as I have learnt when under the influence of psilocybin.
    Terrence McKenna has some very strong theories about human evolution, and the involvement of mushrooms and their ritualistic application to human life, and researchers would do good to investigate these theories.
    We don’t need to develop medication to make man more moral – he is already full capable of being moral. What we need is for society to change its collective mindset, and stop the global thanatos complex that we are suffering from.
    What Spence proposes is a waste of time and resources – look to the mushroom.
    For those who would disagree with me; I would ask this – Why is it okay to engineer a drug to control our emotions and therefore our morality (because that’s what we’re really talking about here; controlling ones emotions) but not okay to explore the already existing avenues of moral enlightenment?
    Psilocybin, DMT, datura, ibogaine, mdma… many many others. They have something to teach us, if we’re willing to listen.

  6. You can’t optimize what doesn’t exist, but doses of high-velocity lead have shown great effectiveness in reducing certain undesired behaviors. Goo-goo gajoob!

  7. Virtually all psychoactive agents have their impact by initiating some response in the brain. I suspect all of these actions are possible without exogenous influence. When exogenous influence is employed, the brain is re-regulated to some extent. I can only believe that it is therefore possible to impact an individuals capability to be more socially adept. Whether that degree of leveling is desirable in the end is a yet another question. Loosely reflecting, wasn’t it Thomas Szasz who suggested that those individuals who experience in the tails of the bell-shaped curve perform a great service to those in the normative middle?

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