Red Pill or Blue Pill? April 5, 2011Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
Tags: Ethics, morality, neurobiology
I can’t even begin to say how nauseated this article from The Guardian made me feel:
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.
Drugs such as Prozac that alter 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.
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.”
Researchers have become very interested in developing biomedical technologies capable of intervening in the biological processes that affect moral behaviour and moral thinking, according to Dr Tom Douglas, a Wellcome Trust research fellow at Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre. “It is a very hot area of scientific study right now.”
He is co-author of Enhancing Human Capacities, published on Monday, which includes a chapter on moral enhancement.
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.”
And on it goes, concluding that such chemicals would be nifty in the criminal justice system. Can anyone say A Clockwork Orange? Undoubtedly, this is the way we’re heading. It probably has its pros, but all I see right now are cons. I’m one of those philosophers who regard the new connections between philosophy and neuroscience with a lot of optimism. Well, let’s just say I feel less optimistic this morning…