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Red Pill or Blue Pill? April 5, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
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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…



1. arthurdobrin - April 5, 2011

The question isn’t whether the change is really moral change if someone takes a pill, any more than whether someone is a better baseball player if they take steroids.

The real problem with pill taking is the trade-offs that are involved. So if we increase group empathy and reduce aggression, do we also make people more compliant and less able to make independent moral judgments?

2. Paul J. Moloney - April 6, 2011

It seems as if there are already enough morality pills to which people are addicted, an addiction that leaves them morally bankrupt. There is money, though, to be made from the addiction of others, which means there is money to be made from the misery of others.

3. forrest noble - April 25, 2011

Enhancing moral behavior generally seems subjective. Who gets to determine what is moral?

Prozac for example can assist a person to inhibit more outrageous behavior. This may help a person get a job, keep a job, sustain a marriage, be more friendly, etc. Is this improved moral behavior? If the person themselves are happy with the results is this an indication of improved moral behavior? It may simply help the person conform to standards and laws set by others.

“A treatment for racist thoughts, a therapy to increase your empathy” etc. It may be that such drugs might help some stay in touch with their own professed moral values but is this improved moral behavior?

I think such drugs will most certainly have there place in future society as they do in the present but there are also downsides to such drugs psychologically. Such drugs are known for some to reduce creative talents. In other cases they are known to decrease libido. They can inhibit passionate moral decisions that could be considered by some to be a reduction of moral potential.

Conformity and Morality are often found in different stables where most might prefer conformity on an even bet.

4. Matthew French - June 19, 2011

Sounds rather… robotic.

5. forrest noble - June 21, 2011

“I can’t even begin to say how nauseated this article from The Guardian made me feel:” — quote Nina

Should have stated this in my previous posting: I totally agree with your perspective Nina, concerning a “Clockwork Orange” misguided perspective that would propose the Red Pill, Blue pill idea as a psychological panacea.

6. Paul J. Moloney - June 26, 2011

Also, it seems that the Red and Blue mentality lends itself to the creation of an even more mediocre society, a society already mediocre enough. To intelligent people, mediocrity will always be a cause of nausea, at least in a manner of speaking.

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