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Jagged Little Pill

By Michael Cook

If a morality pill can induce moral behaviour, what could governments do with an “immorality pill” to control its citizens, law enforcers and soldiers?

Not long ago, Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, together with research assistant Agata Sagan, proposed a “morality pill” in a column in the New York Times. They speculated that moral behaviour is at least in part biochemically determined, so why not engineer moral behaviour with drugs? Here is the scenario that they painted:

“If continuing brain research does in fact show biochemical differences between the brains of those who help others and the brains of those who do not, could this lead to a ‘morality pill’ – a drug that makes us more likely to help? Given the many other studies linking biochemical conditions to mood and behavior, and the proliferation of drugs to modify them that have followed, the idea is not far-fetched. If so, would people choose to take it?

This is not an altogether novel idea for Australian philosophers. Julian Savulescu, Peter Singer’s one-time student, is even more radical. A couple of years ago he and Ingmar Persson contended:

“If safe moral enhancements are ever developed, there are strong reasons to believe that their use should be obligatory, like education or fluoride in the water, since those who should take them are least likely to be inclined to use them. That is, safe, effective moral enhancement would be compulsory.”

Predictably, the proposal provoked a number of comic responses – women don’t need a morality pill, men do; we should have given one to Bush and Cheney; would it work on Wall Street, and so on. But it’s obviously a serious proposal, so it needs to be taken seriously.

First of all, would it work? Humans have been experimenting with mood modulators for centuries, but all of them have problems. Alcohol is addictive; tobacco is carcinogenic; ecstasy can make people suicidal. There could be unpredictable and unpleasant side-effects. Would a morality pill with a morning orange juice really turn everyone into Mother Teresa?

Second, who defines what is moral? The governors of Brave New World decreed that moral behaviour meant being placid, happy and law-abiding, so they encouraged the inhabitants to dose themselves with soma. Will the government ideal be the gentle pacifism of Buddha or the warrior ethic of Nietsche? What would stop governments from creating a pill to make soldiers pitiless, cunning and cruel?

Third, the morality in a pill might be all but indistinguishable from harsh social control. It could be a very attractive option for governments who want docile citizens. In fact, law enforcement officials have often turned to the medicine cabinet to make people moral. In several countries and in some American states, sex offenders have the option of chemical castration with anti-libidinal drugs. Soviet psychiatrists used drugs to cure dissidents of the illness of political deviations.

Fourth, the larger philosophical issue is whether it would be moral to distribute morality pills. The pills would reduce our autonomy and free will, which most people regard as a good part of what makes us human. If pills simply suppress impulses to participate in antisocial behaviour, are they really making people more moral or are they simply imposing mind-forged manacles on our freedom? Singer and Sagan anticipate this objection, of course, but they get around it by denying the existence of free will.

The promise of chemically induced bliss as a way of reducing social problems has bewitched writers from Homer (the lotus-eaters) to Timothy Leary (LSD). With the explosion of neuroscience, we can expect many more proposals like this.

But with respect – for Singer is said to be the world’s most influential living philosopher and Savulescu is an Oxford don – I am more than a bit sceptical.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.