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Anti-Love Potions

By Michael Cook

What are the potential uses and consequences of a pill that could make people fall out of love?

The British novelist and playwright Somerset Maugham has never faded away. His 1925 novel The Painted Veil was made into a film only a couple of years ago for the third time.

What I liked when I first read his stories was the geometric precision of his plots and his Edwardian gift for epigrams. “She plunged into a sea of platitudes, and with the powerful breast stroke of a channel swimmer made her confident way towards the white cliffs of the obvious.” If only I could write like that!

But he had the misfortune of immense popularity, and the critics have not been kind to him.

What I liked less and less as I grew older was his brutal cynicism. Much of that must be attributed to a tormented emotional life: a very unhappy childhood, a very unhappy marriage, and a succession of gay lovers. He used an early affair as the basis for his 1915 novel Of Human Bondage. This dealt with Philip Carey, a young doctor, and his senseless and unrequited passion for a Cockney waitress: “He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her”. The novel must have struck a chord, as three films have been based on it.

Here was a man, if ever there was one, made for the “anti-love biotechnology” discussed by bioethicists from Oxford University, including Julian Savulescu, in a recent issue of the American Journal of Bioethics.

What if you wanted to fall out of love, as Maugham’s hero did? You could simply take a pill and the passion would vanish. Of course, this is largely conjecture. The closest treatment at the moment is chemical castration for paedophiles and rapists, and that would be unlikely to interest Philip Carey, or anyone else for that matter.

Nonetheless, there have been promising developments and Savulescu et al. believe that we should work out the ethical issues as soon as possible.

A pill could be useful, they say, in a number of situations, including adulterous love, suicidal love, incestuous love (not that all incest is bad, they hasten to add), paedophilia, or love for a cult leader. But a woman who can’t find the strength to leave an abusive and violent partner is the clearest candidate for a break-up pill.

They set four conditions for its use:

  • the love must be clearly harmful;
  • the person must be willing to use the pill;
  • the pill would help a person follow higher order goals instead of lower order feelings; and
  • there is no other alternative.

They conclude that “the individual, voluntary use of anti-love biotechnology (under the right sort of conditions) could be justified or even morally required. That is, in some cases, to deny its use would be inhumane.”

There is one bitterly contentious issue, of course. What about homosexuality? In a sense “reparative therapy”, or helping gays to turn straight, is a primitive kind of break-up pill – but many people condemn this.

Savulescu et al. make no exception for homosexual feelings. We must “also respect the autonomous decision of each individual to engage in her own process of ‘becoming’ who and what she seeks to be, in accordance with her personal goals and values,” they argue. “Therefore, we must conclude that even in the controversial case of homosexual love, it may be possible to justify the use of anti-love biotechnology in certain cases.”

I’m sceptical about the effectiveness of modern love potions. There are social and psychological components to addiction, for instance, which may be just as important as physiology. If we don’t understand drug addiction, can we ever reduce love to “a suite of neurochemical and behavioral subsystems that evolved to promote the reproductive success of our ancestors”?

Fanning the smouldering fires of lust might be easier but could lead to horrible abuses. People could spike drinks for one-night stands, quench teen romances, manipulate matchmaking, turn gays straight, turn straights gay. The ethical dangers are immense.

“The imminent development and availability of pro-love and anti-love agents will present a serious risk for unethical attempts to surreptitiously manipulate emotional and romantic feelings,” commented two academics from Arizona State University.

And what if armies used it to suppress humane feeling to make soldiers crueller, more unforgiving and more full of hatred? Less sophisticated versions of this hypothetical drug were used effectively in the Liberian civil war, which is why so many civilians there are missing hands, arms and legs.

Anti-love biotechnology could make a great script for a film, but it would be The Hangover IV rather than Of Human Bondage IV. I wonder if we should treat it more like a banned chemical weapon rather than a medicine.

The larger question is whether relying upon technology instead of upon our intellect and will to master our emotions leads to human flourishing. What if we really could turn the well-springs of Eros on and off like a tap?

It would be a great loss if a future Somerset Maugham were to solve his personal dramas with a pill so that he could lead a humdrum life as a suburban GP. As John Stuart Mill said: “It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”.

Michael Cook is the editor of BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter.