Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

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?

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

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...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.