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Tinkering With Our Ethical Chemistry

By Guy Kahane | Project Syndicate | June 29, 2011

CREDIT: D. Sharon Pruitt (CC).

In Anthony Burgess's novella (and Stanley Kubrick's film) A Clockwork Orange, doctors prop open the main character's eyes and force him to watch violent images. Alex, an unrepentant psychopath, is being programmed, à la Pavlov's dog, to respond with nausea to violence and sex.

This scene remains shocking, but, like most science fiction, it has aged. The behaviorist psychology it drew upon has long expired, and the fear that science will be used to make people morally better now sounds old-fashioned.

Yet while science fiction ages fast, it has a long afterlife. Over the past decade, an army of psychologists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists has been busy trying to uncover the neural "clockwork" that underlies human morality. They have started to trace the evolutionary origins of pro-social sentiments such as empathy, as well as the genes that dispose some individuals to senseless violence and others to acts of altruism.

In understanding how something works one comes to see how it can be modified and controlled. Indeed, scientists have not only identified some of the brain pathways that shape our ethical decisions, but also chemical substances that modulate this neural activity. A recent study has shown that the anti-depressant Citalopram can change the responses of individuals to hypothetical moral dilemmas. Individuals given the drug were less willing to sacrifice an individual to save the lives of several others.

Another series of studies has shown that when the hormone oxytocin is administered via nasal spray, it increases trusting and cooperative behavior within social groups, but also decreases cooperation with those perceived as outsiders. Neuroscientists have even magnetically "zapped" carefully targeted areas of people's brains to influence their moral judgments in surprising ways—for example, making it easier for them to lie.

Of course, no one is developing a "moral pill" that will transform us into saints. But the research is advancing fast, and it is almost certain to suggest new ways to reshape our moral intuitions, sentiments, and motivations. Should we use our growing scientific understanding of the basis of human morality to try to make people morally better?

A Clockwork Orange was accused of glorifying violence, and some of its scenes are still hard to watch. But as Burgess himself argued, the novella has an almost Christian message: What makes us human is our freedom to choose both good and evil, and for society to crush individuals into servile conformity is as wicked as, and perhaps even worse than, the sadism of psychopaths like Alex.

I suspect that many will agree with this view. They will agree that our ability to distinguish right from wrong is something precious that we should safeguard, not a broken clock that scientists should fix.

Of course, most of us don't need to be conditioned to feel repulsed by rape or torture. But this does not mean that we are morally good, or good enough. As you read this, perfectly ordinary people somewhere in the world are doing unspeakable things to others. Even in the most advanced and affluent societies, a vast concentrated effort is needed to preserve even minimal decency: think of locks, security alarms, police, courts, and prisons. And it is doubtful that we really care enough about others, or give enough to the less fortunate.

Humans are born with the capacity to be moral, but it is a limited capacity which is ill equipped to deal with the ethical complexities of the modern world. For thousands of years, humans have relied on education, persuasion, social institutions, and the threat of real (or supernatural) punishment to make people behave decently. We could all be morally better, but it is clear that this traditional approach cannot take us much further. It is not as if people would suddenly begin to behave better if we just gave them more facts and statistics, or better arguments.

So we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the suggestion that science might help—in the first instance, by helping us design more effective institutions, more inspiring moral education, or more persuasive ethical arguments. But science might also offer more direct ways of influencing our brains.

Science fiction sometimes limits rather than expands our sense of what is possible. It would be self-defeating, or worse, to try to promote morality through brutal coercion. Governments must not be given the power to control their citizens' moral code—we know that if they had such power, they would misuse it.

It would be ideal if individuals could freely explore different ways to improve themselves, whether by practicing mindfulness, reading moral philosophy, or, yes, by taking a "morality" pill. But it is also true that although some people are eager to take pills that make them feel better or think faster, it is not so obvious that people would really want to take pills that would make them morally better. It is not clear that people really want to be morally better. And those who, like the psychopathic Alex, need the most help are probably those who would want it least.

These are, of course, hypothetical questions. We don't yet know what is possible. But it is better to begin the ethical discussion too early than too late. And even if "moral pills" are just science fiction, they raise deep questions. Will we want to take them if they ever become available? And what does it say about us if we won't?

© 2011 Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences. Republished with kind permission.

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