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 moving closer to altering our moral state, society should be preparing for the consequences, according to a book reviewing scientific developments in the field.
Drugs such as Prozac, which alters 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”, says the deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and a Wellcome Trust biomedical ethics award winner, Dr Guy Kahane.
“Science has ignored the question of moral improvement so far but it is now becoming a big debate,” he says. “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 interested in developing biomedical technologies capable of intervening in the biological processes that affect moral behaviour and moral thinking, says a Wellcome Trust research fellow at Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre, Dr Tom Douglas. He is a co-author of Enhancing Human Capacities, published this week.
“Drugs that affect our moral thinking and behaviour already exist but we tend not to think of them in that way,” he says. “[Prozac] lowers aggression and bitterness against environment and so could be said to make people more agreeable. Or oxytocin, the so-called love hormone … increases feelings of social bonding and empathy while reducing anxiety. Scientists will develop more of these drugs and create new ways of taking drugs we already know about.”
But would pharmacologically induced altruism, for example, amount to genuine moral behaviour? “We can change people’s emotional responses but quite whether that improves their moral behaviour is not something science can answer,” Kahane says.
He also admits it is unlikely that people would rush to take a pill that would improve their morals.
“Becoming more trusting, nicer, less aggressive and less violent can make you more vulnerable to exploitation,” he says. “On the other hand, it could improve your relationships or help your career.”
Kahane does not advocate putting morality drugs in the water supply but does suggest that if administered widely, they might help humanity tackle global issues.
“Relating to the plight of people on the other side of the world or of future generations is not in our nature,” he says. “This new body of drugs could make possible feelings of global affiliation and of abstract empathy for future generations.”
The chairman in ethics in medicine and director of the centre for ethics in medicine at the University of Bristol, Professor Ruud ter Meulen, warns that while some drugs can improve moral behaviour, others – and sometimes the same ones – can have the opposite effect.
“While oxytocin makes you more likely to trust and co-operate with others in your social group, it reduces empathy for those outside the group,” he says.
He says deep brain stimulation, used for Parkinson’s disease, has had unintended consequences, leading to cases in which patients begin to steal or become sexually aggressive.
Meulen suggests moral-enhancement drugs might be used in the criminal justice system. “These drugs will be more effective in prevention and cure than prison,” he says.
Guardian News and Media
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