Finding the Morality Pill Hard to Swallow

After a week of talking about transhumanism, brain-hacking, and the persistence of identity, I couldn’t pass up a chance to comment on Brian Appleyard’s slam on using science to improve people’s moral character.

Moral enhancement cannot be a scientific project because neither term has any measurable meaning that can be universalised. Rather, it is an ideological project which would hand power to an oligarchy of neuropharmacologists who would be permitted to decide that somebody – probably them – had the power to determine our moral status. This embodies the familiar delusion of many powerful and prejudiced people that all history and culture attained some kind of apotheosis at the moment of their birth. The point is that there are as many definitions of morality as there are human societies. Dr Sandberg spoke about making people less violent which sounds fine until you realise that, for example, the Taliban would regard such a drug as immoral, refuse to take it and conduct a gleeful onslaught on the newly pacific remainder of the world’s population.

Two quick notes, before my main objection: first, as I wrote the first time I talked about chemically-induced moral jump discontinuities, I share Appleyard’s worry that the medical community tends to define ‘normal’ within a dangerously narrow spectrum.  This is a reason to be cautious when evaluating any engineered boost to our moral character, not a reason to dismiss the possibility outright.

Second, Appleyard seems to be endorsing moral relativism, or, at the very least, strong epistemological modesty when it comes to questions of right and wrong.  Except, just a little later in his post, Appleyard cites possible Taliban victory as an obviously bad outcome, and clearly expects his audience to agree.  There may be a lot of moral questions that are obscure due to confusion about the stakes or the facts, but Appleyard’s own rhetoric presupposes that some choices and cultures are superior to others.  Now on to my main issue…

I find Appleyard’s argument from pragmatism  surprising, since it could be brought to bear against any moral improvement, regardless of whether it was pharmacologically induced.  Appleyard seems to see moral growth as a collective action problem — if improvement happens unevenly, those of us who are ‘too good’ will be patsies for the defectors who strategically remained bad enough.  Think of it as the Prisoner’s Dilemma writ large.

Appleyard’s argument only makes sense if being as ethical as possible is not an end-in-itself.  If you take moral perfection as your telos it is tautological that nice people finish first.  Radical forgiveness or any other kind of extreme moral witness might cause them physical or emotional pain, but comfort isn’t the metric they’re using to score their lives.

The strongest argument I’ve heard for avoiding moral martyrdom is a stronger call to stewardship.  After all, you shouldn’t be so focused on keeping your own hands clean that you retreat from the world — abandoning the possibility of doing good for fear of doing evil.  (I’m just going to be self-indulgent and throw in a link back to my Sweeney Todd post, since, in that musical, Sondheim forced his characters to live in a dystopia that was totally inimical to innocence and goodness and then let the audience see they different ways they broke).

I don’t think most of the brain-hacks available now or in the next few decades will put at risk of being too good to avoid being destroyed by the world.  But if they did, I don’t think we should take it as a foregone conclusion that we should choose our own self-preservation as dangerously flawed beings.  It shouldn’t surprise us that morality doesn’t optimize for survival; evolution is blind to ethics.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Caio

    I had similar thoughts when I read Appleyard’s post. There’s another objection, which seems quite obvious to me, to the idea that such a move would entail an “oligarchy of psychopharmacologists” to determine everyone’s morality. It rather seems like all he can imagine here is a literal “morality pill”. But, as per Yudkowsky, it pays to play rationalist taboo and forbid the term “morality pill”. What do we actually mean by that?
    Appleyard clearly means some bluntly pacifying medication meant to be applied indiscriminately. But what if it’s a pill that just gives you an edge of empathy? What if it forces you to confront your cognitive dissonances, face an issue you’re denying or avoiding, or just generally giving you greater mental clarity? What if it could decrease hyperbolic discounting, or give us a better intuitive sense of the difference between 100, 1000, 100000 and 1000000 (as in, say, victims of a tragedy)? These all seem about as plausible as what he envisions, and all seem to have some value in making us more moral. And not only could they do so without turning us into apathetic drones, they could quite reasonably be freely chosen rather than imposed.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

    Well, this is where a definition of what “good” is would come in handy. What is good? Saying that evolution doesn’t do it really begs what, then, does “do it”? And why.

    Until we have an idea of what good is, we can’t tell whether any particular variety of morality pill would be “good.” Appleyard seems to think moral improvement would be bad (as well as relative, you are right that he is speaking out of both sides of his mouth) because it would make people too nice/pacified, as if “nice/pacified” and “good” were the same thing, which is obviously (I think) not the case. Martin Luther King Jr. would disagree, for one. Sometimes the good thing to do is to make the bad people stop being bad. Appleyard’s post is just plain poorly thought out.

    I happen to think that certain kinds of morality pills might be very good things (and no doubt they will come in interesting varieties, as Caio notes above), but that’s because I have a working definition of good upon which to judge things. So the question here is, to reiterate, what is good?

  • Hibernia86

    You can be moral and punish people who hurt others. Both of those can be done at the same time so I don’t think pills that would make us more moral would be a bad thing. We could be most kind to A) people who were suffering through no fault of their own and B) people who were also kind to others. That would reward both hard work and kindness making the world a better place.

    • keddaw

      “You can be moral and punish people who hurt others.”

      No, you can’t. Punishment is harm. Harm, by any given definition, is not good. Not good cannot be moral.

      Punishment can be a necessary evil, such as preventing people who wish to cause harm from doing so by locking them up, or by having a given punishment for a crime as a deterrent and carrying through the threat. But punishment, in and of itself, is not moral.

      • Hibernia86

        But you aren’t harming them for no reason or simply to help yourself. You are helping to make sure the crime doesn’t happen in the future. It is the criminal who harms themselves by necessitating a situation where they must be punished. You can’t blame the punisher for harm that comes to the criminal for their own evil deeds. As long as the punishment is warranted it is the only moral solution.

        • keddaw

          Yeah because punishment is the best way to stop people reoffending. What century are you living in?

  • http://twitter.com/blamer @blamer

    By suggesting that cultures who actively celebrate violence are immoral, Appleyard naively implies that violence itself is immoral, so a pill-taker would be a pure pacifist, ergo the terrorists win.

    @Caio shows the pill-makers (moralisers) need only avoid black-and-white thinking about violence, then the pill-taker must be permitted to defend themselves with violence in some circumstances.

    Which leads me to ask whether it’s ethically permissible for me to agree to subjegate my own personal moral agency to the expertise of the pill-makers (ethicists) of the day? Is it ethically responsible for me to be passing my conscience votes through to the world’s most respected ethics professors?

    • Gilbert

      No he doesn’t. He notes that the guy who proposed chemically enhancing morals (Sandberg) gave this as his example of how that could be done. Then he uses the Taliban scenario to show why this is a bad idea. This gives him an example of the experts not necessarily knowing better about morals. With this he concludes exactly what your rhetorical question gets at: The brain chemists have no business deciding this for the rest of mankind.

      By the way Sandberg’s example is probably not accidentally bad but just realistic. Tempering or enhancing passions is something one could reasonably expect to be possible pharmaceutically because those might be fairly simple hormonal processes. Modeling complex behavior rules probably couldn’t be done by a pill; it would at least require surgery.

  • keddaw

    Brian makes a good point about defining good.

    Since morality is a collection of values that vary in each person, the idea of a morality pill is nonsensical. There could easily be a pill for making people more empathetic, one to make you more trusting (oxycotin), more honest, or more generous – each of which many people think are ‘good’ things, but it should be left up to the individual. Whether any of these would actually be a good thing, or make people more moral (in whose opinion?!) is questionable.

    It could easily be that a nation of morally good (as you choose to define it) people would actually be a living hell. I like variety, I like individualism, I like a bit of risk.

    • Patrick

      That’s really not that much of a problem. I don’t think anyone is assuming a pill that would make all of your moral decisions “correct.” I think its more like… suppose I feel that I lack empathy towards others, and wish that I had more of it. Well, empathy is a brain process that is well modeled and well understood. We could, at least theoretically, use medical science to increase the degree of empathy that I feel.

      We already do this in a number of other contexts. If someone feels criminal sexual urges, we have medication that can remove them. If someone has violent psychoses, we have medication that can calm them. If someone has feelings of depression, we have medication that can mitigate them. None of these is “morality” directly, but each is related to human emotions that are part of decision making on moral matters.

      Leaving aside far future transhumanist fantasies, there’s a real question for the present day: We have an ever increasing ability to use medical science to influence how we feel about things. What do we do with it?

      In fact, its not just medical science. Just as we’ve learned that the smell of certain products can influence your purchasing (a decision well exploited by shopping malls), other seemingly benign matters can influence how we think and feel in various small, but meaningful, ways. What should we do with this knowledge?

  • deiseach

    There’s the question of the struggle between absolute human rights of the individual versus the good of the wider society.

    Nobody thinks that a serial killer should be allowed to wander around murdering, so we can all agree that it is for the benefit of society that such a person should be imprisoned (or held in secure psychiatric unit) but suppose that a “morality pill” became available – would we be justified in forcing such a person to take it against his will? Even with the soft coercion of “If you want to be released, you have to take this medication”?

    As I get older, I think I’m getting more cynical about “progress” and the power of SCIENCE!!! to improve our lives as social beings, and I’m definitely more cynical about government and public institutions. I think that if we did ever get to the point of inventing treatments to make us “better”, we would need to first get some good definitions working: what do we mean by “a better person”? Who gets to judge who is or is not a moral person? Who gets to make the definitions? What scale are we using and how are points assigned?

    In part, this is down to me reading a newspaper article in the past few days, based on a 2004study, about children in foster care being 16 times more likely to be prescribed psychiatric drugs than other children; I’ve had a (very limited) experience working in a clerical capacity in a local government project dealing with early school leavers and disadvantaged youth, where out of a forty-minute class, maybe five minutes actual teaching gets done, with the rest of the time being taken up by the tutor getting them to simply sit down and not aggravate one another. You really don’t think there would be a temptation there to use such ‘moral improvers’ to get Johnny and Mikey to sit down, do as they’re told, and behave themselves – all for their own good, of course! Believe me, I had limited contact with the kids and I can attest that if I had a magic pill to make them Stop. Being. So. Attention-Seeking, I’d have cheerfully used it on some of them.

    In part, this is also down to me reading the side-effects on the leaflet included with prescription anti-inflammatory tablets which made my eyes pop: what side effects will such medications/treatments have? Sure, it may make us more empathetic – but it may also mean we can’t go outside our own front doors because our increased sensitivity to the physical and emotional states of others reduces us to basket cases.

    In part because I remember when Prozac was the new wonder drug that was going to cure all ills, and it went from being a tool for genuine mental disorders where nothing else worked to being peddled to over-privileged idiots who wanted to dispel their ennui; if something can make you “happier” (and that’s a nebulous concept to pin down), why shouldn’t ordinary people take it? What’s wrong with being happier? What have you got against happiness?

    In sum, I think that all of us humans are idiots and no, we can’t be trusted to start poking around inside our heads whether it’s drilling holes in our skulls or using magnetic resonance.

    Maybe I just think that moral improvement is not that easy. Sure, take a morality pill and stop wanting to invade Poland – but what happens when you stop taking the pill?


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