Drugged Morals

Bryan Appleyard argues against the idea of drugs causing people to act moral.

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. Or perhaps sublimated violent impulses are good things, making people creative or successful. Steve Jobs may be a good example.

I think he misses the point.

All of us have our occasional moral failings. But people do not always fail because they’ve evil; frequently it’s because they’re weak. They know the right thing to do. But fear, prejudice, selfishness, egoism, greed, lust, avarice — these make it easy to give in.

It’s my basic philosophy of human nature: humans are basically good, but also weak. We find it far too easy to be temped into doing the wrong thing. It’s lead companies believing scientists who tell them their products are harmless, it’s people ignoring a mortally wounded child on the streets of China, it’s people spewing hateful invective. We know the right thing to do. But it’s so easy to give into those voices that say, “It’s not my problem.”

This state of moral tension is a form of anxiety. If you could identify the neurological background to it, you could develop a medication that calms those fears, makes it easier for people to do the right thing … whatever they judge the right thing to be. There would be a market for that.

I’m not necessarily saying this is a GOOD thing since sometimes it’s good to question morality. There are countries were brutal honor killings are considered moral. Those lingering doubts are how progress is made. But I do think it’s possible.

Update: Speaking of moral failings, McArdle has one of the better commentaries on the PSU mess.