In the Search for a Better World, There are No Morality Pills Yet

In the Search for a Better World, There Are No Morality Pills Yet
August 1, 2017

Start messing with how people think, or retuning their moral compass and people naturally get uneasy.

Think of how electro-shock therapy and lobotomies are used in stories like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to “correct” the insane. Think of all the dystopian future novels where a specific set of moral ideals drive society into something ugly, like in 1984, Brave New World or The Handmaid’s Tale.

The one thing all of these stories have in common is that all of the horror stems from a single goal: making the world and the people in it better. Like in 1984, Orwell takes the goals of monitoring potential threats during wartime and developing a patriotic country and pushes them to the extreme to show readers a land where citizens are always being watched and individualism is seen as a crime.

Moral CompassThese stories are relevant today because modern technology has given us the power to reshape society. Satellite and computer surveillance can tell us where people go, who they talk to and what they read. Well-crafted messages can change people’s opinions on the events of the day. Modern medicine even gives us the option to tune how people think.

That idea is called “moral enhancement,” and it involves using drugs and minor procedures to affect a personality change in people. While some scientists argue that moral enhancement raises ethical red flags, others argue that it is imperative to ensure the human race doesn’t destroy itself through war or lack of resources.

A new study from North Carolina State University and the Montreal Clinical Research Institute reviewed the current medicines and technologies available for moral enhancement, to determine whether they could work to affect meaningful change. The results: probably not.

The researchers, led by NC State philosophy professor Veljko Dubljevic, examined clinical studies and results for four drugs and three non-surgical brain interventions. Their findings, in brief, were that while most of the options they reviewed have some ability to cause behavioral change, they can cause harmful side effects or promote behaviors that may not make people more “moral.”

Specifically, they found out that oxytocin, a hormone involved both in childbirth and social interaction, has the ability to help people form bonds with each other, which could promote community behavior. The issue they found is that oxytocin does not help form bonds with everyone equally. It works well with close friends and family but can actually make people more distrustful and uncooperative with outsiders, encouraging people to treat each other differently.

Clinical research, according to the study also supports selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants, as a means to reduce aggression; amphetamines, a class of pharmaceutical and illicit stimulants, as a means to increase motivation; and beta blockers, a group of blood pressure medications, as a way to decrease racist thoughts and actions.

These medications, however, all suffer from altering behavior with too broad a brush and potent side effects. SSRIs can make people suicidal; amphetamines are addictive, and motivate both good and bad behaviors, while beta blockers blunt all emotional responses and also decrease blood pressure whether a person needs it or not.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Pharmaceutically, the researchers did not find a drug that could successfully make people more “moral.” The other interventions all involved stimulating the brain with low levels of energy. Transcranial magnetic and direct current stimulation (TMS and TDCS, respectively) pump energy through the brain from the outside and have been shown to alter how people respond to moral dilemmas. These techniques make people more utilitarian, a school of philosophy that places emphasis on results as the determiner of morality regardless of means. There is definitely a change there, but whether that change makes people more moral is a matter of philosophical debate.

The final technique, called deep brain stimulation involves implanting a small device in the brain to interrupt electrical signals. While it works well to fight tremors, there has not been enough evidence to show that it has any effect on behavior.

Dubljevic and the other researchers concluded that we don’t have the means to reliably alter people’s moral compasses. These drugs and interventions are not the first to aim to alter people’s personalities, and they have advanced by miles from procedures like frontal or transorbital lobotomies of the 20th century and trepanning, the practice of drilling holes through someone’s skull, in centuries before.

Whether you feel that a morality pill would slow down some of the bad in the world, or if you feel it would be the first step on the road to dystopia, according to this study published in the journal Bioethics, we are not there yet.

—Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.

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