Are We Ready For A Morality Pill?

o_wX8Mjxq8zORZf4TIn the New York Times, Peter Singer and Agata Sagan say it’s only a matter of time before we pinpoint chemicals in the brain that produce empathetic behavior. Will religion be rendered obsolete? And, when we develop an ethical-behavior-boosting pill, will it be recommended (or mandatory) that everyone take it?

If continuing brain research does in fact show biochemical differences between the brains of those who help others and the brains of those who do not, could this lead to a “morality pill” — a drug that makes us more likely to help? Given the many other studies linking biochemical conditions to mood and behavior, and the proliferation of drugs to modify them that have followed, the idea is not far-fetched. If so, would people choose to take it? Could criminals be given the option, as an alternative to prison, of a drug-releasing implant that would make them less likely to harm others? Might governments begin screening people to discover those most likely to commit crimes? Those who are at much greater risk of committing a crime might be offered the morality pill; if they refused, they might be required to wear a tracking device that would show where they had been at any given time, so that they would know that if they did commit a crime, they would be detected.

Fifty years ago, Anthony Burgess wrote “A Clockwork Orange,” a futuristic novel about a vicious gang leader who undergoes a procedure that makes him incapable of violence. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 movie version sparked a discussion in which many argued that we could never be justified in depriving someone of his free will, no matter how gruesome the violence that would thereby be prevented. No doubt any proposal to develop a morality pill would encounter the same objection.

Last October, in Foshan, China, a 2-year-old girl was run over by a van. The driver did not stop. Over the next seven minutes, more than a dozen people walked or bicycled past the injured child. A second truck ran over her. Eventually, a woman pulled her to the side, and her mother arrived. The child died in a hospital. The entire scene was captured on video and caused an uproar when it was shown by a television station and posted online. A similar event occurred in London in 2004, as have others, far from the lens of a video camera. Yet people can, and often do, behave in very different ways.

28 Comments on "Are We Ready For A Morality Pill?"

  1. S.G.McNasty. | Jan 31, 2012 at 11:09 am |

    A ‘morality pill’ can only lead to trouble, given that what is morally correct to one person, group or culture, is unacceptable to another.  War, religion, abortion and euthanasia are just a few examples, from the top of my head.

  2. Rex Vestri | Jan 31, 2012 at 12:14 pm |

    The entire GOP is definitely in need of “Morality Pills”. 
    Better yet, “Morality Suppositories”…  Extra large ones, lubricated with this…

  3. Otherworldly1 | Jan 31, 2012 at 12:29 pm |

    Reminiscent of the movie Equilibrium from 2002, where the fascist society takes meds to “not feel” instead of feeling empathy, as is the case with this. Empathic behavior is different than “moral” behavior, since empathy involves putting oneself in another’s shoes, as it were, and feeling compassion towards that individual/entity. Euthanasia could be an empathic response to another, whereas war/fighting are never empathic, and abortion rarely is. This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as a transhumanistic agenda goes…

  4. YaBooSucksToYouFascists | Jan 31, 2012 at 1:22 pm |

    We already have this stuff, it’s just illegal.  Acid, mushrooms, peyote, cannabis, ayahuasca, ecstasy, etc.  The authors are extremely naive to think that the fascist West and other corporatist governments would be interested in promoting intelligent citizen morality.

    • Eric_D_Read | Jan 31, 2012 at 3:04 pm |

      As a fan of LSD myself (although my personal maximum lifetime dosage was reached, and exceeded, some time ago) I must disagree that it imparts any compassionate morality to someone who doesn’t already have it.
      Exhibits A-M: The Manson family

  5. JoiquimCouteau | Jan 31, 2012 at 1:27 pm |

    That’s existed for over 30 years; anyone tried MDxx?

  6. mole_face | Jan 31, 2012 at 2:40 pm |

    This sort of thing is nothing more than transparent pseudoscience to justify drugging unacceptable behavior.

    OF COURSE there’s a biochemical difference between the brain of someone who’s empathetic and someone who isn’t. Every particular mindset involves a different chemical expression in the brain. 

    If the brainscan of a selfish, callous person doesn’t show the same areas lighting up as an empathetic person’s, it’s not because the person’s “deficient” in those neurotransmitters – they lack that chemical reaction in their brain BECAUSE they lack empathy, not the other way around.

    The only time that brain chemistry is the direct cause of negative emotions is when it’s being artificially altered by an external factor – the effects of a drug, malnutrition that prevents certain neurotransmitters from being produced, receptor downregulation/damage, etc. Otherwise, the chemical configuration of your brain is simply the means by which your brain expresses whatever emotions you happen to be experiencing at the moment. 

    If you laugh at a joke, a brainscan would show your brain’s chemical configuration changing as you laugh to resemble the brains other people who are experiencing elation or mirth. So are we to say that you laughed at the joke because of the chemicals in your brain, or are those chemicals being activated BECAUSE you’re laughing? The answer’s obvious.

    • Butter Knife | Jan 31, 2012 at 2:56 pm |

      “The answer’s obvious.”

      Is it though? We know that introducing those chemicals to the brain will *cause* those emotions, just as causing those emotions will raise the amount of those chemicals. Neurochemistry operates on positive feedback loops, where the more of something you have, the more it triggers a response to have more.

      Beyond that, you’re clearly arguing that the causal relationship between brain chemistry and emotion is one-sided, a dubious claim at best. If a person has a large amount of neurotransmitters for “happiness” (serotonin, etc.) and is feeling happy, you can’t very well say that they have that chemistry *because* they are happy any more than you can say they are happy because they have that chemistry. The two happened at the same time, and each happened because of the other.

      We probably could create drugs that stimulate neurotransmitters for empathy and compassion, and they probably would cause people to feel more empathetic and compassionate, and probably would cause them to behave as such. There are also, probably, people out there who generally lack empathy and compassion whose brains do not produce those chemicals as expected (whether they are physically incapable or simply lack those feelings and their brains therefore do not release them is largely irrelevant), and this could be “fixed” by such drugs. The real question is *should* this be done, and *who* should it be done to?

      Personally, i look forward to the creation of immorality drugs. I’ve spent my whole life burdened by things like caring about other human beings, and it’s really kept me from being the Randian sociopath who takes whatever they want regardless of how many people they destroy along the way. I fear I will never make it into the monied power-elite this way. When will somebody make a pill that turns me into a self-obsessed psycho unfettered by a conscience?

      • mole_face | Jan 31, 2012 at 9:23 pm |

        If someone wants to take a drug like the one described in this article, they should be free to. But just call the chemicals what they really are – synthetic mood-altering drugs that are designed to stamp out socially unacceptable behavior. My main issue with psychiatry is this disingenuous “brain disease” concept.

        There’s no actual evidence that neurotransmitters are the direct cause of unwanted thoughts and emotions, except in instances where an external factor has physically interfered with the normal functioning of the brain. If a person’s mood is low because their body lacks the amino acids required to produce adequate levels of serotonin, THAT’S a great example of depression that’s induced by a physical problem. But if your brain isn’t activating the serotonin system merely because you feel that you have no reason to be happy, that’s not the same.  

        Of course, you could just rebut me by posting all sorts of scientific studies that say I’m wrong. But none of them actually PROVE causation – all they actually do is describe the complex neurochemical processes that the brain uses to express various emotions/mindsets. If you’re pathologizing the chemical reactions through which the brain expresses ALL negative emotions, aren’t you rendering the term “disease” pretty much meaningless?

        Saying that mental disorders are caused by neurotransmitters is like saying that fistfights are caused by arm muscles, or running is caused by leg muscles. To “prove” those ridiculous claims, I could whip out an elaborate explanation that would be difficult for the layperson to argue with, involving x-rays of the body in motion highlighting the remarkable anatomical intricacies involved in those actions- and it would all technically be true. But if you break the theory down to its core, it can easily be dismissed offhand because it’s based on insanely faulty reasoning.

        • mole_face | Jan 31, 2012 at 9:59 pm |

          I’m honest surprised as how few people understand this issue. Arguing with propontents of biopsychiatry is as frustrating as arguing with christians.

          Yes, giving someone a drug that artificially stimulates brain pathways associated with feelings of empathy WILL have the desired effect. What I’m arguing against is the idea that the drug in question would be correcting a physical brain defect.

          If you hooked up disinfo readers to a brain scan and had them read my posts, I bet you could identify specific chemical processes occurring in the brains of people who disagree with my views. Does that make disagreeing with me a brain disease? After all, the brain scan would clearly demonstrate that your viewpoint is chemical in origin.

          • mole_face | Jan 31, 2012 at 10:00 pm |

            I misspelled “proponents”. Guess that means I’m wrong…

          • mannyfurious | Feb 1, 2012 at 2:48 pm |

            Fuzzgun, you’re the man. I don’t even really have to post because of you. 

            If you really want to make a defender’s of biochemical manipulation within the brain eye twitch all you really have to point out is how “mental illness” is not treated by neurologists. Neurologists deal with brain diseases, psychiatrists with behaviors. And what is considered “acceptable” or “moral” or “empathic” behavior is an arbitrary schema determined by the society at large, not by brain diseases. Treating mental illness with pills is the same as giving cocaine or hash to someone who doesn’t really want it, in order to get the behavior you want.

            We can see this with Tourette’s, which used to be considered a “mental illness” (and therefore treated by psychiatrists) until there was found to be a distinct causal relationship between certain phenomena in the physical brain and the symptoms of tourette’s. Now treatment lies in the realm of the neurologist.

            It’s really that simple. If  there were distinct and objective evidence that “mental illnesses” were brain diseases, they would be treated by neurologists. 

          • mole_face | Feb 1, 2012 at 5:34 pm |

             Thanks for the support – it’s always a relief to see someone who gets it.

            I suspect that this “chemical imbalance” crap wouldn’t even exist if our society wasn’t in the midst of the War on Drugs. Take away the idea that these “medications” are addressing the root cause of mental problems, and it suddenly becomes crystal clear that our supposed “anti drug” society is in fact drug CRAZED. Propaganda has told us since childhood that it’s weak and immoral to hide from our problems with drugs, so this is obvious hypocrisy on a staggering scale.

            People are being lied to “for their own good” to make them more likely to self-administer social control drugs. It’s infuriating to see almost everyone going along with it.

          • Calypso_1 | Jan 31, 2012 at 10:47 pm |

            That’s funny, sometimes proponents of biopsychiatry feel the same way about your understanding of the issues.

          • mole_face | Feb 1, 2012 at 12:52 am |

            Explain specifically where I’m wrong.

            Again, if you just throw out a bunch of ultra technical psychiatric jargon that just restates your original unproven premise, you’re engaging in the exact same charade argument that I’ve already outlined in the previous post.

            I don’t have to read the entire bible to know that Christianity’s based on a shaky foundation. On that same token, I have a pretty decent understanding of neuroscience, but a comprehensive knowledge of the field isn’t really required to understand this issue. I’m applying a simple train of consistent logic and asking believers of the religion of biopsychiatry to do the same.

            What about the fact that scans will show chemical improvements in the brain after successful talk therapy? What about the fact that there are chemical changes in the brains of soldiers who have been traumatized by combat? You’re honestly saying that going to war gives you a brain disease, or that talk therapy can cure a physical brain illness? You find that logical? That’s not what diseases are.

            What you and your kind are actually doing is making a twisted semantic argument – you’re saying that since all emotions or moods involve a chemical reaction in the brain, that means that any unwanted behavior or thoughts can be tied to a chemical origin and thus can be categorized as physical diseases of the brain. Using that same reasoning, ANY thought or behavior can be classified as a disease if enough people agree that the corresponding chemical reaction behind it should be pathologized.

          • mole_face | Feb 1, 2012 at 1:16 am |

            Also, I don’t expect people to agree with me.

            The only reason I keep harping on this issue in disinfo comments is because I’m trying to demonstrate that the entire premise behind biopsychiatry and the “chemical imbalance theory” Nazi Science can be VERY easily destroyed by just applying basic reasoning. People on disinfo criticize mainstream psychiatry, but I don’t see enough people making the right criticisms, so I put these arguments out there with the hope that maybe a few people will start to think differently about the issue.

            This isn’t about being “anti drug”. I’m pro-drug. This isn’t about these proposed drugs not working – of course they’ll work, probably exactly as described. We already have a shitload of illegal drugs that we can point to as evidence that taking a chemical that artificially stimulates pleasure centers/whatever in the brain will make people more empathetic and pleasant to deal with. I’m just poking holes in the article’s premise that physical brain abnormalities would be addressed by the proposed drug.

            People like you completely take at face value the premise that these are revolutionary new futurist “medications” that are going to allow us to transcend humanity by re-engineering the human mind blah blah blah. In reality, these sorts of drugs just artificially alter mood by targeting the same areas of the brain that are stimulated by various illegal drugs that increase empathy and improve mood.

            Of course, a bunch of GENIUS psychiatrists will just say that I’m wrong, so you don’t have to actually think about any of the gaping holes in your religion. Cognitive dissonance blows.

          • Calypso_1 | Feb 1, 2012 at 4:24 pm |

            Before thinking it is worth the time for me to go into this with you let’s set a few ground rules and clarify what we are actually talking about because you are all over the place. 
            Let’s eliminate, the ‘me and my kind’.    Let’s dismiss comparisons to religion as that is a different topic and not elemental to the facts.  If I present ‘technical jargon’ that isn’t to your liking, ask me to clarify.  I don’t really wish to set out explaining specifically how you are wrong, because from your own perspective and from a certain understanding you are correct.  However, the underlying basis for knowledge as you have presented it needs clarification. 
            You make a number of references to brain scans detecting ‘chemical imbalances/improvements’ what are you referring to- what type of scans (PET, fMRI), what was detected?  Some study citations would be nice.
            You make a statement as to what diseases are not, but then outline the definition you disagree with by saying “ANY thought or behavior can be classified as a disease if enough people agree that the corresponding chemical reaction behind it should be pathologized.”,  this makes me wonder what level of knowledge you have on the subject.  Would you like to pick a ‘chemical reaction’?  What physiological processes are engaged? What are the underlying, neuroanatomy, cytopathology and genetics? 
            I’m not sure you are really interested in furthering your current viewpoint on this subject matter as you are more enamored with the degree to which you have outwitted all of the “geniuses”. 

          • mole_face | Feb 1, 2012 at 5:23 pm |

            “Would you like to pick a ‘chemical reaction’?  What physiological
            processes are engaged? What are the underlying, neuroanatomy,
            cytopathology and genetics?”

            You DO realize what you’re doing, don’t you? This is exactly what I was pointing out in my hypothetical “arm muscles are the cause of fistfights” example. If someone disagrees with that wholly illogical premise, proponents can just disqualify any dissenting view if the person’s unable to keep up with an in-depth discussion of anatomy. Nothing like that is required to debunk the premise though – simple logic is all that’s needed.

            Let’s say that someone’s put in prison. After a couple years, their brain will likely demonstrate lower levels of serotonin and dopamine and higher levels of stress hormones like cortisol. So are these chemical reactions the “cause” of their stress and unhappiness, or are you just describing the brain’s chemical expression of stress and unhappiness?

            Just to further clarify my stance-

            My main issue is that psych drug users get to pretend like their drugs are completely different in principle than the supposedly immoral illegal drugs. As long as the idea that the legal drugs produce their effects by correcting physical brain defectes is allowed to continue unchallenged, the staggering hypocrisy of the Drug War will never have to be addressed.

            The legal drugs’ effects are always stated in terms of them correcting brain abnormalities, rather than just coming right out and admitting that the drugs work by artificially altering the mood via the same basic mechanism as any illegal drug – by forcing the brain into a different chemical configuration to improve the user’s mood or cover up unwanted symptoms/behaviors. Articles like this are widely claiming that science is finally on the cusp of addressing the terrible “brain diseases” that cause antisocial behavior, and it rubs me the wrong way when illogical crap like that floats without anyone calling it out.

            That doesn’t make psych drugs the same as illegal drugs – they tend to be engineered to stimulate brain pathways without inducing an overt high. Something like that is definitely useful to change behavior. All I’m arguing against is the concept that the drugs would be addressing the root cause of unwanted/socially unacceptable behavior. The concept of covering up symptoms by changing neurotransmitter levels is the underlying principle behind taking ANY drug to help you cope with mental problems. But psychiatry implies that this is a unique concept to psych drugs.

            It’s obvious from the average disinfo reader’s response to articles like this that people see this sort of thing as some brave new world(heh) of medication that’s designed to re-engineer the brain by addressing the physical brain defects that cause socially unacceptable behavior. That’s the the only thing I’m arguing against.

      • mole_face | Jan 31, 2012 at 9:40 pm |

        Neurotransmitters are definitely responsible for our every emotion and mood. Nobody’s arguing with that.

        Let’s say that someone becomes depressed after they lose their job or a loved one dies. Look at a brain scan and you’ll see a similar chemical process happening in their brains as other depressed people. But that so-called “chemical imbalance” is just how the brain expresses ALL unhappiness. The fact that a chemical reaction is involved in unwanted mindsets does NOT make the behavior a “brain disease”. That’s really warped, circular reasoning. It’s an attempt to pathologize behavior to justify synthetic mood-altering drugs.

      • mole_face | Jan 31, 2012 at 10:26 pm |

        “We probably could create drugs that stimulate neurotransmitters for empathy and compassion, and they probably would cause people to feel more empathetic and compassionate, and probably would cause them to behave as such.”

        You do realize that this isn’t a new concept, right? You’re describing the mechanism of marijuana, MDMA, and other “immoral” illicit drugs.

        That’s my whole point – all the legal mood altering drugs work on the exact same principles as the illegal ones. That why I always harp on this issue on disinfo – it really annoys the shit out of me to see the “brain disease” subterfuge being taken at face value, when it exists mainly as marketing to differentiate the government social control drugs from the illegal drugs in the minds of consumers.

        You could claim that illegal drugs “correct” chemical deficiencies too. All mood altering drugs(legal OR illegal) produce their effects by altering neurotransmitter levels in the brain. All you have to do is say that the brain has an “imbalance” in the neurotransmitter affected by the drug, and suddenly a mood altering drug sounds like some sort of brain nutrient.

        Without the brain disease concept, it would be obvious that we live in a deeply hypocritical society. We were told from a young age that it’s immoral and weak to turn to drugs to help us get through life. Hence the disease model – it exists solely to explain away this obvious hypocrisy. It’s not logical and it’s not sound science.

  7. chinagreenelvis | Jan 31, 2012 at 3:38 pm |

    Phillip K. Dick already predicted as much; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep describes the ability (and encouragement) for people to “dial” different moods.

  8. DeepCough | Jan 31, 2012 at 5:13 pm |

    Isn’t it bad enough pills are being sold to people because they don’t secrete the optimal level of “happy thoughts” in a given day?

  9. “Will religion be rendered obsolete?”  um…this seems to imply that religion is what makes people moral NOW, or is somehow “necessary” for morality. the available evidence suggests otherwise-to put it mildly.

  10. Catch is the autonomic empathic response is something you are born. As you grown you learn to recognise emotions in others that then trigger the automatic response.
    Now over the years of your development you psychi develops based upon in part the chemical responses within your brain.
    The development would still be absent. It is not just the absence or presence of tiggering chemicals it is their alignment with what is happening around you.
    Free will is also questionable within a society, reality your freedom always has to come at the expense of everyone else’s freedom. The more free you are to do anything you wish the less others around you become (freedom of the master versus freedom of the servant).

  11. Caseyoburns | Feb 2, 2012 at 5:12 pm |

    Dude people are doing government research on drugs like ayahuasca and lsd. What do you think there research is going to be used for?? Finding god… i dought it. Finding a moral center in our oversized society.. probably.

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