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Could we use drugs to become more moral? Should we?

11 May, 2011

MoralityTom Douglas asks if it could ever be justifiable to use biomedical technologies to improve our morality.

A quick glance at any newspaper is enough to establish that some humans do horribly vicious things to others. Fortunately, grossly immoral conduct is the exception rather than the rule; most of us will never be rapists or murderers or torturers. However, if we stopped to think about it, we could identify various moral failings in ourselves: we could be more attentive friends, we could be moved more by the plight of those in abject poverty, we could be freer from subconscious sexual and racial biases, we could do more to protect the environment for future generations.

We may not think of these rather mundane deficiencies as particularly serious, but they can aggregate with devastating effect. Arguably, our collective moral deficiencies are the driving force behind climate change, global poverty and war. Moreover, in some circumstances, perfectly ordinary moral limitations can lead to truly terrible wrongdoing: it is increasingly recognised that many of history’s greatest atrocities – ranging from the Final Solution to the Cultural Revolution – were perpetrated by ordinary people with ordinary moral limitations.

To combat widespread moral failings, human societies have, to date, relied on childhood discipline, education, persuasion, the sensible design of social institutions (tax-funded welfare systems, regulations on pollution and so on) and the threat of punishment, either in this life or the next. In the relatively near future, we may be able to add further arrows to this quiver.

The scientific study of morality is currently a thriving area. Social psychologists, neuroscientists, geneticists, empirically-minded philosophers and others are beginning to understand some of the psychological, neural and even genetic bases of moral thinking and morally-significant behaviour. This work is already yielding new means for correcting our moral limitations. These include ‘nudge’ techniques which aim to alter morally significant behaviour by harnessing known biases. (An example: some countries are already seeking to encourage altruistic organ donation by instituting opt-out consent systems, which take advantage of the human bias towards preserving the status quo.) In the future, the science of morality may also yield pharmacological means for correcting moral limitations.

Some drugs have already been shown to influence human morality, though not necessarily in a positive direction. A recent study found that Citalopram, an anti-depressant of the same type as Prozac, altered the responses of highly empathetic individuals to hypothetical moral dilemma scenarios: individuals given the drug were less willing to sacrifice an individual to save the lives of several others than were those given placebo. Meanwhile, the hormone oxytocin, when administered via nasal spray, appears to facilitate a ‘tend and defend’ response: it increases trusting and co-operative behaviour within social groups, but also decreases co-operation with those perceived as outsiders.

It’s very doubtful whether taking Citalopram or oxytocin would make one a morally better person: these agents may introduce more moral deficiencies than they correct. But perhaps further work will result in the discovery of agents that would, in certain circumstances, alleviate some of (what we reasonably take to be) our moral limitations.

Members of the Wellcome Trust-funded Oxford Centre for Neuroethics have begun to examine the ethical questions raised by this possibility. Enhancing Human Capacities, edited by Julian Savulescu, Ruud ter Meulen and Guy Kahane, contains some of the preliminary results of this work, and is the first edited collection to examine the ethics of enhancing moral capacities. In one chapter, Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu set out the urgent need for humans to correct their moral limitations. In another, I consider whether it could be morally justifiable for adults to voluntarily use biomedical technologies as a means to moral self-improvement.

A number of concerns have already been raised about moral self-improvement via pharmaceuticals: it might problematically restrict our freedom to be immoral (or, as Milton more evocatively put it, our ‘freedom to fall’); it might make us more vulnerable to exploitation by others; or we may simply be mistaken about what would count as a moral improvement. But it’s not clear that any of these concerns are peculiar to pharmacological attempts to correct our moral limitations. Arguably the very same concerns could be raised about seeking moral improvement through, say, publicly committing to donate half of one’s income to charity. Yet most of us would find such an attempt morally justifiable, indeed admirable.

More troubling are questions about whether governments should support the development of drugs and other techniques for correcting moral limitations. One worry is that the sort of scientific knowledge that would allow us to correct moral deficiencies would almost certainly also allow us to exacerbate them. If drugs could diminish xenophobia or callousness, surely they could also increase it. And many people might prefer to become less moral than more so: consider the case of the aggressively ambitious businessman who finds his scruples are interfering with his career advancement.

Perhaps most difficult of all is the question whether drugs capable of correcting moral limitations should ever be made compulsory. Some jurisdictions already offer chemical castration as an alternative to incarceration for some sex offenders. There are doubts about its effectiveness, concerns about side-effects, and some regard it as a violation of bodily integrity. But incarceration is also ineffective, unsafe, and highly restrictive. If there were safe and effective biomedical means for preventing sexual re-offending there might be a stronger a case for making them compulsory than there is for incarceration.

On the other hand, coercive biomedical interventions to control moral behaviour have a disturbing history. When it comes to medical ‘cures’ for moral ‘ills’, we seem to be chronically over-enthusiastic and misguided, whether it’s frontal lobotomy or leucotomy as a treatment for criminal behaviour, or electronic brain implants to cure homosexuality. Given this history, it might be argued that we should draw a line around compulsory medical interventions for moral limitations, and refrain from crossing it.


  • Crockett MJ, Clark L, Hauser MD, & Robbins TW (2010). Serotonin selectively influences moral judgment and behavior through effects on harm aversion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107 (40), 17433-8 PMID: 20876101
  • De Dreu CK, Greer LL, Handgraaf MJ, Shalvi S, Van Kleef GA, Baas M, Ten Velden FS, Van Dijk E, & Feith SW (2010). The neuropeptide oxytocin regulates parochial altruism in intergroup conflict among humans. Science (New York, N.Y.), 328 (5984), 1408-11 PMID: 20538951
  • Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans Nature, 435 (7042), 673-676 DOI: 10.1038/nature03701
  • Tom Douglas

Tom Douglas is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and Oxford Centre for Neuroethics.

Image credit: tdietmut on Flickr
2 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 May, 2011 5:53 pm

    It would seem that the hormone Oxytocin could be useful in families to parents of children
    lacking the necessary skill or means to nurture. This would then, dare we hope, improve these
    childrens lives so they may themselves grow into being able to ‘tend and nurture’

    I have often wished a ‘medicine’ existed, to establish empathy where it is absent.

  2. Catherine Moyes permalink
    2 Dec, 2011 4:48 pm

    Interesting that an academic and a researcher asks us to “consider the case of the aggressively ambitious businessman who finds his scruples are interfering with his career advancement” when scruples can also interfere with career advancement closer to home in the worlds of academia and research. Is there any evidence base that suggests those in the business world have more moral failings, or benefit more from a lack of scruples, than the rest of society?

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