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COVID-19 Drives the Latest Proposal for a “Morality Pill”

Those who don't comply with government policy would be urged or forced to take it

University of Western Michigan philosophy professor Parker Crutchfield (pictured) recently suggested getting people to take a pill to promote more “pro-social” behavior in order to better fight off COVID-19. He argues that the United States is not equipped for a fight against the disease just by expecting everyone to work together, as in, say, World Wars I and II:

It seems that the U.S. is not currently equipped to cooperatively lower the risk confronting us. Many are instead pinning their hopes on the rapid development and distribution of an enhancement to the immune system—a vaccine.

But I believe society may be better off, both in the short term as well as the long, by boosting not the body’s ability to fight off disease but the brain’s ability to cooperate with others. What if researchers developed and delivered a moral enhancer rather than an immunity enhancer?

Parker Crutchfield, “‘Morality pills’ may be the US’s best shot at ending the coronavirus pandemic, according to one ethicist” at The Conversation

Could such a drug be forced on people? He doesn’t back away from that:

The scenario in which the government forces an immunity booster upon everyone is plausible. And the military has been forcing enhancements like vaccines or “uppers” upon soldiers for a long time. The scenario in which the government forces a morality booster upon everyone is far-fetched. But a strategy like this one could be a way out of this pandemic, a future outbreak or the suffering associated with climate change. That’s why we should be thinking of it now.

Paul Crutchfield, The Conversation, “‘Morality pills’ may be the US’s best shot at ending the coronavirus pandemic, according to one ethicist” at Phys.org

So it’s early days yet, in his view. And he admits that his proposal is “bound to be controversial.”

He’s not alone. There is a history of this type of advocacy over the last decade. COVID-19 has brought it to the fore, as various authorities contemplate more lockdowns, shutdowns and criminal charges, in case the virus comes back in force. Some earlier examples:

● 2011: Some see it simply as an extension of drugs taken for mental health treatment:

And now, science can even know “the pathways in our brains that shape our ethical decisions,” according to Guy Kahane of Oxford’s Centre for Neuroethics. He adds we can find genes that lead some people to violence and others to altruism. It is this knowledge that scientists would use to develop their “anti-evil” pill. The science is not that far-fetched. Basically, the pill would tell the “moral” circuits in our brain to work harder … According to Julian Savulescu, the pills should be “obligatory, like education or fluoride in the water.”

Michael Cuthbertson, “Morality in a pill: can science create a drug that improves your ethics?” at The Sheaf (September 14, 2011)

● 2012: Reviewing experiments on helping behavior in rats, a famous Princeton ethicist (pictured) concluded in a paper with a colleague that such a pill is not a huge ethical problem:

But if our brain’s chemistry does affect our moral behavior, the question of whether that balance is set in a natural way or by medical intervention will make no difference in how freely we act. If there are already biochemical differences between us that can be used to predict how ethically we will act, then either such differences are compatible with free will, or they are evidence that at least as far as some of our ethical actions are concerned, none of us have ever had free will anyway. In any case, whether or not we have free will, we may soon face new choices about the ways in which we are willing to influence behavior for the better.

Peter Singer, Agata Sagan, “Are we ready for a morality pill?” at The Stone (January 28, 2012)

● 2014: According to a neuroscientist, the desire for such a pill evidenced by Crutchfield runs well ahead of any foreseeable reality:

Could we create a “morality pill”? Once the stuff of science fiction, recent studies in neuroscience have shown that brain chemicals can subtly influence some aspects of moral judgments and decisions. However, science is very far from creating pills that can turn sinners into saints, as I have argued many times before. So imagine my surprise when I came across the headline, “‘Morality Pills’ Close to Reality, Claims Scientist”– referring to a lecture I gave recently in London. (I asked the newspaper where the reporter got his misinformation, but received no response to my query.)

Sensationalist reports like this are not only inaccurate, but also neglect the rich complexities of the brain that make neuroscience so fascinating. It is these same complexities that will make it very difficult for scientists to develop a morality pill.

Molly Crockett, “Morality pills: reality or science fiction” at The Guardian (June 3, 2014)

But the ability to create such a pill may not be as important in the long run as gaining support for the denial of free will and acceptance of coercion that underlies the desire.

Thoughtful responses have also been heard from a variety of quarters over the years:

● 2012: If the pills worked, the morality they enforce might seem quite nasty:

The stability of welfare-enhancing group norms often requires that some among us be willing to harm ourselves punishing norm-violators. “Altruistic punishment” is the term of art. Altruistic punishers might be nasty people. Their willingness to “help” may take the form of streaks of dogmatism and vindictiveness.

Will Wilkinson, “The Morality Pill” at Big Think (January 29, 2012)

● 2012: Such a pill has always been envisioned as a form of social control, not an aid to better living. Those who administer the drug essentially control what is defined as moral:

Some bioethicists are already working on a justification for social control through drugs. A couple of years ago, Julian Savulescu, Peter Singer’s one-time student, now a professor at Oxford, co-authored a paper in which he contended that:

“If safe moral enhancements are ever developed, there are strong reasons to believe that their use should be obligatory, like education or fluoride in the water, since those who should take them are least likely to be inclined to use them. That is, safe, effective moral enhancement would be compulsory.” …

The governors of Brave New World decreed that moral behaviour meant being placid, happy and law-abiding, so they encouraged the inhabitants to dose themselves with soma. Will the government ideal be the gentle pacifism of Buddha or the warrior ethic of Nietzsche? What would stop governments from creating a pill to make soldiers pitiless, cunning and cruel?

Michael Cook, “Morality Pill” at Crisis (March 9, 2012)

● 2017: At Slate: Why do we assume that empathy is always a good thing?:

But even if we arrive at a tentative consensus concerning morally desirable traits—say, that empathy plays an important role in our moral orientation toward others—and measures to boost them, we cannot stop this at some threshold level or entirely control the consequences thereof. Taken to their logical extremes, moral impulses have the capacity to go beyond moral behavior. Empathy, for example, can be used for deceptive purposes. It might also cloud our judgment, making us excessively eager to punish those who have done wrong because we identify with their victims. Human values will continue to generate conflicts that have no correct solution.

Vanessa Rampton, “Are You Creeped Out by the Idea of a “Moral Enhancement” Pill?” at Slate (March 20, 2017)

● 2017: An ethicist points out that such a pill would shortcircuit moral development in favor of blind obedience:

Most people want to be a certain kind of person, and not simply have the illusion of being a certain kind of person… For many of us, it is not enough that our brain chemistry can be manipulated to produce better moral judgment. It also matters that we have somehow actually made those judgments—that we have actively participated in our being or becoming moral agents.

Daniel Munro, “There’s nothing moral about a morality pill” at Maclean’s Magazine (April 16, 2017)

● 2020: Richard Weikart of California State University, Stanislaus, notes that “morality pill” ideas have been widely promoted within the transhumanist movement, which aims at ultimately transcending death through technology. He warns:

… transhumanists have no basis for any objective morality, so whenever they talk about promoting morality, they are merely pushing for whatever they personally think is moral. If other people disagree with their moral vision, then there is no way to adjudicate (other than by reference to who has the power to impose their morality on others—the Nietzschean solution). This means that whatever “morality pills” are administered to the public will be to impose the moral vision of the technocratic elite, rather than to promote objective moral standards.

Richard Weikart, ““Morality Pills”: Ethicist Calls for Drugs to Solve COVID Non-Compliance” at Evolution News and Science Today:

He also asks,

Finally, if people are really in such need of “moral enhancement,” how can we trust them to bioengineer “moral enhancement”? What if the technocrats are in need of “moral enhancement,” too? The whole idea presupposes that the technocrats who call the shots have their moral acts together and can tell everyone else how to become moral. It assumes that the intellectual elites are more moral than others in our society. Some, like myself, think the opposite is true — the intellectual elites of our society have been promoting immorality for decades, and if anyone needs “moral enhancement,” it is them.

Richard Weikart, ““Morality Pills”: Ethicist Calls for Drugs to Solve COVID Non-Compliance” at Evolution News and Science Today (August 14, 2020)

Dr. Weikart is the author of The Death of Humanity And the Case for Life.

It’s a perennial temptation among autocrats and their enablers to “just put something in the water so people must do as we tell them.” Modern technology feeds their ambition and whets their appetite. But science fiction writers, among others, have warned against succumbing to it, for example, Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) in Brave New World (1932) and Anthony Burgess (1917–1993) A Clockwork Orange (1962).

Like all totalitarian schemes, drug-enforced morality assumes the virtue of the actions of the government. It’s worth recalling that, in modern history, the famines and crackdowns with the highest death tolls have arisen from just such totalitarian calculations.

Note: The photo of Peter Singer is courtesy Fronteiras do Pensamento Porto Alegre, CC BY-SA 2.0

Further reading: Denying free will is totalitarian. Specifically, “The denial of free will is the cornerstone of totalitarian systems.” (Michael Egnor)

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COVID-19 Drives the Latest Proposal for a “Morality Pill”