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The “Morality Pill” Hormone Does Not Make People “Nicer”

After an initial buzz as a “love hormone” we should all be dosed with, oxytocin started to reveal a big down side

Recently, we looked at the revival of enthusiasm for a morality pill on the grounds that it could make people do what authorities say with respect to COVID-19. Many of these proposals focus on the neuropeptide oxytocin. As a current advocate explains,

These substances interact directly with the psychological underpinnings of moral behavior; others that make you more rational could also help. Then, perhaps, the people who choose to go maskless or flout social distancing guidelines would better understand that everyone, including them, is better off when they contribute, and rationalize that the best thing to do is cooperate.

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 (August 10, 2020)

This idea has been around for a few years now and early boosters claimed that we were doing it already anyway:

Some prescription drugs already exist that bare a strong resemblance to the morality pill. Prozac, for example, lowers aggression and hostility. Then there’s Oxytocin, the love hormone. Oxford researcher Tom Douglas says this substance “increases feelings of social bonding and empathy.” That all sounds pretty moral to me.

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

Years ago, some neuroscientists chimed in with proposals, for example at the 2013 International Neuroethics Society meeting in San Diego, California. A leading British neuroscientist, Molly Crockett, described her own approach:

In her own efforts to study morality, Crockett noted, she found it useful to hone in what she called “low-hanging fruits,” that is, on behaviors that almost no one would find to be morally objectionable. As an example of such a behavior, she discussed Peter Singer’s dilemma regarding the duty of easy rescue, where an agent passes a drowning child and decides whether to help or not. “These are a set of behaviors we would want to target if we could,” she noted.

Hass, J., “It’s complicated: Molly Crocket and Patricia Churchland discuss the future of the neuroscience of morality” at The Neuroethics Blog (December 10, 2013)

But philosopher of neuroscience Patricia Churchland, author of Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition (2019), offered some caution:

To start, Churchland outlined some general problems with oxytocin and its recent popularity in both scientific research and the popular press. Its mechanisms are relatively poorly understood, it interacts with other neurochemicals, it makes female voles go into estrous, and there is very little known about the long term effects of its administration. In addition, she added, the general and unregulated availability of oxytocin makes it vulnerable to abuse. Nonetheless, the problems go even deeper for Churchland. The main body of her talk emphasized that how oxytocin is administered and measured in human beings plays a surprising role in how the

Hass, J., “It’s complicated: Molly Crocket and Patricia Churchland discuss the future of the neuroscience of morality” at The Neuroethics Blog (December 10, 2013)

Fearing that she may have sounded a little negative, Churchland went on to stress, “‘I think it can be done.’ But she emphasized that it must be done with patience and care for those involved all along the way.”

What does the oxytocin story look like years down the road, with the Morality Pill now back in the news? Historian Richard Weikart observes,

First, “moral enhancement” is based on shaky science. It is based on the idea that human behavior is genetically determined, which is a highly controversial position. Further, as Crutchfield himself explains in this article, some of the hormones might produce unintended consequences that could be more problematic than the behavior one is trying to change. Oxytocin, one of the darling hormones proposed by those pushing “moral enhancement,” seems to promote cooperation in the in-group, but hostility toward the out-group. Thus it may actually increase conformity to one’s own society, but perhaps increase racism. Do we really want to increase conformity to COVID-19 regulations, if it increases racism?

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

Yes, even Molly Crockett has acknowledged that the hormone often called the “love hormone”, “moral molecule”, or “cuddle chemical” has a variety of effects on behavior, many of them precisely the ones we wouldn’t want:

So could oxytocin be a morality pill? Not so fast. Oxytocin’s catchy nicknames belie some of its more sinister effects on behaviour. For example, oxytocin increases envy and schadenfreude, makes people more likely to favour members of their own group over those in other groups, and can increase people’s dishonesty when lying benefits their team. Herein lies the second major obstacle for morality pills: most brain chemicals influence a diverse range of behaviours. Drugs that target these chemicals will therefore have a variety of effects, some good, some bad (and of course what counts as good or bad depends on whom you ask – see obstacle #1 above).

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

Of course, if oxytocin doesn’t work, other drugs have been suggested:

Moreover, some drugs widely prescribed to people suffering from mental illness, such as the anti-depressant citalopram and the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam, also affect specific brain chemicals involved in moral judgments, and therefore have (largely unintended) moral-enhancement effects. And these effects have also been observed in otherwise healthy individuals taking pharmaceuticals for mundane reasons. For example, the combined oral contraceptive pill increases oxytocin secretion, which has been associated with trust, cooperation, and generosity, while propranolol, commonly prescribed for high blood pressure, appeared to reduce implicit negative reaction to other racial groups. Given the recent developments in neuroscience and genetics, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that the potential for influencing moral behavior will only increase.

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

A whole Moral Pharmacy? Just recently, researchers from the Max Planck Institute weighed in with an update that deflates a lot of the “cuddle chemical” research:

During the pandemic lockdown, as couples have been forced to spend days and weeks in one another’s company, some have found their love renewed while others are on their way to divorce court. Oxytocin, a peptide produced in the brain, is complicated in that way: a neuromodulator, it may bring hearts together or it can help induce aggression. That conclusion arises from unique research by scientist of the Weizman Institute of Science and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in which mice living in semi-natural conditions had their oxytocin producing brain cells manipulated in a highly precise manner. The findings could shed new light on efforts to use oxytocin to treat a variety of psychiatric conditions, from social anxiety and autism to schizophrenia.

Max Planck Institute, “The “Love Hormone” Oxytocin can also give rise to aggressive behavior” at Neuroscience News (June 16, 2020)

The significance of their research is that studies touting the benefits of oxytocin, as studied in rodents, have relied on controlled lab conditions, which are highly artificial as far as the animal is concerned. Simulating more natural conditions, the researchers discovered that the mice showed increased interest in their fellows but also more aggressive behavior:

If the “love hormone” is more likely a “social hormone,” what does that mean for its pharmaceutical applications? “Oxytocin is involved, as previous experiments have shown, in such social behaviors as making eye contact or feelings of closeness,” says (Noa) Eren, “but our work shows it does not improve sociability across the board. Its effects depend on both context and personality.” This implies that if oxytocin is to be used therapeutically, a much more nuanced view is needed in research: “If we want to understand the complexities of behavior, we need to study behavior in a complex environment. Only then can we begin to translate our findings to human behavior,” she says.

Max Planck Institute, “The “Love Hormone” Oxytocin can also give rise to aggressive behavior” at Neuroscience News (June 16, 2020)

The paper is open access.

Some point out that we don’t all agree on the same morality so there cannot really be a morality pill. While their argument is correct on its face, it misses the point that those who want control on behalf of a social elite assume that what the elite wants for society is correct and so is the elite’s morality. Under those circumstances, there would be no meaningful distinction between morality and obedience to their dictates.

Note: The featured photo is by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash. The graphic featuring the mice, “Cooperation or confrontation – Oxytocin can amplify both,” is from the Weizmann Institute of Science.


You may also enjoy: 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. Analysts generally agree that such a pill could, by definition, force only compliance, not morality, and compliance is probably the true goal.

and.

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


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The “Morality Pill” Hormone Does Not Make People “Nicer”