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Archive for April 8th, 2011

Happy Pills

Give me some happy pills so that I can be a better person.

On Monday the Guardian ran an article about using drugs to improve moral behaviour. Some drugs affect our emotions, increasing our feelings of trust, social bonding, empathy and lowering our anxiety. Scientists are now discussing the possibility that these drugs might be used to improve our moral behaviour.

The assumption seems to beĀ  that we would be morally better people, if only we could better control our emotional responses.

“Science has ignored the question of moral improvement so far, but it is now becoming a big debate,” he [Guy Kahane] said. “There is already a growing body of research you can describe in these terms. Studies show that certain drugs affect the ways people respond to moral dilemmas by increasing their sense of empathy, group affiliation and by reducing aggression.”

I think this assumption is interesting, because it reflects one strain of Western Philosophy that has a long tradition of being apprehensive about our emotions. Philosophers, dating back to the ancient Greeks, were often suspicious of emotions and sometimes considered them to be an irrational influence that distorted our otherwise praiseworthy rationality. For some philosophers, part of the task of philosophy was to control our emotions so that they cannot distort our moral reasoning. The Stoics, for example, recognized that some emotions (love, a sense of justice) might be thought to have positive value within our moral life, but they noted that each of these emotions also has a negative side: love can turn to murderous jealousy and a sense of justice can lead to destructive outrage. The Stoics argued that one cannot keep the good part of our emotional responses without bringing along the bad parts, and so they suggested that we endeavour to purge all emotions from our souls.

The assumptions about emotions made by Kahane are a little different than the discussion of emotions by the Stoic philosophers, because Kahane seems to believe there is a positive role for emotions in our moral lives and through pharmaceutical manipulation we might be able to harness the positive aspects of moral emotions while leaving behind their bad aspects. Nevertheless, Kahane’s discussion reflects the ancient Greek discussion because there is a suspicion of emotions in their natural state. The view seems to be that emotions can positively contribute to our moral behaviour, but in order to do so they must be “tamed” and manipulated by pharmaceuticals.

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