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 be 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.
1. Crimes of the Passions?
The discussion in the article is interesting for the assumptions that it makes about criminal behaviour. Ruud ter Meulen, chair in ethics in medicine and director of the centre for ethics in medicine at the University of Bristol, suggests that drugs that manipulate our emotions might be useful for reforming criminals:
Meulen also suggested that moral-enhancement drugs might be used in the criminal justice system. “These drugs will be more effective in prevention and cure than prison,” he said.
This suggestion assumes that criminal behaviour is the result of emotional imbalances, rather than resulting from poverty or social injustices (see this Zine on the prison industrial complex). Angela Davis has a very different take on what makes a criminal. Her perspective situates criminalization in its social context and suggests that criminality is entwined with social injustices rather than inhering within individual criminals:
Davis suggests that part of what makes someone a criminal is their vulnerability. She notes that poor people and people of colour are disproportionately imprisoned, while many other kinds of crime, such as financial crimes or environmental crimes, either go unpunished or are punished only by levying a fine. Davis’ suggestion makes the idea of treating criminals with drugs particularly troubling, since the scientists in the Guardian article admit that taking these drugs might increase one’s vulnerability to exploitation:
“Becoming more trusting, nicer, less aggressive and less violent can make you more vulnerable to exploitation,” he [Guy Kahane] said. “On the other hand, it could improve your relationships or help your career.”
So what makes a criminal? Is it a biological disorder that involves excessive aggression and too little empathy, or is it a social condition related to oppression? Perhaps it is a little of both? To the extent that social vulnerability contributes to criminalizing particular behaviours (and not others) we should be concerned about suggestions to control individuals through pharmaceuticals. The danger is that pharmaceutical manipulation might make us complacent; we would still suffer injustice but we would no longer care.
The suggestion that we could manipulate the emotional state of criminals to make them more docile and more accepting of their social situation seems to be somewhat in tension with a second suggestion in the article: that we could manipulate our emotions in order to do a better job of confronting global injustice.
2. Drugging Ourselves to Change the World
Another theme in the article is the theme of using pharmaceuticals to make us better global citizens.
“Relating to the plight of people on other side of the world or of future generations is not in our nature,” he [Guy Kahane] said. “This new body of drugs could make possible feelings of global affiliation and of abstract empathy for future generations.”
Again this is an interesting discussion because of the extent to which it individualizes global injustice. At least one reason that global injustice persists, according to Kahane, is that we lack empathy for those on the other side of the globe and this lack of empathy is somehow “natural” or part of “human nature.” The suggestion ignores the extent to which people in North America benefit from structural injustices that keep “people on the other side of the world” poor by exploiting their cheap labour to make ever-greater profits, and ever-cheaper products, for people on this side of the world. Rather than viewing global injustice as a structural problem Kahane conceptualizes injustice as an individual failing of a lack of empathy inherent in human nature. His possible solution is also individual: make us care more, one at a time, by drugging us into fellow-feeling.
But would it work? Could we really come to care more about people we will never see just by taking drugs? Ruud ter Meulen suggests that it might not be so simple:
“While Oxytocin makes you more likely to trust and co-operate with others in your social group, it reduces empathy for those outside the group,” Meulen said.
Using drugs to manipulate our moral behaviour might not be so simple. Meulen suggests these manipulations can have unforeseen consequences, and if they increase trust within one’s social group but decrease trust for those outside it, this could worsen global injustices rather than improve them.
I am skeptical of the extent to which drugging ourselves would help create better moral agents. For one thing, some philosophers have suggested that empathy is important for engaging with others and seeing them as moral agents. Some have described empathy as the ability to imagine yourself in the shoes of another, and to see things from the other’s point of view. But to the extent that we are capable of empathizing with another, we have to have some experiences in common with them. It is very difficult to imagine yourself in the place of someone else when you have no idea what they are going through. If we drug ourselves into a happy complacency with the way things are, then it might make it more difficult to understand or empathize with the suffering of others.
3. Video Games, External Rewards and Being Manipulated into “Doing Good”
I find the suggestion that we take drugs in order to make us moral to be very disturbing. Is it disturbing only because it involves a chemical manipulation? Would other forms of manipulation be less problematic? What if the manipulation came in the form of offering rewards for good behaviour, would that make it more acceptable?
Some game designers have suggested that we could improve people’s moral behaviour if we used principles from game design to create incentives for doing good.
In an earlier post I wrote about Jesse Schell’s suggestion to use external rewards to encourage “moral” behaviour:
Vodpod videos no longer available.
Schell suggests we can use the psychological mechanisms revealed by social gaming to promote certain kinds of buying habits and moral behaviour through awarding “experience points” (the relevant part starts around minute 18 of the video).
Schell envisions a future in which each of our actions is recorded and tracked. The benefit of this system, he believes, is that companies and the government could then create incentives (usually tied to financial interests) to encourage us to adopt particular behaviours by offering rewards for those behaviours. This suggestions seems extremely distopian to me. (And, as an aside, I am completely creeped out by the idea that we might subscribe to services to provide us with advertisements as we sleep. That sounds frightening and completely terrible to me.) But there is a further question about whether, assuming these incentives were successful, the resultant behaviour should even count as “moral.” As I wrote before:
Schell suggests that we can promote “good” behaviour, not for its own sake, but for the sake of gaining points that will provide us with tax credits or some similar incentive. It seems very strange to me to think of promoting “good” behaviour in this way. If you behave in a morally good way to get experience points, I think you are having “one thought too many” to quote Bernard Williams completely out of context. Source.
Beyond the question of whether something should count as moral when we are doing good for the sake of something else, rather than doing good for its own sake, there is also a question about who decides what counts as good behaviour. In Schell’s discussion he is very explicit about the idea that multi-national companies or government bodies will be the ones responsible for deciding which behaviours are “good” and responsible for creating incentives to encourage those behaviours.
But this seems really troubling, because I am not sure that I think the “elites” in a society are best-placed to make that society a better place or a more just society. If history serves as an example of how the future might unfold, in most cases those who have privilege consider a “good” or “just” world to be one that perpetuates their privilege, rather than one that increases justice for those who do not fare well under that system.
I think that a distrust of the beneficence of elites is the common concern I have with the idea that we use drugs or video game psychology to give power to some elite group who will then determine a set of incentives to either make us more content with existent injustices or to create incentives to conform our behaviour to their financial interests.
In closing, I want to end with a video of a talk by Jane McGonigal, where she suggests we could harness the best of gaming incentives to make the world a better place:Vodpod videos no longer available.
In this video, McGonigal’s suggestions are more vague than Schell’s in the previous video. But here, at least, she is not suggesting that determining “good behaviour” should be left to elites. Instead, she suggests that if we could make it fun to solve serious issues and we could thereby harness the creative thought of a wider variety of people, then perhaps we could make better and faster progress at addressing the serious issues we face. This suggestion is not perfect (for example, read Kirby Bit’s criticism here), but at least it does not assign authority to some elite group. Instead, it provides a model that trusts the insights of ordinary people.