Donders Wonders Blog

Make me moral, now

Scientific breakthroughs have allowed us to enhance our living conditions. The emerging science of morality would soon permit upgrading ourselves. Do we want this?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Scientific breakthroughs have allowed us to enhance our living conditions. The emerging science of morality would soon permit upgrading ourselves. Do we want this?

“The future where medication makes us moral may be within reach”
Image courtesy of Creative Tail (CC BY 4.0)

Drugstores with a new type of pills

Recall the last time you visited a drugstore. You probably saw shelves stocked with different kinds of medicines that can alleviate every possible ailment, the endless arrays of packs of vitamins, and maybe even packages of weight-loss pills. But did you see pills for moral betterment? For now, this may seem like a hypothetical scenario. But if the quest for moral enhancement continues, pills for altering your moral state will be as common as those for trimming your waistline.

Manipulating morality through drugs

Research on moral enhancement has been growing in the past years. One of the ways that can lead to improved moral behavior is biomedical technology. This means the use of pharmaceuticals that can alter brain chemistry in order to induce desirable moral traits like solidarity and tolerance. Different chemicals that the nerve cells use to communicate with each other, such as dopamine, serotonin, and so on, can be manipulated by using different medications.

These chemical communicators are involved in all the functions of the body controlled by the brain such as generating movement, speaking, feeling emotion, and also solving moral dilemmas. For example, one study had participants take a drug that raised dopamine levels in certain regions of the brain in order to investigate how this affected people’s prosocial behavior, in particular, how much they can tolerate inequality. In contrast to participants who took the placebo, participants with increased levels of dopamine were more averse to inequality.

Perfectly moral world or not

The finding that people can become more sensitive to inequality because of medication is quite an important one because of its potential real-life implications. In many situations people have to share resources. If people resisted outcomes that are unequal, it would naturally lead to fairer decision-making. The world of today despite of all scientific advancements, is still quite an unequal place. While some people have more than necessary to enjoy a comfortable life, others are in a constant lack of food and shelter. Trying to find a method to boost our moral behavior on a large scale may be a worthwhile pursuit as it may lead to a world of justice and equality.

Yet, research that shows potential for moral progress through medication is as much exciting as it is alarming. One of the associated controversies is whether pharmacologically-induced morality is moral in itself. The use of medication for moral betterment may not be in tune with the nature of moral decision-making because it leaves no freedom for a person to make a choice between a moral and immoral decision. Also, manipulating levels of a certain chemical in the brain, such as dopamine, may have undesirable effects on other behaviors that this chemical is involved in regulating. But, perhaps the most critical point of all is whether YOU as an individual would try such medication if you had a chance?

Written by Julija. Edited by Angelique and Marisha

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