Do we need a morality pill?

BioEdge  Bioethics News from around the World

by Michael Cook | 30 Jan 2012

Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer and a research assistant, Agata Sagan, proposed a “morality pill” in a column in the New York Times this week. They speculate that moral behaviour is at least in part biochemically determined. Hence, it should be possible to engineer moral behaviour with drugs. Here is the scenario that they paint:

“If continuing brain research does in fact show biochemical differences between the brains of those who help others and the brains of those who do not, could this lead to a “morality pill” — a drug that makes us more likely to help? Given the many other studies linking biochemical conditions to mood and behavior, and the proliferation of drugs to modify them that have followed, the idea is not far-fetched. If so, would people choose to take it?

“Could criminals be given the option, as an alternative to prison, of a drug-releasing implant that would make them less likely to harm others? Might governments begin screening people to discover those most likely to commit crimes? Those who are at much greater risk of committing a crime might be offered the morality pill; if they refused, they might be required to wear a tracking device that would show where they had been at any given time, so that they would know that if they did commit a crime, they would be detected.”

They foresee some objections to their idea. Some people will argue that depriving someone of free will can never be justified. But Singer and Sagan are sceptical of the existence of free will, so they suspect that this is not a sound objection.

Morality pills are not a novel idea. Another Australian utilitarian, Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu, believes that it would be a crime not to “enhance” people to act more morally.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.