Can a Pill Make You More Moral?

Image: Sonny Abesamis/Flickr
Image: Sonny Abesamis/Flickr

It’s a reasonable goal to want everyone on Earth to be more moral. Maybe there’d be less suffering, and people would be happier or more prosperous. But what is morality? Are there any drugs that can make us more moral humans? Are they ready for us to debate about their use?


Moral enhancers, be they drugs or other treatments, have become a hot topic of discussion in the bio- and neuroethics communities. A pair of researchers decided to look at some treatments that might have an effect on morality—drugs like oxytocin, amphetamines and beta blockers, even magnetic and direct brain stimulation. They concluded that philosophers debating moral enhancement need to root their conversations around the reality of today’s drugs. Any drugs that seem to have a moral judgement-improving effect are just “blunt instruments” that do a specific thing unrelated to overall morality.

“A lot of people are enthusiastic about the topic,” Veljko Dubljević, author of the study published this week in the journal Bioethics and philosophy professor at North Carolina State University, told Gizmodo. “That’s okay, people want other people to be more moral. But [these interventions] are like tuning a clockwork mechanism with a hammer. It just doesn’t work.”

Treatments to enhance a person’s morality have added fuel to philosophical debates humans have had for our entire existence. “The philosophical debate about the nature of moral judgment remains unsettled (and will likely stay that way forever),” NYU medical ethicist Carolyn Neuhaus told Gizmodo. Plus, “the philosophers writing about moral enhancement are just as, if not more, interested in philosophical debates about moral judgment than actually morally enhancing people.”

That hasn’t stopped us from thinking about certain drugs or treatments and the potential to use them in people— for example, folks have called oxytocin the “moral molecule” for its ability to make people cooperate. In fact, a recent clinical trial attempted to determine its effects on moral judgement in people when startled. And amphetamines made Japanese factory workers work harder during World War II—to them, a form of moral enhancement.

But World War II’s end left lots of Japanese workers with amphetamine addictions. And oxytocin seems to decrease cooperation with people outside of some group, for instance, people of other races. Dubljević and his coauthor write that oxytocin is more of a “nepotism enhancer.”


I asked NYU medical ethicist Arthur Caplan whether he thought moral enhancing drugs were a pipe dream. “It’s not a pipe dream, it’s a hookah,” he said. “There are a lot of people on the same pipe. Drug companies, philosophers, novelists, Hollywood. There’s nothing wrong with fictional forecasting,” but he thought there was no intersection between these drugs as they exist in philosophical debates and reality.

And sure, neuroscientists wants to understand how morality functions in the brain. But neuroscience doesn’t tell us what we should do. “Humans do that,” Karen Rommelfanger, Emory University neuroethicist, told Gizmodo.


More importantly, how do we even define the morality these drugs should enhance? “A headache might be the same here and Europe or Japan, and Advil works everywhere,” she said. “But morals aren’t the same everywhere.” What moral behavior should a moral enhancing drug actually accentuate? There are cultures that eat their dead, for example. What would their idea of moral enhancement look like for us?

In other words, to say certain members of society need moral enhancement is to make judgements about what is moral that not everyone will necessarily agree with.


All of the ethicists I spoke to agreed with Dubljević’s conclusions—conversations about moral enhancing drugs need to be rooted in reality. But in an email, Rommelfanger told me she was left asking how we actually use neuroscience to study morality—how do we move the conversation forward. She’d like to see neuroscientists refining the questions they ask to get more meaningful data on morality that we can actually use in real life.

Dubljević also admitted that he has an axe to grind—he has his own opinion of morality as a balance of different intuitions. And he thinks there are ways society can better its moral judgement without drugs. What if, for example, everyone in a country was an organ donor by default, and had to opt out of the system? Assuming that donating your organs is moral, this system forces people to weigh their decisions differently. It also increases organ donation.


The moral dilemma that you and philosophers might find yourselves debating is what to do if a trolley is rushing towards five people tied to a track, and you have the option to make the trolley switch tracks if you shoot someone in the head. But we need to be realistic when including the effects of drugs in the debate. Dubljević thinks philosophers need to drop “naïve views” about these drugs, and he called for “evidence-based moral improvement.”

But evidence-based moral improvement seems to be in short supply these days, doesn’t it.



Former Gizmodo physics writer and founder of Birdmodo, now a science communicator specializing in quantum computing and birds



The kicker would be what to do about somebody who has a demonstrated history of amoral behavior that has, on some level, caused damage to society, yet who refuses to take these sorts of drugs as part of a larger overall cognitive functioning that demonstrates absolutely no impairment in judgment or reasoning. It would be hard to justify the moral underpinnings of forcing that person to take drugs to, well, improve their moral underpinnings.