Wednesday, 16 January 2013

On drugs and morality, or the merits of 'bioenhancement'

So say there's a new drug. It's a pill, red and shiny and ever so pretty.

Say it has the potential to influence the morality of a person.

What could we do with this clever little pill?
We could use it on criminals who have less capacity for sympathy than the regular human being. We could give them the drug so they feel less inclined to put a bullet through someone's head just to watch them bleed.
Or on a smaller level, we could give it to test cheaters, so they would recognise the unfairness of cheating.
Is this a good idea?
Is it fair to try and influence people's morality, changing their behaviour so they are more inclined to do good?

I was inspired to think about this by an article from Philosophy Now, entitled "The Incoherence of Moral Bioenhancement". It is a response to another, earlier article which is available online entitled simply "Moral Enhancement". I read both the response article, which argues strongly against using moral bioenhancement, and the original. 

If we say drugs can 'fix' people, this sets a dangerous idea in motion. The idea is that a person might need drugs to fix themselves from a predisposed condition that makes them less moral than others. In other words, it's completely against the concept of changing for the better (musical distraction here). 
This idea that an action is not your fault because, oh whoops, it's in your genes, is already out there though not quite established.
But what we currently know about behaviour and the 'nature vs. nurture' argument is that this is not necessarily true; behaviour is influence both by your genes and your environment which influences how a gene is expressed.
And even if we say, okay yes this person is naturally disposed to be a miser and waste energy and leave the tap running does that mean he will be? Surely there are people in the world who have anger issues or other traits that they have learned to control.
Having a drug to fix a person will make people's beliefs much more narrow; instead of trying to keep their issues under control, they can blame their genes and society as a whole for the harm they have done and pop a few pills instead of doing a bit of actual soul-searching and saying maybe I have the power to change myself. 
This idea of dependency on outside forces to change your own behaviour certainly is, if we think about it, relatively common. Consider the huge number of celebrities who go to drug and alcohol rehab every year, after having a 'relapse of judgement'. They need 'help'; they can't possibly do it on their own, can they? They need therapists and soothsayers and motivators.

Well, that's what the article argues anyway. But there are many other things to take into account, namely the moral ambiguity of influencing other's behaviour through drugs. 
The article makes an important point about free choice
What does good will mean? 
Essentially if people choose to go out of their way and make people's lives better, they exercise goodwill.
(They also get that warm fuzzy feeling inside.)
But if we accept this, then there's an immediate problem with the morality pill. If people are influenced to do good because they are taking the drug, surely their free choice has been taken away. 
Just because they are giving to charity/handing out money, it does not mean they are exercising goodwill.
The point of goodwill is that you accept it is something not normally done, you accept that you are doing it not because you feel an obligation to do it(i.e. you are a bad person if you don't) but because you can better another person's life. 
We have to ask ourselves; do we really want a world where people feel obliged and influenced to do good for others, as opposed to making a conscious decision to go out of their way to improve another person's life out of the goodness of their heart?
Free hugs everywhere but not a good intention in sight.

Naturally these drugs don't really exist yet; we're not talking about drugs used to calm down schizophrenics here, more the hypothetical possibility of drugs that can physically influence a person's morality. 

Certainly this is an interesting issue, and I don't study philosophy so anyone who does and is reading this probably thinks I'm an idiot. I have barely begun to scratch the surface on this issue I read a thought experiment once which dealt with a similar theme; it was a machine through which criminals could choose to go that would make them disgusted by what they had done. The thought experiment is discussed in the wonderful book "The pig that wants to be eaten" by Julian Baggini which deals with all sorts of thought experiments and is simple enough for, well, me to understand. 

Although we are still very far from developing such a drug, (though we do have drugs today that we could easily compare to it), the question of whether using such a drug is beneficial to mankind and the morality of using such a drug is still very much up in the air.

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