Can we create a morality pill? And if we can,
should we? Scientists at yesterday’s International Neuroethics Society panel on moral enhancement addressed these questions and others about
the potential use of hormones such as oxytocin and serotonin to shape social
Some companies and media outlets have jumped the gun, declaring oxytocin the “moral molecule” or the “love
chemical.” If you want to enhance your trustworthiness, an internet search will turn up what is supposedly "oxytocin spray." But the panelists cautioned about reading too much into these claims, noting
that this field is complicated and still in its infancy.
All three panelists, Dana Alliance member Patricia Churchland, Molly
Crockett, and Julian Savulescu, seemed to agree that two of the biggest
obstacles to the research are: (1) lack of universal definitions for terms such
as “morality” and “moral enhancement,” and (2) neurochemicals such as oxytocin
and serotonin do not act in isolation, and they shape behavior beyond
Crockett suggested a multi-disciplinary
collaboration to determine common definitions for morality and related terms.
Churchland added that one must keep in mind that moral judgment is not neatly
separated from factors such as emotions, reasoning, motives, habits, stress,
temperament, age, etc. “Morality is not a module,” she said.
And as morality can’t be thought of without
considering other factors, neither can neurochemicals like oxytocin be isolated
as the single driver of certain behaviors. Churchland explained that oxytocin
is found all over the body, not just in the hypothalamus, and it interacts with
a variety of other hormones and chemicals that affect neuronal behavior. It’s
not surprising, then, that oxytocin affects behavior beyond
those deemed pro-social; Crockett gave the examples of aggression and envy—not
necessarily traits you’d want to enhance.
Given these obstacles, what is the state of
the research being done on moral enhancements? Of the work with oxytocin, “most
of the really good work has been done in animal studies,” Churchland said, noting
that we have no idea what the long-term effects are in humans. She encouraged
the use of other strategies before turning to drug development to influence
Going forward, Churchland recommended the use
of larger studies, and pinpointed the need to better understand how to deliver oxytocin
exogenously. Current results are hard to interpret, she said.
Churchland co-authored a paper examining research reports on oxytocin, which
she discussed with us in a briefing
paper about the hormone that was published earlier
ethical question of whether this research is justified, Julian Savulescu
defended the work, saying that we have an obligation to research moral
enhancement. He believes that people have not mentally evolved to deal with the
technologically advanced and globalized world they’ve created, and the
problems, such as global warming and the proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction, that they now face. In a paper that he co-authored for Philosophy Now, he wrote:
We have radically transformed our social and natural environments by
technology, while our moral dispositions have remained virtually unchanged. We
must now consider applying technology to our own nature, supporting our efforts
to cope with the external environment that we have created.
responsible if we fail to act, knowing what the risks are,” he said.
A video of this panel will be available soon
on the International Neuroethics Society website.
The Dana Foundation is a supporter of the INS and has been since its inception.
–Ann L. Whitman