The Science and Ethics of Moral Enhancement

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 behavior.

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 pro-social aspects.

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 behaviors 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 social behavior.


Patricia Churchland urges caution on oxytocin claims.


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 this year.

Addressing the 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.

“We are 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

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