The Cuddliness of the Uplifted Billionaire.

So this Guy Kahane character, deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics,  has been raising a few hackles with his musings on using drugs to induce “moral” behavior. The article has been cut and pasted all over the web (about eight hundred bloggers have opined at last count), and it certainly seems provocative enough on its face: cure racism with a pill? Pharmacise criminals into not just law-abiding, but moral citizens? What could possibly go wrong?

After all, as Kahane points out, we’ve already taken the first steps. He cites Prozac (which dulls aggression); he cites oxytocin (which ramps up cuddles and empathy). (I would add American Idol, which effectively shuts down the sex drive.) Why not just take it a few steps further, dose your team with drugs to enhance cooperation, hand out “Trust Tablets” with communion wafers so your parishioners aren’t quite so reluctant to send little Timmy off to summer camp with the Christian Brothers?

The question’s not entirely rhetorical, and Kahane admits that Morality Tablets aren’t the kind of thing people are likely to line up around the corner to buy:

“Becoming more trusting, nicer, less aggressive and less violent can make you more vulnerable to exploitation … On the other hand, it could improve your relationships or help your career…”

Although I’d suggest that depends on your choice of career. Lawyers, border guards — basically, any profession in which psychopaths flourish — are not going to put much of a premium on more trusting or nicer.

Anyway, given that those whose chemical improvement would be most societally beneficial are also those least likely to want the treatment, induced morality is unlikely to take off any time soon unless someone dumps a shitload of empathy enhancers into the water supply — an alternative that Kahane explicitly does not advocate (which led a fair number of bloggers to wonder who suggested that we should do that, and why aren’t they named in the article?).   And while I can certainly see any number of governments deciding to “enhance” the national water supply to make their citizens more docile, that would presuppose a certain level scientific literacy in the upper echelons of said governments. I think here in Canada, we’re pretty safe on that score at least. (Besides, most Canadians have already proven themselves docile to the point of narcolepsy).

I think there’s more smoke than fire here. Beyond the unlikelihood of widespread adoption, most of the online reaction I’ve seen has been focused on the relatively uninteresting question of whether drug-induce altruism or empathy would constitute real moral behavior. Kahane pussies out on that score; “Not something science can answer”, he says, and I beg to differ. Moral behavior results from moral attitudes, and moral attitudes — like everything else the brain does — are functions of chemicals and electricity. If the chemistry is the same, then so is the end result; it makes no difference to the reaction whether the reagents came out of a gland or a pill. Methinks Kahane probably knows this, but is treading gently for fear of angry dualists in the audience.

(Anthony Burgess played this game at a much higher level in A Clockwork Orange, by the way, precisely because the behavior imposed upon his protagonist was not neurochemically identical to the baseline moral suite: an aversion to violence produced not by rewiring the basic circuitry, but by hammering a layer of negative reinforcement down on top of it. Now that was an interesting question — the morality of unmaking monsters, By Any Means Necessary — even though the lawnorder types in the novel dismissed it with the unassailable rejoinder “The point is that it works.”)

This might work too, if you could get anybody to take it. Let’s assume that you can. Let’s assume that, as one Will Sargent has suggested, we could surreptitiously dose some bankers with some kind of enhanced oxytocin derivative to increase their empathy. Good for everyone, no?

No. Because all these neurochemicals for social bonding did not evolve in response to abstract concepts like “society at large” or “the good of the many”. These things work tribally; they enhance group cohesion amongst those individuals who see each other and work together day in and day out. They are chemicals that imprint you like a Lorenz duckling, and they only work in proximity. So uplifting a bunch of bankers and businessmen would, I’d imagine, have the effect of increasing their empathy and their protective instincts — towards other bankers and businessmen. I don’t really see this as a step up.

On the other hand, it might at least be entertaining to see Conrad Black and Jim Flaherty in a cuddle pile.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday April 18 2011at 08:04 am , filed under neuro, sociobiology . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

26 Responses to “The Cuddliness of the Uplifted Billionaire.”

  1. Interesting post. In regards to oxytocin, the story there is actually a lot more complex than enhancing group cohesion, empathy, pair bonding, etc. Ed Yong over at Not Exactly Rocket Science has blogged about this a few times, one post: No Love for Outsiders being particularly interesting.

    There’s a definite dark side there. Enhances cooperation in social games if you met your partner beforehand, otherwise it actually makes you less cooperative. Seems to make you more biased (in favour) towards members of your own ethnic/cultural group versus outsiders, etc.

  2. Now imagine that into the hemicycle’s water supply, of whatever name you give to your parliament.

    Would we see left- and right-wing cooperation?

  3. Serendipity, Peter. This morning a philosophical colleague posted this on mt Facebook page. You might have seen this. . Lots of oxytocin here. Towards the end, a bit of hot air, too.

  4. Remember Stand on Zanzibar?

    This solution ounds vaguely famliar. Also reminds me of the stories about ravers who take MDMA. Do you want people roaming around and hugging people randomly while moaning “I love you man?”


  5. Clearly Mr. Kahane has heard of neither science fiction nor the Law of Unintended Consequences. There may be reasons why the human brain causes us to be aggressive that we are not, as yet aware (I mean, the planet Miranda in the film Serenity is somewhat instructive). And of course, there will never, ever be a good reason for humans to get really pissed off because everything about humans is so kewl for now and forever.

    Should I start on the rain water and grain alcohol now? Or wait until I sense a profound sense of fatigue during the physical act of love?

  6. There’s a part of me that feels a bit wary of wonder drugs that encourage or create the right brain chemistry for docile behavior. I honestly see it as a way to domesticate people en mass for better control.

    The other thing with morality is that it is pretty subjective from culture to culture. That’s not to say there aren’t a few morals that could be applied universally, ie: treat others as you’d like to be treated. And yet even something that simple might not apply to someone else, because they want to kill you and don’t mind dying in the process.

    Obviously, there would be the possibility we could end up with people like Achilles walking around. In wanting to ‘fix’ whatever they see as wrong with someone, or inhibit certain behaviors for the greater good, the proponents of such drugs could end up unleashing something worse than what they started with.

    With all this possible exploitation, someone could seriously change things for everyone. Aggression is a necessary trait for survival, we wouldn’t have gotten here without it. If that changed on a wide enough scale, I think wed end up with two castes of people, maybe even two species given a long enough time span.

    But then, that would be thinking a bit too much into things.

  7. Before becoming a writer I taught high-school for 10 years. A brief stroll down the corridor of any secondary school will demonstrate that society is already engaged in a fair amount of psycho-pharmacological engineering. Problem is, it’s unplanned (except by pinheads with an overabundance of education and insufficient common sense to consider the long-term effects of their science experiments on their l’il charges). Like I used to say: “I touch the future. I teach. And the future scares me.”

  8. Your point reminds me of a argument that i made recently about politics. That we get the troubles we are heading into as the distance, in organizational terms, between those that lead and those that are being led grows. That is, when a politician or business person have to see the faces of those they are dealing with on a daily basis it is much harder to be a amoral asshat about the choices made then when there are 5+ layers of intermediaries between them.

    I think there are a story about the Vietnam war where a report about the shooting of a elderly Vietnamese woman with no weapon had, at the other end of the chain, become a age-less, gender-less Vietcong with a grenade…

  9. Rob Thornton asks: Do you want people roaming around and hugging people randomly while moaning “I love you man?”

    You know, that sounds kinda groovy. Sign me up. I want to feel that way about my fellow man.

    My guess is that Dan Gaston is onto something when he notes this is more complex than just giving people a pill to enhance some single neurotransmitter.

    My further guess is that nobody reading this blog today will be alive when science has fine-tuned mind-control via drug therapy, and fine-tuning morality is truly science fiction, because as Lynn notes: morality is ..pretty subjective from culture to culture

    This reminds me of the early attempts to make gay men less gay by dosing them with testosterone – while some hormones have startling and far-reaching effects, we are still at the stage where the drunk moves the glass on the bar by stomping his pharmaceutical foot. If psychopharmacology were anywhere beyond the preliminary stages, we wouldn’t still have depressives taking headers off bridges.

  10. Alright, so enforced morality for a banker wouldn’t work out quite as planned.

    However, I can totally see this working as a pre-requirement for say, becoming a junior executive at Goldman Sachs. You’re a team player, right? You’re going to look out for the team’s interests? Then taking this oxycotin supplement won’t make any difference.

    Of course, you’re sure that the senior executives are also taking the supplement and it’s not just the junior execs who are taking the real dose. They’re on your team. You trust them.

  11. Or for offenders of some sort, unless it enhances their tribalist biases, could be easy to test I suppose. If someone is a serious serial offender (say murder) I personally son’t think it’s much to ask for to let this person participate in some jolly experiments so we spare some monkeys the suffering of being a lab rat.

    Recently I read all the work of George Alec Effinger, a truly great and charming writer who wrote the ‘Budayeen, City in the Sands’ trilogie with protagonist Mard Audran in an undiscposed Arab nation aome 100 years in future.

    Outside of being brilliant and strange, they reflect the authors wishes for there being drugs to counter all effects. I suppose they are a lot like the the drugs GAE took himself in practice, but similar to Brave New World, it’s not unthinkable we will all at one point carry a pill box to make us more effective when the need arises. I know I have looked into concentration-drugs (see Peter’s previous blog on the movie about the drugs that made the dude smarter, title of which I already forgot, dee why I need this drugs?) but there is not yet a truly great option.

    If there were such pillw that would enhance memory and cognitive skill, and doing just that, I think I would certanly explore it. Depending on long term effects it would seem immoral not to offer it to people.

    Which is I guess something else than morality drugs of which I don’t feel I require any, rather the opposite. I agonize over killing bugs most of the time…sigh.

  12. If I recall, the Starfish sequels featured the doping of the population with mood-controlling drugs from the nutrient dispensers.

  13. As usual, John Brunner got there first: the concluding crisis in “Stand on Zanzibar” hinges on the question of whether you should medicate human beings into being sociable and docile.

    “Christ, what does it matter if we have to take brotherly love out of an aerosol can? It’s contagious stuff no matter where you get it from … But it’s not right!” Chad whispered. “It’s not something to be made in a factory, packaged and wrapped and sold! It’s not something meant to be – to be dropped in bombs from UN aircraft …”

  14. Which is why John Brunner remains my literary idol. I just wish he’d been paid a decent advance for that book.

  15. Actually, Robert Heinlein got there first. (Or at least earlier. It wouldn’t surprise me if this question is canvassed somewhere in the late and tedious work of H.G. Wells.) In the first version of Heinlein’s “If This Goes On–” (the magazine serial in ASTOUNDING SF), the victorious revolutionaries against fundamentalist tyranny are concocting a plan of “mass reorientation under hypnosis.” (Medication, hypnosis, doesn’t matter–the question is the same. In the 19th Century it would have been animal magnetism.) To wit: “We had to teach them to think for themselves, reject dogma, be suspicious of authority, tolerate difference of opinion, and make their own decisions–types of mental processes almost unknown in the United States for many generations.” Between then and the early 1950s, when he revised and expanded the novella for book publication, he had a change of heart: old guy stands up and declaims: “Free men aren’t ‘conditioned!’ Free men are free because they are ornery and cussed and prefer to arrive at their own prejudices in their own way–not have them spoonfed by a self-appointed mind tinkerer!” (Quotes courtesy of Alexei Panshin’s THE WORLD BEYOND THE HILL–much easier to find there than digging up the originals.)

    John Boston

  16. H, Alan Turing was treated with female hormones, not male ones. so perhaps men were treated with female hormones rather than male ones.

  17. S, I wasn’t specifically thinking of Turing, but thanks for the info! Did you ever see a movie “Breaking the Code” with Derek Jacobi as Turing ? Very gripping drama.

    For some reason I am pretty sure that in the 1950’s there was some thought that homosexuality could be cured by supplementing “deficient ” androgen levels in gay men. Didn’t really work, of course, but it illustrates the ways in which the human body and behavior are pretty complex. Simple either/or and straight-line relationships of chemicals to complex behaviors is a pleasing idea, but rarely work out in the mundane world, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there were other groups of scientists dosing gay men with estrogen at the same time.

    No offense to Brunner, of course, but I might at least try brotherly love in an aerosol can, if that’s not cheating. If I agree to have my mood altered, with no coersion, is it so bad? I agree to be impaired if I have a beer, don’t I?

  18. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was also published in 1932…Dunno if Heinlein was earlier, but it must’ve been a theme back then.

  19. Well Peter looks like you called it. Enjoy a valium laced government issue foodstuff on me!

  20. @Dan: Yes, the special medicated Soylent Green, brought to you by Taco Bell… Mmmmm! Tasty!

  21. Not unrelated, apparently there’s a proposal to classify experiencing grief as a mental disorder. Normally diagnosing someone with major depression would exclude the grieving such as after losing a loved one, but now some want to remove that exclusion to open the way for “treatment”.

    More here…

  22. @Sheila What men get treated with is not a female hormone, but a med that all but stops one’s production of testosterone. But since this interesting process was discovered in the 1980’s, Turing probably got some estrogen, those bastards. And as you probably know, I know quite a bit about the med I mentioned. It works by an insidious feedback mechanism centred on one’s hypothyroid.

  23. *sigh* Soon, NOT having some sort of diagnosed mental illness will the the exception rather than the norm. . . .

  24. Hey, is Peter out getting his leg grafted today?

  25. @ Jamie Mason

    Before becoming a writer I taught high-school for 10 years. A brief stroll down the corridor of any secondary school will demonstrate that society is already engaged in a fair amount of psycho-pharmacological engineering. Problem is, it’s unplanned (except by pinheads with an overabundance of education and insufficient common sense to consider the long-term effects of their science experiments on their l’il charges). Like I used to say: “I touch the future. I teach. And the future scares me.”

    With all due respect, if you are referring to the (admittedly, overdiagnosed 😉 ) ADHD… The drug regimens do improve the overall academic performance if treatment continues for several years, as well as increase compliant behavior which contributes to a better quality of life for everyone.

    Of course, you might claim that a different pedagogical approach might work, but a different pedagogical approach is so hard to develop and investigate that you might as well propose a Turing-grade AI… or cloned posthuman vampire teachers 🙂

  26. Our brains are far too complex to be controlled by something so crude as a pill. At most, it may shift the general biases. But it will never dictate specific actions. Never.