Colin McEnroe Show: Can A Pill Make Us More Moral?

A discussion on the growing field of psychopharmacology.

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Colin McEnroe Show: Can A Pill Make Us More Moral?
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Colin McEnroe Show: Can A Pill Make Us More Moral?

If I tell you that today's show looks into the near future and sees a wave of new drugs and other therapies that can enhance moral behavior, maybe you'll tell me: enough with the science fiction. But in some ways, the drugs are already here.

Oxytocin, sometimes known as the love hormone, increases empathy and social bonding.  And oxytocin can already be taken -- for other reasons -- in nasal spray form.

Among the effects of Prozac are lowered aggression. So maybe, administered in the right way, it could make a lot of users "better people." And surely there are more to come. After a decade or so of studying the neuroimages of moral decision making, scientists are getting a handle on what parts of the brain light up during good guy behavior and its opposite.

Maybe widespread application of those drugs seems unlikely, but today we'll look at how they can quickly become part of several debates raging now.

Leave your comments below, e-mail or Tweet us @wnprcolin.



Reconsidering what morality means

I find this conversation frankly terrifying. We are talking here about fixing other people's morality, and the talk is almost all about the technology. There is very little openness to any kind of dialogue around what is and is not moral.

One of the more disturbing examples mentioned: requiring workers in a nursing home to take "morally enhancing" drugs and then using that as a marketing strategy.

The paternalism inherent in such an idea is simply horrifying. No mention is made whatsoever about the impact that decent wages, job security, health insurance, and respectful management would have on the moral behavior of nursing home workers. Nor is there any mention of giving morally enhancing drugs to the corporate CEO's who run nursing homes for profit and set the priorities when balancing costs against quality of care.

Dr. Jotterand said near the beginning that we need to consider the nature of morality along with focusing on the technology, but I'm not hearing him do that very much. I hear a bunch of technicians playing with a shiny new idea, with no acknowledgement of themselves as morally responsible agents in relationship with those around them.

E-mail from Laurel

Consider the research that came out a few months ago, that caused certain men to clutch their nether regions and start to hyperventilate: Men in committed, relationships where they have the chance to be nurturing have lower levels of testosterone.

Consider also the evidence compiled by noted NPR Drs. Tom and Ray Magliozzi: or just google "hey guys, watch this" or "Darwin awards".

It seems that uncontrolled testosterone levels are dangerous, and that the safe, evolutionarily-selected-for levels are those of men in healthy family situations that ameliorate hormone levels.

In general, we know that most violent crime caused by individuals with high/uncontrolled levels of this same chemical, which we know how control, by environment or medical intervention.

Should we? For a safer, more functional society?

What if universities decided they didn’t want individuals with uncontrolled, dangerously high levels of this chemical on our campuses? They'd end the rape problem along with much of the damage and cleaning bills in dorms, and a large fraction of the student population would probably be better able to concentrate to study and learn. Some would consider this a more effective use of our education dollars, though we might end up with more boring football games.

Just an idea . . .

E-mail from Wendy

The problem is parole ends after a year or two and then what? Many ex convicts would not comply after that .

E-mail from Hank

As we discover ways to modify behavior are we not also providing a medical excuse for bad behavior? Last week they found a drug that had a side effect of reducing racism. Now will a hate crime be defended by saying the person just had a drug imbalance? Will we no longer be able to hold anyone responsible for his or her behavior?