Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Virtue Pills

I'm generally a fan of artificial enhancement (in principle): if you would wish to have been naturally bestowed with some trait, why would an artificial origin make it any less desirable? (Practical concerns aside, of course; those are obvious enough.) But many people balk at the idea of moral enhancement in particular. Jean K. writes:
If they make people automatically do the right thing, then they stop being genuinely moral... Even if they drugs stopped people from murdering people, I think [Kant] would be opposed.

I can imagine, though, a drug that actually enhances morality. Maybe on your mental blackboard the moral law is getting faded and smudged and the drug improves matters. Maybe you’re too hyperactive to read the mental blackboard and it calms you down. I can see how there could be Kant-approved drugs that improve morality. I’m sure that should be included in the drug label…

I call 'bollocks' on this distinction. We automatically do the right thing all the time. It's right not to spit at passersby, not to use babies as footballs, not to stab the person sitting next to you, etc. More positively, it's also right to comfort your partner when she's upset, listen attentively to an interesting lecture, and respond promptly to emails. Many of us happily conform to these requirements "automatically". Some people don't, and are to this extent morally defective (mildly so in the case of lazy communication, more seriously for the spitting and stabbing psychopaths) -- even those who manage, after some internal struggle, to bring themselves into line with the 'moral law'.

Sure, it's better to act rightly than wrongly. But better yet to never suffer the contrary inclination in the first place. Cf. Aristotle on the virtuous vs. the merely continent. [Update: this point may also be used to prove the non-existence of a benevolent God.]

The self-constrained psychopath is not more "genuinely moral" than the rest of us. (Kant got this one wrong. Granted, acting from duty may be better - because more reliable - than acting from whimsical inclination. But compared to acting from well-cultivated virtues of character? You've got to be kidding me.) Quite the opposite. For the same reason, I think it's a mistake to think that we would somehow stop counting as 'genuinely moral' if a drug recalibrated our faulty inclinations so that right action came more naturally to us. That's just what it is to truly be -- and not just act -- virtuous.


  1. What if some virtues have a genetic basis?
    It could be. What if X lacks the gene (I'm simplying, I know) for anger control? Actually, I know some people who simply cannot control their anger, anger-control being a virtue, that of temperance or moderation. What if a pill supplies the factor that allows a virtuous person to control her anger? After taking the pill, she controls her anger. Why is she less virtuous than a person with the anger control gene?

  2. Amos - you seem to have misread me. My point was precisely that taking pills could make us virtuous. It doesn't matter what the basis of a virtue is, so long as you have it.

  3. If we discuss moral education instead of moral pills, the objection loses a lot of its force, I believe. (I think the objection usually just comes from a faulty 'Yuck! Unnatural!' intution.)

    If we talk about people being *educated* instead of ingesting pills, then I believe the intuition would fade. I think it is OK to replace 'pills' with 'education' because they are both external sources of enhancement.

    Of course this just shifts the question to 'is moral education OK? [said in the context of this post]', but I think that's good as it will make the question easier to answer as there will be no 'yuck' intuitions disrupting anything.

  4. Good point, though it might raise concerns about 'brainwashing'.

  5. Richard, I wasn't arguing either for or against your position, so much as thinking out loud and asking myself questions about the issue. I don't think I misread your position. I rather ignored it, not so much because I was in disagreement, but because I needed to put the issue in my own terms, in my own idiolect. Congratulations on your thought-provoking blog. Amos

  6. "I think it's a mistake to think that we would somehow stop counting as 'genuinely moral' if a drug recalibrated our faulty inclinations so that right action came more naturally to us. That's just what it is to truly be -- and not just act -- virtuous."

    I do think it matters how the drug works. Paul (at TP) was talking about morality drugs for psychopaths. So let's say this was a rapist, and the drug was a testosterone-antidote, so the person stopped wanting to rape women. Perhaps he goes on believing it's perfectly OK to do so, but he doesn't feel like it anymore. Then he has not gained any moral virtue. He doesn't get any moral credit for getting over his habit, I'd think. But so what--Kant's idea that morality has "infinite value" is silly. The guy ought to get the drug.

    In less drastic cases, I'm not so sure. A person who made all of their choices in an effortless fashion does seem to be missing out in some way, which is not to say it's best to be in a constant battle with your inclinations.

  7. [Amos, glad you like the blog, but please note my comments policy, for future reference.]

    Jean - "I do think it matters how the drug works"

    Right, that's an important point. There are some possible alterations that would genuinely deprive one of moral agency (e.g. if the drug severed the link between judgment and action, effectively turning you into a remote-controlled robot). But I don't think sheer automaticity (at least of the kind I described -- possibly you had something different in mind) is any kind of problem.

  8. If automaticity were the key issue, then the question would seem to boil down to whether we have any duties of conscientiousness, i.e., any duties to do things not automatically but deliberately. There is something to be said for that; automaticity might not be an option in certain sorts of right actions, namely, ones that involve extensive planning and implementing such plans. A 'virtue pill', I take it, would affect one's perception of the situation, and thus enable you to see what needs to be done (eliminating self-deception), and would eliminate impediments like weakness of will and perversity, and would do so at each step of the planning; but if the planning and implementation themselves are automatic, then we really would have a severance of judgment and action. But this says more about the limits of moral enhancement (if it is to be enhancement), with regard to automaticity, than the advisability or acceptability.

    I actually think that Kant might not have a problem with 'virtue pills', as long as two conditions were met: (1) the choice to take them was itself autonomous and not forced on someone; (2) one did not merely assume from the get-go that the pills make you moral, but still were conscientious about doing what is right, or at least most fundamentally right. If those conditions were met, then I think they would count for Kant as a genuine (as opposed to counterfeit) moral conversion. There is in fact already something that works this way in Kant: divine grace. Kant holds that, assuming such grace is possible, we (rationally speaking) should hope for it but not depend upon it to effect the change without effort on our part. So as long as one's approach to taking them was that they should supplement or assist the pursuit of duty, rather than do it for us, and so long as taking the pills is part of a concerted effort to do what is right rather than the origin of it, Kant should be able to make room for it: it would be grace in a tablet.

  9. Wouldn't this give new meaning to the term "he want off his meds?".

    In general the public is already concerned that the person next to them is dependent on regular medication to regulate behaviour. (schizophrenia, anti-depressents etc.)

    Generally speaking medications don't permanently change behaviour for the better, its something you need as a on-going prescription. IF that is the case, then the artificial nature of the moral inclinations is an issue.

  10. Here's a relevant link: "Can pharmacology help enhance human morality?" The British Journal of Psychiatry (2008) 193: 179-180.


    In my opinion, cognitive/moral enhancement, or mental enhancement generally, by external technological means, is a certainty in the near future.

  11. "Moral" drugs? Has someone here ever watched or read Clockwork Orange?

    How can that be good anyway, Richard?

    Moral reasoning only makes sense when there is an actual choice to be made. If there isn't a choice to be made, there can't be moral reasoning. And also there can't be "good" or "bad" behavior if all the answers are already given prior to the deliberation of a given subject. With a pill you might just kill all the questions and at the same time supply all the answers beforehand. Is that what you are proposing?

    (Acting by inclination in Kant, if I remember well, is not good or bad, it's not moral — not immoral, but not moral. If one is to act morally, one must act by duty and only duty. And also there is more in Aristotle than just virtue ethics. There seems to be a proto deontology. Aristotle literally says there is "de on" — I don't think it can be rightly translated into English, but it's something like an ontological imperative, a sort of "must act accordingly". Also Kant seems to open up space to virtue of character, etc., but that's not in his Ethics, but in his Pragmatic Anthropology.)

  12. This is the sort of question I'd really like to see studied by the guys doing Experimental Philosophy. For instance it seems to me that a lot of Christian theologies end up arguing the Atonement does something similar to this. Would they be more accepting of this idea or more opposed? (I could see it going either way - they are already predisposed to the idea or they see it as the sort of thing only God should do)

  13. To add one could argue that to a limited extent current drugs for bipolar disorder, certain sexual addictions and so forth are already virtue pills. Very limited, yes. But aren't they a pill to allow for more virtuous behavior?

    I wonder if some people's skepticism is due to a distinction between intents and behavior?

  14. Even if we accept the Kantian view that you are moral only if you act from a good will, it seems possible that pharmaceuticals could make you more moral: they could remove impediments (e.g. interfering emotions) to your exercising your will.

    (Warning: shameless plug coming...) I say more about this in
    Douglas T, 'Moral Enhancement', Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25, no. 3 (2008): 228-245.

  15. This 'pill' is really not so hypothetical. On the couple of occasions I have tried MDMA I have noticed myself going out of my way to do nice things/help people out with stuff I would ordinary just be lazy about. Probably not that surprising seeing as doing good things will flow from an extra-sensitised empathy, which is exactly what MDMA (and I find marijuana to a lesser extent) gives you. It's a pity these drugs are bad for you, and affect other ordinary cognitive capacities while they are working as well. I don't think there is much doubt that if the whole world were always on MDMA we would live in a far more ethical and altruistic world.


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