Briefly Noted: A Reflection on Peter Singer’s “Morality Pill”

Readers of Between the Times might remember that we have written several pieces about the unfortunate moral and philosophical peregrinations of Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, who is known for approving of certain forms of bestiality (which he calls “zoophilia”) and infanticide. Today’s blog likewise reflects upon Singer’s moral philosophy, but this time considering an aspect of his work which the Evangelical community might not be as well-prepared to answer.

In January 2012, Princeton Ethicist Peter Singer and researcher Agata Sagan wrote an opinion article for the New York Times entitled “Are we Ready for a ‘Morality Pill’?” In the opinion article they mull the possibilities offered by controlling brain chemistry to promote moral activity. Their basic contention, based on evidence from lab rats, is that morality is driven by brain chemistry. If this is true, they ask, would it not be permissible or even required to monitor and balance brain chemistry in order to promote more moral behavior? (One immediately wonders if such a pill would keep Singer from promoting certain forms of bestiality and infanticide, as he has done in other articles.)

Using the Singer/Sagan article as a launching pad, D. Gareth Jones, in the September 2013 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith,[1] discusses the topic of moral enhancement, evaluating things such as a “morality pill” and considering if they would be morally required.

Jones notes that many people already use chemicals in order to improve cognitive ability. Drugs like Ritalin, Donepezil, and Modafinil have different primary purposes but can all be used to enhance cognitive ability. The reality of cognitive enhancement, despite its dangers, commends the idea that moral enhancement is also possible.[2]

According to Jones, “Serotonin is being put forward as the neural substrate of ethical decision-making” (190). The study was conducted by presenting moral dilemmas to two groups of individuals. One group was taking a particular SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) and the other a placebo. In the study referenced by Jones the researchers conclude, “Serotonin promotes pro-social behavior by enhancing the aversiveness of harming others, an effect that drives both moral judgment and behavior.”[3] Thus, taking an SSRI can improve the moral decision.

Some problems with this approach to improving morality are apparent. Jones notes that the researchers fail to consider the importance of motive in moral decision making, that they have a mechanistic view of humanity, and, most importantly, that the researchers presume a particular morality. Jones concludes that therapeutic control of brain chemistry may be warranted, particularly as an intervention to serious psychological conditions. However, controlling morality through brain chemistry “is an abrogation of the responsibility built into those made in the image of God” (194).

The inimitable Catholic novelist Walker Percy addresses a similar question in his 1987 novel, The Thanatos Syndrome. In Percy’s novel, the local water supply is being laced with radio-chemicals from a nearby nuclear plant. This results in the population becoming less violent and much happier. It also results in everyone being less human in personality and less moral in non-violent ways. Percy’s main character, Tom More, notes this fact upon his release from prison. In The Thanatos Syndrome there is a horror in the subtle suppression of humanity wrought by well-intentioned men. There is a law of unintended consequences here.

It is incumbent on our society to weigh carefully the pros and cons of creating and using certain technologies. The Oxford Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics puts it nicely: “What is technologically possible is not necessarily morally permissible. We must not allow technological development to follow its own inner logic, but must direct it to serve moral ends. We acknowledge our limits in foreseeing the impact of technological change and encourage an attitude of humility with respect to technological innovation.”[4] Even the screenwriters of such flatfooted and effervescently bad movies like Terminator and Jurassic Park seem to have a firm grasp of this point (i.e., if we apply artificial intelligence technology toward making cyborgs, they might, um, assassinate us).

So the idea of improving morality through a pill might seem attractive during an era when there seems to be a pill for everything—pills not only to make us happier but, apparently, also to make us “holier.” A more careful consideration of such technology is warranted, particularly because it seems to interfere with aspects of human nature. Technology itself tends to be neutral, but its applications are fraught with moral significance.



[1] D. Gareth Jones, “Moral Enhancement as a Technological Imperative,” in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 65:3 (2013): 187–195.

[2] Jones, “Moral Enhancement as a Technological Imperative,”188.

[3] M.J. Crockett, L. Clark, M. D. Hauser, and T.W. Robbins, “Serotonin Selectively Incluences Moral Judgment and Behavior through Effects on Harm Aversion,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (2010):17433–8. Available at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/09/17/1009396107.full.pdf [Accessed 1/14/2014].

[4] See the declaration at: http://www.ocms.ac.uk/transformation/articles/0702.1_various.pdf

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