The Current

Is it ethical to swallow a morality pill?

An increasing number of drugs can be used to alter self-control, empathy and benevolence. Are we getting dangerously close to a 'morality pill'? The Current explores the ethics of a pill that would make us more moral.

Scientists debate what it means to be human and the ethics of engineered improvement

Would you take a morality pill? (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

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Imagine a pill that could make you a more "moral" person. Would you take it?

Today, leading scientists are debating the ethics of just that — a pill that improves morality.

In recent years, research has shown drugs widely prescribed to treat conditions like anxiety or depression have been found to amplify characteristics such as empathy, self-control and increased trust; even an improvement in attitudes towards people of other races. 

In a 2012 study, researchers at Oxford University found that propranolol — a beta-blocker drug  prescribed for high blood pressure — had the effect of reducing 'subconscious' racial biases in patients. 

Neil Levy, deputy director of research at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, finds the potential of an all-purpose morality pill, an exciting way forward.

"The research is showing relatively small effects [but] it's worth saying that relatively small effects on an individual level can add up to large effects at a population level," Levy tells The Current's guest host Kelly Crowe.

What defines us?

But Kerry Bowman, from the The University of Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics, doubts society would accept the idea of a morality pill.
If there was a pill that could boost your moral behaviour, would you take it (Getty Images/Science Photo Library)

"It's a very difficult, difficult concept because if you look at what occurs when a person has moral intuition ... what they do with the moral intuition and the moral feelings and the space between that and moral action — meaning the decision that is made — that's a very deep and powerful human experience."

"Anything that would interfere with that, I think a lot of people would want to push back on, because that's essentially the beauty of being human," Bowman tells Crowe. He fears what is lost when the moral conditioning and reasoning that define us as human is taken away.

While a morality pill does not exist yet, Levy says, "if such a pill were to become available, then what it would be doing is increasing capacities." He argues, "[They] won't interfere with our freedoms." 

"We're really not in a position to say what would be enhanced, what should be enhanced."

Levy tells Crowe that it's in our nature to find ways to enhance ourselves.

"I think that's the kind of animal we are." he said. "I think we will explore such roots of self-improvement because we have a great drive towards self-improvement."  

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post — including freelance science writer Dan Jones.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ashley Mak and Pacinthe Mattar.