The Altruism Pill

If continuing brain research does in fact show biochemical differences between the brains of those who help others and the brains of those who do not, could this lead to a “morality pill” — a drug that makes us more likely to help? … If so, would people choose to take it? Could criminals be given the option, as an alternative to prison, of a drug-releasing implant that would make them less likely to harm others? Might governments begin screening people to discover those most likely to commit crimes? Those who are at much greater risk of committing a crime might be offered the morality pill; if they refused, they might be required to wear a tracking device that would show where they had been at any given time, so that they would know that if they did commit a crime, they would be detected.

Full New York Times op-ed on the “morality pill.”

Comments (7)

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  1. Dr. Steve says:

    The prospects I have most feared as behavior becomes more scientifically explained is “criminal” behavior is no longer defined as such, rather a genetic predisposition and so defended in court.
    Of course under Obamacare and HHS czars libertarian/conservative behavior might be defined as a disorder and treatable.

  2. Davie says:

    I wonder whose view of morality the pill would be calibrate towards. Would some be filled with Vitamin Christian? Could terrorists bioengineer a “reverse-morality” pill?

    I’m with Steve on this one.

  3. Anne Alice says:

    Given the choice, I’d rather not have a sociopathic maniac forced to help me across the street when I’m old and grey.

  4. Brian says:

    Even if this is created, my gut tells me that the human mind/body (even our genetic code) is capable of rejecting the “implant”. Not saying this will be true for all people, but I won’t believe that we are all tools for the material biochemical processes.

    And I did think of A Clockwork Orange *before* reading the article.

  5. Dr. Steve says:

    Anne, under Obamacare the probability of you ever being old and grey will decrease.

    The government will encourage you to cross the street alone, leave you in a dark corner of the ER, and after you pass on confiscate your estate for redistribution.

  6. Devon Herrick says:

    An altruism pill is an interesting concept. Research suggests there is a gene that makes men more likely to cheat on their wife. What if a pill could change the way this gene influences behavior? Would wives demand their husbands take it? Biochemical variations in the brain are what make up personality and many of the traits we like or dislike about people. Personality differences are responsible for whether someone is a good leader; whether they form stable friendships, and probably a host of other and character traits.

    It is easy for us to understand how a pill that would alleviate symptoms in people with Alzheimer’s disease would benefit society. Doctors use therapy to train people with autism to better fit into society and to interact with others more successfully. These are all diseases or conditions that have to do with brain function.

    Consider this: what happens if it becomes apparent that personality is little more than brain chemistry and brain chemistry can be manipulated? What if drug makers come out with a pill that makes you happy (OK, they already have that). What if drug companies create a pill that makes you more agreeable, or creative, or more humorous or more affectionate?

    There is a Bell Curve of normal behavior that constitute a range of acceptable personality traits. What happens when scientists discover that people who fall into one small segment of this range are far more likely to be successful? If discovered, everybody would want designer brain chemistry that promotes success. Once this occurs, the Bell Curve of personality traits that constitutes acceptable behavior could become narrower. Your boss might only hire people who take a personality pill that boosts productivity. At this point personality variation would (for all practical purposes) cease to exist.

  7. Brian says:

    Devon, that was a particularly insightful post – especially the last two paragraphs. With respect to drugs that would make people more agreeable and perhaps affectionate, there are both legal and illegal drugs that seem to do this, though with side-effects. Who is to say that drug makers will (if they haven’t already) synthesize a drug with some of the effects of MDMA, for example, and market a legal prescription drug out of it? I don’t know enough about brain science, but would such a drug have to target certain areas of the brain to bring about agreeableness and affection?

    I have my doubts as to whether anything could be created that would make people more creative or more humorous. Those seem to be qualities that emanate from a much deeper part of the human personality and probably involve more complex and profound interactions within the brain. Also, I don’t think any drug could bring out a quality that does not already exist within a person. Someone who is already funny might be enabled to express their humor more easily with the help of a drug, but I doubt that a 24/7 dull serious person wouldn’t turn into a stand-up comedian after taking the funny pill.

    On the point in your last paragraph, if certain designer personalities did become popular and subsequently personality variation diminished, the human race would become less creative. That’s my guess, anyway.