July 7, 2022

Do we need a morality pill?

Hi there,

The bioethicist Peter Singer tweeted the other day that he had just co-authored an article in the New York Times about a morality pill. Assuming that behaviour is biochemically determined, he argued, surely drugs could help people to be kinder, more cooperative and more altruistic.

To my surprise, not many readers were sympathetic, to judge from the entertaining comments: “Give the morality pill to men; women, for the most part, don’t need it…  How big a pill do you think we’d need to swallow? …Would it work on Wall Street? … Too bad there was no morality pill around when Bush and Cheney were in office… The rich folks will never take it; it will cause them to lose their edge.”

However, this is not an altogether novel idea. Julian Savulescu, Peter Singer’s one-time student, is even more radical.  He believes that “safe, effective moral enhancement [should] be compulsory” if it is ever developed.

With respect — for Singer is said to be the most influential living philosopher and Savulescu is an Oxford don — I am a bit sceptical. Public morality should have been boosted enormously in the 20th century with vast improvements in the standard of living and disposable income. No longer were workers sweating in unhealthy, congested slums. Yet the past hundred years have seen two world wars and appalling genocides. Would taking a morality pill with their morning orange juice really turn everyone into Mother Teresa?

And if it were feasible, the opposite might be attractive: a pill to make soldiers (or hedge fund analysts) pitiless and immoral. What do you think? Is Peter Singer on the money?


Michael Cook