May 30, 2024

What if we had a pill for the madness of love?

Should we take pills to rid ourselves of helpless passions?

“He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other,” wrote Somerset Maugham in his famous 1915 novel Of Human Bondage. But what if the protagonist (clearly Maugham himself) could have taken a pill to rid him of his helpless passion? Would he? Should he? Would we have a novel which has been made into a film three times? Escaping from relationships is one of the issues that four authors, all from Oxford, including Julian Savulescu, discuss in a lead article in the American Journal of Bioethics.

Even though a love sterilisation pill is still fanciful, there have been some promising developments and the article provoked a good deal of discussion. A pill could be useful in a number of situations: allowing someone to escape an abusive relationship, adulterous love, unrequited love leading to suicidal thoughts, incestuous love (not that all incest is bad, they hasten to add), paedophilia, or love for a cult leader. They conclude that: “the individual, voluntary use of anti-love biotechnology (under the right sort of conditions) could be justified or even morally required. That is, in some cases, to deny its use would be inhumane.”

To the authors, a woman who wants to break with a beloved partner who has become violent and abusive is the clearest candidate for the break-up pill. This helps them to set four conditions for its use:

  • The love is clearly harmful;     
  • The person wants to use the pill;       
  • The pill would help a person follow higher order goals instead of lower order feelings;     
  • There is no other alternative.

There are some contentious cases. What about homosexuality? In a sense, “reparative therapy” is a primitive break-up pill. The authors acknowledge that a pill could be misused, but they make no exception for homosexual feelings. We must “also respect the autonomous decision of each individual to engage in her own process of “becoming” who and what she seeks to be, in accordance with her personal goals and values. Therefore, we must conclude that even in the controversial case of homosexual love, it may be possible to justify the use of anti-love biotechnology in certain cases.”

Other academics commented on the article. Some of them pitched interesting scenarios if such a drug became available. Should soldiers take it to avoid developing friendly attitudes toward an enemy? Would we be poorer human beings if we no longer had to experience romantic heartache? Song writers might lose one of their most enduring themes. Pills could be used without consent to promote one-night stands – or to turn an affectionate boss against an employee. Parents could use a pill to quench a teen romance…. “The imminent development and availability of pro-love and anti-love agents will present a serious risk for unethical attempts to surreptitiously manipulate emotional and romantic feelings,” write two academics from Arizona State University.

There’s a great script for a film in here somewhere. But will it be Of Human Bondage IV or The Hangover Part IV?

Michael Cook
Creative commons
love drug