Molly Crockett: The complexities of ethics and the brain make it difficult for scientists to develop a pill to enhance human morals.
Could we create a "morality pill"? Once the stuff of science fiction, recent studies in neuroscience have shown that brain chemicals can subtly influence some aspects of moral judgments and decisions. However, science is very far from creating pills that can turn sinners into saints, as I have argued many times before. So imagine my surprise when I came across the headline, “‘Morality Pills’ Close to Reality, Claims Scientist”– referring to a lecture I gave recently in London. (I asked the newspaper where the reporter got his misinformation, but received no response to my query.)
Sensationalist reports like this are not only inaccurate, but also neglect the rich complexities of the brain that make neuroscience so fascinating. It is these same complexities that will make it very difficult for scientists to develop a morality pill.
First, let’s consider the evidence that drugs can influence morals. Laboratory studies typically compare the effects of a placebo pill with those of a drug treatment that alters the function of a specific brain chemical. After taking either the drug or placebo, healthy volunteers make a series of moral decisions or judgments. For example, they may consider whether to donate to charity, or cooperate with others, or judge whether it is permissible to harm one person in order to save many others. The key question is whether the drug alters people’s decisions and judgments, relative to placebo.