Take a ‘Right’ Twice a Day

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If you could take a pill that would boost your moral capacity would you swallow it dutifully without a second thought? And what reservations would you hold against receiving a ‘virtue’ jab if it were freely available on the NHS? It would surely be in society’s best interests if we all rolled up a sleeve and got in line – wouldn’t it?

Such fantasies of a medicinally edified society, numbed to self-serving impulses, have a sinister Huxlian ring of Soma about them. But the reality is that there is little chance of a new moral world emerging, bravely or otherwise, solely through the medium of neurochemical intervention.

Molly Crockett, a neuroscientist and member of the EU commissioned Neuro-Enhancement Responsible Research and Innovation project, has described the difficulties inherent in the search for chemical conscience. She has downplayed the media favourite, oxytocin, on the grounds that in addition to its capacity to strengthen trust and intimacy the much vaunted ‘moral molecule’ is also linked to such negative behaviours as gloating and discrimination. These less-than-altruistic symptoms suggest that, at best, oxytocin reinforces existing ties and allegiances, and at its worst, exacerbates partisan aggression.

The problem of understanding morality is more one of definition than it is diagnosis. “This is less a scientific question,” Crockett states, “than it is a philosophical question.” In other words the essentially subjective basis of morality makes isolating its biological markers a near impossibility. The only record of a successful attempt to distil right from wrong can be found in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde – and not only is it pure fiction, of course, but it’s no spoiler to point out that the good (and bad) doctor’s project ultimately ends in tragic failure.

The notion that we could one day identify and separate our inner Jekylls from our inner Hydes presupposes the existence of an absolute measure of morality, an ethical standard against which we can all be assessed in order to determine the degree to which we are either saints or sinners. This problematic supposition underscores Crockett’s philosophical point.

One difficulty with pinpointing morality is that its sources are both external and internal. Our consciences chatter inside us from some hallowed neuronal chamber whilst, on the outside, convention and law preside over almost every move we make. In addition to this both sources arguably inform and are informed by each other, and so we have a chicken and egg problem that threatens to make a nonsense of pure morality – both relative and absolute.

One thing is certain though – morality requires deliberation. In Plato’s Republic we read the story of Gyges the shepherd who found a ring that rendered him invisible whenever he turned the stone palmwards. Knowing he could act with total impunity Gyges embarks upon a crusade of personal gain, sleeping with the queen and killing the king without qualm.

If you were Gyges what would you do if you found the ring? You could use it only for good if you so wished or you could throw it away. Knowing the story in advance you would be in a better position than the shepherd; before turning the stone you could spend some time deciding if you were worthy of the power it would bestow on you. The philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville poses the above question and answers ‘Even though you don’t have the ring, that doesn’t prevent you from thinking, judging, acting.’

Hesitation through consideration can therefore give a decision its moral force. To return to the opening question – should you take a morality pill if one were made available? In this instance you may be wiser for answering in a spirit of perversity. Your answer could be ‘no’ on the grounds that taking the pill would be tantamount to abdicating responsibility for your actions from the moment you take it, regardless of its efficacy.

After all, if you are constrained to behave ‘well’ – whether it be through physical force or pharmacological influence – then you are not choosing your behaviour freely, which means morality has no part to play in determining your choice of action. You would surely be less human, more vegetative with your modified cognition.

Some may argue that this is indeed the way forward, that in time you would become accustomed to making the choices that the new ‘you’ appears to be making. But then who is this new you? What validity is there in being saintly if there is no episodic bridge between the person you were and the person you now are? Isn’t this what acting is all about? Perhaps Robert Powell and Charlton Heston, in their respective roles as Jesus and Moses, subsequently learned what Socrates could never fathom about the nature and origin of virtue.

Actors have the best view of the gods anyway, don’t they?

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