Morality and the brain

Ard: And so, I’m just thinking about myself in my now, currently sleep-deprived state. So, my judgement is probably a little impaired, and maybe my sentiments are impaired, but also my ability to make decisions is a little impaired, so I’m more likely to make not good decisions because I just don’t take the time to think about them.

MC: I think most people probably think that their moral sentiments, their moral values, are set in stone: that they’re very difficult to change. They feel central to who we are. But in our work we’ve shown that we can actually shift around people’s moral decisions and their moral judgements by giving them a pill, like an antidepressant drug, or a drug that boosts dopamine in the brain, and this, I think, is evidence that our values really do shift around to the extent that our brain chemistry is shifting around.

We’ve shown, for example, that a single dose of an antidepressant drug nearly doubles the amount of money people are willing to pay to avoid shocking someone else. And it makes people less willing to say it’s morally acceptable to harm one person in order to save many others.

So I think it’s really interesting to think about how brain chemistry can influence our moral values. It’s certainly evidence that they’re not set in stone, which I think is really encouraging, because it suggests that these intractable conflicts that involve a disagreement in moral values could potentially be resolved.

And it’s interesting to think about whether, one day, there actually might be medications or pills that could actually change people’s moral behaviour. I don’t think we’re there yet. I think it’s a long way before we would have the technology to target moral sentiments in this specific way, and one reason for that is it’s so difficult to define what is morality, which I’m sure you guys are very sympathetic with. But the fact that we’ve shown different chemicals in the brain do influence moral decisions is preliminary evidence that this could, maybe, be feasible.

David: And worrying.

MC: And worrying. But I think there’s no need to worry about an off-the-shelf morality pill, because that could never exist. I think morality is way too complex to be delivered in pill form.