About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Love drugs and the perils of human enhancement, part II

by Massimo Pigliucci

Let’s resume our discussion of Brian Earp’s on “Love and other drugs,” part of a special collection on human enhancement recently published by Philosophy Now (you’ll find part I of this essay here). As you might recall, the author maintains that one reason why marriages don’t last is cheating, and ascribes our (allegedly) recently increased tendency to engage in that sort of behavior to the confluence of three factors: human nature, values, and cultural environment. He then wonders whether tinkering with any of these factors might help with our predicament.

Earp tackles first the area you would expect a philosopher to consider to be the place of most promising intervention: changing our values. But he is skeptical that this can be done. He says that “some couples do elect to enter into ‘open marriages,’ although this is relatively rare. While it isn’t ethically problematic on the surface, and while it may in fact work for some, research shows that such an arrangement is usually at the behest of the husband mid-way through the marriage, not agreed to by both parties from the start.” And moreover: “What if ‘open marriages’ were the norm rather than the exception? My guess is that it simply wouldn’t work on a wide scale ... [because of] jealousy — an adultery-detesting rush of emotions that evolved in both sexes, presumably to protect against cuckoldry in the case of males and against the diversion of male resources away from childcare in the case of females.” [Notice the nonchalant appeal to evopsych “explanations” to reinforce the point.]

But wait a minute, surely if there is anything that human cultural history shows it is precisely that we have been able to change our values, sometimes dramatically and in a relatively short period of time. Slavery was accepted in the West until a couple of centuries ago, and it is abhorred now. Women were not allowed to vote in the United States until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed as late as 1920. And even though fundamentalist religionists haven’t grasped this yet, gay marriages are here to stay, a change that has happened in the span of mere years.

So why wouldn’t open marriages offer at least a viable alternative for those couples for whom they may work? The fact that currently this arrangement is relatively rare, and often entered into after the fact, so to speak, does not preclude that it may soon become a live option for both men and women to propose when they begin a new relationship. Moreover, there are other alternatives that Earp doesn’t even consider. For instance, institutionalized serial monogamy could be yet another entry in the menu of available choices: people could marry for a period of time (say, five years), and at the end of that period decide whether they wish to renew their vows or move on because of whatever serious emotional or behavioral mismatch had emerged between the parties. (Yes, there would be legal and logistical issues for couples with children, but we have experience in those matters.) And of course Earp ignores that the trend — at least in major cities in the West — has actually been for no marriage at all: millions of people have stable (perhaps more stable?) relationships under an arrangement known in social psychology as “living apart together,” where the couple is committed to a long-term relationship while physically living in separate apartments and managing finances independently (incidentally, these two issues — personal space and finances — likely represent a far greater source of friction among couples than cheating).

Earp then moves to the second possibility: changing the social environment. But, he says, there are plenty of things we like about modern society, including the availability of effective contraception, ease of travel, and the existence of extended social networks (all factors, he claims, which are likely to increase the frequency of cheating, though I’d like to see the data on that one). He then examines some type of social interventions that may be considered, but one gets the distinct impression of a straw man hovering above that part of the article: these options include passing laws that make divorce much harder, stiff penalties for adulterers, or even the death penalty for cheating (as has, indeed, been the case in Pakistan since 1979) — all of which are clearly unacceptable in Western societies.

Well, no, obviously we don’t want to get draconian about it, but that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t agree on social changes that would ameliorate the problem (assuming, again, that we really do have a “problem”). I, for one, would actually be in favor of financial penalties for cheaters. After all, a marriage is a legal contract (not the culmination of a fairy tale), and nobody is forced to enter into it. These contracts can stipulate all sorts of things in the guise of prenuptial agreements. There is no reason, then, why a prenuptial could not spell out that in case of cheating — on either side — the offending partner would be subjected to this or that penalty, including financial ones and/or the immediate termination of the agreement. If you don’t like the idea, negotiate a different prenuptial with your prospective spouse (or see the “Living Apart Together” option mentioned above). And by the way, if electronic platforms make it easier to cheat, they also make it easier to detect cheaters, since pretty much everything we do online leaves a traceable trail.

Finally we get to the crux of Earp’s piece: the possibility of biological enhancement. If — the reasoning goes — we can’t change our values or our social environment (yes, we can), then perhaps we should change human nature itself. This strikes me as a bizarre and far more hazardous solution to the “problem” at hand than either of the other two, but let’s follow the author’s reasoning and see where it leads.

Earp develops his argument following a 2008 paper published in Neuroethics by Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg (full pdf here; Savulescu is co-author of another piece in the same issue of Philosophy Now, arguing that without enhancement humanity will face catastrophe). The idea is that “love drugs,” like a nasal spray of the hormone oxytocin, could be used in the name of what Savulescu and Sandberg term “marital autonomy.” The analogy is with the concept of liberalizations of drugs for personal use in general, assuming of course that they are safe, effective, and legal. I am actually, broadly speaking, in favor of legalization of safe drugs, but the issue here is ethical/philosophical, not legal, so a general appeal to individual autonomy won’t be sufficient (because there is a complex mapping between what is legal and what is ethical).

Earp begins his case by way of an analogy with accepted use of drugs by couples. After all, he says, people agree to start a romantic evening by drinking wine, and older couples make use of erectile dysfuntion drugs to enhance or restore sexual potency. The author, however, immediately acknowledges that such parallels aren’t very convincing, for a variety of reasons. Viagra and like drugs specifically have to do with sex, not love, and these drugs do not work on one’s state of mind, only on one’s penis’ ability to become erect once that state of mind has already been achieved. And wine is not only a time tested “drug” (thousands of years of more or less safe use, despite the obvious existence of abuse), but in terms of effects it is nowhere near what can be achieved by directly manipulating a neurotransmitter. Even if you are inclined to think that this is a difference of degree only, sometimes quantitative differences are large enough that they bring about a qualitatively distinct ball game.

As neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland has pointed out (see also her appearance on the Rationally Speaking podcast), oxytocin (or any other hormone, really) is a far more complicated molecule, in terms of its effects, than simplistic pro-enhancement arguments would make it sound. Oxytocin, for instance, doesn’t simply make you want to cuddle more — an effect that Earp says could help couples to overcome periods of diminished intimacy — it is at the heart of a complex network that shapes the entire sphere of social interactions. Which means, to put it mildly, that manipulating oxytocin levels would have countless unexpected side effects. Do we really think that the “problem” of marriages not lasting a lifetime calls for such radical interference with human neurobiology and sociality?

To his credit, Earp is somewhat cautious here, stating that nobody should be forced to take oxytocin (well, thank goodness for that!) and that “love drugs should probably be used as a last resort, and are not the sort of thing a couple should reach for at the first sign of trouble.” But a last resort for what? The author analogizes marital problems with clinical depression, acknowledging that even in the latter case chemical intervention ought to be the last resort in the toolbox of the psychiatrist. Setting aside for a moment the obvious issues with potential abuse of neuropeptide spray that would arise from people’s eagerness to fix problems with a silver bullet, as well as from the enormous pressure that would be exercised by the pharmaceutical industry to prescribe and make such drugs readily available, there is a more fundamental ethical concern here that has to do with the already ongoing over-medicalization of our society.

We have managed to create a social milieu in which normal human behaviors — ranging from somewhat hyperactive kids to boredom in adults — are increasingly seen as diseases that can be fixed by chemical intervention. That trend has been lucrative to Big Pharma and to doctors, but it has victimized and infantilized countless human beings whose behavior is now seen as pathological and something that needs to be “fixed.” [I am, of course, not talking about the minority of cases where people really do need psychiatric and possibly chemical help because they are truly far from being able to manage a healthy existence on their own.]

And let us only mention in passing the obvious possibilities of abuse (both, criminally, by individuals and — more worrisome — by governments) for “love potions,” in comparison with which alcohol and even “rape drugs” would become child's play. It would be a brave new world indeed, and you know what happened in the homonymous scenario envisaged by Haldous Huxley, don’t you?


  1. New solutions to old problems often rely on implicit ahistorical hubris. So whether or not you propose drugs or new values, you would have to account for why similar projects failed in the past and why yours will not in the future. There are a lot of defunct free love communes in the US. The Israeli kibbutzim have been a mixed and shrinking bag. Soviet era attempts to re-engineer the family didn't work out so well. Ayn Rand and Bertrand Russell also provide examples of intellectualized non-traditional marriages. On the pharmaceutical side, I wonder if Earp looked at alcohol not just as a date night enhancement, but as the central bonding drug in many relationships. The typical alcoholic family is a good example of a legal drug based relationship. And many of them are, in fact, shockingly stable. My point being, none of this worked out so well.

    Also, the recent popularity of re-examining monogamy, from Savage's "monogamish" to "living apart together" seem to minimize a very important point: around half of all marriages do not end. And when marriages do end, usually at least one of the partners is very sad (often deeply wounded) about it. So the question shouldn't be "why doesn't monogamy work?" The question should be why does it work so well?

    So, just as I argue with the overselling of reason, I will say the same about marriage. If we don't present it as a panacea we can see it for what it is: something with fragile but deep importance. Marriage is a very difficult but rewarding endeavor. Most people try it more than once. Most people have some degree of success with it. Most people are sad when it doesn't work out. All in all, this sounds like the description of a very important and valuable project.

  2. Interesting idea that Brian Earp has raised, and a coherent response. The comment above is also well written. Thank you all.

  3. Very interesting. Must say that although I can see the point of human cognitive enhancements (modulo practicality, safety etc.), interventions that directly impact our "utility functions" (i.e., our values) strike me as particularly worrisome.

    Ideally I would like to see people enhance their ability to come up with solutions to their problems, rather than changing themselves such that their problems aren't problems anymore. The idea being that you want to be the same person after the intervention as before.

  4. I heard a chat by a researcher from Cambridge at the time, Molly Crockett, perhaps like her namesake, a backwoods pioneer in understanding the affects of drugs on behaviour. In it, she discussed enhancements to behaviour from hormonal drug use, rather than the cure or control of specific illnesses as such. She discusses with some awe, and the interviewer stops her to check whether it's a good thing, and she seems to check herself and agree it might not be. It's near the top of you tube if you search. I would not agree with it unless it is for specific illnesses, because I would go with what we got from evolution unless it is broken in a definable way, rather than pruportedly enhancing it in a definable way (better be a good definition), but maybe I'm old fashioned.

    That said, I'm not so old fashioned about use of drugs in sports, which is topical in Olympic week. Injury is only a twist away, and if it can be treated immediately and improved by drug use without adverse side effects, I would go with that... except that (1) it might enhance performance as well unless fully out of their system, and (2) it is a fine line between proper treatment and being able to damage oneself to rebuild using drugs in a vicious cycle. I would go with the middle ground there and allow drug treatment as long as it is in the open, out of their system before competition, and monitored for the vicious cycle.

  5. Ian,

    > interventions that directly impact our "utility functions" (i.e., our values) strike me as particularly worrisome <

    Yes, the problem with the concept of enhancement is that a lot of it would in fact do just that. I'm no Luddite, as you know, I've just become a bit more skeptical of apparently easy solutions to complex problems, particularly technological solutions.


    > I would go with that... except that (1) it might enhance performance as well unless fully out of their system, and (2) it is a fine line between proper treatment and being able to damage oneself to rebuild using drugs in a vicious cycle <

    Right. Again, that points to the problems with enhancement (and we haven't even talked about genetic enhancement, i.e. the permanent meddling with the human genome itself). The point is: there is no obvious advantage to these techniques, they always come with plenty of possibilities of abuse, which is why we need to think about their deployment very carefully, and possibly draw some line in the sand here and there...

  6. First, re oxytocin, there's already been studies showing it has other effects besides being "the love drug." Indeed, one of those, as written about last year, may be to increase in-group loyalties at the expense of out-groups.

    Arguably, in this light, oxytocin could be great in the hands of a cultist in establishing a free-love commune.

    Second, as you note in part 1, Massimo, he ignores alternative solutions still used in many parts of the world today. These start with the polygamy, practiced by many Muslims and some Mormons today, and many developing world animist-types, as well, by religion. But, it also includes the good old "mistress" (is "mastress" the male equivalent?) which *is* Western, especially in places like France and Italy.

    1. >(is "mastress" the male equivalent?)

      That would be "master" or "mister." Doesn't quite have the right connotations though, does it?

  7. Ian, good point ... on the connotations, would "boy toy" work?


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