America is, among other things, a nation of pill-poppers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of all Americans have used a prescription drug in the last thirty days. Even more incredibly, more than one in five have used at least three prescriptions in the last month. And that's just the legal users.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that 52 million people in the U.S. have used prescription drugs "non-medically" at least once. The United States, with just 5 percent of the world's population, consumes a whopping 75 percent of all prescription drugs. Whatever you need, there's probably a pill for it—whether for depression, allergies, or a growing host of embarrassing maladies we learn about on TV commercials. It seems we can't live without our pills.
Earlier this month, I told you about a new drug designed to erase painful memories and what that might do to human dignity.
And before we even have time to digest that possibility, we need to get our minds around another "Brave New World" type of drug. Molly Crockett, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, is proposing a series of drugs that could become what journalists are calling a "morality pill."
Crockett says, "Recent studies have shown that by shifting people's brain chemistry you can change people's personalities." Crockett suggests a couple of chemical candidates for the "morality pill." One is the hormone oxytocin, which sometimes is called the "moral molecule." Some studies suggest that oxytocin increases a person's levels of trust, empathy, and cooperation. However, other research suggests the hormone boosts envy and gloating. Oooops! Sounds kind of like a Jekyll and Hyde effect.
A second candidate is serotonin, which is often called the "happy hormone." Crockett says this might enhance certain moral qualities, such as empathy. That would make raising kids easier, right?
"I think the place to start," Crockett says, "is that there are probably certain types of moral behaviors that we would want people to want to do," such as altruism. Now that of course is an interesting use of "we." Who is we? Which virtues do we want, and who gets to decide? Crockett? The government? You and me?
And should the "morality pill" program be voluntary, or should everyone be enrolled? Think of the crime reduction possibilities! It's all kind of reminiscent of the mind-numbing drug "soma" in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," Soma made everyone relaxed and happy, whether they wanted to be or not. Huxley said soma provided "All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects."
Well there you go. We can solve the problems of selfishness, sin, and sanctification all with a pill. You don't have to believe in Jesus, or even the four cardinal virtues, for that matter. Just swallow the morality pill. What could go wrong? After all, we've never dealt with the unintended consequences of technology and social engineering before, right?
Well, four decades ago C.S. Lewis pegged the problem: The morality pill undermines human freedom and dignity. If morality and virtue are no longer a choice, they're no longer really good.
"Free will," Lewis said, "though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having." Lewis goes on: "A world… of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water."
What Crockett and other behaviorists offer is a false morality, a robot-like love that is more "Stepford Wives" than God-given virtue.
If only acquiring virtue was that easy! But it's not. Forming virtue requires blood, sweat, and tears. And the antiseptic, easy world of the "morality pill" isn't the kind of world we would want to live in. What good is love, virtue, or kindness if not freely offered? Pills cannot fix the human condition. We need transformed hearts that will lead us to transformed lives.