I can only shake my head.  Some scientists and bioethicists insist that human behavior, being that we are supposedly mere meat machines, can be reduced to the sum of our biological and chemical interactions.  Figure out how those work and it just becomes math—we can use molecules to create “moral” society. That, of course, begs the question, whose and what morality?  (Usually, those who so think identify morality as that deemed so by Western liberalism, broadly understood, but let’s not go there today.)

An article in the Wall Street Journal is a case in point. From “The Trust Molecule” by Paul J. Zakon:

Research that I have done over the past decade suggests that a chemical messenger called oxytocin accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted louts, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and why women tend to be nicer and more generous than men. In our blood and in the brain, oxytocin appears to be the chemical elixir that creates bonds of trust not just in our intimate relationships but also in our business dealings, in politics and in society at large.

OK. So?
More strikingly, we found that you don’t need to shoot a chemical up someone’s nose, or have sex with them, or even give them a hug in order to create the surge in oxytocin that leads to more generous behavior. To trigger this “moral molecule,” all you have to do is give someone a sign of trust. When one person extends himself to another in a trusting way—by, say, giving money—the person being trusted experiences a surge in oxytocin that makes her less likely to hold back and less likely to cheat. Which is another way of saying that the feeling of being trusted makes a person more…trustworthy. Which, over time, makes other people more inclined to trust, which in turn…If you detect the makings of an endless loop that can feed back onto itself, creating what might be called a virtuous circle—and ultimately a more virtuous society—you are getting the idea.

I’ll match your oxytocin for the adrenaline rush that a shoplifter experiences when successfully stealing an expensive purse (as just one example).  Besides, the egg comes first, e.g., the emotion generated by the action causes the molecules to express.  Reverse engineering by administering a chemical to induce pre-determined “moral” behavior, given the infinite number of potential social interactions, is a fool’s game.

And then Zakon jumps the shark:
With worries on the rise about the country’s cultural and political divisions, some bottom-up boosts of oxytocin, based on face-to-face interaction, could help. It might take the form of a domestic student-exchange program, allowing kids from the big cities and small-town, rural kids to get to know one another. The revitalization of urban life, with its varied and crosscutting relationships, is a step in the right direction, too. One city going in the opposite direction is Washington, D.C., where fraternizing across party lines—once the norm—is nearly unheard of these days. Acrimony on Capitol Hill reflects, in part, these oxytocin-starved relationships.

Oh please. If only John Bohner would take oxytocin, he’d agree to raise taxes on the “rich,” or Obama would suddenly admit that the ACA was entirely wrongheaded.  But then, only the former would probably considered an example of “moral” behavior.

Human beings are not the sum of our chemical interactions and to so claim is reductionist in the extreme. More importantly, feeling good, or warm, or fuzzy, isn’t what morality is about. It is about doing right, particularly when that is the more difficult choice, either because it makes us feel badly, experience loss, or causes us to not receive pleasure.  Indeed, sometimes acting morally comes at a terrible emotional price.  Where’s your oxytocin then? 

Molecules can’t tell us what that “right” action is.  People and societies have to figure it out.  Or, as in the great anti discrimination song from South Pacific puts it, “you have to be carefully taught.”

This quasi “science of morality” is actually scientism, an attempt to impose “objective ”science” as the answer to every aspect of human experience, including over the important but subjective realms that are crucial to moral formation, such as religion, philosophy, psychology, sociology, ethics, and etc..  Besides, “moral’ behavior induced (even if it could be done) by a SOMA-type pill wouldn’t be “moral:” It would be slavery—as Huxley warned against in Brave New World.

Articles by Wesley J. Smith

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