Tom Gilson

No Drugs to Build Character

We have pills and injections (dangerous and illegal, mostly) to build bodily strength.

We have pills and injections to treat mental fatigue, mood disorders, bad habits, psychoses, and other mental deficiencies.

But we have no drugs to build character strength, or virtue.

Why is that?

Oxytocin can enhance openness, generosity, and trust, but not in a self-aware, self-giving manner that observers would typically describe as virtue in action. We have no drugs to build genuine other-orientedness.

We have a lot of chemicals that will blunt fear, but none that produce genuine courage: choosing to do what’s right, even if it’s frightening or dangerous.

Maybe there are medicines that support self-control and self-discipline; I don’t know. The closest thing to it that I am aware of, like appetite-suppressing drugs, work by reducing negative impulses rather than by building positive strength. Someone can inform me if I’m wrong.

So it seems that there are classes of mental conditions we can treat with drugs, and classes we cannot; and that character strength falls entirely into the latter class.

One would think that if humans were just material beings, with no spiritual dimension, we could treat the one as easily as the other. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Why is that?

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13 thoughts on “No Drugs to Build Character

  1. “But we have no drugs to build character strength, or virtue. Why is that?”

    Because normative concepts like these are, relatively speaking, nebulous, overdetermined, and essentially contestable. And because the incentive structure of the pharmaceutical market just isn’t there.

    “Maybe there are medicines that support self-control and self-discipline; I don’t know.”

    Adderall. Give me one of those and a half a bottle of wine and when you come back my laundry will be alphabetized and I’ll already be working on my 2016 tax returns.

  2. Ritalin is a drug commonly used to improve concentration and work ethic, perhaps that is closer to what you mean.

    MDMA (ecstasy) is said to induce immense feelings of empathy and care for others, some studies are being done on using it to treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), as subjects are able to re-explore the traumatic memories without the intense fear reaction or judgemental thoughts, so they can alter how they react to the memories in future. Presumably it could be used in couples therapy, raves are a phenomenon caused by its uncontrolled use in a wider social setting.

    Psilocybin (magic mushrooms) are being used to treat fear of death in terminally ill patients, subjective reports state that it promotes feelings of being connected to reality outside of the self and the studies on these patients are getting results of decreased anxiety, etc.

    I once read an article on an experiment with micro-dosing (dose too small to be noticed consciously) on LSD, This apparently had subjective reports of just feeling that little bit happier ans more creative throughout the day without any of the psychedelic effects, though I haven’t heard much corroboration on this one.

    I think it’s more difficult to know what the right thing to do is from moment to moment in one’s life than is being assumed here, it’s not about getting a drug to make you do it, it’s about having the knowledge and the mental toolset to figure out what the right thing to do is in the first place. A.K.A. Education.

  3. Despite these various drugs that other commenters have mentioned, it’s true that scientists haven’t invented a wonder drug that produces pure virtue. The reason is because it’s too complicated, and we’re just barely beginning work.

    It couldn’t be a simple chemical, because such chemicals affect too many parts of the brain indiscriminately. In the future we might have nano-robots that can go into a brain and rewire the neurons one by one. That’s the kind of thing that could do the job.

    But then the question is whether you’d really want to take such a drug.

  4. No, then the real question would be the same one raised by oxytocin studies: is it me, or is it the treatment? If someone gave us a squirt of virtue up our nostrils, we would wonder who or what was doing the good that we were doing.

    That’s my prediction, partly from knowing of similar questions raised by anti-depressants. It’s related to the strange effect of relief patients feel when diagnosed with dementia: “The problem isn’t me after all. It’s just my brain giving out on me.”

    And here’s the crux of it: when it comes to choices, decisions, and our general sense of self, we distinguish between our physical selves and our real selves. I think there’s genuine insight there.

    And that was where I was really headed with this post, and frankly waiting for an answer like yours to highlight the issue. Thanks.

  5. “If someone gave us a squirt of virtue up our nostrils, we would wonder who or what was doing the good that we were doing.”

    I’m confused. Your *prediction* is that “we would wonder”? Well, yes, people do experience states of wondering and confusion when confronted with surprising or counterintuitive phenomena beyond our ordinary experience. But in this respect, “wonder” at psychopharmacology is no different than “wonder” at how all them there horseless carriages work.

    Or are you making the normative point that behaving virutously, under the command of mind-control lasers, would not “really” be virtue, in the same sense that committing crimes while under the command of mind-control lasers is not something we would “really” be responsible for?

    But then you say that the “crux of your post” was that naive intuition distinguishes between our physical selves and our real selves. A sort of tactical retreat to a smaller but hopefully more God-friendly gap. “Oh sure, depression or dementia might have been reduced to the realm of the material — but you haven’t said anything at all about our real moral selves!”

    Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you simply can’t leverage grand ontological conclusions from where market pressures circa the second decade of the 21st century have driven pharmaceutical research, and you certainly can’t do this from a position of (blameless) admitted ignorance.

    Where is the pill that specifically causes people to believe they had whole wheat toast with breakfast 73 days ago even though it was rye toast? Until your pathetic science invents a pill that affects that specific mental condition, I am justified in maintaining my dualism with respect to my “real self” which immaterially believes I had whole wheat toast with breakfast 73 days ago even though it was rye toast.

  6. They may be coming down the pike, but I get the sense from the article below that “moral behavior” will be defined based on the wish list of the political left:

    “Relating to the plight of people on other side of the world or of future generations is not in our nature,” [some professor] said. “This new body of drugs could make possible feelings of global affiliation and of abstract empathy for future generations.”

    Manipulating morals: scientists target drugs that improve behaviour — Researchers say morality treatments could be used instead of prison and might even help humanity tackle global issues

  7. If virtue is what you do or how you feel, then yes, drugs could be developed to increase/decrease virtue. However virtue is not what you do or how you feel anymore than the mind is what the brain does.

  8. Suppose a drug markedly increased the behavior of taking objects off shelves and giving it to others, specifically children in need of the objects? The drug also elevated the sense of increased virtue in the person taking the drug.

    Would that be an example of a drug increasing virtue? Scientists could observe the measureable effects of the drug, but notice the question of whether virtue was increased remains unanswered by science. You’d have to take everything over to the department of metaphysics to get that answered.

  9. chapman55k, I’d be careful about drawing that conclusion. That study looks at a very large sample with lots of other experimental confounds (uncontrolled variables). It doesn’t do what really matters, which is to study individuals (within-subjects research) over time, with other variables more or less held constant. I’m not saying Ritalin is good or bad; I’m just saying that’s too strong a conclusion for that study.

  10. Actually, there are more studies than just the one at Princeton. The Quebec study in this article had a control group of kids with similar symptoms–one group of kids took the medications, one did not. The medicated kids did worse. It was also a large-scale, longitudinal study. There are more studies that say the same thing. I think great caution should be taken when evaluating claims about cognitive effects (good or bad) of these kinds of drugs. Anyone who says they know about this is kidding themselves.

  11. Oh there are many people who act in a mean way whenever they’re extremely stressed and pretty anxious, but if you give them tranquilizing pills, it becomes a lot easier for them to follow the Golden Rule.

    I appear to be one of them, and through countless discussions, I know I’m hardly alone.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

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