Thursday, June 17, 2004

They have invented a philtre...

This is fascinating. Researchers at Emory University noticed a difference in social patterns between two closely-related species: the meadow vole and the prairie vole. The prairie vole mates for life, while the meadow vole runs around and sleeps with lots of different prarie voles over the course of his life. The scientists went looking for the biological explanation, and found it in a single gene:
The researchers, in essence, were able to change the meadow vole's natural propensity to philander by inserting a single gene that changed the way the pleasure centre in their brains worked. After a single treatment, they became as monogamous as prairie voles. (source)
Monogamous relationships are rare in the animal kingdom. The Seattle Times story says that fewer than 5% of mammal species typically mate for life, including prairie voles and humans. And now scientists have a lead on the biochemical basis for monogamous instincts. What if they learned how to adapt the monogamization procedure for commitment-phobic humans? (USA Today begins their coverage of this study with the question, "Could the day come when a simple bit of gene therapy might cure infidelity?") Obviously, even assuming it's possible to develop drugs in that direction, it's a ways off from this interesting discovery about hormones in voles. But just the apparent plausibility of such a procedure raises a whole host of fascinating and potentially troubling questions. My co-worker John raised one of them this afternoon: devotion that is caused by a drug is no devotion at all. The idea, I think, is that a couple's commitment is cheapened or is less genuine if it is achieved with the help of a breakthrough in medical technology. (But we should ask: if I am severely depressed and overcome my self-loathing with the help of counselling and medication, does this cheapen or make less genuine my emotional recovery?) Another question has to do with responsibility. Any time we observe obvious physical influences on the part of mental life that we take to be the product of free will, issues about free will and responsibility come up. That's a very general problem, though, and I won't talk any more about it here. But what about this question (also rising from conversation with John): if I take a commitment pill, and it successfully causes me to remain faithful to my wife, am I remaining faithful of my own free will? My instinct is that I am, but John's isn't, and I feel the force behind John's point of view. After all, it's the drug that made me do it. (It may also become relevant whether I voluntarily and understandingly took the drug of my own free will.) Brad Templeton (who runs a fascinating blog that I've only just discovered) raises another issue:
[T]his story made me wonder about how people might try to alter the concept of marriage. Imagine there was a gene therapy which would improve the chances that you would remain in love with the one you currently love. Might couples want to take it when getting married? (Or, more practically, after a few years of test marriage and before children are begun.) And more to the point, if this became popular, might there arise pressure to do so, even for those who don't particuarly want it? One can imagine injecting the virus to deliver the gene at the wedding, truly sealing the bonds of love. (It's unlikely that the romantic idea of transmitting the virus in the first marital kiss would be a good idea.) But what if it starts coming down to "Honey, why won't you take the gene therapy? Don't you love me enough? I'll take it for you!" How will we answer that?
It's a damn good question, and suddenly Gilbert's Topsy-Turvy scene from The Sorcerer looks a lot less Topsy-Turvy.
ALINE. How joyful they all seem in their new-found happiness! ... ALEXIS. But one thing remains to be done, that my happiness may be complete. We must drink the philtre ourselves, that I may be assured of your love for ever and ever. ALINE. Oh, Alexis, do you doubt me? Is it necessary that such love as ours should be secured by artificial means? Oh, no, no, no! ALEXIS. My dear Aline, time works terrible changes, and I want to place our love beyond the chance of change. ALINE. Alexis, it is already far beyond that chance. Have faith in me, for my love can never, never change! ALEXIS. Then you absolutely refuse? ALINE. I do. If you cannot trust me, you have no right to love me - no right to be loved by me. ALEXIS. Enough, Aline, I shall know how to interpret this refusal.
To me, this is a reminder that the abstract and difficult questions that philosophers deal with in agency theory, normative ethics, and moral psychology really are critically important. We really might have to deal with these questions about 'love potions' some day. If and when we do, it'd be great if we could go into the process armed with the correct theory of moral responsibility.

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