Visiting Assistant Professor at the University at Buffalo, and Director of Education and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry, John R. Shook recently penned a disturbing article on the future of pharamaceutically "enhanced" morality, which appears in v.3 issue 4 of the American Journal of Bioethics. The article discusses in some detail the idea that society at large will someday make use of so called "morality enhancer" pills, with the outcome of creating socially desirable results. The idea is that the pills will essentially steer individuals in a direction more in line either with social norms or personally desired moral outcomes, perhaps starting with addressing criminal behavior, and broadening out from there. While in his opening, Shook suggests that we should remain "skeptical," even "cynical" about some uses of "moral enhancement," he none the less leaves the door wide open for exploring their possible use. And while he attempts to alleviate a reader's concerns about abuses of so called morality enhancement pills, the casual manner in which he mentions their darker applications should raise definite concerns. In the following critique, I take a look at a few passages from the article which I find to be both extremely revealing and disturbing.
"Appealing to the model of intercultural objectivism can supply additional justification for these enhancers, especially where suspicions are raised that social norms aren't sufficient grounds for dealing with criminal behavior. For example, a society applying moral enhancers for reducing religious nonconformity should find little intercultural support, while a society grappling with internal political rebellion might gain wider support, and a society dealing with the deleterious effects of severe drug addictions would garner broad international support."
Shook's absent due concern around his suggestion that pills could be used to quell internal rebellion appears to directly contradict the sort of cynicism he claims to have for the use of morality enhancers in a political context. And this is why we individuals who still consider ourselves humans need to be extremely vigilant in the face of such statements. Who determines what is legitimate political dissent, versus immoral or criminal activities, versus a term thrown around all too often today, terrorism? If Shook were to contemplate the real world ranges of things like the women's suffrage movement, the Occupy movement, the Western backed and flagrantly violent Free Syrian Army, or Tibetan Buddhists resorting to self immolation, would he so cavalierly suggest the potential efficacy of morality pills as a means at stopping internal "rebellion"? Perhaps we might envision a population behaving badly in the eyes of the State, being rounded up and forced to take morality pills, in the name of quelling a "rebellion." Perhaps that population might undergo a few years of forced "community service" before they return to normal life, if they are to return at all. China is no stranger to stealing so called intellectual property. What will morality pills look like in their government's hands?
Forgive me for being presumptious, but it appears that Shook's skewed worldview is coming through: a justified fear of religious repression, and violent Right wing extremism, without any consideration of the fact that rebellion is such a slippery term when it rests in the hands of powerful governments. He sounds like someone who doesn't follow too closely what is actually taking place in the world, assuming, perhaps, that our modern democracies are acting in the best interest of the people or the planet? Does he even know that it is a well documented fact that Al Queada is a creation of the Pakistani ISI and the CIA? Does he know that while the major intelligence agencies in the US have said with high degree of certainty that Iran's nuclear weapons program was halted years ago, both the US and Israel have been actively working to destabilize Iran since the end of the second Bush administration, up until the present? Here is someone who has no understanding of the fact that rebellions in today's complex world are not always internal matters with cut and dry good guys and bad guys, and often the "good guys" (better guys) may not be the ones the mass media presents. In such a world, even suggesting that morality enhancers might have a legitimate role in stopping rebellion should clearly be rejected, and anyone making a case for such usage should be viewed as a dangerous asset to entrenched, criminally violent power structures.
"Political propaganda and clever marketing will eagerly trail scientific claims about improving our morals, helping to manufacture acceptance of a few “prosocial” moral enhancers among a consumer public already amenable to emotional appeals and social conformity."
Shook's statement is shocking in its bluntness. He is not talking about an attempt at rational discussion or debate within a well informed populace, but rather, appears to assent to, if not promote altogether, an imposition of "manufactured" social acceptance, using "clever marketing" and "political propaganda." His phrase "to manufacture acceptance" eerily calls to mind the essay "Engineering Consent," written by nephew of Sigmond Freud and so called father of public relations, Edward Bernays, who advocated the manipulation of the American population through emotional propaganda. And this is precisely what I meant, in a previous post, by an undemocratic future that is designed to serve elite interests. It is something that we should all be familiar with: the need to "sell" an agenda, to make it more palatable through recognizable cultural landmarks and appeals to morality and emotion. Acceptance was "manufactured" in order to enable the US to go to war in Iraq on two occasions, and taken together with the sanctions in the 90's, has led to the deaths of well over a million civilians, by conservative estimates. This was perpetrated by the US government, a paragon of freedom and justice in the modern world. Can we really afford to turn morality pills loose to such powerful interests?
If we are awake enough to realize that corporate media already constricts and distorts the knowledge of the general populace in deference to its sponsors and other powerful interests, it should become clear to us that any moral enhancements actually made possible by these hypothetical pills will be quickly subverted by the very same "clever" advertisements and "political propaganda" that got us to take them in the first place. In other words, governments and corporations will simply market their products, wars, and disruptive agendas, through "manufactured" moral appeals to our now "enhanced" and sensitized morality. Dependent on drugs for our "heightened" sense of right and wrong and our place in a reality where our inadequacies have been studied and played up for profit, we will be even more malleable, confused, and easily controlled. It is a psychopathic megalomaniac's dream come true.
"Intriguing types of specialized moral enhancers will enable a person to better fulfill a specific operational role, such as military service, police duty, or medical practice. "
The military, of course, is designed to kill and conquer, and I would be shocked if moral "enhancement" technology were used for anything but furthering this agenda. In fact, since the second World War, the US military has strategically worked to condition soldiers to overcome the natural disinclination to take another person's life, which they discovered in the reports of extremely low firing rates among infantry, even when soldier's lives were in jeopardy. Like it or not, dehumanization, racism, and marginalization are part of the military training process, quite contrary to a civilian's understanding of morality. More likely, of course, are developments like pills which improve focus, stamina, or eliminate the need for sleep, for a war on (the timeless tactic called) Terrorism, a war which controlling interests will work to indefinitely maintain. Other medications for soldiers of course include the ones that attempt to reintegrate them into society, perhaps even help them to selectively forget the atrocities they have witnessed or themselves committed.
"We can also anticipate governments seeking to implement rapidly acting moral enhancers for spraying over unruly protesters on the march, to temporarily pacify them by arousing feelings of tranquility or submissiveness to authority, or by clouding their (wrong-headed?) convictions."
Shook knocks another one out of the park when he seems to indicate the strong possibility of forcibly exposing "unruly" political dissidents to potentially dangerous, mind altering drugs. That his essay on chemically altering how we experience moral decision making would make such a claim around something of this magnitude within our current climate of torture, secret prisons, and police brutality, suggests again that he is at best out of touch with the world he seeks to change. To anyone observing Western society over the last few years, it should be abundantly clear that governments, police forces, agent provocateurs, and corporate news media can and do skew the way protests are covered and understood.
In one case on the UC Davis campus which was difficult even for the corporate media to spin, "unruly" students peacefully locking arms on a sidewalk were famously pepper sprayed point blank in the face by Lt. John Pike while other officers watched calmly. The officers made the audacious claim that they felt threatened, and no charges were pressed against them for their excessive use of violence. While such incidents are readily dismissed, they are, in fact, an illustration of how institutions use violence to threaten, control, and silence populations, and it is a trend that apparently "morality enhancers" can play a role in. To some, a pacifying, brain chemistry changing drug may sound like a good alternative to rubber bullets and tasers, but in reality, it will constitute a new level of socially acceptable control through a Manifest Destiny of the mind and body, used to quell the consciousness and consciences of organic movements, already marginalized by society at large and chilled through insidious, heavy handed tactics.
One might ask the question, if the police had been on morality enhancers, would they have pepper sprayed the protestors? If we understand their role vis a vis populist social movements as a control mechanism of the corporate state, we would conclude that it is highly unlikely they would be forced to take such pills. Those who may doubt that this is indeed the role of the police should take the time to read an explosive article by Naomi Wolf, who in the Guardian reveals the way police and US intelligence agencies worked hand in glove with corporations and Wall Street to crack down, in a coordinated manner, on peaceful protesters, and even discussed the potential of assassinating OWS leadership with snipers.
And if we are to realistically contemplate such drastic upheavals which climate change, disruptive technologies, or financial destabilization might entail under the military jurisdiction of America's recently formed NORTHCOM, is it really far fetched to suggest that such behavior pacifiers and morality enhancers couldn't simply be sprayed from drones or added to the food and water supply? A recent FOIA request filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center has revealed that drones, even military grade drones, are now regularly flying over US airspace without public consent. In breach of the Posse Commitatus act, the Airforce is currently able to collect intelligence on US citizens through its UAV's cruising the friendly skies of the Homeland. Talk of self reporting medications, incidents like the Tuskegee experiments, Guantanamo Bay detainee claims of forced medical experimentation, and the ongoing lack of labeling of genetically modified food, indicates that Shook's call for non consensual drugging of "unruly" activists exercising a right to assembly could potentially become a slippery slope for mass medication in the face of the types of earth shaking crises our out of control corporatized government has created and will continue to create.
Which brings up a final point. Given the bewildering claim Shook makes about how moral enhancers will come to be accepted, and how they might be implemented, Shook's cynicism is shallow indeed. By not strongly voicing the dangers of so called morality enhancing pills in the midst of truly criminal global actors and corrupt, though highly profitable corporations, Shook has painted himself as a willing, though perhaps reluctant, "critically thinking" servant of what is rapidly becoming a form of fascist neo-feudalism. In Shook's last quote, in spite of seemingly good intentions, he is finally fleshing out that these technologies of moral enhancement will likely become a tool of the corporate State, which seeks to profit through manipulative sales campaigns, proffering drug enhanced conformity to a system of overwhelming yet unspoken and apparently easily deniable violence and corruption. What moral person would subscribe to this path? Perhaps a misguided, uninformed one. More importantly, can a more moral society ever be the result of such chemicals?