Mood Manipulation is not Mind Control

By Kyle Munkittrick | April 7, 2011 11:55 am

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner‘s dead-tree forebear) opens with Deckard arguing with his wife about whether or not to alter her crummy attitude with the “mood organ.” She could, if she so desired, dial her mood so that she was happy and content. Philip K. Dick worried that the ability to alter our mood would remove the authenticity and immediacy of our emotions. Annalee Newitz at io9 seems to be worried mood manipulations will enable a form of social control.

The worry comes from recent developments in neuro-pharmaceuticals. Drugs are already on the market that allow for mood manipulation. The Guardian‘s Amelia Hill notes that drugs like Prozac and chemicals like oxytocin have the ability to make some people calmer, more empathetic, and more altruistic. Calm, empathetic, and altruistic people are far more likely to act morally than anxious, callous, and selfish people. But does that mean mood manipulation going to let us force people to be moral? And if it does, is that a good thing? Is it moral to force people to be moral?

The question is a strange one. Force people to be moral – what does that even mean? Let’s cast some clarity onto the issue of moral enhancement:

The field is in its infancy, but “it’s very far from being science fiction”, said Dr Guy Kahane, deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and a Wellcome Trust biomedical ethics award winner.

“Science has ignored the question of moral improvement so far, but it is now becoming a big debate,” he said. “There is already a growing body of research you can describe in these terms. Studies show that certain drugs affect the ways people respond to moral dilemmas by increasing their sense of empathy, group affiliation and by reducing aggression.”

That last sentence is a critical one, so I’m going to disassemble it. Some drugs affect, that is, influence or temper a person’s response to a moral dilemma. Your initial response might be, “I don’t want my decisions being influenced by a drug!” We see ourselves as rational beings in control of our emotions. But our mood is often critical to our decision making, particularly in regard to how we react to others.

We intuitively recognize that mood is often related to morality. When a person is upset or depressed, they can “snap” at a friend, being unjustifiably cruel, violent, or neglectful. Often a person who snaps at a friend will immediately apologize, offering “I don’t know why I did that. I’m in a bad mood, but not at you in particular. I’m sorry.” In these cases, mood creates poor conditions for moral behavior towards friends, let alone acquaintances or general strangers.

The important point is that mood creates conditions conducive to moral behavior. Mood does not determine moral behavior. Like many discussions around human enhancement, it is impossible to overemphasize the difference between determining and enabling a behavior or trait. Think of it like buying a pair of running shoes. Just because you own the shoes, or even if you choose to wear your running shoes every day, doesn’t mean you’ll go running. But you’re more likely to go running in running shoes than if you are wearing flip-flops or snow boots.

Mood enhancers work the same way. I might take a pill that makes me more more likely to be empathetic and altruistic, but it doesn’t guarantee that I will be any more than me having a crummy day will make me a jerk to others. Humans are able to exercise reason and willpower over our emotions and moods to control our actions.

The great thing about mood enhancers is that they make it so that our reason and willpower don’t have to overcome anger, fear, and angst to enable us to do the moral thing. A person in the right mood has an easier time making good choices when faced with moral dilemmas. There is, of course, a caveat:

Ruud ter Meulen, chair in ethics in medicine and director of the centre for ethics in medicine at the University of Bristol, warned that while some drugs can improve moral behaviour, other drugs – and sometimes the same ones – can have the opposite effect.

“While Oxytocin makes you more likely to trust and co-operate with others in your social group, it reduces empathy for those outside the group,” Meulen said.

As with every other technology in existence, mood manipulation and moral enhancement is a double-edged sword. Again, mood manipulation creates the conditions conducive to moral or immoral behavior, as the case may be. But, no matter how you look at it, mood manipulation is not mind control.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog and on facebook and twitter.

Image of pills that do who-knows-what by brains the head via Flickr Creative Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Chemistry, Neuroscience, Philosophy

Comments (16)

  1. Manuel

    Prozac makes people calm?
    It’s often indicated for social phobia so how come it makes people calm?

    No, it makes people hysterical.

  2. The argument in the original post seems to be that merely influencing a decision does not amount to controlling decision. But, in a lot of contexts, that distinction doesn’t seem very meaningful, particularly when one recognizes that surely mind control can still be mind control even if some percentage of attempts to control the minds of others are unsuccessful for some reason or another.

    If 100 out of 1000 drug free people engage in a given act, while 10 out of 1000 drugged people engage in that act, then drugging 1000 people in a way that substantially influences but does not actually control their decision making process to produce this result, has an effect indistinguishable, after the fact, from perfect mind control of 990 people, and a failed attempt at mind control for 10 people.

    In the same vein, the law of testamentary capacity (e.g. validity of wills) recognizes “undue influence” as a valid basis of attack in addition to total lack of testamentary capacity. Indeed, the vast majority of will contests involve the former rather than the latter.

    Another good example from the law is the often controversial issue of evaluating the impact of drugs on the capacity to consent to sexual activity in rape cases. Rophenol, the proto-typical date rape drug that leads to complete unconsciousness is the easy case. There is no free will left in the victim. A potential moral, if not always legal, way to avoid the issue in lots of criminal justice contexts is to avoid as a matter of policy voluntarily intoxication or drug use effects. But, what about someone to whom intoxicants or drugs that loosen resolve but do not do so completely or produce unconsciousness have been administered without their knowledge? What if this mood altering drug can be shown empirically to turn someone who is 95% likely to say “no” into someone who is 5% likely to say “no”?

    This may not strictly be “mind control” but it is damn close. There is a very good argument that someone who has received this drug should not longer be viewed as having the moral or legal capacity to consent or act voluntarily.

    Chemical castration is another case where administering a drug while not strictly a matter of mind control has a dramatic influence on behavior. One can demostrate quite convincingly from cases involving violent men who lose the capacity to produce testosterone for one reason or another, that the lion’s share of the differential in violent crime rates between men and women (with men committing 95% of serious violent crimes) boils down to a levels of a single hormone in the body – testosterone.

    Even if the drug itself is not “controlling you,” if someone uses the drug with an intent to effect a change in someone else’s behavior that is empirically predictable and actually does so with high rates of success, how is this overall scheme of behavior not mind control, even if the drug standing alone is not. Isn’t the person using the drug controlling your mind, even if the drug isn’t doing so all by itself.

    One of the most common fictional ways to control people with drugs which really is used by pretty unexceptional physicians in every day life is the use of sedatives to force people to calm down whether they would or not in the absence of drug administration.

    Now, controlling someone’s behavior by mechanism that operates through person’s mind is not inherently either moral or immoral and can be accomplished by all sorts of means other than drugs. Causing someone to have sex with you by paying them $1,000 controls their behavior through the use of their mind just as much as causing someone to have sex with you by getting them drunk. Neither are absolute cases of mind control, but both are powerful influences on how the mind makes decisions. Having a policeman right at hand and visible videocamera rolling can have an effect similar to chemical castration in influencing someone’s decision to commit a violent crime at a particular moment.

    The law of duress in contracts, while described as a body of law describing when someone is making a decision of their own free will, is really more accurately conceived of as a law that decides what influences on decision making (e.g. the threat of unlawful physical violence) we care about, and what influences on decision making (e.g. the prospect of making a profit on deal) we do not care about, under the law. The nature of the tool used to effect mind control, rather than its efficacy is what really matters.

    We are ambivalent about some methods of mind control. Physical torture or the use of drugs to obtain a confession from a suspect in criminal case is forbidden. An offer of a plea bargain or an appeal to justice to obtain a confession from suspect in criminal case is allowed. The law permits cops to lie to a criminal suspect (e.g. by saying tht he has physical evidence already that he doesn’t actually have) to obtain a confession, but does not permit prosecuting ttorney to lie to a criminal suspect to obtain a confession. The rules themselves are sometimes fuzzy, and the reasons behind those rules are more opaque and are not a matter upon which there is a academic or professional consensus.

    Changing the likelihood that a person’s mind will make decision is form of mind control. The difference is one of degree, not kind. The moral question in turn, is not “is mind control” or “social control” immoral, but is there is a good reason to treat a technique for facilitating mind control or social control to be lawful and moral, or unlawful and immoral.

    A fruitful discussion of some of these issues can be found in recent article on the concept of mental torture.

  3. Futurecastings

    Let’s not forget what these drugs have done for people who suffer serious mood disorders.

  4. It isn’t a form of mind control, no.

    But it is a form of population control, that has potential for catastrophe. It brings to mind not only the Prozium in the movie Equilibrium, but also the PAX substance referenced in the movie Serenity, and the Clarity drug in Cory Doctorow’s noveletta “Chicken Little” in his latest release “With a Little Help”. With all that is messed up in the world, there’s still a need for that “unhealthy” mood. Of course those were each in reference to negative extremes:
    *Equilibrium is the story where there’s nothing wrong with the drug, only the execution & implementation
    *Serenity is a story where there was a problem with the drug
    *Chicken little is a story where the drug worked as intended, and the results were the opposite due to human nature
    So what’s the real problem? It’s still us. We can try blaming it on Genes, Upbringing, moods, and combinations of all factors, but the reality is different from person to person, like the multifaceted illness strains or cancers.

  5. BryanD

    I’m with you on this one, Kyle.
    I find it hard to take terribly seriously those who draw such a sharp moral distinction between being able to take a mood altering pill and seeing a billboard advertisement with a pleasing image. For whatever reason, the decision (presumably made while aware of the various effects and without coercion , if only to keep the argument to as few confounding variables as possible) to take a drug that will in any way alter one’s brain chemistry – even if only temporarily – is often seen by both the intellectual left and the “purists” of all stripes as being disruptive of an authentic, actual existence.
    Without going the full nine postmodern yards here and pointing out Nietzsche-style that it’s turtles all the way down as far as any sort of untainted, unmediated existence is concerned, let’s look instead at the very simple, tangible mood-alterers that we partake in uncontroversially on a daily basis(save for you, perhaps, followers of Joseph Smith).
    Leaving aside the social interactions that we often carefully orchestrate so as to induce a particular state of mind, it’s still quite a simple mood-altering chemical reaction that makes coffee and tea such popular beverages throughout the world. More simply than that, even, we often regulate our intake of sugar so as to provide boosts at various times of day. Why do we listen to particular types of music before taking a big test or while working out? With headphones, we are literally pumping mood altering sound waves into our heads. Why does running feel good (you know, at least when some people talk about it)? Why do we watch scary movies? Or have non-pragmatic, non-educational entertainment at all? Or why does that Starbucks window have snowflakes painted on it?
    My point here is a simple one: When the question of mood alteration is rejected on absolutist grounds, there’s clearly either a lack of honesty, a lack of understanding, or a forced differentiation between things that are actually fairly similar in the impact that they have on us, if not necessarily in their methods of delivery. Further, should not this judgment be flipped on its head? With a pill, an adult can at least choose how to affect him/herself, rather than having that influence imposed by a billboard, a news report, or something as arbitrary as the weather. Should this not at least appeal to those who like to believe in individual freedom or self-determination, if not necessarily winning over those still going on about purity?
    As to whether these pills constitute mind control, I think that the question has much more to do with whether they are being forced on a populace or whether there is a choice involved. While it may be tempting to collapse this question and the question of the morality of the existence of the pills themselves, they are really two entirely different questions that needed to be treated separately.
    Finally, while I’m hesitant to be in favor of a Brave New World of Soma-reliance, I simply don’t see how any argument could really disallow such an option without also hitting more than a little bit too close to home.
    Sorry that what was intended to be an argument devolved to something more resembling diarrhea of the fingers (an image I already regret introducing), but now it’s time to go ingest some yeast- and hops-based mood alteration.

  6. Cathy

    I started taking a “memory enhancing” compound from Vitamin World, to see if it was going to help me concentrate. Instead, I just felt incredibly calm and chilled out. I’m normally a pretty mellow person anyway, but I started referred to them as my “chill pills.” Now I cheap out and take the non-concentrated form (which is half the price) and get the same effect. I don’t care if it’s a placebo, it’s a great tool if I’m feeling overly stressed. With mood-altering substances, I think that placebos probably will do more good than harm, and you still get your authentic mood experience at the same time.

  7. mike

    Cathy, which one:)?

  8. BryanD….excellent dissertation…if you are not, you should be a journalist or a writer.

  9. bob elsey

    After thirty plus years on anti depressives for Biploar D/O and a career as as a Mental Health Professional It was only when i embraced a spiritual not religoeus path and life style was I extricated from my “Moral mess. Only when I could see myself as good not bad, and not shotgun feeling bad onto mine and others moral life was I able to gain true release.
    I am off meds for almost a year after their being a necessesity for so many years. I believe firmly in ALL the possibilities of Brain Science.

    Unfortunately many people places and things had to be left behind. I have had some very steep prices to pay for my contentment. I do not recommend my path except for the absolutely willing with a strong support system

    Blessed with foolishness

  10. I have definitely ended up inside of marketing for a many years and in addition my teammate keeps informing me that we will need to test (blank) voice broadcasting as a new means to help generate sales opportunities. I pretty much believe this hard to trust that this realistically performs. Everytime I personally get one of these kind of telephone calls I basically hang up the phone as soon as possible but this guy boasts of the fact that it gives a amazingly inexpensive strategy to bring in leads. I i’m nonetheless on the fence but nonetheless , I am aware of that the other models we’ve been implementing are just growing to be a great deal more (blank) expensive.

  11. That one guy

    No, mood manipulation does not guarantee moral choices or behavior. -Far from it in fact. It can however, create false persona and radically emotional behavior.

    Further, the real issue here is whether it is moral or right to attempt to control people by forcing them to submit to mood manipulation.

  12. kw

    Apparently, few of the previous posters have lived through clinical major depression. I can’t speak to drugs of the future, but SSRIs such as fluoxentine (Prozac) can restore an individual’s mood to what it was before the illness set in. It is giving too much credit to antidepressants to claim they cause sudden calm and a spaced-out sense of mellow. Rather, they can interrrupt stupid, groundless obsessions and illogical thought patterns that no amount of “boot-strapping” can cure. Some mood- alterating drugs rescue a mind from sickness, give it a respite to restore itself. Can a choice ever be moral if the individual has an illness that infects thought itself?

  13. Cindy

    The only time I could condone routine mood alteration is when/if the subject is a) apt to create harm under predictable conditions; or b) to allow a decrease in debilitating, destructive or unwanted irrational behaviors (anxiety, agitation). Honestly, in the long run, we need to understand ourselves enough to rely on non-medicated responses to stimuli, not run away from (or to) some safe haven. In the not-so-distant future, I would hate to have to submit to even more scrutiny when applying for a job, a driver’s license or other regulated qualifier because of widespread mood altering drugs. Worse, have to take them to fit in.

  14. Matt

    Is it moral to force someone to take a pill in order to be more moral?

    Absolutely not.

    Is it moral for someone to take this pill him/herself in order to be more moral?


    The key here is consent, not the nature of the drug. It’s not a problem to want to take a drug to alter your mood. It is a problem to force someone else to take this drug because you don’t like their mood. Using a human being as a tool in this way is fundamentally unethical. The only time I could see this being remotely ethical is if the patient is clearly insane and unable to make decisions for him/herself , and even then the decision to force mood altering drugs on the patient would be on shaky ethical grounds.

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    Have you been wondering certain things regarding the Brainetics Review Secrets exposed from the Human Calculator, Mike Byster? His Brainetics program include five DVDs, a Parents’ Guide book, a Playbook, Credit cards and Flash Cards is essential to actually comprehend the Brainetics secrets.

  16. “moral” can mean different things at different times.
    I was a teenager in World War Two. What so many of us considered moral then would probably shock the good folks today.
    Was dropping the atom bomb moral? Or carpet bombing Dresden? Both are often disapproved of these days, but thought quite right, at that time.
    There would have been even more confusion in Nazi Germany.

    And views of sex seem to have changed a lot since then.

    So I suppose “moral” means “approved of by the majority at a certain time”.


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