Forget-Me-Nows for Everyone! The Ethics of Anti-Love Drugs

If you like love, drugs, and/or philosophy, you may have heard of the work by a group of ethicists at Oxford – Brian Earp, Anders Sandberg, and Julian Savulescu (and yes that is an Oxford comma by the way) – on what they call “the neuro-enhancement of human relationships”. If you haven’t, you should read some of it. It’s fascinating. The authors believe that in the near future, drugs will be available that allow us to bond more closely to people we feel we should love, and to easily lose affection for people we are in love with despite our better judgement. They want us to consider whether such drugs are good things. They believe they are.

I gave my initial thoughts on the issue here. More recently, the authors generously asked me to write a response to their article on anti-love drugs for The Journal of Biomedical Ethics. My full response is here. But I want to give readers the essence of it.

Many people start with the intuition that there must be something wrong with drugs that manipulate our emotions. They seem like a kind of mind control. But sometimes such interventions make us more, rather than less, free. The authors ask us to consider the example of a battered woman. She knows she shouldn’t stay with her partner – she may indeed be risking her life to do so. But she does anyway. Clearly, she is not making fully autonomous decisions. If a drug could sever her attachment to her abusive lover, she not only protects her safety, but she gains greater control over her life. It would be cruel to deny the woman such help if it is available.

I don’t deny that there are cases where anti-love drugs (let’s call them ALDs for short) could help people in desperate need – not just battered women, but also those who are suicidal or paralysed by depression after a failed relationship, for instance. I therefore would not want to see such drugs banned outright. But I would urge people to be extremely cautious in using them. First of all, the pain that follows a break-up, as awful as it is, is nevertheless essential to the healing process. It’s not like the pain that comes from cutting your foot or breaking your arm. The pain is what motivates us to examine ourselves and our lives, in order to understand what happened. Without it, we would be much less likely to actually learn and mature. People could find themselves trapped in the same endless, destructive cycles throughout their various relationships. Also, with ALDs readily available, we may become prey to an easy-exit bias in our relationships. Many people, fearing the pain or shunning the hard work required to repair damaged relationships, will use ALDs to escape them quickly, to their own long-term detriment. Think about cases where someone has been unfaithful. The process of healing and forgiveness is a long and difficult one. But often, it’s successful. Inevitably, as ALDs become available, many people will abandon relationships that have the potential for long-term happiness but that require difficult periods of reconciliation and healing. They will be less happy in the long term, and other people, such as their children, may suffer as well.

Finally, I want us to consider the impact of ALDs for our artistic culture. Yeats suffered much of his life from the unrequited pursuit of Maud Gonne – and later, her daughter. If he had had access to an ALD, he would surely have taken it. Modern literature would be poorer as a result. That is just one example of great art produced by heartsickness. There are countless others.

Of course, right now this is all highly speculative, and much of the ethical debate will have to wait till the drugs actually exist, and we know what they can and can’t do. But I think it’s worthwhile getting the discussion started anyway. By thinking about such drugs, we can ask some really deep and interesting questions about autonomy and about the nature of human relationships. And we may find that the science progresses more quickly than we expect. It very often does.

Image: GOB Bluth with a Forget-Me-Now, from the Arrested Development episode “Flight of the Phoenix”

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