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Parliament Psychedelic

Written by Doug McConnell

Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, and Liz Truss are on psychedelics at the Palace of Westminster. This isn’t the work of Russian spies who have dusted off the KGB playbook or yet another Downing Street party but, rather, a near-future professional development program for politicians.

The path to this near-future scenario has two steps. First, let us suppose that psychedelics make good on their early promise as moral bioenhancers. Second, once effective moral enhancements exist, then people whose jobs entail making morally momentous decisions, such as politicians, would be morally required to take those enhancements.

Evidence for psychedelic moral bioenhancement

Many initial proponents of moral bioenhancers imagined they would work via psychological subsystems, such as by increasing empathy. However, there are serious challenges to improving morality by changing localised psychological systems. First, the interconnectedness of the brain entails that adjusting one subsystem will have side-effects across the system, some of which are likely to be undesirable. Second, the complex interactions between subsystems will make it very difficult to control the agent-level behaviour needed for morality by tweaking those subsystems. Third, even if you did get consistent influence on behaviour via one or more subsystems, that doesn’t guarantee moral behaviour because the demands of morality are highly context dependent. How could you be sure, say, that increased empathy would be morally appropriate? More empathy is not always better. You don’t want to end up empathizing with an abuser and thereby becoming distracted from your responsibility to his victims.

In light of these issues, Brian Earp has argued that psychedelics are good candidates for moral bioenhancers because they appear to have a long-lasting, global effect on people’s moral outlook that could contribute moral improvement in a robust, context-sensitive way.

Initial evidence for this comes from a double-blind clinical study, where psilocybin elicited experiences with “substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance.” Volunteers attributed “sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior” to these experiences. These subjective reports “were consistent with changes rated by friends and family, including increased patience, good-natured humour and playfulness, mental flexibility, optimism, interpersonal perceptiveness and caring, and compassion or social concern.”

Although it is too early to attribute causal processes with confidence, there are some suggestive explanations for how ‘meaningful’ or ‘spiritual’ experiences could lead to enhanced morality.  Chris Letheby points out that the three core ideas common to many spiritual experiences – connection, aspiration and reflection – are readily found in psychedelic experience and could drive moral development.

To illustrate consider the following first-hand reports. A patient receiving psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression said: “This connection, it’s just a lovely feeling … this sense of connectedness, we are all interconnected, it’s like a miracle!”  Another who received psilocybin for tobacco addiction spoke of the aspiration they felt to recognise and act on their values: “I don’t know if I really learned – it was more like letting back in stuff that I had blocked out? … I don’t think I changed my values, just remembered more of them. Or just remembered to honour them more.” Finally, a smoker who received psilocybin reflected on questions central to the human condition: “It was all about searching for answers to questions that are age-old. Maybe we have the answer to some of it, maybe we’ll never have the answer to it.”

Letheby notes that connection, aspiration and reflection are all ways of enlarging our selves, of breaking through the narrow walls of the ego. It’s not a huge leap to see how this could lead to being more attentive to the interests of other people and animals, and giving their interests more weight. A feeling of connection could also lead to a greater appreciation of the relationship between oneself, society, and the environment.

In summary, psychedelics may contribute to moral growth “in part by providing or fostering the recognition of insights into oneself and one’s inner workings, as well as the world around one, that might not otherwise be so readily obtained. Then, it is up to the agent to make good use of those insights in her process of moral development” (Earp, 2018, 438). In other words, the meaningful and spiritual experiences facilitate by psychedelic are holistic in nature; the agent can then use those insights in flexible ways depending on the context they face.

Clearly there is much more research to be done before we can draw any solid conclusions here, but if it turned out that psychedelics were effective and safe moral enhancers, what would follow from that? In the next section, I suggest that one implication is that politicians should take them.


Mandatory psychedelic moral enhancement for politicians

If safe and effective moral bioenhancements are developed, psychedelic or otherwise, there is an argument that everyone would be morally obliged to take them. If that were to happen, some people who would have wronged others, if not for the enhancers, won’t, and some people who wouldn’t have acted altruistically if not for the enhancers, will. If everyone behaves even slightly more morally, those small improvements in behaviour add up across society. This is not to say that moral bioenhancers will be a moral ‘cure-all’. Many who wrong others or don’t act altruistically will not be sufficiently enhanced to change their behaviour or will refuse the enhancement. Furthermore, structural and institutional effects will continue to limit how much good a more morally motivated society can do.

We have recently become familiar with an analogous argument for society-wide Covid vaccination – citizens have a moral duty to take the small risk of vaccinating because to not vaccinate undermines public health. As with the duty to vaccinate, there would be exceptions to the duty to morally bioenhance. A least those with medical contraindications would be excused and perhaps others could be excused if they showed themselves to be sufficiently moral on other grounds, e.g. by donating a certain percentage of time, income or wealth to charity.

We know that some people don’t recognise their duty to vaccinate and we would expect that some people wouldn’t recognise their duty to morally bioenhance. This then raises the issue – what, if anything, should be done to encourage them?

The most forceful approach is to use mandates. Few governments have decided to mandate vaccination for their adult populations, e.g. with fines for non-vaccination. Presumably this is because the cost of alienating a proportion of the population with mandates is considered to be of greater harm than the cost to public health of lower vaccination rates. However, governments have shown a greater propensity to mandate vaccination for certain public-facing jobs. For example, aged care and healthcare workers have been required to vaccinate or lose their jobs. Relative to mandating vaccination for the wider population, there is greater justification for mandating vaccination where workers regularly interact with vulnerable people. If unvaccinated, these workers pose a greater risk to public health and undermine public trust in their institutions.

An analogous argument can be made for why moral bioenhancements should be mandatory for politicians even if we don’t go that far for citizens. Politicians design policies and make decisions that have significant impacts on others. If they design immoral policies or make immoral decisions it can have very significant negative effects on the population of the country. Furthermore, if immoral decisions are made in matters of foreign affairs and aid, then politicians can harm large numbers of people around the world. As mentioned above, the moral actions available to individual members of society are limited by the existing structures and institutions. If government was morally enhanced then they are well-placed to fast-track the design and implementation of more moral structures and institutions.

There are a range of objections to moral bioenhancement in general (e.g. see Rob Sparrow) but here I will consider just a couple specific to the moral enhancement of politicians with psychedelics.

We might worry that a government that prioritises interconnectedness will underestimate geopolitical threats and domestic terrorists. However, if psychedelics make good on their initial promise as holistic moral enhancers, then they wouldn’t disconnect one from sociopolitical realities but enable the application of new moral insights to those contexts.

Another concern is that the selling point of psychedelic moral enhancement – holistic moral insights– might work against it. What extreme ‘moral’ ideas might a Margaret Thatcher or Jeremy Corbyn come up with if their imaginations were turbo charged by psychedelics? Again, the hope is that psychedelics will actually prevent moral flights of fancy that alienate others by facilitating reflection on one’s core moral beliefs and closer consideration of other points of view.

Ultimately both these concerns turn on how psychedelics actually perform as moral enhancers. If they tend to engender unrealistically optimistic expectations of others, leave one overly ready to forgive injustices, or promote elaborate theories based on dubious moral foundations, then they might not be particularly good moral enhancers after all. The initial indications are that they won’t have these detrimental effects but it is too early to say with confidence just yet.

The larger barriers to psychedelic moral enhancement of politicians might actually be political and cultural, rather than moral. If governments continue to think that they need to ‘send a message’ that the use of ‘recreational’ drugs is socially unacceptable, they might worry that their own use of psychedelics, even if under highly controlled conditions, will undermine that message. Similarly, society might find it difficult to believe that psychedelics really provide moral enhancement even if there is scientific evidence to that effect. Changes in political and cultural attitudes are difficult to predict and long periods of stasis can be punctuated with periods of rapid change. If psychedelics prove to be effective moral enhancers, there is a strong moral argument that politicians should take them, and that argument will help to break down any political and cultural barriers that still stand in the way.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Assuming that psychedelics make good on their promise in clinical or research contexts, why not start by making them voluntary for MPs?

  2. Harrison Ainsworth

    Moral enhancement seems at its heart an oddly question-begging and vacuous idea. It supposes that the best solution is already here as one of the salient choices, and it proposes we only need some magic potion to clearly see it and comply. Of course the truth is more difficult. Moral behaviour is an algorithmic structure, and it is improved by developing better systems of organisation, not by changing feelings.

    Imagine that a moral enhancer pill is available, and there are now a million people with more empathy and wanting to help someone on the other side of the world. What should they do? Go there in person? Send money? Follow an effective altruism program? Lobby their government? Change what policy? … etc. Adjustment of dispositions does not address the issue.

    What is the personal sentiment, the ‘disposition’, that would get food efficiently grown and distributed across national connections? There is not one. It is not a ‘disposition’ that does this, but a system of organisation. You do not solve the travelling salesperson problem, or distributed consensus problems, by enhancing people’s feelings. You solve them at base with algorithmic techniques, and realise those with social mechanisms/regulations/institutions and so forth.

    The notion of moral bio-enhancement does not reach the question of what is right to do. It presents simple examples of choices that are plainly right or wrong, where the moral question is trivial, by already known and indeed simplistic methods. But the problem is not choosing between right and wrong as we know them, but knowing how to generate better understanding and plans of action in the first place.

  3. To Harrison, your point is important, and can be taken as the other half of Doug’s sci-fi explication, but not its replacement. People need ethics organized for practical, forward reasons, but if there is little motive to pursue this work, be it the stalemates of a bitter world or norms of cultural ignorance, they need some kind of activation. Psychedelics may or may not serve this purpose, but if they can with some people, especially those committed to work entailing ethical social conduct, then psychedelics are worthwhile for engaging the less rational, the intuitive or revelatory, side of ethics, which might be called sensitivity, interpersonal awareness, cosmic relation, or loving kindness. Of course acid may turn you into a raving lunatic preacher against the world for a few hours, but just because some ethical intuitions might be radically unfit for the rigid status quo doesn’t disqualify their creative potential to inspire and realize more pragmatic ethics.

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