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Love and other drugs, or why parents should chemically enhance their marriages

By Brian Earp

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Love and other drugs, or why parents should chemically enhance their marriages

Valentine’s day has passed, and along with it the usual rush of articles on “the neuroscience of love” – such as this one from Parade magazine. The penner of this particular piece, Judith Newman, sums up the relevant research like this:

It turns out that love truly is a chemical reaction. Researchers using MRIs to look at the brain activity of the smitten have found that an interplay of hormones and neurotransmitters create the state we call love.

My humble reckoning is that there’s more to “the state we call love” than hormones and neurotransmitters, but it’s true that brain chemistry is heavily involved in shaping our experience of amour. In fact, we’re beginning to understand quite a bit about the cerebral circuitry involved in love, lust, and human attachment—so much so that a couple of Oxford philosophers have been inspired to suggest something pretty radical.

They think that it’s time we shifted from merely describing this circuitry, and actually intervened in it directly—by altering our brains pharmacologically, through the use of what they call “love drugs.”

In a 2008 essay on this subjectJulian Savuelscu and Anders Sandberg made a case for the neuroenhancement of love and marriage. They rested their argument on the principle of marital autonomy, which just means—in their words—that couples “should be free to shape their relationship in the way which best fits them.” That includes, of course, through the use of chemical substances.

They then showed how doing things like spraying oxytocin up your nose (under controlled conditions—maybe with the help of a marriage counselor, for instance, and while staring into your spouse’s eyes) could work at the level of the brain to encourage love and improve the connection between romantic partners. Oxytocin, if you haven’t heard of it, is a hormone that’s normally expressed through orgasm and breastfeeding. It’s called “the cuddle chemical” in schlocky media reports, for obvious reasons.

The spirit of this type of argument is libertarian: in general, individuals should have the freedom to alter their own brain states—through drugs or other means—so long as they do not harm or infringe upon the rights of others (see a previous post by me on this subject). The principle of marital autonomy extends this flavor of reasoning to the activities of individuals who are in committed relationships, and who wish give their mutual love a “helping hand” through science-based neurochemical intervention.

And why might couples elect to enhance their relationships in this druggy new way? Savulescu and Sandberg gave several answers. There are hedonic reasons: love drugs could contribute to a pleasurable and satisfying sex life—think Viagra, which is a love drug that’s already on the market. There are cultural and religious reasons: love drugs could promote fidelity in settings where monogamy is considered a virtue—perhaps you know some settings like this. There are health reasons: loving marriages reduce stress, promote longevity, and so on; and love drugs could keep a good marriage chugging along. And there could even be intrinsic reasons: maybe you think love is inherently good or beautiful, so you’d want to enhance it by whatever means.

In short, they argued that couples should be at liberty to use love drugs, and that they may have several good reasons to do so, in pursuit of their own—and each other’s—well-being.

There are a lot of red flags you could raise about the picture presented so far. You might think that drug-induced love is no true love at all, or you might think there are too many possible side-effects to take this sort of suggestion seriously. In their article, Savulescu and Sandberg have a nice “objections and replies” section that addresses a lot of the concerns you probably just thought of. So give their piece a read. In this blog post, I’m going to take that previous article for granted and charge right ahead with some arguments of my own.

In other words, I want to see if I can expand the case for love drugs. My strategy will be to shift my attention from reasons based on liberty and marital autonomy to reasons based on duty and marital obligationThat means that  I want to float the idea that some couples may have a moral responsibility to enhance their relationships under certain conditions.

In the case of marriages generally, the individuals involved have voluntarily placed themselves under a mutual oath to stick together “for better or worse” and “until death do us part.” The relevant duty is simply to honor that marital commitment, by every reasonable effort, instead of abandoning it too easily when things go “worse.” As love drugs become safely and cheaply available, and if side-effects or other complications could be minimized, then using them might, in some cases, fall into the bubble of “every reasonable effort.”

Of course divorce is sometimes appropriate, and may even be morally required—when abuse is involved, for example. (Putting a chemical band-aid on a violent or broken marriage is a terrible idea.) And in other cases divorce may be simply no big deal: if each member of the married pair is convinced that they would be happier apart, and if there are no children involved, nor any other entangling considerations, then there is no good reason to suggest that they must stay together against both of their wills.

But martial duties per se aren’t what I want to talk about here. Instead, I want to focus on the obligations entailed by a sub-set of romantic relationships, namely those involving offspring. My focus is on the marital obligations of parents.

In barest outline, my argument goes like this:

(1) Parents have an obligation to protect their children from harm, all else being equal.

(2) Marriage breakdown, and especially outright divorce, is harmful to children.

(3) Therefore parents have an obligation (all else being equal) to preserve and enhance their relationships … “for the sake of the children.”

In order to make this argument, I have to first convince you that marriage breakdown, and especially “outright” divorce, is harmful to children. To some people, this might be obvious—including many children of divorced parents—but there is also an idea going around that “the kids will be fine” and that it’s probably better for them to be raised in separate households than to be “stuck” in an unhappy marriage. I can’t go into all the evidence here, but this appears to be a myth. A landmark 25-year study on the effects of divorce on children, conducted by the world’s foremost authority on the subject, Dr. Judith Wallerstein, explodes these misconceptions: excepting cases of violence, abuse, or extreme dysfunction within the family, divorce is, on average, much more damaging to children than their being raised by parents whose love has simply soured.

Now, even if you won’t accept this general point until you look at the research yourself, I can make the uncontroversial claim that divorce is sometimes harmful to children, in which case my reasoning applies to just those cases where it is, or where it would be if it hasn’t yet taken place.

But let’s say that you took my word on the relevant evidence. Even so, I won’t have made an argument for love drugs—yet. All I’d have shown is that parents may have a special responsibility to improve their relationship by some means, and that method could just as well be marriage counseling as neurochemical enhancement. In order to make a duty-based case for love drugs in particular, then, I would have to show something like this:

(1) Parents have an obligation to prevent divorce and improve their relationships, all else being equal.

(2) In many cases, the only way to do this is through pharmacological intervention.

I think a reasonable argument could be made to this effect. To see why, consider an analogy to the case of chronic depression, and its treatment through neurochemical means—such as with an SSRI like Prozac. In most cases, before considering the use of drugs, doctors and clinical psychologists should encourage a depressed person to address her mental health issue through “traditional” means like talk therapy, and by making relevant changes to the broader circumstances of her life. You don’t just write a prescription the minute someone says “I’m sad.”

So let’s say a patient is depressed because she hates her job, for example, or isn’t getting enough exercise, or engages in destructive patterns of thought. Ok, then: her therapist might encourage her to find alternative employment, take up jogging, or practice healthier mental habits.

But sometimes the patient is so depressed that making these sorts of changes by sheer dint of will would be just too difficult to pull off. Her brain chemistry may be so out of order that she needs a small dose of medication in order to “get over the initial hump” of her depression. Once she is in a more balanced state of mind, she may be able to take the active steps that are needed to address the “bigger picture” issues that are contributing to her mood disorder.

A similar scenario could apply to a relationship. In some cases, traditional counseling may be insufficient to get a couple “over the initial hump” of their martial difficulties, and love drugs could give them the boost they need. This is because love drugs would target the psycho-biological root of relationship instability, and could do so across a range of predictable cases.

Some marriages may be so dysfunctional that any sort of treatment would be bound to fail. So let them fail, and best wishes for a new beginning. But if a marriage is unhappy, not through some cosmic incompatibility, but because of a slow graying, a drifting apart, a gradual failure of love (our brains did not evolve to keep love plodding on for decades) then an alternative to divorce would be to strengthen love and commitment, including through neurochemical means. A lot of people would probably choose this route if they could. My point is just this: as the sciences shapes up, and love drugs become increasingly available, and if they can be shown to be safe and effective, for the sake of the children—they probably should.

Personal appeal: Some of the arguments presented in this blog post will appear in a forthcoming paper. Help me make my case stronger by giving me your best objections! 

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5 Comment on this post

  1. The mood enhancement is a good idea for the years to come, but I do not accept this aplicable to more than one person, because the values of people are(still) fuzzy. Even in cases when the couple have the "certainy" of true love. And more, in some sense, stay with some arbitrary people is a rationalization, because we create qualities they don't have.

    In relation to kids, they are in some situations damaged just because their parents have done a bad choice. 50% of people divorce, and is occur for a conjuntions of factors, if lack of love is the first, then maybe it's the solution to the divorces. I'm skeptic, having more than one relation is a signal of limitations of humans.

    I do not are against the use of mood enhancement as a whole, with some test we will see. If works, then we use. Follow the principle: quemicals are good when they create more liberty, not when they reduce.

  2. I think there are no counter arguments- Done deal- across the planet drugs have been and are prescribed to assist relationship diffs (both physical or mental impediments) everyday . We shouldn't forget that there are many other non drug means to spice up a relationship- drugs should be last on list ?

  3. But though vitally important – I struggle to see good sex all on it's own saving a relationship . It's but one expression of intimacy not a proxy for it?

  4. Jane, I don't think the chemicals here are mostly about sex. They're bonding hormones, so probably quite a good way to keep a relationship together.

  5. Brian —

    I don't think you need to limit yourself to divorce here. An unhappy marriage could be considered just as if not more damaging to a child than divorce. therefore this makes the case for these drugs stronger. People need the drugs to enhance their marriage for without them, their marriage and maintain the quality of the relationship. Also, a good sex life is thought to bring down stress and increase mood, both which contribute to ones longevity and quality of life. An alive and low-stress parent with fewer health complications is preferable as far as I'm concerned.

    I am sure you have considered these things by now. Just some ideas.


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