Dean Rohrer

A Clockwork Chemistry

In Anthony Burgess’s novella (and Stanley Kubrick’s film) A Clockwork Orange, Alex, an unrepentant psychopath, has his eyes pried wide open and is forced to watch violent images. Today, however, biochemistry could be set to replace brutal behaviorism in making people morally better.

OXFORD – In Anthony Burgess’s novella (and Stanley Kubrick’s film) A Clockwork Orange, Alex, an unrepentant psychopath, has his eyes pried wide open and is forced to watch violent images. Like Pavlov’s dog, Alex is being programmed to respond with nausea to violence and sex. This scene remains shocking, but, like most science fiction, it has aged. The behaviorist psychology it drew upon has long expired, and the fear that science will be used to make, or even force, people to be morally better now sounds old-fashioned.

Science fiction ages fast, but it has a long afterlife. Over the past decade, an army of psychologists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists has been busy trying to uncover the neural “clockwork” that underlies human morality. They have started to trace the evolutionary origins of pro-social sentiments such as empathy, and have begun to uncover the genes that dispose some individuals to senseless violence and others to acts of altruism, and the pathways in our brain that shape our ethical decisions. And to understand how something works is also to begin to see ways to modify and even control it.

Indeed, scientists have not only identified some of the brain pathways that shape our ethical decisions, but also chemical substances that modulate this neural activity. A recent study has shown that the anti-depressant Citalopram can change the responses of individuals to hypothetical moral dilemma scenarios. Individuals given the drug were less willing to sacrifice an individual to save the lives of several others. Another series of studies has shown that when the hormone oxytocin is administered via nasal spray, it increases trusting and cooperative behavior within social groups, but also decreases cooperation with those perceived as outsiders. Neuroscientists have even magnetically “zapped” carefully targeted areas of people’s brains to influence their moral judgments in surprising ways – for example, making it easier for them to lie.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.

required

Log in

http://prosyn.org/lWQLajS;
  1. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

    Angela Merkel’s Endgame?

    The collapse of coalition negotiations has left German Chancellor Angela Merkel facing a stark choice between forming a minority government or calling for a new election. But would a minority government necessarily be as bad as Germans have traditionally thought?

  2. Trump Trade speech Bill Pugliano/Getty Images .

    Preparing for the Trump Trade Wars

    In the first 11 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has failed to back up his words – or tweets – with action on a variety of fronts. But the rest of the world's governments, and particularly those in Asia and Europe, would be mistaken to assume that he won't follow through on his promised "America First" trade agenda.

  3. A GrabBike rider uses his mobile phone Bay Ismoyo/Getty Images

    The Platform Economy

    While developed countries in Europe, North America, and Asia are rapidly aging, emerging economies are predominantly youthful. Nigerian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese young people will shape global work trends at an increasingly rapid pace, bringing to bear their experience in dynamic informal markets on a tech-enabled gig economy.

  4. Trump Mario Tama/Getty Images

    Profiles in Discouragement

    One day, the United States will turn the page on Donald Trump. But, as Americans prepare to observe their Thanksgiving holiday, they should reflect that their country's culture and global standing will never recover fully from the wounds that his presidency is inflicting on them.

  5. Mugabe kisses Grace JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

    How Women Shape Coups

    In Zimbabwe, as in all coups, much behind-the-scenes plotting continues to take place in the aftermath of the military's overthrow of President Robert Mugabe. But who the eventual winners and losers are may depend, among other things, on the gender of the plotters.

  6. Oil barrels Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Getty Images

    The Abnormality of Oil

    At the 2017 Abu Dhabi Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, the consensus among industry executives was that oil prices will still be around $60 per barrel in November 2018. But there is evidence to suggest that the uptick in global growth and developments in Saudi Arabia will push the price as high as $80 in the meantime.

  7. Israeli soldier Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

    The Saudi Prince’s Dangerous War Games

    Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working hard to consolidate power and establish his country as the Middle East’s only hegemon. But his efforts – which include an attempt to trigger a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon – increasingly look like the work of an immature gambler.