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.

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