Briefly Noted: A Reflection on Peter Singer’s “Morality Pill”

Readers of Between the Times might remember that we have written several pieces about the unfortunate moral and philosophical peregrinations of Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, who is known for approving of certain forms of bestiality (which he calls “zoophilia”) and infanticide. Today’s blog likewise reflects upon Singer’s moral philosophy, but this time considering an aspect of his work which the Evangelical community might not be as well-prepared to answer.

In January 2012, Princeton Ethicist Peter Singer and researcher Agata Sagan wrote an opinion article for the New York Times entitled “Are we Ready for a ‘Morality Pill’?” In the opinion article they mull the possibilities offered by controlling brain chemistry to promote moral activity. Their basic contention, based on evidence from lab rats, is that morality is driven by brain chemistry. If this is true, they ask, would it not be permissible or even required to monitor and balance brain chemistry in order to promote more moral behavior? (One immediately wonders if such a pill would keep Singer from promoting certain forms of bestiality and infanticide, as he has done in other articles.)

Using the Singer/Sagan article as a launching pad, D. Gareth Jones, in the September 2013 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith,[1] discusses the topic of moral enhancement, evaluating things such as a “morality pill” and considering if they would be morally required.

Jones notes that many people already use chemicals in order to improve cognitive ability. Drugs like Ritalin, Donepezil, and Modafinil have different primary purposes but can all be used to enhance cognitive ability. The reality of cognitive enhancement, despite its dangers, commends the idea that moral enhancement is also possible.[2]

According to Jones, “Serotonin is being put forward as the neural substrate of ethical decision-making” (190). The study was conducted by presenting moral dilemmas to two groups of individuals. One group was taking a particular SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) and the other a placebo. In the study referenced by Jones the researchers conclude, “Serotonin promotes pro-social behavior by enhancing the aversiveness of harming others, an effect that drives both moral judgment and behavior.”[3] Thus, taking an SSRI can improve the moral decision.

Some problems with this approach to improving morality are apparent. Jones notes that the researchers fail to consider the importance of motive in moral decision making, that they have a mechanistic view of humanity, and, most importantly, that the researchers presume a particular morality. Jones concludes that therapeutic control of brain chemistry may be warranted, particularly as an intervention to serious psychological conditions. However, controlling morality through brain chemistry “is an abrogation of the responsibility built into those made in the image of God” (194).

The inimitable Catholic novelist Walker Percy addresses a similar question in his 1987 novel, The Thanatos Syndrome. In Percy’s novel, the local water supply is being laced with radio-chemicals from a nearby nuclear plant. This results in the population becoming less violent and much happier. It also results in everyone being less human in personality and less moral in non-violent ways. Percy’s main character, Tom More, notes this fact upon his release from prison. In The Thanatos Syndrome there is a horror in the subtle suppression of humanity wrought by well-intentioned men. There is a law of unintended consequences here.

It is incumbent on our society to weigh carefully the pros and cons of creating and using certain technologies. The Oxford Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics puts it nicely: “What is technologically possible is not necessarily morally permissible. We must not allow technological development to follow its own inner logic, but must direct it to serve moral ends. We acknowledge our limits in foreseeing the impact of technological change and encourage an attitude of humility with respect to technological innovation.”[4] Even the screenwriters of such flatfooted and effervescently bad movies like Terminator and Jurassic Park seem to have a firm grasp of this point (i.e., if we apply artificial intelligence technology toward making cyborgs, they might, um, assassinate us).

So the idea of improving morality through a pill might seem attractive during an era when there seems to be a pill for everything—pills not only to make us happier but, apparently, also to make us “holier.” A more careful consideration of such technology is warranted, particularly because it seems to interfere with aspects of human nature. Technology itself tends to be neutral, but its applications are fraught with moral significance.

[1] D. Gareth Jones, “Moral Enhancement as a Technological Imperative,” in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 65:3 (2013): 187–195.

[2] Jones, “Moral Enhancement as a Technological Imperative,”188.

[3] M.J. Crockett, L. Clark, M. D. Hauser, and T.W. Robbins, “Serotonin Selectively Incluences Moral Judgment and Behavior through Effects on Harm Aversion,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (2010):17433–8. Available at [Accessed 1/14/2014].

[4] See the declaration at:

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Augustine for the 21st Century (4): What Were Augustine’s Starting Points and How are They Relevant for Today?

Augustine teaches us to use Christian doctrine as a lever to unseat false prophets such as Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens.

Augustine defended Christianity from one basic starting point: the biblical narrative is true and it alone explains the world within (existential viability) and the world without (empirical adequacy). He knew that his interlocutors did not agree. Augustine understood that, as Romans 1 puts it so damningly, the Roman pagans were busy suppressing the knowledge of the truth, exchanging the truth of God for a lie, and worshipping the creature rather than the creator. In response to their idolatry, therefore, Augustine presupposed and proclaimed the truth of the biblical narrative. He used certain basic Christian doctrines (God, Creation, Man, Sin, Redemption) as starting points to show the falsity of the competing Roman narrative.

Those same doctrines provide starting points for us in defending the gospel in a 21st century context.

Take, for example, the doctrine of man in relation to atheism. As I wrote in an article in Spring 2007, “The problem with atheism, as with other worldviews, is that it is not able to account for the unique nature, capacities, and ends of human existence. Inevitably, it tends toward either an enthronement or a denigration of humanity, unable to strike a proper balance.

At times, atheists tend toward the enthronement of humanity. This might seem an obvious move; if one chooses not to worship God on His throne, the next best thing would be to enthrone oneself. This can be seen in Humanist Manifesto II, which states that, ‘At the present juncture of history, commitment to all humankind is the highest commitment of which we are capable.’

At other times (or ironically, at the same time), atheists denigrate humanity. A glittering example of this is Peter Singer, of Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. Singer, like Nietzche and others, realizes what a radical revisioning of mankind must take place. For him this means that we cannot base our ethics on the imago Dei or argue that our immortal soul distinguishes us from the animals. ‘By 2040,’ he writes, ‘it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.’[1]

For Singer, the moral status of a human being is defined, not by his being created in the image of God, but by his consciousness and ability to function. Those humans who are most conscious and functional have more worth and moral status that those who are less conscious and functional. Healthy teenagers and middle-aged folks, then, are worth more than babies and old people, and certainly more than the mentally and physically handicapped.

For this reason, certain non-human animals have higher moral status than certain human animals. A donkey or a dog will often have superior consciousness and function than a defective human baby. It is for this reason that he believes one might find instances when infanticide is acceptable; sometimes, he thinks, it would be more wrong to take the life of an animal than to take the life of a defective baby.[2]

Furthermore, since Singer does not hold to the imago Dei, which gives a clear line of delineation between humans and animals, he has no problem suggesting that inter-species sexual activity is sometimes acceptable. In some instances, sex between a man and an animal might be mutually satisfying and, therefore, not problematic. He hurries to say, however, that with small animals such as chickens or ferrets, sexual activity might be painful for the animal and would therefore be problematic.[3]

Singer’s re-definition of humanity finds company even in popular culture. Take, for example, the movie Bicentennial Man (1999). In this movie Robin Williams is a robot who is on a two-century journey toward becoming ‘human.’ At one point in the movie, he begins to use the word ‘I,’ signifying that he has now become self-conscious. He is now every bit as ‘conscious’ as human beings, and the implication, it seems, is that he has therefore achieved humanness.”[4]

Atheism-like any worldview other than Christianity-cannot make proper sense of mankind. It tends toward either the enthronement or the denigration of humanity. The imago Dei is essential for understanding humanity. It makes sense of who we are; indeed, it renders coherent the socio-cultural activities that surround us and pervade our lives. As we image forth God through our capacities for spirituality, morality, rationality, relationality, and imagination, we are able to live distinctively human lives. Our work in the sciences is possible because of our ability to reason. In the arts, we may participate because of our imaginative and creative capacities. In the public square, we may act and interact because God made us not only rational but relational beings. As theologians, this robust anthropology unlocks the complexities of man’s unique capacities and his relationship to the rest of the created order.

Or take the doctrine of God in relation to pantheism (Note: Certain ancient philosophers, most Buddhists, many Hindus are pantheists. Pantheism comes in many varieties, and this blogpost inevitably will refer only to certain streams of pantheism). One of the problems for pantheists is that they are unable to account for aspects of human life such as evil or logic precisely because they do not believe in the God of the Bible. As Christian theists, we believe that God is eternal and good. He created the world from nothing, is separate from it, but relates personally to it. Pantheists, on the other hand, believe that God is the world and the world is God. All is one. This monism, however, puts the pantheist in a major bind. If all is one, then there can be no distinctions. But few things are more apparently false than this belief.

If all is one, there can be no such thing as logic. Logic just is the making of distinctions. Logic is premised upon the belief that A cannot be non-A at the same time, in the same place, and in the same way. Our use of human language is in turn premised upon logic. When we state something, we intend for it to be taken in the way that we meant it (“A”) rather than in the opposite manner (“non-A”). But for Buddhists, logic is the enemy and if we are to become one with the world we must rid ourselves of it. This is why one can find Buddhists meditating on the sound of one hand clapping. It is an illogical exercise aimed at setting the practitioner free from captivity to logic. The Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, for example, argues that we must abandon/transcend logic because it is not applicable to reality.[5] But in order to deny that logic applies to reality, one must make a “logical” statement about reality to the effect that one cannot make logical statements. If a person states that there is no logic (because all is one and there are no distinctions), his statement is itself a distinction.

Further, if all is one, I find it difficult to imagine how one can explain evil in relation to goodness. If all is one, the concepts of “good” and “evil” are not really opposed to one another after all-they are really the same thing. For this reason, some pantheists argue that there is neither good nor evil and others argue that evil is an illusion. Prabhavananda and Usherwood, for example, say, “All good and all evil is relative to the individual point of growth….But, in the highest sense, there can be neither good nor evil.”[6] Such an argument, however, is not only counter-intuitive but goes against an abundance of empirical evidence. Good and evil exist and evil is not an illusion.

In summary, just as Augustine used basic Christian doctrines to show how the competing pagan worldview lacked explanatory power, we are able to use those same doctrines to expose the weaknesses, fallacies, and falsities of pantheism, atheism, and other worldviews.

[1] Peter Singer, “The Sanctity of Life,” in Foreign Policy (Sept/Oct 2005) 40.

[2] Ibid., “Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life,” Pediatrics (July 1983) 129. Also, in Practical Ethics (New York: Cambridge University, 1979), he argues that membership in the human species is irrelevant to moral status.

[3] Singer’s most famous treatment of bestiality, or as he calls it zoophilia, is “Heavy Petting,” published at, on March 12, 2001. Lest one think that Singer is an obscure radical with no real influence, it should be noted that he is often called one of the most influential philosophers alive. In fact, his Practical Ethics is the most successful philosophy text ever published by Cambridge University Press.

[4] Bruce Riley Ashford, “Worldview, Anthropology, and Gender: A Call to Broaden the Parameters of the Discussion.” The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood XII, Issue 1 (Spring 2007) 7-9.

[5] D. T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, 58.

[6] Prabhavananda and Usherwood, Bhagavad-Gita, 140.