“Love drugs”: Questioning “emotional enhancement”

Julian Savulescu. Andy Miah at flickr.
Anders Sandberg. David Orban at Wikimedia Commons.

The philosophers Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg argue in various articles that individuals should have the opportunity to use bio-medical means to influence their emotional lives. Their prime example is a nasal spray containing the hormones oxytocin or vasopressin, which could improve emotional bonds. This would ward off marital alienation, even infidelity, countering biological trends undermining traditional marital bonds. An easily accessible article in the The New Scientist, for example, is called “Engineering Love” (in a journal section called “The Big Idea”). Surely strengthening the traditional institution of marriage is a project with which many religious ethicists may wish to align?

Issues at stake: a specific enhancement and the operative view of humanity

I find the issue of emotional “enhancements” interesting for two reasons. The first is the question of a specific biomedical enhancement. Emotional bonds are very significant for our every day well-being, but also in any profound reflection on the meaningfulness of one’s life. Emotional fulfilment cannot be sought directly, it seems, so we’re faced both with the chance of happiness and the risk of gloom. By contrast, if possible, a manipulation of very intimate emotions might help avoid the gloom. The authors probably assume that there is a genetic basis to our emotional capacities. Perhaps some day we might edit our emotional capacities genetically, so this issue is clearly relevant for a blog on the modification of the human genome. Why not take more of our fate into our own hands, or as Savulescu often says, give people the best chance to live their best life? On the other hand, would such an “enhancement” not run the risk of inauthentic lives with less mystery and depth?

The evolution of humans. Tkgd2007 at Wikimedia Commons.

The second reason why I am taking up this issue is that a special role of evolution comes into play here that can give us good insights into how people in the enhancement discourse typically view the human person. The New Scientist article by Savulescu and Sandberg highlights evolution in the summary, in the first three paragraphs, and in the last paragraph (“outwit evolution”, “escape evolution”). They are convinced that “we need all the help we can get to liberate ourselves from evolution”. In another article, a section elaborates on “The Role of Evolution in Explaining and Addressing Marriage Fragility”. So it is not by chance that Savulescu also opened his contribution to this year’s Oxford Union debate on genetic manipulation with a critical moral evaluation of evolution (not the theory, of course, but the process):

“The reality is that we all need gene editing. The human animal is not some finely balanced master piece of divine creation or design. It’s the result of ad hoc selection under particular environmental pressures. 250 genetic diseases. Human DNA contains viruses [and] recessive mutations that can cause life threatening illnesses in your offspring.”

For the issue at hand, the supposed biological ceiling on marriage duration results from evolution, according to Savulescu and Sandberg. Our built-in human emotional capabilities are limited by the hormone economy of the human body. The framework for our hormonal output evolved to sustain the typical pair bond of Stone Age hunter

Bank vole. Hanna Knutsson at flickr.

gatherers of the African savannah, they surmise. Human life expectancy has greatly expanded in the intervening 50,000+ years, however, so many people wish for their marriage to outlast a Stone Age alliance. But by and large, our Stone Age hormonal economy isn’t up to the task. By contrast, research on “the mating habits” of monogamous and polygamous species of vole suggests that extra dosages of the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin could help sustain a straining human marriage.

What is the image of the human person that is in the background in the argument for biomedical enhancement? Is there a deeper meaning to the description of the human person as the “human animal”, which, sure enough, is far from extraordinary today? What is the role of evolution in the wider argument? This second aspect at play in “emotional enhancements” will be covered in the second part of this blog post.

Champagne, roses – and a nasal spray?

Let’s turn first to the issue of a specific biomedical enhancement. Sustaining an emotional bond in marriage is not a matter of course once the charm of novelty has worn off. If we have simply subscribed to a purely Romantic model of emotional bonds in which a warm fuzzy feeling just comes out of the blue – or doesn’t – let’s wake up. Happy couples that

Evening Roses Candle Bakaly Temptation Champagne
Max Pixel at FreeGreatPicture.com (CC0)

have been married for a longer time revitalise their bond with mindful gestures and the cultivation of good habits. This may seem rather prosaic, especially after I wrote above that emotional fulfilment cannot, it seems, be sought directly. Indeed, a couple may arrange for romantic weekend away – without the kids, but with a chance to enjoy a glass of bubbly instead, as philosopher Allen Buchanan reminds us.


Certainly such activities that maintain a loving relationship are morally legitimate. But in some cases they can also verge on the manipulative. I remember a fellow student who did not return the love interest that a new acquaintance showed towards her. At one point the acquaintance surprised her with literally no less than 100 red roses. She staid her course, however, and – admirably, I think – donated the flowers to a retirement home. She would not be manipulated into a romantic relationship.

Indeed, most of us would be uncomfortable when wooing becomes downright manipulation. One can’t simply make someone love a person if it doesn’t ‘click’ (and this is not what Savulescu/Sandberg suggest, to be clear – especially not manipulating someone else). There’s something elusive to personal bonds, even to friendships. Certainly there is a gradation here, and we’re not always keeping aloof in order to make sober, rationally controlled decisions only. Many social interactions imply a modicum of manipulation, and there is no disembedded, fully neutral observer who ties social bonds only insofar they allow her or him to make fully independent decisions from a position of complete autarky. Some have questioned if it is even possible in the first place to give someone a gift entirely without ulterior purposes.


Queenstown Rafting at Flickr

So pragmatically, we navigate the factors that we can’t influence and, staying afloat, strive to remain true to ourselves in the midst of various forces impinging on us. But we tend to feel unhappy if manipulation takes over entirely. It is in personal meaning making that we explore how we can envision ourselves in a certain situation: does this situation allow me to stay true to my roots, or to develop in ways that I find meaningful or fulfilling? It is personal meaning making that is at the centre here. Is this or that potential scenario consistent with who I have turned out to be throughout the course of my life? Certainly some stretching and revising of personal priorities is often in order, and we’re not “windowless monads” whose identity is carved out before we might be shaped by social bonds. Sometimes turning a blind eye is alright, but on the whole I don’t want to lie down on a Procrustean bed, on which others tear me into the desired length or chop me into the appropriate fit. Sometimes an attractive woman decides not to accept red roses.


The fundamental difficulty I see with emotional enhancement is that it takes the manipulation potential just a step too far and tips the balance toward the manipulation side. The idea that we could sustain marriage with biomedical enhancements tries to exploit a shortcut around personal meaning making. The difference between a bunch of roses and an oxytocin nasal spray is that the latter comes much closer to circumventing meaning making.

Is a relationship always, inherently, worth preserving?

Savulescu/Sandberg do not propose manipulating others with an oxytocin spray, but only oneself. Nonetheless there are at least two problems. Why would you want to manipulate yourself? And would it work?

Of course a lack of emotional attachment can be a tragic thing sometimes. Isn’t your first thought a sad one when you hear of a rising number of divorce cases taking place after the 25th wedding anniversary? But sometimes extricating oneself from a difficult relationship can also be a good thing, if for example a certain relationship is not good for a person. Certainly, if a marriage is in trouble, it is a good thing to seek counselling, as Savulescu/Sandberg note themselves. But marriage counselling should not need the additional nudge by artificial hormone administration, as they suggest. The intention of a marriage counsellor is to help people make a marriage work for both partners, but not at all costs.

Tumisu at Pixabay


So maintaining a marriage can be an ambiguous affair. It can of course be something very positive, but not necessarily. In a newspaper article, a German author reflects on why an increasing number of women file for divorce even after the 25th wedding anniversary:

“They are, as author Sissi Traenker notes, more independent and more courageous than in the past: ‘Even 15 years ago, it was much more difficult for women to find themselves again back on their own, aged 50 and older.'”

There are certain cases in which people are especially tempted to “suck it up”, not to be oversensitive if the relationship is manipulative in other ways. The effects of a nasal spray might drown out my pangs of conscience and make me invest in a relationship in spite of legitimate hesitation. People sometimes have an intriguing loyalty to people who abuse them physically, emotionally, economically, or in other ways. Conversely, it is interesting to see two transhumanists tending towards a rather traditional view of marriage. In manipulative constellations, the best hope is that one partner will eventually feel the need to extricate. This will start with pangs of conscience or some vague unhappy feeling. This is when our inherent drive toward meaning making sounds an alarm bell, in more or less subtle forms.

So emotional self-manipulation contradicts the particular way in which we human persons are “wired”, and this “wiring” is intimately connected to personal meaning making. For this reason the creation of romantic dispositions via nasal spray is not desirable.

Can meaning makers manipulate themselves?

nasal-sprayPersonal meaning making, which can come in the form of a bad conscience, for example, can be a tricky thing. For this reason it’s not clear if indeed the spray is ever going to work. Iain Brassington, a philosopher and legal scholar, published his thoughts on the blog of the Journal of Medical Ethics:

“But … if you know that that feeling arose at about the time you started taking oxytocin … well, might it get in the way of the feeling?  Would a person who knew himself to have taken the chemicals ever really be able to take his feelings seriously?  That’s not at all obvious.”

Even drunk people might say, “I feel a strong attraction to this person, but then again I’m probably just drunk”. We don’t seem to be cut out to be tricked by ourselves quite so easily. So we humans are meaning makers at a very basic level. This is true for both partners in a relationship, as Brassington suspects: “If you knew, or suspected, that your partner was using oxytocin to keep the emotion vibrant, wouldn’t that make a difference?”

Certainly the way we make meaning does not always hold up to scrutiny, but neither are we at liberty to make meaning in random ways. To be sure, we sometimes delude ourselves, but “deluding ourselves” in an active sense doesn’t come so easily. If, by contrast, we succeed in “deluding ourselves” in an active sense, it’s probably a bad sign. It sounds a bit too much like the last words that some attribute to Josef Stalin: “I’m finished. I believe my own lies”. Would we be able to take our own feelings seriously?