A review of The Moral Molecule
Michael De Dora
Posted on September 21, 2012
The Guardian last week published a well-written, thought-provoking review by Oliver Burkeman of neuroeconomist Paul Zak’s recently released book, The Moral Molecule.
The crux of Zak’s new book is essentially this:
“Human beings are almost the only animals who regularly want to be around strange members of our species,” Zak says. “We kind of dig it! It’s fun! But to be able to do that, we have to have something in our heads that says: ‘Oliver is safe, Bob is not safe.’ And that’s oxytocin – this very old, evolutionarily ancient molecule” that helps us respond to being trusted with just the right degree of reciprocal trust in response. Zak’s earlier work had established that trust is a crucial precondition for economic prosperity (to conduct transactions, you have to be able to trust others) but also a result of it (once you’re no longer fighting for basic subsistence, you can afford to trust more). Now, he has located the biological mechanism through which this all worked. The Golden Rule –- treat others as you’d like to be treated –- is, Zak writes, “a lesson that the body already knows.”
Which, as Burkeman notes, raises a philosophical dilemma:
If oxytocin is the mechanism through which moral action takes place, that holds out the possibility — a cause of either optimism or alarm, depending on how you look at it — that by manipulating oxytocin, we might boost the levels of trust, generosity, and ultimately happiness in ourselves and the world at large.
… what is to stop car dealers, say, pumping oxytocin into showrooms, or politicians using it when canvassing?
Zak says that wouldn’t work (“it is incredibly hard to get enough oxytocin into the bloodstream”), but practical matters aside, the question highlights the ever-important difference between is and ought. The fact that we have the ability to play around with science to bring about better personal outcomes does not mean we ought to. My moral principles tell me deception and manipulation are almost always wrong, and we shouldn’t fool people into feeling better than they should.
Or should we?
Note: you can see my previous posting on Zak and his work here.