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The Case for Using Drugs to Enhance Our Relationships (and Our Break Ups)



INTERVIEW of Brian D. Earp, Anders Sandberg, and Julian Savulescu (University of Oxford) by Ross Andersen (The Atlantic): George Bernard Shaw once satirized marriage as "two people under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, who are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part." Yikes. And yet, nearly all human cultures value some version of marriage, as a nurturing emotional foundation for children, but also because marriage can give life an extra dimension of meaning. But marriage is hard, for biochemical reasons that may be beyond our control. What if we could take drugs to get better at love? Perhaps we could design "love drugs," pharmaceutical cocktails that could boost affection between partners, whisking them back to the exquisite set of pleasures that colored their first years together. The ability to do this kind of fine-tuned emotional engineering is beyond the power of current science, but there is a growing field of research devoted to it. Some have even suggested developing "anti-love drugs" that could dissolve abusive relationships, or reduce someone's attachment to a charismatic cult leader. Others just want a pill to ease the pain of a wrenching breakup. At first blush, love may seem like a poor prospect for pharmacological intervention. The reflexive dualist in us wants to say that romantic relationships are matters of the soul, and that souls ought to be free of medical tinkering. Oxford ethicist Brian Earp argues that we should resist these intuitions, and be open to the upswing in human well-being that successful love drugs could bring about. Over a series of several papers, Earp and his colleagues, Anders Sandberg and Julian Savulescu, make a convincing case that couples should be free to use "love drugs," and that in some cases, they may be morally obligated to do so. I recently caught up with Earp and his colleagues by email to ask them about this fascinating ethical frontier. What follows is a condensed version of our exchange.
The case for using drugs to enhance our
relationships (and our break-ups)
Brian D. Earp, Anders Sandberg, Julian Savulescu, and Ross Andersen
Interview with Earp, Sandberg, and Savulescu of the University of Oxford; conducted
and with an introduction by Ross Andersen of The Atlantic
Introduction [Ross Andersen]
George Bernard Shaw once satirized marriage as "two people under the influence of
the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, who are
required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting
condition continuously until death do them part."
Yikes. And yet, nearly all human cultures value some version of marriage, as a
nurturing emotional foundation for children, but also because marriage can give life
an extra dimension of meaning. But marriage is hard, for biochemical reasons that
may be beyond our control. What if we could take drugs to get better at love?
Perhaps we could design "love drugs," pharmaceutical cocktails that could boost
affection between partners, whisking them back to the exquisite set of pleasures that
colored their first years together. The ability to do this kind of fine-tuned emotional
engineering is beyond the power of current science, but there is a growing field of
research devoted to it. Some have even suggested developing "anti-love drugs" that
could dissolve abusive relationships, or reduce someone's attachment to a charismatic
cult leader. Others just want a pill to ease the pain of a wrenching breakup.
Evolutionary biologists tell us that we owe the singular bundle of feelings we call
"love" to natural selection. As human brains grew larger and larger, the story goes,
children needed more and more time to develop into adults that could fend for
themselves. A child with two parents around was privy to extra resources and
protection, and thus stood a better chance of reaching maturity. The longer parents'
chemical reward systems kept them in love, the more children they could shepherd to
Authors’ copy. Published as:
Earp, B. D., Sandberg, A., Savulescu, J., & Andersen, R. (2013, January 31).
The case for using drugs to enhance our relationships (and our break ups).
The Atlantic. Available at:
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reproductive age. That's why the neural structures that form love bonds between
couples were so strongly selected for. It's also why our relationships seem to come
equipped with a set of invisible biochemical handrails: they're meant to support us
through the inevitable trials that attend the creation of viable offspring.
The problem for us modern, long-lived humans is that natural selection is only
interested in reproductive fitness. Once your kids can make their own kids, natural
selection's work is finished. It doesn't care whether your marriage remains
emotionally satisfying into your golden years. But if the magic of love resides in the
brain, an organ whose mysterious workings we are slowly starting to unravel, there
might be a workaround.
At first blush, love may seem like a poor prospect for pharmacological intervention.
The reflexive dualist in us wants to say that romantic relationships are matters of the
soul, and that souls ought to be free of medical tinkering. Oxford ethicist Brian Earp
argues that we should resist these intuitions, and be open to the upswing in human
well-being that successful love drugs could bring about. Over a series of several
papers, Earp and his colleagues, Anders Sandberg and Julian Savulescu, make a
convincing case that couples should be free to use "love drugs," and that in some
cases, they may be morally obligated to do so. I recently caught up with Earp and his
colleagues by email to ask them about this fascinating ethical frontier. What follows
is a condensed version of our exchange.
What scientific evidence do we have that the difficulties people face in modern
relationships can be successfully addressed with pharmaceuticals?
Earp, Sandberg, and Savulescu: Modern relationships are challenging for a whole
range of reasons, and these reasons might be very different from one couple to the
next. Drug-based treatments will not always be the best approach, and sometimes
shouldn’t even be pursued: putting a chemical band-aid on a violent or abusive
relationship, for example, would be an extremely bad idea. But we do know that in at
least some cases, states of the brain that are susceptible to being pharmacologically
altered may have something to do with the interpersonal difficulties a couple is
To give an obvious example, just think of a marriage in which one of the partners is
suffering from severe depression. As anyone who’s been in this situation can tell you,
chronic depression in one or both members of a committed partnership can drag the
whole relationship down. Addressing the root of the problem, in this case through the
use of anti-depressant pharmaceuticals if necessary, could make a big difference for
some couples.
For another example, consider the widespread issue of male impotence and its
treatment with drugs like Viagra. Some couples, especially older couples, are not able
to have sex because of erectile problems in the male partner. Lack of sex reduces
oxytocin levels, and reduced oxytocin levels can degrade the romantic bond between
the individuals. If a drug-based treatment could help the couple restore a healthy sex
life, this could improve their chances of sustaining a well-functioning relationship.
Beate Ditzen and her colleagues conducted an important study in which they showed
that oxytocin nasal spray can facilitate positive communication—and reduce stress
levels—in romantic couples engaged in an argument. Oxytocin, sometimes called the
“love hormone” for its role in sustaining mother-infant and romantic attachment
bonds, increased the ratio of positive to negative communication behaviors and
facilitated a drop in cortisol levels after the conflict. These factors have been shown to
play a major role in predicting long-term relationship survival. While commentators
like Ed Yong have recently emphasized that oxytocin can have a “dark side” as
well—for example, by promoting in-group favoritism—the key is to figure out which
people, which situations, and which ways of administering the hormone will
maximize its effectiveness and minimize any troubling side-effects. We’re working
on some research right now to sort these conditions out.
In earlier decades, MDMA or ecstasy was sometimes used in couple’s therapy to
boost empathy and improve emotional communication skills. While this sort of use
would be illegal today, there has been a recent resurgence of scientific interest in
possible therapeutic uses of MDMA, for example to treat Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder. More research is needed, of course, but there is no reason why it should not
be carried out, carefully and ethically, with proper social, procedural, and legal
safeguards in place.
Those are all existing examples of pharmacological treatments that could, in some
cases, work to prevent needless relationship breakdown – depending upon the
particular situation of a given couple. In our recent papers, we have argued that it is
time to embark on a program of theoretically grounded clinical research into brain-
level strategies of improving modern relationships. This should include strategies that
might involve pharmacological elements if these could be shown to be safe and
What is the current thinking among evolutionary biologists as to how love---or
adult pair bonding---evolved?
From the perspective of evolutionary biology, love is a complex neurobiological
phenomenon that has been wired into us by the forces of evolution. It makes heavy
use of the brain’s reward systems, and its ability to bring together (and keep together)
human beings—from prehistoric times until the present day—has played a major role
in the survival of our species.
In terms of natural selection, the working consensus among evolutionary biologists is
that the human adult pair bond probably developed out of earlier structures involved
in creating and sustaining feelings of attachment between mothers and their infants.
Evolution likes to make use of existing systems for new purposes. In this case, the
shift might have been driven by the heightened importance of paternal care for
offspring with bigger and bigger brains over generations of human evolution. These
burgeoning baby brains took longer to reach maturity than their more ancestral
counterparts, leaving the infant vulnerable and underdeveloped for extended periods
of time. The idea is that if parents fell in love and remained together at least during
this fragile period for their offspring, their own genetic fitness would be enhanced.
The anthropologist Helen Fisher has become famous for arguing that “love” is not
really one straightforward emotion, but is an emergent suite of motivational states that
stem from underlying systems for lust, attraction, and attachment. In her theory—one
of a number of “biological” theories of love with quite a bit of overlap between
them—the lust system promotes mating with a range of promising partners; the
attraction system guides us to choose and prefer a particular partner; and the
attachment system fosters long-term bonding, encouraging couples to cooperate and
stay together until their parental duties have been discharged. These universal systems
are then hypothesized to form a biological foundation on which the cultural and
individual variants of sexual, romantic, and longer-term love are built.
You argue that "love drugs" can help us address the tension between our moral
values and our evolved psychobiological natures. Where does that tension
manifest itself most obviously in relationships today? How have things changed
since our basic sexual and relational drives evolved?
One consequence of thinking about love in the way we just described is that in order
to maximize the survival of their genes, parents need to have emotional systems that
keep them together until their children are sufficiently grown—but what happens after
that is of no concern to natural selection. As Donald Symons has written, “in
analyzing the psychological underpinning of marriage [we should] keep in mind that
Homo sapiens is the product of evolution ... we are designed to promote gene, not
individual, survival; reproductive, not marital success.” Since we now outlive our
ancestors by decades, the upshot is that the evolved pair-bonding instincts upon which
modern relationships are built have a tendency to break down or dissolve long before
“death do us part.”
This fact can obviously be seen in the high divorce rates and long term relationship
break up rates in countries where both partners enjoy freedom, especially economic
freedom. We are simply not built to pull off decades-long relationships in the modern
world. Nature designed us to be together for a while, but not forever—and once we
push beyond the natural childrearing boundary, we are, in a sense, living on borrowed
Another major tension comes from our non-monogamous impulses. Humans are rare
among mammals in that we practice at least some form of social monogamy—but
mountains of evidence suggest that sex outside of the primary parenting bond was
common throughout our evolutionary history, and would have been to the
reproductive advantage of both males and females of our species. Jealousy seems to
have deep roots as well, so there is nothing particularly new about feelings of sexual
possessiveness—but the conscious, socially enshrined value-expectation that both
husbands and wives should remain 100% sexually exclusive to one another for
decades in a row, and that failure to meet this goal should entail the end of the
relationship, is certainly a more recent invention. Adultery is one of the leading
causes of marriage failure.
You point out that married couples should have the freedom to use love-
enhancing drugs if they so wish, but you also go a step further, arguing that
there are circumstances where married couples ought to take them. What are the
most compelling of those circumstances?
Imagine a couple that is thinking about breaking up or getting a divorce, but they have
young children who would likely be harmed by their parents’ separation. In this
situation, there are vulnerable third parties involved, and we have argued that parents
have a responsibility—all else being equal—to preserve and enhance their
relationships for the sake of their children, at least until the children have matured and
can take care of themselves. One way to do this, of course, would be to attend
couple’s therapy and see if the relationship problems could be meaningfully resolved
through “traditional” methods. But what if this strategy isn’t working? If love drugs
ever become safely and cheaply available; if they could be shown to improve love,
commitment, and marital well-being—and thereby lessen the chance (or the need) for
divorce; if other interventions had been tried and failed; and if side-effects or other
complications could be minimized, then we think that some couples might have an
obligation to give them a try. Of course, we aren’t suggesting that anyone should be
forced to take love drugs—or any drugs—against their will. But we do think that
when children are involved, the stakes become higher for finding a workable solution
to relationship difficulties between the parents. In any case, most parents don’t want
to see their marriages fall apart, and they certainly don’t want to inflict collateral
damage on their own offspring. So “obligations” aside, we expect that many unhappy
couples might decide, of their own free choosing, to explore every possible avenue to
bringing love and well-being back into their marriages—for their own sakes as well as
for that of their children.
What if "love drugs" only serve to prop up fading cultural institutions? Some
might argue that monogamy is outdated, or a bad fit with human nature, and
that rather than pharmacologically altering ourselves to accommodate it, we
should jettison the whole thing instead. What would you say to them?
Whenever individuals—or societies—experience a mismatch between their values
and human nature they come to face a choice. They can give up or amend their
values, accept a contradiction between their values and their impulses or behaviors, or
they can try to modify or manage human nature.
This “management” can happen in different ways. It might involve shaping the
physical, social, and legal environment to incentivize value-consistent behavior and
disincentivize value-inconsistent behavior. Or it might involve the use of
biotechnology (such as love drugs in the case of monogamy) to modify the source of
the behavior directly—or some combination of the above. Which course to take for
any given mismatch depends upon a huge range of factors, and there are often good
arguments for different approaches depending on the details of the given case.
As a baseline, we have argued for something called the “principle of default natural
ethics.” This just means that, given the choice, we should try to adopt values that are
as consistent as possible with human nature, so that we can avoid troubling side-
effects that come from unnatural suppression and heavy-handed regulation of basic
instincts: just think of the recent sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and
consider some obvious reasons why that tragedy might have come about. Sometimes,
following the principle of default natural ethics means that we should jettison our
social institutions—especially when they are so far out of synch with our human
dispositions as to be totally unworkable, or when they end up creating bigger
problems than they were designed to solve in the first place. This is probably part of
the reason why we jettisoned communism as a model for social and political
organization: it seemed, at least to many people, to make a lot of sense on paper, but
in the real world it ran up against too many deep facts about the way that people
actually work.
But communism was an experiment, both radical and recent. Monogamy, on the other
hand, or at least some form of it, has been a part of human societies for a much longer
time, so we have to be more careful about how we deal with its problematic
features—most notably the gap it creates between the ideal of sexual exclusivity and
the reality of human promiscuity.
Some people think that we should give up on monogamy, and there are plausible
arguments for this view. In fact, one possibility is that love drugs could be used to
eliminate jealousy rather than the impulse to stray—and for individual couples, this
might indeed be a worthwhile strategy. For couples who are committed to polyamory,
for example, jealousy would seem to be the odd man out: it conflicts with the
polyamorists’ higher-order goals for sexual openness.
We obviously cannot set the moral priorities for any given relationship. But in making
a more general argument, we tend to note that most couples as a matter of fact value
sexual fidelity and make an explicit promise to hold to it. And at least when children
are involved, we think that this promise may be morally justified, since extramarital
sex can lead to extramarital love that would divert time and energy directly away
from existing offspring. On the other hand, when children are not an issue, when there
are good arguments for non-monogamy for a particular couple, or when non-
monogamous social institutions have a good chance of contributing to human welfare
in a given culture or community, then we don’t see any reason why people should go
out of their way to “prop up” problematic social norms through the use of
There are certain environmental features of modernity---like ease of travel and
expanded social circles---that make monogamy more difficult. Why shouldn't we
focus on limiting the effects of those factors instead of altering ourselves
It’s a question of trade-offs. Most people think that ease of travel and far-flung social
connections are a good thing, and contribute positively to human flourishing in the
modern era. On a practical level, too, these things aren’t likely to go away. So when
they do become a problem—by making it easier to commit adultery, for example—we
have to be creative about how we respond. Certainly there a range of non-biochemical
strategies that couples can use to stay faithful to each other despite the pressures and
temptations of modern life, and they should be free to pursue these strategies to the
best of their abilities. We have simply argued that it may be time to consider a wider
range of possibilities, as contemporary relationships need all the help they can get. At
the end of the day, anyone who fully appreciates the post-Enlightenment ideals
embedded in present-day Western cultures would be loathe to restrict travel, freedom
of socializing, freedom of divorce, or gender equality in the workplace, despite their
potential to undermine full-fledged monogamy. The cure would be worse than the
You could see how these drugs could be used in the context of a parent-child
relationship---perhaps to boost feelings of love in an otherwise apathetic mother.
Are there any special ethical concerns there?
There may be some. But remember our analogy to treating depression in a romantic
context, and then just extend this reasoning to a parent-child relationship. So long as it
is the parent taking the drug, voluntarily and under conditions of informed consent,
and so long as this drug-based treatment had a reasonable chance of improving her
ability to care for her own offspring, there would seem to be little to worry about in
terms of ethics. Some people might be concerned that this drug-induced “love” would
be inauthentic in some way – but it depends on what you take as your baseline.
Perhaps the authentic situation is the one in which feelings of love and contentment
occur naturally between the parent and the child, and it is only a disordered
biochemical state that brought about the apathy actually felt by the mother. Just as
when a depressed person finds that a small dose of medication allows him to “be
himself” again—finding joy in the old activities he used to love so much, for
example—so might some mothers find that taking a love drug allows them to engage
with their children in a way that feels more true to their own self-conception than they
would feel without it.
In general, whether some biological intervention is appropriate will depend on
whether it fosters a healthy, authentic love that can be sustained. But sometimes we
need to open the door. Love drugs won’t be a one stop shop – but they might help us
learn to develop the behaviors and tendencies that will make long term relationship
health, whether parental-child or romantic in nature, more sustainable.
It is often said that you don’t have an obligation to love someone, usually based on
the idea that it is impossible to voluntarily control our emotions. But if love drugs
make such control more possible, then there might be some loves that should be felt.
It can be debated whether this is true for spouses, but it seems very hard to argue
against the idea that we should love our children.
You've also written about "anti-love drugs," which could be used to dissolve love
bonds in abusive relationships, or in cases where someone has fallen under the
spell of a cult leader. Are there drugs like this that are currently under
With the exception of anti-androgen drugs sometimes used to treat paedophilia—and
which work in a rather “low-level” way by targeting the bodily sex drive—very few
chemical substances are currently available that have been explicitly designed with
the goal of diminishing feelings of love or sexuality. But that doesn’t mean that anti-
love drugs don’t exist in certain forms. Some Orthodox Jewish groups use “off label”
anti-depressant medication to suppress libido, so that young yeshiva students can
comply with strict religious norms concerning human love and sexuality. These
selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can also lead to “emotional blunting”
of higher-order feelings involved in romantic attraction. Some people report finding it
harder to cry, worry, get angry, or care about other people’s feelings while taking
anti-depressants. The overall lack of emotional stimulation produced by SSRIs has
been described as producing a “blandness” that can overwhelm certain romantic
relationships. As one author has put it: “aside from ruining your sex life,
antidepressants could also be responsible for breaking your heart.”
Other substances that can reduce libido—usually considered a “side effect”—include
tobacco and alcohol, almost all blood pressure pills, certain pain relievers, statin
cholesterol drugs, some acid blockers used to treat heartburn, the hair loss drug
finasteride, and seizure medications including gabapentin and phenytoin.
There is some work showing that scientists can block a pair-bond from forming in
certain vole species—those cute little rodents than are one of the few socially
monogamous creatures on the planet—but this involves injecting dopamine- or
oxytocin-blockers directly into the nucleus accumbens, and so similar experiments
have not been carried out in humans.
In some cases---as with someone under the spell of a cult leader---the drugs
would conceivably be administered against the wishes of the smitten person.
How do we justify an invasion of autonomy that goes to something as personal as
This is a tricky situation. On the one hand, if love really can make a person “lose her
mind” then at least in theory there could be an argument for saying that a person has
been compromised mentally and thus some form of intervention could be justified.
You would have to provide very strong evidence that the person was genuinely
incompetent to make a decision on her own behalf, and you would have to be sure
that she was at risk of suffering serious and unambiguous harm if left to her own
devices. But the potential for paternalistic overreach here is huge, and we should be
very cautious about assuming that we know better than someone else what is in her
own best interests, all things considered. In general, individuals should be protected
from any form of coercion by ensuring there are robust laws protecting independence
of the mind. (Interestingly, small children can be indoctrinated into fundamentalist
religious cults without any restriction. That is a lot more worrying and occurs for
thousands, or perhaps millions of children.)
What's the threshold for the use of anti-love drugs? Should people use them in
cases where they aren't in any particular danger, like in the case of a tough
break-up? Some might argue that you can't learn from a break-up without
experiencing it in full. Do you buy that?
In a forthcoming paper, we argue for four conditions for the use of anti-love
biotechnology: (1) the love in question is clearly harmful and needs to dissolve one
way or another; (2) the person would conceivably want to use the technology, so there
would be no problematic violations of consent; (3) the technology would help the
person follow her higher-order goals instead of her lower-order feelings; and (4) it
might not be psychologically possible to overcome the relevant feelings without the
help of anti-love biotechnology. But the question here seems to be, what if it were
possible, only it would involve a lot of protracted pain and difficulty, and the person
would rather just move on with the business of living?
Philosophers will disagree about what should be allowed in a case like this. So-called
“bioconservatives” would probably remind us that even great and seemingly
unbearable suffering can impart unforeseeably important lessons, and that people
should be very careful about turning to drugs to solve their problems or dull their
pains. They tend to say things like: “With suffering comes understanding– and of
course, there is a kernel of truth to that. Bioliberals, on the other hand, would be
likelier to point out that “traditional” methods of getting over heartache aim at
changing our brain chemistry just as much as drugs would, only indirectly and
sometimes less effectively. “Sometimes suffering is just suffering,” they would add,
and then they might go on to suggest that such fruitless pain should be eliminated by
whatever means the individual judges for himself are best.
For our part, we certainly don’t deny that there can be great value in experiencing the
world “as it really is” – in its heartbreak and agony as much as in its joys. But we
think that even if it could be shown that human beings had some sort of existential
duty to experience pain along with happiness, this duty would not absolute: it could be
trumped by the debilitating effects of certain traumas, and sometimes a broken heart
might qualify in just this sense.
What if these drugs enabled romantic sabotage? You could envision a scenario
where someone uses a discreetly delivered anti-love drug to ruin someone else's
relationship---in order to get rid of a romantic rival.
This would clearly be unethical, and would be analogous to (and perhaps no worse
than) telling a scurrilous lie about the mutual object of affection in order to cause the
rival-in-love to lose his interest. It also calls to mind the use of “date-rape” drugs to
manipulate a person into having non-consensual sex. In general, if the love- or sex-
related action would be considered morally impermissible if undertaken by
“traditional” means, then it should be considered morally impermissible if undertaken
by means of anti-love biotechnology. We need robust laws to prevent anyone’s giving
a drug or other intervention to another person that could alter their minds or change
their behavior without their consent. This will be a big area in the future. Love drugs
are just a part of it.
One worry with "anti-love drugs," is that they could be used by fundamentalist
groups to "cure" homosexuals, or by traditionalist groups in India that
disapprove of "inter-caste love." Do these risks negate the potential social utility
of anti-love drugs.
This is an important consideration. As is well known, the very disturbing practice of
conversion therapy in the United States (designed to “cure” gay and lesbian
individuals of their sexual and romantic feelings) carried on until at least the 1970s
with the full-throated endorsement of the mainstream profession of mental health.
And as late as 2012, a U.S. federal judge ruled that such therapy cannot be outlawed,
even when conducted on minors, since it constitutes a protected form of religious
“speech”— indeed it is still being performed in a number of fundamentalist Christian
communities to this day.
While there is very little evidence that existing interventions actually work in the way
intended—and quite a bit of evidence that they can cause trauma and other serious
harms—future technologies might indeed be more effective. So if we were to grant
that religious fundamentalists (for example) might try to use these future technologies
in ways that progressive-minded people would object to, one tempting conclusion is
that we should try to prevent their coming-into-being at whatever cost.
But jumping to this conclusion would be premature. In the first place, we have to
remember that any new technology poses risks – whether it is an anti-love pill, a
powerful military weapon, or something more mundane. So the possibility that a new
technology might be used for ill can never constitute, by itself, sufficient reason to
reject it. Instead, the potential harms that might accrue from misuse of the technology
have to be weighed against the potential benefits that might accrue from its
responsible use. Second, even if it could be shown that the development of various
anti-love interventions would be too risky to be worth pursuing, it still might not be
possible to avoid having to deal with their eventual existence. This is because
advances in other areas – i.e., in treatments for debilitating mental disorders such as
autism – might leave us with the very same neuroscientific knowledge and
technological capabilities that we would have ended up with had we sought them out
for love-diminishing purposes directly. In such a scenario, we would still have to ask
ourselves whether or when to use the powers we had (inadvertently) created.
What this question highlights, though, is that ethical dilemmas concerning emerging
biotechnological innovations cannot be resolved in an “enlightened” academic
vacuum. Instead, there is a much wider debate taking place in society over what sorts
of values we should hold in the first place with respect to things like love, sex, and
relationships (and nearly everything else as well). And plainly this broader
conversation—between the insights of progressivism and the insights of
conservatism, as well as between the forces of secularism and the forces of religion—
will continue to shape the moral ends toward which human beings collectively and
individually strive, regardless of what technology is actually in hand, and regardless
of what pontificating bioethicists may argue in their papers. So we have argued that at
most fundamental level, the relevant question—what we call the basic technology-
value question—becomes:
How can we use new technologies for good rather than for ill, while
simultaneously trying to reach a functional consensus on what sorts of things
should be considered good, and what sorts of things should not be considered
‘Progressive-minded people’ clearly have their work cut out for them in terms of this
longer-term project.
This Q&A was conducted by Ross Andersen of The Atlantic. Some of material in this
interview has been taken or adapted from published and unpublished writings, blog
posts, and lectures by Brian D. Earp and his colleagues. Relevant resources include:
Earp, B. D., Sandberg, A., & Savulescu, J. (2012). Natural selection, childrearing, and
the ethics of marriage (and divorce): Building a case for the neuroenhancement of
human relationships. Philosophy & Technology, 25(4), 561-587.
Earp, B. D., Wudarczyk, O. A., Sandberg, A., & Savulescu. J. (2013). If I could just
stop loving you: Anti-love biotechnology and the ethics of a chemical breakup.
American Journal of Bioethics, 13(11): 3–17. Audio of a lecture covering similar
material can be heard here.
Earp, B. D., Savulescu, J., & Sandberg, A. (2012, June 14). Love drugs and science
reporting in the media: Setting the record straight. [Alternate title: “Should you take
ecstasy to save your marriage? Not so fast]. Practical Ethics. University of Oxford.
Available at:
Savulescu, J., & Sandberg, A. (2008). Neuroenhancement of love and marriage: The
chemicals between us. Neuroethics, 1(1), 31-44.
Further reading and subsequent publications
Earp, B. D., Sandberg, A., & Savulescu, J. (2015). The medicalization of love.
Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 24(13), in press.
Earp, B. D., Sandberg, A., & Savulescu, J. (2014). Brave new love: The threat of
high-tech “conversion” therapy and the bio-oppression of sexual minorities. American
Journal of Bioethics: Neuroscience, 5(1), 4-12.
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Chemical and other interventions into the biological dimensions of love are currently possible and will likely become more powerful in years to come. This chapter explores some of the conceptual issues surrounding what it would mean to change love with biochemical agents, and presents a handful of case studies of individuals and couples who might desire to use such agents as a way of enhancing their love and relationships. The chapter then discusses a number of ethical and other worries that would likely be raised by the development or use of such biotechnologies and offers some tentative responses. Ultimately, it is argued that love-enhancing biotechnology is not just a conceptual possibility, but may already be practically feasible, and is likely in some cases to be morally desirable.
Background: Psychiatric interventions are a contested area in medicine, not only because of their history of abuses, but also because their therapeutic goal is to affect emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that are regarded as pathological. Because psychiatric interventions affect characteristics that seem central to who we are, they raise issues regarding identity, autonomy, and personal responsibility for one's own well-being. Our study addresses two questions: (1) Do the public and academic researchers understand the philosophical stakes of these technologies in the same way? Following from this, (2) to what extent does the specific type of psychiatric technology affect the issues these two groups raise? This study compares how ethical issues regarding neurosurgical and pharmaceutical psychiatric interventions are discussed among the public and in the professional community of academic medicine and bioethics. Methods: We analyzed (1) online public comments and (2) the medical and bioethics literature, comparing the discussions of pharmacological and neurosurgical interventions in psychiatry in each source. Results: Overall, the public discussed philosophical issues less frequently than academics. For the two types of psychiatric interventions, we found differences between the academic literature and public comments among all themes, except for personal responsibility. Conclusions: These findings reveal some of the similarities and discrepancies in how philosophical issues associated with psychiatric treatments are discussed in professional circles and among the public. Further research into what causes these discrepancies is crucial.
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In 2015, we published an article entitled “The Medicalization of Love,” in which we argued that both good and bad consequences could be expected to follow from love’s medicalization, depending upon how the process unfolded. A flurry of commentaries followed; here we offer some preliminary thoughts in reply to the more substantial of the criticisms that were raised. We focus in particular on the nature of love itself as well as the role it plays (or should play) in our lives; we also touch on a number of practical issues concerning the likely effects of any plausible “real life” love drugs, and conclude with a call for careful regulation.
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There is ongoing disagreement about the moral implications of developing and/or using neurotechnologies that would affect romantic love and relationships. In this paper, we argue that scientists should actively pursue a research program into such technology. Our call for research is based in part on the fact that a number of pharmaceuticals already in use are very likely to have ramifications for our relationships (romantic and otherwise), and we suggest that we should attempt to understand the effects of these drugs on our interpersonal commitments. In a similar vein, we argue for a shift in scientific research norms, according to which the study of relationships and other social factors would be given higher priority than they currently are given. Finally, in an Appendix, we discuss our use of the term " love drug, " and consider whether it is appropriate in light of debates about neuroreductionism.
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Parens (2015) defends a habit of thinking he calls "binocularity," which involves switching between analytical lenses (much as one must switch between seeing the duck vs. the rabbit in Wittgenstein's famous example). Applying this habit of thought to a range of debates in contemporary bioethics, Parens urges us to acknowledge the ways in which our personal intuitions and biases shape our thinking about contentious moral issues. In this review of Parens's latest book, we reflect on our own position as participants in the so-called "enhancement" debates, where a binocular approach could be especially useful. In particular, we consider the case of "love drugs," a subject on which we have sometimes reached very different conclusions. We finish with an analogy to William James's (1907) distinction between "tender-minded" rationalists and "tough-minded" empiricists, and draw some general lessons for improving academic discourse.
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Following the death of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who committed suicide after forced “conversion therapy,” President Barack Obama called for a nationwide ban on psychotherapy aimed at changing sexual orientation or gender identity. The administration argued that because conversion therapy causes substantial psychological harm to minors, it is neither medically nor ethically appropriate. We fully agree with the President and believe that this is a step in the right direction. Of course, in addition to being unsafe as well as ethically unsound, current conversion therapy approaches aren’t actually effective at doing what they claim to do – changing sexual orientation But we also worry that this may be a short-term legislative solution to what is really a conceptual problem. The question we ought to be asking is “what will happen if and when scientists do end up developing safe and effective technologies that can alter sexual orientation?”
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Neuroreductionism" is the tendency to reduce complex mental phenomena to brain states, confusing correlation for physical causation. In this paper, we illustrate the dangers of this popular neuro-fallacy, by looking at an example drawn from the media: a story about "hypoactive sexual desire disorder" in women. We discuss the role of folk dualism in perpetuating such a confusion, and draw some conclusions about the role of "brain scans" in our understanding of romantic love.
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"Love hurts"-as the saying goes-and a certain amount of pain and difficulty in intimate relationships is unavoidable. Sometimes it may even be beneficial, since adversity can lead to personal growth, self-discovery, and a range of other components of a life well-lived. But other times, love can be downright dangerous. It may bind a spouse to her domestic abuser, draw an unscrupulous adult toward sexual involvement with a child, put someone under the insidious spell of a cult leader, and even inspire jealousy-fueled homicide. How might these perilous devotions be diminished? The ancients thought that treatments such as phlebotomy, exercise, or bloodletting could "cure" an individual of love. But modern neuroscience and emerging developments in psychopharmacology open up a range of possible interventions that might actually work. These developments raise profound moral questions about the potential uses-and misuses-of such anti-love biotechnology. In this article, we describe a number of prospective love-diminishing interventions, and offer a preliminary ethical framework for dealing with them responsibly should they arise.
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Well-functioning romantic relationships are important for long-term health and well being, but they are often difficult to sustain. This difficulty arises (in part) because of an underlying tension between our psychobiological natures, culture/environment, and modern love and relationship goals. One possible solution to this predicament is to intervene at the level of psychobiology, enhancing partners' interpersonal connection through neurochemical modulation. This article focuses on a single, promising biobehavioral sub-system for such intervention: the attachment system, based largely upon the expression of the neuropeptide oxytocin. Could the exogenous administration of oxytocin - under the right conditions - be used to facilitate relational or marital well being? If so, it would require considerable forethought. Recent research complicates the popular image of oxytocin as a universal social enhancer or 'love hormone' and shows that it may exert a variety of different effects, at different dosages, on different people, under different circumstances. Accordingly, we discuss what is known about oxytocin, including its 'good' and 'bad' effects on human behavior and on higher-order functional processes. Building upon animal-model, human preclinical, and clinical findings, we outline a proposal for the use of oxytocin in the therapeutic neuroenhancement of contemporary romantic relationships. Highlighting key targets for future research along the way, we then conclude by discussing some of the clinical and ethical considerations that would pertain to the implementation of this knowledge in applied settings. VIDEO ABSTRACT:
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Our understanding of the neurochemical bases of human love and attachment, as well as of the genetic, epigenetic, hormonal, and experiential factors that conspire to shape an individual’s sexual orientation, is increasing exponentially. This research raises the vexing possibility that we may one day be equipped to modify such variables directly, allowing for the creation of “high-tech” conversion therapies or other suspect interventions. In this paper, we discuss the ethics surrounding such a possibility, and call for the development of legal and procedural safeguards for protecting vulnerable children from the application of such technology. We also consider the more difficult case of voluntary, adult “conversion” and argue that in rare cases, such attempts might be permissible under strict conditions.
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The enhancement debate in neuroscience and biomedical ethics tends to focus on the augmentation of certain capacities or functions: memory, learning, attention, and the like. Typically, the point of contention is whether these augmentative enhancements are permissible for individuals with no particular ‘medical’ disadvantage along any of the dimensions of interest. Less frequently addressed in the literature, however, is the fact that sometimes the diminishment of a capacity or function, under the right set of circumstances, could plausibly contribute to an individual’s overall well-being: more is not always better, and sometimes less is more. Such cases may be especially likely, we suggest, when trade-offs in our modern environment have shifted since the environment of evolutionary adaptation. In this article, we introduce the notion of “diminishment as enhancement” and go on to defend a welfarist conception of enhancement. We show how this conception resolves a number of definitional ambiguities in the enhancement literature, and we suggest that it can provide a useful framework for thinking about the use of emerging neurotechnologies to promote human flourishing.
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We argue that the fragility of contemporary marriages-and the corresponding high rates of divorce-can be explained (in large part) by a three-part mismatch: between our relationship values, our evolved psychobiological natures, and our modern social, physical, and technological environment. "Love drugs" could help address this mismatch by boosting our psychobiologies while keeping our values and our environment intact. While individual couples should be free to use pharmacological interventions to sustain and improve their romantic connection, we suggest that they may have an obligation to do so as well, in certain cases. Specifically, we argue that couples with offspring may have a special responsibility to enhance their relationships for the sake of their children. We outline an evolutionarily informed research program for identifying promising biomedical enhancements of love and commitment.
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Modern relationships break down in part because of a mismatch between our psycho-sexual natures and our relationship values, embedded within the context of modernity. If we hold our environment and our values constant, might we make up the difference through direct intervention in our psycho-sexual machinery - the neurochemical enhancement of love? Risks and objections, as well as practical considerations are considered.
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This paper reviews the evolutionary history and biology of love and marriage. It examines the current and imminent possibilities of biological manipulation of lust, attraction and attachment, so called neuroenhancement of love. We examine the arguments for and against these biological interventions to influence love. We argue that biological interventions offer an important adjunct to psychosocial interventions, especially given the biological limitations inherent in human love.
Les biotechnologies de l'amour. L'Amné
  • B D Earp
  • V Nguyen
Earp, B. D., & Nguyen, V. (2014). Les biotechnologies de l'amour. L'Amné, February, 10, 5-8.