Morality and SSRIs

by F.

I think morality is sham, and by that I mean more or less that (i) moral preferences are just like other preference (say, for vanilla ice cream), and (ii) moral admonitions are a means of getting your preferences satisfied (“Ice cream manufacturers have a duty only to make vanilla, though they can choose between French vanilla, regular vanilla, and vanilla bean vanilla!” the legislator fulminated). Our morality is a function of, probably, our biology.

This means that our morality could have been radically different. For instance, given another evolutionary path, we might be creatures who thought it perfectly acceptable—or even “good”—to torture bunnies with battery acid, dripping it into their little eyes slowly until they expired. And if that seems implausible, think of what we do to chickens. We’re pretty close to that world already. Generally, no one cares. Because McNuggets are pretty tasty.

Now, I never used to believe this. I thought “emotivism” and views like it were idiotic. But I started taking fluoxetine and, within two weeks, my moral views changed, merely because my brain chemistry was now different: the level of serotonin in my synaptic gaps increased. I didn’t read any new books or undergo a religious apostasy or find some new argument for emotivism that I had overlooked. It was just: take pill, have different beliefs.

I found it much easier to lie after the fluoxetine kicked in: OCD can cause excessive scrupulosity, and so once the OCD goes away, there’s more “freedom” to be less scrupulous. There’s a good description of this scrupulosity problem in Obsessive-Complusive Disorder: The Facts (Oxford 2004), as well as a couple piquant anecdotes:

One patient felt compelled repeatedly to tell her relations about her few and trivial amorous indiscretions despite their disinterest, and when their patience came to an and, she tried telling her friends and ultimately, her colleagues. (50).

Another patient, a salesman,

had to be transferred out of sales into the storage department of his company because he insistently gave the customers a full description of all the possible weaknesses, faults, and drawbacks of the products he was supposed to sell. (50).

Sales and truth don’t go together, as we all know.

What explains this scrupulosity? The authors of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: The Facts point to another feature of OCD to explain compulsive scrupulosity, something which I remember vividly:

Many patients experience an inflated sense of responsibility—even for events over which they have no control. This is particularly common among those whose main problem is excessive checking. This inflated responsibility commonly generates intense guilt…. (17).

This tends to make any real responsibility painful:

Curiously, there is a tendency for affected people to believe that an accident or misfortune is definitely more likely to occur when they are responsible for the task than when someone else is involved. This is one example of the so-called ‘cognitive biases’, or skewed reasoning, that sometimes occur in association with obsessive-complusive disorder. (17-18).

Telling the truth and a sense of responsibility for the welfare of others are, as far as I can tell, pretty classic “moral” notions—moral notions my views on which changed after taking a pill for two weeks. And yet, had you asked me pre-fluoxetine whether, say, society should take care of the less fortunate, I would have argued fiercely that we should—we are responsible for them! And maybe I would have convinced you. And maybe that would have been a good thing, or maybe not. But the point is that my arguments really were beside the point. As I suspect everyone’s are. After all, my brain was only different in degree from a statistically normal brain. It still worked in the same way.

So what do I believe now? I’m much more tolerant of lying, and I don’t feel the same amount of responsibility for the less fortunate. While I could never have been a Libertarian before, I could be now. This is not to say that I am—I could be. And now I put a lot less stock in people’s “arguments” for moral positions, unless those arguments are strickly empirical—that it, unless they are mere recitations of facts. I’m pretty much with Posner on moral reasoning. Is global warming bad? Seems like it, if the science is correct. On the other hand, suppose the world burns to a crisp in 200 years because the atmosphere is gone. Does it matter? I don’t feel very strongly that it does. This position would have literally been unthinkable to me without the right amount of serotonin in my synaptic gaps. I probably would have worked myself into a snit at the thought of all the bunnies in the world burning up.

But there’s a lot of hold-over, I think, from my earlier views. A lot. I’m still pretty honest. In fact, I hate to lie. Probably this is because I’ve been scrupulously honest (due to OCD) most of my life, and so now I’m pretty much programmed to be that way. This has caused some problems in my life, particularly in my jobs. Being an honest lawyer is almost impossible. On the other hand, it has quite a few benefits. And I tend to feel, still, that we should not torture bunnies or chickens and should help the less fortunate. Again, there’s no rational reason for this: it’s most likely a holdover. The difference is that I now have a lot more “freedom” to believe differently, and the pain isn’t very intense when I think about, say, the situation of the homeless, the mentally ill, or the stupid (three conditions which doom you and over which you may have little control). But in either period—with OCD or without—my views are hardly “rational.”

The take-away, I think, is that it’s best to be humble about one’s views, whether on ice cream or global warming. You may not know why you believe what you do, or whether your belief will lead to desired consequences. Humility and skepticism are virtues, I think. But that’s just my preference.