Could a Morality Pill Have Saved Kevin Kless?

If apathy is a biochemical deficiency—and some researchers say it could be—maybe there's a medical way to prevent future crimes.

The timing of the piece in the The New York Times Sunday about conscience couldn’t have been more relevant to Philadelphians: The same week a Penn kid got punched in the face by some teenage thugs while sitting in a cab (and his cab driver got beaten by the same thugs when he climbed out to help), a bioethicist from Princeton named Peter Singer writes about biochemical differences between the brains of those who help others and those who choose not to.

The cab driver, obviously, chose to help; according to the Penn kid (who wrote about his experience for the Daily Pennsylvanian), the many passers-by chose not to. The Times piece asks: Why are some people prepared to risk their lives to help a stranger when others won’t even stop to dial an emergency number?

A few posts ago, I wrote about a University of Chicago study that showed 23 out of 30 rats seemed to feel empathy, as demonstrated by the fact that, when faced with the option of eating chocolate chips or freeing another rat trapped in a cage, the 23 willingly chose to free their caged compatriot before chowing down. Singer compares this experiment to the old study where handfuls of seminary students stepped over a moaning, clearly needy person on their way to a scheduled lecture about the Good Samaritan—but, he argues, humans are probably just like rats in that we’re “spread among a continuum of readiness to help others.”

I have spent my life reading books and soaking up news and watching movies and wondering what I would do, morally speaking, in certain circumstances. (If I were to fight in a war, would I run headlong into enemy territory—like they do in the movies—to save someone? If I’d been alive at a time when people in this country kept slaves, would I have had been a part of the Underground Railroad? And so on, and so forth.) My whole life, the question has essentially been this: When it really matters, will I be the moral rat or the greedy one? If I see a kid getting beat up in the street, am I going to launch myself at the attacker to stop him? (Sorry, but calling 911 is a given. Who doesn’t do that? Then again, when it came to finding witnesses who were willing to simply speak about what they saw during Kevin Kless’s fatal beating, the silence was depressingly deafening.)

Here’s where the Singer piece gets intriguing, though: He thinks that if research ends up showing that there are actual biochemical differences between people who help and people who don’t (and he seems to think there are), then that finding could very well lead to what he calls a “morality pill”—something to regulate the ethical behavior in those people who show less of an instinct toward it. And if people who are biochemically less empathetic take the pill, he imagines, it might actually have the effect of lowering the crime rate while making us more responsive human beings.

Of course, Singer points of its ethical problems—our conceptions about the importance of free will and whatnot—but I gotta say: If (and when?) they invent the morality pill that can change the course of behavior from bad to good, it’d be nice to see them put it in the soft pretzel batter, in the cheesesteaks, in the water here, like fluoride. Of course, I say this knowing that such a thing would never, ever happen outside a novel, no matter what studies show about why certain humans fall on the low side of the ethical continuum—but it’s fun to indulge for a minute in the fantasy of a world where evil and apathy are regulated by an over-the-counter prescription, and where all of us are ready to leap to the aid of our fellow citizens who are, say, getting beaten up on the side of the road. Or to at least call 911, for God’s sake.