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Royal Institute of
Philosophy Supplement, 83, 415-439.
The moral enhancement (or bioenhancement) debate seems stuck in a dilemma. On the one hand, the more radical proposals, while certainly novel and interesting, seem unlikely to be feasible in practice, or if technically feasible then most likely imprudent. But on the other hand, the more sensible proposals – sensible in the sense of being both practically achievable and more plausibly ethically justifiable – can be rather hard to distinguish from both traditional forms of moral enhancement, such as non-drug-mediated social or moral education, and non-moral forms of bioenhancement, such as smart-drug style cognitive enhancement. In this essay, I argue that bioethicists have paid insufficient attention to an alternative form of moral bioenhancement – or at least a likely candidate – that falls somewhere between these two extremes, namely the (appropriately qualified) use of certain psychedelic drugs.
I would like to conclude with a note of caution. Because I have been interested to explore the potentially positive role of psychedelics in moral self-development, I have primarily focused on “successful” anecdotes—that is, cases in which people seem genuinely to have benefitted, morally or otherwise, from their drug-enhanced experiences. But more negative experiences are certainly possible, as mentioned earlier. As the prominent drug researcher Ben Sessa argues, we are right to adopt a stance of healthy skepticism toward any proposal that, “in the eyes of the general public, is associated with recreational drug abuse.”
Indeed, psychedelic drugs—just like other drugs such as alcohol or prescription medication—can, when used irresponsibly, cause “physical, psychological and social harm, and even deaths.” So we must be cautious, and take seriously the concerns of those people who fear that the use of such drugs may cause “greater social and health problems than it may solve.” Even so, Sessa suggests that there is more than enough evidence already from recent, controlled studies to render plausible the folk knowledge—accumulated over centuries—that psychedelics can also be beneficial. At a minimum, he concludes, the “evidence against at least researching” psychedelics for therapeutic or enhancement purposes “appears to be very scant indeed.”