The problem(s) with psychedelic moral enhancement

Over the last few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about psychedelics and moral enhancement. I met up with Jules Evans a few days ago to talk about psychedelic enquiry, while he was finishing off this piece on whether psychedelics make you a better person. I think his piece is excellent; it cuts through the romantic notions that usually surround the issue, and doesn’t bother with the tentative preparation of the reader that many philosophers employ when raising it.

Thomas Douglas (2008) raises a Kantian objection to moral enhancement; that the moral goodness of our desired motives is wholly determined by the earlier motives for bringing them about. I think this is interesting and I’d like to explore it. Let’s say I would like to be a better person (I do). I would like to be more caring, friendlier, and more empathetic. Why? Maybe because I want to improve other people’s life experience. I feel that being that way in my interactions with others will help them to feel better about themselves and the world. But…why? Why is it important to me that others have a positive experience of life? Is this to do with power? Do I feel that being this way will increase my power, in that others will look more favourably on me? Or maybe I feel that in extending care and compassion to my peers I increase our collective power? Nietzsche describes these two positions as master and slave morality.

I wonder whether power really is our supraordinate motive. I consider what I value in life, and I come up with things like love (giving and receiving), knowledge, freedom, sunshine, sleep, sex and nature. What is the relationship between these and power? For most of them, the connection is obvious. Not so much for love, and I think there is something very interesting here.

What if my desire to be more caring and more compassionate arises from a will to love, rather than a will to power? I gave up on reading Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Fortunately my psychedelic philosophy buddy Peter Sjösted-H has internalised the entire thing, and he tells me that Nietzsche does state that actions for love have a strength that makes them transcend any moral laws of one’s culture: ‘That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.’ (BGE 153)

But… I don’t believe the will is free in the libertarian sense. Say I am able to reason myself out of acting for individual reward, and opt to act for the wider good. It’s difficult to be compassionate and empathetic when your nature is screaming at you ‘what about me, what about what I want’. I might do it out of love (rather than some long-term selfish sensibility), but if my capacity for loving action is determined, how can we call that a moral decision? I could take a step back and consider my desire to increase my capacity for love, but if this too is determined then the same applies. It’s like when people say ‘oh, you’re so good’ when they see me drinking green smoothies and going for lunchtime runs. It’s easy for me. They may think they’re commenting on my superior morality, but really they’re just acknowledging a relative mismatch between their own first and second order desires, and expressing their envy that mine are more aligned (only in this regard, I imagine).

Under the umbrella of slave morality, Nietzsche claims that compassion and care are modes of action used by the weak to boost their collective power. But Peter tells me that it’s not as simple as that; Nietzsche also says compassion can be a sign of strength. It depends on the motives and the circumstances. Is Nietzsche equating love-motivated action with strength?

It’s a popular view. Here’s that bit from the Bible:

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:2

Skye Cleary (2017) points out how romantic love descends into power games, citing Nietzsche’s description of lovers as ‘behaving like selfish dragons defending their golden hoard’. Is there even such a thing as pure, unselfish love? Cleary presents Stirner’s view that love is merely an egoistic satisfaction of our desires; we don’t actually love the other person, rather we love ourselves loving them. De Beauvoir claims that we can work our way out of the power games; that we can love on the basis of friendship, respecting one another’s freedom, supporting one another’s flourishing, and working towards common goals; a truly symbiotic relationship rather than a mutually parasitic one.

So, on a philosophical level, if psychedelic experience increases our capacity to love and be loved – without power games – then it has moral value, right? But… does it do this?

Both Jules (Evans 2017) and Devenot (2016) write about the romanticization of the indigenous use of psychoactive plants, contrasting the Western view of ayahuasca as a benevolent agent of healing with the narratives of the mestizo Indians of the Upper Amazon. Jules draws on his own experience visiting the Temple of the Way of Light in Peru, and writers such as Stephan Beyer, to articulate how envy, sorcery and revenge are fundamental aspects of mestizo culture. Mestizo Indians believe that ayahuasca makes you more powerful – not more moral. They also acknowledge that humans have innate urges to harm others (a view that Westerners tend to deny), and so an apprentice shaman needs to be very strong in order to control these urges and use his powers for good.

Contrast this with the West where, from the present day right back to the Eleusian Mysteries, psychedelic experience is presented as a physical-emotional journey that teaches certain moral attitudes. Jules riffs off Aristotle, Jung and Plutarch in generating an impressive list: ‘concentration, self-acceptance, compassion, courage, self-awareness, humility, surrender, awe and love’, but concludes ‘there is nothing essential in psychedelics that necessarily leads to these things.’ It’s all about the intention. 

I wish to return to my original question – why do we want to be better? – and bring in Persson and Savulescu’s (2017) call for urgent enhancement of the moral character of humanity. It seems likely to me that the current concern around our moral character has been bolstered by the election of certain individuals to positions of political power. There is a concern among liberals that these powerful individuals are further influencing the moral character of the masses, for example by validating and encouraging distrust of minority groups and foreigners, the election result itself being an indicator of widespread moral decline. A related concern is that moral viewpoints have become more polarised, with a breakdown in communication between the poles. I recently came across a book by William Desmond (2011) on ancient philosopher-kings. I was taken by the account of Xenophon’s imaginary conversation between the poet Simonides and Hiero the tyrant of Syracuse, in which the former tries to persuade the latter that ‘no tyrant can be happy and that only virtue can bring happiness and increase the city’s power’ (p46). In another book – a biography of Cyrus the Great – Xenophon lists the philosopher-king’s practical virtues: ‘hard-working, hardy, brave, prudent, lawful, munificent, righteous, kind, humane.’

Why would someone want to become a philosopher-king? Out of a desire for power? Or out of love? Why does Trump want to be President? If it is out of love, is his ‘love’ for America a desire to possess it? Or it it that he loves himself loving America? In conversation with psychedelic dinosaur and conspiracy theorist Robert Forte a few months back, we discussed persuading those in power to try psychedelic therapy in the hope that it would open their minds in compassionate directions. But, in the absence of a genuine desire to become more compassionate, humble, self-aware, loving, etc, it seems the chance of achieving this kind of enhancement with psychedelics is slim. It is widely agreed across the moral enhancement literature, and in psychiatry (Callender 2010), that in order to be ethical, moral therapies must privilege the autonomy of the subject. 

I have been thinking about whether psychedelics could (or should?!) be categorised as a technology. Jules’ argument tips the answer towards the affirmative, if it wasn’t there already. An opposing view is that psychedelic plant medicines are a gateway to a deeper wisdom beyond ourselves; perhaps even that the discarnate entities encountered under their influence have some sort of plan for us. Watts (1966) points out that the more we interfere (with ‘nature’?), the more we have to analyse the results of that interference. This is a case of ‘goeswith’ (Watts’ own term) rather than causation; categorising psychedelic enquiry as a technological intervention entails the evaluation of that intervention. In discussing this with Peter the other day (10 December), he told me his view that we are a part of nature, so are our creations, and nature itself is a creation reciprocal of its creatures. I find most of Peter’s aphorisms useful and enlightening, although this one is not particularly conducive to a philosophical discussion of psychedelics as a tool for bioenhancement. In fact, most of the conversations I’ve had with both Peter and Richard recently have left me thinking there is actually nothing to debate. Maybe that is the point of philosophy, to deconstruct until all that matters disappears. Or maybe that means it didn’t matter.

Maybe it’s time to stop thinking and watch a stupid film or something.



Callender, J. S. 2010. Free will and responsibility. Oxford University Press.

Cleary, S. 2017. Existentialists in Love. Interview by Richard Marshall in 3:am magazine. 16 December.

Desmond, W. 2011. Philosopher-Kings of Antiquity. London: Continuum

Devenot, N. 2016. Psychedelic Drugs. In Hoogland, R. C. (Ed). Gender: Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks. Macmillan Reference USA.

Douglas, T. 2008. Moral Enhancement. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25 (3).

Evans, J. 2017. Can psychedelics make you a better person? [Online]. Philosophy for Life. 15 December.

Persson, I. & Savulascu, J. 2017. The Duty to be Morally Enhanced. Topoi.

Watts, A. 1966. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. London: Souvenir Press.


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3 Responses to The problem(s) with psychedelic moral enhancement

  1. Jules Evans says:

    Thanks for the mentions, and the interesting piece!

    On the question of consent and autonomy, that’s my major moral issue with sixties groups like the Merry Pranksters and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love – creating situations where people would take big doses of LSD without knowing or consenting seems very wrong to me.

    Re the spirits having their own plans, Beyer writes this:

    ‘Perhaps DMT, like ayahuasca, is not a psychotherapist, but a teacher, leading where it intends – not to self improvement, not to community volunteer work, but rather, into the dark and luminous realm of the spirits’

    To which I’d ask him, ok, but how can we evaluate that world except by our moral standards? How can we decide whether to obey those spirits? If the spirits tell us to kill someone (Kierkegaard’s dilemma of Abraham) should we obey?

  2. Dinosaurs are magnificent beasts whose highly sustainable civilisation stood a far greater test of time than our own. The only issue I have with dinosaurs is that their arms weren’t quite big enough for hugging.

    I regret referring to you as a ‘conspiracy theorist’ though. I was distancing myself from you and your interests. It was this initial reaction to you, my prejudice, that made me want to get in touch and to understand your perspective. Hans-Georg Gadamer – the German philosopher whose theory of hermeneutics my thesis is based on – believes that prejudice is the essential precursor to the process of understanding. It drives the desire to understand the other. In order to have osmosis, you need osmotic pressure; a differential. However, distancing myself publicly like this – where people who knew you would read it – was not a nice thing to do, and had I known you would read it, I wouldn’t have written it, which makes it worse! It’s good that you called me out on it.

    • Robert Forte says:

      As you probably know the phrase “conspiracy theorist” used disparagingly was a creation of the CIA after the first Kennedy assassination as a ploy to ridicule whoever questioned the Warren Commission’s finding that blamed it all Lee Harvey Oswald. The weaponized use of this phrase has grown to gas light anyone who looks deeper than the mainstream’s explanations of current events. For sure there are lots of conspiracy theories that are absurd. Like the one that says some Arabs who couldn’t even fly a small plane expertly piloted very large ones directly into their targets on 9/11 and caused 3 buildings to drop directly into their footprints, with only 2 planes. But believers in that absurdity aren’t called “conspiracy theorists.” I’ve been called a “conspiracy theorist” in my own field, psychedelics, because of my stated beliefs that not only are psychedelic drugs extremely useful for altering consciousness-and thereby learning about it– they are also used in manipulating and attempting to control it by social engineers, and others hostile to democracy. The modern psychedelic renaissance, like the first time they exploded on society in the 50s, is a little of both. Such a view causes cognitive dissonance in some people who prefer to think that this new wave of research and media support is all good. I’m glad we have the opportunity to consider this complicated subject…

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