Bette Davis and Leslie Howard in the 1934 version of Of Human Bondage

The British novelist and playwright Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) has never faded away. Only a couple of years ago his 1925 novel The Painted Veil was made into a film for the third time.

What I liked when I first read his stories was the geometric precision of his plots and his Edwardian gift for epigrams. “She plunged into a sea of platitudes, and with the powerful breast stroke of a channel swimmer made her confident way towards the white cliffs of the obvious.” If only I could write like that! Unhappily, he had the misfortune of immense popularity and the critics have not been kind to him.

What I liked less and less as I grew older was his brutal cynicism about romantic relationships. Much of that must be attributed to a tormented emotional life: a very unhappy childhood, a very unhappy marriage, and a succession of gay lovers. He used an early affair as the basis for his 1915 novel Of Human Bondage. This dealt with Philip Carey, a young doctor, and his senseless and unrequited passion for a Cockney waitress: “He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her.” The novel must have struck a chord with the public, as three films have been based on it. Playing the vile, slatternly Mildred made Bette Davis the toast of Hollywood in 1934.

So here was a man, if ever there was one, made for the “anti-love biotechnology” discussed by bioethicists from Oxford University, including the utilitarian philosopher Julian Savulescu, in a recent issue of the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB).

What if you wanted to fall out of love, as Maugham’s hero did? You could simply take a pill and the passion would vanish. Of course, this is largely conjecture. The closest treatment at the moment is chemical castration for paedophiles and rapists, and that would be unlikely to interest Philip Carey, or anyone else, for that matter.

Nonetheless, there have been promising developments and Savulescu et al believe that we should work out the ethical issues as soon as possible.

A pill could be useful, they say, in a number of situations, including adulterous love, suicidal love, incestuous love (not that all incest is bad, they hasten to add), paedophilia, or love for a cult leader. But a woman who can’t find the strength to leave an abusive and violent partner is the clearest candidate for a break-up pill. They set four conditions for its use:

  • The love must be clearly harmful;
  • The person must be willing to use the pill;
  • The pill would help a person follow higher order goals instead of lower order feelings;
  • There must be no other alternative.

They conclude that: “the individual, voluntary use of anti-love biotechnology (under the right sort of conditions) could be justified or even morally required. That is, in some cases, to deny its use would be inhumane.”

There is one bitterly contentious issue, of course. What about homosexuality? In a sense, “reparative therapy”, or helping gays to turn straight, is a primitive kind of break-up pill – but many people condemn this. It has even been banned in California for minors.

But Savulescu et al make no exception for homosexual feelings. We must “also respect the autonomous decision of each individual to engage in her own process of ‘becoming’ who and what she seeks to be, in accordance with her personal goals and values,” they argue. “Therefore, we must conclude that even in the controversial case of homosexual love, it may be possible to justify the use of anti-love biotechnology in certain cases.”

However, I’m sceptical about the effectiveness of modern love potions. There are social and psychological components to heroin use, for instance, which may be just as important as physiology. If we don’t understand drug addiction, how can we ever reduce love to “a suite of neurochemical and behavioral subsystems that evolved to promote the reproductive success of our ancestors” (as Savulescu and his colleagues define it)?

Fanning the smouldering fires of lust with drugs might be easier, but this will lead to horrendous abuses. People could spike drinks for one-night stands, quench teen romances, manipulate matchmaking, turn gays straight, turn straights gay… The ethical dangers are immense. “The imminent development and availability of pro-love and anti-love agents will present a serious risk for unethical attempts to surreptitiously manipulate emotional and romantic feelings,” commented two academics from Arizona State University in AJOB.

And if we can manipulate love, what about hatred? What if armies used it to suppress humane feeling to make soldiers crueller, more unforgiving, more vengeful? Less sophisticated versions of this hypothetical drug were used effectively in the Liberian civil war — which is why so many civilians there are missing hands, arms and legs.

The arts might suffer, too, if we could turn the well-springs of Eros on and off like a tap. It would be a great loss if a future Somerset Maugham were to solve his personal dramas with a pill so that he could lead a humdrum life as a suburban doctor. Surely, as John Stuart Mill said, “It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”. Anti-love biotechnology could make a great script for a film — but it will be The Hangover IV rather than Of Human Bondage IV. I wonder if we should treat it more like a banned chemical weapon rather than a medicine.

But larger question is whether relying upon technology instead of upon our intellect and will to master our emotions leads to human flourishing. The ideas put forward by the Oxford bioethicists are largely academic surmise, but the fundamental principle has taken deep root in our culture. Rowdy children are soothed with Ritalin; disturbing emotions are neutralised with Prozac (or alcohol); the need for sexual restraint is bypassed by using the Pill.

Aldous Huxley foresaw this in his dystopian novel Brave New World. One of his characters praises soma, the universal anti-depressant, with these words: “you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears–that’s what soma is.”

Pharmaceutical enhancement of emotions might be necessary in some cases, but controlling emotions with willpower is part of what make us human. Virtue in a botle is no virtue at all. If a culture needs pills to make people live satisfied lives, there is something deeply amiss.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.