June 10, 2022 - 7:00am

The next frontier in bio-engineering is nearly here, according to The Times: ‘love drugs’. Addressing the Cheltenham Science Festival, Dr Anna Machin suggested that drugs which enhance feelings of closeness, empathy and love are “on the horizon”, heralding a time when people may ‘squirt oxytocin up their noses’ or take an empathy pill ahead of a couples counselling session.

Imagine a world where instead of working on a relationship the old-fashioned way, we just pop a pill and revive the heady feeling of falling in love — at least until the drug wears off and we need another fix. But if this seems creepily reminiscent of dystopian sci-fi, it also barely scratches the disturbing potential of synthetically-induced human love.

Machin is talking about optional medications. But even as this opens a vista of new designer drugs, we should also consider its implications at scale, in our post-pandemic politics of public health. For Covid-19 severely undermined the previously unassailable liberal principle that medical interventions should, as far as possible, not happen without individual consent. And in the aftermath of coercive public-health measures at that scale, why should we not consider other biomedical interventions aimed at furthering the common good, even against people’s will?

This is the explicit argument made by bioethicist Parker Crutchfield, who argued last year that moral bio-enhancement should be both covert and compulsory. That is, that if we could secretly give all of humanity a drug that made us more moral, we should. So if it turns out to be possible to synthesise ‘love’ — in other words, the propensity to be empathetic, docile and cooperative – then why would we not do so?

It appears that researchers are already sidling in that direction. Another recent headline reported the accidental creation of hyper-aggressive hamsters via gene editing, in an attempt to engineer the creatures for greater bonding and cooperation. This might seem funny, but what’s unsettling about the reports is that hamsters were chosen because ‘they have a social organisation that’s similar to humans’.

In other words: scientists are experimentally CRISPR-editing living creatures with human-like social organisations in an attempt to make them kinder and more sociable. When we already know that scientists are claiming we’ll have access to love-enhancing medications within a few years, and prominent bioethicists are openly making the case for human bio-enhancement on moral grounds, the implicit direction of travel should trouble all of us.

We’ve already accepted that coercive public-health measures may be imposed for the common good. The papers are now telling us that love could soon be available (optionally) in tablet form. And from here, we have few arguments left against those who might propose to hardwire ‘love’ (or even just smiling, empathetic compliance) in our children via more permanent interventions — whether we want them to or not.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.