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By Ashley Owen

There are so many interesting topics in the area of human enhancement that it’s hard to pick just one to write about. One issue that prompted a lot of discussion in a recent seminar was regarding ‘love drugs’, touched on briefly by Allen Buchanan in his book ‘Beyond Humanity?’ but covered in greater detail in articles by Julian Savulescu and many others.

The idea is that in the near future we will be able to use chemical/biological enhancements to affect our relationships, for example by enhancing the bond between two people, or reducing the possibility of one partner (or both) being unfaithful. Several studies (on oxytocin in particular) indicate that this is a genuine possibility. Many people in the seminar were uncomfortable with this type of enhancement, but couldn’t quite pin down precisely why. In this post, I hope to elucidate those worries, and examine whether or not they are well grounded.

One idea that arose was that these types of drugs pose a threat to free will (assuming we have it). I’m not convinced this worry is well-founded however. The types of intervention at issue are not so strong as to compel someone to unavoidably act or feel a certain way (like ‘love potions’ in films). Instead, they increase the likelihood of certain behaviours or emotions – behaviours or emotions that the person taking the drug wants to do or feel. Consequently, the possibility to not act that way still remains open. In this sense, such drugs wouldn’t be a shortcut to a perfect relationship, but just another tool people could use if they felt it appropriate, like marriage counselling or date nights. We’re generally comfortable with people taking measures to try and influence their future behaviour, including their behaviour in relationships, without thinking that it removes our free will, so we would need a reason to think that the biomedical nature of the enhancement makes these cases different.

Moreover, the relevant cases are ones where the person choosing to take the drug – assuming she is in a position to make a rational, informed choice – is doing so because she wants her life to turn out a certain way, and is taking the drug in order to help her achieve that goal. That appears to be a free choice. In contrast, generally in relationships, the way we feel and act doesn’t seem to be entirely the result of our own free choice, as it is in part determined by biological factors – most of which are outside our control and have evolved through natural selection. Evolution is only concerned with survival and reproduction, whereas we have a multitude of values and goals that may well override at least reproduction (and most of us in the affluent world don’t have to worry too much about survival). The availability of love drugs could be seen as giving us the opportunity to guide our lives in accordance with our values, rather than be subject to outdated adaptations that are not relevant to our values.

Perhaps what makes people more concerned about love drugs than other enhancements, such as drugs to improve cognition, is that they have a significant impact on someone other than the person taking the drug – namely that person’s partner. While this wouldn’t be a problem if both parties felt the same way and were both taking the pill, it’s not hard to imagine that some people might react badly to finding out that their partner was taking such a drug. They might feel that it reflected badly on them and how their partner felt towards them, or that it rendered their relationship inauthentic somehow.

I think authenticity is more of a concern, although perhaps not insurmountable. If being authentic is understood as being somehow ‘true to ourselves’, it’s not clear that two people choosing to take a chemical to enhance their relationship would necessarily be rendering that relationship inauthentic. It would probably depend on the exact nature of the enhancement being used. For example, taking oxytocin in couples therapy to promote trust and communication in order to increase the chance of the therapy being successful seems to align with the authentic desire of the couple to overcome the problems in their relationship. On the other hand, if the only way someone could stand to be in a relationship with their partner was by taking a drug, that would be problematic. Although that person could be said to genuinely want to love their partner, it might not be so easy to describe the resulting love they feel having taken the drug as authentic. Certainly their partner would probably not feel it was. Having said that, the literature suggests that despite being referred to as ‘love drugs’, such pills would not create love out of nowhere, but instead enhance love that already exists – which could diffuse at least some of the worries about authenticity, as presumably the drugs wouldn’t work in cases such as this one.

Attraction and attachment are affected by a multitude of factors, many involuntary. For example, an increase in adrenaline, such as from being in a frightening situation, makes it more likely that you will feel attracted to someone. We don’t tend to consider such involuntary biological changes to render relationships inauthentic, but perhaps that’s just because we’re not consciously aware of them, which is part of what makes love so mysterious. By making the option available to voluntarily induce certain feelings, perhaps we risk losing what makes them so valuable to us.

In our drive to understand love, we may well be stripping away some of the mystery. However, if we can use that understanding to improve our relationships – which are so important for happiness, longevity, health etc – then perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And if ‘love drugs’ can help us to enhance relationships that we value, perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing either – but I think that the circumstances and motivation under which they were taken would have to be quite specific in order to overcome the concern about authenticity.


Allen Buchanan. 2011. Beyond Humanity? Oxford University Press.

Savulescu J , Sandberg A. 2008. Neuroenhancement of love and marriage: The chemicals between us. Neuroethics 1 ( 1 ): 31 – 44.