We think of love as something mysterious, sublime, even divine, something that can only grow and be sustained organically. But love is just a human emotion with a biochemical basis that can be altered and manipulated. So what if we could ‘hack’ love and change the way we feel about our partner, say, at a difficult moment in our relationship, by taking drugs? Would that cheapen the love we feel for them? Would it make it less ‘authentic’? Despite some potentially negative consequences, Anders Sandberg argues that love-hacking can improve our lives, but also give rise to new types of relationships that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Read the full interview below.
What do we mean when we say that love can be hacked?
Hacking, in a generalized sense, is about changing something by manipulation outside the normal ways we change it.
Love, like all our emotions, is built on a biological basis. There are neurons firing and chemical signals. That means we can "hack" it by influencing these - we have the option not just to talk, go to couples therapy, write poetry, speed date, read handbooks, or any of the other countless normal ways we influence how we love.
The idea of a “love potion” that can make someone fall in love with a particular person has been around since antiquity. Isn’t part of what explains the endurance of this human obsession that love is too complex a phenomenon, too mysterious, almost divine (think of Eros/Cupid) for humans to be capable of manipulating it?
We like to think many things are mysterious and divine and forever beyond human understanding, giving a lovely sense of awe. Then, quite often, we discover that we can protect our houses from lightening, that we can cure the previously incurable disease, or understand why nature does what it does. That doesn't necessarily destroy the awe; the miracle of birth is still a miracle even if we understand genetics and development. The moon is still Selene or a signpost for enlightenment while also being a sphere of rock orbiting 300,000 km away. When William Blake complained about Newton unweaving the rainbow he assumed one could only look at a thing through one perspective, not several. I think love is a grand example where understanding all the different perspectives add profundity.
(Then again, love potions, as I argue in my papers, are in themselves problematic from a moral standpoint: if the only reason I love someone is that I drank something, it seems to be a rather inauthentic kind of love not linked to me, them, or anything we have in common.)
Does love have to be a kind of feeling, a mental state, in order for us to be able to manipulate it by certain drugs?
We often slip into this kind of thinking, treating love as something sublime that must hence be hard to affect by drugs.
Yes, love is a mental state. We can imagine "philosophical love zombies" that do all the behaviours of a loving person without experiencing anything. Does it seem correct to say that they are in love? The scenario seems to lack something important - love is a mental state, and it has both information components (who do you love?) and emotional components (what is being felt?) Obviously, emotions and consciousness can be manipulated by drugs - ironically it is trickier to manipulate the information contents of our minds.
I think most people might believe it’s possible to induce or enhance sexual desire, and even attraction by the use of drugs, but that love is not the sort of thing that can be altered in this way. Why do you think that is?
We often rank our mental faculties as "higher" or "lower", and sexual desire is often regarded as very base. In the Aristotelian view it was part of our animal nature, not requiring a rational or spiritual soul. We often slip into this kind of thinking, treating love as something sublime that must hence be hard to affect by drugs.
Some people see love, especially in long-term romantic relationships after the “honeymoon period”, not so much as an emotion or a feeling, but as a kind of moral commitment to the other person, to have their interests and wellbeing as a priority. If that’s what love is, can drugs really be used to enhance love?
Why do we hold moral commitment to people? While I can imagine some people doing it for rational reasons, most people *care*. When I want to cheer up my husband, I want to do it because he is who he is, not just a fellow human being I happen to have some legal commitment to. It is a feeling that motivates the moral behaviour, as Hume would have argued. That feeling is plausibly, deep down, generated by neurochemical signals in the oxytocin/vasopressin system, which serves to maintain the myriad of habits, thoughts and actions we do when we prioritize the partner's well-being. In many ways, one can view long-term love as a virtue that one cultivates, but like with other virtues, there is a biochemical component (e.g. courage and adrenaline).
I think we would be much better off recognizing that there are many ways of influencing our love, and try to select the ones that allow us to build our own best relationship rather than insist that it has to be "organic".
One concern when it comes to using drugs as a way of enhancing our romantic relationships might be that it somehow cheapens the nature of love, like taking performance-enhancing drugs might cheapen the victory of an Olympic athlete. What’s your view on this?
Whether a drug cheapens something depends on what the purpose of the activity is. Winning a competition by cheating misses the point of fair competition; the Olympics have particular set of (in my view very debatable) purity ideas making winning on drugs wrong. But if a mathematician solves a difficult problem due to a cognition enhancer - whether coffee or amphetamine - we usually think that is merely a cool anecdote; it is the truth and elegance of the solution that matters, not how it was found. So, what matters is how we construct the activity.
We often like to think that our emotions come about in authentic ways, and dislike being reminded that many reasons for why we feel what we feel are past associations, genetics, hormones, popular influence, what friends say and do, even economics. That leads to the popular view that love must be spontaneous and mysterious (a shot from Cupid) rather than something that is actually part of our broader life. This is also why some refrain from couples therapy - it feels like "cheating" at holding together a marriage by asking for help - although it often does help. I think we would be much better off recognizing that there are many ways of influencing our love, and try to select the ones that allow us to build our own best relationship rather than insist that it has to be "organic".
SUGGESTED READING Manufacturing Love By Anders Sandberg Another related issue has to do with the authenticity of love. Presumably most of us want to be in relationships with people who genuinely love us, and we also want to be in relationships with people we genuinely love. If one needs to take a pill each day to maintain a romantic relationship, knowing that without the drug, the relationship would likely fall apart, does that not put into question the authenticity of the relationship?
If the relationship requires the pills, maybe it is better to end it. But there can still be rational reasons to maintain it (e.g. kids). If the pills were to do a good job, then both parties would also *want* to retain the relationship.
I suspect the obsession with authenticity is ruining just as many relationships as the Disney image of how romance is supposed to be - love at first sight, tremendous romantic passion forever, and so on - it is not realistic and prevents us from actually loving in the real world.
Being able to temporarily love someone and then painlessly let it go, being able to control jealousy, matching the degree of sexual interest in a couple, or fine-tuning our preferences - these may enable entirely new ways of constructing our romances.
What would be the benefits of being able to hack love by the use of drugs?
Love is something that truly improves wellbeing and makes us more well-rounded people able to care for others. Being in close relationships also helps resilience individually and collectively.
I also think there are options for enhancing love in new ways that may go beyond our traditional approaches to love. Being able to temporarily love someone and then painlessly let it go, being able to control jealousy, matching the degree of sexual interest in a couple, or fine-tuning our preferences - these may enable entirely new ways of constructing our romances.
And what are the ways in which love drugs could be abused? What would the consequences of such abuses be?
The classic love potion is obviously abusive, and fortunately we do not have any clue on how to make it. Enhancing or disenhancing libido can be abused - so far it seems more common that conservative people try to suppress "problematic" sexuality than that people over-enhance their sexuality. Enhanced pair-bonding could make abusive relationships harder to leave (I have a paper about the ethics of a hypothetical bond-ending drug and when it would be appropriate to use to end a problematic relationship).
Generally the key defence against abuse is to recognize our emotional and morphological freedom - our right to control how we change our minds and bodies. But in love at least two people are involved, making the rights complex. However, I don't think there is anything fundamentally harder about this than any other medical or psychological practice.
Would the same drugs that are used to help people’s romantic relationships be able to improve other relationships like friendships or parent-child relationships? Or are the drugs likely to distort the nature of those relationships?
We likely use overlapping brain systems for different relationships. At least one paper has shown that maternal love and romantic love have many of the same brain areas involved (which makes sense given evolutionary theories about how romantic love evolved from our mammalian parent-child love). So I think boosting parent-child relations is both possible and potentially a good idea. But these are domains where much work remains to be done.
Generally, finding means to enhance love, parenthood and friendship is important; they contribute so much to being human, and being human is good (if sometimes painful). Given their importance we should endeavour much more to figure out how to improve them, whether biomedically, culturally or institutionally.