No Love Drugs Today - Dr Robbie Arrell speaks at New York University's Center for Bioethics

Dr Robbie Arrell recently presented a paper at New York University's Center for Bioethics' Philosophical Bioethics Workshop.

As part of the two-day webinar, Dr Robbie Arrell, Lecturer in Applied Ethics at the IDEA Centre, delivered ‘No Love Drugs Today’ at NYU’s Philosophical Bioethics Workshop.


In an intriguing turn in the human enhancement debate, the possibility of morally enhancing romantic relationships via hormonal or genetic manipulation has been raised by a number of philosophers over the last decade or so (most prominently Julian Savulescu, Brian D. Earp and Anders Sandberg). It will hardly come as news to us that spousal relationships can be a source of all kinds of benefits. There are all kinds of important benefits that we commonly obtain (or at least hope to) as a result of participation in romantic relationships, including, support, companionship, intimacy, sex, and indeed the good of love itself, to name but a few. Yet, as well we know, love can falter, and relationships can lack longevity and break down in ways that can be bad for those affected (the partners themselves, children, extended family, mutual friends, etc.). Conventional methods of morally enhancing or restoring romantic relationships such as relationship counselling are commonplace, but a brief survey of divorce statistics suggest that such methods are, at best, only partially effective.

Meanwhile, recent research into behavioural genetics and neuroscience suggests that certain of the counter-moral emotions that sometimes contribute to the breakdown of relationships such as impulses to lie or cheat may be, in part, genetically determined. If indeed this is the case, and assuming no abate in neuroscientific progress, it seems plausible to suppose that the development of biochemical technologies capable of modulating certain of these localised detrimental impulses may be a live possibility. In light of this, and the great intrinsic and extrinsic value to us that comes of partaking in loving and lasting relationships (as well as the extrinsic disvalue of squandered love), some philosophers have argued that we should use our growing knowledge of the neuroscience of love to enhance the quality of love by biological manipulation.

So, is the prospect of “love drugs” one we should welcome?

Dr Robbie Arrell of IDEA has argued elsewhere that there are good reasons not to incorporate “love drugs” into relationship therapy regimes. However, according to Earp and Savulescu, it may already be too late to be thinking about the issue in these terms. For many of us, they claim, are already taking love drugs – we just don’t realise it yet. Indeed, as they stress repeatedly in their 2020 book Love is the Drug: The Chemical Future of Our Relationships, the prospect of love drugs is not some far flung possibility best left to the pages of science fiction. In their own words, “love-altering drugs are already here, partly in the form of understudied side effects of widely used prescription medications” (2020: 71).

But is this right? Is it really plausible to claim that love drugs are already available, and in some cases already in widespread use?

The answer to such questions, according to Arrell, is no. At this year’s NYU Philosophical Bioethics Workshop, Arrell presented a paper in which he argues that attempts to co-opt currently existing prescription drugs that people are taking for depression, OCD, PTSD, etc. into the class of “love drugs” are dubious at best, disingenuous at worst. For it seems that if a requirement of drugs qualifying as love drugs is that they affect the love people in a romantic relationship have for one another, and not just the quality of care they show each other, then no currently existing medications commonly prescribed to treat individualized conditions warrant the moniker love drugs.

If, however, all that is required for drugs to qualify as love drugs is that they affect merely the quality of care romantic partners provide each other with, then all drugs are love drugs (given the right context), in which case the very notion of love drugs is rendered meaningless. On either option, it seems, we ought to conclude that there are “No Love Drugs Today”.

Dr Robbie Arrell, Lecturer in Applied Ethics

Find out more about the NYU Centre for Bioethics.