"Morality pills" that alter users' personalities to make them "better people" are a fantasy at best — but they sure are a good conversation starter, says neuroscientist Molly Crockett, a fellow at University College London.

There are a plethora of pharmaceutical options available for people interested in making adjustments to their mental and emotional states, such as for those with anxiety or depression. But what are the ethics underlying a pill that alters a person's ability to make better moral choices? That was one of the questions at hand for a gathering dubbed Brain Boosters in east London in mid-May, an event organized by the London School of Economics as part of "Neuro-Enhancement: Responsible Research and Innovation," an EU project dubbed the Nerri Project for short. 

Take for example two hormones that have been widely studied.

The hormone oxytocin has been called "the moral molecule" due to its ability to boost a user's trust, empathy and cooperation, but Crockett says perhaps a better name would be an 'immoral molecule" because it also associated with a host of negative behaviors like envy, says Mother Jones. Also under scrutiny is the well-studied neurotransmitter serotonin, occasionally called the "happy hormone," which is commonly used in antidepressants.

Serotonin is principally used to treat emotional abnormalities, but it can also impact a person's decision-making. For instance, a test group that was administered the antidepressant drug Cilatopram (which contains serotonin) consistently gave different responses, compared to a control group, when presented with a famous moral dilemma called the trolley problem, a test that Crockett described at length in an article she wrote for The Guardian.

The trolley problem is a common thought experiment in ethics that imagines a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks toward a group of five helpless bystanders. The only way to save the people, according to the parameters of the experiment, is to pull the lever that switches the trolley to another track. The catch is that the other track is not vacant; one person happens to be standing there too. So you must decide: pull the switch to save the five people at the expense of the one, or spare the one by doing nothing and letting the trolley run its course, thus killing the five?

Most people faced with this dilemma opt to pull the switch and kill the one, but the problem can be made more complicated. For instance, what if the person stuck on the sidetrack is a genius scientist working to cure cancer, and the five people on the main track are convicted felons? What if the one person is a relative or romantic partner?

In Crockett's study, those who took the drug were reluctant to sacrifice the one person for the many, particularly if they had to interact with the person directly, such as by pushing them onto the tracks to stop the train. 

So does this mean that the drug made these people more or less moral? Most professional philosophers (68 percent of them) believe that pulling the switch is the right move, but the thought experiment is meant to incite a genuine moral quandary. There is not supposed to be a "right" answer. 

The real moral question therefore seems to be: Should we be in the business of chemically manufacturing people's personalities in such a way that they are more prone to solve a genuine moral dilemma in one particular way? Writes Crockett:

This is the first major obstacle facing the development of a morality pill: until we can agree on what is moral, we won’t agree on what kinds of behaviors to target with a pill.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

The perks and perils of 'morality pills'
The conversation about any kind of brain enhancement boils down to ethics, says one scientist.