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Is There Such a Thing as a Love Drug?: Reply to McGee
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Is There Such a Thing as a Love Drug?
Reply to McGee

Over the past few years, we and our colleagues have been exploring the ethical implications of what we call “love drugs” and “anti-love drugs.” We use these terms informally to refer to “current, near-future, and more speculative distant-future technologies that would enhance or diminish, respectively, the romantic bond between couples engaged in a relationship” (Earp, Sandberg, & Savulescu, 2016). In a recent “qualified defense” of our work, Andrew Andrew McGee (2016) suggests that, if we would only stop using the word “love” so expansively, our ethical proposals might gain more traction. Specifically, he argues that “many of the putative instances of love” that we discuss in our papers “are not in fact instances of love at all” but are rather what he describes as “unhealthy or treatable obsessions.” By more carefully distinguishing between the two, he suggests, “there is much more likely to be less concern about medicalization and authenticity” (p. 87, emphasis his) in the case of pharmaceutical or other biotechnological interventions into the latter.

To support his position, McGee argues that the term “love” in this context should be reserved for relational states that are a) indexed to a specific person, that is, the beloved, b) caused primarily1 by the beloved herself as opposed to a drug or other biotechnology, c) characterized by genuine care and concern for the beloved (as measured, for instance, by one’s willingness to undertake sacrifices to promote her well-being for its own sake), d) fundamentally non-abusive, and e) subject to the possibility of reciprocation (such that unrequited love could at least sometimes properly be counted as love, whereas human–mannequin “love”—to use McGee’s example—could not). By contrast, instances of attachment, desire, and so on, that do not fulfill at least these criteria should be given some other name; they do not deserve to be referred to as “love.”

In response to a similar objection raised by Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins (in press), namely, that our use of the word “love” has been at times overly broad, we noted that we are “sympathetic to the normative argument that the word ‘love’ should only be used to describe relationships, feelings, interpersonal attitudes, forms of romantic attachment,” and so on, that fulfill certain restricted, typically positive or desirable criteria (Earp, Foddy, Wudarczyk, & Savulescu, forthcoming), perhaps along the lines proposed by McGee. Indeed, we are quite happy for contributors to this debate to advance and defend their own preferred definitions of love, and to spell out what they see as the implications of our scientific and ethical analyses for love under those descriptions. Our own preference, meanwhile, has been to remain relatively agnostic about what love “really is”—in practice by using the term as loosely as possible—so that we could [End Page 93] focus our attention on the comparatively narrow question of permissibility: that is, the question of when, or under what conditions, it would be morally justified to make use of the various technologies we have described (e.g., Earp, Sandberg, & Savulescu, 2014; Wudarczyk, Earp, Guastella, & Savulescu, 2013).

At the same time, we would note that the conceptual distinction McGee envisions between “real” love and “unhealthy obsessions” is neither self-evident nor universally accepted (as he acknowledges). For example, as Simon May (2011, p. 235) has argued, although it is now a minority view, there is a long and vibrant tradition in Western thought according to which “real” love is, among other things, not only “obsessive” but also “ineluctably self-interested, possessive, and mercurial.” Love has also been described as “a sickness, a form of insanity, and even a threat to the social order—calling attention to the power of amorous passion to interfere with our higher-level goals, desires, commitments, and obligations” (Earp, Foddy, et al., forthcoming). By contrast, the idea that love must be “healthy,” or even generally consistent with the well-being of the lovers to properly count as love, is a relatively recent innovation, and it may in fact reflect the very process of “medicalization” that McGee seems inclined to resist...