Why you should care
Because chemical manipulation of love is about to become the ethical quandary of the 21st century.
What happens when real-life love potions are available on Aisle 5 at Walgreens? Yale University ethicist Brian Earp believes that day is not far off — and he’s not entirely for it. Earp is leading the way for how we should approach that delicate moment, when mystery and myth collide with chemical reality.
Earp’s forthcoming book, Love Drugs: The Chemical Future of Relationships (written in collaboration with Oxford University ethicist Julian Savulescu), explores the ethical crossroads of lust, love and technology as we enter a renaissance for MDMA (aka ecstasy), psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (common antidepressants), all of which seem to have a “love potion” side effect. Right now, few scientists are looking at the “relational consequences” of these drugs — some of which are being prescribed for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder — on the user’s spouse, child or parent, Earp argues.
Now that we understand the neurochemistry, Earp says, we need to stop thinking of love “as a magical thing that happens in our hearts or souls when we meet ‘the right’ person.” People, he says, have the “power to exercise a certain amount of agency over whom and how we love.”
Earp and Savulescu call for a new, third way for drugs, beyond the usual categories of medicine and recreational: enhancement.
Earp has taken heat for focusing too much on chemistry rather than the psychosocial side of love, and many object to love drugs on principle. Here he treads carefully, saying he doesn’t think such drugs should be universal but rather “helpful complements” to more traditional methods of improving relationships, like couples counseling.
The 34-year-old Ph.D. candidate speaks thoughtfully with an almost melodic delivery, oozing kindness and empathy as he recounts his winding path from a small unincorporated town outside Seattle to unlikely love doctor, serving as assistant director of the Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy with an ethics research fellowship at Oxford as well.
“You can’t just call Brian brilliant; there has to be some kind of superlative that comes before it,” says Lori Bruce, who works with Earp at Yale. “I feel like he’s imbued with this kindness that is coupled with this really deep and tenacious curiosity.”
As a child, Earp “read obsessively,” he says, living what he calls “a very self-contained life.” A series of one-off conversations and chance encounters took Earp, the third of four children, away from his stay-at-home mother and X-ray technician father (neither of whom graduated from college) farther and farther eastward: to Yale, Oxford and Eastern Europe. All the while he was studying, researching and writing about philosophies, cognition, psychology and ethics — as well as acting, and singing in 14 different countries for a year with Yale’s a capella group, the Whiffenpoofs.
“Brian is just such a unique individual,” says Rebecca Steinfeld, who has collaborated with Earp on ethics-based research projects and papers. “He is so personable and so warm and friendly in his demeanor and his way of interacting.… It’s never sort of transactional and detached.”
His current demeanor stands in contrast with a “melancholy” childhood that Earp remembers, growing up in a conservative Free Methodist household. “It got me thinking of a lot of questions at a young age,” he says, like: “What’s the right way to live?” and “How’s the universe organized?”
Despite the philosophical pull, Earp was drawn to acting, taking a gap year before college to perform with theater companies in Seattle. During his bus rides to and from the theater, Earp would read “books about big ideas,” including Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. As an undergrad at Yale, Earp found his mecca in cognitive science, which draws on psychology, philosophy, neuroscience and anthropology to ask: “How does the mind work?”
Earp was still acting five years later when he went to Oxford and met his co-author, an established ethicist. Savulescu asked him to pen the book that would become Love Drugs. Earp had never written a book before, but didn’t want to let his mentor down. He was sleeping only about three hours a night working as a scholar with just a master’s degree while also flying back and forth from Europe, where he was living, to Seattle to perform.
Then, when he was in Geneva with Steinfeld in 2016, he “physically just shut down one day; I burst into tears in the middle of a conversation,” Earp says. “Everything was so fractured and it all kind of came tumbling down at once.” For several months after his breakdown, he was unable to read or write. While it was the “worst thing that ever happened to me, [it was also] transformative,” Earp says. Over a year of recovery he relied on counseling, support from friends and family, meditation, exercise and eight hours of sleep a night. “I had to rebuild myself from scratch. It was a very strange time,” he says.
And the book still needed to be written.
Due out in January, the final tome is tailored to distinct audiences. Speaking to the scientist and the policymaker, Earp and Savulescu call for a new, third way for drugs, beyond the usual categories of medicine and recreational. The new classification: “enhancement — where the drug is expected to genuinely improve the person/couple’s life/relationship, if used in the right way, whether or not there is an underlying pathology,” explains Earp.
To a general audience, he describes steps we can take, chemically, to foster love, to bring about love, to help love continue by going directly to the brain. These love drugs raise “a lot of thorny questions ethically and also philosophical questions about what love is,” Earp says.
After this yearslong deep dive on love, Earp is taking a detour with his next project: a book about a “child’s right to bodily integrity,” exploring similarities and differences of genital cutting across cultures.
As for Earp’s own love life, Love Drugs has led him to reevaluate his views on relationships. While he’s been in love a number of times, he fears hurting others and is currently in a period of soul-searching. As for taking a love drug? “I do think that, under the right circumstances, if it became legal, I would be open to using MDMA or psilocybin with a partner to explore the deeper recesses of our connection.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that no other scientists are looking at the “relational consequences” of these drugs.