Psychedelic Unselfing and Moral Perception (Master thesis)

Abstract: Scientific and scholarly attention to psychedelics has recently faced a resurgence. Recent studies suggest that psychedelic experiences can change values and behavioral dispositions, for example increase appreciation of nature and increase prosocial behavior. For this reason psychedelics have been identified as a promising option for moral neuroenhancement. However, we still struggle to understand these changes in the valuations psychedelics induce, or why exactly they are morally enhancing.

In this thesis I construct a philosophical framework to understand these changes. I combine Iris Murdoch and Abraham Maslow’s thinking with empirical studies on psychedelics and experiences of self-transcendence. Psychedelics induce experiences of self-transcendence which involve evaluative changes. I argue that these changes are not random but result from an intelligible process. I first claim that psychedelics in some cases induce unselfing, that is, perspectival and evaluative changes resulting from reduction of salience attributed to oneself. By reducing egoic centering, unselfing opens our attention to the world and can cause perspectival widening from egocentric into more allocentric (other-directed) or cosmocentric (universal) perspective. The second main claim is that the process of unselfing is often connected to sharpened perception of values. The increased attention to the world and reduced egocentric attributions of salience, resulting from unselfing, can widen our evaluative context and make it possible to perceive or grasp intrinsic values better, thus ‘tuning the moral compass’ away from instrumental egocentric mode of evaluation.

This thesis makes an original contribution to current discussions on moral neuroenhancement by presenting a well-elaborated connection between the experiences of self-transcendence and the evaluative changes. At least some changes in values associated with psychedelic experiences are related to unselfing. Further the framework provided is relevant not only for understanding value changes in psychedelic experiences, but it can be used to understand and to conceptually and theoretically integrate various phenomena which involve unselfing and techniques that aim at spiritual, moral and existential changes. Another original contribution of this thesis is that psychedelic experiences and moral neuroenhancement are discussed with the conceptual means of Murdoch’s and Maslow’s thought.

Ψ From Molecule to Mind — and beyond ∞