If It Makes You Happy…


Good post by Matt Yglesias on conservative arguments that biotechnology can't make us happy.

A couple added thoughts. Every feeling you get as a result of virtuously carrying out your duties to family, community, and all that other lovely stuff has some neurological base. So presumably, it's in principle possible to replicate those subjective feelings through technology. That doesn't mean I'd necessarily want to do it—the point of Nozick's famous experience machine thought experiment was that we care about more than happiness, even in the most exalted, non-hedonistic conception of the term. We're satisfied when we achieve our goals, but often what we're really aiming at is precisely the achievement of the goal, and not the satisfaction.

That said, I'm probably more inclined than most to attribute much of our day happiness or unhappiness (I'm not talking about anything as serious as clinical depression here) to chemical blips than to the deep, subconscious psychological roots many seem to assume must underly those moods. And the two aren't disconnected. If you wake up feeling grumpy and lethargic, how effectively are you going to fulfill your goals? And when you wake up feeling refreshed and optimistic, maybe for no particular reason—aren't you more apt to be a better neighbor, friend, lover, worker, student? We're already largely subject to these sorts of chemical flukes—is it somehow worse to be subject to the same chemistry under our own control?

The fear animating people who worry about this aspect of biotech seems to be the "soma scenario"—that happy pills will somehow subvert or replace the more familiar "pursuit of happiness" (or eudaimonia, or whatever). They seem more likely to supplement it.

NEXT: Grade Inflation

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  1. i think the base fear is that if our own experiences and emotions can be framed and re-framed so easily that certitude – and the stick that goes with it – gets harder to hold on to.

  2. The Matt Yglesias post struck me as completely empty of any serious content except possibly that he disagrees with the NR article on biotech. It must have significance to those inclined to agree with him but I cannot see any there there.

  3. I don’t see any insightfulness in Yglesias’s comments. If there are people whom Prozac has saved from depression, I’ve somehow failed to meet them; the depressed people I know keep going from one medication to another, thinking that there must be some magic pill which will take the place of straightening out their lives.

    The choice is not between a duty-bound, anti-individualistic “happiness” and a chemically induced euphoria. The reality-simulator approach would appeal only to those who are already willing to lie to themselves; such people aren’t going to achieve happiness, no matter what experiences they’re given, since with or without the magic machine, they’re living with the need to avoid looking to closely at their own motives.

  4. That part of the discussion that I have read looks to me like a classic case of biting off more philosophy than one can chew.

    Designing drugs to treat a genuine medical problem like depression is not the same thing as using drugs to enhance happiness. We accept the truth of this easily when the drug in question is something like morphine, valuable in helping us cope with a physical problem we understand but potentially dangerous otherwise. We understand mental illnesses much less well, and don’t really know very much about the consequences of extended use of many drugs used to treat it, so the question of usng biotechnology to treat an illness gets conflated with the idea of using it to pursue happiness generally.

    It doesn’t have to be. I suppose it may be inevitable that mental illnesses, most of which can be diagnosed only approximately, come to be regarded by some as mere extensions of the existential issues all people deal with in a way that broken bones or influenza are not. The view is still wrong, and is a product not of the nature of mental illness but instead of the primitive state of our knowledge of it.

  5. Gary, the sort of serial pill users you speak are in a category I think of as ‘professionally depressed’, inspired by by the Joe Bob Briggs reference to the professionally naked. I’ve known plenty of these people and was in danger of becoming one myself. I just live with the depression.

    But that ignores the huge number of people who will never feel compelled to tell you of their anti-depressant usage unbidden. That is because the bulk of patients are only ever on one medication and only for a limited time. The people who have been helped best are not those who use it as their conversational topic, much as those who are most content in their faith (or lack) are not those who cannot get through ten minutes without a “Praise Jesus!” or “Screw religion.”

    In other words, the squeaky wheels seeking attention are rarely a good measure.

  6. I’m always happy not to read a 20 paragraph Hit & Run post.

  7. “And when you wake up feeling refreshed and optimistic, maybe for no particular reason?aren’t you more apt to be a better neighbor, friend, lover, worker, student?” I dunno, Julian, the people I know who wake up feeling refreshed and optimistic are often the very same people who have somehow forgotten that the half-assed job they did yesterday has ruined my week. Not good neighbors, friends, lovers, or co-workers.

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