Hedonic Engineering – Our ticket to Emotional Independence?

General Enquiries:

Ian Richardson Publicist irichar@chariot.net.au

Academic enquiries:

David Pearce dave@hedweb.com

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 11 (2001), 13-4.

; Hedonic engineering is the application of bioscience towards raising standards of mental health in the general population. What does it promise? What ethical issues does it raise? Should I be excited, curious or alarmed? The answers concern us all.

So, hedonic engineering … what’s all the fuss about?

; Biotechnology is giving us the potential to safely and sustainably improve mood, drive, empathy, even cognition in everyone, mentally “ill” or otherwise. Healthier, more effective mood boosters (and in future, gene therapy) could potentially supplant the current range of social and recreational drugs, thus solving the “drugs crisis” once and for all. They could also make us all far happier and more civilized, thus solving other morally urgent problems such as suicide, depression, violent crime, bullying etc. It’s time create a new paradigm on the role of drugs in society that extends choice, defends liberty and offers compassion to the terminally anxious and malaise-ridden.

If these new drugs would be so wonderful, why aren’t they developing them now?

; Powerful mood boosters raise the specter of “abuse potential”. Medical orthodoxy follows a hardline doctrine of therapeutic minimalism which views potent pain-relievers (even non-toxic ones) as sinful in all but the most extreme circumstances. Dopamine reuptake blockers such as Amineptine, which can in some cases combat depression much more effectively, have already been banned in the US and UK for this reason. Our current definitions of mental illness are woefully outdated, and exclude an enormous amount of angst, sadness and pain that could be safely ameliorated were it to fall within some diagnosable category. The whole assumption that natural states of consciousness and emotional norms and averages represent the ideal is short-sighted and scientifically naive.

That’s a big statement.

; If the human psyche were optimized for personal / societal well-being rather than genetic fitness people wouldn’t continue to ask questions about the origins of human evil-doing. Even through rose-tinted glasses, it’s hard to avoid evidence that violence, emotional malaise, neglect and suffering are still widespread even in affluent societies. Statistically, people don’t report themselves to be any happier now than they did a generation ago, despite much higher overall living standards. We’ve hit the constraints of our emotional apparatus.

But isn’t it better to be drug-free than addicted to drugs (even “healthy” ones)?

; Addiction is only a problem if the drug is toxic or has some undesirable side-effect, or if there’s any likelihood of interruption to the supply. We’re already dependent on many things for life: food, water, oxygen, love etc. If we want to enjoy higher standards of mental and societal health, we have to embrace the opportunity to transcend our evolutionary legacy.

But doesn’t pain serve a useful purpose, aiding our survival and adding to the emotional richness of the human condition?

; “Physical” pain generally serves us reasonably well. But much emotional pain – eg loneliness, sexual neediness, jealousy - only serves our genes. Because of the way we evolved, our neural infrastructure encourages us to focus our energy around sex and romance, and punishes us mercilessly when we don’t get what we want. Sexual competitiveness also drives a lot of deeply unpleasant behavior. Law, education, religion, moral injunction and piece-meal socioeconomic reform haven’t succeeded in getting people to live together happily and harmoniously precisely because we remain so driven by genetically self-serving imperatives, and vulnerable to romantic disappointments.

; Nature is a blind and heedless designer, no matter how extraordinary her creations are: a huge amount of cruelty and futile suffering is inevitable under any regime of natural selection. But selfishness and pain doesn’t have to be part and parcel of the human condition forever. As an empty verbalism “happiness” may sound fairly uninspiring to drug-naïve early twenty-first century minds, but languishing undeveloped in our labs are far richer and lovelier ways to feel well than we’ve ever dreamed of. Deep empathy, world-transforming creative energy, euphoric peak experiences and sublime states of blissful well-being can become the new norm of mental health.

Isn’t this all a bit disturbing and “Brave New World”?

; Stereotypes such as the drug soma in Brave New World, which kept its users in a state of blissful stupor, are misleading. They reflect ignorance of the range of options now available. Drugs needn’t necessarily stupefy us or undermine our survival skills. Creative psychopharmacology can boost both drive and the capacity for incisive, goal-directed thought, in addition to sharpening, intensifying and diversifying our states of consciousness, hardly a proscription for a boring or incompetent life. Moreover given the correlation between depressed mood and low social status, the project of radically enriching the mood and motivation of the bulk of the population will most likely leave people much less vulnerable to exploitation by a power-elite, or to otherwise getting stuck in a rut. Happiness, and an enhanced responsiveness to a wider range of rewards, can be hugely empowering. The freedom to choose one’s desired chemistry of consciousness means the freedom to choose who or what one wants to be. Any technology which conferred this on us would represent an incalculable extension of choice.

; Our organization, BLTC (Better Living Through Chemistry), is loose, worldwide collection of individuals working voluntarily to promote the idea that we should permit ourselves to eliminate suffering rather than just rationalize it interminably. The fact that mass pharmaco-genetic therapy inevitably evokes a fearful totalitarian motive is just another reflection on the propensity of genetically “normal” people to pursue and abuse power. This whole argument amounts to nothing more sinister than a plea that people should be allowed, within certain democratically-agreed upon guidelines, to take responsibility for their own emotional infrastructure, rather than forever be doomed to live with the neural shortcomings that have driven people to such terrible extremes in the past.

You say “publicly subsidized”. Why should my taxes pay for people to get toasted?

; Public subsidies are justified because human mental health and behavior have economic “externalities”. The benefits of benevolence and the costs of nastiness tend to fall on others, a major reason why there is too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Biotechnology lets us subsidize the behavior we value most and inhibit that which we loathe at the emotional source, by far the most powerful and sensible way of doing so. Public subsidies could also be justified on utilitarian or equity grounds – the poor and downtrodden have arguably more to gain from this than the rich and powerful.

You’re not suggesting people should be compelled to have their brains messed with, are you?

; No, participation in the program should be completely optional. But in practice, a biological program which combines aims such as a nicer, cleverer, happier and more productive society with the appeal of lifelong bliss, once people’s fears had been properly answered, would most likely have little trouble achieving widespread voluntary acceptance, and thus achieving broad societal goals.

Mightn’t this sort of therapy start some sort of transition to a new kind of human?

; Yes, that’s not overstating it. It would amount to a collective decision to begin a; biological transition program aimed at producing a smarter, happier, gentler, more compassionate and energetic version of ourselves. In our world at least it’s unprecedented for a species to assume precise control of its own physiological evolution, but the peoples of earth have evolved in other ways in the past, and now biotechnology offers us the chance to encode joy, civility and love for others at the molecular level. If we are smart we will see that scientifically naïve beliefs are thwarting what is simply a fantastic opportunity to improve life for ourselves and those who follow us. We have nothing to lose but our pains.

Further reading:

The Hedonist Imperative” (www.hedweb.com) - a detailed exposition of the case for hedonic engineering.

To look at a range of objections that the topic arouses with responses to them, go to http://www.hedweb.com/


Shorter, more approachable introductions to the topic:

The Good Drug Guide- the responsible parents guide to wholesome mood-boosters for the whole family.

Brave New World? A Defense of Paradise Engineering” - a rebuttal of a popular objection. “Future Opioids”, http://www.hedweb.com/opioids/future/index.html - makes the case for developing improved analogues of nature’s most potent pain-killer.

; The author gives permission for any part of this article to be reproduced with or without attribution in any context or circumstance (no copyright).

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