Why Happiness Eludes Us...For Now
Last year, over 1 million human beings killed themselves. Surrounding this intense dot of suffering were approximately 20 million attempted suicides or acts of severe physical self-harm. Human suffering then has a 3rd concentric circle warding off these urges with prescription antidepressants, whose use in America is now estimated at roughly 13% of the adult population. Of course, these do not replace suffering with true wellness so much as something akin to numbness— an emotional anaesthetic for unaddressed and underlying causes. A larger 4th circle encompasses those whose behaviors and self-medicating strategies prioritize short-term emotional highs over a stable model for sustained joy. If one is not yet accounted for in this expanding reach of suffering, they are in the fortunate 5th and outermost circle— the generally happy. But even those of us in this outermost circle are subjected to rulers and citizens alike whose acts of despair and rage become ours to triage. The only reliable firewall we can create from human suffering is one which addresses its fundamental causes.
It is, therefore, an imperative of both morality and self-preservation to improve our circumstances. British philosopher David Pearce’s 1995 work The Hedonistic Imperative speaks to this outrageous scope of suffering not so much being a condition of modernity, but more so a condition of being human.
Discontent being systemic to human physiology is a relatively new notion, but the notion of pleasure as our North Star stretches millenia. Libyan born philosopher Aristippus founded the Cyrenaics in 4th Century BCE championing hedonismos, meaning “delight” or “pleasure” as purpose. The word has a home in our common language with “hedonism”. And if the word hedonism conjures images of fatalistic debauchery, one then maps hedonism to the 4th of the 5 aforementioned circles. But since Classical Antiquity, we’ve sensed an outermost circle constituting a healthier hedonism— a general sustained happiness unreliant on temporal intoxicants. In fact, just a century after Aristippus, Greek philosophers Pyrrho and Epicurus referred to this ideal realm as ataraxia, or an “untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul”. Epicurus attributed the state of ataraxia to external deprivations, such as modest living quarters and suppression of carnal desires, thus articulating a route in diametric opposition from the promotions of Aristippus. But as science has offered greater insight, both approaches have proven to be clouded lenses through which to view the anatomy of happiness.
Glaringly omitted from early models of happiness (given limited grasp of biology) was the brain itself. David Pearce is addressing these issues with more sophistication as cofounder of Humanity Plus, a worldwide organization advocating ethical use of emergent technologies. This field of contemporary ethics blends ancient quests to alleviate suffering with modern insights to sustain happiness, placing genetics and neurophysiology at the forefront of our capacity for joy.
Pearce’s work holds timeworn contemplations regarding the role and origin of hedonism to the light of modern biologic understanding. And if one is to fully understand the biologic origins of happiness, one first must understand the concept of “hedonic set-point”. One’s hedonic set-point allows pleasure to temporarily increase or decrease depending on stimuli (missing a flight, winning the lottery, etc.) but then returns one’s gradient of pleasure to a rather predictable locus. And each of us have a different gradient of pleasure which constitutes our typical daily experience. Further, it takes spectral precision to locate the best hedonic set-point for individual happiness without becoming dangerously compliant. It is obvious that an individual with a hedonic set-point of 1, if left unmedicated, may have recurrent suicidal urges despite objectively great living conditions. But it is also true that if one has an unwaveringly blissful set-point of 10, they may neglect responsibilities to the basic maintenance of civilization; displeasure serves the function of fueling necessary objections and spurring collectively needed forms of individual productivity.
Within those harmful extremes resides various colors of functionality. The colloquial Debbie Downer may have a hedonic set-point of 3 on a 1 to 10 scale, requiring a symphony of overlapping pleasures to briefly relieve her blue mood; but she receives just enough pleasure from life to elect being alive. One may conversely know someone who has an optimally calibrated tone- say 8- who has the impetus to toil and protest for conditional advancement, yet can endure bleak circumstances fueled by silver linings, over and over again. Using these two examples, a person with a high hedonic set-point may experience less suffering from losing a loved one than a person with a low hedonic set-point experiences from losing a football game. And as science drills further into the substrates of causality, we are learning the significance of genetics regarding hedonic set-point. The gene Catechol-O-methyltransferase has two primary “alleles” or variations, one associated with higher average hedonic set-points than the other. Studies of identical twins raised separately yield far greater correlations of hedonic set-point than would be possible if they were only determined by external factors.
We should feel liberated by the prospect that our general mood can be systemically modified. With the sacrality of “nature’s design” shown as neither concerned for the wellbeing of individual organisms nor even able to avoid objective coding errors, the danger of “messing with nature” seems less threatening than the danger of leaving nature alone. Additionally, we are discovering that an entire suite of personality traits, from temperament to empathy to willpower, are significantly determined by variants of particular genes. Even physical pain sensitivity, once notioned as a choice of grit, appears contingent upon the alleles of the SCN9A gene. As more data reveals the breadth of genetic involvement governing facets of experience, the moral imperative to alleviate suffering with our genetic tools seems obvious. In fact, we sense this without controversy when the suffering is less vague. Surely, one wouldn’t deny a mother the right to modify a gene which ensures she doesn’t pass on a horrific condition like Huntington’s Disease. What is, therefore, the “slippery slope” of taking it further— that her baby could also be guarded against alcoholism, or low pain threshold, or low hedonic set-point? What is the concern with greenlighting fundamental alterations for improved human experience?
Actually, there are several. Considerations with regard to manipulating hedonic set-point must address the fundamentals of any X manipulating any Y: who is doing the recalibration, what capacities are being lost in the name of new capacities, what goal is being sought by the calibration, and who decides the goal. If someone offered to alter the hedonic set-point of John Doe, what vetting determines if that someone vs. someone else is qualified to do it? We are in an era where justified leeriness of medical and tech behemoths is rife. What group of higher angels emerge to christen certain manipulators as having a trustable agenda for this sweeping power? And if John Doe derives his highest art from a place of despair, will his new calibration destroy his most poignant and expressive skill? If so, what are the new capacities being given to him that warrant that tradeoff? And how overtly is he warned this recalibration may end his ability to suffer for his art? Lastly, what are the limits of aggression by which any individual or organization can axiomatically redesign collective consciousness for their version of utopia? This existential delving is not in conflict with Pearce’s insights, but moreover a calling to the table for pressing ethical considerations of cavernous complexity.
As starting point, a neurologic or physiologic manipulation needs to have high respect for the concept of self-authorship. But determining the ethical borders of self-authorship can prove difficult. Generally forbidden are self-authorships which overtly destroy other self-authorships, such as murder or robbery; but consider our sticking points in this ethical arena even when that isn’t the case. While we enthusiastically grant self-authorship to those pursuing our sense of good decision making, we may try to dissuade the self-authorship of a loved one jumping 50 cars on a motorcycle to further a career as a stuntman. Furthering our parental stridency, we often forbid, by law, the self-authorship of a drug addict seeking his next fix. And finally, in the absence of one’s capacity for self-authorship, we swoop in to author life for them. Examples of this include whether to end life support for someone without a living will, or perform a surgery on an unconscious crash victim which will yield a mix of pros and cons for their life moving forward. Perhaps the most ominous and contemporary quandary are technologies which bypass overt requests of human permission as to never empower our capacity to participate or decline; this is especially troubling when a technology’s elegance is specifically rendered to sidestep a likely rejection. Is that inspired design or sly contemptibility? The question of how to improve collective happiness while respecting self-authorship is a replete source of conflict across time and geography; but factions envisioning different balances of power have never had such sophisticated camouflage with which to manufacture consent.
While it’s true that technologies engage our right to choose with increasing stealth, do bear in mind that self-authorship is not starting from a particularly good original model. For example, there is no safe “natural design” of a baby. And if one lives a tame and disciplined life as Epicurus suggested, entropy still acts upon them. Death is, at least debatably, still death for awhile. Congenital defects remain congenital defects. Even without newfangled intimidations, core intimidations from “Mother Nature” still take her course on us. Those who fear being overtaken by technology are already overtaken by evolutionary fitness legacies as is. Their clunkiness in service to the individual gives us suicides, or attempted suicides, or antidepressants to avoid suicide, or alcohol to avoid antidepressants, or constant triaging of an alcoholic. As legitimate hearing is given to our expanding manipulation capacities, note that traditional organismic elegance has offered a 99.9% rate of species extinction, let alone what has been the conditions for living. Our days often start in a cacophony of honking and fury, followed by encounter after encounter of misery, as leaders of town and country then coerce mass misery into votes, often promising to cure the misery by exacting more misery on others. These traditional venoms course the veins of our experience on a daily basis. This is useful to keep in mind when proportioning fear of emerging antivenoms.
We are, perhaps more notably than any other distinguishing trait as a species, experiential pioneers. And our tools for optimized experiences are approaching majestic sophistication. We now have genetic modifications, refined nootropics, transcranial stimulation devices, biofeedback apps...the list grows by the day. 3rd world sources of suffering, such as limited food and resource, can be addressed by a human population both intellectually and emotionally equipped for collaborative problem solving. By increasing individual hedonic set-points, the emerging field of neurohacking can make history of our present and tragic statistics. As pioneers like David Pearce work to design an ethical architecture to do so, diverse talents seeking human betterment are needed for the design. The blessing and curse of ancient hedonic panaceas were their limitations. The blessing and curse of modern hedonic panaceas are their robust powers.
The reality of our species manifesting godlike capacities is upon us. This is neither a good or bad thing; it is a merely a thing. It is a power offering amplified degrees of improvement and disaster. The “good” and “bad” rests in the wisdom of our application. More than ever, literacy within integral models of understanding, which account for externality Y caused by manipulation X, are desperately needed. Mastery of complex systems science in this new reality must be emphasized far more than the coolness or wow-factor of a new tool or capacity. Probing ethical debate needs to engage complex systems science at every turn as to build a good and just roadway for ambitious scientists, technologists, and medical professionals. If we construct such a roadway to ethical hedonic set-point modifications, it could finally put to rest the ancient frustration of mass suffering. Pearce even foresees a day where these applications could extend to all sentient life forms, yielding an approximate Eden by way of our species. But it takes very little to conceive of a world where the misapplication of neurohacking technologies- even a well meaning misapplication- could cascade problems vastly exceeding current hardships.
Our emerging neurohacking capacities must be viewed not unlike the dawn of the Space Age— a time of immense potential to illuminate and expand experience, but whose safety and applicative goodness require collaborations of transdisciplinary exceptionalism. Anything less will result in these tools being repurposed as weaponry and reckless commodifications as they have been in every prior wave of increased human capacity. Given the scope of their power, that outcome is flatly unacceptable. But the potential, if we can thread this challenging needle, stands to decouple suffering as being inexorable from living. Pearce is holding a lantern through the fog of these emergent technologies and ethical considerations. The moral imperative to join him is clear. The rewards, if we do so, and do so well, are beyond comprehension.