L’impératif hédoniste – Introduction
« Happiness is an illusion; only suffering is real. »
0.1 The Naturalisation of Heaven
This manifesto combines far-fetched utopian advocacy with cold-headed scientific prediction. The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how nanotechnology and genetic engineering will eliminate aversive experience from the living world. Over the next thousand years or so, the biological substrates of suffering will be eradicated completely. « Physical » and « mental » pain alike are destined to disappear into evolutionary history. The biochemistry of everyday discontents will be genetically phased out too. Malaise will be replaced by the biochemistry of bliss. Matter and energy will be sculpted into life-loving super-beings animated by gradients of well-being. The states of mind of our descendants are likely to be incomprehensibly diverse by comparison with today. Yet all will share at least one common feature: a sublime and all-pervasive happiness.
This feeling of absolute well-being will surpass anything contemporary human neurochemistry can imagine, let alone sustain. The story gets better. Post-human states of magical joy will be biologically refined, multiplied and intensified indefinitely. Notions of what now passes for tolerably good mental health are likely to be superseded. They will be written off as mood-congruent pathologies of the primordial Darwinian psyche. Such ugly thoughts and feelings will be diagnosed as typical of the tragic lives of emotional primitives from the previous era. In time, the deliberate re-creation of today’s state-spectrum of normal waking and dreaming consciousness may be outlawed as cruel and immoral.
Such speculations may currently sound fantastical. Yet the ideas behind this manifesto may one day be regarded as intellectually trite – albeit today morally urgent. For as the genetic revolution in reproductive medicine unfolds, what might once have been the stuff of millennialist fantasy is set to become a scientifically feasible research program. Its adoption or rejection will become, ultimately, a social policy issue. Passively or actively, we will have to choose just how much unpleasantness we wish to create or conserve – if any – in eras to come.
0.2 Saving Vehicles With Bad Drivers.
Blind selective pressures have acted on living organisms over hundreds of millions of years. Darwinian evolution has powerfully favoured the growth of ever more diverse, excruciating, but also more adaptive varieties of psychophysical pain. Its sheer nastiness effectively spurs and punishes the living vehicles of genetic replicators. Sadness, anxiety and discontent are frequently good for our genes; they’re just psychologically bad for us. In absolute terms, global suffering is probably still increasing as the population explosion continues. Human ingenuity has struggled, often vainly, to rationalise and somehow derive value from the most frightful anguish. But over the aeons, the very anguish which intermittently corrodes the well-being of the individual organism has differentially promoted the inclusive fitness of its DNA. Hence it has tended to get inexorably worse.
Of course such doom-and-gloom isn’t the whole picture. The world’s horrors can be contrasted with life’s rewarding experiences. People sometimes have fun. Long-lasting depression is rarely adaptive. Yet what Michael Eysenck describes as the « hedonic treadmill » ensures that very few of us can be very happy for very long. An interplay of cruelly effective negative feedback mechanisms is at work in the central nervous system. Feedback-inhibition ensures that a majority of people would be periodically bored, depressed or angst-ridden in a recreated Garden of Eden.
A small minority of humans do in fact experience states of indefinitely prolonged euphoria. These states of involuntary well-being are usually pathologised as « manic ». Unlike unipolar depression, sustained unipolar euphoric mania is very rare. Other folk who just have high « hedonic set-points », but who aren’t manic or bipolar, are sometimes described as « hyperthymic » instead. This isn’t a common mindset either. « Bipolar disorder », on the other hand, is experienced in the course of a lifetime by perhaps one in a hundred people or more. Popularly known as manic-depression, bipolar disorder has several sub-types. Mood characteristically alternates between euphoria and abject despair. Cycles may vary in length. It is a complex genetic condition which runs in families. Typically, bipolarity is marked by a genetic variation in the serotonin transporter as compared to « euthymic » normals. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in sleep, sociability, feeding, activity, impulse-control, mood, and a lot else besides. The serotonin transporter mops up « excess » serotonin released by nerve cells into the synapses. Very crudely, manic states are associated with enhanced dopamine and norepinephrine function; in mania, serotonin function is dysregulated or low.
Sadly, among today’s « bipolars » manic exuberance can spin out of control. Euphoria may be accompanied by hyperactivity, sleeplessness, chaotically racing ideas, pressure of speech and grandiose thought. Hyper-sexuality, financial excesses and religious delusions are common. So is rampant egomania. Sometimes dysphoria may occur. In dysphoric mania the manic « high » is actually unpleasant. The excited subject may be angry, agitated, panicky, paranoid, and destructive. When in the grip of classic euphoric mania, however, it’s hard to recognise that anyone might think anything is wrong. This is because everything feels utterly right. To suppose otherwise is like going to Heaven and then being invited to believe there has been a mistake. It’s not credible.
Today, euphoric (hypo-)mania is liable to be clinically subdued with drugs. [« Hypomania » denotes simply a milder mania.] Toxic « medication » can depress elevated mood to duller but « normal » levels. Such flatter and supposedly healthier levels of emotion enable otherwise euphoric people to function within contemporary society. Compliance with a medically-dictated treatment-regimen (lithium, sodium valproate, carbamazepine, etc.) will be enhanced if the victim can be persuaded that euphoric well-being is pathological. (S)he can then look for warning signs and symptoms. By the norms of our genetically-enriched posterity, however, it is the rest of us who are chronically unwell – if not more so. Contemporary standards of mental health are just pathologically low. Our super-well descendants, by contrast, will enjoy a glorious spectrum of new options for mental super-health. They may opt to combine emotional stability, resilience and « serotonergic » serenity, for instance, with the goal-oriented energy, optimism and initiative of a raw « dopaminergic » high. Post-humans will discover that euphoric peak experiences can be channelled, controlled and genetically diversified, not just medically suppressed.
For there is a cruel irony here. Clinically prescribed mood-darkeners would be laughably redundant for the great bulk of humanity. At present, life for billions of genetically « normal » people is often very grim indeed. No amount of piecemeal political and economic reform, nor even radical social engineering, can overcome this biological reality. Today’s billion-and-one routes to supposedly lasting happiness are pursued in the guise of innumerable intentional objects. [Intentionality in philosophy-speak is the ‘aboutness’ or ‘object-directedness’ of thought]. We convince ourselves that all manner of things would potentially make us happy. All these peripheral routes to personal fulfilment are not merely vastly circuitous and inefficient. In the main, they just don’t, and can’t, durably work. At best, they can serve as palliatives of the human predicament. If the mind/brain’s emotional thermostat, as it were, is not genetically and/or pharmacologically reset, then even the greatest triumphs and successes turn to ashes. Lottery winners, cup-final hat-trick scorers and blissful newly-weds are left time and again to discover this fate anew. Even those of us who tend to lead a relatively happy day-to-day existence will, in the course of a lifetime, undergo spells of wretched unhappiness and disappointment. If we opt to have children, our corrupt code ensures they will periodically suffer a similar fate.
It would be easy but unwarranted simply to extrapolate past and present trends into the indefinite future. Usually, we assume without question that our descendants – however different from us in other respects – will be biologically prone to suffer negative states of consciousness. We suppose that future generations will sometimes feel distress, both subtle and crude, just as we have always done ourselves. Yet this assumption may be naïve. The neurochemical basis of feeling and emotion is rapidly being unravelled. The human genome is going to get comprehensively decoded and rewritten. In ages to come, it will become purely an issue of (post-)human decision whether unpleasant modes of consciousness are generated in any form or texture whatsoever. Aversive experience is a sinister anachronism in the age of post-genomic medicine. We will soon have to decide if we should inflict suffering on ourselves or on others. A terrible but once unavoidable fact of organic life then becomes instead a matter for active moral choice when one decides upon the genetic make-up of one’s future kids. And that choice can be declined.
0.3 Humans Are Not Rats.
One possibility, though not an option to be canvassed here, is that in freeing ourselves from the nightmarish legacy of our evolutionary past we might choose to enjoy a lifetime of raw, all-consuming orgasmic bliss. This bliss needn’t be directed at any well-defined intentional objects. We – or more likely our robot-serviced descendants – wouldn’t be ecstatic about anything in particular. Our nature would be constitutionally ecstatic. Genetically pre-programmed euphoria would be as natural and inevitable as breathing. We would simply be happy about being happy.
The defining image here, perhaps, is the notional human counterpart of the experimenter’s lever-pressing rat. Microelectrodes can be implanted directly into the mind/brain’s pleasure centres. These lie in the mesolimbic dopamine system, the core of the brain’s reward circuitry. It extends from the ventral tegmentum to the nucleus accumbens, with projections to the limbic system and orbitofrontal cortex. Notoriously, the wired rat will indulge in frenzied bouts of intra-cranial self-stimulation for days on end. The experience is so wonderful that it takes precedence over food and sleep. Intra-cranial self-stimulation is preferred even to sex. The rat doesn’t need to undergo a contrasting « low » to appreciate the « high ». The little bundle of joy is apparently incapable of becoming bored with, or physiologically tolerant to, the rodent equivalent of Heaven.
Such animalistic images are unedifying to all but the most unabashed hedonist. Yet more subtly engineered human counterparts of the euphoric rat are perfectly feasible. Centuries hence, any pleasure-maximising ecstatics will be using their personal freedom to exercise what is, in an ethical utilitarian sense, a legitimate lifestyle choice.
The « wirehead » option, however, will be only one item taken from a very large menu. Unfortunately, it is also the most easily visualised. So the spectre of perpetual intra-cranial self-stimulation can easily be taken, wrongly, to symbolise the whole approach that The Hedonistic Imperative represents. The desperate ethical urgency that underlies the abolitionist project may thus too easily be dismissed. For humans, as we are solemnly reminded, are not rats.
0.4 Life In Dopaminergic Overdrive.
An important point to stress in the discussion to follow is that many dopamine-driven states of euphoria can actually enhance motivated, goal-directed behaviour in general. Enhanced dopamine function makes one’s motivation to act stronger, not weaker. Hyper-dopaminergic states tend also to increase the range of activities an organism finds worth pursuing. Outside the pleasure-laboratory, such states of necessity focus on countless different intentional objects. So humanity’s future as envisaged in this manifesto is not, or certainly not just, an eternity spent enraptured on elixirs of super-soma or tanked up on high-octane pleasure-machines. Nor is it plausible that posterity will enjoy only the dullish, opiated sensibility of the heroin addict. Instead, an extraordinarily fertile range of purposeful and productive activities will most likely be pursued. Better still, our descendants, and in principle perhaps even our elderly selves, will have the chance to enjoy modes of experience we primitives cruelly lack. For on offer are sights more majestically beautiful, music more deeply soul-stirring, sex more exquisitely erotic, mystical epiphanies more awe-inspiring, and love more profoundly intense than anything we can now properly comprehend.
I shall first schematically set out how a naturalistic, secular paradise of effectively everlasting happiness is biotechnically feasible. Second, I will argue why its realisation is instrumentally rational and ethically mandatory. Third, I will offer a sketch of when and why such a scenario is likely to come to pass in some guise or other. And, finally, I shall try to anticipate some of the most common if not always cogent objections that the prospect of psychochemical nirvana is likely to arouse, and attempt to defuse them.