Can Biotechnology Make Us Happy?

I agree with Matt Yglesias and Julian Sanchez that Peter Lawler’s recent NRO commentary, arguing against the idea that biotechnology can enhance our happiness, is wrong.

It’s the kind of piece that really makes conservatives look stupid. Lawler makes inane assertions such as:

But we really know that it is friends, family, God, and country that make us happy; happiness is far more a matter of virtuously and lovingly performing our duties to them than anything connected with rights. What we achieve as individuals is good only if we can use what we’ve acquired as family members, friends, citizens, and children of God.

He goes on to agree with Leon Kass (chairman of Bush’s Council on Bioethics) that an attempt to improve our lives through science (beyond, perhaps, treating diseases) is a misguided individualistic project.

If this article is at all accurate, Kass is against more than individualism; he is against the growth of human knowledge if its application could be used to help people achieve goals he considers to be beyond the “natural norm”. He tries to elevate the common human emotional “Yuck” reaction to a philosophical principle (“the wisdom of repugnance”). He is anti-intellectual.

While I think it’s wise to be careful before manipulating complex biological systems we may not sufficiently understand, I don’t think there’s anything sacred about what’s natural. Modern medicine helps people every day by intervening artificially in their bodies; and sensible people think that’s marvelous. There’s going to be a lot more of this artificial intervention, and that’s great too!

Getting back to the happiness topic; I think it’s true that a pill or a genetic intervention will not be sufficient to make people lead happy lives. As I’ve said before, and as I think Nozick’s Experience Machine thought-experiment demonstrates, what we want is more than a series of felt pleasures. We enjoy the progress of our own chosen goals and values. And choosing good goals, and solving the problems that interfere with achieving them, requires us to have good theories and these will never come from a pill or our genes.

On the other hand, our theories are produced in our brains, and our brains are biological machines that can benefit from interventions. It makes sense to me that as our knowledge of the brain grows we’ll be able to manipulate it to overcome problems and enhance capabilities. These interventions should help us achieve happiness, because they’ll make us more capable of solving our problems.

I am personally very conservative when it comes to altering my brain with chemicals, but I don’t see any moral problem with someone voluntarily trying to do this. As time goes by, this will be less risky and more sensible.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

I agree with Eugene Volokh that “Season’s Greetings” is kind of silly and there’s nothing wrong with my wishing people “Merry Christmas,” even if I am (or they are) not Christian.

I spent a very pleasant Christmas Eve with my family watching It’s A Wonderful Life. This might have been the first time I’ve actually watched it all the way through. I noticed this the last time, but it’s cool to finally understand why there’s a character in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (a very amusing movie if you’re in the right mood) named Zuzu Petals.

Anyway, I wish everyone who reads this blog, and everyone they like, a Merry Christmas. I hope any terrorist plans for the season (or any season) are foiled, and that we can continue our inevitable progress without too many bad days along the way.

So, remember to have fun; or the terrorists win.

Profit

Thomas Sowell reminds us here and here that “profit” should not be considered a dirty word, nor should “non-profit”, “public interest”, and “consumer advocate” be automatically greeted with honor or respect.

Important points to remember.

A Warning to Bush

David Boaz, of the Cato Institute, issued a warning to the Bush campaign today to be careful about alienating voters who took his limited government rhetoric during the last campaign seriously. Other than his tax cuts, his domestic program has been very disappointing.

His re-election seems reasonably secure right now, but if enough small-government-favoring citizens decide to not vote; or worse, to vote for a socially tolerant Democrat, he could lose enough close but vital states to blow the election.

I really hope he hears the warning and moves his actual policies in the correct direction.

Dieting

I’ve been dieting for the past 5 weeks.

I’ve always been a bit on the heavy side, and it’s been getting more pronounced over the years; so it seemed like a good time to rein things in a bit. I don’t think I’m vain, but I’d like to avoid the health risks of carrying too much weight.

I’m doing the South Beach diet (low carb) and have lost about 15 pounds and 3
waist-inches before plateauing. I’m not being fanatical about it; I’ve gone off it intentionally a couple of times already (for Thanksgiving and my birthday); but only briefly, intending to continue and make up any lost ground.

I had an interesting experience on Friday afternoon. As I was filling my water bottle before leaving work, I saw a Krispy Kreme box in the break room that someone had left there for anyone to eat. I opened it, saw three nice-looking donuts and considered taking one. I thought about eating one. I considered how it would taste, how much I’d enjoy it, how bad it would be for my dieting progress, etc. I decided that I didn’t really want it that much, and furthermore, this was a good chance to prove to myself that I am in control of what I eat; not urges. So I didn’t eat any. And walking away, I decided that I felt much better thinking about this small victory than I would have from the taste of
the donut.

I’m not an ascetic or anything. I don’t like self-denial for its own sake, and heartily approve of having fun and indulging in pleasures. But, I also like the idea of living deliberately; of acting because of explicit choices and not just operating on auto-pilot.

So, while I’m dieting, I’m enjoying the opportunity to think more about what and when I eat, and to reaffirm that these things are up to me. I’m not going to be on a permanent diet; but, after reaching my goals, I’ll continue to be more conscious of my eating and will choose to eat those things that cause the most fat accumulation less often.