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.


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