If the soteriological goal of Buddhism is to alleviate one’s own suffering, and the perfection of virtue is merely a tool to that end, is it possible to skip the enhancement of virtue and just use neurotechnology to eliminate suffering?
Buddhist psychology advises that the practice of these virtues will replace predilections to do wrong with a joy in doing and being good, similar to Aristotle’s theory of eudaemonic happiness achieved though virtuous behavior. If the soteriological goal of Buddhism is to alleviate one’s own suffering, and the perfection of virtue is merely a tool to that end, is it possible to skip the enhancement of virtue and just use neurotechnology to eliminate suffering?
Both lay and monastic Buddhist precepts include a vow to abstain from intoxicants. In ancient India the principal concern would have been with alcohol. This is not an absolute prohibition since the medicinal use of intoxicants are explicitly permitted for monks in the Vinaya, the code of monastic conduct. Whether other substances, such as caffeine, tobacco and psychedelics, should be considered intoxicants by Buddhists has also been debated (Redmond, 2004). The key question is whether the drug intoxicates, creating stupefaction and chemical pleasure that delays efforts to eliminate dukkha, the unease that is starting point for realizing the unsatisfactory nature of grasping self-centered existence. While alcohol, opiates and cannabis certainly could not create a permanent state chemical happiness, much less facilitate spiritual insight, the neurotechnologies of this century might create permanent changes of mood. Therefore a Buddhist approach to cognitive enhancement would first distinguish between the use of neurotechnologies that is intoxicating, use that is temporarily therapeutic, and use that enables long-term spiritual progress.
Traditional Buddhist cosmology provides some context for such distinctions. Buddhists traditionally divide the world of beings into three realms, the realm of desire (kamadhatu), a more elevated realm of godly states (rupadhatu), and a realm of bodiless absorption states (arupadhatu). Each of these are still part of samsara. Embodied beings in the realm of desire include those suffering in hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demi-gods and the gods. These different planes correspond to mental states (Trungpa, 2002): hell represents suffering, hungry ghosts unsatisfied craving, animals are the embodiment of ignorance, demigods embody envy, and the gods are pleasure junkies. Humans, by contrast, have a mixture of all these mental states which makes a human mind the ideal form for spiritual development. Below the human realm beings are too distracted by torments, cravings and ignorance to develop morally and psychologically. Above the human realm the demigods and gods are too distracted by their striving and amusements. Even the use of neurotechnologies to generate sublime, spiritual states of mind can be a trap. Advanced meditators are counseled to recognize experiences of absorption into oneness with all things or emptiness (arupa jhanas), as signs of meditative progress, but not as experiences to linger in.
A distinctively Buddhist approach to the use of neurotechnologies would therefore seek to avoid being stuck in any one set of moods or mental states. Using a drug or nano-neural device that created an addiction to a blessed out state of pleasure would be as unwholesome as making oneself as stupid as an animal, or as consumed with greed as a hungry ghost (e.g. addicted). Buddhist psychology counsels that there is a difference between a dynamic eudaemonic happiness grounded in self-awareness and the constant stimulation of dopamine on a hedonic treadmill.
This nuanced approach can be seen in the Western Buddhist discussion of psychedelics. Some Western Buddhists credit their experimentation with psychedelics with catalyzing their interest in meditation (Badiner, 2002), and providing an initial glimpse of their inner lives that they would not otherwise have had. There is even some evidence that psychedelics may have been incorporated into medieval Tantric Buddhist practice (Hajicek-Dobberstein, 1995), although they are certainly not used today. Few former psychedelic-using Buddhists believe that psychedelics changed their personality in the long-term however, and they recognize that habitual use of psychedelics would be very unhealthy (Redmond, 2004).
Western Buddhists have also debated the use of antidepressants (Epstein, 1993; Hooper, 1999) . Antidepressants are not true soma or happy pills, creating superior moods for everyone who takes them. At best they alleviate symptoms of depression for the severely depressed. The general conclusion is that clinical depression is very different from dukkha, the ubiquitous unsatisfactoriness of existence. Antidepressants are precisely the opposite of narcotics: they facilitate having sufficient energy and mental health to actually get on with life and a meditation practice (Bitner et al, 2003).
Following this lead, Buddhists will likely be very concerned about the possibility that mood-modification may dull the mind and engender a static passivity towards oneself and others. But Buddhists will also be open to the possibility that safer, more powerful and targeted mood-altering drugs and brain implants – “wire-heading” - may be useful in generating a positive, dynamic engagement with life. Evidence that our day-to-day level of subjective well-being, our “happiness set-point,” is about relatively stable across the life course and across situations, and about half genetically determined (Lykken, 1999; Weiss, 2008), suggests instead that mood could be boosted with only positive effects on our dynamic engagement.
Happier people are more successful in achieving social, work and life goals. Happier people are more likely to get and stay married, have more friends, belong to more groups, and are more likely to volunteer. Happier people are more highly rated by their supervisors and they make more money. Happier people are also healthier and live longer (Lyubomirsky, King, and Diener, 2005; Oishi, Diener and Lucas, 2007; Walker, 2006). A gene therapy or drug which successful changed the happiness set-point to the setting that the happiest 1% of people thrive at, without tipping over into addiction or stupefaction, would presumably facilitate moral behavior and spiritual practice.
Generosity and Loving-Kindness (Dana and Metta)
The virtue of generosity is narrowly the willingness to share with others. Generosity requires overcoming greed and material attachment. But more broadly generosity is an exercise of empathy, compassion and loving-kindness, metta, the capacity to imagine others’ suffering as ones’ own and the active desire to help them. In this broader sense the exercise of dana and metta are the overcoming of self-absorption and neuroticism.
The generation of compassion for all beings is one of the oldest meditation techniques in the Buddhist tradition, in which it is presented in several different forms. Research on people practicing a form of compassion visualization meditation has found it reduces stress hormones (Pace et al., 2008), and boosts positive emotions and well-being (Fredrickson et al., 2008; Pace et al., 2008) and feelings of social connectedness (Hutcherson et al., 2008).
Many lines of research are suggesting that neurotechnologies to enhance generosity and compassion may also soon be possible. First, there is a strong genetic component to our innate predisposition for compassion and generosity. The dominant model for the components of personality is the five factor model. The five factors are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN). The five factors have been statistically distilled from personality tests and appear to be stable over the life course. Each is about half genetically determined (Jang, Livesley and Vernon, 1996; Bouchard and McGue, 2003), which suggests that drugs and gene therapies could be developed to change their personality attributes. Luo et al. (2007) has, for instance, found a number of genes correlated to these underlying personality dimensions.
The factor of agreeableness appears to be particularly relevant to the virtues of generosity and compassion. People who score high on agreeableness are more compassionate, trusting and helpful throughout their lives while people low in agreeableness will find it hard not to be uncooperative, unsympathetic and easily irritated regardless of how much they meditate and think loving thoughts. Agreeableness has been found to be correlated with empathy (del Barrio et al., 2004) and volunteering (Carlo et al., 2005).
Agreeableness is also related to several other personality constructs that have moral valence. Michael Ashton and colleagues (2005) have found that agreeableness is related to Honesty-Humility and Greed-Avoidance scales, which include personality descriptors such as sincere, fair, and unassuming as opposed to sly, greedy, and pretentious. Agreeableness and Honesty-Humility are in turn negatively associated with the ‘‘Dark Triad’’ traits of Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Primary Psychopathy (Lee & Ashton, 2005).
Two examples of drugs that appear to boost agreeableness are oxytocin and MDMA. Oxytocin is a hormone released during romance, love making, child birth and breast-feeding which induces feelings of trust and bonding. Its use is now being explored to overcome social phobia (shyness) and facilitate the social integration of people with autism (Baumgartner et al., 2008). Variations in oxytocin receptor genes are correlated with the ability to empathize with others’ feelings (Rodrigues et al., 2010), and oxytocin supplementation improves the ability to read social cues (Domes, 2007), trust in others (Kosfeld et al., 2005) and generosity in social games (Zak et al., 2007). MDMA or “ecstasy” is another drug whose users report feeling more love and compassion. Among other effects MDMA stimulates the release of oxytocin (Thompson et al., 2007).