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After Happiness, Cyborg Virtue
J. Hughes   Mar 21, 2012   Free Inquiry Dec 2011, 32(1)  

Although I have used a version of utilitarianism to argue for both transhumanism and social democracy, and for the technoprogressive hybrid of the two, research in hedonic psychology and emerging neurotechnologies make utilitarianism an unattractive moral logic. Instead, I now argue that a version of Sen and Nussbaum’s capabilities approach better supports the technoprogressive endeavor.  The capabilities approach argues for both social and technological enablement of human abilities. When the capabilities approach is combined with the idea that virtues are social capabilities, one conclusion is that “moral enhancement,” the use of neurotechnologies to enhance moral sentiment, cognition and behavior, is a social obligation.  A schema of virtues to be enhanced, and relevant therapeutic morally enhancing neurochemicals, are discussed.

When I was 17 I was part of a six week summer seminar at Cornell on the theme of “the individual and the community.”  A dozen of us nerdly teens read an intensive diet of John Stuart Mill, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, under the tutelage of two philosophy professors.  After that I was a determined socialist who relied heavily on Mills utilitarianism for my ethics, even after I became one of the spokespeople for transhumanism.

My first book, Citizen Cyborg, was an attempt to sketch out a left transhumanist perspective on the ongoing biopolitical debates.  Under Bush we transhumanists had a bĂȘte noir in the President’s Council on Bioethics, headed by the determinedly anti-enhancement Leon Kass, and aided by Frank Fukuyama and the vast right and left-wing conspiracy of people freaked out by a smarter, healthier, longer-lived future.  In the book I started from what I thought was a hybrid left Millsian-transhumanist proposition, but which was really just a core Enlightenment tenet, that the more control we have over our lives, individually and collectively, the happier we will be.
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I devoted a chapter to parsing ways that individual freedom, social egalitarianism, and neurotechnologies like SSRIs have made and will make us happier. I didn’t interrogate the concept of happiness deeply. I discussed the control of physical pain and the treatment of mental illness. Then I discussed the evidence that our happiness set-point is genetically determined, and suggested that it will be possible to chemically or genetically increase the average level of happiness without negatively effecting motivation.

After Citizen Cyborg I started a second book project, Cyborg Buddha, and began wading into the quickly moving stream of neuroscience research to investigate how we may use neurotechnologies to improve moral behavior and spiritual experience.  I’m still hip deep and struggling with the torrent of social neuroscience research. I also began teaching a course on “Happiness and Public Policy” at Trinity College, and began educating myself in the growing happiness literature. As a result, six years later I am much less enamored of my earlier attempts to rationalize either social democratic politics or transhumanism, or the “technoprogressive” syncretism of the two, with the utilitarian pursuit of happiness.  Instead I’ve been drifting toward some kind of postmodern, and posthuman, Buddho-Aristotleianism, much to my own chagrin.

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James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


Fascinating. I completely share your position on meta-ethics. On your ethical choice I have some misgivings, but it’s certainly one of the strongest arguments so far that there is an ethical system that I might actually find more attractive than utilitarianism.

The emphasis on flourishing and virtue over “happiness” mirrors developments in my own personal approach to life, but I have usually tended to see this as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Gradually, though, the creeping realisation has been growing in my mind that I don’t actually value happiness above all else: I do actually value some virtues for their own sake, and also homeostatis, which I interpret broadly to include mental homeostatis.

There is a counter-argument, though. We might consider a future of wire-headed cyberpunks to be dystopic, even if the cyberpunks themselves are very happy (and even if one or more of them can reasonably be considered to be our future self/ves), but how much do we really like a future that in which we flourish and are supremely virtuous, but are also to some extent miserable? If ethics is indeed a matter of choice, and not of truth, then why would we want to make this choice.

In the short term the differences between these approaches is almost certainly too subtle to make much of a practical difference. The important thing is to just get on and apply them (not least by urgently increasing the resilience of the global system, which is at risk of collapse over the next two to three decades). But I agree that if we do manage to get through the bottleneck then we will need to clarify these issues. Otherwise we will end up fighting over them.

Great article and I like the idea of capabilities. I also like the idea of moving beyond happiness as a measure of success or the ultimate goal of our lives. It is important to keep it an eye on it, as Peter suggests. We don’t want to be miserably virtuous.

On the other hand I think that the feeling of happiness is over valued. It is important, but the sense that one’s life has purpose and meaning is also important. The ability to defer happiness to find meaning is just a larger version of the marshmallow test.

I would argue that capability is paired with responsibility. If we must give everyone the capability to live the virtuous life, we also have some responsibility to discuss what that means and how it will look.

Defining virtue by basic premises that can be enhanced is a good first step, but how those virtues will shape society, and shape it in different ways for different societies is also an important conversation. Part of the difference will be in the practices and disciplines that societies and individuals choose to focus and implement the augmentation that they receive from neuro-stimulation or medication.  Similar to an athlete’s decision to pursue either karate or gymnastics or football. An augmented athlete could do any of the three, but personal choice and taste will lead, at least initially to one or the other.

I was glad to see that you saw a learning curve involved with the enhancements and that improvement would not be automatic, at least for adults who already have a bevy of established bad habits.

On the issue(s) of happiness being over-valued and the ability to defer happiness to find meaning, my position has tended to be that what is really over-valued is indeed short-term happiness, at the expense of the long-term (on average, with its ups and downs) happiness that comes with leading values-based life. This also then relates to the issue of identity, and specifically how far we identity with our future selves. My hunch is that those that fail the marshmallow test do so in some sense because they care less about their future selves than about their present ones, which may possibly be equivalent to saying that they identify less with their future selves. And like James (unless I completely misread that part of his essay) I don’t believe there is any well-grounded logical reason why they should. It’s a choice.

So the question I think we need to resolve is: to what extent is this merely an issue of short- vs long-term happiness, and to what extent is it really an issue of happiness vs other virtues (capabilities, responsibility etc). Ironically, a more virtue-based ethic may be more compatible with short-term happiness than with long-term happiness, for the simple reason that many of us are more _comfortable_ with it (wireheaded cyberpunks may seem dyspotic to our present selves, but we’d love it if we were one of them, by definition).

That being said, as per my comments on other threads we shouldn’t think about these things TOO much, we’ll only get confused. 😊

The idea of ethical self-medication is really interesting. You can achieve in a moment, with a pill, what people of the past took years of moral training to get. Sounds fantastic.

The political implications however are a bit preoccupying. I do not think anyone would take a pill to change his or her political views. So, once we have the capacity to alter so much the biological architecture of our brains, once we can turn our worldview upside down overnight, and given the importance of aggregate opinions in the electoral base - who is going to stop political parties from cross drugging us all? Now they have adverts, conventions, posters. What if they could sneak a bit of socialism/fascism/communism/ into public water supplies? I already read of someone proposing to add lithium to public waters - in order to make everybody feel a bit happier.

As long as morality remains an individual issue, the introduction of chemical ethical enhancers is just great. A contemporary St. Augustine would not be able to say that he knows what is good, but somehow feels like choosing what is bad. But I would not like to see public management of morality. It has been already tried, with scary results. I prefer to find at a local pharmacy the section of “aggressiveness”/“infidelity”/“decadent attitude” pills - rather than only their opposites, possibly administered against my will like a mandatory ethical vaccine.

I would agree Andre that drugs that change political/religious views would be dangerous. There are numerous sci-fi stories that posit the kind of designer drugs that you suggest.

I think the change will come if and when there is a medication that will allow a person to have a truly open mind, without losing the opinion they already have. It would allow us to argue strongly held beliefs while still leaving room for the possibility of change.

Surely such drugs already exist. Anything that makes you calm helps you to be more open-minded, without losing the opinion you already have. Hooray for camomile tea!

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