Happiness Becomes You

by Jon Martin

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”
–Jeremy Bentham

“Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller [that] there is. LOVE.”
–Last written words of William S. Burroughs

Pleasure and pain. The sensory experiences of sentient life on earth have been defined by the coercion and dissuasion of this powerful perceptual dichotomy. These words, which together represent the manifold of possible perceptual experiences, divide all perceptions into those which are desirable and those which are to be avoided. The reality of these types of sensations is a self-evident a priori truth of perception, which is so essential to all perceptual experiences that in its absence our perceptions would have no significance, emotionally, or instrumentally. It is through the perceptual information, imbued with pleasantness or unpleasantness, respectively, that our mind is connected to the extrinsic. It is “a phenomenon within a single organism… [and is the sole] communication…from the body to the ego.” (Sasz 85) It is the consideration of potential pain and pleasure of the anticipated consequences of our actions which drives our choices. Pain is, as a tool of choice, not an emotion, but “rather, an extreme state of mind that, along with depression, can be interpreted as the antithesis of feelings at full throttle”, and is cause for fear. (Greenfield 137) As concepts, they represent a part of perception so basic and crucial that verbal description seems particularly wanting, for “the words mean the sensations, [therefore, one] can learn the meaning of the words by, and only by, experiencing, having, the sensations or feelings to which they refer. (Cowan 15)

        The presence of pain and its emotional sub-category “unhappiness” in the lives of organisms is one of the most fundamental facts of natural corporeal experience. Organisms do not choose to feel suffering, as they do not choose to be limited by size, strength, or intelligence. It is, rather, a necessary result of the organism’s physical composition. Human beings, one of the many types of sentient organisms, have responded to their own physical limitation, and the tide of technological progress, both within and outside of the realm of medicine, has responded to, and perhaps even accentuated, mankind’s intrinsic dissatisfaction with the corporeal limitations of the human body. Where our meek physical makeup fails us, technology attempts to compensate. Video cameras and computers store certain types of information more effectively than memory, while telephones and the internet allow a breadth of communication which spans much further than the any sound emitted by the human throat. It could be argued that it is this dissatisfaction with the natural abilities of our bodies, and inherently, the displeasure of the resulting dissatisfaction, which motivates the creation of all forms of technology. But sometimes, physical limitations arise as a result of illness or injury. In cases like these medical technology compensates by incorporating machines into the body (hearing aids, pace-makers, artificial limbs), inducing pain relief or healing (opiates, steroids, antibiotics), removing and mending (surgery) etc. David Pearce, in his five-chapter, very utopian, bio-ethical manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative, promotes the elimination of the core phenomenon of the pleasure-pain dichotomy by using medical technology to eliminate suffering in all sentient life, all while promoting everlasting happiness, motivation, and creativity. He envisions that euphoria will become the standard of mental health through medical technology, a process he sees as inevitable through the development of libertarian consumerism, which he believes will make everlasting happiness, as it becomes technologically possible, become a life-style choice, as autonomous individuals increase a demand to define their own life (consciousness). This is a development Pearce foresees will occur in the not-so-distant future, and believes shall be the ethical requirement of human beings, once such a development becomes feasible. It is a topic of debate which is not yet of imminent concern, but challenges the trend of medicine which seeks to improve the human body, and raises many questions about the meaning of humanity and the value of suffering. He establishes negative-utilitarian ethical grounds for such medical technology, compares and contrasts several technological options for producing permanent states of happiness, and attempts to respond to common objections. Although his manifesto claims animals will eventually also be “freed” from suffering by benevolent humans, I believe, for the purpose of this paper, the human side of the issue will be the sole focus.

        To write about happiness (or any phenomenon of reality), I deem (or judge, to be “philosophically” Latinate) it is appropriate, especially in a biomedical context, not to separate mental reality from neurological phenomenon. In the analysis of Pearce’s very utopian manifesto, I shall first attempt to outline the various ways in which “paradise-engineering” might be achieved, establish and discuss the ethical dilemmas which will arise from such technology, find the flaws and strengths in Pearce’s argument, and come to a conclusion regarding a biotechnological pursuit whose realization is not imminent but rather shall stem from current medical research such as genetic-engineering, brain surgery, and drug technology.

        Throughout the essay, Pearce outlines several ways in which the “abolitionist” (abolition of pain) movement might be approached. He discusses the role pain has played in the genetic progress of organisms. The genetic predisposition of sentient organisms to suffer stems from the obvious evolutionary advantage of dissuading activities which threaten the “living vehicles of genetic replicators”, as Pearce puts it. He writes that:

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...Sadness, anxiety and discontent are frequently good for our genes; they're just psychologically bad for us. (Pearce, Intro.)
        It is here in his introduction that Pearce begins to discuss a profoundly interesting finding in “wire-head” rats, which have microelectrodes linked directly to their pleasure centers and are able to self-stimulate by pressing a lever. Experiments found that the rats will self-stimulate their pleasure centers “which lie in the mesolimbic dopamine system, the core of the brain's reward circuitry…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. It's preferred even to sex.” Though Pearce finds the “wire-head” arrangement to be a dead-end, he states that the fact that no contrast to the pleasure is necessary, and that the rats never develop a tolerance has deep implications for his “Hedonistic Imperative”. (Pearce, Intro.) These findings suggest that pleasure is indeed a very specific neurochemical arrangement, rather than something which requires relief or comparison to suffering. Pearce answers the common belief that happiness would be meaningless without its opposite by saying:
        Some people endure lifelong emotional depression or physical pain. Quite literally, they are never happy…yet it would be a cruel doctrine which pretended that such people don't really suffer because they can't contrast their sense of desolation with joyful memories. In the grips of despair, they may find the very notion of happiness cognitively meaningless. Conversely, the euphoria of [unipolar mania] is not dependent for its sparkle on recollections of misery. Given the state-dependence of memory, negative emotions may simply be inaccessible to consciousness in such an exalted state. Likewise, it is possible that our perpetually euphoric descendants will find our contrastive notion of unhappiness quite literally inconceivable. (Pearce, Chap. 4)

        The psychological impossibility of understanding the concept of suffering would be a necessary part of paradise-engineering, but nonetheless, Pearce asserts that though “wire-heading” is a technological possibility; it would be severely and obviously limiting to human potential, and would hold value only in research. It follows that the ends of the Hedonistic Imperative would be approached by Pearce through less restrictive methods.

        Drug technology represents another possibility for the creation of a world where people experience emotions “we primitives cruelly lack…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.” (Pearce) Although he acknowledges that describing dopamine, which has a large role in reward and motivation, as the source of biochemical pleasure is too simple; the chemicals known to prevent its re-uptake (MAOIs) are available and might yield worthwhile information. (Pearce, Chap. 1) He claims as a result of this discovery that:

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. (Pearce Intro.)

        Pearce insists that because of the possibility of driving motivation along with happiness we shall not enjoy “an eternity spent enraptured on elixirs of super-soma or tanked up on high-octane pleasure-machines… [nor] the dullish, opiated sensibility of the heroin addict. Instead, an extraordinarily fertile range of purposeful and productive activities will most likely be pursued.” (Pearce, Intro.) Pearce discusses the use of drug technology not as a means to his proposed end, but rather as a stepping stone until genetic-engineering allows for the restructuring of the brain’s reward pathways, or some other way of creating a permanent state of motivated, blissful, but intelligent consciousness might be attained. He believes that “as the operation of our 30,000 plus genes is unraveled, the new discipline of pharmacogenomics will allow drugs to be personally tailored to the genetic makeup of each individual. Better still, desirable states of consciousness that can be induced pharmacologically [shall] later be pre-coded genetically.” (Pearce Chap. 3) After euphoria may be induced through the redesign of the gene and brain, drugs, as Pearce foresees it, will become a way of enhancing the euphoric state, by way of changing the perceptions and thoughts of the individual. His vision, which he writes shall stem from an increasing demand for autonomy and control over one’s own mind, will incorporate drugs and virtual reality as important forms of entertainment and exploration, allowing individuals to live their lives exactly as they wish, albeit sometimes through imagination and illusion.

        Before any such renovation of sentient reality were to be undergone, it would be advisable to look into the deep abyss of beatitude before one leaps. The type of post-human reality that Pearce describes, quite confidently as an inevitability, raises many questions in the minds of not only skeptics, but the average morally-aware individual. Any plan of irreversibly altering the human being as it is currently conceived of, should expect to be met with misgiving and wariness. Because of the integral part played by pleasure and pain in the human organism, it is hard to understand such an absolute divorce from suffering. It is a true that “everyone wants to be happy…[and to] understand how to be happy” so much to the point that happiness’s pursuit extends into “our rationalistic disciplines of psychology, medicine, and religion [which] teach that a civilized human being must learn to delay gratification of immediate desires for sake of future happiness.” (Cloninger 4) But still, the removal of pain, and thus our ability to harm, or at least to “feel” harmed, obviously would change the dynamic of human moral interactions. A utilitarian might say that this would rob life of any moral obligations, as individuals would no longer be capable of being harmed or harming. The utilitarian principle holds the happiness Pearce so fiercely wishes to impose as “desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end.” (Mill 32) But is morality intrinsically valuable, that its absence in a pain-free world would be such a loss for mankind? Does not morality promote virtue? Even so, Mill argues, virtue is desirable “not naturally and originally [as] part of [happiness], but it is capable of becoming so…and is desired and cherished, not as a means to happiness, but as a part of [happiness].” He maintains that virtue, which he groups as a pleasure along with “music” and “health”, is desirable in itself, only because it is “besides being a means…a part of the end (happiness).” (Mill 34) Therefore, any intrinsic value in virtue is only the intrinsic value of happiness, to which virtue is both a path and a vital component. Without the ability to feel one’s happiness harmed, or to perceive injustice, morality would cease to be of human use, which suggests it is of instrumental value only. If so, without the ability or need to use morality (after complete realization of the “abolitionist” ideal), morality would be rendered a tool without a purpose, a mere shadow of the “Darwinian past”. It follows that, if not intrinsically desirable, other than as a part of happiness, morality would be no great loss, a dismissible piece of antique emotional technology, as useless in the “post-Darwinian” world as an appendix is to the modern human.

        Of course, one might raise the objection that The Hedonistic Imperative is so strongly based on utilitarian standards of “the good life” that it would be inconsistent with the wishes of anyone who did not accept such a hedonistic stance. True, the portion of the manifesto (chap. 2) of what Pearce describes as “defence of [The Hedonistic Imperative] on the basis of, first, practical means-ends rationality and, secondly, ethical negative utilitarianism” intended only to provide proof in the eyes of “analytic philosophers” is uniformly utilitarian. Still, although his entire piece might be described as slightly presumptuous or condescending (one gets the impression that if one does not agree, he simply must not properly understand the ultimate goal of the project) Pearce defends his “imperative” on the grounds that it is does not reflect the views of only utilitarians, saying that his “abolitionist project isn't hostage to a single contested family of ethical theories…it's not only utilitarians who abhor cruelty and suffering.” (Pearce, Chap. 4) Despite this statement’s being recognizably true, does it not ignore the fact that outside of a utilitarian or hedonistic ethical position, eliminating pain completely from the human mind is not something inherently valuable? He continues, explaining how non-utilitarians should be aware that his plan would be an attempt to create not “wireheads, [or] blissed-out junkies, [but rather] emotionally enriched post-Darwinian superminds”, a distinction he claims would be irrelevant to the pure-utilitarian. Pearce’s Hedonic Imperative must therefore incorporate not only a hedonic system of value, but must also find value in the intellectual, creative, and empathetic elements of life; what Mill refers to as “parts of happiness.”, which Mill claims to be valuable in themselves, because they constitute the faces of happiness and pleasure. (Pearce, Chap. 4) Indeed, if a wave of overwhelming and wholeheartedly hedonic ethical sentiment were to take favor in the majority of our possibly euphoric posterity there would be no need for preserving, in the way Pearce favors, mankind’s rational, creative, empathetic or intellectual capacities in favor of a lifetime of life-support-aided mind-numbing and rapturous ecstasy.

        But there are other problems which are apparent in Pearce’s theory. For instance, pain and suffering, which are events of reality which exist only internally “perceived by the sufferer as in himself…not [as] some possibly questionable external object or event”, and are viewed widely as “valuable because it helps to ensure survival in spite of [corporeal] damage.” (Young 102-104) It is the clear purposes for an organism’s interaction with its extrinsic environment which pain and suffering hold that raises objections in critics of the Hedonistic Imperative. It is an issue one would expect Pearce would have to answer to, for a society of organisms without any incentive for self-preservation or bodily-preservation would not seem to have any prospects of enduring. The objections take several forms, and Pearce conveniently outlines many of them. For example, one might assert that: "If we were always elated, we'd suffer the same fate as intra-cranially self-stimulating laboratory animals. We'd starve, or die of general self-neglect. Both physical and psychological pain do more than promote the inclusive fitness of genes. For the most part, they protect the individual organism from harm too. If a regime of universal happiness were attempted, we'd never want to have sex and reproduce. Therefore we'd become extinct as a species” or “Without suffering, there can be no personal development; [for] unearned happiness leads to stasis.” (Pearce, Chap. 4) In answer to the issue of self-neglect and the absence of reproductive incentives Pearce replies:

        Pragmatically, however, worry over the incapacitating effects of excess well-being on its victims illustrates the advantages of retaining both well-defined intentional objects and the goal-directed behaviour advocated in this manifesto. Tomorrow's paradise-engineering specialists will probably judge it prudent to keep these traditional forms of life. Such modes of old-style intentionality will be needed for the purposes of any practical medium-term utopia, at least. No heroic sacrifice of subjective well-being is thereby demanded. (Pearce, Chap. 4)

It seems, at first glance, that Pearce is contradictorily claiming that people should continue to respond to aversive stimuli without the presence of pain. There is not necessarily a contradiction here, and Pearce cites technological advancements in robotics which have yielded machines which will actively sense and respond evasively to damaging stimulus, but very few would consider these robots to be sentient. This observation suggests that people could be aware of harmful stimuli without painful sensations, although I note that humans (not even politicians) are not robots. This would have a profound effect on the meaning of aversive stimulus, because one’s reaction would be one of choice, rather than impetus. One would empirically, through an aversive sensory “message”, be made aware of the location and degree of harm, and would have to choose to react using this empirical knowledge. Any effective society, not only without physical pain but an ever-present sense of gladness, would require everyone to also be genetically pre-disposed toward goal-driven, creative, and motivated behavior. If this ever is an actual technological possibility for humans, however far off, it would follow that this type of non-emotional pain might be made obsolete, for few would choose painful sensation over an effective equivalent.

        But emotional pain, and the frequently associated struggle to overcome it, is seen as fundamentally worthwhile by a great many individuals. The process by which humans attempt to overcome suffering, which is a manifestation of the struggle for happiness which Pearce cites as simply a much less efficient attempt to be always happy, is traditionally viewed as the main source of man’s distinctive ingenuity. If this is true, it suggests that suffering is instrumentally valuable, in its ability to promote progress, which must also be said to be valuable, as such statements inherently imply that progress is desirable. But, would universal happiness halt all progress? According to Pearce, the type of happiness which consumers will prefer would be a driven, creative one, through augmentation of the dopamine pathways and selective dopamine reuptake inhibiters, resulting in a greater amount of dopamine concentrated for longer in a greater number of dopamine receptors, in addition to the other mood-elevating effects of other genetic neurological predispositions. Despite the heavy type of restructuring and recreation of the brain which such a state would require, dopamine does play an almost central role in creating feelings of pleasure and reward, all while simultaneously boosting goal-directed motivation.

        The goal of the Hedonistic Imperative might be a logical and scientific extension or solution to the problems of suffering and the primal desire for happiness, but to critics, the solution’s price is unnatural and contrary to Darwinist history. As for the Hedonistic Imperative’s implications for natural selection, I would go so far as to say that the Darwinian selection being threatened has already been dealt a deadly blow, through the practice of medicine, and is not necessarily something to be protected, as the idea that humans could evolve beneficially from it is a self-contradiction, in that further evolutions of the current human species would cease to be human at all. The fact that Darwinian evolution was the order of Nature does not lend it any special value. Just because something is natural, it does not necessarily follow that it is good. I agree with Pearce’s statement that “warfare, rape, famine, pestilence, infanticide and child-abuse…are quite natural… [and] the popular inclination to ascribe some kind of benign wisdom to an anthropomorphized Mother Nature serves, in practice, only to legitimate all manner of unspeakable cruelties.” (Pearce Chap. 4) But I would ask still another question: how is it that humans could act unnaturally, even if they wished to? If mankind is a part of nature, and I would argue that it is wholly so, then the products of our natural ability to innovate, including brain surgery, atom bombs, houses, are just products assembled from parts of our environment. The intelligence which allows humans to create tools or even write The Hedonistic Imperative is our species’ natural strength, and is essential to our survival. Birds gather sticks from their environment and build birdhouses, the same way humans gather metals from their environment and make tools. Intelligence is simply the human beings natural advantage, the way speed is a cheetah’s natural advantage. It makes no sense to say a fish did something unnatural, for it is a part of nature, and the parts of nature together compose nature itself. Spiders cannot problem-solve rationally or fly to the moon in a space shuttle, just as humans cannot weave small webs using abdominal secretions. It is not that one is natural and one is not, they are merely two different parts of nature. If this is true, it follows logically that the “unnatural” argument against The Hedonistic Imperative cannot stand.

        Simply put, the number of ethical questions and aversions raised by such a biomedical project, which Pearce claims is already in the infancy of its inception, should be cause for careful scrutiny in the minds of any philosopher (or neurological researcher). Practically speaking, I cannot delve into all of them in this critique, but if this process is indeed both inevitable and controversial, what is the source of both the inevitability and the skepticism? Mainly, the dichotomy of pleasure and pain is, as before described, something so crucially central to human reality (perception, decision making etc.) that the prospect of its polarizing, in either direction, appears to be a threat to humanity itself, and is met with rational distrust. As I have said, I feel it is intellectually dishonest to separate reality from the neurological perceptive forces which create it. Therefore, to change the mind in this way would be to change reality. For a project of so drastically recreating the human mind to ever come to fruition would require great scientific progress and a shift in the average person’s philosophical convictions, for most people, even if it’s a self-delusional way of feeling “my reality is the right reality”, feel that pain is a valuable part of perceptual experience. Science surely will progress, and as the prospect of creating a paradisiacal reality on earth becomes medically possible, it is certain that there will be some, however limited or universal, demand for such a procedure. It is my belief that the anxiety such a manifesto creates in some is natural, the same way as the excitement and anticipation it creates is natural. If such a reality were to be shaped, I would suggest that people were not genetically perpetually ecstatic, but rather in various degrees of pain-free happiness at all times, degrees which still allow for higher levels of euphoria (perhaps mediated appropriately through drugs.) I agree with Pearce that humans have no more need for pain, and no reason to respect natural selection. I would also agree that such a plan would make for an altogether better reality to live in, because happiness and pleasure in all of its forms (music, virtue, philosophy, love, etc.) is, as I have attempted to outline, the very definition of “good” in human reality. In the pursuit of greater utility, which Pearce undoubtedly believes himself to be, I would hope mankind, in creating such a new world to live in, would also enhance intelligence, creativity, and empathy, all of which would be conducive to a longer-enduring, and ever-improving heaven on earth. Along with that, augmenting all that our perceptual reality is would be optimal, such as stronger awareness of colors, music, sensations and other perceptual pleasures.

        Mankind’s genetic proclivity for rationality, invention, and innovation has always been his strongest tool. As man continues to improve his quality of life, it seems probable that the “abolitionist movement” in some form might come to be. The words pertaining to pain, left behind by the benevolent generations which made such a world possible, would suddenly be meaningless the way a word for an unperceivable color would be meaningless today. The new face of reality, built from the same molecules, would emerge, and few would conceivably wish to take a backward step. In the end, in the image of his own desire, man will have invented himself.

Jon Martin
July 2005


The Hedonistic Imperative