Monday, 15 September 2014

On drugs, self-deception, and political manipulation




 
I finally got around to reading Francis Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future. In it Fukuyama argues that the widespread use of drugs like Prozac and Ritalin is a harbinger of political challenges humanity has never faced before. In the last century, we've learned so much about how the brain works that we will soon be able to manipulate people's behaviour with neuropharmaceuticals and the use of genetic engineering. Fukuyama warns that these developments have important political implications and if we don't understand and regulate these effects our society runs the risk of becoming one of soulless, artificially happy, and obedient people. That is, an inhuman or posthuman society just like the one described by Aldous Huxley in his well-known and deeply disturbing dystopian novel Brave New World

But what is the political effect of the use of pharmaceuticals? And in what way is Prozac and other anti-depressants similar to the Huxleyan "soma"? Fukuyama argues that there's a set of "political emotions" like pride, confidence, aggression and happiness which are an integral part of what makes us human. Plato has famously argued that the human soul has three distinct parts: a desiring part, a rational part and thymos, which, Fukuyama explains, is "the prideful part of human personality, the part that demands that other people recognize one's worth and dignity." Our sense of pride is closely related to our feeling of self-esteem and our level of confidence and motivation. A spirited person is active, proud and confident. On the other hand, lack of self-esteem is associated with submissiveness, apathy and weakness of the will. 

Now, Fukuyama points out that "the desire for recognition has a biological basis and that basis is related with levels of serotonin in the brain. It has been shown that monkeys at the low end of the dominance hierarchy have low levels of serotonin and that, conversely, when a monkey wins alpha male status, he feels a serotonin high." Thus, if drugs like Prozac can boost serotonin levels, they can give us a permanent "serotonin high," a sense of being socially accepted and recognized, a constant feeling of confidence and motivation. 

The widespread use of anti-depressants in our society, Fukuyama argues, also signals our inclination to use genetic engineering to design people who are always happy. That is, we are open to pathologizing unhappiness and fighting it like a disease. Then, once the technology becomes available to understand the genetic and chemical underpinnings of "feeling blue," we can eradicate the abnormality and effectively bring Heaven on Earth. 

While I agree with Fukuyama's uneasiness with regard to these scientific developments, I think there's an equivocation in his argument which takes away from its strength. In philosophical jargon, notions like self-esteem and recognition have both internalist and externalist connotations. Internalist, in the sense that they refer to subjective feelings (i.e. internal states of the individual) and externalist to the extent that they concern the external social environment of the person (i.e. his relations to others). 

Now, it's hard to see how one can achieve social recognition just by taking a drug. Social status, obviously, is not a property of the individual considered in isolation, but it regards his relation to others. For instance, being the best receiver in the NFL, is not a matter of how one feels inside, but a question of how others feel about him and, objectively, a question of numbers (yards covered, touchdowns scored etc.) Now, one can feel inside that he's the best receiver ever, but that alone doesn't make it so. So, it's hard to see how taking a serotonin booster, can help one become the best receiver in the NFL. The status is conferred based on the objective athletic ability publicly displayed by the player during games. No matter how a player feels inside, if he only "talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk," (or make the catch and run the run) he's not going to be conferred the status of best receiver. 

Surely, there might be a statistical correlation between levels of confidence and success, but one cannot be reduced to the other. Although many participants in a race may be confident in their winning, there will only be one winner. Also, theoretically, there may be cases in which the less confident of the bunch may turn out to be the winner, and the more confident the sore loser. This is because what competitions measure is objectively displayed abilities measured by public standards, independently of how the competitors feel about their skills. Just a few examples. Take famous writer Stephen King. At first he thought that his novel Carrie was crap and went as far as throwing the manuscript in the garbage. After his wife patiently fished it out of the can and persuaded him it was good, Mr. King decided to publish it and Carrie turned out to be a very successful novel, a paradigm of horror fiction. Or take philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was so unhappy with his work Philosophical Investigations, he didn't even want it published. Subsequently, the published book became the most important contribution to twentieth-century philosophy. On the other hand, in spite of thinking highly of themselves, authors like Dean Koontz seem to publish mostly subpar fiction. Examples like these can be easily multiplied. 

Although confidence and motivation don't guarantee success and recognition, they might create the
illusion of success if coupled with a healthy dose of self-deception. That way, someone may persuade themselves they have achieved a certain social status on little or no evidence. For instance, someone may think they are a great writer based on a praiseworthy review written by a friend or his earlier self. Or someone may think they're popular based on the number of friends they have on Facebook, in spite of the fact he rarely meets any of those people and they usually try to avoid him. The illusion of happiness and self-deception may be promoted and positively sanctioned in a society. In his book, The Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges makes the case that Americans are entrenched into a culture of illusion and magical thinking. In that case, happiness can be artificially created by merely thinking happy thoughts, that is, escaping from reality into a realm of fantasy where logic and reason have no place. Positive psychologists teach us that "once we adopt a positive mind, positive things will always happen. This belief, like all other illusions peddled in the culture, encourages people to flee from reality when reality is frightening and depressing." 

The power of illusion can be seen vividly in the work environment of a private corporation. This context is a model of what could happen in a totalitarian state where the use of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology falls into the hands of power structures who benefit from manipulating and exploiting the masses. All employees in a corporation can be given a sense that they are important and accepted by offering them meaningless distinctions like "Employee of the Month." Everybody can get that status at some point and feel accepted and recognized. Telling of the infantilization implicit in the corporatist culture is the practice of celebrating the birthdays of employees at work and offering them cake, drinks, and other treats. This gives workers a sense of belonging and acceptance and disburdens them of the hassle of building an identity outside the work place. Everyone is their own star and they each live happily inside their narcotic, bubbly universes. This is perfectly illustrated in this apparently benign but deeply outrageous Ford commercial, in which a fully grown man claims with a straight face that working for Ford has been his dream job since he was a kid. The amount of self-deception in that statement can make one cringe with disgust!!!!

 

Back to Fukuyama's argument, I think the widespread use of anti-depressants can have a significant political effect if coupled with a wider cultural or social environment promoting illusion and self-deception. Like one of the genetic engineers from Brave New World explains: "That is the secret of happiness and virtue — liking what you've got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny." That is, let's say two prospective parents notice that football players make tons of money and live happy lives. Then they talk to their doctor to design a baby with great athletic ability, someone who is a team player and obeys his coach, someone who doesn't break rules, someone who doesn't drink, smoke, or chases women. They design their new baby such that he would love and full-heartedly embrace his destiny as a successful athlete. What more can he ask for?

This is a war inside human nature, that each of us will fight sooner or later. The tension between, on the one hand, the inclination toward self-deception and toward embracing the paradisiacal irresponsibility of childhood and, on the other hand, the desire for autonomy, freedom, and truth. The battle is fought in the name of staying human and lucid, with all the hardships and pains it entails, against our vegetative tendency to close our eyes, repress reality and the long nightmare of our evolutionary history, and live in a comfortable, manufactured world of make-belief.

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