Inducing a Moral Jump Discontinuity (A thought experiment)

Inducing a Moral Jump Discontinuity (A thought experiment) March 14, 2011

Tristyn of Eschatological Psychosis jumps the line by prefacing her comment on my review of Brook’s The Social Animal with ‘TRANHUMANIST QUESTION.’  I am powerless to resist.  Here’s what she asked:

So, we have established that if, in fact, holding warm beverages makes you nicer, going out of your way to find a warm beverage before interacting with an annoying person is acceptable to you. Seems fairly reasonable, though (I think) clearly in a closer-to-ideal world we wouldn’t need such crutches, but we all of us bear far heavier sins than leaning on chocolate from time to time, for whatever reason.

What if there was a drug that made you kinder, more charitable, more forgiving? Let’s say even that it has some negative side effects– how about all the side effects of amphetamines, drugs commonly prescribed to treat psychology/behavior (as opposed to the way, say, morphine treats the body, or even how antibiotics treat infections– hopefully the distinction I’m making is clear?).

From my perspective, it seems obvious that it’s wrong to take the drug. I’m wondering if you agree? My “conclusion” is also way more intuitive than logical. It’s not as though the drug eradicates free will– it’s kind of like soft paternalism, but in your head. Does that meaningfully devalue our moral agency, and does an atheist care if it achieves her ends?

I’m really torn.  I can’t tell whether my discomfort with temperament modification through pharmaceuticals as opposed to through talk therapy or experience or really focused discussions of metaphysics is just an ‘eeew!’ reaction to anything that seems artificial.  I know I’m much more hesitant about this course of action than I am about the others.

Plenty of that is motivated by the low level of faith I have in the pharmacological industry and a possibly misplaced confidence in my own moral conduct.  Although there are a wide range of issues that are productively dealt with by chemical adjustment (paralyzing depression, schizophrenia, etc), psychopharmacology seems a lot more suited to pruning back particularly destructive deviations than fostering some idealized behavior.  The definition of normal or stable they use is much too limited to be of much help to people who fall sufficiently close to acceptable, as I imagine I do.  (If you want to know more about the way psychiatrists have a tendency to project one mode of behavior on everyone, check out Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche).

Even if those problems were resolved, I run into the same problem that troubles Tristyn.  I value my own will and my choices to direct it towards its proper functioning.  Medicating myself better seems like cheating and valuing correct behavior over correct attitude towards behavior.  I’m also running into the strange problems of persistence of identity through time.  If my attitudes towards others improves by a jump discontinuity rather than according to the normal course of events, it feel a little like I’ve annihilated myself to allow space for an upgraded version.

Should my metaphysical qualms really stop me from forcing myself to treat others better?  To what extent should I permit myself to inflict my bad and hurtful behavior on others for the sake of preserving my own moral agency?  Could I be called to sacrifice my agency and my personal moral development for the sake of others?  Could I ethically put myself in situations where I would burden or hurt others for the sake of the moral development it would cause me?

I’m not really sure, and I’d be interested in your perspectives.  And for one special bonus question for Christians like Tristyn: are any of you profoundly uncomfortable with a pharmacological fix but comfortable with the famous “May I kill it?” passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce?  (The scene I’m referring to is available here).  Both involve being freed of immoral tendencies by consenting to profound alteration.  Thoughts?

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  • Question mark? I know you're a dualist, but try to explain one more time how this is different from the physical transhumanism you seem fine with? I could just as easily say the same things about purely physical transformations that you say about this: I have a low level of faith in the medical industry as a whole (especially in the US), I think it's better suited to prune back particularly destructive deviations than fostering some idealized physical capabilities, and in many cases the definition of normal is so limited as to be harmful. And since I don't see a dichotomy between mind and body, to some extent (although sure, less violently than if it directly messed with my mind) I'm against annihilating my physical self (or parts) to allow for an upgraded version.Of course, I also don't really give a fig for moral agency or proper attitudes, but that's not necessary for someone to object to fixing what isn't broken (although you do need to agree that being unpleasant sometimes doesn't qualify as "broken", because the real moral issues in the world do not require the direct medical(ish) modification of individuals). Truly though, I'd like to know why this is an issue for you at all: where is the line between body and mind, and why are physically-induced discontinuities qualitatively different if they primarily alter brain chemistry vs. everything else? Doesn't it improve your moral standing in the world to, I dunno, harden your skin so you don't need to wear clothes? Probably moreso than not being unpleasant sometimes?

  • Ben

    The important thing with possible modifications is whether they are reversible. With mental modifications, part of that question is: is the improved me going to want to reverse anything the old me would disapprove of? As another note, I would mention you can be much more concerned with mental modifications than others without being a dualist. My arm is good for a relatively small number of things, the kinds of things that machines are getting better at replacing. Broad modifications of my moods, however, has the possibility of affecting everything I do, and whether I want to do it at all.

  • Your discomfort appears to be with a concept of self that is (to me) flawed.You are worried about acting in a way you want to but not in a way that you otherwise would.Imagine a road rage scene – the chemicals that flood your brain alter the way you react to the situation, they were not willed into your head they were naturally secreted, so why is wilfully taking a pill to counteract their effects an abandonment of self? It would appear that keeping you level headed means you remain you more than an irrational and emotional you could be.To suggest that chemicals in the brain alter the self is to miss the point that we have chemicals released into our brains all the time that alter our mood, reactions and even thinking. The ability of the conscious mind to choose which chemicals, in full knowledge of their effects, seems to me the most accurate representation of you that we could ever see.I have the (dubious) advantage of not believing in self as anything more than a being of fleeting existence so I have no qualms about trying to improve the lot of the non-self that comes just after, even if it makes it more different to the current self than would otherwise be.

  • Patrick

    Yeah, I think the discomfort comes from being faced head on with the possibility that you haven't got the sort of free will you wanted to have. But… you don't. And that will remain true whether you take the drug or not.

  • 1. Problem as given overstates the mind-body dichotomy. IN SOME CASES, nastiness toward others can be a brain-chemistry problem, suitable for medical treatment. The distinction "those drugs treat the body and are good, while these drugs treat the brain and are bad" can't be made so categorically.The radical opposite hypo — in which we're healthy but want to experience swell feelings, so we take pills to generate them — was dealt with and shown to be vile by Mr. Huxley. Isn't BNW a hs staple any more?2. "May I kill it" is fine bc it's ALL ABOUT FREE WILL. The angel cd kill the lizard any time he wants, but to do so w/o the sinner's consent would violate the sinner's free will. I've always loved the way the sinner, when he gives consent, does so grumblingly, albeit genuinely. That's so human.To object that "lizard-killing" is like a one-time anti-sin pill is to confuse a genre issue with a moral issue. TGD is an afterlife story. As such, it takes place outside of time. I think if Lewis were here he would affirm, sternly, that in the temporal world, we have to "kill our lizard" laboriously, every day, some days more laboriously than others.