The Trap of Numbness and Self-Satisfaction

The Trap of Numbness and Self-Satisfaction March 22, 2011

I’ve still been thinking about some of the questions we’ve been picking over in the discussion of David Brook’s new book and attempts to alter personality/moral character through pharmacology.  I’m sure some of my friends are delighted to find that there are transhumanist ideas I’m uncomfortable with, and I’ve been trying to nail down why.

To refresh your memory, Tristyn asked:

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?).

Most pharmacological intervention works by dampening your reactions to something.  Neurotransmitter analogues compete for receptors with whatever your body is producing naturally, so the signal is muted, or a cocktail of synthetic signalers outcompetes your body’s natural response.  I don’t want the information that informs my moral choices to be suppressed for the sake of my temperament.

If I respond with anger/frustration when I should respond with charity and love, that response is data that I can and should make use of.  Always, a fair amount of the fault is mine and needs to be mended.  But we’ve all known people who seem to actively frustrate our help, who can be hard to love in a crisis.  Imagining that the only problem is my reaction to their intransigence leads me back towards the selfish, prideful, goal-oriented approach to ethics that I still struggle with.

This time last year, when I had agreed to try prayer during Lent, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of praying for other people to change or improve.  Asking for them to behave better was equivalent, in my mind, to conceding defeat and seeking a coward’s way out of my own moral struggles.  My job was to behave well no matter the provocation, and their flaws did not constitute excuses for my failings.  I didn’t stop to think that other people might experience their own disagreeable traits as a burden they wished they could shed, just as I wished I could let go of my impatience and lack of compassion.

When I fail to treat people with charity, the culpability lies with me.  But, if I want to serve my friend, I can’t focus only on my own faults.  If I shrink back from some burden my friend is carrying, the ultimate goal is to help her set it down, not just to overcome my instincts and be less stingy with my kindness.

The pharmacological approach would blind me to my friend’s struggle and need.  

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  • I'm not sure I agree with the idea that drug use counts as a discontinuity in moral thinking. Are you any less responsible for your actions under the influence of a drug than you are sober? The fact that we treat driving under the influence as a crime (justifiably, I'd say) seems to say that society thinks not. Before using a drug, you should be aware of how it will affect you and accept the consequences of however your actions change.From personal experience, I know that I smile more often, talk more easily, and am more likely to do things like sing "I'm on a Boat" at karaoke bars after a beer or two. I find that social drinking in moderation suppresses my introverted side and makes it easier for me to interact with people. Since I know that this is what happens and sincerely want to be more extroverted when I'm socializing, I don't think this is a suppression of who I am so much as it's using a tool to bring out a different side of myself.Then again we could be talking past each other. I'm not sure.