The Right To Be Unhappy
f you don’t follow the work of UK writer Mary Harrington, you are missing out on one of the brightest and most insightful writers today. Here she is writing about the new “love drugs” proposed to make us all happy and socially manageable. Excerpt:
The next frontier in bio-engineering is nearly here, according to The Times: ‘love drugs’. Addressing the Cheltenham Science Festival, Dr Anna Machin suggested that drugs which enhance feelings of closeness, empathy and love are “on the horizon”, heralding a time when people may ‘squirt oxytocin up their noses’ or take an empathy pill ahead of a couples counselling session.
Imagine a world where instead of working on a relationship the old-fashioned way, we just pop a pill and revive the heady feeling of falling in love — at least until the drug wears off and we need another fix. But if this seems creepily reminiscent of dystopian sci-fi, it also barely scratches the disturbing potential of synthetically-induced human love.
Machin is talking about optional medications. But even as this opens a vista of new designer drugs, we should also consider its implications at scale, in our post-pandemic politics of public health. For Covid-19 severely undermined the previously unassailable liberal principle that medical interventions should, as far as possible, not happen without individual consent. And in the aftermath of coercive public-health measures at that scale, why should we not consider other biomedical interventions aimed at furthering the common good, even against people’s will?
This is the explicit argument made by bioethicist Parker Crutchfield, who argued last year that moral bio-enhancement should be both covert and compulsory. That is, that if we could secretly give all of humanity a drug that made us more moral, we should. So if it turns out to be possible to synthesise ‘love’ — in other words, the propensity to be empathetic, docile and cooperative – then why would we not do so?
It appears that researchers are already sidling in that direction.
Believe me, I get the appeal of such drugs. I’m going through a divorce now, and have some bad days. Just this afternoon, if there were a pill to pop or some juice to squirt up my nose to help me quit brooding on what I’ve lost in this mess, and to feel happy-happy-joy-joy again, I would have taken it.
But that would be escapist. I have to learn how to rebuild my life, interiorly and otherwise, in the face of suffering. This is what it means to be human: to learn how to bear suffering without losing hope, and the love of life. This is why Aldous Huxley’s dystopia in Brave New World is the more dangerous one than Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley’s dystopia is one in which people exchange their humanity for comfort and pleasure.
Here, in Chapter 17, the dissident John the Savage confronts Mustapha Mond, the World Controller for Europe. The Savage has been raised outside the controlled comfort of the World State, in an Indian reservation out in the desert, where his ideas of good and evil came from reading the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Mond doesn’t want to torture the Savage to compel him to join the World State; he simply can’t understand why the poor man would rather suffer than live in a society where he is totally taken care of. Excerpts from their showdown:
“Do you remember that bit in King Lear?” said the Savage at last. “‘The gods are just and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us; the dark and vicious place where thee he got cost him his eyes,’ and Edmund answers–you remember, he’s wounded, he’s dying–’Thou hast spoken right; ’tis true. The wheel has come full circle; I am here.’ What about that now? Doesn’t there seem to be a God managing things, punishing, rewarding?”
“Well, does there?” questioned the Controller in his turn. “You can indulge in any number of pleasant vices with a freemartin and run no risks of having your eyes put out by your son’s mistress. ‘The wheel has come full circle; I am here.’ But where would Edmund be nowadays? Sitting in a pneumatic chair, with his arm round a girl’s waist, sucking away at his sex-hormone chewing-gum and looking at the feelies. The gods are just. No doubt. But their code of law is dictated, in the last resort, by the people who organize society; Providence takes its cue from men.”
“Are you sure?” asked the Savage. “Are you quite sure that the Edmund in that pneumatic chair hasn’t been just as heavily punished as the Edmund who’s wounded and bleeding to death? The gods are just. Haven’t they used his pleasant vices as an instrument to degrade him?”
“Degrade him from what position? As a happy, hard-working, goods-consuming citizen he’s perfect. Of course, if you choose some other standard than ours, then perhaps you might say he was degraded. But you’ve got to stick to one set of postulates. You can’t play Electro-magnetic Golf according to the rules of Centrifugal Bumble-puppy.”
“But value dwells not in particular will,” said the Savage. “It holds his estimate and dignity as well wherein ’tis precious of itself as in the prizer.”
“Come, come,” protested Mustapha Mond, “that’s going rather far, isn’t it?”
“If you allowed yourselves to think of God, you wouldn’t allow yourselves to be degraded by pleasant vices. You’d have a reason for bearing things patiently, for doing things with courage. I’ve seen it with the Indians.”
“l’m sure you have,” said Mustapha Mond. “But then we aren’t Indians. There isn’t any need for a civilized man to bear anything that’s seriously unpleasant. And as for doing things–Ford forbid that he should get the idea into his head. It would upset the whole social order if men started doing things on their own.”
“What about self-denial, then? If you had a God, you’d have a reason for self-denial.”
“But industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.”
“You’d have a reason for chastity!” said the Savage, blushing a little as he spoke the words.
“But chastity means passion, chastity means neurasthenia. And passion and neurasthenia mean instability. And instability means the end of civilization. You can’t have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices.”
“But God’s the reason for everything noble and fine and heroic. If you had a God …”
The Savage nodded, frowning. “You got rid of them. Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. Whether ’tis better in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them … But you don’t do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy.”
He was suddenly silent, thinking of his mother. In her room on the thirty-seventh floor, Linda had floated in a sea of singing lights and perfumed caresses–floated away, out of space, out of time, out of the prison of her memories, her habits, her aged and bloated body. And Tomakin, ex-Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, Tomakin was still on holiday–on holiday from humiliation and pain, in a world where he could not hear those words, that derisive laughter, could not see that hideous face, feel those moist and flabby arms round his neck, in a beautiful world …
“What you need,” the Savage went on, “ is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.”
(“Twelve and a half million dollars,” Henry Foster had protested when the Savage told him that. “Twelve and a half million–that’s what the new Conditioning Centre cost. Not a cent less.”)
“Exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death and danger dare, even for an eggshell. Isn’t there something in that?” he asked, looking up at Mustapha Mond. “Quite apart from God–though of course God would be a reason for it. Isn’t there something in living dangerously?”
“There’s a great deal in it,” the Controller replied. “Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time.”
“What?” questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.
“It’s one of the conditions of perfect health. That’s why we’ve made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory.”
“Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”
“But I like the inconveniences.”
“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.
As I discuss in Live Not By Lies, the “soft totalitarianism” we face today is based much more in a willingness to surrender our humanity for the sake of “well being” provided by the authorities — “well being” defined by the absence of suffering and anxiety.
In his book The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming An Individual In An Age Of Distraction, the philosopher Matthew B. Crawford talks about how we can only become truly human if we submit to the authority of a communally shared framework of meaning. He goes on:
Our efforts on that front get confused and misdirected when we live under a public doctrine of individualism that systematically dismantles shared frames of meaning. The reason we need such frames is that only within them can we differentiate ourselves as not merely different, but excellent. Without that vertical dimension, we get the sameness of mass solipsism rather than true individuality.
The de-skilling of everyday life, which is a function of our economy, thus has implications that reach far beyond the economy. It is integral to a larger set of developments that continue to reshape the kinds of selves we become, and the set of human possibilities that remains open to us.
Crawford goes on to discuss at book called The Weariness of the Self,by French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg; the book is about the phenomenon of depression. Crawford writes:
In the 1960s, personal liberation—from the authority of parents, teachers, bourgeois laws, the uterus, the draft, the bra—happened to coincide with a period of upward mobility in a booming economy. These developments seemed, for a moment, to herald the arrival of the strong one prophesied by Friedrich Nietzsche. Ehrenberg quotes from The Genealogy of Morals: “The proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, of this power over himself and over fate, has sunk right down to his innermost depths, and has become an instinct, a dominating instinct.” For some decades now, this sovereign individual has been the stock character described in commencement speeches. It is the background picture of the self that informs daytime talk shows and advice columns. It is what a high school guidance counselor falls back on when his blood sugar is low.
The sovereign individual has become our norm but, as Ehrenberg says, “instead of possessing the strength of the masters, she turns out to be fragile,… weary of her sovereignty and full of complaints.”
Ehrenberg’s book allows us to connect some big dots. The liberation of the individual from various identities, obligations, and allegiances in the 1960s gave a new flavor to our economic individualism. The economics of the right became infused with the moral fervor of the youthful left in a grand synthesis of liberation that gave us the figure of the bohemian entrepreneur as the exemplary human type. One effect of this trajectory has been the clinical explosion of depression (as well as a shift in how we understand our unhappiness). … One of the ironies of this situation is the unexpected harmony we find between a deterministic biochemical picture of the human being and the ideal of autonomy.
Corresponding to this shift, Ehrenberg points out, is a new emphasis on well-being. In the old Freudian dispensation, to be psychoanalytically “cured” was not to achieve well-being; it was to be clear-eyed about oneself and about the human condition. Unlike many of his intellectual heirs, Freud offered a tragic view that resisted dreams of a final liberation. The interdictions of society aren’t simply repression; they are formative of the kind of individual who inhabits that society. Nor is this to be understood simply as conformity. Rather, the individual is a creature who comes into being only through conflict, in some historical setting (as in Hegel). Civilization comes at a high personal cost, but the alternative would be something less than human. Freud’s thought can help to illuminate the psychological appeal of our ideal of autonomy. That ideal seems to have at its root the hope for a self that is not in conflict with the world. [Emphasis the author’s — RD]
If we can put aside for a moment our centuries-long preoccupation with liberation, we might think differently about authority. The key would be to conceive authority in a way that is free of those metaphysical conceits that provoke an allergic reaction in the modern mind. Recall once more Iris Murdoch’s description of learning Russian. The “authoritative structure” she invokes as a counterweight to the self is not the law of a punishing Jewish god, nor the promiscuous love of a Christian one. Rather, it is the authority of a skilled practice that “commands my respect” for reasons internal to the practice, requiring no further foundation or metaphysical support. These reasons are progressively revealed as one goes deeper into the practice.
Iris Murdoch’s description of learning Russian, quoted by Crawford:
“If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.”
Crawford argues that in modernity, we have sought authenticity through liberating ourselves from any unchosen obligations and frameworks of meaning … but that only leaves us lost and depressed, and, as Ehrenberg puts it, “fragile, weary of our sovereignty, and full of complaints.”
What if the only way to achieve a self that is not in conflict with the world is to sacrifice our full humanity, in part by surrendering to drugs that make us feel happy all the time? To what Brave New World calls “soma”? Mary Harrington informs us that this is not just a dark dystopian fantasy — that it is coming into existence.
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How do you convince people to fight for their right to be unhappy? Can you imagine a task so difficult? It’s easier to convince people for their right to be free. But how do you make them understand that true freedom means the possibility of unhappiness, of suffering?
No wonder people want to lose themselves in drugs and in obliterating their ability to pay attention. The burden of living in a world without meaning is too great. As the Savage intuits, we will either rediscover God, or we will be imprisoned in a dystopia of pleasurable lies.
So, tell me: why shouldn’t scientists dose us with love drugs to reduce crime and make us all happier? This is a theoretical question now, but I assure you, it soon won’t be.