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Happiness and the pursuit thereof - Phil's Rambling Rants
August 21st, 2007
09:22 pm

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Happiness and the pursuit thereof
Someone on the GT list posted a link to a report from the President's Council on Bioethics titled Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness.  I'm very wary of any council this President would appoint opining on anything, but the section I've read, at least partly, is not the dogmatic screed I feared it would be.  However, it does, I believe, miss an important point, and that's what I actually want to write about.

The section that I've read is discussing the question of happiness from a philosophical point of view, and trying to examine whether possible future biotech therapies which would allow us to control our memories would be good for our happiness.  It is an interesting question.  They make some worthy arguments that the technology might not, in fact, bring about happiness, and that by implication it would not be good for society.  But they begin the argument in this section with a discussion of the fundamental right to the pursuit of happiness, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as the reason America exists.  And therein lies the disconnect:  they seem to be arguing, or at least laying the groundwork to argue, that the therapy would not be a good path to achieving happiness, and therefore people should not be allowed the option.  But Jefferson never said we have the right to be happy.  He said we have an unalienable right to pursue happiness -- not to actually achieve it.  And my own reading of the meaning of that right is that it is fundamentally the right of each person to choose for himself how he wants to try to find happiness, and that includes ways that somebody else might not think were likely to actually lead to happiness.

The proper role of government enacting the principles of the Declaration is to maximize people's freedom to choose for themselves how to find happiness, not to seek to close off paths that people might choose to look down in their personal quests.  People have to be free to make bad choices, or freedom is just an empty buzzword.

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From:catalana
Date:August 22nd, 2007 03:02 am (UTC)
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Oh my god, it's Nozick's Experience Machine argument against hedonism. How fantastic!

I don't have time to read this all tonight (tomorrow is the first day of class), but this is the part I worry about most:

First, an unchecked power to erase memories, brighten moods, and alter our emotional dispositions could imperil our capacity to form a strong and coherent personal identity.

I'm not at all convinced that a life in an experience machine (or a life drugged into feeling nothing but pleasure) retains any coherent sense of identity. I believe that something would be experiencing pleasure, but I'm not at all convinced that that something would still be me, in any meaningful sense.

Still, unless it proved highly detrimental to society, I would support the right of people to waste their lives in such a fashion. (And that is, of course, where the pursuit of happiness is limited. You are not allowed to pursue happiness if in doing so you would sufficiently impact the happiness of others. Hence while it might make a mass murderer extremely happy to kill other people, they aren't allowed to pursue that kind of happiness because it's bad for society.)

Of course, I'm not a hedonist, so my view of this isn't terribly surprising.
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From:catalana
Date:August 22nd, 2007 03:02 am (UTC)
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Er, by "worry about most" I mean to say that "I agree with the article's concern - this is what worries me most about experience machines/spending your life drugged into feeling pleasure."
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From:tigertoy
Date:August 22nd, 2007 03:19 am (UTC)
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I share your concern, or perhaps I should say I am also concerned that spending one's life drugged into pleasure would not actually be a good thing, since I'm not sure I understand the details of your concern enough to claim to share it.

But what I'm really worried about is the thinking "we, who are wiser than you, know that you can't find happiness down this path (at least in part because we got to define happiness and identity sapping meaningless pleasure is not it), so we will not allow you to go there", and then claim to be upholding the principle of the right to the pursuit of happiness.

Is a society in which the people are allowed few choices but most of them are genuinely happy a better one than one where people have many choices, but most people make bad ones and are not happy? Perhaps it is -- but not by the measure of how well it lives up to the ideals of the Declaration.
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From:billroper
Date:August 22nd, 2007 04:03 am (UTC)
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But do you still have a society in such a circumstance? Or -- more to the point -- are these individuals part of the society?

I admit that I haven't read the article yet, but what I'm hearing sounds distressingly like, for example, Niven's tasps. They didn't seem to be a very good thing overall.
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From:tigertoy
Date:August 23rd, 2007 03:52 am (UTC)
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Most people who are worth talking to at all will agree that anything which doesn't do harm should be allowed. The problem is that there is nothing we can do which can't be construed in some way as doing harm, or as causing some risk of harm. Nothing should be forbidden unless we can show that the harm it does is comparable to or worse than the harm done by limiting the freedom of the person who wants to do it. And nothing can be done without some element of risk, and every thing anyone does causes some risk of harm to others, so no activity should be restricted on the basis of the the risk it poses unless the actual expected harm, the way the person actually wants to do it, is greater than the expected harm from other activities that we routinely allow. Requiring people to assume financial responsibility for the residual risk is often no different from banning it outright.
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From:tigertoy
Date:August 24th, 2007 01:03 am (UTC)
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I am not saying that we *should* find indirect and convoluted reasons why one person's actions are harmful to others'. I'm saying that people *do* think that way, and it's getting worse. Just for one example, every time the subject of motorcycle helmet laws comes up for debate, there are people who argue that the bikers not wearing helmets causes their (the arguers', not the bikers') insurance rates to be higher, and that that harm justifies taking away the bikers' freedom.

I'm not arguing that we *should* think this way; I'm in fact arguing exactly the opposite. But the way the world is right now, any time someone sees anything they don't like in their life, they look for someone else to blame it on, and every time they see someone else enjoying themselves, they look for an excuse to make them stop. And the more knowledge and understanding we gain about the complexity of the world, the more unexpected connections between one person's actions and another's well being we will discover. A few of those connections are strong enough that they really do justify limiting people's actions, but most do not, and because we've become more aware of the connections without becoming aware of the threat to freedom, we're rapidly losing our freedom.
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