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Happiness and its Malcontents

If you’re happy and you know it…you’re a Transhumanist (clap, clap).

The third and final piece to our present discussion about Transhumanism (H+) is called, “super well-being.” The future success and overall acceptance of the H+ rests on this assumption: Technology can fix our collective and personal unhappiness. If Transhumanism stopped short of this claim, we would be left with a system that promised eternal life and unending personal intelligence … but we’d be as miserable as Alex Trebek at a Comic-Con gathering.

Transhumanists speak of this coming age of contentment through a variety of angles. It could mean the reduction of health risks at birth, made possible by genetic manipulation. It could mean the pharmacological easing of pain when accidents or illnesses happen. These aren’t particularly controversial. However, in true H+ boldness, super well-being also refers to using any medical or behavioral avenue to increase the chemical reactions that cause our brain to be happy—wildly happy—and perfectly content.

So what makes us happy? Or, better yet, is happiness something that can be manipulated into being? Or, is happiness just something that is?

America has a fascination with happiness. Well, I guess all humans have a particular need for happiness (even if that just means an emotion over-and-against its opposite, suffering); every mother and father that I know want happiness for their child. But America pursues it. For the deeper thinkers among us, happiness sounds a bit superficial and so they turn to more nuanced, even spiritual, terms like joy or contentedness. But one thing is clear—Americans expect to be happy. And when you expect something, you begin to believe that it is a basic human right. It is society’s obligation to provide me with happiness!

This is not pie-in-the-sky crazy talk. H+ co-founder and philosopher David Pearce argues that society has the moral obligation to eliminate suffering and advance euphoria, whether by chemical enhancements in the short-run or by gene therapies in the long term. He believes that since we know the essential chemical processes of euphoria and happiness, we can create long-term strategies that allow us to feel this way all of the time. He calls all of this the “hedonistic imperative.”

Imagine your teenager walking up to you and saying, “Mom, I have a moral obligation to spread euphoria to all of my friends. I’m going to ____.” I’m betting that the answer proposed is not something that’s fit for approval.

Hedonism, even if conceived from an altruistic place, necessarily devolves into narcissism. Both are essential corollaries of that most popular religion, Me-ism. Once you identify yourself as the center of human experience…

Once you convince yourself that the goods on this earth exist chiefly for your benefit… Once you confess that everything you have is of your own doing … then you are godlike.

Look, I get it. It sounds supremely patronizing to suggest that people endure suffering for their own good, especially when other options are now legitimately on the table. But there is something deeply profound and deeply human about suffering—about the process of lamentation. The deep ache that says to God, “This is not how things should be.” Depression. Heartache. Pain. Sadness. Empathy. This is humanity (dare I say?) at its most precious. This is humanity in the bones and marrow.

Yet these wrenching parts of the human experience are made valuable by a God who sits in the ashes with us. A God who takes tarnished life and polishes it. A God who gives permission to lament. And also commands his followers to feed, clothe, and minister to the neighbor in those moments of darkness.

While H+ might respond with, “Of course this is so! This is why we work toward a future without lamentations!” …they are also falling into the trap of believing that humanity, if only the right buttons get pushed, is capable of a perfect society. Thus spoke Zarathustra.

The life of super-well-being has eerie similarities with dystopias, past and present. In particular, the drive toward manipulated happiness sounds like it’s taken straight out of Huxley’s Brave New World. In one particularly insightful scene, one of World Controllers ponders a soon-to-be discarded theory about purpose:

[Purpose] was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes—make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge… “What fun it would be,” he thought, “if one didn’t have to think about happiness! [1]

Personally, I’d like to be happier. But not at the expense of God’s reality. I need a life in which the decisions I make, the God I worship, and the people I know and love do not exist as a mirage, no matter how pleasant that mirage might be. The rich, virtuous life is one that understands the authenticity of interacting with an imperfect world—with all of its flaws—then rests in the overarching truth that God knows all and deigns this world to be, a world that earnestly waits for authentic redemption from an equally authentic evil.

I want to have the eyes of the prophet who sees a deeper reality, the one who says: “Don’t be afraid, those who are with us are more than those who are with them” [2]. I want the eyes to see the chariots of fire in the hills and sounds of angelic marching in the balsam tree-tops [3]. Deep reality is not cute, it’s not manipulated, and it’s not euphoric. But we are called to live in this deep reality, nonetheless.

Having tea on the train tracks might be a glorious way to spend 10 minutes of your morning. But, no matter how happy that makes you feel, you’re essentially ignoring the colossal truth that just left the preceding station 9 minutes ago. Closing your eyes and singing your happy song won’t make the butcher’s bill disappear.

[1] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 177.

[2] 2 Kings 6:16.

[3] 2 Sam 5:24.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015

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