After Happiness, Cyborg Virtue

James Hughes

When I was seventeen I was part of a six-week summer seminar at Cornell University on the theme of “the individual and the community.” A dozen of us nerdy teens read an intensive diet of John Stuart Mill, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud under the tutelage of two philosophy professors. Afterward, I was a determined socialist who relied heavily on Mills’s utilitarianism for my ethics, even after I became one of the spokespersons for transhumanism.

Under George W. Bush, we transhumanists had a bête noir in the President’s Council on Bioethics, headed by the determinedly anti-enhancement Leon Kass and aided by Francis Fukuyama and the vast right- and left-wing conspiracy of people freaked out by a smarter, healthier, longer-lived future. My first book, Citizen Cyborg, was an attempt to sketch out a Left-transhumanist perspective on the ongoing biopolitical debates. In the book I started from what I thought was a hybrid Left-Millsian-transhumanist proposition, but it was really a core Enlightenment tenet: the more control we have over our lives, individually and collectively, the happier we will be. I devoted a chapter to parsing ways that individual freedom, social egalitarianism, and neurotechnologies like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have made and will make us happier. I didn’t interrogate the concept of happiness deeply. I discussed the control of physical pain and the treatment of mental illness. Then I discussed the evidence that our happiness set-point is genetically determined and suggested that it will be possible to chemically or genetically increase the average level of happiness without negatively affecting motivation.

After Citizen Cyborg I started a second book project, Cyborg Buddha, and began wading into the quickly moving stream of neuroscience research to investigate how we may use neurotechnologies to improve moral behavior and spiritual experience. I’m still hip-deep and struggling with the torrent of social neuroscience research. I also began teaching a course on “Happiness and Public Policy” at Trinity College and began educating myself in the growing happiness literature. As a result, six years later I am much less enamored of my earlier attempts to rationalize social democratic-politics, transhumanism, or the “technoprogressive” syncretism of the two with the utilitarian pursuit of happiness. Instead I’ve been drifting toward some kind of postmodern—and posthuman—Buddho-Aristotleianism, much to my own chagrin.

The drift is not because I have suddenly discovered the supernatural rightness of religious injunctions. I remain firmly Humeian in the view that no amount of knowledge of the origin of the universe or the structure of the mind can reveal the good. For me, metaethics is still ungroundable and a completely irrational existential decision. As Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out, the growing postmodern erosion of moral certainty is a huge sociological problem, breeding both anomie and fundamentalism.

My drift was also not caused by any simple-minded interpretation of utilitarian thought. I long espoused a rules-utilitarian approach that acknowledged the difficulties of calculating utility and the need to create rules of thumb such as “respect individual rights.” I embraced the idea that consequentialists can value things like “a meaningful life” and “a viable community” as producing long-term values greater than simple pleasures and happy moods. That idea was of course also embraced by Mills’s post-Bentham weighting of “higher pleasures” over lower ones. I always thought that the Millsian weighting idea was a bit of kludge, but it wasn’t until I delved into the happiness literature that I began to realize that Mills had in fact been smuggling in some Aristotle.

What Mills was pointing to was that “happiness” is simply too thin a package into which to shoehorn the full conception of the good life, a full and flourishing existence, without which I have become convinced a transhuman future will be tragically impoverished. My friend David Pearce published The Hedonistic Imperative fifteen years ago and birthed a micro-movement within transhumanism known as “Abolitionism,” the aspiration to abolish all suffering, human and animal. Reading and reflecting on The Hedonistic Imperative over the years from a Buddhist perspective, I sought to distinguish how a Buddhist conception of dynamic happiness was different from “wireheading,” simply plugging ourselves into mood control and turning the pleasure dial up to “lotus eater.” David and the Abolitionists have also been careful to distinguish apathetic wireheading from the kinds of well-titrated dopamine-overdrive that they believe can produce both serenity and high achievement.

But the prospect of a future in which we have ever-better control over our neurochemistry made the proliferation of super-methheads and hyper-amped wage slaves far more plausible to me. Transhumanist libertarians studiously ignored these dystopian possibilities, and I was also reluctant to give any cognitive liberty ground to a war on future drugs. But there is a middle path between laissez-faire and prohibition, guided by a strong affirmation of certain ways of being and disapproval of others. What is the concept of eudaemonia or flourishing that could enable transhumanists to distinguish between actual cognitive enhancement and posthuman diminishment?

Nor is it at all clear to me anymore that the kind of political economy that I believe is best for human welfare would necessarily be the “happiest.” In my happiness class, we have parsed the arguments for Left, Green, Libertarian, and socially conservative interpretations of the happiness data and find enough evidence to support all sides, depending on the kind of happiness and secondary assumptions. Secular countries are happier than religious countries, and more equal and free countries are happier than more unequal and authoritarian countries. On the other hand, it appears to be almost universally the case that religious and political conservatives are happier than seculars and people on the Left. If one key to happiness is to have low expectations, which appears to work for the Danes in Europe or the unconnected rural poor, promoting higher expectations for egalitarianism or techno-utopian progress may make us more miserable. We need serenity to accept things we cannot change but also profound dissatisfaction with the malleable status quo, be it tyrants and poverty or an eighty-year life span.

This led me to Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s concept of “capabilities” as a metric for public policy to replace hedonic utility. Instead of asking whether cognitive enhancement or universal health care will make people happier, the question the advocates of capability ask is whether these innovations will enable people to achieve the things most people want to accomplish in life. The appeal of the capabilities approach for a social democrat is that it does not separate the negative freedom from constraint from the positive social enablement of a capability. People do not have the capabilities that health and long life provide simply from having the right to purchase health care; they actually need to get health care.

Capabilities theory is also appealing for transhumanists for several reasons. First, the capability metric does not depend on happiness, which could be directly synthesized in the future. Second, it embraces the idea that access to biomedical technology is essential to modern well-being. Third, it allows for the evolution of new transhuman “beings and doings” that can only be achieved with enhancement. Although I’m sure many champions of the capabilities approach will be horrified at this pro-enhancement interpretation, the capabilities theory is not essentialist about human limits. Producing more capabilities through universal access to safe enhancement technologies is as valuable as ensuring that all human beings are capable of walking, reading, working, and loving.

What the capabilities approach doesn’t provide is a discussion of character and flourishing that could distinguish enhancement from diminishment. Nussbaum has made a stab at including a variety of things into her model of capabilities, such as a connection to nature and the ability to play. But, like Mills’s higher pleasures, Nussbaum’s list begins to sound like the smuggling in of some a priori Aristotelian ideas of the good life. It is quite possible to imagine a hyper-enhanced future citizen capable of all kinds of abilities but with no connection to nature or sense of play. Positing that we should want people to have these traits in the future means that we consider them virtues, things important to a flourishing existence, things we want to encourage one another to preserve in our transition to posthumanity.

What might a transhumanist conception of the virtues look like? Alasdair McIntyre has given us a socially grounded, postmodern approach to understanding virtue, one that I think also allows us to connect back to the idea that the good can be achieved through the enhancement of (post)human capabilities. McIntyre argued that virtues are only intelligible as the skills necessary for the pursuit of goods valued within communities with moral narratives. Life is only meaningful when we choose to construct that meaning within social narratives, and all social narratives propose experiences and goals that will make a life well-lived. The achievement of individual happiness is one of those goals but only one among many. Virtues are character traits that allow us to achieve these goals. In other words, the virtues are essential capabilities, whether they ever are amenable to comparative public policy measurement. This approach is also very compatible with Buddhism, in which virtue is discussed as the practice of skills: skillful thought, skillful speech, skillful work, skillful mindfulness.

Unfortunately we are not all born equal in our ability to cultivate these character traits, and all human brains are currently incapable of the achievement of the highest forms of flourishing and virtuous achievement. Neuroscience is rapidly making clear that our moral sentiments and cognition are deeply flawed, and our capacities for self-understanding, self-control, and consistently virtuous behavior are mocked by the flaws in our undesigned brains. Transhumanists not only need to take on a (wide, liberal) model of the good life, but neo-Aristotelians need to embrace the possibility that human enhancement is a possible, perhaps necessary, adjunct to achieving the highest forms of virtue, flourishing, or eudaimonia.


Moral enhancement is a rapidly expanding discussion in transhumanist bioethics. Thomas Douglas, Mark Walker, Julian Savulescu, Ingmar Persson, Anders Sandberg, and Barbro Fröding have all suggested that the bio-enhancement of moral sentiments and behavior may not only be possible but perhaps morally obligatory. In 2009 the journal Politics and the Life Sciences published a small collection of articles, mostly hostile, responding to Walker’s lead essay “Enhancing Genetic Virtue.” In early 2012 my group, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, will cosponsor a seminar at New York University on moral cognition and moral enhancement.

Moral enhancement is not just the jacking up of virtue with neurochemicals. It is more broadly taking conscious control of our lives to build the kind of character we want to have. Moral enhancement presupposes a moral community within which we can receive moral education and receive moral praise and sanction. Just as intelligence is not just something that happens in the brain but in the extended mind of our electronic exocortex and in the general architecture of our lives, moral enhancement is also something that requires conscious changes to both our brains and our social fabric. Announcing to a community that you and your partner are making the commitment of marriage is an enlisting of their moral suasion to back up your moral commitments. Announcing your relationship status on Facebook and taking down your eHarmony profile is a moral choice in the exocortex. Changing the structure of your brain to suppress the impulse of infidelity is the posthuman extension of these commitments. (The recent finding that men’s testosterone falls when they have children shows that evolution figured some of this out already.)

What, then, are some of the virtues that should guide a project of moral enhancement and against which enhancements should be morally judged? I will briefly discuss seven virtues: temperance and persistence, compassion and fairness, mindfulness and intelligence, and transcendence.

Temperance and persistence. The ability to exercise self-restraint, in particular in relation to anger, sexuality, intoxication, and other sensual pleasures, has been a virtue in almost every system of moral thought. Sôphrosune was a central virtue not only for Plato and Aristotle but also for the Stoics and the Epicureans. Self-mastery and restraint from sensual indulgence is a key goal in Hinduism and Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, and the Abrahamic faiths. In terms of the model of socially grounded capabilities, it is foundational; without self-control we are unable to achieve our other goals.

Most of us are, however, endowed with less self-control than we would like, and that has probably been true since we were born. Famously Walter Mischel and his colleagues’ work on children’s ability to delay gratification (the Stanford Marshmallow Experiments) demonstrated that a four-year-old’s ability to not eat a marshmallow predicted his or her academic success and likelihood of juvenile delinquency as a teenager. Personality theory has identified conscientiousness as one of the “big five” traits, with about 50 percent heritability, and low levels of conscientiousness are correlated with more drug and alcohol use, sexual risk-taking, and violence. Low impulse control in turn has been linked to variant forms of dopamine-regulating genes.

A variety of drugs and information technologies are already helping us exercise more self-restraint, and more are being explored. Stimulant medications help people with attention deficit disorder with impulse control. Bariatric surgery, posthuman redesign of maladaptive stomachs, is the most effective form of weight control, and drugs and devices like stomach pacemakers that suppress appetite will soon be available. Alcoholics can take naltrexone to suppress alcohol cravings, and vaccines that block the effects of cocaine and nicotine are under development. As Savulescu and Sandberg have proposed, drugs like oxytocin and vasopressin might be used to enhance marital affection, while psychiatry is exploring using SSRIs to suppress compulsive sexual behavior.

Compassion and fairness. Jonathan Haidt has argued that the differences between conservatives, liberals, and libertarians lie in their sensitivity to innate, monkey-brain moral sentiments. Liberals are more sensitive to the impulse toward fairness and to protect others from harm. Conservatives are sensitive to these but even more so to the impulses to protect the in-group, to defer to authority, and to have disgust for the profane. Libertarians are insensitive to all five of these moral sentiments.

Haidt frames these findings as an argument for cross-partisan tolerance. I prefer to see them as an argument that liberals are nascent posthumans using Enlightenment values to parse which monkey-brain impulses to suppress (racism, authoritarianism, and disgust for consensual behaviors) and which to make the core of our ethics (compassion and fairness). (If there are genes that drive libertarians to let selfishness trump all moral sentiment, that may be something that could be fixed by moral enhancement.)

As with self-control, there is strong evidence that our capacity for compassion and empathy is rooted in neurological structures like mirror neurons, which cause us to feel the experiences of others, and in neurochemicals like oxytocin, which heightens our empathy and trust. Giving oxytocin to people with autism and Asperger’s appears to heighten their empathic capacities, and future neurotechnologies will allow us all to tune our compassion for others. For instance, the drug Ecstasy boosts oxytocin and feelings of love and trust, while boosting serotonin with SSRIs has been found to increase our aversion to harming others.

Similarly there is strong evidence that our desire for fairness, or more precisely our desire to punish cheaters, is biologically innate. Research has found the fairness impulse to be modulated by variations in serotonin receptors and sensitive to the level of serotonin in the brain. Brain scans have also found this impulse to be rooted in activity in both the emotion and cognition parts of the brain. When this aversion is focused on bankers and CEOs as cheaters it can be progressive, but when it is focused on immigrants and minorities it can be reactionary. Moral sentiments are inadequate without moral reasoning, knowledge, and discriminating wisdom. A program of posthuman virtue enhancement will require not just the boosting of certain sentiments but their conscious channeling with (neurotechnologically facilitated) moral education.

Mindfulness and intelligence. If we are morally obliged not to drink and drive because it impairs attention, why are we not also obliged to enhance our ability to use deadly machinery with neurochemicals like Adderall or Provigil? If it is a virtue to remember our past mistakes in order to avoid them, then surely memory-enhancing drugs could improve moral learning. If it is a virtue to make accurate choices quickly, the key virtue of practical wisdom, then drugs and devices that enhance our knowledge and decision making would also be morally obligatory. Although it may seem difficult to imagine today, in the era of Twitterification of discourse and five hundred channels of bread and circuses, few will choose to remain distracted, forgetful, and foolish when they are given access to cognitive enhancement technologies.

Transcendence. Peak experiences are suspect in many virtue traditions because they can become addictive and distracting. But they also give us liberating insights that can strengthen our character and the meaningfulness of our lives. For us Buddhists, the deconstruction of the illusory solidity and continuity of the self is the key to liberation. What if technology could accelerate that insight? Patients with lesions in the temporo-parietal junction lose the sense of where their body boundaries are and feel more connected to the moment, other people, and nature. The right posterior insula underpins the sense that you own your body. Those same experiences of boundlessness can be had with focused transcranial magnetic stimulation that temporarily turns off those parts of the brain.

Variations in serotonin receptor genes have been linked to the personality trait “openness to experience,” which is in turn positively linked to one’s likelihood of having mystical or spiritual experiences, while negatively correlated with religious fundamentalism. We have used chemicals to induce mystical experiences for thousands of years, and our growing understanding of brain chemistry may allow increasingly precise induction of specific spiritual experiences in the future.


In her paper “Cognitive Enhancement, Virtue Ethics and the Good Life,” published last year in Neuroethics, Barbro Fröding concluded that while a fully virtuous life is biologically impossible for most people, “if these cognitive shortcomings could be compensated for, or balanced, through the use of safe and voluntary enhancement techniques, then it would be morally desirable to do so. Indeed, it could well be the case that a combination of cognitive enhancement and virtue could make virtue ethics more convincing.” As those concerned with virtue begin to embrace the possibility of moral enhancement, likewise transhumanists need to concede that not all posthuman possibilities would be the kind of enhancement we want to promote. A model of the qualities of character that we value and want to strengthen will be inescapable in a future with cognitive enhancement technologies.

James Hughes

James J. Hughes is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He teaches health policy at Trinity College and is the author of Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future (Hachette, 2004).

When I was seventeen I was part of a six-week summer seminar at Cornell University on the theme of “the individual and the community.” A dozen of us nerdy teens read an intensive diet of John Stuart Mill, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud under the tutelage of two philosophy professors. Afterward, I was a determined socialist …

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