A pill that makes you have a good day

On the radio today, an ad cheerfully inquired, “What if there was a pill that you could take that would make you have a good day?” The pill in question was a dubious homeopathic “positive mood formula,” but it is a precursor to more powerful options. In Our Posthuman Future, Francis Fukuyama writes that advances in neuropharmacology (the use of drugs to affect the nervous system) mean that “we don’t have to await the arrival of human genetic engineering to foresee a time when we will be able to enhance intelligence, memory, emotional sensitivity, and sexuality, as well as reduce aggressiveness and manipulate behavior in a host of other ways.”

As increasingly powerful drugs enable more precisely-targeted behavior modification with fewer side effects, a whole host of new ethical questions will arise. In the not-too-distant future, science may offer a pill that does make every day a good day. Happy. Cooperative. Friendly. Stress-free. Most dystopian prophecies of chemically-controlled personality assume the existence of a malevolent controller, but what if the reality is a future in which individuals freely and gladly use affect-enhancing drugs?

From a Christian perspective, one potential problem with such a “Good-Day Drug” is its impact on character development. Paul writes, “we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Character is developed through difficult choices made well. Courage could not exist without fear, nor self-control without temptation, nor patience without trials. In a very real way, our choices make us, for better or worse.

If every choice shapes us to be either more or less like Christ, then drug-induced goodness would be an abdication of choice, leaving the part of us that chooses and wills – that actually matters in a long-term sense – as an undeveloped, infantile nullity. Withhold the daily tablet of virtue, and imagine the effect of a minor misfortune or a passing quarrel on a man whose rose-colored glasses have been suddenly removed, calling for reserves of fortitude or patience that never had a chance to develop. Stripped of artificial virtue, there is little else beneath.

It is this potential for stunting personal character that should make us leary of any pharmaceutical quick-fixes. There is a legitimate and important place for drugs that help correct chemical imbalances or treat genuine pathologies. Such drugs may allow the patient to function normally, breaking through a neurochemical fog that had been preventing right choices, or perhaps any choices at all. However, when pharmacology transitions from offering normalcy to offering morality, from making right choices possible to making right conduct easy, we would do well to remember the danger of an endless succession of Good Days.

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