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.

My four most formative books

It struck me recently that I can easily list the most formative books I’ve ever read. I was surprised to realize how significant a gulf exists between these four books and any other competitor. I’ve been interested, affected, and challenged by many other books, but when it comes to the formation of my basic worldview, there are no close competitors. (With the exception of Scripture itself, which ought to be awarded pride of place in the ranking, but which I’m excluding in the interest of brevity.) The following books are listed chronologically, based on the first time I read them.

Orthodoxy, by the inimitable G.K. Chesterton, a man who could say more with an offhand witticism than some authors manage in a whole book. Chesterton’s brilliant mind combined with a slightly madcap passion and deep appreciation for life to create an unusual apologetic that reminded me of the appellation “Happy Warrior,” a title that has always held a peculiar appeal for me since I first read it years ago in some forgotten article. On an intellectual level, his defense of his faith offered a more organic compliment to the formal arguments with which I was familiar. (I heartily recommend anything else written by Chesterton, in particular St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.)

Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Though written as an apologetic, this book has influenced my theology more than any work other than the Bible itself.

Iron John: A Book About Men, by Robert Bly. It’s a mythology-filled book by a non-Christian based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and anyone who wonders why men aren’t showing up on Sunday morning needs to read it (and then go watch Fight Club).

Existentialism and Human Emotions, by Jean-Paul Sartre. Before I am stoned as an infidel for including one of the 20th Century’s foremost atheists on my list, allow me to offer a quote in my defense:

But when the existentialist writes about a coward, he says that this coward is responsible for his cowardice. He’s not like that because he has a cowardly heart or lung or brain; he’s not like that on account of his physiological make-up; but he’s like that because he has made himself a coward by his acts… [A frequent complaint is] as follows: “After all, these people are so spineless, how are you going to make heroes out of them?” This objection almost makes me laugh, for it assumes that people are born heroes. That’s what people really want to think. If you’re born cowardly, you may set your mind perfectly at rest; there’s nothing you can do about it; you’ll be cowardly all your life, whatever you may do. If you’re born a hero, you may set your mind just as much at rest; you’ll be a hero all your life; you’ll drink like a hero and eat like a hero. What the existentialist says is that the coward makes himself cowardly, that the hero makes himself heroic.

We are the product of our choices. When I choose to look at that pornographic popup ad, when I choose to gossip, when I choose to dwell on bitterness, I am creating the person I will be tomorrow. While Sartre’s atheism yields only a fumbling in the dark, pointless choices creating meaningless men, our choices are made with Jesus Christ as both means and end; but we are shaped by those choices nonetheless.