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THE DESPAIR OF JOHN STUART MILL

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J.S. Mill (1806-73) was educated by his father to believe in the "greatest happiness principle" of Benthamite utilitarianism. But as his Autobiography relates, in the autumn of 1826 the younger Mill became seriously depressed. He asked himself whether he would be happy even if all the socio-economic, institutional and legislative measures he advocated were to be fulfilled. "An irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, "No!" His "heart sank"; and he fell into "dry, heavy dejection".

Two centuries after his birth, J.S. Mill's question is no less relevant. In spite of decades of political, social and economic reform - and unprecedently high living standards - the incidence of depression, anxiety disorders and suicide is statistically rising across the developed world. At best, it can be said that average emotional well-being is not measurably improving. By way of explanation, contemporary neuroscience attests that no amount of purely environmental improvement ("progress") can cheat the brain's hedonic treadmill. Socio-economic reform cannot permanently recalibrate our "set-point" of well-being/ill-being. This pessimistic verdict holds true whether one pursues "higher" or "lower" pleasures, push-pin or philosophy. Given the current human genome ("Human Nature"), there would still be suffering in the world even if we recreated a notional Garden of Eden, embraced a political "utopia" of the left or right, or opted to live in futuristic fantasy VR worlds, etc. The homeostatic mechanisms of the brain prevent most human beings from being truly happy for long.

So should this design-limitation induce a sense of despair in the utilitarian ethicist? Is "progress" a mirage? Is suffering inescapable? Not in the dawning era of biotechnology. This is because if we recalibrate our typical emotional "set-point" - whether through designer drugs or gene therapy, either germ-line or autosomal - then the greatest happiness principle can be implemented far more successfully than in the wildest dreams of Bentham or Mill. For in principle, at least, tomorrow's biotechnology allows sentient life to be animated by gradients of bliss that's orders of magnitude richer than anything accessible today. Whether or not this scenario ever comes to pass, anyone who holds a classical, "hedonistic" utilitarian ethic is forced to accept that biological interventions offer the only technically effective long-term solution to life's miseries. Social and legislative reform alone can never suffice.

J.S. Mill aspired to bring systematic rigour and rationality to ethics. In the third millennium, molecular biology and computational neuroscience offer the scientific means to do so. Most radically, a motivation system based entirely on heritable gradients of well-being is technically feasible for enhanced organic life. For the self-consistent classical utilitarian, a neural architecture run on gradients of bliss is ethically preferable to the pleasure-pain axis as bequeathed by natural selection. As the reproductive revolution of designer babies unfolds, we must choose how much - or how little - suffering we want to exist in the world of the future. The consistent utilitarian should plainly say: none at all.

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