Monday, December 27, 2010

The Real Self Of Love

Image from a 2002 site about combining Viagra and Ecstasy.  Do people still do that?

I don't know if you read that story in The New Yorker the other day, by George Saunders, about the future?  It was called Escape from Spiderhead.

The story is about a guy convicted of a crime who instead of going to prison becomes a kind of designer-drug guinea pig.  The main good thing about the story is the names Saunders comes up with for the drugs and technology that the guy is testing.  "Verbaluce" gets you talking. "VeriTalk" makes you tell the truth. "Darkenfloxx" causes despair.

The drug they're testing makes you feel like you're in love.  Like, whoever you're with when you take it, you feel superconnected to them and also like you really really want to have sex with them.

The testing is meant to feel creepy, and it does.  Our hero takes the drug, sees one woman, falls in love with her, then when the drug wears off, goes completely back to baseline human indifference.  Then he takes the drug again, sees another woman, falls in love with her, then when the drug wears off, goes completely back to baseline human indifference.

The drug makers' plan is to market the drug to people who can't love enough, or who love the wrong person, or who love too much, to make sure they love in just the right way.  That's meant to feel creepy too, and it does.

But what exactly is so creepy about it?  I was pondering this question when I started thinking about certain philosophical theories of autonomy and selfhood.  Some of these theories try to articulate autonomy with reference to what a person endorses when they rationally reflect.  So, for instance, suppose you smoke, but on reflection you decide that it's best to quit.  Autonomy would mean quitting, in line with your rational self.

A person who fails to quit, whose desire overwhelms them, isn't really autonomous.  Part of the intuition is that a desire that comes from something like an addiction comes from "outside you" since it doesn't come from your thinking self -- the self that is you.  Other views dispense with the rationality part of the story but retain the idea that you and your desires can be deeply at odds, and when you are, this is a failure of autonomy.  For instance, on views like Harry Frankfurt's, it is only when your desires are in line with what you want your desires to be that you are a free, autonomous person.

Now the weird thing is this:  if these theories are right, then the Love Drug isn't creepy at all.  Indeed, used properly, it would be an aid to a person's autonomy and well-being.  Think of it this way.  If you decide you ought to love your longtime spouse, and you take the drug, and it works and you love them, then you're good to go:  you're desiring what you want to desire.  If you want to desire one man rather than another, one woman rather than another, you take the drug, and BAM -- you're good to go.  Your emotions are suddenly in line with your thoughts.  A dream of unity between the emotional you, the physical you, and the rational you.  It should be perfect.

So either there's something wrong with these ways of thinking about autonomy, or the creepiness is due to something else, or it's not creepy after all.

Maybe there's something to it's not being creepy after all.  I mean, lots of people have said that drugs like Prozac make them feel more themselves.  Why not a drug that makes you love who you want to love, and lust after who you want to lust after?  Isn't that a way of being, really yourself?  Actually, one might say, if you don't take the drug, you're just letting yourself be dicked around by a bunch of hormones.  Aren't you?

Or maybe it only seems creepy because it happens in a lab?  The love potion in Midsummer Nights Dream doesn't seem creepy in the same way.  It's just sort of funny.  So maybe the creepiness we feel is because we know what pharmaceutical companies are like, and they creep us out?

Or maybe there is something wrong with thinking of autonomy -- or at least well-being -- in ways that value the stable, the rational, the thoughtful, the slow, over the impulsive, the changeable, the emotional, the crazy.  Because those other parts of us are still us -- and they're the real self of love.  Aren't they?  Or is that just an old-fashioned irrational preference for chaos?


Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. Regarding the split between rational and outside wants, it gives credence to why things like addiction are considered disabilities (and thus protected) under human rights legislation.

About the purpose of the drug, it's less creepy if you think about how abandonment disorders consistently and repeatedly kill any ability to form lasting relationships. That is, these disorders typically over-emphasize disappointment or perceived fault in another person. Since abandonment occurs because of the act (or inaction) of an outside party, the resulting effects on a person can't be said to reflect their true self, no matter how long they've lived with it. If a Love Potion allows them to overcome irrational and/or unwarranted feelings of disappointment or perceived fault in another person, then it's a return to an original, pre-abandonment state, not a creepy modification of true self.

On the other hand, used as a date-rape drug, it's totally creepy.

Patricia said...

Hi Anonymous, I didn't know that about human rights legislation. It's certainly true that one good thing about thinking about autonomy is that it allows you to explain intuitive exceptions.

You're right that if you think it's to treat an unwanted and debilitating psychological difficulty, the drug seems not creepy. I'm not sure the reason it's not the person's true self has to do with the difficulty being caused from outside, since so many of our personality traits are caused by experiences we've had and so on and those seem ours.

Happily we can all agree that used as a date rape drug, ultra creepy. One reason I always come back to thinking about autonomy even though it's so puzzling is that it explains things like this so clearly: don't drug other people to make them do what you want! That is a violation of the person's autonomy.

Christopher Grisdale said...

I’ve always struggled with the idea that when our irrational desires oppose and overwhelm our rational ones, we suffer from a lack of autonomy. I mean, I’ve never felt like that; I’ve never felt coerced to eat that last piece of cake, to skip the gym, or to drink that third class of wine.

Why should the self be only that rational bit, why isn’t the self both the rational and irrational bits? What makes reasons so special? Why make that distinction when talking about the self?

I can tell you that despite my rational desires, I sometimes most identify with my irrational ones. And I think that’s why the drug seems so creepy to me. Creepy, because it would take away a part of my self with which I most identify.

I know that there are tricky cases, but the idea that autonomy consists in the alignment of rational desires and other desires, just doesn’t feel right to me. It doesn’t fit my experience.

Patricia said...

Hi Christopher, yeah, I've had that feeling often myself -- that my irrational and even momentary desires and feelings are the ones that are really me. It's like the thought-out ones are a kind of fake veneer laid on top.

On the other hand I do know the feeling of having my desires to drink too much and eat too much cake feel like they are ... well, like they're coming out of nowhere, assaulting me. Like, hey, I was just trying to mind my own business, what's this?

I tend to think the self must be some messy mix of the two kinds of things but how that's supposed to work exactly, I really don't know.

Christina Starmans said...

I instinctively sympathize with the idea that the rational, reflective self is REALLY me, and the opposing urges and instincts are something I am fighting against. But there's an interesting tension between the idea of autonomy as being aligned with your "rational" self, and the popular wisdom of "listening to your gut" - the latter implying that sometimes the less rational and reflective part has the better answer, or the one that is more true to your real desires. This suggestion generates images of the person being held hostage by their own rationality, and autonomy gets linked to choosing the less rational and thought-out choice. It might be that we see the self as neither of the two sides, but a third party trying to choose between them. Or perhaps we think of them each as multiples selves pulling us in different directions; Paul Bloom has an interesting article in the Atlantic exploring this idea.

Patricia said...

Hi Christina, yes, the more I think about it the more I think it can't be either of the two but has to be both. I am more inclined toward the "multiple selves" metaphor than the "third party" metaphor... though perhaps nothing much hangs on which of these we choose. ?

I'll look forward to reading the Bloom article - I didn't know about it- thanks! In case anyone wants it, here is an active link to the article you mention.

Daniel said...

I sympathize with the idea of something AS real, or potentially more real, about the chaotic, nuisance thoughts, at least sometimes. I think Freud had smart things to say about desire and reason - maybe not quite like this, but certainly that some of our desires make us uncomfortable and aren't part of our self-acknowledged, or "reasoned" views of ourselves.

Patricia said...

Hi Daniel, yeah, I always forget about Freud in this context -- though of course he is concerned with desires and selfhood.

I'm really glad you identify with the chaotic nuisance thoughts though. I do too.