|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?