2013 / 28 August

Pharmacological Enhancements Prompt Closer Look at an “Authentic” Self with Dr. Alexandre Erler


Authenticity is an oft-used and seemingly coveted word in the English language.  The idea of, the meaning or the essence behind “authenticity”, might be perceived as common to the universal human experience, but how do we come to an agreed upon definition of the word, which seems to hold different meanings for different cultures and individuals?  Even more puzzling in today’s global-scape, how does authenticity affect the idea of human enhancement and vice versa?

Dr. Alexandre Erler of Oxford dedicated his dissertation work to examining the meanings and ethical implications of authenticity in relation to self-creation and self-transformation, including the use of human enhancement technologies.  Across many minds, authenticity has taken on similar but fundamentally different meanings.  Thinkers of the ‘romantic’ movement, like Charles Taylor and others, appropriate authenticity as discovering a “true nature” hidden within that must be cultivated through a range of experiences.  In slight contrast are thinkers like Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University, who view authenticity as taking personal responsibility for our actions and developing “higher-order volitions” that allow us to act on one’s highest values and priorities.

Dr. Erler draws on both of these historic lines of thought to voice two concepts that he believes represent a multi-dimensional view of authenticity – self-expression and preservation of the self.   Amidst our rapid technological progression as a species, it seems wise to hold on to the thread of our identities, continuing to ask how our expression and understanding of ourselves as individuals might be affected by the future of enhancement.  David Pearce, a philosopher and transhumanist, supports the abolition of all human suffering and argues for the use of technology to engineer “gradients of well-being”.   But in the spirit of ethical debate, is the eradication of all negative experiences a “good” thing?

Dr. Erler explains his rationale for initially approaching the issue.  He sees logic in carefully listening to people’s expressed concerns about authenticity in the face of enhancement, particularly in regards to mood or personality enhancers. He acknowledges that people may not always clearly state their thoughts on the issue, voicing concerns along the lines of, “I will no longer be myself” if my mood or personality is directly altered; it’s understandable how the ambiguity of these statements may leave them more vulnerable to criticism, with proponents of enhancement describing these concerns as not logical and therefore irrelevant.  But Dr. Erler feels that these concerns, though not always adequately articulated, may still be relevant. “Maybe people are onto something when they raise these concerns, even though they are not clear enough in what they are saying.”

One possible legitimate fear is some uses of pharmaceutical ‘enhancement’ that threaten valuable aspects of current human existence.  The alleviation of all human suffering through pharmaceuticals raises various interesting questions – Is there any value in the experience of negative affect?  Are all negative emotions created equal?  Are there reasons to experience these emotions?

There seems to be a connected yet grey line between our emotions and ‘personality’ and the idea of an authentic, ‘true’ self.  It’s necessary to investigate the differences and connections between emotion and the self-concept of authenticity further.  Nick Bostrom and Rebecca Roache give a sample of the many questions that arise when considering mood and personality enhancement.  What counts as an improvement to mood or personality?  Are there plausible standards to judge which is which?  Even if you agree to certain changes as improvements, are drugs the answer?  In their article, Bostrom and Roache reference Leon Kass’ inquiry as to whether the experience of working through emotional obstacles and the moment of improvement in mood or perspective is somehow reduced if there is a lapse in this experience due to the more immediate effects of enhancement; how does the overall effect of either route affect the person’s mental state and therefore influence their ‘authenticity?’  Is authenticity somehow realized in the doing or the process of working through negative emotions, i.e. through the work of ‘self-expression’?

A common case that is often discussed addresses loss, when a person loses a loved one for example, and the inevitable post-experience of grief.  If you could take a pill to reduce the experience of mourning, is this a ‘good’ enhancement, all things considered?  Carl Elliot, a Professor in the Center of Bioethics at University of Minnesota, is one researcher who has done some interesting thought experiments in the field.  Though Dr. Erler does not necessarily agree with all of Elliot’s arguments, he references his example of the imaginary accountant who takes Prozac and feels better, more like himself, and that he has improved his life; was this really a benefit, Elliot asks, or has he perhaps lost some sense of ‘authentic’ self in the process?

The Prozac question was heavily researched and influenced by the work of Psychiatrist Peter Kramer, who used case studies of patients’ experiences to suggest that Prozac might actually be regarded as an authenticity-generating drug in some cases.  Dr. Felicitas Kraemer explored this issue further in her 2011 article published in Neuroethics.   Dr. Kraemer looks at the idea of naturalness versus artificiality in emotions, suggesting that there may be valid, non-naturalist ways to assess emotions brought about by psychopharmacological enhancements.  Dr. Kraemer references the work of Dr. David Pugmire, a key researcher in bringing emotional authenticity to the spotlight in emotion theory and who emphasized the natural or artificial origin of an emotion.  In the eyes of Dr. Pugmire and other bio-conservatives, artificial means of reaching a particular emotion automatically assumes inauthentic results.

Dr. Kraemer firmly suggests that this notion, particularly based on the work of Kramer, should be abandoned in future research of authenticity, asserting that a causal link between artificial origin and resulting emotional inauthenticity does not prove valid.  In other words, there can exist both artificially-induced authentic emotional states and naturally-engendered emotions that are inauthentic.  An intriguing idea and one that is certainly still ripe for debate.

Dr. Kraemer does give an imperative caution in conclusion: that an uncritical and limited view of enhancement of emotions via technology falls short of recognizing the complexity and subtlety of emotional life; it is still not clear whether enhancement of positive emotions would lead to a good and “authentic” life.   The apparent link yet distinct line between emotions and authenticity remains a gray area.   Dr. Erler addresses this directly; “I think the authenticity question…is a distinct one”.  We might imagine people, he explains, who don’t respond in emotionally appropriate or accepted ways in social situations (this would vary from culture to culture), but the emotional or mood spectrum seems to be an issue separate from the idea of ‘authenticity’.

How we continue to define the concept of emotional authenticity will play a critical role in determining how society moves forward in its pursuance of human enhancement in the field of neuro-psychopharmacology.  It requires further exploration and refinement of our internally constructed paradigm as to what it means to experience life in an authentic fashion, all rational and irrational emotional experiences considered.

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