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You Are All Diseased

July 31st, 2007 · 2 Comments

Virginia Postrel asks:

Personal interests aside, the more fundamental issue is the way we treat the term disease. If something is a “disease,” it is worth treating. If it isn’t a “disease,” you should just live with it. But why? Why not treat a biological condition you just don’t like?

Of course, I’m in full agreement. And, to turn things around, I think an added unhealthy side effect of our professed hostility to the idea of “better living through chemistry” is that it pushes us to pathologize a lot of ordinary human experience. Because, of course, we’re all tantalized by the prospect of pills that might give us better concentration, peace of mind, relief from mental anguish, or superheroic erections. But you’re not supposed use drugs if you’re “healthy” and just want to feel or perform better in some way. Maybe that sounds too much like recreational drug use, or maybe it’s too evocative of some sci-fi dystopia or other. But our unwillingness to be forthright about what we want makes us more willing to squeeze more and more ordinary human traits under the rubric of this syndrome or that disorder. (Not, to be clear, that the conditions are bogus or manufactured, but that they have inherently fuzzy boundaries.)

If this were just a convenient end-run around a pointless restriction, it wouldn’t worry me. But it’s a bit more troubling if, compelled to redescribe enhancement as treatment, people actually begin thinking in clinical terms about ever broader swaths of human experience. We might then come to see ourselves as a population widely afflicted by diseases requiring treatment rather than one whose members are choosing to improve their normal experience in various ways. And when others are involved, which way we tend to conceptualize things may affect what we regard as ethical. Drugging your rebellious child just to make him more compliant is repugnant, but treating his oppositional defiant disorder only responsible parenting.

Probably some of this is a sort of residual Cartesianism about minds. We’re uneasy about the extent to which chemicals can dramatically reshape the chemical brains that constitute our chemical selves. The language of “disease” externalizes the aspects of ourselves and others we don’t like, makes them alien invaders, like some virus or bacterium. Changing our brain chemistry is seen as “freeing” the true self from the alien. Admitting that this is a phantom, that there’s no such thing as a “true self” over and apart from the one constituted from particular brain configurations at particular times, would be the first step toward making more honest choices as our power over those brain states expands.

Tags: Science



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sameer // Jul 31, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    Interesting point. Can you link to Virginia Postrel’s original post?

  • 2 JasonL // Aug 1, 2007 at 10:28 am

    I agree. Good thoughts. What strikes me is that there seems to be something at play in addition to a Cartesian sanctity of mind sort of position. There is a similar disdain in some quarters for plastic surgery, for example. The horror seems to arise from the notion that you somehow defiled your body when there was ‘nothing wrong with you.’

    I’d like to say that this is a fading idea, and that people broadly accept cosmetic modification, but I’m not so sure. I think most people accept it in celebrities, but what about that chick your brother is going to marry?