Thursday, June 26, 2008

How important is the right to choose?

This is a story about Mathew and Mark, identical twins, who were separated at birth and still do not know of each other’s existence. My story begins when both felt a little unhappy most of the time – not depressed, just not happy. In terms of the objective circumstances of their lives there was no obvious reason why they should be unhappy. Jill, who happened to meet Mathew and Mark by chance and figured out that they must be identical twins, felt that their unhappiness was largely genetic. Jill actually had the expertise to make such a judgement because she was a neurologist who conducted research on happiness.

Jill decided that rather than arrange a meeting between Mathew and Mark she would keep them ignorant of each other and use them as subjects in her research on the electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain to induce feelings of pleasure. So, she befriended both men and arranged to have apparatus for electrical stimulation of their brains installed in their favourite chairs without their knowledge. (Don’t ask me how this might work. I don’t know.) Without asking their permission Jill stimulated the brains of both men while they were relaxing in their favourite chairs.

After this, both men spontaneously reported to Jill that something wonderful had happened to them. From out of nowhere, they said, they had begun to experience pleasurable feelings that were better than any feelings that they had ever felt before – better than the pleasure of fine food or wine, better than the esteem of friends and even better than the pleasure of sex.

As she had planned all along, Jill told Mathew that she had caused his pleasurable feelings through brain stimulation, while suggesting to Mark that what had happened to him must be “just one of those things”.

When Jill told Mathew that her experiment was the source of his pleasure, he was not amused. He said that he felt that he had been manipulated and that his trust had been betrayed. Even though he would have readily participated in the experiment if asked to volunteer, he viewed Jill’s failure to ask an inexcusable breach of his autonomy. He told Jill to leave and not return, and she did as she was asked. After a week or two Mathew’s life returned to normal and he became his old unhappy self once again.

By contrast, Mark continued to receive the brain stimulation and never learned about the source of the pleasure he experienced. You could say he lived happily ever after – because he remained in ignorance that the pleasure he continued to experience was the result of Jill’s surreptitious intervention.

It seems to me that this story, which I have just made up, demonstrates that freedom to choose is more important than happiness. Mark is unquestionably happier than Mathew, but it is reasonable to predict that if he knew that his happiness was the result of Jill’s manipulation he, like Mathew, would make an informed choice to be unhappy rather than to continue to be manipulated by a person who does not respect his autonomy.

I made up the story after reading an article by Yew-Kwang Ng, who taught me just about everything I know about welfare economics in 1971. Yew-Kwang suggests that the technology of electrical brain stimulation to increase happiness is well known and that its widespread use would increase happiness enormously. He wonders why this technology has not already been developed for common use. Yew-Kwang also contemplates the use of genetic engineering to increase happiness. (‘Happiness studies’, Economic Record, June 2008).

It seems to me that the crucial point is that people should be free to choose whether to use such technologies. It is not clear, however, that those who put happiness ahead of everything see the right to choose as having a great deal of importance. Yew-Kwang Ng writes: “The satisfaction of my (even if informed) preferences as such has no normative significance for me; it is important only because, in most cases, it makes me (and/or others) happier, directly or indirectly” (“Efficiency, Equality and Public Policy”, 2000, p 53). This makes me wonder whether Yew-Kwang would consider that Mathew in my story acted irrationally by foregoing his chance of greater happiness in order to get the manipulative Jill out of his life.

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