spring/summer 2006, no. 7


Ecstasy and Honesty

by David Pearce



A society based on E-like consciousness would be an honest society of honest people.


Today, most of us lie and dissemble. We tell white lies and, on occasion, total whoppers. Most of us lie many times in the course of a day, whether to friends, family, colleagues or — as necessity or convenience dictates to total strangers. Hiding one's true thoughts and feelings as the occasion demands is second nature to outwardly civilized Darwinians. The few formal studies conducted into the prevalence of lying in everyday life suggest we tend to underestimate just how often (almost) all of us are guilty of outright fabrications, not to mention innumerable half-truths and evasions.

 On a wider scale, lying and deceit are institutionalized in political life. The record of human history to date supports the powerful intuition that deception will persist indefinitely in public and private life alike. For the evolved capacity to lie and deceive in ever more sophisticated ways has been genetically adaptive. Indeed, if the controversial Machiavellian ape hypothesis is correct, then a progressively refined capacity to lie and deceive and conversely, a fine-tuned capacity to spot lies and deceit in others - may have driven the evolution of human intelligence.

It is sometimes said that life would be better if only we were honest with each other. More often, this value judgment is simply assumed. Life might be better, too, if we were more honest even with ourselves. But given today’s corrupt genome, all such scenarios are impossibly unrealistic. Moreover, the effects of public openness about private feelings would frequently be catastrophic. This is because Darwinian humans entertain so many ugly and negative thoughts about each other that complete candor would wreck most contemporary human relationships. In the grim Darwinian world, one [E-less] person may, for instance, find another person boring and ugly. Yet there is commonly no advantage to either party in saying so. So the civilities are (sometimes) preserved.

Not all lying is self-serving. Very often, we lie to spare the feelings of others, as well as our own. On MDMA/Ecstasy, however, subjects tend to become extraordinarily honest. Critically, MDMA-induced emotional honesty is matched by a subtle yet profound shift in perception: when "loved up" on MDMA, we all tend to seem fascinating and beautiful, both to each other and to ourselves. On MDMA, it seems natural to express these feelings spontaneously and demonstratively too.

Alas this marvelous state of being doesn't last for more than a few hours. Potentially, the benefits of MDMA (and MDA)-assisted therapy can be much longer-lasting. But the peak experience of soul-baring empathetic bliss soon fades. Looking to the future, however, enhancements of E-like consciousness can in principle be indefinitely prolonged. By opting via gene-therapy to hardwire a neurobiology of E-like consciousness into our offspring, we could even lock in this perceptual and behavioral shift for good. If implemented species-wide, an enhanced E-like set of perceptual filters would make heavenly love for each other as natural as breathing.

This millennial vision is implausible. Right now, the notion of global E-like consciousness seems fantastical, especially if one isn't loved up on MDMA. Yet the capacity to love everybody, and in extreme forms, to be in love with everybody, will be a technical if not sociological possibility in the age of mature biotechnology. In the future, if we ever opt - pharmacologically or genetically - to implement E-like consciousness as one facet of world-wide mental health, then it may be psychologically safe to be totally honest. In the meantime, barring such enrichment of our troubled minds, it's sometimes safer to lie through one's teeth. Thus today the MDMA user is probably well advised to take a conscious decision, prior to dropping an E, not to disclose anything s/he would not wish to be known in the E-less state. Reticence on E can be maintained; but it can be achieved reliably only through a fair bit of forethought.

Yet discretion is prudent not because an E-catalysed outpouring of the heart and soul is itself pathological. Selective reticence about (some of) one's innermost feelings is wise simply because the repercussions of honesty back in the E-less world to which the user must return can be cruel; and because elevated sentiments felt on E often cannot be sustained in the cold light of day.

Of course, the prospect of worldwide E-like candor strikes the harsh Darwinian eye as grotesque no less than the prospect of us all loving each other. More specifically, the option of becoming permanently loved-up invites the charge that E-like perception is systematically distorted. A notional society of loved-up E-heads, it may be alleged, would be in the grip of a collective psychosis. Sure, runs the cynic's critique, loved-up Ecstatics intoxicated on MDMA may find everyone beautiful and fascinating. But so what? Even though MDMA is not a classic "hallucinogen" or psychedelic, the drug-induced perception of loveliness that MDMA creates is (often) false. For lots of people are really boring and ugly. A perpetually E-enchanted world would be a fool’s paradise populated by intellectually and aesthetically undiscerning simpletons. In an E-like world, we might indeed be open and honest; but we'd have nothing worth hiding.

 This dismissive judgment doesn't follow. If being boring or ugly were intrinsic properties of (some of) our fellow humans, rather than our emotional responses to the vicious (mis-)representations of Darwinian minds, then the charge of false consciousness, as it were, might be easier to sustain. But there's no evidence that this is so. Our perceptual experiences have been shaped by natural selection, not to be veridical, but to help our genes leave more copies of themselves. Sometimes this (lack of) veridicality is fitness-enhancing; and sometimes it isn't; and sometimes - as is arguably the case in the realm of attitudes expressing pure value judgements there's no fact of the matter either way. In any event, under the primordial Darwinian regime of natural selection, there has been great advantage in seeing genetic rivals, and indeed seeing anyone with whom one is not genetically identical, in a (sometimes) cruelly negative light. On the other hand, if it had helped our genes leave more copies of themselves, then men would typically represent women of, say, 80 years old as more sexy and fascinating than women of 21; and this perception would be neither more nor less "correct" than the aesthetic consensus-reality of today.

Analogously, the enraptured mystic who can "see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower" is not deluded; such perceptions are uncommon at present merely because it has been genetically maladaptive to occupy states of sustained mystical bliss. For in the ancestral environment of adaptation, it was typically more adaptive to see grains of sand as boring and neglect them. But today's parochial (virtual) worlds are only one small set of mind-dependent creations in a vaster state-space of possibilities, not a timeless feature of the human predicament. Tantalizingly, thanks to biotechnology a wide range of life-enriching options will soon be on offer instead.

A tough-minded skeptic may respond: yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but not all social perception is relative. Some people really are nasty and ill-natured by (almost) any criterion at all. And seeing them as anything else would be delusive. Granted again, viewing each other in an often jaundiced light may be a product of our nasty little Darwinian minds, but surely that's the point: commonly we just aren't very lovable. If we are to be honest, then we should admit this - not gush effusively at each other like drugged-up hippies.

Herein lies the beauty of MDMA and perhaps safer, sexier lovedrugs and more distant gene-therapies in the pipeline. MDMA doesn't just make us honest. E-like consciousness makes us sweeter-natured. Even better, the idealised self activated by MDMA does not take the form of alien impostor, so to speak, but feels utterly authentic, constructed from elements of an idealised persona that we can't live up to in drug-naïve life. If, in a hypothetical E-based society, everyone were constitutionally sweet-natured, then enriching our cognitive architecture would entail capturing this sweet-naturedness in our interpersonal perceptions. With E-like consciousness, emotional honesty and intellectual integrity can, in principle, go hand in hand. It is possible, but unproven, that ugly representations of ourselves and each other belong to a dark Darwinian world that we will shortly leave behind.

This prospect again invites skepticism. It can be argued that genetically engineering an entire population primed for indiscriminate honesty is not an evolutionarily stable outcome. An unfailingly honest population might seem prone to genetic invasion by mutant, quasi-sociopathic "defectors". This game-theoretic argument may continue to hold in the future, as it has done in the past. Even with advanced biotechnology, runs this line of argument, perhaps only substantially egoistic well-being is feasible in any biologically realistic model of a globally super-happy society.

But once again, this overly quick reply neglects how ostensibly altruistic thoughts and behavior evolved in the first instance i.e. for (genetically) selfish reasons; and how they are likely to proliferate explosively in the new reproductive era of designer babies. The proliferation of such admirable traits will accelerate not because our genes stop being any less selfish in the technical sense. For unselfish genes are impossible. Instead, an (E-like?) nobility of character may flourish in the impending era of so-called unnatural selection because when selection is no longer "blind" or [effectively] random, the [selfish] genetic payoff of promoting such "altruistic" traits can be higher. In the new reproductive era ahead, when genes/allelic combinations are chosen by (partially) rational agents in anticipation of their likely behavioral consequences, parents will plausibly exhibit a strong preference for offspring with genotypes that promote such (partially) heritable traits as honesty and "lovability". These nicer traits may then flourish at the expense of alleles that predispose to a nastier disposition. After all, who wants to devote their life to raising nasty kids?

Unfortunately there are no shortcuts. Any transition to a truly honest post-Darwinian society can't happen simply through acts of individual initiative or all-night raves. Nor can a transition occur through purely social reform projects that leave our emotionally brain-damaged minds unhealed. Paradise-engineering certainly won't come about just via individual acts of drug-taking even after safe and sustainable MDMA analogues are synthesized and perhaps globally distributed via the Net.

Needless to say, we don't know whether our genetically enhanced descendants will ever have E-like perceptual filters to their consciousness. We don't know if posterity will lie and cheat as much as we do. We don't even know whether they will be fundamentally happy, or assuming they are indeed so blessed, whether their well-being will take an egocentric or empathetic guise, or express modes of flourishing unimaginably different from anything accessible to conscious mind today. So perhaps the enticing scenarios for our transhuman descendants touted here are all just wishful thinking masquerading as futurology. But whatever the future holds, by taking MDMA we can already, fleetingly, access states of consciousness richer than our brutish Darwinian mindset normally permits. A fundamentally honest society, prefigured (perhaps) in a communal MDMA love-in, is not self-evidently ethically inferior to a society founded on never-ending lies and deceit or a society driven by competitive displays of consumer consumption. So at least as an intellectual exercise, it's worth investigating the option of locking in the biochemical substrates of E-like honesty for good. g

References and further reading.
Interview with David Pearce.



David Pearce is a British philosopher who promotes the use of biotechnology to abolish suffering. Pearce's views are most prominently presented in The Hedonistic Imperative, a manifesto in which he outlines how technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and neurosurgery could potentially eliminate all forms of unpleasant experience. Pearce was co-founder (with Nick Bostrom) of the World Transhumanist Association, as well as co-founder and honorary president of the Abolitionist Society. He is currently the director of BLTC Research.


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