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Effort and satisfaction of the enhanced

Thursday, 8 May, 2008

Today I received marks for an essay I wrote for my Developmental Neurobiology subject, and was actually disappointed to get 80%. Many people would have loved to get such a result in such a subject. Now, I believe there is a key message here.

Bill McKibben, in his book Enough, writes of how terrible it would be if people were enhanced to be faster/stronger/smarter, because they would receive less satisfaction for the same result (running a marathon, climbing a cliff-face). But, as I experienced firsthand today, some people are already far less satisfied with results that would make other people ecstatic. People like myself, who are used to greater results, are unsatisfied when they only run the 100m in 14 seconds, or only bench 60kg, or only get 80% on a university paper. However, those same people are still happy when they achieve beyond what they thought they could. Some people may experience joy from testing their body to the limit by completing a marathon, whereas others would need to run three times as far to experience the same joy.

Which brings me to my point. The key to satisfaction is effort. The reason I am upset about my result is that I know I could have done better, and I feel like I did not put in the effort required. But if somebody else had put in more effort than I did, and achieved the same result, they would have been immensely proud of themselves. And so they should be, for they have tested their body and brains to the limits, and to realise this is the key to satisfaction, not the numerical result.

And so, genetic enhancement will not reduce satisfaction. If you change the limits of your body and brain, you will still have to put in the same amount of effort to achieve the same state of satisfaction. An individual with enhanced endurance may need to run across the country to feel the same joy that another person may experience after running a few blocks, but that joy is still attainable with the a very similar amount of effort. An individual with enhanced intelligence may need to ace all their subjects to experience the same joy another person would when they pass all their subjects, but that feeling is a product of hard work and effort. So human enhancement will not rob us of any satisfaction, and nor will we have to try harder to get the same joy. Rather, we will try exactly the same as before, and push our bodies and brains to the limits – and get the same feeling when we get there, regardless of the results.

Does this mean that enhancement is a zero-sum game, with no benefits at all? Not at all. While self-satisfaction is one thing, it is not the only thing that makes us happy. Moving faster may make us happy regardless of the effort involved (perhaps explaining why some people enjoy driving more than running). Solving a difficult problem may make us feel happy by itself, regardless of whether we worked it out ourselves or were shown the required method (perhaps explaining, in part, why people are driven to cheat in exams). Therefore, genetic enhancement could give us the same self-satisfaction, but then more of other feelings of happiness that come with experiencing new limits of our bodies and brains. It still might not, but don’t knock it ’til you try it (in order words: without evidence, all you have is an opinion).

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