Governing by the Happiness Index

I've often written about the moral system I advocate, which I've dubbed universal utilitarianism. Although people have a broad range of individual preferences, human nature is, in general, fixed and predictable: certain things reliably bring us happiness, while others reliably cause pain and suffering. Through reason and evidence, we can work out which actions are more likely to have these good or bad consequences, allowing us to choose a course of action that's superior to others in an objective sense.


It's often asserted that the divide between "is" and "ought", between factual statements and values, is a chasm that can't be crossed. However, I think the separation isn't as wide as all that. Medical researchers studying how to promote health and cure disease are obviously doing science. But at the same time, all medical research has an implicit "ought" built in: we study how to improve human health because we should want to do that. The separation between "is" and "ought" is very small in this case, more like a hairline crack than a great canyon.

In the same way, I consider morality to be a branch of science: the study of human happiness, of flourishing. Although its aims are similar to medicine, morality has a broader goal: not just curing what afflicts people, but actively making their lives better, encompassing all their wants and desires. And I consider morality to be applicable not just to individual interactions, but even more importantly, to the bigger questions of how society should be organized. That's why I'm happy to read that the concept of gross national happiness, and the improvement thereof, is increasingly being taken seriously as a goal of governance.

The trailblazer is the small Asian country of Bhutan, which uses gross national happiness as an official measure of societal well-being. A similar bill was proposed in Brazil earlier this year. The governments of France and the U.K. have also studied the concept (see also), as have U.S. states like Vermont and Maryland.

Now the obvious, but still necessary, disclaimer: Governing by the happiness index isn't a panacea. There are real and important questions about how best to measure society's overall happiness. Governing by the happiness index can become a way of enforcing cultural or religious conformity, rather than genuinely promoting the well-being of the people. (Similarly, governing by gross national product can become a way of further enriching the wealthy few while trampling on the poor.)

However, the most compelling reason for making happiness the goal of government is that it gets people to ask the right questions. Even when prejudiced, regressive beliefs are common among the people, governing by the happiness index helps point the government's priorities in the right direction - as in this survey, where Bhutan's government found that a majority of women from that country believe their husbands have the right to beat them. In a society based on improving GNP, this might or might not be considered a problem. In a society based on improving GNH, it can't be overlooked.

This is a development that humanists should applaud. Humanism considers human beings to be of the highest moral importance and their well-being to be the ultimate standard of value. Yet most widely used economic indicators don't take happiness into account at all, such that a country's GNP or other stats can improve even while it's actively destroying human happiness - an absurd result that shows the irrationality of using those indicators as the sole measure of progress. If it's true, as the immortal words say, that one of the chief ends of government is securing the pursuit of happiness, then it's about time that more governments took that mandate seriously and started paying attention to what really matters.

Image credit: Taktshang Monastery, Bhutan. Taken by Douglas J. McLaughlin, released on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0 license

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  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.