More than 15 percent of Americans use anti-depressants. Are all of these people clinically depressed, or are doctors over-prescribing psychotropic medications? And if anti-depressants are being over-prescribed, what’s the harm in that? You’ll find bold answers to these questions, and a great deal more, in Ronald Dworkin’s new book, Artificial Happiness. If I say this is a brilliant and important book, it’s not because Dworkin is a colleague of mine at the Hudson Institute, or because I necessarily agree with him on every point. Artificial Happiness is important because it not only makes a powerful case that anti-depressants are overused, but turns that argument into a window on our cultural moment.
For a couple fascinating and positive reviews of Artificial Happiness, see Thomas Meaney in the Wall Street Journal, and long-time National Review columnist Florence King, in the latest issue of The Wilson Quarterly (both by subscription only). The reviews at Amazon.com are split between glowing praise and furious condemnation (the latter by some readers who use anti-depressants).
If you’re particularly curious about the anti-depressant question, you can “cheat” by reading the first chapter of Artificial Happiness and the last two. They are filled with fascinating personal stories, which Dworkin turns into little philosophical-psychological puzzles about the structure and meaning of life. Whether you agree or disagree with Dworkin’s take on these slices of life, just mulling these cases will force you to sort out your core beliefs.
But Artificial Happiness ranges far beyond the anti-depressant controversy. First, Dworkin takes a whack at the related issues of “New Age” medicine and the exercise craze. No, Dworkin is not against exercise, but he does have some striking things to say about obsessive exercise in search of a supposed “endorphin high.” Dworkin also takes on the theory of “psychoneuroimmunology” that lies behind much alternative medicine. In general, Dworkin casts doubt on the medical theories that link brain biology to a whole series of human problems (you’ve seen the ads on unhappiness and “neurotransmitters”).
Although Dworkin is no friend of religious conservatives (to say the least), there are some reasons why even religious traditionalists ought not to dismiss this book. Dworkin is frustrated that religious conservatives (obvious potential allies on the drug issue) have kept the problem of over-prescribed anti-depressants at arms length. Instead, they’ve focused on life issues, a topic on which Dworkin is decidedly not with them. Dworkin’s criticism’s of traditionalist views, however, should not obscure the fact that it is possible to accept his take on anti-depressants, regardless of your views on religion, or on life issues. In fact, Dworkin’s book helps make sense of why life issues have become so important. Florence King draws out this point, from a pro-life perspective, by noting that our recent shift toward happiness as the ultimate standard is at the root of liberalized attitudes on abortion and euthanasia.
Dworkin is very smart on the limits of happiness as a value, but he may set up too sharp a dichotomy between the quest for personal happiness and religion. Dworkin is ambivalent about religion, doubting much, yet also valuing a certain style of religion as a counterweight to a too-simple or too-exclusive emphasis on personal happiness. Yet happiness has long been a guiding theme in Christian theology, and its centrality in some strains of American theology is far less novel than Dworkin sometimes makes it seem. (See, for example, the index entries for “happiness” in E. Brooks Holifield’s Theology in America.)
At any rate, you can take Dworkin’s historical account and cultural critique in a number of different directions, not all of which agree with Dworkin himself. The point is that this extraordinary book introduces a whole new angle on our current cultural debates, and on that ultimate debate over the nature and meaning of human life.