Imagine an ordinary porcelain bowl sitting on a table in front of you. There’s nothing special about this bowl. It is plain without any distinguishing features. There are thousands, if not millions, of bowls like this in the world. They are useful, one can put rice in it, a salad, water, fruit or any other number of things. Despite it being useful, it would be odd if anyone missed it should it fall to the floor and smash to pieces. The bowl has utility, but it doesn’t have value. One day a tattoo artist was feeling bored and decided to paint an original and intricate art work depicting Norse gods from an epic saga. Now something peculiar has happened: the bowl that was once so ordinary that its destruction would have been inconsequential has gained a new quality: value. It’s still just as useful as a bowl, but now it requires more protection, care, and respect. This bowl that was once so ordinary could now sit comfortably in a museum or an art gallery. It has become important not just because of its usefulness for holding objects, but because it has acquired a value through the beautiful art work now inscribed on it. People are similar, they can be useful, but they have a value that extends beyond their utility. Surprisingly enough, an incomplete understanding of these terms can actually lead to suicidal thoughts.
Last night I was chatting to a friend about depression. As someone who is still recovering from depression she kept referring to it as “her weakness” which bothered me a little. This lead to her sharing with me a perspective on depression she had encountered recently: that depression was a method by which nature would rid a tribe of weaker members. Presumably it worked something like this: a person who couldn’t meet the expectations placed on them by their tribe would develop depression and end their own life so that only the strong members would survive. Thus it is a form of eugenics programmed into our psyche to effectively off ourselves for the benefit of the rest of the tribe. Now, I am trained as a biologist and such a genetic trait is unlikely to be passed on via natural selection because it actually lowers the probability of an individual passing on their genetics. Such genes usually die out quickly. However, this got me thinking about something: if so many people have the potential to get depression – why would such a trait be preserved by natural selection? What survival advantage does a propensity for depression actually have? Here is my case on why depression is helpful rather than harmful.
While one often comes across articulate and well-argued articles criticising anti-depressants from a medical or efficacy point of view, one seldom comes across the philosophical argument against anti-depressants. It was, in fact, the philosophical case against anti-depressants that convinced me as a teenager that I would never, ever take them for myself, a decision that has been beneficial to me ever since.
I am against their usage both on medical grounds and on philosophical grounds, but I accept that anti-depressants are likely here to stay. Indeed, I would argue we have always had anti-depressants, for what else should we call caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and opium but traditional remedies for our emotional ailments? People who are feeling low in motivation often indulge in coffee for the caffeine hit. People who lack courage often indulge in alcohol to shore up their nerves. People who are miserable will often indulge in excessive amounts of sugar to give themselves a rush. Everywhere, we have people self-medicating on different substances in attempts to battle their moods and unwanted feelings. Anti-depressants are not anything new, they’ve been with us all along.
In this piece, I am going to ignore all the medical and efficacy arguments, not because I do not think these discussions are not important, but because I believe the philosophical argument is the strongest of the three. For the sake of argument, I will assume that anti-depressants actually work precisely as intended: that they alleviate sadness, depression, grief, and malaise effectively and without significant side effects. I make this assumption not just for the sake of simplicity, but to better illustrate why we should be wary of them. I believe the better anti-depressants work, the stronger the philosophical case against them. Continue reading
I know someone, a man who is deeply unhappy. He is miserable and, judging from how well he takes care of his body, he is someone who does not care if he ruins his health and dies early. He has suffered from depression for years and often talks about how he will overcome it. However, I have not seen any real effort on his part to overcome his depression. Despite his stated intentions to get better, I cannot help but wonder if maybe there is something important that he is getting from depression, something so valuable that he does not want to take the risk of losing it? What benefit of depression is he getting? What incentive does he have in fervently avoiding anything that would help improve his condition?
In many cases, depression is a result of fighting a battle that cannot be won. Trying to get meaning out of a meaningless job, trying to appease an abuser, trying to change a person into someone else—these are common examples of unwinnable battles people fight for years that drive them into depression or “learned helplessness”. In essence, the problem with these cases of depression is not that the person has given up, but that they have not given up. If they gave up on their impossible task, they could focus their energy on something far more productive and likely to fulfil them. Continue reading