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David Pearce – Effective Altruism – Phasing Out Suffering

This interview was conducted in 2012 in San Francisco.
In the future may will see it is not ethically responsible to play genetic roulette and instead take the decision to have happy, healthy, pro-social offspring.

0:00 Introduction
0:36 Alleviating Suffering
7:00 Justified Suffering?
13:12 Buddhism
14:42 The World Transhumanist Association
22:35 Recalibration of Society or Biology?
24:26 Happiness through the Elimination of Poverty & and the abundance of Status Goods?
26:13 Altruism
33:04 Thought Experiments
35:10 Empathy


Hello! Well, yes, I’m a transhumanist. Transhumanism is a very broad church, but my particular focus is on the use of technology to phase out suffering, not just in humans, but ultimately throughout the living world. This can sound extremely utopian, but it is technically feasible, which isn’t to say that it’s actually going to happen.

At the moment, when we have children, effectively, we’re reshaping the genetic dice as a form of roulette. Every child is a unique genetic experiment. Some of these experiments are more happy, shall we say, than others. But any child born today will experience periods in their life where they undergo intense distress, whether physical pain or, probably more commonly, profound emotional distress such as jealousy, depression, and anxiety disorders. With the genomic revolution, it is shortly going to be feasible to choose basic parameters of your child’s personality and level of well-being, starting with your child’s pain thresholds. Although pain thresholds are modulated by a number of genes, let’s just focus on one particular gene, the SCN9A gene, as an example. If we were to use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to choose relevant variants of the SCN9A gene, you could either give your child an unusually high pain threshold, a low pain threshold, or in theory, at any rate, one could choose a nonsense mutation, in which case your child wouldn’t suffer any physical pain at all. Now, for now, complete inability to feel pain would not be prudent. We need to preserve the function of nociception. But, in the short term at least, choosing benign alleles that confer a very high pain threshold can actually dramatically alleviate the burden of suffering. That’s just an example of how we can diminish the burden of physical pain in the world.

Emotional pain is much more complicated. But take, for instance, something like hedonic setpoint – the term is used, the hedonic treadmill – that each of us will have an approximate setpoint around which our lives tend to fluctuate. Six months after winning the lottery or becoming quadriplegic in an accident, studies suggest that most people will have reverted to their level of well-being or ill-being before the win or the tragedy. Which can be extremely frustrating in some ways, because it suggests that no amount of environmental manipulation, none of the wonderful things that futurists aspire to, will yield sustainable well-being unless we are prepared to use reward pathway enhancements. Now, this might all sound a bit fantastical and far-fetched, but already, for instance, we could in principle choose one of the two variants of the COMT gene, or Catechol-O-methyltransferase gene. One confers a rather high hedonic setpoint, crudely speaking, another a low setpoint. If you have a naturally high setpoint, it doesn’t mean to say you’re going to be blissful throughout your life, but you’ll have far more rewarding experiences. Once again, that’s just one example amongst many.

As the century progresses, we are going to be able to essentially choose how much suffering we want to create when we bring life into the world. And I hope, and very tentatively predict, that as this reproductive revolution gathers pace, more and more children, more and more parents, are going to decide it is not ethically responsible to play genetic roulette and instead will take the decision to have happy, healthy, pro-social offspring.

One is to retain critical insights. Then, it is vital to have some form of informational sensitivity to stimuli. But one can still have the functional analogs of sadness or disappointment and anxiety without the nasty raw feels. In principle, for instance, even if one has a future life based on gradients of intelligent bliss, you can still have the analogs of disappointment, but none of the nastiness that is experienced today. Now, some people would respond here and say that, well, surely if one has the functional analogs of disappointment or sadness, then happiness is purely relative. But this doesn’t actually seem to be the case because, tragically, one knows today there are some people who endure chronic suffering, chronic depression. Some of the worst depressives, they are simply never happy. They spend their whole lives below hedonic zero. And it would be cruel to suggest that in some sense, they aren’t really unhappy because they haven’t got happiness to compare their misery with. Conversely, there are some people who are almost always happy and cheerful. They’ll still experience gradients of well-being.

And I think our goal, at least in the medium to moderate term, should not be maximizing bliss but rather ensuring that more and more people are capable of leading lives animated by gradients of well-being. In the long run, I think it quite likely that this process will continue into the indefinite future. Indeed, very-very speculatively, it’s quite possible descendants will enjoy lives based on gradients of bliss orders of magnitude richer than anything accessible today. But that is very, very speculative. I think the overriding urgency right now is to ensure when we bring life into the world, and ideally to with people who already exist, that the very nasty states of consciousness that Darwinian life entails are phased out, in order to prevent even worse suffering.

Then, sometimes suffering is ethically justified. If you’re being interrogated by the Gestapo, you do not want to betray the names and addresses of your collaborators. However, hopefully, we won’t be in Gestapo-like situations in the far future. And one of the beauties of recalibrating the hedonic treadmill is that the substrates of happiness and bliss and well-being do not need to be rationed, unlike scarce economic goods and services, and in particular, positional goods, of which you can never have an unlimited abundance. We can, technically, ensure that everyone can enjoy gradients of lifelong well-being, invincible bliss throughout their lives.

You asked about art. And certainly, empirically, it is the case that quite often, if you look at history, suffering has been involved in the production of art. But equally, there will be forms of artistic experience, of aesthetic excellence, of beauty, that are currently physiologically inaccessible today. Here’s an example: if we actually identify the molecular substrates of beauty and aesthetic experience, it will be possible to purify them, to identify the relevant genes and gene transcription mechanisms, and then massively over-amplify these substrates. So that, with this kind of neural engineering, it will be possible to access states of beauty that are physiologically inaccessible today. Now that’s just one example. But it’s also true of something like spirituality. Many religious people will feel that this is a very godless, shallow, one-dimensional conception of well-being. But if you particularly value religious and spiritual experience, likewise one can home in on the temporal cortex, find out what are the precise molecular substrates of the most sublime mystical experiences the most devout people have, and then set about amplifying those experiences. What these sublime experiences, mystical experiences, really mean – whether they’re just glorified tickles or whether they have some transcendent significance – is clearly open to debate. But we can use biotechnology to amplify all that we find most valuable.

The advantage of focusing on hedonic recalibration over bliss maximization is that it means you’re not sacrificing any of your values or existing preference architecture. Unless, that is, of course, that your preferences are bound up with the infliction of suffering.

There is nothing especially novel about the idea of getting rid of suffering. It is implicit in Buddhism: life is overcoming suffering. What I’m arguing is implicit in classical utilitarianism. The big difference is really that technology now potentially gives us the means to make it a reality. My own personal journey: I was a somewhat melancholic, introspective, depressive teenager, and I stumbled across the work of Olds and Milner on what used to be called the pleasure centers, and how intracranial self-stimulation doesn’t show any tolerance at all. And this alerted me to the fact that in principle, at any rate, it was possible to live a life without any unpleasant experience. Now, it is almost certainly not sustainable to have a whole society in which people are wireheading. And indeed, this is not what I would argue. It would be a very stagnant society. There would presumably be profound selection pressure against any tendency to wirehead, because wireheads don’t want to spend a lot of time raising baby wireheads. But nonetheless, it’s an existence proof for people who say, “Well, we’d get bored of pleasure or bliss or happiness or what-have-you.”

How to get beyond intracranial self-stimulation to the well-being of all humans, and ultimately the whole living world? Well, yes, one has to read up a fair bit on genetics, the basis have moved the hedonic treadmill. The biggest obstacle, as far as I could see in the last piece of the jigsaw, was how on earth do you get rid of the cruelties of nature? Because it sounds ecologically illiterate to suggest that you can get rid of the food chain. If you were to rescue lots of herbivores, for instance, there would then be population explosion followed by Malthusian collapse. What about the carnivores? But once again, if we do accept that any form of involuntary suffering is an ethical ill, these are technical problems with technical solutions. One can now have fertility control of our immunocontraception. Later this century, in our wildlife parks, one can genetically tweak or behaviorally modify the country.the obligate carnivores. These are, in principle, technical problems with technical solutions.

I wouldn’t, by any means, claim to be a Buddhist scholar. But if you are talking to Buddhists, you don’t have to argue the case that suffering is the most urgent, morally urgent problem we face. Buddhists would rightly,

I think, locate overcoming suffering as at the heart of our priorities. Where we would differ, and where I would quite frequently clash or so to speak with Buddhists, is over the question of technology. And unfortunately, the methods that Buddhists use to combat suffering – they’re not going to teach the hedonic treadmill. There are certainly all sorts of palliatives one can use to try and mitigate one’s unhappiness and dissatisfaction. But if we are to sustainably raise the hedonic ceiling and our average hedonic setpoint, it’s going to be necessary to use, almost certainly in the long run, genetic engineering. So yes, I have a great deal of sympathy with Buddhists and Jains, and yet, at the same time, I feel that they neglect the actual technical aspects of the way to get rid of suffering.

Yes, well, back in 1995, I wrote an online manifesto, the Hedonistic Imperative. In one sense, I sacrificed my moral seriousness of purpose for the sake of a snappy title, essentially outlining the abolitionist project and how it was going to be possible to phase out suffering. And Nick Bostrom, at that stage, was a post-grad. He stumbled across it online, fired off a couple of very sharp questions, suggested we meet up, and, yeah, sounded me out about the possibility of setting up what we decided to call the World Transhumanist Association as a kind of umbrella group for the different strands of transhumanism, ranging from what very, very crudely and simplistically, one might call the libertarian free-market strain, the extropian strain on the West Coast, European left-liberal transhumanism, and other different currents, too. I confess, I had a number of doubts. I felt a bit of an imposter. As I said, given my focus on phasing out suffering, I wouldn’t say this is central to the priorities of most transhumanists, either then or now. But Nick prevailed on me, and I had a web hosting company, and so we set up the WTA. It was very informal at first. Nick and I were just coordinators. Those days, setting up websites and mailing lists was quite an achievement. Things have moved on a long way since. But yes, the origins of the World Transhumanist Association, or Humanity Plus as it’s now been rebranded, were remarkably informal, shall we say.

A number of people worry about the term transhumanism. They do outsiders think it’s some kind of cult? Also, it can sound very far-fetched. And the idea of rebranding the organization, Humanity Plus, is it stresses our existing humanity, but at the same time, how we can add and enrich it. If, on the other hand, one wanted a rather darker conception of what humans are all about, and the study of history or, for that matter, the evolutionary biology, can leave one with a very dark conception of what humans are about, then the idea that we should aspire to transcend the human predicament is something that’s rather more appealing. But yes, the official name of the WGA is now Humanity Plus.

Given my preoccupations, as you can probably guess, I hope we are going to phase out any form of involuntary suffering. Perhaps I should stress this, because a lot of people respond to this question along the lines of, “Well, I wouldn’t want to be perpetually happy.” But what we’re really talking about is not coercive happiness. No one is going to force you to be happy against your will. The question is, are we going to abolish any form of involuntary suffering? And just as a beauty and our Humanity Plus have enshrined in the Transhumanist Declaration a commitment to the well-being of all sentient, I hope that this basic core ethical assumption will spread. Now, clearly, this is just words, but I think by far the biggest obstacles to phasing out suffering in the world are ethical, ideological, not technical. And that if we did set about doing so, it’d be possible to do so within a century. I don’t think it’s going to happen in a century. I think it’s going to take, probably most likely, hundreds of years. But five hundred years hence, if we flash forward, I don’t think there will be any experience below hedonic zero in our forward light cone. That would be my tentative prediction. Indeed, though I can’t do a Riker trial and say 2046, the world’s at last aversive experience, I do think the world’s last aversive experience in our forward light cone will be a relatively well-defined event, some obscure marine mollusk or something like that. And beyond that point, there will simply be subjective well-being of varying intensity.

It is one way of describing a state that is neither positive nor negative, but is neutral. Here’s an analogy: put your hand in bathwater. You heat the water up

. There will be kind of optimal temperature, but it’s neutral. In the case of hedonic zero, it’s a state. Quite a lot of people spend much of their lives in this state. They’re not feeling happy; they’re not feeling unhappy; they’re just ticking over. And though this is immeasurably better than states of misery and despair, clearly, other things being equal, even if one is a negative utilitarian, that once one has phased out suffering and unpleasant experience, why settle for mediocrity if one could have gradients of the sublime instead?

Hedonism tends to connote well-being that is very shallow, one-dimensional, amoral. It doesn’t convey great emotional depth. And though, in a very narrow sense, it’s possible to argue that the scenario, a family of scenarios I’m sketching, is hedonistic. In another sense, one could use the language of moral urgency. If I had been titled the manifesto, “The Moral Urgency of Using Biotechnology to Abolish Suffering,” it might be more accurate, just a little less snappy. This notion of hedonism as somehow empty – this doesn’t actually appear to be the case. It’s people who are depressive who find life empty and meaningless, perpetually struggling for significance. And in the case of people who are severely depressive, in some cases, nihilistic delusions, suicidal thoughts. On the other extreme, people who are naturally extremely happy, they will tend to find life intensely meaningful and rewarding. And as well as, in the case of our descendants, and conceivably even our elderly selves, as we live, well as finding life substantially happier than now, I suspect they or we will find life substantially more significant. So, it’s almost as if, if we take care of happiness, I think the meaning of life will take care of itself.

Only a venerable tradition in any form of utopian thought is, if we were to reorder the environment in some way, something like the whole kind of communist projects of the 20th century, or different movements for social justice today. All of these striving for a better world through manipulating and enhancing the social environment. And in the case of any movement toward social justice, I am broadly in favor of it. Where I would disagree, I suppose, is that unless one actually tackles the fundamental biological roots of our ill-being, what this will just be sticking plaster solutions. One isn’t recalibrating the hedonic treadmill. And that even if any of these utopian projects were successfully to come to fruition, and one has got a society that is fair, that is affluent, that has material well-being for all, there will still be a substantial number of people who suffer from anxiety, depression, who exit existential angst, are prone to jealousy and resentment. All the Darwinian emotions are still there. So, yes, I’m in no way wishing to downplay the importance of alleviating poverty in the Third World, and indeed, as our society. Nonetheless, if we’re to make a dramatic difference long-term, we’re going to have to re-edit the nasty genetic source code. Not on its own, but it seems to be the case that any information-based technology, the cost tends essentially to zero. And therefore, in the long run, I don’t think poverty, in an absolute sense, is going to be a relevant problem. Nonetheless, a deficit of status goods, positional goods, as economists call them, is always going to be a problem with our existing biology. Because social primates, as we are, we are very status conscious. And much of the time, at least in the affluent Western nations, it’s not that we feel materially deprived, in the sense that we go hungry at night. It’s rather that one hasn’t got the latest or the coolest iPad, or what have you. And, yeah, unfortunately, this measure of status seeking means there are going to be losers. One just cannot have an unlimited abundance of status goods. And so, this is absolutely futile, in terms of raising the well-being of people as a whole, to aim to produce more status goods. It’s when one thinks of perhaps the singularity, as it is commonly called, or unlimited material abundance. It’s tempting to assume that this will, at least, correlate with modest levels of improved subjective well-being. But insofar as today, a lot of the time, we are competing for status goods, almost certainly, this won’t be the case.

Yes, one study of history does give one a very dark conception of human nature. But I think there are cautious grounds for optimism. First, there are various forms of conspicuous altruism that perform this signaling function. Now, it may not be self-consciously cynical. But nonetheless, when one does behave publicly in a very altruistic and compassionate way, one is powerfully signaling, for instance, to prospective mates, that you are a kind, sensitive, caring person,

and you would be a good prospective parent, and someone she should sleep with, for instance. Now, I’m saying this is – I’m not suggesting that this is most people’s motivation for acting benevolently and altruistically when they do. But nonetheless, it does tend to be the case that being known as a great philanthropist will have reproductive positive payoffs.

Yes, clearly, how you define “us” is important. In that, through much of history, “us” was the tribe. More recently, it might be an ethnic group. With, almost, obviously, it wasn’t extended to black people, for instance. But now, at least in human society, there is a broad consensus, with many exceptions, that discriminating against people on grounds of ethnic group is ethically unacceptable. Unfortunately, speciesism is still endemic. And that, for instance, pigs are as sentient as, probably, a pre-linguistic human toddler. And yet, we treat pigs in ways that would get the perpetrator locked up for life if our victims were human. So, I think it is vitally important that we extend the circle of compassion and learn to attain an inclusive sense of “us” that embraces all sentient beings.

And though, in life, it may occasionally be necessary to harm another sentient being, possible grounds for doing so do not include something like, “But I like the taste.” And so, I think it’s critical that we develop a capacity for empathetic understanding of other sentient beings. However, it’s not purely a matter of being empathetic. Even though I think we should enrich empathetic capacities, one needs, as appropriate, to switch cognitive style. And instead of, for instance, caring about individual cats or dogs, one thinks, “How can we systematize our compassion?” And doing so requires, I think, being very hard-headed, in the kinds of regime we run in our future wildlife parks. Whether we want creatures eating each other, being asphyxiated, disemboweled, starving to death, all the horrors and the cruelties of Darwinian life. Even the keenest advocates of this argument – natured, tend to expand their views while wearing clothes. And they’ll insist on anesthesia before surgery, and they’ll use antibiotics if their children are sick. We tend to be extraordinarily selective in our invocation of nature. Once again, I think everyone should have the right to choose whether or not to embrace these new technologies. But we don’t have a right to force others to suffer against their will. And in the case of something like predators, for instance, in the case of human predators, we don’t say that by stopping a rapist or a child killer that one is frustrating their natural instincts. We recognize that the weak and the innocent and vulnerable need to be protected. And I think exactly the same logic should be used in our future wildlife parks.

Yes, I mean, it’s an open question where, in the long run, one will want to perpetuate anything resembling today’s iconic predators or carnivores. However, a lot of people feel very strongly that they want to retain all of our charismatic megafauna. And if we are to do something like this, and phase out involuntary suffering, one will need, I think, to genetically tweak the obligate carnivores. Or, alternatively, one can use in-vitro meat, cultured meat, that doesn’t come from intact animals, and enable them to eat that meat instead. Perhaps, in the case of, for instance, members of the cat family, one would have catnip-flavored in-vitro meat, so your cat would never want to eat anything else. A number of high-tech options like this. I think the critical thing to remember, from a technical point of view, is that later this century, every cubic meter of the planet is going to be computationally accessible to micromanagement, surveillance, and control. And with power comes complicity. And that right now, one needn’t feel especially guilty about what’s awful things happening in the jungle because it’s beyond one’s control. But once we have this level of computational power and control over nature, if someone is eaten alive or starves to death, in some sense, it’s our responsibility. In the same way as now, if you see a child drowning in the pond and don’t pull the child out because you don’t want to get your clothes wet or something, you are culpable. And this level of culpability is going to extend to the rest of the living world.

I was clearly important to distinguish between advocacy and prediction. I do think we have an ethical obligation to phase out involuntary suffering. I don’t know we’re going to do this. But I think most people are, at least, weakly benevolent. And so long as it doesn’t involve too much in the way of personal sacrifice, then I think eventually, most people will say, “Sure, why not?” Um, personally,

I don’t think that we are ethically entitled to force other sentient beings to undergo suffering on the promise of great happiness to come. Happily, I’m not convinced in future there will be these trade-offs. But yes, it is a thought experiment, a counterexample here. Will not… the encounter example. What about a mere pinprick? What about two pinpricks? Is this… does this question actually have a definite answer? But I said my own priority is as an ethical utilitarian, but I might also say as a Buddhist, is phasing out suffering. Not via any of the apocalyptic means that one might imagine, but by the compassionate, intelligent use of technology. It’s one thing. Sometimes people ask, “Well, what will life be like when we, if and when we ever get to enjoy gradients of intelligent bliss?” But it’s almost as if asking a chronic pain specialist, “How should your patients lead their lives when they are cured?” It’s, in a sense, not the duty or the responsibility of the chronic pain specialist to advise his patients in this way. It’s an enabling technology. I’m not advocating any particular way that people should lead their lives, except insofar as shouldn’t cause suffering to other sentient beings. It’s just wanting to lay down the biological conditions of invincible well-being, to maximize the opportunity for flourishing, not just with humans, but with all sentient beings.

It depends in what circumstances. If behaving ethically towards other sentient beings depended on an individual experiencing empathy and compassion, then no. If, on the other hand, it were a case of simple cognitive deficit, not being able to understand the perspectives of others, that’s rather different. Trying to anticipate the nature of first human civilization is really wildly speculative. In the case of solipsistic well-being, one has to consider the nature of selection pressure. And yeah, there is going to be some kind of selection pressure against any previous position to do the functional equivalent of taking heroin or wireheading today. Empathy is often associated with sympathy, with identifying with the sufferings of others. But in future, if we do live in a radically hedonically recalibrated society, when you empathize with others, you’re empathizing with their joys and their bliss. So, yeah, empathy needn’t be bound up with suffering in the way it often is today. Just as science teaches us that no one here and now is ontologically privileged. They are all on a par. I think one should try and imagine what would a benevolent God want us to do. In physics, we aspire from the go for the view from nowhere. I think we should aspire to the same kind of view of all possible first-person perspectives, weighing them. And so, I don’t conceive hedonic recalibration, paradise engineering, in terms of the well-being of a rich and privileged elite. I think it is ethically vital that we extend it to all humans, and beyond all humans, to all sentient beings.

Well, I, though transhumanists focus on some of the more exotic forms of existential risk, I think much more mundane forms of risk are much more serious. Take, obvious example, something like nuclear war. I think it is highly likely that nuclear weapons are going to be used this century, most probably one assumes, in some corner kind of feud, a nuclear conflict, which, “word veggie commerce”, only perhaps kill tens or hundreds of millions of people. But just possibly, who knows, China and the United States towards later this century. The most, the greatest X’s underlying source of existential risk I think we fate that we face, is essentially, other male human primates doing what evolution has designed male human primates of our genus to do, which is to wage war against other coalitions of male primates. That if you look at chimpanzees, and if you look at human history, this is what males tend to do. And so, yes, I envisage this century, there will be some form of extraordinarily nasty war, and quite possibly wars. So although I am cautiously optimistic for the long term, I can see, yes, frightful, a frightful suffering ahead. Century… Assuming it is a theatre nuclear conflict, a lot of full-scale interchange of strategic missiles. Or though there may be all sorts of climatological consequences, goodness knows what else. It doesn’t seem as though there’s going to be elements of existential risk. And because essentially, all the knowledge of civilization will be intact. It’s the nature of information technology, then recovery will probably be relatively rapid.

About David Pearce

David Pearce is a British utilitarian philosopher. He believes and promotes the idea that there exists a strong ethical imperative for humans to work towards the abolition of suffering in all sentient life. His book-length internet manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, pharmacology, and neurosurgery could potentially converge to eliminate all forms of unpleasant experience among human and non-human animals, replacing suffering with gradients of well-being, a project he refers to as “paradise engineering”. A transhumanist and a vegan, Pearce believes that we (or our future posthuman descendants) have a responsibility not only to avoid cruelty to animals within human society but also to alleviate the suffering of animals in the wild.

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