Reality is big. So our optimism must be confined to sentient beings in our forward light-cone. But I tentatively predict that the last experience below “hedonic zero” will be a precisely dateable event several hundred years hence. Here are five grounds for cautious optimism:
Hi David. I share your goal of increasing flourishing, but I struggle to imagine how that’s logically compatible with eliminating suffering. By that, I certainly don’t intend to promote suffering, but I do think it’s a perpetual risk associated with flourishing. Those who have no risk (which is the only way to eliminate suffering), also have no opportunities. Those who cannot suffer (defined broadly), have no incentive to survive, let alone thrive. We cannot even meaningfully discuss flourishing without acknowledging its negation in suffering. This is the same problem I see in Buddhism. Although I love and admire much about my Buddhist friends, I find their ideology ultimately nihilistic. You have, I’m sure, heard all of these criticisms before a million times. I put them here again only because I continue to find them compelling, and I continue to wonder why you don’t.
Lincoln, intuitively you’re right. A biology of perpetual well-being might turn us into lotus-eaters.
But consider the empirical evidence. It’s depressives who tend to get “stuck in a rut”. Chronic low mood is a recipe for what psychiatrists call learned helplessness and behavioural despair - not for seeking out new challenges and fresh opportunities. By contrast, enriched mood promotes exploratory behaviour. Temperamentally happy people don’t just tend to be more motivated than depressives: they also find a broader range of stimuli rewarding. By extension, a biology of invincible well-being won’t - or at least needn’t - turn us into milksops: more like psychological supermen. If your life is animated by gradients of intelligent bliss, then you’re psychologically equipped to take on challenges that would overwhelm frailer spirits. Depressives just tend to give up.
Either way, what’s critical IMO is developing the technology to ensure we are all free to choose.
David, thanks for the additional thoughts. I agree that it’s important that we increasingly empower persons with choice. Too many are, as you point out, clearly suffering in ways that are unproductive and counter-productive for them individually. The grim flip side is that their suffering is motivating those with good hearts to learn how to help them overcome their suffering, and the education has been and will be empowering to us as a community. If risk of suffering is unavoidable so long as we exist meaningfully, I’m in favor of taking the risk, not because it justifies suffering, but rather because it justifies our will to console and heal, that we can together flourish.
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/19 at 09:25 PM
“Although I love and admire much about my Buddhist friends, I find their ideology ultimately nihilistic.”
Isn’t Mormonism retro? A question is, can you hold onto the past of Mormonism
(for many valid reasons: family, nomos, nexus..)
while simultaneously moving into the transhumanist future? If so, then why can’t Buddhists transcend their own faith/philosophical limitations? We can discuss these matters, can’t we?
I am particularly intrigued by item number four. I must confess, I hadn’t heard this idea expressed before nor did I see the article by Jeff McMahan.
It seems to me a striking idea—quite radical—yet entirely logical if our starting premise is to reduce suffering to a bare minimum. I doubt, though, the possibility or desirability of turning lions, tigers, and bears into grass eaters. More likely, it seems to me, would be to produce synthetic meats that they would eat without killing anything.
But surely the next step would be to create sentient lions and tigers and bears…and cows and deer and lizards and frogs…thus to save them from ignorance.
Intomorrow, although some Mormons are certainly retro, I’d argue that the extent of their retro-ness is a lack of Mormonism. Change (or “continuous revelation” and “eternal progression”) is essential to Mormonism. In any case, though, Mormonism certainly has its set of challenges to deal with, and I having nothing against Buddhist efforts to deal with their challenges.
I’m with Lincoln on flourishing vs eliminating suffering, and it relates to a problem I’ve always had with negative utilitarianism. While I agree with David that it’s depressives that get stuck in a rut, is there any empirical evidence to suggest that depression is caused by or even correlated with extreme suffering. After all, don’t depression rates plummet in times of war?
Like Lincoln I don’t in any way wish to condone suffering, but is it better to focus on minimising what we don’t want or rather define and work towards what we do want? Abolishing suffering is a classic “dead man’s goal” in the sense that the surest way to do it is just to destroy all life. I’ve heard the argument that the is actually harder than progressively phasing out suffering through the kind of measures envisaged in David’s article, but somehow I still find Lincoln’s “flourishing” a more compelling motivation than minimising suffering per se.
But an excellent and thought-provoking article anyway!
Peter, many thanks for the kind words. Three points in response.
1) Major depression is itself a form of extreme suffering - to an extent nondepressives find hard to imagine. Most of the c. 850, 000 people globally who kill themselves each year are suffering from depression. Chronic unncontrolled physical pain can certainly cause depression. But not all people who live with chronic pain syndromes are clinically depressed. Yes, depression and suicide rates typically decline in time of war. This is because we are social primates. Uniting against a common foe strengthens social bonds via opioidergic and oxytocinergic mechanisms that can have a powerful antidepressant effect. More civilised options should be considered.
2) The abolitionist project follows quite straightforwardly from a negative utilitarian ethic plus biotechnology. But classical utilitarians should be abolitionists too. Indeed the ramifications of classical utilitarianism are even more counterintuitive than negative utilitarianism. For the classical utilitarian is (arguably) committed to some kind of “utilitronium shockwave” scenario. Moreover since s/he reckons time-discounting at a rate other than zero is unethically unacceptable, the classical utilitarian is committed to devoting almost all our time and resources to that end. So-called preference utilitarianism is more complicated. Yet recalibrating the hedonic “set-point” of our hedonic treadmill - as distinct from inducing uniform bliss - can leave an arbitrarily large portion of our existing preference architecture intact. So preference utilitarians can be abolitionists too. I won’t here review all the world’s secular and religious systems. But I’d argue that most ( but not all) are consistent with phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering.
3) I wonder to what extent we really disagree over fundamentals. At issue is involuntary suffering, not suffering per se. Although I (very) tentatively predict that all suffering - and indeed experience below hedonic zero - will be absent in out forward light-cone a few centuries hence, prediction is different from advocacy. Thus no one is going to haul the unwilling kicking and screaming to the pleasure chambers if they are determined to be keep their existing biology intact. Mastery of our reward circuitry is an enabling technology: we just need to make sure we get it right.
David, I agree that mastery of reward circuitry is the fundamental issue here. To increase our power perpetually, it seems we’ll need to avoid the extremes of sadism and (for lack of a better word coming to mind) wire-headedness. I think we’ve only begun to see the negatives associated with addictive behaviors.
Thankfully, the pleasures of sadism pall in comparison to the invincible bliss promised by biological enhancement technologies. But I agree with you, Lincoln, about the potential pitfalls. The real challenge isn’t manufacturing the molecular substrates of effectively unlimited pure bliss. Rather it’s delivering insightful, empathetic, pro-social well-being on a sustainable basis - and the implications of such profound well-being for the dynamics of society as a whole.
@David Indeed I don’t think we have much disagreement about fundamentals, or at least about practical issues. I think I’d want to understand better what’s really at stake re the “utilitronium shockwave” (had to google that one!) before giving up my commitment to essentially classical (rule) utilitarianism, but I don’t disagree that the abolitionist project is at the very least “of interest” in this context.
Of course the meta-ethical discussion we were having on the other thread is also relevant here, in the sense that if we believe (as I do) that the ethical framework we adopt is a matter of choice rather than truth, then in a sense is allows us to change the goalposts if we don’t like the practical implications of one or the other. I certainly have a strong interest, doubtless at least partly a result do my Anglican upbringing combined with a secular education, in “the common good”, and currently I tend to see classical utilitarianism as the most promising conceptual structure within which to define what that means (I’d have to remind myself what preference utilitarianism is exactly), but that certainly doesn’t mean my commitment to it is unwavering. I also have other, more selfish motivations (and am not in the least bit ashamed of them).
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/20 at 08:48 PM
“Intomorrow, although some Mormons are certainly retro, I’d argue that the extent of their retro-ness is a lack of Mormonism.”
Right- and who would say a faith shouldn’t be retro?
As for Buddhism, why “nihilistic” of all things? makes it sound as if they are plotting to assassinate the Tsar!
Intomorrow, I’ll say it: religion shouldn’t be retro, and it won’t be, to the extent it survives. Religion can benefit from leveraging ancient symbols, but that’s neither necessary nor sufficient for religion. Religion, if we are to account for it’s breadth of manifestations, is something like: any ideology that provokes the strenuous mood.
I don’t intend “nihilism” to be understood as anything violent. I intend it in the technical sense, as something along these lines: devoid or undermining of meaning. That sounds like harsh criticism, and I suppose it is. I consider any religion that provokes the strenuous mood toward negations of our world and bodies to be nihilistic, and certainly Buddhism is not alone in that. In fairness, I’ll add that not all interpretations of Buddhism necessarily merit this criticism. For example, a Buddhist might interpret detachment not as an active negation, but rather as a healthy refocusing where it matters; a Buddhist might say the self does not exist in an absolute sense, but still exists in a practical sense. I’m probably not doing this justice, but those are my thoughts.
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/20 at 11:16 PM
“any ideology that provokes the strenuous mood.”
You are provoking strenuous cogitations with the above, I simply don’t know what to make of it; appears as open questions (in my mind at least), might take a bigger mind to wrap around such large issues and ramifications. However, you may be on-target, especially in regards to Mormonism—which you know well.
But now, Buddhism? that’s a different kettle of fish;
as you write:
“a Buddhist might interpret detachment not as an active negation, but rather as a healthy refocusing where it matters; a Buddhist might say the self does not exist in an absolute sense, but still exists in a practical sense.”
There’s a Buddhist dictum: ‘Nothing Happens’; the inference being we are not supposed to expect excessively much, we should curb our enthusiasms. In ancient & medieval Buddhist texts a devotee would ask who the Buddha was, what significance did the Buddha hold. The Guru’s reply would be:
“the Buddha is a stick of dried dung.”
Re Buddhism, I had the same reaction as Lincoln when I first came across it, and it’s the same as the reaction I had when I came across negative utilitarianism: it just seemed too, well, negative. And that was before I came across positive psychology and the idea that it’s better to focus on something you want to promote rather than on something you want to get rid of. It’s not that I’m a die-hard advocate of the law of attraction - we also need, from time to time, to focus on what we don’t like and take action to reduce the universe’s (or our own) tendency to produce it - but an obsessive focus on that will tend to turn us into criminals returning to the scene of the crime. Better to figure out what we _do_ want, and focus primarily on that. But as both of you are implying Buddhism has led to some wonderful insights regarding mindfulness and detachment, to a greater extent (I think) than the other axial religions.
Mormonism is something with which I am much less familiar, and I’d be interested at some point in conversing with Lincoln in more detail about that. We have discussed the definition of religion on another thread - I tend to prefer the wictionary version than “anyideology that provokes the strenuous mood”, since I have the impression that there are many ways of “provoking the strenuous mood” than what we would normally think of as religion - but semantics aside I guess the main question I have is, “Why Mormonism?” I was raised a Christian, but eventually decided to reject it because I no longer wanted to follow what I understood to be its central precepts. I could, of course, have stayed within the tradition and tries to “reform it from within”, but in practice I preferred to make a clean break. I think this gives me an independence of thought that I wouldn’t otherwise have had, albeit perhaps also a lesser degree of connectedness?
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/21 at 06:01 AM
Europe may be less overtly religious than America, Pete; I’m not cowardly- not particularly so- but wouldn’t dream of being publicly agnostic in America (not in the Midwest or South), as the contrarian religious here see such as waving a red flag at them—they are as hard sell with religion as they are with politics, with business.
Mormons can be reasoned with, though, they’re as good as any.
We shouldn’t necessarily reject religion.. yet it is a two way street, we don’t want religion to reject us! Takes two to tango.
“I wouldn’t dream of being public agnostic in America (not in the Midwest or South)”
That’s a fascinating remark, Intomorrow. Is it really that bad? What would happen if you were?
I’m kind of wondering how I would deal with this. In fact I’ve thought about this on various occasions: what would I do if I lived somewhere where adhering to a specific religion, or at least to _some_ kind of religion, was more or less a condition for acceptance. Would I rebel, and stick to my guns? Or would I go with the flow? Could go either way I guess. But I don’t know, maybe you should start waving that red flag… (What’s the worst that can happen?)
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/21 at 06:29 AM
“Is it really that bad? What would happen if you were?”
No, it’s not so bad; just that though I’m brave, I’m not exceptionally brave. I put down libertarians (as they don’t get it how people want power more than liberty) however they are quite brave, they wouldn’t be anodyne as I would. Take the Holidays, Pete. Being brave and calling the Holidays what they actually are—Humbug—is proper and forthright for an agnostic/atheist—but it doesn’t get more turkey and stuffing on Dec. 25th. I feel compromised because of being conflicted, and conflicted because of being compromised.
We can only escape prisoner’s dilemma to x degree.
Thing is, here in Europe plenty of us are overtly non-religious, but we still get our turkey and stuffing on Dec 25. And if we’re Greek, we’ll probably go to church at Easter and then throw a party afterwards with lamb and youvetsi. As Giulio has said, here in Europe we’re so secular we don’t even bother to call ourselves atheist. But we also don’t (in general) go round pretending we believe in that stuff. Probably was much the same back in Brooklyn, right?
But your experience indeed seems to be different. The people around you seem to want you to actually buy into the nonsense, and not just join in some traditions. And that’s the red flag I should be tempted to start waving. I certainly don’t feel conflicted because I celebrate Christmas, but if I was pretending to people that I believed something I didn’t….hang on, I guess that’s why I quit my office job. By not pretending I was making myself unpopular!
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/21 at 07:00 AM
“Thing is, here in Europe plenty of us are overtly non-religious”
There’s the difference.
Not the religion here; mostly the politics attached to the religion—they push pro- “life”, antigay, etc. awfully hard- IMO the intensity of their reaction can only be understood as venting, and that is a real bad sign.. is it not?
Peter, I suspect a combination of God-like representational capacities plus the pleasure principle will drive us in the direction of a world without suffering as a simple matter of means-end rationality. This is so even if one is a value antirealist who disagrees, on a meta-ethical level, that the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world’s intrinsic metric of (dis)value. If we were zombies with mere formal utility functions, or perhaps a singleton AGI as imagined by the Singularity Institute, then I’d agree with you that there would be no fact of the matter to discover about how to behave. In the absence of pain-pleasure axis, Heaven isn’t really any better than Hell. But that world is not our world - again for reasons we simply don’t understand.
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/21 at 07:18 AM
... “Not the religion here; mostly the politics attached to the religion”
That is, if the religious stuck more to matters of faith and did not intrude into politics with the vehemence they do, it would be tolerable. Pastor Alex replied to this once by writing how the religious have a right to do so; yet knowing this doesn’t help in dealing with either their vehemence nor their erroneousness concerning many issues.
Interesting point David, thanks. I agree that this pain-pleasure axis exists and seems to be built into the fabric of nature at quite a fundamental level. I think we still have a choice about whether to embrace that or to struggle against it, but the choice is in many ways a fairly obvious one, what one might call a “no-brainer”. So perhaps that does tell us something.
By contrast I’m more sceptical about this idea that a combination of God-like representational capacities plus the pleasure principle WILL drive us in the direction of a world without suffering. As you said at the beginning of your article, reality is big, and since I tend (for the moment) to favour a many-worlds view I think we have many parallel futures out there in our forward light-cone, and many - perhaps most - of them are severely dystopic. Fortunately, I also think that when we take decisions we exercise influence over which of those different futures we head towards (essentially by closing off some of the less desirable options), and if we do so mindfully we may well be able to steer ourselves towards utopic, not dystopic futures. But the operative word is “if”: I do not see to as inevitable.
@Intomorrow I don’t think we can realistically expect religious people to “stick to matters of faith” and not get involved in politics, not least since for some their religion _requires_ the, to do so. I would say the vehemence of the anti-gay, anti-abortion lobby is more about neurosis than about venting per se, and I think this is how we need to treat it. These people are pissed off about something: the world just ain’t the way they would like it to be. And it isn’t only about living in the past, I think it’s more than anything a sense of alienation. These people somehow need to be given a sense of purpose they can believe in, which doesn’t require them to deny reality. And that’s the gripe I have with religious people, even the most progressive ones: as long as their faith involves clinging to beliefs for which there’s really no evidence, they are in a sense only encouraging this neurosis. But I’ll admit this is easier said in secular, expatriate Brussels than done out there in Wyoming.
Peter, alas I agree with you over post-Everett quantum mechanics (cf. http://www.abolitionist.com/multiverse.html ) Worse, although I’m inclined to finitism in maths and physics, maybe I’m wrong (cf. http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/infinite.pdf )
Unlike you, I envisage an extremely high measure of utopian futures in “our” forward light-cone. But unless post-Everett QM is mistaken, the great majority of suffering sentience is beyond rescue.
Posted by André on 02/21 at 11:21 AM
Maybe I am mistaken, but I think you’re overlooking one aspect. Many, many lifeforms (including our species) display essential behavioral patterns that simply do not make sense within the pleasure-pain framework. A number of animals endure a frankly miserable existence, made of gruesome territorial fights, strenuous courtship, and lethal parental caring. They do feel pain, they know what pleasure is. Yet, they act as if it does not matter. Take marine elephants, for example. No matter how rewarding is to mate with the members of your personal harem - I do not see how sexual pleasure can compensate for the permanent loss of an eye, or the agonizing, long-lasting pain of deep wounds.
If we assumed that the only meaningful coordinates of animal action were pleasure and pain, we would be way off track in understanding the phenomenon of life. Humans are no different, really. We purposefully endure a variety of unpleasant experiences, for no apparent personal reason. I have to admit there has been some remarkable evolution in the importance we, humans, attribute to pleasure/pain. It would be interesting to make a more accurate historical analysis. For example, I think that no contemporary human organism would be ready to do what Zeno of Elea did (“with his own teeth bit off his tongue, he spit it in the tyrant’s face”). The material wealth we enjoy today made us somehow softer and more afraid of pain. A man with a very low threshold of pain, can be subjugated very easily by authorities, cannot rebel, cannot act on his own interest, against those who hold the stick.
It would be surely interesting stretch our pleasure/pain perceptions according to our taste. But we should bear in mind that sometimes a painless life is perfectly compatible with depression and emotional emptiness. And - also - we should consider that if we engineered kids with a mutated variant of the SCN9A gene, we might end up with a new biological caste of natural born cowards.
Peter, you asked, “Why Mormonism?” I don’t want to derail this thread, but the short answer is that its esthetic inspires me, motivating me to be a better person than I think I would be without it, and I observe the same in my Mormon community, which is not to say my community and I have no weaknesses because of our religion. I am committed to religion for pragmatic reasons, and I know of no alternative to Mormonism that is both better and mutually exclusive. I’m a Mormon Transhumanist because explicit Transhumanism made my religion better, but did not require negation of my religion. Mormonism made me a Transhumanist long before I heard the word “Transhumanism”.
@David “Unlike you, I envisage an extremely high measure of utopian futures in “our” forward light-cone.” Why?
@Andre Not wishing to pre-empt David’s reply, but I think it will be something along the lines that even if the ecological niche that various species and individuals occupy in practice involves a lot of pain, the pain-pleasure axis nevertheless provides the essential penalty-reward mechanism that determines behaviour. But in the mean time your considerations indeed reinforce my own scepticism in the matter…
@Lincoln Thanks. Indeed we should not derail this thread, although you have certainly piqued my curiosity…
André, testosterone has powerful antidepressant and analgesic properties. High testosterone function is also associated with optimism and vitality. So it’s not as though bull elephant seals - and their harem-keeping human counterparts - have transcended the pleasure-pain axis. Rather their capacity to anticipate reward is heightened compared to timid and depressive hormonally delta-minus males.
Likewise, although the dopamine and opioid neurotransmitter systems are intimately interconnected, they are functionally distinct. Thus the mesolimbic dopamine system mediates “incentive-motivation”. Full agonist activation of the mu opioid receptors in our twin hedonic hotspots mediates pure bliss. Increasingly fine-grained control of both axes should soon be feasible.
You remark that a “...[physically] painless life is perfectly compatible with depression and emotional emptiness”. Yes indeed. But depression and a sense of emotional emptiness are themselves inherently psychologically painful. Depressives undergo prolonged and severe suffering. A commitment to the well-being of all sentience entails abolishing not just the biology of raw physical pain but also the predisposition to negative hedonic tone - a bland term for untold misery.
Natural-born cowards? On the contrary, we have abundant empirical evidence that reducing physical and psychological pain makes us more courageous.
Unwilling to challenge the powerful? Once again, I think if anything the reverse is true. Low mood is evolutionarily assorted with subordination and defeat. By contrast, elevated mood makes people more robust and more assertive i.e. active citizens, “winners”. Instead of worrying that invincible well-being will turn us into passive dupes of the ruling elite (cf. Huxley’s “Brave New World” ) perhaps we should worry more about the societal ramifications of a breakdown in traditional primate dominnce hierarchies.
What will the world be like if we all become psychological supermen?
Peter, from a purely technical perspective, I think the exponential growth of computer processing power and biotech will make abolishing the molecular signature of aversive experience not just feasible but easy. No, I’m not a Singularitarian. Yet I do take seriously the implications of an exponential growth in computer processing power. Unlike positional goods and services, the substrates of pleasure don’t need to be rationed. It’s in the nature of any information-based technology that its cost tends towards zero. By the end of this century, we’ll be able to micromanage every cubic metre of the planet.
But what grounds have we for extrapolating from
into the indefinite future?
Well, in the case of humans, and quite independently of any moral arguments,
we’re shortly going to witness intense selection pressure against some of our nastier genes and allelic combinations as the reproductive revolution of “designer babies” gathers pace. (http://www.reproductive-revolution.com)
Even ardent carnivores tend to regard themselves as “animal lovers”. I think the in vitro meat revolution will consign factory farms and slaughterhouses to history.
Phasing out suffering among free-living nonhuman animals is intuitively the most far-fetched strand of abolitionist policy. Not least, an ethic of compassionate biology runs counter to the well-entrenched ideology of “conservation biology”. But (and this claim needs a lot of argument) I think most of us are at least weakly benevolent. So we don’t accept e.g. the feeding of live rodents to snakes in zoos: it’s barbaric. By the same token, later this century I think we’ll exhibit similar scruples in our heavily managed and intimately monitored “wildlife parks”. With power comes complicity. “The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings”, William Hazlitt observed. Sadly, yes, I agree. But so long as the well-being of others causes us negligible inconvenience, we’re not for the most part malevolent. And technology can take care of the rest.
Thanks David. I can see your argument, but I wonder how resilient it is with regard to systemic risks. At least in the short term there must surely be a risk (even
Ikelihood?) of some kind of systemic collapse that will dramatically increase, not decrease, human suffering. And even the designer babies argument doesn’t seem to be immune from this type of risk. For example, at http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/02/05/ayaan-hirsi-ali-the-global-war-on-christians-in-the-muslim-world.html Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues that intolerance of alpha male type behaviour is a peculiarly Western phenomenon, and while I don’t wish to defend that hypothesis specifically does it not illustrate the point that selection pressures can also work in the other direction (“I want my child to be strong, a warrior, not a compassionate softy.”)? It’s indeed the extrapolation of Pinker’s observed trend of reducing violence through history that I feel inclined to question, not least since most of that history occurred during an unusually benign climatic epoch, with no major meteorite attacks and the like, and before we started raiding the world’s fossil fuel deposits to build a civilisational system that is, at least arguably, ever more vulnerable to shocks.
Posted by André on 02/21 at 06:56 PM
Pardon if I insist, but I think we are talking past each other. I might accept your kind of explanation when it comes to territorial, aggressive mammals with large harems. Maybe my poor testosterone level do not allow me to understand why marine elephans are ready to suffer permanet mutiliations and death to get a few thrilling orgasms on the shore. But let us remove the rewarding bit. Let us consider those animals who literally sacrifice themselves to give their youngs a head start in life. Cecilians let their offsprings eat their own flesh - I suppose that’s not pleasant. And the little anphibians do not kiss mommy in return. Also, in certain species of octopusses, mothers constantly ventilate their eggs, until they hatch - and by that time, the adult caretaker dies of starvation. Where’s the plesant reward there? If I cannot even get a caress from the tentacles of my kids, why should I bother to die for those careless little gasteropods? Maybe evolutionary fitness has something to say about these matters too, no? Of course pleasure exists to drive out actions in the “right” evolutionary way. Yet, nature can surpise us with a number of successful evolutionary strategies that implies immolation, suffering, self-sacrifice. And in such cases, you really need to think hard to hypothize a plausible, hidden incentive.
This does not mean that I simply reject the hedonic paradise that you portrait. I just I think that it might not feel like heaven for everyone. Even quite a few humans, I suspect, would not like it one bit.
I also admit I might just be wrong about the relation cowardice and treshold of pain. I do not have facts to back me up. My remark was more of logical kind - i.e. if I am not used to pain, I will find every (rare) painful event particularly scary/repulsive. So I might be an easier target to threats. I could be wrong, sure. Empirical data - first of all.
I greatly support the idea of artificial meat, absolutely. Also the biblical desire to change the lifestyle of nonhuman predators is fascinating. Just, it is really a distant task, I think. There is quite a variety of carnivores out there, not only lions and wolves. And if you look at the insect world, things get really messy. You cannot do much in that department.
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/21 at 11:56 PM
The above comments are good, so this will be my last at this thread.
“I would say the vehemence of the anti-gay, anti-abortion lobby is more about neurosis than about venting per se, and I think this is how we need to treat it.”
Actually, abortion, gay, issues are not crucial- it is the whole package. And it is for shrinks to treat neurosis; we are the ones who have to treat the venting
Peter, I share your dark views on the near-term future of humanity. Not least, unless we believe war between medium-and large-size state actors has effectively been abolished, nuclear weapons are quite likely to be used in conflict some time in the next fee decades. Evolution “designed” men to be hunters/warriors. So electing a predominantly male political power elite in an era of WMD is a recipe for catastrophe ( cf. http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/pellissier20110215 )
Yet this bleak prognosis doesn’t substantially change my (tentative) prediction that we’re going to phase out the biology of suffering over the next few centuries. Wiping out knowledge is immeasurably harder than killing people.
André, you offer graphic (and accurate) examples of the horrors of Darwinian life. I just disagree they challenge the sovereignty of the pleasure-pain axis. For example, other things being equal, it is horrific to be eaten alive. But if, say,
had been fitness-enhancing in hominins, then presumably we would find the practice exquisitely pleasurable - and devote much time, energy and resources to that valuable end.
Misfits who discover they don’t like Heaven? Well, all science depends on some version of the principle of the uniformity of Nature. [This is true even if you’re an M-theorist/Landscape enthusiast who believes what we commonly conceive as the laws of physics are only bylaws within some overarching theory.] So short of radical philosophical scepticism, I can’t see how anyone can fail to appreciate biologically hardwired well-being. One physically can’t get bored of a life based on gradients of bliss - intelligent or otherwise - since the molecular substrates of boredom are missing. In practice, by its very nature posthuman life may be exhilarating beyond words.
Insects? I would never tread on a fly. But it’s not arbitrary phylum chauvinism to argue we should prioritise the well-being of vertebrates with highly developed central nervous systems. Mature molecular nanotechnology and nanorobotics can be used to police the skies and oceans - and hunt out the signature of aversive experience in the furthest corners of the Earth.
Consent? Well, I can’t say I favour reproductive rights for the Anopheles mosquito.
Posted by Pastor_Alex on 02/22 at 02:37 PM
I’m not sure whether your suggested pain-free existence would be utopia or simply a painless Hell. The problem with eliminating suffering is that while some suffering is needless and I would be happy to see it gone. (Most particularly anything engendered by poverty.) Some struggle is necessary to mature as human beings. In my experience the people whose lives are free of significant challenge and thus free of suffering are a mile wide and an inch deep. We need challenge, we need to not get our way, and occasionally we need to feel pain whether physical or psychological. I’m not sure that a marathon would be the same achievement if there was no wall to break through.
In terms of phasing out carnivores, I see that as the height of hubris. We might desire to save ourselves and lose ourselves in the doing, but do we have the right to completely destroy the ecosystem because it bothers us that some animals eat others? Besides once we start there is no stopping. It won’t be just the major predators but every predator down to the amoeba. Even vegans are carnivores at the cellular level..
Pastor Alex, when suffering of any kind becomes technically optional, would you force anyone to suffer against their will? If so, then how much? How often?And enforced by what means?
A pain-free Hell? I’d hesitate to raise such am idea with any victim of chronic pain or depression today. For sure, a pain-free world with everyone’s experience barely above Sidgwick’s “hedonic zero” sounds a joyless place. But how sociologically credible is such a minimalist scenario? In practice, our descendants are likely to re-edit the source code of their reward circuitry. Post-humans may enjoy gradients of intelligent bliss orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences.
Struggle and challenges? Genetically recalibrating the set-point of our hedonic treadmill leaves scope for effectively unlimited challenges. Conversely, perhaps the most effective way to induce anyone to give up on life is to make them depressed.
Hubris? Well, you’ll recall Isaiah 11.6 ( “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together…”) If global veganism is good enough for God, shouldn’t it be good enough for us? Moreover consider a secular perspective. We’d (rightly) consider it unethical and racist to allow a vulnerable member of another ethnic group to fall victim to lions, snakes or crocodiles. Why suppose we are ethically entitled to discriminate on grounds of species but not of race? Being asphyxiated, disembowelled or eaten alive is a horrific fate for anyone.
Destroying the ecosystem? How exactly? Fertility regulation, crade-to-the-grave heathcare and behavioural-genetic tweaking in our wildlife parks don’t involve “destruction”. Rather they entail the design of compassionate ecosystems to replace the cruelties of Mother Nature.
How far should we go? The worst cases of suffering also tend to be most amenable to compassionate intervention. We must prioritise. But utopian nanotechnology can deliver well-being to the cognitively humble.
Posted by Pastor_Alex on 02/22 at 06:47 PM
I wouldn’t suggest forcing suffering on people, but I would also hesitate to surround people with the kind of cotton wool that would prevent all harm. For instance you would have to ban relationships since they cause also as much pain as joy.
As for Isaiah, yes the image is that on God’s Holy mountain nothing will destroy or cause harm. Taking it completely literally as you do, the idea is that it is the animals’ own choice to refrain. That is far different from removing predation from the ecosystem. I doubt very much that we would be able to manage any ecosystem in the way you suggest as anything other than a large zoo.
It is still hubris and ethically shaky for us to decide that carnivores need to change. It is worse when you consider that the carnivores are what keep a population healthy. Worse still when you recall that the native view is that prey animals offer themselves so the carnivore might be fed. Without the express consent of every being in the food web we have no right to impose our own weakness on the ecology.
“It is still hubris and ethically shaky for us to decide that carnivores need to change.”
What with my Christian upbringing and having spent much of my professional career so far with environmentalists, I am highly familiar with this type of argumentation. Whether motivated by a religious or a deep-ecological worldview, or simply fear of the unknown, the idea that any kind of radical tinkering with nature constitutes “hubris” is extremely pervasive in our societies.
It is also, in my opinion, dangerous. We may quibble (as several of us are) with David’s positive vision, but at least he has one. And it’s a positive vision that emphasises our ability to choose, and rut moral responsibility to do so. It seems to me that “don’t play God” arguments always involve some kind of voluntary (and ultimately arbitrary) renouncement of our ability to choose our destiny. And this is irresponsible.
This is not to say that hubris isn’t a real danger, both with David’s abolitionist vision and with other transhumanist dreams. The path to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, which is partly why I insist on emphasising the prevalence of dystopic futures (although I was kind of hoping David would convince me that the near future is less dark than I fear!) But the way to fight hubris is to point out what could go wrong, and suggest ways to avoid this, not to deny the legitimacy of the vision itself.
Posted by André on 02/23 at 04:14 AM
Every technological advancement is an act of hubris. Glasses, artificial organs, transplants - are all human attempts to change the order of things. Probably, if glasses were banned, the average eyesight in human population would be better today. Certain individuals, those with a very poor eyesight, would have been excluded from productive social life - and therefore, would have not reproduced, or would have not been able to support decently their kids. So, was Tertullian somehow right when he wanted to ban glasses (see Tertullian, “Against Spectacles”)? Of course not. Without glasses we would ALL be worse off today, even those with perfect eyes.
I see technological advancements as possibilities to restructure lifeforms, as evolutionary leaps. Every new technology represent a modification of our (extended) phenotype. Nothing less. And since we are able to pass our achievements to next generations, somehow our technical capacities are indeed tied to our genetic pool.
So, I think, we should not ask ourselves weather or not our innate hubris should cross this or that line (we are already doing it since millions of years). I believe, instead, we should try to imagine the consequences of our technological projects, from the perspective of those individuals who will have to deal with them. And ask ourselves - will these individuals like it or not?
Let us say, we have set of technologies that are able to modify, reduce our perception of pain. Of course, people will like it. That is a tautology. I expressed above my doubts regarding the centrality of the pleasure/pain axis in our lives. That is why I think that many aspects of our existences would not be influenced by these technologies, and some of our most typical behavioral patterns would be in direct contrast with pain reduction (parental care, monogamy, work ethic, etc.). Maybe there’s a reason why we should not enjoy too much boring jobs, annoying spouses, and fastidious kids. Anyway, that said - like with glasses - better to know that, in case, I can just give myself a break with these technologies.
Which brings me to my only real concern about it. Pain reduction technologies are perfect tools for social control, possibly even weapons. It is crucial that they are not only “available” to everyone, but that everyone has the capacity to completely replicate them at home, without the intervention of trained professionals. Like a cup of tea, let’s say. Why? Because a central political authority could decide who gets a pain relief and who does not (and of course subversive activists are not going to get it), could purposefully abolish the perception of pain in troops and police officers, creating reckless “heroes”, could lie and manipulate the public, could directly inflict pain to sedate protests, or torture people without physical traces. Outsourcing control over our pleasure/pain perceptions is a very, very bad idea. But, if we were all able to master these technologies independently, then I honestly think it would be a great thing.
Posted by Pastor_Alex on 02/23 at 08:39 AM
@ Peter and Andre
I believe that I stated the ethical thinking behind the hubris. We don’t have consent. Many of the predatory animals are intelligent, we don’t have their permission to mess with who they are. Consent to act on another being is foundational ethics. A decision to rewrite the entire way that the ecosystem works is hubris because WE DON"T OWN THE WORLD.
This place is not ours to do as we wish. We are a part of it, not the owners. Acting like owners is doing things like flooding the Gulf of Mexico with oil, or poisoning entire villages.
There is nothing a dangerous as a person who acts in someone elses “best interest” without asking permission.
“Acting like owners is doing things like flooding the Gulf of Mexico with oil, or poisoning entire villages.”
Really Alex? Is that how you treat places you own?
The problem with thinking in terms of “ownership” is that this is just a human concept that we have developed to regulate social interaction. We decide who own’s what, and (by and large) agree not to take what’s not ours,
“Consent to act on another being is foundational ethics” is another problematic statement. You know perfectly well that this is not something on which there is consent between ethicists. If we are not allowed to tinker with predatory animals, then where does that leave farming? Haven’t we been doing that for millennia, tinkering with animals’ genetic make-up through selective breeding, leading to the creation of whole new species? Not to mention cats and dogs.
The problem with asking animals’ permission of course, is that they have no voice with which to give or withhold their consent, the mouse certainly does not consent to being tortured by the cat, whatever some primitive cultures might hold. (Human beings believe all sorts of crazy things, and primitive societies living close to nature are not exempt.) we can choose to intervene, or we can choose not to intervene.
Imagine that you are sitting quietly in a garden, enjoying the scenery, when suddenly you notice a cat ready to pounce on a bird. On an instinct, you act to scare both the cat and the bird away, thus averting catastrophe (for the bird). Did you do wrong, by interfering in nature? Then why should we not interfere in nature in grander ways? At one point does instinctive compassion segue into unacceptable interference in nature? What grinds do we have for drawing a line?
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/23 at 09:14 AM
“If we are not allowed to tinker with predatory animals, then where does that leave farming? Haven’t we been doing that for millennia, tinkering with animals’ genetic make-up through selective breeding, leading to the creation of whole new species? Not to mention cats and dogs.”
Yes, we have changed things irreversibly to the point where ‘God’s Green Earth’ no longer exists.
Anyway, artificial meat is the way to go.
Posted by Pastor_Alex on 02/23 at 11:14 AM
Peter I was talking about results. Our attitudes about the earth have resulted in huge amounts of waste, countless species being damaged or forced to extinction. We decide that we have the right to mess with other species creating animals that cannot live without our help or breeds that exist only to feed us.
While this is common practice, that doesn’t mean that it is ethical practice. Ethics as Peg points out looks at as many possible outcomes as possible and weighs the positive and negative possibilities before coming to a decision.
We are not an ethical species.
An idea pops into our head and we act on it. It seemed like a good idea at the time is a refrain that appears again and again. Invasive species like rabbits in Australia and pigs in Hawaii. Preventing fires in the Boreal forest only to discover that fire is a necessary safety valve.
Scaring a bird away from a pouncing cat isn’t fundamentally changing the nature of either bird or cat. Engineering their genes so that the cat eats grass instead of the bird is a much different thing.
Compassion accompanies the other on their journey and doesn’t seek to force our answers on the other. Compassion would mean that we withhold our interference and damage to the world and allow the world to find its own balance.
I would suggest that the societies that you call primitive are far from it. The First Nations were socially superior to the Europeans who took the land of North America illegally by their own laws and still refuse to honour treaties that their own laws bind them to. This isn’t to say that they are perfect, but brushing aside their understanding of the world as primitive is prejudice. There is discussion about extending the rights of personhood to other species. This is only Europeans finally coming to know what First Nations have said for centuries.
Intomorrow, I agree that artificial meat is the way to go, but until that time, I would suggest that any modification of a breed or species that makes it impossible for the animals to survive without human intervention is unethical. Does that mean that we have been unethical in our breeding practice? Yes.
As to the question of eliminating suffering in general. I can see the appeal of the concept. It would be nice to be able to flip a switch and turn off the migraine, or the ache of arthritis or the grind of old bones. More effective pain management would be great. To remove pain would be dangerous. Ask a diabetic who loses a foot because they didn’t feel the injury that caused an infection. Right, we will have nano-tech that will let us know when we are damaged. How will they let us know? Probably by a similar process to our our pain response. Suggesting that they will fix the problem and not need us only pushes the problem back a step. What happens when we stress our bodies beyond the nano’s immediate ability to repair? We either replace the biological form entirely or have a feedback mechanism to warn of stress and damage.
Psychological pain is often a signal that we need to change the way we cope with the world. Change is difficult. If we don’t allow psychological suffering than we short circuit our ability to mature as intelligent beings and become permanent adolescents (something that is already becoming a problem). Saying we will just reprogram ourselves again just pushes the question back a stage without resolving the need for some kind of feedback to tell us to grow up.
The challenge is to decide what is function suffering and what is needless suffering. Avoiding needless suffering is good. Avoiding function suffering is not so good. If we try to turn off all suffering we will also need to give up autonomy to whatever program we design to keep us from hurting ourselves.
Pastor Alex, perhaps I should start by stressing what we agree on. As you say, as the technology matures you wouldn’t force anyone (human) to suffer against their will.
There is still the issue of our “default settings” i.e. should children be born into the world endowed with psychological superhealth, or born instead with today’s Darwnian biology that they later have the option to replace? But it seems we both agree on (human) freedom to choose.
Ban relationships? Not at all! Yes, Darwinian relationships bring heartache as well as joy. Not least, men and women have different reproductive strategies: a recipe for sometimes bitter conflict. But redesign of our reward circuitry, together with mastery of the hormonal technologies of monogamous pair bonding / polyamory, should allow personal relationships to blossom as never before.
You take me to task for Biblical literalism. I certainly don’t claim the inerrancy of the Bible., But I think we should take the lesson of the wolf lying down with the lamb to heart. You suggest that this is a case of humans imposing their preferences on nonhuman animals. Yet surely a member of a “prey” species makes it abundantly clear s/he does not want to be asphyxiated, disembowelled or eaten alive. I think we should respect this preference.
I’m unclear what you mean when you say herbivores “offer themselves” to be preyed on by predators. Such a turn of phrase implies consent. No so.
A large zoo? Stripped of the connotations of oppressive confinement, this is indeed what our wildlife parks will resemble later this century. And just as we hold zookeepers accountable for the welfare of their charges, likewise stewardship of wildlife parks will bring responsibilities too. With power comes complicity. How much suffering do we want to conserve and perpetuate in the living wold?
Do carnivorous predators keep healthy herbivorous populations as a whole? Well, we wouldn’t find this a compelling argument for allowing sick, infirm and juvenile members of another ethnic group from our own species to fall victim to predators - human or nonhuman. So why should we believe that it’s a compelling argument for leaving nonhuman animals to their fate?
André, evolutionary psychologists typically regard depression and a predisposition to subordinate behaviour as the internalised correlate of the “losing subroutine”. (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rank_theory_of_depression )
The evolutionary origins of low mood, social anxiety and behavioural suppression lie deep in our mammalian past. Other things being equal, technologies of mood enrichment are empowering. They can liberate rather than enslave.
But yes, you’re right: there is still immense scope for abuse, or at least controversy. Here is just one example. The US authorities seem to have reacted to 9/11 by using techniques of physical and mental torture that belong to the Middle Ages. But if trained psychologists had used the empathetic hug-drug MDMA (Ecstasy) on al-Qaeda suspects instead, vastly more reliable information might have been obtained. Such examples could be multiplied.
Posted by Pastor_Alex on 02/23 at 02:21 PM
David you are still anthropomorphizing. Animals are not people and while they act intelligently, they act intelligently for their situation. We look at them and think “I wouldn’t want that.” so we act on what we think is their best interest and cause havoc and destruction.
If you look at the Gaea theory it becomes even more evident. The earth is a single organism. We unfortunately act more like viruses than anything useful. Instead of working for the good of the whole, we have tried to change the environment to suit us.
You evidently have from a “suffering is bad” rule based ethic. If we go ahead and eliminate suffering we will create a worse problem and actually cause more suffering. We need complete understanding of the issues involved and we need consent of the species involved. You are suggesting a tyranny of herbivores.
Pastor Alex, surely the distinction between people and animals is pre-Darwinian? Homo sapiens is a species of primate. The same neurological structures and biochemical pathways that mediate pain, fear and our other core emotions are found in human and nonhuman animals alike. Thus it’s not “anthropomorphic” to ascribe such mental states to nonhuman animals - any more than its “ethnomorphic” to ascribe then to members of other races.
I am unclear how phasing out the molecular substrates of aversive experience will lead to more suffering. The whole point of the biological approach is to make suffering physically impossible. For its neurochemical signature is absent.
A tyranny of herbivores? Are we not entitled forcibly to prevent cannibals from eating babies? And if I may quote Robert Louis Stevenson, “Nothing more strongly arouses our disgust than cannibalism, yet we make the same impression on Buddhists and vegetarians, for we feed on babies, though not our own.”
Actually I don’t think it’s our “attitudes about the earth” that have resulted in waste and mass extinctions. As you say Alex, we are not an ethical species, not in the first place (although we are unique among species in having at least developed the concept). The waste and mass extinctions is basically a by-product of our success as a species, like in any other Malthusian explosion.
The thing is, Alex, it’s so, so easy to criticise. To condemn this and condemn that. Rabbits in Australia, pigs in Hawaii, and what’s the lesson…that we should never try anything, never try to be ambitious, never try to put ourselves above nature, because “we are not an ethical species”. We’re bound to screw up. It can only lead to disaster.
Actually I didn’t realise you were such a deep ecologist, buying into the Gaia theory and all that. But it doesn’t surprise me, because so much in the environmentalist movement reminds of Christian guilt-tripping.
You see, if you were making a _plea for prudence_ then I would be all for it. We should indeed learn from the mistakes of the past, and we need people to tell us what could go wrong. What you shouldn’t, in my view, be doing is to say “it is wrong to even propose this vision”. Sincerely, I think we need far more people like David proposing and advocating positive visions.
With regard to native American (and similar) societies, like all other societies they had a set of doctrines and ideas that helped them to live their lives. It is easy to see how believing that prey voluntarily “gave themselves up” for predators would have played that role. It’s basically a way of saying “what happens is what should happen”, always a comforting thought. Like the butcher who thingies that farm animals really _want_ to be slaughtered, it’s their purpose in life. No, it’s the purpose _we_ decided for them, and once we had the power to intervene in nature we also had the power to decide what kind of “natural” suffering we are willing to tolerate. Non-intervention can be just as morally culpable as intervention.
I don’t believe David is anthropomorphising, not in the sense of attributing to animals feelings or desires that they can’t be credibly be held to have according to the best scientific knowledge (although his debate with Andre is fascinating). My only real gripe with him is the extent to which he appears to be making a moral realism out of it, and as you know I don’t believe in moral realisms. Ultimately there’s no getting around the fact that it’s up to us to decide how we want to live, what we want to aim for, how ambitious to be, or how cautious we want to be. Which sacred text to draw inspiration from, what kind of God to imagine, telling us what we should or shouldn’t do. You don’t like David’s “tyranny of herbivores”, and that’s fine by me. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. It just means he has a different aesthetic sense about the future. And one that on the whole I find rather attractive.
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/23 at 05:41 PM
“yet we make the same impression on Buddhists and vegetarians, for we feed on babies, though not our own.”
Yes, pro-Life Buddhists had better stage rallies in DC to protest our genocide against the unborn poultry which we call eggs.
Posted by Pastor_Alex on 02/23 at 06:28 PM
Peter, when arguments run out, start calling people names?
My issue is not that appropriate reduction of suffering is not good. It is that going out into the world making massive changes in other species and the ecology because we react emotionally to “those poor animals” without knowing exactly what we are doing and what the consequences are will be bad.
You have a proposal. Phase out carnivores.
What are the good things about this? We relieve the suffering of untold numbers of prey animals. My question of just how far down the chain you plan to go still stands. Will be demand that ants be re-engineered to no longer feed on other insects, keep slaves or fight wars? The deer and the antelope, however will gambol in delight, finally feeling safe and be able to live out their lives. The result. Prey animals are safe, we won’t actually know whether they feel their lives are better because we are unable to talk to them and we don’t need to. We know what is best.
The bad things about this. We change the very nature of the world in which we live. We change any number of species and turn them into wholly dependent pets that we will monitor and feed on a second by second basis so that they won’t back slide. We will need to change their bodies as well so that they can live on what we decide to feed them. We won’t know whether or not their lives are better because we haven’t asked them
The choice is between leaving well enough alone because we don’t know enough, or trying to turn the entire world into our pets and then somehow balancing the outcomes. The ethical choice is between reduction of suffering or reduction of freedom. Personally I would choose to remain free and continue to suffer. Perhaps I’m a throwback and most people would give up all freedom to choose in order to avoid suffering. Since I can’t ask consent of the animals involved, and it is specifically the consent of the animals being changed, I have no right to act contrary to how I would choose for myself.
As for the culpability to act. That only applies if we know the consequences of our action. We don’t. If we had that knowledge we would be able to figure out a way to ask consent. If you really are interested in reducing animal suffering, there are actions you can take right now that will do so. That would involve you getting involved in the guilt laden ecological movement which will probably increase your own suffering.
I recognize that David has a different aesthetic sense of the future, but aesthetics is not ethics. I am stating that ethically we are on very shaky ground. If we are going to be ethical, we need to be ethical. That is what this site is about, (It’s in the name, remember?).
David, I have no problem with the reduction of suffering, but we need to be careful that suffering is all we are reducing.
Peter, beauty is proverbially in the eye of the beholder. But the fact that beauty is mind-dependent, and the experince of beaty may be triggered by distal stimuli that trigger ugliness in other folk, needn’t make one an antirealist about beauty. Only if we lived in a insentient zombie universe would beauty not be part of the furniture of the world, an intrinsic subjective property of various configurations of matter and energy episodically occurrung in human and nonhuman animal minds. That’s the sense in which I’m a realist about (dis)value. If I’m in agony, normative force is built into the nature of the experience itself? I can’t ask whether my disvaluable experience is really disvaluable (cf.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-question_argument ) - though I may of course be mistaken if I ascribe to it metaphysical significance e.g. this is God punishing me for my wickedness.
But I don’t want to bang on about this. A meta-ethical antirealist may still support phasing out the biology of suffering as an issue of means-ends rationality - though unless some version of psychological hedonism is true, many other considerations must be weighed too.
Pastor Alex, could you clarify? You say that you “have no problem with the reduction of suffering”. But don’t you think there is any kind of moral urgency to its alleviation - an urgency no less great than if it were one’s own hand in the fire?
Posted by Pastor_Alex on 02/23 at 08:36 PM
Offering the possibility of reducing suffering is one thing. That allows choice. I decide what measures to use to get rid of my migraine. I also decide what part of my existential suffering is prodding me to grow as an intelligent being and what is holding me back.
The moral urgency you talk about is about your own comfort. It isn’t your hand in the fire. The person’s whose hand it is may have decided to hold it there, in which case forcing them to pull it out interferes with their autonomy. They may be unconscious and therefore unaware of the damage being done and so pulling their hand out of the fire is indeed doing them a favour. They made also being putting their hand in the fire because they don’t know that fire burns, in which case stopping them will just delay the lesson until a later time.
You are assuming that animals are in the latter unconscious category. That they need us to rescue them. I would argue that this is false. Animals don’t need us to rescue them. Animals need us to leave them alone to work out whatever destiny awaits them.
At a general level I believe that a certain amount of suffering is inevitable and actually useful. The pain of failed relationships has taught me to create a more successful relationship. The pain of my sore back is a prod for me to take better care of myself. We could create a nano device to prop up my back and eliminate the pain, but then I would just become lazy.
I am who I am because I have suffered physically, mentally and spiritually. Like steel in the fire that reality has tempered me and allowed me to help other people to live through their own suffering.
I agree, not all suffering is good, but neither is it all bad. I can see a culture in which only the elite are allowed any form of suffering while the masses are kept blissfully content and in slavery to their contentment. It isn’t that you are completely wrong, but we need to think very clearly about who we are and who we want to be.
@David We may be using the term “realist” in slightly different ways. I certainly agree that beauty exists, so is in some sense “real”, but it is subjective in exactly the same way as morality is, i.e. is mind-dependent. How much moral urgency you feel about reducing the suffering of others depends on your mind, not on theirs. There just isn’t a way to prove that we must treat the suffering of others with the same urgency with which we treat our own. Once again, it’s a choice. Just as we have different aesthetic senses, and it is incorrect to talk of one aesthetic sense being more “correct” than the other, so it is with ethics. In fact, contrary to Alex I believe that ethics is actually a branch of aesthetics: it derives from our aesthetic sense about how we want to live, what kind of future we want to build, and so on.
You say that “a meta-ethical antirealist may still support phasing out the biology of suffering as an issue of means-end rationality - though unless some form of psychological hedonism is true, many other considerations must be weighed too”. In fact I don’t think our position on meta-ethics really comes into it. What matters is the ethical choice we make. Psychological hedonism doesn’t have to be “true”, it can just be our preferred ethical choice. Or our ethical choice could be as simple as “I want to abolish suffering”. That also works. We are only really required to weigh other considerations if we have chosen some other ethical framework that obliges us to do so. For example, Lincoln favours “flourishing”, and sees at least a risk of suffering as being necessary for this. That would be an example of another consideration that has to be weighed, because of the specific ethical choice that Lincoln has made.
@Alex Sorry you felt I was name-calling, but statements of the type, “We unfortunately act more like viruses than anything useful” to me reek of guilt, and I have spent enough time with indeed guilt-laden (and consequently moralising) environmentalists to be sick of that kind of thing. I also think it’s unhealthy and counter-productive.
Like you, I am who I am in part because I have suffered physically, mentally and spiritually, but accepting and indeed embracing the past is not the same as seeing it as a good model for the future. I agree that some suffering can be “functional”, but to me this is contingent on the fact that we have not yet managed to create an ideal world. I would prefer us to find ways to build character without the suffering. Wouldn’t you? Suppose you had at an early age developed the habits required to build successful relationships, and that had saved you the pain of the failed ones. Wouldn’t that have been better? And if you’re afraid of becoming lazy, won’t there be better ways to do it than tolerating a sore back once we have the technology to make that unnecessary? Like setting yourself some challenging goals that take you out of your comfort zone?
The “opium of the masses” argument is important, and I agree that we need to think very clearly about who we are and who we want to be. I don’t think anyone’s disagreeing about that. But I don’t see that as an argument against abolishing suffering per se. In any case, the idea that only the elite suffer while the masses live in blissful contentment seems such a distant prospect as to be hardly worth taking seriously. In general, elites prefer the masses to do the suffering, while convincing themselves that it is good for them.
Posted by André on 02/24 at 03:57 AM
The very presence of a moral code is in itself a violation of personal prerogatives. Codes mean uniformity, they establish a set of “behavioral meters” - and against these meters, we “have to” measure our individual actions. Yes, each and every one of us has a different moral code, assembled with the most diverse pieces. But does this mean that we should let everyone be, while he or she acts according to his/her morality? Also William Hickman has his own ethics, you know?
When you say that murder is illegal - you are violating the autonomy of the murderer. According to your reasoning - someone who killed his wife should just be let free - after all, that’s none of our business. Maybe this person is really not dangerous. All he wanted to do was to strangle his unbearable wife - and now he feels much better and is not going to hurt any of us. Or imagine a guy who just cannot stand redheads - and shoots them on sight. Technically - unless we are talking about Ireland - we should not bother him, after all it is none of our business (I am assuming no redhead will read this). With nonhuman carnivores, it is no different. And - do not say please now that humans deliberately choose the evil path. Our legal system prescribes confinement also for compulsive psychotic murderers. Those who do not know any better - still are not roaming free. The important question here, I think, is - do we want to consider animal suffering, or not?
I think we are mixing too many issues here. Raw pain reduction is one thing (and I am all for it). Modification our emotions, feelings, and moods another. I mean, you are talking about something more radical than a genetic anesthetic therapy, I suppose. Depression, as you surely know, is not so easy to define, spot, and cure. Someone even likes to be intoxicated with melancholic feelings (remember the song : Mamas and Papas - Glad to be Unhappy?). Changing the polarity of different emotional states is an incredibly complicated task, and probably can only be achieved by actively stimulating pleasure centers. Now you see, from removing suffering, we enter in a completely different field. I am sure you are familiar with the (awful) experiments of Robert Heath. That stuff was - and still is - highly addictive. People that underwent long orgasmic brain stimulation with a “cannula” did not want to be unplugged, they resisted fiercely. Yes, I am sure that most of us would not be turned into orgasmic junkies, as we can perfectly handle recreational drug use. But, not few weak individuals would. Pleasure is a behavioral attractor, it gives us the incentive to move in the (evolutionarily) right direction. When you are not merely removing pain but adding pleasure, you are also - as a matter of fact - creating a new motivational arrow. And it might lead nowhere, or it could lead you where external authorities want. This is the part that frightens me (Heath experiments were all funded by well known public agencies with military interests). And this is why, I urge that pleasure enhancing technology must be privately managed (and by that, I mean “homemade”).
André, I agree with you about the pitfalls of wireheading and utopian designer drugs. This is why genetically recalibrating the set-point of our hedonic treadmill is, I think, a much safer option - and sociologically more plausible too. (cf. http://www.abolitionist.com) Life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss is feasible without drugs or electrodes.
Does depression or mood-enrichment make people easier to enslave? Other things being equal, low mood in social mammals promotes subordinate behaviour, whereas heightened mood promotes greater autonomy and capacity for self-assertion.
(cf. http://www.amazon.com/Subordination-Defeat-Evolutionary-Approach-Disorders/dp/080583298X )
A future world without depressive “losers” will have a very different social dynamic from today’s replication of primate dominance hierarchies.
Peter, anti-realism and the mind-dependence of value are often conflated. I argue this conflation is mistaken. Thus one can be a robust ontological realist about value (and phenomenal beauty, colour etc) without claiming they are located in spatio-temporal regions external to the mind/brain of subjects of experience.
Moral urgency? Clearly one experiences an extreme sense of urgency if one’s own hand is in the fire. Yet one will recognise the urgency of rescuing other subjects of experience only to the degree one is cognitively competent to represent the first-person states in question. (cf. mirror-touch synaesthetes). Are some first-person facts ontologically privileged over others? Physicists aspire to a notional God’s-eye-view, Nagel’s “view from nowhere”. This impartial perspective is normally conceived in the traditional third-person language of natural science. But if one is a Strawsonian physicalist (cf. http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/25286-consciousness-and-its-place-in-nature-does-physicalism-entail-panpsychism/) then an impartial God’s-eye-view can be construed as the weighted sum of all possible first-person perspectives. Your suffering matters just as much as mine - whether I recognise so or not.
Pastor Alex, a human or nonhuman animal who is starving, dying of thirst or being asphyxiated by a predator does not need his or her autonomy respected so s/he can enjoy whatever “destiny” awaits. (S)he needs rescuing. If you saw a small child drowning in a shallow pond, you would rescue him/her. Likewise a dog. The transhumanist commitment to the well-being of all sentience generalises this principle to all sentient beings. Insofar as we think some forms of suffering are instrumentally valuable, we can retain their functional analogues in future minus the nasty “raw feels”. These information-signalling dips in well-being can be as arbitrarily deep or shallow as we choose. But in the long run, there is no functional necessity for any experience below “hedonic zero”.
Posted by CygnusX1 on 02/24 at 08:09 AM
“I agree, not all suffering is good, but neither is it all bad. I can see a culture in which only the elite are allowed any form of suffering while the masses are kept blissfully content and in slavery to their contentment. It isn’t that you are completely wrong, but we need to think very clearly about who we are and who we want to be.”
Yes, and it all begins with the investigation of who we are.. to understand who we want to be? And another good point regarding possible manipulation.
“As to the question of eliminating suffering in general. I can see the appeal of the concept. It would be nice to be able to flip a switch and turn off the migraine, or the ache of arthritis or the grind of old bones. More effective pain management would be great. To remove pain would be dangerous. Ask a diabetic who loses a foot because they didn’t feel the injury that caused an infection. Right, we will have nano-tech that will let us know when we are damaged. How will they let us know? Probably by a similar process to our our pain response.”
“What happens when we stress our bodies beyond the nano’s immediate ability to repair? We either replace the biological form entirely or have a feedback mechanism to warn of stress and damage.”
Indeed, then what is the point of reducing pain and suffering, to then replace this with a mechanism that is required to inform us of just such stresses - it seems there is no point? And that pain is useful in the way that Alex argues?
The comments in this thread have been both instructive and enlightening. I am in agreement with Alex on most of what he says here, suffering is useful, pain is process to avoid and highlight harm. To replace pain with some informational process with the aim to overcome suffering does not make logical sense, as it is merely aiming to replace one very effective and automated process with something arbitrary and similar, and something we would at least need to go to great lengths to ensure fits purpose?
We could also argue that augmented increase in sensitivity to psychological and physical pain could be useful, and implemented for greater efficiency towards the goals for elimination of suffering, and to improve speed of response and awareness? Psychological training and education in suffering used at very early age to speed up learning process and acquired wisdom?
My views towards hubris and interference are also aligned with Alex..
“I recognize that David has a different aesthetic sense of the future, but aesthetics is not ethics.”
“David, I have no problem with the reduction of suffering, but we need to be careful that suffering is all we are reducing.”
“Only if we lived in a insentient zombie universe would beauty not be part of the furniture of the world, an intrinsic subjective property of various configurations of matter and energy episodically occurrung in human and nonhuman animal minds. That’s the sense in which I’m a realist about (dis)value.”
“But I don’t want to bang on about this. A meta-ethical antirealist may still support phasing out the biology of suffering as an issue of means-ends rationality”
I am not adverse to a future of greater rationalism and dispassion that guides towards greater peace, harmony and unity between humans and their environment and meta-ethics towards all things as interconnected, Universe, Cosmos, inner dimensions, (including uploading), and even a negation of value towards beauty and even of love?
I do not myself view this as “moral nihilism”, and if you also class Buddhists as antirealists, the aspirations towards future, posthuman philosophies aligned with Buddhism and reductionism guided to eliminate suffering, (in its entirety?), would most likely support genetic manipulation - so I do not rule out the importance of bioethics to tweak humanity towards peace and rationalism and elimination of psychological suffering, (wisdom concerning grasping and cravings).
You’re continued caution regarding the dangers of this disvalue, directed towards uploading, zombies, loss of qualia, feeling, emotion, sense of worth etc. is important. And again, to what degree we aim to eliminate suffering or indeed aspire towards success of uploading may rely upon disvalue and dispassion.
David, I agree that one CAN be “a robust ontological realist about value” without claiming they are located in spatio-temporal regions external to the mind, in fact I don’t think I know any moral realists who _would_ make such a claim. I think it’s clear that if there is such a thing as moral truth then it exists in some kind of Platonic realm, akin to mathematical truths. So the question is rather whether one _should_ take such a position…and this, of course, is itself ultimately an ethical question. It seems to me that while moral _concepts_ exist in this Platonic sense, there is no reason - so longer as they are logically coherent - to favour one over the other in this ontological sense, and this is where the essential subjectivity of our choice becomes, in my view, inescapable. It seems to me to be better, even from an ethical perspective, to recognise this rather than to insist that one moral concept is somehow “true”, while the others are (by extension) false. In this way we avoid the wild goose chases and the interminal (because no experiment will ever resolve them) debate between conflicting moral realisms.
Similarly, one CAN be a Strawsonian physicalist, and one can then make the leap from “ontologically equivalent” to “morally equivalent”, but again the more practically relevant question is: should we?
Like you I don’t want to bang on about this indefinitely, there are probably more interesting things to focus on than meta-ethics, but I for one will not rely on logical arguments to convince people that my suffering “matters”. Either they are willing to empathise or they aren’t. I prefer just to associate with people who share my values and/or mutual affection. And the more we can promote generally altruistic, utilitarian values - which in my view should include at least some kind of abolitionist commitment - the more people I’ll be able to associate with in this way, and the more congenial the world will be. But we’ve got a long way to go, so perhaps weindeed shouldn’t spend much more time arguing about meta-ethics…
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/24 at 09:47 PM
Tell it to pastor Alex; he writes:
“Animals need us to leave them alone to work out whatever destiny awaits them.”
How do we do that?: move ourselves to other planets? and it appears what we are doing to the biosphere eclipses in importance what we are doing to animals.
Peter, you argue that there isn’t any fact of the matter. I argue that conflict over values is a function of our epistemic limitations. Intuitively you’re right. Even if we had all the scientific facts, and unlimited predictive accuracy, this knowledge wouldn’t tell us how to behave. But IMO this conception of the world rests on a illusory third-person ontology. If we were a Borg-like hive mind, or a community of (generalised) mirror-touch synaesthetes, then the pleasure-pain axis would impartially disclose intrinsically (dis)valuable states - and we would act accordingly.
Of course, natural selection has not favoured a Borg-mind or mirror-touch synaesthesia. Instead it’s spawned conflicting quasi-sociopathic individuals. For the past few hundred million years, the generation of egocentric virtual worlds has been the best way to maximise the inclusive fitness of one’s genes. But I’d argue our incapacity to understand the first-person perspectives of other sentient beings as though they were one’s own is a source of profound ignorance and outright error - a cognitive limitation our successors will overcome.
But as said, I’m loath to tie the abolitionist project into any particular first-order ethics, let alone my idiosyncratic views on mind, metaphysics and meta-ethics. I doubt our descendants will find life lived entirely above hedonic zero any more problematic than we find pain-free surgery today.
CygnusX1, yes, one of the reasons I discuss suffering exclusively in biological life is my scepticism that digital computers (or connectionist architectures with a merely classical parallelism) will ever be non-trivially conscious, or support sentient “uploads”.
(cf. http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/prisco20120201 and comments)
As ever, it’s always good to remember one could be catastrophically mistaken.
Posted by CygnusX1 on 02/25 at 09:50 AM
What price longevity?
Would you, could you, accept extension of your existence as sentient and intellectual consciousness with preservation of your values and memories, yet without the depth of experiential, sensual quality you have now? This, in choice of death?
If you lost your sight, your hearing today, could you adjust and still value existence?
Similarly, could you envision an evolved posthuman Buddhist philosophy of dispassion and ideal towards elimination of suffering with a disvalue for aesthetics? That was my point and question?
Hive minds, (ants etc), are efficient and enduring, resources and ecosystem permitting? Posthumans would do well to pursue true Unity, collectivism, and sharing of wisdom and experience?
CygnusX1, I have no problem if my sentient digital counterpart - or my notional zombie namesake (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie ) - is boiled in oil. Only subjects of experience have interests.
A mere stream of thought? Well, so long as the relevant neural nets were innervated by the right limbic projections to supply positive hedonic tone, no problem. Indeed I’d rather be a happy thought-stream-in-a-vat than a (Darwinian) brain-in-vat.
Yet underlying a lot of these discussions is an untenable conception of personal identity. Deeply rooted in our conceptual scheme is the notion of an enduring metaphysical ego. But natural science offers no reason to believe that any particular here-and-now is token-identical to, or belongs to the same entity as, another here-and-now. Personal identity over time is, I think, a pragmatically useful fiction fostered by natural selection.
Posted by CygnusX1 on 02/25 at 12:25 PM
:0] @ David
Indeed it is merely our “Self” obsession that drives the ideals for longevity. Is meta-ethics thus more noble even, than this enterprise for Self perpetuation? And again, for what cost and for what motives this pursuit of longevity? - Self gratification? Knowledge, progress and Universal evolution?
If we could only remind ourselves of your contemplations of identity as above, then we can most certainly help overcome the sufferings, stresses, and fear of death in our final moments? Yet perhaps calm, resolve and acceptance of circumstance is our final solace anyhow? - The here-and-now then the most singular experience of relevance and importance for us all?
And what of other animals? Are they focused merely on the here-and-now? Do they fret and fear for Self perpetuation? Obviously those that experience personhood must suffer, yet others?
It’s often claimed nonhuman animals live only in the here-and-now - a threadbare rationalisation of the killing and abuse nonhuman animals suffer at human hands. But in any case, the claim is false. Western scrub-jays, for example, demonstrably possess skills of mind-reading and mental time-travel.
Humans and birds diverged over 300 million years ago.
Posted by CygnusX1 on 02/25 at 05:30 PM
Please note my comments are not directed towards critique of the value of the abolitionist project, nor is mine to stand in opposition of its goals. My comments are rather to point towards the exploration of ontological meaning and exploration of “Self”, (ego) understanding, rationalisation and ethics, and human projection onto the external physical world, and thus onto other species.
On reflection my comments may have been better placed in your recent article, so I will add anything further there?
Thanks for your responses also, with feedback, all our debate becomes more constructive and meaningful.
David, it is not a cognitive error for me to feel my own pain more keenly than I feel that of others, nor is it a cognitive error for me to give priority to dealing with my own pain. It would be a cognitive error, according to the third-person, scientific perspective that we seem to need in order to operate effectively in the world, to believe that my own pain is actually more intense than that of others merely because I feel it more intensely. The ethical implications of that are another matter entirely.
Peter, I think we may differ here.
Physical science has no explanation of why consciousness or first-person facts (e.g. I am in pain) exist. Worse, physical science has no explanation of how they even could exist. This is the Hard Problem of consciousness and Levine’s notorious Explanatory Gap.
However, let’s assume that the explanation for this mystery, whatever it may be, is naturalistic, and - much more questionably - that the explanation will leave something resembling our existing scientific conceptional framework intact. Where does this leave us?
Well, the pain of one particular person in Brighton strikes David Pearce as much more important than other pains. Indeed my toothache seems more important than the suffering of entire Third World country - and I act accordingly. In principle, however, I can recognize this is a cognitive mistake, a delusion of perspective. I simply don’t have epistemic access to other first-person facts. The egocentric illusion is stubbornly persistent, but ontologically privileging one particular here-and-now over other here-and-nows of equivalent sentience is inconsistent with the Standard Model and a “block universe” conception of space-time. In short, our naive intuitions are pragmatically useful, [genetic] fitness-enhancing, and wrong.
David, I’m not sure that I do want to assume that the explanation for the mystery will leave something resembling our existing scientific conceptional framework intact. For the time being we need the latter, but it is entirely unclear to me that we should be favouring the “truth” of this framework over our primary experiences.
However, I don’t think we need to throw out this framework just in order to justify paying more attention to our painful toothaches than to mass suffering in faraway lands. It is only a cognitive delusion to believe that your toothache is more important than the latter to the extent that by “important” you mean “objectively greater”. If anything, the cognitive delusion is our tendency to conflate the various meanings of words like “important”. “Important” could just mean “important to you” or “something that you are motivated to act on, now”. No cognitive delusion then, just an accurate description of what you feel to be important, and what you are motivated to do.
At least that’s what I think. It’s pretty clear that we have different intuitions on this point, and as I said before there may not be much point in continuing to argue about it. It’s just that my subjectivist stance on these ethical issues is something I have found immensely helpful to me at a personal level, and this makes me both curious and somewhat disturbed when I come across someone arguing cogently in favour of a realist position. Certainly yours is one of the least silly ones, from my perspective!
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/28 at 10:32 AM
“Ah, forgive me Intomorrow, in expressing thanks to contributors I wasn’t intending to shut down this thread: I know we’ve only scratched the surface of some of the issues in question.”
Thou art forgiven, for the Lord sayeth to err is human, to forgive is posthuman. A msg. for Christian C (though it might be in reference to another thread.. can’t keep track of them): one doesn’t need meat for the brain; one can take .5 grams of acetyl L carnitine for instance—up to a gram, perhaps, a day. Plus there’s much else besides. Choline, for example, sublingual B12, etc.
Aside from taste, meat is mostly a tradition; those who built this world ate meat, and many laborers eat large amounts of meat to this day- nonetheless, many vegetarians have enjoyed long lifespans.
When I think of the ‘necessity’ of eating meat, the Holidays come to mind, one can’t very well say to the host,
‘I don’t want this turkey, Granma. Um, you got any organic tempeh laying around your refrigerator?’
Or any time you are a guest; you’re not going to bring a main course with you, and say,
‘just serve me your mashed potatoes and vegetables, I’ll eat my own vegetarian main course, Thank You.’
Well, some hosts might go for it.. some will think it an insult that you don’t want their fare.