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A World Without Suffering?
George Dvorsky   May 2, 2009   Sentient Developments  

“If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode—without impairing intelligence and the critical mind—I would be the first patient.” - The Dalai Lama

This article, by guest author David Pearce, is re-posted from George Dvorsky’s Sentient Developments blog. Pearce, a British philosopher, co-founded the World Transhumanist Association (since renamed Humanity+) in 1998, and is the author of The Hedonist Imperative.

In November 2005, at the Society for Neuroscience Congress, the Dalai Lama observed, “If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode—without impairing intelligence and the critical mind—I would be the first patient.”

Note that the Dalai Lama wasn’t announcing his intention to queue-jump. Nor was he proposing that high-functioning bliss should be the privilege of one special group or species. Unlike the Abrahamic religions, but in common with classical utilitarianism, Buddhism is committed to the welfare of all sentient beings. Instead, the Dalai Lama was stressing that we should embrace the control of our reward circuitry that modern science is shortly going to deliver - and not disdain it as somehow un-spiritual.

Smart neurostimulation, long-acting mood-enhancers, genetically re-engineering our hedonic “set-point” (etc.) aren’t therapeutic strategies associated with Buddhist tradition. Yet if we are morally serious about securing the well-being of all sentient life, then we have to exploit advanced technology to the fullest possible extent. Nothing else will work (short of some exotic metaphysics that is hard to reconcile with the scientific world-picture). Non-biological strategies to enrich psychological well-being have been tried on a personal level over thousands of years—and proved inadequate at best.

This is because they don’t subvert the brutally efficient negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill—a legacy of millions of years of natural selection. Nor is the well-being of all sentient life feasible in a Darwinian ecosystem where the welfare of some creatures depends on eating or exploiting others. The lion can lie down with the lamb; but only after both have been genetically tweaked. Any solution to the problem of suffering ultimately has to be global.

In the meantime, I think the greatest personal contribution to reducing suffering that an individual can make is both to:

  1. Abstain from eating meat
  2. Make it clear to his or her entire circle of acquaintance that meat-eating is abhorrent and morally unacceptable

Such plain speaking calls for moral courage that alas sometimes deserts me.

I know many readers of Sentient Developments are Buddhists. Not all of them will agree with the above analysis. Some readers may suspect that I’m just trying to cloak my techno-utopianism in the mantle of venerable Buddhist wisdom. (Heaven forbid!)

In fact the Abolitionist Project is just a blueprint for implementing the aspiration of Gautama Buddha two and a half millennia ago: “May all that have life be delivered from suffering”. I hope other researchers will devise (much) better blueprints; and the project will one day be institutionalized, internationalized, properly funded, transformed into a field of rigorous academic scholarship, and eventually government-led.

I’ve glossed over a lot of potential pitfalls and technical challenges. Here I’ll just say I think they are a price worth paying for a cruelty-free world.

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


Certainly humans have shown ourselves capable of eliminating quite a bit of suffering through sanitation, medicine, and other means. If one accepts that it is within human power to do this, and that this is a good goal, there is absolutely no reason to put a limit to the amount of suffering we should abolish.

True, there are serious distinctions to make about what is and isn’t suffering, but clearly we should not stop fighting until the last speck of involuntary suffering is gone from the universe. And even then, we can work towards ever greater levels of bliss!

“Unlike the Abrahamic religions, but in common with classical utilitarianism, Buddhism is committed to the welfare of all sentient beings. “

As a member of one of these Abrahamic religions Pearce slams for not being committed to the welfare of all sentient beings, I am committed to eating only meat that was slaughtered in a humane way. I think that that cow I just consumed would have, had it not been slaughtered, otherwise likely been viciously torn to shreds by a wolf. When scientists have genetically modified wolves so that they won’t tear apart cows, I will strongly consider giving up meat. Until then, however…

Not that I am up on those peaceful eastern philosophies/religions. But don’t they intimate that pain and suffering is a product of the human mind or something like that? If that is the case, then technology isn’t going to help in this regard.

It is your body, knock yourself out, but I would guess that an implant like this would hamper your intelligence. I see the idea would be for you to perceive things from a purely logical perspective without fear getting in the way, but I would suspect that the two have a link in a persons overall perspective and intelligence. Your fear or pain is a tool for your logic to analyze.

In fairness to Abraham Ic above, perhaps I should also have cited Isaiah 66:3:
“He that killeth an ox is as he that slayeth a man”

Much of what you write, David, seems right out of Isaiah. You wish for people to beat their swords into plowshares and for predator and prey to live together in harmony forever.

Of course other books in the Bible aren’t as peace-loving. The contradictory nature of most scriptures tends to allow the practice of religion to conform to the interests of power as well as cultural prejudices. Pointing this out is a delicate task.

It is true that Buddhism is one of the few religions that makes a strong case for respecting all sentient life. At the same time, it is still an organized religion and thus very corruptible. Out of fairness, that too should be pointed out. A perfect example is the state-sponsored strand of Buddhism mandated by the regime which rules Burma.

Yes, but ‘mandated by the regime’. Also in fairness, is it not true to say that Buddha did not desire for the separation of Buddhism and state to be eliminated? (Once again we can see how religion and state is a very bad mixture).

Back on topic, although I can see how transhumanism in a sense - assuming it can show the way for humanity to achieve a kind of nirvana - has certain parallels with Buddhism, I’m not certain that the two philosophies are really compatible mainly for the reason that Buddhism says that the world around us is an illusion (at least that is my interpretation of what Buddhism says). If this is true, then technology is an illusion and no illusion is going to help us escape the chain of rebirth and dissatisfaction/suffering. Furthermore, Buddhism says that our desires trap us in the illusion of existence and transhumanism (with which I sympathize, with reservations, along with Buddhism) seems to be full of the desire to escape the human condition. Open to correction if I’ve got anything wrong here but this is a fundamental contradiction between the two philosophies, is it not? So if Buddhism is true, transhumanism (along with all the other isms and ities) is a non-starter.

> is it not true to say that Buddha did not desire
> for the separation of Buddhism and state to be eliminated

Hard to say what the Buddha wanted, but there are at least two implicit political models in the Buddhist scriptural tradition. The first is an anarchist or utopian socialist one, centered on the monastic order and its lay community as a alternative and more egalitarian society growing within the corrupt society ruled by hatred-ignorance-greed. The second is the dharmaraja or cakkravartin tradition of enlightened kingship, in which the king sets aside rule through ignorance-hatred-greed and rules through “turning the wheel of the dharma” by eliminating poverty and following the counsel of wise counselors and the Sangha. But the two institutions are seen as independent, with neither having authority over the other.

There are three historical adaptations church-state relations in Buddhist countries which do not have scriptural precedents. The first (Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka) is the imposition of “purity” on the Sangha by monarchs, such as by establishing favored monastic orders, and forcing other monks out of robes. The second is the direct rule by monks as in Tibet since the Mongols gave the Dalai Lama rule. A third is the direct participation of monks in elections and democratic governments, even running in Buddhist monk parties as in Sri Lanka. All of these violate the implicit model of separation of church-state in the our scriptures, with the consequence of monks becoming promoters of racial-nationalism and nationalist wars.

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