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Abolition is Imperative in Kurzweil’s Sixth Epoch Scenario
Jønathan Lyons   May 25, 2013   Ethical Technology  

Consider the Abolition Society, the Abolitionists Against Suffering group on facebook, and the philosophy of Dr. David Pearce, who is "a British utilitarian philosopher and transhumanist, who promotes the idea that there exists a strong ethical imperative for humans to work towards the abolition of suffering in all sentient life.

His internet manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative details how he believes the abolition of suffering can be accomplished through 'paradise engineering.' He co-founded the World Transhumanist Association in 1998, and the Abolitionist Society in 2002."

He discusses and takes questions on Abolition philosophy here:

When I first encountered Pearce's Abolition philosophy, I was fascinated. But, as happens more often than I'd like with Big Ideas in philosophy, the sheer scope and audacity of Abolition philosophy was at first difficult for me to process credibly. I mean, really? Paradise engineering? Re-engineer all life to eliminate unnecessary suffering?!

As a fellow vegan, Pearce walks the walk on minimizing the suffering and costs his actions — and his diet — demand from the world. That gave me another reason to consider his positions, particularly as a transhumanist myself. If one wishes to pursue the abolition of unnecessary suffering, veganism is a powerful place to begin in the here and now.

(The IEET is currently conducting a poll on the dietary attitudes and practices of its readership. An earlier such poll found that a whopping 12.31% of respondents described themselves as vegan. Wikipedia cites (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veganism) varying numbers from different sources, generally between about .5% and 3%.)

Consider the seventh point on the Transhumanist Declaration:

"We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise."

This was updated slightly in Transhumanity.net's Transhumanist Declaration 2.0, penned by Dirk Bruere, to include Pearce's Abolition specifically:

"We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise. This is to be seen as a consequence of the adoption of Abolitionism, defined by philosopher David Pearce, as our core ethic."

Indeed, in the Singularity 1-on-1 interview with Zero State founder Amon Kalkin, he also advocate ending unwanted suffering as part of Zero State's mission. Zero State is an online, grassroots community which advocates "the establishment of a trans-national, virtual state — the Zero State."

The transhumanist community embraces the basic principle of eliminating unnecessary/unwanted suffering, however varying the degrees. (And whoever determines what "necessary" suffering is, at that.)

Then I began considering Ray Kurzweil's Six Epochs.

If we are indeed on course toward his predicted Sixth Epoch, when What We Become could begin to appropriate and put to use all resources it encounters in the universe in a quest to bring about the waking up of said universe, then we had better have Abolitionist philosophy as one of our core guiding principles. Otherwise, What We Become would likely be no less heartless than, say, Star Trek's the Borg: A marauding technological maw, consuming all that it encounters that it deems useful, never sated, never pausing to consider the desires of individual beings.

The Sixth Epoch scenario seems to lack specifics on what becomes of Luddites, religious outliers who eschew technologies, and those who just plain don't want to become part of that project. (But perhaps that has to do with the difficulties of seeing past a technological Singularity.)

In fact, in a Sixth Epoch scenario, that grisly bloodbath would most likely begin here, on an unthinkable scale, resulting in the slaughter, repurposing, or extinction of virtually every living creature on Earth.

But if we transhumanists cement Abolition as a core, foundational part of our overall philosophy, then What We Become will be much better prepared to avoid the whole gruesome affair. We will have installed part of the philosophy futuristic beings will require to avoid forcing all of humankind, and all life on the planet, to become a part of the overall project, willing or not; and should be able, as a core portion of What We Become's mission, to leave the choice of whether to become part of it up to each individual. Individual choice could still become an important part of What We Become's quest to fulfill the forecast of the Sixth Epoch — assuming such a scenario ever comes even partly true. It will give What We Become a shot at not simply ignoring the wills and wishes of other beings, and may just leave behind a paradise engineered for those who wish to be part of such a creation, as What We Become branches out into the universe.

I know that this essay, teleological in nature, leaves aside important questions, such as:

  • Is Kurzweil's Sixth Epoch vision a good thing? Is such a telos a worthy one?

  • Can paradise engineering — or any form of uplift of nonhuman animals — ever ascertain consent from nonhuman animals? Is paradise engineering a worthy telos?

I'm thinking about these questions, and I look forward to hearing and reading others' thoughts on them.

Jønathan Lyons is an affiliate scholar for the IEET. He is also a transhumanist parent, an essayist, and an author of experimental fiction both long and short. He lives in central Pennsylvania and teaches at Bucknell University. His fiction publications include Minnows: A Shattered Novel.



COMMENTS

No, paradise engineering is not a worthy telos in my book, and not just because of the nightmarish proceeds of such projects in the past.

I have repeatedly subscribed to the “abolitionist” language without thinking much about it, and basically in two senses:
- the trivial one (“let us abolish as much as possible toothache and the stupid toil of everyday life’s chores”), and
- the “overhuman” angle (“let us struggle against the the frustrations that limit us and our quest for greatness”)

But, as an adhererent to a fundamentally Nietzschean worldview, I am increasingly disconcerted by the eschatological and utilitarian meaning attached thereto by most of its proponents.

And, by the way, as a transhumanist who would love to resurrect the Tyrannosaurus Rex I also find especially disturbing the idea of re-engineering lions into cows and to feel on a mission to deliberate reduce biodiversity and competition in the universe rather than increasing it.

Stefano, a commitment to phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering does not entail a commitment to utilitarian ethics, let alone some kind of eschatology. For sure, an abolitionist ethic does rule out the idea of “Back to the Cretaceous” and a Nietzschean world-view. But if you’re looking for nightmarish historical parallels, one twentieth century movement exalting Nietzsche’s work springs to mind. (“I do not point to the evil and pain of existence with the finger of reproach, but rather entertain the hope that life may one day become more evil and more full of suffering than it has ever been.” - Nietzsche was not a fascist, but his writings abound in such rhetoric.) 

Phasing out involuntary suffering is consistent with _increasing_ the diversity of life. Not least, genetic engineering potentially allows intelligent agents to cross gaps in the fitness landscape otherwise prohibited by natural selection.

Why assume that phasing out involuntary suffering entails a commitment to phasing out competition? By itself, radical elevation of our hedonic set-points allows us to be just as co-operative or as competitive as before. My personal preference would be for enhanced empathy and co-operative problem-solving; but this is a separate issue from abolitionist bioethics.

Real “freedom”, including freedom from pain, can well be seen as a “liberation from”, which requires that new harder and harder challenges be there to be met.

For this to be real, I suspect that real frustration has to be felt which can then be “abolished” by overcoming one’s previous limitations, as well as any “competition” or “self-change” can be seen as being motivated by the need to avoid feeling the “pain of defeat”.

But, hey, I am not so deluded that I think we can convert one another over an exchange of comments on a blog post. 😊

Stefano, I think you are generalizing from observations on a study with N = 1

If you look around, you will find that many people are indeed chronically depressed, and that the better days in their lives are “just” merely bad.

And on the other side, there are people who are happy and productive nearly every day. As a strange matter of fact, once’s productivity is highly correlated with positive mood. This, of course needn’t be so! We can engineer humans that need to be miserable to be productive. But we can do the opposite too! Even if positive mood and productivity were not correlated, or even inversely correlated in humans, that would not imply that there aren’t other kinds of designs in which a life of gradients of bliss would be maximally productive.

And, by the way, if we must go down Godwin’s path, more than a few Nazis interpreted themselves WW2 as the “war to put an end to all wars” and a crusade at the end of which the world would be better off, “happier”, as a whole, under their rule. 😊

Not to mention the especial, and at the time unheard of,  protective feelings towards animals many other Nazis were exhibiting (see the movies on kosher slaughtering and the legislation for animal defence).

Having said that, I find animal torturing in capitalist-model intensive farming practice as disgusting as much as Singer does (not to mention, a recipe for bad meat). Simply, my grounds for doing so are different.

Stefano, I think you are generalizing from observations on a study with N = 1

If you look around, you will find that many people are indeed chronically depressed, and that the better days in their lives are “just” merely bad.

And on the other side, there are people who are happy and productive nearly every day. As a strange matter of fact, one’s productivity is highly correlated with positive mood. This, of course needn’t be so! We can engineer humans that need to be miserable to be productive. But we can do the opposite too! Even if positive mood and productivity were not correlated, or even inversely correlated in humans, that would not imply that there aren’t other kinds of designs in which a life of gradients of bliss would be maximally productive.

@Jønathan:

The issue I have with Abolition philosophy being placed within the context of Kurzweil’s 6th Epoch is that it seems to lack any historical consciousness and therefore might lead us to mistake where things will actually end up for where deep in our collective unconscious we would like them to be.

The recognition of the existential condition of pain along with our deepest hope that things need not be that way is as old as human ideas of a lost paradise. You find it relocated to the “end of history” with the rise of apocalyptic religions and books like Revelation. It is therefore among our deepest held beliefs and seems to be present even when stripped of its religious wrapping.

Yet, to assume that this is where the universe will eventually end up has to be based, I think, on one of two assumptions. Either it was set up to unfold like this from the start i.e. that there is some sort of ethical God behind the unfolding of history, or that we will retain in the far future ethical control over the way evolution will unfold.

I would hope so, but it seems little more than a piece of fate. Should something like Kurzweil’s 6th Epoch every arrive what has succeeded us will likely be so different that they are unlikely to share our ethical framework or primordial longings.

Stefano, Rick, there is a critical distinction between being blissful and “blissed out”. Yes, uniform well-being is inconsistent with critical insight and intellectual progress. But abolitionist bioethics isn’t about building a “perfect” world. Radical genetic recalibration of our hedonic set-points via biotechnology promises hugely to enrich our quality of life while (optionally) leaving our values and most of existing preference architectures intact. This prospect isn’t science fiction. Already we are beginning to decipher the alleles and allelic combinations implicated in possession of an unusually high (or low) hedonic set-point. Which variant of the COMT gene, for example, do you think we should choose for our prospective children?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17687265

Of course, there is a difference between reducing the burden of suffering in the world and the complete abolition of involuntary experience below hedonic zero in our forward light-cone. But if we can contemplate a 100 Year Plan to achieve interstellar travel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/100_Year_Starship), then why not a 100 year plan to eradicate the molecular signature of negative hedonic tone? I’d hesitate to say which challenge is technically harder. But I know which is more morally urgent.

@David: Thank you for such a thoughtful reply.
@Rick: I just read your bio, and we’re practically neighbors. If you’re on Facebook, I hope you’ll look me up. I anticipate some fascinating conversations.

@David:

As you might know from looking at my other writing, I think there is much that is positive about Utopian thinking, including the wish for a world without pain found in Abolitionism. And yet, I think Abolitionism has this other troubling aspect of Utopian thinking one that is unaware of the VIOLENCE that would be required to achieve its ends.

Think about what we are talking about here- re-engineering the whole of the natural world so that no sentient creature suffers pain. It would mean the destruction or neural castration of the carnivores, the forced re-engineering of the herbivores. We do not even know if a natural order can exist without pain, and would thus be putting that order at risk. We really don’t know if pain is a sort of evolutionary accident- that natural motivation can be found in pleasure alone. As far as I know there is no higher animal that lacks pain circuitry- can the kinds of complex behaviors that are driven by such circuitry today be achieved if we engineer pain out of them? And is pain even the real moral issue we should be dealing with and not the return of animals to a healthy and more natural state? Pain seems in some sense part of the bargain for its flip side of joy and relief, -not the deathless torture found in factory farms and laboratories, or relentless suffering of human beings trapped in some state of chronic pain or confinement, but the quick pain of natural death or the kinds of pain that teaches us what is truly meaningful. 

@Jønathan: Oh, I should have realized you taught at Bucknell, and you’re right that’s pretty close to me. Sorry, I don’t do Face Book, but I’d love to chat. This summer is very busy for me, but towards the fall would be good. Can I find your email on Bucknell’s site?

@Stefano: “more than a few Nazis interpreted themselves WW2 as the “war to put an end to all wars” and a crusade at the end of which the world would be better off, “happier”, as a whole, under their rule.”

Your point being? You would be hard pressed to find examples of military aggression that aren’t justified by a promise of some sort of peaceful, better world once all of the “impediments” are removed.

Rick, you’re surely right to draw attention to potential pitfalls. Life is messy. But nothing in the theory of practice of abolitionist bioethics entails harming other sentient beings in any way. Thus the use of immunocontraception to regulate fertility doesn’t entail literal physical castration. The mass use of sterilants doesn’t harm Anopheles mosquitoes - unless we believe a mosquito has reproductive rights. To be sure, critics may charge that abolitionists want to “exterminate” carnivores. This is just poetic license. A species is a taxonomic abstraction. Unless we’re species essentialists, a lion that eats in vitro meat does not thereby cease to be a lion - any more than members of Homo sapiens cease to be human if we start wearing clothes and adopt a cruelty-free vegan diet. And even if the civiliing process does mean we are no longer “truly” human, does this transition ethically matter?

Pain? In the long run, I know of no technical reason why phenomenal pain can’t be abolished completely via the use of e.g. nonbiological smart proestheses to perform its current role in nociceptive signalling. But in the short-to-medium term, we may rob physical suffering of its moral urgency by using preimplantation genetic screening to choose benign “low pain” alleles of the SCN9A gene for our future children (cf. http://io9.com/5946914/should-we-eliminate-the-human-ability-to-feel-pain)
- and then extend this pre-selection process “down” the phylogenetic tree:
http://www.abolitionist.com/reprogramming/elephantcare.html
In short, high-tech Janism - no violence at all.

The question of human abolitionism is a relatively ethically straightforward one. Humans have the right to set their hedonic baseline at wherever they feel is optimal, and a steady upward trajectory is likely.

The question of subsapient abolitionism is far more thorny than Pierce’s dismissal of the question of extermination as “poetic license” suggests. Is he suggesting that the sort of nature-like ecosystem that is free to evolve naturally, of the sort advocated by the rewilding movement, not compatible with abolitionist ethics? The notion that in vitro meat is the answer to managing predators’ innate urges seems to suggest so. How much human micromanagement is required to keep such a system within the abolitionist bounds of acceptability? Do we “prune the evolutionary tree,” so to speak, whenever any particular species veer too far in the direction of carnivorality, or the aforementioned IVF meat too far in the direction of sentience? What is such a system ultimately for, anyway? A toy-like diorama to showcase how far we’ve come as a species so we can bask in our own glory?

SHaGGGz, abolitionist bioethics is wholly consistent with respect for the sanctity of life. The term “exterminate” is surely best reserved for acts of killing.

You ask “What is such a [eco]system ultimately for, anyway?” I’m sceptical such questions have a determinate answer. Either way, abolitionist ethics isn’t about answering teleological mysteries or solving the Meaning of Life. Rather we just want to secure the minimum biological preconditions necessary to allow all sentient beings - human and nonhuman - to flourish, most notably an absence of involuntary experiences with negative hedonic tone. In the case of large, free-living terrestrial vertebrates in our wildlife parks, recognisable extensions of existing technologies can potentially suffice. The plight of small rodents, let alone invertebrates, must await an era of mature nanotechnology next century and beyond.
I’m not sure where “bask[ing] in our own glory” comes in. Humans are responsible for more suffering in the world today than perhaps all other species combined. We’re also the only species intellectually capable of rescuing suffering sentients from the abyss of Darwinian life. Whether we’ll rise to the challenge is another matter.

@David: I see no reason why “exterminate” can’t refer to the doing away with “abstractions” such as entire species, merely because it usually comes up presently in the context of snuffing out individual lives.

You say your aim is “to allow all sentient beings - human and nonhuman - to flourish” yet from your exposition it seems clear that only certain kinds of sentient beings would get this benefit. The fact that entire classes of organisms and their ways of life are to be extirpated, intentionally at the hands of the sole sapient species that has judged them to be unworthy, seems unresolved.

SHaGGGz, one purpose of canvassing such costly, complicated ad technically demanding interventions as http://www.abolitionist.com/reprogramming/index.html
is precisely so no one need feel signing up for abolitionist bioethics entails saying farewell to “charismatic mega-fauna”.

You remark that “entire classes of organisms and their ways of life are to be extirpated”. One night say the same of the many subcultures of human predator. No, I certainly don’t think human predators, child abusers (etc) should be harmed. But ethically we recognise that protecting the young, the innocent and the vulnerable takes priority.

While sympathizing with David’s ideas, I am afraid the _abolition_ of suffering may not be attainable in practice.

In the real world, we suffer because we don’t have X. But as soon as we get X, we start suffering because we don’t have Y.

Now, the _reduction_ of suffering is a goal that I totally support.

Guilio, intuitively, yes. But one existence proof that perpetual bliss combined with perpetual desire is feasible is intracranial self-stimulation (ICSS: “wireheading” Wireheading shows no physiological tolerance. This is a world away from the genetically elevated hedonic set-points and the prospect of information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss we may anticipate animating our posthuman successors. But technically, wireheading would be a lot easier.

But David, having enough to eat every day would seem totally blissful to our ancestors. Compared to them, we do have perpetual bliss (= 3 meals a day). But we don’t always feel blissful, do we?

Giulio, alas not. The hedonic treadmill still grinds. We know from e.g. twin studies that hedonic set-points have a high degree of genetic loading. Hyperthymic people like our distinguished colleague Anders Sandberg (“I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point”) are rare:
http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?feature=youtu.be&t=6m51s&v=YTu28qn2xcg&desktop;_uri=/watch?v=YTu28qn2xcg&feature=youtu.be&t=6m51s
But this is why there is such a compelling case for ensuring our future children can be super-Anders, i.e. blessed with a predisposition to information-sensitive gradients of well-being, rather than locked into permanent _uniform_ bliss. Even today, choosing via preimplantation genetic screening a handful of benign alleles / allelic combinations that predispose to high hedonic set-points could potentially hugely enrich the lives of our offspring. Next-generation designer zygotes will allow much more ambitious enhancements. And next decade and beyond, I hope mature humans will gain mastery of our reward circuitry and recalibrate our hedonic set-points (and motivations, anxiety thresholds and empathetic understanding) too….

Agreed that David’s Platonic ideals are lofty, although this is not uncommon here at IEET. Suffering can be greatly reduced by “understanding” causes, afflictions and with reason, mindfulness, vigilance and dedication, and Self knowledge, (Buddhism, psychology), of which I am greatly in favour, but this takes wisdom and is very slow process, (each individual requires time, space and dedication). Yet this does not help at all to Re-calibrate the hedonic scale as David proposes.

So whilst it is difficult to contemplate the ideals of the Abolitionist project and its extremes, there seems reasonable justification to at least pursue genetic tweaking to help overcome suffering, pain and neuroses in Humans and perhaps for other sentient species also? At least this far David has managed to convince myself.

Re-calibrating the hedonic scale may be the path to elimination of suffering and neuroses that leads to psychological suffering and long term harm to Human minds, which may in turn lead to expression as heinous violence and mental breakdown, and which affects all of us mentally? Even with media reporting of crimes and violence, we become affected at distance, emotions are moved, memes are formed, and any negatives are never fully overcome?

Imagine if you could never become angry, frustrated, never fall into despair? Violence and irrational behaviour is often the result of loss of emotional control, and something the Abolitionist project could help with in the future with emerging technology?


@ Rick..

You’ve raised a key issue regarding the “duality” of understanding and the value of emotions such as Joy and pain, (.. are like sunshine and rain?), which has been discussed often here.

And perhaps even more pertinent the importance of physical pain as neuro-transmitter for all species to safeguard survival and protect against harm. Pain has evolutionary benefit and it would appear all complex and sentient species possess sensual pain stimulation. Yet we humans at least can rise above this Darwinian dilemma if we so choose, and if we reduce external risks to survival, especially from other Humans?

And yet again hedonism as philosophy and ideology would no doubt have need to incorporate unrestriction and experience of pain, so here at least would also be obstruction to the Abolitionist position?

As David has not mentioned his previous articles here, may I take liberty to point them out, as they go into some great depth to promote his argument also.

ieet.org/index.php/IEET/bio/pearce/

@CygnusX1:

Thanks for the link. I have the utmost respect for David’s desire for a pain free world, but do not share his utilitarian focus on pain as the primary target upon which we should set our sights. Violence, after all, need not be painful, and perhaps it is violence rather than pain we should attempt to reduce. I am afraid that the quest to remake the world to be painless actually enables a great deal of violence to get us there, and it is this violence I have trouble accepting however laudable the destination.

In terms of human existence I have difficultly ascribing to all types of pain the same blanket revulsion. This has less to do with the whole duality of pain and joy, than the fact that suffering is related to meaning. To end the chronic pain of aging or disease would in my book be a very good thing, to end the suffering caused by the death of one’s child or spouse or parent, in so far as such suffering has not become debilitating depression, is quite another.

Suffering in the face of personal tragedy is the mark of what we find important and to be without it would leave us more less-than-human than post-human. 

To eliminate or reduce the source of suffering such as death is one thing- its emotional effects on us quite another.
For should an expanded human consciousness not be able suffer more deeply- that is to experience true loss- as it would be capable of feeling joy more deeply? For from such paths a form of transcendence lies.   

http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=128338586&m=128272084

CygnusX1, thanks for the thoughtful comments - and the hotlink. Apologies btw for the seemingly one-dimensional focus on the biological roots of human ills and disregard of the social and political context. But the viciously efficient negative feedback mechanisms of our hedonic treadmill mean that even if _everything_ IEET readers dream of for the future were to come true - a utopian society and utopian technology to match - our level of subjective (un)happiness would be unlikely to change significantly in the absence of direct reward pathway enhancements. This prediction violates our intuitions. It’s also empirically well supported.

Rick, one needn’t be a utilitarian of any kind to endorse abolitionist bioethics. But you raise a difficult question about death and mourning. If death or misfortune befalls a loved one, then surely we should _want_ to grieve. Not to do so would cheapen our relationships.

An (inadequate) response to this objection is simply to argue that we should use medical technology to overcome ageing and other ills of the flesh. Aubrey de Grey’s grounding-breaking “Ending Aging” is the inspirational text here. No law of Nature condemns organic robots to grow old and die. The problem, I think, is that barring truly revolutionary breakthroughs in medical science, the biology of ageing and death are likely to persist well into next century and perhaps beyond. Maximum human lifespan is still not increasing. Technically at least, mood-enhancement, hedonic set-point elevation and even life based on gradients of information-sensitive bliss seem potentially easier to engineer than genetically preprogrammed eternal youth. So what should we do in the transitional era - when we can regulate subjective well-being but not the ravages of ageing?

I’d argue that one is entitled to want one’s death or misfortune to diminish the well-being of friends and loved ones. But one isn’t entitled to want them involuntarily to _suffer_ on one’s own account. If one does want friends and loved ones ever to suffer, then in what sense are one’s relationships based on true friendship, rather than egotistical self-regard? Vainly perhaps, I’d want my death or misfortune to trigger a steep but reversible decline in the well-being of friends and family. But I wouldn’t want - and I don’t think I’m ethically entitled to want - this decline to pass below hedonic zero.

Either way, recall abolitionist ethics is not about coercive happiness. Rather it’s about giving everyone - human and non-human - mastery of their emotions. No one should be compelled to endure the biology of involuntary suffering as they do today.

@David:

No one should wish suffering on anyone else regardless of its source, but I do have questions about these ideas of “involuntary suffering” and “coercive happiness”. A person suffers because one part of themselves, the part that responds to some negative event whether physical or emotional feels a certain way.
Suffering is coming from oneself, therefore any attempt to control it is” coercive” in the sense that the person is trying to “turn off” that part of oneself from which the suffering originates. 

The development of sovereignty over these processes is a laudable goal, and you should be thanked for pushing for it and bringing to our attention to these questions, but I think we need to be careful when interfering with natural processes. Perhaps something like mourning is akin to a low grade fever that should only be interfered with when it injures the very system it was meant to protect- that is ends in depression or perhaps even suicide. We also, I think, need to be sensitive to the influence of culture on how an individual reacts to negative events. There are cultures in which a year long period of mourning that includes a withdrawal from society at the death of a parent is normative whereas in the West such behavior would likely be considered pathological. It is impossible except at the level of the individual concerned to decide which of these is the “right” response to such events, but in neither case is the individual forced into feeling something- just acting as if they were. A person in a culture with a year long period of mourning may not feel it, but may steel themselves from laughing in public. Likewise, a person in a Western culture where they are assumed to keep their “chin up” may keep their profound sorrow private and not share it with anyone. There is a danger that should we develop sovereign control over the emotions that they would be less a tool of the individual than a tool of the society of which he was a part- coercing the individual through the social pressure to conform to alter his emotions to feel as he “should” under the circumstance at hand. 

As with almost everything there might be positive as well as negative aspects to the social consequences of gaining sovereignty over the emotions. Perhaps the kinds of sovereign control over pain you promote will end not in a painless society but in different cultural expressions in the approach to pain and suffering. This is not to be sadists, but one can imagine things like periods of collective mourning over a natural tragedy or people allowing natural processes of suffering from deep loss to play out for a period bounded ritually and ended pharmacologically, one can imagine athletic events or military training where our sovereign control over pain are deliberately suspended. 

Rick, first, many thanks: I thought I was broadly familiar with the different categories of objection to the abolitionist project. But you’ve raised a worry I hadn’t even considered. Might opting to switch off some sub-personal module that mediates suffering itself constitute a form of coercion? Certainly, there are extreme cases of dissociative identity disorder (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissociative_identity_disorder), the condition formerly known as multiple personality disorder, where this dilemma might rear its head. Dissociative personality disorder is now often conceived as dimensional rather than categorical. Even in “healthy” normals, the unity of the self - both synchronic and diachronic - is radically incomplete. And what about people who have had a corpus callosotomy? (split brain” patients: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Split-brain) Or people with florid schizophrenia?

All I’ll say here is that, in the last analysis, these are marginal cases. Further, there is a fundamental difference between the biology of coercive (un)happiness imposed by some external agency and any internal dilemma posted by wrestling with different aspects of oneself.

What about the other potential pitfalls you raise? Well, I’d make exactly the same response to critics of, say, radical life-extension. Should this be our overarching goal, i.e. no one should be forced to undergo the biology of aging or experience below hedonic zero? Policy maskers should try and guard against the sorts of worries your raise within the bounds of the overall project. Or is the abolitionist project - or a radical anti-aging program -  itself irredeemably flawed?

As you know, I think quasi-immortal posthumans will be animated by gradients of bliss orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences. By posthuman standards, humans are pain-ridden savages. But the transition is likely to be messy.

@David,

I wish you success in your noble quest and hope my skepticism and concerns, which are admittedly difficult to assuage, ultimately prove unfounded.

Thanks Rick. “If I won the lottery, I could live happily ever after.” No, most of us are too sophisticated to say such things. Knowledge of the hedonic treadmill - and comparative outcomes for lottery winners and paraplegics - is now quitely widely acknowledged, in the abstract at least. Yet I wish more futurists and social engineers would take the lesson to heart.

Just like to add further comment to the concerns raised regarding violence, Hedonic setpoint adjustment and towards dispassion, (briefly mentioned also in past discussions).

Rick hints at violence manifest as process in pursuit of Abolitionist goals, and I’m guessing his meaning is with “passive” yet imposing violence against species uplifted without consent, of which I still have some major problems with also.

Yet where Humans are concerned I find myself less troubled with genetic tweaking, as I believe, (subjective), that we are mature enough as species to contemplate and evaluate the benefits of individual uplift for the “greater good”, peace, security and widespread contentment.

Strangely I am still adverse to the use of drugs for uplift, (Buddhist tendencies), perhaps because I perceive use of drugs as arbitrary, open to abuse and over-indulgences and less controlled?

However, as hinted at in other articles, where Hedonic setpoint re-calibration is applied non-Universally across society, there could be other abuses and less passive violence applied to persons, classes. serfs, slaves, workers who have been uplifted, and are thus less susceptible to physical abuse and pain, or moreover, even psychological harm. And this perhaps possibly applied by a Hedonic social class and aristocracy, plutocracy who excel in the understanding and application of pleasure/pain axes? - this abuse then acting in the reverse of Abolitionist ideals and ethics?

Rather a dystopian outlook, yet one to guard against none-the-less, and I feel more of a concern where drugs as opposed to Universal genetic uplift is administered?

I am assuming here that the social and political abuse described above would not necessarily apply where ALL Humans are uplifted equally, and by application of Universal ethics, renewed shared understanding regarding the value of individual freedoms and social rights, (although this need not necessarily be the case anyhow, and is still somewhat wishful thinking?)

Which leads me to the application of “dispassion”, not identical but dichotomy not wholly unconnected to the goals of understanding and ease of suffering, both individually and Universally, (Buddhism and Hinduism applied asceticism).

Here suffering is mastered through application of mindfulness, deliberation and vigilance against excesses, grasping and clinging, and if this philosophy is “applied as measure” together with genetic uplift, then not only are pleasure/pain axes calibration a solution to rectify biological inadequacies and overcome chemical imbalances, but a philosophy of dispassion may also guard against psychological inadequacy and conflicts occurring from increased pleasure setpoint calibration?

Intellectually we will still need to gauge and master, (psychologically), increased awareness and indulgences of pleasure, even where the axis for pain has been raised, and we thus raise our lifestyles to accommodate increased joy. This may then lead to renewed suffering as natural consequence of over excess of pleasure, (and where we still cannot comprehend pleasure/joy without polarized pain/suffering)?

In other words the problems/dilemma associated with pleasure and pain, (suffering), axis calibration and offset may be merely heightened, but can possibly be replaced with a renewed realised philosophy of duality of pleasure and measured application of dispassion to accommodate?

Here both pleasure and dispassion act in opposition as forces to overcome, relegate and eliminate suffering?

Fortunately this is easier to practice and apply as opposed to explain in words! And yet we do all have the wisdom to guard against excesses that bring “highs and then lows” and we know this also?

I am no Stoic, but dispassion has helped me greatly to guard against disappointment and psychological suffering. The downside is that joy needs some constraints also, and may even be replaced with measured contentment?

“Dispassion is logical, (and rational), Captain?”

CygnusX1, can one commit acts of violence against an abstraction? I think this is a metaphor too far. For sure, if high-tech Jainism ensures that sentient beings are no longer predated in our wildlife parks, then the genetic tweaking of the archaic lion and crocodile genome entailed will not involve the explicit prior consent of would-be predators. But what about the consent of the would-be victims? The only _literal_ violence involved here is upholding the status quo. Do you think sentient beings should be violently disembowelled, asphyxiated and eaten alive? Granted, right now this is a philosophical question. Shortly it will be a pressing ethical choice.

You urge greater dispassion on the part of humans. Others would argue for greater passion. Nothing in abolitionist bioethics entails taking a stand either way. Compare the role of, say, a physical pain specialist. The job of the chronic pain specialist is not to expound his conception of the good life. Rather it’s to ensure that his patients can enjoy physically pain-free lives that maximise their opportunities to flourish. Likewise with tomorrow’s specialists in phasing out the biology of involuntary “psychological” distress - depression, anxiety disorders, jealousy and our nastier Darwinian adaptations. Possession of an exalted hedonic set-point is equally consistent with e.g. hypomanic exuberance or “dispassionate” mediative tranquillity - and a galaxy of other temperaments and lifestyle options besides. Barring reward pathways enhancements, however, most future life will be subjectively mediocre - at best - just as now.

Yes from the victim’s point of reference and with context, then the violence of carnivores on prey can be viewed as extreme, and something we would not wish upon ourselves, even though we Humans “deal” in death. How can someone eat a Lamb? (Although I did this when much younger as this was family and culture tradition). Integrity and strong intellects can overcome meat fetish, and quite easily, and animals cannot. Anyone who returns to the fold, I would deem as hypocrite, and yet In-Vitro meat may help solve many world food supply issues, and vegetarians may even find themselves coerced to return to meat subsidies in their diets, in the event that non-meat food supplies become under great strain, (never say never?)

I still take the conservative stance presently, (and it is stance really), that predators would no longer be the same creatures if genetically tweaked to remove predatory memes, and that if applied this is indeed still passive violence towards these animals. What is the Utilitarian position and “greater good” here, you most likely have it correct to pursue these ideals, yet do we have right to make predatory animals reliant upon us Humans? This must surely be tantamount to domestication of wild species?

I am not so much “urging” greater dispassion or stoicism, although I do myself envision a more logical, rational and Neo-Buddhist social order arising from future bio-technological enhancements. And this rationalism and sedate(?), or rather peaceful and content society, is something I would be “happy” to witness.

Others would indeed argue for greater passion, even the theist would argue that life would be reduced to the mundane if Humans could not witness and experience exalted joy, and in return sorrow/despair and suffering, in the justification and fulfilment of their path to enlightenment and their belief in deity?

I am certainly not expounding or expressing opinion upon what may constitute the “good life”, as this is again wholly subjective, and my argument for greater dispassion is certainly not an argument for asceticism, (which I myself deem unworthy and damaging - yet again, not so worthless to any individual who has chosen thus). There is a price to pay for greater dispassion however, and I pay this price freely, and believe it is measured against one’s “needs” and wants. And again, I am not sure we can truly phase out Human psychological distress as this is related greatly to intellect and the interrelation of chemicals and hormones released into the brain due to moods and emotion - not merely deficiencies or imbalance in chemical release and production/diet etc, (is correlation and causation both)?

“Possession of an exalted hedonic set-point is equally consistent with e.g. hypomanic exuberance or “dispassionate” mediative tranquillity - and a galaxy of other temperaments and lifestyle options besides. Barring reward pathways enhancements, however, most future life will be subjectively mediocre - at best - just as now.”

I would like to see a more “contented”, confident, peaceful and secure social order, (although I still do value as priority, individual freedoms and rights of Humans to pursue any path in life, and especially including Hedonism where this does not lead to harm or the oppression of others). So your comment above is very interesting, that you see life, and existential countenance as perhaps the same as I, and am very surprised you used the comment ” subjectively mediocre - at best”? This implies that perhaps you see dispassion arising also, in face of elimination of sufferings, and despite increased joy and contentment?

If increased joy leads to decreased pain and suffering then this is a state of mind that we would all wish to possess and see for others, even today? This is also perhaps what our “common” ideal and hedonic default setpoint actually is, naturally, special cases and chemical imbalance aside? Unfortunately, we Humans then let our own politics, (intellects also), rule over us to act against this inherent peace, (sedate state), and our security? Politics is heavily concerned with freedom however, and where is the struggle for freedom against some type of oppression or other not at the root of Human politics?

CygnusX1, on any strict construction of “identity” you are undoubtedly correct. A human or nonhuman serial predator who ceases to prey on other sentient beings is no longer the same. At it’s most extreme, we may take the Buddhist or ultra-Parfitian that there is no such thing as a enduring personal (or infrahuman) identity over time. Heraclitus put it well 2500 years ago. “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

However, irrespective of our position on identity, there is surely fundamental distinction between claiming that ideally human and nonhumans alike should be free-living and the claim that we should be “wild”. Undomesticated “wild” humans have behaved in all sorts of ways we would now recognise as deeply unethical. I won’t catalogue them here. Steven Pinker does a good if gruesome job in
“The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”
http://www.amazon.com/The-Better-Angels-Our-Nature/dp/0143122010)
The fact free-living humans are now (partially) tamed and domesticated tends to enhance our overall freedom more than it constricts. Compare, say, the practicalities of air travel. Yes, the prospect of “policing” Nature probably sounds Orwellian. But compassionate stewardship of the living world promises to confer greater opportunities to live free and flourishing lives than most sentient beings enjoy today.

@ David..

I can’t see your connection with identity as construct here? However, we Humans can certainly do worse than to contemplate and teach this wisdom to children at the earliest opportunity, and what better way to support understanding of causes of suffering and therefore support Abolitionist ideology also?

The common denominator here is knowledge and wisdom of suffering and its causes, and this is why I take interest and reference Buddhism frequently in parallel with the discussion.

Would the Buddha approve of the Abolitionist project? Most likely he may not as his is support with indifference in the “changing of things” and circumstance, as opposed to the changing of minds? All is change and impermanence, and so too this illusion of identity and any grasping of ideology and pursuit of political ideals and perfection of nature.

This is where Transhumanism diverges into the realms of paradise engineering, leaving the orthodox Buddhist behind? Yet what of the Neo-Buddhist, are these compatible? Is dispassion, logic and sedate rationality conducive with Abolitionist ideology?

Please note, I am not attempting to corner you here into accepting Neo-Buddhism, although I am interested in your thoughts on the matter. To clarify, my understanding and reference of “Neo-Buddhist” is one who pursues greater understanding of Self and the knowledge and end of suffering for all, yet at very least for oneself, (lesser vehicle), and yet takes a western position regarding science, technology, death, mortality and longevity and with belief and confidence in technological futures and Humanity/Humanism?


I am taking a guess that you may know and be aware of which movie the below picture is taken from, and our discussions and your ideals always remind me of this imagery, without fail.

photos.bravenet.com/272/478/925/3/C930A2884D.jpg

CygnusX1, for the most part, I find Buddhist ethics admirable. Buddhists locate suffering and its conquest at the heart of the world. It’s hard to know what the historical Gautama Buddha would make of biotechnology. The limited historical evidence suggests that Gautama Buddhist was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Crudely, if it works, do it. Thus meditation and the Noble Eightfold Path have undoubtedly offered solace for millions of believers over the centuries. However, meditation and the Noble Eightfold Path don’t genetically recalibrate the hedonic treadmill. They don’t modify the nastier bits of the genetic code we pass on to our children. Nor can they abolish the horrors of the food chain. If we endorse a Buddhist vision of a cruelty-free world, then we need to embrace the one technology that can deliver the well-being of all sentience. I reckon Gautama Buddha would approve.

If we were to engineer away all suffering, then presumably a lion could not catch its prey.  My question is whether that in itself would be a form of suffering.  We’d have to make it so a lion enjoys being a peaceful creature.  Is that possible and how would we even know?

Futurephilosopher, when considering human predators and their victims, we normally believe that the interests of the victim should take precedence. Why reverse this precedence when the predators and victims are nonhuman?

Either way, the seemingly irreconcilable conflict of interest between predators and their “prey” can be overcome via utopian biotechnology. Let’s consider your example. For reasons of energy efficiency, lions tend to be “lazy”. Lions hunt only when they (or their cubs) are hungry. So laying on in vitro meat in tomorrow’s wildlife parks can ensure big cats don’t suffer - whether from frustrated predatory instincts or indeed from hunger pangs. In the long run, however, perhaps some genetic tweaking is in order too…

@ David Pearce

“Futurephilosopher, when considering human predators and their victims, we normally believe that the interests of the victim should take precedence. Why reverse this precedence when the predators and victims are nonhuman?”

I’m not sure there is a direct parallel between human predators and animal predators or at least enough that one can argue from eliminating human predators to eliminating animal predators.  Human predators, i.e. murderers, are a dangerous disruption to human society whereas animal predators, in fulfilling their nature, are maintaining a functional balanced role that is part of their ecosystem and at times is even crucial to maintaining the overall flourishing of their larger ecosystem, perhaps even out-stretching to our own.  It seems incorrect to call a lion a ‘murderer’ and draw a parallel with the way we treat such awful humans.

“laying on in vitro meat in tomorrow’s wildlife parks can ensure big cats don’t suffer - whether from frustrated predatory instincts or indeed from hunger pangs.”

Yes, but this is assuming that we’ve turned all of nature into a giant zoo/ wildlife park.  That has potentially problematic implications.  But putting the general concept aside of complete dominance over nature, how do you know that today’s lions, in the zoo, are not suffering precisely because they don’t have the real opportunity to hunt?  Again, depriving lions of their ability to fulfill their natural hunting instincts may indeed create a new form of suffering while we ostensibly are trying to eliminate all suffering.  I’m not sure we can adequately fool a lion into the satisfaction of the hunt by technological means.

“In the long run, however, perhaps some genetic tweaking is in order too…”

This is assuming a lot about what we’ll be able to do with genetics, so I’m not sure it can be thrown out there as a decisive argument in favor of being able to create peaceful and happy (formerly) predatory species. 

On a side note, though, there is an interesting parallel between your vision and biblical prophecy.  My understanding is that one of the reasons religious Jews do not accept that the messiah has yet arrived is that prophecy says when he does lions will lay down with lambs - something that obviously has not happened.  Although I see lions laying down with lambs as a metaphor for peace, paradise engineering, if possible, lays open the possibility of a literal fulfillment of that prophecy.  Interesting.

futurephilosopher, first, I think it’s great that the issue of free-living animal suffering is being explored. I never thought this would happen in my lifetime. Presumably until this century the cruelties of Nature were simply seen an inescapable fact about the world rather than technically optional. But I’m also aware there’s something fanciful-sounding about discussing compassionate interventions in traditional ecosystems while humans are systematically killing and abusing billions of sentient beings in our factory-farms and slaughterhouses. That said…

Yes, it’s anthropomorphic to call a lion a “murderer”. It’s not anthropomorphic to describe a lion as a serial killer. For sure, lions and other predators help prevent an ecologically catastrophic population explosion of herbivores. Smallpox, the Anopheles mosquito and other pathogenic organisms traditionally helped prevent an ecologically catastrophic population explosion of humans. The question is whether there are ethically more acceptable forms of population control - in human and nonhuman animals alike. Thanks to technologies of fertility regulation, the answer is now clearly yes.

Zoos? Ethically, we’d agree that neither human nor nonhuman animals should ideally be held captive. Yet to be free-living isn’t synonymous with “wild”. Thus do some young human males today feel frustrated because their atavistic warrior, hunter (and sexual) impulses are checked by the constraints of modern civilisation? Undoubtedly yes. But the solution to their frustrations is not “rewilding”. Likewise with nonhuman predators.

Biblical prophecy? Yes, the echoes are deliberate. The lion and the wolf shall lie down with the lamb (etc). The reason for liberal use of quotes from the scriptures (Christian and otherwise) is to convince the traditional-minded that abolitionist bioethics is simply an extension of their existing values into the modern era, not a plea to embrace some revolutionary new ethic. Certainly, the goal of phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering shouldn’t be conceived as exclusive to secular classical utilitarians. It’s a precondition, I believe, of any advanced civilisation.

David Pearce, I worry that you overestimate our ability as humans to account for unforeseen consequences.  If you are really serious about eliminating all predatory behavior in the animal kingdom, then you’re talking about a massive disruption to a delicate eco-system that has been held in balance for years.  I mean, you’d be talking about even re-engineering so many insects.  I worry about tinkering with nature on such a large-scale, and yes, there does seem some hubris (to use a disliked word around here) in thinking we would be able to successfully pull off such a feat.  Perhaps in the future, maybe, but is it worth the risk, maybe even a catastrophic risk from massively overhauling nature according to our own plans?

I’m also still not convinced that your analogies between human society and the animal kingdom really hold.  You say that violent human impulses are held in check through civilization and its laws, and that similarly it would be better for a “civilizing” of the animal kingdom.  Just as young wild men need to be tamed, so do the young violent animals.  But we create our civilization and its rules because such limits on our freedom enhance our overall security and happiness.  From a utilitarian perspective, liberal society and its rules create greater happiness than a world where violent human impulses are allowed to run amok, even if the price is that such capacities are curtailed in civilization. 

But, it’s really not clear to me that a similar project would necessarily increase happiness in the animal kingdom overall.  You act as if when, to stick with our lion exemplar, when a lion kills a gazelle it’s this great tragedy in the gazelle world as it is when one of our own dies.  I’m not sure that’s true.  There may not be the same kind of mourning and loss at all.  I doubt they have a sense that a beautiful life has been cut short.  When an animal gets eaten in the wild, as cruel as that may seem to the small percentage of vegetarian humans, we might just be anthropomorphizing the situation and viewing it as a tragedy when it really is not.  So the current level of “pain” in the animal kingdom might not be all that high; it certainly probably isn’t like the pain humans suffer when humans are killed through war, etc…

I think there’s a good case to be made that there is plenty of joy and happiness in the animal kingdom right now (where the environment is not being screwed up through climate change and other destruction).  If you went and tinkered with animal nature to the extent you imagine, you have the possibility I mentioned of just messing up the whole ecosystem - so that would clearly be a loss of greater happiness.  But even if that didn’t happen - even if you created a line of docile (former) predators without messing up the ecosystem, you don’t know that you’ve actually increased happiness on the whole, since the now more peaceful lives of the prey may not outweigh the extinct joy of hunting for the prey.  In other words, even if you don’t screw up the balance of the natural ecosystem - you might screw up the psychology of its inhabitants. 

In short, I don’t think it’s at all clear that a utilitarian greatest happiness principle weighs in favor of paradise engineering.

Futurephilosopher. should we really avoid wiping out, say, malaria for fear of triggering some unforeseen side-effect beyond our power to anticipate? How about smallpox? We’ll always need to weigh risk-reward ratios. Either way, when deciding whether or not to mitigate - and eventually abolish - the cruelties of Nature, let us recall that humans already interfere -  massively - in ecosystems across the living world, whether via uncontrolled habitat destruction to captive breeding programs for big cats to “rewilding” etc. So the question is not whether to intervene but rather what principles should govern our interventions. Should we endorse the ideology of so-called conservation biology? Or instead an ethic of compassionate stewardship? Or perhaps some combination of both?

You worry about anthropomorphism. If anything,  I don’t think we’re “anthropomorphic” enough when weighing the depth and significance of nonhuman animal suffering. The experience of hunger, thirst, fear - and the terrible experience of being asphyxiated, disembowelled or eaten alive - is not mediated by different genes, neurotransmitter pathways or cellular structures in human and nonhuman animals. On the contrary, the same genetic and molecular pathways (and behavioural responses to noxious stimuli) of our core emotions are strongly conserved in the vertebrate line.  Of course this convergence of evidence doesn’t amount to a rigorous proof that the pleasure-pain axis unites all sentient beings. But then we can’t disprove radical philosophical scepticism about other (human) minds either. We’re dealing with an inference to the best explanation.

Involuntary suffering of any kind is shortly going to become optional. What right have humans to conserve it??

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