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Abolishing Suffering via Bio-Engineering and Drugs - would this cripple social activism and art?

The abolition of suffering has been advanced for many years as a transhumanist ideal by IEET Fellow David Pearce. Recently, the Longevity Party engaged in a debate about it’s value.

Should “abolishing suffering” be included on the platform of the LP? Would the elimination of pain cause serious side effects, for example, would it cripple social activism and art?

Participants included IEET contributors Ilkka Vuorikuru, Nikki Olson, David Pearce, “The Praxis” author Dirk Bruere, and other members of the LP. Below is the transcript of the conversation (spelling and grammatical errors have been left unchanged):

Ilkka Vuorikuru: Here’s a question. Should we have policies that makes SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) medicine more widely available? I myself am not sure what the right answer would be, but yesterday I gave some thought for it. Here is the argument for it: If the human brain reacts to it’s environment and if the “modern way of life” (urban living and working) raises the risk for depression and mood shifts, the should it not be good, if we could medicate the masses? There are two alternatives: either we create a “sporty feel good society” (cultural change) or we create an easy access to mood medicine (medical change). The first takes a long time and the latter works faster. Also, people who use SSRI medicine tend to be on a better mood and therefore they could be interested in making the social change for a happier and better society.

Hank Pellissier: my first instinct is to definitely agree—yes it should be more widely available.

Ilkka Vuorikuru: The good side to this is that this (somewhat Transhuman alternative) is possible as we speak.

Mike Magwire: A large portion of u.s. females do.

Ilkka Vuorikuru: The use of antidepressants is a global phenomenon. But, they are often seen as medicine. The other option would be to see them as a “lifestyle pill” or something that has a positive and a “natural” connotation. That would be a base for a new kind of a working/living culture. Is there any research etc. done on the topic?

Marko Koskinen: I quite doubt the effect of these pills. Not that it wouldn’t do the job at the moment, but for a longer run, I would guess that they prevent the natural healing of physical and mental problems, because they hide the actual problems that cause the depression…  It’s easier to take a pill than change your lifestyle, and if you get the good feeling from the pill, then why bother changing the lifestyle anymore?

Alberto Mura: In general i wonder what you guys think about David Pearce abolition program… (here a sort of manifesto I fear that the problem of future good drug abuse now is a bit understimated by transhumanist communities, and that mood pharmacological remedies could push umanity in a sort of whoolen nirvana =/

Dirk Bruere: At Zero State we are generally in favor of the Abolitionist program, and it is being written into the Consensus manifesto and international principles. I would hope that Longevity parties also embrace it. Surprisingly, it may well be the easiest H+ tech to implement.

Hank Pellissier: I rather agree with Dirk above. I am quite a fan of David Pearce, in fact, I think I will let him know we’re discussing his ideas here. I am in favor of the abolition of suffering as a transhumanist goal. But let’s see if I can get david here to defend his POV…

Dirk Bruere: I should add that David is heavily involved with ZS

David Pearce: Most transhumanists are life-loving optimists who would like to live indefinitely. But there are hundreds of millions of depressive people across the world for whom time hangs heavy and life goes on too long. Unless we edit our genetic source code, I fear this terrible burden of suffering will continue, generation after generation. Today’s drugs can only be stopgaps IMO. The SSRIs, for example, can have a useful emotional buffering effect. But they also tend to flatten emotions and kill libido - with all sorts of implications for personal relationships.

Of course even most depressives don’t want to grow old: “Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life - full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” (Woody Allen, Annie Hall)

David Pearce: ‎Marko, whereas mu opioids tend to promote “liking”, dopaminergics tend to promote “wanting”. Whether via tomorrow’s designer drugs or gene therapy, we could be hypermotivated as well as blissfully happy. That is the beauty, I think, of recalibrating the hedonic treadmill to promote information-sensitive gradients of well-being - instead of aiming for a uniform happiness.

Dirk Bruere: How difficult to do a gene tweak in Humans to accomplish this?

Alberto Mura: Dear David, sincere greetings. I share your worry for mood diseases, which are certainly one of the afflictions of modern world, but I think that the egg (Woody Allen’s) point is a strong example of how deep and unconditional love we could feel for a rough life. My fear is that emotional competition (internal and external) is fundamental for real satisfaction, and thus happiness. When I feel good I feel special. I fear that if everyone can reach a similar state of mind through pills I could feel in some ways cheated. This is my point. Thanks for your time, and forgive my poor english.

Dirk Bruere: I feel that everyone ought to be given the choice. As soon as we consider prohibition to be a valid response to such tech we are extending a vast and failed “war on drugs” right into the heart of H+.

David Pearce: Dirk, yes indeed, the issue of choice is critical. To anyone who disagrees with phasing out the biology of suffering, I’d simply ask: when unpleasant experience of any kind becomes technically optional, would you force anyone to suffer again their will? If so, then how much, for how long, and enforced by what means?

David Pearce: ‎Alberto, could you possibly clarify? Would you seek to prevent someone being happy - whether by drugs, gene therapy or any other “non-natural” means?

Alberto Mura: I have not a clear opinion, but in some ways I think that happiness needs unhappiness to be strong as we know it. Satisfaction emerges from differences, and a genetic or drug program will flatten some of this differences. These are my worries.

Marko Koskinen: My point is that emotions are crucial information for our species to survive, and if we remove the connection between our emotions and our environment, then I fear that this natural survival mechanism doesn’t work for us anymore. We’re seeing it right in front of us all the time. People are just pumped up with drugs so that they can work their 8-12 hour work shifts without questioning the system. Our problems isn’t our feelings, it’s the system we live in. We need to change the system, not our feelings.  I agree that it should be a matter of choice though.
Because we cannot force social change.

Dirk Bruere: The whole effect of H+ tech is to force social change. I think making people happier will be the most benign aspect of it.

David Pearce: ‎Alberto, intuitively pain and pleasure are relative. But just as some depressives live lives characterized entirely by gradients of ill-being - which can be steep or shallow - conversely there is no technical reason why life can’t be animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss. The dips can be arbitrarily shallow.

Marko Koskinen: Do you know what emotional discharge is? Or emotional release? Healing people’s hurts is not impossible or even hard. It’s actually an inborn ability. You can see it in children. When they get hurt, they start to cry. And if they’re allowed to cry enough, their mind is clear again and they’re back to enjoying life. The problem is that our system prohibits this natural healing from happening, thus creating depressed and sick people.  Being hurt is not the problem, being prevented to heal is.

Alberto Mura: ‎@David so your suggestion is turn a “pain-pleasure” information system into a “less pleasure- more pleasure” one? It is a good point I guess…

David Pearce: Alas a lot of the reasons people get depressed have little to do with the well-being of the individual - and a lot to do with the inclusive fitness of our genes [in the ancestral environment of adaptedness:

David Pearce: Alberto yes. And it’s not mere theory. We merely need to consider as case studies the happiest hyperthmic people today. One example of a hyperthymic person who is extremely productive [and I use his “case” by express permission!] is the transhumanist Anders Sandberg:

Marko Koskinen: ‎Ilkka, to the original question: If we drug people to conform to the existing society, how can we assume that the people would be more eager to change it?
 Thanks for raising this question. It’s really interesting.

David Pearce: Cowed depressives are easier to govern than active citizens. Other things being equal, raising mood decreases subordinate behaviour - and promotes active engagement with the world. Compare the depressve tendency to keep one’s head down…

Alberto Mura: ‎@David I read about the hyperthymism studies in your paper on abolitionism. Great prospetive. But the idea of implant genetic optimism in future babies sound a bit scary to me. Indeed there will be a lot of productive scientist, but the number of artist will soon turn to zero. It’s a slimy ground. A complete reprogramming of human brain (emotions, feelings, mood) with a sort of pleasure upgrade seems to have the power of defeat unhappiness granting the same gradient of currently behavioral diversity, but too enthusiasm may lead to underestimate the risks. Loose a single bit of human potentiality would be a calamity.

Mike Magwire: Why do you need art when you are perpetually happy, and superior genius? Genetically altering the outlook is a tricky thing, but when death has been transcended what has anyone to worry about, save new disease?

Ilkka Vuorikuru: Marko. Your question is valid and in my hypothetical example it can be answered in two ways. First, we should not assume the word “drug” to connotate passiveness. The SSRI medicine acts to release serotonin which is the “feel good” chemical in our brain. Most depressed people experience a great flux of energy after receiving the treatment. This makes them active in their lives.

Second answer: you are right about the fact that a mere “pill” can’t institute change. But, no pill exists in a cultural vacoom. That would mean that it should be administrated with a firm policy that people understand and accept. It should be experienced on a personal level. After that, the positive effects of SSRI medicine would possibly instigate social change.

Of course, any medical intervention should be rationally explored. Who knows, maybi it turns us into happy drones

David Pearce: Alberto, should we choose to conserve, say, physical disabilities and ill-health on the grounds they’re all part of life’s rich pageant? Or should we aim to endow all our kids with invincible superhealth? Other things being equal, enriching mood is likely to increase diversity. It’s depressives who tend to get “stuck in a rut”, exhibiting “learned helplessness” and behavioural suppression. Happier people are typically more motivated to explore the world and respond to a broader range of rewarding stimuli. An exuberant love of life makes diversity more likely, both for the individual and society as a whole.

Marko Koskinen: ‎David, I quite agree. But I think that the pill-treatment should always be accompanied by some kind of therapy, otherwise people will become dependant on the drugs and are probably less likely to create much social change. The biggest problem with western medical system is that it rarely looks at the problems, just at the symptoms and tries to target them, rather than targeting the problems.

Dirk Bruere: I think the idea that good art somehow requires the artist to be suffering is largely incorrect. It certainly does not seem true of many (most?). Leonardo, for example? OTOH, what great artists share with most great people is obsessiveness. That is not something we are talking about eliminating.

Mike Magwire: ‎3 year of solitude, only to return to the collective. Vs 75 years of solitude, like a road trip threw solitude. The perceptions of melancholic ideals, are always relative, until there nothing like there origination. There’s nothing inhuman about stability.

Dirk Bruere: These arguments were raised before when anaesthesia was introduced in medicine and especially childbirth ie pain is natural and removing it is somehow wrong.

David Pearce: Indeed so Dirk

Alberto Mura: @Dirk In my experience Art seems to be about a cocktail of contradictory feelings, which, although they may not be strictly negative, through their dissonance result deeply disturbing: artists are so often dragged by a global sensation of defeat, inadequacy and pain.

I accept a prospective of re-design of people mood, but only if it will give back at least the same gradient of human richness. Some kind of art must be replaced with a new type of creativity, with new taste and perfume.

Dirk Bruere: I suspect that historically artists were “often dragged by a global sensation of defeat, inadequacy and pain.” because they were obsessed with art and it just did not pay, leading to poverty and consequently defeat, inadequacy and pain.

Curtis Maxfield: an artist that does not know suffering will lack contrast on many different styles of art because art is about the full range of emotions even music. proceed as planned if you want to listen to the sun screen song the rest of your life.

Nicole Olson: I agree that greater and greater freedom with regards to medication is a positive direction to go, with greater and greater individual responsibility regarding administration, but current medication of this kind is hardly anything to long for access to imo. Much room for improvement.

IEET essays by David Pearce can be found HERE

Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Managing Director and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.


I think I originally sparked this debate in the comments to a post in the Longevity Party FB group from August 5. I think we should keep the ‘moral higher ground’ in political programs for longevity parties, be acutely aware of speciesism (the general social, psychological, and institutionalized biased in our societies), and try to counter this bias as much a possible, as it is the right thing to do. Antispeciesism has the moral higher ground. It is possible that a Longevity Party’s BoD who crafts such a program and makes final decisions about it may not be capable of making such completely antispeciesist (as many/most transhumanists are probably FOR animal experimentation) but I think it should be the aim for it to be “as antispeciesist as possible”. Here’s that exchange:

Regarding animal experimentation, may I just add that a lot of what goes on (I’m not saying all of it) is totally useless and unnecessary. I think we should strive to use them as little as possible, find alternative methods as much as possible, and eventually experiment in software models instead (once they are sophisticated enough… this may take some time). This is not the normal behavior or policy regarding animal experimentation: coldly treating them as commodities and “things” is, using them as much as we want typically is. (Studying animal behavior/psychology in nature, in nice sanctuaries and reserves is something different… learning while not torturing, harming and killing animals should be ok). I understand that, from a utilitarian perspective, animal experimentation may be (pretty much) the *only* use of nonhuman animals with some ethical justification, in this day and age (this does not make it “right” from the perspective of the victims, though, of course). But this says nothing about, say, “food policies” that such parties may espouse or promote, when designing its program/s, and its proposals on how to deal with food problems and educational guidelines for kids, or water resource issues, or environmental issues, or health issues (all of which are affected by how we eat, and all of which affect our use and abuse—or non use—of nonhumans).

In vitro and 3D-printed meat research, and any other such technologies should be strongly encouraged. Vegan lifestyles as well. This is my honest and heartfelt opinion.

(I know the above discussion is centered on reducing suffering in human beings - a clearly speciesist approach, but ok… yes, nothing wrong with being concerned with the suffering of other humans too. But David Pearce has written extensively about abolishing suffering in the nonhuman animal ‘kingdom’ and, even if talking about reducing wild-animal suffering may be a little beyond what early-2010’s novel transhumanist parties’ programs may want to get involved with…—although not necessarily… I don’t think it’s too early to discuss it… population control, hunting for sport vs. not hunting for sport, etc.—surely we can discuss and consider the progressive abolition of human-caused, unnecessary nonhuman suffering issues: animal exploitation, slavery, slaughter, veganism and an antispeciesist ethic as the “right” thing to move towards, as far as social advocacy and children’s education, respect for other sentients in general, legal aspects regarding animal use, and so on).

I think the problem with reducing suffering is that even if we are on a Pleasure/bliss scale instead of Pain/pleasure we will tend to compare our mood to the peaks and experience off peak as unpleasurable or even painful. The challenge is that pain/pleasure is a very subjective experience, especially in terms of mood and psychology.

That said, I think making mood enhancers, both pharmaceutical or neuro-electronic would be probably a good thing over all.

Interesting post and comments.

David says: “We merely need to consider as case studies the happiest hyperthmic people today.” It remains, I guess, that those people do suffer every day, at least ‘somewhat’. But studies would be welcome anyway. 

Ethically speaking, I am not sure that mild pain, such as found in a lower degree of political indignation or inspiring melancholia, is a bad thing that we should absolutely or preferentially abolish. And technologically speaking, I doubt that consciousness or sentience as we know it can exist without some painful frustration encountered by a being’s ‘Nietzschean’ will to power.

If abolition is not possible or desirable, let us hope at least that a sufficient control over the phenomenon of suffering is possible. And by all means, let us see how far we can develop that control.

The question explored here is analogous to the question of whether intelligence is self-limiting ( - that is, once we figure out how to tinker with our neurologically hardwired reward system (the pleasure/pain axis in our case, the utility function in the case of our AI creations, as explored in the linked article), will such capability prove to be an irresistible subversion of the original purpose of utiliception, thus permanently relegating us to some suboptimal civilizational endstate?

The “brain in a vat” thought experiment touches on this same issue and arrives at the a priori conclusion that we would reject the pleasure apex in favor of a more robust, reality-based orientation. However, judging from rat studies wherein the rats self-stimulate to the neglect of food and sex and starve to death, and the fact that we share their mammalian reward system, the question remains an open one.

Outright banning of such techniques is not the way to go, nor is it likely sustainable over the long term, so I guess we will find out soon enough.

The debate raises some deep philosophical issues which go beyond the current state of the art with regard to psycho-active, anti-depressive, analgesic or anesthetic drugs. In fact, we can confidently assume that they will improve with time. And, OTOH, we have been “self-medicating” ourselves for centuries as individual and as societies with a broad range of technologies, from meditation to Victorian gin, from aspirin to “recreational” heroin injections.

OTOH, the Zero State platform suggests that an “abolitionist” programme may in fact deal with “involuntary” or “unwanted” sufferings rather than with sufferings as such.

In this respect, I wonder whether we really want the “suffering” involved in, say, sport training or being in love be removed from our life chemically or genetically? And, at a social level, one wonders whether radical transhumanists should not be more interested in pills making them, not “happy” in a social-control sense, but rather less contented, more restless, more curious, more demanding, more eager for change.

Discontent causes much useless suffering. It’s also the motor of progress. So can we replicate the functional analogues of discontent without the nasty “raw feels”?

If the nasty raw feels played a functionally indispensable role, then presumably no. But without going too deeply into the philosophy of mind, we have no grounds for believing that the raw feels are computationally irreplaceable. After all, smart software running on our digital computers manages just fine without them. And hyperthymic people don’t _suffer_ from discontent like the rest of us. They can function well on its functional analogues, i.e. information-signalling dips in well-being that still play out above Sidgwick’s “hedonic zero”.

Instead of aiming for uniform happiness, I think our focus should be on recalibrating the hedonic treadmill. Humans, transhumans and posthumans can be, as Stafano puts it, “more restless, more curious, more demanding, more eager for change”  _and_ enjoy hugely richer hedonic tone. Radically elevating our hedonic set-point - and also our hedonic floor and hedonic ceiling - can ensure a massively richer quality of life for us all. This isn’t just talk. Already, if we wanted to, we could use preimplantation genetic diagnosis to enrich the lives of our prospective children (cf. ) Let’s hope user-friendly autosomal gene-editing tools will soon be available to allow the rest of us to modify our genetic source code too. This may not _sound_ very exciting. But the outcome is potentially sublime. As Jeremy Bentham remarked, “Happiness is a very pretty thing to feel, but very dry to talk about.” 

SHaGGGz wonders if intelligence is self-limiting. If the IJ Good / Singularity Institute conception of singleton AGI (super)intelligence is correct, maybe so. [For what it’s worth, I’m personally sceptical about a hard-takeoff “intelligence explosion” scenario: ]] But assuming a plurality of (super)intelligences, then there will be strong selection pressure exerted against any predisposition to wirehead and its functional equivalents. So in that sense, I don’t think intelligence is self-limiting. I guess one scenario in which intelligence _could_ theoretically prove self-limiting would be if a posthuman superintelligence launches a utilitronium shockwave, just as its classical utilitarian ethic dictates. Today, negative utilitarians are usually accounted a greater existential risk than their classical counterparts owing to their willingness to press the world’s notional “off” switch. But arguably it’s the classical utilitarian who is the greater threat to intelligent life. This is because whereas the negative utilitarian believes that once we have permanently phased out the biology of suffering, our ethical duties have been discharged, the classical utilitarian is obliged to keep on striving for ubiquitous maximum bliss.

I agree with Robert about the comparative non-urgency of mild discomfort compared to, say, the horrors of clinical depression or severe neuropathic pain. Yet it’s technically feasible to make everyday life sublime. So why settle for mediocrity?

I essentially agree with Sergio too. Also, let’s recall that a vast number of experiments can be done on human and nonhuman animals that don’t involve hurting or harming the subject in any way - and likewise on individual cells and tissue biopsies performed for legitimate medical / veterinary reasons. Both human and nonhuman higher vertebrates are likely to benefit from radical life-extension. I suspect next century will see the first centenarian cats and dogs.

A lot of people spend most of their lives feeling miserable and sorry for themselves, without it spurring them to progress, activism or artistic creativity. Conversely, there are some very happy people out there who are very productive and creative. So it must be possible to leverage whatever those people are doing right (or more precisely whatever is going on genetically and psychologically) to make the latter scenario more dominant. Essentially we need to figure out a way to turn weak “raw feels” (something like the “slightly less blissful than usual this morning) envisaged by Alex) into strong signals for action and creativity then.

By the way, even without more sophisticated technology I’m convinced (partly because I have experienced it in my own life) that techniques such as mindfulness and NLP can already hel a lot with this. The way we use language is essential (which is partly why I regard fora such as this, and the way we participate in them, so important). We can use it to imprison ourselves in mental ruts, where the “raw feels” just linger without spurring any creativity, or we can use it to inspire ourselves, and each other.

Another point I want to make is that many of our reasons for opposing this kind of thing are really just fear of change in disguise. There is always part of us - admittedly for some more than others - that would just like the world to stay more or less as it is, even if that means suffering and death. To overcome this we need to listen patiently to people’s concerns and try to provide a positive vision of the future with which they feel relatively comfortable.

Indeed. Transhumanists like to think we have transcended status quo bias. But the prospect that everyday life could be lived at a levels of subjective well-being orders of magnitude richer than anything feasible in the Dark Ages (i.e. today) is unsettling. But that’s just the icing on the cake. Right now, I think we need some kind of Manhattan project to overcome the biological roots of low mood.
“five percent of people in the world try to kill themselves at least once during their lifetime”.

David writes: “I agree with Robert about the comparative non-urgency of mild discomfort compared to, say, the horrors of clinical depression or severe neuropathic pain. Yet it’s technically feasible to make everyday life sublime. So why settle for mediocrity?”

Am I well understood, wonder I? On one hand, abolishing horrible suffering is doubtlessly urgent, be it possible or not. OTOH, abolishing mild suffering, even if it was possible, is perhaps unnecessary and ill-advised, I suggest. On another hand yet, so much the better if it is feasible to make everyday life sublime (why settle for mediocrity indeed), but if a super happy life is compatible with the presence of mild pain, so much the better too, inasmuch as the pain allows greater value to that life (other values than pleasure exist which may be accessible only through some pain). All this seems to me important in that our efforts should probably not aim so much at the abolition of suffering, but at its control, because the latter is rather uncontroversial while the former spurs a lot of resistance which stems, IMO, not from fear of change, but from a valid understanding of how consciousness functions.

We agree on a lot Robert. But I still can’t see any reason to conserve the biology of even “mild” suffering when life could be animated entirely by gradients of intelligent well-being instead. At the risk of sounding horribly reductionist, there is no law of nature that says organic robots can’t be animated entirely gradients of intelligent bliss. So why not tweak our genes and feel “better than well”?

Right now, however, I wholeheartedly agree with you. Our most urgent, overriding and politically realistic priority should be the alleviation of severe suffering.

Michael Crichton covers a lot of this ground in his ‘Terminal Man,’ and I think his take on it is worth revisiting.

Excerpt here:

“IF” life could be animated entirely by gradients of intelligent well-being, there would be no problem in aiming at the abolition of suffering. But that “IF” is precisely the question : is it feasible or not to abolish suffering without losing some essential values like life, sentience, intelligence, etc.? Until now, it appears that it is not. Will it be feasible in the future? Most of us hope, I suppose. But if it is not feasible, we can hope, as a second best, that we will attain and maintain a state of super happiness that will be troubled only by a physical or mental stubbed toe from time to time. From our present point of view, that second best appears much more realistic, and almost as much satisfying.

I commend a lot David’s championing of abolitionism, it is a necessary endeavor. My point is just that it matters greatly at this time, for many reasons, that be put forward the COMPLETE PICTURE concerning what can and must be done about suffering. That is why I suggest, as the especially appropriate frame of work for dealing with those questions, that be created a vast new discipline about suffering, what might be called an ‘algonomy’.

A rigorous scientific discipline of algonomy would be hugely worthwhile. Robert, I very much agree with you. I also agree that the routine discontents, irritations and malaise of everyday Darwinian life are trivial in comparison with the depths of depression or excruciating pain. Where we may differ is that IMO there is no substantive reason to doubt that life can be based entirely on gradients of intelligent, pro-social well-being - with information-signalling dips serving as the functional analogues of disappointment, anxiety and compassion, but no unpleasant “raw feels” as we experience them today. Rare cases of extreme “hyperthymic” temperaments do exist (I’ve know a handful), just as do rare cases of extreme hypoalgesia (as distinct from a dysfunctional congenital analgesia). Of course, far more people world-wide suffer chronic pain or depression than enjoy chronic happiness. Yet such hyperthymics serve as an existence-proof that there are ways to abolish suffering other than by crude wireheading or narcotic drugs.

Perhaps see too, “A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder”:

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