SH: "I became an Abolitionist after reading your online book The Hedonistic Imperative. It struck a chord with me and I thought (still do) that it is one of the most important pieces of literature ever written. What inspired you to write HI? Can you tell me about the process of actually sitting down and typing it out - what was going through your head at the time?"
David Pearce in Conversation with The Abolitionist Society
DP: For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a sense of horror at any form of suffering. One of my earliest memories is of trying, aged five(?), to rescue an ant that had been inadvertently trodden on. But it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I had the first inklings that the abolitionist project was technically feasible for human beings. Important clues were, first, reading about the discovery (1954) of the pleasure centres by Olds and Milner and of how pure pleasure exhibits no physiological tolerance. And secondly, learning about heritable dysfunctions of the hedonic treadmill and their pharmacological treatment in mood disorders. Yet what could possibly be done about the seemingly inescapable cruelties of the food chain? Only after reading Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation (1986) could I begin to see how molecular nanotechnology might be used to extend the project to marine ecosystems and the rest of the living world.
In 1995, I wrote The Hedonistic Imperative – largely out of a sense of frustration that the abolitionist project didn’t even occupy a place on the lunatic fringe, let alone a mainstream research agenda. Valuable criticism and readers’ objections – some repeated verbatim, others lightly edited, are uploaded with possible responses: https://www.hedweb.com/hedethic/hedon4.htm#objections. Perhaps the hardest part of writing HI was a gnawing sense that one would simply be regarded as a lone crank. The knowledge that even a single researcher had already been thinking on similar lines would have made the task hugely easier. In fact, I now believe that credit for outlining the first scientifically literate program for a world without suffering rightly belongs to Lewis Mancini, author of the paper: Riley-Day Syndrome, Brain Stimulation and the Genetic Engineering of a World Without Pain (Medical Hypotheses: (1990) 31. 201-207 See https://www.wireheading.com/painless.html. I doubt whether our post-Darwinian descendants will want to dwell on the terrible past from which they emerged. But if they do, I reckon future historians of ideas will recognize Mancini as the true pioneer. All I’d done in writing HI was rediscover (with variations) what was inexplicably gathering dust in an unorthodox medical journal.
The priority now, I think, for anyone convinced of the moral urgency of eradicating suffering is: 1) to convert the abolitionist project from a medley of fringe writings in the scientific counter-culture to a massive, institutionally-funded research program; and 2), perhaps most formidably, to win global consensus for building the biological foundations of a truly cruelty-free world.
Both challenges are of course daunting. But it would be morally lazy just to place our faith in some kind of technological determinism that will one day make it all happen. For an overview of my contemporary understanding of the abolitionist project (2007), see https://www.abolitionist.com.
SH: "Thankfully you're not on the lunatic fringe - besides the Abolitionist Society there are also many Transhumanists who openly support the elimination of involuntary suffering - and I tend to believe that this was initially due to the extensive marketing that you've done with the hedweb collection of websites. Anyhow, kudos aside - can you tell me about the decision to avoid a hardcopy publication of HI as well as the many lucrative offers you've turned down to sell some of your high traffic sites like biopsychiatry.com? "
DP: Some very clever people do still believe the abolitionist project belongs to the lunatic fringe - or at best that it's a prospect for the remote future. [Members of the AS and the WTA are honourable exceptions]. Certainly when one contemplates the ideological obstacles to a cruelty-free world, it is easy to succumb to defeatism, if not outright despair. But considered purely as an engineering challenge, the picture is rosier – very much rosier if one explores the implications of the exponential growth of computer power. And compared to some of the engineering feats that theoretical physicists discuss in sober peer-reviewed journals (e.g. time-travel via Alcubierre warp drives, creating baby universes in a laboratory, etc) the technical obstacles to eradicating the biological signature of suffering in organic life are quite modest.
Print publication of HI? Originally I declined because I didn’t want old-fashioned copyright concerns from keeping the complete work all online. But print publication would probably be a good idea, especially since I have been advised that its continued Net presence wouldn’t be a problem. What stops me now is that HI is over 12 years old. It needs rewriting and updating – and a good editor. The “manifesto” is written in a rather clotted academic style for an audience of analytic philosophers - spiced up a bit in places as I realized the web offered a broader audience than traditional academics. Unfortunately, I find writing almost physically painful. So I procrastinate. The pain of producing new material is less than the pain of revisiting old text.
Commercialisation? As you know, our network of websites doesn’t carry advertising for fear of tarnishing the abolitionist project with any taint of the cash nexus. But yes, we have had all sorts of offers over the years for our psychopharmacology sites because of their traffic and monetisable content. I personally look forward to the day when money ceases to be the organizing principle of (post)human social life; this will take a biological as well as social revolution of unprecedented magnitude.
SH: It's more socially acceptable - but perhaps books are irrelevant nowadays unless you are trying to make a profit. With the embedded links, online format, and web marketing - perhaps the message is better served by the present format than through old school tree chopping format. If you don't mind me asking - why do you find it painful to redo old material?"
DP: Authors may like to believe they are writing timeless truths that will echo down the ages. In practice, even the most impersonal-sounding futurist texts can still resemble disguised autobiography. Alas HI is no exception. Thus I have experienced and witnessed profound misery; and I tend to believe that human history is the same story writ large - with an analogous struggle to overcome the pain of existence. The life experiences of other authors are different, especially the life experiences of temperamental optimists. Hence such authors will tend to have a correspondingly different “master narrative” of history. Of course I'm aware of this particular bias. I try to guard against it. But confronting old text makes one realise the extent to which one has failed. I should add that I do still believe that eradicating suffering in all its guises is the most morally urgent challenge we face - a global emergency as desperate as if one's own child were drowning before one's eyes - and that only biotech can eradicate its biological substrates and thus end pain for good. Counter-arguments that we should view the suffering of other sentient beings "in perspective" I find complacent and unconvincing. But I'm also aware that only a minority of people agree. I just hope that soon some media-savvy intellectual heavyweight will give the abolitionist project the compelling treatment it deserves. Perhaps then we can begin to win over the bioconservative majority.
SH: "media-savvy intellectual heavyweight" - this says a lot and I agree with the underlying premises - that the masses follow the lead of those who control the media and those who promote themselves as authority figures in areas like philosophy, religion, politics, and ethics. Very rarely do we actually challenge the assumptions underlying the supposed legal/rationale authority upon which society is formulated. For example some treat the US constitution as a holy document. Unfortunately for us though good for society IMO - is the genetic tendency to think in ways that are against the grain. Negative thinking or the attribution that something is wrong and could be better is critical to improvement. Whereas those who are unsatisfied yet think positively about the present situation tend to be less critical. What do you think about the prospects for biotechnology to enable us to think more critically without the unnecessary emotional suffering that usually accompanies the dissection of memes?"
DP: That’s an interesting question. Today we often interpret any fundamental criticism of our beliefs as a personal affront. In academia, for instance, competitive primate dominance displays between rival alpha males are probably more common than the disinterested pursuit of truth and happiness. And in everyday life, we talk routinely of “winning” or “losing” an argument; and of “attacking” and “defeating” our “opponents”. Such testosterone-driven figures of speech – and innumerable gladiatorial metaphors like them – belong on the African savannah, not in any civilised society. For in future there is no biological reason why we can’t find paradigm-shattering perspectives exhilarating, not threatening. Of course (some) critics of the abolitionist project lazily conflate being blissful with being “blissed out”. These two families of scenario should be carefully distinguished - hence my emphasis on promoting information-bearing gradients of bliss rather than a uniform (and genetically maladaptive) happiness.
* * *
El Mercurio (Sept. 2016)
H+ Interview (Sept. 2009)
Cronopis Interview (Dec. 2007)
Sentience Research (Dec. 2019)
Vanity Fair Interview (April 2007)
Nanoaging Interview (Dec. 2005)
The Neofiles Interview (Dec. 2003)
DP Drug Regimen
The End of Suffering?
[Philosophy Now, July-August 2006]
The End of Suffering
The Good Drug Guide
The Abolitionist Project
The Reproductive Revolution
MDMA: Utopian Pharmacology
Critique of Huxley's Brave New World
Sintiéndose maravillosamente, por siempre…