First published: Plausible Futures
Date: March 2021

The Future of Sentience

PF: Describe your formative years and what got you interested in philosophy, transhumanism, and future studies? (private and academic life).

DP: I come from a compassionate-minded, religious family. My father’s Quaker values loomed large. So did more exotic influences: my paternal grandmother was an ex-Zoroastrian who converted to Anthroposophy, and my mother belonged to Order of the Cross, who worship God the Father-Mother and believe in gender-flexible reincarnation. My parents, grandparents and three of my eight great-grandparents were vegetarian. My own mind is a spiritual wasteland; I have been a secular scientific rationalist since the age of ten. Nonetheless a concern for even the humblest minds has persisted. My four-year-old namesake used to rescue distressed worms and ants from the garden-path of our home, and I’ve long advocated some kind of high-tech Jainism – a pan-species welfare-state for all sentient beings.

I grew up a troubled, depressive, intensely introspective child. Early Dave was prone to rocking autistically back-and-forth to pop-music for hours each day in a darkened room thinking about the nature of life, consciousness and suffering. My mother said I rocked two sofas to death. I’ve always had a philosophical temperament, i.e. I think a lot and do very little. Aged thirteen, I read Robert Ettinger’s The Prospect of Immortality. I wanted to extend cryonics to nonhumans – though my mother vetoed suspending my brother’s late guinea-pig in the family freezer. My formal introduction to philosophy was the neglected classic, Philosophy Made Simple. Slightly later, I read about wireheading – and I was entranced. Intracranial self-stimulation shows no tolerance. The problem of suffering was potentially soluble! I soon realized that my enthusiasm for electrode-based interventions was not widely shared. So I became interested in mood-enhancing drugs that could recalibrate the hedonic treadmill without tuning us all into wireheads. Later, I came to favour long-term genetic recipes for hedonic recalibration – and an architecture of mind based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss. The final piece of the abolitionist project, at least as conceived by my teenage namesake, was provided by nanotech pioneer Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation; marine life could be rescued from death and suffering too. Naturally, teenage Dave didn’t have a detailed molecular blueprint for a happy biosphere. But genetically preprogrammed well-being is still my vision for the future of life on Earth – and beyond.

Academia? Well, I got a scholarship to Oxford, but never got as far as finishing a degree. Let’s say I was underwhelmed by Oxford-style analytic philosophy. Investigating psychedelia confirmed my suspicion that drug-naive philosophy is little more than arid scholasticism.

I then drifted around the world a bit. I assumed that my ideas were unpublishable. But then came the World Wide Web. It’s hard now to recapture the excitement of the early days of the Net. I wrote The Hedonistic Imperative in a six weeks 1995. The online manifesto calls for the eradication of suffering throughout the living world in favour of life based on gradients of bliss.

In 1997, a young Swedish-born philosopher, Nick Bostrom, read the manifesto and got in touch. As you’d imagine, a pioneer in the field of existential risk and a negative utilitarian don’t agree on everything (cf. NB and DP interview). But in 1998 we set up the World Transhumanist Association (H+). Transhumanists believe in creating a super-civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness.

PF: How do you measure human happiness? Are there scientific standards?

DP: Hedonimetry is not one of the exact sciences. Yet this deficiency doesn't mean that measuring unhappiness is an unscientific affair. The first step is simply to ask: on a hedonic scale of -10 to -0 to +10, how happy or sad do you feel? Behavioural and neuroscientific measures can be used to cross-validate subjective reports. (Un)happiness can be "operationalised" by seeing how hard a (human or non-human) animal will work to obtain or avoid an unpleasant or enjoyable stimulus. Tools of neuroscanning can be used to correlate self-reported (un)happiness and behavioural responses with different states of the brain. Psychopharmacology can be harnessed too. Thus there is a high consistency in subjects’ response to full and partial mu and kappa opioid receptor agonists, antagonists and inverse agonists. Anxious, depressive people have fewer central mu opioid receptors, but essentially, everyone loves activation via full mu agonists of their ultimate "hedonic hotspot" in the ventral pallidum. The genetic, neurobiological and behavioural evidence converges with subjective self-reports.

Measuring currently speculative transhuman and posthuman happiness is more difficult. There are lots of complications, and lots we simply don’t know. The theoretical upper bounds to subjective well-being are unclear. The molecular signature of pure bliss, and by extension "hedonium" is unknown, although it’s been narrowed to a cubic millimetre in rats and a cubic centimetre in humans. Also, humans and other animals feel ambivalence towards e.g. hot foods, bitter-sweet nostalgia and even our nearest-and-dearest. The existence of such “mixed states” makes measuring (un)happiness harder. Will our successors experience ambivalence? In addition, the nature and mechanism of phenomenal binding in the CNS isn't understood (cf. The binding problem). Phenomenal binding makes (un)happiness quantitatively and qualitatively different. But in order to engineer a biohappiness revolution, perhaps no deep understanding of the mysteries of consciousness will be needed. What’s critical is deciphering the necessary and sufficient neurological conditions of experience below “hedonic zero” and their replacement by information-sensitive gradients of bliss.

PF: At first glance most agree that pain and suffering is bad – but pain is also the result of some underlying cause. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to solve the causes of pain, instead of eliminating pain itself? E.g., hunger, disease, war, emotional stress?

DP: A twin-track approach to ending suffering is vital. If you are a destitute, hungry, disease-ridden refugee trapped in a war-zone, you probably won’t appreciate philosophising on how your hedonic set-point needs genetically recalibrating. More generally, the world needs universal basic income, universal access to healthcare and decent homes for everyone – minimum preconditions for any civilised society. Women’s rights, children’s rights, LGBT rights all need strengthening. But let’s assume, fancifully, that humanity eventually gets everything right – socially, economically and politically. Let’s also assume, only slightly less fancifully, that technology delivers an era of effectively unlimited material abundance. Heaven-on-Earth? Not even close. In the absence of reward-pathway enhancements, the negative feedback-mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill would still play out with the same brutal efficiency as now. Even in this rich, equitable “ideal” society, hundreds of millions of people would still be depressed, lovelorn, sexually frustrated, attention-deprived, body-image-hating, status-insecure, or simply racked by existential angst. Evolution didn’t "design" human and nonhuman animal minds to be happy on a sustainable basis. Discontent is fitness-enhancing. A predisposition to count your blessings is genetically maladaptive. For sure, genes and culture co-evolved. But the underlying causes of suffering are biological-genetic. In order to transcend the biology of suffering, conventional programs of socio-economic and political reform must be combined with a reproductive revolution. All prospective parents worldwide should be offered access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling and (soon) gene-editing. It’s cost-effective. Responsible parents will soon be able to choose the pain-sensitivity (cf. Eliminating Pain), hedonic range and approximate hedonic set-points (cf. Raising hedonic set-points) of their future children. The nature of selection pressure itself will change as prospective parents choose genes and allelic combinations in anticipation of the effects of their choices. Later this century, gene therapies and mood-enriching designer drugs will be available to existing humans too. But the genetic prevention of suffering at conception is best.

For what it’s worth, I view life on Earth as sinister Darwinian malware. Evolution via natural selection has been a monstrous engine for the creation of suffering. “Sleep is good, death is better; but of course, the best thing would to have never been born at all”, said the poet Heinrich Heine. My views are darker (cf. The Benevolent World-Exploder). However, germline gene-editing can create post-Darwinian life – and maybe even turn birth into a blessing.

PF: Don’t you think physical pain and the resulting suffering and sorrow has played an important part in human evolution in terms of avoiding death, empathy, and art?

DP: Some suffering is pointless by anyone’s standards – for example neuropathic pain or the despair of factory-farmed nonhuman animals. Other forms of suffering play an information-signalling role. What's in doubt isn't that suffering can sometimes be fitness-enhancing and/or personally useful to the individual. Rather, what urgently needs questioning is whether the nasty qualia (“raw feels”) of suffering are functionally indispensable. The robotics and AI revolution suggests otherwise, as do extreme hedonic outliers among the human population. Our silicon robots function efficiently without the nasty "raw feels" of mental and physical pain. Programmable digital computers increasingly outperform sentient information-processors. Exceptional humans today like retired vegan schoolteacher Jo Cameron (cf. Jo Cameron and the Hedonic Treadmill) with her dual FAAH and FAAH-OUT gene mutations, never feel anxiety-ridden, depressed or in pain – although Jo is not an ideal case-study in high-functioning bliss because her nociception is functionally impaired too: her anandamide (“bliss”) level is abnormally high. Essentially, humanity needs to devise a more civilised signalling system and a new motivational architecture to replace the traditional pleasure-pain axis throughout the animal kingdom. For sure, humans are unlikely saviours of the world. History shows we are often depraved creatures. Our current treatment of nonhuman animals is a crime against sentience. But we are the only species intellectually capable of phasing out the horrors of Darwinian life.
Death? Ardent life lovers tend to be keenest on overcoming the biology of aging. Depressives are more prone to self-neglect and feel life drags on too long.

Empathy? Compare how normal people behave under the influence of a euphoriant empathogen like MDMA (“Ecstasy”). Sadly, today’s empathetic hug-drugs are short-acting. In tomorrow’s world, a predisposition to loving kindness and empathy can be genetically enriched on a safe and sustainable basis (cf. Utopian Pharmacology). In contemporary society, empathy typically involves sharing each other’s sorrows. In future, we can all get off on each other’s joys. Hypersocial bliss is one option for post-Darwinian life. On the other hand, maybe transhumans will typically opt to live in immersive virtual realities, more solipsistic than social. I don’t know. But we can still eradicate the substrates of experience below hedonic zero.

Art? Yes, a tiny percentage of the world's suffering has led to inspired works of art – though most of what passes for great art I wouldn’t hang on the bathroom door. But neuroscanning can identify the molecular signature(s) of beauty. Our aesthetic responses can be purified and enriched at the molecular level. By the lights of our successors, Darwinian humans may seem philistines, trapped in ugliness and squalor. In my view, the era of true aesthetic excellence hasn’t even begun. Gradients of superhuman beauty can infuse everyday posthuman existence.

PF:Do you see any negative consequences from the abolishing of suffering and a potential permanent happiness? E.g., how do we know if we are happy when we don’t know sorrow?

DP: Some high-functioning depressives spend essentially their whole lives below hedonic zero, animated by gradients of ill-being. Chronic depressives certainly know they suffer: suffering seems part of the very fabric of reality. At best, depressives and other victims of chronic pain find their lifelong distress can be mitigated but not prevented. Conversely, a small minority of “hyperthymic” people with an elevated hedonic set-point spend essentially their whole lives animated by gradients of well-being. Hyperthymic people don’t endlessly tell everyone how happy they are. If you are genetically blessed, huge subjective well-being and a passionate love of life just seem normal. For many decades, Jo Cameron thought she was ordinary. Instead, this elite of the hedonic one-percenters tend to share their enthusiasm for whatever they are enthusiastic “about”. Evolution via natural selection has “encephalised” pain and pleasure so we believe all sorts of things inherently matter beyond states of the pleasure-pain axis. Ethically speaking, I believe we need to create a hyperthymic civilization in which everyone is animated by gradients of intelligent bliss. A transhuman regime of hardwired well-being won’t mean that bliss is all we’ll talk about. Nor will we be indiscriminately “blissed out”. Profound well-being will be a background assumption of everyday life. If implemented wisely, a contrast between the sublime and the merely wonderful can replace today’s neurotypical contrast between pleasure and pain. Sub-zero hedonic states can be relegated to evolutionary history.

Potential negative consequences? Yes, naturally. If implemented recklessly or haphazardly, hedonic uplift could go horribly wrong – though the meaning of things “going wrong” is transformed in a post-Darwinian world where sub-zero experience is physically impossible. That’s why I think human society should have a serious ethical debate on the potential uses and abuses of gene-editing technologies – and the long-term hedonic trajectory of civilisation. More studies are needed on extreme hyperthymics, i.e. people who are nearly always exceedingly happy without being pathologically manic. One obvious risk is the cognitive bias implicit in seeing life through rose-tinted spectacles. In the long run, we can create a world where “extreme” optimism is justified – a technological civilisation where reality itself seems conspiring to help you. But in a Darwinian world, pessimism and even a hint of paranoia are often warranted: so-called depressive realism. Cynics, sceptics and depressive naysayers may not create anything much, but their judgement is often astute. Fortunately, known biases are corrigible – unlike outright ignorance. Moreover, ever more decisions are going to be offloaded to artificial intelligence. Where appropriate, smart neuroprostheses and digital zombies can be programmed with the functional analogue of depressive realism without the ghastly “raw feels” of pain and depression.

Other risks?
Yes. Here is just one.
Inevitably, suffering doesn’t feature as prominently in the lives of temperamentally happy people as it does in the lives of depressives. In a world of hardwired (super)happiness, such affective bias needn’t matter: there is no sense in dwelling on past horrors that intelligent agency is impotent to change. But in the transitional era, there’s a risk that selective hedonic uplift may diminish the perceived moral urgency of ending suffering for all sentient beings. One sometimes sees this bias at work today, even in the transhumanist and effective altruist community. Honourable exceptions aside (cf. Magnus Vinding’s Suffering Focused Ethics (2020)), the happiest people aren’t as exercised as unhappy people by the problem of suffering – even though their temperament makes them psychologically better equipped for action. By contrast, if you or your loved ones are depressed and/or in chronic physical pain, then it’s self-evident that suffering is THE problem - even if you despair of a solution.

A more insidious variant of this risk should be considered for transhuman civilisation. On the one hand, life on Earth may be an anomaly. Earth-dwelling biological life may be alone in our Hubble volume. If so, then IMO our only ethical duty is to eradicate suffering on Earth and ensure that experience below hedonic zero can never recur. That’s it. Everything else will be icing on the cake in my view – including aeons of superhuman bliss. But science doesn’t fundamentally understand the nature of reality – as distinct from the mathematical formalism that helps us manipulate gross matter and energy for our purposes. Nor does science know whether other kinds of pain-ridden Darwinian malware have evolved in distant solar systems within our cosmological horizon. Intelligent moral agents need to understand the theoretical upper bounds to rational agency and thus the ultimate scope of our cosmological responsibilities. If suffering exists anywhere that is even theoretically accessible to advanced intelligent agency, then we should lay plans for eradication or mitigation, whatever the timescale. Maybe intelligent life can “just” end suffering on Earth and then focus on having fun. Cosmic rescue-missions to alien worlds will turn out to be infeasible or redundant. This scenario is my own best guess. If so, then suffering itself is best forgotten like a bad dream. But first we’ll need to make absolutely sure all of our moral duties have been discharged.

PF: Is war good if no one feels pain?

DP: One of the joys of first-person shooters, paintballing and so forth is that (typically male) humans can unleash their baser appetites without the cruelties of real war.
Ideally, humanity will use imminent mastery of our genetic source-code to re-engineer human nature. Selection pressure “designed" male humans to hunt and wage war, just as selection pressure “designed” female humans to be attracted to dominant alphas – if you’ll pardon the crude and simplistic sexist stereotyping. Gene-editing could turn us into intelligent bonobos. But it’s worth stressing that a biohappiness revolution doesn't depend on this sort of genetic rewrite of human nature. Perhaps it’s unwise for advocates of biohappiness revolution to push their own visions of paradise too strongly. Hedonic recalibration can allow you to savour what you value more keenly. So you don’t need to sign up for the vision of some paradise-engineer – that’s the difference between biological-genetic solutions to the problem of suffering and older “environmental” utopias. Hedonic uplift can be preference conserving. In other words, if playing ultraviolent video games is one of your great pleasures in life, then virtual mayhem can become even more enjoyable in the wake of a biohappiness revolution – if you so desire. That said, as an embarrassed player of first-person shooters myself, I hope posthumans will do something more edifying.

PF: How have the technologies you described in The Hedonistic Imperative (1995) evolved since those days?

DP: In 1995, cruelty-free artificial meat was science fiction. Cultured meat is now on the brink of commercialisation. Ending the obscene cruelty of animal agriculture no longer sounds a utopian dream.

Last century, designer babies were impossible because the human genome hadn't been decoded. Now the price of genome-sequencing has collapsed. The first CRISPR babies, Chinese twins born in 2018, weren’t conceived in ideal circumstances. But a reproductive revolution is imminent.

The biggest surprise, and what I'd personally least anticipated, is the revolutionary potential of synthetic gene drives that cheat the “laws” of Mendelian inheritance: Gene-drives.com. The whole biosphere is now programmable. Back in 1995, I was still troubled about how the biohappiness revolution could be spread to humbler lifeforms. We might envisage a welfare state for elephants, but what about small Amazonian rodents? Or fish? And invertebrates? The best I could manage was invoking self-replicating mini-robots and Drexlerian nanotech. In 1995, the idea that intelligent moral agents could remotely spread benign, “happy” genes promoting traits that would normally carry a fitness cost to the individual across whole sexually-reproducing species would have struck me as ecologically illiterate. It’s now technically feasible. “Low pain” and “happy” genes could be actively spread – though pilot studies in self-contained artificial biospheres will be wise. Predators can be reprogrammed or retired. Population sizes can be remotely fine-tuned. Synthetic gene drives are a gamechanger for compassionate stewardship of the global ecosystem.

PF: Are there any real medical/scientific projects working in the direction of what you are proposing? Any promising drugs?

DP: For the first time, we are seeing a few mainstream publications publishing articles with previously unthinkable titles such as A World Without Pain. But outside the scientific counterculture, I’m not aware of any serious medico-scientific work being done into species-wide hedonic uplift and hedonic recalibration. Abolishing suffering in favour of life based entirely on gradients of bliss still strikes most people who encounter the idea as utter science-fiction – not a viable plan of action. For now, targeted interventions and incremental progress are more realistic. Indeed, I hugely respect people who dedicate their lives to tackling specific sources of suffering – whether defeating vector-borne disease in sub-Saharan Africa or campaigning to get factory-farms and slaughterhouses shut and outlawed (cf. Closing Slaughterhouses). Moreover, there is currently no “vaccine” against suffering in the way there is a vaccine against COVID-19. Nor has medical science created the functional counterpart of Aldous Huxley’s “soma” (cf. Soma in Brave New World) – though some boosters of miscellaneous existing drugs would beg to differ. Perhaps the most frustrating medical speciality of the past twenty-five years has been clinical psychophamacology. There are still no therapeutic agents that reliably treat low mood, let alone make normal people feel sustainably "better than well". One reason for this failure is the identity of neurotransmitter system most directly implicated in hedonic tone: the opioid system. We are all born addicted to endogenous opioids; and we are all engineered by evolution with a chronically inadequate supply. Users of narcotics are stigmatised and criminalised for trying to self-medicate. Compounding the problem, users’ attempts at self-medication simply don’t work. Opioid drug use activates rather than disables the negative feedback-mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill. Therefore, trying to repair Nature’s deficiencies by using the exogenous cousins of our endogenous opioids carries severe risks of addiction and abuse. Exogenous opioids induce tolerance. They promote asocial if not antisocial behaviour. They aren’t the solution to the problem of suffering.

Now for some good news: LIH383 (cf. New hope for treating pain and depression) and its successors. What if there was a way to upgrade your “natural” endogenous opioid function and lift your default hedonic tone – so you woke up every morning feeling incredibly glad to be alive! The momentous discovery of a new opioid receptor in the CNS promises a therapeutic revolution in the treatment of low mood. The atypical chemokine receptor ACKR3 binds to the brain’s natural opioids and traps them. Blocking the ACKR3 receptor with an agent such as LIH383 increases natural levels of opioid peptides, thereby enhancing their pain-killing, stress-relieving, anxiolytic and mood-lifting properties without the pitfalls of notorious opioid drugs. The most morally urgent use of ACKR3 blockers will be to treat victims of chronic pain, anxiety disorders and depression.
But what if hedonic uplift were available to everyone?
It’s a tantalising prospect.

PF: How have your ideas been received in the larger academic community? Who are your critics and what is the essence of this critique? (I vaguely remember a hit-piece on your eugenics standpoint in a British tabloid) What is the essence of this critique?

DP: Academics who’ve got in touch over the years are presumably the least typical – they’ve been either highly sympathetic or highly critical. I presume most of academia would be deeply sceptical at best. For instance, almost all academics would probably view my tentative prediction that the world’s last experience below “hedonic zero” will occur a few centuries from now as a pure fantasy. At a gut-level, I agree. Professor Brock Bastian’s response is fairly representative: Brock Bastian vs DP.

Tabloid treatment? Of late it’s varied from the disconcertingly good
(cf. "Transhumanist argues technology could end all human and animal suffering")
to guilt by association:
"Jeffrey Epstein was devising a plan to seed the human race with his DNA"
And just in case you’re wondering, I never met the late Jeffrey Epstein.
As I'm a celibate antinatalist, I'm not convinced we'd have had a lot in common.

PF:Genetically inherited diseases cause physical and mental pain. How do you propose a policy for voluntary humane "eugenics" today?

DP: Just as the Soviet experiment polluted the whole language of social justice, likewise the eugenics movement of the first half of the twentieth century polluted the whole language of genetic justice. All sentient beings should be entitled to genetically hardwired well-being. Somehow we’ve got to escape the thought-suffocating influence of the “e” word.

All transhumanists reject coercive eugenics. Instead, we aim to rely on reasoned argument. After all, people with terrible genetic diseases don't want to pass their disorder onto their offspring; they want their affliction cured. For sure, there are complications. What about autism spectrum disorders? Some of the greatest minds in history have been Aspergers. And what about trisomy 21? People with Down syndrome have intellectual disabilities; but they also tend to be unusually happy and affectionate. However, no one with depression wants to have depressed children. No one with a chronic pain syndrome wants to have pain-ridden children. One of the biggest challenges, I think, is simply overcoming status quo bias. The age-old genetic crapshoot of sexual reproduction is “natural”. Designer babies are “unnatural” – but then so are clothes, antibiotics and iPhones. The appeal to nature fallacy is deeply rooted in human psychology. So there is a crying need for greater societal awareness that depression is a preventable disorder with a high genetic loading. Sexual roulette is morally reckless. How can ethicists best persuade medical authorities, “influencers” and prospective parents that pre-selecting the pain threshold and approximate hedonic set-point of their children will be at least as responsible as making sure their child isn’t born with sickle-cell disease or cystic fibrosis?

PF:How do you propose we solve the problem of a fully automated society and potential mass unemployment?

DP: Problem? Aristotle was right: “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.” Instead of trading hours for cash, billions of people world-wide will soon be emancipated from wage slavery – and perhaps eventually the cash nexus itself. AI, robotics and automation do create some jobs, but they make countless traditional forms of paid employment superfluous. Even with universal basic-plus income, some people will struggle to navigate the transition to personal autonomy in the absence of hedonic enrichment. Without the constraints of paid employment, some people won’t know what to do with their lives. Chronic boredom is often a sign of masked depression. It’s also another reason why we need a biohappiness revolution. Biological-genetic interventions can banish the not just ghastly states of mind but mediocre states too. Advances in augmented reality and immersive virtual reality will allow the easily jaded to enjoy as much diversity and stimulation as they fancy in virtual worlds of their choosing: “supernormal” stimuli can be more exhilarating than their natural counterparts in basement reality. Less intuitively, if we upgrade our reward circuitry, then post-employment life will be saturated with meaning: potentially, there need be no more existential angst. Empirically, hedonic uplift creates a heightened sense of meaning and purpose. The biology of sublime well-being will create a superhuman sense of significance. I’m normally suspicious of soundbites, but I make one exception. Take care of happiness and the meaning of life will take care of itself. An end to paid work should be welcomed.

PF:The transhumanist movement has splintered off into several directions – what are the status on the international transhumanist movement? What groups exits and what are the disagreements about? (Ref. Zoltan Istvan as a U.S. presidential candidate)

DP: “In a dead religion there are no more heresies”, French critic André Suarès observed. Transhumanism is not a religion, but if it were, then by this criterion, transhumanism is flourishing. For the first decade of this century, the World Transhumanist Association was the overarching transhumanist organization. Since then, the movement has organizationally fragmented even as the influence of transhumanist ideas has grown. I can’t review all the currents here, but I hope transhumanists never lose sight of our commitment to the well-being of all sentience as laid out in the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009).

Zoltan Istvan? Back last century, the idea that a transhumanist could ever be a US Republican Presidential candidate would have seemed far-fetched! Times have changed. On a personal level, I get on very well with Zoltan. All transhumanists share his recognition that aging is a terrible scourge. But Zoltan is clearly more libertarian than many "European” transhumanists. That said, transhumanism cuts across traditional left-right divide. Thus Zoltan supports universal basic income. He also recognises that “Mother Nature” is vicious and needs revolutionary change.

PF: When do you think “permanent bliss” becomes a part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

DP: Good question. The specialised agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health is the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO’s founding constitution (1948), recently reaffirmed, states that its main objective is "the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health". Health as defined by the WHO is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being". Essentially, no one today is healthy by WHO criteria of good health. If taken literally, the WHO vision of "complete" wellbeing is more radical than the transhumanist ambition for life based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss. Only an advanced posthuman civilisation could dispense entirely with information-signalling hedonic dips in favour of complete well-being. To achieve perfect health as so defined, we’d need to offload all decision-making to smart prostheses and artificial intelligence.

So when can the World Health Organization be persuaded to live up to its own commitment, or at least a more modest, scaled-back version? I don’t know. Admittedly, science hasn’t yet reached the stage where pleasure and pain can be modulated with the precision of a graphic equaliser. I guess late this century would be a technically if not sociologically feasible timescale for phasing out the biology of unpleasant experience altogether: good health for all. Radical improvements in well-being are already possible with recognisable extensions of existing technologies. In the meantime, I think we are entitled to lobby the WHO and demand that its leadership honours what the organization’s core principles entail. The only way to deliver the highest possible level of global health is a biohappiness revolution. Babymaking via today’s reckless genetic experimentation must be replaced by post-CRISPR planned parenthood. The human genome needs base-editing at source. Whereas Freud declared the goal of psychotherapy was the transformation of “neurotic misery into common unhappiness”, the goal of gene therapy and germline editing should be the transformation of neurotic misery into ubiquitous happiness. No one should be left behind. I hope the right to life based on gradients of bliss can become the birthright of all sentient beings. Otherwise, in my view, we’ve no right to create new life at all.


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David Pearce
March 2021

more interviews 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11 : 12 : 13 : 14 : 15 : 16 : 17 : 18


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Interview of Nick Bostrom and David Pearce
The Imperative to Abolish Suffering: an interview with David Pearce

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