If It Were Possible to Abolish Suffering, Should We Do It?
A debate between David Pearce and Brock Bastian
“Life is suffering”, said Gautama Buddha. But will this always be true? Humans have dreamed of paradise since time immemorial. Details vary. But a feature common to most conceptions of paradise is perpetual happiness. History records many secular and religious attempts to build paradise on Earth. They haven’t worked. Utopian experiments are doomed to failure because of the frailties of human nature and the negative-feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill. Our Darwinian biology evolved under pressure of natural selection. Selfishness – in both the popular and technical sense – is fitness-enhancing. Likewise, a predisposition to suffering and discontent is genetically adaptive.
However, a biohappiness revolution is imminent. CRISPR-Cas9 is a game-changer. Genome-editing promises to transform human nature and life itself. Our reward circuitry can be upgraded. Suffering can be mitigated, minimised and then abolished. The biosphere can be reprogrammed. Genetic engineering and synthetic gene drives turn the level of suffering in Nature into an adjustable parameter. Biotech can make experience below “hedonic zero” physiologically impossible. Future civilisation can be based on a new motivational architecture: life underpinned entirely by information-sensitive gradients of well-being. If The Hedonistic Imperative (1995) is correct, then transhuman civilisation will have a hedonic range the lower bounds of which are orders of magnitude richer than human “peak experiences”. Superhuman intensity of bliss will be matched by a lifelong superhuman sense of meaning, purpose and significance. In short: paradise engineering.
Today, “designer babies” are controversial. Pitfalls abound. Advocacy of a biohappiness revolution isn’t a plea for humans to embrace a life of hedonism in the popular sense of drink, drugs and debauchery (cf. “The Paradox of Hedonism”). Quite the opposite: I hope we become more morally serious in our treatment of human and nonhuman animals alike. Rather, what’s at stake is whether intelligent moral agents should abolish the biology of involuntary suffering or instead conserve the pain-ridden status quo. To quote one of my transhumanist colleagues, Anders Sandberg, “I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point.” Should we aim to create a hyperthymic civilisation in which “ridiculously high hedonic set-points” are the norm rather than the privilege of a handful of genetic outliers? Twin studies and molecular genetics alike confirm that pain-tolerance, hedonic set-points and hedonic range have a high genetic loading. In future, what genetic dial-settings will be ethically optimal?
Conserving information-sensitivity is vital. “Hedonic recalibration” doesn’t sound very alluring; but it’s critical for the long-term well-being of both individuals and society as a whole. Tomorrow’s hedonic contrast can be as deep or shallow as desired. If engineered wisely, a neural architecture of gradients of bliss allows critical insight, personal growth, a rich diversity of pleasures, mutual empathetic understanding, the maintenance and enrichment of personal relationships, the preservation and extension of social responsibility and continued intellectual progress. Information-sensitive gradients of well-being allow the conservation of your values and preference architecture – unless one of your values is the conservation of involuntary suffering of others.
We need a Hundred-Year Plan to defeat suffering throughout the living world.
Should we abolish suffering if it were possible—of course! Is it possible? I highly doubt it! Even if it were possible to directly alter biological and genetic factors associated with suffering, I think it would be unlikely to yield the kind of benefits that proponents of paradise engineering suggest. The first problem with this idea is that pain, panic, anxiety, dreed, fear, and most other forms of unpleasant affective states (i.e., experiences that fall below “hedonic zero”) are incredibly important for our safety and survival. In fact, the informational and survival value of these unpleasant experiences is far superior to the informational or survival value of pleasant affective states. These unpleasant states act as alarm signals when danger is near, and prevent us from being eaten by hungry lions, walking into the path of oncoming traffic, touching hot stoves, and trusting sociopaths. Pearce talks of “information-sensitive gradients of wellbeing”, suggesting that through modification our variable states of bliss will be enabled to respond to potential threats in our environment. Yet, it is hard to imagine that a reduction in my experience of pleasure would be as efficacious in providing the same cautionary alarm signal as a sudden onset of pain, panic or anxiety. While reduced pleasure might allay my motivation to approach a reward, it is a sudden increase in pain which motivates me to avoid a potential threat. The affective-motivational system is complex and powerful, and abolishing the most information and motivationally rich 50% of it while retaining its survival value falls somewhere between unlikely and impossible.
The second problem with this idea is that the human experience is relative. Should “ridiculously high hedonic set-points” become the norm, then how we would even know they are ridiculously high? The very wording used to sell this idea draws on our experience of the alternative. We also know that humans adapt to their environments, meaning that a life full of pleasure becomes less rewarding and less pleasurable when not contrasted with something less pleasant, or even better, something unpleasant. Of course, this contrast does not only exist internally, but also externally. Gratitude, which is a practice known to increase human wellbeing, involves the recognition of what we have, but this also requires an awareness of what it would be like not to have that good thing, whether that be drawn from our own experience or the observable experience of others. We take good things for granted, and fail to derive pleasure from them, when we are unable to imagine what life might be like without them. Ridiculously high hedonic set-points simply don’t exist unless they are a ridiculously long way from what we would consider to be normal. To abolish suffering makes utilitarian sense, but it does not make psychological sense. Furthermore, a focus on this as a desired end state devalues painful experiences, reducing people’s capacity to respond adaptively to their current realities; learning, growing, and deriving meaning from adversity, loss, and failure in life.
Should we replace physical and mental pain with a more civilised signalling system, i.e. life based on gradients of bliss?
Brock Bastian is no Nietzschean. Even so, there is a tension in his response. On the one hand, Brock agrees that "of course" we should abolish suffering if feasible. Yes! On the other hand, he argues "…a focus on this as a desired end state devalues painful experiences, reducing people’s capacity to ... deriv[e] meaning from adversity, loss, and failure in life."
Yet how else can we mitigate, minimise and then eradicate the biology of unpleasant experience if we don’t systematically plan its prevention? Exhaustive medico-genetic research is essential. For sure, we wouldn't comfort victims of PTSD or depression by telling them our descendants will enjoy lives of superhuman bliss. The wisdom of tact is no reason to abandon the abolitionist project as enunciated by Gautama Buddha and implemented via next-generation biotech. Compare nineteenth-century criticism of interventions to end the agonies of childbirth (cf. general-anaesthesia.com). Many mothers throughout history have derived meaning from the birth-agonies of their children. Early obstetric anaesthesia was also fraught with risk. But we wouldn't now argue that an absence of excruciating pain robs childbirth of its meaning. By the same token, an ability to rationalise the very existence of suffering is valuable only insofar as our rationalisations don’t interfere with its abolition. Pain-thresholds, hedonic set-points and hedonic range display a huge variability and high genetic loading; they are amenable to biological-genetic control. Currently, some people go through life driven mostly or entirely by information-sensitive gradients of ill-being. At the other extreme, a small minority of high-functioning people are animated mostly or entirely by information-sensitive gradients of well-being. Yes, ratcheting up default hedonic tone to the level of today’s genetic outliers – and then beyond – has many pitfalls, both for the individual and society. Cognitive biases may need correcting; should we make use of AI and neuroprostheses? And how can we enjoy the functional analogues of depressive realism without the ghastliness of low mood? But the risks of a biohappiness revolution are reasons for more research, not less.
Brock argues that (un)happiness is largely relative. However, hedonic tone isn’t like status or income. Receiving a 25% pay raise may leave you unhappy if your colleagues receive a 50% raise; not so a comparable upgrade in your reward circuitry and hedonic set-point. The pleasure-pain axis, bisected by Sedgwick’s "natural watershed", hedonic zero, is an objective feature of reality. Genome-editing makes sub-zero states genetically optional. True, today’s exceptional hyperthymics like futurist Anders Sandberg wouldn’t unprompted say "I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point"; but the fact that hyperthymics normally take subjective well-being for granted doesn’t detract from their innate zest for life. Conversely, lifelong depressives still suffer horribly even though they can’t personally compare misery with happiness.
The Hedonistic Imperative predicts that the world’s last experience below hedonic zero will be a precisely dateable event a few centuries hence (cf. abolitionist.com). Post-Darwinian life will be sublime!
At a time like this – during a worldwide pandemic causing immeasurable pain – I admire David’s conviction, and even envy his belief, that we could create a better world. While David finds tension in my response, I see a disconnect between our approaches arising from his belief that we can fundamentally re-engineer the human state, and mine (which he might argue falls within the category of depressive realism) that we probably cannot.
The disconnect arises, in part, from the kinds of examples that David draws on. The invention of analgesics was a game-changer, not only for childbirth. I for one feel horrified by the prospect of going through invasive surgery without analgesic, and better still anesthetic, relief. So too, as a psychologist, I see the importance of helping people to overcome excessive grief, trauma, depression, and anxiety. Indeed, there is little value in lifelong depression. But, for me, there is a disconnect between focusing on the value of alleviating these instances of acute or chronic pain, and the project of eradicating our ability to experience any pain at all.
David’s admits that paradise engineering would not only need to adjust the brains response to pain receptivity, but would also need to consider how to correct for cognitive biases that may emerge, and which might undermine any gains. I would add to this the need to adjust motivational responding (such as the flight/fight system) to respond to positive hedonic experiences, rather than fear, anxiety, or stress. We would also need to adjust for mechanisms that allow humans to adapt to new environments and experiences, effectively bringing our cognitive, affective, and motivational responses back within normal range. More complex still, we would need to consider how to leverage a sense of achievement, purpose, and ultimately self-actualization in a world where nothing was hard and everything was easy. Perhaps, in world free of pain, we might find low-levels of bliss challenging, allowing us to leverage these higher-order self-cognitions. But, if so, we are back to a relative understanding of human experience, and low-levels of bliss might feel quite uncomfortable indeed.
One other point of disagreement relates to David’s assertion that the pleasure-pain axis is an objective feature of reality. Ever since the gate-control theory of pain, scientists have understood pain as an inherently subjective experience, moderated by our beliefs, the context, and other emotion states. It was during World War 11 that Henry Beecher noticed many soldiers with severe injuries did not report any pain. Why? Their injuries signified they could go home, releasing them from the greater pain of combat on the battlefield. Within this context, their injuries were a welcome relief. Pain is relative and context dependent.
I have a deep respect for anyone who advocates for a better future. If the world’s last painful experience is a dateable event, and this represents a better way of life, then I certainly hope it comes true. In the meantime, however, I will console myself with the silver linings of depressive realism.
The Abolitionist Project
Quora Answers 2015-20
Social Network Postings (2020)
The Other Side Of Happiness (excerpts)