Source: Philosophy Forums
Date: 2013
(see too: 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8: 9)

Can science abolish the biology of suffering

Can Science Abolish Suffering?

"Physical" pain? Perhaps see:
Should we eliminate the human ability to feel pain?

But what about "psychological" pain?
Let's distinguish between constant euphoria and information-sensitive gradients of bliss. Constant euphoria is incompatible with critical insight, social responsibility and intellectual progress. Compare the high "hedonic set-point" of the happiest "hyperthymic" people alive now: some of them, at least, are intellectual high-achievers.

Science fiction - or at least centuries away at best?
Not necessarily.
Choosing benign alleles of just two genes, COMT (hedonic set-point) and SCN9A (pain sensitivity) would hugely increase the likelihood that our prospective children will enjoy rich, happy, pain-free lives
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17687265 ("The catechol-O-methyl transferase Val158Met polymorphism and experience of reward in the flow of daily life.")
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20212137 ("Pain perception is altered by a nucleotide polymorphism in SCN9A.")
How can we promote the routine adoption by prospective parents of preimplantation genetic diagnosis beyond its narrowly restrictive use in the West today?

Will future life really be based on gradients of intelligent bliss?
Clearly this is just speculation. But in the long run, I know of no technical reason why we can't phase out all experience below hedonic zero in our forward light-cone.

* * *

Subrosa, indeed, I still walk the Earth.
Eugenics? Yes. But not in the sinister sense of the term. Recall the Nazis were not interested in promoting the well-being of all sentience. Let's consider, say, infantile Tay-Sachs disease, a terrible genetic disorder most common in Ashkenazi Jews. Ethically, do you think parents should be forced to rely on the genetic crapshoot of traditional sexual reproduction? Or should all parents be given the opportunity to ensure they have healthy children without the mutation in question? In the case of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, it's not a case of aborting, euthanasing, or discriminating against anyone with Tay-Sachs disease - most victims of infantile Tay-Sachs will be dead by the age of five even with the best possible palliative care. Rather we're trying to ensure the preconditions for our future children to enjoy long, happy, healthy lives. Indeed, probably most people would grant there's no ethical case for conserving deadly mutation(s) in question - so long as you don't mention the pejorative "E" word. For sure, offering preimplantation genetic screening for alleles and allelic combinations predisposing to, say, low mood would be more controversial. Non-depressives may allege that depression is totally different from Tay-Sachs or cystic fibrosis because depression is "just" a psychological problem. But depressive disorder has a devastating effect on quality of life - and we know from e.g. twin studies that depression has a high degree of genetic loading.

Physical pain? Well, initially at least, choosing benign variants of the SCN9A gene for our future children can ensure they have extremely high pain thresholds without the problems afflicting people with congenital analgesia. Offloading all nociceptive function onto smart prostheses can come later.

Hedonic set-point and personality? Well, a predisposition to hyperthymia is consistent with extreme good nature and ill nature - and all the variants of temperament in-between. Genetically raising hedonic set-points isn't, by itself, a panacea for all the world's problems. But the new biotechnology will also allow us to rig the genetic deck in favour of happiness and empathy, e.g. by genetically amplifying our prospective children's native oxytocin function. Compare the acute effects of euphoriant "hug drugs" like MDMA ("Ecstasy"). In principle, genetic interventions could make refined versions of such empathetic bliss both safe and sustainable. Perhaps contrast our "normal" quasi-psychopathic indifference to the welfare of most sentient beings - a cruel but previously fitness-enhancing adaptation that biotechnology and the new reproductive medicine can potentially overcome.

"Ethically mandatory"? Yes: so is opposition to sin. But I don't think we should legislate - simply ensure that all prospective parents have the free opportunity to use preimplantation genetic screening - and later true designer zygotes - so our children can maximally flourish.

Sheps, Perpetually depressed - or conversely, depression-resistant - "animal models" are selectively bred (cf.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23319547 : "The flinders sensitive line rat model of depression--25 years and still producing".
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14593430 : "Selectively bred Wistar-Kyoto rats: an animal model of depression and hyper-responsiveness to antidepressants".)
Some severe human depressives today spend their whole lives below "hedonic zero". To function at all, such unipolar depressives experience (partially) information-sensitive gradients of misery rather than uniform despair; but they are still incapable of feeling happy. As you note, other depressives experience fluctuating moods; and bipolars cycle between both hedonic extremes. At the other end of the hedonic scale, a small minority of non-manic hyperthymic people really are animated throughout their lives by gradients of information-sensitive well-being. Depending on such variables as oxytocin function, hyperthymics may also be empathetic and compassionate by temperament.

Either way, abolitionist bioethics and high-tech Jainism is about as far removed from the Nazi Weltanschauung as I can imagine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law

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Coercive eugenics is ethically indefensible. But so is today's coercive dysgenics. Unless we edit our sinister genetic source code, suffering will persist in the living world indefinitely.

* * *

Amore, granted there is a deep sense in which we don't understand why suffering - or indeed consciousness of any kind - exists at all. But on some fairly modest assumptions, if we phase out the molecular signature of experience below hedonic zero, then suffering of any kind becomes physiologically impossible. Its molecular substrates are absent.

What about the sometimes valuable information-signalling role of pain? Well, we should distinguish between pain and nociception. Our silicon (etc) robots can be programmed to avoid noxious stimuli without the nasty "raw feels" of phenomenal pain. There's no technical reason why organic robots must be perpetually condemned to endure its horrors: nociception is functionally vital but not phenomenal pain. Either way, surely we should surely be free to choose.

* * *

Swsteph, you say, "Logically, euphoria describes a relative state". This claim conveys our powerful naive intuition that pleasure and pain are largely or wholly relative. But it's logically and empirically unsupportable. Wireheading, for example, shows no physiological tolerance. And would you tell a victim of chronic pain or dysphoria - tragically they exist - that they can't really be chronically depressed or pain-ridden because they've nothing good with which to compare their misery? Some severe depressives can't imagine what it's like to be happy - or even what the word " happiness" means. The fact that lifelong misery is more common than lifelong happiness tells us something important about primitive life in our ancestral environment of adaptedness. But it's not technically harder to engineer organic robots animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss than gradients of discontent. You may ask whether information-sensitive hedonic dips wouldn't eventually be perceived as a source of suffering, at least if they played a functionally analogous role. In a nutshell, no. If the molecular signature of experience below hedonic zero is absent, then suffering is physically impossible. Compare two sensualists making love. The fact that some aspects of lovemaking are even more enjoyable than others doesn't make the "merely" enjoyable aspects of lovemaking somehow unpleasant. Exactly the same holds for Mill's "higher pleasures". In principle, normal hedonic tone and genetically predisposed hedonic set-points can both be hugely enriched as the biotech revolution unfolds.

Should one want to experience lifelong sublime well-being? What matters, I think, is we should be free to choose. As the technology matures, the critical question is whether we are ethically entitled to force someone to suffer against their will. How much, for how long, and enforced by what means? No one is going to haul you off to the pleasure chambers. But conversely, are you prepared to stop others from exploring the biology of lifelong bliss? Recall that hedonic tone is one variable amongst many. Compassionate, empathetic bliss can be engineered, in theory at any rate, no less than shallow ome-dimensional hedonism.

Nietzschean Ubermenschen? Well, invincible physical and psychological well-being can make us all "supermen" in a rather different sense - ideally with a superhuman capacity for perspective-taking and empathetic understanding of all sentient beings. Nietzsche was not a fascist or even an anti-Semite, but it's easy to understand why so much of his writing appealed to the Nazis. Some of Nietzsche's pronouncements make one's blood run cold:

"To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities - I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not - that one endures."
(The Will to Power
, p 481)

"You want, if possible - and there is no more insane "if possible" - to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it - that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible - that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering - do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?" (Beyond Good and Evil, p 225 )

"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." Et cetera.

Paradise engineering is much more ethically serious - and also much more fun.

* * *

Would life without suffering turn us into indolent lotus-eaters - leading to some kind of stagnant Brave New World? Pre-reflectively, one might suppose so. But recall how the happiest people today also tend to be the most motivated. It's depressives who tend to be apathetic and get stuck in a rut. Crudely, mesolimbic dopamine mediates "wanting", activation of the mu opioid receptors in our twin hedonic hotspots mediates "liking". Experimentally, happiness and motivation are doubly dissociable. Yet if we want to be superhappy and hypermotivated, there's no technical reason why we can't combine the blessings of both.

So if I may be forgiven for reiterating my challenge to critics...
When experience of any kind below hedonic zero becomes technically optional, would you compel other sentient beings to endure the biology of suffering? If so, how much, for how long, and enforced by what means? If, on the other hand, you believe that experience of any kind below hedonic zero should be purely voluntary and optional, then we agree.

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Veritas Vincit / Stan, yes, for as long as the biology of physical and psychological distress is inescapable, it's fortunate we can rationalize suffering. Thanks to biotechnology, however, we can at last see how unpleasant experience of any kind is potentially merely optional. Our human capacity to rationalise is now an obstacle to progress.

More specifically, your example of the hot stove illustrates what we still don't know. Recall how we frequently withdraw our hand before we're hit by the searing pain. In the long run, smart inorganic prostheses can be used so our hand withdraws without even the slightest tissue damage and without the slightest subjective distress either - presumably with a manual override so we don't feel we've lost ultimate control of our limbs. But until this "cyborgisation" technology becomes readily available, endowing our prospective children with benign "low pain" alleles of e.g. the SCN9A gene can ensure physical pain is merely a mildly troublesome inconvenience - never anything more.

* * *

Subrosa, could you clarify? Are you opposed to the basic principle of the abolitionist project, i.e. we should use biotechnology to minimise and eventually abolish involuntary suffering? Or are you worried about the practicalities?

Ok, first, predatory instincts. Should we prioritise the interests of the predator or his victims? Whether the predator is human or nonhuman, I don't think the aggressor should be harmed. But ideally, don't the weak, the innocent and vulnerable deserve protection - regardless of race or species. Yes, I agree, there is the risk that a potential killer / rapist / cannibal (etc) will experience frustration if his predatory impulses are frustrated. Hence the case for genetic tweaking.

Eugenics and the Third Reich? The main victims of coercive Nazi eugenics policies (compulsory sterilisation, "euthanasia" etc) were not ethnic groups that the Nazis regarded as "Untermenschen", and certainly not the Jews (whom the Nazis wanted to eliminate) but rather ethnic Germans. Either way, abolitionist bioethics had nothing whatsoever to do with coercive eugenics or promoting the notional self-interest of one particular ethnic group. Recall that abolitionists promote the well-being of all sentient life: high-tech Jainism, so to speak. The Nazis were not Jains!

Infantile Tay-Sachs? I was using the disorder as an example. By all means consider others. Sexual reproduction, and the quasi-random meiotic shuffling sexual reproduction entails, amounts to a form of genetic gambling with the lives of our future children. If we want to eliminate all sorts of nasty alleles from the gene pool - around 1 in 25 Europeans are carriers of the cystic fibrosis allele, for example - then preimplantation genetic screening will be an indispensable tool. This is true both of monogenetic and polygenic disorders, both physical and e.g. "psychological", e.g. depressive disorder.

Remediation versus enhancement?
Sometimes the distinction may be clear-cut e.g. cystic fibrosis. But what about a predisposition to depression? Rather than engage in semantic disputes about what does and doesn't count as "pathological" low mood, I'd simply argue that other things being equal, a responsible prospective parent will in future pick alleles/allelic combinations predisposing to a high hedonic set-point rather than a low hedonic set-point. In consequence, their children will be more likely to enjoy rich and fulfilled lives.

Pain thresholds? I was highlighting how a minority of people today are genetically predisposed to find physical pain no more than a valuable signalling mechanism, whereas atrocious pain blights the lives of some chronic pain sufferers. Until we are ready to "offload" everything nasty and mundane onto smart prostheses, it's ethically responsible to avoid endowing our children with "high pain" alleles.

Oxytocin function? Yes, I agree. Despite simplistic talk about "the moral molecule", amplifying its expression is not a panacea. I was simply pointing out that we needn't conceive of radical hedonic enrichment as somehow being - by its very nature - selfish, one-dimensional and "hedonistic" in the popular sense of the term. Just how empathetic or suspicious we should prudently be in a Darwinian world is clearly debatable. I suspect our successors will regard Darwinian humans as quasi-sociopathic in our comparative indifference to the well- being of our fellow sentients. But practical and effective universal compassion will not be generated by amplification of single molecular pathway - of even two. If only life were so simple...

Ethically mandatory? Yes. Surely there is an immense difference between asserting one's right to retain a traditional Darwinian biology and forcing that biology on others - between undergoing suffering oneself and compelling others to do likewise.

Costs and privileged elites? Yes, as always, the rich will typically benefit first from innovation - though as it happens, the biggest users of preimplantation genetic diagnosis today are actually India and China (gender selection). But the nature of all information-based technologies is that the cost tends eventually to zero. Unlike traditional goods and services, the substrates of bliss don't need to be rationed.

* * *

A lot of points here (Thanks Veritas Vincit) First, yes, phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering (cf. abolitionist.com) is less ambitious - and more morally urgent - than creating a hypothetical future civilisation based on gradients of intelligent bliss. A negative utilitarian, for example, might argue that all our duties have been discharged when the biology of suffering has been consigned to history. But as intelligent agents gain mastery over their own reward circuitry, why settle for the mediocre when we can enjoy the sublime? (cf. superhappiness.com)

Preimplantation genetic screening versus designer zygotes? Yes, one technology involves genetic variants thrown up "naturally", the other involves rational design. But unless one regards Mother Nature as somehow inherently benevolent, I don't think we can set much store, ethically speaking, from the distinction.

Risks? Side-effects? Of course. Whether we are considering anaesthesia, pain killers, mood brighteners, somatic or germline gene therapy, compassionate intervention in Nature (etc) we should explore all potential pitfalls. But this is an argument for exhaustive risk-reward analysis, not indefinite perpetuation of the cruelties of the past.

Ecological balance? Yes, if the limiting factor in the size of a population of herbivores is predation and the apex predator is removed/reprogrammed, then there will be a population explosion followed by ecological collapse - in the absence of fertility regulation. This is why we need systematic compassionate stewardship of our wildlife parks, not ad hoc crisis interventions. Fortunately, technologies of immununocontraception are already well developed. How far "down" [across] the phylogenetic tree should intervention proceed? Clearly only utopian nanotechnology can micro-manage the lowest level of the trophic pyramid. Large, long-lived higher vertebrates are more accessible and their plight is more ethically urgent.

Coercive? If we prevent one sentient being - human or nonhuman - from hurting, harming or killing another sentient being, then clearly there is no consent on the part of the aggressor. But would you argue that human or nonhuman predators should be allowed to run unchecked? The nature of our moral obligation to protect the vulnerable is no different. Although in one sense our obligation is "binding" it's not coercive in any literal sense. The conceptual distinction between violence and nonviolence is best preserved.

Oxytocin function? Yes, enhanced oxytocinergic function would predispose humans to be more trusting and trustworthy. But in some contexts, a capacity for impartial rule-following is needed. Impartial rule-following can benefit from a more "autistic" cognitive style. Ideally, we would be able to switch at will. I raised the option of oxytocin enrichment merely to rebut the charge that life animated entirely by gradients of well- being must somehow necessarily be more selfish. Not so!

The Good Drug Guide: (cf. biopsychiatry.com and its spin-off sites (opioids.com, mdma.net, erythroxylum-coca.com etc. Yes, in each case the lead essay is mine. Despite my libertarian views on drug policy, I certainly wouldn't endorse all the supplementary material!). At most, today's mood brighteners are dirty stopgaps. In the long run, I hope humans can enhance our default state of consciousness so we don't seek so eagerly to change it:
reproductive-revolution.com
biointelligence-explosion.com

* * *

A heroin habit is not a recipe for sublime well-being! I support the use of opioid-based therapies in the treatment of refractory depression; and inadequate pain-relief consequent on misplaced opiophobia is an ongoing scandal. But casual use of opioids is unwise. I'd strongly caution against it. Censorship? Yes, I'm opposed to the DEA or anyone else deciding what you are - or aren't - allowed to read.

PGD vs "designer babies"? Why exactly do you assume that playing genetic roulette will lead to a more benign outcome than intelligent design? Compare how unforgiving we are of sloppy and corrupt source code released by software authors elsewhere. Why be more reckless when a child's life is at stake? Natural selection did not "design" organic robots with the welfare of the individual in mind, but rather to maximise the inclusive fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment of adaptation.

The GMO crops analogy? Surely this is an argument for promoting the socially responsible use of new reproductive technologies, not bioluddism?

Could intervention be an ecological disaster? Yes! We're already practising it. I'd argue that its governing principle should be the welfare of sentient beings, not taxonomic abstracta. For a still hypothetical case study, perhaps see
http://www.abolitionist.com/reprogramming/elephantcare.html.

Lions as serial killers? Yes, the characterisation doesn't "sit well" as you aptly put it. We're more used to stylised "wildlife documentaries" with narrative voiceovers evoking the noble "king of the beasts". The realities of Darwinian life are different.

Empathetic vs autistic cognitive styles (cf. the AQ Test)
for a crude measure of AQ score)? I'm afraid the issues are too complex to give adequate treatment here. But in future, native AQ (and IQ for that matter) will no longer be in the lap of the gods, but amenable to control - responsibly or otherwise.

Numbness? On the contrary. Many recreational euphoriants and empathogens intensify emotion. I argue for the development of safe and sustainable alternatives - and in the long run, genetic enhancements to secure the same. Compared to archaic Homo sapiens, posthumans will (probably) feel more intensely alive. Today, many of us sleepwalk through life...

* * *

Subrosa, in my view our current drug laws are disaster. But someone can believe existing legislation is a model of sanity and still support abolitionist bioethics. Opioids are merely one of many different classes of agent I explore in the Good Drug Guide. All of us depend on opioids - endogenous and/or exogenous - for our well- being; I discuss both their blessings and pitfalls. Sadly, we don't all "naturally" enjoy a rich hedonic tone as our default state of mind.

Designer genomes? No, this doesn't "sound right". One could say the same initially of most radical innovations in medical history. Yet if we accept the ethical case against involuntary suffering- and certainly if we want to enjoy truly posthuman states of well-being - then we'll need to edit our legacy source code.

Corporate control? Like you, I would be opposed to any such regime. Individual prospective parents should have the opportunity to take responsible genetic decisions rather than risk bringing more suffering into the world.

Should we respect predators in virtue of their role in promoting ecological "balance". No IMO. We recognise such an ethic would be grotesque if applied to members of other races. It's no less callous if applied to sentient beings of other species. More civilised stewardship of the rest of the living world is now technically feasible.

Numbness versus intensity of feeling? If you are enjoying living life to the full, then great - seriously. I certainly wouldn't seek to change your biology. But many other sentient beings are not fortunate. I'd ask you to respect their right to a live a happy pain-free existence free from the miseries of traditional Darwinian life.

* * *

Brave New World? Nazi eugenic policy? Junkies on heroin? We all tend to shoehorn unfamiliar ideas into familiar categories. But abolitionist bioethics is at best tangentially related such dystopian scenarios! No one doubts for a moment that potential risks and pitfalls abound to phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering. This is all the more reason to weigh these risks and pitfalls and see to circumvent them. For example, IMO one good reason for laying such stress on hedonic recalibration is that genetically raising hedonic set-points isn't akin to taking soma in Brave New World, i.e. inducing uniform opiated bliss. Hedonic recalibration means existing preference architectures can be retained - if we so desire - while hugely enriching subjective quality of life. Why shouldn't ordinary people enjoy access to the rich default hedonic tone enjoyed by the hyperthymic elite today - and raise their absolute hedonic floor and hedonic ceiling too?

Subrosa, the problem isn't "suffering". It's suffering. if suffering isn't part of your everyday consciousness, fantastic. Long may you flourish. I suggest raising your hedonic set-point could potentially make your life even better; but no one is going to force you to change your existing biology. So why seek to prevent the voluntary banishment of low mood and other states of malaise from the lives of people who aren't so fortunate - and indeed might wish to be blissfully happy? [Did Thoreau exaggerate when he claimed, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation". Certainly a large minority of sentient life does suffer chronic ill-being.|

Yes, the issue of unborn children does raise thorny issues of consent. But should the default of newly-created life be a biology of well-being or ill-being? By what right are we entitled to bring more suffering into the world? I don't understand how you think editing out the molecular signature of experience below hedonic zero will induce "more suffering". On some fairly modest physicalist assumptions, an absence of such molecular substrates makes suffering physically impossible.

Predation and ecological balance? Ethically, there is nothing "excellent" about being disembowelled, asphyxiated or eaten alive: the experience is horrific beyond words. Hence the case for more civilised forms of population control and sustainable ecologies in our wildlife parks, especially fertility regulation via cross-species immunocontraception. Ecological balance needn't entail perpetuating today's Darwinian horror story. I can't do better than quote Richard Dawkins: "The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. " But not for much longer.

* * *

Subrosa, forgive me, but hedonic set-point theory point theory is not "the idea that everyone has a baseline of happiness that they keep their entire lives, and is never affected by external events". Winning the lottery or becoming paralysed after a car accident would have a dramatic effect on one's life! Rather the claim is that negative feedback mechanisms in the CNS mean that six months or so after the life-changing event, the subject will typically have reverted to his average level of subjective well-being or ill-being before the lottery win / major accident. Hence the "hedonic treadmill". Chronic, uncontrolled stress can lower hedonic set-point; and we're talking about a statistical generalisation here, not an iron law of Nature. But twin studies confirm that each of us has a genetically constrained hedonic ceiling and approximate set-point around which our lives fluctuate. More concretely, which variant of the (COMT gene ("The catechol-O-methyl transferase Val158Met polymorphism and experience of reward in the flow of daily life.") for example, would you prefer for your future child? No, the benign variant doesn't guarantee a high quality of life; it just improves the odds. Should prospective parents throw the genetic dice and trust God or Mother Nature for a happy outcome? Or act responsibly and choose?

Hyperthymia (as distinct from euthymia or dysthymia) is sometimes confused with hypomania, which is itself sometimes confused with ADHD. But "hyperthymic" is really just a fancy technical term for someone who is temperamentally extremely happy - but not manic. Perhaps compare my distinguished transhumanist colleague Anders Sandberg ("I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point")
I should add that I use Anders as a case study by express permission!

You are surely right to stress the importance of social inequalities and economic injustice. Any ethically serious form of abolitionist bioethics entails a commitment to social reform and biological intervention alike. Apologies for not having written more on social reform. My (generally leftish) views are, for the most part, trite and derivative. They have been better expressed elsewhere.

You state, "Choosing to have a naturally born child, is certainly not choosing to bring further suffering into this world". To be sure, this is not how most parents conceptualise having children. Yet the generation of more suffering is the inevitable outcome of bearing children with the unreconstructed genetic make-up of archaic Homo sapiens. However, a reproductive revolution is now imminent. The unprecedented capacity to edit our own genetic source code offers the prospect of creating new life without simultaneously creating new suffering.

You say that large predators are the "best form of population control". "Best" from whose perspective? To be disembowelled, asphyxiated or eaten alive is a frightful ordeal from the perspective of the victim. Insofar as we seek to reduce avoidable suffering, regulation of population size via fertility control is ethically preferable for human and nonhumans alike.

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Veritas Vincit, yes, there is a lot to be said for a philosophy of "if it ain't broke don't fix it". Few people would go quite so far as Robert Browning ("God's in his Heaven / All's right with the world!"). But status quo bias is common even among the desperately unhappy. A friend of the music composer John Cage once asked him, "But don't you think there's too much suffering in the world?" "No", Cage replied, "I think there's just the right amount." To someone convinced our existing biology is fine, nothing I say is going to change his or her mind. But transhumanists believe that the only way to secure the well-being of all sentience will be though direct biological intervention - not least, mastery of our reward circuitry. Richard Bentall once wrote a tongue-in-cheek paper, "A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder." (J Med Ethics 1992;18:94-98 doi:10.1136/jme.18.2.94: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1376114/pdf/jmedeth00282-0040.pdf) If the term "hyperthymia" is confusing, by all means let us substitute "temperamentally happy without being manic". The point is that a continuum of normal hedonic tone exists with a high degree of genetic loading. Other things being equal, a high hedonic set-point predisposes to a higher subjective quality of life, just as a depressive temperament predisposes to a lower subjective quality of life. By the same token, a continuum exists between hyperempathetic mirror-touch synaesthesia and autistic mind-blindness - and all the gradations in between. Mastery of our genetic source code will shortly allow intelligent agents to choose their own default affective, motivational and empathetic default settings - and other parameters besides. In principle, such control promises to banish involuntary suffering and enrich our quality of life. Couldn't everything go horribly wrong? Yes! This is why the ramifications of the new technologies should be examined in depth. I never thought the final piece of the abolitionist jigsaw, i.e. free-living non-human animal suffering, would be seriously explored in my lifetime. It seems I was too pessimistic. For a short scholarly bibliography of this burgeoning field, see Pablo Stafforini's Wild animal suffering: a bibliography.

* * *

Subrosa, on one point, I agree with you: the Agricultural Revolution led to reduced stature, a growth in social inequalities, and a decline in average physical and psychological health. (cf. http://www.direct-ms.org/pdf/EvolutionPaleolithic/Cereal%20Sword.pdf) On ethical grounds, I'm a vegan; and today vegetarians record higher life-expectancies and IQ scores than meat-eaters. But a largely or exclusively grain-based diet is a recipe for all sorts of vitamin, mineral and nutritional deficiencies. A subclinical deficiency of the essential amino acid l-tryptophan, for example, can impair psychological health: availability of l-tryptophan is the rate-limiting step in the synthesis of serotonin. Maize (Indian corn) in particular is deficient in l-tryptophan.

However, next we part company. Around a million people in the world take their own lives each year. Well over ten times that number try to kill themselves. Even more commit acts of serious self-harm. Hundreds of millions of people are clinically or subclinically depressed. Billions more nominally well people often feel "blah". Depression is frequently comorbid with anxiety disorders. The incidence of mood disorders has increased with the growth of secular Western civilisation; but the scourge is world-wide. Its evolutionary roots run deep. Yes, depression is only one manifestation of psychological distress; but it's one of the most extensive and worst sources of suffering globally. Even in the grand scheme of things, there is nothing "superficial" about low mood.

Terminology? Temperamental hyperthymia (chronic good mood), euthymia ("normal" mood) and dysthymia (chronic low mood not amounting to clinical depression are indeed terms used by different authors in rather different senses. Whereas hyperthymia involves a chronically high hedonic set-point, only around half of cases of (hypo)mania are associated with euphoria: the other half involve dysphoric or "mixed" states. Semi-technical terms (I was relying on the Journal of Affective Disorders, not Bentall's skit) more often obfuscate than illuminate. So I would have done better to use the cumbersome expression "a genetic predisposition to an unusually cheerful temperament with a chronically high hedonic set-point but without the excitement and behavioural dyscontrol associated with (hypo)mania, or the rapid mood cycles of cyclothymia, or the pronounced attentional deficits of ADHD". Yes, a bit of a mouthful...

"Designer babies"? They don't exist. Even in vitro fertilisation is in its infancy. Most people haven't even had their personal genome scanned. I wish there really were widespread advocacy of "techno-induced happiness". I suspect you have in mind the culture of consumer technology rather than research into biologically-based hedonic enrichment. Only a handful of investigators, to my knowledge, are working on ways systematically to recalibrate the hedonic treadmill in humans. Rats are selectively bred to be unusually depressive or unusually happy ("depression resistant"). But superhappy people? I wish...

Hedonic set-point theory? Yes, any nuanced account must be more complex than the broad-brush sketch I outlined. The travails of e.g. lottery winners are well-known. But consider the worst possible accident that could befall you - an accident that leaves you worse than quadriplegic, perhaps capable of communicating only by blinking. A recent French study of long-term patients with "locked in syndrome" found that 72% of patients reported themselves as being "happy". This percentage compares favourably with healthy "normals". My point is not that external events are unimportant, but rather that even if we create an "ideal" society with social justice and unlimited material abundance for all, there will still be an immense burden of suffering in the absence of reward pathway enhancements. Sexual jealousy, unrequited love, social anxiety, depressive disorder and other viciously nasty Darwinian states of mind will persist for as long as humans retain our existing genetic make-up. I could explore the pros and cons of specific genetic interventions with you in depth; but if you don't accept the basic principle at stake, i.e we should aim to endow our future children with the richest possible genetic bass for psychological and physical good health, then the discussion would be moot.

"Maturity" and endorsement of predation? Well, IMO the little toddler in this hotlinked video puts some our distinguished professors of bioethics to shame. But what exactly is "mature" about simultaneously opposing predation when the victims belong to one's own race while endorsing its horrors when the victims are nonhuman? Uncontroversially, we'd intervene if stumbling across a human victim of a dreadful scenario like this stricken young elephant calf. By the same token, just to "let Nature take its course" when the victim isn't one of "us" isn't "mature"; it's simply callous. Many people, I suspect, do accept the case for ad hoc compassionate interventions. I'd argue instead that our benevolence should be comprehensive and systematic. Suffering doesn't matter any less because it happens out of view.

* * *

Vincit, as well as several strong points I agree with, you make one suggestion that has me torn. On the one hand, ethically I think we should seek to shut down and outlaw factory farms and slaughterhouses. On the other, as you suggest, the release of compulsory unedited footage of what goes on via live video streaming might have a profound effect on meat-eating consumers - many of whom fondly imagine that butchered animals are humanely put to sleep like Rover at the vet. This is one reason why agribusiness is fighting so hard to criminalise whistleblowers.

* * *

Subrosa, there are too many confounding variables to be confident that the higher IQ scores and longer lifespans of Western vegetarians demonstrate the superiority of an optimal vegetarian diet. Not least, better educated and higher IQ young people are more likely to become vegetarian in the first instance. But what such statistics do suggest is that any alleged benefits of a meat-based diet, if they exist at all, must be exceeding subtle. For sure, strict vegetarians should ensure a supplementary source of Vitamin B12. Veganism calls for (very) mild inconvenience, not heroic self-sacrifice. Either way, too many discussions of the merits and demerits of different diets are conducted exclusively at he level of personal self-interest. If a cannibal were to wax lyrical on how his victims yielded a useful source of protein, he'd no doubt be correct; but ethically, he'd be missing the point.

Social inequality and elevated mood? Other things being equal, mood enrichment tends to reverse subordinate behaviour. Other things being equal again, genetically enhanced mood might be expected to create a fairer society of actively engaged citizens. As the evolutionary biology of rank theory suggests, low mood facilitates dominance hierarchies and social stratification. Often but not always, depression is the internalised correlate of the losing subroutine.

Genetics and mood? I'm not even going to attempt a review of the literature here. But I'm not just relying on twin studies. See e.g. "Functional polymorphism (5-HTTLPR) in the serotonin transporter gene is associated with subjective well-being", J Hum Genet. 2011 Jun;56(6):456-9. doi: 10.1038/jhg.2011.39. Epub 2011 May 12. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21562513

I'm intrigued by your suggestion that we've been in a "techno-induced happiness zombie apocalypse for decades." I'm clearly missing out...

* * *

Thanks Abolitionist. A notional Hundred Year Plan to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering could be drawn up, perhaps under UN auspices. But at present it's hard to see how anything so grandiose could be sociologically realistic. Our current interventions are likely to be more modest and mote piecemeal than such a blueprint. I still think the biggest challenges to the implementation of abolitionist bioethics are ethical / ideological. Hence this debate.

* * *

Subrosa, the capacity to hunt, to kill and to eat meat was genetically adaptive in our ancestral environment of adaptation. So was a (conditionally activated) capacity to practise war, rape, and (human) slavery. But the fact some conditionally-activated trait may have been adaptive on the African savannah does not entail it's vital for humans to flourish today - let alone show it's ethically defensible. From a purely self-interested perspective, doubtless it's safer to be a lazy meat-eater than a lazy vegan. [It's easy to be a lazy vegetarian; nutritionists rate eggs as the ideal all-in-one food: the only thing eggs lack is Vitamin C.] Your over-colourful account of what a cruelty-free vegan lifestyle entails makes it sound a miracle we still walk the Earth! (cf. veganbodybuilding.com) Recall that numerous groups in the Indian subcontinent have practised ahimsa ("harmlessness") and lived a vegan or quasi-vegan lifestyle for thousands of years.

The moral high ground? Well, yes, this strikes me as preferable to occupying the moral low ground. Would you accept such a reproach from a tribe of cannibals?

Might animal flesh contain some magic ingredient unknown to medical science that vegetarians lack - comparative longevity statistics notwithstanding. The advent of total parenteral nutrition suggests otherwise; before its development, people who lost use of their small intestine just died.

Is depression (in some guises) the internalised correlate of the losing subroutine? This is not a theory (or a lexicon) that's peculiar to me. It's a tenet of mainstream evolutionary psychology (which doesn't make it true). The (link to "Evolutionary Psychology" by Anthony Stevens and John Price I provided earlier contains a synopsis.

Does the existence of suicidal behaviour refute Rank Theory? No. Recall that a conditionally-activated predisposition can be adaptive if it maximises the inclusive fitness of one's genes even if it's potentially lethal to the individual. Perhaps see e.g. Is Killing Yourself Adaptive?

* * *

Subrosa, you've omitted the next sentence: "But at present it's hard to see how anything so grandiose could be sociologically realistic". I wholeheartedly agree that "Everyone has a right to respect for their dignity and their rights regardless of their genetic characteristics". The right not to be hurt, harmed or killed is at the heart of abolitionist bioethics.

* * *

Subrosa, the use of e.g. mass sterilants on Anopheles mosquitoes is essential insofar as we want to cure malaraia, let alone secure the well-being of all sentience. Mosquitoes don't have reproductive rights; nor do they suffer in consequence. Likewise, thanks to biotechnology, there is nothing to stop lightly supetvised, genetically tweaked lions or crocodiles from flourishing in tomorrow's wildlife parks. But no one - human or nonhuman - has an inalienable right to hurt, harm or kill other sentient beings.

The extent to which human parents rightly "own" children is an immensely thorny issue - as illustrated by the controversy over Jehovah's Witnesses and blood transfusions. I predict that next century and beyond creating sentient beings with traditional Darwinian genomes will be reckoned abusive. This is pure speculation on my part. But without genetic rewrites, the miseries of Darwinian life will continue indefinitely.

* * *

Quantumlguana , recall the biggest users of preimplantation genetic screening today are not the affluent western nations, but individual Chinese and Indian parents. We need to ensure preimplantation genetic diagnosis is readily available to all responsible prospective parents worldwide.

Brave New World? Not quite: huxley.net

Prejudice against having girls rather than boys in parts of India and China is appalling. But ethically speaking, isn't it far preferable for prospective parents to pre-select the preferred gender of their child rather condemn a girl - if the genetic dice fall the "wrong" way - to a miserable childhood of neglect and abuse? Or infanticide?

Any proposal to phase out the biology of suffering via genetics and/or drugs tends to elicit a knee-jerk response of "Oh, that's just Brave New World!" [ or "Nazi Eugenics"!] This is simplistic, to say the least...

* * *

Quantumlguana, there are immense risks - personal and societal - to playing the genetic lottery and rational planning alike. But If you believe we are ethically obliged to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering, there is no long-term alternative to genetic interventions. Subrosa, the topic of gender selection needs a whole post, not a few lines. But my point in citing Third World use of PGD is that - like all information-based technologies - the price tends to collapse. If the genetics and biology of suffering still exists in the world

* * *

Subrosa, contemporary society is - we agree - massively unfair. But in one sense, the digital revolution has been extraordinarily democratic and levelling. Unlike the past, almost everyone can now access all the world's books, music, films - anything that can be digitised. True, only billionaires can own a collection of original Old Masters; but everyone else can own perfect digital copies. Genetic information can be digitised too; the cost of personal genome sequencing is falling from millions to thousands to hundreds of dollars - and soon less. I can't tell you how to create a perfect society. What is feasible, at least in outline, is to explore, from a technical perspective, the necessary and sufficient conditions for banishing the molecular signatures of experience below hedonic zero. This includes suffering of any kind. Life animated by information-sensitive gradients of well-being may (or may not) be socially unfair; but hedonically enriched life can be fabulously richer for everyone than the biological status quo...

QuantumIguana, I agree: rigorous examination of potential pitfalls is essential. You raise the possibility of a loss of genetic diversity. Perhaps in one sense, yes. Thus the thousand-plus different mutations that cause cystic fibrosis can, I trust, be completely eliminated from the gene-pool. Invincible physical health improves the opportunities for leading a rich and diverse life. Invincible mental health is a much more controversial prospect. I suspect the timescale here will be hundreds of years - perhaps more. Either way, lifelong enjoyment of a rich hedonic tone is consistent with immense genetic diversity - and likewise consistent with an immense diversity of lifestyles. In the case of alleles and allelic combinations predisposing to depression, anxiety disorders (etc), yes, we might naively imagine that a reduction of genetic diversity will be inevitable if, hypothetically, prospective parents all choose benign (super)happy genotypes for their future children. Maybe so. In reality, we may predict an overall increase in genetic diversity as the revolution of designer zygotes unfolds later this century and beyond. This is because entirely novel alleles and allelic combinations can be created by rational design that would be impossible for Mother Nature - inasmuch as evolution of the traits they code for would entail crossing dips in the evolutionary fitness-landscape forbidden by natural selection...

* * *

Subrosa, an Ipsos poll in the Economist magazine recently compared international levels of self-reported well-being. The differing national percentages of people who described themselves as "very happy" are revealing. Indonesia came first. India came second. Mexico came third. Should we treat such statistics as a license to care any less about social injustice and economic inequality? No, surely not! Likewise, I promise I'm just as committed as you to relieving the plight of captives deprived of their liberty and kept in appalling conditions - regardless of race or species. But to contrast biological interventions with socioeconomic reform is to pose a false dilemma. To reduce and ultimately abolish suffering in the world, we need both.

* * *

Subrosa, my purpose in citing the Ipsos study was not to persuade you that Indonesians or Indians are any (un)happier than Western Europeans. Rather it was to illustrate how the links between poverty, inequality and ill-being (or well-being) are indirect and extraordinarily complicated. [Also, these studies have many potential methodological flaws ; we need more sophisticated tools of neuroscanning] Nor was I trying to persuade you that our most urgent priority right now is genetic recalibration of the hedonic treadmill - or rewriting the vertebrate genome. Closing factory farms and outlawing slaughterhouses would have a more immediate impact in reducing global suffering. But if we subscribe to abolitionist bioethics, then biological and genetic interventions targetting the pleasure-pain axis will be essential - whether on a timescale of decades, centuries or even millennia. Naturally, if you support the retention of a biology and an ecology of involuntary suffering, no such policy-prescription follows. "A painless concentration camp"? I'm a great admirer of Aldous Huxley; but I don't think such a term expresses an understanding of concentration camps.

* * *

Subrosa, let's distinguish between short, medium and long-term (and ultimately cosmological) timescales. To the strict utilitarian, any rate of temporal discounting indistinguishable from zero is ethically unacceptable; but since we needn't be utilitarians of any stripe to support the abolitionist project, I won't make any such assumption here. Even if, fancifully, a worldwide consensus for hedonic recalibration existed right now, the transition to life based entirely on information-sensitive gradients of bliss would presumably take place over hundreds of years. It's not a Five Year Plan. We could start using preimplantation genetic diagnosis tomorrow to promote psychological as well as physical health for our future offspring; but a minority of early adopters won't suffice for a global hedonic phase transition of the kind I anticipate. Right now, scrapping all factory farms would have a far greater impact on the burden of suffering globally - together with an accelerated development and commercialisation of in vitro meat products to cater to the morally apathetic.

QuantumIguana, you're right: invincible mental health would make bearers of such genotypes invulnerable to all manner of stresses that would cripple most of us today.

* * *

Subrosa, negative utilitarianism is really just compassion systematised. We should distinguish sentimentalism from morality. Also, distinguish utilitarianism as a theory of value from utilitarianism as a decision procedure. (cf. Toby Ord's Consequentialism and Decision Procedures) Criticisms of utilitarian ethics usually boil down to the bad consequences, i.e. more long-term suffering, that will follow from the adoption of utilitarian policies. In fact, all such criticisms show is that various supposedly utilitarian policy prescriptions are not really utilitarian at all. By contrast, one can make a powerful utilitarian case for enshrining in law such un-utilitarian-sounding principles as an absolute prohibition on torture and the sanctity of life. As a utilitarian, I argue for hi-tech Jainism.

But I wonder: isn't this question a red herring? Buddhists, deontologists, virtue theorists, pluralists and much else besides and still support the systematic use of biotechnology to phase out involuntary suffering - the theme of this discussion thread. Indeed, the point of urging hedonic recalibration (rather than uniform happiness-maximisation) is not just to illustrate how being blissful is not the same as being blissed out, and how lifelong well-being is consistent with critical insight, social responsibility, and intellectual progress. Rather it's to highlight how long-term hedonic recalibration is consistent with most (though not all) existing value systems. If you're a deontologist, say, or a virtue theorist, you can maintain your existing values even if your default hedonic tone is (immensely) richer than today.

* * *

The revolution has only begun: "UK becomes first country in world to approve IVF using genes of three parents"

* * *

Subrosa, creating factory workhouses for the poor isn't "no different" from rewriting the genome, recalibrating the hedonic treadmill, or engineering life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss. One advantage of redesigning of our reward circuitry is precisely that such interventions don't consume resources as do environmentalist utopias. Certainly, I think classical utilitarians should support the abolitionist project - and ultimately some form of paradise-engineering. Inevitably, nineteenth century political and economic reformers, whether utilitarians or otherwise, were innocent of the biotechnology needed to deliver the well-being of all sentience.

Jainism and transhumanism? Both Jains and transhumanists are committed to the well-being of all sentience. (cf. The Transhumanist Declaration) Most but not all transhumanists are secularists. If I speak elliptically of "high-tech Jainism", I'm not endorsing the finer points of Jain metaphysics, but rather highlighting how technology can be used to deliver the well-being of even the cognitively humblest forms of sentience - the extraordinary concern for which defines Jains in Western eyes.

Abolitionist bioethics and Buddhism? "May all that have life be delivered from suffering", said Gautama Buddha. Molecular biology, genomic rewrites and compassionate ecosystem design today seem more likely to underwrite the well-being of all sentient life than pursuit of the Noble Eightfold Path. But everything we know about the historical Gautama Buddha suggests he was a pragmatist. If it works, do it.

* * *

QuantumIguana, who are the people most motivated to avoid harm today? Depressives trapped in a vicious circle of learned helplessness and behavioural despair? Or life-loving optimists with high hedonic set-points? One of the most effective ways to cow people into submission is to keep their mood and expectations low - not to enhance their reward pathways, a recipe for active citizens. Also, phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering is not about making people "perfect", or dreaming up blueprints for a perfect society. Yes, just as I hope we can enjoy "perfect" physical health, I hope we can enjoy psychological health to match. But such superhealth isn't a question of telling anyone how to live their lives - just ensuring that all sentient beings have the maximum opportunities to flourish.

* * *

Subrosa, you're critiquing consumer capitalism - over which I have little control. As it happens, the exponential growth of computer power coincides with the exponential growth of miniaturisation, i.e. ever fewer physical resources are needed to create ever more computational power. An era of molecular nanotechnology beckons. The growth of automation and robotics will lead to a reduction in boring and repetitive jobs - which of course leads to dislocation and unemployment, which causes problems of it own. Yes, I agree, an information-based post-industrial society still entails use of physical resources. But compare the sheer size of the physical resources needed physically to assemble and own, say, a print library the size of Library of Congress with the resources needed to own a smartphone that can access such a mega-library on tap. The digital revolution is accelerating.

High-tech Jainism? Please feel free to substitute a more wordy but technically accurate expression, e.g. "someone who believes that we should respect the sanctity of life while using biotechnology and IT to secure the subjective well-being of all sentient creatures."

How closely does the theory and practice of contemporary abolitionist bioethics resemble the teachings of the historical Gautama Buddha and the different schools of Buddhist practice he spawned? Well, I won't attempt an disquisition on Buddhism here, simply note that Buddhists locate suffering - and overcoming suffering - at the heart of our existence. WE may assume that most Buddhists in the world today would reject the use of many (most?) of the technologies of genetic engineering. Unfortunately, the Noble Eightfold Path is not going to dismantle the horrors the food chain. Are wise Buddhists pragmatists? Well, perhaps I may quote the Dalai Lama:
"If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode - without impairing intelligence and the critical mind - I would be the first patient."

Dalai Lama (Society for Neuroscience Congress, Nov. 2005)

* * *

Subrosa, please consider being a little more charitable. ("Jainism and fatal diseases are no different for you, are they") The refusal of Jains and other devotees of ahimsa to harm other sentient beings in any way strikes me as admirable. Strict Western vegetarians aspire to do likewise. However, ethically we have a duty not just to refrain from doing harm, but intelligently to prevent others from coming to harm. Thus if famine breaks out in sub-Saharan Africa, the responsible course of action is to provide both emergency food & medical relief and family planning support. By the same token, Obamacare for elephants, so to speak, and ultimately care for members of other species in tomorrow's wildlife reserves must ultimately rely on similar principles - on pain of complete ecological collapse. Immunontraception is not the same as sterilisation; nor does it harm the recipient.

* * *

Subrosa, some critics claim emotively that creating a cruelty-free world would entail "exterminating" predators. "High-tech Jainism" simply alludes to how the well-being of all sentience can be delivered without harming or killing other sentient beings in the process - traditional carnivores or otherwise. Expository convenience should not be confused with some dastardly propagandistic plot!

Immunocontraception, whether long- or short-acting, is reversible. Short of surgical intervention, sterilisation is irreversible.
The claim that humans are ethically entitled to exploit and kill nonhuman animals because plants undergo suffering too is weak. There could be no selection pressure in favour of evolving an energetically expensive central nervous system in organisms without a capacity for rapid self-propelled motion.

* * *

Today (29 June) is the birthday of Lewis Mancini, author of the first ever (to my knowledge) scientifically literate proposal for phasing out human suffering.
("Riley-Day Syndrome, Brain Stimulation and the Genetic Engineering of a World Without Pain")

* * *

As it happens, I've never tasted meat. Unable to miss it, I certainly wouldn't lay claim to any moral superiority to the average consumer. At most the lack of any need to rationalise human abuse of nonhuman animals does reduce one pervasive source of cognitive bias. However, what's important isn't the personal virtue (or otherwise) of (non)meat-eaters. Rather what matters is humanity's ethically indefensible treatment of other sentient beings. I've no doubt such reminders tend to get on the nerves of anyone who enjoys eating meat. Such is the price, sadly, of moral progress. Heaven knows how we'll explain what we did in factory farms to our grandchildren ["But I liked the taste!"?]

* * *

The case against exploiting or killing sentient beings of other races doesn't turn on the virtues or vices of individual anti-racists. Likewise the case against exploiting sentient beings from other species doesn't turn on the virtues or vices of animal activists.

The drug-naive often assume that drug-taking is all about "getting high", sensation-seeking and hedonism in the vulgar sense. But a minority of the population only ever feel well - i.e. "normal", not drugged up - on opioids. I'm personally pessimistic that 100% rates of response and remission of depressive symptoms will ever be achieved without targeting the mu opioid receptor. ["The first opiate I ever took was codeine....It made me feel right for the first time in my life....I never felt right from as far back as I can remember, and I was always trying different ways to change how I felt. I used lots of drugs, but none of them really did it for me. Codeine was a revelation, and I've been an opiate addict ever since...Opiates have caused me lots of trouble, but what they do for my head is worth it..." - Thirty-four year old woman quoted in "From Chocolate to Morphine" (1993) by Andrew Weil and Winifred Rosen]

The prospect of using biotechnology to phase out suffering should not be confused with the idea of turning us all into junkies. In the long run, I hope that genetic remediation / enhancements can one day allow us to dispense with drugs - all drugs - completely. But you're right Joelr: our response to opioids does give a vital clue.

* * *

Indeed so Elijah. The moral superiority (or otherwise) of individual vegans to non-vegans is no more relevant to the case against animal exploitation than the moral superiority (or otherwise) of missionaries to cannibals or antislavery campaigners to slaveowners.

* * *

Vincit, in one sense of course all our views can ultimately be traced to neurochemistry. But yes, in practice depressives with a low hedonic set-point are more likely to hold negative utilitarian and nihilistic views. Conversely, temperamentally happy people with high hedonic set-points tend to think life is fundamentally good. We all project our own feelings on the world.

However, let us assume for the sake of argument that David Benatar is fundamentally correct in his diagnosis. Is Benatar's anti-natalist prescription a viable policy option? Alas I think antinatalism is doomed from the outset. All we achieve by choosing to remain childless is to impose selection pressure against any predisposition to be socially responsible - and instead create selection pressure in favour of religious zealots (etc) who believe they have a duty to "go forth and multiply". Unfortunately, Benatar nowhere (to my knowledge) tackles what we may call the "argument from selection pressure". Short of plotting Armageddon, the only way I know to phase out the biology of suffering - in human and nonhuman animals alike - in our forward light-cone is to use advanced technology, i.e. the costly, time-consuming and complicated processes of genetic engineering, compassionate ecosystem stewardship, and hedonic recalibration.

* * *

Veritas Vincit, warmest thanks! I suspect most people would agree with Woody Allen: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon.” David Benatar has undoubtedly written a very brave and honest book. Hats off to OUP for publishing it. My main worry is that Benatar's antinatalism will lead readers sympathetic to his diagnosis in a fruitlessly nihilistic direction rather than an exploration of technical solutions. Contra Benatar, in a future world where experience below hedonic zero is physically impossible, coming into existence will not be a harm.

* * *

Peter George, yes, Glastonbury is a test laboratory for budding pleasure scientists. From a technical perspective, inducing constant euphoria is no harder than inducing constant dysphoria. In evolutionary terms, such lifelong uniformity of hedonic tone - as distinct from possession of a typical hedonic set-point - would be genetically maladaptive. Constant bliss or constant misery is inconsistent with an information-processing role for the pleasure-pain axis. Hence the continuing need, I think, for information-sensitive hedonic gradients and retaining multiple negative feedback mechanisms in the CNS. Critically, however, the hedonic floor, hedonic set-point and hedonic ceiling of organic robots are ultimately adjustable parameters. Other things being equal, the higher they are set, the richer will be our quality of life. Other reward pathway enhancements will be feasible in future too. For instance. we might decide physically to increase the size, cortical projections and cellular density of our twin "hedonic hotspots". Just how vast is the gulf that separates us from pure utilitronium I don't know.

Unfortunately, the prospect of hedonic recalibration doesn't set one's pulse racing. As Jeremy Bentham noted long ago, “Happiness is a very pretty thing to feel, but very dry to talk about.”

Just as in Christian theology there is a hierarchy of Heaven, likewise we may envisage a hierarchy of secular transhumans and posthumans with reward circuitry whose upper hedonic range and intensity varies from the merely sublime to levels of well-being completely beyond human comprehension.
Or I could be completely mistaken and we retain the status quo indefinitely.
Either way, before exploring more exotic scenarios, we need to conduct rigorous and exhaustive studies into the very happiest and highest functioning non-manic people now. Beyond rose-tinted spectacles, what are the pitfalls of an exalted hedonic set-point - both for the individual and civilisation as a whole?

Thank you Veritas Vincit, Yes, Living Object, for "science", feel free to substitute "the application of scientific knowledge".
No one disputes that unpleasant experience can sometimes play the role of learning tool. What's in question is whether it's computationally indispensable. Unless you're challenging the Church–Turing thesis, the answer would appear to be no. Critically, we should distinguish phenomenal pain from nociception - and likewise distinguish the "raw feels" of our core emotions from their functional role in the ancestral environment of adaptation. Today silicon (etc) robots can be programmed with nociceptive function so respond to, and avoid, noxious stimuli in the absence of the nasty "raw feels" of phenomenal pain. Eventually, organic robots can offload such functions onto smart prostheses as well. In the meantime, choosing "low pain" but not "no pain" alleles of the SCN9A gene for our prospective children via preimplantation genetic diagnosis would dramatically reduce the burden of suffering.

Within the conceptual framework of orthodox scientific materialism, the existence of subjective experience is a profound mystery.
But on present evidence, experience of any kind below hedonic zero will soon become technically optional.

* * *

Living Object, the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the world are blighted by physical pain. Yes, for luckier folk, physical pain is just a briefly annoying signalling mechanism which rarely impairs quality of life. If one falls into the latter category, then it's natural to give phenomenal pain-reduction a low place on one's list of priorities. A migraine sufferer would beg to differ. Despite the inadequacies of existing pain-therapies - and the nonexistence of any preimplantation genetic screening program for "high pain" alleles of e.g. SCN9A - a broad ethical / ideological consensus exists that people should be given maximal opportunity to lead healthy pain-free lives. Thus only historians now recall early opposition to "unnatural" pain-free surgery:

No such consensus extends to the prospect of phasing out the biology of "psychological" suffering - let alone the prospect of life animated by gradients of bliss. But I think our descendants will look back on Darwinian life as characterised by an immense pleasure deficit. I don't know if posthumans will be able to understand experience below "hedonic zero" at all.

* * *

Living Object, in one sense I completely agree with you: the more planning the better. In some contexts, the risks of implementing an abolitionist bioethic would still seem negligible and the potential benefits immense. For example, if (fancifully I believe) nonhuman animals aren't really conscious and we all go vegetarian, what is the worst outcome ethically? Humans will have needlessly deprived ourselves of an agreeable taste - at least until the era of in vitro meat. In practice, shutting factory farms and slaughterhouses will prevent suffering on an unimaginable scale. But yes, other risks of trying to phase out involuntary suffering are substantial. Thus a majority of risk-averse people would say we should continue to have children "naturally" rather than tamper with the wisdom of Nature. But all children born via sexual reproduction are experiments, the product of quasi-random genetic shuffling and the genetic lottery of sex. There isn't a safe option. If we were to refrain from having children before we understand the full ramifications of their genetic source code - and its expression in a complex environment - then we'd wait until Doomsday. Of course, most folk just have kids and hope for the best. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis and the pre-selection of alleles and allelic combinations predisposing to happy, smart, healthy, pain-free children doesn't guarantee a happy outcome - it just improves the odds. Traditional genetic roulette may be "natural"; it's not remotely safe.

* * *

Indeed so. Veritas Vincit, Living Object, alas evolutionary psychology doesn't offer a lot of hope for radical mood-enhancement by non-biological means. The story, we are asked to believe, goes something like this. Solitary, non-social animals can suffer a lot; but they don't seem to get depressed. By contrast, a conditionally-activated vulnerability to low mood - and the subordinate behaviour that low mood usually entails - among weaker group members is an adaptation to group living in a predator-richer environment. If it were really possible to "think oneself happy" and thereby fake being a dominant alpha, then weaker individuals would be tempted to confront a dominant alpha with potentially catastrophic consequences for themselves - either death / serious injury or being driven from the troop / tribe, itself a virtual death sentence. Instead, involuntarily "keeping one's head down" is sometimes genetically adaptive, albeit subjectively unpleasant.

An analogous evolutionary story can be told with anxiety. Mothers who were able to "think positive" and stop worrying all the time typically weren't the mothers who passed on genes to grandchildren - unlike the neurotics perpetually fretting about lions and so forth.

Of course the full story is undoubtedly much more complicated. And although I don't think non-biological techniques can ever let us transcend our personal, genetically constrained ceiling of good mood / low anxiety; there are certainly many ways to make things worse.

FrankLeeSeaux, I think you're expressed a deeply-felt intuition most of us have - even those of us who believe biotechnology can in principle abolish suffering altogether in favour of gradients of lifelong well-being. But I think the strength of this intuition attests merely to how deeply embedded is the existence of experience below hedonic zero in our conceptual scheme, not to any fundamental technical obstacle to its elimination.

True, life animated by gradients of bliss is not "life as we know it"; I can respond only "Amen".

* * *

Sequoia Throne, I can't do full justice to your points. However, here goes:

1. Torture that doesn't cause pain isn't torture. But lifelong well-being is not the same as uniform euphoria. The point of urging hedonic recalibration rather than perpetual maximum bliss is to allow critical insight and ethical responsibility to be retained. Possession of an exalted hedonic set-point is consistent with retention of most of our existing values and preferences - or at least those of our values and preferences worth preserving in a post-Darwinian world. Thus to rape someone diminishes their well-being even if their reward architecture has been enhanced.

2a. No one values the experience suicidal despair or unbearable agony. In masochists, certain ritualised submissive behaviours involving otherwise painful stimuli trigger the release of intensely rewarding endogenous opioids. And the capacity to endure great pain stoically - to be a "macho" alpha-male - can be valued for the status / reproductive opportunities it affords in a warrior society. But the (dis)value of the pain-pleasure axis seems to be universal.

2b. Predators and their victims? First, let's consider human predators. To champion the interests of (human) serial killers over their "prey" would be perverse. This isn't to say human predators should be harmed; but by common consent, their would-be victims need protection. So why turn this order of priorities on its head when the victims are sentient beings from other species? To be sure, some nonhuman predators are currently "obligate" carnivores. But that's the point: they needn't be "obligate" for much longer. (cf. http://www.reprogramming-predators.com/)

3. I immensely respect Buddhism (and Jainism). Overcoming suffering should indeed be our ethical priority. Likewise, we should all support socioeconomic reform: campaigning for a kinder, fairer world. But consider the empirical evidence. Self-reported levels of (un)happiness, the incidence of depression and anxiety disorders, suicide rates (etc) suggest that we are not significantly (un)happier than our ancestors on the African savannah. Why? In short, the hedonic treadmill. A viciously effective set of negative feedback mechanisms in the brain keep us discontented a lot of the time - and would do so even if we were living in the Garden of Eden. Unfortunately, I know of no supportive evidence that e.g. Buddhist meditational disciplines (or creating unlimited material abundance) can recalibrate our hedonic set-points. Nor can pursuing the Noble Eightfold path (or socioeconomic reform) abolish the horrors of the food chain.

4. The evil of suffering? Well, as sure as I know anything at all, I know the self-intimating awfulness of my own agony and despair. Science teaches that I'm in no way special or ontologically privileged. So in adopting the God's-eye point-of-view mandated by natural science, I universalise the disvalue of suffering, i.e. insofar as suffering is bad for me, I infer it's bad for anyone anywhere. Hence the potential application of abolitionist bioethics to the rest of the living world. Used wisely, scientific knowledge promises to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering in our forward light-cone.

Subrosa, there is no contradiction - or even tension - between arguing that organic life can be animated entirely by information-sensitive gradients of bliss and stressing that "lifelong well-being is not the same as uniform euphoria." Even if we opt for a default hedonic tone - and a genetically constrained hedonic floor - orders of magnitude richer than today's norm, informational-sensitivity to "good" and "bad" stimuli is essential to conserving intellectual insight, social responsibility and critical appreciation. So I fear you've missed my point. It's the perils of uniformity, not bliss, I was warning against. To be constitutionally blissful is not equivalent to being uniformly "blissed out".

* * *

Subrosa, the ability to revise or update one's beliefs in the light of fresh evidence is admirable. So if what I write here contradicts what I wrote 18 years ago in HI, I wouldn't feel the need apologise. But as far as I can tell, I've been boringly consistent about the possibility of lifelong bliss, rather than (as you allege) "accidentally contradicting yourself, or purposefully misleading". Lifelong bliss is not the same as lifelong uniform bliss. In common with dysphoria, euphoria comes in degrees. These degrees can potentially play an information-signalling role regardless of one's location on the pleasure-pain axis. However, the theme of this discussion thread is whether (the application of) science can phase out the biology of involuntary suffering, not whether we will subsequently go on to explore higher levels of posthuman bliss (superhappiness.com) The latter question is inevitably more speculative, although I don't doubt it's technically feasible.

Ecosystems? Well, as Richard Dawkins observes, “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites..."etc) So I can sympathise, at least, with a perspective like e.g. Robert Wiblin's "Just Destroy Nature". But the whole point of outlining a blueprint for complicated, costly and technically challenging ecosystem redesign and cross-species genome editing (as in "Reprogramming Predators" etc) is to allow an approximation of our existing Darwinian ecosystem to be maintained - minus its terrible cruelties. In short, the option of compassionate bioconservatism.

Immersive VR? Well, it's coming. I suspect it will be hugely addictive. But there would be immense selection pressure against a complete retreat from basement reality into designer virtual worlds. Hence the importance of securing the basement.

Subrosa, as Einstein observed, "Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." As Einstein also observed, we should go further, i.e. "widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures." Ensuring sentient beings never die of hunger, thirst or disease - and are never asphyxiated, disembowelled or eaten alive - is at the heart of abolitionist bioethics. Are we prepared to follow through the ramifications of what an expanding circle of compassion entails, i.e. underpinning the well-being of all sentience in our forward light-cone?

Subrosa, I'm not advocating destroying life! If Einstein had meant "acceptance of the natural world" rather than expanding the circle of compassion to all sentient beings, then presumably he's have said so. More specifically, if you are compassionate towards other sentient beings - cognitively humble or otherwise - then you do not allow them to starve, or be asphyxiated, or disembowelled, or eaten alive. You try and help them.

* * *

Subrosa, in canvassing immersive VR for ghouls who really do want to view Darwinian life "red-in-tooth-and-claw", I was trying to accommodate prurient or bloodthirsty folk convinced that phasing our the cruelties of the living world would rob them of some sort of spectacle.

I do not advocate destroying Nature! If you omit the sentence following the Robert Wiblin "Just Destroy Nature" link, you negate the point I was making, i.e. expressly to argue against its destruction. ["But the whole point of outlining a blueprint for complicated, costly and technically challenging ecosystem redesign and cross-species genome editing (as in "Reprogramming Predators" etc) is to allow an approximation of our existing Darwinian ecosystem to be maintained - minus its terrible cruelties."]

The normative discipline of conservation biology does not take account the suffering of free-living nonhuman animals. A small but growing minority of researchers is starting to challenge consensus wisdom. For a scholarly bibliography, see e.g. http://masalladelaespecie.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/publications-wild-animal-suffering-intervention.pdf

Subrosa, there is nothing inconsistent or irrational about stating that you sympathise with someone's point of view; and then proceeding to argue against its adoption. If I were really arguing for the "destruction" of Nature, then I would not be attempting e.g. costed case studies of what compassionate stewardship of the living world will entail. (cf. A Welfare State for Elephants)

Lions and crocodiles (etc) as they exist today are serial killers. By all means use a euphemism instead if you wish to denote their predatory behaviour towards other sentient beings; the case for protecting their victims stands. Where predators rather than food supply have been the limiting factor on the population size of a species of herbivore, and then the herbivores are no longer preyed upon, it's essential to use immunocontraception for the proposes of fertility regulation. Otherwise there will be uncontrolled population growth followed by ecological collapse. But fertility regulation does not entail "destroying" Nature.

* * *

Subrosa, in the course of debate we're all capable of missing the finer subtleties in each other's positions. But there is an immense gulf between claiming I advocate the "destruction" of Nature and your worry that an unintended consequence of compassionate stewardship would be its destruction. Thus fertility regulation of elephants in African wildlife reserves whose carrying capacity is exceeded is not a threat to the survival of the species. Nor is preimplantation genetic screening. A regime of designer zygotes might conceivably pose such risks; such interventions are not imminent.

I suspect you will respond that a lion who eats in vitro meat and/or has been genetically / behaviourally tweaked to avoid periodically hunting "prey" is not authentically a lion - her species-essence or whatever has been violated. Therefore, I'm urging "destroying" Nature in some metaphorical sense - no more "Nature, red in tooth and claw". But if people can be (partially) civilised, why can't lions? The fact humans now deprecate slavery, infanticide, rape, aggressive warfare, etc doesn't entail the destruction of Homo sapiens, rather our enhancement. Likewise with nonhumans. Is this vision an anthropomorphic projection on my part? Well, the desire not to be harmed is universal amongst sentient beings. So let's expand our circle of compassion to ensure their interests are protected - regardless of race or species.

"Serial killers"? Human and nonhuman, each will have their unique characteristics. But if an agent kills in sequence one sentient being after another, then a serial killer is at work. Your denying such a characterisation suggests a lack of comfort with the ramifications of your position - understandably so, I feel.

We agree that lions, tigers, and a handful of apex predators "help keep populations of deer, wild pig, antelope and gaur in check." The ethical question is whether population control is best conducted via the cruelties of predation. (cf. "The Landscape of Fear: Ecological Implications of Being Afraid", John W. Laundré et al., The Open Ecology Journal, 2010, 3, 1-7 1 http://www.cof.orst.edu/leopold/papers/Laundre_etal2010.pdf)? Or instead via non-invasive fertility regulation, primarily immunocontraception?

* * *

Subrosa, the theme of this discussion thread is whether science can abolish suffering. In the case of free-living nonhuman animals, the challenge might seem technically impossible. Or rather we are confronted with a stark choice.
Either humans:
1) allow untold suffering in free-living animals to continue indefinitely,
or
2) phase out nonhuman vertebrate life altogether, presumably though mass-sterilisation.
But there is a third option to weigh. This is the technically ambitious kind of compassionate stewardship of the rest of the living world outlined in "Reprogramming Predators" and elsewhere. By all means feel free to reject options two and three alike in favour of the biological status quo. But to lump together option two (i.e. destruction) and option three (reform) is crude and simplistic if not wholly misleading. Yes, for polemical purposes you can simply define "destruction" as an absence of predation, starvation and other miseries of Darwinian life, in which case the claim I advocate "destruction" becomes trivially true. But the maintenance of complex, cruelty-free ecosystems and a recognisable approximation of today's "charismatic mega-fauna" is far removed from a world where they are extinct.

* * *

Tizio, yes, let's assume for the sake of argument that humans do assume responsibility for compassionate stewardship of the rest of Nature - in effect, for what goes on in our wildlife parks. As you say, even if we phase out predation and starvation, there is still the problem of accidents - and the frailties of old age. On the face it, the challenges here are insurmountable. Fortunately, there are remedies...

First, accidents. Traditional conservation biologists would argue we should "let Nature take its course" - regardless of the suffering involved. Humans, they'll claim, shouldn't "interfere". [This principle of non-interference doesn't stop them running active breeding or grams for big cats etc] Most animal advocates would favour merely ad hoc interventions.

But within the next few decades, compassionate intervention to help free-living animals needn't be piecemeal. The exponential growth of computer power and GPS tracking and surveillance capabilities means that every cubic meter of the planet will be computationally accessible to systematic micro-management and compassionate intervention. (cf. biointelligence-explosion.com) Starting with large, long-lived terrestrial vertebrates, nonhuman animals can enjoy the blessings of Accident and Emergency Care too...

Old age? Well, no law of Nature compels organic (but not silicon) robots to grow old. So in the long run I predict we're going to use biotechnology to phase out nonhuman animal senescence, as well as our own. But in the meantime, there's still lots we can do now. In "A Welfare State For Elephants", I explore the plight of elderly free-living elephants whose final set of molars wears down. Today, they slowly starve to death because they can no longer adequately chew. Eventually, free-living elephants collapse though exhaustion and malnourishment. They are then at risk of being eaten alive by lions, a horrible way to die. If on the other hand, they are fitted with artificial teeth, then elderly elephants can flourish indefinitely. The upper limits to elephant lifespan in the absence of dental constraints are unknown. Of course comprehensive cross-species care is a mammoth undertaking. This example is just illustrative.

Veritas Vincit, thanks again for your comments. As you argue, "cautious intervention" and careful risk-benefit analysis and modelling are essential. Even the most passionate advocate of abolitionist bioethics should recognize the potential pitfalls of ethical stewardship. Let's get this right.

* * *

Yes, I suspect even people otherwise sympathetic to abolitionist bioethics tend to balk at the mind-boggling complexity of notionally micromanaging the well-being of all sentience in every cubic metre of the planet. Obamacare for elephants, yes, and perhaps rudimentary care and support for other large terrestrial vertebrates in our "wildlife parks" is feasible later this century; but the computational resources and nano-robotic expertise needed to police the oceans are intuitively centuries away. However, our intuitions aren't geared to the implications of exponential growth. Moore's law shows no sign of slackening: Technological Singularity. Technically, the abolitionist project could be probably be completed early next century - but in practice it's viable for nonhumans only if and when we are ethically serious about phasing out involuntary suffering. The fundamental challenge isn't technological or even financial; it's ethical-ideological. Hence this debate.

p.s. Veritas Vincit, apologies for perpetrating such an excruciating pun! I promise I winced; perhaps some pain at least is justified this side of paradise.

* * *

Subrosa, the case for using biotechnology to phase out involuntary suffering would just as strong if it were scribbled on the back of a cornflake packet. The only reason I linked to the academically published Springer volume, release date April 2013), is because you were so scornful I never print-published - and then implied the material must of ancient vintage. [The Biointelligence Explosion was commissioned and written in 2012.] Needless to say, I don't seriously expect you to shell out the sum of $71; that was why I originally cited the URL of the full online text instead.

...For example, gene editing technology can potentially increase human genetic diversity by creating all sorts of code sequences that could never have evolved "naturally". Evolution of the traits they code for would have entailed crossing dips in the evolutionary fitness-landscape forbidden by natural selection. On the other hand, some forms of genetic diversity are presumably best curtailed, e.g. the thousand or so malign variants identified in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene.

Subrosa, we are all unique genetic experiments. Introducing novel genetic code sequences is certainly not safe. The quasi-random meiotic shuffling of genes in sexual reproduction throws up endless genetic novelties with sometimes catastrophic results. But that's the point at issue. Other things being equal, which is more dangerous - careful pre-planning or a genetic crapshoot? We both agree that the outcome of either planning or unplanned genetic recombination can potentially be disastrous. But if we want to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering, then designer genomes are essential. Otherwise, we can be sure suffering on a unimaginable scale will persist indefinitely.

Here's a thought-experiment. Imagine if we stumble across an advanced alien civilisation who have phased out the biology of suffering. Its inhabitants lead rich lives animated by gradients of intelligent bliss. The ecosystems of their wildlife parks are compassionately micromanaged. What arguments would you use to try and persuade these post-Darwinian extraterrestrials to reintroduce suffering, i.e. to re-create involuntary pain, depression, anxiety, disorders, jealousy and other Darwinian states of mind endured by their primitive ancestors? How would you explain the blessings of what they were missing? Would it really be ethical to re-introduce starvation, parasitism, asphyxiation , disembowelling, being eaten alive and "the ecology of fear" into their wildlife parks?

Most (but not all) people respond to this thought-experiment by agreeing that re-introducing the biology of suffering would be unethical. This negative response illustrates, I think, our own status quo bias. Involuntary pain and suffering have been inseparable from life on Earth for so long that we find it inconceivable life here could be any different. But shortly they are going to become technically optional.

Subrosa, the purpose of the thought-experiment was not to illustrate hidden dangers, but rather to try and disentangle ethical / ideological objections to a world without suffering from the effects of status quo bias.
That is why I'm asking you a question in the context of the thought-experiment. In a civilisation where suffering has been abolished, would you seek to reintroduce it? If so, what arguments would you use to motivate its reintroduction?

Don't feel obliged to answer, I was just curious.

More practically, I'm still unclear whether you are opposed to using biotech to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering because you believe that:
1) the use of biotech will in practice lead to more suffering?
2) the goal of phasing out involuntary suffering is itself unethical?
3) both?

* * *

Subrosa, the questions weren't rhetorical: I was unsure how you'd respond. To argue that a world without any suffering would be ethically admirable, but you don't believe that biotechnology will deliver such a benign outcome, is a perfectly respectable position. As a prophecy, it may also be true. Either way, I am no more enthusiastic about Monsanto, or corporate capitalism, or government corruption (etc) than are you. Yet the evils of big government, corporate greed and the cash nexus are not proof that biotechnology is inherently malign. They are an argument against gene patenting - and in favour of open-source genetics. Later this century and beyond, I believe everyone should have the right to edit their own genetic source code - and likewise the right to have invincibly happy and healthy children as well. Would you permit such genetic choices? Or outlaw them as in your judgement too risky?

* * *

Subrosa, we can both agree that Freeman Dyson, for example, underplays the risks in "Our Biotech Future":

But you go further. If you are right to believe that all biotechnology is malign by its very nature, then suffering, aging and genetic disease are destined to endure as long as life itself.
Do you believe that e.g. preimplantation genetic screening should be made unlawful? What should be the penalties for its use?
Do you believe that writing clean code for e.g. silicon robots is inherently malign? Or just for organic robots?

In my own work, I've tried to explore the technical preconditions for a world without involuntary suffering - and offered (very) tentative reasons for why some such scenario will ultimately come to pass. But anticipating the nature of selection pressure (cf. http://www.reproductive-revolution.com/") as the reproductive revolution of designer babies unfolds is an immense challenge. And of course if bioconservatism prevails, there won't be a "reproductive revolution" at all.

Subrosa, we're all had the experience of putting forward an argument that seems luminously self-evident - and then been mystified when someone doesn't "get it". Is this guy a knave or a fool? But rather than expressing our feelings, it's best painstakingly to explore the different background assumptions that lead to disagreement. I gather we agree - in the abstract at any rate - both on the principle of abolitionist bioethics (i.e. an ethic of minimising involuntary suffering) and also the evils of biotechnology controlled by profit-driven multinationals. But could you support its democratically accountable use?

* * *

Subrosa, you say, "Of course anyone would agree with the minimization of involuntary suffering". If only this were the case! Recall Nietzsche - an extreme example admittedly: "You want, if possible - and there is no more insane "if possible" - to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it - that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible - that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering - do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?" (Beyond Good and Evil, p 225)

Among secularist rationalists who do favour the minimisation (and ultimately abolition) of involuntary suffering, there is clearly a divide between advocates of socioeconomic reform and biologically based-approaches. I think the two approaches should be combined; you believe biotechnology will do more harm than good.

From a technical perspective, we already know genetically how to breed atypically happy - and (unethically IMO) atypically depressive - rats. A critic will point out that humans are not rats. But humans wouldn't use "animal models" if their results didn't typically translate into human beings too. Indeed, that's the ethical justification offered by vivisectionists for why animal experiments are supposedly essential. Either, way, today phasing out the biology of suffering would be immensely challenging; later this century it will be merely difficult; eventually it will be technically trivial.

More realistically, isn't biotechnology more likely to be used for biological warfare and the creation of weaponized pathogens than the creation of a welfare state for bunny rabbits?

This century, quite probably yes. But in the long run, the living world doesn't have to be this way.

* * *

TatTvamAsi, intuitively, yes, one might imagine that pain and pleasure are largely or wholly relative. But recall how today there are millions of people who are severely and chronically depressed. Loss of any hint of happiness in their lives does not banish their suffering. Conversely, unipolar euphoric mania is marked by an intensification of experience, not emotional numbing.

Clearly, we don't want to become manic! But technically, at least, life animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss could potentially be more intense than anything physiologically feasible today. By comparison with future life, typical archaic humans (like you or me) may be akin to sleepwalkers in a trance. Amplified dopamine function in particular seems implicated in an intensification of experience - though other neurotransmitter systems are involved too. Contrast the millions of people who currently numb their wits with ethyl alcohol.

* * *

TatTvamAsi, there is a sense in which someone born blind does not fully understand blindness until given an operation that enables her to see. Likewise, a victim of chronic and unremitting depression, who cannot imagine what it's like to be happy, may not fully grasp the nature of the disorder until her mood lifts. But congenital blindness isn't any less real for lack of contrast. Neither is unremitting misery - or bliss.

* * *

VCP, many thanks for some very thoughtful points. I won't be able to do them all justice in my response. But here goes...

1) In the midst of fire, flood or famine, you don't launch a research program into the molecular genetics of the hedonic treadmill. Nor is biotechnology going to resolve, e.g. the war in Syria. Yet we shouldn't suppose that preimplantation genetic screening, for example, is irrelevant to poorer families and poorer countries. On the contrary, prospective parents who use preimplantation genetic screening thereby maximise the chances of their offspring enjoying a physically healthy and (in future) psychologically healthy life. Financially, too, preimplantation genetic screening is potentially hugely cost-effective - both for individual families and society as a whole. Its cost-effectiveness is most obvious in the prevention of well-recognised monogenetic physical diseases like cystic fibrosis. But the financial costs of clinical and subclinical depression, for example, are immense - quite aside from the miseries of low mood. We know from twin studies that depression has a high degree of genetic loading. So let's consider India, for instance, still a relatively poor Third World country. India is already_ one of the largest users of preimplantation genetic screening. The procedure is done for the purposes of gender selection, not physical or psychological superhealth. In future, preimplantation genetic screening could be extended to the physical and psychological health of prospective children - in the developed and developing world alike. In short, to improve long-term quality of life I think we need both socio-economic improvement and biotechnological intervention to debug the human genome.

[I don't urge you to wade through the entire preceding discussion in this thread - life is short. But consider the comparative international percentages of people describing themselves as "very happy". Indonesia, India and Mexico rank one, two and three respectively. This figure should give pause to anyone who believes that subjective well-being is an uncomplicated function of material affluence.]

2) Just as in vitro meat is often confused with genetically engineered meat, likewise preimplantation genetic diagnosis is often conflated with designer genomes - and with the more radical rewrites of our genetic source code that will be technically feasible later this century and beyond. In the case of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, we are simply pre-selecting from zygotes that sexual reproduction has thrown up "naturally". Now I'm personally sceptical that any ethical weight at all should be given to the "natural" / "artificial" distinction. But bioconservatives for whom the distinction does carry weight can rest assured that by using preimplantation genetic diagnosis, humans are not tampering with the genetic handiwork of God or Mother Nature (etc), simply choosing from what our bodies have "naturally" thrown up - potentially everything from pain thresholds (e.g. benign alleles of the SCN9A gene) to hedonic set-points (e.g. the benign allele of the COMT gene.)

3) You rightly raise the issue of responsibility. In the liberal individualistic West, prospective parents will almost certainly take the critical genetic decisions as the reproductive revolution gathers pace, presumably guided by genetic counselling. But state-directed initiatives are conceivable too - with varying degrees of authoritarianism or paternalism. And further into the future, it's conceivable that having children with malware-ridden code might be regarded by the medico-legal authorities - and society as a whole - as akin to child abuse. Compare how blood transfusions have been transformed from dangerously experimental to de rigueur in certain circumstances - so much so that Jehovah's Witnesses who deny their child a life-saving transfusion may have their parental decision overridden. Critically, to catalogue the potential ethical dilemmas ahead is not to argue for preserving the horrors of genetic status quo.

4) Bitter-sweet experiences are far removed from outright suffering. Many of the worst forms of unpleasant experience - neuropathic pain and chronic depression, for instance - are just nasty and meaningless, with no redeeming features at all. Unipolar depression does not lead to great art or literature. Clearly, getting rid of the worst (rather than "minor") forms of suffering is the highest ethical priority. But what about mediocre states of mind - and also "mixed" states of the kind you describe? Well, I'd just argue that if given the opportunity to enjoy either (1) a predisposition to lifelong well-being in the form of information-sensitive gradients or intelligent bliss OR (2) a predisposition to a mixture of the great and the mediocre/disappointing, then it's ethically preferable to choose lifelong well-being. Why settle for the mediocre when we can enjoy the sublime? Increasingly, we'll be able to load the genetic dice in favour of our future children. In the case of our own subjective well-being as mature adults, future interventions to recalibrate the hedonic treadmill needn't entail sacrificing anything we now conceive as valuable. This is because an elevated hedonic set-point can - potentially - leave your existing values and preference architectures intact. If your hedonic set-point is elevated, you may still prefer Bach to Beethoven. You just derive more pleasure from both.

5) Foresight?
Some predictions can be made with great confidence. If humans carry on with the traditional genetic crapshoot of sexual reproduction, then pain and suffering will persist indefinitely. If we conserve Darwinian ecosystems in their existing guise, billions of sentient beings will suffer horribly each day - just as they've suffered for at least 540 million years.

By contrast, the ramifications of phasing out the biology of suffering are unknown. Is our ignorance good reason not to embark on any such project - or rather to lay the theoretical groundwork for what such a project entails? Compare, say, a chronic pain-specialist. How does the pain-specialist know that some of his patients, when cured, won't go on to do terrible things? Of course he doesn't! All the pain-specialist (and we) can do is weigh risk-reward ratios. Depending on our theory of value, a pain-free bioengineered world where we're all animated by gradients of well-being may be sub-optimal by some criteria. Perhaps it may be sup-optimal by criteria we can't currently imagine. But by contrast, today's world is a Darwinian hell-hole.

* * *

Historian Lewis Namier once remarked how “One would expect people to remember the past and imagine the future, but in fact…they imagine the past and remember the future.” And the "future" that most of us remember is a blend of childhood science-fiction novels and Hollywood movies: Skynet, HAL, and - in the case of a future of genetic engineering - Gattaca. Yes VCP, I've seen the movie. By all means, let's treat Gattaca and Huxley's Brave New World as instructive studies of the pitfalls to avoid as the impending reproductive revolution of preimplantation genetic diagnosis - and later designer genomes - unfolds. But the fact these pitfalls exist is no reason to try and conserve today's genetic crapshoot - not if we want to phase out suffering at any rate.

Can political and socioeconomic reform alone tackle the fundamental causes of suffering? Utopian reformers throughout history, both secular and religious, have certainly believed so. The historical track-record is not encouraging. There is no evidence (e.g. suicide rates) that contemporary humans are (un)happier, on average, than our ancestors on the African savannah. Also, the conviction that environmental manipulation alone is sufficient to banish psychological distress rums counter to everything we know about the biology of the hedonic treadmill and the nature of our core emotions. Consider, say, jealousy - the source of heartache the world over. Yes, we can acknowledge jealous feelings are irrational - as distinct from genetically adaptive. But no amount of social engineering or ideological re-education is going to get rid of sexual jealousy. For most people, the corrosive experience of jealousy is as involuntary as sneezing. Only radical biological interventions can realistically promise to abolish such feelings - and other nasty legacy emotions from our Darwinian past.

Art? Unravelling the molecular basis of aesthetic experience should allow us to create beauty beyond the bounds of normal experience. In principle, such beauty could be the backdrop to everyday life.

"Mixed" emotions: are they richer? Well, a masochist, for example, might insist that s/he doesn't want to give up mixed, complex, pleasurable-painful experiences. We should of course respect this choice. But the masochist's life would be more rewarding if the painful stimuli needed to trigger the enjoyable endogenous opioids released by certain ritualised forms of submission, degradation and physical abuse were replaced by pure bliss. Likewise with bitter-sweet nostalgia, "melancholy" music, and so forth. Either way, banishing negative experiences without any redeeming features at all (such as neuropathic pain or chronic unipolar depression) is more morally urgent than purifying the kinds of imperfect experience that we already, on balance, enjoy.

However, you also make a very different point - an argument you describe as fundamental, namely "...when you claim to be helping people by ending suffering with this solution all you are really doing is replacing those who would suffer with those who won't. You have not really saved anyone in particular. All you've done is made the numbers come out better. The best you can say is that you saved some people from suffering by saving them from life. I wonder if most of them would really thank you for that." May I ask if you are ethically opposed to contraception and family planning? By choosing via preimplantation genetic diagnosis to have a healthy baby rather than a child with cystic fibrosis, for example, we prevent immense suffering. We have not harmed a non-existent entity. No one is harmed by not existing. Moreover, in aiming for a world without cystic fibrosis, we are not disrespecting or discriminating against existing people with such genetic disorders. On the contrary, we seek to find the victims a cure. Existing sufferers overwhelmingly want a cure too - and certainly not to have children with cystic fibrosis. By the same token, by genetically choosing to have children with e.g. high pain thresholds, an unusually empathetic disposition, and a high hedonic set-point, we can potentially prevent frightful suffering too. In opting to have superhappy, superhealthy children, we will not thereby harm non-existent depressive and pain-ridden people who would otherwise have come into being instead - any more than humans do by practising contraception today.

Permanence? Just as phasing out cystic fibrosis is in theory reversible - we might (fancifully) re-create the harmful cystic fibrosis alleles future - the same is true of genes / allelic combinations predisposing to all manner of nasty Darwinian states of mind: jealousy, anxiety disorders, depression, neuropathic pain and so forth. Neither germline interventions or autosomal gene edits are irreversible. Future generations will probably "write genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses", to quote Freeman Dyson. In practice, of course, once we enjoy invincible psychological and physical superhealth, the likelihood of our deciding it was all a terrible mistake and reverting to archaic Darwinian life is vanishingly small. After all, would you urge members of an alien civilisation whose lives were animated by gradients of bliss to recreate the involuntary misery of antiquity? I suspect that our descendants will regard ancient apologists for suffering - and negative utilitarians like me - as in the grip of a depressive psychosis.

Nonhuman animals and the risk of anthropomorphic projection? I think a worse problem is that humans don't "project" our core emotions widely enough. Historically, a similar empathy deficit has plagued our treatment of members of other ethnic groups. Discounting minor complications, no one, regardless of race of species, desires to be harmed. Nonhuman vertebrates share essentially the same genes, anatomical pathways metabolic pathways and behavioural responses to noxious stimuli as humans. Radical philosophical scepticism aside, the panic-inducing feeling of suffocation, for example, is indescribably dreadful - whether you are a predated zebra or a waterboarded human being. Yes, by phasing out starvation, parasitism, asphyxiation, disembowelling and being eaten alive (etc) in our wildlife parks, humans will be "imposing" compassionate civilised values on the rest of the living world - "policing" Nature, so to speak. But preventing such cruelties is scarcely "presumptuous". By analogy, if famine breaks out in Ethiopia, it is not white ethnocentric Western arrogance to provide famine relief - and to help with family planning to secure sub-Saharan Africa's long-term future. Rather it's our obligation. As you point out, there is a disanalogy between ethnic groups and nonhuman animals in one sense at least. Sentient beings with the cognitive capacities of prelinguistic human child cannot expressly consent to be cared for and rescued from harm. But we recognise that we have a duty to safeguard the interests of young, vulnerable and cognitively disadvantaged humans. It's unwarranted speciesist bias to assume that an equivalent duty of care doesn't extend to nonhumans of equivalent sentience. (cf. The Antispeciesist Revolution)

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Biofeedback, sleep discipline, meditation [though not for melancholic depressives] regular aerobic exercise, good diet: petrushka.googol, I agree with you that these "natural" routes to well-being are admirable. But if we are ethically serious about tackling the biological roots of depression, then we'll need to edit our genetic source code. Alas embracing the Noble Eightfold Path does not recalibrate the hedonic treadmill or mitigate the horrors of the food chain.


The Hedonistic Imperative
1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9

David Pearce (2014)
dave@hedweb.com


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