MV: 1. Where did the idea for the hedonistic imperative come from? Why is it so important?
"May all that hath life be delivered from suffering", said Gautama Buddha. Abolitionist bioethics isn't new. What's changed is the technology to make it feasible. Until the biotech revolution, talk of "ending suffering" belonged to the realm of religious prophets and utopian dreamers. Natural selection didn't design living organisms to be happy. Discontent evolved because it's been hugely genetically adaptive. Human biology means that socio-economic reform and material abundance can't cheat the negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill. Practising the Noble Eightfold Path won't recalibrate hedonic set-points or dismantle the cruelties of the food chain. By contrast, editing our genetic source code can potentially phase out the biology of suffering throughout the living world. Future life can be animated by information-sensitive gradients of well-being - a motivational architecture of gradients of intelligent bliss. Such scenarios for the future of the biosphere are clearly speculative; but what's in question is their sociological credibility, not technical feasibility.
Why does abolitionist bioethics matter? Well, if you are in agony or despair, then the answer is self-intimating. My pain and suffering is deeply important to me. On the face of it, nothing follows from this commonplace to any wider bioethical project. As La Rochefoucauld remarks, "We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others." Yet natural science gives none of us reason to believe that we are special, or to suppose that this space-time location is somehow unique or privileged. The egocentric illusion is a genetically adaptive lie. If suffering is self-evidently important for me, and if I'm not really special in the way evolution makes each of us feel, then suffering is bad for anyone, anywhere, anytime. For reasons that science still doesn't understand, the pain-pleasure axis discloses a natural metric of (un)importance: the world's intrinsic axis of (dis)value. Hence not just personal morality but also collective decision-theoretic rationality suggests that the scope of the abolitionist project should be global rather than parochial. In the post-genomic era, to confine the relief of suffering to a single person, race or species would express an arbitrary and self-serving bias.
My own values are secular and utilitarian. Yet it's not necessary to endorse secularism or utilitarian ethics to recognise that minimising suffering and promoting happiness is important - even if promoting subjective well-being is only one of your values among others. The reason for laying such stress on a strategy of genetic-biological intervention rather than older, environmental approaches is comparative long-term efficacy. Socio-political reforms, economic growth and personal self-help are important. But they aren't going to abolish the metabolic pathways of suffering. Six months after a quadriplegia-inducing accident or a mammoth lottery win, scientific studies suggest that most people will have reverted to their self-reported level of subjective well-being or ill-being before the accident or jackpot. Unless we tackle the genetic basis of suffering, the evolutionarily ancient cycle of misery and malaise will persist indefinitely. Or as Thoreau puts it, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root”.
One of the biggest technical challenges ahead is to retain the computational-functional role of vital adaptations such as nociception, i.e. our biological capacity to avoid and respond to noxious stimuli, while simultaneously getting rid of their nasty "raw feels", i.e. mental and physical pain. I think the ideological challenges to biohappiness may prove more formidable.
MV: 2. How would you describe the hedonistic imperative to someone who had never heard of it?
The Hedonistic Imperative (HI) advocates the use of biotechnology to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering - not just in humans, but throughout the living world. Future life can be animated by gradients of intelligent well-being orders of magnitude richer than today's peak experiences. HI predicts that the world's last unpleasant experience in our forward light-cone - perhaps some minor pain in some obscure marine invertebrate - will be a precisely datable event several centuries hence.
These are bold claims. Here's a simple thought-experiment to illustrate why HI isn't quite as incredible as it sounds. Consider your hedonic range. Schematically, let's order your pleasant and unpleasant experiences on a scale of minus-ten to zero to plus-ten - with minus-ten representing suicidal despair; hedonic zero is emotionally neutral experience; and plus-ten is a sense of indescribable joy. On this crude scale, chronic depressives are trapped deep in hedonically sub-zero states; "hyperthymic" people spend most of their lives well above hedonic zero; and bipolars ("manic-depressives") oscillate violently between extremes. The rest of us fluctuate around a hedonic set-point either a little above or a little below hedonic zero. Critically, twin studies and recent breakthroughs in molecular genetics confirm that hedonic set-points have a high degree of genetic loading. With this scale in mind, imagine that you can choose - both for yourself via personal genome-editing and your future children via preimplantation genetic screening or germline editing - the genetic dial-settings for the upper and lower bounds of your hedonic range, and also the genetic dial-settings for the hedonic range of your prospective children. Imagine too that you can choose your average lifelong hedonic set-point and your future children's average lifelong hedonic set-point, i.e. the approximate default level of ill-being or well-being around which you fluctuate in the course of your life in the absence of short-lived peaks or troughs triggered by triumph or tragedy.
Which genetic-dial settings for hedonic range and hedonic set-point would you choose?
Informal straw-polling of prospective parents suggests an average favoured default-setting of "plus-eight" or "plus-nine" with a perhaps surprising number of "plus-ten" responses. Whatever the exact figure, next consider the nature of selection pressure in a post-Darwinian world where millions and eventually billions of people make similar genetic decisions in anticipation of the likely psychological and behavioural effects of such genetic choices. Recall that traditional natural selection is "blind"; and genetic mutations are "random" with respect to the direction of evolution. In the coming era of "designer babies", the old regime of natural selection will increasingly be replaced by artificial selection - in humans and nonhuman animals alike.
Mankind's hedonic range - as calibrated simplistically by this toy scale - currently spans minus-ten to plus-ten, with approximate hedonic set-points clustering slightly above or slightly below hedonic zero. Future civilisations may flourish within a notional hedonic range of, say, plus-ninety to plus-hundred. Our twin, cubic centimetre-sized "hedonic hotspots" in the ventral pallidum and rostral shell of the nucleus accumbens lend themselves to radical enrichment. Reward pathway enhancements can permit a hedonic range that is arbitrarily wide or shallow, i.e. characterised by more or less hedonic contrast, yet without ever sinking to malaise-ridden human levels of consciousness.
"Hedonic range" sounds a cold and clinical phenomenon. Let's pause to reflect on what such a range entails. We're alluding to a subjectively hyper-valuable quality of experience that feels more wonderful than you or I have ever felt, or could ever feel. Just before an ecstatic epileptic seizure, Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky's The Idiot remarks, "I would give my whole life for this one instant." Biotech can manufacture sentient beings primed for a succession of richer instants than Prince Myshkin's peak experience and with an enhanced functionality to match.
Naturally, there are genetic parameters other than default hedonic tone whose values will be adjustable by post-genomic bioscience too. Personality traits, a genetic predisposition to empathy or egotism, and a host of cognitive and perceptual capacities and other variables will shortly be amenable to genetic tweaking too - though to spike some guns, we're talking here about genetic predispositions to different character traits, and perhaps subsequent epigenetic editing, not a facile and simplistic genetic determinism. Even so, a convergence of scientific evidence confirms the high heritability of our core traits of mood and temperament.
As the reproductive revolution gather pace, HI predicts that there will be intense selection pressure against genes and allelic combinations predisposing to low mood, just as there will be intense selection pressure against, say, the cystic fibrosis allele(s). Other things being equal, prospective parents want their children to be temperamentally happy. Hippies and "tiger mothers" alike tend to desire happy and healthy children. Invincible physical and psychological health is a strategy for "winners", both personally and genetically. By contrast, a conditionally-activated predisposition to low mood and behavioural suppression is a fallback strategy for life's genetic "losers". It's also a recipe for untold misery.
Let's run a bit further with this scenario. Let's suppose that genetically modulated levels of subjective well-being really are ratcheted upwards globally over time. If so, it's just possible that enhanced humanity may at some stage collectively decide, "Enough!" After the biology of involuntary suffering has finally been banished, perhaps our descendants will settle for the mediocre: a predisposition to pleasant if still comparatively insipid default state of subjective well-being, yet nothing beyond the normal bounds of contemporary human experience. Maybe such a regime is where we're heading: that's all that abolitionist bioethics entails in the strict sense of the term: the end of involuntary suffering. However, HI predicts that there will be long-term selection pressure in favour of information-sensitive gradients of the sublime - a future super-civilisation of intelligent superhappiness.
MV: 3. How has the public responded to it and how have you dealt with this response?
Extreme responses are most memorable but least typical. Most common, I guess, is a vaguely sympathetic but dismissive "not in my lifetime" - or indeed for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. This response is understandable. Like the suspicion that medical science may find a cure for ageing some time after you're dead, one's feelings about a potentially glorious future that one will never live to witness are probably be mixed. Chronological bias is endemic to futurist writings. Hard science mingles with wishful thinking. Certainly, successful prophets tend to locate salvation or doom within the plausible lifetimes of their audience - too soon and the prophet risks being confounded, too distant and most folk lose interest. Ray Kurzweil ("2045: The Year Humans Become Immortal", TIME Magazine) pitches his dates just right. I'd stress this analysis doesn't mean that Ray's chronology for human superlongevity is wrong - just that its convenience should invite especially critical scrutiny.
Of the enthusiastic responses to HI, I've most sympathy with the view that it's morally obvious that we should use biotechnology to phase out suffering. How could such a claim be controversial? However, intuitions of obviousness vary. Some critics find it foot-stampingly obvious that HI is mistaken.
One thing I've learned over the years is to stress explicitly and repeatedly what I'd previously regarded as self-evident: HI is about phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering. No one is proposing a regime of coercive happiness: a Brave New World of soma-pacified dupes. The prospect of anyone forcing you to be happy against your will is sociologically remote. What's at stake in the post-genomic era is freedom to choose your own states of consciousness. Freedom of choice is precisely what naturally evolved organisms lack over the ugly biology of our core emotions today. HI's prediction that intelligent agents will eventually phase out all suffering throughout the biosphere is different from HI's advocacy of phasing out all involuntary suffering. Indeed, we are entitled to ask critics to answer the same critical questions about freedom of choice that they pose to advocates of biohappiness. When the biology of suffering becomes technically optional, would the critic compel anyone to suffer against their will? How much? For how long? And enforced by what means?
The big complication to a "voluntary versus involuntary" dichotomy is the status of the unborn. In an era of "designer babies", what should be the genetic default-settings of prospective children, as distinct from the remedial and enhancement options available to adults? A zygote can't choose anything. When hedonic range and approximate hedonic set-points become adjustable parameters of new life, are prospective parents ethically entitled to bring more avoidable suffering into the world?
Perhaps the most common objection is that HI is conceptually incoherent because (un)happiness is wholly or partially relative. You can appreciate the good things in life only by contrast with the bad. A radical shift in our hedonic tone would just mean that life's hedonic "dips" take on the role of suffering. In short, we'd adapt even to genetic recalibration.
The most striking and tragic refutation of this intuition is the existence of chronic depression. Most though not all victims of chronic depression experience periods in their lives where human existence feels "merely" grim rather than terrible. Yet some depressives report that they can't imagine what it's like to be happy at all, or - in extreme cases - that they don't even know what the word "happiness" means. Are we to tell severe depressives that they can't "really" be depressed? Sometimes, too, chronic depression is accompanied by chronic physical pain: its existence does not depend on a contrast with physical pleasure either. The opposite condition to chronic depression, i.e. chronic hyperthymia without the behavioural dyscontrol of bipolar mania, is rare. But hyperthymia is rare not because lifelong happiness is somehow harder for Nature to engineer, but because a predisposition to lifelong well-being is highly risky - both personally and for the inclusive fitness of your genes. In the ancestral environment of adaptation, a serenely happy mother would typically leave less copies of her genes than an anxiety-ridden neurotic endlessly worrying about real and imagined threats to her kids. A predisposition to be discontented - but not to be chronically depressed - has typically been adaptive. Either way, more earthy examples can be offered of how happiness isn't purely or largely relative. Consider two sensitive lovers, each responsive to a range of positive and negative sensual feedback. Lovemaking has its dips and peaks. The process is still generically pleasant throughout. Characterising the dips in lovemaking as "unpleasant" would be misleading, despite their analogous functional role to really nasty forms of negative feedback. Could our mental life ever resemble such sensual pleasures? Yes - but only if we're prepared to modify the genetic dial-settings of the upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range.
Another worry looming large in the minds of critics is the spectre of "eugenics". Perhaps a majority of the public are more-or-less comfortable with the prospect of preventing terrible genetic diseases such as cystic-fibrosis or Tay-Sachs - at least so long as you don't mention the "e" word. However, the prospect of pre-selecting human zygotes with a predisposition to profound lifelong happiness conjures up images of the racist eugenicism of the Third Reich. In my view, such a juxtaposition is bizarre. The well-being of all sentience was not a priority of National Socialism's racial hygiene policy. But at least in the West, this worry must be confronted, and the terminological nettle grasped. Yes, in common with a permanent cure for cystic fibrosis and other terrible genetic disorders, the end of involuntary suffering will entail "eugenics" - just not under the banner of that irreparably tainted name. Imagine a discussion on racial equality conducted using only the derogatory "n" word. Whatever label we use, a predisposition to low mood and chronic pain can be at least as devastating to quality of life as cystic fibrosis. If humans continue to reproduce "naturally" without recourse even to preimplantation genetic screening, then pain and suffering will persist as long as life itself.
The wilder reaches of HI - a future of full-blown paradise engineering and posthuman superhappiness - evoke science fiction rather than medical science. Yet case studies of the very happiest "hyperthymic" humans - hedonic outliers who are extraordinarily happy but not uncontrollably manic - show that sustainable biohappiness is feasible for individuals. The big question is whether we can or should aim for such well-being for the human population as a whole - and eventually for all sentient beings. I can't do any better here than quote the commitment to universal health laid out in the constitution of the World Health Organization: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." Are we prepared to harness the only technology that can deliver such a promise? Universal free access to preimplantation genetic screening would be a good start.
MV: 4. Many people would consider that genetic and behavioural modification of predators would upset the balance of nature. How would you justify such an action?
What is true of other species or genera is no less true of other ethnic groups. Eradicating smallpox, or aiming to make Plasmodium-transmitting species of Anopheles mosquito extinct in the wild, upsets the balance of Nature by threatening an uncontrolled human population increase followed by ecological collapse.
So is the cure worse than the disease? Should the rich nations leave sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the developing world to its fate? The solution to this once seemingly inevitable Malthusian catastrophe is now obvious: family planning. Fertility regulation leads to the same demographic transition that we've witnessed in the West.
Non-human animals can't practise family planning. Yet cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception can regulate population sizes in our future wildlife parks without the horrors of starvation and predation - the limiting factors on free-living non-human animal population sizes today.
Ironically, the most controversial strand of the abolitionist project is the only policy option with Biblical sanction. If the lion and the wolf are to lie down with the lamb in our future wildlife parks, then predatory carnivores will need genetic and behavioural tweaking. Christian apologists may protest that God doesn't really want us to end the savageries of asphyxiation, disembowelling and being eaten alive: instead, we should treat Isaiah "figuratively". If I were a religious believer, I might respond that any non-literal reading of the sacred text risks doing All-Merciful God an injustice.
MV: 5. From what I have read, the hedonistic 'plan' seems fairly set in stone. Are there any ethical dilemmas or concepts that you are still developing? If so, what are they?
Good heavens, I hope I haven't given that impression! For sure, the ethical case for using biotech to eradicate involuntary suffering hasn't changed over the past two decades. Yet advances in biotechnology are accelerating: not just incremental progress but revolutionary breakthroughs. Let's focus on one particular breakthrough technology: the CRISPR genome-editing revolution.
Until a few years ago, a future of genetically programmed gradients of well-being was a scenario credible only for our future grandchildren and great-grandchildren - a post-Darwinian world where the genetic crapshoot of sexual reproduction is replaced first by preimplantation genetic screening, then genetic tweaking, and eventually full-blown genetic engineering. On this time-line, current humans who seek radically to improve our default levels of well-being can anticipate only palliatives, stopgaps and short-term fixes - perhaps with innovative designer drugs to enrich our later years. At least until CRISPR, the assumption has been that our existing genetic default-settings will remain unchanged.
The CRISPR revolution promises humans alive today the chance to edit our own genomes - either on our own or with the help of trained professional specialists - not tomorrow, for sure, but within the next few decades.
On the face of it, this scenario sounds implausible. Enterprising biohackers and bioscript kiddies may shortly start playing around with their genetic source code, but not the rest of us. This assumption ignores the likely development of high-level software tools and smart interfaces. Customised, user-friendly gene-editing software packages can be anticipated, potentially allowing a recursive spiral of genomic self-improvement. Compare the state of computing thirty years ago. If you wanted to use a computer, then you'd need to master low-level programming. Now you can point-and-click and cut-and-paste - and increasingly, orally instruct. Freeman Dyson, writing before CRISPR, predicts a world where "a new generation of artists will be writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses.” Genomic-editing can be used for more morally urgent purposes than artistic self-expression too.
Of course, personal genome-editing is fraught with risks and ethical pitfalls. So is having sex and creating a new child via genetic roulette. Irresponsible bioconservatism poses serious ethical dilemmas no less than planned parenthood.
MV: 6. Many would say that humans don't have the right to interfere with Nature. Why do you not think this is the case?
Humans already interfere - massively - with Nature in diverse ways ranging from uncontrolled habitat destruction to "rewilding", big-cat captive breeding programs, the eradication of blindness-causing parasitic worms, and so forth. Ethically, what's in question is the principles that should govern our interventions - compassionate stewardship, "Pleistocene rewilding", a Disney movie, traditional conservation biology's conception of what the living world "ought" to be like, or something else?
By way of illustration, imagine if we were to stumble across a small child from a different ethnic group under attack by predators, disease-ridden, starving, or otherwise in severe distress. We wouldn't take out our cameras and start filming the spectacle - perhaps with a plea that rescuing the distressed child was sentimental "interference" with the natural order of things. Nor would we wax philosophical on the inscrutable wisdom of Nature, the perils of hubris, the evils of ethnocentric bias, the risks of unknown side-effects from interference, and so forth. By common consent, we would be duty-bound to intervene and rescue the child. Exactly the same principle is at stake with beings of comparable sentience and sapience to human infants and toddlers - beings of a different species, genus or family membership to you or me rather than a different ethnic group. Given human psychology, focus on the plight a single toddler - or a single suffering nonhuman animal - makes the point most vividly. Insofar as we aspire to be effective altruists, however, our interventions to help vulnerable human and nonhuman animals should be systematic rather than ad hoc. Suffering doesn't matter any less when it happens out of sight. If it's morally wrong to allow a small child or a pig or an elephant to suffer avoidable distress in front our eyes, then it's morally wrong for a small child or a pig or an elephant to suffer avoidable distress anywhere on Earth. This wasn't always the case. Until the biotech and IT revolutions, the existence of pain-ridden ecosystems was inescapable. Technology changes the scope of morality: biotech makes us complicit in what was previously just a terrible but immutable fact about the living world. Technology vastly amplifies the capacity of intelligent agents to do good or ill across the globe. Within the next few decades, every cubic metre of the planet will be computationally accessible to surveillance, micro-management and control. The potentially dystopian and privacy-threatening ramifications of ubiquitous surveillance are well known. Less explored is the flip side to these Orwellian scenarios. In principle, we can use our God-like powers over the rest of the living world to underwrite the well-being of all sentient life - starting with large long-lived vertebrates but eventually working our way across the phylogenetic tree. A Swedish-style welfare state for free-living elephants, for example, is technically feasible today.
MV: 7 Why do you believe humans have an ethical imperative to interfere with the 'natural order'?
Nothing that occurs in Nature is "unnatural" - including the evolution of recursively self-improving primates smart enough to master their genetic source code and bootstrap our way to full-spectrum superintelligence. To be sure, Homo sapiens is a "special" species in one sense. Humans have evolved generative syntax, complex tool manufacture and modern science. In another sense, members of Homo sapiens are typical. We share the pleasure-pain axis and core emotions with our fellow vertebrates - and in the case of the pleasure-pain axis, with members of other phyla too. Complications aside, no sentient being wants to be harmed - to starve to death, to be disease-ridden, or to be disembowelled, asphyxiated or eaten alive.
Opposition to tampering with the natural order of things is often religiously motivated. Who are mere mortals to tamper with the mysterious workings of Providence? Other opposition is secular: for example, the ideological objections to compassionate intervention of traditional-minded conservation biologists. A world full of suffering is "natural". Yet how much bioconservative opposition to an ethic of compassionate stewardship is really just status quo bias masquerading as ethical principle?
The possibility of unwarranted status quo bias can be conveyed most readily by another simple thought-experiment. Imagine that we stumble across an advanced civilisation that has abolished the biology of suffering. Its members enjoy gradients of lifelong intelligent bliss. They dine in style off gourmet in vitro meat. Cognitively humble lifeforms descended from sometimes savage forebears dwell in peace in protected habitats. What kinds of argument might human critics of this blissful Eden use to persuade the extra-terrestrial civilisation to reintroduce involuntary suffering, starvation, parasitism, predation and all the horrors of their ancestral past? What exactly are the sublimely well superbeings missing from their world? I suspect that the superbeings might regard us as crazy - the victims of some weird depressive psychosis. Perhaps they'd be right.
more interviews 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10
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(interviwer Andrés Gómez Emilsson)
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The Good Drug Guide
The Abolitionist Project
The Hedonistic Imperative
The Reproductive Revolution
The Philosophy Forum (2021)
MDMA : Utopian Pharmacology
The End of Suffering? (H+, 2010)
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The Fate of the Meat World (Harvard H+ Summit, 2010)
Gene Drives, CRISPR and Ecological Engineering (2016)