David Pearce (philosopher)

British transhumanist
David Pearce
If we already lived in a cruelty-free world, the notion of re-introducing suffering, exploitation and creatures eating each other would seem not so much frightful as unimaginable – no more seriously conceivable than reverting to surgery without anaesthesia today.

David Pearce is a British philosopher and co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association, currently rebranded and incorporated as Humanity+, Inc., and a prominent figure within the transhumanism movement. He approaches ethical issues from a lexical negative utilitarian perspective.


  • [I]n the wake of the growth of the animal-rights movement, there has recently arisen a hitherto unfelt need to demonise and demean our non-human victims - and those who try to help them - now that our previously well-nigh unquestioned right to kill and exploit them is being challenged. Bloodsports enthusiasts, for instance, currently spend a lot of time cataloguing the alleged depredations of our victims on the environment. Recreational animal-killers go to extraordinarily lengths to avoid admitting that they themselves enjoy hunting and killing other creatures for fun. But then until a few years ago such rationalisations seemed scarcely called for. Selfish DNA had honed our intuitions so that the most agonising bloodshed seemed simply "natural".
  • Nature documentaries are mostly travesties of real life. They entertain and edify us with evocative mood-music and travelogue-style voice-overs. They impose significance and narrative structure on life's messiness. Wildlife shows have their sad moments, for sure. Yet suffering never lasts very long. It is always offset by homely platitudes about the balance of Nature, the good of the herd, and a sort of poor-man's secular theodicy on behalf of Mother Nature which reassures us that it's not so bad after all.
    That's a convenient lie. If you had just gone through the horror of seeing your loved one eaten alive by a predator, or die slowly of thirst, you would find such clichés empty. Yet in Nature this kind of thing happens all the time. It's completely endemic to the prevailing red-in-tooth-and-claw Darwinian regime. Lions kill their targets primarily by suffocation; which will last minutes. The wolf pack may start eating their prey while the victim is still conscious, though hamstrung. Sharks and the orca basically eat their prey alive; but in sections for the larger prey, notably seals. An analogous scenario in which intelligent extraterrestrial naturalists turned the stylised portrayal of our death-agonies into a lyrical spectacle for popular home entertainment is repugnant. Yet as long as we revel in the production of animal snuff-movies in the guise of wildlife documentaries, that is often the role we play in the tragic lives of photogenic members of other species here on earth.
  • By far my greatest dread in life […] is that (some variant of) the Everett interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is true.
  • [T]here is no fundamental biological reason why the human genome can't be rewritten to allow everyone to be "in" love with everyone else - if we should so choose. But simply loving each other will be miraculous enough; and will probably suffice. An empty religious piety can be transformed into a biological reality.
  • When Bernard Marx tells the Savage he will try to secure permission for him and his mother to visit the Other Place, John is initially pleased and excited. Echoing Miranda in The Tempest, he exclaims: "O brave new world that has such people in it." Heavy irony. Like innocent Miranda, he is eager to embrace a way of life he neither knows nor understands. And of course he comes unstuck. Yet if we swallow such fancy literary conceits, then ultimately the joke is on us. It is only funny in the sense there are "jokes" about Auschwitz. For it is Huxley who neither knows nor understands the glory of what lies ahead. A utopian society in which we are sublimely happy will be far better than we can presently imagine, not worse. And it is we, trapped in the emotional squalor of late-Darwinian antiquity, who neither know nor understand the lives of the god-like super-beings we are destined to become.
  • As the neurobiological basis of feeling and emotion is unravelled, and the human genome decoded and rewritten, it will become purely an issue of post-human decision whether negative modes of consciousness are generated in any form or texture whatsoever.
  • The negative utilitarian might reply that this formulation of the problem is misleading. We do not live in a notional world where only a pinprick, minor pains, or even just "mild" suffering exists. In the real world, frightful horrors as well as humdrum malaise occur every day. The intensity of suffering is sometimes so dreadful that its victims are prepared to destroy themselves to bring their torment to an end. Each year, some 800,000 people across the planet kill themselves while in the grip of suicidal despair. Tens of millions of people are severely depressed or suffer chronic neuropathic pain. By way of contrast, the genteel conventions of an ethics seminar in academic philosophy, or the scholarly technicalities of a journal article, simply fail to come to terms with the enormity of what's at stake. To talk of a "pinprick" is to trivialise the NU ethical stance.
  • [U]nlike positive utilitarianism or so-called preference utilitarianism - neither of which can ever be wholly fulfilled - [negative utilitarianism] seems achievable in full.
  • [N]othing is too terrible to be true if it is consistent with the laws of nature [...].
  • A lot of people recoil from the word "drugs" - which is understandable given today's noxious street drugs and their uninspiring medical counterparts. Yet even academics and intellectuals in our society typically take the prototypical dumb drug, ethyl alcohol. If it's socially acceptable to take a drug that makes you temporarily happy and stupid, then why not rationally design drugs to make people perpetually happier and smarter? Presumably, in order to limit abuse-potential, one would want any ideal pleasure drug to be akin - in one limited but important sense - to nicotine, where the smoker's brain finely calibrates its optimal level: there is no uncontrolled dose-escalation.
    • "The Abolitionist Project", Talks given at the FHI (Oxford University) and the Charity International Happiness Conference, 2007
  • Too many of our preferences reflect nasty behaviours and states of mind that were genetically adaptive in the ancestral environment. Instead, wouldn't it be better if we rewrote our own corrupt code?
    • "The Abolitionist Project", Talks given at the FHI (Oxford University) and the Charity International Happiness Conference, 2007
  • It's not that there are no differences between human and non-human animals, any more than there are no differences between black people and white people, freeborn citizens and slaves, men and women, Jews and gentiles, gays or heterosexuals. The question is rather: are they morally relevant differences? This matters because morally catastrophic consequences can ensue when we latch on to a real but morally irrelevant difference between sentient beings.
    • "The Abolitionist Project", Talks given at the FHI (Oxford University) and the Charity International Happiness Conference, 2007
  • When one is gripped by excruciating physical pain, one is always shocked at just how frightful it can be.
    • "The Abolitionist Project", Talks given at the FHI (Oxford University) and the Charity International Happiness Conference, 2007
  • My own sense of how to behave in a simulation has more traditional roots in the theory of perception. I've long believed that each of us lives in an egocentric simulation of the world run by the mind/brain. Since the zombies of each (waking) simulation have sentient real world counterparts, one should treat them as though they were real. Nonetheless as an angst-ridden teenager, my dawning acceptance of an inferential realist theory of perception made me feel as if I'd been condemned to solitary confinement for life. The sense of loneliness was indescribable. Naïve realism is better for one's mental health.
  • Assume, provisionally at any rate, a utilitarian ethic. The abolitionist project follows naturally, in "our" parochial corner of Hilbert space at least. On its completion, if not before, we should aim to develop superintelligence to maximise the well-being of the fragment of the cosmos accessible to beneficent intervention. And when we are sure – absolutely sure – that we have done literally everything we can do to eradicate suffering elsewhere, perhaps we should forget about its very existence.
  • My own view of the risks and uncertainties is that there is a critical distinction between trying to abolish suffering exclusively via social reform and abolishing suffering directly via biotechnology. As we know, utopian social experiments typically go wrong, sometimes hideously wrong, and end up causing a lot of suffering instead. The abolitionist project of eradicating the biological substrates of suffering sounds like just another utopian scheme, whether it's touted as a grandiose species-project or simply as a byproduct of the Reproductive Revolution explored here. Although the abolition of psychological pain is arguably no more utopian in principle than pain-free surgery, it could presumably go wrong in unanticipated ways too. Perhaps we'll unwittingly create a fool's paradise. But if and when we ever abolish the molecular underpinning of unpleasant experience, and it becomes physiologically impossible for any sentient being to suffer, we thereby change the very meaning of what it is for anything to "go wrong". Unwelcome surprises where no one gets hurt are very different from unwelcome surprises where they do. For what it's worth, I think the abolition of involuntary suffering is the precondition of any civilised posthuman society; and therefore a risk worth taking.
  • Here the question comes down to an analysis of risk-reward ratios - and our basic ethical values, themselves shaped by our evolutionary past. Lest extension of the new reproductive medicine seem too rashly experimental even to contemplate, it's worth recalling that each act of old-fashioned sexual reproduction is itself an untested genetic experiment, the outcome of random mutations and meiotic shuffling of the genetic deck, and with no happy ending to date. So just who are we to accuse of reckless gambling? As it stands, all of us are genetically predestined to grow old and die; and in the course of a lifetime, the great majority of humans will experience periods of intense psychological distress, for instance loneliness and heartache after an unhappy love affair. Our social primate biology ensures that most of us sometimes experience, to a greater or lesser degree, all manner of nasty states that were genetically adaptive in the ancestral environment e.g. jealousy, resentment, anger, and so forth. Hundreds of millions of people in the world today suffer bouts of depression; others live with chronic anxiety. One might say these phenotypes are part of what it means to be human. Worse, we pass a heritable predisposition to these horrible states on to our children.
  • If we already lived in a cruelty-free world, the notion of re-introducing suffering, exploitation and creatures eating each other would seem not so much frightful as unimaginable – no more seriously conceivable than reverting to surgery without anaesthesia today.
  • [H]ere we come to the nub of the issue: the alleged moral force of the term "natural". If any creature, by its very nature, causes terrible suffering, albeit unwittingly, is it morally wrong to change that nature? If a civilised human were to come to believe s/he had been committing acts that caused grievous pain for no good reason, then s/he would stop - and want other moral agents to prevent the recurrence of such behaviour. May we assume that the same would be true of a lion, if the lion were morally and cognitively "uplifted" so as to understand the ramifications of what (s)he was doing? Or a house cat tormenting a mouse? Or indeed a human sociopath?
  • Given our anthropocentric bias, thinking of non-human vertebrates not just as equivalent in moral status to toddlers or infants, but as though they were toddlers or infants, is a useful exercise. Such reconceptualisation helps correct our lack of empathy for sentient beings whose physical appearance is different from "us". Ethically, the practice of intelligent "anthropomorphism" shouldn't be shunned as unscientific, but embraced insofar as it augments our stunted capacity for empathy. Such anthropomorphism can be a valuable corrective to our cognitive and moral limitations. This is not a plea to be sentimental, simply for impartial benevolence.
  • It is hard to imagine an experience more horrific than being eaten alive. Most of us would prefer not to imagine what it must feel like. Note that the photographer here had to persuade the park ranger to violate the park rules and put the baby elephant out of his misery.
    By analogy, suppose it were lawful to visit Third World countries for photoshoots but illegal to "interfere" and help a stricken human baby. Is there a fundamental difference between "ethical" intervention to help humans and "sentimental" pleas to "interfere" and help non-humans? Should we encourage the preservation of life-forms such as the hyena in their current guise? Or do the value judgements underlying the "science" of conservation biology need to be re-examined?
  • Our present-day neurochemical cocktail, we are asked to believe, is the medium through which alien realms of consciousness can be grasped and neutrally appraised from a third-person perspective. Empirical research suggests this optimism is at best naïve.
  • Human intuitions are systematically biased. Evolutionary psychology explains how our moral intuitions and the rationalisations they spawn have been shaped by millennia of natural selection to maximise the inclusive fitness of our genes, not to track the welfare of other sentient beings impartially conceived. Many human cultures have found nothing intuitively wrong with aggressive warfare, slavery, wife-beating, infanticide or female genital mutilation. Ultimately, folk morality is a doomed enterprise as hopeless as folk physics. A mature posthuman ethics, I'd argue, must be committed to the well-being of all sentient life; and mature posthuman technology offers the means to deliver that commitment.
  • Many city-dwellers have a romanticized conception of the living world. From another perspective, some "conservation biologists" favour e.g. "Pleistocene rewilding". By contrast, I think any truly compassionate person should be horrified at the terrible suffering of Nature "red in tooth and claw". Why not aim for a cruelty-free world instead?
  • From a young age, I've viewed the animals we abuse and kill as akin - functionally, intellectually and emotionally - to small children. Small children are vulnerable. Typically, they don't need "liberating". Infants and toddlers in particular need looking after. The problem - when I was a teenager - was that most of interventions I could think of to alleviate wild animal suffering might easily make things worse in the long run. Thus if we sought to rescue herbivores, then obligate carnivores (and their young) would starve. If we were to phase out carnivorous predators altogether, then there would a population explosion of "prey" species. Lots of herbivores would then starve too. The food chain seemed an inexorable fact of the world - a fact as immutable as, say, the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Only after reading Eric Drexler's classic "Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology" did I gradually come to realize that there were technical solutions to all these problems - notably in vitro meat, immunocontraception, neurochips to modulate behaviour, nanobots to manage marine ecosystems, and ultimately rewriting the vertebrate genome.
  • Today, empathetic intelligence entails sharing the sorrows of other sentient beings. In our posthuman future, will empathy consist entirely in sharing each other's joys?
  • A global transition to a cruelty-free vegan diet won't just help non-human animals. The transition will also help malnourished humans who could benefit from the grain currently fed to factory-farmed animals. For factory-farming is not just cruel; it's energy-inefficient. Let's take just one example. Over the past few decades, millions of Ethiopians have died of "food shortages" while Ethiopia grew grain to sell to the West to feed cattle. Western meat-eating habits prop up the price of grain so that poor people in the developing world can't afford to buy it. In consequence, they starve by the millions.
    In my work, I explore futuristic, hi-tech solutions to the problem of suffering. But anybody who seriously wants to reduce human and non-human suffering alike should adopt a cruelty-free vegan lifestyle today.
  • Some days will be sublime. Others will be merely wonderful. But critically, there will be one particular texture ("what it feels like") of consciousness that will be missing from our lives; and that will be the texture of nastiness.
  • The irrationality of the "appeal to Nature" is illustrated by a simple thought-experiment. Imagine, fancifully, if starvation, disease, parasitism, disembowelling, asphyxiation and being eaten alive were not endemic to the living world - or such miseries have already been abolished and replaced by an earthly paradise. Would anyone propose there is ethical case for (re)introducing them? Even proposing such a thought-experiment can sound faintly ridiculous.
  • I predict we will abolish suffering throughout the living world. Our descendants will be animated by gradients of genetically pre-programmed well-being that are orders of magnitude richer than today's peak experiences.
  • So what is the alternative to traditional anthropocentric ethics? Antispeciesism is not the claim that "All Animals Are Equal", or that all species are of equal value, or that a human or a pig is equivalent to a mosquito. Rather the antispeciesist claims that, other things being equal, equally strong interests should count equally. Experiences that are subjectively negative or positive in hedonic tone to the same degree must count for the same.
  • Humans already massively intervene in Nature, whether through habitat destruction, captive breeding programs for big cats, "rewilding", etc. So the question is not whether humans should "interfere", but rather what ethical principles should govern our interventions.
  • [B]oth natural selection and the historical record offer powerful reasons for doubting the trustworthiness of our naive moral intuitions. So the possibility that human civilisation might be founded upon some monstrous evil should be taken seriously - even if the possibility seems transparently absurd at the time.
  • [O]ne might naively suppose that a negative utilitarian would welcome human extinction. But only (trans)humans - or our potential superintelligent successors - are technically capable of phasing out the cruelties of the rest of the living world on Earth. And only (trans)humans - or rather our potential superintelligent successors - are technically capable of assuming stewardship of our entire Hubble volume.
  • A few centuries from now, if involuntary suffering still exists in the world, the explanation for its persistence won't be that we've run out of computational resources to phase out its biological signature, but rather that rational agents – for reasons unknown – will have chosen to preserve it.
  • What right have humans to impose our values on members of another race or species? The charge is seductive but misplaced. There is no anthropomorphism here, no imposition of human values on alien minds. Human and nonhuman animals are alike in an ethically critical respect. The pleasure-pain axis is universal to sentient life. No sentient being wants to be harmed – to be asphyxiated, dismembered, or eaten alive. The wishes of a terrified toddler or a fleeing zebra to flourish unmolested are not open to doubt even in the absence of the verbal capacity to say so.
  • Getting rid of predation isn't a matter of moralising. A python who kills a small human child isn't morally blameworthy. Nor is a lion who hunts and kills a terrified zebra. In both cases, the victim suffers horribly. But the predator lacks the empathetic and mind-reading skills needed to understand the implications of what s/he is doing. Some humans still display a similar deficit. From the perspective of the victim, the moral status or (lack of) guilty intent of a human or nonhuman predator is irrelevant. Either way, to stand by and watch the snake asphyxiate a child would be almost as morally abhorrent as to kill the child yourself. So why turn this principle on its head with beings of comparable sentience to human infants and toddlers? With power comes complicity.
In the long run, there is nothing to stop intelligent agents from identifying the molecular signature of experience below hedonic zero and eliminating it altogether — even in insects. Nociception is vital; pain is optional. I tentatively predict that the world's last unpleasant experience in our forward light-cone will be a precisely datable event — perhaps some micro-pain in an obscure marine invertebrate a few centuries hence.
  • More controversially, technology can accelerate the transition from harming to helping free-living sentient beings: mankind's fitfully expanding "circle of compassion". The civilising process needn't be species-specific but instead extend to free-living dwellers in tomorrow's wildlife parks. Every cubic metre of the biosphere will soon be computationally accessible to surveillance, micro-management and control. Fertility regulation via immunocontraception can replace Darwinian ecosystems governed by starvation and predation. Any species of obligate carnivore we choose to preserve can be genetically and behaviourally tweaked into harmlessness. Asphyxiation, disembowelling, and agonies of being eaten alive can pass into the dustbin of history.
  • Suppose we encounter an advanced civilization that has engineered a happy biosphere. Population sizes are controlled by cross-species immunocontraception. Free-living herbivores lead idyllic lives in their wildlife parks. Should we urge the reintroduction of starvation, asphyxiation, disemboweling and being eaten alive by predators? Is their regime of compassionate stewardship of the biosphere best abandoned in favour of "re-wilding"? I suspect the advanced civilization would regard human pleas to restore the old Darwinian regime of "Nature, red in tooth and claw" as callous if not borderline sociopathic.
  • [L]ike nonhuman animals in human factory farms, free-living nonhumans who are starving - or being disembowelled, asphyxiated or eaten alive - cannot console themselves by chanting the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The moral case for helping other sentient beings, regardless or race or species, does not rest on the distress their plight does (or doesn't) cause spectators.
  • [H]uman nature as encoded in our DNA isn't immutable. Mankind's barbaric track-record to date is an unreliable guide to the future. If Homo sapiens' nastier alleles and their more sinister combinations can be silenced or edited out of the genome, and new improved code-sequences inserted instead, then the pessimists will be confounded. A major discontinuity in the development of life lies ahead. Providentially, we've learned that the DNA-driven world isn't written in God-given proprietary code it would be hubris to tamper with, but in bug-ridden open source amenable to improvement.
  • [T]he existence of the mind-independent environment beyond one's world-simulation is a theoretical inference, not an empirical observation.
    • Postscript to review of Michael Lockwood's Mind, Brain and the Quantum, BLTC Research, Dec. 2016
  • Genes and culture have co-evolved. But crudely, natural selection "designed" male human primates to hunt nonhumans and build coalitions of other male human primates in order to wage territorial wars of aggression. Nature didn't design us to become a scientific community and collaborate to overcome aging. It's difficult to imagine that any human enemy could inflict such gruesome damage on the victims as growing old. The ravages of aging strike down combatants and civilians alike. So the trillions of dollars that humans currently spend on ways to harm and kill each other ("defence") would be more fruitfully spent on defeating our common enemy. We should work together to build a "Triple S" civilisation of superlongevity, superhappiness and superintelligence.
  • If we don't address the genetic causes of suffering (physical and mental) we will find ourselves in 500 years enjoying material abundance via nanotech, living in a perfect democracy, colonizing space, and still sitting around wondering "Why are we miserable so much of the time? Why can't we all just get along? Why are we not all happy?"
  • Today, status quo bias runs deep. Conservation biology is an ideology masquerading as a science. Many researchers seek to extend the tenets of conservation biology to humans. By contrast, a benevolent superintelligence might view Darwinian life on Earth as an infestation of biological malware and act accordingly. The amount of suffering caused by Homo sapiens is hard to quantify. But the suffering is immense and growing daily with the spread of industrialised animal abuse.
  • Humans are prone to status quo bias. So let's do a thought-experiment. Imagine we stumble across an advanced civilisation that has abolished predation, disease, famine, and all the horrors of primitive Darwinian life. The descendants of archaic lifeforms flourish unmolested in their wildlife parks – free living, but not "wild". Should we urge scrapping their regime of compassionate stewardship of the living world – and a return to asphyxiation, disembowelling and being eaten alive? Or is a happy biosphere best conserved intact?
  • I think there's an asymmetry. There's this fable of Ursula Le Guin, short story, Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. We're invited to imagine this city of delights, vast city of incredible wonderful pleasures but the existence of Omelas, this city of delights depends on the torment and abuse of a single child. The question is would you walk away from Omelas and what does walking away from Omelas entail. Now, personally I am someone who would walk away from Omelas. The world does not have an off switch, an off button and I think if one is whether a Buddhist of a negative utilitarian, or someone who believes in suffering-focused ethics, rather than to consider these theoretical apocalyptic scenarios it is more fruitful to work with secular and religious life lovers to phase out the biology of suffering in favor of gradients of intelligent wellbeing because one of the advantages of hedonic recalibration, i.e. ratcheting up hedonic set points is that it doesn't ask people to give up their existing values and preferences with complications.
  • All that matters is the pleasure-pain axis. Pain and pleasure disclose the world's inbuilt metric of (dis)value. Our overriding ethical obligation is to minimise suffering. After we have reprogrammed the biosphere to wipe out experience below "hedonic zero", we should build a "triple S" civilisation based on gradients of superhuman bliss. The nature of ultimate reality baffles me. But intelligent moral agents will need to understand the multiverse if we are to grasp the nature and scope of our wider cosmological responsibilities. My working assumption is non-materialist physicalism. Formally, the world is completely described by the equation(s) of physics, presumably a relativistic analogue of the universal Schrödinger equation. Tentatively, I'm a wavefunction monist who believes we are patterns of qualia in a high-dimensional complex Hilbert space. Experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical: the "fire" in the equations. The solutions to the equations of QFT or its generalisation yield the values of qualia. What makes biological minds distinctive, in my view, isn't subjective experience per se, but rather non-psychotic binding. Phenomenal binding is what consciousness is evolutionarily "for". Without the superposition principle of QM, our minds wouldn't be able to simulate fitness-relevant patterns in the local environment. When awake, we are quantum minds running subjectively classical world-simulations. I am an inferential realist about perception. Metaphysically, I explore a zero ontology [...] the total information content of reality must be zero on pain of a miraculous creation of information ex nihilo. Epistemologically, I incline to a radical scepticism that would be sterile to articulate. Alas, the history of philosophy twinned with the principle of mediocrity suggests I burble as much nonsense as everyone else.
  • In future, nerve cell responsiveness to naturally occurring endogenous opioids can be increased via receptor enrichment in the brain too. In principle, we can modulate their lifelong "overexpression", intermittently heightened (or gently diminished) by whatever kinds of personal and environmental contingencies we judge fit. Both functionally and anatomically, our reward pathways can be made "bigger and better". But intelligent emotional self-mastery will involve re-engineering the mind-brain so we derive the most intense rewards from activities we deem most lastingly worthwhile: i.e. prioritising our higher-order desires over legacy first-order appetites. Natural selection has "encephalised" our emotions to benefit our genes. Rational agents can "re-encephalise" our emotions to benefit us.
  • [T]rue hedonic engineering, as distinct from mindless hedonism or reckless personal experimentation, can be profoundly good for our character. Character-building technologies can benefit utilitarians and non-utilitarians alike. Potentially, we can use a convergence of biotech, nanorobotics and information technology to gain control over our emotions and become better (post-)human beings, to cultivate the virtues, strength of character, decency, to become kinder, friendlier, more compassionate: to become the type of (post)human beings that we might aspire to be, but aren't, and biologically couldn't be, with the neural machinery of unenriched minds. Given our Darwinian biology, too many forms of admirable behaviour simply aren't rewarding enough for us to practise them consistently: our second-order desires to live better lives as better people are often feeble echoes of our baser passions.
  • [A]s well as seriously – indeed exhaustively – researching everything that could conceivably go wrong, I think we should also invesigate [sic] what could go right. The world is racked by suffering. The hedonic treadmill might more aptly be called a dolorous treadmill. Hundreds of millions of people are currently depressed, pain-ridden or both. Hundreds of billions of non-human animals are suffering too. If we weren't so inured to a world of pain and misery, then the biosphere would be reckoned in the throes of a global medical emergency. Thanks to breakthroughs in biotechnology, pain-thresholds, default anxiety levels, hedonic range and hedonic set-points are all now adjustable parameters in human and non-human animals alike. We are living in the final century of life on Earth in which suffering is biologically inevitable. As a society, we need an ethical debate about how much pain and misery we want to preserve and create.

The Hedonistic Imperative (1995)Edit

Full text available online

  • The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.
    This project is ambitious but technically feasible. It is also instrumentally rational and ethically mandatory. The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved only because they once served the fitness of our genes. They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture. States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. The world's last aversive experience will be a precisely dateable event.
    Two hundred years ago, powerful synthetic pain-killers and surgical anesthetics were unknown. The notion that physical pain could be banished from most people's lives would have seemed absurd. Today most of us in the technically advanced nations take its routine absence for granted. The prospect that what we describe as psychological pain, too, could ever be banished is equally counter-intuitive. The feasibility of its abolition turns its deliberate retention into an issue of social policy and ethical choice.
  • It is easy to romanticise, say, tigers or lions and cats. We admire their magnificent beauty, strength and agility. But we would regard their notional human counterparts as wanton psychopaths of the worst kind.
  • Much more seriously, in those traditional eco-systems that we chose to retain, millions of non-human animals will continue periodically to starve, die horribly of thirst and disease, or even get eaten alive. This is commonly viewed as "natural" and hence basically OK. It would indeed be comforting to think that in some sense this ongoing animal holocaust doesn't matter too much. We often find it convenient to act as though the capacity to suffer were somehow inseparably bound up with linguistic ability or ratiocinative prowess. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that this is the case, and a great deal that it isn't.
  • The functional regions of the brain which subserve physical agony, the "pain centres", and the mainly limbic substrates of emotion, appear in phylogenetic terms to be remarkably constant in the vertebrate line. The neural pathways involving serotonin, the periaquaductal grey matter, bradykinin, dynorphin, ATP receptors, the major opioid families, substance P etc all existed long before hominids walked the earth. Not merely is the biochemistry of suffering disturbingly similar where not effectively type-identical across a wide spectrum of vertebrate (and even some invertebrate) species. It is at least possible that members of any species whose members have more pain cells exhibiting greater synaptic density than humans sometimes suffer more atrociously than we do, whatever their notional "intelligence".
  • No amount of happiness enjoyed by some organisms can notionally justify the indescribable horrors of Auschwitz. [...] Nor can the fun and games outweigh the sporadic frightfulness of pain and despair that occurs every second of every day. For there's nothing inherently wrong with non-sentience or [...] non-existence; whereas there is something frightfully and self-intimatingly wrong with suffering.
  • Negative-utilitarianism is only one particular denomination of a broad church to which the reader may well in any case not subscribe. Fortunately, the program can be defended on grounds that utilitarians of all stripes can agree on. So a defence will be mounted against critics of the theory and application of a utilitarian ethic in general. For in practice the most potent and effective means of curing unpleasantness is to ensure that a defining aspect of future states of mind is their permeation with the molecular chemistry of ecstasy: both genetically precoded and pharmacologically fine-tuned. Orthodox utilitarians will doubtless find the cornucopian abundance of bliss this strategy delivers is itself an extra source of moral value. Future generations of native ecstatics are unlikely to disagree.
  • It's easy to convince oneself that things can't really be that terrible, that the horror I allude to is being overblown, that what is going on elsewhere in space-time is somehow less real than the here-and-now, or that the good in the world somehow offsets the bad. Yet however vividly one thinks one can imagine what agony, torture or suicidal despair must be like, the reality is inconceivably worse. The force of "inconceivably" is itself largely inconceivable here. Blurry images of Orwell's "Room 101" can barely even hint at what I'm talking about. Even if one's ancestral namesakes [aka "younger self"] underwent great pain, then the state-dependence of memories means that much of pain's sheer dreadfulness is semantically, cognitively and emotionally inaccessible in the here-and-now. So this manifesto's rhapsodies on the incredible joys that do indeed lie ahead tend to belie its underlying seriousness of purpose. For the biological strategy is propounded here in deadly moral earnest.
  • One should be wary of assuming that we're the folk who can properly look after ourselves, whereas our descendants, if they become genetically pre-programmed ecstatics, will get trapped in robot-serviced states of infantile dependence. For it shouldn't be forgotten that exuberantly happy people also have a fierce will to survive. They love life dearly. They take on daunting challenges against seemingly impossible odds. One of the hallmarks of many endogenous depressive states, on the other hand, is so-called behavioural despair. If one learns that apparently no amount of effort can rescue one from an aversive stimulus, then one tends to sink into a lethargic stupor. This syndrome of "learned helplessness" may persist even when the opportunity to escape from the nasty stimulus subsequently arises.
    • 4. Objections, 4.2
  • Taking the abolitionist project to the rest of the galaxy and beyond sounds crazy today; but it's the application of technology to a very homely moral precept writ large, not the outgrowth of a revolutionary new ethical theory. So long as sentient beings suffer extraordinary unpleasantness - whether on Earth or perhaps elsewhere - there is a presumptive case to eradicate such suffering wherever it is found.
  • Any plea ... for institutionalized risk-assessment, beefed-up bioethics panels, academic review bodies, worse-case scenario planning, more intensive computer simulations, systematic long-term planning and the institutionalized study of existential risks is admirable. But so is urgent action to combat the global pandemic of suffering. "The easiest pain to bear is someone else's".

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