A critique of Pearce’s plan to abolish all involuntary suffering. Pearce envisions a future where people will be able to use advanced technology to edit genetic codes of all animal species and equip them with AI implants. All this to completely remove unwanted suffering and to allow life to experience gradations of bliss. This is a noble idea. And what’s more, it’s written in sufficient detail to motivate future discoveries and actions. It is not without its problems, though. Here, I’ll look at these ideas from various aspects and show that some obstacles make the plan very unlikely to succeed or straight out impossible.
David Pearce, a prominent transhumanist, is a proponent of Hedonistic Imperative—a moral obligation on the human species to work towards ending all involuntary suffering on Earth. This is an excellent idea! I’ll briefly sketch out what is it about and provide my critique. Scrutiny is a clear signal that there is some engagement with an idea. And it may either help strengthen it or show that it’s untenable and would have to be replaced by something better. Either way, I believe this will be a valuable and an interesting contribution.
Be sure to check out the links. There you will find a lot more material on Pearce’s ideas and links to books and articles I reference throughout this piece.
David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative
Pearce is a negative utilitarian, which means that he places the most value on minimization of suffering. He says that we have a moral obligation to phase out involuntary suffering completely and make sentient beings experience positive states instead. This is, what he calls, the Hedonistic Imperative. Involuntary suffering would be a thing of the past, just like pain during surgery today is mostly gone through the innovations in medicine.
This could be accomplished by using various technological advancements: drugs, genetic engineering, AI, neurological implants, and others. Phasing out pain would require rewriting the genetic code to remove or replace fragments that make someone overly sensitive to pain or prone to low mood. Then, further modifications would completely hijack the pain processing centers of the brain. Implants would take over the processing of otherwise painful stimuli to allow the new people to react to harmful things in their environment and avoid damage. Pearce call this entire technological enterprise “paradise engineering”.
Not only the people of the future would be experiencing gradations of bliss, but the entire biosphere would have to be modified in a similar fashion. As a vegan, Pearce recognizes that non-human animals suffer too. And because there are so many individual animals in the wild, their suffering is of great proportions. We have a duty to end all suffering—that includes helping other species. He calls this grand plan the abolitionist project.
This is a wild, yet a noble idea. Anyone who suggests a way to get rid of suffering, especially coming with an elaborate plan, deserves to be heard.
Now that we have a general understanding of what is the goal and the foundation of paradise engineering, let’s take a look at how it fits the psychological, social, and technological reality.
Humans are selfish
History and current-day reality show us that, contrary to Pearce’s perception, technology is never democratic. Power is always strongly condensed in small bubbles. Money, influence, resources, technology, machines, even land are owned by a minority. We are all selfish to some degree, but the greed of the elites leads to the technology being in total control of the ones who benefit from it the most. We have institutions that guard the descriptions of inventions in forms of patents. Bio-engineering conglomerates create efficient seeds for genetically modified crops that farmers have to buy each year to sow on their fields. Computer and software giants guard their algorithms and scavenge and steal data. All of this to gain more power, more market share, and an advantage over the competitors. This is a self-sustaining system, running on a positive feedback loop. The gas pedal is on the floor, pinned down by a brick, and there’s no driver behind the wheel.
This is what we see people do. It’s much more likely that the high-tech bio-engineering labs will meet the same fate. They will be owned by corporations and will serve the ones willing and able to pay for the services. The wide availability of radio, TV, phones, Internet and personal computers is irrelevant. The devices are manufactured by corporations; the content is served by corporations. The end user is merely a consumer.
Even if we grant that the technology will be more similar to standard health care system rather than a luxury plastic surgery, we have to ask how will we will use it. We know people will want their children to be successful, to excel. What does this mean? It usually means being better at something than most other people. You can expect people of the future to pay for or choose traits that will get their children ahead in the social game. They will want their children to be smarter, stronger, prettier, but maybe also a bit more cunning, hawkish, bold. Traits that will help their offspring get a better partner and attain the “success” however they understand it to be. Intra-species competition is strong in hierarchical animals, especially in homo sapiens. People would rather give their children traits that will allow them to out-compete other mutants.
This local competition, and competition with other tribes, races, nations, or even religious groups, will set the direction of genetic modification. We already have news about genetic experimentation on human beings done in China. First experiments tried to increase our resilience towards viruses, such as HIV. But what will be next? Genetic engineering may very well share the fate of nuclear power. There’s a risk of a new silent war—an artificial genetic arms race. This is what we are today. Who we are now will determine what genetic code we’ll be writing for our children.
Today, we could completely end poverty. We could end hunger and starvation. We have the technology. We know what to do and how to go about it. But we don’t. We won’t…
Inhumanity, or: reconstruction of the human psyche
By choosing what preferences, character, desires, sensibilities a new person will have, we are essentially taking away diversity of human nature. When all children will be created by an automated process that optimizes the genetic code, people coming out of this factory will be losing uniqueness. What personality differences could matter in a world where there is a small set of perfect genetic codes? There won’t be people with strong enough differences to disagree with each other on anything important.
People have selfish desires that require a loser to exist. Paradise engineering would, therefore, mean that either perpetrators would violate their victims without them fully realizing what’s being done to them, or—more likely—totally reconstructing human psyche so that no one would want to impose on anyone else.
Consider a particular example. A person desiring sexual relations with another could pursue this activity even without consent of the other person. Maybe that person wouldn’t even be able to deny the advances, as that would require having a negative attitude towards the proposal. The only tool she’ll have is the gradient of bliss. Either she will be blissfully violated or the insistent romantic would have to be controlled away by an implant in his brain, as he himself would be unable to simulate potential negative experience from his victim’s point of view nor would he be capable of predicting negative consequences that could fall on him. Gradients of bliss won’t inform him it’s wrong to impose on someone. In the world where people see and experience only gradients of bliss, consent would not exist. No one would think of asking for consent, and no one could deny giving implicit consent. What this suggest is that the preference architecture would have to be rewritten and maybe supplanted by brain implants that would tell us what to want and not to want at any given moment.
Julio Cabrera explains that moral life is impossible, for it’s too often the case that realizing a project of one person necessitates preventing other people from achieving their goals. Cabrera calls this inevitable fact of social life the moral impediment. So, if there are inherent conflicts when people aim for contrary objectives, then how would happy humans deal with this? Will they be programmed to want the same things, not to step on each other’s toes?
Without being sensitive to various negative stimuli and social signals, people wouldn’t be motivated to keep their hygiene, to sleep, to drink and eat. Without fear, what would stop them from walking into an incoming bus? Pearce imagines that gradients of bliss should overtake the motivational system. However, in our daily lives we don’t do the most pleasurable things all the time. We often choose to do things that give us less satisfaction. But when we can rely only on the gradients of bliss, what would stop anyone from doing something less pleasurable like going into the traffic and blissfully dying? The solution to this would take the form of electronic prostheses—implants in the brain that would recognize the dangers and take control of our volition and behavior to steer us into safety. These electronic shepherds, as I like to call them, would de facto control our lives, making us into very passive experience machines, unable to rebel. Pearce has a response to this attack at the ready. Supposedly the implants could be deactivated. But how a person swimming in the soup of bliss could recognize when to switch off the electronic shepherd and when to switch it back on? And after switching off the implant, what’s left to stop anyone from violating an innocent person, when the perpetrator is chasing a higher level of bliss like a junkie?
Lastly, replacing normal motivational system would break a major component of reinforcement learning—learning from mistakes and bad experiences. Brains would have to be augmented with yet another prosthetic. Implants would learn on our behalf, and would have to control our behavior based on these learnings.
In the end, what would be left of homo sapiens? Joyful shells swimming through the gradients of bliss, controlled by the Matrix. This would be an inhuman fate for all of us.
Evolution has been tuning the preference architecture and motivational and learning systems for over 500 million years. They proved to be effective, maybe even approaching optimal. How likely it is that we will write better code that will withstand the test of time?
The genetic code, neurology, the environment, social sphere are all strongly interlinked. It’s a complex system of complex systems. One important characteristic of such dynamical complex systems is their unpredictability. The further we look into the future, the less reliable our predictions become. This means that accurately predicting the behavior of complex dynamical systems is inherently impossible. What will be the effect of our fiddling with human DNA? We will never know beforehand.
In the past we had instances of mega projects that promised a lot, but ended as horrendous failures. What were the ideals of communists who wrote the scenarios for the future? And what were the results? What were the benefits of lobotomy—severing the connections between critical parts of the brain—for the treatment of psychiatric disorders? What were the adverse effects? Cases like these don’t justify us in saying that the paradise engineering will share the same fate. They serve as a reminder that when there are no principles of oversight, no plans for handling mistakes, no ways of measuring and controlling the development and use of a new proposed technology, then there is no guarantee we’ll see good results. There are many risks we know about, and many risks we don’t yet expect. And we have no procedures in place for dealing with these risks.
With everyone being blissful, why would anyone want to have children? Will we breed only people programmed to want to procreate, thus considering those who don’t want to have children as defective? Will this mean that people of the future will weed out of existence those they will deem unworthy? Or will machines skip the human element in the decision-making process and take over the production of humans, or whatever this creature will be?
It seems like we don’t have enough energy, time, and resources to implement full scale Hedonistic Imperative. It’s unlikely we will sustain advanced technological civilization for hundreds of years before we’ll have the means to usher in the utopia. Fossil fuels will run out, rare earth metals will become extremely scarce. We won’t have the fuel to mine the asteroids. More likely we’ll be struggling on Earth with a continuously worsening climate and environment. The whole plan relies on technology that doesn’t exist and may never see the light of day.
On animal welfare
When we see someone in pain, we—in a way—can experience negative feelings ourselves. When we see someone mistreating an animal, we see it as cruel—we understand what the animal is going through. We empathize. It’s doubtful that people constantly experiencing bliss would be capable of empathizing with farm or wild animals. Why would joyful people of the future care about the plight of other species? Without experiencing suffering, we simply wouldn’t understand it—we wouldn’t know what it’s like. Bliss is ignorance.
Hedonistic Imperative requires putting an electronic collar on our brain. It would inform us about potential dangers and process pain in our stead, so we wouldn’t have to feel it. But how other species could understand that some other type of innocuous signal informs them about danger? They would simply experience a lowered level of pleasure. Avoidance motivational system and reinforcement learning based of punishment evolved for hundreds of millions of years. So far, no sufficiently detailed alternative to these processes has been proposed. Saying “we’ll figure it out” is not enough. It has to be shown how an animal would escape from danger without feeling fear or pain.
We can easily imagine that such genetically half-lobotomized animals will continue their existence in death camps we have today. Could people engineer happy farm animals to sell and relish in eating their corpses labeled “happy meat”? Given the technology they could. Maybe they will. Is it acceptable to the people of today, not yet stupefied by bliss?
Technological Society is itself destructive
If we had the power to micromanage all sentient life, we could just as well manage ecological processes without non-human animals. Instead of creating mutant cyborgs, we could create simple robots that will keep the plants in good health. This would amount extinction of all animals, maybe with the exclusion of people.
How would a computer designed to make people avoid damaging themselves even work? It would have to temporarily take control of the behavior of the individual. These machines would have to be designed, optimized, manufactured, and improved upon by AI. Their function would become more and more invasive. The implants would gain more and more control over our lives. We would be steered by machines to a much greater degree than people in authoritarian governments or people in the movie The Matrix. As Morpheus said to Neo in the movie, “What is the Matrix? Control.” Then what would stop the runaway process of brain-control to get to its logical conclusion—phasing out humans entirely?
There are many people who don’t see the technological advancement as a good thing. One of the most known critic of the technological society is Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. He’s been writing articles and books on the dangers and detrimental effects of technology for decades. In his magnum opus Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How, Kaczynski makes a reasoned case that the progress of technology will lead to extinction of complex life on Earth. We can’t predict the development of society or technology. This means that we can’t drive them in any direction of our choosing. In groups of people there will always arise self-interested subgroups who will overtake the institutions and direct them towards gaining power in the short-term, even to the detriment of long-term sustainability. Those systems that will not do that will be out-competed by the ones that will. Technology will be shaped by power-struggles between such groups. If some technology can be used to gain an advantage over the competitors, it will be embraced and used in such a way. Humans and animals are needed only insofar as they help the system in developing further. Once the system is efficient enough, life will serve no purpose to the system and will be retired like an old machine. Kaczynski explains that if technology will be left to its own devices, we won’t get any utopia, but an extinction.
We already see a faint image of what will come. Technology, and especially IT and genetics, advances so fast that the law makers cannot keep up. Massive data gathering, tracking, breaches of privacy, use of Artificial Intelligence to identify people, etc. are now in place. Deepfake technology was used in India in a political campaign to lie to voters. This is how technology is used today. Because the progress is ever so faster, the law is being left farther and farther behind. This means that the advanced genetic engineering technology will be in use long before society will gain oversight over it. With no agreed-upon rules for genetic modification, societies won’t be able to direct the purpose of the technology. Autonomous entities, such as corporations, will use it as they see fit.
Danger of system malfunction
Pearce presents a very simplistic view of genetics. There is no talk about uncontrolled mutations during fetal development or during the life of an organism. There is no mention of evolvability. Even after the successful genetic re-engineering of the animal kingdom, mutations will start accumulating when animals reproduce. The technological system may not be powerful enough to monitor any genetic change and its effect that happen in nature. This can result in an unmaintainable system.
Normally, any population is genetically diverse. Most of the time natural selection is “blind” to this variety of genes. When something changes in the environment, some groups die out. Other groups survive, often due to differences in their genetic material. Population has to have a lot of currently unused genetic code—evolutionary capacitance—to be adaptable to potential future changes in the environment. The artificial writing of the code may not generate sufficient genetic diversity in each species to sustain life for long.
Genetic accidents will still be happening. Genes for knocking out the capacity to suffer in one species may do something else after they jump into another species. There are also unintended consequences of gene editing. There are reports that the Chinese twins who were modified to be resilient to HIV have their brains changed. Every gene editing technology damages a chromosome that is then fixed by the cell. During this process mutations happen and some code fragments that were used to introduce the genetic material into the cell nucleus, but were not intended to be included into the DNA, actually can make its way into the resulting genetic code. Genetic engineering is an error prone procedure because of how DNA works. This may reintroduce the capacity for suffering. If Pearce would walk away from Omelas, he should also walk away from paradise engineering, which—from time to time—will generate suffering creatures, while the vast majority will enjoy bliss.
It’s just as likely that genetic experimentation on humans and other animals will lead to a dystopia rather than a utopia. Instead blissful people the Technological Frankenstein may create inhuman monsters. Having the technology doesn’t allow us to predict how it will be used.
System malfunctions will be happening. Such accidents may destroy the electrical shepherds that the people will rely on to avoid harm. Damage to a finely tuned brain will still be a possibility, creating suffering. And finally, the system may accidentally unleash a genetic mistake upon the world. We know that mistakes happen, no matter if its nuclear power plants, autonomous cars, or genetic engineering. But the cost of the latter may overwhelm us, the Genetic Chernobyl may overshadow every other mistake we have committed until that day.
When the technology breaks because of some solar flare or lack of resources or energy, the hell of the Darwinian life will resume. When the civilization collapses, as any great civilization of the past has, people will steer the process into directions we can’t even imagine.
All life will depend on this highly advanced technological system like a patient who depends on the drip with drugs that keep them alive. This system is a single point of failure. And the failure, when it happens, may be catastrophic.
In closing, I’ll briefly rehash the main points.
People use technology for their own advantage – to get ahead, to out-compete other people or entire nations. There is no reason to suppose that this will ever change.
Paradise engineering would require a total reconstruction of the human species. This would amount to the extinction of homo sapiens, replacing it with a new cyborg entity – homo beatus. People will not want to go extinct.
It’s not clear if it would even be possible to recreate a new motivational architecture from scratch, with no pain and suffering. There doesn’t seem to be enough time, energy, and other resources to research the needed technology and implement the abolitionist project.
Blissful people may not be interested in remodeling the rest of the biosphere to end the era of suffering. It’s also likely that people of the future will create lobotomized animals, incapable of experiencing pain, but will still enslave them and farm them for gustatory pleasure.
The technology that would be needed to allow people to live, once the painful signals have been disabled, would be extremely intrusive. Brains, volition, needs and wants would be under the control of machines. Eventually the technology could simply not need life forms at all. This would mean the end of all complex life on Earth.
Such a complicated technological system, on which everything would depend, would amount to a life support system. If something goes wrong with it, then the entire planet goes down. This is a single point of failure. One mistake can lead to a domino effect of cascading crashes of the entire biosphere.
Some of these points only show that the hedonistic imperative would be very hard to implement. People will fight back. Some points show that the whole abolitionist project is inherently doomed to failure. The entire critique is not that deep or innovative. I think many other people could see similar gaps in this enterprise. This means that there will be a lot more push-back than David Pearce anticipates.
Links and References
David Pearce videos
David Pearce – Effective Altruism – Phasing Out Suffering. Science, Technology & the Future. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yym0VzgXBGk
David Pearce – Towards the Abolition of Suffering. Science, Technology & the Future. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdXz4juOTwo
David Pearce – Wild animal suffering – Ethics of Wildlife Management and Conservation Biology. Science, Technology & the Future. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDZ3MtC5Et8
The Hedonistic Imperative – David Pearce. Science, Technology & the Future. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v07VZIQyoMc
David Pearce – High-Tech Jainism. Science, Technology & the Future. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcajIIcRgys
David Pearce texts
David Pearce. The Abolitionist Project. https://www.abolitionist.com
David Pearce. The Hedonistic Imperative. https://www.hedweb.com/hedab.htm
David Pearce. Compassionate Biology: How CRISPR-based “gene drives” could cheaply, rapidly and sustainably reduce suffering throughout the living world. https://www.gene-drives.com/
David Pearce general
David Pearce. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Pearce_(philosopher)
David Pearce on Twitter: https://twitter.com/webmasterdave
David Pearce on Reddit: https://www.reddit.com/user/davidcpearce/
Brian Tomasik. Are Happiness and Suffering Symmetric? https://reducing-suffering.org/happiness-suffering-symmetric/
Brian Tomasik. Risks of Astronomical Future Suffering. Foundational Research. https://foundational-research.org/risks-of-astronomical-future-suffering/
Theodore J. Kaczynski. Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How. Fitch & Madison Publishers, 2016.
Conundrum. Ted Kaczynski – Anti Tech Revolution: Why and How | Summary. https://youtu.be/oc7B7s7f5PE
World’s first gene-edited babies created in China, claims scientist. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/nov/26/worlds-first-gene-edited-babies-created-in-china-claims-scientist
AI-based Deepfake technology used in political elections. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_in/article/jgedjb/the-first-use-of-deepfakes-in-indian-election-by-bjp
David Pearce Q&A
David Pearce would walk away from Omelas. Twitter. https://twitter.com/webmasterdave/status/1142541502951940099
Some Quora answers on transhumanism, superhappiness, AI, superintelligence, veganism, utilitarianism, quantum mechanics, philosophy of mind, consciousness and stuff by David Pearce. https://www.hedweb.com/quora/index.html
Biology, Evolution, Genetics
Evolutionary capacitance. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_capacitance
Evolvability. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolvability
Greg Gibson, Laura K. Reed. Cryptic genetic variation. Cell. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2008.08.011
Selfish genetic element. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selfish_genetic_element
Gene drive. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_drive
Etienne Rajon, Joanna Masel. Evolution of molecular error rates and the consequences for evolvability. PNAS January 18, 2011 108 (3) 1082-1087. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1012918108
Genetic Pollution and Genetic Engineering Mistakes
Genetic pollution. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_pollution
Paul Brown. GM crops created superweed, say scientists. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/jul/25/gm.food
Tony Carnie. South Africa: wild animals at risk of ‘genetic pollution’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/29/south-africa-wild-animals-at-risk-of-genetic-pollution
Ferris Jabr. The gene that jumped. Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/genes-that-jump-species-does-this-shake-the-tree-of-life
Jonathan Latham. Gene-Editing Unintentionally Adds Bovine DNA, Goat DNA, and Bacterial DNA, Mouse Researchers Find. Independent Science News. https://www.independentsciencenews.org/health/gene-editing-unintentionally-adds-bovine-dna-goat-dna-and-bacterial-dna-mouse-researchers-find/
China’s CRISPR twins might have had their brains inadvertently enhanced. MIT Technology Review. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612997/the-crispr-twins-had-their-brains-altered/
#Suffering #Transhumanism #Technology #Ethics #Morality