The Abolitionist Project and Coercive Eugenics [updated]

David Pearce, guest blogging at Sentient Developments, has a lengthy post on the Abolitionist Project:

In 1995 I wrote an online manifesto which advocates the use of biotechnology to abolish suffering in all sentient life. The Hedonistic Imperative predicts that world’s last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event in the next thousand years or so – probably a “minor” pain in some obscure marine invertebrate. More speculatively, HI predicts that our descendants will be animated by genetically preprogrammed gradients of intelligent bliss – modes of well-being orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences.

I consider myself a transhumanist and have reasonably utilitarian (N.B. not aggregate utilitarian) intuitions, but I find the Abolitionist project fundamentally wrongheaded, and see the potential for some pretty severe totalitarian eugenic politics were it ever to become a basis for policymaking. I like pleasure, dislike pain, and see no reason for an individual not to increase the former and reduce the latter through whatever technical means are available.

I don’t, however, see pleasure and pain as the only morally relevant things, and I think it’s important that individuals are free to weigh competing values for themselves as much as possible. Now, I don’t begrudge anyone else their view that pleasure and pain are the only things that matter (in fact, in some of my more reflective moments I suspect that pure utilitarianism is the only moral theory capable of avoiding taboo and mysticism). I only ask that they respect the pluralism and uncertainty which is surely an unavoidable feature of moral judgement. The Hedonists may well think they are doing me a favour by  forcibly (but humanely, of course) taking me to their wireheading lab, but that’s just not what I want. ‘A-ha,’ the Abolitionist will respond, ‘but you’ll enjoy it once you get there.’ No doubt I will, but I value things other than pleasure. Once you perfect the drugs that let me live a full human life in constant bliss, then I’ll be on board. Until then, I want no part of your utopia.

Even then, though, I would ask you not to force those who think pain is character-building into living painless lives. You may think their views are foolish, but you do not have a monopoly on moral truth. Eliminating suffering in all living things should not be anyone’s goal, any more than removing homosexuality or disagreeableness. Providing the technological means of the removal of suffering and letting individuals choose whether or not to use that technology is fine and noble. Forcibly redesigning people – which is what the abolition of suffering would presumably require – is not.

I have no problem, by the way, with Abolitionist types reducing the suffering of animals, and think that’s a very commendable activity. I don’t think animals do have any preferences other than the ansence of pain and the presence of pleasure, and can’t meaningfully give or withhold consent.

Update: David Pearce responds in the comments, saying that Abolitionists are only interested in the abolition of involuntary suffering. I’m all for that, but that’s not the impression I got from a casual reading. A casual reading is all I’ve given Abolitionist ideas because reducing suffering on a voluntary basis seems so appealing that I don’t feel the need to be convinced any further.

6 Responses

  1. Been reading Nozick lately perhaps? Your argument here is very similar to his experience machine.

    True fact: the experience machine almost made Peter Singer re-think utilitarianism. Sort of.

    • I’m not meaning to suggest that hedonism is not a reasonable moral theory – I think it is and some people would choose the experience machine and I have no problem with that. I just don’t think an altruistic hedonist should be able to override the moral judgement of others. Nor do I think those who place a high value of an ‘authentic’ life should be able to prevent others from plugging in. I don’t think there’s any fact of the matter whether the experience machine is good, I just have a preference against it.

  2. Elizer over on Overcoming Bias a couple months back had a sci fi serial worth reading. I’d have wanted to have joined the SuperHappies.

  3. Hi Brad
    How would you respond to the Inverted Experience Machine Argument?

    Also, I think it’s worth noting that abolitionists aren’t seeking to force anyone to be happy – we’re talking about abolishing involuntary suffering.

    When suffering of any kind becomes optional thanks to biotechnology, would you force anyone to undergo suffering against their will? If so, how much, how often, and enforced by what means?

    very best wishes for a cruelty-free world.

    • I don’t see the experience machine argument as a good argument against hedonism, and I do think hedonism is a reasonable moral theory. But I don’t think any moral theory is actually correct, and even if it were I don’t see how we would have any basis for knowing this.

      If you don’t want to force people into living painless lives, then I’m all for it. My impression of your position must be mistaken, but the paragraph above certainly seems to suggest that you want to eliminate all suffering, whether voluntary or not. I don’t think we disagree on anything other than framing. I don’t think there will ever be a completely suffering-free world without coercive action. You may have very little suffering, but there are a lot of people in the world, and there will always be some holdouts. I don’t see that as a problem.

      I predict that many people would plug into the experience machine and I would have no problem with this. I wouldn’t do so myself, but would be very keen to have drugs that made me blissful while allowing me to continue with the life I’m living now.

      Personally, I think suffering is awful. I don’t think it builds character and would certainly advise anyone to take whatever steps they can to remove it, if that doesn’t interfere with other goods they value more. I would never force anyone to suffer, but nor would I force them not to.

  4. […] read the whole thing, but here’s one part which makes the point I’ve been trying to get at recently: This ideal of political equality arose from the Enlightenment’s insistence that […]

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