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.
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