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The Abolitionist Project by David Pearce


(c) Toby Ziegler (2006), The Hedonistic Imperative

Atrocious, agonising things are happening to people like you, me and our loved ones right now. The full horror of some sorts of suffering is literally unspeakable and unimaginably dreadful. Under a Darwinian regime of natural reproduction, truly horrible experiences - as well as endemic low-grade malaise - are both commonplace and inevitable. Chapter Two argues the moral case for stopping this nastiness. Since 'ought' implies 'can', however, it must first be established that scrapping unpleasant experience really is a biologically feasible option... from an information-theoretic perspective, what counts is not our absolute location on the pleasure-pain axis, but that we are "informationally sensitive" to fitness-relevant changes in our internal and external environment. Gradients of bliss can suffice both to motivate us and offer a rich network of feedback mechanisms; so alas today do gradients of Darwinian discontent.

Late one evening, early one morning, I realised the ideas I was reading were not written by another internet crank. I'm not sure what exactly tipped me off to the seriousness and logical force of Pearce's vision. The Abolition of Suffering; the Naturalisation of Heaven. Maybe the extensive and thoughtful series of responses to objections. Not as late as the heart-stopping Alone Amongst the Zombies. Or the mixture of staggering ambition with modesty:
As hedonic engineering develops into a mature biomedical discipline, the generic modes of paradise we opt for can be genetically pre-coded... The innovative, high-specification bio-heavens beyond will be far richer. We lack the semantic competence to talk about them sensibly. Yet however inelegantly our goal may be accomplished at first, the ultimate strategic objective should be the neurochemical precision-engineering of happiness for every sentient organism on the planet.

Sounds flaky? Yes, but then so, originally, has almost every radical reform movement in history (including, of course, the genuinely flaky ones.)
and philosophy with biochemistry. It is difficult to return to what you were studying - mealy-mouthed, apologist, naturalistic-fallacious bioconservative bioethics - after such a night.

I hadn't ever considered wild-animal suffering as the giant and at-best-ignored horror it is. People are starting to work on this now, but Pearce was there decades ago. We have a long way to go before people stop making it worse even.

More than Singer, than Ord, than LessWrong, it was Pearce that set me on my way with a coherent ethics, directly to effective altruism, and now AI safety. I'm not a negative utilitarian like him, but unlike almost everyone else I take its challenge seriously. I've met half a dozen people whose lives he affected this strongly, but the nonacademic setting limits his status.

(I'm using "the Abolitionist Project" as the title, rather than the original Hedonistic Imperative or the published collection Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering?; the former is misleading (since suffering is his focus), and the latter a bit dull. Better would be "The Molecular Biology of Paradise", a site header used elsewhere. Or "Better Living Through Chemistry".)

  • In one sentence: A stunning statement of what science is for and the most we could ever aim for.
  • Number of reads: 3 since 2010.
  • Galef type:
    Data 2 - What does it imply about the world, that X could happen?, &
    Theory 1 - models of how a phenomenon works, &
    Theory 3 - pointing out a problem, &
    Theory 4 - making predictions, &
    Values 1 - an explicit argument about values, &
    Style 3 - tickles your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more generative thinker .
  • To be read when: wondering what the point is, wondering what to do with your life, wondering why.

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