“As for you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,
Make merry day and night.
Of each day make a feast of rejoicing.
Day and night dance and play!
Let your garments be sparkling fresh,
Your head be washed; bathe in water.
Pay heed to a little one that holds on to your hand,
Let a spouse delight in your bosom.
These things are alone the concern of men.”
Siduri the Barmaid to Gilgamesh.
Which may represent the first recorded advocacy of a hedonistic philosophy.
The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet X
Hedonism is a school of thought that argues that pleasure and happiness are the primary or most important intrinsic goods and the proper aim of human life. A hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain), but when having finally gained that pleasure, either through intrinsic or extrinsic goods, happiness remains stationary.
Ethical hedonism is the idea that all people have the right to do everything in their power to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible to them. It is also the idea that every person’s pleasure should far surpass their amount of pain. Ethical hedonism is said to have been started by Aristippus of Cyrene, a student of Socrates. He held the idea that pleasure is the highest good.
Hedonism is a sub-philosophy of utilitarianism, which says to act in a way that maximizes utility. Hedonists equate pleasure with utility and believe that pleasure is the master of all humankind, and acts as the ultimate life goal. Hedonists believe that there are only two motivators of human action, pleasure and pain, and that decisions should only be made that further our pleasurable experiences and minimize or completely eliminate our painful ones.
David Pearce is co-founder of Humanity, formerly the World Transhumanist Association, and a prominent figure within the transhumanism movement.
Based in Brighton, England, Pearce maintains a series of websites devoted to transhumanist topics and what he calls the “hedonistic imperative”, a moral obligation to work towards the abolition of suffering in all sentient life. His book-length internet manifesto, The Hedonistic Imperative(1995), outlines how pharmacology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology and neurosurgery could converge to eliminate all forms of unpleasant experience from human and non-human life, replacing suffering with “gradients of bliss”. Pearce calls this the “abolitionist project”.
A vegan, Pearce argues that humans have a responsibility not only to avoid cruelty to animal within human society but also to redesign the global ecosystem so that animals do not suffer in the wild.
Hedonistic Transhumanism Manifesto
This manifesto outlines a strategy to eradicate suffering in all sentient life. The abolitionist project is ambitious, implausible, but technically feasible. It is defended here on ethical utilitarian grounds. Genetic engineering and nanotechnology allow Homo sapiens to discard the legacy-wetware of our evolutionary past. Our post-human successors will rewrite the vertebrate genome, redesign the global ecosystem, and abolish suffering throughout the living world.
Why does suffering exist? The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved only because they served the inclusive fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. Their ugliness can be replaced by a new motivational system based entirely on gradients of well-being. Life-long happiness of an intensity now physiologically unimaginable can become the heritable norm of mental health. A sketch is offered of when, and why, this major evolutionary transition in the history of life is likely to occur. Possible objections, both practical and moral, are raised and then rebutted.
Contemporary images of opiate-addled junkies, and the lever-pressing frenzies of intra-cranially self-stimulating rats, are deceptive. Such stereotypes stigmatize, and falsely discredit, the only remedy for the world’s horrors and everyday discontents that is biologically realistic. For it is misleading to contrast social and intellectual development with perpetual happiness. There need be no such trade-off. Thus states of “dopamine-overdrive” can actually enhance exploratory and goal-directed activity. Hyper-dopaminergic states can also increase the range and diversity of actions an organism finds rewarding. Our descendants may live in a civilization of serenely well-motivated “high-achievers”, animated by gradients of bliss. Their productivity may far eclipse our own.
Two hundred years ago, before the development of potent synthetic pain-killers or surgical anesthetics, the notion that “physical” pain could be banished from most people’s lives would have seemed no less bizarre. Most of us in the developed world now take its daily absence for granted. The prospect that what we describe as “mental” pain, too, could one day be superseded is equally counter-intuitive. The technical option of its abolition turns its deliberate retention into an issue of political policy and ethical choice.
Pearce’s ideas inspired an abolitionist school of transhumanism, or “hedonistic transhumanism”, based on his idea of “paradise engineering” and his argument that the abolition of suffering—which he calls the “abolitionist project”—is a moral imperative.
Transhumanism(abbreviated as H+ orh+) is an international and intellectual movement that aims to transform the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellect and physiology.
Transhumanist thinkers study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome fundamental human as well as ethical limitations of using such technologies. The most common transhumanist thesis is that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into different beings with abilities so greatly expanded from the natural condition as to merit the label of posthuman beings.
The contemporary meaning of the term “transhumanism” was foreshadowed by one of the first professors of futurology, FM-2030, who taught “new concepts of the human” at The New School in the 1960s, when he began to identify people who adopt technologies, lifestyles and worldviews “transitional” to posthumanity as “transhuman”. The assertion would lay the intellectual groundwork for the British philosopher Max More to begin articulating the principles of transhumanism as a futurist philosophy in 1990 and organizing in California an intelligentsia that has since grown into the worldwide transhumanist movement.
Influenced by seminal works of science fiction, the transhumanist vision of a transformed future humanity has attracted many supporters and detractors from a wide range of perspectives, including philosophy and religion. Transhumanism has been characterized by one critic, Francis Fukuyama, as among the “world’s most dangerous ideas”, to which Ronald Bailey has countered that it is rather the “movement that epitomizes the most daring, courageous, imaginative and idealistic aspirations of humanity”
Here are three scenarios in ascending order of sociological plausibility:
b) Utopian designer drugs
c) genetic engineering and – what I want to focus on – the impending reproductive revolution of designer babies
a) Recall wireheading is direct stimulation of the pleasure centres of the brain via implanted electrodes. Intracranial self-stimulation shows no physiological or subjective tolerance i.e. it’s just as rewarding after two days as it is after two minutes. Wireheading doesn’t harm others; it has a small ecological footprint; it banishes psychological and physical pain; and arguably it’s a lot less offensive to human dignity than having sex. Admittedly, lifelong wireheading sounds an appealing prospect only to a handful of severe depressives. But what are the technical arguments against its adoption?
Well, wireheading is not an evolutionary stable solution: there would be selection pressure against its widespread adoption. Wireheading doesn’t promote nurturing behavior: wireheads, whether human or non-human, don’t want to raise baby wireheads. Uniform, indiscriminate bliss in the guise of wireheading or its equivalents would effectively bring the human experiment to an end, at least if it were adopted globally. Direct neurostimulation of the reward centers destroys informational sensitivity to environmental stimuli. So assuming we want to be smart – and become smarter – we have a choice. Intelligent agents can have a motivational structure based on gradients of ill-being, characteristic of some lifelong depressives today. Or intelligent agents can have our current typical mixture of pleasures and pains. Or alternatively, we could have an informational economy of mind based entirely on [adaptive] gradients of cerebral bliss – which I’m going to argue for.
Actually, this dismissal of wireheading may be too quick. In the far future, one can’t rule out offloading everything unpleasant or mundane onto inorganic supercomputers, prostheses and robots while we enjoy uniform orgasmic bliss. Or maybe not orgasmic bliss, possibly some other family of ideal states that simply couldn’t be improved upon. But that’s speculative. Whatever our ultimate destination, it would be more prudent, I think, to aim for both super happiness and super intelligence – at least until we understand the full implications of what we are doing. There isn’t a moral urgency to maximizing super happiness in the same way as there is to abolishing suffering.
[It’s worth noting that the offloading option assumes that inorganic computers, prostheses and robots don’t – or at least needn’t – experience subjective phenomenal pain even if their functional architecture allows them to avoid and respond to noxious stimuli. This absence of inorganic suffering is relatively uncontroversial with existing computers – switching off one’s PC doesn’t have ethical implications, and a silicon robot can be programmed to avoid corrosive acids without experiencing agony if it’s damaged. It’s debatable whether any computational system with a classical von Neumann architecture will ever be interestingly conscious. I’m skeptical; but either way, it doesn’t affect the offloading option, unless one argues that the subjective texture of suffering is functionally essential to any system capable of avoiding harmful stimuli.]
b) The second technical option for eradicating suffering is futuristic designer drugs. In an era of mature post-genomic medicine, will it be possible rationally to design truly ideal pleasure-drugs that deliver lifelong, high-functioning well-being without unacceptable side-effects? “Ideal pleasure drugs” here is just a piece of shorthand. Such drugs can in principle embrace cerebral, empathetic, aesthetic and perhaps spiritual well-being – and not just hedonistic pleasure in the usual one-dimensional and amoral sense.
We’re not talking here about recreational euphoriants, which simply activate the negative feedback mechanisms of the brain; nor the shallow, opiated contentment of a Brave New World; nor drugs that induce euphoric mania, with its uncontrolled excitement, loss of critical insight, grandiosity and flight of ideas. Can we develop true wonder drugs that deliver sublime well-being on a sustainable basis, re calibrating the hedonic treadmill to ensure a high quality of life for everyone?
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.
There are of course all kinds of pitfalls to drug-based solutions. Technically, I think these pitfalls can be overcome, though I won’t try to show this here. But there is a deeper issue. If there weren’t something fundamentally wrong – or at least fundamentally inadequate – with our existing natural state of consciousness bequeathed by evolution, then we wouldn’t be so keen to change it. Even when it’s not unpleasant, everyday consciousness is mediocre compared to what we call peak experiences. Ordinary everyday consciousness was presumably adaptive in the sense it helped our genes leave more copies of themselves on the African Savannah; but why keep it as our default-state indefinitely? Why not change human nature by literally repairing our genetic code?
Again, this dismissal of pharmacological solutions may be too quick. Arguably, Utopian designer drugs may always be useful for the fine-grained and readily reversible control of consciousness; and I think designer drugs will be an indispensable tool to explore the disparate varieties of conscious mind. But wouldn’t it be better if we were all born with a genetic predisposition to psychological super-health rather than needing chronic self-medication? Does even the most ardent abolitionist propose to give cocktails of drugs to all children from birth; and then to take such drug cocktails for the rest of our lives?
c) So thirdly, there are genetic solutions, embracing both somatic and germ line therapy.
By way of context, today there is a minority of people who are always depressed or dysthymic, albeit to varying degrees. Studies with mono- and dizygotic twins confirm there is a high degree of genetic loading for depression. Conversely, there are some people who are temperamentally optimistic. Beyond the optimists, there is a very small minority of people who are what psychiatrists call hyperthymic. Hyperthymic people aren’t manic or bipolar; but by contemporary standards, they are always exceedingly happy, albeit sometimes happier than others. Hyperthymic people respond “appropriately” and adaptively to their environment. Indeed they are characteristically energetic, productive and creative. Even when they are blissful, they aren’t “blissed out”.
Now what if, as a whole civilization, we were to opt to become genetically hyperthymic – to adopt a motivational system driven entirely by adaptive gradients of well-being? More radically, as the genetic basis of hedonic tone is understood, might we opt to add multiple extra copies of hyperthymia-promoting genes/allelic combinations and their regulatory promoters – not abolishing homeostasis and the hedonic treadmill but shifting our hedonic set-point to a vastly higher level?
Three points here:First, this genetic re-calibration might seem to be endorsing another kind of uniformity; but it’s worth recalling that happier people – and especially hyperdopaminergic people – are typically responsive to a broader range of potentially rewarding stimuli than depressives: they engage in more exploratory behavior. This makes getting stuck in a sub-optimal rut less likely, both for the enhanced individual and posthuman society as a whole.
Secondly, universal hyperthymia might sound like a gigantic experiment; and in a sense of course it is. But all sexual reproduction is an experiment. We play genetic roulette, shuffling our genes and then throwing the genetic dice. Most of us flinch at the word “eugenics”; but that’s what we’re effectively practicing, crudely and incompetently, when we choose our prospective mates. The difference is that within the next few decades, prospective parents will be able to act progressively more rationally and responsibly in their reproductive decisions. Pre-implantation genetic screening is going to become routine; artificial wombs will release us from the constraints of the human birth-canal; and a revolution in reproductive medicine will begin to replace the old Darwinian lottery. The question is not whether a reproductive revolution is coming, but rather what kinds of being – and what kinds of consciousness – do we want to create?
Thirdly, isn’t this reproductive revolution going to be the prerogative of rich elites in the West? Probably not for long. Compare the brief lag between the introduction of, say, mobile phones and their world-wide adoption with the 50 year time-lag between the introduction and world-wide adoption of radio; and the 20 year lag between the introduction and world-wide penetration of television. The time-lag between the initial introduction and global acceptance of new technologies is shrinking rapidly. So of course is the price.
Anyway, one of the advantages of genetically re-calibrating the hedonic treadmill rather than abolishing it altogether, at least for the foreseeable future, is that the functional analogues of pain, anxiety, guilt and even depression can be preserved without their nasty raw feels as we understand them today. We can retain the functional analogues of discontent – arguably the motor of progress – and retain the discernment and critical insight lacking in the euphorically manic. Even if hedonic tone is massively enhanced, and even if our reward centers are physically and functionally amplified, then it’s still possible in principle to conserve much of our existing preference architecture. If you prefer Mozart to Beethoven, or philosophy to pushpin, then you can still retain this preference ranking even if your hedonic tone is hugely enriched.
Now personally, I think it would be better if our preference architecture were radically changed, and we pursued [please pardon the jargon] a “re-encephalisation of emotion”. Evolution via natural selection has left us strongly predisposed to form all manner of dysfunctional preferences that harm both ourselves and others for the benefit of our genes. Recall Genghis Khan: “The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters.”
Now I’m told academia isn’t quite that bad, but even university life has its forms of urbane savagery – its competitive status-seeking and alpha-male dominance rituals: a zero-sum game with many losers. Too many of our preferences reflect nasty behaviors 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? I’ve focused here on genetically enhancing hedonic tone. Yet mastery of the biology of emotion means that we’ll be able, for instance, to enlarge our capacity for empathy, functionally amplifying mirror neurons and engineering a sustained increase in oxytocin-release to promote trust and sociability. Likewise, we can identify the molecular signatures of, say, spirituality, our aesthetic sense, or our sense of humor – and modulate and “over-express” their psychological machinery too. From an information-theoretic perspective, what is critical to an adaptive, flexible, intelligent response to the world is not our absolute point on a hedonic scale but that we are informationally sensitive to differences. Indeed information theorists sometimes simply define information as a “difference that makes a difference”.
However, to stress again, this re-encephalisation of emotion is optional. It’s technically feasible to engineer the well-being of all sentience and retain most but not all of our existing preference architecture. The three technical options for abolishing suffering presented here – wireheading, designer drugs and genetic engineering – aren’t mutually exclusive. Are they exhaustive? I don’t know of any other viable options. Some transhumanists believe we could one day all be scanned, digitized and uploaded into inorganic computers and reprogrammed. Well, perhaps, I’m skeptical; but in any case, this proposal doesn’t solve the suffering of existing organic life unless we embrace so-called destructive uploading – a holocaust option I’m not even going to consider here.
2: WHY IT SHOULD HAPPEN
Assume that within the next few centuries we will acquire these Godlike powers over our emotions. Assume, too, that the signalling function of unpleasant experience can be replaced – either through the re-calibration argued for here, or through the offloading of everything unpleasant or routine to inorganic prostheses, bionic implants or inorganic computers – or perhaps through outright elimination in the case of something like jealousy. Why should we all be abolitionists?
If one is a classical utilitarian, then the abolitionist project follows: it’s Bentham plus biotechnology. One doesn’t have to be a classical utilitarian to endorse the abolition of suffering; but all classical utilitarians should embrace the abolitionist project. Bentham championed social and legislative reform, which is great as far as it goes; but he was working before the era of biotechnology and genetic medicine.
If one is a scientifically enlightened Buddhist, then the abolitionist project follows too. Buddhists, uniquely among the world’s religions, focus on the primacy of suffering in the living world. Buddhists may think that the Noble Eight fold Path offers a surer route to Nirvana than genetic engineering; but it’s hard for a Buddhist to argue in principle against biotech if it works. Buddhists focus on relieving suffering via the extinction of desire; yet it’s worth noting this extinction is technically optional, and might arguably lead to a stagnant society. Instead it’s possible both to abolish suffering and continue to have all manner of desires.
Persuading followers of Islam and the Judaeo-Christian tradition is more of a challenge. But believers claim – despite anomalies in the empirical evidence – that Allah/God is infinitely compassionate and merciful. So if mere mortals can envisage the well-being of all sentience, it would seem blasphemous to claim that God is more limited in the scope of His benevolence.
Most contemporary philosophers aren’t classical utilitarians or Buddhists or theists. Why should, say, an ethical pluralist take the abolitionist project seriously?
Here I want to take as my text Shakespeare’s
“For there was never yet philosopher That could endure the toothache patiently.
[Much Ado About Nothing, Scene Five, Act One (Leonato speaking)]
When one is gripped by excruciating physical pain, one is always shocked at just how frightful it can be.
It’s tempting to suppose that purely “psychological” pain – loneliness, rejection, existential angst, grief, anxiety, depression – can’t be as atrocious as extreme physical pain; yet the reason over 800,000 people in the world take their own lives every year is mainly psychological distress. It’s not that other things – great art, friendship, social justice, a sense of humor, cultivating excellence of character, academic scholarship, etc – aren’t valuable; but rather when intense physical or psychological distress intrudes – either in one’s own life or that of a loved one – we recognize that this intense pain has immediate priority and urgency. If you are in agony after catching your hand in the door, then you’d give short shrift to someone who urged you to remember the finer things in life. If you’re distraught after an unhappy love affair, then you don’t want to be tactlessly reminded it’s a beautiful day outside.
OK, while it lasts, extreme pain or psychological distress has an urgency and priority that overrides the rest of one’s life projects; but so what? When the misery passes, why not just get on with one’s life as before?
Well, natural science aspires to “a view from nowhere”, a notional God’s-eye view. Physics tells us that no here-and-now is privileged over any other; all are equally real. Science and technology are shortly going to give us Godlike powers over the entire living world to match this Godlike perspective. I argue that so long as there is any sentient being who is undergoing suffering similar to our distress, that suffering should be tackled with the same priority and urgency as if it were one’s own pain or the pain of a loved one. With power comes complicity. Godlike powers carry godlike responsibilities. Thus the existence of suffering 200 years ago, for instance, may indeed have been terrible; but it’s not clear that such suffering can sensibly be called “immoral” – because there wasn’t much that could be done about it. But thanks to biotechnology, now there is – or shortly will be. Over the next few centuries, suffering of any kind is going to become optional.
If you’re not a classical ethical utilitarian, the advantage of re-calibrating the hedonic treadmill rather than simply seeking to maximize super-happiness is that you are retaining at least a recognizable descendant of our existing preference architecture. Re-calibration of the hedonic treadmill can be made consistent with your existing value scheme. Hence even the ill-named “preference utilitarian” can be accommodated. Indeed control over the emotions means that you can pursue your existing life projects more effectively.
And what about the alleged character-building function of suffering? “That which does not crush me makes me stronger”, said Nietzsche. This worry seems misplaced. Other things being equal, enhancing hedonic tone strengthens motivation – it makes us psychologically more robust. By contrast, prolonged low mood leads to a syndrome of learned helplessness and behavioral despair.
I haven’t explicitly addressed the value nihilist – the subjectivist or ethical skeptic who says all values are simply matters of opinion, and that one can’t logically derive an “ought” from an “is”.
Well, let’s say I find myself in agony because my hand is on a hot stove. That agony is intrinsically motivating, even if my conviction that I ought to withdraw my hand doesn’t follow the formal canons of logical inference.
If one takes the scientific world-picture seriously, then there is nothing ontologically special or privileged about here-and-now or me – the egocentric illusion is a trick of perspective engineered by selfish DNA.