The nice folks at Sentience Research (an organisation within the Effective Altruism movement) published a few days ago an extensive interview with the British philosopher David Pearce. Pearce is a vegan, a transhumanist, and a negative utilitarian. In 1995, he published on his web site a manifesto outlining his “hedonistic imperative” theory: the moral imperative to abolish all kinds of suffering in sentient creatures.
I don’t agree with everything Pearce says. And I don’t understand a lot of what he says. But there are so many passages that I found inspired and inspiring in this interview (and in his work in general), that I have to collect them somewhere. Here they go.
“Critics of transhumanism decry the risks of reckless genetic experimentation: a brave new world of ‘designer babies’. Yet with the exception of child-free anti-natalists, we’re all implicated in the creation of suffering to gratify our craving to reproduce and pass on our genes. All children born today are untested genetic experiments — endogenous opioid addicts born with a lethal genetic disease (aging), and prone to a lifetime of physical and psychological distress. If we’re determined to create new life, then let’s at least try to experiment more responsibly.”
“NU [Negative Utilitarianism] is essentially the secular formulation of a compassionate Buddhist ethic (‘I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering’ — Gautama Buddha). Our overriding ethical obligation is to mitigate and prevent suffering throughout the living world.”
“Right now, I think our most urgent priority is ending the non-human animal holocaust. Our victims are as sentient as small children. Let’s shut and outlaw factory-farms and slaughterhouses.”
“Today, we don’t have any conception of what we’re missing, or names for our deficits. I believe it’s impossible to overstate the intellectual significance of these outlandish state-spaces of experience — though there’s a vast junkyard of psychotic nonsense, too, amidst the jewels. By analogy, imagine if you were congenitally blind, but didn’t know you were sightless, nor have any concept of visual experience. Now multiply this ignorance a billionfold. I reckon the human predicament is comparable to a tribe of congenitally blind rationalists.”
“[Question: ‘do you think it is worth it to live?’] I’m now torn between giving you a heart-warming answer and an honest answer. Pleasure corrupts. We all agree that the judgement of heroin users can’t be trusted. Jacking up heroin feels glorious (‘I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God’ — Lenny Bruce), but an opioid habit makes users selfish and amoral. Addiction normally ends up causing untold suffering to everyone. However, the fiendish cunning of natural selection has made all of us junkies — not in some strained metaphorical sense, but literally addicts, physiologically hooked on endogenous opioids — and willing to rationalise all manner of suffering by way of collateral damage to feed our habit. Insidiously, Darwinian life is bribed with pleasure, not just coerced with pain. Worse, evolution has engineered most opioid addicts to propagate their habit to a new generation of addicts via orgasmic sex — not the best tool for an impartial appraisal of reproductive ethics. Of course, addiction isn’t how most of us conceptualise our endogenous opioid dependence. The majority of humans are unaware of the neurochemical basis of reward. Pleasure just feels good. Life lovers will recoil at such a tendentious label; healthy humans are not ‘addicts’. The grim topics covered in this interview won’t resonate with many people. Humans in general value great art, literature, beautiful sunsets, friends, lovers, humour, spirituality, sex, the latest iPhones — good times. Life is a precious gift that must go on! But objectively, neurologically, we’re all ensnared in a vicious cycle of opioid addiction, and in denial about the harm we cause our victims — human and nonhuman — and ourselves. Addiction warps morality to promote the inclusive fitness of our genes. OK, I enjoy peak experiences whereas you’re a slave to Mill’s ‘lower pleasures’, but we are all hapless prisoners of the pleasure-pain axis. Darwinian life is self-replicating malware, a monstrous engine for perpetuating pain, suffering and addiction. The scale of the suffering is unimaginable. And it’s utterly pointless. There’s one complication to this analysis. Even the most angst-ridden Darwinian malware can be valuable if one prevents more suffering than one causes. So whether you’re an effective altruist earning to give, or a vegan activist campaigning against industrialised animal-abuse, or even, yes, a philosophical wordsmith churning out treatises on how to reduce suffering, even a pain-ridden and depressive life can still be worthwhile. Believers in suffering-focused ethics should act accordingly. And don’t help only others; you have a moral obligation to take care of yourself. That way, you can do more good in the rest of the world. Critically, Darwinian malware is now smart enough to rewrite its source code. The future belongs to life-lovers, not extinctionists, anti-natalists or nihilists.”