David Pearce takes the problem of suffering seriously.
In 1995 David published _The Hedonistic Imperative_, a manifesto that outlines a vision of life based on “information-sensitive gradients of bliss”. That’s to say: a vision of life free from involuntary suffering, but still containing a range of emotional experiences which serve to motivate action. While our Darwinian brains operate on a range of (say) +5 to -20, Pearce suggests we could one day engineer minds that run on a range of +10 to +100, where the least good conscious experiences are better than what we call peak experiences today.
Sounds good, non? Sadly, most people’s first reaction is: “sounds crazy”. That was certainly my reaction, when I first read Pearce, and my impulse was to dismiss him as a depressive crank. But over the past decade, I’ve read more of his work, and he's now a thinker I admire.
Pearce’s intellectual conscience and awareness of suffering leads him to a dark take on life on earth so far. “Darwinian hellscape” is his polite description for the status quo. I’m unsure, but I tend to agree with the empirical claim, that the ratio of negative to positive experiences [^1] on earth to date is probably worse than 90:1 (I’d like to hear the steelman for a cheerier view). If you combine this claim with a theory of value that puts sensible weights on positive and negative experiences, you’ll end up with a pretty dim view of how things have been so far. Possibly the realisation of non-experiential values could redeem things somewhat, but you’d need rather a lot of that to tip the scales into the black.
Thinking about these empirical and moral facts is disturbing, the kind of thing that causes loss of faith, sometimes even mental breakdown or suicide. Unsurprisingly, we don’t talk about it much, and our shared stories are geared towards obscuring this thought. Pearce has developed an amusing alternative vocabulary aimed at shaking people out of a complacent sense that the status quo is good, or at least okay: most humans are “fanatical life lovers”, their vision obscured by “rose tinting Darwinian malware”. Natural conception is “genetic crapshoot”, and so on.
> 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.
So that’s the bad news. The good news, according to Pearce, is that with modern technology we can finally see a path to a much better world.
I don’t have the scientific knowledge to assess Pearce’s empirical claims about “volume knobs” for physical pain and the genetic determination of hedonic set point. But I think he’s at least right in spirit: at current margins, we should be pushing much much harder towards using technology to eradicate involuntary suffering.
Why aren’t we? Pearce would say that a naive and complacent status quo bias is a big part of the answer; I’m inclined to agree [^2]. It is a difficult balance: if the truth is this disturbing, it is understandable and perhaps instrumentally valuable to avoid this recognition, on pain of incurable pessimism or despair. But Pearce would say, and I tend to agree, that elites usually err on the side of complacent obliviousness, and should cultivate a greater sense of the urgency of improvement—a sense that while there is much that is good, there is also much that is utterly awful.
I worry that elites often fail to appreciate how exceptional their lives are. Many underplay the amount of involuntary suffering that plagues even their lives, telling stories whose allegedly redemptive qualities do not stand up to much scrutiny if the claim is that the terrible experience was somehow “worth it” (“caring for my demented parent taught me the value of family”, “the death of my brother helped me appreciate that life is a gift”) . Yes, strong people usually find a way to narrativise terrible events as “not all bad” or "character-building" but we should not forget that they usually remain stubbornly awful, all things considered. Abject involuntary suffering is not to be welcomed.
Personally, I have a fairly conservative instinct in thought and action, although this has weakened over time. I see many practical reasons to worry about radical visions. Obviously, radical agendas should be pursued with caution and care. But there’s nothing objectionable about radicalness _per se_, and having mulled over the transhumanist picture for a decade I‘m now, essentially, strongly in favour [^3].
Reading Pearce is complicated by the fact that he defends “negative utilitarianism”, sometimes known as “suffering-focussed ethics”. On this view, the eradication of suffering is the only good, and no amount of pleasure could be sufficient compensation for even the smallest amount of involuntary suffering. Though I start with some prioritarian intuitions and Buddhist sympathies, I find this theory of value implausible. The best possible worlds would contain no suffering, but the presence of suffering in a world does not mean it would have been better for that world never to have been.
With Nietzsche, I suspect that our theories of value are deeply shaped by our psychological type. To his credit, Pearce recognises this possibility:
> Lucas Perry: What are you most meta-ethically uncertain about?
> David Pearce: It’s this worry that however much one is pronouncing about the nature of reality, or the future of intelligence life in the universe and so on, what one is really doing is some kind of disguised autobiography. Given that like quite a number of people sadly pain and suffering have loomed larger in my life than pleasure, I am turning this into deep metaphysical truth about the universe. This potentially undercuts my view. As I said, I think there are arguments against the symmetry view. [...] Nonetheless, yeah, I take seriously the possibility that’s all I’m doing is expressing obliquely by own limitations of perspective.
Pearce’s commitment to negative utilitarianism is the reason that he has to speak in terms of _totally eradicating_ involuntary suffering rather than just massively reducing it, and why he mostly focusses on the negative aspect of the imperative (abolish suffering). His attempts to describe a wonderful “triple S” future of “super-intelligence, super-longevity and super-happiness” sometimes sound a bit half-hearted. A transhumanist with a more [[cheerful axiology]] might be able to paint a more compelling picture. So I’m excited for Anders Sandberg’s forthcoming book.
As Pearce is keen to stress, the future belongs to the life lovers, but even the most cheerful axiologies agree that the reduction of involuntary suffering is an important goal. Pearce has helped me keep in mind how daunting this problem is, and how much we could achieve with current and future technology, if only we had the clarity of vision to try.
[^1]: Standard gloss: an experience is positive if an informed and rational experiencer would choose to have the experience over unconsciousness.
[^2]: I take Bostrom and Ord’s “[reversal test](https://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/statusquo.pdf)” to have exposed extreme status quo bias in bioethical discourse. Has anyone written a strong rebuttal to this paper?
[^3]: Transhumanism is short on attractive, non-weirdo advocates. Elon Musk is probably the most famous candidate—perhaps he and Grimes can develop a scalable transhuman aesthetic. Anders Sandberg is a charming weirdo. Liv Boree is a former poker star who could pass for a normie at a glance. Celine Halioua is working on longevity. Personally I find Nick Bostrom very funny and oddly charismatic (“We already have skin enhancers... clothing”), but I guess this is a minority view. Who am I missing?
Places to start:
* [Sentience Politics text interview](https://www.hedweb.com/hedethic/sentience-interview.html)
* [Panpsycast interview](https://thepanpsycast.com/panpsycast2/episode61-p1)
* [Quora questions and answers](https://www.hedweb.com/quora/index.html)
* [The Hedonistic Imperative](https://www.hedweb.com/)