For the past 1.5 years, I have been advocating this philosophy, that we should use technology to get rid of suffering. Most people disagree with me right away, stating 1 of a few common objections. The top 3 are as follows:
1. Suffering gives life meaning and purpose, it builds character; happiness would get boring
2. It's impossible to know happiness without sadness, they depend on contrast
3. The idea is insanely farfetched, even if it were a good idea in principle it is technically out of the question
I'd like to contest all 3 of those, and then some, perhaps.
1. The first I think is either a psychological coping mechanism, a rationalization, or just mixed up logic. It is comforting to justify suffering by saying it adds flavor to life (or whatever), and it is also conspicuously easy to commit to this belief in the abstract, especially retrospectively. The worst moments of our lives are often looked back upon with laughter, and we have a way of forgetting how awful they were at the time. But the real question is, would you choose to go through something like that again, even if it gave you some great reward? Would you, say, choose to be disfigured in the face? Mind you, years later you might look back on this and marvel at the wisdom you gained for having to go through the struggle of having a disfigured face. Or would that just be a way to cope?
What is the alternative? Many have trouble seeing this. What if we were happy all the time? Could there be empathy? Love? Purpose? I say, of course. It's just hard to imagine because it's not the way things are right now. I think it would have been similarly hard for ancient people to imagine and stomach a description of what our current world is like, and which of their shibboleths would have vanished. There are plenty of things - more, really - to do when you're happy. There is a folksy notion that most people have, that sadness is what motivates us. Again, I'd call that a rationalization. Who is more motivated, people who are happy, or depressives? Giving a depressed person SSRIs restores their happiness and their motivation. What if life were about playing, creating, exploring, celebrating, and loving? What if violence, poverty, and disease were things of the past?
2. The "contrast" notion of happiness and sadness is another common sense notion I'd love to see go. Some people are so convinced of this metaphysics that they think happiness and sadness are cosmic forces of some sort which must always balance completely - well, if that is the case, which we have no reason other than crude intuition to suspect, then there really is no reason to do anything at all. No act or event has any moral value, because it will be canceled out shortly anyway. Any horror will be followed by a joy, and vice versa. Nothing is good or bad ultimately. Might as well be 100% apathetic. Might as well live in North Korea. Things will balance out anyway.
But again, there is really no reason to think that's true, and plenty of reason to think it isn't, namely the fact that some people live life as depressives and some are lucky enough to have pleasant, even hyperthymic temperaments. Indeed, some live happier lives. This fact alone is enough to satisfy me in principle - even if some suffering were needed for contrast, the question would only be what the minimum was. Wellbeing could still be maximized, and that would clearly be what we should do.
Neurologically speaking, however, even that doesn't ring true. Mental states are a question of which chemical pathways are active in the brain. Run the appropriate ones continuously, and that's the feeling you'll get, continuously. We have trouble seeing this because our brains are designed not to let that happen, but there is no reason engineering couldn't change that. There's no reason we couldn't eventually edit out the molecular substrates of negative experience altogether, thus making states like "boredom" impossible.
3. Is this technically feasible at all, let alone in our lifetimes? First I would say, it's a direction, not an either/or proposition. The principle itself of reducing suffering is one which many people strangely reject, kind of like how many reject the prospect of anti-aging research and claim to want to die. Learning to accept suffering and death is a process that takes years for people to adjust to; indeed it is often the most comforting thing in the face of apparent inevitability to convince oneself that these are actually good and desirable things. But when the moment comes that this assumption is turned upside down, it's not so easy to simply drop what took so much effort to assimilate.
I would say major progress could be made in a relatively short amount of time, actually. Mood brightening drugs are a decent solution. Antidepressants have lifted millions now out of terrible depression, and to claim that these people aren't experiencing "real" happiness, or aren't really "themselves" is going quickly out of style. Why wouldn't those things be the case anymore than they would be under the essentially arbitrary conditions we're given naturally? I certainly didn't pick my genes, and an increasing number are being linked to emotional wellbeing (I could name 5, links if you want them). On the contrary, we've seen what chemicals can do in the recreational and psychedelic drugs. The future will be a question of engineering out the negative aspects of those and designing them to retain and enhance what we value - love, energy, creativity - the possibilities of the future make the sober evolutionary default we're currently stuck with pale in comparison.
Genetics will be the ultimate solution, and news of major breakthroughs in sequencing and editing genes comes in on a weekly basis now. Some people are, for instance, lucky enough to have a mutation in the dopamine transporters which constantly leaves them with extra. Some have similar such mutations in their serotonin, noradrenaline, opioid, endocannabinoid, etc. systems. And some have mutations which make them worse off, which make them prone to things like opioid abuse. This is information we were previously totally ignorant of, but it could explain so much about behavior. Hopefully shaming (of addicts, for instance) will fade away in favor of intelligent medicine.
There are more objections, 35 common ones in fact, all listed and responded to here. David Pearce is the author of The Hedonistic Imperative, the manifesto which lays out this entire philosophy (and don't take 'hedonism' the wrong way here).
Some of my other favorite links from Pearce:
A critique of Brave New World
Utopian Surgery? Early objections to anesthetic practice and the 'case for pain'
The Bio-intelligence Explosion
HedWeb - All the rest of his writings, tons to explore.