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Thread: The Abolitionist Project

  1. #1
    Member Array Dopa's Avatar
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    Mar 2015

    Default The Abolitionist Project

    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.

    Also this:

  2. #2


    Quote Originally Posted by Dopa View Post
    For the past 1.5 years, I have been advocating this philosophy, that we should use technology to get rid of suffering.
    Hm, don't have time to read this at the moment, but it looks interesting.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dopa View Post
    1. The first I think is either a psychological coping mechanism, a rationalization, or just mixed up logic.

    2. The "contrast" notion of happiness and sadness is another common sense notion I'd love to see go.
    Yeah, I agree that these are both ideas that people have come up with to deal with the age-old inevitability of suffering. But they'll become a thing of the ugly past once widespread suffering becomes a thing of the past.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dopa View Post
    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.
    Yup, it's a journey. I'm sure that there will be problems to solve with the treatment and kinks to work out with the technology as it advances, but I think the real long-term danger is human selfishness. When we master gene therapy, the wealthy and the elite will be very tempted to make themselves happier, stronger, faster, smarter, etc., while leaving the masses to muddle on as best they can. So I think the biggest problem will be making 'happy tech' available to everyone, while the technical glitches will be a relatively minor problem.
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  3. #3
    Senior Member Array Lark's Avatar
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    Jun 2009


    I think there's a difference between avoidable and unavoidable suffering and indeed we should get rid of avoidable suffering, some of it may be reduced through structural adjustment and cultural change but a lot of it will remain even should those things happen.

    Genetic engineering and universal hedonism wouldnt necessarily dispense with it either because most human beings a bad consequentialists, experience and history, personal or public/social, are not good teachers in this respect, or would not appear to be so to anyone who examines them for a moment.

    That is before you grapple with the thorny question of whether experience and history, as a form of memory, are preserved and conserved or devalued, indispensable or dispensable for life. Peoples politics or their personal life course may hinge upon those questions without them even realising it, or they could unconsciously practice one approach while consciously endorsing another.

    The consequences, in terms of suffering, may serve some function in terms of halting, impeding or teaching, as pain does in the human body, in sociology it is called functionalism and is criticised as vulgar ideology a lot of the time but it arose for a reason and I think deserves at least a thoughtful appraisal as opposed to breezey, optimistic dismissal.

    So far as unavoidable suffering when its a spur to adaptation, it is unavoidable after all, as to what is and what isnt avoidable or unavoidable suffering I think that's a central question in politics and social philosophy or corresponds to certain questions of equality, justice and law reform anyway.
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  4. #4
    He pronks, too! Array Magic Poriferan's Avatar
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    Nov 2007
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    I don't really have enough time at the moment to write a complete response to this, but I have some cursory thoughts.

    There is some extent to which our experience of positive or negative feelings are subject to attrition or fall into a kind of homeostasis, meaning that we do must respond to changes in a certain direction and become accustomed to static conditions over time. We have a tolerance for a state of mind. As you say, maybe we can engineer that out, but I suspect we have no idea what that entails yet, which leads to the bigger point that I still don't think we understand things like happiness well enough yet. Maybe we will some day, but not right now. It's something we still have to understand.

    But the 3rd point is the big problem. The kind of technology that would be needed to do this is also the kind I can see going horribly wrong. I have little trust in humanity doing the right thing with it. I think Passacaglia has identified a risk in terms of power relations and social stratification, and I'd like that add that such a turn of events would not only fail to realize the goal of ending suffering, it would probably become an active obstacle to it.

    So, I'm all for reducing suffering where we can, but I don't see a point in holding out for for the abolition of all suffering, and I'm not comfortable with what I perceive to be the combined odds and cost of failure.
    Go to sleep, iguana.

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    Live and let live will just amount to might makes right

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