The Hedonistic Imperative


"I [David Pearce] shall first schematically set out how a naturalistic, secular paradise of effectively everlasting happiness is biotechnically feasible. Second, I will argue why its realisation is instrumentally rational and ethically mandatory. Third, I will offer a sketch of when and why such a scenario is likely to come to pass in some guise or other. And, finally, I shall try to anticipate some of the most common if not always cogent objections that the prospect of psychochemical nirvana is likely to arouse, and attempt to defuse them."  

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Key Takeaways

  1. Humans will one day have the capability of living in a state of perpetual bliss. Pearce argues for it and disputes many ethical and moral concerns with this state
  2. Found in its entirety, here
What I got out of it
  1. Very interesting thought experiment and made me question if I'd want to live in this state. My first instinct was a strong no and while I still don't think I'd choose that path, Pearce made a lot of interesting arguments
  • This manifesto combines far-fetched utopian advocacy with cold-headed scientific prediction. The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how nanotechnology and genetic engineering will eliminate aversive experience from the living world. Over the next thousand years or so, the biological substrates of suffering will be eradicated completely. "Physical" and "mental" pain alike are destined to disappear into evolutionary history. The biochemistry of everyday discontents will be genetically phased out too. Malaise will be replaced by the biochemistry of bliss. Matter and energy will be sculpted into life-loving super-beings animated by gradients of well-being. The states of mind of our descendants are likely to be incomprehensibly diverse by comparison with today. Yet all will share at least one common feature: a sublime and all-pervasive happiness... Such speculations may currently sound fantastical. Yet the ideas behind this manifesto may one day be regarded as intellectually trite - albeit today morally urgent. For as the genetic revolution in reproductive medicine unfolds, what might once have been the stuff of millennialist fantasy is set to become a scientifically feasible research program. Its adoption or rejection will become, ultimately, a social policy issue. Passively or actively, we will have to choose just how much unpleasantness we wish to create or conserve - if any - in eras to come." - Davie Pearce
  • Darwinian evolution has powerfully favoured the growth of ever more diverse, excruciating, but also more adaptive varieties of psychophysical pain. Its sheer nastiness effectively spurs and punishes the living vehicles of genetic replicators.
  • Passively or actively, we will have to choose just how much unpleasantness we wish to create or conserve - if any - in eras to come.
  • By the norms of our genetically-enriched posterity, however, it is the rest of us who are chronically unwell - if not more so. Contemporary standards of mental health are just pathologically low. Our super-well descendants, by contrast, will enjoy a glorious spectrum of new options for mental super-health. They may opt to combine emotional stability, resilience and "serotonergic" serenity, for instance, with the goal-oriented energy, optimism and initiative of a raw "dopaminergic" high. Post-humans will discover that euphoric peak experiences can be channelled, controlled and genetically diversified, not just medically suppressed.
  • We will soon have to decide if we should inflict suffering on ourselves or on others. A terrible but once unavoidable fact of organic life then becomes instead a matter for active moral choice when one decides upon the genetic make-up of one's future kids. And that choice can be declined.
  • We will soon have to decide if we should inflict suffering on ourselves or on others. A terrible but once unavoidable fact of organic life then becomes instead a matter for active moral choice when one decides upon the genetic make-up of one's future kids. And that choice can be declined... an extraordinarily fertile range of purposeful and productive activities will most likely be pursued. Better still, our descendants, and in principle perhaps even our elderly selves, will have the chance to enjoy modes of experience we primitives cruelly lack. For on offer are sights more majestically beautiful, music more deeply soul-stirring, sex more exquisitely erotic, mystical epiphanies more awe-inspiring, and love more profoundly intense than anything we can now properly comprehend.
Chapter 1 - How?
  • To escape from the hedonic treadmill we must first sabotage a small but vicious set of negative feedback mechanisms. These are genetically coded into the mind/brain. Recreational drugs of abuse do not transcend or subvert such mechanisms. On the contrary, they actually bring them into play with a vengeance. Today's quick-and-dirty euphoriants are nonetheless instructive. They give us a tantalising glimpse of what humanity's natural state of consciousness could become if several ugly neural metabolic pathways were inhibited or eliminated.
  • A lot of the time at present, we just don't - and can't - conceptualise the full extent of how unwell we are. For there are powerful arguments to suggest that everyday consciousness, insofar as it is not transcendentally wonderful, is symptomatic of profound psychological ill-health.
  • A few generations hence, the intoxicating joy of normal post-Darwinian life will be genetically pre-programmed.
  • The full horror of some sorts of suffering is literally unspeakable and unimaginably dreadful. Under a Darwinian regime of "natural" reproduction, truly horrible experiences - as well as endemic low-grade malaise - are both commonplace and inevitable. In Chapter Two, the moral case will be argued that this nastiness should be stopped
  • As hedonic engineering develops into a mature biomedical discipline, the generic modes of paradise we opt for can be genetically pre-coded
  • Delayed gratification of utmost importance -    Perhaps a comparison with tobacco-smoking can be of use here. In its present setting, nicotine is so addictive, not because of the quite minimal "high" it induces, but because of the sheer speed of onset of its intrinsically mild hit due to the customary delivery mechanism. The "reward" comes about seven seconds after inhalation. If the whole-body orgasmic rush of even crack-cocaine were delayed for ten days or so after its consumption, then the drug would be far less of a social and medical problem than it is at present. Tragically, most of its current users seem unacquainted with, or have long since forgotten, the concept of delayed reward. They might now be unwilling to wait nearly so long.
  •  We want to feel that we are happy for good reasons - genetically self-serving as they may so often be... Yet we may also be enchanted by ideas and modes of experience that today haven't even been conceptualised. Potentially, there are far more things to be happy "about" than we can possibly grasp.
  • Nothing we have previously enjoyed in the old Darwinian era will afterwards be unavailable or any less satisfying than before. In fact, we may be motivated to pursue old goals with far greater gusto once weakness of will becomes just an evolutionary curiosity. For weak will-power caused by dopamine hypo-function is one of those neurological deficiencies which effort alone can't overcome. Happily, in Paradise the frailest spirit can move mountains.
  • Love will take on new aspects and incarnations too. For instance, we will be able, not just to love everyone, but to be perpetually in love with everyone, as well; and perhaps we'll be far more worthloving than the corrupted minds our genes program today. 
  • Pain is not rooted in the unique human linguistic capacity for a generative syntax.  Humanity often behaves as though it were. For we presently keep hundreds of millions of other sentient beings in unimaginably frightful conditions. We do so for no better reason than to satisfy our culinary tastes. It has aptly been remarked that if animals had a conception of the Devil, he would surely have human form.
  • In future, anyhow, the life-forms which exist on this planet will be there purely because we allow them to be so, or choose to create them. This smacks of hubris; it is also true. Increasingly, we are able to configure the matter and energy of the world in any way we so desire consistent with the laws of physics. So the moral and practical question arises: what other organisms, and therefore what other modes of experience, are we going either to create or retain "in the wild" outside the gene-banks and computer software libraries in millennia to come?...   In a triumph of aestheticism over morality, many animal lovers otherwise sympathetic to the sentiments expressed here will doubtless be aghast at the very idea of losing such loveable companions and time-honoured killers as members of the cat family [since prone to torturing mice - the animal equivalent of Nazis hunting down Jews]; but then they are unlikely to be hunted down in terror or physically eaten alive, which lends a rather different perspective to any issue at all.
  • It is hard to see why unpleasant types of pattern should ever be physically revived.
  • Old definitions of self and reality are likely to fall apart in unpredictable ways. It's worth recalling how, at present, occurrent thought-episodes are typically decomposed into their nominally cognitive, affective and volitional aspects: "thinking", "feeling" and "willing". The mysterious trinity may prove just trifling variations, each with their own minor nuances, of a much wider phenomenological family of "serial" streams of consciousness.
Chapter 2- Why?
  • Imagining the happiness of friends and family, for example, can serve as a powerful source of motivation. So, too, can satisfying an idealised self-image of oneself as a moral person. More radically, there is a sense in which even sacrificing one's life for one's family or country isn't anomalous in the context of the hypothesis either. In certain circumstances, the image of living may afford less satisfaction than the image of oneself notionally acting and dying for the sake of others. Hence one opts for (one's emotionally encephalised image of) oblivion...Why does it feel so irresistibly good? This question is simply too deep to answer here.
  • ...psychological hedonism helps explain why one can never tire of having one's pleasure centres stimulated, naturally or otherwise, and why the standards of even the most priggish paragon of moral rectitude can deteriorate under the action of drugs such as heroin. The junkie and the total abstainer, whatever they may suppose, do not occupy two ontologically separate realms of being or chemical motivation. We are all dependent on opioids to feel physically and emotionally well.
  • We're all still seeking the same core states of psycho-chemical well-being under one description or other
  • Getting hooked on heroin or crack may provide, indeed, a most illuminating empirical insight into the nature of human motivation; though there is a strong case to be argued that this is carrying the experimental method too far.
  • We spend a lot of time trying to make ourselves happy, whether "vicariously" via our emotionally encephalised concepts of other people or from more transparently self-regarding motives. Often, in fact, we are quite candidly explicit about our motivation. "I want to be happy - without hurting anyone on the way" is an astonishingly widespread secular sentiment.
  • Ethical negative-utilitarianism is a value system which challenges the moral symmetry of pleasure and pain. It doesn't deny the value of increasing the happiness of the already happy. Yet it attaches value in a distinctively moral sense of the term only to actions which tend to minimise or eliminate suffering. It is counter-intuitive, not least insofar as the doctrine entails that from a purely ethical perspective it wouldn't matter if nothing at all had existed or everything ceased to exist. No inherent moral value is attached to pleasure or pleasant states. Indeed, if the option were humanly available, the logic of the position morally obligates bringing the world to an end were this the only way to eliminate the suffering endemic to it.  Following through the logical implications of this seemingly bizarre and perverse perspective is clearly not for the faint-hearted. Negative utilitarianism nonetheless stems, not from sublimated self-hatred or a nihilistic death-wish, but from a deep sense of compassion at the unimaginable scale and dreadful intensity of suffering in the world. No amount of happiness enjoyed by some organisms can notionally justify the indescribable horrors of Auschwitz... For in practice the most potent and effective means of curing unpleasantness is to ensure that a defining aspect of future states of mind is their permeation with the molecular chemistry of ecstasy: both genetically precoded and pharmacologically fine-tuned.
  • A built-in biological warranty of happiness undercuts three standard critiques of utilitarianism. First, the utilitarian ethic is often contrasted with agent-centred moralities and charged with making impossibly onerous demands on people. Second, utilitarianism seems to justify, on occasion, various types of behaviour e.g. lying, murder or even torture, that in most agent-relative moralities would be reckoned wrong or even wicked, if the net result is greater all-round well-being. Many critics have argued that this flexibility would, on balance, lead to a worse society.  Third, utilitarianism seems to demand, in effect, the ceaseless use of hand-held felicific super-computers to calculate the consequences of each of one's actions. This might prove quite exhausting...there can be no way of knowing at the relevant time whether a course of action is right or wrong on such a strict consequentialist ethic.
  • So in phenomenological terms, if no other, the quantity and quality of valued experience will skyrocket along with its biological substrates. Every moment of the day will be far better than the best sex anyone's ever had anywhere with anyone to date; and a lot more productive.
  • The program's therapeutic strategy will eliminate a whole host of states that even today are thought worthless or obnoxious. With time, the correlation between states found valuable and states found pleasurable should get ever closer to 1. So if, first, value judgements are also truth-evaluable, and if, second, subjects were normally capable of reliably apprehending their truth, then the biological program would indeed prove ethically mandatory.
  • Values...are merely mind-dependent subjective fictions. We don't read them off the world, but project them on to it.
  • Not everything that is desired is desirable, a slide from the factual to the ethical. Likewise, surely not everything that is valued is valuable? Even if it were objectively the case that value-judgements obliquely reported, truly or falsely, a distinctive experiential state or family of states, this wouldn't mean that such types of state actually ought to be valued, or that one ought to strive for their maximisation
  • ...yes, people certainly believe many of their value-judgements refer to the world and its properties rather than to some distinctive quality of their own experience. But both the philosophy of perception and quantum mechanics suggest that what a person treats as the mind-independent world - and to whose properties he linguistically refers - are toy, data-driven simulations his mind-brain is running. If so, then he is referring in a direct way only to aspects of his own neural experience in another guise. What his value-judgements express is still an objective property of the natural world. But it is mind-dependent.
  • ...this section may be concluded with a quick restatement of the plot so far. The biological program holds out the promise that, within a few millennia at most, states of conscious mind everywhere will be by their very nature more enjoyable than anyone alive today can imagine...In (at the very least) an empirical sense, implementing the post-Darwinian program can fill the world with valuable experiences. They will be enjoyed by human, non-human and post-human beings. Post-Darwinian modes of experience are likely to be of a diversity, profundity and liquid intensity that goes beyond anything accessible to the impoverished hunter-gatherer-evolved imagination. All the moral ills identified by contemporary secular value-systems can be rooted out for ever. Suffering will one day become physically impossible. This all sounds rather bombastic; but the strategy is biologically feasible as a species-project should we choose to pursue it.
Chapter 3 - When?
  • The prospect of such invincible bliss may seem very distant back here in the biological Dark Ages. Yet it shouldn't be. Even now, most of us try to manipulate our states of mind via chemical means. We just aren't very good at it. Throughout history, humans have tried to alter their consciousness via the use of a variety of natural agents.
  • Decriminalisation, first de facto and then de jure, and subsequent legalisation will not entail a straightforward abdication of state control. On the contrary, the state will intervene from motives of fiscal self-interest and paternalistic responsibility in the distribution process. The manufacture and supply, and certainly the quality and purity, of psychotropics will be licensed, guaranteed and regulated. This will reclaim a multi-billion pound sector of economic life from organised and disorganised crime. It will further allow a drastic and politically expedient reduction in direct taxation. It should also eliminate some of the toxic adulterants common in street-drugs. Thousands of newly decriminalised drug-users will re-enter mainstream civil society. More intelligent drug-education, and the social institutionalisation of previously illicit forms of drug-use, will further contribute to the harm-reduction process.  Yet this is to paint a dangerously rosy picture of the consequences of legalisation. Desirable as it may be to stop criminalising and even locking up a growing percentage of the younger generation, notably in the USA, the far-reaching social and medical problems stemming from ill-informed drug-use will remain. For a start, an enormous and perhaps unquantifiable number of (currently) illicit and licit drug-users alike are, in effect, self-medicating.
  • Dysfunctional traits of personality can then be psychochemically retailored. The gap between idealised self-image and uncomfortable reality will shrink. Within a few generations at most, the role of a national health service may be to keep people happy as well as healthy: an anachronistic distinction that may gradually outlive its usefulness.
  • So long as the official dogma of hard-line therapeutic minimalism dictates that there should be no clinically-sanctioned drug-use in "healthy" people, a lot of very interesting drugs indeed aren't going to make it to the marketplace.
  • We do not, in any case, have genes "for" happiness, anxiety, depression, and so forth, in any but the following sense. The presence or absence of certain genes with certain other genes makes it statistically more or less likely that an organism will be happy, anxious or depressed in a given type of environment and in a given range of circumstances. The statistical margin of advantage, however, does not need to be very large for natural selection to get to work
  • Future parents who decide, whether in deference to God or Nature, to decline gene-therapy for a child they know will likely grow up depressive, for example, may be open to accusations of child-abuse. Responsible parents, on the other hand, will want to get their kids the best happiness money can buy.
  • A further reason for predicting the abolition of the capacity for negatively-charged experience is superficially very different. It stems from a speculation on one indirect effect of omnipresent, multi-modal and immersive Virtual Reality software. This potential multi-trillion dollar industry is here posited to dominate social, personal, artistic and economic life after the first century or two of the next millennium..  An all-pervasive network of virtual realities, however, will enable everyone to have their intentional objects of desire fulfilled, and at minimal cost.
  • Two problems with the VR-scenario in general are worth briefly discussing. The first is technical. It may be alleged that realistic VR won't happen, contrary to the above, because it's too difficult... A second reason for doubting that omnipresent virtual realities will ever lead to the demise of Peripheralism is that, as the name suggests, they aren't real. A sense of authenticity, or any notion that one's actions really matter, will be lacking in even the most startlingly lifelike creations. They may sometimes be entertaining, it will be suggested, but even the greatest masterpieces of virtual reality software will never displace Real Life. Interacting with real flesh-and-blood people endowed with real feelings, it is claimed, will always take precedence over responding to mindless phantoms conjured up by machines
Chapter 4 - Objections
  • Argues that don't need to have negative experiences or emotions in order to contrast with pure bliss. 
  • The argument that our descendants might become functional wireheads, too happy to reproduce, isn't compelling either. Happy people tend to want more sex, not less. Enriched serotonergic, phenylethylamine, oxcytocin and opiate function will allow us to care much more for each other and our dependants than selfish DNA normally allows today.
  • Some argue that suffering is natural and part of human nature, however - Warfare, rape, famine, pestilence, infanticide and child-abuse have existed since time immemorial. They are quite "natural", whether from a historical, cross-cultural or sociobiological perspective. The implicit, and usually highly selective, equation of the "natural" with the morally good is dangerously facile and simplistic
  • Answers some obvious questions - sometimes good to be sad, turmoil leads to personal growth, can't know true happiness without sadness, etc. Feel like he does a decent job of answering these very intriguing questions. Nothing is super convincing as it is all hypothetical and honestly, at least for me, difficult to even imagine the state he is arguing for

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