Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
First, I'm going to outline why it's technically feasible to abolish the biological substrates of any kind of unpleasant experience - psychological pain as well as physical pain.
Secondly, I'm going to argue for the overriding moral urgency of the abolitionist project, whether or not one is any kind of ethical utilitarian.
Thirdly, I'm going to argue why a revolution in biotechnology means it's going to happen, albeit not nearly as fast as it should.
So if manipulating our external environment alone can never abolish suffering and malaise, what does technically work?
Here are three scenarios in ascending order of sociological plausibility:
a) wireheadingAnyway, one of the advantages of genetically recalibrating the hedonic treadmill rather than abolishing it altogether, at least for the foreseeable future, is that the functional analogues of pain, anxiety, guilt and even depression can be preserved without their nasty raw feels as we understand them today. We can retain the functional analogues of discontent - arguably the motor of progress - and retain the discernment and critical insight lacking in the euphorically manic. Even if hedonic tone is massively enhanced, and even if our reward centres are physically and functionally amplified, then it's still possible in principle to conserve much of our existing preference architecture. If you prefer Mozart to Beethoven, or philosophy to pushpin, then you can still retain this preference ranking even if your hedonic tone is hugely enriched.
b) utopian designer drugs
c) genetic engineering and - what I want to focus on - the impending reproductive revolution of designer babies
a) Recall wireheading is direct stimulation of the pleasure centres of the brain via implanted electrodes. Intracranial self-stimulation shows no physiological or subjective tolerance i.e. it's just as rewarding after two days as it is after two minutes. Wireheading doesn't harm others; it has a small ecological footprint; it banishes psychological and physical pain; and arguably it's a lot less offensive to human dignity than having sex. Admittedly, lifelong wireheading sounds an appealing prospect only to a handful of severe depressives. But what are the technical arguments against its adoption?
Well, wireheading is not an evolutionarily stable solution: there would be selection pressure against its widespread adoption. Wireheading doesn't promote nurturing behaviour: wireheads, whether human or non-human, don't want to raise baby wireheads. Uniform, indiscriminate bliss in the guise of wireheading or its equivalents would effectively bring the human experiment to an end, at least if it were adopted globally. Direct neurostimulation of the reward centres destroys informational sensitivity to environmental stimuli. So assuming we want to be smart - and become smarter - we have a choice. Intelligent agents can have a motivational structure based on gradients of ill-being, characteristic of some lifelong depressives today. Or intelligent agents can have our current typical mixture of pleasures and pains. Or alternatively, we could have an informational economy of mind based entirely on [adaptive] gradients of cerebral bliss - which I'm going to argue for.
Actually, this dismissal of wireheading may be too quick. In the far future, one can't rule out offloading everything unpleasant or mundane onto inorganic supercomputers, prostheses and robots while we enjoy uniform orgasmic bliss. Or maybe not orgasmic bliss, possibly some other family of ideal states that simply couldn't be improved upon. But that's speculative. Whatever our ultimate destination, it would be more prudent, I think, to aim for both superhappiness and superintelligence - at least until we understand the full implications of what we are doing. There isn't a moral urgency to maximizing superhappiness in the same way as there is to abolishing suffering.
[It's worth noting that the offloading option assumes that inorganic computers, prostheses and robots don't - or at least needn't - experience subjective phenomenal pain even if their functional architecture allows them to avoid and respond to noxious stimuli. This absence of inorganic suffering is relatively uncontroversial with existing computers - switching off one's PC doesn't have ethical implications, and a silicon robot can be programmed to avoid corrosive acids without experiencing agony if it's damaged. It's debatable whether any computational system with a classical von Neumann architecture will ever be interestingly conscious. I'm sceptical; but either way, it doesn't affect the offloading option, unless one argues that the subjective texture of suffering is functionally essential to any system capable of avoiding harmful stimuli.]
b) The second technical option for eradicating suffering is futuristic designer drugs. In an era of mature post-genomic medicine, will it be possible rationally to design truly ideal pleasure-drugs that deliver lifelong, high-functioning well-being without unacceptable side-effects? "Ideal pleasure drugs" here is just a piece of shorthand. Such drugs can in principle embrace cerebral, empathetic, aesthetic and perhaps spiritual well-being - and not just hedonistic pleasure in the usual one-dimensional and amoral sense.
We're not talking here about recreational euphoriants, which simply activate the negative feedback mechanisms of the brain; nor the shallow, opiated contentment of a Brave New World; nor drugs that induce euphoric mania, with its uncontrolled excitement, loss of critical insight, grandiosity and flight of ideas. Can we develop true wonderdrugs that deliver sublime well-being on a sustainable basis, recalibrating the hedonic treadmill to ensure a high quality of life for everyone?
A lot of people recoil from the word "drugs" - which is understandable given today's noxious street drugs and their uninspiring medical counterparts. Yet even academics and intellectuals in our society typically take the prototypical dumb drug, ethyl alcohol. If it's socially acceptable to take a drug that makes you temporarily happy and stupid, then why not rationally design drugs to make people perpetually happier and smarter? Presumably, in order to limit abuse-potential, one would want any ideal pleasure drug to be akin - in one limited but important sense - to nicotine, where the smoker's brain finely calibrates its optimal level: there is no uncontrolled dose-escalation.
There are of course all kinds of pitfalls to drug-based solutions. Technically, I think these pitfalls can be overcome, though I won't try to show this here. But there is a deeper issue. If there weren't something fundamentally wrong - or at least fundamentally inadequate - with our existing natural state of consciousness bequeathed by evolution, then we wouldn't be so keen to change it. Even when it's not unpleasant, everyday consciousness is mediocre compared to what we call peak experiences. Ordinary everyday consciousness was presumably adaptive in the sense it helped our genes leave more copies of themselves on the African savannah; but why keep it as our default-state indefinitely? Why not change human nature by literally repairing our genetic code?
Again, this dismissal of pharmacological solutions may be too quick. Arguably, utopian designer drugs may always be useful for the fine-grained and readily reversible control of consciousness; and I think designer drugs will be an indispensable tool to explore the disparate varieties of conscious mind. But wouldn't it be better if we were all born with a genetic predisposition to psychological superhealth rather than needing chronic self-medication? Does even the most ardent abolitionist propose to give cocktails of drugs to all children from birth; and then to take such drug cocktails for the rest of our lives?
c) So thirdly, there are genetic solutions, embracing both somatic and germline therapy.
By way of context, today there is a minority of people who are always depressed or dysthymic, albeit to varying degrees. Studies with mono- and dizygotic twins confirm there is a high degree of genetic loading for depression. Conversely, there are some people who are temperamentally optimistic. Beyond the optimists, there is a very small minority of people who are what psychiatrists call hyperthymic. Hyperthymic people aren't manic or bipolar; but by contemporary standards, they are always exceedingly happy, albeit sometimes happier than others. Hyperthymic people respond "appropriately" and adaptively to their environment. Indeed they are characteristically energetic, productive and creative. Even when they are blissful, they aren't "blissed out".
Now what if, as a whole civilisation, we were to opt to become genetically hyperthymic - to adopt a motivational system driven entirely by adaptive gradients of well-being? More radically, as the genetic basis of hedonic tone is understood, might we opt to add multiple extra copies of hyperthymia-promoting genes/allelic combinations and their regulatory promoters - not abolishing homeostasis and the hedonic treadmill but shifting our hedonic set-point to a vastly higher level?
Three points here:
First, this genetic recalibration might seem to be endorsing another kind of uniformity; but it's worth recalling that happier people - and especially hyperdopaminergic people - are typically responsive to a broader range of potentially rewarding stimuli than depressives: they engage in more exploratory behaviour. This makes getting stuck in a sub-optimal rut less likely, both for the enhanced individual and posthuman society as a whole.
Secondly, universal hyperthymia might sound like a gigantic experiment; and in a sense of course it is. But all sexual reproduction is an experiment. We play genetic roulette, shuffling our genes and then throwing the genetic dice. Most of us flinch at the word "eugenics"; but that's what we're effectively practising, crudely and incompetently, when we choose our prospective mates. The difference is that within the next few decades, prospective parents will be able to act progressively more rationally and responsibly in their reproductive decisions. Pre-implantation diagnosis is going to become routine; artificial wombs will release us from the constraints of the human birth-canal; and a revolution in reproductive medicine will begin to replace the old Darwinian lottery. The question is not whether a reproductive revolution is coming, but rather what kinds of being - and what kinds of consciousness - do we want to create?
Thirdly, isn't this reproductive revolution going to be the prerogative of rich elites in the West? Probably not for long. Compare the brief lag between the introduction of, say, mobile phones and their world-wide adoption with the 50 year time-lag between the introduction and world-wide adoption of radio; and the 20 year lag between the introduction and world-wide penetration of television. The time-lag between the initial introduction and global acceptance of new technologies is shrinking rapidly. So of course is the price.
Now personally, I think it would be better if our preference architecture were radically changed, and we pursued [please pardon the jargon] a "re-encephalisation of emotion". Evolution via natural selection has left us strongly predisposed to form all manner of dysfunctional preferences that harm both ourselves and others for the benefit of our genes. Recall Genghis Khan: “The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters.”
Now I'm told academia isn't quite that bad, but even university life has its forms of urbane savagery - its competitive status-seeking and alpha-male dominance rituals: a zero-sum game with many losers. Too many of our preferences reflect nasty behaviours and states of mind that were genetically adaptive in the ancestral environment. Instead, wouldn't it be better if we rewrote our own corrupt code? I've focused here on genetically enhancing hedonic tone. Yet mastery of the biology of emotion means that we'll be able, for instance, to enlarge our capacity for empathy, functionally amplifying mirror neurons and engineering a sustained increase in oxytocin-release to promote trust and sociability. Likewise, we can identify the molecular signatures of, say, spirituality, our aesthetic sense, or our sense of humour - and modulate and "over-express" their psychological machinery too. From an information-theoretic perspective, what is critical to an adaptive, flexible, intelligent response to the world is not our absolute point on a hedonic scale but that we are informationally sensitive to differences. Indeed information theorists sometimes simply define information as a "difference that makes a difference".
However, to stress again, this re-encephalisation of emotion is optional. It's technically feasible to engineer the well-being of all sentience and retain most but not all of our existing preference architecture. The three technical options for abolishing suffering that I've presented - wireheading, designer drugs and genetic engineering - aren't mutually exclusive. Are they exhaustive? I don't know of any other viable options. Some transhumanists believe we could one day all be scanned, digitized and uploaded into inorganic computers and reprogrammed. Well, perhaps, I'm sceptical; but in any case, this proposal doesn't solve the suffering of existing organic life unless we embrace so-called destructive uploading - a Holocaust option I'm not even going to consider here.
If one is a classical utilitarian, then the abolitionist project follows: it's Bentham plus biotechnology. One doesn't have to be a classical utilitarian to endorse the abolition of suffering; but all classical utilitarians should embrace the abolitionist project. Bentham championed social and legislative reform, which is great as far as it goes; but he was working before the era of biotechnology and genetic medicine.
If one is a scientifically enlightened Buddhist, then the abolitionist project follows too. Buddhists, uniquely among the world's religions, focus on the primacy of suffering in the living world. Buddhists may think that the Noble Eightfold Path offers a surer route to Nirvana than genetic engineering; but it's hard for a Buddhist to argue in principle against biotech if it works. Buddhists focus on relieving suffering via the extinction of desire; yet it's worth noting this extinction is technically optional, and might arguably lead to a stagnant society. Instead it's possible both to abolish suffering and continue to have all manner of desires.
Persuading followers of Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition is more of a challenge. But believers claim - despite anomalies in the empirical evidence - that Allah/God is infinitely compassionate and merciful. So if mere mortals can envisage the well-being of all sentience, it would seem blasphemous to claim that God is more limited in the scope of His benevolence.
Most contemporary philosophers aren't classical utilitarians or Buddhists or theists. Why should, say, an ethical pluralist take the abolitionist project seriously?
Here I want to take as my text Shakespeare's
"For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently"
[Much Ado About Nothing, Scene Five, Act One (Leonato speaking)]
When one is struck by excruciating physical pain, one is always shocked at just how frightful it can be.
It's tempting to suppose that purely "psychological" pain - loneliness, rejection, existential angst, grief, anxiety, depression - can't be as atrocious as extreme physical pain; yet the reason over 800,000 people in the world take their own lives every year is mainly psychological distress. It's not that other things - great art, friendship, social justice, a sense of humour, cultivating excellence of character, academic scholarship, etc - aren't valuable; but rather when intense physical or psychological distress intrudes - either in one's own life or that of a loved one - we recognize that this intense pain has immediate priority and urgency. If you are in agony after catching your hand in the door, then you'd give short shrift to someone who urged you to remember the finer things in life. If you're distraught after an unhappy love affair, then you don't want to be tactlessly reminded it's a beautiful day outside.
OK, while it lasts, extreme pain or psychological distress has an urgency and priority that overrides the rest of one's life projects; but so what? When the misery passes, why not just get on with one's life as before?
Well, natural science aspires to "a view from nowhere", a notional God's-eye view. Physics tells us that no here-and-now is privileged over any other; all are equally real. Science and technology are shortly going to give us Godlike powers over the entire living world to match this Godlike perspective. I argue that so long as there is any sentient being who is undergoing suffering similar to our distress, that suffering should be tackled with the same priority and urgency as if it were one's own pain or the pain of a loved one. With power comes complicity. Godlike powers carry godlike responsibilities. Thus the existence of suffering 200 years ago, for instance, may indeed have been terrible; but it's not clear that such suffering can sensibly be called "immoral" - because there wasn't much that could be done about it. But thanks to biotechnology, now there is - or shortly will be. Over the next few centuries, suffering of any kind is going to become optional.
If you're not a classical ethical utilitarian, the advantage of recalibrating the hedonic treadmill rather than simply seeking to maximise superhappiness is that you are retaining at least a recognizable descendant of our existing preference architecture. Recalibration of the hedonic treadmill can be made consistent with your existing value scheme. Hence even the ill-named "preference utilitarian" can be accommodated. Indeed control over the emotions means that you can pursue your existing life projects more effectively.
And what about the alleged character-building function of suffering? "That which does not crush me makes me stronger”, said Nietzsche. This worry seems misplaced. Other things being equal, enhancing hedonic tone strengthens motivation - it makes us psychologically more robust. By contrast, prolonged low mood leads to a syndrome of learned helplessness and behavioural despair.
I haven't explicitly addressed the value nihilist - the subjectivist or ethical sceptic who says all values are simply matters of opinion, and that one can't logically derive an "ought" from an "is".
Well, let's say I find myself in agony because my hand is on a hot stove. That agony is intrinsically motivating, even if my conviction that I ought to withdraw my hand doesn't follow the formal canons of logical inference. If one takes the scientific world-picture seriously, then there is nothing ontologically special or privileged about here-and-now or me - the egocentric illusion is a trick of perspective engineered by selfish DNA. If it's wrong for me to be in agony, then it is wrong for anyone, anywhere.
The counterargument here is that whether or not one is sympathetic to the abolitionist project, we are heading for a reproductive revolution of designer babies. Prospective parents are soon going to be choosing the characteristics of their future children. We're on the eve of the Post-Darwinian Transition, not in the sense that selection pressure will be any less severe, but evolution will no longer be "blind" and "random": there will no longer be natural selection but unnatural selection. We will be choosing the genetic makeup of our future offspring, selecting and designing alleles and allelic combinations in anticipation of their consequences. There will be selection pressure against nastier alleles and allelic combinations that were adaptive in the ancestral environment.
Unfortunately, this isn't a rigorous argument, but imagine you are choosing the genetic dial-settings for mood - the hedonic set-point - of your future children. What settings would you pick? You might not want gradients of lifelong superhappiness, but the overwhelming bulk of parents will surely want to choose happy children. For a start, they are more fun to raise. Most parents across most cultures say, I think sincerely, that they want their children to be happy. One may be sceptical of parents who say happiness is the only thing they care about for their kids - many parents are highly ambitious. But other things being equal, happiness signals success - possibly the ultimate evolutionary origin of why we value the happiness of our children as well as our own.
Of course the parental choice argument isn't decisive. Not least, it's unclear how many more generations of free reproductive choices lie ahead before radical antiaging technologies force a progressively tighter collective control over our reproductive decisions - since a swelling population of ageless quasi-immortals can't multiply indefinitely in finite physical space. But even if centralised control of reproductive decisions becomes the norm, and procreation itself becomes rare, the selection pressure against primitive Darwinian genotypes will presumably be intense. Thus it's hard to envisage what future social formations would really allow the premeditated creation of any predisposition to depressive or anxiety disorders - or even the "normal" pathologies of unenhanced consciousness.
So there is a contrast: the lead story in the news media is often a terrible case of human child abuse and neglect, an abducted toddler, or abandoned Romanian orphans. Our greatest hate-figures are child abusers and child murderers. Yet we routinely pay for the industrialized mass killing of other sentient beings so we can eat them. We eat meat even though there's a wealth of evidence that functionally, emotionally, intellectually - and critically, in their capacity to suffer - the non-human animals we factory-farm and kill are equivalent to human babies and toddlers.
From a notional God's-eye perspective, I'd argue that morally we should care just as much about the abuse of functionally equivalent non-human animals as we do about members of our own species - about the abuse and killing of a pig as we do about the abuse or killing of a human toddler. This violates our human moral intuitions; but our moral intuitions simply can't be trusted. They reflect our anthropocentric bias - not just a moral limitation but an intellectual and perceptual limitation too. It's not that there are no differences between human and non-human animals, any more than there are no differences between black people and white people, freeborn citizens and slaves, men and women, Jews and gentiles, gays or heterosexuals. The question is rather: are they morally relevant differences? This matters because morally catastrophic consequences can ensue when we latch on to a real but morally irrelevant difference between sentient beings. [Recall how Aristotle, for instance, defended slavery. How could he be so blind?] Our moral intuitions are poisoned by genetic self-interest - they weren't designed to take an impartial God's-eye view. But greater intelligence brings a greater cognitive capacity for empathy - and potentially an extended circle of compassion. Maybe our superintelligent/superempathetic descendants will view non-human animal abuse as no less abhorrent than we view child abuse: a terrible perversion.
True or not, surely we aren't going to give up eating each other? Our self-interested bias is too strong. We like the taste of meat too much. Isn't the notion of global veganism just utopian dreaming?
Perhaps so. Yet within a few decades, the advent of genetically-engineered vatfood means that we can enjoy eating "meat" tastier than anything available today - without any killing and cruelty. As a foretaste of what's in store, the In Vitro Meat Consortium was initiated at a workshop held at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in June 2007. Critically, growing meat from genetically-engineered single cells is likely to be scalable indefinitely: its global mass consumption is potentially cheaper than using intact non-human animals. Therefore - assuming that for the foreseeable future we retain the cash nexus and market economics - cheap, delicious vatfood is likely to displace the factory-farming and mass-killing of our fellow creatures.
One might wonder sceptically: are most people really going to eat gourmet vatfood, even if it's cheaper and more palatable than flesh from butchered non-human animals?
If we may assume that vatfood is marketed properly, yes. For if we discover that we prefer the taste of vat-grown meat to carcasses of dead animals, then the moral arguments for a cruelty-free diet will probably seem much more compelling than they do at present.
Yet even if we have global veganism, surely there will still be terrible cruelty in Nature? Wildlife documentaries give us a very Bambified view of the living world: it doesn't make good TV spending half an hour showing a non-human animal dying of thirst or hunger, or slowly being asphyxiated and eaten alive by a predator. And surely there has to be a food chain? Nature is cruel; but predators will always be essential on pain of a population explosion and Malthusian catastrophe?
Not so. If we want to, we can use depot contraception3, redesign the global ecosystem, and rewrite the vertebrate genome to get rid of suffering in the rest of the natural world too. For non-human animals don't need liberating; they need looking after. We have a duty of care, just as we do to human babies and toddlers, to the old, and the mentally handicapped. This prospect might sound remote; but habitat-destruction means that effectively all that will be left of Nature later this century is our wildlife parks. Just as we don't feed terrified live rodents to snakes in zoos - we recognize that's barbaric - will we really continue to permit cruelties in our terrestrial wildlife parks because they are "natural"?
The last frontier on Planet Earth is the ocean. Intuitively, this might seem to entail too complicated a task. But the exponential growth of computer power and nanorobotic technologies means that we can in theory comprehensively re-engineer the marine ecosystem too. Currently such re-engineering is still impossible; in a few decades, it will be computationally feasible but challenging; eventually, it will be technically trivial. So the question is: will we actually do it? Should we do it - or alternatively should we conserve the Darwinian status quo? Here we are clearly in the realm of speculation. Yet one may appeal to what might be called The Principle Of Weak Benevolence. Unlike the controversial claim that superintelligence entails superempathy, The Principle Of Weak Benevolence doesn't assume that our technologically and cognitively advanced descendants will be any more morally advanced than we are now.
Let's give a concrete example of how the principle applies. If presented today with the choice of buying either free-range or factory-farmed eggs, most consumers will pick the free-range eggs. If battery-farmed eggs are 1 penny cheaper, most people will still pick the cruelty-free option. No, one shouldn't underestimate human malice, spite and bloody-mindedness; but most of us have at least a weak bias towards benevolence. If any non-negligible element of self-sacrifice is involved, for example if free-range eggs cost even 20 pence more, then sadly sales fall off sharply. My point is that if - and it's a big if - the sacrifice involved for the morally apathetic could be made non-existent or trivial, then the abolitionist project can be carried to the furthest reaches of the living world.
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