David Pearce Interview – On the Higher Hedonic Future

David Pearce is an Oxford philosopher and one of the world’s most prominent proponents of utilitarianism. His work and writing on transhumanism (and involvement with organizations like the IEET) has also lead him to be recognized as the possibly most recognized thinker on the attainment of utilitarian ideals through emerging technologies. In 1998, he co-founded (with Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom) the World Transhumanist Association – which later become “Humanity+.”

After reading selections of his “Hedonistic Imperative” (abstract here) and communicating with many other members of the IEET, I reached out to David, who was kind enough to discuss his perspectives on the future of humanity here at Sentient Potential.

Countering Arguments Against a Higher Hedonistic Future

David posits that the future of all sentient life should (as an ethical imperative) and could (as a technological possibility) exist with conscious experience being a gradient of bliss, as opposed to the hodge-podge mix of “pleasant” and “painful” or “exciting” and “dull” on which is exists today. This does not necessarily imply a concrete state of heightened enjoyment, but a rich tapestry of positive experience such that we could not in our present state imagine.

In our conversation on arguments against a heightened conscious experience, David explained that many of the the arguments against life as “varying gradients of bliss” tend to follow similar patterns, and in discussing them, we chatted on a similarity that many such arguments shared:

Namely: That even if our level of subjective well-being could be altered, other elements of our human condition would remain the same.

  • “Happiness Requires Contrast.” One argument against a life on the bliss-gradient is the notion that happiness only exists in contrast with the “bad” in life, and that pleasure looses nearly all of it’s meaning in the absence of struggle or pain. This argument assumes that even if our level of subjective well-being could be permanently altered, that the contrasting or “relative” nature of our happiness would function in precisely the same way it does for us now. Not only is this not necessarily the case (we can make kittens glow in the dark, why couldn’t we alter the psychological constituents of fulfillment in the future?), but David argues that the “gradients of bliss” existence could provide similar contrast and richness with none of the pain and suffering of present sentient experience.
  • “Bliss = Laziness = Bad.” Another argument against a higher hedonic set-point is the statement that humans who experienced a constant state of bliss would not be motivated to do much of anything, never mind help others or help to better the world. This argument again assumes that even if “fulfillment” could be altered, “motivation” could not – and so we hit a catch twenty two. David again argues that happiness and fulfillment exist on two different plains or spectrums, and that if fulfillment is adjustable towards something more preferable, then motivation is likely subject to enhancement as well (IE: imagine a life of consistent bliss and greater volitional wield over one’s faculties to attain ones goals).

Could Hedonism Survive an Intelligence Explosion?

I’ve written recently on the topic of the potential troubles of humanity that may result from the explosion of moral development given an impending intelligence explosion (recent article here). In a nutshell – if machines become unfathomably more intellectually capable than ourselves, how could we assume that they maintain our ethical systems? It seems more likely that their moral conceptions would explode with their intelligence, potentially resulting in competing, changing, evolving moral systems that are incomprehensible to humans (with not all of them being “friendly” with regard to humanity, either).

In bringing this idea up to David, he maintained that even in such an explosion of intelligence and ethical ideals, the “bedrock” idea of pleasure being good and pain being bad may very well still prevail through the diverse evolutions of morality in the super-intelligent future. He stated that he could not be certain about this (of course), but that he certainly sees this “bedrock” notion as something that would seem to bode well for us hairless apes when the machines run the show, so to speak.

For both our sakes, I’ll probably hope for the same.

For more information about the work of David Pearce, visit him online at BLTC Research (dedicated to research in what David calls “paradise-engineering,” a term I’ve decidedly taken a liking to), or at his website Abolitionist.com (dedicated to the abolition of suffering).