[A few more posts about last weekend’s H+ Summit at Harvard.]

Pearce: pleasure, no painAnother of the transhumanist movement’s more prominent figures, David Pearce (bio, slides), spoke at the conference about what he considers a moral imperative: the abolition of “suffering in all sentient life.” As with much of the rest of the conference, this was another rehashing of ideas already widely discussed, with little new added.

The first big project that Pearce has in mind to unsuffer the world is ending the slaughter of farm animals. The problem of our continuing taste for meat is supposed to be solved not by making all of us into vegetarians but rather, at least in the short-term, by creating artificial meat in a laboratory without slaughtering animals. My biggest concern here is that with the need for fresh, real meat removed, the plots of future Jurassic Park films would be ruined, and that is a horror we can never allow. (Except, as Dr. Grant knows, T-Rex doesn’t want to be fed, he wants to hunt.)

I kid, but the other big project Pearce mentions is ending predation, and one of the ways he suggests doing this actually is by feeding animals artificially-produced meats. This, he thinks, will be inadequate for the whole problem, and what we’ll really need to do is to redesign predators themselves so as not to be predatory — a notion we have discussed here on Futurisms before. This is one of the most striking illustrations of the heart of the transhumanist attitude, for make no mistake about it: Pearce here is calling for the destruction of Earth’s biosphere, as surely as if he were to call for animals to be re-engineered so as not to emit carbon dioxide.

Among the highlights from this little bit of sort-of well-intentioned lunacy was an assertion from Pearce that lions are the same thing as serial killers, and so we have just as much obligation to stop them. Does it need saying that lions, unlike serial killers, lack the capacities for empathy, understanding right and wrong, and choosing whether or not to kill, and so are amoral rather than immoral creatures? Apparently it does.

It shows, again, the radicalism characteristic of this movement that the call for such a project is greeted with so many yawns at this conference.


  1. I wish Pearce would stick to the first objective. Until we humans cease slaughtering for food it's awfully premature to make other other species stop. I see no benefit to discussing this issue now.

  2. Mike,

    You raise some important points. First off, I wasn't claiming that Pearce thinks a lion has the same capacities for understanding that a human does. I was pointing out that he ignores this vital difference and the moral distinction it then raises between killing by animals versus humans. Attempting to blur the very moral distinctions their projects presuppose is a pervasive problem for transhumanists, and I'm afraid your comment suffers the same problem.

    First, you raise an important point about Pearce just wanting to change the biosphere rather than destroy it. But you could burn a leaf and call it "just changing its oxygen content." Fair enough, I suppose, but it's more descriptive and accurate to simply say you've destroyed it. My point is that "reprogramming" an integral characteristic of something so unfathomably complex as the biosphere would essentially destroy it, even if in the resulting product we could recognize some passing resemblances to what came before.

    As for your point about the destruction of the biosphere that's already occurred — you're quite right that we've already radically altered it, but I hardly think that's inherently a good thing or is good reason to alter it further. Also, there's a huge qualitative distinction you're glossing over here. The damage to the biosphere we've already caused has largely been due to a pursuit of economic goods with indifference to harm to nature. What Pearce is advocating is a project to intentionally reengineer the entire system at a macroscopic level, ostensibly for its own good. It's the difference between stealing from someone without caring that you might be harming them, and forcing them to have a lobotomy because you think their life is miserable (and then saying it's okay because you were already stealing from them anyway).

  3. Ari, does that mean that you approve of gruesome murders in the wild, all as part of the "natural order" (naturalistic fallacy)? Even gruesome instances such as hyenas eating the trunk and face of a live elephant trapped in mud?

    How come you don't write about your religious beliefs here? Why don't you write about how since God created the world, the status quo is imbued with a divine wisdom?

  4. Michael, it's senseless to ask whether I approve or disapprove of events in the wild as if they were referendum on a ballot. And it's frankly embarrassing that you so often cannot engage our arguments directly and have instead to posit beliefs we may or may not have so as to pose attacks that would be (to use one of your favorite words) fallacious even if we did.

    As for the question at hand, it requires no belief in the supernatural to note that the biosphere is the product of 4.5 billion years of evolution, and so is a system containing such immense complexity that it is the height of arrogance and stupidity to think we can "reengineer" something so integral to its functioning.

    And, by the way, the naturalistic fallacy is not a fallacy.

  5. May I make a few comments here?

    First, the notion of "well-intentioned lunacy". A commitment to the well-being of all sentience isn't some exotic new idea dreamed up by transhumanists. An aspiration to a world without suffering is implicit in Buddhism and a classical utilitarian ethic. The big difference now is that revolutionary developments in IT and biotechnology mean that we can sketch – in broad outline at least – how such a utopian-sounding prospect could actually come to pass over the next few centuries. Actually, if Singularity theorists are correct, a cruelty-free world is technically possible sooner. I'm still cautious here; but maybe my scepticism is misplaced: I hope so. Yes, as you note, the implications of interpreting a commitment to the well-being of all sentience literally are counterintuitive. Maybe we'll always opt to retain some version of the biological status quo, with the multiple horrors our existing biology and ecosystems entail. But unless critics such as New Atlantis are prepared to brand all Buddhist philosophy and utilitarian ethics as "lunacy" as well, then I think a detailed exploration of their implications in the modern world can't just be dismissed out of hand.

    Secondly, recall how the great Jewish Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer described – in "The Letter Writer" (1968) – life for members of other species we exploit as "an eternal Treblinka". Singer certainly wasn't using such words lightly. Is it really so absurd to seek technologies that could bring such industrialized suffering to an end? Must mass killing really be "eternal"? I know that not all transhumanists share my sense of the moral urgency of alleviating non-human animal suffering. But if anyone knows a better way to realize our shared commitment to the well-being of all sentience as expressed in the Transhumanist Declaration, then please let me know.

    Thirdly, you raise the question of predation and serial killers. Whether we may best describe (human) serial killers as "immoral" or "amoral" takes us into the realm of some heavy-duty philosophy. I won't explore the issues raised here. But since human predators prey on the weak, the vulnerable and defenceless, we all agree that such predators must be locked up. Their possible intentions, (in)capacity for empathetic understanding and (in)ability to know right from wrong are of no comfort to their victims. By contrast, preying on the weak, the vulnerable and the defenceless is still regarded a morally acceptable if the victims are members of other species – even when the sentience of the victims compares to members of our own. Yet why should an absence of malice on the part of a predator be morally relevant to whether or not we intervene to help his victim? We'd try to rescue a human child being asphyxiated or eaten alive by a lion – or abused by a predator of any species, including our own. So why shouldn't we accept the same responsibility to rescue his or her functional equivalent? The "trophic pyramid" has only half a dozen or so levels. The problem of predation is computationally tractable if we're morally serious about finding a cure for the terrible suffering it brings.

  6. I think you mischaracterize Pierce by implying that he finds the lion morally culpable for its actions. Instead, Pierce claims that humans are morally culpable for not preventing lions from taking those actions. Pierce claims that because humans are capable of making moral judgments, we are guilty if we do not prevent lions, which are not capable of making moral judgments, from causing pain. There is no guilt on the lion's part: it is just being a lion.

  7. Excellent rebuttal by Pearce. Might I add to the outcry on the misuse of the term "destroy." Your burning leaf metaphor is cute, but may I present another: does the butterfly "destroy" its old caterpillar self? Or maybe we should eschew imprecise metaphors and just agree that you used hyperbole for your piece. Which leads to my next question: what straw man is saying that lions and serial killers are completely equivalent? Missing the point, you are.

    I'll draw from Dawkin's great argument against intelligent design: your article looks exactly the way it should if there were no god, natural selection shaped the universe, and you had no intelligent critiques of negative utilitarianism and just threw a bunch of random ideas into an HTML editor for a deadline.

  8. Robert Wiblin (and Robin Hanson's) position must be taken seriously – even if I'm not brave enough to spell out all of its implications.
    In the state space of all possible minds, "wild" human and non-human animals occupy only one wretched corner. Sadly, evolution by natural selection couldn't overcome the fitness gaps that separate us from the heavenly minds of our posthuman descendants.

    The stopgap I'm proposing is costlier but conceptually tamer. I've tried to set out the technical conditions that must be fulfilled for a cruelty-free world on the assumption that its current iconic lifeforms are to be retained. This family of scenarios is pitched at the 21st century "compassionate conservative" who wants to preserve a recognizable approximation of Darwinian life minus its indefensible horrors.

  9. Does it need saying that lions, unlike serial killers, lack the capacities for empathy, understanding right and wrong, and choosing whether or not to kill, and so are amoral rather than immoral creatures?

    It is hard to see why the presence or absence of such capacities should make any difference to the question at hand. We have an obligation to stop predators from preying on defenceless human beings regardless of whether such predators are immoral or merely amoral creatures. It would be useful if you could spell out your argument in more detail, and explain to your readers the role and relevance of the capacities you list in the thought process that leads you to dismiss Pearce's conclusion.

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