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The End of Suffering

Pleasure for the People! Katherine Power considers whether there should be more opiates for the masses (including opium?), but settles for nuts and seeds.

Before anaesthesia, surgery used to be agony. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could have been anything but pleased when painless surgery was introduced in the mid-19th century. And yet, although many welcomed anaesthesia, some did object. In Zurich, anaesthesia was even outlawed. “Pain is a natural and intended curse of the primal sin. Any attempt to do away with it must be wrong,” claimed the Zurich City Fathers. Painless delivery in childbirth was a particularly contentious issue. Some insisted that “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16). Others, like Doctor Charles Delucena Meigs (1792-1869), Professor of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women at Jefferson Medical College, believed that labour pains were “a most desirable, salutary and conservative manifestation of the life force.” There was even a belief, expressed in 1847 in The New York Journal of Medicine, that pain was vital to surgical procedure.

David Pearce, author of The Hedonistic Imperative, suggests that one day the assumption that emotional pain is indispensable may sound just as quaint. He believes that no pain, physical or emotional, is necessary. On the contrary, Pearce argues that we should strive to “eradicate suffering in all sentient life” – a project which he describes as “technically feasible” thanks to genetic engineering and nanotechnology, and “ethically mandatory” on utilitarian grounds.

Utilitarianism, as it was first formulated by Jeremy Bentham, is the theory that actions are to be judged in terms of their tendency to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. One of the fathers of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, suffered from depression in his early twenties. He asked himself if he would be happy if all his socio-economic, institutional and legislative aims were fulfilled. To his dismay “an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, ‘No!’”

Pearce thinks Mill’s instincts were right. “No amount of purely environmental improvement can cheat the hedonistic treadmill and permanently recalibrate the brain’s ‘set-point’ (default) of well-being/ill-being,” Pearce says. “With the current human genome, there would still be suffering in the world even if we recreated a notional Garden of Eden or similar ‘utopia’, but if we recalibrate our typical emotional set-point – whether through designer drugs or gene therapy – then the greatest happiness principle can be implemented far more successfully than in the wildest dreams of Bentham or Mill.” Pearce, who describes himself as a negative utilitarian (ie someone who seeks to minimise suffering), believes that anyone who holds a classical utilitarian ethic must accept ‘paradise-engineering’ as the only morally acceptable outcome given the biotechnology revolution.

Imagine what life would be like without emotional suffering. No fear or anger, no sadness or frustration. The idea could make you uneasy. Your first reaction might be, “Thanks for the offer, but I’ll keep my blues!” Perhaps you suspect that life without your darker moods wouldn’t be as rich, as interesting. You might worry that without the bad, you wouldn’t be able to appreciate the good – or that you’d go mad. Maybe without emotional suffering to anchor us down, we would fall into mania; an undesirable condition characterised by elation, but also by grandiose notions, disconnected thoughts, poor judgement and inappropriate behaviour.

Pearce’s ideas are controversial. Polling data recently collected by GfK NOP for The Happiness Formula series on BBC Two, shows 72% would not take a legally available drug that made them happy, even if there were no side-effects. (Even so, 81% wanted the government’s prime objective to be the ‘greatest happiness’ rather than the ‘greatest wealth’.) Pearce speculates, however, that one day The Hedonistic Imperative may be seen as ‘intellectually trite’, just as a tome on the merits of anaesthesia would be at present. He doesn’t think we need the bad to appreciate the good. He points out that some people endure lifelong emotional depression. If it’s possible to be constantly unhappy, then why should it be impossible to be constantly happy? He argues that although at present euphoria is often dysfunctional, one day humans will be able to enjoy the elation of mania while keeping their sanity. According to Pearce, contemporary standards of mental health are pathologically low. He envisages a time when our descendants will enjoy “a glorious spectrum of new options for mental superhealth” and speculates that people may opt to combine the goal-oriented energy, optimism and initiative of a manic high with more grounded emotions like stability, resilience and serenity.

When picturing this world without emotional suffering, Brave New World may come to mind. The inhabitants of Huxley’s novel are not immune to unpleasant feelings. When these feelings occur, however, they take soma: “One cubic centimetre cures ten gloomy sentiments.” But instead of being desirable, their lives come across as flat. As Pearce argues, “in Brave New World, there is no depth of feeling, no ferment of ideas, and no artistic creativity.” But the problem may be the limitations of the drug soma, not with the idea of altering one’s emotions by taking drugs per se. Pearce claims that “even today, the idea that chemically-driven happiness must dull and pacify is demonstrably false” as psychostimulants, which increase assertiveness and can improve intellectual performance, have the opposite effect.

Fear of change and a lack of imagination go halfway to explain why the notion of a life devoid of pain isn’t immediately appealing. But perhaps what puts many off is a recognition that suffering can be useful. Some unpleasant emotions are, unfortunately, adaptive: people who are scared of predators or frustrated by lack of sex, are more likely to pass their genes on. “Darwinian evolution has powerfully favoured the growth of ever more diverse, excruciating, but also more adaptive varieties of psychophysical pain,” Pearce argues in The Hedonistic Imperative. “Its sheer nastiness effectively spurs and punishes the living vehicles of genetic replicators.”

But suffering isn’t just good for our genes, it can also be good for us. Nick Bostrom, Director of the Future of Humanity Institute, part of Oxford University’s Faculty of Philosophy, thinks “there is something bad about all suffering”, but also points out that “a substantial amount of suffering currently has an important instrumental function.” He gives the example of the useful pain one feels when accidentally placing a hand on a hot stove. If we removed that suffering, we would have to make adjustments. “In this example what might be needed is some other system that would cause us to quickly withdraw our hand from the stove that wouldn’t involve pain,” says Bostrom.

The same ideas would also have to be considered when removing psychological pain. “Here the problem is much more complex, but the desire to avoid suffering is not the only motive that can induce us to improve ourselves and our circumstances,” Bostrom says. “So if one wanted to get rid of psychological suffering, one should make sure that other elements of our psychology were appropriately adjusted so that we would still be motivated to do what we needed to do.”

Pearce agrees: he believes we should replace all pain and malaise with a “motivational system based on gradients of well-being”. The stick works; but so does the carrot – another trick evolution’s discovered. Nature, like a Dickensian educator, keeps us in line with threats and punishments, and sometimes, with rewards. What Pearce and Bostrom advocate is a modern approach: no more physical and emotional ‘punishments’; and, in their place, an enhanced system of rewards (in other words, a motivation system based entirely on carrots of different sizes). Even if the absolute obsolescence of pain couldn’t be achieved, we could still strive to minimise the amount of suffering in the world by relying on motivational systems based to a larger extent on positive emotions and to a lesser extent on negative ones. Whether positive emotions and rewards alone can consistently keep us away from hot stoves and other perils remains to be seen.

Rats wired so their pleasure centres are stimulated every time they press a lever, keep on pressing until they collapse, having neglected to eat, drink and sleep. But according to Pearce, “contemporary images of opiate-addled junkies, and the lever-pressing frenzies of intra-cranially self-stimulating rats, are deceptive.” Pearce believes we do not need to chose between perpetual happiness or social and intellectual development – or, as Mill might have put it, between the life of the happy pig, and the life of the dissatisfied philosopher – since dopamine-driven states of euphoria can enhance exploratory and goal-directed activity, and increase the range and diversity of actions an organism finds rewarding. “Our descendants may live in a civilisation of serenely well-motivated ‘high-achievers’, animated by gradients of bliss,” he says. “Their productivity may far eclipse our own.”

Bostrom believes Pearce’s basic idea “that suffering is bad and that high-tech neurological interventions are needed to eliminate suffering” is plausible, but advises caution. “The project will require sophisticated methods and technologies, much more advanced than what is available today,” he says. “It is not only... side effects in the narrow sense that are a concern. All emotions (including hatred, contempt, jealousy and sadness) have a natural function. When we trim our feelings we need to take heed lest we accidentally reduce the fertility of our plots and end up in a sterile Brave New World. This is not a necessary consequence. Yet fools will build fool’s paradises. I would recommend we go easy on our paradise-engineering until we have the wisdom to do it right. It is worth getting it right!”

Assuming we do proceed with wisdom, Bostrom thinks it is definitely possible to abolish all suffering on Earth while not ending up in a sterile Brave New World. “If we can muster enough wisdom (a big if, clearly) then I think it is feasible in the long term,” he says. Abolishing all suffering in the universe may be forever beyond our means, however: “In an infinite universe there would be other sentient species outside our future light cone which, according to current physics, we could never influence. We would have to hope that they could solve their own problems.”

An objection comes from Bruce Charlton, Editor-in-Chief of Medical Hypotheses, and Reader in Evolutionary Psychiatry at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Charlton argues that there is a conflict between the hedonistic imperative and the direction of social evolution. “My feeling is that the world tends to be dominated by power rather than happiness,” he says. “Any societies which succeeded in making their citizens perfectly happy would probably be overwhelmed by societies of more ‘driven’ individuals who subordinated present happiness to future goals such as increased wealth or increased status.” [Consider Tahiti invaded by Europeans – Ed.] So, while Charlton agrees with Pearce that happiness is the goal of individual life, he thinks it is probably not the goal of social systems, which instead “tend to evolve towards using individuals merely to promote social growth and efficiency”.

Pearce’s response is that euphoria and well-being are associated with dominance, assertiveness and enhanced motivation, whereas subordination and inactivity are associated with depression. “Rats which are given Prozac transcend the pecking order. Previously subordinate and depressive animals don’t let themselves be messed around with,” he says. “Other things being equal, it’s far harder to dominate people who are extremely happy.” Charlton recognises that happiness does not necessarily lead to meekness, and that happy people are in fact often extremely driven – but he argues nevertheless that a society which decided to “calibrate their citizens to be less than optimally happy, but instead very driven to sacrifice their happiness in the interests of the nation” would prevail against a society where citizens were maximally happy.

Pearce’s dream of pain-free bliss might one day come true, at least on Earth, but for the time being we are stuck with the motivational systems we were born with. Pearce’s writings, however, are not just about the future. He also has words of advice for those seeking happiness now. In his essay, ‘The Responsible Parent’s Guide to Healthy Mood-Boosters for All the Family’, Pearce reviews the mood drugs currently available, legally and illegally. Unfortunately, many aren’t that healthy, or even that mood-boosting – at least in the long run.

What’s the best bet, then, for someone who wants a sustainable good mood, without damaging their health or breaking the law? Diet and exercise are first steps. Pearce recommends “an idealised ‘stone-age’ diet rich in organic nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables”, and low in saturated fats, sugars and hydrogenated oils. Such a diet is healthy, which makes well-being more likely, and rich in the chemicals the body needs to make us happy. In particular, it’s a good idea to consume a diet rich in the precursor chemicals of serotonin (such as tryptophan) and in omega 3 fatty acids, which appear to have beneficial effects on mood, and have been found to protect against depression and other psychiatric disorders. Exercise is beneficial, as it “releases endogenous opioids, enhances serotonin function, stimulates nerve growth factors, promotes cell proliferation in the hippocampus, and leads to a livelier, better-oxygenated brain.”

“There isn’t yet a true wonder-drug,” says Pearce. “And diet and exercise won’t take us above the low, genetically-determined ceiling of well-being/ill-being that Nature has given us. But many people never reach that ceiling.”

However, Pearce is optimistic about the future. He thinks there will come a time when we won’t need drugs to improve our moods. “Soon evolution will neither be ‘blind’ nor ‘random’,” he claims. The human genome has been mapped and Pearce predicts that in several decades we will discover which combinations of genes tend to depress mood. It will then be possible for parents to “choose the allelic combinations of their future children in anticipation of their likely behavioural and psychological effects.” Given that most parents want happy children, this coming genetic revolution in reproductive medicine may be enough to make mental suffering a thing of the past.

Pearce does not attempt to predict how we’ll spend our pain-free lives. He doesn’t think it is up to him to offer advice, just as it is not up to anaesthetists or pain-relief specialists to offer advice on how to spend our days in the absence of physical pain. According to Bostrom, Pearce’s greatest contribution lies in the way “he does not shy away from the fact that happiness and suffering have their roots in the biological functioning of the brain.” Even though studies show that life-events have relatively little long-term impact on subjective well-being, whereas biology has a great deal of impact, most utilitarians do not suggest brain modification as a way of achieving ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. “If they even mention drugs, genetic engineering, or other forms of brain manipulation, it is often in passing, in a footnote, and with apparent embarrassment,” says Bostrom: “Pearce realises that in the long run, direct manipulation of brains will have vastly greater impact on subjective well-being than any environmental interventions could possibly have, and this one important insight is the almost exclusive focus of his work.”

Bostrom urges us “not to let pessimism about near-term problems of implementation confuse us into rejecting the vision of what we might hope to be able to achieve in the long run.” As he points out, the core idea of Pearce’s the Hedonistic Imperative – that we should minimize suffering – does not depend on sharing Pearce’s views about utilitarianism or mind/brain identity. “It is not even necessary to assume that all suffering is bad in order for the Hedonistic Imperative to make sense,” says Bostrom. “By anybody’s standards, there is a huge amount of unnecessary and undeserved suffering that is just bad and that we should get rid of.”

©Katherine E. Power 2006

Katherine Power is training in Brighton as a journalist.

The Hedonistic Imperative can be found at www.hedweb.com.

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