In November 2005, at the Society for Neuroscience Congress, the Dalai Lama observed: "If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode - without impairing intelligence and the critical mind - I would be the first patient."
Note that the Dalai Lama wasn't announcing his intention to queue-jump. Nor was he proposing that high-functioning bliss should be the privilege of one special group or species. Unlike the Abrahamic religions, but in common with classical utilitarianism, Buddhism is committed to the welfare of all sentient beings. Instead, the Dalai Lama was stressing that we should embrace the control of our reward circuitry that modern science is shortly going to deliver - and not disdain it as somehow un-spiritual.
Smart neurostimulation, long-acting mood-enhancers, genetically re-engineering our hedonic "set-point" (etc) aren't therapeutic strategies associated with Buddhist tradition. Yet if we are morally serious about securing the well-being of all sentient life, then we have to exploit advanced technology to the fullest possible extent. Nothing else will work (short of some exotic metaphysics that is hard to reconcile with the scientific world-picture). Non-biological strategies to enrich psychological well-being have been tried on a personal level over thousands of years - and proved inadequate at best.
This is because they don't subvert the brutally efficient negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill - a legacy of millions of years of natural selection. Nor is the well-being of all sentient life feasible in a Darwinian ecosystem where the welfare of some creatures depends on eating or exploiting others. The lion can lie down with the lamb; but only after both have been genetically tweaked. Any solution to the problem of suffering ultimately has to be global.
In the meantime, I think the greatest personal contribution to reducing suffering that an individual can make is both to:
- Abstain from eating meat
- Make it clear to his or her entire circle of acquaintance that meat-eating is abhorrent and morally unacceptable
I know many readers of Sentient Developments are Buddhists. Not all of them will agree with the above analysis. Some readers may suspect that I'm just trying to cloak my techno-utopianism in the mantle of venerable Buddhist wisdom. (Heaven forbid!)
In fact the abolitionist project is just a blueprint for implementing the aspiration of Gautama Buddha two and a half millennia ago: "May all that have life be delivered from suffering". I hope other researchers will devise (much) better blueprints; and the project will one day be institutionalized, internationalized, properly funded, transformed into a field of rigorous academic scholarship, and eventually government-led.
I've glossed over a lot of potential pitfalls and technical challenges. Here I'll just say I think they are a price worth paying for a cruelty-free world.
Many thanks to George for inviting me to guest-blog this week. And many thanks to Sentient Developments readers for their critical feedback. It's much appreciated.
Image: Alex Grey