May 1, 2009

A World Without Suffering?

David Pearce is guest blogging this week.

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:
  1. Abstain from eating meat
  2. Make it clear to his or her entire circle of acquaintance that meat-eating is abhorrent and morally unacceptable
Such plain speaking calls for moral courage that alas sometimes deserts me.

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.

David Pearce

Image: Alex Grey


Ian said...

"Make it clear to his or her entire circle of acquaintance that meat-eating is abhorrent and morally unacceptable"

Also known as how to lose all of your friends. But seriously, I think judging/guilting people into changing their behaviour is counter productive.

Ideally, one can make their decision, and by virtue of them being a paragon of equanimity, others will follow suit.

Anonymous said...

It's very pretty fascism, but it's fascism all the same.

Michael Kirkland said...

Tomorrow night, I'm going to have a nice, big juicy steak. I and many others do this every time we hear that eating meat is cruel.

So, if you really do think meat eating is cruel you're better off not proselytizing. You aren't convincing anyone, but you are making us hungry.

George said...

@ Michael Kirkland -- ah, and there it is. You've finally outed yourself as a troll and not someone who's actually interested in thoughtful discourse.

Unknown said...

I'm not convinced meat eating is causing much suffering. I think in general a lot of effort is put towards killing the animals rapidly and without pain. Prey animals in the wild have a much higher chance of a slow, painful death.

Still all for eventually getting meat from entirely non-sentient sources, and other progress in the technology of nutrition. Until then the rather huge jump to vegetarian just doesn't seem worth it to me.

Michael Kirkland said...

I'm sorry if you're offended by differing opinions George, but I'm not trolling you. My post was an honest expression of my experience.

Consider the scolding of a moral framework you reject; the Harry Potter book burnings by Evangelicals. Did that increase or decrease sales of the targeted books? Did the argument that witches are an abomination before God persuade you?

Preaching at someone who rejects your premise won't further your cause. At the minimum it will simply make them think about meat, and have the same effect as showing them a picture of a tasty cheeseburger. Likely you'll also offend and make them want to eat some meat simply to spite you.

If you want to convince people not to eat meat, you'll have to do the hard work of demonstrating that the suffering of humanely butchered livestock is greater than that caused by depriving humans of a natural diet, including the second order health and economic repercussions. Keep in mind that the book burning Evangelicals are honest in their belief that Harry Potter is evil, just as I'm sure you are in your conviction that eating meat is wrong. Consider what it would take for the Evangelicals to convince you when you defend your beliefs.

Not me said...

Yeah, well, my mother is allergic to every kind of nut and legume that we know of, and lactose-intolerant to boot. So, what would you suggest for someone like that, suicide?

Anonymous said...

Michael, I strongly advise you against posting further messages in this forum. You have embarrassed yourself, repeatedly, and you'll do so again if you insist in writing about matters which are manifestly beyond your comprehension.

Pablo said...
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Pablo said...
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Pablo said...

[I failed, twice, to format my message with HTML tags. Hence my two deleted comments above.]

"Make it clear to his or her entire circle of acquaintance that meat-eating is abhorrent and morally unacceptable."

I agree with Ian. In my experience, one is more likely to convert others by setting the right example than by engaging them in arguments about the immorality of eating meat. If you care about the animals, don't say it; show it.

djadvance said...

I think the best way to influence one's peers is to regularly cook up delicious vegetarian/vegan food for them and to convey how much better one feels while eating a healthy animal product free diet.

I feel a lot more energetic and healthy without meat and cheese than I did before the vegetarian switch.

James Evans said...

"You aren't convincing anyone, but you are making us hungry."

Actually I'm proud to say I've convinced a fair share of people to stop eating meat! :)

Anonymous said...

I know people who have straight up told people that being for animal rights and not being a vegetarian is in fact "morally unacceptable," and the people have become vegetarians. Obviously that's not going to work with everyone, but you won't lose all your friends.

Michael Kirkland:
You're making me want to eat you. A big, juicy Michael Kirkland, yummy. You aren't convincing anyone with your arguments, but you're sure making some of us hungry!

Jay said...

Apart from the cruelty bit, raising meat is a huge energy drain. It's irresponsible to waste so much resources to grow such a small amount of food. People will have to stop eating meat eventually whether or not they can be convinced it is the right thing to do.

Instead of guilting people into vegetarianism, let them know that by reducing their consumption by a third would make a huge difference.

Darren Reynolds said...

Michael Kirkland said, "If you want to convince people not to eat meat, you'll have to do the hard work of demonstrating that the suffering of humanely butchered livestock is greater than that caused by depriving humans of a natural diet"

Michael is right. It is better to lead by example, allow others to observe you quietly following your path, and explain only when asked.

The problem with all this is that suffering is both acceptable and necessary.

Buddhist teaching explains that the best way is to accept things as they are, and not to seek to change them. Simultaneously it teaches that suffering should be changed to bliss. This is where it falls down. The first part is true, but the second part is only true to the extent that it doesn't impact on the first.

But what do I know? I'm only little.

David Pearce said...

Ryan says: "I'm not convinced meat eating is causing much suffering."
It's hard to get a video camera into factory farms and slaughterhouses. But see e.g.

Yes, Ryan is quite right when he says there is a lot of painful death and suffering in Nature. But are we morally entitled to add to it?

A number of commentators feel the best way to encourage adoption of a cruelty-free diet is quietly to set a good example - and trust others will follow. I hope they are right. However, I worry that this view may reflect anthropocentric bias. Would one bite one's tongue if one witnessed child abuse rather than animal abuse? How many of the great evils of human history were overcome purely - or even mainly - by the force of a good example?

Whether the victims of unjustified suffering are human or non-human animals, I think we have an obligation to speak out and try to shock the conscience of the morally lazy and the morally apathetic - and yes, even by "guilting" meat-eating friends.

Is there a risk of sounding shrill or self-righteous? Yes. But this should be weighed against the risk of staying silent.

Nuclear Dwight said...

Your acquaintances do not have the same background and understanding as you, David, and I am thinking that they would need to first understand karma, interdependence and all that good stuff. Then they might naturally come to the conclusion that the path of non-meat eating makes total sense.

If you take away the average man's drumstick he will attack you no end. So, the potential alienation your approach might produce would cause suffering for you and your associates. Not a good deal, imho.

David Pearce said...

If abstaining from eating meat called for heroic self-sacrifice, or if a cruelty-free diet entailed embracing some radically counterintuitive ethical principle, then I think you'd be right. However, the fleeting extra satisfaction derived from eating meat (rather than a meat-substitute) is trivial compared to the immense suffering that went into its production. And rather than calling for some radical new ethical principle, abstention from meat follows from consistently applying a principle most people already hold. Thus by common consent, anyone who treated their pet dog in the way we treat factory-farmed pigs deserves to be prosecuted for animal cruelty. Yet pigs are no less sentient (or indeed sapient) than dogs. I suspect that most meat-eaters imagine that factory farms are just a bit crowded, and going to a slaughterhouse is a bit like being painlessly put to sleep. Or more commonly, meat-eaters would prefer not to think about the story behind the corpse on their plate at all.

Anonymous said...

Since the focus is suffering, if it were possible for animals to be raised humanely and then killed painlessly would that satisfy you?

If not, then you are really asserting that animals have a right to life which is a separate issue and should not be couched in terms of suffering.

This might be one of those problems where advances in technology can split the baby, such as growing meat in laboratories more cheaply and efficiently than cattle can be raised.

Saw a movie the other night about prohibition where one of the characters says "They've made it illegal to be thirsty". Militant vegetarians have made it immoral to be hungry. You may convince a few people to quit eating meat the same way a preacher may convince a few gay people to change their lifestyle. But like said preacher you will drive away far more because deep down people don't believe that their natural preferences are immoral.

Nato said...

As I tell my friends, I'm not really a vegetarian, but I prefer not to eat meat. That starts a conversation that usually leads to multiple expressions by others who have some reason or another to wish to eat less or no meat. I offer my advice and findings, and progress is made. Making clear how abhorrent one finds one's acquaintance's gastronomic activities seems far more suited to making sure that no one who doesn't already agree stays acquainted. Judge not, they say, lest ye be judged, and certainly defensive people will find a reason to reject moralistic brow-beating.

That's not to say that the Michael Kirklands of the world are ever likely to change. The best one can do is convince the open-minded to join in reducing or eliminating meat consumption and changing the terms of discussion.

Nebris said...

There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion. ~Carl Jung

Nebris said...

"Well, one of the problems about being psychoanalyzed is, as Nietzsche said, "Be careful lest in casting out your devils that you cast out the best thing that's in you." So many people who are really in deep analysis look as though and act as though they have been filleted. There's no bone there, there's no stuff! How to get rid of ego as dictator and turn it into messenger and servant and scout, to be in your service, is the trick." ~Joseph Campbell

CobaltThoriumG said...

It may or may not be cruel. Whether it can be cruel to kill an animal that would not exist but for our need to kill it is an interesting question. In any case, genetically, we have essentially the same nutritional needs as our ancestors, who for the past million or two years, at the very least, have been omnivores.

An argument can be made that it is more ethical to choose to abstain. But I doubt it's more healthy than at least a low level of flesh consumption. If there's a place for some balance, that is. There are published papers showing vegetarians, who presumably consume above-average quantities of fructose, to have higher plasma concentrations of advanced glycation end products than omnivores.

And if it is more healthy not to abstain, given that it is ethical to live healthfully, does that make abstention and the concomittant reduced health less ethical?

David Pearce said...

Are we morally entitled to do what we like to other sentient beings if they wouldn't exist if we hadn't created them? As it stands, this argument is weak. It would license cannibalism - so long as the cannibal raises his victims for the pot rather than captures them "in the wild".

If a cruelty-free diet entailed real personal sacrifice, then its adoption would be all the more morally admirable. I see no evidence any such heroism is called for. A vegetarian diet is reportedly correlated with higher IQ:; and some studies (not all) have suggested Western vegetarians/vegans tend to live longer than meat eaters. If advanced glycation end products are a worry, then perhaps l-carnosine supplementation by vegans/vegetarians would extend this possible longevity benefit. I don't know - more research is needed.

CobaltThoriumG said...

If the other beings are sentient, then only they can answer whether it would have been better never to have existed than to die prematurely for the sake of someone's meal.

I'm making this simple, of course. At present there may be needless suffering prior to the premature death, but in any case that can and should be eliminated.

CobaltThoriumG said...

One other point, as far as transhumanism goes, whatever the optimal nutrition for health at a given lifepoint and longevity are for today's humans, in the process of transforming ourselves into what comes next, engineering our nutritional needs to minimize the suffering of others should be a goal.

Robin Morrison said...

"Abstain from eating meat
Make it clear to his or her entire circle of acquaintance that meat-eating is abhorrent and morally unacceptable."

Dying is not the source of suffering, is it? Dying is a cause of both great anxiety, tremendous relief, and fear and wonder. (LOve that wonder.)

Making sure that all animals we consume enjoy a peaceful and comfortable lifestyle, and are killed in a humane manner that comes as a surprise to them: that surely reduces suffering.

For all we know (revisiting the 'simulation' concept) we are raised for the harvest of our gestalt or something thereof. Wouldn;t bother me to know that that's what happens after we die, since we can't seem to take it with us, (or more accurately, can't take us with it), anyway.

What would bother me to know such things is that the harvesters seem so unconcerned with the suffering that goes into the production of our gestalt.

Also: the ease with which you dismiss persons as, you know, 'mere' trolls, is not your most flattering quality as a blogger.

It would be much more honest and less destructive to discourse if you just said, "I don't like you/what you said."

Unknown said...

If your uncomforble being confrontational, let someone else say it. A saint is never accepted in his own home is the saying.

I do 2 things that have turned more people into vegans or at least flexitarians than I know.

I show people DVDs like "Meat the Truth", "A Delicate Balance" "Diet for a New Amercia", and when it comes out, "Food Inc".

And I have them try the food from

Couple moving information with food that a carnivore finds familiar and tasty and problem solved.