A psychotherapist thinks out loud about Being Human, and stuff…

The Hedonistic Imperative

A, probably apocryphal, story is told about the composer, Phillip Glass. He was invited to the premier of a friend’s symphonic work which, according to the program note, was dedicated to the cause of reducing the world’s suffering.

After the concert, his friend asked him how he had liked it, and Glass said that, while he had liked the music very much, he had to disagree with the dedication. “Why”, his friend said, “don’t you think there is too much suffering in the world? “No”, glass replied. “I think there is exactly the right amount.”

In his “Collected Works”, Carl Jung wrote, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering”, and, of course, “Life is suffering” is the first of the “Four Noble Truths” taught by the Buddha. Recently, it has been suggested that the word translated into “suffering”, in English, might better be understood to mean “dissatisfaction”, or “unease”. I’ll leave that one to the linguistic experts. For now, let’s go with defining it simply as something unpleasant that we would prefer to avoid, somewhere between the tribulations of Job and learning that the movie you’ve been standing in line to see is sold out, okay?

Recently, the ever rushing stream of internet information washed up, at my feet, news of something called “The Hedonistic Imperative”. (Here is a link to their web site: http://www.hedweb.com/) We are told, at the git-go, that the purpose of what they are calling “The Abolitionist Project” is to abolish suffering in all sentient life, through genetic engineering and nanotechnology. Lest we misunderstand, they go on to say that their intention is to “banish” all psychological pain, in the way that, they say, all physical pain has been banished by our medical advances, ushering in…. well, I’ll let them say it: “States of sublime well-being….destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world’s last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.”

Got that?

I have to admit, I’m having an almost visceral response, here, not unlike, well….fear. Certainly far from the amusement (not to say cat calls) that such an assertion should call forth. When I unpack the feeling, it comes down to something like this: They are working toward the end of Humanity. These people are quite seriously suggesting the replacement of an irreplaceable part of the Human Condition with “heritable gradients of bliss”- nothing else. No, I mean, nothing else. No psychological pain of any kind. Nothing but varying levels of bliss, as our experiential baseline- if the word has any meaning, in this context.

Goddess help me; where to start?

I’m going to let this percolate, for awhile, in us both. I’ll be back with some thoughts about it, when my vitals have dropped to something like normal. In the meantime, what does this project, about which (I need to keep repeating to myself), they are quite serious, bring up in you? If such a thing could be accomplished, would it be a good thing? I’ve made it clear already that I don’t think so, but that’s just me. Let’s talk about this, some.

I’ll be back, soon. In the meantime, Buckeroos, don’t take any wooden nickles and Happy Trails to you!


Comments on: "The Hedonistic Imperative" (4)

  1. Marlene McCall said:

    Anyone who says that “all physical pain has been banished by our medical advances” is astonishingly ignorant, I would even say irrational in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    More to the point about which you actually asked, though: No, it is not possible. There is an evolutionary reason why our emotions and our bodies work together and allow us to experience pleasure and pain of many different types. It is so we can learn how to live life and survive, as individuals and as a species. If pain (physical AND psychological) were to disappear, we wouldn’t know what bad things we shouldn’t do, what dangerous situations we should avoid. Pain and pleasure work together to make us whole, healthy human beings.


  2. They haven’t done their research. Or, they are not physical beings. I suppose this could be a project by not-well-designed AI’s … or possible a sort of spiritual “affluenza”, brought about by never having been made actually uncomfortable in their lives.

    Their observations on physical pain are both naive and incorrect, overlaying a bottom strata of self-centered smugness. If they’ve missed that point, there can’t be much astuteness brought to bear on emotional or mental pain. As such, I personally find their analysis shallow, their goals juvenile, and their basic premise fairly repulsive.

    But I do look forward to the fruits of your cogitation, Buff. Very much.

    PS – see you this weekend.

  3. Hummingbear said:

    Oh, Brave New World….!

    That is, the concept has been examined before, and rightfully rejected.

    The way we learn, and grow, is by suffering, and (more importantly, I think) compassion for the suffering of others. Psychopaths, of course, do not suffer. Enough said.

    Love your writing, by the way.

  4. Seconding other comments: if they seriously believe that medical science has eliminated all physical pain, I will be quite happy to introduce my kidney stones to their collective urinary tracts. Or, if that seems a bit too severe for a first offense, introduce their toes to a large hammer.

    I’m going to take a slightly contrarian position on their goal. I encourage them in their pursuit.

    Let me be clear here: I don’t in the remotest believe they will attain it. The relationship between the physical body and the mental state is subtle, poorly understood, and subject to extreme forms of feedback. IMNSHO, the only way to remove all suffering from sentient beings requires the prior removal of sentience.

    But to the extent that their work will help clarify the mind/body relationship, more power to them.

    Perhaps I’m wrong, and they will find just the right genetic tweaks to eliminate mental anguish while preserving sentience (whatever that is). If so, I still don’t fear for humanity. There are enough contrarians and rugged individualists who will reject their gift to keep the human race going well into the forseeable–and unforseeable– future.

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