David Pearce and Peter Singer Discuss About Utilitarianism, Bliss, Suffering

Adam Ford somehow managed to put two of the greatest utilitarian philosophers of our time, Peter Singer and David Pearce, into one room in which they discussed a lot of topics surrounding utilitarianism.

From the description:

Topics Covered

  • long term impacts of various forms of utilitarianism
  • consciousness
  • AI
  • reducing suffering in the long run and in the short term
  • practical ethics
  • preimplantation genetic screening to reduce disease and low mood
  • Lives today are worth the same as lives in the future - though uncertainty must be brought to bear in deciding how one weighs up the importance of life
  • the hedonistic imperative and how people react to it
  • correlation to high hedonic set points with productivity
  • existential risks and global catastrophic risks
  • closing factory farms
  • veganism and reducitarianism
  • red meat vs white meat - many more chickens are killed per ton of meat than beef
  • valence research
  • Should one eliminate the suffering? And should we eliminate emotions of happiness?
  • Are we going to be answer the question of how far suffering is present in different life forms (like insects)?
1 Like

negative utilitarianism

the problem i have with classical utilitarianism is the question: who could decide what is useful for happiness? if it is a personal decision, somebody could decide that overeating, taking drugs or gambling would cause happiness for him and if it is not a personal decision some authority is needed to decide for others what will increase happiness for all. the first problem is, that this authority would be illegitimate and the second problem is that happiness would be a definition like a dogma and things like that are wellknown to cause suffering itself. the question remains: what is happiness? is there a function of it?
so since these problems are not easy to solve, the negative utilitarianism that is discussed in the video is much more appealing to me. although i have some problems with it as well:

  1. the expression “involuntary suffering”. it depends on the definition of “suffering”, but i think that if we define suffering as a personal experience it will always be involuntarily, otherwise it will not be experienced as suffering but e.g. as pleasure. if we define some action as the inevitable cause of suffering e.g. to whip somebody, we could conclude that there is an involuntary form of it , because many people wouldn´t want to experience to be whipped and at the same time we find exceptions of it in masochists who voluntarily want to experience it, because their inner experience of the action would not be suffering but pleasure. but if we define suffering as the inner experience of a person, we have to conclude that all suffering is involuntary by definition.
  2. what about functions of suffering? if the only motivation of living beeings would be to overcome negative feelings to gain positive feelings and if there is a correlation between them in the experienced intensity, so that the achievement to overcome extreme bad feelings means to experience extreme good feelings wouldn´t we eliminate the opportunity for great happiness if we eliminate suffering ? and if negative feelings are the important incentive for actions could it be that the elimination of suffering would cause inactivity and lethargy and tediousness ? what about the role of suffering as a challenge ? wouldn´t we eliminate the possibility to become a hero?
  3. suffering as an indicator: if a society creates more and more people with depression and less and lesser people who are happy with their life, the logic conclusion is, that there is something wrong with this collective and not with the people who suffer. if science will ever be able to design people who could never be depressed anymore, the world could be ruled by a tyrant and nobody would ever complain let alone rebell against him.

so i prefer the term " unnecessary suffering" because i think there are various good reasons to experience suffering.

  1. the suffering of healing. maybe science once will be able to avoid all pain of the healing process of physical illnesses but when it comes to psychological healing, sorrow and grief is a grave part of it that cannot be avoided.
  2. the suffering of truth. to realize the truth about something that once was comfortable belief, causes suffering. letting go of old worldviews, doing hard thinking work to solve problems and gain insights is a form of inevitable harm. and then the insights themselves could cause disorientation, nihilism and despair until they ripen into something useful.
  3. the suffering of personal growth. to grow means to change and to change means to lose the old. even the loss of something that is not personally beneficial anymore could cause harm and discomfort.
  4. suffering as an indicator that something went wrong. could it be considered as progress, if future generations develop a drug for animals in factory farming so that they feel bliss while being ripped apart alive? …so that we can eat sausage products and meat constantly without having a bad conscious? and if in addition to that medical science manage to cure all diseases caused by the consumption of animal products, humanity would never have a good reason to abolish factory faming and the use of animals as objects. i admit, that this was a rhetorical question. i think something like the opposite would be much more beneficial: if future generations would manage to translate all thoughts, feelings and expressions of animals into human language and let humans experience the suffering they cause in animals, it would give humanity the necessary kick in the ass to change their ignorant lifestyle fundamentally.

a kind of conclusion: there is a danger in the effort, to eliminate suffering, but it depends on the method. humanity should end all unnecessary suffering but not with the method of a “switch” ( no matter if the “pain-off-switch” comes with genetic engineering or a drug or whatever…) within the individuals that experience the pain, but with the change of the circumstances that causes it and this is the responsibility of all humans. but this transformation from our zombie-violent- pain and horror -causing humanity into a posthuman society with much more understanding, compassion and empathy for all would inevitably be a painful process but the most beneficial i can imagine.