What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Alfred Lord Tennyson famously observed the unfortunate fact that nature is “red of tooth and claw.” But soon, according to British philosopher David Pearce, there will be an app for that. In an interview with futurist blog io9, he has put together a plan worthy of a comic book super-villain: reboot every ecosystem on Earth to end all suffering by stopping animals (humans included) from eating each other.

The hubris of this endeavor is, of course, remarkable, as is the optimism that technologies both emerging and imaginary will, without question, grant everyone their three wishes. Engineers who actually make things work need to see real-world constraints, and so we tend to have to take off our rose-colored glasses. Academics, however, get to keep theirs on, and Pearce’s are firmly in place, casting everything in a soft pink hue. At the very end of the interview, he even quotes Karl Popper’s famous observation that “Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell.” Nevertheless, rather than applying it to himself, he dismisses this lesson of history with a short rhapsody about how totally awesome his utopian dream would be if somehow it actually worked this time.

And why shouldn’t it? Based on the interview, Pearce seems to believe he has pinpointed the problems with earlier utopian schemes: They were not far-reaching enough because they ignore predation in nature, and they lacked the power to sufficiently micromanage the lives of all living things. But now, he believes that “within the next few decades, every cubic metre of the planet will be computationally accessible to surveillance, micro-management and control.” There will be technologies to perform mass updates of the genetics of entire ecosystems. (Don’t you just love when Windows forces you to reboot to install updates? Well, soon, every bird and every blade of grass will have the same feature.) Mass extinctions are certainly on the table for Pearce. For him, however, it’s not a big deal. He notes in his manifesto that nobody cares about the intentional extinction of smallpox, so why not contracept snakes and crocodiles into oblivion? Veganism will be imposed on all creatures. But don’t you steak-lovers worry; as a matter of practicality, this will probably need to wait until “delicious, cruelty-free cultured-meat products become commercially available.” Mmmmm. Which such technology on the horizon, it sure is a good thing that Uncle Ben’s assertion that great responsibility accompanies great power combines with an “in for a penny, in for a pound” approach to manipulating the world around us to produce the wise, utopian, techno-fascists who will guide the application of these forthcoming inventions.

The root of Pearce’s myopic arrogance is Benthamite Utilitarianism, an amoral system which reduces all ethics to a matter of pain and pleasure. Is an action wrong? Only if it brings about more pain than pleasure. Is it right? Only if it brings about more pleasure than pain. The higher concepts of the good, the true, the beautiful, love, justice, and so forth that are written on the hearts of ordinary people and affirmed by the humanities are eschewed as mere illusions which imprecisely describe certain kinds of pleasures. Likewise, vices such as cruelty are simply reduced to “involuntary pain.” Consider, for example, his discussion of the problem of cats. There could be some protest to simply getting rid of them. After all:

Most contemporary humans have a strong aesthetic preference in favour of continued feline survival. Their existence in current guise is perhaps the biggest ethical/ideological challenge to the radical abolitionist. For our culture glorifies lions, with their iconic status as the King of the Beasts; we admire the grace and agility of a cheetah; the tiger is a symbol of strength, beauty and controlled aggression; the panther is dark, swift and elegant; and so forth. Innumerable companies and sports teams have enlisted one or other of the big cats for their logos as symbols of manliness and vigour.

These “aesthetic preferences” are so entrenched that they create the “disturbing” impression among humans that “phasing out” or “reprogramming” is “evocative of genocide, not universal compassion.”

Thankfully, Pearce has a way to help get our heads on straight: We need only “compare our attitude to the fate of a pig or a zebra with the fate of an organism with whom those non-human animals are functionally equivalent, both intellectually and in their capacity to suffer, namely a human toddler.” After all, if pleasure and pain are the only relevant metrics by which to judge actions, and the capacity to feel these things is the only metric to judge the value of a creature, then this all becomes clear. He concludes:

Well, if our theory of value aspires to a God’s-eye perspective, stripped of unwarranted anthropocentric bias in the manner of the physical sciences, then the well-being of a pig or a zebra inherently matters no less than the fate of a human baby – or any other organism endowed with an equivalent degree of sentience. If we are morally consistent, then as we acquire God-like powers over Nature’s creatures, we should take analogous steps to secure their well-being too.

And that’s why cats have to be eliminated; because a lion eating a pig is no different from a lion eating a little kid. And if a lion eating a little kid is an evil which must be stopped, then so is a lion eating a pig. Given the premises, the logic is inescapable. Or is it?

As philosophers have often quipped, one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tolens. One could draw Pearce’s conclusions from the premises. One could just as logically conclude this: Because a lion eating a pig is no different from a lion eating a toddler, and a lion eating a pig is really no big deal, then a lion eating a toddler is also no big deal. The darkest side of the animal rights movement has always been this: if animals are just as important as humans, then humans are no more important than animals. If Pearce and his ilk are willing to rewrite the biology of animals to fit his ideals and sterilize or otherwise extinguish (humanely, of course) the undesirable species, why not do the same to humans who are of no more concern than animals? If the elimination of cats is really more like universal compassion than it is like genocide, than why can’t genocide be a manifestation of universal compassion? If the end of suffering is an adequate justification for forcibly rewriting the genetics of animals to be more to the techno-fascists’ liking, then it is also an adequate justification for forcibly rewriting the genetics of humans to make them more to the techno-fascists’ liking.

Many people are afraid of technology because of its ever-growing power. But as any regular user of powerful tools knows, respect is a more appropriate response than fear. A chainsaw is powerful, but it is safe in the hands of a responsible person who knows how to use it. It is terrifying only in the hands of children, fools, and maniacs. It is unfortunate that utlilitarians are so in vogue, for they are the children and fools of ethical philosophy—and the more consistent they try to be, the more they leave their humanity behind and become maniacs.

Rather than black, white, and a linear progression of grays along the pain/pleasure axis, good moral theorists can see in many colors, and men like Pearce should be thankful for it. After all, what verdict would a consistent utilitarianism pass on him if, instead of starry-eyed speculation about future benefit, it used the hard and bloody facts of the history of 20th century utopians as grist for its mill? The judgment might provide aggregate pleasure for society, but it would be quite unpleasant for men like Pearce.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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2 Responses to What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

  1. David Pearce says:

    Should Christians reproach secularists for taking the Bible too literally?
    Is all that stuff about a peaceful future where the lion and the wolf lie down with the lamb just metaphorical fluff?
    Is a world where sentient beings don’t harm each other “techno-fascism”? Or the kind of compassionate society that a benevolent God would desire?

  2. Matt says:

    Thank you for comments, David. I suspect those are rhetorical questions, but I’ll answer them anyway.

    “Should Christians reproach secularists for taking the Bible too literally? Is all that stuff about a peaceful future where the lion and the wolf lie down with the lamb just metaphorical fluff?”

    The Bible should be taken straightforwardly–literally in historical narrative, figuratively in poetry, and so forth. Prophecy is one of the hardest genres to read, and Christians disagree about that passage, but like yourself, I do take it to mean an end to predation in the new creation. However, it’s a promise of something God will do, not a command for us to follow. Most secularists will agree that there are a lot of things that God does and promises in the Bible that man should not take it upon himself to do.

    “Is a world where sentient beings don’t harm each other techno-fascism?”

    No. However, I think the term is a very apt description for using “God-like” technology to micro-manage the lives and beings of every living thing for the purpose of forcing universal conformity to a peculiar philosophical ideal that bears only a passing resemblance to genuine compassion. I thought I was clear on that in the blog post.

    “Or the kind of compassionate society that a benevolent God would desire?”

    Since I believe in a benevolent God and observe that He has clearly not used his own God-like power to forcibly create that kind of society, I’m forced to conclude “no.” Speculation about what a benevolent God would do (which usually amounts to nothing more than “what I would do if I were God”) isn’t terribly compelling to me. The Biblical frame matches the observation that pain & suffering are not evils in themselves, but rather very valuable indications that something more important is wrong. Simply removing it and proclaiming utopia is akin to giving narcotics to a cancer patient and calling it a cure. While palliative care has its place, I’m thankful that God is benevolent enough to have solved the deeper problem of sin through the atoning death and resurrection of His Son rather than through a dehumanizing and elaborate pretense that everything is fine.

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