RE: Rationalizing suffering

From: Michael Baj (
Date: Wed Apr 02 2003 - 05:48:24 MST

This is taken from the Bioethics council on March 6th, 2003; session 3:
Human Nature and Its Future. I think Dr. Steven Pinker makes a good
point. I am not certain that we can have our yin without our yang.

"DR. PINKER: Morally, the question of whether we should eliminate all of
the rough spots and pain of the human condition, the depression, the
anxiety and so on, I'll give you an analogy of physical pain.

There is a syndrome studied by one of my undergraduate teachers, Ronald
Melzack, in which some people are born without the ability to feel pain,
and first you might think, "Wow, what a great thing. You know, you'd
stub your toe and you'd walk away without, you know, swearing and
feeling the agony and so on."

In fact, this is a bad thing. The people with that syndrome generally
die in their early 20s. The reason is that they don't have the feedback
signals that tell them when they're damaging their body, and they suffer
from massive inflammation of the joints simply from not shifting their
weight when it gets uncomfortable, something that's second nature to the
rest of us that feel pain.

That is going to be true of many of the negative psychological emotions
that we feel. The ability to feel sad is the other side of the coin of
the ability to feel love and commitment. If you didn't feel sad when
you child died, could you have really loved your child? If you can't
feel anxious, I'm sure I don't have to remind anyone in this room that
anxiety gets us to do many things that otherwise we would not have done.

On the other hand, getting back to the touchstone of pain, it's also not
the case that if you have a toothache you should stay off the aspirin
because pain is a good thing.

Pain, like negative psychological emotions is a mechanism that has a
function. On the other hand, it's in many cases a clumsy, over-
reactive mechanism, and once we recognize what these negative emotions
ought to be doing in order for us to lead better lives, there's no
reason, I think, for people to suffer simply because on average in the
species, the mechanism is there for a purpose.

So I don't think there would be a sound argument for preventing people
who are depressed or anxious or irritable or hyperactive from doing
something that would lead to an increase in their well-being simply
because it's unnatural or because the mechanism had a function, as long
as we realize that reducing these negative emotions to zero, as with
reducing pain to zero, would not be a good thing either."

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On Behalf Of Lee
Sent: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 3:35 AM
Subject: RE: Rationalizing suffering

Eliezer writes

> John Robb wrote:
> > Eliezer,
> >
> > Do you really believe suffering should be alleviated? I think it is
> > incredible motivator (I personally have always found that I work
harder when
> > my back is against the wall). It is the ultimate object lesson.
> Michael LaTorra already said almost everything I wanted to say, and it

> remains only to point out that while you might choose to regard
> forms of suffering as building character, you cannot make that choice
> others.

Yes, because Michael wrote

> Low level suffering, such as anxiety and frustration, can
> indeed be motivators. And these psychological forms of
> suffering may, as you said John, be around in some form forever.

May we hope not!

> But they can be mitigated. And they are not necessary preconditions
> for motivating oneself or others. There are other means.

Exactly. All our intuitions have been built up by evolution,
and from my point of view, it seems that we all too easily
fail to reach for the grandest optimum, and imagine too
eagerly constraints for which no evidence exists. We should
assume that in every way we can have our cake and eat it too,
until it is proved somehow it's not possible.

But no one, IMO, has said it as well as David Pearce:

David's essay is one of the most difficult I've ever read.
Most sentences are of the form "Whereas X, it follows that Y",
where each of X and Y are quite formidable extensions (and more
radical paraphrasings) of what I might have only glimpsed

But next to cryonics, "The Hedonistic Imperative" is the
greatest moral revolution I've experienced in my entire life.


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