The Antispeciesist Revolution

When is it ethically acceptable to harm another sentient being? On some fairly modest assumptions, to harm or kill someone simply on the grounds they belong to a different gender, sexual orientation or ethnic group is unjustified. Such distinctions are real but ethically irrelevant. On the other hand, species membership is normally reckoned an ethically relevant criterion. Fundamental to our conceptual scheme is the pre-Darwinian distinction between “humans” and “animals”.

In law, nonhuman animals share with inanimate objects the status of property. As property, nonhuman animals can be bought, sold, killed or otherwise harmed as humans see fit. In consequence, humans treat nonhuman animals in ways that would earn a life-time prison sentence without parole if our victims were human. From an evolutionary perspective, this contrast in status isn’t surprising. In our ancestral environment of adaptation, the capacity to hunt, kill and exploit sentient beings of other species was fitness-enhancing(2). Our moral intuitions have been shaped accordingly. Yet can we ethically justify such behaviour today?

Naively, one reason for disregarding the interests of nonhumans is the dimmer-switch model of consciousness. Humans matter more than nonhuman animals because (most) humans are more intelligent. Intuitively, more intelligent beings are more conscious than less intelligent beings; consciousness is the touchstone of moral status.

The problem with the dimmer-switch model is that it’s empirically unsupported among vertebrates with central nervous systems, and probably in cephalopods such as the octopus as well. Microelectrode studies of the brains of awake human subjects suggest that the most intense forms of experience, for example agony, terror and orgasmic bliss, are mediated by the limbic system, not the prefrontal cortex. Our core emotions are evolutionarily ancient and strongly conserved. Humans share the anatomical and molecular substrates of our core emotions with the nonhuman animals whom we factory-farm and kill. By contrast, distinctively human cognitive capacities such as generative syntax, or the ability to do higher mathematics, are either phenomenologically subtle or impenetrable to introspection. To be sure, genetic and epigenetic differences exist between, say, a pig and a human being that explain our adult behavioural differences, e.g. the allele of the FOXP2(1) gene implicated in the human capacity for recursive syntax. Such mutations have little to do with raw sentience(1). (via The Antispeciesist Revolution)

Paradox of Hedonism

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch

The paradox of hedonism, also called the pleasure paradox, is the idea in the study of ethics which points out that pleasure and happiness are strange phenomena that do not obey normal principles. First explicitly noted by the philosopher Henry Sidgwick in The Methods of Ethics, the paradox of hedonism points out that pleasure cannot be acquired directly, it can only be acquired indirectly.


Suppose Paul likes to collect stamps. According to most models of behavior, including not only utilitarianism, but most economic, psychological and social conceptions of behavior, it is believed that Paul likes collecting stamps because he gets pleasure from collecting stamps. Stamp collecting is an avenue towards acquiring pleasure. However, if you tell Paul this, he will likely disagree. He does get pleasure from collecting stamps, but this is not the process that explains why he collects stamps. It is not as though he says, “I must collect stamps so I, Paul, can obtain pleasure”. Collecting stamps is not just a means toward pleasure. He just likes collecting stamps.

This paradox is often spun around backwards, to illustrate that pleasure and happiness cannot be reverse-engineered. If for example you heard that collecting stamps was very pleasurable, and began a stamp collection as a means towards this happiness, it would inevitably be in vain. To achieve happiness, you must not seek happiness directly, you must strangely motivate yourself towards things unrelated to happiness, like the collection of stamps.

The hedonistic paradox would probably mean that if one sets the goal to please oneself too highly then the mechanism would in fact jam itself.

Suggested Explanations:

Happiness is often imprecisely equated with pleasure. If, for whatever reason, one does equate happiness with pleasure, then the paradox of hedonism arises. When one aims solely towards pleasure itself, one’s aim is frustrated. Henry Sidgwick comments on such frustration after a discussion of self-love in the above-mentioned work:

“I should not, however, infer from this that the pursuit of pleasure is necessarily self-defeating and futile; but merely that the principle of Egoistic Hedonism, when applied with a due knowledge of the laws of human nature, is practically self-limiting; i.e., that a rational method of attaining the end at which it aims requires that we should to some extent put it out of sight and not directly aim at it.” —Henry Sidgwick. The Methods of Ethics. BookSurge Publishing (1 Mar 2001) (p. 3)

While not addressing the paradox directly, Aristotle commented on the futility of pursuing pleasure. Human beings are actors whose endeavors bring about consequences, and among these is pleasure. Aristotle then argues as follows:

“How, then, is it that no one is continuously pleased? Is it that we grow weary? Certainly all human things are incapable of continuous activity. Therefore pleasure also is not continuous; for it accompanies activity.”Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, (Written 350 B.C.E)Book X, page 4

Sooner or later, finite beings will be unable to acquire and expend the resources necessary to maintain their sole goal of pleasure; thus, they find themselves in the company of misery. On the other hand, David Pearce argues in his treatise The Hedonistic Imperative that humans might be able to use genetic engineeringnanotechnology, and neuroscience to eliminate suffering in all sentient life.

Lucy Walker won the Documentary World Cinema Audience Award for her film Waste Land during the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Walker premiered her film The Crash Reel in the Doc Premieres section at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.  During the Q&A, Kevin Pearce’s brother David made a grand entrance to everyone’s delight.

Photos by Calvin Knight and Stephen Speckman 

Snowboarder's Brother With Down Syndrome Was the Crash Reel Highlight

The latest installment of HBO’s excellent documentary series, The Crash Reel, focused on the pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce and the 2009 head injury that interrupted his career. In the tradition of great documentaries, The Crash Reel was about way more than its ostensible subject. Tangents regarding Pearce’s rival Shaun White, other athletes who suffered brain injuries (including freestyle skier Sarah Burke, who died in 2012), and Kevin’s brother David, who has Down syndrome, rippled out of and enhanced the main narrative.

This video is really a must watch.  David’s introspection is both inspiring and heart-wrenching.  

As someone who has been involved with the Special Olympics as a volunteer, I really think it is imperative that people take the time to listen to David’s story (and others like his).  There is a lot of importance in understanding exactly how and why sports are so special for Special Olympians.  These events give athletes the opportunity to compete in sports that they might not otherwise be able to.  Further, these events promote fair play and sportsmanship.  

David is also an incredible example of why we shouldn’t judge others on their appearances.  On first glance, a person might take him as a “retard” or maybe just write him off.  David is clearly an intelligent, well-adjusted, compassionate young man.  His love for his brother is so admirable.

And his parents!  Mr. and Mrs. Pearce are amazing people.  Wonderful, amazing people.  This family’s love and support is incredible.  

An End To Suffering - intro
  • An End To Suffering - intro
  • David Pearce
  • The Abolitionist Project

This is a 45 second introduction from one of the most enjoyable and challenging lectures I have heard this year.  The topic is the abolishment of suffering (the abolition project), and the speaker is philosopher David Pearce.

The whole talk was about 30 minutes (can be downloaded here), and was so full of new and worthwhile ideas that I don’t think I want to pack them all into one post.  For now, I thought I would provide this introduction, and say some things I liked about the lecture in general:

  • Pearce sounds like what I would call a Singularitarian, though he never calls himself that.  He believes in relatively near futures in which humanity is profoundly changed, either through combining ourselves with technology, or through genetic engineering.  These views are pretty extreme from my perspective, and yet Pearce speaks on these issues in a rational, decidedly non-ironic way.  Good arguments for a side of an issue you don’t usually consider are always valuable.
  • This lecture is information dense!! (two exclamation marks).  He manages to fit ideas worthy of whole essays into subordinate clauses of his sentences.  The volume of deep information in 30 minutes is staggering.  And yet, his delivery could be describes as “gentle”.  Very soft-voiced, never hard to hear, and with a cadence that maximizes receptiveness to his points.  The writing, and delivery of this lecture both impress me.
  • The general topic (relief of suffering) was cast in a new light for me.  This is never spelled out, but there is a theme of suffering existing in the mind, and not in the world.  Think of how you respond to both ups and downs when in a “bad mood”, vs how you respond to the same situations on a “good day”.  Pearce stresses that we don’t need to turn off our reactiveness to outside stresses… rather, we should consider moving our hedonic set point upward, so we’re all closer to having “good days” than “bad moods” on a regular basis.

I remember being told a little story to illustrate the virtue of Wisdom:

In response to sore feet, a human could respond by paving the ground wherever he/she is intending to walk.  On the other hand, it might be wiser simply to cover one’s own feet.

This message and Pearce’s feel similar: we want to change the world to stop human suffering.  Pearce suggests that we might instead change ourselves.


“For optimum listening pleasure with this lp, please record onto cassette with the record levels way too high and then play back and you will find that a suitable extra layer of distortion has been created.”

“Thanks to everyone nice.”

Reading the linear notes, and seeing Dave’s address written inside while listening to this is making me slightly teary eyed. The amount of love and personalization in this package is beautiful, and I’m sad I can’t write to him anymore. If I could, I would make a song just for him, have it pressed on a 7′, and send it away with a letter thanking him for the inspiration he’s given me, and that he’s partly responsible for me to start recording my own music. I know it’s crazy, but I feel connected to this man who is out there somewhere, whom I’ve never met or talked to. Wherever Dave is, I hope he’s still making music for himself.

Design for New £1 Coin

In the post of 20th March 2014, I reported Chancellor George Osborne saying that a new £1 coin would be in circulation in 2017.

The main reason for changing the design is that the present coin is easy to copy and George Osborne’s estimate last year was that one in 30 of these coins is a fake.  This proportion will only get worse, hence please be careful not to hand £1 coins into your bank.  Fakes will be confiscated without compensation.

The design on the tails side (pictured above) shows the rose (for England), leek (Wales), thistle (Scotland) and shamrock (Northern Ireland) coming out of a royal coronet or crown.  It was created by David Pearce from Walsall and was selected from a total of over 6,000 entries.  The shape of the new coin is the same as that of the much loved 12 sided threepenny piece (3d or one eightieth of £1), which was withdrawn in 1971.  If you’d like one, there are loads available cheaply on eBay.


[…] mature enhancements of currently drug-induced states of euphoria can be transformed into an absolute presupposition of sentient existence. Gradients of sublime bliss can become the norm of everyday mental health. The newly emerging disciplines of nanotechnology, quantum computing and genetic engineering allow us to rewrite the vertebrate genome, redesign the global ecosystem, and abolish suffering throughout the living world[…] our descendants, and in principle perhaps even our elderly selves, will have the chance to enjoy modes of experience we emotional primitives cruelly lack: sights more majestically beautiful, music more deeply soul-stirring, sex more exquisitely erotic, mystical epiphanies more awe-inspiring, and love more profoundly intense than anything we can now properly comprehend[…]

David Pearce

The Hedonistic Imperative