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A question for David Pearce...

Abolitionist negative utilitarian philosopher David Pearce, the figurehead of the superhappiness pillar of the tranhumanism movement, was kind enough to answer my long-pondered question at the intersection of philosophy and fiction:

CM: Do you recommend any fiction to help inform one's philosophy? ___________________________________________________________ DP: Normally my answer would be a qualified "no". It's better to set out one's premises and chain of reasoning explicitly so they can be critiqued. Does one's argument contain suppressed premises, hidden presuppositions or background assumptions that could cast doubt on one's conclusions? A novel or an allegory doesn’t lend itself to rigorous scrutiny in the same way. From this perspective, fiction has only a supplementary role to play in philosophy. However, I make a few exceptions. Here is one. First some context. As you know, I advocate that humans abolish the biology of suffering throughout the living world and replace today's misery and malaise with life based on gradients of intelligent bliss. However, some otherwise sympathetic people are surprised – and even appalled – when they learn I’m negative utilitarian (NU). Negative utilitarians believe that our overriding moral obligation is to minimise and prevent suffering. Mitigating or preventing suffering ethically outweighs creating any amount of pleasure. It's not necessary to be a negative utilitarian to sign up to the abolitionist project; but that’s my own rationale. Ethically, all the superhuman bliss ahead that transhumanists anticipate is just the icing on the cake. Alas, “normal” people tend to be aghast or dismissive if they learn you are a negative utilitarian, because NU seems to have the following counterintuitive implication. Hypothetically, if it were possible painlessly to destroy the world, then we should press the metaphorical OFF switch in order to prevent more suffering. (cf. Indeed, NU seems to have an even more counterintuitive implication. As we know, the real world has atrocious suffering, but an NU would (hypothetically) painlessly destroy the world to avert even a trivial amount of distress. Most people recoil from the idea of retiring life on Earth to prevent even unimaginably vast suffering, let alone so as to prevent a trivial amount of distress. Negative utilitarianism is offensive to common sense. However, consider Ursula Le Guin’s work of philosophical fiction, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973): Le Guin’s fable tells the story of Omelas, a city of marvellous delights whose existence depends – for unspecified reasons – on the torment of a single child in a basement. The citizens of Omelas know about this abused child. But the child’s horrific existence doesn’t stop them having a wonderful time. And indeed, on the Benthamite felicific calculus of classical utilitarianism, why not? Compared to the immensity and rich diversity of pleasures that Omelas offers, the torment of a single child is a mere pinprick in the grand scheme of things. Yet in Ursula le Guin’s fable, a small minority of citizens don't consider the price worth paying. So they walk away from Omelas. Hence the title. I hope that our glorious transhuman future holds fabulous delights – Omelas Plus! I work towards that end. But like any negative utilitarian, I would still unhesitatingly "walk away from Omelas” if ever the opportunity arose. What’s more, a great many people who read Ursula Guin’s Fable say they would walk away too. Would you? Even readers who report they wouldn't walk away rarely condemn readers who say they’d exit rather than be complicit in the abuse of a child. Back In the real world, what does it mean – and what might it mean in future – to "walk away from Omelas”? The answer to this question is controversial. The genius of Ursula Le Guin’s allegory lies in how a piece of philosophical fiction inspires debate on a topic otherwise beyond the pale. Limitations of the human mind mean that treatises of academic philosophy can only go so far. May blissful transhuman minds be spared such dark thoughts.


Many thanks to David Pearce! Come back next week for my review of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

In the meantime, would you walk away from Omelas?

If so, where would you go?

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