What is 'High-Tech Jainism'? An Interview with David Pearce

What is 'High-Tech Jainism'? An Interview with David Pearce

. 11 min read

British philosopher David Pearce is one of the foremost thinkers in the world pioneering suffering-abolitionism today. Since the mid-1990s, he has constructed a vast yet accessible oeuvre of writings outlining how we can abolish (or radically mitigate, at least) involuntary suffering for the benefit of humans, animals, post-humans and beyond. He has a remarkable online footprint composed of original writings, manifestos, interviews, collected articles, online communities, podcast appearances as well as a substantial social media presence, all revolving around the idea (and the network of fellow travellers who agree with the idea) that involuntary suffering can be phased out of the living world forever, for everyone! He has a loyal and supportive following of adherents (myself included, of course) from many different fields and disciplines who align with his vision and are willing to help realise it. There are several different names and descriptions for Pearcean abolitionism, such as negative utilitarianism, suffering-focused ethics, The Hedonistic Imperative (often abbreviated to just HI), and High-Tech Jainism. His friend, the Metanaissance contributor Adam James Davis (who he has known for many years), was eager to learn more about the High-Tech Jainism aspect of his vision, leading to the following interview which David graciously partook in:

1: Why do you describe HI as high tech Jainism, or why do you use that analogy for HI?

First, some background. Branding matters. You'll be publicly known, if at all, via a ludicrously simplistic, cartoon-like (mis)representation of your views. As a transhumanist, I hope we can create a world based on information-sensitive gradients of superhuman bliss: hence HI. But ethically, I'm a negative utilitarian: I believe our overriding moral obligation should be to minimise, prevent and ultimately abolish suffering in our forward light-cone. Minimising suffering takes priority over building posthuman paradise.

Alas, "negative utilitarianism" is a truly awful brand name - bleak, dour and uninspiring. NU evokes depression, not compassion. NU evokes negativity. Even a related term like "suffering-focused ethics" is a turn-off. Most people switch off. I've had more success with the original 1995 label - "The Hedonistic Imperative" - which doesn't exactly convey the moral urgency of the abolitionist project. Worst of all, avowed NU distracts. If you use the NU label for your ethical stance, then you'll almost always soon get side-tracked into a philosophical thought-experiment. For if our overriding moral obligation is to minimise suffering, as NU claims, then rationally shouldn't we be strategizing ways to end life by blowing up the world with a multi-gigaton Doomsday device? Or initiating a vacuum phase-transition painlessly to retire all sentience within our cosmological horizon? Or building runaway AGI that will turn us into the equivalent of paperclips? There are multiple variants, but you get the gist. In other words, instead of exploring detailed, realistic, practical ways to reduce suffering, self-professed negative utilitarians soon get diverted into debating apocalyptic fantasies of death and destruction. Impetus is lost. Natural allies cool - or turn into opponents. Note I'm not saying that philosophical thought-experiments are ill-conceived. On the contrary, one of the best ways to test any theory either in science or ethics is to see if its proponents will accept all of its implications. If you won't swallow all its implications, then get a better theory. And nothing in the abolitionist project involves signing up to an ethic of NU! Anyway, to cut a long story short, I believe on strict NU grounds that the best route to minimising and preventing suffering entails enshrining in law the sanctity of sentient life, human and nonhuman. This is not because life is literally sacred. Rather, given the frailties of human nature, treating sentient life as inviolate normally leads to better practical outcomes by NU criteria as well as conventional wisdom. Treating sentient Darwinian malware like us as though it were sacred may stick in the craw, but twentieth-century history suggests such a legislative framework will be wise. This explicitly life-affirming approach is sometimes called indirect utilitarianism. But "indirect" negative utilitarianism collapses into negative utilitarianism, so I'm really endorsing plain old NU.

So what is the most persuasive brand name for life-conserving NU and its aspiration to a happy and peaceful pan-species welfare state?

A real killer-brand, so to speak, is elusive. But "High-tech Jainism" is a name designed to capture both this ethos and policy prescription. Jains are best known in the West for their habit of sweeping the ground in front of their feet rather than risk inadvertently treading on an insect. So flying under the banner of "high-tech Jainism" doesn't invite accusations of being an NU plotting Armageddon, or even banter about wanting to bump off one's friends and loved ones in their sleep on the grounds they'd be better off dead. The significance of "high-tech" prefix is obvious. Genome reform, cross-species fertility regulation, genetically herbivorizing predators, spreading benign "low-pain" and high hedonic set-point alleles and allelic combinations across the living world through gene drives (etc) don't feature in Jain scriptures, but do accord with a Jain ethic of compassion and respect for all sentient beings. The "Jainism" aims to evoke how even humble minds matter. Humans are very humble minds compared to our successors. "High-tech Jainism" is also designed to defuse the canard that we aim to "exterminate" predators, as distinct from end predation. Non-violently phasing out predation is consistent with upholding the principle of sanctity of life - and indeed is mandated by it.

So there you have it: respect for the integrity of all sentient beings, a blissful biosphere, a pan-species welfare state, and a peaceful, genetically reprogrammed living world where all sentient beings can flourish - in a nutshell, high-tech Jainism.

2: Why Jainism in particular? What makes Jainism stand out from other religions?

The ancient Indian religions of Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism share the concept of ahiṃsā - the ethical principle of not causing harm to other living things. But Jainism develops and applies ahimsa most comprehensively and consistently. Or rather, Jains practise ahimsa comprehensively and consistently given the limitations of prescientific technology: traditional Jainism has no answer to the horrors of the food chain, which even some sophisticated life-scientists imagine is written into the fabric of reality itself.

The contrast between advanced Jain ethics and primitive Western anthropocentrism is stark. True, some "advanced" western bioethicists, and most recently the vegan movement, speak of widening our circle of compassion. But most Western consumers still eat "meat", i.e. the flesh of murdered nonhumans. Most Western consumers still pay other humans to hurt, farm and kill billions of our fellow subjects of experience while treating the finished "product" as though animal abuse were no more ethically problematic than consuming roadkill. The murderous exploitation and killing of sentient beings akin to small children is evil beyond belief. Factory farms and slaughterhouses are the antithesis of ahimsa. Our successors may view factory-farms and slaughterhouses as a crime on a par with the Holocaust - with the difference that the Nazis really believed in a monstrous Jewish conspiracy against the noble Aryan race, whereas even the most ardent meat-eaters don't believe their victims have committed any crime.

3: What makes Jainism stand out from other eastern religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Lamaism, Bon etc?

"High-tech Buddhism" would have been the obvious alternative to high-tech Jainism. After all, Gautama Buddha is widely reported to have said, "One should not kill a living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should one incite another to kill. Do not injure any being, either strong or weak, in the world." But Buddha didn't think like a lawyer. Ambiguity over whether it was morally permissible for Buddhist monks to eat meat donated in good faith as alms gave scope to the human propensity for self-serving rationalisation. According to one sophistry, you're not actually killing anyone because your meal is already dead! So less than half the world's Buddhists are vegetarian. And indeed, Buddha didn't insist his followers forswear meat. By contrast, Jains stand out for taking extraordinary pains not to harm even the humblest minds. Jainism strikes many Westerners as ridiculous, albeit harmless. Yet compared to posthuman superintelligences, humans may be like bugs. Bugs matter. Life-loving humans may hope that posthuman superintelligences practice high-tech Jainism under some description too.

4: What makes it stand out from all other world religions in general, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam etc?

All the world's religions have some admirable aspects. For instance, a non-violent biosphere where all sentient beings can flourish is prefigured in the "peaceable kingdom" of Isaiah. And what would a "Most Merciful, Most Compassionate" Allah want humans to do with the tools of biotech if not to deliver His creatures from misery and harm? After all, the breadth and depth of His compassion surpass any mere mortal. However, other religious traditions are in varying degrees anthropocentric and historically violent - both to human and nonhuman animals. Most practitioners are violent to nonhumans to this day. Believers can respond that past and present excesses alike are perversions of the true faith. Maybe so. But no wars have been fought in the name of Jainism.

5: Is Jainism the religion most aligned with the Golden Rule and being a practitioner of it?

I think so. I'm not a theologian or religious scholar, so don't take my observations on organised religion too seriously. But all of the world's major religions have devotees who preach (and erratically practise) some version of the Golden Rule - the principle of treating others as one wants to be treated - often not under that name. However, Jains have by far the widest moral "circle of compassion". Jain's have the most inclusive conception of us, i.e. all sentient beings. All sentient beings have a pain-pleasure axis, the world's fundamental metric of (dis)value. The Golden Rule should be extended to everyone, regardless of intellect, race or phylum.

6: Are there any Western religions that mirror Jainism in terms of compassion for all beings and actually revolving one's lifestyle around that, such as wearing face masks to prevent the death of insects going into the mouth and brushing aside creatures safely out of one's path?

Not to my knowledge. I know one or two saintly secular ascetics whose lives broadly conform to Jain principles. Effective altruist Brian Tomasik prefers not to go out for walks lest he unwittingly treads on worms or insects; and Brian is reluctant to travel by air for analogous reasons. Such otherworldliness is rare.

7: Would high-tech Quakerism work as an analogy for HI? What about high-tech Mormonism?

Not quite. My father was a Quaker. I have Mormon friends. Many individual Quakers and Mormons are vegan or vegetarian. I have a great respect for members of both traditions at their best. But alas a lot of Quakers and Mormons still eat meat. Vegetarianism isn't one of their founding tenets. So I don't think either label would work for our purposes. Neither label would conform to what "high-tech Jainism" is intended to capture about the abolitionist project - although I know contemporary Quakers and Mormons who are extremely sympathetic to what we're doing.

8. What do Jains think of HI and the proposal of a high-tech evolution of their religion?

I'm dependent for an answer on the handful of Jains who have reached out over the years. All have been supportive, though one or two have (pardonably) believed I am literally a Jain. I don't know of any poll or systematic study. Probably most traditional Jains haven't heard of us; we're still fairly fringe.

9: Do you think HI has more roots in religion than most adherents would care to admit?

HI certainly has religious and spiritually-minded supporters. But despite a religious family background, I'm a secular scientific rationalist. Indeed, I'm a physicalist - though not a materialist - constrained by the mathematical straitjacket on belief that a physicalist conceptual scheme entails. But I guess one can see millenarian themes in HI too. Salvation by genome reform. A future of life in eternal paradise. Authors - and prophets - are rarely as original as they suppose.

In a more personal vein, I've no natural spirituality. Temperamental gloominess makes the unexplained seem weird rather than mystical. That said, youthful experiments with a post-Galilean science of mind means that I'm not as dismissive of spirituality as my drug-naive teenage ancestral namesakes. Indeed, one possible scenario for the future of sentience lies in superspirituality - though the credence I'd assign such scenarios is modest.

Either way, one of the beauties of the radical hedonic recalibration championed in HI is its effective preference-neutrality - thought critics might not see it that way. Whether you are religious or secular, ratcheting up your hedonic range and hedonic set-point can radically enrich your quality of life but doesn't inherently entail changing your secular or religious values and beliefs. Moreover, hedonic uplift doesn't, by itself, entail adjudicating between our countless conflicting preferences. Contrast all previous utopias. This conservative analysis of HI isn't to underplay the magnitude  of the hedonic revolution in prospect. In practice, phasing out the biology of suffering in favour of gradients of bliss will be a momentous transition in the evolutionary history of life. Values will shift accordingly. But (complications aside) mastery of our reward circuitry won't involve giving up what you care about - your values, preference architecture and personal relationships. On the contrary, hedonic enrichment confers personal strength to pursue what you most value. Depressives tend to give up.

10: Would you describe yourself as a quasi-Jain?

I don't announce myself as such. I only infrequently use a broom. But maybe. As a little child, I used to rescue injured ants and desiccated worms. So I guess the antecedents are there. Jain monks take five main vows: ahiṃsā (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (not stealing), brahmacharya (chastity), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). I practise a version of all five. But Darwinian life is endlessly squalid and inconceivably messy. I'm least strict about satya (truth). I think the pursuit of truth is just a necessary evil on the route to blissful ignorance  -  the sublime psychosis of posthuman life I glorify as full-spectrum superintelligence. The universal wave function encodes unspeakable horrors as well as inexpressible joys. Once we have discharged all our ethical duties - which may take hundreds of years or billions, I don't know -  then we should forget the horrors of Darwinian life like a bad dream.

The biggest ethical danger of embracing blissful oblivion is premature defeatism about the theoretical upper bounds to rational moral agency in the cosmos. This is another reason for switching to a civilised post-CRISPR information-signalling system based on gradients of intelligent bliss rather than becoming uniformly "blissed out".

11: Would you recommend that followers of HI study Jainism to gain a suitable foundation for furthering their usefulness within the abolitionist project?

Jainism abounds in colourful pre-scientific metaphysics that I've glossed over here. I doubt if studying the wild and wonderful complexities of Jain metaphysics would be as fruitful to advancing HI as, say, a course in molecular genetics. But casual acquaintance, at least, with the practice of Jainism might be instructive to any young person new to HI who is afraid of ridicule - which is psychologically harder to handle than stirring lively controversy. You've probably found this with the morally courageous Herbivorize Predators project. Most Westerners deplore gratuitous cruelty, but we find caring about the well-being of humble minds quixotic and - with the exception of pampered domestic pets - rather absurd. Studying Jainism helps one realise that an anti-speciesist ethos is a venerable tradition stretching back millennia. No one should feel foolish for actively extending their circle of compassion to small rodents, insects or marine invertebrates. Thus the cephalic ganglion of, say, a bee runs an internally vast phenomenal world-simulation like yours or mine infused by the pain-pleasure axis. Later this century and beyond, the world's quintillions of insects as well as large vertebrates can be helped to flourish with recognisable extensions of existing technologies such as CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives.

At the risk of sounding populist and New-Agey, Western bioethics is slowly struggling to catch up with Eastern wisdom. This message sounds ominously like the Tao of Physics or its Chopraesque cousins - no, Eastern tradition didn't prefigure relativistic quantum field theory. But in respect of the treatment of nonhuman animals, I believe it's essentially true. We're savages. Science aspires to the impartial "view from nowhere". Jain ethics at its idealised best aspires to the ethical counterpart. Ethically, we should aspire to access, and impartially weigh, all subjective perspectives. Let's embrace a Jainised, technologised version of the Golden Rule and harness biotech to turn rhetoric into practice - a future of paradise-engineering and the well-being of all sentience.

Thanks also to Jonathan Leighton and Imaan Khadir.