In the field of Hedonics, the philosophy of negative valence experiences like pain, suffering, depression, anxiety, loss (or quite simply just the philosophy of pain) is as much of an exciting talking point as the philosophy of positive valence experiences like happiness, pleasure, novelty, meaning, fulfilment and mystical ecstasy (or similarly, just the philosophy of satisfaction).
It could be argued that everything we do and doesn’t do hangs on whereabouts on the pleasure-pain axis. These actions and thoughts are situated, where a single story would be in various positions on the axis as we go from person to person and individual preferences change. Retail therapy is euphoric for some; others like it. And then, of course, it’s just a chore for many others, and then some people hate shopping completely! It could be with our pleasure-pain axis that we consider working towards a long-term goal and then actually achieving it, which feels good, to not putting our hand on a hot stove, which feels terrible, of course…no argument there! Or we use empathy to take into account other people and their pleasure-pain axes when calculating if a specific action would bring joy or harm to others. But is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” really an empathic consideration of someone else’s pleasure-pain axis, or is it still more of a reflection of one’s own instead if we imagine someone doing something harmful to ourselves as a motivation to stop oneself from doing that same thing to others?
There are plenty of ideas that muddy the waters somewhat within this field. For instance, how many people are equipped with empathy that turns it into ‘dark empathy’, where they are all-too-aware of how harmful their actions are to others but choose to do it anyway, or even use it as motivation to commit harm because they want their target to suffer, knowing full well that they will and how badly they will experience it?
Are pleasure and pain so coupled, so entangled together that it is impossible to experience cheerful valance without some ‘price’ or downside? Do we need to have the capacity to suffer from being equipped with enough empathy so as not to harm others? Is every valence experience a mixed-valence experience where we feel more positive than negative valence one moment and then the opposite in the next moment? The counter-argument against the abolition of suffering that posits a need for darkness/pain/suffering to experience or appreciate the light/pleasure/happiness (one cannot exist without the other, they both need each other to live at all) is heard quite often in the Hedonistic Imperative community, as is David Pearce’s standard response that “it would be cruel to say to someone suffering from lifelong unipolar depression that they cannot possibly be depressed if the unipolar nature of their illness prevents them from feeling positive valence”. Imagine saying “how do you know you’re depressed if you’ve never been happy?” to someone with such a crippling illness? Thus, a similar argument is raised to support gradients of superhuman bliss and motivation in a world where all experiences below hedonic zero have been eradicated for all beings who would have the capacity to suffer if Mother Nature was to carry on having her way. As well as that, there is also a living, breathing case study that could possibly be the hard evidence we Hedonicists need to prove that not only is a life without pain and suffering possible, but one can also flourish, be motivated, achieve things, make rational decisions, raise a family and see to responsibilities just as well as a standard “suffering” person does…even better than, perhaps? The person in question is a lady named Jo Cameron. She is 71 years old and lives in Scotland near Loch Ness. Her condition is caused by a strange mutation in her genetics, where she has microdeletions in the FAAH region (the fatty acid amide hydrolase) that degrades anandamide. Thus, she benefits from more anandamide in her system than almost everybody else on the planet, and it has been reported that she has never felt pain or anxiety in her entire life. Anandamide is named after the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning “joy, bliss, delight”. Mrs Cameron is a golden opportunity at a time when the field of Hedonics could really gain some more traction, like a gift from the universe itself showing us the way forward now that we have the technology (with more advanced techniques fast emerging) like a monolith from 2001. So let’s take a look at what kind of impact Mrs Cameron’s condition has and could still have. Specifically, let’s explore how much suffering has been prevented and how much could even be prevented if we use Mrs Cameron’s condition as a blueprint for future hedonics research.
From before up until now, letting nature roll the dice has blessed Mrs Cameron with a life free from the involuntary suffering that plagues nearly everybody else, human or not. One entire human life free of suffering from birth until death is a merciful turn of good luck in the genetic lottery; from Mrs Cameron’s perspective, the total amount of suffering averted is enormous. What I mean is, from my perspective, for example, the total amount of suffering I will experience from the beginning of my life until the end of it will amount to a lot, relatively. To me, it will be a lot, since I am the one experiencing it. And this is true for everyone else who is sentient, sapient and who suffers. The suffering each mind endures is a big deal to them; every instance of pain and suffering is like a weight on our shoulders that cannot be ignored. Not valid for Mrs Cameron. If the total amount of suffering each being endures is a relatively large amount respective to the one who experiences it, then the amount of suffering Jo Cameron has side-stepped a similarly large amount (somewhat). But the situation looks much different if we take a Gods-eye view of all this. The condition that affects Mrs Cameron (one of the few strange instances where we can say that a patient is ‘blessed’ by a state rather than ‘affected’ by it and all the negative load that that word carries) is so rare that only 2 or 3 other people are known to have it. Perhaps more people have excess anandamide than we think, but in the case of “it’s not broken (or rather, it doesn’t feel broken), so it doesn’t need fixing (I think)”, how would they or anyone else know if they always felt fine and never needed assistance or medical attention for the afflictions that everybody else’s nociception would alert them, the ordinary everyday people, to? It was only because Mrs Cameron refused painkillers after a procedure which would leave everybody else begging for them (she didn’t need them, of course!) that eyebrows and questions were raised, and the strange phenomenon was pursued until the answers that we now have today were discovered. But if more people had excess anandamide than we think, then why didn’t other people with similar FAAH microdeletions raise red flags upon close examination by medical professionals?
Mrs Cameron admits that she burned, knocked, bruised, scratched and bumped herself more times than she could count for obvious reasons, so indeed a similar pattern would have followed other cases like this? Maybe the lucky few with high levels of anandamide accidentally killed themselves off (causing more suffering to their loved ones burdened with normal levels of anandamide rather than averting suffering!). Or perhaps it is that the total number of people with this superpower is just in the single figures. So if we take the aforementioned Gods-eye view perspective, 3 or 4 people who never experience negative valence for their whole lives is, whilst being exceptionally fortuitous for the people themselves, not much real suffering averted in the grand scheme of all people on the planet now; definitely not much in the more grand scheme of all people ever…not whilst we let nature carry on rolling the dice anyway.
So, let’s take our genetic destinies into our own hands with the ingenuity of today and tomorrow. We could all have microdeletions in FAAH like Jo Cameron, and everyone could have the kind of pain- and anxiety-free life that makes her such an interesting case. People living today might live the latter half of their lives with this bliss-giving genetic edit. I say ‘could’ because, in theory, everyone born after genetic engineering is perfected, and Mrs Cameron’s condition is reverse-engineered could live a life like hers, but would they want to? Would most people choose to? Would a minority of people choose to, or anyone at all? Because whilst Mrs Cameron’s FAAH microdeletions are an apparent blueprint for one of the routes we could take towards a more hedonically-enriched world, even now, genetic engineering and topics like so-called ‘designer babies’ are still taboo and can elicit heated counter-arguments from specific demographics. So, from a Gods-eye view, how much suffering could be averted? In theory, potentially all nightmare in everyone, human and non-human, could be prevented. But whilst cultural taboos and cognitive biases still form roadblocks to the kinds of goals hedonic engineers aspire to, then the unfortunate conclusion is that more generations of sapient minds are doomed to suffer just as their ancestors did.