Is Abolitionist Bioethics Oppressive?

I recently came across an interesting talk by philosopher David Pearce at the Effective Altruism (EA) Global Melbourne 2015 conference. I couldn’t go past the great name ‘Abolitionist Bioethics’.

David discusses The Hedonistic Imperative which, in a nutshell, is the idea that we can use biotechnology to end suffering and promote happiness. Particularly that we can use genetic engineering to remove the biological capacity to suffer.

This idea isn’t contained to just ending suffering in humans but also for ending it in all living individuals that have the capacity to suffer. It’s an interesting idea but I couldn’t help thinking that it was also problematic because it assumes that humans know what its best for other species and are justified to interfere with their lives.

It’s seems to be based in human centric thinking that rationalises the imposition of human will on others. Non-human animals wouldn’t be given a choice to have their biology interfered with it would just be assumed that we are doing the right thing. To me this seems oppressive.

In an attempt to reduce suffering we would be violating others right to self determination, and potentially causing a form of suffering that is not physical or emotional but based in the understanding that rights have been violated.*

The talk really highlights for me how ingrained speciesism is within our culture. A philosopher who spends a lot of time thinking about how to improve the lives of all animals also assumes that it is OK to impose human ideology upon other individuals. It perpetuates the idea of human superiority, where humans can dominate nature and decide the fate of others.

Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely for reducing suffering but think that humans should focus on ending the immense amount of suffering we cause and leave others to live their lives without interference.


Caveat: These thoughts are based solely on the talk ‘Abolitionist Bioethics’. I intend to look further into the ideas outlined by David and hope to find some answers to the questions I have. I just wanted to write this stuff down before I forgot it!

A few other thoughts I had while watching the talk were:

  • If given the choice Abolitionist Bioethics could be viable for humans.
  • Our understanding of genetics, gene expression and epigenetics is currently so limited that this approach becoming viable is likely to be a long way off.
  • Not all suffering is bad, in fact some suffering makes individuals more resilient.

A few question I had were:

  • Does this idea only promote the removal of the ability to suffer, rather than ending events that are harmful? For instance, a rabbits ability to experience pain is removed but the fox will still hunt the rabbit. So the rabbit dies but doesn’t suffer when dying.
  • Is the idea of ending all harmful events simply another form human superiority where we get to dominate the world.
  • What unintended consequences could the removal of the function of suffering have metabolically, socially and ecologically?
  • *Can an individual who doesn’t have the capacity to suffer physically or emotionally still recognise injustice?