HOW TO BE HAPPY: the philosophy of David Pearce

David Pearce is an Oxford philosopher who propounds a form of Negative Utilitarianism. He is a prolific writer but does not appear to have published any works (in print), however his texts can be found online at and at other sites. Pearce’s best known work is the Hedonistic Imperative which can be accessed at

Classical Utilitarians believe that the duty of government is to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. To this end Jeremy Bentham (the founder of Utilitarianism) and his followers advocated social and political changes to achieve this objective. For example Benthamite Utilitarians where active in the anti-slavery campaign which led to the abolition of the trade by an Act of Parliament in 1807.

In contrast to their Benthamite cousins’s advocacy of the greatest happiness of the greatest number,  Negative Utilitarians such as Pearce advocate the abolition of suffering (or at the very least its minimisation to the maximum degree possible), a doctrine propounded by Pearce in the Hedonistic Imperative and his other writings. Pearce argues as follows. People are on a “Hedonic Treadmill” which means that their level of happiness is, in essence fixed at a certain point. During the course of their lives an individual’s level of happiness will fluctuate, however it will return to a fixed point. Bliss is transitory and the world is, as a consequence full of suffering as regards all sensient creatures (both human and animal).

There are three ways, according to Pearce of bringing about the abolition of suffering and ushering in a world in which all sensient creatures can enjoy lives of bliss:

  1. Wireheading which entails the stimulation, by electrodes of those parts of the brain which are responsible for feelings of wellbeing. Research has demonstrated that the brain can be stimulated with no ill effects to produce feelings of happiness.

Pearce contends that where wireheading to be universally adopted this would led to people becoming anti-social and the human race would end as humans would be constantly engaged in stimulating their brains and would, have no time for any other activity.

  1. Designer drugs which produce feelings of happiness. Pearce argues that drugs specifically designed to boost a person’s sense of well-being can play a part in bringing about the end of suffering. However he is concerned that people would need to take such medication throughout their lives and that most people would recoil at the idea of giving very young children such drugs.
  2. Genetic engineering which entails parents choosing those genes for their offspring which are most conjucive to their happiness. Pearce views this as the approach which is most likely to led to a society in which individuals enjoy varying states of bliss. Most parents say that they want their children to be happy and would therefore choose those genes which promote this emotion. Happiness would be passed down the generations as happy individuals would want to pass on such traits to their offspring.

Pearce assumes that certain genes and the behaviours flowing from them where appropriate when humans lived on the savannah. However the genes which predispose us to conflict can now be jettisoned as modern humans have no use for such primitive behaviours. Pearce carries his views further by arguing that his ideas should be applied to the animal kingdom. It is, according to him wrong that any sensient creature should suffer. As the technology allowing the production of delicious meat from a single cell develops Pearce believes that the desire of people to kill and eat animals will diminish. In addition the genetic make-up of animals should be modified so as to prevent them inflicting suffering on each other so the cat would (presumably) no longer have any desire to hunt and kill rodents or birds while the wolf would lie down with the lamb. Pearce contends that we rightly do not feed live rodents to snakes on the grounds that it is cruel to do so,so why should we permit animals in our care to inflict cruelty on their fellow creatures. As most wild animals are now increasingly coming under the control of humans in safari parks etc Pearce believes that it is legitimit for us to remove those genes which cause them to inflict suffering on other animals.

Pearce argues that we can alter the make-up of the brain in order to prevent or minimise suffering. For instance in the future people could choose to have the memory of an unhappy event such as a failed love affair erased from their memory and thereby avoid carrying the feelings of sadness associated with the event with them throughout the remainder of their lives.

Pearce’s views are based on the belief that science can conquer all. Is he correct? Certainly advances in genetics have the potential to enable parents (in the future) to remove those genes which have the potential to result in the birth of a severely disabled child. Again there may well be a genetic component to happiness. Pearce points to the very small number of individuals who seem to be constantly happy and postulates that the use of genetic material from such individuals could led to a society populated by persons who experience varying degrees of bliss. Well perhaps but environmental factors also play an important role in determining the happiness of individuals. A child brought up in a family in which his/her parents are constantly arguing is, surely likely to grow up feeling unhappy or at the very least with issues which he/she will need to face in the future. Perhaps such a child might (in the distant future) be able to choose to have the memories of their unhappy childhood erased, however would this not led to other problems? For instance remembering the mistakes of our parents can help us to avoid making those self-same mistakes ourselves. If the memories of our poor upbringing are obliterated how then do we avoid making some of the same errors as our parents? Again let us imagine the person who has suffered an unhappy love affair. He chooses to have the memory of the event erased. Later in his life he meets another partner who (had he remembered his previous experiences) he would have avoided because of the knowledge that a relationship with a person of that type would end in tears. However all recollection of his previous affair has been banished so he blithely embarks on another relationship which will end in tears.

Can we in any case define happiness? Could it not be the case that the many and varied ways in which people gain satisfaction means that it is impossible to enhance overall happiness by scientific means? Pearce does acknowledge that people’s sources of happiness are many and varied, however he does place great emphasis on the ability of genetics and manipulation of the brain to abolish suffering.

Many individuals would I think express grave concerns concerning Pearce’s advocacy of manipulating the genetic make-up of animals in order to prevent “suffering” to their fellow animals. Is it our role to impose on animals our own conception of what is moral and immoral? If we do impose our own view of right and wrong on, for example a cat by removing it’s instinct to hunt rodents and birds are we not emasculating the cat and turning it into a creature other than a cat?

A deeper question raises itself. Can suffering really be abolished? Isn’t it quite possible that suffering is part of existence and that once we remove one cause of unhappiness another (often unforeseen) one arises? Can one easily separate happiness from sadness? For example on hearing a beautiful piece of music or on reading a moving poem one can be moved to tears, does this not demonstrate that no simple cut off point between happiness and sadness exists?


About kevinmorris101

I live and work in London and blog as a hobby. If you would like to contact me please send an email to animalia at (the address is rendered in this manner in order to try and defeat spammers)!
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