Our interventions aim to reduce the intrinsic qualitative negativity of pain to a trivial level while preserving sufficient adaptive damage signaling. Unlike other forms of congenital pain insensitivity, Cameron’s syndrome does not interfere with the ability of pain-sensing neurons to send signals to her brain. Other pain insensitivity conditions are usually discovered in early childhood because the absence of damage-signaling leads to self-mutilation behaviors. Cameron never experienced these childhood self-mutilation behaviors or the lifetime of frequent joint and skeletal injuries typical of other forms of congenital pain insensitivity. Indeed, she didn’t discover that she was different from others until she was in her sixties. Cameron’s condition does not entirely eliminate pain — she reported a pain score of 1/10 following a surgery that typically comes with an agonizing recovery period. She is receiving damage signals from her body — which explains why she avoided the lifetime of frequent major injuries typical of other pain-insensitivity conditions. However, these damage signals do not carry the potential for extreme qualitative awfulness that they do in people without a pain-insensitivity condition.
Our level of physical and emotional pain insensitivity is adaptive only in the context of our environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). However, our environmental conditions have changed radically since the emergence of our species. According to the paper “The Phylogenetic Roots of Human Lethal Violence ” by José María Gómez, 2% of human deaths were caused by homicide in our EEA. We are adapted to a historical social environment in which we had a 1 in 50 chance of being killed by a member of our own species. A study undertaken by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development estimated that the global homicide rate was 7.6 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2004. We now live in a profoundly less violent environment than our ancestors did. However, we are still running mental software that reacts to interpersonal conflict as if it came with the same mortality risk that it did in our EEA. As a result, we experience profound and risk-disproportionate emotional distress when we experience rejection, judgment, and other forms of social conflict. This level of negative emotional reactivity is maladaptive in a modern social context. It leads to unnecessary suffering, conflict, and the tendency to squander most of our mental energy on social signaling and impression management. Our environment is also vastly safer, and in the era of modern medicine, minor injuries are far less dangerous. We do not need to experience life mediated through intrinsically unpleasant emotional software adapted to cope with a high-mortality-risk social and physical environment that no longer exists. We can afford a sunnier perspective.
Our Director of Bioethics, David Pearce, wrote an excellent piece responding to this concern. We highly recommend it: Brave New World? A Defence of Paradise Engineering
Pain and pleasure are two distinct experiential categories composed of states that exist independently. Experiencing the contrast between pain and pleasure may increase the cognitive salience of pleasure and invite gratitude, but it isn’t existentially necessary for the experience of pleasure. One does not need to know the deepest possible state of torment to experience the modest pleasure of eating an apple — they’re distinct and self-subsistent experiential qualities, just like purple and green.
Motivation is primarily driven by the brain’s reward system (the mesocorticolimbic circuit) and works by positive reinforcement. Complex approach and engagement behaviors are primarily driven by reward, not punishment.
In their 2018 paper “Does personal distress enhance empathic interaction or block it?” Hwan Kim et al. described the distinction between Empathic Personal Distress and Empathic Concern:
“Empathic concern is the willingness to care for and care about other people's grief, while personal distress is an uncomfortable or uneasy feeling about others' grief.”
Regarding their distinctness, later in the paper, Kim et al. stated:
“Eisenberg et al. (2010) distinguished between empathic concern (or sympathy) and personal distress; Empathic concern is positively correlated with pro-social behavior; however, personal distress is often not. The same is true of aggression; that is, empathic concern was negatively correlated with aggression (Eisenberg et al., 2010) while personal distress is positively correlated with aggression (Cohen and Strayer, 1996, Kim and Han, 2016).”
Empathic concern feels warm, meaningful, connected, and goal-directed. It is not a negative valence state, and it is distinct from Empathic Personal Distress, so an intervention that reduces negative valence to the point of triviality would not directly impact it. Empathic concern is a positive and compassionate feeling that makes us feel good about helping others.
Regarding the role of empathic distress in motivating empathic behavior, Kim et al. concluded following a correlational study that:
“These results suggest that personal distress represents the negative side of emotional empathy and could block empathic interaction instead of enhancing it.”
This finding accords nicely with the uncommonly compassionate nature of Jo Cameron: She’s a vegan and a retired special needs school teacher with a highly compassionate and warm disposition. It may be that the diminution of empathic personal distress that came with her mutations enhanced her willingness to engage in empathic behavior by removing a psychologically aversive factor and making empathic behavior feel purely positive.
Consider the role negative-valence emotions play in driving conformity: Status anxiety creates a status disincentive that makes us less likely to stand up against popular ideologies aiming at social control. Our fear of rejection and judgment is a powerful incentive to conform and self-deceive, even in the face of internal moral dissonance. Our general reliance on positive social feedback to avoid falling into negative valence states creates a strong valence incentive to go along with whatever is popular. Our general tendency to spiral into low-valence states when subject to negative social feedback does the same. It is negative valence emotions that make us behave like mindless herd animals. A hypothetical population of positive-valence energized, unshakably equanimous, fearless, and anxiety-free individuals has little that tyrants can exploit to induce conformity behavior. Dopamine release in response to anticipated reward is the substantial driver of motivation, not negative valence. Such a population would have little incentive to choose conformity over authentically pursuing what they anticipate will be internally rewarding.
Jo Cameron reported a pain score of 1/10 following her hip replacement surgery — a procedure known to have a particularly agonizing postoperative recovery period — so it would seem more accurate to classify her condition as one that causes a profoundly high pain threshold by decreasing the negative valence of damage signaling, rather than as a pure form of congenital pain insensitivity. The incompleteness of her pain insensitivity is a key reason why her syndrome holds the promise of radically reducing suffering while permitting sufficient adaptive damage signaling to allow flourishing in the modern world.
Given the complexity of the topic, limited tractability and impact of specific sets of interventions, diversity of moral views, and high uncertainty levels, we are in favor of a multi-directional approach to improve the fate of farmed and wild nonhuman animals. Most (if not all) of our team members are vegans or reducetarians, supportive of the development of cultured meat and plant-based alternatives, and in favor of measures making farming/transport/slaughter less inhumane, hoping that these synergistic value streams will lead to a large-scale change in the global attitudes about this cause area. We are driven by the universal, non-speciesist concern about the suffering of sentient beings, though we also fully respect those who want to support us primarily or exclusively with regard to the first, human-centered project. The introduction of modified lines should not be used as a convenient moral justification for mistreating animals; simultaneously, from the consequentialist and pragmatic standpoint, we recognize the limited outcomes of narrower and more isolated approaches, often driven by very noble intentions. The global meat industry continues to have a significant compound annual growth rate, driven largely by the steadily improving economic status of developing countries with different cultural and legal contexts, so the introduction of modified lines through market forces may constitute a very important piece of the puzzle where other strategies, due to the existing roadblocks, fail to produce (yet) a significant impact.
Our team members share diverse viewpoints and perspectives on various matters, including spiritual and cultural ones, but create an exceptionally cooperative and supportive workplace environment thanks to the prioritization of the common goal - adaptive suffering abolitionism. We would like to ensure that our work and resulting interventions are recognized as maximally neutral and impartisan, at least to the same extent that first aid, emergency medicine, or anesthesia are (usually) globally recognized as neutral and impartisan. We do hope that the expected beneficial downstream effects of the project will be seen as universally desired, highly compatible with different sets of beliefs, and not a subject of hostile polarization. To ensure the maximum global scalability of the project deliverables, we will continue consulting them with numerous experts spanning a wide range of traditions and cultural backgrounds; so far, once providing sufficient context and information, we have not faced any serious, justified objections on these grounds.
The Far Out Initiative embraced a lot of pre-planning on multiple levels to ensure that regardless of unknown unknowns and future trajectories, we deliver as much positive impact as possible within the existing possibilities. Our success is defined primarily by the public good rather than standard company performance metrics that may or may not be aligned with it. Under the most optimistic scenarios, we will be able to design, study, and globally scale safe, legal, accessible, transparent, and effective (SLATE) interventions minimizing the suffering of billions of people worldwide and many, if not most, nonhuman animals that might be still subject to the cruelty of factory farming, thinking about the responsible ways to address even more daring and complicated domains in future, such as the wild animal suffering and ethics of potential digital sentience. If we are going to face substantial challenges along the way, then we might reasonably expect to come up with more limited interventions that, for example, would help alleviate intense forms of physical and/or psychological pain. If this does pose a difficulty, then we will expect to produce a substantial body of literature defining the character of existing limitations, inspiring the next stages of this or the emergence of new, adjacent projects; negative results often mean a high positive impact. In the worst-case, extremely unlikely scenario of not being able to produce even these, we would highlight the importance of bringing the suffering abolitionist talking points into the public discourse and, hopefully, finally to the central concern of various influential communities and social movements, including to effective altruism. This multi-level plan is what makes our strategy robust, and what - despite being at the very early stage and uncertainties inherent to the field - gives us a glimpse of existential success.