We need a better theory of happiness and suffering

We ra­tio­nal­ists know a lot about win­ning, but we don’t know what our ter­mi­nal goals re­ally are. Such things are hand­waved away, as we just mum­ble some­thing like “QALYs” and make a few guesses about what a five year old would like.

I’d like to dis­pel the myth that a 5 year old knows what they like. Have you ever seen a kid with a sack of candy? I don’t think they re­ally wanted to get nau­seous.

“But hold up”, you say. “Maybe that’s true for spe­cial cases in­volv­ing com­pet­ing sub­agents, but most cases are ac­tu­ally pretty straight­for­ward, like blind­ness and death and cap­tivity.”

Well, you may have a point with death, but what if blind peo­ple and in­mates are ac­tu­ally as happy as the next guy? What’s the point of cur­ing blind­ness, then?

A spe­cial case where we need to check our as­sump­tions is an­i­mal welfare. What if the sub­strate of suffer­ing is some­thing in higher-or­der cog­ni­tion, some­thing that all but mam­mals lack?

One could hold that it is im­pos­si­ble to make in­fer­ences about an­other be­ing’s qualia, but we can come quite far with in­tro­spec­tion plus as­sum­ing that similar brains yield similar qualia. We can even cor­re­late hap­piness with brain scans.

The former is why I’ve moved to a Bud­dhist monastery. If (what­ever re­ally causes) hap­piness is your goal, it seems to me that the claim that one can per­ma­nently at­tain a state of bliss is worth in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

So, to sum up, if we want to fix suffer­ing, let’s find out it’s prox­i­mal cause first. Spoiler: it’s not pain.

(To be con­tinued)