Let’s Not Decouple Suffering from Survivability

In the interest of avoiding the worst possible futures, let’s not decouple suffering from survivability.

What are some unique elements of the worst possible futures? What features can be found more often in these than other, better futures? I propose that a key feature of the worst possible futures is a strong decoupling of well-being from survival and reproduction. Further, I propose that a practical way for us to reduce the risk of realizing a terrible possible future is to avoid genetically engineering creatures to be more resilient, and instead, focus on increasing their well-being.

Why do we have the levels of well-being that we do today?
Our levels of well-being could be so much worse or so much better, but for me, it seems to generally range (minus short-term extremes) from slightly-below-worth-living to pretty-worth-living. It seems interesting that our well-being hangs pretty close, relative to the range of possible well-being states, to that minimum level which is worth living. It’s easy to imagine how natural selection could have caused this: individuals with lives not worth living either committed suicide before they had kids, didn’t have kids, or just were not as evolutionary successful because of a loss of will. People that were too happy tended to be less careful and less concerned about worldly pursuits, which caused them to reproduce less. They may have also been selected against (whose first instinct is to like happy, go-lucky people when you are hungry and life isn’t going your way?)

Anyways, there seems to be this connection between well-being and evolutionary success. This goes pretty deep: people (and animals) that lose the desire to live can often die within days of giving up, despite no apparent (non-psychologically-induced) physiological cause.[1]

I propose this coupling has helped prevent exorbitant amounts of suffering from happening. The most unhappy people didn’t reproduce as much, so we are left today with this decent level of well-being. Additionally, people and animals in hopeless situations have often not had to endure suffering endlessly (until their physiology failed them)- there has been a way out for them.

This coupling, at least conceptually, did not have to be the case. Why must there be this connection between well-being-space and physical-survival-space? It seems conceptually possible for well-being to have no effect on survivability. No matter how miserable a creature is, its wiring could force it to eat, survive, and reproduce. On a side note, how do we know that is not the case with animals today?

I propose that the worst possible futures are not devoid of sentient life- these are merely neutral futures- but that the worst possible futures are full of self-replicating, miserable creatures. Insofar as a strong connection exists between well-being and resilience (or suffering and evolutionary-failure), we have a pretty strong form of protection from these possible futures. But if we uncouple resilience and well-being, we open the door to a lot more of these horrible futures.

What are the practical implications for this idea today? One thing I propose is that as we begin to do more genetic engineering, let’s not make creatures more resilient before making them subjectively better off. Let’s focus more on ensuring that life is great for however long we live it, rather than designing super resilient creatures who will never give up the fight, no matter how bad a post-apocalyptic future is.