Simulating stimuli and moral values

This is the fifth post in a series about rewards and values. Previously the neurological origins for pleasure and reward in biological organisms were touched on, and the evolution of pleasure and the discovery of supernormal stimuli were mentioned. This post highlights some issues surrounding happiness and pleasure as ends to be sought.

First let’s refresh: we have evolved sensations and feelings including pleasure and happiness. These feelings are designed to enhance our survival in the world in which they were developed; the prehistoric world where survival was tenuous and selection favoured the “fittest”. This process of evolving first the base feelings of pleasure, wanting and desire, that later extended to the warm social feelings of friendship, attachment and social contact, couldn’t account the facility we now have for tricking these neural systems into strong, but ‘false’, positives. Things like drugs, pornography and facebook, all can deliver large doses of pleasure from directly stimulating the brain or simulating what had been evolved to be pleasurable experiences.

So where does that get us? In the world of various forms of utilitarianism we are usually trying to maximum some value. By my understanding, in plain utilitarianism the aim is to maximise happiness (sometimes described as increasing pleasure and reducing suffering), in hedonism the aim is sensual pleasure, and in preference utilitarianism it is the satisfaction of preferences. Pleasure may once have seemed like a good pursuit, but now that we have methods of creating pleasure at the push of a button, that hardly seems like a “good” way to live – being hooked up to a machine. And if we consider that our life-long search for pleasure as an ineffective process of trying to find out how to push our biological buttons, pleasure may seem like a fairly poor yardstick for measuring “good”.

Happiness is also a mental state that people have varying degrees of success in attaining. Just because we haven’t had the same success in creating happiness “artificially” it doesn’t mean that it is a much better end to seek. Of course the difficulty of living with depression is undesirable, but if we all could become happy at the push of a button the feeling might lose some value. Even the more abstract idea of satisfying preferences might not get us much further, since many of our preferences are for avoiding suffering and attaining pleasure and happiness.

Of course in all this we might be forgetting (or ignoring the perspective) that pleasure and pain were evolved responses to inform us of how to survive. And here comes a leap:

Instead of valuing feelings we could value an important underlying result of the feelings: learning about ourselves and the world.

The general idea of valuing learning and experience might not be entirely new; Buddhism has long been about seeking enlightenment to relieve suffering and find happiness. However, considering learning and gaining experience as valuable ends, and the pleasure, pain or happiness they might arouse as additional aspects of those experiences, isn’t something I’ve seen as part of the discussion of moral values. Clearly there are causes of pleasure and suffering that cause debilitation or don’t result in any “useful” learning, e.g., drug abuse and bodily mutilation, so these should be avoided. But where would a system of ethics and morality based on valuing learning and experience take us?

This idea will be extended and fleshed out in much more detail in a new blog post series starting soon. To conclude this series on rewards and values, I’ll describe an interesting thought experiment for evaluating systems of value: what would an (essentially) omnipotent artificial intelligence do if maximising those values?


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