The dismal dismissal of suffering-focused views

Ethical views that give a foremost priority to the reduction of suffering are often dismissed out of hand. More than that, it is quite common to see such views discussed in highly uncharitable ways, and to even see them described with pejorative terms.

My aim in this post is to call attention to this phenomenon, as I believe it can distort public discourse and individual thinking about the issue. That is, if certain influential people consistently dismiss certain views without proper argumentation, and in some cases even use disparaging terms to describe such views, then this is likely to bias people’s evaluations of these views. After all, most people will likely feel some social pressure not to endorse views that their intellectual peers call “crazy” or “monstrously toxic”. (See also what Simon Knutsson writes about social mechanisms that may suppress talk about, and endorsements of, suffering-focused views.)

Many of the examples I present below are not necessarily that significant on their own, but I think the general pattern that I describe is quite problematic. Some of the examples involve derogatory descriptions, while others involve strawman arguments and uncharitable rejections of suffering-focused views that fail to engage with the most basic arguments in favor of such views.

My overall recommendation is simply to meet suffering-focused views with charitable arguments rather than with strawman argumentation or insults — i.e. to live up to the standards that are commonly accepted in other realms of intellectual discourse.

“Crazy” and “transparently silly” views

In his essay “Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian” (2013), Toby Ord writes that “you would have to be crazy” to choose a world with beings who experience unproblematic states over a world with beings who experience pure happiness (negative utilitarianism would be indifferent between the two, and according to some versions of negative utilitarianism, unproblematic mental states and pure happiness are the same thing).

Ord also writes that the view that happiness does not contribute to a person’s wellbeing independently of its effects on reducing problematic states is a “crazy view”, without engaging with any of the arguments that have been made in favor of the class of views that he is thereby dismissing — i.e. views according to which wellbeing consists in the absence of problematic states or frustrated desires (see e.g. Schopenhauer, 18191851; Fehige, 1998; O’Keefe, 2009, ch. 12).

These may not seem like particularly problematic claims, yet I believe that Ord would consider it poor form if similar claims were made about his preferred view — for example, if someone claimed that “you would have to be crazy to choose to create arbitrarily large amounts of extreme suffering in order to create a ‘sufficient’ amount of pleasure” (cf. the Very Repugnant Conclusion; Creating Hell to Please the Blissful; and Intense Bliss with Hellish Cessation). 

Similarly, Rob Bensinger writes that negative utilitarianism is “transparently false/silly”. Bensinger provides a brief justification for his claim that I myself and others find unconvincing, and it is in any case not a justification that warrants calling negative utilitarianism “transparently false/silly”.

Lazari-Radek and Singer’s cursory rejection

In their book The Point of View of the Universe, Lazari-Radek and Singer seek to defend the classical utilitarian view of Henry Sigdwick. It would be natural, in this context, to provide an elaborate discussion of the moral symmetry between happiness and suffering that is entailed by classical utilitarianism — after all, such a symmetry has been rejected by various philosophers in a variety of ways, and it is arguably one of the most controversial features of classical utilitarianism (cf. Mayerfeld, 1996, p. 335).

Yet Lazari-Radek and Singer barely broach the issue at all. The only thing that comes close is a single page worth of commentary on the views of David Benatar, which unfortunately amounts to a misrepresentation of Benatar’s views. Lazari-Radek and Singer claim that Benatar argues that “to have a desire for something is to be in a negative state” (p. 362). To my knowledge, this is not a claim that Benatar defends, and the claim is at any rate not critical to the main procreative asymmetry that he argues for (Benatar, 2006, ch. 2).

Lazari-Radek and Singer briefly rebut the claim about desires that they (I suspect wrongly) attribute to Benatar, by which they fail to address Benatar’s core views in any meaningful way. They then proceed to write the following, which as far as I can tell is the closest they get to a defense of a moral symmetry between happiness and suffering in their entire book: “for people who are able to satisfy the basic necessities of life and who are not suffering from depression or chronic pain, life can reasonably be judged positively” (pp. 362-362).

This is, of course, not much of a defense of a moral symmetry. First of all, no arguments are provided in defense of the claim that such lives “can reasonably be judged positively” (a claim that one can reasonably dispute). Second, even if we grant that certain lives “can be judged positively” (in terms of the intrinsic value of their contents), it still does not follow that such lives that are “judged positively” can also morally outweigh the most horrific lives (cf. what I have elsewhere called “The Big Neglected Question”). This is an all-important question for the classical utilitarian to address, and yet Lazari-Radek and Singer proceed as though their claim that “life can reasonably be judged positively” also applies to the world as a whole, even when we factor in all of its most horrific lives. Put briefly, Lazari-Radek and Singer’s cursory rejection of asymmetric and suffering-focused views is highly unsatisfactory.

(In a vein similar to the dismissive remarks covered in the previous section, Lazari-Radek and Singer also later write that “any sane person will agree” that a scenario in which 100 percent of humanity dies is worse than a scenario in which 99 percent of humanity dies, cf. p. 375. Regardless of the plausibility of that claim — which one might agree with even from a purely suffering-focused perspective — it is bad form to imply that people are not sane if they disagree with it, not least since the latter scenario could well involve far more suffering overall. Likewise, in a response to a question on Reddit, Singer dismisses negative utilitarianism as “hopeless” without providing any reasons as to why.)

“Arguably too nihilistic and divorced from humane values to be worth taking seriously”

The website utilitarianism.net is co-authored by William MacAskill, Richard Yetter Chappell, and Darius Meissner. The aim of the website is to provide “a textbook introduction to utilitarianism at the undergraduate level”, and it is endorsed by Peter Singer (among others), who blurbs it as “the place to go for clear, full and fair accounts of what utilitarianism is, the arguments for it, the main objections to it, special issues like population ethics, and what living as a utilitarian involves.”

Yet the discussion found on the website is sorely lacking when it comes to fundamental questions and objections concerning the relative importance of suffering versus happiness. In particular, like Lazari-Radek and Singer’s Point of View of the Universe, the website contains no discussion of the moral symmetry between suffering and happiness that is entailed by classical utilitarianism, despite it being among the most disputed features of that view (see e.g. Popper, 1945; Mayerfeld, 19961999; Wolf, 199619972004; O’Keefe, 2009; Knutsson, 2016; Mathison, 2018; Vinding, 2020).

Similarly, the discussion of population ethics found on the website is extremely one-sided and uncharitable in its discussion of suffering-focused and asymmetric views in population ethics, especially for a text that is supposed to serve as an introductory textbook.

For instance, they write the following in a critique of the Asymmetry in population ethics (the Asymmetry is roughly the idea that it is bad to bring miserable lives into the world but not good to bring happy lives into the world):

But this brings us to a deeper problem with the procreative asymmetry, which is that it has trouble accounting for the idea that we should be positively glad that the world (with all its worthwhile lives) exists

There is much to take issue with in this sentence. First, it presents the idea that “we should be positively glad that the world exists” as though it is an obvious and supremely plausible idea; yet it is by no means obvious, and it has been questioned by many philosophers. A truly “full and fair” introductory textbook would have included references to such counter-perspectives. Indeed, the authors of utilitarianism.net call it a “perverse conclusion” that an empty world would be better than a populated one, without mentioning any of the sources that have defended that “perverse conclusion”, and without engaging with the arguments that have been made in its favor (e.g. Schopenhauer, 18191851; Benatar, 19972006; Fehige, 1998; Breyer, 2015; Gloor, 2017; St. Jules, 2019; Frick, 2020; Ajantaival, 2021/2022). Again, this falls short of what one would expect from a “full and fair” introductory textbook.

Second, the quote above may be critiqued for bringing in confounding intuitions, such as intuitions about the value of the world as a whole, which is in many ways a different issue from the question of whether it can be good to add new beings to the world for the sake of these beings themselves.

Third, the notion of “worthwhile lives” is not necessarily inconsistent with a procreative asymmetry, since lives may be deemed worthwhile in the sense that their continuation is good even if their creation is not (cf. Benatar, 19972006; Fehige, 1998; St. Jules, 2019; Frick, 2020). Additionally, one can think that a life is worthwhile — both in terms of its continuation and creation — because it has beneficial effects for others, even if it can never be better for the created individual themself that they come into existence.

The authors go on to write:

when thinking about what makes some possible universe good, the most obvious answer is that it contains a predominance of awesome, flourishing lives. How could that not be better than a barren rock? Any view that denies this verdict is arguably too nihilistic and divorced from humane values to be worth taking seriously.

This quote effectively dismisses all of the views cited above — the views of Schopenhauer, Fehige, Benatar, and Frick, as well as the Nirodha View in the Pali Buddhist tradition — in one fell swoop by claiming that they are “arguably too nihilistic and divorced from humane values to be worth taking seriously”. That is, to put it briefly, a lazy treatment that again falls short of the minimal standards of a fair introductory textbook.

After all, classical utilitarians would probably also object if a textbook introduction were to effectively dismiss classical utilitarianism (and similar views) with the one-line claim that “views that allow the creation of lives full of extreme suffering in order to create pleasure for others are arguably too divorced from humane values to be worth taking seriously.” Yet the dismissal is just as unhelpful and uncharitable when made in the other direction. 

Finally, the authors also omit any mention of the Very Repugnant Conclusion, although one of the co-authors, William MacAskill, has stated that he considers it the strongest objection against his favored version of utilitarianism. It is arguably bad form to omit any discussion — or even a mention — of what one considers the strongest objection against one’s favored view, especially if one is trying to write a fair and balanced introductory textbook that features that view prominently.

“Anti-natalism is neurotic self-hatred”

Psychologist Geoffrey Miller has given several talks about effective altruism, including one at EA Global, and he has also taught a full university course on the psychology of effective altruism. At the time of writing, Miller has more than 120,000 followers on Twitter, which makes him one of the most widely followed people associated with effective altruism, with more followers than Peter Singer.

Having such a large audience arguably raises one’s responsibility to communicate in an intellectually honest and charitable manner. Yet Miller has repeatedly misrepresented the views of David Benatar and written highly uncharitable statements about antinatalism and negative utilitarianism, without seriously engaging with the arguments made in favor of these views.

For example, Miller has written on Twitter that “anti-natalism is neurotic self-hatred”, and he has on several occasions falsely implied that David Benatar is a negative utilitarian, such as when he writes that “[Benatar’s] negative utilitarianism assumes that only suffering counts, & pleasure can never offset it”; or when he writes that “Benatar’s view boils down to the claim that all the joy, beauty, & love in the world can’t offset even a drop of suffering in any organism anywhere. It’s a monstrously toxic & nihilistic philosophy.”

Yet the views that Miller attributes to Benatar are not views that Benatar in fact defends, and anyone familiar with Benatar’s position knows that he does not think that “only suffering counts” (cf. his rejection of the Epicurean view of death, Benatar, 2006, ch. 7).

Miller also betrays a failure to understand Benatar’s view when he writes:

The asymmetry thesis is empirically false for humans. Almost all people report net positive subjective well-being in hundreds of studies around the world. Benatar is basically patronizing everyone, saying ‘All you guys are wrong; you’re actually miserable’.

First, Benatar discusses various reasons as to why self-assessments of one’s quality of life may be unreliable (Benatar, 2006, pp. 64-69; see also Vinding, 2018). This is not fundamentally different from, say, evolutionary psychologists who argue that people’s self-reported motives may be wrong. Second, and more importantly, the main asymmetry that Benatar defends is not an empirical one, but rather an evaluative asymmetry between the presence and absence of goods versus the presence and absence of bads (Benatar, 2006, ch. 2). This evaluative asymmetry is not addressed by Miller’s claim above.

One might object that Miller’s statements have all been made on Twitter, and that tweets should generally be held to a lower standard than other forms of writing. Yet even if we grant that tweets should be held to a lower standard, we should still be clear that Miller blatantly misrepresents Benatar’s views, which is bad form on any platform and by any standard.

Moreover, one could argue that tweets should in some sense be held to a higher standard, since tweets are likely to be seen by more people compared to many other forms of writing (such as the average journal article), and perhaps also by readers who are less inclined to verify scholarly claims made by a university professor compared to readers of other media.

More examples

Additional examples of uncharitable dismissals of suffering-focused views include statements from:

  • Writer and EA Global speaker Riva-Melissa Tez, who wrote that “anti-natalism and negative utilitarianism is true ‘hate speech’”.
  • YouTuber Robert Miles (>100k subscribers), who wrote: “Looks like it’s time for another round of ‘Principled Negative Utilitarianism or Undiagnosed Major Depressive Disorder?’” (See also here.)
  • Daniel Faggella, who wrote: “If I didn’t know so many negative utilitarians who I liked as people, I’d call it a position of literal cowardice – even vice.” (The original post was even stronger in its tone: “If I didn’t know and respect so many negative utilitarians, I would openly call it a vice, and a position of childish, seething cowardice.”)
    • I find the remark about cowardice to be quite strange, as it seems to me that it takes a lot of courage to face up to the horror of suffering, and to set out to alleviate suffering with determination. And socially, too, it can take a lot of courage to embrace strongly suffering-focused views in a social environment that often ridicules such views, and which often insinuates that there is something wrong with the adherents of these views.
  • R. N. Smart, who wrote that negative utilitarianism allows “certain absurd and even wicked moral judgments”, without providing any arguments as to whether competing moral views imply less “absurd or wicked” moral judgments, and without mentioning that classical utilitarianism — which Smart seems to express greater approval toward — has similar and arguably worse theoretical implications (cf. Knutsson, 2021; Ajantaival, 2022).

The following anecdotal example illustrates how uncharitable remarks can influence people’s motivations and make people feel unwelcome in certain communities: An acquaintance of mine who took part in an EA intro fellowship heard a fellow participant dismiss antinatalism quite uncharitably, saying something along the lines of “antinatalism is like high school atheism, but edgier”. My acquaintance thought that antinatalism was a plausible view, and the remark left them feeling unwelcome and discouraged from engaging further with effective altruism.

Conclusion

To be clear, my point is by no means that people should refrain from criticizing suffering-focused views, even in strong terms. My recommendation is simply that critics should strive to be even-handed, and to not misrepresent or unfairly malign views with which they disagree.

If we are trying to think straight about ethics, we should be keen not to let uncharitable claims and social pressures distort our thinking, especially since these factors tend to influence our views in hidden ways. After all, few people consciously think — let alone say — that social pressure exerts a strong influence on their views. Yet it is likely a potent factor all the same.

Research vs. non-research work to improve the world: In defense of more research and reflection

When trying to improve the world, we can either pursue direct interventions, such as directly helping beings in need and doing activism on their behalf, or we can pursue research on how we can best improve the world, as well as on what improving the world even means in the first place.

Of course, the distinction between direct work and research is not a sharp one. We can, after all, learn a lot about the “how” question by pursuing direct interventions, testing out what works and what does not. Conversely, research publications can effectively function as activism, and may thereby help bring about certain outcomes quite directly, even when such publications do not deliberately try to do either.

But despite these complications, we can still meaningfully distinguish more or less research-oriented efforts to improve the world. My aim here is to defend more research-oriented efforts, and to highlight certain factors that may lead us to underinvest in research and reflection. (Note that I here use the term “research” to cover more than just original research, as it also covers efforts to learn about existing research.)

Some examples

Perhaps the best way to give a sense of what I am talking about is by providing a few examples.

I. Cause Prioritization

Say our aim is to reduce suffering. Which concrete aims should we then pursue? Maybe our first inclination is to work to reduce human poverty. But when confronted with the horrors of factory farming, and the much larger number of non-human animals compared to humans, we may conclude that factory farming seems the more pressing issue. However, having turned our gaze to non-human animals, we may soon realize that the scale of factory farming is small compared to the scale of wild-animal suffering, which might in turn be small compared to the potentially astronomical scale of future moral catastrophes.

With so many possible causes one could pursue, it is likely suboptimal to settle on the first one that comes to mind, or to settle on any one of them without having made a significant effort considering where one can make the greatest difference.

II. Effective Interventions

Next, say we have settled on a specific cause, such as ending factory farming. Given this aim, there is a vast range of direct interventions one could pursue, including various forms of activism, lobbying to influence legislation, or working to develop novel foods that can outcompete animal products. Yet it is likely suboptimal to pursue any of these particular interventions without first trying to figure out which of them have the best expected impact. After all, different interventions may differ greatly in terms of their cost-effectiveness, which suggests that it is reasonable to make significant investments into figuring out which interventions are best, rather than to rush into action mode (although the drive to do the latter is understandable and intuitive, given the urgency of the problem).

III. Core Values

Most fundamentally, there is the question of what matters and what is most worth prioritizing at the level of core values. Our values ultimately determine our priorities, which renders clarification of our values a uniquely important and foundational step in any systematic endeavor to improve the world.

For example, is our aim to maximize a net sum of “happiness minus suffering”, or is our aim chiefly to minimize extreme suffering? While there is significant common ground between these respective aims, there are also significant divergences between them, which can matter greatly for our priorities. The first view implies that it would be a net benefit to create a future that contains vast amounts of extreme suffering as long as that future contains a lot of happiness, while the other view would recommend the path of least extreme suffering.

In the absence of serious reflection on our values, there is a high risk that our efforts to improve the world will not only be suboptimal, but even positively harmful relative to the aims that we would endorse most strongly upon reflection. Yet efforts to clarify values are nonetheless extremely neglected — and often completely absent — in endeavors to improve the world.

The steelman case for “doing”

Before making a case for a greater focus on research, it is worth outlining some of the strongest reasons in favor of direct action (e.g. directly helping other beings and doing activism on their behalf).

We can learn a lot by acting

  • The pursuit of direct interventions is a great way to learn important lessons that may be difficult to learn by doing pure research or reflection.
  • In particular, direct action may give us practical insights that are often more in touch with reality than are the purely theoretical notions that we might come up with in intellectual isolation. And practical insights and skills often cannot be compensated for by purely intellectual insights.
  • Direct action often has clearer feedback loops, and may therefore provide a good opportunity to both develop and display useful skills.

Direct action can motivate people to keep working to improve the world

  • Research and reflection can be difficult, and it is often hard to tell whether one has made significant progress. In contrast, direct action may offer a clearer indication that one is really doing something to improve the world, and it can be easier to see when one is making progress (e.g. whether people altered their behavior in response to a given intervention, or whether a certain piece of legislation changed or not).

There are obvious problems in the world that are clearly worth addressing

  • For example, we do not need to do more research to know that factory farming is bad, and it seems reasonable to think that evidence-based interventions that significantly reduce the number of beings who suffer on factory farms will be net beneficial.
  • Likewise, it is probably beneficial to build a healthy movement of people who aim to help others in effective ways, and who reflect on and discuss what “helping others” ideally entails.

Certain biases plausibly prevent us from pursuing direct action

  • It seems likely that we have a passivity bias of sorts. After all, it is often convenient to stay in one’s intellectual armchair rather than to get one’s hands dirty with direct work that may fall outside of one’s comfort zone, such as doing street advocacy or running a political campaign.
  • There might also be an omission bias at work, whereby we judge an omission to do direct work that prevents harm less harshly than an equivalent commission of harm.

The case for (more) research

I endorse all the arguments outlined above in favor of “doing”. In particular, I think they are good arguments in favor of maintaining a strong element of direct action in our efforts to improve the world. Yet they are less compelling when it comes to establishing the stronger claim that we should focus more on direct action (on the current margin), or that direct action should represent the majority of our altruistic efforts at this point in time. I do not think any of those claims follow from the arguments above.

In general, it seems to me that altruistic endeavors tend to focus far too strongly on direct action while focusing far too little on research. This is hardly a controversial claim, at least not among aspiring effective altruists, who often point out that research on cause prioritization and on the cost-effectiveness of different interventions is important and neglected. Yet it seems to me that even effective altruists tend to underinvest in research, and to jump the gun when it comes to cause selection and direct action, and especially when it comes to the values they choose to steer by.

A helpful starting point might be to sketch out some responses to the arguments outlined in the previous section, to note why those arguments need not undermine a case for more research.

We can learn a lot by acting — but we are arguably most limited by research insights

The fact that we can learn a lot by acting, and that practical insights and skills often cannot be substituted by pure conceptual knowledge, does not rule out that our potential for beneficial impact might generally be most bottlenecked by conceptual insights.

In particular, clarifying our core values and exploring the best causes and interventions arguably represent the most foundational steps in our endeavors to improve the world, suggesting that they should — at least at the earliest stages of our altruistic endeavors — be given primary importance relative to direct action (even as direct action and the development of practical skills also deserve significant priority, perhaps even more than 20 percent of the collective resources we spend at this point in time).

The case for prioritizing direct action would be more compelling if we had a lot of research that delivered clear recommendations for direct action. But I think there is generally a glaring shortage of such research. Moreover, research on cause prioritization often reveals plausible ways in which direct altruistic actions that seem good at first sight may actually be harmful. Such potential downsides of seemingly good actions constitute a strong and neglected reason to prioritize research more — not to get perpetually stuck in research, but to at least map out the main considerations for and against various actions.

To be more specific, it seems to me that the expected value of our actions can change a lot depending on how deep our network of crucial considerations goes, so much so that adding an extra layer of crucial considerations can flip the expected value of our actions. Inconvenient as it may be, this means that our views on what constitutes the best direct actions have a high risk of being unreliable as long as we have not explored crucial considerations in depth. (Such a risk always exists, of course, yet it seems that it can at least be markedly reduced, and that our estimates can become significanctly better informed even with relatively modest research efforts.)

At the level of an individual altruist’s career, it seems warranted to spend at least one year reading about and reflecting on fundamental values, one year learning about the most important cause areas, and one year learning about optimal interventions within those cause areas (ideally in that order, although one may fruitfully explore them in parallel to some extent; and such a full year’s worth of full-time exploration could, of course, be conducted over several years). In an altruistic career spanning 40 years, this would still amount to less than ten percent of one’s work time focused on such basic exploration, and less than three percent focused on exploring values in particular.

A similar argument can be made at a collective level: if we are aiming to have a beneficial influence on the long-term future — say, the next million years — it seems warranted to spend at least a few years focused primarily on what a beneficial influence would entail (i.e. clarifying our views on normative ethics), as well as researching how we can best influence the long-term future before we proceed to spend most of our resources on direct action. And it may be even better to try to encourage more people to pursue such research, ideally creating an entire research project in which a large number of people collaborate to address these questions.

Thus, even if it is ideal to mostly focus on direct action over the entire span of humanity’s future, it seems plausible that we should focus most strongly on advancing research at this point, where relatively little research has been done, and where the explore-exploit tradeoff is likely to favor exploration quite strongly.

Objections: What about “long reflection” and the division of labor?

An objection to this line of reasoning is that heavy investment into reflection is premature, and that our main priority at this point should instead be to secure a condition of “long reflection” — a long period of time in which humanity focuses on reflection rather than action.

Yet this argument is problematic for a number of reasons. First, there are strong reasons to doubt that a condition of long reflection is feasible or even desirable, given that it would seem to require strong limits to voluntary actions that diverge from the ideal of reflection.

To think that we can choose to create a condition of long reflection may be an instance of the illusion of control. Human civilization is likely to develop according to its immediate interests, and seems unlikely to ever be steered via a common process of reflection. And even if we were to secure a condition of long reflection, there is no guarantee that humanity would ultimately be able to reach a sufficient level of agreement regarding the right path forward — after all, it is conceivable that a long reflection could go awfully wrong, and that bad values could win out due to poor execution or malevolent agents hijacking the process.

The limited feasibility of a long reflection suggests that there is no substitute for reflecting now. Failing to clarify and act on our values from this point onward carries a serious risk of pursuing a suboptimal path that we may not be able to reverse later. The resources we spend pursuing a long reflection (which is unlikely to ever occur) are resources not spent on addressing issues that might be more important and more time-sensitive, such as steering away from worst-case outcomes.

Another objection might be that there is a division of labor case favoring that only some people focus on research, while others, perhaps even most, should focus comparatively little on research. Yet while it seems trivially true that some people should focus more on research than others, this is not necessarily much of a reason against devoting more of our collective attention toward research (on the current margin), nor a reason against each altruist making a significant effort to read up on existing research.

After all, even if only a limited number of altruists should focus primarily on research, it still seems necessary that those who aim to put cutting-edge research into practice also spend time reading that research, which requires a considerable time investment. Indeed, even when one chooses to mostly defer to the judgments of other people, one will still need to make an effort to evaluate which people are most worth deferring to on different issues, followed by an effort to adequately understand what those people’s views and findings entail.

This point also applies to research on values in particular. That is, even if one prioritizes direct action over research on fundamental values, it still seems necessary to spend a significant amount of time reading up on other people’s work on fundamental values if one is to be able to make at least a somewhat qualified judgment regarding which values one will attempt to steer by.

The division of altruistic labor is thus consistent with the recommendation that every dedicated altruist should spend at least a full year reading about and reflecting on fundamental values (just as the division of “ordinary” labor is consistent with everyone spending a certain amount of time on basic education). And one can further argue that the division of altruistic labor, and specialized work on fundamental values in particular, is only fully utilized if most people spend a decent amount of time reading up on and making use of the insights provided by others.

Direct action can motivate people — but so can (the importance of) research

While research work is often challenging and difficult to be motivated to pursue, it is probably a mistake to view our motivation to do research as something that is fixed. There are likely many ways to increase our motivation to pursue research, not least by strongly internalizing the (highly counterintuitive) importance of research.

Moreover, the motivating force provided by direct action might be largely maintained as long as one includes a strong component of direct action in one’s altruistic work (by devoting, say, 25 percent of one’s resources toward direct action).

In any case, reduced individual motivation to pursue research seems unlikely to be a strong reason against devoting a greater priority to research at the level of collective resources and priorities (even if it might play a significant role in many individual cases). This is partly because the average motivation to pursue these respective endeavors seems unlikely to differ greatly — after all, many people will be more motivated to pursue research over direct action — and partly because urgent necessities are worth prioritizing and paying for even if they happen to be less than highly motivating.

By analogy, the cleaning of public toilets is also worth prioritizing and paying for, even if it may not be the most motivating pursuit for those who do it, and the same point arguably applies even more strongly in the case of the most important tasks necessary for achieving altruistic aims such as reducing extreme suffering. Moreover, the fact that altruistic research may be unusually taxing on our motivation (e.g. due to a feeling of “analysis paralysis”) is actually a reason to think that such taxing research is generally neglected and hence worth pursuing on the margin.

Finally, to the extent one finds direct action more motivating than research, this might constitute a bias in one’s prioritization efforts, even if it represents a relevant data point about one’s personal fit and comparative advantage. And the same point applies in the opposite direction: to the extent that one finds research more motivating, this might make one more biased against the importance of direct action. While personal motivation is an important factor to consider, it is still worth being mindful of the tendency to overprioritize that which we consider fun and inspiring at the expense of that which is most important in impartial terms.

There are obvious problems in the world that are clearly worth addressing — but research is needed to best prioritize and address them

Knowing that there are serious problems in the world, as well as interventions that reduce those problems, does not in itself inform us about which problems are most pressing or which interventions are most effective at addressing them. Both of these aspects — roughly, cause prioritization and estimating the effectiveness of interventions — seem best advanced by research.

A similar point applies to our core values: we cannot meaningfully pursue cause prioritization and evaluations of interventions without first having a reasonably clear view of what matters, and what would constitute a better or worse world. And clarifying our values is arguably also best done through further research rather than through direct action (even as the latter may be helpful as well).

Certain biases plausibly prevent us from pursuing direct action — but there are also biases pushing us toward too much or premature action

The putative “passivity bias” outlined above has a counterpart in the “action bias”, also known as “bias for action” — a tendency toward action even when action makes no difference or is positively harmful. A potential reason behind the action bias relates to signaling: actively doing something provides a clear signal that we are at least making an effort, and hence that we care (even if the effect might ultimately be harmful). By comparison, doing nothing might be interpreted as a sign that we do not care.

There might also be individual psychological benefits explaining the action bias, such as the satisfaction of feeling that one is “really doing something”, as well as a greater feeling of being in control. In contrast, pursuing research on difficult questions can feel unsatisfying, since progress may be relatively slow, and one may not intuitively feel like one is “really doing something”, even if learning additional research insights is in fact the best thing one can do.

Political philosopher Michael Huemer similarly argues that there is a harmful tendency toward too much action in politics. Since most people are uninformed about politics, Huemer argues that most people ought to be passive in politics, as there is otherwise a high risk that they will make things worse through ignorant choices.

Whatever one thinks of the merits of Huemer’s argument in the political context, I think one should not be too quick to dismiss a similar argument when it comes to improving the long-term future — especially considering that action bias seems to be greater when we face increased uncertainty. At the very least, it seems worth endorsing a modified version of the argument that says that we should not be eager to act before we have considered our options carefully.

Furthermore, the fact that we evolved in a condition that was highly action-oriented rather than reflection-oriented, and in which action generally had far more value for our genetic fitness than did systematic research (indeed, the latter was hardly even possible), likewise suggests that we may be inclined to underemphasize research relative to how important it is for optimal impact from an impartial perspective.

This also seems true when it comes to our altruistic drives and behaviors in particular, where we have strong inclinations toward pursuing publicly visible actions that make us appear good and helpful (Hanson, 2015; Simler & Hanson, 2018, ch. 12). In contrast, we seem to have much less of an inclination toward reflecting on our values. Indeed, it seems plausible that we generally have an inclination against questioning our instinctive aims and drives — including our drive to signal altruistic intentions with highly visible actions — as well as an inclination against questioning the values held by our peers. After all, such questioning would likely have been evolutionarily costly in the past, and may still feel socially costly today.

Moreover, it is very unnatural for us to be as agnostic and open-minded as we should ideally be in the face of the massive uncertainty associated with endeavors that seek to have the best impact for all sentient beings (see also Vinding, 2020, 9.1-9.2). This suggests that we may tend to be overconfident about — and too quick to conclude — that some particular direct action happens to be the optimal path for helping others.

Lastly, while some kind of omission bias plausibly causes us to discount the value of making an active effort to help others, it is not clear whether this bias counts more strongly against direct action than against research efforts aimed at helping others, since omission bias likely works against both types of action (relative to doing nothing). In fact, the omission bias might count more strongly against research, since a failure to do important research may feel like less of a harmful inaction than does a failure to pursue direct actions, whose connection to addressing urgent needs is usually much clearer.

The Big Neglected Question

There is one question that I consider particularly neglected among aspiring altruists — as though it occupies a uniquely impenetrable blindspot. I am tempted to call it “The Big Neglected Question”.

The question, in short, is whether anything can ethically outweigh or compensate for extreme suffering. Our answer to this question has profound implications for our priorities. And yet astonishingly few people seem to seriously ponder it, even among dedicated altruists. In my view, reflecting on this question is among the first, most critical steps in any systematic endeavor to improve the world. (I suspect that a key reason this question tends to be shunned is that it seems too dark, and because people may intuitively feel that it fundamentally questions all positive and meaning-giving aspects of life — although it arguably does not, as even a negative answer to the question above is compatible with personal fulfillment and positive roles and lives.)

More generally, as hinted earlier, it seems to me that reflection on fundamental values is extremely neglected among altruists. Ozzie Gooen argues that many large-scale altruistic projects are pursued without any serious exploration as to whether the projects in question are even a good way to achieve the ultimate (stated) aims of these projects, despite this seeming like a critical first question to ponder.

I would make a similar argument, only one level further down: just as it is worth exploring whether a given project is among the best ways to achieve a given aim before one pursues that project, so it is worth exploring which aims are most worth striving for in the first place. This, it seems to me, is even more neglected than is exploring whether our pet projects represent the best way to achieve our (provisional) aims. There is often a disproportionate amount of focus on impact, and comparatively little focus on what is the most plausible aim of the impact.

Conclusion

In closing, I should again stress that my argument is not that we should only do research and never act — that would clearly be a failure mode, and one that we must also be keen to steer clear of. But my point is that there are good reasons to think that it would be helpful to devote more attention to research in our efforts to improve the world, both on moral and empirical issues — especially at this early point in time.


Acknowledgments

For helpful comments, I thank Teo Ajantaival, Tobias Baumann, and Winston Oswald-Drummond.

“Team victory” as a key hidden motive

Simler and Hanson’s The Elephant in the Brain has been hugely influential on me. The core claim of the book is that our beliefs and behaviors often serve hidden motives, and that these motives are commonly less pretty than the more noble motives that we usually proclaim.

A key point that is mentioned in the book is the significance of coalitions and coalitional conflicts in human life and human evolution. Specifically, the authors note how, in small-scale coalition politics, “coalitions compete for control, and individuals seek to ally themselves with powerful coalitions”.

Yet it seems that there is more to be said about the significance of coalitional conflicts for our hidden motives than what is covered in The Elephant in the Brain (as the authors would surely agree). Indeed, the book is explicitly an open invitation for others to identify or suggest additional hidden motives, and I will here take up that invitation and suggest a general hidden motive that plausibly plays a large role in much human behavior, namely coalitional success, or “team victory”.

Different categories of hidden motives

It seems to me that we can meaningfully distinguish at least four categories of hidden motives (even as these categories are overlapping, and the motives not always hidden):

  • To signal impressiveness (e.g. by showing that you are impressively knowledgeable, athletic, or hard-working)
  • To signal loyalty (e.g. by wearing a sports jersey or a religious symbol)
  • To gain “team victory” (e.g. helping to ensure that your team gains more power than the rival team)
  • To gain “individual success” (e.g. actually getting the calories or sex needed for survival and reproduction)

Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, these motives must ultimately all translate into success in terms of “individual success”. Yet seeking individual success very directly is often a bad way to achieve such success for humans — hence these other motives and strategies. (Though it is worth noting that in certain circumstances, it would be fitness-enhancing to pursue “individual success” even at the expense of these other adaptive drives, meaning that there are cases where humans can gain “individual success” by doing things that are positively unimpressive, disloyal, or detrimental to team victory. These are sometimes called scandals.)

Hidden motives: Not all about signaling

An important point implied by the categories above is that hidden motives are not all about signaling, and that our signaling motives sometimes take a backseat to other hidden motives that are even stronger.

For example, signaling loyalty and ensuring team victory seem to be fairly convergent aims for the most part, yet there are probably still many cases where the “team victory” motive is stronger than the loyalty-signaling motive, such as when our actions have a significant influence on the probability of team victory (e.g. slightly reducing our perceived team loyalty — from 10 to 9, say — in exchange for a huge gain in our team’s success would likely have been adaptive in many cases).

Indeed, even when our actions do not have a high probability of influencing outcomes, such as in large-scale politics involving millions of other actors, it is likely that our evolved instincts — which were adapted for small-scale coalition politics — will in many cases still care as much or more about collective team victory as they care about individual loyalty-signaling to that team.

Reasons to think that “team victory” is a strong motive

What reasons do we have for thinking that “team victory” is a strong motive underlying much of human behavior?

The importance of coalitional success

First, there is the fact that individual human success often depended crucially on coalitional success, at the level of intra- as well as inter-group competition (both of which could be lethal). And merely signaling loyalty to one’s own coalition(s) — while important — would often not be sufficient to secure coalitional victory. A serious drive and effort toward actually winning was likely paramount.

As hinted above, actions that optimize for loyalty-signaling and actions that optimize for group victory are probably correlated to a significant extent, but not perfectly so, and individuals whose motives and instincts were optimized purely for loyalty-signaling would probably be less effective at achieving coalitional success than would individuals whose motives and drives were optimized more for that aim (i.e. individuals whose motives were to some degree optimized both for intra-group loyalty-signaling and for securing inter-group success and power).


Given the importance of inter-group success in our ancestral environment, it seems reasonable to think that our motives also reflect drives for such success to a significant extent. Hence we should not restrict our focus to intra-group success alone when analyzing human motives. (Note that this picture applies both to group struggles within and between tribes; after all, human social life consists of multiple nested coalitions.)

Some evolutionary theorists, including John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, have provided more elaborate arguments for the claim that we humans have strong coalitional instincts, similarly based on the importance of coalitional acumen in our ancestral environment. Related is Jonathan Haidt’s argument that “groupishness” is a deep feature of human nature.

Empirical data and informative examples

In empirical terms, there are studies that show that we often prefer policies that disadvantage our outgroup (e.g. people in a foreign country), even when we have the option to choose win-win policies that benefit our own group as well. Such findings lend some support to a significant “team victory” motive in human decisions and behavior. (Of relevance, too, are “minimal group paradigm”; “realistic conflict theory”; Sapolsky, 2017, ch. 11; Clark et al, 2019.)

Examples where the “team victory” motive seems to positively eclipse the loyalty-signaling motive include cases in which people secretly cheat in order to secure “team victory” — behaviors that the cheaters sometimes know will get them hated among their ingroup if they get exposed. Some of the instances of cheating mentioned here appear to fit this pattern.

Board games in which different teams compete against each other may be another example. It seems that people are often more concerned about winning than about signaling loyalty to, and having a good standing among, their team mates; so much so that they sometimes even deride their entire team while being in a relentless rush to win. And this phenomenon also happens at times in sports. (Board games and sports are arguably both supernormal stimuli that trigger the players’ drive for “team victory” in more overt and systematic ways than do our everyday — mostly hidden — coalitional competitions.)

The fact that the derisive and practically anti-loyal behaviors described above seem to occur with some frequency in competitive domains — despite team cohesion generally being important for team victory, and despite loyalty-signaling in particular seeming reasonably correlated with team victory — suggests that the “team victory” motive is probably also lurking in more ordinary circumstances (where it is expressed in more group-aligned ways). Indeed, one can argue that the drive for “team victory” must be quite strong for it to override and to some extent counteract our otherwise powerful pro-cohesion and loyalty-signaling motives in this way, even if only occasionally.

Introspection

Similarly, consider your own direct experience when you play team sports or board games on a team. Do you plausibly most want to signal loyalty to your team or do you most want to win? While we should not base our views only or even mostly on introspective observations of this kind, they can still provide at least some additional evidence, especially if our felt drive for team victory is particularly strong. (There is, of course, individual variation in terms of how strongly people are motivated by “team victory” — for instance, some people do not seem to care at all whether they win in team board games. Yet the same is true of other hidden motives: some people do not seem particularly keen to signal loyalty or impressiveness in the usual ways, but that hardly undermines the claim that these are significant motives for most people.)

An explanation of “Sudden Patriotic Sports Obsession”?

Finally, one may argue that the “team victory” motive is supported by some of the surprising predictions that follow from the conjecture that we have strong desires and drives for “team victory”. For example, a prediction that arguably follows from this hypothesis is that people should generally feel a desire to see their national team win in major sports events that are highly publicized (e.g. the FIFA World Cup). And importantly, this should be true even of many people who do not usually follow that sport, and even if they do not identify strongly with their nationality. (Only “many people” because of factors such as individual psychological variation and a lack of exposure to the relevant media channels.)

As far as I can tell, this hypothesis is strongly vindicated. During widely popularized sports events, people who are usually neither sports fans nor patriots indeed tend to become mysteriously preoccupied with the fate of their national team (and I must admit that this is also true of myself: I somehow care about it, despite trying not to, and despite not watching any games).

Yet this phenomenon makes perfect sense if we have strong drives for “team victory” that can readily be triggered by a perception of direct competition between “our group” and “other groups”. (This is not to say that an instinctive drive for “team victory” is the only factor that explains this phenomenon of “Sudden Patriotic Sports Obsession”, but it does seem a plausible explanatory factor.)

Is the motive of “team victory” really hidden?

One may agree that the “team victory” motive is common and strong, yet dispute that it is at all hidden. It is, after all, unmistakably clear in the expressed desires and behaviors of athletes and dedicated sports fans, as well as in many other explicitly competitive arenas of human life.

However, in supposedly nobler and more cooperative spheres, such as in academia or in activist circles, the “team victory” motive does indeed appear quite hidden. Here, attempts to undermine the status of opposing groups, and to increase the status and influence of one’s own group, seem to often be packaged as “intellectual criticism” and “strategic disagreements”. In other words, the text of the conversation may be a technical discussion about some obscure claim, while the subtext — the underlying driver of the dispute — may be a fight for coalitional victory and dominance.

Of course, these are not the kinds of motives that sophisticated and prosocial folks are supposed to have, and hence such folks are forced to find more indirect and sophisticated ways to act them out.

Hanson makes a similar point about our lust for power — something that we would usually gain through “team victory” in our ancestral environment:

We humans evolved to lust after power and those who wield power, but to pretend our pursuit of power is accidental; we mainly just care about beauty, stories, exciting contests, and intellectual progress. Or so we say.

Indeed, like the other hidden motives identified by Simler and Hanson, our motive to achieve “team victory” and power is probably mostly unconscious in situations where we are not supposed to act on this motive, since being unconscious about such a norm-transgressing motive might make us better able to deny the accusation that we are acting on it.

Even in politics, which is obviously competitive, we almost always frame our motives purely in terms of impartial motives to “help the world” and the like (cf. Simler and Hanson, 2018, ch. 16). We rarely frame them in terms of wanting our team to win, even though there is much evidence that this is in fact a strong motive underlying our political behavior.

Tentative critique

A point of criticism I would raise regarding The Elephant in the Brain is that it seems to focus almost exclusively on hidden signaling motives, and that it thereby underemphasizes other hidden motives, such as “team victory”. Yet to consistently give overriding weight to signaling explanations relative to other, often more disturbing and unflattering explanatory motives would seem to require a justification. After all, signaling explanations — e.g. explanations that invoke loyalty-signaling motives over “team victory” motives — are not more plausible by default.

The following are some examples from the book where I think the “team victory” motive is likely to play a significant role (to be clear, I am not claiming that “team victory” necessarily plays a greater role than the hidden motives identified by Simler and Hanson; my claim is merely that the “team victory” motive plausibly also plays at least some significant role in these areas):

Conversation

Simler and Hanson emphasize impressiveness-signaling as the key hidden motive of our conversations, including when it comes to academic conversations in particular. This seems right to me. But it appears that “team victory” is also an important hidden motive in our conversations, and that it sometimes even overrides the impressiveness motive. In particular, many academic conversations and disputes are plausibly more driven by a crude desire for “team victory” than by a motive to signal impressiveness — especially when these disputes are chiefly impressive in terms of how primitively tribal they are.

Art

On art, the authors again highlight the individual motive to impress as the key hidden motive, and I again think they are right. But even here, I suspect that “team victory” can play a surprisingly significant role, beyond just the (also significant) motive of wanting to personally affiliate with impressive artists. For example, beautiful cities, such as Florence and Budapest, are themselves pieces of art that can provide a strong sense of pride and “team victory” to the local inhabitants — including their leaders — which might help explain the creation of all this art (even if “team victory” may not be the main motive). And note that this is arguably an even more cynical motive than is bare impressiveness; “we’re creating all this art to make a good impression on you” seems considerably more prosocial than “we’re creating all this art to beat your team”.

Likewise, people sometimes seem to view their best artists in much the same way that they view their best athletes: as individuals who can symbolically match and beat those on the other team. (The same appears true of the way people sometimes view their best scientists, intellectuals, fashion models, etc. Our most famous and prestigious people can serve as tokens of team status and “team victory”.)


“Our church is bigger than yours”

“But our parliament can beat your parliament”

Charity

Simler and Hanson argue that the main hidden motives behind charity are to signal our wealth and empathy. Again, I think they are right. But it seems plausible that charitable behavior can also be motivated to some extent by a desire for “team victory”, such as when people donate toward the promotion of their own religion, political faction, or activist ingroup.

Religion

The hidden motives the authors ascribe to religious behavior is community bonding and loyalty-signaling, which seems right. But “team victory” is probably also an influential motive (cf. Tuschman, 2013, ch. 7). An extreme example might be religious wars, in which one religion would essentially try to beat another, plausibly motivated in part by a drive for “team victory”. A less extreme example might be apologists and missionaries who seek to defend their faith and convert others — for many such people, the “team victory” motive plausibly plays some role, even if they also have other motives (e.g. being impressive to the ingroup, seeking to get into heaven, or genuinely trying to help other people).

Politics

The authors identify loyalty-signaling as a key hidden motive underlying our political behavior. This seems right. But as noted earlier, it is plausible that we are also strongly motivated by “team victory”. After all, even when following an election in private, partisan voters still seem to fervently root for the victory of “their team”, not too unlike people who eagerly want their team to win in board games or in sports. And again, just as many sports fans would be willing to quietly take off their sports jersey (i.e. their personal signal of loyalty) if they thought it significantly increased their team’s chances of winning, it seems that many political actors would likewise be willing to quietly forego loyalty signaling to a significant extent provided it could help their political team bring home the desired win.

Potential biases that follow from this?

Lastly, it is worth briefly pondering how this drive for “team victory” might bias our outlooks and priorities. The most plausible bias I see is a tendency to overstate the extent to which “our team winning” is the key to creating better outcomes from an impartial perspective.

That is, our coalitional intuitions might at some level hold that “if our coalition wins, that is a total success; if their coalition wins, that is a total disaster”. After all, in terms of reproductive success, this was probably often true in the context of intense coalitional conflicts in our ancestral environment. But it seems considerably less true from an impartial perspective, especially in the context of modern political competition between similar parties, or among different factions of activists who have broadly similar aims.

In other words, our intuitions are plausibly much too afraid of (reasonably similar) “outgroups” in the modern political and altruistic landscape, and we may well overestimate how much better “our group” would do compared to “their group” when it comes to creating beneficial outcomes for everyone.


Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Tobias Baumann and Robin Hanson for helpful feedback.

Reasoned Politics

How can we do politics better?

In Reasoned Politics, Magnus Vinding lays out a path toward politics based on ethical reasoning and empirical evidence. He argues that a better approach to politics is both conceivable and realistic. Modern discoveries in political psychology hint at new, improved norms for political discourse and cooperation, while also pointing to concrete ways in which such improvements can gradually be realized.

Having outlined a general framework for reasoned politics, Vinding proceeds to apply this framework to real-world policy issues. Based on an ethical foundation that takes the suffering of all sentient beings into account, he explores various lines of evidence to infer which policies seem most helpful for alleviating severe suffering.

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Why I have written a book about politics



“We missed it, now we have it. The Magnum Opus for a Reasoned Politics for all, humans and animals alike. I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in a rational approach to politics.”
Sabine Brels, international animal lawyer, author of Le droit du bien-être animal dans le monde

“In a time of heated political debate, Magnus Vinding provides a strong case for pursuing reason in politics, while cautioning us about the dangers of giving up on it. Vinding practices what he preaches — the book engages with relevant research from different areas to make its case in a reasoned way. It combines a wide-ranging view with topical applications. Even if not agreeing on every topic, the reader will come out enlightened.”
Tiago Ribeiro Dos Santos, author of Why Not Parliamentarism?

“A compelling case for a new kind of politics. Politics shouldn’t be conducted in the interests of any one ethnic group or species, but instead to promote the interests of all sentient beings. The text combines a masterly command of the academic literature with a minimum of scholarly clutter. Vinding’s plea for an alliance of reason and compassion deserves the widest possible audience. Highly recommended.”
David Pearce, author of The Hedonistic Imperative and Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering?

“Magnus Vinding’s extensively researched and lucidly written work is a welcome antidote to the bold claims and strong opinions that permeate politics and activism. He carefully proposes aims and approaches that may inch us towards a world with less intense suffering of all sentient beings, based on empirical findings from sociology, psychology and other fields. A must-read for any changemaker concerned about how to reduce suffering over the long term.”
Jonathan Leighton, founder of the Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering, author of The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe

“This book is unlike any other I know. Reasoned Politics shows us how we can adopt a form of politics thoughtfully informed by the right kind of values. To do this, we need to clarify our moral priorities and to identify the individual and collective political choices that best honor them. This task requires disciplined reflection, awareness of cognitive biases, patient empirical research, and inclusive deliberation. As Vinding argues, the reduction of suffering, human and non-human, must be central to any plausible political ideal. He then considers the political structures and norms that will advance the reduction of suffering and other paramount values. This leads him to an illuminating discussion of how to understand the concepts of liberty, equality, justice, and democracy. Unlike most political theorists, Vinding never lets his readers forget the urgency of ending our species’ indefensibly cruel treatment of non-human animals. This book is filled with insight, wisdom, and critical information. Vinding models the virtues that he recommends in political discourse: he is observant, clear-minded, humane, sensible, honest, and unafraid. Political theorists should take a break from what they are doing and read Reasoned Politics.”
Jamie Mayerfeld, professor of political science at the University of Washington, author of Suffering and Moral Responsibility and The Promise of Human Rights

Making Our Concern for Non-Human Beings Common Knowledge

The following is an excerpt from my book Reasoned Politics.

Two levels of knowledge are worth distinguishing in the context of human coordination (De Freitas et al., 2019):

  • Private knowledge: “where each person knows something, but knows nothing about what anyone else knows”
  • Common knowledge: “where everybody knows that everybody else knows it”

Common knowledge is often explained with the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which everyone had private knowledge that the emperor was naked (as far as they could see), but they could not be sure that others saw the same, and hence it was not common knowledge. But the moment a child exclaimed that the emperor wore no clothes, it soon became common knowledge, and eventually everyone shouted the child’s words in unison.

This story makes a deep point about the importance of common knowledge for social coordination, as the child’s exclamation did not merely change the state of knowledge of the onlookers, but also enabled them to coordinate, emboldening them to act in ways they would not have otherwise dared, such as laughing and shouting at the emperor. Indeed, not only do psychological studies show that people cooperate significantly more and better when they have common knowledge (Pinker, 2016; De Freitas et al., 2019), but there are also countless real-world examples of the importance of common knowledge for creating social change — and, conversely, how the suppression of common knowledge can prevent social change.

For instance, in Saudi Arabia, most young men are privately in favor of female labor force participation, but they will not say this until they are informed that most other young men think the same (Sunstein, 2019, p. 6). Likewise, all dictatorships, from Nazi Germany to contemporary North Korea, have made it a priority to suppress all expressions of dissent, as such expressions risk creating common knowledge about people’s opposition to the rulers and their totalitarian policies (Mercier, 2020, p. 134). As one North Korean coal miner noted: “I know that our regime is to blame for our situation. My neighbor knows our regime is to blame. But we’re not stupid enough to talk about it” (as quoted in Mercier, 2020, p. 134).

The relevance of this point to our moral and political neglect of non-human suffering is that the concern we have for non-human beings is not yet common knowledge. That is, most people care about non-human animals, but most people, including most animal advocates, do not realize the extent to which most people care about non-human animals (Anderson & Tyler, 2018, p. 8). This may help explain why surveys of public views on this matter consistently surprise us, as our privately held beliefs and ideals are far more compassionate than our actions might suggest.

For example, in a US survey from 2017, more than 80 percent of people expressed agreement with the statement that “farmed animals have roughly the same ability to feel pain and discomfort as humans”, with about 30 percent agreeing strongly (Sentience Institute, 2017; Norwood & Murray, 2018). More than 60 percent of people agreed that “the factory farming of animals is one of the most important social issues in the world today”, and around 40 percent of people said they would be at least somewhat likely to join a public demonstration against “the problems of factory farming” if asked by a friend (Sentience Institute, 2017; Norwood & Murray, 2018).

Another survey of more than 4,000 US adults found that 93 percent believed that chickens feel pain, 78 percent believed that fish feel pain, and a majority of respondents believed that insects such as honeybees (65 percent), ants (56 percent), and termites (52 percent) can feel pain. Among the minority of respondents who did not express agreement with the statement that these animals can experience pain, most expressed agnosticism rather than disagreement (Dullaghan et al., 2021, p. 3; see also Beggs & Anderson, 2020, pp. 10-11).

A similar survey conducted in the UK found that a majority agreed that honey bees (73 percent), shrimps (62 percent), caterpillars (58 percent), and flies (54 percent) can feel pain, and even more people thought that lobsters (83 percent), octopuses (80 percent), and crabs (78 percent) experience pain (Rethink Priorities, 2021).

Moreover, a US poll from 1996 found that 67 percent of people expressed at least some agreement with the statement that a “[non-human] animal’s right to live free of suffering is just as important as a [human] person’s right to live free of suffering”, with 38 percent agreeing strongly (Deseret News, 1996).

A US Gallup poll from 2015 yielded similar results, with 32 percent of people indicating that, among three different statements, the one that came the closest to their view was that “[non-human] animals deserve the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation” (42 percent of female respondents agreed with the statement, as did 39 percent of Democrats). Meanwhile, 62 percent held that non-human animals deserve some protection from harm and exploitation, whereas only three percent thought that “animals don’t need much protection from harm and exploitation” (Riffkin, 2015).

Additionally, a recent study in the UK found that most meat eaters consider vegetarianism and veganism to be ethical (77 percent and 72 percent, respectively) as well as healthy (more than 72 percent and 50 percent, respectively) (Bryant, 2019).

Making such beliefs and attitudes common knowledge should plausibly be a high priority: to simply document people’s expressed views of non-human suffering and its moral importance, and to then publicize the results. This is important for two principal reasons. First, it makes it clear to politicians that the public actually does care about this issue, and that it wants to see legislators take this issue seriously (even if it is not most voters’ primary concern). Second, it helps make the general public aware of the already widespread concern that exists for non-human animals, at least at the level of people’s expressed ideals, which may in turn embolden them to stand by their values more firmly.

Indeed, making prevailing attitudes common knowledge might effectively reverse the social pressure: where people otherwise thought that public opinion went against their concern for non-human animals, and thus chose to hold back from expressing their views, the realization that a large fraction of the public shares these concerns may encourage them to speak up, suddenly giving them the feeling that the wind of social pressure is in their favor rather than against them. (And this would largely be true, as long as the problems and objectives are phrased in institutional terms.)

Furthermore, not only may people with sympathy for the cause feel more willing to speak up, but most people will likely also (slowly) increase their actual level of concern as they become aware of other people’s pro-animal attitudes. After all, public attitudes and social pressure are among the strongest influences on people’s views (cf. Haidt, 2001; Reese, 2018, ch. 6).

This is then another powerful tool that is not being employed to anywhere near its full capacity: continually broadcasting people’s own stated attitudes — through popular articles, social media, documentaries, etc. — so as to make these attitudes common knowledge. And unlike in the case of oppressive dictatorships, there is really nobody who forcefully prevents us from employing this strategy. We are simply not choosing to use it, probably to the great detriment of non-human beings.

Priorities for reducing suffering: Reasons not to prioritize the Abolitionist Project

I discussed David Pearce’s Abolitionist Project in Chapter 13 of my book on Suffering-Focused Ethics. The chapter is somewhat brief and dense, and its main points could admittedly have been elaborated further and explained more clearly. This post explores and elaborates on some of these points.


A good place to start might be to highlight some of the key points of agreement between David Pearce and myself.

  • First and most important, we both agree that minimizing suffering should be our overriding moral aim.
  • Second, we both agree that we have reason to be skeptical about the possibility of digital sentience — and at the very least to not treat it as a foregone conclusion — which I note from the outset to flag that views on digital sentience are unlikely to account for the key differences in our respective views on how to best reduce suffering.
  • Third, we agree that humanity should ideally use biotechnology to abolish suffering throughout the living world, provided this is indeed the best way to minimize suffering.

The following is a summary of some of the main points I made about the Abolitionist Project in my book. There are four main points I would emphasize, none of which are particularly original (at least two of them are made in Brian Tomasik’s Why I Don’t Focus on the Hedonistic Imperative).

I.

Some studies suggest that people who have suffered tend to become more empathetic. This obviously does not imply that the Abolitionist Project is infeasible, but it does give us reason to doubt that abolishing the capacity to suffer in humans should be among our main priorities at this point.

To clarify, this is not a point about what we should do in the ideal, but more a point about where we should currently invest our limited resources, on the margin, to best reduce suffering. If we were to focus on interventions at the level of gene editing, other traits (than our capacity to suffer) seem more promising to focus on, such as increasing dispositions toward compassion and wisdom. And yet interventions focused on gene editing may themselves not be among the most promising things to focus on in the first place, which leads to the next point.

II.

For even if we grant that the Abolitionist Project should be our chief aim, at least in the medium term, it still seems that the main bottleneck to its completion is found not at the technical level, but rather at the level of humanity’s values and willingness to do what would be required. I believe this is also a point David and I mostly agree on, as he has likewise hinted, in various places, that the main obstacle to the Abolitionist Project will not be technical, but sociopolitical. This would give us reason to mostly prioritize the sociopolitical level on the margin — especially humanity’s values and willingness to reduce suffering. And the following consideration provides an additional reason in favor of the same conclusion.

III.

The third and most important point relates to the distribution of future (expected) suffering, and how we can best prevent worst-case outcomes. Perhaps the most intuitive way to explain this point is with an analogy to tax revenues: if one were trying to maximize tax revenues, one should focus disproportionately on collecting taxes from the richest people rather than the poorest, simply because that is where most of the money is.

The visual representation of the income distribution in the US in 2019 found below should help make this claim more intuitive.

The point is that something similar plausibly applies to future suffering: in terms of the distribution of future (expected) suffering, it seems reasonable to give disproportionate focus to the prevention of worst-case outcomes, as they contain more suffering (in expectation).

Futures in which the Abolitionist Project is completed, and in which our advocacy for the Abolitionist Project helps bring on its completion, say, a century sooner, are almost by definition not the kinds of future scenarios that contain the most suffering. That is, they are not worst-case futures in which things go very wrong and suffering gets multiplied in an out-of-control fashion.

Put more generally, it seems to me that advocating for the Abolitionist Project is not the best way to address worst-case outcomes, even if we assume that such advocacy has a positive effect in this regard. A more promising focus, it seems to me, is again to increase humanity’s overall willingness and capacity to reduce suffering (the strategy that also seems most promising for advancing the Abolitionist Project itself). And this capacity should ideally be oriented toward the avoidance of very bad outcomes — outcomes that to me seem most likely to stem from bad sociopolitical dynamics.

IV.

Relatedly, a final critical point is that there may be some downsides to framing our goal in terms of abolishing suffering, rather than in terms of minimizing suffering in expectation. One reason is that the former framing may invoke our proportion bias, or what is known in the literature as proportion dominance: our tendency to intuitively care more about helping 10 out of 10 individuals rather than helping 10 out of 100, even though the impact is in fact the same.

Minimizing suffering in expectation would entail abolishing suffering if that were indeed the way to minimize suffering in expectation, but the point is that it might not be. For instance, it could be that the way to reduce the most suffering in expectation is to instead focus on reducing the probability and mitigating the expected badness of worst-case outcomes. And framing our aim in terms of abolishing suffering, rather than the more general and neutral terms of minimizing suffering in expectation, can hide this possibility somewhat. (I say a bit more about this in Section 13.3 in my book.)

Moreover, talking about the complete abolition of suffering can leave the broader aim of reducing suffering particularly vulnerable to objections — e.g. the objection that completely abolishing suffering seems risky in a number of ways. In contrast, the aim of reducing intense suffering is much less likely to invite such objections, and is more obviously urgent and worthy of priority. This is another strategic reason to doubt that the abolitionist framing is optimal.

Lastly, it would be quite a coincidence if the actions that maximize the probability of the complete abolition of suffering were also exactly those actions that minimize extreme suffering in expectation; even as these goals are related, they are by no means the same. And hence to the extent that our main goal is to minimize extreme suffering, we should probably frame our objective in these terms rather than in abolitionist terms.

Reasons in favor of prioritizing the Abolitionist Project

To be clear, there are also things to be said in favor of an abolitionist framing. For instance, many people will probably find a focus on the mere alleviation and reduction of suffering to be too negative and insufficiently motivating, leading them to disengage and drop out. Such people may find it much more motivating if the aim of reducing suffering is coupled with an inspiring vision about the complete abolition of suffering and increasingly better states of superhappiness.

As a case in point, I think my own focus on suffering was in large part inspired by the Abolitionist Project and the The Hedonistic Imperative, which gradually, albeit very slowly, eased my optimistic mind into prioritizing suffering. Without this light and inspiring transitional bridge, I may have remained as opposed to suffering-focused views as I was eight years ago, before I encountered David’s work.

Brian Tomasik writes something similar about the influence of these ideas: “David Pearce’s The Hedonistic Imperative was very influential on my life. That book was one of the key factors that led to my focus on suffering as the most important altruistic priority.”

Likewise, informing people about technologies that can effectively reduce or even abolish certain forms of suffering, such as novel gene therapies, may give people hope that we can do something to reduce suffering, and thus help motivate action to this end.

But I think the two reasons cited above count more as reasons to include an abolitionist perspective in our “communication portfolio”, as opposed to making it our main focus. Especially in light of the four considerations mentioned above that count against the abolitionist framing and focus.

A critical question

The following question may capture the main difference between David’s view and my own.

In previous conversations, David and I have clarified that we both accept that the avoidance of worst-case outcomes is, plausibly, the main priority for reducing suffering in expectation.

This premise, together with our shared moral outlook, seems to recommend a focus on minimizing the risk and ameliorating the badness of worst-case outcomes. Specifically, it follows that we should pursue the best causes and interventions for preventing such worst-case outcomes.

The critical question is thus: What reasons do we have to think that prioritizing and promoting the Abolitionist Project is the single best way, or even among the best ways, to address worst-case outcomes?

As noted above, I think there are good reasons to doubt that such a focus is among the most promising strategies to this end (say, among the top 10 causes to pursue), even if we grant that it has positive effects overall, including on worst-case outcomes in particular.

Specifically, worst-case scenarios will probably tend to be ones in which compassionate agents are not in charge, and in which “we” have very limited control over what happens. In other words, while the illusion of control is strong in general, it is plausible that our intuitive sense of how much control “we” have over the future is especially unreliable as far as worst-case outcomes are concerned.

The worst-case outcomes we should worry about are probably mostly ones in which sensible agents do not have their hands on the steering wheel, and hence our main objective should plausibly be to prevent such “low-control” outcomes, and to mitigate their badness in case they happen. Talking about futures in which advanced civilization phases out the biology of suffering is already to direct our attention toward relatively good outcomes. These scenarios are hardly among the, say, 5th percentile of worst outcomes — i.e. the outcomes that arguably deserve the greatest priority. And the actions that are best for ameliorating the badness of these worst-case outcomes are, most likely, rather different from the actions that are best for improving the, say, 50th percentile of best-case outcomes.

Possible responses

Analogy to smallpox

A way to respond may be to invoke the example of smallpox: eradicating smallpox was plausibly the best way to minimize the “risk of astronomical smallpox”, as opposed to focusing on other, indirect measures.

I think this is an interesting line of argument, but I think the case of smallpox is disanalogous in various ways. First, smallpox is in a sense a much simpler and circumscribed phenomenon than is suffering. In part for this reason, the eradication of smallpox was much easier than the abolition of suffering would be. As an infectious disease, smallpox, unlike suffering, has not evolved to serve any functional role in animals. It could thus not only be eradicated more easily, but also without unintended negative effects on, say, the function of the human mind.

Second, if we were primarily concerned about not spreading smallpox to space, and minimizing “smallpox-risks” in general, I think it is indeed plausible that the short-term eradication of smallpox would not be the ideal thing to prioritize with marginal resources. (Again, it’s important to here distinguish what humanity at large should ideally do versus what the, say, 1,000 most dedicated suffering reducers should do with most of their resources, on the margin, in our imperfect world.)

One reason such a short-term focus may be suboptimal is that the short-term eradication of smallpox is already — or would already be, if it still existed — prioritized by mainstream organizations and governments around the world, and hence additional marginal resources would likely have a rather limited counterfactual impact to this end. Work to minimize the risk of spreading life forms vulnerable to smallpox is far more neglected, and hence does seem a fairly reasonable priority from a “smallpox-risk minimizing” perspective. Granted, this is not intuitive, but the negative potential of trillions of stars combined with an expected value framework, along with marginal thinking, will often suggest rather unintuitive conclusions.

(Of course, minimizing “smallpox risk” is also intuitively crazy for another reason that is worth flagging, namely that, in the real world, there are countless other sources of suffering worth prioritizing. Hence, focusing purely on minimizing this particular risk, at the opportunity cost of neglecting all other risks, including far greater risks, is indeed transparently unreasonable. Yet striving to minimize suffering risks in general is not unreasonable in this way, given the broad scope of s-risk reduction.)

Third, and most significant I believe, there is the sad point that the suffering of virtually all sentient beings — and hence suffering as a general phenomenon — is extremely neglected. Humanity showed a relatively high willingness to eradicate smallpox, whereas in the case of the suffering of non-human beings, people are often willing to pay for “products” that entail the active infliction of intense suffering. Smallpox is thus disanalogous in that the willingness situation was fundamentally different than it is in the case of suffering — especially as far as the suffering of all sentient beings is concerned.

This relates to Point II above: the main bottleneck, not just to suffering reduction in general but also to the Abolitionist Project in particular, is likely humanity’s willingness to reduce suffering. And hence any analogy in which the willingness problem is essentially solved would seem disanalogous to the original problem in what is arguably the most crucial respect.

Sources of unwillingness

Another response may be to argue that humanity’s unwillingness to reduce suffering derives mostly from the sense that the problem of suffering is intractable, and hence the best way to increase our willingness to alleviate and prevent suffering is to set out technical blueprints for its prevention. In David’s words, “we can have a serious ethical debate about the future of sentience only once we appreciate what is — and what isn’t — technically feasible.”

I think there is something to be said in favor of this argument, as noted above in the section on reasons to favor the Abolitionist Project. Yet unfortunately, my sense is that humanity’s unwillingness to reduce suffering does not primarily stem from a sense that the problem is too vast and intractable. Sadly, it seems to me that most people give relatively little thought to the urgency of (others’) suffering, especially when it comes to the suffering of non-human beings. As David notes, factory farming can be said to be “the greatest source of severe and readily avoidable suffering in the world today”. This is but a subset of the vast problem of suffering, and solving it is clearly tractable and avoidable at a collective level. Yet most people still actively contribute to it rather than work against it, despite its solution being technically straightforward.

What is the best way to motivate humanity to prevent suffering?

This is an empirical question. But I would be surprised if setting out abolitionist blueprints turned out to be the single best strategy, especially for motivating efforts to mitigate worst-case outcomes (which this framing can risk neglecting, as argued in Point IV above). Other candidates that seem more promising to me include informing people about horrific examples of suffering, as well as presenting reasoned arguments in favor of prioritizing suffering. Again, this is not to say that abolitionist blueprints cannot be beneficial and have their place. They are just unlikely to be the best or main thing to invest in to this end, in my view.

To clarify, I am not arguing for any efforts to conserve suffering. The issue here is rather about what we should prioritize with our limited resources. The following analogy may help clarify my view: When animal advocates argue in favor of prioritizing the suffering of farm animals or wild animals rather than, say, the suffering of companion animals, they are not thereby urging us to conserve let alone increase the suffering of companion animals. The argument is rather that our limited resources seem to reduce more suffering if we spend them on these other things, even as we grant that it is a very good thing to reduce the suffering of companion animals.

In terms of how we rank the cost-effectiveness of different causes and interventions (cf. this distribution), I would still consider abolitionist advocacy to be quite positive all things considered, and probably significantly better than the vast majority of activities we could do. Not least because it highlights the urgency of suffering in a way that may be uniquely encouraging to people, which is also a good reason to include abolitionist ideas in our core portfolio of ideas. But I would not quite rank it at the tail-end of the cost-effectiveness distribution, for some of the reasons outlined above.

Some reasons not to expect a growth explosion

Many people expect global economic growth to accelerate in the future, with growth rates that are not just significantly higher than those of today, but orders of magnitude higher.

The following are some of the main reasons I do not consider a growth explosion to be the most likely future outcome:

  • Most economists do not expect a growth explosion
  • The history of economic growth does not support a growth explosion
  • Rates of innovation and progress in science have slowed down
  • Moore’s law is coming to an end
  • The growth of supercomputers has been slowing down for years
  • Many of our technologies cannot get orders of magnitude more efficient

Most economists do not expect a growth explosion

Estimates of the future of economic growth from economists themselves generally predict a continual decline in growth rates. For instance, one “review of publicly available projections of GDP per capita over long time horizons” concluded that growth will most likely continue to decline in most countries in the coming decades. A similar report from PWC came up with similar projections.

Some accessible books that explore economic growth in the past and explain why it is reasonable to expect stagnant growth rates in the future include Robert J. Gordon’s Rise and Fall of American Growth (short version) and Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation (synopsis).

It is true that there are some economists who expect growth rates to be several orders of magnitude higher in the future, but these are generally outliers. Robin Hanson suggests that such a growth explosion is likely in his book The Age of Em, which, to give some context, fellow economist Bryan Caplan calls “the single craziest claim” of the book. Caplan further writes that Hanson’s arguments for such growth expectations were “astoundingly weak”.

The point here is not that the general opinion of economists is by any means a decisive reason to reject a growth explosion (as the most likely outcome). The point is merely that it represents a significant reason to doubt an imminent growth explosion, and that it is not in fact those who doubt a rapid rise in growth rates who are the consensus-defying contrarians (and in terms of imminence, it is worth noting that even Robin Hanson does not expect a growth explosion within the next couple of decades). Doubts about vastly increased rates of economic growth have a fairly strong basis in the outside view.

The history of economic growth does not support a growth explosion

Gordon’s book mentioned above provides various historical reasons not to expect much higher growth rates in the future (many of these reasons are similar to those I outline below in the section “Many of our technologies cannot get orders of magnitude more efficient”). In addition to recommending Gordon’s book, I will allow myself to include what I consider an important point buried in another post of mine (the following is an excerpt from said post):

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The global economy has seen three doublings since 1965, where the annual growth rate was around six percent, and yet the annual growth rate today is only a little over half — around 3 percent — of, and lies stably below, what it was those three doublings ago. In the entire history of economic growth, this seems unprecedented, suggesting that we may already be on the other side of the highest growth rates we will ever see. For up until this point, a three-time doubling of the economy has, rare fluctuations aside, led to an increase in the annual growth rate.

And this “past peak growth” hypothesis looks even stronger if we look at 1955, with a growth rate of a little less than six percent and a world product at 5,430 billion 1990 US dollars, which doubled four times gives just under 87,000 billion — about where we should expect today’s world product to be. Yet throughout the history of our economic development, four doublings have meant a clear increase in the annual growth rate, at least in terms of the underlying trend; not a stable decrease of almost 50 percent. This tentatively suggests that we should not expect to see growth rates significantly higher than those of today sustained in the future.

Rates of innovation and progress in science have slowed down

See Bloom et al.’s Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find? and Cowen & Southwood’s Is the rate of scientific progress slowing down? A couple of graphs from the latter:

Moore’s law is coming to an end

One of the main reasons to expect a growth acceleration in the future is the promise of information technology. And economists, including Gordon and Cowen mentioned above, indeed agree that information technology has been a key driver of the growth we have seen in recent decades. But the problem is that we have strong theoretical reasons to expect the underlying trend that has been driving most progress in information technology since the 1960s — i.e. Moore’s law — will be coming to an end within the next few years.

And while it may be that other hardware paradigms will replace silicon chips as we know them, and continue the by now familiar growth in information technology, we must admit that it is quite unclear whether this will happen, especially since we are already lacking noticeably behind this trend line.

One may object that this is just a matter of hardware, and that the real growth in information technology lies in software. But a problem with this claim is that, empirically, growth in software seems largely determined by growth in hardware.

The growth of supercomputers has been slowing down for years

Developments of the performance of the 500 fastest supercomputers in the world conform well to the pattern we should expect given that we are nearing the end of Moore’s law:

The 500th fastest supercomputer in the world was on a clear exponential trajectory from the early 1990s to 2010, after which growth in performance has been steadily declining. Roughly the same holds true of both the fastest supercomputer and the sum of the 500 fastest supercomputers: a clear exponential trajectory from the early 1990s to around 2013, after which the performance has been diverging ever further from the previous trajectory, in fact so much so that the performance of the sum of the 500 fastest supercomputers is now below the performance we should expect the single fastest supercomputer to have today based on 1993-2013 extrapolation.

Many of our technologies cannot get orders of magnitude more efficient

This point is perhaps most elaborately explored in Robert J. Gordon’s book mentioned above: it seems that we have already reaped much of the low-hanging fruit in terms of technological innovation, and in some respects it is impossible to improve things much further.

Energy efficiency is an obvious example, as many of our machines and energy harvesting technologies have already reached a significant fraction of the maximally possible efficiency. For instance, electric pumps and motors tend to have around 90 percent energy efficiency, while the efficiency of the best solar panels are above 40 percent. Many of our technologies thus cannot be made orders of magnitude more efficient, and many of them can at most be marginally improved, simply because they have reached the ceiling of hard physical limits.

Three objections in brief

#1. What about the exponential growth in the compute of the largest AI training runs from 2012-2018?

This is indeed a data point in the other direction. Note, however, that this growth does not appear to have continued after 2018. Moreover, much of this growth seems to have been unsustainable. For example, DeepMind lost more than a billion dollars in 2016-2018, with the loss getting greater each year: “$154 million in 2016, $341 million in 2017, $572 million in 2018”. And the loss was apparently even greater in 2019.

#2. What about the Open Philanthropy post in which David Roodman presented a diffusion model of future growth that predicted much higher growth rates?

I think that model overlooks most of the points made above, especially the point made in the section “The history of economic growth does not support a growth explosion”. Second, I think the following figure from Roodman’s article is a strong indication about the fit of the model, particularly how the growth rates in 1600-1970 are virtually all in the high percentiles of the model, while the growth rates in 1980-2019 are all in the low percentiles, and generally in a lower percentile as time progresses. That is a strong sign that the model does not capture our actual trajectory, and that the fit is getting worse as time progresses.

BernouDiffPredGWP12KDecBlog.png

#3. We have a wager to give much more weight to high-growth scenarios.

First, I think it is questionable that scenarios with higher growth rates merit greater priority (e.g. a so-called value lock-in could also emerge in slow-growth scenarios, and it may be more feasible to influence slow-growth scenarios because they give us more time to acquire the requisite insights and resources to exert a significant and robustly positive influence). And it is less clear still that scenarios with higher growth merit much greater priority than scenarios with lower growth rates. But even if we grant that high-growth scenarios do merit greater priority, this should not change the bare epistemic credence we assign different scenarios. Our descriptive picture should not be distorted by such priority claims.

Effective altruism and common sense

Thomas Sowell once called Milton Friedman “one of those rare thinkers who had both genius and common sense”.

I am not here interested in Sowell’s claim about Friedman, but rather in his insight into the tension between abstract smarts and common sense, and particularly how it applies to the effective altruism (EA) community. For it seems to me that there sometimes is an unbalanced ratio of clever abstractions to common sense in EA discussions.

To be clear, my point is not that abstract ideas are unimportant, or even that everyday common sense should generally be favored over abstract ideas. After all, many of the core ideas of effective altruism are highly abstract in nature, such as impartiality and the importance of numbers, and I believe we are right to stand by these ideas. But my point is that common sense is underutilized as a sanity check that can prevent our abstractions from floating into the clouds. More generally, I seem to observe a tendency to make certain assumptions, and to do a lot of clever analysis and deductions based on those assumptions, but without spending anywhere near as much energy exploring the plausibility of these assumptions themselves. Somewhat akin to treating mathematical modeling as an exercise in pure mathematics.

Below are three examples that I think follow this pattern.

Boltzmann brains

A highly abstract idea that is admittedly intriguing to ponder is that of a Boltzmann brain: a hypothetical conscious brain that arises as the product of random quantum fluctuations. Boltzmann brains are a trivial corollary given certain assumptions: let some basic combinatorial assumptions hold for a set amount of time, and we can conclude that a lot of Boltzmann brains must exist in this span of time (at least as a mater of statistical certainty, similar to how we can derive and be certain of the second law of thermodynamics).

But this does not mean that Boltzmann brains are in fact possible, as the underlying assumptions may well be false. Beyond the obvious possibility that the lifetime of the universe could be too short, it is also conceivable that the combinatorial assumptions that allow a functioning 310 K human brain to emerge in ~ 0 K empty space do not in fact obtain, e.g. because it falsely assumes a combinatorial independence concerning the fluctuations that happen in each neighboring “bit” of the universe (or for some other reason). If any such key assumption is false, it could be that the emergence of a 310 K human brain in ~ 0 K space is not in fact allowed by the laws of physics, even in principle, meaning that even an infinite amount of time would never spontaneously produce a 310 K human Boltzmann brain.

Note that I am not claiming that Boltzmann brains cannot emerge in ~ 0 K space. My claim is simply that there is a big step from abstract assumptions to actual reality, and there is considerable uncertainty about whether the starting assumptions in question can indeed survive that step.

Quantum immortality

Another example is the notion of quantum immortality — not in the sense of merely surviving an attempted quantum suicide for improbably long, but in the sense of literal immortality because a tiny fraction of Everett branches continue to support a conscious survivor indefinitely.

This is a case where I think skeptical common sense and a search for erroneous assumptions is essential. Specifically, even granting a picture in which, say, a victim of a serious accident survives for a markedly longer time in one branch than in another, there are still strong reasons to doubt that there will be any branches in which the victim will survive for long. Specifically, we have good reason to believe that the measure of branches in which the victim survives will converge rapidly toward zero.

An objection might be that the measure indeed will converge toward zero, but that it never actually reaches zero, and hence there will in fact always be a tiny fraction of branches in which the victim survives. I believe this rests on a false assumption. For our understanding of physics suggests that there is only — and could only be — a finite number of distinct branches, meaning that even if the measure of branches in which the victim survives is approximated well by a continuous function that never exactly reaches zero, the critical threshold that corresponds to a zero measure of actual branches with a surviving victim will in fact be reached, and probably rather quickly.

Of course, one may argue that we should still assign some probability to quantum immortality being possible, and that this possibility is still highly relevant in expectation. But I think there are many risks that are much less Pascallian and far more worthy of our attention.

Intelligence explosion

Unlike the two previous examples, this last example has become quite an influential idea in EA: the notion of a fast and local “intelligence explosion“.

I will not here restate my lengthy critiques of the plausibility of this notion (or the critiques advanced by others). And to be clear, I do not think the effective altruism community is at all wrong to have a strong focus on AI. But the mistake I think I do see is that there are many abstractly grounded assumptions pertaining to a hypothetical intelligence explosion that have received an insufficient amount of scrutiny from common sense and empirical data (Garfinkel, 2018 argues along similar lines).

I think part of the problem stems from the fact that Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence framed the future of AI in a certain way. Here, for instance, is how Bostrom frames the issue in the conclusion of his book (p. 319):

Before the prospect of an intelligence explosion, we humans are like small children playing with a bomb. … We have little idea when the detonation will occur, though if we hold the device to our ear we can hear a faint ticking sound. … Some little idiot is bound to press the ignite button just to see what happens.

I realize Bostrom is employing a metaphor here, and I realize that he assigns a substantial credence to many different future scenarios. But the way his book is framed is nonetheless mostly in terms of such a metaphorical bomb that could ignite an intelligence explosion (i.e. FOOM). And it seems that this kind of scenario in effect became the standard scenario many people assumed and worked on, with comparatively little effort going into the more fundamental question of how plausible this future scenario is in the first place. An abstract argument about (a rather vague notion of) “intelligence” recursively improving itself was given much weight, and much clever analysis focusing on this FOOM picture and its canonical problems followed.

Again, my claim here is not that this picture is wrong or implausible, but rather that the more fundamental questions about the nature and future of “intelligence” should be kept more alive, and that our approach to these questions should be more informed by empirical data, lest we misprioritize our resources.


In sum, our fondness for abstractions is plausibly a bias we need to control for. We can do this by applying common-sense heuristics to a greater extent, by spending more time considering how our abstract models might be wrong, and by making a greater effort to hold our assumptions up against empirical reality.

Antinatalism and reducing suffering: A case of suspicious convergence

First published: Feb. 2021. Last update: Feb. 2021.


Two positions are worth distinguishing. One is the view that we should reduce (extreme) suffering as much as we can for all sentient beings. The other is the view that we should advocate for humans not to have children.

It may seem intuitive to think that the former position implies the latter. That is, to think that the best way to reduce suffering for all sentient beings is to advocate for humans not to have children. My aim in this brief essay is to outline some of the reasons to be skeptical of this claim.

Suspicious convergence

Lewis, 2016 warns of “suspicious convergence”, which he introduces with the following toy example:

Oliver: … Thus we see that donating to the opera is the best way of promoting the arts.

Eleanor: Okay, but I’m principally interested in improving human welfare.

Oliver: Oh! Well I think it is also the case that donating to the opera is best for improving human welfare too.

The general point is that, for any set of distinct altruistic aims or endeavors we may consider, we should be a priori suspicious of the claim that they are perfectly convergent — i.e. that directly pursuing one of them also happens to be the very best thing we can do for achieving the other. Justifying such a belief would require good, object-level reasons. And in the case of the respective endeavors of reducing suffering and advocating for humans not to procreate, we in a sense find the opposite, as there are good reasons to be skeptical of a strong degree of convergence, and even to think that such antinatalist advocacy might increase future suffering.

The marginal impact of antinatalist advocacy

A key point when evaluating the impact of altruistic efforts is that we need to think at the margin: how does our particular contribution change the outcome, in expectation? This is true whether our aims are modest or maximally ambitious — our actions and resources still represent but a very small fraction of the total sum of actions and resources, and we can still only exert relatively small pushes toward our goals.

Direct effects

What, then, is the marginal impact of advocating for people not to have children? One way to try to answer this question is to explore the expected effects of preventing a single human birth. Antinatalist analyses of this question are quick to point out the many harms caused by a single human birth, which must indeed be considered. Yet what these analyses tend not to consider are the harms that a human birth would prevent.

For example, in his book Better Never to Have Been, David Benatar writes about “the suffering inflicted on those animals whose habitat is destroyed by encroaching humans” (p. 224) — which, again, should definitely be included in our analysis. Yet he fails to consider the many births and all the suffering that would be prevented by an additional human birth, such as due to its marginal effects on habitat reduction (“fewer people means more animals“). As Brian Tomasik argues, when we consider a wider range of the effects humans have on animal suffering, “it seems plausible that encouraging people to have fewer children actually causes an increase in suffering and involuntary births.” 

This highlights how a one-sided analysis such as Benatar’s is deeply problematic when evaluating potential interventions. We cannot simply look at the harms prevented by our pet interventions without considering how they might lead to more harm. Both things must be considered.

To be clear, the considerations above regarding the marginal effects of human births on animal suffering by no means represent a complete analysis of the effects of additional human births, or of advocating for humans not to have children. But they do represent compelling reasons to doubt that such advocacy is among the best things we can do to reduce suffering for all sentient beings, at least in terms of the direct effects, which leads us to the next point.

Long-term effects

Some seem to hold that the main reason to advocate against human procreation is not the direct effects, but rather its long-term effects on humanity’s future. I agree that the influence our ideas and advocacy efforts have on humanity’s long-term future are plausibly the most important thing about them, and I think many antinatalists are likely to have a positive influence in this regard by highlighting the moral significance of suffering (and the relative insignificance of pleasure).

But the question is why we should think that the best way to steer humanity’s long-term future toward less suffering is to argue for people not to have children. After all, the space of possible interventions we could pursue to reduce future suffering is vast, and it would be quite a remarkable coincidence if relatively simple interventions — such as advocating for antinatalism or veganism — happened to be the very best way to reduce suffering, or even among the best.

In particular, the greatest risk from a long-term perspective is that things somehow go awfully wrong, and that we counterfactually greatly increase future suffering, either by creating additional sources of suffering in the future, or by simply failing to reduce existing forms of suffering when we could. And advocating for people not to have children seems unlikely to be among the best ways to reduce the risk of such failures — again since the space of possible interventions is vast, and interventions that are targeted more directly at reducing these risks, including the risk of leaving wild-animal suffering unaddressed, are probably significantly more effective than is advocating for humans not to procreate.

Better alternatives?

If our aim is to reduce suffering for all sentient beings, a plausible course of action would be to pursue an open-ended research project on how we can best achieve this aim. This is, after all, not a trivial question, and we should hardly expect the most plausible answers to be intuitive, let alone obvious. Exploring this question requires epistemic humility, and forces us to contend with the vast amount of empirical uncertainty facing any endeavor to create a better world.

I have explored this question at length in Vinding, 2020, Part II, as have other individuals and organizations elsewhere. One conclusion that seems quite robust is that we should focus mostly on avoiding bad outcomes, whereas comparatively suffering-free future scenarios merit less priority. Another robust conclusion is that we should pursue a pragmatic and cooperative approach when trying to reduce suffering (see also Vinding, 2020, ch. 10) — not least since future conflicts are one of the main ways in which worst-case outcomes might materialize, and hence we should generally strive to reduce the risk of such conflicts.

In more concrete terms, antinatalists may be more effective if they focus on defending antinatalism for wild animals in particular. This case seems easier to make given the overwhelming amount of suffering and early death in nature, it pertains to a larger number of beings, and it may have more beneficial near-term and long-term effects — being less at risk of increasing non-human suffering in the near term, and plausibly being more conducive to reducing worst-case risks, whether these entail spreading non-human life or simply failing to reduce wild-animal suffering.

Broadly speaking, the aim of reducing suffering would seem to recommend efforts to identify the main ways in which humanity might cause — or prevent — vast amounts of suffering in the future, and to find out how we can best navigate accordingly. None of these conclusions seem to support efforts to convince people not to have children as a particularly promising strategy, though they likely do recommend efforts to promote concern for suffering more generally.

Conversation with David Pearce about digital sentience and the binding problem

Whether digital sentience is possible would seem to matter greatly for our priorities, and so gaining even slightly more refined views on this matter could be quite valuable. Many people appear to treat the possibility, if not indeed the imminence, of digital sentience as a foregone conclusion. David Pearce, in contrast, is skeptical.

Pearce has written and spoken elaborately about his views on consciousness. My sense, however, is that these expositions do not always manage to clearly convey the core, and actually very simple reasons underlying Pearce’s skepticism of digital sentience. The aim of this conversation is to probe Pearce so as to shed greater — or perhaps most of all simpler — light on why he is skeptical, and thus to hopefully advance the discussions on this issue among altruists working to reduce future suffering.


MV: You are skeptical about the possibility of digital sentience. Could you explain why, in simple terms?

DP: Sure. Perhaps we can start by asking why so many people believe that our machines will become conscious (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#definition). Consciousness is widely recognised to be scientifically unexplained. But the computer metaphor of mind seems to offer us clues (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#braincomp). As far as I can tell, many if not most believers in digital sentience tend to reason along the following lines. Any well-defined cognitive task that the human mind can perform could also be performed by a programmable digital computer (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_machine). A classical Turing machine is substrate-neutral. By “substrate-neutral”, we mean that whether a Turing machine is physically constituted of silicon or carbon or gallium oxide (etc) makes no functional difference to the execution of the program it runs. It’s commonly believed that the behaviour of a human brain can, in principle, be emulated on a classical Turing machine. Our conscious minds must be identical with states of the brain. If our minds weren’t identical with brain states, then dualism would be true (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#dualidealmat). Therefore, the behaviour of our minds can in principle be emulated by a digital computer. Moreover, the state-space of all possible minds is immense, embracing not just the consciousness of traditional and enhanced biological lifeforms, but also artificial digital minds and maybe digital superintelligence. Accordingly, the belief that non-biological information-processing machines can’t support consciousness is arbitrary. It’s unjustified carbon chauvinism.

I think most believers in digital sentience would recognise that the above considerations are not a rigorous argument for the existence of inorganic machine consciousness. The existence of machine consciousness hasn’t been derived from first principles. The “explanatory gap” is still unbridged. Yet what is the alternative?

Well, as a scientific rationalist, I’m an unbeliever. Digital computers and the software they run are not phenomenally-bound subjects of experience (cf. https://www.binding-problem.com/). Ascribing sentience to digital computers or silicon robots is, I believe, a form of anthropomorphic projection — a projection their designers encourage by giving their creations cutesy names (“Watson”, “Sophia”, “Alexa” etc). 

Before explaining my reasons for believing that digital computers are zombies, I will lay out two background assumptions. Naturally, one or both assumptions can be challenged, though I think they are well-motivated.

The first background assumption might seem scarcely relevant to your question. Perpetual direct realism is false (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#distort). Inferential realism about the external world is true. The subjective contents of your consciousness aren’t merely a phenomenally thin and subtle serial stream of logico-linguistic thought-episodes playing out behind your forehead, residual after-images when you close your eyes, inner feelings and emotions and so forth. Consciousness is also your entire phenomenal world-simulation — what naïve realists call the publicly accessible external world. Unless you have the neurological syndromes of simultanagnosia (the inability to experience more than one object at once) or akinetopsia (“motion blindness”), you can simultaneously experience a host of dynamic objects — for example, multiple players on a football pitch, or a pride of hungry lions. These perceptual objects populate your virtual world of experience from the sky above to your body-image below. Consciousness is all you directly know. The external environment is an inference, not a given.

Let’s for now postpone discussion of how our skull-bound minds are capable of such an extraordinary feat of real-time virtual world-making. The point is that if you couldn’t experience multiple feature-bound phenomenal objects — i.e. if you were just an aggregate of 86 billion membrane-bound neuronal “pixels” of experience — then you’d be helpless. Compare dreamless sleep. Like your enteric nervous system (the “brain-in-the-gut”), your mind-brain would still be a fabulously complex information-processing system. But you’d risk starving to death or getting eaten. Waking consciousness is immensely adaptive. (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#evolutionary). Phenomenal binding is immensely adaptive (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#purposecon).

My second assumption is physicalism (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#materialism). I assume the unity of science. All the special sciences (chemistry, molecular biology etc) reduce to physics. In principle, the behaviour of organic macromolecules such as self-replicating DNA can be described entirely in the mathematical language of physics without mentioning “life” at all, though such high-level description is convenient. Complications aside, no “element of reality” is missing from the mathematical formalism of our best theory of the world, quantum mechanics, or more strictly from tomorrow’s unification of quantum field theory and general relativity.

One corollary of physicalism is that only “weak” emergence is permissible. “Strong” emergence is forbidden. Just as the behaviour of programs running on your PC supervenes on the behaviour of its machine code, likewise the behaviour of biological organisms can in principle be exhaustively reduced to quantum chemistry and thus ultimately to quantum field theory. The conceptual framework of physicalism is traditionally associated with materialism. According to materialism as broadly defined, the intrinsic nature of the physical — more poetically, the mysterious “fire” in the equations — is non-experiential. Indeed, the assumption that quantum field theory describes fields of insentience is normally treated as too trivially obvious to be worth stating explicitly. However, this assumption of insentience leads to the Hard Problem of consciousness. Non-materialist physicalism (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#galileoserror) drops this plausible metaphysical assumption. If the intrinsic nature argument is sound, there is no Hard Problem of consciousness: it’s the intrinsic nature of the physical (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#definephysical ). However, both “materialist” physicalists and non-materialist physicalists agree: everything that happens in the world is constrained by the mathematical straitjacket of modern physics. Any supposedly “emergent” phenomenon must be derived, ultimately, from physics. Irreducible “strong” emergence would be akin to magic.

Anyhow, the reason I don’t believe in digital minds is that classical computers are, on the premises outlined above, incapable of phenomenal binding. If we make the standard assumption that their 1 and 0s and logic gates are non-experiential, then digital computers are zombies. Less obviously, digital computers are zombies if we don’t make this standard assumption! Imagine, fancifully, replacing non-experiential 1s and 0s of computer software with discrete “pixels” of experience. Run the program as before. The upshot will still be a zombie, more technically a micro-experiential zombie. What’s more, neither increasing the complexity of the code nor exponentially increasing the speed of its execution could cause discrete “pixels” somehow to blend into each other in virtue of their functional role, let alone create phenomenally-bound perceptual objects or a unitary self experiencing a unified phenomenal world. The same is true of a connectionist system (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connectionism), supposedly more closely modelled on the brain — however well-connected and well-trained the network, and regardless whether its nodes are experiential or non-experiential. The synchronous firing of distributed feature-processors in a “trained up” connectionist system doesn’t generate a unified perceptual object — again on pain of “strong” emergence. AI programmers and roboticists can use workarounds for the inability of classical computers to bind, but they are just that: workarounds.

Those who believe in digital sentience can protest that we don’t know that phenomenal minds can’t emerge at some level of computational abstraction in digital computers. And they are right! If abstract objects have the causal power to create conscious experience, then digital computer programs might be subjects of experience. But recall we’re here assuming physicalism. If physicalism is true, then even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, we can know that digital computers are — at most — micro-experiential zombies.

Of course, monistic physicalism may be false. “Strong” emergence may be real. But if so, then reality seems fundamentally lawless. The scientific world-picture would be false.

Yet how do biological minds routinely accomplish binding if phenomenal binding is impossible for any classical digital computer (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Turing_machine). Even if our neurons support rudimentary “pixels” of experience, why aren’t animals like us in the same boat as classical digital computers or classically parallel connectionist systems?

I can give you my tentative answer. Naïvely, it’s the reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind: “Schrödinger’s neurons”: https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#quantumbrain.

Surprisingly, it’s experimentally falsifiable via interferometry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mind#David_Pearce 

Yet the conjecture I explore may conceivably be of interest only to someone who already feels the force of the binding problem. Plenty of researchers would say it’s a ridiculous solution to a nonexistent problem. I agree it’s crazy; but it’s worth falsifying. Other researchers just lump phenomenal binding together with the Hard Problem (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#categorize) as one big insoluble mystery they suppose can be quarantined from the rest of scientific knowledge.

I think their defeatism and optimism alike are premature. 

MV: Thanks, David. A lot to discuss there, obviously.

Perhaps the most crucial point to really appreciate in order to understand your skepticism is that you are a strict monist about reality. That is, “the experiential” is not something over and above “the physical”, but rather identical with it (which, to be clear, does not imply that all physical things have minds, or complex experiences). And so if “the mental” and “the physical” are essentially the same ontological thing, or phenomenon, under two different descriptions, then there must, roughly speaking, also be a match in terms of their topological properties.

As Mike Johnson explained your view: “consciousness is ‘ontologically unitary’, and so only a physical property that implies ontological unity … could physically instantiate consciousness.” (Principia Qualia, p. 73). (Note that “consciousness” here refers to an ordered, composite mind; not phenomenality more generally.)

Conversely, a system that is physically discrete or disconnected — say, a computer composed of billiard balls that bump into each other, or lighthouses that exchange signals across hundreds of kilometers — could not, on your view, support a unitary mind. In terms of the analogy of thinking about consciousness as waves, your view is roughly that we should think of a unitary mind as a large, composite wave of sorts, akin to a song, whereas disconnected “pixels of experience” are like discrete microscopic proto-waves, akin to tiny disjoint blobs of sound. (And elsewhere you quote Seth Lloyd saying something similar about classical versus quantum computations: “A classical computation is like a solo voice — one line of pure tones succeeding each other. A quantum computation is like a symphony — many lines of tones interfering with one another.”)

This is why you say that “computer software with discrete ‘pixels’ of experience will still be a micro-experiential zombie”, and why you say that “even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, we can know that digital computers are at most micro-experiential zombies” — it’s because of this physical discreteness, or “disconnectedness”.

And this is where it seems to me that the computational view of mind is also starkly at odds with common sense, as well as with monism. For it seems highly counterintuitive to claim that billiard balls bumping into each other, or lighthouses separated by hundreds of kilometers that exchange discrete signals, could, even in principle, mediate a unitary mind. I wonder whether most people who hold a computational view of mind are really willing to bite this bullet. (Such views have also been elaborately criticized by Mike Johnson and Scott Aaronson — critiques that I have seen no compelling replies to.)

It also seems non-monistic in that it appears impossible to give a plausible account of where a unitary mind is supposed to be found in this picture (e.g. in a picture with discrete computations occurring serially over long distances), except perhaps as a separate, dualist phenomenon that we somehow map onto a set of physically discrete computations occurring over time, which seems to me inelegant and unparsimonious. Not to mention that it gives rise to an explosion of minds, as we can then see minds in a vast set of computations that are somehow causally connected across time and space, with the same computations being included in many distinct minds. This picture is at odds with a monist view that implies a one-to-one correspondence between concrete physical state and concrete mental state — or rather, which sees these two sides as distinct descriptions of the exact same reality.

The question is then how phenomenal binding could occur. You explore a quantum mind hypothesis involving quantum coherence. So what are your reasons for thinking that quantum coherence is necessary for phenomenal binding? Why would, say, electromagnetic fields in a synchronous state not be enough?

DP: If the phenomenal unity of mind is an effectively classical phenomenon, then I have no idea how to derive the properties of our phenomenally bound minds from decohered, effectively classical neurons — not even in principle, let alone in practice. 

MV: And why is that? What is it that makes deriving the properties of our phenomenally bound minds seem feasible in the case of coherent states, unlike in the case of decohered ones?

DP: Quantum coherent states are individual states — i.e. fundamental physical features of the world — not mere unbound aggregates of classical mind-dust. On this story, decoherence (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1911.06282.pdf) explains phenomenal unbinding.

MV: So it is because only quantum coherent states could constitute the “ontological unity” of a unitary, “bound” mind. Decoherent states, on your view, are not and could not be ontologically unitary in the required sense?

DP: Yes!

Digital computing depends on effectively classical, decohered individual bits of information, whether as implemented in Turing’s original tape set-up, a modern digital computer, or indeed if the world’s population of skull-bound minds agree to participate in an experiment to see if a global mind can emerge from a supposed global brain.

One can’t create perceptual objects, let alone unified minds, from classical mind-dust even if strictly the motes of decohered “dust” are only effectively classical, i.e. phase information has leaked away into the environment. If the 1s and 0s of a digital computer are treated as discrete micro-experiential pixels, then when running a program, we don’t need to consider the possibility of coherent superpositions of 1s and 0s/ micro-experiences. If the bits weren’t effectively classical and discrete, then the program wouldn’t execute.

MV: In other words, you are essentially saying that binding/unity between decohered states is ultimately no more tenable than binding/unity between, say, two billard balls separated by a hundred miles? Because they are in a sense similarly ontologically separate?

DP: Yes!

MV: So to summarize, your argument is roughly the following: 

  1. observed phenomenal binding, or a unitary mind, combined with 
  2. an empirically well-motivated monistic physicalism, means that
  3. we must look for a unitary physical state as the “mediator”, or rather the physical description, of mind [since the ontological identity from (2) implies that the phenomenal unity from (1) must be paralleled in our physical description], and it seems that
  4. only quantum coherent states could truly fit the bill of such ontological unity in physical terms.

DP: 1 to 4, yes!

MV: Cool. And in step 4 in particular, to spell that out more clearly, the reasoning is roughly that classical states are effectively (spatiotemporally) serial, discrete, disconnected, etc. Quantum coherent states, in contrast, are a connected, unitary, individual whole.

Classical bits in a sense belong to disjoint “ontological sets”, whereas qubits belong to the same “ontological set” (as I’ve tried to illustrate somewhat clumsily below, and in line with Seth Lloyd’s quote above).

Is that a fair way to put it?

DP: Yes!

I sometimes say who will play Mendel to Zurek’s Darwin is unknown. If experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, i.e. if non-materialist physicalism is true, then we must necessarily consider the nature of experience at what are intuitively absurdly short timescales in the CNS. At sufficiently fine-grained temporal resolutions, we can’t just assume the existence of decohered macromolecules, neurotransmitters, receptors, membrane-bound neurons etc. — they are weakly emergent, dynamically stable patterns of “cat states”. These high-level patterns must be derived from quantum bedrock — which of course I haven’t done. All I’ve done is make a “philosophical” conjecture that (1) quantum coherence mediates the phenomenal unity of our minds; and (2) quantum Darwinism (cf. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/09/twist-survival-fittest-could-explain-how-reality-emerges-quantum-haze) offers a ludicrously powerful selection-mechanism for sculpting what would otherwise be mere phenomenally-bound “noise”.

MV: Thanks for that clarification.

I guess it’s also worth stressing that you do not claim this to be any more than a hypothesis, while you at the same time admit that you have a hard time seeing how alternative accounts could explain phenomenal binding.

Moreover, it’s worth stressing that the conjecture resulting from your line of reasoning above is in fact, as you noted, a falsifiable one — a rare distinction for a theory of consciousness.

A more general point to note is that skepticism about digital sentience need not be predicated on the conjecture you presented above, as there are other theories of mind — not necessarily involving quantum coherence — that also imply that digital computers are unable to mediate a conscious mind (including some of the theories hinted at above, and perhaps other, more recent theories). For example, one may accept steps 1-3 in the argument above, and then be more agnostic in step 4, with openness to the possibility that binding could be achieved in other ways, yet while still considering contemporary digital computers unlikely to be able to mediate a unitary mind (e.g. because of the fundamental architectural differences between such computers and biological brains).

Okay, having said all that, let’s now move on to a slightly different issue. Beyond digital sentience in particular, you have also expressed skepticism regarding artificial sentience more generally (i.e. non-digital artificial sentience). Can you explain the reasons for this skepticism?

DP: Well, aeons of posthuman biological minds probably lie ahead. They’ll be artificial — genetically rewritten, AI-augmented, most likely superhumanly blissful, but otherwise inconceivably alien to Darwinian primitives. My scepticism is about the supposed emergence of minds in classical information processors — whether programmable digital computers, classically parallel connectionist systems or anything else.

What about inorganic quantum minds? Well, I say a bit more e.g. here: https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#nonbiological

A pleasure-pain axis has been so central to our experience that sentience in everything from worms to humans is sometimes (mis)defined in terms of the capacity to feel pleasure and pain. But essentially, I see no reason to believe that such (hypothetical) phenomenally bound consciousness in future inorganic quantum computers will support a pleasure-pain axis any more than, say, the taste of garlic.

In view of our profound ignorance of physical reality, however, I’m cautious: this is just my best guess!

MV: Interesting. You note that you see no reason to believe that such systems would have a pleasure-pain axis. But what about the argument that pain has proven exceptionally adaptive over the course of biological evolution, and might thus plausibly prove adaptive in future forms of evolution as well (assuming things won’t necessarily be run according to civilized values)? 

DP: Currently, I can’t see any reason to suppose hedonic tone (or the taste of garlic) could be instantiated in inorganic quantum computers. If (a big “if”) the quantum-theoretic version of non-materialist physicalism is true, then subjectively it’s like something to be an inorganic quantum computer, just as it’s like something subjectively to be superfluid helium — a nonbiological macro-quale. But out of the zillions of state-spaces of experience, why expect the state-space of phenomenally-bound experience that inorganic quantum computers hypothetically support will include hedonic tone? My guess is that futuristic quantum computers will instantiate qualia for which humans have no name nor conception and with no counterpart in biological minds.

All this is very speculative! It’s an intuition, not a rigorous argument.

MV: Fair enough. What then is your view of hypothetical future computers built from biological neurons?

DP: Artificial organic neuronal networks are perfectly feasible. Unlike silicon-based “neural networks” — a misnomer in my view — certain kinds of artificial organic neuronal networks could indeed suffer. Consider the reckless development of “mini-brains”.

MV: Yeah, it should be uncontroversial that such developments entail serious risks.

Okay, David. What you have said here certainly provides much food for thought. Thanks a lot for patiently exploring these issues with me, and not least for all your work and your dedication to reducing the suffering of all sentient beings.

DP: Thank you, Magnus. You’re very kind. May I just add a recommendation? Anyone who hasn’t yet done so should read your superb Suffering-Focused Ethics (2020).

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