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.


Contents

  1. “Crazy” and “transparently silly” views
  2. Lazari-Radek and Singer’s cursory rejection
  3. “Arguably too nihilistic and divorced from humane values to be worth taking seriously”
  4. “Anti-natalism is neurotic self-hatred”
  5. More examples
  6. Conclusion

“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.)


Contents

  1. Some examples
    1. I. Cause Prioritization
    2. II. Effective Interventions
    3. III. Core Values
  2. The steelman case for “doing”
    1. We can learn a lot by acting
    2. Direct action can motivate people to keep working to improve the world
    3. There are obvious problems in the world that are clearly worth addressing
    4. Certain biases plausibly prevent us from pursuing direct action
  3. The case for (more) research
    1. We can learn a lot by acting — but we are arguably most limited by research insights
      1. Objections: What about “long reflection” and the division of labor?
    2. Direct action can motivate people — but so can (the importance of) research
    3. There are obvious problems in the world that are clearly worth addressing — but research is needed to best prioritize and address them
    4. Certain biases plausibly prevent us from pursuing direct action — but there are also biases pushing us toward too much or premature action
  4. The Big Neglected Question
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments

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.

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.

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.

Underappreciated consequentialist reasons to avoid consuming animal products

While there may be strong deontological or virtue-ethical reasons to avoid consuming animal products (“as far as is possible and practicable”), the consequentialist case for such avoidance is quite weak.

Or at least this appears to be a common view in some consequentialist-leaning circles. My aim in this post is to argue against this view. On a closer look, we find many strong consequentialist reasons to avoid the consumption of animal products.

The direct effects on the individuals we eat

99 percent of animals raised for food in the US, and more than 90 percent globally, live out their lives on factory farms. These are lives of permanent confinement to very small spaces, often involving severe abuse, as countless undercover investigations have revealed. And their slaughter frequently involves extreme suffering as well — for example, about a million chickens and turkeys are boiled alive in the US every year, and fish, the vast majority of farmed vertebrates, are usually slaughtered without any stunning. They are routinely suffocated to death, frozen to death, and cut in ways that leave them to bleed to death (exsanguination). 

Increasing such suffering via one’s marginal consumption is bad on virtually all consequentialist views. And note that, empirically, it turns out that people who aspire to avoid meat from factory farmed animals (“conscientious omnivores”) actually often do not (John & Sebo, 2020, 3.2; Rothgerber, 2015). And an even greater discrepancy between ideals and actuality is found in the behavior of those who believe that the animals they eat are “treated well”, which in the US is around 58 percent of people, despite the fact that over 99 percent of farm animals in the US live on factory farms (Reese, 2017).

Furthermore, even in Brian Tomasik’s analyses that factor in the potential of animal agriculture to reduce wild-animal suffering, the consumption of virtually all animal “products” is recommended against — including eggs and meat from fish (farmed and wild-caught), chickens, pigs, and (especially) insects. Brian argues that the impact of not consuming meat is generally positive, both because of the direct marginal impact (“avoiding eating one chicken or fish roughly translates to one less chicken or fish raised and killed”) and because of the broader social effects (more on the latter below).

The above is an important consequentialist consideration against consuming animal products. Yet unfortunately, consequentialist analyses tend to give far too much weight to this consideration alone, and to treat it as the end-all be-all of consequentialist arguments against consuming animal products when, in fact, it is not necessarily even one of the most weighty arguments.

Institutional effects

Another important consideration has to do with the institutional effects of animal consumption. These effects seem superficially similar to those discussed in the previous point, yet they are in fact quite distinct.

Anti-charity

For one, there is the increased financial support to an industry that not only systematically harms currently existing individuals, but which also, perhaps more significantly, actively works to undermine moral concern for future non-human individuals. It does this through influential lobbying activities and by advertising in ways that effectively serve as propaganda against non-human animals (that is certainly what we would call it in the human case if an industry continually worked to legitimize the exploitation and killing of certain human individuals; in fact, “propaganda” may be overly euphemistic).

Supporting this industry can be seen as anti-charity of sorts, as it pushes us away from betterment for non-human animals at the level of our broader institutions. And this effect could well be more significant than the direct marginal impact on non-human beings consumed, as such institutional factors may be a greater determinant of how many such beings will suffer in the future.

Not only are these institutional effects negative for future farmed animals, but the resulting reinforcement of speciesism and apathy toward non-human animals in general likely also impedes concern for wild animals in particular. And given the numbers, this effect may be even more important than the negative effect on future farmed animals.

Anti-activism

Another institutional effect is that, when we publicly buy or consume animal products, we signal to other people that non-human individuals can legitimately be viewed as food, and that we approve of the de facto horrific institution of animal agriculture. This signaling effect is difficult to avoid even if we do not in fact condone most of the actual practices involved. After all, virtually nobody condones the standard practices, such as the castration of pigs without anesthetics. And yet virtually all of us still condone these practices behaviorally, and indeed effectively support their continuation.

In this way, publicly buying or consuming animal products can, regardless of one’s intentions, end up serving as miniature anti-activism against the cause of reducing animal suffering — it serves to normalize a collectively perpetrated atrocity — while choosing to forego such products can serve as miniature activism in favor of the cause.

One may object that the signaling effects of such individual actions are insignificant. Yet we are generally not inclined to say the same about the signaling effects of, say, starkly racist remarks, even when the individuals whom the remarks are directed against will never know about them (e.g. when starkly anti-black sentiments are shared in forums with white people only). The reason, I think, is that we realize that such remarks do have negative effects down the line, and we realize that these effects are not minor.

It is widely acknowledged that, to human psychology, racism is a ticking bomb that we should make a consistent effort to steer away from, lest we corrode our collective attitudes and in turn end up systematically exploiting and harming certain groups of individuals. We have yet to realize that the same applies to speciesism.

For a broader analysis of the social effects of the institution of animal exploitation, see (John & Sebo, 2020, 3.3). Though note that I disagree with John and Sebo’s classical utilitarian premise, which would allow us to farm individuals, and even kill them in the most horrible ways, provided that their lives were overall “net positive” (the horrible death included). I think this notion of “net positive” needs to be examined at length, especially in the interpersonal context where some beings’ happiness is claimed to outweigh the extreme suffering of others.

Influence on our own perception

The influence on our own attitudes and thinking is another crucial factor. Indeed, for a consequentialist trying to think straight about how to prioritize one’s resources for optimal impact, this may be the most important reason not to consume animal products.

Moral denigration is a well-documented effect

Common sense suggests that we cannot think clearly about the moral status of a given group of individuals as long as we eat them. Our evolutionary history suggests the same: it was plausibly adaptive in our evolutionary past to avoid granting any considerable moral status to individuals categorized as “food animals”.

Psychological studies bear out common sense and evolution-based speculation. In Don’t Mind Meat? The Denial of Mind to Animals Used for Human Consumption, Brock Bastian and colleagues demonstrated that people tend to ascribe diminished mental capacities to “food animals”; that “meat eaters are motivated to deny minds to food animals when they are reminded of the link between meat and animal suffering”; and that such mind denial is increased when people expect to eat meat in the near future.

Another study (Bratanova et al., 2011) found that:

categorization as food — but not killing or human responsibility — was sufficient to reduce the animal’s perceived capacity to suffer, which in turn restricted moral concern.

This finding is in line with the prevalence of so-called consistency effects, our psychological tendency to adapt beliefs that support our past and present behavior (see Salamon & Rayhawk’s Cached Selves and Huemer, 2010, “5.d Coherence bias”). For example, “I eat animals, and hence animals don’t suffer so much and don’t deserve great moral consideration”. 

And yet another study (Loughnan et al., 2010) found that the moral numbing effects of meat eating applied to other non-human animals as well, suggesting that these numbing effects may extend to wild animals:

Eating meat reduced the perceived obligation to show moral concern for animals in general and the perceived moral status of the [animal being eaten].

(See also Jeff Sebo’s talk A utilitarian case for animal rights and John & Sebo, 2020, 3.2.)

These studies confirm a point that a number of philosophers have been trying to convey for a while (see John & Sebo, 2020, 3.2 for a brief review). Here is Peter Singer in Practical Ethics (as quoted in ibid.):

it would be better to reject altogether the killing of animals for food, unless one must do so to survive. Killing animals for food makes us think of them as objects that we can use as we please …

And such objectification, in turn, has horrendous consequences. This is usually quite obvious in the human case: few people are tempted to claim that it would be inconsequential if we began eating a given group of humans, even if we stipulated that these humans had the same mental abilities as, say, pigs. Singer’s point about objectification is obvious to most people in this case, and most consequentialists would probably say that raising, killing, and eating humans could only be recommended by very naive and incomplete consequentialist analyses detached from the real world — not least the realities of human psychology. Yet the same ought to be concluded when the beings in question possess not just the minds but also the bodies of pigs.

Relatedly, in the hypothetical case where systematic exploitation of certain humans is the norm, few consequentialists would be tempted to say that abstention from the consumption of human products (e.g. human body parts or forcefully obtained breast milk) is insignificant, or say that it is not worth sticking with it because other things are more important. For on reflection, when we put on the more sophisticated consequentialist hat, we realize that such abstention probably is an important component of the broader set of actions that constitutes the ethically optimal path forward. The same ought to be concluded, I submit, in the non-human case.

Note, finally, that even if we believed ourselves to be exceptions to all of the psychological tendencies reviewed above — a belief we should be skeptical of given the prevalence of illusory superiority — it would still be hypocritical and a failure of integrity if we ourselves did not follow a norm that we would recommend others to follow. And consequentialists have good reasons to show high integrity.

Self-serving biases

This is more of a meta consideration suggesting that 1) we should be skeptical of convenient conclusions, and 2) we should adhere to stricter principles than a naive consequentialist analysis might imply.

A good reason to adhere to reasonably strict principles is that, if we loosen our principles and leave everything up for case-by-case calculation, we open the door for biases to sneak in.

As Jamie Mayerfeld writes in Suffering and Moral Responsibility (p. 121):

An agent who regarded [sound moral principles] as mere rules of thumb would ignore them whenever she calculated that compliance wasn’t necessary to minimize the cumulative badness of suffering. The problem is that it might also be in her own interest to violate these principles, and self-interest could distort her calculations, even when she calculated sincerely. She could thus acquire a pattern of violating the principles even when compliance with them really was necessary to prevent the worst cumulative suffering. To avoid this, we would want her to feel strongly inhibited from violating the principles. Inhibitions of this kind can insulate agents from the effect of biased calculations.

And there are indeed many reasons to think that our “calculations” are strongly biased against concern for non-human individuals and against the conclusion that we should stop consuming them. For example, there is the fact that people who do not consume animal products face significant stigma — for example, one US study found that people tended to evaluate vegans more negatively than other minority groups, such as atheists and homosexuals; “only drug addicts were evaluated more negatively than vegetarians and vegans”. And a recent study suggested that fear of stigmatization is among the main reasons why people do not want to stop eating animal products. Yet fear of stigmatization is hardly, on reflection, a sound moral reason to eat animal products.

A more elaborate review of relevant biases can be found in (Vinding, 2018, “Bias Alert: We Should Expect to Be Extremely Biased”; Vinding, 2020, 11.5).

Human externalities

Defenses of the consumption of non-human individuals often rest on strongly anthropocentric values (which cannot be justified). But even on such anthropocentric terms, a surprisingly strong case can in fact be made against animal consumption given the negative effects animal agriculture has on human health — effects that individual consumption will also contribute to on the margin.

First, as is quite salient these days, animal agriculture significantly increases the risk of zoonotic diseases. Many of the most lethal diseases of the last century were zoonotic diseases that spread to humans due to animal agriculture and/or animal consumption, including the 1918 flu (50-100 million deaths), AIDS (30-40 million deaths), the Hong Kong flu (1-4 million deaths), and the 1957-1958 flu (1-4 million deaths). The same is true of the largest epidemics so far in this century, such as SARS, Ebola, COVID-19, and various bird and swine flus.

As noted in (Babatunde, 2011):

A remarkable 61 percent of all human pathogens, and 75 percent of new human pathogens, are transmitted by animals, and some of the most lethal bugs affecting humans originate in our domesticated animals.

Antibiotic resistance is another health problem exacerbated by animal agriculture. Each year in the US, more than 35,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections, which is more than twice the annual number of US gun homicides. And around 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the US are given to non-human animals — often simply to promote growth rather than to fight infections. In other words, animal agriculture is a key contributor to antibiotic resistance.

The environmental effects of animal agriculture represent another important factor, or rather set of factors. There is pollution — “ammonia pollution linked to U.S. farming may impose human health costs that are greater than the profits earned by agricultural exports”. There are greenhouse gases contributing significantly to climate change. There is nitrate contamination of the groundwater from manure:

The EPA found that nitrates are the most widespread agricultural contaminant in drinking water wells and estimates that 4.5 million people [in the US] are exposed to elevated nitrate levels from drinking water wells. Nitrates, if they find their way into the groundwater, can potentially be fatal to infants.

Beyond the environmental effects, there are also significant health risks associated with the direct consumption of animal products, including red meat, chicken meat, fish meat, eggs and dairy. Conversely, significant health benefits are associated with alternative sources of protein, such as beans, nuts, and seeds. This is relevant both collectively, for the sake of not supporting industries that actively promote poor human nutrition in general, as well as individually, to maximize one’s own health so one can be more effectively altruistic.

A more thorough review of the human costs of animal agriculture are found in (Vinding, 2014, ch. 2).

In sum, one could argue that we also have a strong obligation to our fellow humans to avoid contributing to the various human health problems and risks caused by animal agriculture.

Both/And

What I have said above may seem in tension with the common consequentialist critique that says that animal advocates focus too much on individual consumer behavior. Yet in reality, there is no tension. It is both true, I submit, that avoiding the consumption of animal products is important (in purely consequentialist terms) and that most animal advocates focus far too much on individual consumer change compared to institutional change and wild-animal suffering. The latter point does not negate the former (the same view is expressed in John & Sebo, 2020, 3.3).

Ten Biases Against Prioritizing Wild-Animal Suffering

I recommend reading the short and related post Why Most People Don’t Care About Wild-Animal Suffering by Ben Davidow.

The aim of this essay is to list some of the reasons why animal advocates and aspiring effective altruists may be biased against prioritizing wild-animal suffering. These biasing factors are, I believe, likely to significantly distort the views and priorities of most people who hold impartial moral views concerned about the suffering of all non-human animals.

1. Historical momentum and the status quo

The animal rights movement has, historically, been almost exclusively concerned with the protection of non-human animals exploited by humans. Very little attention has been devoted to suffering in nature for natural reasons. And to the extent the issue has been mentioned by philosophers in the past, it has rarely been framed as something that we ought to do something about.

Only in recent decades has the view that wild-animal suffering deserves serious attention in our practical deliberations been defended more explicitly. And the people who have defended this view have, of course, still been a tiny minority among activists concerned about animal suffering, and they have so far had little impact on the focus and activism of the animal movement at large.

This historical background matters greatly, since we humans very much have a social epistemology: we tend to pick up the views of our peers. For example, most people adopt the religion that is most popular in their geographical region, even if it is not the most rational belief system on reflection. And a similar pattern applies to our views in general. It is truly rare for people to think critically and independently.

Thus, if most people concerned about non-human animals — including our own mentors and personal heroes — have focused almost exclusively on the plight of non-human animals exploited by humans, then we are likely to be strongly inclined to do the same, even if this is not the most rational focus on reflection (in terms of how we can have the best impact on the margin).

2. Emotionally salient footage

Closely related to the point above is the fact that footage of suffering “farm animals” constitutes almost all of the disturbing footage we see of animal suffering. Whether on social media or in documentary movies about animal rights, the vast majority of the content encountered by the average animal activist shows cows, pigs, and chickens who are suffering at human hands.

Note how unrepresentative this picture is: a great majority of the animal suffering we observe occurs at human hands, although the vast majority of all suffering beings on the planet are found in nature. It is difficult to see how this can give us anything but a skewed sense of what is actually happening on our planet.

Yet not only will most of us have been exposed to far more suffering occurring at human hands, but we probably also tend to see the victims of such suffering with very different eyes compared to how we see the victims of natural processes. When we, as animal activists, see pigs and chickens suffer at human hands, we look at these beings with sympathy. We feel moral outrage. But when we see a being suffer in nature for natural reasons — for example, a baby elephant getting eaten alive — we are probably more hesitant about activating this same sympathy. Sure, we may lament the suffering and feel bad for the victim. But we do not truly see ourselves in the victim’s place. We do not look at the situation with moral eyes that cry “this is unacceptable”.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of this point. For while we may like to think of our activism and moral priorities as being animated chiefly by reasoned arguments, the truth is that salient experiences tend to matter just as much, if not more, for our moral motivation. It is one thing to think that wild-animal suffering is important, but it is quite another to feel it. The latter renders action less optional.

If we had only seen more footage of wild-animal suffering, and — most crucially — dared to behold such footage with truly sympathetic eyes, we would probably feel its moral gravity much more clearly, and in turn feel more motivated to address the problem. It seems unlikely that the priorities of the animal movement would be largely the same if more than 99 percent of the horrible footage encountered by animal activists had displayed the suffering of wild animals.

3. Perpetrator bias

Another relevant bias to control for is what I have called the perpetrator bias: we seem to care more about suffering when it is caused by a moral agent who has brought it about by intentional action (Vinding, 2020, 7.7). By extension, we tend to neglect suffering when it is not caused by intentional actions, such as when it occurs in nature for natural reasons. This bias, and its relevance to our appraisals of wild-animal suffering, has been explored in (Tomasik, 2013; Davidow, 2013).

As both Tomasik and Davidow argue, this bias could well be among the main reasons why most people, and indeed most animal advocates, tend to neglect the problem of wild-animal suffering. Our moral psychology is very much set up to track the transgressions of perpetrators, which can leave us relatively unmoved by suffering that involves no perpetrators, even if our reflected view is that all suffering should matter equally. After all, the core programming of our moral cognition does not change instantly just because a few of the modules in our minds have come to endorse a more advanced, impartial view.

4. Omission bias

Some version of the omission bias — our tendency to judge harmful acts of omission more leniently than harmful acts of commission, even when the consequences are the same — may be another reason why people with impartial views give less priority to wild-animal suffering than they ideally should. Our moral psychology is plausibly often motivated to focus on wrongs that we can be perceived to be responsible for, and for which we may be blamed.

Suffering caused by humans is in some sense done by “us”, and hence we may instinctively feel that we are more blameworthy for allowing such suffering to occur compared to allowing the suffering of wild animals. This might in turn incline us toward focusing on the former rather than the latter. Yet from an impartial perspective, this is not a sound reason for prioritizing human-caused suffering over “natural” suffering.

5. Scope neglect

Numbers are commonly invoked as one of the main reasons for focusing on “farm animals”. For example, there are about a hundred times as many non-human animals used and killed for food as there are companion animals, and hence we should generally spend our limited resources on helping the former rather than the latter. What is less commonly acknowledged, however, is that a similar thing can be said about wild animals, who, even if we only count vertebrates, outnumber vertebrates used and killed for food at least a thousand times (and perhaps more than 100,000 times).

Such numbers are notoriously difficult for us to internalize in our moral outlook. Our minds were simply not built to feel the significance of several orders of magnitude. Consequently, we have to make an arduous effort to really appreciate the force of this consideration.

The following illustration from Animal Charity Evaluators shows the relative proportion of wild vertebrates to domesticated vertebrates:

number wild animals

6. Invertebrate neglect

Related to, and amplifying, the scope-neglect consideration is our neglect of invertebrate suffering. Not only are domesticated vertebrates outnumbered by wild vertebrates by at least a thousand times, but wild vertebrates are, in turn, outnumbered by wild invertebrates by at least ten thousand times (and perhaps by more than ten million times).
.


Put differently, more than 99.99 percent of all animals are invertebrates, and virtually all of them live in the wild. Taking the suffering of invertebrates into account thus gives us another strong — and widely ignored — reason in favor of prioritizing wild-animal suffering. A
nd in line with the point about the significance of emotionally salient footage, it may be that we need to watch footage of harmed invertebrates in order for us to fully appreciate the weight of this consideration.

7. Thinking we can have no impact

A common objection against focusing on wild-animal suffering is that the problem is intractable — if we could do anything about it, then we should prioritize it, but there just isn’t anything we can do at this point.

This is false in two principal ways. First, we humans already make countless decisions that influence animals in the wild (and we will surely make even more significant such decisions in the future). For example, the environmental policies adopted by our societies already influence large numbers of non-human animals in significant ways, and it would be false to claim that such policies are impossible to influence. After all, environmental groups have already been able to influence such policies to a considerable extent. Sadly, such groups have routinely pushed for policies that are profoundly speciesist and harmful for non-human animals — often with support from animal advocates, which shows how important it is that animal activists do not blindly endorse environmentalist policies, and how important it is that we reflect on the relationship between environmentalist ethics and animal ethics. And, of course, beyond influencing large-scale policy decisions, there are also many interventions we can make on a smaller scale that still help non-human animals in significant ways.

Second, we can help wild animals in indirect ways: by arguing against speciesism and for the importance of taking wild-animal suffering into consideration, as well as by establishing a research field focused on how we can best help wild animals on a large scale. Such indirect work, i.e. work that does not lead to direct interventions in the near term, may be the most important thing we can do at this point, even as our current wildlife policies and direct interventions are already hugely consequential.

So the truth is that there is much we can do at this point to work for a future with fewer harms to wild animals.

8. Underestimating public receptivity

There are reasons to think that animal advocates strongly underestimate public receptivity to the idea that wild-animal suffering matters and is worth reducing (see also what I have written elsewhere concerning the broader public’s receptivity to antispeciesist advocacy).

One reason could be that animal advocates themselves tend to find the idea controversial, and they realize that veganism is already quite controversial to most people. Hence, they reason, if they, as animal advocates, find the idea so controversial, and if most people find mere veganism to be highly controversial, then surely the broader public must find concern for wild-animal suffering extremely controversial.

Yet such an expectation is heavily distorted by the idiosyncratic position in which vegans find themselves. The truth is that most people may well view things the opposite way: veganism is controversial to them because they are currently heavily invested — socially and habit-wise — in non-veganism. By contrast, most people are not heavily invested in non-intervention with respect to wild animals, and thus have little incentive to oppose it.

The following is a relevant quote from Oscar Horta that summarizes his experience of giving talks about the issues of speciesism and wild-animal suffering at various high schools (my own software-assisted translation):

Intervention to help animals is easily accepted
There are many antispeciesist activists who are afraid to defend the idea of helping animals in the wild. Even if these activists totally agree with the idea, they believe that most people will reject it completely, and even consider the idea absurd. However, among the people attending the talks there was a very wide acceptance of the idea. Radical cases of intervention were not raised in the talks, but all the examples presented were well accepted. These included cases of injured, sick or trapped animals being rescued; orphan animal shelters; medical assistance to sick or injured animals; vaccination of wild animals; and provision of food for animals at risk of starvation. In sum, there does not seem to be any reason to be afraid of conveying this idea in talks of this type.

Of course, the claim here is not that everybody, or even most people, will readily agree with the idea of helping wild animals — many will surely resist it strongly. But the same holds true of all advocacy on behalf of non-human animals, and the point is that, contrary to our intuitive expectations, public receptivity to helping non-human animals in nature may in many ways be greater than their receptivity to helping “farm animals” (although receptivity toward the latter also appears reasonably high when the issue is framed in terms of institutional change rather than individual consumer change).

9. Overlooking likely future trajectories

As I have noted elsewhere:

Veganism is rising, and there are considerable incentives entirely separate from concern for nonhuman animals to move away from the production of animal “products”. In economic terms, it is inefficient to sustain an animal in order to use her flesh and skin rather than to grow meat and other animal-derived products directly, or replace them with plant-based alternatives. Similarly strong incentives exist in the realm of public health, which animal agriculture threatens by increasing the risks of zoonotic diseases, antibiotic resistant bacteria like MRSA, and cardiovascular disease. These incentives, none of which have anything to do with concern for nonhuman animals per se, could well be pushing humanity toward veganism more powerfully than anything else.

So despite the bleakness of the current situation, there are many incentives that appear to push humanity toward the abolition of animal exploitation, and we may even be moving in that direction faster than most of us expect (this is not, of course, a reason to be complacent about the unspeakable moral atrocity of “animal farming”, but it is something to take into account in our approach to helping future beings as much as we can).

In contrast, there are no corresponding incentives that lead us to help non-human animals in nature, and thus no strong reasons to think that humanity (including environmentalists, sadly) will take the interests of wild animals sufficiently into account if we do not advocate on their behalf.

Advocacy focused on wild animals is already vastly neglected in the animal movement today, and when we consider what the future is likely to look like, the level of priority animal advocates currently devote to the problem of wild-animal suffering seems even more disproportionate still.

10. Long-term nebulousness bias

This last bias is a bit more exotic and applies mostly to so-called longtermist effective altruists. People who focus on improving the long-term future can risk ending up with a rather nebulous sense of how to act and what to prioritize: there are so many hypothetical cause areas to consider, and it is often difficult to find tractable ways to further a given cause. Moreover, since there tends to be little real-world data that can help us make progress on these issues, longtermists are often forced to rely mostly on speculation — which in turn opens the floodgates for overconfidence in such speculations. In other words, focusing on the long-term future can easily lead us to rely far too strongly on untested abstractions, and to pay insufficient attention to real-world data and existing problems.

In this way, a (naive) longtermist focus may lead us to neglect concrete problems that evidently do have long-term relevance, and which we can take clear steps toward addressing today. We neglect such problems not only because most of our attention is devoted to more speculative things, but also because these concrete problems do not seem to resemble the “ultimate thing” that clearly improves the long-term future far better than other, merely decent focus areas. Unfortunately, such an “ultimate thing” is, I would argue, unlikely to ever be found. (And if one thinks one has found it, there are reasons to be skeptical.)

In effect, a naive longtermist focus can lead us to overlook just how promising work to reduce wild-animal suffering in fact is, and how long a list of compelling reasons one can give in its favor: in terms of scale, it vastly dominates all other sources of currently existing suffering; it is, as argued above, a tractable problem where there are fairly concrete and robust ways to make progress; and the problem is likely to exist and be dominant in scale for a long time — centuries, at least.

More than that, work to reduce wild-animal suffering is also likely to have many good flow-through effects. For example, such work is probably among the most promising actions we can take to prevent the spread of animal suffering to space, which is one of the least speculative s-risks (i.e. risks of astronomical future suffering). Indeed, there are already people who actively advocate that humanity should spread nature to space, and concrete proposals for how it could be accomplished already exist.

The risk of spreading wild-animal suffering to space appears greater than the risk of spreading factory farming to space, not least in light of the point made in the previous section concerning the incentives and future technologies that are likely to render factory farming obsolete. One may, of course, object that the risks of astronomical future suffering we reduce by addressing factory farming today do not involve factory farming itself but rather future analogs of it. This is a fair point, and such risks of future analogs to factory farming should indeed be taken seriously. However, by the same token, one can argue that we also address future analogs to wild-animal suffering by working on that problem today, and indeed further argue that this would be a superior focus.

After all, work to address wild-animal suffering appears more wide-ranging and inclusive than does work to address factory farming — for example, it is difficult to imagine a future where we address wild-animal suffering (and analog problems) yet fail to address factory farming (and analog problems). Future scenarios where we address the latter yet fail to address the former seem more plausible, since addressing wild-animal suffering takes a greater level of moral sophistication: it not only requires that we avoid directly harming other beings, but also that we actively help them.

Which brings us to another positive secondary effect of focusing on wild-animal suffering: such a focus embodies and reinforces the virtue of factoring in numbers in our moral deliberations, as well as the virtue of extending our circle of moral concern — and responsibility — to even include beings who suffer for reasons we ourselves had no hand in. It is a focus that reflects a truly universal view of our moral obligations, and it does this to a significantly greater extent than a mere opposition to factory farming or (anthropogenic) animal exploitation in general.

To be clear, I am not claiming that wild-animal suffering is necessarily the best thing to focus on for people trying to reduce suffering in the long-term future (I myself happen to think suffering-focused research of a more general nature is somewhat better). But I do claim that it is a decent candidate, and a better candidate than one is likely to realize when caught up in speculative far-mode sequence thinking.

Either/Or: A false choice

To say that most of us likely have strong biases against prioritizing wild-animal suffering, and that we should give it much greater priority, is not to say that we cannot still support efforts to abolish animal exploitation, and indeed do effective work toward this end.

As I have argued elsewhere, one of the many advantages of antispeciesist advocacy is that it encompasses all non-human animals and all the suffering they endure — anthropogenic as well as naturogenic.


Addendum: An important bias I left out above is the “proportion bias” (Vinding, 2020, 7.6), also known as “proportion dominance“:  our tendency to care more about helping 10 out of 10 individuals than we care about helping 10 out of 100, even though the impact is the same. This bias is especially relevant in the context of wild-animal suffering given the enormous scale at which it continually occurs as a backdrop to any altruistic effort we may pursue.

In terms of biases in the other direction, Jacy Reese has suggested some biases that may favor a focus on wild-animal suffering (though note that he largely agrees with me: “there are no ‘similarly strong’ biases [in the other direction] in the sense that, among self-identified animal advocates, the biases away from wild animal suffering are much stronger than biases toward”). I have shared my views on Jacy’s points on Twitter.

Animal Advocates Should Focus On Antispeciesism, Not Veganism

First published: Dec. 2016.

How can we help nonhuman animals as much as possible? A good answer to this question could spare billions from suffering and death, while a bad one could condemn as many to that fate. So it’s worth taking our time to find good answers.

Focusing our advocacy on antispeciesism may be our best bet. In short, antispeciesist advocacy looks promising because it encompasses all nonhuman animals and implies great obligations toward them, and also because people may be especially receptive to such advocacy. More than that, antispeciesism is also likely to remain relevant for a long time, which makes it seem uniquely robust when we consider things from a very long-term perspective.

The value of antispeciesist advocacy

Antispeciesism addresses all the ways in which we discriminate against nonhuman animals, not just select sites of that discrimination, like circuses or food farms. Unlike more common approaches to animal advocacy, it demands that we take all forms of suffering endured by nonhuman animals into consideration.

Campaigns against fur farming, for instance, do not also cover the suffering and death involved in other forms of speciesist exploitation, such as the egg and dairy industries. Veganism, on the other hand, is much broader, in that it rejects all directly human-caused animal suffering. Advocating for the interests of comparatively few beings when we could advocate for the interests of many more with the same time and resources is likely a lost opportunity.

But even veganism is not as broad as antispeciesism, since it says nothing about the vast majority of sentient beings on the planet: animals who live in nature. Wild animals also suffer, and should not be granted less consideration simply because their suffering is not our fault.

Antispeciesism implies veganism – i.e. that we “exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose” – but unlike veganism it also requires us to give serious consideration to nonhuman animals who are harmed in nature. Antispeciesism implies that we should help wild animals in need, just as we should help humans suffering from starvation or disease that we didn’t cause. Unfortunately, nonhuman animals are often harmed in nature, and often do succumb to starvation and thirst. Fortunately, there is much we can do to work for a future with fewer harms to them.


image-placeholder-title-228

Even if we expect people to be more receptive to messaging that is narrower in focus and easier to agree with, the all-encompassing nature of antispeciesist advocacy could mean it has greater value overall.

But are people really less receptive to such advocacy anyways? The concept of speciesism may seem abstract and advanced, and may strike us as something only committed animal rights advocates know of and understand. Yet there are reasons to think that this gut intuition is wrong.

Oscar Horta, a professor of moral philosophy who has delivered talks about animal rights around the world, has repeatedly put this pessimistic intuition to the test. At various talks delivered to Spanish high school students, he has attempted to systematically evaluate the attitudes of the attendees by giving them a questionnaire. One of the main results of this evaluation, according to Horta, was that “contrary to what some people think, most people who attended these talks accepted the arguments against speciesism.”[1]

So reportedly, a majority of attendees accepted the arguments against speciesism. And perhaps we should not be that surprised. Most people understand the concept of discrimination already, and speciesism is just another form of discrimination. The fact that many people are already familiar with the concept of discrimination and agree that it is not justified suggests that there might be a template upon which speciesism can easily be argued against. This could partly explain why most of Horta’s attendees accepted the arguments against speciesism. An additional reason might be that the arguments against speciesism are exceptionally strong and hard to argue with.

Another interesting finding from Horta was that students appeared more receptive to a message opposing speciesism than to one supporting veganism. As he reports:

What is controversial is not really the discussion about speciesism. On the contrary, the most controversial point is (as might be expected), the discussion about whether we should stop eating animal “products”. Yet this discussion can also be carried out without major problems, at least if a couple of recommendations are followed: First of all, that this discussion arises not at the beginning of the talk, but rather towards the end, when speciesism and the need to respect all sentient beings has already been discussed. At that point, there is a greater willingness to consider this issue, because people who attend the talk then have a favorable attitude both toward animals and the speaker. But if we proceed in the opposite order and first argue for veganism and then raise the arguments about speciesism, the reaction is different. The result is that there is less willingness to consider the issue of veganism. And not only that, acceptance of arguments about speciesism is lower as well.

If this difference in effectiveness between vegan and antispeciesist messaging is similar in the broader public, the implications for advocacy are profound: even if our goal were only to promote veganism, the best way to do so might be to talk about speciesism, rather than, or at least before, talking about veganism. That talking about veganism straight away seems to have made the students less receptive not only to veganism itself but also to arguments against speciesism is also worth taking note of.

More thorough replication of Horta’s findings, on larger, more varied populations would significantly increase our confidence in the conclusion that antispeciesist advocacy is superior to vegan advocacy for creating antispeciesists, as well as vegans. Until then, Horta’s reported findings do at least suggest that people can accept arguments against speciesism.

Is vegan advocacy costly to wild animals?

Vegan advocacy could also be costly to animals not encompassed by vegan advocacy. Horta states:

There are many people involved in antispeciesism who are afraid to defend the idea that we should help animals in need in nature. Even though they fully agree with it, they believe that most people totally reject that idea, and even consider it absurd. However, among those attending the talks, there was a broad acceptance of the idea.

This is good news for animals and their advocates, given that the vast majority of nonhuman animals live in nature. Helping animals in the wild, such as through vaccinations and cures for diseases, may be among the most effective ways in which we can help nonhuman animals. Vegan advocacy excludes consideration of their interests, but antispeciesist advocacy does not.

This means that not only might it be costly to focus mainly on veganism in the interest of spreading veganism itself (compared to focusing mainly on speciesism and then raising the issue of veganism), but it might also be costly with respect to the goal of helping animals in nature. It’s possible that talking about veganism rather than speciesism makes it significantly harder to bring about interventions that could help nonhuman animals.

Compared to veganism, antispeciesism is also much harder to confuse with environmentalism, supporters of which often recommend overtly speciesist interventions such as the mass killing of beings in the name of “healthy ecosystems” and biodiversity. This lack of potential for confusion is another strong reason in favor of antispeciesist advocacy.

Beyond veganism

Antispeciesist advocacy is also much more neglected than vegan advocacy. Veganism is rising, and there are considerable incentives entirely separate from concern for nonhuman animals to move away from the production of animal “products”. In economic terms, it is inefficient to sustain an animal in order to use her flesh and skin rather than to grow meat and other animal-derived products directly, or replace them with plant-based alternatives. Similarly strong incentives exist in the realm of public health, which animal agriculture threatens by increasing the risks of zoonotic diseases, antibiotic resistant bacteria like MRSA, and cardiovascular disease. These incentives, none of which have anything to do with concern for nonhuman animals per se, could well be pushing humanity toward veganism more powerfully than anything else.

While veganism likely has a promising future, the future of antispeciesism seems much less clear and less promising, and has far fewer people working to promote it. This suggests that our own limited resources might be better spent promoting the latter. When thinking about how to build a better tomorrow, we should also consider the following tomorrows, and if we have a virtually vegan world a century from now due to the incentives mentioned above, the world will likely still be speciesist in many other respects. So in addition to the appeal antispeciesist advocacy has for the nonhuman animals whom humans are actively harming now, the explicitly antispeciesist approach is important for the sake of nonhuman animals in the future. Working towards a less speciesist future could both help close down the slaughterhouses, and help many animals long after.

Additionally, the spread of antispeciesism might also be a useful stepping stone toward concern for sentient beings of nonanimal kinds. Unfortunately, there is a risk that new kinds of sentient beings could emerge in the future – for instance, biologically engineered brains – and become the victims of a whole new kind of factory farming. Just like concern for humans who face discrimination can provide useful support today when the case against speciesism is made, antispeciesism could well be similarly generalizable and provide such support in the case against new forms of discrimination.

A final point in favor of antispeciesist advocacy over vegan advocacy is that the message of the former is clearly ethico-political in nature, and therefore does not risk being confused with an amoral consumerist preference or fad, as veganism often is. The core of antispeciesism is clear, easy to communicate, and much follows from it in terms of the practical implications.

Additional Resources

Oscar Horta provides more reasons to favor antispeciesist advocacy in a talk entitled “About Strategies”. See also my Notes on the Utility of Antispeciesist Advocacy.

This article was originally published on the website of Sentience Politics.


[1] My own machine-assisted translation

On Insects and Lexicality

“Their experiences may be more simple than ours, but are they less intense? Perhaps a caterpillar’s primitive pain when squashed is greater than our more sophisticated sufferings.”

— Richard Ryder, Painism: A Modern Morality, p. 64.

Many people, myself included, find it plausible that suffering of a certain intensity, such as torture, carries greater moral significance than any amount of mild suffering. One may be tempted to think that views of this kind imply we should primarily prioritize the beings most likely to experience these “lexically worse” states of suffering (LWS) — presumably beings with large brains.* By extension, one may think such views will generally imply little priority to beings with small, less complex brains, such as insects. (Which is probably also a view we would intuitively like to embrace, given the inconvenience of the alternative.) 

Yet while perhaps intuitive, I do not think this conclusion follows. The main argument against it, in my view, is that we should maintain a non-trivial probability that beings with small brains, such as insects, indeed can experience LWS (regardless of how we define these states). After all, on what grounds can we confidently maintain they cannot?

And if we then assume an expected value framework, and multiply the large number of insects by a non-trivial probability of them being able to experience LWS, we find that, in terms of presently existing beings, the largest amount of LWS in expectation may well be found in small beings such as insects.


* It should be noted in this context, though, that many humans ostensibly cannot feel (at least physical) pain, whereas many beings with smaller brains show every sign of having this capacity, which suggests brain size is a poor proxy for the ability to experience pain, let alone the ability to experience LWS, and that genetic variation in certain pain-modulating genes may well be a more important factor.


More literature

On insects:

The Importance of Insect Suffering
Reducing Suffering Amongst Invertebrates Such As Insects
Do Bugs Feel Pain?
How to Avoid Hurting Insects
The Moral Importance of Invertebrates Such as Insects

On Lexicality:

Value Lexicality
Clarifying lexical thresholds
Many-valued logic as a reply to sequence arguments in value theory
Lexicality between mild discomfort and unbearable suffering: A variety of possible views
Lexical priority to extreme suffering — in practice

Why the Many-Worlds Interpretation May Not Have Significant Ethical Implications

At first glance, it seems like the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (MWI) might have significant ethical implications. After all, MWI implies that there are many more sentient beings in the world than one would think given a naive classical view, indeed a much greater number of them. And so it seems quite plausible, at least on the face of it, that ethical considerations pertaining to MWI should dominate everything else in expectation, even if we place only a small credence on this interpretation being true. In this post, I shall outline some reasons why this may in fact not be the case, at least with respect to two commonly supposed implications: 1) extreme caution, and 2) exponentially greater value over time. However, questions concerning the ethical implications of our best physical theories and their interpretations remain open and worth exploring.

Would Branching Worlds Imply Extreme Caution?

“I still recall vividly the shock I experienced on first encountering this multiworld concept [MWI]. The idea of 10100 slightly imperfect copies of oneself all constantly splitting into further copies, which ultimately become unrecognizable, is not easy to reconcile with common sense.”

Bryce DeWitt

This is a common way to introduce the implications of MWI, and it seems plausible that this radically different conception of reality, if true, should lead us to change our actions in significant ways. In particular, it may seem intuitive that it should lead us to act more cautiously, as David Pearce argues:

So one should always act “unnaturally” responsibly, driving one’s car not just slowly and cautiously, for instance, but ultracautiously. This is because one should aim to minimise the number of branches in which one injures anyone, even if leaving a trail of mayhem is, strictly speaking, unavoidable. If a motorist doesn’t leave a (low-density) trail of mayhem, then quantum mechanics is false. This systematic re-evaluation of ethically acceptable risk needs to be adopted world-wide.

Yet, while intuitive, I would argue that this actually does not follow. For although it may be true that we should generally act much more cautiously than we do, this conclusion is not influenced by MWI, for various reasons.

First, if one is trying to reduce suffering, one should not “aim to minimise the number of branches in which one injures anyone”, but rather seek to reduce as much suffering as possible (in expectation) in the world. At an intuitive level, these may seem equivalent, yet they are not. The former is in fact impossible, as we are bound to injure others, even assuming the existence of just one world, whereas the latter — reducing the greatest amount of suffering possible throughout all branches — is possible by definition.

In particular, this argument for being highly cautious ignores the fact that such caution also carries risks — e.g. extreme caution might increase the probability that we will bring about more suffering by omission, by rendering our efforts to reduce suffering less effective. And these other risks may well be much larger, and thus result in the realization of a larger amount of suffering in a larger measure of branches. In other words, since it is far from clear that being ultracautious is the best way to reduce suffering in expectation throughout all branches, it is far from clear that we should practice such ultracaution in light of MWI.

Second, and quite relatedly, I would argue that, whether we live in many worlds or one, we should seek to minimize expected suffering regardless. For if we happened to exist in one world, a small probability of a very bad outcome would be equally worth avoiding, in expectation, as it would be if we happened to live in a quantum multiverse. Whether we do just one or an arbitrarily large number of “trials”, we should still pursue the same action: that which reduces the most suffering in expectation. 

Third, any argument of the kind made above concerning how all slightly probable outcomes will be realized can also be made by assuming that the multiverse of inflation exists. Thus, if one already believes that we live in a spatially infinite, or indeed “merely” extremely large universe, then the radical conclusions supposed to follow from MWI would already be implied by that belief alone (as we shall see below, many prominent proponents of MWI actually consider MWI not only equivalent but identical with the multiverse of inflation). And if one does not think a spatially very large universe should change how we act, then why think that a large, in many ways equivalent, quantum universe should? As argued above, it seems that no radical conclusions should follow either way. One world or many, we should still do what seems best in expectation.

Another way to arrive at the same conclusion is by embracing Stuart Armstrong’s Anthropic Decision Theory, according to which we, as altruists aiming to reduce suffering, should act the same way regardless of how many similar copies of us there may be in the world.

Would Branching Worlds Imply More Value Later?

Following Bryce DeWitt’s quote about rapidly splitting copies, one can reasonably wonder whether MWI implies that the net amount of value in the world, and hence the value of our actions’ impact on the world, is increasing exponentially over time. Indeed, if we naively interpret DeWitt’s claim to mean that the number of sentient beings that exists is multiplied by 10100 just about every second, this would imply that the value of the very last second of the existence of sentient life should massively dominate every thing else. If this interpretation of MWI is correct, it would have extremely significant ethical implications. Yet is it? It would seem not. Here is Max Tegmark:

Does the number of universes exponentially increase over time? The surprising answer is no. From the bird perspective, there is of course only one quantum universe. From the frog perspective, what matters is the number of universes that are distinguishable at a given instant—that is, the number of noticeably different Hubble volumes. Imagine moving planets to random new locations, imagine having married someone else, and so on. At the quantum level, there are 10 to the 10118 universes with temperatures below 108 kelvins. That is a vast number, but a finite one.

From the frog perspective, the evolution of the wave function corresponds to a never-ending sliding from one of these 10 to the 10118 states to another. Now you are in universe A, the one in which you are reading this sentence. Now you are in universe B, the one in which you are reading this other sentence. Put differently, universe B has an observer identical to one in universe A, except with an extra instant of memories.

Thus, it seems one should think about MWI in terms of an intertwining rope rather than a branching tree. A good way to gain intuition about it may be to think in terms of the multiverse of inflation instead. Indeed, according to prominent proponents of MWI, the many-worlds of quantum mechanics and the multiverse of inflation are not only closely related notions but indeed the same thing, cf. (Aguirre & Tegmark, 2010Nomura, 2011Bousso & Susskind, 2011). In that case, not only is thinking about copies of ourselves in worlds spatially far away from us a great way to gain intuition about MWI; it is the correct way to think about it.

And when we think about it in these terms, it suddenly all becomes quite straightforward and intuitive, at least relatively speaking. For on the inflationary model, there are copies of us in the universe located far away with whom we share our entire history from the big bang up until now. Yet as time progresses, and more different outcomes become possible, the distance to the copies of us that share our exact history becomes ever greater, at a rapid pace, cf. (Garriga & Vilenkin, 2001). Thus, there is indeed a rapid branching in a very real sense, only, this branching consists in departing from “nearby” copies of us who had been just like us up until this point. No new worlds are really added. The “other worlds” were always there, and then merely went their separate ways.

Hence, given the assumptions made here, the number of sentient beings in our world does not in fact increase exponentially in the way naively supposed above, unless one keeps on aggregating over an exponentially larger fraction of the space that already existed. (There is, however, an exponential increase in the number of new universes created by inflating regions of the universe, assuming inflationary theory is correct. Yet this process does not create an exponentially greater number of sentient beings from our point in space and time, i.e. Earth, 13.8 billion years after the big bang. Rather, these new worlds are all created “from scratch”.) In short, MWI does not appear to imply greater value later.

 

In sum, I have argued that we seem to have good reason to maintain something akin to one-world common sense in most of our decisions (decisions that might influence the creation of new universes would be an exception). This conclusion may, however, be strongly biased given that it comes from a brain that very much wants to preserve common sense.

Narrative Self-Deception: The Ultimate Elephant in the Brain?

the elephant in the brain, n. An important but un­ack­now­ledged fea­ture of how our minds work; an introspective taboo.”

The Elephant in the Brain is an informative and well-written book, co-authored by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. It explains why much of our behavior is driven by unflattering, hidden motives, as well as why our minds are built to be unaware of these motives. In short: because a mind that is ignorant about what drives it and how it works is often more capable of achieving the aims it was built to achieve.

Beyond that, the book also seeks to apply this knowledge to shed some light on many of our social institutions to show that they are often not mostly about what we think they are. Rather than being about high-minded ideals and other pretty things that we like to say they are about, our institutions often serve much less pretty, more status-driven purposes, such as showing off in various ways, as well as to help us better get by in a tough world (for instance, the authors argue that religion in large part serves to bind communities together, and in this way can help bring about better life outcomes for believers).

All in all, I think The Elephant in the Brain provides a strong case for supplementing one’s mental toolkit with a new, important tool, namely to continuously ask: how might my mind skillfully be avoiding confrontation with ugly truths about myself that I would prefer not to face? And how might such unflattering truths explain aspects of our public institutions and public life in general?

This is an important lesson, I think, and it makes the book more than worth reading. At the same time, I cannot help but feel that the book ultimately falls short when it comes to putting this tool to proper use. For the main critique that came to my mind while reading the book was that it seemed to ignore the biggest elephant in the brain by far — the elephant I suspect we would all prefer to ignore the most — and hence it failed, in my view, to take a truly deep and courageous look at the human condition. In fact, the book even seemed be a mouthpiece for this great elephant.

The great elephant I have in mind here is a tacitly embraced sentiment that goes something like: life is great, and we are accomplishing something worthwhile. As the authors write: “[…] life, for must of us, is pretty good.” (p. 11). And they end the book on a similar note:

In the end, our motives were less important than what we managed to achieve by them. We may be competitive social animals, self-interested and self-deceived, but we cooperated our way to the god-damned moon.

This seems to implicitly assume that what humans have managed to achieve, such as cooperating (i.e. two superpowers with nuclear weapons pointed at each other competing) their way to the moon, has been worthwhile all things considered. Might this, however, be a flippant elephant talking — rather than, say, a conclusion derived via a serious, scholarly analysis of our condition?

As a meta-observation, I would note that the fact that people often get offended and become defensive when one even just questions the value of our condition — and sometimes also accuse the one raising the question of having a mental illness — suggests that we may indeed be disturbing a great elephant here: something we would strongly prefer not to think too deeply about. (For the record, with respect to mental health, I think one can be among the happiest, most mentally healthy people on the planet and still think that a sober examination of the value of our condition yields a negative answer, although it may require some disciplined resistance against the pulls of a strong elephant.)

It is important to note here that one should not confuse the cynicism required for honest exploration of the human condition with misanthropy, as Simler and Hanson themselves are careful to point out:

The line between cynicism and misanthropy—between thinking ill of human motives and thinking ill of humans—is often blurry. So we want readers to understand that although we may often be skeptical of human motives, we love human beings. (Indeed, many of our best friends are human!) […] All in all, we doubt an honest exploration will detract much from our affection for [humans]. (p. 13)

Similarly, an honest and hard-nosed effort to assess the value of human life and the human endeavor need not lead us to have any less affection and compassion for humans. Indeed, it might lead us to have much more of both in many ways.

Is Life “Pretty Good”?

With respect to Simler’s and Hanson’s claim that “”[…] life, for must of us, is pretty good”, it can be disputed that this is indeed the case. According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, a significant plurality of people rated their life satisfaction at five on a scale from zero to ten, which arguably does not translate to being “pretty good”. Indeed, one can argue that the scale employed in this report is biased, in that it does not allow for a negative evaluation of life. And one may further argue that if this scale instead ranged from minus five to plus five (i.e. if one transposed this zero-to-ten scale so as to make it symmetrical around zero), it may be that a plurality would rate their lives at zero. That is, after all, where the plurality would lie if one were to make this transposition on the existing data measured along the zero-to-ten scale (although it seems likely that people would have rated their life satisfaction differently if the scale had been constructed in this symmetrical way).

But even if we were to concede that most people say that their lives are pretty good, one can still reasonably question whether most people’s lives indeed are pretty good, and not least reasonably question whether such reports imply that the human condition is worthwhile in a broader sense.

Narrative Self-Deception: Is Life As Good As We Think?

Just as it is possible for us to be wrong about our own motives, as Simler and Hanson convincingly argue, could it be that we can also be wrong about how good our lives are? And, furthermore, could it be that we not only can be wrong but that most of us in fact are wrong about it most of the time? This is indeed what some philosophers argue, seemingly supported by psychological evidence.

One philosopher who has argued along these lines is Thomas Metzinger. In his essay “Suffering“, Metzinger reports on a pilot study he conducted in which students were asked at random times via their cell phones whether they would relive the experience they had just before their phone vibrated. The results were that, on average, students reported that their experience was not worth reliving 72 percent of the time. Metzinger uses this data, which he admits does not count as significant, as a starting point for a discussion on how our grosser narrative about the quality of our lives might be out of touch with the reality of our felt, moment-to-moment experience:

If, on the finest introspective level of phenomenological granularity that is functionally available to it, a self-conscious system would discover too many negatively valenced moments, then this discovery might paralyse it and prevent it from procreating. If the human organism would not repeat most individual conscious moments if it had any choice, then the logic of psychological evolution mandates concealment of the fact from the self-modelling system caught on the hedonic treadmill. It would be an advantage if insights into the deep structure of its own mind – insights of the type just sketched – were not reflected in its conscious self-model too strongly, and if it suffered from a robust version of optimism bias. Perhaps it is exactly the main function of the human self-model’s higher levels to drive the organism continuously forward, to generate a functionally adequate form of self-deception glossing over everyday life’s ugly details by developing a grandiose and unrealistically optimistic inner story – a “narrative self-model” with which we can identify? (pp. 6-7)

Metzinger continues to conjecture that we might be subject to what he calls “narrative self-deception” — a self-distracting strategy that keeps us from getting a realistic view of the quality and prospects of our lives:

[…] a strategy of flexible, dynamic self­-representation across a hierarchy of timescales could have a causal effect in continuously remotivating the self-­conscious organism, systematically distracting it from the potential insight that the life of an anti-­entropic system is one big uphill battle, a strenuous affair with minimal prospect of enduring success. Let us call this speculative hypothesis “narrative self­-deception”. (p. 7)

If this holds true, such self-deception would seem to more than satisfy the definition of an elephant in the brain in Simler and Hanson’s sense: “an important but un­ack­now­ledged fea­ture of how our minds work; an introspective taboo.”

To paraphrase Metzinger: the mere fact that we find life to be “pretty good” when we evaluate it all from the vantage point of a single moment does not mean that we in fact find most of our experiences “pretty good”, or indeed even worth (re)living most of the time, moment-to-moment. Our single-moment evaluations of the quality of the whole thing may well tend to be gross, self-deceived overestimates.

Another philosopher who makes a similar case is David Benatar, who in his book Better Never to Have Been argues that we tend to overestimate the quality of our lives due to well-documented psychological biases:

The first, most general and most influential of these psychological phenomena is what some have called the Pollyanna Principle, a tendency towards optimism. This manifests in many ways. First, there is an inclination to recall positive rather than negative experiences. For example, when asked to recall events from throughout their lives, subjects in a number of studies listed a much greater number of positive than negative experiences. This selective recall distorts our judgement of how well our lives have gone so far. It is not only assessments of our past that are biased, but also our projections or expectations about the future. We tend to have an exaggerated view of how good things will be. The Pollyannaism typical of recall and projection is also characteristic of subjective judgements about current and overall well-being. Many studies have consistently shown that self-assessments of well-being are markedly skewed toward the positive end of the spectrum. […] Indeed, most people believe that they are better off than most others or than the average person. (pp. 64-66)

Is “Pretty Good” Good Enough?

Beyond doubting whether most people would indeed say that their lives are “pretty good”, and beyond doubting that a single moment’s assessment of one’s quality of life actually reflects this quality particularly well, one can also question whether a life that is rated as “pretty good”, even in the vast majority of moments, is indeed good enough.

This is, for example, not necessarily the case on the so-called tranquilist view of value, according to which our experiences are valuable to the extent they are absent of suffering, and hence that happiness and pleasure are valuable to the extent they chase suffering away.

Similar to Metzinger’s point about narrative self-deception, one can argue that, if the tranquilist view holds true about how we feel the value of our experience moment-to-moment (upon closer, introspective inspection), we should probably expect to be quite blind to this fact. And interesting to note in this context is it that many of the traditions which have placed the greatest emphasis on paying attention to the nature of subjective experience moment-to-moment, such as Buddhism, have converged toward a view very similar to tranquilism.

Can the Good Lives Outweigh the Bad?

One can also question the value of our condition on a more collective level, by focusing not only on a single (self-reportedly) “pretty good” life but on all individual lives. In particular, we can question whether the good lives of some, indeed even a large majority, can justify the miserable lives of others.

A story that gives many people pause on this question is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. The story is about a near-paradisiacal city in which everyone lives deeply meaningful and fulfilling lives — that is, everyone except a single child who is locked in a basement room, forced to live a life of squalor:

The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

The story’s premise is that this child must exist in this condition for the happy people of Omelas to enjoy their wonderful lives, which then raises the question of whether these wonderful lives can in any sense outweigh and justify the miserable life of this single child. Some citizens of Omelas seem to decide that this is not the case: the ones who walk away from Omelas. And many people in the real world seem to agree with this decision.

Sadly, our world is much worse than the city of Omelas on every measure. For example, in the World Happiness Report cited above, around 200 million people reported their quality of life to be in the absolute worst category. If the story of Omelas gives us pause, we should also think twice before claiming that the “pretty good” lives of some people can outweigh the self-reportedly very bad lives of these hundreds of millions of people, many of whom end up committing suicide (and again, it should be remembered that a great plurality of humanity rated their life satisfaction to be exactly in the middle of the scale, while a significant majority rated it in the middle or lower).

Rating of general life satisfaction aside, one can also reasonably question whether anything can outweigh the many instances of extreme suffering that occur every single day, something that can indeed befall anyone, regardless of one’s past self-reported life satisfaction.

Beyond that, one can also question whether the “pretty good” lives of some humans can in any sense outweigh and justify the enormous amount of suffering humanity imposes on non-human animals, including the torturous suffering we subject more than a trillion fish to each year, as well as the suffering we impose upon the tens of billions of chickens and turkeys who live out their lives under the horrific conditions of factory farming, many of whom end their lives by being boiled alive. Indeed, there is no justification for not taking humanity’s impact on non-human animals — the vast majority of sentient beings on the planet — into consideration as well when assessing the value of our condition.

 

My main purpose in this essay has not been to draw any conclusions about the value of our condition. Rather, my aim has merely been to argue that we likely have an enormous elephant in our brain that causes us to evaluate our lives, individually as well as collectively, in overoptimistic terms (though some of us perhaps do not), and to ignore the many considerations that might suggest a negative conclusion. An elephant that leads us to eagerly assume that “it’s all pretty good and worthwhile”, and to flinch away from serious, sober-minded engagement with questions concerning the value of our condition, including whether it would be better if there had been no sentient beings at all.

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