Distrusting salience: Keeping unseen urgencies in mind

The psychological appeal of salient events and risks can be a major hurdle to optimal altruistic priorities and impact. My aim in this post is to outline a few reasons to approach our intuitive fascination with salient events and risks with a fair bit of skepticism, and to actively focus on that which is important yet unseen, hiding in the shadows of the salient.


Contents

  1. General reasons for caution: Availability bias and related biases
  2. The news: A common driver of salience-related distortions
  3. The narrow urgency delusion
  4. Massive problems that always face us: Ongoing moral disasters and future risks
  5. Salience-driven distortions in efforts to reduce s-risks
  6. Reducing salience-driven distortions

The human mind is subject to various biases that involve an overemphasis on the salient, i.e. that which readily stands out and captures our attention.

In general terms, there is the availability bias, also known as the availability heuristic, namely the common tendency to base our beliefs and judgments on information that we can readily recall. For example, we tend to overestimate the frequency of events when examples of these events easily come to mind.

Closely related is what is known as the salience bias, which is the tendency to overestimate salient features and events when making decisions. For instance, when deciding to buy a given product, the salience bias may lead us to give undue importance to a particularly salient feature of that product — e.g. some fancy packaging — while neglecting less salient yet perhaps more relevant features.

A similar bias is the recency bias: our tendency to give disproportionate weight to recent events in our belief-formation and decision-making. This bias is in some sense predicted by the availability bias, since recent events tend to be more readily available to our memory. Indeed, the availability bias and the recency bias are sometimes considered equivalent, even though it seems more accurate to view the recency bias as a consequence or a subset of the availability bias; after all, readily remembered information does not always pertain to recent events.

Finally, there is the phenomenon of belief digitization, which is the tendency to give undue weight to (what we consider) the single most plausible hypothesis in our inferences and decisions, even when other hypotheses also deserve significant weight. For example, if we are considering hypotheses A, B, and C, and we assign them the probabilities 50 percent, 30 percent, and 20 percent, respectively, belief digitization will push us toward simply accepting A as though it were true. In other words, belief digitization pushes us toward altogether discarding B and C, even though B and C collectively have the same probability as A. (See also related studies on Salience Theory and on the overestimation of salient causes and hypotheses in predictive reasoning.)

All of the biases mentioned above can be considered different instances of a broader cluster of availability/salience biases, and they each give us reason to be cautious of the influence that salient information has on our beliefs and our priorities.

One way in which our attention can become preoccupied with salient (though not necessarily crucial) information is through the news. Much has been written against spending a lot of time on the news, and the reasons against it are probably even stronger for those who are trying to spend their time and resources in ways that help sentient beings most effectively.

For even if we grant that there is substantial value in following the news, it seems plausible that the opportunity costs are generally too high, in terms of what one could instead spend one’s limited time learning about or advocating for. Moreover, there is a real risk that a preoccupation with the news has outright harmful effects overall, such as by gradually pulling one’s focus away from the most important problems and toward less important and less neglected problems. After all, the prevailing news criteria or news values decidedly do not reflect the problems that are most important from an impartial perspective concerned with the suffering of all sentient beings.

I believe the same issue exists in academia: A certain issue becomes fashionable, there are calls for abstracts, and there is a strong pull to write and talk about that given issue. And while it may indeed be important to talk and write about those topics for the purpose of getting ahead — or not falling behind — in academia, it seems more doubtful whether such topical talk is at all well-adapted for the purpose of making a difference in the world. In other words, the “news values” of academia are not necessarily much better than the news values of mainstream journalism.

The narrow urgency delusion

A salience-related pitfall that we can easily succumb to when following the news is what we may call the “narrow urgency delusion”. This is when the news covers some specific tragedy and we come to feel, at a visceral level, that this tragedy is the most urgent problem that is currently taking place. Such a perception is, in a very important sense, an illusion.

The reality is that tragedy on an unfathomable scale is always occurring, and the tragedies conveyed by the news are sadly but a tiny fraction of the horrors that are constantly taking place around us. Yet the tragedies that are always occurring, such as children who suffer and die from undernutrition and chickens who are boiled alive, are so common and so underreported that they all too readily fade from our moral perception. To our intuitions, these horrors seemingly register as mere baseline horror — as unsalient abstractions that carry little felt urgency — even though the horrors in question are every bit as urgent as the narrow sliver of salient horrors conveyed in the news (Vinding, 2020, sec. 7.6).

We should thus be clear that the delusion involved in the narrow urgency delusion is not the “urgency” part — there is indeed unspeakable horror and urgency involved in the tragedies reported by the news. The delusion rather lies in the “narrow” part; we find ourselves in a condition that contains extensive horror and torment, all of which merits compassion and concern.

So it is not that the salient victims are less important than what we intuitively feel, but rather that the countless victims whom we effectively overlook are far more important than what we (do not) feel.

Massive problems that always face us: Ongoing moral disasters and future risks

The following are some of the urgent problems that always face us, yet which are often less salient to us than the individual tragedies that are reported in the news:

These common and ever-present problems are, by definition, not news, which hints at the inherent ineffectiveness of news when it comes to giving us a clear picture of the reality we inhabit and the problems that confront us.

As the final entry on the list above suggests, the problems that face us are not limited to ongoing moral disasters. We also face risks of future atrocities, potentially involving horrors on an unprecedented scale. Such risks will plausibly tend to feel even less salient and less urgent than do the ongoing moral disasters we are facing, even though our influence on these future risks — and future suffering in general — could well be more consequential given the vast scope of the long-term future.

So while salience-driven biases may blind us to ongoing large-scale atrocities, they probably blind us even more to future suffering and risks of future atrocities.

Salience-driven distortions in efforts to reduce s-risks

There are many salience-related hurdles that may prevent us from giving significant priority to the reduction of future suffering. Yet even if we do grant a strong priority to the reduction of future suffering, including s-risks in particular, there are reasons to think that salience-driven distortions still pose a serious challenge in our prioritization efforts.

Our general availability bias gives us some reason to believe that we will overemphasize salient ideas and hypotheses in efforts to reduce future suffering. Yet perhaps more compelling are the studies on how we tend to greatly overestimate salient hypotheses when we engage in predictive and multi-stage reasoning in particular. (Multi-stage reasoning is when we make inferences in successive steps, such that the output of one step provides the input for the next one.)

After all, when we are trying to predict the main sources of future suffering, including specific scenarios in which s-risks materialize, we are very much engaging in predictive and multi-stage reasoning. Therefore, we should arguably expect our reasoning about future causes of suffering to be too narrow by default, with a tendency to give too much weight to a relatively small set of salient risks at the expense of a broader class of less salient (yet still significant) risks that we are prone to dismiss in our multi-stage inferences and predictions.

This effect can be further reinforced through other mechanisms. For example, if we have described and explored — or even just imagined — a certain class of risks in greater detail than other risks, then this alone may lead us to regard those more elaborately described risks as being more likely than less elaborately explored scenarios. Moreover, if we find ourselves in a group of people who focus disproportionally on a certain class of future scenarios, this may further increase the salience and perceived likelihood of these scenarios, compared to alternative scenarios that may be more salient in other groups and communities.

Reducing salience-driven distortions

The pitfalls mentioned above seem to suggest some concrete ways in which we might reduce salience-driven distortions in efforts to reduce future suffering.

First, they recommend caution about the danger of neglecting less salient hypotheses when engaging in predictive and multi-stage reasoning. Specifically, when thinking about future risks, we should be careful not to simply focus on what appears to be the single greatest risk, and to effectively neglect all others. After all, even if the risk we regard as the single greatest risk indeed is the single greatest risk, that risk might still be fairly modest compared to the totality of future risks, and we might still do better by deliberately working to reduce a relatively broad class of risks.

Second, the tendency to judge scenarios to be more likely when we have thought about them in detail would seem to recommend that we avoid exploring future risks in starkly unbalanced ways. For instance, if we have explored one class of risks in elaborate detail while largely neglecting another, it seems worth trying to outline concrete scenarios that exemplify the more neglected class of risks, so as to correct any potentially unjustified disregard of their importance and likelihood.

Third, the possibility that certain ideas can become highly salient in part for sociological reasons may recommend a strategy of exchanging ideas with, and actively seeking critiques from, people who do not fully share the outlook that has come to prevail in one’s own group.

In general, it seems that we are likely to underestimate our empirical uncertainty (Vinding, 2020, sec. 9.1-9.2). The space of possible future outcomes is vast, and any specific risk that we may envision is but a tiny subset of the risks we are facing. Hence, our most salient ideas regarding future risks should ideally be held up against a big question mark that represents the many (currently) unsalient risks that confront us.

Put briefly, we need to cultivate a firm awareness of the limited reliability of salience, and a corresponding awareness of the immense importance of the unsalient. We need to make an active effort to keep unseen urgencies in mind.

Beware underestimating the probability of very bad outcomes: Historical examples against future optimism

It may be tempting to view history through a progressive lens that sees humanity as climbing toward ever greater moral progress and wisdom. As the famous quote popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. goes: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Yet while we may hope that this is true, and do our best to increase the probability that it will be, we should also keep in mind that there are reasons to doubt this optimistic narrative. For some, the recent rise of right-wing populism is a salient reason to be less confident about humanity’s supposed path toward ever more compassionate and universal values. But it seems that we find even stronger reasons to be skeptical if we look further back in history. My aim in this post is to present a few historical examples that in my view speak against confident optimism regarding humanity’s future.


Contents

  1. Germany in year 1900
  2. Shantideva around year 700
  3. Lewis Gompertz and J. Howard Moore in the 19th century

Germany in year 1900

In 1900, Germany was far from being a paragon of moral advancement. They were a colonial power, antisemitism was widespread, and bigoted anti-Polish Germanisation policies were in effect. Yet Germany anno 1900 was nevertheless far from being like Germany anno 1939-1945, in which it was the main aggressor in the deadliest war in history and the perpetrator of the largest genocide in history.

In other words, Germany had undergone an extreme case of moral regress along various dimensions by 1942 (the year the so-called Final Solution was formulated and approved by the Nazi leadership) compared to 1900. And this development was not easy to predict in advance. Indeed, for historian of antisemitism Shulamit Volkov, a key question regarding the Holocaust is: “Why was it so hard to see the approaching disaster?”

If one had told the average German citizen in 1900 about the atrocities that their country would perpetrate four decades later, would they have believed it? What probability would they have assigned to the possibility that their country would commit atrocities on such a massive scale? I suspect it would be very low. They might not have seen more reason to expect such moral regress than we do today when we think of our future.

A lesson that we can draw from Germany’s past moral deterioration is, to paraphrase Volkov’s question, that approaching disasters can be hard to see in advance. And this lesson suggests that we should not be too confident as to whether we ourselves might currently be headed toward disasters that are difficult to see in advance.

Shantideva around year 700

Shantideva was a Buddhist monk who lived in ca. 685-763. He is best known as the author of A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, which is a remarkable text for its time. The core message is one of profound compassion for all sentient beings, and Shantideva not only describes such universally compassionate ideals, but he also presents stirring encouragements and cogent reasoning in favor of acting on those ideals.

That such a universally compassionate text existed at such an early time is a deeply encouraging fact in one sense. Yet in another sense, it is deeply discouraging. That is, when we think about all the suffering, wars, and atrocities that humanity has caused since Shantideva expounded these ideals — centuries upon centuries of brutal violence and torment imposed upon human and non-human beings — it seems that a certain pessimistic viewpoint gains support.

In particular, it seems that we should be pessimistic about notions along the lines of “compassionate ideals presented in a compelling way will eventually create a benevolent world”. After all, even today, 1300 years later, where we generally pride ourselves of being far more civilized and morally developed than our ancestors, we are still painfully far from observing the most basic of compassionate ideals in relation to other sentient beings.

Of course, one might think that the problem is merely that people have yet to be exposed to compassionate ideals such as those of Shantideva — or those of Mahavira or Mozi, both of whom lived more than a thousand years before Shantideva. But even if we grant that this is the main problem, it still seems that historical cases like these give us some reason to doubt whether most people ever will be exposed to such compassionate ideals, or whether most people would accept such ideals upon being exposed to them, let alone be willing to act on them. The fact that these memes have not caught on to a greater degree than they have, despite existing in such developed forms a long time ago, is some evidence that they are not nearly as virulent as many of us would have hoped.

Speaking for myself at least, I can say that I used to think that people just needed to be exposed to certain compassionate ideals and compassion-based arguments, and then they would change their minds and behaviors due to the sheer compelling nature of these ideals and arguments. But my experience over the years, e.g. with animal advocacy, have made me far more pessimistic about the force of such arguments. And the limited influence of sophisticated expositions of these ideals and arguments made many centuries ago is further evidence for that pessimism (relative to my previous expectations).

Of course, this is not to say that we can necessarily do better than to promote compassion-based ideals and arguments. It is merely to say that the best we can do might be a lot less significant — or be less likely to succeed — than what many of us had initially expected.

Lewis Gompertz and J. Howard Moore in the 19th century

Lewis Gompertz (ca. 1784-1861) and J. Howard Moore (1862-1916) both have a lot in common with Shantideva, as they likewise wrote about compassionate ethics relating to all sentient beings. (And all three of them touched on wild-animal suffering.) Yet Gompertz and Moore, along with other figures in the 19th century, wrote more explicitly about animal rights and moral vegetarianism than did Shantideva. Two observations seem noteworthy with regard to these writings.

One is that Gompertz and Moore both wrote about these topics before the rise of factory farming. That is, even though authors such as Gompertz and Moore made strong arguments against exploiting and killing other animals in the 19th century, humanity still went on to exploit and kill beings on a far greater scale than ever before in the 20th century, indeed on a scale that is still increasing today.

This may be a lesson for those who are working to reduce risks of astronomical suffering at present: even if you make convincing arguments against a moral atrocity that humanity is committing or otherwise heading toward, and even if you make these arguments at an early stage where the atrocity has yet to (fully) develop, this might still not be enough to prevent it from happening on a continuously expanding scale.

The second and closely related observation is that Gompertz and Moore both seem to have focused exclusively on animal exploitation as it existed in their own times. They did not appear to focus on preventing the problem from getting worse, even though one could argue, in hindsight, that such a strategy might have been more helpful overall.

Indeed, even though Moore’s outlook was quite pessimistic, he still seems to have been rather optimistic about the future. For instance, in the preface to his book The Universal Kinship (1906), he wrote: “The time will come when the sentiments of these pages will not be hailed by two or three, and ridiculed or ignored by the rest; they will represent Public Opinion and Law.”

Gompertz appeared similarly optimistic about the future, as he in his Moral Inquiries (1824, p. 48) wrote: “though I cannot conceive how any person can shut his eyes to the general state of misery throughout the universe, I still think that it is for a wise purpose; that the evils of life, which could not properly be otherwise, will in the course of time be rectified …” Neither Gompertz nor Moore seem to have predicted that animal exploitation would be getting far worse in many ways (e.g. the horrible conditions of factory farms) or that it would increase vastly in scale.

This second observation might likewise carry lessons for animal activists and suffering reducers today. If these leading figures of 19th-century animal activism tacitly underestimated the risk that things might get far worse in the future, and as a result paid insufficient attention to such risks, could it be the case that most activists today are similarly underestimating and underprioritizing future risks of things getting even worse still? This question is at least worth pondering.

On a general and concluding note, it seems important to be aware of our tendencies to entertain wishful thinking and to be under the spell of the illusion of control. Just because a group of people have embraced some broadly compassionate values, and in turn identified ongoing atrocities and future risks based on those values, it does not mean that those people will be able to steer humanity’s future such that we avoid these atrocities and risks. The sad reality is that universally compassionate values are far from being in charge.

Radical uncertainty about outcomes need not imply (similarly) radical uncertainty about strategies

Our uncertainty about how the future will unfold is vast, especially on long timescales. In light of this uncertainty, it may be natural to think that our uncertainty about strategies must be equally vast and intractable. My aim in this brief post is to argue that this is not the case.


Contents

  1. Analogies to games, competitions, and projects
  2. Disanalogy in scope?
  3. Three robust strategies for reducing suffering
  4. The golden middle way: Avoiding overconfidence and passivity

Analogies to games, competitions, and projects

Perhaps the most intuitive way to see that vast outcome uncertainty need not imply vast strategic uncertainty is to consider games by analogy. Take chess as an example. It allows a staggering number of possible outcomes on the board, and chess players generally have great uncertainty about how a game of chess will unfold, even as they can make some informed predictions (similar to how we can make informed predictions in the real world).

Yet despite the great outcome uncertainty, there are still many strategies and rules of thumb that are robustly beneficial for increasing one’s chances of winning a game of chess. A trivially obvious one is to not lose pieces without good reason, yet seasoned chess players will know a long list of more advanced strategies and heuristics that tend to be beneficial in many different scenarios. (For an example of such a list, see e.g. here.)

Of course, chess is by no means the only example. Across a wide range of board games and video games, the same basic pattern is found: despite vast uncertainty about specific outcomes, there are clear heuristics and strategies that are robustly beneficial.

Indeed, this holds true in virtually any sphere of competition. Politicians cannot predict exactly how an election campaign will unfold, yet they can usually still identify helpful campaign strategies; athletes cannot predict how a given match will develop, yet they can still be reasonably confident about what constitutes good moves and game plans; companies cannot predict market dynamics in detail, yet they can still identify many objectives that would help them beat the competition (e.g. hire the best people and ensure high customer satisfaction).

The point also applies beyond the realm of competition. For instance, when engineers set out to build a big project, there are usually many uncertainties as to how the construction process is going to unfold and what challenges might come up. Yet they are generally still able to identify strategies that can address unforeseen challenges and get the job done. The same goes for just about any project, including cooperative projects between parties with different aims: detailed outcomes are exceedingly difficult to predict, yet it is generally (more) feasible to identify beneficial strategies.

Disanalogy in scope?

One might object that the examples above all involve rather narrow aims, and those aims differ greatly from impartial aims that relate to the interests of all sentient beings. This is a fair point, yet I do not think it undermines these analogies or the core point that they support.

Granted, when we move from narrower to broader aims and endeavors, our uncertainty about the relevant outcomes will tend to increase — e.g. when our aims involve far more beings and far greater spans of time. And when the outcome space and its associated uncertainty increases, we should also expect our strategic uncertainty to become greater. Yet it plausibly still holds true that we can identify at least some reasonably robust strategies, despite the increase in uncertainty that is associated with impartial aims. At the minimum, it seems plausible that our strategic uncertainty is still smaller than our outcome uncertainty.

After all, if such a pattern of lower strategic uncertainty holds true of a wide range of endeavors on a smaller scale, it seems reasonable to expect that it will apply on larger scales too. Besides, it appears that at least some of the examples mentioned in the previous section would still stand even if we greatly increased their scale. For example, in the case of many video games, it seems that we could increase the scale of the game by an arbitrary amount without meaningfully changing the most promising strategies — e.g. accumulate resources, gain more insights, strengthen your position. And similar strategies are plausibly quite robust relative to many goals in the real world as well, on virtually any scale.

Three robust strategies for reducing suffering

If we grant that we can identify some strategies that are robustly beneficial from an impartial perspective, this naturally raises the question as to what these strategies might be. The following are three examples of strategies for reducing suffering that seem especially robust and promising to me. (This is by no means an exhaustive list.)

  • Movement and capacity building: Expand the movement of people who strive to reduce suffering, and build a healthy and sustainable culture around this movement. Capacity building also includes efforts to increase the insights and resources available to the movement.
  • Promote concern for suffering: Increase the level of priority that people devote to the prevention of suffering, and increase the amount of resources that society devotes to its alleviation.
  • Promote cooperation: Increase society’s ability and willingness to engage in cooperative dialogues and positive-sum compromises that can help steer us away from bad outcomes.

The golden middle way: Avoiding overconfidence and passivity

To be clear, I do not mean to invite complacency about the risk that some apparently promising strategies could prove harmful. But I think it is worth keeping in mind that, just as there are costs associated with overconfidence, there are also costs associated with being too uncertain and too hesitant to act on the strategies that seem most promising. All in all, I think we have good reasons to pursue strategies such as those listed above, while still keeping in mind that we do face great strategic uncertainty.

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 (strict 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, cf. Sherman, 2017; Knutsson, 2022).

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 moral 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. 362-363).

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. This is an all-important issue 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 preferable 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 is 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.

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 seeks to explore and further explain 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 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 that 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 mostly 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; see also this section.)

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 — not least 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 strong focus on minimizing the risk of 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 advocating the Abolitionist Project 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.

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. So why should the same not be true in the case of suffering?

I think this is an interesting line of argument, but I think the case of smallpox is disanalogous in at least a couple of ways. First, smallpox is in a sense a much simpler and more 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 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 is 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.

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”. Ending this enormous source of suffering is clearly tractable 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. 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 the prevention of suffering.

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 beneficial all things considered, and probably significantly better than the vast majority of activities that we could pursue. 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: Dec. 2022


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 reasons to doubt that such advocacy is among the very 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 very best ways.

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 that we are facing.

I have explored this question at length in Vinding, 2020, 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 both easier and more important to make given the overwhelming amount of suffering and early death in nature. Such advocacy may both 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.

Suffering-focused ethics and the importance of happiness

It seems intuitive to think that suffering-focused moral views imply that it is unimportant whether people live fulfilling lives. Yet the truth, I will argue, is in many ways the opposite — especially for those who are trying to reduce suffering effectively with their limited resources.

Personal sustainability and productivity

One reason in favor of living fulfilling lives is that we cannot work to reduce suffering in sustainable ways otherwise. Indeed, not only is a reasonably satisfied mind a precondition for sustainable productivity in the long run, but also for our productivity on a day-to-day basis, which is often aided by a strong passion and excitement about our work projects. Suffering-focused ethics by no means entails that excitement and passion should be muted.

Beyond aiding our productivity in work-related contexts, a strong sense of well-being also helps us be more resilient in the face of life’s challenges — things that break, unexpected expenses, unfriendly antagonists, etc. Cultivating a sense of fulfillment and a sound mental health can help us better handle these obstacles as well.

Signaling value

This reason pertains to the social rather than the individual level. If we are trying to create change in the world, it generally does not help if we ourselves are miserable. People often decide whether they want to associate with (or distance themselves from) a group of people based on perceptions of the overall wellness and mental health of its adherents. And this is not entirely unreasonable, as these factors arguably do constitute some indication of the practical consequences of associating with the group in question.

If failing to prioritize our own well-being has bad consequences in the bigger picture, such as scaring people away from joining our efforts to create a better future, then this failure is not recommended by consequentialist suffering-focused views.

To be clear, my point here is not that suffering-focused agents should be deceptive and try to display a fake and inflated sense of well-being (such deception would likely have many bad consequences). Rather, the point is that we have good reasons to cultivate genuine physical and mental health, both for the sake of our personal productivity and our ability to inspire others.

A needless hurdle to the adoption of suffering-focused views

A closely related point has to do with people’s evaluations of suffering-focused views more directly (as opposed to the evaluations of suffering-focused communities and individuals). People are likely to judge the acceptability of a moral view based in part on the expected psychological consequences of its adoption — will it enable me to pursue the lifestyle I want, to maintain my social relationships, and to seem like a good and likeable person?

Indeed, modern moral and political psychology suggests that these social and psychological factors are strong determinants of our moral and political views, and that we usually underestimate just how much these “non-rationalist” factors influence our views (see e.g. Haidt, 2012, part III; Tuschman, 2013, ch. 22; Simler, 2016; Tooby, 2017).

This is then another good reason to seek to both emphasize and exemplify the compatibility of suffering-focused views and a healthy and fulfilling life. Again, if failing in this regard tends to prevent people from prioritizing the reduction of suffering, then a true extrapolation of suffering-focused views will militate against such a failure, and instead recommend a focus on cultivating an invitingly healthful state of mind.

In sum, there is no inherent tension between living a healthy and fulfilling life and at the same time being committed to reducing the most intense forms of suffering.

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).

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 that it was built to achieve.

The book also seeks to apply this knowledge, to shed some light on the hidden motives of many of our social institution. Rather than being about high-minded ideals, 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.

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”, 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 analysis of our condition?

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.

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 less compassion for humans. Indeed, it might lead us to have much more compassion for each other.

Is Life “Pretty Good”?

With respect to Simler and Hanson’s claim that “life, for must of us, is pretty good”, it can be disputed whether this is indeed the case. According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, most people rated their life satisfaction at five or below 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.

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 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? 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 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?

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”.

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 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. And recent studies suggest that this is indeed the case.

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.

Is “Pretty Good” Good Enough?

Beyond doubting whether most people would 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 all that 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 to render it worth starting for its own sake.

This is, for example, not necessarily the case on tranquilist or antifrustrationist views of value, according to which experiential wellbeing consists of the absence of suffering or preference frustrations. Similar to Metzinger’s point about narrative self-deception, one can argue that, if tranquilist or antifrustrationist views happen to be plausible views of the value of our experiences (upon closer inspection), we should probably expect to be quite blind or resistant to this fact. And interesting to note in this context is that many of the traditions that have placed a strong emphasis on paying attention to our direct experience, including some strands of Buddhism, seem to have converged on views very similar to tranquilism and antifrustrationism.

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 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 lives, which then raises the question of whether the enjoyment found in these lives can morally outweigh and justify the misery of this single child. Some citizens of Omelas seem to decide that this is not the case: the ones who walk away from Omelas.

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 decide to end their own lives by suicide.

Beyond that, one can question whether the “pretty good” lives of some humans can in any sense outweigh or justify the enormous amount of suffering humanity that imposes on non-human animals, including the torturous suffering we impose on more than a trillion fish each year, as well as the suffering that 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.

My aim in this essay has not been to draw any conclusions about the value of our condition. Rather, my aim has been to argue that we likely have an elephant in our brain that leads us to evaluate our lives, individually as well as collectively, in overoptimistic terms, and to ignore the many considerations that might suggest a negative conclusion. This is an elephant that pushes us toward the conclusion that “it’s all pretty good and worthwhile”, and which disposes us 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.

Moral Circle Expansion Might Increase Future Suffering

Expanding humanity’s moral circle such that it includes all sentient beings seems among the most urgent and important missions before us. And yet there is a significant risk that such greater moral inclusion might in fact end up increasing future suffering. As Brian Tomasik notes:

One might ask, “Why not just promote broader circles of compassion, without a focus on suffering?” The answer is that more compassion by itself could increase suffering. For example, most people who care about wild animals in a general sense conclude that wildlife habitats should be preserved, in part because these people aren’t focused enough on the suffering that wild animals endure. Likewise, generically caring about future digital sentience might encourage people to create as many happy digital minds as possible, even if this means also increasing the risk of digital suffering due to colonizing space. Placing special emphasis on reducing suffering is crucial for taking the right stance on many of these issues.

Indeed, many classical utilitarians do include non-human animals in their moral circle, yet they still consider it permissible, indeed in some sense morally good, that we bring individuals into existence so that they can live “net positive lives” and we can eat them (I have argued that this view is mistaken, almost regardless of what kind of consequentialist view one assumes). And some even seem to think that most lives on factory farms might plausibly be such “net positive lives”. A wide circle of moral consideration clearly does not guarantee an unwillingness to allow large amounts of suffering to be brought into the world.

More generally, there is a considerable number of widely endorsed ethical positions that favor bringing about larger rather than smaller populations of the beings who belong to our moral circle, at least provided that certain conditions are met in the lives of these beings. And many of these ethical positions have quite loose such conditions, which implies that these views can easily permit, and even demand, the creation of a lot of suffering for the sake of some (supposedly) greater good.

Indeed, the truth is that even a view that requires an enormous amount of happiness to outweigh a given amount of suffering might still easily permit the creation of large amounts of suffering, as illustrated by the following consideration (quoted from the penultimate chapter of my book on effective altruism):

consider the practical implications of the following two moral principles: 1) we will not allow the creation of a single instance of the worst forms of suffering […] for any amount of happiness, and 2) we will allow one day of such suffering for ten years of the most sublime happiness. What kind of future would we accept with these respective principles? Imagine a future in which we colonize space and maximize the number of sentient beings that the accessible universe can sustain over the entire course of the future, which is probably more than 10^30. Given this number of beings, and assuming that these beings each live a hundred years, principle 2) above would appear to permit a space colonization that all in all creates more than 10^28 years of [the worst forms of suffering], provided that the other states of experience are sublimely happy. This is how extreme the difference can be between principles like 1) and 2); between whether we consider suffering irredeemable or not. And notice that even if we altered the exchange rate by orders of magnitude — say, by requiring 10^15 times more sublime happiness per unit of extreme suffering than we did in principle 2) above — we would still allow an enormous amount of extreme suffering to be created; in the concrete case of requiring 10^15 times more happiness, we would allow more than 10,000 billion years of [the worst forms of suffering].

This highlights the importance of thinking deeply about which trade-offs, if any, we find acceptable with respect to the creation of suffering, including extreme suffering.

The considerations above concerning popular ethical positions that support larger future populations imply that there is some probability — a seemingly low yet still significant probability — that a more narrow moral circle may in fact lead to less future suffering for the morally excluded beings (e.g. by making efforts to bring these beings into existence, on Earth and beyond, less likely).

Implications

In spite of this risk, I still consider generic moral circle expansion quite beneficial in expectation. Yet it seems less beneficial, and significantly less robust (with respect to the goal of reducing extreme suffering) than does the promotion of suffering-focused valuesAnd it seems less robust and less beneficial still than does the twin-track strategy of focusing on both expanding our moral circle and deepening our concern for suffering. Both seem necessary yet insufficient on their own. If we deepen concern for suffering without broadening the moral circle, our deepened concern risks failing to pertain to the vast majority of sentient beings. On the other hand, if we broaden our moral circle without deepening our concern for suffering, we may end up allowing the beings within our moral circle to endure enormous amounts of suffering.

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