The Principle of Sympathy for Intense Suffering

This essay was first published as a chapter in my book Effective Altruism: How Can We Best Help Others? which is available for free download here. The chapter that precedes it makes a general case for suffering-focused ethics, whereas this chapter argues for a particular suffering-focused view.


The ethical view I would advocate most strongly is a suffering-focused view that centers on a core principle of Sympathy for Intense Suffering, or SIS for short, which roughly holds that we should prioritize the interests of those who are, or will be, in a state of extreme suffering. In particular: that we should prioritize their interest in avoiding such suffering higher than anything else.[1]

One can say that this view takes its point of departure in classical utilitarianism, the theory that we should maximize the net sum of happiness minus suffering. Yet it questions a tacit assumption, a particular existence claim, often held in conjunction with the classical utilitarian framework, namely that for every instance of suffering, there exists some amount of happiness that can outweigh it.

This is a deeply problematic assumption, in my view. More than that, it is peculiar that classical utilitarianism seems widely believed to entail this assumption, given that (to my knowledge) none of the seminal classical utilitarians — Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick — ever argued for this existence claim, or even discussed it.[2] Thus, it seems that the acceptance of this assumption is no more entailed by classical utilitarianism, defined as the ethical view, or views, expressed by these utilitarian philosophers, than is its rejection.

The question of whether this assumption is reasonable ties into a deeper discussion about how to measure and weigh happiness and suffering against each other, and I think this is much less well-defined than is commonly supposed (even though the trickiness of the task is often acknowledged).[3] The problem is that we have a common sense view that goes something like the following: if a conscious subject deems some state of suffering worth experiencing in order to attain some given pleasure, then this pleasure is worth the suffering. And this common sense view may work for most of us most of the time.[4] Yet it runs into problems in cases where the subject deems their suffering so unbearable that no amount of happiness could ever outweigh it.

For what would the common sense view say in such a situation? That the suffering indeed cannot be outweighed by any pleasure? That would seem an intuitive suggestion, yet the problem is that we can also imagine the case of an experience of some pleasure that the subject, in that experience-moment, deems so great that it can outweigh even the worst forms of suffering, which leaves us with mutually incompatible value claims (although it is worth noting that one can reasonably doubt the existence of such positive states, whereas, as we shall see below, the existence of correspondingly negative experiences is a certainty).[5] How are we to evaluate these claims?

The aforementioned common sense method of evaluation has clearly broken down at this point, and is entirely silent on the matter. We are forced to appeal to another principle of evaluation. And the principle I would argue we should employ is, as hinted above, to choose to sympathize with those who are worst off — those who are experiencing intense suffering. Hence the principle of sympathy for intense suffering: we should sympathize with, and prioritize, the evaluations of those subjects who deem their suffering unoutweighable, even if only for a brief experience-moment, and thus give total priority to helping these subjects. More precisely, we should minimize the amount of such experience-moments of extreme suffering.[6] That, on this account of value, is the greatest help we can do for others.

This principle actually seems to have a lot of support from common sense and “common wisdom”. For example, imagine two children are offered to ride a roller coaster, one of whom would find the ride very pleasant, while the other child would find it very unpleasant, and imagine, furthermore, that the only two options available are that they either both ride or neither of them ride (and if neither of them ride, they are both perfectly fine).[7] Whose interests should we sympathize with and favor? Common sense would appear to favor the child who would not want to take the ride. The mere pleasure of the “ride-positive” child does not justify a violation of the interest of the other child not to suffer a very unpleasant experience. The interest in not enduring such suffering seems far more fundamental, and hence to have ethical primacy, compared to the relatively trivial and frivolous interest of having a very pleasant experience.[8]

Arguably, common sense even suggests the same in the case where there are many more children who would find the ride very pleasant, while still only one child who would find it very unpleasant (provided, again, that the children will all be perfectly fine if they do not ride). Indeed, I believe a significant fraction of people would say the same no matter how many such “ride-positive” children we put on the scale: it would still be wrong to give them the ride at the cost of forcing the “ride-negative” child to undergo the very unpleasant experience.[9]

And yet the suffering in this example — a very unpleasant experience on a roller coaster — can hardly be said to count as remotely extreme, much less an instance of the worst forms of suffering; the forms of suffering that constitute the strongest, and in my view overwhelming, case for the principle of sympathy for intense suffering. Such intense suffering, even if balanced against the most intense forms of pleasure imaginable, only demands even stronger relative sympathy and priority. However bad we may consider the imposition of a very unpleasant experience for the sake of a very pleasant one, the imposition of extreme suffering for the sake of extreme pleasure must be deemed far worse.

The Horrendous Support for SIS

The worst forms of suffering are so terrible that merely thinking about them for a brief moment can leave the average sympathetic person in a state of horror and darkness for a good while, and therefore, quite naturally, we strongly prefer not to contemplate these things. Yet if we are to make sure that we have our priorities right, and that our views about what matters most in this world are as well-considered as possible, then we cannot shy away from the task of contemplating and trying to appreciate the disvalue of these worst of horrors. This is no easy task, and not just because we are reluctant to think about the issue in the first place, but also because it is difficult to gain anything close to a true appreciation of the reality in question. As David Pearce put it:

It’s easy to convince oneself that things can’t really be that bad, that the horror invoked is being overblown, that what is going on elsewhere in space-time is somehow less real than this here-and-now, or that the good in the world somehow offsets the bad. Yet however vividly one thinks one can imagine what agony, torture or suicidal despair must be like, the reality is inconceivably worse. Hazy images of Orwell’s ‘Room 101’ barely hint at what I’m talking about. The force of ‘inconceivably’ is itself largely inconceivable here.[10]

Nonetheless, we can still gain at least some, admittedly rather limited, appreciation by considering some real-world examples of extreme suffering (what follows are examples of an extremely unpleasant character that may be triggering and traumatizing).

One such example is the tragic fate of the Japanese girl Junko Furuta who was kidnapped in 1988, at the age of 16, by four teenage boys. According to their own trial statements, the boys raped her hundreds of times; “inserted foreign objects, such as iron bars, scissors and skewers into her vagina and anus, rendering her unable to defecate and urinate properly”; “beat her several times with golf clubs, bamboo sticks and iron rods”; “used her as a punching bag by hanging her body from the ceiling”; “dropped barbells onto her stomach several times”; “set fireworks into her anus, vagina, mouth and ear”; “burnt her vagina and clitoris with cigarettes and lighters”; “tore off her left nipple with pliers”; and more. Eventually, she was no longer able to move from the ground, and she repeatedly begged the boys to kill her, which they eventually did, after 44 days.[11]

An example of extreme suffering that is much more common, indeed something that happens countless times every single day, is being eaten alive, a process that can sometimes last several hours with the victim still fully conscious of being devoured, muscle by muscle, organ by organ. A harrowing example of such a death that was caught on camera (see the following note) involved a baboon tearing apart the hind legs of a baby gazelle and eating this poor individual who remained conscious for longer than one would have thought and hoped possible.[12] A few minutes of a much more protracted such painful and horrifying death can be seen via the link in the following note (lions eating a baby elephant alive).[13] And a similar, yet quicker death of a man can be seen via the link in the following note.[14] Tragically, the man’s wife and two children were sitting in a car next to him while it happened, yet they were unable to help him, and knowing this probably made the man’s experience even more horrible, which ties into a point made by Simon Knutsson:

Sometimes when the badness or moral importance of torture is discussed, it is described in terms of different stimuli that cause tissue damage, such as burning, cutting or stretching. But one should also remember different ways to make someone feel bad, and different kinds of bad feelings, which can be combined to make one’s overall experience even more terrible. It is arguably the overall unpleasantness of one’s experience that matters most in this context.[15]

After giving a real-world example with several layers of extreme cruelty and suffering combined, Knutsson goes on to write:

Although this example is terrible, one can imagine how it could be worse if more types of violence and bad feelings were added to the mix. To take another example: [Brian] Tomasik often talks about the Brazen bull as a particularly bad form of torture. The victim is locked inside a metal bull, a fire is lit underneath the bull and the victim is fried to death. It is easy to imagine how this can be made worse. For example, inject the victim with chemicals that amplify pain and block the body’s natural pain inhibitors, and put her loved ones in the bull so that when she is being fried, she also sees her loved ones being fried. One can imagine further combinations that make it even worse. Talking only of stimuli such as burning almost trivializes how bad experiences can be.[16]

Another example of extreme suffering is what happened to Dax Cowart. In 1973, at the age of 25, Dax went on a trip with his father to visit land that he considered buying. Unfortunately, due to a pipeline leak, the air over the land was filled with propane gas, which is highly flammable when combined with oxygen. As they started their car, the propane ignited, and the two men found themselves in a burning inferno. Dax’s father died, and Dax himself had much of his hands, eyes, and ears burned away; two thirds of his skin was severely burned.[17]

The case of Dax has since become quite famous, not only, or even mainly, because of the extreme horror he experienced during this explosion, but because of the ethical issues raised by his treatment, which turned out to be about as torturous as the explosion itself. For Dax himself repeatedly said, immediately after the explosion as well as for months later, that he wanted to die more than anything else, and that he did not want to be subjected to any treatment that would keep him alive. Nonetheless, he was forcibly treated for a period of ten months, during which he tried to take his life several times.
Since then, Dax has managed to recover and live what he considers a happy life — he successfully sued the oil company responsible for the pipeline leak, which left him financially secure; he earned a law degree; and got married. Yet even so, he still wishes that he had been killed rather than treated. In Dax’s own view, no happiness could ever compensate for what he went through.[18]

This kind of evaluation is exactly what the ethical principle advocated here centers on, and what the principle amounts to is simply a refusal to claim that Dax’s evaluation, or any other like it, is wrong. It maintains that we should not allow the occurrence of such extreme horrors for the sake of any intrinsic good, and hence that we should prioritize alleviating and preventing them over anything else.[19]

One may object that the examples above do not all comprise clear cases where the suffering subject deems their suffering so bad that nothing could ever outweigh it. And more generally, one may object that there can exist intense suffering that is not necessarily deemed so bad that nothing could outweigh it, either because the subject is not able to make such an evaluation, or because the subject just chooses not to evaluate it that way. What would the principle of sympathy for intense suffering say about such cases? It would say the following: in cases where the suffering is intense, yet the sufferers choose not to deem it so bad that nothing could outweigh it (we may call this “red suffering”), we should prioritize reducing suffering of the kind that would be deemed unoutweighable (what we may call “black suffering”). And in cases where the sufferers cannot make such evaluations, we may say that suffering at a level of intensity comparable to the suffering deemed unoutweighable by subjects who can make such evaluations should also be considered unoutweighable, and its prevention should be prioritized over all less intense forms of suffering.

Yet this is, of course, all rather theoretical. In practice, even when subjects do have the ability to evaluate their experience, we will, as outside observers, usually not be able to know what their evaluation is — for instance, how someone who is burning alive might evaluate their experience. In practice, all we can do is make informed assessments of what counts as suffering so intense that such an evaluation of unoutweighability would likely be made by the sufferer, assuming an idealized situation where the sufferer is able to evaluate the disvalue of the experience.[20]

 

I shall spare the reader from further examples of extreme suffering here in the text, and instead refer to sources, found in the following note, that contain additional cases that are worth considering in order to gain a greater appreciation of extreme suffering and its disvalue.[21] And the crucial question we must ask ourselves in relation to these examples — which, as hinted by the quote above by Knutsson, are probably far from the worst possible manifestations of suffering — is whether the creation of happiness or any other intrinsic good could ever justify the creation, or the failure to prevent, suffering this bad and worse. If not, this implies that our priority should not be to create happiness or other intrinsic goods, but instead to prevent extreme suffering of this kind above anything else, regardless of where in time and space it may risk emerging.

Objections to SIS

Among the objections against this view I can think of, the strongest, at least at first sight, is the sentiment: but what about that which is most precious in your life? What about the person who is most dear to you? If anything stands a chance of outweighing the disvalue of extreme suffering, surely this is it. In more specific terms: does it not seem plausible to claim that, say, saving the most precious person in one’s life could be worth an instance of the very worst form of suffering?

Yet one has to be careful about how this question is construed. If what we mean by “saving” is that we save them from extreme suffering, then we are measuring extreme suffering against extreme suffering, and hence we have not pointed to a rival candidate for outweighing the superlative disvalue of extreme suffering. Therefore, if we are to point to such a candidate, “saving” must here mean something that does not itself involve extreme suffering, and, if we wish to claim that there is something wholly different from the reduction of suffering that can be put on the scale, it should preferably involve no suffering at all. So the choice we should consider is rather one between 1) the mixed bargain of an instance of the very worst form of suffering, i.e. black suffering, and the continued existence of the most precious person one knows, or 2) the painless discontinuation of the existence of this person, yet without any ensuing suffering for others or oneself.

Now, when phrased in this way, choosing 1) may not sound all that bad to us, especially if we do not know the one who will suffer. Yet this would be cheating — nothing but an appeal to our faulty and all too partial moral intuitions. It clearly betrays the principle of impartiality,[22] according to which it should not matter whom the suffering in question is imposed upon; it should be considered equally disvaluable regardless.[23] Thus, we may equivalently phrase the choice above as being between 1) the continued existence of the most precious person one knows of, yet at the price that this being has to experience a state of extreme suffering, a state this person deems so bad that, according to them, it could never be outweighed by any intrinsic good, or 2) the discontinuation of the existence of this being without any ensuing suffering. When phrased in this way, it actually seems clearer to me than ever that 2) is the superior choice, and that we should adopt the principle of sympathy for intense suffering as our highest ethical principle. For how could one possibly justify imposing such extreme, and in the mind of the subject unoutweighable, suffering upon the most precious person one knows, suffering that this person would, at least in that moment, rather die than continue to experience? In this way, for me at least, it is no overstatement to say that this objection against the principle of sympathy for intense suffering, when considered more carefully, actually ends up being one of the strongest cases for it.

Another seemingly compelling objection would be to question whether an arbitrarily long duration of intense, yet, according to the subject, not unoutweighable suffering, i.e. red suffering, is really less bad than even just a split second of suffering that is deemed unoutweighable, i.e. black suffering. Counter-intuitively, my response, at least in this theoretical case, would be to bite the bullet and say “yes”. After all, if we take the subject’s own reports as the highest arbiter of the (dis)value of experiential states, then the black suffering cannot be outweighed by anything, whereas the red suffering can. Also, it should be noted that this thought experiment likely conflicts with quite a few sensible, real-world intuitions we have. For instance, in the real world, it seems highly likely that a subject who experiences extreme suffering for a long time will eventually find it unbearable, and say that nothing can outweigh it, contrary to the hypothetical case we are considering. Another such confounding real-world intuition might be one that reminds us that most things in the real world tend to fluctuate in some way, and hence, intuitively, it seems like there is a significant risk that a person who endures red suffering for a long time will also experience black suffering (again contrary to the actual conditions of the thought experiment), and perhaps even experience a lot of it, in which case this indeed is worse than a mere split second of black suffering on any account.

Partly for this latter reason, my response would also be different in practice. For again, in the real world, we are never able to determine the full consequences of our actions, and nor are we usually able to determine from the outside whether someone is experiencing red or black suffering, which implies that we have to take uncertainty and risks into account. Also because, even if we did know that a subject deemed some state of suffering as “merely” red at one point, this would not imply that their suffering at other moments where they appear to be in a similar state will also be deemed red as opposed to black. For in the real world it is indeed to be expected that significant fluctuations will occur, as well as that “the same suffering”, in one sense at least, will be felt as worse over time. Indeed, if the suffering is extreme, it all but surely will be deemed unbearable eventually.

Thus, in the real world, any large amount of extreme suffering is likely to include black suffering too, and therefore, regardless of whether we think some black suffering is worse than any amount of red suffering, the only reasonable thing to do in practice is to avoid getting near the abyss altogether.

Bias Alert: We Prefer to Not Think About Extreme Suffering

As noted above, merely thinking about extreme suffering can evoke unpleasant feelings that we naturally prefer to avoid. And this is significant for at least two reasons. First, it suggests that thinking deeply about extreme suffering might put our mental health at risk, and hence that we have good reason, and a strong personal incentive, to avoid engaging in such deeper thinking. Second, in part for this first reason, it suggests that we are biased against thinking deeply about extreme suffering, and hence biased against properly appreciating the true horror and disvalue of such suffering. Somewhat paradoxically, (the mere thought of) the horror of extreme suffering keeps us from fully appreciating the true scope of this horror. And this latter consideration is significant in the context of trying to fairly evaluate the plausibility of views that say we should give special priority to such suffering, including the view presented above.

Indeed, one can readily tell a rather plausible story about how many of the well-documented biases we reviewed previously might conspire to produce such a bias against appreciating the horror of suffering.[24] For one, we have wishful thinking, our tendency to believe as true what we wish were true, which in this case likely pulls us toward the belief that it can’t be that bad, and that, surely, there must be something of greater value, some grander quest worth pursuing in this world than the mere negative, rather anti-climatic “journey” of alleviating and preventing extreme suffering. Like most inhabitants of Omelas, we wishfully avoid giving much thought to the bad parts, and instead focus on all the good — although our sin is, of course, much greater than theirs, as the bad parts in the real world are indescribably worse on every metric, including total amount, relative proportions, and intensity.

To defend this wishfully established view, we then have our confirmation bias. We comfortably believe that it cannot really be that bad, and so in perfect confirmation bias textbook-style, we shy away from and ignore data that might suggest otherwise. We choose not to look at the horrible real-world examples that might change our minds, and to not think too deeply about the arguments that challenge our merry conceptions of value and ethics. All of this for extremely good reasons, of course. Or at least so we tell ourselves.[25]

Next, we have groupthink and, more generally, our tendency to conform to our peers. Others do not seem to believe that extreme suffering is that horrible, or that reducing it should be our supreme goal, and thus our bias to conform smoothly points us in the same direction as our wishful thinking and confirmation bias. That direction being: “Come on, lighten up! Extreme suffering is probably not that bad, and it probably can be outweighed somehow. This is what I want to believe, it is what my own established and comfortable belief says, and it is what virtually all my peers seem to believe. Why in the world, then, would I believe anything else?”

Telling such a story of bias might be considered an unfair move, a crude exercise in pointing fingers at others and exclaiming “You’re just biased!”, and admittedly it is to some extent. Nonetheless, I think two things are worth noting in response to such a sentiment. First, rather than having its origin in finger pointing at others, the source of this story is really autobiographical: it is a fair characterization of how my own mind managed to repudiate the immense horror and primacy of extreme suffering for a long time. And merely combining this with the belief that I am not a special case then tentatively suggests that a similar story might well apply to the minds of others too.

Second, it should be noted that a similar story cannot readily be told in the opposite direction — about the values defended here. In terms of wishful thinking, it is not particularly wishful or feel-good to say that extreme suffering is immensely bad, and that there is nothing of greater value in the world than to prevent it. That is not a pretty or satisfying story for anyone. The view also seems difficult to explain via an appeal to confirmation bias, since many of those who hold this view of extreme suffering, including myself, did not hold it from the outset, but instead changed their minds toward it upon considering arguments and real-world examples that support it. The same holds true of our tendency to conform to our peers. For although virtually nobody appears to seriously doubt that suffering has disvalue, the view that nothing could be more important than preventing extreme suffering does not seem widely held, much less widely expressed. It lies far from the narrative about the ultimate mission and future purpose of humanity that prevails in most circles, which runs more along the lines of “Surely it must all be worth it somehow, right?”

This last consideration about how we stand in relation to our peers is perhaps especially significant. For the truth is that we are a signalling species: we like to appear cool and impressive.[26] And to express the view that nothing matters more than the prevention of extreme suffering seems a most unpromising way of doing so. It has a strong air of darkness and depression about it, and, worst of all, it is not a signal of strength and success, which is perhaps what we are driven the most to signal to others, prospective friends and mates alike. Such success signalling is not best done with darkness, but with light: by exuding happiness, joy, and positivity. This is the image of ourselves, including our worldview, that we are naturally inclined to project, which then ties into the remark made above — that this view does not seem widely held, “much less widely expressed”. For even if we are inclined to hold this view, we appear motivated to not express it, lest we appear like a sad loser.

 

In sum, by my lights, effective altruism proper is equivalent to effectively reducing extreme suffering. This, I would argue, is the highest meaning of “improving the world” and “benefiting others”, and hence what should be considered the ultimate goal of effective altruism. The principle of sympathy for intense suffering argued for here stems neither from depression, nor resentment, nor hatred. Rather, it simply stems, as the name implies, from a deep sympathy for intense suffering.[27] It stems from a firm choice to side with the evaluations of those who are superlatively worst off, and from this choice follows a principled unwillingness to allow the creation of such suffering for the sake of any amount of happiness or any other intrinsic good. And while it is true that this principle has the implication that it would have been better if the world had never existed, I think the fault here is to be found in the world, not the principle.

Most tragically, some pockets of the universe are in a state of insufferable darkness — a state of black suffering. In my view, such suffering is like a black hole that sucks all light out of the world. Or rather: the intrinsic value of all the light of the world pales in comparison to the disvalue of this darkness. Yet, by extension, this also implies that there is a form of light whose value does compare to this darkness, and that is the kind of light we should aspire to become, namely the light that brightens and prevents this darkness.[28] We shall delve into how this can best be done shortly, but first we shall delve into another issue: our indefensibly anthropocentric take on altruism and “philanthropy”.


 

(For the full bibliography, see the end of my book.)

[1] This view is similar to what Brian Tomasik calls consent-based negative utilitarianism: http://reducing-suffering.org/happiness-suffering-symmetric/#Consent-based_negative_utilitarianism
And the Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS) appears founded upon a virtually identical principle: http://www.preventsuffering.org/
I do not claim that this view is original; merely that it is important.

[2] And I have read them all, though admittedly not their complete works. Bentham can seem to come close in chapter 4 of his Principles of Morals and Legislation, where he outlines a method for measuring pain and pleasure. One of the steps of this method consists in summing up the values of “[…] all the pleasures on one side and of all the pains on the other.” And later he writes of this process that it is “[…] applicable to pleasure and pain in whatever form they appear […]”. Yet he does not write that the sum will necessarily be finite, nor, more specifically, whether every instance of suffering necessarily can be outweighed by some pleasure. I suspect Bentham, as well as Mill and Sidgwick, never contemplated this question in the first place.

[3] A recommendable essay on the issue is Simon Knutsson’s “Measuring Happiness and Suffering”: https://foundational-research.org/measuring-happiness-and-suffering/

[4] However, a defender of tranquilism would, of course, question whether we are indeed talking about a pleasure outweighing some suffering rather than it, upon closer examination, really being a case of a reduction of some form of suffering outweighing some other form of suffering

[5] And therefore, if one assumes a framework of so-called moral uncertainty, it seems that one should assign much greater plausibility to negative value lexicality than to positive value lexicality (cf. https://foundational-research.org/value-lexicality/), also in light of the point made in the previous chapter that many have doubted the positive value of happiness (as being due to anything but its absence of suffering), whereas virtually nobody has seriously doubted the disvalue of suffering.

[6] But what if there are several levels of extreme suffering, where an experience on each level is deemed so bad that no amount of experiences on a lower level could outweigh it? This is a tricky issue, yet to the extent that these levels of badness are ordered such that, say, no amount of level I suffering can outweigh a single instance of level II suffering (according to a subject who has experienced both), then I would argue that we should give priority to reducing level II suffering. Yet what if level I suffering is found to be worse than level II suffering in the moment of experiencing it, while level II suffering is found to be worse than level I suffering when it is experienced? One may then say that the evaluation should be up to some third experience-moment with memory of both states, and that we should trust such an evaluation, or, if this is not possible, we may view both forms of suffering as equally bad. Whether such dilemmas arise in the real world, and how to best resolve them in case they do, stands to me as an open question.
Thus, cf. the point about the lack of clarity and specification of values we saw two chapters ago, the framework I present here is not only not perfectly specific, as it surely cannot be, but it is admittedly quite far from it indeed. Nonetheless, it still comprises a significant step in the direction of carving out a clearer set of values, much clearer than the core value of, say, “reducing suffering”.

[7] A similar example is often used by the suffering-focused advocate Inmendham.

[8] This is, of course, essentially the same claim we saw a case for in the previous chapter: that creating happiness at the cost of suffering is wrong. The principle advocated here may be considered a special case of this claim, namely the special case where the suffering in question is deemed irredeemably bad by the subject.

[9] Cf. the gut feeling many people seem to have that the scenario described in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas should not be brought into the world regardless of how big the city of Omelas would be. Weak support for this claim is also found in the following survey, in which a plurality of people said that they think future civilization should strive to minimize suffering (over, for instance, maximizing positive experiences): https://futureoflife.org/superintelligence-survey/

[10] https://www.hedweb.com/negutil.htm
A personal anecdote of mine in support of Pearce’s quote is that I tend to write and talk a lot about reducing suffering, and yet I am always unpleasantly surprised by how bad it is when I experience even just borderline intense suffering. I then always get the sense that I have absolutely no idea what I am talking about when I am talking about suffering in my usual happy state, although the words I use in that state are quite accurate: that it is really bad. In those bad states I realize that it is far worse than we tend to think, even when we think it is really, really bad. It truly is inconceivable, as Pearce writes, since we simply cannot simulate that badness in a remotely faithful way when we are feeling good, quite analogously to the phenomenon of binocular rivalry, where we can only perceive one of two visual images at a time.

[11] https://ripeace.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/the-murder-of-junko-furuta-44-days-of-hell/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Junko_Furuta

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcnH_TOqi3I

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lc63Rp-UN10

[14] https://www.abolitionist.com/reprogramming/maneaters.html

[15] http://www.simonknutsson.com/the-seriousness-of-suffering-supplement

[16] http://www.simonknutsson.com/the-seriousness-of-suffering-supplement

[17] Dax describes the accident himself in the following video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3ZnFJGmoq8

[18] Brülde, 2010, p. 576; Benatar, 2006, p. 63.

[19] And if one thinks such extreme suffering can be outweighed, an important question to ask oneself is: what exactly does it mean to say that it can be outweighed? More specifically, according to whom, and measured by what criteria, can such suffering be outweighed? The only promising option open, it seems, is to choose to prioritize the assessments of beings who say that their happiness, or other good things about their lives, can outweigh the existence of such extreme suffering — i.e. to actively prioritize the evaluations of such notional beings over the evaluations of those enduring, by their own accounts, unoutweighable suffering. What I would consider a profoundly unsympathetic choice.

[20] This once again hints at the point made earlier that we in practice are unable to specify in precise terms 1) what we value in the world, and 2) how to act in accordance with any set of plausible values. Rough, qualified approximations are all we can hope for.

[21] http://reducing-suffering.org/the-horror-of-suffering/
http://reducing-suffering.org/on-the-seriousness-of-suffering/
http://www.simonknutsson.com/the-seriousness-of-suffering-supplement
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyA_eF7W02s&

[22] Or one could equivalently say that it betrays the core virtue of being consistent, as it amounts to treating/valuing similar beings differently.

[23] I make a more elaborate case for this conclusion in my book You Are Them.

[24] One might object that it makes little sense to call a failure to appreciate the value of something a bias, as this is a moral rather than an empirical disagreement, to which I would respond: 1) the two are not as easy to separate as is commonly supposed (cf. Putnam, 2002), 2) one clearly can be biased against fairly considering an argument for a moral position — for instance, we can imagine an example where someone encounters a moral position and then, due to being brought up in a culture that dislikes that moral position, fails to properly engage with and understand this position, although this person would in fact agree with it upon reflection; such a failure can fairly be said to be due to bias — and 3) at any rate, the question concerning what it is like to experience certain states of consciousness is a factual matter, including how horrible they are deemed from the inside, and this is something we can be factually wrong about as outside observers.

[25] Not that sparing our own mental health is not a good reason for not doing something potentially traumatizing, but the question is just whether it is really worth letting our view of our personal and collective purpose in life be handicapped and biased, at the very least less well-informed than it otherwise could be, for that reason. Whether such self-imposed ignorance can really be justified, both to ourselves and the world at large.

[26] Again, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain makes an excellent case for this claim.

[27] And hence being animated by this principle is perfectly compatible with living a happy, joyous, and meaningful life. Indeed, I would argue that it provides the deepest meaning one could possibly find.

[28] I suspect both the content and phrasing of the last couple of sentences are inspired by the following quote I saw written on Facebook by Robert Daoust: “What is at the center of the universe of ethics, I suggest, is not the sun of the good and its play of bad shadows, but the black hole of suffering.”

Suffering-Focused Ethics

This essay was first published as a chapter in my book Effective Altruism: How Can We Best Help Others? which is available for free download here.


The view of values I would favor falls within a broader class of ethical views one may call suffering-focused ethics, which encompasses all views that give special priority to the alleviation and prevention of suffering. I will review some general arguments and considerations in favor of such views in this chapter, arguments that individually and collectively can support granting moral priority to suffering.[1] This general case will then be followed by a more specific case for a particular suffering-focused view — what I consider to be the strongest and most convincing one — in the next chapter.

It should be noted, however, that not all effective altruists agree with this view of values. Many appear to view the creation of happiness — for example, via the creation of new happy beings, or by raising the level of happiness of the already happy — as having the same importance as the reduction of “equal” suffering. I used to hold this view as well. Yet I have changed my mind in light of considerations of the kind presented below.[2]

The Asymmetries

We have already briefly visited one asymmetry that seems to exist, at least in the eyes of many people, between suffering and happiness, namely the so-called Asymmetry in population ethics, which roughly says that we have an obligation to avoid bringing miserable lives into the world, but no obligation to bring about happy lives. To the extent we agree with this view, it appears that we agree that we should assign greater moral value and priority to the alleviation and prevention of suffering over the creation of happiness, at least in the context of the creation of new lives.

A similar view has been expressed by philosopher Jan Narveson, who has argued that there is value in making people happy, but not in making happy people.[3] Another philosopher who holds a similar view is Christoph Fehige, who defends a position he calls antifrustrationism, according to which we have obligations to make preferrers satisfied, but no obligations to make satisfied preferrers.[4] Peter Singer, too, has expressed a similar view in the past:

The creation of preferences which we then satisfy gains us nothing. We can think of the creation of the unsatisfied preferences as putting a debit in the moral ledger which satisfying them merely cancels out. […] Preference Utilitarians have grounds for seeking to satisfy their wishes, but they cannot say that the universe would have been a worse place if we had never come into existence at all.[5]

In terms of how we choose to prioritize our resources, there does indeed, to many of us at least, seem something highly unpalatable, not to say immoral and frivolous, about focusing on creating happiness de novo rather than on alleviating and preventing suffering first and foremost. As philosopher Adriano Mannino has expressed it:

What’s beyond my comprehension is why turning rocks into happiness elsewhere should matter at all. That strikes me as okay, but still utterly useless and therefore immoral if it comes at the opportunity cost of not preventing suffering. The non-creation of happiness is not problematic, for it never results in a problem for anyone (i.e. any consciousness-moment), and so there’s never a problem you can point to in the world; the non-prevention of suffering, on the other hand, results in a problem.[6]

And in the case of extreme suffering, one can argue that the word “problem” is a strong contender for most understated euphemism in history. Mannino’s view can be said to derive from what is arguably an intuitive and common-sense “understanding of ethics as being about solving the world’s problems: We confront spacetime, see wherever there is or will be a problem, i.e. a struggling being, and we solve it.”[7]

Simon Knutsson has expressed a similar sentiment to the opportunity cost consideration expressed by Mannino above, and highlighted the crucial juxtaposition we must consider:

When spending resources on increasing the number of beings instead of preventing extreme suffering, one is essentially saying to the victims: “I could have helped you, but I didn’t, because I think it’s more important that individuals are brought into existence. Sorry.”[8]

Philosopher David Benatar defends an asymmetry much stronger than the aforementioned Asymmetry in population ethics, as he argues that we not only should avoid bringing (overtly) miserable lives into existence, but that we ideally should avoid bringing any lives into existence at all, since coming into existence is always a harm on Benatar’s account. Explained simply, Benatar’s main argument rests on the premise that the absence of suffering is good, while the absence of happiness is not bad, and hence the state of non-existence is good (“good” + “not bad” = “good”), whereas the presence of suffering and happiness is bad and good respectively, and hence not a pure good, which renders it worse than the state of non-existence according to Benatar.[9]

Beyond this asymmetry, Benatar further argues that there is an asymmetry in how much suffering and happiness our lives contain — e.g. that the worst forms of suffering are far worse than the best pleasures are good; that we almost always experience some subtle unpleasantness, dissatisfaction, and preference frustration; and that there are such negative things as chronic pain, impairment, and trauma, yet no corresponding positive things, like chronic pleasure.[10] And the reason that we fail to acknowledge this, Benatar argues, is that we have various, well-documented psychological biases which cause us to evaluate our lives in overly optimistic terms.[11]

It seems worth expanding a bit on this more quantitative asymmetry between the respective badness and goodness of suffering and happiness. For even if one rejects the notion that there is a qualitative difference between the moral status of creating happiness and preventing suffering — e.g. that a failure to prevent suffering is problematic, while a failure to create happiness is not — it seems difficult to deny Benatar’s claim that the worst forms of suffering are far worse than the best of pleasures are good. Imagine, for example, that we were offered ten years of the greatest happiness possible on the condition that we must undergo some amount of hellish torture in order to get it. How much torture would we be willing to endure in order to get this prize? Many of us would reject the offer completely and prefer a non-existent, entirely non-problematic state over any mixture of hellish torture and heavenly happiness.

Others, however, will be willing to accept the offer and make a sacrifice. And the question is then how big a sacrifice one could reasonably be willing to make? Seconds of hellish torture? A full hour? Perhaps even an entire day? Some might go as far as saying an entire day, yet it seems that no matter how much one values happiness, no one could reasonably push the scale to anywhere near 50/50. That is, no one could reasonably choose to endure ten years of hellish torture in order to attain ten years of sublime happiness.

Those who would be willing to endure a full day of torture in order to enjoy ten years of paradise are, I think, among those who are willing to push it the furthest in order to attain such happiness, and yet notice how far they are from 50/50. We are not talking 80/20, 90/10, or even 99/1 here. No, one day of hell for 3650 days of paradise roughly corresponds to a “days of happiness to days of suffering” ratio of 99.97 to 0.03. And that is for those who are willing to push it.[12]

So not only is there no symmetry here; the moral weight of the worst of suffering appears to be orders of magnitude greater than that of the greatest happiness, which implies that the prevention of suffering appears the main name of the ethical game on any plausible moral calculus. Even on a view according to which we are willing to really push it and endure what is, arguably by most accounts, an unreasonable amount of suffering in order to gain happiness, the vast majority of moral weight is still found in preventing suffering, at least when speaking in terms of durations of the best and worst potential states. And one can reasonably argue that this is also true of the actual state of the world, as Arthur Schopenhauer did when comparing “the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.”[13]

A more general and qualitative asymmetry between the moral status of happiness and suffering has been defended by philosopher Karl Popper:

I believe that there is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and pleasure. […] In my opinion human suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway. A further criticism of the Utilitarian formula “Maximize pleasure” is that it assumes a continuous pleasure-pain scale which allows us to treat degrees of pain as negative degrees of pleasure. But, from the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure, and especially not one man’s pain by another man’s pleasure. Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all; […][14]

David Pearce, who identifies as a negative utilitarian, describes his view in a similar way:

Ethical negative-utilitarianism is a value-system which challenges the moral symmetry of pleasure and pain. It doesn’t question the value of enhancing the happiness of the already happy. Yet it attaches value in a distinctively moral sense of the term only to actions which tend to minimise or eliminate suffering. This is what matters above all else.[15]

Neither Popper nor Pearce appear to deny that there is value in happiness. Instead, what they deny is that the value there may be in creating happiness is comparable to the value of reducing suffering. In Pearce’s words, increasing the happiness of the already happy does not carry value in the distinctively moral sense that reducing suffering does; in Popper’s words, suffering makes a direct moral appeal for help, while the state of those who are doing well does not.

Expressed in other words, one may say that the difference is that suffering, by its very nature, carries urgency, whereas the creation of happiness does not, at least not in a similar way. (Popper put it similarly: “[…] the promotion of happiness is in any case much less urgent than the rendering of help to those who suffer […]”[16]) We would rightly rush to send an ambulance to help someone who is enduring extreme suffering, yet not to boost the happiness of someone who is already happy, no matter how much we may be able to boost it. Similarly, if we had pills that could raise the happiness of those who are already doing well to the greatest heights possible, there would be no urgency in distributing these pills (to those already doing well), whereas if a single person fell to the ground in unbearable agony right before us, there would indeed be an urgency to help. Increasing the happiness of the already happy is, unlike the alleviation of extreme suffering, not an emergency.

A similar consideration about David Pearce’s abolitionist project described in the previous chapter — the abolition of suffering throughout the living world via biotechnology — appears to lend credence to this asymmetrical view of the moral status of the creation of happiness versus the prevention of suffering. For imagine we had completed the abolitionist project and made suffering non-existent for good. The question is then whether it can reasonably be maintained that our moral obligations would be exactly the same after this completion. Would we have an equally strong duty or obligation to move sentience to new heights after we had abolished suffering? Or would we instead have discharged our prime moral obligation, and thus have reason to lower our shoulders and breathe a deep and justified sigh of moral relief? I think the latter.

Another reason in favor of an asymmetrical view is that, echoing Benatar somewhat, it seems that the absence of extreme happiness cannot be considered bad in remotely the same way that the absence of extreme suffering can be considered good. For example, if a person is in a state of dreamless sleep rather than having the experience of a lifetime, this cannot reasonably be characterized as a disaster or a catastrophe; the difference between these two states does not seem to carry great moral weight. Yet when it comes to the difference between sleeping and being tortured, we are indeed talking about a difference that does carry immense moral weight, and the realization of the worse rather than the better outcome would indeed amount to a catastrophe.

The final asymmetry I shall review in this section is one that is found more on a meta-level, namely in the distribution of views concerning the moral value of the creation of happiness and the prevention of suffering. For in our broader human conversation about what has value, very few seem to have seriously disputed the disvalue of suffering and the importance of preventing it. Indeed, to the extent that we can find a value that almost everyone agrees on, it is this: suffering matters. In contrast, there are many who have disputed the value and importance of creating more happiness, including many of the philosophers mentioned in this section; many thinkers in Eastern philosophy for whom moksha, liberation from suffering, is the highest good; as well as many thinkers in Western philosophy, with roots all the way back to Epicurus, for whom ataraxia, an untroubled state free from distress, was the highest aim. Further elaboration on a version of this view of happiness follows in the next section.

This asymmetry in consensus about the value and moral status of creating happiness versus preventing suffering also counts as a weak reason for giving greater priority to the latter.

Tranquilism: Happiness as the Absence of Suffering

Author Lukas Gloor defends a view he calls tranquilism, which — following Epicurus and his notion of ataraxia, as well as the goal of moksha proposed as the highest good by many Eastern philosophers[17] — holds that the value of happiness lies in its absence of suffering.[18] Thus, according to tranquilism, states of euphoric bliss are not of greater value than, say, states of peaceful contentment free of any negative components. Or, for that matter, than a similarly undisturbed state of dreamless sleep or insentience. In other words, states of happiness are of equal value to nothing, provided that they are shorn of suffering.

In this way, tranquilism is well in line with the asymmetry in moral status between happiness and suffering defended by Karl Popper and David Pearce: that increasing the happiness of the already happy does not have the moral value that reducing suffering does. And one may even argue that it explains this asymmetry: if the value of happiness lies in its absence of suffering, then it follows that creating happiness (for those not suffering) cannot take precedence over reducing suffering. Moving someone from zero to (another kind of) zero can never constitute a greater move on the value scale than moving someone from a negative state to a (however marginally) less negative one.[19]

To many of us, this is a highly counter-intuitive view, at least at first sight. After all, do we not seek pleasure almost all the time, often at the seemingly justified cost of suffering? Yet one can frame this seeking in another way that is consistent with tranquilism, by viewing our search for pleasure as really being an attempt to escape suffering and dissatisfaction. On this framing, what appears to be going from neutral to positive is really going from a state of negativity, however subtle, to a state that is relieved, at least to some extent, from this negativity. So, on this view, when we visit a friend we have desired to see for some time, we do not go from a neutral to a positive state, but instead just remove our craving for their company and the dissatisfaction caused by their absence. So too with the pleasure of physical exercise: it is liberating in that it gives us temporary freedom from the bad feelings and moods that follow from not exercising. Or even the pleasure of falling in love, which provides refreshing relief from the boredom and desire we are otherwise plagued by.

Psychologist William James seemed to agree with this view of happiness:

Happiness, I have lately discovered, is no positive feeling, but a negative condition of freedom from a number of restrictive sensations of which our organism usually seems the seat. When they are wiped out, the clearness and cleanness of the contrast is happiness. This is why anaesthetics make us so happy.[20]

As did Arthur Schopenhauer:

[…] evil is precisely that which is positive,[21] that which makes itself palpable, and good, on the other hand, i.e. all happiness and gratification, is that which is negative, the mere abolition of a desire and extinction of a pain.[22]

And here is how Lukas Gloor explains it:

In the context of everyday life, there are almost always things that ever so slightly bother us. Uncomfortable pressure in the shoes, thirst, hunger, headaches, boredom, itches, non-effortless work, worries, longing for better times. When our brain is flooded with pleasure, we temporarily become unaware of all the negative ingredients of our stream of consciousness, and they thus cease to exist. Pleasure is the typical way in which our minds experience temporary freedom from suffering, which may contribute to the view that happiness is the symmetrical counterpart to suffering, and that pleasure, at the expense of all other possible states, is intrinsically important and worth bringing about.[23]

One may object that the implication that mere contentment has the same value as the greatest euphoric bliss seems implausible, and thus counts against tranquilism. Yet whether this is indeed implausible depends on the eyes that look. For consider it this way: if someone who experiences “mere contentment” without any negative cravings[24] whatsoever, and thus does not find the experience insufficient in any way, who are we to say that they are wrong about their state, and that they actually should want something better? Tranquilism denies that such a “merely content” person is wrong to claim that their state is perfect. Indeed, tranquilism is here in perfect agreement with this person, and hence this implication of tranquilism is at least not implausible from this person’s perspective, which one may argue is the most relevant perspective to consider in this context of discussing whether said person is in a suboptimal state. The perspective from which this implication appears implausible, a proponent of tranquilism may argue, is only from the perspective of someone who is not in perfect contentment — one who desires euphoric bliss, for oneself and others, and in some sense feels lacking, i.e. a negative craving, about its absence.

Another apparent, and perhaps intuitive, reason to reject tranquilism is that it appears to imply that happiness is not really that wonderful — that the best experience one has ever had was not really that great. Yet it is important to make clear that tranquilism implies no such thing. On the contrary, according to tranquilism, experiences of happiness without any suffering are indeed (together with other experiential states that are absent of suffering) experiences of the most wonderful kind, and they are by no means less wonderful than they are felt. What tranquilism does say, however, is that the value of such states is due to their absence of suffering, and that the creation of such happy states cannot justify the creation of suffering.

Yet even so, even while allowing us to maintain the view that happiness is wonderful, tranquilism is still, at least for many of us, really not a nice way to think about the world, and about the nature of value in particular, as we would probably all like to think that there exists something of truly positive value in the realm of conscious experience beyond merely the absence of negative experiences or cravings. Yet this want of ours — this negative craving, one could say — should only make us that much more skeptical of any reluctance we may have to give tranquilism a fair hearing. And even if, upon doing so, one does not find tranquilism an entirely convincing or exhaustive account of the respective (dis)value of happiness and suffering, it seems difficult to deny that there is a significant grain of truth to it.

The implications of tranquilism are clear: creating more happiness (for the currently non-existent or otherwise not suffering) has neutral value, while there is value in the alleviation and prevention of suffering, a value that, as noted above, nobody seriously questions.

Creating Happiness at the Cost of Suffering Is Wrong

In this section I shall not argue for a novel, separate point, but instead invoke some concrete examples that help make the case for a particular claim that follows directly from many of the views we have seen above, the claim being that it is wrong to create happiness at the cost of suffering.

One obvious example of such gratuitous suffering would be that of torturing a single person for the enjoyment of a large crowd.[25] If we think happiness can always outweigh suffering, we seem forced to say that, yes, provided that the resulting enjoyment of the crowd is great enough, and if other things are equal, then such happiness can indeed outweigh and justify torturing a single person. Yet that seems misguided. A similar example to consider is that of a gang rape: if we think happiness can always outweigh suffering, then such a rape can in principle be justified, provided that the pleasure of the rapists is sufficiently great. Yet most people would find this proposition utterly wrong.

One may object that these thought experiments bring other issues into play than merely that of happiness versus suffering, which is a fair point. Yet we can in a sense control for these by reversing the purpose of these acts so that they are about reducing suffering rather than increasing happiness for a given group of individuals. So rather than the torture of a single person being done for the enjoyment of a crowd, it is now done in order to prevent a crowd from being tortured; rather than the rape being done for the pleasure of, say, five people, it is done to prevent five people from being raped. While we may still find it most unpalatable to give the go signal for such preventive actions, it nonetheless seems clear that torturing a single person in order to prevent the torture of many people would be the right thing to do, and that having less rape occur is better than having more.

A similar example, which however does not involve any extreme suffering, is the situation described in Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. The story is about an almost utopian city, Omelas, in which everyone lives an extraordinarily happy and meaningful life, except for a single child who is locked in a basement room, fated 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.[26]

The story ends by describing some people in the city who appear to find the situation unacceptable and who choose not to take part in it any more — the ones who walk away from Omelas.

The relevant question for us to consider here is whether we would walk away from Omelas, or perhaps rather whether we would choose to bring a condition like Omelas into existence in the first place. Can the happy and meaningful lives of the other people in Omelas justify the existence of this single, miserable child? Different people have different intuitions about it; some will say that it depends on how many people live in Omelas. Yet to many of us, the answer is “no” — the creation of happiness is comparatively frivolous and unnecessary, and it cannot justify the creation of such a victim, of such misery and suffering.[27] A sentiment to the same effect was expressed in the novel The Plague, by Albert Camus: “For who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering?”[28]

A “no” to the creation of Omelas would also be supported by the Asymmetry in population ethics, according to which it has neutral value to add a happy life to Omelas, while adding this one miserable child has negative value, and hence the net value of the creation of Omelas is negative.

The examples visited above all argue for the claim that it is wrong to impose certain forms of suffering on someone for the sake of creating happiness, where the forms of suffering have gradually been decreasing in severity. And one may argue that the plausibility of the claims these respective examples have been used to support has been decreasing gradually too, and for this very reason: the less extreme the suffering, the less clear it is that happiness could never outweigh it. And yet even in the case of the imposition of the mildest of suffering — a pinprick, say — for the sake of the creation of happiness, it is far from clear, upon closer examination, that this should be deemed permissible, much less an ethical obligation. Echoing the passage by Camus above, would it really be right to impose a pinprick on someone in order to create pleasure for ourselves or others, or indeed for the very person we do it on, provided that whomever would gain the happiness is doing perfectly fine already, and thus that the resulting happiness would not in fact amount to a reduction of suffering? Looking only at, or rather from, the perspective of that moment’s suffering itself, the act would indeed be bad, and the question is then what could justify such badness, given that the alternative was an entirely trouble-free state. If one holds that being ethical means to promote happiness over suffering, not to create happiness at the cost of suffering, the answer is “nothing”.

Two Objections

Finally, it is worth briefly addressing two common objections against suffering-focused ethics, the first one being that not many people have held such a view, which makes it appear implausible. The first thing to say in response to this claim is that, even if it were true, the fact that a position is not widely held is not a strong reason to consider it implausible, especially if one thinks one has strong, object-level reasons to consider it plausible, and, furthermore, if one believes there are human biases[29] that can readily explain its (purportedly) widespread rejection. The second thing to say is that the claim is simply not true, as there are many thinkers, historical as well as contemporary ones, who have defended views similar to those outlined here (see the following note for examples).[30]

Another objection is that suffering-focused views have unappealing consequences, including that, according to such views, it would be right to kill everyone (or “destroy the world”). One reply to this claim is that at least some suffering-focused views do not have this implication. For example, in his book The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe, Jonathan Leighton argues for a pragmatic position he calls “negative utilitarianism plus”, according to which we should aim to do our best to reduce preventable suffering, yet where we can still “categorically refuse to intentionally destroy the planet and eliminate ourselves and everything we care about in the process […]”.[31]

Another reply is that, as Simon Knutsson has argued at greater length,[32] other ethical views that have a consequentialist component seem about as vulnerable to similar objections. For instance, if maximizing the sum of happiness minus suffering were our core objective, it could be said that we ought to kill people in order to replace them with happier beings. One may then object, quite reasonably, that this is unlikely to be optimal in practice, yet one can argue — as reasonably, I believe — that the same holds true of trying to destroy the world in order to reduce suffering: it does not seem the best we can do in practice. I shall say a bit more about this last point in the penultimate chapter on future directions.

 

Having visited this general case for suffering-focused ethics, we shall now turn to what is arguably the strongest case for such a view — the appeal to sympathy for intense suffering.


 

(For the full bibliography, see the end of my book.)

[1] This chapter is inspired by other resources that also advocate for suffering-focused ethics, such as the following:
https://foundational-research.org/the-case-for-suffering-focused-ethics/
https://www.utilitarianism.com/nu/nufaq.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OWl5nTctYI
https://www.hedweb.com/negutil.htm
Pearce, 2017, part II
A more elaborate case for focusing on suffering can be found in Jamie Mayerfeld’s Suffering and Moral Responsibility.

[2] Not least have I changed my mind about whether a term like “equal suffering” is at all meaningful in general.

[3] Narveson, 1973.

[4] Fehige, 1998.

[5] Singer, 1980b. However, Singer goes on to say about this view of coming into existence that it “perhaps, is a reason to combine [preference and hedonistic utilitarianism]”. Furthermore, Singer seems to have moved much closer toward, and to now defend, hedonistic utilitarianism, whereas he was arguably primarily a preference utilitarian when he made the quoted statement.

[6] Quoted from a Facebook conversation.

[7] https://foundational-research.org/the-case-for-suffering-focused-ethics/

[8] http://www.simonknutsson.com/the-one-paragraph-case-for-suffering-focused-ethics

[9] Benatar, 2006, chapter 2.

[10] Benatar, 2006, chapter 3.

[11] Benatar, 2006, chapter 3.

[12] One may object that our choosing such a skewed trade-off is merely a reflection of our contingent biology, and that it may be possible to create happiness so great that most people would consider a single day of it worth ten years of the worst kinds of suffering our biology can support. To this I would respond that such a possibility remains hypothetical, indeed speculative, and that we should base our views mainly on the actualities we know rather than such hypothetical (and wishful) possibilities. After all, it may also be, indeed it seems about equally likely, that suffering can be far worse than the worst suffering our contingent biology can support, and, furthermore, it may be that the pattern familiar from our contingent biology only repeats itself in this realm of theoretical maxima; i.e. that such maximal suffering can only be deemed far more disvaluable than the greatest bliss possible can be deemed valuable.

[13] Schopenhauer, 1851/1970, p. 42.

[14] Popper, 1945/2011, note 2 to chapter 9.

[15] https://www.hedweb.com/negutil.htm

[16] Popper, 1945/2011, note 6 to chapter 5.

[17] Some version of the concept of moksha is central to most of the well-known Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism (nirvana), Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism (mukti).

[18] https://foundational-research.org/tranquilism/
Thus, the view is not that happiness is literally the absence of suffering, which is, of course, patently false — insentient rocks are obviously not happy — but rather that the value of happiness lies in its absence of suffering.

[19] It should be noted, however, that one need not hold this tranquilist view of value in order to agree with Popper’s and Pearce’s position. For example, one can also view happiness as being strictly more valuable than nothing, while still maintaining that the value of raising the happiness of the already happy is always less than the value of reducing suffering. An intuitive way of formalizing this view would be by representing the value of states of suffering with negative real numbers, while representing the value of states of pure happiness with hyperreal numbers greater than 0, yet smaller than any positive real number, allowing us to assign some states of pure happiness greater value than others. On tranquilism, by contrast, all states of (pure) happiness would be assigned exactly the value 0.

[20] James, 1901.

[21] The terms “positive” and “negative” here respectively refer to the presence and absence of something.

[22] Schopenhauer, 1851/1970, p. 41.

[23] https://foundational-research.org/tranquilism/

[24] I happen to disagree with Gloor’s particular formulation of tranquilism when he writes: “According to tranquilism, a state of consciousness is negative or disvaluable if and only if it contains a craving for change.” For it seems to me that even intense cravings for change (for a different sex position, say) can feel perfectly fine and non-negative; that euphoric desire, say, is not an oxymoron. The term “negative cravings” avoids this complication.

[25] There are various versions of this example. A common one is whether it can be right to make gladiators fight for the enjoyment of a full colosseum, which is often raised as a problematic question for (certain versions of) utilitarianism.

[26] Guin, 1973/1992.

[27] And even though many will probably insist that the child’s suffering is a worthy sacrifice, the fact that it only takes a single life of misery to bring the value of a whole paradisiacal city into serious question, as it seems to do for most people, is yet another strong hint that there is an asymmetry between the (dis)value of happiness and suffering.

[28] Camus, 1947/1991, p. 224.

[29] Cf. Benatar, 2006, chapter 3.

[30] See section 2.2.14 here https://www.utilitarianism.com/nu/nufaq.html as well as http://www.simonknutsson.com/thoughts-on-ords-why-im-not-a-negative-utilitarian

[31] Leighton, 2011, p. 96.

[32] http://www.simonknutsson.com/the-world-destruction-argument/

In Defense of Nuance

(Also available as audiobook.)


The world is complex. Yet most of our popular stories and ideologies tend not to reflect this complexity. Which is to say that our stories and ideologies, and by extension we, tend to have insufficiently nuanced perspectives on the world.

Indeed, falling into a simple narrative through which we can easily categorize and make sense of the world — e.g. “it’s all God’s will”; “it’s all class struggle”; “it’s all the muslims’ fault”; “it’s all a matter of interwoven forms of oppression” — is a natural and extremely powerful human temptation. And something social constructivists get very right is that this narrative, the lens through which we see the world, influences our experience of the world to an extent that is difficult to appreciate.

So much more important, then, that we suspend our urge to embrace simplistic narratives to (mis)understand the world through. In order to navigate wisely in the world, we need to have views that reflect its true complexity; not views that merely satisfy our need for simplicity (and social signaling; more on this below). For although simplicity can be efficient, and to some extent is necessary, it can also, when too much too relevant detail is left out, be terribly costly. And relative to the needs of our time, I think most of us naturally err on the side of being expensively unnuanced, painting a picture of the world with far too few colors.

Thus, the straightforward remedy I shall propose and argue for here is that we need to control for this. We need to make a conscious effort to gain more nuanced perspectives. This is necessary as a general matter, I believe, if we are to be balanced and well-considered individuals who steer clear of self-imposed delusions and instead act wisely toward the betterment of the world. Yet it is also necessary for our time in particular. More specifically, it is essential in addressing the crisis that human conversation seems to be facing in the Western world at this point in time. A crisis that largely seems the result of an insufficient amount of nuance in our perspectives.

Some Remarks on Human Nature

There are certain facts about the human condition that we need to put on the table and contend with. These are facts about our limits and fallibility which should give us all pause about what we think we know — both about the world in general as well as ourselves in particular.

For one, we have a whole host of well-documented cognitive biases. There are far too many for me to list them all here, yet some of the most important ones are: confirmation bias (the tendency of our minds to search for, interpret, and recall information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs); wishful thinking (our tendency to believe what we wish were true); and overconfidence bias (our tendency to have excessive confidence in our own beliefs; in one study, people who reported to be 100 percent certain about their answer to a question were correct less than 85 percent of the time). And while we can probably all recognize these pitfalls in other people, it is much more difficult to realize and admit that they afflict ourselves as well. In fact, our reluctance to realize this is itself a well-documented bias, known as the bias blindspot.

Beyond realizing that we have fallible minds, we also need to realize the underlying context that has given rise to much of this fallibility, and which continues to fuel it, namely: our social context — both the social context of our evolutionary history as well as of our present condition. We humans are deeply social creatures, and it shows at every level of our design, including the level of our belief formation. And we need to be acutely aware of this if we are to form reasonable beliefs with minimal amounts of self-deception.

Yet not only are we social creatures, we are also, by nature, deeply tribal creatures. As psychologist Henri Tajfel showed, one need only assign one group of randomly selected humans the letter “A” and another randomly selected group the letter “B” in order for a surprisingly strong in-group favoritism to emerge. This method for studying human behavior is known as the minimal group paradigm, and it shows something about us that history should already have taught us a long time ago: that human tribalism is like gasoline just waiting for a little spark to be ignited.

This social and tribal nature of ours has implications for how we act and what we believe. It is, for instance, largely what explains the phenomenon of groupthink, which is when our natural tendency toward (in-)group conformity leads to a lack of dissenting viewpoints among individuals in a given group, which then, in turn, leads to poor decisions by these individuals.

Indeed, our beliefs about the world are far more socially influenced than we realize. Not just in the obvious way that we get our views from others around us — often without much external validation or testing — but also in that we often believe things in order to signal to others that we possess certain desirable traits, or that we are loyal to them. This latter way of thinking about our beliefs is quite at odds with how we prefer to think about ourselves, yet the evidence for this unflattering view is difficult to deny at this point.

As authors Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler argue in their recent book The Elephant in the Brain, we humans are strategically self-deceived about our own motives, including when it comes to what motivates our beliefs. Beliefs, they argue, serve more functions than just the function of keeping track of what is true of the world. For while beliefs surely do have this practical function, they also often serve a very different, very social function, which is to show others what kind of person we are and what kind of groups we identify with. This makes beliefs much like clothes, which have the practical function of keeping us warm while, for most of us, also serving the function of signaling our taste and group affiliations. And one of Hanson’s and Simler’s essential points is that we are not aware of the fact that we do this, and that there is an evolutionary reason for this: if we realized (clearly) that we believe certain things for social reasons, and if we realized that we display our beliefs with overconfidence, we would be much less convincing to those we are trying to convince and impress.

Practical Implications of Our Nature

This brief survey of the natural pitfalls and fallibilities of our minds is far from exhaustive, of course. But it shall suffice for our purposes. The bottom line is that we are creatures who naturally want our pre-existing beliefs confirmed, and who tend to display too high levels of confidence about these beliefs. We do this in a social context, and many of the beliefs we hold serve non-epistemic functions within this context, which include the tribal function of showing others how loyal we are to certain groups, as well as how worthy we are as friends and mates. In other words, we have a natural pull to impress our peers, not just with our behavior but also with our beliefs. And, for socially strategic reasons, we are quite blind to the fact that we do this.

So what, then, is the upshot of all of this? It is clear, I submit, that these facts about ourselves do have significant implications for how we should comport ourselves. In short, they imply that we have a lot to control for if we aspire to have reasonable beliefs — and our own lazy mind, with all its blindspots and craving for simple comfort, is not our friend in this endeavor. The fact that we are naturally biased and tendentious implies that we should doubt our own beliefs and motives. And it implies that we need to actively seek out the counter-perspectives and nuance that our confirmation bias, this vile bane of reason, so persistently struggles to keep us from accessing.

Needless to say, these are not the norms that govern our discourse at this point in time. Sadly, what plays out right now is mostly the unedited script of tribal, confirmation biasing human nature, unfazed by the prefrontal interventions that seem just about the only hope for our rewriting this script into something better.

The Virtues of the Good Conversationist

Let us elaborate a bit on the implications of our fallibility, and the precepts we should follow if we want to control for these unflattering tendencies and pitfalls of human nature. Recall the study cited above: people who reported to be 100 percent certain about their answer to a question were correct less than 85 percent of the time. The fact that we can be so wrong — more than 15 percent of the time when we claim perfect certainty(!) — implies, among other things, that when someone tells us we are wrong, we seem to have a prima facie reason to listen and try our best to understand what they are saying, as they may just be right. Of course, the tendency toward overconfidence will all but surely be shared by this other person as well, who could also be wrong. And our task then lies in finding out which it is. This is the importance of conversation. It is nothing less than the best tool we have, collectively, against being misguided. And that is why we have to become good conversationists.

What does it take to become that? At the very least, it requires an awareness of our biases, and a deliberate effort to counteract them.

Countering Confirmation Bias

To counteract our confirmation bias, we need to loosen our attachment to pre-existing beliefs, and to seek out viewpoints and arguments that may contradict them. The imperative of doing this derives from nothing less than the basic epistemic necessity of taking all relevant data into consideration rather than a small cherry-picked selection. For the truth is that we all cherry-pick data a little bit here and there in favor of our own position, and so by hearing from people with opposing views, and by examining their cherry-picked data and their particular emphasis and interpretation, we will, in the aggregate, tend to get a more balanced picture of the issue at hand.

And, importantly, we should strive to engage with these other views in a charitable way: by assuming good faith on behalf of the proponents of any position; by trying to understand their view as well as possible; and by then engaging with the strongest possible version of that position (i.e. the steel man rather than the straw man version of it). Indeed, it is difficult to overstate just how much the state of human conversation would improve if we all just followed this simple precept: be charitable.

Countering Wishful Thinking

Our propensity for wishful thinking should make us skeptical of beliefs that are convenient and which match up with what we want to be true. If we want there to be a God, and we believe there is one, then this should make us at least a little skeptical of this convenient belief. By extension, our attraction toward the wishful also implies that we should pay more attention to information and arguments that suggest conclusions which are inconvenient or otherwise contrary to what we wish were true. Do we believe the adoption of a vegan lifestyle would be highly inconvenient for us personally? Then we should probably expect to be more than a little biased against any argument in its favor, and indeed, if we suspect the argument has merit, be inclined to ignore it altogether rather than giving it a fair hearing.

Countering Overconfidence Bias

When it comes to correcting for our overconfidence bias, the key virtue to embrace is intellectual humility (or at least so it seems to me). That is, to admit and speak as though we have a limited and fallible perspective on things. In this respect, it also helps to be aware of the social factors that might be driving our overconfidence much of the time. As noted above, we often express certainty in order to signal to third parties, as well as to instill strong doubts in those we engage with. And we do this without being aware of it. This social function of confidence should lead us to update away from bravado and toward being more measured. Again: to be intellectually humble.

Countering In-Group Conformity

Another way in which social forces make us less than reasonable is by compelling us to conform to our peers. As hinted above, our beliefs are subject to in-group favoritism, which highlights the importance of being (especially) skeptical of the beliefs we share with groups that we affiliate closely with, and to practice playing the devil’s advocate against these beliefs. And, by extension, to try to be extra charitable toward the beliefs held by the notional out-group, whether it be “the Left” or “the Right”, “the religious” or “the atheists”.

Beyond that, we should also be aware that our minds likely often paint the out-group in an unfairly unfavorable light, viewing them as much less sincere and well-intentioned — one may even say more evil — than they actually are, however misguided (we may think) their particular views are. And it seems a natural temptation for us to try to score points by publicly broadcasting such a negative view of the out-group as a way of showing our in-group just how unlikely we are to change affiliation.

Thinking in Degrees of Certainty

It seems that we have a tendency to express our views in a very binary, 0-or-1 fashion. We tend to be either clearly for something or clearly against it, be it abortion, efforts to prevent climate change, the death penalty, or universal health care. And it seems to me that what we express outwardly is generally much more absolutist, i.e. more purely 0 or 1, than what happens inwardly, under the hood — perhaps even underneath our conscious awareness — where there is probably more conflicting data than what we are aware of and allow ourselves to admit.

I have observed this pattern in conversations: people will argue strongly for a given position which they continue to insist on, until, quite suddenly it seems, they say that they accept the opposite conclusion. In terms of their outward behavior, they went from 0 to 1 quite rapidly, although it seems likely that the process that took place underneath the hood was much more continuous — a more gradual move from 0 to 1, where the signal “express 1 now” was then passed at some threshold.

An extreme example of similar behavior found in recent events is that of Omarosa Manigault Newman, who was the so-called Director of African-American Outreach for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. She went from describing Trump in adulating terms and calling him “a trailblazer on women’s issues”, to being strongly against him and calling him a racist and a misogynist. It seems unlikely that this shift was based purely on evidence she encountered after she made her adulating statements. There probably was a lot of information in her brain that contradicted the claim of Trump’s status as such a trailblazer, but which she ignored and suppressed. And the reason why is quite obvious: she had a political aim. She needed to broadcast the message that Trump was a good person to further a campaign and to further her own career tied to this campaign. It was about signaling first, not truth-tracking (which is not to say that she did not sincerely believe what she said, but her sincere belief was probably just conveniently biased).

The important thing to realize, of course, is that this applies to all of us. We are all inclined to be more like a politician than a scientist in many situations. In particular, we are all inclined to believe and express either a pure 0 or a pure 1 for social reasons. And the nature of these social reasons may vary. It may be about signaling opposition to someone who believes the opposite, or about signaling loyalty to a given group (few groups rally around low-credence claims). It may also be about signaling that we have a mind that is of a strong conviction. After all, doubt is generally not sexy. Just consider the words we usually associate with it, such as uncertainty, confusion, and indecision. Certainty, on the other hand, signals strength, and is commonly associated with more positive words such as decisiveness, confidence, resoluteness, and firmness. And so, for this reason as well, it only seems natural that we would generally be inclined to signal certainty rather than doubt, even when we do not possess anything close to justified certainty.

Fortunately, there exists a corrective for our tendency toward 0-or-1 thinking, which is to think in terms of credences along a continuum, ranging from 0 to 1. For one, this would constitute a more honest form of communication, in that it would force us to carefully weigh all the information that our brain keeps hidden from us, as well as to express its underlying credence in detail — as opposed to merely expressing whether this credence has crossed some given threshold. Yet perhaps even more significantly, thinking in terms of such a continuum would also help subvert the tribal aspect of our either-or thinking by placing us all in the same boat: the boat of degrees of certainty, in which the only thing that differs between us is our level of certainty in any given claim. For example, think how strange it would be for a religious believer to present their religious beliefs by saying that their credence in the existence of a God lies around 93 percent. This is a much weaker statement, in terms of its social signaling function, than a statement such as “I am a Christian”.

Such an honest, more detailed description of one’s beliefs is not good for keeping groups divided by different beliefs. Indeed, it is good for the exact opposite: it helps us move toward a more open and sincere conversation about what we in fact believe and why, regardless of our group affiliations.

Different Perspectives Can Be Equally True

There are two common definitions of the term “perspective” that are quite different, yet closely related at the same time. One is “a mental outlook/point of view”, while the other is “the art of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface”. And they are related in that the latter can be viewed as a metaphor for the former: our particular perspective, the representation of the world we call our point of view, is in a sense a limited two-dimensional representation of a more complex, multi-dimensional reality. A representation that is bound to leave out a lot of information about this reality. The best we can do, then, is to try to paint the two-dimensional canvas that is our mind so as to make it as rich and informative as possible about the complex and many-faceted world we inhabit.

And an important point for us to realize in our quest for more balanced and nuanced views, as well as for the betterment of human conversation, is to realize that seemingly conflicting reports of different perspectives on the same underlying reality can in fact all be true, as hinted by the following illustrations:

 

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The same object can have very different reflections when viewed from different angles. Similarly, the same events can be viewed very differently by different people who each have their own unique dispositions and prior experiences. And these different views can all be true; John really does see X when he looks at this event, while Jane really does see Y. And, like the square- and circle-shaped reflections above, X and Y need not be incompatible. (A similar sentiment is reflected in the Jain doctrine of Anekantavada.)

And even when someone does get something wrong, they may nonetheless still be reporting the appearance of the world as it is revealed to them as honestly and accurately as they can. For example, to many of us, it really does seem as though the lines in the following picture are not parallel, although they in fact are:

 

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Which is merely to state the obvious point that it is possible, indeed quite common, to be perfectly honest and wrong at the same time, which is worth keeping in mind when we engage with people whom we think are obviously wrong; they usually think they are right, and that we are obviously wrong — and perhaps even dishonest.

Another important point the visual illusion above hints at is that we should be careful not to confuse external reality with our representation of it. Our conscious experience of the external world is not, obviously, the external world itself. And yet we tend to speak as though it were.

This is an evolutionarily adaptive illusion no doubt, but it is an illusion nonetheless. All we ever inhabit is, in the words of David Pearce, our own world simulation, a world of conscious experience residing in our head. And given that we all find ourselves stuck in — or indeed as — such separate, albeit mutually communicating bubbles, it is not so strange that we can have so many disagreements about what we think reality is like. All we have to go on is our own private, phenomenal cartoon model of each other and the world at large; a cartoon model that may get many things right, but which is also sure to miss a lot of important things.

Framing Shapes Our Perspective

From the vantage point of our respective world simulations, we each interpret information from the external world with our own unique framing. And this framing in part determines how we will experience it, as demonstrated by the following illustration, where one can change one’s framing so as to either see a duck or a rabbit:

 

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As well as the following illustration where one’s framing determines whether one sees a cube from above or below — or indeed just a two dimensional pattern without depth:

 

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Sometimes, as in the examples above, our framing is readily alterable. In other cases, however, it can be more difficult to just switch our framing, as when it comes to how different people with different life experiences will naturally interpret the same scenario in very different ways. For instance, a physicist might enter a room and see a lot of interesting physical phenomena there. Air consisting of molecules which bounce around in accord with the laws of thermodynamics; sound waves that travel adiabatically across the room; long lamps dangling in their natural frequency while emitting photons. An artistic person, in contrast, may enter the same room and instead see a lot of people. And this person may view these people as a sea of flowing creative potential in the process of being unleashed, inspired by deeply emotional music and a warm glowing light that fits perfectly with the atmosphere of the music.

Although these two perspectives on the events of this same room are very different, none of them are necessarily wrong. Indeed, they seem perfectly compatible, despite their representing what seems to be two very different cognitive styles — two different paradigms of thinking and perceiving, one may say. And what is important to realize is that a similar story applies to all of us. We all experience the world in different ways, due to our differing biological dispositions, life experiences, and vantage points. And while these different experiences are not necessarily incompatible, it can nonetheless be difficult to achieve mutual understanding between such differing perspectives.

Acknowledging Many Perspectives Is Not a Denial of Truth

It should be noted, however, that none of the above makes a case for the relativistic claim that there are no truths. On the contrary, what the above implies is indeed that it is a truth — as hard and strong as could be — that different individuals can have different perspectives and experiences in reaction to the same external reality, and that it is possible for such differing perspectives to all have merit, even if they seem in tension with each other. And to acknowledge this fact by no means amounts to the illogical statement that no given perspective can ever be wrong and make false claims about reality — that, sadly, is clearly all too common. This middle-position of rejecting both the claim that there is only one valid perspective and the claim that there are no truths is, I submit, the only reasonable one on offer.

And the fact that there can be merit in a plurality of perspectives implies that, beyond conceiving of our credences along a continuum ranging from 0 to 1, we also need to think in terms of a diversity of continua in a more general sense if we are to gain a fuller, more nuanced understanding that does justice to reality, including the people around us with whom we interact. More than just thinking in terms of shades of grey found in-between the two endpoints of black and white, we need to think in terms of many different shades of many different colors.

At the same time, it is also important to acknowledge the limits of our understanding of other minds and experiences we have not had. This does not amount to some obscure claim about how we each have our own, wholly incommensurable experiences, and hence that mutual understanding between individuals with different backgrounds is impossible. Rather, it is simply to acknowledge that psychological diversity is real, which implies that we should be careful to avoid the so-called typical mind fallacy, as well as to acknowledge that at least some experiences just cannot be conveyed faithfully with words alone to those who have not had them. And this does, at the very least, pose a challenge to the endeavor of communicating with and understanding each other. For example, most of us have never tried experiencing extreme forms of suffering, such as the experience of being burned alive. And beyond describing this class of experiences with thin yet accurate labels such as “horrible” and “bad”, most of us are surely very ignorant — luckily for us.

However, this realization that we do not know what certain experiences are like is in fact itself an important insight that does help expand and advance our outlook. For it at least helps us realize that our own understanding, as well as the range and variety of experiences we are familiar with, are far from exhaustive. With this realization in mind, we can look upon a state of absolute horror and admit that we have virtually no understanding of just how bad it is, which, I submit, comprises a significantly greater understanding than does beholding it with both the same absence of comprehension, and the absence of the admission of this absent comprehension. The realization that we are ignorant itself constitutes knowledge of sorts. The kind of knowledge that makes us rightfully humble.

Grains of Truth in Different Perspectives

Even when two different perspectives indeed are in conflict with each other, this does not imply that they are necessarily both entirely wrong, as there can still be significant grains of truth in both of them. Most of today’s widely endorsed perspectives and narratives make a wide range of claims and arguments, and even if not all of these stand up to scrutiny, many of them often do, at least when modified slightly. And part of being charitable is to seek out such grains of truth in a position one does not agree with. This can also help us realize which truths and plausible claims that might motivate people to support (what we consider) misguided views, and thus help further mutual understanding among us. Therefore, this seems a reasonable precept to follow as well: sincerely ask what might be the grains of truth in the views you disagree with. One can almost always find something, and often a good deal more than one would naively have thought.

As mentioned earlier, it is also possible for different perspectives to support what seems to be very different positions on the same subject without necessarily being wrong in any way; if they have different lenses, looking in different directions. Indeed, different perspectives on the same issue are often merely the result of different emphases which each focus on certain framings and sets of data rather than others. And thus seemingly incompatible perspectives may in fact all be right about the particular aspects of a given subject that they emphasize, which is why it is important to seek out different treatments of the same subject from multiple angles. Oftentimes, it is not that novel perspectives show our current perspective wrong, but merely that it is not sufficiently nuanced — i.e. that we have failed to take certain things into account, such as alternative framings, particular kinds of data, and critical counter-considerations.

This is, I believe, a common pattern in human conversation, and another sense in which we should be mindful of the possible existence of different grains of truth, namely: when different views on the same subject are all completely true, yet where each of them merely comprise a small grain in the larger mosaic that is the complete truth. And hence we should remind ourselves, as stated in the illustration above, that just because we are right does not mean that the person who says something else on the same subject is wrong.

Having made a general case for nuance, let us now turn our eyes toward our time in particular, and why it is especially important to actively seek to be nuanced and charitable today.

Our Time Is Different

Every period in history likely sees itself as uniquely unique. Yet in terms of how humanity communicates, it is clear that our time indeed is a highly unique one. For never before in history has human communication been so screen-based as it is today. Or, expressed equivalently: never before has so much of our communication been without face-to-face interaction. And this has significant implications for how and what we communicate.

It is clear that our brains process communication through a screen in a very different way. Writing a message in a Facebook group consisting of a thousand people does not, for most of us, feel remotely the same as delivering the same message in front of a thousand people crowd. And a similar discrepancy between the two forms of communication is found when we interact with just a single person, which is no wonder. Communication through a screen consists of a string of black and white symbols. Face-to-face interaction, in contrast, is composed of multiple streams of information. We read off important cues from a person’s face and posture, as well as from the tone and pace of their voice.

All this information provides a much more comprehensive, one might indeed say more nuanced, picture of the state of mind of the person we are interacting with. We get the verbal content of the conversation (as we would through a screen), plus a ton of information about the emotional state of the other. And beyond being informative, this information also serves the purpose of making the other person relatable. It makes the reality of their individuality and emotions almost impossible to deny, which is much less true when we communicate through a screen.

Indeed, it is as though these two forms of communication activate entirely different sets of brain circuits. Not only in that we communicate via a much broader bandwidth and likely see each other as more relatable when we communicate face-to-face, but also in that face-to-face communication naturally motivates us to be civil and agreeable. When we are in the direct physical presence of someone else, we have a strong interest in keeping things civil enough to allow our co-existence in the same physical space. When we interact through a screen, however, this is no longer a necessity. The notional brain circuitry underlying peaceful co-existence with antagonists can more safely be put on stand-by mode.

The reality of these differences between the two forms of communication has, I would argue, some serious implications. First of all, it highlights the importance of being aware that these two forms of communication indeed are very different, and that we are, in various ways, quite handicapped communicators when we communicate through a screen, often entering a state of mind that perhaps only a sociopath would be able to maintain in a face-to-face interaction. A handicap that further implies that we should be even more aware of the tendencies reviewed above when interacting through a screen, as these tendencies then become much easier and more tempting to engage in. It is (even) more difficult to relate to those who disagree with us, and we have (even) less of an incentive to understand them properly and be civil. Which is to say that it is (even) more difficult to be charitable. Written communication through a screen makes it easier than ever before to paint the out-group antagonists we interact with in an unreasonably unfavorable light.

And our modern means of communication arguably also make it easier than ever before to not interact with the out-group at all, as the internet has made it possible for us to diverge into our own respective in-group echo chambers to an extent not possible in the past. It is therefore now easy to end up in communities in which we continuously echo data that supports our own narrative, which ultimately gives us a one-sided and distorted picture of reality. And while it may be easier than ever to find counter-perspectives if we were to look for them, this is of little use if we mostly find ourselves collectively indulging in our own in-group confirmation bias. As we often do. For instance, feminists may find themselves mostly informing each other about how women are being discriminated against, while men’s rights activists may disproportionally share and discuss ways in which men are discriminated against. And so by joining only one of these communities, one is likely to end up with a skewed, insufficiently nuanced view of reality.

This mode of interaction has serious sociological implications. Indeed, the change in our style of interaction brought about by the internet is probably in large part why, in spite of the promise technology seemed to hold to connect us with each other, we now appear increasingly balkanized, divided along various lines in ways that feed into our tribal nature all too well. Democrats and republicans, for example, increasingly see each other as a “threat to the nation’s well-being” — significantly more so than they did even just ten years ago. This is a real problem that does not seem to be going away on its own. And one of the greatest hopes we have for improving this situation is, I submit, to become aware of and actively try to control for our own pitfalls. Especially when we interact through screens.

With all the information we have reviewed thus far in mind, let us now turn to some concrete examples of heated issues that divide people today, and where more nuanced perspectives and a greater commitment to being charitable are desperately needed. (I should note, however, that given the brevity of the following remarks, what I write here on these issues is, needless to say, itself bound to fail to express a highly nuanced perspective, as that would require a longer treatment. Nonetheless, the following brief remarks will at least gesture at some ways in which we can generally be more nuanced about these topics.)

Sex Discrimination

As hinted above, there are two groups that seem to tell very different stories about the state of sex discrimination in our world today. On the one hand there are the feminists, who seem to argue that women generally face much more discrimination than men, and on the other, there are the so-called men’s rights activists, who seem to argue that men are, at least in some parts of the world, generally the more discriminated sex. And these two claims surely cannot both be right, can they?

If one were to define sex discrimination in terms of some single general measure, a “General Discrimination Factor”, then no, they could not both be right. Yet if one instead talks about concrete forms of discrimination, then it is entirely possible, and indeed clearly the case, that women are discriminated against more than men in some respects, while men face more discrimination in other respects. And it is arguably also much more fruitful to talk about such concrete cases than it is to talk about discrimination “in general”. (In response to those who insist that it is obvious that women face more discrimination everywhere, almost regardless of how one constructs such a general measure, I would recommend watching the documentary The Red Pill, and, for a more academic treatment, reading David Benatar’s The Second Sexism.)

For example, it is a well-known fact that women have, historically, been granted the right to vote much later than men have, which undeniably constitutes a severe form of discrimination against women. Similarly, women have also historically been denied the right to take a formal education, and they still are in many parts of the world. In general, women have been denied many of the opportunities that men have had, including access to professions in which they were clearly more than competent to contribute. These are all undeniable facts about undeniably severe forms of discrimination.

However, tempting as it may be to infer, none of this implies that men have not also faced severe discrimination in the past, nor that they evade such discrimination today. For example, it is generally only men who have been subject to conscription — i.e. forced duty to enlist for state service, such as in the military. Historically, as well as today, men have been forced by law to join the military and go to war, often without returning — whether they wanted to or not (sure, some men wanted to join the military, yet the fact that some men wanted to do this does not imply that making it compulsive for virtually all men and only men is not discriminatory; as a side note, it should be noted that many feminists have criticized conscription).

Thus, at a global level, it is true to say that, historically as well as today, women have generally faced more discrimination in terms of their rights to vote and pursue an education, as well as in their professional opportunities in general, while men have faced more discrimination in terms of state-enforced duties.

Different forms of discrimination against men and women are also present at various other levels. For example, in one study where the same job application was sent to different scientists, and where half of the applications had a female name on them, the other half a male name, the “female applicants” were generally rated as less competent, and the scientists were willing to pay the “male applicants” more than 14 percent more.

The same general pattern seems reported by those who have conducted a controlled experiment in being a man and a women from “the inside”, namely from transgender men (those who have transitioned from being a woman to being a man). Many of these men report being viewed as more competent after their transition, as well as being listened to more and interrupted less. This also fits with the finding that both men and women seem to interrupt women more than they interrupt men.

At the same time, many of these transgender men also generally report that people seem to care less about them now that they are men. As one transgender man wrote about the change in his experience:

What continues to strike me is the significant reduction in friendliness and kindness now extended to me in public spaces. It now feels as though I am on my own: No one, outside of family and close friends, is paying any attention to my well-being.

Such anecdotal reports seem well in line with the finding that both men and women show more aggression toward men than women, as well as with recent research (see page 137) conducted by social psychologist Tania Reynolds, which among other things found that:

[…] female harm or disadvantage evoked more sympathy and outrage and was perceived as more unfair than equivalent male harm or disadvantage. Participants more strongly blamed men for their own disadvantages, were more supportive of policies that favored women, and donated more to a female-only (vs male-only) homeless shelter. Female participants showed a stronger in-group bias, perceiving women’s harm as more problematic and more strongly endorsed policies that favored women.

As these examples show, it seems that men and women are generally discriminated against in different ways. And it is worth noting that these different forms of discrimination are probably in large part the natural products of our evolutionary history rather than some deliberate, premeditated conspiracy (which is obviously not to say that they are ethically justified).

Yet deliberation and premeditation is exactly what is required if we are to step beyond such discrimination. More generally, what seems required is that we get a clearer view of the ways in which women and men face discrimination, and that we then take active steps toward remedying these problems. Something that is only possible if we allow ourselves enough of a nuanced perspective to admit that both women and men are subject to serious discrimination and injustice.

Intersectionality

It seems that many progressives are inspired by the theoretical framework called intersectionality, according to which we should seek to understand many aspects of the modern human condition in terms of interlocking forms of power, oppression, and privilege. One problem with relying on this framework is that it can easily become like only seeing nails when all one has is a hammer. If one insists on understanding the world predominantly in terms of oppression and social privilege, one risks seeing it in many places where it is not, as well as overemphasizing its relevance in many cases — and, by extension, to underemphasize the importance of other factors.

As with most popular ideas, there is no doubt a significant grain of truth in some of what intersectional theory talks about, such as the fact that discrimination is a very real phenomenon, that privilege is too, and that both of these phenomena can compound. Yet the narrow focus on only social explanations and versions of these phenomena means that intersectional theory misses a lot about the nature of discrimination and privilege. For example, some people are privileged to be born with genes that predispose them to be very happy, while others have genes that dispose them to have chronic depression. Such two people may be of the same race, gender, and sexuality, and they may be equally able-bodied. Yet such two people will most likely have very different opportunities and quality of life. A similar thing can be said about genetic differences that predispose individuals to have a higher or lower IQ, as well as about genetic differences that make people more or less physically attractive.

Intersectional theory seems to have very little to say about such cases, even as these genetic factors seem able to impact opportunities and quality of life to a similar degree as discrimination and social exclusion. Indeed, it seems that intersectional theory actively ignores, or at the very least underplays, the relevance of such factors — what may be called biological privileges in general — perhaps because they go against the tacit assumption that inequity and other bad things must be attributable to an oppressive agent or social system in some way, as opposed to just being the default outcome one should expect to find in an apathetic universe.

In general, it seems that intersectional theory significantly underestimates the importance of biology, which is, of course, by no means a mistake that is unique to intersectionality in particular. And it is indeed understandable how such an underestimation can emerge. For the truth is that many of the most relevant human traits, including those of personality and intelligence, are strongly influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Indeed, around 40-60 percent of the variance of such traits tends to be explained by genetics, and, consequently, the amount of variance explained by the environment lies roughly in this range as well. This means that, with respect to these traits, it is both true to say that cultural factors are extremely significant, and to say that biological factors are extremely significant. And the mistake that many seem to make, including many proponents of intersectionality, is to believe that one of these truths rules out the other.

Another critique one can direct toward intersectional theory is that it often makes asymmetrical claims about how one group, “the privileged”, are unable to understand the experiences of another group of individuals, “the unprivileged”, whatever form the privilege and lack thereof may take. Yet it is rarely conceded that this argument can also, with roughly as much plausibility, be made the other way around: that the (allegedly) unprivileged might not fully understand the experience of the (allegedly) privileged, and that they may, in effect, overstate the differences in their experience, and overstate how easy the (allegedly) privileged in fact have it. A commitment to intellectual openness and honesty would at least require us to not dismiss this possibility out of hand.

A similar critique that intersectional theorists ought to contend with is that some of the people whom intersectional theory maintains are discriminated against and oppressed themselves argue that they are not, and some indeed further argue that many of the solutions and practical steps supported by intersectional theorists are often harmful rather than beneficial. Such voices must, at least, be counted as weak anomalies relative to the theory, and considered worthy of serious engagement.

More generally, a case can be made that intersectional theory greatly overemphasizes group membership and identities in its analyses of and attempts to address societal problems. As Brian Tomasik notes:

[…] I suspect it’s tempting for our tribalistic primate brains to overemphasize identity membership and us-vs.-them thinking when examining social ills, rather than just focusing on helping people in general with whatever problems they have. For example, I suspect that one of the best ways to help racial minorities in the USA is to reduce poverty (such as through, say, universal health insurance), rather than exploring ever more intricate nuances of social-justice theory.

A regrettable complication that likely bolsters the focus of intersectionalists is that many people seem to flatly deny that there are any grains of truth to any of the claims intersectional theory makes. Some claim, for instance, that there is no such thing as being transgendered, and that there barely is such a thing as racial or sex discrimination in the Western world today. Rather than serving as a meaningful critique of the overreaches of intersectionality, such unnuanced and ill-informed statements seem likely to only help convince intersectionalists that they are uniquely right while others are dangerously wrong, as well as to suggest to them that more radical tactics may be needed, since current tactics clearly do not work to make other people see basic reality for what it is.

This speaks to the more general point that if we make measured views a rarity, and convince ourselves that all one can do is join either team A or team B — e.g. “camp discrimination exists” or “camp discrimination does not exist” — then we only push people toward division. We risk finding ourselves in a run-away spiral where people try to eagerly signal that they do not belong to the other team, which may in turn push us toward ever more extreme views. The alternative option to this tribal game is to simply aspire toward, and express, measured and nuanced views. That might just be the best remedy against such polarization and toward reasonable consensus. Whether our tribal brains indeed want such a consensus is, of course, a separate question.

A final critique I would direct at mainstream intersectional theory is that, despite its strong focus on unjustified discrimination, it nonetheless generally fails to acknowledge and examine what is, I have argued, the greatest, most pervasive, and most harmful form of discrimination that exists today, namely: speciesism, the unjustified discrimination against individuals based on their species membership. The so-called argument from species overlap is rarely examined, nor are the implications that follow, including when it comes to what equality in fact entails. This renders mainstream versions of intersectionality, as a theory of discrimination against vulnerable individuals, a complete failure.

Political Correctness

Another controversial issue closely related to intersectionality is that of political correctness. What do we mean by political correctness? The answer is actually not straightforward, since the term has a rather complex history throughout which it has had many different meanings. Yet one sense of the term that was at least prominent at one point refers simply to conduct and speech that embodies fairness and common decency toward others, especially in a way that avoids offending particular groups of people. In this sense of the term, political correctness is about not referring to people with ethnic slurs, such as “nigger” and “paki”, or homophobic slurs, such as “faggot” and “dyke”. A more recent sense of the term, in contrast, refers to instances where such a commitment to not offend people has been taken too far (in the eyes of those who use the term), which is arguably the sense in which it is most commonly used today.

This then leads us to what seems the quintessential point of contention when it comes to political correctness, namely: what is too far? What does the optimum level of decency entail? And the only reasonable answer, I believe, will have to be a nuanced one found between the two extremes of “nothing is too offensive” and “everything is too offensive”.

Some seem to approach this subject with the rather unnuanced attitude that feelings of being offended do not matter in any way whatsoever. Yet this view seems difficult to maintain, however, at least if one is called a pejorative name in an unjoking manner oneself. For most people, such name-calling is likely to hurt — indeed, it can easily hurt quite a lot. And significant amounts of hurt and unpleasantness do, I submit, matter. A universe with fewer, less intense feelings of offense is, other things being equal, better than a universe with more, more intense feelings of offense.

Yet the words “other things being equal” should not be missed here. For the truth is that there can be, indeed there clearly is, a tension between 1) risking to offend people and 2) talking freely and honestly about the realities of life. And it is not clear what the optimal balance is.

Yet what is quite clear, I would argue, is that if we cannot talk in an unrestricted way about what matters most in life, then we have gone too far. In particular, if we cannot draw distinctions between different kinds of discrimination and forms of suffering, and if we are not allowed to weigh these ills against each other to assess which are most urgent, then we have gone too far. For if we deny ourselves a clear sense of proportion with respect to the problems of the world, we end up undermining our ability to sensibly prioritize our limited resources in a world that urgently demands reasonable prioritization. And this is, I submit, much too high a price to pay to avoid the risk of offending people.

Relationship Styles and Promiscuity

Another subject that a lot of people seem to express quite strong and unnuanced positions on is that of sexual promiscuity and relationship styles. For example, some claim that strict monogamy is the only healthy and viable choice for everybody, while others seem to make more or less the same claim about polyamory: that most people would be happier if they were in loving, sexual relationships with more than one person, and that only our modern culture prevents us from realizing this. Similar opinions can be found on the subject of casual sex. Some say it is not a big deal, while others say it is — for everyone.

An essential thing to acknowledge on this subject, it seems, is the reality of individual differences. Most of these strong opinions seem to arise from the fallacious assumption that other people are significantly much like ourselves — i.e. the typical mind fallacy. The truth is that some may well thrive best in monogamous relationships, while others may thrive best in polyamorous relationships; some may well thrive having casual sex, some may not. And in the absence of systematic studies, it is difficult to say which distribution people fall along in these respects — in terms of what circumstance people thrive best in — as well as how much this distribution can be influenced by culture.

None of this is to say that there is no such thing as human nature when it comes to sexuality, but merely that it should be considered an open question just what this nature is exactly, and how much plasticity and individual variation it entails. And we should all admit this much.

Politics and Making the World a Better Place

The subjects of politics and “how to make the world a better place” more generally are both subjects on which people tend to have strong convictions, limited nuance, and powerful incentives to signal group loyalty. Indeed, they are about as good examples as any of subjects where it is important to be charitable and actively seek out nuance, as well as to acknowledge one’s own biased nature.

A significant step we can take toward thinking more clearly about these matters is to adopt the aforementioned virtue of thinking in terms of continuous credences. Just as the expression of a “merely” high credence in the existence of the Christian God is more conducive to open-minded conversation, so is having a “merely” high credence in any given political ideology, principle, or policy likely more conducive to honest and constructive conversations and greater mutual updating.

If nothing else, the fact that the world is so complex implies that we will at least have considerable uncertainty about what the consequences of our actions will be. In many cases, we simply cannot know with great certainty which policy or candidate is going to be best (relative to any set of plausible values) all things considered. This suggests that our strong convictions about how a given political candidate or policy is all bad, and about how immeasurably greater the alternatives would be, are likely often overstated. More generally, it implies that our estimates of which actions that are best to take, in the realm of politics in particular as well as with respect to improving the world in general, should probably be more measured and humble than they tend to be.

For example: what is your credence that Donald Trump was a better choice (with respect to your core values) than Hillary Clinton for the US presidency in 2016? I suspect most people’s credence on this question is either much too low or much too high relative to what can be justified. For even if one thinks his influence is clearly positive or clearly negative in the short term, this still leaves open the question of what the long-term effects will be. If the short-term effects are negative, for instance, it does not seem entirely implausible that there will be a counter-reaction in the future whose effects will end up being better in the long term, or vice versa. This consideration alone should dampen one’s credence somewhat — away from the extremes and closer toward the middle. A similar argument could be made about grave atrocities and instances of extreme suffering occurring today and in the near future: although it seems unlikely, we cannot exclude that these may in fact lead to a future with fewer atrocities and less suffering in the long term. (Note, however, that none of this implies that one should not fight hard for what one believes to be the best thing; even if one has only, say, a 60 percent credence in some action being better than another, it can still make perfect sense to push very hard for this seemingly better option.)

Or, to take another concrete example: would granting everyone a universal basic income be better (relative to your values) than not doing so? Again, being absolutely certain in either a positive or a negative answer to this question is hardly defensible. More reasonable, it seems, would it be to maintain a credence that lies somewhere in-between. (And in relation to what one’s underlying values are, I would argue that this is one of the very first things we need to reflect upon if we are to make a reasonable effort toward making the world a better place.)

A similar point can be made about existing laws and institutions. When we are young and radical, we have a tendency to find existing laws and social structures to be obviously stupid compared to the brilliant alternatives we ourselves envision. Yet, in reality, our knowledge of the roles played by these existing systems, as well as the consequences of our proposed alternatives, will tend to be quite limited in most cases. And it seems wise to admit this much, and to adjust our credences and plans of action accordingly.

A related pitfall worth avoiding is that of believing a single political candidate or policy to have purely good or purely bad effects; such an outcome seems extraordinarily unlikely. In the words of economist Thomas Sowell, there are no perfect solutions in the real world, only trade-offs. Similarly, it is also worth steering clear of the tendency to look to a single intellectual for the answers to all important questions. For the truth is that we all have blindspots and false beliefs, and virtually everyone is going to be ignorant of things that others would consider common knowledge. Indeed, no single person can read and reflect widely and deeply enough to be an expert on everything of importance. Expertise requires specialization, which means that we must look to different experts if we are to find expert views on a wide range of topics. In other words, the quest for a more complete and nuanced outlook requires us to engage with many different thinkers from very different disciplines.

The preceding notes about ways in which we could be more nuanced on various concrete topics are, of course, merely scratching the surface. Yet they hopefully do serve to establish the core point that nuance is essential if we are to gain a balanced understanding of virtually any complicated issue.

Can We Have Too Much Nuance?

In a piece that argues for the virtues of being nuanced, it seems worth asking whether I am being too one-sided. Might I not be overstating the case in its favor, and should I not be a bit more nuanced about the utility of nuance itself? Indeed, might we not be be able to have too much nuance in some cases?

I would be the first to admit that we probably can have too much nuance in many cases. I will grant that in situations that call for quick action, and where there is not much time to build a nuanced perspective, it may well often be better to act on one’s limited understanding rather than a more nuanced, yet harder-won picture. There are many situations like this, no doubt. Yet at the level of our public conversations, this is not often the case. We usually do have time to build a more nuanced picture, and we are rarely required to act promptly. Indeed, we are rarely required to act at all. And, unthinkable as it may seem, it could just be that expressions of agnosticism, and perhaps no public expressions at all on a given hot topic, would tend to serve everyone better than expressions of poorly considered views.

One could perhaps attempt to make a case against nuance with reference to examples where near-equal weight is granted to all considerations and perspectives — reasonable and less reasonable ones alike. This, one may argue, is a bad thing, and surely demonstrates that there is such a thing as too much nuance. Yet while I would agree that weighing arguments so blindly and undiscerningly is unreasonable, I would not consider this an example of too much nuance as such. For being nuanced does not mean giving equal weight to all arguments a posteriori, after all the relevant arguments have been presented. Instead, what it requires is that we at least consider these relevant arguments, and that we strive to be minimally prejudiced toward them a priori. In other words, the quest for appropriately nuanced perspectives demands us to grant equality of opportunity to all arguments, not equality of outcome.

Another objection one may be tempted to raise against being nuanced and charitable is that it implies that we should be submissive and over-accommodating. This does not follow, however. For to say that we should be charitable is not to say that we cannot be firm in our convictions when such firmness is justified, much less that we should ever tolerate disrespect or unfair treatment; we should not. We have no obligation to tolerate bullies and intimidators, and if someone repeatedly fails to act in a respectful, good-faith manner, we have every right, and arguably even good reason, to remove ourselves from them. After all, the maxim “assume the other person is acting in good faith” does not entail that we should not update this assumption as soon as we encounter evidence that contradicts it. And to assert one’s boundaries and self-respect in light of such updating is perfectly consistent with a commitment to being charitable.

A more plausible critique against being nuanced is that it might in some cases be strategically unwise, and that one should instead advocate for one’s views in an unnuanced, polemic manner in order to better achieve one’s objectives, at least in some cases. I think this is a decent point. Yet I think there are also good reasons to think that this will rarely be the optimal strategy when engaging in public conversations. First of all, we should acknowledge that, even if we were to grant this style of communication superior in a given situation, it still seems advantageous to possess a nuanced understanding of the counter-arguments. For, if nothing else, such an understanding would seem to make one better able to rebut these arguments, regardless of whether one then does so in a nuanced way or not.

And beyond this reason to acquire a nuanced understanding, there are also very good reasons to express such an understanding, as well as to treat the counter-arguments in as fair and measured a way as one can. One reason is the possibility that we might ourselves be wrong, which means that, if we want an honest conversation through which we can make our beliefs converge toward what is most reasonable, then we ourselves also have an interest in seeing the best and most unbiased arguments for and against different views. And hence we ourselves have an interest in moderating our own bravado and confirmation bias which actively keep us from evaluating our pre-existing beliefs as impartially as we should, as well as an interest in trying to express our own views in a measured and nuanced fashion.

Beyond that, there are also reasons to believe that people will be more receptive to one’s arguments if one communicates them in a way that demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of relevant counter-perspectives, and which lays out opposing views as strongly as possible. This will likely lead people to conclude that one’s perspective is at least built in the context of a sophisticated understanding, and it might thus plausibly be read as an honest signal that this perspective may be worth listening to.

Finally, one may object that some subjects just do not call for any nuance whatsoever. For example, should we be nuanced about the Holocaust? This is a reasonable point. Yet even here, I would argue that nuance is still important, in various ways. For one, if we do not have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the Holocaust, we risk failing to learn from it. For example, to simply believe that the Germans were evil would appear the dangerous thing, as opposed to realizing that what happened was the result of primitive tendencies that we all share, as well as the result of a set of ideas which had a strong appeal to the German people for various reasons — reasons that we should seek to understand.

This is all descriptive, however, and so none of it implies taking a particularly nuanced stance on the ethical status of the Holocaust. Yet even in this respect, a fearless search for nuance and perspective can still be of great importance. In terms of the moral status of historical events, for instance, we should have enough perspective to realize that the Holocaust, although it was the greatest mass killing of humans in history, was by no means the only one; and hence that its ethical status is arguably not qualitatively unique compared to other similar events of the past. Beyond that, we should also admit that the Holocaust is not, sadly, the greatest atrocity imaginable, neither in terms of the number of victims it had, nor in terms of the horrors imposed on its victims. Greater atrocities than the Holocaust are imaginable. And we ought to both seriously contemplate whether such atrocities might indeed be actual, as well as to realize that there is a risk that atrocities that are much greater still may emerge in the future.

Conclusion

Almost everywhere one finds people discussing contentious issues, nuance and self-scrutiny seem to be in short supply. And yet the most essential point of this essay is not really one about looking outward and pointing fingers at others. Rather, the point is, first and foremost, that we all need to look into the mirror and ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions. Self-scrutiny can, after all, only be performed by ourselves.

“How might I be obstructing my own quest for truth?”

“How might my own impulse to signal group loyalty bias my views?”

“What beliefs of mine might mostly serve social rather than epistemic functions?”

Indeed, we all need to take a hard look in the mirror and let ourselves know that we are sure to be biased and wrong in many ways. And more than just realizing that we are wrong and biased, we also need to realize that we are limited creatures. Creatures who view the world from a limited vantage point from which we cannot fully integrate and comprehend all perspectives and modes of consciousness — least of all those we have never been close to experiencing.

We need to remind ourselves, continually and insistently, that we should be charitable and measured, and that we should seek out the grains of truth that may exist in different views so as to gain a more nuanced understanding that better reflects the true complexity of the world. Not least ought we remind ourselves that our brains evolved to express overconfident and unnuanced views for social reasons — especially in ways that favor our in-group and oppose our out-group. And we need to do a great deal of work to control for this. We should seek to scrutinize our in-group narrative, and be especially charitable to the out-group narrative.

None of us will ever be perfect in these regards, of course. Yet we can at least all strive to do better.

Why I Used to Consider the Absence of Sentience Tragic

Whether one considers the absence of sentience bad or neutral — or indeed as good as can be — can matter a lot for one’s ethical and altruistic priorities. Specifically, it can have significant implications for whether one should push for smaller or larger future populations.

I used to be a classical utilitarian. Which is to say, I used to agree with the statement “we ought to maximize the net amount of happiness minus suffering in the world”. And given this view, I found it a direct, yet counter-intuitive implication that the absence of sentience is tragic, and something we ought to minimize by bringing about a maximally large, maximally happy population. My aim in this essay is to briefly present what I consider the main reason why I used to believe this, and also to explain why I no longer hold this view. I am not claiming the reasons I had for believing this are shared by other classical utilitarians, yet I suspect they could be, at least by some.

The Reason: Striving for Consistency

My view that the absence of sentience is tragic and something we ought to prevent mostly derived, I believe, from a wish to be consistent. Given the ostensibly reasonable assumption that death is bad, it would seem to follow, I reasoned, that since death merely amounts to a discontinuation of life — or, seen in a larger perspective, a reduction of the net amount of sentience — the reduction of sentience caused by not giving birth to a new (happy) life should be considered just as bad as the end of a (happy) life. This was counter-intuitive, of course, yet I did not, and still do not, consider immediate intuitions to be the highest arbiters of moral wisdom, and so it did not seem that weird to accept this conclusion. The alternative, if I were to be consistent, would be to bring my view of death in line with my intuition that the absence of sentience is not bad. Yet this was too implausible, since death surely is bad.

This, I believe, was the reasoning behind my considering it a moral obligation to produce a large, happy population. To not do it would, in some ways, be the moral equivalent of committing genocide. My view is quite different now, however.

My Current View of My Past View

I now view this past reasoning of mine as akin to a deceptive trick, like a math riddle where one has to find where the error was made in a series of seemingly valid deductions. You accept that death is tragic. Death means less sentient life than continued life, other things being equal. But a failure to bring a new individual into the world also means less sentient life, other things being equal. So why would you not consider a failure to bring an individual into the world tragic as well?

My current response to this line of reasoning is that death indeed is bad, yet that it is not intrinsically so. What is bad about death, I would argue, is the suffering it causes; not the discontinuation of sentience per se (after all, a discontinuation of sentience occurs every night we go to sleep, which we rarely consider bad, much less tragic). This view is perfectly consistent with the view that it is not tragic to fail to create a new individual.

As I have argued elsewhere, it is somewhat to be expected that we humans consider the death of a close relative or group member to be tragic and highly worth avoiding, given that such a death would tend, evolutionarily speaking, to have been costly to our own biological success in the past. In other words, our view that death is tragic may in large part stem from a penalizing mechanism instilled in us by evolution to prevent us from losing fellow assets who served our hidden biological imperative — assets who had invested a lot into us and whom we had invested a lot into in return. And I believe that my considering the absence of sentience tragic was, crudely speaking, a matter of extending this penalizing mechanism so that it pertained to all insentient parts of the universe. An extension I now consider misguided. I now see nothing tragic whatsoever about the fact that there is no sentient life on Mars.

Other Reasons

There may, of course, be other reasons why a classical utilitarian, including my past self, would consider the absence of sentience tragic. For instance, it seems reasonable to suspect us, or at least many of us, to have an inbuilt drive to maximize the number of our own descendants, or to maximize the future success of our own tribe (the latter goal would probably have aligned pretty well with the former throughout our evolutionary history). It is not clear what would count as “our own tribe” in modern times, yet it seems that many people, including many classical utilitarians, now view humanity as their notional tribe.

A way to control for such a hidden drive, then, would be to ask whether we would accept if the universe were filled up with happy beings who do not belong to our own tribe. For example, would we accept if our future light cone were filled up by happy aliens who, in their quest to maximize net happiness, replaced human civilization with happier beings? (i.e. a utilitronium shockwave of sorts.) An impartial classical utilitarian would happily accept this. The question is whether a human classical utilitarian would too?

Explaining Existence

First written: Aug 2018, Last update: Nov 2018.

 

“Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”

(“Nicht wie die Welt ist, ist das Mystische, sondern dass sie ist.”)

Ludwig Wittgenstein

 

Why is there something rather than nothing? How can we explain the fact of existence?

This most fundamental question may be worth pondering for various reasons. Such pondering may help sharpen our thinking about the nature of the world, our place within it, and the scope of our understanding. And it may also just lead us to some significant answers to the question itself.

Is Non-Existence Coherent?

I would argue that the key to (dis)solving this mystery lies in questioning the coherence of the idea that there could be nothing in the first place — the notion that non-existence could exist. For existing is, after all, exactly what non-existence, by definition, does not. Non-being, by definition, cannot be. Yet, in asking why there is not nothing, we are indeed, somehow, imagining that it could. Essentially, what we are asking is: why is there not “non-isness“? Why could non-being not have been? The answer, I submit, is that the being of non-being is a contradiction in terms.

If existence were not the case, this would imply non-existence being the case, which is an incoherent notion. More specifically, to say that non-being could be is to contradict the principle of non-contradiction, as one then asks for something, or rather “nothing”, to both be and not be at the same time.

As David Pearce put it:

“One can apparently state the epistemic possibility of nothing having existed rather than something. But it’s unclear how it could make cognitive sense to talk of the epistemic possibility of nothing-or-other having even been the case. For the notion of something-or-other being the case is about as conceptually primitive as one can get. For just what is the (supposedly non-self-refuting) alternative with which one would be contrasting the generic notion of existence – in the sense of something-or-other being the case – that we have at present? The notion doesn’t seem to make any sense. It’s self-stultifying.”

Why Does Anything Exist“, section nine.

Philosopher Bede Rundle made a similar point: “We cannot conceive of there being nothing, but only of nothing being this or that, and that is a use of ‘nothing’ that presupposes there being something.” (p. 113.)

Furthermore, even if we were to assume that non-existence could be the case, we would still end up with the conclusion that it actually cannot. For if non-existence were the case, then its being the case would, quite obviously, be a truth, which implies that this truth would at least (also) exist. And yet this truth is not nothing. In other words, it implies the existence of (more of) something. And such a supposedly empty state would in fact imply other properties as well, such as the property of being one (not two or more, as it contains no separation, nor zero, since it does exist by assumption), as well as the property of being free from contradictions (genuine contradictions could not possibly exist in any possible state of existence, much less one that is purportedly empty). Thus, even the notion of a state with no properties other than its mere being is incoherent.

Another way to realize that there could not possibly be nothing, even if we were to pretend that the notion is coherent, is to think in terms of necessary and contingent facts (following the reasoning of Timothy O’Connor found here). For the suggestion that there might have been nothing essentially amounts to the claim that existence might merely be a contingent, not a necessary fact. Yet the fact that we are here proves that existence was, at the very least, a possibility. In other words, the reality of (at least) the possibility of existence is undeniable. And yet the reality of the possibility of existence is not nothing. It is, in fact, something. Thus, even if we assume that the fact of existence is merely contingent, we still end up with the conclusion that it is in fact necessary. The existence of the mere possibility of existence necessarily implies, indeed amounts to, existence in full, and hence the suggestion that existence may merely be contingent, and that there could instead have been absolutely nothing, is revealed to be impossible and indeed incoherent in this way as well.

This may be considered an answer to why there is something rather than nothing: the alternative is simply incoherent, and hence logically impossible. Only “something” could conceivably be the case. And thus, contra Wittgenstein, the real mystery to explain is indeed how the world is, not that it is; to explain which properties the world has, not that it has any. And part of this mystery is to explain why we ever considered the existence of non-existence — as opposed to a very different state of existence — a coherent possibility in the first place, and, by extension, why we ever considered the non-existence of non-existence any more mysterious than the non-existence of square circles.*

No Purpose or Reason Behind Existence, Only Within

The all-inclusive nature of existence implies that, just as there cannot be a mechanism or principle that lies behind or beyond existence, there could not be a reason or purpose behind it either, since behind and beyond existence lies only that which does not exist. And hence there could not possibly be an ultimate purpose, in this sense at least, behind our being here.

Yet this by no means implies, contrary to what may be naturally supposed, that reasons and purposes, of the most real and significant kinds, do not exist within existence. Indeed, it is obvious that they do. For instance, the ability to pursue purposes and act on reasons has clearly emerged over the course of evolution. Beyond that, it is also clear, at least to me, that some states of the world — especially states of extreme suffering — are truly more disvaluable than others, and hence, I would argue, that we have truly normative reasons to act so as to minimize the realization of such disvaluable states. Indeed, I would argue that this endeavor is our highest and ultimate purpose, how to best pursue it our highest and ultimate question.

 


*And if, and that arguably is a huge if, existence is identical with what we call “physical existence”, then the argument above shows that a physical world must exist, and that its absence is incoherent. Again, this is provided that we assume existence to be identical with “the physical”, which is just an assumption, although I believe one can make a decent case that we have no strong reasons to believe in such a thing as non-physical existence, and hence no strong reasons to doubt this assumption. And if one then further believes that “the physical” is identical with “the mental” — in other words, if one holds a monist ontology that considers both physical and mental descriptions of the world equally valid — then the argument above shows the necessity of the existence of this monist reality. And all that would then be left to explain, if this assumption happened to be true, is “just” what particular properties and relations that exist within this monist reality.

Beyond that, one can also use the contingency-versus-necessity argument we used above to argue for the necessity of physical existence without assuming that physical existence is coterminous with existence. For the claim that the non-existence of the physical world could have obtained also amounts to claiming that its existence is merely a contingent fact: a possibility that could have not obtained. Yet the fact that the physical world does exist proves that its existence is necessarily (at least) a possibility. Thus, by this reasoning, there must necessarily exist (at least) a potential for the physical world as we know it to emerge. And yet such a potential is not nothing, nor is it non-physical proper, at least not in the widest sense of the term “physical”, which includes not only physical actualities but also physical potentials, provided they exist.

One may here object that the notions of contingency and necessity ultimately do not make sense, or that they are just human ideas that we cannot derive deep metaphysical truths from. Yet it should then be noted that the notion of contingency is exactly what a claim such as “physical reality might not have been” itself rests upon. So if these terms and the argument above make no sense or have no bearing on the actual nature of reality, then neither does the problem the argument is trying to address in the first place.

Darwinian Intuitions and the Moral Status of Death

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, wrote evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky. And given that our moral psychology is, at least in large part, the product of our biology, one can reasonably make a similar claim about our moral intuitions: that we should seek to understand these intuitions in light of the evolutionary history of our species. This also seems important for our thinking about normative ethics, since such an understanding is likely to help inform our ethical judgments; by helping us better understand the origin of our intuitive moral judgments, and how they might be biased in various ways.

An Example: “Julie and Mark”

A commonly cited example that seems to demonstrate how evolution has firmly instilled certain moral intuitions into us is the following thought experiment, first appearing in a paper by Jonathan Haidt:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it OK for them to make love?

According to Haidt: “Most people who hear the above story immediately say that it was wrong for the siblings to make love […]”. Yet most people also have a hard time explaining this wrongness, given that the risks of inbreeding are rendered moot in the thought experiment. But they still insist it is wrong. An obvious interpretation to make, then, is that evolution has hammered the lesson “sex between close relatives is wrong” into the core of our moral judgments. And given the maladaptive outcomes of human inbreeding, such an intuition would indeed make a lot of evolutionary sense. Indeed, in that context, given the high risk of harm, it even makes ethical sense. Yet in a modern context in which birth control has been invented and is employed, the intuition suddenly seems on less firm ground, at least ethically.

(It should be noted that the deeper point of Haidt’s paper cited above is to argue that “[…] moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.” And while it seems difficult to deny that there is a significant grain of truth to this, Haidt’s thesis has also been met with criticism.)

Moral Intuitions About Death: Biologically Contingent

With this idea in the back of our heads — that evolution has most likely shaped our moral intuitions significantly, and that we should perhaps not be that surprised if these intuitions are often difficult to defend within the realm of normative ethics — let us now proceed to look at the concrete issue of death. Yet before we look at the notional “human view of death”, it is perhaps worth first surveying some other species whose members are unlikely to view death in remotely the same way as we do, to see just how biologically contingent our view of death probably is.

For example, individuals belonging to species that practice sexual cannibalism — i.e. where the female eats the male prior to, during, or after copulation — seem most unlikely to view dying in this manner in remotely the same way as we humans would. Indeed, they might even find pleasure in it, both male and female (although in many cases, the male probably does not, especially when he is eaten prior to copulation, since it is not in his reproductive interest, which likely renders it yet another instance of the horrors of nature).

The same can likely be said of species that practice so-called matriphagy, i.e. where the offspring eat their own mother, sometimes while she is still alive. This behavior is also, at least in many cases, evolutionarily adaptive, and hence seems unlikely to be viewed as harmful by the mother (or at least the analogue of “viewed as harmful” found in the minds of these creatures). There may, of course, be many exceptions — cases in which the mother does indeed find herself harmed by, and disapproving of, the act. Yet it nonetheless seems clear that the beings who have evolved to practice this behavior do not view such a death in remotely the same way as a human mother would if her children suddenly started eating her alive.

The final example I wish to consider here is the practice of so-called filial cannibalism: when parents eat their own offspring. This practice is much more common, in terms of the number of species that practice it, compared to the other forms of cannibalism mentioned above, and also a clearer case of convergent evolution, as the species that practice it range from insects to mammals, including some cats, primates, birds, amphibians, fish (where it is especially prevalent), snails, and spiders. Again, we should expect individuals belonging to these species to view deaths of this kind very differently from the way we humans would view such, by any human standard, bizarre deaths. This is not to say that the younglings who are eaten do not suffer a great deal in these cases. They likely often do, as being eaten is often not in their reproductive interests (in terms of propagating their genes), although it may be in the case of some species: if it increases the reproductive success of their parents and/or siblings to a sufficient degree.

The deeper point, again, is that beings who belong to these species are unlikely to feel remotely the same way about these deaths as we humans would if such deaths were to occur within the human realm — i.e. if human parents ate their own children. And more generally: that the evolutionary history of a species greatly influences how it feels about deaths of various kinds, as well as how it views death in general.

Naturally, Most Beings Care Little About Most Deaths

It seems plausible to say that, in most animal species, individuals do not care the least about the death of unrelated individuals within their own species. And we should not be too starry-eyed about humans in this regard either, as it is not clear that we humans, historically, have cared much for people whom we did not view as belonging to our in-group, as the cruelties of history, as well as modern-day tribalism, testify. Only in recent times, it seems, have we in some parts of the world made all of humanity our in-group. Not all sentient beings, sadly, but not merely our own family or ethnic group either, fortunately.

So, both looking at other species, as well as across human history, we see that there appears to be a wide variety of views and intuitions about different kinds of deaths, and how “problematic” or harmful they are. Yet one regard in which there is much less disagreement is when it comes to “the human view of death”. Or more precisely: the natural moral intuitions humans have with respect to the death of someone in the in-group. And I would suspect this particular view to strongly influence — and indeed be the main template for — any human attempt to carve out a well-reasoned and general view of the moral status of death (of any morally relevant being). If this is true, it would seem relevant to zoom in on how we humans naturally view such an in-group death, and why.

The Human View of an In-Group Death

So what is the human view of the death of someone belonging to our own group? In short: that it is tragic and something worth avoiding at great costs. And if we take our evolutionary glasses on, it seems easy to make sense of why we would be naturally inclined to think this: for most of our evolutionary history, we humans have lived in groups in which individuals collaborated in ways that benefitted the entire group.

In other words, the ability of any given human individual to survive and reproduce has depended significantly on the efforts of fellow group members, which means that the death of such a fellow group member would be very costly, in biological terms, to other individuals in that group. Something that is worth investing a lot to prevent for these other individuals. Something evolution would not allow them to be indifferent about in the least, much less happy about.

This may help resolve some puzzles. For example, many of us claim to hold a purely sentiocentric ethical view according to which consciousness is the sole currency of moral value: the presence and absence of consciousness, as well as its character, is what matters. Yet most people who claim to hold such a view, including myself, nonetheless tend to view dreamless sleep and death very differently, although both ultimately amount to an absence of conscious experience just the same. If the duration of the conscious experience of someone we care about is reduced by an early death, we consider this tragic. Yet if the duration of their conscious experience is instead reduced by dreamless sleep, we do not, for the most part, consider this tragic at all. On the contrary, we might even be quite pleased about it. We wish sound, deep sleep for our friends and family, and often view such sleep as something that is well-deserved and of great value.

On the view that the presence and absence of consciousness, as well as the quality of this consciousness, is all that matters, this evaluation makes little sense (provided we keep other things equal in our thought experiment: the quality of the conscious life is, when it is present, the same whether its duration is reduced by sleep or early death). Yet from an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense why we would not only evaluate these two things differently, but indeed in completely opposite ways. For if a fellow group member is sleeping, then this is good for the rest of the group, as sleep is generally an investment that improves a person’s contribution to the group. Yet if the person is dead, they will no longer be able to contribute to the group. And if they are family, they will no longer be able to propagate the genes of the family. From a biological perspective, this is very sad.

(The hypothesis sketched out above — that our finding the death of an in-group member sad and worth avoiding at great costs is in large part due to their contribution to the success of our group, and ultimately our genes — would seem to yield a prediction: we should find the death of a young person who is able to contribute a lot to the group significantly more sad and worth avoiding compared to the death of an old person who is not able to contribute. And this is even more true if the person is also a relative, since the young person would have the potential to spread family genes, whereas a sufficiently old person would not.)

Implications

So what follows in light of these considerations about our “natural” view of the death of an in-group member? I would be hesitant to draw strong conclusions from such considerations alone. Yet it seems to me that they do, at the very least, give us reason to be skeptical with respect to our immediate moral intuitions about death (indeed, I would argue that we should be skeptical of our immediate moral intuitions in general). With respect to the great asymmetry in our evaluation of the ethical status of dreamless sleep versus death, two main responses seem available if one is seeking to make a purely sentiocentric position consistent (to take that fairly popular ethical view as an example).

Either one can view conscious life reduced by sleep as being significantly more bad, intrinsically, than what we intuitively evaluate it to be (classical utilitarians may choose to adopt this view, which could, in practice, imply that one should work on a cure for sleep, or at least to reduce sleep in a way that keeps quality of life intact). Or, one can view conscious life reduced by an early death as being significantly less bad, again intrinsically, than our moral intuitions hold. (One can, of course, also opt for a middleroad that maintains that we both intuitively underestimate the intrinsic badness of sleep while overestimating the intrinsic badness of death, and that we should bring our respective evaluations of these two together to meet somewhere in the middle.)

I favor the latter view: that we strongly overestimate the intrinsic badness of death, which is, of course, an extremely unpalatable view to our natural intuitions, including my own. Yet it must also be emphasized that the word “intrinsically” is extremely important here. For I would indeed argue that death is bad, and that we should generally view it as such. But I believe this badness is extrinsic rather than intrinsic: because death generally has bad consequences for sentient beings, including that the process of dying itself tends to involve a lot of suffering (where I would view this suffering as intrinsically bad, yet not the end of the life per se). And furthermore, I would argue that we should consider death a bad and harmful thing (as I indeed do) not just because this belief is accurate, but also because not doing so has bad consequences as well.

An Ethic of Survival

With respect to ethics and death, I recently encountered an interesting perspective in an exchange with Robert Daoust. He suggested, as I understood him, that the fundamental debate in ethics is ultimately one between an ethic of survival on the one hand, and an ethic of concern for sentience on the other. And he further noted that, even when we sincerely believe that we subscribe to the latter, we often in fact do support the survivalist ethic, for strong evolutionary reasons. A view according to which, even if life is significantly dominated by suffering, survival should still be our highest goal.

I find this view of Daoust’s interesting, and I certainly recognize strong survivalist intuitions in myself, even as I claim to hold, and publicly defend, values focused primarily on the reduction of suffering. And one can reasonably wonder what the considerations surveyed above, as well as similar considerations about the priorities and motives that evolution has naturally instilled in us, imply for our evaluation of such a (perhaps tacitly shared) survivalist ethic?

I would tentatively suggest that they imply we should view this survivalist ethic with skepticism. We should expect evolution to have given us a strong urge for survival at virtually any cost, and to view survival — if not of our own individual bodies, then at least of our own group and bloodline — as being intrinsically important; arguably even the most important thing of all. Yet I would argue that this is an implausible ethical view. Specifically, to accept continued survival at virtually any cost, including the cost of increasing the net amount of extreme suffering in the world, is, I would argue, highly implausible. Beyond that, one can argue that we, for evolutionary reasons, also wildly overestimate the ethical badness of an empty world, and grossly misjudge the value of the absence of sentience. Indeed, on a purely sentiocentric view, such an absence is just as good as deep, dreamless sleep. And what is so bad about that?

A Brief Note on Eternalism and Impacting the Future

Something I find puzzling is that many people in intellectual circles seem to embrace the so-called eternalist view of time, which holds that the past, present, and future all equally exist already, yet at the same time, in terms of practical ethics, these same people focus exclusively on impacting the future. These two positions do not seem compatible, and it is interesting that no one seems to take note of this, and that no attempt seems to be made at reconciling them, or otherwise examining this issue. 

For why, given an eternalist view of time, should one focus on impacting the future rather than the past? After all, the eternalist view of time amounts precisely to the rejection of the common sense view that the past is fixed while the future is not, which is the common sense view of time that seems to underpin our common sense focus on trying to impact the future rather than the past. So how can one reject the common sense view of time that seems to underlie our common sense practical focus, yet then still maintain this focus? If the past and the future equally exist already, why focus more on trying to impact one rather than the other?

The only attempted reply I have heard to this question so far, which came from Brian Tomasik, is that if, hypothetically, the present were different, then the future would be different, and hence it makes sense to focus on such changes that would render the future different. The problem, however, is that the same argument applies to the past: if, hypothetically, the present were different, then, for the equations of physics to be consistent, the past would also have to be different. Tomasik seemed to agree with this point. So I fail to see how this is an argument for focusing on impacting the future rather than the past given an eternalist view of time.

Possible Responses

There are various ways to respond to this conundrum. One can, for instance, try to argue that there is no conflict between eternalism and focusing only on impacting the future (which seems the prevailing assumption, but I have yet to see it defended). Another path one could take is to argue that we in fact should focus on impacting the past just as much as the future (something I find highly dubious). Alternatively, one could argue that it is just as senseless to try to change the future as it is to change the past (something few would be willing to accept in practice). Lastly, one could take the tension between these two widely esteemed views to imply that there may be something wrong with the eternalist view of time, and at the very least that we should lower our credence in eternalism, given its ostensible incompatibility with other, seemingly reasonable beliefs.

My Preferred Path: Questioning Eternalism

I would be curious to see attempts along any of the four paths mentioned above. I myself happen to lean toward the last one. I think many people display overconfidence with respect to the truth of eternalism. The fact that the equations of the theory of relativity, as they stand, do not demand an ontologically existing “now does not imply that no such thing exists (where this now, it must be noted, is not defined by “clocks all show the same”, as such a now clearly is impossible; yet there is no contradiction whatsoever in the existence of a unique, ontologically real “present” in which initially synchronized clocks show different times). In other words, although the equations of relativity do not demand the existence of such a now, they do not rule it out either. Yet it seems a widely entertained fallacy that they do, and people thus seem to accept that eternalist view as though it were a matter of logical certainty, when it is not. I think this is bad philosophy. And I think it is important to point this out, since false certainties can be dangerous in unexpected ways (for example, if the above-mentioned fallacy led us to falsely conclude that trying to impact the future is senseless).

Beyond that, as I have noted elsewhere, one can also question to what extent it makes sense to say — as eternalists often do, and as the name eternalism itself implies — that all moments exist “always”? After all, doesn’t “always” refer to something occurring over time? The meaning of claims of the sort that “every moment exists always” is, I believe, less obvious than proponents of eternalism appear to think, and seems in need of unpacking.

A General Note on Our Worldview

I think the tension explored here speaks to a more general point about our worldview, namely that we often do not derive the more practical views we hold (such as the view that we can influence the future but not the past), from our fundamental ontological theories of how the world works. Instead, such views are often derived mostly from tacit common sense notions and intuitions (which is not to say that these views should necessarily be rejected, and certainly not on this ground alone). This means that sometimes — quite often, in fact — the views we hold on various subjects, such as the philosophy of time and practical ethics, are scarcely compatible. The project of bringing the various beliefs we hold across these different areas in concert is, I believe, an important and potentially fruitful one, for our theoretical views in themselves, as well as for our practical efforts to act reasonably in the world.

The Endeavor of Reason

“[…] some hope a divine leader with prophetic voice
Will rise amid the gazing silent ranks.
An idle thought! There’s none to lead but reason,
To point the morning and the evening ways.”

— Abu al-ʿAlaʾ al-Maʿarri

 

What is reason?

One could perhaps say that answering this question itself falls within the purview of reason. But I would simply define reason as the capacity of our minds to decide or assess what makes the most sense, or seems most reasonable, all things considered.

This seems well in line with other definitions of reason. For instance, Google defines reason as “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgements logically”, and Merriam-Webster gives the following definitions:

(1) the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking[,] especially in orderly rational ways […] (2) proper exercise of the mind […]

These definitions all seem to raise the further question of what terms like “logically”, “orderly rational ways”, and “proper” then mean in this context.

Indeed, one may accuse all these definitions of being circular, as they merely seem to deflect the burden of defining reason by referring to some other notion that ultimately just appears synonymous with, and hence does not reductively define, reason. This would also seem to apply to the definition I gave above: “the ability to decide or assess what seems most reasonable all things considered”. For what does it mean for something to “seem most reasonable”?

Yet the open-endedness of this definition does not, I submit, render it useless or empty by any means, any more than defining science in open-ended terms such as “the attempt to discover what is true about the world” renders this definition useless or empty.

Reason: The Core Value of Universities and the Enlightenment

At the level of ideals, working out what seems most reasonable all things considered is arguably the core goal of both the Enlightenment and of universities. For instance, ideally, universities are not committed to a particular ethical view (say, utilitarianism or deontology), nor to a particular view of what is true about the world (say, string theory or loop quantum gravity, or indeed physicalism in general).

Rather, universities seem to have a more fundamental and less preconceived commitment, at least in the ideal, which is to find out which particular views, if any, that seem the most plausible in the first place. This means that all views can be questioned, and that one has to provide reasons if one wants one’s view to be considered plausible. 

And it is important to note in this context that “plausible” is a broader term than “probable”, in that the latter pertains only to matters of truth, whereas the former covers this and more. That is, plausibility can also be assigned to views, for instance ethical views, that we do not view as strictly true, yet which we find plausible nonetheless (as in: they seem agreeable or reasonable to us).

For this very reason, it would also be problematic to view the fundamental role of universities to (only) be the uncovering of what is true, as such a commitment may assume too much in many important and disputed academic discussions, such as those about ethics and epistemology, where the question of whether there indeed are truths in the first place, and in what sense, is among the central questions that are to be examined by reason. Yet in this case too, the core commitment remains: a commitment to being reasonable. To try to assess and follow what seems most reasonable all things considered.

This is arguably also the core value of the Enlightenment. At least that seems to be what Immanuel Kant argued for in his essay “What Is Enlightenment“, in which he further argued that free inquiry — i.e. the freedom to publicly exercise our capacity for reason — is the only prerequisite for enlightenment:

This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom—and the most innocent of all that may be called “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.

And the view that reason should be our core commitment and guide of course dates much further back historically than the Enlightenment. Among the earliest and most prominent advocates of this view was Aristotle, who viewed a life lived in accordance with reason as the highest good.

Yet who is to say that what we find most plausible or reasonable is something we will necessarily be able to converge upon? This question itself can be considered an open one for reasoned inquiry to examine and settle. Kant, for instance, believed that we would all be able to agree if we reasoned correctly, and hence that reason is universal and accessible to all of us.

And interestingly, if one wants to make a universally compelling case against this view of Kant’s, it seems that one has to assume at least some degree of the universality that Kant claimed to exist. And hence it seems difficult, not to say impossible, to make such a case, and to deny that at least some aspects of reason are universal.

Being Reasonable: The Only Reasonable Starting Point?

One can even argue that it is impossible to make a case against reason in general. For as Steven Pinker notes:

As soon as we are having this conversation, as long as we are trying to persuade one another of why you should do something or should believe something, you are already committed to reason. We are not engaged in a fist fight, we are not bribing each other to believe something. We are trying to provide reasons. We are trying to persuade, to convince. As long as you are doing that in the first place — you are not hitting someone with a chair, or putting a gun to their head, or bribing them to believe something — you have lost any argument you have against reason; you have already signed on to reason, whether you like it or not. So the fact that we are having this conversation shows that we are committed to reason. That is the starting point.

Indeed, it seems that any effort to make a reasonable case against reason would have to rest on the very thing it attempts to question, namely our capacity to decide or assess what seems most reasonable all things considered. Thus, almost by definition, it seems impossible to identify a reasonable alternative to the endeavor of reason.

Some might argue that reason itself is unjustified, and that we have to have faith in reason, which then supposedly implies that a dedication to reason is ultimately no more reasonable or solid than is faith in anything whatsoever. Yet this is not the case.

For to say that reason needs justification is not to question reason, but rather to presuppose it, since the arena in which we are expected to provide reasons for what we believe is the arena of reason itself. Thus, if we accept that justifications for any given belief is required, then we have already signed on to reason, whereby we have also rejected faith — the idea that justification for some given belief is not required. Again, in trying to provide a justification for reason, or, for that matter, in trying to provide a justification for not accepting reason, one is already committed to the endeavor of reason: the endeavor of deciding or assessing what seems most reasonable, i.e. most justified, all things considered.

It Seems Reasonable: The Bedrock Foundation of Reasonable Beliefs

The idea that reason demands justification for any given belief may seem problematic, as it gives rise to the so-called Münchhausen trilemma: what can ultimately justify our beliefs — a circular chain of justifications, an infinite chain, or a finite chain (or web) with brute facts at bottom? Supposedly, none of these options are appealing. Yet I disagree.

For I see nothing problematic about having a brute observation, or reason, at bottom of our chain of justification, which I would indeed argue is exactly what constitutes, and all that ever could constitute, the rock bottom justification for any reasonable belief. Specifically, that it just seems reasonable.

Many discussions go wrong here by conflating 1) ungrounded assumptions and 2) brute observations, which are by no means the same. For there is clearly a difference between believing that a car just drove by you based on the brute observation (i.e. a conscious sensation of) that a car just drove by you, and then merely assuming, without grounding in any reason or observation, that a car just drove by you.

Or consider another example: the fundamental constants in our physical equations. We ultimately have no deeper justification for the values of these constants than brute observation. Yet this clearly does not render our knowledge of these values merely assumed, much less arbitrarily or unjustifiably chosen. This is not to say that our observations of these values are infallible; future measurements may well yield slightly different, more precise values. Yet they are not arbitrary or unjustified.

The idea that brute observation cannot constitute a reasonable justification for a belief is, along with the idea that brute assumptions and brute observations are the same, a deeply misguided one, in my view. And this is not only true, I contend, of factual matters, but of all matters of reason, including ethics and epistemology, whether we deem these fields strictly factual or not. For instance, my own ethical view (which I have argued is a universal one), according to which suffering is disvaluable and ought to be reduced, does not, on my account, rest on a mere assumption. Rather, it rests on a brute observation of the undeniable intrinsic disvalue of the conscious states we call suffering. I have no deeper justification than this, nor is a deeper one required or even possible.

As I have argued elsewhere, such a foundationalist account is, I submit, the solution to the Münschhausen trilemma.

Deniers of Reason

If reason is the only reasonable starting point, why, then, do so many seem to challenge and reject it? There are a few things to say in response to this. First, those who criticize and argue against reason are not really, as I have argued above, criticizing reason, at least not in the general sense I have defined it here (since to criticize reason is to engage in it). Rather, they are, at most, criticizing a particular conception of reason, and that can, of course, be perfectly reasonable (I myself would criticize prevalent conceptions of reason as being much too narrow).

Second, there are indeed those who do not criticize reason, and who indeed do reject it, at least in some respects. These are people who refuse to join the conversation Steven Pinker referred to above; people who refuse to provide reasons, and who instead engage in forceful methods, such as silencing or extorting others, violently or otherwise. Examples include people who believe in some political ideology or religion, and who choose to suppress, or indeed kill, those who express views that challenge their own. Yet such actions do not pose a reasonable or compelling challenge to reason, nor can they be considered a reasonable alternative to the endeavor of reason.

As for why people choose to engage in such actions and refuse to engage in reason, one can also say a few things. First of all, the ability to engage in reason seems to require a great deal of learning and discipline, and not all of us are fortunate enough to have received the schooling and discipline required. And even then, even when we do have these things, engaging in reason is still an active choice that we can fail to make.

That is, doing what we find most reasonable is not an automatic, reflexive process, but rather a deliberate volitional one. It is clearly possible, for example, to act against one’s own better judgment. To go with seductive impulse and temptation — e.g. for sex, a cigarette, or social status — rather than what seems most reasonable, even to ourselves in the moment of weakness.

Reason Broadly and Developmentally Construed

The conception of reason I have outlined here is, it should be noted, not a narrow one. It is not committed to any particular ontological position, nor is it purely cerebral, as in restricted to merely weighing verbal or mathematical arguments. Instead, it is open to questioning everything, and takes input from all sources.

Nor would I be tempted to argue that we humans have some single, immutable faculty of reason that is infallible. Quite the contrary. Our assessments of what seems most reasonable in various domains rests on a wide variety of faculties and experiences, virtually none of which are purely innate. Indeed, these faculties, as well as our range of experience, can be continually expanded and developed as we learn more, both individually and collectively.

In this way, reason, as I conceive of it, is not only extremely broad but also extremely open-ended. It is not static, but rather self-regulating and self-updating, as when we realize that our thinking is tendentious and biased in many ways, and that our motives might not be what we (would like to) think they are. In this way, our capacity for reasoning has taught itself that it should be self-skeptical.

Yet this by no means gives way to pure skepticism. After all, our discovery of these tendencies is itself a testament to the power of our capacity to reason. Rather than completely undermine our trust in this capacity, discoveries of this kind simultaneously show both the enormous weakness and strength of our minds: how wrong we can be when we are not careful to try to be reasonable, and how much better informed we can become if we are. Such facts do not comprise a case against employing our capacity to reason, but rather a case for even more, even more careful employments of this capacity of ours.

Conclusion: A Call for Reason

As noted above, the endeavor of reason is not one that we pursue automatically. It takes a deliberate choice. In order to be able to assess and decide what seems most reasonable all things considered, one must first make an active effort to learn as much as one can about the nature of the world, and then consider the implications carefully.

What I have argued here is that there is no reasonable alternative to doing this; not that there is no possible alternative. For one can surely suspend reason and embrace blind faith, as many religious people do, or embrace unreasoned, incoherent, and self-refuting claims about reality, as many postmodernists do. Or one can go with whatever seems most pleasurable in the moment rather than what seems most reasonable all things considered, as we all do all too often. Yet one cannot reasonably choose such a suspension of reason. Indeed, merely not actively denying reason is not enough. The only reasonable choice, it seems, is to consciously choose to pursue the endeavor of reason.

In sum, I would join Aristotle in viewing reason, broadly construed, as our highest calling. That following what seems most reasonable all things considered is the best, most sensible choice before us. And hence that this is a choice we should all actively make.

 

 

The (Non-)Problem of Induction

David Hume claimed that it is:

[…] impossible for us to satisfy ourselves by our reason, why we should extend that experience beyond those particular instances, which have fallen under our observation. We suppose, but are never able to prove, that there must be a resemblance betwixt those objects, of which we have had experience, and those which lie beyond the reach of our discovery.

And this then gives rise to the problem of induction: how can we defend assuming the so-called uniformity of nature that we take to exist when we generalize our limited experience to that which lies “beyond the reach of our discovery”? For instance, how can we justify our belief that the world of tomorrow will, at least in many ways, resemble the world of yesterday? Indeed, how can we justify believing that there will be a tomorrow at all?

A thing worth highlighting in response to this problem is that, even if we were to assume that we have no justification for believing in such uniformity of nature, this would not imply, as may perhaps seem natural to suppose, that we thereby have justification for believing the opposite: that there is no uniformity of nature. After all, to say that the patterns we have observed so far do not predict anything about states and events elsewhere would also amount to a claim about that which lies “beyond the reach of our discovery”, and so this claim seems to face the same problem.

The claims 1) “there is a certain uniformity of nature” and 2) “there is no uniformity of nature” are both hypotheses about the world. And if we look at the limited part of the world about which we do have some knowledge, it is clear that 1) is true about it: patterns at one point in (known parts of) time and space do indeed predict a lot about patterns observed elsewhere.

Does this then mean that the same will hold true of the part of the world that lies beyond the reach of our discovery? One can reasonably argue that we do not have complete certainty that it will (indeed, one can reasonably argue that we should not have complete certainty about any claim our fallible mind happens to entertain). Yet if we reason as scientists — probabilistically, endeavoring to build the picture of the world that seems most plausible in light of all the available evidence — then it does indeed seem justifiable to say that hypothesis 1) seems much more likely to be true of that which lies “beyond the reach of our discovery” than does hypothesis 2) [not least because to say that hypothesis 2) holds true would amount to assuming an extraordinary uniqueness of the observed compared to the unobserved, whereas believing hypothesis 1) merely amounts to not assuming such an extraordinary uniqueness].

And if we think in this way — in terms of competing hypotheses — then Hume’s problem of induction suddenly seems rather vacuous. “You cannot prove that any given hypothesis of this kind is correct.” This seems true (although the fact that we have not found such a proof yet does not imply that one cannot be found), but also quite irrelevant, since a deductive proof is not required in order for us to draw reasonable inferences. To say that we have no purely deductive argument for a given conclusion is not the same as saying that we have no justification for believing it (and if one thinks that it is, then one is also committed to the belief that we have no justification for believing, based on previous experience, that the problem of induction also exists in this very moment; more on this below).

Applying Hume’s Claim to Itself

According to Hume’s quote above, the belief that we can make generalizations based on particular instances can never be “satisfied by our reason”. The problem, however, is that, according to our modern understanding of the world in physical terms, all we ever can generalize from, including when we make deductive inferences, is particular instances — particular spatiotemporally located states and processes found in our brains (equivalently, one could also say that all we can ever generalize from, as knowing subjects, are particular states of our own minds).

Thus, Hume’s statement that we can never prove such generalizations must also apply to itself, as it is itself a general claim based on a particular instance of reasoning taking place in Hume’s head in a particular place and time (indeed, Hume’s claim would appear to pertain to all generalizations).

So what justification could Hume possibly provide for this general claim of his? According to the claim itself, no proof can be given for it. Indeed, if Hume could provide a proof for his claim that it is impossible to find a proof for the validity of generalizations based on particular instances, then he would have falsified his own claim, as such a proof is the very thing that the claim holds not to exist. And such an alleged proof would thereby also undermine itself, as what it supposedly shows is its own non-existence.

This demonstrates that Hume’s claim is unprovable. That is, based on this particular instance of reasoning, we can draw the general conclusion that we will never be able to provide a proof for Hume’s claim. And thereby we have in fact proven Hume’s claim wrong, as we have thus provided a proof for a general claim that also pertains to that which lies beyond the reach of our discovery. Nowhere, neither in the realm of the discovered nor the undiscovered, can a proof for Hume’s claim be found.

So we clearly can prove some general claims about that which lies beyond the reach of our experience based on particular instances (of processes in our brains, say), and hence the claim that we cannot is simply wrong.

 

Yet one may object that this conclusion does not contradict what Hume in fact meant when he claimed that we cannot prove the validity of generalizations based on particular instances, since what he meant was rather that we cannot prove the validity of inductive generalizations such as “we have observed X so far, hence X will also be the case in the next instance/in general” — i.e. generalizations whose generality seems impossible to prove.

The problem, however, is that we can also turn this claim on itself, and indeed turn the problem of induction altogether on itself, as we did in a parenthetical statement above: the mere fact that we have not been able to prove the validity of any inductive claims of this sort so far does not imply that such a proof can never be found. In particular, the claim that we cannot prove the validity of any such inductive claim that seems impossible to prove is itself an inductive claim whose generality seems impossible to prove (i.e. it seems to rest on the argument: “we have not been able to prove the validity of any inductive claim of this nature so far, and hence we cannot[/we will never be able to] prove the validity of such a claim”).

And if we accept that this claim, the very claim that gives rise to the problem of induction, is itself a plausible claim that we have good reason to accept in general (or at least just good reason to believe that it will apply in the next moment), then we indeed do believe that we can have good reason to draw (at least some plausible) non-deductive generalizations based on particular instances, which is the very thing Hume’s argument is often believed to cast doubt upon. In other words, in order to even believe that there is a problem of induction in the first place, one must already assume that which this problem is supposed to question and be a problem for.

Indeed, one can make an argument along these lines that it is in fact impossible to give a coherent argument against (the overwhelming plausibility of at least some degree of) the uniformity of nature. For in order to even state an argument or doubt against it, one is bound to rely thoroughly on the very thing one is trying to question. For instance, that words will still mean the same in the next moment as they did in the previous one; that the argument one thought of in the previous moment still applies in the next one; that the problem one was trying to address in the previous moment still exists in the next; etc.

Thus, it actually seems impossible to reasonably, indeed even coherently, doubt that the world has at least some degree of uniformity, which itself seems to constitute a good argument and reason for believing in such uniformity. After all, that something cannot reasonably be doubted, or indeed doubted at all, usually seems a more than satisfying standard for believing it.

So to reiterate: If one thinks we have good reason to take the problem of induction seriously, or indeed just to believe that this problem still exists in this moment (since it has in previous ones), then one also thinks that we do have good reason to make (at least some plausible) non-deductive generalizations about that which lies “beyond the reach of our discovery” based on particular instances. In other words, if one takes the problem of induction seriously, then one does not take the problem of induction seriously at all.

 

How to then draw the most plausible inferences about that which “lies beyond the reach of our discovery” is, of course, far from trivial. Yet we should be clear that this is a separate matter entirely from whether we can draw such plausible inferences at all. And as I have attempted to argue here, we have absolutely no reason to think that we cannot, and good reason to think that we can.

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