Suffering-focused ethics and the importance of happiness

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

Personal sustainability and productivity

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

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

Signaling value

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

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

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

A needless hurdle to the adoption of suffering-focused views

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

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

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

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

Resources for Sustainable Activism

“Altruism is a marathon, not a sprint.”

— Attributed to Robert Wiblin

Avoiding burnout should be a high priority for activists, both for their own sake and for the sake of those they advocate for. The following is a list of resources that may be useful in this regard.

Melanie Joy:

Sustainable Activism:

How Vegans Can Create Healthy Relationships and Communicate Effectively:

Jonathan Leighton:

Thriving in the Age of Factory Farming

Guided Meditation for Activists:

Paul Bloom and Richard Davidson:

Important and informative conversation about reasons to cultivate compassion rather than empathy:

Here is a playlist with compassion meditations:

Teo Ajantaival:

Positive roles of life and experience in suffering-focused ethics

Michael Bitton:

Investing in Yourself

Nate Soares:

The Replacing Guilt series

Brian Tomasik:

Is Utilitarianism Too Demanding?

Magnus Vinding:

Suffering-focused ethics and the importance of happiness

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