Distrusting salience: Keeping unseen urgencies in mind

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


Contents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The narrow urgency delusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salience-driven distortions in efforts to reduce s-risks

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

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

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

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

Reducing salience-driven distortions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four reasons to help nearby insects even if your main priority is to reduce s-risks

When trying to reduce suffering in effective ways, one can easily get pulled toward an abstract focus that pertains almost exclusively to speculative far future scenarios. There are, to be sure, good reasons to work to reduce risks of astronomical future suffering, or s-risks. Yet even if the reduction of s-risks is our main priority, there are still compelling reasons to also focus on helping beings in our immediate surroundings, such as insects and other small beings. My aim in this post is to list a few of these reasons.

I should note that most of the points I make in this essay pertain to all sentient beings who may cross our paths — not just insects — but I still want to emphasize insects because we encounter them so often, and because they tend to be uniquely at our mercy.


Contents

  1. Helping nearby insects is often trivially cheap and worthwhile
  2. Helping nearby insects can reinforce our dedication and commitment to suffering reduction
  3. Helping nearby insects can help foster greater concern for neglected beings
  4. Helping nearby insects can prevent suffering reduction from becoming unduly abstract
  5. Further reading

Helping nearby insects is often trivially cheap and worthwhile

Perhaps the main argument against helping beings in our vicinity, from an altruistic perspective, is that the opportunity costs are too high in terms of what we could be doing to help future beings.

I think this is an important argument, as the opportunity costs are surely worth keeping in mind, and they can indeed be high. But that being said, it is also true that many efforts to help insects in our vicinity are extremely cheap, and thus carry practically no costs to our efforts to reduce future suffering. Indeed, as I will argue below, efforts to help beings in our vicinity may generally have beneficial effects on our efforts to reduce future suffering.

Helping nearby insects can reinforce our dedication and commitment to suffering reduction

Small-scale acts of beneficence toward insects can plausibly help to reinforce a sense of commitment to the reduction of suffering, including the reduction of s-risks. Specifically, such small-scale acts may help strengthen a sense of self-identity that is centered on suffering reduction as a core purpose, and pursuing these compassionate acts may be seen as a uniquely tangible step in line with that purpose — a concrete step toward a world with less suffering.

Helping nearby insects can help foster greater concern for neglected beings

In addition to fostering greater concern for suffering, efforts to help insects may likewise foster greater concern for small beings in particular. This is important since small beings such as insects are extremely numerous and neglected, and also since a large fraction of future suffering is likely to occur in similarly exotic sentient minds.

Thus, when we perform small-scale actions that are aligned with a concern for tiny creatures with foreign minds, we plausibly make ourselves better able to take the interests of such minds seriously as a general matter. Conversely, if we act in ways that disregard these beings, we may be more inclined to rationalize the harms that befall them (by analogy to how eating certain animals can lead us to deny and disregard their sentience and their interests).

Helping nearby insects can prevent suffering reduction from becoming unduly abstract

A danger of working to reduce far future suffering is that it can end up resembling a game of speculative abstractions that have little to do with real-world suffering and real-world efforts to help others. To be clear, I think theoretical work on how we can best reduce future suffering is extremely important, and I have argued elsewhere that research is often more important than direct action in efforts to improve the world. Yet there is nevertheless a risk that such research-related work ends up being overly abstract, and that the reduction of suffering ends up being a problem that we mostly think and talk about, as opposed to it being a problem that we are above all striving to do something about.

Efforts to prevent harm to nearby insects may help reinforce this action-centered approach. In particular, it can help firmly establish the reduction of suffering as something that we do, and not something that we can only achieve in meaningful ways by thinking about risks of future suffering.

This argument in effect turns on its head a common objection against a focus on helping insects, since it is sometimes objected that a focus on helping insects is unduly abstract and detached. Yet there is nothing inherently abstract or detached about helping insects. It can be quite the opposite.

Further reading

Some suggestions on how to reduce the suffering of insects, including the suffering of insects in our vicinity, can be found here. As the author stresses toward the end, it is important not to make the mistake of spending too much effort on these suggestions; it is indeed critical to keep competing priorities and opportunity costs in mind.

For some considerations on prioritizing short-term versus long-term suffering, see:

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

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


Contents

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

Analogies to games, competitions, and projects

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

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

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

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

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

Disanalogy in scope?

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

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

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

Three robust strategies for reducing suffering

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

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

The golden middle way: Avoiding overconfidence and passivity

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

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

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


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

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

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

I.

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

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

II.

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

III.

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

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



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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

Reasons in favor of prioritizing the Abolitionist Project

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

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

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

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

But I think the two reasons cited above count more as reasons to include an abolitionist perspective in our “communication portfolio”, as opposed to making it our main focus — not least in light of the four considerations mentioned above that count against the abolitionist framing and focus.

A critical question

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

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

This premise, together with our shared moral outlook, seems to recommend a strong focus on minimizing the risk of worst-case outcomes. The critical question is thus: What reasons do we have to think that prioritizing and promoting the Abolitionist Project is the single best way, or even among the best ways, to address worst-case outcomes?

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

Possible responses

Analogy to smallpox

A way to respond may be to invoke the example of smallpox: Eradicating smallpox was plausibly the best way to minimize the risk of “astronomical smallpox, as opposed to focusing on other, indirect measures. So why should the same not be true in the case of suffering?

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

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

One reason such a short-term focus may be suboptimal is that the short-term eradication of smallpox is already — or would already be, if it still existed — prioritized by mainstream organizations and governments around the world, and hence additional marginal resources would likely have a rather limited counterfactual impact to this end. Work to minimize the risk of spreading life forms vulnerable to smallpox is far more neglected, and hence does seem a fairly reasonable priority from a “smallpox-risk minimizing” perspective.

Sources of unwillingness

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

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

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

This is an empirical question. But I would be surprised if setting out abolitionist blueprints turned out to be the single best strategy. Other candidates that seem more promising to me include informing people about horrific examples of suffering, as well as presenting reasoned arguments in favor of prioritizing the prevention of suffering.

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

In terms of how we rank the cost-effectiveness of different causes and interventions (cf. this distribution), I would still consider abolitionist advocacy to be quite beneficial all things considered, and probably significantly better than the vast majority of activities that we could pursue. But I would not quite rank it at the tail-end of the cost-effectiveness distribution, for some of the reasons outlined above.

Compassionate Free Speech

Two loose currents appear to be in opposition in today’s culture. One is animated by a strong insistence on empathy and compassion as core values, the other by a strong insistence on free speech as a core value. These two currents are often portrayed as though they must necessarily be in conflict. I think this is a mistake.

To be sure, the two values described above can be in tension, and none of them strictly imply the other. But it is possible to reconcile them in a refined and elegant synthesis. That, I submit, is what we should be aiming for. A synthesis of two vital and mutually reinforcing values.

Definitions and outline

It is crucial to distinguish 1) social and ethical norms, and 2) state-enforced laws. The argument I make here pertains to the first level. That is, I am arguing that we should aim to observe and promote ethical norms of compassion and open conversation, respectively.

What do I mean by these terms? Compassion is commonly defined as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”. I here use the term in a broader sense that also covers related virtues such as understanding, charitable interpretation, and kindness.

By norms of open conversation, or free expression, I mean norms that enable people to express their honest views openly, even when these views are controversial and uncomfortable. These norms do not entail that speech should be wholly unrestricted; after all, virtually everyone agrees that defamation and incitements to commit severe crimes should be illegal, as they commonly are.

My view is that we should roughly think of these two broad values as prima facie duties: we should generally strive to observe norms of compassion and open conversation, except in (rare) cases where other duties or virtues override these norms.

Below is a short defense of these two respective values, highlighting their importance in their own right. This is followed by a case that these values are not only compatible, but indeed strongly complementary. Finally, I explore what I see as some of the causes of our current state of polarization, and suggest five heuristics that might be useful going forward.

Brief defenses

Free speech

There are many strong arguments in favor of free speech. A famous collection of such arguments is On Liberty (1859) by John Stuart Mill, whose case for free speech is primarily based on the harm principle: the only reason power can legitimately be exercised over any individual against their will is to prevent harm to others.

This principle is intuitively compelling, although it leaves it unspecified what exactly counts as a harm to others. That is perhaps the main crux in discussions about free speech, and this alone could provide an argument in favor of free and open expression. For how can we clarify what should count as sufficient harm to others to justify the exercise of power if not through open discussion?

A necessary corrective to biased, fallible minds

Another important argument Mill makes in favor of free speech is based not merely on the rights of the speaker, but in equal part on the rights of the would-be listeners, who are also robbed by the suppression of free expression:

[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

In essence, Mill argues that, contrary to the annoyance we may instinctively feel, we should in fact be grateful for having our cherished views challenged, not least because it can help clarify and update our views.

Today, Mill’s argument can be further bolstered by a host of well-documented psychological biases. We now know that we are all vulnerable to confirmation bias, the bandwagon effect, groupthink, etc. These biases make it all too easy for us to deceive ourselves into thinking that we already possess the whole truth, although we most certainly do not. Consequently, if we want to hold reasonable beliefs, we should welcome and appreciate those who challenge the pitfalls of our groupish minds — pitfalls that we may otherwise be content to embrace.

After all, how can we know that our attempts to protect ourselves from hearing views that we dislike are not essentially unconscious attempts to protect our own confirmation bias? Free and open conversation is our best debiasing tool.

Strategic reasons

An altogether different argument in favor of honoring principles of free speech is that a failure to do so is strategically unwise. Indeed, as free-speech defender Noam Chomsky argues, there are several reasons to consider the suppression of free speech a tactical error if we are trying to create a better society.

First, reinforcing a norm of suppressing speech can have the unintended consequence of leading all sides, and perhaps eventually governments, to consider it increasingly legitimate to suppress certain forms of speech. “If they can suppress speech, why shouldn’t we?” The effects of such a regression would be worst for those who lack power.

Second, seeking to suppress speech is likely to backfire and to strengthen the other side, by making that side look more appealing than it in fact is — the suppressed becomes alluring — and by making the side that seeks to suppress speech look unreasonable, as though they are unable to muster a defense of their views.

When people try to make us do something, we tend to react negatively and to distance ourselves, even if we agreed with them from the outset (cf. psychological reactance). This is another strong reason against suppressing free expression, and against giving people the impression that they are not allowed to discuss or think certain things. It is human nature to react by asserting one’s freedom in defiance, even if it means voting for a president that one would otherwise have voted against. (See also Cialdini, 1984/2021, ch. 7.)

(Weak norms of free expression are thus a democratic problem in more than one way: it can keep citizens from voting in accordance with their ideal preferences both by making them ill-informed and by provoking votes of defiance.)

Steven Pinker has made a related point: if we place certain issues beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse, many people are likely to seek out discussion of these issues from unsavory sources, which can in turn put people on a path toward extreme and uncompassionate views. This parallels one of the main arguments made against the prevailing drug laws of today: such restrictions merely push the whole business into an underground market where people get dangerously polluted goods.

As Ayishat Akanbi eloquently put it (paraphrased slightly): if we suppress ideas, they will “operate with insidious undertones”, and we in effect “push people into the arms of extremism.”

Compassion

I will let my defense of compassion be even briefer still, as I have already made an elaborate defense of it in my book Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications.

The short case is this: Suffering, especially the most intense suffering, truly matters. It is truly bad and truly worth preventing. Consequently, a desire to alleviate intense suffering is simply the most sensible response. Only a failure to connect with the reality of suffering can leave us apathetic. That is the simplest and foremost reason why compassion is of paramount importance.

Another reason to be compassionate, including in the broader sense of being kind and understanding, is that such an attitude has great instrumental benefits at the level of our communication and relations: it fosters trust and cooperation, which in turn enables win-win interactions.

However, to say that we should be compassionate is not to say that we should be game-theoretically naive in the sense of kindly allowing others to walk all over us. Compassion is wholly compatible with, and indeed mandates, tit for tat and assertiveness in the face of transgressions.

Lastly, it is worth emphasizing that compassion and empathy are not partisan values. Empathy is a human universal, and compassion has been considered a virtue in all major world traditions, as well as in most political movements, including political conservatism. Indeed, people of all political orientations score high on the harm/care dimension in Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations framework. It really is a value on which people show uniquely wide agreement, at least on reflection. When they are not on Twitter.

Compassion and free speech: Complementary values

As noted above, the two values I defend here do not strictly imply each other, at least in some purely theoretical sense. But they are strongly complementary in many regards.

How free speech aids compassion

Compassion and the compassionate project can be aided by free speech in various ways. For example, to alleviate and prevent suffering effectively with our limited resources, we need to be able to discuss controversial ideas. We need to be able to discuss and measure different values and priorities against each other, including values that many people consider sacred and hence offensive to discuss.

As a case in point, in my book Suffering-Focused Ethics, I defend the moral primacy of reducing extreme suffering, even above other values that many people may consider sacred, and I further discuss the difficult question of which causes we should prioritize so as to best reduce extreme suffering. My arguments will no doubt be deeply offensive and infuriating to many, and I believe a substantial number of people would like to see my ideas suppressed if they could. This is not, of course, unique to my views: all treatises and positions on ethics are bound to be deemed too offensive and too dangerous by some.

This highlights the importance of free speech for ethics in general, and for the project of reducing suffering in particular. To conduct this most difficult conversation about what matters and what our priorities should be, we need a culture that allows, indeed promotes, this conversation — not a culture that stifles it. People who want to reduce suffering should thus have a strong interest in preserving and advancing free speech norms.

Another way in which free speech aids compassion is that, put simply, encouraging the free expression of, and listening to, each others’ underlying grievances can help us build mutual understanding, and in turn enable us to address our problems in cooperative ways. As Noam Chomsky notes in the context of hateful ideologies:

If you have a festering sore, the cure is not to irritate it, but to find out what its roots are and where it comes from, and to deal with those. Racist and other such speech is a festering sore. By silencing it, you simply amplify its appeal, and even lend it a veneer of respectability, as in fact we’ve seen very clearly in the last couple of years. And what has to be done, plainly, is to confront it, and to ask where it comes from, and to try to deal with the roots of such ideas. That’s the way to extirpate the ugliness and evil that lies behind such phenomena.

Human rights activist Deeyah Khan similarly argues that a root source of white supremacy is often a sense of fear and lack of opportunity, not inherent evil or apathy. She contends that the best solution to extremist ideologues is generally to engage in conversation and to seek to understand, not to shut down the conversation. (I recommend watching Khan’s documentary White Right: Meeting the Enemy.)

So while compassion per se does not directly imply free speech at some purely theoretical level, I would argue that a sophisticated and fully extrapolated version of compassion and the compassionate project does necessitate strong norms of free and open expression at the practical level.

How compassion aids free speech

One of the ways in which compassion can aid open conversation is exemplified in Deeyah Khan’s documentary mentioned above: she sits down and listens to white nationalists, seeking to understand them with compassion, which allows them to identify and express their own underlying issues, such as feelings of fear, vulnerability, and unworthiness. Such things can be difficult to share in apathetic and antagonistic environments, be they the macho ingroup or the angry outgroup. “Fuck you, racist” does not quite invite a response of “I’m afraid and hurting” as much as does, “How are you feeling, and what really motivates you?” On the contrary, it probably just serves to reinforce the facade of the pain.

We may not usually think of conditions that further the sharing of our underlying worries and vulnerabilities as a matter of free speech, perhaps because we all help perpetuate norms that suppress honesty about these things. But if free speech norms are essentially about enabling us to dare express our honest perspectives, then our de facto suppression of our inmost worries and vulnerabilities is indeed a free speech issue — and a rather consequential one at that (as I think Khan’s White Right makes clear). Compassion may well be the best remedy we have to our truth-subduing culture of suppressing our core worries and vulnerabilities.

A related way in which compassion, specifically the virtue of charitable interpretation, is important for free speech is, quite simply, that we suffocate free speech in its absence. If people hold back from expressing a nuanced view because they know that they will be strawmanned and vilely attacked based on bad-faith misinterpretations, then the state of free expression will be poor indeed.

In contrast, free expression will flourish when we do the opposite: when everyone engages with the strongest version of their opponents’ view — i.e. steelmans it — so that people feel positively motivated to present nuanced views and arguments in the expectation of being critiqued in good faith.

That, needless to say, is far from the state we are currently in.

Why we fail so spectacularly today

We are currently witnessing a primitive tribal dynamic exacerbated by the fact that we inhabit a treacherous environment to which we are not yet adapted, neither biologically nor culturally. I am speaking, of course, of the environment of screen-to-screen interaction.

Yet we should be clear that values and politics were never easy spheres to navigate in the first place. They have always been minefields. Politics is a notorious mind-killer for deep evolutionary reasons, and our political behavior is often more about signaling our group affiliations than it is about creating good policies. This is true not just of the “other side”; it is true of all of us, though we remain largely unaware of and self-deceived about it.

Thus, our predicament is that most of us care deeply about loyalty signaling, and such signaling has now become dangerously inflated. Moreover, we often use beliefs, ostensibly all about tracking reality, as ornaments that signal our group loyalty.

A hostage crisis instilling false assumptions

The two loose social currents I mentioned in the introduction can, I submit, be understood in this light. Specifically, values centered on empathy and compassion have become an ornament of sorts that signals loyalty to one side, while values centered on free speech have become a loyalty signal to another side. To be clear, I am not saying that these values are merely ornaments; they clearly are not. A value can be an ornament displayed with pride and be sincerely held at the same time. Yet our natural inclination to signal group loyalty can lead us to only express our support for one of these values, and to underemphasize the “opposing” value, even if we in fact do favor it.

In this way, the values of compassion and free speech have to some extent become hostages in a primitive tribal game, which in turn gives the false impression that there must be some deep conflict between these values, and that people must choose one or the other, as opposed to these values being, as I have argued, strongly complementary (with occasional and comparatively minor tensions).

The upshot is that supporters of free speech may feel nudged to display insensitivity in order to signal their loyalty and consistency, while supporters of anti-discrimination may feel nudged to oppose free speech.

Uncharitable claims beyond belief

A sad feature of this dynamic, and something that helps fuel it further, is how incredibly uncharitable the outer flanks of these two tribal currents are toward the other side.

“The PC-policing SJWs don’t care about the hard facts and just want to suppress them.”

“The free speech bros don’t care about minorities and just want to oppress them.”

To say that people are failing to steelman here would be quite the understatement. Indeed, this barely even qualifies as a strawman. It is more like the scream-man version of the other side: the worst, most scary version of the other side’s position that one could come up with. And this scream-man is repeatedly rehearsed in the partitioned echo halls of Twitter to the extent that people start believing these preposterously uncharitable narratives about the Scary Other.

It is a tragedy of the commons phenomenon: people are gleefully rewarded in their ingroup each time they promulgate the scream-man representation of the other side, and so it feels right to do so for individuals in these respective groups. But in the bigger picture, it just leaves everyone much worse off.

Distributions and the importance of self-criticism

To be sure, there are serious problems with significant numbers of people who conform too closely to the cartoon descriptions above. But a crucial point is that we must think in terms of statistical distributions. Specifically, the most loud-mouthed and scary two percent of the “other side” — a minority that tends to get a disproportionate amount of attention — should not be taken to represent everyone on that “side”, let alone its most reasonable representatives.

That being said, it is also true that many people on both sides tend to be bad at criticizing the harmful tendencies of their own “team”. There does indeed appear to be a tendency among certain defenders of free speech to fail to criticize and condemn those who discriminate against minorities. Likewise, there really does seem to be a tendency among certain progressives to fail to criticize and condemn those who suppress discussions of contentious issues.

This failure to speak out against the worst elements of one’s “own side”, side A, with sufficient force can create the impression, on side B, that most people on side A actually agree with these worst elements. That is how damning it is that we fail to criticize the transparent excesses of our ingroup in clear terms.

At cross-purposes

A problem with our failure to be charitable and to think in terms of distributions is that people end up talking past each other: both sides tend to criticize a strawman version of the other side based on the rabid tail-end elements of that side, which most people on the other side really do disagree with (although they may, as mentioned above, fail to express this disagreement with sufficient clarity).

This frequently results in debates with two sides that are in large part talking at cross-purposes: one side mostly defends free speech, while the other side mostly defends anti-discrimination, as though these were necessarily in great conflict. The failure to explore the compatibility and mutual complementarity of these values is striking.

The perils of screen-to-screen interaction

As noted above, our current mode of interaction only aggravates our political imbecility. When engaged in face-to-face interaction, we naturally relate to and empathize with the person before us, and we have a strong interest in keeping our interaction cordial so as to prevent it from escalating into conflict.

In screen-to-screen interaction, by contrast, our circuits for interpersonal interaction are all but inert, as we find ourselves shielded off from salient feedback and danger. Social media is road rage writ large. It is a road rage that renders it extra difficult to be charitable, and which renders it far more tempting to paint the outgroup in a bad light than it could ever be in a face-to-face environment, where preposterous strawmen would be called out and challenged in real time.

As a study on political polarization on Twitter put it:

Many messages contain sentiments more extreme than you would expect to encounter in face-to-face interactions, and the content is frequently disparaging of the identities and views associated with users across the partisan divide.

How can we reduce these unfortunate tendencies? The age of social media calls for new norms.

Better norms for screen communication

Human culture has adapted to technological changes before, and it seems that we have no choice but to do the same today, in the face of our current state of cultural maladaptation. The following are five heuristics, or norms, that I think are likely to be useful in this regard.

1. The face-to-face heuristic

In light of the above, it seems sensible to adopt the precept of communicating online in roughly the same way we would communicate face-to-face. Our skills in face-to-face interaction have deep biological and cultural bases, and hence this heuristic is a cheap way to tap into a well-honed toolbox for functional human communication.

One effect of employing this heuristic will likely be a reduction of sarcastic and taunting comments. Such comments are rarely useful for taking our conversations to the next level, as we tend to realize face-to-face.

2. The nuance heuristic

As I argue in my defense of nuance, much of the tension that we see today could likely be lessened greatly if we adopted more nuanced perspectives, such as by acknowledging grains of truth in different viewpoints, and by representing beliefs in terms of graded credences rather than posturing with overconfident all-or-nothing certainties.

3. The steelman heuristic

I have already mentioned this, but it can hardly be stressed enough: we must strive to be charitable and to steelman the views of our opponents, especially since our road-rage-behind-the-screen predicament makes it easier than ever to do the opposite.

Whenever we summarize and criticize the views of the other side, we should stop and ask ourselves: Is this really the most honest statement of their views that I can muster, let alone the strongest one? If I think their view is painfully stupid, do I really fully understand it? Do I really know what it entails and the best arguments that support it?

4. Compassion for the outgroup

As noted above, compassion really is a consensus value, if ever there were one. The disagreement mostly arises when it comes to which individuals we should extend our compassion to. Both of the notional “sides”, or social currents, described here suffer from selective compassion: they generally fail to show sufficient compassion and respect for the other side, which renders productive conversation difficult. And this point needs to be stressed with unique fervor today, as screens are an all too powerful and insidious catalyst for outgroup apathy.

5. Criticizing the ingroup

Condemning the excesses of one’s (vaguely associated) ingroup is also uniquely important today. Why? Because we now see large numbers of people behaving badly on social media, and our intuitions are statistically illiterate: we do not intuitively understand how a faction endorsing a certain view or behavior can simultaneously be large in number and constitute but a small minority of a given group. The world is big, and we mostly do not understand that (at an intuitive level).

Only by publicly countering the excesses of our “ingroup” can we make it clear to the other side — and perhaps also to our own side — that the extremists truly are a disapproved minority. Such ingroup criticism seems paramount if we are to mitigate the ongoing trend of polarization.

Conclusion

We have created a polarized online society in which people can feel pushed toward a needlessly narrow set of values — compassion or free speech, choose one! We are pushed in this way, not by totalitarian laws, but by modes of communication to which we are not yet adapted, and which we are navigating with patently defunct norms.

Norms are often more important than laws. After all, most of us can think of judgments from our peers that would be worse than a minor prison sentence. Hence, totalitarian laws are not required for free expression to be stifled into a de facto draconian state. The notion that harshly punitive norms do not restrict speech in costly ways is naive.

Sure, we should be free to judge others based on the things they say. But just how harshly should we judge people for discussing controversial views? And do we understand the risks and the strategic costs associated with such judgments, let alone the risks of trying to suppress certain viewpoints? If we place ourselves in opposition to free speech, and then give people the ultimatum of siding either with “us” or with “them”, a lot of people are going to choose the other side, even if that side has features they find genuinely worrying.

I have tried to argue that the choice between free speech or compassion is a false one. It really is possible to chart a balanced middle path of a free and compassionate society.

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

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

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

The book also seeks to apply this knowledge, to shed some light on the hidden motives of many of our social institution. Rather than being about high-minded ideals, our institutions often serve much less pretty, more status-driven purposes, such as showing off in various ways, as well as to help us better get by in a tough world.

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

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

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

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

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

The fact that people often get offended and become defensive when one even just questions the value of our condition — and sometimes also accuse the one raising the question of having a mental illness — suggests that we may indeed be disturbing a great elephant here; something we would strongly prefer not to think too deeply about.

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

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

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

Is Life “Pretty Good”?

With respect to Simler and Hanson’s claim that “life, for must of us, is pretty good”, it can be disputed whether this is indeed the case. According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, most people rated their life satisfaction at five or below on a scale from zero to ten, which arguably does not translate to being “pretty good”. Indeed, one can argue that the scale employed in this report is biased, in that it does not allow for a negative evaluation of life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is “Pretty Good” Good Enough?

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

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

Can the Good Lives Outweigh the Bad?

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

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

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

The story’s premise is that this child must exist in this condition for the happy people of Omelas to enjoy their lives, which then raises the question of whether the enjoyment found in these lives can morally outweigh and justify the misery of this single child. Some citizens of Omelas seem to decide that this is not the case: the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Sadly, our world is much worse than the city of Omelas on every measure. For example, in the World Happiness Report cited above, around 200 million people reported their quality of life to be in the absolute worst category. If the story of Omelas gives us pause, we should also think twice before claiming that the “pretty good” lives of some people can outweigh the self-reportedly very bad lives of these hundreds of millions of people, many of whom decide to end their own lives by suicide.

Beyond that, one can question whether the “pretty good” lives of some humans can in any sense outweigh or justify the enormous amount of suffering humanity that imposes on non-human animals, including the torturous suffering we impose on more than a trillion fish each year, as well as the suffering that we impose upon the tens of billions of chickens and turkeys who live out their lives under the horrific conditions of factory farming, many of whom end their lives by being boiled alive.

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

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. A more elaborate case for suffering-focused ethics can be found in my book Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications.


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.”

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