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:

The catastrophic rise of insect farming and its implications for future efforts to reduce suffering

On the 17th of August 2021, the EU authorized the use of insects as feed for farmed animals such as chickens and pigs. This was a disastrous decision for sentient beings, as it may greatly increase the number of beings who will suffer in animal agriculture. Sadly, this was just one in a series of disastrous decisions that the EU has made regarding insect farming in the last couple of years. Most recently, in February 2022, they authorized the farming of house crickets for human consumption, after having made similar decisions for the farming of mealworms and migratory locusts in 2021.

Many such catastrophic decisions probably lie ahead, seeing that the EU is currently reviewing applications for the farming of nine additional kinds of insects. This brief posts reviews some reflections and potential lessons in light of these harmful legislative decisions.


Contents

  1. Could we have done better?
  2. How can we do better going forward?
    1. Questioning our emotions
    2. Seeing the connection between current institutional developments and s-risks
    3. Proactively searching for other important policy areas and interventions

Could we have done better?

The most relevant aspect to reflect upon in light of these legislative decisions are the strategic implications. Could we have done better? And what could we do better going forward?

I believe the short answer to the first question is a resounding “yes”. I believe that the animal movement could have made far greater efforts to prevent this development (which is not saying much, since the movement at large does not appear to have made much of an effort to prevent this disaster). I am not saying that such efforts would have prevented this development for sure, but I believe that they would have reduced the probability and expected scale of it considerably, to such an extent that it would have been worthwhile to pursue such preventive efforts.

In concrete terms, these efforts could have included:

  • Wealthy donors such as Open Philanthropy making significant donations toward preventing the expansion of insect farming (e.g. investing in research and campaigning work).
  • Animal advocates exploring and developing the many arguments for preventing such an expansion.
  • Animal advocates disseminating these arguments to the broader public, to fellow advocates, and to influential people and groups (e.g. politicians, and policy advisors).

Important to note is that efforts of this kind not only had the potential to change a few significant policy decisions, but they could potentially have prevented — or at least reduced — a whole cascade of harmful policy decisions. Of course, having such an impact might still be possible today, even if it is a lot more difficult at this later stage where the momentum for insect farming already appears strong and growing.

As Abraham Rowe put it, “not working on insect farming over the last decade may come to be one of the largest regrets of the EAA [Effective Animal Activist] community in the near future.” 

How can we do better going forward?

When asking how we can do better, I am particularly interested in what lessons we can draw in our efforts to reduce risks of astronomical future suffering (s-risks). After all, EU’s recent decisions to allow various kinds of insect farming will not only cause enormous amounts of suffering for insects in the near future, but they arguably also increase s-risks to a non-negligible extent, such as by (somewhat) increasing the probability that insects and other small beings will be harmed on an astronomical scale in the future.

So institutional decisions like these seem relevant for our efforts to reduce s-risks, and our failure to prevent these detrimental decisions can plausibly provide relevant lessons for our priorities and strategies going forward. (An implication of these harmful developments that I will not dive into here is that they give us further reason to be pessimistic about the future.)

The following are some of the lessons that tentatively stand out to me.

Questioning our emotions

I suspect that one of the main reasons that insect farming has been neglected by animal advocates is that it fails to appeal to our emotions. A number of factors plausibly contribute to this low level of emotional appeal. For instance, certain biases may prevent proper moral consideration for insects in general, and scope insensitivity may prevent us from appreciating the large number of insects who will suffer due to insect farming. (I strongly doubt that anyone is exempt from these biases, and I suspect that even people who are aware of them might still have neglected insect farming partly as a consequence of these biases.)

Additionally, we may have a bias to focus too narrowly on the suffering that is currently taking place rather than (also) looking ahead to consider how new harmful practices and sources of suffering might emerge, potentially on far greater scales than what we currently see. Reducing the risk of such novel atrocities occurring on a vast scale might not feel as important as does the reduction of existing forms of suffering. Yet the recent rise of insect farming, and the fact that we likely could have done effective work to prevent it, suggest that such feelings are not reliable.

Seeing the connection between current institutional developments and s-risks

When thinking about s-risks, it can be easy to fall victim to excessively abstract thinking and (what I have called) “long-term nebulousness bias” — i.e. a tendency to overlook concrete data and opportunities relevant to long-term influence. In particular, the abstract nature of s-risks may lead us to tacitly believe that good opportunities to influence policy (relative to s-risk reduction) can only be found well into the future, and to perhaps even assume that there is not much of significance that we can do to reduce s-risks at the policy level today

Yet I think the case of insect farming is a counterexample to such beliefs. To be clear, I am not saying that insect farming is necessarily the most promising policy area that we can focus on with respect to s-risk reduction. But it is plausibly a significant one, and one that those trying to reduce s-risks should arguably have paid more attention to in the past. And it still appears to merit greater focus today.

Proactively searching for other important policy areas and interventions

As hinted above, the catastrophic rise of insect farming is in some sense a proof of concept that there are policy decisions in the making that plausibly have a meaningful impact on s-risks. More than that, the case of insect farming might be an example where policy decisions in our time could be fairly pivotal — whether we see a ban on insect farming versus a rapidly unfolding cascade of policy decisions that swiftly expand insect farming might make a big difference, not least because such a cascade could leave us in a position where there is more institutional, financial, and value-related momentum in favor of insect farming (e.g. if massive industries with lobby influence have already emerged around it, and if most people already consider farmed insects an important part of their diet).

This suggests a critical lesson: those working to reduce s-risks have good reason to search for similar, potentially even more influential policy decisions that are being made today or in the near future. By analogy to how animal advocates likely could have made a significant difference (in expectation) if they had campaigned against the expansion of insect farming over the last decade, we may now do well by looking decades ahead, and considering which pivotal policy decisions that we might now be in a good position to influence. The need for such a proactive search effort could be the most important takeaway in light of this recent string of disastrous decisions.

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

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

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


Contents

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

Germany in year 1900

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

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

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

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

Shantideva around year 700

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I.

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

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

II.

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

III.

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

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



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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

Reasons in favor of prioritizing the Abolitionist Project

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

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

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

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

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

A critical question

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

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

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

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

Possible responses

Analogy to smallpox

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

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

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

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

Sources of unwillingness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antinatalism and reducing suffering: A case of suspicious convergence

First published: Feb. 2021. Last update: Dec. 2022


Two positions are worth distinguishing. One is the view that we should reduce (extreme) suffering as much as we can for all sentient beings. The other is the view that we should advocate for humans not to have children.

It may seem intuitive to think that the former position implies the latter. That is, to think that the best way to reduce suffering for all sentient beings is to advocate for humans not to have children. My aim in this brief essay is to outline some of the reasons to be skeptical of this claim.

Suspicious convergence

Lewis, 2016 warns of “suspicious convergence”, which he introduces with the following toy example:

Oliver: … Thus we see that donating to the opera is the best way of promoting the arts.

Eleanor: Okay, but I’m principally interested in improving human welfare.

Oliver: Oh! Well I think it is also the case that donating to the opera is best for improving human welfare too.

The general point is that, for any set of distinct altruistic aims or endeavors we may consider, we should be a priori suspicious of the claim that they are perfectly convergent — i.e. that directly pursuing one of them also happens to be the very best thing we can do for achieving the other. Justifying such a belief would require good, object-level reasons. And in the case of the respective endeavors of reducing suffering and advocating for humans not to procreate, we in a sense find the opposite, as there are good reasons to be skeptical of a strong degree of convergence, and even to think that such antinatalist advocacy might increase future suffering.

The marginal impact of antinatalist advocacy

A key point when evaluating the impact of altruistic efforts is that we need to think at the margin: how does our particular contribution change the outcome, in expectation? This is true whether our aims are modest or maximally ambitious — our actions and resources still represent but a very small fraction of the total sum of actions and resources, and we can still only exert relatively small pushes toward our goals.

Direct effects

What, then, is the marginal impact of advocating for people not to have children? One way to try to answer this question is to explore the expected effects of preventing a single human birth. Antinatalist analyses of this question are quick to point out the many harms caused by a single human birth, which must indeed be considered. Yet what these analyses tend not to consider are the harms that a human birth would prevent.

For example, in his book Better Never to Have Been, David Benatar writes about “the suffering inflicted on those animals whose habitat is destroyed by encroaching humans” (p. 224) — which, again, should definitely be included in our analysis. Yet he fails to consider the many births and all the suffering that would be prevented by an additional human birth, such as due to its marginal effects on habitat reduction (“fewer people means more animals“). As Brian Tomasik argues, when we consider a wider range of the effects humans have on animal suffering, “it seems plausible that encouraging people to have fewer children actually causes an increase in suffering and involuntary births.” 

This highlights how a one-sided analysis such as Benatar’s is deeply problematic when evaluating potential interventions. We cannot simply look at the harms prevented by our pet interventions without considering how they might lead to more harm. Both things must be considered.

To be clear, the considerations above regarding the marginal effects of human births on animal suffering by no means represent a complete analysis of the effects of additional human births, or of advocating for humans not to have children. But they do represent reasons to doubt that such advocacy is among the very best things we can do to reduce suffering for all sentient beings, at least in terms of the direct effects, which leads us to the next point.

Long-term effects

Some seem to hold that the main reason to advocate against human procreation is not the direct effects, but rather its long-term effects on humanity’s future. I agree that the influence our ideas and advocacy efforts have on humanity’s long-term future are plausibly the most important thing about them, and I think many antinatalists are likely to have a positive influence in this regard by highlighting the moral significance of suffering (and the relative insignificance of pleasure).

But the question is why we should think that the best way to steer humanity’s long-term future toward less suffering is to argue for people not to have children. After all, the space of possible interventions we could pursue to reduce future suffering is vast, and it would be quite a remarkable coincidence if relatively simple interventions — such as advocating for antinatalism or veganism — happened to be the very best way to reduce suffering, or even among the very best ways.

In particular, the greatest risk from a long-term perspective is that things somehow go awfully wrong, and that we counterfactually greatly increase future suffering, either by creating additional sources of suffering in the future, or by simply failing to reduce existing forms of suffering when we could. And advocating for people not to have children seems unlikely to be among the best ways to reduce the risk of such failures — again since the space of possible interventions is vast, and interventions that are targeted more directly at reducing these risks, including the risk of leaving wild-animal suffering unaddressed, are probably significantly more effective than is advocating for humans not to procreate.

Better alternatives?

If our aim is to reduce suffering for all sentient beings, a plausible course of action would be to pursue an open-ended research project on how we can best achieve this aim. This is, after all, not a trivial question, and we should hardly expect the most plausible answers to be intuitive, let alone obvious. Exploring this question requires epistemic humility, and forces us to contend with the vast amount of empirical uncertainty that we are facing.

I have explored this question at length in Vinding, 2020, as have other individuals and organizations elsewhere. One conclusion that seems quite robust is that we should focus mostly on avoiding bad outcomes, whereas comparatively suffering-free future scenarios merit less priority. Another robust conclusion is that we should pursue a pragmatic and cooperative approach when trying to reduce suffering (see also Vinding, 2020, ch. 10) — not least since future conflicts are one of the main ways in which worst-case outcomes might materialize, and hence we should generally strive to reduce the risk of such conflicts.

In more concrete terms, antinatalists may be more effective if they focus on defending antinatalism for wild animals in particular. This case seems both easier and more important to make given the overwhelming amount of suffering and early death in nature. Such advocacy may both have more beneficial near-term and long-term effects, being less at risk of increasing non-human suffering in the near term, and plausibly being more conducive to reducing worst-case risks, whether these entail spreading non-human life or simply failing to reduce wild-animal suffering.

Broadly speaking, the aim of reducing suffering would seem to recommend efforts to identify the main ways in which humanity might cause — or prevent — vast amounts of suffering in the future, and to find out how we can best navigate accordingly. None of these conclusions seem to support efforts to convince people not to have children as a particularly promising strategy, though they likely do recommend efforts to promote concern for suffering more generally.

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