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:

Reasons to include insects in animal advocacy

I have seen some people claim that animal activists should primarily be concerned with certain groups of numerous vertebrates, such as chickens and fish, whereas we should not be concerned much, if at all, with insects and other small invertebrates. (See e.g. here.) I think there are indeed good arguments in favor of emphasizing chickens and fish in animal advocacy, yet I think those same arguments tend to support a strong emphasis on helping insects as well. My aim in this post is to argue that we have compelling reasons to include insects and other small vertebrates in animal advocacy.


Contents

  1. A simplistic sequence argument: Smaller beings in increasingly large numbers
    1. The sequence
    2. Why stop at chickens or fish?
  2. Invertebrate vs. vertebrate nervous systems
    1. Phylogenetic distance
    2. Behavioral and neurological evidence
    3. Nematodes and extended sequences
  3. Objection based on appalling treatment
  4. Potential biases
    1. Inconvenience bias
    2. Smallness bias
    3. Disgust and fear reflexes
    4. Momentum/status quo bias
  5. Other reasons to focus more on small invertebrates
    1. Neglectedness
    2. Opening people’s eyes to the extent of suffering and harmful decisions
    3. Risks of spreading invertebrates to space: Beings at uniquely high risk of suffering due to human space expansion
    4. Qualifications and counter-considerations
  6. My own view on strategy in brief
  7. Final clarification: Numbers-based arguments need not assume that large amounts of mild suffering can be worse than extreme suffering
  8. Acknowledgments

A simplistic sequence argument: Smaller beings in increasingly large numbers

As a preliminary motivation for the discussion, it may be helpful to consider the sequence below.

I should first of all clarify what I am not claiming in light of the following sequence. I am not making any claims about the moral relevance of the neuron counts of individual beings or groups of beings (that is a complicated issue that defies simple answers). Nor am I claiming that we should focus mostly on helping beings such as land arthropods and nematodes. The claim I want to advance is a much weaker one, namely that, in light of the sequence below, it is hardly obvious that we should focus mostly on helping chickens or fish.

The sequence

At any given time, there are roughly:

  • 780 million farmed pigs, with an estimated average neuron count of 2.2 billion. Total neuron count: ~1.7 * 10^18.
  • 33 billion farmed chickens, with an estimated average neuron count of 200 million. Total neuron count: ~6.6 * 10^18.
  • 10^15 fish (the vast majority of whom are wild fish), with an estimated average neuron count of 1 million neurons (this number lies between the estimated neuron count of a larval zebrafish and an adult zebrafish; note that there is great uncertainty in all these estimates). Total neuron count: ~10^21. It is estimated that humanity kills more than a trillion fish a year, and if we assume that they likewise have an average neuron count of around 1 million neurons, the total neuron count of these beings is ~10^18.
  • 10^19 land arthropods, with an estimated average neuron count of 15,000 neurons (some insects have brains with more than a million neurons, but most arthropods appear to have considerably fewer neurons). Total neuron count: ~1.5*10^23. If humanity kills roughly the same proportion of land arthropods as the proportion of fish that we kill (e.g. through insecticides and insect farming), then the total neuron count of the land arthropods we kill is ~10^20.
  • 10^21 nematodes, with an estimated average neuron count of 300 neurons. Total neuron count: ~3 * 10^23.

Why stop at chickens or fish?

The main argument that supports a strong emphasis on chickens or fish is presumably their large numbers (as well as their poor treatment, which I discuss below). Yet the numbers-based argument that supports a strong emphasis on chickens and fish could potentially also support a strong emphasis on small invertebrates such as insects. It is thus not clear why we should place a strict boundary right below chickens or fish beyond which this numbers-based argument no longer applies. After all, each step of this sequence entails a similar pattern in terms of crude numbers: we have individual beings who on average have 1-3 orders of magnitude fewer neurons yet who are 1-5 orders of magnitude more numerous than the beings in the previous step.

Invertebrate vs. vertebrate nervous systems

A defense that one could give in favor of placing a relatively strict boundary below fish is that we here go from vertebrates to invertebrates, and we can be significantly less sure that invertebrates suffer compared to vertebrates.

Perhaps this defense has some force. But how much? Our confidence that the beings in this sequence have the capacity to suffer should arguably decrease at least somewhat in each successive step, yet should the decrease in confidence from fish to insects really be that much bigger than in the previous steps?

Phylogenetic distance

Based on the knowledge that we ourselves can suffer, one might think that a group of beings’ phylogenetic distance from us (i.e. how distantly related they are to us) can provide a tentative prior as to whether those beings can suffer, and regarding how big a jump in confidence we should make for different kinds of beings. Yet phylogenetic distance per se arguably does not support a substantially greater decrease in confidence in the step from fish to insects compared to the previous steps in the sequence above. 

The last common ancestor of humans and insects appears to have lived around 575 million years ago, whereas the last common ancestor of humans and fish lived around 400-485 million years ago (depending on the species of fish; around 420-460 million years for the most numerous fish). By comparison, the last common ancestor of humans and chickens lived around 300 million years ago, while the last common ancestor of humans and pigs lived around 100-125 million years ago.

Thus, when we look at different beings’ phylogenetic distance from humans in these temporal terms, it does not seem that the step between fish and insects (in the sequence above) is much larger than the step between fish and chickens or between chickens and pigs. In each case, the increase in the “distance” appears to be something like 100-200 million years.

Behavioral and neurological evidence

Of course, “phylogenetic distance from humans” does not represent strong evidence as to whether a group of beings has the capacity to suffer. After all, humans are more closely related to starfish (~100 neurons) than to octopuses (~500 million neurons), and we have much stronger reasons to think that the latter can suffer, based on behavioral and neurological evidence (cf. the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness).

Does such behavioral and neurological evidence support a uniquely sharp drop in confidence regarding insect sentience compared to fish sentience? Arguably not, as there is mounting evidence of pain in (small) invertebrates, both in terms of behavioral and neuroscientific evidence. Additionally, there are various commonalities in the respective structures and developments of arthropod and vertebrate brains.

In light of this evidence, it seems that a sharp drop in confidence regarding pain in insects (versus pain in fish) requires a justification.

Nematodes and extended sequences

I believe that a stronger decrease in confidence is warranted when comparing arthropods and nematodes, for a variety of reasons: the nematode nervous system consists primarily of a so-called nerve ring, which is quite distinct from the brains of arthropods, and unlike the neurons of arthropods (and other animals), nematode neurons do not have action potentials or orthologs of sodium-channels (e.g. Nav1 and Nav2), which appear to play critical roles to pain signaling in other animals.

However, the evidence of pain in nematodes should not be understated either. The probability of pain in nematodes still seems non-negligible, and it arguably justifies substantial concern for (the risk of) nematode pain, even if it does not overall warrant a similarly strong concern and priority as does the suffering of chickens, fish, and arthropods.

This discussion also hints at why the sequence argument above need not imply that we should primarily focus on risks of suffering in bacteria or atoms, as one may reasonably hold that the probability of such suffering decreases by a greater rate than the number of the purported sufferers increases in such extended sequences.

Objection based on appalling treatment

Another reason one could give in favor of focusing on chickens and fish is that they are treated in particularly appalling ways, e.g. they are often crammed in extremely small spaces and killed in horrific ways. I agree that humanity’s abhorrent treatment of chickens and fish is a strong additional reason to prioritize helping them. Yet it seems that this same argument also favors a focus on insects.

After all, humanity poisons vast numbers of insects with insecticides that may cause intensely painful deaths, and in various insect farming practices — which are sadly growing — insects are commonly boiled, fried, or roasted alive. These practices seem no less cruel and appalling than the ways in which we treat and kill chickens and fish.

Potential biases

There are many reasons to expect that we are biased against giving adequate moral consideration to small invertebrates such as insects (in addition to our general speciesist bias). The four plausible biases listed below are by no means exhaustive.

Inconvenience bias

It is highly inconvenient if insects can feel pain, as it would imply that 1) we should be concerned about far more beings, which greatly complicates our ethical and strategic considerations (compared to if we just focused on vertebrates); 2) the extent of pain and suffering in the world is far greater than we would otherwise have thought, which may be a painful conclusion to accept; and 3) we should take far greater care not to harm insects in our everyday lives. All these inconveniences likely motivate us to conclude that insects are not sentient or that they are not that important in the bigger picture.

Smallness bias

Insects tend to be rather small, even compared to fish, which might make us reluctant to grant them moral consideration. In other words, our intuitions plausibly display a general sizeist bias. As a case in point, ants have more than twice as many neurons as lobsters, and there does not seem to be any clear reason to think that ants are less able to feel pain than are lobsters. Yet ants are obviously much smaller than lobsters, which may explain why people seem to show considerably more concern for lobsters than for ants, and why the number of people who believe that lobsters can feel pain (more than 80 percent in a UK survey) is significantly larger than the number of people who believe that ants can feel pain (around 56 percent). Of course, this pattern may also be partially explained by the inconvenience bias, since the acceptance of pain in lobsters seems less inconvenient than does the acceptance of pain in ants; but size likely still plays a significant role. (See also Vinding, 2015, “A Short Note on Insects”.)

Disgust and fear reflexes

It seems that many people have strong disgust reactions to (at least many) small invertebrates, such as cockroaches, maggots, and spiders. Some people may also feel fear toward these animals, or at least feel that they are nuisance. Gut reactions of this kind may well influence our moral evaluations of small invertebrates in general, even though they ideally should not.

Momentum/status quo bias

The animal movement has not historically focused on invertebrates, and hence there is little momentum in favor of focusing on their plight. That is, our status quo bias seems to favor a focus on helping the vertebrates whom the animal movement have traditionally focused on. To be sure, status quo bias also works against concern for fish and chickens to some degree (which is worth controlling for as well), yet chickens and fish have still received considerably more focus from the animal movement, and hence status quo bias likely negates concern for insects to an even stronger extent.

These biases should give us pause when we are tempted to reflexively dismiss the suffering of small invertebrates.

Other reasons to focus more on small invertebrates

In addition to the large number of arthropods and the evidence for arthropod pain, what other reasons might support a greater focus on small invertebrates?

Neglectedness

An obvious reason is the neglect of these beings. As hinted in the previous section, a focus on helping small invertebrates has little historical momentum, and it is still extremely neglected in the broader animal movement today. This seems to me a fairly strong reason to focus more on invertebrates on the margin, or at the very least to firmly include invertebrates in one’s advocacy.

Opening people’s eyes to the extent of suffering and harmful decisions

Another, perhaps less obvious reason is that concern for smaller beings such as insects might help reduce risks of astronomical suffering. This claim should immediately raise some concerns about suspicious convergence, and as I have argued elsewhere, there is indeed a real risk that expanding the moral circle could increase rather than reduce future suffering. Partly for this reason, it might be better to promote a deeper concern for suffering than to promote wider moral circles (see also Vinding, 2020, ch. 12).

Yet that being said, I also think there is a sense in which wider moral circles can help promote a deeper concern for suffering, and not least give people a more realistic picture of the extent of suffering in the world. Simply put, a moral outlook that includes other vertebrates besides humans will see far more severe suffering and struggle in the world, and a perspective that also includes invertebrates will see even more suffering still. Indeed, not only does such an outlook open one’s eyes to more existing suffering, but it may also open one’s eyes (more fully) to humanity’s capacity to ignore suffering and to make decisions that actively increase it, even today.

Risks of spreading invertebrates to space: Beings at uniquely high risk of suffering due to human space expansion

Another way in which greater concern for invertebrate suffering might reduce risks of astronomical suffering is that small invertebrates seem to be among the animals who are most likely to be sent into space on a large scale in the future (e.g. because they may survive better in extreme environments). Indeed some invertebrates — including fruit flies, crickets, and wasps — have already been sent into space, and some tardigrades were even sent to the moon (though the spacecraft crashed and probably none survived). Hence, the risk of spreading animals to space plausibly gives us additional reason to include insects in animal advocacy.

Qualifications and counter-considerations

To be clear, the considerations reviewed above merely push toward increasing the emphasis that we place on small beings such as insects — they are not necessarily decisive reasons to give primary focus to those beings. In particular, these arguments do not make a case for focusing on helping insects over, say, new kinds of beings who might be created in the future in even larger numbers.

It is also worth noting that there may be countervailing reasons not to emphasize insects more. One is that it could risk turning people away from the plight of non-human animals and the horror of suffering, which many people might find difficult to relate to if insect suffering constitutes the main focus at a practical level. This may be a reason to favor a greater focus on the suffering of larger and (for most people) more relatable animals.

I think the considerations on both sides need to be taken into account, including considerations about future beings who may become even more numerous and more neglected than insects. The upshot, to my mind, is that while focusing primarily on helping insects is probably not the best way to reduce suffering (for most of us), it still seems likely that 1) promoting greater concern for insects, as well as 2) promoting concrete policies that help insects, both constitute a significant part of the optimal portfolio of aims to push for.

My own view on strategy in brief

While questions about which beings seem most worth helping (on the margin) can be highly relevant for many of our decisions, there are also many strategic decisions that do not depend critically on how we answer these questions.

Indeed, my own view on strategies for reducing animal suffering is that we generally do best by pursuing robust and broad strategies that help many beings simultaneously, without focusing too narrowly on any single group of beings. (Though as hinted above, I think there are many situations where it makes sense to focus on interventions that help specific groups of beings.)

This is one of the reasons why I tend to favor an antispeciesist approach to animal advocacy, with a particular emphasis on the importance of suffering. Such an approach is still compatible with highlighting the scale and neglectedness of the suffering of chickens, fish, and insects, as well as the scale and neglectedness of wild-animal suffering. That is, a general approach thoroughly “scope-informed” about the realities on the ground.

And such a comprehensive approach seems further supported when we consider risks of astronomical suffering (despite the potential drawbacks alluded to earlier). In particular, when trying to help other animals today, it is worth asking how our efforts might be able to help future beings as well, since failing to do so could be a lost opportunity to spare large numbers of beings from suffering. (For elaboration, see “How the animal movement could do even more good” and Vinding, 2022, sec. 10.8-10.9.)

Final clarification: Numbers-based arguments need not assume that large amounts of mild suffering can be worse than extreme suffering

An objection against numbers-based arguments for focusing more on insects is that small pains, or a high probability of small pains, cannot be aggregated to be worse than extreme suffering.

I agree with the view that small pains do not add up to be worse than extreme suffering, yet I think it is mistaken to think that this view undermines any numbers-based argument for emphasizing insects more in animal advocacy. The reason, in short, is that we should also assign some non-negligible probability to the possibility that insects experience extreme suffering (e.g. in light of the evidence for pain in insects cited above). And this probability, combined with the very large number of insects, implies that there are many instances of extreme suffering occurring among insects in expectation. After all, the vast number of insects should lead us to believe that there are many beings who have experiences at the (expected) tail-end of the very worst experiences that insects can have.

As a concluding thought experiment that may challenge comfortable notions regarding the impossibility of intense pain among insects, consider that you were given the choice between A) living as a chicken inside a tiny battery cage for a full day, or B) being continually born and reborn as an insect who has the experience of being burned or crushed alive, for a total of a million days (for concreteness, you may imagine that you will be reborn as a butterfly like the one pictured at the top of this post).

If we were really given this choice, I doubt that we would consider it an easy choice in favor of B. I doubt that we would dismiss the seriousness of the worst insect suffering.

Acknowledgments

For their helpful comments, I am grateful to Tobias Baumann, Simon Knutsson, and Winston Oswald-Drummond.

Reasoned Politics

How can we do politics better?

In Reasoned Politics, Magnus Vinding lays out a path toward politics based on ethical reasoning and empirical evidence. He argues that a better approach to politics is both conceivable and realistic. Modern discoveries in political psychology hint at new, improved norms for political discourse and cooperation, while also pointing to concrete ways in which such improvements can gradually be realized.

Having outlined a general framework for reasoned politics, Vinding proceeds to apply this framework to real-world policy issues. Based on an ethical foundation that takes the suffering of all sentient beings into account, he explores various lines of evidence to infer which policies seem most helpful for alleviating severe suffering.

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Why I have written a book about politics



“We missed it, now we have it. The Magnum Opus for a Reasoned Politics for all, humans and animals alike. I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in a rational approach to politics.”
Sabine Brels, international animal lawyer, author of Le droit du bien-être animal dans le monde

“In a time of heated political debate, Magnus Vinding provides a strong case for pursuing reason in politics, while cautioning us about the dangers of giving up on it. Vinding practices what he preaches — the book engages with relevant research from different areas to make its case in a reasoned way. It combines a wide-ranging view with topical applications. Even if not agreeing on every topic, the reader will come out enlightened.”
Tiago Ribeiro Dos Santos, author of Why Not Parliamentarism?

“A compelling case for a new kind of politics. Politics shouldn’t be conducted in the interests of any one ethnic group or species, but instead to promote the interests of all sentient beings. The text combines a masterly command of the academic literature with a minimum of scholarly clutter. Vinding’s plea for an alliance of reason and compassion deserves the widest possible audience. Highly recommended.”
David Pearce, author of The Hedonistic Imperative and Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering?

“Magnus Vinding’s extensively researched and lucidly written work is a welcome antidote to the bold claims and strong opinions that permeate politics and activism. He carefully proposes aims and approaches that may inch us towards a world with less intense suffering of all sentient beings, based on empirical findings from sociology, psychology and other fields. A must-read for any changemaker concerned about how to reduce suffering over the long term.”
Jonathan Leighton, founder of the Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering, author of The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe

“This book is unlike any other I know. Reasoned Politics shows us how we can adopt a form of politics thoughtfully informed by the right kind of values. To do this, we need to clarify our moral priorities and to identify the individual and collective political choices that best honor them. This task requires disciplined reflection, awareness of cognitive biases, patient empirical research, and inclusive deliberation. As Vinding argues, the reduction of suffering, human and non-human, must be central to any plausible political ideal. He then considers the political structures and norms that will advance the reduction of suffering and other paramount values. This leads him to an illuminating discussion of how to understand the concepts of liberty, equality, justice, and democracy. Unlike most political theorists, Vinding never lets his readers forget the urgency of ending our species’ indefensibly cruel treatment of non-human animals. This book is filled with insight, wisdom, and critical information. Vinding models the virtues that he recommends in political discourse: he is observant, clear-minded, humane, sensible, honest, and unafraid. Political theorists should take a break from what they are doing and read Reasoned Politics.”
Jamie Mayerfeld, professor of political science at the University of Washington, author of Suffering and Moral Responsibility and The Promise of Human Rights

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 explores and elaborates on 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 wisdom. 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 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 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.)

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. Especially 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 focus on minimizing the risk and ameliorating the badness of worst-case outcomes. Specifically, it follows that we should pursue the best causes and interventions for preventing such 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 such a focus 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.

Specifically, worst-case scenarios will probably tend to be ones in which compassionate agents are not in charge, and in which “we” have very limited control over what happens. In other words, while the illusion of control is strong in general, it is plausible that our intuitive sense of how much control “we” have over the future is especially unreliable as far as worst-case outcomes are concerned.

The worst-case outcomes we should worry about are probably mostly ones in which sensible agents do not have their hands on the steering wheel, and hence our main objective should plausibly be to prevent such “low-control” outcomes, and to mitigate their badness in case they happen. Talking about futures in which advanced civilization phases out the biology of suffering is already to direct our attention toward relatively good outcomes. These scenarios are hardly among the, say, 5th percentile of worst outcomes — i.e. the outcomes that arguably deserve the greatest priority. And the actions that are best for ameliorating the badness of these worst-case outcomes are, most likely, rather different from the actions that are best for improving the, say, 50th percentile of best-case outcomes.

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.

I think this is an interesting line of argument, but I think the case of smallpox is disanalogous in various ways. First, smallpox is in a sense a much simpler and 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 negative 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’s 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. Granted, this is not intuitive, but the negative potential of trillions of stars combined with an expected value framework, along with marginal thinking, will often suggest rather unintuitive conclusions.

(Of course, minimizing “smallpox risk” is also intuitively crazy for another reason that is worth flagging, namely that, in the real world, there are countless other sources of suffering worth prioritizing. Hence, focusing purely on minimizing this particular risk, at the opportunity cost of neglecting all other risks, including far greater risks, is indeed transparently unreasonable. Yet striving to minimize suffering risks in general is not unreasonable in this way, given the broad scope of s-risk reduction.)

Third, and most significant I believe, there is the sad point that the suffering of virtually all sentient beings — and hence suffering as a general phenomenon — is extremely neglected. Humanity showed a relatively high willingness to eradicate smallpox, whereas in the case of the suffering of non-human beings, people are often willing to pay for “products” that entail the active infliction of intense suffering. Smallpox is thus disanalogous in that the willingness situation was fundamentally different than it is in the case of suffering — especially as far as the suffering of all sentient beings is concerned.

This relates to Point II above: the main bottleneck, not just to suffering reduction in general but also to the Abolitionist Project in particular, is likely humanity’s willingness to reduce suffering. And hence any analogy in which the willingness problem is essentially solved would seem disanalogous to the original problem in what is arguably the most crucial respect.

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”. This is but a subset of the vast problem of suffering, and solving it is clearly tractable and avoidable 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, especially for motivating efforts to mitigate worst-case outcomes (which this framing can risk neglecting, as argued in Point IV above). 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 suffering. Again, this is not to say that abolitionist blueprints cannot be beneficial and have their place. They are just unlikely to be the best or main thing to invest in to this end, in my view.

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 positive all things considered, and probably significantly better than the vast majority of activities we could do. Not least because it highlights the urgency of suffering in a way that may be uniquely encouraging to people, which is also a good reason to include abolitionist ideas in our core portfolio of ideas. But I would not quite rank it at the tail-end of the cost-effectiveness distribution, for some of the reasons outlined above.

Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications

The reduction of suffering deserves special priority. Many ethical views support this claim, yet so far these have not been presented in a single place. Suffering-Focused Ethics provides the most comprehensive presentation of suffering-focused arguments and views to date, including a moral realist case for minimizing extreme suffering. The book then explores the all-important issue of how we can best reduce suffering in practice, and outlines a coherent and pragmatic path forward.

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Suffering-Focused Ethics - 3D


“An inspiring book on the world’s most important issue. Magnus Vinding makes a compelling case for suffering-focused ethics. Highly recommended.”
— David Pearce, author of The Hedonistic Imperative and Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering?

“We live in a haze, oblivious to the tremendous moral reality around us. I know of no philosopher who makes the case more resoundingly than Magnus Vinding. In radiantly clear and honest prose, he demonstrates the overwhelming ethical priority of preventing suffering. Among the book’s many powerful arguments, I would call attention to its examination of the overlapping biases that perpetuate moral unawareness. Suffering-Focused Ethics will change its readers, opening new moral and intellectual vistas. This could be the most important book you will ever read.
Jamie Mayerfeld, professor of political science at the University of Washington, author of Suffering and Moral Responsibility and The Promise of Human Rights

“In this important undertaking, Magnus Vinding methodically and convincingly argues for the overwhelming ethical importance of preventing and reducing suffering, especially of the most intense kind, and also shows the compatibility of this view with various mainstream ethical philosophies that don’t uniquely focus on suffering. His careful analytical style and comprehensive review of existing arguments make this book valuable reading for anyone who cares about what matters, or who wishes to better understand the strong rational underpinning of suffering-focused ethics.”
— Jonathan Leighton, founder of the Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering, author of The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe

“Magnus Vinding breaks the taboo: Today, the problem of suffering is the elephant in the room, because it is at the same time the most relevant and the most neglected topic at the logical interface between applied ethics, cognitive science, and the current philosophy of mind and consciousness. Nobody wants to go there. It is not good for your academic career. Only few of us have the intellectual honesty, the mental stamina, the philosophical sincerity, and the ethical earnestness to gaze into the abyss. After all, it might also gaze back into us. Magnus Vinding has what it takes. If you are looking for an entry point into the ethical landscape, if you are ready to face the philosophical relevance of extreme suffering, then this book is for you. It gives you all the information and the conceptual tools you need to develop your own approach. But are you ready?”
Thomas Metzinger, professor of philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, author of Being No One and The Ego Tunnel

On Insects and Lexicality

“Their experiences may be more simple than ours, but are they less intense? Perhaps a caterpillar’s primitive pain when squashed is greater than our more sophisticated sufferings.”

— Richard Ryder, Painism: A Modern Morality, p. 64.

Many people, myself included, find it plausible that suffering of a certain intensity, such as torture, carries greater moral significance than any amount of mild suffering. One may be tempted to think that views of this kind imply we should primarily prioritize the beings most likely to experience these “lexically worse” states of suffering (LWS) — presumably beings with large brains.* By extension, one may think such views will generally imply little priority to beings with small, less complex brains, such as insects. (Which is probably also a view we would intuitively like to embrace, given the inconvenience of the alternative.) 

Yet while perhaps intuitive, I do not think this conclusion follows. The main argument against it, in my view, is that we should maintain a non-trivial probability that beings with small brains, such as insects, indeed can experience LWS (regardless of how we define these states). After all, on what grounds can we confidently maintain they cannot?

And if we then assume an expected value framework, and multiply the large number of insects by a non-trivial probability of them being able to experience LWS, we find that, in terms of presently existing beings, the largest amount of LWS in expectation may well be found in small beings such as insects.


* It should be noted in this context, though, that many humans ostensibly cannot feel (at least physical) pain, whereas many beings with smaller brains show every sign of having this capacity, which suggests brain size is a poor proxy for the ability to experience pain, let alone the ability to experience LWS, and that genetic variation in certain pain-modulating genes may well be a more important factor.


More literature

On insects:

The Importance of Insect Suffering
Reducing Suffering Amongst Invertebrates Such As Insects
Do Bugs Feel Pain?
How to Avoid Hurting Insects
The Moral Importance of Invertebrates Such as Insects

On Lexicality:

Value Lexicality
Clarifying lexical thresholds
Many-valued logic as a reply to sequence arguments in value theory
Lexicality between mild discomfort and unbearable suffering: A variety of possible views
Lexical priority to extreme suffering — in practice

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 it was built to achieve.

Beyond that, the book also seeks to apply this knowledge to shed some light on many of our social institutions to show that they are often not mostly about what we think they are. Rather than being about high-minded ideals and other pretty things that we like to say they are about, 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 (for instance, the authors argue that religion in large part serves to bind communities together, and in this way can help bring about better life outcomes for believers).

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.” (p. 11). 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, scholarly analysis of our condition?

As a meta-observation, I would note that 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. (For the record, with respect to mental health, I think one can be among the happiest, most mentally healthy people on the planet and still think that a sober examination of the value of our condition yields a negative answer, although it may require some disciplined resistance against the pulls of a strong elephant.)

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 any less affection and compassion for humans. Indeed, it might lead us to have much more of both in many ways.

Is Life “Pretty Good”?

With respect to Simler’s and Hanson’s claim that “”[…] life, for must of us, is pretty good”, it can be disputed that this is indeed the case. According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, a significant plurality of people rated their life satisfaction at five 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. And one may further argue that if this scale instead ranged from minus five to plus five (i.e. if one transposed this zero-to-ten scale so as to make it symmetrical around zero), it may be that a plurality would rate their lives at zero. That is, after all, where the plurality would lie if one were to make this transposition on the existing data measured along the zero-to-ten scale (although it seems likely that people would have rated their life satisfaction differently if the scale had been constructed in this symmetrical way).

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 reasonably 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? And, 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 grosser 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? (pp. 6-7)

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”. (p. 7)

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 all 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.

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. […] Indeed, most people believe that they are better off than most others or than the average person. (pp. 64-66)

Is “Pretty Good” Good Enough?

Beyond doubting whether most people would indeed 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 particularly 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.

This is, for example, not necessarily the case on the so-called tranquilist view of value, according to which our experiences are valuable to the extent they are absent of suffering, and hence that happiness and pleasure are valuable to the extent they chase suffering away.

Similar to Metzinger’s point about narrative self-deception, one can argue that, if the tranquilist view holds true about how we feel the value of our experience moment-to-moment (upon closer, introspective inspection), we should probably expect to be quite blind to this fact. And interesting to note in this context is it that many of the traditions which have placed the greatest emphasis on paying attention to the nature of subjective experience moment-to-moment, such as Buddhism, have converged toward a view very similar to tranquilism.

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, indeed even a large majority, 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 wonderful lives, which then raises the question of whether these wonderful lives can in any sense outweigh and justify the miserable life of this single child. Some citizens of Omelas seem to decide that this is not the case: the ones who walk away from Omelas. And many people in the real world seem to agree with this decision.

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 end up committing suicide (and again, it should be remembered that a great plurality of humanity rated their life satisfaction to be exactly in the middle of the scale, while a significant majority rated it in the middle or lower).

Rating of general life satisfaction aside, one can also reasonably question whether anything can outweigh the many instances of extreme suffering that occur every single day, something that can indeed befall anyone, regardless of one’s past self-reported life satisfaction.

Beyond that, one can also question whether the “pretty good” lives of some humans can in any sense outweigh and justify the enormous amount of suffering humanity imposes on non-human animals, including the torturous suffering we subject more than a trillion fish to each year, as well as the suffering 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. Indeed, there is no justification for not taking humanity’s impact on non-human animals — the vast majority of sentient beings on the planet — into consideration as well when assessing the value of our condition.

 

My main purpose in this essay has not been to draw any conclusions about the value of our condition. Rather, my aim has merely been to argue that we likely have an enormous elephant in our brain that causes us to evaluate our lives, individually as well as collectively, in overoptimistic terms (though some of us perhaps do not), and to ignore the many considerations that might suggest a negative conclusion. An elephant that leads us to eagerly assume that “it’s all pretty good and worthwhile”, and 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.

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