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.

Suffering-Focused Ethics

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


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

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

The Asymmetries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tranquilism: Happiness as the Absence of Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

As did Arthur Schopenhauer:

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

And here is how Lukas Gloor explains it:

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Happiness at the Cost of Suffering Is Wrong

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

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

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

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

The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.[26]

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

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

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

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

Two Objections

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

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

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

 

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


 

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

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

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

[3] Narveson, 1973.

[4] Fehige, 1998.

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

[6] Quoted from a Facebook conversation.

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

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

[9] Benatar, 2006, chapter 2.

[10] Benatar, 2006, chapter 3.

[11] Benatar, 2006, chapter 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] James, 1901.

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

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

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

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

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

[26] Guin, 1973/1992.

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

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

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

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

[31] Leighton, 2011, p. 96.

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

Why I Used to Consider the Absence of Sentience Tragic

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

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

The Reason: Striving for Consistency

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

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

My Current View of My Past View

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

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

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

Other Reasons

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

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

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