New book — "Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications"

post by MagnusVinding · 2020-05-31T09:27:58.428Z · score: 86 (53 votes) · EA · GW · 18 comments

Contents

  An invitation for reflection
  The book in relation to EA: core values are all-important yet strangely undiscussed
  Blurbs and table of contents
  Funding disclosure
None
18 comments

I have recently published a book on suffering-focused ethics. The following is a short description:

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.

An invitation for reflection

I realize that some people will feel a strong aversion to suffering-focused views — I certainly did for years myself, and in many ways still do. Yet as I note in the introduction, I hope readers will see this book as an invitation and an opportunity to reflect on their priorities. I hope readers will agree that it is vitally important to get our priorities right, and that we should let our ethics be guided by open-ended reflection that remains charitable and fair even to views that seem disagreeable at first sight.

The book in relation to EA: core values are all-important yet strangely undiscussed

I think reflection on values is crucial to effective altruism: our priorities will ultimately be determined by our core values. It is therefore quite puzzling to me why there are so relatively few discussions in EA centered around values, as opposed to specific causes and interventions.

I can only speculate as to why this is the case. Is a certain value system tacitly assumed? Do we think questions concerning core values are not sufficiently relevant? Do we avoid discussing it because that is the status quo? Is it because we are too agreeable and afraid of causing division? Is it because discussing values is considered uncooperative? Is it because EA objectives tend to be framed in terms of "doing" rather than "reflecting"?

I don't know. But whatever the explanation may be, I think it would be good if reflection on core values were given greater priority in EA; if it were considered a top cause, even. I think such reflection is likely to give us significantly more sophisticated views of which values we should steer by, and in turn update our practical priorities appreciably.

I consider this a cooperative endeavor that we can all contribute to and benefit from, and my book represents an attempt to contribute to this project. (As for the notion that this project, including my book in particular, is uncooperative, I present various arguments to the contrary in section 12.3 in my book.)

Blurbs and table of contents

Below are some blurbs for the book:

“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

The book's table of contents, for a rough overview:

Introduction
Part I: The Case for Suffering-Focused Ethics
1. Asymmetries Between Happiness and Suffering
2. Happiness as the Absence of Suffering
3. Creating Happiness at the Price of Suffering Is Wrong
4. The Principle of Sympathy for Intense Suffering
5. A Moral Realist Case for Minimizing Extreme Suffering
6. Other Arguments for Focusing on Suffering
7. Biases Against Focusing on Suffering
8. Objections Against Focusing on Suffering
Part II: How Can We Best Reduce Suffering?
9. Uncertainty Is Big
10. We Should Be Cooperative
11. Non-Human Animals and Expansion of the Moral Circle
12. Promoting Concern for Suffering
13. The Abolitionist Project
14. Reducing S-Risks
15. Donating to Reduce Suffering
16. Researching the Question
17. The Importance of Self-Investment
18. What You Can Do
Recommended Websites
Acknowledgments
Bibliography

Funding disclosure

I have been funded partly by EAF while working on the book, yet the book does not necessarily reflect the views of EAF. Indeed, various parts of the book can be read as an explanation of my own divergences with EAF's approach to reducing suffering (e.g. sections 9.2, 12.3, and 12.4).

18 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by MikeJohnson · 2020-06-01T10:05:04.864Z · score: 25 (14 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Congratulations on the book! I think long works are surprisingly difficult and valuable (both to author and reader) and I'm really happy to see this.

My intuition on why there's little discussion of core values is a combination of "a certain value system [is] tacitly assumed" and "we avoid discussing it because ... discussing values is considered uncooperative." To wit, most people in this sphere are computationalists, and the people here who have thought the most about this realize that computationalism inherently denies the possibility of any 'satisfyingly objective' definition of core values (and suffering) [EA · GW]. Thus it's seen as a bit of a faux pas to dig at this -- the tacit assumption is, the more digging that is done, the less ground for cooperation there will be. (I believe this stance is unnecessarily cynical about the possibility of a formalism.)

I look forward to digging into the book. From a skim, I would just say I strongly agree about the badness of extreme suffering; when times are good we often forget just how bad things can be. A couple quick questions in the meantime:

  • If you could change peoples' minds on one thing, what would it be? I.e. what do you find the most frustrating/pernicious/widespread mistake on this topic?
  • One intuition pump I like to use is: 'if you were given 10 billion dollars and 10 years to move your field forward, how precisely would you allocate it, and what do you think you could achieve at the end?'
comment by MagnusVinding · 2020-06-02T22:59:54.187Z · score: 23 (15 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, Mike!

Great questions. Let me see whether I can do them justice.

If you could change peoples' minds on one thing, what would it be? I.e. what do you find the most frustrating/pernicious/widespread mistake on this topic?

Three important things come to mind:

1. There seems to be this common misconception that if you hold a suffering-focused view, then you will, or at least you should, endorse forms of violence that seem abhorrent to common sense. For example, you should consider it good when people get killed (because it prevents future suffering for them), and you should try to destroy the world. This doesn't follow. For many reasons.

First, one may hold a pluralist view according to which we have a prima facie obligation to reduce suffering, but also, for example, prima facie obligations not to kill and to respect the autonomy of other individuals. Indeed, academics such as Clark Wolf and Jamie Mayerfeld defend suffering-focused views of this kind. See:

https://web.archive.org/web/20190410204154/https://jwcwolf.public.iastate.edu/Papers/JUPE.HTM https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.2041-6962.1996.tb00795.x https://www.amazon.com/Suffering-Moral-Responsibility-Oxford-Ethics/dp/0195115996

Beyond that, even on purely welfarist (suffering-focused) views, there are many strong reasons to consider it bad when individuals die, and to oppose world destruction (see sections 8.1 and 8.2). In fact, the objections commonly raised against suffering-focused views are often more objections against purely welfarist views than they are against the moral asymmetry between happiness and suffering, as you for any welfarist view can construct an argument to the effect that one should be willing to kill for trivial reasons. For example, naively interpreted, a classical utilitarian should also be willing to kill a person, and indeed destroy the world, to prevent the smallest amount of suffering if the "sum" of happiness and suffering is exactly zero otherwise (a point often made by David Pearce). Likewise, a classical utilitarian should endorse what is arguably an even more repugnant world-destruction conclusion than the negative utilitarian: if we could push a button that first unleashes ceaseless torture upon every sentient individual for decades, and then destroys our world to in turn give rise to a "greater" amount of pleasure in some new world, then classical utilitarianism would oblige us to press this button.

But these arguments obviously don't come close to showing that classical utilitarians should endorse violence of this sort in practice; they obviously shouldn't. The same holds true when similar arguments are applied to suffering-focused views.

2. Another belief I would want to challenge is that suffering-focused EAs make the world a more dangerous place from the perspective of other value systems. I would suggest the opposite is the case, and I think what's dangerous is that people don't appreciate this.

Among people who hold suffering-focused views, suffering-focused EAs fall toward the high tail in terms of being cooperative, measured, and prudent. It's a group that does, and to an even greater extent has the potential to, move other suffering-focused people in less naive and more cooperative directions, which is very positive on all value systems. Marginalizing people with suffering-focused views within EA is really not helpful to this end.

3. A third misunderstanding is that people who hold suffering-focused views are much more concerned about mild suffering than, say, the average ethically concerned person. This need not be the case. One can hold suffering-focused views that are primarily concerned with extreme suffering, and which give overriding weight to extreme suffering without giving commensurable weight to mild suffering. I defend such views in chapters 4-5.

'if you were given 10 billion dollars and 10 years to move your field forward, how precisely would you allocate it, and what do you think you could achieve at the end?'

I think I would devote it mostly to research — to building a research field. The field of "effective suffering reduction" is very young and unexplored at this point, and much of the discussion that has taken place so far has been tied to the idiosyncratic and speculative views of a few people (unavoidably so, given that so few people have done research on these issues so far). This means that there is likely a lot of low-hanging fruit here. Building such a research project is in large part the goal of the new organization that I have recently co-founded with Tobias Baumann: Center for Reducing Suffering ( https://centerforreducingsuffering.org/ ).

I think this can give us better insights into which risks we should be most concerned about and more clarity about how we can best reduce them. There's much more to be said here, but I'll let this suffice for now.

comment by EdoArad (edoarad) · 2020-06-08T09:52:09.926Z · score: 21 (14 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Short Review on Part I

Fitting the name of the book, the first 8 chapter compose of an impressively long list of arguments and counter-arguments that support suffering-focused ethics. By Suffering-Focused Ethics, the author refers to the family of ethical theories that call for the reduction of suffering for sentient beings - they can differ in their approach to, e.g, the scale in which extreme suffering matters, how much weight should we put on other factors (such as well-being), whether we rely on moral realism, etc..

Deliberately, Magnus does not present a specific definition or characterisation of suffering but instead appeals to the reader's intuition and most examples of extreme suffering are those of extreme despair and pain. I didn't find that to be an issue when contemplating most aspects written in the first part of the book, but as I wrote below the book aims at breadth rather than depth.

In Chapter 5 Magnus explains his position regarding suffering, but throughout the first part he does not rely on that in order to make a case for suffering focused ethics. Instead, he loads philosophical ammunition from all over the suffering-focused ethics coalition and shoots them at every obstacle in sight. There are many different bullets and many different obstacles, which makes this task difficult. I think that he made a deliberate choice to focus on capturing a wide range of views and defenses instead of going deep into defending one view.

That has some problems. Many of the arguments are of the form "philosopher X thinks that Y is true", but without appropriate arguments for Y. Also, whenever there was a problem with an argument, Magnus can retreat to a less demanding version of Suffering-Focused Ethics, which makes it more difficult for the reader to follow the arguments.

My major issue with this book is that it feels heavily biased. I felt that I was being persuaded, not explained to. It feels that Magnus offers no major concessions, related to the point above that there is always a line of retreat. In chapter 7, there are a long list of possible biases that prevent us from accepting Suffering-Focused Ethics. Many of those were not persuasive, and some could have been symmetrically applied against Suffering-Focused Ethics, and really the biggest flaw for me was that there was mostly no analogous comparison with possible biases against Suffering-Based Ethics. Also, in Chapter 8 Magnus presents many arguments against his views, each about a couple of sentences, and spends the majority of the time on counterarguments and very little concessions. Instead of acknowledging reasonable ethical views that may oppose Suffering-Focused Ethics, there is an attempt at convincing the readers that there is still some way of reducing suffering that they should prefer.

Overall I am glad to have read this and look forward to reading the next part. After reading this book, it is clearer to me that I find extreme suffering very bad (so that it would still be very hard to outweigh it) but that in general I tend to think suffering can be outweighed. Also, I was worried before reading the book that there is an inherent difficulty in cooperation between suffering-focused ethical systems and aspirations for more (happy) people to exist. I still think that's somewhat the case but it is clearer that these differences can be overcome and that one can value both.

Disclaimer - I'm not an expert, and except for reading blog posts by Brian Tomasik and CLR I am not that familiar with the field

comment by MagnusVinding · 2020-06-11T12:34:41.095Z · score: 7 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing your review. A few comments:

Concerning the definition of suffering, I do actually provide a definition: an overall bad feeling, or state of consciousness (as I note, I here follow Mayerfeld, 1999, pp. 14-15). One may argue that this is not a particularly reductive definition, and I say the same in a footnote:

One cannot, I submit, define suffering in more precise or reductive terms than this. For just as one cannot ultimately define the experience of, say, phenomenal redness in any other way than by pointing to it, one cannot define a bad overall feeling, i.e. suffering, in any other way than by pointing to the aspect of consciousness it refers to.

I think that he made a deliberate choice to focus on capturing a wide range of views and defenses instead of going deep into defending one view.

Partly. I would say I both tried to make a broad case and defend a specific view, namely the view(s) I defend in chapters 4 and 5 (they aren't quite identical, but I'd say they are roughly equivalent at the level of normative ethics).


In Chapter 5 Magnus explains his position regarding suffering, but throughout the first part he does not rely on that in order to make a case for suffering focused ethics. Instead, he loads philosophical ammunition from all over the suffering-focused ethics coalition and shoots them at every obstacle in sight.

That's not quite how I see it (though it's true that I don't rely strongly on the meta-ethical view defended in chapter 5). My own view, including chapter 5 in particular, is not really isolated from the arguments I make in the preceding chapters. I see most of the arguments outlined in previous chapters as lending support to the arguments made in chapter 5, and I indeed explicitly cite many of them there.

Many of the arguments are of the form "philosopher X thinks that Y is true", but without appropriate arguments for Y. Also, whenever there was a problem with an argument, Magnus can retreat to a less demanding version of Suffering-Focused Ethics, which makes it more difficult for the reader to follow the arguments.

I'd appreciate some examples (or just one) of this. :-)

I don't think I at any point retreat from the view I defend in chapters 4 and 5. But I do explain how one can hold other suffering-focused views (e.g. pluralist ones, such as those defended by Wolf and Mayerfeld).

My major issue with this book is that it feels heavily biased. I felt that I was being persuaded, not explained to.

I did seek to explain the arguments and considerations that have led me to hold a suffering-focused view, and I do happen to find these arguments persuasive.

I wonder what you think I should have done differently, and whether you can refer me to a book defending a moral view in a way that was more "explaining".

It feels that Magnus offers no major concessions, related to the point above that there is always a line of retreat.

What major concessions do you feel I should make? My view is that it cannot be justified to create purported positive goods at the price of extreme suffering, and it would be dishonest for me to claim that I've found a persuasive argument against this view. But I'm keen to hear any counterargument you find persuasive.


In chapter 7, there are a long list of possible biases that prevent us from accepting Suffering-Focused Ethics.

This is not quite accurate, and I should have made this clearer. :-)

As I say at the beginning of this chapter, I here "present various biases against giving suffering its due moral weight and consideration." This is not the same as (only) presenting biases against suffering-focused moral views in particular. One can be a classical utilitarian and still think that most, perhaps even all, of the biases mentioned in this chapter plausibly bias us against giving sufficient priority to suffering.

For example, a classical utilitarian can agree that we tend to shy away from contemplating suffering (7.2); that we underestimate how bad suffering often is (7.4); that we underestimate and ignore our ability to reduce suffering, in part because of omission bias (7.5); that we have a novelty bias and scope insensitivity (7.6); that we have a perpetrator bias that leads us to dismiss suffering not caused by moral agents (7.7); that the Just World Fallacy leads us to dismiss others' suffering (7.8); that we have a positivity and an optimism bias (7.9); that a craving for certain sources of pleasure, e.g. sex and status, can distort our judgments (7.10); that we have an existence bias — widespread resistance against euthanasia is an example — (7.11); that suffering is a very general phenomenon, which makes it difficult for us to make systematic and effective efforts to prevent it (7.13); etc.

I'd actually say that most of the biases reviewed are not biases against accepting suffering-focused moral views, but rather biases against giving the priority to reducing suffering that the values we already hold would require. I should probably have made this more clear (I say a bit more on this in the second half of section 12.3).

and really the biggest flaw for me was that there was no analogous comparison with possible biases [favoring] Suffering-Based Ethics.

But there was in fact a section on this: 7.15. If you feel I've missed some important considerations, I'm keen to hear about them.

Also, in Chapter 8 Magnus presents many arguments against his views, each a couple of sentences, and spends the majority of the time making counterarguments and half-hearted concessions.

I wonder what you mean by "half-hearted concessions", and why you think they are half-hearted. Also, it's not true that "each [counterargument is] a couple of sentences", even as most are stated very concisely.

Instead of acknowledging reasonable ethical views that may oppose Suffering-Focused Ethics, there is an attempt at convincing the readers that there is still some way of reducing suffering that they should prefer.

As mentioned above, my view is that it cannot be justified to create purported positive goods at the price of extreme suffering. I cannot honestly say that I find views that would have us increase extreme suffering in order to increase, say, pleasure to be reasonable. So again, all I can say is that I'd invite you to present and defend the views that you think I should acknowledge as reasonable.

After reading this book, it is clearer to me that I find extreme suffering very bad

I'm glad to hear that. Helping people clarify their views of the significance of extreme suffering is among the main objectives of the book.

but that in general I tend to think suffering can be outweighted.

This is then where I, apropos your complaint about a lack of "appropriate arguments" for a stated premise, would ask for some arguments: how and why can extreme suffering be outweighed? What counterarguments would you give to the arguments presented in, say, chapters 3 and 4?

Also, I was worried before reading the book that there is an inherent difficulty in cooperation between suffering-focused ethical systems and aspirations for more (happy) people to exist. I still think that's somewhat the case but it is clearer that these differences can be overcome and that one can value both.

Pleased to hear this. The second part of the book should lend even more support to that view. I very much hope we can all cooperate closely rather than fall victim to tribal psychology, as difficult as that can be. As I note in chapter 10, disagreeing on values is arguably a strong catalyst for outgroup perception. Let's resist falling prey to that.

Thanks again for taking the time to read and review the first part of the book. :-)

comment by EdoArad (edoarad) · 2020-06-15T12:25:18.722Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this lengthy reply! I want to emphasise that I enjoyed and learned a lot from reading this book, and that most of my criticism I think of mostly as resulting from a deliberate choice of keeping the book readable, and definitely not something that I have any suggestions for improvements. 

I appreciate your clarifications on chapter 7, on the definition of suffering and of using the arguments from chapters 4,5. 

Regarding "line of retreat", I meant something similar to your comment to Michael-

It's true that I do mention the views of many different philosophers, and note how their views support suffering-focused views, and in some cases I merely identify the moral axioms, if you will, underlying these views. I then leave it to the reader to decide whether these axioms are plausible (this is a way in which I in fact do explain/present views rather than try to "persuade"; chapter 2 is very similar, in that it also presents a lot of views in this way).

I think that I felt simply that there were many claims which were supported by various views where I felt that it was difficult for me to judge how to take these into account. I looked back to find a good example of an actual "retreat" and honestly I can't find any. I think that it's possible that I have read something wrongly in chapter 8 and that tainted my expression of some of the reasoning in the book. In any case, I have clearly overemphasised that and I'll retract it. 

Regarding that feeling of being persuaded, I'm not really sure what to say. It mostly felt that I could easily come up with many counter-intuitions throughout reading the book and that raised some mental alarm bells: these are only the ideas I can come up with, and I'm sure that there are plenty more. I didn't feel that opposing views were clearly explored, even though they were listed. If that's how books that defend moral positions are supposed to be written, then my inside view thinks that's epistemically mistaken.

I'd be very interested in discussing the actual contents of my views on the ethics of suffering, on which I'd really appreciate feedback; I've scheduled myself time to write this up here in the weekend. :)

comment by MagnusVinding · 2020-06-16T18:26:06.214Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it! :-)

In relation to counterintuitions and counterarguments, I can honestly say that I've spent a lot of time searching for good ones, and tried to include as many as I could in a charitable way (especially in chapter 8).

I'm still keen to find more opposing arguments and intuitions, and to see them explored in depth. As hinted in the post, I hope my book can provoke people to reflect on these issues and to present the strongest case for their views, which I'd really like to see. I believe such arguments can help advance the views of all of us toward greater levels of nuance and sophistication.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-06-12T21:15:02.140Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
Many of the arguments are of the form "philosopher X thinks that Y is true", but without appropriate arguments for Y.

I'd appreciate some examples (or just one) of this. :-)

I think 3.2 Intra- and Interpersonal Claims and the discussion of Parfit's compensation principle, Mill's harm principle and Shiffrin's consent principle just before in 3.1 are examples. You don't discuss how they defend these views/principles.

(I only started reading last night, and this is about where I am now.)

comment by MagnusVinding · 2020-06-14T18:24:07.716Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your comment, Michael :-)

What I was keen to get an example of was mainly this (omitted in the text you quoted above):

Also, whenever there was a problem with an argument, Magnus can retreat to a less demanding version of Suffering-Focused Ethics, which makes it more difficult for the reader to follow the arguments.

That is, an example of how I retreat from the main position I defend (in chapters 4 and 5), such as by relying on the views of other philosophers whose premises I haven't defended. I don't believe I do that anywhere. Again, what I do in some places is simply to show that there are other kinds of suffering-focused views one may hold; I don't retreat from the view I in fact hold.

It's true that I do mention the views of many different philosophers, and note how their views support suffering-focused views, and in some cases I merely identify the moral axioms, if you will, underlying these views. I then leave it to the reader to decide whether these axioms are plausible (this is a way in which I in fact do explain/present views rather than try to "persuade"; chapter 2 is very similar, in that it also presents a lot of views in this way).

It seems that Shiffrin and Parfit did, for example, consider their respective principles rather axiomatic, and provided little to no justification for them (indeed, Parfit considered his compensation principle "clearly true", https://web.archive.org/web/20190410204154/https://jwcwolf.public.iastate.edu/Papers/JUPE.HTM ). Mill's principle was merely mentioned as one that "can be considered congruent" with a conclusion I argued for; I didn't rely on it to defend the conclusion in question.

comment by AndersKH · 2020-06-01T06:17:31.561Z · score: 8 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Excited about this. Although I don't subscribe to suffering focused ethics myself, I think a lot about how I should consider it much more seriously. Could be crucial to most big decisions.

comment by Niklas Lehmann · 2020-06-08T16:49:21.016Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I often find it very depressing to deeply think about suffering focused ethics. You have written yourself that it might be natural not to give too much thought to extreme suffering because too much of it may cause damage to your psyche. Have you found a way to reframe your thinking about suffering focused topics so that they do not seem so dark compared to a moral view that is highly motivated by positive feelings or a distant utopia ?

comment by MagnusVinding · 2020-06-11T09:30:27.666Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your question, Niklas. It's an important one.

The following link contains some resources for sustainable activism that I've found useful:

https://magnusvinding.com/2017/12/30/resources-for-sustainable-activism/

But specifically, it may be useful to cultivate compassion — the desire for other beings to be free from suffering — more than (affective) empathy, i.e. actually feeling the feelings of those who suffer.

Here is an informative conversation about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJ1SuKOchps

As I write in section 9.5 (see the book for references):

Research suggests that these meditation practices [i.e. compassion and loving-kindness meditation] not only increase compassionate responses to suffering, but that they also help to increase life satisfaction and reduce depressive symptoms for the practitioner, as well as to foster better coping mechanisms and increased positive affect in the face of suffering.
comment by George · 2020-05-31T10:59:21.975Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

What do you think of the concept that suffering and pleasure are the same phenomenon, except "sign-flipped", i.e. the same neurological/computational principle gives valence to both suffering and pleasure? If so, you could "reduce intense suffering" by creating intense pleasure. This is probably not your goal, but is there a principled philosophical or neuroscientific reason against this view?

Empirically, I think it's pretty clear that most people are willing to trade off pleasure and pain for themselves. (They also want things other than pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance.)

The question why people don't discuss values has perhaps a cynical answer. Most people don't have coherent, formal values, they just want to look good, show group affiliations and feel good about themselves. This creates an additional burden for suffering-focused views because they focus on a negative, which puts a burden on people who want to look caring (if no one raises the issue of suffering, no one has to feel empathy or signal that they are compassionate by addressing it). Most people don't want to suffer (much), but they care much less about the suffering of others, for obvious evolutionary reasons. It's also hard to tell a positive success story about suffering, or to create positive motivational goals, because unless you count pleasure as "negative suffering", the best win you can have is the absence of something, so you're not doing better than dead people, intergalactic voids or lifeless asteroids. It's hard to frame that into a motivational story about heroic victory.

comment by MagnusVinding · 2020-05-31T11:41:34.283Z · score: 6 (7 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your comment, George.

Sections 1.4 and 8.5 in my book deal directly with the first issue you raise. Also see chapter 3, "Creating Happiness at the Price of Suffering Is Wrong", for various arguments against a moral symmetry between pleasure and suffering. But many chapters in the first part of the book deal with this.

>Empirically, I think it's pretty clear that most people are willing to trade off pleasure and pain for themselves.

I say a good deal about this in chapter 2. I also discuss the moral relevance of such intrapersonal claims in section 3.2, "Intra- and Interpersonal Claims".

comment by Danny Lipsitz (dlipsitz@gmail.com) · 2020-06-07T21:05:51.983Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm happy to have read this! This is a well-articulated post about something I've been thinking about for a while.

I definitely intuit that it's more important to reduce suffering than to increase pleasure. I wonder how much of my suffering-focused viewpoint is due to a bias: hearing stories about other people suffering makes me quite sad, but hearing about other people being extremely happy doesn't tend to make me that happy unless it's someone I know personally, or maybe someone who has a relatable backstory.

Maybe our sense of empathy is a little biased because as we evolved, it was more important to help others in our tribe who were in danger of dying than to somehow celebrate when they had their needs met. I'm just theorizing here.

I look forward to checking out the book!

comment by MatthewCollins · 2020-05-31T18:07:42.388Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Can't wait to read it Magnus!

comment by EdoArad (edoarad) · 2020-06-19T14:56:23.851Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

My current view, weakly held, on the importance of suffering. 

First, I think of suffering as resulting from something like an unattainable craving for change. Broadly along the Buddhist lines, or as explained in Tranquilism or in Kaj Sotala's post [? · GW]. I think that neuroscientific advances will pretty much dissolve the major phenomenological questions on suffering (~ 50% we do that in under 50 years). I expect we might be able to measure suffering, that it would be probably be possible to ease suffering and create blissful or suffering minds.

I think that extreme suffering might be many orders of magnitude more important than mild suffering. This is because of imagining and seeing examples as in the book and here. However, I'm skeptical about regarding extreme suffering as something which can increase in magnitude with no practical limits - it seems too far away from my current implicit model of how suffering works. To be more specific, I think that one second of the most extreme suffering (without subsequent consequences) would be better than, say, a broken leg. 

If that holds, than any extreme suffering can be overcome by mild suffering. That assumes that we care about the time in the experience multiplied by the severity, which seems to follow from thinking of suffering strictly from an experiential point of view. I'm confused about that though, because preferences don't seem to work that way and it's related to population ethical dilemmas I don't know how to think about.

Now, many people would trade mild tradeoff for other things they hold important. That could be an amazing variety of things, from showing identity with an ingroup, to protecting a sentimental possession, to knowing the truth, to viewing beautiful things and to taking LSD. I think this makes total sense, and it should follow once one allows for other non-suffering-focused values.

Regarding other values, I intuitively give some weight to the importance of the flourishing of humanity (even if it requires generation of extreme suffering to get there) - without counting the resulting well-being. 

I don't yet have any crisp opinion on the practical aspects of reducing suffering. I think that it is likely to be of very high priority strictly from a practical perspective.

comment by EdoArad (edoarad) · 2020-06-19T14:57:45.156Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I find it extremely hard to reason clearly on these matters! 😊

comment by MagnusVinding · 2020-06-20T20:31:15.650Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing your reflections :-)

This is because of imagining and seeing examples as in the book and here.

Just wanted to add a couple of extra references like this:

The Seriousness of Suffering: Supplement

The Horror of Suffering

Preventing Extreme Suffering Has Moral Priority

To be more specific, I think that one second of the most extreme suffering (without subsequent consequences) would be better than, say, a broken leg.

Just want to note, also for other readers, that I say a bit about such sentiments involving "one second of the most extreme suffering" in section 8.12 in my book. One point I make is that our intuitions about a single second of extreme suffering may not be reliable. For example, we probably tend not to assign great significance, intuitively, to any amount of one-second long chunks of experience. This is a reason to think that the intuition that one second of extreme suffering can't matter that much may not say all that much about extreme suffering in particular.

If that holds, than any extreme suffering can be overcome by mild suffering.

I think this is a little too quick, at least in the way you've phrased it. A broken leg hardly results in merely mild suffering, at least by any common definition. And a lexical threshold has, for example, been defended between "mere discomfort" and "genuine pain" (see Klocksiem, 2016), where a broken leg would clearly entail the latter.

There are also other reasons why this argument (i.e. "one second of extreme suffering can be outweighed by mild suffering, hence any amount of extreme suffering can") isn't valid.

Note also that even if one thinks that aggregates of milder forms of suffering can be more important than extreme suffering in principle, one may still hold that extreme suffering dominates profusely in practice, given its prevalence.

Now, many people would trade mild tradeoff for other things they hold important.

I just want to flag here that the examples you give seem to be intrapersonal ones, and the permissibility of intrapersonal tradeoffs like these (which is widely endorsed) does not imply the permissibility of similar tradeoffs in the interpersonal case (which more people would reject, and which there are many arguments against, cf. chapter 3).

The following is neither a request nor a complaint, but in relation to the positions you express, I see little in the way of counterarguments to, or engagement with, the arguments I've put forth in my book, such as in chapters 3 and 4, for example. In other words, I don't really see the arguments I present in my book addressed here (to be clear, I'm not claiming you set out to do that), and I'm still keen to see some replies to them.