by Brian Tomasik
First written: 18 Nov. 2013; last update: 2 Dec. 2017
"Essays on Reducing Suffering" compiles pieces I've written since 2005. Whether or not readers agree with my viewpoints, I hope to spark discussion on important issues. Below I describe the origins, growth, and current state of this site.
In 2003, my 11th-grade English teacher introduced his students to Western philosophy, which is sadly a topic usually neglected in pre-college education. He assigned his students to write a 500-word journal entry each week on an specified topic, usually of a philosophical nature. This class put me in the habit of writing philosophical essays, and I continued doing so on my own even after the school year was over.
In summer 2005, I compiled a long collection of journal entries I had written and sent them to a few friends. I continued adding to the collection throughout 2005-2006. By June 2006, the collection morphed this document (.tex). Looking back, I can see many subtle points that I missed and many areas in which my views were naive. I don't now agree with some statements in that document. However, I've uploaded it for historical interest as a snapshot of my world view at age 19.
In June 2006, I wrote for the first time to David Pearce with questions after reading his Hedonistic Imperative. David wrote back: "My first (and utilitarian!) response was: how can I encourage you to get a website?" We discussed a bit further, and David soon reserved a domain called utilitarian-essays.com for me. I began learning HTML and converting my then-LaTeX essays to that format.
My turn toward focusing on suffering
Before 2006 I was a very ordinary utilitarian, along the lines of Peter Singer. I thought happiness was pretty important and that creating new happiness even by organisms that didn't exist was a moral priority. During 2006, I began to change my views. I thought about just how awful suffering was. David Pearce's writings on this subject resonated with me. In addition, I met another friend who felt that extreme suffering could not be outweighed by happiness. I began to see that happiness just couldn't compare with the awfulness of experiences like torture.
My essays gradually began to catch up with this shift in perspective. In 2008, at the recommendation of a friend, I changed the title of my site from "A Collection of Essays on Utilitarianism" to "Essays on Reducing Suffering" because
- I wanted to reflect the modification in my emphasis, since I didn't any longer endorse conventional utilitarianism, and
- "utilitarianism" is a dirty word in many circles, because of the naive objections levied against it, and in any case, other value systems may legitimately disagree with a utilitarian axiology; in contrast "reducing suffering" is something almost everyone supports.
As time went on I continued adding to and refining my website. The number of essays steadily grew, as did the number of visitors.
By 2013, there were ~145 unique page views per day. (This number may be slightly inflated because I didn't always filter out traffic from myself, but probably this affects the totals by no more than 5-10%.) When I encountered issues, they were helpfully resolved by either David or the technically talented James Evans.
Many other people have given helpful advice regarding or corrections to my website. Pablo Stafforini and others have pointed out several typos.
The information in this section has moved here.
Move to WordPress
In Sep.-Oct. 2014, I decided to move utilitarian-essays.com to WordPress for several reasons:
- WordPress makes it easy to create sites that look more professional.
- Knowing WordPress is a useful skill and helps me with another WordPress site I maintain.
- Editing WordPress pages can be done in the browser without requiring me to open the HTML file in Notepad++, edit it, and then upload it via FileZilla. This saves a few seconds per edit, but given that I may make many small edits in a day, the time saving adds up.
- WordPress plugins make it easy to add functionality that would otherwise require great effort to set up, including hoverable footnotes, automatic table of contents, built-in LaTeX math support, etc. Also, RSS comes for free.
In order to move to WordPress, I followed this tutorial, including getting a domain from GoDaddy and hosting from HostGator. HostGator allows you to install WordPress with literally one click. The yearly cost is less than $100.
Here are the plugins I'm currently using on this site: AJS Footnotes, Category Tag Pages, Disable Comments, Disabler (to turn off smart quotes), Eggplant 301 Redirects, Facebook, Import External Images (helpful for the migration from my old site), Jetpack by WordPress.com (for spell-checking and version history), Official StatCounter Plugin, RSS Includes Pages, Table of Contents Plus, WordPress SEO, WP Super Cache, Youngwhan's Simple Latex.
By default, the AJS Footnotes plugin has the problem that paragraphs beyond the first paragraph within footnotes are of a different text size. Andrei Poehlmann heroically fixed this problem by tweaking CSS within the plugin's code.
Migrating was also an opportunity to change the domain, which is now reducing-suffering.org. The new domain name has several advantages:
- "Reducing suffering" has broader appeal than cold, calculating utilitarianism. It's also closer to the suffering-focused message I want to convey. I actually disagree with conventional utilitarianism in many ways, and I also fear that naive utilitarianism can hurt society by making people more Machiavellian.
- I've been told that a .com domain seems weird for my non-commercial work, and .org seems more appropriate and authoritative.
- When I created a few test ads for utilitarian-essays.com on Google AdWords, Google thought the site was designed to sell students essays that they could plagiarize. To create ads, I had to request someone to manually verify that the site fell within the AdWords policies. I'm not actively creating AdWords to my site, so this isn't a big deal, but it's possible that casual observers of the utilitarian-essays.com domain name also made similar assumptions about the purpose of the site.
Losing your changes in the WordPress editor
One complaint I have about using WordPress is that I sometimes accidentally lose my edits. In particular, I find that if I have the editor of an essay open for several days at a time, when I go to save the essay, the operation may fail, with my work lost. Also, sometimes when I copy-paste text into the editor, the essay crashes, again losing what I've written after the last auto-save. For these reasons, I press the "Save" button in the editor every few minutes, and every hour or so, I copy-paste the essay text into an email to myself as a crude form of version control. Perhaps there are plugins I could use to help with this too, but I haven't explored them and am nervous about relying on them.
I maintain a policy of always closing the WordPress editor after I'm done editing to avoid a situation like the following. Suppose you open an article in window A for editing. You make changes, save, but keep the window open. Later, you open the same article in a new window B, forgetting that window A is still open. You make changes in window B and save. Then, at some point later, you want to edit the piece again and find window A still open. You make changes to A and save. This results in losing all the changes made in window B! I think this happened to me once in 2016, which is why I'm now extremely cautious in this regard. Saving frequent backups of drafts (to email or elsewhere) can also help with this because then you could potentially recover the window-B edits from those drafts.
Publishing this website has been the single best investment I've ever made. In terms of altruistic payoff per unit of effort, it has been extraordinarily successful. I'm thankful to my readers for their engagement.
Given that writing about important and neglected topics seems to be a comparative advantage of mine, I intend to continue doing that insofar as I have useful things to say. My impression is that, especially in this age of social networks, good ideas have a way of spreading themselves, and often other people can pick up where my writings leave off. For this reason, I feel less urgency than I used to about concretely translating my proposals into actions. What I've found is that if my ideas are good, others will carry them forward. If not, it's less obvious they should be carried forward.
This website is always a work in progress. I edit my pages constantly as my views change, and this is important for helping me remain flexible with my beliefs. It's a lot of work to change my mind, because not only do I have to mentally re-evaluate my plans, but I also have to reflect those updates in my essays. Often this revision process is incomplete, and I don't necessarily agree with everything I wrote a few years ago, or even sometimes a few months ago. That said, there's no alternative to this revision process, and I think it's important to write down my current thinking both to share with others but also for myself. In many ways, this website is an external storage device for my own brain, because otherwise I would sometimes forget my past reasoning and discoveries.
Comments, questions, and ideas are always welcome. Many thanks to the countless individuals who have already helped improve this site -- both in its appearance and its content -- via their feedback and insights.
Several people have asked me why I don't enable comments on this site. Before I moved to WordPress, part of the reason was technical: I wrote the site in a text editor by hand and didn't want to figure out how to manually add a commenting system. Now that I'm using WordPress, it would be easy to enable comments. I still prefer not to, partly for a selfish reason: Doing so would make this site look more like a blog and less like an academic website, and people tend to give less credibility to blogs.
Another main reason is that I feel bad about not replying to comments, and if I enabled comments here, I'd have more comments I'd feel obligated to reply to, even when I'm too busy to reply.
I prefer to incorporate feedback into the original piece and acknowledge people for their contributions, similar to what's done during peer review of an academic paper. Of course, enabling comments wouldn't prevent me from doing this, and I don't incorporate most feedback that I get into the pieces themselves.
Finally, a lot of discussion of my pieces happens on Facebook, Reddit, or other places, which makes on-blog comments less crucial.
No site ads
When I first created my website in 2006, I contemplated the idea of including ads in order to generate some revenue that I could donate. However, I leaned against it. Looking back, I now think it's obvious that adding ads would have been a bad decision.
The income from ads is generally minuscule, but ads cause a huge reduction in the perceived quality of a website, especially a non-famous one. Readers may associate ad-filled websites with spam and content farms, and ads may make it look like the site's primary aim is to bring in money rather than to provide information.
Plus, insofar as many of my readers are altruistic themselves, I don't want them to waste their money buying products after seeing ads on my site. Increasingly, there's also a risk of malvertising.