by Brian Tomasik
First written: 6 Jan. 2014; last update: 7 Sep. 2017

Summary

Several leading advocates for reducing others' suffering are passionate about the cause in part because they've suffered so much themselves. Should we fear that as technologically advanced individuals suffer less, they'll care less about the suffering of the weak and powerless? Or will less personal suffering give them more emotional capacity and sensitivity to care about all sentient beings? In addition to raising these questions, I also speculate on the implications of suffering as portrayed in the media.

Introduction

Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight.
--Albert Schweitzer

Sometimes a person's goals are shaped by a dramatic life event that he experienced. For instance, a mother of a child who died of cancer might go on to work for an anti-cancer organization. Members of a minority racial group who endured discrimination might campaign against racism. And so on. In some ways this is an elegant system to give voice to various injured parties in rough proportion to the aggregate severity of harm: If ten times as many people suffer from disease X than disease Y, then there should be about ten times as much lobbying for funding and research on disease X. And if disease A causes about twice as much pain per person as disease B, we might also expect around twice as much lobbying against disease A, because more people who experienced A will be motivated to do something about it compared with B.

Alas, this doesn't always work perfectly; for instance, breast cancer receives more funding than its proportional disease burden. More starkly, causes of suffering differ between rich and poor countries, so the representation of poor-country tribulations in these priorities will be much too small. Even worse, animals cannot campaign for themselves but must rely on humans to feel compassion for them. Thus, animals -- except maybe pets -- are significantly under-represented in prioritization, especially wild animals whose suffering lies out of sight and out of mind. Finally, people and animals not yet born also cannot advocate for their interests and likewise rely on our compassion to help ensure their lives are not awful.

While sometimes people who suffered hardship are inspired to work against that particular hardship (e.g., a specific disease), others take a broader view and aim to work against suffering more generally. This can help fill in the gaps in proportional representation that result from poor people, animals, and future organisms being less able or unable to fight for their own interests directly.

Suffering reducers inspired by personal suffering

A nontrivial proportion of the altruists I know who focus their work on reducing suffering have experienced severe suffering themselves -- physical, mental, or both. I don't have exact statistics, but it's plausible that a larger fraction of people who have suffered a lot personally are now focused on altruistic suffering reduction than those who have not suffered a lot personally.

For example, in "Letter to a Young Matt," Matt Ball explains how his experience with a chronic disease and enduring "times when I thought I was going to die, times when I wished I would die" showed him that reducing suffering was overwhelmingly important compared with the lofty ideological views to which he subscribed previously. I, too, endured some painful periods in my past (see "Appendix: My esophagitis experience"), and these are probably one reason that I now find preventing suffering to be so urgent.

Jordan Ross wrote regarding a traumatizing ordeal: "That suffering that I experienced on that one night, and the effects of that trauma that linger on in my life to this day, was in some ways a humbling and wakeful experience. I made the connection. A few months later, I stopped eating meat, then a few months later stopped consuming animal products altogether."

A 2015 study found that "increasing severity of past adversity predicts increased empathy, which in turn, is linked to a stable tendency to feel compassion for others in need." Another 2015 study found "that ice-induced physical pain facilitated higher self-assessments of empathy, which motivated participants to be more sympathetic in their moral judgments."

I think it's easier to be strongly viscerally moved by suffering, rather than just abstractly concerned about suffering, if you've suffered in a similar way yourself. An extreme example of this is when people are "triggered" by certain stories or words, as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Counterexamples

There are many people who regard suffering as our foremost priority who haven't suffered in significant ways in their own lives. For example, many of the suffering-focused altruists I know in Switzerland and Berlin are motivated to reduce suffering largely on theoretical grounds rather than due to life experiences or strong emotions.

Antinatalist YouTube user Ethicalogical reports that she "grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, never had any major health problems," and so on. She says: "You don't have to have had a horrible life to be an antinatalist. All it takes is for you to realize how horrible life could get and also how bad life is right now for untold numbers of humans and animals."

Comfort leads to forgetting about suffering

Living in a cozy, safe bubble allows my mind to wander into interests that would be seen as frivolous by the animals who are being eaten alive right now. Typically brains don't dwell on problems when things seem to be going well, so when our own lives are personally full of comfort, we may not think much about suffering.

After all, that would just make us unhappy and depressed, right?

Thus, a certain amount of suffering by people may actually reduce net suffering in the long run. Had I not suffered as much myself, I would care less about reducing suffering by other organisms who vastly outnumber me. A penny of suffering on my part may have spared a billion dollars of suffering by animals and future organisms.

On the other hand, too much suffering is also not helpful; it can lead to desperation, depression, or futility. When I'm not feeling well personally, I don't have the emotional resources to even think about helping others. On a daily basis, I'm often most productive when I'm also having the most fun. So there's a balance to strike between suffering too little (leading one to stray into trivialities) versus suffering too much (incapacitating one from helping others at all). As the expression goes, we need to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

I notice that I tend to feel the most guilt about not helping others when I'm having a lot of fun. In contrast, if I'm stressed or unhappy, I can't think as much about altruism. The famous "Good Samaritan study" affirms this finding. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint: An organism that's hungry or in danger can't afford to stop to help others, but one that has a full belly and no major problems should help others in order to make friends for the sake of future reciprocity benefits. On the other hand, it's less clear how this plays out in the long run. Maybe someone who has experienced severe hardship and recovered will be more attuned to others' hardship than someone who has never experienced major hardship.

At a 2017 town hall, Simon Radecki asked Senator Patrick Toomey the following question: "We’ve been here for a while. You probably haven’t seen the news. Can you confirm whether or not your daughter Bridget has been kidnapped? The reason I ask is because that’s the reality of families that suffer deportation." Radecki later wrote that he hoped to move Senator Toomey "into a place of empathy for the briefest moment in the hope that he would acknowledge the humanity of so many others who live with fear that he is directly responsible for every day." While this particular effort didn't work out as intended and was probably inadvisable, the idea of allowing decision-makers to more viscerally experience the consequences of their policies is interesting.

Would reduced human suffering reduce compassion?

If at least some suffering seems important for spurring people to compassion, what should we think about a hypothetical future in which suffering by the rich and powerful is gradually phased out? This could happen through biotechnology in the short run and mind uploading in the long run. Would people for whom severe pain is optional drift away from caring about the suffering of others, because they would have little idea how bad it felt?

This seems like an important question to ask before we advance the hedonistic imperative for our descendants by phasing out involuntary suffering from them. One might hope that our descendants could still care about suffering because at the very least it would reduce their levels of pleasure. For instance, when you're having fun and then confront a sad or painful image, even if you don't experience pain yourself, you are at least kicked into a more solemn mood as you recognize how not-fun that image appears. Hopefully similar dynamics could work for our happy descendants, but it's not clear these mechanisms alone can produce the sustained, relentless focus on reducing suffering that results from having experienced pain up close. Of course, if moral enhancement coincided with hedonic enhancement, perhaps this problem would be ameliorated.

Even before advanced biotechnology arrives, we can contemplate the moral impacts of treatments for mental illnesses like depression. Several of my suffering-reducer friends have confronted depression during their lives, and at least the extreme ends of the suffering-reduction movement (antinatalism, efilism, etc.) would be less numerous if depression were cured. Of course, the sign of this isn't clear, since some members of the extreme movements may cause more harm than good to the overall suffering-reduction cause. It takes just a few overly aggressive and possibly violent members of a movement to destroy the positive work of everyone else associated with them.a Also, curing depression can make suffering reducers more productive, although if they had never become depressed in the first place, presumably they would have been less likely to focus on this issue at all.

Some negative utilitarians come at their position on purely rational grounds -- not due to painful life experiences or pessimistic mental constitution. Hinduism and Buddhism have entire movements built upon the goal of ending samsara. So it's incorrect to say that strong suffering-reduction principles are only espoused by those who have suffered greatly.

A related concern is whether improvements in mood would cause people to become less rational regarding factual beliefs. The evidence on depressive realism is mixed, and even if true, the finding relates mainly to beliefs about one's own abilities. Moreover, correlation doesn't prove causation -- who wouldn't become more depressed as a result of accurately viewing the world? Still, it seems plausible that people in good moods will be more prone to wishful thinking.

Media and compassion

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker suggests that one cause of Enlightenment reforms against cruel punishments and intolerance was the spread of literature, allowing people to step into the minds of others and see the world from different perspectives. It's plausible that this trend has continued in modern times. Seeing pictures and videos of poor people in the Third World can bring us emotionally nearer to them. Graphic footage of slaughterhouses can have the same effect. As people become closer to one another and better informed about what happens in the world, one would expect their sympathies to become more properly aligned with the world's needs.

On the other hand, media can potentially have the opposite effect as well. I won't enter into the debate about whether media violence causes real-world violence, but it does seem plausible that media violence at least desensitizes us to real-world violence. This could be a natural consequence of psychological extinction: We see awful things without experiencing any repercussions, so the bad response we feel lessens. Indeed, movies and video games where violence is portrayed in an enjoyable light could even theoretically cultivate positive associations. I wonder if there have been studies on the causal effects of violent media on altruistic compassion, which seems a much easier thing to lose than inhibition against actually carrying out crimes.

In addition, many popular fictional stories operate within the convenient framework of "good vs. evil," which plays into our tribal "us vs. them" instincts. Except in the more sophisticated films and novels, we don't often see the situation from the other side. What about the monsters who are aiming to protect their homelands against human intruders? What about the star troopers who are thoughtlessly killed defending an emperor whom they admire, or perhaps in fear of whom they cower? Often we do have strong opinions about which side we like more, but it's not completely black and white, and this is even more true in real life, where most so-called enemies are people very similar to yourself whose stance you could sympathize with if you got a chance to know them.

Still, media has the power to increase compassion as well. Presumably somber movies where the awfulness of violence is made clear have a salutary effect on empathy for others' suffering, as do documentaries, plays, biographies, and other portrayals, so long as they give viewers a chance for the feelings to sink in rather than skipping quickly over the tragedies and making them feel like something that one can ignore. When I view or read about an awful event, I sometimes pause for a few seconds to allow the feeling to sink in and affect my brain before I move on, because I don't want to get into the habit of blithely pushing suffering out of my mind. Letting the habit of ignoring suffering extend to my life's work would be a tragic mistake.

I wonder if it would also help to have more stories with sad endings, because this would better reflect the distribution of events in real life. Perhaps doing so would help erode just-world biases. Of course, a problem is that people would presumably avoid these stories because they would be sad. The same goes for violent media: It's produced because it's popular, rather than it being popular merely because it's produced. Media content is closely optimized to viewer preferences, and even if we could create a top-down change to media content, it wouldn't necessarily shift people's preferences. But it might make some impact, and combined with bottom-up cultural transformations toward humaneness, we can make progress.

In addition to highlighting suffering, media also has the potential to inculcate moral messages more generally. We see this often in children's programs, especially those on public television; usually each episode features a life lesson. Sometimes adult programs have the same, though this is less common, and one could argue that the "moral lessons" that we teach adults would need to be more complex and multifaceted.

In the documentary The World of Jim Henson, Jerry Juhl explains that Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock began with Henson telling his colleagues: "Let's do a children's show that brings peace to the world." In The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson, Andrew Leal quotes Henson in the documentary Down at Fraggle Rock as saying: "We wanted to do a show that had to do with international understanding," including breaking down cultural barriers. Of course, whether it actually had that effect is less clear and would be worth studying further.

In general, I should note that this section has been mostly speculation on my part. Many of these hypotheses could be supported or opposed by experimental research.

Appendix: My esophagitis experience

When I was 15, I developed -- for some reason that still remains unknown -- a condition called esophagitis. When I ate, I felt immediately full and nauseous, although I never actually vomited. For 2-3 hours after eating, in fact, the pain was so bad that I paced around my room, squeezing my chair, and waiting for the feeling to subside.

After a few episodes of this, I learned not to eat at all. I managed to eat one oyster cracker or spoonful of cereal every hour throughout the day, but that was all I could stomach; even drinking more than a few sips of water was painful. This continued for ~2-3 months, and I dropped at least 30 pounds. I had lost an ordinary sense of hunger, but I was weak and unable to do much of anything besides reading or watching TV.

Eventually my gastroenterologist identified the problem as esophagitis via endoscopy and prescribed Nexium. This helped a lot, and eventually I returned to being able to eat small amounts. However, esophageal irritation continued after meals for 4-5 years, although it was worst the first 1-2 years following my initial recovery. I dreaded car trips, because they meant typically hours on end of waiting, waiting, waiting for the agony to stop.

Since ~2008, esophageal irritation has gone away completely. My life is currently as pain-free as ever, and I'm as happy as I can ever remember being. I've gone for many years now with almost no instances of nontrivial suffering. I can see how, if people only experienced this kind of pain-free life, they might indeed come to conclude that suffering isn't very significant. They might regard my special focus on suffering as peculiar and eccentric, because they wouldn't realize how awful pain can get.

Fortunately, my own empathy has not waned appreciably since the esophagitis episode. This is a hopeful partial reply to the hypothesis of an inherent pain-compassion link, although it doesn't speak to where I would be had I never gone through this experience. I suspect I would not be so focused on suffering without it.

Footnotes

  1. Obviously I don't mean to suggest that many members of these movements advocate violence. Most antinatalists and efilists are compassionate people seeking to do good in a peaceful, respectful way.

    What are my opinions on these movements as a whole? I'm not familiar with them in depth and so can only comment with surface-level heuristics. My guess is that these memes are slightly suboptimal from the standpoint of reducing suffering, because they turn off many people who would otherwise be sympathetic and no less effective as the core antinatalists/efilists.

    Discouraging people from having children seems unlikely to be the best way to reduce suffering, because most of the world's preventable suffering is experienced by wild animals in the present and will be experienced by various sentient beings in the future. The indirect impacts of having children or not far outweigh the direct impacts on the children themselves. Of course, maybe antinatalism could be seen as a symbolic gesture that opens the door to a wider conversation about population ethics and the wrongness of creating new lives that will suffer. Perhaps. But it's plausible there are other vehicles for raising the issue that are less abrasive.

    My comments on efilism are similar, and here the abrasiveness is perhaps even stronger than with antinatalism. It's important for people to realize that reducing suffering doesn't have to mean denying life, if the suffering-reduction cause is to have any hope of succeeding. Remember that evolutionary pressures will tend to create life-favoring, natalist intuitions among the majority of the population. Compromise, rather than pushing for extreme measures, is our best hope.

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