by Brian Tomasik
First written: 13 Aug. 2015; last update: 17 Jul. 2016

Summary

For those who place special priority on reducing suffering, arguing for suffering-focused ethical principles seems to be a robust and effective advocacy strategy. I discuss (1) why the approach is more certain than many other forms of activism, (2) possible downsides of spreading suffering-focused ethical views, and (3) ways in which the work could be carried out.

Introduction

It's very difficult to know if one's actions are making a positive impact on the world. There are many ripple effects of altruistic projects, some of which may end up causing significant long-term harm. This problem is particularly acute for those who hold minority viewpoints, such as negative utilitarians, since actions that increase humanity's overall effectiveness might in some cases increase total suffering, such as by making space colonization more likely.

One approach to grappling with huge uncertainty is to find avenues of impact that seem robust across a wide range of scenarios. Promoting an ethical focus on extreme suffering seems like a reasonably robust approach for negative utilitarians and others concerned with suffering. The next section elaborates the arguments for this strategy.

Why promote suffering-focused ethics?

  1. Robustness: Pushing for a particular object-level policy stance, such as opposing climate change, runs the risk that you'd change your mind about the policy with further information. For example, maybe it turns out that climate change is actually net beneficial with respect to wild-animal and future suffering. In that case, your previous advocacy would have been worse than wasted. In contrast, if you work to advance broader ethical principles, such as the priority of reducing extreme suffering, then you create a more flexible resource, since as further information comes in, people who share that viewpoint can change what they work on. Future generations will have much better insight into problems of the future than we have today, so imparting a concern for suffering to future generations will often more reliably conduce to good outcomes than will promoting some particular, ideology-independent policy.
  2. Movement building: Promoting concern for suffering can have broader ripple effects on society's long-term values, but it can also increase the movement of people who directly join your suffering-focused organization. Attracting more minds to work on your organization's focus areas can multiply your impact.
  3. Replaceability: Most object-level projects that one might undertake are already being done by lots of people with various ideological positions. In contrast, there are very few people promoting suffering-focused ethical viewpoints. So efforts to promote suffering-focused ethics may have more counterfactual impact than promoting a more mainstream cause that's less specific to your values.
  4. Unknown unknowns: It's plausible that almost all the expected impact of our actions is determined by how they affect some as-yet-undiscovered "crucial consideration". In the spirit of Pascal's button, there's nontrivial probability that there exists some consideration that's infinitely more important than anything we've thought of so far. The best way to handle extreme uncertainty like this is to prepare the ground for future generations to better act on new information in ways that we would approve of. And one of the most reliable way to make it more likely that future generations act in ways we would approve of is to promote our core values.
  5. Compassion is not enough: One might ask, "Why not just promote broader circles of compassion, without a focus on suffering?" The answer is that more compassion by itself could increase suffering. For example, most people who care about wild animals in a general sense conclude that wildlife habitats should be preserved, in part because these people aren't focused enough on the suffering that wild animals endure. Likewise, generically caring about future digital sentience might encourage people to create as many happy digital minds as possible, even if this means also increasing the risk of digital suffering due to colonizing space. Placing special emphasis on reducing suffering is crucial for taking the right stance on many of these issues.

Downsides of promoting suffering-focused ethics

  1. Less cooperative: Advancing one's particular values is less positive-sum for other value systems than working on shared projects that seem mutually beneficial from many different ethical perspectives. This is a worthwhile criticism, and I think it is important to do some work that benefits people with many different moral outlooks. But it's also okay to do activism that benefits one's own particular ideology, especially when most other activists (including many "effective altruists") are also promoting their own particular ideologies.
  2. A crazy person might take it the wrong way: If negative utilitarianism inspired someone to do something destructive, this could be very bad -- not just for other value systems but even for negative utilitarians themselves, due to backlash against the cause. Violence by fringe minorities almost always hurts those who perpetrate it.a For example, white supremacists should generally be unhappy with Dylann Roof, since he made their terrible cause look even more evil than it did before, and his actions led to removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina's Capitol.b

The next section proposes an approach for lessening these downsides.

Suffering focus can be mainstream

I've been using the phrase "suffering-focused ethics" rather than "negative utilitarianism" because concern for suffering is much broader than negative utilitarianism, antinatalism, efilism, and other reputedly "radical" viewpoints. Concern for extreme suffering by the worst off in society is shared by egalitarians, prioritarians, Rawlsian maximin adherents, Buddhists, many forms of deontology and virtue ethics, and many other points of view. Even Jesus might be on board: "And he will answer, 'I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.'"

The suffering-focused tent is far bigger than the tent of people who will ever consider full-on negative utilitarianism (NU). Yet most of the policy implications are the same whether you're a negative utilitarian or just think that we should focus on reducing suffering more than creating additional happiness. One reason most people reject negative utilitarianism is that they reject utilitarianism as a whole. For instance, classical utilitarianism, interpreted naively, favors human extinction -- replacing Earth with a utilitronium shockwave. When people reject NU, they may be objecting more to the "U" than to the "N".c

One reasonable approach is to advocate a hybrid of negative utilitarianism and deontology: Focus on reducing suffering, but don't violate strong deontological constraints. For instance: "Don't do anything that most of humanity would regard as extremely evil." (This is plausibly a good policy for even a regular act-utilitarian just for instrumental reasons, but codifying guard rails into the ethical framework can make them more secure and credible.) This is roughly the ethical view that I hold myself. The constraint imposes almost no cost by the lights of pure negative utilitarianism and has many benefits in terms of cooperation, public relations, and palatability of the view for newcomers.

Hold handsAnother idea is to bypass the realm of foundational ethical views like utilitarianism vs. deontology and instead focus on "mid-level moral principles", such as Clark Wolf's "Misery Principle":

If people are badly off, suffering, or otherwise remediably miserable, it is not appropriate to address their ill-being by bringing more happy people into the world to counterbalance their disadvantage.

Most people agree with that principle, yet it has significant implications for whether one focuses on colonizing space to create more happiness vs. trying to reduce suffering. (That said, this principle should be amended to also consider future suffering. It would be bad if people, hoping to reduce current suffering as quickly as possible, accelerated technology development and thereby caused more suffering in the future.)

Looking for widely shared agreement rather than focusing on a particular theory can often be a good idea. For instance, concern for animals has often been advanced within the narrow frameworks of utilitarianism or deontology, but the argument for, say, vegetarianism only requires a much weaker premise: "It is wrong to cause extensive unnecessary harm to others without their consent." David DeGrazia:

The key insight is that, contrary to some authors and activists, we don’t need to know whether animals have rights in the utility-trumping sense or even the equal-consideration sense to know that factory farming, and routinely buying and eating its products, are indefensible.  This represents a better strategy for criticizing factory farming because it is maximally broad-based -- intuitions about the wrongness of cruelty being sufficient to launch the argument -- rather than depending on highly controversial moral theses.

Likewise, we don't need to know whether there exists a theoretical amount of happiness that can outweigh torture to know that our moral priority should be on reducing extreme suffering rather than trying to create new happy beings. The intuitions underlying this principle are widely shared. I would venture to guess that at least ~2/3 of people would agree, at least if we don't require that reducing suffering be seen as the only locus of moral value.

How to promote suffering-focused ethics?

Since I don't have much experience promoting suffering-focused ethics, I would begin with a wide array of approaches and later concentrate on those that appear to work better. Some possibilities include

  • Writing editorials for publications like Aeon to make the ethical case for prioritizing suffering and then elaborate the implications -- e.g., that we should give special consideration to the worst-off individuals when we assess policy questions like wild-animal suffering and space colonization. (That said, I worry somewhat about discussing "astronomical waste" issues outside of effective-altruist circles, since making the "astronomical waste" idea more well known might only increase support for it, given that most people outside effective altruism aren't pushing for space colonization. Maybe we could just talk about space colonization in the generic sense of spreading biological life to other planets, without getting into the issue of astronomical waste.)
  • Writing journal articles and conference papers to show how widespread suffering-focused ethical viewpoints are, as well as to defend or develop particular suffering-focused views. See these research topics on suffering-focused ethics from the Foundational Research Institute.
  • Creating YouTube videos.
  • Giving lectures, especially to open-minded students.
  • Creating Facebook groups and other social networks.
  • Seeking out other people who already care about the issue who can collaborate with us.

Acknowledgments

Discussions with Simon Knutsson, Lukas Gloor, and David Althaus contributed to this piece.

Footnotes

  1. The analysis is less clear when it comes to violence by the powerful, such as a hegemonic state suppressing rivals.  (back)
  2. Of course, white-supremacist ideology is harmful, and removal of the Confederate flag was a good thing. But backlash against ideologies that inspire violence is a general phenomenon that also applies to good causes, like animal rights.  (back)
  3. For example, see the penultimate slide of this presentation.  (back)