As mentioned in a recent post, I have a new book being published this week, titled The Tango of Ethics: Intuition, Rationality and the Prevention of Suffering. It’s rooted in reflections I’ve had on ethics and value since some of my earliest interactions with EAs ten years ago, and my observation that some specific ways of thinking about ethics that were already mainstream in the EA community could legitimately be challenged. These include common intuitions about notions like “good”, “bad” and “value” that have been imported into rational arguments about ethics, without necessarily being put into question or analysed more deeply. The project expanded into a broader reflection on ethics and the dance between intuition and rationality that I think is fundamental to ethical thinking and practice.
Some of the claims I make may appear counterintuitive or conflict with beliefs that are strongly held by many others in the EA community. However, I urge people to consider reading the book with an open mind. Over the years that it has taken shape, I’ve continued to reevaluate my arguments and I remain confident that they have merit. Many of the individual ideas aren’t novel, and are even subscribed to by a subset of EAs. But aside from offering some new perspectives, one of my main goals is to offer a more “holistic” way of thinking about ethics that integrates several core ideas, and that is aligned with solid truths about reality, including the content of subjective experience.
My hope is that the book will provoke reflection within the EA community about the foundations of our core values and how we think about “doing good”. Although I defend a form of negative utilitarianism I call “xNU+”, I show that it doesn’t need to lead to nihilism, especially within the framework I propose. It doesn’t negate self-preservation and the search for meaning, caring about the welfare of future sentient beings, or striving to realise an optimistic vision for the future. But I do argue for the importance of preventing intense and especially extreme/unbearable suffering as an essential ethical principle – and by extension, that only a future that encodes and reflects this principle is a reasonable one to try to preserve.
Description from the publisher’s page
Despite existing for thousands of years, the field of ethics remains strongly influenced by several largely unquestioned assumptions and cognitive biases that can dramatically affect our priorities. The Tango of Ethics: Intuition, Rationality and the Prevention of Suffering proposes a deep, rigorous reassessment of how we think about ethics. Eschewing the traditional language of morality, it places a central emphasis on phenomenological experience and the unique urgency of suffering wherever it occurs, challenges our existence bias and examines the consequences of a metaphysically accurate understanding of personal identity.
A key paradigm in The Tango of Ethics is the conflict and interplay between two fundamentally different ways of seeing and being in the world — that of the intuitive human being who wants to lead a meaningful life and thrive, and that of the detached, rational agent who wants to prevent unbearable suffering from occurring. Leighton aims to reconcile these two stances or motivations within a more holistic framework he labels 'xNU+' that places them at distinct ethical levels. This approach avoids some of the flaws of classical utilitarianism, including the notion that extreme suffering can be formally balanced out by enough bliss, while maintaining a focus on impact. He also identifies some of the limits of rationality and our dependence on intuitions to make ethical decisions.
The book explores the implications of this way of thinking for real-world ethical dilemmas and how we might incorporate it into governance. With societal collapse, increasing totalitarianism and artificial general intelligence all very real threats in the coming years, Leighton argues that it is as important as ever to promote these ethics and their implementation while there is still an opportunity for some convergence around what matters.
A few blurbs
“Nearly all of us, philosophers or not, should attach much greater weight to the prevention of severe suffering. This engaging, accessible, and wide-ranging book provides many highly suggestive arguments in support of this claim.”
-Roger Crisp, Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of Oxford
“Leighton’s The Tango of Ethics is a well-researched book addressing the most important topic in our universe — the suffering of sentient beings and its implications for ethics, philosophy and technology.”
-Roman V. Yampolskiy, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, University of Louisville, author of Artificial Superintelligence: A Futuristic Approach
“In The Tango of Ethics, Leighton explores the most important question we can ask ourselves: what matters? Questioning old assumptions, he charts a radical yet pragmatic path forward that is consistent both with the constraints of rationality and with our deepest needs and intuitions.”
-Magnus Vinding, co-founder of the Center for Reducing Suffering, author of Suffering-Focused Ethics and Reasoned Politics
List of chapters and sections
1. Ethics as an Authentic Dance
The path of truth and compassion
Can ethics help us improve the world?
The tango of ethics
Can one be too transparent about ethics?
2. Intuition and Rationality
Intuition and its roots
The role of rationality
Managing expectations: the limits of rationality
3. Ethics: What is the Question?
Consequentialism: impact matters
Utilitarianism: impact on wellbeing matters
Deontology: follow the rules
Virtue ethics: be good
Can any one theory be correct?
4. Ethics and Subjective Experience
Hedonic states and wellbeing
The notion of urgency
The significance of extreme and unbearable suffering
Buddhism and craving
Happiness and wellbeing
Capturing the dynamics of hedonic states
Absence of suffering: from hedonic zero to bliss
5. Evaluating Value
The confusion about value and the compulsion to create it
The fundamental ethical asymmetry between suffering and happiness
6. The Map and the Territory
The mathematics of suffering
The hedonic delusion
Lost in aggregation
7. Determining Priorities
Intensity vs. instances: the essence of uncertainty
Comparing physical pain and psychological suffering
Unbearable suffering as an ethical tipping point
Expected value and cause prioritisation
8. Suffering and the Illusion of Separateness
The true nature of personal identity
The Golden Rule
Rawls’s veil of ignorance
9. Our Complex Relationship with Suffering
The fleetingness of momentary decisions
Voluntary personal sacrifices don’t justify imposing suffering on others
Tolerating the intolerable
The need for systems that are more rational and compassionate than we are
The intuition towards fairness and against the concentration of suffering
A life worth living
Escaping the Repugnant Conclusion
Why non-existence isn’t a bad thing
Reducing existential risk: an intuition with conditions
11. A Holistic Ethical Framework
How xNU+ compares to prioritarianism
How xNU+ responds to common objections to negative utilitarianism
Consistency: being truthful and rational
How everything is connected by utilitarianism
How obsessive utilitarianism can be self-defeating
12. Current and Potential Causes of Intense Suffering
Abuse and torture of non-human animals
Nature and wild animal suffering
Insect and other invertebrate suffering
Far future suffering
13. A Tangible Tango: Resolving Ethical Conflicts
Helping those closest vs. helping strangers
The grey zone of animal exploitation
Veganism vs. reducing suffering: is eating animal products ever justifiable?
Eating oysters and other brainless invertebrates
Painlessly killing happy animals
Euthanasia of suffering animals
Euthanasia and assisted suicide in humans
Saving lives vs. preventing suffering
The meat-eater problem
Preserving the environment vs. reducing wild animal suffering
14. From Ethics to Action
Reflections on the ethical tango
Creating a new suffering metric for health economics
Impacting the far future
Designing compassionate blueprints for governance based on xNU+ ethics
The last tango: embedding xNU+ ethics into AGI
Balancing personal initiative and collective action
Activism and the desire to see impact
How much empathy do we need?
The fractal-like nature of ethical action
Spreading love, empathy, rationality and compassion