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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.

The book is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon (UKUS, Germany...), B&N, and also directly from the publisher in the UK (paperback only).


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

Post-Battle assessment

Can ethics help us improve the world?

Rethinking ethics

The tango of ethics

Can one be too transparent about ethics?

Adjusting priorities


2. Intuition and Rationality

Intuition and its roots

The role of rationality

Managing expectations: the limits of rationality

3. Ethics: What is the Question?

Understanding oughtism

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

Preference satisfaction



The notion of urgency

The significance of extreme and unbearable suffering

Buddhism and craving

Voluntary suffering

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

Negative utilitarianism


6. The Map and the Territory

The mathematics of suffering

Measuring 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


Awakening awareness


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


10. Existence

A life worth living

Escaping the Repugnant Conclusion

Why non-existence isn’t a bad thing

Reducing existential risk: an intuition with conditions

Preserving consciousness


11. A Holistic Ethical Framework

Key principles


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

Human suffering

Abuse and torture of non-human animals

Nature and wild animal suffering

Insect and other invertebrate suffering

Far future suffering

Artificial/machine suffering

13. A Tangible Tango: Resolving Ethical Conflicts

Helping those closest vs. helping strangers


Animal experimentation

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





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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:09 AM

Looks like an interesting book! Love the cover art.

Thanks for sharing, I'm looking forward to this! I'm particularly excited about the sections on measuring suffering and artificial suffering.

Just requested our library system buy it!

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