Epistemic Status: Provisional thoughts that seem likely to either a) be very worth sharing and expanding upon, b) invalid based on arguments I have not thought of, or c) replicating discussions that I'm unaware of.

Bottom line

I posit that moral suffering is maximal for agents of moderate sophistication, and that suffering of moderately intelligent non-human mammals and younger children are in some sense much more damaging and morally important than suffering of either less complex organisms, or older children, more sophisticated animals, and adults. If true, the implications go beyond the relative importance of humans and animals, and affects the moral relevance of the far future.

Humans at different ages

Most people seem to agree that physical pain isn't always suffering. For example, working out produces physical pain that many people describe as enjoyable because of the context that the exerciser puts around the activity.It is rational to undergo painful surgery to address a medical problem, and adults can reach a level of sophistication where they accept the painful process of surgery and recovery in order to gain something longer term. People who cultivate a mindset that contextualizes and abstracts away from their own suffering are even more "sophisticated" in a certain sense, and I would consider the pain from this surgery to be less morally objectionable than the same pain without the context. Infants never contextualize suffering. It seems plausible that they don't clearly distinguish between different levels of suffering either - for young enough infants, cold from a diaper change gets the same level of reaction as receiving a shot, or even undergoing a more major surgery. The length of time is arguably morally relevant, but they don't appreciate the difference between a minor short term pain or discomfort and a more major, longer term one.

Young children are able to contextualize their suffering, and by age one-and-a-half, my kids could understand that diaper changes are unpleasant for them, but they would (usually) volunteer to undergo them because they were aware that they would be happier with a new diaper. As children age, they become more able to appreciate this.On the other hand, in some sense the pain undergone by a five- or six- year old is worse than that undergone by an infant. They anticipate it, remember it, and are affected by it much more than a much younger child. Adults do the same - but there is a trade-off between the sophistication of context and the increased pain from imagination, memory, and cognitive appreciation of pain. I think it is clear from both my memory and my perception of my children that there are more intense feelings that occur in kids than adults.


Frans de Waal makes a clear case that humanity historically underestimates the suffering of animals. Catia Faria suggests that "all sentient individuals, including nonhuman animals, are morally considerable, irrespective of their species or other alleged species-specific attributes." Even simple animals almost certainly experience what we think of as pain. Lizards and birds suffer when injured. Insects seem to experience and avoid pain as well - though at some point it is less clear exactly how much of their experience is actually "experience" in a morally relevant sense.

It seems, however, that suffering as a morally relevant concept has some lower bound, and the focus on "sentience" becomes critical. Clearly non-conscious bacteria, reinforcement learning systems below a certain complexity, and similarly simple systems seem to have near-zero moral weight - because what they experience is not normally understood as suffering. As sophistication reduces past a certain point, the moral relevance of each animal falls. (I am not discussing the aggregate amount of total pain suffered, nor am I advocating anything like certainty about where this line lies. I'd suggest that moral responsibility seems to advocate for a precautionary principle in this regard.)

As we move towards more complex animals, we start to see more clearly relevant pain. More than that, the pain seems to have increasing moral weight. Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson argue in "Animals in Translation" that (some) animals feel fear, and this seems to match our (potentially unreliable) intuition that higher mammals that can plan and reason about the future also can anticipate fear. In a very real sense, they suffer more than adult humans, because they have almost no control over their environment.


I would not advocate measurement of importance of suffering, but there are real implications to the potential for convexity. Most of these are unsurprising for effective altruists - animals are at least potentially more morally relevant than humans, and mitigating suffering means we should focus on reducing experienced suffering, rather than increasing life spans. As a perhaps more esoteric consequence, it argues that increasing intelligence may reduce morally relevant pain - and therefore parts of the far future where there has been an intelligence explosion are less morally relevant than the present.


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16 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:47 PM

Interesting, I hadn't thought about this!

[content note: death, cancer]

My intuition is that while more complex minds (e.g. adults) can contextualize experiences, this goes both ways. E.g. a family member could contextualize her surgery to remove a cancer, which made it less bad than it would have been to a child experiencing the pain without understanding of why it was in their best interest. But after it became clear that she was going to die, the remaining 18 months of her life was much worse for her because of that knowledge and the anxiety and depression it brought. I guess I'd expect that children's most extreme experiences of pain and unhappiness are more severe, but that context brings both positive and negative experiences closer to the middle for adults.

(I tried to think of times when deeper understanding a situation might bring an adult greater satisfaction and triumph than a child has, but it's extremely hard to top a delighted three-year-old.)

It seems like from an evolutionary perspective, children have a higher incentive to communicate their emotions and adults have a higher incentive to take action in response. I worry that this throws off our calibration of the magnitude of their respective experiences.

I also think kids are built to strongly signal to adults ("this is bad, fix it"/"this is good, more of this"), but my impression is that they do that by giving accurate signals - they do feel quite distressed when they're acting distressed. They do seem to change emotion much faster than adults, which I think can throw off adult intuitions about how real the child's emotions are. I wonder if something like cortisol levels would be helpful in comparing.

I agree. I'm extremely wary of suggestions that you can compare the strength of children & adults' emotions/pain from their behaviour (or perhaps any other way). So it seems to me the only reasonable assumption is that they are the same for all humans who are fully conscious. (I.e. possibly lower for young babies, some mentally disabled; though the precautionary principle suggests we shouldn't assume this.)

I agree that it is morally justifiable to treat them as equal absent convincing evidence, but I don't think it's correct to claim we should assume they are equal.

I agree that adult suffering (and young-adult suffering) can differ from child suffering in ways that make things worse for the adult.

For example, older people have known people close to them for longer, and formed deeper relationships; I wouldn't be surprised if a sixteen-year-old found it more difficult to recover from a parent's death than a six-year-old.

The same goes for other kinds of unfortunate events; a six-year-old might not be able to contextualize the pain from illness, but if I knew I were going to spend a month sick in bed exactly once during my life, I think I'd rather it happen at age six (I miss school, watch cartoons, and catch up later) than thirty-six (I have to renege on a complex network of obligations to my employer and my children, losing opportunities that I may never be able to recover).

I think the adult suffering from anticipation (and from uncertainty) is limited, via both contextualization and hedonic adaptation. I'm unsure how the balance of intense pleasure / pain works for children. They may experience pleasure more intensely, but I don't see it as much. And it's plausible that animals also experience pleasure more intensely, but I'm agnostic about that claim.

One point I haven't seen mentioned (though I may have overlooked it): Suffering in children seems to have an especially powerful flow-through effect on later life outcomes. I generally see this idea referred to as toxic stress. This makes suffering in adults seem less important, but suffering in very young children seem more important.

"Isn't it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid? Isn't it plausible that an unintelligent species might need a massive wallop of pain, to drive home a lesson that we can learn with less powerful inducement?" Richard Dawkins: https://boingboing.net/2011/06/30/richard-dawkins-on-v.html

Not sure this follows. If we're capable of intelligently working out what's good for us, that makes us able to work out how to avoid the pain. But it doesn't seem a good reason for evolution to reduce the pain, as that would reduce the incentive for us to try to avoid it.

Nice find, definitely a related point!

Thanks for starting this discussion on here! I feel like part of your conclusion could also go in the opposite direction:

  • Animals could be less morally important because their suffering is less sophisticated in some morally relevant sense.
  • Increasing lifespans of sophisticated beings now who have built the capacity to cope well with pain could be a great intervention (before the intelligence explosion).

I don't understand how point 1 is possible - sure, given the model the maximum could be higher than all animals, or even than all humans, but this contradicts my experience. My experience is that children suffer more intensely than adults, and given the emotional complexity of many higher mammals, they are in those terms more sophisticated beings than babies, if not toddlers.

Regarding point 2, yes, that could reduce average suffering, which matters for average utilitarians, but does not mitigate experienced suffering for any other beings, which I think most other strains of utilitarianism would care about more.

1) I don't think we can say much about intensity either. But let's assume that intensity is equal for fully conscious entities (whatever that means). If we then assume that there might be different dimensions to suffering, more sophisticated beings could suffer on "more (morally relevant) levels" than less sophisticated beings.

2) I also think it matters to other forms of consequentialism through flow through effects of highly resilient beings being capable to more effectively help those who aren't.

As I said in response to a different comment, I don't object to making the claim that we should treat them as morally equal due to ignorance, but that's very different from your claim that we can assume the intensities are equal.

I'm also not sure what to do with the claim that there might be different morally relevant dimensions that we cannot collapse, because if that is true, we are in a situation where 1-point of "artistic sufferring" is incommensurable with 1-billion points of "physical pain." If so, we're punting - because we do in fact make decisions between options on some basis, despite the supposedly "incommensurable" moral issues.

I do think we might be able to collapse the dimensions and don't claim intensities, or especially the extreme ends, are equal. Let me try to put it differently: depending on how to collapse the dimensions into one, we could end up with the more complex individuals having larger scales. Ergo they could weigh more into our calculus.

A beings expression of the intensity is probably always in relation to its individual scale. I guess I don't understand how that is necessarily much of an indicator of the absolute intensity of the experience. Is that where we actually diverge?