New book — "Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications"

by MagnusVinding3 min read31st May 202018 comments


Pain and SufferingMoral Philosophy

I have recently published a book on suffering-focused ethics. The following is a short description:

The reduction of suffering deserves special priority. Many ethical views support this claim, yet so far these have not been presented in a single place. Suffering-Focused Ethics provides the most comprehensive presentation of suffering-focused arguments and views to date, including a moral realist case for minimizing extreme suffering. The book then explores the all-important issue of how we can best reduce suffering in practice, and outlines a coherent and pragmatic path forward.

An invitation for reflection

I realize that some people will feel a strong aversion to suffering-focused views — I certainly did for years myself, and in many ways still do. Yet as I note in the introduction, I hope readers will see this book as an invitation and an opportunity to reflect on their priorities. I hope readers will agree that it is vitally important to get our priorities right, and that we should let our ethics be guided by open-ended reflection that remains charitable and fair even to views that seem disagreeable at first sight.

The book in relation to EA: core values are all-important yet strangely undiscussed

I think reflection on values is crucial to effective altruism: our priorities will ultimately be determined by our core values. It is therefore quite puzzling to me why there are so relatively few discussions in EA centered around values, as opposed to specific causes and interventions.

I can only speculate as to why this is the case. Is a certain value system tacitly assumed? Do we think questions concerning core values are not sufficiently relevant? Do we avoid discussing it because that is the status quo? Is it because we are too agreeable and afraid of causing division? Is it because discussing values is considered uncooperative? Is it because EA objectives tend to be framed in terms of "doing" rather than "reflecting"?

I don't know. But whatever the explanation may be, I think it would be good if reflection on core values were given greater priority in EA; if it were considered a top cause, even. I think such reflection is likely to give us significantly more sophisticated views of which values we should steer by, and in turn update our practical priorities appreciably.

I consider this a cooperative endeavor that we can all contribute to and benefit from, and my book represents an attempt to contribute to this project. (As for the notion that this project, including my book in particular, is uncooperative, I present various arguments to the contrary in section 12.3 in my book.)

Blurbs and table of contents

Below are some blurbs for the book:

“An inspiring book on the world’s most important issue. Magnus Vinding makes a compelling case for suffering-focused ethics. Highly recommended.”
— David Pearce, author of The Hedonistic Imperative and Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering?
“We live in a haze, oblivious to the tremendous moral reality around us. I know of no philosopher who makes the case more resoundingly than Magnus Vinding. In radiantly clear and honest prose, he demonstrates the overwhelming ethical priority of preventing suffering. Among the book’s many powerful arguments, I would call attention to its examination of the overlapping biases that perpetuate moral unawareness. Suffering-Focused Ethics will change its readers, opening new moral and intellectual vistas. This could be the most important book you will ever read.”
Jamie Mayerfeld, professor of political science at the University of Washington, author of Suffering and Moral Responsibility and The Promise of Human Rights
“In this important undertaking, Magnus Vinding methodically and convincingly argues for the overwhelming ethical importance of preventing and reducing suffering, especially of the most intense kind, and also shows the compatibility of this view with various mainstream ethical philosophies that don’t uniquely focus on suffering. His careful analytical style and comprehensive review of existing arguments make this book valuable reading for anyone who cares about what matters, or who wishes to better understand the strong rational underpinning of suffering-focused ethics.”
— Jonathan Leighton, founder of the Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering, author of The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe
“Magnus Vinding breaks the taboo: Today, the problem of suffering is the elephant in the room, because it is at the same time the most relevant and the most neglected topic at the logical interface between applied ethics, cognitive science, and the current philosophy of mind and consciousness. Nobody wants to go there. It is not good for your academic career. Only few of us have the intellectual honesty, the mental stamina, the philosophical sincerity, and the ethical earnestness to gaze into the abyss. After all, it might also gaze back into us. Magnus Vinding has what it takes. If you are looking for an entry point into the ethical landscape, if you are ready to face the philosophical relevance of extreme suffering, then this book is for you. It gives you all the information and the conceptual tools you need to develop your own approach. But are you ready?”
Thomas Metzinger, professor of philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, author of Being No One and The Ego Tunnel

The book's table of contents, for a rough overview:

Part I: The Case for Suffering-Focused Ethics
1. Asymmetries Between Happiness and Suffering
2. Happiness as the Absence of Suffering
3. Creating Happiness at the Price of Suffering Is Wrong
4. The Principle of Sympathy for Intense Suffering
5. A Moral Realist Case for Minimizing Extreme Suffering
6. Other Arguments for Focusing on Suffering
7. Biases Against Focusing on Suffering
8. Objections Against Focusing on Suffering
Part II: How Can We Best Reduce Suffering?
9. Uncertainty Is Big
10. We Should Be Cooperative
11. Non-Human Animals and Expansion of the Moral Circle
12. Promoting Concern for Suffering
13. The Abolitionist Project
14. Reducing S-Risks
15. Donating to Reduce Suffering
16. Researching the Question
17. The Importance of Self-Investment
18. What You Can Do
Recommended Websites

Funding disclosure

I have been funded partly by EAF while working on the book, yet the book does not necessarily reflect the views of EAF. Indeed, various parts of the book can be read as an explanation of my own divergences with EAF's approach to reducing suffering (e.g. sections 9.2, 12.3, and 12.4).