Content warning: This post contains references to extreme pain and self-harm, as well as passing references to suicide, needles, and specific forms of suffering (but not detailed descriptions). Please do not repeat any of the experiments I've detailed in this post. Please be kind to yourself, and remember that the best motivation is sustainable motivation.
- Out of curiosity, I exposed myself to safe, moderate-level pain to see how it changed my views on three particular topics. This article is mostly a self-reflection on this (non-scientific) experience.
- Firstly, I got a visceral, intense sense of how urgent it is to get it right when working to do the most good for others.
- Secondly, I gained a strong support for the position that the most morally important goal is to prevent suffering, and in particular for preventing extreme suffering.
- Thirdly, I updated my opinion on the trade-offs between different intensities of pain, which I give in this article as rough, numerical weightings on different categories of pain. Basically, I now place a greater urgency on preventing intense suffering than I did before.
- I conclude with how this newfound urgency will affect my work and my life.
My three goals
I began this experiment with three main goals:
- To remind myself how urgent and important it is to, when working to help others as much as I can, to get it right.
- Some people think that preventing intense pain (rather than working towards other, non-pain-related goals) is the most important thing to do. Do I agree with this?
- If I experience pain at different intensities, does this change the moral weight that I place on preventing intense pain compared to modest pain (i.e. intensity-duration tradeoff)?
I think it is useful to test my intellectual ideas against what it is actually like to experience pain. This is not for motivation - I already work plenty in my role in animal advocacy, and I believe that sustainable motivation is the best motivation (I talk about this more at the end).
I subjected myself to two somewhat-safe methods of experiencing pain:
- Firstly, I got three tattoos on different parts of my body - my upper arm, my calf, and my inner wrist. I had six tattoos already, so I was familiar with this experience. I got these tattoos all on one day (4/2/23) and in one location (a studio in London).
- Secondly, I undertook the cold pressor test. This is basically holding my hand in a tub of near-freezing water. This test is commonly used in scientific research as a way to invoke pain safely. I also did this on one day (25/2/23) and in one location (my home in Australia). Please do not replicate this - the cold pressor test causes pain and can cause significant distress in some people, as well as physical reactions that can compromise your health.
I wish I had a somewhat-safe way to experience pain that is more intense than these two experiences, but these are the best I could come up with for now.
During both of these experiences, I recorded the pain levels. I recorded the pain in three ways:
- A short, written description of my thoughts and feelings.
- The McGill Pain Index Pain Rating Intensity (PRI) Score. This score is calculated from a questionnaire (which I accessed via a phone app) that asks you to choose words corresponding to how your pain feels. The words are then used to calculate the numeric PRI score. I chose to use this tool as there is a review paper listing the approximate PRI scores caused by different human health conditions, which lets me roughly compare my scores to different instances of human pain. This list is given below, so you can have some idea of what scores mean.
- The PainTrack category. This divides pain into four categories - annoying, hurtful, disabling, and excruciating - based on qualitative descriptions (given below). I chose to use this tool as PainTrack has been used to measure the pain experienced by farmed animals, which lets me roughly compare my scores to different instances of animal pain. I also use PainTrack in my day-to-day work in animal advocacy research. The definitions of each category are given below.
The McGill Pain Index
Here is a visual summary of how the McGill Pain Index PRI scores are calculated, as well as some typical scores associated with human health conditions. I do assume, but I haven't checked, that the scores would vary somewhat from person-to-person and depending on the specifics of the condition. This is illustrated with childbirth, which is given three scores (the pain varies depending on the experience and preparation level of the birthing parent).
I gather that the McGill PRI scores range between 0 and 78 (that's how it worked on the app that I used). Most images in the literature and on the internet only go up to 50. I'm assuming they're the same scale, but please point out if I've misinterpreted something and I'll fix it.
(Credit: Scale on the right adapted from Wong (2022), in turn reproduced from Melzack (1984). Sample words from Wikipedia.)
The Pain-Track Framework
For Pain-Track, the article by Alonso and Schuck-Paim gives the definitions of each category in the Pain-Track framework:
- Excruciating: Threshold of pain under which many people would choose to take their life rather than standing the pain. This is the case, for example, of severe burning events, which may make victims jump from buildings, or other conditions associated with suicidal attempts by sufferers (e.g., cluster headaches). Many forms of torture have been designed to inflict pain at this level. Behavioral patterns can include loud screaming, involuntary shaking and extreme restlessness
- Disabling: Most forms of functioning or enjoyment are prevented as the direct result of pain. Symptoms are continuously distressing. Individuals affected often substantially reduce activity levels and refrain from moving. Pain at this level can disrupt or prevent sleeping. Only strong analgesia can relieve it
- Hurtful: Pain experiences that most would consider disruptive of daily routine. Although not entirely preventing individuals from functioning, their ability to do so is impaired as the direct result of pain, and often accompanied by the desire to take painkillers or seek treatment. Frequent complaints are often present. The possibility to enjoy pleasant experiences is impaired, as is performance on mentally demanding tasks, alertness and attention to ongoing stimuli
- Annoying: Pain experiences are not intense enough to disrupt the routine or daily activities of individuals, their possibility to enjoy pleasant (positive) experiences, or their ability to conduct mentally demanding tasks that require attention. Sufferers do not think about this sensation most of the time, and when they do they can adapt to it
- The following table shows the pain levels that I recorded at different stages in the experiment.
- I've also put the rough McGill PRI scores on a chart showing how different human health conditions compare.
- I've adjusted my scores downwards a little bit for the below chart. It should be obvious that this approach, from an experimental perspective, suffers from numerous limitations. I write more about that below. Most notably, some of my McGill PRI scores seem a little bit too high (e.g. comparable to digit amputation). While these scores are plausible, I find it more likely that my scores are indeed slightly too high. An experiment conducted by researchers actually trained in this tool, using a larger sample size, would probably obtain slightly lower average scores. So, you might want to adjust the numbers downwards in your head a little bit.
- Also note that I subsequently tidied up the subjective descriptions, as my capacity for spelling and grammar during each experience was severely compromised.
Subjective description of what this was like
Tattoo - inner wrist - after 5 minutes
Disabling (upper end)
Argghhhhhhhhhhhh! I had to stop twice and almost called off the tattoo. The nausea was extremely challenging and almost as unpleasant as the pain.
Tattoo - calf - after 5 minutes (lines)
Very intense electric shock. Not unbearable, but definitely wouldn't be able to conduct any tasks.
Tattoo - calf - after 45 minutes (colouring)
**** me, make it stop. Like someone slicing into my leg with a hot, sharp live wire.
Tattoo - calf - after 75 minutes (colouring)
Rapidly alternating between the previous two ratings, depending on where the needle is. The lower ranking ['after 5 minutes'] is a real relief. The latter ranking, ['after 45 minutes'] if I were experiencing it not by choice and with no end in sight, would cause me to literally end my life within days or sooner.
Tattoo - shoulder - after 5 minutes (thin lines, thin needle)
Disabling (lower end)
Like the leg electric shock feeling, but softer. Can manage.
Tattoo - shoulder - after 30 minutes (thick lines, thick needle)
Aching buzzing, like a mild headache in my shoulder. Could do a day of work, albeit at a lower capacity.
Tattoo - shoulder - after 75 minutes (colouring)
Hurtful or Disabling (about midway between them)
Sore and painful, not quite as sharp as the leg
Cold pressor test, 1 min
Disabling (lower end)
Stings a lot. Very sore and tingly, quite unpleasant.
(Credit: Scale and scores on the left of the column are adapted from Wong (2022), in turn reproduced from Melzack (1984).)
Question 1: The importance of getting it right
- I was curious whether experiencing this level of pain would help bring home the urgency of getting it right when working to do the most good for others.
- Yes, while I was experiencing the pain, this urgency became crystal clear to me.
- I also gained a much deeper appreciation for the need to be modest about what I believe. If there is suffering this intense happening on a colossal scale in the world, I need to get over my silly hang-ups and work really hard to make sure I believe the correct things, no matter how emotionally uncomfortable and intellectually challenging that process can be.
- It's hard to explain more than this - after all, the purpose was to get a personal, visceral feel for the urgency of getting it right. By definition, this is hard to explain in the form of an elegant argument.
- I've experienced this general level of pain before, which suggests that it might be easy to forget once I stop feeling the pain. But it's not exactly a good idea to subject myself to this level of pain on a regular basis. For more on how I plan to resolve this dilemma, see the Afterword section of this article.
Question 2: Is preventing suffering the most important thing?
- According to suffering-focused ethics, the most important thing is to prevent suffering. For example, Brian Tomasik quotes one author, who writes something along the lines of: it's easy to worry about principles like exploitation, oppression, liberation, and so on, but once you truly experience intense suffering, all of those concerns seem ridiculous.
- I'm not a philosopher, but I understand that other philosophical systems can lead to the conclusion "the most important thing is to prevent suffering". I'm most interested in this claim, not defending any particular philosophical system as a whole.
- Is this claim true?
Background - opinion before the experiment
- I disagree with the claim that most principles, abstractions, etc are ridiculous compared to preventing suffering.
- I definitely care about a lot of abstractions: democracy, freedom, equality, gender and queer rights, Indigenous rights, animal rights, women feeling safe in public, kindness, generosity, digital privacy, scientific advances, my gender expression, my hobbies, my social reputation, my pension fund, and so on. This claim suggests that caring about any of these things - and some of the items at the beginning of that list are things that people have given their lives for - is ridiculous. That is a very strong claim, and I find it difficult to agree.
Outcome - opinion after the experiment
- I changed my mind. I now basically agree with that claim.
- Obviously many of the social conditions (democracy, freedom, rights) and personal things (hobbies, finances) from my list can be instrumental in helping to prevent suffering. In particular, if numerous people throughout history have given their lives, exposed themselves to great hardship, and even placed their friends and families at risk in the fight for rights, freedom, equality, and so on, then it's probably safe to conclude that those things have some instrumental value. (For this reason, it might be worthwhile for the EA community to investigate the value of these humanitarian principles from an instrumental perspective.)
- But apart from that instrumental value, it now seems completely crazy to worry about anything other than preventing extreme suffering as much as possible.
- This definitely doesn't mean I intend to work for every minute of every day. I still fully intend to rest, spend time with friends and family, walk the dog, play the guitar, attend therapy, participate in my religious community, and so on. A human body needs to rest well to work well - but apart from the need to rest well, this does make many of the things I worry about on a day-to-day basis seem pretty silly. Likewise, this is not an argument in favour of unrestricted consequentialism - it should go without saying that I still intend to obey laws and ethical norms.
Some further thoughts
- I experienced "disabling"-level pain for a couple of hours, by choice and with the freedom to stop whenever I want. This was a horrible experience that made everything else seem to not matter at all.
- Let's consider, for a moment, just farmed chickens - a group of animals that I consider daily in my research.
- A single laying hen experiences hundreds of hours of this level of pain during their lifespan, which lasts perhaps a year and a half - and there are as many laying hens alive at any one time as there are humans. How would I feel if every single human were experiencing hundreds of hours of disabling pain?
- A single broiler chicken experiences fifty hours of this level of pain during their lifespan, which lasts 4-6 weeks. There are 69 billion broilers slaughtered each year. That is so many hours of pain that if you divided those hours among humanity, each human would experience about 400 hours (2.5 weeks) of disabling pain every year. Can you imagine if instead of getting, say, your regular fortnight vacation from work or study, you experienced disabling-level pain for a whole 2.5 weeks? And if every human on the planet - me, you, my friends and family and colleagues and the people living in every single country - had that same experience every year? How hard would I work in order to avert suffering that urgent?
- Every single one of those chickens are experiencing pain as awful and all-consuming as I did for tens or hundreds of hours, without choice or the freedom to stop. They are also experiencing often minutes of 'excruciating'-level pain, which is an intensity that I literally cannot imagine. Billions upon billions of animals. The numbers would be even more immense if you consider farmed fish, or farmed shrimp, or farmed insects, or wild animals.
- If there were a political regime or law responsible for this level of pain - which indeed there is - how hard would I work to overturn it? Surely that would tower well above my other priorities (equality, democracy, freedom, self-expression, and so on), which seem trivial and even borderline ridiculous in comparison.
- There exist detailed descriptions of particularly awful instances of suffering where people may experience pain at/beyond the "excruciating" level for long periods (warning for extreme/traumatising content if you follow these links - but I'm talking about Brian Tomasik's article and video and Simon Knutsson's article). I won't repeat these descriptions here, and I haven't even looked at these myself, as it would be damaging to my mental health. But this might be a useful piece of information if you're mostly concerned about human suffering (I've discussed mostly animal suffering as that is most relevant to my own work).
Question 3: How does intense pain compare morally to mild pain?
- I work as a researcher in the animal advocacy movement. In my job, I need to make trade-offs between different intensities of suffering to advise which campaigns the movement spends its money and resources on. (Note: my weightings are not the same as my organisation's weightings. While this helps advise my position when discussing this at work, the weightings that my organisation arrives at also consider many other pieces of evidence and many other people's views.)
- To give just one example, I recently had to recommend the most effective fish advocacy campaign for several countries in Europe - do we want to improve welfare throughout a fish's life even if many of those improvements might be mild, or would we prefer to implement stunning to minimise extreme suffering at slaughter?
- Concretely, you can express these trade-offs as quantitative weightings associated with the PainTrack categories. Somebody might think that preventing 1 hour spent in 'hurtful' pain is morally equivalent to preventing 15 hours spent in 'annoying' pain, in which case the weighting on 'hurtful' pain could be expressed as the number 15.
Background - opinion before the experiment
- I wrote down my rough weightings before the experiment:
Weightings (units of time that would equate with 1 unit time of annoying pain)
3 Feb 2023 (no particular special time)
Outcome - opinion after the experiment
- I wrote down my rough weightings after the experiment (and at a couple of intermediate stages).
- After the tattoo, my weightings changed to put a much higher weighting on the intense pain categories. In comparison, the cold pressor tests didn't change my weightings that much from their original position.
Weightings (units of time that would equate with 1 unit time of annoying pain)
4 Feb 2023 (Evening after getting tattoos)
??? Maybe infinite ???
25 Feb 2023 (After doing cold pressor tests)
Miscellaneous thoughts and takeaways
- Right now, putting the final touches on this article a month later, I can hardly remember the cold pressor test, but the thought of getting the tattoos still makes me shiver. This might indicate that the cold pressor test actually wasn't a very bad experience, which could be one reason why it didn't really change my weightings that much from the original ones. (See my above point about forgetting how bad the pain actually is.)
- How would I define extreme or intense pain - the pain that I (now) consider to be the most morally urgent? Placing weightings on the Pain-Track categories does avoid the need for making a qualitative distinction between morally urgent and morally-not-urgent pain. However, if I were pressed, I would say that the morally urgent pain is anything in the category of "disabling" or worse. This is entirely intuitive and subjective, and my reason is explained in the next dot point. Notably, my cutoff does feel roughly similar to that tentatively suggested for the "Hell Index" in this article: 20 on the McGill scale.
- Of the four PainTrack categories (annoying, hurtful, disabling, and excruciating), I personally have developed the opinion that there might be a qualitative distinction separating hurtful pain and disabling pain. Annoying and hurtful pain are both bad, but they are manageable, and it's possible that you could live a good life even while regularly experiencing these levels of pain. Disabling pain, to me, is hell on earth. (There may also be a further qualitative distinction between disabling pain and excruciating pain. But by definition, excruciating pain is so painful that I have no way to voluntarily give it a go.)
- I'm privileged enough that they have rarely or never experienced extreme pain. There's nothing inherently wrong with this - after all, it is wonderful to be able to use one's privilege to benefit the lives of others. But this does serve as a reminder that we probably know little about what life is actually like for the beings we are trying to help. Asking the people we are trying to help for their subjective experiences, wherever possible, seems like a really important part of actually helping them. Basically, this experience has given me a strong sense of humility about what we think we know.
- If preventing suffering is indeed the most important thing, this does give us a very useful strategy for animal advocacy. We may not necessarily need to mount a moral revolution, political revolution, or social transition, despite these having been a large part of the animal advocacy movement's strategy to date. What we need (if this is correct) is to prevent suffering. This is very actionable, especially compared to those more challenging strategies - it's easier to install humane slaughter equipment or to ban fast-growing chicken breeds than to overthrow a state or transform a food system.
- This article is mostly a personal reflection, which others have done on this topic in different ways. It's interesting to note that I arrived at some conclusions that very closely mirror Brian Tomasik's articles, despite not having read those articles closely until after I wrote this one.
Limitations and future directions
- Obviously, this was not a scientific experiment. It should go without saying that I do not claim that the measures I took are scientifically accurate relative to the scales being used. I wasn't trained in administering or understanding the McGill PRI questionnaire beforehand. Obviously, my sample size is n = 1, and I'm influenced by my own experiences, genetics, history, beliefs, and so on.
- There is no way for me to voluntarily experience really intense pain - by definition, if somebody is experiencing pain in the "excruciating" Pain-Track category, they would often rather end their life than continue experiencing that pain. There is no way for me to plausibly replicate that experience.
- I've only considered pain, not other experiences that aren't exactly pain but can still cause intense suffering and even death. I have no idea how intense pain relates to these other experiences (e.g. sexual abuse, nausea, hunger/thirst, grief, bullying, humiliation, shame, fear, trauma, loneliness, and so on). How does extreme physical pain relate to extreme psychological pain? I have no insight or data to go on - though I also haven't looked into this, and I think this would be a valuable area of future research.
- I went through these experiences voluntarily and with the knowledge that I have the freedom to stop whenever I want. People suffering from painful disease, children dying of hunger, chickens being electrocuted to death, fish being asphyxiated to death - for these individuals, such experiences are a horrific reality, not an experiment. I can only imagine that these experiences would feel senseless, meaningless, and terrifying.
- It would be interesting to experience the concrete practices that animals do, like different forms of transport or mutilations. Obviously, there is a very strong limit on how closely I could replicate most of those practices when experimenting on myself.
- I did consider using a TENS machine as another safe way to experience pain. People have used these machines before to simulate the pain of periods or childbirth. I basically didn't want to spend the couple of hundred dollars purely for this article, and I'm less confident in my ability to use a TENS machine safely.
- I would also be interested in experiencing the sting of a bullet ant or a tarantula hawk wasp, if that could be achieved without causing harm to the animal stinging me. These are the highest-scoring insects on the Schmidt sting pain index. In Schmidt's book, he writes: "Stung by a tarantula hawk? The advice I give [...] is to lie down and scream. [...] The pain is instantaneous, electrifying, excruciating, and totally debilitating." As for the bullet ant, which Schmidt claims has the Holy Grail of stings: "... absolutely excruciatingly painful and debilitating. [...] my hand was throbbing, sending crescendos of pain, followed by easing a bit, only to be repeated with renewed ferocity. All the while the forearm was uncontrollably vibrating up and down." You can watch a bullet ant sting in action in this video by Australian comedians Hamish and Andy, which shows one of the pair have a go at the Sateré-Mawé people's coming-of-age ritual.
- I did speak to somebody who - voluntarily, and as a casual experiment - subjected themselves to water torture. Without getting into specifics, that conversation led me to have greater confidence in the broad conclusions I've drawn in this article.
Afterword: Sitting at the edge of the lake
- My conclusions from this experience presents me with a strange dilemma.
- Suffering is so urgent that it demands our immediate, unrelenting attention - but I need to maintain that attention for my whole career. There is an emergency, but it's long and drawn-out. The building is burning, but it will continue to burn for a long time. This is a weird position to be in.
- I need to remember the insights and opinions that I've developed throughout this experience, but it would not be sustainable to agonise over them on a day-to-day basis. I need to trust in what I've written here, and perhaps revisit it occasionally in case I need to make a course correction. But I cannot spend every day agonising over the severity and urgency of suffering.
- One of my contacts told me the metaphor of the lake of suffering - we need to sit at the lake and help others who are drowning, without falling in and drowning ourselves.
- It's absolutely critical to make sure my theory of change is sound and robust, and to focus all of my (work) energy on working to implement that theory of change. It would be good to keep in mind the insights I've described in this article while I develop and test my theory of change. But once it comes to the day-to-day work of actually implementing that theory of change, I can think about my goals slightly differently. Rather than agonising over extreme suffering from Monday to Friday, I can just enjoy doing the specific tasks, like research and writing, that are dictated by my theory of change.
Notes and acknowledgements
As a disclaimer, I chose to do this experiment myself, and nobody encouraged me. My views do not represent the views of my employer.
I would like to thank my friends and professional contacts who helped guide my thinking and writing on this topic.
FWIW, I've undergone both getting a tattoo in a relatively painful place (my ribcage) and natural/unmedicated childbirth, and your assessment of the pain doesn't really line up with my experience. My tattoo is pretty small, and I suspect the wrist would be more painful, so maybe that explains the delta. But my unmedicated childbirth was also significantly faster than average, (like a total of about 70 minutes), so that should also close some of the delta.
The pain of the most painful parts of childbirth was excruciating in a way that just wasn't in the same ballpark as the tattoo. The tattoo was more like the early parts of childbirth - hard to talk, had to focus to control my breathing, took extra mental energy to answer a question, sweating from discomfort. Transition labor was a whole other beast, though - it was like my body couldn't contain that amount of pain and was being split open, but that the environment that it was being split open into contained pain instead of air.
Maybe the key difference is "I went through these experiences voluntarily and with the knowledge that I have the freedom to stop whenever I want." I did not intend on having an unmedicated birth (I was open to it, but wanted the choice to be mine). Labor progressed so quickly that the medical team was unable to get analgesics to me in time. I felt completely out of control and none of the nurses in the labor and delivery room was taking control - I think no one had realized how quickly my labor was progressing. Once the midwife arrived, she took control and within ~30 seconds of her arriving, I no longer felt in terrible pain. In fact, I don't recall feeling any pain after that. Though my guess is that transition labor was over by that point, so it's hard to say why my pain was so greatly diminished.
It's kind of horrifying to me that there are multiple things rated above this on the pain scale.
Anyway, it seems like there are probably a ton of people in the world who have tattoos and who have undergone unmedicated childbirth, and I'd be interested to see how their experiences compare. I'd be happy to ask some women I know if you think it'd be informative.
Thanks for sharing this. It sounds like you found childbirth to be qualitatively more awful than your other experiences? I definitely agree with one of your takeaways - the fact that some experiences have been rates as even worse than this on the pain scale, for me, serves as a very strong motivation to reduce suffering in any way I can.
(I did ask around a fair bit before posting this article, and got the opinions of a number of people close to me who have gone through different painful experiences, both acute and chronic, many of which are mentioned on the pain scale graph. This is part of why I point out that the PRI scores I report aren't supposed to be taken as scientific or literal, emphasise that it's n=1, I'm untrained, definitely only moderate level, etc. But it does reinforce my point, which is basically "wow, all I did was mess around with a tattoo gun for an afternoon and it was this bad, that's all the more reason to do as much as we can to prevent others from experiencing actual pain.")
Thanks for sharing your experiences. There's also an article here with some useful info on and others' experiences with inadequate pain relief for childbirth in the UK: https://www.vice.com/en/article/8x7mm4/childbirth-pain-relief-denied
(Caveat: Views my own, not my employer's)
I think this sort of first-hand investigation is potentially pretty valuable. I know Ren discourages folks from conducting similar self-experimentation, but I would be curious to see safe and careful experiments of this bent to understand the impact of deliberate experiences of suffering on moral views. Perhaps a worthwhile task for some empirical ethicists.
I am worried that exposing oneself to extreme amounts of suffering without also exposing oneself to extreme amounts of pleasure, happiness, tranquility, truth, etc., will predictably lead one to care a lot more about reducing suffering compared to doing something about other common human values, which seems to have happened here. And the fact that certain experiences like pain are a lot easier to induce (at extreme intensities) than other experiences creates a bias in which values people care the most about.
Carl Shulman made a similar point in this post: "This is important to remember since our intuitions and experience may mislead us about the intensity of pain and pleasure which are possible. In humans, the pleasure of orgasm may be less than the pain of deadly injury, since death is a much larger loss of reproductive success than a single sex act is a gain. But there is nothing problematic about the idea of much more intense pleasures, such that their combination with great pains would be satisfying on balance."
Personally speaking, as someone who has been depressed and anxious most of my life and sometimes have (unintentionally) experienced extreme amounts of suffering, I don't currently find myself caring more about pleasure/happiness compared to pain/suffering (I would say I care about them roughly the same). There's also this thing I've noticed where sometimes when I'm suffering a lot, the suffering starts to "feel good" and I don't mind it as much, and symmetrically, when I've been happy the happiness has started to "feel fake" somehow so overall I feel pretty confused about what terminal values I am even optimizing for (but thankfully it seems like on the current strategic landscape I don't need to figure this out immediately).
It may end up being that such intensely positive values are possible in principle and matter as much as intense pains, but they don’t matter in practice for neartermists, because they're too rare and difficult to induce. Your theory could symmetrically prioritize both extremes in principle, but end up suffering-focused in practice. I think the case for upside focus in longtermism could be stronger, though.
It's also conceivable that pleasurable states as intense as excruciating pains in particular are not possible in principle after refining our definitions of pleasure and suffering and their intensities. Pleasure and suffering seem not to be functionally symmetric. Excruciating pain makes us desperate to end it. The urgency seems inherent to its intensity, and its subjective urgency lifts to its moral urgency and importance when we weight individuals' subjective wellbeing. Would similarly intense pleasure make us desperate to continue/experience it? It's plausible to me that such desperation would actually just be bad or unpleasant, and so such a pleasurable state would be worse than other pleasurable ones. Or, at least, such desperation doesn’t seem to me to be inherently positively tied to its intensity. Suffering is also cognitively disruptive in a way pleasure seems not to be. And pain seems to be more tied to motivation than pleasure seems to be (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13164-013-0171-2 ).
If by "neartermism" you mean something like "how do we best help humans/animals/etc who currently exist using only technologies that currently exist, while completely ignoring the fact that AGI may be created within the next couple of decades" or "how do we make the next 1 year of experiences as good as we can while ignoring anything beyond that" or something along those lines, then I agree. But I guess I wasn't really thinking along those lines since I find that kind of neartermism either pretty implausible or feel like it doesn't really include all the relevant time periods I care about.
I agree with you that that is definitely conceivable. But I think that, as Carl argued in his post (and elaborated on further in the comment thread with gwern), our default assumption should be that efficiency (and probably also intensity) of pleasure vs pain is symmetric.
I think there are multiple ways to be a neartermist or longtermist, but "currently existing" and "next 1 year of experiences" exclude almost all effective animal advocacy we actually do and the second would have ruled out deworming.
Are you expecting yourself (or the average EA) to be able to cause greater quantities of intense pleasure than quantities of intense suffering you (or the average EA) can prevent in the next ~30 years, possibly considering AGI? Maybe large numbers of artificially sentient beings made to experience intense pleasure, or new drugs and technologies for humans?
To me, the distinction between neartermism and longtermism is primarily based on decision theory and priors. Longtermists tend to be more willing to bet more to avoid a single specific existential catastrophe (usually extinction) even if the average longtermist is extremely unlikely to avert the catastrophe. Neartermists rely on better evidence, but seem prone to ignore what they can't measure (McNamara fallacy). It seems hard to have predictably large positive impacts past the average human lifespan other than through one-shots the average EA is very unlikely to be able to affect, or without predictably large positive effects in the nearer term, which could otherwise qualify the intervention as a good neartermist one.
I think identical distributions for efficiency is a reasonable ignorance prior, ignoring direct intuitions and evidence one way or the other, but we aren't so ignorant that we can't make any claims one way or the other. The kinds of claims Shulman made are only meant to defeat specific kinds of arguments for negative skew over symmetry, like direct intuition, not to argue for positive skew. Given the possibility that direct intuition in this case could still be useful (and indeed skews towards negative being more efficient, which seems likely), contra Shulman, then without arguments for positive skew (that don't apply equally in favour of negative skew), we should indeed expect the negative to be more efficient.
Furthermore, based on the arguments other than direct intuition I made above, and, as far as I know, no arguments for pleasure being more efficient than pain that don't apply equally in reverse, we have more reason to believe efficiencies should skew negative.
Also similar to gwern's comment, if positive value on non-hedonistic views does depend on things like reliable perception of the outside world or interaction with other conscious beings (e.g. compared to the experience machine or just disembodied pleasure) but bads don't (e.g. suffering won't really be any less bad in an experience machine or if disembodied), then I'd expect negative value to be more efficient than positive value, possibly far more efficient, because perception and interaction require overhead and may slow down experiences.
However, similar efficiency for positive value could still be likely enough that the expected efficiencies are still similar enough and other considerations like their frequency dominate.
I think this is a fair point, if you believe that pleasure can outweigh really awful suffering in practice. I do not currently believe this, for all practical purposes. Basically, my position is that these other human values - while somewhat valuable - are simply trivial in the face of the really awful suffering that is very common in our world.
Do you know of any ways I could experimentally expose myself to extreme amounts of pleasure, happiness, tranquility, and truth?
I'd be willing to expose myself to whatever you suggest, plus extreme suffering, to see if this changes my mind. Or we can work together to design a different experimental setup if you think that would produce better evidence.
I'm not aware of any way to expose yourself to extreme amounts of pleasure, happiness, tranquility, and truth that is cheap, legal, time efficient, and safe. That's part of the point I was trying to make in my original comment. If you're willing forgo some of those requirements, then as Ian/Michael mentioned, for pleasure and tranquility I think certain psychedelics (possibly illegal depending on where you live, possibly unsafe, and depending on your disposition/luck may be a terrible idea) and meditation practices (possibly expensive, takes a long time, possibly unsafe) could be places to look into. For truth, maybe something like "learning all the fields and talking to all the people out there" (expensive, time-consuming, and probably unsafe/distressing), though I realize that's a pretty unhelpful suggestion.
I appreciate the offer, and think it's brave/sincere/earnest of you (not trying to be snarky/dismissive/ironic here - I really wish more people had more of this trait that you seem to possess). My current thinking though is that humans need quite a benign environment in order to stay sane and be able to introspect well on their values (see discussion here, where I basically agree with Wei Dai), and that extreme experiences in general tend to make people "insane" in unpredictable ways. (See here for a similar concern I once voiced around psychedelics.) And even a bunch of seemingly non-extreme experiences (like reading the news, going on social media, or being exposed to various social environments like cults and Cultural Revolution-type dynamics) seem to have historically made a bunch of people insane and continue to make people insane. Basically, although flawed, I think we still have a bunch of humans around who are still basically sane or at least have some "grain of sanity" in them, and I think it's incredibly important to preserve that sanity. So I would probably actively discourage people from undertaking such experiments in most cases.
Sure, makes sense. Thanks for your reply.
If I wanted to prove or support the claim:
"given the choice between preventing extreme suffering and giving people more [pleasure/happiness/tranquility/truth], we should pick the latter option"
How would you recommend I go about proving or supporting that claim? I'd be keen to read or experience the strongest possible evidence for that claim. I've read a fair bit about pleasure and happiness, but for the other, less-tangible values (tranquility and truth) I'm less familiar with any arguments.
It would be a major update for me if I found evidence strong enough to convince me that giving people more tranquility and truth (and pleasure and happiness in any practical setting, under which I include many forms of longtermism) could be good enough to forego preventing extreme suffering. This would have major implications for my current work and my future directions, so I would like to understand this view as well as I can in case I'm wrong and therefore missing out on something important.
You may want to have a look at Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain if you haven't already.
I was just about to share this. I guess some of the psychedelics in their pleasure scale figure could be the easiest to use to experience intense pleasure, depending on your local laws and enforcement.
That may be true; but for anyone tempted to try it, just a reminder that
I'm happy to consider this further if there are people who would find value in the outcome (particularly if there are people who would change decisions based on the outcome). I think it would be tractable to design something safe and legal, whether through psychedelics or some other tool.
I also have (moderate) depression and anxiety but I guess I wouldn't consider my experiences 'intense/extreme suffering' (although 'extreme amounts of suffering', as you've written, might make sense here).
The kind of suffering that's experienced when, e.g. being eaten alive by predators, seems to me to be qualitatively different from the depression-induced suffering I experience. I somehow also 'got used to' depression-suffering after a while (probably independent of the anti-depressant effects) and also don't mind it as much as I did, but that numbness and somewhat bearable intensity doesn't seem to come with the 'more physical' causes of suffering.
Probably one of the coolest things I have ever read on the EA forum. Thank you so much, Ren! I was looking for something like this for years now. I always had this thought: how would it be if we treated animal suffering seriously? If we see them as humans for a bit. The conclusion was always: we will devote our lives, freedom, time, and strength to help them on a totally different level than we do now.
This post helped me see the suffering of animals much better than I have ever seen it before while reading hundreds of articles about their experiences. This was such a clever thing to do. This is such a smart post. I am extremely moved and extremely grateful you wrote it. I am not sure if people would appreciate it, but I do very much. It's so helpful to see this perspective. I don't feel like I need to do the experiments to benefit from your insights.
I guess it solidifies my focus on decreasing animal suffering as my primary focus area, but it also makes me think more about tradeoffs between different interventions.
Really great thing!
@Ren Springlea I asked my best friend who has 20+ tattoos and two children about her experience of pain (also inspired by @Molly 's comment). This is what she wrote:
"Having had many tattoos, some of them several hours long and having given birth twice as well as having experienced intense contractions following a termination of a pregnancy, I would not even attempt to compare these pains as they are on an entirely different scale.
I have tattoos over all parts of my body, including areas widely thought of as incredibly painful and I had many a session when I felt like my skin was being ripped apart, yet not a single one of them ever came close to what I felt during childbirth.
I had two unmedicated births when no analgesia was used whatsoever and whilst some hypnobirthing techniques along with mental preparation helped a lot the second time around, the pain I felt was still absolutely excruciating and way above anything a tattoo could ever cause even on a tired swollen and bleeding skin in the most painful place on the body."
Thanks everybody for the discussion on this post. I'm glad to see it has inspired some thought and debate, and that other people are sharing their experiences.
I've reached my limit for engaging with these comments, so now I need to return to my main tasks (doing my best to prevent suffering + self-care) and I won't reply to future comments (but happy to correct objective errors). Thanks again everyone.
I think this is a very important distinction that should be given more emphasis. When I've experienced severe pain, the no.1 thought in my mind was "oh god make it stop". This makes complete sense if you think of pain as your body's way of saying, "ok, whatever it is you're doing, you need to stop doing it now." And I think a lot of the psychological suffering I experienced was due to the stress of not being able to stop the thing that was causing pain, and not knowing how long the pain would go on for. I add the word 'psychological' for clarity here, but in reality I don't think there's a clear difference between 'psychological' and 'physical' sources of pain. All pain in a sense is psychological - all of it happens 'in your mind', and factors such as knowing the pain will end soon can have a big effect on the experience of pain.
This distinction could also have a big effect on how people rate their pain on the pain-track framework. The framework seems to define pain a lot in terms of 'how long could a person endure this?' And that answer probably varies a lot depending on whether you know the pain will go away soon, or not. For 'disabling' pain, it could literally be less disabling, if you knows it's going to end soon. You might think something like, "ok, I know this will end in 5 minutes, for now I'm going to do this other job to distract myself". And looking back at the experience, and your behaviour at the time, you might read the scale, and think "ok it's wasn't that disabling, I could still do stuff".
I have the complete opposite intuition: equal levels of pain are harder to endure for equal time if you have the option to make them stop. Obviously I don’t disagree that pain for a long time is worse than pain for a short time.
This intuition is driven by experiences like: the same level of exercise fatigue is a lot easier to endure if giving up would cause me to lose face. In general, exercise fatigue is more distracting than pain from injuries (my reference points being a broken finger and a cup of boiling water in my crotch - the latter being about as distractingly painful as a whole bunch of not especially notable bike races etc).
Thinking a bit more: the boiling water actually was more intense for a few seconds, but after that it was comparable to bike racing. But also, all I wanted to do was run around shouting obscenities and given that I was doing exactly that I don’t recall the sense of being in conflict with myself, which is one of the things I find hard to deal with about pain.
I don’t know that this scales to very intense pain. The only pain experience I’ve had notable enough to recall years later was e when I ran 70km without having done very much running to train for it - it hurt a lot I don’t have any involuntary pain experiences that compare to it (running + lack of preparation was important here - I’ve done 400km bike rides with no especially notable pain). This was voluntary in the sense that I could have stopped and called someone to pick me up, but that would have disqualified my team.
One prediction I’d make is that holding my hand in an ice bucket with only myself for company would be much harder than doing it with other people where I’d be ashamed to be the first to pull it out. I don’t just mean I’d act differently - I mean I think I would actually experience substantially less psychological tension.
Your comment made me realise I'm actually talking about two different things:
I agree with you that having some kind of peer pressure or social credit for 'doing well' can help a person withstand pain. I'd imagine this has an effect on the hand-in-cold-water experiment, if you're doing it on your own vs as part of a trial with onlookers.
BTW, you mentioned the'Schmidt Index' of insect sting painfulness. It was named after entomologist Justin Schmidt, who died recently (Feb 18, 2023). The Economist magazine just published a charming and informative obituary of him him here
Ah I wasn't aware Schmidt had recently died. That's a shame, he must have died after I wrote the first draft of this article. I read his book (The Sting of the Wild) which helped inform this article. Thanks for sharing this, I'll read the obituary.
Ime you can induce much more torture than a tattoo relatively safely. Though all the best 'safe' forms of torture do cause short term damage to the skin.
Not sure why this is being so heavily down-voted. I believe it's accurate and contributes, especially re: my comments where a safe and non-permanent way of causing severe pain would be needed.
I had more trouble understanding how nest deprivation could be equivalent to "**** me, make it stop. Like someone slicing into my leg with a hot, sharp live wire." So I looked up the underpinnings of this metric, in Ch. 6 of the book they build their analysis on (pg. 6-9 is the key material).
They base this on the fact that chickens pace, preen, show aggressive competition for nests when availability is limited, and will work as hard to push open heavy doors to access nests as they will to access food after 4-28 hours of food deprivation. Based on this, the authors categorize nest deprivation as a disabling experience that each hen endures for an average of about 45 minutes per day.
This is a technically accurate definition, but I still had trouble intuiting this as equivalent to a daily experience of disabling physical pain equivalent to having your leg sliced open with a hot, sharp live wire.
Researchers are limited to showing that chickens exhibit distress during nest deprivation, or, in more sophisticated research, that they work as hard to access nest boxes as they do to access food after 4-28 hours of food deprivation.
I am suspicious of the claim that these methods are adequate to allow us to make comparisons of physical and emotional pain across species. This is especially true with the willingness-to-work metric they use to compare the severity of nest deprivation and starvation on chickens.
I've spent too long writing this comment, so I'm going to just stop here.
Nest deprivation could be in the bottom half of the disabling pain intensity range. Ren put their tattoo experiences described as "**** me, make it stop. Like someone slicing into my leg with a hot, sharp live wire." near the high end of disabling. Also, the latter just sounds excruciating to me personally, not merely disabling, but we discussed that here.
Besides the evidence you mention, they also mention vocalizations (gakel-calls), which seem generally indicative of frustration across contexts (dustbathing deprivation, food/water deprivation, nesting deprivation), and hens made more of them when nest deprived than when deprived of food, water or dustbathing in Zimmerman et al., 2000, although in that study, the authors discuss the possibility that nest deprivation gakel-calls are more specific and not necessarily indicative of frustration:
Thank you for contributing more information.
I understand and appreciate the thinking behind step in Ren's argument. However, the ultimate result is this:
My main takeaway is that the breadth and variety of experience that arguably falls under the umbrella of "disabling pain" is enormous, and we can only have low-moderate confidence in animal welfare pain metrics. As a result, I am updating toward increased skepticism in high-level summaries of animal welfare research.
The impact of nest deprivation on laying hen welfare may still be among the most pressing animal welfare issues. But, if tractability was held constant, I might prefer to focus on alleviating physical pain among a smaller number of birds.
Also, to disagreevoters, I'm genuinely curious about why you disagree! Were you already appropriately skeptical before? Do you think I am being too skeptical? Why or why not?
Should this say 'Hurtful' instead of 'Disabling'? The way you describe it sounds hurtful to me, and "Tattoo - shoulder - after 75 minutes (colouring)" was marked as Hurtful or Disabling but had a higher score.
Yes this should probably say "Hurtful". In my personal interpretation of the PainTrack categories, doing a day of work would only really be possible at "Hurtful" or less.
Thanks for this post. However, I find myself disagreeing with the implicit hedonistic perspective here.
If you could choose, which would you prefer?
I'm not sure if there's a single human alive that would choose (2) over (1). Even if you gave someone a 5-minute sample of the excruciating pain, they'd still choose the 1-hour version over the death of their child, guaranteed.
But children die all the time! That's the point of the AMF and similar charities. If you prioritize animals, you may want to consider whether they care about the deaths of their offspring.
IIRC, Vinding used a similar example in his SFE book but framed it using 'impartial' terms.
For impartiality, choice (1) might be modified to 'the excruciating, "maybe infinite" pain, for 1 hour (no long-term consequences) of one's own child'. In that case, I think it's plausible that humans would choose (2) over (1).
I think different humans would choose differently. According to various people in this comment section and elsewhere, childbirth is extremely painful and lasts on the order of an hour. Yet people still choose to have children, even though some of those children will grow up to experience childbirth. My own tentative answer is that I'd ask to experience the pain myself a bit first, and also want to get a clearer sense of what life would be like afterwards--if it's a normal healthy late-20th-century middle class American life, I could see myself choosing 1, pending results from experiencing it myself for a bit.
Maybe I should follow in Ren's footsteps and get a tattoo.
Yeah fair. It seems more accurate to say that some humans would choose (the modified, impartial form of) (2) over (1), and some other humans would choose (1) over modified (2).
'In that case, I think it's plausible that humans would choose (2) over (1).' What's the evidence for this?
It's just my intuition that people wouldn't want to subject their child to excruciating physical torture that could be 'infinite' in intensity, and although both options are bad, this would seem worse than the death of one's child.
P.S. Not sure why people are downvoting this? Intuitions can serve as weak evidence.
First of all, I doubt it. People don't even commit suicide to avoid 1 hour pain (usually the suicide-due-to-pain people are those who don't anticipate ever getting better).
Second, even assuming you're right, what happens in that world is that the emotional pain still trumps the actual pain. Like, if people prefer their own pain to their child's death, then the death of a child is worse than the pain of a hermit (someone with no family). It's not necessarily worse than the pain for a child... but only if that child has parents. Is that your model? It has important implications.
I mostly agree with what you've said, and I think that your view and my view are pretty much consistent. My main message isn't really "physical pain is worse than other types of suffering", rather: "I found even moderate physical pain to be really, really awful, which suggests that it's probably really, really morally urgent to prevent both extreme physical pain and other types of extreme suffering".
The hedonistic focus probably arose from the fact that I can subject myself to physical pain quite easily, but less so other types of suffering. I mention this in the limitations section.
This seems very clearly not guaranteed for some arbitrarily large amount of pain.
It probably depends on whether one was given the choice in advance, while not being in the midst of the excruciating pain. The parent would probably precommit to enduring said pain for an hour to save their child. They may, however, choose differently if in the midst of the pain and offered the ability to kill their child to end that excruciating pain.
Do you have children?
I have children, and I would precommit to enduring the pain without hesitation, but I don’t know what I would do in the middle of experiencing the pain. If pain is sufficiently intense, “I” am not in chatter any more, and whatever part of me is in charge, I don’t know very well how it would act
Oh, I didn't mean for you to make the decision in the middle of pain!
The scenario is: first, you experience 5 minutes of pain. Then take a 1 hour break. Then decide: 1 hour pain, or dead child. No changing your mind once you've decided.
The possibility that pain may twist your brain into taking actions you do not endorse when not under duress is interesting, but not particularly morally relevant. We usually care about informed decisions not made under duress.
Hey Ren, this is a great post!
I share your intuition that reducing extreme suffering is the no.1 moral imperative for humankind.
What charities do you recommend, if that's what you value most? GiveWell recommended charities based on their own moral weights, which I don't think weight as reducing extreme suffering as highly as me.
Then there's many animal welfare charities. And there's OPIS, which is the only charity I know that explicitly targets extreme human suffering. Are there any others that I'm missing?
Thanks for your positive feedback :)
I haven't thought too hard about specific charities. Since I work for a relatively young charity startup, I don't take a very high salary and it wouldn't make sense to increase my salary just to donate.
If I had a large amount of money to donate, I'd probably pick an animal advocacy charity with a strong, well-backed theory of change that focuses on reforms that a) are large-scale and b) prevent high-intensity suffering. Examples of this might include charities working on cage-free hen reforms, the Better Chicken Commitment, or fish slaughter reform. I suspect Fish Welfare Initiative and Shrimp Welfare Project would also fare well from this perspective.
I haven't researched this question specifically, so there's a good chance my specific interventions/charities would change with further consideration.
Since my day job is in animal advocacy, I'm less informed about human charities. Other people probably have better-informed opinions on human charities for preventing extreme suffering than I could. A fair few people have written on the EA Forum about the importance of preventing extreme suffering, so those people might have some well-informed recommendations.
I agree that animal-welfare charities are a good choice. For s-risks, there are the Center on Long-Term Risk and Center for Reducing Suffering.
Personally I'm most enthusiastic about humane slaughter because
Is there a charity working on fish-slaughter reform? The Humane Slaughter Association does some work in this area, but I wonder if there are other charities doing it. My impression is that most of Fish Welfare Initiative's work is on welfare during life rather than at slaughter?
sorry, I got your name wrong in my reply (changed now)! I'm going to look into my question further, and read some of https://reducing-suffering.org/ you linked to. That's as a result of this post:)
I know this is obvious and noted, but uncontrolled suffering is far different. Suffering such that you want to die. (I write about that, in the Worsts, in https://www.losingmyreligions.net/ )
I would ask everyone to check out https://www.preventsuffering.org/
This is a very good post that asks a very important question: how differently would I act if I had actually experienced extreme amounts of suffering ?
I suppose that I would have a lot more motivation at preventing the worst kinds of suffering (a lot of the possible work would be in animal welfare, I suppose).
This is neglected and your post is written in a very vivid and clear tone, much better than abstract stuff.
Thank you for this, it's important.
The weightings use "annoying pain" as a baseline. How many units of annoying pain would you exchange for a unit of moderate happiness? And then how many units of moderate happiness would you trade for a unit of various pleasant experiences (maybe stuff related to psychedelics, food, nature, music, meditation, exercise, laughter, love, success, beauty, relaxation, fulfillment, etc)?
I imagine the answers to the above questions vary significantly from person to person. I'd be keen to see any existing research on this topic.
Also, maybe I missed it, but the "Question 2" section seems to exclude any detailed contemplation of the value of various pleasant experiences. This makes the analysis seem imbalanced to me.
I'm curious why you think the most intensely painful parts of your tattoo experiences were disabling at most, and not excruciating. Is it that you still found them bearable, but just barely? The way you subjectively describe them and having to stop suggests to me that they weren't bearable, but I'm not sure.
For what it's worth, the Welfare Footprint Project has slightly refined pain intensity definitions compared to the ones you quote in this post, presumably to be applicable to nonhuman animals and possibly more general in other ways. They describe excruciating pain this way:
They felt awful, but I kept going with them voluntarily (albeit with some breaks). Under the definition of Excruciating-level pain, that would typically be impossible: "the threshold of pain under which many people choose to take their lives rather than endure the pain". So, there is no way that pain could be Excruciating-level, even though it hurt really bad.
Maybe it briefly reached excruciating when you had to stop, but it wasn’t excruciating most of the time or immediately excruciating when you started again and you didn’t expect it to be?
Also, you had a better (faster and more accessible) option than to take your life: just ask them to stop. I'm not sure the fact that you started again means it wasn’t excruciating, because you weren’t in (nearly as intense) pain when you asked them to continue, and you expected to be able to bear it again, at least for a while.
I think a pain of constant sensory intensity and quality can vary in how bad, urgent and tolerable it feels depending on how long you've been subjected to it. How bad it feels depends on your psychological reaction to it, e.g. whether you can distract yourself from it, but your ability to control your attention might wear out. A similar point is made here, with respect to stimulus intensity instead of sensory intensity: https://centerforreducingsuffering.org/research/clarifying-lexical-thresholds/