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A common objection to suffering-focused ethics is that it contradicts our practically prioritizing other pursuits, such as seeking positive experiences. To respond, this essay aims to show that even if we assume a purely suffering-focused view, it would still be wise to recognize the highly positive and often necessary roles that other things may have for reducing suffering. Suffering-focused views may value these other things for different reasons, but not necessarily any less in practice, than other consequentialist views. Moreover, in order to resolve tradeoffs between seemingly positive values, we may find great clarity in unpacking their causal relations to the suffering of sentient beings. A focus on reducing suffering can thereby help make different values commensurable with each other, and hence be a way to ground a framework for value prioritization.

1. Introduction

“Suffering-focused ethics is an umbrella term for moral views that place primary or particular importance on the prevention of suffering. Most views that fall into this category are pluralistic in that they hold that other things besides reducing suffering also matter morally.” (Gloor, 2016; bold emphasis mine)

Most people agree that reducing intense suffering is important, all else being equal. When all else is not equal, we enter the realm of tradeoffs between values. And because suffering-focused views prioritize the reduction of suffering, they can seem to imply that other things should be overridden at the slightest opportunity. My aim in this essay is to describe why this is not the case in practice, even if we assume a purely suffering-focused view that is ultimately concerned only about reducing suffering.

Specifically, this essay will…

  • assume a monist view where only suffering has independent (i.e. intrinsic) value, and other things can have positive value only by virtue of their tendency to reduce this negative value.
  • use the term other things to mean values such as:
    • Autonomy (3.1); maintaining stable ecosystems (3.2); cultural diversity (3.3).
    • Wellbeing and flourishing (4.1); surviving and overcoming challenges and difficulties (4.2).
    • Exploration of consciousness (4.3); growth and learning (4.4).
    • Depth and variety of experience (4.5); social relatedness (4.6).
    • Meaning and positive narratives (4.7).
  • sketch a minimum extent to which these other things would be valued on all suffering-focused views, or at least all suffering-focused views with a consequentialist component, where any independent value that these other things may have (on pluralist views) would be “added on top” of their relational roles on this minimal monist view.

Beyond the values mentioned above, there are also general consequentialist defenses of other popular intrinsic values, such as rights (e.g. these three books) and virtues. These values and defenses may also be tenable from a suffering-focused perspective, yet they are beyond the scope of this essay.

Final meta notes:

  • You can read the main sections in any order, but the first three (3.1–3.3) share a common introduction, as do the last seven (4.1–4.7).
  • Before the main sections, the next section will briefly consider whether the monist view assumed in this essay necessarily implies that all positive value is ‘instrumental value’ or whether it might be better conceptualized in some other way.

2. Possible misconceptions about instrumental value

Below are some reasons why it may be confusing or counterproductive to think of positive values as “merely instrumental” in everyday life:

  • ‘Instrumental value’ can have misleading connotations, such as something or someone being valuable primarily as a tool that is perhaps even intentionally used to advance the goals of someone in particular. These connotations are misleading in the context of suffering-focused ethics, where
    • all beings are taken into primary consideration based on their capacity to suffer;
    • beings and non-sentient things alike may have positive roles for reducing suffering regardless of anyone intentionally using them this way; and
    • instrumental value is related to reducing the suffering of all beings instead of serving anyone’s personal goals in particular.
  • ‘Instrumental value’ can sound like second-rate value, as if it were in constant danger of being overridden by a more important kind of value. However, this need not be true, because the instrumental value of a thing can often be greater than the same thing’s intrinsic (dis)value.
    • For example, many learning experiences contain moments that feel very painful, yet they may be necessary stepping stones for becoming effective helpers.
    • Generally, since any instrumental value is always instrumental in relation to some intrinsic value, we can see that they would be comparable on the same scale. (Note: this point may be straightforward only on a monist view where we are concerned with only one kind of intrinsic value.)
  • ‘Instrumental value’ is difficult to fully appreciate in practice, because the total amount of instrumental value — of a thing or process, for a universal goal — depends on causal relations that may work in very indirect and long-term ways. E.g., it would arguably do more harm than good if we started treating each other’s autonomy as merely a tool whose value depends on context, because we have no way of unpacking the complex value of autonomy in the moment.
    • Therefore, even a theoretically monistic consequentialism implies that it is practically best to treat many of our culture’s widely held intrinsic values as valid moral heuristics to follow and respect — until they run into edge cases or conflicts with each other, at which point we may want to carefully unpack their roles in something like instrumental terms for a common standard of value.

2.1 Better alternatives?

If we can avoid problems such as those above, it seems useful to continue using the term ‘instrumental value’. Alternatively, some of these problems may be easier to avoid if we think about instrumental value in terms of extrinsic value, relational value, or positive roles. As a conceptual experiment, the rest of this essay will mention relations and roles and avoid the easily misunderstood term that is ‘instrumental value’.

3. Life and diversity

A common objection to suffering-focused views is that they would ignore or override values that are widely held to have almost sacred status, such as protection of personal autonomy, life and ecosystems, or respect for other views (e.g., cultural diversity). To be clear, this is a serious objection against any naively construed view that may indeed lack proper respect for those values. However, a more careful account of how to best reduce suffering implies that it would be self-defeating to attempt to help others while also going against such deeply and widely held principles and values, many of which are also well-aligned with reducing suffering in the first place.

In brief, autonomy is a general requirement for most of our goals, and protecting it allows people to take care of their own needs as they best see fit, as well as to push back against perceived dangers of top-down power, which is historically untrustworthy and therefore plausibly a worse risk for long-term suffering than individuals sometimes exercising their autonomy in harmful ways. Stable ecosystems may also be necessary for averting conflicts that could cause great suffering, such as resource wars that could lead to more ruthless values. Moreover, there are strong reasons to cooperate with other value systems on potentially divisive issues, such as how to best address wild animal suffering. Similarly, it is important to respect cultural diversity in order to avoid unnecessary and harmful conflicts, as well as for the reason that many of the world’s cultures may contain insights for reducing suffering that we have yet to recognize.

To address cases where these values do lead to suffering, it would be counterproductive to oppose them wholesale, as there are usually more targeted ways to reduce such suffering that preserve the upsides of these values, and which most people would consider reasonable (e.g. laws against using one’s autonomy in ways that directly harm others). This way, we may best reduce suffering by aligning with the autonomy and interests of others, and by facilitating social coordination toward reducing suffering. After all, most people and value systems already wish to avoid suffering in some sense, and may thus be open to respectful dialogue about it.

3.1 Autonomy

Most of us have a strong need for making independent decisions: we want choice and predictability over our lives instead of being restricted or maneuvered by others. We easily perceive forceful limitations on our autonomy as being offensive or manipulative, which may be based on historically justified skepticism of anyone being both willing and able to handle our personal affairs better than we ourselves. A degree of autonomy is generally required for pursuing any long-term goal, and so by hindering the fulfillment of our other needs, an unmet need for autonomy can almost by itself cause great suffering.

Moreover, in terms of motivating others to reduce suffering, it is probably most effective to appeal to people’s own free choice rather than to use more forceful methods, whether they be forceful rhetoric or actual force. Beyond being less effective, such forceful methods also come with a greater risk of causing a harmful backlash.

When allowed to act freely, most of us are already interested in avoiding intense suffering for ourselves, and many will also make efforts to help or at least not harm others. Of course, sometimes we may exercise our autonomy in harmful ways. Yet this alone does not justify strict limitations of freedoms of speech, movement, or self-direction, as such limitations may cause far more suffering all things considered. For example, when the powerful allegedly “know better”, and power becomes corrupted, the result tends to be suffering for the masses.

Skepticism of top-down control may be the main reason to respect autonomy on any view, including suffering-focused views. Top-down control is often abused or impractical even if well-intentioned, which has led to separation of powers as a safeguard against power becoming concentrated in harmful ways.

A general degree of respect for individual autonomy may thus reduce suffering by upholding at least two important freedoms: (1) the freedom to protect our own interests and life plans from external mismanagement, and (2) the freedom to organize and speak up against perceived harmful developments, practices, or corruptions in society at large. In other words, these freedoms not only allow us to act on the relative expertise and primary interest that we may have in our own needs, but also to act against harmful abuses of power for the sake of everyone, including those human and non-human beings who may lack these freedoms.

Because exceptions to these freedoms have historically been all too easy to abuse, it is arguably best to maintain a high and consistent standard of autonomy for all beings capable of informed choice. To the extent that autonomy is used to harm others, we can focus preventative measures on specific harmful actions instead of limiting autonomy as a whole. Many societies already address the downsides of high autonomy on such a case-by-case basis, without losing the upsides of high autonomy for preventing suffering.

In a nutshell...
Suffering-focused ethics…

  • … can justify many of the commonly accepted limits to autonomy. These may include cases where there is “reduced capacity for informed choice” (medical ethics) or “protecting the public by preventing [an individual] from severely harming others” (criminal law).
  • … supports giving people the autonomy to contribute to the reduction of suffering as they best see fit, including developing their unique skills and gravitating to the roles that they are best suited for. After all, many of us know better than anybody else what our own strengths and interests are, and we would suffer from the lack of autonomy if others attempted to take over our life plans.
  • … can allow us the freedom to make mistakes, because this is often the lesser harm compared to the alternatives. For example, most of us are fine with gentle push and pull influences on our free choice, and might even welcome the advice of others if they seem to offer us information for making better decisions. However, when it feels like decisions are being made for us, we may justifiably oppose the influence of rigid, top-down control.

3.2 Ecosystems

Suffering-focused views (or at least the minimal one assumed in this essay) can sound as if they are against life in principle. But practically speaking, their implications are more complex than that. To guide suffering-reducing action, we need to carefully account for the reality that we find ourselves in. Rather than ask whether we would wish that suffering beings had never evolved, it is more useful to consider how we can best help them from our present situation. And the present picture can indeed be complex, containing factors such as multiple interacting value systems and their dependence on stable ecosystems for most of their long-term goals, but also a lot of neglected wild animal suffering within those ecosystems.

There are no simple answers to the question of how to best reduce wild animal suffering, because its scale and tractability depend on the influence of different value systems, as well as political and economic forces, and these often push the world in opposite directions. However, even without a universally shared account of intrinsic value, there are still strong reasons to cooperate with others, because mutual conflict probably would lead to worse outcomes on virtually any view. For example, conflict might nudge the long-term future into a more ruthless and competitive direction, hindering the fulfillment of most longtermist goals.

Cooperating with others might be especially relevant when seeking a robustly positive approach for reducing wild animal suffering, because a naive stance may well go against all the value systems that want to preserve wild habitats and avoid species extinctions. Arguably, a top priority for suffering-focused views is to promote peace and compromise so as to avoid the risks of astronomical suffering (s-risks) that could result from our civilization in the long term. While s-risks are beyond the scope of this essay, suffice it to say that such risks may be increased if suffering-focused values become antagonized or if large-scale conflicts break out.

To the extent that stable ecosystems are necessary for a peaceful civilization, suffering-focused views would ideally seek agreement with others on how to best reduce the suffering of individual beings within existing ecosystems. After all, most moral views already imply that non-human animals matter morally, and that we should give serious consideration to their suffering.

In a nutshell:
Suffering-focused ethics…

  • … questions the romanticized view of nature as necessarily good and harmonious, because most wild animals seem to endure fates much worse than what most of us would find acceptable for e.g. human children.
  • … raises concern about even a small chance of spreading wild animal suffering onto other planets, e.g. as part of futuristic terraforming scenarios. This also applies to the creation of artificial suffering in the future, as well as to factory farming, which many hope will be replaced by an animal-free food system instead of being replicated on other planets.
  • … benefits from cooperation between value systems, since avoiding intense suffering is already a shared goal for most of them, and maintaining peace may be a uniquely promising strategy for reducing risks of astronomical suffering in the long term.

3.3 Cultural diversity

Suffering-focused views may seem to be in tension with respect for cultural diversity. However, there are many reasons for suffering-reducers to approach the world’s cultural diversity with curiosity and respect, such as epistemic modesty and the recognition that many traditions have developed time-tested ways to mitigate and relate to intense suffering that we may not know about.

Contrary to the idea of humans mastering novel environments by the sheer intelligence of individual brains, the Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis attributes our success largely to our social learning of implicit (aka tacit) knowledge, which is passed on within living traditions of trial-and-error, imitation, and not necessarily knowing the causal reasons as to why current ways of doing things might be adaptive. For example, many food-related cultural practices are implicitly accounting for dangerous food interactions that have remained undiscovered by modern science for generations. Therefore, strong cultural differences often reflect locally adaptive practices, and it may be wise to respect such practices, especially when we lack a solid understanding of their underlying causal mechanisms.

Of course, cultural adaptations can be myopic in their own ways. For example, many practices contain components that cause unnecessary suffering, and it is good to filter these through the modern causal-reasoning perspective, and to critique practices that are obviously harmful. On the other hand, living traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism predate modern medicine by millennia in their investigations of how to actively reduce suffering, both for oneself and others, and science has only recently started to study the psychological and pro-social benefits of compassion and non-attachment. Cultural traditions may thus contain widely neglected wisdom for reducing suffering, and the best way to create helpful innovations in general may be to combine the ideas found across diverse minds and cultures.

Moreover, any ethical view that aspires to universalism — including suffering-focused ethics — can value cultural diversity as a form of healthy opposition and protection against an accidentally harmful intellectual monoculture. In other words, diverse cultures can be a source of ideological critique with insights (and biases and blindspots) that are different from those that may be shared within a narrower cluster of views. Therefore, criticism and ideas from the outside may be both valuable and practically impossible to receive from the inside, which is all the more reason to stay in healthy dialogue with those who have different outlooks.

In a nutshell:
Suffering-focused ethics…

  • can value different cultural practices based on the degree to which they might help prevent intense suffering, but would still be critical of harmful practices such as ritualized violence.
  • can support a general respect for other cultures not only to maintain peace and cooperation, but also for the implicit adaptations of different cultures for reducing suffering that may still be poorly understood. For example, modern secular society is quick to medicalize suffering, but it would be hubristic to think that we have nothing to learn from all the cultures throughout history that lacked modern painkillers (as lots of people in the world sadly still do).
  • may need the perspectives of various cultures for optimally reducing suffering across different contexts. For example, most of experimental psychology is still based on participants from “WEIRD” cultures, which casts doubt on whether its models will generalize to most of the non-WEIRD world. Additionally, probably no culture is optimally adjusted to reduce suffering, and it is likely crucial to integrate insights between cultures instead of imposing one culture on all others.

4. Valuable experiences

A common objection to suffering-focused views is that they leave too little room for the positive experiences in life, and that they contradict our everyday experience of what makes life worth living. Many hold that we can lead meaningful and ethical lives without an explicit focus on reducing intense suffering. For some, such a “negative focus” can even feel like a distraction from, or a threat to, what they see as of more central importance, such as growth, wellbeing, connection, or a sense of positive meaning.

However, suffering-focused views can imply that those things are often important to prioritize for their positive or even necessary roles for most effectively helping others. Moreover, we can also give too much room for positive experiences, which may be seen by their tendency to lose meaning if produced in isolation from suffering that we could have chosen to help instead.

For example, imagine that we built a one-way Moon base where people could fly to live in experience machines, but never return or interact with Earth in any way. Future generations would be born on the Moon, sustained by resources sent from Earth that could have been used to prevent extreme suffering on Earth instead. Subjectively, this experience on the Moon would feel maximally meaningful and valuable, but from the outside, it would be a utility monster that we might not want to feed at the opportunity cost of unprevented agony on Earth.

Additionally, even those born on the Moon might question the value of their subjective utopia, if, say, a buggy day on the machine showed them what it feels like to be in the worst conditions on Earth. Suddenly, their isolated experiences and optimized narratives might seem like being hooked to false epiphanies that feel meaningful and valuable (no question about that), but do not help. Then they might feel a desire to get real and actually help, regardless of the quality of their isolated experience.

Therefore, an independent focus on positive experiences can arguably have weird implications that may be avoided by questioning not necessarily how good they feel, but the independence of their value. To appraise the limits of positive experiences in real-life tradeoffs between values, it may be useful to look beyond how they feel in the moment, and ask whether their value may come from their causal relation to universal suffering — even if we never think of that relation in the moment.

4.1 Wellbeing as a resource

Under a lot of stress, it is easy to lose our balance and fall into a downward spiral. At the bottom, it can take years to restore our supportive daily habits and capacity for effective work. From a lifetime productivity perspective, severe burnout is very much worth avoiding, even at the seemingly high cost of emptying our calendar of all the short-term work that we maybe could squeeze in, but not in sustainable ways. This is particularly true when we are still young, as peak productivity tends to come later in life.

With many of our usual sources of joy and recreation on hold (e.g. during pandemic season), we see more clearly how they normally help us maintain our ability to work. The better our work–rest balance is on a daily basis, and especially in the long term, the more we can afford to work. And to work from day to day at all, we need to maintain a level of wellbeing that provides a safety margin against burning out. In other words, we want to continuously create distance from a downward spiral. Any uplifting or supportive experience can be a great way to create this distance, even if we never think of it that way.

Thinking about suffering can be distressing. Most of us would rather fill our days with something more pleasant than imagining worst-case scenarios and how to avoid them. But suffering-reducers need the resilience to face these questions head-on. Many of our positive experiences are effective ways to occasionally get our minds off these problems and replenish our ability to get back at solving them. Even if we do not consciously “use” these experiences as “mere tools” in this way, they can have these benefits anyway.

In some cases, suffering-reducers may neglect their wellbeing temporarily — e.g. for unusually good opportunities to invest oneself into helping others. Yet even such demanding opportunities are easier to identify, and choose to act on, if we have first invested in ourselves. By frequently enjoying whatever we find replenishing, we can gather the skills, knowledge, and life experience to understand and apply the effort that would best help others. And by maintaining a high level of personal wellbeing, we can sustainably apply ourselves to solve neglected problems for decades, without burning up our capacity to do so.

In a nutshell:
Suffering-focused ethics…

  • … certainly values our wellbeing as an indicator of low personal suffering, but would not prematurely conclude that anyone’s wellbeing could by itself theoretically “outweigh” intense suffering elsewhere. This is because intense suffering anywhere is seen as a problem, and the wellbeing of others as only potentially part of something that helps reduce that problem. Therefore, creating wellbeing can certainly be prioritized as a way toward greater help in the long run, but its overall worth depends also on its hidden costs (i.e. externalities) for others.
  • … is not about maximizing personal wellbeing or distance from burnout, but rather about optimizing these things for helpfulness. Contrary to motivated reasoning by our short-term pleasure-seeking parts, a life of optimal helpfulness may not always require high momentary pleasure or excitement (though it surely has room for these things). Just like with money or any other resource, there is a point where it is no longer the main limiting factor to what we can do, and so we can afford to help others while keeping a safe distance from burning out. This may also be a more reliable path to personal life satisfaction.
  • … is not about avoiding all personal suffering, but tolerating that which is worthwhile to help reduce overall suffering. Sometimes the optimal path of maximal “net helpfulness” may contain great difficulties that require a large reserve of wellbeing to get through. Wellbeing is thus a key resource to focus on, but we also want to look out for opportunities to invest it in once it is no longer our main constraint.

4.2 Moving in the right direction

Most of us have no choice over our childhood environment and upbringing. By the time we develop a sense of agency and start thinking about global issues, it can feel overwhelming to realize that our deeply ingrained habits and lifestyles are indirectly causing a lot of suffering. Combined with an already busy life full of personal challenges, it can feel more painful than empowering to start reducing our reliance on habits and production chains that may be net harmful. Only the most fortunate get to choose their jobs and limit their consumption so as to minimize their suffering footprint for others.

However, there is positive value in any journey of overcoming our dependence on others’ suffering and toward becoming increasingly net helpful. Bit by bit, we can increase our degree of freedom and victory over harmful dependencies. With careful research, we may also identify amazing opportunities to reduce suffering that are available to us.

The more hopeless the situation, the more inspiring the example of turning it around or pushing through, even partially, for all the others who are facing similar challenges. Even if we do not make it all the way, we can still share our story, and others can continue with more guidance than we had, with a better view of the path going forward.

In a nutshell:
Suffering-focused ethics…

  • … does not mean that we should give up on our lives if they cause or contain a lot of suffering. In many cases, these are precisely the situations that countless others are also struggling with. Whether others are in a similar spot or are trying to help those who are, there is value in first-hand exploration of the problems and in sharing even small wins that others may not know are possible.
  • … does not mean that we should bear anything in order to create inspiring survivor stories of overcoming and victory for others. After all, the “bottom line” is to reduce suffering instead of always clinging to dwindling hope that a cure for chronic and severe conditions will be just around the corner.
  • … is context-sensitive with regard to the options that may or may not be available in everyone’s unique life situation. There are no absolute demands of what we must achieve regardless of our health, wealth, or the environment we find ourselves in, but we can always do our best to steer the future into a direction of less suffering with the tools and options that we have. Everyone climbs their own way up the mountain, and even a partial path over difficult terrain can inspire others to find the easiest way up from similar starting points.

4.3 Exploring helpful outlooks

Humans have the unique ability to actively develop and experiment with different ways of looking at suffering. Throughout history, we have certainly made use of this ability, and the resultant practices and outlooks can be found under traditions and philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism. Even many of our modern psychological tools for relating to suffering can be traced back to such traditions, and we may yet combine parts of them into still more useful or teachable outlooks than what are currently available.

For the overall project of reducing suffering, it is worthwhile to spend time on finding the kind of open mindset that enables us to acknowledge our own and others’ suffering, and which helps us reduce it in the total context. In other words, we want to build an outlook that helps us account for the big picture instead of overreacting to whatever may seem like the totality in the here-and-now. With a large perspective, even apparent defeats and failures can be seen — not only in hindsight, but already in the present — as opportunities for growth whose time has come. As some Stoics say, sometimes the obstacle becomes the way.

In exploring the space of available outlooks, it is valuable to test them in situations where we usually experience a shortfall of mental resilience. Verifiably useful mindsets can not just help the individual who internalizes them to reduce their own suffering, but also to increase their willingness and ability to help others. Sometimes we can also come up with new mental tools that would ideally get passed on to others as soon as it would be net helpful.

In a nutshell:
Suffering-focused ethics…

  • … does value trying out different mindsets and developing the equanimity to face our difficulties, especially if mental resources might be a key bottleneck for our ability to help ourselves or others. Even if only humans can adopt such tools, they may still be a very valuable investment for keeping the big picture in view, and for avoiding harmful reactivity.
  • … may not give independent value to the exploration of consciousness and novel mindsets as an end in itself, but does value the flow-through effects of improving our ability to make better use of our resources — including time and mental resources — for reducing the suffering of sentient beings. Often these improvements are most efficiently learned from the systematized teachings of various established traditions, and it is fine to just pick the low-hanging fruit from books or courses for modern times, since the modern interpretations may usefully leave out the archaic metaphysics found in many original sources.
  • … may recommend humor, spontaneity, and flexibility in many situations as fitting ways to meet life’s challenges. After all, we sometimes mount futile resistance even against simple bad luck that already happened, causing ourselves unnecessary pain rather than accepting and aligning with the situation at hand. The quicker we can locate ourselves in the scenario that actually happened instead of clinging to what we wish would have happened, the quicker we can adapt and create positive change.

4.4 Safe ways to learn complexity and coordination

Even if we seek to ultimately reduce intense suffering for all beings, this does not necessarily imply that we maintain a monk-like focus and prioritize only those activities that would directly help others. Indeed, a single-minded or Spartan life could leave too little room for the ways in which we spontaneously learn the most — and most effortlessly — such as flow-states guided by feelings of immediate fulfillment. Without sufficient alignment with our spontaneous interests, we may suffer from internal friction. Moreover, we may miss the most efficient ways to learn new skills, including skills that may be prerequisites for most effectively reducing suffering later on. Therefore, a hyperfocus on reducing suffering could blind us to skills that are indirectly useful for the goal. This would be counterproductive in ways similar to how a rigid, top-down control of society undermines the benefits of respecting individual autonomy.

Many activities help us prepare for challenging tasks without containing any obvious reference to these tasks. Most of us learn crucial social skills this way, never picturing what they will be useful for in ten years’ time. Similarly, many fundamental skills can be learned through unguided exploration, pretend play, or games. To hold our ultimate aim in mind will often be a distraction for most efficiently learning the skills on offer, including skills that may be prerequisites on the eventual path of least suffering.

Of course, at some point we need to learn about suffering itself and what to do about it. But to understand the centrality of suffering, we may need but a glimpse of its intense form. After first learning that fire burns, we may coordinate our movements around it for the rest of our lives without ever burning ourselves or others badly. And while learning can itself be painful, “pain and gain” do not always go hand in hand; for example, we can often pick low-hanging fruit without much pain. Even if learning requires experimentation, we can still limit the ways in which experimentation could backfire and cause harm to ourselves or countless others. When children are still learning, they often hurt themselves, but when adults are still learning, they often hurt others as well. For high-level tasks that concern the real lives of many beings, competence at reducing suffering can be built first in simulated situations, or with safety measures, before moving on to real training with real feedback.

At some point in life, we may become deeply interested in high-stakes themes such as philosophical, political, and social issues. Exploring these things is especially valuable to do in “safe mode” or “sandbox environments” before we enter high-stakes arenas, like public discourse, where taking an actual stance can have dramatic consequences that make things worse. But if we are to make a difference for the suffering of others, then enter those arenas we must — prepared.

In a nutshell:
Suffering-focused ethics…

  • … does value open-ended exploration (to a degree), because learning is often most efficient when guided by feelings of intrinsic motivation and curiosity.
  • … would probably recommend building one’s self-efficacy first in safe and fun ways, but then moving on to other things, where this attitude — of approaching challenges as something to be mastered — can be invested into learning new skills and eventually using these skills to create positive change.
  • … would not prioritize endless learning or recreation purely for its own sake. Instead, it eventually becomes worthwhile to somewhat limit our activities by how closely they are related to the high-stakes issues of intense suffering, and to also find ways to apply the resulting knowledge and skills to move toward less overall suffering.

4.5 Understanding others

To help complex organisms from a vast range of backgrounds, we may need to increase not only our theoretical knowledge and technical know-how but also our own range of experiences and perspectives. Otherwise, we may fail to empathize with the kinds of experiences that are central to the needs and aspirations of others, and miss the big picture of what would be best for them.

Specifically, it may be valuable for suffering-reducers to understand (at least) the most universal human experiences that arguably drive much of our behavior. These include the ups and downs of social status, the dynamics of attachment and bonding, and our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Technological solutions to reduce suffering are tempting because they are arguably a necessary part of any kind of effective, large-scale, and long-term progress on the matter. Moreover, we are used to attributing much of our quality of life to the advancement of science and technology. But in the wider context, psychological and social dynamics may still be the main factor determining which messages, plans, and strategies aimed at reducing suffering are well-received and politically realistic to implement. Therefore, it is valuable for agents of long-term systemic change to understand not only the engineering side of things, but also the needs and incentives that influence how people make decisions on which tools to use.

In a nutshell:
Suffering-focused ethics…

  • … values psychological exploration and empathy as they generally increase our capacity to understand and effectively help ourselves and others.
  • … may be surprisingly supportive of fictional works, such as realistic or thought-provoking novels or TV, since they may be relatively safe ways to learn about real-life social patterns without the risk of drawing us into endless personal drama ourselves.
  • … does not recommend that we should have first-hand experience of every intensely negative emotion before we could help to alleviate it, nor that we should endlessly zoom in on all the details of our own or each other’s emotional lives. While direct experience can be valuable, it is not always necessary, and a lifestyle centered around “collecting experiences” can also be very costly. Instead, we would ideally look for general patterns and transferable lessons from both real-life and fictional situations, and apply them to more skillfully reduce suffering.

4.6 Community and connectedness

A lot of common and prolonged suffering might be prevented if people had close friendships or at least didn’t feel so alienated, lonely, or frustrated with their social environment. A big part of the willingness to even consider the needs of others in the first place may come from the social norm to mutually reciprocate or pay forward the good that we have experienced ourselves. If people have strong unmet needs of their own, they may not find it emotionally appealing to serve a universal cause such as the reduction of suffering. At worst, they might cause suffering out of frustration, disappointment, or a lack of meaningful experiences with others.

We may thus generally want the preventative and enabling effects of increasing community and connectedness in society. This could help more people feel like they’re at home in our world, and that they can afford to care about the needs of others.

The overall goal of optimally reducing intense suffering will require a lot of complex coordination. We probably need to combine partial answers from very different fields of expertise, including from research fields and projects that do not even exist yet. Therefore, we need to create and maintain an interdisciplinary network to take on the coming decades of learning and preparation — both individually and as a coordinated effort — in order to identify the kinds of paths and strategies that are best suited to the task.

In a nutshell:
Suffering-focused ethics…

  • … values the preventative and enabling effects (for reducing suffering) that can stem from experiences of community and connectedness — both individually and in society at large. Generally, social relatedness may be a precondition for our mental and physical wellbeing, and it may enable more people to care about, and effectively serve, the needs of others.
  • … highlights the importance of preventing complex problems from becoming entrenched while we still can. Social dissatisfaction may be a prime example of this, because deep feelings of anger or loneliness may lead to self-reinforcing patterns of blaming everything on others, and a loss of fellowship may lead opposing parties to no longer consider the suffering of the other as important. At worst, the suffering of others becomes desirable, even if there once was a desire for connection.
  • … may recommend creating and inviting people into communities focusing on reducing suffering, embodying sentiments of a collective project such as: “Let’s work together to reduce suffering.”

4.7 Meaning and motivation

Many paths can lead one to suffering-focused ethics. Not everyone is motivated by a sense of duty or obligation to prevent the worst experiences. Indeed, practically the same project of reducing suffering can be supported by a more positive or hopeful sense of what good we’re living for.

One common positive motivator is expanding care or compassion for sentient beings. Without fears of compassion, many of us easily feel this for ourselves or loved ones. The same tendency of caretaking can shrink or grow based on our capacity to consider the needs of others as well as our own. At the limit, we may think of suffering-focused ethics as a way of living for compassion or problem solving: of taking care of what we can, and feeling as satisfied as possible with how we spent our time.

Another positive narrative may be to live for a maximally just, fair, or beautiful world. We may recognize that any instance of extreme and involuntary suffering breaks the illusion that we’d be anywhere close to that heavenly world. Consequently, we may feel that the best way to a “heaven on earth” is to reduce hell — so that we find ease and lightness not from being promised a distant heaven, but from knowing that all of us can avoid the most unbearable.

In a nutshell:
Suffering-focused ethics…

  • … is not necessarily “all negative”, even if its subject matter mostly is. By focusing on positive experiences of care, compassion, justice, fairness, ease, or lightness, we can bring together even those parts of ourselves that are more motivated by a positive vision of what we’re living for, and maximize our lifetime lifting of the weights of the world.
  • … can acknowledge that suffering itself can lead to something valuable. For example, even a personal encounter with suffering can have the positive flip side of giving us great clarity, direction, and motivation for how to be useful to others. However, we cannot predict which experiences of intense suffering will be someone’s valuable learning experience or awaken their compassion. As a way to motivate people to reduce suffering, subjecting others to an involuntary “training from hell” would not only be directly harmful but also likely to backfire for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it is still good to avoid all the intense suffering that we can, and to focus on positive ways to develop our agency, compassion, and resilience. The weights can always be increased in a gradual manner by taking on more of the burdens all around us.
  • … can give meaning to our lives, especially considering that we are in a rare and privileged position from which we can care for all those who are unable to help themselves. At moments of despair, we may feel the root problem of involuntary suffering common to all sentient beings, and push ahead for the benefit of all beings. To conclude, even secular helpers may find meaning in the 8th-century Buddhist monk and philosopher Shantideva’s words: “As long as space endures, as long as sentient beings remain, until then, may I too remain and dispel the miseries of the world.”


Special thanks to Magnus Vinding for help with editing.

I am also grateful for helpful comments by Riikka Ajantaival, Tobias Baumann, Timothy Chan, Eleos Arete Citrini, Anthony DiGiovanni, James Faville, Simon Knutsson, Jonathan Leighton, and Brian Tomasik.

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