Working to reduce extreme suffering for all sentient beings. Author of 'Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications'.


MagnusVinding's Shortform

An argument in favor of (fanatical) short-termism?

[Warning: potentially crazy-making idea.]

Section 5 in Guth, 2007 presents an interesting, if unsettling idea: on some inflationary models, new universes continuously emerge at an enormous rate, which in turn means (maybe?) that the grander ensemble of pocket universes consists disproportionally of young universes.

More precisely, Guth writes that, "in each second the number of pocket universes that exist is multiplied by a factor of exp{10^37}." Thus, naively, we should expect earlier points in a given pocket universe's timeline to vastly outnumber later points — by a factor of exp{10^37} per second!

(A potentially useful way to visualize the picture Guth draws is in terms of a branching tree, where for each older branch, there are many more young ones, and this keeps being true as the new, young branches grow and spawn new branches.)

If this were true, or even if there were a far weaker universe generation process to this effect (say, one that multiplied the number of pocket universes by two for each year or decade), it would seem that we should, for acausal reasons, mostly prioritize the short-term future (perhaps even the very short-term future).

Guth tentatively speculates whether this could be a resolution of sorts to the Fermi paradox, though he also notes that he is skeptical of the framework that motivates his discussion:

Perhaps this argument explains why SETI has not found any signals from alien civilizations [because if there were an earlier civ at our stage, we would be far more likely to be in that civ], but I find it more plausible that it is merely a symptom that the synchronous gauge probability distribution is not the right one.

I'm not claiming that the picture Guth outlines is likely to be correct. It's highly speculative, as he himself hints, and there are potentially many ways to avoid it — for example, contra Guth's preferred model, it may be that inflation eventually stops, cf. Hawking & Hertog, 2018, and thus that each point in a pocket universe's timeline will have equal density in the end; or it might be that inflationary models are not actually right after all.

That said, one could still argue that the implication Guth explores — which is potentially a consequence of a wide variety of (eternal) inflationary models — is a weak reason, among many other reasons, to give more weight to short-term stuff (after all, in EV terms, the enormous rate of universe generation suggested by Guth would mean that even extremely small credences in something like his framework could still be significant). And perhaps it's also a weak reason to update in favor of thinking that as yet unknown unknowns will favor a short(er)-term priority to a greater extent than we had hitherto expected, cf. Brian Tomasik's discussion of how we might model unknown unknowns.

AMA: Tobias Baumann, Center for Reducing Suffering

Concerning how EA views on this compare to the views of the general population, I suspect they aren’t all that different. Two bits of weak evidence:


Brian Tomasik did a small, admittedly unrepresentative and imperfect Mechanical Turk survey in which he asked people the following:

At the end of your life, you'll get an additional X years of happy, youthful, and interesting life if you first agree to be covered in gasoline and burned in flames for one minute. How big would X have to be before you'd accept the deal?

More than 40 percent said that they would not accept it “regardless of how many extra years of life” they would get (see the link for some discussion of possible problems with the survey).


The Future of Life Institute did a Superintelligence survey in which they asked, “What should a future civilization strive for?” A clear plurality (roughly a third) answered “minimize suffering” — a rather different question, to be sure, but it does suggest that a strong emphasis on reducing suffering is very common.

1. Do you know about any good articles etc. that make the case for such views?

I’ve tried to defend such views in chapter 4 and 5 here (with replies to some objections in chapter 8). Brian Tomasik has outlined such a view here and here.

But many authors have in fact defended such views about extreme suffering. Among them are Ingemar Hedenius (see Knutsson, 2019); Ohlsson, 1979 (review); Mendola, 1990; 2006; Mayerfeld, 1999, p. 148, p. 178; Ryder, 2001; Leighton, 2011, ch. 9; Gloor, 2016, II.

And many more have defended views according to which happiness and suffering are, as it were, morally orthogonal.

2. Do you think such or similar views are necessary to prioritize S-Risks?

As Tobias said: No. Many other views can support such a priority. Some of them are reviewed in chapter 1, 6, and 14 here.

3. Do you think most people would/should vote in such a way if they had enough time to consider the arguments?

I say a bit on this in footnote 23 in chapter 1 and in section 4.5 here.

4 For me it seems like people constantly trade happiness for suffering ... Those are reasons for me to believe that most people ... are also far from expecting 1:10^17 returns or even stating there is no return which potentially could compensate any kind of suffering.

Many things to say on this. First, as Tobias hinted, acceptable intrapersonal tradeoffs cannot necessarily be generalized to moral interpersonal ones (cf. sections 3.2 and 6.4 here). Second, there is the point Jonas made, which is discussed a bit in section 2.4 in ibid. Third, tradeoffs concerning mild forms of suffering that a person agrees to undergo do not necessarily say much about tradeoffs concerning states of extreme suffering that the sufferer finds unbearable and is unable to consent to (e.g. one may endorse lexicality between very mild and very intense suffering, cf. Klocksiem, 2016, or think that voluntarily endured suffering occupies a different moral dimension than does suffering that is unbearable and which cannot be voluntarily endured). More considerations of this sort are reviewed in section 14.3, “The Astronomical Atrocity Problem”, here.

AMA: Tobias Baumann, Center for Reducing Suffering

[Warning: potentially disturbing discussion of suicide and extreme suffering.]

I agree with many of the points made by Anthony. It is important to control for these other confounding factors, and to make clear in this thought experiment that the person in question cannot reduce more suffering for others, and that the suicide would cause less suffering in expectation (which is plausibly false in the real world, also considering the potential for suicide attempts to go horribly wrong, Humphry, 1991, “Bizarre ways to die”). (So to be clear, and as hinted by Jonas, even given pure NU, trying to commit suicide is likely very bad in most cases, Vinding, 2020, 8.2.)

Another point one may raise is that our intuitions cannot necessarily be trusted when it comes to these issues, e.g. because we have an optimism bias (which suggests that we may, at an intuitive level, wholly disregard these tail risks); because we evolved to prefer existence almost no matter the (expected) costs (Vinding, 2020, 7.11); and because we intuitively have a very poor sense of how bad the states of suffering in question are (cf. ibid., 8.12).

Intuitions also differ on this matter. One EA told me that he thinks we are absolutely crazy for staying alive (disregarding our potential to reduce suffering), especially since we have no off-switch in case things go terribly wrong. This may be a reason to be less sure of one's immediate intuitions on this matter, regardless of what those intuitions might be.

I also think it is important to highlight, as Tobias does, that there are many alternative views that can accommodate the intuition that the suicide in question would be bad, apart from a symmetry between happiness and suffering, or upside-focused views more generally. For example, there is a wide variety of harm-focused views, including but not restricted to negative consequentialist views in particular, that will deem such a suicide bad, and they may do so for many different reasons, e.g. because they consider one or more of the following an even greater harm (in expectation) than the expected suffering averted: the frustration of preferences, premature death, lost potential, the loss of hard-won knowledge, etc. (I say a bit more about this here and here.)

Relatedly, one should be careful about drawing overly general conclusions from this case. For example, the case of suicide does not necessarily say much about different population-ethical views, nor about the moral importance of creating happiness vs. reducing suffering in general. After all, as Tobias notes, quite a number of views will say that premature deaths are mostly bad while still endorsing the Asymmetry in population ethics, e.g. due to conditional interests (St. Jules, 2019; Frick, 2020). And some views that reject a symmetry between suffering and happiness will still consider death very bad on the basis of pluralist moral values (cf. Wolf, 1997, VIII; Mayerfeld, 1996, “Life and Death”; 1999, p. 160; Gloor, 2017; 1, 4.3, 5).

Similar points can be made about intra- vs. interpersonal tradeoffs: one may think that it is acceptable to risk extreme suffering for oneself without thinking that it is acceptable to expose others to such a risk for the sake of creating a positive good for them, such as happiness (Shiffrin, 1999; Ryder, 2001; Benatar & Wasserman, 2015, “The Risk of Serious Harm”; Harnad, 2016; Vinding, 2020, 3.2).

(Edit: And note that a purely welfarist view entailing a moral symmetry between happiness and suffering would actually be a rather fragile basis on which to rest the intuition in question, since it would imply that people should painlessly end their lives if their expected future well-being were just below "hedonic zero", even if they very much wanted to keep on living (e.g. because of a strong drive to accomplish a given goal). Another counterintuitive theoretical implication of such a view is that one would be obliged to end one's life, even in the most excruciating way, if it in turn created a new, sufficiently happy being, cf. the replacement argument discussed in Jamieson, 1984; Pluhar, 1990. I believe many would find these implications implausible as well, even on a purely theoretical level, suggesting that what is counterintuitive here is the complete reliance on a purely welfarist view — not necessarily the focus on reducing suffering over increasing happiness.)

The case of the missing cause prioritisation research

Thanks for writing this post! :-)

Two points:

i. On how we think about cause prioritization, and what comes before

2. Consideration of different views and ethics and how this affects what causes might be most important.

It’s not quite clear to me what this means. But it seems related to a broader point that I think is generally under-appreciated, or at least rarely acknowledged, namely that cause prioritization is highly value relative.

The causes and interventions that are optimal relative to one value system are unlikely to be optimal relative to another value system (which isn't to say that there aren't some causes and interventions that are robustly good on many different value systems, as there plausibly are, and identifying novel such causes and interventions would be a great win for everyone; but then it is also commensurately difficult to identify new such causes and have much confidence in them given both our great empirical uncertainty and the necessarily tight constraints).

I think it makes sense that people do cause prioritization based on the values, or the rough class of values, that they find most plausible. Provided, of course, that those values have been reflected on quite carefully in the first place, and scrutinized in light of the strongest counterarguments and alternative views on offer.

This is where I see a somewhat mysterious gap in EA, more fundamental and even more gaping than the cause prioritization gap highlighted here: there is surprisingly little reflection on and discussion of values (something I also noted in this post, along with some speculations as to what might explain this gap).

After all, cause prioritization depends crucially on the fundamental values based on which one is trying to prioritize (a crude illustration), so this is, in a sense, the very first step on the path toward thoroughly reasoned cause prioritization.

ii. On the apparent lack of progress

As hinted in Zoe's post, it seems that much (most?) cutting edge cause prioritization research is found in non-public documents these days, which makes it appear like there is much less research than there in fact is.

This is admittedly problematic in that it makes it difficult to get good critiques of the research in question, especially from skeptical outsiders, and it also makes it difficult for outsiders to know what in fact animates the priorities of different EA agents and orgs. It may well be that it is best to keep most research secret, all things considered, but I think it’s worth being transparent about the fact that there is a lot that is non-public, and that this does pose problems, in various ways, including epistemically.

Moral Anti-Realism Sequence #2: Why Realists and Anti-Realists Disagree
The way I think about it, when I'm suffering, this is my brain subjectively "disvaluing" (in the sense of wanting to end or change it) the state it's currently in.

This is where I see a dualism of sorts, at least in the way it's phrased. There is the brain disvaluing (as an evaluating subject) the state it's in (where this state is conceived of as an evaluated object of sorts). But the way I think about it, there is just the state your mind-brain is in, and the disvaluing is part of that mind-brain state. (What else could it be?)

This may just seem semantic, but I think it's key: the disvaluing, or sense of disvalue, is intrinsic to that state. It relates back to your statement that reality simply is, and interpretation adds something to it. To which I'd still say that interpretations, including disvaluing in particular, are integral parts of reality. They are intrinsic to the subset of reality that is our mind-brains.

This is not the same as saying that there exists a state of the world that is objectively to be disvalued.

I think it's worth clarifying what the term "objectively" means here. Cf. my point above, I think it's true to say that there is a state of the world that is disvalued, and hence disvaluable according to that state itself. And this is true no matter where in the universe this state is instantiated. In this sense, it is objectively (i.e. universally) disvaluable. And I don't think things change when we introduce "other" individuals into the picture, as we discussed in the comments on your first post in this sequence (I also defended this view at greater length in the second part of my book You Are Them).

I talk about notions like 'life goals' (which sort of consequentialist am I?), 'integrity' (what type of person do I want to be?), 'cooperation/respect' (how do I think of the relation between my life goals and other people's life goals?), 'reflective equilibrium' (part of philosophical methodology), 'valuing reflection' (the anti-realist notion of normative uncertainty), etc.

Ah, I think we've talked a bit past each other here. My question about bedrock concepts was mostly about why you would question them in general (as you seem to do in the text), and what you think the alternative is. For example, it seems to me that the notions you consider foundational in your ethical perspective in particular do in turn rest on bedrock concepts that you can't really explain more reductively, i.e. with anything but synonymous concepts ("goals" arguably being an example).

From one of your replies to MichaelA:

I should have chosen a more nuanced framing in my comment. Instead of saying, "Sure, we can agree about that," the anti-realist should have said "Sure, that seems like a reasonable way to use words. I'm happy to go along with using moral terms like 'worse' or 'better' in ways where this is universally considered self-evident. But it seems to me that you think you are also saying that for every moral question, there's a single correct answer [...]"

It seems to me your conception of moral realism conflates two separate issues:

1. Whether there is such a thing as (truly) morally significant states, and

2. Whether there is a single correct answer for every moral question.

I think these are very different questions, and an affirmative answer to the former need not imply an affirmative answer to the latter. That is, one can be a realist about 1. while being a non-realist about 2.

For example, one can plausibly maintain that a given state of suffering is intrinsically bad and ought not exist without thinking that there is a clear answer, even in principle, concerning whether it is more important to alleviate this state or some other state of similarly severe suffering. As Jamie Mayerfeld notes, even if we think states of suffering occupy a continuum of (genuine) moral importance, the location of any given state of suffering on this continuum "may not be a precise point" (Mayerfeld, 1999, p. 29). Thus, one can be a moral realist and still embrace vagueness in many ways.

I think it would be good if this distinction were more clear in this discussion, and if these different varieties of realism were acknowledged. After all, you seem quite sympathetic to some of them yourself.

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

Thanks for sharing your reflections :-)

This is because of imagining and seeing examples as in the book and here.

Just wanted to add a couple of extra references like this:

The Seriousness of Suffering: Supplement

The Horror of Suffering

Preventing Extreme Suffering Has Moral Priority

To be more specific, I think that one second of the most extreme suffering (without subsequent consequences) would be better than, say, a broken leg.

Just want to note, also for other readers, that I say a bit about such sentiments involving "one second of the most extreme suffering" in section 8.12 in my book. One point I make is that our intuitions about a single second of extreme suffering may not be reliable. For example, we probably tend not to assign great significance, intuitively, to any amount of one-second long chunks of experience. This is a reason to think that the intuition that one second of extreme suffering can't matter that much may not say all that much about extreme suffering in particular.

If that holds, than any extreme suffering can be overcome by mild suffering.

I think this is a little too quick, at least in the way you've phrased it. A broken leg hardly results in merely mild suffering, at least by any common definition. And a lexical threshold has, for example, been defended between "mere discomfort" and "genuine pain" (see Klocksiem, 2016), where a broken leg would clearly entail the latter.

There are also other reasons why this argument (i.e. "one second of extreme suffering can be outweighed by mild suffering, hence any amount of extreme suffering can") isn't valid.

Note also that even if one thinks that aggregates of milder forms of suffering can be more important than extreme suffering in principle, one may still hold that extreme suffering dominates profusely in practice, given its prevalence.

Now, many people would trade mild tradeoff for other things they hold important.

I just want to flag here that the examples you give seem to be intrapersonal ones, and the permissibility of intrapersonal tradeoffs like these (which is widely endorsed) does not imply the permissibility of similar tradeoffs in the interpersonal case (which more people would reject, and which there are many arguments against, cf. chapter 3).

The following is neither a request nor a complaint, but in relation to the positions you express, I see little in the way of counterarguments to, or engagement with, the arguments I've put forth in my book, such as in chapters 3 and 4, for example. In other words, I don't really see the arguments I present in my book addressed here (to be clear, I'm not claiming you set out to do that), and I'm still keen to see some replies to them.

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

Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it! :-)

In relation to counterintuitions and counterarguments, I can honestly say that I've spent a lot of time searching for good ones, and tried to include as many as I could in a charitable way (especially in chapter 8).

I'm still keen to find more opposing arguments and intuitions, and to see them explored in depth. As hinted in the post, I hope my book can provoke people to reflect on these issues and to present the strongest case for their views, which I'd really like to see. I believe such arguments can help advance the views of all of us toward greater levels of nuance and sophistication.

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

Thanks for your comment, Michael :-)

What I was keen to get an example of was mainly this (omitted in the text you quoted above):

Also, whenever there was a problem with an argument, Magnus can retreat to a less demanding version of Suffering-Focused Ethics, which makes it more difficult for the reader to follow the arguments.

That is, an example of how I retreat from the main position I defend (in chapters 4 and 5), such as by relying on the views of other philosophers whose premises I haven't defended. I don't believe I do that anywhere. Again, what I do in some places is simply to show that there are other kinds of suffering-focused views one may hold; I don't retreat from the view I in fact hold.

It's true that I do mention the views of many different philosophers, and note how their views support suffering-focused views, and in some cases I merely identify the moral axioms, if you will, underlying these views. I then leave it to the reader to decide whether these axioms are plausible (this is a way in which I in fact do explain/present views rather than try to "persuade"; chapter 2 is very similar, in that it also presents a lot of views in this way).

It seems that Shiffrin and Parfit did, for example, consider their respective principles rather axiomatic, and provided little to no justification for them (indeed, Parfit considered his compensation principle "clearly true", ). Mill's principle was merely mentioned as one that "can be considered congruent" with a conclusion I argued for; I didn't rely on it to defend the conclusion in question.

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

Thanks for sharing your review. A few comments:

Concerning the definition of suffering, I do actually provide a definition: an overall bad feeling, or state of consciousness (as I note, I here follow Mayerfeld, 1999, pp. 14-15). One may argue that this is not a particularly reductive definition, and I say the same in a footnote:

One cannot, I submit, define suffering in more precise or reductive terms than this. For just as one cannot ultimately define the experience of, say, phenomenal redness in any other way than by pointing to it, one cannot define a bad overall feeling, i.e. suffering, in any other way than by pointing to the aspect of consciousness it refers to.

I think that he made a deliberate choice to focus on capturing a wide range of views and defenses instead of going deep into defending one view.

Partly. I would say I both tried to make a broad case and defend a specific view, namely the view(s) I defend in chapters 4 and 5 (they aren't quite identical, but I'd say they are roughly equivalent at the level of normative ethics).

In Chapter 5 Magnus explains his position regarding suffering, but throughout the first part he does not rely on that in order to make a case for suffering focused ethics. Instead, he loads philosophical ammunition from all over the suffering-focused ethics coalition and shoots them at every obstacle in sight.

That's not quite how I see it (though it's true that I don't rely strongly on the meta-ethical view defended in chapter 5). My own view, including chapter 5 in particular, is not really isolated from the arguments I make in the preceding chapters. I see most of the arguments outlined in previous chapters as lending support to the arguments made in chapter 5, and I indeed explicitly cite many of them there.

Many of the arguments are of the form "philosopher X thinks that Y is true", but without appropriate arguments for Y. Also, whenever there was a problem with an argument, Magnus can retreat to a less demanding version of Suffering-Focused Ethics, which makes it more difficult for the reader to follow the arguments.

I'd appreciate some examples (or just one) of this. :-)

I don't think I at any point retreat from the view I defend in chapters 4 and 5. But I do explain how one can hold other suffering-focused views (e.g. pluralist ones, such as those defended by Wolf and Mayerfeld).

My major issue with this book is that it feels heavily biased. I felt that I was being persuaded, not explained to.

I did seek to explain the arguments and considerations that have led me to hold a suffering-focused view, and I do happen to find these arguments persuasive.

I wonder what you think I should have done differently, and whether you can refer me to a book defending a moral view in a way that was more "explaining".

It feels that Magnus offers no major concessions, related to the point above that there is always a line of retreat.

What major concessions do you feel I should make? My view is that it cannot be justified to create purported positive goods at the price of extreme suffering, and it would be dishonest for me to claim that I've found a persuasive argument against this view. But I'm keen to hear any counterargument you find persuasive.

In chapter 7, there are a long list of possible biases that prevent us from accepting Suffering-Focused Ethics.

This is not quite accurate, and I should have made this clearer. :-)

As I say at the beginning of this chapter, I here "present various biases against giving suffering its due moral weight and consideration." This is not the same as (only) presenting biases against suffering-focused moral views in particular. One can be a classical utilitarian and still think that most, perhaps even all, of the biases mentioned in this chapter plausibly bias us against giving sufficient priority to suffering.

For example, a classical utilitarian can agree that we tend to shy away from contemplating suffering (7.2); that we underestimate how bad suffering often is (7.4); that we underestimate and ignore our ability to reduce suffering, in part because of omission bias (7.5); that we have a novelty bias and scope insensitivity (7.6); that we have a perpetrator bias that leads us to dismiss suffering not caused by moral agents (7.7); that the Just World Fallacy leads us to dismiss others' suffering (7.8); that we have a positivity and an optimism bias (7.9); that a craving for certain sources of pleasure, e.g. sex and status, can distort our judgments (7.10); that we have an existence bias — widespread resistance against euthanasia is an example — (7.11); that suffering is a very general phenomenon, which makes it difficult for us to make systematic and effective efforts to prevent it (7.13); etc.

I'd actually say that most of the biases reviewed are not biases against accepting suffering-focused moral views, but rather biases against giving the priority to reducing suffering that the values we already hold would require. I should probably have made this more clear (I say a bit more on this in the second half of section 12.3).

and really the biggest flaw for me was that there was no analogous comparison with possible biases [favoring] Suffering-Based Ethics.

But there was in fact a section on this: 7.15. If you feel I've missed some important considerations, I'm keen to hear about them.

Also, in Chapter 8 Magnus presents many arguments against his views, each a couple of sentences, and spends the majority of the time making counterarguments and half-hearted concessions.

I wonder what you mean by "half-hearted concessions", and why you think they are half-hearted. Also, it's not true that "each [counterargument is] a couple of sentences", even as most are stated very concisely.

Instead of acknowledging reasonable ethical views that may oppose Suffering-Focused Ethics, there is an attempt at convincing the readers that there is still some way of reducing suffering that they should prefer.

As mentioned above, my view is that it cannot be justified to create purported positive goods at the price of extreme suffering. I cannot honestly say that I find views that would have us increase extreme suffering in order to increase, say, pleasure to be reasonable. So again, all I can say is that I'd invite you to present and defend the views that you think I should acknowledge as reasonable.

After reading this book, it is clearer to me that I find extreme suffering very bad

I'm glad to hear that. Helping people clarify their views of the significance of extreme suffering is among the main objectives of the book.

but that in general I tend to think suffering can be outweighted.

This is then where I, apropos your complaint about a lack of "appropriate arguments" for a stated premise, would ask for some arguments: how and why can extreme suffering be outweighed? What counterarguments would you give to the arguments presented in, say, chapters 3 and 4?

Also, I was worried before reading the book that there is an inherent difficulty in cooperation between suffering-focused ethical systems and aspirations for more (happy) people to exist. I still think that's somewhat the case but it is clearer that these differences can be overcome and that one can value both.

Pleased to hear this. The second part of the book should lend even more support to that view. I very much hope we can all cooperate closely rather than fall victim to tribal psychology, as difficult as that can be. As I note in chapter 10, disagreeing on values is arguably a strong catalyst for outgroup perception. Let's resist falling prey to that.

Thanks again for taking the time to read and review the first part of the book. :-)

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

Thanks for your question, Niklas. It's an important one.

The following link contains some resources for sustainable activism that I've found useful:

But specifically, it may be useful to cultivate compassion — the desire for other beings to be free from suffering — more than (affective) empathy, i.e. actually feeling the feelings of those who suffer.

Here is an informative conversation about it:

As I write in section 9.5 (see the book for references):

Research suggests that these meditation practices [i.e. compassion and loving-kindness meditation] not only increase compassionate responses to suffering, but that they also help to increase life satisfaction and reduce depressive symptoms for the practitioner, as well as to foster better coping mechanisms and increased positive affect in the face of suffering.
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