Some people in the EA community have already written a bit about this.

I think this is the kind of thing Mike Johnson (/user/johnsonmx) and Andres Gomez Emilsson (/user/algekalipso) of the Qualia Research Institute are interested in, though they probably take a different approach. See:

Effective Altruism, and building a better QALY

Principia Qualia: blueprint for a new cause area, consciousness research with an eye toward ethics and x-risk

The Foundational Research Institute also takes an interest in the issue, but they tend to advocate an eliminativist, subjectivist view according to which there is no way to objectively determine which beings are conscious because consciousness itself is an essentially contested concept. (I don't know if everyone at FRI agrees with that, but at least a few including Brian Tomasik do.) FRI also has done some work on measuring happiness and suffering.

Animal Charity Evaluators announced in 2016 that they were starting a deep investigation of animal sentience. I don't know if they have done anything since then.

Luke Muehlhauser (/u/lukeprog) wrote an extensive report on consciousness for the Open Philanthropy Project. He has also indicated an interest in further exploring the area of sentience and moral weight. Since phenomenal consciousness is necessary to experience either happiness or suffering, this may fall under the same umbrella as the above research. Lukeprog's LW posts on affective neuroscience are relevant as well (as well as a couple by Yvain).

This is great info, but it's about a different angle from what I'd like to see.

(I now realise it is totally impossible to infer my angle from my post, so here goes)

I want to describe the causes of happiness with the intentional stance. That is, I want to explain them in terms of beliefs, feelings and intentions.

For example, it seems very relevant that (allegedly) suffering is a result of attachment to outcomes, but I haven't heard any rationalists talk about this.

We need a better theory of happiness and suffering

by toonalfrink 1 min read4th Jul 201739 comments


We rationalists know a lot about winning, but we don't know what our terminal goals really are. Such things are handwaved away, as we just mumble something like "QALYs" and make a few guesses about what a five year old would like.

I'd like to dispel the myth that a 5 year old knows what they like. Have you ever seen a kid with a sack of candy? I don't think they really wanted to get nauseous.

"But hold up", you say. "Maybe that's true for special cases involving competing subagents, but most cases are actually pretty straightforward, like blindness and death and captivity."

Well, you may have a point with death, but what if blind people and inmates are actually as happy as the next guy? What's the point of curing blindness, then?

A special case where we need to check our assumptions is animal welfare. What if the substrate of suffering is something in higher-order cognition, something that all but mammals lack?

One could hold that it is impossible to make inferences about another being's qualia, but we can come quite far with introspection plus assuming that similar brains yield similar qualia. We can even correlate happiness with brain scans.

The former is why I've moved to a Buddhist monastery. If (whatever really causes) happiness is your goal, it seems to me that the claim that one can permanently attain a state of bliss is worth investigating.

So, to sum up, if we want to fix suffering, let's find out it's proximal cause first. Spoiler: it's not pain.

(To be continued)