(UPDATED DECEMBER 2021)
Magnus Vinding’s “Suffering-Focused Ethics” is a heartfelt, yet occasionally overreaching work laying out a case for why we should focus primarily on suffering in our ethical decisions, and exactly how we can approach the world with this framework.
“Suffering-Focused Ethics” is split into two sections. The first section lays the terminological and ethical framework for the second half, introducing, refining, and defending concepts such as The Asymmetry, Principle of Sympathy for Intense Suffering, Extreme Suffering, and Moral Realism. The second section utilizes these terms in more applied cause areas, such as Space Colonization, Wild Animal Suffering, Moral Cooperation, and Personal Self-care.
Given that I already agree with most of Vinding’s views, I found the first section to be relatively dry (although with a couple of quirky arguments, to be discussed), and I was much more impressed by the second section, particularly the seldom discussed case against Space Colonization.
In my review of the first section, I will first lay out Vinding’s views as I have understood them, and then more thoroughly dissect both his chapter on the Principle of Sympathy as well as his off-key chapter on Moral Realism. I will be spending a decent chunk of time on the Moral Realism chapter specifically, because I found the arguments contained within it to be particularly unique.
In my review of the second section, I will discuss and expand almost exclusively on the chapter focusing on Space Colonization and S-Risk. I will have a few notes in passing on the remaining topics.
Section 1 - The Case for Suffering-Focused Ethics
“The problem of suffering is the greatest problem of all. This is my conviction, and why I have set out to write this book, in which I will explore the why and how of reducing suffering.” (pg.1)
Vinding’s main theses in this first section may be split into roughly four:
- Suffering and Happiness are asymmetrical (in a variety of ways), and not easily placed on the same scale,
- There is intrinsic value to be found in the Reduction of Suffering (not necessarily as a positive good, rather as a "not bad"),
- Positive goods cannot outweigh the worst forms of suffering, and
- that we truly and objectively ought to reduce extreme suffering.
Suffering is defined thus:
“By suffering and happiness I refer to an overall state of feeling in a given moment, with suffering being an overall bad feeling, or state of consciousness, and happiness being an overall good feeling” (pg.13)
One common criticism, which Vinding gracefully counters early on, is that negative experiences such as pain are not always bad (for more see “Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants”).
“For example, one’s experience may contain a component of pain or bittersweet sorrow, but if this component does not render the overall experience negative or disagreeable, then this experience does not constitute suffering on the definition employed here”. (ibid)
The first three chapters serve as a compendium of sorts, detailing views from a multitude of authors defending the first two of Vinding’s four theses. At least one reviewer has felt alienated by this approach, saying that “many of the arguments are of the form "philosopher X thinks that Y is true", but without appropriate arguments for Y”, adding that, “I was being persuaded, not explained to”.
If these chapters are viewed as a collection of self-contained arguments, then it is easy to see how the reviewer could have felt that way. However, if these chapters are understood as merely a collection of views held by thinkers in the past, to be used as a resource for those interested in the field, then the criticism dissolves. Certainly however, Vinding could have done more to emphasize that his goal in these chapters was not to reason from first principles, as he does more in the next few chapters, but merely to showcase and argue for what views there were.
I will now analyse the views and arguments in the following two chapters: chapter four, and chapter five. These two chapters, out of all eight chapters in section one, contain the bulk of Vinding’s original arguments. In chapter four, Vinding grants us with a new phrase, the ‘Principle of Sympathy for Intense Suffering’ (henceforth, the Principle). In chapter five, he will discuss and defend a position on Moral Realism.
Principle of Sympathy for Intense Suffering
“What this principle says, roughly speaking, is that we should prioritize the interests of those who experience the most extreme forms of suffering. In particular, we should prioritize their interest in not experiencing such suffering higher than we should prioritize anything else.” (pg.60, my emphasis)
“Something that may help motivate us to take this principle seriously is to ask, quite simply, why we would suppose it to be otherwise. Why should we believe that the most extreme forms of suffering can somehow be outweighed or counterbalanced by something else? After all, there seems no reason, a priori, to suppose this to be the case.” (ibid)
In general, I agree with the Principle. However I’m not sure whether it is for the same a priori reasons. When I first read the Principle, I immediately thought of a few other overriding values where it prima facie (meaning "at first sight") appears that “the most extreme forms of suffering can somehow be outweighed or counterbalanced by something else”. I will list two of these values now, and then discuss how Vinding might respond.
One such value is love. A certain romantic notion of love consists of people pursuing their love interest in the face of overwhelming odds and risks. One may proclaim to their lover that they would be willing to go to the depths of hell and back for the sake of the other. Another value is comradery in battle. A soldier charging into battle may care about the livelihoods of his brothers in arms more than he may care about any suffering he will bring about. Soldiers may maim, rape, and torture the enemy in war with little regard to suffering whilst in the midst of it. In both cases, concerns for suffering are prima facie being overridden by other values.
Vinding may respond with the following (replacing the word ‘pleasure’ with ‘comradery/love’):
“After all, common sense would seem to say that if a conscious subject considers some state of suffering worth experiencing in order to attain some given pleasure, then this pleasure is indeed worth the suffering. And this view may work for most of us most of the time. Yet it runs into serious problems … in cases where subjects consider their suffering unoutweighable by any amount of pleasure.” (pg.61)
“[This would be because pleasure cannot outweigh] suffering so intense [since] they 1) consider it unbearable — i.e. they cannot consent to it even if they try their hardest — and 2) consider it unoutweighable by any positive good, even if only for a brief experience-moment.” (pg.62)
Thus, even though a lover or a soldier may claim that they are willing to undergo or cause suffering for the sake of certain values, that is love or comradery, they will not consent to this view the moment they face real suffering. They will want the suffering to stop, no matter how hard they try to place comradery/love on the pedestal, and will consider suffering “unoutweighable“ by these other values.
This makes sense to me, and my reaction is to say that yes that is true, the lover and the soldier will forfeit their prior claims in the face of genuine suffering. However, having said that, I still cannot help but feel that “surely the power of love will overcome any obstacle no matter how tough”. But that might just be a view which watching old disney movies has instilled in me. “Love overcomes any obstacle”, I tell myself, scrolling through tinder. I will return to these niggling thoughts on the difference between having a feeling, and what these feelings actually imply, in the “is/ought” section in my review of the next chapter.
The primary arguments for the Principle consist of appeals to: 1) common-sense, and 2) the horrors of the world.
Of common-sense, Vinding uses a roller coaster analogy:
“[The Principle] has a lot of support from common sense. For example, imagine two children are offered to ride a roller coaster — one child would find the ride very pleasant, while the other would find it very unpleasant. And imagine, furthermore, that the only two options available are that they either both ride or neither of them ride (and if neither of them ride, they are both perfectly fine). Which of these options should we ideally realize?“
“Common sense would seem to say we should sympathize with and prioritize the child who would find the ride very unpleasant, and hence choose the outcome in which there is no harm and no victim.” (pg.63)
I suspect there is a lot being loaded onto the words “common sense” here. Pushing past that, Vinding successfully expands on the scenario in a few ways, and justifies his reasons in both. He i) expands the thought experiment by including multiple children being benefited and suggests that these multiple benefiters still cannot outweigh the harm of the one child, and he ii) compares the roller-coaster situation - which does not include extreme suffering - to one that includes extreme suffering, and says that having extreme suffering involved would make ignoring the child receiving the harm even more repulsive.
Of horror, he quotes a panoply of authors, tortured souls, forms of execution and devices of human suffering. Take the example of sawing:
“We can begin to approach such appreciation by considering what it is like to undergo “death by sawing”, an execution method used on humans in many parts of the world in the past, and which is still used on non-human animals in some parts of the world today. The victim is tied up and then sawn or chopped in half with a saw or a machete, either transversely or midsagittally — in the latter case, it has both been done from the groin up as well as from the skull down.” (pg.65)
The idea is that there is immeasurable suffering in the world which we do not truly appreciate, sitting in our comfy couches reading book reviews online. As crude as such an argument is, I believe these arguments nevertheless serve as the strongest proponents for the Principle, if just for the sheer shock value. This is even though they do not rely on straightforward syllogistically reasoning but an appeal to emotion, so it is good that Vinding does not shy away from using these arguments but rather embraces them.
Overall I am convinced that the Principle is true. Where does Vinding go next, having established it? He will now try to show not only that the Principle true, but that it undergirds our moral reality:
(Dec-21 EDIT: I originally had many paragraphs in this section explaining i) what Moral Realism was, and ii) why I thought Vinding’s conception of it was misplaced. I’ve since realised that I was somewhat misguided: not fully understanding his view and misrepresenting certain sections. I still don’t completely understand his view, but the focus on definitions of “moral realism” was sufficiently distracting for the rest of the review that I’ve since removed them.)
“A Moral Realist Case for Minimizing Extreme Suffering” is the most out-of-place chapter in ‘Suffering-focused Ethics’, which makes it one of the more interesting to review.
“In this chapter, I shall make a moral realist case for the view that we ought to minimize extreme suffering. In other words, I will argue that we in a sense truly and objectively ought to reduce extreme suffering as much as we can.” (pg.75, author’s emphasis)
(Sep-21 EDIT: I’ve been informed that Magnus wrote a book on his meta-ethical stances. I have not read it, but will hyperlink it for those interested. It’s always possible that having read this, Vindings positions may appear more plausible.)
Vinding says his views rest on two premises:
“My moral realist argument for minimizing extreme suffering rests on two premises. The first premise is that suffering is intrinsically disvaluable and carries normative force. In particular, any subject experiencing a state of extreme suffering will be forced to conclude that this state, by its very nature, is truly disvaluable and that it truly ought not be. The second premise is that the disvalue and normative force of extreme suffering is qualitatively greater than anything else, and hence the extent to which our actions minimize such suffering is the supremely most important thing about them. In sum: minimizing extreme suffering carries genuine and supreme normative force.” (pg.87, author’s emphasis)
And weakens the argumentative leverage for such views shortly after:
“These premises are difficult to argue for, as opposed to just blankly state. And although I will attempt to justify these statements in the following sections, I think their truth can ultimately only be verified through direct experience.”
Before tackling his “moral realist argument”, let’s understand what Vinding himself might means by the term ‘moral realism’.
Vinding’s Definition of Moral Realism
Vinding does not explicitly define moral realism, however he does brush against the edge of such a definition:
“The view I present here can be seen as a moral realist version of the principle argued for in the previous chapter, as it defends a version of [The Principle] as a moral truth” (pg.75, my emphasis)
“One may, of course, debate whether “moral realism” is the most appropriate term for this position, yet it seems to me the best fit. On my account, there really is an “ought” inherent to extreme suffering, indeed an “ought” more significant and forceful than anything the word “ought” can ever come close to capturing. (pg.83)”
I’m still not entirely clear what Vinding must mean by Moral Realism. Does it mean that moral claims are truth-evaluable? Does it mean that the moral pressures compelling us to act only make sense if morality is a “real” thing? Does it mean that we use moral language earnestly because there’s a morality out there which we’re trying to express? I’m not sure.
Regardless, What are his arguments for it?
Arguments for Moral Realism
Vinding claims that for his case to hold, he must prove two premises for moral realism as it relates to ending extreme suffering:
- That suffering is inherently disvaluable,
- That extreme suffering has supreme normative force
I will tackle these in turn.
1 - Suffering is Inherently Disvaluable (5.4)
In this section, Vinding discusses views from other thinkers (Richard Ryder, Henry Sidgwick, Jamie Mayerfeld, and Karl Popper), and then presents his own view:
“On my account, this is simply a fact about consciousness: the experience of suffering is inherently bad, and this badness carries normative force — it carries a property of this ought not occur that is all too clear, undeniable even, in the moment one experiences it. We do not derive this property. We experience it directly.” (pg.79)
And then whips us into attention with two absolutely incredible paragraphs, which I will quote in full:
“In my view, this is what bridges the “is-ought gap” that is said to prevent us from deriving statements about how the world ought to be from statements about how the world is. The statement “suffering is, by its nature, something that ought not occur” is a statement about how the world is, and it does say something about how the world ought to be. We are only forced to accept a gap between “is” and “ought” if we accept the premise that there are no states of the world — no states of what is— that have intrinsically normative properties, a premise I firmly reject.”
“By analogy, consider mathematical lines and vectors. Saying that “ought” cannot be found anywhere in the realm of what is, is akin to saying that there are only lines, whereas vectors, things that point in some direction, do not exist. I disagree. When we look closer, we find that vectors — mathematical as well as ethical ones — indeed do exist in a very real sense (though this is not to say they exist in any Platonic sense). The world is richer than our ordinary narrow conceptions suggest.” (pg.80)
There’s a lot to be said here.
Firstly, the is-ought problem (that you cannot derive an ought, using just facts about the world) is far from being a closed question in ethics and while this paragraph has highlighted one path out of it, here’s one counter-argument against it:
Just because an experience has an attached drive (or in Vinding’s words, a “normative force”) does not mean that it suddenly becomes an ought. For example, if a man cuts me in a queue, I would feel tempted to smack him on the head. This would be “all too clear, undeniable even, in the moment one experiences it”, yet this is not what I ought to do. There are overriding factors, such as my understanding that it’s not morally acceptable. Likewise, if after I’ve calmed down I see an alluring woman dressed in red I might want to approach her and feel a desire to give her a great, big, hug. Yet, this is not what I ought to do.
Similarly, if I go through several sleepless nights and cry out I would rather my whole world vanish around me than spend another hour in sleepless agony, that does not mean it ought to end. Such an experience could be overridden by other values, such as comradery - “guarding my comrades from the enemy at nightwatch, is worth these hours of torment” - or if not, then could be re-evaluated in the future - “I am glad I went through that ordeal, because it has made me appreciate a good night’s sleep”.
Granted, if it’s neither overridden, nor re-evaluated, I admit that crying out to stop the suffering from sleepless nights will have normative force simplicitur. But this is not unique to suffering: If anger is not overridden by morality, then it too has normative force simplicitur - simply my hand towards the fellow’s head - Smack!
Of-course, Vinding may reply that I have not truly experienced or fairly represented real suffering if my response is to be lackadaisical and not to want to end the suffering regardless of my other values, but such a response would feel to me like a type of No True Scotsman argument: any form of suffering that does not entail “ought not to occur” is not really a form of suffering, for ought-ness is the defining property of suffering. He may be right, granted he says that direct experience is the ultimate judge of his position, but if that’s the case, then it is not a topic worth discussing for we would always speak past each other.
Secondly, the lines and vectors analogy is the strangest paragraph of the entire book.
In a universe consisting of lines, “when we look closer, we find that vectors — mathematical as well as ethical ones — indeed do exist in a very real sense”. I do not know what to make of this. Whether mathematically lines exist in reality is a whole topic in itself, and whether vectors follow from lines is not trivially true at all, for you must add a sense of direction to a line, in order to make it a vector. Also, what is an ethical vector, and how does it compare to ethical lines? Further, why is discussion of is and ought akin to lines and vectors? This paragraph appears to be several layers removed from any meaningful interpretation, so perhaps this is just a case of a wide inferential distance between Vinding’s mind and mine.
[Dec-21 EDIT: The analogy has been clarified somewhat through email correspondence. We can imagine a mathematical world full of lines, and this would be like the world of facts. However such a world would be “normatively directionless.” If we add vectors to this mental image, then we would now have direction in the world (presumably it would now begin to have a “normative force”). I still don’t buy that “Vectors exist in a real sense” when we “look closer” - either ethical vectors or mathematical vectors. This might just be myopia. Granted, they do exist in the trivial sense that I feel a push to act more ethically, and that I am able to see vectors on paper when I draw them, but I suspect that Vinding is trying to say something more substantial than this. Particularly, this is an argument which is claiming that we should not in the existence of the is-ought gap - and not just pointing out the fact that we act ethically or see vectors on paper, which we trivially do and see.]
2- Extreme Suffering has supreme normative force (5.5)
Vinding argues for this in two steps.
“A first step may be to argue that all moral value ultimately resides in the realm of consciousness: something can ultimately only have moral value if it affects the experience of a sentient being.”
“If we grant this step, all we would need to do … is to establish that extreme suffering has superior moral significance relative to all other states within the realm of consciousness.” (pg.85)
Vinding is careful to temper this position with what he calls throughout his book a “pluralism” about morality: that the prevention of Suffering, while overridingly important, is not the only good of value.
“It is important to note that the view that extreme suffering has overriding normative force is by no means predicated on the view that all moral value is found within the realm of consciousness. For instance, one can believe that things such as knowledge, art, and virtues have intrinsic moral value not reducible to their effect on conscious subjects while still believing that the reduction of extreme suffering has supreme importance.”
Coming back to his argument, we see that it is a logical two step procedure: 1) Show that morality value resides in consciousness, and 2) show that extreme suffering must have “superior normative significance” compared to other states of consciousness. He argues for the first step using a convincing planet analogy - that we would rather reduce suffering on planet A, than place an intrinsically valuable non-experiential good (whatever that may be) on planet B. His argument for the second is shakier.
To show that second step, that extreme suffering has more moral significance than other states of consciousness, Vinding must establish extreme suffering’s “superior importance relative to mild suffering” (pg.88). He does so by claiming that mild suffering is lexically different to extreme suffering. He defines lexical thus:
“a single instance of such extreme suffering is worse and more important to prevent than arbitrarily many instances of such mild suffering” (pg.88)
He provides examples of lexical differences in physical phenomena to help us make sense of this “lexicality” more generally. In a wide range of physical phenomena, a small difference can cause a sudden change in state. Therefore, as some transition states of physical phenomena do not admit of grey areas, so too do some transition states of suffering not admit of just grey areas. A discontinuous jump implies a lexical difference:
“For example, a spring will exert a pull with a certain force depending on how far we stretch it, yet at a certain point, if we pull the spring just a tiny bit further, the spring will break and its pull will go abruptly to zero. Likewise, consider the discrete energy levels of atoms, where just a tiny difference in how much energy we bombard an atom with can mean a qualitative difference — a literal quantum leap — between two discretely different states with nothing in between.” (pg.91)
To my mind, one reason lexicality in physical phenomena does not easily translate to lexicality in grades of suffering is that with physical phenomena, each phenomena has an understandable mechanism. Atoms do quantum leaps because we have an understanding of quantum physics, and springs fail to deform elastically (or break) beyond a certain point because of our understanding of yield stresses and chemical bonds.
As far as I understand, there is no analogous mechanism in the brain for suffering. Perhaps One may argue that there are certain neural correlates of suffering in the brain (or elsewhere in the body) that require minute activations in order to transform a mild type of suffering to an extreme one. If this is so, I have never heard of such a correlation, and would be interested in knowing more.
The above’s relation to moral realism
Overall, while I am convinced by his conclusions, I am not convinced by Vinding’s arguments that 1) suffering is inherently disvaluable, and 2) that extreme suffering is supremely significant compared to other states of consciousness, let alone that moral realism inherently relates to either of these views.
What would drive Vinding to frame these positions through the lens of moral realism?
One interesting “potentially motivating force” he provides for pushing for perspective is that there is a psychological reason to believe in moral realism:
“... it seems natural to expect that moral realism is better able to motivate moral behavior. And this conjecture finds support in empirical studies. For example, one study in which participants were primed toward either moral realism or anti-realism found that:
Participants primed with realism were twice as likely to be donors [to charity], compared to control participants and participants primed with antirealism. … [In sum:] priming a belief in moral realism improved moral behavior”
(pg.77, quoted in Vinding. Link to study quoted: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103112002375 :Young & Durwin, 2013)
“Yet it should be noted that I do not believe in moral realism because believing it seems to have good consequences. Rather, it is in a sense the other way around: it is because I think there is such a thing as truly better or worse consequences in the first place that I am a moral realist. The potential motivating force of realist views just gives me additional reason to try to convey my view.” (pg.77, my emphasis)
Something about conveying a view, with one reason being that it helps other people donate more money, does not sit well with me, even though I would agree that that would be a beneficial consequence. I’m not exactly sure what about it does not sit well with me, and will need to think more on that. Having said that, I understand where Vinding is coming from.
Section 2 - How Can We Best Reduce Suffering?
In this shorter, second section of the book Vinding deals with a whole swath of topics. This section can be viewed as a handbook of sorts, for the now-convinced suffering-focused Vindingian. The topics include but are not limited to:
Moral Uncertainty, Cooperation, Non-Human Animals, The Abolitionist Project, S-risks, and Self-Investment.
I will be focusing on his views on S-Risk for the rest of the review, as this is the topic that has interested me the most. If, however, you take a fancy to any of the other topics listed above, and they are worth reading, you are encouraged to have a read of them here.
S-risks and Space Colonization
“It is conceivable that future space colonization will create orders of magnitude more suffering than anything that could ever be contained on Earth. The risk that suffering might be realized on such a large scale has been called a “suffering risk” or “s-risk”, and reducing such risks should be a priority on all views concerned about future suffering.” (pg.247, introduction to Chapter 14: “Reducing S-Risks”)
Space Colonization plays a large role in Chapter 14, a chapter dedicated to S-Risk. In fact, it plays such an overwhelming role in the chapter that I am surprised Vinding did not just name the chapter “Space Colonization”. In my review of this section I will outline Vinding’s views on why Space Colonization is harmful. I will agree with his views for the most part, however I will show that he did not go far enough in his analysis, for he neglected the impact which life outside earth (were it to exist) would have on his expected value calculations.
For Vinding, in order for an S-Risk to occur we only need to factor in two considerations, that:
“1) large-scale space colonization will happen, and 2) [that] this colonization will involve an insufficient concern for suffering. This combination of conditions can hardly be written off as having extremely low probability, especially given that serious projects aimed to colonize Mars already exist, and that humanity currently displays a gross lack of concern for the suffering of sentient beings“ (pg.248)
Vinding furthermore cites Althaus/Gloor in calling S-Risks “disjunctive - they can be realized in many different ways that bear little relation to each other”. Due to this disjunctivity - that we may cause an S-Risk through wide scale factory farming, proliferation of interstellar war, S-Risks due to AI risk, e.t.c. - and by virtue of the fact that we are psychologically known to undervalue disjunctive risk, we should pay more heed to possible S-Risks, even if they may not be on our immediate radar.
I find the space colonization argument prima facie convincing, and the disjunctive argument is also convincing, for it says we’re biased, after all. Knowing this, what does Vinding propose we should do in the face of possible S-Risks?
Reduce possible Dystopias
One step to reducing S-Risks is to aim towards prevention of dystopias, which is more tractable than aiming for utopia creation.
“Yet not only does s-risk reduction seem highly neglected, it also seems more tractable than comparable large-scale objectives, such as utopia creation. Put simply: the asymmetry in ease of realization suggests that it is more cost-effective (for a wide variety of value systems) to work to avoid dystopian outcomes than to create utopian ones.” (pg.254)
And as evidence Vinding quotes Althaus/Gloor again, and also refers us back to Section 1.3, which claims that there is an asymmetry between bringing about suffering and bringing about pleasure. That is, “it is much easier to bring about states of extreme suffering than to bring about states of extreme happiness”, and this asymmetry is true “in various levels for various reasons”: “failure is generally much easier than success. For example, there are many more ways not to solve a Rubik’s Cube than to solve it.” Vinding also discusses this in the form of the “Anna Karenina Principle”.
Yet, as understandable as his metaphors are, I think Vinding has moved a bit too fast here. There are more than a few steps needed to go from 1) the view that realising suffering and realising happiness are asymmetrical, to 2) the claim it is more “cost-effective to work to avoid dystopian outcomes than to create utopian ones.”
Firstly, I question whether striving to create a utopian outcome is, in reality, a driving force for any government or high-impact individual. That is, most charities appear to be aiming to alleviate suffering in some form, rather than aiming for creating utopias in the abstract (with the exception, perhaps, being art museum charities). So, even if Vinding is right, and given it’s the case that few appear to be aiming for utopic outcomes as such, is he in some sense just arguing against a blank wall?
(Dec-21 REVISION: I have since been partially convinced that EA organisations - purportedly having the collective funds and influence of a small country like Uruguay - taken as a whole may indeed count as a significant section of the world that is aiming for utopian outcomes. So I take back the claim that Vinding is arguing towards no one.)
Secondly, if it’s really the case that it’s easier to tend towards disarray and dystopia than it is to tend towards utopia - like how a Rubiks cube has more failure states than success states - how would he explain the fact that we are not, for all intents and purposes, living in a dystopian nightmare right now? I accept there have been a few disastrous semi-dystopic hiccups in humanities collective path through the universe: the various wars and genocides, the poor air quality and child labour during the industrial revolution, perhaps the agricultural revolution, and recently the fake-news culture wars, but in return we get modern medicine, more time than ever to pursue our hobbies and passions, and of-course the (historically) recent dissemination of knowledge to the masses through the invention of books and the internet!
(Dec-21 REVISION: I was too bold here, and I’m now not entirely sure of my stance on the debate on whether the world is trending towards utopia or dystopia. Analogously, are humans big or small? It seems that we are big compared to atoms, but small compared to galaxies. Isn’t it hard to place objective markers here? It makes me think - will the utopia/dystopia debate ever be settled?)
I can agree that realising suffering and realising happiness are asymmetrical endeavors where one appears to be easier to achieve than the other in a sense, but in another sense (whatever that sense may be, I don’t know myself) it’s also a fact that both individually and collectively we are heading towards a better society, and not away from it. I would have liked to see Vinding clarify his position here, and expand more on his thought that “failure is generally much easier than success”, and its implication for his view that it’s better to “work to avoid dystopian outcomes than to create utopian ones”.
With the exception of the above claim regarding utopia, his other steps towards reducing S-Risks are much more balanced. That is, we should focus our attentions on “robust” (Vinding does not define ‘Robust’ explicitly, but I presume it means something along the lines of “applicable regardless of the particular S-Risk strategy you want to minimize”) strategies such as i) building up the sentiment that we should reduce S-Risks, ii) fostering cooperation, and iii) advancing S-Risk research by “think[ing] through many strange possibilities while avoiding the trap of unwarranted confidence in speculative hypotheses”
Vinding admits that these not sexy endeavours:
“Such a mundane mission of capacity-building, cooperation, and research-promotion hardly seems like a particularly attractive thing to be affiliated with for our status-obsessed brains.” (pg.255)
But nevertheless says that in the pursuit of preventing the greatest amount of horrors we could possibly face, considering just sexy, status-inducing options is not the way to go.
So to help Vinding on the project of finding “strange possibilities” of S-Risk, while possibly being overconfident in my own “speculative hypothesis”, I present the following addition to the discussion on space colonization:
It is known that aliens could exist in the universe. Furthermore, it is also known that aliens could have the following properties (ordered by increasing order of complexity): 1) the ability to suffer 2) the ability to act intelligently, 3) the ability to create their own S-Risks, and 4) the ability to expand into the universe propagating their own S-Risks.
Let’s further assume that we care about S-Risks, and we care to a very large degree about “orders of magnitude more suffering” compared with what “could ever be contained on Earth.”
Building upon any of the 4 possibilities above, multiplied by how many aliens we expect to exist in the universe which will be reachable by us in the future by robotic spacecraft or whatever means we have, we see that we have a clear moral imperative for space colonization in order to prevent any of these disastrous scenarios from happen, or continuing to happen.
Firstly if aliens could suffer, even if they were to exist as mere balls of goo rummaging on an alien ocean, grinding the soil for nutrients and tearing each other apart for a slice of the alien pie, then given that Vinding cares about Wild Animal Suffering (More in Chapter 11), he must therefore care to a higher degree about all the Wild Animal Suffering that could be prevented cosmically. Whatever suffering animals exist now, or will in future exist on earth, are insignificant compared to what exists or will exist cosmically within our means of prevention.
Secondly, if aliens could act intelligently, they may cause widespread destruction towards their own ecosystem. They will have their own world wars, moral disasters, and genocides. Instead of humans they may be ‘Schmoomans’, similar to us and causing all the similar evils and problems which we ourselves cause to ourselves, except that they exist far away from us. Whatever Vinding thinks of harm caused by humanity must be multiplied by magnitudes more given all the schoomans that will exist, even considering just the Schmoomans in our galaxy, let alone the universe.
Thirdly, if they can create their own S-Risk, it is possible that right now as you are reading this, there are several thousand super-intelligent AIs in the universe that are currently holding hostage googly-eyed aliens and churning their bodies into paperclips. They will be stuck in such an equilibrium of torment unless an external force, such as humanity (or our own, benevolent AI) comes and rescues them. As unlikely as any of this may be, it is still a possibility that we must consider with earnestness, given that calculations of S-Risks as understood by Vinding (i.e. without aliens) already includes low probabilities with high uncertainties.
Lastly, the aliens could create/have created/will create their own S-Risk, and be propagating the universe with this S-Risk, just as Vinding envisages we may to ourselves if we colonize space. However, either 1) this is already happening/will happen, in which case we ourselves will be subsumed by them in the millions of years to come, or more likely we are an early civilization in the universe (according to Robin Hanson’s “Grabby Aliens” model) so, 2) quite possibly there are no grabby aliens populating the universe with S-Risks yet, so we have the very special, once in a universe opportunity to be the force of benevolence in the universe, propagating space with hope, peace, happiness, and utopia.
Vinding may argue that as convincing as he finds the above arguments, it is still way too risky to throw our net into the universe, knowing that we have such a high chance of propagating an S-Risk onto ourselves. My response is that whatever S-Risk we create towards humanity (or sentient terrestrial life) will very likely be a drop in the ocean in the literal universe of suffering that exists around us, or will exist around us. Be it through the base case of aliens which can suffer, or the more extreme case of Schmoomans which will consume the universe with S-Risk. Both are undesirable scenarios which we have a chance to prevent. So, even if humanity becomes a part of a global paperclip churning machine (or whatever disastrous S-Risk you envision), it is a risk worth taking to prevent the literal hundreds of millions of paperclip churning machines that could exist now, or in the future.
Accepting Vinding’s idea that Extreme Suffering cannot be overridden by pleasures, but have an intrinsic and overriding moral worth in preventing by themselves, Vinding must recognise that this is a battle between
- A (possibly temporary) peaceful life on earth, with galactic scale suffering elsewhere - if we do not colonize space, or
- Galactic scale suffering everywhere, with this small chance of galactic scale suffering being eliminated for all - if we colonize space (with that small chance succeeding if colonize space successfully)
Knowing that humans have no claim in being any more valuable than Schmoomans, for we are both creatures of suffering, it is clear to me which option I prefer!
Furthermore Vinding should welcome these arguments, for I am suggesting a form of optimism: unlike most future civilizations who will reach some equilibrium state (either by reaching extinction, or by being subsumed by an external civilization at some unspecified point in the future), as an early civilization we are uniquely situated at the crossroads of preventing large amounts of suffering in the universe. While the road will be bumpy and tiresome, and there will be plenty of room for error, it’s a shot humanity’s been given, and it’s one we must use.
(Dec-21 EDIT: Additional Resources - Courtesy to Vinding for pointing these out to me
- https://centerforreducingsuffering.org/s-risk-impact-distribution-is-double-tailed/ )
In my review of the first section of “Suffering-focused Ethics” by Magnus Vinding I have summarised his main points, and dived into a deep discussion of both his “Principle of Sympathy for Intense Suffering” and his “Moral Realist case for Suffering-focused Ethics”. I have shown that his arguments in both cases, while generally unconvincing, do contribute to the growing literature on the topic and his chapters here may act as a reference point for those who are new to the field.
In my review of the second section, I have analysed his views against Space Colonization and S-Risk, finding his arguments somewhat convincing, but definitely praiseworthy by placing into the spotlight a rarely discussed position with regards to Space Colonization. Certainly, he has given me something to ponder on. In my review I also have contributed to the discussion, by highlighting how the introduction of suffering-able aliens radically change his fundamental arguments against Space Colonization.
Overall I do not find Vinding a persuasive arguer. However, I do find him to be one of the few individuals spearheading the movement for suffering-focused ethics, so while some of his arguments are lacking, his positions are worth serious consideration. While I did not tackle every chapter of the book (given more time and energy I would have reviewed his views on “The Abolitionist Project” as well as “Non-Human Animals”), I hope I’ve given the reader enough material for them to decide whether or not this work is reading for themselves.
Many thanks to those friends of mine who provided feedback (and wish to remain anonymous). Thanks to the LessWrong team for their book review contest, which helped motivate me to write this essay. Thanks to Vinding for providing feedback which I’ve since used to update the review.
The review is also available on my blog.