The Highest Good We Can Serve

The Effective Altruism movement aims to answer the question "how can we use our resources to help others the most?". Well, let us ask: what is the most we could ever help someone? In the quest for human progress, what would it mean to go all the way? What’s the highest, most altruistic goal we could shoot for, both as individuals and as a society? I venture that it is precisely this: to end (or fully minimise) suffering for every person on Earth. (The suffering of other sentient beings I consider a slightly separate issue and will exclude from this post for the sake of brevity).

If there are states of mind and brain that correspond to minimal suffering and maximal psychological freedom, awareness, happiness and love, should we not be prioritising dissemination of these states to as many people as possible, in line with the goal of Effective Altruism to help as many people as possible, as much as possible? A strategy for reaching this goal becomes obvious when we consider that there exist reliable, systematic methods to attain these mind-states; methods of training the mind that can be easily and often freely transmitted from human to human through verbal instruction.

The task of alleviating psychological suffering, even partially, meets the framework of a high-impact problem as described in an Introduction to Effective Altruism:

  • Great in scale (just about every single human is subject to unnecessary psychological suffering)
  • Highly neglected (techniques to alleviate suffering are esoteric and practiced only by a tiny majority), and
  • Highly solvable (techniques and tools exist to alleviate suffering, and allocating funds towards their dissemination will increase their adoption - especially since they are mostly free or very cheap!).

Over and above meeting people's basic physiological and financial needs - which dominates the focus of modern philanthropy - we are faced with a 7-billion-instance problem of individual human psychology, and how to alter it to minimise suffering and maximise its positive aspects. Because once everybody on Earth is clothed, educated, working and fed, what then? We in the developed, materially abundant West know that there will still be widespread mental affliction (as evidenced by an epidemic of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression).

Eradicating human suffering is perhaps the highest goal we could ever serve, and would have a significantly positive knock-on effect for our fellow sentient beings on Earth (truly happy people are always benevolent). And while it is certainly ambitious, certainly what Peter Diamandis calls a "moonshot" goal, I am convinced that it is more achievable at this moment in history than ever before, and will explain why in this article. All over the world, momentum is growing towards it's realisation, and I hope that in time we will come to consider total psychological freedom our birthright.

It might be helpful if I make clear the fact that most of humanity's suffering is internal, borne of our mental responses and reactions to sensory stimuli, not the stimuli themselves (e.g. a colleague being unpleasant is upsetting because of our reaction to it; the sights and sounds of the colleague are not intrinsically unpleasant). This shifts our focus for suffering-alleviation from external, material circumstances (which, again, dominates the focus of modern philanthropy) to internal (i.e. subjective), psychological ones. Remedying psychological suffering has the potential to bring far greater human flourishing than any material change.

Happily, in this century we have the resources to bring both types of change, but I feel the need to write this article for fear that psychological suffering, ignorance and confusion is perhaps our planet's most neglected problem, the root source of so many other issues, and also because it is one with existing, readily implementable solutions. We need only to disseminate these solutions.

My argument can be summarised thus: if freedom from psychological suffering is actually possible, we should pursue this goal for every human. If it is not, then minimising suffering as much as possible is the next best goal we can serve.

I've made my case that this problem is great in scale and highly neglected, so let's look to the third requirement for a high-impact problem: highly solvable, and consider the evidence for psychological freedom from suffering.

The Evidence for Psychological Freedom (both Total and Partial)

We can take "total alleviation of suffering" to be synonymous with total psychological freedom: enlightenment, awakening, nirvana, the Self, unity with God, etc., since anecdotes of these experiences attest to the cessation of any negative mind-aspects and speak explicitly about positive ones, e.g. "infinite awareness and/or love". Naturally, for those of us who have never experienced such insights, it is an open question whether alleviation from suffering can ever be made total. But even in the case of partial alleviation, humanity will find boundless peace and love.

This is not a place to discuss the specifics of awakening, which are discussed and referred to within almost every religious and spiritual tradition using just as many conceptual frameworks, save for highlighting that there is significant anecdotal evidence that they exist, have been attained by various individuals across diverse times and places, and that those who attain them are adamant that they are the highest good in the world. It is often very difficult to disentangle an instance of awakening from the cultural and/or religious context in which it occurred. Indeed, we cannot be sure if the introspective practices of different traditions culminate in the same type of psychological freedom. But if these suffering-free states of mind (for want of a better description) are possible and achievable, is not their dissemination to as many people as possible one of the highest goods we could ever serve?

On the question of whether they exist, I will point to some resources:

Cosmic Consciousness (seminal systematic study of instances of full awakening throughout history), Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (a Western doctor's account of completing the Buddhist path), Why Buddhism is True (general discussion)

A Buddhist Perspective

As pointed out by evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright, we are incredibly fortunate to live in a universe in which awakening to the true nature of reality seems to be synonymous with the alleviation of suffering, which is the basic premise of Buddha's teachings. Insight leads to freedom.

While psychological freedom from suffering, or awakening, is a common aspect of many religious and spiritual traditions, a secular Buddhist (i.e. meditation focussed) framework is worth individual consideration for the following reasons: it contains a systematic meditative procedure for attaining full awakening (total psychological freedom / alleviation of suffering), one which provides rapid progress on path towards awakening compared to other techniques. There are also numerous anecdotal accounts from meditation practitioners - Buddhists and more recently secular Westerners -who have completed this path to attain full awakening. From the outset, Buddhist philosophy is very explicit about the existence of, and strategy to attain, enlightenment, or the alleviation of suffering.

If all this focus on enlightenment sounds a little mystical, let me highlight that those who have purportedly attained it describe it far more like a clear and all-embracing understanding of existence/reality/mind/consciousness, as opposed to entry into some heavenly or transcendent realm/state.

“The other world is this world, rightly seen” - Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.

In particular I would like to point out the technique of vipassana meditation within Theravada Buddhism. Vipassana meditation systematically cultivates the insight that leads to the cessation of suffering. It can be taught to anybody with a reasonably healthy mind and body within a 10 day course, at very little cost: a big factor in our requirement of high solubility. The first "glimpse" of awakening / nirvana in the vipassana tradition is known as "stream entry", and some Westerners have reached it within only a 10-day course.

Partial Freedom: the Next Best Thing

It is very hard for us to conceive of what life would be like for an enlightened person. Do they still have bad days, get annoyed, irritable and sad? How do they feel when their loved ones pass away? Can we ever really be free of suffering? If we could, would that make us inhuman in some way? Well, happily, I think the question of whether alleviation from suffering can be total or not is actually irrelevant to our task of simply minimising it.

Even if freedom from suffering is not possible or readily achievable, which could ultimately be the case, this does not mean huge alleviation of psychological suffering isn't possible. Or perhaps we can alter our perspective so much as to make even significant suffering fully bearable (e.g. Buddhist practitioners seem to be able to "ride out" suffering very well with their knowledge that it is inherently transient). Either way, it is undoubtable that the everyday waking experience of most people on Earth is very, very far from an expression of their full potential for love, awareness, happiness, peace, altruism and creativity. That is what we can begin to realise - to awaken - with a global movement of insight practitioners and consciousness explorers. And that remains one of the highest goals we could pursue regardless of whether it can ever be completed.

Strategies

As already discussed, insight meditation is a direct method for alleviating suffering.

Would allocating funds / resources to different meditation organisations / retreat centres be one of the most positive impact donations one could make? It surely depends on how these organisations spend the money, and whether it directly results in more people learning to meditate. Meditation retreats are often free and run by volunteers, funded by donations, which does provide a mechanism for growth as more people attend courses. Indeed we can already see that one vipassana meditation organisation (S.N. Goenka's) has attained worldwide reach within half a century (not plugging this org, just pointing this remarkable growth trajectory, which is also an evidence-proof that vipassana meditation is working for many people).

Would money be better spent on meditation research, to solidify the scientific evidence of its efficacy and thus lead to wider acceptance and adoption? Or to research the existence of enlightenment states and their effect on suffering alleviation? I think, ultimately, this will be very important, since scientific evidence is one of the few arguments that can capture the support of governments and large organisations.

Perhaps we need only to spread the word, begin meditating ourselves and be vocal about its benefits, allowing word of mouth (and digital media) to grow the movement. Should we fund meditation instruction in schools?

It would be great to see some research on how to best allocate funds for maximum alleviation of human psychological suffering / maximal contribution to human flourishing, insight and psychological freedom. Maybe somebody at Effective Altruism or Open Philanthropy could initiate this? Please, do leave comments with your suggestions for how we can use the Effective Altruism framework to alleviate human psychological suffering. I have done my best to present my ideas, based on my experience and research.

Which other tools will be the most useful in bringing us to the goal of minimised psychological suffering? To list a few promising avenues

  • Psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted therapy. Here's a link to multiple essays on whether psychedelics can be useful for spiritual practice that aims towards awakening. They certainly catalysed many to turn to Eastern practices in the 60's: less likely to bring lasting psychological change but can direct people towards the path of insight. Hindered by stigma and illegality. I think it's important to be open to augmenting spiritual practice with pharmacological aids: most people don't have the willpower or strength of Buddha, and these compounds turn to be valuable companions on the path, properly respected. Nice related discussions here and here.
  • Neurohacking: using biofeedback technology, pharmacology, diet and many other techniques to optimise brain function. A rapidly advancing field. With neurofeedback devices, for example, we can train our brain waves to match those of experienced meditators, for example, boosting meditative progress. This podcast covers neurohacking from multiple perspectives.
  • Holotropic breathwork. Simple breathing technique of extended hyperventilation developed by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof. It amazes me that this is not more widely practiced, since breathwork therapists report all the psychotherapeutic experiences and healing - even cessation "nirvana" experiences - from something as freely accessible as breathing.
  • Mind-body practices: yoga, qigong, tai chi, martial arts...
  • The Wim Hof Method, whose aim is to make practitioners "Happy Strong and Healthy". Amazing anecdotal reports on the WHM Facebook page.
  • Flow states - in work, sports, creative and artistic expression, anything, really!

All of these can be supplementary to someone's pursuit of psychological freedom. No doubt there exist many more strategies, techniques and treatments, some of which have not even been invented / discovered yet!

Aside from the large-scale allocation of resources towards this goal, there is a way that each of us can contribute to it: by attaining insight ourselves. The motivation to do this for the betterment of others is beautifully captured by the Buddhist concept of bodhicitta: the being who awakens for the benefit of other beings. By cultivating insight, freeing ourselves from delusion and thus suffering, everyone we interact with will be lifted, if only slightly, towards the goal. Each of us can serve as a beacon for our fellow humans, a signpost towards the endgoal of total freedom.

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11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:53 PM
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I'll make the point I want to make in a snarky way, and then in a less confrontational way.

Snarky: Tune in again next week to hear about how the real goal of effective altruists should be nothing less than eternal bliss for everyone, and EA donations should therefore all be directed to Christian missionary organizations!

Less confrontational: It isn't (around here) very controversial to suggest that reducing human suffering is a worthy goal. It is very controversial indeed to suggest that the pursuit of "enlightenment" is in practice a feasible way to remove more than a small fraction of human suffering. (In communities where that pursuit is widely carried out and a lot of time and effort goes into it, so far as I can tell it's still the case that few if any of the people involved would claim to have stopped feeling suffering.) Calling for effective altruists to investigate how best to pour lots of resources into helping people get "enlightened" (through meditation, psychotropic drugs, or whatever) seems waaaaay premature.

It's a good subject for research, to be sure. But urging EAs as such to dive into it seems like what you do after that research has shown that yes, there is a reliable process by which people can be enabled never to suffer again and no, it doesn't have side effects likely to wreck their lives or others'.

Why the snarky comment is a brief version of the less confrontational one: It absolutely could turn out that Christianity is right, that a person's eternal destiny depends on whether they're Christian, and that trying to make lots of people into Christians is in fact the most cost-effective way of making people happier in the long (or indeed eternal) term. But on the face of it that seems unlikely, and if you disagree then you should be gathering compelling evidence for it before advocating on LW or recommending it to EAs in general. And exactly the same things apply to the possibility that the most cost-effective way to improve human wellbeing involves trying to get everyone "enlightened". It's not a religious question as such (despite the obvious Buddhist connection) but it is a question whose answer is nowhere near settled in a way that would make this an appropriate thing to push on EAs.

I have not yet read the post in full, but my initial take reading the title and first paragraph gave me a sense that "this post is trying to persuade me of something."

This is a fuzzy boundary, but it's something we try to avoid on the frontpage of LW (where the goal is to be in collaborative truthseeking mode, instead of persuade and/or defend-yourself-against-persuasion mode). Calls-to-action should go on your personal blog (you can click "move to personal blog"). Basically we're trying to defend ourselves against the slow decay into a clickbaity political forum.

In many cases a call to action can be rewrote to be more of an explanation of an idea than a call-to-action, and it looks like the details of this post are very much in that category, and you could probably change the title and some of the opening language to be a better fit. (By contrast, posts that are literally pitching people on funding an organization make more sense embracing the call-to-action nature, and accepting the lower visibility that comes with being on a personal blog)

I can't remember what the original title/first paragraph said, have a vague sense that maybe they were edited in the past couple days, but still feel like the current vibe of the beginning of the post isn't quite right for frontpage, and am moving it to your personal blog.

I still think it's an achievable goal to frame this post in a frontpage-appropriate fashion, can chat more about it if you'd like.

I sure hope Effective Altruism's Ultimate Goal is not to Eradicate Human Suffering. Because there is a way to achieve that goal that available to humanity as-is but it's awful. Just need to make sure that there are no humans.

I understand that's not what you describe here (and I don't think that's a solution you'd endorse). But... I think it's important to avoid committing to wrong goals.

For what it's worth the sort of naive failing you describe is the version of the repugnant conclusion for negative utilitarianism. Negative preference utilitarianism addresses this, analogous to the way the repugnant conclusion of (positive) utilitarianism can be addressed by various means, although it is by no means the only option. That said Will doesn't really address this in the post, so I'm not quite sure what he has in mind, if anything, in terms of formal population ethical reasoning.

The title and first paragraph of this post feel a bit misleading, since in the body of the post you are just arguing that eradicating human psychological suffering is a worthwhile goal, not that it is the best or only goal. In particular you seem to be implicitly comparing it just to standard poverty interventions rather than to other EA causes like X-risk reduction and animal suffering reduction.

I agree in principle, but I have one reservation.

Suffering serves a role. Or at least, it can be very useful. It's one of the most potent motor for growth that we have. It throws things into perspective. It can spur us towards action, towards new opportunities. It changes the scale with whom we judge what happens to us, often to our benefit.

Ongoing, long-term suffering is bad. But a bit of suffering... I've met many people that were much the better for having suffered a bit. Ditto for me. On the other hand, you sometimes see people who look like they haven't suffered quite enough. They can be nice enough. But you can tell. They don't understand suffering. Their empathy is stunted. They get frustrated over things that shouldn't matter.

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It's hard to tell where psychological suffering comes from, but you are right that we can control it. We can rein it in, or wallow in our own misery. I think neither option is really satisfying. There is a time to mourn, and a time to laugh.

I lived through a bad breakup last year. It would have been really easy for me to suppress my emotions, my suffering. I can do it, I have done it in the past. But I refused to. The pain was an acknowledgement that the relationship meant something. It was a ritual of sorts. It also served as a lesson. It changed me, and I know there are things in how I act that will never be the same due to this. They were deeply rewired. If I had avoided suffering through meditation or otherwise, first I would never have dug in enough to understand what I did, and the lesson wouldn't have been visceral enough to stick.

In the past, suffering helped me understand things about myself that were deeply buried and wouldn't have otherwise come to the surface. In particular, I understood two big drivers of suffering for me: the feeling of powerlessness, when part of your fate is outside your control; and a fear that I don't really matter to people whom I love — it would be more comforting to know they hate me, but the doubt and the fact that they are simply indifferent really hurts.

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Of course, Nietzsche:

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities—I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.

I wouldn't read too much into the soundness of his argument. But empirically, I think he's right. The most remarkable people I have met are people who have suffered grievously, but have managed to transcend this suffering.

Of course, for every person that transcend her suffering, how many others drown in it?

Sorry if I'm stating the obvious, but since you don't link to it are you familiar with the work of the Foundational Research Institute? Their work is very much connected with the line of reasoning your pursuing here. You might fine their work, such as Lukas Gloor's writing on tranquilism, quite interesting.

If by ultimate altruism you mean to reduce suffering and to increase life satisfaction, enlightenment may not be
most conducive to such a goal. To the best of my knowledge, there isn't enough data to show that everyone regardless of background and culture will accept your enlightenment methods especially since the psychological procedures are based on a specific ideology (mainly Buddhism).

Also, if enlightenment here refers to the increase of knowledge I don't see how that necessarily reduces suffering. Some people suffer when they learn and don't like what they've learned. And if it's a uniform ideology that gives everyone satisfaction then it isn't necessarily right to instill one ideology, whatever it is, onto others even if it will reduce suffering.

Also, if enlightenment here refers to the increase of knowledge I don’t see how that necessarily reduces suffering.

This is also what Daniel Ingram heavily implies in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. The very first "training" Ingram discusses is ethical/practical training; he states pretty much overtly that you should 'set your house in perfect order' before you pursue enlightenment, and keep working on that even as you engage other "trainings" or "teachings".

I think positive psychology has a lot of potential in EA, but AIUI, even the author of "Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha" is far from saying that these teachings can trivially eradicate all human suffering. They are quite worthwhile in other ways and should definitely be part of positive psychology in a broader sense, but they're not a silver bullet.

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