Suffering-focused ethics

Ethics positions that prioritize reduction of suffering

Suffering-focused ethics is an all-encompassing term for moral views that prioritise the the alleviation and prevention of suffering. It includes normative ethical theories such as negative utilitarianism, in addition to views on axiology and population ethics which give special weight to suffering.

All that matters is the pleasure-pain axis. Pain and pleasure disclose the world's inbuilt metric of (dis)value. Our overriding ethical obligation is to minimise suffering. ~ David Pearce

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  • [H]uman rights norms are primarily focused on preventing the worst forms of human suffering, even if they only concern a small portion of the population. This task has moral priority over the promotion of the maximum well-being of the majority of people. [...] the entire human rights enterprise can be regarded as a social response to suffering [...].
    • Roberto Andorno & Cristiana Baffone, "Human Rights and the Moral Obligation to Alleviate Suffering", abstract. Praxiologies and the Philosophy of Economics (2014)
  • The second prima facie right that all sentient creatures possess is the right not to be made to suffer. Sentient creatures, by their nature, are able to take enjoyment from their lives and to endure suffering: in part, this is what gives them equal intrinsic moral worth. ... in general terms all sentient creatures experience suffering as something that is bad for them and inimical to their welfare. And that explains why the vast majority of us already accept that the interest of sentient creatures in not being made to suffer grounds duties in others.
  • [E]ven if we were to accept that ecosystems do have intrinsic moral worth, that still does not show that we have a duty to protect them as they function presently. Their value might be intrinsic, but that is not the same as absolute. As such, their value has to be balanced against other moral values, including the value of being free from suffering. Crucially, it is extremely difficult to believe that the value of 'continued biological flourishing' trumps the value of 'freedom from suffering'. After all, when we are confronted by threats to humans from malaria, smallpox, the HIV virus, and so on, the value of freedom from suffering has priority over biological functioning every time. A truly impartial sentientist politics demands that the freedom of suffering of all sentient creatures should enjoy that same priority.
  • One suffering may be so wholly incommensurable with another that no true impression is given by calling it a hundred or a thousand times greater; in other words, the lesser, endured in a thousand frames, could not for an instant be set against the greater endured in a single frame. Nor is the essential distinction between endurable and unendurable pain at all impugned, as some seem to think, by the impossibility of drawing a distinct line between them — an argument which would equally forbid us to call yellow and red essentially distinct colours.
  • ... if welfare comparisons or integrations are to be applied across multiple individuals, it can only be done separately for pain and separately for pleasure. Moreover, if it weren’t for the empirical fact that being deprived of pleasure can itself feel painful, just as being deprived of food does, it is not clear whether happiness ... would be a welfare matter at all – or at least whether it would be a moral matter (rather than merely a hedonic one).

  • For ethics, there is only suffering and the effective ways of alleviating it.
    • Henry Hiz, "Praxiology, Society and Ethics". Praxiologies and the Philosophy of Economics (1992)
  • [T]he phrases 'negative well-being' and 'negative experiences' are unfortunate because if something is negative, it sounds as if there is a positive counterpart. Better names may be 'problematic moments in life' and 'problematic experiences', because unproblematic, which seems to be the opposite of problematic, does not imply positive.
  • The Arhats and Bhagavats of the past, present, and future, all say thus, speak thus, declare thus, explain thus:
    All breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away.
    This is the pure, unchangeable, eternal law, which the clever ones, who understand the world, have declared: among the zealous and the not zealous, among the faithful and the not faithful, among the not cruel and the cruel, among those who have worldly weakness and those who have not, among those who like social bonds and those who do not: "that is the truth, that is so, that is proclaimed in this (creed)".
    • Mahavira, Acaranga Sutra (1:4:1) quoted in Sourcebook of the World's Religions: An Interfaith Guide to Religion and Spirituality (2000), p. 80
  • A strong duty to relieve suffering that does not discriminate between species would require radical changes in the ways that we relate to other animals. It would, for example, require an end to the practice of factory farming, in which billions of animals are annually subjected to extreme suffering in order to supply humans with meat and other products at the lowest possible cost. It would also raise difficult questions about the practice of experimenting on animals to obtain medical benefits for humans. These cases, much discussed in the literature on animal ethics, involve suffering that is inflicted by human beings. But a species-blind duty to relieve suffering would also make it a prima facie requirement to save animals from suffering brought upon them by natural conditions and other animals.
  • [T]he duty to relieve suffering comes in two parts: a prohibition against inflicting suffering, and a requirement to prevent it. What we tend to underestimate is less the former than the latter.
  • [T]he claim that suffering is bad for those who experience it and thus ought in general to be prevented when possible cannot be seriously doubted.
  • Whatever else our ethical commitments and specific constraints are, we can and should certainly all agree that, in principle, the overall amount of conscious suffering in all beings capable of conscious suffering should be minimized.
    • Thomas Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (2003), p. 570
  • The study of Ethics would, no doubt, be far more simple, and its results far more "systematic," if, for instance, pain were an evil of exactly the same magnitude as pleasure is a good; but we have no reason whatever to assume that the Universe is such that ethical truths must display this kind of symmetry ... .
  • Oh this poor world, this poor, suffering, ignorant, fear-filled world! How can men be blind or deranged enough to think it is a good world? How can they be cold and satanic enough to be unmoved by the groans and anguish, the writhing and tears, that come up from its unparalleled afflictions?
  • In the ideal universe the life and happiness of no being are contingent on the suffering and death of any other, and the fact that in this world of ours life and happiness have been and are to-day so commonly maintained by the infliction of misery and death by some beings on others is the most painful fact that ever entered an enlightened mind.
  • No amount of happiness enjoyed by some organisms can notionally justify the indescribable horrors of Auschwitz. [...] Nor can the fun and games outweigh the sporadic frightfulness of pain and despair that occurs every second of every day. For there's nothing inherently wrong with non-sentience or [...] non-existence; whereas there is something frightfully and self-intimatingly wrong with suffering.
  • It's easy to convince oneself that things can't really be that terrible, that the horror I allude to is being overblown, that what is going on elsewhere in space-time is somehow less real than the here-and-now, or that the good in the world somehow offsets the bad. Yet however vividly one thinks one can imagine what agony, torture or suicidal despair must be like, the reality is inconceivably worse. The force of "inconceivably" is itself largely inconceivable here. Blurry images of Orwell's "Room 101" can barely even hint at what I'm talking about. Even if one's ancestral namesakes [aka "younger self"] underwent great pain, then the state-dependence of memories means that much of pain's sheer dreadfulness is semantically, cognitively and emotionally inaccessible in the here-and-now. So this manifesto's rhapsodies on the incredible joys that do indeed lie ahead tend to belie its underlying seriousness of purpose. For the biological strategy is propounded here in deadly moral earnest.
  • [A]s well as seriously – indeed exhaustively – researching everything that could conceivably go wrong, I think we should also investigate what could go right. The world is racked by suffering. The hedonic treadmill might more aptly be called a dolorous treadmill. Hundreds of millions of people are currently depressed, pain-ridden or both. Hundreds of billions of non-human animals are suffering too. If we weren’t so inured to a world of pain and misery, then the biosphere would be reckoned in the throes of a global medical emergency. Thanks to breakthroughs in biotechnology, pain-thresholds, default anxiety levels, hedonic range and hedonic set-points are all now adjustable parameters in human and non-human animals alike. We are living in the final century of life on Earth in which suffering is biologically inevitable. As a society, we need an ethical debate about how much pain and misery we want to preserve and create.
  • I believe that there is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and pleasure. Both the greatest happiness principle of the Utilitarians and Kant's principle, "Promote other people's happiness...", seem to me (at least in their formulations) fundamentally wrong in this point, which is, however, not one for rational argument. [...] In my opinion [...] human suffering makes a direct moral appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway.
  • We should realize that from the moral point of view suffering and happiness must not be treated as symmetrical; that is to say, the promotion of happiness is in any case much less urgent than the rendering of help to those who suffer, and the attempt to prevent suffering.
  • [F]rom the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure, and especially not one man's pain by another man's pleasure. Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all [...].
  • [T]he fight against suffering must be considered a duty, while the right to care for the happiness of others must be considered a privilege confined to the close circle of their friends. ... Pain, suffering, injustice, and their prevention, these are the eternal problems of public morals, the 'agenda' of public policy ...
  • [M]oral value is based upon the individual’s experience of pain (defined broadly to cover all types of suffering whether cognitive, emotional, or sensory), […] and […] the main moral objective is to reduce the pain of others.
    • Richard D. Ryder, "Painism" in Marc Bekoff (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare (2010), p. 402
  • Our first moral concern should always be with the individual who is the maximum sufferer.
  • It is always wrong to cause pain to A merely in order to increase the pleasure of B.
  • … it is less imperatively my duty to give pleasure than it is to alleviate pain. If someone else is not actually suffering then it seems more acceptable to leave to them … the provision of their own pleasures.
  • Their experiences may be more simple than ours, but are they less intense? Perhaps a caterpillar’s primitive pain when squashed is greater than our more sophisticated sufferings.
  • The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.
  • I cannot help but feel the suffering all around me, not only of humanity but of the whole of creation. I have never tried to withdraw myself from this community of suffering. It seemed to me a matter of course that we should all take our share of the burden of pain which lies upon the world.
  • The point of the term “suffering-focused ethics” is ... not to be a novel or impressive contribution to ethical theorizing, but instead to serve as a pragmatic concept that can unite as effective a coalition as possible toward the shared aim of making a real-world difference — to reduce suffering for sentient beings.
    • Magnus Vinding, Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications (2020)
  • Being forced to endure torture rather than dreamless sleep, or an otherwise neutral state, would be a tragedy of a fundamentally different kind than being forced to “endure” a neutral state instead of a state of maximal bliss.
    • Magnus Vinding, Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications (2020)
  • [I]f suffering warrants special moral concern, the truth is that we should never forget about its existence. For even if we had abolished suffering throughout the living world, there would still be a risk that it might reemerge, and this risk would always be worth reducing.
    • Magnus Vinding, Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications (2020)
  • Classical utilitarians assume [...] that pains and pleasures are commensurable so that they can balance one another out in a grand utilitarian aggregate. But it is far from obvious that pains and pleasures are commensurable in this way, and there is good reason to doubt that the twin utilitarian aims are even compatible-- at least not without further explanation.
  • If people are badly off, suffering, or otherwise remediably miserable, it is not appropriate to address their ill-being by bringing more happy people into the world to counterbalance their disadvantage. We should instead improve the situation of those who are badly off.

See also

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