Suffering-focused ethics

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.

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  • 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 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
  • 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.


  • [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


  • [A]s well as seriously – indeed exhaustively – researching everything that could conceivably go wrong, I think we should also invesigate 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.

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