Suffering-focused ethics

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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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  • Suffering-focused ethics is an umbrella term for moral views that place primary or particular importance on the prevention of suffering.


  • There’s ongoing sickening cruelty: violent child pornography, chickens are boiled alive, and so on. We should help these victims and prevent such suffering, rather than focus on ensuring that many individuals come into existence in the future. When spending resources on increasing the number of beings instead of preventing extreme suffering, one is essentially saying to the victims: "I could have helped you, but I didn’t, because I think it’s more important that individuals are brought into existence. Sorry."


  • We will never all entirely agree about the best ethical framework or about our values. But nobody wants to experience extreme suffering. It is therefore only logical to try to spare others extreme suffering as well. That is the basis of the ancient Golden Rule common to so many civilisations: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Extended to encompass all sentient beings, it provides the most rational ethical basis for the future of our civilisation.


  • 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


  • 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.
  • [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.


  • From my perspective it seems obvious that reducing suffering is the highest priority. I think many people agree that this goal is really important, especially in the abstract, even if they don't have the physical or emotional resources directly to invest in it much themselves. I also think that people in comfortable conditions who do have the resources to work toward reducing suffering can become caught up in entertaining distractions, and because they don't feel the extent of suffering in the world on a daily basis, they assume it has lower priority than they would if they had more direct access to it.
  • [W]hen I see or imagine extreme suffering – such as being eaten alive or fried to death in a brazen bull – it seems overwhelmingly apparent that preventing such experiences is the most important thing in the world, and nothing else can compare. This intuition seems clear enough to most of us when we imagine the suffering happening nearby. If someone was being tortured in a way that could be prevented in the room next door, few of us would hesitate to stop whatever we were doing and go help. But when distance and uncertainty stand in the way, this intuition fades, and people become preoccupied with goals like ensuring interesting, complex, and awesome futures. Of course, I get plenty distracted as well – doing so is only human, and it’s necessary for our emotional wellbeing. But I know in my heart that these other pursuits are only instrumentally valuable, and nothing besides reducing extreme suffering really matters when people and animals are being tortured as we speak.
  • [T]he world is a very dark place. While many moments of people's lives are filled with laughter and accomplishment, some moments are filled with depression, anxiety, or extreme and unrelenting agony. And the lives of most non-human animals are far worse. It's easy to become upset and hopeless: Why don't other people care about extreme suffering? How can they not see how important it is compared with other, more trivial things in life?
  • The suffering-focused tent is far bigger than the tent of people who will ever consider full-on negative utilitarianism (NU). Yet most of the policy implications are the same whether you're a negative utilitarian or just think that we should focus on reducing suffering more than creating additional happiness.
  • Many ethical value systems feel that extreme suffering commands particular moral urgency compared with other priorities. The agony of, say, Medieval-style torture is not necessarily compensated by other, smaller benefits. We should give special attention to reducing the net expected suffering of all sentient beings when deciding our actions.


  • The idea that extreme suffering has moral priority above anything else seems hard to deny, at least when we are confronted with it directly, either by seeing others endure such suffering or by experiencing it directly ourselves. Extreme suffering begs for urgent action; the hedonically neutral absence of happiness does not.
  • [...] in the case of extreme suffering, one can argue that the word "problem" is a strong contender for most understated euphemism in history.


  • [T]he value of relieving suffering is […] prior to the value of providing additional happiness to the well-off.
  • 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.
    • Clark Wolf, "O Repugnance, Where Is Thy Sting?" (2004)

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