How to prioritize the reduction of suffering?
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Philosophy, Sentience, Sentiocentrism
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Versión en español
What is the arithmetic of suffering? If we could assign a number to the intensity of the subjective experience of every sensation, it seems that the mathematics related to the operations among these values obey to some kind of “non lineal arithmetic”, where 2+2=5.
This article does a research of some non lineal aspects, or at least, weird, of the “mathematics of suffering”. The reflection is oriented to the determination of the priorities in a project of global reduction of suffering. In conclusion, I stress the importance of reducing, in the first place, the most intense suffering, while other elements have a lot less importance, like the duration of the unpleasant experience or the number of beings that feel it.
Of course, we can do a similar research of the pleasant experiences. However and in general, we, the sentient beings, are pretty far from feeling that amount of reasonable suffering. The suffering is horrible. Besides maximizing the happiness, we have before a lot of pending work minimizing the suffering.
Certainly, this is a depressing vision and because of that, probably, it isn’t very popular. The extreme suffering is one of the things that repel the attention.
The arithmetic of suffering
Before we start, we have to accept that the measurement of the subjective experience seems to be something paradoxical. As Sergio Aranda affirms (summarized): The issue is how to make balances between the significances that causes one of the same kind of experience among different individuals. Of course the organic signification of all individual experience is perfectly measurable through diverse clinic parameters. But the exact signification of an experience for an individual is not comparable to others. And that is not only that we cannot know how it is “to be a bat”, but we cannot know too how it is “to be another human”, different to ourselves.
After a (usually painful) post-operative, we can scan the patient’s brain detecting the brain activity in different moments, and the patient can point when it hurts more or less and connect it with the cerebral image, and in this way we can feed a system that establish the correlation in the opposite sense, that is that through the cerebral image it can deduce the experimented pain’s intensity. Although this approach has, of course, a lot of troubles. On one hand, it could be a post hoc ergo propter hoc. On the other hand, how can be secure that the same physiological parameters determine the same subjective experience?
Javier Moscoso is more optimistic about this topic and considers that "the objective measurement of the subjective experience does not have nothing to do with a Byzantine argument about the world’s objectivity, but with and empiric research about the private phenomena". Javier quotes Gustav Theodor Fechner (pág. 133) who suggested that the intensity of a perception is proportional to the logarithm of the physical magnitude of the stimulus that generates it.
All this subject seems pretty paradoxical. If we ask someone about the magnitude of his experiences, what would he answer and what interpretation would that have? It would depend a lot on what happened with those measurements. As Javier quotes in his article, in the Second World War a lot of wounded affirmed not feeling any pain, probably because this reached their probability of being evacuated.
So is it impossible the measurement of pain? Do not discourage ourselves.
Let’s start with something really easy: in general, one is able to point when he feels more pain and less, and during how long. The problem is that those expressions are more qualitative than quantitative, and if we try to turn them into numbers it is very possible that they need corrections. How can we reach these corrections?
The (relative) numeric determination of the subjective experience’s value can be specified according to some kind of practical and subjective application of this value. I am talking about, for example, the case of being able to choose between an intense suffering during a short period of time, or a less painful suffering but during longer.
Brian Tomasik, in the end of his article "On the Seriousness of Suffering" suggests a similar comparison:
[...] the physical pain would be the worst of all. I’d rather be depressed for months or years before burn in a bonfire for a minute. I haven’t felt the Irukandji, but maybe I’d thought the same. Some things are so bad that next to them the rest turns irrelevant.
I mean, if we could choose, we would select the most intense suffering that we had the risk to suffer, and we would replace it with the risk of suffering a less painful one but more durable in time.
I think that the way we must make moral decisions is: taking all the lives and deaths of the past, present and future sentient beings, and putting them in a row, as one only life, my own life.
The first question I make with this kind of ("my") life is: what is the maximum suffering and what is the cost of avoiding these suffering?