Suffering and ethics
363 visits since 18/05/2016
Brian Tomasik
Animals, Awareness, Sentience

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.

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Animals significantly outnumber humans, and most people view animals as less important. These factors suggest that there should be low-hanging fruit for reducing animal suffering. 2008-09-11 Dead baby rat In the USA each year, 10 billion land animals endure suffering in factory farms. The number of animals in nature is orders of magnitude higher, and wild animals also endure harsh living conditions and painful deaths. Because most wild animals die, often painfully, shortly after birth, it's plausible that suffering dominates happiness in nature. This is especially plausible if we extend moral considerations to smaller creatures like the ~1019 insects on Earth, whose collective neural mass outweighs that of humanity by several orders of magnitude. In addition to considering the suffering of huge numbers of wild insects, we can take small steps to reduce the harm that we cause to insects in other ways. For instance, we can avoid buying silk and shellac, reduce driving (especially when the road is wet), prevent insect infestations in our homes, and try to avoid crushing insects on grass, the sidewalk, in garbage cans, etc.

In addition to reducing suffering in the short run, we should consider how our actions will affect the future, including the far future. We appear poised at a crucial period in history, where the trajectories of our technology and society may make a lasting impact on intelligence in our region of the universe for billions of years. It looks likely that artificial general intelligence (AGI) will be developed in the coming decades or centuries, and its initial conditions and control structures may make an enormous impact to the dynamics, values, and character of life in the cosmos. Colonization of space seems likely to increase suffering by creating (literally) astronomically more minds than exist on Earth, so we should push for policies that would make a colonization wave more humane, such as not propagating wild-animal suffering to other planets or in virtual worlds.




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