Expanding our moral circle to reduce suffering in the far future

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Discussions about the far future often center on two possibilities: humanity going extinct or having our potential permanently curtailed, or humanity building a flourishing, space-faring mega-civilization. These discussions usually present humanity’s extinction or permanent decline as the worst possible outcome, and some argue that minimizing these existential risks (“x-risks”) is the most important thing we can do to influence the future. What’s often missing from these discussions focusing on human survival is a consideration of possible future scenarios in which humans, whether we survive or not, create massive amounts of suffering. For those of us who care more about whether individuals are happy or suffering than whether they exist in the first place, these risks of astronomical future suffering (dubbed “s-risks” by our sister project, the Foundational Research Institute) would be worse than the extinction of humanity, so reducing their threat may be substantially more important than merely ensuring our continued existence.

Risks of astronomical future suffering should be of particular concern for people who reject speciesism. While it’s possible that there are s-risks that only involve human suffering, s-risk scenarios are much more likely to come from disregard for nonhuman sentient beings. For example, if we continue to disregard the suffering of animals in the wild, we risk multiplying that suffering by spreading wild animals to other planets. (For other concrete examples of S-risks, please refer to “Risks of Astronomical Future Suffering” by the Foundational Research Institute.) Given that future animal suffering matters just as much as current animal suffering, and because there will be many more future animals than currently existing animals, reducing these risks of astronomical future suffering imposed on nonhumans should be a top priority for antispeciesists.

It seems to me that promoting antispeciesism is a robust way to reduce s-risks. While reducing the likelihood of specific s-risks requires a strong technical background, spreading antispeciesism can broadly reduce the threat of s-risks by ensuring that nonhumans are morally considered in the first place. This strategy can decrease s-risks even under high uncertainty about which are most likely. There are likely many more risks of astronomical future suffering than the ones we can imagine now, and widening society’s moral circle puts us in a better position to prevent and mitigate bad developments.

Unpopulated worlds are sometimes better than populated ones

Intuitively, it’s easy to believe that populated worlds are better than unpopulated ones. Humans generally want life to flourish and be happy — we’d prefer a utopian civilization to a lifeless desert. But populated worlds are not better than unpopulated worlds in all situations.

First, consider the following: some people have had lives that were so terrible that it would have been better for them not to have existed in the first place. I believe that the average factory farmed chicken has such a life. Chickens spend their lives in filthy sheds with thousands, to tens of thousands of other chickens, often only having about a foot of floor space. They are bred to grow very quickly, and because of this, their legs often cannot support their bodies and collapse underneath them. After a short and miserable life, chickens are hung upside down and have their throats dragged across a knife. Considering how full of suffering their lives are, it would be better for farmed chickens to never exist.

Now, suppose you are asked for a preference between two worlds, world A and world B. In world A, 1000 kittens are being tortured and no one else is alive. World B has no life in it whatsoever. It makes sense to prefer world B over world A, even if one generally prefers worlds that have life in them, because for the kittens in world A, it was a great harm to be brought into existence in the first place. By contrast, world B contains no suffering, as there are no beings in it who can suffer.

Extrapolating from the above thought experiment, we can see why s-risks are worse than human extinction. Isn’t the vast majority of all sentient life being tortured for eternity worse than the destruction of all currently existing life? While the end of all life would be a tragedy, allowing for the torture of all life would be vastly more tragic, as we would be subjecting many beings to a fate worse than non-existence.

The importance of society’s moral circle

Our moral circle is the boundary we draw around those we consider worthy of moral consideration. Consider how society believes we ought to treat a dog as opposed to  a rock: most people extend moral consideration to dogs, and believe that we cannot simply treat them however we feel like, but that whenever possible, we ought to avoid performing certain actions towards them if those actions will cause the dog pain and suffering. We do not believe that we have such obligations towards inanimate objects, like rocks, so we consider it acceptable to do whatever we wish with rocks.

There is an enormous danger in excluding other sentient beings from our moral circle and ignoring their pain and suffering. Most historical atrocities have resulted from such exclusion, from the Holocaust, to the transatlantic slave trade, to the Spanish Inquisition. Psychologists even point to such moral exclusion, which essentially reduces the excluded to the moral status of an object, as the key factor enabling torture and genocide.

If society’s moral circle were to shrink and once again exclude people who now make up part of our citizenry, that would likely increase the suffering in the world. And if there are still sentient beings who we are failing to consider, we are probably causing them massive harm — and in fact, this is the case with our exclusion and mistreatment of many nonhuman animals.

Given the diverse harms that have resulted from moral exclusion, we can expect any regression or omission to leave us susceptible to committing similar atrocities. Consider it this way: when something or someone is excluded from our moral circle, we can do anything to them. Large-scale cruelty does not require malice, just indifference. Farmers and the people who work for them generally do not hate animals, but because they only or primarily care about how they can profit from animals’ bodies, it’s easy for them to devalue and ignore those animals’ suffering (if not psychologically necessary). We can expect great suffering in the members of any group of sentient beings we push outside of our moral circle — not always because of malice, but as a result of standard goal-oriented behavior.

In the interest of the many sentient beings who could exist in the future, we must not only prevent our moral circle from shrinking, but aggressively expand it to include every being capable of suffering.


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