Suffering-focused ethics

Suffering-focused ethics

Virtually all ethical positions consider it morally important to reduce negative experiences like suffering. These positions differ in the relative weight they give to reducing negative experiences compared to increasing positive experiences. Suffering-focused ethical positions prioritize reducing the negative over increasing the positive.1

Because nonhuman animals experience suffering, according to suffering-focused positions animals should be morally considered. Moreover, changing the current situation of animals is a top priority because of how greatly they suffer. According to these theories, preventing or alleviating their suffering should take priority over providing greater enjoyment to humans.

Different types of suffering-focused ethics

There are various positions of this type. According to negative hedonism, only negative experiences matter and not positive ones. According to other positions, positive experiences do matter, but what is positive is not pleasure. In one such position, called tranquilism, what is positive is the neutrality resulting from the absence of suffering. According to another position called antifrustrationism, what is positive is avoiding having unsatisfied desires or preferences; although it is not positive to fulfill a desire, it is positive to not have it frustrated.

Suffering-focused ethics is compatible with multiple ethical theories. According to deontological suffering-focused ethics, we should follow certain moral rules that prohibit causing suffering, or that mandate reducing suffering when possible. Suffering-focused character ethics can focus on caring for those who suffer, or perhaps promote compassion and solidarity with those who suffer. There are also various suffering-focused consequentialist positions. These are collectively called “negative consequentialism.” All these positions accept that reducing suffering of a certain intensity and duration is more important than increasing happiness of an equivalent intensity and duration.

Why suffering-focused ethics prioritize the interests of nonhuman animals

Suffering-focused ethics, by definition, will give moral consideration to all beings that can suffer. This includes all sentient animals, because every sentient being has this capacity. Not only that: in principle, the interests of nonhuman animals will get the same consideration as the interests of human beings. This is because for these positions suffering is suffering, regardless of who experiences it.

We can see that there are enormous amounts of suffering in the lives of nonhuman animals. This is clear in the case of those who are used for the production of animal goods and services, especially those kept on the vast majority of today’s farms.2 Likewise, many animals in the wild die before reaching maturity, often in painful ways, and those who reach adulthood often suffer greatly as well.3

Suffering-focused ethics view increasing the enjoyment of human beings as of secondary, if not trivial, importance. Therefore, these ethics promote that human beings avoid harming nonhuman animals and that they help animals when they can. This is considered a priority, and more important than furthering human ends that do not result in the reduction of equivalent suffering.

Defenses of the idea that suffering matters more than enjoyment

Those who defend positions of this type give the following arguments.

The importance of reducing suffering versus increasing happiness

Imagine a situation of extreme suffering, such as being tortured. Now imagine being able to move from such a situation to one of moderate suffering. Most people consider this to be a very positive change. Suppose now that we were in a situation where we were experiencing moderate pleasure. To move from this to a situation of extreme pleasure isn’t normally considered as positive as the former. Conversely, turning very mild suffering into excruciating suffering is considered a very big negative difference, and this is typically considered worse than going from extreme to moderate enjoyment. If we accept this, then we conclude that suffering has greater weight than enjoyment.

The priority of the suffering of others

Suffering takes precedence over happiness, especially when the suffering is experienced by one individual and the happiness is experienced by another. In our personal case, we might accept suffering in exchange for receiving great pleasure afterwards. However, this is not equivalent to believing that, in general, happiness can compensate for the existence of suffering when different individuals are experiencing them. In other words, many people are opposed to causing innocent individuals suffering for which those individuals will not receive any compensation in exchange for the enjoyment of other individuals. This implies that, if we do not accept a speciesist position (discriminating against nonhuman animals), harming animals for the benefit of humans is problematic.

The preponderance of extreme suffering

When an individual is subjected to torture, it is very likely that he will reach a certain point where he cannot resist. If he can no longer endure suffering, he may agree to do things he would never have thought of doing otherwise. To stop his pain, he might turn on loved ones or other innocent beings, betray causes he deeply believes in, give up his freedom or even his life. However, most individuals would not do such extreme things in exchange for any amount of pleasure. Suffering is far more unbearable than lack of enjoyment. This suggests that the harm caused by suffering is greater than the enjoyment of pleasure.

This indicates that reducing the most extreme forms of suffering should be a priority. This has serious repercussions for the animals that are in the worst situations.

The idea that preventing suffering may produce better results than promoting enjoyment

There are arguments that don’t center on the relative disvalue of suffering compared to the value of happiness, but rather prioritize reducing suffering on the grounds that it will lead to better results. These arguments are concerned with the amount of suffering that exists in the world and how easy it is for suffering to occur. These are not in themselves arguments for suffering-focused ethics. However, if they are correct, they give us indirect reasons to favor suffering-focused ethics because doing what they prescribe can produce better consequences than doing what other views prescribe.

Considering that there is more suffering than happiness in the world

Human beings have endured great suffering throughout history but also often have great enjoyment in their lives, so the argument that there is more suffering than happiness in the world is somewhat controversial if we consider only humans.

However, animals can also feel and suffer. The current suffering of animals in places such as most contemporary farms, where they spend their entire lives in appalling situations of confinement, in many cases suffering from various diseases, is extreme. The number of land animals that go through such a situation is in the tens of billions every year. Also in the wild it is common for them to face many forms of suffering, sometimes caused by humans, and often for other reasons (as with disease, severe weather conditions, accidents, and famine). Added to this is the fact that the vast majority of animals have very large numbers of offspring (sometimes hundreds, thousands, or millions). The vast majority of these offspring die, often shortly after birth, from causes that can be very painful.

If we consider all these situations, it is quite possible that there is overall more suffering than enjoyment in the world and therefore we will do more good by prioritizing the reduction of suffering.

The difficulty of avoiding suffering

It is very easy for suffering to occur. Even if we struggle throughout our lives to avoid it, at some point we will all experience suffering. There is an important asymmetry here between suffering and pleasure, because it is much more difficult for pleasure to occur in comparison to suffering. Even if you don’t do anything that might directly cause suffering, you could end up suffering due to external factors (for example, because of health problems or physical harm) while if you don’t do anything to seek pleasure, it is highly unlikely that you will experience it. A random event, tiny change in circumstances, or small mistake can cause great suffering. But it is less likely that an oversight or an accident will cause us pleasure.

The situation is even worse for animals. They do not have the means available to many human beings to ease suffering. Not only that, animals often have no way of avoiding very serious suffering, either at the hands of humans or from natural causes. Exploited animals are in circumstances over which they have no control, causing them great amounts of suffering. Likewise, many wild animals suffer from disease, starvation, cold temperatures, and other circumstances that they cannot eliminate or avoid.

It is possible to defend suffering-focused views for many reasons. Whatever the exact arguments, the conclusion to prioritize reducing suffering has very important implications for nonhuman animals.

Further readings

Amris, K.; Jones, L. E. & Williams, A. C. de C. (2019) “Pain from torture: Assessment and management”, Pain Reports, 4 (6) [accessed on 22 May 2021].

Baumann, T. (2017) “S-risks: An introduction”, Center for Reducing Suffering [accessed on 30 June 2021].

Baumeister, R. F.; Bratslavsky, E.; Finkenauer, C. & Vohs, K. D. (2001) “Bad is stronger than good”, Review of General Psychology, 5, pp. 323-370.

Benatar, D. (2006) Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence, Oxford: Clarendon.

Birnie, K. A.; Hundert, A. S.; Lalloo, C.; Nguyen, C. & Stinson, J. N. (2019) “Recommendations for selection of self-report pain intensity measures in children and adolescents: A systematic review and quality assessment of measurement properties”, Pain, 160, pp. 5-18.

Center on Long-Term Risk (2016) “Bibliography of suffering-focused views”, Center on Long-Term Risk, 14 August [accessed on 14 February 2021].

Chanques, G.; Viel, E.; Constantin, J.-M.; Jung, B.; Lattre, S. de; Carr, J.; Cissé, M.; Lefrant, J.-Y. & Jaber, S. (2010) “The measurement of pain in intensive care unit: Comparison of 5 self-report intensity scales”, Pain, 151, pp. 711-721.

Derbyshire, S. W. G. (2016) “Pain and the dangers of objectivity”, in Derbyshire, S. W. G. (ed.) Meanings of pain, Cham: Springer, pp. 23-36.

Diener, E.; Lucas, R. E. & Scollon, C. N. (2006) “Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being”, American Psychologist, 61, pp. 103-118.

Fehige, C. (1998) “A pareto principle for possible people”, in Fehige, C. & Wessels, U. (eds.) Preferences, Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 508-543.

Giordano, J.; Abramson, K. & Boswell, M. V. (2010) “Pain assessment: Subjectivity, objectivity, and the use of neurotechnology: Part one: Practical and ethical issues”, Pain Physician, 13, pp. 305-315 [accessed on 18 December 2020].

Gloor, L. (2017) “Tranquilism”, Center on Long-Term Risk, 18 July [accessed on 21 August 2017].

Gloor, L. (2018) “Cause prioritization for downside-focused value systems”, Center on Long-Term Risk, 21 February [accessed on 16 January 2021].

Goodman, C. (2009) Consequences of compassion: An interpretation and defense of Buddhist ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harris, J. & Baumann. T. (2021a) “Tobias Baumann of the Center for Reducing Suffering on moral circle expansion, cause prioritization, and reducing risks of astronomical suffering in the long-term future”, The Sentience Institute podcast, Sentience Institute [accessed on 14 July 2021].

Harris, J. & Baumann. T. (2021b) “Tobias Baumann of the Center for Reducing Suffering on global priorities research and effective strategies to reduce suffering”, The Sentience Institute podcast, Sentience Institute, June 23 [accessed on 14 July 2021]

Hjermstad, M.; Fayers, P. M.; Haugen, D. F.; Caraceni, A.; Hans, G. W.; Loge, J. H.; Fainsinger, R.; Aass, N. & Kaasa, S. (2011) “Studies comparing numerical rating scales, verbal rating scales, and visual analogue scales for assessment of pain intensity in adults: A systematic literature review”, Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 41, pp. 1073-1093 [accessed on 12 February 2021].

Hurka, T. (2010) “Asymmetries in value”, Noûs, 44, pp. 199-223.

Jensen, M. P. & Karoly, P. (2011) “Self-report scales and procedures for assessing pain in adults”, in Turk, D. C. & Melzack, R. (eds.), Handbook of Pain Assessment, New York: Guilford, pp. 19-44.

Knutsson, S. (2016) “The one-paragraph case for suffering-focused ethics”, Simon Knutsson, Oct. 2 [accessed on 11 June 2020].

Knutsson, S. (2019) “The world destruction argument”, Inquiry, 29 Aug [accessed on 13 March 2021].

Leighton, J. (2011) The battle for compassion: Ethics in an apathetic universe, New York: Algora.

Mathison, E. (2018) Asymmetries and ill-being, PhD thesis, Toronto: University of Toronto [accessed on 23 April 2021].

Mayerfeld, J. (2002) Suffering and moral responsibility, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pearce, D. (2010) “Why be negative?”, The Hedonistic Imperative [accessed on 16 October 2012].

Pearce, D. (2017) Can biotechnology abolish suffering?, North Carolina: The Neuroethics Foundation.

Rozin, P. & Royzman, E. B. (2001) “Negativity bias, Negativity dominance, and contagion”, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, pp. 296-320.

Sánchez-Rodríguez, E.; Miró, J. & Castarlenas, E. (2012) “A comparison of four self-report scales of pain intensity in 6-to 8-year-old children”, Pain, 153, pp. 1715-1719.

Sikora, R. I. (1976) “Negative utilitarianism: Not dead yet”, Mind, 85, pp. 587-588.

Suffering focused ethics resources (2021) [accessed on 25 April 2021].

Thong, I. S. K; Jensen, M. P.; Miró, J. & Tan, G. (2018) “The validity of pain intensity measures: What do the NRS, VAS, VRS, and FPS-R measure?”, Scandinavian Journal of Pain, 18, pp. 99-107.

Tomasik, B. (2017 [2015]) “Are happiness and suffering symmetric?”, Essays on Reducing Suffering, 23 Dec [accessed on 5 February 2021].

Tomasik, B. (2018 [2015]) “Reasons to promote suffering-focused ethics”, Essays on Reducing Suffering, Apr 16 [accessed on 5 February 2021].

Tomasik, B. (2019 [2011]) “Risks of astronomical future suffering”, Center on Long-Term Risks, 02 Jul [accessed on 12 May 2021].

Tomasik, B. (2019 [2013]) “Three types of negative utilitarianism”, Essays on Reducing Suffering, Nov 20 [accessed on 5 February 2021].

Tranöy, K. E. (1967) “Asymmetries in ethics: On the structure of a general theory of ethics”, Inquiry, 10, pp. 351-372.

Vinding, M. (2020a) “On purported positive goods “outweighing” suffering”, Center for Reducing Suffering [accessed on 30 June 2021].

Vinding, M. (2020b) Suffering-focused ethics: Defense and implications, Copenhagen: Ratio Ethica [accessed on 23 May 2021].

Vinding, M. (2020c) “Suffering and happiness: Morally symmetric or orthogonal?”, Center for Reducing Suffering [accessed on 30 June 2021].


1 Mayerfeld, J. (1996) “The moral asymmetry of happiness and suffering”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 34, pp. 317-338; Gloor, L. (2019 [2016]) “The case for suffering-focused ethics”, Center on Long-Term Risk, 26 August  [accessed on 15 July 2017].

2 Mood, A. & Brooke, P. (2019) “Numbers of fish caught from the wild each year”, [accessed on 4 June 2021]. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2021) “Livestock primary”, FAOStat, February 19 [accessed on 4 June 2021].

3 Tomasik, B. (2019 [2009]) “How many wild animals are there?”, Essays on Reducing Suffering, Aug 07 [accessed on 4 June 2021]. See also Animal Ethics (2020) Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues, Oakland: Animal Ethics [accessed on 4 June 2021].