Formalizing Preference Utilitarianism in Physical World Models

Most ethical work is done at a low level of formality which can lead to misunderstandings in ethical discussions. In this paper, we use Bayesian inference to introduce a formalization of preference utilitarianism in physical world models. Even though our formalization is not immediately applicable, it is a first step in providing ethical inquiry with a formal basis.

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The Importance of Wild-Animal Suffering

The number of wild animals vastly exceeds that of animals on factory farms. Therefore, animal advocates should consider focusing their efforts to raise concern about the suffering that occurs in nature. In theory, engineering more humane ecological systems might be valuable. In practice, however, it seems more effective to promote the meme of caring about wild animals to other activists, academics and other sympathetic groups.

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Measuring Happiness and Suffering

Is the balance of happiness versus suffering in the future net positive or net negative (in expectation)? Is the aggregate happiness and suffering in a group of individuals positive or negative? For such questions to have factual answers that are free from value judgements, happiness and suffering would need to be objectively measurable to a very high degree. However, such a degree of measurability is widely (although not universally) rejected.

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What Is the Difference Between Weak Negative and Non-Negative Ethical Views?

Weak negative views in ethics, such as negative-leaning utilitarianism, are said to give more weight to reducing suffering than to promoting happiness. In contrast, non-negative views such as traditional utilitarianism are said to give equal weight to happiness and suffering. However, this way of distinguishing between the views rests on controversial assumptions about the measurability of happiness and suffering.

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The Case for Suffering-Focused Ethics

“Suffering-focused ethics” is an umbrella term for moral views that place primary or particular importance on the prevention of suffering. Most views that fall into this category are pluralistic in that they hold that other things beside suffering reduction also matter morally. To illustrate the diversity within suffering-focused ethics as well as to present a convincing case for it, this article will introduce four separate motivating intuitions.

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Hedonistic vs. Preference Utilitarianism

It's a classic debate among utilitarians: Should we care about an organism's happiness and suffering (hedonic wellbeing), or should we ultimately value fulfilling what it wants, whatever that may be (preferences)? This article discusses various intuitions on both sides and explores a hybrid view that gives greater weight to the hedonic subsystems of brains than to other overriding subsystems.

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Value Lexicality

An example of value lexicality is that an outcome with both torture and happiness is bad, regardless of the amount of happiness. Value lexicality is important partly because it can lead to suffering-focused ethics. Key topics that this essay explains include strong versus weak lexicality, value aggregation, views on large numbers and sequence arguments.

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Dealing with Moral Multiplicity

The ethical views we hold depend significantly on the network structures of our brains: which ideas are associated with which valences and how strongly. These feelings and weights are shaped by our genetic predispositions, cultural circumstances, and life experiences. Had you developed differently, your moral views would have been different. It's up to us whether we want to update based […]

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The 'Asymmetry' and Extinction Thought Experiments

Someone who wants to do good is faced with the question how to prioritize preventing badness vs. bringing about more individuals with good lives. A relevant idea is the ‘Asymmetry,’ which roughly says that it is bad to bring into existence individuals with bad lives but not good to add individuals with good lives. One objection to the Asymmetry is […]

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Should We Base Moral Judgments on Intentions or Outcomes?

Different ethical intuitions place different weight on the importance of intentions vs. outcomes in evaluating our actions. One might think that consequentialists would favor the outcome-based approach, and indeed, judging based on outcomes is sometimes the best way to optimize performance. However, in other circumstances – e.g., when you have strong prior knowledge or when you can't afford multiple trial-and-error […]

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How Could an Empty World Be Better than a Populated One?

Leslie (1998) writes that when “discussing whether the universe was created by a benevolent deity, philosophers regularly point out that our world might be considered an ethical disaster, something of negative value, because of all the misery it contains." This essay surveys different ways in which ethical views may come to conclude that a world’s value is overall negative.

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Bibliography of Suffering-Focused Views

A good bibliography encourages others to conduct research and write papers in the field. Thus, creating an up-to-date bibliography on suffering-focused views seems an important undertaking. This subpage of our open research questions page contains examples of sources to include in such a bibliography.

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