When we hear the word “ethics”, we may think of the abstract musings of academic philosophers disconnected from the realities of our world, or the codes of conduct of multinational corporations eager to avoid excessive scrutiny. But when we consider how to ensure that our well-intentioned actions have meaningful impact, ethical reflections take on a central and critical importance. They force us to reconsider our priorities, and to question some of the assumptions our society has inherited from past generations.
I started my career as a research scientist, motivated by a desire to contribute to human welfare by better understanding biological processes. But I found myself increasingly drawn to bigger existential questions, such as “Why there is so much suffering in the world?” and “What matters?” I wrote my first book The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe in an attempt to answer these questions as objectively and methodically as I could, and to provide some new perspectives that could help guide our ethical reflections and actions.
One of the key principles that emerged is that individuals’ subjective experience is at the heart of what matters. Although we appreciate the natural beauty and diversity of our planet and want to protect it from destruction, conscious beings and their experiences are ultimately what make anything else matter. And as we are all variations on the same theme – creatures with similar needs for love and comfort who find themselves in very different circumstances – ethics is about generalizing to other sentient beings the same considerations we apply to ourselves. This is essentially another expression of the age-old Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you.
At first glance, these principles might seem very straightforward. But where do they lead us if we apply them consistently and logically? There is a vital conclusion that can be overlooked if we don’t follow our ethical thinking to the end: if there are experiences that we would do anything to avoid because they would be unbearably painful or distressful, then as a society we should do our best to ensure that others do not have such experiences either. This gives the avoidance of intense suffering – whether due to the infliction of torture, armed conflict, horrible diseases or extreme poverty – an urgency that other issues, such as increasing economic output or expanding museums’ high-priced art collections, just don’t have. And it gives us clear guidance on where to allocate our philanthropic and altruistic resources.
A second conclusion is of a numerical nature. People are often passionate about specific causes because these have special personal significance to them. This is clearly an important motivator for action. But all things being equal, if we are free to allocate our time and money wherever we choose, we should direct them in a way that can help a maximum number of beings, rather than in a way that is most convenient or gives us the greatest amount of personal recognition. This is where the recent “effective altruism” movement has been instrumental in providing concrete prescriptions on how to use our resources, whether for saving human lives or preventing suffering.
And a third conclusion is that, because we now know that many kinds of animals are highly conscious and emotional creatures capable of experiencing extreme suffering, the horrific treatment of huge numbers of animals in the food industry is not a side issue but one of the central moral challenges of our time. Philanthropy and activism aimed at ending the torture of animals therefore has a rightful and important place alongside activities aimed at relieving human misery.
As I argue in a short film I recently produced based on my book, by conscientiously applying these basic ethical principles to our personal and institutional decision-making, we can expect to have much greater impact in reducing suffering in the world. Our longer-term goal should be to ensure that our global system reflects these ethical principles, and to build new economic and decision-making structures that prioritize the prevention of intense suffering wherever it occurs, while ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are met. The support of forward-looking philanthropists will play an important role in funding new, creative initiatives to help us achieve this goal.
This article first appeared on the Huffington Post Pioneers for Change blog.