“If you combine rationality and compassion you have the essence” – Jonathan Leighton of OPIS – Sentientism Ep:185

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism Podcast.

Jonathan is an ethics strategist, writer, social change advocate and public speaker, He is Executive Director of the Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS), a Swiss-based think-and-do tank that promotes the prevention of human and non-human suffering as our overriding global ethical priority. His book, The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe, explores the question “What matters?”. His new book The Tango of Ethics: Intuition, Rationality and the Prevention of Suffering goes further in proposing a rigorous reassessment of how we think about ethics.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” In addition to the YouTube video above the audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Clips!

01:00 Welcome

03:34 Jon’s Intro

– Molecular biology PhD

– Ethicist

– Writing “The Battle for Compassion” and “The Tango of Ethics”

– Running the “think and do tank” OPIS (Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering) “Trying to put the ideas into practice”

04:41 What’s Real?

– A scientific family, physicist father

– “A naturalistic, mechanistic way of thinking about the world”

– “It’s not that there was no #spirituality at all… a #Jewish household that was more traditional than religious… Reciting things that I didn’t necessarily understand the meaning of”

– “…a brief phase where I did take things [religious prescriptions] more literally… but that didn’t last very long”

– “Seeing the world as inherently physical”

– “Not to say that the subjective doesn’t matter… the subjective is the essence of what matters”

– Maternal grandfather “I remember him describing himself as a Humanist… his way of saying ‘don’t take the supernatural too seriously'”

– “I think spirituality is an important part of life… but I don’t think of spirituality in the supernatural sense… I think of spirituality in terms of the experience… a feeling that there is an intense meaning possible in life.”

– “During spiritual experiences we might suspend the very rational perspective. You can’t really be fully plunged into a spiritual experience if you’re also trying to analyse things scientifically at the same time.”

– In circles with people, lighting a fire, reciting poetry… “it feels like a source of meaning at times to get into that other state of mind.”

– “It’s this dance between two very different perspectives”

– “How do we reconcile the need to understand reality as accurately as possible using the tools of rationality and science and how do we also extract meaning from our existence?”

– JW: Instead of a scientistic denial or a mystical reification of the subjective… a recognition that our subjective experiences are part of the objective world we all share… and are the source of its value and meaning

– Subjective experience is determined by the physical “but you won’t actually know what it’s like… without having experienced it yourself”

13:25 What Matters?

– “Subjective experience… it’s the most important part of reality… the only part of reality that really matters when it comes down to ethics… what it’s actually like for #sentient  beings to experience the world”

– The “is-ought” chasm

– “I explicitly try to avoid the use of traditional moral language… to get away from terms like ‘ought’ and ‘should'”

– “I try to avoid that #moralrealist framing altogether”

– “I try to take a very naturalistic approach to ethics… things we can truthfully say about subjective experience”

– Descriptive vs. prescriptive ethics

– Challenging traditional ethical approaches, intuitions and assumptions

– Meanings of “right” and “wrong”: emotional (feels wrong), prescriptive (should do), rational (reason), aligned (with a moral framework)

– “In philosophy… there is a tendency to use these words in a loftier moral sense… morality with a big ‘M'”

– “It’s not even that I’m trying to bridge the ‘is’ with the ‘ought’… I’m trying to say ‘what can we say about certain phenomenological states'”

– “The starting point is subjective experience because without subjective experience there’s nothing for anything to matter to”

– “I make a distinction between subjective experiences that there is an urgency to change and subjective experiences that there is no urgency to change… This is what makes suffering unique [and distinct from happiness]… suffering is a state of being that inherently calls for action.”

– “Different states of being matter”

– Rejecting moral realism doesn’t mean that “nothing matters”

– States vs. actions “we can make clear statements about whether a state is good or bad… but then when we try to judge actions… we’re on shakier ground”

– “There is this fundamental asymmetry between suffering and happiness”

– “We can ground everything, not in moral realism, but in rationality itself”

– “I like to use this grounding in rationality and compassion… if you combine rationality and compassion you have the essence of ethical or moral thinking”

– “In fact, you could argue that compassion is rational so you could… just start from rationality and that will lead you not just to evidence based actions but also to compassion in the sense of taking actions to alleviate and prevent suffering”

– Personal identity “something continuous and stable over time and separate from others – that’s all an illusion. When you take that understanding of personal identity into account that automatically leads to a concern for all suffering and not just one’s own”

– “Personal identity is an illusion… that doesn’t mean we don’t exist… that our experiences are not real.”

– Views of personal identity: Closed individualism (discrete entities that go through life); Open individualism (we are all one); Empty individualism (slices of consciousness moments)

– Open and empty as “two ways of looking at the same issue”

– Buddhist perspectives

– “We can’t have a really universally applicable framework for thinking about ethics that ignores the reality of personal identity… at the same time… closed individualism is where we derive a lot of the meaning in our lives”

– “The coexistence of these two very different perspectives on reality and of ourselves and others… it’s another facet of the tango”

– “The tango metaphor… goes to the heart of some of the paradoxes we’re faced with in ethics… It’s not that one wins over the other… there’s this interplay between these two ways of looking at the world”

– JW: Rationality and intuition as two more tango partners

– The risks of over-rationalisation and classical utilitarianism as an example e.g. “this idea that happiness and suffering can balance each other out… this desire to put everything onto the same numerical scale… without recognising that we’re talking about two different modes of being… the desire for happiness and meaning exists on a different level from the need to alleviate suffering”

– The Effective Altruism movement

– “Questioning the value of existence altogether” and antinatalism

– Moral offsetting (within or between beings – and between happiness and suffering)

– JW: Are there parallel risks of de-personalisation both in some forms of utilitarianism (beings as mere containers of utility) and in a more Buddhist view of (personal identity of beings is illusory)?

– Voluntary choices taken by an individual vs. imposing suffering on others “fundamentally different phenomena”

– Tranquilism and Lukas Gloor “when there’s no suffering there’s no problem… when there’s happiness there’s no need to change it… if there’s emptiness there’s no need to change that either…”

– “A barren, rocky planet in some sort of distant solar system. There’s no inherent need to fill that planet with life… when people want to do it that comes from an urge they have themselves… not an urgency that is inherent to that lifeless planet”

– “I wish more people would stop to think about… this urgency to create positive value in the universe… it doesn’t mean we can’t do it… it just doesn’t exist on the same level as doing something about suffering”

– “The framework that I’m proposing… tries to reconcile these two different perspectives… the detached perspective that sees suffering as something inherently bad that needs to be addressed and changed, eliminated if possible – and the very human desire to exist, to thrive, to derive meaning and to further its own existence… the two essential aspects of the tango that I talk about”

– “Evolution has created all this suffering… what can we do to try and improve things”

– Does a focus on suffering lead to antinatalism? JW: “The view that a valueless universe would be better than one with enormous negative value”

– “It’s an entirely valid perspective… there’s huge amounts of suffering going on… and there have been for hundreds of millions of years… and to say that one wouldn’t have willingly created this situation from scratch”

– “You wouldn’t necessarily design a world the way it is right now – if you were really aware of what all that extreme suffering meant… maybe we can improve things before we go live”

– “But we already live in the world… we were born into this world… so the question is ‘what are the reasonable approaches we can take?’”

– “Respect our intuitions… they are somehow essential for living… as normal human beings… and also doing whatever we can to confront the reality of suffering and do something about it”

– “Doesn’t mean that there’s any kind of obligation to take destructive steps.”

– “An ethical framework… needs to be pragmatic, needs to appeal to people’s intuitions… asking people to confront reality – not to close their eyes”

– “It’s not an unsolvable problem… we can maintain existence and actually create a flourishing future if we use technology correctly”

– “The real challenge is getting more people to care about suffering in addition to just survival”

46:40 Who Matters?

– “I don’t think I particularly cared about animals when I grew up… you like dogs and cats and you don’t think about the food on your plate”

– “When my first book (The Battle for Compassion”) came out in 2011 I hadn’t gone vegan yet even though I was well aware of the suffering of animals – I talked about it in the book”

– Going vegetarian then vegan (after being asked about veganism by some effective altruists)

– Emotional / cultural attachments to certain foods

– “Having already written a book about it – I already had a pretty strong rational sense for why this was a necessary step… I wanted to live consistently with the kind of ideas I was talking about… wanting to live in alignment”

– “Why didn’t I do this earlier?”

– “Why would you contribute to the torture of animals?… Nobody wants animals to suffer”

– Learning about dairy from a friend… “it wasn’t long afterwards I went fully vegan”

– Cognitive dissonance. Rejecting arguments because we know they’ll require us to make a change we don’t want to make

– Veganism and wild-animal ethics. JW “I want to have compassion for every sentient being whether or not they’re being exploited by humans”

– “Some people take a very oppression based approach… I totally agree… but that’s not the end of it… that’s why I think a suffering focused perspective is broader and more universal”

– Fear of human hubris re: intervening in nature in harmful ways

– “The real question is – is it possible to do something about it [suffering of free-ranging animals]?”

– “We’re the only ones who can do anything about it”

– Vaccinations, wild-life corridors, contraception, habitat restoration, animal rescue from natural disasters… through to bio-engineering to reduce the ability of wild animals to feel pain “probably very controversial today”

– “If it were possible to do this in a way that’s effective I think you could argue that it would be extremely uncompassionate not to… why does that suffering not matter?”

– Environmentalist approaches re: nature being sacred… “Would you be willing to exchange places with an animal in the wild or is your perspective based on the privilege of having been born a human on this planet in a part of the world where you’re much less likely to suffer?”

– “As soon as we take this more neutral approach… imagine changing places with another being…”

– “We have that capacity for empathy… it’s turned on in some situations and turned off in others… a lot of that is socially conditioned… what is considered normal… people don’t want to be outliers… considered weird”

– “Suffering, especially extreme suffering, matters wherever it occurs”

– Artificial or digital suffering? “In some ways it would be less controversial to intervene because it’s not intervening with nature…”

– JW: “Might be quite close to creating countless trillions of artificial sentient beings that maybe could have the capacity to suffer… the role of an evil creator – unwitting or not”

01:03:37 How To Make A Better World?

– “The strongest safeguard is to have compassionate governance at a worldwide level… I don’t think the problem is simply technological”

– “Once something becomes possible there’s a pretty good chance of it being created somewhere unless there’s some sort of global agreement”

– “If we can’t deal with embedding compassion into the way our whole world is run then we risk having these horror scenarios in the future”

– OPIS: Initially focusing on very specific interventions (e.g. pain relief – morphine, psychedelics for cluster headaches “governments should not get in the way of people alleviating this extreme pain”), advocating against factory farming

– “If we’re really aiming to have as much influence as possible on suffering in the future then we really need to take this broad approach of promoting the ethical fundamentals”

– “My goal is really to broaden our approach and try to bring compassion into politics and governance”

– Working on a guide to compassionate governance “How do we aim to embed these ethics… help governments become more responsive to the needs of their constituents… not just the humans… all sentient beings who are affected by the government’s actions” #sentiocracy

– “When people feel that their needs are being addressed and they feel that they are being listened to – they will in turn tend to be more responsive”

– Conflict resolution. OPIS’s recent Palestine-Israel webinar

– “Let’s listen to the suffering of others… once we open ourselves to empathising with the suffering of others it opens others up to empathising with our suffering”

– “… can lead to far greater global co-operation at the highest levels”

– “If we can spread this message among ordinary people… and reach the politicians of the future… there’s a real possibility for these ideas to spread”

– “Belief that it’s possible is in some way self-realising”

– “The world could become a much better place if we promote these ideas – and the idea that every sentient being matters”

– JW: The risks that ethical appeals feel like “can’t we just be nice to each other?” in the face of genuine bad faith actors, sociopaths, totalitarians, fascists… “How does a compassionate ethics cope with that without being just rolled over and destroyed?”

– “There is a real potential to harness people power… create a mass movement based on these values… most people are against being controlled by totalitarian governments and large corporations that just care about shareholder value”

– Complex systems thinking. Daniel Schmachtenberger. Game theory re: co-operation and defection

– JW: “The people who believe in a compassionate approach may have to corral more might than the people who think ‘might makes right’ because sometimes they will present us with no other choice… even that use of force and violence, not in a retributive sense… might ultimately still be the right and compassionate thing to do… we have to be able to cope with defectors and bad actors in some way and sometimes persuasion just won’t cut it.”

– “You can’t just talk peace and love without thinking about the dynamics and the mathematics of the system”

– Transparency as a potential means to solve some problems?

– “There’s no way to control a complex system – all you can do is try to nudge things in the right direction”

– “It requires also just ambition to thing big and to inspire people with a vision for a more compassionate world… ultimately what most people want”

01:19:43 Follow Jon and OPIS

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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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