Oct 102017
 

[cw: death, suffering, mention of torture]

There’s an argument made by wild-animal welfare EAs that bothers me. It points to the fact that nearly all deaths in nature are horrible. Torn apart by predators, or eaten from inside by parasites, or starving to death. This near-100%-level of torturous death is supposed to be a reason to be against allowing wildlife to continue in its current (“natural”) state.

Immediately I think of the deliberate torture-deaths humans have inflicted on each other in history. And as disgusting and stomach-churning as they are, I always think “at least the victims will never remember or feel that pain, after the minutes/hours of horror are over.” It is a small mercy, but really… once someone is dead, the pain doesn’t matter to them anymore.

In fact, once any pain is passed, the pain itself doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve gone through two surgeries with very painful recovery periods. I distinctly remember thinking “This is horrific. I can’t take this pain. Please, someone make it stop.” But just a few days after it was over, the memory was fading. Today I literally can’t remember the pain at all. I only remember having hated it.

The real disutility of pain comes from the after-effects. The loss of physical ability, in the case of crippling injury. The humiliation and fear of additional pain, in case of attacks by others. The psychological trauma, that continues to haunt for years afterwards. But in cases where these don’t apply, the pain is basically valueless once it has passed. Ask someone who’s had a corrective surgery with good consequences. Ask someone who’s given birth.

The kind of pain that matters is the pain that lingers. The depression that hurts you every single day of your life and won’t get better. The lasting injury that causes you pain every time you put weight on your left ankle.

The pain that you feel at death is pain that cannot linger, because there is no one left to feel it. It’s still horrific while it’s happening, but once it’s over it doesn’t have any lasting effects.

And since the pain of death is the least lasting, and thus least important sort of pain, I find it to be basically valueless to determining if a life was worth living. I discount claims that deaths in nature are painful and horrific, so we should intervene. I would base any opinion on the necessity of intervention on how the pain/pleasure balance comes out through out an animal’s life *leading up to* the death itself. If the majority of a life is basically non-torturous, with food-finding games, and feasting when finding a major score, and the comfort of familiar animals/settings, punctuated with exciting flights from danger and occasional bouts of sickness or hunger… well, that’s not necessarily a bad life.

(Of note, none of these arguments apply to factory farming, which gives animals a life of torture in awful conditions.)

Maybe non-domesticated animals do, in general, have awful lives. But it probably varies by species and even by location, and would require actual metrics and research. Simply pointing out that their deaths are painful doesn’t sway me at all.

  7 Responses to “Suffering is Valueless, After the Fact”

  1. That’s why you press the button

    • You mean blow up everyone? I don’t see why that would improve the situation.

      And I sorta believe in a happy future where at some point we managed to reduce the suffering of everyone by one or multiple orders of magnitude and maybe support trillions of sentient lifeforms. And all the suffering leading up to that was little enough to not matter any more.

      Until then I think a better idea is to give everyone the option to end their life themselves but not make that choice for others.

      • It wouldn’t total suffering to zero.

        You are right there so a possible nice future but it is A. Possible and the odds cannot be calculated. And B. Still no guarantee the problem are fixable.

      • It wouldn’t total suffering to zero.

        You are right there so a possible nice future but it is A. Possible and the odds cannot be calculated. And B. Still no guarantee the problems are fixable.

    • >> That’s why you press the button

      I’m not sure how that follows from my claim that “suffering at end of life is nearly valueless.” Can you elaborate?

  2. This just seems pretty weird. If given the choice between dying painfully, or dying at the same time painlessly, you’d reluctantly pick the latter, right? Neither is good, but the first is worse.

    Basically, while we may wish to privilege the “remembering self” over the “experiencing self” when deciding what to do with our lives, I don’t think that should extend to the point of completely removing the latter’s voice in decision-making. Experiences, even temporary ones, are real. I find it helpful to take a timeless view here: even for things that are over, the experience is still real in the past. It’s still there, just in a part of the universe we can’t reach any more, the same as we wouldn’t consider it okay to for someone to set off to commit grossly unethical acts just over the cosmological event horizon from us.

    Or you can look at it the other way and say that, even within time, you have a heap-problem of deciding which parts of a life count as “part of the death, discounted for lack of after-effects” and which are actually countable experiences. When does experiencing become remembering exactly? Of the various animal deaths available, which are long enough to “count”? Is a week-long descent into disease prolonged enough to matter? What about a day dying of a slow venom? What about starvation or thirst? And so forth. These questions don’t automatically make moment-by-moment experientialism right just by virtue of their existence, but they’re something to consider.

    On the other hand, this made me really uncomfortable with my justifications for eating animals, which have a similar feeling of “well, I’ll just awkwardly draw the border or morality to make what I was gonna do anyway okay.” So, good post.

    • >I find it helpful to take a timeless view here: even for things that are over, the experience is still real in the past. It’s still there, just in a part of the universe we can’t reach any more

      This is a valuable insight. I will strive to incorporate this more into my thinking, thank you.

      >Of the various animal deaths available, which are long enough to “count”?

      As you point out, it’s really hard to say. Intuitively, the closer to the point of death the suffering is, the less it counts, because the less impact it will have on the animal over the remaining course of its life. I don’t know where to draw that line either, but I suspect most deaths would not outweigh a medium-length mostly-decent life. Of the deaths you enumerate, I would accept any one of them if they were the required cost of living the life I’ve lived so far. But if my life had been significantly worse, or if I start a long decline now that leaves me in pain and/or depression for the next decades of my life, well, then even a very nice death at the hands of a succubus wouldn’t be worth it.

      >On the other hand, this made me really uncomfortable with my justifications for eating animals, which have a similar feeling of “well, I’ll just awkwardly draw the border or morality to make what I was gonna do anyway okay.” So, good post.

      Yay!!

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