OPIS, a think-and-do tank for an ethic based on the prevention of suffering

Interview with Jonathan Leighton in L’Amorce, a French/Canadian publication that explores the ethical, political and cultural issues involved in the fight against speciesism. This is an English translation of the interview, which originally appeared on 26 January 2019.

Photo by Vignesh Moorthy

To bring about changes in international legislation to recognise as the most fundamental right of every sentient being not to be subjected to intense suffering: this is the mission that OPIS has given itself, for which this is an absolute ethical priority. Interview with Jonathan Leighton, its founder.

Axelle Playoust-Braure: OPIS (Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering) was founded in June 2016. How did this project come about? What have been your main achievements in two years?

Jonathan Leighton: I had the idea more than 10 years ago — before I became vegan, and before the effective altruism movement existed — to set up an organisation that would carry out humanitarian advocacy, making use of scientific findings. After my book The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe came out in 2011, I started to think about how to have impact in the world through such concrete advocacy projects. My participation in the Algosphere Alliance (a global network of individuals and organisations, dedicated to alleviating suffering through collaboration and political mobilisation) and my contacts in the effective altruism community provided me with a network of like-minded people whom I could rely on in starting a new project. In 2016 the timing was right to create it.

OPIS (Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering) is a think-and-do tank working to design and promote the compassionate society of the future. OPIS’s vision is a world that eliminates the preventable suffering of all sentient beings, both humans and non-humans. We are still a small organisation operating on a volunteer basis. We don’t want to simply emulate existing organisations: we have the ambitious aim to make a difference in the world by promoting the core ethical principle of non-suffering, through rational argumentation and creative campaigns. So far, our largest activity was the organisation of an expert panel event at the UN Human Rights Council on the subject of access to morphine as a human right. We produced an advocacy guide on this issue that has been translated and used by various palliative care organisations around the world, and we lobbied for more compassionate language in a UN draft resolution on the “world drug problem”. We also produced a document arguing that access to pain relief could be a cause area worth funding from a cost-effectiveness perspective. We are currently collaborating with Hospice Burkina, a recently established palliative care association, to help change regulations in Burkina Faso and facilitate access to pain relief for thousands of patients a year. We hope that these efforts will inspire other countries to take similar steps.

Other activities have included talks, media appearances, collaborations with other organisations, producing a guide to vegan thriving, and generally promoting the principle that the prevention of intense suffering should be our highest ethical priority.

OPIS identifies with negative utilitarianism (or SFE, suffering-focused ethics). How does negative utilitarianism differ from other utilitarian ethical positions?

Very simply, negative utilitarianism considers only the reduction of suffering to be ethically relevant, not the creation of happiness. In contrast, classical utilitarianism considers that suffering and happiness can be “added up” to determine overall wellbeing. The term that some people and organisations are using, suffering-focused ethics (SFE), avoids some of the negative connotations of negative utilitarianism (however unjustified they are) while keeping a pragmatic focus on reducing suffering.

Can you tell us about this asymmetry between the creation of happiness and the alleviation of suffering? In other words, from the SFE position, why are increasing pleasure and reducing suffering not “two poles that cancel each other out”?

The essential point is that suffering in one place is not cancelled out by happiness somewhere else. The fact that an individual may voluntarily experience unpleasantness for future personal gratification is a phenomenon that occurs in a single brain with a sense of autonomy, which is entirely different from the idea that we could balance out the torture of one sentient being by creating large numbers of blissful people elsewhere. Hedonic states are not abstract numbers that we can manipulate mathematically in any way we want. Suffering is also not a quantity like volume or mass that is composed of discrete units that can be distributed in various ways. This point is fundamental! And yet, so many people with a rationalist orientation seem to think that we can perform these operations of addition and “cancel out” suffering in some meaningful way!

Another essential distinction relates to urgency: there is an inherent urgency to relieve suffering, but there is no urgency to create happiness out of nothing, or to make someone blissful when they are already content. It may be a “nice” thing to do, but there’s no urgency. Similarly, there is a greater inherent urgency to relieve suffering that is intense, extreme and especially unbearable, which can drive people to commit suicide, and which is arguably qualitatively different from lesser intensities of suffering. In other words, even a large number of individuals with minor suffering doesn’t create the level of urgency of one person screaming in agony. Prioritisation needs to be based on inherent urgency, on the cases that cry out for immediate relief.

OPIS summarises its ethical position by the following formula: xNU+. Can you explain its meaning to us?

I decided on the shorthand formula xNU+ to capture the key facets of a “holistic”, pragmatic ethical framework that reconciles rationality and intuitions. “U” stands for utilitarianism — but only in the sense of trying to maximize impact, not by aggregating different things, such as suffering and happiness, or even very different levels of suffering; “N” stands for negative — that is, focusing on suffering as our ethical concern; “x” refers to extreme or intense suffering as our main ethical priority, and not trivial or minor suffering, such as pinpricks or the occasional headache; and very importantly, the “+” explicitly acknowledges that humans have the need and desire to lead happy, meaningful lives, and a workable ethical framework has to allow space for people to thrive, and also accommodate some of their moral intuitions, if they are also to be effective as ethical agents of change. To summarise, with xNU+ the pursuit of happiness is not placed on the same ethical level as the reduction of suffering. This avoids drawing a false ethical equivalence between the two, with all of its absurd conclusions, while respecting the fact that we are not only rational agents but also intuitive human beings.

In the context of your “morphine as a human right” campaign, you point out “a historical neglect of suffering within medical systems”. How do you explain this neglect?

There are a number of factors. I would speculate that this is in part because suffering is an internal state less accessible to observation, and because it has been stoically accepted as part of life, at least in the past when there were fewer treatments available. Modern medicine has tended to be attracted to solving the mysteries of the human body and disease, and to preserving life itself, but not always to caring for the welfare of the patient as a vulnerable being.

In response to this historical neglect, new disciplines are being established, such as algonomy and welfare biology. How should these disciplines be defined, and what role do they play in preventing and reducing intense suffering?

Algonomy is a term that was coined by Robert Daoust for the study of suffering as a discipline — a very broad subject, though clearly of great importance. Welfare biology is a term that has more recently been proposed as a new discipline for the study of the wellbeing of wild animals in their environment, as opposed, for example, to the ecological interest in animal populations. Welfare biology is directly concerned with the intense suffering of animals in the wild, including due to hunger and thirst, weather extremes, natural disasters, disease, injuries and predators. This suffering is largely overlooked by society, because nature is so often seen as good or at least accepted as is. Yet the suffering of animals born in the wild matters intrinsically as much as the suffering of any companion animal or human being. A huge challenge for the future will be how to reduce wild animal suffering — a major technical challenge that is not necessarily insurmountable due to new genetic technologies, but also a great challenge in terms of societal acceptance. This is another reason to work on sensitising and educating people about the reality of nature, and the fact that ethics doesn’t stop at the edge of the forest.

OPIS describes the difficulty of accessing morphine and other opioids to relieve severe suffering as “torture by omission”. What are the main obstacles preventing individuals who need it from accessing these analgesics, which are nonetheless easy and inexpensive to produce?

A major issue in low- and middle-income countries is often excessively strict regulations and legislation that make it very difficult for patients in need to obtain prescriptions and then acquire the medication, with sometimes Kafkaesque obstacles in place. The regulations are designed to prevent opioids from being diverted for non-medical use and contributing to addiction and criminal activity. There is also an irrational fear of patients themselves becoming dependent. These factors, in addition to the neglect of pain as a serious phenomenon, have meant that doctors are usually not educated at medical school on administering opioids. In most countries, there also simply aren’t enough medical personnel authorised to prescribe opioids. As a result of these factors, most of these countries import only a fraction of the opioids needed.

The repression of opioid use goes back decades to an international war on drugs, in the form of UN conventions and policies. These placed the predominant emphasis on preventing addiction — which included treating those with dependence issues as criminals — while neglecting the legitimate needs of patients in pain. The horribly misguided US response to the opioid overdose crisis — a largely separate issue now mainly involving street drugs like heroin and illegally imported fentanyl — is depriving huge numbers of chronic pain patients of effective pain medication, causing untold misery, and undoubtedly making other countries wary of taking positive measures to improve access. Internationally, however, there is now a movement towards more compassionate policies, with advocacy for and growing awareness of the right to effective pain treatment, including at the UN.

Despite this growing awareness, you regret the persistence of bureaucratic red tape, irrationality in decision-making and a general tendency towards the status quo… How can structural and legislative changes be catalysed at the national and international levels, so that the recognition of the right of every sentient individual not to suffer becomes a foundation of society?

That’s really the big question we’re all grappling with, isn’t it? In principle, a large majority of people would agree with the right of sentient beings not to suffer. Even those who eat animals don’t actually wish them to suffer. The problem is turning general principles into specific laws that shift society’s resources to the most urgent problems, and place constraints on how people are actually allowed to treat other sentient beings. That’s when self-interest causes resistance.

Shifting attitudes takes time, but I think it’s essential that we sensitise people to the reality of suffering in all its forms through various kinds of campaigns. If we can show people how they can relieve others’ suffering with no loss to themselves, and ideally how they themselves can benefit, then we reduce resistance to change. Moralising isn’t enough and can even be counter-productive. We need to work with human nature and make ethical behaviour attractive and fulfilling rather than tedious. When changes are no longer widely perceived as demanding self-sacrifice, it becomes much easier to pass the legislation needed.

I would like to see new political decision-making systems implemented that explicitly anchor the prevention of suffering of all sentient beings as a core principle. But it’s not enough to just aim to change constitutions. The way decision-making is carried out will have to change fundamentally to become cooperative, based not on the imposition of the will of a simple majority, but on the search for solutions that meet the needs of all — including, of course, the voiceless. When people trust the system to listen to their own needs, they will become more open to those of others. My hope is that one day, we will have a truly cooperative form of global governance, radically different from today’s UN and its deal-making between corrupt regimes, where ways of relieving suffering are discussed openly and respectfully, and real solutions implemented.

OPIS advocates a decision-making process based on reason and evidence. You state: “We identify with the effective altruism (EA) movement and the importance of quantifying and optimising impact, while also experimenting with new, creative approaches that we estimate can make an effective contribution.” What, in your opinion, is the role of rationality in ethical reasoning and action?

Rationality can help compare causes and interventions in terms of suffering averted per amount of resources expended. It thus provides useful guidance. But it also has its limits. There are theoretical limits: when it comes to comparing different situations with different intensities of suffering, we are dependent on our intuitions to set our priorities, because there is no unambiguous way of interconverting intensity and number of individuals. As I mentioned, suffering is not a quantity that lends itself to clear operations of that nature. There are also epistemic limits: in an extremely complex world with countless random interactions and unknowns, even our best guesses about the most effective actions may be way off the mark. So there is a risk in doing very precise calculations with variables of very high uncertainty.

I would say that OPIS gives itself a little more flexibility in how we prioritise our actions. We are focusing on some of the worst forms of suffering, which automatically gives greater weight to any impact we have. But we are also seeking ways to incorporate this priority into broader decision-making structures, using creative means to make the case. The potential of a creative campaign — I’m thinking, for example, of a powerful documentary combined with an original, carefully designed PR strategy — isn’t easily calculable, but if you limit yourself to actions with precedents whose impact can be more precisely calculated, you may be limiting your scope of action. I think it’s good to have some diversity in the kinds of organisations working in this area of activity. A diversity of approaches is itself a rational strategy.

The OPIS website states that “animal suffering is the area with by far the greatest potential for harm reduction, and it is also the area where the most impact can be achieved for a given amount of resources.” Do you have any campaign projects specifically addressing the suffering of non-human animals?

Other than social media posts and promoting veganism, we haven’t yet carried out an actual campaign focused specifically on non-human suffering. But we intend to collaborate on educational projects to sensitise children to animal suffering. This kind of project, if scaled up, has the potential to increase the overall level of compassion in society. OPIS is not specifically focused on humans or non-humans, and every campaign we run is an opportunity to remind people that all suffering is important.

Being aware of the existence of intense suffering and feeling concern for the individuals who experience it means developing a sense of urgency and obligation to do everything in our power to reduce it. How do you avoid burn-out, discouragement, guilt or even despair?

It’s one thing to take responsibility, but there’s no guilt to be felt — we didn’t choose the world as it is. Some of us have, through whichever circumstances, become deeply aware and sensitised to the reality of suffering and the need to act. I still have moments of lucidity and horror at the degree and scale of extreme suffering on our planet, a truth that’s too terrible to carry around in my mind all the time. I think it’s all a question of balance. Too much obsession and you can burn out, too little and you can lose that sense of urgency. We still need to give ourselves permission to thrive, to live intuitively, to connect with others, to dance, to love. It gives us more energy, and I think it also makes us more compelling advocates when we communicate with other people.

To conclude, can you share with us the names of a few individuals or organisations whose work particularly inspires you in your struggle to reduce intense suffering?

The first person who comes to mind is philosopher David Pearce. I was working on my first book 10 years ago and discovered that negative utilitarianism was the ethical philosophy that captured the need to reduce suffering. As I read more, I came across David Pearce’s writings, and in particular one quote of his: “No amount of happiness or fun enjoyed by some organisms can notionally justify the indescribable horrors of Auschwitz.” David remains an inspiration to me and countless others for his intellect, compassion and humble personality.

There are many other people I admire, too many to name. I am touched by anyone who is touched by suffering and who devotes their life to trying to relieve it, whether directly or through writing, street activism, political advocacy, undercover investigations, civil disobedience or any other form of campaigning.

I would also like to thank you, Axelle, for this opportunity to share some of my ideas. Good luck to all of us!

Thank you too!

L’Amorce does not necessarily share the views of its collaborators.

More information about OPIS can be found at www.preventsuffering.org. If you wish to support OPIS you can make a donation here. You can also help support my work for a more compassionate world by becoming a patron.

Author, speaker, ethics strategist, Executive Director of OPIS www.preventsuffering.org, www.jonathanleighton.org