Ouch: a system of environmental justice

Maximising happiness does not work. I wonder if minimising pain can work a bit better.

Let’s say we create a measure of a unit of pain e.g. a “hurt” established by experiment as the pain experienced by putting your index finger in x˚C water for x seconds.

You can then list all pain and anguish and suffering (physical and mental) along a scale of hurts.*  As we are talking about pain, and we know that other species also suffer pain, we would also include in the analysis, using the same measure, the pain and suffering of all other sentient species.**

Then you can say that one goal of a good, sane and independent person should or could be to minimise the total sum of all pain.  This implies considering across all species across all time.

So whenever there is a decision to be made (e.g. “Shall I eat this sausage?”) you just get a big computer and tot up the total aggregate of pain in all the infinite universe of possible future worlds.  If the average of the aggregates of pain in all the worlds where you don’t eat the sausage is less than in all the ones where you do eat the sausage, then obviously you shouldn’t eat the sausage.

Even though people erroneously use economic measures to evaluate decisions on policy, almost all policy is ultimately aimed at reducing suffering so really policies and policy proposals should be evaluated by measuring hurts and seeing which cause the fewest.  Or, where capital is constrained, hurts per pound.  So at a country level you might talk of one policy causing 3.2 megahurts (ouch!) compared to another which just causes 2.8 megahurts.

We will need a measure of distribution – if a pain can be distributed to lots of people sharing the burden it’s perhaps more tolerable than if a small group gets it in the neck. 2.8 megahurts could be fatal if applied to a crowd, but would go unnoticed when borne by the population as a whole.

We might also ignore the effect of discounting which complicates financial decision-making.  The time value of pain is not so obvious: compare breaking a leg today with breaking a leg in a year’s time … they are both pretty bad and you might actually want to do it today to get it over with.***

Notwithstanding the complexities, scientifically grounded pain-quantification as a foundation for a moral framework and a basis for decision-making is a useful thought exercise.  Although it does not embrace all the richness of a well-lived life (it ignores positive things like joy and love, which actually might need some pain to have full value) I think it is more likely to lead to a just world than our current model of utility optimisation.


1. The system might throw up some anomalies.  For example nuking the whole planet might prevent an enormous amount of future, net pain.  This wouldn’t do.

* If physicists complain that this sounds too much like their measure of frequency, we could kindly ask them to find another car rental company.

** Practically this might need some experimentation. Note problem.

*** On this point I am trying to unravel what we learn from people’s tendency to postpone going to the doctor or dentist.  We often regret that delaying of the truth.  This might imply that pain now is better than pain later.

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