"The other opioid crisis" by Niki Seth-Smith, New Humanist, 10 December 2018
The danger is that the American tragedy will further dampen political will. The dying and seriously ill are not a vocal demographic. They are often tucked away out of sight, and practitioners in the medical field are not always the best people to tell a story. However, a new “think-and-do-tank” is determined to give voice to those around the world experiencing severe pain. The Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS) was set up in 2016 by Jonathan Leighton, a former research scientist turned writer and author of The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe. Access to morphine as a human right is a top campaign for OPIS. “Many who need morphine are terminally ill, they may have only weeks or months to live, and it’s essential that they can live as comfortably as possible,” Leighton says. “The concerns are completely disproportionate compared to the actual primary issue at hand.”
The primary issue for OPIS is the ethical imperative to reduce suffering. Linked to the effective altruism movement, they choose causes that are most likely to produce the largest impact, determined by what Leighton calls “a clear underlying philosophy which is suffering-focused”. It’s challenging to fully empathise with others in extreme pain, especially when so many causes constantly demand our attention. According to OPIS, a morally rational approach to policy would attempt to weigh each subjective experience. “I’d like to translate that understanding into social change,” Leighton says. “Ideally systemic social change.”
OPIS and Hospice Burkina collaborating to promote access to morphine and palliative care in Burkina Faso
Jonathan Leighton, Executive Director of OPIS, met at the end of September 2018 in Belgium with Dr. Martin Lankoande, an anaesthesiologist who recently established Hospice Burkina, the palliative care association of Burkina Faso. Dr. Lankoande has taken the initiative to ensure the incorporation of palliative care into the basic health plan and the availability of oral morphine to all those in need. Currently, very few of the many thousands of patients in severe pain every year in Burkina are able to obtain morphine to alleviate their pain. OPIS has been collaborating closely with Hospice Burkina since a few months ago. The next step is a national conference on the subject early next year that will promote concrete solutions to all the existing obstacles that have been identified. Within a few years, we hope that Burkina Faso will become a new west African success story in addressing one of the major sources of intense human suffering. More info here.
This document offers an analysis of how donations to support these activities might compare in effectiveness with other effective causes.
OPIS advocates at UN Human Rights Council for access to morphine
Millions of children and adults in low- and middle- income countries, inflicted with terminal or life-threatening illnesses and suffering from severe physical pain, are unable to access morphine, an effective treatment that is easy and inexpensive to produce. As a call to action to address this devastating but solvable situation, on 14 March 2018 OPIS and International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policies (IDHDP) held an official side event with expert panellists during the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, titled “Ending the Agony: Access to Morphine as an Ethical and Human Rights Imperative”. More info here.
On 18 May 2018, OPIS and IDHDP submitted a joint contribution to the OHCHR report on the implementation of the UNGASS joint commitment to effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem with regard to human rights.
Human and non-human animals
Does the suffering of non-human animals matter as much as human suffering, or are "some animals more equal than others”? OPIS takes the rational ethical stance that suffering matters for its own sake, regardless of who experiences it, and that equal degrees of suffering matter equally. Although we naturally have the strongest feelings for those closest to us and value their lives most, as an organisation OPIS cares as much about any sentient being, human or non-human, that is suffering intensely. The sheer number of animals suffering on this planet, including the huge numbers kept in horrific conditions on factory farms or otherwise treated with cruelty, means 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. But OPIS is not only an animal rights organisation. We think that a holistic approach to preventing suffering on our planet requires that we also aim to relieve our own suffering. We believe that this approach provides a strong basis for new frameworks for society. By drawing a parallel between human and non-human suffering without ignoring the former, we hope to build greater awareness of the latter as well.
The importance of preventing intense suffering is clear, but there is a need for a more comprehensive ethical framework that addresses apparent conflicts and shortcomings of existing ethical theories, and that can help guide decision-making. For example, how can we trade off intensity of suffering vs number of individuals? How do we value happiness compared to suffering? Are the current metrics used in health economics ethically relevant? Work is underway to develop and promote a more holistic ethical framework that addresses such questions and acknowledges the role and limits of both rationality and intuition. More information is contained in the ethics & values section.
One of the main cause areas we have been focusing on is the tragic lack of access to morphine and similar opioids for the treatment of moderate to severe pain in low- and middle-income countries. On 14 March 2018 we held an official side event at the Human Rights Council in Geneva titled "Ending the Agony: Access to Morphine as an Ethical and Human Rights Imperative", in partnership with IDHDP. We also issued a widely distributed summary guide to the issue being used as an advocacy tool. We are currently collaborating with country palliative care associations to promote access and change regulations. We will also be conducting campaigns aimed at raising awareness of human and non-human suffering and pressing for specific actions, in collaboration with other like-minded organisations.
Toolkit for teaching compassion in schools
A crucial element of reducing suffering in the future is to develop a more compassionate global culture. One of the key approaches to achieving this is to bring up a new generation of young people whose empathy for other sentient beings and capacity for perspective-taking have been nurtured, and who have learned about the importance of reducing suffering - including their own - through education in compassion and self-compassion. To this end, a toolkit for educators is being prepared that will bring together some of the most effective tools and approaches in one place, and provide guidance on how to introduce compassion training to schools. The toolkit will be translated and widely communicated. In the meantime, we have a list of existing resources for teaching compassion.
Nell is an engineer, entrepreneur and futurist thinker who grew up in Northern Ireland. Nell lectures globally on Machine Intelligence, AI philosophy, Human-Machine relations and the Future of Human Society. She is also Co-Founder of OpenEth.org, an ‘ethical explication engine’ that aims to crowdsource ethical heuristics for autonomous systems, and she serves on the Faculty of AI & Robotics at Singularity University. @NellWatson
Oscar teaches philosophy at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. He has been involved in vegan and anti-speciesist activism since the mid-1990’s and is a member of the organisation Animal Ethics. His main fields of work are speciesism and the moral consideration of animals living in the wild. He has many publications addressing these issues and has given talks about them in more than 15 countries.
Jamie is a creative catalyst – a musician, filmmaker, author and coach who also runs workshops on personal development. Jamie was a founding member of the British supergroup Faithless and one half of the film-and-music project One Giant Leap. Jamie has become a strong opponent of factory farming and the suffering it causes to animals, viewing it as one of the greatest moral issues of our time, and actively supports creative projects to help end it. @JamieCatto
Joe is a complexity researcher and a leader in the field of culture design, dedicated to helping humanity make the transition to sustainability. Much of his work has focused on values, identity and modes of thought that shape cultural understandings of political and social issues. He is co-founder and editor of Evonomics magazine, served as research director for TheRules.org, and is coordinator for the newly forming Cultural Evolution Society. @cognitivepolicy
Lucius is a co-founder and current advisor to the Effective Altruism Foundation. He studied psychology at the Universities of Basel and Oxford and is carrying out research in cognitive and moral psychology at the Department for Experimental Psychology and at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. He previously worked as an IT entrepreneur. @LuciusCaviola
Are you interested in helping to reduce suffering in the world? Although OPIS is not currently hiring staff, we are looking for enthusiastic and creative people willing to contribute some of their time and expertise to projects and campaigns. Specific expertise that would be useful:
- Teaching and education
- Graphic design
- Video, film and animation
- PR and marketing
- Advocacy and activism
Even if you do not have any of these specific skills or experience, you can collaborate, share your own expertise and help us organise events and campaigns. You can contact us here - please let us know about your background and interests. We look forward to hearing from you!
We are also looking for financial supporters and philanthropists interested in supporting creative new projects and promoting the prevention of intense suffering as our highest global priority. You can donate directly here.
We welcome donations of any size that will help support our organisation and run projects. The Donate button below allows you make a donation via your PayPal account or credit card. We are a Swiss non-profit association, although we do not yet have tax exempt status for Swiss residents. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact us.
Donations can also be made directly to:
IBAN: CH17 0900 0000 9116 4774 4
Postfinance Ltd, Mingerstrasse 20, 3030 Berne, Switzerland
If you are considering donating specifically to support our projects to promote morphine access in lower-income countries, this document provides an assessment of the potential effectiveness of donations compared to other cause areas.