There is no meaningful ethics without compassion. Compassion means caring about others’ suffering and taking concrete actions to relieve it. The focus on “others” is central to ethics, encapsulated in the Golden Rule in all its variations over the millennia: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” Compassion is the starting point for any ethical framework and activism that stems from it, with the circle of compassion extending to all sentient beings with the capacity to suffer.

In principle, rationality alone can provide a sufficient argument for being compassionate, because the distinctness of our individual identities is actually an illusion and we are all, in a sense, variations of one other. So from a detached perspective, another one’s suffering is equally important to one’s own. But in practice, rational argumentation is usually insufficient, and spreading compassion requires that we tap into people’s capacity for empathy and raise their awareness of the reality of intense suffering.

Ethical philosophy

Ethics is essential for deciding on the principles by which we run our lives and organise ourselves as a society. By combining compassion with rational thinking, we logically arrive at an ethical framework that gives highest priority to the prevention of the worst forms of suffering.

It is often unclear what our optimal courses of action should be when so many options exist. Even in theory, it is often impossible to arrive at a definitive conclusion that does not depend on our intuitions or on arbitrary decisions. But what is clear is the inherent need to eliminate as much intense suffering in the future as possible.

There are many ethical theories in existence. Most of them are arguably flawed by inconsistencies and imprecisions, including the use of numbers in ways that are not rationally justified, or that are disconnected from what we actually care about. Nonetheless, ethics must ultimately be about influencing outcomes: about choosing courses of action that have positive impact on the subjective experience of sentient beings.

Ethical theories such as “negative utilitarianism” (NU) that focus on suffering rather than happiness have in the past been overlooked because they seemed to conflict with our intuitions, such as that minor suffering is trivial, or that bringing more happiness into the world is also a good thing. But as individuals, we can personally value the creation of happiness, while still recognising that preventing or alleviating intense suffering always has an inherent call to action. It cannot be formally “cancelled out” simply by adding more happiness elsewhere.

A shorthand way of formulating this pragmatic ethical philosophy is with the term “xNU+”: “U” stands for utilitarianism – but only in the narrow sense of optimising impact, without aggregating suffering and happiness; “N” stands for negative – a terminology proposed in the past for a focus on suffering; “x” refers to extreme or intense suffering as our ethical priority, and not minor pains such as pinpricks or the occasional headache; and very importantly, the “+” explicitly acknowledges that human beings 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.

Our approach to ethics shifts the emphasis away from judging individual people as more or less “virtuous”, and also from the distraction of applying binary labels of “ethical” or “unethical”, “right” or “wrong”. Ethics is better seen as a continuous process of promoting compassion and rationality, and taking effective steps to prevent as much future suffering as possible. However, all things being equal, the rational and compassionate choice is to focus on the most intense suffering and on situations where the greatest number of individuals are affected.

This approach to thinking about ethics has been developed in detail in The Tango of Ethics: Intuition, Rationality and the Prevention of Suffering (Imprint Academic, 2023) by Jonathan Leighton from OPIS.