Historical thinkers on human misery

The possibility that some–perhaps many–lives may not be worth living is depressing to think about. But it’s one that should worry effective altruists and people interested in utilitarian ethics. Among EAs interested in animal welfare, it’s widely thought that the lives of animals in factory farms are so bad as to not be worth living. Some have expressed similar thoughts about wild animal suffering.

Similar concerns apply when we look ahead to the far future: Robin Hanson predicts a future of trillions of digital minds eking out a subsistence existence, earning just enough money to pay for rent and electricity for their bodies. He says they’ll be happy anyway, but many of his readers are skeptical. Even ignoring such an artificial population explosion, there’s a question of how many flesh-and-blood humans you could have before additional ones would be a net negative on the world.

21st-century humans live in an age of unprecedented material prosperity, so when I think about this question the first place I’m inclined to go is to historical sources on living conditions in eras past. I’ve stumbled across a lot of striking material in my readings of philosophy. Basically, go back more than a mere hundred years (or even slightly less), and the world you’re looking at is deeply alien.

Right now, I’m reading Montaigne’s essays, and I’m in the middle of a section on how ineffective the medicine of his day was (of course, for Montaigne, the topic is just “medicine”). As a consequence, it was normal for people to suffer for a long time with extremely painful diseases and no effective treatments.

Montaigne himself suffered for years with kidney stones, and writes vividly about how excruciating the experience was, and his futile search for any kind of effective treatment. (The main treatment he tries is taking in the waters of a hot spring. He’s not confident it helps, but recommends it because he’s sure it won’t hurt, unlike many of the other things doctors of his day did to their patients.)

Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion contain an especially vivid description of human suffering. After the arguments for the existence of God have been dispensed with, two of the participants (Demea and Philo) begin talking about how (in Philo’s words) “the only method of bringing every one to a due sense of religion, is by just representations of the misery and wickedness of men.” What’s even more striking is that the universal misery of man is treated as universally accepted:

The people, indeed, replied Demea, are sufficiently convinced of this great and melancholy truth. The miseries of life; the unhappiness of man; the general corruptions of our nature; the unsatisfactory enjoyment of pleasures, riches, honours; these phrases have become almost proverbial in all languages. And who can doubt of what all men declare from their own immediate feeling and experience?

In this point, said Philo, the learned are perfectly agreed with the vulgar; and in all letters, sacred and profane, the topic of human misery has been insisted on with the most pathetic eloquence that sorrow and melancholy could inspire. The poets, who speak from sentiment, without a system, and whose testimony has therefore the more authority, abound in images of this nature. From Homer down to Dr. Young, the whole inspired tribe have ever been sensible, that no other representation of things would suit the feeling and observation of each individual.

As to authorities, replied Demea, you need not seek them. Look round this library of Cleanthes. I shall venture to affirm, that, except authors of particular sciences, such as chemistry or botany, who have no occasion to treat of human life, there is scarce one of those innumerable writers, from whom the sense of human misery has not, in some passage or other, extorted a complaint and confession of it. At least, the chance is entirely on that side; and no one author has ever, so far as I can recollect, been so extravagant as to deny it.

There you must excuse me, said Philo: Leibnitz has denied it; and is perhaps the first who ventured upon so bold and paradoxical an opinion; at least, the first who made it essential to his philosophical system.

Cleanthes, the third participant in the dialog, briefly pipes up against the claim of universal human misery, but this is dismissed as denying what is obvious to everyone And this being Hume, this is all a setup to launch into the problem of evil. This leads to an observation I want to highlight:

Formerly it was a most popular theological topic to maintain, that human life was vanity and misery, and to exaggerate all the ills and pains which are incident to men. But of late years, divines, we find, begin to retract this position; and maintain, though still with some hesitation, that there are more goods than evils, more pleasures than pains, even in this life. When religion stood entirely upon temper and education, it was thought proper to encourage melancholy; as indeed mankind never have recourse to superior powers so readily as in that disposition. But as men have now learned to form principles, and to draw consequences, it is necessary to change the batteries, and to make use of such arguments as will endure at least some scrutiny and examination.

I have a theory about this change that Hume observers, an alternative to his theory that the shift in theological style was not simply about people becoming more logical. Rather, in previous times, human misery was truly nigh-universal, so it was easy for people to convince themselves that things really did have to be that way.

But in Hume’s day, the mid-18th century, the world was starting to see the first glimmerings of true material prosperity. At that time, many people still looked back to the days ancient Rome as a golden age which would never be equaled. By Hume’s time, he was able to convincingly argue against that view, but as far as I know he was one of the first to do so.

Yet even if people didn’t consciously realize how much better things had gotten, they could still look around them and see that there was an alternative to universal misery, one that did not involve waiting for an afterlife or Christ’s Millennial Kingdom. But misery was still the norm.

One last quote from Hume, that may be relevant to future posts: “Ask yourself, ask any of your acquaintance, whether they would live over again the last ten or twenty years of their lives. No! but the next twenty, they say, will be better.”

No discussion of this sort would be complete without mentioning Malthus. Like Hume, Malthus takes it as universally accepted that misery was universal, at least among the poor, and seeks to explain this fact. There are also some good descriptions of what this meant in practice, for example, the fact that it was the norm for poor children in the country side to grow up stunted due to malnutrition.

As an aside, another point about Malthus that often goes overlooked is that he did not quite say that there was no hope to improve the lot of the poor. He said that the population must inevitably be kept in check by misery or vice, the latter category for Malthus including birth control. When it comes to that claim, anything you may have heard about Malthus being refuted by modern prosperity is wrong.

Malthus estimates, based on data from Britain’s North American colonies, where farmland was abundant, that unchecked the population can double every 25 years. The Earth’s population was about a billion people in Malthus’ day, if it had doubled every 25 years since then, we would have over a quarter trillion people today. The Green Revolution was never going to feed that many people.

The problem with Malthus isn’t his facts, but his ethics. He never betrays the slightest preference for birth control over population control via disease and starvation. I suppose for him the question of birth control vs. early death is a bit like the question “would you rather starve to death or die of Ebola?” Rather morbid, and beside the point: both are very bad, right? Reading Malthus is like listening to an alien dreamed up by Eliezer Yudkowsky to argue a point about metaethics.

Jumping forward over half a century, we have John Stuart Mill’s Utiltarianism. In that book, one o the criticisms of utilitarian philosophy that Mill addresses is that “happiness, in any form, cannot be the rational purpose of human life and action; because, in the first place, it is unattainable.”

In his response, Mill does not say (surprisingly, or not, if you’ve read this far) something like, “Nonsense! Plenty of people are happy!” Instead, he says, “unquestionably it is possible to do without happiness; it is done involuntarily by nineteen-twentieths of mankind.” But Mill, the social reformer, thought this could be changed: “The present wretched education, and wretched social arrangements, are the only real hindrance to its being attainable by almost all.”

Things seem to have definitely turned the corner by the early 20th century. In 1930, Bertrand Russell wrote:

The injustice, the cruelty, and the misery that exist in the modern world are an inheritance from the past, and their ultimate source is economic, since life-and-death competition for the means of subsistence was in former days inevitable. It is not inevitable in our age. With our present industrial technique we can, if we choose, provide a tolerable subsistence for everybody. We could also secure that the world’s population should be stationary if we were not prevented by the political influence of churches which prefer war, pestilence, and famine to contraception. The knowledge exists by which universal happiness can be secured.

Yet to say it was possible then to provide a “tolerable subsistence” for everyone was to say a great many people didn’t have it. As I’ve previously noted, Russell took for granted that in his day, losing one’s job meant starving for most people.

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