How bad is life at subsistence?

In my previous post, I compiled citations from historical thinkers on how awful life was back in their day. But such citations aren’t conclusive–maybe they were exaggerating for effect. Or maybe people with severe depression are grossly overrepresented in the ranks of intellectuals. Or who knows. So in this post, I want to examine the question more directly.

Specifically, I want to ask how bad life really is at subsistence. That is, how subjectively bad is it to live a life where you have just barely enough resources to survive?

I think the naive answer is “pretty bad.” In principle you could imagine a centrally planned society where there’s no extra food but people never have more children than society will be able to feed, in practice subsistence means population is kept in check by early death. “Misery” in Malthus’ words, though that begs the question, as you could imagine a society where most people die young but are happy until their death.

Beyond that observation, I think the question is very hard to think about for people living in 21st century America. It’s too far removed from our experience. That was part of my motivation for my previous post–just to convey a sense of how alien reading about the past can be at times.

I have another reason, though, for suspecting that life at subsistence is mostly pretty miserable. Evolution has designed animals to be motivated to survive and reproduce by a combination of pain and pleasure, but it seems to have gone heavy on the pain. Any time an animal faces a serious threat to its continued existence, the main things moving it to act will be pain and fear, not the pleasantness of the actions that bring survival nor hope of future pleasure. Eating is pleasant, but hunger is what keeps us from starving.

And life at subsistence means facing continual threats to your existence. The possibility that you could go from having barely enough food to not enough at any time. Indeed, it likely means never having quite enough food–it used to be almost everyone grew up with their growth stunted by malnutrition, and that chronic low-level malnutrition meant they were more likely to get sick, and more likely to die if they did.

This is not a very conclusive argument. I have no first-hand experience with chronic malnutrition, and don’t know anybody who has. Maybe people just get used to it? And others I respect have thought about this issue and come to different conclusions. Brian Tomasik, for example, is known for arguing that wild animals mostly don’t have lives worth living, but focuses on pain of death:

I personally believe that most animals (except maybe those that live a long time, like >3 years) probably have lives not worth living, because I would trade away several years of life to avoid the pain of the average death, and this is assuming that even their lives are net positive (which is dubious in view of cold, hunger, disease, fear of predators, and all the rest).

However, this belief of mine is somewhat controversial. I think the claim of net expected suffering in nature needs only a weaker assertion: namely, that almost all of the expected happiness and suffering in nature come from small animals (e.g., minnows and insects). The adults of these species live at most a few years, often just a few months or weeks, so it’s even harder in these cases for the happiness of life to outweigh the pain of death. Moreover, almost all the babies of these species die (possibly painfully) after just a few days or weeks of being born, because most of these species are “r-selected” — see Type III in this chart.

He seems to think there are evolutionary reasons why the pain of death is likely to be especially bad:

One can advance some argument that evolution should avoid making animal lives excessively horrifying for extended periods prior to death because doing so might, at least in more complex species, induce PTSD, depression, or other debilitating side-effects. Of course, we see empirically that evolution does induce such disorders when traumatic incidents happen, like exposure to a predator. But there’s probably some kind of reasonable bound on how bad these can be most of the time if animals are to remain functional. Death itself is a different matter because, once it reaches the point of inevitability, evolutionary pressures don’t constrain the emotional experience. Death can be as good as painless (for a few lucky animals) or as bad as torture (for many others). Evolution has no reason to prevent death from feeling unbearably awful.

In short, “it seems unlikely that species would gain an adaptive advantage by feeling constant hardship, since stress does entail a metabolic cost.”

This seems backwards to me. I suspect the negative side-effects of pain and stress are actually adaptive in the contexts they evolved to handle. For example, I’ve heard speculation that what we call PTSD may actually be adaptive in situations with a constant risk of repeated trauma. The metabolic costs of stress likely come from redirecting resources away from other metabolic functions towards avoiding danger, which may be adaptive if an animal faces constant risk of predation.

While Brian makes a good point that some forms of death, like being burned alive, may be more painful than anything an animal is likely to experience during its life, I expect death is on average not any more painful than many other traumatic life events. Specifically, for evolutionary reasons I expect a typical death is about as painful as a typical life-threatening event that ultimately ends up being non-fatal.

Experience seems to back this up, for example, childbirth used to be a major killer of women, and its often reckoned to be one of the most painful things a human can possibly experience. On the other hand, humans may be unusual in this regard. For heavily “r-selected” species, it may be that they rarely almost die, and that instead, life-threatening problems are almost always actually fatal. I’m not quite sure what to think here, and the fact that Brian’s reasoning is so different than mine gives me pause.

Robin Hanson has argued for a much more optimistic view, mainly in the context of his forecast of a future world of trillions of sentient digital mind emulations, most of which will just barely be able to pay to rent and power their bodies. With cheap virtual entertainment and the ability to engineer-out pain, perhaps the emulations will be happy. Robin is less convincing, though, on actual people who’ve lived a subsistence existence.

In fact, as far as I can tell he just assumes they experience far more pleasure than pain, and then goes on to psychologize rich people who would doubt this. And those psychologizing explanations aren’t terribly convincing either, for example, he says, “Rich folks would personal be horrified to have to live so poor. They are very used to their wealth, and for them poverty would be a huge horrifying shameful fall in social status.”

This seems to miss what we are actually talking about here–not poverty as it exists in 21st century America, but what we 21st century Americans call “extreme poverty” or “absolute poverty” (really just the state of almost everyone for most of human history). If Robin lost his job, couldn’t get another one, and his family had to go on food stamps, no doubt he’d find that humiliating, but his family wouldn’t starve. By contrast, the problem with living at subsistence isn’t the loss of status; it’s being hungry all the time because you don’t have enough food.

As I’ve previously discussed, Robin defends raising animals for food, and one of his arguments is that farm animals don’t typically commit suicide. Some people, like Brian, may respond that modern factory farming is so awful that this just proves failure to commit suicide is a bad indicator of whether an animal’s life is worth living.

But set that aside. The argument seems hard to swallow in any case, unless you’re a pure preference utilitarian and very committed to the idea of revealed preferences. There seems to be no contradiction in imagining a mad scientist engineering a species to feel constant pain but never attempt suicide. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine evolution doing a lesser form of this, given that evolution should select strongly against suicide yet most animals’ experiences seem heavily biased towards pain over pleasure.

But I’m not very confident about any of this. I repeat how alien subsistence existence is to modern experience. The kind of poverty that was the norm through most of human history is declining rapidly even in sub-saharan Africa. So I’m not even sure how you would answer this question definitively. But I wish it were discussed more.