Comments on Sam Harris’ interview with Future of Life Institute

I finally got around to listening to Sam Harris’ interview with Lucas Perry on the Future of Life Institute podcast. Overall I thought it was pretty good. I didn’t personally update on or learn much, but I enjoy listening to conversations about reducing suffering, the far future and existential/catastrophic risk.

Conversations they touched on include global priorities, existential risk, wild and farmed animal suffering, global poverty, artificial general intelligence risk and AI alignment and ethics/moral realism.

I agreed with most of what Sam said, so I won’t touch on that. I also felt like this particular instance of Sam explaining his version of moral realism to be the most clear explanation I’ve heard from him, so it’s worth catching the last 20 odd minutes for that. There were a few things however that I disagreed with Sam on, and want to briefly share why.

First is the intuition he has that there is an asymmetry between suffering and pleasure. He’s not talking about the asymmetry of the asymmetry argument put forth by David Benatar, but rather that the worst possible suffering that we could experience seems worse than the best possible pleasure we could experience could be good. To put it another way, Sam says that if you could choose to get an hour of the most blissful possible experience, followed by an hour of the most painful possible experience, most people, following their intuition, would say ‘no thanks’.

But this is just an intuition, and our intuitions aren’t always right, even when they are about our preferences. I might think that I would prefer some experience over another, but I could very well be wrong about which would actually bring me the most joy. I think it’s possible that the worst suffering could be more bad than the best pleasure is good, but I don’t take it for granted. It could be the opposite.

We can’t yet imagine just how good the best possible pleasure could be. We might be biased towards thinking suffering is worse because nature tends to make us more suffering focused through evolution (see the wild-animal suffering argument), but it needn’t be that way forever. We could hack our minds or biology as David Pearce suggests to experience less suffering and more pleasure.

Also, when ones’ life is pretty good, one might think that the 1 hour of pain followed by 1 hour of pleasure is not a trade off worth making, and maybe even for good reason – if your life is already net positive, this would be a net bad trade off. Someone experiencing unimaginable chronic pain through some disease might feel differently.

The second thing I disagreed with Sam on was his position on veganism. In particular, his position on children being vegan. He said that it was effectively a longitudinal experiment on their health that we don’t yet know the outcome of. To the extent that nutrition is by its nature a difficult science, and that we can never be completely sure of the effect of various changes to our diet on long term health, I agree.

However, we don’t completely understand the long term health outcomes of consuming animal products either. This has certainly been the status quo in western culture, but it’s not inherently obvious that the status quo is good. The unknown could be bad, or it could be good. You can have an unhealthy vegan diet, and you can have an unhealthy non-vegan diet. The pressures that parents have to not harm their children through nutrition remain the same. We hear about malnourished vegan children in the media more because of the sensationalist media bias and confirmation bias – we don’t pay attention to the hundreds of malnourished non-vegan kids because they’re either not reported or their ‘veganness’ doesn’t come in to the reporting.

Finally, some words to Sam himself. Sam you’re not a child, and yet you’re not vegan. You admit to all of the moral shortcomings of animal agriculture, and yet you partake in it. Surely if there is a peak in the moral landscape we are working our way towards, you eating animal products is not helping us get there, indeed it might be moving us away. You have even more of a responsibility to be vegan given your follower-base. You being vegan could encourage thousands of others to follow suit.

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