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Pete Lawrence - 13 Sep 2017


I see compassion as being the one most important core value – caring about other’s suffering and wanting to act to relieve it. It’s really about putting the Golden Rule into action, with our circle of compassion extended to include all sentient beings...

The second forum sofa session featured a Q&A with  Jonathan Leighton, writer and public speaker on ethics, dedicated to developing strategies for a gentler world with less suffering.

Since June 2016 he has been the Executive Director of Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS), a Swiss-based think-and-do tank he founded to spread compassion and promote the prevention of human and non-human suffering as our overriding global ethical priority. He believes that transparent ethical values and principles are an essential basis for designing new systems that we can all largely agree on. He describes his approach to ethics and its relation to human nature in his book “The Battle for Compassion”. Some of the key ideas are communicated in a 20-minute film that he produced with the same name.


  • What led you to focus on suffering and to setting up OPIS?
    • I was made aware as early as elementary school of the horrors committed by some human beings against others during the Nazi Holocaust, along with the exhortation that we should never allow such things to happen again. But of course, atrocities continue to abound in our world. By taking the time to write a book about ethics and the human condition, I gave myself the space to reflect on the big picture and on what matters. I became convinced that nothing else matters as much as preventing intense suffering from happening, and that only by acknowledging this explicitly can we be as effective as possible in using our resources effectively.
  • Why the emphasis on suffering? Isn’t suffering part of life?
    • Suffering matters because it is intrinsically something that needs addressing, and it occurs whenever basic needs are not being met. When people are already happy, there is no urgent need to be attended to. 
    • Arguably, much of what we are already trying to improve in society is implicitly about reducing suffering. But we don’t spell this out clearly enough, and much of how our resources are spent is focused on the wrong priorities.
  • Why do you focus on suffering in general rather than one specific cause?
    • The specific causes do matter. The point is to show that they matter precisely because of the degree of suffering they cause and the number of individuals affected.
    • By focusing on the core issue of suffering, we can ensure that our policies are aligned with what matters, and also encourage different organisations working on different causes of suffering to support each other.
    • I believe that politics and decision-making should be more rational, more grounded in ethics and more explicitly focused on addressing suffering – both the actual phenomenon and the systemic causes of it.
  • Isn’t focusing on “intense suffering” too narrow a basis for running a society ethically? Doesn’t all suffering matter?
    • Intense suffering – and I mean, suffering that is beyond bearable – belongs in almost a different category than most other kinds of suffering. It screams out for attention. The thing is, we are mostly unaware of much of it, because it happens to others, or is hidden from our view or is only on seen on the Internet, and also, of course, because it is requires active empathy – a willingness to try to understand what others are experiencing. So even if a form of suffering is potentially preventable, we don’t treat it with the urgency it deserves.
  • Having said that, clearly we need to address all significant suffering and address all unmet needs. By remembering the intense suffering, we ensure that we don’t lose sight of our most urgent priorities.
  • What would more compassionate structures look like?
    • The exact nature of the best structure for society is a complex question with no single answer! However, decision-making should be aimed at being as effective as possible at preventing suffering, with particular priority placed on the worst kinds of suffering. Decision-making should be based on science and evidence. And the economy should be harnessed to meet everyone’s needs rather than concentrate wealth. I would like to see decision-making structures that are attentive to and responsive to people’s needs, without being easily manipulated by uncompassionate populism.
  • How does OPIS plan to exert influence and have impact? What strategies do you think will be effective?
    • There are different levers for change.
      • Once is to promote compassion in educational curricula around the world, so that children grow up with self-compassion as well as an increased sensitivity to the suffering of others, both humans and animals. OPIS is planning to develop a guidebook for teaching compassion in schools.
      • Another is to design and promote new, detailed blueprints for society that reflect compassionate values and that could be practically implemented without causing too much chaos.
      • There are also specific policy proposals that can be promoted within our current system, such as ensuring medical access to effective pain relief for patients in need.
  • Is it necessary to become vegan to live compassionately?
    • Compassion involves not causing unnecessary suffering to others, and a simple logical conclusion is that we should ensure our food does not come from tortured animals. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. But it’s also a somewhat overlooked fact that the large majority of animals raised for human consumption are tortured, in that they are treated cruelly, often kept in small cages, deprived of stimulation and pleasure, and killed in an atmosphere of fear and often painfully. The concept of “happy meat” is questionable – even in the best cases, the animals usually end up at the same slaughterhouses – and in any case, only a small fraction of the population could afford to eat food from animals treated reasonably well most of their lives. So, plant-based eating is unquestionably the most compassionate, and also the healthiest and most environmentally friendly option. It’s not about winning a prize for purity, but putting our actions in line with our values.
  • Do you think we can work within the current system or do we need to design brand new systems?
    • Both. We need to design new systems rather than just tinker with old ones that are based on faulty premises. But I believe we need to implement them through the existing political system to ensure large-scale acceptance by the population as well as a smooth transition. Huge crises might be opportunities for new systems to emerge, but crises themselves cause a lot of suffering and, I believe, should be avoided if possible.
  • How do OPIS’s values overlap with the values of other socially progressive organisations or movements, such as Alternative UK?
    • I noticed that one of Alternative UK’s six values is empathy, which is of course closely related to compassion. I see compassion as being the one most important core value – caring about other’s suffering and wanting to act to relieve it. It’s really about putting the Golden Rule into action, with our circle of compassion extended to include all sentient beings with the capacity to suffer.
  • How do you see the potential for Campfire alongside what you are doing? How was the Chesham Campfire Conversation for you? (I really enjoyed it)
    • I see Campfire as an opportunity to build a more inclusive, more "human" network of people with a more compassionate outlook on life. I really hope to see Campfire grow and serve as a new model for how humans can interact, online and offline, and influence how we run our society.

      The Chesham Campfire Conversation was a great experience, even though it was a relatively small group of people. The advantage of having a smaller group is of course that you get to hear more from each individual, and the experience is more intimate. Kirsty did a great job putting it all together in a relatively short period of time, without having any idea how it would turn out. I'm glad that she wielded her video skills so that the experience was recorded!

  • So what's next?
    • Probably a beer...But in the grander scheme of things... I am committed to an inclusive, compassionate vision for the world, and developing creative projects to spread the ideas widely, among both regular citizens and those with more influence in being able to change things. We need to think big and ambitiously. And as you say in your tagline, I do believe that love is the answer. If we can overcome our own reflexes and even show love and understanding to those we oppose, we will help the healing process and reverse the polarisation we are seeing in the world.


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