Measuring suffering

One of the things my friend Andy wanted me to do was figure out a mathematical model for measuring the impact of gratitude.

I haven’t done that yet – I’ve put in some time on it, but it’s resisting a easy solution. I have, however, as a side corollary been thinking about measuring suffering, which is not exactly the inverse of gratitude but is tangentially related to the inverse.

Measuring suffering mathematically is a important thing to be able to do in order to do triage to figure out which issues facing the human race should be solved first. I grant you that we don’t currently do this kind of triage in any meaningful or useful way – somehow the herd picks a flavor of the week to solve, but it doesn’t appear to be that connected to what’s hurting the most people.

Anyway, let me talk about my thoughts on the matter, and then we can come back to that if I still have the energy. If not, I’ll probably talk about it in a future article.

For measuring suffering, the first and most obvious thing to measure is direct impact. You measure the suffering intensity (we could arbitrarily scale this as between 0 and 1), the suffering duration, and the number of people impacted. Multiply these three numbers together and you have the suffering quotient. It doesn’t really matter what scaling you use on the three numbers, as long as you use the same scaling for all problems, since all we’re really trying to get at here is some meaningful way to measure that can be used to compare sources of suffering and figure out which ones to fix first.

Beyond the direct impact, there’s the indirect impact – the “If mama aint happy nobody aint happy” impact. For example, the police shooting innocent people has a large indirect impact – it makes everyone sad and angry – while kidney stones would have almost no indirect impact. Deaths tend to have indirect impact. This can be measured in the same terms, but is a lot more complicated to figure out what the appropriate values are and likely involves a statistical distribution of values depending on the number of people indirectly affected and how strongly the issue affects them.

The direct and indirect impacts just sum together, nothing complicated there.

There’s also the potential impact of not resolving the suffering. For the cops shooting civilians, you have a potential civil war on your hands, which has a enormous suffering quotient. For cancer and AIDS you have people dying, which is not as bad as people dying in a war zone but still bad. For some things, this third effect doesn’t apply.

Because it’s a conditional, it should really be in a separate column rather than summed with the other two.

Another question is where to get the suffering quotient from. You can get people to self-report, but outside the land of physical pain a lot of suffering quotients (fear of being homeless, fear of getting shot by the cops, etc) are really hard to quantify. It’s possible that some of this could be determined by looking at the fatigue poisons in people’s blood, and possibly neurotransmitters behind the blood-brain barrier. I don’t know to what state our science is when it comes to measuring misery, so I don’t know if this is something we already know how to measure or not.

Anyway, I do think figuring out a mathematical model for measuring suffering and using it to measure the current large problems facing us would be a smart thing to do.

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