About me

I’d like to give you a more personal sense of who I am, rather than simply list facts and dates. I grew up mainly in Montreal, Canada, curious about the world around me and constantly asking “Why?” My first grade teacher predicted that I would be a philosopher, but my affinity for science and the strong scientific presence in my family initially led me towards a career in biology. My hope was to make a contribution to human wellbeing through medical research.

Jonathan LeightonAt Harvard, where I did my undergraduate degree in biochemistry, I explored other fields like philosophy and psychology, but I stuck to my original career plan, despite a persistent doubt whether my true passion was to work in a lab. By the time I’d finished my PhD in Basel, Switzerland, in a field removed from human wellbeing, I knew that a classical academic career was not what I wanted. After several years in the Swiss fragrance industry, working with perfumers and trying to better understand the molecular basis of the sense of smell, I found myself in a highly unsatisfying corporate job, and snowboarding in the Alps on the weekends was insufficient compensation. A two-year stint at a Geneva-based communications agency that had just received the European mandate for the Gates Foundation allowed me to reconnect with issues I cared about. And then, with a renewed sense of purpose and the confidence to embark on a new path, I left.

My story since then is a deep exploration of big questions such as “What matters?”, and an increasingly focused effort to both increase and share my understanding and to put it to practical effect in having impact on the world. I spent several years writing a book, starting from a collection of notes and essays I had accumulated, in which I aimed to take a brutally honest and unbiased approach to answering the above question. The result was The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe, published in 2011. It has been highly rewarding and inspiring to discover how closely some of my ideas converge with those of a growing community of thinkers and activists committed to reducing human and animal suffering in the world.

Jonathan Leighton hosting TEDxLausanne

Hosting TEDxLausanne

In 2015 I produced a 20-minute film with the same title as the book to communicate some of the key messages in a readily accessible form. I have been giving talks on the topic to various audiences, from MBA students to aspiring vegans,  environmentalists and other activists, and have been developing my ideas further.

In 2016 I founded the think-and-do tank Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS) to help embed compassionate values into an inclusive global system and prioritise the prevention of intense suffering of all sentient beings. Some of the projects being worked on include a visualisation of world suffering, a toolkit for educators to promote compassion, and new film projects to promote the ethical priority of preventing suffering.


Compassion workshop

I also carry out workshops on compassion, while continuing to write and give public talks about the ethics of preventing suffering. I am currently working on a new book on ethics that aims to reconcile the conflict that can arise between intuition and rationality, and to explore both the necessity and limitations of determining numerical impact.

When I am not writing and working on activist-related activities, I enjoy hiking and free dancing.





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