Een nieuwe ethisch theorie: het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme

Kies de optie die de hoogste som heeft van de kernwaarderingen van alle individuen. Dit is het basisprincipe van een nieuwe ethische theorie: het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme. Deze theorie is een verfijning van het klassieke utilitarisme of welzijnsmaximalisme, de theorie die zegt dat we de optie moeten kiezen die het totale welzijn maximaliseert. Dat welzijnsmaximalisme heeft enkele ernstige contra-intuïtieve implicaties in bepaalde morele dilemma’s die bekend zijn in de deontologische ethiek en de populatie-ethiek. Het welzijnsmaximalisme is soms ondraaglijk veeleisend. Die moeilijk te aanvaarden implicaties kunnen vermeden worden door te rekenen met kernwaarderingen (onafwijsbare waarderingen of geldige waarderingen) van individuen in plaats van met enkel het welzijn van die individuen.

Dit artikel beschrijft de drie belangrijkste dilemma’s uit de deontologische ethiek en de populatie-ethiek, en toont aan hoe het nieuwe ethische basisprincipe van het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme tot aanvaardbare conclusies komt in dergelijke dilemma’s. Daarmee wordt de veeleisendheid van het welzijnsmaximalisme verzacht.

Het nieuwe basisprincipe van het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme

We beginnen met een abstracte beschrijving. Het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme stelt dat we de som van de kernwaarderingen van alle individuen moeten maximaliseren. Een individu is een bewust wezen dat een mentaal vermogen heeft om opties of situaties positief of negatief te waarderen. Een positieve waardering kan bijvoorbeeld bestaan uit positieve gevoelens van geluk. Voor elke optie die je kiest, zijn er individuen die bestaan, bestaan hebben of in de toekomst zullen bestaan. Elk van die individuen heeft een individuele waardering voor de gekozen optie, die uit te drukken is in een positief of negatief getal. Die waardering is een veralgemening van het welzijn dat gebruikt wordt in het klassieke utilitarisme of welzijnsmaximalisme.[1] De waarderingen van verschillende individuen zijn bij elkaar op te tellen.

Bij het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme worden enkel de kernwaarderingen (onafwijsbare waarderingen of geldige waarderingen) in rekening gebracht. Volgens deze theorie heeft iedereen een beperkt recht om waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen (weg te cijferen, te negeren, ongeldig te verklaren, te verdisconteren), op voorwaarde dat niemand daar een geldig bezwaar tegen kan hebben. Diegenen wiens waarderingen afgewezen worden, hebben daar meestal een geldig bezwaar tegen, maar niet altijd. Ze hebben geen geldig bezwaar als ze in de uiteindelijk gekozen optie geen lagere waarderingen hebben dan in de optie die gekozen zou zijn in de hypothetische situatie waarin sommige van de betrokken individuen (ofwel de individuen die hun recht inroepen om de waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen, ofwel de anderen die bezwaar aantekenen tegen de afwijzing van hun waarderingen), niet hadden bestaan. Kernwaarderingen of geldige, onafwijsbare waarderingen zijn waarderingen waarvoor niemand op een geldige wijze het recht kan inroepen om ze af te wijzen. Dat wil zeggen dat kernwaarderingen altijd meegeteld moeten worden in de som.

Het recht om waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen, is beperkt, in de zin dat ze in extreme situaties (waarbij verschillen in waardering heel groot zijn), niet mag ingeroepen worden.

De volgende secties maken dit abstracte principe van het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme concreter.

Drie dilemma’s van de deontologische ethiek en de populatie-ethiek

Het welzijnsmaximalisme of klassieke utilitarisme is de morele theorie die zegt dat we de optie moeten kiezen die het hoogste gesommeerde welzijn heeft. Dit welzijnsmaximalisme wordt voornamelijk bekritiseerd omwille van de veeleisendheid. Deze theorie kan verstrekkende ongewenste consequenties hebben voor individuen, waardoor ze soms erg contra-intuïtief aanvoelt. Die ongewenste consequenties kunnen we beschrijven aan de hand van de drie belangrijkste dilemma’s die als argumenten tegen het welzijnsmaximalisme gebruikt worden.

  1. Het orgaantransplantatiedilemma. Stel dat vijf patiënten in het ziekenhuis een orgaanziekte hebben en enkel kunnen gered worden als ze nieuwe organen krijgen. Er zijn geen organen beschikbaar voor transplantatie, maar de chirurg kan wel een onschuldige persoon, die vijf geschikte organen heeft, doden om diens organen te gebruiken. Een persoon wordt dus opgeofferd om vijf anderen te redden.
  2. Het brandend-huis-dilemma. Stel een huis brandt af met twee kamers. In de eerste kamer zit je kind opgesloten, in een andere kamer zitten vijf onbekende kinderen opgesloten. Jij bent de enige die nog net de tijd heeft om een van de twee kamerdeuren open te breken. Je hebt dus de keuze tussen het redden van ofwel je eigen kind ofwel de vijf andere kinderen.
  3. Het voortplantingsdilemma. Stel een kind is heel gelukkig. Maar de ouders van dat kind kunnen kiezen om nog tientallen extra kinderen op de wereld te zetten. Die tientallen kinderen zullen levens hebben die het nog net waard zijn om geleefd te worden, in de zin dat ze een positief maar klein levenswelzijn zullen hebben. Door die vele extra kinderen, zal het ene, reeds geboren kind diep ongelukkig worden. Het totale positieve welzijn van de tientallen extra kinderen is wel groter dan het totale welzijnsverlies van het ene kind, waardoor het totale welzijn van alle gezinsleden samen groter is bij het sterk uitgebreide gezin.

Rechtsgeldige waarderingen

Volgens het welzijnsmaximalisme moeten in de drie voorbeelden individuen zich opofferen ten bate van het totale welzijn (de totale waardering van alle individuen). Het welzijnsmaximalisme is dus erg veeleisend. We kunnen die veeleisendheid vermijden, door ten eerste te werken met waarderingen in plaats van met welzijn, en ten tweede – en belangrijker – ieder individu (of elke groep van individuen) een fundamenteel recht te geven, namelijk het recht om bepaalde waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen, zodat die waarderingen niet moeten meegenomen worden in de som. Ieder individu heeft dus het recht om (een deel van) de waarderingen van anderen uit te sluiten in de som. Dat voorkomt dat die individuen de plicht hebben om zich op te offeren voor het totale welzijn.

Maar zomaar de waarderingen van anderen uitsluiten, zal dan weer niet geapprecieerd worden door die uitgesloten anderen. Diegenen wiens waarderingen niet meegeteld worden, kunnen daar natuurlijk bezwaar tegen hebben. We moeten een onderscheid maken tussen geldige en ongeldige bezwaren. Een individu wiens waardering wordt uitgesloten van de som, kan tegen die uitsluiting een geldig bezwaar aantekenen indien die uitsluiting leidt tot de keuze voor een optie waarin dat individu er slechter aan toe is (dat wil zeggen een lagere waardering heeft) dan in de optie die (volgens het welzijnsmaximalisme) gekozen zou zijn in de hypothetische situatie waarin een of meerdere betrokken individuen niet aanwezig waren geweest (niet hadden bestaan). Als de bezwaar aantekenende individuen er niet beter aan toe waren geweest indien betrokken individuen niet aanwezig waren geweest, dan zijn de bezwaren ongeldig. Enkel als iemands bezwaar geldig is, is het afwijzen of negeren van diens waardering ongeldig, en dan heeft dat individu een geldige, onafwijsbare waardering die moet opgenomen worden in de som.

In de ethiek zijn er altijd twee groepen: diegenen die een beslissing nemen, en diegenen die de gevolgen van die beslissing dragen. Bij rechten zijn er twee groepen: diegenen die de rechten hebben, en diegenen die de bijhorende plichten dragen. Zo ook zijn er bij het afwijzen van waarderingen altijd twee groepen van betrokken individuen: de individuen die hun recht kunnen inroepen om de waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen, en de anderen die bezwaar kunnen aantekenen tegen de afwijzing van hun waarderingen. Dat er twee groepen van betrokken individuen bestaan, heeft als gevolg dat het welzijnsmaximalisme op twee vlakken wordt aangepast tot het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme. Omwille van die twee aanpassingen, kan het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme beter overweg met twee soorten van problemen die we tegenkomen bij de deontologische ethiek en de populatie-ethiek. Het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme is dus een uitbreiding van het welzijnsmaximalisme naar twee ethische domeinen: de deontologische ethiek en de populatie-ethiek.

Deontologische ethiek

Neem het orgaantransplantatiedilemma. De onschuldige persoon die opgeofferd wordt, kan het recht inroepen om de waarderingen van de vijf patiënten ongeldig te verklaren. Volgens de vijf patiënten krijgt de situatie waarin die patiënten gered worden met een orgaantransplantatie een hogere waardering dan de situatie waarin die patiënten sterven door orgaanfalen. Stel dat de onschuldige persoon die opgeofferd dreigt te worden, dat verschil in waardering van de vijf patiënten ongeldig verklaart of afwijst. Dat wil zeggen dat we moeten doen alsof de patiënten voor beide opties (wel of niet de persoon opofferen en diens organen transplanteren) dezelfde waardering hebben. Het is alsof die patiënten in beide opties sowieso sterven door de orgaanziekte. Die waarderingsafwijzing is geldig, want de patiënten kunnen er geen geldig bezwaar tegen aantekenen. Als namelijk die onschuldige persoon niet had bestaan, dan was er niemand om opgeofferd te worden, dan waren er geen organen om te transplanteren, en dan gingen de vijf patiënten dood, net zoals in de situatie waarin de onschuldige persoon wel bestaat maar niet opgeofferd wordt. Die patiënten waren er dus niet beter aan toe geweest als de onschuldige persoon niet bestond. Die extra waardering van de vijf patiënten voor de optie met orgaantransplantatie boven de optie zonder orgaantransplantatie, is dus een ongeldige waardering of afwijsbare waardering. De enige persoon voor wie de geldige waardering in beide opties verschillend is, is de onschuldige persoon die opgeofferd dreigt te worden (stel dat de vijf patiënten diens waardering afwijzen, dan kan die persoon er geldig bezwaar tegen aantekenen, waardoor die afwijzing ongeldig is en de waardering van die persoon dus geldig is). Die persoon heeft een hogere geldige waardering voor de optie waarin hij niet opgeofferd wordt. Die optie heeft dan de hoogste som van geldige (onafwijsbare) waarderingen, en moet dus verkozen worden.

De keuze van de optie om de onschuldige persoon niet op te offeren voor een orgaantransplantatie, is de keuze volgens een deontologische ethiek waarin iedereen een recht op lichamelijke zelfbeschikking heeft. Dat recht kunnen we ook herformuleren als het recht om niet als louter middel gebruikt te worden voor de doelen van anderen. Iemand wordt als louter middel gebruikt voor de doelen van anderen, wanneer diens lichaam tegen diens wil in gebruikt wordt. De twee woorden ‘lichamelijke’ en ‘zelfbeschikking’ (evenals de twee woorden ‘middel’ en ‘louter’), komen overeen met de twee voorwaarden om te spreken van een rechtenschending: 1) iemands lichaam moet aanwezig zijn om het doel te bereiken (dus die persoon moet bestaan en diens lichaam is het middel), en 2) het gebruik van diens lichaam is ongewenst door die persoon (dus die persoon moet dingen doen of ondergaan die zij niet wil). In het geval van het orgaantransplantatiedilemma moet het lichaam van die onschuldige persoon aanwezig zijn, want zonder diens lichaam zijn er geen organen om te transplanteren. En gedood worden door de chirurg is ongewenst door die persoon. Dus het recht op lichamelijke zelfbeschikking van die persoon wordt geschonden.

Dat recht om niet als louter middel gebruikt te worden, is een rechtstreeks gevolg van het recht om waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen als er geen geldige bezwaren zijn tegen die afwijzing. Datzelfde recht speelt ook mee bij het brandend-huis-dilemma. Stel dat jij jouw kind redt, dan mag ik je daar niet voor veroordelen. Je hebt niet de plicht om de vijf kinderen te redden, want als je wel die plicht had, mocht je daartoe gedwongen worden. Jouw aanwezigheid is noodzakelijk om die vijf kinderen te redden, want als je niet bestond, dan konden die kinderen niet gered worden. Als je gedwongen wordt om die kinderen te redden, dan wordt je dus gebruikt als louter middel voor de doelen van anderen, want de aanwezigheid van je lichaam is noodzakelijk om die kinderen te redden, en je moet dan iets doen dat je niet wil (omdat je liever je eigen kind redt).

Hier zien we dat het recht om niet als louter middel gebruikt te worden een vorm van partijdigheid toelaat: bij het helpen van anderen mag je partijdig zijn en een voorkeur geven voor jouw dierbaren, maar je moet gelijkaardige niveaus van partijdigheid bij anderen tolereren. Als jij jouw kind redt in plaats van andere kinderen, dan moet je tolereren dat anderen de voorkeur geven aan het redden van hun kinderen in plaats van jouw kinderen. Die partijdigheid is enkel toegelaten bij het helpen van anderen, niet bij het schaden van anderen. Dat jij jouw kind mag bevoordelen en mag redden uit een brandend huis en daardoor een ander kind laat sterven, wil niet zeggen dat jij bijvoorbeeld een ander kind mag doden om diens organen te gebruiken als jouw kind gered kan worden met een orgaantransplantatie. Als je dat andere kind opoffert en diens lichaam gebruikt voor je eigen kind, dan schaad je dat andere kind, in de zin dat dat kind er beter aan toe was geweest als jij niet bestond. Dat andere kind kan dan diens recht inroepen om de welzijnstoename (door de levensverlenging) van jouw kind ongeldig te verklaren en af te wijzen. Jouw kind kan daar geen geldig bezwaar tegen aantekenen, want als dat andere kind niet bestond, konden diens organen niet gebruikt worden. Als jij daarentegen in het brandend huis een ander kind laat sterven, dan kun je het recht inroepen om de welzijnstoename (door de levensverlenging) van dat andere kind kind ongeldig te verklaren. Dat kind kan daar geen geldig bezwaar tegen aantekenen, want als jij niet bestond, werd dat kind ook niet gered.

Hier zien we ook de bekende asymmetrie tussen positieve en negatieve plichten in de deontologische ethiek: een negatieve plicht om anderen niet te schaden weegt zwaarder door dan de positieve plicht om anderen te helpen. Iemand doden (iemand schaden) is erger dan iemand laten sterven (iemand niet redden), want als je iemand doodt, was het slachtoffer er beter aan toe geweest wanneer jij niet bestond, en als je iemand laat sterven, was het slachtoffer er niet beter aan toe geweest als jij niet bestond. Deze asymmetrie in de deontologische ethiek is dus ook een rechtstreeks gevolg van het recht om waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen als die anderen er geen geldig bezwaar tegen kunnen hebben.

Populatie-ethiek

Bij de deontologische ethiek kunnen we ons de vraag stellen: wat als het individu die het recht inroept om de waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen, niet had bestaan? Bij de populatie-ethiek kunnen we daarentegen de vraag stellen: wat als het individu dat bezwaar aantekent tegen de afwijzing van diens waarderingen, niet had bestaan?

De populatie-ethiek onderzoekt wat de beste optie is als onze keuzes bepalen wie er in de toekomst gaat bestaan. In het derde dilemma kunnen de ouders bepalen of er nog extra kinderen in de toekomst gaan bestaan. Dat volgens het welzijnsmaximalisme het reeds geboren kind zichzelf als het ware moet opofferen, in de zin dat het een toekomst moet aanvaarden waarin het gezin uitgebreid wordt met tientallen kinderen die allen levens hebben die nauwelijks waard zijn om geleefd te worden, staat in de populatie-ethiek bekend als de ‘venijnige conclusie’.

Om die venijnige conclusie in het voortplantingsdilemma te vermijden, kan het reeds bestaande kind haar recht inroepen om de waarderingen van de extra kinderen af te wijzen. Zolang die kinderen niet bestaan, kunnen ze geen geldig bezwaar aantekenen tegen die afwijzing. En als de kinderen wel bestaan, kunnen ze ook geen bezwaar aantekenen, want ze hebben dan een positieve waardering voor hun situatie.

Stel dat de ouders een grote kinderwens hebben en er voor kiezen om kinderen op de wereld te zetten met een negatief levenswelzijn, dus levens die het niet waard zijn om geleefd te worden. Die kinderen kunnen zeggen dat ze liever niet geboren waren geweest. Als de ouders hun recht inroepen om de negatieve waarderingen van die ongelukkige kinderen af te wijzen, en als die kinderen dan bestaan, dan kunnen ze wel een geldig bezwaar aantekenen tegen die afwijzing door de ouders.

Ook hier zien we een bekende asymmetrie wat betreft de voortplanting. Het op de wereld zetten van ongelukkige kinderen is niet goed en moeten we vermijden, maar het op de wereld zetten van gelukkige kinderen is geen verplichting. We hebben een plicht om het bestaan van ongelukkige wezens te vermijden, maar geen plicht om het bestaan van gelukkige wezens te veroorzaken. De negatieve waarderingen van potentiële wezens (toekomstige generaties) moeten we altijd volledig in rekening nemen, maar de positieve waarderingen niet. Potentiële wezens zijn wezens die in de toekomst kunnen geboren worden, maar we kunnen kiezen voor een toekomst waarin ze niet bestaan. Potentiële wezens zijn dus wezens die niet in alle mogelijke (verkiesbare) toekomsten bestaan. Uit deze voortplantingsasymmetrie kunnen we het principe afleiden dat we wel wezens gelukkig moeten maken, maar niet noodzakelijk gelukkige wezens moeten maken.

Beperking op het recht om waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen

Het recht om waarderingen van anderen te negeren, is niet absoluut. Stel dat een persoon heel veel levens kan redden, en daarbij iets moet doen dat slechts een klein beetje tegen diens wil in is. Dan mag die persoon wel verplicht worden om die levens te redden. Die persoon mag dus wel gebruikt worden as louter middel, als het gebruik slechts een beetje ongewenst is en het doel heel waardevol is. Die persoon mag dan niet meer de waarderingen van de potentiële slachtoffers ongeldig verklaren of afwijzen.

Hetzelfde geldt bij de voortplanting en de keuze voor het bestaan van toekomstige generaties. Stel dat de huidige generatie volledig de positieve waarderingen van toekomstige potentiële individuen negeert. In de toekomst kunnen er dan veel individuen geboren worden, maar als die een positieve waardering hebben voor hun bestaan, dan telt die waardering niet mee in de som van  geldige, onafwijsbare waarderingen. Alle negatieve waarderingen (bijvoorbeeld levens met veel leed) moeten daarentegen wel meegeteld worden. Dat wil zeggen dat de totale geldige waardering van toekomstige generaties enkel maar negatief kan zijn. Omdat er veel en grote toekomstige generaties kunnen bestaan, kan die totale geldige waardering al snel zo negatief zijn, dat ze de totale waardering van de huidige generatie overtreft. In dat geval is het beter dat er helemaal geen toekomstige generaties geboren worden, en dat we moeten kiezen voor massale uitsterving van alle bewuste leven. Dat is ongewenst, en we kunnen deze ongewenste conclusie vermijden door het recht om positieve waarderingen van toekomstige wezens af te wijzen, te beperken. Als toekomstige wezens bijvoorbeeld een heel positieve waardering hebben voor hun bestaan, dan is die positieve waardering wel (grotendeels) geldig en moet ze (grotendeels) meegeteld worden.

Hoe sterk het recht is om waarderingen van anderen te negeren, kan afhangen van de keuzeopties die we hebben, en moeten we democratisch bepalen. Hebben we bijvoorbeeld een heel sterke voorkeur om de conclusie van massa-uitsterving te vermijden, en hebben alle keuzeopties veel toekomstige generaties die sterk negatieve waarderingen hebben voor hun bestaan, dan moeten we al snel positieve waarderingen van toekomstige wezens sterk laten meetellen, zodat de totale waardering van toekomstige generaties toch nog netto positief is.

Toepassing: de veeteelt

De veeteelt is een goed voorbeeld om het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme op toe te passen.

Bekijk het eerst vanuit een deontologisch-ethische hoek. Mensen die graag dierlijke producten eten, hebben een hogere waardering voor de situatie waarin ze dierlijke producten kunnen eten, dan voor de situatie waarin ze die niet kunnen eten. De veedieren hebben daarentegen een lagere waardering voor de situatie waarin hun lichamen gebruikt worden voor de productie van dierlijk voedsel zoals vlees, zuivel en eieren. De lichamen van veedieren worden als middel gebruikt, en de veedieren moeten daarbij dingen ondergaan die ze niet willen. Het recht op lichamelijke zelfbeschikking van de veedieren wordt dus geschonden. De veedieren (of de mensen die voor de belangen van veedieren opkomen) kunnen dan hun recht inroepen om de waarderingen van mensen die dierlijke producten eten, af te wijzen. In het bijzonder kunnen ze zeggen dat het extra genot of welzijn van het eten van dierlijke producten, niet mag meegeteld worden. De mensen kunnen daar geen geldig bezwaar tegen aantekenen, want als de veedieren niet bestonden, dan konden de mensen ook niet genieten van het eten van dierlijke producten. De waarderingen van de mensen voor het eten van dierlijke producten zijn dus ongeldig. De waarderingen van de dieren om niet tegen hun wil in gebruikt te worden als middel, zijn wel geldig. Die waarderingen van de dieren vormen kernwaarderingen of onafwijsbare waarderingen. Volgens het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme is veeteelt dus niet toegelaten.

We kunnen het ook bekijken vanuit een populatie-ethische hoek. Als veedieren een negatieve waardering hebben voor hun leven in de veeteelt, dan is het beter dat die dieren niet geboren worden, dan dat ze een bestaan leiden in de veeteelt. Die negatieve waarderingen moeten we dan meetellen. Die negatieve waarderingen kunnen al snel groter zijn dan de positieve waarderingen van mensen voor het eten van dierlijke producten. De totale waardering van mensen plus dieren gaat dan lager liggen in de situatie met veeteelt.

Maar stel dat veedieren een positieve waardering hadden voor hun leven in de veeteelt. Stel dat veedieren nog gelukkige levens hebben, dus meer positieve dan negatieve ervaringen hebben in de veeteelt. Mensen kunnen dan beslissen om die positieve waardering van de veedieren af te wijzen (niet mee te tellen in de som). Enkel hun eigen waardering voor het eten van dierlijke producten telt dan mee, en dat zou betekenen dat de veeteelt de beste optie is. Maar er is nog een derde optie mogelijk, waarin de veedieren wel bestaan, maar waarin ze niet gebruikt worden voor de productie van dierlijke voeding. In die derde optie worden de dieren goed verzorgd, hebben ze veel leefruimte, en worden ze niet geslacht. Voor die situatie hebben de dieren een nog hogere waardering dan voor de veeteeltsituatie. De mensen hebben daarentegen de laagste waardering voor die derde optie, want ze kunnen niet eens genieten van dierlijke producten, maar ze moeten wel de dieren verzorgen en hen voldoende leefruimte bieden ten koste van hun eigen leefruimte. Van zodra de mensen kiezen voor de optie van de veeteelt, gaan ze het bestaan van dieren veroorzaken. Van zodra die dieren bestaan, moeten hun waarderingen wel in rekening worden gebracht. Die dieren hebben de hoogste waardering voor de derde optie. Die derde optie kan zo de hoogste totale waardering van mensen en dieren hebben. Aangezien die derde optie de minste voorkeur (laagste waardering) heeft volgens de mensen, kunnen de mensen best op voorhand, voordat de veedieren bestaan, er toch voor kiezen om het bestaan van de veedieren te vermijden. Die onbestaande veedieren kunnen geen geldig bezwaar aantekenen tegen hun niet-bestaan. Dus uiteindelijk is de optie waarin de dieren niet bestaan, de beste volgens het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme. Conclusie: zelfs als veedieren in de veeteelt een positieve waardering zouden hebben voor hun bestaan in de veeteelt, is het beter om te kiezen voor de optie waarin die veedieren niet bestaan. Een veeteelt met gelukkige veedieren is dus ook ongewenst. Kiezen voor de optie waarin de dieren wel bestaan en een nog grotere waardering hebben dan voor hun bestaan in de veeteelt, mag ook, maar die optie is geen verplichting voor de mensen.

Conclusie

Volgens het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme moeten we de optie kiezen die de hoogste totale kernwaardering kent, waarbij dat totaal bestaat uit de som van alle kernwaarderingen van alle wezens die bestaan of ooit gaan bestaan en die bewuste waarderingen hebben voor de situaties waarin ze bestaan. Kernwaarderingen of onafwijsbare waarderingen zijn waarderingen waarvoor er geldige bezwaren zijn tegen afwijzing. Iedereen heeft een beperkt recht om waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen of ongeldig te verklaren, dus niet mee te laten tellen in het totaal, op voorwaarde dat die anderen er geen geldig bezwaar tegen kunnen hebben, dus als die anderen in de uiteindelijk gekozen optie geen lagere waardering hebben dan in de optie die gekozen zou zijn in de hypothetische situatie waarin sommige van de betrokken individuen niet hadden bestaan.

Als de individuen wiens waarderingen afgewezen worden er niet beter aan toe zouden zijn in hypothetische situaties waarin een van de betrokken partijen niet zou bestaan, dan zijn de waarderingen van die individuen niet geldig, dan mogen ze afgewezen worden en hoeven ze niet meegeteld te worden in de totale onafwijsbare waardering. Kernwaarderingen zijn geldige, onafwijsbare waarderingen waarvoor niemand op een geldige wijze het recht kan inroepen om ze te negeren. Die waarderingen moeten dus altijd meegeteld worden bij de bepaling van de beste optie.

Er zijn twee groepen van betrokken individuen: diegenen die hun recht kunnen inroepen om de waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen, en diegenen die bezwaar kunnen aantekenen tegen de afwijzing van hun waarderingen. Omdat er twee betrokken partijen zijn, kunnen we twee soorten vragen stellen. Wat als de individuen die het recht inroepen om de waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen, niet hadden bestaan? En wat als de individuen die bezwaar aantekenen tegen de afwijzing van hun waarderingen, niet hadden bestaan? Bij de eerste vraag komen we uit op de deontologische ethiek, waarbij het recht geldt om niet als louter middel gebruikt te worden. Dat recht creëert ook een asymmetrie tussen positieve en negatieve plichten, waarbij een negatieve plicht om anderen niet te schaden sterker is dan een positieve plicht om anderen te helpen. Bij de tweede vraag komen we uit op de populatie-ethiek, waarbij het recht geldt om niet het bestaan te moeten veroorzaken van toekomstige wezens met een positieve waardering voor hun bestaan. Dat recht creëert een asymmetrie met betrekking tot de voortplanting: we hebben altijd goede redenen om het bestaan te vermijden van wezens met een negatieve waardering voor hun bestaan, maar niet altijd goede redenen om het bestaan te veroorzaken van wezens met een positieve waardering voor hun bestaan.

Door het recht om de waarderingen van anderen af te wijzen, kan het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme zowat alle contra-intuïtieve implicaties van het welzijnsmaximalisme (het klassieke utilitarisme) vermijden. Dat recht is niet absoluut, maar is beperkt: als het verschil in totale waardering tussen twee opties heel groot is, mag het recht niet ingeroepen worden om de optie met de lagere totale waardering te bekomen.

Het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme komt overeen met het complaint-free discounted utilitarianism. Het populatie-ethische gedeelte van deze theorie komt overeen met het person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism. Het kernwaarderingsmaximalisme is een inhoudelijk (substantief) ethisch basisprincipe, dat zegt welke keuze we precies moeten maken. Daarnaast is er ook een procedureel ethisch basisprincipe, namelijk het antiwillekeurprincipe, dat zegt hoe we een keuze moeten maken (welke regels we moeten volgen bij het maken van een keuze).


[1] Exacter geformuleerd geeft een waardering aan hoe sterk het individu de gekozen optie waardeert of verkiest ten opzichte van een referentie-optie. In die referentie-optie hebben alle andere individuen dezelfde waardering als in de gekozen optie, maar het individu zelf heeft geen waardering (omdat het individu bijvoorbeeld niet bestaat, bewusteloos is of het vermogen ontbreekt om opties te waarderen). De waardering van een individu kan de verwachtingswaarde zijn van een gewogen functie van onder meer het levenswelzijn van het individu in de gekozen optie. Het levenswelzijn meet de hoeveelheid positieve en negatieve ervaringen van een individu over het volledige leven. Om levenswelzijn van verschillende individuen onderling te kunnen vergelijken, kan de intensiteit van een ervaring berekend worden aan de hand van het aantal ‘juist merkbare verschillen’ (bijvoorbeeld het aantal discrete basiseenheden pijn waaruit een pijnervaring is opgebouwd). Een juist merkbaar verschil in welzijn is de basiseenheid van welzijn, en die is voor elk individu even groot. Het levenswelzijn kan dan bestaan uit een gewogen som van alle juist merkbare verschillen van welzijn (positieve ervaringen) min de gewogen som van alle juist merkbare verschillen van onwelzijn (leed, negatieve ervaringen), over het volledige leven van het individu. De gewichtsfactoren in de gewogen som geven aan hoe sterk het individu diens toekomstige ervaringen waardeert. Door die gewichtsfactoren heeft iemand die bijvoorbeeld 100 jaar leeft met een constant positief welzijn een hoger levenswelzijn dan de som van het levenswelzijn van twee personen die elk 50 jaar leven met een even hoog constant welzijn. Dat wil zeggen dat iemand pijnloos en onverwachts doden en vervangen door een nieuwe persoon die even gelukkig is, een lagere som van levenswelzijn oplevert. Het levenswelzijn van individuen dienen we te verhogen, waarbij een prioriteit kan gegeven worden aan individuen met het laagste levenswelzijn. Die prioriteit wil zeggen dat individuen met een lager levenswelzijn een sterker gewicht krijgen in de som van waarderingen. Een waardering is dus een gewogen functie van het levenswelzijn. Als een optie onzeker is in de zin dat ze meerdere uitkomsten kan opleveren, waarbij elke uitkomst een bepaalde kans heeft om op te treden en bepaalde ervaringen veroorzaakt bij een individu, kan de verwachtingswaarde volgens die kansen berekend worden van de gewogen levenswelzijnswaarden van een individu over de verschillende uitkomsten.

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The case against degrowth

Degrowth can be defined as the planned reduction (through policy interventions) of production and consumption in high-income countries, in order to reduce the environmental impact. If the production and consumption is measured in terms of resource throughput, we are talking about resource degrowth. If it is measured in terms of GDP (economic wealth), we can call it economic degrowth.

This article argues why campaigning for degrowth is ineffective, and can even be counterproductive or harmful. Instead of degrowth of the economy, increasing technological innovation (research and development of clean tech) is more effective.

The ImPACT equation

To understand degrowth, we can start with the ImPACT equation, given as:

Im=PxAxCxT,

with Im the impact on the environment (e.g. kg CO2 emissions, decrease in biodiversity, level of pollution), P the population size (number of consumers), A the affluence or economic activity per capita (dollar economic wealth created per person or dollar GDP per person), C the consumption intensity of resources (e.g. kWh energy per dollar, m² land per dollar or kg minerals per dollar GDP), and T the translation factor that translates resource use in environmental impact (e.g. kg CO2 emissions per kWh energy used, decrease in ecosystem quality per m² land used). The total greenhouse gas emission is the product of four factors: the number of people times the average amount of dollars income per person times the average amount of energy used per dollar times the average emissions per unit energy used.

Degrowth assumes that the four factors in the ImPACT-equation are independent from each other (or more generally non-decreasing functions of the other factors). If that is the case, and as all four factors are positive, it is clear that one can reduce the environmental impact by reducing per capita GDP (the factor A) or resource use (the product of A and C).

With the impact equation, we can look for those factors whose reduction is the most effective way to reduce total environmental impact. We aim for the largest reduction in impact, preferably all the way down to zero.

Reducing population: the population degrowth objective

Reducing population size (the factor P) is the objective of population degrowthers or antinatalists. The only ethical method to reduce population size, is investing in voluntary family planning to reduce unwanted pregnancies. However, this measure has a limited potential: even if all unwanted pregnancies are avoided, population size will not decrease fast enough to meet climate targets. More drastic population reduction measures, for example by unvoluntary sterilization, are unethical and politically unfeasible. One cannot reach zero impact by reducing only the population size, except if one reduces the population to zero, which is definitely unfeasible.

Reducing population size may not only be ineffective, but could be harmful in some ways. First, there are the negative economic effects of population reductions. Fewer people means fewer brains and hence fewer new discoveries, inventions and solutions to problems. It means less specialization of work, which results in lower labor productivity and hence longer working hours (less leisure). It means having fewer customers and buyers, and hence lower incomes.

Second, there are negative ethical aspects of population reductions. Having fewer happy people is problematic according to some reasonable population ethical theories, such as total utilitarianism that maximizes the sum of welfare of everyone in the future. It is possible that future generations have higher welfare levels than us. If these future populations are smaller than what could have been, it means that a number of very happy lives do not exist. Total welfare is lower than what could have been. According to many reasonable population ethical theories, a world that has extra people who are extra happy, is better than a world where those happy people do not exist, all else equal.  

Reducing affluence: the economic degrowth objective

Reducing affluence (the factor A) is the economic degrowth objective. Within the degrowth movement, the measure of GDP is often criticized as not measuring what really matters (e.g. flourishing). As a result of this direct attack on the GDP metric, degrowth is often perceived (at least by outsiders) as striving for a reduction of GDP. Such economic degrowth is not necessary, not effective, not politically feasible and potentially harmful.

Economic degrowth is not necessary, because it targets the wrong enemy. GDP is not the enemy; environmental impact is the enemy. Environmental scientists are able to determine upper bounds on environmental impacts such as pollution. For example, climatologists have determined the carbon budget: how much greenhouse gases can still be emitted that keep the atmospheric temperature increase below 1,5°C. But GDP is measured in dollars, a totally different quantity than kg CO2. Hence, none of the economic degrowthers are able to say what is the upper bound or true limit on affluence. There are no scientific studies that estimate the maximum level of GDP that is still permissible.

In the very end, it all comes down to computation (information processing). Everything we value, such as the feelings of well-being created by our computing brains or the biological diversity created by ecosystem processes, is based on computation. The true limits to growth, are the limits of computation, and these are extremely far away. GDP can still grow by an extremely huge amount before hitting these limits.

Economic degrowth is not an effective strategy to reduce environmental impact. First, from a global social justice perspective, economic degrowth should apply only to the high-income countries. Poorer countries should be allowed to grow in order to reduce poverty. However, most (more than 50%) of the global environmental impact (for example global greenhouse gas emissions) occurs in non-high-income countries with high levels of poverty, where degrowth is not appropriate. Suppose degrowth results in a reduction of 50% of the average GDP per capita in the high-income countries. This will reduce the total impact with less than 25%. Such a small reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is not sufficient to meet climate targets and keep the temperature increase below 1,5°C. Hence, reducing affluence has only a small potential. In general, reducing the total impact all the way to zero by only reducing affluence requires a 100% reduction of affluence, which is not feasible.

Economic degrowth is not so politically feasible, as it requires a lot of international cooperation between high-income countries. Reducing GDP is an objective of economic degrowth, but that does not immediately translate into a concrete policy. To study the effectiveness and feasibility of economic degrowth, we have to look at specific policy proposals made by degrowthers.

The most obvious degrowth policy proposal that targets economic growth and affluence, is the implementation of an income ceiling or maximum income level (e.g. a 100% income tax rate above a certain threshold). Degrowthers argue that the relationship between what is measured (income or GDP per capita) and what matters (e.g. well-being, life satisfaction, flourishing), is non-linear and concave. That means increasing the income or wealth of a poor person strongly increases that person’s well-being, but increasing the income of a rich person does not much increase that person’s well-being. If a population becomes very rich, increasing GDP is no longer an effective means to increase the well-being of those people. Hence, setting a maximum income level where the relationship between income and well-being breaks down, should be feasible. But degrowthers neglect the also non-linear and concave relationship between environmental impact (e.g. ecological footprint per capita, greenhouse gas emissions per capita) and GDP per capita. Richer people have a higher propensity to save, which means a smaller fraction of their income goes to consumption. Richer people also make use of more clean technologies that are more expensive. Hence, someone with twice as much income, has less than twice as much environmental impact. This non-linear relationship between GDP and environmental impact means that choosing a high maximum income level does not reduce the total environmental impact that much.

In general, choosing the maximum income level is difficult. If the maximum income level is high, it still allows for a lot of growth, as many people can increase their incomes. If on the other hand the maximum income level is low, it becomes politically unfeasible, as many people will consider that income level as poverty.

A more problematic aspect of a maximum income, is that it can decrease innovation and technological progress, because it reduces the incentive to earn more money by taking risks and invest in innovation. The same goes for another degrowth proposal: a maximum size on (for-profit) companies. This regulation would imply that companies cannot grow and take advantage of their increasing returns to scale. This reduces efficiency. Many small companies are often not able to produce the same things as efficiently as a fewer number of larger companies.

Another degrowth policy proposal that intends to target affluence, is a reduction of working hours. Income and affluence can be reduced by reducing hourly wages, but this faces political resistance, or reducing working hours. However, in free market capitalist societies, we already see a reduction in working hours per worker. Due to increasing productivity and income levels, which corresponds with economic growth, people increasingly value leisure time and prefer to work fewer hours. As a consequence, further government interventions to regulate working hours, for example by setting a maximum that people are allowed to work, would be less effective. And such regulations are too economically disruptive. For example, some highly productive people are willing to work more hours and employers are willing to pay them for those extra hours, but they would be prevented from doing so. This is an infringement on liberty.

Finally, economic degrowth can be harmful. A policy to reduce economic growth risks having negative economic side-effects, for both richer and poorer countries. The rich countries that degrow could face for example increased unemployment and increased government debt (due to lower tax revenues). There are at present no economies that show a decrease in their GDP while at the same time not increasing unemployment or government debt. There is no clear consensus among economists how to safely degrow as a country. Degrowth can be considered as a risky experiment to figure out how to avoid unwanted economic problems while reducing GDP. Also poorer countries can be harmed if richer countries degrow, because of reduced international trade and decreasing export levels towards degrowing richer countries.

Reducing resource consumption: the resource degrowth objective

A third strategy to reduce environmental impact, is to reduce the resource consumption intensity C. This can be very cost-effective, as it saves energy and resource costs, but it has limited feasibility. Just like the previous two factors, reducing the impact all the way to zero by reducing consumption intensity to zero, is not feasible. This unfeasibility is not because of political reasons, but because of physical limits (in particular the second law of thermodynamics).

Due to its cost-effectiveness, we already see a decrease in the global average energy intensity (kWh energy used per dollar GDP) with 1% per year over the past two decades.

Instead of focusing on the factors A and C separately, the degrowth movement focuses on the product AxC. What is needed according to resource degrowth, is neither merely a reduction in economic activity as measured in GDP, nor merely a reduction in consumption intensity, but a reduction in resource throughput, as measured in GDP times consumption intensity.  

As with economic degrowth, resource degrowth is not necessary, not effective, not politically feasible and potentially harmful.

The major criticism against resource degrowth policies, is its lack of necessity. First, the real limits to growth are still far away. Consider energy scarcity. The amount of solar energy that hits the earth is almost 10.000 times more than the energy used by all humans. Add the solar energy that can be captured in space (e.g. on the moon), all geothermal energy that can be captured, and nuclear energy from both fission and fusion, and it becomes clear that there is an abundance of energy. Limits on materials (e.g. metals and minerals) are less stringent, because given enough energy, materials can be recycled or mined at hard-to-reach places (e.g. the ocean floor, the moon, asteroids,…). The physical limits of resource use are not yet reached, so why would we need a self-declared, political limit on resource use that is much lower than the physical limit that sets the true boundary?

Second, even if we hit the limits, planned policies are not required. Private property rights on resources (energy, land, minerals) are feasible. These rights are already in place or easily implementable. With such property rights, there is no market failure, which means that free markets solve the scarcity problem through the price mechanism. In other words; markets will automatically indicate whether resource growth and GDP growth are no longer possible. In particular, if the prices of resources increase so fast that resource use or GDP no longer grow, then the market indicates that the limit to growth is reached. As the market will not let the economy grow any further, extra government interventions to stop the growth are superfluous.

But at this moment, there are no indications that we are near the limit. For example, energy expenditure accounts for less than 10% of GDP in high-income countries. That means that the energy prices need to increase really a lot before they impact economic growth. But the prices of resources do not increase so fast that growth becomes impossible. In fact, the prices of most resources (adjusted for inflation) are not even increasing. There is more evidence for a general decreasing trend of resource prices the past decades. This is the opposite of what one would expect if we reached the limits to growth.

Next to their lack of necessity, the resource degrowth policy proposals are not so effective. The two most relevant proposals are an advertisement ban and a resource taxation.

Suppression of advertisements from the public space might be effective, as it could decrease overconsumption. However, this effectiveness is very limited. First, there is some economic evidence that advertisement does not increase consumption that much. Second, an advertisement ban could decrease the prices of products, which results in higher consumption levels. Commercial advertisement is economically inefficient, because it is a zero-sum game: if one company advertises, the competing companies have to spend advertisement budgets to promote their products. In the end, the competing companies are pulling on a rope in opposite directions. The rope is not moving that much and the rope pullers waste energy. Similarly, the competing companies waste costs on advertisement. An advertisement ban would save the companies these costs, which means they can lower their prices.

Degrowthers argue that technological innovations that increase resource efficiency and decrease resource use are not so effective, due to possible rebound effects. For example, households save energy costs when they use more energy efficient appliances. That means they have more money left for extra consumption of other things. Their use of energy efficient appliances also decreases energy demand, which means the price of energy decreases, which means other people will buy (and waste) more energy. These concerns for rebound effects are legitimate. But degrowthers underestimate or neglect similar rebound effects of their policy proposals, such as an advertisement ban.

A second resource degrowth policy proposal is a resource taxation. We have to make a distinction between a resource tax and a pollution tax. When there are negative externalities, such as pollution, a taxation is very effective (although its effectiveness is mitigated due to a lower political feasibility, as it requires international cooperation). A pollution tax internalizes the external costs of pollution into the price of the product. However, when there are property rights on resources, there are no such negative externalities. Furthermore, the supply of resources is inelastic (independent of the price). Consider a tax on land use. As the land is already there (i.e. it is not being produced), a land tax does not decrease land use (unless the tax would be really high, which is politically unfeasible). In general, a resource taxation does not decrease resource use and hence is not effective to reduce the environmental impact.

But a resource tax remains important, though, because it increases fairness through redistribution. A resource tax allows to redistribute the unearned income (resource rent) from owning resources. A resource tax-and-dividend system, where resource tax revenues are distributed to all citizens as a universal dividend, is both fair and efficient. A resource tax is efficient, because resources are created by nature and not by the resource owners. The resource owners will not be disincentivized by the tax: they will not produce less resources when resources are taxed, because the resources are not produced by the owners. And a resource dividend makes the system fair: as no-one produced the resources, the value of the resources belongs equally to everyone. A dividend is a method to equally distribute the value (resource rent) of the resources among citizens.

Improving technology; the ecomodernist objective

In contrast with the degrowth movement, the ecomodernist and effective environmentalist movements primarily focus on the fourth factor in the ImPACT-equation. This T-factor represents technology. A high T-factor means a lot of dirty technology is being used in the economy. Ecomodernists and effective environmentalists campaign for increased government funding in clean technology research and development.

There are several reasons why ecomodernists and effective environmentalists focus on reducing the T-factor by increasing government spending on clean tech innovation.

A first reason is that of all factors in the ImPACT-equation, T is the only factor that can feasibly (according to the laws of physics, without much political resistance) be reduced all the way to (almost) zero, such that the environmental impact becomes (almost) zero. For example, there are clean energy technologies, such as nuclear energy and renewable energy, that have (almost) zero greenhouse gas emissions per energy unit.

Due to technological innovation (research and development of clean technology that has a low environmental impact), we already see a decoupling of climate impact and economic growth in most high-income countries. The consumption-based per capita CO2-emissions in almost all high-income countries (e.g. EU, US,…) dropped by about 25% the past 15 years (since 2005), whereas their levels of GDP per capita kept increasing. Degrowthers are skeptical about such decoupling, and argue that such decoupling is not fast enough to meet climate targets and avoid 1,5°C global warming. But at least we have evidence that decoupling due to technological innovation is possible. In contrast, degrowthers believe in the feasibility of another kind of decoupling, between economic wealth and human well-being or life satisfaction. But there are no countries that show an increase in well-being (e.g. an increase in living standards or flourishing) and a decrease in GDP or resource use. There is strong evidence that GDP is positively correlated with measures of well-being. Degrowthers should be more skeptical about the decoupling of well-being and GDP, than about the decoupling of GDP and environmental impact.

A second reason for the effectiveness of reducing the T-factor, is the interdependence between the factors A and T. In particular, with appropriate policy, the T-factor can be made a decreasing function of A. And this function could even be steeper than 1/A. That means an increase in A could reduce the total environmental impact, because the factor T decreases stronger than the increase in A. Suppose the affluence A increases with 10% (which can be reasonably expected after 5 years of growth at the average growth rate of the past two centuries). If only 1% of that increase in GDP is used for funding of clean technology innovation, which should be politically feasible, the global budget for clean technology R&D more than doubles (currently less than 0,1% of global GDP goes to clean tech R&D). A doubling of R&D could roughly correspond with having the clean technologies on the market twice as fast. If a clean technology has zero CO2 emissions per kWh energy or dollar GDP, it doesn’t matter if the economy grows with 10%, because zero times 10% is zero. Reducing GDP, on the other hand, is dangerous, because there will be less money available for funding of clean tech R&D and for paying for the new clean tech infrastructure.

Third, technological innovations have positive returns to scale. Technology has large spillovers: once invented, the whole world population can adopt the clean technology without extra R&D costs. The innovation is a public good. The provision of public goods is a market failure, because markets are not sufficient providers of public goods. Therefore, it is important that governments invest in this public good by increased funding of clean tech R&D.

Fourth: technological innovation is politically feasible. It does not require international cooperation. It does not face much societal resistance.

Degrowthers argue that clean tech innovation introduces rebound effects that make this policy less effective. For example more clean tech could decrease the price of dirty technology and hence increase the use of dirty technology. However, a rebound effect is mitigated if a pollution tax (or a tax on dirty technologies) is introduced, and if the R&D focuses on clean technologies that are sufficiently substitutable (instead of complementary) with dirty technologies. If clean tech is a good substitute, it can automatically outcompete dirty technologies from the market. Compare it with the transition from horse carriages to motorized cars. The cars outcompeted the horse carriages from the market, even without a horse carriage tax or other government policies to regulate horse carriage use. Horse carriages were considered a big environmental problem in 19th century cities, because of the horse manure and horse cadavers on the streets. And these carriages created other negative externalities, such as the noise of the horse hooves and accidents by unexpected movements of horses. But economic or resource degrowth policies were not necessary to solve these problems. Technological innovation, in particular the invention of the car, solved it.

The inconsistencies of degrowth

The above discussion showed several inconsistencies of degrowth. There are at least four examples where degrowthers inconsistently neglect problems.

First, degrowthers argue that increasing GDP per capita is not effective to increase well-being, because of the non-linear, concave relationship between well-being and income. But they neglect the similar non-linear relationship between GDP per capita and environmental impact. This concave relationship means that limiting GDP (e.g. with an income ceiling) is not effective to reduce environmental impacts.

Second, degrowthers argue that technological innovations that improve resource efficiency are not so effective to reduce environmental impacts, because of potential rebound effects. But they neglect similar rebound effects of some of their own policy proposals, such as an advertisement ban.

Third, degrowthers argue that technological innovations do not allow for a sufficient decoupling between GDP and environmental impacts. But they neglect that a decoupling between economic wealth (GDP) and well-being is less realistic. Many countries already show a decoupling between GDP and climate impact, i.e. an increase in GDP together with a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but there are no countries that show an increase in well-being together with a decrease in GDP.

Finally, degrowthers argue that we should not be too optimistic about technological innovation, as it is merely a so-called techno-fix that doesn’t change the economic-sociological-cultural structures that are at the root of the environmental problems. But they neglect that an econo-fix that drastically changes the economic system towards degrowth, or a socio-fix that changes cultural norms about consumption, are at least as difficult, unfeasible or intractable as a techno-fix. Degrowthers are not able to argue why change of the economic-political system is more feasible than a change in technology. A lot of clean technologies are not invented yet, but a degrowth economic-political system is not yet invented either.

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The priority for strong personal-state preferences (and implications for wild animal welfare)

This article describes a very fundamental idea in ethics: that we should give priority to the satisfaction of the strongest personal-state preferences. A personal-state preference is a preference held by an individual that refers to the state of that individual, for example the state of being healthy and happy. With this one simple assumption that strong personal-state preferences get priority, we can derive a lot of other fundamental ethical ideas. Three of those implications will be discussed: individualism, anti-discrimination and altruism. These three implications can be combined to argue for interventions in nature to improve the welfare of wild animals.

The basic assumption

Let us assume that morality fundamentally deals with preference satisfaction. If you disagree with this basic assumption, you have a preference for another conception of morality. Perhaps you think that morality deals with virtues? But then the question becomes whether you want your preference about morality to be satisfied. If morality does not deal with preference satisfaction, it would not be immoral to impose a conception of morality on you, even if you do not prefer that conception. Hence, preference satisfaction is very fundamental in ethics.

To make it feasible or practical, we have to impose some restrictions on the preferences that we have to prioritize. Some of our preferences are deemed more important than others. We should prioritize the strongest preferences. You can compare the strengths of your preferences, and say that your preference for X is stronger than your preference for Y, in the sense that in a trade-off you would prefer X over Y. Rationally speaking, you have a preference for the principle that stronger preferences should get priority.

But it is difficult to interpersonally compare the strengths of preferences. Is your preference for X stronger than my preference for Y? This problem of interpersonal comparability is one of the biggest challenges in moral philosophy. Although this problem remains unsolved, there are some theoretical arguments that indicate a solution, especially when it comes to experiential preferences.

Experiential preferences are preferences about our own subjective experiences, such as feeling pain, stress, joy,… We know that at least some, and perhaps all of our experiences are discrete in nature, where the fundamental unit of experience is a just-noticeable difference, the amount something must be changed in order for a difference to be noticeable. For example, one can increase a painful stimulus, and measure just-noticeable differences of pain. These just-noticeable differences often follow a mathematical law, called the Weber-Fechner law. In interpersonal comparison of pain could be achieved for example by equating a just-noticeable difference of pain of one individual with a just-noticeable difference of pain of another individual. If one individual experiences 100 of those units of pain and another individual experiences 10 units, we can say that the first individual experiences ten times more pain, and that person’s preference for avoiding that pain is ten times larger than the preferences of the second person.

Personal-state preferences or self-concerning preferences are slight generalizations of experiential preferences. These are preferences held by an individual (a sentient being) that refer to the state of that individual. Examples are a preferences for being alive, being healthy, being happy, being free, being safe, being in control of one’s situation, having food, having social relations,… If the person does not exist, those properties and hence those preferences would become meaningless. Happiness is the prime example of a personal-state preference: this property is a state of an individual and is preferred by that individual. Non-personal-state preferences, on the other hand, refer to properties of the world that are meaningful even if the individual who has these preferences would not exist. Examples are preferences for world peace, for the well-being of others, for the preservation of works of art or for stable and biodiverse ecosystems.

The basic assumption is that the satisfaction of strong personal-state preferences should get priority, where a preference is strong if it is strongly felt by an individual. This assumption has many implications. The next three sections discuss three important implications: moral individualism, anti-discrimination and preference altruism. With these three implications, it is easy to demonstrate for example the importance of wild animal welfare. In fact the three words ‘wild’, ‘animal’ and ‘welfare’ relate to respectively preference altruism, anti-discrimination and moral individualism. These three implications are sufficient to argue that we may intervene in nature when those interventions are safe and effective to improve the welfare of wild animals.

1.     Moral individualism

As the words ‘personal state’ (or ‘self-concerning’) indicate, a ‘personal-state’ preference is necessarily an individualistic value. Examples of such values are well-being, preference satisfaction, autonomy, liberty, health and flourishing. We can summarize those values under the umbrella term of welfare. Hence, welfare is of prime importance.

Moral individualism means that the most important moral values are values of individuals. This contrasts with for example collectivism, nationalism and ecologism, where respectively peoples, nations and ecosystems are value-carrying entities, having intrinsic value (value in itself) of e.g. social coherence, national identity or ecosystem integrity. Moral individualism means that the value of welfare trumps collectivist, nationalist or ecological values. For a moral individualist, these non-individualist values can still have instrumental value, when they are a means to promote the welfare of individuals, but they do not have intrinsic value. Utilitarianism (which values well-being or happiness) and deontological ethics (which value rights) are examples of individualistic moral theories.

2.     Anti-discrimination

Group discrimination means that the moral status or value of an individual of one group is higher than the value of an individual of another group. The moral status is based on group membership. It is as if a group has intrinsic value, and members of that group inherit that intrinsic value and are therefore more valuable than individuals of another group that lacks intrinsic value. The problem with group discrimination, is its unwanted arbitrariness. First, the choice of group is arbitrary, because there are many possible groups and there is no selection rule to select that one group out of the set of all possible groups. Second, the discriminated individuals, who do not belong to the preferred or privileged group, do not want being arbitrarily excluded or treated unfairly.

A group is basically an arbitrary set of individuals, and such a set does not have the capacity to have preferences. A group is not a sentient individual, hence, a group cannot have preferences, let alone personal-state preferences. A person may prefer moral principles that explicitly refer to a group, for example that members of one group are more important and have stronger rights than outgroup members. But such a preference for discriminatory moral principles is not a personal-state preference: a discriminatory principle does not refer to a state of that individual. Even if you have a strong preference for a discriminatory moral principle that discriminates against outgroup individuals, the strong personal-state preferences of those discriminated outgroup members, such as their preference for their own welfare, should get priority above your preference for your discriminatory moral principle.

Consider speciesism , where the moral status is based on species membership. Why would species membership be the criterion, and not ethnic group (racial) membership, or biological class membership, or phylum membership? You belong to a species, but you equally belong to an ethnic group, a biological order (primates), a class (mammals), a phylum (vertebrates) and many other groups. Selecting one of those many groups, without using a selection rule that explains why you chose that species group instead of another, is arbitrary. Choosing ethnic group membership results in racism or ethnocentrism, which is immoral because it involves unwanted arbitrariness. The same goes for species membership. Hence, the assumption that we should prioritize strong personal-state preferences results in anti-speciesism, and that means non-human animals are also morally important. Combined with the moral individualism, we conclude that animal welfare is important and should be promoted.  

3.     Preference altruism

Preference altruism means that you should not impose your own preferences or values on others against their will without good justification. In other words, your own non-personal-state preferences are not more important than someone else’s strong personal-state preferences. Preference altruism reflects the idea of humility or non-arrogance in values.

When it comes to animal welfare, preference altruism or non-arrogance implies the inclusion of wild animals. It would be arrogant or non-altruistic to prioritize our preference for wildness above the welfare of wild animals. Some people make a distinction between human-caused animal suffering, for example in animal farming, and nature-caused animal suffering of wild animals. They consider human-caused suffering to be worse than nature-caused suffering, in the sense that we have a stronger duty to eliminate human-caused suffering. These people object against interventions in nature that improve wild animal welfare, because such interventions violate for example the wildness, naturalness or integrity of ecosystems. They believe that we should leave nature alone, that we should not play God by intervening in nature.

However, these values and preferences for wildness, naturalness, integrity, laissez faire and not playing God, are non-personal-state preferences. But neither ecosystems nor wild animals value the principle that we should not play God. Neither ecosystems nor wild animals have the preference for ecosystem integrity or naturalness. Ecosystems don’t have preferences at all, and wild animals have personal-state preferences for their own welfare, health, liberty,…. It would be non-altruistic and arrogant to impose our own non-personal-state preferences on wild animals. If we choose not to intervene in nature because of our preference for a wild, pristine nature, we are prioritizing our non-personal-state preference above the personal-state preferences of wild animals. 

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Some inconsistencies in food environmentalism

Sometimes environmentalists propose ineffective measures to improve public health and environmental sustainability. These ineffective measures are the result of irrational opinions held by those environmentalists. Sometimes these irrationalities consist of clear and simple inconsistencies in their ideas. Finding these inconsistencies does not require scientific knowledge or empirical investigation with complex statistics. Mere logical thinking is sufficient. Here I give a few examples of irrationalities in food environmentalism, i.e. related to sustainable and healthy food production and consumption. These examples demonstrate that food environmentalists, who have the good intention to make the world better but sometimes choose counterproductive means that make the world worse, are benefitted by more rational-critical thinking.

Resilience and food waste

Food waste is considered a serious problem by environmentalists. Almost one third of all produced edible food is wasted, i.e. not eaten directly by humans (when given to farm animals or used as compost to grow food, the food waste is eaten indirectly). However, there is a trade-off between reducing food waste and increasing food production resilience. This is the trade-off between efficiency and redundancy.

Efficiency can be defined as the minimum amount needed to achieve the desired result, divided by the actual amount with which the result is achieved. Think of efficient use of land: the minimum land area needed to feed the population divided by the actual land area used for food. Food waste is inefficient, because it involves more usage of land than is actually needed.

Resilience means that a system can handle a disruption in the sense that it can continue to achieve the desired result when the system is disturbed. Increasing crop biodiversity increases the resilience of our food system. A resilient, biodiverse food system has a lot of redundancy: while having many species may seem redundant, it is often safer to have so many species, because if something happens to one species due to a disruption, other species can take the blow and provide the agricultural services.

This trade-off between efficiency and redundancy is not always acknowledged by food environmentalists. A concrete example is an agro-ecological farm that makes use of crop biodiversity to increase resilience. The farm had different varieties of cabbages. During a summer heat wave, the savoy cabbage failed, but there were plenty of other cabbage varieties that resisted the drought. Hence, the farm was resilient: the drought did not significantly disrupt total vegetable production. But what if there was no heat wave that summer? Then there was actually too much food. With the savoy cabbage on the table, for example, the white cabbage would not all be eaten. Some cabbage would be wasted. Environmentalists may complain that the crooked cucumbers are not sold in the supermarkets and are therefore wasted, but this is part of the resilience of our food system. If wasting less food means decreasing food production, it can decrease the resilience of our food system, because of a decreased redundancy. It is difficult to say if our current food system has too much resilience (too much food waste) or too much efficiency (not enough food waste).

Instead of simply focusing on reducing food waste, food environmentalists can look for opportunities that improve both efficiency and resilience and do not involve such a trade-off. One example is reducing animal farming: animal farming is generally not efficient, because it requires a lot of resources (e.g. land for feed crops) to obtain only small amounts of protein. Most of the feed crops are wasted, because they are turned into animal manure that causes eutrophication in the rivers and coastal seas. Animal farming contributes to climate change, making global food production less resilient.

Other examples of highly efficient and resilient food production are cellular agriculture (e.g. producing cultivated meat without the animal), fermentation agriculture (using micro-organisms to produce protein), vertical agriculture (indoor farming) and floating agriculture (floating farms on the sea). These food production methods are land-free: they require only a little bit of land. Hence they are highly land use efficient. And they are resilient, as they are protected from many environmental conditions such as pests, freezing weather, droughts and floods. We also need more research on resilient foods that can deal with the most extreme catastrophes. Seaweed and air-based protein are examples of very promising resilient foods, and ALLFED (the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disaster) is an organization that researches resilient foods.

Golden rice and fatty rice

As a second example, we can look at the opposition of food environmentalists against genetically modified food. Consider golden rice, a GMO rice variety that contains high levels of beta-carotene (provitamin A). Golden rice could save tens of thousands of lives per year in developing countries, at a very low cost of less than 20 dollar per healthy life year saved. Opponents argue that golden rice is no solution to the hunger problem, that it does not contain enough beta-carotene to completely eradicate vitamin A deficiency, that it promotes a one-sided diet of rice, that it causes a monoculture of only one rice variety, that the golden rice genes that cause the beta-carotene production could uncontrollably spread to other, traditional rice varieties, that there may be unknown long-term health risks due to the presence of these genes, that the golden rice seeds would be too expensive for poor farmers, that the companies that sell golden rice seeds could make unearned profits,…

All these arguments against golden rice can be debunked with one simple analogy. Consider fatty rice, a rice variety that has certain genetic mutations such that it produces more healthy fatty acids. Of course fatty rice won’t solve the global hunger problem, the level of fatty acids is not high enough to eradicate nutritional deficiencies, other rice varieties can be contaminated by the mutated genes from the fatty rice, no studies have been performed on the long-term health consequences of fatty rice consumption, companies who sell fatty rice seeds can earn profits,… In contrast with golden rice, fatty rice has one serious drawback: it has lower yields than the most widely used rice varieties. Lower yields means more agricultural land requirements and hence higher impact on biodiversity, higher costs and hence lower profits for poor rice farmers, and higher risks of malnutrition for poor consumers. If environmental activists are against golden rice, surely you expect them to be against fatty rice. But no, food environmentalists are in favor of fatty rice. What I didn’t tell you, is that the fatty rice is a heirloom rice, a traditional rice variety that has been outcompeted from the market by the more productive new rice varieties since the green revolution in Asia. Although fatty rice is not registered as a GMO, it does contain genetic mutations, i.e. genes that are not present in other, more common rice varieties. Without those genetic mutations, the rice would simply not produce so much fatty acids. Of course, fatty rice is not patented by large agrocorporations, but the same goes for golden rice that is sold to the poorest farmers. Big Agro is not making unfair profits from fatty rice, nor from golden rice.

It is very inconsistent to oppose golden rice and promote fatty rice. This inconsistency is due to the opposition against genetic modification in general. This example demonstrates that this opposition is irrational. Genetic modification can improve crops, make them more sustainable for the environment, profitable for poor farmers and healthy for consumers. For example a meta-analysis shows that current GMO agriculture increases crop yields by 22%, increases farmers profits with 68% and decreases pesticide use by 37%. Genetic modification is an important and cost-effective tool to make crops more resilient. As the resilience of crops increases without having to increase food waste, food environmentalists should be more supportive of GMOs.

Cultivated meat and seedless fruit

A third example is the opposition against cultivated meat (also known as cell-based or clean meat), as exemplified by the Clean Meat Hoax website. Elsewhere I wrote about the many irrationalities on that Clean Meat Hoax website. Here I want to address one often heard irrational argument against cultivated meat: that it is unnatural. As cultivated meat has many benefits in terms of environmental sustainability, public health and of course animal welfare, this example demonstrates that the naturalness bias of many food environmentalists can be really harmful.  

Considering the product itself, cultivated meat is as natural as animal-based meat, because they both contain the same muscle cells, and these muscle cells grew with the same biochemical reactions. The essential difference between cultivated meat and animal-based meat, is that the production of cultivated meat does not involve the production of animal body parts other than the muscle tissues. Cultivated meat is just like animal-based meat, but without the animal brains, organs, tails, eyes, skins, hairs,…

Especially the absence of brains makes cultivated meat better in terms of animal welfare (no animal suffering) and environmental sustainability (no high metabolism and feed requirements for the energy-consuming brains), and the absence of lungs and intestines makes cultivated meat better in terms of public health (no risks of zoonotic respiratory infectious diseases and antibiotic-resistant harmful gut bacteria).

But especially the absence of reproductive organs makes cultivated meat unnatural. Cultivated meat is considered unnatural by some food environmentalists, not only because its production process requires some machinery, but especially because the end product (the muscle tissues) could not be achieved by natural processes such as evolution. Animals can naturally reproduce, because they have reproductive organs. That means animals can be born in nature. That means animal-based meat can be obtained by hunting wild animals in nature. But you will never find cultivated meat in nature.

The inconsistency in the opposition against cultivated meat can be demonstrated by comparing cultivated meat with seedless fruit. Farmers have developed fruit that does not possess seeds, just like food scientists have developed meat that does not possess organs. Bananas are the prime example of a seedless fruit, but there are also seedless watermelons, tomatoes and grapes. A cultivated meat burger can be compared with wine made from seedless grapes. Of course alcohol is unhealthy, just like processed meat such as a burger is unhealthy, but the fact that the grapes do not have seeds or the muscle cell culture tanks (bioreactors) do not have organs is not the reason why these products have health risks.

As the fruits do not contain seeds and hence cannot naturally reproduce themselves, such fruits can never have been evolved in nature. Producing these fruits requires human intervention (and machinery). Hence, they are clearly as unnatural as cultivated meat. Yet, food environmentalists are not opposed to seedless fruits. Their arguments against cultivated meat can be easily debunked by referring to seedless fruits. Instead of opposing cultivated meat, it is better to support research and development of cultivated meat (e.g. New Harvest and Good Food Institute).

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My top ideas of 2021

It is time to look back at 2021, to see what are my most important new insights. My two top picks for this year are both within moral philosophy. Interestingly, those two ideas have the same underlying structure. They both have two components, because in ethics there are always two parties involved: moral agents (e.g. decision makers) and moral patients (e.g. affected people). I consider these two ideas to be a unification or crystallization of my moral theory.

Deontological ethics, population ethics and the two rights that restrict utilitarianism

As a Forethought Foundation Global Priorities Fellow, past year I spend more time writing and thinking about population ethics. That resulted in a breakthrough: an argument for my new favorite population ethical theory called person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism. There is more: that same argument can be unified with an older argument in deontological ethics.

The idea is to modify utilitarianism by introducing a special right that allows to avoid the most important counterintuitive implications of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism entails that we have to choose the state (situation, option) that has the highest sum of utilities, where the sum runs over all sentient beings in the past, present and future, and the utilities measure personal preferences, welfare or lifetime well-being of those sentient beings. Now we modify this utilitarianism by giving everyone a discount right, i.e. the right to discount the utilities of others. What if you had the right to determine that an increase of my welfare does not matter morally? What would happen if people have the right to exclude the utilities of other individuals from the utilitarian sum? Of course, in most cases, those other individuals whose utilities are discounted or excluded, may complain, because they do not want their utilities to be discounted.

But there are two exceptions where the discount right does not cause valid complaints. There are two cases where the discount right is complaint-free, due to the fact that a right involves two parties, a right holder (the person who claims the right) and an affected person. An affected person whose utility is discounted, cannot complain under two conditions:

  1. if the affected person would not have been better off in a counterfactual state where the right holder would not exist (i.e. in the absence of the right holder), or
  2. if the affected person would not have been better off in a counterfactual state where the affected person would not exist.  

In the first case, we can think about the situation where one person is sacrificed or exploited and used as merely a means to the benefit of others. This is the area of deontological ethics. The exploitation means that the benefited people use the body of the one person as a means for their own ends, against that one person’s will. Using that one person increases the utilities of the benefited people. Hence, those benefited people are affected people: their welfare is affected (increased) by the choice to use the one person. But suppose that one person has the right to discount the increased utilities of those benefited people. Those benefited people cannot complain, because if the one person, who now is the right holder, would not exist, the benefited people could not use that person’s body. Hence, those affected people would not have been better off if the right holder were absent or non-existent. In cases of exploitation, the complaint-free discount right becomes the right not to be used as merely a means. That right is special, because no-one can complain against everyone having this right. That right can also explain many other principles in deontological ethics that conflict with utilitarianism, such as the moral difference between doing and allowing harm (doing harm is worse than allowing an equal amount of harm), the difference between positive and negative duties (negative duties not to harm others are more important than positive duties to help others), the difference between beneficence and non-maleficence, and the permissibility of partiality in beneficence (when helping others, you are allowed to be partial towards people you hold dear).

In the second case, we can think of a situation where we can cause the existence of extra people and influence who will exist in the future. This is the area of population ethics. Those future people are possible people, because they do not exist in all eligible states that we can choose. We can choose a state where those people are never born. Hence, those possible people are affected people: their existence and hence their welfare is affected by our choice to bring them into existence. If the possible people are brought into existence and in that state they have a negative lifetime well-being (a net-negative welfare where negative experiences dominate positive experiences), they would rather choose non-existence. They can complain against our choice to bring them into existence. Causing their existence is harmful to them. Hence, we are not allowed to discount the negative utilities of possible people. But if the possible people have positive utilities, they cannot complain against their existence. If as a consequence of discounting their positive utilities, we choose the state where these potential people do not exist, their non-existence means that they cannot complain. The right to discount the positive utilities of possible people translates into some population ethical principles that conflict with classical utilitarianism, for example the moral difference between making people happy (which is always good) and making happy people (which is not always good), or the procreation asymmetry (causing the existence of unhappy people is always bad, causing the existence of happy people is not always good). Most importantly, this right allows us to avoid the most counterintuitive population ethical implication of classical utilitarianism: the very repugnant conclusion. This conclusion says that it would be good to make very happy people extremely miserable, by adding to the population a huge number of extra people who have lives barely worth living (i.e. with small but positive utilities), when the total sum of utilities of the extra people is larger than the decrease in utilities of the very happy people.

My first top idea of 2021, is the insight that due to the two exceptions, the complaint-free discount right translates into two rights that restrict utilitarianism: the right to bodily autonomy in deontological ethics (which is the right not to be used as merely a means against one’s will), and the right to procreation autonomy in population ethics (which is the right not to bring a happy person into existence). Those rights may not be absolute. If the second, population ethical right is not absolute, we end up with person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism, where the utilities of possible people are discounted when these utilities are in a neutral range between zero and some positive value. I think this gives us the strongest possible justification for my new favorite population ethical theory of person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism. 

Unwanted arbitrariness, non-dictatorship and non-discrimination

My second top idea of 2021 also involves moral philosophy, but it is more general or fundamental than a specific theory such as utilitarianism. It is a meta-theory, because it deals with conditions for good moral theories. The fundamental condition for all valid moral theories, is that they should avoid unwanted arbitrariness. Arbitrariness means selecting an element (or subset) of a set without using a selection rule. The set can be anything: the set of possible choices (the choice set), the set of moral rules, the set of conditions, the set of moral agents, the set of moral patients,… Unwantedness means being incompatible with someone’s largest consistent set of that person’s strongest subjective preferences. Or in other words: arbitrariness is unwanted when someone can validly complain against that arbitrariness. Your complaint is valid when it is based on your largest consistent set of your strongest subjective preferences. As with the complaint-free discount right, the unwanted arbitrariness principle is fundamentally based on the notion of complaints.

The anti-arbitrariness principle says that we have to avoid unwanted arbitrariness as much as possible. The challenge was to make this principle more precise. I ended up with four different versions of this principle.

  • 1a: If you do not avoid avoidable unwanted arbitrariness when making a choice, you are not allowed to make that choice.
  • 1b: If, when making a choice, you cannot give a justification rule of which you would accept universal compliance, then you are not allowed to make that choice nor follow that rule.
  • 2a: If you cannot avoid unwanted arbitrariness when making a choice, you are allowed to make that choice but other people may make other choices from the same choice set (i.e. you have to tolerate that other people make other choices).
  • 2b: If, when making a choice, you cannot give a justification rule of which everyone would accept universal compliance, then you must accept or tolerate that other people make other choices from the same choice set and follow other justification rules for making those choices.

As the anti-arbitrariness principle deals with choices and rules, we are confronted with two important questions. Who decides or chooses the choices and rules? And who is affected by the choices and rules? These two questions refer to the two parties involved in ethics: moral agents who make decisions, and moral patients who are affected by those decisions. As a consequence of there being two parties, the anti-arbitrariness principle reduces to two subprinciples: non-dictatorship and non-discrimination. This is very similar to there being two kinds of complaint-free discount rights mentioned above.

The non-dictatorship principle deals with the question of the moral agents who make choices. It says that no-one should have the unconditional power to always unilaterally make decisions that affect other people. The non-discrimination principle deals with the treatment of the moral patients, the people who are affected by the choices of the moral agents. It says that we should avoid arbitrary discrimination of individual (or group) A relative to B, where arbitrary discrimination is defined as a systematically different treatment of A and B, whereby

  1. B gets more advantages than A,
  2. A has a lower moral status than B (e.g. A has less intrinsic value or weaker rights than B) in the sense that one would not tolerate swapping positions (treating A as B and B as A), and
  3. there is no justification or the justification of the difference in treatment refers to morally irrelevant criteria (properties that are not acceptable motives to treat A and B differently in the concerned situation), whereas A and B both meet the same morally relevant criteria to treat and value them more equally.

Dictatorship and discrimination are immoral, because they involve arbitrariness and people can complain against the involved arbitrariness. In the case of dictatorship, a group of dictators is chosen out of the set of all moral agents, and this choice did not involve a justifying selection rule. Hence, the choice of dictators is arbitrary, and as other non-selected moral agents can complain against the dictators dictating their decisions, this dictatorship involves unwanted arbitrariness. In the case of discrimination, a privileged group of people is chosen out of the set of all moral patients, and this choice did not involve a justifying selection rule either. Hence, the choice of privileged people is arbitrary, and as other non-selected moral patients can complain against being disadvantaged, this discrimination involves unwanted arbitrariness.

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Waarom we rationeel denken meer dan ooit nodig hebben. Boekbespreking Rationaliteit, Steven Pinker, 2021.

Accuraat in overtuigingen, doeltreffend in middelen en consistent in doelen. Zo zou ik rationaliteit definiëren, en deze definitie komt goed overeen met wat Steven Pinker bedoelt in zijn boek Rationaliteit (Atlas Contact, 2021). Als je negatieve vooroordelen hebt tegenover rationaliteit, kun je je afvragen wat er dan beter is aan inaccurate overtuigingen, ineffectieve middelen of inconsistente doelen. Rationaliteit is belangrijk, in alle aspecten van je leven en op alle vlakken van de samenleving. Het boek van Pinker is goed samen te vatten met het volgende voorbeeld.

Stel ik heb een muntstuk dat niet perfect eerlijk is: als ik ze opgooi, landt ze met 51% kans op kop en met 49% kans op munt. Nu laat ik je 100 keer wedden. Als je juist gokt, krijg je een euro, bij een foute gok, win je niets. Als je denkt zoals vele andere mensen, dan ga je waarschijnlijk afwisselend op kop en munt wedden, met in totaal iets vaker kop. Misschien zou je 51 keer op kop wedden, als je weet dat die kans 51% is. Maar dat is niet rationeel, je gaat op het einde van de rit meer winst maken wanneer je 100% op kop wed. Een klein onevenwicht in kansen, laat de balans volledig doorslaan.

Deze irrationaliteit is nog onschuldig. Maar stel er is een directeur van een beleggingsfonds die op zoek is naar een nieuwe medewerker: een expert in kwantitatieve handel, om met ingenieuze wiskundige modellen en statistische analyses de meest renderende beleggingsstrategie uit te dokteren. De job biedt een hoog salaris. Wat vooral telt bij deze job, is intelligentie. De directeur heeft de keuze tussen twee sollicitanten die beiden even goed scoren op schoolresultaten, wiskundetests en andere relevante intelligentietests. Dat ze hetzelfde scoren op tests wil natuurlijk nog niet zeggen dat ze exact even intelligent zijn en net even goed zijn in de job.

De directeur van dat grote beleggingsfonds wil natuurlijk heel rationeel te werk gaan bij het aanwerven van een nieuwe werknemer. Er staat namelijk veel geld op het spel in dat financiële wereldje. Ze kan een muntstuk opgooien om een kandidaat te selecteren. Maar ze is op de hoogte van bayesiaans redeneren en de irrationele denkfout van prevalentieverwaarlozing. Dat brengt haar op het volgende idee. Ze kijkt of er makkelijk waar te nemen verschillen zijn tussen de twee kandidaten. Huidskleur bijvoorbeeld: de ene kandidaat heeft een duidelijk donkerdere huidskleur. Dan gaat ze kijken naar de prevalentie van bijvoorbeeld hoogbegaafdheid bij verschillende groepen mensen, onderverdeeld volgens dat lichamelijke kenmerk. Ze komt studies tegen die aanwijzen dat mensen met een donkerdere huidskleur gemiddeld genomen een lager IQ hebben dan mensen met een lichtere huidskleur. Prevalentieverwaarlozing wil zeggen dat je geen rekening houdt met dergelijke studies over prevalentie van IQ bij verschillende groepen. Maar de directeur is rationeel en zwicht niet voor die denkfout. Ze is natuurlijk ook niet naïef met een blind geloof in de resultaten van die studies. Er is een kans dat die studies fout zijn, maar ook een kans dat ze juist zijn. Met die kans op de juistheid van de studies houdt de directeur rekening. De directeur heeft de kunst van het bayesiaans redeneren geleerd uit het boek Rationaliteit, en past nu haar kennis toe. Dan is de conclusie: de kans dat de kandidaat met de lichtere huidskleur even intelligent is als de andere kandidaat, is niet 50% (wat je zou concluderen louter op basis van de tests), maar een tikkeltje hoger. Misschien 51%. De directeur denkt dan aan de weddenschap met het muntstuk, en ze gaat de kandidaat met een lichtere huidskleur niet 51% slaagkans geven, maar 100% kans geven voor de job. Geen muntstuk opgooien: gewoon de job toekennen aan de witte kandidaat. Met andere woorden, puur op basis van een uiterlijk kenmerkt maakt ze de keuze voor een kandidaat.

Is dat rationeel? Ja, dergelijk bayesiaans redeneren is rationeel. Maar nee, hoogstwaarschijnlijk is het toch niet rationeel. Dat komt omdat de directeur niet een enkel doel heeft, zoals het kiezen van de beste kandidaat voor de job. Ze heeft ook andere doelen, zoals sociale rechtvaardigheid en een veilige samenleving. Mensen aanwerven op basis van huidskleur, is racisme. Dat is onrechtvaardig. De directeur vindt rechtvaardigheid belangrijk, want ze wil zelf niet het slachtoffer zijn van racisme. Ze wil zelf niet zo beoordeeld worden op basis van huidskleur. Het is helemaal niet rationeel om een keuze te maken dat strijdig is met een waardevol doel zoals rechtvaardigheid. En een rationeel persoon moet ook rekening houden met de speltheorie: hoe andere mensen gaan reageren als jij bepaalde keuzes maakt. Stel dat racisme bij aanwerving van werknemers een gangbare praktijk zou zijn. Als dergelijk racisme een norm wordt, dan gaan sommige bevolkingsgroepen zich geviseerd en benadeeld voelen, en in opstand komen. En het onderling wantrouwen tussen bevolkingsgroepen kan escaleren. En ook de geprivilegieerde groep van witte mensen gaat zich anders gedragen bij dergelijk racisme. De witte sollicitant gaat zich bijvoorbeeld ietsje minder hard inzetten voor de job, want ze wordt toch automatisch bevoordeeld tegenover zijn zwarte concurrent. Ook allemaal dingen die de rationele directeur niet wil.

Om het irrationele racisme te vermijden, kan het rationeel zijn om bepaalde dingen taboe te verklaren. Die studies over IQ-verschillen tussen zwarten en witten, bijvoorbeeld. De sociale wetenschappers die onderzoek doen naar dergelijke IQ-verschillen, worden racisme verweten en verliezen respect in de wetenschappelijke gemeenschap. Aan de universiteiten krijgen we een cancel culture. Met luide protestacties van antiracistische woke-activisten worden de lezingen van die controversiële sociale wetenschappers gesaboteerd.

Maar is dergelijke cancel culture wel rationeel? Ja, gezien het racisme in onze samenleving en de schadelijke gevolgen van taboe-onderzoek. De resultaten van die taboe-studies over IQ-verschillen kunnen misbruikt worden door echte racisten. Maar nee, hoogstwaarschijnlijk is toch niet rationeel. Want als bijvoorbeeld de IQ-verschillen tussen bevolkingsgroepen niet mogen onderzocht worden, dan maken we het onszelf moeilijker om effectieve oplossingen te vinden voor het probleem dat sommige groepen ernstig benadeeld worden. Het welzijn van mensen staat op het spel, want mensen met een lager IQ hebben doorgaans slechtere leef- en werkomstandigheden, lagere inkomens en een slechtere gezondheid, en bijgevolg een lager welzijn. We zien een positieve correlatie tussen IQ en welzijn. Een rationeel persoon moet natuurlijk voorzichtig zijn in het afleiden van causale verbanden uit correlaties. Maar door goed onderzoek te doen, en Pinker legt in zijn boek uit hoe dat moet, kunnen we achterhalen of een lager IQ een oorzaak is van het lagere welzijn. Als dat het geval is, dan zou het kunnen dat het verhogen van IQ een effectieve manier is om welzijn te bevorderen.

Maar kunnen we wel IQ verhogen? Er zijn sterke aanwijzingen dat IQ sterk correleert met genen. Wil dat zeggen dat we enkel met eugenetica het IQ van mensen kunnen verhogen? Niet noodzakelijk, want de uitdrukking van genen is gekoppeld aan omgevingsfactoren. Neem het voorbeeld van eelt onder de voeten. Wij zijn genetisch gedetermineerd om eelt te ontwikkelen, want we hebben genen die daarvoor instaan. Maar die genen komen vooral tot uitdrukking als je blootsvoets rondloopt. Mensen die schoenen dragen, hebben minder eelt, ook al hebben ze dezelfde eeltgenen als mensen zonder schoenen.

Het is irrationeel om te denken dat mensen met een donkerdere huidskleur inherent minderwaardig zijn omdat ze gemiddeld een lager IQ hebben en IQ sterk verband houdt met genen waar je niet gemakkelijk iets aan kunt veranderen. Hier is een ander verhaal, waar enig wetenschappelijk bewijs voor bestaat en gedeeltelijk te danken is aan sociale wetenschappers die onderzoek doen naar het taboe onderwerp van IQ en ras. Omwille van racisme hebben zwarten gemiddeld genomen een lagere socio-economische status, met bijvoorbeeld lagere inkomens. Door die armoede gaan ze sneller wonen in een ongezondere omgeving, langs drukke wegen met veel luchtvervuiling, in oude huizen met schimmels en loodverf. Die vervuiling, en vooral die lood, is een boosdoener: kinderen in die huizen krijgen via het stof lood in hun lichaam, en dat is slecht voor de ontwikkeling van hun hersenen. Gevolg: een lager IQ, en ook een lager niveau van zelfbeheersing. Dat laatste heeft dan weer als gevolg een hogere criminaliteit, meer drugsgebruik en ander impulsief en delinquent gedrag. En dat is niet goed op de arbeidsmarkt en in onze samenleving, waardoor die kinderen sneller in een lagere socio-economische positie belanden. Als onze directeur van dat beleggingsfonds dit spel meespeelt en zwarten uitsluit van een goedbetaalde job, dan werkt ze mee aan dat systeem dat zwarten systematisch benadeelt. En dat wordt dan een zelfvervullende voorspelling: de zwarte sollicitant vindt geen goedbetaald werk, is genoodzaakt om een goedkoop oud huis te huren, met loodverf, en zijn kinderen ontwikkelen een lager IQ omwille van loodvergiftiging en erven minder geld van de ouders, enzovoort. Bijdragen aan een zelfvervullende voorspelling is niet rationeel.

(Terzijde: het gemiddelde IQ van zwarten is minder dan een standaardafwijking lager dan dat van witten, beide gemiddelden kenden een sterke stijging de afgelopen eeuw, het gemiddelde van zwarten is sterker aan het stijgen dan dat van witten, waardoor het verschil tussen beide groepen kleiner wordt en mogelijks over enkele decennia zal verdwenen zijn.)

Bovenstaande redeneringen illustreren het boek Rationaliteit van Steven Pinker. Pinker toont niet enkel het belang aan van rationaliteit en kritisch denken. Hij laat zien dat er veel denkstappen te pas komen bij rationeel denken. Er zijn door psychologen veel voorbeelden gevonden van intuïtieve, spontane oordelen en keuzes die irrationeel lijken. Kijk maar naar de berucht lange lijst van cognitive biases op Wikipedia. Maar Pinker toont aan dat die irrationaliteiten soms toch rationeel zijn. En dan soms toch weer niet, omwille van een andere reden, als je er nog verder over nadenkt. De cancel culture aan universiteiten is daar een goed voorbeeld van. Pinker werd zelf bekritiseerd als een racist en seksist, omdat hij controversieel taboe-onderzoek naar bijvoorbeeld genderverschillen aanmoedigt. Pinker beroept zich op gedegen sociaal wetenschappelijk onderzoek in de economie, sociologie en psychologie, met gerandomiseerde gecontroleerde experimenten, natuurlijke experimenten, meta-analyses, econometrische regressiemethoden, instrumentele variabelen enzovoort. Maar omdat het over taboe-onderwerpen gaat, krijgt hij kritiek van andere academici in bijvoorbeeld genderstudies en critical race theory. Die academici laten zich in hun kritiek op Pinker eerder leiden door hun politieke agenda en ideologische affiliatie dan door wetenschappelijk bewijs en correcte statistische analyses. Op het eerste zicht is die kritiek irrationeel, want ze is niet compatibel met de wetenschappelijke methode. Maar hou je rekening met bredere maatschappelijke implicaties, dan kun je argumenten geven dat die kritiek wel rationeel is. En nog een denkstap verder zien we dat het uiteindelijk weer irrationeel is.

Conclusie: het boek Rationaliteit brengt je echt wel enkele denkstappen verder op het pad naar meer rationaliteit. Je leert niet enkel over de technieken van rationeel denken, maar ook over nieuwe inzichten in de psychologische wetenschappen, waarom mensen zo vaak irrationeel denken, en wat we tegen die irrationaliteit kunnen doen.

En mocht je toch kritiek hebben op de rationaliteit zoals gepropageerd door Pinker, wel, dan toont Pinker aan dat die kritiek ergens wel rationeel is. Maar als je er nog dieper over nadenkt, dan stel je vast dat die kritiek gebaseerd is op irrationele vooroordelen tegenover rationaliteit. En Pinker maakt je dan duidelijk dat het logisch onmogelijk is om een echt zinnige kritiek te uiten op rationaliteit. Want een echt zinnige kritiek kan enkel een rationele kritiek zijn.

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The two intrinsic rights that restrict utilitarianism

A more elaborate article about the new theory of complaint-free discounted utilitarianism, which includes everyone having a right to discount utilities of others as long as that does not generate valid complaints, can be read here.

Let us start with utilitarianism, the ethical theory that says we have to choose the situation or state of the world that has the highest amount of total utility. Total utility is the sum of individual utilities, summed over all sentient beings. Sentient beings are individuals who can value things, and the individual utility of a sentient being measures everything that is valued or considered important by that sentient being. Individual utility includes for example individual well-being, happiness or preference satisfaction.[1]

Based on utilitarianism, we can derive many rights, which are rules that help to maximize total utility. For example the right to vote and the right to free speech are derived rights, designed to promote total utility. These rights are instrumental: they are a means to increase total utility. But there are two rights that are not derived from utilitarianism and that are in that sense intrinsic. This article discusses these two intrinsic rights, and argues why there are two of them.

The right to bodily autonomy

Consider the forced organ transplantation case: the lives of five hospital patients can be saved in only one way, by sacrificing one innocent person and using his five organs for organ transplantations. From a purely utilitarian perspective, this organ transplantation is good, because the utility of the five patients is more than the utility of the one sacrificed person. However, most people have the intuition that such forced organ transplantation is impermissible. The same goes for many other cases: cannibalism, involuntary experimentation, gladiator fights, gang rape, slavery, terror bombing, torture interrogation, blackmail murder,… These things are impermissible, even when they would increase total utility by making many people happy while sacrificing a small minority.

What these examples have in common, is that they all violate the right to bodily autonomy. In all those cases, the body of the victim is used as a means for someone else’s ends, against the will of the victim. The right to bodily autonomy says that one should not use the body of the right-holder as a means against that person’s will for the ends of someone else. In short, it is the right no to be used merely as a means, where ‘merely’ refers to being against the preferences or will of the person whose body is being used. This fact relates the right to bodily autonomy to the ‘mere means principle’.

As ‘bodily autonomy’ and ‘mere means’ contain two words, there are two criteria to test whether the right to bodily autonomy is violated. The words ‘autonomy’ and ‘mere’ refer to the first criterion, that the victim does not want the treatment. The words ‘bodily’ and ‘means’ refer to the second criterion that the presence of the victim, in particular the victim’s body, is required in order to reach the end. In the forced organ transplantation case, the body of the victim is necessary: without that body, no organs could be transplanted. If the end (for example saving lives) could equally be reached when the victim is absent, the victim is not used as a means.

To avoid discrimination, this right should be given to everyone and everything. However, the right explicitly refers to ‘body’ and ‘will’, which means the right is trivially satisfied for non-sentient objects. These non-sentient objects have no subjective perception of their own bodies, which means what counts as their bodies is not well-defined. A plant or a computer has no sentience of its body, and therefore determining the body of a plant or computer becomes ambiguous or arbitrary. Non-sentient beings also do not have a subjective will or subjective preferences. That means it becomes impossible to violate the right to bodily autonomy of a non-sentient object, no matter how you treat that object. Only for sentient beings, who have a sense of their own bodies and a personal will, it becomes possible to violate their right to bodily autonomy.

The right to bodily autonomy is intrinsic in the sense that it cannot be derived from utilitarianism. As the forced organ transplantation case shows, this right goes against the idea of maximizing utility (e.g. maximizing the number of lives saved). There are two reasons why this right is important.

First, it is consistent with a coherent set of strong moral intuitions (automatic or spontaneous moral judgments) in many cases. In the abovementioned cases, such as the forced organ transplantation case, many people have a strong moral judgment that using someone as a means against that person’s will is impermissible. These moral intuitions of impermissibility are often expressed in terms of moral virtues such as ‘respect’ and moral values such as ‘dignity’. Also many other moral principles, such as the difference between doing versus allowing, the difference between positive and negative duties, the permissibility of partiality in imperfect duties of beneficence, can all be derived from the right to bodily autonomy. In other words, a large part of non-utilitarian (deontological) ethics can be derived from this intrinsic right.

Second, this right is special because people cannot complain against it. More precisely, the rights violator (who uses the right-holder as merely a means), does not become better-off when the right-holder were absent. The five hospital patients do not become better-off when the one person to be sacrificed does not exist, because in that case there would be no body and hence no organs to be transplanted. The fact that the violator does not become better-off relates to the second criterion to test the rights violation: the required presence of the victim’s body. This also means that the violator does not become worse-off when the right-holder is present or comes into existence. The existence of the right-holder does not impose a cost on others.

This absence of costs for others can be contrasted with for example the right to live. The right not to be used against one’s will is fundamentally different from the right not to be killed against one’s will. Using someone presupposes that the victim is required to be present. Killing does not presuppose the required presence of the victim. Suppose a group of people is in danger and the only way to save those people is by accidentally or unintentionally killing one bystander. For example, the bystander is in the way of the ambulance. If that bystander was absent, one could equally (or even more easily) save the group of people. Hence, the bystander is not used as a means, and therefore the person’s right to bodily autonomy is not violated. However if that person has a right to live, that right would be violated when that person is killed. If it is impermissible to violate the right to live, the presence of the bystander makes it impossible to save the group of people. The group of people would be better-off if the bystander was absent, if the bystander did not have the right to live or if it were permissible to violate that right. That is why the right not to be killed against one’s will imposes a cost on others: it restricts the freedom of other people to be saved. The group of people who will die due to the presence of the bystander, can complain against that person’s right to live. In contrast, the right not to be used against one’s will does not impose costs on others, and therefore other people cannot complain against that right. They cannot complain against the presence of a person who has that right.

The right to bodily autonomy can be expressed in the utilitarian sum of utilities by subtracting a large disutility from the utility of a right-holder when that person’s right is violated. We get a reduced utilitarian theory, where the sum is reduced by a disutility from the rights violation. This disutility is larger than the sum of the utility increments of the exploiters, i.e. the people who benefit from the rights violation by using the right-holder as merely a means. As the reduced sum of utilities is lowest for the situation where someone’s right is violated, the reduced utilitarian theory implies that the rights violation is impermissible. One could equally say that the right-holder has the right to delete those utility increments from the beneficiaries (exploiters): those utility increments that come from a rights violation, should not be counted in the utilitarian sum.

The right to procreation autonomy

Utilitarianism faces some counterintuitive conclusions in population ethics, where our choices influence not only the utilities (welfare) of people in the future, but also their existence. If we have to choose the state that has the highest total utility, we face the very repugnant conclusion: drastically decreasing the utility of a group of very happy people, making those people extremely miserable, by creating a huge number of new people who have lives barely worth living (small but positive utilities) would be good, because that would increase total utility. In numbers, the initial situation contains say 1000 happy people, each with utility 100, the second situation contains the same group of people, each with negative utility -100, plus a million extra people, all having a small utility 1. The total utility in the second situation is a 900.000 (a million of the lives barely worth living minus 100 times 1000 of the pre-existing, miserable people), which is much higher than the total utility of 100.000 in the initial situation (1000 pre-existing people having high utility 100). Choosing the situation where a group of happy people have to sacrifice a lot and the many other people have lives barely worth living, feels counterintuitive or very repugnant.

It is instructive to make a distinction between necessary people, who exist in all available (eligible) situations or states of the world, versus potential or contingent people who exist in some but not all available situations. The necessary people can make the choice to bring the potential people into existence. In the example of the very repugnant conclusion, the million people with lives barely worth living are the potential people, because they do not exist in the initial situation. If the necessary people choose the initial situation, those million potential people will never be born.

Population ethics presents us with a second class of cases where utilitarianism is counterintuitive. These counterintuitive conclusions can be avoided in a similar way as above, by introducing a right. This time, the right deals with choices to cause the existence of new people. It can be referred to as the right to procreation autonomy, where procreation refers generally to a choice that causes the existence of potential people.

The necessary people have a right to procreation autonomy. This basically means that they have a right not to take the utilities of the potential people with positive utilities into account. Just as a right-holder of the right to bodily autonomy has the right to exclude from the utilitarian sum the utility increments of the rights violators, the necessary people have the right to exclude the positive utilities of the potential people. These positive utilities of potential people are nothing but the utility increments when compared with a zero utility, i.e. the utility corresponding to non-existence. Excluding the utility increments of the potential people  from the sum of utilities gives us a reduced utilitarian theory. Using the right to procreation autonomy, we do not have to consider the total utility, but only the sum of the utilities of the necessary people and the potential people who have negative utilities. In other words: the necessary people should choose the situation that maximizes a restricted sum of utilities, including only the utilities of the necessary people and the potential people with negative utilities.[2]

As with the right to bodily autonomy, there are two justifications for this right to procreation autonomy. First, it matches moral intuitions in population ethics, such as the intuition that we have to avoid the very repugnant conclusion. It is easy to see that excluding the positive utilities of potential people allows us to avoid the very repugnant conclusion: the million utilities of +1 are excluded from the sum. The sum of the utilities in the initial situation equals 100.000, which is higher than the sum of remaining utilities in the second situation, which equals -100.000.

Second, no-one can complain against this right. When avoiding the very repugnant conclusion by choosing the initial situation, there are a million potential people with positive utilities who are not brought into existence. They could have had happy lives (although barely worth living, their lives were still positive), but as they do not exist, they cannot complain against the choice for the initial situation. Non-existent people cannot complain at all, and hence cannot complain against the necessary people exercising their right to exclude the positive utilities of potential people.

If on the other hand a choice is made that brought a potential person with a negative utility into existence, that person exists and hence can complain against that choice. A negative utility by definition means that that person prefers non-existence above having a live with that utility, all else equal. If you have a negative utility, you would prefer a situation where you do not to exist and everyone else remains equally happy (keeps the same utilities). As potential people with negative utilities can complain against the choice to bring them into existence with a negative utility, the necessary people do not have a right to exclude those negative utilities from the sum of utilities.

When the necessary people apply their right to procreation autonomy, we end up with an asymmetric person-affecting utilitarian theory. The theory is person-affecting in the sense that a situation can only be better than another situation if it is better for at least someone, and worse than another situation if it is worse for at least someone. Total utilitarianism, which maximizes the sum of everyone’s utilities, faces the very repugnant conclusion and is therefore not person-affecting: it says that the initial situation is worse than the second, very repugnant situation, because the first situation has a lower sum of utilities, but for no-one in the initial situation is that initial situation worse than the second. A person-affecting theory says that we have to make people happy rather than make happy people.

As the right to procreation autonomy does not apply to potential people with negative utilities, our person-affecting theory becomes asymmetric: it is always bad to cause the existence of a life with negative utility (all else equal), but not always good to cause the existence of a life with positive utility (all else equal). Potential people with negative utilities are included, but potential people with positive utilities may be excluded from the sum of utilities. Necessary people have to take into consideration unhappy potential people but not happy potential people.[3]

Why there are two intrinsic rights

A right involves a relationship between two (groups of) people: the right-holders who have the right and the duty-holders who have the duty to respect the right of the right-holders. With the right to bodily autonomy, we have to consider the right-holders who may not be used as merely a means, and the duty-holders who are potential beneficiaries in the sense that they may be helped by using the right-holder as merely a means. With the right to procreation autonomy, we have to consider the necessary people as right-holders and the potential people as duty-holders who have to accept the right-holders exercising their right to procreation autonomy (i.e. their right to exclude the positive utilities of potential people).

The two intrinsic rights have two justifications. The first justification refers to moral intuitions. The second justification refers to the possibility to complain. That possibility to complain relates to the presence or existence of a person. As there are two kinds of people, the right-holders and the duty-holders, there are two kinds of complaints and hence two kinds of intrinsic rights. The right to bodily autonomy refers to the presence or existence of the right-holder, the right to procreation autonomy refers to the existence of the duty-holder. In the case of the right to bodily autonomy, the duty-holders (the beneficiaries) cannot complain against the right-holders having the right to bodily autonomy, because non-existence of the right-holders would not make the duty-holders better-off. In the case of the right to procreation autonomy, the duty-holders (the possible people with positive utilities) cannot complain against the right-holders having the right to procreation autonomy, because non-existence of the duty-holders would not make the duty-holders better-off. (Potential people with negative utilities can say they would be better-off in the situation where they do not exist, because they prefer non-existence above having a life with a negative utility.)

Limits to rights

The two rights are not necessarily absolute. They may have finite strength. For example, if a huge number of people can only be saved by using the body of one victim only a little bit against that person’s will, it should be permissible or even obligatory to use that victim to save the many people. The victim does not have the right to refuse saving the many people. Similarly, if the welfare of very happy necessary people only decreases a little bit when adding a huge population of extremely happy extra people, it should be permissible or even obligatory to add those extra people. The necessary people do not have the right to refuse bringing those extra people into existence.

The limit to the right of procreation autonomy means that potential people with sufficiently high positive utilities may or should be included in the sum of utilities. In other words: only the potential people who have utilities in a range between 0 and an upper bound (a maximum positive level), can be excluded from the utilitarian sum. As this range contains zero utility, it is a neutral range, and hence this population ethical theory can be called person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism. According to this theory, we (i.e. the necessary people) should choose the state or outcome that maximizes the sum of individual utilities, excluding the utilities of possible people that lie in a neutral range.[4]

People can democratically choose how strong the rights to bodily autonomy and procreation autonomy are. They can choose the minimum number of lives that have to be saved in order to justify the use and sacrifice (death) of one person. They can choose the size of the neutral range. If they choose an infinitely large neutral range, i.e. a range without an upper bound, they face an extinction conclusion: it may be better not to procreate, because a potential person with a positive utility does not add any value to the world, but any potential person with a negative utility adds a disvalue to the world. That means adding people (creating future generations) cannot make things better, and could easily make things worse. When the neutral range is finite, potential people with a sufficiently high positive welfare still contribute to the total value of the world (the sum of utilities). When this added value is larger than the total disvalue of the potential people with negative utilities, it is good to add the potential people.

Summary

According to utilitarianism, we have to choose the situation that has the highest sum of individual utilities, where all sentient beings are included in the sum. However, this utilitarianism has two kinds of counterintuitive implications: if it increases the total utility, a person may be sacrificed (used against that person’s will) for the sake of others, and people may have to drastically decrease their welfare by creating a huge population of individuals with lives barely worth living. These two kinds of counterintuitive implications of utilitarianism can be avoided by introducing two rights: the right to bodily autonomy and the right to procreation autonomy. These rights are intrinsic, because they cannot be derived from utilitarianism. There are two such intrinsic rights, because a right involves a relationship between a right-holder and a duty-holder. A duty-holder cannot complain against a right-holder having and exercising the right to bodily autonomy, because the absence of such a right-holder does not make the duty-holder better-off. A duty-holder cannot complain against a right-holder having and exercising the right to procreation autonomy, because the non-existence of the duty-holder does not make the duty-holder better-off. Hence, these two rights are special in the sense that the duty-holders, i.e. the people affected by those rights, cannot complain against those rights. These rights do not have to be absolute: they may have a finite strength and their limits can be democratically decided. With these two rights, we arrive at a restricted utilitarian theory that says we have to choose the situation that has the highest sum of utilities of everyone except potential people with utilities between a neutral range, and we cannot choose that situation when that choice involves the use as a means of the bodies of too many people that is too much against their will. In other words, right-holders of the right to bodily autonomy have the right to exclude the utility increments of the beneficiaries (those who benefit from the use of the right-holder as merely a means) from the utilitarian calculation (the sum of utilities), except when the sum of those utility increments is very large. Similarly, right-holders of the right to procreation autonomy have the right to exclude the utility increments (the positive utilities) of the potential people from the utilitarian calculation, except when the sum of those utility increments is very large. In general, people have the right to exclude the utilities of others, or the right to subtract a certain, large amount from their own utility in the sum of utilities, as long is no-one can complain against that.


[1] Someone’s individual utility can be a function of that person’s well-being. Individuals can (democratically) choose their own utility function. If everyone chooses a concave utility function, the utilitarian theory (maximizing the sum of utilities) reduces to prioritarianism, where the objective is to maximize everyone’s well-being, but giving priority to increasing the well-being of the worst-off (the people with the lowest levels of well-being). We should increase someone’s well-being, except when this is at the cost of a too strong reduction of well-being of a worse-off person. The concavity of the utility function also reflects inequality aversion: if everyone chooses a very concave utility function, people have a strong preference for a more equal distribution of well-being. Hence, preferences of equality and justice can be incorporated in the individual utility functions.

[2] There is one technical caveat: once the necessary people choose to bring potential people into existence, those potential people also become necessary people, because undoing their existence becomes impossible. Once they become necessary people, their utilities should be included in the utilitarian sum of utilities. As the sum changes and the goodness of a situation relates to this sum of utilities, it is possible that the ranking of the available situations changes. Once the utilities of the newly existing people are included, the chosen situation may no longer have the highest sum of utilities, and another situation may become better by having a higher sum. Hence we have at least three situations: the initial situation where the necessary people choose not to bring potential people into existence, the second situation where potential people with positive utilities are brought into existence, and a third situation where the same people as in the second situation exist, but their sum of utilities is higher than in the second situation. In particular, it is possible that the newly existing people, who have positive utilities, would have even higher utilities in the third situation than in the second. If that is the case, those newly existing people could complain against the choice of the second situation, because they prefer the third situation. This could imply that the second situation, which initially seems to be the best, is later (when the situation is chosen and the potential people become necessary people) dominated by another alternative state which initially seems worse. If that happens, the initial better-seeming situation (the second situation) should be excluded from the available options of the initial decision. If you know in advance that if you choose the initial best-seeming situation, that best-seeming situation will no longer be the best situation in the future, then you should not choose that best-seeming situation.

As a concrete example, consider the case of animal farming, represented by a choice between three situations. The first situation contains only humans. The second situation contains the same humans, plus an extra population of farm animals who have lives barely worth living (i.e. positive but small happiness levels). The humans breed the animals, who have short lives because they are killed and eaten by the humans. The third situation contains the same humans and animals, but this time the animals are much happier (having very high utilities), as they are not killed, but taken care of by the humans. In the third situation, those animals are sanctuary animals instead of farm animals. The third situation can even resemble a very repugnant conclusion, where the humans are extremely miserable and the sanctuary animals are huge in numbers but have lives barely worth living. The humans may prefer the second situation, because in that situation they maximize their happiness by enjoying the taste of meat. However, once they bring the animals into existence, the third situation may have a higher total utility than the second. In that case, the humans should not be allowed to choose the second situation, because they know in advance that once the second situation is chosen, the third situation becomes better and should consequently be chosen. If the humans do not prefer that third situation (as they cannot enjoy eating the animals and have to spend costs taking care of the sanctuary animals), it is better for them to choose the first situation and not breed animals at all. Next to this argument against animal farming, which applies even when the farm animals have positive utilities, the right to bodily autonomy offers a second argument against animal farming: when they are killed and used for their meat, the bodies of the farm animals are used as a means against the animals’ will. Animal farming violates the right to bodily autonomy of farm animals, and is inconsistent with the right to procreation autonomy of humans.

[3] The asymmetric person-affecting utilitarian theory can be considered as a kind of variable critical level utilitarian theory. In critical level utilitarianism, we have to choose the situation that maximizes the sum of relative utilities, where someone’s relative utility is that person’s utility minus a constant critical level. In variable critical level utilitarianism, that critical level can be variable and may be autonomously chosen by individuals. Different people may choose different critical levels, and those critical levels may depend on the situation and even on the choice set (the set of all available or eligible situations). In the case of asymmetric person-affecting utilitarian theory with its right to procreation autonomy, the necessary people have the right choose their own critical levels, with two conditions. First, their critical levels have to be positive (this creates the asymmetry). Second, the sum of critical levels has a maximum equal to the maximum sum of positive utilities of the potential people.

The sum of relative utilities contains the critical levels of the necessary people and the utilities of potential people. When necessary people choose their critical levels equal to the positive utilities of possible people (which is their right to do), those positive utilities are cancelled by the critical levels. That is how the positive utilities of potential people are excluded from the utilitarian sum of utilities.

[4] And subtracting the size of the neutral range from the utilities of all possible people who have utilities above the neutral range. The size of the neutral range counts as a maximum critical level, as in critical-level utilitarianism. Person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism maximizes the sum of all negative utilities plus all positive relative utilities, where a positive relative utility is the part of the utility that is above a threshold level. For necessary people that threshold level is 0, for potential people that threshold level is a positive value.  

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Person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism

Summary

In many examples, such as procreation, animal farming, climate change and catastrophic risks, our choices not only influence the welfare of other sentient beings in the future, but also influence their very existence. To determine what is the best outcome in such examples, we need a good population ethical theory. However, most population ethical theories face highly counter-intuitive implications, such as the very repugnant and sadistic conclusions. Forward-looking, person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism is presented as a new population ethical theory that avoids the most counter-intuitive implications in population ethics. The theory says that we should choose the state or outcome that maximizes the sum of individual utilities (lifetime welfares), excluding the utilities of contingent people (who do not exist in all eligible states) that lie in a neutral range and subtracting the size of the neutral range from the utilities of all contingent people who have utilities above the neutral range. The theory includes a deontological ‘forward-looking’ constraint to exclude states from the choice set of eligible states that once chosen will become dominated by other eligible states. People can democratically choose the size of the neutral range, based on their population ethical preferences. This theory is a combination of critical-range utilitarianism and asymmetric person-affecting utilitarianism. It is complete (all pairs of states are mutually comparable), transitive (no cycles of preferences occur) and has a structural symmetry (positive and negative utilities are treated in the same way) that can become broken when people determine what counts as their own zero utility level.

Introduction

Is it good to bring into existence a person who is extremely miserable? Is it good to drastically reduce the welfare of happy people by adding a huge population of people who have lives barely worth living? Intuitively, the answers are clear: definitely not! The first is sadistic, the second is repugnant. However, these sadistic and repugnant conclusions often appear in population ethics, the study of what are the best choices when populations are variable and choices determine the existence or non-existence of individuals.

This article presents a new population ethical theory that is probably the most simple theory that avoids the most serious counter-intuitive sadistic and repugnant conclusions. The theory lies between total utilitarianism (choose the state that maximizes the sum of utilities of everyone who exists in that state) and person-affecting utilitarianism (choose the state that maximizes the sum of utilities of everyone who exists in all available states). This theory can be called forward-looking, person-affecting, neutral-range utilitarianism.

The sadistic and repugnant conclusions

Suppose every sentient being has a lifetime welfare or utility which can be represented by a real number. If the number is negative, the individual has a life not worth living, i.e. a life consisting of mostly negative experiences. To find the optimal state, a utilitarian theory aggregates the individual utilities of all sentient beings. The state that has the largest aggregate utility is the best state that should be chosen.

There are different ways to aggregate individual utilities: we can take the sum, the average or another aggregation function of the individual utilities. What most of such aggregate utility functions have in common, is that they have an asymptotic critical level: when there is a very large background population of individuals whose utility is (almost) constant, the aggregate utility can be expressed as the sum of everyone’s relative utility. This relative utility is the individual utility minus a constant critical level. If the individual utility is higher than this critical level, the individual positively contributes to the aggregate utility.

The presence of at least one asymptotic critical level means that the aggregate utility theory faces a trilemma, as can be seen in the figure below. If the asymptotic critical level is negative, the theory implies a very sadistic conclusion: making an extremely happy person extremely miserable and bringing into existence a very large population of miserable people would be good. If the critical level is zero or positive but small, we get the very repugnant conclusion: making an extremely happy person extremely miserable and bringing into existence a very large population of people who have lives barely worth living (i.e. small but positive utilities), would be good. Finally, if the asymptotic critical level is positive and large, we get the reverse very sadistic conclusion: making an extremely miserable person extremely happy and bringing into existence a very large population of very happy people would be bad. This can also be called the ‘extreme extinction conclusion’, because it implies that extinction (causing the current generation to suffer a lot in order to avoid the existence of a large future population of very happy people) is preferable. These three conclusions are arguably the most counter-intuitive implications that we encounter in population ethics.

Counter-intuitive implications of asymptotic critical-level utilitarian theories. Width of the boxes represent population sizes, height represent utility levels, dashed horizontal lines represent zero utility, dotted horizontal lines are the asymptotic critical levels, black boxes are a large background population of unaffected people that exist in all states (i.e. both at the left and the right states), grey boxes are affected people that exist in all states, white boxes are extra people that do not exist in the states on the left. The inequality signs indicate which state has the highest aggregate utility according to the asymptotic critical-level utilitarian theories.

A first attempt: person-affecting utilitarianism

Person-affecting utilitarianism makes a distinction between necessary (or present) and contingent (or potential) people. Necessary people exist necessarily in the sense that they exist in all available states (i.e. all states that are possible or feasible and can be chosen). In contrast, contingent or potential people are individuals who do not exist in all available states. In the above figure, the contingent people are represented by the white boxes.

According to person-affecting utilitarianism, a state can only be better (or worse) if it is better (or worse) for at least someone. Consider the very repugnant conclusion: if initial state (the left state in the figure above), where everyone is happy, is said to be worse than the second, very repugnant state where someone is extremely miserable, for whom is the initial state worse? Not for the necessary people, because they are at least as well off in the initial state than in the very repugnant state. And not for the huge population of contingent people who have positive utility levels, because these people do not exist in the initial state. As we cannot point at one person who is worse-off in the initial state, a person-affecting theory cannot say that the initial state is worse.

In a person-affecting theory, the contingent people do not count. It is as if the critical level for a contingent person is no longer a constant, as in the asymptotic critical-level utilitarian theories, but equals the utility of that person in that situation. In that case, the contingent person has a relative utility equal to zero, and hence the contingent person is not included in the aggregate utility function.

Although person-affecting utilitarianism escapes the very repugnant and (reverse) sadistic conclusions, it faces two other major problems.

First, it faces another sadistic conclusion: if utilities of contingent people do not count, they also do not count when the contingent people have a negative utility. That means this person-affecting utilitarianism is neutral about adding a huge population of extremely miserable people, when everyone else keep the same utility. Adding individuals with a negative utility would not be problematic.

A second problem of person-affecting utilitarianism, is that it is indifferent between creating a life barely worth living (i.e. adding a person with a low positive utility) and creating another, extremely happy life. In both cases, before making the choice, the additional life counts as a contingent person, and hence its utility does not count.

A complete solution: person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism

The first problem of person-affecting utilitarianism (a sadistic conclusion) can be avoided by making the person-affecting theory asymmetric: when a contingent person has a negative utility, that negative utility is fully taken into account in the aggregate utility function, whereas a positive utility of a contingent person is excluded. The critical level of a contingent person equals that person’s utility if the utility is positive, and zero if the utility is negative. Or in other words, the critical level has a lower boundary equal to zero. This gives us a procreation asymmetry: adding an unhappy life always makes things worse (all else equal), but adding a happy life not always makes things better.

The second problem of person-affecting utilitarianism can be mitigated to some degree by setting a cap on the critical level: the critical level cannot be higher than a positive upper boundary cmax. That means creating an extremely happy life (with a utility above cmax) is preferred above creating a life barely worth living (with a positive but small utility below cmax). And choosing between two lives with utilities above cmax, the life with the highest utility is preferred (all else equal).[1]  

Now we have a restricted person-affecting theory, where the critical level lies in a range between 0 and cmax. The critical level is zero if the contingent person has a negative utility, linearly increasing for small positive utility levels and a positive constant cmax for high positive utilities. As the critical level ranges from 0 to cmax, which means the range includes the neutral level of zero utility, this theory is called neutral-range utilitarianism. The theory has a neutral range of utilities for contingent people, which means that adding people who have utilities in this range does not make the world better nor worse (all else equal).

Critical-level function for contingent people in person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism

With this critical-level function, if a contingent person has a negative utility, that negative utility fully counts in the aggregate utility function. This represents the procreation asymmetry in the person-affecting view. If the person has a positive utility below a maximum critical level, the utility doesn’t count. This corresponds with the person-affecting view. And if the utility is above the maximum critical level, the utility minus the maximum critical level counts, as in critical-level utilitarianism. Or in other words: the aggregate utility function is the sum of everyone’s utility, excluding the utilities of the contingent people who have utilities in a neutral range (between zero and a maximum critical level), and subtracting a maximum critical level from the contingent people who have utilities above the maximum critical level.

It is easy to see that this person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism avoids the very sadistic conclusion due to the fact that the critical level function is zero at negative utilities. And it avoids the very repugnant and reverse very sadistic conclusions due to the linearly increasing ramp part of the critical-level function. If at the neutral range from 0 to cmax the critical-level function was zero (or more generally a general function strictly below the linear function with slope 1), we would face the very repugnant conclusion. And if at this neutral range the critical level function was cmax (or more generally a function strictly above the linear function with slope 1), we would face the reverse vary sadistic conclusion. With a neutral range [0,cmax] containing a linear increasing critical level function, all the sadistic and repugnant conclusions are avoided.

Person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism is perhaps the simplest of all population ethical theories that avoid the sadistic and repugnant conclusions. There is one small complication, however: the theory requires a ‘forward-looking constraint’. If an available state, which initially seems to be the best, is later (when the state is chosen and the contingent people become necessary people) dominated by another alternative state which initially seems worse, the initial better-seeming state should be excluded from the available options of the initial decision. If you know in advance that if you choose the best state, that best state will no longer be the best state in the future, then you should not choose that best state.

Consider as an example a choice between three states. In the first state, one person exists and has a high utility 10. In the second state, the utility of this person is increased to 11, by adding an extra person at low utility 1. The third state contains the same two persons, the first person gets utility 9 and the second gets utility 4.

Suppose the maximum critical level is cmax=5. The initial choice is between three states. Person 1 is necessary, person 2 is contingent. As person 2 gets a utility below the maximum critical level, its utility does not count in the aggregate utility function. That means state 2, with aggregate utility 11+1=12, is the best. However, this choice requires bringing into existence person 2. Once that person exists, that person becomes a necessary person, state 1 is no longer an option, and a choice between states 2 and 3 remains. Including the utility of person 2 in the aggregate utility function now means that state 3 is the best, with aggregate utility equal to 9+4=13. That means state 2 becomes dominated by state 3 after the choice of bringing person 2 into existence.

If this reasoning means that we have to end up with state 3, we face the very repugnant conclusion, because we can repeat the process. Suppose we can move from state 3 to a fourth state, by adding a third person with utility 1. In state 4, person 1 may get utility 10. The aggregate utility function equals 10+4=14, which is higher than 13 of state 2. But assume there is a fifth state where person 1 gets utility 8 and person 3 gets utility 4. Once person 3 is brought into existence, that person becomes a necessary person, which means its utility counts and state 5 becomes the best. We see the utility of person 1 decreasing, from 10 in state 1 to 9 in state 3 to 8 in state 5. After a large number steps, we end up with an odd-numbered state in which person 1 has a very negative utility and all the other people have low utilities in the neutral range (i.e. below 5). This is the very repugnant conclusion.  

The only way to escape this conclusion, is by not allowing state 2 to be a member of the initial choice set. If the initial choice is between the two permissible states 1 and 3, state 1 will be chosen and person 2 will not become a necessary person. This forward-looking constraint, i.e. excluding from the initial choice set the states that will become dominated by other states once chosen, is a deontological constraint which means our population ethical theory is no longer axiological. An axiological theory only looks at the aggregate utility function over all available states and does not impose restrictions on the choice set of available, eligible states. Deontological constraints impose boundary conditions on the maximization of the aggregate utility function.

Symmetry breaking

In the previous section, the neutral range was assumed to range from utility level 0 to level cmax. As the critical values are always non-negative, it may seem that person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism has an asymmetry (resulting in the abovementioned procreation asymmetry). However, this is not necessarily the case, due to an ambiguity in the definition of zero utility. The previous section implicitly assumed that zero utility is defined as the utility below which a contingent person would negatively contribute to the aggregate utility function, making a state worse by bringing that person into existence (all else equal). Then the neutral range becomes [0,cmax]. But we could equally define zero utility as the utility above which a contingent person would positively contribute to the aggregate utility function, making a state better by bringing that person into existence (all else equal). With this definition, the critical values are always non-positive and the neutral range becomes [-cmax,0].

The apparent asymmetry of person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism is the result of an arbitrariness in the definition of zero utility. Although the theory is structurally symmetric, the symmetry may become broken (a bit analogous to spontaneous symmetry breaking in physics). To see this, we have to make the distinction between personal utility and contributive utility. The above paragraph referred to contributive utility: the utility that contributes to the state of the whole population (i.e. the aggregate utility function). If the contributive utility of a (contingent) person is zero, the addition of that life makes a population neither better nor worse, but equally good (all else equal, i.e. all personal utilities of other people stay the same in the situation where the contingent person does not exist). The addition of that life is neutral from an impersonal perspective, the point of view of the whole population. Personal utility, on the other hand, measures how valuable a life is according to the person who lives that life. A zero personal utility means that the person is neutral, indecisive or indifferent between living that life and non-existence (all else equal). 

Just like contributive utility has a neutral range, personal utility can have a personal neutral range as well. If personal utility is above this range, the person prefers that life above non-existence. If it is below the personal neutral range, the person prefers non-existence above that life. The personal neutral range with a non-zero height means that a person can be indecisive or indifferent between living a life and non-existence, and still be similarly indifferent if that life is slightly improved (having a slightly higher welfare).

Each person can have a different personal neutral range, with a different heights. Some people may have a very accurate idea what counts as their zero personal utility and hence have one precise personal neutral level instead of a range. But others may be more uncertain, and may prefer a vague notion of zero personal utility. In any case, we could also have a different contributive neutral range for each different person, which means cmax can be different for different people. To respect personal autonomy of people, we should assume that each person’s personal neutral range lies within their contributive neutral range (otherwise what counts as a good life for a person may count as bad for the population). One option is setting the contributive neutral range of a person equal to that person’s personal neutral range (i.e. an exact fit of the personal range within the contributive range). In that case, person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism remains symmetric (because there is a similar ambiguity in the definition of zero personal utility as with zero contributive utility).

It is also possible that the contributive neutral range is the same for everyone and at least as large as each person’s personal neutral range. The contributive neutral range could for example be the personal neutral range of the person who has the largest personal neutral range. If a personal neutral range is smaller than the contributive neutral range, the question becomes where the personal neutral range is located within the contributive neutral range. This is where the symmetry might become broken. To respect personal autonomy of people, each person should be allowed to determine where the own personal neutral range lies within the contributive neutral range. If a person has a strong preference to avoid a sadistic conclusion, that person should choose the own personal neutral range at the lower end of the contributive range. A zero personal utility should be at the zero contributive utility. The symmetry of the theory is broken, because the person has a preference for an asymmetry. 

Determining the neutral range

A final question remains: how do we determine the size of the (contributive) neutral range? To respect personal autonomy of people, ideally people should determine for themselves how large their own contributive neutral range is (and where there personal neutral range is located in that contributive neutral range).

The size of someone’s contributive neutral range may reflect that person’s population ethical preferences, such as the preference to avoid the very repugnant conclusion.

A person’s personal utility function (and personal neutral range) represents that person’s preferences, but these preferences do not include population ethical preferences. It is difficult to represent population ethical preferences in the personal utility function, because these preferences might depend on the choice set, i.e. the set of eligible states. Given a choice set that includes a state that is very repugnant, a person might have a strong preference to avoid the very repugnant conclusion. If everyone would choose a larger contributive neutral range, that repugnant conclusion would be more easily avoided. Therefore, that person may choose a large own contributive neutral range. In this case, the size of the contributive neutral range represents the strength of the preference to avoid the repugnant conclusion.

The choice of the size of the contributive neutral range may depend on the choice set. If some states are no longer available and there is no longer a worry for a repugnant conclusion, the person might choose a smaller own contributive neutral range, to reflect a personal preference to decrease e.g. the second problem of person-affecting theories (the indifference between creating a slightly happy life and creating another slightly happier life).

The difficulty, of course, is that a contributive neutral range only matters for contingent people, and we cannot know their population ethical preferences (at least not until they are brought into existence). Therefore, we should assume that their population ethical preferences are similar to ours, i.e. to the necessary people. That means the necessary people have to democratically decide how large they set the contributive neutral range (which is now equal in size for all contingent people), given the actual choice set faced by the necessary people.  


[1] But there is still a small problem left: the theory remains indifferent between creating a life barely worth living and creating another, slightly happier life (with utility below cmax). This problem can be slightly mitigated, by introducing a small extensions of the theory, making it ‘lexical’ when there is a tie. Suppose there are multiple optimal states, having equal aggregate utility values. The aggregate utility function excludes the contingent people with small positive utilities (i.e. whose lives are barely worth living). In that case, we can break the tie by choosing the state that has the highest sum of welfares of the excluded contingent people.

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The crux of the cultivated meat feasibility debate.

The production of meat from an animal causes many problems: animal suffering, environmental impact (pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change) and infectious disease risks. These problems of animal-based meat are related to the organs of the animal (as shown in this infographic). Animal suffering relates to the nervous system, pollution relates to the urinary system (e.g. eutrophication), climate change and land use relate to the digestive system (e.g. methane emissions from stomach bacteria), infectious disease risks relate to the respiratory system (respiratory viral infections) and digestive system (harmful gut bacteria).

As a better alternative to animal-based meat, a lot of hope is placed in cultivated or cell-based meat: producing the muscle tissue without the animal. The idea is that as the problematic organs (brains, stomachs, lungs,…) are not produced, the animal welfare, environmental and public health problems could be avoided or decreased.

There is a lot of debate about cultivated or cell-based meat feasibility, in particular whether it can be produced as cheaply and efficiently as animal-based meat. In this article, I want to point at the crux of that debate and argue that cell-based meat research and development remains important as a kind of insurance policy.

Function, product and process

We first have to make the distinction between the function, the product and the production process (see the figure below). When it comes to meat, consumers have preferences about taste, texture, nutritional value or ease of use. These are the functions of a product. Many different products can fulfill these functions. Currently, most of the preferred functions are fulfilled by muscle-based meat: meat made from muscle tissues of chickens, pigs and cows. Alternatives are e.g. plant-based, algae-based and fungi-based meat products. For simplicity, all these non-muscle meat products will be referred to as plant-based meat. Given a specific product, there are different production processes. For example muscle-based meat can be produced using an animal (animal-based meat) or using a bioreactor with muscle cells (cultivated or cell-based meat).

The animal welfare, environmental and public health problems relate to the production processes. That means we have to move away from the bad animal-based meat production process (red ellipse in the figure) towards better production processes (green ellipses). There are two strategies: either we switch to a new product, such as plant-based meat, or we stick to the same product of muscle-based meat, but change its production process.

The first strategy, substitution of muscle-based meat with plant-based meat, is the approach currently followed by most environmental and animal activists. The advantage of this approach is that the production processes of basically all plant-based meats are already better than the production process of animal-based meat.

However, it remains a question whether all consumers are willing to completely switch towards those plant-based meats. This involves switching to new products, and some consumers are reluctant to make such switches. It could be that the muscle-based meat product fulfills another function, such as tradition or familiarity, and this function cannot be fulfilled by the alternative plant-based meat products. If such a function is strongly present, muscle-based meat and plant-based meat cannot be considered as complete substitutes, but have a degree of complementarity. This complementarity means that people are going to consume both muscle-based and plant-based meat, but not eliminate muscle-based meat from their diet. It means that animal farming will not be abolished, at least in the short run. In the long run, perhaps after several generations, the tradition and familiarity functions of muscle-based meat might gradually disappear, which means there is a slow shift towards 100% plant-based meat products. This could take decades.

The second strategy of innovation is followed by the technology optimists who believe in the feasibility of cell-based meat. The advantage of this strategy is that people can still buy the same product: they do not have to change their behavior or consumption choices. It is comparable to a switch of brands. Only the production process differs, but this production process is not observed by consumers. And as the same product fulfills the same functions, consumers generally do not have a direct or pure preference for a production process. (Of course, their preferences for animal welfare, environment or health can generate an indirect preference for a production process.)

However, it remains a question whether cell-based meat is feasible, and if it is feasible, whether it enters the market fast enough. The next section argues, based on ‘first principles’ or mere reasoning (without requiring empirical research or techno-economic assessments), why cell-based meat is expected to be feasible in the sense that it can sooner or later reach price parity with animal-based meat.

Why cell-based meat is likely feasible

The basic idea is that animals were not evolved to maximize meat (muscle tissue) production as efficiently as possible.

Consider the function of carbohydrate metabolism regulation. This function can be fulfilled with a product: insulin. People with diabetes need to take this product that can be produced in different ways. The old production process used pigs, but as with muscle tissue, pigs are not evolved to maximize insulin production as efficiently as possible. A new production process uses recombinant-DNA yeast cells to produce insulin. This is much more efficient and cheaper. Here we see a concrete example of a shift in production process, from animal-based to microbe-based, keeping the same function and the same product.

There are three reasons why cell-based meat can have a more efficient and cheaper production process than animal-based meat.

First, the animal wastes resources (nutrients, energy) on unnecessary organs, tissues and body parts, such as brains, eyes, ears, tails, feathers, pain receptor cells, reproductive organs, hooves,… All these body parts are not necessary to grow muscle tissue. Assume that these unnecessary body parts use 10% of nutrients and energy. Then a production unit (e.g. a bioreactor) that does not use these body parts can be 10% more resource efficient. If resource costs count for half of the total production costs, this means a cost reduction of 5%.

Second, the remaining body parts that are necessary for muscle tissue growth, can be replaced by new technologies (products) that fulfill the same function at least as efficiently, but do not have to be replaced after each production cycle. The function of oxygenation can be fulfilled with a respiratory system (an organic product called lungs), but also with other technological products such as oxygenators. The function of nutrient and growth medium production can be fulfilled with an organic digestive system or with new nutrient production technologies. Removal of waste products from the growth medium can be done with an urinary system (an organic product called kidneys) or with other waste removal technologies.

Using an animal to harvest muscle cells, the many other body parts that are necessary for muscle growth, such as the lungs (for oxygenation), intestines (for production of the growth medium), skin (for thermal isolation and protection),… need frequent replacement when the muscle cells are harvested, because these body parts are destroyed (in the slaughterhouse). It is like using a bioreactor to grow cultivated meat, and after each batch, we destroy the whole equipment, including all sensors, tubes,… And then we built a new bioreactor (using a factory that fulfills the same function as a uterus). That would be very inefficient and costly. Not having to construct a new production unit after each production cycle will make cultivated meat production much more efficient (and hence less costly) than animal-based meat.

Assume the production unit for animal-based meat (the necessary body parts for muscle growth) consumes 50% of resources for its construction (growth). In that case, not having to construct so many production units could save almost 50% of resource costs. This estimate assumes that all biological functions in an organism can be replicated with technologies, and that these technologies can reach the same efficiency as the biological functions that reached high efficiency due to evolution and natural selection. That is a realistic assumption, because no laws of nature have to be violated. We already know that such levels of efficiency are achievable by a blind process of evolution.

Third, it is unlikely that the organic body parts fulfill their functions with maximum attainable efficiency that is possible by the laws of physics. There are for example thermodynamic boundaries on efficiency, but it would be a strong coincidence if all organs of a currently alive farm animal would have maximum efficiency. That would mean current farm animals reached the end of evolution and their body design is optimal.

There are plenty of examples where functions became more efficiently fulfilled by technologies than by organisms. Photovoltaic solar panels are more efficient in capturing solar energy than plant photosynthesis. Airplanes are more efficient in flying than birds. Cars are more efficient in heavy transport than horses. Hence, it can be expected that at least some of the functions of e.g. oxygenation, growth medium production, fat production, growth medium circulation, waste removal, thermal isolation and immunity can be more efficiently performed by synthetic technologies than by their organic counterparts such as the lungs, guts, liver, heart, kidneys, skin and lymph nodes. Once a technological product becomes more efficient than an organic product in fulfilling the required function, costs of the cell-based meat production process decrease relative to animal-based meat. It is unlikely that none of the technologies can become more efficient than their organic counterparts.

Given the above considerations, we can expect that with sufficient research, it is only a matter of time when cell-based meat enters the market, reaches price parity with animal-based meat and even becomes cheaper than animal-based meat. If it is as cheap, cell-based meat can be considered as a complete substitute for animal-based meat, as it fulfills all animal-based meat functions. Once it is cheaper, we can expect that consumers completely switch to cell-based meat.

Innovation versus substitution: cell-based meat as an insurance policy

Now we come to the crux of the cultivated meat feasibility discussion. Is technological innovation of the cell-based meat production process faster than product substitution towards plant-based meat? Both innovation and substitution will take many years. But if muscle-based and plant-based meat products are highly substitutable, which means they fulfill the same functions such that consumers are willing to switch, it is possible that the meat market completely shifts towards plant-based meat before cell-based meat enters the market. That means any investments in cell-based meat research and development would be futile and wasted (although there may still be a market for cell-based meat for carnivorous animals, such as cell-based mouse meat for cats).

There is high uncertainty about the expected time frames of both innovation and substitution. We do know that younger generations are more willing to eat plant-based meat and older generations prefer sticking to muscle-based meat. This could mean that a complete switch towards plant-based meat could take a few generations, a time frame of a century. But also innovation of cell-based meat could take many decades before whole tissue cell-based meat becomes cheaper than animal-based meat.

The substitution strategy seems risky, because the current rate of substitution reflects the low-hanging fruit: people who are easily willing to switch to plant-based meat. This current rate of substitution does not offer evidence concerning the final stage of substitution: whether the more tradition-inclined, conservative people who are meat identifiers, who do not believe that plant-based meat is real meat, and who have food neophobia (fear of new food products such as plant-based meat) are willing to switch to plant-based meat.

The innovation strategy seems risky, because the current rate of innovation does not offer sufficient evidence whether future research is able to overcome foreseeable big obstacles (such as increasing cell density in bioreactors, avoiding bacterial infections,…).

Given the uncertainty about the innovation and substitution strategies, there is not enough evidence to prioritize one strategy over the other.

It is possible that a small fraction of the population (e.g. 1%) are really reluctant to switch to plant-based meat and will continue eating animal-based meat. As the current number of animals used for food is very big (hundreds of billions per year, if we include fish), even a small fraction of the population still eating animal-based meat corresponds with the suffering and killing of huge numbers of animals (billions per year). If we stop investments in cell-based meat innovation, we risk the continuation of the suffering and killing of many animals. But there remains a possibility that cell-based meat innovation is superfluous, that everyone will have switched to plant-based meat before cell-based meat reaches price parity with animal-based meat. That is why cell-based meat innovation can be considered as an insurance policy, in case plant-based meat fails to completely switch the meat market.

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Why we need to herbivorize predators

Let us start with three assumptions that almost everyone (especially animal rights activists) agrees on.

First, we value at least one of the following individualistic values (i.e. values that apply to individuals): welfare, well-being, preference satisfaction, autonomy, liberty, health, the right to live, the right to bodily autonomy or the right to property. It is unlikely that you don’t value any of these.

Second, we value justice. This implies everyone has to avoid discrimination based on arbitrary biological characteristics such as species membership. We have to avoid speciesism: the moral status (in terms something we value, such as rights or interests) of all equally sentient beings (humans and sentient non-human animals) is equal.

Third, we value humility. This means that no-one should impose their own values on others, that no-one may prioritize their own weak preferences or valuations above much stronger preferences or valuations of others, that no-one should be arrogant, that no-one should ‘play God’.

Given these three assumptions, we can come to the logical conclusion that ending predation is good and that we are allowed to use safe (harmless) and effective means that reduce predation. In practice, this means we should start with not reintroducing or rehabilitating (rescuing and releasing) predator animals in nature. This effectively reduces predation, because it is not costly for us. In fact, it saves us (in particular zoos, wildlife rescue centers and nature conservation organizations) money and time. Second, we should decrease the meat consumption of carnivorous animals under our care (e.g. cats and dogs). This can be achieved by feeding them more animal-free protein and by developing cultivated meat for predators. Third, and more controversial, we may (or even should, if we could) herbivorize predators.  

Herbivorizing predators means turning carnivorous animals into herbivores (or more generally into animals who do not need nor want to kill other animals for survival), by using for example genetic modification (with gene drives) or artificial selection (decreasing the fertility of the more carnivorous individuals in the population and increasing the fertility of the more herbivorous carnivores). Given the fact that some carnivorous species (e.g. giant panda, red panda, spectacled bear, kinkajou,…) spontaneously evolved into herbivores through natural evolution, herbivorizing predators is not impossible and does not go against the laws of nature. Our current knowledge is still too limited, so we can start with scientific research on how to safely and effectively herbivorize predators.

I think the idea of herbivorizing predators is probably the most controversial idea that is related to one of the biggest causes of harm in the world and is the logical conclusion of some of the least controversial assumptions.

How do we come to this controversial conclusion, given the above three assumption? Consider the first assumption: when prey animals are captured and killed by a predator, they lose everything they have and everything they value: their welfare, health, autonomy, freedom, ownership of their own bodies,…

Considering the second assumption, we have to acknowledge that this loss for a prey animal is as bad as a similar loss for an equally sentient human animal. If equally sentient humans are captured and killed by a predator, we would find it horrible. That means the capture and killing of trillions of prey animals is an extreme tragedy. When looking at the victims, we should not make a speciesist distinction between humans and non-human animals. Preying on non-human animals is as bad as preying on humans. But also when looking at the perpetrators who cause the harm, we should not make a speciesist distinction between humans and non-human animals. The immorality of predation cannot be mitigated by making speciesist judgments concerning the cause of the tragedy. Species membership cannot justify the harms done to the prey animals. We should not say that members of one species (e.g. lions) have more rights to harm other sentient beings than members of another species (e.g. humans). For example, the fact that lions do not possess rational-moral agency (are not able to understand morality) does not grant them the privilege to harm others.

With the first two assumptions, we have to conclude that predation is really bad. A world where predators prey on other animals is worse than a world where predation is absent, all else equal.

Now we can add the third assumption: valuing humility. Combined with the second assumption, we have to say that everyone has to be humble. However, by imposing his or her own preferences (e.g. to eat the bodies of others) on many other sentient beings, by capturing and killing those many other sentient beings, a predator is not particularly humble. A predator is arrogant, by heavily interfering in the lives of many others. A predator is ‘playing God’ by determining the fate of many prey animals.

But if everyone has to be humble, this of course also applies to humans. And that is where justifying herbivorizing predators becomes possible. Consider possible objections against such interference with predation.

  • Predation is natural and therefore good.
  • It is in their nature to prey on animals. We should respect the nature of predators and not change their nature by herbivorizing them.
  • We have to respect the integrity of nature, by not interfering with natural processes such as predation.
  • Biodiversity not only refers to species diversity, but also to natural process diversity. Predation is a natural process, and by herbivorizing predators we eliminate predation and hence we lose some process biodiversity. Process biodiversity has intrinsic value that we should respect by protecting it.
  • We should leave nature alone because human interference violates naturalness, integrity, beauty and pristineness of nature.
  • Predators and prey can form a natural equilibrium where prey populations are controlled through predation. We should prefer that natural equilibrium above other ecosystem equilibria that do not contain predation.

All such objections have something in common: they all refer to preferences, values and interpretations of the person who makes the objection. That person has an interpretation of notions such as naturalness, integrity and biodiversity. That person values and prefers those things. But those things are not valued, preferred, experienced or interpreted by nature, ecosystems, predators and prey animals. They don’t care about those values. In contrast, sentient beings such as prey animals care about individualistic values, such as their own well-being, preference satisfaction, freedom and health. They experience and prefer these things.

We can value the naturalness of an animal or the integrity of an ecosystem, but the animal or the ecosystem does not value those things. By valuing naturalness or integrity, we project our own values on animals and ecosystems. In contrast, we can value the welfare of an animal, but besides us, there is always someone else who also values that welfare, namely the animal. That is why valuing animal welfare is not merely a projection of our own values.

So when we decide not to interfere with predation, not to herbivorize predators, because we have some preference for naturalness or integrity, we are basically putting our own preferences, interests or values above very strong preferences, interests and values of others. We are extremely arrogant by claiming that our own interpretations of what is valuable (such as process biodiversity, pristineness or the existence of individuals having a ‘predatory nature’) are better and more important than everything valued by trillions of other individuals (i.e. prey animals). When we decide not to herbivorize predators, we decide that these predators may play God, and that decision means we become the ones who play God.

One could argue that herbivorizing predators violates the autonomy of predators. Herbivorizing could include capturing predators, influencing their fertility,… However, those predators have no valid ground to complain. In general, if an offender violates the autonomy of others (e.g. by capturing and killing them), you are allowed to violate the autonomy of that offender in such a way that the offender cannot reasonably object. This is why imprisoning murderers is permissible. If the offender would object by saying that you are violating his autonomy when you prevent him from violating the autonomy of others, you can say that that is justified because by violating the autonomy of others, the offender implicitly acknowledges that such violations of autonomy are allowed. And because you prevent the autonomy of the victims from being violated, you are doing something that promotes the autonomy of others. The exact same argument goes for imprisoning murderers: that violates their autonomy, but it minimizes autonomy violations, because murderers violate the autonomy of others. Furthermore, herbivorizing someone is a lesser autonomy violation than capturing and killing someone.

If you still believe that we should not violate the autonomy of others such as predators, even if that means others will violate the autonomy of their victims, you should not stop people from herbivorizing predators. After all, stopping those people also counts as an autonomy violating interference. So you have to allow that other people herbivorize predators. Perhaps you think that those people also belong to ‘we’, and hence that they should also not violate the autonomy of the herbivorized predators. But if those people are included in ‘we’, then predators should also be included in ‘we’ (if ‘we’ refers to only humans, it becomes speciesist).

To conclude, consider a thought experiment. Imagine that we find out that our ancestors were once cannibals: they had to kill and eat humans in order to survive. But thousands of years ago, aliens visited planet Earth and decided to genetically modify humans such that they no longer had to eat humans. Would you say that what those aliens did is immoral? Would you say that it is better to be a cannibalistic human? Would you say that you prefer a world where you and all other humans who are currently alive would not exist, and instead cannibalistic humans would exist? Would you say that being cannibalistic is the true nature of humans and that it is bad that the present human generation has lost this true nature due to the genetic modification? Would you say that the loss of this true cannibalistic nature is worse than the loss of billions of human lives who are killed by cannibalistic humans? If you would say such things, you are not humble, but arrogant. You put your own preference for what you consider to be a true cannibalistic nature above the lives of billions of humans.

I think you are glad not to be a cannibal. You do not object against your newly acquired non-cannibalistic true nature, as long as you can eat healthy and delicious food. For the same reason, we can expect that herbivorized predators would not object against being herbivores. And they could not reasonably object, for if they did, they would implicitly acknowledge that we may capture, kill and eat them, and that is something they cannot want.

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