Discrimination biases

Unwanted arbitrariness is the most important threat for a rational ethic. An important category of unwanted arbitrariness, is discrimination, with the three most known and important examples: sexism, racism and speciesism. Discrimination is fundamentally immoral and should be avoided. However, even people fighting against sexism, racism and speciesism are sometimes vulnerable to discrimination biases. As a result of these biases, they risk discrimination themselves. In this article I present three discrimination biases and give examples of these biases for sexism, racism and speciesism. The goal of this article is to improve rational, critical thinking that helps in the fight against all kinds of discrimination.

Defining discrimination

First we have to define discrimination. Here I define it with three conditions: 1) privileging A over B, 2) based on arbitrary criteria and 3) without tolerating swapping positions. Privileging A over B means treating A better than B in a way that B cannot consistently want (if B were rational and well-informed). Arbitrariness of criteria means that no rule was followed to select the criterion. Swapping positions means treating A like B and vice versa.

A prime example of an arbitrary criterion, is group membership. Consider the group of everyone. This group can be divided in several subgroups, which can be further divided in subsubgroups and so on. Sexists, racists or speciesists select respectively the subgroups of males, whites and humans that are defined by biological characteristics such as sex (in particular genitals), race (in particular skin-color) and species. They could have selected other subgroups (such as females, blacks and pigs), and they could have selected other biological characteristics (such as voice pitch, hair color and biological phylum). As no rules were followed to selected the specific subgroup, or to select a subgroup instead of the group or a subsubgroup, or to select the kind of biological characteristic, the selections made by sexists, racists and speciesists are arbitrary.

When A and B in the definition of discrimination refer to subgroups, a privilege can be detected in terms of a statistical difference between the A and B groups. Statistical discrimination is present when the actual shares (e.g. shares of the total number of crime victims, shares of the total income, shares of the positions of power) differ from the population shares (the relative number of individuals in the subgroups) and this difference cannot be explained by morally relevant criteria (such as personal preferences, degree of innocence,…). Statistical discrimination can be detected by considering a counterfactual ‘blind’ society (e.g. gender blind, color blind, species blind) where the biological characteristic was erased or not visible, or a uniform society, where everyone belonged to the same sex, race and species and is then randomly assigned a sex, race or species. If the pattern in such a blind or uniform society would be different from the actually observed pattern, and if this pattern difference cannot be explained by relevant factors, then statistical discrimination is present. Statistical discrimination can most easily be explained by some people having discriminatory attitudes and behavior. Hence, if statistical discrimination is present, then this is evidence that at least some people discriminate.

To analyze the discrimination biases, we have to consider two distinctions: first the distinction between the undeserved privileged and the undeserved disprivileged (where ‘undeserved’ means not based on morally relevant factors), and second the distinction between two subgroups: the ingroup or A-group and the outgroup or B-group. With respect to sexism, racism and speciesism, the A-group are respectively the men, whites and humans, the B-group are the women, non-whites (e.g. blacks) and non-humans (e.g. pigs). A person from the A-group can be either privileged or disprivileged (I will omit ‘undeserved’ for simplicity), and the same goes for someone from the B-group, so there are four possibilities (privileged A, disprivileged A, privileged B and disprivileged B). There is no statistical discrimination if the shares of privileged are the same in both the A-group and the B-group.

Discrimination neglect

The first discrimination bias is the simplest to understand, as it simply involves not seeing or acknowledging some kind of discrimination. Anti-discrimination activists notice one kind of statistical discrimination, namely the discrimination of disprivileged B (e.g. women, black people), but not the discrimination of disprivileged A (e.g. men, white people). Discrimination neglect is similar to confirmation bias (accepting information that confirms one’s prior beliefs and rejecting contradicting evidence): when the data indicate statistical discrimination of the usually considered disprivileged group B, the data are accepted. When the data point towards discrimination of group A, they are rejected or neglected.

Discrimination neglect of a statistical discrimination allows for an easy test: suppose the data were reversed (i.e. the shares of subgroups A and B were interchanged). If in that case the anti-discrimination activists would put the issue on their agenda, there is statistical discrimination neglected by the anti-discrimination activists.

The most examples of discrimination neglect are examples of statistical sexism. Anti-sexists such as feminists focus on examples where women are disadvantaged relative to men and often strongly neglect examples where men are disadvantaged relative to women. There are several such examples of reverse sexism, where men are discriminated (e.g. child custody, paid parental leave, retirement age, military draft, rescue operations, unemployment rates).

Concerning statistical racism, clear examples are more difficult to find. One example could be violent crimes: US violent crime statistics (2018) show that white on black violent crimes are ten times less likely than expected based on population shares, whereas black on white crimes are 1,4 times more likely than expected. Whites are 9% more likely to be victim of a violent crime, whereas blacks are 17% less likely, compared to a color-blind society. Hence, there is more violence with black perpetrators and white victims than vice versa, contradicting the white supremacy view. This data could indicate statistical discrimination, at least if white and black victims are equally innocent and white and black perpetrators are equally guilty (for example if whites are oppressing blacks, blacks could retaliate by more violent crimes, but whites are more guilty of racism).

I am not aware of examples of discrimination neglect when it comes to speciesism.

The problem with discrimination neglect, is of course that it can perpetuate certain kinds of discrimination.

Privileged-disprivileged bias

The privileged-disprivileged bias can be considered as a specific kind of discrimination neglect that can occur in situations where the A-group and B-group have the same mean value of a property (e.g. wealth, status), but the A-group has a larger spread (i.e. a larger variance or wider statistical distribution) than the B-group. The property can take values from high to low and hence constitutes a hierarchy. The larger spread means that we see more A’s than B’s at the top of the hierarchy, but also more A’s than B’s at the bottom. The privileged-disprivileged bias is a focus on either the top or the bottom (usually the top). A is judged to be privileged, because there are more A’s than B’s at the top. The disprivileged A’s at the bottom are neglected. Similarly, when A is judged to be disprivileged due to the larger share of A’s at the bottom, the privileged A’s at the top are neglected.

There are several examples of privileged-disprivileged bias when it comes to sexism, because it happens that men have a wider statistical distribution for many properties. Consider wealth, and in particular the possession of real estate. Most of the people at the top, i.e. people living in large villa’s or castles and having secondary residences, are men. But also most people at the bottom, i.e. the homeless, are men. The same goes for job status. Most people with the highest status jobs (e.g. ministers and managers), are men, but also most people with the lowest status jobs (the dirty and dangerous jobs such as garbage collector or foot soldier), are men. Other examples: the people with the most sexual partners, are men, the people with the fewest sexual partners, are men. Most perpetrators of violent crimes, are men, most victims of violence, are men. Most people with ecstatic, luxurious lives, are men, most people who commit suicide, are men. The larger variance of men can perhaps be explained by their higher risk taking behavior or the larger variance in cognitive abilities such as IQ.

A related privileged-disprivileged bias is observed in speciesism. Individuals that cause the most animal suffering, are mostly humans, individuals that are most helpful to animals, are also mostly humans. Compared to humans, non-human animals are not so good at helping other animals. Humans can be both animal’s worst enemies and animal’s best friends.

The problem with privileged-disprivileged bias is that it is a hasty generalization that could be harmful to the people in the worst-off positions, the most disprivileged people, by stereotyping them as being privileged. This can happen when speaking about ‘male privilege’, which risks trivializing or disacknowledging the disadvantages experienced by those men who are worst-off. One could say men are privileged because most people at the most privileged positions are men, but one could equally say that men are disprivileged because most people at the most disprivileged positions are men. Anti-sexist activists who focus on male privilege might become too misandrous (men hating). Similarly, anti-speciesist animal rights activists who focus on the harms caused by humans, might become too misanthrope.

Perpetrator-focused discrimination bias

Discrimination neglect (and privileged-disprivileged bias) deals with accepting or neglecting empirical data and is therefore a judgment bias about empirical facts. In contrast, perpetrator-focused discrimination bias is a judgment bias about normative values. The former deals with factual beliefs, the latter deals with moral beliefs.

The perpetrator-focused discrimination bias is the judgment that harm caused by someone from the A-group is worse than harm caused by someone from the B-group. When the perpetrators are A’s, their harm is considered worse than if they were B’s. This results in a kind of discrimination, where the B-group receives a kind of privilege, i.e. a permission to cause more harm, or a sentence reduction (a smaller punishment). A moral rule like “harm caused by A is morally worse than harm caused by B”, explicitly refers to arbitrary groups A and B, and this discriminates A against B. To avoid discrimination, moral rules should never explicitly refer to arbitrary groups. We can also see that such a perpetrator focus and such moral rules involve discrimination, by listening to the victims. Assuming those victims do not have discriminatory attitudes themselves, for them it does not matter whether their harm was caused by an A or a B. If the victims do not make a value distinction and do not have a preference for the group membership of their perpetrators, then no-one should make such a value distinction. We have to care about what the victims care about, and the victims do not care about the sex, race or species of their perpetrators.

An example of this bias in sexism, is criminal sentencing. Men receive 60% higher sentences than women for equal crimes. Arrested women are more likely to avoid convictions and are twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted. This is confirmed by other studies. The latter research by Sigrid von Wingerden in the Netherlands indicates that when a woman kills a man, the sentence is 1,6 years lower than when a man kills a man. It could hypothetically be that men are more responsive to punishments than women, which means that higher sentences for men is an effective policy to reduce crimes. But I am not aware of strong evidence in favor of this hypothesis. Hence, this difference in criminal sentencing is likely to involve sexism. If a man is the perpetrator, it is apparently worse than when a woman is the perpetrator. Female perpetrators become more privileged with such a sexist sentencing policy.

An example concerning racism, is the difference in media attention about killings. Blacks killed by whites (think about fatal police shootings in the US) receive more media attention than blacks killed by blacks, although blacks are almost 7 times more likely to be killed by blacks than by whites. Even more extreme: if society were color blind (as if there were only one race), and the number of blacks killed by blacks remained the same, the number of blacks killed by whites would be 30 times lower than the number of blacks killed by blacks. In a color blind media, one would therefore expect 30 times more reporting of killings by black perpetrators than by white perpetrators. This discrepancy in media attention is an indication that the death of a black person is considered worse when the perpetrator is white person (e.g. a white cop) than when the perpetrator is black. Assuming the victim is not racist, for the victim the skin color of the perpetrator is irrelevant.

The most painfully ironic example of perpetrator-focused discrimination bias relates to speciesism. Many anti-speciesist animal rights activists are predation supporters, which means they believe that predation in nature without human interference is never morally bad and that human interventions in nature that knowingly eliminate predation can never be good (not even when these interventions would increase aggregate welfare of wild animals). Those animal activists are against hunting by a human hunter, but condone or support hunting by a lion, even if that lion never respects the most basic animal welfare laws, causes more panic to prey animals and kills more prey animals than a human hunter. The animal activists often explicitly claim that human-caused animal suffering is worse than animal-caused animal suffering. Hence, they explicitly refer to an arbitrary species in their moral rule, and this leads to speciesism. The suffering wild animals don’t care about who causes the suffering. They simply don’t want this extreme unnecessary suffering, and for them it doesn’t matter if it is caused by humans or by non-humans. The predation supporting animal activist is even against research on how to safely and effectively intervene in predation such that wild animal welfare increases, claiming that such interventions violate the autonomy of predators and consist of anthropocentric speciesist human arrogance. This is most ironic, because by catching prey animals, the predator takes away all of the autonomy of those prey animals, and neither the predator nor the prey have this speciesist belief that species membership of the perpetrator is morally relevant. When arrogance means imposing one’s own beliefs or values on others, by imposing their own speciesist moral rule on prey animals, the predation supporting animal activists themselves are being arrogant.

A mirror image of perpetrator-focused discrimination bias is victim-focused discrimination bias, whereby the harm done to a victim of the B-group is considered worse than the harm done to a victim of the A-group.

Three examples of this bias relate to sexism. First, genital mutilation, whereby non-therapeutic, unanesthetized neonatal genital mutilation of girls is strongly prohibited and rejected but the mutilation of boys is mostly condoned. Second, shelters for victims of domestic violence, whereby the ratio of number of shelters for female victims to shelters for male victims is orders of magnitude larger than the ratio of female victims of domestic violence to male victims of domestic violence. Third, criminal sentencing, whereby a man who kills a woman gets a longer prison sentence than a man who kills a man. Concerning racism, we can note that the ratio of the number of media reports about a black person killed by a police officer to the number of media reports about white victims of police violence is larger than the ratio of the number of black people killed by cops to the number of white people killed. Hence, if the victim is black, that victim receives relatively more media attention.

These examples suggest that when a man or a white person is harmed (killed, genitally mutilated,…) it is apparently not as bad as when a woman or a black person is harmed. However, this does not yet imply real discrimination.

First, as with affirmative action, one can argue that this differential treatment of victims serves to rectify another discrimination by giving more privileges to members of the disadvantaged group. If women and black people are generally disadvantaged, measures to target perpetrators of female and black victims can be justified, because those measures advance the positions of the worst-off, namely the disadvantaged women and blacks. Note that with perpetrator-focused discrimination bias, women or black people also gained a privilege, but it concerned an advantage to harm others, and such a privilege is not justified to correct for other disprivileges.

Second, with perpetrator-focused discrimination, the victim did not share the discriminatory attitude. For the victim there is no difference between being a victim of an A-group perpetrator or a B-group perpetrator. But for victim-focused discrimination bias, we have to look at the attitudes of the perpetrator instead of the victim. The perpetrator can be a real sexist, racist or speciesist. The victim-focused discrimination (e.g. stronger punishments for A-group perpetrators who harm B-group victims) can serve to counteract this discriminatory attitude of the perpetrator.

Note: these two considerations also imply that some of the examples of reverse sexism that I gave here, are not necessarily really sexist. Arguments in favor of some differential treatments of men and women could be given, such that the related statistical differences do not yet indicate statistical discrimination.

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Relativistic welfare, farm animal abolitionism and wild animal welfarism

Brief summary: whether someone’s aggregate welfare is positive or negative is morally relevant. If welfare is negative, life is not worth living and it would be better not to exist (or better to be euthanized). However, especially when it comes to non-human animals, it is difficult to tell whether their lives have an aggregate positive or negative welfare. What if we cannot determine whether farm animals or wild animals have a positive or negative welfare? Einstein’s theory of special relativity is used as an analogy to understand the possible indeterminacy of the sign of someone’s welfare. The level of someone’s welfare depends on the welfare frame, but there does not exist an absolute welfare frame. This indeterminacy or relativity of welfare has implications for our altruistic choices to do good. In particular I argue that animal welfare relativity implies farm animal abolitionism (abolishing animal farming with new food technologies such that no new farm animals are born) and wild animal welfarism (helping nature with new technologies to increase the welfare levels of wild animals). Farm animal welfarism and wild animal abolitionism would be ethically more risky.

Introduction

Doing good, in an altruistic sense, means doing what other individuals want (benefiting others by improving their welfare), and not doing what they do not want (not harming others by not decreasing their welfare). The former is called positive altruism, the latter negative altruism. In familiar cases, respecting positive altruism automatically implies respecting negative altruism, and violating negative altruism implies violating positive altruism. However, the two kinds of altruism become uncoupled in population ethics, when our choices determine the individuals who will exist in the future. Adding an individual with a negative welfare (i.e. a life not worth living, whereby the individual has stronger negative than positive experiences or would have preferred non-existence) is always bad, and it can be said that the individual is harmed when brought into existence. But bringing into existence an individual with a positive welfare (a life worth living) is not necessarily always good, according to asymmetric accounts of altruism. Not bringing into existence a person with a positive welfare does not harm that person, because that person does not exist.

When deciding whether bringing an individual into existence is permissible, a crucial question becomes: when does a life become worth living? This question becomes relevant when we study the problems of farm animal and wild animal suffering. Is the life of an animal born in a factory farm worth living? Does a wild animal have more negative than positive experiences such that one would prefer not being born as that wild animal? People who reflect on the lives of farm and wild animals, often believe that many of those animals have lives not worth living, i.e. with negative welfare. But uncertainties remain, especially for wild animals.

In this article, I use Einstein’s theory of special relativity as an analogy to understand the issue in population ethics. It is possible that a welfare level around zero is not absolute in the sense of well-defined for everyone. Welfare could become relative.

When does a life become worth living?

In my personal situation, I can say that my life is worth living, that it has a positive welfare level. I can also imagine a situation in great pain and suffering, where I would rather be dead. Hence, somewhere there should be a zero level of welfare. This can be determined with a rather abstract thought experiment.

Suppose there are three situations. Situation A is the current situation, situation B is the same as A, except that my brains will change in such a way that I will have a lower welfare level, but my behavior remains exactly the same as in A. No-one is able to tell that my welfare is low (when asked how high it is, I will lie and say that it is as high as in situation A). Hence, my lowered well-being will not induce feelings of compassion in other people. Everyone except me remains equally happy as in situation A. Finally, situation C is the same as situation A, except I will be a mental zombie. That means I will do the same things as in situation A, but I will not have any conscious experiences. As a zombie, I am mentally dead or non-existent, but no-one will know whether I am mentally dead. Hence, no-one will grief about my death. Everyone except me remains as happy as in A.

When in situation B, my welfare is lowered, at one point I will become indifferent between situations B and C. I will become indifferent between keeping on living a conscious life in situation B, or mental euthanasia, becoming a zombie in situation C. The welfare level in situation B, when I become indifferent, is my level zero, neutral reference point. (Note that this level zero is relative to situation A. When situation A changes, for example when a loved one starts suffering, my zero welfare level could change.)

The above thought experiment is very abstract, and hence some individuals might not be able to perform it. This is in particular the case for non-human animals. For those animals, two things are possible. Either they are inherently unable to determine their zero levels of welfare, as if their zero levels are not well-defined. Or they do have well-defined zero levels, but are not able to tell them. Even scanning their brains with the best brain scanning technologies, we remain uncertain about the true zero welfare levels of animals. Hence, we are able to tell whether an animal in situation X is happier than in Y, but not able to tell whether the welfare levels in X and Y are higher or lower than zero, i.e. higher or lower than in situation Z where the animal is a mental zombie. Only the differences in welfare count, not their absolute levels.

How should we deal with this indeterminacy or uncertainty about the zero level? The theory of special relativity could shed some light on this issue. So let us briefly digress and look at this strange theory.

Simultaneity in special relativity

Consider five events: nodding my head, stamping of my left foot, stamping of my right foot, snapping of my left fingers and snapping of my right fingers. These events are well located in space and happen at a specific time, and hence can be described as five space-time points, denoted by P0, P-, P+, P’ and P’’. Now the question is: which of those events happen simultaneously? The notion of simultaneity is problematic according to special relativity.

Five space-time events: P+ is in the future of P0, P- is in the past of P0, but events P’ and P” are outside of P0’s lightcone and hence can happen simultaneously with P0 according to some reference frames.

Let’s say that event P0, the nodding of my head, happens at time zero (i.e. time zero is defined in this way). This is the default time with respect to which we want to determine whether other events happen in the future or the past of P0. Suppose event P-, stamping of my left foot, happens before P0. How can we know that event P- happens at a negative time? When I stamp my left foot, light signals can travel from my foot to my head at the speed of light. Crucially, the speed of light is finite, and all observers measure the same speed of light. Hence, the speed of light is absolute. If the light reaches my head before I nod my head, then stamping my left right foot (event P-) happens in the past of time zero, i.e. before P0, for all observers. Everyone agrees that P- occurs before P0, so this time difference is absolute. Technically: in a space-time diagram, the point P0 has a future and a past light cone (light moving away or towards space-time point P0), and points within the past light cone are in the past of P0 (i.e. an earlier time according to all observers).

Similarly, when at the moment that I nod my head, light starts to travel from my head to my right foot and reaches the foot before I stamp that foot, the third event P+ happens after P0 according to all observers. Event P+ is in the future light cone of P0 and is registered at a positive time by all observers.

Now consider light traveling from my head to my left hand. When event P’, the snapping of my left fingers, happens before the light reaches my left hand, different observers will disagree whether or not P’ happens before or after P0. In this case, P’ is outside of P0’s light cone, and it is possible to choose a reference frame (e.g. measured relative to a non-accelerating rocket) such that P0 and P’ have the same time coordinate and hence are simultaneous space-time events: the person in the rocket sees the two events happening at the same time according to his personal clock. According to this reference frame, both P0 and P’ happen at time zero.

Finally, suppose that event P’’ (snapping of my right fingers) is in the future light cone of event P’, which means that light from my left hand to my right hand reaches the right hand before the right fingers snap. Then everyone agrees that event P’’ happens after event P’. If P’ happens at time zero, P’’ happens at a later, positive time.

Now we can change the reference frame, by considering a second rocket moving at a very high constant speed relative to the first rocket. This relative speed is close to the speed of light. (Technically, this change in reference frame is a Lorentz transformation of four-dimensional space-time, which is somewhat comparable to a rotation in three-dimensional space: the Lorentz transform ‘mixes’ or ‘interchanges’ a spatial and a temporal dimension, just like a rotation ‘mixes’ two spatial dimensions.) According to the person in the second rocket, P0 and P’’ happen simultaneously. The clock of this observer measures event P’ happening at a negative time, i.e. before event P0 which we defined as time zero.

The time when something happens, is relative in special relativity. There are two observers, one in each rocket. According to the first coordinate system (the reference frame of the first observer), t measures the time of event P’, the snapping of my left fingers, which was zero. After a Lorentz transformation, the time t’ in the new coordinate system becomes negative, which means that the snapping of my left fingers happens before the nodding of my head according to the observer in the second rocket. Hence time zero for events P’ and P’’ is not absolute or well-defined for all observers.

Special relativity is a bit counterintuitive, because we are used to transitivity: when A is bigger than B and B bigger than C, than A is bigger than C. Or when A is equal to B and B is equal to C, than A and C are equal. However, this latter kind of transitivity is not valid in special relativity: P’ is simultaneous to P0 (according to the reference frame of the first rocket), P0 is simultaneous to P’’ (according to the reference frame of the second rocket), but P’’ happens later than P’ (according to all reference frames). This intransitivity does not make space-time inconsistent or irrational, neither does it make the notion of time incomprehensible.

Relativistic welfare ethics

Now let’s move again to welfare ethics. Just like different observers measure time in special relativity, different observers can estimate the welfare level of an animal, and these estimates can differ. The welfare of the life of a person w is analogous to t/x in special relativity, where t is the time and x is the spatial distance (e.g. the distance between hands and feet). The welfare can be positive or negative, just like time can be positive or negative. However, the welfare value is not always absolute: it can be positive according to one welfare frame and negative according to another, just like time can be positive or negative according to different reference frames. The welfare frame allows to measure welfare, and is analogous to the reference frame or coordinate system in special relativity that allows to measure spatial distances and time intervals. A change in welfare frame corresponds to a change in reference frame, which is represented by a Lorentz transformation. This Lorentz transformation for the welfare between different welfare frames can be written mathematically as: w’ =(w-v/c²)/(1-vw), with w the welfare according to the first welfare frame, w’ the welfare according to the second welfare frame, v a parameter that measures the change between the welfare frames, and c a constant. (The derivation goes as follows: w’ is analogous to t’/x’, with t’ and x’ the time and space coordinates in the new reference frame or coordinate system. v is now interpreted as the velocity of the second rocket relative to the first rocket, and c is the constant speed of light. Using the Lorentz transformation, we can write w’=t’/x’ in terms of w=t/x.) This equation is valid for welfare levels w between -1/c and +1/c, and the parameter v is between -c and +c. Note that if w=1/c, then w’=w.

According to the first welfare frame, the welfare w of an animal can be zero, whereas a change in welfare frame gives a welfare w’ lower than zero. Hence, the zero welfare level of an animal is not unique or well-defined. When the welfare level w is between 1/c and +1/c, the sign of the welfare level is relative, i.e. dependent on the welfare frame. On the other hand, when w is very high (higher than +1/c), the sign is absolute: all welfare frames give a positive welfare. That means everyone agrees that the individual has a positive welfare.[1]

The constant c (the speed of light in special relativity) measures how well-defined a zero welfare is. For me, doing the above abstract thought-experiment is possible, which means a zero welfare is rather precise and well-defined, which means for me c is very large, almost infinite. But for a non-human animal, c can be finite and small. When c is small, the animal has a wide welfare range between -1/c and +1/c, and within this range a zero welfare is not well-defined. For example, when an animal has welfare w=0, we cannot conclude that this animal is indifferent between having a life at this welfare level and non-existence, because we can change the welfare frame such that the animal has a welfare w’ anywhere between -1/c and +1/c. Similarly, the welfare of an animal with welfare w=0 cannot be compared to the welfare of another animal with welfare w’=1/2c, because there is no absolute zero level.

Implications for altruism and animal ethics

If a zero welfare level is not clearly determined, at least for animals, we cannot always say whether the existence of an animal is good or bad. The existence would be bad if the welfare is negative, but if the welfare is higher than -1/c, after a Lorentz transformation (a change in welfare frame) we can get a positive welfare, which means the existence is no longer bad. Asking the animal which welfare frame (reference frame) she prefers, is impossible: the animal is not able to answer this question. In a sense, the animal is indifferent between the different welfare frames.

For simplicity, suppose we can choose between five options C0, C+, C-, C’ and C’’, just like we discussed five space-time events in the special relativity example above. Option C0 is the situation where no animal exists. This option serves as the default option, just like P0 defined the default time zero. In the other situations, animals exist. When animals are clearly better-off in C+ than in C0, the animals in C+ have a positive welfare w+. Choosing C+ respects positive altruism: it can be considered as a kind of help whereby we do something that someone else (the existing animal) wants. Similarly, when animals are worse-off in C- than in C0, they have a negative welfare w- in C-. Choosing C- means doing something bad and violating negative altruism: we do something that someone else does not want. The tricky issue is: there may be choices C’ and C’’ in which animals exist who does not exist in C0, and we cannot simply say that the animals are worse-off or better-off in C’ or C’’ than in C0.

Let us first consider farm animals and then wild animals. We can choose between five options: C0 is no animal farming, which involves e.g. eating vegan, producing cell-based meat,… This option means not breeding and using animals. If we do not exist, option C0 is automatically chosen, because we will not breed and use animals. Hence, C0 is our default option.

Option C+ means bringing fully happy animals in existence. These animals are not used for animal farming: the animals are not confined and slaughtered, but instead are cared for as much as possible such that they lead happy, healthy long lives. These animals are given everything they want and are not used for our purposes. Suppose that everyone agrees that these animals have a positive welfare. In that case, those happy animals have welfare levels above 1/c.

Option C- means animal farming in factory farms with current, minimal animal welfare legislation. This implies breeding, confining and slaughtering the animal for food. Most people strongly agree that animals in factory farms have very negative welfare levels. Because of this strong agreement, we can say that those animals have welfare levels likely below -1/c.

Option C’ is animal farming with more animal welfare laws, i.e. breeding and slaughtering animals, but taking more care of them, avoiding extreme confinements,…. Suppose we cannot determine whether these animals have positive or negative welfare. These farm animals have a welfare between -1/c and 1/c.

Finally, option C’’ is like C’, but with one extra measure that benefits the farm animals, such that the animals in C’’ are slightly happier than in C’.

If we choose option C-, we clearly violate negative altruism, because we do something that the animal does not want. First, the animal has a negative welfare, and second, the animal always prefers any other option above C-. The welfare of the animal is lowest in option C- according to all welfare frames, just like all observers agree that event P- happens at a negative time.

If we choose option C+, we clearly respect positive altruism: we do something that the animal in situation C+ prefers: an existence with the highest, positive welfare.

The cases for C’ and C’’ are mixed. There exist welfare frames according to which choosing C’ or C’’ violate negative altruism, because the welfare levels in those situations are negative. Furthermore, C’ and C’’ involve animal farming, whereby the animal always has to do or undergo unwanted things, such as being slaughtered or confined. Hence choosing C’ or C’’ does not guarantee respecting negative altruism. Neither does it guarantee respecting positive altruism.

Here we see a difference between farm animal abolitionism versus farm animal welfarism. The former involves choosing C0, the latter means choosing C’’. For example, if we become vegan ourselves, we always directly respect negative altruism because we do not choose situations C-, C’ or C’’ that someone else (the animal) does not always want. If we support research and development of animal free livestock products such as cell-based meat, we indirectly respect negative altruism, because with these animal free foods we allow other people (e.g. future living meat eaters) to respect negative altruism by avoiding animal farming. The development of new food technologies such as cell-based meat is an abolitionist strategy.

Next to abolitionism, some animal advocates prefer the welfarist approach. This approach basically means choosing option C’’: animal farming with animals that have higher welfare levels than the farm animals in situations C- and C’. However, this welfarist approach is neither always respecting negative nor positive altruism, which means that the welfarist approach is weaker in terms of altruism.

Furthermore, the welfarist approach faces a non-identity problem. Suppose a new farm animal welfare law is in place, which means animal farming changes from situation C’ to C’’. From that moment, new farm animals are born who automatically have welfare w’’. Without that law, other animals would have been born who would have had welfare levels w’ in situation C’ or w- in situation C-. The question is: did we help the animal in situation C’’ by choosing C’’? If situations C- or C’ were chosen, farm animals would be worse of, but they will not be the same farm animals who exist in situation C’’. The farm animals in situation C’’ do not exist in situations C0, C- and C’. If the animals in situation C’’ were helped, they by definition have a higher welfare level than in the situations without the help. But in the situations without help (i.e. situations C-, C’ or C0 without the new welfare law), those animals do not exist. And the welfare w’’ is incomparable to the zero welfare level that corresponds to the welfare level of non-existence. Hence, with these considerations, it becomes difficult to claim that the animals in C’’ were really helped. The farm animal welfarist approach is not clearly altruistic.

Finally, we move towards wild animal welfare. Again, we can consider five situations D0, D-, D+, D’ and D’’. Suppose animals in the wild live in situation D’ with welfare level w’. In that situation we cannot say whether their lives are worth living or not, because w’ is incomparable to the welfare w0 in situation D0 which contains no wild animals. The latter welfare level w0 equals 0.

Just like the abolitionist choice of C0 in the case of animal farming, we can choose to respect negative altruism by choosing D0 for wild animals. However, there is an important difference between the cases of farm animals and wild animals. Choosing D0 instead of D’ for wild animals typically means interventions in nature that could decrease the welfare of already existing wild animals. The transition from D’ to D0 means that the welfare of animals existing in D’ drops below w’. This transition could for example involve killing all wild animals such that no new wild animals can be born. When an animal has a clearly negative welfare, as in situation D-, killing that animal (i.e. euthanasia) would be helpful and good. But when the animal has a welfare w’ higher than -1/c in situation D’, the welfare is only negative in some welfare frames, which means killing that animal is not clearly permissible and may very well be harmful.

In contrast, choosing C0 for farm animals means stopping breeding farm animals. The latter does not generally decrease the welfare of existing farm animals. In other words, the transition from C’ to C0 does not decrease the welfare of farm animals existing in C’. Hence, choosing C0 for farm animals respects negative altruism (it is not harmful for existing farm animals), but choosing D0 for wild animals not necessarily respects negative altruism (it may be harmful for existing wild animals).

Therefore, when it comes to wild animal welfare, the welfarist approach of changing the situation from D’ to D’’ (or ideally D+) becomes more worth considering. That change from D’ to D’’ means helping nature to improve the welfare of wild animals. It is possible that the animals in D’’ would not have existed in D’, which means choosing D’’ does not involve positive altruism (the animals in D’’ are not really helped, just like the farm animals in C’’ were not really helped). However, the transition from D’ to D’’ does not necessarily involve a strong decrease in welfare of the existing animals in D’. That means choosing D’’ instead of D’ could respect negative altruism more strongly than choosing D0 instead of D’. And with sufficient research in welfare biology to improve the welfare of wild animals, it may become possible to choose a situation D+ where wild animals have clearly positive welfare levels (just like most humans in modern-day societies have clearly positive welfare levels).

Conclusion: farm animal abolitionism and wild animal welfarism

In summary, in the case of farm animal suffering, the abolitionist approach of choosing the situation without farm animals (C0) is the safest and most feasible option to respect negative altruism. The welfarist approach of choosing the situation with happier farm animals (C’’) is less good because it is riskier in terms of respecting negative altruism. Also, choosing the situation with clearly happy farm animals (C+) is not so feasible.

In the case of wild animal suffering, the abolitionist approach of choosing the situation without wild animals (D0) is risky because it quickly implies harming existing wild animals (i.e. decreasing their welfare). The welfarist approach of choosing the situation with happier wild animals (D’’) is probably the safest and most feasible option. With more research, choosing the situation with clearly happy wild animals (D+) may become feasible.


[1] In ethics, to make interpersonal comparisons of well-being possible, we can set w’=w when w is higher than +1/c or lower than -1/c, i.e. no Lorentz transformation. In special relativity, w’ =(w-v/c²)/(1-vw) for all w large and small, positive and negative.

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The extreme cost-effectiveness of cell-based meat R&D

In previous articles, I argued that supporting research and development of cell-based meat technologies could be perhaps the most important strategy to protect animal rights and improve animal welfare (with a possible exception of research in welfare biology to improve wild animal welfare). Here I want to do a very rough back-of-the-envelope Fermi-estimate calculation of the cost-effectiveness of cell-based meat R&D, and compare it with traditional animal rights and vegan advocacy campaigns. I only estimate the orders of magnitude, in powers of ten. The results are presented in the table below. The three measures are:

  • The number of vertebrate animal saved per euro, which includes all fish, birds and mammals that are no longer killed by humans for food (i.e. excluding invertebrates and animals not directly killed by humans).
  • The number of vertebrate land animals spared per euro, which includes all farm animals that are no longer bred in captivity.
  • Ton CO2e emissions avoided, which includes all anthropogenic greenhouse gases that are no longer emitted, measured in CO2-equivalents (excluding the carbon capture and storage capacity of reforested farmland).

Cell-based meat R&D calculations

There are 1011 vertebrate land animals used (i.e. bred and killed) per year by humans. Assume that this number is constant until cell-based meat enters the market. The number of vertebrate animals directly killed by humans for food is an order of magnitude higher: 1012. The human population counts 1010 humans, also assumed to be constant, which means an average human uses 10 vertebrate land animals per year and kills 100 vertebrate animals per year. Hence, eating vegan for one year spares 10 animals and also saves 100=1 ton CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.

Assume that the probability that cell-based meat will eliminate animal-based meat and animal farming, is 1/10 (or cell-based meat is guaranteed to take 10% of the meat market in the future). This is probably a low estimate.

Assume in the business-as-usual scenario (where you do not contribute) the current amount of money is funded (by other people) every year until cell-based meat becomes cost-competitive with animal-based meat on the market. Global funding for cell-based meat is 108 euro per year. This corresponds with 102 cell-based meat companies and research units at universities, employing on average 10 employees per organization and 105 euro per employee per year. Also, assume that the current phase of research on cell-based meat is tractable in the sense that a delay of one year of extra funding cannot be caught up in the future (for example assume that in the business-as-usual scenario, no new invention or scientific breakthrough is discovered that would make the current research efforts obsolete). And assume that there is room for more funding for research: one extra euro of funding is not wasted, one extra researcher is not bored. These assumptions together imply that if 108 euro were not invested in cell-based meat this year, the arrival of cell-based meat on the market would be delayed by one year. If 1 euro were invested this year, the arrival on the market will be advanced with 10-8 year.

The above estimates measure the scale (1011 animals used per year), the solvability (1/10 probability of eliminating animal farming) and neglectedness (10-8 years faster elimination per extra euro funding). Now the number of animals spared per extra euro donated to cell-based meat R&D can be calculated as the product of scale, solvability and neglectedness: 1011x10-1x10-8=102. This means one euro extra funding spares 100 vertebrate land animals. Including captured and aquaculture fish (also fish used for fish meal for farm animals), the number becomes an order 10 higher: 1000 vertebrate animals saved per euro.

As sparing 1 farm animal corresponds with reducing 0,1 ton CO2e, this one euro funding also means a reduction of 10 ton CO2e, the same order of magnitude as the emission by an average human in one year. Used as carbon offsetting, cell-based meat R&D has a price around 0,1 euro per ton CO2e averted. This is much lower than most other carbon offsetting mechanisms.

Note: the basic (in my opinion realistic) assumption in the above calculation is that other people invest in cell-based meat R&D anyway, and that in the business-as-usual scenario (where you do not fund anything) no other strategy (technology, intervention, vegan outreach campaign,…) will be able (even with more funding) to abolish animal farming before cell-based meat enters the market at competitive prices. Suppose cell-based meat arrives within a few decades and eliminates animal farming in say 50 years, whereas another, next best strategy would eliminate animal farming in 100 years. Suppose that this other strategy was less costly, for example requiring only 10 million euro funding per year over a period of 100 years to abolish animal farming, whereas cell-based meat would require 100 million euro funding over 50 years. And suppose that other strategy was more neglected, for example receiving only 10 million euro funding per year, compared to 100 million for cell-based meat. Even then, extra funding for that other strategy would not be effective when it is impossible to speed it up such that it will eliminate animal farming within 50 years. When that other strategy takes more than 50 years anyway, it will become obsolete anyway in the business-as-usual scenario where cell-based meat arrives earlier and eliminates animal farming earlier. A global coordination such that all cell-based meat funding goes to that other, less costly strategy, is not effective (not so feasible). Hence, the most effective thing to do for us, is to accelerate that cell-based meat research, such that it enters the market one year earlier. That saves an extra year of animal suffering and greenhouse gas emissions. If other strategies received more funding, there is a likelihood that they make cell-based meat obsolete, and this consideration is included in the estimated 10% probability of cell-based meat eliminating animal farming.

The above is a low estimate of the impact of cell-based meat R&D. A higher estimate can be obtained as follows. Suppose it takes 102 years of research at 108 euro of funding per year before cell-based meat becomes competitive with animal-based meat. Suppose 90% of the funding are investments that will eventually be payed back by consumers who buy cell-based meat. The remaining 10% has no return on investment and hence counts as real costs. Hence, the amount of funding costs is 107 euro per year. Suppose without cell-based meat, humans will use farm animals for another 10.000 years at 1011 animals per year. The probability that cell-based meat will eliminate animal farming is again 10-1. In this scenario, contributing 1 euro of funding has an impact of 104 years times 1011 animals per year times 10-1 probability divided by 102 years times 107 euro per year, which equals 105 vertebrate land animals spared per euro. This sparing of farm animals is again accompanied by avoided greenhouse gas emissions, but most of those avoided emissions would have happened in the far future. Considering only the short term emission reduction for a time period of 10 years, this again comes down to a carbon offsetting price of around 0,1 euro per ton CO2e averted.

Note that the neglectedness is important. Consider for example investments in plant-based meat, which is an order of magnitude larger than investments in cell-based meat, i.e. 10 times less neglected. Suppose plant-based meat also has a probability of 10% of eliminating the animal-meat market (or reducing animal farming by 10%). Then the effectiveness of investments in plant-based meat is an order of magnitude lower than the investments in cell-based meat. Of course, both plant-based and cell-based meat can mutually reinforce each other (i.e. they can be complementary instead substitutable strategies), and from a risk perspective, it is useful to invest in a diverse portfolio of strategies.

Vegan advocacy campaigns calculations

The above impact estimates of cell-based meat R&D can be compared to other measures to reduce animal farming.

Animal Charity Evaluators estimates a cost-effectiveness of around 10 farm animals spared per euro donated to its top recommended charities. This is an order 10 lower than cell-based meat R&D.

Vegan outreach leafletting has an estimated impact of 1 animal spared per euro. I did a personal leafletting study (at the Belgian animal rights organization Bite Back) whereby the leaflets included a survey that asks questions about the reduced consumption of animal products due to the leaflet. Based only on the responses of non-vegans who answered that they reduced their animal product consumption, it requires roughly 1000 leaflets for one equivalent conversion to veganism. This was measured in vegan-equivalents, i.e. in terms of the equivalent reduction of the number of animals used. For example, two meat-eaters who reduce their consumption by 50% count as one vegan. Assume that a respondent remains vegan or sticks to his reduced animal product consumption for 10 years. One vegan-equivalent spares around 10 farm animals per year and one leaflet costs 0,1 euro. That means a cost-effectiveness of 1 spared animal per euro (i.e 10 animals per vegan year times 10 years divided by 1000 leaflets times 0,1 euro per leaflet). This is in the same order of magnitude of other cost-effectiveness estimates of leafletting.

Vegan education (giving presentations about veganism) also has a cost-effectiveness of 1 spared farm animal per euro: 10 participants of a lecture times 1% probability of a participant becoming vegan (based on a small personal study that surveys high school students who participated my vegan education lectures) times 10 years of remaining vegan times 10 animals spared per vegan year divided by 10 euro costs per lecture (if I were to be paid an hourly wage of 10 euro).

We can also estimate the overall cost-effectiveness of animal advocacy campaigns. The US population has an order of magnitude 108 people. Suppose meat consumption is decreased by 10% due to people becoming reducetarians, vegetarians or vegans. Suppose 10% of this reduction is due to animal advocacy campaigning. Then the number of US vegan-equivalents for animal welfare reasons is 106. The two largest animal advocacy organizations (HSUS and Peta) have a yearly budget of 108 euro. If their campaigns caused the reduction in meat consumption, we get a cost-effectiveness of 0,1 farm animals spared per euro donated to those animal charities (106 vegans times 10 animals spared per vegan per year divided by 108 euro funding per year). This means cell-based meat R&D is about 1000 times more effective than average animal advocacy.

As I do not expect that the traditional vegan outreach campaigns are more likely to eliminate animal farming sooner than cell-based meat in a business-as-usual scenario, a high estimate calculation similar to the cell-based meat high estimate is not possible.

The case for cell-based, clean meat R&D can be compared to the case for clean energy R&D, as argued here. Clean energy R&D funding is estimated to be more effective than e.g. regulatory climate measures, cutting fossil fuel subsidies and environmental behavioral change campaigns. The latter are analogous to animal farming regulations, cutting animal farming subsidies and vegan consumption campaigns.

A question of timing

The above cost-effectiveness estimate of cell-based meat R&D crucially depends on the timing of the funding. In the past, research was not tractable. Suppose one would have funded cell-based meat research 100 years ago. At that premature level of scientific knowledge and computing power, not much progress would have been made. Later scientific breakthroughs in other areas than cell-based meat, such as computer sciences, engineering and medicine, make it possible to speed up the R&D of cell-based meat. With these new inventions, the decades of early research in cell-based meat could have been done in only a few years. Those decades of early research are basically obsolete: with or without that premature research 100 years ago, our current level of cell-based meat technology and knowledge would be equally high. In contrast with 100 years ago, cell-based meat research is currently very tractable: it becomes unlikely that the current years of research are completely obsolete.

We can also expect that in the future, cell-based meat becomes less neglected. That means, if we wait another 100 years, all of the important investments and research will have already been done, which means extra funding becomes futile.

The next few decades offer a window of opportunity for cell-based meat R&D: it is no longer intractable and not yet unneglected.

Conclusion

Cell-based meat research and development is roughly 10 times more cost-effective than top recommended effective altruist animal charities and 1000 times more cost-effective than average animal advocacy and vegan campaigning. One euro funding for cell-based meat R&D could spare the lives of 100 farm animals, save the lives of 1000 vertebrate animals and avoid 10 ton CO2-equivalent emissions. That makes cell-based meat R&D probably the most effective measure to reduce anthropogenic animal suffering and greenhouse gas emissions.

You can support cell-based meat R&D by donating to New Harvest.

For a further discussion, including another estimate of the cost-effectiveness of cell-based meat (with a roughly same result but a different method), see the comments section here.

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Veganmodernism: the end of veganism?

For an online presentation, see here.

Just like the environmental movement gave birth to ecomodernism, the vegan movement can give birth to veganmodernism. Ecomodernism focuses on technological innovations (e.g. clean energy, genetically modified organisms,…) to decrease our environmental impact, rather than consumer behavioral change campaigns or corporate pressure campaigns to persuade consumers and producers to go green. Veganmodernism does the same: instead of persuading consumers to go vegan, it focuses on the development of animal-free versions of animal products, such as cultivated (cell-based) meat, leather and milk without cows, and egg-proteins without chickens.

Veganmodernism focuses in particular on research and development of cell-based meat technologies. This is probably one of the most effective things we can do in the short term (e.g. the next two decades) to make the world better.

Focus on big problems

Veganmodernism helps to solve some of the biggest problems.

  1. Anthropogenic suffering. Most anthropogenic (human-caused) suffering is due to meat production (animal farming and fishing). The number of humans killed is much smaller than the number of farm animals killed for meat. The number of humans in extreme poverty is much smaller than the number of farm animals who are likely to have net negative welfare levels. The number of animals kept in captivity for experimentation, fur production or entertainment is much smaller than the number of farm animals. The number of animals used for meat is larger than the number of animals used for eggs and dairy.
  2. Climate change. Combining the greenhouse gas emissions and the carbon opportunity costs, animal farming is probably the human activity with the largest climate impact. Hence, the replacement of animal meat by animal-free (cell-based) meat is a very effective climate measure.
  3. Pandemics. Animal farming is one of the leading causes of infectious zoonotic diseases that could become pandemics (e.g. bird flu, swine flu, coronaviruses,…)

Avoiding many problems

Veganmodernism avoids or attenuates many problems and discussions (see also here and here).

  1. Avoiding the meat-eater problem. In most cases, economic development and saving human lives causes increased meat consumption and hence increased animal suffering and environmental impact. Animal farming increases human health risks (e.g. infectious zoonotic diseases), uses a lot of resources and contributes to climate change. Hence, replacing animal products with cheaper, healthier and cleaner alternatives improves the economic welfare and health of humans without generating extra animal suffering and environmental impact.
  2. Avoiding the welfarist-abolitionist debate. Welfarist animal charities and advocates want to improve the living conditions of farm animals, whereas abolitionists want to eliminate animal farming. The abolitionists strongly value animal rights such as the right not to be used as merely a means, and this is not compatible with animal farming. These abolitionists criticize welfarists, claiming that it is difficult to know what improves the welfare of farm animals, that most proposals of welfare improvements can have negative side-effects (e.g. creating extra animal health risks or environmental impacts) and that welfare improvements can increase meat consumption (because they soothe the conscience of consumers) and hence the number of animals being used and killed. The production of cell-based meat avoids using animals and hence avoids animal rights violations and welfarist negative side-effects. The meat is produced without the sentient animals. Cell-based meat promotion is compatible with both utilitarian (welfarist) animal welfare and deontological (abolitionist) animal rights views.
  3. Avoiding backfire effects. In contrast with corporate pressure campaigns, developments of animal-free products is not expected to provoke a lot of backlash from the animal industry. For example, after a release of undercover investigations of factory farms, the animal industry pushes back by advertising for more meat consumption. However, even some meat processing companies are investing in plant-based and cell-based meats, and even some researchers in animal production who have strong ties with the animal industry, are doing research in cell-based meat. None of those people and companies were supporting veganism.
  4. Avoiding psychological and sociological uncertainties. Psychologists are studying what causes people to change their behavior. Sociologists are studying what causes societies to change their cultural norms (values and systems). They do research on nudging (changing the choice environment such that people are automatically inclined to perform more of the preferred behavior), motivational interviewing, persuasion, effective communication, social protest movements,… But these areas of research are still full of uncertainties, and silver bullets or simple effective solutions have still not been found and progress is very slow. When cheap, high quality animal-free products are available and marketed by competitive firms, no knowledge about behavioral change (e.g. nudging) and cultural change (e.g. effective protest movements) is necessary. People can still eat the same products and meals, only the production processes differ (the new processes exclude the use of animals).
  5. Attenuating the wild animal suffering problem and predation problem. Decreasing animal farming could free agricultural land for reforestation. More nature also means more wild animals, and this can increase wild animal suffering. However, more forests also means more carbon capture and storage, hence less climate change and less animal suffering from climate change. In this sense, animal-free agriculture is one of the most effective strategies to decrease climate change. But in the long run, cell-based meat can also be part of the solution to the predation problem: carnivorous predator animals can eat animal-free meat instead of animal meat. Solving the predation problem could drastically decrease wild animal suffering.

Plant-based versus cell-based meat

To eliminate the market for animal meat, there are four approaches. There are two markets: for animal products and animal-free alternatives. Each market has two sides: supply and demand. Hence, we can target either the demand side or the supply side, by changing respectively the behavior of individual consumers or the choices of food producers. For each target, we can apply either push or pull strategies: making animal products less attractive (pushing the economy away from the animal product market) or making animal-free foods more attractive (pulling the economy towards the animal-free alternatives market). Of the four possible market strategies, I argued that the supply side pull strategy has the best prospects, because the other three have shown poor track records over the past decades.

The supply side pull strategy consists in the development of plant-based and cell-based meat. Based on the Importance-Tractability-Neglectedness (ITN) framework, I will argue that priority should be given to research and development of cell-based meat above plant-based meat (elsewhere, I applied the same ITN-framework to argue that charities that support cell-based and plant-based meat developments are highly effective; here I argue why in particular cell-based meat could be prioritized).

Considering importance or scale, cell-based meat is expected to have a bigger market than plant-based meat. Not only humans can eat cell-based meat, but cell-based meat can also be beneficial for carnivorous animals under human care (e.g. pets and rescued wildlife animals), and in the long run other wild animals. There are many predators in nature. People can doubt whether plant-based meat is healthy (sufficiently high in quality) for e.g. cats, but cell-based meat is the same product as animal-based meat and hence has the same food quality for carnivorous animals as animal-based meat.

Considering neglectedness, in 2019 there were 55 cultivated meat and seafood industry startups globally, receiving $77 million of venture capital investments. In contrast, in 2019, in the US alone there were 143 plant-based meat, dairy and eggs companies, receiving $460 million of venture capital investments. There are no cell-based meat retail sales and no cell-based meat companies on the stock market. In contrast, in the US alone, plant-based meat retail sales were $900 million in 2019, and the sector received $290 million in net new public share offerings. Hence, cell-based meat has a much smaller industry than plant-based meat, which means it is more neglected. As a comparison, in the US, animal and environmental charities received almost $12 billion donations in 2018. This is much more than the global venture capital investments in cell-based meat. Even the combined donations to the two largest US animal charities (the Humane Society and Peta) is more than $100 million. As processed cell-based meat at competitive retail prices is not expected on the market within 10 years, and unprocessed (whole tissue) cell-based meat is not expected on the market within 20 or 30 years, we can expect that cell-based meat will remain relatively neglected the next two decades.

Cell-based meat research is still in its infancy, requiring a lot of fundamental innovative research. This kind of research is undersupplied in a competitive free market, due to a market failure (knowledge about cell-based meat production processes has the characteristics of a public good). Therefore, cell-based meat is expected to have higher long-run impact research opportunities compared to plant-based meat for the coming years.

Due to the relative neglectedness, the value of information of the potential cell-based meat impact is relatively high. We do not yet have a lot of information about the potential impact of cell-based meat, e.g. how fast the production costs will decrease, how fast bottle-necks will be solved, how fast consumers will accept it, how fast it will resemble animal-based meat. From all four market strategies (the abovementioned push and pull, demand and supply strategies), the effectiveness of a supply side pull strategy remains most uncertain. Investing in cell-based meat technologies now allows us to quickly gain new valuable information about the effectiveness of cell-based meat with regard to eliminating animal farming.

Considering tractability or solvability, research and development of new technologies has a long track record of high impact. This also goes for new food and bio-engineering technologies. Hence, it is very likely that extra funding for cell-based meat R&D will be productive. This can be contrasted with traditional veganism strategies that primarily focus on behavioral change. It is unlikely that the next two decades will generate a lot of new knowledge about effective psychological persuasion strategies to persuade people to go vegan. Effective communication or changing the choice architecture (nudging) have limited impact and no good track record of improvements. Scientific evidence about the effectiveness of e.g. leafleting or online ads remains very limited, with small effect sizes and a lot of statistically insignificant results.

The tractability of cell-based meat R&D is not lower than plant-based meat R&D. It is unlikely that plant-based meat can replace all kinds of unprocessed meats and seafood. With cell-based meat, on the other hand, meat eaters can still eat their preferred ribs, beef stew, pork tenderloins and bacon, all cell-based. Hence, it can be expected that cell-based meat is more appealing to traditional meat eaters than plant-based meat. Traditional meat eaters are conservative in the sense that they are reluctant to change their behavior or identity. Hence, messages such as “eating vegan” (i.e. changing behavior) and “going/becoming vegan” (i.e. changing identity) are less effective for them. With cell-based meat, they can eat the same product, only the production process is different: cell-based meat requires cells, animal-based meat requires whole animals. As the product is exactly the same, no behavioral change (change in consumption choices) is required. Furthermore, as cell-based meat is the same product as animal-based meat, it can have the same name. The difference between cell-based and animal-based meat is the production process (one involving cells, the other animals), but the name of a non-trademarked product category such as ‘meat’ or ‘milk’ does not depend on the production process.

I expect that cell-based meat is more limited in the number of possible cost-effective production technologies than plant-based meat (i.e. there are more different ways to produce plant-based meats than cell-based meat), and that cell-based meat production will be more technology intensive than plant-based meat production (i.e. cell-based meat is more high-tech than plant-based meat). That means cell-based meat production technologies are more susceptible to patenting and market monopoly power. To avoid problems with market monopolies and intellectual property rights, open source research becomes more important. This kind of research requires more independent funding instead of private investments. Both cell-based and plant-based meat will benefit from private (venture capital) investors who invest in start-ups, but for the short term I expect that cell-based meat will also be relatively more benefited from donors (governments, philanthropists, animal advocates) who finance fundamental open source research in cell-based meat technologies. Plant-based meat will benefit less from philanthropic donor funding, due to the already high levels of private investments and the lower risks of market monopoly powers related to intellectual property rights.

The end of veganism?

As mentioned above, cell-based meat allows for traditional meat eaters to eat the same products that they used to eat, but without using animals. Combined with animal-free dairy, eggs, leather, wool and other products that used to be derived from animals, veganism becomes redundant. No behavioral or identity change are required. Messages like “eat vegan” and “go vegan” as well as vegan cookbooks, vegan cooking workshops, vegan potlucks, vegan recipes, vegan festivals and vegan outreach become superfluous.

The advent of the mass-produced cars in the 1920’s resulted in an almost complete elimination of the use of draft horses for carriage within four decades. In the film industry, real animals (e.g. a real orang-oetan in the 1978 movie Every Which Way but Loose with Clint Eastwood) are replaced by computer animated animals (e.g. a CGI-created dog in the 2020 movie The Call of the Wild with Harrison Ford). Plenty of other examples (messenger pigeons, whale oil,…) demonstrate that new technologies replaced the use of many animals, without much animal activist pressure campaigns or consumerist behavioral change campaigns. These campaigns became obsolete. When cell-based meat enters the market, the same is likely to happen for vegan consumer and corporate outreach campaigns. Instead of vegan organizations, cell-based meat companies will do the marketing for animal-free products.

In fact, all of this means that we can eliminate animal farming, without the need of the word ‘veganism’. People do not have to call themselves ‘vegan’, traditional meat eaters do not have to know what veganism is. Compare it with the hypothetical ‘automobilism’, the ideology that we should not use horses for transport and use horse-free vehicles such as cars instead. One could have started ‘go auto’ or ‘drive auto’ campaigns to persuade people to stop using horses. One could do research on the most effective, convincing strategies that persuade people to go auto. One could do pressure campaigns targeting draft horse companies and horse breeders. One could inform the public about all the problems with draft horses: animal suffering (exhaustion, whipping, captivity), pollution (horse manure in the streets), inefficient use of resources (land area for horse feed),… But all of this would have become superfluous when the efficiency and usability of cars increased and their prices dropped drastically due to new car mass production technologies (e.g. Ford’s Model T). Just like an automobilism ideology became unnecessary, a veganism ideology can become unnecessary when cheap, high quality cell-based meat enters the market and outcompetes animal-based meats due to its better production process.

Here we can draw again the analogy between veganmodernism and ecomodernism. The traditional environmental movement is reluctant towards ecomodernism, because ecomodernism makes traditional environmentalist value systems such as ‘localism’ (e.g. deglobalization, degrowth, bioregionalism, anticorporation, small scale production) and ‘naturalism’ (e.g. organic agriculture, non-synthetic products, low-tech production) obsolete.[1] Ecomodernism focuses on high-tech solutions to decrease our environmental impact, instead of a drastic behavioral change (austerity). In the past, new technologies allowed for fast and drastic reductions in environmental impact (e.g. LED-lights that use renewable and nuclear power), which could not be achieved by less effective austerity campaigns.

Veganmodernism  and cell-based meat (and dairy, eggs, leather,…) could be the final strategy for meat abolition, could be the end of animal farming, but could in a sense also be the end of veganism in the animal rights movement, just like ecomodernism could mean the end of localism and naturalism in the environmental movement.

Hence, animal rights activists and advocates can shift their strategies and tactics: instead of spending time and money doing traditional veganism behavioral change and corporate pressure campaigns, they can look for opportunities to raise, earn and donate more money to an organization like New Harvest, that supports open source research and development of new cell-based meat technologies. It could be the case that, just like this analysis for effective climate change policies, clean meat R&D is more effective than e.g. a meat tax or cutting livestock subsidies (see the table of climate policies ranked according to a combined importance, neglectedness and tractability score, with clean energy R&D at the top, carbon taxes at position 5 and cutting fossil fuel subsidies at 9).

Even if vegan advocacy and corporate pressure campaigns become obsolete when all animal products are replaced by the same products that do not use animals in the production processes, campaigning for antispeciesism and moral circle expansion towards all sentient beings remains relevant. In fact, when humans no longer use animals for food or clothing, moral circle expansion becomes easier, because humans will have less cognitive dissonance when they no longer use animals.


[1] There is a crucial difference between the localist and naturalist value systems in the environmental movement, and the veganist value system in the animal rights movement. Localism and naturalism can be seriously harmful or counterproductive, whereas veganism is not counterproductive.

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The very complex welfare impact of fishing

Does fishing worsen the state of the oceans? For animal rights activists and most environmentalists, the answer seems evidently ‘yes’. But thinking more carefully, matters become very complicated.

The easy, philosophical problem: measuring aggregate welfare

First we need to solve the easy problem: the philosophical or moral question how to measure the state of the oceans. As aquatic ecosystems have no consciousness and hence are not concerned about e.g. their biodiversity, integrity, stability, natural beauty or some other ecocentric value, I argue that we should focus on those values and instead consider the welfare of sentient beings in the oceans. Sentient beings do care about their own well-being and preference satisfaction, and they do want to avoid negative experiences.

When valuing the welfare of fish, the causes of welfare loss should not influence the valuation. Fish can have a preference for not being killed, but they most likely do not make a distinction between death caused by predatory fish versus death caused by humans. If we want to avoid speciesist arbitrariness, we should not make a distinction between harm (welfare loss) caused by humans and harm caused by non-human animals such as predators.

Deciding that only the welfare of sentient beings is important, is not enough. We need to decide how to aggregate all the welfare levels of all sentient beings. This is the problem area of population ethics. Here I propose the total view (total utilitarianism): the state of the ocean should be measured in terms of the total sum of welfare levels of all sentient beings in the oceans. This can be contrasted with e.g. the aggregate view, whereby the average of all welfare levels is considered.

If we focus on the aggregate welfare in the oceans, fishing becomes very important, because the number of vertebrate aquatic animals killed in fisheries and aquaculture (more than 1 trillion per year) is an order of magnitude larger than the number of vertebrate land animals killed in livestock farming and hunting (less than 100 billion per year, excluding invertebrates). Hence, the potential welfare impact of fishing is huge.

The hard, scientific problem: studying complex food webs

Having solved the philosophical problem, we now need to solve the next question: what are the welfare consequences of fishing? This is a scientific problem, and is very difficult.

The aquatic food web is very complex. To simplify, consider a linear food chain: phytoplankton (1st trophic level), zooplankton such as copepods (2nd level), planktivorous fish such as anchovy (3rd level), piscivorous fish such as mackerel (4th level) and apex predators such as tuna (5th level). What happens if you catch fish at trophic level N? To simplify further, let’s only consider linear influences (no ecological side effects based on non-linear ecological processes). Catching fish at trophic level N results in a decrease of the population at level N (as well as decreases of populations at higher levels), which results in an increase of the population at level N-1, which again results in a decrease of the population at level N-2, and so on.

To understand the welfare effects of this food chain dynamics, there are three crucial questions: which populations of aquatic animals are sentient? How high are their levels of welfare? And how bad is dying (being killed and eaten) for those sentient animals?

Suppose first that phyto- and zooplankton (levels 1 and 2) are not sentient and hence have no well-being, whereas all fish at levels 3, 4 and 5 have a positive welfare. Suppose also that dying causes negligible suffering, which means killing fish only has a negative effect on aggregate welfare because of it lowering the population sizes (hence fewer animals with positive welfare, which decreases welfare according to a total utilitarian perspective). In that case, catching planktivorous fish (level 3) is bad, because welfare decreases. Planktivorous fish are innocent in the sense that they do not harm anyone else, because zooplankton was supposed to be non-sentient.

Piscivorous fish also catch planktivorous fish, which means they do something bad. Hence, if the welfare loss of catching piscivorous fish is relatively small (when killing causes negligible suffering and population sizes of piscivorous fish are much smaller than those of planktivorous fish, which is usually the case in food chains), catching piscivorous fish can become good: as the population of piscivorous fish decreases, there will be less predation on planktivorous fish. One piscivorous fish harms many other, innocent sentient beings: the planktivorous fish. A piscivorous fish is like a serial killer, and killing serial killers could reduce overall killing.

So if we catch piscivorous fish (level 4), the total amount of fish harm (which is proportional to the total amount of innocent sentient fish at level 3 captured by both humans and piscivorous fish) can decrease. By the same reasoning, catching apex predators (level 5) can become bad, because those apex predators catch many harmful, non-innocent piscivorous fish. The apex predators are the serial killers of the serial killers.

We conclude that if the welfare loss of killing fish is relatively small and zooplankton is non-sentient, catching fish at an odd trophic level is bad, whereas catching fish at an even level is good. However, this result completely turns around if zooplankton was sentient and had a positive well-being. In that case, planktivorous fish are no longer innocent: they harm a lot of sentient beings. Catching planktivorous fish becomes good because it saves many lives of innocent sentient beings (the zooplankton). Catching piscivorous fish becomes bad, catching apex predators becomes good.

However, this result again completely turns around if the well-being of a trophic level becomes net negative, i.e. when the animals have more and stronger negative than positive experiences. Lives with net negative welfare are generally not worth living: one would prefer non-existence above such a life. It is not known whether fish have net negative welfare, but the likelihood increases for many aquatic animals who have high reproduction rates. If one fish gives birth to thousands of offspring, only one of those offspring on average can survive long enough to reproduce. All the other offspring die prematurely. We can expect a positive correlation between the length of a life and the net welfare level of that life: the shorter the life, the more brutal it is, with predominantly experiences of suffering from hunger, parasites and diseases.

Now suppose the lives of zooplankton are in general not worth living: the vast majority of zooplankton animals have a net negative well-being (short lives with experiences of hunger and diseases). In that case it would be good to decrease the population of zooplankton. Planktivorous fish are doing a good job. Hence, catching piscivorous fish becomes good, because that increases the population of planktivorous fish and decreases the population of zooplankton.

In summary: if the suffering caused by killing is negligible, catching fish at an odd trophic level will be good if the lowest trophic level at which sentience occurs is even and if well-being is positive, or if the lowest trophic level at which sentience occurs is odd and if well-being is negative. It is bad otherwise. And the reverse is true for catching fish at an even trophic level.

Matters become even more complicated when the suffering caused by killing is not negligible. Catching fish causes suffering and hence decreases aggregate welfare. Catching predatory fish who catch fish might decrease overall fish killings and hence increase aggregate welfare, depending on the trophic levels. This is in line with the discussion above. But we also have to consider the fishing intensity.

The number of fish being killed in fishing, is the product of the fishing intensity (the probability of a fish being captured) and the fish population size. It is possible to increase the fishing intensity beyond the level of maximum yield: overfishing reduces the fish populations to such a degree, that there are almost no fish left to be captured. This counterintuitively means that a very high fishing intensity can result in very low fish captures. With a huge fishing fleet, it is possible that only a few fish die, because there are no fish left in the ocean. Hence, the welfare loss due to the suffering of captured fish is a non-linear function of the fishing intensity. As a lot of fish populations in the ocean are being overfished, decreasing the fishing intensity can increase the number of fish being killed.

Conclusion: should we stop fishing?

Given the fact that we catch huge amounts of fish, catching fish will be either very good or very bad, depending on the trophic level of the captured fish, the trophic levels that contain sentient animals, the positive or negative welfare status of the trophic levels, and the fishing intensity. The goodness switches if the trophic level of the captured fish is changed, if the lowest trophic level at which sentience occurs is changed, if the welfare level switches from positive to negative or if the fishing intensity switches from below to above the maximum yield level. It becomes extremely difficult to estimate the welfare impact of fishing. And it becomes even more complex in more realistic situations with non-linear aquatic food webs and non-linear ecological processes and trophic cascades (side-effects).

Given the fact that we catch many fish, knowing the sentience and welfare levels of aquatic animals and the full dynamics of aquatic food webs becomes very important. A lot is at stake.

In the appendix of this document I describe a purely theoretical approach to the problem of the welfare impact of fishing. I simulated coundefinedmplex food webs with and without fishing, and calculated a welfare function that measures the total sum of welfare levels of the sentient animals minus the welfare losses due to dying. The results are very sensitive to the choice of parameters in the theoretical food web model and the welfare function. Overall, the conclusion is that fishing is slightly more likely to decrease aggregate fish welfare at low fishing intensities, with the exception of situations where most fish populations have negative net welfare levels and fish mortality is not the dominant contributor of welfare loss. Let’s say that the probability that fishing decreases aggregate welfare, is something like 51%.

What should we do with fishing as long as the important scientific knowledge is lacking? We are in a situation of risk, where we risk doing a lot of bad when fishing, but we may also do a lot of good. If a lot is at stake, most people become risk averse and prefer the status quo of non-intervention. That is what we would choose when humans instead of fish were involved. In order to avoid speciesist arbitrariness, we can ask ourselves the question what we would do if all aquatic animals were large and small swimming humans (making up a complete food web, with cannibalistic humans). Then we would not simply go fishing humans, because fishing would be too bold. We would rather do scientific research and study the situation more carefully before we intervene. Furthermore, we have one certainty: catching fish always causes some harm to the captured fish. So fishing implies a certain welfare loss plus an uncertain very high positive or negative impact on welfare. Even if that means that the probability that fishing has a negative effect is only 51%, i.e. slightly more likely than flipping a coin, we would abstain from fishing, because so many fish are involved. Fishing is impermissible, until we have robust scientific evidence that fishing is the only means to improve well-being and decrease harm.

The above considerations are also relevant when it comes to problem prioritization. The uncertainty about the welfare effects of fishing means that priority could be given to abolishing aquaculture and livestock farming first instead of abolishing fishing first. Even if the number of livestock animals killed per year is an order of magnitude lower than the number of wild fish captured per year, the negative welfare impact of aquaculture and livestock farming is more certain (as their food chains are simpler) than the welfare impact of fishing. The animals in captivity have most likely net negative welfare levels, which means it is very likely that breeding and slaughtering such animals decreases aggregate welfare. Hence, priority could be given to decreasing livestock farming and aquaculture. Besides, as a lot of livestock animals and farmed fish eat fish meal, decreasing livestock farming also decreases fishing.

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Asymmetric altruism

In effective altruism, we have to prioritize the most effective ways to do good. But there are different notions of altruism that influence our prioritization. Altruism has to do with helping others. But the tricky question becomes: helping who exactly? And what is helping? I will argue that we have to make a distinction between positive versus negative altruism, and that this distinction becomes important in effective altruistic prioritization.

To start, consider a person who is about to undergo a surgical operation. At time 1, before the operation, the person is fully conscious and has mental state P1. We can choose between two options A and B. At time 2, during the operation, the person can either have anesthesia (option A), or not (option B). This can be described with two possible worlds. In the world A where we choose for the anesthesia, the anesthetized person is unconscious, having an empty mental state P2A=0 (i.e. no subjective experiences and preferences). In the second world, the patient does not get the anesthesia and will be in extreme agony, with mental state P2B. Altruistically speaking, it is better to choose option A, because this is helping the patient. Giving the anesthesia is something the patient wants.

In the case of the surgical operation, it is clear who is being helped. We can consider the mental states P1, P2A and P2B as belonging to the same person, because those mental states are related to each other. In particular, the person at time 1 with mental state P1 is concerned about his/her own future and hence identifies him/herself with the future mental states P2A and P2B. Similarly, the person with mental state P2B can acknowledge that he/she is the same person as P1 as well as P2A. P2A is basically P2B’s alter ego in the other possible world. A slightly tricky issue arises when we consider P2A, who is unconscious and hence not able to feel a personal identity with neither P1 nor P2A. P2A has no beliefs, and hence no belief that he/she is the same person as P1. Still, given the beliefs of P1 and P2B, we can consider P1, P2A and P2B as the same person, and the anesthesia helps that person.

Is veganism altruistic for animals?

Giving anesthesia to the patient is a clear example of altruism: it helps the other. But what about veganism? Animal farming causes animal suffering. Almost all farm animals have very negative experiences. We can avoid this suffering, by eating vegan. But that means those farm animals would not be born and hence not exist.

Consider at time 1 a bunch of atoms and molecules floating around. This group of molecules has an empty mental state P1=0. Then we have a choice to eat vegan (option A) or eat meat (option B). Option A means those atoms will keep floating around, having again an empty mental state P2A=0. Only in option B will those atoms rearrange themselves to create a mental state P2B in an animal brain. P2B has unwanted negative experiences.

If we choose option A, are we helping the animal? Which animal? The animal does not exist in option A: the mental state P2A was empty. P1 also is an empty mental state, which means no identification with neither P2A nor P2B. And it is very unlikely that animal P2B can identify him/herself with the non-existing animals (i.e. the bunch of molecules) P1 and P2A. Hence, P1, P2A and P2B cannot be considered as the same person. So, are we really helping an animal when we choose a situation where the animal does not exist?

Is saving the future altruistic?

Next, we can consider existential risks: situations that lead to the extinction of intelligent or sentient life. At time 1, future generations are not born yet, and hence they can be represented by a bunch of atoms having empty mental states P1=0. Then we can choose between two options: either we do not avoid the existential catastrophe, which means those atoms will have a future empty state P2A=0. Or we prevent the extinction, which means those atoms will rearrange themselves and future people will be born, having mental states P2B.

If we choose option B, are we helping those future people? Yes, because those people will exist in world B. But if we choose option A, are we harming those people? No, because those people will never exist in world A.

Positive versus negative altruism

It is time to consider two kinds of altruism. Positive altruism means: choosing what someone else wants. Negative altruism, on the other hand, means: not choosing what someone else does not want. This is a bit related to the two versions of the golden rule: “Treat others in ways that you want to be treated”, versus “Do not treat others in ways that you do not want to be treated.”

By choosing the anesthesia, we are altruistic in both positive and negative senses. We choose what person P1 wants (the anesthesia), and we do not choose what person P2B does not want (the suffering). By choosing veganism, we are only being negatively altruistic: we do not choose what person P2B does not want. And by choosing to avoid the existential risk, we are only being positively altruistic: we choose what people with mental states P2B want.

When we have to prioritize between different ways to do good, the question is whether double altruism (i.e. both positive and negative altruism) is more valuable than single altruism, and whether single positive altruism is more valuable than single negative altruism. How can we tell which is most important?

It can be argued that double altruism is twice as good as single altruism, in the sense that double altruism takes into account the preferences of two mental states P1 and P2B, whereas single altruism only considers P2B. Hence, when choosing between double and single altruism, double altruism can be prioritized (all else equal, hence assuming the preferences or wants are equally strong in the different situations).

But suppose we have to choose between single positive and single negative altruism. For example: should we prioritize veganism or safeguarding the future (assuming that an equal amount of animals and potential future beings are involved, with equally strong preferences for option B)? We see a lot of asymmetries in ethics (e.g. killing someone is worse than not saving someone, and causing the existence of someone who constantly suffers is always bad whereas causing the existence of someone who is always happy is not always good). Some asymmetries can be defended (see e.g. here), and I tend to believe that negative altruism is more valuable than positive altruism. If negative altruism is considered very important, then veganism becomes more important.

In theory, we can solve this issue by being altruistic: let the others decide. In particular: ask the farm animals and the future generations whether they prioritize negative altruism above positive altruism. But that is of course unfeasible. How to weigh positive versus negative altruism is a question I will leave for further investigations.

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Black Lives Matter: racism at unexpected places

Recently, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, I stumbled upon a graph about interracial violent crime incidents in the US in 2018. That graph was spread by conservative, right-wing and racist people. The original source, containing the underlying data of the graph, was the US Department of Justice. The data were surprising to me, and demonstrate how complex the issue of racism is. I am not an expert on this topic, I am not a criminologist or sociologist and haven’t read many scientific studies on this topic. Nevertheless, I think this topic is a good exercise in how views can be influenced by briefly looking at some studies, statistics and graphs. This example of interracial violence shows that there are plenty of hypotheses and surprising conclusions that one could draw from only a small graph. It is also a good exercise in rational, critical thinking.

As I will show, police violence and violent crime statistics do reveal racism at several places, but not at the places that I or many other people would expect. This implies that the causes of racism could be different or more complex than what one would naively guess. At least, the situation is more complex than I would have guessed.  

To be clear, I focus on statistical racism: the shares of crime rates by ethnicity compared to what one would expect based on population shares. For example, 60% of the US population are non-Hispanic whites, 13% are black and 17% are Hispanic. Hence, without statistical racism, one would expect 13% of victims and 13% of offenders of crimes to be black, and 1,7% (i.e. 13% times 13%) of crimes to be with black offenders on black victims. Statistical racism could be explained by, but should not be confused with e.g. ideological racism, institutional racism or systemic racism. If people have racist beliefs (ideological racism), that could influence the crime statistics and generate statistical racism, but statistical racism is possible even if people do not have explicit racist ideologies or implicit (unconscious) racist attitudes.

Let’s move to the graph that was spread by the racist people. That graph selected only the interracial violent crime rates of three ethnic groups: whites, blacks and Hispanics. Here I present the full graph, that also shows the intraracial crime rates of those three ethnic groups. The left, blue bars represent the expected number of crimes if there was no statistical racism. The right, orange bars are the real crime rates.

Some findings.

  • There are more interracial crimes by black offenders on white victims (‘black on white’) than the reverse (‘white on black’), and these crime rates are far from what one would expect based on population shares. For example the crimes by white offenders on black victims is 7 times lower than black on white, and 10 times lower than what one would expect. This was the point made by the right-wing, conservative and racist people spreading the graph. One could conclude that, when it comes to interracial violence, there is no sign of white supremacy or antiblack racism by white people. White and Hispanic people are the least dangerous people for other ethnic groups.
  • Blacks are statistically speaking more violent than whites or Hispanics. The total number of crimes by black offenders (the sum of the three left orange bars) is almost twice as much as what one would expect based on population shares (the three left blue bars). Whites and Hispanics are 10% less violent than what one would expect. The higher crime rates by black people could be due to misreporting (e.g. when people are more likely to report a crime when the offender is black) or a racist bias (e.g. police officers misreporting the ethnicity of the crime suspects). However, mere misreporting or bias could not explain the discrepancy between crime rates for different ethnic group victims. Looking at the graph: why would the racist misreporting be so much larger when the victims are black (look at the discrepancy between expected and real ‘black on black’ and ‘white on black’ rates), compared to when the victims are white? The ratio of real versus expected crime numbers for white on white is almost the same as for black on white, whereas those ratios are extremely different for white on black and black on black. Hence, something more than mere misreporting must be going on. I don’t expect that correcting for misreporting would significantly change the conclusions we can draw.
  • Intraracial violence (within the same ethnic group) is higher than interracial violence (between groups), and this is true for all ethnic groups. For example crimes by black offenders on black victims are higher than what one would expect. There could be several reasons for this, such as the formation of ethnic communities. For example, black people tend to live in neighborhoods with many other black people, hence encountering more black than white people in their daily lives, and hence encountering more black offenders and victims.
  • Black intraracial violence (‘black on black’) is almost 5 times higher than what one would expect, whereas white intraracial violence is only 10% higher. I don’t know why this is the case, but based on my economics knowledge, I can formulate some hypotheses. For example the black community can have relatively high levels of intragroup competition. The labor force of a minority group can be relatively more homogeneous, for example comprising of low-skilled workers, which means jobs are less complementary, which means more intragroup competition on the labor market, which means lower wages and incomes, which means dire economic situations, which means more resort to intragroup violent crimes against people considered as competitors.  
  • The total crimes on minority groups (black people and Hispanics) is 17% to 19% lower than what one would expect, whereas the total crimes on whites is 9% higher than expected. This means minority groups are relatively safer against crimes. Even with a very high black on black crime rate, black people are less likely to be victims of crimes compared to a situation without statistical racism. (This conclusion may no longer be true if crimes against blacks happen to be underreported in the data. Perhaps the number of white on black crimes in the data is underestimated, but then one would expect that the number of black on black crimes is also an underestimate, which means in reality the intraracial black crime rate is even higher than the already very high level presented in the data.)

Now we can look at a measure of statistical anti-black racism. I define this as a ratio of two ratios. The first ratio is the real number of crimes with black victims to the real total number of crimes (i.e. summed over all victims). The second ratio is the expected number of crimes with black victims to the expected total number of crimes (expected based on population shares). When this ratio of ratios is larger than 1, there is statistical racism. This statistical anti-black racism measure corrects for e.g. the facts that some ethnic groups are larger than others or more violent than others. Here we see really surprising results.

  • The statistical anti-black racism by the whole population is 0,75, i.e. lower than 1. Hence, the whole population does not have an anti-black racism bias when it comes to violent crimes. This can also be compared with the statistical anti-white racism by the whole population, which equals 1,15. This value is higher than one, so in general there is rather an anti-white bias. Whites are relatively worse-off than blacks when it comes to statistical racism in violent crimes.
  • The statistical anti-black racism by whites (i.e. considering white offenders) is even much lower: 0,17 (consistent with a higher than 1 anti-white racism by white people of 1,33).
  • Most surprisingly, the statistical anti-black racism by blacks is 2,7. This is extremely high. It is also higher than the statistical anti-white racism by whites (1,33). This means that the abovementioned ethnic community effect (blacks living among blacks, whites living among whites) cannot explain this anti-black racism by black people. When it comes to violent crimes, the real racism against black people comes from black people. I suspect that there is a socio-economic cause underlying these high levels of statistical anti-black racism by blacks and black intraracial violence. The lower socio-economic status of black people could partially explain the statistical racism, and could itself be the result of structural racism (e.g. structural racism on the labor market), but below I present another interesting hypothesis that is not related to racism (or only very indirectly).

The Black Lives Matter movement also focuses on police killings. Here the data and studies are very clear: of the people shot to death by police officers in the US in 2019, 31% were black (totaling 235 black people killed), 48% were white, 21% were Hispanic (neglecting the other ethnic groups for simplicity). 31% is off course higher than the population share of blacks (13%), but also higher than the share of violent crimes by blacks (25%, considering only crimes by blacks, whites and Hispanics). Even if black people commit more violent crimes, the police force is even more violent against blacks than that.

The statistical anti-black racism of the police force cannot be explained by the ethnic composition of the police force: roughly 13% of police officers are black, which equals the population share of blacks in the US. So the next question is whether white police officers are more anti-black racist than black officers. I could not find convincing data for a higher anti-black racism among white officers. One study says that “white officers appear to be no more likely to use lethal force against minorities than nonwhite officers”. Another study and aftermath discussion indicates that… the matter is very complicated.

At this moment, I personally don’t think that white officers are significantly more racist. The statistical racism of the police force is not at the level of the individual officers. It is more hidden and structural. One hypothesis (that I didn’t check) that could explain the statistical anti-black racism, is that the police patrols more in black neighborhoods, for example because they expect higher crime rates there. Or the police can target more black than white suspects. Also (and perhaps especially so) black police officers are send to the black communities. That means police officers (including black officers) are more likely being confronted with black offenders and black suspects on the streets.

The good news is: general crime rates, and rates of police killings are declining. People and police officers, be they black or white or Hispanic, become less violent. There are some interesting hypotheses that could explain not only this declining trend in violence and crimes, but also the higher crime rate by black people, why their decline is lagging behind the decline of the crime rate by white people. One of my favorite hypotheses is the lead-crime hypothesis (also discussed here and here). The idea is that black people live at places with higher levels of lead pollution. Lead uptake in the body by young children can cause a decrease in IQ and learning abilities (hence a decrease in socio-economic status later in life) and a decrease in impulse control. This makes black people more vulnerable to violent crimes. Lead pollution is decreasing, so we see a decreasing crime rate by black people.

The lead-crime hypothesis is an interesting example of why we might need to look for far deeper, less trivial causes of violence and crimes than the usual antiracism rhetoric and ‘easy’ explanations (e.g. about white supremacy or white privilege; these are notions that could be useful in other contexts, but not in the context of violent crimes). If true, hypotheses like the lead-crime hypothesis offer much clearer and effective solutions to decrease crime rates and hence police killings.

What other solutions could be effective? A possible explanation for the high anti-black killing rate by police officers, is the higher police patrol rate in black communities. Perhaps we should send police forces more to white neighborhoods instead of black neighborhoods? However, this might increase the crime rate in black neighborhoods to even higher levels than they already are. (I am not familiar with the scientific literature, so I don’t know whether this is true.) A better option might be to have more police officers. When there are only a few officers, they have to work long shifts, hence they become more tired, more easily frustrated and less able to deal with conflictual situations in non-violent ways. Campaign Zero proposes more measures to reduce police violence.

Perhaps most importantly, in terms of effectiveness: we need a criminal justice reform, especially in the US. Chloe Cockburn and the Open Philanthropy make some interesting recommendations (see also here and here for discussions about effective charities to reduce systemic racial injustice and police violence).

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What anti-vaxxers truly believe (or how reframing improves critical thinking)

Vaccines save millions of lives every year. However, the anti-vaccination movement causes a decline in vaccination rates, which results in extra diseases and deaths. Anti-vaxxers are people who have doubts about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines that are strongly recommended by health organizations. As a consequence, they want to refuse vaccinating their children against diseases such as polio and measles.

The anti-vaccination movement is harmful, so we need effective strategies to fight this movement. To do this, it might be interesting to understand what anti-vaxxers truly believe, by reframing the issue of vaccination. Reframing is an important philosophical technique that helps to detect fallacies or inconsistencies in beliefs. Here I present a reframing, using a thought-experiment, to understand exactly what anti-vaxxers stand for.

Suppose we have a vaccine, but unlike a classic injection vaccine, this is a self-producing vaccine that can spread through the air. Injection vaccines are produced in labs, whereas the self-producing vaccine is produced in the bodies of vaccinated people. Those bodies become vaccine factories. The exhaled air of the vaccinated people carries invisible vaccine particles to other people, which means that they are therefore automatically vaccinated. So you get this vaccine by inhalation instead of injection. With this vaccine in circulation, it is almost impossible to avoid vaccination, because then you should avoid all contact with vaccinated persons, wear gas masks or stop breathing.

The interesting property of this vaccine is that it is costless for health authorities: no more syringes and doctors required to administer the vaccine. Another benefit, in the eyes of people who dislike pharmaceutical companies, is that companies do not earn anything from this vaccine, because the vaccine produces itself using the bodies of vaccinated people. For people who don’t trust large pharmaceutical corporations: the vaccine was not designed by ‘Big Pharma’. In fact, no commercial interests were involved in the development of the vaccine.

The self-producing vaccine has some disadvantages, though. First, the vaccine has not undergone safety testing and evaluation by independent health scientists and regulatory agencies. Second, the vaccine production lacks transparency: it is not sold with a package leaflet that describes possible side-effects and safety instructions. No-one knows how the vaccine was initially developed. Third, the dose given to a person cannot be controlled as with an injection vaccine. That means some people get very high doses of the vaccine, even without knowing it. Fourth, and most importantly, the vaccine contains two dangerous additives, i.e. chemical ingredients that improve the self-production process. The first additive is a protein that allows for the vaccine particles to penetrate deeply into the cells of the body. The second additive is ribonucleic acid. This is a group of chemicals that can alter the genetic expression of cells. The cells become genetically modified to produce more vaccine particles. Unfortunately, this results in cell death. As a consequence, the self-producing vaccine can have some very serious side-effects. Many vaccinated people become seriously ill and can even die from the vaccination.

If you had to choose, which vaccine do you prefer: the injection vaccine or the self-producing inhalation vaccine? This is not merely a theoretical thought-experiment. The reader has already understood that the self-producing vaccine actually exists: it is called ‘measles’ (or ‘polio’, ‘mumps’,…).

Now there are people, called anti-vaxxers, who oppose the traditional injection vaccines. As a consequence, they are in favor of the self-producing vaccine, even if the self-producing vaccine turns out to be more harmful to health. Those people have several reasons to oppose the injection vaccines.

First, they absolutely do not want large pharmaceutical companies to earn money. As traditional injection vaccines have to be produced by pharmaceutical companies, they oppose those injection vaccines and turn to the self-producing vaccines. Hence, those anti-vaxxers think it is more important that some companies earn nothing than that people are healthy.

Second, the anti-vaxxers have a restrictive notion of freedom and autonomy. They believe that a person’s freedom or autonomy is violated when a vaccination is intentionally forced upon that person by people (doctors, ministers of health,…) who care about the health of that person. Here the intention is important. As people cannot escape the self-producing vaccine, this vaccine is forced upon them, but not intentionally. Nature (in particular the laws of chemistry) forces the vaccine upon them, and nature does not have intentions. Nature doesn’t care about the health of people like doctors do. Hence, the anti-vaxxers think intention is more important than health: it is more important to avoid intentional restrictions of freedom than unintentional restrictions of freedom, even when the latter cause more harm.

The anti-vaxxers claim to be against the injection vaccine because they believe that the vaccine causes diseases (such as autism), that the production lacks transparency, that the vaccine lacks safety testing, that certain additives are too dangerous,… However, as they chose the self-producing vaccine that has deadly side-effects, has no package leaflet, was not tested on safety, and definitely includes dangerous additives (that can deeply penetrate cells and genetically modify them), all those arguments are invalid.

The expression ‘self-producing vaccine’ was merely a reframing, intended to make clear that the beliefs of anti-vaxxers are inconsistent. The above thought-experiment is a good exercise in critical thinking. Many ethical issues can be tackled by reframing them.

Consider another belief of anti-vaxxers: that injection vaccines are harmful because they weaken our immune system (e.g. the immune system becomes too lazy not having to deal anymore with the real viruses). The anti-vaxxers believe the self-producing vaccine strengthens the immune system (at least for those people who survive the disease). As increasing the injection vaccination rate decreases the self-producing vaccination rate, the anti-vaxxers oppose the injection vaccines. But if decreasing the self-producing vaccination rate is bad (in terms of weakening the immune system), what about increasing the self-producing vaccination rate? Would creating new self-producing vaccines (i.e. new infectious viral diseases) be good for our immune system? Here I reframed the issue: instead of considering a decrease, we can consider an increase. As anti-vaxxers are against creating new diseases, neither decreasing nor increasing the self-producing vaccination rate is a good idea, according to anti-vaxxers. Hence, they believe that the self-producing vaccination rate (at a zero injection vaccination rate) is the optimal rate, but they cannot explain why this should be the case. This is an example of a status quo bias, tackled by a reframing technique called the ‘reversal test’.

It appears that the anti-vaccination gained strength during the Covid-19 crisis. Interestingly, during this crisis, many anti-vaxxers were against protective measures such as quarantines, lockdowns and obligations to wear facemasks. As these measures do not generate profits for pharmaceutical companies, the distrust in Big Pharma is not at play here. On the contrary: many anti-vaxxers are in favor of using chloroquine against Covid-19, believing that this drug has an antiviral effect. Here again we see a dangerous twist: at the time when anti-vaxxers proposed chloroquine, there was no evidence that chloroquine is safe and effective for treatment of covid-19 patients. To be clear: chloroquine is a drug that is produced by pharmaceutical companies. And if this drug will be used by thousands of covid-19 patients, it will be produced and sold at a large scale, which can only be done by Big Pharma. It again demonstrates that Big Pharma is not the real issue for those anti-vaxxers. The same goes for the worry about conflicts of interest. Anti-vaxxers distrust scientists who claim that vaccines are safe and effective, because they suspect financial conflicts of interests between those scientists and pharmaceutical companies. However, researchers with a high reputation in the anti-vaccination movement, such as Andrew Wakefield and Romain Gherardi, had some serious, undisclosed conflicts of interests. Hence, conflicts of interest is also not the real issue for anti-vaxxers.

Anti-vaxxers claim to value human health, children’s lives and personal freedoms. However, their opposition to effective injection vaccines is irrational and counterproductive. By choosing a more dangerous self-producing vaccine that is enforced upon everyone, they cause more deaths and loss of health, welfare and freedoms. Not only is the self-producing vaccine forced upon everyone, but patients also lose all their freedom when they die. The anti-vaccination movement is one of the most striking examples of irrationality, where good people, with the right moral values, can be turned towards bad choices, with harmful consequences.

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Our final strategy for meat abolition?

After a long reflection, here are my thoughts on how to most effectively decrease or end the biggest kind of human-caused suffering: animal farming (and fishing). I argue that the best strategy for animal rights advocates to abolish meat, is supporting open access scientific research and development of cellular agriculture.

How can we eliminate the animal product market? There are two interlinked markets: for animal products and animal-free alternatives. We need to shift the system from the market of animal products to the market of animal-free products, either by pushing the system away from the first market, or pulling it towards the second market. Like pulling on one side of a rope is more effective than pushing on the other side, I will argue that a pulling strategy is more effective than a pushing strategy.

Both markets have a demand side of consumers and a supply side of producers. Hence, we can distinguish four (two by two) strategies. The two push strategies influence the animal product market: they make animal products less attractive, either by decreasing demand (a leftward shift of the demand curve) or increasing production costs (an upward shift of the supply curve). The pull strategies make animal-free products more attractive, either by increasing its demand (a rightward shift of the demand curve) or decreasing its production costs (a downward shift of the supply curve). Hence, we can analyze the effectiveness of these two strategies at the two market sides.

Demand (upward slope) and supply (downward slope) curves for the markets of animal products and animal-free alternatives. Push strategies act on the market for animal products, decreasing demand or increasing prpduction costs. Pull strategies act on the market for alternatives.

Demand side strategies

Let’s start with the demand side. Many animal advocates focus on individual behavior change with consumerist vegan and vegetarian outreach campaigns. Despite all the outreach campaigns of the past five decades of activism, the number of vegetarians and vegans did not increase very much and stays below 10% of the population.

The demand side push strategy consists of presenting moral arguments against animal production, informing people about the horrors of animal farming, showing undercover investigations of factory farming, producing documentaries or talking about human health costs and environmental problems of animal products. This strategy often faces a pushback from the animal industry: they increase their marketing campaigns to counteract the negative information spread by animal rights activists. It becomes a kind of arm-wrestling: the harder you push, the harder the opponent pushes back. At best, the strategy makes animal products a bit more expensive, because the industry needs to pay for its extra marketing campaigns, and this can decrease the demand a little.

The demand side pull strategy consists in making veganism more attractive by organizing vegan cooking workshops and vegan community events, distributing vegan meal recipes or letting people taste traditional vegan products. This behavior change strategy has its limits as well, because it gives the impression that eating vegan requires a change in behavior (having to learn new things such as vegan recipes, making new choices) and a change in identity (considering oneself as a vegan, adopting a new, vegan ideology). People are reluctant to change their behavior and identity, so this pull strategy was not sufficient to convince the broad public.

Supply side strategies

Moving towards the supply side, animal rights organizations did some effective campaigns to change the system. The supply side push strategy consists in attacking the industry. Blockades, supply chain disruptions, governmental regulation, meat taxation, are all examples to make the production of animal products more costly (shifting the supply curve of animal products upwards). This can be moderately effective in two situations: to prevent further expansion of the industry and to prohibit a part of the industry.

First, the further expansion of the industry can be prevented, for example by a public non-violent direct action campaign that prevents the construction of a new slaughterhouse in a neighborhood. This can be effective, because preventing something that does not yet exist is easier than breaking down something that already exists and already has strong vested interests. However, the effectiveness is limited, because as long as demand is high, the slaughterhouse can be built elsewhere. At best, the strategy makes animal products a bit more expensive, because the industry needs to build its infrastructure at more expensive places.

Second, with the help of government regulation, a part of the industry can be prohibited. For example, animal rights organizations were successful in officially banning sports that involved animal cruelty and circuses that used wild animals in many countries. This can be effective, because influencing a (local or national) government is easier than directly attacking the industry. However, the effectiveness is limited, because the scope of the problem is relatively small: there were fewer wild animals in all circuses combined than livestock animals on a single, large factory farm.

The supply side push strategy works on the market for animal products and therefore also faces a pushback effect from the industry, reducing the overall effectiveness. In general, the past five decades did not show many big results with this strategy.

That leaves us with one final strategy, that is not much attempted yet for animal farming: the supply side pull strategy, that works on the market of animal-free alternatives. Basically, it comes down to developing new food technologies, such as cellular agriculture that can produce cell-based meat. It decreases the production costs of animal-free products that are equal or better in quality than animal products. This final strategy can be very effective.

New technologies that replaced animals

In the past, we have seen several examples of animals being replaced by new technologies, often without much resistance (almost no pushback from the industry or from adversarial government legislators) and even without animal rights campaigning. Some examples:

  1. draft horses for carriage were replaced by cars,
  2. oxen for plowing were replaced by tractors,
  3. whale oil was replaced by kerosene,
  4. messenger pigeons were replaced by telephones and telegraphs,
  5. wool was largely replaced by synthetic fibers such as nylon (this is one of the most important reasons why sheep agriculture in the US declined by almost 90%),
  6. beeswax for candles was replaced by light bulbs,
  7. pig and cow insulin for diabetes patients was replaced by biosynthetic human insulin from recombinant-DNA yeast,
  8. monoclinal antibodies from animals were replaced by antibodies from cultured cells,
  9. rabbit skin tests were replaced by cultured human skin cells (an example of a replacement of animal experiments by animal-free alternatives),
  10. movie animals are being replaced more and more by CGI digital animals.

Note that in many of those examples, a sector that used thousands or millions of animals was completely or almost completely abolished within only a few decades. The general reason behind these drastic transitions is that the animal-free new technologies were simply better in terms of quality, usability, reliability and production costs, such that market forces were sufficient to shift the economy. Only limited pressure from the public or the government was needed.

We can expect that gradually all animal technologies will be replaced by animal-free technologies. This can be understood by looking at the technology space: the abstract space of all physically possible technologies that we could ever invent. This is a huge space, and only a small island in this space consist of technologies that use animals. At this moment, animal farming is the technology that uses the most animals. Animal farming is on the island of animal technologies.

Our human history can be understood as an exploration of technology space. With our first technological inventions, we were dropped in technology space. Because we met a lot of animals in our daily lives, as it happens, we landed close to the island of animal technologies. Therefore, we explored this island and hence a large part of our first technological inventions involved animals. That is why we started to use more and more animals, inventing new ways to use them. But as we explore technology space further, we are expanding the scope far beyond the small island of animal technologies. With this exploration, the probability that we discover animal-free technologies that are in all aspects better than animal technologies, increases.

New food technologies allow for the production of animal-free foods that become better in all aspects (tastier, safer, healthier, cheaper, environmentally friendlier,…) than animal foods. Hence, the final strategy of pulling the supply side towards animal-free food production, is likely to be very effective. Especially the replacement of animal meat (slaughtered meat) with animal-free meat is important. When it comes to animal-free meat, we can make a distinction between plant-based meat and cell-based meat. A prospective timeline estimates that this decade, we will see large improvements in new plant-based versions of processed animal products such as burgers and sausages. In the 2030’s, we will see processed cell-based meat products, animal-free dairy and eggs and pet food on the market. And by 2050, unprocessed, whole tissue cell-based meat is expected to enter the market.

Animal rights activists can help speed up this process of animal-free meat entering the market, by supporting research and development, assisting the marketing and legislative process, and influencing the distribution networks and supply chains for the new food technologies. Two organizations are of prime importance in this area: the Good Food Institute and New Harvest.

The case for cell-based meat support

When choosing between supporting R&D of plant-based meat versus cell-based meat, the latter could be more effective. First of all, new start-up companies are already bringing new plant-based meats to the market, backed by large investors (see for example the very successful stock market launch of Beyond Meat in 2019). This means there is already a lot of investment in this area of plant-based meats. Cell-based meat is not yet on the market and there are not yet cell-based meat companies selling shares on the stock market or marketing cell-based meats. Hence cell-based meat is more benefitted by extra support that enhances market introduction.

Second, the timeline to influence the developments of new plant-based meat is short: they are expected to capture a large market share of the meat sector already this decade. Whole tissue cell-based meat, on the other hand, is expected to enter the market over a few decades. When a solution is further away in the future, efforts to shorten the timeline become more important. When a solution takes ten times longer to develop, speeding up developments with 1% has ten times more future impact (as explained with a graph here).

Third, the demand of plant-based meat is likely more limited. It might remain difficult to persuade die-hard meat-eaters to switch to plant-based alternatives, because those alternatives can only imitate processed animal meat. Whole tissue cell-based meat, on the other hand, would taste and feel just like unprocessed animal meat. If cell-based meat becomes indistinguishable from animal meat, but cheaper than animal meat, it is likely to attract more meat-eaters. Furthermore, cell-based meat is likely more appropriate for non-human carnivorous consumers as well, such as pets and animals in wildlife rescue centers. In theory, in the far future, demand for cell-based meat could extend to all carnivorous wild animals.

Fourth, private companies are already investing in applied R&D for plant-based meat, whereas cell-based meat still requires much more initial or fundamental R&D that is more neglected by private companies. Hence, donors have more opportunities for financially supporting this more fundamental research.

Fifth, there is a risk that cell-based meat awaits the same fate as GMOs. GMOs can improve the food system, but they received a public backlash, largely due to GMOs becoming associated with corporate secrecy and large corporations controlling intellectual property. When a large corporation would appropriate all intellectual property for the production of cell-based meat, it gains a monopoly power, which means that cell-based meat will be sold at high prices and other companies cannot easily develop new cell-based meats. This reduces supply and demand of cell-based meats. Especially cell-based meat technologies are vulnerable for patenting. To avoid patenting of cell-based meat by large corporations as much as possible, we need to increase support for open access research into cellular agriculture as much as possible. That is why an organization like New Harvest is so important.

As cell-based meat will be better in all aspects than animal meat, it is likely that it can replace animal meat just like the ten technology examples given above replaced animals. Nevertheless, it is possible to give counterexamples of better technologies that were not able to replace worse technologies. The best counterexample is probably bottled water: tap water is equally healthy but more than hundred times cheaper and better for the environment, as well as easier in use (no need to buy and carry heavy bottles from a shop). Still, a lot of consumers buy a lot of bottled water. The crucial question is whether cell-based meat is comparable to tap water, or rather to a cheaper and higher quality bottled water. The reason why people still buy bottled water, is mostly marketing based. Bottled water is more marketed than tap water, because companies want to sell it. We can expect that companies selling cell-based meat will advertise their cell-based meat. So cell-based meat should rather be compared with cheaper and higher quality bottled water than with tap water. And when cell-based meat is better for public health and the environment, governments can more easily prohibit animal meat, just like governments can easily prohibit the most environmentally destructive type of bottled water packaging.

Conclusion: towards veganmodernism

In the past, animal rights advocates tried several strategies to decrease or end the biggest kind of human-caused suffering, namely animal farming. All of them failed so far, but one strategy is not yet attempted much: a supply side pull strategy towards animal-free food production. Within this strategy, the most effective tactic could be the financial support for open access scientific research and development of cell-based meat. Hence, animal rights activists and advocates can shift their strategies and tactics: instead of spending time and money doing traditional behavioral change and corporate pressure campaigns, they can look for opportunities to raise, earn and donate more money to an organization like New Harvest. This implies the animal rights movement should shift more towards veganmodernism, where technology is the solution, just like the environmental movement gave birth to ecomodernism.

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Het meest verwaarloosde leed

Di artikel verscheen ook op Kwintessens – Humanistisch verbond.

Het is een mooie lenteavond; tijd voor een filosofische wandeling in het bos. Onderweg stellen we ons de vraag: wat zijn nu de allerbelangrijkste humanistische waarden? We komen uit op een shortlist, met bovenaan: het vermijden van ongewenst, onnodig, extreem leed. Goed, als dat belangrijk is, dan volgt een tweede, uitdagendere vraag: wat is de meest verwaarloosde vorm van leed, waar we te weinig aandacht voor hebben? Bij zo’n aangename lentewandeling in de natuur is het natuurlijk niet eenvoudig om na te gaan welk leed we het meest over het hoofd zien, want het leed in de wereld lijkt dan ver weg. Of net niet?

We genieten van een fluitende vogel. De vogels in dit bos lijken wel tevreden, net als wij. Maar we zijn misleid. We weten dat de moeder van die vogel pakweg een tiental eieren heeft gelegd. Die vogel heeft dus tien broertjes en zusjes. Waar zijn die dan? Die zijn gestorven, want als alle vogels zouden overleven en zich voortplanten, dan hebben we elke generatie tien keer meer vogels. Dus voor elke fluitende vogel zijn er tientallen kuikentjes die we niet te zien krijgen omdat ze op jonge leeftijd gestorven zijn. Verreweg de meeste pasgeboren dieren in de natuur hebben korte levens met veel negatieve ervaringen, gevolgd door een pijnlijke doodstrijd. Als jij zou reïncarneren tot een willekeurig dier, zul je zeer waarschijnlijk een kort en naar leven hebben, met honger, dorst, vrieskou, gevechten, ziektes, ongevallen, parasieten, roofdieraanvallen enzovoort. De dieren die we in dit bos zien, zijn de geluksvogels, en we maken een denkfout als we daaruit concluderen dat de meeste dieren wel gelukkig en gezond zijn. De vele pechvogels zagen we niet, want die zijn gestorven en opgegeten.

In extreme armoede sterft ongeveer een kind op zes. Hoe erg moet het leed van dieren in de natuur dan niet zijn, waar meer dan negen op de tien pasgeborenen vroegtijdig sterft? Sommigen zijn bezorgd over menselijke overbevolking: een sterke stijging van de bevolking die leidt tot milieuproblemen en een plotse populatiecrash. Maar de menselijke populatie is waarschijnlijk de eerste en tot nu enige dierenpopulatie die overbevolking net vermijdt: zowat elk geboren kind heeft een lange levensverwachting en krijgt gemiddeld een eigen kind dat ook weer volwassen kan worden. In de natuur zien we daarentegen elk jaar een overpopulatiecrisis. De bevolking van wilde dieren groeit plots met meer dan een factor tien, en omdat de natuur dat niet aankan, sterven meer dan 90% van de pasgeborenen. Een factor tien daling, dat is pas een populatiecrash. Je zou kunnen zeggen dat de natuur een failed state is: ze slaagt er niet in het welzijn van haar inwoners te bevorderen.

Het terrein van het wilde-dierenleed is ideaal voor een filosofische lentewandeling, omdat het een mijnenveld is van denkfouten. Waarom is dat probleem zo sterk verwaarloosd, zelfs door dierenactivisten?

Misschien twijfel je dat wilde dieren leedervaringen hebben? We zien een bij op een bloem; heeft die een bewustzijn? Er zijn aanwijzingen dat bijen gemoedstoestanden hebben. Een bij kan leren dat een waterdruppel op een verticale markering lekker suiker bevat, en een waterdruppel op een horizontaal streepje wansmakelijke, bittere quinine bevat. Hoe zal ze reageren op een twijfelgeval: een schuin streepje? Gaat ze proeven van het water, in de optimistische overtuiging dat het suiker bevat? Nadat een bij wordt geschud (wat de aanval van een honingdas simuleert), is ze minder snel geneigd om het water op die schuine markering te proeven. Dit is een pessimismeneiging. Die angstige bij heeft lagere niveaus van de gelukshormonen dopamine en serotonine, en ze wordt optimistischer als ze antidepressiva krijgt. Als wij depressief of angstig zijn, dan worden wij ook pessimistischer in onzekere situaties, en we worden optimistisch als we gelukkig zijn. Deze judgment bias hebben we ook al waargenomen bij onder andere honden, ratten, kippen, koeien, varkens, schapen en spreeuwen.

Bijen kunnen ook rekening houden met hun mate van onzekerheid. Als de proef met het schuine streepje te moeilijk is, kan de bij leren om naar eenvoudigere situaties te vliegen, waar de streepjes duidelijk horizontaal of verticaal zijn. Dit vereist metacognitie, wat je kan interpreteren als een soort zelfbewustzijn van het eigen gevoel van onzekerheid. En bijen hebben net zoals onder meer mensen en kippen zelfcontrole en een tijdsbesef: ze verkiezen een grotere maar uitgestelde beloning boven een onmiddellijke maar kleine beloning.

Ontkennen dat wilde dieren leed ervaren, heeft dus geen zin. En we lijden hier aan omvangverwaarlozing (scope neglect): doordat het probleem zo groot is, met triljarden lijdende wilde dieren, wordt ons brein overbelast. We kunnen geen empathie meer voelen met zoveel slachtoffers. Als het bos afbrandt en je moet snel kiezen tussen het redden van een egel of twee egels, kies je waarschijnlijk voor het grootste aantal. Maar tussen het redden van 537523 en 537524 dieren ben je onverschillig geworden.

Op onze wandeling hebben we nog even tijd voor hardnekkigere denkfouten. We zien een roofvogel. Ik zeg je dat al die roofdieren veel leed veroorzaken en dat er dus beter minder roofdieren zijn. Jij antwoordt dat dat leidt tot andere problemen, zoals overpopulaties van prooidieren die dan sterven van de honger. Minder roofdieren is meer leed? Goed dan, laten we dan het aantal roofdieren verhogen. Laten we in dit bos extra vossen vrijlaten, en tijgers, slangen, genetisch gemanipuleerde superarenden, tyrannosaurussen. Die verhoogde predatie zou dan toch het leed in het bos moeten verminderen? Of geloof je dat het huidige niveau van predatie toevallig optimaal is voor het dierenwelzijn? Nee, de natuur is blind en is niet begaan met dierenwelzijn, dus is er geen reden om te geloven dat het aantal roofdieren in een natuurlijk evenwicht toevallig overeenkomt met het optimum welzijn. Als je op een landkaart een willekeurige plek aanduidt, is de kans ook klein dat je een bergtop hebt gekozen. Als je denkt dat het leed in dit bos minimaal is wanneer het een natuurlijk evenwicht kent van dierenpopulaties, dan maak je een status quo denkfout.

Verwant hiermee is de naturalistische denkfout. Dat dierenleed is natuurlijk, want niet veroorzaakt door mensen. Is het daarom minder erg? Dat is een vorm van ongewenste willekeur, een soort van discriminatie op basis van soort, dus speciesisme. Wat maakt het uit of een mens al dan niet de oorzaak is van leed? Waarom zou enkel het leed veroorzaakt door mensen onverantwoord zijn, en niet bijvoorbeeld enkel het leed veroorzaakt door vrouwen, door zwarten, door primaten, door zoogdieren? Voor het slachtoffer, het wilde dier, maakt het niet uit of diens leed veroorzaakt werd door een mens of iets anders. Dat slachtoffer wil gewoon geen leed.

Een heel oneerbiedige denkfout is de rechtvaardige wereld denkfout (just world hypothesis): het geloof dat de wereld goed is en dat de slachtoffers in feite zelf schuldig zijn, alsof de wereld een onzichtbare morele kracht heeft die het morele evenwicht herstelt. Een dader van geweld gelooft al snel dat het slachtoffer het verdiend heeft, het zelf gezocht heeft. Iemand die bezorgd is voor overbevolking, gelooft al snel dat een nieuw pandemisch virus de eigen schuld van de mensheid is. Hetzelfde zagen we bij de prooidieren. We begonnen te denken dat die prooien zelf schuldig zijn aan hun eigen leed: ze moesten zich maar niet zo snel voortplanten. Zebra’s zouden de savanne overbegrazen en dus zelf leed door hongersnoden veroorzaken, als er geen leeuwen waren.

Als afsluiter is er de autonomiedenkfout. Natuurgezinde mensen beweren dat we de natuur zoveel mogelijk haar gang moeten laten gaan en wilde dieren dus niet veel mogen helpen. Ze geloven in een soort van autonomie, natuurlijkheid, integriteit of ongereptheid van de natuur. Maar in feite schenden ze zo de autonomie van anderen. Ze leggen namelijk hun eigen waarden (dat ongereptheid goed is, dat we niet voor God mogen spelen) op aan de slachtoffers, de wilde dieren, op een manier die de slachtoffers niet willen. Ik kan waarde toekennen aan de integriteit of ongereptheid van een natuurgebied, maar de natuur heeft geen enkel besef van haar eigen integriteit en interesseert zich niet in zulke ambigue abstracte waarden. De slachtoffers interesseren zich daarentegen wel in hulp. Als ik dan waarde toeken aan het welzijn van een wild dier, respecteer ik diens autonomie, want dat dier waardeert zelf haar eigen welzijn. Ik speel niet voor God als ik hulp aanbied en dus doe wat de ander, het dier, wil. Ik speel wel voor God als ik mijn eigen waarden voor ongereptheid, of mijn eigen esthetische voorkeur voor natuurlijke schoonheid, opleg aan alle wezens in de natuur, terwijl noch de natuur, noch een dier deze waarden en voorkeuren deelt. De eigen esthetische voorkeur laten primeren boven de voorkeur van een ander om geholpen te worden, is egocentrisch.

Het is nog niet duidelijk hoe we veilig en doeltreffend de natuur kunnen helpen bij het bevorderen van het welzijn van wilde dieren. Maar daar komt verandering in. Nieuwe organisaties zoals Wild Animal Initiative en Animal Ethics zijn volop actief in het oprichten van de kersverse wetenschappelijke onderzoeksdiscipline ‘welzijnsbiologie’, de studie naar het welzijn van dieren in de natuur. Zo krijgt het wilde-dierenleed iets meer aandacht die het verdient.

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