De ongewenste willekeur van een boerkiniverbod

De laatste tijd is er in landen zoals Frankrijk en België veel te doen rond een verbod op het dragen van boerkini zwemkledij in openbare zwembaden en op stranden. Een boerkini is een badpak dat ook hoofdhaar, armen en benen bedekt. Sommige Franse badplaatsen hebben de boerkini reeds verboden. Een dergelijk boerkiniverbod is een duidelijke illustratie van een irrationele ethiek, een ethiek die ongewenste willekeur bevat. Het is een schending van het antiwillekeurprincipe dat zegt dat we alle vormen van willekeur moeten vermijden die niet door iedereen op een consistente manier gewild kunnen worden.

Waarom is het boerkiniverbod een vorm van willekeur? Het is willekeur omdat we ons de vraag kunnen stellen: waarom wel de boerkini verbieden en niet bijvoorbeeld de  bikini of het badpak? De tegenstanders van boerkini’s zijn geen tegenstanders van bikini’s, en dat is inconsistent, want alle argumenten om tegen de boerkini te zijn kunnen ook gebruikt worden tegen de bikini.

-“De boerkini is een symbool van onderdrukking van vrouwen want het is ondenkbaar dat een vrouw zo’n afstotelijk, onhandig badpak uit vrije wil zou willen dragen.” Zo kunnen we ook zeggen dat de bikini een vorm van vrouwenonderdrukking is, want mannen moeten hun borsten en tepels niet bedekken. Welke man zou er met zo’n rare tepelbedekkende zwemkledij willen rondlopen? Geen enkele man gaat dat uit vrije wil doen. Dus vrouwen kunnen dat dan toch ook niet uit vrije wil willen? Waarom moeten vrouwen zo’n onhandig borstbedekkend ding dragen? Als we ons kunnen voorstellen dat vrouwen uit vrije wil borstbedekkende zwemkleding willen dragen (omwille van groepsconformiteit, schaamte of onzekerheid over het eigen lichaam), dan kunnen we ons ook voorstellen dat er vrouwen zijn die uit vrije wil armbedekkende, hoofdhaarbedekkende en/of beenbedekkende zwemkleding willen dragen. Het moeten bedekken van vrouwenborsten en vrouwentepels kan ook aanzien worden als een restant van vrouwenonderdrukking. Het is willekeur om te zeggen dat het bedekken van borsten en tepels belangrijker is dan het bedekken van armen, benen en hoofdhaar. Waarom mogen borsten wel en hoofdhaar niet bedekt worden?

-“Een boerkini is aanstootgevend seksisme.” Als een boerkini aanstootgevend is, dan kan men evengoed een bikini aanstootgevend vinden, want geen enkele man zou zoiets willen dragen. Een man met een bikini, dat is geen zicht.

-“Het toelaten van boerkini’s gaat binnenkort leiden tot een verplichting voor alle vrouwen om boerkini’s te dragen.” Dit is een zogenaamd hellend vlak drogreden. Dat vrouwen bikini’s moeten dragen gaat nooit leiden tot het verplichten van bikini’s bij mannen of tot een verbod op naaktstranden. Het toelaten van een hoofddoek bij moslima’s leidde ook niet tot een verplichting om een hoofddoek te dragen bij niet-moslimvrouwen. Dat moslima’s boerkini’s mogen (maar niet moeten) dragen hoeft dus al zeker niet te leiden tot het verplichten van boerkini’s bij niet-moslimvrouwen.

“Door het toelaten van boerkini’s gaan moslimvrouwen die geen boerkini willen dragen wel groepsdruk ondervinden van de boerkinidragende vrouwen.” Dit kan ook gezegd worden van het toelaten van een bikini: er zijn vrouwen die liever topless willen zwemmen maar die sociale druk ervaren als alle andere vrouwen met een bikini zwemmen. En bij bikini’s is er zelfs sprake van een verplichting in plaats van een toelating.

-“Door boerkini’s toe te laten gaan we (moslim)mannen een verkeerde boodschap over vrouwelijke seksualiteit meegeven, dat een vrouw met onbedekte lichaamsdelen altijd open staat voor eender welke vorm van seksueel contact, dat een vrouw met onbedekte lichaamsdelen als het ware een hoer is die op zoek is naar seks, dat de man zich niet hoort te beheersen bij het zien van een vrouw met onbedekte lichaamsdelen. Kijk maar hoe (moslim)mannen reageren op vrouwen die niet volledig bedekt zijn.” Hetzelfde kan gezegd worden van een bikini. Vrouwen die topless gaan zwemmen worden ook vaker lastiggevallen door mannen. Borstbedekkende kleding kan dus aan mannen ook de verkeerde boodschap geven dat topless vrouwen hoeren zijn en dat het niet aan de man is om zich te beheersen bij het zien van een topless vrouw.

-“Moslimvrouwen worden door moslimmannen onderdrukt en de boerkini is daar een duidelijk voorbeeld van, want de mannen willen niet dat hun vrouwen met een gewoon badpak of bikini gaan zwemmen. Een moslimman wil niet dat andere mannen naar zijn onbedekte vrouw kijken, alsof zijn vrouw echt zijn exclusieve bezit is.” Er zijn ook niet-moslimmannen die niet willen dat hun vrouwen topless gaan zwemmen, die niet willen dat andere mannen de borsten van hun vrouwen kunnen zien. Zo kan men de bikini dus ook als symbool van exclusief bezit van een vrouw aanzien. Daarnaast zijn er moslimvrouwen die bijvoorbeeld geen partner hebben en toch zelf beslissen om een boerkini te dragen, net zoals er vrouwen zijn die zelf kiezen een bikini te dragen, los van wat hun mannen ervan denken.

Een verbod op boerkini’s maar niet op bikini’s is een vorm van willekeur, want er is geen goede regel waarom het ene badpak wel en het andere niet verboden zou moeten worden. Er is geen reden waarom het bedekken van lichaamsdelen X en Y (bv. borsten en tepels) belangrijker zou zijn dan het bedekken van lichaamsdelen X, Y, Z en W (bv. borsten, tepels, hoofdhaar en ledematen). Die willekeur is ook een vorm van ongewenste willekeur, want er zijn personen, met name moslimvrouwen, die die willekeur niet op een consistente manier kunnen willen, omdat het hun vrijheid berooft en ze willen vrijheid. Door het verbieden van boerkini’s gaat men het net voor de onderdrukte en meest kwetsbare groep van moslimvrouwen nog moeilijker maken. Die moslima’s gaan dan thuisblijven in plaats van zwemmen, en dan krijgen ze dus effectief nog minder vrijheden door zo’n verbod. Men moet net de keuzevrijheden van de meest kwetsbare groep vergroten. Die moslima’s verkiezen met boerkini zwemmen boven thuisblijven en thuisblijven boven met bikini zwemmen. Dan mag men niet zomaar hun sterkste preferentie verbieden, want met boerkini zwemmen is niet schadelijk voor anderen. Met boerkini zwemmen is even onschadelijk voor anderen als met bikini zwemmen.

De meest rationele oplossing, dus de oplossing die het beste past bij onze belangrijke waarden van vrijheid en gelijkheid, is dat zowel boerkini’s als bikini’s toegelaten maar niet verplicht zijn voor zowel mannen als vrouwen. Het dragen van een zwembroek kunnen we voor iedereen verplichten en het versluieren van het aangezicht kunnen we voor iedereen verbieden, maar daarnaast mag iedereen dragen wat men wil en lichaamdelen bedekken die men wil.

Het idee om onderdrukte moslimvrouwen te helpen door hen het dragen van een boerkini te verbieden, is een ondoeltreffende strategie, en in die zin irrationeel. Door een boerkiniverbod gaan onderdrukkende moslimmannen niet plots tot het inzicht komen dat hun onderdrukkende houding immoreel is. Vrouwenonderdrukking proberen te bestrijden door een boerkiniverbod is zoals een touw proberen te verplaatsen door tegen het ene uiteinde van het touw te duwen. Dan gaat dat uiteinde gewoon buigen, maar het touw verschuift niet. Men kan beter aan de andere kant van het touw trekken. Dus men kan beter de onethische, vrouwonvriendelijke attitude van de onderdrukkende mannen aanpakken dan de onderdrukte vrouwen vrijheden te ontnemen.

Sommige, vooral conservatieve politieke partijen pleiten voor een boerkiniverbod. Dat een dergelijk verbod ongewenste willekeur bevat en dus irrationeel is, is een sterke aanwijzing dat kritisch denken en een streven naar een rationele ethiek ook in de politiek erg belangrijk zijn en dat zelfs belangrijke politici vatbaar zijn voor irrationele ongewenste willekeur. Het boerkiniverbod is een goede illustratie van het belang van kritisch denken in de ethiek.

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Moral illusions and wild animal suffering neglect

There is a lot of suffering in wild nature: hunger, disease, parasites, predation, competition,… Given the numbers of wild animals and the intensities of suffering, we should not underestimate the moral importance of this problem of wild animal suffering. However, this problem of wild animal suffering is wildly neglected. Most people are against interventions in nature to decrease wild animal suffering and improve worldwide well-being. Luckily, in recent years a few philosophers start to tackle this problem and point at its importance (Tomasik, 2015; Faria, 2016; Horta, 2010).

What explains this wild animal suffering neglect? To answer this question, we have to look at a cluster of moral illusions, a group of cognitive biases. Moral illusions are spontaneous, intuitive moral judgments that are very persistent, but they violate our deepest moral values (Bruers, 2015). Moral illusions violate an anti-arbitrariness principle: we have to avoid all kinds of unwanted or unjustified arbitrariness. Unwanted arbitrariness is avoidable arbitrariness that cannot be wanted by everyone. For example the victims of arbitrary discrimination cannot want their arbitrary exclusion. Arbitrariness is only allowed if it is not against anyone’s will.

How can we detect arbitrariness? Suppose we have a set containing elements X, Y and Z. Suppose you pick element X. Then we say that there is arbitrariness about X if we can ask a meaningful and nontrivial question: “Why picking X and not for example, Y or Z?” and if this question cannot be answered by a rule which does not explicitly refer to X (or if there is no reason why X would be so special). So the anti-arbitrariness principle states that if one thing goes for X, then it must also apply to all Y and Z that are equal to X (in the sense of belonging to the same set as X) according to a rule, unless everyone can want that it just applies for X. This principle is the perfect antidote against moral illusions. What moral illusions are at play when it comes to our undervaluation of the problem of wild animal suffering?

Speciesism

One important example of a  moral illusion is speciesism, the (often intuitive) judgment that humans are more important than non-human animals. This moral illusion obviously contributes to the neglect of wild animal suffering: if non-human animals are considered much less important than humans, their suffering is considered as much less important.

As a metaphor of speciesism, we can use the famous Müller-Lyer optical illusion in which one line appears to be longer than the other. Those horizontal lines correspond with the moral values of a human and a non-human animal. The longer the line, the more value the subject has. The small arrowheads correspond with the morally irrelevant properties, such as bodily characteristics. It appears as if one line is longer than the other, as if a human is more valuable than an animal, but this is an illusion because it involves unjustified arbitrariness. Speciesism is a kind of arbitrary discrimination. Why is speciesism arbitrary?

First, you can look at the biological classification. There is a hierarchy of biological groups, from ethnic groups (races or populations) on the bottom to biological kingdoms on top. I can say that I belong to the ethnic group of white Caucasian people. But I also belong to the species of humans, the family of great apes, the order of primates, the class of mammals, the phylum of vertebrates or the kingdom of animals. We can ask the non-trivial question: why would I pick the category of species and not another biological category, such as the ethnic groups or the classes?  Why would I point at the species of humans and say that only those individuals get rights, instead of pointing at other species or other categories such as the class of mammals or the phylum of vertebrates? We are mammals and vertebrates as much as we are humans.

Second, you can look at our ancestors. Suppose I jump in a time travel machine and bring all your ancestors to the present. I put you all in a long row. You are on the far left, then your mother, your grandmother, and so on. You are fully human so you get human rights. So are your mother and your grandmother. They all belong to the moral community, the group of individuals who get rights. But moving down the row, where does the moral community end? There is no sharp boundary between humans on the left and non-humans on the right. Humans and chickens have common ancestors, so all intermediates between humans and chickens have once lived on this planet. Therefore, the idea of a species is not even well defined. Our idea of human rights is based on an arbitrary fact that those intermediates between us and chickens no longer exist.

Traditionally, ethicists started with the set of all important rights or values, and then asked the question: who gets those rights and who has those values? Then we see an expanding moral circle through history. We extend the range of our moral radar. First our fellow tribesmen become visible, then all white men, then all humans get rights. But we cannot arbitrarily stop at the group of humans. The moral circle has to expand further. Everyone and everything should be included, without arbitrary exceptions. So I propose to follow the other direction: we start with the condition that everyone and everything counts and is included in the moral community, and then we figure out what rights or values we should give to everyone and everything.

One of those rights could be the right not to be treated against one’s will, which is a version of the right not to suffer. You cannot want to be treated arbitrarily against your will, so you prefer to have this right. But you are not special, so you cannot arbitrarily exclude others from getting this same right. Yes, everyone and everything should get this right, including plants and computers. There is no arbitrary exclusion or discrimination. But whatever we do, we cannot violate this right of a plant, because as far as we know a plant has no will and therefore cannot be treated against its will. For plants and computers, this right is always trivially satisfied. The right becomes only important when we are considering sentient beings, because they have a will. We should not simply assume that all and only sentient beings have moral value and thereby arbitrarily exclude non-sentient beings. Everything has moral value, but the value is only non-trivial for sentient beings. Therefore, we can derive the special status of sentient beings by using nothing more than an anti-arbitrariness principle.

Speciesism only partially explains the underestimation or neglect of the problem of wild animal suffering, because a lot of antispeciesist animal rights advocates also neglect this problem in the sense that they are too tolerant towards the suffering of wild animals, they underestimate the suffering and they are against interventions in nature to decrease wild animal suffering and improve well-being. Those animal rights advocates are susceptible to some other moral illusions.

Naturalistic fallacy

An obvious moral illusion that is involved in wild animal suffering neglect, is the naturalistic fallacy, the judgment that something natural (such as predation) is permissible or good. This is a moral illusion based on an arbitrariness, because it is impossible to clearly formulate the notion of ‘natural’ and to argue why that should be permissible. If ‘natural’ means ‘something that happens in nature’, are violence and rape natural and hence permissible? If ‘natural’ means ‘not caused by humans’, we are back at an arbitrary speciesist position. Furthermore, is it natural and hence permissible if a predator attacks a human child? If a predator may attack a non-human animal but not a human, then we arrive again at an arbitrary speciesist position.

Even if we can define the notion of ‘natural’, it doesn’t imply that natural is permissible. There is no logical connection between naturalness and permissibility, so there is arbitrariness. Consider the set of all kinds of processes: natural, unnatural, painful, slow,…. Why would all the natural processes be permissible and not for example all the unnatural (artificial) processes, all the intentional processes, all the slow processes or all the painful processes?

If natural processes refer to ecosystems, we have to acknowledge that ecosystems can’t feel, don’t have a will, don’t have subjective experiences and don’t have subjective preferences. In other words: ecosystems don’t care if processes are natural or not. They don’t care if natural processes are obstructed or interfered with. If ecosystems don’t care, who cares? If no-one cares, why would it have moral value?

Status quo bias

Status quo bias (Kahneman e.a., 1991) is the judgment that the current situation is better than the possible alternatives, without having valid reasons to justify this judgment. In the case of wild animal suffering, status quo bias is at work when people believe that the current state of ecosystem functioning is optimal in terms of a moral value function such as a welfare function that measures overall animal well-being.

One method to detect status quo bias is the reversal test (Bostrom & Ord, 2006). If one believes that an intervention in nature (to improve well-being and decrease wild animal suffering) is bad, what about the reverse intervention? If the reverse intervention is also considered to be bad, then that means that the current state is at a local maximum of the welfare function. If there is no possible explanation why the current state of nature should be at the local maximum of the welfare function, then there is an arbitrariness: why should the current state be at the maximum and not some of the many other possible states? You can compare it with a topographic map with mountains and valleys. If you pick an arbitrary point, chances are very low that you have picked a mountain top. This arbitrariness points at a moral illusion: the status quo bias.

A concrete example is the level of predation and competition in an ecosystem. Predation and competition also cause animal suffering. What happens if we lower this level of competition, for example by decreasing the number of predators? People often claim that competitive pressures are good, because with natural selection it pushes populations towards individuals that are more adapted or fit to the pressure. And predators prevent overpopulation of prey animals. Predation is good for the prey because it selects for the healthiest and most athletic prey animals. And the predators are driven towards faster and more agile animals. Decreasing the level of predation and competition might therefore be bad: it could decrease the welfare function.

But what about the reverse intervention: what about increasing the level of competition and predation? What if we introduced extra predators and extra competition to increase the evolutionary pressure towards better adapted animals or to better prevent prey overpopulation? Would this improve the welfare function? Many people consider this to be a bad idea as well, which means that the current level of competition happens to be the one that maximizes the welfare function. But it is not clear why this should be the case, because nature (an ecosystem or an evolutionary process) doesn’t care about maximizing the welfare function. Population or gene fitness is not related to animal well-being.

Nature also doesn’t care about how fast an animal can run or how quick it can react. If nature doesn’t value speed, then who does? Why would speed be more important than well-being? Perhaps you value speed and you prefer a world where animals become very fast. But suppose that I value size: I want a world with bigger animals, so I start killing the smallest animals, such that populations have a selection towards bigger animals. Would that be a good thing? Neither nature nor the animals themselves value things like speed or size. Nature values nothing, and the animals value their own well-being. Well-being is the only property that is valued or preferred by at least someone, namely the sentient being.

Scope neglect

Another moral illusion that plays a role in the judgment that predation is permissible, is scope neglect: neglecting the number of victims. If people think about predation, they see an animal killing another animal. A life for a life: either the predator will starve, or the prey animal will be killed. Both are equally bad. But over the course of its lifetime, a predator kills many prey. Is the life of one predator more valuable than the lives of hundreds of prey?

Another example of scope neglect in wild animal suffering is the underestimation of the suffering of many animals belonging to species that have a so-called r-selection reproductive strategy (Horta, 2010). Those r-selected animals have many offspring and only a very few of them survive to reproductive age. Hence the majority of those newborn animals have very short lives with a lot of negative experiences due to hunger, diseases and predation. The suffering of death could outweigh the few positive experiences in their short lives. So the probability of having a negative lifetime well-being is higher for animals that have an r-selection reproductive strategy. But when we think about animals in nature, we often focus on the surviving animals, the animals that survive to adulthood, and we neglect the many r-selected animals that have very short lives full of suffering. It is not unlikely that the majority of lives on earth are basically lives not worth living, because they are short and full of suffering.

Just world hypothesis

The just world hypothesis (Lerner, 1980) is the belief that the world (nature) is just and that the victims are in fact culpable, as if the world has an invisible moral force that restores the moral balance. When it comes to wild animal suffering, in particular predation, the just world hypothesis creates the belief that predation is just and morally good, because without predation the prey animals will lose control over their fertility and start competing with each other by overpopulating the ecosystem, the weak prey animals will also procreate and weaken the whole population and the diseased prey animals will infect other animals. It is as if prey animals are not innocent victims of predation, as if the painful death by predators is the deserved punishment of the diseased, weak and competitive prey. This is a moral illusion because we would never think that way when humans or our friends instead of prey animals were involved.

Futility thinking

Futility thinking (Unger, 1996) is the tendency to neglect a problem if the problem cannot be solved completely. Suppose there are two problems A and B that both cause suffering. Problem B is much bigger and causes 100 times more suffering than problem A. You have to choose between two interventions. Intervention 1 completely solves problem A and eliminates all suffering caused by problem A. Intervention 2 only partially reduces the suffering caused by problem B with 10%, so problem B is only partially solved. Intervention 2 is 10 times more effective in terms of reducing suffering, because a 10% decrease of 100 units of suffering caused by problem B is better than a 100% decrease of 1 unit of suffering caused by problem A. Still, a lot of people prefer intervention 1, because intervention 1 completely eliminates a problem whereas a 10% solution of problem B seems more futile.

This preference for the less effective intervention is an example of futility thinking. It is a moral illusion, because it is based on an arbitrariness: an arbitrary separation of all suffering into suffering caused by problem A and suffering caused by problem B. There are many other ways to separate all the suffering in the world. Perhaps problem B is the composite of two subproblems B1 and B2 and intervention 2 completely solves problem B1. Why aggregating both problems B1 and B2 into problem B that seems to be futile to resolve (although B1 can be completely resolved), but not aggregating problems A and B? Why arbitrarily separating the suffering instead of looking at all the suffering in the world?

The connection between futility thinking and wild animal suffering is obvious: people often perceive interventions in nature to decrease wild animal suffering as futile, because the problem of wild animal suffering is so immensely big. It seems less futile to do something about e.g. fur farms.

The above moral illusions are just a few examples that interfere with our judgments about wild animal suffering. Together they create a cluster of moral illusions that results in an attitude of neglecting the problem of wild animal suffering. This suffering should not be underestimated, and neither should we underestimate our potential capacities to decrease this suffering.

To tackle the problem of wild animal suffering, we first have to do more scientific research about the problem and how to intervene in nature. In terms of improving future animal well-being, the effectiveness of scientific research on interventions in nature is underestimated. A lot of wild animals from a lot of future generations could benefit from scientific research. But our moral illusions tend to deform our judgments in such a way that even a lot of animal rights advocates are not open to the idea to do research on how to intervene in nature to decrease wild animal suffering. Therefore, overcoming our moral illusions and debiasing our moral judgments is of prime importance.

References

Bostrom N. & Ord T. (2006). The reversal test: eliminating status quo bias in applied ethics. Ethics 116 (4): 656–679.

Bruers S. (2015). In search of moral illusions. The Journal of Value Inquiry, DOI 10.1007/s10790-015-9507-8.

Faria, C. (2016). Animal Ethics Goes Wild: The Problem of Wild Animal Suffering and Intervention in Nature (Ph.D.). Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

Horta, O. (2010). Debunking the Idyllic View of Natural Processes: Population Dynamics and Suffering in the Wild. Télos 17 (1): 73–88.

Kahneman D., Knetsch J. L. & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives 5 (1): 193–206.

Lerner M.J. (1980). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. Plenum: New York.

Ng, Y.-K. (1995). Towards Welfare Biology: Evolutionary Economics of Animal Consciousness and Suffering. Biology and Philosophy 10 (3): 255–285.

Tomasik, B. (2015). The Importance of Wild-Animal Suffering. Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism 3 (2): 133–152.

Unger, P. (1996). Living High and Letting Die, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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On GMOs and effective environmentalism

Changing mind about GMOs, again?

As an environmental activist I have been protesting for years against genetically modified crops (GMOs). Until last year, when I studied the scientific literature in more detail and read about what scientists say about GMOs. I switched position, made up my mind and became a proponent of genetic engineering in agriculture in order to move towards a more sustainable and healthy food production. I wrote an article which received some media attention and eventually resulted in receiving the Skepp price for critical thinking (Skepp is the Belgian organization for scientific skepticism).

Lost week I received a long, 30 pages rebuttal of my article, written by CEO, the Corporate Europe Observatory. I like the work of CEO, criticizing the lobbying power of big corporations in European governmental institutions and warning about private industrial influences in scientific bodies and conflicts of interest in scientific studies influenced by private companies. The rebuttal to my article contained a lot of valid points of critique, including information (studies, conflict of interest of some researchers,…) that I was not aware of when I wrote my pro-GMO article last year.

When I wrote my article, and after receiving a lot of media attention, I realized that it might be very difficult for me to switch position again to the anti-GMO camp, even when the GMO opponents have valid arguments. It might make me feel looking stupid to make a second U-turn. I was fully aware that this unease might make me less receptive to the critique of GMO proponents and that it might bias me in favor of GMOs. Yet, I decided that I should be prepared that when I hear about strong arguments against GMOs, I will switch position again, no matter what emotional cost, because I prefer the truth above some kind of misleading bias.

So did the CEO rebuttal change my mind about GMOs again? Partially yes, but only very slightly. I am not yet convinced to join the anti-GMO camp again, because I do not yet perceive a strong scientific consensus that GMOs are generally dangerous, that GMOs have generally more risks than benefits or that we should be particularly worried about GMOs. The CEO rebuttal contains some studies and references that make me feel less confident in some things that I wrote in my original article. But I also have some objections to the rebuttal, which I will write about in an appendix (and in some cases the rebuttal reinforced my pro-GMO position). Next, I recently also learned about two reports written by the biggest national academies of sciences. One is the 400 pages long 2016 report by the NAS (United States National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine). The second is written by EASAC (European Academies Science Advisory Council, formed by the national science academies of the EU Member States). Both reports were written and peer reviewed by academic researchers (university professors) and can be considered as systematic reviews of the literature.. Unfortunately, even though the NAS report itself was not funded by the industry, a majority of its members of the Committee of Genetically Engineered Crops do have ties with the industry or have personal conflicts of interest in favor of GMOs. CEO also points at similar conflicts of interests amongst a lot of experts who wrote the EASAC report, being members of for example the PRRI, a pro-GMO lobby group. So the NAS and EASAC reports should be considered with some skepticism and we should be worried about a loss of credibility of the important scientific academies.

Some statements written in the NAS report:

“Overall, the committee found no conclusive evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems.”

“On the basis of its detailed examination of comparisons between currently commercialized GE and non-GE foods in compositional analysis, acute and chronic animal toxicity tests, long-term data on health of livestock fed GE foods, and epidemiological data, the committee concluded that no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts.”

“Emerging genetic technologies have blurred the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding to the point where regulatory systems based on process are technically difficult to defend. The committee recommends that new varieties—whether genetically engineered or conventionally bred—be subjected to safety testing if they have novel intended or unintended characteristics with potential hazards.”

“Statistically significant differences in nutrient and chemical composition have been found between GE and non-GE plants by using traditional methods of compositional analysis, but the differences have been considered to fall within the range of naturally occurring variation found in currently available non-GE crops.”

Some statements written in the EASAC report:

“There is no validated evidence that GM crops have greater adverse impact on health and the environment than any other technology used in plant breeding. There is compelling evidence that GM crops can contribute to sustainable development goals with benefits to farmers, consumers, the environment and the economy.”

“[T]he current slow and expensive regulatory situation surrounding GM crops in the EU encourages monopolies. It is important to explore ways to stimulate open innovation and reformulate the regulatory framework so as to encourage smaller companies and public sector activities.”

“Statements about the adverse impacts of GM crops have too often been based on contested science.”

“Taken together, the published evidence indicates that, if used properly, adoption of these crops can be associated with the following:

  • reduced environmental impact of herbicides and insecticides;
  • no/reduced tillage production systems with concomitant reduction in soil erosion;
  • economic and health benefit at the farm level, particularly to smallholder farmers in developing countries;
  • reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices.”

The same conclusion can be read in the European Commission’s A decade of EU-funded GMO research which press release states: “According to the projects’ results, there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

Also the Q&A report by the British Royal Society states: “There is no evidence that producing a new crop variety using GM techniques is more likely to have unforeseen effects than producing one using conventional cross breeding.”

“Is it safe to eat GM crops? Yes. There is no evidence that a crop is dangerous to eat just because it is GM.”

“Crops do not damage the environment simply because they are GM. Some farming practices, such as the overuse of herbicides resulting in the excessive eradication of wild plants from farmland have been shown to harm the environment. These problems are similar for non-GM and GM crops.”

“GM crops are more extensively tested than non-GM varieties before release (see Q14) both for their environmental effects and as foods. They also tend to have fewer genetic differences from their predecessor than new non-GM varieties.”

Taking together the reports by the scientific institutions, the fact that a vast majority of Nobel laureates in medicine support GMOs and that a vast majority (88%) of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science declare GMOs to be generally safe to eat, I still tend to perceive a scientific consensus about GMO safety (in terms of environmental and human health), although some points raised in the CEO rebuttal decrease my confidence in the existence of such a consensus. I definitely do not perceive a scientific consensus that GMOs are generally unsafe (in the sense that for example current commercialized GMOs on the market are worse than conventional crops and that newly developped and tested GMOs are more likely to be worse compared to newly develloped crops using other breeding technologies). At most, if people do not believe in a consensus about GMO safety, we can say that science is undecided at the moment. And given the current state of the evidence and the positions by major scientific institutions, there is a high probability (but not a certainty) that science will move towards a consensus in favor of GMO safety in the future.

The analogy I previously made between climate change denialism and GMO opposition is not entirely correct, because scientific studies about the safety of GMOs often have conflicts of interest (e.g. sponsored by the industry), whereas scientific studies about the dangers of burning fossil fuels do not have similar levels of conflicts of interest. When it comes to climate change, the scientific consensus goes against the motives of the fossil fuel industry, which makes it more likely that the science is independent. When it comes to GMOs, the possible scientific consensus about safety fits well with the agenda of the food industry and the big corporations.

Even if the CEO rebuttal decreases my confidence in some statements I made in my original article, I still feel very confident in the conclusions that I wrote.

  • Environmental and social justice organizations should drop the word ‘GMO’ in their campaigns, and focus instead on the problems such as expensive seed patents, polluting pesticides, inefficient market monopolies and vulnerable crop monocultures. These problems are not intrinsically related to GMOs. For every newly developped crop, whether the result from genetic manipulation or not, we should do a case by case risk assessment based on the properties of that crop and not on the process how that crop was develloped.
  • Independent organizations (like CEO) should continue warning us about the dangerous influence of big corporations and private companies in science and politics. We should make sure that academic research (at universities) becomes more independent and impartial, that there are no longer financial or political conflicts of interest.
  • New GMOs that are being developed can offer many environmental and health benefits and can be an asset in sustainable agro-ecology.

Effective environmentalism

The impressive CEO rebuttal demonstrates that the environmental movement has arguments against GMOs that are not so unreasonable. I do not consider it very unlikely that GMOs are bad for health and environment. But protesting against GMOs is not likely to be an example of effective environmentalism.

In the past decade, we saw the rise of a growing international movement of effective altruism. Effective altruists use evidence based science, critical thinking and reason to look for the most effective things one can do to make the world a better place. These altruists are a perfect combination of scientific skeptics and altruistic activists. The effective altruism movement focuses primarily on improving human health, reducing poverty, improving animal well-being and reducing existential risks. But there is a small part of the movement that focuses on environmental issues: effective environmentalism.

Effective environmentalists look for the most effective things one can do to improve the environment, reduce biodiversity loss, improve sustainability and reduce global change of ecosystems and climate systems. Looking at the critique raised by the scientific skeptics against the environmental movement that opposes GMOs, it is likely that doing actions against GMOs is an example of ineffective environmentalism at best and counterproductive environmentalism at worst. The same can possibly be said about the opposition against some new nuclear energy technologies. A lot of effective environmentalists do not seem to be strongly opposed to nuclear energy and often are in favor of new nuclear energy technologies.

Other examples of rather ineffective environmentalism, are the promotion of local and organic food and the opposition against old nuclear energy technologies. As with human health and poverty reduction interventions, there is possibly a large spread amongst environmental measures in terms of effectiveness. A small minority of health interventions can be 100 or 1000 times more cost-effective than the vast majority of health interventions, and probably the same is true for environmental interventions.

So what are the most effective things we can do for the environment? This hasn’t been studied yet, but there are some interesting measures that are not only very effective for the environment but also offer many other co-benefits: a reduction of the consumption of animal products, a green tax shift (or a cap-auction-trade system of resource use and pollution) and an investment in family planning. Also other strategies like investments in scientific research to improve e.g. agricultural sustainability might be very effective.

We can compare the effectiveness of opposing animal products (promoting a plant-based diet) with the effectiveness of opposing GMOs.

Consumer health: there is no clear evidence or scientific consensus that GMOs are generally worse for consumer health than conventional food, but there is very clear evidence and a strong consensus that animal products (in particular red and processed meat) are generally worse than plant-based products such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Producer health: there is no clear evidence that GMOs are bad for the farmers (some evidence indicates that GMOs require less insecticide use and hence results in less insecticide poisonings), but clear evidence that livestock farming is one of the most dangerous professions and that slaughterhouses are amongst the most dangerous industries.

Public health: there is no evidence that GMOs are dangerous for public health, but clear evidence that livestock farming is dangerous in terms of zoonotic infectious diseases (flu viruses and antibiotic resistant bacteria) and food security (more food waste by using edible crops as animal feed).

Ecosystem health: animal products (in particular beef and dairy from cropland intensive agriculture) are generally worse for the environment than plant-based protein sources, but there is no clear evidence that GMOs are in general worse for the environment than conventional agriculture. There is clear evidence that the production of animal protein involves higher levels of land use, pesticide use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication, acidification and pollution compared to plant-based protein. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization wrote in its 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow: “Indeed, the livestock sector may well be the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity, since it is the major driver of deforestation, as well as one of the leading drivers of land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing, sedimentation of coastal areas and facilitation of invasions by alien species.” There is no environmental trade-off when we reduce the consumption of animal products. Reducing the consumption of GMOs can generate environmental trade-offs: probably higher land use, tillage or pesticide use.

Animal health: meat production and slaughtering animals is obviously bad for the health of animals, but there is no clear evidence or scientific consensus that GMOs are bad for livestock animals.

The difference between campaigning against GMOs and campaigning against animal products is a perfect example of the difference between ineffective versus effective environmentalism. If the environmental movement wants to be more effective, it should stop its protests against genetic engineering and GMOs, because there is definitely no scientific consensus that GMOs are generally unsafe or harmful. The environmental movement should better focus on those things of which there is a strong scientific consensus of harmful effects. It is also arbitarry to protest against some crops (GMOs) and not other crops (from conventional breeding) when there is no reason and no evidence that the former kind of crops are more dangerous just because they were obtained in a specific way (using some genetic engineering processes).

Appendix: rebuttal of the rebuttal

Although I consider the CEO rebuttal to my original article very worthwhile, I have some objections. Below I give an incomplete list of comments that I have.

About the IAASTD statement that the safety of GMO food is controversial due to limited available data: this doesn’t imply that there is a scientific consensus that GMO foods are generally unsafe. I also consider the safety of for example coffee as controversial due to limited data. The IAASTD statement is in line with the abovementioned NAS and EASAC statements about the lack of validated evidence that GM crops have greater adverse impact on health than any other technology used in plant breeding. The British Medical Association mentioned unanswered questions about long-term health impacts, but the same can be said about conventional crops and food products that entered the market the past few decades. The long-term health effects of recently developed varieties of fruits and vegetables have not been studied.

About the 21 scientists condemning the AAAS statement on GMOs: a 2014 Pew Research Center survey mentioned that 88% of AAAS scientists say that GM foods are generally safe to eat.  http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/

About the health of people in the USA worsening after the introduction of GM food: first of all correlation does not imply causation. The Swanson study referred to by CEO only looks at correlations in the US (i.e. no control groups). As skeptics pointed out: there is also a strong correlation between the rise of organic food consumption and some diseases. Some authors of the Swanson study also have conflicts of interest, as they are related to the organic food sector. Second, the recent NAS report states: “The committee found no evidence of differences between the data from the United Kingdom and western Europe and the data from the United States and Canada in the long-term pattern of increase or decrease in specific health problems after the introduction of GE foods in the 1990s.”

About the WHO statement that individual GM foods should be assessed on a case-by-case basis: that is a statement on which proponents and opponents of GM food can agree (that is why I didn’t have to mention it in my original article). However, opponents often act as if there is something intrinsically risky to GM food compared to other foods. I recommend that opponents of GM food delete the word ‘GM’ and focus on the product instead of the plant breeding process. As the NAS report indicates: not only GM foods should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. All foods should be assessed like that.

About the “Big Lists of Studies” (the Nicolia review study and other review studies with 1000+ articles): the abovementioned EASAC report states: “A recent comprehensive assessment from the Swiss National Science Foundation (2012), reviewing more than 2000 studies, confirms that no health or environmental risks have been identified related to GM technology.” (Reference: Swiss National Science Foundation (2012). Benefits and risks of the deliberate release of genetically modified plants. National Research Programme NRP 59.)

About the animal feeding studies: a systematic review containing 12 long-term studies concluded: “No sign of toxicity in analyzed parameters has been found in long-term studies. No sign of toxicity in parameters has been found in multigenerational studies.” Snell C, Bernheim A, Berge JB, et al. (2012). Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: a literature review. Food and Chemical Toxicology 50, 1134–1148. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691511006399

About surveys indicating a scientific consensus: CEO refers to two surveys of medical doctors and dietitians. These are not necessarily scientists, so strictly speaking they do not indicate a scientific consensus. And then there are the results of the abovementioned Pew Research Center survey: 88% of AAAS scientists say that GM foods are generally safe to eat. Even if this 88% is an overestimation because some scientists might have conflicts of interests or might not be experts in the field, there is no evidence of a scientific consensus that GMOs are generally unsafe. The Pew survey is also consistent with the positions of most science academies (the abovementioned EASAC report and the NAS and Royal Society reports referred to by the Interacademy Partnership, a global network of science academies), with the positions of many other scientific bodies and independent institutions (see for example  A decade of EU-funded GMO research) and with the 110 Nobel laureates signing a letter in favor of GMOs.

About industry funding (conflicts of interest): also anti-GMO studies of Séralini and Carman involve some conflicts of interest. Concerning Gilles-Eric Séralini: he had (undisclosed) conflicts of interest, because his research is partially funded by (and he is consultant of) Sevene Pharma which sells homeopathic(!) remedies against glyphosate. And Judy Carman’s pig study has conflicts of interest as well (http://www.marklynas.org/2013/06/gmo-pigs-study-more-junk-science/). The CEO rebuttal referred to a review study about the association of financial and professional conflicts of interest to research outcomes (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306919210001302). CEO first of all fails to mention that the study found that financial conflict of interest alone (i.e. academic research funded by the industry but without some of the authors having professional ties to the industry) did not correlate with research results (but perhaps this is due a lack of data because only 8% of the studies received funding from the industry). And secondly, a 74% majority of papers in which none of the authors had professional ties to the biotech industry, i.e. no professional conflict of interest (39 out of 53 papers) concluded safety (12 found problems and two had neutral conclusions). Also the abovementioned EASAC study is based on scientific literature, 90% of which was non-industry funded.

About Judy Carman’s pig study: not only Mark Lynas, but a lot of scientific skeptics have criticized Carman’s study, which is rather a hypothesis seeking exercise than a hypothesis testing study. Giving too much weight to Carman’s study is untrustworthy in the eyes of scientific skeptics.

About the analogy with climate change deniers: mentioning climate change deniers who are pro GMO can also be considered as a dishonest PR trick. In my original article I referred to climate activist Mark Lynas instead of the climate change deniers Owen Patterson and Patrick Moore.

About the reduction of the use of pesticides, in particular Bt: the reduction of Bt use on GM crops might as well be an underestimate, because non-Bt users might benefit from GM Bt-crops. The abovementioned EASAC reports says: “For example, the large-scale adoption of insect-resistant Bt cotton and maize varieties has caused area-wide declines in major pests in the USA (Carriere et al., 2003; Hutchison et al., 2010) and China (Wu et al., 2008). Thus, Bt cotton paved the way for a successful eradication programme against the invasive pink bollworm, originating in Asia, thereby eliminating a problematic pest from the south-western USA (Naranjo and Ellsworth, 2010). Economic analysis revealed that the decline of the European corn borer in areas planted with GM crops has also led to significant benefits for non-Bt maize growers (Hutchison et al., 2010). In addition, evidence is beginning to emerge (Lu et al., 2012), that a beneficial consequence of applying less external pesticide to plants engineered to resist pests is the increase in natural insect predators that thrive and spread. Hence, environmental benefits are extended to neighbouring landscapes. Knock-on effects can also be measured at the macro-economic level. Spill-over of crop yield benefits and cost reductions are important globally as – through trade – they influence prices for countries importing GM crops. Models estimate that world food price increases would be higher by 10–30% in the absence of GM crop cultivation.”

About herbicide resistant superweeds: it is true that before the rise of glyphosate tolerant GMOs, there were no glyphosate resistant weeds. The massive use of glyphosate tolerant GMOs resulted in resistant weeds. But glyphosate is but one herbicide, and looking at all the herbicides, we see that conventional non-GMO farming also resulted in weed resistance. Furthermore, the number of glyphosate resistant weeds is still low compared to other herbicides such as triazines, even if glyphosate is the most used herbicide. (http://www.nature.com/news/case-studies-a-hard-look-at-gm-crops-1.12907). (As an additional note, some researchers are investigating the possibility of combating resistant weeds and pests using genetic engineering based on the crispr/cas9 gene drive technique.)

About the biodiversity of non-targeted invertebrates on GM Bt-crops: according to the meta-analysis published in Science, the biodiversity on GM Bt-crop fields was lower than on non-GM fields without Bt use. However, the yields are typically lower on the latter fields. The abovementioned NAS report states: “The committee examined results of experiments conducted on small plots of land that compared yields of crop varieties with Bt to yields of similar varieties without Bt. It also assessed surveys of yield on large- and small-scale farms in a number of countries. It found that Bt in maize and cotton from 1996 to 2015 contributed to a reduction in the gap between actual yield and potential yield (Figure S-2) under circumstances in which targeted pests caused substantial damage to non-GE varieties and synthetic chemicals could not provide practical control.” Lower yields means higher land use and more deforestation, resulting in a negative impact on biodiversity as well. The overall impact on biodiversity remains uncertain. Furthermore, organic farming is not necessarily Bt free: Bt spraying is allowed on organic farms.

About the claim that natural Bt sprays are more harmful to non-target insects than GM Bt-crops: this was demonstrated by the abovementioned meta-analysis in Science. GM Bt-crop fields had higher biodiversity of non-target invertebrates than non-GM Bt-sprayed fields. The CEO rebuttal acknowledged this result, so there seems to be an inconsistency in the CEO rebuttal. The fact that the natural Bt protoxin in sprays is turned into Bt toxin when ingested, is irrelevant, because non-target insects also ingest the Bt protoxin when Bt is sprayed.

About the ethics of animal experiments: the Séralini rat studies probably contained unnecessary animal suffering because the researchers used rats that were genetically vulnerable to cancer and the rats with painfully growing tumors were not quickly euthanized. The studies were also criticized by the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics: “Researchers carried out a carcinogenicity test on GM maize using rats. They fed 200 rats for their entire lifetime (two years) a diet of one of the bestselling strains of GM maize produced by agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto along with the company’s popular weedkiller Roundup in order to induce cancer in the animals. The rats developed large, cancerous tumours that led to multiple organ damage and premature death in 50 per cent of males and 70 per cent of females. No mention of pain relief was given (Séralini et al., 2012).” Similar concerns of unnecessary animal suffering can be raised in Judy Carman’s pig study: the majority of pigs in both the GMO-feed group and the control group suffered from pneumonia, which means that the pigs were probably held in very bad conditions.

About natural genetic engineering: the claim about horizontal gene transfers in nature was obviously about naturalness, not about safety.

About GMOs reducing food waste: the very first GMO on the market, the Flavr Savr tomato, was engineered to be more resistant to rotting. Developing GMOs that spoil less quickly have nothing to do with maintaining a cosmetic appearance of freshness and there is no reason to assume that those GMOs will lose many of the nutrients. On the contrary: the rotting process reduces nutritional value.

This is not a comprehensive list of my rebuttals. Nevertheless, the CEO rebuttal does raise important issues and refers to good studies (e.g. the concerns raised by some scientific institutions such as the British Medical Association, the surveys of medical doctors, the industry bias in favor of GMO safety, the concerns about recent weed resistance to herbicides and bollworm resistance to Bt-insecticides, the IARC-WHO statement of carcinogenicity of glyphosate, the problem that GMOs are not always based on the highest yielding cultivars, the difficulties involved in making claims about economic performance, the use of some outdated data in some meta-analyses, the Bt cotton yields in India, the conflict of interest of the Carpenter biodiversity study, the fact that herbicide tolerant GMOs might have only contributed a little to the adoption of no-till farming and the fact that no-till doesn’t store more carbon and that it might raise the Environmental Impact Quotient of pesticides). After examining those comments, I feel less certain about some statements I made in my original article (e.g. statements about benefits in terms of biodiversity), but I keep confidence in the general conclusions.

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Top scientific research questions for prolific welfare interventions

Avoiding unwanted arbitrariness is a basic moral assumption. Spatial borders, time periods or group boundaries are morally irrelevant because they create unwanted, arbitrary discrimination. Moral philosophers already paid some attention to their first task: exploring what a non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory ethic would look like. We value our own well-being or welfare, and if we want to avoid unwanted arbitrariness, then everyone’s welfare counts, including those of animals and future generations. But the second task of moral philosophers is often neglected: formulating research questions for scientists to figure out what the most effective, prolific interventions would be if we avoid all kinds of unwanted arbitrariness and discrimination such as speciesism.

So what are the top scientific research questions that we have to answer to effectively improve the welfare and rights of everyone? Solving these questions in a scientific manner is expected to have huge impacts in terms of improving well-being. In the long run, investments in this scientific research could generate a huge welfare return on investment, because the scientific knowledge to improve well-being will be useful for all future generations. Hence this research will be very cost-effective in terms of improved well-being per dollar invested. The below research questions range from short term to long term interventions.

1. Effective vegan advocacy

Veganism is a very feasible individual choice that has a lot of benefits in terms of decreasing animal suffering and rights violations, improving health and improving environmental sustainability. Research in this area involves the psychology of persuasion and behavior change and cost-effectiveness of vegan outreach campaigns.

2. Developing animal free products and methods

To make a transition towards veganism easier, one could develop cultured (in vitro) meat and other animal free products that strongly resemble animal products. The same goes for the development of animal free medical research methods: funding research can be cost-effective because the animal free methods can be used for many years in the future.

3. Producing harm free food and goods

A lot of animals are harmed in agriculture, mining and forestry. Vegan agriculture (that doesn’t use animals against their will) is not yet entirely free from harm because for example some wild animals (rodents, birds,…) are killed during harvest and transport. More research can be done in how to avoid harm in agriculture.

4. Decreasing wild animal suffering

In the long run we can develop interventions to decrease wild animal suffering and improve wild animal well-being. In order to do this, we need to solve several questions.

4a. Consciousness

A first question of course is: what kind of beings have conscious, subjective experiences? Who is able to feel, suffer and have a well-being? Are invertebrate animals such as insects conscious and to what degree can they suffer? This question is very important because there are a lot of invertebrate animals. So even if an individual insect can only suffer to a limited degree, the total suffering of all the insects combined can be huge. The question of insect suffering is also important for harm free agriculture, because the methods to control insect pests can have a huge impact on insect well-being.

4b. Positive or negative well-being

Once we know what animals have a well-being, the second question becomes: what is their welfare status? Do those animals have on average a positive well-being (i.e. lives worth living) or a negative well-being (i.e. lives not worth living)?

The probability of having a negative well-being is higher for species that have r-selection reproductive strategies. Those species have many offspring and only a few of them survive. Hence the majority of those newborn animals have very short lives with negative experiences due to hunger, diseases and predation.

This question becomes important in agriculture. For example: if insects are sentient and have positive well-being, using insect pest control methods in agriculture might harm those insects and decrease their well-being. On the other hand, if those insects have a negative well-being and if using pest control methods means that fewer insects are born, these pest control methods might be beneficial (because there will be fewer lives that are not worth living).

4c. Influencing well-being

Once we know the welfare status of animals, the next question becomes: what influences their well-being and how can we intervene in nature to improve the well-being of wild animals? This is the area of welfare biology, which requires knowledge of ecological processes (e.g. predation, trophic cascades, reproductive strategies,…).

Example: the welfare impact of fisheries

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). Hence, the potential welfare impact of fisheries is huge. But it is very complex. First of all, the aquatic food web is very complex. To simplify, consider a linear food chain: phytoplankton (1st trophic level), zooplankton (2nd level), planktivorous fish (3rd level), piscivorous fish (4th level) and apex predators (5th level). What happens if you catch fish at trophic level N? How does this influence well-being? To simplify, let’s only consider linear influences (no ecological side effects based on non-linear ecological processes). That means a linear trophic cascade: catching fish at trophic level N results in a decrease of the population at level N (and 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.

Now it all depends on what trophic levels have a well-being and if the well-being is positive or negative. Suppose levels 1 and 2 have no well-being and levels 3, 4 and 5 have a positive well-being. In that case, catching planktivorous fish (level 3) is bad, because well-being decreases. Planktivorous fish are innocent in the sense that they do not harm anyone else, because zooplankton was supposed to be insentient. But catching piscivorous fish will be 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. If we want to avoid speciesist arbitrariness, we should not make a distinction between rights violated by humans versus rights violated by non-human animals such as piscivorous fish. So if we catch piscivorous fish, the total amount of fish rights violations (which is proportional to the total amount of innocent sentient fish captured by both humans and piscivorous fish) decreases. Catching apex predators will be bad, because those apex predators catch many harmful, non-innocent piscivorous fish.

Catching fish of an odd trophic level is very bad, catching fish of an even level is very 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 very good because it saves many lives of innocent sentient beings (the zooplankton). Catching piscivorous fish becomes very bad, catching apex predators becomes very good.

However, this result again completely turns around if the well-being of a trophic level becomes negative. Suppose the lives of zooplankton are in general not worth living: they have a negative well-being. In that case it would be good to decrease the population of zooplankton. Catching piscivorous fish becomes very good, because that increases the population of planktivorous fish and decreases the population of zooplankton.

In summary: 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.

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 and the positive or negative welfare status of the trophic levels. The goodness switches if the trophic level of the captured fish is changed, if the lowest trophic level at which sentience occurs is changed or if the welfare level switches from positive to negative. Hence, given the fact that we catch many fish, knowing the sentience and welfare levels of aquatic animals becomes very important. A lot is at stake. And it becomes even more complex in more realistic situations with non-linear aquatic food webs and non-linear ecological processes.

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 fishes 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). 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 suffering of the captured fish. So fishing implies a certain welfare loss plus an uncertain very high positive or negative impact on welfare. In that situation we would abstain from fishing until we have more scientific evidence that fishing improves well-being and decreases rights violations.

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Een held zijn was nog nooit zo eenvoudig

Opiniestuk naar aanleiding van Wereld Malaria Dag (25 april)

Een kind steekt onverwachts de straat over. Je springt van je fiets, grijpt het bij de kraag en de vrachtwagen raast voorbij. Kind gered, fiets stuk. Niemand zou twijfelen om zo’n heldendaad kan verrichten, zelfs al kost het je een dure fiets. We zijn echter, gelukkig maar, niet elke dag getuige van dergelijke voorvallen. Maar wat we ons niet realiseren, is dat het redden van een leven heel eenvoudig is. Ook vandaag kunnen we een held zijn en effectief een leven redden.

25 april is het Wereld Malaria Dag. Van hevige koortsaanvallen tot verstoppingen van de hersenbloedvaten: dagelijks sterven meer dan duizend mensen aan malaria. Het goede nieuws is dat we het aantal malariadoden de laatste jaren zeer sterk zien dalen: een halvering tijdens het afgelopen decennium. De interventies om malaria te voorkomen en behandelen worden steeds doeltreffender. Ook wij kunnen levens redden en ervoor zorgen dat kinderen niet sterven aan malaria. Je kunt een held zijn, niet door je eigen leven te riskeren, maar eenvoudig door geld te doneren aan effectieve goede doelen.

Misschien heb je twijfels bij het idee dat jij een leven kunt redden. Die twijfel wordt volledig weggenomen door de nieuwe, sterk groeiende mondiale beweging van Effectief Altruïsme. Een effectieve altruïst is te vergelijken met een slimme investeerder die op een heel rationele, wetenschappelijk onderbouwde manier de meest effectieve investeringskansen onderzoekt en benut. In tegenstelling tot een investeerder die streeft naar een maximale winst voor zichzelf, streeft een effectieve altruïst naar een maximale positieve impact voor de wereld. De effectieve altruïst volgt de wetenschappelijke methode zoals men die gebruikt in de geneeskunde om de doeltreffendheid van een nieuw medicijn te achterhalen. De interventies van hulporganisaties worden waar mogelijk onderworpen aan gerandomiseerde experimenten met controlegroep, meta-analyses enzovoort.

En zo kwamen de effectieve altruïsten tot een schokkende vaststelling: sommige  interventies en hulporganisaties kunnen tot wel 100 keer kostenefficiënter dan andere. Dat wil zeggen dat je met dezelfde honderd euro veel meer levens kunt redden.

Bij die keuze van beste goede doelen zouden we dezelfde houding moeten aannemen als bij de keuze van de beste computer. Bij het kopen van een nieuwe computer ben je waarschijnlijk enkel geïnteresseerd in de kosten-batenverhouding: hoeveel geheugen en welke functies krijg je voor de goedkoopste prijs? Het percentage administratiekosten, het reclamebudget van de fabrikant of de hoogte van het salaris van de CEO, zijn niet relevant. Maar een hulporganisatie beoordelen we nog wel te vaak aan de hand van dergelijke irrelevante parameters. Enkel de kosten-batenverhouding van de hulporganisatie is wat ons echt zou moeten interesseren als we een effectieve held willen zijn en extra levens willen redden.

Centraal in de effectief altruïsme beweging staan zogenaamde metacharities: goede doelen die de effectiviteit van andere goede doelen onderzoeken en evalueren. Eén van de meest toonaangevende metacharities is GiveWell, die elk jaar topaanbevelingen formuleert: een beperkt aantal van de meest doeltreffende hulporganisaties. Bij die topaanbevelingen staat op nummer één de Against Malaria Foundation, een organisatie die bednetten verdeelt in Afrika zodat kinderen ’s nachts niet meer gestoken worden door malariamuggen. Uit onderzoek gepubliceerd in wetenschappelijke topvakbladen blijkt dat deze goedkope interventie (slechts 2,2 euro per bednet) veel levens redt en dat er nog veel te weinig bednetten worden verdeeld. Een organisatie zoals de Against Malaria Foundation is erg kostenefficiënt in het redden van levens, hun werking is zeer transparant en ze zitten nog niet aan hun maximale capaciteit: ze hebben nog veel ruimte voor extra donaties die doeltreffend ingezet kunnen worden.

Met een gift van honderd euro aan de Against Malaria Foundation kun je een gezond levensjaar redden (iemands handicapvrije levensverwachting met één jaar verlengen). Mocht je dus elk jaar op Wereld Malaria Dag een gift van 100 euro doen, dan heb je een volledig leven gered. Even ter vergelijking: eenvoudige milieutips zoals een paar minuten korter douchen, kraantjeswater in plaats van flessenwater drinken, meer groenten in plaats van vlees eten of een dikke trui dragen in de winter, besparen al gauw 100 euro per jaar.

Zo krijgen we een indrukwekkende win-win: je leeft duurzamer en met het uitgespaarde geld kun je meerdere levens redden. De potentiële slachtoffers van malaria zal het echter worst wezen waar je je geld vandaag vandaan haalt. Wie op Wereld Malaria dag een held wilt zijn, koopt bednetten.

Stijn Bruers, Kris Martens en Tobias Leenaert zijn initiatiefnemers van de effectief altruïsme beweging in Vlaanderen

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Waarom angst voor terrorisme gevaarlijk is

In welke wereld zou je het liefst geboren worden: de huidige wereld met oorlogen, terrorisme en geweld, maar waarin we het pokkenvirus door vaccinaties hebben uitgeroeid? Of de wereld zonder oorlogen en aanslagen maar met de pokken? Dus wat kies je: het pokkenvaccin of wereldvrede? De afgelopen duizenden jaren stierven één op de tien mensen aan de pokken. Tot de jaren ’70: het pokkenvirus is het eerste virus dat door de wetenschap, in het bijzonder de ontwikkeling van vaccins, is uitgeroeid. En hoeveel mensen sterven er momenteel door interpersoonlijk geweld: alle moorden, aanslagen, genociden en oorlogen samen? Eén op de honderd. Dat is één tiende van de pokkendoden. Enkel al het pokkenvaccin heeft het effect van tien keer wereldvrede gebracht.

Zo kunnen we nog vragen stellen. Een wereld zonder dodelijke ongevallen, of wereldvrede? Bij ongevallen sterven er zes keer meer mensen dan bij geweld. Een wereld waarin we minder vlees en meer groenten en fruit eten, tegenover wereldvrede? Van de tien sterfgevallen wereldwijd, zal er minstens één sterfgeval zijn ten gevolge van een te hoge consumptie van dierlijke producten (de sterftes bij de dieren niet meegerekend). Dat is opnieuw een factor tien meer dan het aantal doden door geweld.

De boodschap is natuurlijk niet dat geweld verwaarloosbaar zou zijn. Maar wat leren we uit deze statistieken? Velen verbazen zich over deze cijfers. We denken dat geweld en oorlogen veel dodelijker zijn dan bijvoorbeeld het eten van vlees, omdat de media veel aandacht besteedt aan moorden en aanslagen en onze geschiedenisboeken wel uitgebreid vertellen over de grote oorlogen maar niet over de nog veel grotere ziektes. De Spaanse griep van 1919 of de eerste wereldoorlog? Antwoord: de Spaanse griep maakte in Europa waarschijnlijk dubbel zoveel slachtoffers dan de wereldoorlog.

Het intentioneel geweld blijft sterker op ons netvlies gebrand dan een blind ongeval. Misschien vind je geweld erger dan ongeluk of ziekte. Dat kan, maar het wordt gevaarlijk als dit je risico-inschatting beïnvloedt. We schatten risico’s fout in, want we zijn vatbaar voor zogenaamde cognitieve illusies: intuïtieve maar foutieve oordelen. Net zoals we onze zintuigen niet altijd kunnen vertrouwen omwille van optische illusies, zo kunnen we ons spontane oordeelvermogen niet altijd vertrouwen.

Optische illusies zijn nog onschuldig. Maar cognitieve illusies maken slachtoffers. Een duidelijk voorbeeld zien we bij angst voor terreur. We hebben veel meer schrik om te sterven bij een terroristische aanslag dan bij een ongeval. Zo gaan we irrationele risico-inschattingen maken. Bijvoorbeeld: hoeveel mensen stierven er door de aanslagen van 11 september 2001 in de VS? Het officiële dodencijfer ligt tegen de 3000 aan. Maar dat is slechts een deel van het verhaal. De Duitse professor Gerd Gigerenzer, gespecialiseerd in risico-inschattingen, berekende dat er het jaar na 9/11 nog eens zo’n 1600 mensen extra stierven door verkeersongevallen. Hoe kwam dat? Eenvoudig: mensen kregen angst om te vliegen, dus namen ze de auto om op reis te gaan. Per afgelegde kilometer is autorijden vier keer gevaarlijker dan het vliegtuig. En de trein is dertig keer veiliger dan de auto. Het zou dus kunnen dat mensen door de aanslagen in Brussel minder de metro en het vliegtuig gaan nemen en zich op andere manieren gaan verplaatsen die dodelijker zijn. Die extra verkeersdoden zullen niet veel media-aandacht krijgen, maar ze zijn wel even tragisch voor de slachtoffers en nabestaanden.

Maar dat is nog niet het gehele verhaal. Door die terroristische aanslagen van 9/11 is de VS veel meer geld gaan uitgeven aan defensie en beveiliging. Het budget van een overheid is beperkt, dus als de uitgaven voor beveiliging stijgen, dalen ze op andere posten, zoals gezondheidszorg en verkeersveiligheid. Als er minder budget is voor gezondheidszorg, zullen er meer mensen sterven in de ziekenhuizen. Het redden van levens door effectieve gezondheidszorg kan best wel eens veel kostenefficiënter zijn (in termen van het aantal geredde levens of gezonde levensjaren per besteedde euro of dollar) dan het redden van levens door antiterrorismemaatregelen en verhoogde defensie-uitgaven.

De angstige reactie bij de publieke opinie na een terroristische aanslag riskeert zo uit te monden in keuzes die zullen resulteren in extra doden, extra verlies van gezonde levensjaren en extra verdriet.

En dan is er nog het risico dat Europa haar grenzen meer gaat sluiten als reactie op terroristische aanslagen. Dan riskeren we een moreel principe te schenden dat fundamenteel is in onze ethiek: het niet-schaden principe. We mogen niet naar willekeur iets doen dat het welzijn van anderen schaadt. De keuze om grenzen te sluiten is schadelijk voor de vele vluchtelingen. En de wereld wordt er niet veiliger op: we zadelen gewoon de mensen in armere landen zoals Turkije op met het probleem van terroristisch geweld. Die landen hebben veel minder middelen om terroristen te bestrijden (het afgelopen jaar vielen er enkel in Turkije al bijna 200 doden bij zes terroristische aanslagen door moslimfundamentalisten).

Zo creëert het sluiten van landsgrenzen uit angst voor terrorisme een mondiaal systeem van apartheid en discriminatie. Iemand die in Brussel woont en wil vluchten voor terroristisch geweld, heeft het recht om te vluchten. Jij en ik hebben het recht om te migreren naar een veiligere plek. Maar als wij dat recht hebben, heeft iedereen dat recht, ook de Syriërs. Anders is er sprake van onverantwoorde willekeur.

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The most effective things you can do about the three most important win-win-win measures

In a previous article I described the three most important win-win-win measures: veganism (avoiding animal products), family planning (avoiding unwanted pregnancies) and a green tax shift with a basic income.

In this article I focus on the most important things an individual can do about those three issues. Each individual has first of all a strong duty not to cause harm and secondly a (weaker) opportunity to help.

Veganism

Duty: be vegan in order to avoid animal rights violations, unnecessary welfare loss and unnecessary biodiversity loss.

Opportunity: be a vegan advocate and donate money to the most effective animal charities doing vegan outreach, such as Mercy for Animals, the Humane League and Animal Equality.

Family planning

Duty: abstain from unsafe or coerced sex in order to avoid women rights violations and unwanted pregnancies.

Opportunity: donate money to effective family planning charities such as Marie Stopes International, or the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Green tax shift and basic income

Duty: save resources (e.g. food, energy, water) and donate the saved money (minimum 700 euro per year for an average European person) to effective organizations such as GiveDirectly, giving unconditional basic income to the poorest people.

Opportunity: promote a green tax shift by political lobbying and supporting organizations such as the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. Save more on resources and donate extra money to other effective charities.

Why do we have a duty to save resources and donate the saved money to e.g. GiveDirectly? Ideally, we would have an international system of green taxation (taxing the use of natural resources and the emission of pollutants) that finances a universal, unconditional basic income. This system is necessary to respect everyone’s equal right to natural resources. However, as long as such a system is not in place, voluntary measures (individual duties) are necessary.

One example of a natural resource is the Earth’s capacity to assimilate CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Everyone has an equal right to this finite capacity. But the current economic system involves a market failure: property rights are not properly distributed. This property right to the Earth’s atmosphere and assimilation capacity corresponds with an emission permit, the right to emit an amount of greenhouse gases.

To restore the market of emission permits, we can introduce a global cap-auction-dividend-trade system. First we place a cap on the global emissions based on biophysical limits. This cap reflects the maximum amount of emission permits for greenhouse gases that we can emit in order to avoid e.g. a 1,5°C global warming. Then an international governmental body auctions the emission permits. Those revenues can be distributed as a global dividend: a universal basic income. Under this cap-auction-dividend system, the revenues of the auction do not go to governments or private companies but to citizens in the form of dividends, distributed equally among everyone. Finally, people buying emission permits can also trade those permits, to allow for an efficient carbon market.

In an efficient market and with sufficient knowledge of an efficient carbon price, this system is equivalent to a carbon tax system where greenhouse gas emissions are taxed at a tax rate that corresponds with the cap, and the tax revenues are equitably distributed as a basic income.

An average person in a rich Western country emits roughly 15 ton CO2-equivalents per year. The current (2016) price of an efficient carbon tax (or emission permit) would be about 80 €/ton CO2, increasing yearly with 5 €/ton CO2 (hence reaching e.g. 100 €/ton CO2 in 2020) in order to linearly decrease emissions to zero before 2060.[1] That means an average person in a rich country has to pay 1200 € for emission permits in 2016. By 2020 s/he has to pay more than 1500 € if s/he still emits 15 ton CO2.

In an international cap-auction-dividend-trade system, those revenues are equally distributed. This results in a basic income of 500€/year for everyone. Hence, the net payment of an average person in a rich country will be 700 € in 2016. What does this mean? It actually means that in the current situation, that person is stealing emission permits worth 700 € from the poorest people (the people who have the lowest levels of CO2 emissions). The rich person acquires a part of the global assimilation capacity without having to pay for it and excludes the poorest persons from this global natural resource. The 700 € corresponds with a fee to the poorest people. That is why even in a current system without carbon taxation or cap-auction-trade, the rich persons have a duty to pay 700 € in 2016. If the rich person does not decrease its emissions and emits 15 tons of CO2 every year and if we want to limit global emissions such that the global temperature increase will be below 1,5°C, then each year the rich person has to pay 100 € more. In 2017 s/he has to pay 800 €, in 2018 s/he has to pay 900 €, and so on (leveling off at 4500 € by 2060).

This money should be distributed as a basic income. One organization that effectively gives money from donations as an unconditional basic income to the poorest people, is GiveDirectly. And as a bonus, randomized controlled trials have shown that GiveDirectly is very cost-efficient in terms of economic development and poverty reduction. It is one of the top charities according to charity evaluator GiveWell.

Donating money is a duty, because it is a matter of justice: rich people are stealing emission permits from poor people. Rich people exclude poor people from the Earth’s supply of natural resources, without paying compensation for the exclusive ownership that one acquires. The donation is a remuneration for this involuntary exclusion. The 700 € corresponds with only the carbon emissions. We also use other natural resources (fuels, minerals, land…), excluding the poorest people to their right of usage, without paying the poorest people a remuneration fee. So in reality rich persons have to pay more than 700 €.

For an average person in the rich countries, it is feasible to donate 700 € by saving resources: reduce energy use (electricity, heating energy, car fuel), reduce food waste, reduce water consumption and avoid buying too much new products (buy more second hand, repair goods, borrow products). These measures save lots of money and reduce the carbon footprint of a person. The average economic carbon intensity is about 1 kg CO2/euro in 2016, which means that if a household buys products and services for 1000 €, its carbon footprint increases on average with 1 ton CO2. Conversely, saving 700 € will also save on average 0,7 ton CO2. The carbon intensities of energy (fuels, electricity) and food (especially animal products) are much higher than 1 kg CO2/euro, so a saving of 700 € on fossil fuels and animal products will result in an emission reduction of more than 1 ton CO2.

By donating this saved money to charities like GiveDirectly, the rebound effect is avoided: the money is not used by the rich people for extra consumptions that have a high carbon footprint, such as air travel. It is a very efficient win-win measure to decrease the carbon footprint of rich persons and increase the economic welfare of the poor persons. Save resources to save lives.

[1] These values are very rough estimates of an efficient carbon price, based on the high damage scenario under random estimated climate sensitivity in: Simon Dietz & Nicholas Stern (2014). Endogenous growth, convexity of damages and climate risk: how Nordhaus’ framework supports deep cuts in carbon emissions. Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, Working Paper No. 180 http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/news/dietz_stern_june2014/

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