Our worst enemies in crucial areas

What are the most important problems in the most important areas like ethics, economics, politics and sciences? In this short article I present an overview of our worst enemies.


Several ethical principles and theories are possible, but what characterizes a rational ethic is the need to avoid unwanted arbitrariness. Ethical principles, values, ideas and theories that contain unwanted arbitrariness should always be rejected. This is the minimum requirement for a coherent, rational, authentic ethic.

Unwanted arbitrariness means arbitrariness, i.e. picking an element from a set without following a rule, that is unwanted, i.e. it can be reasonably objected by at least someone who has subjective preferences. If unwanted arbitrariness is allowed, then reasonable argumentation in ethics is no longer possible. The idea to avoid unwanted arbitrariness results in the most fundamental principle in ethics: for every choice you make, you have to be able to give a justifying rule of which you can consistently want that everyone follows that rule in all possible situations.

The most serious kind of unwanted arbitrariness in our ethical theories, is speciesism, a kind of discrimination based on species membership. Discrimination means treating A better than B in a way that B cannot want, based on arbitrary criteria and without tolerating swapping positions (treating A like B and vice versa). Looking at the huge numbers of animals that are used and killed in livestock farming and fishing, which is based on speciesism, we can say that speciesism is probably the biggest kind of discrimination in the world today.

A full description of unwanted arbitrariness, discrimination and speciesism can be found in this article.


The most general enemy in economics is unjust inefficiency: an inefficiency, i.e. a loss of economic welfare or productivity, that is also unjust, i.e. creating unjustifiable income or wealth inequalities.

The most serious kind of unjust inefficiency is privatized economic rent or excessive scarcity benefits: the received benefit (income) to an owner of a scarce factor of production (property, resource) in excess of the minimum payment required to induce the owner to bring the factor into production.

Economic rent is the result of market barriers. One of the most important global market barriers is migration restriction (countries with closed borders). This results in huge income inequalities (a wage gap of a factor 4 for equal work between high income and low-middle income countries) and productivity losses (almost 50% of global GDP). Opening borders is probably the most effective means to fight poverty, reduce global income inequality and increase economic welfare for the vast majority in both poor and rich countries.

A second very important kind of economic rent is the private property of natural resources. Economic rent can be eliminated by eliminating market barriers or by a tax and dividend system: taxing the rent and distributing the tax revenues as a universal basic income.


The worst enemy in politics are cognitive biases. These result in irrational policies and decisions by politicians and voters. Irrational means: inaccurate in beliefs, ineffective in means and inconsistent in ends. To improve politics, we can develop a rational democracy. One candidate is futarchy, where people vote on values and bet on beliefs. Moral uncertainty is dealt with by a democratic procedure where everyone has a right to vote for parties or politicians that represent moral values. Empirical uncertainty is dealt with by using prediction markets. Other methods to improve democratic voting are quadratic voting and approval voting.


The most important issue in biology is wild animal suffering, because there are huge numbers of wild animals and probably a vast majority of them have a lot of negative experiences that could be avoided with new technologies. To decrease wild animal suffering and improve wild animal well-being, we need to solve the most important obstacle: r-selection. This is a reproductive strategy of most animal populations, where a lot of offspring are born and only a small fraction of them survives till reproductive age. R-strategists are animals that maximize their reproduction rate in order to survive as a population, although most individual animals don’t survive for long. R-selection is probably the root cause of most suffering in nature, and probably most suffering on Earth. It is a kind of perpetual overpopulation problem.

To help animals, we need to do research on how to safely and effectively intervene in nature to improve wild animal welfare. Important technologies that could potentially help to decrease wild animal suffering are CRISPR gene drives to reduce r-selection and cultured meat to reduce predation.


The most important problem related to technology, are existential risks. These are global catastrophes that could permanently derail society or wipe out intelligent-sentient life on earth. Existential risks are very important because the whole future is at stake, which means a huge number of people. New technologies pose the biggest threats but can also create the best solutions to many problems.

Probably the most serious existential risk is misaligned artificial superintelligence: future superintelligent self-learning machines with moral algorithms that deviate from what we intended or wanted. Because those superintelligent AI-systems are smarter than us and because knowledge is power, those AI-systems could dominate us. We will never be smart enough to control them. If their goals are not identical to ours, if their values are not aligned with ours, they could even eliminate us because of competition for resources to achieve their goals. To solve this problem, AI-safety research is a top priority.

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The worst enemy in economics: privatized economic rent

During my PhD-studies in moral philosophy I was wondering: what is my worst enemy in ethics? I consider discrimination, or more generally unwanted arbitrariness as the biggest problem in ethics. Now that I’m studying for a master in economic policy, the question becomes: what is my worst enemy in economics? As I was most affiliated with radical left-wing, anarchist, socialist, communist and deep ecologist traditions, in the past my answer could have been something like ‘business profits’, ‘high executive salaries’, ‘big corporations’, ‘private property’, ‘privatization of public companies’, ‘positive interest rates’ or simply ‘capitalism’. However, when I learned more how to think like an economist, I became much more skeptical to these radical left wing economic ideologies. The supposed problems contain some element of truth, because they can sometimes involve injustice (e.g. unjustified inequality) and inefficiency (e.g. environmental degradation). But I think we can be more specific in targeting the most crucial problem in economics.

So, after a long reflection, what do I consider at this moment of my economics education the biggest problem in economics, the worst enemy? In general I would say ‘unjust inefficiencies’, which is comparable to the general problem of unwanted arbitrariness in ethics. I guess every economist is against situations or economic measures that are both unjust and inefficient at the same time. But to be more specific, I would say the worst enemy in economics is the privatization of economic rent or synonymously; privatized excessive scarcity benefits.

What is economic rent?

Economic rent has several slightly different definitions in the literature. I would use ‘excessive scarcity benefits’ as a synonym. This notion includes other concepts, such as resource rent, scarcity valuemonopoly profitabnormal profiteconomic profit and Georgist unearned income. It can be contrasted with normal profitproducer surpluspassive income, interests, Marxist surplus value and Marxist surplus product. Sometimes there is overlap, e.g. between producer surplus and economic rent, but I think the notion of economic rent more accurately describes what is wrong in our current economic systems. The set of situations that involve economic rent best fits the set of situations in our economic system that are both unjust and inefficient.

I will define economic rent or excessive scarcity benefits as: the received benefit to an owner of a scarce factor of production in excess of the minimum payment required to induce the owner to bring the factor into production. To better understand this definition, it helps to clarify the crucial terms with examples and synonyms.

‘Received benefit’ means or includes ‘payment’, ‘income’, ‘imputed value’, ‘utility’ and ‘service of an input’.

‘Owner’ means or includes ‘supplier of productive input’, ‘owner of a property’, ‘holder of a license’ and ‘occupier of a scarce position’.

‘Scarce’ means or includes ‘rivalrous’ (the ownership, use or consumption by one owner prevents simultaneous ownership by other owners, or the use by one party reduces the ability of another party to use it) and ‘having non-zero marginal production costs’ (the cost of supplying one extra unit of the factor of production is higher than zero).

‘Factor of production’ means or includes ‘productive input’, ‘property’ and ‘resource’.

‘Minimum payment required’ means or includes ‘the minimum amount necessary to keep the factor in its current occupation’, ‘the minimum supply price’, ‘the minimum amount necessary to attain the services of the production factor’, ‘the normal return necessary to keep the production factor in its current use’, ‘the costs needed to bring that factor into production’, ‘the opportunity costs’ (the value of the most valuable choice out of those that were not taken), ‘the input’s reservation value’ (the income that the owner of an input could get by deploying the input in its best alternative use, the next-most-lucrative employment open to the factor) and ‘the minimum amount that someone has to pay to hire the input’.

‘Induce’ means or includes ‘incentivise’.

‘Bringing the factor into production’ means or includes ‘selling the property’, ‘offering the factor for use’ and ‘letting the factor produce something valuable’.

In a market with supply and demand, we have a pure economic rent when a part of the supply or the demand curve (the price level in function of the quantities supplied or demanded) is vertical. That means there is a quantity of the production factor at which its supply or demand is completely inelastic: increasing or decreasing the price level does not change the supplied or demanded quantity. This is the case when there are no substitutes for the production factor. It means that at this inelastic quantity, the suppliers (producers) or buyers (consumers) are price setters instead of price takers. The suppliers or buyers have a market power, like in a monopoly (a market with a single supplier) or a monopsony (a market with a single buyer).

In the figure below, the pure economic rent is the grey area between the maximum and minimum price levels PMAX and PMIN. So the economic rent is the difference between the maximum amount a buyer is willing to pay to have the full factor of production in its occupation and the minimum amount that has to be paid to the supplier to have the full factor of production in its occupation.

economic rent fig1

Land value is an example of economic rent: as it is impossible to create or destroy land, the supply of land is fixed. For a quantity of land less than the maximum available land area, the production costs are zero and hence the supply curve is a horizontal line at zero. But at the maximum available land, the production cost becomes infinite, so the supply curve becomes a vertical line. Land is a price inelastic resource.

Examples of economic rent

There are many examples of economic rent, most of them are in two major categories: resource rent and monopoly rent.

Resource rent is the value of owning a property that has zero investment costs (zero marginal costs for the production of one extra unit) and was not produced by the owner. Think about a piece of land, natural resources, the  electromagnetic spectrum (for data transmission) or inherited property. It also includes the value of pollution rights, such as greenhouse gas emissions, because those emissions involve an appropriation of a finite resource such as the limited CO2-absorption capacity of the Earth.

Economic profit is the value as the result of market restrictions (markets with entry and exit barriers), and includes monopoly rent (the market power of a monopoly). Think about superstars (e.g. limited positions in music charts and theaters), professional athletes (e.g. limited positions in major football leagues), guilds (e.g. professions with a limited number of licenses), labor markets of countries with migration restrictions, seigniorage (e.g. commercial banks that earn interests on money they created by loans through fractional reserve banking).

Why is privatization of economic rent bad?

In economics, there is often a trade-off between justice and efficiency. For example, a progressive tax can give incentives for people to become less productive, decreasing the overall wealth or welfare in the economy. Justice is increased (unjust inequality decreased), at the cost of less efficiency and a loss of welfare. It is like using a leaky bucket to redistribute water.

But sometimes there is no trade-off. Sometimes an economic situation can be both unjust and inefficient, and solving that problem can increase both justice and efficiency. The privatization of economic rent is such a problem: it is unjust and inefficient. The privatization means that the benefits of economic rent go to some individuals instead of the whole community.

The privatized economic rent is unjust, because it involves unearned income for some owners of a scarce factor of production. Landowners earning a lot of money by renting their land to other people, can become rich without effort: they did not put any effort in producing the land. A monopolist business owner in a market with a natural monopoly, can earn a lot of money (monopoly rent) although he or she did not produce the situation of a natural monopoly and definitely did not create added value by earning the monopoly rent. Talented superstars or professional athletes are not responsible for those talents, but still they profit from huge earnings due to the economic rent of limited positions. Economic rent is unearned because of the lack of effort or responsibility in producing the factor of production, and the privatization of economic rent generates high income inequalities.

Economic rent also involves inefficiency. For example monopolies generate a deadweight loss or excess burden: compared with a market of perfect competition, a monopolist does not produce the amount that maximizes overall (producer and consumer) surplus. With entry and exit barriers, potential win-win market transactions are lost. This lost productivity means lower economic welfare.

In some cases, such as pollution and emissions, the economic rent causes an overexploitation of a natural resource, such as the CO2-absorption capacity of the Earth. Too much carbon emissions, more than the climate can deal with, causes serious climate change. In other cases, such as private property of natural resources, economic rent causes underexploitation of that property. This results in an allocative inefficiency. Someone can own a piece of land, and earning economic rent could mean that the owner is not willing to sell the land to someone else who is able to use that land more efficiently or productively. If someone else values a property more than the current owner (i.e. has a higher willingness to pay to own that property), that person is not always able to buy that property from the owner, because the owner has a monopoly power. This power allows the owner to set the price, and so the owner can demand a price that is too high such that the transaction will not take place. The under- and overexploitation of factors of production are examples of inefficiencies.


As the privatization of economic rent involves both injustice and inefficiency, its solutions could improve both justice and efficiency. There are two kinds of solutions. The first solution tries to tackle the problem of economic rent, the second solution tackles the problem of its privatization.

The first solution involves increasing competition by eliminating entry and exit barriers if possible. This eliminates the monopoly rent.

If eliminating market barriers is not possible, the presence of economic rent is unavoidable, but its privatization can be avoided. Hence, the second solution involves the public distribution of economic rent, through a tax and dividend. The government can tax the earnings of the economic rent, or can auction the scarce positions to the highest bidders, and the tax and auction revenues can be distributed as a universal dividend or basic income. This unconditional, universal basic income reflects the justice idea that everyone has an equal right to the value or benefits of all the things that are not privately earned, such as talents, or personally created, such as natural resources.

As with monopoly rents, a lot of taxes generate an excess burden or deadweight loss, resulting in lower productivity and hence lower economic welfare. But the taxation of pure economic rent is an exception: it does not result in lower productivity. The reason is that the tax is levied on the part of the supply or demand curve that is vertical (inelastic). The total tax income is the grey area in the above figure.

If the tax rate is higher than the maximum to capture all pure economic rent (the difference between PMAX and PMIN), a deadweight loss is generated, as can be seen in the figure below. The grey area is the total tax revenue. The area between the corner points A, B, C and D is surplus value (economic wealth) that is lost due to the tax. With such a high tax rate, people have an incentive to supply and demand less of the factor of production. The total supply is Q’, which is lower than QMAX. Looking back at the definition of economic rent, the price earned by the owner (P’ in the figure) is lower than the minimum payment required to induce the owner to bring the full production factor into production.

economic rent fig2

Examples of solutions

Let us consider a few concrete solutions to the problem of privatized economic rent. First, we can eliminate economic rent by eliminating market entry and exit barriers. Some professions are licensed, which means there is an institution that can limit the number of licenses. Think about lawyers, notaries and medical professions. Those who are able to hold a position or receive a license can demand higher wages and salaries. Those revenues are higher than what is needed to cover all the opportunity costs of those professions, which includes the years of training. This is a kind of rent seeking behavior of guilds that can be prohibited.

On a much larger scale, we can think about open borders. Due to a policy of migration restrictions (closed borders), the global labor market is not in equilibrium. That means workers in high-income countries earn an economic rent: their real wages are 4 to 10 times higher than the real wages of equivalent (equally educated and skilled) laborers for equal work in low and middle income countries. This is much larger than the gender pay gap. Next to this injustice (unequal pay for equal work), there is a huge efficiency loss. With open borders, world income (gross world product) could roughly double. This is much more than liberalizing global capital and product markets. The global policy of migration restriction is probably one of the biggest examples of privatized economic rent.

If eliminating market restrictions is not possible, we can capture the economic rent. Consider a professional football player who earns a high salary because there are limited positions in the major football leagues. If the income of that football player is taxed a little bit, for example if that player has to pay a little bit to receive a license to play the next match, he or she will probably still play that match, even if the earnings are a bit lower. However, if the tax rate (the cost for the license to play) is very high, the player will decide not to play anymore and look for another job or something else to do during those hours of the match. In this case, the earnings of the player are lower than his or her opportunity costs. As the fans want to see the player play the next match, but the player decides to do something else, there is an efficiency loss because the fans lose some welfare. The maximum efficient tax rate or the maximum efficient price for the license will be such that the income of the player is barely above the opportunity costs, such that the player has the same incentive to play the match and the tax revenues for the government are highest. At this maximum efficient tax rate, everyone’s choices will be the same as without the tax: the player chooses to play the match. There are no incentives that lower productivity.

The same goes for owners of a natural monopoly, i.e. a monopoly that cannot be avoided by eliminating all market barriers. The government can auction the right to operate the business of a natural monopoly for a certain time period to the highest bidder. The auction revenue will capture all the monopoly rent of the business for that time period. The highest bidder is most likely the one who can most efficiently or productively run the business.

A land value taxation, proposed by the economist Henry George, is another example to capture resource rent. The land value captures all the economic value created by nature, not the added value created by people. The revenues of such a taxation can be distributed as a universal dividend. A related proposal to capture resource rents and distribute them to everyone, is the oil to cash idea.

A carbon tax and dividend and a fair and efficient cap and trade system for emission permits of greenhouse gases are two other examples to capture and distribute resource rents, in this case the value of the CO2 absorption capacity.

Finally, perhaps the most far reaching and universal taxation mechanism, is a Common Ownership Self-Assessed Tax (COST) or Harberger tax. The idea goes as follows. An owner of a property (e.g. a piece of land or a license for a position) should publicly declare his or her reservation price of that property: the lowest price at which the owner is willing to sell the property. This reservation price reflects the self-assessed value to the owner. If someone else is willing to buy the property at a price at or above this reservation price, the owner has a duty to sell the property.

Of course, in order to maximize profits by selling the property, the owner could declare a very high stated reservation price, much higher than the real reservation price (the real self-assessed value to the owner). However, there is a catch. If the probability that a potential buyer appears on the market in a given time period (e.g. a year) is p%, the average time that the owner can keep its property before selling it is 1/p time periods (years). The value for the owner for one time period is therefore p% times the total self-assessed value. If there are no opportunity costs and no incentives for investments in the property, the value of the owner equals its economic rent for that time period. The government can tax this rent, so if the owner wants to keep its property for a time period, he or she has to pay p% times the total self-assessed value as a tax to the government. This tax at a rate of p% can be considered a license fee that the owner has to pay for a property right to use the property for one time period. If the owner declares a very high stated self-assessed value, the owner has to pay more taxes. So these taxes are a means to keep the stated self-assessed value as low as possible. Combined with the preference to maximize profits from selling the property, the owner has an incentive to declare his or her real self-assessed value: not too low and not too high.

If the tax revenues (i.e. the total value of the property) are distributed as a universal dividend and if everyone can buy the property at the self-assessed reservation price, the self-assessed tax turns the private property in a kind of common ownership property. Hence the name common ownership self-assessed tax.

This tax system has several advantages. First, it captures the economic rent of owning private property. Second, it improves allocative efficiency: property more easily goes to the highest bidder, the buyer who values it the most or can use it in the most welfare productive way. One further nuance is important, however. Most properties are a mixture of natural resources and own personal investments. Think of a real estate that consists of the land (a natural resource that is not created by people) and a building that is created by people. If one risks having to sell a property, one has less incentives to invest in it, to increase its value by improving it. A p% tax rate will be optimal for allocative efficiency, but suboptimal for investment efficiency: it is too high to incentivize people to improve the property. If people invest in property, less than p% of the value of that property consists of economic rent (by definition of economic rent, which refers to the incentive of the owner to bring the property or production factor into production). This means that with improved property, the tax rate should be less than p%. It is possible to calculate for each type of property the optimal tax rate that optimizes both allocative and investment efficiency.

The self-assessed tax is an elegant method to deal with the two characteristics of a private good: excludability and rivalry. A good or service is excludable if it is possible to prevent people who have not paid for it from having access to it. The owner of an excludable property can exercise private property rights. With the self-assessed tax, the fact that the owner has to pay a tax based on the reservation price means that the owner has an incentive to declare a sufficiently low reservation price. As this increases the probability that a buyer is willing to buy the property at that low reservation price, and the owner is obliged to sell the property, it means that the property becomes less excludable.

Similarly, a good or service is rivalrous  if its consumption by one consumer prevents simultaneous consumption by other consumers. With the self-assessed tax, the fact that the owner has to sell the property to a buyer who pays more than the stated reservation price means that the owner has an incentive to declare a high reservation price. The property creates more value, and this higher value is distributed to other people through the self-assessed tax. It is as if more people can consume more (of the value) of the product. This means that the property becomes less rivalrous.

The abovementioned other taxes, such as the carbon tax, can be considered as special cases of the common ownership self-assessed tax. Such a carbon tax is comparable to an auction system where tradable emission permits are auctioned to the highest bidders. The rate of the carbon tax should induce a level of carbon emissions that equals the total level of emissions corresponding to all the auctioned emission permits. In this case, the price of a tradable emission permit equals the carbon tax rate. An emission permit is a property right, the right to emit a unit of greenhouse gases and use a part of the Earth’s absorption capacity. However, such an emission permit can be used only once: if the amount of gases are emitted, the emission permit expires. This is like a depletable resource or a consumption product that can be consumed only once (such as food). Hence, after one time period, after the permit expires or the product is consumed, the permit or product loses its value to the owner. It is as if something (nature) bought the product from the owner. Hence, the probability p to sell the property after the first time period of consumption is 1, so the self-assessed tax is 1 times the self-assessed value, which is the price of the emission permit.

Support for organizations

Several organizations focus on eliminating avoidable economic rents from market barriers and publicly distributing the unavoidable economic rents.

Open Borders and Free Migration Project promote open borders and the elimination of migration restrictions (which are very severe entry and exit barriers to labor markets).

The International Union for Land Value Taxation promotes a land value tax.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby promotes a carbon tax and dividend. Carbon Market Watch wants to improve the cap and trade system of tradable carbon emission permits.

The Center for Global Development promotes the idea of capturing resource rents from oil to be distributed as a dividend (cash transfers).

Positive Money promotes the idea of capturing the monopoly rent of commercial banks, by criticizing the system of fractional reserve banking.

The RadicalxChange Foundation promotes a common ownership self-assessed tax.

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Why I have a career switch: an effective altruist analysis

According to the effective altruist organization 80,000 Hours, our career choice is one of the most important decisions for doing the most good. When it comes to donations, we can be very flexible and easily decide to switch donations towards new, more effective charities. But when it comes to ethical career choices, we are less flexible: it is not easy to switch our careers. Not many people switch their careers towards more effective causes.

In this article I present my reasons and my analysis that led me to a personal career switch. This information can be valuable for other people who are considering an effective altruistic career switch.

A career switch is something like an investment in a start-up company: both are risky investments. So I can consider myself as a new start-up. The general message is that we underestimate the importance of career changes and that we should be less risk averse when it comes to new job opportunities or careers.

Personal background information

  • I have a PhD in physics and in moral philosophy.
  • I am 38 years old.
  • I inherited and saved enough money, I have an apartment (without a mortgage), I don’t have children, so I can live for about 7 years without any income.
  • I worked for 10 years in a non-profit environmental organization, doing carbon footprinting analysis.
  • I decided to quit my job and started studying full-time for a master in economic policy, following the advice by 80,000 Hours, with the intention to do academic research about EA related economic topics (with plans B, C and D: going into government/politics, working at an economic think tank or working in the financial sector for an ‘earning to give’ career).
  • In the meantime I work as a self-employed freelancer, doing some small projects, having a small income.

Considerations for my career switch

The ideas that I will discuss below are all related to economic concepts such as cost-effectiveness, opportunity costs and comparative advantages. In this sense, there is a certain irony that I chose economics as my new research discipline: to analyze the value of my career switch towards economics, I already had to think like an economist.

The impact distribution of ethical careers

When we measure the cost-effectiveness of measurable projects and interventions, there is some evidence that the distribution is very skewed. A small minority of organizations, projects and interventions are far more effective than the vast majority:

  • human health (quality adjusted life years per dollar invested),
  • education (learning adjusted years of schooling per dollar invested),
  • animal welfare (animals spared per dollar invested).

Some projects and campaigns can even backfire and do more harm than good. If this skewed distribution of cost-effectiveness is true for measurable interventions, we can expect that it is also true for the projects and interventions whose cost-effectiveness is not (yet) measurable. Also, looking at the most important global problems, we can expect that a minority of focus areas or causes are far more important than others.

And the same probably goes for our careers: with some careers we can do much more good than with others. If the vast majority of projects and interventions have a low level of effectiveness, it is likely that the vast majority of our career options have a low level of effectiveness. It is unlikely that our first career choice happens to be the one that is highly effective. Switching to another job can increase our positive impact (good done per hour worked) with a factor of 10 or more, just like switching donations to a more effective charity can increase our impact (good done per dollar donated) with a factor 10 or more.

If this is true, it is worthwhile to look for more effective career options and to switch careers. Even if there is say only a 50% probability that the impact distribution of careers is so skewed that a small number of career options are far more effective than the vast majority, it can still be worthwhile to switch careers.

The ITN framework and cognitive biases

According to the ITN framework, three factors determine the impact of a choice: importance, tractability and neglectedness. The above consideration of impact differences between careers implies that a career switch can be very important. A full-time career consists of many hours (approximately 80.000 hours) to do good. If those hours could be spend at high impact ethical careers, one can do a lot of good.

Career switches may seem difficult and hence less feasible or tractable, but this is a matter of personal perception. But most importantly, career switches are also neglected: not many people consider changing jobs. This neglectedness means that a career switch can be an even more effective strategy to do good.

One could argue that the neglectedness of career switches indicates that career switches are generally not effective, because if they would be effective, a lot of people would do them. But this raises the question for charities: if some charities are far more effective than others, than why are those charities so much neglected? I think the neglectedness of career switches and effective charities can be explained by our cognitive biases, such as a status quo bias, a choice-supportive bias, a confirmation bias or a sunk cost fallacy. Due to these biases, the importance and feasibility or tractability of career switches are underestimated.

The value of information

If some focus areas, charities, projects, campaigns, interventions and careers are far more effective or important than others, it is very valuable to learn about those most effective options. This means the value of information is very high. Economic analysis allows us to study the value of information when we face uncertainty. Investing some time in research about more effective options can be very valuable, because it decreases our level of uncertainty: we become more confident about the most effective options. This is especially true if we face high uncertainty, for example when only a small minority of options are highly effective.

The explore-exploit trade-off

There is a trade-off between exploration and exploitation: when you lack information, it is good to explore and find better options (such as better career choices), but once you find a very good option (a high impact career), it becomes better to stop exploring any further and start exploiting this very good option (stick to the highest impact career you have found so far). When the effectiveness distribution is very skewed, the uncertainty of high impact options is very high, the value of information of the best options is very high, so the exploration phase becomes very important. I think most people who choose for altruistic careers underestimate the importance of the exploration phase. For example, after my studies I immediately started working at a non-profit organization that I liked, without reflecting on better options or exploring other opportunities.

Risk neutrality and narrow bracketing

A career switch is a risky investment. It means quitting your current job, taking time to learn new things (e.g. starting a new study), losing some income for a while, and not knowing whether you will find a more effective job. Most people have a risk aversion bias, which means they want to avoid risky career switches. But when it comes to doing good purely altruistically, we should be risk neutral from a rational point of view (see the section on arbitrary project selection in this article about moral illusions).

Briefly speaking, we have a cognitive bias of narrow bracketing, which means we consider risky options or decisions separately. This results in inconsistent preferences and a choice for less effective means to do good. Suppose that the effective altruist community consists of 100 people. There are two strategies.

Strategy A means that all those people stick to their current jobs. For example they work at a non-profit that with certainty saves 10 people per employee, so the total number of people saved is 1000.

Strategy B is the more risky option: a career switch. Each of the effective altruists switches their careers in the hope to increase their impact. Suppose that this is a very risky choice: with probability 90% they end up in a worse job that saves no-one. But with probability 10% they end up in a high impact job that saves 200 people per employee. The expected number of lives saved will be 2000, which is twice as much as in strategy A.

If every employee looks at his or her own possible outcomes, separately from the decisions of the other members in the effective altruist community, this is a kind of narrow bracketing. With narrow bracketing, people are more likely to become risk averse: they choose strategy A, the safe bet, because that gives them more certainty that they saved at least 10 lives. However, if they would consider all the decisions of the whole community as one big decision between strategies A and B, they would favor strategy B, because more lives will be saved. For an effective altruist it doesn’t matter who is the lucky winner in strategy B: it doesn’t matter who is able to save the 200 people. All that matters is the total number of people saved.

This is an important consideration: even if 90% of the career switches of effective altruists are failures and do not increase impact, the small minority of lucky career switchers are able to vastly increase their impact, such that the total impact is higher in the career switching strategy. That is why, when it comes to career switches from an altruistic point of view, we should become more risk neutral, which means we should take more risks and take career switches more into consideration than we usually do.

Opportunity costs and endowment effect

A career switch often means taking some time out to study something new or look for new job opportunities. The foregone income counts as an opportunity cost. This opportunity cost is not directly visible because it does not involve direct payments. Due to a cognitive bias, the endowment effect, people often do not take the opportunity costs into account consistently. To make a more rational decision about a career switch and avoid this endowment effect, a reframing of the problem is required.

In my case, I left my job and started studying for at least one year. Next to the direct costs of studying (paying a student fee, buying books and train tickets) there are indirect costs: a foregone income of at least 30.000 euro. At first, I was not concerned about not receiving an income for some time: what I don’t have, I can’t lose. And if I can’t lose anything, my loss aversion will not be triggered. However, this way of thinking is an endowment effect, because I can reframe the same problem in a different way: instead of leaving my job and not receiving an income, I could say that I keep my job, receive the same income as before, but then I pay back all this income to my employer so that he can hire someone else to do my work. In other words: am I prepared to pay someone else more than 30.000 euro so that I can study? This reframing makes the opportunity cost more visible. It forced me to think deeper about the potential costs and benefits of a career change.

Additivity and counterfactuality

If you want to increase your positive impact in the world, you have to consider your additivity: how good are you at doing your job, compared to the next best person who could do your job? In my case, the job that I did at an environmental non-profit, and many jobs that I considered doing, can easily be done by someone else. So I have to look at the counterfactual situation: what if I did not do this job? What if I don’t apply for this new job? Then someone else could and would have done it, and the impact in the world would be the same. So we have to look for careers where our personal contribution is likely to be bigger than the contribution of the next best person, or more generally: where my personal impact is higher than the impact generated in the counterfactual situation where I do not switch my job.

Comparative advantage

Taking additivity into account forced me to think deeper about my personal capacities and skills. In particular, I had to look for my comparative advantage, another basic concept in economics. Usually we only look at our personal absolute advantage: we only consider our best skill and look for a job where this best skill is most useful. However, someone else can be even better at that skill, so is more suitable for that job.

Economists point out that instead of looking at our absolute advantages, we can create better, more effective or productive collaborative win-win situations when we look at our comparative advantages. Suppose two people have to choose between two jobs. Job A requires skill A, job B requires skill B. Suppose person X has much higher skill levels for both skills: he or she is more productive at both jobs compared to person Y. Person X has an absolute advantage for both jobs, so it seems that this person should do both jobs and person Y should not do any job. This will not be maximally effective. Due to limited time and resources, person X could not do both jobs completely: choices have to be made. To become more effective, they have to compare their relative skill levels and divide jobs according to their comparative advantages.

The comparative advantage compares the opportunity costs of choosing between the jobs. Suppose person X is twice as good at job A compared to job B (the level of skill A is twice as high than skill B). This ratio of productivity levels measures the opportunity cost of job B relative to job A: if person X chooses job B, that person cannot do job A and the productivity of job A will be foregone. Similarly we can look at the opportunity cost of person Y for choosing job B. Suppose person Y is three times more productive at job A than at job B. Person Y has an opportunity cost of 3 when choosing job B, whereas person X has an opportunity cost of 2. Person X has the lowest opportunity cost for job B, which means a comparative advantage for job B. If person X chooses job B and person Y chooses job A, productivity will increase, even if person Y is more productive than person X at job B.

How does this work more concretely when you have to choose a job? First, consider your best skills and the job options corresponding to those skills. For example mathematical and analytical thinking skills that matches a job like academic research, and communication skills that corresponds with a job like campaigning. Perhaps someone else has higher levels for all those skills, he or she has an absolute advantage, so it seems that this other person should do all the things that you could do best (both research and campaigning). However, you should look at the ratio’s of your skill levels. If all your skill levels have almost the same level, the ratio’s are small (close to 1) and the opportunity cost of the job that matches your lowest skill level will be small. In this case, you probably have a comparative advantage in the job that matches your lowest skill level. The rule of comparative advantages can generate a very counter-intuitive conclusion: even if someone else is better at that job and even if you are better at another job, it might be most productive to choose the job that matches a lower skill level. If on the other hand you will be far more productive in one specific job compared to the other jobs, you likely have a comparative advantage for that highly productive job.

Financial runway

An important property to look at when you consider a career switch, is your personal financial runway: the maximum length of time that you can live without additional income. Because a career switch often means a period of time without income, your runway determines how easily you can steer towards a new career path and how long you can take to launch yourself in that new direction. The longer your runway, the more safely you can explore new job opportunities and the more tractable or feasible a career switch becomes. The shorter your runway, the more your career change becomes a risky bet. In my case, my personal runway is about 7 years, which I consider as a luxury. This is a good opportunity to try a career switch.


Finally, another reason why I decided to take a career switch, is that not many effective altruists are switching their careers, so we do not have much knowledge about the impact of career switches. So I consider my career switch as an extra data point in an experiment to determine the effectiveness of career switches. Even if my career switch fails, we can learn something valuable. We should take a more experimental attitude towards risky investments.

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The most serious moral illusion: arbitrary group selection

Moral illusions are spontaneous, intuitive moral judgments that are very persistent, but they violate our deepest moral values. They distract us away from a rational, authentic ethic. Probably the most problematic moral illusion is arbitrary group selection. This moral illusion lies at the heart of discrimination and it makes us less effective in doing good. In this article I first explain the two worst examples of discrimination: how two kinds of arbitrary group selection cause us to harm others. Next, I present two other examples why arbitrary group selection causes us to be less effective in helping others.

What is arbitrariness?

Arbitrariness means selecting an element or subset of a set, without following a rule. In general, there are two kinds of arbitrariness: vertical and horizontal. To explain this, let’s start with a set containing two elements: the numbers 0 and 1. Next, we can construct the power set of that set, i.e. the set of all subsets. This power set contains the empty subset that has no elements (written as {}), two subsets with one element (i.e. {1} and {2}) and one subset that has two elements (namely {1,2}).

Now I can select a subset with either zero, one or two elements. This is a choice between three cardinalities: ‘zero’, ‘one’ or ‘two’. A cardinality of a subset measures the number of elements in that subset. Let’s suppose I arbitrarily pick cardinality ‘one’, i.e. the subset should have one element. This choice for selecting a subset with one element instead of a subset with zero or two elements, is arbitrary, because I did not follow a rule. I cannot explain why the subset should have one instead of zero or two elements. This arbitrary selection of cardinality is vertical arbitrariness.

After arbitrarily selecting the cardinality, I can select a specific subset. If the cardinality is ‘one’, I can select either {0} or {1}. Suppose I pick {1}, without following a rule. This arbitrary selection of a specific subset within a cardinality, is horizontal arbitrariness. The reason why it is horizontal becomes clear when we write the subsets in a diamond shape: on top we have the subset {1,2}, the second level contains the two subsets {1} and {2}, and at the bottom we have the empty subset {}. Vertical arbitrariness means we arbitrarily select the level (e.g. the second level). Horizontal arbitrariness means we arbitrarily select a subset at this level.

Now suppose in selecting the cardinality I do follow a rule, such as “select the highest cardinality”. This rule is special, because it says that we should pick the cardinality that avoids horizontal arbitrariness and is not trivial. There are two cardinalities that logically avoid horizontal arbitrariness: the highest (i.e. ‘two’ in the above example) and the lowest (i.e. ‘zero’). The lowest cardinality only contains the empty subset, so this choice is in a sense trivial. The highest cardinality is the only non-trivial cardinality that avoids horizontal arbitrariness: when we select the cardinality ‘two’ in the above example, we have no choice but to select the subset {1,2}.

Now that we have a clear idea of the notion of arbitrariness and the unique rule that avoids horizontal arbitrariness, we can move to concrete examples of unwanted arbitrariness in ethics and how to avoid them.

Harming others because of discrimination

If we look at the two worst examples of harm done to others, they are the result of two kinds of discrimination: speciesism and nationalism. Discrimination is a difference of treatment between individuals or groups A and B, whereby three conditions are met:

  1. A is treated better than B
  2. you would not tolerate swapping positions (treating A like B and vice versa)
  3. the difference of treatment is based on arbitrary criteria such as arbitrary group membership.

The latter condition means that discrimination relates to unwanted arbitrariness.

Arbitrary biological group selection: speciesism

Speciesism is the spontaneous moral judgment that all members of particular biological species are more important (e.g. deserve more or stronger rights) than members of other species. Respecting human rights and at the same time rejecting or violating the rights of non-human animals, or considering eating chickens as permissible and eating dogs as impermissible, are two examples of speciesism.

Speciesism involves both horizontal and vertical arbitrariness. First consider vertical arbitrariness. The biological classification can be considered as a cabinet with several drawers. Each drawer corresponds with a way to divide individuals into biological groups. I can open the bottom drawer of ethnic groups (races) and say that I belong to the ethnic group of white people. Or I can open the second drawer from below, containing all subspecies, and point at the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens as my favored group. But we also belong to the species of humans (Homo sapiens) in the third drawer. Or moving higher in the cabinet: the family of great apes, the infraorder of simians, the order of primates, the infraclass of placentals, the class of mammals, the phylum of vertebrates, the kingdom of animals. The highest drawer contains only one group: the group of all entities in the universe.

We are simian, as much as we are human and mammal. So why would we open the third drawer from below and point at the species of humans and declare that only those individuals get basic rights? Why not pointing at other species or other categories such as the class of mammals or the infraorder of simians? None of the many definitions of biological species (e.g. referring to the possibility of interbreeding and getting fertile offspring) and none of the many descriptions of biological categories (e.g. referring to genealogy and having common ancestors) contain any information about who should get the right to live or the right not to be abused. Why should basic rights depend on fertility or ancestry? One could argue that having a rational, moral self-consciousness is the morally relevant property to grant someone rights, and that only humans have such a high level of consciousness. Yet some humans, such as babies or mentally disabled humans, have mental capacities not higher than those of some non-human animals such as pigs. Then one could object that most members of the species of humans do have that high level of consciousness. But the same goes for the infraorder of simians: most simians alive today have a rational, moral self-consciousness. So why not pick this infraorder as the criterion for membership of the moral community? One could reply that the species of humans is the smallest biological group whose majority of members have a high level of consciousness, but then we can ask the question why we should pick the smallest and not the largest biological group? A rule to pick the smallest biological group whose majority of members have a high level of consciousness becomes very farfetched and always remains arbitrary. Why pick a biological group and not simply pick the group of individuals who have a rational, moral self-consciousness, excluding mentally disabled humans? In the end it remains arbitrary, because what is the relation between a biological classification and the notion of rights?

Next to vertical arbitrariness, speciesism involves horizontal arbitrariness. After selecting the level of species in the biological hierarchy (i.e. the third drawer from below), you have to select a specific species such as the species of humans. This kind of speciesism where humans are considered central,  is called anthropocentrism. This selection for the human species is arbitrary, because there are many other species and there is no special property that all and only humans have. That means there is no rule that selects the human species as the relevant species.

As explained above, there is one drawer that is unique in the sense that we can follow a rule to select that drawer. Take the drawer that contains only one group that is not empty. This is the top drawer, that contains the group of all entities. So we can avoid arbitrariness by selecting this top drawer (i.e. the highest cardinality), and that means that all entities in the universe equally deserve basic rights. Now the question becomes: what are those basic rights that can be granted to all entities without arbitrary exclusion? One such basic right is the right to bodily autonomy: your body should not be used against your will as a means for someone else’s ends. Of course, if an entity has no consciousness, it has no sense of his or her body. Consider a computer: does its body increase when we plug in some extra hardware? Where does its body end? The same can be said for plants: what is the body of a plant? Consider a clonal colony of aboveground trees that are connected with undergroud roots, such as an aspen colony. If two aboveground trees are connected with one root, we can consider it as one living being, but if we cut the root, are there now two living beings with two bodies? Also, if a plant does not have an organ such as a brain that creates a will, it does not have a will and hence cannot be used against its will. This means that for insentient objects such as computers and plants, the basic right is always automatically respected. The basic right is only non-trivial for sentient beings, because they have a sense of their bodies and they have a will. Similarly, the basic right to have your subjective preferences or well-being fully taken into account in moral considerations, is only non-trivial for sentient beings who have subjective preferences and a well-being.

If we avoid arbitrariness, we end up with some basic rights that should be granted to all entities. These basic rights are only non-trivial for sentient beings. Hence, we derived instead of merely assumed why sentience is important. And now we see that in our world those basic rights are violated. The two biggest violations of those rights occur in food production (i.e. livestock farming and fishing) and in nature (i.e. wild animal suffering). Every year about 70 billion vertebrate land animals and a trillion fish are used against their will as means (food for humans). Similarly, the well-being of wild animals in nature is not fully taken into account in our moral considerations. This results in a lot of harm done to non-human animals.

Some organizations that fight against speciesism are: Animal Ethics and Sentience Institute. Wild Animal Initiative wants to improve the well-being of wild animals. Animal Welfare Funds supports organizations that work on improving the wellbeing and avoiding the suffering of nonhuman animals, especially farmed animals.

Arbitrary geographical area selection: nationalism

When we consider the harm done to humans, probably the biggest harm is caused by nationalism. Nationalism results in a policy of migration restrictions and closed borders. This is harmful in many ways. First, every year more than 1000 refugees and migrants die as a result of the strict immigration policy of the EU (‘Fortress Europe’). Second, migration restriction results in the biggest wage gap among workers: for equal work, workers in low and middle income countries earn three to ten times less than equally capable workers in high income countries. Because of the number of people involved and the size of this global income gap, this is probably the biggest kind of economic injustice worldwide. Third, the global labor market is not in an effective economic market equilibrium. This results in a huge loss of productivity, worth trillions of dollars. Global GDP (world income) could almost double by opening borders. That means that open borders is probably the most effective means of poverty eradication and human development. Both natives in the host countries, migrants and remaining natives in the countries of origin can benefit from migration (the latter can benefit from the remittances send by migrants to their remaining families). Closing borders for immigrants is a kind of harm comparable to stopping job applicants and workers at the gates of companies, or stopping customers at the doors of shops. This restriction of freedom is not only harmful to the job applicant, the worker or the customer, but also to the employer and the shopkeeper.

The policy of closed national borders involves unwanted arbitrariness. There is a hierarchy of administrative or geographical areas: the whole planet or the United Nations at the top, continents at the next level, followed by unions of countries (e.g. the EU), countries, states or provinces, and finally municipalities, counties or towns at the bottom. Between those areas at the same level there are borders, but at most levels, these borders between areas are open. For example in the US, there are open borders between states and municipalities. In the EU, there are open borders between countries. So why should borders be closed at some levels but not at others? Selecting a level in this hierarchy of areas and stating that borders between areas at this level should be closed, is arbitrary.

Next to this vertical arbitrariness, there is horizontal arbitrariness, because the location of the borders is arbitrary. Why is the border between countries A and B here and not there? Why is the border between the US and Mexico not 100 meters more to the north? The historical reasons for these border locations are arbitrary.

There is in fact a third kind of arbitrariness which I call internal arbitrariness. The US border is not fully closed: it is very open for goods, capital and tourists, but very closed for labor migrants and refugees. This distinction is arbitrary: if borders are closed out of fear of terrorists among immigrants, then they should be closed for tourists as well, because there can be terrorists among tourists. If they are closed because some US workers are economically harmed by immigration of workers, borders should be closed for goods as well, because imports of goods can also harm US workers.

Organizations and platforms that support open borders and fight against nationalism, are: Open Borders, Free Migration Project and UNITED for Intercultural Action.

Not helping others because of ineffectiveness

Next to harming others, arbitrariness also disturbs our choices to help others. When helping others, we choose less effective means, which means that we do not help some other individuals as much as we could with our scarce resources.

Arbitrary problem selection

Cause prioritization is an important research area in effective altruism. The problem is that we often choose ineffective means to help others, based on the way how we think about problems or cause areas and divide those problems in subproblems and subsubproblems.

Suppose you have a friend who died of skin cancer, so you want to help patients who have skin cancer by donating money to the Skin Cancer foundation. Skin cancer is your cause area: the problem that you want to solve. Of course, when your friend died of skin cancer, s/he also died of cancer, so why would you not donate to the National Cancer Institute? Or donate to the Chronic Disease Fund, because skin cancer is a chronic disease? You could argue that the National Cancer Institute focuses more on lung cancer, and the Chronic Disease Fund focuses more on cardiovascular diseases, and you want to focus on skin cancer. However, suppose that you find out that your friend died of a specific type of skin cancer, namely melanoma. And suppose that the Skin Cancer Foundation focuses more on other types of skin cancer. Would you now shift your donations towards the Melanoma Foundation? What if there are several types of melanoma? So here we have a vertical arbitrariness: from melanoma at the bottom, to skin cancer, cancer, chronic diseases, diseases and finally all suffering at the top. This is a whole hierarchy of problems. And if you focus on skin cancer, there is horizontal arbitrariness, because there are other types of cancer as well.

An effective altruists asks the question: what is the real reason to donate to a charity such as the skin cancer foundation? Is it because a friend died of skin cancer? In that case, the badness is in the dying. So you want to avoid premature deaths of other people. Your friend cannot be saved by donating to the Skin Cancer Foundation, and if your friend died of lung cancer, you would be equally concerned about that deadly disease. So if you want to prevent premature deaths or save lives, and if you can save more lives by preventing malaria than skin cancers, focusing on malaria is more effective and should be chosen.

Another example: suppose you saw the documentary Blackfish about animal cruelty in the dolphinarium SeaWorld, so you decide to support an animal rights campaign against dolphinaria. However, animal suffering in dolphinaria is part of a bigger problem: animal cruelty for entertainment, which also includes cruelty in animal circuses. And this is part of an even bigger problem: animal cruelty for pleasure, which also includes cruelty in factory farms, where animals are bred for our taste pleasure. In return, this is part of an even bigger problem: animal suffering in general. Why is the campaign against dolphinaria the right level of problem? Why would you not focus on a bigger problem? You could also go a level lower, by focusing only on SeaWorld, because that is what the documentary Blackfish was about.

Again an effective altruists asks what is the real reason to fight against dolphinaria. Is it to reduce the suffering of animals kept in captivity? In that case, doing a campaign to decrease meat consumption with only 0,1% results in a stronger reduction than closing down SeaWorld.

This problem of arbitrary problem selection relates to many cognitive biases. First, there is a zero-risk bias, where you prefer to completely eliminate one specific risk or problem although reducing another bigger risk with a small fraction would result in a greater reduction of overall risk. Suppose deadly disease A affects 1% of people, and vaccine A reduces disease A with 100% (i.e. a complete elimination from 1% to 0%). Deadly disease B on the other hand affects 20% of people, and vaccine B reduces disease B with 10% (from 20% to 18%). You have to choose between either vaccine A or B. Most people prefer vaccine A, because that implies we no longer have to worry about disease A. Problem A is completely solved. Vaccine B appears to be more futile, because you will hardly notice a reduction from 20% to 18%. However, the total reduction of deadly diseases with vaccine B is 2 percentage points (from 21% to 19%), which is twice as high as the total reduction with vaccine A. The choice for vaccine A is irrational: suppose that I didn’t mention the difference between diseases A and B, and you believed that they are both the same disease Z which affects 21% of the population. Then you would prefer vaccine B. Or suppose that we find out that disease B has two types: diseases B1 and B2. Vaccine B completely eliminates disease B1 which affected 2% of the population. Again you would now prefer vaccine B.

A related cognitive bias is futility thinking (explained by Peter Unger in Living High and Letting Die which also has some experimental evidence). Suppose intervention A helps 1000 of 3000 people in need, which means 33% of the affected population are saved. Intervention B helps 2000 of another 100.000 people, so 2% of this other affected population are saved. In absolute numbers, intervention B is twice as effective, but a 2% reduction of the problem B seems more futile than a 33% reduction of problem A. Here again we have a hierarchy of affected populations. We can consider the total population of affected people, i.e. the 103.000 people together. Or we can consider a subpopulation affected by problem B, namely the 2000 people that are saved. Now intervention B helps 100% of this affected population. Compared to intervention B, intervention A seems more futile.

Next we have the certainty effect, which is a version of Allais paradox. Suppose there are two policies: with policy A everyone receives 1000€, so there is a certain benefit. Policy B gives 3000€ arbitrarily to 50% of the population, and the other part receives nothing. Everyone has a 50% probability of receiving 3000€. Although the total received benefit is higher for policy B (3000 times 50% is higher than 1000 times 100%), this seems less fair and more risky than policy A, so a lot of people prefer policy A. However, suppose the population is a subpopulation of a country: there are in fact ten regions in that country, and only one of those regions is arbitrarily chosen for the policy. So now only 10% of people receive 1000€ with policy A, whereas policy B distributes 3000€ to 5% of the population. Now for many people the preference for policy A becomes less clear.

A strategy within effective altruism to avoid these cognitive biases and arbitrary problem selection that makes us less effective, is to start with considering the whole problem first. The whole problem can be suffering or loss of well-being. Next we can focus on human suffering or animal suffering. Within human suffering, we can look for the most effective ways to alleviate extreme poverty or prevent serious diseases.

Arbitrary problem selection also relates to another group of cognitive biases that involve time. Time inconsistency is a cognitive bias where preferences can change over time in inconsistent ways. Do you prefer to save one person today or two people next year? If saving a person is something like receiving money, most people discount the future and prefer to receive one dollar today or save a person today instead of receiving two dollars or saving two people next year. The inconsistency arises because for most people, this is not the same dilemma as the choice between saving one person ten years from now versus two persons eleven years from now. In this second choice, people prefer to save the two persons.

Similarly, presentism is a moral theory that says it is better to help people who are alive today than to help people in the far future. We can see the arbitrariness by looking at time intervals. We can divide time in intervals spanning e.g. one day, or 100 years, or a million years. If you are a presentist, you have to ask the question: do you help people who are alive today, or alive this year, or alive this century? Choosing a specific time interval always involves arbitrariness. Next to this vertical arbitrariness, there is horizontal arbitrariness: suppose you prefer to help people who are alive this century. Why this century and not the next, or the 28th century? There are so many centuries to choose.

The only way to avoid this time inconsistency and time arbitrariness when it comes to helping others, is to take the long-term perspective, i.e. consider the whole future. The whole future contains only one time interval, so there is no horizontal arbitrariness. Because of this time impartiality, within the effective altruism community there is a big focus on improving long-term outcomes.

Arbitrary project selection

After selecting a problem that we want to solve, we have to find effective ways to solve it. The problem is that some kind of arbitrariness can sneak in our choices of projects or interventions. A project consists of subprojects and subsubprojects. This relates to the cognitive bias of narrow bracketing, explored by Rabin and Weiszäcker, where people evaluate decisions separately. This results in inconsistent preferences and a choice for less effective means.

Consider two dilemmas. Dilemma 1 gives you a choice between option A, saving 4 lives and option B, a 50% probability of saving 10 lives and a 50% probability of saving no-one. When it comes to saving lives, many people are risk averse, which means they prefer the first option: a certainty to save 4 lives instead of a risky bet to save 10 lives.

Next, we have dilemma 2 that gives you a choice between option C, losing 4 lives and option D, a 50% probability of losing 10 lives and a 50% probability of losing no-one. According to prospect theory, this framing in terms of lives lost or people died, results in a risk seeking attitude: people prefer the risky bet that gives a possibility to lose no-one.

When we consider the two dilemmas separately, there is no conflict between risk aversion in the first dilemma and risk seeking in the second. But suppose those two dilemmas are in fact two parts of one quadrilemma: a choice between four options. Let’s look at the combination of the two dilemmas. Option AC means saving 0 lives. Option AD means losing 6 lives with 50% probability and saving 4 lives with 50% probability. Option BC gives 50% of losing 4 lives and 50% of saving 6 lives. Option BD gives 50% of saving 0 lives, 25% of losing 10 lives and 25% of saving 10 lives. Most people prefer A above B, and D above C, so they should prefer AD above BC. However, option BC is clearly better than option AD.

Every project involves some risky outcomes. And to solve a problem such as people dying, several projects can be combined into a big project, or be split into several smaller projects. This creates a vertical hierarchy of projects and subprojects, or decisions and subdecisions. To avoid arbitrariness, we should look at the top level: the total project or the sum of all our decisions.

For an effective altruist, his or her total project is what he or she does over the course of his or her life. That includes all the decisions. That means an effective altruist should not set time specific targets such as helping at least one person every year (or donating at least 1000€ to a charity every year), because if that is easier, it might be better to help no-one in the first year and three people in the second year. A yearly target is arbitrary, because one could equally set another target to help ten people every decennium. The bigger the time interval, the more flexible you can choose the best opportunities to help the most people. It might be better to spend a few years doing nothing but looking for the most important problems and the most effective means to solve them. This seems like a waste of time because you do not help anyone during those years. However, after those years, due to this research, you can be much more effective in helping others. That is why effective altruists spend a lot of time doing research and cause prioritization.

Similarly, for the effective altruism community, the total project consists of all the decisions made by all effective altruists over the whole future. Suppose each of ten effective altruists has to make a decision for a project or intervention. They can follow two strategies. First, they can all choose the same project that has a certain but small altruistic return on investment. With this project, each of the ten effective altruists saves one life for sure. A second strategy is to become more risk neutral: they can choose projects that have a 10% probability of success, and if such a project succeeds, it saves 100 people. Nine out of those ten effective altruists will choose a project that most likely saves no-one. But one of those ten effective altruists will win the jackpot: that project saves 100 lives. Looking at the community of those ten effective altruists together: according to the first strategy they saved 10 people, according to the second they saved 100 people.

For an effective altruist it doesn’t matter who is the lucky winner who chose the effective high-impact project. All that matters is how many lives are saved by the community. This means that an effective altruist should become more risk neutral instead of risk averse. With a risk neutral attitude, an effective altruist is willing to take more high risk high impact decisions.

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Non-human overpopulation is the real problem

It is often claimed – especially by environmentalists – that there is a human overpopulation problem: there are too many humans, or the number of humans is growing too rapidly. I will argue for the controversial, opposite claim. Of all animal populations on this planet, the human population is perhaps the only population that is not overpopulated. The non-human animals, on the other hand, face a real overpopulation problem. The claim that there is a human overpopulation problem, and that non-human wild animals do not have this overpopulation problem, is very far from the truth.

Defining overpopulation

Let’s analyze this claim about human overpopulation. How can we know whether there is an overpopulation? Overpopulation is defined as a population that is too big or grows too fast. A crucial word in this definition, is the word ‘too’. This word makes the definition ambiguous and vague, so we must be more precise. It is a normative concept: it refers to something bad. If we think about overpopulation as a problem, what kind of bad things are we really thinking about?

Traffic jams or long rows at the cash desks in the supermarkets are not the real issue here. When people are worried about overpopulation, they are thinking about more serious issues, such as death and disease. They expect increased levels of mass-starvation, new pandemic diseases, more war and violence, a collapse of civilization. This all comes down to: a lot of people dying at a young age, because of a lack of resources (e.g. food or shelter) or increased negative externalities (e.g. pollution or contagious diseases), such that the population size will suddenly decrease by say more than a factor two (i.e. the size will more than halve).

Before we can answer the question when a population is overpopulated, we need to solve a few more technical details. First, to what does the population size refer to? Suppose there is a planet with a population of extraterrestrial aliens on the northern hemisphere. For the first ten years, those aliens are overexploiting the northern hemisphere, such that its ecosystem completely collapses after ten years. All the aliens at the northern hemisphere die, but in the meantime the southern hemisphere becomes habitable and the same number of new aliens are born there. After ten years of overexploiting the southern hemisphere, the ecosystem collapses, the population dies, but the northern hemisphere becomes habitable again and new, northern aliens are born. According to the above formulation of overpopulation, even if overexploitation results in high premature death rates, the total planet is never overpopulated, because the total alien population remains constant over time. However, there is clearly an overpopulation, when we focus on a single generation of aliens, or all the newborn aliens in a short time period.

Second, overpopulation can refer either to the population size or the population growth rate. When we look at a single generation as the population, there is no growth rate. However, in this case, we can consider the reproduction rate instead of the population growth rate. If too many new individuals are born, there can be overpopulation.

Third, overpopulation is related to the premature death rate: the fraction of a population that dies prematurely. Here, I will define a premature death as either a death before the individual enters reproductive age, or a death before the individual reaches an age equal to half the age of the oldest individual in the population. For example, the oldest human died at an age of 122 years, so for the humans of her generation, I consider a death before the age of 61 years as a premature death.

Considering the above, I will define overpopulation very specifically as a situation where reproduction becomes so large that it results in a lack of resources or increased negative externalities, leading to a premature death rate that is so high or will become so high that the population size of a newborn generation will suddenly decrease with at least a factor two. This definition is very concrete and measurable. If you prefer another definition of overpopulation, then you can come to other conclusions and hence the title of this article can become misleading.

There is no human overpopulation

Now we can finally answer the question: is there a human overpopulation? The fact is: the premature death rate amongst humans is decreasing. Starvation and deadly diseases are decreasing. Also war and violence are decreasing. Roughly 1 in 26 children die before reaching age five. More than three quarters of a newborn generation of humans survive to age 65. Consider the countries with the highest infant mortality rate: Afghanistan, Somalia and the Central African Republic. In those countries, roughly one in ten newborn children die in the first year of their life (i.e. with a lifespan that is hundred times shorter than the life expectancy of a healthy human). This is not yet halving the human populations in those countries: the average life expectancy in those countries is more than 50 years. If such low life expectancy is considered an overpopulation, then the whole world was hugely overpopulated in the 19th century.

What about the future? Can we still feed all humans when we are overexploiting the Earth, when we face climate change, pollution, a nuclear winter after a world war, a super weed, or another catastrophic disaster? Technically speaking, it is possible to feed everyone, even after global catastrophes that destroy crops or block sunlight for years. If you want to help making the future human population more resilient against such extreme catastrophes, you can support an organization like ALLFED: the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters.

There is non-human animal overpopulation

Let’s compare these numbers with the real overpopulation: wild animal populations. In nature, if an animal survives till reproductive age, it can give birth to more than ten and sometimes thousands of offspring. Of course, if all those offspring would survive and reproduce, we would see a huge population growth in nature. Also, almost every adult animal had more than ten siblings. Of course, If all those siblings would still be alive, we would see huge animal populations. The fact is: more than 90% of all the newborn animals die at an early age. The premature death rate amongst wild animal populations is higher than 90%. That is why we don’t see the huge population growth and all the siblings of all those wild animals. Even without human interference in natural environments (even without anthropogenic climate change, pollution, land degradation, deforestation,…), the wild animal premature death rate would be so high.

As mentioned above, every new generation can be considered as a population. If we look at animals, we see that within each population of newborn animals (e.g. the animals born past spring), more than 90% die prematurely. Each population of newborn animals more than halves. Those animals didn’t have enough resources such as food which resulted in starvation and increased levels of competition, and they generated more negative externalities (e.g. infecting each other with deadly diseases). Looking at the population of fish for example, we see that resource scarcity resulted in predation, where some fish eat other fish in order to survive. Looking at the definition of overpopulation, it becomes clear that non-human animals are clearly overpopulated. It is an eternal overpopulation, like the alien planet, where each new generation is drastically thinned out.

What about the growth rate? Humans are a unique population, because they have a fertility rate of 2,4 children per woman, reaching 2 by the end of the century. No other animal population achieves this. It means human population growth will stop. Non-human animals on the other hand, have very high fertility rates: an adult female animal can give birth to more than ten offspring, and only a few of those offspring survive to adulthood.

These high fertility rates are the real overpopulation problem. This reproductive strategy of wild animals is the root cause of most of wild animal suffering. So if you are concerned about the real overpopulation problem, you could support Wild Animal Initiative to look for safe and effective means to intervene in nature to improve long-term animal welfare.

The problems with spreading the human overpopulation myth

Believing that there is a human overpopulation problem can be dangerous, because of several reasons. First, it can set the wrong priorities. Environmentalists who worry about human overpopulation put more focus on immigration restrictions and birth control measures, trying to convince people to have fewer children, instead of focusing on sustainable production and consumption.

Second, it can result in drastic, coercive measures that violate the right to bodily autonomy of women. People who warned about human overpopulation sometimes proposed means such as forced sterilization, which happened in some regions such as India.

Third, it can also decrease support for development aid. People who worry about overpopulation sometimes claim that saving lives of people in poor countries is not good because those poor countries face high levels of population growth and fertility rates. However, the area that has the highest fertility rate, Sub-Saharan Africa, is currently sparsely populated compared to highly developed regions such as Western-Europe. The population density of Sub-Saharan Africa is 50 people/km², which is almost four times lower than Western-Europe with 180 people/km². Even when its population is projected to be quadrupled by the end of the century, its population density will still be comparable to current Western-Europe.

What I am not saying

The claim that non-human animals are overpopulated cannot be used as an argument to destroy nature or harm wild animals. I am not saying that we should decrease the population sizes of wild animals. We should improve wild animal welfare and strive towards a world where each animal has on average one offspring that gets a long happy life. (And in the very far future, when all humans and animals could have quasi infinitely long lifespans, the average number of offspring per female animal should be close to one.)

Personal statement as a final remark

In the past I have often communicated about the human overpopulation problem, and I supported campaigns against human overpopulation. After thinking more critically about this issue, and learning about the problem of wild animal suffering, I changed my mind. Although I still support voluntary family planning because it has several benefits, human overpopulation is no longer a reason to support it.

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Morele illusies, effectief altruïsme en dierenleed

Dit artikel verscheen ook op http://snakeshusband.nl/effectief-altruisme/

Morele illusies

Stel dat je een hond ziet verdrinken in een vijver. Spring je in het water om hem te redden? Waarschijnlijk wel, omdat het redden van die hond een van de meest zingevende ervaringen van je leven gaat zijn. Maar als je daarbij je portefeuille verliest? Zou je achteraf spijt hebben dat je 10 euro hebt verloren? Of heb je 100 euro over om die hond te redden?

We zijn bereid om een behoorlijk bedrag op te offeren voor het redden van een hond die we zien verdrinken. Maar wat als we met datzelfde bedrag veel dieren kunnen helpen, door het geld te doneren aan een goed doel voor dieren? Maakt het uit of de dieren die je helpt honden zijn, of mogen het ook varkens of kippen zijn? Als het je niet te doen is om willekeurige lichaamsbouw of genetische afstamming, maar wel om het welzijn van dat wezen dat graag geholpen wil worden, dan tellen alle dieren mee en is het onderscheid tussen hond en varken irrelevant. Maakt het uit of je het slachtoffer kent, of je het slachtoffer voor je ogen kunt zien zoals bij de hond die verdrinkt? Voor de dieren die je helpt maakt het niets uit of jij hen kent of niet. Dus dan tellen onbekende dieren ver weg ook mee. Maakt het uit dat je bij het redden van die hond een euforisch gevoel krijgt, terwijl het overschrijven van een bedrag aan een goed doel, dus het intypen van wat gegevens op de website van een dierenorganisatie, niet zo bijzonder aanvoelt? Als je het niet zomaar doet voor je eigen warme gevoelens maar vooral voor de gevoelens van de dieren die je helpt, dan maakt ook dat niet uit.

Het probleem is dat als het gaat om het helpen van mensen, honden en andere dieren, we misleid worden door morele illusies. Net zoals we vatbaar zijn voor optische illusies, zo maakt ons morele brein spontane denkfouten en hebben we buikgevoelens die ervoor zorgen dat we niet altijd de meest effectieve keuzes maken bij het helpen van anderen.

Een hardnekkige morele illusie is speciesisme, een vorm van discriminatie waarbij enkel dieren van bepaalde soorten (bv. de mensensoort) behoren tot de morele gemeenschap. Het beperken van rechten tot enkel mensen, is ongewenste willekeur, want waarom die focus op mensen en niet op bijvoorbeeld smalneusapen? Jij en ik zijn minstens zo goed smalneusaap als dat we mens zijn (want mensen vormen een deelverzameling van smalneusapen). We zijn ook primaat, zoogdier,… Waarom zouden rechten enkel van toepassing zijn op mensen, en niet enkel op blanken zoals bij racisme, of op smalneusapen, op primaten, op zoogdieren,…? Mensenrechten zijn dus eigenlijk even (on)zinnig als smalneusaaprechten. Alle argumenten die je kunt bedenken om enkel aan mensen rechten te geven, gelden even goed voor smalneusapen. Bijvoorbeeld: omdat enkel mensen een rationeel-moreel denkvermogen hebben? Ook de smalneusapen hebben dat vermogen. Natuurlijk niet alle smalneusapen, maar ook niet alle mensen. Of omdat de meeste mensen wel het concept van rechten kunnen begrijpen? Ook de meeste smalneusapen (ongeveer 7 miljard van de pakweg 8 miljard smalneusapen die nu leven) kunnen dat.

Trouwens, dat onderscheid tussen soorten is eigenlijk een fictie. Kijken we naar de evolutie op aarde, dan zien we dat alle tussenvormen tussen jou en een hedendaagse kip ooit hebben bestaan op deze planeet. Stel dat jij helemaal links staat, daarnaast je moeder, je grootmoeder, enzovoort, tot aan een heel verre over-over-over… grootmoeder bijna 500 miljoen jaar geleden: een lobvinnige longvis, het eerste gewervelde dier dat aan land kwam. Zij is niet alleen jouw voorouder, maar ook die van de kippen. Dus dan kunnen we de genetische stamboom afgaan tot aan een kip. Helemaal links sta jij, helemaal rechts staat een kip, en daartussen staan alle tussenvormen. Jouw moeder staat dus een stapje dichter bij een kip. Nergens in die rij kun je een overgrootmoeder aanduiden die mens was, wiens moeder geen mens was. Er is dus geen scherpe grens tussen mensen links en niet-mensen rechts, net zoals je ook niet kunt zeggen vanaf hoeveel zandkorreltjes we spreken van een zandhoop. Hoe kun je dan bepalen welke wezens in die rij nu mensenrechten krijgen?

Naast onze voorouders zijn er ook kruisingen tussen soorten: leeuw-tijgers, lama-kamelen, orka-dolfijnen en de bekende paard-ezels (muilezels). En er zijn chimeren: een deel van het lichaam is bijvoorbeeld volledig schaap, met schapen-DNA, een ander deel is geit. Hoe kun je bepalen of een mens-dier kruising of chimeer mensenrechten krijgt? Conclusie: het onderscheid tussen soorten is niet moreel relevant.

In de ethiek passen we traditioneel de volgende methode toe: we vertrekken van een verzameling van fundamentele rechten en gaan ons dan afvragen wie die rechten krijgen. Dan zien we een uitbreiding van de morele gemeenschap: eerst enkel onze stamgenoten, dan onze etnische groep (bv. het blanke ras), dan alle mensen. Maar waarom niet andere wezens? Om ongewenste willekeur te vermijden, kunnen we de omgekeerde strategie volgen: we vertrekken van de voorwaarde dat werkelijk alles en iedereen tot de morele gemeenschap behoort, zonder willekeurige uitzonderingen, en stellen ons dan de vraag welke fundamentele rechten we kunnen toekennen aan alles en iedereen.

Een interessante kandidaat die we kunnen toekennen aan alles, is een recht op lichamelijke zelfbeschikking, het idee dat jouw lichaam van jou is en dat anderen niet jouw lichaam tegen jouw wil in mogen gebruiken als middel voor hun eigen doelen. Dat recht geldt voor alles en iedereen, inclusief voor planten en computers. Maar hoewel planten en computers complexe dingen kunnen doen, hebben ze geen bewustzijn. Jij hebt een besef van je lichaam, wat tot jouw lichaam behoort, waar jouw lichaam eindigt en de rest van de wereld begint, maar een computer heeft dat besef niet. En jij hebt een subjectieve wil, maar een plant – volgens de moderne wetenschap – vermoedelijk niet.  Dus gebruik je een plant of computer, dan gebruik je die nooit tegen hun wil in. Je respecteert dus altijd vanzelf hun recht op lichamelijke zelfbeschikking, zelfs al zou je de plant opeten. Enkel voor wezens die een gevoelsmatige wil en een besef van hun eigen lichaam hebben, is dat fundamentele recht niet zomaar voldaan. Als we deze redenering doortrekken, dan komen we logisch gezien uit bij veganisme: een diervrije voeding, want bij dierlijke producten worden lichamen van voelende wezens gebruikt op manieren die ze niet willen.

Effectief altruïsme

Om zo effectief mogelijk anderen te helpen, is er een tiental jaar geleden een sterk groeiende mondiale beweging van effectief altruïsme ontstaan. Kenmerkend aan het effectief altruïsme is dat ze gebruik maakt van wetenschappelijk bewijs en analytisch-kritisch denken om zoveel mogelijk goeds te doen. Omdat dieren in nood ook een bewustzijn hebben en geholpen willen worden, buigt het effectief altruïsme zich ook over de vraag hoe we zo effectief mogelijk dierenwelzijn kunnen bevorderen en dierenleed vermijden.

Nu kunnen we onderzoek doen naar de kosteneffectiviteit van dierenorganisaties of specifieke projecten om dieren te helpen: hoeveel kost het om een dier te redden of om een dier een leven vol miserie te sparen? Voor de komst van het effectief altruïsme, was daar geen zicht op. Maar sinds enkele jaren zijn er organisaties zoals Animal Charity Evaluators die dergelijk onderzoek doen. En de resultaten zijn verbluffend: telkens blijkt dat een kleine minderheid van projecten of organisaties veel meer goeds kunnen realiseren dan de grote meerderheid. Misschien kun je met 1000 euro een paar honden en katten in een dierenasiel helpen, maar met datzelfde bedrag zou je duizenden dieren de dood kunnen besparen, als je het bijvoorbeeld geeft aan organisaties die het effectiefst actie voeren voor een diervrije voeding. Hoe komt dat?

De effectiviteit van een organisatie kunnen we inschatten aan de hand van drie parameters. Ten eerste: hoe groot is het probleem waarop ze focust? Het aantal dieren dat gebruikt wordt en sterft in de veeteelt en visserij, is meer dan honderd keer groter dan het aantal dieren in de bontindustrie, in dierenasielen of in dierenlaboratoria. Dus als je met een campagne erin zou slagen om de veeteelt met slechts een paar procent terug te dringen, is dat voor de dieren hetzelfde als wanneer je alle bont, dierencircussen en dierproeven zou verbieden.

En binnen de veeteelt kun je nog prioriteiten leggen. Voor de productie van een portie (100 gram) kaas of rood vlees, moet een dier (een varken of koe) gemiddeld genomen ongeveer vijf uur negatieve ervaringen lijden in omstandigheden die je je hond of kat nooit zou toewensen. Maar voor een even grote portie eieren of kippenvlees, moet een kip ongeveer twee dagen afzien. Met andere woorden: eet je een klein beetje minder eieren of kippenvlees, dan is dat het equivalent als alle kaas en rood vlees van je menu schrappen. Ook vegetariërs moeten voorzichtig zijn: sommige vleesvervangers bevatten kippenei-eiwit. Daar zijn veel eieren voor nodig. Zo kunnen we berekenen dat een portie vleesvervanger met ei overeenkomt met pakweg tien uur dierenleed. Als je dus rood vlees vervangt door zo’n vleesvervanger, dan kan het dierenleed op aarde zelfs toenemen. Daarom is het beter om te kiezen voor eivrije veganistische vleesvervangers. En vis op het bord is misschien het ergste: meer dan tien dagen leed per portie, onder andere in de aquacultuur. Dus een organisatie die focust op minder pluimveeteelt en visconsumptie, kan het meeste goeds realiseren.

Een tweede parameter, naast de grootte van het probleem, is de hanteerbaarheid: hoe gemakkelijk is het probleem op te lossen. Een onoplosbaar probleem trachten op te lossen zal niet effectief zijn. Voor het probleem van dierenleed in de veeteelt hebben we concrete oplossingen, namelijk diervrije voedingsalternatieven. We hebben de klassieke veganistische vleesvervangers, en het diervrij vlees (kweekvlees) is volop in ontwikkeling. Dat kweekvlees heeft dezelfde samenstelling als dierlijk vlees, maar er wordt geen dier voor gebruikt. In tegenstelling tot dierlijk vlees van slachthuizen wordt het diervrij vlees in de meest hygiënische omstandigheden geproduceerd, dus zonder risico op schadelijke bacteriën. Daarom noemt men het ook ‘clean meat’. Ook ei zonder kip en melk zonder koe worden ontwikkeld, omdat die producten op termijn veel efficiënter en milieuvriendelijker geproduceerd kunnen worden dan de dierlijke varianten.

De derde parameter om de effectiviteit in te schatten, is de verwaarloosdheid: hoeveel aandacht gaat al naar het probleem? Meer dan de helft van alle donaties voor dierenorganisaties gaat naar dierenasielen, die daarmee slechts een beperkt aantal dieren kunnen helpen. Slechts een paar procent van het geld gaat naar organisaties die effectief de veeteelt aanpakken door bijvoorbeeld diervrije voeding te promoten. Die organisaties hebben veel meer ruimte voor extra fondsen.

Deze drie parameters samen verklaren waarom de ene organisatie pakweg duizend keer effectiever kan zijn dan vele andere organisaties. Wil je ook de meest effectieve dierenorganisaties steunen, kijk dan naar Animal Charity Evaluators of naar het Effective Altruism Animal Welfare Fund.

Dierenleed in de natuur

Als het je niet uitmaakt welke dieren je wil helpen, en waar ze leven, dan is er nog een ander probleem dat nog veel groter is en sterker verwaarloosd is dan de veeteelt: het dierenleed in de natuur. Dieren lijden door ziektes, verhongering, parasieten, predatoren, wonden, giftige steken,… Het leed van wilde dieren in de vrije natuur kreeg helemaal geen aandacht, totdat de effectief altruïsmebeweging daar verandering in bracht. Het is natuurlijk ook een groot probleem, want het aantal dieren in de wilde natuur is veel groter dan in de veeteelt.

De grootschaligheid van het probleem kunnen we begrijpen door te kijken naar de voortplantingsstrategie van zowat alle diersoorten. Mensen zijn vrij uniek: een koppel geeft geboorte aan ongeveer twee kinderen, die allebei in redelijk goede gezondheid kunnen uitgroeien tot voorbij hun volwassen, reproductieve leeftijd. In de ergste regio’s in Afrika sterft maximum een kind op zes. In de natuur is dat een pak hoger. We denken dat het wel meevalt met het dierenwelzijn in de natuur, want in het park horen we vogels fluiten. Maar elke fluitende vogel heeft pakweg een tiental broertjes en zusjes gehad die we nu niet meer zien: ze zijn als pasgeboren kuikentjes snel gestorven door ziektes of honger, en opgegeten door wormen of roofdieren. In het nest van pasgeboren vogeltjes kan er slechts een overleven. Als een volwassen dier geboorte geeft aan honderd kleintjes, kunnen er daarvan slechts een paar overleven. In hun korte leventje zullen ze niet veel positieve ervaringen hebben gehad: als een baby sterft, dan kun je verwachten dat ze leefde in vijandige omgeving die veel leed veroorzaakte. Als meer dan 90% van de baby’s zou sterven, als door hongersnood, ziekte of geweld de mensenpopulatie zou worden gedecimeerd, dan spreken we van een catastrofale noodsituatie of genocide. Maar elke nieuwe generatie van elke dierenpopulatie in de wilde natuur wordt gedecimeerd. Alsof de natuur constant een genocide of overbevolkingsprobleem kent. We kunnen de natuur dus eerder beschouwen als een ‘failed state’ die allesbehalve in staat is om het welzijn van haar inwoners te garanderen.

De vraag is natuurlijk in hoeverre het probleem oplosbaar is. Voorlopig hebben we maar heel beperkte manieren om wilde dieren te helpen, met bijvoorbeeld vaccins, immunocontraceptie en diervrij vlees voor predatoren. Net zoals we duizend jaar geleden niet wisten hoe we ziektes konden genezen, weten we nu nog niet hoe we wilde dieren op een effectieve en veilige manier kunnen helpen. Men kan de mensen duizend jaar geleden niet verwijten dat ze geen ziektes konden genezen, maar wat ze toen al wel hadden kunnen doen, is beginnen met wetenschappelijk onderzoek naar ziektebestrijding. Het heeft nog een paar honderd jaren geduurd vooraleer ze onderzoek begonnen doen, en dat is heel veel verloren tijd. Die fout hoeven we nu niet meer te maken als het gaat om het bestrijden van dierenleed: we kunnen nu reeds onderzoek beginnen doen in de zogenaamde welzijnsbiologie: een academische onderzoeksdiscipline die onderzoekt hoe we op veilige en doeltreffende manieren kunnen ingrijpen in de natuur om dierenwelzijn te bevorderen, om te doen wat de dieren zelf het liefste willen.

Het grootste obstakel is niet ons gebrek aan technologische vernuft of wetenschappelijke vindingrijkheid, maar het zijn onze morele illusies die ons misleiden en verhinderen om dergelijk onderzoek te starten. Zelfs veel dierenactivisten staan afkerig tegenover het idee om te onderzoeken hoe we kunnen ingrijpen in de natuur. Ze denken dat ingrijpen in de natuur een schending is van de autonomie van dieren, maar een muis dat gevangen is in de bek van een roofvogel, verliest alle autonomie. Ze denken dat ingrijpen een schending is van de ongereptheid, integriteit of natuurlijkheid van de natuur. Maar noch de natuur zelf, noch de dieren in de natuur zijn geïnteresseerd in ongereptheid. Ze hebben geen besef van wat integriteit is. Noch de natuur, noch de dieren waarderen natuurlijkheid. Het zijn onze eigen waarden die we opleggen of projecteren op de natuur en die we laten domineren boven de waarde waar de dieren wel in geïnteresseerd zijn, namelijk hun welzijn. Het is een arrogante schending van de autonomie van dieren om te zeggen dat onze waarden van ongereptheid of natuurlijkheid primeren boven hun waarde van welzijn. Het is alsof een museum afbrandt en je de keuze hebt tussen het redden van een schilderij of een kind. Het schilderij interesseert zich niet in schoonheid, maar het kind heeft wel een belang om vlammen te vermijden. Kies je het schilderij, dan laat je jouw waarde van schoonheid primeren boven essentiëlere waarden van het kind.

Dierenactivisten denken ten onrechte dat er zoiets bestaat als een natuurlijk evenwicht en dat in dergelijk evenwicht het dierenwelzijn maximaal is. Maar dat evenwicht is het resultaat van blinde evolutionaire processen die niet bekommerd zijn om welzijn. Waarom zou het huidige niveau van competitie in de natuur het optimale niveau zijn? Ze denken dat het zinloos is om in de natuur in te grijpen, maar slechts een daling van dierenleed in de natuur met enkele procenten heeft al een grotere impact dan de afschaffing van de veeteelt. Ze denken dat we niet moeten ingrijpen omdat we niet verantwoordelijk zijn voor het leed veroorzaakt door de natuur, maar veganistische dierenactivisten zijn zelf ook niet verantwoordelijk voor het leed in de veeteelt en toch vinden ze dat we daar iets aan moeten doen. Ze vinden dat we een onderscheid moeten maken tussen leed veroorzaakt door mensen en leed veroorzaakt door de natuur, en dat de eerste vorm van leed immoreler is, maar dit is een speciesistisch onderscheid, omdat het een regel is die expliciet verwijst naar mensen en dat onderscheid willekeurig is. Ook bij talrijke andere bezwaren tegen het ingrijpen in de natuur, gebruiken veel dierenactivisten nog speciesistische argumenten. Dit toont aan dat speciesisme een hardnekkige morele illusie is, net zoals optische illusies heel hardnekkig kunnen zijn.

Wil je ook de dieren in de wilde natuur helpen door onderzoek te steunen, neem dan een kijkje bij Wild-Animal Suffering Research.

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The effectiveness and ethics of unconditional cash transfers


As a means of poverty reduction, cash transfer programs are strongly increasing in the past two decades (Fiszbein & Shady, 2009; Bastagli, Hagen-Zanker, Harman, Barca, Sturge & Schmidt, 2016). Of those programs, the unconditional cash transfers (UCTs) are gaining in importance: some 130 low- and middle-income countries have at least one UCT program (Bastagli e.a. 2016). Charities like GiveDirectly, recommended by charity evaluator GiveWell (2018a), also contribute to the influence of UCTs in development economics.

In contrast to conditional cash transfers (CCTs), unconditional transfers do not require any predetermined development choices by the receiving households, such as health check-ups, vaccinations or school enrollment. The household can do with the money whatever they want, and they receive the money without conditions.

In this article, I discuss both the effectiveness and ethics of UCTs. Are they efficient and equitable? What are the advantages and disadvantages compared to other development programs? I will argue why in particular rich donors in developed countries have important reasons to finance UCTs in poor countries.


Based on several recent randomized controlled trials (e.g. Haushofer & Shapiro, 2013, 2016) and literature reviews (Bastagli e.a., 2016; Fiszbein & Shady, 2009; Lagarde, Haines, & Palmer, 2009), there is a lot of empirical evidence of positive effects of cash transfers on poor households and communities. The reviews (mostly based on CCT-studies, but also some UCTs) show improvements of education, health, nutrition, income, employment, productive investment, psychological well-being and female empowerment. There is no significant evidence for work disincentive effects or inflationary effects. And the cash transfers have negative effects on child labor, domestic (physical) violence and unwanted pregnancies.

Although the difference in effectiveness in terms of child health and schooling between CCTs and UCTs is weak (Akresh, De Walque & Kazianga, 2013; Robertson e.a., 2013), UCTs have some advantage: they require low administrative (overhead) costs, because they require less monitoring. Monitoring of conditional cash transfer programs such as Progresa in Mexico often increases the administrative costs with more than 20% (Caldés, Coady & Maluccio, 2006). The empirical evidence for cost-effectiveness of UCTs is the reason why GiveWell, an influential charity evaluator in the new effective altruism movement, considers UCTs as one of their priority programs (GiveWell, 2018b).

Due to the simplicity and measurable effectiveness of a UCT program, this program can be used as a benchmark for future studies that measure and compare the effectiveness of different interventions. One recent example is a randomized controlled trial (RCT) in Rwanda that compares an integrated nutrition and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) program with a UCT (McIntosh & Zeitlin, 2018). Neither the nutrition-WASH program, nor the cost-equivalent UCT program showed significant improvements on child growth, dietary diversity, anemia, household consumption and wealth. The only positive impacts were an increase in household savings for the first program and an increase in productive and consumption assets for the second program.

The comparative RCT in Rwanda did show another important result: when the direct cash transfers are large enough (i.e. larger than the costs of the WASH program), improvements can be seen on nutrition, child growth, child mortality, savings and assets. This result is important because we can expect that UCTs have a lot of room for more funding: due to exchangeability of money, those programs have a lower diminishing marginal returns compared to other programs. For example, doubling an investment for community health clubs or latrines not necessarily doubles the health outcomes. But doubling the cash transfer amount could double its impact.

Although the abovementioned benefits in terms of effectiveness, low overhead costs and room for more funding, UCTs also have some disadvantages. First, there are the opportunity costs: UCTs can divert investments away from other programs. In particular, when local governments finance UCT programs, it can result in an underinvestment in public goods. Cash transfers are directed at households who are mainly concerned about their own private utility, and less about external costs and benefits, resulting in a market failure (Rosen & Gayer, 2005). For example, parents might underestimate the positive societal externalities of education and hence underinvest in (especially girl) education. Furthermore, poor households can have imperfect information, resulting in poor consumption and investment choices (Fiszbein & Shady, 2009). Hence, especially in regions with imperfect information or where public goods, education and health are highly underfunded or not subsidized, UCTs should not be seen as the one and only solution to target poverty, but as complementary programs, next to other development programs. Sometimes conditional cash transfers might be more effective than UCTs, especially when there are large expected positive externalities of improved education and health (Fiszbein & Shady, 2009). But in areas lacking educational and health facilities, conditioning cash transfers on health check-ups or school enrollment will be ineffective without simultaneous investment in these education and health sectors.

Finally, to conclude this section about disadvantages of UCTs, there is evidence based on a RCT that UCTs can have negative psychological externalities (Haushofer, Reisinger, & Shapiro, 2015). In particular, life satisfaction may strongly decrease for neighboring households who did not receive a cash transfer. Further research is required, but these negative externalities of envy can probably be remedied by giving everyone in the community who falls below a poverty threshold a cash transfer, and by providing relevant information to the community why some households get a cash transfer.


Next to the effectiveness (the costs and benefits) of UCTs, we can look at ethical considerations.

A first benefit of a UCT is that it respects the autonomy of the receiver. In other words, for those donors who value autonomy more than other measures of well-being, such as household income or health, UCTs can be supported, even when they happen to be less effective.

Next, from a utilitarian point of view, rich people may have a duty to donate money to the poorest people, because of the law of diminishing marginal utility of money (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2002; Gossen, 1854). The more money you have, the less valuable is an extra amount of money. When a poor person receives an extra dollar, his or her well-being can improve as much as when a rich person receives hundred dollars. Or in other words, when a rich person donates one dollar to a poor person, he or she can improve the well-being of that poor person with a factor hundred compared to his own well-being.

A third argument why rich people may have a duty to finance UCTs for the poorest people, is that those cash transfers can be (partially) considered as a compensation fee to pay for damages done to poor communities. Let me give three examples: the use of natural resources, the place premium and the emission of greenhouse gases.

As Wenar (2008) argued, our international trade system involves trade in stolen goods. From a fairness point of view, we can say that everyone deserves an equal share of the world’s natural resources. Valuable minerals and raw materials in developing countries should belong to the local communities, but as a resource curse, those natural resources are often taken by force from the local communities. Local dictators and warlords steal the raw materials and sell them on the international market. Rich consumers buy stolen goods when they buy consumer products that contain those materials. Hence, those rich consumers have a duty to pay the poorest people a compensation fee for those stolen goods.

A second example is the place premium due to our global system of closed borders and migration restrictions (Clemens, Montenegro & Pritchett, 2008). Rich countries restrict their levels of immigration. As a result, the global labor market is not in equilibrium and there is a huge efficiency loss. When poor migrants are allowed to migrate to the places with higher labor productivities, their wages can drastically increase. According to some models, open borders and free migration could almost double global GDP (Clemens, 2011). A policy of closed borders means people in poor countries are harmed, by pressing down their wages. It is as if those poor people are prohibited to work at a higher paying factory.

Third, the high emissions of greenhouse gases can be considered as stealing emission permits from the poorest people. Suppose a global system of emission permits (a cap-and-trade system) was established, where every person receives an equal amount of permits. If those emission permits could be traded, their expected price could be close to $100 per ton of CO2 in 2018 (based on the high damage scenario under random estimated climate sensitivity in Dietz & Stern, 2014). The poorest people, who do not emit much CO2, could sell their permits to the richer people. An absence of such a trading scheme is equivalent to the situation where the emission permits of the poorest people are stolen. For example, if a rich person emits 10 tons of CO2 above a fair share, that person has to buy emission permits worth $1000 from the poorest people who have lower emissions than the fair share.

To conclude this section, let us now study some ethical considerations that plead against UCTs. First, if cash transfers are paid by local governments (instead of international donors), then perhaps conditional transfers are better than UCTs for political economy reasons, in particular when it comes to support by local tax payers (Fiszbein & Shady, 2009, p59).

Second, UCTs can result in a higher consumption and investments of goods with large negative externalities. The receiving households did not increase their spending on temptation goods such as alcohol or tobacco (Haushofer & Shapiro, 2013). But about 12% of the cash transfers goes to investments in livestock (Haushofer & Shapiro, 2013, p30). And the receiving households increased their consumption of more expensive foods such as meat, fish and dairy: the food expenditure elasticity of those animal products is larger than 2, which means a 1% increase in household income results in more than 2% increase in the consumption of those food products (Haushofer & Shapiro, 2013, p26). The problem is that animal products have large negative externalities for those who value the environment and animal welfare. Animal products have a high environmental footprint (Aleksandrowicz e.a. 2016; Clark & Tilman, 2017; Poore & Nemecek, 2018) and a high moral footprint (Saja, 2013). Although the context in poor countries is different from the factory farms in developed countries, the consumption and production of animal products in poor countries might still have a high moral footprint and hence worsen animal welfare. This ethical consideration can be remedied when rich donors of UCTs also invest in the development, production and promotion of animal free products that have lower footprints than animal products.


UCTs have benefits in terms of effectiveness, low overhead costs, room for more funding and respecting the autonomy of receiving households. There are several reasons why UCTs are ideal for rich donors: they have a duty to donate to UCT programs, both from utilitarian reasons (the law of diminishing marginal utility of money) and as compensation fees for harms done to the poorest people (such as closing borders and stealing natural resources and emission permits). Furthermore, rich donors of UCTs have also more opportunities to invest in the promotion of animal free products, in order to remedy the increase of the consumption of animal products by the UCT beneficiaries.

For local governments, financing CCTs and investments in public goods can be preferred above UCTs, because of support by local tax payers and market failures such as imperfect information by households and positive externalities of improved nutrition and health.


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