Why naturalness is irrational and harmful

In the environmental and natural health movements, people value naturalness. However, from a rational-philosophical perspective, this notion of naturalness doesn’t make much sense: it is arbitrary and not well-defined. Second, from an ethical perspective, preferring naturalness is often harmful: it decreases the well-being of other people. In this sense, a preference for naturalness is a perfect example of a moral illusion: a persistent erroneous moral judgment that distracts us away from a rational ethic.

Why naturalness is irrational

Naturalness is a very vague concept. What does it really mean to say that a process or product is natural?

  • Does it mean that it occurs without human influence? That is arbitrary, because why would human influence make something unnatural and e.g. insect influence or mammal influence not? Mammals are part of the natural world, humans are a subgroup of mammals, so humans are also part of the natural world. Besides, what does “mammal influence” actually mean? If it has no meaning, then why should “human influence” have any meaning?
  • Does it mean that it is safe? No, there is absolutely no correlation between naturalness and safeness. Some processes and products that are considered natural (erupting volcanoes, parasitism, toxic mushrooms) are more dangerous than processes and products that are considered unnatural or synthetic (inflating bicycle tires, using medicines, wearing protective gear).
  • Does it mean that it is not invented? No, organic farming and natural health practices are invented, but considered natural.
  • Does it mean that it has high biodiversity? No, with genetic manipulation we could highly increase biodiversity and create a large number of new species, but that is considered unnatural.
  • Does it mean that it is ‘old’ or does it refer to a certain state of nature in the past? That is arbitrary, because at what time was nature most natural? Is a modern-day ecosystem that looks like an ecosystem 100 years ago less natural than a modern-day ecosystem that looks like an ecosystem 100.000 years ago? Is a health practice that was developed 20 years ago less natural than a centuries old health practice?

If you reflect on this notion of naturalness, you find it impossible to make it clear, well-defined and non-arbitrary. But the most worrying is that it is often harmful.

Why naturalness is harmful

Here are more than 10 examples of harm as a result of a belief in naturalness.

  • An anti GMO attitude. Genetically modified organisms are considered as unnatural. However, there is a scientific consensus that GMOs are generally safe (not riskier than so called natural plant breeds used in e.g. organic farming). And GMOs can offer many benefits: less pesticide use[1], higher incomes for poor farmers and higher nutrient values. An example is the resistance against golden rise, a GMO rice that produces pro-vitamin A and could save 30.000 lives a year.[2] Another example is the resistance against Bt-eggplant, a GMO eggplant that produces an insecticide that is also used in organic farming and hence no longer requires the application of insecticides by farmers, resulting in higher yields, higher biodiversity levels on the farms[3] and higher incomes of the poor farmers in South-East Asia.
  • An anti vaccine attitude. A lot of people are worried about vaccinations, thinking vaccines cause diseases such as autism. Vaccination is considered as an unnatural health practice. However, the scientific consensus and evidence is very strong: vaccines are highly effective, save millions of lives each year and the risks are very very small. If parents refuse to vaccinate their children, their own children and other children with compromised immune systems are at increased risk, herd immunity gets lost, which could result in many deaths.
  • An anti E-numbers and chemical additives attitude. In Europe, some substances that are permitted to be used as food additives (because they have evidence of safety), have E-numbers. However, many of those E-numbers are produced synthetically and hence are considered unnatural. A worrying example is the use of methyl cellulose in some vegan food products. Methyl cellulose has E-number E461 and is used as an egg-replacer. It is perfectly safe, not toxic and not allergenic, but a producer of vegetarian products decided to replace methyl cellulose with egg-proteins, because eggs are considered more natural. As a result, those vegetarian products are harmful to chickens. As a comparison, the production of 1 kg of eggs involves more than 10 times more hours of animal suffering and killings of animals than the production of 1 kg of red meat.[4] Another example is the avoidance of preservatives (E-numbers E200-E299): chemicals that prevent undesirable chemical changes and decomposition by microbial growth. This results in increased food waste. As there are sustainability challenges with feeding the world, food waste can be considered as being harmful.
  • An anti vitamin supplements attitude. The consumption of animal products harms animals and future generations (due to climate change). Vegans avoid this harm, but a healthy vegan diet requires a vitamin B12 supplementation (either by using chewing tablets or eating products enriched with B12). Some people consider this as unnatural and therefore keep on eating animal products, harming animals. Ironically, they buy products from modern day livestock farming, which is far from natural because those animals get a lot of vitamin supplements and antibiotics. The amount of B12 that goes to livestock is sufficient for almost 40 billion vegans.
  • An anti supplementation attitude in organic products. Some restrictive organic food regulations make organic foods less healthy. In particular enrichment with vitamins is not allowed in e.g. organic soy milk. Non-organic soy milk enriched with calcium and vitamins B12 and D can be healthier than non-enriched organic soy milk as well as cow milk. Hence, promoting organic soy milk can be harmful.
  • An anti antibiotic attitude in organic livestock farming. The over use of antibiotics in livestock farming poses a serious threat to human health. Organic farmers try to avoid antibiotics, but when their animals get microbial diseases, they often rather use homeopathic means (or reiki) that have no demonstrable health benefit for the animals and are definitely less effective than antibiotics. Avoiding antibiotics in this case causes unnecessary animal suffering because the animals are not cured effectively.
  • An anti synthetic pesticides attitude. Organic agriculture avoids synthetic pesticides but uses natural, organic pesticides instead. However, some of those organic pesticides are more dangerous (toxic) than some synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming. For example copper sulphate, sometimes used in organic farming, is very persistent and more than 10 times more toxic than alternative synthetic fungicides (measured in LD50 doses). Other organic pesticides are particularly harmful to non-target invertebrates such as bees (e.g. pyrethrine, azadirachtin, rotenone, eucalyptus oil, neem oil). According to one study for soybeans, organic pesticides were less effective in controlling aphids, were as toxic or more toxic for non-target invertebrates and had higher Environmental Impact Quotients than synthetic pesticides.[5]
  • An anti synthetic fertilizer attitude. Synthetic fertilizers are considered unnatural, so therefore a lot of animal manure is used in organic farming. However, due to the application of animal manure (that is not treated with non-organic radiation or antibiotic means to kill the bacteria), organic crops can have a higher risk of contamination with dangerous E.coli bacteria.[6] Furthermore, the animal manure can be more harmful to aquatic life than synthetic fertilizer: per kilogram of product, organic products have higher eutrophication levels than conventional products, resulting in the suffocation of more fish.[7]
  • An anti synthetic fibers attitude. Looking at greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, pollution (human toxicity, aquatic toxicity) and many other indicators, the production of synthetic fibers is in many ways much better for the environment and human health than natural fibers such as cotton or animal fibers such as leather and wool.[8] Cotton has human toxicity and ecotoxicity levels more than twice as high as synthetic fibers such as PE.[9] Animal leather has a carbon footprint twice as high[10] and a water footprint 100 times as high[11] as synthetic leather from polyurethane. Shoes from cow leather have a three times higher carbon footprint than shoes from synthetic rubber.[12] Synthetic wool (fleece) from recycled materials has a much lower footprint than wool from sheep: no land use, lower water ecotoxicity and 100 times lower greenhouse gas emissions.[13] Using animal products instead of synthetic fibers harms animals: the sheep and cows for their wool and skin, and aquatic animals due to increased water pollution (water ecotoxicity).
  • An anti plastic attitude. Plastic bags have a much lower carbon footprint than paper, cotton and compostable starch bags.[14] A paper bag should be reused at least three times and a cotton bag at least 170 times before they become better for the environment than a disposable plastic bag. If we take into account toxicity, water use and land use, a cotton bag should be reused 500 times and a paper bag 30 times before they become better than a single use plastic bag. Reusable plastic bags are of course better still.
  • An anti clean meat attitude. Clean meat is meat produced without the animal. It is also called lab meat or cultured meat because it is made in a lab using stem cell cultures. It will be available in the supermarkets in a few years. Some meat eaters are reluctant to eat meat produced in a lab, because this appears to be unnatural. They say they would continue eating meat from animals, which requires killing and harming animals.
  • An anti intervention in nature attitude. There is a lot of wild animal suffering due to predation, parasitism, diseases, starvation,… Environmentalists are reluctant to intervene in nature to improve the well-being of wild animals. Such intervention are considered unnatural, “playing God” or human arrogance. Those environmentalists believe that we should leave nature alone, we should not interfere, in order to preserve its naturalness.
  • An anti exotic species attitude. Some animals (e.g. rabbits) are introduced to new ecosystems by humans. As humans are involved in the spreading of these newly arrived animals, their presence in the host ecosystems is considered as unnatural. These exotic species can sometimes endanger local fauna and flora. For example herbivorous exotic animals might eat rare local plant species. Some environmentalists consider these herbivorous exotic animals as pests and want to control them. The culling of those herbivorous exotic animals harms those animals.

Conclusion

Our preference for naturalness causes many victims: poor people dying from vitamin deficiencies, children with compromised immune systems dying from viruses, layer hens and other animals suffering in factory farms, sick animals in organic livestock farms, bees dying from organic pesticides, futures generations harmed by climate change, sheep and cows used for their wool and skins, aquatic animals harmed by water pollution, wild animals suffering in nature and herbivorous exotic animals culled to protect plant species.

If we can give more than 10 examples where a preference for naturalness is harmful to other beings (decreasing their well-being), it is time to let go of this preference. This preference is merely our own preference. Nature itself doesn’t care about naturalness. And the many victims don’t care about naturalness, or if they did, they still value well-being above naturalness. If people are willing to harm other beings because they value naturalness, they give a stronger preference to their own values than to the values of their victims. This is a kind of arrogance or egoism.

A preference for naturalness is comparable to an esthetic preference for art. Just like naturalness, beauty is a very vague concept. Who decides what is beautiful and how much value beauty has? And a strong preference for beauty can be harmful. Imagine a burning art museum, and you can save either a child or a painting. The painting itself doesn’t value its beauty and doesn’t care about the flames. The child does not want to sacrifice itself in the flames in order for you to save the painting. The child values well-being more than the beauty of the painting. If you save the painting instead of the child, you let your own preference for beauty overtrump the much stronger preference of the child to avoid the flames. We should never let our own vague and arbitrary preferences surpass the stronger preferences of others.

References

[1] Klümper W. & Qaim M. (2014). A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops. PLoS ONE 9(11): e111629.

Brookes G & Barfoot P. (2013) Key environmental impacts of global genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996–2011, GM Crops & Food: Biotechnology in Agriculture and the Food Chain, 4:2, 109-119.

[2] Stein A, Sachdev H.P.S. & Qaim M. (2006). Potential impact and cost-effectiveness of Golden Rice. Nature Biotechnology 24, 1200 – 1201.

Wesseler J. & Zilberman D. (2014). The economic power of the Golden Rice opposition. Environment & Development Economics 19(6):724-742.

[3] Marvier M, McCreedy C, Regetz J, Kareiva P. (2007) A meta-analysis of effects of Bt cotton and maize on nontarget invertebrates. Science 316(5830):1475–7.

[4] Saja. K (2012). The moral footprint of animal products. Agriculture and Human Values. 30:193-202.

[5] Bahlai, C., Xue, Y., McCreary, C., Schaafsma, A., & Hallett, R. 2010, Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans PLoS ONE, 5:6.

[6] Mukherjee A, Speh D, Dyck E, & Diez-Gonzalez F 2004, Preharvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers. Journal of food protection, 67(5), 894-900.

[7] Clark M. & Tilman D. 2017, Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environmental Research Letters12:6.

[8] CE Delft (2015) Milieu-informatie textiel

CE Delft, 2011. The Environmental Impact of Mink Fur Production.

Rastogi, S.K. et al., 2007. Occupational Cancers in Leather Tanning Industries: a Short Review. Indian J. Occup. Environ. Med., 11 (1), p. 3-5.

Stockholm Environment Institute, 2005. Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester.

WFN (2017) Water Footprint Assessment of polyester and viscose. C&A Foundation

Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2011) The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products, Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 15(5): 1577-1600.

[9] CE Delft, 2011. The Environmental Impact of Mink Fur Production.

[10] Canals, M. e.a. (2002). Use of Life Cycle Assessment in the Procedure for Establishment of Environmental Criteria in the Catalan Eco-label of Leather. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 7(1), pp. 39-46.

Swiss Centre for Life Cycle Inventories, 2009. EcoInvent 2.0.

ESU Services, 2010. Carbon Footprint Polyurethane.

[11] Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2012) A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products, Ecosystems, 15(3): 401–415.

WFN (2017) Water Footprint Assessment of polyester and viscose. C&A Foundation.

URS (2012). Review of Data on Embodied Water in Clothing Summary Report.  Waste & Resources Action Programme.

[12] CE Delft, 2011. The Environmental Impact of Mink Fur Production.

[13] Wiedemann e.a. (2016) Resource use and greenhouse gas emissions from three wool production regions in Australia. Journal of Cleaner Production Volume 122, Pages 121-132

Brock e.a. (2013). Greenhouse gas emissions profile for 1 kg of wool produced in the Yass Region, New South Wales: A Life Cycle Assessment approach.

CE Delft, 2011. The Environmental Impact of Mink Fur Production.

[14] Environment Agency (2011), Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006.

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One day vegan…

What is the positive impact of eating a plant-based (vegan) diet for one day? A person with an omnivorous diet spends just a few minutes a day consuming animal products. But those few minutes cause a lot of harm. Replacing those animal products with animal-free, plant-based, vegan alternatives avoids those harms. So I have made some calculations of the harms avoided when an average omnivore (in Western-Europe) becomes a vegan for 1 day and replaces red meat with protein-rich soy beans and leguminous vegetable products, fish with omega-3 rich linseed, walnuts and seaweeds, eggs and poultry with vegetables and seeds, cheese with vegan nut cheese and milk with soy-milk. Replacing these animal products with their alternatives results in an optimal healthy diet (if supplemented or enriched with vitamins B12 and D).

How much harm is caused by just those few minutes of consuming animal products in an omnivore’s day?  What is avoided each day by being vegan? Below are the results. Adding together the avoided harm over 365 days in a year, several years of your life, the total positive impact becomes enormous.

Harm to the animals

The death of 1 sentient animal (vertebrates, crustaceans and cephalopods, including sea animals killed as bycatch or used as fish meal), which corresponds with 1 week of animal suffering in captivity.

Harm to the environment

The emissions of 2 kg CO2 and other greenhouse gases, the equivalent of 1 minute traveling by plane or 15 minutes driving by car. These emissions contribute to climate change and generate a health cost on future generations (diarrhea, malnutrition due to harvesting loss, cardiovascular disease due to heat waves, malaria due to the spread of mosquitoes by higher temperatures and floods due to extreme weather events and sea level rise), resulting in an expected 4 minutes shortening of someone else’s life in the near future.

The use of 1 m³ fresh water, as much as 2 hours non-stop showering.

The occupation of 700 m² highly fertile land for one day, used as cropland to grow animal feed. Combined with other environmental impacts that harm biodiversity, this results in an expected 10 hours shortening of the natural lifespan of an average species.

Harm to the human population

The conversion of 600 grams of edible crops into inedible manure, which means the waste of one meal.

-The use of 20 mg antibiotics, which increases the risk of microbial resistance, resulting in an expected 3 minutes shortening of someone’s life in the near future.

Harm to your health

The consumption of 20 grams saturated fat. Combined with other harmful chemicals in animal products this amounts to a 10% higher risk of dying prematurely, or an expected 2 hours shortening of your life due to chronic diseases (cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes).

Calculation sources

-Consumption levels, kg per day (average Belgian person):

FOD Economie bevoorradingsbalans vlees 2013,

FAO Food Balance Sheets 2013 Belgium (www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/FBS),

Flemish food survey.

-Animals killed and hours suffering per kg product:

Saja. K (2012). The moral footprint of animal products. Agriculture and Human Values. 30:193-202.

Fish killed for fish meal: FAO Fishstat, FishCount (fishcount.org.uk/) and Counting Animals (www.countinganimals.com/how-many-animals-does-a-vegetarian-save/)

-Greenhouse gas emissions per kg product:

Nederlandse consumptie van eiwitrijke producten. Gevolgen van vervanging van dierlijke eiwitten anno 2008. Blonk Milieu Advies, Gouda.

CE Delft (2011). Life Cycle Impacts of Protein- rich Foods for Superwijzer. Delft.

CE Delft (2010). Milieuanalyses voedsel en voedselverliezen. Delft.

Springmann M. e.a. (2016). Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 113(15):4146-51.

-Health cost due to climate change, per unit CO2 emitted: 3,5 DALYs (disability adjusted life years) per 1000 ton CO2 (according to egalitarian perspective)

Goedkoop M. e.a. (2009). ReCiPe 2008. A life cycle impact assessment method which comprises harmonised category indicators at the midpoint and the endpoint level. Report I: Characterisation. Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment, the Netherlands.

-Fresh water use per kg product:

Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2010) The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products, Value of Water Research Report Series No.47, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands.

Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2010) The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products, Value of Water Research Report Series No.48, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands.

Pahlow M e.a. (2015). Increasing pressure on freshwater resources due to terrestrial feed ingredients for aquaculture production. Science of the Total Environment 536 (2015) 847–857.

-Occupation of land (agricultural cropland footprint per kg product):

Global Footprint Network (2015) National Footprint Accounts

-Shortening of lifespan of species:

De Vos J. e.a. (2015) Estimating the normal background rate of species extinction. Conservation Biology 29(2):452–462

Stehfest E. e.a. (2008). Vleesconsumptie en klimaatbeleid. Nederlands Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving (PBL).

Each year an expected 1 in 10.000 species go extinct, which is 1000 times higher than the background extinction rate. There are about 10 million species, which means 1000 extinctions per year. A species has an average life expectancy of 10 million years, which means the current premature extinction of a species causes a shortening of 5 million years of a species lifespan. About 1/3 of the biodiversity loss is due to livestock farming (in particular due to the higher land occupation of an omnivorous diet compared to a vegan diet), which means the worldwide consumption of animal products instead of plant-based alternatives causes 1 species extinction per day, or the loss of 5 million species years. An average Western-European person consumes a share of 1 in 3 billion of the total livestock production. This means the omnivorous diet of an average Western-European causes the loss of 10 hours of a species lifespan, relative to a vegan diet.

-Conversion of edible crops (grains, soy and other edible products used as animal feed per kg product):

Global Footprint Network (2015) National Footprint Accounts

-Antibiotic use

Center for Global Development (2017) A Global Treaty to Reduce Antimicrobial Use in Livestock, CGD Policy Paper 102

Each year an expected 1 in 10.000 people die due to infections from antibiotic resistant bacteria. More than 50% of antibiotics are used in livestock. One death corresponds with an average 35 years of life lost. Multiplying these factors results in 3 minutes shortening of someone’s life.

-Saturated fats per kg product:

www.voedingswaardetabel.nl

-Hours loss of healthy life per kg product:

Spiegelhalter D. (2012). Using speed of ageing and “microlives” to communicate the effects of lifetime habits and environment, Britisch Medical Journal, 345:e8676.

-Lower risk of dying due to vegan diet

Springmann M. e.a. (2016). Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 113(15):4146-51.

-Shortening of life (loss of healthy life years or DALYs) due to high consumption of meat and low consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

vizhub.healthdata.org/gbd-compare/

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It’s time to take the Red Pill and change your mind

Are you afraid of changing your mind about a deeply held belief, about an emotionally strong conviction that you have? A few years ago, I changed – as an environmentalist – my mind about GMOs. Since then, and due to my contacts with the effective altruism movement, I changed my mind about many beliefs that I had (e.g. about organic food, wild animal suffering, the moral value of biodiversity, animal advocacy strategies and economic issues). In the political spectrum I consider myself as a progressive left liberal, meaning that I value social justice and I am against all kinds of unwanted arbitrariness such as discrimination (racism, sexism, speciesism,…). I am part of the left, criticizing the right. Criticizing the right is easy, because right wing ideologies contain a lot of irrationalities (such as unwanted arbitrariness that violate the moral golden rule) and pseudoscience (such as climate denialism). However, I start to realize that also in my left wing camp there are a considerable amount of irrationalities (such as the opposition against GMOs amongst leftist environmentalists, the criticism against vaccines or the strategies used by some animal rights activists, social justice warriors or people from the so called regressive left). As a rational ethicist, I not only want right winged people to become more rational, but I also want to improve rationality amongst leftist people. Therefore I also criticize irrational beliefs amongst left-wingers.

It is unlikely that all your beliefs are true. Even the beliefs that you strongly, emotionally care about may be wrong. I can say this, because that is what I experienced in my own life. Ten years ago I would have underestimated the amount of false beliefs that I strongly believed. I would have underestimated the number of moral mistakes I made. Now I realize that I should not trust my convictions based on emotions and gut feelings. So now I try to become less emotionally attached to my beliefs. When I am confronted with new evidence that contradicts my belief and I feel a strong emotional reaction that attempts to defend my belief, I become more alert and I try to suppress that emotional response, because I’ve learned that those emotional responses are unreliable. They have deceived me so many times. I should not have trusted them. These emotions generate all kinds of cognitive biases such as confirmation bias and desirability bias. As a consequence of avoiding emotional reactions, I became much more flexible to update my beliefs in the light of new evidence, ideas and arguments. And as a consequence, I changed my mind about many things. This strongly improved my rationality and my effective altruism.

So I want to create a culture where changing one’s mind is socially accepted and admirable. A culture where we dare to change our minds, to become more rational (meaning accurate in our beliefs, effective in our means and consistent in our ends). If you believe that all your currently strongly held beliefs are true, you are most likely wrong. If you believe that your strong emotions do not generate cognitive biases, you probably have a cognitive bias: the bias blind spot. If you want to become more effective in doing good, you will probably have to experience changing your mind about beliefs that you hold dear. You will probably have to swallow the red pill (as in the movie The Matrix).

Speaking about the red pill: I recently saw a documentary that I highly recommend: The Red Pill by Cassie Jaye. It is about a feminist’s journey into the men’s rights movement. The documentary is interesting because of two facts: first it tells about interesting facts and arguments made by men’s rights activists. Second, it follows the director Cassie Jaye in her struggle to change her mind about feminism and the men’s rights movement. She started as a feminist being very critical about this new movement that in her eyes was highly misogynist. But interviewing those men’s rights activists, it eventually resulted in Cassie Jaye saying that she no longer calls herself a feminist, even though she off course still shares the leftist values of gender equality and antidiscrimination (antisexism). Cassie Jaye is a prime example of a leftist person with good moral values, but who dared to change her mind about a topic that she held dear. She interviews people like Warren Farrell and Erin Pizzey, two persons who were deeply involved in the feminist movement but changed their minds about men’s rights issues (which resulted in receiving threats by feminists). In the documentary, we see emotionally strong reactions by feminists protesting against men’s rights activists. In a similar way, the documentary itself became highly controversial after its release, resulting in boycotts and feminist protests against its screening.

So, the documentary also changed my mind about gender issues. First, I believe that the feminist movement’s reaction against men’s rights issues is irrational, with feminists misrepresenting a lot of men’s rights activists as rape apologists. Second, I now no longer believe in something like a patriarchal system that systematically privileges men and suppresses women. The existence of a patriarchal system is a core belief in many feminist theories, so in that sense I no longer call myself that kind of feminist. The documentary gives a lot of examples that indicate that if there were such a thing as a patriarchal system, then that system is highly inconsistent. It becomes reasonable to doubt the existence of such an inconsistent system. Here are some examples.

-Child custody: if the judicial system were dominated by patriarchal, male judges, then why are children so often assigned to the mothers in cases of divorce, even when the fathers clearly state that they strongly prefer custody over the children? (It reminds me of the movie Mrs. Doubtfire that I recently saw.)

-Criminal sentencing: if the judicial system were dominated by patriarchal, male judges, then why do men receive 60% higher sentences than women for equal crimes? Arrested women are more likely to avoid convictions and are twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted.

-Health: if the scientific research and health systems were dominated by patriarchal, male researchers, then why does breast cancer receive twice as much funding than prostate cancer, even when prostate cancer is almost has deadly as breast cancer? The burden of disease, in terms of loss of healthy life years (DALY), premature deaths (mortality) and loss of health (morbidity), both globally and in the rich, western countries, is higher for men than for women.

-Military: if the military were dominated by patriarchal males, then why are men drafted? Why would those privileged men send men to die at the front? More than 95% of soldiers that die in war are men.

-Disasters: if there was a patriarchal system that privileges men, then why “women and children first” in case of a sinking ship?

-Dangers: if the man was in charge in the house, then why would the man risk his life to go downstairs at night when there is a burglar in the house? Why send men on dangerous exploration missions?

-Work: if the economy were dominated by patriarchal males, then why are more men doing the dangerous jobs? The death rate on the job is 11 times higher for men than for women. It is as if men are more expendable. And why would men allow women to be in charge of education, risking their own children being indoctrinated with feminist ideas? Wouldn’t it be better for men if men did the education part and women did the dangerous jobs?

-Media: if the news media were dominated by patriarchal male journalists, then why did the abduction of about 200 girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria receive much more attention than the kidnapping and killing of thousands of boys by Boko Haram?

-Interpersonal violence: if men create a patriarchal system, then why are more men than women victim of interpersonal violence (in terms of deaths and loss of healthy life years, both globally and in rich, Western countries)?

-Domestic violence: if politics were dominated by patriarchal male politicians, then why are there 2000 times more women shelters than men shelters in the US, for victims who want to escape from situations of domestic violence, even if domestic violence is close to gender symmetric? There are almost as much male victims and female perpetrators of non-reciprocal (no self defense) domestic violence. If the police were dominated by patriarchal male policemen, then why are women who assault their male partners more likely to avoid arrest than men who attack their female partners? When a woman calls the police to report domestic violence, the man is often arrested or ordered to leave the house, but if a man calls, the woman is almost never arrested or ordered out of the house, and even worse: the man who calls has a more than 10% probability of being arrested himself. Why would a man call the police if he risks being arrested himself?

All of this doesn’t make any sense in a patriarchal system that systematically privileges men. There are too much weird inconsistencies. And worse: if feminists target a patriarchal system, it might harm men even when those men are not the real problem. The real problem is gender roles that systematically disadvantage women in some ways and men in other ways. We should avoid a simplistic black-white male-female dichotomy where men are the privileged evil-doers. We should simply focus on eliminating all kinds of sexism and gender discrimination, of both men and women. And feminists should acknowledge that the men’s rights movement does not need to be silenced and that a lot of men’s rights activists raise valid concerns and are not rape apologists who hate women. Some but not all men’s rights activists hate women, but also some but not all women’s rights activists hate men.

 

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De onderschattingsdenkfout

Wat hebben de volgende voorbeelden met elkaar gemeen?

  • In een interview beweerde de filosoof Maarten Boudry dat het jihadisme haatdragender en daarom in zeker opzicht gevaarlijker is dan het nazisme, omdat jihadisten geloven dat andersgelovigen en ongelovigen zoiets slechts doen (namelijk niet geloven in Allah) dat ze een straf van eeuwige extreme marteling in de hel verdienen en men dus best mag pronken met de gruwelijkste slachtpartijen van andersgelovigen, terwijl nazi’s naar joden kijken zoals een tuinman naar onkruid: iets dat efficiënt uitgeroeid maar niet oneindig gehaat moet worden. Vanuit antinazistische en antifascistische hoek kwam hierop kritiek, met de bewering dat Maarten Boudry aan negationisme (Holocaustontkenning) doet en daarom ontslagen moet worden van universiteit van Gent.
  • In een artikel maakte psychologe Roos Vonk een vergelijking tussen de vee-industrie en de Holocaust: in beide gevallen gaat het om een systematische grootschalige onderdrukking, opsluiting en doding van miljoenen slachtoffers. Ook hierop kwam kritiek vanuit antifascistische hoek, met onder andere de bewering dat dergelijke analogieën ongepast zijn voor de slachtoffers en nabestaanden van de Holocaust (ondanks het feit dat veel Holocaustoverlevenden zelf na de oorlog die analogie gingen maken; zie het boek Eternal Treblinka van Charles Patterson).
  • In de documentaire The Red Pill over de mannenrechtenbeweging presenteert de documentairemaakster Cassie Jaye enkele cijfers over hoe mannen in de westerse samenleving op een aantal vlakken systematisch benadeeld worden en er dus moeilijk sprake kan zijn van een patriarchaal systeem dat mannen stelselmatig bevoordeelt en vrouwen onderdrukt, zoals veel feministen geloven. Zo blijkt dat er in de VS meer dan 2000 vluchthuizen zijn voor vrouwen die willen wegvluchten van situaties van huiselijk geweld door hun partners, terwijl er slechts 1 vluchthuis is voor mannen. Dat terwijl het huishoudelijk geweld bijna gendersymmetrisch is: er zijn volgens statistieken van de Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) bijna evenveel mannelijke als vrouwelijke slachtoffers van huiselijk geweld en bijna evenveel mannelijke als vrouwelijke daders (het geweld van een man is wel iets schadelijker voor het slachtoffer). Vanuit feministische en antiseksistische hoek kwam zware kritiek op deze film, met onder meer boycots, verstoringen van filmvoorstellingen en het zwart maken van Cassie Jaye in de media.
  • In een tweet schreef de beroemde bioloog Richard Dawkins: “Date rape is bad, stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” Daarop werd Richard Dawkins door feministen en antiseksisten aangevallen met de kritiek dat men verkrachtingen niet met elkaar mag vergelijken, dat de schade van date rape voor de slachtoffers niet te onderschatten is en dat dergelijke uitspraken ongepast zijn voor die slachtoffers van date rape.
  • Als dierenrechtenactivist maak ik regelmatig de vergelijking tussen niet-menselijke dieren enerzijds en mentaal gehandicapte weeskinderen anderzijds, in de zin dat beiden rechten verdienen omdat ze voelende wezens zijn, ondanks hun gebrekkig rationeel-moreel-zelfbewust denkvermogen. Daarop werd ik door Social Justice Warriors (SJW’s) beschuldigd van ableisme: discriminatie op basis van handicap, alsof ik gehandicapte (disabled) mensen discrimineer ten opzichte van ongehandicapte (abled) mensen.

Wat deze voorbeelden met elkaar gemeen hebben, is wat ik noem de onderschattingsdenkfout of  ‘moral gravity bias’. De vergelijkingen tussen bijvoorbeeld jihadisten en nazi’s of tussen varkens en mentaal gehandicapten raken telkens een gevoelige snaar bij de critici en wekken bij hen hevige emoties op. Die emoties zorgen ervoor dat de critici als het ware blind zijn voor hun denkfout. Ze denken spontaan maar ten onrechte dat de bekritiseerde personen in kwestie de ernst onderschatten van bijvoorbeeld het nazisme, de Holocaust, huiselijk geweld door mannen, date rape of rechtenschendingen van mentaal gehandicapten.

De bekritiseerde personen – Maarten Boudry, Roos Vonk, Cassie Jaye, Richard Dawkins en ik – maken een vergelijking tussen A en B en de critici denken dat de bekritiseerde personen daarmee A trivialiseren en de ernst van A onderschatten. Maar een vergelijking maken tussen A en B zegt nog niets over hoe erg A is. In plaats van denken dat de bekritiseerde personen de ernst van A onderschatten, kan men net zo goed denken dat de critici de ernst van B onderschatten. Dat is logisch gezien evengoed mogelijk. Maarten Boudry kan dan stellen dat hij het nazisme even verwerpelijk vindt als zijn antifascistische critici maar dat zijn critici de ernst van het jihadisme ernstig onderschatten. Roos Vonk kan repliceren dat ze evengoed tegen de Holocaust is maar dat haar critici de ernst van de veeteelt onderschatten. Cassie Jaye kan stellen dat de feministen de schendingen van mannenrechten onderschatten en dat er niet minder vluchthuizen voor vrouwen maar wel meer vluchthuizen voor mannen moeten komen. Richard Dawkins kan dan weer argumenteren dat zijn antiseksistische critici de ernst van verkrachting door een vreemde met mes op de keel onderschatten en dat de kritiek van die antiseksisten ongepast is voor de slachtoffers van dergelijke verkrachtingen. En ik kan zeggen dat ik niet de morele waarde van mentaal gehandicapten onderschat, maar dat mijn critici (die zelf betrokken zijn bij dierenrechtenschendingen door bv. vleesconsumptie) wel de morele waarde van niet-menselijke dieren onderschatten.

Waarom wijs ik op deze denkfout? Ik ben tegen nazisme, tegen verkrachtingen, tegen huiselijk geweld, tegen onderdrukking van vrouwen, tegen sociaal onrecht en tegen alle vormen van discriminatie en dus ook tegen ableisme, racisme en seksisme. Ik deel dus de linkse progressieve waarden van de antifascisten, feministen en social justice warriors. Wijzen op de talrijke irrationele opvattingen en denkfouten van het rechtse conservatieve kamp is eenvoudig. Dat conservatieve kamp promoot vele vormen van discriminatie en sociaal onrecht. Maar ook in het linkse, humanistische, liberale, progressieve kamp circuleren soms nog irrationele opvattingen en denkfouten. Als rationeel ethicus wil ik het progressieve kamp sterker maken door het op vlak van rationaliteit te versterken. Daarom uit ik relatief veel kritiek op linkse activisten die denkfouten maken, ook al zit ik samen met hen (en samen met Maarten Boudry, Roos Vonk, Cassie Jaye en Richard Dawkins) in hetzelfde progressieve kamp dat strijdt tegen allerlei vormen van discriminatie.

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How to compensate your carbon footprint

How can you make sure that you do not have a negative impact on the climate system and that you do not contribute to global warming? How can you do this in the most effective and fair way? The answer is simple and consists of two steps: 1) reduce your carbon footprint (your emissions of greenhouse gases). 2) compensate the rest of your carbon footprint by donating money to the most effective and ethically responsible organizations.

Concerning the first step: an average person in a rich country (e.g. Belgium) has a carbon footprint of almost 20 ton CO2-equivalents per year. (See Eureapa or for Flanders the MIRA 2017 report De Koolstofvoetafdruk van de Vlaamse consumptie). With some eco-friendly technologies and behavioral changes (consuming less, using green electricity from renewable sources, isolating the house, setting room temperature low in winter, using public transport instead of car, eating vegan, buying second hand, avoiding flights, avoiding food waste) I manage to reduce my carbon footprint below 5 ton CO2-eq. per year. This is below the world average per capita footprint (which is 7 ton CO2-eq.) and corresponds with the climate target (maximum per capita emissions to avoid 1,5°C global warming) for the year 2025, so I’m a few years ahead.

But it is the second step that offers a lot of opportunities. What is the best donation strategy to offset our greenhouse gas emissions?

First, we can pick the lowest hanging fruit. A recent study in Science[1] demonstrates the cost-effectiveness of payments for ecosystem services: offering forest-owning households in poor countries annual payments if they conserved their forest. These financial incentives for forest owners keep their forest intact, so CO2-emissions from deforestation are avoided. The net present cost to permanently avert a ton of CO2 would be 2,2 euro. An organization that offers payments for ecosystem services is Cool Earth, which is according to Giving What We Can probably the most cost-effective organization to avoid CO2-emissions. So I have donated 100 euro to Cool Earth, which offsets 45 ton of CO2, which corresponds to my total carbon footprint for 9 years. In a sense, my past 9 years are now climate neutral.

But if there are more highly cost-effective organizations, from a risk perspective it is better to fund more than one of those organizations. If you support only one organization, it might be the case that new evidence shows that that organization happens to be less effective than previously estimated. So if you can pick different low hanging fruits, it is better to not put too much of the same fruit in one basket.

So I can do better. A second very cost-effective intervention is the promotion of plant-based (vegan or vegetarian) food, because vegan products have a much lower carbon footprint compared to animal products. One of the most effective strategies could be online advertisements for plant-based eating. Animal Charity Evaluators gives estimations for its cost-effectiveness. The most pessimistic or conservative estimate is 3 euro per ton of CO2 avoided: paying 3 euro for online ads results in 1 vegetarian year (the equivalent of one person eating a vegetarian diet for 1 year). And eating vegetarian or vegan reduces the carbon footprint with roughly 1 ton CO2-eq. per year compared to an average omnivore.[2] Therefore I donated 100 euro to the Animal Charity Evaluators top recommended charities that invest in online ads, which results in 33 ton CO2-eq. averted, the equivalent of my total carbon footprint of the past 7 years.

Payments for ecosystem services and promotion of plant-based diets are probably the two lowest hanging fruits, the two most cost-effective interventions to reduce the global carbon footprint. They are able to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in a short term (less than 10 years). Reducing emissions the next few years instead of in the far future is important, because we have to avoid exceeding hidden thresholds in the global climate system that could result in a runaway global warming due to positive feedback loops in the climate system. The earlier we reduce our global carbon footprint, the lower the risk of transgressing a hidden climate threshold.

However, not everyone can pick this lowest hanging fruit. Our global greenhouse gas emissions cannot be offset with merely those two cost-effective interventions. Over the longer term, after a few years, we will need other climate-friendly solutions. We can invest in e.g. renewable energy, but our current technologies are not yet the most climate-friendly. It might be much better to invest in scientific research, to invent new climate-friendly technologies that can be applied in the future. According to some economists and the Copenhagen Consensus Center, the benefit-cost ratio of doing more energy research could be 11 euro benefits (increased social, economic and environmental good) per 1 euro spent (invested costs). That benefit-cost ratio is an order of magnitude higher than 1 and could be much higher than e.g. doubling renewable energy or doubling energy efficiency with our current technologies.

Therefore, I also donated 100 dollar to cutting edge research done by one of the most prestigious technology universities: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with its Energy Initiative Fund. We cannot predict how much CO2 will be avoided by donating to research because we are uncertain about the new technologies that will be invented. But this investment may be worth 1100 dollar of benefits.

Apart from developing more climate-friendly energy technologies, also our food system can become more climate-friendly. One possibly very effective new food technology is clean meat: lab grown meat without the animal. The production of clean meat can become much more climate-friendly compared to the production of animal meat. Therefore I also donated 100 euro to the Good Food Institute, also a top charity recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators.

However, merely employing climate-friendly technologies will not be enough, because there is a risk for a rebound effect: the efficiency gains might be lost due to increasing consumption levels. For example the investment in scientific research led physicists to the development of highly energy efficient LED-light bulbs. That was a very cost-effective investment because companies and households can now switch to LED-lights. That is why those physicists earned a Nobel price. However, this lowers the electricity consumption and hence the costs. Due to lower electricity costs, households might increase the use of light bulbs or might have more money left for other consumption activities such as an extra travel by plane. This could partially negate the energy efficiency gains.

How can we avoid this rebound effect? The economically most effective way is either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system (a governmental auction of tradable emission permits). There is a European Emissions Trading System (ETS) for some European industries, but this is not yet implemented in a fair and most effective way. Therefore, I donated another 100 euro to the Carbon Market Watch. To promote the idea of a carbon tax, I donated also to the Carbon Tax Center.

What would the situation be if there was a global cap-and-trade system? In such a system, the governments would distribute a fixed amount of emission permits. Every person on earth would get an equal share of emission permits to be used for one’s own emissions or to be sold if one’s own emissions are lower than the maximum fair amount of emissions (the cap) allowed per person. The poorest people have fewer emissions than the cap, so they could sell their non-used emission permits to the richest people who have more emissions than their maximum allowed level. If such a system would be present, people who have more emissions than the cap would have to buy emission permits at a price of roughly 100 euro per ton of CO2, increasing with 5 euro per year (this would be the price of an efficient carbon tax to achieve climate targets and to reduce global warming below 1.5°C[3]).

In our current economic system, people in rich countries don’t buy emission permits, even though they have emissions higher than the cap. This is basically equivalent to saying that when rich people have emissions above the maximum allowed level, they are stealing emission permits worth 100 euro per ton CO2 from the poorest people who barely emit any CO2.  Therefore, we have a duty to donate money to the poorest people, as a remuneration fee for stolen goods. An organization that give direct cash transfers to the poorest people, is GiveDirectly, a top charity recommended by charity evaluator GiveWell. I have donated 100 euro to GiveDirectly, which is equivalent of buying from the poorest people a virtual emission permit of 1 ton CO2.

And last but not least, I had the choice to pay a remuneration fee for all the health damages caused by my carbon footprint. The highest estimate of loss of healthy life-years (Disability Adjusted Life Years or DALYs) from climate change that I could find in the literature, is 0,003 DALYs per ton CO2-eq.[4] So emitting 1 ton of CO2 means the loss of 1,3 healthy days due to global warming. This is the health impact of malnutrition (harvest losses due to bad weather), diarrhea, cardiovascular diseases (heat deaths), malaria (mosquito spread due to higher temperatures) and floods.

How can I compensate for these damages? Again I can pick the lowest hanging fruit by donating money to the most cost-effective health organizations. One organization is the Against Malaria Foundation, also a top charity recommended by GiveWell. I donated 100 euro to this organization, with which they can save 1 healthy life year. In terms of health benefits, this is the equivalent of avoiding 300 ton CO2 emissions. At a yearly emission rate of 5 ton CO2, this donation avoids climate change related human health damages that I caused for my entire adult life (i.e. 60 years).

As a summary: I reduce my carbon footprint by reducing my consumption. This also saves money, allowing me to donate about 40% of my income to the most effective charities. This month, I donated 700 euro to offset my carbon footprint in multiple ways. First I picked the lowest hanging fruit by donating 200 euro to the two most cost-effective CO2-compensation mechanisms (payments for ecosystem services and promotion of plant-based diets), which avoids emissions that I emit over 16 years. I donated 100 euro to scientific research about climate-friendly energy technologies with an expected benefit worth 1000 euro, and another 100 euro to develop climate-friendly food technologies. I donated 100 euro to implement economic systems (a carbon tax or cap-and-trade) to avoid rebound effects generated by the development of new, more efficient technologies. Finally I paid the poorest people to buy from them virtual emission permits worth 1 ton of CO2 (about 1/5 of my yearly emissions) and I compensated for the climate change human health damages caused by my emissions over my entire adult life. All of this more than offsets my total carbon footprint for this year.

Note: people in Belgium can make a tax deductible donation to GiveDirectly or the Against Malaria Foundation at:
Koning Boudewijnstichting, Brederodestraat 21 – 1000 Brussel
IBAN: BE10 0000 0000 0404
BIC: BPOTBEB1
with as message for AMF:  TGE – UK – Against Malaria Foundation
and for GiveDirectly:  TGE – GB – GiveDirectly UK

[1] Jayachandran S. e.a. (2017). Cash for carbon: A randomized trial of payments for ecosystem services to reduce deforestation. Science  Vol. 357, Issue 6348, pp. 267-273.

[2] Springmann M. e.a. (2016). Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 113(15):4146-51.

[3] This value is a rough estimate of an efficient carbon tax, based on the ‘high damage scenario’ under ‘random estimated climate sensitivity’ according to: Simon Dietz & Nicholas Stern (2014). Endogenous growth, convexity of damages and climate risk: how Nordhaus’ framework supports deep cuts in carbon emissions. Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, Working Paper No. 180 http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/news/dietz_stern_june2014/

[4] Goedkoop M. e.a. (2009). ReCiPe 2008. A life cycle impact assessment method which comprises harmonised category indicators at the midpoint and the endpoint level. Report I: Characterisation. Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment, the Netherlands.

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Waarom artificiële intelligentie alles op het spel zet

Zijn we blind voor misschien wel het grootste probleem dat op ons afkomt? Een existentieel risico, een globale catastrofale ramp waarbij iedereen sterft? We hebben al wel verhalen gehoord van enkele existentiële bedreigingen: een komeetinslag die de aarde vernietigt, een pandemisch virus dat iedereen doodt, een supervulkaan die uitbarst, een op hol geslagen klimaatopwarming of een nucleaire winter door een wereldwijde kernwapenoorlog. Bij een existentieel risico staan letterlijk alle toekomstige generaties op het spel, meer dan we ons kunnen voorstellen: ofwel worden er in de toekomst nog triljarden nieuwe levens geboren, ofwel stopt het simpelweg.

De meeste existentiële risico’s zouden we kunnen vermijden als we slim genoeg zijn. Dan kunnen we asteroïden opsporen en uit koers duwen, vaccins tegen pandemische ziektes uitvinden, klimaatvriendelijke technologieën inzetten en wereldvrede realiseren zodat er geen kernoorlog komt. De meeste existentiële risico’s krijgen veel aandacht dankzij bijvoorbeeld de milieu- en vredesbeweging. Maar er is één bijzonder venijnig existentieel risico waar we per definitie niet slim genoeg voor zijn. En laat dat nu net een bedreiging zijn dat sterk verwaarloosd wordt en waar bijna niemand van wakker ligt: artificiële superintelligentie.

Daarom dat Elon Musk, de CEO van Space-X en Tesla, vorige week opriep om de ontwikkelingen op vlak van artificiële intelligentie beter te reguleren. Ook vanuit het Effectief Altruïsme – de sterk groeiende mondiale beweging die de belangrijkste maatregelen onderzoekt om de wereld te verbeteren – klinkt die roep steeds luider. Wat is het probleem precies?

Momenteel hebben we al krachtige computers die bovenmenselijke capaciteiten hebben, die bijvoorbeeld beter kunnen schaken, poker spelen, medische diagnoses stellen of gezichten herkennen dan mensen. Met recente technieken zoals deep learning worden zelflerende computerprogramma’s ontwikkeld. Het gaat om software die zichzelf schrijft en zichzelf autonoom update.

Aangezien computers en robots alsmaar slimmer worden, is het niet onredelijk om aan te nemen dat ze ooit slimmer worden dan de slimste mensen. Superintelligentie kan best wel mogelijk zijn. Hoewel die superintellegente computers niet noodzakelijk een eigen bewustzijn hebben, denken ze wel veel sneller en verwerken ze veel meer data dan wij. Daar kunnen wij niet tegenop. Ons menselijk verstand verhoudt zich tot een superintelligente robot zoals een chimpanseebrein zich verhoudt tot ons. Die artificiële superintelligentie is gewoon te slim voor ons.

Wanneer die eerste artificiële superintelligentie het licht zal zien weten we niet, maar de meeste experts verwachten nog wel ergens deze eeuw. Van zodra computers qua algemene intelligentie in de buurt van die van de mensen komen, zullen ze al snel de intelligentie van de mensen voorbijsteken. Misschien wel sneller dan dat we het doorhebben.

We mogen niet de gigantische potentiële voordelen onderschatten van goede artificiële intelligentie. Maar het houdt ook een bedreiging in. Kennis is macht. Wie slimmer is, heeft meer macht. Superintelligente robots zijn dus machtiger dan ons en zouden ons kunnen onderdrukken net zoals wij met onze hogere intelligentie andere dieren onderdrukken. Die eerste superintelligente computer kan ons dus maar beter goed gezind zijn. Maar artificiële superintelligentie is heel onvoorspelbaar, want door het zelflerende vermogen kan het zichzelf modificeren en versterken.

Superintelligente machines hebben een geprogrammeerde doelfunctie die ze nastreven. Al de rest moet wijken voor dat doel. Het is dus van cruciaal belang dat dat doel in overeenstemming is met onze waarden en dat die machines correct rekening houden met onze belangen. En dat geprogrammeerd krijgen in een moreel algoritme is geen kleine uitdaging, zeker niet wanneer artificiële intelligentie zichzelf modificeert. We moeten beletten dat die machines ons aanzien zoals wij mieren aanzien. Als wij buiten willen spelen, gaan wij voor ons doel en letten we niet op de mieren in het gras.

We kunnen misschien wel proberen om op tijd nog slimmere en meer ethische superrobots te ontwikkelen om de slechte robots te bestrijden. Maar eigenlijk hebben we maar één kans: als de eerste superintelligente machine bedoelingen heeft die botsen met onze belangen, zijn we te laat. Daarom begonnen organisaties zoals het Machine Intelligence Research Institute en het Future of Humanity Institute met onderzoek naar de veiligheid van artificiële intelligentie. De job van computerprogrammeur had nog nooit zo’n belangrijke morele relevantie. Een kernwapenwedloop was maar een klein probleem in vergelijking met een wedloop naar almaar intelligentere machines.

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Deep canvassing for animal rights

Deep canvassing is a new, evidence-based effective persuasion strategy (for more information, you can listen to this interesting podcast episode). It was developed by the LGBT-community in the US. The effectiveness was demonstrated in a randomized controlled trial, published in the journal Science in 2016 (Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing). A 10 minute conversation substantially and persistently reduces transphobia. A very similar technique, known as street epistemology which uses a Socratic method of asking questions, is successfully applied by atheists to the subject of religious faith and critical thinking. Earlier evidence from door-to-door canvassing (but not deep canvassing, i.e. not following the techniques of active listening) comes from the Get-out-to-vote studies (Green & Gerber 2008, Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout). In terms of cost-effectiveness, door-to-door canvassing was the most effective with $19/vote, compared to e.g. leafleting ($43/vote) and direct mail ($67/vote).

I personally apply this deep persuasion canvassing method to the topic of animal rights, antispeciesism and veganism, having mind-changing 10 minute conversations with people on the streets. I feel confident that it is a very effective method, because compared to my previous, more classical vegan outreach actions and conversations, the deep canvassing conversations have a very different, positive flow that I’ve never experienced before. In terms of cost-effectiveness (where a time investment of one hour has a monetary equivalent cost of 10 euro and the attitude and behaviour change is measured in terms of eating less animal products), my rough estimate is that it can be as cost effective as vegan leafleting, but I intend to do research on this in the future. For the moment I strongly pursue this deep canvassing strategy because it is more neglected compared to leafleting or online vegan ads, and it doesn’t require much preparation or financial costs. You can do it basically anytime.

Deep canvassing consists largely of active listening: a deep canvasser poses leading questions and shows genuine interest in the interlocutor, focussing on the experiences and beliefs of the interlocutor. The questions make the interlocutor think more deeply and in a new way about the issue. The deep canvasser gives the interlocutor the chance to look for answers and makes clear that he or she doesn’t intend to persuade the interlocutor. The interlocutor needs to think that it is not about persuasion, but about exploration and collaboration to look for answers, allowing the interlocutors to come to their own conclusions. Discussions and judgments are avoided. Instead of merely stating facts or giving counterarguments, the deep canvasser presents new facts of arguments by sharing them in personal stories or experiences, showing his or her own vulnerability. Deep canvassers limit what they say to neutral or positive responses, or critical questions.

Below I present a fictitious but still very realistic deep canvassing dialog to clarify the method. Of course body language matters as well, which I’m not able to demonstrate in the dialog below. A deep canvasser should mirror the interlocutor with smiles and nods, and avoid crossing arms, shifting weight, or frowning. Here we go.

I [approaching someone on the street]: “Excuse me, can I ask you a question? I am interested in what people think about animal rights, so your opinion about animal rights. Do you have a few minutes for an interview?”

Interlocutor: “Sure. I care about animals a lot.”

I: “I’m glad to hear that. I’m Stijn, by the way. Nice to meet you.” [handshake]

Interlocutor: “I’m Tom.”

I: “As a first question: on a scale from 0 to 10, where zero means animals do not have rights, you can do with them what you want, and 10 means animals deserve strong rights, to life, freedom,… like humans do, how important are animal rights to you?” [I think this is a good question to start the conversation.]

Tom: “It is not easy to give a number. An 8, perhaps?” [In my experience so far, most people give numbers higher than 7.]

I: “Fine, and which animals are you thinking about?”

Tom: “All animals: dogs, birds,…”

I: “And why would you give an 8 and not for example a 0?” [By asking why not lower, instead of why not a higher number, you make the interlocutor reflect on the positive values of animals and become more aware of the positive qualities of animals instead of the negative qualities, the things that the animals lack.]

Tom: “Well, they are living beings, you know. They shouldn’t suffer unnecessarily.”

I: “Can you give a specific example, a personal experience or moment when you saw a serious animal rights violation that affected you?”

Tom: “Sure: foie gras, for example. Fur. Or bull fighting in Spain.”

I: “So you saw it on TV? How did that make you feel?” [Focus on feelings and experiences of the interlocutor.]

Tom: “I felt angry. It’s disgusting.”

I: “You mentioned foie gras. What about other animals used for food: chickens, pigs?”

Tom: “You mean the way these animals are treated in slaughterhouses?”

I: “For example. Do you think breeding and slaughtering animals is ok?”

Tom: “I see where you’re heading. I still eat meat, but not so much. When a pig has had a good life, it is ok to slaughter it humanely. We have to eat something, you know.”

I: “I don’t want to rebuke you or persuade you of anything. But you made me curious. Would it be ok to slaughter and eat dogs?”

Tom: “Oh no. Dogs are not food. We see dogs as pets.”

I: “So suppose hypothetically: if I were to breed dogs, not to keep them as pets but to slaughter them and eat them, would you condemn me? Would you morally disapprove it? And suppose the slaughter is as humane as the slaughter of pigs.”

Tom: “Hmmm. I would not allow it. But perhaps I should, I don’t know.”

I: “Do you see a difference between a dog and a pig, in terms of rights? Would you give pigs a lower value than 8?”

Tom: “Ok, you got me there. I haven’t thought about it. No, pigs and dogs deserve equal rights.”

I: “The reason why I ask this, is because I’ve been asked the same question. My spontaneous answer was that dogs are pets and pigs are food. But then I saw videos of people who have pigs as pets. I didn’t realize that pigs also wag their tails when they are happy, that they like to play with the ball. That was surprising to me. So it got me confused when people asked me the question why we eat pigs and love dogs.” [Here I share my personal story or experience, and I show some vulnerability by acknowledging my confusion.]

Tom: “But people have dogs as pets because dogs are more loyal and intelligent. That’s why we love them.”

I: “On youtube I saw a video of a pig playing a computer game, which a dog couldn’t solve. Just google “pig plays video game.” It was funny to see how the pig immediately understood the connection between the joystick and the cursor on the screen, whereas the dog couldn’t figure it out. So some scientists believe that pigs are more intelligent than dogs. For me that changed the way I looked at pigs. How about you? Does that change your opinion?”

Tom: “So you are a vegetarian?”

I: “To be honest, I am a vegan, I don’t eat animal products. But again, I don’t want to force you or convince you about what to eat. That is up to you. I’m just curious about how you think about those issues. So I try to pose deeper questions. Digging to the roots of your beliefs, so to speak.”

Tom: “Well, I will not be easily convinced of vegetarianism anyway, so… But I understand your point. It is kind of inconsistent. But that’s what we are. I accept my inconsistencies.”

I: “Anyway, I appreciate your honesty and openness.” [Give a compliment from time to time.]

Tom: “Yeah, well…” [Give the interlocutor time to reflect. Use pauses.]

I: “So you think it is inconsistent to eat pigs when you would condemn someone who eats dogs, knowing that pigs deserve the same rights as dogs? Is that correct?”

Tom: “Yes. Well, I know in China they eat dogs… I never thought about it, actually.”

I: “I’m curious: how do you feel about that inconsistency? When I was confronted with that same inconsistency, I felt uncomfortable…”

Tom: “Yeah… I can live with it. Everyone is inconsistent… But we need to eat meat, you know.” [This is perhaps the most common argument for meat consumption. It refers to one of the four ‘N’s of a carnist ideology: meat is necessary. The other three will be dealt with below: meat is nice (tasty), natural and normal.]

I: “You mean for health reasons?”

Tom: “Yeah. Not everyone can eat vegetarian.”

I: “I thought so too. I eat a plant-based diet now, and what convinced me personally to become a vegan, was the position of the largest organization of dietitians, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. They literally say that well-planned completely vegan diets are nutritionally adequate for everyone, including pregnant women, athletes,…”

Tom: “But you risk shortages in vitamins and iron, isn’t it?”

I: “Well, the thing is: we have learned more about healthy foods and essential nutrients, so the new vegan alternatives in the supermarket now have all those essential nutrients. With what we find nowadays in the supermarket, it is possible to live healthy, or even healthier, because we have all the essential nutrients, but in plant-based products they are wrapped in healthy fibres, whereas in meat they are wrapped in unhealthy saturated fats. That explains why nowadays it is easier to eat a healthy vegan diet, compared to the situation of our parents or grandparents. But again, it is not my intention to convince of anything.” [Here I use an important strategy of filling the hole. When someone has an incorrect belief, such as the belief that meat is necessary, it is not sufficient to simply give a counterargument or debunk that belief. Debunking it leaves behind a hole, something that is left unexplained, like why they believed it in the first place. The uncomfortable presence of this hole can lead to a backfire effect where people prefer believing incorrect stories above incomplete stories. People can become more convinced that meat is necessary. Filling this hole is important to avoid this backfire effect. For more information, listen to this podcast episode.]

Tom: “Ok, I didn’t know that. But don’t you have to take vitamin supplements?”

I: “Yes, some vegan products in the supermarket, like breakfast cereals or plant-based milk, are enriched with vitamin B12, but if you don’t eat those products much, you need a vitamin B12 supplement such as a chewing tablet that you can add to your meal. Are you reluctant about that?”

Tom: “Yes, that doesn’t seem a natural healthy diet to me. You become dependent on the industry.”

I: “Interesting. I feel totally different about it. For me it is like toothpaste. You know: our modern diets are not healthy for our teeth, so we need a supplement: toothpaste. Our ancestors didn’t brush their teeth. I would say this makes our modern diet unnatural, but still I don’t have a problem with using toothpaste, even if it is produced by an industry. So I acknowledge that we need B12 supplements or fortified food. But the good thing is: with the supplements, the B12 is packed in calcium, which is healthy. In meat, the B12 is packed in unhealthy things like saturated fats.” [Acknowledging a weakness may be a virtue that makes you more trustworthy. It becomes even better if you can turn the weakness in a strength.]

Tom: “But still I’m sceptical about what you say. I know vegetarians who went ill and the doctors said they have to eat meat again and then they got better.”

I: “Yeah, I’m a bit worried now. [Express your feelings.] I’m relying on this position statement by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, as well as on some dieticians I know and systematic overview studies of the scientific literature about health effects of different diets. And then I saw the website Great Vegan Athletes. So, that is my evidence that convinces me. That is how I look at it. Of course a vegan diet, like any diet, needs to be well-planned. Although my doctor said my vegan diet is healthy for me, I also heard people say that they know doctors who are sceptical, who give the advice to eat meat. Now I’m worried, do you think my approach, listening to the biggest organisation of dietitians, is less reliable than listening to those sceptical doctors? Is what I do imprudent of me?” [Merely stating what is the most reliable scientific knowledge might be ineffective and even result in a backfire effect. Asking the interlocutor why that sceptical doctor would be more reliable, might be ineffective as well as it puts the interlocutor in a defensive mode where he has to protect his own beliefs. So instead, we can use another strategy: show the interlocutor what we believe and ask them what could be the problem with our own belief. Something like: “Here is my map of the world, I see it is different from the map that you use. What could be wrong with my map?”]

Tom: “Nah, you’re probably right.”

I: “So let us suppose that eating a vegan diet is not unhealthy. Suppose you believe that is true. Would you become vegetarian or vegan if you knew meat was not necessary?”

Tom: “No, meat is too tasty.” [This is the second N in a carnist idealogy: meat is nice]

I: “You said foie gras is a violation of animal rights. Does that mean you are against the consumption of foie gras?”

Tom: “Yeah, that causes unnecessary suffering.”

I: “But what if I think foie gras is very tasty? So I love to eat foie gras. Am I allowed to eat it?”

Tom: “I would be against it. I wouldn’t eat it.”

I: “So, it seems like we are not allowed to eat some things, like foie gras or dog meat, even when they would be very tasty. How can I know which tasty things we are not supposed to eat?”

Tom: “When it causes unnecessary suffering.”

I: “Ok, I agree with that. Killing a dog in order to eat that dog, that causes suffering, and we don’t need to eat dogs, so it is unnecessary suffering. The same goes for foie gras. Or fur: we don’t need that.”

Tom: “Exactly.”

I: “But now I’m confused again, because killing a pig also causes unnecessary suffering. Well, at least I believe that I don’t need to eat a pig. So I believe keeping pigs in factory farms and slaughtering them so I can eat them, causes unnecessary suffering. Do you believe that I cannot eat a pig, like I cannot eat foie gras or dogs?” [It can sometimes be interesting to frame the situation in a personal way, what I believe and do and what the interlocutor thinks about my choices.]

Tom: “I see your point… [Leave a pause to reflect.] But still we are omnivores. That is our nature.” [This is the third N: meat is natural.]

I: “I hear that argument often, but it remains unclear to me. Can you tell me more about it?” [Always good to ask to tell more about something.]

Tom: “We are predators. If animals can hunt and eat other animals, why can’t we?”

I: “But what do you mean with being an omnivore or a predator? I don’t eat animals. Does that mean I am not an omnivore?”

Tom: “You are still on top of the food chain.”

I: “In what sense? In the sense that no other animal is eating me?”

Tom: “Yes.”

I: “And that gives me the right to eat other animals?”

Tom: ”Yes.”

I: “I’m sorry, that seems weird to me. I spontaneously thought of the argument: no human is killing me, so I am allowed to kill a human. But I guess that is not what you meant?”

Tom: “Well no. Look at the lions. They are allowed to eat meat. You’re not saying that they should become vegan.”

I: “Ok, lions eat primates, primates don’t hunt lions, so lions are on top of the food chain. Does that mean that lions are allowed to eat humans?”

Tom: “Humans are allowed to defend themselves and kill the lion if necessary.”

I: “I see… But still… [by reflecting on an issue, you show that you put yourself on the same level as the interlocutor.] Lions don’t care about animal welfare laws. They don’t care about humane slaughter rules. Does that mean we shouldn’t care either?”

Tom: “Lions are not able to morally reflect on their behaviour. We can.”

I: “I see. Interesting.”

Tom: “Ok, again I see it may be inconsistent of me. But as I said, everyone is inconsistent. That is why everyone eats meat.” [Here we arrive at the fourth N: meat is normal.]

I: “I really appreciate your effort to explain your view. But I’m interested in how people like you justify eating meat. Are you saying now something like: if everyone else eats meat, then it is allowed to eat meat?”

Tom: “I don’t know. It is just a fact that everyone eats meat. Well, not you. Almost everyone.”

I: “So I’m looking for a kind of rule that I can follow, to know what I am allowed to do. It seems reasonable that if everyone does something, it gives me a clue that I am allowed to do that as well. But then, what if everyone did something immoral. Like slavery: there was a time where everyone, or at least a majority of white people, believed we could keep black people as slaves. Or what if everyone believed that women do not have rights? It seems dangerous to look at what the majority does.”

Tom: “But with meat consumption it is different. You eat plants, but plants can feel pain as well. They only can’t scream.” [Let’s give a final carnist argument as an example. In most conversations, interlocutors don’t give many carnist arguments one after the other. They start doubting after one or two arguments, and then it is time to move on in the conversation.]

I: “Are you referring to those scientific experiments, that plants can respond to their environments and communicate with other plants when they are in danger?”

Tom: “Yeah, I don’t know the details, but I’ve heard about those experiments. It is like plants are warning other plants when a giraffe comes along.”

I: “I personally remain sceptical about the conclusions that we can draw from those experiments. Some robots or computers are also able to respond to their environment and communicate with other computers. The anti-virus software of my computer is pretty smart as well. But that doesn’t mean my computer has a consciousness and is suffering when it is infected with a computer virus. Would it be unwise of me to conclude that those communication and self-defence mechanisms of computers or plants not necessarily indicate consciousness?”

Tom: “But perhaps pigs do not have a consciousness either.”

I: “Or dogs. Or other humans… Now, we are concerned about animal rights, we support animal welfare laws. Kicking a dog or a chicken just for fun is not permissible. If we believe that plants are equally sentient, shouldn’t we propose plant welfare laws as well? Would it become illegal to kick a tree just for fun?”

Tom: “Ok, but what if plants were really sentient. Would you starve to death, or kill sentient beings?”

I: “I have thought about that possibility. I’m not sure what we should do then. I probably still would eat plants. And condone eating animals, especially animals that eat sentient plants. And I would look for animal free and plant free food, produced in the lab or something. I don’t know. I guess there are different consistent ethical systems, some of them lead to condoning eating plants and animals, some lead to starvation and suicide, some lead to doing more research. I’m not confident to say which ethical system is the most correct one in such hypothetical situations. What would you do?” [Sometimes it is good to acknowledge that you don’t know an answer. Demonstrating such vulnerability or openness may make you more credible.]

Tom: “I don’t know. The same as you, I guess.”

I: “Anyway, suppose you know that plants are not sentient. Would you then eat vegan?”

Tom: “Probably not. I would miss the taste of meat.”

I: “So that means plant sentience is not the crucial reason for you to eat meat?”

Tom: “Probably not.” [A useful, general question that we can ask when confronted with a fallacy or rationalization to eat meat, is the question: would you become vegan if you knew X was not the case? If not, then X was not the real reason to eat meat and you can look for other reasons.]

I: “Another question I had: imagine in the future, over 100 years or so, people would all eat healthy vegan food, no animal products anymore. Would you consider that as an improvement, as a moral progress of our society?” [This is another of my favourite questions in deep canvassing. Most people respond affirmatively. It avoids a kind of moral relativism.]

Tom: “Yeah. I would have no problem with that. But that wouldn’t happen.”

I: “I used to think that as well, but personally, I’m not so sure about that anymore. More and more people reduce their meat consumption. We see a strong growing trend where people try new vegan products. That means more meat substitutes are sold in the supermarkets. We see the arrival of a new generation of meat substitutes, that are almost identical to animal meat. If that trend continues, it can become a growing snowball effect. Have you already tried meat substitutes?”

Tom: “Some. They were ok, but not as tasty as meat.”

I: “But you are willing to explore new animal free alternatives, try new vegan products or recipes?”

Tom: “Sure, why not?”

I: “And what would be your major motivation to try new vegan products?”

Tom: “For the environment. But now also for the animals I guess.”

I: “The reason why I ask these questions, is because of a kind of worry. I asked these questions to many people, and they all have something in common. On the question how important animal rights are according to them, most people would give high numbers on this scale from 0 to 10: they would give values 7, 8, 9 and often 10. But still most of them eat meat. And most of them can’t explain why we love dogs but eat pigs or chickens. Most say a vegan future would be a moral improvement. It seems like we are collectively doing something that violates our own moral values, without us realizing it. Now I am a vegan, but I used to eat a lot of meat. I didn’t make the connection between the meat on my plate and the animal. Would you agree that it is possible that our meat consumption violates our own moral values and that we are so to speak morally blind about it?”

Tom: “Yes, perhaps. I’ve never thought about it before.”

I: “That is what I hear most people saying. And also interestingly, like your response, when asked whether they eat meat, most people say “yes, but not so much anymore.” Why did you add that you don’t eat much meat?”

Tom: “I don’t know…”

I: “For me it seemed like you somehow knew that eating meat is morally problematic, that you felt uncomfortable with your answer that you eat meat, and therefore add that you don’t eat it so much. But that’s just a guess.”

Tom: “You could be right.”

I: “One final question perhaps. On a scale from 0 to 10, where zero means our consumption of animal products is fine and I absolutely do not want to decrease my consumption of animal products, and 10 means we should all avoid animal products and move towards a vegan world as soon as possible, where would you place yourself?”

Tom: “A 7.”

I: “Would your answer to this question have been different if we didn’t have this conversation?”

Tom: “Probably lower, yeah.”

I: “So, if I understand you correctly, becoming vegan would be ideal, but it may be difficult at this moment, so you prefer to take smaller steps. You already avoid foie gras as a first step, and you are willing to try new vegan recipes or products, or introduce something like meat free days, is that correct?” [Here I use the combination of the door in the face strategy (start with the big ask to become vegan), followed by a foot in the door strategy (a smaller ask to reduce meat consumption).]

Tom: “Yeah, that’s how I would do it.”

I: “I appreciate your honesty. It was a nice conversation. I enjoyed it.”

Tom: “Yeah, me to. I’ll think about it.” [Handshake]

 

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