The two intrinsic rights that restrict utilitarianism

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

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

The right to bodily autonomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The right to procreation autonomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why there are two intrinsic rights

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

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

Limits to rights

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism


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


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

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

The sadistic and repugnant conclusions

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

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

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

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

A first attempt: person-affecting utilitarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

A complete solution: person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symmetry breaking

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

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

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

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

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

Determining the neutral range

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The crux of the cultivated meat feasibility debate.

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

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

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

Function, product and process

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why cell-based meat is likely feasible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why we need to herbivorize predators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why indoor, vertical agriculture will be better (infographic)

In a previous infographic, I showed why cell-based meat will be better. Here is a related infographic that argues why vertical agriculture will be better than soil-based outdoor farming. On theoretical grounds we can expect that vertical agriculture has many benefits, such that more research and development of vertical agriculture is justified and highly desirable.

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Van efficiëntie naar effectiviteit (boekbespreking Het Ecologisch Kompas)

Wie vaart er nu nog met een kompas? Die vraag kwam bij me op tijdens het lezen van Het Ecologisch Kompas (Dirk Holemans (red.), Uitgeverij EPO, 2021). Dat boek kunnen we beschouwen als het nieuwe standaardwerk van het transitie-ecologisme of radicaal ecologisme, dat kiest voor een vergaande (radicale) sociaal-ecologische transitie naar een rechtvaardige en veerkrachtige samenleving. Dat is een zeer belangrijk doel, gegeven de vele systemische crisissen die culmineren in de mondiale klimaatverandering en extreme armoede. Naar de uitspraak van Etienne Vermeersch (Ogen van de Panda), moeten we varen tussen de Scylla en Charybdis, de twee zeemonsters uit de Griekse mythologie. Als we de Scylla van armoede willen ontwijken door meer welvaart te creëren, riskeren we te dicht te komen bij de Charybdis van milieuproblemen. Een kompas is dus nodig.

Kompas versus GPS

Maar toch ga ik scherp zijn over het boek. De keuze voor het kompas in de titel, geeft de toon weer van het transitie-ecologisme: kiezen voor meer traditionele low-tech. Tegenwoordig varen we met GPS, moderne high-tech die gebruik maakt van (letterlijk hoogvliegende) satellieten. Stel je een boek voor met als titel De Ecologische GPS, en je kunt je aan een ecomodernistische teneur verwachten. Het Ecologisch Kompas zet zich duidelijk af van dergelijk ecomodernisme.

Het kompas is redelijk oud. En zo kan ik ook niet aan de indruk ontdoen dat een deel van het verhaal in Het Ecologisch Kompas redelijk oud is. Het boek bevat wel veel recente anekdotes over bijvoorbeeld protestbewegingen (de Franse gele hesjes), nieuwe crisissen (corona) of democratische participatie-initiatieven (burgerbudgetten, burgerraden). Maar veel analyses en voorstellen zijn zowat dezelfde als wat ik 20 jaar geleden, in mijn begindagen als radicale ecologist, al las. Nochtans denk ik dat er de afgelopen decennia echt wel nieuwe belangrijke inzichten zijn bijgekomen, vanuit nieuwe bewegingen zoals het ecomodernisme en vooral het effectief ecologisme of effective environmentalism.

Het kompas is niet zo accuraat. Wat me vaak stoorde aan het boek, is de vaagheid van de analyses. Ook daar zie ik geen verbetering tegenover de literatuur van enkele decennia geleden. De beschrijving van het ecologisch wereldbeeld vertrekt van een dualistisch onderscheid met aan de ene kant woorden zoals “emergentie”, “autonomie in verbondenheid” en “pluriversum”, en aan de andere kant termen zoals  “mechanistisch” en “ atomistisch”. Of neem de kritiek op duurzaamheid, dat we niet mogen voorstellen als drie (of meer) snijdende cirkels (de bekende People, Planet, Profit), maar als drie concentrische cirkels. Ik kan me daar ruw iets bij voorstellen maar twijfel of dergelijke analyses ons echt vooruit helpen. En het ergste: de discussies over groei versus ontgroei (degrowth), of kapitalisme versus antikapitalisme. Groei en kapitalisme zijn zulke dubbelzinnige begrippen, dat dergelijke discussies al gauw zinloos worden.

Efficiëntie versus veerkracht

Het meest waardevolle aan het boek, en het transitie-ecologisme in het algemeen, is denk ik de sturing in de richting van meer veerkracht in plaats van efficiëntie. Dit cruciale onderscheid tussen veerkracht en efficiëntie komt aan bod in het hoofdstuk van Jef Peeters over de fundamenten van een groene maatschappijvisie. Om het niet bij vage termen te houden, kunnen we best efficiëntie accuraat definiëren als de minimum hoeveelheid die nodig is om het resultaat te bereiken gedeeld door de werkelijke hoeveelheid waarmee het resultaat bereikt wordt. Denk aan efficiënt gebruik van land: de minimum landoppervlakte nodig om de bevolking te voeden gedeeld door de werkelijk gebruikte landoppervlakte. Of een efficiënte, zuinige wagen: de minimum hoeveelheid energie om met de wagen een afstand af te leggen gedeeld door het werkelijk energieverbruik van de wagen. Efficiëntie is dus een breuk, met een teller en een noemer. En het is altijd een getal tussen 0 en 1. Des te dichter bij 1, des te efficiënter.

Tegenover efficiëntie staat veerkracht. Daar kan dan weer vanalles onder worden verstaan, maar om het helder te houden, kunnen we focussen op mogelijks het meest relevante kenmerk van veerkracht, namelijk redundantie (overtolligheid). Mensen die een vreemde taal leren, zullen wel al eens gevloekt hebben over de redundantie in taal, door de vele spellingsregels. Waarom al die werkwoordvervoegingen: “ik ben, jij bent,…”? Dat kan toch veel eenvoudiger of efficiënter? Efficiëntie is hier: het minimum aantal klanken om een boodschap over te brengen gedeeld door het werkelijk aantal klanken. Het woordje “jij” kunnen we schrappen, want als ik zeg “bent”, dan weet jij toch al dat het de tweede persoon enkelvoud is. Maar, er kan een storing zijn in onze communicatie, zoals achtergrondlawaai. Daardoor heb je niet de t-klank gehoord en weet je niet of het over mij of jou gaat. Het woordje “jij” toevoegen lijkt overtollig, maar het werkt als een extra back-up of veiligheid zodat je me toch goed kunt verstaan ondanks de storing.

Ook in het milieu treden storingen op, bijvoorbeeld veroorzaakt door vervuiling. Een veerkrachtig systeem kan overweg met dergelijke storingen, in de zin dat het de relevante ecosysteemdiensten kan blijven leveren. Net zoals een veerkrachtige taal enige redundantie heeft, zo heeft een ecosysteem redundantie, die we kennen als biodiversiteit. Hoewel vele soorten overbodig lijken, is het vaak veiliger om zoveel soorten te hebben. Want als er iets gebeurt met een soort, kunnen andere soorten de slag nog opvangen en de ecosysteemdiensten leveren.

Waar ecologisten voor waarschuwen, is dat in ons mondiaal economische (kapitalistische) systeem er te veel aandacht is voor efficiëntie, en dus te weinig voor veerkracht of redundantie. Er is namelijk een afweging tussen efficiëntie en redundantie. Teveel efficiëntie maakt het systeem kwetsbaar, teveel redundantie is kostelijk. In de economie willen we kosten sparen, dus is er een streven naar maximale efficiëntie. Denk aan vliegtuigmaatschappijen die kosten sparen door hun vliegtuigen vol te tanken met net genoeg brandstof. Immers, een lichter vliegtuig verbruikt minder. Die efficiëntie is goed voor het milieu, want het spaart op brandstof en CO2. Maar het is minder veerkrachtig, want wat als er iets gebeurt waardoor het vliegtuig even moet omvliegen? Onze taal heeft daarentegen misschien te veel redundantie. Denk aan de dt-regel: niet enkel anderstaligen hebben al veel gevloekt op deze regel die niets bijdraagt aan betrouwbaardere communicatie. Tussen de uitersten van extreme redundantie en extreme efficiëntie, ligt een piek, een optimaal evenwicht tussen efficiëntie en redundantie.

Het buikgevoel van ecologisten zegt dat er te veel efficiëntie is. Nu vind ik dat best moeilijk om objectief in te schatten. Ik vind het bewijs dat ons sociaal-politiek-economisch systeem teveel doorslaat richting efficiëntie nog niet zo heel sterk. We zitten waarschijnlijk niet op het optimum; dat zou wel erg toevallig zijn. Maar zitten we dan aan de linkerkant (teveel redundantie) of de rechterkant (teveel efficiëntie) van het optimum? Moeilijk te zeggen (persoonlijk schaar ik me bij de ecologisten die zeggen dat we aan de rechterkant zitten, maar ben er minder zeker van).

Maar toch doen transitie-ecologisten iets waardevols: als ze het systeem iets meer in de richting van redundantie trekken, kunnen we daaruit leren. Dan kunnen we zien of we omhoog gaan richting dat optimum. We moeten dan wel een meer voorzichtige, experimentele houding aannemen: mocht blijken dat we zo opschuiven weg van het optimum, dan moeten we een bocht van 180° durven nemen.

Dat het efficiëntie versus redundantie verhaal nogal complex is, blijkt uit het voorbeeld van voedselverspilling. Hoewel onze mondiale economie sterk gericht is op efficiëntie, is dat op vlak van voeding niet zo. Door de vele hongersnoden in het verleden, is er een overheidsbeleid ontstaan om veel meer in te zetten op redundantie. Hier zien we een zekere inconsistentie bij de ecologisten die denken dat we op alle vlakken te weinig redundantie hebben. Die ecologisten waarschuwen bijvoorbeeld voor de grote hoeveelheden voedselverspilling: dat is allesbehalve efficiënt. Door die voedselverspilling gebruiken we te veel landbouwgrond, en dat is kostelijk voor het milieu, omdat er dan minder ruimte beschikbaar is voor andere ecosystemen.

Nu is voedselverspilling wel het logisch gevolg van redundantie. In haar hoofdstuk over hoe de wereldbevolking te voeden in 2050, geeft Myriam Dumortier het voorbeeld van een zelfoogstboerderij, die veerkrachtig was tijdens de hitte van 2019: de savooikool mislukte, maar er waren nog voldoende andere kolen bestand tegen de hittegolf. Dit is een duidelijk voorbeeld van de waarde van redundantie. Maar we moeten ook eerlijk zijn: wat als er dat jaar toevallig geen hittegolf was? Ja, dan was er eigenlijk te veel eten. Met de savooikool bij op tafel, zou bijvoorbeeld de witte kool niet allemaal opgegeten worden. Dus dan zien we meer voedselverspilling. Ecologisten kunnen klagen dat de kromme komkommers niet verkocht worden en dus verspild worden, maar dit hoort bij de redundantie van ons voedselsysteem. Minder voedsel verspillen kan de veerkracht van ons voedingsysteem verlagen. Om maar te zeggen dat het best moeilijk is in te schatten of we nu te veel of te weinig efficiëntie hebben.

Uit haar analyses en beleidsaanbevelingen zien we dat het transitie-ecologisme sterk focust op die afweging tussen efficiëntie en redundantie. Hoewel belangrijk, denk ik dat we daar meer bescheiden over moeten zijn, omdat we er eigenlijk niet zoveel over weten. Dan is het niet zo effectief om er zo sterk op te focussen.

Transitie-ecologisme versus effectief ecologisme

En hier komen we bij mijn belangrijkste kritiek op het boek: we moeten een onderscheid maken tussen efficiëntie en effectiviteit, en meer aandacht schenken aan effectief ecologisme. Om het scherp te houden, kunnen we effectiviteit ook best nauwkeurig definiëren. Die term wordt vaak verward met efficiëntie, omdat ze ook bestaat uit een breuk van twee getallen. Effectiviteit van een maatregel is de totale baten van de maatregel gedeeld door de totale kosten van die maatregel. Baten en kosten kunnen uitgedrukt worden in wat we het meest relevant vinden, zoals welzijn. Effectiviteit is dan de hoeveelheid welzijn gecreëerd door de maatregel, gedeeld door het welzijnsverlies door de maatregel. Effectiviteit is dus een positief getal, en als het getal kleiner is dan 1, dan is de maatregel ineffectief of contraproductief, doordat de kosten hoger zijn dan de baten.

Het effectief ecologisme (effective environmentalism) is een onderdeel van de recente maar sterk groeiende mondiale beweging van effectief altruïsme. Het effectief altruïsme maakt gebruik van de meest betrouwbare methoden (zoals wetenschappelijk bewijs en rationeel-analytisch-kritisch denken) om de doeltreffendste maatregelen te vinden om de wereld te verbeteren. Bij het effectief ecologisme wil dat zeggen: de kosteneffectiefste dingen doen om de sociale rechtvaardigheid, duurzaamheid en veerkracht van de samenleving te verbeteren.

In Het Ecologisch Kompas ontbreken veel effectief ecologistische analyses, maatregelen en beleidsaanbevelingen. Het ecomodernisme sluit nog het dichtst aan bij het effectief ecologisme, maar in het boek wordt niets positiefs gezegd over dat ecomodernisme. De doelen van het effectief ecologisme zijn gelijkaardig aan die van het transitie-ecologisme. Maar het verschil zit hem in de middelen. De meeste maatregelen voorgesteld door transitie-ecologisten, zijn volgens het effectief ecologisme weinig effectief en soms zelfs contraproductief. We kunnen honderden keren meer goeds realiseren, mochten we focussen op de kleine minderheid van effectiefste maatregelen.

Het transitie-ecologisme sluit zich aan bij het radicaal ecologisme, de tak binnen de milieubeweging die graaft naar de dieperliggende grondoorzaken van de meervoudige systeemcrisis (het woord “radicaal” komt trouwens van “radix”, het Latijnse woord voor “wortel”). De voorgestelde oplossingen voor die systeemcrisis zijn meestal technologie-arm (“low-tech”, alweer een verwijzing naar de grond). Op vlak van voeding lezen we in het boek veel over korte keten, lokaal, biologisch, agro-ecologisch, coöperatief en community supported. Dat zijn vooral grond- en arbeidsintensieve manieren van voedselproductie. Hoewel die initiatieven waardevol zijn, zijn ze waarschijnlijk niet zo effectief. Ze worden al snel ineffectief op grotere schaal. Het is bijvoorbeeld bekend dat we met lokale voeding en biolandbouw meer grondoppervlakte nodig hebben dan met gangbare landbouw, omdat de opbrengsten lager liggen. Met lokale voeding kan men niet kiezen voor het telen van gewassen op de plaatsen waar ze het productiefst zijn, en met biolandbouw kan men niet kiezen voor de veiligste en doeltreffendste  gewasbeschermingsmethoden en de beste (optimaal samengestelde) mest waarmee de planten het gunstigst groeien.

Ondertussen wordt in het boek nog negatief gedaan over genetisch gemanipuleerde gewassen (GGO’s), terwijl het nu toch al wel duidelijk zou moeten zijn dat deze een sociale en ecologische meerwaarde bieden. Ik was vroeger ook tegen GGO’s, maar die positie werd onhoudbaar. In 2014 verscheen bijvoorbeeld een meta-analyse die wees op de sterke inkomensstijgingen bij (vooral armere) boeren, de hogere gewasopbrengsten en het lagere pesticidengebruik bij ggo-landbouw. En ondertussen staat die technologie nog veel verder en zijn er nog meer hoopvolle toepassingen mogelijk.

Het hoofdstuk over voeding laat duidelijk zien dat het transitie-ecologisme kiest voor low-tech. Er wordt in het boek helemaal niets gezegd over de belangrijke technologische innovaties bij de voedingsproductie. Geen woord over precisielandbouw (bv. met GPS, drones en artificiële intelligentie doelgerichter mest toedienen en plagen bestrijden), verticale landbouw (bv. indoor groenteteelt met kunstlicht op maat van de planten) en cellulaire landbouw (bv. celkweekvlees en precisiefermentatie waarbij genetisch gemanipuleerde micro-organismen heel efficiënt alle gewenste voedingsstoffen produceren in bioreactorvaten).

Verticale en cellulaire landbouw zijn high-tech indoor-farming methoden die gigantische ecologische voordelen bieden. Verticale landbouw gaat letterlijk de hoogte in, en cellulaire landbouw vliegt de hoogte in, want het is ruimtevaarttechnologie, ontworpen om in ruimteschepen, waar geen grond is, voedsel te kweken. We kunnen deze oplossingen vergelijken met de voorgestelde low-tech agro-ecologische oplossingen. In plaats van insecticiden op zoek gaan naar natuurlijke vijanden (volgens een bioboer moeten we spreken van natuurlijke vrienden) die we kunnen inzetten tegen plaaginsecten? Vergeet het: verticale en cellulaire landbouw zijn indoor, veilig afgeschermd van plaaginsecten. Manuele arbeid om onkruid te wieden? Nee, indoor farming heeft geen last van onkruid. Manieren vinden om minder te ploegen om zo bodemerosie te vermijden? Vergeet het: verticale en cellulaire landbouw behoeven helemaal geen bodem. Dus vergeet al die bodemgeboden problemen zoals vermesting, erosie, ontbossing, woestijnvorming, herbicidengebruik,… Lokale voeding en community supported stadstuintjes voor meer veerkracht tegen een piekoliecrisis? Nee, die stadstuintjes zijn niet opgewassen tegen echt extreme weersfenomenen door de klimaatverandering of een supervulkaanuitbarsting. Maar indoor farming is wel veerkrachtig tegen systemische crisissen. Het is – althans voor ecomodernisten en effectief ecologisten – duidelijk dat high-tech voedselproductie veel meer potentieel biedt om de wereldbevolking zo veerkrachtig en duurzaam mogelijk te voeden en het milieu minder te schaden.

Volgens effectief ecologisten kunnen we nu best veel meer onderzoek en ontwikkeling financieren van nieuwe clean technology, zoals clean energy (gaande van zonne-energie tot nieuwe generaties kernenergie) en clean protein (gaande van celkweekvlees tot air-based protein waarbij bacteriën CO2 omzetten in eiwitten). Dergelijk onderzoek is sterk verwaarloosd door overheden en bedrijven (slechts een paar procent van het BNP gaat naar onderzoek). Het biedt grootschalige oplossingen die door de hele wereldbevolking kunnen overgenomen worden (de grootste milieuvervuiling gaat komen van de opkomende- en ontwikkelingslanden). En we zijn goed bekend met wetenschappelijk-technologische vooruitgang om te weten hoe haalbaar en beloftevol dat is (denk aan de snelheid waarmee de covidvaccins werden ontwikkeld door de extra financiering).

De oplossingen waar transitie-ecologisten voor staan, vereisen een sterke sociaal-culturele transformatie en verandering van machtsstructuren, waardoor mensen anders gaan denken en afstappen van bijvoorbeeld het consumentisme. Een dergelijke paradigmaverandering kent veel publieke weerstand en gaat daarom ook tijd en middelen vereisen en dus traag en kostelijk zijn. Het is allesbehalve evident dat socio-culturele transformaties kosteneffectiever zijn dan technologische innovaties, of dat hoop in een culturele verandering minder naïef is dan hoop in nieuwe technologische oplossingen. Transitie-ecologisten denken dat innovatie louter een symptoombestrijdende techno-fix is van de structurele crisissen, maar zien over het hoofd dat we dan evengoed moeten spreken van een socio-fix.

Ecologisten waarschuwen voor een rebound effect door die nieuwe technologieën: de klimaatneutrale veilige elektrische zelfrijdende wagen zet aan tot meer autokilometers. Maar de technologieën maken het invoeren en versterken van economische marktmechanismen (zoals een koolstofheffing of verhandelbare emissierechten) politiek haalbaarder. Er is een consensus bij economen dat dergelijke marktmechanismen de efficiëntste manier zijn om tegelijk welvaart te verhogen en milieuschade te verlagen, en dus ook om rebound effecten te vermijden. Helaas staan transitie-ecologisten vaak te kritisch tegenover dergelijke marktmechanismen. Dat lezen we in het boekhoofdstuk van Johan Malcorp dat kritiek uit op de groei-economie en de groene groei. De keuze voor antikapitalistische degrowth is volgens effectief ecologisten al snel contraproductief en gebaseerd op foutieve opvattingen over economische groei. Natuurlijk weten alle economen wel dat een oneindige groei in het gebruik van uitputbare grondstoffen onmogelijk is, maar daar gaat de discussie rond groene groei niet over. Het boek staat iets te negatief tegenover economische groei, en ontkent een beetje de ondertussen toch wel duidelijke consensus bij economen dat economische groei een belangrijk deel verklaart van de variatie in menselijk welzijn en dat economische welvaart (gemeten in BNP per persoon) sterk correleert met vele objectieve en subjectieve indicatoren van welzijn.

Door het te sterke wantrouwen in technologische innovaties en effectieve marktmechanismen voor een kapitalistische groene groei, vrees ik dat het transitie-ecologisme te sterk beperkt gaat blijven tot het linkse politieke spectrum. Zaken zoals armoede en klimaat zouden ook moeten (en kunnen in principe) appelleren aan centrum, rechtse, non-binaire en conservatievere kiezers en politici.

Ecologisch burgerschap

Een sterk hoofdstuk in het boek gaat over ecologisch burgerschap en democratie. Daar gaan we voorbij de vage beschrijvingen van een “levende” of “radicale” democratie, naar meer concrete voorbeelden van dialogische, participatieve democratie, en inclusieve democratie waar bijvoorbeeld plaats is voor dierenrechten. Meer algemeen besteed het hoofdstuk aandacht aan de recente ontplooiing van autonome burgerinitiatieven. Deze vormen een derde organisatievorm naast markt en staat, en bieden de samenleving meer veerkracht bij het beheer van de commons (gemeenschapsgoederen).

Ook hier zien we een kenmerkende voorkeur voor de meer ‘low-tech’ benadering. Zo wordt coöperatief zelfbestuur (een concretere invulling van het vage ‘autonomie in verbondenheid’) voorgesteld voor het beheer van de commons, als alternatief van een competitieve markt en een centristische staat. Wat ik mis in het hoofdstuk, zijn de meer ‘high-tech’ oplossingen, namelijk iets meer marktgerichte ‘mechanism design’ innovaties die de laatste jaren worden voorgesteld door economen. Wat betreft de commons en publieke goederen, is er het voorstel van quadratic funding. En wat betreft het verbeteren van democratische kiessystemen, zijn er onder meer quadratic voting en approval voting. Dit zijn heel doelgerichte, concrete en haalbare aanbevelingen die toch een grote impact kunnen hebben en daarom meer aandacht verdienen binnen het ecologisme.

Antropocentrisch individualisme

Tot slot valt me op dat het boek een nog sterke antropocentrische insteek heeft. In tegenstelling tot mensenrechten komen dierenrechten nauwelijks aan bod. De veeteelt wordt niet wezenlijk in vraag gesteld en biologisch vlees wordt gepromoot. En vooral de nieuwe discussies rond het welzijn van wilde dieren krijgen helemaal geen aandacht. Er verschenen recente academische publicaties en nieuwe opgerichte dierenorganisaties die kijken naar dierenleed in de natuur. Dat is relevant, ook voor een ecologist, want de ongerepte natuur is allesbehalve veerkrachtig genoeg om het welzijn van wilde dieren te garanderen. Het transitie-ecologisme is eigenlijk individualistisch voor mensen en holistisch voor het milieu en de dieren. Voor mensen telt het individuele welzijn mee, voor dieren kijkt men vooral naar de soort of populatie in plaats van het individu.

Samengevat denk ik dat Het Ecologisch Kompas te veel oude, vage analyses gebruikt en herkauwt, te veel onterechte kritiek uit op ecomodernisme, kapitalisme, economische groei en marktmechanismen, en te weinig oog heeft voor de effectiviteit van maatregelen, het belang van technologische innovatie, en het welzijn van (wilde) dieren.

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Willekeurige-rang denkfout

In veel maatschappelijke discussies en persoonlijke keuzes komt een bepaald type denkfout aan bod die weinig aandacht krijgt. De denkfout bestaat erin dat een willekeurige rang wordt gekozen in een hiërarchische indeling. Het feit dat de keuze willekeurig is, is een zwakke plek voor het gemaakte argument in de discussie.

Neem een verzameling van elementen. Die verzameling kunnen we onderverdelen in deelverzamelingen. Een deelverzameling is opnieuw een verzameling, dus die kunnen we opnieuw onderverdelen in deelverzamelingen. Zo ontstaat een hiërarchie van verzamelingen, met als hoogste rang de volledige verzameling, de rang daaronder de deelverzamelingen, de derde hoogste rang de deel-deelverzamelingen, enzovoort. Helemaal onderaan is de laagste rang die bestaat uit de kleinste deelverzamelingen, namelijk de individuele elementen.

In een hiërarchische indeling kun je een rang kiezen. De vraag is hoe je dan die rang koos, en waarom je niet een hogere of een lagere rang koos. Als je die vraag niet kunt beantwoorden, dus als je geen selectieregel gebruikte om die ene rang te kiezen, dan is die keuze willekeurig. De denkfout bestaat erin dat je denkt dat er toch iets speciaals is aan die ene gekozen rang, terwijl er gewoon sprake is van willekeur.

Hieronder volgen een tiental concrete voorbeelden die laten zien dat de willekeurige-rang denkfout op vele plaatsen optreedt. Ze zorgt ervoor dat we irrationele keuzes maken: dat we discrimineren, vlees eten, grenzen sluiten, kernenergie verwerpen, doneren aan minder effectieve goede doelen, acties voeren tegen minder belangrijke problemen, onnodige risico’s nemen, de ernst van het coronavirus onderschatten, teveel belang hechten aan bepaalde vormen van natuurbehoud, en teveel focussen op keuzes van individuen in plaats van individuele keuzes.

1.   Speciesisme en vleesconsumptie

Neem de redenering: “We mogen dieren eten, want dieren hebben minder rechten dan mensen, want de mens is de enige soort die moreel kan denken en rechten kan begrijpen.”

Hier wordt gefocust op de soort. Dat is een bepaalde rang in de biologische indeling of taxonomie van levende wezens. Als hoogste rang hebben we de volledige verzameling van alle levende wezens. Daaronder is de rang van de domeinen (eukaryoten, bacteriën,…). Een trede lager vinden we de rijken. Zo kunnen de eukaryoten onderverdeeld worden in het dierenrijk, plantenrijk, schimmelrijk. Het dierenrijk kunnen we verder onderverdelen in stammen (gewervelden, geleedpotigen,…). Binnen de stam van gewervelde dieren vinden we de klasse van zoogdieren, naast de klassen van vissen, amfibieën, reptielen en vogels. Nog een trede lager is de rang van de orden, zoals de primaten. Daarbinnen is een infraorde van smalneusapen, en daarbinnen is een familie van de grote mensapen, en daarbinnen een geslacht van Homo, en daarbinnen een soort Homo sapiens, de mensen. Maar we kunnen nog enkele rangen verder afdalen. Binnen de soort hebben we ondersoorten, zoals de Homo sapiens sapiens, en daaronder zitten de populaties (rassen, variëteiten of vormen), zoals de populatie van Europiden (blanken).

Ikzelf behoor tot het eukaryotendomein, het dierenrijk, de gewerveldenstam, de zoogdierenklasse, de primatenorde, de smalneusapen-infraorde, de mensapenfamilie, de mensensoort en de blankenpopulatie. Er is geen reden om in deze lijst specifiek de mensensoort te nemen. De regel “neem de groep van wezens die rechten kunnen begrijpen”, is niet de juiste selectieregel om de mensensoort te kiezen, want niet alle mensen hebben het vermogen om rechten te begrijpen. De meerderheid van individuen binnen de mensensoort heeft wel dat vermogen, maar hetzelfde kunnen we zeggen van de meerderheid van individuen binnen de mensapenfamilie en binnen de primatenorde. Dus dan zouden we evengoed de rangen van orden en families kunnen nemen.

De willekeurige keuze van de rang van soorten leidt tot speciesisme (discriminatie op basis van soort) net zoals de willekeurige keuze van de rang van populaties leidt tot racisme (discriminatie op basis van populatie). Om discriminatie te vermijden, moeten we alle wezens dezelfde basisrechten geven, zoals het recht op lichamelijke zelfbeschikking: je lichaam mag niet tegen je wil in gebruikt worden als middel voor de doelen van iemand anders. Dat recht is altijd vanzelf voldaan voor de wezens die geen bewustzijn of gevoelens hebben, want die hebben geen besef van hun eigen lichaam en hebben geen wil. Het recht is dus enkel van belang bij voelende wezens. Als we niet mogen discrimineren en dus dat recht moeten respecteren voor alles en iedereen, dan wil dat zeggen dat we geen voelende wezens mogen gebruiken voor voedsel, en dat we dus veganistisch moeten eten.

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2.   Nationalisme en gesloten grenzen

Neem de extreemrechtse slogan: “Eigen volk eerst! Grenzen dicht voor buitenlandse migranten.”

Hier wordt gefocust op het eigen volk, of het eigen land. We kunnen de wereld (planeet Aarde) onderverdelen in continenten (Eurazië, Amerika,…), die we verder kunnen onderverdelen in werelddelen (Europa, Noord-Amerika,…), landen (België, Nederland,…), gewesten (Vlaanderen, Wallonië,…), provincies (Antwerpen, Limburg,…), gemeenten (Deurne, Turnhout,…) en straten. Ook volkeren kunnen we onderverdelen: de hoogste rang is het wereldvolk, waaronder de Europeanen, Afrikanen en andere volkeren vallen. Het Europese volk kunnen we onderverdelen in Belgen, Fransen,… De Belgen bestaan uit Vlamingen, Walen en Brusselaars. De Vlamingen bestaan uit Limburgers, Antwerpenaren,…

Als men nu spreekt van “Eigen volk eerst”, hoe weten we dan welk volk precies bedoeld wordt? Het Antwerpse volk? Het Vlaamse volk? Het Belgische volk? Het Europese volk? De keuze voor het Vlaamse volk of het Belgische land is willekeur, want men kan evengoed een rang hoger of lager gaan en kiezen voor het Europese volk of de Antwerpse provincie. Als men je vraagt naar je geboorteplaats, vraagt men dan naar een straat, een gemeente, een provincie, een gewest, een land, een werelddeel of een continent? Zeggen dat een geboorteplaats een land is, is willekeur.

Nationalisme is gebaseerd op een willekeurige keuze van een rang in de hiërarchie van volkeren of geografische gebieden. Dit nationalisme leidt ook tot discriminatie op basis van geboorteplaats, wat we zien bij gesloten grenzen en migratiebeperkingen. De grenzen tussen gemeenten en tussen provincies zijn open, wat wil zeggen dat iemand die geboren is in de ene gemeente wel mag gaan wonen, winkelen en werken in de naburige gemeente. Waarom zouden de grenzen van een land dan wel dicht moeten voor arbeidsmigranten? Er is geen reden om landsgrenzen wel en provinciegrenzen niet te sluiten. Om niet te discrimineren, en om mondiale welvaart te bevorderen, zouden landsgrenzen ook open moeten zijn voor alle arbeidsmigranten, net zoals ze open zijn voor toeristen. Arbeidsmigranten kunnen we beschouwen als toeristen die willekeurig lang mogen verblijven in het land en die er ook mogen werken en een woning mogen kopen of huren.

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3.   Geloof en godsdienstconflicten

Godsdienstoorlogen zijn ook het gevolg van een willekeurige-rang denkfout. We kunnen gelovigen onderverdelen in bijvoorbeeld Abrahamieten (aanhangers van semitische religies), Dharmische gelovigen (aanhangers van Indiase religies) en andere gelovigen. De Abrahamieten bestaan dan weer uit onder andere Joden, Christenen, Moslims en Rastafari’s. Moslims kunnen we onderverdelen in Soennieten en Sjiieten, Christenen kunnen we dan weer onderverdelen in Katholieken, Protestanten, Evangelisten,…. De Katholieken omvatten Benedictijnen, Norbertijnen en andere kloosterorden.

In Noord-Ierland is er een conflict tussen Katholieken en Protestanten. Waarom selecteren ze de Katholieken als groep en niet bijvoorbeeld de Christenen of de Abrahamieten? Waarom kijken ze in Noord-Ierland op dat niveau in die hiërarchie van groepen? Waarom zien ze niet dat ze allemaal verenigd zijn als Christenen of Abrahamieten? Waarom beseffen rivaliserende Soennieten en Sjiieten niet dat ze allemaal Moslims zijn? Waarom beseffen rivaliserende Christenen en Moslims niet dat ze allemaal Abrahamieten zijn? En dan zijn er in India bijvoorbeeld conflicten tussen Abrahamieten en Dharmische gelovigen. Wat is het echte geloof van een Benedictijn? Is dat het Katholicisme? Of het Christendom? Of het Abrahamisme? Waarom zeggen mensen “Ik ben Christen” of “Ik ben Jood” en niet “Ik ben Abrahamiet”?

De keuze van een eigen godsdienst is zoals de keuze van eigen volk een vorm van willekeur dat vaak uitdraait op discriminatie.

4.   Kernenergie

Neem het argument: “De kernramp in Tsjernobyl bewijst dat kernenergie gevaarlijk is en daarom moeten we stoppen met kernenergie.”

Bij elektriciteitsproductie is er een probleem dat rampen zich kunnen voordoen. Nu kunnen we dat probleem onderverdelen in deelproblemen: rampen bij fossiele centrales, bij kerncentrales, bij waterkrachtcentrales,… Deze onderverdeling verwijst naar de energiebron. Maar die deelproblemen kun je weer verder opsplitsen door te verwijzen naar specifieke technologieën. Zo kan je het deelprobleem van kerncentrales onderverdelen in rampen bij grafietreactoren, bij lichtwaterreactoren, bij gesmoltenzoutreactoren, bij kweekreactoren,… De Tsjernobylramp was een ramp met een grafietreactor. Als je zegt dat alle kerncentrales dicht moeten omwille van Tsjernobyl, kun je evengoed zeggen dat alle grafietreactoren dicht moeten, of dat alle elektriciteitscentrales dicht moeten. Er is geen reden om de Tsjernobylramp toe te passen op de rang van energiebronnen, en dan enkel en alleen kernenergie te viseren. Je kan de ramp evengoed toepassen op de rang van elektriciteitsproductietechnologieën, en dus enkel en alleen grafietreactoren viseren. Wat moeten we precies afschaffen: alle elektriciteit, alle kernenergie of alle grafietreactoren? De keuze voor ‘alle kernenergie’ in dit rijtje bevat willekeur. De Tsjernobylramp kan wel een reden zijn om onveilige grafietreactoren af te schaffen, maar is daarom nog niet een reden om veiligere kerncentrales af te schaffen.

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5.   Goede doelen en ziektebestrijding

Stel dat een dierbare gestorven is aan huidkanker. Je bent daardoor zo aangegrepen dat je besluit geld te doneren aan de Skin Cancer Foundation, een huidkankerfonds. Je voelt immers een sterke betrokkenheid met huidkankerpatiënten.

Als die dierbare is gestorven aan huidkanker, betekent dat dat die persoon ook is overleden aan kanker. Waarom besluit je dan niet om geld te doneren aan het Kankerfonds? En als kanker de doodsoorzaak is, dan is een chronische ziekte de doodsoorzaak, want kanker is een chronische ziekte. Dus waarom geen geld geven aan het Chronic Disease Fund, een chronische-ziektefonds? 

Misschien zeg je: “Nee, ik wil specifiek huidkankerpatiënten helpen, omdat ik iemand ken die is gestorven aan die ziekte.” Maar je kunt toch evengoed zeggen dat je iemand kent die is gestorven aan kanker? Jouw dierbare die is overleden aan huidkanker zal sowieso niet meer geholpen kunnen worden als je er nu voor kiest om geld te geven voor huidkankerpatiënten. Dus voor die overleden persoon hoef je het huidkankerfonds niet te steunen.

Misschien zeg je: “Nee, als ik geld geef aan het Kankerfonds, gaat dat vooral naar longkankerpatiënten en niet naar huidkankerpatiënten.” Maar stel nu dat je ontdekt dat je dierbare is gestorven aan een specifieke vorm van huidkanker, namelijk een melanoom. Zou je dan besluiten geld te doneren aan de Melanoma Foundation, een melanoomfonds? Stel dat melanoom veel moeilijker te behandelen is dan andere vormen van huidkanker en dat de Skin Cancer Foundation daarom vooral focust op die andere huidkankers. Het kan wel de helft van alle huidkankerpatiënten genezen, namelijk alle patiënten die een andere vorm van huidkanker hebben dan een melanoom. Het melanoomfonds focust vanzelfsprekend nog wel volledig op melanoompatiënten en zal maar een paar patiënten kunnen genezen. Zou je dan nu plots beslissen om het melanoomfonds te steunen? Als blijkt dat de Skin Cancer Foundation zich vooral toelegt op andere vormen van huidkanker, en daarbij veel meer huidkankerpatiënten kon redden, was de steun voor die organisatie dan een slechte keuze geweest? Tellen patiënten die een andere vorm van huidkanker hebben dan plots niet meer mee? Tenslotte: als je je sterk emotioneel betrokken voelt bij alle mensen die dezelfde verschrikkelijke ziekte hebben als jouw dierbare had, en als die ziekte een melanoom is, dan zou dat de logische consequentie zijn, toch?

Wat bedoelen we eigenlijk met ‘dezelfde verschrikkelijke ziekte’? Is dat melanoom of huidkanker of kanker? Je emotionele betrokkenheid bij patiënten die dezelfde verschrikkelijke ziekte hebben, is in zekere mate willekeurig, want zij hangt af van hoe je ziektes onderverdeelt in verschillende types en subtypes. We hebben dus een hiërarchie van ziektes, en er is sprake van willekeur wanneer je zonder goede reden geld geeft aan het huidkankerfonds en niet aan bijvoorbeeld het melanoomfonds, het kankerfonds of het chronische-ziektefonds. Er is geen reden om specifiek aan een huidkankerfonds te geven wanneer je dierbare is gestorven aan zowel huidkanker als aan een melanoom, kanker in het algemeen en een chronische ziekte. 

Door die willekeur riskeer je minder effectieve keuzes te maken. Het zou bijvoorbeeld kunnen dat de behandeling van huidkanker honderd keer moeilijker is dan de behandeling van een andere, even dodelijke ziekte. Als je dan geld geeft aan een huidkankerfonds, riskeer je honderd keer minder patiënten te redden.  En als melanoom nog eens een bijzonder moeilijke vorm van huidkanker is, worden er nog minder patiënten gered wanneer je het melanoomfonds gaat steunen. Als je het huidkankerfonds blijft steunen vanwege een hogere efficiëntie, dan ben je bereid om mensen te helpen die geen melanoom hebben en dus niet dezelfde ziekte hebben waaraan jouw dierbare is gestorven. Maar als je dan toch bereid bent om te kiezen voor hogere efficiëntie, waarom dan niet het kankerfonds steunen en focussen op de longkankerpatiënten, als dat nog meer levens zou redden?

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6.   Dierenrechtenacties

Dieren hebben het recht om niet uitgebuit te worden. Nu kunnen we het probleem van dierenuitbuiting onderverdelen in deelproblemen, volgens het doel van de uitbuiting. Er is uitbuiting van dieren in de vee-industrie, waar dieren gebruikt worden voor voeding. Daarnaast worden dieren uitgebuit voor wetenschappelijk onderzoek (dierproeven), voor kleding (bont, leder en wol), voor entertainment (dierencircussen, dolfinaria,…), voor gezelschap (broodfok van huisdieren), enzovoort. Deze deelproblemen kunnen verder onderverdeeld worden volgens categorie van dieren. Zo kunnen we het probleem van uitbuiting van dieren voor entertainment opsplitsen in circussen met wilde dieren (leeuwen, olifanten), circussen met gedomesticeerde dieren (paarden) en circussen met zeezoogdieren (dolfinariums).

Sommige dierenactivisten willen focussen op een deelprobleem, zoals het gebruik van dolfijnen voor entertainment. Ze voeren dan een campagne om dolfinariums te sluiten. Hun doel is dan om dat deelprobleem volledig op te lossen, door alle dolfinariums te verbieden. Maar met dezelfde tijd, geld en middelen kunnen ze een campagne voeren die leidt tot een vermindering van bijvoorbeeld de pluimveeteelt. Aangezien er veel meer dieren uitgebuit worden in de pluimveeteelt dan in dolfinariums, leidt een heel klein percentage vermindering van de pluimveeteelt, bijvoorbeeld de sluiting van een pluimveestal doordat mensen ietsje minder kippenvlees gaan eten, tot een sterkere reductie van dierenuitbuiting dan een volledige eliminatie (honderd procent vermindering) van dolfinariums.

Het volledig elimineren van een probleem lijkt zinniger dan het slechts gedeeltelijk verminderen van een probleem. Maar de vraag is wat het probleem precies is. Is dat uitbuiting van dieren? Of is dat de uitbuiting van dieren voor entertainment? Of is dat de uitbuiting van zeezoogdieren voor entertainment? Of is dat de uitbuiting van dolfijnen in dolfinariums? We hebben opnieuw een hiërarchie van problemen. Des te lager de rang van het probleem, des te gemakkelijker is het om dat probleem volledig op te lossen. Dat zorgt ervoor dat dierenactivisten sneller kiezen voor een lage-rang probleem, zoals de sluiting van dolfinariums. Maar dergelijke sluiting mag dan wel het probleem van dolfinariums volledig elimineren, het zal het probleem van dierenuitbuiting voor entertainment slechts gedeeltelijk verminderen.

De neiging om een probleem op een gedetailleerd niveau te beschrijven en af te bakenen, dus om een lage-rang probleem te kiezen, zorgt ervoor dat dierenactivisten niet altijd de meest effectieve campagnes voeren om het globale probleem van dierenuitbuiting te verminderen. Je zou het probleem van dolfinariums kunnen herformuleren: een dolfinarium is zoals een pluimveebedrijf waar een handvol kippen opgesloten zitten en kunstjes moeten doen. Dan wordt duidelijk dat het sluiten van een pluimveebedrijf waar duizenden kippen opgepropt zitten, vetgemest worden, ernstige gezondheidsproblemen krijgen en vroegtijdig geslacht worden, belangrijker is.

7.   Risico’s

Stel er zijn twee kansspelen. Bij het eerste spel heb je een keuze tussen twee opties. Kies je optie A, dan krijg je 4 euro. Kies je optie B, dan wordt er een muntstuk opgegooid en krijg je 10 euro bij kop en 0 euro bij munt. Als je risicoavers bent, dan kies je optie A, omdat je daar een zekerheid hebt om 4 euro te winnen. Bij optie B loop je een 50% risico om niets te winnen. Bij het tweede kansspel heb je opnieuw keuze tussen twee opties. Kies je optie C, dan moet je 4 euro afgeven. Kies je optie D, dan wordt een muntstuk opgegooid, bij kop moet je 10 euro afgeven en bij munt verlies je niets. Met zekerheid iets winnen is leuk, maar met zekerheid iets verliezen, is niet leuk. Als je nog hoop wil hebben op een uitkomst waarbij je niets verliest, dan kies je optie D.

Veel mensen kiezen optie A in het eerste kansspel en tegelijk optie D in het tweede. Dat komt omdat ze de twee kansspelen als apart beschouwen. Maar je kunt ze ook als een geheel beschouwen. Stel we hebben een kansspel met vier keuzes. Kies je optie P, dan krijg je niets en verlies je niets. Kies je optie Q, dan heb je 50% kans om 6 euro te verliezen en 50% kans om 4 euro te krijgen. Kies je optie R, dan heb je 50% kans om 4 euro te verliezen en 50% kans om 6 euro te krijgen. Kies je optie S, dan heb je 50% kans om niets te winnen, 25% kans om 10 euro te verliezen en 25% kans om 10 euro te winnen.

Als mensen optie A boven B verkiezen, en optie D boven C, dan kiezen ze dus ook de combinatie AD boven BC. Maar opties AD en BC zijn dezelfde als respectievelijk Q en R. Nu is duidelijk optie R beter dan optie Q, want bij Q heb je telkens 2 euro minder.

Hier zien we een fenomeen dat het opsplitsen van risico’s in deelrisico’s kan leiden tot irrationele voorkeuren.

Een ander voorbeeld: stel dat je 1% kans hebt om te sterven van dodelijke ziekte A. Gelukkig is er vaccin A waarmee risico op ziekte A met 100% vermindert. Dat wil dus zeggen een volledige eliminatie van 1% naar 0% sterftekans. Daarnaast is er dodelijke ziekte B waarbij je 20% kans hebt om aan te sterven. Helaas is er wel vaccin B, maar daarmee vermindert het risico op ziekte met slechts 10% (van een sterftekans van 20% naar 18%). Je moet kiezen tussen vaccin A of B. De meeste mensen geven de voorkeur aan vaccin A, want dat betekent dat we ons geen zorgen meer hoeven te maken over ziekte A. Het risico op die ziekte is volledig vermeden. Vaccin B lijkt nuttelozer, want een verlaging van 20% naar 18% merk je nauwelijks. Maar de totale reductie van dodelijke ziekten met vaccin B is 2 procentpunten (van 21% naar 19%), wat twee keer zo hoog is als de totale reductie met vaccin A. De keuze voor vaccin A is irrationeel. Stel dat ik niet sprak van ziektes A en B, maar dat ze dezelfde ziekte Z vormen. Dan zie je dat vaccin B dubbel zo doeltreffend is tegen ziekte Z dan vaccin A. Of stel dat ik je vertel dat ziekte B bestaat uit twee types: ziektes B1 en B2. Je hebt 2% kans om te sterven van ziekte B1, en 18% kans om te sterven van ziekte B2. Vaccin B is eigenlijk vaccin B1, dat 100% doeltreffend is tegen ziekte B1: het elimineert het sterfterisico met 100% (dus van een sterftekans van 2% naar 0%). Dus nu hebben we drie ziektes A, B1 en B2, en twee vaccins A en B1. Dan wordt opnieuw duidelijk dat vaccin B1 (en dus vaccin B) het beste is. Door een ziekte verder onder te verdelen in subtypes, krijg je een andere risicovoorkeur.

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8.   Covid-19 versus de griep

Coronatwijfelaars twijfelen aan het belang van maatregelen en vaccins tegen het nieuwe coronavirus Sars-cov2. Ze maken daarbij vaak de vergelijking met de seizoensgriep. Nu is sars-cov2 toch duidelijk besmettelijker en dodelijker dan de seizoensgriep. Maar in zekere zin is de vergelijking ook oneerlijk, want de sars-cov2 is een variant van het coronavirus, terwijl de seizoensgriep bestaat uit verschillende varianten of subtypes van het griepvirus. Moet men eerlijkheidshalve dan niet sars-cov2 vergelijken met een subtype van griep, zoals H16N3? Dan wordt nog duidelijker dat sars-cov2 ernstiger is dan H16N3-griep, en dat het covidvaccin belangrijker is dan het H16N3-griepvaccin.

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9.   Natuurbehoud

Ecologisten verkiezen een natuurlijk evenwicht, maar of een natuurgebied in evenwicht is, hangt af van de tijdschaal waarop men kijkt. We kunnen de tijd onderverdelen in millennia, die we verder kunnen onderverdelen in eeuwen, die we verder kunnen onderverdelen in decennia, jaren, maanden, enzovoort. Als we spreken van een natuurlijk evenwicht, dan wil dat meestal zeggen dat de samenstelling van planten en diersoorten in het natuurgebied niet veel verandert over perioden van enkele decennia. Kijken we naar langere perioden zoals millennia, dan zien we veel veranderingen in datzelfde natuurgebied. En kijken we naar kortere perioden zoals jaren, dan zien we dat dierenpopulaties in dat natuurgebied op en neer schommelen. Dan is er niet veel sprake meer van een evenwicht. Zeggen dat een natuurgebied in evenwicht is omdat er weinig verandering is in een periode van decennia, en niet in perioden van jaren of millennia, is willekeur. Als men dan aan natuurbehoud wil doen, duikt vaak de vraag op welke toestand van vroeger men dan wil herstellen en behouden: de toestand van vorig jaar, van vorig decennium, van de vorige eeuw, of van het vorige millennium? Wat nu grasland is voor de veeteelt, was tien jaar geleden een naaldbos, honderd jaar geleden heide, en duizend jaar geleden een loofbos. Wat is nu de juiste natuur voor die plek?

10.  Idealisme en individuele keuzes

Een groep van mensen maakt keuzes. Die verzameling van keuzes kunnen we op verschillende manieren onderverdelen, bijvoorbeeld volgens het tijdstip dat de keuze gemaakt werd, of het individu dat de keuze maakte. We kunnen dan kijken naar de keuzes van individuen, en de keuzes van een individu kunnen we verder opsplitsen in individuele keuzes van dat individu. Neem als voorbeeld de keuzes die een impact hebben op het klimaat of het dierenwelzijn, zoals de keuze om met het vliegtuig te reizen of om vlees te eten.

Klimaatactivisten en dierenactivisten willen dat mensen milieuvriendelijkere en diervriendelijkere keuzes maken. De idealisten onder die activisten verkiezen een aanpak die werkt in een ideale wereld waarin alle mensen rationeel zijn en de juiste waarden delen. Hun boodschap kan dan al snel kordaat of radicaal zijn, zoals “Klimaatverandering is onrechtvaardig. Stop met vliegen!” en “Vlees is moord. Wordt veganist!” Een rationeel persoon die begaan is met dierenwelzijn, zal hierdoor wel overtuigd worden. Maar die strenge boodschap is voor de grote meerderheid te extreem, dus die meerderheid luistert er niet naar. Een minderheid, bijvoorbeeld 10%, staat wel open voor die boodschap en die mensen worden veganist en stoppen met vliegen. Het dierenleed van vlees en de klimaatimpact van vliegtuigreizen daalt voor de hele bevolking dan met 10%.

Tegenover de idealisten staan de realisten, die een strategie volgen die het best werkt in de reële wereld. Veel realisten denken dat een zachtere boodschap, zoals “minder vliegen” en “minder vlees eten”, effectiever is in de reële wereld. Met die boodschap zou het kunnen dat meer mensen worden aangesproken, en dat bijvoorbeeld alle mensen 20% minder gaan vliegen en minder vlees gaan eten. Het dierenleed en de klimaatimpact van de hele bevolking daalt in dit hypothetische voorbeeld dan met 20%. Dat is meer dan wat de idealisten konden realiseren.

Een idealist verkiest de idealistische situatie waarin 10% van de mensen volledig perfect goed zijn voor het klimaat en de dieren (dus geen slechte keuzes maken), boven een wereld waarin iedereen nog veel slechte keuzes maakt zoals vliegen en vlees eten (maar dan wel 20% minder slechte keuzes dan wat de overige 90% van de bevolking in de idealistische situatie doet). Een idealist focust met andere woorden op de keuzes van individuen en niet op de individuele keuzes. Een idealist kijkt naar het individu en stelt zich de vraag: is die persoon klimaatneutraal en veganist? Een realist kijkt daarentegen naar elke individuele reis en elke individuele maaltijd en stelt zich dan de vraag: is die reis met het vliegtuig, bevat die maaltijd dierlijk vlees? Voor het klimaat en de dieren telt het aantal reizen met het vliegtuig en het aantal maaltijden met vlees, niet het aantal mensen dat soms vliegt of het aantal mensen dat soms dierlijk vlees eet.

Idealistische klimaat- en dierenactivisten focussen op het individu en niet op individuele keuzes. Maar ze focussen op het individu op een nog andere manier: ze kijken eerder naar de resultaten geboekt door individuen, dan naar resultaten geboekt door de hele groep. Stel een groep van mensen wil iets doen aan het klimaat of het dierenleed. Ze kunnen ofwel persoonlijke maatregelen nemen waarmee de klimaatimpact en het dierenleed iets vermindert. Of ze kunnen onderzoek doen naar nieuwe technologieën zoals klimaatneutrale vliegtuigen en diervrij vlees (bv. celkweekvlees). Technologische innovatie is riskant: de meeste onderzoeksprojecten lopen op niets uit. Maar een kleine minderheid van innovaties zijn wel succesvol en resulteren in bijvoorbeeld goedkoop kwaliteitsvol celkweekvlees. Die nieuwe technologieën kunnen dan gemakkelijk door de hele bevolking overgenomen worden, want individuen moeten dan niet meer hun gedrag sterk aanpassen of heel andere keuzes maken. Stel dat elk individu nu een eigen onderzoeksproject kiest. Dan weten we dat de grote meerderheid van de onderzoekers niets gaat realiseren en geen positieve impact gaan hebben. Een kleine minderheid van de onderzoekers doet wel de geniale uitvinding, en die paar mensen realiseren dan heel veel goeds. Voor een idealist is het moeilijk te aanvaarden dat de grote meerderheid helemaal niets zinnigs realiseerde voor het klimaat en de dieren. Maar voor de realist (en voor het klimaat en de dieren) maakt het niet uit wie van de mensen de geniale uitvinding doet.

Meer lezen?

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Unwanted arbitrariness, dictatorship and discrimination

Everyone who makes a choice has to avoid unwanted arbitrariness as much as possible. This is a fundamental principle in ethics, in the sense that it applies to all moral choices. This anti-arbitrariness principle is the reason why dictatorship and discrimination are morally wrong.

Definition of unwanted arbitrariness

Unwantedness means being incompatible with someone’s largest consistent set of that person’s strongest subjective preferences. A subjective preference is a conscious value judgments or evaluation that has a subjective strength (to be distinguished from e.g. a mere unconscious behavioral disposition). For example, being told a lie is incompatible with a preference for knowing the truth. If something is not logically compatible with the largest consistent set of your strongest preferences, it cannot be consistently wanted by you. Everything that is compatible, can be consistently wanted. Saying that you cannot consistently want something is the same as saying that you can reasonably object it.

Arbitrariness means selecting an element (or subset) of a set without using a selection rule. A selection rule is a rule that logically determines the selection. It is an if-then statement that consists of a set of conditions. For example: “If element X has conditions A and B or not C, then select X.” If the question “Why selecting element X instead of element Y?” has no answer that refers to a selection rule (for example if the only answer is “Therefore!”), then selecting X is arbitrary.

Combining the above definitions of unwantedness and arbitrariness, we can define unwanted arbitrariness as making a choice without following a selection rule, whereby the consequences of that choice cannot be consistently wanted by at least one person. Here, a choice can be defined as a conscious decision. Making a choice means consciously selecting an element from a choice set, the set of eligible options.

Formulations of the anti-arbitrariness principle

The anti-arbitrariness principle states that:

When making a choice, we have to avoid unwanted arbitrariness as much as possible.

To avoid arbitrary exclusion of choices, this principle applies to all possible choices, including very specific actions (“Sit at seat 5 on bus 42 at 1 pm Friday”), to more general choices (“Use public transport”), to justifications (“Take a seat when the seat is empty and you paid for a ticket”), to higher level moral choices (“Choose the action allowed by a contractualist ethic”), to even very basic choices of premises and logical deduction rules used in justifications (“Use deontic logic to determine the validity of an argument”). For practical reasons, we do not have to consider impossible choices (“Avoid unavoidable unwanted arbitrariness”).

To avoid arbitrary exclusion of people who have to respect this principle, the principle applies to everyone who is able to make choices based on selection rules. When someone cannot make a choice, that is an exception, but not an arbitrary exception because it is justified using an ‘ought implies can’ rule: “If you cannot do something, you have no obligation to do it.”

But this anti-arbitrariness principle does not yet say what happens if we don’t avoid unwanted arbitrariness. Also, the ‘as much as possible’ hints at the possibility that sometimes unwanted arbitrariness may not be avoidable. Therefore, we can give a more exact formulation of the anti-arbitrariness principle, in a strong and a weak version.

Anti-arbitrariness principle, first formulation, strong version. If you do not avoid avoidable unwanted arbitrariness when making a choice, you are not allowed to make that choice.

Anti-arbitrariness principle, first formulation, weak version. If you cannot avoid unwanted arbitrariness when making a choice, you are allowed to make that choice but other people may make other choices from the same choice set (i.e. you have to tolerate that other people make other choices).

We can give another formulation of the anti-arbitrariness principle:

For every choice you make, you have to be able to give a justification rule such that you and everyone can consistently want that everyone follows that rule in all possible (including hypothetical) situations (i.e. you and everyone can accept the consequences of a universal compliance by everyone of the justification rule).

A justification rule for (im)permissibility of a choice should be used in a logical deduction. Therefore, it is basically an if-then statement that consists of a set of conditions: “If conditions C apply, then it is permissible to choose X.”

As with the first formulation, this second formulation of the anti-arbitrariness principle also comes in two versions.

Anti-arbitrariness principle, second formulation, strong version. If, when making a choice, you cannot give a justification rule of which you would accept universal compliance, then you are not allowed to make that choice nor follow that rule.

Anti-arbitrariness principle, second formulation, weak version. If, when making a choice, you cannot give a justification rule of which everyone would accept universal compliance, then you must accept or tolerate that other people make other choices from the same choice set and follow other justification rules for making those choices.

There are many similarities between the two formulations of the anti-arbitrariness principle, such that they can be said to be roughly equivalent.

First, there is a correspondence between the selection rule and the justification rule. The first formulation works with a selection rule to avoid arbitrariness. In the second formulation, arbitrariness is avoided by the justification rule and by the idea that if you may follow that rule in a specific situation, then everyone may follow that rule in all possible situations. Suppose that the “everyone” and “all possible situations” were no requirements. Replacing them by “some people” and “some situations” would introduce arbitrariness, because arbitrary subsets of the sets of all people and all situations can be chosen.

Second, both formulations look for what can be consistently wanted. The condition “everyone can consistently want that everyone follows that rule in all possible situations” is the opposite of unwanted arbitrariness. Suppose you choose option A arbitrarily and person Y is in a position P in which s/he cannot consistently want that arbitrary choice. If we consider everyone and all possible situations, this includes the situation where person Y chooses A and you are in the same position P that Y had, in which case you cannot consistently want A.

A third similarity between the two formulations, is that they both come in a weak and a strong version. Unwanted arbitrariness may not always be avoidable, because there may always be someone who cannot consistently want a choice that cannot be based on a selection rule. Similarly, it may not be possible to find a justification rule of which everyone can accept universal compliance. In these cases, people must tolerate that other people make other choices.

A final similarity between the two formulations of the anti-arbitrariness principle, is that they both apply to all possible choices, including the choice of selection and justification rules (in particular the choice of conditions in those rules). That means a selection meta-rule should be given to select the selection rule from the set of all selection rules. Similarly, a justification meta-rule should be given to that justifies the chosen conditions in a justification rule. With the application to all possible choices and the resulting necessary inclusion of such meta-rules (and higher order meta-meta-rules), the anti-arbitrariness principle becomes perhaps the most fundamental principle in ethics.

An example might give some clarification. Consider the situation of taking a seat on the bus. If you choose to take a seat, the rule could be: “If you are white, you may take the seat,” or “If you have permission by person X, you may take the seat.” But the choice of these conditions is arbitrary (they refer to an arbitrary skin color or person). A better rule would be: “If the seat is empty and you have permission by the people who have a special relationship with the seat, you may take the seat.” We have to specify what counts as a special relationship. This can again be done by considering relationships of which everyone can consistently want that they are part of the conditions in the justification rule. Examples of such a special relationship could be ‘being the owner of the bus’ or ‘having reserved the seat’. Having permission could mean ‘having paid for a ticket’.

As the anti-arbitrariness principle deals with choices and rules, we are confronted with two important questions. Who decides or chooses the choices and rules? And who is affected by the choices and rules? These two questions relate to the dual problems of dictatorship and discrimination. The next two sections discuss how the anti-arbitrariness principle implies the non-dictatorship and non-discrimination principles.

Implication 1: non-dictatorship

The non-dictatorship principle says that no-one should have the unconditional power to always unilaterally make decisions that affect other people. A dictatorship clearly violates the anti-arbitrariness principle, because the choice for the dictator is arbitrary (as the dictator’s power is unconditional, no rule was followed to grant that power), and unwanted (when there are affected people who do not want the decisions made by the dictator).

The non-dictatorship principle can also be applied to moral theories. These theories are logical systems of ethical principles that represent moral intuitions or values. There are different moral theories, such as a deontological rights ethic, a consequentialist utilitarian welfare ethic, a libertarian ethic or pluralist ethics that combine several ethical principles. But which theory should we choose? The anti-arbitrariness principle sets strong constraints on a moral theory. The theory should be coherent in the sense that it should be constructed following some rules, such as:

  1. One should not arbitrarily limit the ethical principles to an arbitrary group of objects, beings or individuals.
  2. One should not arbitrarily give weaker moral intuitions stronger priority. One should not arbitrarily change or exclude basic moral judgments.
  3. One should not arbitrarily allow inconsistencies and gaps in the ethical system.
  4. One should not arbitrarily introduce ambiguous or vague principles that one can interpret and apply arbitrarily in concrete situations.
  5. One should not arbitrarily add artificial, complex, ad hoc constructions and exceptions to save the moral theory from counterintuitive implications.

These construction rules for a coherent theory can be consistently wanted. If for example I allow inconsistencies, gaps, ambiguities or arbitrary exceptions in my theory, then I have to accept that your moral theory also contains such things. With such an incoherent theory, you can easily justify choices that I cannot consistently want.

To avoid dictatorship, everyone is allowed to construct a coherent moral theory that best fits one’s moral intuitions and values. Incoherent theories are impermissible. But there are many possible coherent moral theories. We do not have a rule that determines which of those coherent theories is the best. If we are against unwanted arbitrariness, we have to recognize that every equally coherent moral theory is equally valid. I cannot say that my coherent theory, based on my moral intuitions, is better than yours if both our theories are equally coherent. I prefer my theory, but I cannot impose my theory upon you, because what would make me so special that I would be allowed to do that? And the same goes for you and everyone else. It would be an unwanted kind of arbitrariness if I claim that my moral theory is special without good reason.

So picking one of the coherent moral theories always involves unavoidable arbitrariness. The non-dictatorship principle says that we should democratically choose which moral theory to apply. And if you follow a coherent moral theory without being able to give a justification rule that selects that theory, you should tolerate that other people follow other coherent moral theories. We should be tolerant towards all other coherent ethical systems, no matter how much they go against our own moral intuitions.

A choice for an incoherent system, on the other hand, does not have to be condoned, because you can give a justification rule “If the theory is incoherent, then it is impermissible to choose it,” and everyone can consistently want that everyone follows this rule. If you choose to follow an incoherent theory, I am allowed to reject that theory and impose my theory on you, and you are not able to complain. You are not able to give reasonable or justified counterarguments against the imposition of my ethical principles, because by following your incoherent theory, you are acknowledging that unwanted arbitrariness and hence arbitrary exclusion are allowed. That means it is also permissible to arbitrarily exclude your moral theory and ignore your moral views and ethical principles. You can only give a valid complaint or argument if you accept the anti-arbitrariness principle. Without that principle, any critique becomes invalid and complaints become impossible.

As the ethical systems of e.g. racists, rapists or religious fundamentalists contain inconsistencies, avoidable arbitrariness, unscientific beliefs and vague principle, they can easily be rejected. If your ethical system is more coherent than theirs, then you can rightfully say that your ethical system is better than theirs and then you may oppose their incoherent systems.

The prohibition of incoherent theories allows us to avoid an extreme form of moral relativism that says that all moral theories, including incoherent ones, are equally valid. This extreme relativism implies that everything would be permissible, and we cannot consistently want that. The non-dictatorial claim that coherent moral theories are equally valid is a kind of weak moral relativism, which is a consequence of the anti-arbitrariness principle.

How do we deal with that plentitude of coherent ethical systems that are equally valid? Everyone (who is able to do so) constructs their own coherent ethical systems, and we can aim for a consensus or democratic compromise between everyone’s system by using a democratic procedure. In a democracy, everyone has one vote, or everyone’s vote is equally important, because we cannot say that one vote (one coherent theory) is better than someone else’s. But those who cannot provide a coherent moral theory that does not contain unwanted arbitrariness, lose their vote. Or in other words: in this moral democracy it is not allowed to vote for parties who have incoherent moral theories, such as racist parties. Those parties cannot participate in elections.

Implication 2: non-discrimination

Arbitrary discrimination of individual (or group) A relative to B is a systematically different treatment of A and B, whereby

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

The first two conditions reflect unwantedness. The discriminated person A does not want the disadvantage, but also the person who discriminates does not want swapping positions of A and B. The third condition reflects arbitrariness, i.e. the lack of a justifying rule. Discrimination is based on arbitrariness, and this arbitrariness is avoidable and unwanted, because the discriminated people do not want their negative treatment, their arbitrary exclusion from the moral community.

The anti-arbitrariness principle specifies what counts as morally irrelevant criteria. A criterion or property is morally irrelevant when it is

  • arbitrary (there is no non-circular rule that selects the property out of a multitude of similar kinds of properties),
  • contingent (not present in all possible worlds) or not intrinsic (it does not refer solely to the individual possessing the property), or
  • ambiguous (the property is inherently difficult to detect, define or delimit or it is non-empirical, which means there are no scientific criteria and methods – not even in principle – to clearly see whether the property is present).

Of course if the property is arbitrary, it violates the anti-arbitrariness principle. If the property is contingent or not intrinsic, there is also an arbitrariness in the sense that the property depends on contingent (accidental) circumstances that could have been different in another possible world. Someone’s rights should not depend on contingent properties, because we can ask the question: why should that individual get rights in this possible world but not in that? And if the property is difficult to detect or delimit, there is the risk that one arbitrarily assigns the property as one pleases.

Examples of criteria that are morally irrelevant because of the above reasons, are: physical characteristics and appearances (e.g. skin color, behavior, gender), genetic properties (e.g. race, ethnicity, genetic kinship), preferences (e.g. sexual, political), supernatural properties (e.g. having a soul) or belonging to an arbitrary group.

As a concrete example of the non-discrimination principle, consider the choice of moral community: the subset of all entities in the universe that have moral status (in the sense of e.g. having moral rights). Consider only living beings. According to the biological classification, we can classify living beings in a vertical taxonomic hierarchy, with the taxonomic rank ‘life’ at the top, followed by ranks such as ‘domains’ (e.g. eukaryotes), ‘classes’ (e.g. mammals), ‘orders’ (e.g. primates), and finally the taxonomic rank ‘populations’ (races, subspecies) at the bottom. A white supremacist first chooses the lowest level in this hierarchy (the populations or ethnic groups), and then picks a subset at this level (the ethnic group of whites). Similarly, a speciesist first selects the level of the species, and then selects a specific species (e.g. Homo sapiens) as the moral community. If no selection rules were followed, these two choices involve respectively vertical and horizontal arbitrariness. We can first ask the non-trivial question: “Why choosing a species and not e.g. a biological order or a phylum?” And at the level of the species, we can ask: “Why choosing Homo sapiens (humans) and not e.g. Sus scrofa (pigs)?” One could answer: “Because most humans have the capacity for moral thought”, but it is possible that this answer also applies to some levels up or down in the hierarchy. If for example there are less than 14 billion primates alive, containing more than 7 billion humans with the capacity for moral thought, then the majority of primates have this capacity. Hence, one could equally well first select the level of orders and then the order of primates. By selecting a biological group as a moral community, it is not easy to avoid arbitrariness.

The definition of discrimination means you can avoid discrimination in three ways: either treating A and B equally, tolerating swapping their positions or justifying the preferential treatment using non-arbitrary criteria.

If you tolerate swapping the positions of A and B, you give them equal moral value. This implies that some kinds of partiality are not (yet) discriminatory. Consider a burning house dilemma where you can either save Alice or Bob from the flames. Suppose you want to save Bob first because he is your child, whereas Alice is a child from another country, with another skin color. Non-discrimination does not imply that you should flip a coin and give each child an equal 50% survival probability. You are not a racist or sexist (at least not necessarily) if you want to save Bob, as long as you do not condemn someone else who wants to save Alice. If you criticize someone who saved Alice using arbitrary criteria such as skin color or gender, then you discriminate and then it becomes racism or sexism.

Considering the above, we can formulate the following ethical principle of tolerated partiality: when helping others, you are allowed to be partial in favor of one individual or group (e.g. your own child), as long as you tolerate someone else’s choice to help the other party (e.g. another child). In this sense, saving your child is not inconsistent with the claim that all children have an equal moral value. Two children can have a different personal values for you, but they inherit an equal moral value when a tolerated symmetry (swapping their positions) is satisfied. Having a stronger empathic connection for one individual or having a stronger inclination to save one individual instead of the other, and acting on those feelings, is not necessarily discrimination.

This principle of tolerated partiality can be derived from the unwanted arbitrariness principle: everyone should tolerate your preference for saving the people you hold dear, even if your selection of those people is arbitrary (e.g. from my perspective), because everyone can consistently want to be able to save the people they hold dear.

What if you do not tolerate swapping the positions of Alice and Bob? Suppose Bob is your child and Alice is the name of my car. You would not tolerate me saving the car. The definition of arbitrary discrimination implies that to avoid discrimination, there must be a valid reason or justification, based on non-arbitrary criteria, why one entity (the child) is more important or valuable than the other (the car). In this example you can easily give a valid reason: the child has preferences to be rescued, to keep on living and to avoid the pain from the flames, whereas the car does not care at all about being burned or rescued.

Similarly, suppose you give a piece of chocolate to Bob, a child, instead of Alice, a dog. You have a non-arbitrary justification: chocolate is unhealthy for dogs. Being able to safely eat chocolate is a non-arbitrary criterion, because both the dog and the child prefer safe food. Non-discrimination does not say that we must treat everyone the same and give everyone the same food.

However, some reasons are invalid. For example, the reason to save Bob instead of Alice because Bob belongs to a certain social group or believes in a certain God. Those invalid reasons refer to arbitrary criteria, such as skin color, religious beliefs or group membership. A white supremacist might help Bob instead of Alice based on their skin colors, but what does skin color have to do with a preference to help or being helped? Skin color is but one bodily characteristic, and it is arbitrary to claim that this particular characteristic relates to subjective preferences.

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The problem of possible populations: animal farming, sustainability, extinction and the repugnant conclusion

A personal note

Population ethics is terribly difficult. My personal journey started ten years ago with a very simple theory called ‘average utilitarianism’. This theory is simple enough to express in one line: choose the option that maximizes the average welfare of the whole population. But it has many flaws, so I switched to ‘rank-discounted utilitarianism’ around 2012 (more complicated, but explained here). After coming up with some objections (some explained here), I changed my mind again and defended an even more complex ‘positive number-dampened power mean prioritarianism with negative total utilitarianism’ in my PhD-dissertation of 2014. Two years later, I realized that this theory was a big mistake, as it also involved very counter-intuitive implications (such as a reverse sadistic repugnant conclusion). So I moved on and made a stopover at the ‘minimum complaint theory’, which another two years later, in 2018, grew into a more simple but ambiguous ‘variable critical level utilitarianism’. Added to this, a few months ago (in 2021), I started to appreciate another, more complex ‘minimax net-complaint theory’. It seems that I change my mind about population ethical theories every two years. I would have given it up a long time ago, if population ethics were not so important.

Alas, when one wants to do the most good in the world and tackle the most relevant and important real-life decisions involving animals and future generations, population ethics is crucial. The moral value of possible populations, of individuals whose existence depends on our choices, is a tough nut to crack. And considering the huge numbers of farmed and wild animals and the huge number of people who could exist in the long-term future, the stakes are extremely high. Every month, humans are breeding (and killing) as many farm animals as the current worldwide human population. Humans are also causing species extinction, which means innumerable future wild animals are no longer born. And humans create new dangers that could with a non-zero probability cause human extinction. Quadrillions of future people’s lives are at stake. How bad is it when we make a decision that causes the non-existence of a number of possible people larger than any number you can realistically think of? Sure, those 100000000000000000000000000000000 non-born people cannot complain against our decision, because they will not exist as a result of our decision, but does that make our decision morally ok? What if they all could have had extremely satisfying lives?

Considering this importance, past June I participated at a University of Oxford Global Priorities Institute conference programme. Thinking, discussing and reading about population ethical theories for another full month. At the final days of that conference, I realized that perhaps a rather simple population ethical theory (which for the moment I give a more difficult name ‘person-affecting excised total utilitarianism’) could be good enough to deal with the crucial big decisions involving possible populations.

Addition October 2021: I slightly improved the population ethical theory into ‘person-affecting neutral range utilitarianism‘)

The new theory: person-affecting excised total utilitarianism

We can start with possibly the simplest population ethical theory: total utilitarianism. Choose the option that maximizes the total welfare of the whole population. This total welfare is the sum of the welfares of every individual who exists or will exist in the future. (How to measure welfare or utility is another difficult question. Here we can assume that welfare is a properly weighted aggregate of satisfaction minus dissatisfaction of preferences and positive minus negative experiences over a lifespan. These qualitative aspects are properly aggregated such that the welfare of a person in a situation measures how strongly that person prefers that situation and everything about that situation relative to a hypothetical reference situation where everything is the same, except that person has no subjective experiences and behaves the same way but completely unconsciously.)

There is a serious issue with total utilitarianism: it often comes down to… total sacrifice. An example is the Very Repugnant Conclusion. In an initial state, a group of people is extremely happy, having an extremely high welfare. These people can totally sacrifice themselves, becoming extremely miserable (with very negative welfare), by giving birth to or breeding huge numbers of humans and animals. All these extra people only exist in this second state, and they all have lives barely worth living, with positive but very low welfare. As long as the number of extra people is large enough, the total welfare in the second state is higher than in the initial state. For example, the initial state has a billion people at a very high welfare 10, whereas the second state has those billion people at welfare minus 10, plus a trillion people at low but positive welfare 1. The total welfare in the second state is 99 times higher than in the initial state. Therefore, a ‘totalist’ would say that the second state is better, although in that state there are extremely miserable people and no-one is very happy.

The basic reason for my drifting from theory to theory, is trying to avoid this Very Repugnant Conclusion of total utilitarianism. That is not easy, because alternative theories, from average utilitarianism to minimax net-complaint theory, also have counter-intuitive implications.

A simple way to avoid the Very Repugnant Conclusion, is first making a distinction between necessary and possible people. If we make decisions, we can only choose between a limited number of options. Each option results in a different state of the world, i.e. a different future involving different people having different welfares. Necessary people are those people who exist in all available states of the world, whereas possible people do not exist in at least some available states. Second, we can apply total utilitarianism, but simply exclude all possible people from the sum of welfares. This easily avoids the Very Repugnant conclusion: the extra population of lives barely worth living are excluded from the calculation, such that the second state gets a reduced total welfare of minus 10 billion.

This reduced total utilitarianism is a ‘person-affecting theory’, which says that we should make (necessary) people happy, instead of making (possible) happy people. Person-affecting means that if a state is better (or worse) than another, than there should be at least one existing person for whom that state is better (or worse). If in the Very Repugnant Conclusion scenario a totalist says that the initial state is worse than the second state, the person-affecting theorist replies that one should then indicate at least one existing person in the initial state for whom that state is worse. As there does not exist such a person, the person-affecting theorists concludes that the initial state is better (because it is better for the necessary people).

Simply excluding all possible people is not a good idea. It makes the theory too dictatorial: only the necessary people count and can determine what is good. And the theory generates a Sadistic Conclusion, in which it is good to create people with extremely miserable lives. Consider factory farming of chickens. There is a rather strong consensus amongst farm animal welfare experts, animal ethics experts and lay people that many chickens in intensive agriculture have a negative welfare. At this moment, we can decide to breed extra chickens in the future. These future chickens are possible individuals: they do not exist if we would choose for example a vegan world. Not taking into account their negative welfare, merely because they are at this moment possible people, is extremely sadistic: meat-eaters who like chicken meat can become a little bit happier, at the cost of a huge amount of extra suffering experienced by the billions of chickens. 

To avoid this Sadistic Conclusion, let us only exclude the welfare of possible people who have a positive welfare. But now we face an anti-natalist Extinction Conclusion: global extinction of all sentience becomes the best option. A fraction of future humans can have lives not worth living, with more negative than positive experiences. And the lives of wild animals are likely more miserable, meaning a higher probability of negative welfare. If only possible people with a negative welfare count, the future can only be bad (or at best neutral, when no future person has a negative welfare). Of course, the necessary people, who cannot procreate and have to destroy the world, would suffer, but the total suffering of the huge numbers of possible future lives with negative welfare can easily be higher than the total suffering of the necessary people. This means that total extinction would be the best decision.

We can remain more faithful towards total utilitarianism and still avoid the Very Repugnant Conclusion, as well as the Sadistic Conclusion and the Extinction Conclusion, by only excluding the possible people who have welfare levels between zero and some positive threshold level. Possible people with negative welfare or sufficiently high welfare are still included in the totalist sum of welfares. After all, the Very Repugnant Conclusion clearly referred to possible people having lives barely worth living, i.e. with low positive welfare levels. So it is sufficient to only exclude those lives. Person-affecting excised total utilitarianism, that excludes (cuts out or excises) the welfare of possible people with lives barely worth living (having a low positive welfare), is the theory closest to total utilitarianism that uses a person-affecting adaptation to avoid the Very Repugnant Conclusion.

Person-affecting excised total utilitarianism introduces one arbitrariness: how high should the threshold be? To avoid unwanted arbitrariness (where the arbitrariness cannot consistently be  wanted by at least one person), I suggest that the necessary people (at least those who are cognitively capable) can individually and autonomously choose the threshold value (just as in my older theory of variable critical level utilitarianism people can autonomously choose critical levels). To make it democratic, we can simply take the average value of everyone’s chosen threshold. (One could also take a weighted average, where the chosen thresholds are weighted by how certain people feel about their chosen thresholds. Someone who feels uncertain about the best threshold or feels indifferent between different threshold values, can chose a satisfying threshold that gets a low weight in the weighted average.)

This threshold value can also depend on the set of available states at the moment of decision. If for example the available states result in a Very Repugnant Conclusion when a low threshold is chosen, the necessary people can temporarily choose a higher threshold. In other contexts, a high threshold can result in an unwanted Extinction Conclusion, which means a lower threshold can be chosen. If the decision involves a choice between available states that generate both the Very Repugnant Conclusion and the Extinction Conclusion, the necessary people have to choose which is the least bad outcome and choose their preferred threshold values appropriately. Every necessary person can choose a preferred threshold value at every decision point in time. This chosen threshold value represents or captures population ethical preferences of that person, such as the preference to avoid the Very Repugnant Conclusion or the Extinction Conclusion.

As a possible person does not always exist, and a non-existing person does not have any preferences (let alone population ethical preferences), it is permissible to exclude possible people from the democratic choice of threshold value. The possible people cannot complain against this exclusion, because either the possible person will not come into existence, or when the choice of the threshold value is made such that it causes the existence of that possible person, the welfare of that person was only excluded when it is positive. A positive welfare means that the person has no reason to complain against the choice of threshold value: another chosen threshold could result in the non-existence of that person.

Some technical issues (optional reading)

Before we move to concrete applications, some technical issues of this person-affecting excised total utilitarianism need to be addressed. The reader who is not interested in these technicalities, can skip this section and jump to the applications below.

First, we have to avoid dynamic inconsistency. Assume that the threshold level is 2 units of welfare: if a possible person has welfare between 0 and 2, that welfare doesn’t count. Suppose in an initial, single-person state, there is one person with high welfare 10. This person can make two consecutive decisions. The first decision is to bring into existence a second person. If the second person is brought into existence, a second decision determines how well-off both people become. Choosing the low-welfare two-person state, the first person gets a low welfare 4,5 and the newborn, second person receives welfare 6, which is higher than the threshold value of 2. In the alternative high-welfare two-person state, the first person gets welfare 9,9 and the newborn person gets a low welfare 1. Now look at the sum of welfares in each state, excluding the possible people with welfare below 2. The initial, single-person state has total welfare 10, the low-welfare two-person state has total welfare 4,5+6=10,5, and the high-welfare two-person state has total welfare 9,9 (because the second person is below the threshold and hence excluded). The low-welfare two-person state has the highest total welfare and hence should be selected.

But, once the second person comes into existence, the initial single-person state is no longer an available option. Only the two two-person states remain. That means the second person also becomes a necessary person, because that person now exists in all available states. Hence, the second decision should be made by considering the second person as a necessary person. Now the high-welfare two-person state receives a total welfare of 9,9+1=10,9. So now this latter state should be chosen. There is an inconsistency, because this state had the lowest total welfare when facing the first decision (i.e. the choice between the three available states). We can play this game again, by introducing the option to cause the existence of a third person. In the low-welfare, three-person state, the first person gets welfare 4, the second remains at welfare 1, and the third person gets 6. The total welfare is 11. The high-welfare, three-person state gives welfare levels 9,8 to the first person and 1 to the other two people. Before the existence of the third person, that person is a possible person with welfare below the threshold, and hence excluded from the sum of welfares. That sum is 10,8, which is lower than the low-welfare, three-person state. However, once the third person exists and becomes a necessary person, the sum of welfares in the high-welfare, three-person state is 11,8. This state should now be selected. We see the welfare of the first person decrease, from 10 to 9,9 to 9,8, by adding people with lives barely worth living (welfare 1). We can play this game 200 times, until the first person gets a welfare minus 10 and 200 people are added with lives barely worth living, and behold: we end up with the Very Repugnant Conclusion.

This shows that it is very difficult to escape the Very Repugnant Conclusion (see this article “Why the repugnant conclusion is inescapable”). But we do not surrender yet. To avoid this Very Repugnant Conclusion, as well as the dynamic inconsistency, we can introduce a simple constraint. If an available state, which initially seems to be the best, is later (when possible people become necessary people) dominated by another alternative state which initially seems worse, the initial better-seeming state should be excluded from the available options of the initial decision. If you know in advance that if you choose the best state, that best state will later no longer be the best state in the future, then you should not choose that best state. In the above example, the low-welfare two-person state should be excluded from the first decision, and hence the one-person state is the remaining best state. We no longer slide towards the Very Repugnant Conclusion.

A second technicality involves situations of uncertainty. When making a decision, we are not sure who will exist in the future and how high the welfare of those people is. It is possible that we have information about probabilities. For example, choosing not to act against climate change means that future generations have some probability to become victim of climate change that results in a lower welfare. It could also mean a (possibly very small) probability of human extinction, which means humans in the far future will not exist. This issue of uncertainty can be dealt with in utilitarian ethics, by taking the expected value of welfare. If you have a 10% probability of getting welfare 6 and a 90% probability of getting welfare 0, your expected welfare equals 0,1 times 6 plus 0,9 times 0, which equals 0,6. A small difficulty arises with possible people, where a decision could mean a 10% probability of existence with welfare 6 and a 90% probability of non-existence. There is no welfare at non-existence, so how to calculate the expected value? In this case, we can simply assume that non-existence means a welfare of 0, such that the expected welfare equals 0,6. If this expected welfare is lower than the chosen threshold value, the welfare is excluded from the sum of welfares. Also note that a necessary person always has a 100% probability of existence.

Third, we can introduce some nuanced extensions of the theory. We can make the theory ‘lexical’ when there is a tie. Suppose there are multiple optimal states, having equal sum of welfares (excluding the low positive welfares). In that case, we can break the tie by choosing the state that has the highest sum of welfares of the excludes people. Also, we can include the low positive welfares to make up for the small negative welfares, when present. (The low positive welfares cannot make up for the very bad, large negative welfares, because that would generate a weaker version of the Very Repugnant Conclusion.) Once the small negative welfares are made up for, adding more lives barely worth living does not add any value. This is a ‘soft asymmetry’ that can slightly help to avoid the Extinction Conclusion.

Applications: animal farming and climate change

Time for some real-life applications. One of my major problem areas, is animal farming. We can represent this in a simple way as a choice between three states. In the No-breeding state, humans exist (and are the necessary people) and do not cause the existence of farm animals. These humans are moderately happy. The second state Farming involves the breeding of farm animals. Humans can consume animal products such as meat, and hence are a little happier than in No-breeding. In factory farming, the animals likely have a negative welfare, but assume animal farming is possible where the animals have overall a positive welfare. They are (painlessly) prematurely killed to be eaten, so they have a low positive welfare. In the third state Sanctuary, humans cause the existence of animals, but these animals are then raised on an animal sanctuary where they receive a lot of benefits (protection, food, care, a safe and wide area,…) such that the animals are very happy. The humans, on the other hand, no longer receive benefits from consuming animal products, and have to bear the costs of taking care for the animals. So the humans now have a low welfare.

A challenging argument in favor of meat consumption, is the ‘logic of the larder’. It is perhaps the best argument against veganism. If farm animals have a positive welfare, and humans are happier because they can enjoy the taste of meat, we seem to have a win-win where everyone is benefitted, compared to the vegan situation. The happy farm animals are not worse-off than in the vegan world, because without animal farming, these animals would not exist. Hence, if one could only choose between two states, No-breeding and Farming, then Farming would be the best option: it has a higher total welfare, and no-one can complain against choosing that option (except perhaps if the animals are average utilitarians and Farming has a lower average welfare than No-breeding, which means that the animals still prefer non-existence above having a happy life at a farm).

However, once the third option Sanctuary is available, Farming is unlikely to be the best option. For example, the total welfare in Sanctuary could be higher. A total utilitarian would then say that we have a duty to breed animals and take care of them at animal sanctuaries. This could even result in a Very Repugnant Conclusion: we have to breed a huge number of animals, sacrifice ourselves completely for the sake of those animals, who all may end up with a low welfare.

How does person-affecting excised total utilitarianism deal with this ‘logic of the larder’ animal farming problem? Can or should we eat happy meat of happy farm animals? Let us first consider happy farm animals as happy slaves. The logic of the larder, applied to human slavery, results in the counterintuitive Happy Slavery Conclusion, which says that it is permissible to breed and use human slaves who have a positive welfare. We generally agree that it is not permissible to breed and use happy human slaves. Perhaps if the total welfare with happy slavery is higher than the total welfare when slaves were set free and those slaves are so extremely happy that they themselves want the continued existence of such happy slavery and even prefer their children to be born as slaves, happy slavery could become permissible. But even if human slaves would be overall happy, it is unlikely that they would be so extremely happy in the system of slavery. The same goes for farm animals. We should avoid the Happy Animal Farming Conclusion.

Person-affecting excised total utilitarianism can avoid this Happy Animal Farming Conclusion simply by setting the threshold value slightly higher than the welfare of the farm animals. As the animals in Sanctuary have a higher welfare than the animals in Farming, it is possible that those sanctuary animals have a welfare above the threshold. That means those sanctuary animals are included in the sum of welfares. If the sum of the welfare of humans and animals in Sanctuary is higher than the sum of the welfare of humans in No-breeding, then Sanctuary should be chosen. If total utilitarianism would select Sanctuary, then so would person-affecting excised total utilitarianism. However, it could be that the welfare of animals in Sanctuary is still considered too low. Total utilitarianism would pick Sanctuary as the best option, even if it involves the Very Repugnant Conclusion, as mentioned above. The humans have a lower welfare in Sanctuary than in No-breeding, so they rather prefer No-breeding. These humans are the necessary people and hence are allowed to choose the threshold value. They can choose a threshold value higher than the welfare of the animals in Sanctuary, such that also the sanctuary animals are excluded from the sum of welfares. If the animals are excluded, Animal Farming becomes the optimal state as it generates the highest welfare for the humans. But that state involves the introduction of animals. Now we face a problem: once those animals exist, they become necessary individuals whose welfare counts. That means Sanctuary becomes better than Animal Farming once the decision is made to breed animals. As Animal Farming becomes dominated by another state, we should eliminate the option Animal Farming from the initial decision options, i.e. options available before the decision to breed animals. That means the there are only two permissible options in the initial decision: No-Breeding and Sanctuary. As in the initial decision the animals are excluded, No-breeding is better than Sanctuary. Hence, we end up with the option No-breeding.

A second, slightly similar problem to the animal farming problem, is climate change. We have three options. First, we can decide not to procreate, such that there will be no future human generations. This is the state No-procreation, but this state is less relevant, because our welfare will be very low when we could no longer procreate. It is more likely that we choose to procreate. Then we can choose between two other states. In No-action, we do not take action to stop climate change. We can be very happy, living luxurious lives, not being bothered by climate change, and using all cheap fossil fuels as we please. In that case, future generations are born, but they will have a low welfare because they face dire climate events. In the third state Climate-action, we take effective action to avoid climate change, which means future generations are very happy, but we face the costs of action, which means we get a lower welfare compared to No-action.

It is often told that, if we do not take climate action, our grandchildren in the future can reprimand us. They can complain against us, saying that we should have taken climate action in order to avoid those climate catastrophes that they have to face. But this is not correct. When we take climate action, we change our behaviors in such a way that different future generations will be born: none of the people who exist in the future of Climate-action also exist in the future of No-action. This is different from the animal farming problem, in which the animal in Farming is the same animal as the animal in Sanctuary. The same individual is treated differently. In contrast, in the climate change problem, the future person in Climate-action is not the same person as the future person in No-action.

The latter means there is a non-identity problem, which we also encounter in the ethics of reproduction (where one can choose for example between giving birth to a happy child with a disability or another, happier child without that disability). As long as the future people in No-action have a positive welfare, they cannot complain against us not taking action, in the sense that they cannot say that they are harmed by our inaction. If we took climate action, those extreme climate events would not occur, but also those future people would not exist (other people would exist). Only if the future people in No-action had a negative welfare, they could complain against having been personally harmed, because they prefer the state of non-existence, in which they do not suffer.

Even if the low-positive-welfare future people are not personally harmed by our inaction, they still might have a population ethical preference held by many currently living people: that the state Climate-action, in which future generations have a much higher welfare, should be chosen, especially if taking climate action is not too costly for the present generation. This reflects a preference for sustainability: that we should not lower the welfare of future generations too much compared to our own welfare (formulated by the World Commission of Environment and Development in 1987 as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”).

The person-affecting excised total utilitarianism can easily select the Climate-action state, by setting a threshold value between the average welfare of the future generations in No-action and the average welfare of the future generations in Climate-action. This threshold value of welfare is the sustainability level of welfare.


I propose a new population ethical theory: person-affecting excised total utilitarianism. According to this theory, we should choose the option or state of the world that maximizes the sum of expected welfares of everyone who exists or will exist in the future, except for those possible people who do not exist in all states that are available at the moment of decision, when these possible people have a low positive welfare between zero and a positive threshold value that can be democratically and autonomously chosen by those people who do exist in all available states. When a currently optimal option becomes suboptimal in the future, that currently optimal option should be excluded from the set of all available options.

This theory can avoid the counter-intuitive Very Repugnant Conclusion, Sadistic Conclusion and Extinction Conclusion that infect many other population ethical theories. As practical consequences, it says that we should not choose animal farming, not even when the farm animals a have a positive welfare, and we should take some reasonable sustainability measures and climate actions to guarantee sufficiently high welfare levels of future generations.

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Ivermectine versus covidvaccins: een extreem staaltje irrationaliteit

Wanneer ik dit schrijf, heb ik net mijn eerste covidvaccin gekregen. Een opluchting, na zolang ernaar uitgekeken te hebben. Een pak sneller dan ik had verwacht: nog geen anderhalf jaar wachten. Knap werk van de wetenschappers. Ik vond het mooi om te zien, al die mensen die zich laten vaccineren. Hoe we tezamen, met wetenschap en goede wil, de strijd aangaan tegen een gevaarlijk virus.

En dan zien we dingen gebeuren die je eigenlijk niet voor mogelijk acht: de groeiende vaccintwijfel en covid-desinformatie. Ik zag hoe een bevriend huisarts (ik zal haar naam niet vernoemen), die erg begaan is met gezonde voeding, duurzaamheid en het welzijn van mensen en andere dieren, meer en meer kritisch werd tegen de covidvaccins. Die huisarts gleed langzaam weg in de richting van pseudowetenschap. Zo ver zelfs, dat ze onlangs enkele vaccinkritische artikels op sociale media deelde van wel zeer beruchte pseudowetenschappers: Jozef Mercola en Stephanie Seneff.

We raakten in discussie, waarbij het geneesmiddel Ivermectine aan bod kwam. Toen stuurde ze me een link naar een wel zeer bijzonder artikel in Naked Capitalism. Meestal moet je als skepticus veel bronnen raadplegen om een artikel te factchecken. Maar dit Naked Capitalism artikel was bijzonder in de zin dat het zelf alle informatie bevat om na wat kritisch denken te concluderen dat het niet klopt. Het hoeft niet te verbazen dat iemand met een gebrek aan kritisch denken of met de foute morele waarden dergelijk artikel kan schrijven. Maar het is wel verbazend wanneer een huisarts, een intelligente, hoger opgeleide persoon die wel de juiste waarden zoals volksgezondheid deelt, erin trapt. Die huisarts raadt het covidvaccin af en beveelt Ivermectine aan, en daar zit een inconsistentie in.

Even enkele relevante feiten op een rijtje. 1: Ivermectine is een bewezen effectief en veelgebruikt medicijn tegen parasieten, waarvoor zelfs een Nobelprijs werd gegeven. 2: Ivermectine is een essentieel geneesmiddel volgens de Wereldgezondheisorganisatie (WHO). 3: Datzelfde WHO raadt, op het moment van dit schrijven, het gebruik van Ivermectine tegen covid af, tenzij in experimenteel onderzoek (klinische studies). Andere regulerende instanties, zoals het Europese EMA en de Amerikaanse FDA, volgen daarin. 4: De eerste en mogelijks belangrijkste producent van Ivermectine, de farmareus Merck, zei dat Ivermectine geen bewezen doeltreffendheid heeft tegen Covid en dat het gebruik ervan risicovol is. 5: Ivermectine kent ook enkele ernstige zeldzame bijwerkingen, zoals neurologische schade en coma. 6: Merck produceert geen covidvaccins. 

Waarom zouden de WHO en Merck Ivermectine afraden als het toch goed zou werken tegen covid? Het Naked Capitalism artikel poneert drie mogelijke verklaringen.

Ten eerste is Ivermectine een generisch en goedkoop geneesmiddel. Omdat het patent vervallen is, zal een farmabedrijf minder verdienen aan de productie van Ivermectine, in tegenstelling tot de nieuwe covidvaccins die wel gepatenteerd werden. Maar dat verklaart nog niet waarom de WHO, EMA en FDA Ivermectine afraden tegen covid. Ze bevelen immers wel het generische Ivermectine aan tegen parasieten. Ze erkennen dat Ivermectine een zeer belangrijk medicijn is, dus je kunt niet zeggen dat ze maar niet willen zien hoe goed dat medicijn is. En we mogen niet vergeten dat Merck helemaal niets verdient aan covidvaccins, want ze produceert geen covidvaccins. Merck kan nog wel wat verdienen aan Ivermectine, want anders zou Merck haar productie van Ivermectine wel stopzetten. De supporters van Ivermectine doen er nog een schepje bovenop: ze verwijzen naar onderzoekers (onder andere Jackie Stone en Pierre Kory) die zeggen dat je de dosis Ivermectine voor de behandeling van covid gerust mag opdrijven, en dat je Ivermectine ook als preventiemiddel kunt gebruiken, met een dosis per week. En dan moeten we geloven dat farmabedrijven zoals Merck geen extra winsten zouden binnenrijven? Trouwens, het AstraZenecavaccin kost ongeveer evenveel als een dosis Ivermectine, en je moet je niet elke week vaccineren.

Nu we het over de kostprijs hebben: economen kunnen berekenen hoeveel een persoon bereid is te betalen om een sterftekans gelijkaardig aan die van covid-19 te vermijden, door te kijken naar de betalingsbereidheid voor bijvoorbeeld extra veiligheidsuitrusting in wagens, extra verkeersveiligheidinfrastructuur voor kwetsbare weggebruikers, of dure levensreddende behandelingen in ziekenhuizen. Of ze leggen de hogere huurprijzen in gebieden met minder luchtvervuiling naast de sterftekansen door luchtvervuiling. Hoe dan ook, cijfers variëren van enkele euro’s tot enkele tientallen euro’s betalingsbereidheid voor het vermijden van een sterftekans van een op een miljoen. De kans dat iemand covid krijgt en eraan sterft als die persoon niet gevaccineerd is, ligt rond de een op duizend. Maar misschien behoor jij tot een bevolkingsgroep waar de kans een op tienduizend is. Dan ligt jouw betalingsbereidheid om dergelijk risico te vermijden al gauw op een paar honderd euro’s. Dat is je maximumprijs voor een vaccin, als je tenminste geen irrationele vaccintwijfel hebt. Voor een vaccin van rond de tien euro kun je nu niet zeggen dat Big Pharma met de winst gaat lopen. De prijs van vaccins is zo laag, omwille van concurrentie tussen de verschillende vaccinproducenten. Je moet al een behoorlijk irrationeel wantrouwen en haat hebben tegen grote farmabedrijven als je bereid bent om een gezondheidskost van enkele honderden tot tienduizen euro’s op te lopen, opdat een groot bedrijf geen tien euro zou kunnen krijgen. Trek nog de onderzoeks- en productiekosten af van de verkoopprijs, en het is duidelijk dat de covidvaccins geen megawinsten vormen voor Big Pharma. En als ze dat wel vormen, dan kun je net hetzelfde zeggen van Ivermectine.

Een tweede verklaring die we lezen in het Naked Capitalism artikel, is dat farmabedrijven onderzoek doen naar nieuwe medicijnen tegen covid. Merck, bijvoorbeeld, doet volop onderzoek naar Molnupiravir. Omdat dat medicijn te patenteren is en er dus meer winst mee te rapen valt dan met Ivermectine, zou dat de reden zijn dat Merck haar eigen Ivermectine afraadt in gebruik tegen covid. Hier zien we dat het wantrouwen in Big Business een te hoge vlucht maakt. Het argument dat grote bedrijven niet te vertrouwen zijn omwille van de megawinsten die ze boeken, wordt hier overdreven en veel te onpas gebruikt. We kunnen de vergelijking maken met een typische complottheorie: die is niet te weerleggen, want als er geen bewijs voor is, is dat volgens de complotdenker net een bewijs dat het bewijs wordt verdoezeld door het complot. Ook het argument van de financiële belangen is niet te weerleggen: zelfs als een groot bedrijf zoals Merck iets zegt dat schijnbaar indruist tegen de eigen winstbelangen, dan moet er wel een sluwe verborgen reden zijn die gebaseerd is op winstbelangen.

Voor diegene die wat nuchter nadenkt, en zeker voor de bedrijfseconoom, is het zonneklaar dat dit argument geen steek houdt. De situatie van Merck is te vergelijken met een hypothetische scenario van een grote zuivelproducent die koemelk voor warme dranken afraadt. Waarom doet ze dat nu? Omdat –hoewel ze zelf koemelk verkoopt- er op koemelk geen patent is en er niet veel te verdienen valt met koemelk, en dan maar onderzoek doet naar een nieuwe te patenteren vloeistof voor in de koffie? Merck is bereid miljoenen euro’s van de verkoop van Ivermectine te mislopen omdat ze verwachten dat ze een nieuw medicijn kunnen patenteren waarvan ze de wetenschappers kunnen overtuigen dat het beter werkt dan Ivermectine, waarvan de geneesmiddelenagentschappen het wel snel zullen goedkeuren in de behandeling tegen covid, en waarvan het de concurrentie met de nieuwe covidmedicijnen en -vaccins van de andere farmareuzen kan weerstaan. En ze verwachten dan natuurlijk ook dat andere Ivermectineproducenten er niet zullen in slagen om de WHO te overtuigen om alsnog het goedkopere Ivermectine in te zetten tegen covid. Diegene die dit gelooft, is ofwel vergeten dat Merck aandeelhouders heeft die gefocust zijn op de bottom line, namelijk winst maken, ofwel gelooft die persoon dat die aandeelhouders heel dom zijn.

Dan komen we bij de derde verklaring: Ivermectine wordt bewust tegengehouden om de uitrol van de covidvaccins te garanderen. Vaccins werden versneld goedgekeurd omwille van een noodsituatie. Deze noodvergunning bevat blijkbaar een exclusiviteitclausule: de vaccins zijn enkel toegelaten op voorwaarde dat er geen andere effectieve behandelingen tegen covid zijn. Dus als Ivermectine goedgekeurd zou worden, dan dreigen omwille van deze exclusiviteitclausule de vaccins hun noodvergunning te verliezen, en dat hebben de vaccinproducenten niet graag. Maar Merck produceert geen covidvaccins. Dus de vaccinproducenten zouden erin geslaagd zijn om zowel de WHO, het EMA, de FDA alsook Merck te manipuleren en onder druk te zetten om Ivermectine niet goed te keuren. Oh, en ook de mainstream media gaat daarin vlotjes mee en verzwijgt doelbewust de doeltreffendheid van Ivermectine. Maar de vaccinproducenten zijn er blijkbaar niet in geslaagd de WHO te overtuigen om gewoon die clausule bij de noodvergunning te schrappen. En waarom zou Merck dan nog wel onderzoek doen naar Molnupiravir als covidbehandeling, als ze toch op de hoogte was van die clausule? Als dat nieuwe medicijn goedgekeurd wordt, dan gaat dat evengoed de noodvergunning van de vaccins bedreigen. En de kans bestaat dat de WHO beslist dat niet enkel vaccins maar ook andere covidbehandelingen een noodvergunning krijgen, met een gelijkaardige exclusiviteitclausule. Kon Merck dan niet beter gewoon wat anti-vaccin-desinformatie verspreiden in plaats van anti-Ivermectine-desinformatie? Des te meer je erover nadenkt, des te onwaarschijnlijker deze derde verklaring wordt.

Het zou kunnen dat Ivermectine wel goed blijkt te werken tegen covid, maar het is op moment van dit schrijven nog te vroeg om dat te concluderen, omdat het onderzoek nog te beperkt is. De vaccintwijfelende huisarts ontraadt de vaccins, onder andere omdat die nog onvoldoende getest zijn geweest op veiligheid en doeltreffendheid. De huidige vaccinatiecampagne wordt beschouwd als een grootschalig experiment met menselijke proefkonijnen. Ironisch genoeg hebben de covidvaccins al wel de grootschalige klinische studies doorstaan, wat we niet kunnen zeggen van Ivermectine. Als we nu al Ivermectine zouden goedkeuren, dan kunnen we minstens zo goed zeggen dat de bevolking gebruikt wordt als proefkonijn. Het Naked Capitalism artikel spreekt van vijftien klinische studies die bewijs zouden geven van de effectiviteit van Ivermectine tegen covid. Maar dat zijn kleinere studies en er wordt niet bijgezegd welke partijen achter die studies zaten. Zijn dat allemaal studies van onafhankelijke wetenschappers, of zitten er ook studies tussen van farmabedrijven die winst willen slaan uit Ivermectine?

Om het nog erger te maken: de vaccintwijfelende, Ivermectinesupporterende huisarts stuurde me youtubefilmpjes van mensen als Pierre Kory die letterlijk beweren dat zulke grote gerandomiseerde klinische studies eigenlijk niet hoeven. Ivermectine werd als behandeling tegen bepaalde parasitaire ziektes goedgekeurd op basis van minder en kleinere klinische studies, dus waarom nu voor covid extra grote studies eisen? Maar voor de vaccins konden de klinische studies dan weer niet groot genoeg zijn. Dat is meten met twee maten en gewichten.

Over een dubbele moraal gesproken: het Naked Capitalism artikel verwijst naar de dalende covidsterftecijfers in Indiase regio’s waar Ivermectine als behandeling gebruikt wordt. De mainstream media en overheden, met hun covidstatistieken, worden gewantrouwd door vaccintwijfelaars. Maar toevallig worden de covidstatistieken in precies die regio’s waar Ivermectine gebruikt wordt, wel vertrouwd. Hebben ze daar toevallig ook betere PCR-tests of betrouwbaardere overheden? 

Met een beetje kritisch denken kunnen we zien dat het verhaal van de vaccintwijfelende huisarts behoorlijk inconsistent is. Ik denk dat het verhaal veel simpeler is. De WHO raadt voorlopig Ivermectine tegen covid af, omdat er nog te weinig bewijs van effectiviteit is en er veel arme mensen zijn die Ivermectine nodig hebben tegen gevaarlijke parasieten. Die mensen worden geschaad wanneer rijke mensen Ivermectine gaan opkopen als preventiemiddel tegen covid. Ivermectine heeft ook gekende bijwerkingen, waarvan sommige heel ernstig. Dat wordt beaamd door Merck. Omdat de baten-kostenverhouding van Ivermectine in de behandeling tegen covid voorlopig nog erg onzeker is, zijn overheden niet bereid de schadeclaims (van mensen die Ivermectine namen tegen covid en dan ernstig ziek werden) op zich te nemen. Als Merck dan wel Ivermectine laat autoriseren in gebruik tegen covid, dan zal dat zijn onder de voorwaarde dat Merck geconfronteerd wordt met dat risico op schadevergoedingen. En dat is niet goed voor haar bottom-line: winst maken. Dus daarom dat Merck op veilig speelt en wacht tot er meer evidentie is dat Ivermectine een goede baten-kosten verhouding heeft. We mogen niet vergeten dat het risico op schadevergoedingen een belangrijke factor is in de afweging door aandeelhouders. Het gaat over schadeclaims van miljoenen euro’s per claim.

Die grote schadevergoedingen kunnen een nieuwe bedreiging vormen voor de betrouwbaarheid van wetenschap. Wetenschappelijke studies die gesponsord worden door de industrie, worden terecht gewantrouwd omwille van financiële belangenconflicten. Maar niet enkel bij de partijen die een middel verkopen, maar ook bij de partijen die het middel gebruiken, kunnen er ernstige financiële belangenconflicten meespelen. Dat zien we binnen de antivaccinatiebeweging. Patiëntenverenigingen die slachtoffer menen te zijn van vaccins, azen op miljoenen euro’s schadevergoedingen en huren daarbij advocaten in die op hun beurt wetenschappers betalen om bewijs te leveren dat vaccins de schade hebben veroorzaakt. Zo hebben invloedrijke antivaccinonderzoekers zoals Andrew Wakefield (bekend van een beruchte mazelenvaccin-autismestudie) en Romain Gherardi belangenconflicten, want ze hebben geld ontvangen van patiëntenverenigingen of advocatenbureaus. Anti-vaxxers kijken te eenzijdig naar belangenconflicten van de industrie en niet naar gelijkaardige belangenconflicten binnen de eigen beweging.

En als je dit allemaal niet gelooft, dan kan ik nog steeds dezelfde slechte kaart spelen die anti-vaxxers vaak uitspelen: de vaccintwijfelende Ivermectinesupporter zit mee in het complot en wordt ingehuurd door de Ivermectineproducerende Big Pharma bedrijven die uit zijn op maximale winst en maar al te kraag massale hoeveelheden Ivermectine willen verkopen.

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