Why there is only one basic right and how this is compatible with altruism

There are many rights possible: the rights to life, liberty, property, free speech,… But there is one right that is different from the others: the basic right not to be used as merely a means. If a person has this right, we should not use the body of that person against his or her will as a means for someone else’s ends, even if the overall consequences would be good.

This right not to be used is basic in the sense that it cannot be derived from other ethical principles such as the utilitarian principle to promote well-being. The other rights such as rights to life or free speech are intended to increase well-being in the world and hence can be considered as utilitarian rules of thumb to increase well-being. But the right not to be used as merely a means clearly violates the utilitarian principle to promote well-being.

Consider the organ transplantation case: five people in the hospital need new organs in order to survive, but there are no organs available. A surgeon can sacrifice an innocent person against his or her will and use his or her five organs to save the five patients. One person is used as merely a means to save five people, so the overall consequences in terms of well-being are good (five people alive is better than one person alive). But we should not sacrifice this one person if he or she has a basic right not to be used as merely a means.

So why is there only one basic right? And how is this right compatible with pure altruism? A pure altruist only looks at what is best for other people (for everyone). What is best depends on what people want and what they value and care about. Pure altruists want what the other people want and do not impose their own values on others. But do other people value their basic right more than they value the other, non-basic rights? What if a victim who is harmed only cares about the severity of the harm, the level of suffering, and doesn’t care if this harm was the result of being used as a means? If we make this distinction between basic and non-basic rights, if we value the distinction between being used and not being used as a means, whereas the victim doesn’t care about this distinction, are we less altruistic by imposing our values on the victim?

The trolley dilemmas

Consider the trolley dilemma: a runaway trolley is about to hit and kill five people on the main track, but you can turn a switch that directs the trolley to a side track where it will kill one person. A utilitarian welfare ethic dictates that turning the switch is morally good and obligatory, because it saves more people.

In a second version of the trolley dilemma, called the bridge dilemma, there is no side track and no switch, but you can stop the trolley by pushing a heavy person from a bridge. This person will fall in front of the trolley, the trolley will be blocked and the five people on the track will be saved. A deontological ethic says that this action is not permissible: the heavy person has a basic right not to be used as merely a means against his or her will, for example as a trolley blocker or human shield. If this right trumps the lives of the five people, action is not permissible.

The basic right and negative externalities

In the two trolley dilemmas we have two negative rights: the right not to be killed against ones will and the right not to be used against ones will. Both are negative rights because they refer to not being treated in a certain way if the person does not want that. But there is an important difference between those rights: the right not to be killed has a so called negative externality for others, the right not to be used does not. A negative externality is a cost that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost.

Consider the first dilemma with the switch. If the person on the side track has the right not to be killed that trumps the lives of the five people, those people on the main track can no longer be saved, because the only option to save them is turning the switch, but that would violate this right not to be killed. So the presence of this person on the side track has a cost or negative externality for the people on the main track, if the person on the side track has the right not to be killed. The presence of the person on the side track decreases the options to be saved, and that is a cost for the five people. Or in other words: giving someone a right not to be killed generates a negative externality for other people.

On the other hand, in the second trolley dilemma with the heavy person, we can give this heavy person the basic right not to be used against his or her will, without generating a negative externality. A person is used as a means to an end if the presence of that person is necessary to achieve the end. If the heavy person was not present in the second trolley dilemma, this person could not be used and the five people could not be saved.

So by pushing the heavy person, this person is used as a means, whereas by turning the switch in the first dilemma, the person on the side track is not used as a means. If the person on the side track in the first trolley dilemma was not present, the five people on the main track could still be saved. The presence of this person on the side track is not necessary, so that person is not used as a means.

Person affecting theories

Person affecting utilitarianism is a utilitarian theory that focuses on what individual persons want. In utilitarian theories, the notion of personal utility is crucial: the utility of a person measures how much that person wants, prefers or values a given situation. The personal utility is a function of someone’s lifetime well-being: the higher your lifetime well-being in a given situation, the more you prefer that situation and the higher your utility for that situation.

Person affecting utilitarianism only values what people themselves want or prefer, i.e. their personal utilities. It focuses on what people themselves experience, how they are personally affected by our choices. Impersonal values such as naturalness, biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, total well-being or average well-being are not important in a person affecting theory, because these impersonal values are not the personal utilities of an individual person. Nature itself is not a person that experiences and values naturalness. An ecosystem is not a person that experiences and values its biodiversity. A population is not a ‘collective person’ that experiences and values its total or average well-being.

As a moral agent, I can give values to e.g. biodiversity, total well-being or your well-being. If I give value to your well-being, there is always someone else, namely you, who also values this property of well-being. You experience and value your well-being. But if I give value to biodiversity, there is no other person who experiences  and values this biodiversity, because an ecosystem doesn’t value anything. And as a moral agent I can value the total well-being of a population, but there is no person who experiences and values this total well-being.

Utilitarian complaints

With the personal utilities we can measure complaints. Person affecting utilitarianism focuses on these utilitarian complaints of people, where the objective is to minimize complaints. In this sense, person affecting utilitarianism is chosen to be the ethical theory that is most preferred by individual persons, in the sense that this theory by definition has the least objections or complaints against it.

To measure complaints, take a person P who exists in situation S. In situation S that person has a preference or utility u(P,S,S) for that situation S and a utility u(P,S,X) for any other possible situation X. Suppose that B is the best possible situation for person P who is in situation S, i.e. u(P,S,B) is a maximum.  In situation S this person P has a maximum complaint u(P,S,B)-u(P,S,S). This complaint measures how strongly person P in situation S prefers the best possible situation B above his or her actual situation S. Now we can take the sum over all persons of everyone’s individual maximum complaint in situation S. (Note that if a person Q does not exist in situation S, he or she does not have preferences so all utilities u(Q,S,X) are zero for all situations X.) The optimal situation O is the situation that minimizes this total maximum complaint.

So we have to choose the situation where the total of everyone’s maximum complaint is minimized, and someone’s maximum complaint is the difference between the maximum utility that the person could have in the situation that is best for (most preferred by) that person minus the utility of that person in the given situation.

Externality free complaints

The above complaints are utilitarian complaints. They are based on personal utilities, which means they are taken from the perspective of the persons themselves. However, we can make a further distinction between externality dependent and externality free complaints.

For the five people on the track in the second trolley dilemma, there is no negative externality if a heavy person is introduced who has this basic right not to be used. In both situations with and without the heavy person, the five people cannot be saved. So in a sense the five people on the main track cannot complain that the heavy person has this basic right not to be used, because the situation where that heavy person has this right is basically the same as the situation where the heavy person is absent. In the first dilemma with the switch, on the other hand, the people on the main track can complain if there is a person on the side track with the right not to be killed.

Of course, the five people on the track in the second trolley dilemma can complain if they are not saved by the sacrifice of the heavy person. But this complaint does not depend on an externality. It is an externality free complaint. Now we can say that externality free complaints are weaker or less valid than externality dependent complaints. If these externality free complaints are not valid at all, we should only minimize the total of maximum externality dependent complaints. Now we arrive at a deontological ethic that has an absolute basic right not to be used as merely a means.

Minimization of externality dependent complaints in the trolley dilemmas

Let us apply this idea of complaint minimization to the trolley dilemmas. In the second trolley dilemma we have two situations: inaction (letting the five die) and action (pushing the heavy person). Suppose death results in a complaint of one unit of utility.

In the situation of inaction, the heavy person is not harmed and does not complain. But the five people are killed by the trolley, whereas they would be alive in the situation of action. So according to utilitarianism, those five people have a total complaint of five units of utility. However, in a deontological theory these complaints are externality free and hence not valid. Their restricted, externality dependent complaint is zero.

Now let’s look at the complaint of the heavy person in the situation of action. In that situation, the heavy person is harmed or killed by the trolley. The heavy person prefers the situation of inaction, and that situation is possible because the presence of the five people is not necessary to choose the situation of inaction. You can still refrain from pushing the heavy person (and hence not killing the heavy person) even if there are no people on the track. If the five people have a right to live (and hence the right not to be killed by the trolley), their rights generate a negative externality for the heavy person, because for the heavy person it would have been better if there would be no-one on the track who has a right to live. If there are no right holders on the track, action (pushing the heavy person) would be clearly impermissible. The complaint of the heavy person is externality dependent and hence counts.

So in the situation of action, the heavy person dies and hence has one unit of complaint, which is a valid complaint, whereas the five people have no complaints, because they don’t die. In the situation of inaction, the heavy person has no complaint and the five people do not have valid complaints because their only complaints are externality free. In a deontological ethic, the total valid complaint in the situation of action is one and hence higher than the total valid complaint in the situation of inaction, which is zero.

Why there is only one basic right

There are different rights, such as the right not to be killed against ones will and the right not to be used against ones will. Suppose we add a person, and this person is accompanied with a set of rights. Does this addition of the person generates a cost for others? It depends on the rights of that person. If a person is added on the side track in the first trolley dilemma, and if this person is accompanied with a right not to be killed, this addition of the person poses a negative externality on others on the main track. But there is one right that never poses negative externalities on others: the right not to be used as merely a means. In a sense it is the only right that does not harm others. No matter how many people we add and no matter where we add them in any situation, if these people are accompanied with the basic right not to be used, no-one else can complain, because no-one else is harmed by this introduction of the new people. This is what makes the basic right so special.

Why the basic right is compatible with pure altruism

A purely altruistic theory only looks at what is good for other people (for everyone). What is good depends on what a person wants or prefers, i.e. his or her utilities. Pure altruism values what other individuals value, so a pure altruist doesn’t promote his or her own, impersonal values such as naturalness, biodiversity or total well-being. A pure altruist promotes what other people want, by minimizing the personal, utilitarian complaints.

It is often claimed that a deontological ethic (that values the basic right not to be used as merely a means) cannot be purely altruistic, because for a person who is killed by a trolley, it probably doesn’t matter whether he or she is killed and used as a means (as is the case for the heavy person who is pushed in the bridge dilemma) or is rather killed by a trolley as a side effect (as is the case for the victim on the side track in the first trolley dilemma). For the victim, only the consequences matter, and in both situations the consequences are the same: the person dies.

The crucial idea of altruism is to look at things from the victim’s perspective, taking into account what the victim wants. But if the victim only cares about the consequences of actions, it doesn’t matter for him or her whether he or she is used as a means or not. The basic right doesn’t look at the consequences, so the basic right is not valued by the victim. If we focus on the victim, what he or she really wants, the basic right becomes irrelevant.

Does this mean that our preference for respecting this basic right is not purely altruistic? No, altruism not only looks at one victim (the heavy person or the person on the side track in the trolley dilemmas), but at all people involved in the situation (including the five people on the main track). And in particular it looks at all the complaints of all those people. Altruism is compatible with making the distinction between externality free and externality dependent complaints. Some complaints are more valid than others, depending on whether or not they cause negative externalities. So altruism becomes compatible with the basic right not to be used as a means.

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On intervention in nature, human arrogance and moral blind spots

Is it possible that people who claim to be very much against X are doing X themselves and are at the same time strongly criticizing other people who are against X and are not doing X?

Last week I was at the International Animal Rights Conference where I gave a presentation on the moral blind spots in the animal rights community. It was one of the two presentations that dealt with the problem of wild animal suffering. I argued that we should start doing scientific research on how to intervene in nature to improve wild animal well-being and autonomy. I made the claim that when it comes to wild animal suffering, a lot of animal rights activists who are against human chauvinism and speciesism, are chauvinist and speciesist themselves. They don’t see their own speciesism, hence the moral blind spot. Those presentations were pretty controversial and resulted in a lot of reactions by critics who are against intervention. These reactions proved my point that also animal rights activists have very persistent moral blind spots.

Those critics want the natural world to be preserved. They claim that intervention is a kind of human dominance or chauvinism. They claim that I am an anthropocentric speciesist because I want to impose my human values on non-human nature. I will argue that those critics who claim to be against arrogance, chauvinism and speciesism are being arrogant, chauvinist and speciesist themselves while at the same time they unjustly criticize me for being arrogant, chauvinist and speciesist.

First about speciesism: the first reaction after my presentation was that we should make a distinction between human caused suffering and non-human caused suffering. I want to be an altruist who only cares about what the others (the victims, all the sentient beings) want. But in the case of wild animal suffering, the wild animals who suffer don’t care about who causes the suffering. They simply don’t want this extreme unnecessary suffering, and for them it doesn’t matter if it is caused by humans or by non-human nature. But this person in the audience claimed to be against speciesism whereas she explicitly made the human/non-human distinction herself. When stating her moral principle, she explicitly used the word “human”, referring to the human species. For the victims this distinction is not relevant, so it is by definition anthropocentric speciesism. So I was accused of being a speciesist by someone who made a speciesist distinction between human and non-human caused suffering.

Second about arrogance and chauvinism: the critics who are against intervention in nature to improve animal well-being are the ones who are arrogant, because they argue that they want to save biodiversity or respect natural processes and so they impose their own values (that naturalness is good, that we should not play God, that biodiversity has a moral, non-instrumental value) on other victims (wild animals) in a way that those victims do not want. By saying this, those critics believe that what they want (their own preferences and values) is more important than what all those suffering animals want. That is not real altruism. The animal activists like me who are in favor of intervention, are not arrogant, because they want what the others (the victims, the animals) want. They are primarily focused on what the others want and don’t think that their own preferences and values are more important than those of the victims in the world.

So the opponents of intervention want naturalness (ecosystem integrity, natural beauty, biodiversity,…) to be preserved, whereas the proponents want what the victims want (improve well-being). The opponents value naturalness, the proponents value well-being. The difference between the opponents and the proponents is that the opponents only want something that they themselves want: nature itself doesn’t care about naturalness. Ecosystems don’t care about their own integrity or biodiversity, because ecosystems do not have a conciousness to experience their integrity or biodiversity. Biodiversity or integrity are not the preferences (utility functions) of ecosystems, because the ecosystems are not capable to value something, they are not aware of anything. On the other hand, when I value the well-being of someone else (a wild animal), there is always someone else (namely the wild animal) who also values this well-being. So caring about someone else’s preferences and well-being and valuing what someone else wants, is the most altruistic and the least arrogant or chauvinist thing to do.

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What is a rational ethicist?

Accuracy, effectiveness and consistency

A rational ethicist lives by the slogan: accurate in beliefs, effective in means, consistent in ends. Our ends should be consistent in the sense that our moral values or ethical principles should not contain contradictions, vagueness or unwanted arbitrariness.  In order to be effective in reaching those ends by choosing the best means, our beliefs should be accurate in the sense that they should be in line with reality.

In order to arrive at accurate beliefs, a rational ethicist is a member of the scientific skeptical community by following evidence based science, which is the opposite of pseudoscience. And in order to use effective means, a rational ethicist is a member of the effective altruist movement, because one of the most important ends of a rational ethicist is to improve well-being (decrease suffering, avoid dangerous risks, satisfy preferences) of everyone existing now and in the future.

Critical thinking

Consistent ends in ethics are based on our strongest or deepest moral values, emotions and intuitions. However, we are vulnerable to cognitive biases, blind spots and illusions. The existence of optical illusions proves that our senses cannot always be trusted. But neither can we always trust our emotions, intuitions and judgments. In ethics, we have moral illusions: spontaneous, intuitive moral judgments that are very persistent, but they violate our deepest moral values. They distract us away from a rational, authentic ethic. Rational is the opposite of irrational, not of emotional. Our moral emotions and intuitions can be valid and can play an important role, but we cannot always trust them. A rational ethicist wants to avoid cognitive biases and moral illusions, by applying critical thinking in science and ethics.

Avoiding unwanted arbitrariness

A rational ethicist avoids all kinds of unwanted arbitrariness. Arbitrariness consists of picking an element or subset of a given set without using a rule. If you picked an element X from a given set, why did you pick X and not another elements, such as Y? If you cannot answer this question by referring to a rule that does not explicitly refer to X, your choice for X was arbitrary.

Pseudoscience, which results in inaccurate beliefs, is based on unwanted arbitrariness: cherry picking data (arbitrarily selecting some data from the set of all available data), cherry picking studies (arbitrarily selecting some studies from the set of all available studies), referring to arbitrary anecdotes (arbitrarily selecting a story from the set of all stories), inventing ad hoc (‘for here’) rationalizations that only apply to some arbitrarily exceptional cases, arbitrarily giving more weight to some evidence or arbitrarily excluding some evidence, and so on.

Pseudo-ethics, which results in ineffective means and inconsistent ends, is characterized by unwanted arbitrariness as well: arbitrarily excluding individuals by discriminating them, arbitrarily making exceptions for specific situations or persons, arbitrarily formulating or framing moral problems in a certain way so that they can be tackled in an arbitrary way, arbitrarily interpreting vague moral rules, and so on.

Some kinds of arbitrariness in science and ethics is unavoidable. A scientific theory or ethical system cannot simultaneously contain all possible principles or laws. The selection of possible consistent principles from the set of all available principles is always arbitrary. Some kinds of arbitrariness in ethics is harmless or innocent if no-one cares about it. Arbitrariness is not unwanted if everyone can consistently want this arbitrariness and no-one can consistently object to it. You can consistently want something if that what you want is not in contradiction with a consistent set of all the most important things that you want or prefer, such as your strongest moral values. You can consistently object to something if what you want is incompatible with a consistent set of all the most important things that you want or prefer.

The unavoidable and innocent kinds of arbitrariness are kinds that anyone could consistently want. The culprit in ethics is the unwanted arbitrariness: the arbitrariness that not everyone can consistently want. The anti-arbitrariness principle in ethics states that all unwanted arbitrariness should be avoided. If one thing goes for X, then it must also apply to all Y and Z that are equal to X (in the sense of belonging to the same set as X) according to a rule, unless everyone can consistently want that it just applies for X. Arbitrariness is only allowed if it is not against anyone’s will.

So if we avoid unwanted arbitrariness, we end up with moral rules that apply to everyone and everything, without arbitrary exceptions. More specifically we can formulate a fundamental ethical formula, such as: everyone must follow those moral rules of which everyone can want that everyone follows them, in all possible situations. You are not allowed to arbitrarily do whatever you want. So for everything you do, you have to be able to give a moral rule that justifies your act, and you must be able to consistently want that everyone follows that rule. If you cannot give such a rule, your act is not allowed. Or simply put: if you are allowed to do something, then so is everyone, because you are not special. You should not arbitrarily pick yourself from the set of all individuals and say that you are the only one who may do that thing.

This basic idea has far reaching consequences. It implies the golden rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated and do not treat them as you would not like to be treated.” So we can easily derive things that you are not allowed to do, because you do not want them to be done to you. If you may forbid something because you find it unclean, unholy or disgusting, then someone else may forbid something that you like and s/he finds unholy or disgusting. If you may use vague or arbitrary reasons to justify your behavior that I don’t like, I am allowed to use vague reasons as well to justify my behavior that you don’t like. If you may say that we should follow your preferred holy book (such as the Bible or the Koran), I may say that we should follow my preferred holy book. If you may say that your moral intuitions are better than mine, I may say that mine are better than yours. If you may arbitrarily choose your victims, I may arbitrarily choose my victims. If you may say that your moral rules only apply to your preferred group, I may also take my preferred group of individuals, which may be different from your group. You cannot consistently want those things, so you may not do those things.

If you may follow your ethical rules, are racists allowed to follow their racist ethics? Are pedophiles, rapists and religious fundamentalists allowed to follow their ethics? You cannot want that. But the ethical systems of racists, pedophiles, rapists and religious fundamentalists contain inconsistencies, unwanted arbitrariness, unscientific beliefs and vague principle. So if your ethical system is more coherent than others (i.e. if your ethical system does not contain any inconsistencies, ambiguities and unwanted arbitrariness), then you can say that your ethical system is better than those of others and then you may oppose those incoherent systems of others.

Why should we avoid unwanted arbitrariness? Why is it bad to construct and follow incoherent ethical systems that contain inconsistencies or unwanted arbitrariness? Suppose that your ethical principles contain unwanted arbitrariness. If you say that that arbitrariness is permissible, then I may also follow arbitrary principles that you cannot consistently want. If you follow an arbitrary or inconsistent ethical system, I am allowed to reject that system and impose my coherent ethical system on you, because you are not able to complain. You are not able to give justified arguments against the imposition of my ethical principles, because by following your incoherent principles, you are acknowledging that inconsistencies and unwanted arbitrariness is allowed. If you don’t want me to impose my moral views on you but if you say that you are allowed to have inconsistencies, i.e. to have two opposing views at once, then I may hold the inconsistent opinion that I may and may not impose my principles on you. Even if these two beliefs are mutually contradictory, you cannot argue against it. If your moral rules contain unwanted arbitrariness, then you acknowledge that arbitrariness is permissible. That means that it is also permissible to arbitrarily ignore someone else’s moral views and ethical systems. So I can say to you that your moral values and judgments are not valid. And if you complain and says that your ethics is valid, then I can reply that if you are allowed to arbitrarily exclude other moral views and make an ad hoc exception for your own ethical system, then so am I. So I may even make the exception that everyone’s moral views should be respected, except yours. All your objections can easily be bounced back by saying: “If you are allowed to arbitrarily do that, then so am I. What would make you so special that you are allowed to arbitrarily exclude others but I am not?”

To conclude: we can arbitrarily reject someone’s incoherent ethical system, because that person acknowledges that arbitrary exclusions or rejections are permissible by acknowledging that arbitrariness is permissible. After all, that person uses an arbitrary system. That person can only give a valid complaint or argument if s/he accepts the anti-arbitrariness principle. Without that principle, any critique becomes invalid and complaints become impossible.

Tolerance and democracy

If I am allowed to construct a rational, coherent ethical system that best fits my moral intuitions and values, then so are you. Those coherent ethical systems should not contain inconsistencies, vagueness or unwanted arbitrariness. Everyone can construct their own coherent ethical systems. But there are many possible coherent ethical systems, such as a deontological rights ethic, a consequentialist utilitarian welfare ethic, a libertarian ethic or pluralist ethics that combine several ethical principles. We do not have a rule that determines which of those coherent ethical systems is the best. So picking one of those systems always involves unavoidable arbitrariness.

We cannot simply reject someone’s coherent ethical system, even if that system is different from ours. If we are against unwanted arbitrariness, we have to recognize that every equally coherent ethical system is equally valid. Everyone is allowed to construct his or her own ethical system using his or her own moral intuitions and values, as long as that system is coherent, i.e. does not contain contradictions or unwanted arbitrariness. I cannot say that my coherent ethical system and my moral intuitions are better than yours if both our systems are equally coherent. I prefer my system, but I cannot impose my system onto 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 we claim that our own system is special without good reason.

A rational ethicist is tolerant towards all other coherent ethical systems, no matter how much they go against one’s own moral intuitions. We are allowed to reject anyone’s incoherent ethical systems. This allows us to avoid an extreme form of moral relativism that says that all ethical systems, including incoherent ones, are equally valid. This extreme relativism implies that everything would be permissible, and we cannot want that. The claim that coherent ethical systems 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? A special kind of democracy is the solution. Everyone (every rational ethicist) constructs their own coherent ethical system, 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 ethical system) is better than someone else’s. A non-democratic dictatorship of one coherent ethical system violates the anti-arbitrariness principle, because there is no rule to pick this ethical system out of the set of all coherent ethical systems.

Note that the coherence of ethical systems imposes very strong constraints on the construction of ethical systems. We can expect that the resulting ethical systems that people construct, if they follow the anti-arbitrariness principle carefully, are not extremely divergent from each other. This strong selection and convergence of ethical systems makes a democracy of ethical systems feasible.

So there are two reasons why our ethical system should not contain unwanted arbitrariness. First, if it contains such arbitrariness, someone else is allowed to arbitrarily reject our system and we are not able to complain. Second, the avoidance of unwanted arbitrariness puts strong constraints on the possible ethical systems, which makes a democratic consensus between the resulting coherent ethical systems more feasible.

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The population ethics trilemma

Population ethics and the welfare function

Population ethics studies the optimal welfare distributions in situations where the population size is variable or where our choices influence who will exist in the future. The problem of population ethics is that we always encounter counter-intuitive results.[1] Population ethics is is very important in the effective altruist movement (see for example the problem of saving lives versus preventing unwanted pregnancies). It is a part of consequentialist welfare ethics that looks at the consequences of our actions in order to maximize welfare. The starting point of welfare ethics is the welfare function that we should maximize. This welfare function is a function of the utilities of all individuals. For example total utilitarianism corresponds with a welfare function that takes the sum of everyone’s utilities. Here I define utility as a function of lifetime well-being which says how much an individual prefers that level of lifetime well-being.

If the lifetime well-being is positive, the utility is positive, which means that the life is worth living, that someone who lives that life prefers that life above non-existence. If the lifetime well-being is negative, utility becomes negative, which means the life is not worth living. Someone who has a negative utility prefers not being alive (not having been born) above living that life. A neutral lifetime well-being corresponds with a zero utility, which means someone who lives that life is indifferent between having that life versus non existence. Someone who does not exist also has a zero utility, i.e. no preference at all.

Suppose there are two individuals, the first one has lifetime well-being 0 (neutral), the second has a very high lifetime well-being at level 10. Suppose we can shift one unit of lifetime well-being from the best-off person (at level 10) to the worst-off person (at level 0). The first person gets lifetime well-being 1, the second person decreases to level 9. It is possible that the first person prefers 1 above 0 to a stronger degree than that the second person prefers 10 above 9. In other words, a increase from 0 to 1 is more important for the first person than an increase from 9 to 10 is important for the second person. The utility increases stronger when the lifetime well-being of the first person is increased from 0 to 1 than when the lifetime well-being of the second person is increased from 9 to 10. So the total utility (the sum of the utilities of both individuals) increases when a unit of lifetime well-being is shifted from the better-off to the worse-off person, even if total lifetime well-being remains constant. Here we see an egalitarian or prioritarian effect: more egalitarian distributions of lifetime well-being are better, and increasing the lifetime well-being of the worst-off persons should get a priority. If two persons have lifetime well-being of respectively 0 and 9, and we can add one unit of lifetime well-being, we should give it to the worst-off person at level 0.

 This egalitarian or prioritarian effect corresponds with utilities that are concave (humped) functions of lifetime well-being. It also means that a person is risk averse in situations of uncertainty. Suppose that a person has a choice between getting a lifetime well-being of 5 with certainty, or having a probability ½ of getting a lifetime well-being 0 and a probability ½ of getting a lifetime well-being 10. The average lifetime well-being in this second option equals 5, as high as the first option. But if a person is risk averse, that person prefers the first option, because then there is no risk of getting a low lifetime well-being 0.

Total utilitarianism

Now we enter population ethics. Let us start with the most simple expression of the welfare function: the sum of everyone’s utilities. This is total utilitarianism, which says that we should maximize total utility in the world (including the future). What could happen if we maximize total utility, given as the sum of all utilities of all individuals? Derek Parfit demonstrated that we face the so called repugnant conclusion.

Start with a population of very happy individuals with very high levels of lifetime well-being equal to 10. Now we can double the population by adding a second group with rather high lifetime well-being equal to 8. No-one is made worse off, happy people are added, the total utility almost doubles, so this second situation with a double population size is better than the starting situation. Now we can move to a third situation where we equalize everyone’s lifetime well-being. Everyone gets level 9. If the utility functions of the individuals are concave, this equalization increases total utility, so this third situation is better than the second. This process of doubling the population and equalizing well-being can be repeated ten times, so in the end we end up with a population more than 500 times larger than the first situation, where everyone has a very low (but still positive) lifetime well-being at level 1. But everyone in the original situation would strongly prefer having lifetime well-being 10 above 1.

The figure below illustrates the repugnant conclusion. The height of the bar corresponds with the lifetime-well-being, the width with the size of a population. The dotted lines corresponds with all the individuals who do not exist.


Total utilitarianism faces an even worse problem: the very repugnant conclusion. Suppose you can choose between two situations. In the first situation, 10 people have a high utility level 10. In the second situation, those same 10 people have very negative utilities -10, and there are 1000 people with a low utility 1, i.e. lives barely worth living. The total utility is 900 in the second situation (-10×10+1×1000), 9 times higher than the total utility in the first situation (10×10). It is very counter-intuïtive to say that the second situation is 9 times better.

If total utilitarianism results in these repugnant conclusions, perhaps we can modify the welfare function?

Average utilitarianism

Total utilitarianism values the quantity of well-being in the world. Instead of taking the sum of all utilities, we can take the average utility of a population, by dividing the sum of utilities with the population size. Then we arrive at average utilitarianism, which values the quality of a life instead of the quantity of lives and well-being. Taking the average utility avoids the repugnant conclusion. However, this average utilitarianism also has a lot of counter-intuitive results.

First, we have the reverse repugnant conclusion. If adding people with lower lifetime well-being is bad because it lowers average utility, only persons with lifetime well-being higher than the average should be born. If those individuals are born, it raises average utility even further. Fewer and fewer people are allowed to be born.

Second, average utilitarianism faces the population dependence problem. Adding happy people with lifetime well-being 8 is bad if the rest of the population has average well-being 10, but if the rest of the population has well-being 6, adding those same people would be good. In the figure below, the situation on the top left is worse than the situation on the bottom left, but the situation on the top right is better than the situation on the bottom right. This is strange, because the difference between the top and bottom cases is the same: in the two cases on the top, the same population is added.


This has far reaching consequences. If we discover that in the past or on another planet there was or exist a huge population of people happier than us, it is not good to add people like us who have a lower lifetime well-being.

Third, we have what Gustaf Arrhenius calls the dominance addition problem. In the figure below, the situation at the top is worse than the situation at the bottom, because in the top situation the average well-being is 9, which is lower than 10. Yet, everyone who exists in the bottom situation is better off in the top situation, so they would prefer the top situation. And the extra people at level 7 in the top situation cannot complain either, because they still have a positive well-being. Their alternative was non-existence.


It is getting worse with the first sadistic conclusion. Suppose we have a population with a small minority of happy individuals (level 10) and a huge majority of individuals with very negative utilities (level -10). This situation might be the case in nature, where most animals might have miserable short lives with bad experiences due to hunger, diseases, parasites, predation and so on. As a result, the average utility is also negative. We can increase this average utility by adding a population with negative utilities (level -8) that are a bit higher than the average negative utility of the already existing population. Hence, adding people with negative utilities (lives not worth living) would be good, if that would be the only option to increase average utility.


A final problem of average utilitarianism is the second sadistic conclusion. Suppose we have a huge population of very happy people at utility level 10, except for one individual. This individual can have utility levels 5 (a life worth living) or -10 (very miserable). Giving that person utility 5 is only possible if we add a huge population of happy people at utility level 8. See the top situation of the figure below.  If we choose not to add this extra population, the one individual will get a miserable life (utility level -10), which corresponds with the bottom situation of the figure below. In this latter situation, average utility is a tiny bit lower than 10. In the former situation, average utility is a tiny bit lower than 9. So if we increase the lifetime well-being of the miserable person to a utility level 5 by adding the happy people, average utility decreases. Yet, in the latter situation, no-one can complain: the people at level 10 still get level 10, the miserable person is better off at level 5, and the extra people have lives worth living.


Some of the above problems of average utilitarianism can be avoided by taking complex combinations of total and average utilitarianism. But we cannot avoid all problems, and sometimes we get the repugnant conclusion again. We can propose new welfare functions that are mixtures of the welfare functions of average and total utilitarianism, to arrive at new theories such as so called critical level utilitarianism, negative utilitarianism and number-dampened utilitarianism. But I will not explain those theories, because they always contain many of the above problems.

So the basic choice seems to be between total and average utilitarianism, both of which have counter-intuitive results. Which one is correct? We cannot tell, because there is no-one who experiences neither total nor average well-being or utility. Each individual in a population has its own lifetime well-being and utility. Each individual has subjective experiences and preferences. But there is no ‘collective individual’ who represents the total population and has the experiences of the total population. The welfare functions of total and average utilitarianism do not correspond with the utility (preferences) of an existing individual.

In this sense, both total and average utilitarianism are impersonal theories. As a moral being, I can give a values to total utility, or average utility, or biodiversity or whatever other quantity I want to see maximized. But these values are given by me and are not the utilities of an existing sentient being who has preferences. Looking at the above second sadistic conclusion, average utility is decreased, even if no-one is harmed (no-one experiences a lower lifetime well-being). And looking at the repugnant conclusion, total utility increases a lot, even if a lot of people are harmed in the sense that they can complain that their well-being is decreased.

Person affecting utilitarianism

Next to the above impersonal utilitarian theories, there are more personal utilitarian theories. The so called person  affecting view looks at how people who exist (or will exist independent of our choices, i.e. in all possible futures that we can choose) are affected by our choices.

Person affecting utilitarianism says that we should minimize the harms done to existing people. One version of person affecting utilitarianism is the minimum complaint theory. It counts the total complaint of all individuals and this total complaint should be minimized. A complaint indicates how strong a person chooses a situation relative to other possible situations. Suppose you can choose between different situations. Your choice affects the persons who are involved and those persons may or may not complain about your choice. The less they prefer your choice, the more they complain. All the complaints from all individuals can be add up to a total complaint. Your moral duty is to choose the situation that results in the least total complaint.

How do we calculate the total complaint? Take a situation S. This situation corresponds with a world history, where people lived, live and will live. Take all the individuals who existed, exist or will exist in situation S. All these individuals have their own lifetime well-beings and corresponding utilities or welfare preferences. A welfare preference of a person is a function of the well-being of that person and indicates how much that person wants a life (or situation) with such a well-being. The higher your well-being, the more you want that situation or that life with such a well-being. Now we can compare these utilities with the utilities that those individuals have in all other situations. If an individual does not exist in another situation, it gets utility 0 in that situation (because in that situation the non-existing individual has no preferences).

With the utilities or welfare preferences we can calculate frustrations. Take a person P who exists in situation S. In that situation S, that person has a welfare preference w(P,S,S) for that situation and a welfare preference w(P,S,X) for any other possible situation X that we can choose. Suppose that B is the best situation for persons P who sits in situation S. P would prefer situation B. Thus, w(P,S,B) is a maximum. In this situation S, person P has a maximum frustration w(P,S,B)-w(P,S,S). This frustration measures how strong person P in situation S has a preference for the best possible situation B above his or her actual situation S. (Note that if a person does not exist in situation Q, he or she cannot experience any well-being and does not have any welfare preferences, so for this non-existent person w(Q,S,X) is zero for all situations X.)

Usually, the complaint of a person is equal to its maximum frustration. Then you could say that we just need to take the sum of the maximum frustrations of all people involved and choose the situation in which the sum is minimized. But then we still encounter a small problem. Suppose you have the choice between three situations. In the first situation, no additional people are born. In the second situation, two people are born, the first having a utility 9 and the second a utility 10. In the third situation, the same two people are born, but the first has a utility 10 and the second a utility 9. If you choose the third situation, the second person has a frustration equal to 1, because in the second situation his or her utility was 10 and in the third it is 9. If you choose the second situation, then the first person has a frustration, because that person has a utility 9 instead of 10. So in the second and third situations, there is always someone with frustration.

The first situation is the only situation where there is no frustration because there is simply no-one in that situation. If you want to minimize the amount of frustration, it is better that no extra persons are born. In the second and third situations, there is more frustration than in the first. We can look at the first person in the second situation. That person has a frustration, but would it be wise for that person to complain to you that you ought to have chosen the third situation? No, because in the third situation, the second person can complain, and if you want to minimize the complaints, you will go for the first situation in which no-one is born and hence no-one complains. The first person in situation 2 still prefers that second situation above the first, because a utility 9 is higher than 0. Conclusion: no-one of the two persons can complain in the second and third situations. In terms of complaints, those situations are not worse than the first situation.

For each situation S we can calculate the total complaint. The complaint minimization version of person affecting utilitarianism says that we should look for the situation S’ that minimizes this total complaint. This total complaint counts as a negative welfare function, a function that we should minimize. (We can add a minus sign to arrive at a welfare function that we should maximize.)

As with the case of total and average utilitarianism, this negative welfare function of person affecting utilitarianism is not the utility of a ‘collective individual’. But it is less impersonal than total and average utilitarianism, because it is completely based on the utilities of existing individuals. If every existing individual takes an impartial perspective, every individual can want to minimize the total maximum complaint. Almost by definition, no-one can give valid (impartial) reasons to complain against this choice of welfare function that minimizes complaints. In contrast, some people have reasons to complain in total utilitarianism, if they become victim of the repugnant conclusion where they will end up with a much lower well-being. And some people – in particular the one person in the second sadistic conclusion – have reasons to complain in average utilitarianism, where they will end up with much lower (even negative) utilities.

According to person affecting utilitarianism, the top situations in the above illustrations of the repugnant conclusion, the dominance addition problem and the first and second sadistic conclusions are the best. And the population dependence problem is avoided as well, so this is all in line with the moral intuitions of many people.

Let us return to the example of the repugnant conclusion. Suppose we have a choice between only two situations: the first situation contains a population at utility level 10. The second situation contains two populations: the same population as in the first situation, at level 10, plus an additional population at level 8. If these are the only two options available, they are equally good according to complaint minimizing person affecting utilitarianism, because in both situations there are no complaints.

But what if the third situation in the argument towards the repugnant conclusion becomes possible? In this third situation the utilities of both populations are equal at level 9. If this third situation is possible, then the total frustration changes in the second situation. The second population in the second situation had utility 8 and in the third situation they get utility 9. Those people in the second population in the second situation are frustrated, because they then have preferred the third situation. They have a frustration 9-8 = 1 in the second situation.

Suppose those people in the second population go complaining because of their frustration. What if we then choose the third situation? In that situation, the first population may complain, because their utility is 9 in the third situation, while they had a utility 10 in the first situation. That first population prefers the first situation above the third situation. The first situation is the only situation in which nobody has a frustration and so no-one can complain. The first population has a maximum utility level and the second population does not even exist in the first situation, and remember that non-existing persons cannot complain.

There are now two options: either the people in the second population go complaining in the second situation. In that case, the first situation is the best, because that is the only situation without complaints. Or the people in the second population are not complaining in the second situation because they realize that if they complain, the first situation is the best, and in the first situation those people in the second population were not even born. If the people do not complain in the second situation, then the first and second situations are equally good, because in both cases there are no complaints. The third situation is clearly the least good, because there is always at least one person (from the first population) complaining. That is why the repugnant conclusion is avoided.

Unfortunately, person affecting utilitarianism faces its own counter-intuitive problems. A first, minor problem is the choice dependence problem. Consider again the first two situations we saw in the repugnant conclusion example. If these were the only options available to us, we could choose the second situation (doubling the population by adding people at level 8), because no-one in this second situation can complain. No-one is worse off than in any other available situation. But now suppose the third situation becomes an option as well. If we would choose the second situation, there is a group of people who can complain: those people at level 8 in the second situation could have a well-being at level 9 in the third situation. So the third situation is better for those people. But if we pick the third situation, we again have a group of people who can complain, because the first half of the population has level 9 whereas they could have level 10 if we chose the first situation. In situations two and three there are always people who can complain, if those two situations are possible. The first situation is the only situation where no-one can complain. But if the third situation is no longer possible, situations one and two become equal, because in both situations no-one can complain. It can seem counter-intuitive to say that the betterness of situation one relative to situation two depends on whether or not another situation three is possible.

Person affecting utilitarianism has a more serious counter-intuitive implication: the intergenerational justice problem. Consider environmental problems such as global warming and fossil fuel depletion. If the current generation decreases its carbon footprint, for example by using bikes instead of driving cars and doing research for alternative renewable energy sources, we avoid future problems of global warming and we give future people new opportunities with new energy sources. If we invest a lot in research, future generations can even be made better off than the current generation. So, as in the figure below, the current generation might have utility level 9 whereas future generations can have high levels as well, for example level 12. However, the utility of the current generation can increase to level 10 if we do not lower our carbon footprint, if we do what we most strongly prefer, such as driving cars and produce consumer goods for ourselves instead of doing more research. As a consequence, future generations will have a lower utility, because they face the problems of global warming and resource scarcities. We might end up with a small future population because the earth is no longer capable of supporting a larger population, and this remaining population might have a low utility level 1.


Now here is the tricky part: If we (the current generation) lower our carbon footprint, we will change our behavior. We will take the bike instead of the car and we will do other kinds of work. As a result people arrive a little bit later at home and go a little bit later to bed. If they want to make children, the timing becomes very important. Male sperm determines the sex of the future children. Multiple sperm cells compete with each other, at one moment, the sperm cell with a female X chromosome is ahead, and the future baby would be female, but a fraction of a second later, another sperm cell with a male Y chromosome might have the lead and fertilize the egg cell. The exact moment of intercourse determines whether the future child will be male or female. And it determines many other properties of the child. Completely different individuals can be born. This generates a butterfly effect: very small changes in our behavior will have very big consequences as they determine who will be born in the future. (The butterfly effect says that the flapping of a butterfly can determine whether or not there will be a hurricane in another country a year later.) In other words: the small future population at level 1 is not the same population as the larger population at level 12. These populations contain different individuals.

So if we choose not to decrease our carbon footprint and future generations will get a low level 1, can they complain? Can they say that for their benefit we should have taken some actions to avoid global warming? No, because in the other situation, they would no longer exist. As long as their utilities are positive, they cannot complain. And if we take the first situation where we lower our carbon footprint and the current generation ends up with utility level 9, is there someone who can complain? Yes, the current generation can complain, because in the alternative situation they would have a higher level 10. So for a person affecting utilitarian, the first situation is worse than the second, even if in the first situation total and average utilities are higher and there is more equality between the generations.

Of course, once global warming becomes so bad that new people will be born who will have negative utilities, those future people can complain, because they would prefer not being born above having a negative lifetime well-being. Hence we should avoid serious environmental problems and promote some level of sustainability such that future generations have positive utilities. We have to be very careful with environmental problems that decrease future well-being, because we risk that some future people will be born who will have lives not worth living. For example, suppose an additional 1% of future generations will get negative utilities due to environmental problems. Those extra 1% of people can complain. They have valid reasons to accuse us that we have done too little against the environmental problems. An additional 1% of people with a negative welfare seems negligible, but because there will be so many future generations – literally hundreds of generations – there may well be many future people who can complain. Much more than all the people of the current generation.

A related problem of person affecting utilitarianism is what Gustav Arrhenius calls the extreme priority problem. Suppose we have to choose between two situations as in the figure below. In the first situation we have a population at level 10, a larger population at level 15 and one person at level -1. The second situation contains the first population again at level 10, and a new population at level 1. This second situation is better than the first according to person affecting utilitarianism, because in the first situation there is one person who can complain: the person with the negative utility. This may seem counter-intuitive, because the first situation has a much higher total and average utility. There is only one person who can complain a little, but this one persons complaint dominates and as a consequence the very big population of very happy people at level 15 should not exist. Only a small group of future people who will have a low utility level 1 can ben born.


These problems of the person affecting view determine how we should treat for example the economic costs of future environmental problems such as climate change. In environmental economics that studies cost benefit analyses involving future generations, the discount rate is a very important parameter that determines which policy choices are good in terms of economic costs and benefits. An average or total utilitarian would choose a zero discount rate: the utilities of future generations are as important as those of the current generation. But a person affecting utilitarian would choose a higher discount rate. The more different the future populations are (the less overlap they have) between different situations, the higher the discount rate, and the less the utilities of the future generations matter (except if they have negative utilities). In other words: an average or total utilitarian would prefer higher levels of environmental sustainability compared to a person affecting utilitarian. A strong interpretation of sustainable development, in terms of ensuring that future utility levels are not lower than current levels, is less important for the person affecting utilitarian.

Summary and concluding remarks

There are basically three different population ethics: total utilitarianism, average utilitarianism and person affecting utilitarianism. These can be combined and slightly modified to generate other population ethics, but they all face at least one counter intuitive result. Hence we have a trilemma: which of the three utilitarian theories is the best? I think person affecting utilitarianism is the strongest candidate, because it is the only theory that minimizes complaints of real individuals (who exist now or will definitely exist in the future). Therefore it avoids the repugnant conclusion, the reverse repugnant conclusion, the two sadistic conclusions, the dominance addition problem and the population dependence problem.

However, person affecting utilitarianism faces other problems. One minor problem is the choice dependence problem. But this has no important practical implications, because we don’t have to consider non-existing options anyway. More serious problems it faces are the intergenerational justice problem and the extreme priority problem. These problems may seem counter-intuitive in terms of justice (intergenerational equality) and effectiveness (improving total well-being), but at least no-one can complain against it.

I would personally give some value to impersonal properties, such as total utility, average utility and biodiversity, and these imply stronger notions of sustainability than are implied by person affecting utilitarianism. However, I think we should not give too much value to those properties, because if we maximize them, there can be people who have reason to complain. And these properties are values that I give, they are not utilities of a sentient being such as a ‘collective individual’. Populations or ecosystems are not sentient beings, so they do not have preferences (utilities), so they don’t care whether they have high or low levels of total or average utility or biodiversity. If I value total utility or biodiversity and if those properties increase, my individual utility increases. This increase contributes to an increase of total utility, but the increase of total utility will be very small if I am the only person who values those things.

I also think that sustainability remains important in a person affecting view, because unsustainable development involves the risk that future generations with negative utilities will be born, and they have a reason to complain. And the degree to which future populations are different between different choices, is uncertain. If there are future people that exist in both the situation with a high future utility and a low future utility, those people in the situation where they have the low utility have very strong complaints.

For a mathematical formulation of the utilitarian population ethics, see here.

[1] Derek Parfit raised some important problems in population ethics. Gustaf Arrhenius demonstrated that we cannot avoid counter-intuitive results in population ethics. Some important works in population ethics are:

Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and Persons, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Arrhenius, G. (2000). Future Generations: A Challenge for Moral Theory, PhD dissertation, Uppsala University.

Blackorby, C., Bossert W. & Donaldson, D. (2005). Population Issues in Social Choice Theory, Welfare Economics, and Ethics. Cambridge University Press.

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De ongewenste willekeur van een boerkiniverbod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moral illusions and wild animal suffering neglect

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naturalistic fallacy

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

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

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

Status quo bias

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

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

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

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

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

Scope neglect

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

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

Just world hypothesis

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

Futility thinking

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On GMOs and effective environmentalism

Changing mind about GMOs, again?

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

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

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

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

Some statements written in the NAS report:

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

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

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

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

Some statements written in the EASAC report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Effective environmentalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appendix: rebuttal of the rebuttal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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