My three top charities

After a long reflection of five years within effective altruism, I finally came up with my personal three top charities. The choice of these charities is based on my personal moral beliefs and estimates of the situation, by considering the importance (scope), the neglectedness and the tractability (solvability) of the problems that the charities try to resolve. For the next few years, I will mostly donate to those charities and hope a few more other people will do so as well.

The Good Food Institute

The Good Food Institute promotes and supports the development of animal free alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs. The Good Food Institute is a top recommended charity of Animal Charity Evaluators.

Importance

The bigger a problem is, the more effective it is to solve that problem, all else equal. Animal farming (livestock and aquaculture) is a very big problem. More than 100 billion vertebrate animals are born in captivity and killed per year. This excludes invertebrate animals (e.g. for insect meal) and wild caught vertebrate animals (e.g. fishing). The lives of such livestock and fish farm animals is probably far worse than the lives of most humans, involving more suffering. This yearly killing rate can be multiplied by the average human lifespan of 80 years, resulting in more than 8000 billion sentient beings suffering per human being. Hence, in terms of number of individuals harmed and killed, animal farming is probably more than 1000 times worse than all human rights violations and premature deaths combined.

Another estimate of the scope of the problem, looks at the number and duration of negative experiences. For each human alive today, there are probably more than 10 vertebrate animals kept in animal farms (3 livestock animals plus many fish). A random moment of a random animal in captivity is probably far worse than a random moment of a random human alive today. Hence, in terms of moments of negative experiences, animal farming is probably more than 10 times worse than all human suffering combined.

Three extra considerations indicate that the scope of the problem could be even larger. First, there is moral uncertainty about ethical systems, implying that a rights based ethic has a non-zero validity. An in my opinion strong case can be made for an extension of narrow utilitarian ethics, by including a basic right: the right that someone’s body should not be used against his or her will as a means to someone else’s ends. According to some rights based ethics, this basic right is stronger than other rights and trumps to a large degree considerations of welfare. Hence, the production of animal products is most likely the largest kind of injustice or discrimination (speciesism).

Second, there is moral uncertainty about population ethics. Consequentialist ethical systems with a procreation asymmetry or suffering focus have some non-zero validity. According to those asymmetric views, adding an extra life with a net-negative welfare (i.e. overall more negative than positive experiences) is always bad, but adding an extra life with a net-positive welfare is not always good. This means a priority should be given to avoiding lives not worth living (i.e. lives full of suffering, with net-negative welfare) above creating extra lives worth living or improving lives that were already worth living. It is likely that most farm animals have lives not worth living, whereas most humans have lives with net-positive welfare. This means the suffering of a farm animal trumps the happiness of a human. Hence, animal farming becomes an even bigger problem.

Third, next to animal suffering and rights violations, the production and consumption of animal products generates many negative side-effects: environmental problems such as climate change and pollution, human health risks from antibiotic resistant pathogens and zoonotic viruses, human economic welfare loss due to chronic diseases from meat consumption, and a moral distortion due to cognitive dissonance. Meat consumption distorts our moral behavior: we do something that violates our deepest moral values, without realizing it. The resulting cognitive dissonance or ‘meat paradox’, i.e. the conflict between our harmful behavior and our value of not harming others, creates irrationalities or cognitive biases, such as inconsistent judgments about mental capacities of different animals. This cognitive bias prevents us from improving the lives of many animals, including wild animals (see next two charities below).

As a consequence, avoiding animal production has many cobenefits. Promoting veganism is a very effective method of carbon offsetting. It improves human health and welfare by reducing the burden of disease and it facilitates moral circle expansion by reducing moral disengagement and cognitive dissonance. This moral circle expansion is relevant for animal welfare in the long run: after abolishing animal farming and eliminating human-caused animal suffering, there remains the probably even bigger problem of wild animal suffering.

Tractability

The more tractable or solvable a problem is, the more effective it becomes to solve that problem, all else equal. Traditional vegan meat alternatives are not sufficiently appealing to most meat-eaters. However, some reports of independent consulting firms and technology, finance and market sector experts (RethinkX, ATKearney) argue that new plant-based meat and cell-based meat products have the potential to get a better quality-price ratio than animal meat in the near future. It is expected that those animal-free meat products can outcompete animal meat products. Other animal products (milk, eggs) can be replaced by cheaper alternatives using new precision fermentation technologies.

If these developments in meat alternatives increase, and the alternatives become price-competitive and better in quality than animal meat, we can expect the end of animal farming somewhere this century. The market consulting firms expect peak meat somewhere this decade. Peak meat means a peak of global production of animal meat. As meat production involves so much suffering, peak meat is likely to be also the peak in anthropogenic (human caused) suffering through human history.

So we have reasons for optimism: the development of new plant-based and cell-based meat means the problem of animal farming can be solved.

Neglectedness

The more neglected a problem area or strategy to solve the problem is, the more valuable or effective an extra contribution to the solution is, all else equal. The strategy to decrease animal farming through the development of new plant-based and cell-based meat is rather neglected. For example, animal-free meat received only 1 billion dollar of funding in 2018. As a comparison, this is much smaller than global investment in renewable energy (worth 300 billion dollar).

The solid line in the figure below shows the future expected evolution of global meat production in a baseline reference scenario where animal-free meat development does not receive extra support from us. As the problem area of animal farming is expected to become less and less neglected in the baseline scenario, animal farming is expected to decrease even without our extra support. This could mean that support for the Good Food Institute is redundant and hence ineffective. However, the eventual decrease of meat production can be accelerated by extra funding of animal-free meat research and development. The effectiveness of supporting the Good Food Institute depends on the timing. If support occurs in the short run (i.e. before peak meat), when the problem area is still relatively neglected, future meat production will start to decrease sooner and peak meat production will be lower. The dashed line in the figure below represents expected future meat production when animal-free meat developments receive our extra support before peak meat. The impact of near-future support of a charity like the Good Food Institute is given by the difference between the solid and dashed lines. This difference can be very large. But if we wait too long and we are way beyond peak meat, the field will be much more crowded (less neglected), which means our extra contribution will have a smaller impact. Furthermore, the reference scenario meat production will already be low by that time, which means that there is less potential for a further drastic reduction. The effect of a late support to the Good Food Institute is given by the dotted line in the figure. The area between the solid and dotted lines is much smaller than the area between the solid and dashed lines, which means late support is much less effective.

Peak meat

These considerations imply that in the medium and long run (i.e.  after peak meat, e.g. by 2030), my recommendation for the Good Food Institute will likely be replaced by other charities that focus on other big, tractable and neglected problems. As existential risks from new technologies such as artificial intelligence increases, existential risk reduction (avoiding human extinction) is likely to become one of my new focus areas. Prime examples in this area are artificial intelligence safety and biosecurity against engineered pathogens. By the time that animal-free meat development becomes less effective, we will have better knowledge of what general artificial superintelligence might look like and in what ways it can be dangerous, which means that advancing AI-safety becomes more tractable. Other charities that I can recommend in the near future, after peak meat, are charities that focus on longtermism and effective altruism community building.

Animal Ethics

Animal Ethics is an animal advocacy outreach and research organization, focusing on the morality of antispeciesism and the science of animal sentience. Its two problem areas are animal exploitation by humans and wild animal suffering caused by nature. I chose Animal Ethics as a top charity because it targets wild animal suffering and promotes moral circle expansion.

Importance

In a previous article, I argued why in the long run, with a suffering focused (asymmetric) population ethic, wild animal suffering is likely to be the most important problem (after eliminating animal farming). There are many more wild animals than farm animals, many more future wild animal generations than farm animal generations (if animal farming is shut down somewhere this century), and most wild animals have very short lives, with premature deaths and negative experiences of disease, hunger, cold, injuries,…

Neglectedness

The problem area of wild animal suffering is probably the most neglected of all the very big problem areas. For example far future insect suffering almost gets no attention, not even among animal rights activists.

Tractability

The tractability or solvability of wild animal suffering is not yet known, but Animal Ethics advances the scientific research field of welfare biology, in order to make the problem area of wild animal suffering more tractable. The goal of this new academic discipline is to look for tractable (safe and effective) means that help nature with improving wild animal welfare. As we know from other academic fields, doing research itself is very tractable.

To deal with wild animal suffering in the far future, including invertebrate suffering, we also need further moral circle expansion. This can be done by informing people about mental capacities of animals. This outreach activity is also performed by Animal Ethics, and is often neglected by other animal advocacy organizations.

Wild Animal Initiative

Wild Animal Initiative is a charity with a mission to understand and improve the lives of wild animals. Even though Animal Ethics also works on wild animal welfare, I recommend Wild Animal Initiative as the third top charity, because this organization specializes in wild animal welfare, and it is good to diversify support for charities that work in highly neglected problem areas. The problem area of wild animal suffering is extremely big, not only in the sense of affecting many individuals in serious ways, but also in the sense of being diversified, i.e. having many different subproblems. There are many different causes of suffering (e.g. viral infection, starvation, predation,…), of many different animal populations (e.g. birds, bees, bears,…). The problem area can be made more tractable by scientific research, but as the area is so neglected and there are so many subproblems, a lot of different research still needs to be done and many different research questions still need to be solved. Therefore, supporting both Animal Ethics and Wild Animal Initiative can be considered as a kind of diversification to advance the research field of welfare biology. When a problem area is highly diverse and neglected, and information of which approach is most effective is lacking, supporting a diversified portfolio of charities can decrease the risk of having a low impact.

The table below summarizes the levels of importance, tractability and neglectedness of the above three recommended charities.

ITN top charities

Not selected charities

I considered many more charities, so here I will briefly explain why I did not select other animal welfare, human welfare and environmental organizations.

 

Animal welfare organizations

Some animal welfare organizations focus on improving the situations of farm animals. However, keeping moral uncertainty into account, there is a possibility that a rights based ethic is valid. Merely improving the life of a farm animal still involves a violation of its basic right, because the body of the animal is still used as a means against its will. Furthermore, when the goal is to decrease animal suffering, improving the situation of a farm animal is also less tractable than developing animal-free alternatives of animal products. Farm animal welfare faces many trade-offs. For example, allowing outdoor free range of farm animals decreases mental problems but can increase disease risks, because many farm animals are not well adapted for outdoor environments (e.g. contact with pathogens from overflying bird excrements). Using animals with lower growth rates decreases health risks of those animals but increases their time spend in captivity. Keeping animals in crowded large barns instead of cage systems can increase violence between animals.

Other animal advocacy organizations focus on individual behavior change with consumerist vegan outreach campaigns. However, I expect these traditional vegan outreach campaigns to be less effective than the development of new plant-based and cell-based meat. The past decades did not show a large increase in the number of vegetarians and vegans, despite all the outreach campaigns. Vegan cooking workshops, vegan meal recipes, traditional vegan products, undercover investigations of factory farming and vegan outreach information about animal suffering, human health costs and environmental problems of animal products were not sufficient to convince the public. Only in the past few years we see a relevant increase in the number of vegans, most likely in large part due to the increasing availability of novel vegan alternatives of animal products.

Traditional animal advocacy and vegan outreach campaigns are less tractable or effective, because animal farming is probably the biggest lock-in situation that creates suffering. A lock-in situation has high switching costs, due to strong economic, psychological and cultural barriers. The huge investments by the meat industry creates economic barriers, the habits and cognitive dissonance of consumers create psychological barriers, and the cultural norm of meat consumption creates cultural barriers that make a switch to animal-free agriculture and consumption difficult. It is unlikely that a demand side strategy such as individual consumer behavior change can overcome those barriers and let us step out of the animal farming system. A supply side strategy, in particular the development of new plant-based and cell-based vegan food, is more likely to overcome the switching costs. Due to the increasing returns to scale and the increasing efficiency of the production processes, the production of plant-based and cell-based meat will become more cost-effective than animal meat. This means the economic barriers will be overcome due to market competition. Also the psychological and cultural barriers disappear, because consumers do not have to change behavior: the plant-based and cell-based meats will become cheaper and healthier (less food scandals, risks of bacterial contamination and foodborne illnesses) than animal meat, but they will be just as tasty and can be prepared in the same way as traditional animal meat.

Other animal rights organizations focus on campaigns against e.g. animal testing, fur, animals in entertainment and pet breeding, but these problems are much smaller in scope than animal farming. Animal fur and leather can also become replaced by cell-based alternatives, just like meat.

 

Human welfare organizations

Some moral arguments could be given for preferring human lives. However, human welfare charities have lower levels of importance, neglectedness and tractability compared to the above three top charities.

With respect to tractability, a major concern of human welfare charities that promote economic wealth and human health, is the likely risk of a negative side effect of increasing animal exploitation. First, there is a strong positive correlation between economic development of poor people (i.e. poverty reduction) and meat consumption. Second, improving human health means more human life years (e.g. saving lives and extending human lifespans). As long as most people consume animal products, having more human life years results in more consumption of animal products. As a typical rich human consumes many animals in a year, the human welfare benefits of promoting human wealth and increasing human life years will be strongly diminished or even fully negated by the increased animal welfare loss and animal rights violations.

Human welfare is less neglected than animal welfare, because human welfare charities receive much more funding than animal welfare organizations. And compared to farm animal and wild animal suffering, human suffering is smaller in scope. There are fewer humans, and most humans have higher welfare levels than most farm and wild animals.

Furthermore, global human poverty, rights violations (e.g. violence) and diseases are decreasing (healthy human life years are increasing). In other words, we are beyond peak poverty and peak disease. As could be seen in the above figure, when we are beyond the peak of a problem that is less neglected, efforts to further reduce that problem have a lower overall impact than efforts to reduce another, more neglected problem in an earlier stage.

Environmental organizations

I did not select environmental organizations, because of a smaller scope and lower tractability of environmental problems. It is unlikely that environmental problems (not even climate change) pose a higher existential risk than unsafe/unaligned artificial superintelligence and engineered pandemic pathogens. When it comes to climate change and biodiversity loss, a focus on animal farming is very effective, because animal farming is most likely the biggest contributor to species extinction (through land use and pollution), and a switch to animal-free products can strongly mitigate climate change.

Environmental organizations do not focus on wild animal welfare, and sentience is not their primary concern. For example, wildlife conservation organizations do not study the impact of their interventions on wild animal welfare. Instead, they favor potentially counterproductive, animal-suffering increasing interventions such as the reintroduction of predators in nature reserves. Those organizations have non-altruistic valuations: they value something that is not valued by the target. Environmentalists and conservationists value naturalness, ecosystem integrity or species biodiversity, but the target, the ecosystem itself, does not value those things. Sometimes biodiversity can have instrumental value, when it increases welfare, but an ecosystem does not care about biodiversity. In contrast, when animal advocates value animal welfare, the target group of animals also values their welfare. Hence, valuing welfare is an altruistic valuation in the sense that it is fully compatible with altruism. Altruism means doing something that someone else wants. In moral terms, welfare is a two-sided value, valued by both agents (activists) and patients (target individuals), whereas naturalness or biodiversity are one-sided values, valued only by the agents.

As ecosystems are not aligned to optimize welfare and as the value of naturalness is orthogonal to the value of well-being, the choice for one’s own values of naturalness or ecosystem integrity and biodiversity can be harmful in the sense that it can decrease well-being. Furthermore, environmental organizations often run counterproductive or ineffective campaigns, e.g. against glyphosate, GMOs, nuclear power, nonorganic agriculture and synthetic products. This decreases the overall effectiveness of the environmental movement.

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Consider remarkable animal capabilities to expand the moral circle

The problem of animal agriculture and the solution of cellular agriculture

The human consumption of animal products is terrible for all kinds of reasons (zoonotic infectious diseases, animal suffering, climate change,…). It is likely the biggest cause of suffering caused by humans. The good news is that new technological developments such as cellular agriculture and precision fermentation could possibly outcompete animal products. Facing decreasing marginal costs and increasing returns to scale, the production of animal free alternatives to meat, milk, eggs and other animal products is likely to become much more economically viable than livestock farming, aquaculture, fishing and hunting, especially in our capitalist society where large competitive firms (and even meat producers) are investing in those new food technologies. We can advance those developments by financially supporting organizations such as the Good Food Institute, Cellular Agriculture Society or Modern Agriculture Foundation.

The problem of cognitive dissonance and the solution of moral circle expansion

Some challenges remain. First, even if the number of vegans is drastically increasing in western countries (e.g. from 1% of the US population in 2014 to 6% in 2017), overall meat consumption is not strongly decreasing, due to a substantial part of the population being ‘meat identifiers’ who increase their meat consumption. Especially men who identify themselves as meat eaters and favor social dominance and hierarchy, want to eat meat in order to perceive themselves as dominating others (animals).[1] They believe that meat from real animals is a social status symbol that demonstrates their masculinity.[2] The good news is that new social norms and especially documentaries such as The Game Changers are demonstrating that eating plant-based can reflect masculinity and strength as well.

The next, more general challenge is that people, especially meat eaters, have a cognitive dissonance: their behavior of eating animals contradicts their moral values of not causing unnecessary suffering and harm. Due to this cognitive dissonance, known as the meat paradox, meat eaters have distorted (inconsistent) perceptions about animal suffering and harm. E.g. they inconsistently underestimate the mental capabilities of the animals they consume.[3] The good news is that the increased consumption of animal-free meat alternatives can decrease this cognitive dissonance, such that the moral value of respecting animal welfare and animal rights is no longer suppressed, but becomes more pronounced.

This process of decreasing cognitive dissonance can be enhanced by moral circle expansion. The goal is that more people consider animals as being worthy of moral consideration, having a high moral status. Moral circle expansion is not only important in the short run to abolish livestock farming, but becomes especially important when we consider the far future, especially wild animal suffering and related problems such as insect suffering. Wild animal suffering in the far future is much larger in scope than livestock animal suffering the next decades. We can advance research into wild animal suffering by financially supporting organizations such as Wild Animal Initiative and Animal Ethics.

Strategies for moral circle expansion

Some challenges remain. The question is how to effectively advance moral circle expansion? First, we can focus on the philosophical-ethical arguments against speciesism, which a special kind of discrimination, which is a special kind of unwanted arbitrariness. These arguments are very robust and coherent, but for most people they are probably too abstract or theoretical. It is not easy to reach a mass audience with such arguments, so one on one conversations such as deep canvassing is probably the best strategy to promote those ideas.

Probably a more effective strategy to advance moral circle expansion, is spreading the information about remarkable animal mental capabilities. The focus on animal capabilities is suitable for reaching a big audience with a simple, accessible and appealing message. People often react with surprise when they learn about how animals are psychologically so similar to them. This strategy of moral circle expansion by focusing on animal mental capabilities, is neglected by food companies and most animal rights organizations. The idea is that, while new foods such as clean meat and plant-based protein are being developed and advertised by large and small companies, we can give meat eaters an extra push towards those animal-free products, by informing them about how animals are psychologically like us in relevant ways.

So here I will list some of the most surprising facts about animal emotion and cognition. I chose those facts because they are easy to communicate, they are largely unknown and hence surprising, they are based on reliable scientific research and hence surpass mere anecdotal evidence, and they allow us to avoid discussions about e.g. anthropomorphization or plant sentience.

Examples of animal mental capabilities

Optimism and pessimism in mood states

When people are stressed or depressed, they have more pessimistic judgments in ambiguous or uncertain situations. When they are happy or joyful, they have an optimistic tendency. The same goes for many animals. For example: an animal learns that a white box contains a reward and a black box contains a punishment. How will they react when they see a grey box: approach or avoid? Animals with a negative mood state tend to avoid the grey box, those with positive feelings tend to approach it. Hence, animals have a cognitive bias. Some examples.

Agitation and anxiety: honeybees become pessimistic after vigorous shaking, and have lower levels of happiness hormones such as dopamine and serotonine.[4] Rats become pessimistic when housed in unpredictable conditions.[5]

Social defeat: rats become pessimistic when under chronic psychosocial stress.[6]

Restraint: sheep become more optimistic when released from restraint.[7]

Separation and social isolation: dogs[8], cows[9] and chickens[10] become pessimistic when separated or isolated from family or friends.

Helplessness: rats become pessimistic when in situations of helplessness.[11]

Tickling: rats start laughing and become optimistic after tickling.[12]

Environmental enrichment, enriched cages: rats[13], starlings[14] and pigs[15] become more optimistic when their cages are enriched.

Physical pain: cows become pessimistic after painful dehorning.[16]

Self-awareness and sense of certainty

Honeybees are aware of being uncertain (a kind of self-awareness or meta-cognition) and learn to selectively avoid difficult choices that involve uncertainty. Bees were rewarded for a correct choice and punished for an incorrect choice, or they could avoid choosing by exiting the trial (opting out). Bees opted out more often on difficult trials.[17]

Self-control and sense of time duration

Chickens can learn to choose between two food rewards: a 2 seconds delay to a 3 seconds feed access and a 6 seconds delay to a 22 second feed access.[18] Hens chose the latter, bigger reward in the more distant future, which means they have a sense of time duration and self-control. Also bees[19] and rats[20] tend to pick a delayed but larger reward over a smaller immediate reward.

Selective attention

Rainbow trout start rubbing their lips against stones for a long time when injected with a venom (hence no quick, automatic response behavior). They stop normal activity such as eating and become less aware of new dangers in their environment, as if they are preoccupied by the pain. When injected with analgesics, the rubbing behavior reduces and awareness of new dangers increases.[21]

Motivation

Fruit flies will endure electric shock in order to attain alcohol, which indicates that they are willing to tolerate a cost to seek the drug.[22] Chickens push longer and harder on a door to obtain food, when they are more hungry (i.e. when they haven’t eaten for a longer time).[23]

Self-administering analgesics

Lame chickens learn to eat analgesics when in pain.[24]

Empathy

Chickens[25] and rats[26] show empathically motivated helping behavior: hens help their suffering chicks, rats liberate other trapped rats instead of eating chocolate.

Intelligence

Pigs can play computer games.

[1] Hyers, L. L. (2006). Myths used to legitimize the exploitation of animals: An application of social dominance theory. Anthrozoös, 19(3), 194-210.

[2] Thomas, M. A. (2016). Are vegans the same as vegetarians? The effect of diet on perceptions of masculinity. Appetite, 97, 79-86.

Ruby, M. B., & Heine, S. J. (2011). Meat, morals, and masculinity. Appetite, 56(2), 447-450.

Rothgerber, H. (2013). Real men don’t eat (vegetable) quiche: Masculinity and the justification of meat consumption. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 14(4), 363.

Dowsett, E., Semmler, C., Bray, H., Ankeny, R. A., & Chur-Hansen, A. (2018). Neutralising the meat paradox: Cognitive dissonance, gender, and eating animals. Appetite, 123, 280-288.

[3] Bastian B., Loughnan S., Haslam N. & Radke H. (2012). Don’t Mind Meat? The denial of mind to animals used for human consumption. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin vol. 38 no. 2 p.247-256.

Loughnan S., Haslam N. & Bastian B. (2010). The role of meat consumption in the denial of moral status and mind to meat animals. Appetite 55 p.156–159.

Bratanova B. Loughnan S. & Bastian B. (2011). The effect of categorization as food on the perceived moral standing of animals. Appetite 57 p.193–196

Bilewicz M., Imhoff R. & Drogosz M. (2010). The humanity of what we eat: Conceptions of human uniqueness among vegetarians and omnivores. European Journal of Social Psychology.

[4] Bateson, M., Desire, S., Gartside, S. E., & Wright, G. A. (2011). Agitated honeybees exhibit pessimistic cognitive biases. Current biology, 21(12), 1070-1073.

[5] Harding, E.J., Paul, E.S., and Mendl, M. (2004). Animal behaviour: Cognitive bias and affective state. Nature 427, 312.16.

[6] Papciak, J., Popik, P., Fuchs, E., & Rygula, R. (2013). Chronic psychosocial stress makes rats more ‘pessimistic’ in the ambiguous-cue interpretation paradigm. Behavioural brain research, 256, 305-310.

[7] Doyle, R.E., Fisher, A.D., Hinch, G.N., Boissy, A., and Lee, C. (2010). Release from restraint generates a positive judgement bias in sheep. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci.122, 28–34.14.

[8] Mendl, M., Brooks, J., Basse, C., Burman, O., Paul, E., Blackwell, E., and Casey, R. (2010). Dogs showing separation-related behaviour exhibit a ‘pessimistic’ cognitive bias. Curr. Biol. 20, R839–R840.17.

[9] Daros, R. R., Costa, J. H., von Keyserlingk, M. A., Hötzel, M. J., & Weary, D. M. (2014). Separation from the dam causes negative judgement bias in dairy calves. PLoS One, 9(5).

[10] Salmeto, A.L., Hymel, K.A., Carpenter, E.C., Brilot, B.O., Bateson, M., and Sufka, K.J. (2011). Cognitive bias in the chick anxiety-depression model. Brain Res.1373, 124–130.

[11] Enkel, T., Gholizadeh, D., von Bohlen Und Halbach, O., Sanchis-Segura,C., Hurlemann, R., Spanagel, R., Gass, P., and Vollmayr, B. (2010). Ambiguous-cue interpretation is biased under stress- and depression-like states in rats. Neuropsychopharmacology35, 1008–1015.15.

[12] Rygula, R., Pluta, H., & Popik, P. (2012). Laughing rats are optimistic. PLoS One, 7(12).

[13] Brydges, N.M., Leach, M., Nicol, K., Wright, R., and Bateson, M. (2011).Environmental enrichment induces optimistic cognitive bias in rats. Anim. Behav.81, 169–175.13.

[14] Bateson, M., and Matheson, S.M. (2007). Performance on a categorisation task suggests that removal of environmental enrichment induces ‘pessimism’ in captive European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Anim.Welf.16, S33–S36.18.

Matheson, S.M., Asher, L., and Bateson, M. (2008). Larger, enriched cages are associated with ‘optimistic’ response biases in captive European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci.109,374–383.20.

[15] Douglas, C., Bateson, M., Walsh, C., Be´due´ A., & Edwards, S. A. (2012). Environmental enrichment induces optimistic cognitive biases in pigs. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 139, 65 – 73.

[16] Neave, H. W., Daros, R. R., Costa, J. H., von Keyserlingk, M. A., & Weary, D. M. (2013). Pain and pessimism: dairy calves exhibit negative judgement bias following hot-iron disbudding. PloS one, 8(12).

[17] Perry, C. J., & Barron, A. B. (2013). Honey bees selectively avoid difficult choices. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(47), 19155-19159.

[18] Abeyesinghe, S. M., Nicol, C. J., Hartnell, S. J., & Wathes, C. M. (2005). Can domestic fowl, Gallus gallus domesticus, show self-control?. Animal Behaviour, 70(1), 1-11.

[19] Cheng, K. E. N., Peña, J., Porter, M. A., & Irwin, J. D. (2002). Self-control in honeybees. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9(2): 259-263.

[20] Chelonis JJ, Logue AW, Sheehy R, Mao J (1998) Effects of response effort on self-control in rats. Anim Learn Behav 26:408–415.

[21] Sneddon, L. U. (2009). Pain perception in fish: indicators and endpoints. ILAR journal, 50(4), 338-342.

[22] Kaun, K. R., Azanchi, R., Maung, Z., Hirsh, J., & Heberlein, U. (2011). A Drosophila model for alcohol reward. Nature neuroscience, 14(5), 612.

[23] Petherick, J.C., & Rutter, S.M. (1990). Quantifying motivation using a computer-controlled push-door. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 27, 159–167.

[24] Danbury, T. C., Weeks, C. A., Waterman-Pearson, A. E., Kestin, S. C., & Chambers, J. P. (2000). Self-selection of the analgesic drug carprofen by lame broiler chickens. Veterinary Record, 146(11), 307-311.

[25] Edgar JL, Lowe JC, Paul ES, Nicol CJ (2011) Avian maternal response to chick distress. Proc R Soc B 278:3129–3134.

[26] Bartal, I. B. A., Decety, J., & Mason, P. (2011). Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats. Science, 334(6061), 1427-1430.

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The neglected double climate benefits of vegan diets

It is clear that veganism is one of the most effective personal consumption choices to reduce our carbon footprint. A vegan diet reduces the yearly greenhouse gas emissions of an average person in a high-income country with close to 1 ton of CO2-equivalents. As a comparison, the total carbon footprint of a rich person is around 15 tons of CO2e per year. Living car free or avoiding a yearly intercontinental flight saves around 2 ton CO2e per person per year.

However, these climate benefits of vegan diets are highly underestimated, because they do not include the carbon storage opportunity costs. The 1 ton CO2e per year per person carbon footprint reduction only takes into account the yearly emissions of greenhouse gases, in particular methane emissions from ruminants, nitrous oxide emissions from animal manure, some CO2-emissions from burning fossil fuels on factory farms and CO2-emissions from deforestation and land clearing for livestock feed crops. Those emissions contribute to 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN-FAO. Not included in those estimates, is the loss of a huge carbon sink: agricultural land that was once forest.

All currently available cropland is sufficient to feed the world in the future (10 billion people) with a vegan diet. That means all the grazing land (and possibly a part of the crop land as well) in the world is no longer needed. Current global livestock agriculture uses 50 million km² of grazing land. At least 20 million km² of this grazing land can be reverted to forests (and the other to natural grasslands). Those forests can absorb 1100 gigaton CO2. If some cropland could be converted to forests as well, the new forests can absorb the total amount of CO2 that was added to the atmosphere and oceans since the industrial revolution (1750): 1300 gigaton CO2. In other words: if the world population would go vegan, we have the opportunity to use the most effective and cheapest carbon capture and storage method: reforestation, and this allows us to eliminate almost all previous emissions from the burning of fossil fuels in human history. Hence, eating animal products has a huge opportunity cost: with livestock farming, we cannot store so much carbon in a cheap way.

Taking into account this carbon storage opportunity cost of different diets, we see that a vegan diet does not only safe 1 ton of CO2 emissions per person per year, but there is a second benefit: the sequestration of 6 tons of CO2 per person per year. The total climate change impact of food reduces from 9 tons of CO2e per year per person for an average omnivorous diet to 2 tons for a vegan diet: a total reduction of 7 tons. This double benefit (lower emissions and higher absorption of greenhouse gases) makes a vegan diet by far the most effective personal consumption choice to reduce climate change.

The good news is: with current technological innovations such as cellular agriculture and precision fermentation, we can expect that the livestock industry will collapse in a few decades. For example, RethinkX predicts that: “The fastest, deepest, most consequential disruption of food and agriculture in history, driven by technology and new business models, is underway. By 2030, modern food products will be higher quality and cost less than half the price of the animal-derived foods they replace, the dairy and cattle industries will have collapsed, and the rest of the livestock industry will follow. […] By 2030, demand for cow products will have fallen by 70%. Before we reach this point, the U.S. cattle industry will be effectively bankrupt. By 2035, demand for cow products will have shrunk by 80% to 90%. Other livestock markets such as chicken, pig, and fish will follow a similar trajectory.” (Catherine Tubb & Tony Seba, 2019. Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030. The Second Domestication of Plants and Animals, the Disruption of the Cow, and the Collapse of Industrial Livestock Farming. A RethinkX Sector Disruption Report.)

In a decade almost 50% of the land currently used for livestock and feed production in the US will be freed for other uses, such as reforestation (carbon sequestration). It is possible that livestock farmers, when facing a strong decline in demand and a decline in land value of their land, have enough political power to delay the collapse of the livestock industry for a few years (e.g. by misleading the public that the clean meat and precision fermentation animal free products are unhealthy, unsustainable or unsafe). To prevent such resistance, livestock farmers and feed crop farmers could be paid or subsidized to turn their agricultural land into forests. These subsidies could ideally be financed with a carbon tax. This carbon tax, used in part for reforestation, is a kind of CO2-offset. The expected collapse of the livestock industry, and the coupled opportunity for reforestation, is an extra reason to introduce a carbon tax.

If you want to support this transition towards cellular agriculture, precision fermentation and cultivated meat, you can support organisations such as the Good Food Institute, Cellular Agriculture Society or Modern Agriculture Foundation.

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Arguments for an impartial preference for human lives

Suppose you have the choice between helping (benefiting, saving) either person X or person Y. Suppose you have no personal preference for either one of them, i.e. you have no personal connection or emotional bond with one of them. To make the situation clearly impartial, suppose you have the choice between causing person X to exist versus causing person Y to exist, in the sense of enabling their birth. You can have a preference for X over Y, based on properties or characteristics of those individuals. If those properties are morally relevant, in the sense that they do not contain unwanted arbitrariness, and if the context is impersonal (i.e. your choice is not based on a personal, emotional preference), your choice based on those properties does not involve discrimination.

In this article I present six morally relevant properties that most humans possess but non-human animals lack. This means we can have a preference for helping humans (e.g. enabling their existence) instead of animals, and this preference does not involve speciesism (discrimination based on species membership). In other words, I present six impartial, non-anthropocentric arguments for a preference for human lives above non-human animal lives.

Remarks and disclaimers

Before giving the six arguments in favor of humans, some remarks are in order to avoid misunderstandings.

  1. The six properties are strongly but not exactly correlated with each other. I.e. the six properties refer to six different groups of persons, and those groups coincide with each other to a large extent.
  2. The set of persons who belong to the biological species homo sapiens does not exactly coincide with the set of persons who have those six relevant properties. If I use the word ‘human’, this will be a simplified, shorthand notation for the group of persons that have some or many of the six relevant properties. To avoid referring to biological species, I prefer the notion ‘human population’ instead of ‘human species’. The arguments in this article are valid when we consider all animals as humans who have different properties: some humans have wings, some have six legs, some have tails, some are very small, some have very small brains and low levels of intelligence, some lay many eggs and have many children, and so on. Considering all animals as humans in this way, is a good exercise to avoid speciesism. As the six properties can be expressed without explicitly using the word ‘human’, and are based on morally relevant criteria such as well-being that do not refer to the human species, the arguments are in a sense non-anthropocentric and not speciesist.
  3. The preference for X over Y involves situations of helping X, benefiting X or causing X to exist. It does not involve situations of harming Y. This means that the six arguments are not valid justifications for the abuse of animals. For example, consider the basic right that one’s body should not be used as a means against one’s will for the ends of someone else. To avoid discrimination, this right should be granted to everyone and everything. But, as the right explicitly refers to ‘body’ and ‘will’, it is only non-trivial for sentient beings who have a perception (sense) of their own body and who have a subjective, personal will (not to be confused with a free will: a subjective will does not have to be free in the sense of uncaused by physical processes). Something that does not have a will cannot be used against its will. So when it comes to violating this basic right, we can logically deduce that the properties of having a sense of one’s body and having a subjective will are morally relevant.

Six morally relevant properties

Here are the six arguments that favor the birth and the lives of humans. These six arguments refer to six properties, present in the human population. These properties are morally relevant, hence no discrimination, because they have a direct influence on what we value, such as well-being and justice.

  1. Basically all non-human populations have high fertility rates: an animal gives birth to many offspring, most of them have very short lives, whereas a small minority survive till reproductive age. This means that non-human animal populations constantly face an overpopulation crisis, with most animals having a lot of suffering in their short lives. A singing bird has on average more than ten brothers and sisters who died prematurely, with horrible deaths. Each animal generation collapses (reduces with more than a factor 10). The human population on the other hand is likely the only population that avoids overpopulation. A human couple has on average close to two children, almost all those children can have long, healthy lives. Unlike the animal populations, the human population does not crash every generation.
  1. Life-satisfaction: compared to most non-humans, humans have on average longer lifespans and bigger brains, which means more complex conscious states, including blissful states. Also, due to their memory capacity and self-consciousness, humans have a stronger sense of personal identity over time. They are able to reflect about themselves in the far future and distant past. This means a continued existence is valued more. Someone who has no personal identity over time is like someone who is a different person at each moment. Killing such a being is then similar to preventing the existence (birth) of a new, other person. The life of such a being is momentaneous.
  1. Cooperation: humans have strong abilities to cooperate with each other, improving each other’s well-being. For example most humans are intelligent enough to use economic mechanisms such as markets that enable efficient and mutually beneficial situations through trade. Humans can create and support governments with beneficial policies.
  1. Innovation: humans are able to invent new technologies that benefit themselves and others. Only the human population generates strong economic growth and prosperity through new technologies and policies.
  1. Communication of welfare and preferences: humans are better than non-human animals able to communicate their feelings, preferences and conscious states. For example, it is difficult to determine whether a wild animal has a life worth living (with more positive than negative experiences). Humans are better able to communicate their overall level of well-being (e.g. they can answer survey questions about happiness and life satisfaction, they can state their willingness to pay). This facilitates the interpersonal comparison of well-being, which is important for questions about justice and prioritization.
  1. Distribution of resources: as humans are rather similar, able to trade resources and communicate preferences, it is easier to know how to fairly distribute resources amongst humans. For example, a notion like the fair Earth share (land area, resources, biocapacity) for each human is better defined or determined than a fair Earth share for a non-human animal.

Implications

The most important implication of the above six considerations, is that a situation where more humans are born is better than a situation where more animals are born. It is difficult to improve overall welfare on earth, especially when it comes to animals, because we do not know which animals are sentient, how much welfare they have and how to safely and effectively increase their welfare. This problem of wild animal suffering requires much more research. In the meantime, before we know some safe and effective interventions to improve wild animal welfare, we can give priority to guaranteeing the existence (births) of new humans and improving their lives. However, there are two important boundary conditions.

  1. Humans should not harm others. In particular they should respect the basic right not to be used as a means against ones will. This requires veganism. If humans eat animal products from livestock farming and aquaculture, they breed animals who have low (probably negative) levels of welfare. This increases the number of beings who do not possess the six abovementioned properties. The fact that most humans currently still eat animal products, is the strongest counterargument for preferring humans. However, new technologies and innovations in agriculture (cellular agriculture, precision fermentation) are likely to eliminate the use of animals by humans in the near future. The fact that humans can easily eat animal-free food and avoid using animals, whereas it is difficult to prevent the violation of basic rights by wild animals (most wild animals violate the basic rights of other animals), is another argument in favor of humans.
  2. We have to consider the option value of biodiversity, and prevent biodiversity loss. Biodiversity can have instrumental value in terms of improving the welfare of sentient beings. It is possible that, with increasing research in welfare biology, we will learn how to improve the welfare of wild animals. In that case, if biodiversity is not lost, we can choose a world that has both high levels of biodiversity and of wild animal welfare. However, when biodiversity is lost, we lose this option and have to choose a less optimal world.

For more information, see also ‘my cause prioritization’.

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The environmental, health and welfare benefits of veganism

The environmental benefits of veganismThe health and welfare benefits of veganism

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Het lange-staartrisico van onze vleesconsumptie

Opiniestuk verschenen in Knack (29-01-2020)

Op een dierenmarkt in de Chinese stad Wuhan sprong in december vorig jaar een coronavirus over van dier op mens. Nu dat Wuhan-virus snel om zich heen grijpt en al tientallen slachtoffers maakte, wordt het tijd dat we een ernstig risico onder de aandacht brengen: onze consumptie van dierlijke producten.

Meer dan 70% van de nieuwe virale infectieziektes van de afgelopen decennia, zijn zoönoses die van dier op mens overspringen. Het Wuhan-virus werd voorafgegaan door SARS, MERS, Nipah, Ebola, Marburg, Hendra, varkensgriep, vogelgriep en vele andere. Waarom werden mensen geïnfecteerd met deze virussen? Er zijn twee belangrijke transmissiekanalen: de jacht en de veeteelt. Wilde dieren zoals vogels en vleermuizen kunnen dragers zijn van virussen. Wanneer die dieren bejaagd en gegeten worden als bushmeat, kunnen de mensen ziek worden. Ofwel brengen wilde dieren het virus over naar gedomesticeerde dieren in de veeteelt. De stallen en slachthuizen bieden ideale omstandigheden voor die virussen om te muteren tot dodelijke en besmettelijke varianten. Naar schatting 15% van de nieuwe ziektes die op ons afkomen, worden veroorzaakt door de veeteelt.[1]

De veeteelt kwam de laatste jaren vaak negatief in het nieuws door onder meer de vele voedselschandalen (denk aan de fipronil- en dioxinecrisissen), de undercoverbeelden van dierenleed (denk aan het slachthuis van Tielt), de schending van de stikstofwet (denk aan de protesterende boeren in Nederland), de ontbossing (denk aan de afgebrande Braziliaanse wouden voor veevoederplantages) en de bijdrage aan de klimaatverandering (denk aan de oproep van Greta Thunberg om veganistisch te eten). We weten ondertussen ook dat vleesconsumptie het risico verhoogt op hart- en vaatziekten, kankers en diabetes. Weinig economische sectoren staan zo zwaar onder druk als de veeteelt. Het is geen kwestie van of, maar van wanneer de veeteelt bezwijkt onder alle kritiek en plaats maakt voor de nieuwe generatie diervrije alternatieven (denk aan het succes van de Beyond Meat burger).

De druk op de veeteelt wordt nog verhoogd als we er nu ook de zoönotische infectieziektes bij halen. Die vormen waarschijnlijk een van de meest onderschatte risico’s van de veeteelt. Pandemieën vormen zogenaamde ‘lange-staartrisico’s’, niet omdat ze vaak ontstaan door de consumptie van dieren met een staart, maar omdat ze een scheve kansverdeling met een lange staart hebben. Vaak worden we geconfronteerd met normale kansverdelingen, zoals de verdeling van lichaamslengte. Stel jij kent iemand die twee meter groot is. Dat is groter dan het gemiddelde, maar ik ken iemand die nog groter is. Hoe groot denk je dat deze persoon is? Waarschijnlijk is die slechts een paar centimeter, dus een paar procent, groter dan twee meter. Met een pandemie is dat anders. Stel de vorige pandemie doodde 50 mensen, en nu zien we een grotere uitbraak. Hoeveel slachtoffers kan deze nieuwe pandemie maken? Dat kan al gauw meer dan het dubbele zijn.

Neem enkele zoönotische infectieziektes die waarschijnlijk veroorzaakt werden door de veeteelt. De Nederlandse Q-koorts tien jaar geleden doodde enkele tientallen mensen. De Aziatische vogelgriep veroorzaakte enkele honderden doden. De Mexicaanse varkensgriep tien jaar geleden enkele honderdduizenden en de Spaanse griep honderd jaar geleden enkele tientallen miljoenen. De grotere pandemieën zijn wel zeldzamer, maar maken veel meer slachtoffers. Dat vertaalt zich in een lange staart in de kansverdeling. Een economische crisis en de Australische bosbranden zijn andere voorbeelden van lange-staartrisico’s. Als de ene mens groter is dan de andere, is ze maar een beetje groter, maar als de ene bosbrand groter is dan de andere, is ze al snel veel groter.

Als het gaat om dergelijke risico’s, is ons risicobrein niet altijd rationeel en onderschatten we de ernst van die risico’s. We denken bijvoorbeeld dat het dubbel zo erg is als een mondiale ramp de hele wereldbevolking doodt, in vergelijking met een ramp die de helft van de bevolking doodt. De kans dat een ramp iedereen (alle mensen en dieren) doodt, mag dan wel veel kleiner zijn, maar als iedereen sterft, dan gaat als het ware het licht uit: dan wordt er niemand meer geboren, is de toekomst leeg en is er geen bewuste ervaring van geluk meer. Als er nog wel een aantal mensen de ramp overleven, kunnen die zich voortplanten, waardoor er nog triljarden nieuwe levens in de verre toekomst geboren kunnen worden. Een situatie waarin de hele mensheid uitsterft door een virus, is dus een pak erger dan de situatie waarin 99% van de mensheid uitsterft.

Dan rest ons nog de vraag: hoe kunnen we extreme catastrofale rampen zoals pandemische supervirussen vermijden? We kunnen van China een moratorium eisen op die dierenmarkten, maar om hypocrisie te vermijden moeten we dan ook onze eigen veeteelt en vleesconsumptie verminderen. Minder dierlijke producten eten is iets wat individuen kunnen doen, maar om extreme rampen te vermijden, spelen de overheden een cruciale rol. We moeten ijveren voor meer internationale coördinatie en samenwerking om uitbraken te monitoren, betere transparantie, extra uitbouw van een internationaal snel responsteam, extra onderzoek naar bestrijding en preventie van infectieziektes en naar het beter kunnen voorspellen en detecteren van uitbraken.

Als het gaat om infectieziektes, zien we bij sociale bewegingen zowel een slechte als een goede evolutie. Het slechte nieuws is de groei van de antivaccinatiebeweging. Meer mensen zijn ten onrechte gaan twijfelen aan het nut van vaccins. De toegenomen vaccinfobie heeft dodelijke gevolgen. Het goede nieuws is de groei van de effectief-altruïsmebeweging, die wetenschappelijk bewijs en kritisch denken gebruikt om zo doeltreffend mogelijk de wereld te verbeteren. In die kringen zien we dat het risico van pandemische infectieziektes wel ernstig wordt genomen.

[1] 60% van alle uitbraken van infectieziektes de afgelopen decennia zijn zoönoses. 70% daarvan zijn afkomstig van wilde dieren (vleermuizen, knaagdieren, insecten, teken,…), de overige vooral van veeteelt (en in mindere mate huisdieren). Ongeveer een kwart van de zoönoses zijn dus sterk gelinkt met de veeteelt.

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Exploiting the cognitive biases of altruists

How to become an effective altruist? The answer is easy: by exploiting the cognitive biases of altruists. Learn about cognitive biases, see how altruists are susceptible to these biases by making ineffective choices, and do what those biased altruists don’t do: make the altruistic choices that avoid those biases. People perform many altruistic deeds, but due to those biases, we miss so many opportunities to do more good. So here is a list of the most important biases that make altruists less effective.

Arbitrary categorization. We can categorize a set into a hierarchy of subsets, subsubsets of those subsets, subsubsubsets, and so on. For example the set of all problems can be divided in subproblems, subsubproblems and so on. The group of all suffering patients can be divided in subgroups, subsubgroups and so on. In their cause prioritization, looking for the problem to focus on or the patients to help, altruists have a tendency to arbitrarily (without giving good reasons or following a rule) pick a level in the hierarchy of categories (e.g. the subsubsets) and arbitrarily pick a specific element (e.g. a specific subsubset) at this level. That way of prioritization results in choices of problems and groups of patients where one can have less impact. For example altruists tend to focus on countries and prefer helping people in their own country. Or they tend to focus on groups of patients with a specific disease, or individuals belonging to a specific species.

Advice to become more effective: perform your cause prioritization by first looking at the total set of all suffering (including all diseases, all causes of suffering), or the total group of everyone (including foreigners, non-human animals, future generations,…). Then categorize this total set in subsets and pick the subset where you can have the biggest positive impact. That choice of subset is no longer arbitrary, because it follows the rule of maximizing impact.

 

Ingroup bias. As a result of arbitrary categorization, people have a tendency to prefer helping individuals of their own subgroup: people in their own country, of their own species, with the same interests (e.g. the same disease).

Advice to become more effective: help those individuals who are not considered as ingroup members by other altruists. The problems faced by those individuals are more neglected.

 

Zero risk bias (related to pseudocertainty effect and Allais paradox). People have a stronger incentive to eliminate a small risk compared to slightly reducing a bigger risk, even if reducing that bigger risk makes the world safer overall (in terms of reducing the aggregate of all risks). This zero risk bias is also a consequence of arbitrary categorization, because one can divide the total set (aggregate) of all risks into subsets of subrisks, subsubrisks,… and then focus on eliminating a specific subrisk.

Advice to become more effective: perform your cause prioritization by first looking at the total set of all risks. Then categorize this total set in subsets (subrisks) and pick the subset where you can have the biggest impact in the sense of the strongest reduction of the aggregate of all risks.

 

Risk aversion (related to certainty effect). People prefer safer bets with lower expected rewards compared to high risk high reward bets. This means the value function is not linear in gains. Winning one extra dollar is worth less when you already gained a lot of money. But when it comes to helping others, the value function should be linear in gains: saving an extra life is equally valuable, no matter how many lives are already saved. As a result of risk aversion, altruists prefer safe but low impact actions with certain but small positive results, above high risk high impact actions that have a higher expected impact. When a group of effective altruists choose high risk high impact actions, most of those altruists have bad luck and will cause no impact, but a minority is extremely lucky and will cause a lot of positive impact. This group as a whole does more good than a group of risk averse altruists where each member is sure to cause a little bit of good. For the effective altruists, it does not matter who are the lucky winners in the group; they only care about the strategy that results in the most good overall.

Advice to become more effective: be risk neutral when it comes to doing good and go for the high risk high impact actions because these are more neglected by other, risk averse altruists.

 

Loss aversion (related to reflection effect and framing effect). People have a stronger incentive to avoid losses than to obtain gains. Losses and gains are measured relative to a reference situation. If one considers as a reference the situation where everyone dies, every life saved is a gain. But if one considers the situation where everyone lives, everyone not saved is a loss. When being loss averse, your value function depends on a reference situation and the absolute value of the value function is not symmetric in gains and losses. The positive value of gaining one unit of goodness is in absolute terms smaller than the negative value of losing one unit of goodness. This is irrational, because it depends on the framing of the problem, i.e. the arbitrary choice of the reference situation. When N lives are at stake, framing a situation in terms of saving M of those lives (i.e. a guaranteed gain of M) should be considered the same as letting N-M people die (i.e. a guaranteed loss of N-M people).

Advice to become more effective: be gain-loss neutral when it comes to doing good and consider actions that can cause losses, when the expected net-benefits (gains minus losses) is positive. For example don’t be too extreme in applying the precautionary principle when introducing new technologies that have an expected net positive impact.

 

Status quo bias. People tend to be conservative and prefer the status quo. They are reluctant towards e.g. human cognitive enhancement, life extension or interventions in nature to improve wild animal welfare, because they prefer the current situation (the current cognitive level, life expectancy, natural processes,…).

Advice to become more effective: do the reversal test to check whether your preference for (in)action depends on a status quo bias. Be less reluctant against e.g. genetic cognitive enhancement, life extension (fighting aging) and nature intervention for wild animal welfare.

 

Scope neglect. In their cause prioritization, altruists are not often considering the size of the problem they focus on. On the contrary, there is often a positive correlation between the scope of a problem and the neglectedness of that problem (even for problems that are equally tractable in terms of feasibility to reduce them). The bigger the problem, the less attention it gets. Local relative poverty in rich countries gets more attention than global, extreme poverty. Shelter animal suffering gets more attention than livestock animal suffering, which gets more attention than wild animal suffering.

Advice to become more effective: consider the scope of the problem and choose the biggest problems.

 

Identifiable victim effect. People prefer to help patients they know personally or victims they can identify. They choose to support a campaign that helps a specific patient, become a foster parent of a specific child, or adopt a specific dog.

Advice to become more effective: choose supporting campaigns and actions where you cannot identify or know the patients or victims who benefit from your help. Those actions are often more neglected.

 

Identifiable problem effect. People have a stronger incentive to take preventive or precautionary measures when the potential problem is more clearly identifiable (e.g. in terms of place and time). This could result in taking too much preventive measures in one area (to prevent a small, identifiable risk) and not enough preventive measures in another area (to prevent a big, unidentifiable risk). Unidentifiable risks are risks where you cannot know whether your preventive measures resulted in decreasing or avoiding that risk. This lack of identification or knowledge means that those risks are more neglected.

Advice to become more effective: choose to invest in preventive measures against unidentifiable risks, even if we will never know that the preventive measures made a difference.

 

Availability heuristic. People focus on problems that easily come to mind, e.g. because of media attention (e.g. terrorism, natural disasters).

Advice to become more effective: focus on problems that get less media attention, donate to less known organizations (instead of e.g. disaster relief).

 

Groupthink (group conformity bias, bandwagon effect). People often follow other group members and adopt their beliefs. This can sometimes result in collective beliefs that are less accurate. For example most people on the left of the political spectrum are in favor of organic food and fair trade; most people in the environmental movement are against GMOs and nuclear power, even if those positions are not effective in terms of doing good.

Advice to become more effective: be less concerned about what other altruists believe. Use critical thinking and scientific evidence instead.

 

A/B effect (anti-experimentation bias). People are reluctant to consider interventions as experiments where data of the intervened group (group A) is compared to data of the non-intervened (control) group (group B).

Advice to become more effective: do more experiments (e.g. randomized controlled trials) to estimate the effectiveness of interventions. Such scientific research of effectiveness is often neglected.

 

Hyperbolic discounting. People are often inconsistent in discounting the well-being and suffering in the future. For example the difference between helping someone now versus the same kind of help next year is considered greater than the difference between helping someone in 100 years versus the same kind of help a year later (i.e. in 101 years). In general, this results in too much discounting of the future.

Advice to become more effective: consider the far future (longtermism).

 

Confirmation bias (related to overconfidence). People often have more confidence in a belief than what can be justified by evidence or reason, and they consider new information selectively in a way that affirms their prior beliefs. A confirmation bias is at play when altruists are not willing to accept negative evidence against their project or idea. As a result, altruists can have beliefs that are not always accurate, resulting in selection of ineffective means to help others.

Advice to become more effective: consider all new information in an impartial way, avoid strong feelings about your beliefs, update your confidence levels according to new evidence.

 

Commitment bias (sunk cost fallacy). People have a tendency to keep on investing in a project when they have already put a lot of effort in that project, even if new evidence shows that the project is much less effective than other opportunities.

Advice to become more effective: dare to quit projects, change jobs, do something else, be flexible, consider projects as learning experiences. Avoid too strong emotional attachments to current projects.

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