Top scientific research questions for prolific welfare interventions

Avoiding unwanted arbitrariness is a basic moral assumption. Spatial borders, time periods or group boundaries are morally irrelevant because they create unwanted, arbitrary discrimination. Moral philosophers already paid some attention to their first task: exploring what a non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory ethic would look like. We value our own well-being or welfare, and if we want to avoid unwanted arbitrariness, then everyone’s welfare counts, including those of animals and future generations. But the second task of moral philosophers is often neglected: formulating research questions for scientists to figure out what the most effective, prolific interventions would be if we avoid all kinds of unwanted arbitrariness and discrimination such as speciesism.

So what are the top scientific research questions that we have to answer to effectively improve the welfare and rights of everyone? Solving these questions in a scientific manner is expected to have huge impacts in terms of improving well-being. In the long run, investments in this scientific research could generate a huge welfare return on investment, because the scientific knowledge to improve well-being will be useful for all future generations. Hence this research will be very cost-effective in terms of improved well-being per dollar invested. The below research questions range from short term to long term interventions.

1. Effective vegan advocacy

Veganism is a very feasible individual choice that has a lot of benefits in terms of decreasing animal suffering and rights violations, improving health and improving environmental sustainability. Research in this area involves the psychology of persuasion and behavior change and cost-effectiveness of vegan outreach campaigns.

2. Developing animal free products and methods

To make a transition towards veganism easier, one could develop cultured (in vitro) meat and other animal free products that strongly resemble animal products. The same goes for the development of animal free medical research methods: funding research can be cost-effective because the animal free methods can be used for many years in the future.

3. Producing harm free food and goods

A lot of animals are harmed in agriculture, mining and forestry. Vegan agriculture (that doesn’t use animals against their will) is not yet entirely free from harm because for example some wild animals (rodents, birds,…) are killed during harvest and transport. More research can be done in how to avoid harm in agriculture.

4. Decreasing wild animal suffering

In the long run we can develop interventions to decrease wild animal suffering and improve wild animal well-being. In order to do this, we need to solve several questions.

4a. Consciousness

A first question of course is: what kind of beings have conscious, subjective experiences? Who is able to feel, suffer and have a well-being? Are invertebrate animals such as insects conscious and to what degree can they suffer? This question is very important because there are a lot of invertebrate animals. So even if an individual insect can only suffer to a limited degree, the total suffering of all the insects combined can be huge. The question of insect suffering is also important for harm free agriculture, because the methods to control insect pests can have a huge impact on insect well-being.

4b. Positive or negative well-being

Once we know what animals have a well-being, the second question becomes: what is their welfare status? Do those animals have on average a positive well-being (i.e. lives worth living) or a negative well-being (i.e. lives not worth living)?

The probability of having a negative well-being is higher for species that have r-selection reproductive strategies. Those species have many offspring and only a few of them survive. Hence the majority of those newborn animals have very short lives with negative experiences due to hunger, diseases and predation.

This question becomes important in agriculture. For example: if insects are sentient and have positive well-being, using insect pest control methods in agriculture might harm those insects and decrease their well-being. On the other hand, if those insects have a negative well-being and if using pest control methods means that fewer insects are born, these pest control methods might be beneficial (because there will be fewer lives that are not worth living).

4c. Influencing well-being

Once we know the welfare status of animals, the next question becomes: what influences their well-being and how can we intervene in nature to improve the well-being of wild animals? This is the area of welfare biology, which requires knowledge of ecological processes (e.g. predation, trophic cascades, reproductive strategies,…).

Example: the welfare impact of fisheries

The number of vertebrate aquatic animals killed in fisheries and aquaculture (more than 1 trillion per year) is an order of magnitude larger than the number of vertebrate land animals killed in livestock farming and hunting (less than 100 billion per year). Hence, the potential welfare impact of fisheries is huge. But it is very complex. First of all, the aquatic food web is very complex. To simplify, consider a linear food chain: phytoplankton (1st trophic level), zooplankton (2nd level), planktivorous fish (3rd level), piscivorous fish (4th level) and apex predators (5th level). What happens if you catch fish at trophic level N? How does this influence well-being? To simplify, let’s only consider linear influences (no ecological side effects based on non-linear ecological processes). That means a linear trophic cascade: catching fish at trophic level N results in a decrease of the population at level N (and higher levels), which results in an increase of the population at level N-1, which again results in a decrease of the population at level N-2, and so on.

Now it all depends on what trophic levels have a well-being and if the well-being is positive or negative. Suppose levels 1 and 2 have no well-being and levels 3, 4 and 5 have a positive well-being. In that case, catching planktivorous fish (level 3) is bad, because well-being decreases. Planktivorous fish are innocent in the sense that they do not harm anyone else, because zooplankton was supposed to be insentient. But catching piscivorous fish will be good: as the population of piscivorous fish decreases, there will be less predation on planktivorous fish. One piscivorous fish harms many other, innocent sentient beings: the planktivorous fish. If we want to avoid speciesist arbitrariness, we should not make a distinction between rights violated by humans versus rights violated by non-human animals such as piscivorous fish. So if we catch piscivorous fish, the total amount of fish rights violations (which is proportional to the total amount of innocent sentient fish captured by both humans and piscivorous fish) decreases. Catching apex predators will be bad, because those apex predators catch many harmful, non-innocent piscivorous fish.

Catching fish of an odd trophic level is very bad, catching fish of an even level is very good. However, this result completely turns around if zooplankton was sentient and had a positive well-being. In that case, planktivorous fish are no longer innocent: they harm a lot of sentient beings. Catching planktivorous fish becomes very good because it saves many lives of innocent sentient beings (the zooplankton). Catching piscivorous fish becomes very bad, catching apex predators becomes very good.

However, this result again completely turns around if the well-being of a trophic level becomes negative. Suppose the lives of zooplankton are in general not worth living: they have a negative well-being. In that case it would be good to decrease the population of zooplankton. Catching piscivorous fish becomes very good, because that increases the population of planktivorous fish and decreases the population of zooplankton.

In summary: catching fish at an odd trophic level will be good if the lowest trophic level at which sentience occurs is even and if well-being is positive, or if the lowest trophic level at which sentience occurs is odd and if well-being is negative. It is bad otherwise. And the reverse is true for catching fish at an even trophic level.

Given the fact that we catch huge amounts of fish, catching fish will be either very good or very bad, depending on the trophic level of the captured fish, the trophic levels that contain sentient animals and the positive or negative welfare status of the trophic levels. The goodness switches if the trophic level of the captured fish is changed, if the lowest trophic level at which sentience occurs is changed or if the welfare level switches from positive to negative. Hence, given the fact that we catch many fish, knowing the sentience and welfare levels of aquatic animals becomes very important. A lot is at stake. And it becomes even more complex in more realistic situations with non-linear aquatic food webs and non-linear ecological processes.

What should we do with fishing as long as the important scientific knowledge is lacking? We are in a situation of risk, where we risk doing a lot of bad when fishing, but we may also do a lot of good. If a lot is at stake, most people become risk averse and prefer the status quo of non-intervention. That is what we would choose when humans instead of fishes were involved. In order to avoid speciesist arbitrariness, we can ask ourselves the question what we would do if all aquatic animals were large and small swimming humans (making up a complete food web). Then we would not simply go fishing humans, because fishing would be too bold. We would rather do scientific research and study the situation more carefully before we intervene. Furthermore, we have one certainty: catching fish always causes some suffering of the captured fish. So fishing implies a certain welfare loss plus an uncertain very high positive or negative impact on welfare. In that situation we would abstain from fishing until we have more scientific evidence that fishing improves well-being and decreases rights violations.

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