A rational approach to improve worldwide well-being


The existence of optical illusions demonstrates that our senses cannot always be trusted. But neither can we always trust our intuitions and judgments. There are cognitive biases such as moral illusions: spontaneous, intuitive moral judgments that are very persistent, but they violate our deepest moral values. These moral illusions are based on unwanted arbitrariness and they lead us away from a rational, authentic ethic. A rational ethic can be described with the slogan “effective in means, consistent in ends.” Moral illusions result in choosing ineffective means and inconsistent ends.

This article first gives a formulation of an anti-arbitrariness principle that is a perfect antidote against moral illusions. Next, it presents some examples of moral illusions that are relevant in animal ethics: speciesism, moral gravity bias and wild animal suffering neglect. Finally it points at the most important scientific research questions in order to choose the most effective means to reach the most consistent end of improving worldwide well-being.

Introduction: rational ethics and moral illusions

A rational ethic can be described by the slogan “effective in means, consistent in ends.” However, we cannot always trust our judgments and moral thinking processes: we are susceptible to moral illusions, a special kind of cognitive biases. Moral illusions are spontaneous, intuitive moral judgments that are very persistent, but they violate consistent ethical systems that are based on our most important or strongest moral values, intuitions and preferences (Bruers, 2015). These moral illusions can be compared with optical illusions that distort our perception. They are cognitive biases that distract us away from a rational, authentic ethic. When a moral intuition contradicts a consistent set of other, stronger and more coherent moral intuitions, this moral intuition cannot be trusted, just like we distrust a perception containing an optical illusion. Due to moral illusions, our ends or moral objectives become inconsistent or arbitrary, and our means to reach our ends become ineffective.

This article deals with those two problems: consistency in ends and effectiveness in means. Before we talk about effective means, we first have to tackle the first problem of inconsistency in ends. We need a good philosophical principle: the avoidance of unwanted arbitrariness. As a result, this anti-arbitrariness principle is probably the best argument that suggest that reducing the suffering of all sentient beings (or improving their lifetime well-being) should be one of our top priorities. As a lot of moral illusions are based on unwanted arbitrariness, the anti-arbitrariness principle is a perfect antidote against moral illusions. In the first part of this paper, I will discuss several moral illusions that are relevant in animal ethics: speciesism, moral gravity bias and wild animal suffering neglect.

The second part of this article deals with the effectiveness of means. This is the area of science rather than philosophy. We need much more scientific research, but a lot of that research is blocked by our moral illusions and the inconsistencies or arbitrariness in our ends. Therefore, overcoming our moral illusions might be a necessary and effective first step to improve scientific research that results in effectively improving worldwide well-being. I will present the most important scientific research questions in order to choose the most effective means to reach the most consistent end of improving worldwide well-being.

Consistency in ends: avoiding unwanted arbitrariness

To understand the anti-arbitrariness principle, we first have to understand the notion of arbitrariness. Arbitrariness is the opposite of uniformity or regularity and involves the absence of a good rule that relates to all the elements of a set or category. There is a simple useful test that allows us to assess whether arbitrariness is present.

Suppose we have a set containing elements X, Y and Z. For example the set of all species, containing species Homo sapiens (humans), Sus domesticus (pigs) and Canis familiaris (dogs). Suppose you pick element X. Then we say that there is arbitrariness about X if we can ask a meaningful and nontrivial question: “Why would you pick 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). The question is meaningful when Y and Z belong to the same set or category as X (and are therefore not something completely different) and the question is non-trivial if Y and Z are not simply “non-X”. So if you pick the species Homo sapiens as the moral community, what would your answer be if I asked you “Why humans and not for example pigs or dogs?” This question cannot be answered with a reference to e.g. a (potential) capacity for rational or moral agency, because some humans lack this capacity. Neither can it be answered with a rule like “humans have rights”, because this explicitly refers to humans and hence becomes a circular argument.

In ethics, we can for example look at the set of all basic moral rules, such as utilitarian principles (e.g. “maximize total well-being”) or deontological principles (e.g. “never use a person as merely a means”). With such basic moral rules we can construct a coherent ethical system where the basic rules act as axioms. But an ethical system cannot simultaneously contain all possible rules. A coherent ethical system consists of a small subset of the set of all possible moral rules, so there is always unavoidable arbitrariness in ethical systems.

Next to unavoidable arbitrariness, some kinds of arbitrariness are avoidable but innocent in the sense that anyone 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.  Consider a rule to drive on the right lane. Such a rule is arbitrary (we can ask the question “Why on the right and not the left?”), it can be avoided (e.g. by allowing to drive everywhere), but this arbitrariness is harmless because no-one cares if everyone collectively decides to drive on one lane instead of the other (in some countries, everyone drives on the left lane and nobody has a problem with that). The only possibilities to avoid this arbitrariness is to say that we can drive nowhere (neither left nor right) or to say that we can drive everywhere (both left and right).[1] And those are things we do not want. We strongly prefer to avoid accidents and we strongly prefer to use a vehicle, so a rule to drive on the right is compatible with our strongest preferences and wants. No-one has a value system that is incompatible with a rule to drive on the right lane.[2] Everyone can consistently prefer arbitrariness (to drive on the right lane) above a universal prohibition (to drive nowhere) and a universal permission (to drive everywhere) resulting in chaos and accidents.

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. You cannot consistently want something if what you want is incompatible with a consistent set of all the most important things that you want or prefer (e.g. your strongest moral values). Here we see a reflection of the ‘consistent in ends’ part of a rational ethic. 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.

Avoiding unwanted arbitrariness is a basic moral assumption.[3] Spatial borders, time periods or group boundaries are morally irrelevant because they create unwanted, arbitrary discrimination. The victims of discrimination cannot want their arbitrary exclusion.

With this anti-arbitrariness principle we can derive the most consistent or least arbitrary moral end: improving worldwide well-being. Well-being of a sentient being is the only property in the universe that is always valued by at least someone, namely the sentient being itself. I can value the well-being of another sentient being, but if I wouldn’t exist, that sentient being is still there to value its own well-being. That sentient being still experiences its own well-being and has a preference for a higher well-being, no matter what I believe. We value our own well-being or welfare, and if we want to avoid unwanted arbitrariness, acknowledging that we are not special compared to other individuals, then everyone’s well-being counts equally, including those of animals and future generations. If you say that your well-being is more important, then I can ask the non-trivial question: “Why your well-being and not the well-being of individuals Y or Z?” Therefore, the most consistent, least arbitrary end is the improvement of everyone’s well-being, without arbitrary exclusions.

The anti-arbitrariness principle also implies a kind of golden rule: “If you are allowed to do something, then so am I.” This can be stated more precisely: “If you are allowed to do something or follow a rule, then you must be able to consistently want that everyone may do the symmetrically equivalent thing or follow the same rule.” The symmetrical equivalence consists of a similar act by which the description of the pronouns “you” or “your” are exchanged with “I/he/she”, “me/him/her” or “my/his/her”. The positions of you and someone else are completely reversed. If you do not subscribe to this golden rule, then you must give a reason why you are so special such that you may do something that others may not do.

For example if you may kill a living being to eat, can I also kill a living being? You do not want me to kill you. But you still want to kill a plant to eat. So you’re going to have to define a group of living beings that we should not kill and eat. For example, your relatives and friends. But if you may say that we are not allowed to eat your preferred group of friends and relatives, then I may prefer my group that might exclude you and your friends, which means I may eat you or your friends. If you may kill someone who does not belong to your family and friends, then everyone else may kill anyone who does not belong to their own circle of friends. You do not want that someone of your circle of friends gets killed, so you cannot consistently want that everyone else may kill anyone who does not belong to their own circle of friends, because your circle of friends is not necessarily a part of someone else’s circle of friends. So you must define a different group. Perhaps the group of humans and dogs? But if you can determine that one should not eat anyone who belongs to the group of humans and dogs, I may decide that we should not eat anyone belonging to the species of pigs and chickens. Or I may decide that we should not eat someone belonging to the classes of mammals, birds and fish. Then you must accept that you are not allowed to eat meat and fish. But if I may decide that we should not kill animals to eat, then you may decide that we should not kill plants to eat, and I do not want that. So I cannot just define the group of animals. We cannot say that we may kill a living being if that living being does not belong to the group of relatives and friends, the group of people and dogs, the group of mammals and fish or the group of animals.

So how may we decide who or what we may kill to eat? Not by looking for what we may not kill simpliciter, but by looking for what we may not kill against its will. So if you are not allowed to kill someone against his or her will, then neither am I. That means I may not kill you against your will. But you and I may still kill a plant, because a plant is not sentient and hence has no will and therefore cannot be killed against its will. If we kill a plant, we do not kill it against its will. If we kill a sentient being, this might be against his or her will. So here we arrive at the idea that sentience is important.

Speciesism as a moral illusion

The anti-arbitrariness principle is a good antidote against moral illusions; because a lot of moral illusions contain unwanted arbitrariness. One important example of a  moral illusion is speciesism, the (often intuitive) judgment that humans are more important than non-human animals. 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. 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) at 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 the anti-arbitrariness principle.

So in constructing a coherent ethical system, we should not arbitrarily limit the ethical principles to an arbitrary group of objects, beings or individuals, just like scientific theories should not arbitrarily limit their principles. Scientific laws should be universal. Arbitrary exclusions are not allowed in science and ethics. A moral law that says that everyone has a right to live, except non-humans, is as impermissible as a scientific law that says that all masses have a gravitational field, except those in the upper-left corner of the universe.

Next to speciesism there are many more examples of moral illusions that distract us away from a rational ethic and that prevent us from recognizing that non-human animals are ethically relevant. Let me illustrate this with a few more examples.

The moral gravity bias as a moral illusion

The moral gravity bias is a cognitive bias or logical fallacy that can occur in judgments in emotionally sensitive areas (involving horrendous behavior such as rape or vulnerable groups such as disabled children). When someone else’s moral evaluations about two items are different than your own evaluations, there is a tendency to think that the other person’s evaluation of the items is lower than your own evaluation (or in particular that the other person’s evaluation of one of the items is strongly decreased).

A first example of the moral gravity bias can be seen when someone claims “rape X is bad, rape Y is worse” (the badness of X is less than the badness of Y, or X<Y).[4] Critics who believe that both types of rape are incomparable or equally bad (i.e. X=Y) often spontaneously believe that this claim means that the speaker underestimates the badness of X, because the speaker lowers X by saying “X<Y”. But there is another possible movement: increasing Y. It might be that the speaker believes that rape X is as bad as rape X is according to the critic, but that the speaker thinks rape Y is worse than what the critic believes about rape Y. In other words: it is equally possible that the speaker increases the badness of Y when he says that “X<Y”, and that the critic underestimates the badness of Y by saying “X=Y”.

A second example of the moral gravity bias is more relevant in the case of speciesism and can be seen in animal rights discussions. Proponents of animal rights claim that non-human animals should get strong rights because they are sentient. Critics claim that those animals should have a low moral status (and hence only deserve weaker rights) because they lack moral or rational agency. The animal rights advocate replies that some humans, such as some mentally disabled people, also lack those levels of rational agency. Being against speciesist discrimination, the animal rights advocate claims that X, the moral status of a non-human animal, and Y, the moral status of a mentally disabled child, are equal. This claim that “X = Y” often evokes a strong emotional reaction by critics (who believe that “X < Y”, i.e. that disabled children are much more important than animals such as pigs). Those critics spontaneously believe that the animal rights advocate degrades mentally handicapped people, that the position (the moral status) of Y is underestimated and lowered to the level of mere beasts. The critic believes that X (the moral status of animals) is low and that the animal rights advocate decreases Y (the moral status of mentally disabled children) to this low level X, as if Y is pulled down by a moral gravitational force. Yet, the claim that “X = Y” can also be interpreted as increasing the position of X (the animals) up to the level of Y (the disabled humans). That is what most animal rights advocates believe. The animal rights advocate replies that s/he does not underestimate the moral status of mentally disabled humans, but that the critics underestimate the moral status of non-human animals. According to the animal rights advocate, the position of mentally disabled humans is as high as the position according to critics, but the position of non-humans animals should be increased.

Wild animal suffering neglect as a cluster of moral illusions

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 widely 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 first moral illusion that contributes to the neglect of wild animal suffering, is the abovementioned speciesism or anthropocentrism: if non-human animals are considered much less important than humans, their suffering is considered as much less important. But this moral illusion does not explain the whole story of wild animal suffering neglect, 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 or they underestimate the suffering. 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 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 causes 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 smaller animals, so I start killing the biggest animals, such that populations have a selection towards smaller 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 kind of moral illusion that plays a role in the judgment that predation is permissible, is scope neglect: spontaneous moral judgments that do not properly take into account 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 e.g. our friends or family instead of prey animals were involved. Why would that line of reasoning apply to prey animals but not to our friends and family?

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 ten 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 aggregate 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 separate 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. There could be more moral illusions involved, such as the judgment that we do not have to solve problems that we didn’t cause (a lot of wild animal suffering was not caused by us). Together these moral illusions 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.

Effectiveness in means: promoting scientific research

Moral philosophers already paid some attention to their first task: exploring what a non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory ethic would look like. 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, moral illusions 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 following research questions range from short term to long term interventions.

Psychological research

Psychology of moral illusions and debiasing

Psychologists already studied more than hundred cognitive biases, including several kinds of moral illusions. Those moral illusions prevent people from recognizing non-human animals as ethically relevant. In order to overcome biases and to increase the likelihood that people will change their attitudes about animal welfare, psychologists should do more research on the hard question of debiasing: the techniques to overcome cognitive biases. This research is still at its infancy but has the potential to have a huge positive impact.

This psychological research on debiasing is perhaps also necessary to start research on more controversial but important topics such as interventions in nature to protect well-being and decrease wild animal suffering. Conservation biologists study methods to protect biodiversity, but a similar field of welfare biology (Ng, 1995) to study methods to protect well-being is not yet getting off the ground. The reason why this important research field of welfare biology is not yet being developed, might be due to moral illusions of researchers, research funders and the general public. Debiasing those moral illusions could be a first, important step to develop the field of welfare biology, which in turn might have a high welfare return on investment.

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.

Technological research and biological engineering

Developing animal free products and methods

To make a transition towards a vegan lifestyle 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.

The cultured meat might also become an interesting tool in the future to deal with the problem of wild animal suffering caused by predation. If predators could eat cultured meat instead of meat from sentient beings, predators could live a healthy, flourishing life without harming prey.

Producing harm free food and goods

A lot of animals are harmed in agriculture and forestry. Vegan agriculture is not entirely free from harm because some wild animals (rodents, birds,…) are killed during harvest. A lot of animals are considered pests that could destroy food supplies. More research can be done in how to avoid harm in agriculture.

Fundamental research in neurobiology and ecology

The previous research topics were rather short term, as the expected benefits might already occur within a few decades. In the longer run we can develop interventions to decrease wild animal suffering and improve wild animal well-being. In order to do this, we have to do some fundamental research to solve several questions.


A first question of course is: what kind of beings have conscious, subjective experiences? Who is able to feel and to experience suffering and hapiness? 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 a harm free agriculture, because the methods to control insect pests can have a huge impact on insect well-being.

Positive or negative well-being

Once we know which 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)?

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).

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 such as predation, trophic cascades and reproductive strategies.

Example: the welfare impact of fishing

The welfare impact of fishing is an important example that involves the above questions, because 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 fishing 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 non-sentient. 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: the vast majority of zooplankton animals have a negative well-being (short lives with experiences of hunger and diseases). 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 fish 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 is the only means to improve well-being and decrease rights violations.


The anti-arbitrariness principle, which states that we have to avoid all kinds of avoidable, unjustified and unwanted arbitrariness, is a fundamental principle in a rational ethic. Without that principle, our ends become inconsistent and we become vulnerable to moral illusions. These moral illusions distract us away from a rational, authentic ethic, because they violate our deepest moral values. A lot of moral illusions are at play in animal ethics, because speciesism and wild animal suffering neglect are based on moral illusions.

Consistency in ends can be achieved by avoiding unwanted arbitrariness, a task for the moral philosopher. But once we have consistent ends, we need effective means to reach those ends. This is the task of the scientist. Psychologists can study methods to debias ourselves from our moral illusions and to persuade ourselves to adopt e.g. vegan lifestyles. Bio-engineers can develop alternatives for animal products and animal experiments. Neurologists can study consciousness and well-being. Ecologists can study welfare biology in order to intervene in nature in the most effective ways to promote worldwide well-being and decrease wild animal suffering. Investments in scientific research can have a big welfare return on investment, because scientific knowledge can be used for all generations in the future.


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.

[1] Note that ‘everywhere’ is not a direction such as ‘left’ or ‘right’. So ‘everywhere’ does not belong to the set of directions containing ‘left’ and ‘right’. Therefore, the rule to drive everywhere does not contain the same kind of avoidable arbitrariness as the rule to drive on the right.

[2] Perhaps someone’s value system contains a rule X to drive in the left lane. Of course a rule Y to drive on the right lane is incompatible with this value system containing rule X. But this value system contains a circularity because it explicitly refers to X, i.e. the rule to drive on the left lane.

[3] We have to check whether this anti-arbitrariness principle is itself arbitrary and therefore defeats itself. The answer is no. Of course we can always ask the trivial question: “Why be against arbitrariness and not against non-arbitrariness?” But any other nontrivial question becomes meaningless. For example: “Why be against arbitrariness and not against apples or bananas?” Apples and bananas do not belong to the same category as arbitrariness.

[4] Richard Dawkins started a controversy by stating: “X is bad. Y is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of X, go away and don’t come back until you’ve learned how to think logically.” Dawkins then gave some examples about pedophilia and rape, complaining such a claim often generates an illogical conclusion that rape X is endorsed. Dawkins was criticized by those who believe that all rapes are equally bad (or incomparable).

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