In effective altruism, it is worthwhile to reflect from time to time on ones past moral decisions and theories, looking for mistakes that one should avoid in the future. So I did this exercise, looking at all my engagements and moral ideas (in my writings,…) of the past 15 years. What is my biggest moral mistake? I may have found one.
A very large part of my activism was spend as an environmentalist protecting nature. This is reflected in my moral theory of the moral hand (especially the ring finger principle which says that biodiversity has intrinsic value) and my support for a lot of environmental organizations that protect species, in particular predator species. However, I recently realized that as an effective altruist, giving intrinsic value to biodiversity is not effective or beneficial. The primary interest of an effective altruist is what others want. But ecosystems are not entities that are able to want something. Nature doesn’t care at all about biodiversity. Nature has no consciousness, no awareness of biodiversity loss, no subjective preference for high levels of biodiversity. Only sentient beings are beings who are able to want something, and those beings primarily care about well-being. But ecosystems are not sentient beings.
Giving intrinsic value to biodiversity of an ecosystem is similar to giving an esthetic value to the works of art in a museum. The work of art itself has no subjective preferences and doesn’t care about not being destroyed. The work of art is only important in the eyes of other sentient beings who happen to like it. So all the actions I did and all my donations to environmental organizations that protect biodiversity, can be compared to donations to an art museum that protects paintings. Valuing biodiversity is comparable to our own esthetic preferences for art. (There are dissimilarities between biodiversity and art. Perhaps a better – if not stranger – analogy for the biodiversity of an ecosystem is something like the list of prime numbers generated by a self-learning prime number generating computer. The reasons we can give why biodiversity should be intrinsically valuable are basically as strange as the reasons we can give why that list of prime numbers is valuable.)
To be clear, giving intrinsic value to biodiversity and protecting biodiversity are not morally bad: they are permissible according to the most fundamental moral rule: if you choose something (for example if you choose a moral principle for your moral theory), you should be able to give a rule that justifies your choice and you should be able to consistently want that everyone follows that rule. If you cannot give such a rule, your choice is not allowed. I chose to follow some rules to construct my moral theory of the moral hand. I am prepared to accept that everyone follows the same rules I followed to construct coherent moral systems such as the moral hand, including moral principles that give intrinsic value to something like biodiversity. So my choice for the moral principle that intrinsically values biodiversity, was allowed. However, this is merely a permission, not an example of altruism. It is not the best choice of moral principles.
Giving intrinsic value to biodiversity is in conflict with effective altruism. Protecting biodiversity results in an increase in well-being of the people who value biodiversity, but this increase in well-being is negligible compared to the well-being of sentient beings (animals) in nature. The fundamental preferences of the animals in nature, such as the preference for a healthy life, are more important than the preference of enjoying the biodiversity of nature. Compare it again with an art museum: suppose a museum is burning down and you have to choose between saving a work of art or saving children trapped in the museum. Saving the children is better from an effective altruist point of view, because the preferences of the children to enjoy a long, healthy life are more important than the esthetic preferences of other people to enjoy some work of art.
The point is: there is no clear evidence for a positive correlation between the biodiversity of ecosystems and the aggregate well-being of all humans and the animals in nature. Nature doesn’t care about the well-being, because nature doesn’t care about anything. That means the actual, current level of biodiversity or the actual level of predation in nature is not the value that maximizes well-being. So well-being can either be an increasing or a decreasing function of biodiversity (i.e. well-being and biodiversity can either be positively or negatively correlated), and due to lack of robust evidence, we do not know which is the case. We have a 50% probability that a small reduction in biodiversity decreases well-being, but also a 50% probability that it increases well-being. This uncertainty is especially the case for predation: we cannot say whether increasing or decreasing the level of predation (the number of predators) benefits aggregate well-being of animals in nature. It is not obvious that increasing the level of predation is beneficial for well-being, because predators harm other animals. It is also not obvious that the current level of predation happens to be the one that maximizes overall well-being. So chances are not low (they can be as high as 50%) that decreasing the level of predation benefits well-being. That means protecting predator species, especially reintroducing predators in ecosystems where they were locally extinct, might be harmful.
The belief that the current decrease of predator populations is harmful for humans (in terms of well-being or the future survival of the human species), is unfounded. There is no evidence that the natural level of predation is the one that maximizes human survival, and no evidence that increasing the predation level increases human survival, so it is possible that a decrease of the predation level may in fact increase human survival. We simply don’t know, due to lack of scientific evidence.
With all the evidence available to me at this moment, the expected value (in terms of well-being) of protecting predator species is 0: the expected benefits are as high as the expected costs. This basically means that all the efforts I took to protect predator species is nothing but a waste of time and resources (money) from an effective altruist point of view. They were nothing more than efforts to satisfy a kind of esthetic preference for biodiversity, my personal preference not necessarily shared by the animals in nature. With that time and those resources, I could have done much much more good. It is better to spend time and resources investigating how we can effectively and safely intervene in nature to improve the well-being of all the animals. Although we have already some interventions to help wild animals (e.g. delivering food, vaccines and antibiotics to help animals and immunocontraception to control populations), we don’t have all the solutions yet, so our first task will be doing more scientific research. And before we start with nature conservation, we need more scientific knowledge how it affects global well-being, including the well-being of wild animals.