Wild animal suffering, longtermism and population ethics

Should we prioritize wild animal welfare research? If we take a long-term perspective, the problem of wild animal suffering is likely to become very important and perhaps even dominant. But judging whether we should prioritize far future wild animal welfare depends on crucial probabilities, such as the likelihood of human extinction due to global catastrophes, the likelihood of a population ethical theory being valid, and the likelihood of animals having net-negative lives with more negative than positive experiences. These probabilities are crucial considerations in the sense that they strongly influence our cause prioritization. They are the consequence of our factual (empirical) and moral (ethical) uncertainties: we do not know for sure which empirical facts of the world are true and which moral rules of ethical theories are valid.

In this article, I give my personal estimates (credence levels) of the crucial probabilities that influence the importance of far future wild animal welfare. I will also explain a few crucial factors that are important to influence far future wild animal welfare.

Factual uncertainties and far future probabilities

If we avoid extinction, far-future human and animal lives will vastly outnumber the current human and animal generations. Hence, most of the experiences (of happiness, pain and everything else valued and disvalued by future individuals) will be in the future. The current moment is almost negligible. This is the case for longtermism.

Based on some surveys and estimates by existential risk researchers, I assume that the probability of humanity going extinct this century is less than 25%. If humans do not go extinct this century, I assume it is most likely that humanity continues its past track record: decreasing violence, war, diseases, famines, deaths from natural disasters, and increasing happiness, longevity, wealth, education, arts,… We will likely have more technology, scientific knowledge and wealth to guarantee more and more far future human welfare and further reduce the risks of natural disasters such as climate changes, environmental collapses, global pandemic infectious diseases, asteroid impacts, supervolcano eruptions,…. We are more likely to colonize other planets, which means an even further decrease of the probability of human extinction and an expansion of the natural resource pool. The more centuries we survive, the more likely we are to survive extra centuries, so the extinction probability in future centuries decreases. Therefore, the far future is likely to contain a huge number of humans with (highly) positive welfare lives.

If we do not go extinct, those future humans can use technologies to improve animal welfare. So what about future animals? First, there are the domesticated animals, used by humans for food, clothing, experimentation and entertainment. Almost all of those used animals are used for food. Considering factory farms (including aquaculture), I think it is more than 75% likely that those animals have net-negative lives.

However, with new technologies, based on cell culture and tissue engineering (cellular agriculture), we can replace all animal products (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, leather,…) and develop e.g. human-on-a-chip experimental devices that replace animal testing for new drugs and toxics. Also our concern for animal welfare and the consumption of vegan, animal-free food products increases. So I expect that future animal use will be drastically reduced and livestock farming could be eliminated (outcompeted by the animal-free alternatives). I assume the likelihood of livestock elimination is more than 50% per century. That means in the far future it becomes very likely that we will no longer need to be concerned about animal suffering in factory farms.

Elimination of livestock farming and other uses of animals by humans does not mean elimination of wild animal suffering. Given the dominance of fast reproduction strategies and short lifespans (premature deaths) of wild animals, I think it is more than 50% likely that most wild animals have net-negative lives: short lives with negative experiences of hunger, diseases, injuries, parasites, predators,… That means most sentient beings born in the far future will have lives not worth living, dominated by negative experiences. If the probability of human life going extinct is lower than 50%, the probability of all sentient life going extinct is even lower. And if sentient life does not go extinct, there will be a huge number of sentient beings in the far future.

In summary, these are my probability estimates about factual uncertainties:

  • Human population going extinct: lower than 50%
  • Far future humans having mostly net-positive lives: higher than 50%
  • Livestock population going extinct (i.e. factory farm and aquaculture elimination): higher than 50%
  • Livestock animals having mostly net-positive lives: lower than 50%
  • All wild animal populations going extinction: lower than 50%
  • Wild animals having mostly net-positive lives: lower than 50%.

Moral uncertainties and population ethical probabilities

To fully estimate the importance of far future wild animal suffering, we need to consider population ethics. There are many moral theories in population ethics, so we face moral uncertainty about the validity of those moral theories.

The simplest population ethical theory is total utilitarianism, which aims for maximizing the total sum of everyone’s utilities (including those of future generations), whereby utility is an overall measure of someone’s preference for a certain situation or option. However, this theory has a counterintuitive sadistic-repugnant conclusion. Suppose we face the following dilemma. In option 1: a large group of people has a maximum positive welfare (highest utility levels, with maximum happiness) and no-one else exists. In option 2, that same group of people has a maximum negative welfare (lowest utility levels, with maximum suffering), and a huge extra number of people are born, who will have lives barely worth living (very small but positive utility levels). If this extra population in the second option is large enough, the total welfare or utility in option 2 is larger than in option 1, which means total utilitarianism prefers the second option. That seems highly counterintuitive to me.

To avoid this sadistic-repugnant conclusion, ethicists proposed many other population ethical theories. These theories can be unified or summarized in terms of variable critical level utilitarianism. Existing people can choose their own critical levels in different options. (Non-existing people always have zero utility and zero critical levels). Someone’s relative utility equals the own utility level minus the own chosen critical level. Variable critical level utilitarianism aims for maximizing the total sum of everyone’s relative utilities.

If everyone chooses zero as their critical level, for all options, we get total utilitarianism. But it is possible that in option 2 of the above dilemma, the first group of people chooses a very high positive critical level, which means their relative utilities become so negative that they trump the small positive utilities of the many extra people. In that case, the first option is preferred. Equivalently, it is also possible that the extra people in option 2 choose their actual utility levels as their own critical levels, which means their relative utilities are zero instead of positive and again option 1 is preferred. The latter possibility is known as person-affecting utilitarianism, which says that we should make (existing) people happy instead of making (extra) happy people.

With variable critical level utilitarianism, when some people choose a positive critical level in some situations, we can avoid sadistic-repugnant conclusions such as the above dilemma. When some critical levels are positive, there is a discounting of utilities: if people have positive utilities and they choose a positive critical level, their utilities are discounted (they gain less weight in the overall evaluation). If they have negative utilities, their utilities are extra emphasized (they gain extra weight).

Considering the abovementioned sadistic-repugnant conclusion, I consider the likelihood of total utilitarianism being valid as lower than 50%, and the likelihood of the more person affecting views of utilitarianism (or variable critical level utilitarianism where people choose a maximum safe critical level) being valid as higher than 50%. That means the probability that the utilities of future net-positive lives (but not the future net-negative lives) should be discounted is more than 50%.

In the far future, the moral weight of the net-negative lives is likely to become dominant. That means we should prioritize the welfare of future sentient beings who have net-negative lives, and we should prioritize the avoidance of the births of individuals with net-negative lives. (This does not mean that we should prefer non-existence of all future generations, because the current existing generations can set their critical levels in such a way that such non-existence of future generations gets a lower total relative utility.)

Together with the abovementioned probabilities about our factual uncertainties, the probability of variable critical level being valid implies that far future wild animal suffering becomes dominant: wild animals are most likely to exist (not go extinct), they are most likely to have net-negative lives, and they are most likely to have their utility levels not discounted.

Factors that are important for far future wild animal welfare

What can we do to improve far future wild animal suffering? Which trajectories can our society take to maximize the likelihood that the welfare of far future wild animals is as high as possible? There are a few general factors that determine our future trajectory. Two most important factors relate to an increase in values (concern for wild animals) and in means (technologies for intervention).

  1. Expanding our moral circle: increasing awareness of animal sentience and promoting animal rights and welfare. One can support for example Sentience Institute.
    • As an instrumental goal, one can support veganism. This decreases our use of animals, which decreases our cognitive dissonance that distorts our moral perceptions, which means we become more open to the idea of animal rights.
  2. Doing research in welfare biology: looking for safe and effective interventions in nature that increase wild animal welfare. One can support for example Wild Animal Initiative or Animal Ethics.
    • As an instrumental goal, one could support e.g. economic growth. This may seem counterintuitive, as it is often stated that economic growth harms animals, through environmental destruction or increased meat consumption levels. However, the impact of habitat destruction on overall wild animal welfare is far from clear, more technology driven growth means more growth in technologies that are good for the environment and for animals, and in many highly developed economies we see a decrease in meat consumption. The economic growth concerns are merely short-term. Looking at the long term however, economic growth can have a huge positive impact, for example by facilitating research in welfare biology. If we are poor, we will not be inclined to invest in research how to intervene in nature to improve wild animal welfare in the far future. However, if we are very rich, we can afford to spend a little bit of money on wild animal suffering research. The richer we are, the more likely we spend some money. As far future wild animal suffering is the most neglected area of suffering in the world, any additional resources invested in improving wild animal welfare can do comparatively a lot more good than resources going to smaller and less neglected areas of suffering. Hence, economic growth increases the likelihood that we will do research and invest in technologies that tackle the largest and most neglected area of suffering. Once we invent those technologies, they can help huge numbers of wild animals for millions of years in the future.
    • Another instrumental goal, is avoiding human extinction. If humans go extinct, wild animals lose their only hope, because those animals will not be able to do research in welfare biology and invent technologies to improve wild animal welfare.

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