The priority for strong personal-state preferences (and implications for wild animal welfare)

This article describes a very fundamental idea in ethics: that we should give priority to the satisfaction of the strongest personal-state preferences. A personal-state preference is a preference held by an individual that refers to the state of that individual, for example the state of being healthy and happy. With this one simple assumption that strong personal-state preferences get priority, we can derive a lot of other fundamental ethical ideas. Three of those implications will be discussed: individualism, anti-discrimination and altruism. These three implications can be combined to argue for interventions in nature to improve the welfare of wild animals.

The basic assumption

Let us assume that morality fundamentally deals with preference satisfaction. If you disagree with this basic assumption, you have a preference for another conception of morality. Perhaps you think that morality deals with virtues? But then the question becomes whether you want your preference about morality to be satisfied. If morality does not deal with preference satisfaction, it would not be immoral to impose a conception of morality on you, even if you do not prefer that conception. Hence, preference satisfaction is very fundamental in ethics.

To make it feasible or practical, we have to impose some restrictions on the preferences that we have to prioritize. Some of our preferences are deemed more important than others. We should prioritize the strongest preferences. You can compare the strengths of your preferences, and say that your preference for X is stronger than your preference for Y, in the sense that in a trade-off you would prefer X over Y. Rationally speaking, you have a preference for the principle that stronger preferences should get priority.

But it is difficult to interpersonally compare the strengths of preferences. Is your preference for X stronger than my preference for Y? This problem of interpersonal comparability is one of the biggest challenges in moral philosophy. Although this problem remains unsolved, there are some theoretical arguments that indicate a solution, especially when it comes to experiential preferences.

Experiential preferences are preferences about our own subjective experiences, such as feeling pain, stress, joy,… We know that at least some, and perhaps all of our experiences are discrete in nature, where the fundamental unit of experience is a just-noticeable difference, the amount something must be changed in order for a difference to be noticeable. For example, one can increase a painful stimulus, and measure just-noticeable differences of pain. These just-noticeable differences often follow a mathematical law, called the Weber-Fechner law. In interpersonal comparison of pain could be achieved for example by equating a just-noticeable difference of pain of one individual with a just-noticeable difference of pain of another individual. If one individual experiences 100 of those units of pain and another individual experiences 10 units, we can say that the first individual experiences ten times more pain, and that person’s preference for avoiding that pain is ten times larger than the preferences of the second person.

Personal-state preferences or self-concerning preferences are slight generalizations of experiential preferences. These are preferences held by an individual (a sentient being) that refer to the state of that individual. Examples are a preferences for being alive, being healthy, being happy, being free, being safe, being in control of one’s situation, having food, having social relations,… If the person does not exist, those properties and hence those preferences would become meaningless. Happiness is the prime example of a personal-state preference: this property is a state of an individual and is preferred by that individual. Non-personal-state preferences, on the other hand, refer to properties of the world that are meaningful even if the individual who has these preferences would not exist. Examples are preferences for world peace, for the well-being of others, for the preservation of works of art or for stable and biodiverse ecosystems.

The basic assumption is that the satisfaction of strong personal-state preferences should get priority, where a preference is strong if it is strongly felt by an individual. This assumption has many implications. The next three sections discuss three important implications: moral individualism, anti-discrimination and preference altruism. With these three implications, it is easy to demonstrate for example the importance of wild animal welfare. In fact the three words ‘wild’, ‘animal’ and ‘welfare’ relate to respectively preference altruism, anti-discrimination and moral individualism. These three implications are sufficient to argue that we may intervene in nature when those interventions are safe and effective to improve the welfare of wild animals.

1.     Moral individualism

As the words ‘personal state’ (or ‘self-concerning’) indicate, a ‘personal-state’ preference is necessarily an individualistic value. Examples of such values are well-being, preference satisfaction, autonomy, liberty, health and flourishing. We can summarize those values under the umbrella term of welfare. Hence, welfare is of prime importance.

Moral individualism means that the most important moral values are values of individuals. This contrasts with for example collectivism, nationalism and ecologism, where respectively peoples, nations and ecosystems are value-carrying entities, having intrinsic value (value in itself) of e.g. social coherence, national identity or ecosystem integrity. Moral individualism means that the value of welfare trumps collectivist, nationalist or ecological values. For a moral individualist, these non-individualist values can still have instrumental value, when they are a means to promote the welfare of individuals, but they do not have intrinsic value. Utilitarianism (which values well-being or happiness) and deontological ethics (which value rights) are examples of individualistic moral theories.

2.     Anti-discrimination

Group discrimination means that the moral status or value of an individual of one group is higher than the value of an individual of another group. The moral status is based on group membership. It is as if a group has intrinsic value, and members of that group inherit that intrinsic value and are therefore more valuable than individuals of another group that lacks intrinsic value. The problem with group discrimination, is its unwanted arbitrariness. First, the choice of group is arbitrary, because there are many possible groups and there is no selection rule to select that one group out of the set of all possible groups. Second, the discriminated individuals, who do not belong to the preferred or privileged group, do not want being arbitrarily excluded or treated unfairly.

A group is basically an arbitrary set of individuals, and such a set does not have the capacity to have preferences. A group is not a sentient individual, hence, a group cannot have preferences, let alone personal-state preferences. A person may prefer moral principles that explicitly refer to a group, for example that members of one group are more important and have stronger rights than outgroup members. But such a preference for discriminatory moral principles is not a personal-state preference: a discriminatory principle does not refer to a state of that individual. Even if you have a strong preference for a discriminatory moral principle that discriminates against outgroup individuals, the strong personal-state preferences of those discriminated outgroup members, such as their preference for their own welfare, should get priority above your preference for your discriminatory moral principle.

Consider speciesism , where the moral status is based on species membership. Why would species membership be the criterion, and not ethnic group (racial) membership, or biological class membership, or phylum membership? You belong to a species, but you equally belong to an ethnic group, a biological order (primates), a class (mammals), a phylum (vertebrates) and many other groups. Selecting one of those many groups, without using a selection rule that explains why you chose that species group instead of another, is arbitrary. Choosing ethnic group membership results in racism or ethnocentrism, which is immoral because it involves unwanted arbitrariness. The same goes for species membership. Hence, the assumption that we should prioritize strong personal-state preferences results in anti-speciesism, and that means non-human animals are also morally important. Combined with the moral individualism, we conclude that animal welfare is important and should be promoted.  

3.     Preference altruism

Preference altruism means that you should not impose your own preferences or values on others against their will without good justification. In other words, your own non-personal-state preferences are not more important than someone else’s strong personal-state preferences. Preference altruism reflects the idea of humility or non-arrogance in values.

When it comes to animal welfare, preference altruism or non-arrogance implies the inclusion of wild animals. It would be arrogant or non-altruistic to prioritize our preference for wildness above the welfare of wild animals. Some people make a distinction between human-caused animal suffering, for example in animal farming, and nature-caused animal suffering of wild animals. They consider human-caused suffering to be worse than nature-caused suffering, in the sense that we have a stronger duty to eliminate human-caused suffering. These people object against interventions in nature that improve wild animal welfare, because such interventions violate for example the wildness, naturalness or integrity of ecosystems. They believe that we should leave nature alone, that we should not play God by intervening in nature.

However, these values and preferences for wildness, naturalness, integrity, laissez faire and not playing God, are non-personal-state preferences. But neither ecosystems nor wild animals value the principle that we should not play God. Neither ecosystems nor wild animals have the preference for ecosystem integrity or naturalness. Ecosystems don’t have preferences at all, and wild animals have personal-state preferences for their own welfare, health, liberty,…. It would be non-altruistic and arrogant to impose our own non-personal-state preferences on wild animals. If we choose not to intervene in nature because of our preference for a wild, pristine nature, we are prioritizing our non-personal-state preference above the personal-state preferences of wild animals. 

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