Idealistic versus realistic animal advocacy: the need for effectiveness and rationality

This month, a new book was published about effective, rational approaches for the animal advocacy movement: How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach (Tobias Leenaert, Lantern Books 2017). This book is a wake-up call for many animal advocates, to start being more effective by being more pragmatic. In this article I summarize the basic argument of the book and extend the idea a bit further.

Realists versus idealists

First some definitions. With rational I mean: accurateness in beliefs (epistemic rationality), effectiveness in means (instrumental rationality) and consistency in ends or values (axiological rationality). Animal advocates have a vegan world (the abolition of animal rights violations, eliminating the exploitation of animals) as one of their most important ends. That is a consistent end, so that is axiologically rational. But when choosing strategies to reach that end, we need instrumental rationality: we need effectiveness. Here we see a divide within the animal advocacy movement.

The animal advocacy movement can be roughly divided in two camps (although there are intermediate positions):

  • the realists (or pragmatists, as Tobias Leenaert calls them) who use methods and strategies that work in the real world where people (meat eaters) have cognitive biases and do not always make rational decisions, and
  • the idealists who use methods and strategies that only work in an ideal world where people always behave rationally and would be easily persuaded by rational arguments or indignant judgments such as “meat is murder, dairy is rape, meat eaters are moral monsters, factory farming is an animal Holocaust”.

If the goal is to achieve a vegan world as fast as possible, a rational strategy uses effective means that not only work in the ideal world but also work in the real world.


The intuitive system 1 versus the rational system 2

Realist strategies are more effective but cognitively more demanding as they require rational, critical thinking, self-control and sometimes changing one’s mind, whereas idealist strategies are less effective but cognitively less demanding as they are based on spontaneous intuitions and gut feelings that can be very strong but sometimes irrational.

The difference between idealists and realists comes from a psychological duality what is generally known as system 1 and system 2 thinking. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman speaks about thinking fast and thinking slow.

System 1 generates automatic, spontaneous, intuitive, emotional, very quick judgments based on mental rules of thumb or short-cuts called heuristics. These work fine in familiar situations, but in unfamiliar situations, such as looking for effective strategies to create a vegan world, these intuitions or gut feelings can become unreliable and can generate cognitive biases. As an example: a bat and a ball cost $1,10 together, the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much costs the ball? If you give an automatic, fast response, using your system 1, your response is most likely wrong (the ball costs $0,05 instead of $0,1).

System 2, on the other hand, is slow, more effortful and logical. This corresponds with what Tobias Leenaert calls slow opinion. With effortful critical thinking, system 2 can correct erroneous judgments generated by system 1. Animal advocates need system 2 thinking to look for solid reasons and scientific evidence to choose the most effective strategies that work in the real world.

A paradox

Effective, rational animal advocates should be realists. In the real world, meat eaters often behave and think irrationally. It seems a bit paradoxical, but it means that rational, realist animal advocates should take irrationalities of meat eaters into account. Choices made by meat eaters often violate their own values or ends. Meat consumption is accompanied with many rationalizations (fake arguments) and cognitive biases. When confronted with animal rights arguments, there is clear evidence that meat eaters experience a so called cognitive dissonance.

An idealistic strategy is often more irrational because it does not properly take into account irrationalities of meat eaters. Idealists act as if meat eaters are rational and therefore should be easily persuadable by arguments or judgments. When meat eaters are confronted with judgments from vegans or become aware of the morally superior choices of vegans, they feel a cognitive dissonance. Their reactions can become counterproductive. A backfire effect is possible: meat eaters persist in their meat consumption, they derogate vegans and start denigrating animals even more.

Consistency in ends is rational, but paradoxically, this may require that we should be inconsistent in our means. In his book, Tobias Leenaert gives the example of consistently sticking to the rule to eat strictly vegan. At first sight, it seems that this strategy is effective, as it directly points towards the consistent end of a vegan world. But the consistency of sticking to a strict vegan diet may sometimes be ineffective to reach the consistent end. Ends should be consistent, but means can have to be inconsistent in order to be effective.

Mental purity and moral disgust

Idealistic animal advocates often criticize realistic or pragmatic animal advocates for adopting immoral strategies, because the system 1 judgments of the idealists are emotionally strong but not compatible with the thought-through system 2 conclusions of the realists. The strategies chosen by the realists are often counter-intuitive and hence appear immoral in the eyes of the idealists who use intuitive moral thinking instead of critical moral thinking.

One example of a strong system 1 effect that underlies a lot of idealist judgments, is mental purity. Idealists believe that it is wrong to ‘make our hands dirty’. This choice of words reveals a moral disgust. As physical disgust can be a very strong emotion, moral disgust can be strong as well. Let me give some examples where the difference between idealists and realists is based on this system 1 effect of mental purity. Most of those examples are discussed in more detail in the book How to Create a Vegan World.

Purity in consumption behaviour

Idealistic vegans are often dogmatic about sticking to the rule, being very strict about their vegan diets. For example they do not want to eat a vegan meal served at a non-vegan restaurant, they want to avoid all animal products and exclude the small animal ingredients such as some E-numbers, even in situations where there is no expected benefit for the animals and where their strictness can have dissuading effects on meat eaters. Consistently sticking to strict rules can push off meat eaters. Realistic vegans have a more relaxed, flexible concept of veganism, if there are reasons or evidence that it might be more effective to persuade meat eaters.

The dogmatism of idealists is based on system 1 thinking: a judgment that we should stick to a rule is made quickly and easily, whereas having to adapt to the situation or context (e.g. having to think about how meat eaters perceive strict vegans) requires more cognitive effort of system 2. Realists or pragmatists have to critically think about the consequences of their choices. Sometimes our choices appear to be good (e.g. strictly avoiding animal products), but can be counter-productive (e.g. dissuading meat eaters). Sometimes our choices appear to be important (e.g. avoiding small amounts of animal products) whereas they have no positive or negative effect on animals.

Compare the latter with an often irrational fear of toxic pesticide residues on food. People often want to avoid tiny traces of applied pesticides and want to pay a lot of money for e.g. organic products that do not contain those pesticides, even if the health risks of the synthetic pesticide residues are negligible compared to the much higher amounts of natural pesticides produced by the plants themselves or the organic pesticides that can sometimes be more toxic than synthetic pesticides and even if the pesticide risks are buried under the much higher amounts of healthy, protective chemicals produced by the plants. If we look at the willingness to pay to avoid health risks, some people are willing to pay much more to avoid the risks of the tiny traces of some synthetic pesticide residues compared to other risks such as traffic accidents or chronic diseases from an unbalanced diet, even if those other risks are much bigger. Those people apply the precautionary principle inconsistently, which is irrational.

Another example of purity is the fact that idealistic animal advocates are often reluctant towards eating cultured or clean meat that is the same substance as animal meat but does not involve animal rights violations. Those vegans have developed a feeling of moral disgust towards meat, which also extends to clean meat. Compare it with the experiment where you put a disinfected insect in someone else’s coffee. After removing the insect, that person is not willing to continue drinking from that coffee, even if there are no traces of it left in the coffee. Once a feeling of disgust is triggered, it cannot easily be erased. It requires a lot of cognitive effort (system 2 thinking) to overcome that feeling of disgust.

Purity in identity

Related to the previous examples, we can say that idealistic vegans think in black-or-white, which is characteristic of system 1 thinking. They believe “you are either vegan or not vegan”, like “you are either with us or against us”. For idealistic vegans, veganism is part of someone’s identity. It is not merely a collection of food choices. Seeing nuances requires a more effortful system 2 thinking. Idealistic vegans are often afraid of grey areas. Therefore they prefer to think in terms of all-or-nothing. For them, grey areas are dangerous because they are not pure, they are not white, they are contaminated with blackness, like the small traces of animal ingredients in a meal contaminates that meal with the blackness of animal rights violations. This idea of contamination reflects a moral disgust.

Purity in messages

Idealistic vegans often criticize realistic vegans for sending out wrong messages. Instead of the clear, straightforward message “Go vegan!”, realists often ask for e.g. “reduce meat, eat more plant-based, join Meatless Mondays.” A go-vegan message reflects the end goal, but might be too demanding or ambitious for most meat eaters at this moment, in this real world, so for them working with smaller steps can be feasible. But system 1 often objects to those more nuanced but perhaps more effective messages, because system 1 wants to stick to the clear message, a direct reference to the final goal.

Purity in focus

For idealistic animal advocates, we have to focus on the only important argument to go vegan: the animal rights argument. Introducing other arguments such as the health and environmental benefits of vegan diets are considered as a distraction or sometimes even as being harmful. Realistic animal advocates are open to those other messages, applying them if they are effective. The focus of idealists on one argument or one objective is an example of a single objective bias, as if talking about other benefits of veganism introduces impurities in the real message of animal rights.

Another example of a single objective bias can be seen with idealistic feminists who promote family planning (contraceptives) to improve women’s right to bodily autonomy. Unwanted pregnancies are serious violations of a right to bodily autonomy, and family planning intends to avoid unwanted pregnancies. But if some environmentalists also promote family planning in order to avoid unintended births and hence avoid future environmental impacts of newborn people, these environmentalists are criticized by the feminists who argue that women’s rights should be the only objective.

Purity in collaborations

In choosing with whom to collaborate, idealistic animal advocates often make ineffective choices that only work in an ideal world. Idealists are more exclusive and want to collaborate only with people who are fully like-minded. Realists on the other hand are more inclusive and can have many collaborations. In his book Tobias Leenaert gives the examples of idealists criticizing collaborations with businesses (e.g. fast food chains) that sell both vegan and non-vegan foods or with TV chefs who cook both vegan and non-vegan recipes. The idealists do not want to celebrate or support the choice of large meat companies that invest in animal free products. Those idealists are again rather concerned about purity than about effectiveness: they don’t want to make their hands dirty with some collaborations they deem unacceptable. But those idealists are not able to give evidence that such collaborations are ineffective or harmful. Hence, criticizing realists who favour such collaborations is irrational.

Another striking example of purity in collaborations within the animal advocacy movement, is the concern about animal activists who have racist judgments. People like Brigitte Bardot are advocating for animal rights but also make racist statements (e.g. against Muslims). Idealistic antiracist activists do not want to have anything to do with those racist activists: they want to keep their movement clean from racism. However, rejecting those activists is not always effective. First of all, those rejected activists are not going to change their minds about racism when they are rejected by the animal advocacy movement. Their level of racism will not decrease when they are not allowed to join the vegan community. On the contrary, they will associate themselves with other racists and start to distrust antiracists even more.

On the other hand, when they are not expelled from the community, those activists with racist opinions can more easily come into contact with antiracist activists. Both activists have something in common: their fight for animal rights. Due to this commonality, the antiracist activists are perceived as sympathetic by the activists with racist opinions. There is psychological evidence that people are more easily persuaded by other persons who appear sympathetic to them, so the antiracist activists are more able to persuade the activists with racist opinions. When the racist activists are welcome in the movement, chances are higher that eventually they will be persuaded by antiracist opinions, compared to the situation where they are not welcome. For the antiracist activists, welcoming those activists with racist opinions requires more effortful system 2 thinking, because they can no longer simply ignore those activists and they are in a sense forced to communicate with them in a more effective way. Believing that contact with racist activists makes your own hands dirty, is an irrational belief because it is not effective in fighting racism.


How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach (Tobias Leenaert, Lantern Books 2017).


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Being rational about organic food


In this article I summarize the most striking facts that led me to the following conclusions: 1) that, from an average consumer point of view, buying organic food is not clearly better nor worse than non-organic food in terms of environmental or health impact and 2) that, from an effective altruist point of view, if you have the choice between buying a more expensive organic product or an equivalent less expensive non-organic product, it is better to buy the non-organic product, save money on food expenditures and donate this saved money to the most effective charities.

Environmental impact

  • Organic has more land use and eutrophication than non-organic. According to a recent meta-analysis and systematic review of the scientific literature (Clark M. & Tilman D. 2017, Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environmental Research Letters12:6), comparing organic products with non-organic products per unit of product, the organic products require on average more land (hence more loss of natural habitat if we increase organic food production) and cause more eutrophication (oxygen depletion and disturbance of water ecosystems due to excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into the rivers). Organic requires more land due to lower yields (due to avoidance of synthetic pesticides) and application of green manure and animal manure (requiring extra land). Organic has higher eutrophication because using animal manure doesn’t allow to choose the right doses of nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) to help supplement the specific shortcomings in the soil and to meet the needs of the crops more accurately. Synthetic fertilizers can be composed in the right amounts and applied at the right moments according to the needs of the crops. Weed control in organic farming also can require more tilling of the soil, which increases nutrient runoff and eutrophication. This is in line with three other meta-analyses, so the evidence is pretty strong (Mondelaers, K., Aertsens, J., Van Huylenbroeck, G. 2009, A meta-analysis of the differences in environmental impacts between organic and conventional farming. British Food Journal 111 (10), 1098-1119. Tuomisto H. e.a. 2012, Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts? A Meta-Analysis of European research. Journal of Environmental Management 112, 309-320. Seufert V. e.a. 2012, Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture. Nature 485, 229–232.)
  • Organic and non-organic have equal impacts on climate change and acidification. In terms of emissions of greenhouse gases and acidifying substances, the meta-analyses indicate no difference between organic and non-organic.
  • We do not yet know whether organic is better or worse for global biodiversity. Organic farms have more biodiversity on their fields, but are a stronger threat to biodiversity of natural habitats. Having a higher land use and more eutrophication threatens biodiversity of natural habitats, because turning natural habitat into farmland or polluting natural habitat with excess nutrients decreases biodiversity. The overall effect of organic farming on biodiversity remains unclear (Hole, D.G e.a. 2005. Does organic farming benefit biodiversity? Biological Conservation. 122 (1): 113–130). One study attempted to estimate the overall impact of farming systems on biodiversity and concluded that there is no relevant difference between organic and non-organic farming. (Gabriel, D., Sait, S.M., Kunin, W.E. & Benton, T.G. 2013, Food production vs. biodiversity: comparing organic and conventional agriculture. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50, 355–364.) Another review study says the evidence largely supports the idea that having a higher yield (as in non-organic farming), enabling larger areas kept as natural habitats, is better for biodiversity than having lower yields (as in organic farming), enabling more biodiversity on the field but less natural habitat (Balmford, A. e.a. 2015, Land for Food and Land for Nature? Daedalus 144(4), 57-75). But important questions remain.
  • Organic farming allows the application of toxic pesticides, such as copper sulphate (very persistent and more than 10 times more toxic than alternative synthetic fungicides), and pesticides (e.g. pyrethrine, azadirachtin, rotenone, eucalyptus oil, neem oil) that are harmful to non-target invertebrates such as bees  (Xavier V, e.a. 2015, Acute Toxicity and Sublethal Effects of Botanical Insecticides to Honey Bees, Journal of Insect Science, 15:1). According to one study for soybeans, organic pesticides were less effective in controlling aphids, were as toxic or more toxic for non-target invertebrates and had higher Environmental Impact Quotients than synthetic pesticides (Bahlai, C., Xue, Y., McCreary, C., Schaafsma, A., & Hallett, R. 2010, Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans, PLoS ONE, 5:6).
  • Organic farming can be worse for biodiversity than GMO farming. Organic farming does not allow the use of Bt-crops, which are GMOs that produce a Bt-toxin that acts as an insecticide. However, organic farming does allow the spraying of that same Bt-insecticide. The Bt-insecticide produced by plants and used in the Bt-GMOs is as natural and safe (for humans) as the Bt-insecticide produced by bacteria and sprayed by organic farmers. However, according to a meta-analysis, the Bt-GMOs are better for biodiversity, in particular for nontarget (harmless) invertebrates (Marvier M, McCreedy C, Regetz J, Kareiva P. 2007, A meta-analysis of effects of Bt cotton and maize on nontarget invertebrates. Science 316(5830):1475–7). This study compares three kinds of fields: one where no GMO crops are used and where Bt is sprayed (which can also be an organic field), one where Bt-GMO crops are used and no Bt is sprayed, and one where no GMO crops are used and no Bt is sprayed. The latter field has the highest biodiversity of nontarget invertebrates, but it also has lower yields and hence requires more land and hence more habitat loss, so it is not necessarily the most biodiversity friendly field. The first field (which can be an organic field) has the lowest biodiversity of nontarget invertebrates, because spraying insecticides causes more collateral damage. When the insecticide is produced in the plant, only the harmful target invertebrates are affected.
  • The organic rules involving unintended contamination are unfair. Organic farming does not allow the use of GMO crops. When a neighbouring farmer uses GMOs, organic farmers fear losing their organic label due to a risk of cross-pollination or unintended GMO contamination of their own fields that should remain strictly GMO free. As GMOs are not more harmful to the environment or human health than new organic plant breeds whose genes can also unintentionally contaminate neighbouring areas, there is no reason why organic farming should be so strict about excluding GMOs. As a result of these strict rules, organic farmers complain against neighbouring non-organic farmers who use GMOs that pose a threat of contamination, making coexistence of GMO and organic farming difficult. But the real unfairness works in the reverse direction: from organic farms to neighbouring non-organic farms. Organic farmers have more difficulties controlling pests, so pests can develop and migrate to neighbouring farms. This is also an unintentional, uncontrolled spreading of something harmful, and organic farmers have a causal responsibility in this, because they refused to apply more effective pest control methods. So non-organic farmers could complain against organic farming.
  • Biological pest control can result in the uncontrolled spreading of invasive species that is harmful to local biodiversity. Organic farmers warn against the imagined risks of GMOs, in particular the threat of cross-pollination and uncontrolled spreading of the GMO genes into the environment, resulting in biodiversity loss. But such effects of biodiversity loss due to GMO crops have never been observed even if GMOs are planted for decades on thousands of hectares. And there is no clear reason why GMOs would pose a more dangerous threat than the new crop breeds used by organic farmers. And most of all: organic farming did already have some examples of an uncontrolled spreading of something exotic, threatening local biodiversity. As an alternative to pesticides, organic farming often uses biological pest control, introducing insects (ladybirds, weevils, wasps) to control pests (weeds, aphids). Sometimes those introduced insects are invasive and threaten local biodiversity. (Vilcinskas A. e.a. 2013, Invasive Harlequin Ladybird Carries Biological Weapons Against Native Competitors, Science340 (6134): 862-863. Louda S. e.a. 1997, Ecological Effects of an Insect Introduced for the Biological Control of Weeds, Science 277:1088-90. Strong D.R. 1997, Fear No Weevil, Science 277:1058-59.)
  • Organic products are too expensive to cover environmental costs. The additional cost (higher price) of organic food is an order of magnitude higher than the externality cost of environmental pollution of non-organic farming. In the Netherlands, a study claims that organic farming saves about 10 million euro per year in negative external effects (Meeusen, M.J.G., S. Reinhard & E.J. Bos 2008, Waardering van de duurzaamheidsprestaties van de Nederlandse biologische landbouw, LEI Wageningen University). These negative external effects or environmental costs include e.g. the cost to purify the water from the pesticides used in non-organic farming. This value is an overestimation, because the study did not properly take into account the higher land use and eutrophication levels per unit product for organic production. The Dutch people spend about 1130 million euro per year on organic food. If organic food is about 30% more expensive, that implies an extra cost (surplus spending) of 280 million euro for organic food. This is 28 times higher than the savings (lower externality costs) resulting from organic farming. In other words: in the Netherlands, due to organic farming society spend 10 million euro less in environmental costs, but consumers spend about 280 million euro extra due to the higher prices of organic products. Taxing food to internalize the negative external environmental costs in the price of the product can be done in a more effective way.
  • Organic farming allows the use of finite, depletable resources such as fossil fuels and mineral fertilizers. The production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer uses fossil fuels, the production of synthetic phosphate fertilizer uses rock minerals. Both resources are exhaustible. However, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer can also be produced with renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. Organic farming also uses fossil fuels (e.g. for tilling machines, for burning down weeds) and allows the use of rock phosphate to produce organic phosphate fertilizers. The animal manure used in organic farming is often produced by animals who eat a lot of crops fertilized with synthetic fertilizers produced from depletable resources. In this sense, we cannot say that organic is more sustainable.
  • Many studies about the benefits of organic farming or the harms of GMOs were done by researchers and institutions who had conflict of interests with the organic agriculture sector. Some names include: Charles Benbrook (had undisclosed conflicts of interest: worked at the Organic Center and research was funded by Whole Foods, Organic Valley, United Natural Foods, Organic Trade Association and others), Gilles-Eric Séralini (consultant of Sevene Pharma that sells homeopathic antidotes against pesticides), Judy Carman (anti-GMO research was funded by Verity Farms and published in a journal sponsored by the Organic Federation of Australia) and the Rodale Institute.


Human health impact

  • Critical review studies of the scientific literature are not able to indicate whether organic food is better or worse for human health. For some food products and some nutrients and some toxics, organic is better, but for others it is the same or worse than non-organic. The overall effect is unclear. (Dangour, A., Lock, K., Hayter, A., Aikenhead, A., Allen, E., & Uauy, R. 2010, Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92(1), 203-210. Smith-Spangler C. e.a. 2012, Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 157(5):348-66. Magkos F. e.a. 2006, Organic Food: Buying More Safety or Just Peace of Mind? A Critical Review of the Literature. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 46:23–56.) For example organic animal products may contain higher levels of unhealthy trans fatty acids and dioxins. Organic milk can contain higher levels of healthy omega-3 poly unsaturated fatty acids and iron, but lower levels of essential minerals such as iodine and selenium. (Średnicka-Tober D. e.a. 2016. Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analyses. Br J Nutr. 115(6):1043-60.) If there are differences in levels of nutrients or toxins, the differences between organic and non-organic are small.
  • Some restrictive organic food regulations make organic foods less healthy. For example enrichment with vitamins is not allowed in e.g. organic soy milk. Non-organic soy milk enriched with calcium and vitamins B12 and D can be healthier than non-enriched organic soy milk as well as cow milk.
  • Organic crops can have higher levels of mycotoxines. Organic farmers use no synthetic fungicides on cereal crops. Combined with a higher sugar content in organic cereal crops, this makes these organic crops more vulnerable to fungicides that produce toxic mycotoxins. On the other hand, organic farming does not allow the use of GMOs such as Bt-corn. As Bt-corn is less vulnerable to damage from insects that carry fungi with them, Bt-corn is less infected with the fungi that produce mycotoxins. (Wu F. (2006) Mycotoxin reduction in Bt corn: potential economic, health, and regulatory impacts. Transgenic Res. 15(3):277-89.)
  • Organic food products can have higher health risks from dangerous bacteria. Due to the application of animal manure (that is not treated with non-organic radiation or antibiotic means to kill the bacteria), organic crops can have a higher risk of contamination with dangerous E.coli bacteria. (Mukherjee A, Speh D, Dyck E, & Diez-Gonzalez F 2004, Preharvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers. Journal of food protection, 67(5), 894-900.)
  • The health impact of pesticide residues in food, and the difference between organic and non-organic, is negligible. Almost all measured levels of pesticide residues on non-organic foods are below very strict maximum allowable levels, such that expected health impacts are negligible. 99,99% of pesticides in fruits and vegetables are produced by the plants themselves to protect themselves against insects and fungi. These pesticides cannot be avoided. Only 0,01% are pesticide residues from the application of pesticides by the farmer. Also organic foods can contain pesticide residues from applied organic pesticides. On average, the natural pesticides produced by the plants are as toxic (carcinogenic) as the pesticides applied by the farmers. (Ames BN, Profet M, Gold LS. 2009, Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural). Proc Natl Acad Sci87:777–81. Ames BN, Gold LS. 1997, Environmental pollution, pesticides, and the prevention of cancer: misconceptions. FASEB J. 11(13):1041-52.) Organic products can contain higher levels of plant-produced pesticides because organic farmers use crop breeds that are more resistant to insects and fungi. These more resilient organic breeds produce more pesticides to defend themselves. But even if both organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables contain toxic pesticides (natural and residues), these products also contain very high levels of healthy chemicals that protect against cancer and toxic effects; so both organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables are very healthy overall. As a comparison, one study estimates that the reduction of cancer risk from consuming healthy chemicals in fruits and vegetables is 2000 times higher than the increased cancer risk of pesticide residues. For every case of cancer from pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables, 2000 cases of cancer can be avoided by eating those fruits and vegetables. (Reiss R. e.a. 2012, Estimation of cancer risks and benefits associated with a potential increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Food and Chemical Toxicology 50(12):4421-4427). As an intriguing fact, note that some studies indicate that organic food has higher levels of healthy antioxidants or polyphenols. The reason is that those chemicals are produced by the plants to act as pesticides (deterrence of herbivores and prevention of microbial infections). Even some pesticides can be healthy.
  • Buying more expensive organic food to reduce health risks is irrational. The abovementioned study about cancer risks of fruits and vegetables says that the cancer risk from pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables is at most 1 in 15 million per year. To simplify the calculation, let us suppose that the overall mortality from the consumption of non-organic food is 15 times higher, which means 1 death per year per 1 million people who do not consume organic products (not all of the cancers result in death, but there can also be non-cancer risks and there is also consumption of other products than fruit and vegetables). This mortality risk corresponds with 1 micromort per year: a 1 in a million probability to die. Suppose you want to eliminate that risk by eating 100% organic products. Organic food is on average 30% to 50% more expensive, so buying 100% organic results in an additional cost of about 600 euro per year (33% extra costs on a total yearly food consumption budget of 1800 euro per person). However, looking at safety measures (e.g. in traffic, safety features in cars) we see that the maximum willingness to pay to eliminate a mortality risk of one micromort is about 50 euro. People are not willing to pay more than 50 euro to eliminate a micromort risk. This is an order of magnitude (factor 10) lower than the extra cost of organic food. As a comparison, driving 20 km by bike also has a mortality of one micromort, because driving a bike can result in a deadly accident. How much money are you willing to pay in order to eliminate that mortality risk for every 20 km that you drive a bike? Are you willing to pay 600 euro? If that is too much, but if you are willing to pay extra for organic food in order to reduce your mortality risk, your choice for organic food is irrational. We can also look at the value of a statistical life: how much we as a society are willing to pay to save 1 life. This value is about 10 million euro. If 1 million people buy 100% organic instead of 100% non-organic for one year, they will each avoid 1 micromort and hence in total they avoid one death. Together, those people pay an additional cost of 1 million times 600 euro. This is 60 times higher than the value of a statistical life, which means again that organic food is too expensive to justify buying it in order to reduce health risks.

Effective alternatives

  • Instead of focussing on organic food, we should rather focus on vegan (animal free, plant based) food. Veganism does have multiple benefits for both the environment and human health. It has lower land use, water use, pesticide use, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication, acidification and other kinds of pollution and resource use. See here and the abovementioned the meta-analysis (Clark M. & Tilman D. 2017, Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environmental Research Letters12:6). Compared to organic food, review studies show that there is much more scientific evidence for the health benefits of plant-based diets (Springmann M. e.a. 2016, Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. PNAS. Orlich MJ. e.a. 2013, Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Mortality in Adventist Health Study 2. JAMA Intern Med.173(13):1230-1238. Dinu M. e.a. 2016, Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: a systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. Huang T., e.a. 2012, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality and Cancer Incidence in Vegetarians: A Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review. Ann Nutr Metab; 60:233–240).
  • Spending money on the most effective charities instead of organic food does more good. An average person in Belgium buys 1% organic and spends about 25 euro per year on organic food, which means an extra expenditure of 6 euro due to the higher price of organic. Over a lifetime, this is an extra expenditure of 500 euro. There are effective human health charities such as the Against Malaria foundation that can save 5 to 10 healthy life years (quality adjusted life years or QALYs) with a donation of 500 euro. It is very unlikely that a person in Belgium will lose 5 or 10 healthy life years when he or she consumes 0% instead of merely 1% organic food. In other words: buying cheaper non-organic food and donating the saved money to the most cost-effective health charities (recommended by the charity evaluator GiveWell), will do much more good in the world in terms of global health. When you are concerned about the environment, you can donate the money to the most effective environmental charities, in particular organisations that promote plant-based diets (e.g. recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators).


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Waarom dierenrechten in de grondwet horen

Opiniestuk verschenen in Knack 17-06-2017

Enkele senatoren stellen voor om de grondwet te wijzigen en dieren als wezens met gevoelens te omschrijven. Dit is een belangrijke stap in de erkenning van dierenrechten. Filip Reyntjens en Herman De Dijn, emeritus hoogleraren aan de universiteiten van Antwerpen en Leuven, denken daar anders over. Toch zijn hun argumenten eenvoudig te weerleggen.

Wat hoort er in de grondwet? Dingen die we erg belangrijk vinden. Wat vinden we erg belangrijk? Onder andere welzijn en rechten, zoals het recht op lichamelijke zelfbeschikking: jouw lichaam is van jou en anderen mogen jouw lichaam niet gebruiken tegen je wil in. Toch zeker niet als ze jouw lichaam willen gebruiken als louter middel voor hun eigen genot en jij dat helemaal niet graag hebt.

De cruciale vraag is nu: op wie heeft die grondwet betrekking? Enkel op mensen? Dat is problematisch, want er zijn ook niet-menselijke wezens die een welzijn ervaren, die een besef hebben van hun eigen lichaam en die een wil hebben. Dat zijn dus ook voelende wezens die een hoog welzijn willen en niet graag hebben dat men hun lichamen gebruikt op manieren die ze niet willen.

Als we die niet-menselijke voelende wezens uitsluiten, moeten we daar een goede reden voor kunnen geven, want anders vervallen we in ongewenste willekeur of discriminatie. En dat is waar Reyntjens en De Dijn geen deftig antwoord op hebben. Reyntjens erkent dat ook kinderrechten en het welzijn van bijvoorbeeld baby’s en mentaal gehandicapten in de grondwet thuishoren, ook al zijn jonge kinderen geen wezens die hun rechten kunnen opeisen of beseffen dat er rechten bestaan. Dan beargumenteert hij: “Maar daar gaat het over rechten die wij als soort opeisen en beschermen, iets waartoe dieren niet in staat zijn.” Wat is het verschil met de bewering: “Daar gaat het over rechten die wij als volwassenen opeisen en beschermen, iets waartoe jonge kinderen niet in staat zijn”? Waarom zou deze tweede uitspraak niet even geldig zijn en zouden we dan niet mogen concluderen dat kinderrechten niet in de grondwet thuishoren? Waarom zouden wij wel rechten als soort opeisen, en niet rechten als volwassenen, als blanken, als primaten of als zoogdieren? Wij zijn net zo goed zoogdier als dat we mens zijn. Zonder goede reden een prioriteit geven aan een soort, is willekeur, en ongewenst door de wezens die niet tot die geprivilegieerde groep behoren.

Wat moeten we dan wel doen als we een ongewenste willekeurige verwijzing naar een bepaalde groep van exclusieve rechthebbende wezens willen vermijden? Eenvoudig: de grondwet zou van toepassing moeten zijn op alles en iedereen, inclusief stenen, speelgoedpoppen, planten, computers en dieren. Voor zover we weten hebben stenen, poppen, planten, computers waarschijnlijk geen bewustzijn en dus geen wil en geen besef van hun lichamen. Voor die objecten is de grondwet vanzelf voldaan: we kunnen nooit het welzijn schenden van een object dat geen welzijn ervaart. Vandaar dat we bijvoorbeeld nog wel planten mogen eten, computers mogen afzetten en seksuele handelingen met een sekspop moeten toelaten. We respecteren altijd het recht op lichamelijke zelfbeschikking van die pop, want die pop kunnen we nooit tegen haar wil in gebruiken. Pedofilie daarentegen keuren we sterk af. De reden die we daarvoor hebben? Omdat die pedofilie schadelijk is voor het welzijn en de minderjarigen geen geïnformeerde ongedwongen toestemming kunnen geven voor het gebruik van hun lichamen als genotsmiddelen. Maar dat geldt nu net ook voor dieren, dus keuren we ook bestialiteit af. Pedofilie en bestialiteit schenden het recht op lichamelijke zelfbeschikking.

In zijn argumentatie tegen het opnemen van dierenrechten in de grondwet maakt De Dijn veelvuldig gebruik van reductio ad absurdum stropopredeneringen: absurde conclusies trekken uit foutieve voorstellingen van de standpunten van de tegenpartij. Hij vraagt zich af of muggen en parasitaire lintwormen dan ook rechten hebben en we ze dan niet meer mogen bestrijden. Ten eerste zijn wetenschappers nog niet zeker of en in hoeverre dergelijke dieren een bewustzijn en welzijn hebben. Ten tweede veroorzaken die dieren schade en kunnen anderen dan het recht hebben om zich te verdedigen. Maar vooral: stel dat we toch een schadelijke mug doden, mag ik dan de absurde conclusie in de omgekeerde richting trekken en beweren dat we volgens De Dijn dan ook onschuldige varkens als seksspeeltjes en honden als spekreepjes mogen beschouwen? Is daar draagvlak voor?

Wat dan met het dierenleed in de natuur? Moeten we dan ingrijpen in de natuur en het dierenleed bestrijden als dierenwelzijn in de grondwet staat? Hier zien we een interessant fenomeen: de laatste jaren zijn plots veel moraalfilosofen hierover gaan nadenken, omdat die filosofen op een kritische en onpartijdige manier op zoek gingen naar belangrijke maatregelen om de wereld te verbeteren. Iedereen beseft dat ingrijpen in de natuur niet aangewezen is zolang we nog geen veilige, kosteneffectieve en doeltreffende methoden hebben ontwikkeld. Maar volgens die filosofen kunnen we wel stilaan beginnen met wetenschappelijk onderzoek naar dergelijke methoden, precies omdat het welzijn van iedereen, niet enkel van mensen, belangrijk is. Het idee lijkt me niet zo absurd. We doen wel onderzoek hoe we biodiversiteit in de natuur kunnen bevorderen, is het dan zo vreemd om onderzoek te starten hoe we welzijn in de natuur kunnen bevorderen? Kunnen we geen kweekvlees produceren zodat onze kat nog steeds even lekker en gezond kan eten zonder daarvoor te moeten jagen op vogels die niet graag bejaagd worden? Is het echt uitgesloten dat we ooit diervriendelijke methoden vinden om de schade veroorzaakt door ratten of muggen te bestrijden, gegeven het feit dat we al een aantal diervriendelijke methoden hebben gevonden?

De standpunten van Reyntjes en De Dijn komen uiteindelijk neer op een vorm van discriminatie genaamd speciesisme. Net zoals we bij een optische illusie spontaan oordelen dat één lijnstuk langer is dan een ander dat in werkelijkheid even lang is, zo zijn we vatbaar voor een morele illusie waarbij we ten onrechte intuïtief denken dat het welzijn van één wezen belangrijker is dan dat van een ander. Onze grondwet mogen we niet baseren op dergelijke foutieve morele intuïties.

Stijn Bruers is doctor in de moraalfilosofie


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Wat we van kippen leren kunnen

Opiniestuk verschenen in De Morgen 17-06-2017

Na onze publieke verontwaardiging bij de behandeling van varkens – zie de recente undercoverbeelden van het slachthuis in Tielt – is het de beurt aan de kippen. Uit onderzoek van vorige week blijkt dat 5% van de kippen in slachthuizen onvoldoende verdoofd worden in een elektrisch waterbad. Elk jaar maken meer dan 10 miljoen kippen de bewuste ervaring mee van het opensnijden van de keel. Even ter vergelijking: dit probleem van onverdoofd slachten is ongeveer 100 keer groter dan het onverdoofd slachten voor rituele of religieuze redenen.

Maar niet alleen op het einde van hun leven is er kippenleed. Deze week bracht Animal Rights nieuwe undercoverbeelden uit van dierenleed in kippenkwekerijen. Ongeschikte pasgeboren kuikens worden weggegooid en gedood door ze te verdrinken of de nek te breken. In vleeskuikenhouderijen groeien de kuikens in zes weken op tot een gewicht van twee kilogram. Die enorm doorgedreven groei veroorzaakt vele kwalen, van ademhalings- en hartproblemen tot kreupelheid. Door hun jonge, broze beenderen en hun enorme borstspieren vallen ze voorover in hun eigen uitwerpselen. 7% van de kippen krijgt daardoor brandblaren op de borst.

Vleeskuikens hebben een ernstige lichamelijke handicap: ze werden gefokt op overdadige spiergroei. Vertalen we de groeicurve van een vleeskuiken naar mensentermen, dan spreken we van een peuter van nog geen twee jaar met een gewicht van 30 kg en borstspieren van maar liefst 6 kg. Bodybuilderkuikentjes, dat kan niet gezond zijn. Het verklaart waarom elk jaar in België miljoenen kuikens een langzame dood sterven in de stallen, nog voordat ze naar het slachthuis kunnen. Opnieuw miljoenen dieren die sterven zonder verdoving.

Na de Waalse regering willen ook enkele senatoren dieren het statuut geven van levende wezens met gevoelens. Op wetenschappelijk vlak zijn er alvast meer en meer aanwijzingen dat kippen bijzondere mentale vermogens hebben. Eendagskuikens kunnen tot drie optellen en aftrekken, wat baby’s niet kunnen. Kuikens gaan op zoek naar gele harige objecten, dus gebruikten onderzoekers tennisballen die achter verschillende muren verschenen en verdwenen. De kuikens hielden goed bij hoeveel ballen zich achter welke muur bevonden en kozen de muur met de meeste ballen.

Kippen hebben nog andere vermogens die zelfs veel peuters niet hebben. Onderzoekers leerden een kip te kiezen tussen twee opties: ofwel krijgen ze nu een paar seconden toegang tot eten, ofwel later, over een tiental seconden, een halve minuut toegang tot eten. Dat kippen deze situatie kunnen aanleren en begrijpen is al bijzonder. Maar hieruit blijkt dat kippen een vorm van zelfcontrole hebben: ze kiezen voor een grotere beloning op lange termijn in plaats van een kleinere beloning op korte termijn. En ze kunnen goed tijdsintervallen inschatten. Dit is vanuit ethisch oogpunt relevant omdat we zo kunnen vermoeden dat kippen een besef hebben, niet alleen van wat ze nu willen, maar ook van wat ze later zullen verkiezen. Ze kennen hun toekomstige behoeften. Op vlak van geheugen, communicatie, empathie, sociale vaardigheden, logisch redeneren, emotioneel reageren, persoonlijkheidskenmerken en karaktereigenschappen ontdekken we steeds nieuwe boeiende vermogens bij kippen.

Dergelijke inzichten sijpelen door in onze cultuur. Onze gevoeligheid voor dierenwelzijn en de consumptie van diervrije voeding nemen toe. We krijgen het moeilijk met onze tegenstrijdige houding tegenover dieren. Onze samenleving is in transitie: de morele kring breidt zich langzaam maar zeker uit naar alle voelende wezens, inclusief niet-menselijke dieren. De roep om dierenwelzijn en -rechten in de grondwet op te nemen, klinkt meer en meer redelijk.

Stijn Bruers is doctor in de moraalfilosofie en doctor in de wetenschappen

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Two most important distributions in effective altruism

There are two important distributions to explain effective altruism. The first distribution is the distribution of income (and wealth) of people, which explains the altruism part of effective altruism and answers the question why we should do good, why we have to donate more to charities. The second distribution is the distribution of cost-effectiveness of projects, which explains the effectiveness part of effective altruism and answers the question how we should do good, how we can donate to more effective charities. Both distributions are very similar, which makes them important: they are very skewed.

The income distribution

Let us first look at the income distribution. Most likely you belong to the 10% (or fewer) richest people on earth. Your income and wealth is roughly an order of magnitude (a factor 10) bigger than the world average income. The vast number of people have income levels below the average, because a small minority of very rich people (like you) pull the average up. Your wealth could even be two or more orders of magnitude (a factor 100 or more) higher than the poorest people on earth.

In economics we have the law of decreasing marginal utility, which means that the richer you are, the less value an extra unit of money (an extra euro) has for you. Suppose you find a euro. Your happiness increases a little bit. But if the poorest person finds the same euro, the happiness of that person might increase with a factor 100 bigger than your increase in happiness. It is as if you would find 100 euros. Or in other words: if you donate 1 euro to the poorest person, your decrease in happiness is 100 times smaller than the increase in happiness of that poorest person. Your 1 euro can generate the happiness equivalent of 100 euros for other people. It is as if at the pub you could buy a drink for yourself or treat a drink for 100 other people. What would you do?

This huge gap in income and the law of decreasing marginal utility explains why we might have a duty to donate money. By donating money, total well-being on earth might increase a lot and your well-being will decrease only a little bit.

But there is more, we have a stronger duty to donate money. A lot of our high income and wealth are the result of economic rent or surplus profit. This is unearned or undeserved income because it is not the result of labour, risk-taking or entrepreneurship. The unearned income, economic rent or surplus revenue is the income above what is required to generate normal profits: profits from labour, entrepreneurship and capital investments.

In the economy, production factors such as labour, capital and entrepreneurship are compensated, for example by wages, interests and profits. Without such compensation, a production factor would not be used. Surplus profit is the additional compensation for a production factor that is higher than necessary to enable or produce this production factor. Compensation for entrepreneurship or capital investments are forms of normal profit, and these profits are just like the wages of labour earned income. The extra surplus profit is an unearned income because there is no production of a production factor. Normal profits in economy can be justified, but earning surplus profits cannot be justified.

There are various forms of economic rent or surplus profits, such as Ricardian rent due to the possession and use of scarce natural resources and inherited wealth (named after economist David Ricardo) and monopoly rent due to a monopoly power by a company. Someone who has scarce natural resources such as land, minerals and fuels has a kind of monopoly over those resources and can enjoy unearned income from that property. This income is unearned because it is not the result of labour, risk taking or entrepreneurship. Nobody has made those natural resources themselves. The same goes for the possession of inherited wealth created by our ancestors: none of the present generation has produced that wealth. These resources already exist and therefore they no longer have to be compensated to serve as a production factor.

When you appropriate a quantity of natural resources such as land, you acquires an exclusivity or monopoly, meaning someone else cannot use that resource. Natural resources are thus exclusive: they can be used exclusively and their use or possession excludes the use or possession by others.

Much of our income and wealth is based on surplus profits where we earn an extra income because we have a kind of monopoly on a scarce good that was not produced by the current generation of people. Because of that monopoly, we exclude others from the possession of that scarce resource or production factor. That exclusion is a form of damage we cause to others, especially the poorest people. We basically steal the scarce resources of the poorest people. Because of the exclusion or theft we should pay the poorest people a compensation or remuneration fee.

That compensation can also be understood as a fair distribution of surplus profit. The scarce natural resources and inherited wealth belongs to everyone. Everyone has an equal right to an equal share of that wealth that is not produced by anyone of us. The surplus profits should therefore be divided fairly. If one appropriates a large share of that wealth, the excluded will receive a greater part of the surplus profit as a compensation. That is a matter of justice, not charity.

Let me give three examples of surplus profit. First, we use and consume many natural materials such as fossil fuels and minerals. Those natural resources in the soil belong to everyone, but the amount of available raw materials is limited. The resources can be distributed equally such that everyone receives a fair share of property rights to those resources. If we use more than our fair share of available raw materials, then we need to buy property rights from others. If we do not, we violate the property rights of others. This is a form of theft for which we have to pay a compensation.

The oil in our cars and the minerals in our cell-phones are often stolen goods. Many poor countries are rich in commodities, but corrupt regimes have conquered power and thus gained control over those raw materials in the soil. These corrupt regimes appropriate the resources and sell them on the international markets, but the poor populations in those countries do not get any income from the commodity sales. To make matters worse, the corrupt regimes use the profits from selling the resources to buy weapons and create armies to suppress local people. Therefore, international trade in oil and minerals is largely a trade in stolen goods, stolen from the poorest people. A basic principle of free trade states that one cannot trade in stolen goods. The effective altruist philosopher Thomas Pogge therefore proposed the idea of a global resources dividend. The revenues from a tax on the appropriation, use or consumption of oil and minerals sold by corrupt regimes can be distributed as a basic income or resource dividend to all the people, especially the poorest.

A second example is the theft of emission rights. Rich people in developed countries emit too much greenhouse gases. We must restrict emissions to prevent climate change. The atmospheric absorption capacity for greenhouse gases is limited. The right to emit greenhouse gases is therefore scarce, and what is scarce has an economic value. People who emit too much greenhouse gases, claim too much of those emission right for themselves. We can think of an economic system of cap-auction-trade of emission permits. Governments put a cap on total emission permits to avoid climate change. Then they sell or auction the emission permits to the highest bidders. Everyone who buys a permit can also trade those bought permits. An emission permit is a kind of ownership of some of the earth’s atmospheric processing capacity for greenhouse gases. There are also other emission rights possible for other substances for which terrestrial ecosystems have limited processing capacity, such as reactive nitrogen compounds and acidifying gases. For all those substances an effective emission trading scheme can be implemented.

The government revenues from the auction of emission permits can be distributed as a universal basic income to everyone. This basically means that everyone has an equal right to this scarce good that the earth offers us. But in our current economic system we do not have an auction of emission permits, which means that emission permits are not divided fairly.

How much would an emission permit cost? In order to achieve climate targets (especially to reduce global warming below 1.5°C), an efficient emissions trading system would put a price of about 85 euros per tonne of CO2, with an annual increase of 5 euros per tonne of CO2. So the emission right for 1 tonne of CO2 has an economic value of 85 euros. An average person in a rich country emits about 15 tonnes of CO2 and equivalent greenhouse gases each year. Thus, an average person should pay about 1300 euro for emission permits in 2017. An average human being on Earth emits about 7 tonnes of CO2-equivalents per year, so if an international government would allocate an emission permit revenue as a universal basic income, every person on earth would receive 600 euros per year. Thus, an average person in a rich country would have to pay 700 euros net because that person emits too much greenhouse gases. The poorest people in the poorest countries are given almost 600 euros a year, because they do not produce much greenhouse gases.

This actually means that rich people steal emission permits from the poorest people, worth on average 700 euros per year per person (and increasing with 100 euros per year). The rich acquire part of the scarce CO2 absorption capacity of the atmosphere without paying for this scarce good. Those 700 euros are a kind of compensation that a rich person is obliged to pay to the poorest people. The poorest people are entitled to 600 euros a year.

The third example is the exclusion of jobs due to closed borders of countries. Demand and supply on the global labour market are not in equilibrium due to a policy of closed borders between countries and restrictions on labour migration. These borders create a fundamental injustice in the global economy. Labour productivity (the economic value a worker can generate per unit of work) is up to 10 times higher in rich countries than in the poorest countries. This means that someone in a rich country acquires up to 10 times more purchasing power than a similar person in a poor country who is equally skilled (trained, talented and motivated) and does the same job (equally long, risky and heavy). Wages in the rich countries can be 10 times higher for the same work than in the poorest countries. This is the so-called place premium.

This huge wage gap is a form of global apartheid. Foreigners are excluded from having a job in the rich country. That exclusion is similar to the exclusion due to the possession of natural resources. Because the exclusion of foreigners, the global labour market is not in economic equilibrium. This means workers in the rich countries benefit from surplus profits due to higher wages. That exclusion is a form of damage, because by this exclusion we limit the job opportunities of foreigners. It’s like I prevent you from working with somebody else. You want to go to a company for work, and I prevent you from entering at the gates of that company, even when the employer of the company is willing to hire you. That is basically what countries do: governments do not own the companies but they prevent some people from working at those companies. Because of this exclusion, the labour market is not in equilibrium and in the poor countries the demand for work is greater than the supply. As a result, wages are pushed down in poor countries. A policy of closed boundaries thus harms the poor populations: the poor populations are paid wages that are too low.

There are two options: either open the borders for foreign workers, or pay those foreigners a compensation. That compensation is a remuneration fee that a job owner in a rich country has to pay to the excluded persons who are at least as capable of working but who are prevented to work. This is comparable to a rich owner of natural resources who has more commodities than the fair share and has to pay compensation for the poorest people who have too little resources.

So what does this all mean? Basically we have a duty to pay a compensation fee to the poorest people due to our unearned surplus profits from economic rent on natural resources, inherited wealth, emission permits and jobs. The total value is probably more than 1000 euros per year, probably more than 5% or 10% of our income. We can donate this money to charities that help the poorest people. An obvious effective charity, recommended by the most credible charity evaluator GiveWell, is the organisation GiveDirectly which distributes unconditional cash transfers to the poorest families in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Cash transfers like those from GiveDirectly have arguably the strongest existing evidence base among anti-poverty tools.

The cost-effectiveness distribution

Let’s move to the second distribution of cost-effectiveness of projects. For many projects, campaigns or interventions, measuring the impact is not possible. But what if we would measure the impact or cost-effectiveness of the measurable projects? This has been done in the fields of e.g. human health, poverty relief and education. The impact or cost-effectiveness of health interventions can be measured in terms of the increase of quality adjusted life years per euro donated.

As a shocking result, we see again a very skewed distribution: a small minority of projects, less than 10%, have a cost-effectiveness more than 10 times higher than the average project. The vast majority of projects have a cost-effectiveness below average. The average is higher than the effectiveness of most projects, because the highly effective minority raises the average. Some highly effective interventions are more than two orders of magnitude effective than the least effective interventions. For example: the cost to train a guide dog to help one blind person for 10 years is equivalent to the cost to prevent blindness for 1000 people in Africa, buy paying for very cheap surgeries to reverse the effects of trachoma. This skewed distribution is similar to the income distribution, and has far reaching consequences. Knowledge about the cost-effectiveness distribution kick-started the effective altruism movement about a decade ago.

As a first consequence, we realize that by selecting the most effective projects or donating to the most effective charities, we can increase the amount of good that we do with more than a factor 10. Even someone who donates only 100 euros to a highly effective charity can do more good than someone who donates 1000 euros.

Another consequence is that donating to a charity that focuses on a few highly effective projects is better than donating to a well-known big organization that has a lot of projects with unmeasured impacts. If an organization has many projects randomly chosen, a vast majority of those projects will likely have a cost-effectiveness below average. A project that has a proven high cost-effectiveness is probably more effective than a random project with unknown or unmeasured cost-effectiveness. We can still support unmeasured projects, if we have strong reasons to believe that those projects are highly effective, that their effectiveness has a high expected value.

A third, counter intuitive implication of this skewed distribution is that fundraising for a charity with a low cost-effectiveness might be harmful. Fundraising increases the total donations a little bit, but the biggest effect of fundraising is a shift in donations: people shift their donations away from other organizations towards your organization. If your organization focuses on a few projects that are not so cost-effective, the cost-effectiveness of that organization can easily be lower than the average. That means you shift donations away from other organizations that have an average effectiveness towards an organization with a below average effectiveness. As a result, fundraising for that organization will decrease the total amount of good done in the world. Some kinds of fundraising can be really harmful in the sense that doing nothing will do more good than fundraising. The world where you do fundraising can be a world with a lower overall well-being than the world where you enjoy leisure time.


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The three most defensible principles in ethics

From eight to five to three: this article is the result of a long process of several years, searching for the most important or fundamental ethical principles, refining, simplifying and deleting principles until we end up with the three ethical principles that have the strongest justification.

The first, non-arbitrariness principle is the most fundamental principle because it applies to the choice of moral rules and ethical systems. The second, maximum relative preferences principle is the most demanding and implies an absolute duty of impartiality and altruism to help others. It relates to a utilitarian, consequentialist ethic. The third, mere means principle weakens the demandingness of the second principle: it makes some duties less demanding (less absolute) and allows for some kinds of partiality. This principle relates to a deontological rights-based ethic. All three principles are most defensible in the sense that it is most difficult to complain against them or to give reasonable counterarguments against them.


1)    The non-arbitrariness principle

If you make a choice, you are only allowed to make that choice if you can give a justifying rule of which you can consistently want that everyone follows that rule, in all possible situations. You can consistently want something only if it is compatible with a consistent set of the strongest things that you want.

This principle is equivalent to: if you make a choice, you have to avoid unwanted arbitrariness. Arbitrariness consists of picking an element or subset of a given set without using a rule. Arbitrariness is unwanted if it cannot be consistently wanted by at least someone.


Suppose that your choice contains unwanted arbitrariness. If you say that that arbitrariness is permissible, then I may also make arbitrary choices that you cannot consistently want. You are not able to give reasonable critique to my choice that contains unwanted arbitrariness, because any criticism from your side can be countered easily by pointing out that you do the same thing.

If you may do something, everyone else may do similar things. Your permission or right to do that thing does not belong exclusively to you. If you are allowed to do something, then so is everyone, because you are not special. You should not arbitrarily pick yourself from the set of all individuals and say that you are the only one who may do that thing. You are not allowed to exclude other people from following the rule that you follow. If you do something according to a rule, that rule does not apply exclusively to you.

This first principle is the most fundamental in the sense that it also applies to the choice of ethical principles and the construction of ethical systems. It implies that our permissible ethical systems are bound to strong constraints to exclude any inconsistencies, vagueness (ambiguities) or other kinds of unwanted arbitrariness. If an ethical system contains an inconsistency, for example if the ethical system says it is both allowed and not allowed to choose X, one could arbitrarily pick any of those two opposing views. If the system contains an ambiguity, i.e. a principle that has multiple interpretations, one could arbitrarily pick one of the possible interpretations.

If you choose to follow an incoherent ethical system, i.e. a system of ethical principles that contains unwanted arbitrariness, I am allowed to reject that system and impose my ethical system on you, and you are not able to complain. You are not able to give reasonable or justified counterarguments against the imposition of my ethical principles, because by following your incoherent principles, you are acknowledging that unwanted arbitrariness is allowed. That means that it is also permissible to arbitrarily ignore someone else’s moral views and ethical principles. So I can say to you that your moral values and judgments are not valid. And if you complain and says that your ethical system is valid, then I can reply that if you are allowed to arbitrarily exclude other moral views and make an ad hoc exception for your own ethical system, then so am I. So I may even make the exception that everyone’s moral views should be respected, except yours. All your objections can easily be bounced back by saying: “If you are allowed to arbitrarily do that, then so am I. What would make you so special that you are allowed to arbitrarily exclude others but I am not?”

The ethical systems of for example racists, rapists and religious fundamentalists contain unwanted arbitrariness, inconsistencies, unscientific beliefs and vague principle. So we are allowed to reject those incoherent ethical systems. If your ethical system is more coherent than those of others, i.e. if your ethical system does not contain any unwanted arbitrariness, then you can say that your ethical system is better than those of others and then you may oppose those incoherent systems of others.

Examples and implications

The anti-arbitrariness principle implies that moral rules should apply to everyone and everything, without arbitrary exceptions. If you may forbid something merely because you find it unclean, unnatural, unholy or disgusting, then someone else may forbid something that you like but that s/he finds unnatural, unholy or disgusting. If you may say that we should follow your preferred holy book (such as the Bible or the Koran), then I may say that we should follow my preferred holy book. If you may say that your moral intuitions are better than mine, then I may say that mine are better than yours. If you may arbitrarily choose yourself as the person who determines the moral rules, then I may choose myself. If you may arbitrarily choose your victims, then I may arbitrarily choose my victims. If you may say that our moral rules only apply to your preferred group, then I may also take my preferred group of individuals, which may be different from your group. If you claim that moral rights only apply to humans, including mentally disabled orphans, and if you are not able to give a rule why you pick the biological species of humans amongst the many biological categories (e.g. races, species, genera, families, orders, classes,…), then I may pick another biological category and claim that rights only apply to members of that biological group. If you do not take the preferences of other sentient beings properly into account, then I do not have to take your preferences into account. You cannot consistently want those things, so you may not do those things.

Many other things are permissible for you to do. For example if you want to take the train, you can follow the rule that everyone is allowed to take a seat on the train if one has paid for it and if the seat is not yet taken.


2) The maximum self-determined relative preferences principle

We have to choose the situation that maximizes the sum of everyone’s self-determined relative preferences. A relative preference (or relative utility) of an individual in a given situation is the difference between the preference (utility) for the given situation and a reference preference (for example the preference for another situation). The reference preference depends on the population ethics preferred by the individual (see examples below). A relative preference is self-determined if the individual can determine one’s own preference function and choose a preferred reference.

To avoid arbitrary exclusions, this principle applies to everyone and everything. However, non-sentient objects have no personal preferences and no preference for a reference (no preference for a population ethic), so we may set those preferences of a non-sentient object to zero.  The relative preferences of objects can be neglected. The same goes for non-existing persons: they have zero relative preferences. Therefore, this principle becomes only relevant for existing subjects or sentient beings, because sentient beings are by definition able to value situations and subjectively want certain situations. They feel their subjective, personal preferences for different situations. Hence, the personal preferences are to be distinguished from unconscious interests. Some sentient beings do have personal preferences but do not have a preference for a reference. In that case we may choose the reference preference for that individual.


The basic elements of this principle are the personal preferences. These personal preferences should be distinguished from projected preferences: I can project my preferences on someone else, comparable to anthropomorphism of non-human animals. The personal preferences of an individual are the preferences that the individual holds himself or herself, not the preferences that someone else projects on that individual. Projected preferences violate the self-determination of an individual if the projected preferences are incompatible with the personal preferences.

The maximum relative preferences principle has a strong justification in the sense that it maximally takes everyone’s preferences into account, and it allows for everyone to determine for themselves their preferences. There are no externally imposed restrictions on the preferences: no-one else determines the preferences of an individual or projects their own preferences on that individual.

The maximum relative preferences principle is a utilitarian ethic, because it looks at the utilities (preferences) of individuals. The difference with traditional (absolute) preference utilitarianism is that the relative preference utilitarianism looks at relative preferences and hence includes a reference preference. As the examples below demonstrate, this reference preference becomes important in population ethics, i.e. when our choices determine who will be born and how many sentient beings will exist.

Examples and implications

The preference or utility can be a function of the well-being of an individual, but an individual can decide to include other variables in the preference function. The preference function of an individual does not have to be a function of a quantity called well-being. To respect the self-determination or autonomy, it is up to the individuals themselves to decide whether they want to maximize their well-being and how they interpret or define well-being. If everyone decides that their preference function is a function of one’s own happiness and nothing else, we arrive at a hedonistic utilitarianism. This kind of utilitarianism is a special case of the relative preference utilitarianism.

If everyone decides that their preference or utility function is a concave function of well-being, we arrive at a prioritarian ethic. (Examples of concave functions are the square root and the logarithm functions.) This means that well-being has a decreasing marginal utility: the more well-being you have, the less utility an extra unit of well-being generates. The difference in utility between well-being 1 and well-being 0 is bigger than the difference in utility between well-being 2 and well-being 1. The resulting prioritarianism says that we have to increase everyone’s well-being, giving a higher priority to increasing the well-being of the worst-off people, the persons who have the lowest levels of well-being.

What about inconsistencies in preferences? There are two kinds of inconsistencies: synchronous and intertemporal. Intertemporal inconsistencies are easy to deal with: suppose I strongly prefer X at time t and no longer prefer X at a later time t+1. If that is the case, I can say that at time t+1 I am another individual, different from the person at time t. An individual can be fully described or defined by the set of all his or her preferences. If preferences change over time, we have to consider this as if there are multiple individuals, one individual for each moment of time. To be safe, we have to assume that every other moment in time there are different individuals. The preference or utility refers to the utility of an individual at a specific time t. At another time, we have another individual.

It is possible that at a moment t a person Pt can identify himself or herself with a single future person Pt+1 at a later time t+1, and this identification influences the preferences of the person Pt. If future technologies allow for duplicating brains or copying minds, it is even possible that a person can identify himself or herself with multiple future persons. The relative preferences principle respects self-determination or autonomy again: it is up to the persons themselves to decide with whom they identify themselves with and how that identification influences their preferences. It is up to a person P in situation S1 to decide whether a person in another situation S2 is the same person. Persons can decide with whom they prefer to identify themselves. A person P who exists in situation S1 can even prefer another situation S2 where that person does not exist or will soon die. If I could choose a situation where everyone is maximally happy, except for the fact that I will die or I will be brainwashed and become a completely different person, I will prefer that situation, even if there is no-one in that situation I can identify myself with.

What about synchronous inconsistencies in preferences? Suppose a friend lies to you, you will never be able to know that it was a lie, and if you know the truth, you would be very unhappy. You prefer to be happy, so are lies permissible in such situations? Not necessarily, because you may also prefer to know the truth. So you may have two conflicting preferences: one to avoid unhappiness and one to know the truth. The relative preferences principle respects your self-determination: it is up to you to decide what you most strongly prefer. Your preference for a certain situation (e.g. the situation where friends tell the truth) should be based on the most coherent set of your strongest preferences. Only if a contradiction remains, if you insist on both preferring and not preferring a certain situation at the same time, other people can decide for you.

Now let us look at the application of this relative preference utilitarianism in population ethics. Suppose that everyone prefers a zero reference preference. The relative preference than simply becomes the absolute preference for a given situation, so we have to choose the situation that maximizes the sum of everyone’s absolute preference for that situation. In this special case, the relative preference utilitarianism becomes a total preference utilitarianism that wants to maximize total preference satisfaction. However, this total utilitarianism faces a counter-intuitive implication in population ethics: a repugnant or sadistic conclusion. According to total utilitarianism, a situation S1 that contains a billion maximally happy people (who have maximum preference satisfaction) is worse than a situation S2 where those same billion people are maximally unhappy and where an extra huge number of people exist who have lives barely worth living (i.e. slightly positive preference satisfaction). If the number of extra people is large enough, the total preference satisfaction is higher in the second situation, but saying that this situation is better than the first is very counter-intuitive, repugnant or sadistic according to many people. So if everyone chose as a reference the situation for which they have 0 preference, the relative preference utilitarianism turns into a total utilitarianism and that means that everyone accepts the implications of total utilitarianism.

The counter-intuitive implication of total utilitarianism can be avoided by choosing other reference preferences. For example if everyone took as reference situation a situation for which they all have a non-zero, positive preference C, we end up with a so-called critical level utilitarianism: instead of choosing the situation that maximizes the sum of everyone’s absolute preferences, we choose the situation that maximizes the sum of the relative preferences Ui(S)-C where Ui(S) is the utility or preference of individual i for situation S. (To be more accurate, we can better write Ui(S,S) instead of Ui(S), because Ui(S,S) is the utility for an individual i in situation S for that situation S.)

Instead of choosing a constant reference preference C, people could choose another reference preference, for example the preference for the most preferred situation. The relative preference of an individual becomes Ui(S,S)-Ui(S,B), where Ui(S,B) is the preference that the individual i in the given situation S has for another situation B, namely his or her most preferred, best situation. This relative preference can be considered as a complaint: an individual in situation S would prefer his or her best situation B, and the difference between utilities Ui(S,B)-Ui(S,S) measures how strongly that individual prefers the best situation B above the actual situation S. The stronger that preference, the bigger his or her complaint in situation S becomes. Taking these reference preferences, the maximum relative preferences principle becomes a minimum complaint theory where we should choose the situation that generates the least amount of complaints. We have to choose the situation S for which the sum over all individuals of the complaints Ui(S,B)-Ui(S,S) is minimal.

It is easy to see why the minimum complaint theory avoids the abovementioned counter-intuitive problem in population ethics. The people who are very unhappy in the second situation have very strong complaints, and the other people cannot complain because they have maximum preference satisfaction.

However, if we minimize the total complaints, we would have to prefer the minimum complaint situation Sm and it might be possible that an individual in situation S has a lower preference for this minimum complaint situation than for the actual situation S in which he or she exists. This means Ui(S,Sm) could be lower than Ui(S,S). Now it becomes tricky for that individual in situation S: if he or she complains, the situation Sm will be chosen and the individual will be worse off. Again the relative preference principle respects self-determination: the individual i in situation S can decide to change his or her reference preference, for example to set the reference preference equal to Ui(S,S). In this way, that individual will not complain in situation S (the relative preference becomes 0) and the total complaint will no longer include the complaint of that individual. That means another optimal situation will be chosen, one that individual i in situation S can prefer.

Why is this relevant? If we simply want to minimize complaints, we might have to prefer the situation where no-one (no future generation) exists, because existing people can always complain. If only one person exists, that person might feel lonely, can complain and prefer a situation with more people. So consider all possible situations that contain at least two persons. Those people have to distribute finite resources amongst themselves, which means in every situation there is always at least one person who can complain. The only situation with no complaints, is the situation where no-one exists. If an individual i exists in situation S and has a positive utility Ui(S,S), and if some or all other possible situations that have a smaller total complaint are situations in which the person does not exist, that person might decide not to complain in situation S.

To respect self-determination, everyone can decide what counts as the reference situation. It doesn’t have to be the most preferred situation. It can also be for example the least preferred situation, in which case the complaint becomes negative: it becomes an anticomplaint or gratitude. Or it can be the situation for which the person has 0 preference. If everyone chooses their own preferred reference, we end up with a population ethic that is a hybrid or mixture of total utilitarianism, critical utilitarianism, minimum complaint utilitarianism and other utilitarian theories.

3) The mere means principle and the self-determination right

Everyone has the self-determination right over one’s own body: we are not allowed to use someone’s body against their will as a means for someone else’s ends. This is equivalent to the mere means principle which says that we should not use someone as merely a means. Someone is used as a means to an end if the presence of his or her body is necessary to achieve the end. Someone is used as merely a means when the use as means is against his or her will, i.e. when he or she has to do or undergo things against his or her will.

To avoid arbitrary exclusion (discrimination), this right should be given to everyone and everything. However, insentient objects do not have a sense of their own bodies and they do not have a will, so they cannot be treated against their will. This means the self-determination right is always trivially satisfied (cannot be violated) for non-sentient objects. The right becomes only important or non-trivial for sentient beings, because they have a will and a sense of their own bodies.

The self-determination right does not have to be absolute. If the consequences of using someone as merely a means are very positive (i.e. if a lot of strong relative preferences are satisfied), or if the usage is only slightly against one’s will, a violation of the self-determination right might be permissible. The strength of the mere means principle relative to the relative preferences principle, is something to be decided democratically.


Most moral rules and rights generate negative externalities or costs on others. For example if we choose to give everyone a right not to be harmed, the mere presence of a person with that right can decrease my liberty and hence generates a negative externality for me. Suppose I am in danger and I want to save myself, but someone else is in my way. I can only save myself by doing something that will harm that person. If the person would not have been there, I could justifiably save myself, but the presence of that person with the right not to be harmed means I no longer have the liberty to save myself. I would have been better off if that person with the no-harm right was not present. However, there is one fundamental right that does not generate such negative externalities: the self-determination right not to be used as a means against ones will.

Suppose I want to use you against your will, and the presence of your body is necessary to reach my ends. If you are present and if you have the self-determination right, I am not allowed to use you against your will. I could complain that with this right I am no longer able to reach my ends. But this complaint becomes less valid or invalid when we consider the fact that if you were not present, I could not reach my ends either. It makes no difference to me if you are not present or if you are present and you have this self-determination right. Your presence does not pose negative externalities on others when you have that right. Introducing people who have this self-determination right does not generate costs on others. Complaints against moral rules (e.g. against the choice for a specific right) become less valid or invalid when the mere presence of people who are subject to that moral rule does not pose any negative externalities (costs, loss of liberties) on others. The self-determination right is unique in the sense that it is a right that does not generate negative externalities on others.

Examples and implications

Your body belongs to you and no-one else may use your body against your will. That is why slavery and rape are immoral. The self-determination right lies at the heart of many moral intuitions in moral dilemmas. I am not allowed to use your body against your will, so that is why cannibalism (killing and eating someone in a lifeboat scenario), forced organ transplantations (sacrificing one person and using his or her organs to save the lives of many patients), involuntary medical experimentation (using someone as test object to find a medicine that can save many lives), scapegoating (prosecuting an innocent individual in order to stop a riot that will kill many people), terror bombing (killing innocent civilians in order to demoralize the enemy and end a war) or throwing a heavy person in front of a runaway trolley in order to stop that trolley and save people on the track, are not allowed, even if the overall consequences (in terms of maximizing relative preference satisfaction) are positive.

The self-determination right also implies other moral principles, such as the difference between doing and allowing and the difference between negative (perfect) and positive (imperfect) duties. If we only had the relative preferences principle, there will be no distinction between doing and allowing or between negative and positive duties. But many people have the intuitive moral judgment that doing harm is worse than allowing a similar level of harm. Pushing a child in the water to kill him is worse than not saving a drowning child. If they would be equally bad, not saving a child would be as bad as murder, and so I would have a very strong duty to save children. I would have to sacrifice a lot to save children, which I do not want. So when I have an absolute duty to save children at all costs, I will become merely a means to help others, which is against my will. My self-determination right will be violated.

Suppose I face a dilemma: if I do nothing, three people will die. If I choose to save them, one other person will die. If I do nothing, I allow the death of the three people. If I act, I do cause the death of the one person. Suppose this one person is a friend. I do not want to kill this person, so I let the three people die. You could say that I had a duty to save the three people, because one dead person is better than three dead people. But if you would say that to me, you would consider me as merely a means to the ends of the three people. My presence was required to save the three people, and I would have to do something (sacrificing my friend) I do not want, so my self-determination right would be violated if you judge me. If you are not allowed to judge me, it appears as if allowing the three people to die is not worse than killing one person.

The difference between doing and allowing also corresponds with a difference between positive and negative duties. A positive duty is a duty of beneficence, a duty to help, where the presence of the agent (the helper) is required in order to benefit someone. A negative duty of non-maleficence (the no-harm principle) is a duty not to harm someone. This does not require the presence of the agent: if the agent is not present, the no-harm principle is trivially satisfied because the agent cannot cause harm when s/he is absent.  When someone causes harm, we can judge that person for violating his or her duty of non-maleficence, without considering him or her as merely a means, i.e. without violating his or her self-determination right. However, if you do not want to help someone, and if I claim that you have to help that person and you violate the duty of beneficence if you do nothing, I would consider you as merely a means. Therefore, violations of positive duties are considered less bad (more tolerable) than violations of negative duties.

Positive duties are imperfect duties, in the sense that while we are not required to live up to them at all times, these duties are deserving of admiration. Helping others is an imperfect duty, because there is a whole range of possible levels of assistance that one could give. Perfect duties on the other hand can and should be respected at all times (for example the duty not to use someone as merely a means is a perfect duty).

When it comes to positive duties, some level of partiality is allowed. Consider a situation where I have to choose between saving someone I hold dear versus saving three unknown people. If you say I should save the three people, my self-determination right would be violated, so I am allowed to save the person I hold dear. As a result, when helping others, you are allowed to be a bit partial in favor of your loved ones, even if that does not maximize relative preference satisfaction, as long as you are prepared to tolerate similar levels of partiality of everyone else. According to the moral intuitions of a lot of people, partiality is more permissible in positive, imperfect duties, but we are not so tolerant towards partiality in negative, perfect duties. That is why you are not allowed to sacrifice and use someone in order to save someone you hold dear.

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How emotional attachments make us less effective

I have been changing a lot the last few years, due to the new movement of effective altruism. I changed my mind about many topics (such as GMOs, ecocentric environmental ethics), I changed my activism and volunteering, I changed my donations to charities, I changed some of my moral beliefs and ideas, and so on. I realized that a lot of the things I used to believe or do, were not very effective in terms of doing the most good. I realized that a lot of my moral beliefs were not really coherent or altruistic.

In order to change my beliefs and choices, I faced one big obstacle: emotional attachments. I was so to speak married to some organizations and strongly attached to some moral theories (such as deep ecology). When my actions or beliefs were criticized, I felt strong emotional resistance, a strong urge to defend my beliefs. When I changed my mind about a subject such as GMOs, it felt like an emotional shock to me.

When it comes to beliefs, this emotional attachment results in an overconfidence bias, and when it comes to activism and volunteering, this emotional attachment results in a commitment bias.

Overconfidence bias

The overconfidence bias means that you have more confidence in a belief than what can be justified by evidence or reason. The level of confidence that you ascribe to that belief is higher than the probability that you are right about that belief. If you have a set of beliefs, you feel 100% certain about those beliefs but you are only right about them 80% of the time, you have a 20% overconfidence level.

If you have strong feelings about a belief, for example if you have a strong preference about something to be true, you are likely to have an overconfidence bias. The problem with this overconfidence bias is that updating your beliefs becomes difficult. Suppose you feel 100% certain about something, but now you are faced with new evidence that contradicts your belief. From a rational point of view, you should update your confidence in that belief according to a so called Bayesian updating process. When you receive new evidence, your new confidence level is the result of your old confidence level multiplied by a Bayesian updating factor that depends on the new evidence. If the new evidence strongly confirms your belief, the updating factor is high, but if it strongly contradicts your belief, it is close to 0.  However, if you are 100% certain about a belief, you give a 0% probability that the opposite is true. And 0% multiplied with any updating factor remains 0%, so no evidence can convince you that the opposite is true.

When I realized that I had an overconfidence bias, that some of my beliefs could be wrong, that it is irrational to feel absolutely sure about something, I started using this idea of Bayesian updating more often. I looked at the confidence levels of my beliefs as if they were meters on a control panel. Every time new information arrives, I change my confidence levels: the meters on the control panel go up or down if my confidence increases or decreases. Avoiding emotional attachments and keeping in mind that I have to look at the confidence levels of all my beliefs – including the beliefs that generate strong emotions – like meters on a control panel, allows me to be more flexible, to change my mind more fluently. I even changed my mind about moral principles that were very dear to me (see my biggest moral mistake).

And this is one of the major strengths of people in the effective altruism community: they are so flexible and open about updating their beliefs. It is very unlikely that all the beliefs held by an altruist (an activist or a politician) are true. In fact, a lot of the beliefs I thought to be true, were falsified by new evidence. And we know that changing one’s mind is not easy. So we have to train ourselves to be better able to change our minds. We have to resist social temptations to stick to our guns. Changing one’s mind should be considered as a proof of trustworthiness and integrity, not fickleness or unreliability. The more people (activists, politicians) change their minds, the more it becomes socially acceptable. Dare to think, dare to change.

Commitment bias

The commitment bias is an irrational escalation of commitments where you continue the same behavior (e.g. support the same organization or project) or make the same decisions over and over again, even when you are faced with increasingly negative results or new evidence that the decision was probably wrong (e.g. that the project is not effective). Maintaining the behavior is based on the cumulative prior investments and aligns with previous decisions, but it can be irrational. This commitment bias is a kind of sunk cost fallacy, where previous investments in an organization or project (the sunk costs) influence your choice to keep on supporting this organization or project, even when you encounter other organizations or projects that are much more effective. It is also a kind of loss aversion: if we have invested a lot in a project, giving up this project is hard because we are afraid to lose the investment. We are afraid to think that is was all for nothing. Losing a project is perceived as being worse than not acquiring that project, similar to the phenomenon that losing money is considered worse than not acquiring that same amount of money.

In the past I invested a lot in some organizations and projects that were not very effective. It took serious efforts to accept the evidence that there were better, more effective things to do. It took effort to let go of my old projects and commitments. When I realized that I had strong commitment biases towards certain projects, I started to look at my projects in a different what. I started thought experiments by asking questions like: “What if I didn’t put all the effort in the project but instead I inherit this project from someone else? What if I were offered this project now?” For example, after I have written an article and I receive feedback to rewrite it, it becomes difficult to rewrite it because I have invested some effort in that article and it is emotionally speaking difficult to change it. But then I try to think as if someone else wrote that article and I get the opportunity to rewrite it based on the feedback. This makes it emotionally easier to rewrite it.

One of the major strengths of people in the effective altruism community is that they are more willing to give up commitments and switch to new projects to avoid the commitment bias or the sunk cost fallacy. Effective altruists are not married to a project or organization, they are very flexible and able to change projects. Only this attitude allows them to constantly pick the most effective choices to do the most good.

Other biases

The overconfidence and commitment biases are accompanied with other cognitive biases that make us less effective. There is the confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out only that information that supports one’s preconceptions, and to discount that which does not. In order to justify a commitment to a project, a confirmation bias is at play when people are not willing to accept negative information about the project, for example that the project is less effective than other projects. And when we strongly believe something, we become overconfident when due to the confirmation bias we seek out information that confirms our beliefs. This is related to the so-called active information avoidance: when we receive negative information, for example that our project is less good or our belief is wrong, we actively try to avoid that negative information. Even very intelligent people can have those biases, can actively avoid evidence that contradicts their beliefs and can be susceptible to irrational escalations of commitments.

Debiasing: the art of letting go

Strong emotions are not always reliable and can be very obstructive when it comes to doing the most good. From now on, when it comes to altruism and doing good, I will avoid this kind of emotional attachments to beliefs and projects. I train myself in changing my mind, in being able to let go of bad ideas and projects. I will hold strong emotional attachments only to real persons, not to ideas, projects, organizations or behavioral choices that are intended to do the most good.

When I had the conscious intention to update my beliefs according to new information in order to arrive at the most accurate beliefs necessary to do the most good, I changed my mind about more things than expected. I underestimated my cognitive biases, I underestimated how much my mind would change due to effective altruism. This means I had a bias blind spot, I was not fully aware of the influence of my cognitive biases. As a result, I start to belief that other altruists may also have this bias blind spot and would have to change their minds about many things when they intentionally try to counteract their cognitive biases. This means that debiasing ourselves – in particular debiasing altruists and politicians – is very important, because we might easily be wrong about more things than we believe or expect.


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