Dierenleed in de Oostvaardersplassen: een rationeel-ethische kijk

Recent werd ik gecontacteerd door enkele mensen die verontwaardigd zijn over de gevoerde politiek rond de Oostvaardersplassen, een natuurgebied in Nederland waar elke winter meer dan duizend grazende dieren sterven van honger. Onderstaande is een morele reflectie over dat probleem van dierenleed in de natuur: waarom de huidige aanpak inconsistent en egocentrisch is en hoe we het probleem best oplossen.

Het probleem

In de Oostvaardersplassen werden de laatste decennia grote grazers zoals paarden, runderen en herten geïntroduceerd met als doel door de begrazing het natuurgebied geschikter te maken voor trekvogels. De Oostvaardersplassen zouden daarbij een nieuw stukje wildernis vormen in Nederland, waar de natuur haar gang kan gaan. Maar in de wintermaanden vindt er een massale sterfte plaats bij die grote grazers die omkomen van honger en ontbering. Hun populaties namen erg toe waardoor ze het natuurgebied hebben kaalgevreten en de dieren nu te weinig eten hebben.

Een inconsistente en egocentrische milieufilosofie

Het beheer van de Oostvaardersplassen – of liever het gebrek daaraan – is geïnspireerd op een milieufilosofie die stelt dat we de natuur haar gang moeten laten gaan. Frans Vera, de geestelijke vader van de Oostvaardersplassen, zegt dat we voor dat stuk natuur een afblijfplicht hebben in plaats van een zorgplicht. De natuur zou volgens deze opvatting een eigen waarde hebben als ze ongerept is en niet beïnvloed werd door menselijke bemoeienis. Ingrijpen in de natuur – bijvoorbeeld zorgen voor de wilde dieren – zou volgens deze milieufilosofie een vorm van antropocentrisme zijn waarbij mensen hun eigen waarden centraal plaatsen en hun voorkeuren opleggen aan de natuur.

Maar deze milieufilosofie is duidelijk inconsistent. Ten eerste loopt het gekozen beleid over van willekeur. Waarom zouden wij van de Oostvaardersplassen moeten afblijven maar zouden grote grazers er wel zo hard mogen ingrijpen door alles te begrazen of zelfs kaal te vreten? Zeggen dat sommige wezens (mensen) er moeten afblijven maar anderen (grazers) niet, is een vorm van irrationele willekeur, een vorm van discriminatie op basis van louter biologische verschillen die niet relevant zijn. Waarom zouden mensen geen deel mogen uitmaken van het ecosysteem in de Oostvaardersplassen? Waarom zou een paard wel gras mogen eten dat op een stukje grond van die Oostvaardersplassen groeit, maar niet van gras mogen eten dat op een ander stukje grond groeide en door een mens ter beschikking werd gesteld aan dat paard? Zeggen dat gras dat binnen het domein groeit wel mag gegeten worden maar gras dat elders groeit niet, is opnieuw irrationele willekeur. Waarom mag een hert wel bladeren eten die door de wind van elders werden aangevoerd, maar niet bladeren die door een mens werden gebracht?

De willekeur bij het beleid om dieren niet bij te voeren is onhoudbaar. Toch hebben de aanhangers van die milieufilosofie een afkeer voor het bijvoederen. Door dat bijvoederen verhoogt het voedselaanbod en kan de populatie van dieren toenemen totdat die opnieuw sterven van de honger. Maar dat is nu precies wat de natuur elk jaar in de lente doet. Waarom mag het voedselaanbod voor de dieren niet worden verhoogd door mensen die de dieren bijvoederen maar wel door de natuur die opbloeit in de lente? Heeft de natuur het alleenrecht om het voedselaanbod te verhogen? En als een toename van het voedselaanbod geen goed idee is, wat dan met een afname? Als er in de Oostvaardersplassen nog minder eten zou zijn voor de dieren, dan vinden we dat ook erg. Als je gelooft dat zowel het verhogen als het verlagen van het voedselaanbod niet goed zijn, dan geloof je dat het huidige voedselaanbod optimaal is. Hoe kun je dat weten? De natuur in de Oostvaardersplassen heeft nooit de berekening gemaakt wat het optimale voedselaanbod is.

Ten tweede bevat die milieufilosofie een tegenspraak omdat ze net datgene doet wat ze zelf afkeurt. De natuurliefhebbers die deze filosofie aanhangen, vinden waarden zoals ongereptheid, integriteit of natuurlijkheid belangrijk. Contact met de wilde natuur zet volgens hen aan tot bescheidenheid, tot een ontzag voor een buitenmenselijke orde en een bevrijding van onze eigen beperkte opvattingen. Het probleem hierbij is natuurlijk dat die milieufilosofie zelf een eigen opvatting is. Wie vindt ongereptheid of natuurlijkheid belangrijk? Het natuurgebied zelf? Nee, want natuurgebieden hebben niet eens een vermogen om iets te waarderen, laat staan dat ze een abstract begrip zoals natuurlijkheid zouden waarderen. De dieren in het natuurgebied? Nee, die vinden hun welzijn, het eten van voedsel en het vermijden van een hongerdood belangrijk en interesseren zich niet in ongereptheid. Enkel de natuurliefhebbers zelf vinden ongereptheid en natuurlijkheid belangrijk.

De milieufilosofie van die natuurliefhebbers is dus een vorm van egocentrisme waarbij de eigen waarden en voorkeuren voor ongereptheid of natuurlijkheid primeren boven ernstig leed van anderen, in het bijzonder de dieren die lijden in de natuur. Het afblijven van die natuur komt niemand ten goede, behalve de natuurliefhebbers. Het ingrijpen vanuit een zorgplicht komt wel anderen ten goede, namelijk die dieren. Natuurliefhebbers denken dat die zorgplicht het opdringen is van onze eigen wensen en voorkeuren, maar we mogen niet vergeten dat de dieren zelf zorg willen: ze willen voedsel, veiligheid, gezondheid en alle andere dingen die hun welzijn bevorderen. Als we hen die zorg ontzeggen louter omwille van onze voorkeur voor ongereptheid, dan dringen we daarmee onze wensen op aan anderen. Ik heb een voorkeur om dieren te helpen, maar naast mij hebben de dieren zelf ook een voorkeur om geholpen te worden. Ik wil een hoog welzijn voor een paard, en dat paard wil dat ook. Mijn voorkeur is dus allesbehalve egocentrisch of antropocentrisch, want de anderen, de dieren, delen die voorkeur. Dat kan niet gezegd worden van een voorkeur voor ongereptheid.

De Oostvaardersplassen vormen een failed state: de natuur die regeert over dat gebied slaagt er niet in het welzijn van haar inwoners, de wilde dieren, te garanderen. Voor de dieren is de natuur in de wintermaanden niets minder dan een despotische dictator die bereid is de eigen bevolking te laten verhongeren. We kunnen niet zeggen dat de natuurlijke processen in de Oostvaardersplassen een beter beleid vormen dan een beleid dat wij kunnen voeren en dat erop gericht is het welzijn van dieren te bevorderen.

De oplossing

Wat is de oplossing voor het dierenleedprobleem in de Oostvaardersplassen (en bij uitbreiding in andere natuurgebieden)? We kunnen kijken naar oplossingen bij mensenleedproblemen: vroeger was er bij mensen ook veel hongersnood. Toen kwam de groene revolutie met hogere landbouwopbrengsten. Miljoenen mensen hebben hun leven te danken aan die groene revolutie in de landbouw. Op korte termijn kunnen we voor de Oostvaardersplassen hetzelfde doen: de hoeveelheid eten verhogen door bijvoorbeeld het bijvoederen.

Op langere termijn gaat dat bijvoederen niet voldoende zijn, want dan gaat de populatie van grote grazers nog verder toenemen totdat ze opnieuw voorbij de draagkracht van het ecosysteem gaan. Om overpopulatie te vermijden, gaan we de voortplanting van die dieren moeten beperken. De wilde natuur heeft daar een eigen methode voor: roofdieren. Dode dieren zijn inderdaad onvruchtbaar en kunnen zich niet meer voortplanten.

Maar er zijn geen grote roofdieren in de Oostvaardersplassen die de populaties van grote grazers kunnen beperken. Mensen kunnen wel roofdieren vervangen, door de prooidieren dood te schieten. Maar die jacht is ook niet meteen de meest welzijnsbevorderende methode voor de dieren. Niet alleen de vruchtbaarheid maar ook het volledige leven en de volledige autonomie van een dier wordt ontnomen als dat dier wordt gedood.

Opnieuw kunnen we kijken naar de oplossing bij mensen. Hoe werd de voortplanting bij mensen beperkt zodat we niet afstevenden op doemscenario’s van massale hongerdood door overbevolking? Met anticonceptie. Voor wilde dierenpopulaties zijn er veel methoden van anticonceptie waardoor dieren onvruchtbaar worden, zoals chirurgische ingrepen en chemische contraceptie. De meest veelbelovende methode is waarschijnlijk immunocontraceptie: door een vaccinatie wordt het eigen immuunsysteem gestimuleerd om zwangerschap te voorkomen.

De verschillende methoden hebben elk hun voor- en nadelen op vlak van dierenwelzijn en kosteneffectiviteit, waardoor verschillende methoden in verschillende contexten meer of minder geschikt zijn. Alle huidig beschikbare anticonceptiemethoden hebben negatieve bijwerkingen op vlak van gezondheid, sociale interacties en gedrag van de dieren. Ook het jachtgeweer is een vorm van anticonceptie, en de vraag is dus welke methode het diervriendelijkste is.

Mijn persoonlijke inschatting is dat een anticonceptiemethode zoals immunocontraceptie wel diervriendelijker is dan de dodelijke anticonceptiemethode van het jachtgeweer. Een dier doodschieten is wel de meest ingrijpende manier om dat dier onvruchtbaar te maken. Maar zelfs diegenen die een andere inschatting maken en stellen dat bijvoorbeeld immunocontraceptie even slecht is als dodelijke jacht, kunnen best nog voor de niet-dodelijke vormen van anticonceptie kiezen. Hoewel er momenteel nog nadelen qua dierenleed zijn aan de huidige niet-dodelijke anticonceptiemethoden, hebben die methoden nog wel meer speelruimte op vlak van ontwikkelingen naar diervriendelijkere anticonceptie. De jacht kunnen we moeilijk diervriendelijker maken. Maar niet-dodelijke anticonceptie heeft nog wel veel potentieel, mits we voldoende wetenschappelijk onderzoek ernaar doen. Om dat onderzoek te stimuleren, moeten de niet-dodelijke anticonceptiemethoden gebruikt en getest worden. Door het gebruik van niet-dodelijke anticonceptie, zelfs al is die momenteel nog niet zo diervriendelijk, winnen die methoden aan belang, zal er meer onderzoek naar gebeuren en zullen we in de toekomst betere methoden uitvinden en ontwikkelen.

De Oostvaardersplassen waren een experiment om te kijken hoe een ongerepte natuur met grote grazers zich in Nederland kan ontwikkelen. Maar we kunnen beter de Oostvaardersplassen beschouwen als een experimenteerruimte om dierenpopulaties op een zo diervriendelijk mogelijke manier onder controle te houden met bijvoorbeeld anticonceptie. Zo krijgen we de kans om betere (kosteneffectievere, veiligere, diervriendelijkere) anticonceptiemethoden te ontwikkelen die we ook voor andere natuurgebieden kunnen inzetten. Dat onderzoek is cruciaal als we het probleem van dierenleed in de natuur willen aanpakken.

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Is a vegan diet optimal for our health and the environment?

There is a scientific consensus that our high consumption of animal products, especially meat, is bad for our health and the environment. The studies are abundant (see here and here). Almost no-one is denying that our consumption of animal products is too high and that we should reduce our meat consumption. Too much is never good. But the question people often ask is: where is the optimum level? Is the best diet for our health and the environment a vegan diet? Or is a diet with some animal products better?

It is obviously true that animal products contain essential food nutrients for human health, such as proteins, minerals and vitamins. It is also obviously true that the animal manure produced in livestock farming contains essential fertilizer nutrients for agriculture, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. And it is obviously true that animals can eat things that we do not want to eat or cannot digest, such as our food residues or grass, and turn these things in nutrients that we can use. Animal agriculture can be considered as an upcycling of our food waste. Does this mean that some level of livestock production and animal consumption is necessary for an optimal human and environmental health?

At the current level of animal consumption, we eat more than enough essential nutrients, so the harmful substances such as saturated fats, pathogens and carcinogens become dominant. And at our current level of animal agriculture, animals not only eat our food waste and grass, but they also eat lots of feed crops produced on cropland that can be used to grow things humans can directly eat. Most of this feed crop is turned into inedible animal manure. This is a kind of food waste, a downcycling of nutrients. Furthermore, at our current level, animal agriculture produces more than enough manure, resulting in overfertilization. Hence, the more animal products we consume, the higher our negative environmental and health impacts.

The negative health and environmental impacts are functions of the amount of animal products consumed. Simplifying matters, we can draw a J-shaped curve to represent this negative health or environmental impact. Our current situation is on the far right of the curve, where the harm or negative impact is high and there is a sharp increase in negative impact if we move further to the right. The vegan situation is on the far left. The question is: where is the minimum of this J-curve? What level of animal consumption minimizes the negative health or environmental impact? This minimum level is the one that optimizes our health or minimizes our environmental footprint.

In the past, the optimal level of animal consumption was probably higher than zero. Farmers needed animal manure because synthetic fertilizers were absent. Consumers needed meat because other, plant-based or vegan sources of essential nutrients were lacking. And grassland and food residues could not be used for anything, except for animal agriculture.

But at this moment the situation is less clear. There is an abundance of vegan sources of essential nutrients, wrapped in healthy fibers and phytonutrients instead of unhealthy saturated fats and carcinogens. We have other options to utilize our food residues: they can be used as bio-energy, turned into fertilizer or be upcycled using new food technologies. New farming techniques such as synthetic fertilizers and green manure allow farmers to have highly productive croplands without the need for animal manure. And the near future is even more promising. New agricultural technologies allow us to keep soils fertile in a more sustainable way than with animal manure. New food technologies allow us to process inedible resources such as grass or crop residues into new delicious healthy animal-free foods. Food technologists are developing clean meat, milk and eggs without animals, and they may be able to make those products healthier than their animal counterparts by increasing the healthy and decreasing the unhealthy substances.

Technological developments result in a downward shift of our J-shaped curve, because these technologies reduce negative impacts. But also the minimum of the J-shape is shifting to the left. The J-shape becomes more like a forward slash shape (/). Eventually, the minimum level will be at zero consumption of animal products.

J-shaped curve

The logic behind this is straightforward: animal farming doesn’t allow much room for maneuver for technological improvements. It is very difficult to breed animals that grow muscle tissue that only contains healthy substances and avoids e.g. the saturated fats. It is very difficult to breed animals that produce different kinds of animal manure with different nutrient compositions, optimized for all types of agricultural crops. It is very difficult to breed animals that can eat all kinds of inedible food residues. It is very difficult to breed animals that can more efficiently turn crops into tasty food products without energy waste (crop calories turned into heat by an animal’s metabolism) and nutrient waste (crop nutrients turned into manure by an animal’s digestive system). On the other hand, new food and agricultural technologies have much more room for improvements without the need for animals in the system.

At a more general, abstract description, this is an example of a regression to the mean or regression to zero. If food and agricultural technologies develop, the minimum level can shift to the left or the right, but which of those two is more likely? When a new technology is developed, it can sometimes enhance an existing technology. For example, new crop breeding technologies allowed for the development of new herbicide tolerant crops, which promoted the use of some herbicides, an existing technology. However, new technologies can also replace existing technologies. For example, genetic manipulation allowed for the development of mold and insect resistant crops, decreasing the use of fungicides and insecticides. In most cases, new technologies replace existing technologies. The existing technologies lose their relative benefits. Of all the technologies ever invented, most became obsolete. Hence, the average benefit of a technology is zero. The same goes for technologies that have animals in the system. Cars made horse carts obsolete. Tractors made draft horses obsolete. Synthetic insulin made animal-sourced insulin obsolete. Kerosene made whale oil obsolete. The same goes for food: there are way more food production technologies possible that do not have animals in their systems, so it is more likely that one of those animal-free technologies is better for our health and the environment, making the animal-dependent technology obsolete.

Conclusion: if a vegan diet is not already the most healthy and environmentally friendly diet, it soon will be.

 

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The integration of effective altruism focus areas

The effective altruism movement has three major focus areas: human welfare promotion, animal welfare promotion and far future catastrophic risk reduction (and a fourth, meta-level area of community building and priorities research). As I will explain, all these focus areas are important because there is a chain of interrelatedness. Working on one focus area can have negative side-effects. To counteract those negative side-effects, it is necessary to work on another focus area.

When we think about altruism, improving the well-being of currently living humans is the most well-known example. Helping humans is very tractable and is good according to almost all moral theories because we can be very confident that humans have a consciousness, humans can clearly express their needs and we have the means to make humans very happy. Especially people in extreme poverty can be helped in effective ways. Therefore, improving human health and economic development are the biggest parts of the first focus area of effective altruism. That is why most effective altruists support top charities recommended by GiveWell.

However, most humans consume animal products, and this consumption is positively correlated with economic development. For example: the diet of an average human in a developed country is responsible for the use and death of about twenty factory farm animals per year, and about one vertebrate animal per day (mostly bycatch and fish for fish meal).

The problem is: the production of animal products involves animal suffering. It is very likely that most farm animals have a negative well-being. Hence, saving the lives of humans or increasing their income levels increases animal suffering. This is the meat-eater problem of human development.

To counteract this negative side-effect of human development, we need to develop and promote plant-based, vegan or animal-free products from soy milk to clean meat. This is the first, biggest part of the second focus area of effective altruism: improving animal welfare. In other words, helping humans implies a duty to support effective animal charities, recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators.

However, vegan products have a lower ecological footprint than their animal alternatives. This means more land becomes available when we adopt vegan diets. Most humans value biodiversity for many reasons (such as instrumental value or esthetic value), so it is unlikely that this available land is turned into dead zones such as concrete deserts. It is more likely that these available land areas become natural ecosystems full of wildlife.

The problem is: it is very likely that there is a lot of suffering in nature, due to parasites, diseases, competition, predation, starvation and many other harms. It is even possible that a lot of lives of wild animals are not worth living, that those animals have a negative well-being. Hence, vegan diets might increase animal suffering in nature. This is the problem of wild animal suffering.

To counteract this negative side-effect of veganism, we need to promote scientific research how to intervene in nature to improve animal welfare. This is the second part of the second focus area of effective altruism. In other words, promoting veganism implies a duty to support organizations such as Wild-Animal Suffering Research that focuses on the well-being of wild animals.

However, it is possible that improving wild animal welfare involves using new technologies. There are a lot of wild animals, so it seems unlikely that humans will be able to fully improve animal welfare in nature. We might need assistance, most likely from artificial intelligence (AI), to monitor nature, to intervene in a safe and effective way and to calculate the possible consequences of interventions.

The problem is: developing safe AI is difficult. AI creates one of the most dangerous catastrophic risks. It is a very powerful technology that can easily be abused. And it is possible that AI-machines develop a superintelligence, that they become smarter than humans. This poses a catastrophic risk if the goals and values of these superintelligent machines are not aligned with the goals and values of organic sentient organisms such as humans and animals. This is the value alignment problem.

To counteract this negative side-effect of AI-development, improving the safety of AI becomes a priority. This is the biggest part of the third focus area of effective altruism: reducing catastrophic risks. In other words, promoting wild-animal suffering research and interventions implies a duty to support organizations such as the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and the Future of Humanity Institute.

Saving human lives also increases other catastrophic risks. More humans means higher emissions of greenhouse gases, increasing the risk of an extreme global warming. More humans means higher risks of pandemic infectious diseases, especially when those humans consume more animal products produced in factory farms that can create new zoonotic diseases. More humans means more intelligent brains that can create dangerous technologies. More humans means a stronger incentive to colonize other planets, terraforming those planets and hence increasing the risk of spreading wild animal suffering to other planets. These are all extra reasons why someone who helps humans has a duty to support work on the second and third focus areas of effective altruism.

 

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Variable critical level utilitarianism as the solution to population ethics

Summary

Population ethics is probably the most important area in moral philosophy for effective altruists who want to do the most good. There are some very serious problems in population ethics that relate to crucial considerations about doing the most good. In this article I present a new population ethical theory that solves many of those problems: variable critical level utilitarianism says we should choose the situation that maximizes the sum of everyone’s relative utilities, where a relative utility measures a person’s preference for his or her actual situation relative to a critical level. People can always choose their own preferred critical level. This is a more flexible version of classical critical level utilitarianism, because different persons in different situations can have different critical levels. When everyone’s critical level is minimal (i.e. 0), we get total utilitarianism, and when everyone’s critical level is maximal, we get negative utilitarianism. I discuss game-theoretical considerations of this variable critical level theory and apply it to existential risks and the far future. The theory says we have to give a high but not an absolute priority to preventing existential risks.

Note: this is a draft article. The final sections and conclusions are very tentative.

Introduction

Population ethics is one of the most difficult areas in moral philosophy that studies which choices are the best when populations are variable and the choices determine the existence or non-existence of individuals. As our current choices have an influence on the far future, and the far future can potentially contain a huge number of people, population ethics is probably the most important area of moral philosophy, because it relates to crucial considerations. It has an enormous influence on our cause prioritization.

In a consequentialist-axiological approach to population ethics, we are looking for a welfare function W such that the best choice is the one that maximizes this welfare function. When this welfare function is an aggregate of the utility functions U(i), summed over all individuals i, we get a utilitarian theory. The utility U(i) of an individual is a function of everything that the individual values or prefers, such as happiness or well-being.

Total and average utilitarianism

The problem in population ethics is that maximizing a welfare function almost always leads to counter-intuitive results. If we include all possible future generations, there are basically two most important population ethical theories: total utilitarianism and average utilitarianism.

In total utilitarianism, the welfare function W = T = the sum of everyone’s utility. This has a drastic implication: a so-called sadistic repugnant conclusion. Suppose we can choose between two situations. In situation 1, everyone is maximally happy. In situation 2, this group of people is maximally miserable, they have the worst lives possible. But there is a huge extra population of people with a very low but positive happiness, so their lives are barely worth living. If this added population is big enough, and the utility function is an increasing function of happiness, the second situation has a higher total utility and hence total utilitarianism says that we should prefer the second situation. This seems very counter-intuitive.

To avoid this implication, we can take another welfare function W = T/N = A. Here, N is the number of people who exist or will exist, and A is the average utility. In the above example, the second situation has a much lower average utility than the first, because the population size in the second situation is much higher.

However, also average utilitarianism is counter-intuitive, with a sadistic conclusion. Suppose we can choose between two situations. In situation 1, everyone is maximally happy, except one person who is maximally miserable. In the second situation, everyone is maximally happy, including this one person, but there is a huge extra population of people with a very high but not maximal happiness. If this added population is big enough, the second situation has a lower average utility and hence average utilitarianism says that we should prefer the first situation. This again seems very counter-intuitive: in the first situation there is one person in extreme misery whereas in the second situation everyone is at least very happy and the total happiness in the world is much higher.

Critical level utilitarianism

Philosophers have proposed a lot of other population ethical theories, but basically all of them face some counter-intuitive implication. That is because most of them have as welfare function a combination of total and average utilities. An important example is the theory with the welfare function W = T.(1-C/A). Here C is a positive constant. If A is very big, this theory becomes a total utilitarian theory.

This theory is the so-called critical level utilitarianism, where the constant C represents a critical level of utility. The welfare function is the sum of the difference between the utilities and this critical level. It is as if everyone’s effective utility equals their relative utility U(i)-C.

The critical level will always be non-negative. A negative critical level would be very counter-intuitive because it means that it is good to add extra people with lives not worth living, decreasing both total and average utility. The lowest possible critical level C = 0 corresponds with total utilitarianism where we have to maximize the sum of utilities. Considering the other extreme: if we take C to be the highest possible value (e.g. the value of the most preferred life), we get a kind of negative utilitarianism where we have to minimize the gap between our utilities and the critical level.

Setting C high enough avoids the sadistic conclusion of total utilitarianism. But too high is not good, because we risk the counter-intuitive implication of average utilitarianism. Furthermore, a very high critical level faces the problem of negative utilitarianism: it gives a preference to non-existence. It increases the probability that newborn people will have levels of utility below this critical level. Even if these people would have very happy lives, adding those people would be bad according to negative utilitarianism, because their relative utilities U(i)-C become negative, decreasing the welfare function.

Variable critical level utilitarianism

There could be an interesting solution to the above problems faced by critical level utilitarianism. In that theory, the level C was constant and the same for everyone. But what if different individuals in different situations have different critical levels? What if the critical level became variable? So instead of being a constant, the critical level becomes dependent on the individual i and the situation S. In a given situation S, an individual i has a critical level C(i,S).

And we can be altruistic here and respect everyone’s autonomy; each individual can determine what his or her critical level is. They can even choose negative critical levels. The only condition is that the critical level of a non-existing person is 0. When everyone can choose their own critical levels, the variable critical level utilitarianism is identical to the maximum self-determined relative preferences principle. If a group of people is faced with the abovementioned dilemma that led to the sadistic repugnant conclusion, and if everyone chooses the value 0 as their critical level, i.e. if everyone is a total utilitarian, then everyone would prefer situation 2 containing nothing but miserable people and people with lives barely worth living. We may disagree with their choice, we may think that preferring that choice is counter-intuitive, but we must accept or tolerate their preference in order to respect their autonomy. Who am we to say that their critical level value is wrong and should be higher?

There are other possible values of the critical level besides 0. For example, everyone can choose as their critical level their utility for their most preferred situation. So in situation S an individual has a utility U(i,S), which measures the preference for that situation S. But in that situation S, the individual can also have a stronger preference for his or her most preferred situation M which is different from S. That maximum preference can be set equal to the critical level C(i,S). The relative utility U(i,S)-C(i,S) now measures a complaint: in situation S the individual can complain that his or her most preferred situation M should have been chosen. This special version of variable critical level utilitarianism equals the minimum complaint theory which is a more flexible kind of negative utilitarianism.

It is possible that if people choose a critical level that is very high, the variable critical level theory (which corresponds with a maximum relative preferences theory or the minimum complaint theory) selects a situation that is not preferred by those people. For example, if future people have a high critical level, they have strong complaints and it would be better if those people do not exist. But if they have a positive preference for the situation in which they do exist, it is better for them not to complain so hard, as complaining would select their non-existence. In general, future possible people might prefer a critical level that is as high as possible but does not result in the selection of a situation that they prefer less. So they prefer a highest possible safe critical level.

Similarly, we have a lowest possible safe critical level, namely 0. When people would choose a negative critical level, they can end up in a situation where their utilities or preferences are higher than this negative critical level (which means it positively contributes to the total relative preferences), but their utilities are negative. Therefore, no-one would choose a negative critical level.

If everyone chooses the lowest possible safe critical level, we end up with total utilitarianism. If everyone chooses the highest possible safe critical level, we end up with a variation of some population ethical theories known in the literature as negative utilitarianism, person affecting utilitarianism and antifrustrationism.

Just like critical level utilitarianism, our variable critical level utilitarianism lies between the two extremes of total utilitarianism and negative utilitarianism, but it avoids the problems faced by total, critical level and negative utilitarianism.

Game-theoretical considerations and negative feedback mechanisms

The choice of critical level can be very flexible and can depend on what other individuals choose. This flexibility has some interesting game-theoretical consequences, where people can make strategic choices for their own critical levels dependent on the choices of other people.

We can split up people in two groups: the grateful people or positivists and the complainers or negativists. Positivists have a positive relative utility, i.e. their utility level U(i,S) is higher than their critical level C(i,S). Total utilitarians with positive utilities and a critical level of 0 are an example of grateful people because their positive relative utility acts as a gratitude.

Negativists, for example negative utilitarians, have a negative relative utility. These negativists are complainers because their negative utilities act as complaints. The problem faced by negativists is that they risk non-existence even if their lives would have been worth living (i.e. their utilities would have been positive). Suppose we can choose between a situation where no-one exists and a situation where a complainer with a positive utility exists. The first situation would be better because it minimizes complaints (or maximizes relative utilities). To guarantee existence with a life worth living, the complainer could decide to lower his or her critical level such that his relative utility becomes positive and the complainer becomes a grateful person.

However, this risk of non-existence can also be avoided when the existence of negativists is coupled to the existence of positivists. Suppose in the second situation there are a lot of positivists next to the one negativist complainer. Their total gratitude can be bigger than the complaint of this one complainer, resulting in a positive value of the welfare function, i.e. higher than the welfare function of the first situation where no-one exists, which is zero. So the complainer can exist and may even be able to increase his or her critical level as long as the welfare function remains positive.

The more positivists (e.g. total utilitarians) there are, the more opportunities there will be for complainers to raise their critical levels and the more other people might increase their critical levels and become complainers. And vice versa: the more people have high values for their critical levels, the more other people would become positivists by decreasing their critical levels. If potential future generations would raise their critical levels too high, it would lead to their non-existence because their complaints become too big. Other situations where they do not exist and have no complaints become preferential. Increasing critical levels means increasing the risk of non-existence, even if one could have a very happy life worth living. Hence, increasing the critical level dampens further population growth. Reversely, if a lot of future people would lower their critical levels, it can excite further population growth. But this also means that other future people could raise their own critical levels without risking non-existence.

Hence there is a kind of negative feedback mechanism. The average critical level can act like a thermostat. If the temperature becomes too low, the heating turns on. If the temperature becomes too high, the heating switches off to cool down the situation.

Existential risk and the far future

We can apply game theoretical considerations to the abovementioned dilemma that resulted in a sadistic repugnant conclusion for total utilitarians. The problem of existential risks and the far future gives us a more concrete example. Suppose we can choose between two options. In the first option (situation 1) we are very happy, but we create an existential risk (e.g. a rogue artificial superintelligence that blows up the planet) which means we are the last generation. (Suppose our deaths will be quick so we will not suffer.) There will be no future people, the future is empty of consciousness. In the second option, we avoid this existential risk and there will be many people in the near and far future who have lives worth living. However, choosing this second option, avoiding this existential risk, comes at a cost we have to bear. Our lives (of the current generation) can become very miserable in our attempts to avoid the existential risk (e.g. to stop the rogue artificial superintelligence). If our lives become too miserable, we would prefer situation 1. We (the current generation) can justify this by raising our critical levels so we are no longer total utilitarians. Raising our critical levels is a strategic counteracting measure.

However, this justification might not be sufficient when we consider the far future, i.e. when the total number of people in the future becomes very big when we choose the second option. If all those future generations would be total utilitarians, the collection of their preferences for a critical level of 0 trumps our preferences for a higher critical level. Their gratitudes (positive relative utilities) trump our complaints (negative relative utilities). But in reality, we don’t know what future people would prefer as their critical level. It is unlikely that they will all be total utilitarians when a lot of people in the current, existing generation want to avoid the sadistic repugnant conclusion.

The preferences of critical levels of the current generation can serve as a best estimate for the preferences of critical levels of the future generations. As most people of the current generation find the sadistic repugnant conclusion of total utilitarianism highly counter-intuitive, we can expect that also a lot of possible future people share this moral intuition and have a preference for situation 1 where a smaller population of maximally happy people exist, even if this means they themselves do not exist. Imagine that our ancestors once faced an existential threat. Luckily for us, this threat was avoided and we have lives worth living. However, in avoiding this existential risk, our ancestors had to suffer a lot. Their lives became maximally miserable. If they would not have prevented extinction, their lives would have been very positive, but we would not exist. Even if my life is worth living (which means my utility U is positive), I would prefer the situation where we do not exist but our ancestors had very happy lives (which means my critical level C is higher than my utility U). So we can expect that also in the future there will be people who prefer to avoid the sadistic repugnant conclusion at the cost of non-existence. This is a kind of altruistic or cooperative choice, because one chooses what one thinks is best for the whole (past, present and future) population and not merely for oneself. If everyone cooperates and focuses on what is best for the whole population, the choice that is best for the whole population will be selected.

If the above applies, i.e. if future generations set their critical levels altruistically according to what they believe is best for the whole population and if those critical levels are the same as what we would altruistically choose, it means we do not have to make extreme efforts to avoid existential risks, making our lives very miserable. However, doing nothing against existential risks is not good either. Suppose preventing an existential risk would come at almost no cost for us. Our happiness decreases only a tiny bit when we make efforts to prevent extinction. If we go for our own maximum happiness, resulting in global extinction, we prevent the existence of future grateful people (e.g. total utilitarians) who would contribute a lot to the welfare function. Similarly, if our ancestors could prevent extinction at almost no cost, and if they decreased their happiness only a tiny bit (from a maximum happiness to an almost maximum happiness), I would no longer prefer the situation where we do not exist and our ancestors had maximum happiness. That means my critical level drops below my utility for the non-extinction situation in which I exist, I become a grateful person and my positive relative utility contributes to the welfare function.

The above indicate that variable critical level utilitarianism does not give absolute priority to preventing existential risks. It can give a high priority, though, because the future might easily contain a lot of grateful people.

Conclusion and final remarks

Suppose we (i.e. currently existing people) face a population ethical dilemma where we can choose between different options that affect future populations. We have intuitions about what option is the best. This preference for the best option corresponds with an optimal distribution of critical levels that everyone should adopt, i.e.: if everyone (both present and future people) adopt those critical levels in our most preferred option, this most preferred option becomes the best option according to the variable critical level utilitarian theory. For example, when faced with the population ethical dilemma, 40% of the current generation adopt total utilitarianism with minimum critical level 0, and 60% adopt negative utilitarianism with maximum critical level (corresponding to the highest preference that a person can have), then these percentages give us the optimal distribution of critical levels in our dilemma.

Suppose we set our own critical levels always altruistically or cooperatively, i.e. according to what we think is best for the whole population when everyone cooperates. If future generations have preferences similar enough to ours, and if they also set their critical levels altruistically, they will set them accordingly such that the optimal choice according to variable critical level utilitarianism is the one we think is best. These are reasonable assumptions. If some people set their own critical levels egoistically, i.e. according to what they think is best for them and not for the whole population, then everyone else is allowed to set their critical levels egoistically and then we may all end up in a suboptimal state. In this way, we arrive at a population ethical theory that selects the best options that best fit our preferences (the options we believe are the best).

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My cause prioritization

Summary

The search for the most important causes is essential for an effective altruist who wants to do the most good. Here I present my cause prioritization, starting from a moral theory that deals with problems in population ethics (involving future generations). Given our current knowledge in welfare biology, I argue that healthy humans might have the best lives worth living. However, most humans consume animal products and therefore contribute to the existence of exploited animals with lives not worth living. As a result, promoting veganism, animal rights and antispeciesism is a first cause area with top priority. The moral theory of maximizing relative preferences also gives a strong priority to reducing catastrophic risks, in particular S-risks (suffering risks) where futures are created that contain huge numbers of sentient beings with lives not worth living. Artificial intelligence is unique in the sense that it can create the biggest S-risks. Therefore, a second cause area with top priority is AI-safety research, in particular solving the value alignment problem such that AI-machines have the correct values to avoid S-risks.

 

Population ethics

For effective altruists who want to do the most good, cause prioritization is crucial. To find the most important causes, we first have to deal with population ethics that studies the goodness of moral choices when our choices determine who will exist in the future. This is important, because we must also be concerned about people in the far future who do not yet exist and may never exist when we make other choices.

My starting point is the maximum self-determined relative preferences principle. Suppose we choose a specific situation S. In that situation, there are a number of individuals who exist or will exist in the future. Each of those individuals has his or her own relative preference: the preferences for situation S relative to a reference preference that the individual has in situation S. This preference can be a complex function of everything the individual values, such as well-being or happiness. For example: if everyone’s preference function is a concave function of well-being, we get a prioritarian theory that says that we should improve everyone’s well-being, giving priority to the worst-off people who have the lowest levels of well-being.

Suppose an individual exists in situation S and in this situation, he or she strongly prefers situation S with a preference or utility equal to 100 utility units. This individual can also choose his or her own reference preference (hence the self-determination), which can be (but need not be) the preference for another situation, such as the most preferred situation M. That individual in situation S might have a preference for his or her most preferred situation equal to 1000 utility units. The self-determined relative preference of that individual in situation S equals -900 utility units. In this case, the relative preference is negative, which means it measures a kind of complaint: in situation S the individual is complaining with a strength of 900 utility units that situation M was not chosen. Similarly, the individual can choose the empty situation E where no-one exists as a reference, for which he or she has a preference of 0 utility units. The relative preference now equals 100 utility units. This value is now positive, which means it measures a kind of gratitude: in situation S the individual is grateful with a strength of 100 utility units that situation S instead of E was chosen.

The maximum relative preferences principle states that we should choose the situation where the sum of everyone’s relative preferences, measured in utility units, is maximum. This principle unifies different theories or views in population ethics. The reference preferences of most people gravitate towards two important possibilities (or combinations of them): 0 or a conditional maximum. All the individuals can determine their own reference preferences, but what are the implications if everyone had the same reference preference?

First, suppose everyone’s reference preference is 0, which corresponds with the empty situation where no-one exists. In this case, the maximum relative preferences principle becomes a kind of sum utilitarianism, also known as the total view, where we simply maximize the total of preference satisfaction. Suppose in situation 1 a number of maximally happy people exist, with a total gratitude of 1000 utility units. In situation 2, those people have maximally miserable lives, with a total complaint of -1000 utility units (which means their lives are not worth living), but there is a huge population of extra people, each with a small gratitude of 1 utility unit. If the size of this second population is large enough, the total relative preferences in situation 2 becomes higher than in situation 1, which means situation 2 should be selected. The sum of the small gratitudes of the extra people can trump the complaints of the miserable people. For some people, this seems counter-intuitive, a kind of sadistic conclusion that prefers a situation where some people have miserable lives.

Second, suppose everyone’s reference preference is their conditional maximum. That means that everyone has a complaint, and our maximum relative preferences principle becomes a minimum complaint theory where we have to choose the situation that minimizes the total complaint. This is a kind of negative utilitarianism, also known as a person affecting view. It is closely related, but not exactly similar, to suffering-focused ethics, antifrustrationism and critical level utilitarianism in population ethics. The important difference with those related theories lies in the conditionality of the maximum reference preference. Suppose you have a preference of 100 utility units for situation S, and 1000 utility units for situation M, and I have the reverse preferences: 100 for M and 1000 for S. Both situations S and M contain a complaint of at least one person. The only situation that minimizes complaints, is the empty situation E where we don’t exist. However, we both have positive preferences in situations S and M. So I can decide not to complain in situation M. It is as if in situation M, I take that situation for my reference preference, which means my self-determined relative preference becomes 0 instead of -900, and situation M can be chosen.

The total view and the person affecting view are the two most dominant views in population ethics. The first theory roughly says that we have to make happy people and the second says that we have to make people happy. This difference is important when we face existential risks. Suppose in one possible future, there will be thousands of generations with billions of people. In the second future there will be a global catastrophe that kills everyone who currently exists. In that second situation, there will be no-one in the future. In that situation, there is of course a harm done to the current generation of people who die. But is the non-existence of the possible future people also a harm? According to the total view, the harm is immensely big, because if the people in the future would have positive preferences (lives worth living), their total gratitude would be enormous; much higher than all the possible complaints and gratitudes of the current generation.

So according to the total view, avoiding this existential risk has by far the highest priority (at least if the possible people in the future have positive preferences for their existence). But according to the person affecting view, the non-existing people in the second future are not harmed and do not complain. For a person who does not exist, the relative preference is always 0, so there is no complaint (and no gratitude). The future where people do not exist is neither bad nor good for those non-existing people, because those non-existing people are not affected. That is why this theory is called the person affecting view. Hence, the person affecting view gives a higher priority to the preferences of the existing population (the people who can be affected because they exist or will exist in all the situations that we can choose). For the person affecting view, the top priority is avoiding negative relative preferences. In particular this means avoiding the existence of individuals who have lives not worth living.

As each individual can determine his or her own reference preference, which basically means that each individual can determine which population ethics theory should be applied to him or her, we will have a complex combination of the total view and the person affecting view. The gratitudes of the existing people in the future will have some weight. (There may be individuals who are indifferent between the population ethical views or who do not have a clear reference preference. In that case, we are allowed to determine their reference preferences.)

Welfare biology

Because at least some people choose a conditional maximum as their reference preference, we have to give some weight to the person affecting view in population ethics. In that case, we have a priority to avoid the existence of individuals with lives not worth living. Here we face the problem of wild animal suffering. It is possible that some animals in nature have lives not worth living, because their lives are full of negative experiences due to hunger, diseases, injuries, parasites and predators. Especially the animals with an r-selection reproductive strategy have a problem: these animals have a lot of offspring (the population has a high rate of reproduction, hence the name ‘r-selection’), and only a few of them survive long enough to reproduce themselves. Most lives of those animals are very short and probably miserable. We are not likely to see the majority of those animals, because they will die and be eaten quickly.

A better reproductive strategy in terms of well-being, is K-selection: having few offspring with long lives and high survival rates. If a life is long, it is more likely to be positive because it has proportionally fewer negative experiences of hunger or deadly diseases. Only humans are very close to a perfect K-selection: the average fertility rate of a woman is 2,5 children, and this rate is decreasing and expected to reach 2 children in the second halve of this century. When it reaches 2 children per woman, and when all children survive till they reproduce, the human population becomes stable. Every human can have a full live. (As lifespan increases, the fertility rate can drop below 2 children per woman.)

According to the person affecting view, we have to give priority to avoiding r-selection and promoting K-selection. Perhaps with genetic manipulation (e.g. gene drives), we can turn every population into K-selection (where female animals have on average two offspring) and make sure that all animals have long healthy lives. But for the moment, only humans are about to reach the ideal K-selection reproduction.

Healthy humans have other advantages: they have complex preferences and strong personal identities over time, which means they can have potentially high levels of lifetime well-being when their preferences are satisfied. So it is possible that humans can have larger relative preferences than non-human animals. Most humans can also clearly communicate their preferences: it is easier to determine the levels of well-being of humans who can self-consciously think and speak than the levels of well-being of non-human animals who can only communicate their preferences in very indirect ways through behavior. Estimating the well-being or relative preferences of wild animals is very difficult and may require accurate brain scans. We can be very confident that the lives of healthy humans are worth living, but not confident at all that the life of an average wild animal is worth living.

The above implies that we can give a priority to saving and helping humans. This preference for healthy humans (increasing the relative number of healthy humans) is not speciesism, because the basic criteria to derive this preference (e.g. the level of personal identity over time, the level of communication and the level of K-selection) did not refer to species membership. The above discussion did not use the word ‘species’ at all. Given our current state of knowledge, a preference for healthy humans is most likely to satisfy the maximum relative preferences principle.

Pros and cons of human population growth

As explained above, helping humans means increasing K-selection in the world. The more individuals who belong to a K-selection population, the better. However, there are also problems with human population growth. More humans means more competition for scarce resources, more people who can invent dangerous technologies, more greenhouse gas emissions, higher likelihood of spreading of dangerous viruses. These things increase existential risks. But it can also mean more mutually beneficial situations through trade and cooperation, more inventions of good technologies, higher likelihood of resistance against dangerous viruses.

However, there is one very big disadvantage of giving priority to humans: most humans consume animal products. Buying animal products gives an incentive to breed animals who have lives not worth living in e.g. factory farms. Fighting poverty and promoting economic development might increase animal suffering: a $1,000 increase in per capita GDP in the poorest countries implies an increased consumption of 1.7 kg of meat per person per year. Saving the life of a human omnivore means a consumption of about 30 kg of meat.

It is difficult to estimate the total costs and benefits of further human population growth. Give the consumption of animal products, I tend towards the conclusion that decreasing human population growth is valuable, but only if it is done in a way that has other cobenefits. Avoiding unwanted pregnancies through family planning is the only strategy that has a lot of cobenefits in terms of women’s rights, health of newborn children, environmental impact reduction and poverty reduction. The benefit-cost ratio of family planning is high. This means that family planning may also be consistent with the total view in population ethics, even if fewer happy people might come into existence. Finally by reducing the fertility rate, family planning is a means to reach perfect K-selection. Therefore, I give a low priority to family planning by supporting organizations such as Marie Stopes International.

Cause area: veganism and antidiscrimination

As helping humans involves a risk of increasing animal suffering, I give a high priority to promoting veganism, animal rights and antispeciesism. According to some thought experiments, we can conclude that most animals in agriculture and aquaculture have lives not worth living, so creating those lives violates both the person affecting view and the total view in population ethics. Promoting veganism is a more neglected area than improving human health and well-being.

Furthermore, veganism also has many cobenefits in terms of improved human health: less chronic diseases due to healthier diets, less health impact from climate change due to lower greenhouse gas emissions, less malnutrition due to lower food prices for the poorest people, and less health risks from pollution, zoonotic viruses and antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Veganism also facilitates spreading the value of antidiscrimination. Speciesism is an example of discrimination. If people consume animal products, a cognitive dissonance prevents them from valuing animals as equal to humans. When they eat vegan, this cognitive dissonance diminishes and they are more open to the value of antispeciesism. The interspecies model of prejudice predicts that a decrease in speciesism results in a decrease in racism, i.e. a decrease of prejudice against other groups of people. Antispeciesism is also necessary to start scientific research about wild animal suffering and to find safe and effective means to intervene in nature to improve wild animal well-being. And finally, antispeciesism becomes important when it comes to the development of artificial general intelligence and superintelligence. If we create superintelligent AI machines and implement them with our own speciesist goals, even more animals can be exploited by AI machines for many years in the future.

The cause area of veganism is also relatively neglected and tractable, which means effective altruists have a lot of high impact opportunities in this area. Effective vegan advocacy, perhaps with deep canvassing, is promising. But clean meat, and more generally tissue engineering, appear to be very promising as well. With these technologies, we can create animal products without using animals. It might also be a crucial technology for wild animal suffering reduction, as it can provide a food alternative for predators. The tissue engineering technology can also be used to extend life and replace a lot of animal experimentation. Therefore, I support the Good Food Institute and to a lesser degree the Methuselah Foundation.

Catastrophic risks

There are several possible extinction risks (X-risks) where everyone dies: asteroid impacts, supervolcano eruptions, pandemic viruses, runaway global warming, global nuclear war, dangerous nanotechnology. According to the total view of population ethics, extinction of sentient and intelligent life is a tragedy, because it means a lot of future preference satisfaction (well-being, happiness) is lost. Hence, extinction prevention (X-risk reduction) gets a top priority.

From a person affecting view, extinction is less bad, because with extinction, non-existent future beings cannot complain and wild animals with lives not worth living will no longer be born, so future complaints will be avoided. Extinction is only bad for those of the current generations who value a continued existence in the far future, and especially for the last generation, because most extinction scenarios involve suffering when everyone dies.

But there is a class of catastrophic risks that is even worse than X-risks: S-risks or suffering risks, where the future contains huge populations of sentient beings with lives full of misery. This is worse than extinction, because an S-risk is terrible both from a total view as well as from a person affecting view.

An example of an S-risk is space colonization where we export wild animal suffering and livestock farming: the number of animals with lives not worth living will multiply when other planets are colonized. Before we start with space colonization, we should first adopt veganism and antispeciesist values such that we will not export and multiply animal suffering.

Pros and cons of AI-development

Next to tissue engineering – creating organic bodies – another breakthrough technology of this century is artificial intelligence – creating intelligent minds. With further developments in artificial intelligence, we can better solve the problems of wild animal suffering and human suffering. The potential positive impact of AI is huge. But this technology is also uniquely risky.

First, AI generates an X-risk. Superintelligent AI-machines are more powerful than humans. If the values of these AI-machines are not aligned with the values of humans, AI machines may outcompete humans. This is the important value alignment problem in AI safety research. Developing safe AI is crucial, because we will never be smart enough to control the first superintelligent machines that are smarter than us.

But AI is unique because it also creates S-risks. AI might speed up space colonization, exporting the exploitation of sentient beings to other planets. AI might use humans and animals as slaves, keeping newborn sentient beings in misery. And worse of all: AI might perform virtual reality simulations containing lots of sentient beings in the simulated worlds. The number of sentient beings who suffer in those simulated worlds can be huge.

Just like intelligent humans could dominate sentient animals, superintelligent AI-machines can dominate intelligent sentient beings both in the real world as well as in simulated worlds. Just like the domination of sentient animals by intelligent humans led to a vast increase of the number of exploited animals with lives not worth living, the domination of real and simulated intelligent people by superintelligent AI-machines can result in a vast increase of the number of exploited people with lives not worth living. The S-risk of AI might be the exponent of the S-risk of a perpetual livestock farming. For the animals, livestock farming is an Eternal Treblinka. But for the future generations, AI-machines might create a new, bigger Eternal Treblinka. Both from a total view, but especially from a person affecting view (a downside focused ethics), such S-risks from AI are the worst possible outcomes and we have a top priority to avoid such risks.

Cause area: AI-safety and value alignment

The above brings us to the second cause area: AI-safety. A first strategy is to slow down AI-development research. This involves improving international cooperation and improving institutions to better regulate AI research. However, AI has potential huge benefits and really slowing down research on a global scale is difficult. There is a collective action problem: if we slow down our AI-research, we have to make sure that everyone else also slows down their research, otherwise other AI-researchers can gain a dangerous advantage. Hence, slowing down research is less feasible or tractable. Therefore, I give a lower priority to this strategy.

A second strategy therefore might be to speed up AI-safety research, in particular solving the value alignment problem: how can we implement good values in AI-algorithms? This gets a top priority, because this area is also highly neglected compared to other cause areas. This strategy doesn’t suffer from a collective action problem: if we learn from our research how to make AI safer, everyone else can learn from us and adopt our safety measures.

Here we also see a link with the abovementioned cause area: promoting values such as antidiscrimination. We should not implement discrimination such as speciesism or substratism in AI-machines. Substratism is a kind of discrimination where beings with one type of substrate (e.g. electronic computers) are considered more important than beings with other substrates (e.g. organic brains). AI-machines should not discriminate organic life forms or simulated beings. If we keep discriminating animals and we develop AI-machines, what chance do we have that those machines do not discriminate others?

To improve AI-safety research, I support MIRI and the Future of Humanity Institute.

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Thought experiment: which dream do you prefer?

Imagine, before you go to sleep, I offer you a choice between different pills. If you take the black pill, you will not have a dream tonight. You will remain in a deep, unconscious sleep without experiences. There are no further side effects.

If you take the blue pill, you will dream that you are an animal in the livestock industry. As most livestock animals are chickens, you will experience a random 15 minutes of the life of a chicken, such as being on a factory farm or slaughtered in a slaughterhouse. You will experience everything the chicken can experience, such as fear or pain. You will most likely not experience things that chickens are most likely not able to experience, such as higher levels of self-consciousness, rational thought, the concept of death, the feeling of getting married or preferences for a distant future. The mental capacities you have in that dream will likely be at the level of a typical dream. When someone tries to kill you, you will feel fear, but you don’t have an abstract notion of death.

If you take the yellow pill, you will have a very lucid dream about a random experience that could happen in your life, such as watching a new movie, having lunch or meeting a friend. In this dream, you will experience everything at the same level of lucidity or consciousness as when you are fully awake and self-conscious. Or similarly, taking this pill is equivalent to having 15 minutes less sleep without feeling more tired.

If you take the green pill, you will have a random 15 minutes experience of a randomly selected wild vertebrate animal such as a bird. The level of experience will be the same as what that animal can experience. You might feel hungry, feel the fear of a predator attacking you, feel the joy of playing,…

If you take the brown pill, you will have a random 15 minutes experience of a randomly selected wild invertebrate animal such as an insect. The level of experience will be the same as what that animal can experience.

Now the question is: how much are you willing to pay or receive to take one of those pills, if you are maximally informed about the lives of livestock animals and wild animals? The amount of money for taking the black pill will be your reference point. It will be close or at 0 dollars. If you want to pay more than this reference point for taking the yellow pill, it means that an average experience of your life is positive, which is an indicator that your life is worth living. Similarly, if you want to pay less than the reference point for taking the blue pill, it means that most livestock animals have lives dominated by negative experiences, which is an indicator that their lives are not worth living. You would rather not be born than being born as a chicken on a factory farm.

At my current level of knowledge and understanding of factory farms, wild nature and animal sentience, my personal preferences in terms of willingness to pay are as follows: 0$ for the black pill, 0,5$ for the yellow pill, -50$ for the blue pill (i.e. I would take the blue pill if I receive 50$), -5$ for the green pill and -0,1$ for the brown pill. This means that I consider my life as worth living, but the life of a livestock chicken as very negative, and the lives of wild animals on average as slightly not worth living. I am doubtful about the subjective experiences of insects, so that is why I am willing to receive a small amount of money for taking the brown pill.

Who will pay more for the blue pill than the black pill? My guess is almost no-one who is informed about livestock farming. If we do not want to pay more, that means we should not bring factory farm chickens into existence. And I guess even the light blue pill, having an experience of e.g. a free range chicken, will be worth less than the black pill.

Who will pay more for the green and brown pills than the black pill? My guess is almost no-one who studied the welfare of wild animals.  If we do not want to pay more, that means we should do scientific research how to safely and effectively intervene in nature to improve wild animal well-being.

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One day car free

One day car freeIn a previous post I wrote about the benefits of eating vegan for one day. Here I discuss the benefits of living car free for one day. In particular: what if an average person in Belgium replaces car transport by public transport (train and bus) for all distances longer than 10 km and car by bike for all distances shorter than 10 km? How much harm is caused by just those few minutes a day that one uses a car? What is avoided each day by being car free?

Short summary: a car free day saves 20 hours of the life of a vertebrate animal due to less road kill, almost 50 minutes of your own life due to less chronic diseases and car accidents and more than 20 minutes of someone else’s life due to less health impact from global warming, air pollution and car accidents.

Note 1: I exclude the environmental impacts of production of the cars and construction of the roads.

Note 2: for each result I also give my epistemic status, i.e. my level of confidence in the results.

Note 3: the results are expectation values.

Note 4: unless otherwise stated, the values below correspond to the harm done by 1 car user per day, who travels 30 km by car per day.

 

Harm to the animals

The death of 2 vertebrate animals per 1000 car users per day [Epistemic status: moderate]. For one car user, this corresponds with the loss of 20 hours of the life of a vertebrate wild animal (toad, bird, fox,…) [Epistemic status: low]

 

Harm to the environment

The emissions of 5 kg CO2. [Epistemic status: high] These emissions contribute to climate change and generate a health cost on future generations (diarrhea, malnutrition due to harvesting loss, cardiovascular disease due to heat waves, malaria due to the spread of mosquitoes by higher temperatures and floods due to extreme weather events and sea level rise), resulting in an expected 10 minutes shortening of someone else’s life in the near future. [Epistemic status: very low]

 

Harm to the human population

The emissions of 2 gram particulate matter of which almost 50% is PM2,5. [Epistemic status: high] Together with other forms of air pollution, this corresponds with a 10 minutes shortening of someone’s life due to human toxicity of pollutants (e.g. respiratory diseases). [Epistemic status: very low]

The death of 37 non-motorized road users per billion car users due to car accidents. [Epistemic status: high] For 1 car user, this corresponds with a 1 minute shortening of the life of a pedestrian or cyclist. [Epistemic status: low]

 

Harm to your health (as a car user)

The loss of 0,25 hours of physical activity (cycling). [Epistemic status: high] This lack of activity results in a higher risk for chronic diseases (e.g. cardiovascular diseases), corresponding with an expected 45 minutes shortening of your life. [Epistemic status: low]

The death of 80 passengers (including car drivers) per billion car users per day [Epistemic status: high]. This corresponds with an expected 2 minutes shortening of your life. [Epistemic status: low]

 

Calculations and sources

Average distance travelled by car in Belgium is 30 km per person per day, of which 5 km for short distances less than 10 km. (Mobiel Vlaanderen, Onderzoek Verplaatsingsgedrag Vlaanderen 5.1 (2015-2016) This means a car free day involves 5 km extra cycling and 25 km extra public transport.

 

For the animals

Road kill in Belgium involves 24000 animals per day. Assuming all these deaths comes from passenger cars, this equals 0,00007 animals killed per km car use. An animal killed by a car is assumed to lose 1 year of life.

 

For the environment

Total emissions for passenger car transport in Flanders is 2,2 ton CO2e per person per year. (Vercalsteren A., Boonen K., Christis M., Dams Y., Dils E., Geerken T. & Van der Linden A. (VITO), Vander Putten E. (VMM) (2017), Koolstofvoetafdruk van de Vlaamse consumptie, studie uitgevoerd in opdracht van de Vlaamse Milieumaatschappij, MIRA, MIRA/2017/03, VITO, VITO/2017/SMAT/R.) CO2 emissions from public transport per passengerkilometer are assumed to be 1/3 of the car emissions.

The health cost due to climate change, per unit CO2 emitted is 3,5 DALYs (disability adjusted life years) per 1000 ton CO2 according to the egalitarian perspective in the ReCiPe-model (Goedkoop M. e.a. (2009). ReCiPe 2008. A life cycle impact assessment method which comprises harmonised category indicators at the midpoint and the endpoint level. Report I: Characterisation. Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment, the Netherlands.) This corresponds with the loss of 1,8 healthy life years per kg CO2e.

 

For the human population

Particulate matter emissions from road traffic in Flanders are 2100 ton PM2,5 and 3000 ton PM10, for a population of 6,3 million car users. (VMM (2016). Lozingen in de lucht 2000-2016).

Loss of healthy life years due to particulate matter and human toxicity of air pollution from 1 km driving by average car, is 0,0000009 DALY/km, which equals 0,5 minutes/km. Emissions from public transport per passengerkilometer are assumed to be 1/3 of the car emissions.

There are 640 human deaths by road accidents in Belgium in 2016, of which 23% pedestrian and cyclists. I assume all deaths come from car accidents (i.e. no truck accidents). That is 4×10^-8 pedestrians and cyclists killed per car user per day. Death by accidents results in an average of 40 years of life lost.

 

For your health

Physical activity for 20 minutes saves 2 microlives, which equals a 1 hour longer life. (Spiegelhalter D. (2012). Using speed of ageing and “microlives” to communicate the effects of lifetime habits and environment, Britisch Medical Journal, 345:e8676). 5 km cycling at 20 km/hour equals 0,25 hours physical activity.

There are 640 deaths by road accidents in Belgium in 2016, of which 50% drivers and passengers. That is 8×10^-8 pedestrians and cyclists killed per car user per day. Death by accidents results in an average of 40 years of life lost.

 

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