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.

Justification

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.

Justification

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.

Justification

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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The most important technological innovation (and how we can support it)

What is the most important technological innovation of our time? At first, I would think of the development of artificial intelligence, because this will help us in many ways, solving a lot of important problems. However, artificial intelligence has also its risks. So let’s think of another technological breakthrough that has no risks but very high potential benefits. My number 1 would be: the development of cell culture and tissue engineering, i.e. growing animal or human cells, tissues and organs without the whole animal or human bodies.

Why is this technology important? First, in the food sciences, it allows to grow meat and other animal products, without the animals. Cellular agriculture includes the production of clean or cultured meat: muscle tissue that has the exact same taste and structure as animal meat. Even die hard meat eaters have to admit that cultured meat is a perfect substitute for animal meat. Therefore, it can replace animal meat and hence replace livestock farming that has a very high ecological and moral footprint. Each year 60 billion land animals die for their meat, and all those animals experience huge levels of suffering in the livestock industry. Cultured meat can avoid the miserable lives of billions of animals and hence avoid a huge amount of suffering and animal rights violations. And e can expect that the production of cultured meat has a lower ecological footprint than animal meat.

Second, with tissue engineering we can grow organs for patients who need new organs. There is an organ shortage, and sometimes animals are used for organ transplantations. With artificially grown organs, patients can be saved without sacrificing animals.

Third, in the medical sciences this technology allows to develop human-on-a-chip models that can replace a lot of animal experiments. Millions of animals are used to test the effectiveness of new drugs and the safety of new substances. A human-on-a-chip contains a chip with all the relevant tissues of a human body, and these chips can be used to test new substances. These models use tissues that are chemically and biologically identical to human tissues and therefore they can be more reliable than animal models.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly in the long run: cultured meat can be useful in future efforts to decrease wild animal suffering. Predation in nature causes a lot of suffering, due to painful early deaths of billions of prey animals. Cultured meat is a perfect substitute to feed predator animals, because it doesn’t require the killing of animals and it contains the exact same essential nutrients contained in animal meat that predators need to survive. In the far future, intervening in nature and providing cultured meat to predator animals can be effective to protect biodiversity (predator animals do not have to go extinct) and at the same time improve wildlife well-being (prey animals do not have to be killed and eaten and their populations can be controlled in much more ethical ways using animal-friendly contraceptive methods). In the short run, we can feed our domestic carnivorous animals (cats and dogs) with cultured meat.

Taking these considerations together, from an effective altruist point of view it is worthwhile to invest in the development of tissue engineering in general and cellular agriculture in particular. Once these technologies are developed, they can help all future human and animal generations, save billions of lives and avoid billions of years of suffering. Therefore, I increase my donations to New Harvest, SuperMeat and The Good Food Institute.

(About that other important technological innovation, artificial intelligence: you can donate to MIRI, an organization that researches the safety of artificial intelligence.)

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My biggest moral mistake

In effective altruism, it is worthwhile to reflect from time to time on ones past moral decisions and theories, looking for mistakes that one should avoid in the future. So I did this exercise, looking at all my engagements and moral ideas (in my writings,…) of the past 15 years. What is my biggest moral mistake? I may have found one.

A very large part of my activism was spend as an environmentalist protecting nature. This is reflected in my moral theory of the moral hand (especially the ring finger principle which says that biodiversity has intrinsic value) and my support for a lot of environmental organizations that protect species, in particular predator species. However, I recently realized that as an effective altruist, giving intrinsic value to biodiversity is not effective or beneficial. The primary interest of an effective altruist is what others want. But ecosystems are not entities that are able to want something. Nature doesn’t care at all about biodiversity. Nature has no consciousness, no awareness of biodiversity loss, no subjective preference for high levels of biodiversity. Only sentient beings are beings who are able to want something, and those beings primarily care about well-being. But ecosystems are not sentient beings.

Giving intrinsic value to biodiversity of an ecosystem is similar to giving an esthetic value to the works of art in a museum. The work of art itself has no subjective preferences and doesn’t care about not being destroyed. The work of art is only important in the eyes of other sentient beings who happen to like it. So all the actions I did and all my donations to environmental organizations that protect biodiversity, can be compared to donations to an art museum that protects paintings. Valuing biodiversity is comparable to our own esthetic preferences for art. (There are dissimilarities between biodiversity and art. Perhaps a better – if not stranger – analogy for the biodiversity of an ecosystem is something like the list of prime numbers generated by a self-learning prime number generating computer. The reasons we can give why biodiversity should be intrinsically valuable are basically as strange as the reasons we can give why that list of prime numbers is valuable.)

To be clear, giving intrinsic value to biodiversity and protecting biodiversity are not morally bad: they are permissible according to the most fundamental moral rule: if you choose something (for example if you choose a moral principle for your moral theory), you should be able to give a rule that justifies your choice and you should be able to consistently want that everyone follows that rule. If you cannot give such a rule, your choice is not allowed. I chose to follow some rules to construct my moral theory of the moral hand. I am prepared to accept that everyone follows the same rules I followed to construct coherent moral systems such as the moral hand, including moral principles that give intrinsic value to something like biodiversity. So my choice for the moral principle that intrinsically values biodiversity, was allowed. However, this is merely a permission, not an example of altruism. It is not the best choice of moral principles.

Giving intrinsic value to biodiversity is in conflict with effective altruism. Protecting biodiversity results in an increase in well-being of the people who value biodiversity, but this increase in well-being is negligible compared to the well-being of sentient beings (animals) in nature. The fundamental preferences of the animals in nature, such as the preference for a healthy life, are more important than the preference of enjoying the biodiversity of nature. Compare it again with an art museum: suppose a museum is burning down and you have to choose between saving a work of art or saving children trapped in the museum. Saving the children is better from an effective altruist point of view, because the preferences of the children to enjoy a long, healthy life are more important than the esthetic preferences of other people to enjoy some work of art.

The point is: there is no clear evidence for a positive correlation between the biodiversity of ecosystems and the aggregate well-being of all humans and the animals in nature. Nature doesn’t care about the well-being, because nature doesn’t care about anything. That means the actual, current level of biodiversity or the actual level of predation in nature is not the value that maximizes well-being. So well-being can either be an increasing or a decreasing function of biodiversity (i.e. well-being and biodiversity can either be positively or negatively correlated), and due to lack of robust evidence, we do not know which is the case. We have a 50% probability that a small reduction in biodiversity decreases well-being, but also a 50% probability that it increases well-being. This uncertainty is especially the case for predation: we cannot say whether increasing or decreasing the level of predation (the number of predators) benefits aggregate well-being of animals in nature. It is not obvious that increasing the level of predation is beneficial for well-being, because predators harm other animals. It is also not obvious that the current level of predation happens to be the one that maximizes overall well-being. So chances are not low (they can be as high as 50%) that decreasing the level of predation benefits well-being. That means protecting predator species, especially reintroducing predators in ecosystems where they were locally extinct, might be harmful.

The belief that the current decrease of predator populations is harmful for humans (in terms of well-being or the future survival of the human species), is unfounded. There is no evidence that the natural level of predation is the one that maximizes human survival, and no evidence that increasing the predation level increases human survival, so it is possible that a decrease of the predation level may in fact increase human survival. We simply don’t know, due to lack of scientific evidence.

With all the evidence available to me at this moment, the expected value (in terms of well-being) of protecting predator species is 0: the expected benefits are as high as the expected costs. This basically means that all the efforts I took to protect predator species is nothing but a waste of time and resources (money) from an effective altruist point of view. They were nothing more than efforts to satisfy a kind of esthetic preference for biodiversity, my personal preference not necessarily shared by the animals in nature. With that time and those resources, I could have done much much more good. It is better to spend time and resources investigating how we can effectively and safely intervene in nature to improve the well-being of all the animals. Although we have already some interventions to help wild animals (e.g. delivering food, vaccines and antibiotics to help animals and immunocontraception to control populations), we don’t have all the solutions yet, so our first task will be doing more scientific research. And before we start with nature conservation, we need more scientific knowledge how it affects global well-being, including the well-being of wild animals.

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