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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Boekbespreking De Vrolijke Feminist

De Vrolijke Feminist, Floris van den Berg, Houtekiet, 2017.

In de Vrolijke Feminist kaart ecohumanist Floris van den Berg twee morele blinde vlekken aan. Ten eerste zijn vele progressieve, politiek linkse denkers en activisten al te vaak blind voor bepaalde heel ernstige vormen van vrouwenonderdrukking in bepaalde culturen, met name  vrouwonvriendelijke religieuze strekkingen en culturen met een mannendominante eermoraal. Die progressieve denkers hebben een morele blinde vlek met betrekking tot de problemen van multiculturalisme en in het bijzonder de islam. Ze zijn op dat vlak te weinig feministisch.

Maar ten tweede zijn er ook vele feministen die een morele blinde vlek hebben, met name over de onderdrukking van dieren en toekomstige generaties. Welmenende feministen die bijvoorbeeld geen veganist zijn, zijn inconsistent. Floris van den Berg durft dus ook tegen feministen te zeggen wanneer en hoe ze inconsistent zijn.

Het aankaarten van deze twee morele blinde vlekken is wat het boek een meerwaarde geeft. Het boek houdt zich bewust afzijdig van obscure feministische stromingen zoals het postmoderne feminisme dat gelinkt is aan een continentale, niet-analytische filosofie. Floris van den Berg is een filosoof van de Gents-Leidse school, en kenmerkend van die school zijn het rationeel, kritisch en analytisch verlichtingsdenken.

Van den Berg maakt in zijn boek een onderscheid tussen groot en klein feminisme. Het klein feminisme gaat over onder meer stereotyperingen, rolpatronen, schoonheidsidealen en loonkloven. Het is het feminisme voor de vrouwen in een vrijzinnige, seculiere westerse cultuur waar vrouwen juridisch evenwaardig zijn aan mannen. Omdat de problemen van het klein feminisme moeilijk op te lossen zijn, want ze zijn niet zomaar met een verbod aan te pakken, besteedt het boek relatief weinig aandacht aan dit klein feminisme. Het boek stelt dus bewust bepaalde prioriteiten: het maakt keuzes voor belangrijke problemen die we eerst moeten oplossen, gebaseerd op de effectiviteit van de oplossingen. Die effectiviteit hangt niet enkel af van de ernst van de problemen (verkrachtingen en moorden op vrouwen zijn waarschijnlijk erger voor de slachtoffers dan seksistische rolpatronen in het huishouden of maakbare vrouwelijke schoonheidsidealen in de media). De effectiviteit hangt ook af van bijvoorbeeld de hanteerbaarheid van de problemen (de mate waarin de problemen aan te pakken zijn met bv. juridische maatregelen en wetten).

Veel aandacht gaat dus uit naar het groot feminisme dat gaat over vrouwonderdrukkende vormen van geweld en bedreigingen. We hebben het dan over bijvoorbeeld verkrachtingen, opsluitingen, gedwongen huwelijken, eermoorden en lijfstraffen bij het niet naleven van voorschriften. Dit zijn zeer ernstige problemen omdat de fysieke integriteit en de autonomie of basisvrijheden van vrouwen worden aangetast. En de juridische oplossing ligt voor de hand: de praktijken gewoonweg verbieden.

Waar situeren de problemen van het groot feminisme zich vooral? In bepaalde culturen met een mannendominante eermoraal van vrouwenonderdrukking en vergelding (waarbij bijvoorbeeld een vrouw gewelddadig behandeld wordt door de naaste familieleden als die vrouw slachtoffer is van een verkrachting en zo haar maagdelijkheid verloren heeft). En welke culturen hebben dergelijke kenmerken? Voornamelijk religieuze culturen, en dan in het bijzonder de islam (maar ook in bv. het Hindoeïsme en conservatieve christelijke strekkingen die zich verzetten tegen het proces van de humanisering of Verlichting). Vandaar dat in zowat de helft van de hoofdstukken woorden zoals ‘islam’ en ‘sharia’ opduiken.

Floris van den Berg geeft dus een terechte kritiek op de vorm van multiculturalisme waarbij intolerantie wordt getolereerd. Concreet zijn er veel moslimmannen die moslimvrouwen onderdrukken, en we mogen dergelijke intolerantie tegenover vrouwen niet tolereren. Vandaar dat ook moslims zich moeten houden aan de universele mensenrechtenverklaring en die mensenrechtenverklaring boven de islamitische pseudomensenrechtenverklaring (de Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam) en de sharia moeten plaatsen. Het vooropstellen van de sharia mogen we niet tolereren. De praktijken zoals gedwongen huwelijken zouden even strafbaar moeten zijn als verkrachtingen, want eigenlijk zijn gedwongen huwelijken gewoon vormen van verkrachting, als we het vanuit het perspectief van de slachtoffers bekijken. Tegen je wil in moeten huwen en na het huwelijk seks moeten hebben met je man, is even erg als een verkrachting waarbij je even sterk tegen je wil in seks moet hebben met een man. Als moslimmannen denken dat ze hun vrouwen mogen straffen als hun vrouwen zich niet aan onredelijke religieuze kledingvoorschriften houden, dan kunnen die moslimmannen niet klagen als ze gestraft worden wanneer ze fundamentele vrouwenrechten schenden. De islam is een wezenlijk vrouwonvriendelijke ideologie omdat er in de islam letterlijke religieuze voorschriften zijn die op een onredelijke wijze de fundamentele vrijheden van vrouwen beperken.

De vrolijke feminist is filosofisch gezien een heel eenvoudig boek, met een heel duidelijke boodschap waar elke redelijke persoon het onmiddellijk mee eens is en die geen verdere nuancering behoeft. Vanuit het slachtofferperspectief van de onderdrukte vrouwen is het onmiddellijk duidelijk dat een multiculturalisme (een tolerantie tegenover een intolerante religie zoals de islam) immoreel is.

Dat is de eerste blinde vlek van vele progressieve denkers. Vandaar dat Floris van den Berg pleit voor atheïsme, individualistisch liberalisme (waarbij de vrijheden van individuen primeren boven onredelijke voorschriften voor groepen of onzinnige zogenaamde ‘groepsbelangen’) en verlichtingshumanisme (waarbij de verlichtingswaarden zoals kritisch denken en mensenrechten centraal staan). Nergens in het atheïstische humanisme vindt men vrouwonvriendelijke onredelijke kledingvoorschriften en regels om vrouwen te straffen wanneer die vrouwen vrijheden opeisen die niet schadelijk zijn voor anderen. De argumenten die progressieve denkers geven ten voordele van het multiculturalisme dat intolerantie tolereert, kunnen eenvoudig weerlegd worden.

Maar Floris van den berg durft ook de meeste feministen op de korrel te nemen. De meeste feministen eten namelijk nog vlees, eieren, kaas of andere dierlijke producten. Ook hier is het eigenlijk heel simpel: welgemeend feminisme is gebaseerd op een centraal principe dat stelt dat onderdrukking en nodeloos geweld niet toegelaten zijn en dat men niet zomaar een willekeurige groep van individuen (bv. vrouwen) mag aanwijzen die onderdrukt mogen worden. Feministen zijn tegen onderdrukking en discriminatie zoals seksisme, maar ze zijn daarin vaak inconsistent. Want we mogen dus ook niet zomaar naar willekeur niet-menselijke dieren onderdrukken en nodeloos geweld plegen tegen hen. Daaruit volgt een morele plicht tot veganisme, maar bij bv. feministische conferenties worden er nog wel dierlijke producten geserveerd.

Hetzelfde geldt voor geweld tegenover toekomstige generaties, met een morele plicht om onze ecologische voetafdruk te verlagen. Nochtans hebben de meeste feministische vrouwen een te hoge milieu-impact. De welmenende feministen die nog dierlijke producten eten en een te hoge milieu-impact hebben, zijn dus inconsistent: ze trekken hun feministische waarden niet consequent door naar alle slachtoffers, inclusief de dieren en toekomstige generaties. De laatste hoofdstukken in De Vrolijke Feminist gaan dus niet voor niets over het ecofeminisme (met als lovenswaardig voorbeeld Green Evelien) en het veganisme (met als voorbeeld het werk van ecofeministe Carol Adams).

Rest me nog te wijzen op een belangrijk hiaat van het boek: wat zijn effectieve maatregelen die we als individu of samenleving kunnen nemen om vrouwenrechten en de positie van vrouwen te bevorderen? Het boek doet bijvoorbeeld geen aanbevelingen voor effectieve feministische organisaties die we kunnen steunen. Een effectief goed doel waar niets over gezegd wordt in het boek, is gezinsplanning: het verminderen van ongewenste zwangerschappen. Dit is waarschijnlijk het meest effectieve wat we kunnen doen in termen van vrouwenrechten – in het bijzonder het recht op lichamelijke zelfbeschikking – en het bevorderen van sociaal-economische opportuniteiten voor vrouwen. De economische kosten-batenverhouding van een universele toegang tot anticonceptiemiddelen bedraagt meer dan 100 euro sociale, economische en milieuvoordelen per geïnvesteerde euro. Investeren in gezinsplanning is de ecofeministische maatregel bij uitstek, omdat het zowel goed is voor vrouwen (minder ongewenste zwangerschappen, abortussen en moedersterfte) als voor duurzame ontwikkeling (minder bevolkingsdruk). Het is één van de belangrijkste win-winmaatregelen. Als effectieve feministische organisatie om te steunen zou ik daarom Marie Stopes International aanraden.

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De natuur als rechtspersoon: een vrijgeleide voor dierenleed?

Opiniestuk in Knack (24-03-17)

Het parlement van Nieuw-Zeeland heeft de juridische status van een persoon toegekend aan het nationaal park Te Urewa en de rivier Whanganui. Deze week volgde India met het toekennen van rechten aan de Ganges en Yamuna rivieren. Ook in Ecuador kreeg de natuur rechten, zoals te lezen in hun grondwet: “ecosystemen hebben het onvervreemdbare recht te bestaan, te bloeien en zich te ontwikkelen.” Misschien is het tijd om ook in de Belgische grondwet de natuur als rechtspersoon op te nemen, zoals milieujurist Hendrik Schoukens voorstelde? Dat zou een sterk juridisch wapen leveren om de schaarser wordende open ruimte in Vlaanderen te beschermen.

Toch is dat geen goed idee. Een natuurgebied of een ecosysteem heeft volgens de moderne wetenschap geen bewustzijn, geen persoonlijke verlangens en geen persoonlijke ervaringen. Kan een natuurgebied dan wel een rechtspersoon zijn? Wat ‘wil’ de natuur eigenlijk? Waar is de natuur bezorgd om? Om niets, voor zover we weten. De natuur beseft niet eens wat er met haar gebeurt. Het zijn wij mensen die waarde toekennen aan de natuur, net zoals we waarde kunnen toekennen aan een mooi schilderij. De natuur is moreel onverschillig. Ze is niet geïnteresseerd in abstracte waarden zoals biodiversiteit, schoonheid, evenwicht, ongereptheid of integriteit.

De natuur is evenmin geïnteresseerd in het welzijn van voelende wezens. Dat zijn wij mensen nochtans wel, en terecht: een dier waardeert en voelt wel zijn of haar welzijn, in tegenstelling tot de natuur. Dus naast ons is er altijd nog iemand anders, namelijk het dier zelf, die een voorkeur heeft voor welzijn. Er valt dus iets te zeggen voor het idee dat het welzijn van dieren belangrijker is dan onze esthetische voorkeuren voor de natuur.

De idyllische natuur versus dierenleed

In de natuur is er ontzettend veel dierenleed: miljarden individuen worden onderworpen aan honger, koude, ziektes, ongevallen, parasieten, roofdieren, gevechten en noem maar op. Natuurlijke selectie, de motor achter evolutie, drijft zelf op dood en vernieling. Voor ons lijkt de natuur idyllisch, maar daarin worden we misleid. Voor elke fluitende vogel die we zien, zijn er tientallen piepjonge vogeltjes die een miserabel kort leven hebben gekend. Die vogeltjes kregen we niet te zien, want ze stierven en werden opgegeten en verteerd alvorens we ze in de gaten kregen. Een vogel legt tijdens haar leven tientallen eieren. Gemiddeld zullen slechts twee uitgebroede vogeltjes overleven en een volwassen, reproductieve leeftijd halen. Indien er meer vogeltjes zouden overleven, krijgen we binnen de kortste keren een exponentiële bevolkingsexplosie van vogels.

Dit permanente bevolkingsoverschot van vogels, vissen en vele andere dieren is waarschijnlijk de grootste tragiek in de natuur. Onder ecologen staat het bekend als r-selectie waarbij de ‘r’ verwijst naar de rate of birth van een populatie, of het aantal nakomelingen dat een individu krijgt. Die dieren hebben veel nakomelingen en slechts een zeer klein aantal van hen overleeft het tot hun reproductieve leeftijd waarop ze zich kunnen voortplanten. De grote meerderheid van de pasgeboren dieren hebben zeer korte levens met veel negatieve ervaringen, voornamelijk door honger en ziekten. Op het einde van hun korte levens hebben ze een pijnlijke doodstrijd, bijvoorbeeld in de klauwen van een roofdier.

Wat met de autonomie van dieren?

De idyllische opvatting van de natuur kent ook andere verschijningen. Volgens de politiek filosoof Will Kymlicka moeten we een natuurgebied beschouwen als een soevereine staat die we niet zomaar mogen inpalmen of verstoren. Dit is het politieke equivalent van het juridische idee dat een natuurgebied een rechtspersoon is. De inwoners in dat natuurgebied, de wilde dieren en planten, verwerven zo een zelfbeschikkingsrecht. Dat klinkt mooi, maar wat als blijkt dat die soevereine staat een failed state is, een mislukte staat vol miserie, chaos, hongersnoden en slachtpartijen? Als we zo’n staat ongemoeid laten, kunnen we moeilijk volhouden dat we de autonomie van wilde dieren respecteren. De grote meerderheid van dieren maken elkaar het leven zuur en leiden erg korte en miserabele levens. Ongewenst leed en vroegtijdige sterfte is niet bepaald bevorderlijk voor iemands autonomie.

Dit heeft zeer vergaande consequenties voor hoe we ons ethisch moeten verhouden tegenover de allesbehalve idyllische natuur. Is natuurbehoud wel zo goed als er zoveel dierenleed aan kleeft? Moeten we buizerds en vossen terug gaan uitzetten in natuurgebieden, als we weten dat het genadeloze moordenaars zijn? Dit zijn een paar gewaagde vragen die gesteld worden binnen het ‘effectief altruïsme’, een groeiende sociale beweging van wereldverbeteraars die op een wetenschappelijk onderbouwde en rationele manier trachten zoveel mogelijk goeds te doen. De oplossing is natuurlijk niet om zomaar een natuurgebied dicht te betonneren, zodat er geen dier meer kan geboren worden. En zomaar alle roofdieren uitroeien is ook te naïef. Dan krijg je een bevokingsexplosie en wellicht massale sterfte door honger of andere doodsoorzaken. Een genocide in een failed state gaan we ook niet aanpakken door het land eventjes plat te bombarderen.

Wat kunnen we wel doen?

Wat kunnen we dan wel doen? In plaats van het toekennen van rechten aan ecosystemen, stellen we voor om rechten toe te kennen aan niet-menselijke dieren. Niet aan diersoorten, maar aan individuele dieren. Een soort is een abstract begrip, en kan niets voelen of ervaren. Maar louter juridische rechten toekennen is niet voldoende. We zouden kunnen beginnen met wetenschappelijk onderzoek naar hoe we op een veilige en doeltreffende manier kunnen ingrijpen in de natuur om het welzijn van alle dieren zo goed mogelijk te bevorderen. Net zoals er een academische discipline genaamd conservation biology bestaat, die onderzoekt hoe we zo goed mogelijk de biodiversiteit van natuurgebieden kunnen bevorderen, zo zouden we welfare biology kunnen oprichten, een discipline die onderzoekt hoe we het welzijn van dieren in de natuur zo goed mogelijk kunnen bevorderen. Met goede wetenschap kunnen we in de toekomst het welzijn verhogen van duizenden generaties wilde dieren.

Waarom is dit zo’n moeilijke denkoefening?

Waarom hebben veel mensen moeite met het idee om in te grijpen in de natuur om dierenwelzijn te bevorderen? Wat houdt ons tegen om dergelijk onderzoek in welfare biology te starten? Onze onbetrouwbare intuïties en spontane denkfouten liggen ons dwars.

De illusie van de natuuridylle noemden we al. We denken ten onrechte dat de natuur idyllisch is, omdat we de vele slachtoffers niet te zien krijgen. We denken dat een mooi natuurgebied functioneert om het optimaal welzijn van alle dieren te garanderen, en dat de biodiversiteit netjes in evenwicht is, afgesteld op het maximaal welzijn voor de dieren. In werkelijkheid wordt dat natuurgebied gedreven door blinde chaotische processen, die niet begaan zijn met welzijn. Evenwichten zijn lokaal en veranderlijk, niet tijdloos en harmonieus.

Een andere hardnekkige morele intuïtie is dat leed veroorzaakt door mensen erger is dan leed veroorzaakt door de niet-menselijke natuur. In werkelijkheid maakt het voor de slachtoffers geen verschil. Waarom grijpen we in het ene geval in, maar in het andere niet? Als een mens slachtoffer wordt van natuurgeweld, bijvoorbeeld als een kind wordt aangevallen door een roofdier of parasiet, dan gaan we ons ook niet beroepen op de volgende drogredenen: “Wat de leeuw met die kinderen doet is natuurlijk en een leeuw heeft geen morele verantwoordelijkheid.” Of wat met deze redenering: “Als we kinderen zouden genezen van parasieten, dan zal dat leiden tot onvoorziene gevolgen en toekomstige problemen, zoals een overbevolking en verstoring van natuurlijke evenwichten.” Of nog: “Kinderen moeten toch aan iets sterven. We hoeven dit kind niet te helpen want we kunnen onmogelijk alle kinderen beschermen tegen de natuur. Het haalt niets uit om dit ene kind te redden want er zijn zoveel kinderen die sterven door de natuur. We moeten de natuur haar gang laten gaan.”

Een laatste argument stelt dat de mens geen God mag spelen, dat interventie in de natuur ten voordele van het dierenwelzijn een vorm van arrogante menselijke hoogmoed is. Nochtans willen veel ecologisten wel aan natuurbehoud doen omwille van hun eigen waarden, waarbij ze het welzijn en de autonomie van wilde dieren negeren. Ze willen de natuurlijkheid van de natuur behouden, maar daarmee leggen ze hun eigen waarden – dat natuurlijkheid schoon en goed is – op aan de slachtoffers, de wilde dieren. De tegenstanders van welzijnsbevorderende natuurinterventies willen hun eigen voorkeuren voor natuurlijkheid, integriteit of natuurlijke schoonheid van een natuurgebied realiseren, terwijl de voorstanders de voorkeuren van de slachtoffers willen respecteren: hun welzijn, vrijheid en autonomie staan centraal.

Het is een goed idee om juridische argumenten te gebruiken voor het behoud van wat inherent waardevol is. Maar in plaats van een onpersoonlijk natuurgebied te beschouwen als rechtspersoon, kunnen we dat statuut beter toekennen aan dieren zelf, met hun persoonlijke ervaringen en verlangens.

Stijn Bruers is doctor in de moraalfilosofie

Kris Martens is klinisch psycholoog

Maarten Boudry is filosoof

 

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The minimum complaint theory and maximum autonomy

The minimum complaint theory

The minimum complaint theory is a new moral theory that avoids a lot of problems in welfare ethics and population ethics. It is probably the strongest ethical theory in the sense that it can be most preferred by everyone and is the easiest to defend against objections and complaints. According to this theory, we should choose the option that generates the least amount of valid complaints whereby a complaint measures how strong an affected person prefers his or her most preferred option above the actual chosen option.

Let’s express this in a more rigorous or technical way. In ethics we have to choose between different options. Options can be for example situations, behaviors or moral rules. The option set Oi consists of all possible situations Sj that we as moral agents can choose: Oi = {S1, S2, … Sj,…}. If we choose situation Sj, there will be a number N of sentient beings or persons who have personal preferences or utilities.  Sentient beings are by definition able to value situations and subjectively want certain situations. They feel their personal preferences for different situations. Hence, the personal preferences are to be distinguished from unconscious interests. The preference or utility of a person P for a situation Sk is dependent on the option set Oi and the actual situation Sj in which this person has the preference for the possibly different situation Sk. So we can write the utility as a function UP(Oi,Sj,Sk). This is the preference of a person in situation Sj for a possibly different situation Sk.

Note that the person P who has the utility UP(Oi,Sj,Sk) for situation Sk does not have to exist in situation Sk. For example I can prefer a situation or a world where everyone is maximally happy, even if in that situation I do not exist. Furthermore, if the person P does not exist in the actual situation Sj, his or her utility UP(Oi,Sj,Sk) equals 0. It is as if that person exists but has no preferences.

Given the option set Oi and the situation Sj, we can look for the possible situation Sk* which is an element of Oi that has the highest utility for person P. So person P in situation Sj has the highest preference for situation Sk*, where this preferences equals UP(Oi,Sj,Sk*). The utility UP(Oi,Sj,Sj) is the preference of person P in situation Sj for situation Sj itself. The difference between UP(Oi,Sj,Sk*) and UP(Oi,Sj,Sj) is the complaint of person P in situation Sj. It is the difference in preference between the most preferred and the actual situation. In other words, we can write the complaint CP(Oi,Sj) as the maximum of UP(Oi,Sj,Sk)-UP(Oi,Sj,Sj) over all possible situations Sk. The total complaint in situation Sj is the sum of all CP(Oi,Sj) over all persons in situation Sj. We have to choose the situation Sj where the total sum of everyone’s strongest complaints (the total amount of complaint) is minimized.

So far the abstract theory. What are its implications and how is this compatible with maximum autonomy?

Maximum autonomy

The basic elements of the minimum complaint theory, are the personal preferences of persons. The 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 a person are the preferences that the person holds himself or herself, not the preferences that someone else projects on that person. Projected preferences violate the autonomy of a person.

A traditional consequentialist welfare ethic tries to improve everyone’s well-being. This requires an answer to the question what is well-being. With some thought-experiments we can try to figure out this notion of well-being. Take for example Robert Nozicks thought-experiment of the experience machine: a kind of virtual reality machine that can generate all positive experiences that you like. If well-being is simply the collection of positive experiences that you like, then it would be good (in terms of increasing well-being) if you plug yourself into this machine. If you are reluctant to do so, you may have other preferences that are not satisfied with this experience machine. We can argue whether those other preferences are real or rational, but the minimum complaint theory avoids this discussion: it is up to the persons themselves to decide what they prefer. It is up to the persons themselves to decide whether they want to maximize their well-being and how they interpret or define well-being. This is an example where the minimum complaint theory respects the autonomy of all persons.

Suppose people prefer to increase their well-being. Suppose also that a person in situation Sj has a well-being WP(Sj) and that if that person would be in any other possible situation Sl, that person still believes that he or she will have a well being WP(Sj) in situation Sj. That means the utilities or preferences are functions of their levels of well-being, independent from the actual situation Sl. For all situations Sl we get: UP(Oi,Sl,Sj)= UP(Oi,Sj,Sj)=UP(WP(Sj)).

Now we can ask the question what people prefer in uncertain situations: suppose in situation Sj, person P has a 50% probability of having well-being 10 and 50% probability of having well-being 0. The expected well-being is 5.However, if the person is risk averse, that person might prefer another situation Sk in which that person has probability 100% (i.e. certainty) of having well-being 4. With this risk aversion, the utility function UP(WP) becomes a concave function of WP. 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 5 and well-being 0 is bigger than the difference in utility between well-being 10 and well-being 5.

If every person has the same utility function (the same risk aversion), we arrive at a prioritarian ethic. This 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. If risk aversion is 0 and every person’s utility function is linear in well-being, we arrive at a traditional interpretation of utilitarianism that maximizes the sum of everyone’s well-being.

We can argue whether risk aversion is morally relevant or rational, whether the utility function is concave or linear, but the minimum complaint theory avoids these discussions: it is up to the persons themselves to decide what they prefer, what their own utility functions look like. It is up to the persons themselves to decide their preferred level of risk aversion. Some people may have a linear utility function resembling zero risk aversion, some may have a highly concave utility function corresponding to a high risk aversion. This is another example where the minimum complaint theory respects the autonomy of all persons. Whether we arrive at a prioritarian, a traditional utilitarian or a mixed ethic is completely up to the persons themselves to decide. There is even more autonomy: the utility function of a person does not even have to be a function of a quantity called well-being.

The above discussion about well-being assumes that a person P in situation Sl is the same person as (or can identify with) a person in another situation Sj. However, this is not always self-evident: it leads us to a metaphysical problem of personal identity over different situations. Suppose I can choose between two situations: in situation S1 I will be tortured next year, in situation S2 I will be happy next year. Is my future state in situation S1 the same person as my future state in situation S2? How can I compare persons between different situations? It may even be possible that different situations have different numbers of persons. The minimum complaint theory avoids this problem. It is up to a person P in situation Sj to decide whether a person in another situation Sl is the same person. Persons can decide with whom they prefer to identify themselves. A person P who exists in situation Sj can even prefer another situation Sl 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.

The above discussion about well-being also assumes that the preference UP(Oi,Sl,Sj)=UP(Oi,Sj,Sj) for all situations Sl. However, it is possible that those preferences are different. In fact, the person P in situation Sl does not necessarily have to be identical to the person P in situation Sj. It is up to the person P in situation Sl to decide whether he or she identifies with the other person in situation Sj and whether he or she takes that person’s utility UP(Oi,Sj,Sj) as his or her own utility UP(Oi,Sl,Sj).

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 person than at time t. A person 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 persons, one person for each moment of time. To be safe, we have to assume that every other moment in time there are different persons. The utility Up of a person P refers to the utility of a person at a specific time t, so we should write Pt to denote a person at time t. At another time, we have another person. It is true 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 minimum complaint theory respects autonomy again: it is up to the persons themselves to decide with whom they identify themselves with and how that identification influences their preferences.

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 minimum complaint theory respects your autonomy: it is up to you 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.

Next we have the problem of choice independence. Suppose I am faced with option set O1 that consists of two situations S1 and S2. I prefer S1 above S2. However, suppose a third option S3 arises, so I have a new choice set O2 that consists of the three situations. It is possible that adding this third option changes my order of preferences and I now prefer S2 above S1. More generally: UP(Oi,Sj,Sk) may be different from UP(Oh,Sj,Sk). This means there is a choice dependence. We can argue whether this choice dependence is morally relevant or rational, but the minimum complaint theory avoids this discussion: it is up to the persons themselves to decide what they prefer given the option set.

Finally we come to the question of validity of complaints. Suppose in situation Sj a person P most strongly prefers the situation Sk*, so UP(Oi,Sj,Sk*) is the maximum and UP(Oi,Sj,Sk*)-UP(Oi,Sj,Sj) is the complaint. We add this complaint to the complaints of all other persons and then we look for the optimal situation S° that minimizes this total complaint. However, it is possible that person P in situation Sj does not prefer this situation S°, so UP(Oi,Sj,S°) < UP(Oi,Sj,Sj). Now it becomes tricky for that person: if that person complains, the situation S° will be chosen and the person P will be worse off. Again the minimum complaint theory respects autonomy: the person P in situation Sj can decide to change his or her preferences, for example to set UP(Oi,Sj,Sj)=UP(Oi,Sj,Sk*). In this way, that person will not complain in situation Sj and the total complaint will no longer include the complaint of person P. That means another optimal situation will be chosen, one that person P in situation Sj 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 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, because UP(Oi,Sl,Sk)=0 if person P does not exist in situation Sl. If that person exists in situation Sj and has a positive utility UP(Oi,Sj,Sj), 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 Sj. That person could set preferences equal to UP(Oi,Sj,Sj)=UP(Oi,Sj,Sk*).

This can be made more general: the complaint of a person is calculated as the difference between the preference for a reference situation Sk*and the preference for the actual situation Sj, whereby the reference situation Sk* is the most preferred situation. However, to respect full autonomy, we can say that the person 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 took as the reference situation a situation for which they have 0 preference, we end up minimizing the sum over all persons of -UP(Oi,Sj,Sj), which equals the maximization of the sum of everyone’s preferences UP(Oi,Sj,Sj). This is nothing but total utilitarianism. 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 that maximizes the relative utilities UP(Oi,Sj,Sj)-C.

Minimizing the sum of UP(Oi,Sj,SR)-UP(Oi,Sj,Sj), where SR is a reference situation chosen by person P in situation Sj, the general minimum complaint theory becomes a maximum relative preference theory that maximizes the sum of relative preferences UP(Oi,Sj,Sj)-UP(Oi,Sj,SR). This theory is a utilitarian theory with a few extra degrees of freedom. Total utilitarianism means we have to maximize the total of utilities UP(Oi,Sj,Sj)-0, summed over all persons P. Critical level utilitarianism maximizes the sum of UP(Oi,Sj,Sj)-C. The relative preferences theory maximizes the sum of the relative utilities UP(Oi,Sj,Sj)-UP(Oi,Sj,SR), where UP(Oi,Sj,SR) is the preference of person P in situation Sj for a reference situation SR. That reference situation can be the most preferred situation, which results in the minimum complaint theory. It can be the least preferred situation, which results in the maximum gratitude theory. It can be the situation for which person P in situation Sj has a preference 0 or C. If all persons in all situations choose as a reference situation a situation for which they had preference 0, then we have total utilitarianism. Basically it means that if everyone is a total utilitarian, then we should maximize total utility. But in the maximum relative preferences theory, nothing prevents them from choosing other reference situations, and those reference situations can be different for different persons and different situations Sj.

Implications of the minimum complaint theory

The minimum complaint theory has many advantages. First, as we have seen, it maximally respects autonomy and therefore avoids many problems about for example what counts as well-being and how much priority should be given to the worst-off.

Second, the minimum complaint theory avoids many problems in population ethics that other theories such as total utilitarianism and average utilitarianism have to deal with. Consider total utilitarianism that wants to maximize well-being or preference satisfaction. As we have seen, the general minimum complaint theory allows for individuals to choose their reference situation in order to calculate their complaints or gratitudes. If everyone chose as a reference the situation for which they have 0 preference, the general minimum complaint theory turns into a total utilitarianism. If that is the case, it means that everyone accepts the implications of total utilitarianism, including a conclusion that is repugnant or counter-intuitive to many actual people. According to total utilitarianism, a situation S1 that contains thousand maximally happy people (who have maximum preference satisfaction) is worse than a situation S2 where those same thousand 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 well-being or 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.

In the second situation, average well-being is much lower than in the first situation, so an average utilitarian prefers the first situation. However, the alternative theory of average utilitarianism faces other counter-intuitive sadistic conclusions. Consider a situation S1 with a million maximally happy people and one person who has a highly negative well-being. The average well-being is close to maximum. We can choose situation S2 in which this unhappy person also has a maximally happy life, but suppose this is only possible if we add a huge number of extra people who have very high but not maximum levels of well-being. The average well-being in the first situation is higher than in the second, but saying that the first situation is better is counter-intuitive: in the second situation every person is at least as good off as in the first situation, and the total amount of well-being is much higher in the second situation.

It is easy to see why the minimum complaint theory avoids these problems (at least when most people choose their most preferred situation as the reference situation to calculate complaints). The persons who are very unhappy have very strong complaints, and the other people cannot complain. If we choose the minimum complaint theory, we can look for the most pressing problems in the world according to this theory. In terms of scale of the problem, the biggest problem is probably the suffering of wild animals in nature. It is probable that a lot (perhaps a majority) of animals have negative preferences for their situations in the wild, because they experience mostly negative experiences. If in future generations of animals there are animals with negative preferences (i.e. lives not worth living, having a preference for non-existence), their total complaints can add up to a very big number. That is why the problem of wild animal suffering deserves an almost absolute priority. We have to figure out what animals are sentient, what their preferences are, how strong their preferences are and what we can do to decrease their complaints. See a rational approach to improve worldwide well-being.

Problems with the minimum complaint theory

We finally have to face the major problems of the minimum complaint theory, which are basically the same fundamental problems of all moral theories. First we have the problem of communication: how can a person or sentient being communicate his or her preferences? Some persons (animals, toddlers, mentally disabled humans) are not able to clearly articulate their preferences. Second we have the problem of interpersonal comparison: how can we compare the preferences and complaints of different persons?

The first problem can in principle be solved through science. For example behavioral economists have experience in revealing a person’s preferences and these methods are also applied to some animals. We can see what chickens prefer when they face different choices. Neuroscience can also help us with this problem. Still, it is difficult and for the moment impossible to know if the preference of an animal or a mentally disabled human for being alive in a specific situation is positive or negative. How can we know if another person’s life is worth living for that person?

The second problem is far more serious. We have no idea, not even in principle, how to compare the preferences or levels of well-being between different persons. There is no universal unit of preference, no measure or scale that all persons can use to compare their preferences with each other. If you say you prefer A twice as much as B, how can I know how big the difference is between your preferences of A and B?

There is only one solution at this moment: all moral agents have to do their best to estimate the preferences of all other sentient beings as unbiased and impartial as possible. The moral agents are forced to do this exercise, because they are the ones who have to make the decisions, they are going to choose the optimal situation. So here we cannot avoid deviating from respecting autonomy. Moral agents have to judge what other individuals want and how strong they complain. If moral agents disagree in those judgments, a kind of democratic parliamentary system is required.

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