October 29, 2020
Guest Oscar Horta, University of Santiago de Compostela
Hosted by Jamie Harris, Sentience Institute
Oscar Horta of the University of Santiago de Compostela on why we should help wild animals
“We want there to be animals like elephants, who on average have very good lives, rather than animals who tend to have very bad lives… If you have, say, a population of animals who reproduce by laying a million eggs. On average, only two of them would survive… Due to how the life history of animals is in many cases, we are not really speaking here about exceptions but rather about the norm. It's very common for animals to have lives that contain more suffering — sometimes much more suffering — than positive wellbeing… Regarding what needs to change most urgently, first of all we need to get more people involved. And also, of course, more funding would be greatly appreciated, because this is a severely underfunded field of research and advocacy.”
Animals in the wild suffer, often to a large degree, because of natural disasters, parasites, disease, starvation, and other causes. But is there actually anything we can do to help them? And would that even be desirable?
Oscar Horta is a Professor of philosophy at the University of Santiago de Compostela and a co-founder of the nonprofit Animal Ethics. He has published and lectured in both English and Spanish on topics including speciesism and wild animal welfare.
Topics discussed in the episode:
- The work that is currently been done to help wild animals and what needs to change (2:08)
- The “idyllic view of nature” and why it seems incorrect (7:47)
- How can we best help wild animals? What should we focus on now? (25:19)
- Which interventions seem promising to help wild animals on a larger scale? (36:18)
- How does the case for intervention to help wild animals depend on different ethical theories? (46:27)
- Does uncertainty about the indirect effects of our actions to help wild animals make this area less promising? (54:09)
- Can we still help wild animals if we’re concerned about wild animals’ autonomy? (58:47)
- Does the case for working on wild animal welfare depend on an overall view about whether wild animals have lives that are net negative or net positive? (1:02:46)
- If we’re concerned about problems that will be large in scale over very long-term time horizons, should we still prioritize wild animal issues? (1:13:15)
- Why Oscar believes the concept of moral status should be abandoned (1:21:50)
Resources discussed in the episode:
Resources by or about Oscar Horta and Animal Ethics:
Resources for using this podcast for a discussion group:
Transcript (Automated, imperfect)
Welcome to the Sentience Institute podcast, where we interview activists, entrepreneurs, and researchers about the most effective strategies to expand humanity's moral circle with a focus on expanding the circle to farmed animals. I'm Jamie Harris researcher at Sentience Institute and at Animal Advocacy Careers. Welcome to our 12th episode of the podcast. I was excited to have Oscar Horta on the podcast because he is an influential proponent of work to help wild animals. This is a topic we haven't yet touched on in the podcast, despite it being of comparable urgency to the work on farmed animals that we focused on so far. Animal Ethics, the organization that Oscar co-founded is one of only a small number of nonprofits that focuses substantially on efforts to systematically improve wild animal welfare, as opposed to preserving whole species of wild animals. Oscar also encourages a general anti-speciesist framing in animal advocacy, so I was keen to dive into his reasoning for that.
Oscar and I ended up having so many different things to talk about that we split our discussions up into two separate episodes. In this episode, we focus on getting to grips with the topic of wild animal welfare, including what the problem is and what can be done about it. Our discussion is a bit more philosophical about the reasons for and against doing work in this area. The next episode is more practically focused talking about what should be done, assuming you do believe that this is an important topic on our website. We have a transcript of this episode, as well as timestamps for particular topics. We also have suggested questions and resources that can be used to run an event around this podcast in your local animal advocacy or effective altruism group. Please feel free to get in touch with us If you have questions about this and we would be happy to help.
Oscar Horta is a professor of philosophy at the university of Santiago de Compostela. He has published articles on a number of topics, especially the problems of speciesism and wild animal suffering. He's also the co-founder of Animal Ethics, an animal advocacy non-profit that is focused on promoting and supporting work relevant to these topics. Welcome to the podcast, Oscar.
Thanks for having me.
You're very welcome. So what actions are currently being taken to help wild animals and what needs to change most urgently about the situation?
Right. So first there is of course, the work of the organizations that are working on this field and there aren't really that many. So animal ethics started to work on this some years ago, and we've been focusing on doing educational work and lately during the last couple of years, and mostly trying to encourage more research, more academic work on, on the field then, uh, also wild animal initiative is another organization, which is doing similar work in trying to promote, uh, academic work in this, in this field. Um, and also Rethink Priorities has done some research on this topic. Um, and then there is the work of independent people. There have been some, yeah, some philosophers and, and other people who have reading papers, encouraging people to care about this issue. And in recent years, also, there are, there's being, um, an increasing amount of, of work having to do with actual scientific research on, on the field. Yeah. Regarding what needs to change most urgently. Well, first of all, we need to get more people involved because as you can see, we are speaking here about just a few people really, um, working in this area. And also of course, more funding would be greatly appreciated because this is a, uh, severely underfunded, field of research and, and also of advocacy.
Yeah. So most of what you're talking about there refers primarily to the, the research field and the more sort of systematic attempts to improve the lives of wild animals and reduce wild animal suffering. But I'm thinking as well, in a broader sense about just what work is actually done in other contexts to help wild animals in general.
Right. So this is this an important question because many people, when they think of wild animal suffering, they, they tend to see this yeah, something that it's regrettable, and that, of course, if we could do something about, uh, we should do it, but it seems like a very, very difficult issue to, to tackle. While what really happens is that, uh, currently, and actually for some, for some time already, sometimes for decades, there have been, um, many different kinds of interventions that have been focused on helping animals just for the sake of, of improving their situation or in all the cases they have other, other motivations, but the results have been that they've helped very significantly and very large amounts of, of, of animals. So for instance, we can think of first of many cases where people, I mean, acting individually, they rescue animals in situations of need, such as for instance, animals, trapped in mud ponds or frozen lakes, or what have you.
Um, in other cases, other people have adopted, uh, animals that have been injured or sick or orphaned and wouldn't survive otherwise. And, um, there, there, there are also other projects that involve more people, like for instance, wild animal rescue centers, wild animal hospitals, and in other cases they are having other interventions that have targeted, um, many more animals. So in some cases, for instance, in places such as national parks, where they want the animals to be there, so people will go and see them. And so they some resources for the park. And when they're having like periods of famine, or for instance, to lack of water, animals are dying or having a bad time, they have provided food and water to certain populations of animals. And then, um, maybe the larger scale intervention that we can think of is that also that of vaccination wild animal vaccination against diseases, such as rabies or anthrax or tuberculosis, the main reason why these initiatives are implemented is because we don't want all the people implementing these measures don't want animals to get these diseases because they don't want them to pass to humans or to the domesticated animals that humans live with, but in doing so, they are actually putting in practice something that is helping a lot of animals and saving them from significant suffering and premature death.
And this also shows that we have the means, we have the knowledge and the expertise to do this at a significant scale. We must bear in mind that for instance, rabies has been eradicated from very large areas in North America or Europe as this has been done since the seventies. So we're speaking about several decades already. So, so this shows that rather than be in something that seems like a utopia or something of the kind, helping wild animals, interventions that, that can really make a significant difference in reducing wild animal suffering are perfectly feasible. And with more interest, we could definitely expand in more on how many more animals.
Great. Yeah, I'm sure we'll come back to that, that sort of distinction and the extent to which those different things are happening and their support for those different sorts of interventions over the course of the episode. Let's sort of give a bit of an introduction to the overview of this, of this problem of wild animal suffering and what can be done to address it in a, in a fairly systematic way. Something you've written about in some of the academic papers you've written is the idyllic view of nature. What actually is that, and is it wrong?
What I have found useful to call the idyllic view of nature is this view that animals in the wild live in general, a very good lives or sufficiently happy lives. So, um, the problem with this view is that it's really overlooking, um, very different sources of harm that, uh, threatened the, the wellbeing of these animals and caused them significant suffer. Um, and also it's really also overlooking the fact that view to how the life history of, of animals is in many cases. Um, we are not really speaking here about exceptions, but rather about the norm. So it's, it's very common for, for animals to have lives that contain more suffering sometimes much more suffering than positive for well-being. So, yeah, that's why the idyllic view of nature deserves its name, and that's why it's wrong. So
What are the causes of this suffering, what are the most common causes, I guess?
Well, so, um, as I say, there are many different ones, so we could think of lack of food and water, uh, disease. Also, there are environmental conditions such as, uh, weather conditions, but also a factor of like humidity, light, and others that if they, if they change, they can mean, well, the death of many animals, but, uh, in the meantime, in the process, significant suffering for them, also all those like parasitism and conflicts with other animals accidents as well, they can get insured for accidental reasons and these injuries can be very painful or, or even lethal for them. Uh, and, and many animals also suffer from psychological stress. So, I mean, we can think of, um, maybe animals who have more complex mental lives. So this is also a factor too, to bear in mind so we can imagine what it would be for us to live in the situation in which they are. And, um, really for, we, we, we can't take for granted that for animals, it, it's not as harsh as it would be for us in their situation.
Yeah. So something you touched on there, the idea of kind of putting ourselves in their shoes, um, what are the ways that we can understand measure and estimate the total suffering of the lives of large groups of animals and this complicated question of whether their lives are positive or negative overall?
Yeah. So for sure, we never get access to the mental space that the, an animal may have. I mean, it happens with non-human animals as it happens with, with humans as well. You can never be sure of that, but there are some reasonable, you know, uh, estimation that we can, that we can make. And, um, and also in many situations, we certainly have indicators that is reasonable to, to, um, in, from them that an animal is suffering, but this refers only to individual animals. And, um, and your question was about the total amount of aggregate suffering that there are there, and for these, there are other indicators. So for instance, um, we can consider whether these animal has been able to leave for, for a certain time or, or has died very young. And what happens is that typically the same factors that cause an animal to suffer, uh, will also cause that animal to die, or the other way around; if we see that animals has died because that in my house starved to death, we can guess that the animals has suffered for that reason.
So here, these trick, we have, so to speak to guess how much suffering there may be. For instance, in a certain population is by looking at the life history of those animals. So a certain set of characteristics of this animal having to do mostly with the way the animal reproduces and different stages in the animal's life. So we are thinking about things like how many offspring these animals may have, how large the offsprings are, uh, how long these animals leave, how many times the animals of the population, uh, we have in mind, uh, reproduce, et cetera. So we can then consider if these animals, for instance, we're producing very large numbers. We can suspect that the lives of these animals on average, aren't going to be very good because these animals will tend to die shortly after coming into existence or shortly afterwards. And that means that they will have to suffer from the pain of their deaths.
And there will be very little time for the suffering to be compensated with positive experiences. So, well, another way to look at this is by considering age specific mortality in certain population or in certain species. So we see how many animals have of that species of population typically die at the beginning of their lives, against how many, make it to maturity and have long lives. And if many more die, when they are very young, then we can reasonably think that probably among these animals suffering outweighs well-being. And this typically is the case because we need to be reminded that on average for each time, an animal reproduces, the number of offspring that will survive is very small. So on average, if the population is stable, the next generation will contain a similar number of, of individuals. So we are speaking here about two animals per couple does one animal bear parent. So if we consider that there are animals who reproduce by laying hundreds, thousands, or millions of eggs, we can guess with the amount of suffering that is out there really is very significant. And we have a, a fairly strong argument to claim that suffering may well prevail over positive wellbeing, even though these of course is controversial for the reasons I mentioned before that we don't really have access to the mental states.
Yeah. So if I'm going to just summarize kind of how I've interpreted that almost list that you gave of relevant indicators, it's kind of like choose a particular animal or animal species, amass relevant information about life length, uh, reproductive strategy, uh, incidence of disease, various things, and then come to some kind of intuitive judgment about their quality of life, which seems perfectly reasonable. But I'm also wondering whether there is any slightly more tangible metric that currently exists. So that could be used. Uh, if you think, for example, in the global poverty world, there's things like disability adjusted life years and with mental health, there's, uh, um, not exactly up to date on the latest research, but my impression is they use things like subjective welfare, sorry, subjective. Yeah. Welfare scores and things like that. Yeah. Is there any comparable equivalent? I know that Will Bradshaw of Wild Animal Initiative has written that measures of biological aging, such as age related deterioration in appearance health and functionality could provide highly promising measures of cumulative welfare. Is there anything? Yeah, my impression is that's pretty new and speculative. Is there anything more readily available?
No, not really. There are some frameworks that have been proposed to measure the welfare of animals kept in captivity, but they are not free from controversy. And also there are many challenges to extrapolate them, to animals living in the wild. And anyway, even if these could be successfully done, it would, um, allow us to make estimates of the welfare of animals considered individually. But, um, we need something more. We need to have some criteria to make guesses of, um, the aggregate welfare in populations and also even more ambitiously in eventually ecosystem.
Yeah. Yeah. Makes sense. Well, obviously given those things you said before, I don't want to present the implication that there's nothing that can be done currently, certainly that there's sort of an aggregation of those relevant factors seems useful and important. Um, I was just wondering whether there was also that sort of convenient metric that could be used. And let's go back to that topic. You mentioned of the reproductive strategies of, of different animals and what that implies about that, that overall welfare in your paper debunking the idyllic view of natural processes. You argue that due to the most widespread reproductive strategy in nature, R-selection, the overwhelming majority of non-human animals die shortly after they come into existence. Can you just briefly summarize what R-selection is?
So, um, first of all, I, I would need to clarify something. So R-selection and K-selection, these are kind of all concepts in biology. So R-strategists would be the animals that reproduce by having very large amounts of, of offspring. Uh, so what would somehow granted these animals continue to exist through time? I mean this suspicious or, or these types of animals is that, um, because there are so many animals, some make it to maturity and, and are able to reproduce afterwards, whereas K-selected animals or K-strategists would be those ones that would reproduce by having a very small number of offspring, but by doing so, they can also grant that the probability that these animals will survive is very, very high. What happens with these concepts is that they are useful for the point I made before, about how we can guess whether there is more suffering or less suffering in a, in a certain species or population, but there is a problem here, which is that these concepts have been used together with, uh, why their theory that was making other sort of estimation, some predictions about all the things related to the life history of, of, of animals predictions that are actually wrong.
So I regret now that I, in that paper and in some of the things that I wrote, I, I was speaking about R-selection or K-selection, I should probably guess have, uh, spoken of number of, of animals brought into existence, even though the way I was using these terms, wasn't really implying any support for, for, for the wider theory supported by for instance, by Pianca and other people. Anyway, uh, having said this, concerning the proportion of, of animals, uh, that we could call R-selected, or R-strategists if we keep on using these terms, which, which now I don't recommend to them. Yeah. They seem to be the majority, but, um, we should bear in mind that it's not that we have some animals that are purely at the end of, of the spectrum and others that are purely at the other end of the spectrum.
What we actually can find in life histories at different trade-offs among different factors. One of them being a number of offspring against other, other factors, such as maybe size, which can be directly related to the, uh, probably decided to animal, uh, survive. So, yeah, it, it seems clear that there is only a minority of animals that reproduced by having very few offspring. So yeah, you could think of primates, maybe. I dunno, cetateans, some birds like albatrosses, and there are even some, like, for instance, some invertebrates also reproducing this way. So dung beetles, for instance, they lay very few eggs throughout their, their lives, but most animals yeah. They reproduce by having very, very large numbers of offspring. And in addition, we should bear in mind one thing that although the majority of the species tend to have many offspring, even if they were not the majority, because these animals tend to lay so many eggs on the overall the number of animals that come into existence and die and don't make it to maturity, would nevertheless be probably higher than the number of offspring who eventually grew up to be adult animals. But yeah, I mean, I know that the underlying assumption for this is nevertheless speculative because we've, we're speaking about this it's because we are connecting these with some expectation of, of how good or bad the lives of these animals are. But as I said before, we have no other method that is more accurate that this one,
Yeah, interesting about the, the underlying theory being critiqued and somewhat debunked, it still feels that just the, as you were saying, this sort of intuitive, basic point that you were using the concepts for at least holds, and it's quite a powerful tool to sort of just explain that the basic idea here for why the situation of wild animals is not as rosy. And I did it as people think it might be. I think when I first heard of those terms, it represented a substantial shift in my intuitions about the lives of wild animals, because when people think of wild animals, they immediately jumped to zebras and polar bears and elephants and all those different types of mammals that are more towards the side of fewer offspring. Um, and just, and just even having some kind of concept for it. Um, I think really helps give that kind of symbolic shift in terms of thinking about what the default life of, of a wild animal is. So do you think there's any kind of rhetorical value of giving that idea in name, even if we shift away from our selection and case selection as sort of debunked theory?
Yeah, absolutely. And that's the reason why I chose to use them, but, um, now I, I think we should no longer do it because the reasoning against doing it is powerful that people may get the impression that you are endorsing the, the other theory, even if you don't need to. But yeah, I agree that that, uh, rhetorically is very, it's very powerful. Yeah. We need to find some of the ways to make the case.
Okay. So just briefly some of the other most prolific and influential writers on this topic, notably in my head at least have been Yew Kwang Ng and Brian Tomasik, what do you think are some of the main similarities and differences between your views on this topic and theirs?
Right. So for instance, in the case of, um, Yew Kwang Ng, he hasn't really written a lot about this. I think, uh, he wrote three and a half papers about this or something like that. Mainly what he did is, uh, in his 1995 paper, he presented this argument that we've been speaking about this having to do with animals reproducing by having very large number of aspirins and thinking that this may, um, imply that there is more suffering than wellbeing, although later he has, he has said that he's uncertain about this. He has written about this a bit backing off of that. Not really knowing, I mean, not claiming that the suffering doesn't prevail, but claiming that he just doesn't know. Then Brian has written about this as well, but he has also written many other related papers, some being more practicals about different ways in which we could, uh, help wild animals seen in specific situations like in vertebrates.
So I think that what I've been doing is different from what they have done, because even though I have also written about this, uh, general argument, um, being a moral philosopher, I've explored also the different normative distinctions between how different approaches can tackle the issue of wild animal suffering, the differences between environmental ethics with this regard and the, uh, animal ethics or antispeciesist viewpoint. And also where there may be some points in common. And also I think that Brian has tended to work on how we could, uh, reduce wild animal suffering under more ideal conditions while I've focused my work more on the strategic part of it, especially in, in the last years. And especially with my work on animal ethics, I've been less concerned with what we could do, ideally, um, more with, uh, what should be the practical courses of action, uh, where we should work in order to be able to push forward, uh, the cost.
Great. Yeah. Let's dive into some of those, those practical courses of action then, um, I think it's worth speaking about specific interventions just to help make the discussion a bit more concrete, uh, just for, we can come back in a bit to the discussion of the sort of broader cause era considerations in a bit, but yeah, just let's focus on some of the concrete stuff for a little while. So in that paper, I mentioned before debunking the idea that you have natural processes, you, write that we intervene in nature constantly for the sake of other purposes, agriculture building, all kinds of industrial processes, the only real way to oppose all intervention in nature, would be by advocating immediate mass suicide for every one of us, something we would all surely reject. So the question is not, should we intervene in nature, but rather in what ways should we intervene? What's our best working answer to that last question. In what ways should we intervene?
Okay. So yeah, I think we can approach that question in different ways. So one is a more general one and what we should be answering there is what are the factors that we need to take into account when deciding how to intervene? And the answer would be by considering their interests of all sentient beings, not only of human beings and the, or not only to further other aims that human beings may have. And then there is another question which is what are the best actual interventions we can think of, or, or what are the that we should now promote if we want to maximize our success in the long-term, those are different questions and, and they should be addressed also at different levels. So there is this tendency to just think of what could be done under ideal situation. So, okay. What would be the best interventions that we could carry out in order to make the best difference for, for animals?
But I don't think that's the actual question we should be asking. The actual question we should be asking now is, okay, what are the best interventions that we should promote now, in order to raise more interest about the situation, more concerned about the plight of wild animals, and also to encourage further research. I have the certain opinions on this, but the other than my personal opinions, this is something that has been researched already. And it seems that there are several promising courses of action there. Uh, for instance, those having to do with research on vaccination, uh, also rescuing animals that are affected by weather conditions or climate related events, and also helping animals that don't leave in the wilderness, but, uh, wild animals living in agricultural areas or urban areas. I think this are the most promising one.
Sure. Yeah. I think also just pick up briefly on that comment you made about using these interventions as a method to build interest and support. So I guess, like you're saying rather than focusing on those ideal conditions, ideal scenarios and what we could do in theory in the future type thing with those slightly more concrete things. I mean, there are lots of ways as we've discussed already that humans already do interact with, with nature and ways we could potentially tweak those and that sort of thing. But my guess is that interventions in areas that sort of relate to how humanity already interacts with nature would only affect a tiny proportion of the world's wild animals and the suffering they experience. What do you think about the idea of choosing interventions like that, that seem much more doable, much more tractable, partly for their symbolic and educational value rather than for their, their direct cost effectiveness at helping wild animals.
Yeah, I totally agree with that. Uh, so I really think that at this point we should choose our intervention mostly for, for two reasons. So one is the one that you just mentioned. The symbolic and educational value. And then also, uh, for something I mentioned before the potential to promote further research on this issue and, um, well at Animal Ethics, we did a couple of studies about this. So one was qualitative and another one was a survey. So we first interviewed them scientists in different fields in veterinary science, also biology, psychologists, about what, the ways of helping animals. They thought that were more interesting for them. Uh, but also for their colleagues, the ones that they think would be more likely to be supported and researcher. And then on the basis of the results of, of this study, we did this survey where we ask several hundred, um, students and, and scientists.
And, and that's how we got to these three types of interventions that are, that I mentioned before, uh, vaccination, um, helping wild animals affected by weather or climate related events and also, yeah, helping wild animals in urban areas, which are wild animals as well. And, um, we are looking now for specific examples of these interventions that can be promising. So for instance, we are considering now the case of vaccinating animals, such as, uh, deer, or shall we say deers, because they are not an uncountable mass and other animals like by bisons against brucellosis, or we are looking for examples of these, uh, general types of interventions, uh, on the basis of what you just mentioned, educational value. I mean, showing people that it's possible to intervene and that we can intervene and help animals in ways that are non-controversial and that people will like. And also that can encourage more, more work in the field.
Do you think then that the main criteria is really just the, the practical likelihood of, of actually getting those interventions done. Um, and, and that therefore depends on existing support amongst academics and that sort of thing. I guess it feels like if there's, uh, a, if there's a requirement for symbolic and educational value, to what extent does that affect the decisions about which interventions you should be pushing for? And I don't know. Do you also think that there are, I guess I'm interested if there are ways that you have in mind about how we can optimize for the educational value of it, as opposed to the direct effects on the animals themselves.
Right. So, um, well, one thing to be reminded of here is that when you are communicating to your target public, these, when you are telling them about these interventions, of course, for them to have educational value, they have to make a difference for animals. You have to show that there are examples of something that could be done on a much wider scale. So you need to bear that in mind, but, um, uh, having said this really here, what I'm having in mind is, uh, basically strategic concerns about what is gonna work best for the sake of having more resources put into the, the field and having more support for it. I think that if a certain campaign, if a certain way of helping animals and, and I'm not having a mind now, um, just intervention, but also for instance, if, if you're running a campaign, so a certain space or a certain body, or whatever will end up implementing these, these, this intervention, the process that will lead to the eventual intervention, take all this campaign can be very useful in, in, in, in educational terms to raise awareness that, eh, it's good to, to help wild animals in need.
So we would actually need to consider not the type of intervention, but actually the token, this specific interventions look at the particularities involved, look at how likely they are to get, uh, support. So for instance, in the case of vaccination against brucellosis that I mentioned before we have in mind that here was a conflict that is going on in, in the jello song area, where they are actually killing some animals to, uh, stop this animal from passing brucellosis to domesticated animals. So this seems to be a very interesting case, uh, where I campaign promoting this type of intervention here would be very useful because it would also be aligned with other goals that animal advocates would have in this case, which would be to stop the hunting. So yeah, there may be a particular intervention of a certain type that is not promising, but that particular intervention is really promising. So yeah, that's what I would say. I think
Makes a lot of sense. Interesting example of the brucellosis vaccinations, um, with regards to urban ecology, I know that wild animal initiative have been looking into providing contraceptives for pigeons in urban areas as humane alternative to killing pigeons, which many cities already do any notable thoughts on that particular suggested intervention?
Yeah, so that's excellent because that's a combination of two things. So first, as I mentioned before, it seems that helping urban animals or wild animals living in urban environments seems to be a way of intervening that many people or at least scientists seem to like, and then you are combining it with something that is very useful on a kind of meta level, which is contraception, what's special about contraception is that it can help you to implement other measures that can help animals. Because for instance, imagine that you have a certain population of animals that are suffering due to some disease or due to, I don't know, whatever, maybe you to hunger and malnutrition and that you could intervene to help them. Uh, but if you do so, there's the risk that the population will grow very significantly and you are just postponing the problem to the future.
But if you combine that with contraception, then you will avoid the problem. So contraception will allow us, uh, to carry out much more significant efforts and that can improve a lot the, the, the life of, of animals, the wild that's also the reason why. Um, so while animal initiative now is working on, uh, contraception of mainly birds living in, in, uh, urban environments. Well, uh, animal ethics is now, uh, doing research on contraception targeting, um, large herbivores like elk steers and similar ones for it's very recent, that not only is a measure that can, can be used for instance, as a, as an alternative to certain projects for population control involving hunting, but also it has these other advantage, uh, concerning other kinds of intervention.
Cool. Yeah, that's exciting. So I know you said this is less of a focus of yours, but in terms of those possible interventions in a more ideal scenario, maybe decades or centuries into the future, do you have any thoughts about which sorts of interventions could plausibly be cost-effective for contributing to substantial reductions in wild animal suffering or improvements in their welfare? I guess it feels intuitively important to at least have an idea of whether those things are on the cards, because if you thought that they weren't, then there's less of a case for bothering with this, the small short-term interventions that are kind of steps towards that end goal.
Yeah. I mean, of course you could always think that maybe these particular interventions helping only some thousands or so millions of animals could be spread, you could carry them out, uh, at a more significant level. But, um, but I don't think that's really the way which on the longterm we could make a, a higher difference. It seems to me that the way to do that would involve being able to carry out assessments of the amount of suffering and suffering with proportion to positive wellbeing, that there is not just in populations or species, but in ecosystems as such. So considering how much suffering, how much aggregate suffering can there be in certain types of ecosystems in comparison to other types of ecosystems, and also considering ecosystems as tokens also in this particular ecosystem against these other ecosystems, as ecosystems are changing all the time, there are evolving and as humans higher intervening with ecosystems all the time and their decisions are leading the ecosystems to have certain structures, to be of a certain type or another one in line with what I said before that intervention should be done, having in mind, what is best for all sentient beings, we could then implement those forms of interventions that make ecosystems more likely to contain less suffering rather than more suffering.
So there is an example of this, and of course there is as with everything, uh, a lot of uncertainty, these are sample concerns, the case of, uh, the conservation of, uh, some very large herbivores, such as elephants. So elephants eat very, very large amounts of biomass, which means that this biomass is not eaten by other much smaller animals. There could be invertebrates who then would be eaten by other larger invertebrates and so on. So if you have these animals there, you will have in that particular ecosystem, less of the other animals are also less of the long traffic chains that otherwise wouldn't be there. So it seems that efforts that are focused on the conservation with elephants have this indirect effect, which is that the ecosystem as a whole contains less suffering. So this is so prima fascia. We should investigate this a bit more because there may be some unknown factor that changed this, but if it's available evidence that our research brings about shows that this is the case, that this an example of two different ecosystems that there may be, and that one of them contains less suffering, then we could promote these interventions that end up having these preferable results.
And we could do these at a much, a larger scale. So I believe that doing this is much more promising, has much more potential than other science fiction scenarios, where we have some odd technology that can make a significant difference in, in how animals are.
Yeah. Interesting about this idea of kind of shifting the balance in ecosystems, through targeted interventions and working to almost like encourage a particular types of animals. Um, I guess another line that some of the discussion on wild animal welfare and suffering has gone down is the idea of, of, uh, generic reduction in the number of animals. Because if we think that wild animals tend to have bad lives in general, then that suggests that that kind of reduction in the total number of wild animals would actually be positive, longer term. As a result of this line of argument, Brian domestic has written quite extensively arguing that habitat destruction is a positive outcome. And there's in contrast to this, there's a recent paper by Tyler John and Jeff Sebo, who argue that though habitat destruction might be theoretically preferable promoting. This seems bad in practice. So for example, they write that consequentialist should be concerned about cultivating relationships of care with non-human animals, not only because others are liable to misinterpret altruistic murders as speciesist, but also because we are liable to reinforce speciesism within ourselves and others, if we pursue that, that line of action. So essentially it makes sense to have some kind of heuristics and norms of behavior in our treatment of animals. And if we want to promote care and moral consideration of animals, we should probably advocate against killing them. Even if habitat reduction might be beneficial for the animals that are directly affected, they also make the point that even treating the topic as open question might encourage a mistreatment of animals. So I had some misgivings about even asking you this question, but I'm interested if you're more inclined towards Tomasik's view or Sebo and John's view in terms of this idea of habitat reduction and what we should practically do with regard to that possibility.
Yeah, so it's important to have in mind, a distinction. So advocating for a reduction in the number of animals is something totally different from advocating for the killing of animals. So I've just mentioned a way in which you could, um, have an ecosystem with way less animals without having to kill any, uh, any animals by means of promoting the presence of certain animals. So you promote that there are elephants there, less invertebrates there. So that's good. And actually, uh, having elephants around maybe consider a way of habitat destruction, because those what those elephants are doing is actually destroying the potential habitat for other animals. And you could also think that it would be better if the number of animals that are around, uh, were significantly reduced without advocating things that could, you know, give, uh, the reduction of wild animal suffering about name.
And actually, uh, just recall all the examples of interventions that I mentioned before, and the reasons why I way I had chosen them. I stressed that the main reason now to choose to campaign for a certain intervention is not how many animals that intervention is going to help. So, yeah, I don't think there is necessarily a contradiction in thinking as Brian does and thinking along the terms that, that, that you mentioned. I mean, I have other concerns with that paper, with the Sebo and John's paper... it's the one which is "consequentialism and nonhuman animals," I think, right? Yeah. And, um, they tend to speak from a utilitarian viewpoint, whereas you may be a consequentialist and not really accept a utilitarianism. You may accept, I don't know, some form of normative view that focuses on the situation with those who are doing worse, and then you would reach, uh, probably some different results.
I mean, if you are a prioritarian, for instance, or a sufficientarian, then you will be very troubled by, by the suffering of, even if it's just some minority of, of animals. Something I would add is that it's not just the reduction of the, of the total number of animals that matters. It also matters what animals are there. We want there to be animals like elephants who on average have very good lives. We prefer to have those animals there rather than animals who tend to have very bad lives. So it's a bit more complicated. I think that, that this debate sort of implies.
Uh, maybe I exaggerated the extent to which those two different, those two different perspectives were in opposition to each other. I wonder how John and Sebo would respond to idea of, of the, the kind of murder versus a gradual encouragement of certain ecosystems over others distinction.
Just one follow-up concerning this. Your last remark is very, it's very important because I think there may be a misconception here in thinking that you may think, well, when you change the ecosystem, you are because some animals will tend to disappear, while some others will thrive. But that means that you are somehow killing those animals because if their number are reduced, then that means they are dying. This reminds me of, of an argument that is relevant here, I think, which is that if you have say a population of animals who reproduced by laying, I don't know, a million eggs. And let's consider for the sake of the argument that not, not a million of them end up being sentient, let's just consider there is, I don't know, 800,000 of them. So on average, only two of them will survive. So what happens is that the rest of them, so 799,998 will die.
So what happens if the population is reduced to half? Is that just one extra animal of those 800,000 will die in the first generation, because in the next generation, as the population is smaller, the number of animals in total who died would be smaller. So eventually if you promote that in an ecosystem, there are animals who don't reproduce in this way. What you are doing is not that you are killing the animals who reproduced by having large number of offspring. And it's not that you are actually making the situation such that more of these animals die, what you are actually doing, is that just that tiny, extra fraction of them don't make it in the first generation. And then from them all on the overall, you are actually preventing many deaths of these animals rather than
Yes, so, another thing you were mentioning there was, was the implications that having slightly differing, moral frameworks, ethical theories might have on your views on this topic. How do you think the case for intervention in nature varies in strength, depending on the ethical theories that people find most compelling? What are the sort of main, the main effects that having different different perspectives might have on this general category of interventions?
Yeah, so that's a very interesting question. So, I mean, we can't, we can't really assess it in, in detail here, because there are many, many different theories, but it's this to me that, uh, if you hold for instance, an ethics of an ethic of care, you would have reason to, to help wild animals, because this is, uh, an approach that, um, that is very, it's very much focused on attending to the needs of, of, of others. It's also true that this viewpoint, it's also it also the fence, uh, to be partial, to help, uh, primarily those who are more related to you. But, um, you know, it's also concerned with, with the suffering and the needs of others. So this strikes me as, uh, as an approach that would, uh, promote helping wild animals, other character-based and other deontological approaches would really depend a lot on the content of those approaches.
So I can see how some deontological views, for instance, those, that claim that we should only be focused with negative rights and not with positive rights at all. And that would understand those negative rights in very, very, very narrow ways, may not. It really compel us to help the wild animals while others may. And then if also, if you hold a, a suffering-focused ethics approach, you will also have a significant reason to help wild animals because of, of, of the suffering of those who are not dealing well. Also in the case of those views that are more concerned with the situation of the worst off. So for instance, if you can see there are prioritarian views, egalitarian views, sufficientarian views, all those views that hold some form of maximin, either a pondered maximin principle or a leximin principle, they would also support this.
So even if, imagine that we reached the conclusion that in the wild, uh, suffering doesn't prevail over positive wellbeing. So the majority of animals have lives in line with what the idyllic view of nature assumes, and it's just a tiny minority that have a very bad situation, these views would still be concerned about this. And then if we hold other views, like for instance, a utilitarian viewpoint, if we had reason to think that suffering prevails, then that would make this a very serious issue. But even if we reached a different conclusion supports that, uh, are utilitarian and standardization and things, well, I think that in general, while that animal suffering is, uh, is not really that large in comparison to the, to the positive wellbeing that these animals have. Well, nevertheless, the utilitarian thinking this would have reasons to intervene in nature to reduce that amount of suffering, because the amount of suffering that there is still is, well, we can certainly reduce it. And this goes in line with what happens in the case of humans. So you may think that on the overall, the lives of humans are, uh, good. And even though there are significant forms of suffering among human beings, positive well-being prevails over them, but nevertheless, you will still have, uh, significant reasons to reduce the suffering. So to summarize, I think that, um, most normative approaches, at least the ones that are more accepted today would lead us to, to help animals though. I agree with this with different levels of strength.
Yeah. Yeah. So I can certainly, you've laid out some, some clear arguments, and this is nicely covered on animal ethics website and also on the online course, that there are certainly ways in which you could have these various overarching ethical frameworks and still find, and for various reasons find the, that the case for working to help animals, wild animals compelling, I guess, something that I'm certainly no, a moral philosophy expert. So, um, is, I guess I have the sense that like, with some types of theories, for example, some, some deontological moral, moral theories, it's, it can be kind of fairly arbitrary, whether somebody considers, uh, particular entities, like whether animals in general are plausible rights holders or not. Uh, and, and I would imagine that the same could apply to some of those other things you mentioned, like egalitarianism and prioritariansim, like, couldn't somebody just say, okay, so I care about, uh, reducing inequality, but only within the context of human lives. And that sort of thing is that, is that a plausible view that somebody could hold within these, these various frameworks?
Yeah. So in the case of egalitarianism, I don't think that can be, so just as someone can't really claim to be, say a utilitarian and accept speciesism, just because of how, um, uh, utilitarianism is composed, what, what the different components of a utilitarian need some are. And for sure, there are many people who called themselves utilitarians are nevertheless speciesist, but being species it's really incompatible with being a utilitarian. I think that the same happens in the case of egaliatarianism. And actually there are extra reasons in the case of egalitarianism, because you will focus on the situation of, of those who are worse off. And because non-human animals are typically worse off than, than, than human beings. And certainly while animals are, you will have more reasons than utilitarians have to help them. But, uh, but I agree with, with what you said in the presentation of the different implications of, of, uh, different normative theories that I, that I just meant, I was kind of assuming that they were not suspicious, but for sure, um, many, many approaches are compatible with some form of speciesism, or maybe it's the other way around that you can have different paces of speciesism.
You, you can be a speciesist and a deontological speciesist or a consequentialist speciesists, et cetera. And not only that, you can also hold some other views, like for instance, you could be, um, a holistic ecocentrists. And, uh, and of course, if you think these, then you will have no problem with harming animals and you wouldn't care about helping wild animals. This doesn't necessarily mean that you would oppose intervention directed to help him while animals only when there were some conflict between these and the conservation of certain ecosystems. And also for instance, you could be also be a bio centrist and think that it's not really sentience that matters. It's also, um, all forms of life that, uh, that matter. So in that case, you would support not intervention to help well animals. You would support some form of intervention to aid, all kinds of living beings, uh, which would be a much more daunting task. But anyway, I think that these views aren't really plausible. I, I believe that the case for suspicious of some or these other views that I just mentioned are really sound ones.
Uh, I want to go back to some of the arguments that people have raised against focusing on, on wild animals in animal advocacy, and this idea of kind of crucial, crucial considerations, which is essentially a consideration that's likely to cause a major shift in our view of interventions or, or areas. In other words, it might cause us to change our view about whether focusing on a particular problem is a good use of our time or resources or not given the other problems that we could work on. So we might think, for example, whether it's focused on wild animals or farm animals or something else. So I, I sometimes hear people comment that because interfering in ecosystems has indirect effects on other parts of the ecosystem, any intervention will likely have more extensive effects than we intend. Those could be highly negative or highly positive. It's just really difficult to predict. Do you think that kind of uncertainty makes wild animals less promising as a cause area? And is this one of these sort of crucial considerations?
Yeah, so, um, well, first of all, let me say something, uh, about what you just said in, in presenting the question. Um, there's this tendency to think that if there's uncertainty about something like an intervention in the wild, that means that, um, very negative effects can take place. And that is right, but on the other hand, those effects could be very positive as well. So I like the way you present that. So our certainty definitely is a problem is it's always a problem for, for any costs. Yeah, for sure. An intervention in the wild may have a effect about which we are more uncertain than, uh, certain campaigns that we can carry out to end certain ways in which animals are exploited are used by human beings. The thing with that is nevertheless, that these objections tend to overestimate the uncertainty and tend also to underestimate the badness of the situation in which animals are.
So let's consider again, this example that I presented before suppose I'd have very, very bad situation is one in which half of the, of a certain population we want to help is very severely harmed, right? And suppose that these animals typically lay, I don't know, before I say a hundred thousand eggs, well, it could be 10,000 eggs. What happens typically, as I mentioned before, is that 9,998 of these animals may not have a good lives. And actually many of them have very, very bad lives. So if half of the population of these animals are in a very, very bad situation, what that really means is that instead of having 9,998 animals in a bad situation, you are having 9,999 animals in such a bad situation. So I think that this is why these objections are underestimating the badness of the current situation. But anyway, having said this, let me come back again to what we were speaking about at the beginning of, of our conversation. Remember that then I was, uh, putting the stress on furthering more research on this.
So we really want to have the most rigorous science on this. We really want to have interventions that are backed by the best available evidence. And as for now, the interventions we are promoting are very much aligned with other interventions that have been carried out for decades already. So it's not that we are presenting something new and that we are very uncertain about this. Well, as I said, vaccination programs, they've been around for decades. This happens similarly with, with other interventions. So these should is very significantly all these concerns about the risks, uh, here in volt. And the last thing I would like to say is that it's interesting that you seldom hear this kind of criticism when what's at stake is intervention in the wild for other reasons, for instance, for environmentalist, uh, reasons, or for conservationist reasons. So what happens then there, uh, that, uh, you know, when you are intervening in the wild, because you want to conserve a certain ecosystem, then uncertainty doesn't count. Of course it does count. The thing is that we tend to have a virus, a bias here when the purpose of our intervention is just to help wild animals. So this is where I see a problem here with these arguments.
Yeah. That makes sense. So you mentioned before the idea of, uh, people underestimating the badness of the current situation, and I'm sure that's a substantial part of it. Another thing I think it might come down to sometimes is when it, when it comes to the uncertain effects, they assume that those indirect effects are negative precisely, just because they interfere with nature. This is something that people very quickly, a lot of conversations about wild animal welfare and suffering will revert to this is consideration about intervention in nature being bad. There's something we've talked a bit about over the course of this episode already, but I think, I guess pushing down little further, some people, the reason that they are concerned about that is if, if they do justify it at all, in terms of individual animal interests, it often comes down to this consideration of autonomy, I guess.
I'm yeah, I guess I'm not entirely sure how that fits into the kind of ethical classifications discussion we were having earlier. Uh, but yeah, just often I hear this argument that giving an animal or human or whatever else, freedom to make its own decisions is inherently valuable. I actually, personally I find this extremely counter-intuitive because autonomy only seems valuable to me instrumentally in the sense that often sentient beings, know what they want and need outside observers do. But for those people who do think that autonomy has some inherent value, do you think the wild animal welfare and suffering interventions to help wild animals could still be an important issue for them? Or is that, is that just kind of a lost cause
I agree with you. I think that, uh, autonomy, if, if autonomy is valuable, it has to be instrumentally valuable. But, um, even if you believe that it's intrinsically valuable, you need to consider them really what's at stake in the case of, of the situation of animals consider, uh, just as an example, children, human children. So you could think that they are not really autonomous agents, although to some extent they are... What happens is that we think, well, we are making decisions on their behalf. We are making the decisions that they, if they had the relevant information and if they were able to consider all the other reasons involved with support. So this is different from making those decisions on the basis of what we think is best. We are trying to make the decisions on the basis of what we believe they will think it's, it would be best for, for them.
So we can have a similar approach when with non-human animals. So imagine for instance, that you see an animal who is badly hurt in the wild and you rescue that animal and you help that animal and you save that animal from an immense suffering, when you are going to help that animal, the animal is going to resist your help because you know, the animals going to think that you are attacking a hair or whatever, but claiming that you shouldn't help the animal because that against the animal autonomy, since to me really far-fetched because the animal has other interests and other desires that your action will help to satisfy. So on the overall, our action is driven by the will to make the situation as best as possible for animals and animals actually desire to be free from suffering. I mean, it will be all to believe that maybe animals don't desire to be free from suffering, maybe animals one-to-one or nice to death.
I mean, this, this is, seems like a ridiculous claim. Of course you could think. Well, yeah, but maybe, um, in helping some animals, there can be others who are worse off, but this is not the problem of this is another problem, another deontological problem, which is how we ponder the interests of the majority against a minority in a certain group of individuals when they all are going to be affected by our situation. And we have to decide whether to make this situation better on the overall he beneath her minorities worse off or making it better just for a minority and the majority is worse off. This is a different problem.
Cool. Yeah, that makes sense to me. But as I mentioned, I wasn't the one that needed convincing there. So one thing you mentioned before was the paper that Yew Kwang Ng had put out that was almost reversing his previous conclusion, or at least accepting that some of the maths in that might not necessarily hold, that was a, a 2019 paper coauthored with Zach Freitas-Groff. And this gets at the idea of the extent to which animals in the wild really are having overall net negative lives, whether their suffering dominates over their positive experience. Do you think the case for working on wild animal welfare depends on this sort of overall view about whether wild animals lives are net positive or net negative.
Right. So the short answer would be no, but let me elaborate this a bit more. So first I'd like to say a word about the paper you mentioned. Um, first of all, the underlying reason what that paper ends up arguing that we are uncertain about whether suffering prevails or not in the, well, it's not just an issue with the maths involved in the estimation of the proportion of suffering and pleasure and well, I don't mean to reconstruct here all the argument of the paper, but basically the underlying idea for thinking that maybe suffering doesn't prevent the well in the paper has to do with a philosophical interpretation of the relation of suffering and pleasure with natural selection. So according to this interpretation, that is assuming the paper it's just as economic to produce suffering then to produce positive wellbeing in the world, in order to motivate different ages, to act in a way that would be causing them to be successful in reproducing and having their fitness increased and the yeah, for different reasons.
I think this is not the case. Well, it's, I would say it's not equally easy to have positive well-being and suffering, and we can see these very clearly in our own case. So in our life, it's very, very easy to have suffering and is much harder to, to have pleasure. But anyway, setting this aside in order to address your question, let's suppose we all agree that in the wild suffering is not that prevalent and on the overall yet positive experience has prevailed. This wouldn't give us reason not to care about the suffering that they will still be there. So if you are a, say a utilitarian, you would be concerned about that because even you are happy that, uh, positive wellbeing prevails. You want there to be as less suffering as possible. So yet, and you would still be concerned about this. And if you hold a different view, suppose you hold some kind of suffering focus, ethics, um, or some deontological ethics, especially concerned with am helping others or with reducing the harms that others may suffer or suppose, you know, the wholesome character-based ethics like care ethics.
You will still be very much concerned with reducing the suffering that there is the wild. And also, um, if you hold a view that is focused on the worst off, like, um, egalitarianism, um, as I said before, this is a view that is widely held in moral and especially in political philosophy today. Also other views that focus on the worst of like prioritarianism and sufficientarianism get a relatively significant amount of support and all these views would the steel tell us that even if suffering doesn't prevail in the world, as long as there are individuals for whom it does prevail as long as they are individuals who have very bad lives, uh, we are, we should be very concerned about, um, reducing the suffering of, of, of those beings. Haven't said this, of course, if suffering prevails over positive wellbeing, this gives us extra reasons to be concerned about this and also can influence us to prefer certain policies in particular cases. But anyway, this, as I said before, this is not, uh, a necessary requirement for us to be concerned or very concerned actually about wild animal suffering.
Yeah. It seems like for some of those views, you just outlined the specific claim that it might hinge on is more the, actually there are at least large numbers of individual animals for whom suffering predominates, rather than that in the wild as a whole suffering predominates. Do you think that's a fair representation?
Yes. I think you are right in dividing those two things. I think it's pretty clear that there are many individual animals in the wild in whose lives there is more suffering than positive wellbeing. And I believe also that it's very likely that these animals are more, or maybe many more than those who have overall positive lives. So if you were born as a wild animal, the odds are that your life would contain more suffering than pleasure. But, um, yeah, if we set aside the way suffering and pleasure are distributed among different animals, um, we have another question which is whether aggregate suffering prevails over aggregate positive wellbeing. I also think this is the case though. I can see that the, yeah, that the probabilities involved here are less clear, the
Indicators are less decisive. And yeah, this happens basically because of the animals whose lives are positive for them, uh, tend to have a long lives. Whereas those who have lives that we can expect to be net negative, typically have short lives. I mean, this is not always the case because, and you can also have animals who may live long lives with chronic pain, for instance. But anyway, yeah, I hope I'm wrong about this. I hope, uh, suffering is not really that prevalent, but even if this weren't the case, as it happens, that I'm an egalitarian, I will still be very, very concerned, um, with the situation of animals, even if these were in the case. And I will still be very concerned with the situation of animals, even if there were just a minority of the animals having very, very bad lives, because I am concerned with what happens to the worst off. But, um, anyway, uh, setting this aside, I think you are right in making that distinction among these two things.
Cool, thanks. So given that the argument for suffering being widespread and dominating a large number of lives, kind of relies on the idea that a lot of animals only live very short lives and perhaps die painless shortly after birth, based on that kind of logic about the number of animals that actually survive to maturity and reproductive age does the case that wild animal suffering is very large in scale and very important to work on depends substantially on whether or not young animals are as sentient as older animals. Do you think that's a kind of crucial consideration in this work as well?
Yeah, so to some extent it does, but this also depends on some considerations having to do with a specific mortality among wild animals. So yeah. Suppose that the animals, so for certain species just became sentient sometime after they came into existence and suppose that the vast majority of these animals, uh, die before they become sentient, maybe because they starve to death. So you only have, um, a few individual animals there when they start to be sentenced. Then the situation would be very similar to the one where, you know, animals reproduced by just having a few descendants and the get, this would be a scenario where positive wellbeing may well prevail over a suffering, but, um, but then suppose that this is not quite so suppose that, um, what happens is that many of them, many of these animals die before they become sentient, but, um, not the vast majority of them.
So there are still many other animals of these species, um, that will die after they become sentient. And they may, I don't know, die in painful ways. Maybe they start to death. So in this case, we would still have reasons to think that suffering would prevail over positive wellbeing among these animals. Um, so yeah, uh, what we have here is that if animals became sentience, sometime after they come into existence, they would be just avoiding the suffering, caused to them by what would happen to them at the beginning of their lives. But if afterwards, they never less face other hardships. And if it's still the case that most of them died prematurely due to factors that also caused them to suffer, we will still need to conclude that suffering prevents over happiness. And then there is this other consideration that is less important, but I would nevertheless like to mention that would apply for some animals that is that, um, there may be in the case of some animals, certain stages in their lives when they undergo important risks due to which suffering among those animals may be very significant at that time.
So for instance, um, we can think of bird chicks and they can die before they have grown up enough to fly out their nests. But then if they survive that stage, the moment at which they fly out of their nest, for many of these animals can be a very, very risky situation. They may die in many different ways. They may just fall down, not be able to fly and then starve to death in the ground, uh, suffering also from the pain of the injuries they received. It's a kind of situation where they can suffer and suffer a great deal. And, and it's certainly implausible that they are not sentient at that point because in order for them to reach that stage, they need to be sufficiently developed. So yeah, this would be another consideration to take into account here, even if less important than the previous one. But anyway, having said this, I also think that many animals are definitely sentient when they come out from their eggs or, or are born.
So I want to address one other quite different criticism, uh, which, uh, I guess concerns me somewhat more so in the effective altruism community, people tend to make the case for working on wild animal issues by emphasizing the scale of the problem, essentially that there are just huge numbers of wild animals that just completely dwarf the number of farmed animals, the number of humans, et cetera. And they also emphasize the neglectedness that there's just few people working on this problem, but that, that kind of scale aspect, if we look further into the future, and it seems unlikely that there will be many wild animals left in centuries or millennia, even. Brian Tomasik has a post about humanity's net impact on wild animal suffering, which summarizes that based on defaunation studies, it appears that human activity over the last 40 years alone has reduced both vertebrate and invertebrate populations on balance. Further, this sort of population growth or creation of urban spaces will presumably continue to reduce wild animal populations further.
So based on these sorts of things and various other kind of possible future scenario considerations, my impression is that most people who care about improving the value of the real long-term future are usually more concerned about the suffering and wellbeing of either humans or artificial sentience than they are about future wild animals. So if you're concerned about problems, that will be larger scale over longer time horizons, the scale of wild animal suffering as an issue seems comparatively small guarantee thoughts on that overall consideration that the, I guess the scale argument doesn't hold, if you look far enough into the future.
Well, first of all, something just to clarify, it's interesting that you mentioned that and people who care about the long-term future typically care about humans or other entities that may exist in the future. Well, if you accept the argument that it's likely that there will be significantly less wild animals in the future. Well, I think that there is a strong argument to claim that there will be no humans in the future. In the future, you will have either beings that descend from humans or that are half humans, half descendant of humans have something else or artificial entities or entities that are created by other artificial entities. So the odds that there will continue to be non-human animals in the future are much more significant than the odds that they will continue to be human beings in the future.
I wasn't distinguishing too much between humans and kind of like post human descendants. I was kind of lumping them in together. Um, and just to, just as a bit of context, I guess, for the wild animal numbers decreasing, uh, this includes things that like beyond, I guess, the vast, the vast majority of potential future human or post-human lives would not exist on planet earth. If you think basically if you think that terraforming and actually colonizing other planets, if you think there's any probability of that at all, it tends to dominate kind of expected value calculations. Um, and so this, and in those scenarios, it seems kind of unlikely for various reasons that wild animals would be spread to other planets. It's obviously hinges on a few sort of speculative guesses about what the future might entail, but the number of wild animals look smaller in, in kind of total expected value, calculations and estimates.
So the argument seems to be that it's more like it is more likely that in the future, that will be more sentient artificial beings than biological beings. Um, and I think that this is probably the case. I, I tend to agree with this view, but it's still, I mean, the risks are there that, anyway, there will be a lot of suffering from natural causes and that there will still be a wild animal suffering around. There are certain scenarios where humans may spread wild animals, uh, to other parts of the universe. And there are also scenarios where human beings could create artificial life, artificial, biological lives elsewhere. And actually this is not really that speculative, even though this question is more speculative than the previous ones, this is not that much. So you recall that last year when the Israelis sent a moon Lander that eventually crashed, they were proposedly and sending some animals there, they sent some tardigrades there, and eventually the Lander crashed, we can guess that these animals didn't survive though.
We can't really know that for sure, because yeah, tardigrades are extremely resistant micro animals and they have a nervous system. And even if they didn't have, suppose they survived and then some form of evolution could, could take place. So the idea that human beings could, spread life to other places outside earth is not really that crazy also. I mean, we could imagine some other speculative scenarios where human beings reach all their planets, where there is wild animal suffering and so on. But then there is this other consideration that I would like to mention, which is that, as I said before, if we focus our efforts in terms of attitudes, then are concerned for forms of sentience that are different from us, such as non-human animals can have spillover effect in that it can help us to be, or it can help the future to be such that there is more consideration for other new forms of sentience that there are.
So I believe that of all the possible ways in which we could, the thing that we could prevent sentient artificial beings being harmed in the future, either intentionally or accidentally, or anyway, the one that connects more with a form of activism that we can carry out already now, in a way that can connect with the general public could be animal activism. And the thing with wild animal suffering is that it has an extra value there, which is that wild animal suffering also challenges, not only this concern for entities that are different from ourselves, but also the idea that we shouldn't care about what happens to others, if that's not our fault. So maybe that can help us to be more considerate to what happens to future sentience beings when they suffer out of accidents, not because we intentionally harm them and suppose that you are attributing your probabilities to different scenarios.
And you consider the probability that there are going to be wild animals around and wild animal suffering in large scale in the future is small. And suppose that you end up reaching the conclusion that, that, that the probability that that happens is say, I don't know, 5%. Okay. And suppose, now that you can see there that the good spillover effects that work on this can have on advocacy to prevent artificial suffering, so to speak is not really that significant. So that counts for an extra 2% or 3%, whatever. Still that percentage should be enough for these costs receiving an amount of funding and support and work in correspondence to that percentage, which is not happening. I think now, because as I said at the beginning of our conversation right now, even though interventions to help wild animals have been carried out for a long time.
And even though there is a growing number of people interested in this, the number of people in total that are working on on the area is still too small. And the amount of funding that the organization is working on these receive is very, very small, especially I would say in the case of animal ethics, we are definitely underfunded. So I think that I would give probably these higher than the ones that I gave in this example of maybe two, 3% or whatever. But even if we just accepted these small probabilities, wild animal suffering as a cause area should receive much more support and it's getting today.
Yeah. A lot of things I agree with that, uh, the it's certainly unclear whether even if you do want to work to help artificial sentience, whether it's better to attempt to focus on that directly, but speculatively, or to focus on farmed animals as a kind of sorry, farmed animals or wild animals as a kind of interim step. Okay. One last question I wanted to ask you about a position you advanced before. So this, when we are evaluating particular actions and thinking about the importance of helping one type of animal versus another, but you have argued in an article in the journal, ethical theory and moral practice that the concept of moral status should be abandoned. What's the reasoning there. And does it, and, and how, what does this suggest, what does this imply for our actions towards wild animals and prioritizing between different actions?
The concept of moral status is problematic for two reasons. One is that it's a very confusing one because different people come in totally different things when they speak about the moral status. And also another problem this concept has, is that it has been typically used to defend views that I believe are unjustified and discriminatory. So there are two main ways in which this concept can be used. So some people, what they mean when they speak about moral status is that when some individual has a certain interest, we should take that interest into account. So that is, they are using it as a synonym of moral consideration. So this use wouldn't be problematic if it were him because it's redundant. And also because it's confusing. And the reason why it's confusing is that most people probably use the term moral status with a different meaning. They use it to defend the unequal consideration of interests.
That is suppose that there are two individuals with conflicting interests and suppose that their interests are very, very similar. They are for example, um, interest in avoiding a certain suffering that is very, very similar with a similar duration and similar intensity and similar indirect effects. But it just so happens that the suffering, the potential suffering of one of them would be somehow higher, but we never less give priority to avoiding the suffering of the other individual. Why would we do this? Well, those who use the term moral status may claim the second individual has a higher moral status. And why would they claim this? Well, there are different reasons why people make these claims. They may argue that these individuals belong to different species or that their skin color is different, or that when it's a man and another one is a woman or that their level of intelligence is different.
And so on, I believe that all these criteria are irrelevant because what matters eventually is just the weight of the interest involved. So I think that this use of the term is just a way of defending a view that is, uh, morally unjustified. Also the concept of moral status can be appealed to in a way that doesn't use these criteria, but just, um, yeah. Appeals to sentience, but which nevertheless is morally problematic. So one of them is by double counting. So you could claim that maybe the interests of a certain individual are more important and therefore should be given priority. But then you also say, well, because this happens, then this individual has a higher moral status, which means that we are going to give extra, wait to, uh, the interest this individual has in comparison to the interests of, of other individuals. So in this way, you are counting for more really than you should.
The weight of the interest that this individual has in comparison to those interests of, of other individuals. And then there is another problematic use of the concept of moral status that can happen when you think that different individuals can have different degrees of consciousness and that this is morally relevant in, in some weight. Um, let me clarify that by different degrees of consciousness, I don't mean that so many of us are capable of having more complex experiences, because I don't think that the complexity of an experience adds anything to how good or bad that experience, uh, is. Uh, but I think that the intensity of an definitely does definitely means that that experience can be better or worse. So a more intense suffering is definitely worse than a less intense suffering. This is just common sense. So the idea here would be that if an individual is typical capable of having more intense experiences, then that individual has a higher moral status.
And so the interest of this individual cons for more than the interest of some other individual who is typically capable of less intense experiences, but this doesn't necessarily need to be the case. So suppose that we believe that, um, a pig is capable of having more intense experiences than a crab, but suppose that we are in a situation in which a crab can experience a very intense pain. I mean the most intense pain that the crab is capable of experiencing, and a pig can, uh, experience some mild pain and suppose that we can only relieve one of these animals of such pain. It will be wrong to think that we should relieve the pain of the peak because the pig has a higher moral status because it's typically capable of, of experiencing more pain, because what matters in this particular case is just the weight of the interest at stake. So considering all these, I don't think that any use of the concept of moral status is really helpful. And that's why I think we should abandon it.
Yeah. The double counting idea makes a lot of sense to me. I think actually when I was saying that the idea of most data seems potentially valuable to me, I was, I was just thinking of it in the sense of what you are defining interests to mean in terms of, that's sort of in terms of how you think about the intensity and importance of various interests. So that makes sense. Yeah.
Yeah. There wouldn't be really anything problematic with that in itself, but the problem is that many people are not going to understand what you mean because they will be using the term morals, titles with a different meaning. So that's why I think that, yeah, maybe we should get rid of its use altogether.
Okay. Well, Oscar, it's been great talking to you about this important topic, and we're going to have a another episode where we'll speak and share with listeners more about some of the more practical questions about what nonprofits, researchers, and advocates can do to help wild animals most effectively. But I just want to say thanks again very much for your time.
Thank you very much.
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