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 antispeciesist 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, mostly trying to encourage more research, more academic work on the field. Then also Wild Animal Initiative is another organization which is doing similar work in trying to promote academic work in this field. And also Rethink Priorities has done some research on this topic. And then there is the work of independent people. There have been some, yeah, some philosophers and other people who have written papers encouraging people to care about this issue. And in recent years, also, there has been an increasing amount of work having to do with actual scientific research 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 working in this area. And also, of course, more funding would be greatly appreciated because this is a severely underfunded field of research and also of advocacy.
Yeah, so most of what you’re talking about there refers primarily to 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 tend to see this yeah, as something that is regrettable, and that of course if we could do something about we should do it, but it seems like a very, very difficult issue to tackle. While what really happens is that currently, and actually for some time already, sometimes for decades, there have been many different kinds of interventions that have been focused on helping animals just for the sake of improving their situation, or in other cases they have other motivations, but the results have been that they’ve helped very significantly and very large amounts of animals. So for instance, we can think first of many cases where people, I mean, acting individually, rescue animals in situations of need, such as for instance animals trapped in mud ponds, or frozen lakes, or what have you.
In other cases, other people have adopted animals that have been injured or sick or orphaned and wouldn’t survive otherwise. And 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 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, due 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 maybe the larger scale intervention that we can think of is that of vaccination, wild animal vaccination against diseases, such as a rabies or anthrax or tuberculosis. The main reason why these initiatives are implemented is because we don’t want, or the people implementing these measures don’t want, animals to get these diseases because they don’t want them to pass them 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, and 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, this shows that rather than being something that seems like a utopia or something of that kind, helping wild animals, interventions and that can really make a significant difference in reducing wild animal suffering, are perfectly feasible. And with more interest, we could definitely expand it more and help many more animals.
Great, yeah. I’m sure we’ll come back to 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 problem of wild animal suffering, and what can be done to address it 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 very good lives, or sufficiently happy lives. So, the problem with this view is that it’s really overlooking very different sources of harm that threaten the wellbeing of these animals and cause them significantly to suffer. And also it’s really also overlooking the fact that 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. So it’s very common for animals to have lives that contain more suffering, sometimes much more suffering than positive 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, as I said, there are many different ones. So we could think of lack of food and water, disease, also there are environmental conditions such as weather conditions, but also factors like humidity, of light, and others that if they change they can mean, well, the death of many animals, but in the meantime, in the process, significant suffering for them. Also others like parasitism and conflicts with other animals accidents as well, they can get injured for accidental reasons and these injuries can be very painful or, or even lethal for them. And many animals also suffer from psychological stress. So, I mean, we can think of maybe animals who have more complex mental lives, so this is also a factor to bear in mind. We can imagine what it would be for us to live in the situation in which they are, and really, we can’t take for granted that for animals 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. 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 states that an animal may have. I mean it happens with nonhuman animals as it happens with humans as well, you can never be sure of that. But there are some reasonable, you know, estimations that we can make, and also in many situations we certainly have indicators that… it’s reasonable to infer from them that an animal is suffering. But this refers only to individual animals, and your question was about the total amount of aggregate suffering that there are there, and for this there are other indicators. So, for instance, we can consider whether this animal has been able to live for a certain time or has died very young. And what happens is that typically the same factors that cause an animal to suffer will also cause that animal to die, or the other way around. If we see that an animal has died because that animal has starved to death, we can certainly guess that the animal has suffered for that reason.
So here this 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. 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 their offspring are, how long these animals live, how many times the animals of the population we have in mind reproduce, etc. So we can then consider: if these animals, for instance, reproduce in 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 this suffering to be compensated with positive experiences.
So, well, another way to look at this is by considering age specific mortality in a certain population or in a certain species. 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 individuals. We are speaking here about two animals per couple, just one animal per parent. So, if we consider that there are animals who reproduce by laying hundreds, thousands, or millions of eggs, we can guess that the amount of suffering that is out there really is very significant. And we have a fairly strong argument to claim that suffering may well prevail over positive wellbeing, even though this of course is controversial for the reasons I mentioned before, that we don’t really have access to the mental states.
Yeah, so 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, reproductive strategy, 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, or that could be used. If you think, for example, in the global poverty world, there’s things like disability adjusted life years. And with mental health, I’m not exactly up to date on the latest research but my impression is they use things like subjective welfare, sorry, subjective 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 this could be successfully done, it would allow us to make estimates of the welfare of animals considered individually, but we need something more. We need to have some criteria to make guesses of the aggregate welfare in populations, and also even more ambitiously in eventually ecosystems as well.
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. I was just wondering whether there was also that sort of convenient metric that could be used. Let’s go back to that topic you mentioned of the reproductive strategies of different animals and what that implies about their 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 nonhuman animals die shortly after they come into existence. Can you just briefly summarize what r-selection is?
Yeah, so first of all I would need to clarify something. So, r-selection and K-selection these are kind of old concepts in biology. So r-strategists would be the animals that reproduce by having very large amounts of offspring. That would somehow grant that these animals continue to exist through time, I mean [among]these species or these types of animals, because there are so many animals, some make it to maturity 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 certain species or population, but there is a problem here which is that these concepts have been used together with a wider theory that was making other sort of estimation, some predictions about other things related to the life history of animals, predictions that are actually wrong.
So I regret now that in that paper and in some of the things that I wrote, I was speaking about r-selection and K-selection. I should probably just have spoken of number of animals brought into existence. Even though the way I was using these terms wasn’t really implying any support for the wider theory supported by, for instance, by Pianka and other people. Anyway having said this concerning the proportion of animals that we could call r-selected, or r-strategists, if we keep on using these terms, which now I don’t recommend to do, yeah, they seem to be the majority. But we should bear in mind that it’s not that we have some animals that are purely at the end of the spectrum and others that are purely at the other end of the spectrum.
What we actually can find in life histories are different trade-offs, among different factors one of them being a number of offspring against other factors, such as maybe size, which can be directly related to the probability that this animal survives. So, yeah, it seems clear that there is only a minority of animals that reproduce by having very few offspring. So yeah, you could think of primates, maybe, I don’t know, cetaceans, some birds like albatrosses, and there are even some like, for instance, some invertebrates also reproducing this way. Dung beetles, for instance, they lay very few eggs throughout 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: although the majority of the species tend to have many offspring, and even if they were not the majority, because these animals tend to lay so many eggs, 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 are connecting this with some expectation 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 underlying theory being critiqued and somewhat debunked. It still feels that just, 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 idyllic 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. And just even having some kind of concept for it I think really helps give that kind of symbolic shift in terms of thinking about what the default life of a wild animal is. So do you think there’s any kind of rhetorical value of giving that idea a name, even if we shift away from r-selection and K-selection as sort of debunked theory?
Yeah, absolutely, and that’s the reason why I chose to use them. But now 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 other theory, even if you don’t mean to. But yeah, I agree that rhetorically it’s very powerful. Yeah, we need to find some other 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 Yew-Kwang Ng, he hasn’t really written a lot about this. I think he wrote three and a half papers about this or something like that. Mainly what he did is 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 numbers of offspring and thinking that this may imply that there is more suffering than wellbeing. Although later 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 practical about different ways in which we could help wild animals in specific situations like invertebrates.
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 general argument, 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 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 reduce wild animal suffering under more ideal conditions, while I’ve focused my work more on the strategic part of it. Especially in the last years, and especially with my work in Animal Ethics, I’ve been less concerned with what we could do ideally, and more with what should be the practical courses of action, where we should work in order to be able to push forward the cause.
Great, yeah, let’s dive into some of those practical courses of action then. I think it’s worth speaking about specific interventions just to help make the discussion a bit more concrete. We can come back in a bit to the discussion of the sort of broader cause area of 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 idyllic view of 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 the interests of all sentient beings, not only of human beings, and/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 what are the interventions we should now promote if we want to maximize our success in the long-term. Those are different questions 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 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 future, are 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 says that there are several promising courses of action there, for instance those having to do with research on vaccination, also rescuing animals that are affected by weather conditions or climate related events, and also helping animals that don’t live in the wilderness, but wild animals living in agricultural areas or urban areas. I think these are the most promising ones.
Sure, yeah. I think also to 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 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 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 direct cost effectiveness at helping wild animals?
Yeah, I totally agree with that. So I really think that at this point we should choose our interventions mostly for two reasons. So one is the one that you just mentioned, the symbolic and educational value, and then also for something I mentioned before, the potential to promote further research on this issue. And 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 scientists in different fields in veterinary science, also biology psychologists about what ways of helping animals they thought that were more interesting for them, but also for their colleagues. The ones that they think would be more likely to be supported and researched. And then, on the basis of the results of this study, we did this survey where we ask several hundred students and scientists.
And that’s how we got to these three types of interventions that I mentioned before, vaccination, 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 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 deer (or shall we say deers, because they are not an uncountable mass) and other animals like bisons against brucellosis, or we are looking for examples of these, general types of interventions, 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 work in the field.
Do you think then that the main criteria is really just the practical likelihood of actually getting those interventions done, and that therefore depends on existing support amongst academics and that sort of thing. I guess it feels like 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 well, one thing to be bear in mind here is that when you are communicating to your target public, this, 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 they are examples of something that could be done on a much wider scale, so you need to bear that in mind. But having said this, really here, what I’m having in mind is basically strategic concerns about what is going to work best for the sake of having more resources put into the field, and having more support for it. I think that, if a certain campaign, if a certain way of helping animals, and I’m not having in mind now just intervention, but also for instance if you’re running a campaign, so a certain space or a certain body, or whatever will end up implementing this intervention, the process that will lead to the eventual intervention, all this campaign can be very useful in educational terms to raise awareness that it’s good to help wild animals in need.
So we would actually need to consider not the type of intervention, but actually the token. The specific interventions, look at the particularities involved, look at how likely they are to get 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 the Yellowstone area, where they are actually killing some animals to stop these animals from passing brucellosis to domesticated animals. So this seems to be a very interesting case, where a 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.
Yeah, makes a lot of sense, Interesting example of the brucellosis vaccinations. 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 due to hunger and malnutrition and that you could intervene to help them, 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 to carry out much more significant efforts that can improve a lot the life of animals in the wild. That’s also the reason why Wild Animal Initiative now is working on contraception of mainly birds living in urban environments, while Animal Ethics is now doing research on contraception targeting large herbivores like elks, deers and similar ones. For this very reason not only is this a measure that can be used, for instance, as an alternative to certain projects for population control involving hunting, but also it has this other advantage 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 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 at a more significant level, but I don’t think that’s really the way which on the long term we could make 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 of species, but in ecosystems as such, i.e. 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, [i.e. considering how much suffering there is] in this particular ecosystem against this other ecosystem. As ecosystems are changing all the time, they are evolving, and as humans are 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.
There is an example of this (and of course there is as with everything a lot of uncertainty here) this example concerns the case of the conservation of 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, and also less of the long trophic chains that otherwise would 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 facie; we should investigate this a bit more because there may be some unknown factor that changes this. But if the available evidence that our research brings about shows that this is the case, that this is 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 this at a much 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 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. I guess another line that some of the discussion on wild animal welfare and suffering has gone down is the idea of a 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 Tomasik has written quite extensively arguing that habitat destruction is a positive outcome. And in contrast to this there’s a recent paper by Tyler M 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 consequentialists should be concerned about cultivating relationships of care with nonhuman 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 line of action. So essentially it makes sense to have some kind of heuristics and norms of behaviour 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 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 here 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. I’ve just mentioned a way in which you could have an ecosystem with way less animals without having to kill 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, having elephants around maybe consider a way of habitat destruction, because 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 were significantly reduced without advocating things that could, you know, give the reduction of wild animal suffering a bad name.
Actually just recall all the examples of interventions that I mentioned before, and the reasons why 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 you mentioned. I mean, I have other concerns with that paper, with Sebo’s and John’s paper. It’s the one which is “Consequentialism and nonhuman animals”, I think, right? Yeah, and they tend to speak from a utilitarian viewpoint, whereas you may be a consequentialist and not really accept 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 probably some different results.
I mean, if you are a prioritarian, for instance, or a sufficientarian, then you will be very troubled by the suffering of, even if it’s just some minority of animals. Something I would add is that it’s not just the reduction 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 than this debate sort of implies.
Yeah, maybe I exaggerated the extent to which those two different perspectives were in opposition to each other. I wonder how John and Sebo would respond to idea of the kind of murder versus gradual encouragement of certain ecosystems over others distinction.
Just one follow up concerning this. Your last remark is 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, that 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 an argument that is relevant here, I think. Which is that if you have say a population of animals who reproduce by laying, I don’t know, a million eggs. And let’s consider just for the sake of the argument that not a million of them end up being sentient. Let’s just consider that it’s, 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 die 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 reproduce 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 a tiny extra fraction of them don’t make it in the first generation. And then, from then on, on the overall, you are actually preventing many deaths of these animals, rather than causing them.
Yes, another thing you were mentioning there 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 main effects that having different perspectives might have on this general category of interventions?
Yeah, so that’s a very interesting question. So, I mean, we can’t really assess it in detail here because there are many, many different theories. But it seems to me that if you hold for instance, an ethics of an ethic of care, you will have reason to help wild animals, because this is an approach that is very much focused on attending to the needs of others. It’s also true that this viewpoint, it also defends to be partial, to help primarily those who are more related to you. But, you know, it’s also concerned with the suffering and the needs of others, so this strikes me as an approach that would 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 really compel us to help the wild animals, while others may. And then, if you hold a suffering-focused ethics approach, you will also have a significant reason to help wild animals because 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 consider prioritarian views, egalitarian views, sufficientarian views, all those views that hold some form of maximin, either ponderate maximin principle or a leximin principle, they would also support this.
So, imagine that we reached the conclusion that in the wild 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… suppose that a utilitarian examines the issue and thinks, “Well, I think that in general wild animal suffering is not really that large in comparison 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 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 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 significant reasons to reduce the suffering. So, to summarize, I think that most normative approaches, at least the ones that are more accepted today, would lead us to help wild animals, though I agree it’s with different levels of strength.
Yeah. Yeah, so I can certainly, you’ve laid out 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 case for working to help wild animals compelling. I guess something that, I’m certainly no moral philosophy expert, so I guess I have the sense that like, with some types of theories, for example, some deontological moral theories, it can be kind of fairly arbitrary whether somebody considers particular entities, like whether animals in general are plausible rights holders or not, and I would imagine that the same could apply to some of those other things. You mentioned Egalitarianism and Prioritarianism. Couldn’t somebody just say okay so I care about reducing inequality but only within the context of human lives, and that sort of thing? Is that a plausible view that somebody could hold within these various frameworks?
Yeah, so in the case of egalitarianism, I don’t think that can be so. I think that just as someone can’t really claim to be, say a utilitarian and accept speciesism, just because of how utilitarianism is composed, what the different components of a utilitarianism are, and for sure there are many people who called themselves utilitarians who are nevertheless speciesist, but being speciesist is really incompatible with being a utilitarian, I think that the same happens in the case of egalitarianism. And actually there are extra reasons in the case of egalitarianism, because you will focus on the situation of those who are worse off. And because nonhuman animals are typically worse off than human beings, and certainly wild animals are, you will have more reasons than utilitarians have to help them. But I agree with what you said in the presentation of the different implications of different normative theories that I just meant. I was kind of assuming that they were not speciesist. But for sure many, many approaches are compatible with some form of speciesism, or maybe it’s the other way around, that you can have different types of speciesism. You can be a speciesist and a deontological speciesist or a consequentialist speciesist, etc. And not only that you can also hold some other views like, for instance, you could be a holistic ecocentrist. 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 helping wild animals, only when there were some conflict between these and the conservation of certain ecosystems. And also for instance, you could also be a biocentrist and think that it’s not really sentience that matters, it’s also all forms of life that matter. So in that case you would support not intervention to help wild animals. You would support some form of intervention to aid, all kinds of living beings, which would be a much more daunting task. But anyway, I think that these views aren’t really plausible. I believe that the case for speciesism or these other views that I just mentioned aren’t really sound ones.
I want to go back to some of the arguments that people have raised against focusing on wild animals in animal advocacy, and this idea of kind of crucial considerations, which is essentially a consideration that’s likely to cause a major shift in our view of interventions 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 to focus on wild animals or farm animals or something else. So 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 well first of all let me say something about what you just said in presenting the question. There’s this tendency to think that if there’s uncertainty about something, like an intervention in the wild, that means that 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 uncertainty definitely is a problem. It’s always a problem for any cause. For sure, an intervention in the wild may have effects about which we are more uncertain than certain campaigns that we can carry out to end certain ways in which animals are exploited or 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 that a very, very bad situation is one in which half 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 said 800,000 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 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 our conversation. Remember that then I was putting this 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 in line 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 other interventions, so this should ease very significantly all these concerns about the risks here involved. 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 reasons, or for conservationist reasons. So what happens then there, that, 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 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 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 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 to a bit about over the course of the episode already, but I think, I guess pushing down little further, some people, the reason that they are concerned about that is if they do justify it at all, in terms of individual animal interests, it often comes down to this consideration of autonomy. I guess, yeah, I guess I’m not entirely sure how that fits into the kind of ethical classifications discussion we were having earlier. 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. Actually, personally I find this like extremely counter-intuitive because autonomy only seems valuable to me instrumentally, in the sense that often sentient beings know what they want and need better than outside observers do. But for those people who do think that autonomy has some inherent value, do you think that wild animal welfare and suffering interventions to help wild animals could still be an important issue for them? Or is that just kind of a lost cause?
I agree with you. I think that if autonomy is valuable, it has to be instrumentally valuable. But even if you believe that it’s intrinsically valuable you need to consider then really what’s at stake in the situation of animals. Consider, 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, would 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 would think would be best for them. So we can have a similar approach when with nonhuman 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 her or whatever, but claiming that you shouldn’t help the animal because that’s against the animal’s autonomy seems to me to be 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 would be odd to believe that maybe animals don’t desire to be free from suffering, maybe animals want to agonize to death. I mean this it seems like a ridiculous claim. Of course, you could think, well, yeah, but maybe in helping some animals there can be others who are worse off, but this is not the problem of autonomy. 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 a situation. And we have to decide whether to make this situation better on the overall, even if a minority is worse off. Or making it better just for a minority, and a 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 there might not necessarily hold. That was 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 animal’s 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. First of all, the underlying reason why that paper ends up arguing that we are uncertain about whether suffering prevails or not in the wild. 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 arguments of the paper. But, basically, the underlying idea of thinking that maybe suffering doesn’t prevail in the wild, 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 assumed in the paper, it’s just as economic to produce suffering as it is to produce positive wellbeing in the wild. In order to motivate different agents to act in ways that would be causing them to be successful in reproducing and having their fitness increased. And for different reasons I think this is not the case. Well, I would say it’s not equally easy to have positive well-being and suffering. And we can see this very clearly in our own case. So, in our life it’s very, very easy to have suffering and is much harder 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, yeah, positive experiences prevail. This wouldn’t give us reason not to care about the suffering that there will still be there. So if you are, say, a utilitarian you would be concerned about that. Because even if you are happy that positive wellbeing prevails, you’d want there to be the least suffering that’s possible, so yes, you would still be concerned about this. And if you hold a different view, suppose you hold some kind of suffering-focused ethics, or some deontological ethics especially concerned with helping others or with reducing the harms that others may suffer. Or suppose you hold some character-based ethics like care ethics, you will still be very much concerned with reducing the suffering that there is in the wild. And also, if you hold a view that is focused on the worst off, like egalitarianism, 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 off, like prioritarianism and sufficientarianism get a relatively significant amount of support. And all these views would the still tell us that even if suffering doesn’t prevail in the wild, as long as there are individuals for whom it does prevail. As long as there are individuals who have very bad lives, we should be very concerned about reducing the suffering of those beings. Having 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, as I said before, this is not 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 that 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 and in whose life 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, yeah, if we set aside the way suffering and pleasure are distributed among different animals, 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, yeah, that the probabilities involved here are less clear. Indicators are less decisive, and yeah, this happens basically because the animals whose lives are positive for them, tend to have 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 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 with the situation of animals, even if this weren’t 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 anyway, 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 painfully 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 of a certain species just became sentient some time after they came into existence. And suppose that the vast majority of these animals die before they become sentient, maybe because they starve to death. So, you only have a few individual animals there when they start to be sentient, Then the situation would be very similar to the one where, you know, animals reproduced by just having a few descendants and yes, this would be a scenario where positive wellbeing may well prevail over a suffering. But then suppose that this is not quite so. Suppose that what happens is that many of them, many of these animals die before they become sentient, but not the vast majority of them. So there are still many of the animals of this species that will die after they become sentience. And they may, I don’t know, die in painful ways, maybe they starve to death. So in this case we would still have reasons to think that suffering would prevail over positive wellbeing among these animals. So yeah, what we have here is that if animals became sentient some time 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 nevertheless face other hardships, and if it’s still the case that most of them die prematurely due to factors that also caused them to suffer, we will still need to conclude that suffering prevails 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 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, we can think of bird chicks and they can die before they have grown up enough to fly out of 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 on the ground, 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 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 it’s 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 are born.
So I want to address one other quite different criticism, which 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 a few people working on this problem. But that kind of scale aspect, if we look further into the future then 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 vertebrae 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 sentients than they are about future wild animals. So if we’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. Do you have any 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 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’s a stronger 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 half something else, or artificial entities or entities that are created by other artificial entities. So the odds that there will continue to be nonhuman animals in the future are much more significant than the odds that there 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. And just as a bit of context, I guess, for the wild animal numbers decreasing, this includes things that like beyond, I guess, the vast majority of potential future human or post-human lives would not exist on planet earth. If you think basically 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. And in those scenarios it seems kind of unlikely for various reasons that wild animals would be spread to other planets. It obviously hinges on a few sort of speculative guesses about what the future might entail, but the number of wild animals looks smaller in kind of total expected value, calculations and estimates.
Yeah, so the argument seems to be that it’s more likely that in the future that will be more sentient artificial beings than sentient biological beings, and I think that this is probably the case. 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 wild animal suffering around. There are certain scenarios where humans may spread wild animals 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 Israelians sent this Moon lander that eventually crashed. They were purposedly sending some animals there. They sent some tardigrades there. And as eventually the lander crashed we can guess that these animals didn’t survive, though we can’t really know that for sure because 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 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 other 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 our concern for forms of sentience that are different from us, such as nonhuman animals, can have spillover effects 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 think that we could prevent sentient artificial beings being harmed in the future, either intentionally or accidentally, or any way, 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 very 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 sentient 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 can see there that the probability that there are going to be wild animals around and wild animal suffering in large scale in the future is small. And I suppose that you end up reaching the conclusion 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 this cause 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 the area is still too small. And the amount of funding that the organizations working on this 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 this higher than the ones that I gave in this example of maybe 2-3% or whatever. But even if we just accepted these small probabilities, wild animal suffering as a cause area should receive much more support than it’s getting today.
Yeah, a lot of things I agree with there. It’s certainly unclear whether even if you do want to work to help artificial sentients, whether it’s better to attempt to focus on that directly but speculatively, or to focus on 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’re 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 what does this suggest, what does this imply for our actions towards wild animals and prioritizing between different actions?
Well, the concept of moral status is problematic for two reasons. One is that it’s a very confusing one, because different people can mean 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. For 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 weren’t for it being 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 have for example an interest in avoiding a certain suffering that is very, very similar with a similar duration and similar intensity and similar indirect effect. But it just so happens that the suffering, the potential suffering of one of them would be somehow higher. But we nevertheless 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 that 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 one is 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 interests involved. So, I think that this use of the term is just a way of defending a view that is morally unjustified. Also, the concept of moral status can be appealed to in a way that doesn’t use these criteria, but just appeals to sentience, but which nevertheless is morally problematic. So one of them is by double counting. 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 weight to the interests this individual has in comparison to the interests 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 other individuals. And then there is another problematic use of the concept of moral status that can happen when you think that differing individuals can have different degrees of consciousness and that this is morally relevant in some way.
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 is. But I think that the intensity of an experience definitely does. It 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 typically capable of having more intense experiences, then that individual has a higher moral status. And so the interest of this individual counts 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 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 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 pig because the pig has a higher moral status, because it’s typically capable of experiencing more pain, because what matters in this particular case is just the weight of the interests at stake. So considering all this, 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 moral status seems potentially valuable to me, I was just thinking of it in the sense of what you are defining interests to mean in terms of how you think about the intensity and importance of various interests. So that makes sense.
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 moral status 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 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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