Reducing Wild Animal Suffering Literature Library: Consciousness and Ecology

11

Collections and resourcesWild animal welfare
Frontpage

These reading modules are put together by the members of the group Wild Animal Welfare Project Discussion as part of the RWAS Literature Library Project

This series of articles and essays together lay out crucial considerations explaining and underpinning the reduction of wild animal suffering (RWAS) as a potential focus area for effective altruists. These modules are intended to serve multiple functions:

General Consciousness

 

Thomas Metzinger (2016). Suffering

In this chapter I will present a first, rudimentary, working concept of suffering and then derive six logical possibilities for its minimisation. Rigorous philosophical and scientific research programmes on consciousness – which have seen a great renaissance in the last three decades – are reaching a level of maturity which suggests the careful introduction of additional relevance constraints: we can now begin to go beyond foundational research and ask what, given a wider and perhaps even normative context, the really important aspects or forms of conscious experience actually are.

 

Luke Muehlhauser (2017). 2017 Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood

We aspire to extend empathy to every being that warrants moral concern, including animals. And while many experts, government agencies, and advocacy groups agree that some animals live lives worthy of moral concern, there seems to be little agreement on which animals warrant moral concern. Hence, to inform our long-term giving strategy, I (Luke Muehlhauser) investigated the following question: “In general, which types of beings merit moral concern?” Or, to phrase the question as some philosophers do, “Which beings are moral patients?”

For this preliminary investigation, I focused on just one commonly endorsed criterion for moral patienthood: phenomenal consciousness, a.k.a. “subjective experience.” I have not come to any strong conclusions about which (non-human) beings are conscious, but I think some beings are more likely to be conscious than others, and I make several suggestions for how we might make progress on the question.

 

Simon Knutsson (2017). Measuring Happiness and Suffering.

Is the balance of happiness versus suffering in the future net positive or net negative (in expectation)? Is the aggregate happiness and suffering in a group of wild or domesticated non-human animals positive or negative?

For such questions to have factual answers that are free from value judgements, happiness and suffering would need to be objectively measurable to a very high degree. That is to say, they would need to be objectively measurable on a specific kind of scale. In principle, we would need to establish a plausible way to add and subtract magnitudes of happiness and suffering across individuals and get a sum; a way that does not involve a value judgement on the part of the person doing the arithmetic. However, such a degree of measurability is widely (although not universally) rejected.

 

Mike Johnson (2017). Why I think the Foundational Research Institute should rethink its approach

The following is my considered evaluation of the Foundational Research Institute, circa July 2017. I discuss its goal, where I foresee things going wrong with how it defines suffering, and what it could do to avoid these problems.

TL;DR version: functionalism ("consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains") sounds a lot better than it actually turns out to be in practice. In particular, functionalism makes it impossible to define ethics & suffering in a way that can mediate disagreements.

 

Mike Johnson (2017). Wild Animal Suffering Overview.

The following are my personal intuitions as to how one might go about quantifying wild-animal suffering. Epistemic status: exploratory; highly incomplete and at points very speculative.



Brian Tomasik (2017). Is Brain Size Morally Relevant?

This piece outlines some arguments for and against the view that the ethical importance we place on suffering and happiness depends on the size and complexity of the brain experiencing them. In favor of weighting by an increasing function of brain size are the observations that a brain could be split in half to create two separate individuals and that big brains perform many parallel operations. The approach favoring size neutrality points out that an individual organism can be interpreted as a single, unified agent with its own utility function, and that to a tiny brain, an experience activating just a few pain neurons could feel like the worst thing in the world from its point of view.

 

Brian Tomasik (2017). Do Smaller Animals Have Faster Subjective Experiences?

Smaller animals, in general, have greater temporal resolution of vision in the sense that they can tell that a light source is flickering up to a higher frequency than bigger animals can. This suggests the possibility that smaller animals might, in general, have higher rates of "subjective experience", loosely defined. However, the moral weight of an animal doesn't just depend on how quickly its retina or visual system sends along information but also on how much total processing its brain does. So a better proxy for the moral weight of a mind might be (some function of) brain metabolic rate, which should capture frequency of neuronal firing as one component. Insofar as smaller animals may have higher brain metabolic rates per unit of body mass, they probably do matter more than a simple weighting based on body size would suggest.

Invertebrate Consciousness

Brian Tomasik - Which Stimuli are Painful to Invertebrates?

In debates regarding whether insects and other invertebrates can feel pain, conflicting evidence can be raised on either side. For example, it seems clear from many studies that invertebrates can learn to avoid electric shock, heat, certain chemicals, and so on. Meanwhile, there are examples of invertebrates apparently unconcerned by physical injury. In my opinion, this collection of evidence suggests that invertebrates plausibly suffer in response to some stimuli but maybe not others. If so, it seems useful to further explore which particular stimuli are unpleasant to invertebrates to what degrees, in order to inform ethical treatment of invertebrates.

 

Brian Tomasik - Do Bugs Feel Pain?

Do bugs suffer? Does a fly caught in a spider's web consciously experience fear and pain? This piece aims to shed some light on that question by presenting quotations and references from a variety of sources. My personal conclusion is that we should give some weight to the possibility of bug suffering, especially until more evidence is available. Thus, considering the 10^18 insects that exist at any given time, there is a huge amount of (potential) suffering in nature due to insects alone. We may also want to consider the ways in which humans impact insects, such as through insecticide use, although insecticides could potentially prevent more suffering than they cause if they avert vast numbers of future offspring that would have mostly died, possibly painfully, soon after being born. (Whether insecticides reduce or increase insect suffering on balance seems unclear. And of course, reducing insect habitat permanently would be more humane than simply spraying pesticides.)



Georgia Ray (2017). Which Invertebrate Species Feel Pain?

Invertebrates are the most common animals on earth, composing 97% of known species (“Articles 16 September 1988,” n.d.), and have complex behavior and nervous systems. While it may be impossible to tell conclusively whether a non-human species can feel pain or not, there are concrete factors that may increase the chance that a given species feels something analogous to pain in humans. There are six such factors  that are experimentally verifiable, and can be studied in species both related and distant from humans: identified pain-related neurons and brain structures, the presence of natural opioids, behavioral responses to damaging stimuli (either general responses or altered response to the damaged body part), evolutionary similarity to humans, and a wide repertoire of behaviors.

 

Robert Jones (2014). Can They Suffer? Pain in Insects, Spiders and Crustaceans

When he famously asked “Can they [animals] suffer?” two and half centuries ago, Jeremy Bentham proposed the notion that the capacity to feel pain is enough to entitle animals to moral consideration. Today, research continues to emerge showing that animals previously thought to have no capacity to feel pain can, in fact, suffer. In this blog post, adapted from a longer article I wrote titled “The Lobster Considered” (inspired by David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, “Consider the Lobster”), I explore recent research into the capacity for pain in insects, spiders and crustaceans, and the implications for extending moral consideration to these animals.

 

Jane A. Smith (1991). A Question of Pain in Invertebrates

Quite apart from philosophical considerations, practical and scientific evidence may lead us to assume that all mammals can experience something analogous to (though most likely qualitatively and quantitatively different from) the human experience of pain. Humans, after all, are mammals; and although the details may differ, we share our basic physiology with other mammalian species. There is also a reasonableness, it seems, in extending this view to include other members of the Vertebrata. The further we move away from the mammalian plan, the more difficult it becomes to infer pain in other species. But vertebrates, at least, have similarities in basic anatomy and physiology, including similarities in nervous organization, which are especially important in this context.

What, however, of the 95 percent of species in the Animal Kingdom that do not possess a backbone--the heterogeneous assemblage of animals, organized very differently from the vertebrate plan, which we call ‘invertebrates’?

 

Simon Knutsson (2016). Reducing suffering among invertebrates such as insects (PDF)

Invertebrates such as insects, spiders, worms and snails may very well feel pain, and we should therefore take actions to reduce their potential su ering. The large number of such invertebrate individuals and the severity of the harms that they endure mean that their potential su ering would be an ethical disaster. Sentience Politics advocates that actions should be taken in several areas: Invertebrates should, when possible, not be used in re- search and teaching, and should not be used as food and feed or in the production of silk, shellac, etc. If invertebrates are to be used in these areas, we advocate actions to at least reduce their su ering. In addition, attempts to prevent invertebrates from damaging crops should use the least painful methods, and research should be done to develop methods that cause less su ering. Finally, policy analysis should take into account the resulting amounts of su ering among all invertebrates, whether it is caused by humans or not.


Vertebrate Ecology

 

Matthew Clarke and Yew Kwang-Ng (2006). Population Dynamics and Animal Welfare: Issues Raised by the Culling of Kangaroos in Puckapunyal

The culling of kangaroos at the Puckapunyal Army base (Australia) raises some intriguing ethical issues around animal welfare. After discussing the costs and benefits of the cull, this paper addresses the more general animal welfare issues related to population dynamics. Natural selection favours the maximization of the number of surviving offspring. This need not result in the maximization of the welfare of individuals in the species. The contrast between growth maximization and welfare maximization is first illustrated for a single population and then discussed in terms of competing populations. In the Lotka-Volterra model of competing species and its generalizations, the choice of different birthrates does not affect the population sizes at equilibrium. Welfare could be much higher at lower birthrates without even reducing numbers (at equilibrium).

 

Persis Eskander (2017). An Analysis of Lethal Methods of Wild Animal Population Control: Vertebrates

Many animals are sentient beings and as such should be treated so that they do not suffer unnecessarily.  My conservative estimate suggests that the human control of wild animal populations affects at least 25 million vertebrates annually. Unfortunately, popular lethal methods of population control also inflict significant suffering on target animals. Rather than lethally reducing existing populations, an alternative is to artificially manipulate population growth such that target species reproduce at slower rates.

 

Brian Tomasik. How Wild-Caught Fishing Affects Wild-Animal Suffering

Fishing imposes agonizing deaths on 1-3 trillion fish per year, as well as many other marine animals. However, (over)fishing has many other indirect effects on wild-animal suffering. This piece surveys reasons why the harvesting of wild fish might reduce as well as increase the suffering of oceanic creatures. The net impact is extremely unclear. Moreover, the sign of net impact may depend on what kind of fish is eaten -- for example, catching big piscivorous fish may reduce zooplankton populations, while catching small zooplanktivorous fish may increase zooplankton populations. If you do buy fish, it's plausible though not completely clear that unsustainable kinds are best -- e.g., overfished species, those caught with bottom trawling, etc. That said, I would probably err on the side of not eating fish, especially because wild-catch fishing may increase the amount of fish farming in the future.

 

Ozy Brennan (2017). Euthanizing Elderly Elephants: An Impact Analysis

When elephants reach their sixties, they lose their last set of molars and starve to death. Euthanizing elderly elephants might seem like a good way to prevent their suffering from starvation. Unfortunately, while there’s little good evidence about how many elephants die of molar loss, the research on causes of death suggests that it’s relatively rare, and the research on elephant longevity suggests that few elephants live to be old enough for molar loss to be an issue. Thus, euthanasia of elderly elephants is unlikely to be a high-impact intervention for people interested in wild-animal suffering.


Invertebrate Ecology

 

Brian Tomasik. Speculations on Invertebrate Population Dynamics Relevant to Reducing Suffering

It's conventionally assumed that if you care about insect suffering, you should want to avoid stepping on insects, should want to let them outside when they're trapped in your house, should want to avoid pesticide use, etc. The Jains and Buddhists probably agree. These recommendations may be right, but it's not completely clear. For one thing, the insect that you avoid killing would have died painfully in some other way. In addition, it might have gone on to have children, most of whom would have died painfully shortly after birth. So it's possible that killing the insect could be better after all. Of course, if you do kill it, you should squish it as quickly and completely as possible, rather than drowning it, vacuuming it, spraying it, or casually crushing it without completely destroying its brain. But is it better to be squished or to die naturally? And if you do squish it, will it be replaced by other insects taking its place?

 

Persis Eskander (2017). An Analysis of Lethal Methods of Wild Animal Population Control: Invertebrates

If invertebrates are sentient beings they should be treated so that they do not suffer unnecessarily. Very rarely is the potential suffering of insects considered in agricultural population control. It is likely then that some of the current methods being used inflict significant suffering on target and nontarget insects. This paper tentatively suggests that fast-acting, broad-spectrum insecticides paired with artificial population regulation present an interim solution that may minimize insect suffering in agriculture.

 

Simon Knutsson (2016). How Good or Bad is the Life of an Insect?

 

If I died and was offered to be born again as an insect or cease to exist, I would definitely choose not to exist. This essay focuses on the quality of life of honey bees because they are well-studied, and on what have been suggested to be the most numerous insects: springtails, ants, termites, and aquatic insects such as mayflies and midges (although some sources no longer classify springtails as insects).

 

3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:46 PM
New Comment

Thank you for this resource, Evan! Several pieces I haven't seen before here.

I agree that wild animals should not suffer much due to anyone. But these wild animals like squirrels, raccoons, snakes; they enter the houses of people and makes it difficult for them to stay at their own place. Some people who face this problem they use some chemicals without reading whether they are poisonous or not which eventually affect the wild animals, while some people call professional wildlife removal from CT Pest Exterminators. Professionals from there do not use any poisonous chemicals rather they trap the animals and leave them somewhere they could be safe and at the same point, they could not the homes of the people in order for the safety of people.

Hi Michael. Thanks for your comment. Animals that become vermin make people's lives, and what we as suffering reducers can do about it, is a difficult issue. The question of what to do about the suffering of wild animals that interact with humans a lot is a difficult one. For example, using poisonous chemicals to exterminate animals may cause them more harm in death than other potentially affordable and overlooked interventions. However, vermin don't attract as much attention in this field right now. I expect it's because while vermin are populous, the even bigger, and hence more important, populations of animals effective altruism focuses our research on are in the wilderness proper (e.g., a forest or marsh as opposed to urban/suburban areas). However, since there is such a dearth of thinking on this field, suggestions to improve or initiate better interventions for improving wild animal welfare in any domain are always welcome.