Cross-posted from the Post-Suffering newsletter
Kyle Johannsen is a Canadian philosopher and the author of Wild Animal Ethics: The Moral and Political Problem of Wild Animal Suffering. One chapter of the book is now open access, free to download and read.
Michael Huang: Hello Kyle, many thanks for answering questions about your book. You have a subchapter in your book, “1.2 Effective Altruism and Wild Animal Suffering”, where you analyse wild animal welfare through the ITN framework. You conclude that it scores highly on importance and neglectedness, but tractability can be an issue. Is more research needed to identify wild animal welfare projects that are tractable?
Kyle Johannsen: More research is certainly important. We need to learn more about which wild animals are sentient, what the sentients ones’ welfare levels are, and how different interventions would impact their welfare. With enough research, safe, respectful, large-scale interventions should one day be available.
That said, there are some interventions we already perform for reasons unrelated to wild animal welfare, but which presumably have positive consequences for wild animals. Examples include wildlife vaccination programs, programs that reduce the size of wild parasite populations, and the use of fertility control to limit populations of sentient animals. We’ve already performed these successfully in various contexts, so presumably we can continue to do so, and we know that they’re politically feasible, since they also promote anthropocentric and/or conservation goals. The animal welfare impacts of such programs still need further research, but the programs are very promising. Though such programs might seem insignificant, the opposite is actually true. The huge scale of wild animal suffering entails that interventions with a proportionately small impact on the problem nonetheless do a very large amount of absolute good.
MH: What are the main bottlenecks to having an impact in wild animal welfare at the moment? Is it funding, research, talented people, awareness, perhaps all of the above?
KJ: I think that ‘all of the above’ is a good answer. Even though wild animal welfare is receiving more funding than ever before, and more people are working on it right now than ever before, it’s still extremely neglected relative to its massive scale and to other cause areas in animal advocacy.
Raising awareness is certainly important: most people’s judgments about life in the wild are affected by survivorship bias, and as a result, people tend to think that the lives led by animals who reach maturity (the animals we normally encounter) are representative. Mature animals are not representative, though. Due to r-strategist reproduction, more than 99% of sentient individuals die painfully before they have a chance to develop the competence needed to reach maturity. Presumably there would be more support for wild animal welfare if more people appreciated how poor the life of a representative wild animal really is. Additionally, it would be helpful if more people understood how numerous wild animals are. Wild animals outnumber human beings and domesticated animals by many orders of magnitude, but many people don’t know this. The reason for their lack of awareness, perhaps, is that people tend to focus on biodiversity – specifically native biodiversity – when thinking about wild animals. The level of biodiversity among an area’s native animals is rather different from the number of individual animals living in that area, though. An area with a low level of native biodiversity can nonetheless possess a very large population of wild animals.
Though I do discuss the idea of ‘nature’ in the book, I don’t discuss the idea’s relationship with religion or with critical theory. I suspect that exploring these topics will yield insights into how we might go about building more support for wild animal welfare. For example, with respect to critical theory, it’s common knowledge among feminist theorists that there’s a connection between the concept of nature and the concept of the feminine, and that the association between these concepts has reinforced women’s oppression. Placing a group of individuals under the category ‘nature’ seems to have a pernicious effect on how we relate to them, and the same is true concerning our relationship with wild animals.
With respect to religion, I’m often struck by the inconsistent attitude people have towards interventions carried out for conservation purposes vs. interventions carried out to improve wild animal welfare. Their position seems to be that conservation-related interventions have a reasonable chance of success so long as they’re well-researched and cautiously conducted, whereas welfare-related interventions are doomed to failure no matter how much research is done beforehand. Since there’s nothing to justify this asymmetry, it’s worth wondering why some people unreflectively endorse it. The answer may lie in the fact that monotheistic religions such as Christianity have had a huge impact on our conceptual framework - an impact that outlives belief in the religion itself. Monotheistic religions have trouble reconciling the idea of an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing God, with the existence of suffering in nature, so they construct theodicies that argue suffering in nature is necessary, i.e., that the world would necessarily be worse if any of that suffering were removed. The idea that suffering in nature is necessary, and that any attempt to mitigate it would therefore inevitably make things worse, impedes efforts to build support for wild animal welfare.
MH: There’s been some discussion in EA about megaprojects, projects that could spend $100 million or more per year to bring about systemic change. Are there any projects on the horizon that could use this kind of funding? I was thinking that Target Malaria could use this kind of funding to roll out gene drives that target malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Or perhaps MIT’s Reducing Suffering in Laboratory Animals project.
KJ: Those are some good ideas, Michael. Target Malaria is especially promising in my opinion, though I’m not sure how much funding they would need. In the book, I argue that [the] gene drive is a very technologically promising way of intervening, e.g., it could potentially be used to reduce infant mortality, or to provide animals with a genetic analgesic of sorts during the most vulnerable period of their life (by temporarily reducing the extent to which their pain bothers them). At the moment, though, I don’t think that intervening via gene drive is politically feasible. I don’t think it will become politically feasible until it is being successfully used for either anthropocentric or conservation purposes, e.g., to eliminate malaria, or to control the reproduction of so-called ‘invasive’ animals such as rats in New Zealand, or to eliminate the New World screw-worm (a particularly nasty parasite) from South America. If I’m right, then projects like these would not only provide some immediate benefits: they would also help normalize gene drives and thus make it more politically feasible to develop gene drive projects that aim to improve wild animal welfare.
MH: What have been the most common objections to your book so far?
KJ: Not enough people have critiqued the book for there to be any objections I’d call ‘common’. The book was the subject of a symposium that was published in the journal Philosophia, and the symposium’s papers make various objections, but there isn’t much overlap between them. The commentaries all raise pretty different issues. Of course, there is a common set of objections to the claim that we have a collective duty of beneficence to assist wild animals, e.g., the objection that naturalness should be preserved, the objection that intervention is paternalistic, the objection that intervention is too ecologically risky, etc. In the book, I respond to these and various other objections.
The eradication of suffering
MH: EdisonY has written a forum post called the Suffering-Focused Ethics (SFE) FAQ which describes the ideal world as one where suffering is eradicated. This vision of a post-suffering world has been championed by David Pearce among others. Would the eradication of suffering be the logical goal of wild animal welfare interventions?
KJ: I’m skeptical of the claim that we ought to completely eradicate suffering, and I say as much in the book. With respect to wild animals in particular, part of my worry is just that suffering is adaptive – animals learn from their experiences of suffering and subsequently become more competent to navigate the dangers of their environment. Mild pains are less memorable than suffering is, and the same is true of low-level pleasures. Permanently replacing suffering with mere pain (pain that animals care less about), or replacing pain with gradients of bliss, may inhibit many animals’ capacity to achieve competence. Additionally, I suspect that completely eliminating suffering would decrease an animal’s capacity for positive experiences. Our ability to appreciate positive experiences is likely contingent upon our having negative experiences to compare them to, e.g., excitement is pleasant in part because we know what boredom feels like, and joy is pleasant in part because we know what sadness feels like, etc. I think that it’s ideal for one to suffer infrequently, but that one who never has and never will suffer is likely unable to fully flourish.
MH: There are many challenges when it comes to rewriting suffering. You write in your book that it may be possible to circumvent these problems through the design of the gene drive. For example, remove the capacity to suffer temporarily instead of permanently.
George Church has talked about replacing the pain system with a signalling or alarm system, something that would alert you of harm instead of creating a painful sensation. It would be a functional replacement, performing the same function as pain, but replacing suffering with information.
Alternatively, a pain system that could be turned on and off at will would solve the problems of pain systems that are permanently on or permanently off.
What do you think of these possible genetic futures?
KJ: Church has some interesting ideas. I particularly like the idea of designing a gene drive that gives animals the ability to turn their pain off at will, or the ability to just dull their pain when needed. Providing an ability like that is analogous to giving them access to a supply of analgesics.
Trying to replace pain with something functionally equivalent is more problematic: it runs into the problems I raised above. I suspect that one who never has and never will experience suffering is less able to appreciate their positive experiences, and thus less able to fully flourish. I also think that functionally replacing suffering is difficult. Non-sentient beings, such as bacteria and some invertebrate animals, are able to react to and avoid harmful stimuli, but they lack the capacity for learning that sentient beings possess. Functionally replacing suffering requires not only the capacity to react to harmful stimuli, but also the capacity to store information about those stimuli and to learn from one’s encounters with them.
The latest research
MH: Wild animal welfare is a relatively new academic field. What’s the best way to keep up with the latest research? Is there a journal, conference, repository or blog specifically for this subject? For researchers, what is a good source of academic grants?
KJ: Wild Animal Initiative has been doing a great job of securing funding for itself, quite a bit of which is being made available to external researchers via grants. I recommend that anyone doing empirical research on wild animal welfare check out their website. I’m a moral philosopher, though, and there aren’t a whole lot of external funding opportunities for moral philosophical work on wild animal welfare. It’s encouraging, though, that a growing number of philosophy graduate students are writing theses about wild animal welfare, so there are certainly potential supervisors out there. Some journals that have previously published relevant philosophical work include Between the Species, Environmental Ethics, Environmental Values, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, the Journal of Applied Philosophy, Philosophia, and Relations.
A second edition
MH: If you were preparing a second edition of this book, what advances are you expecting in ten or twenty years’ time?
KJ: I expect that genetic technology will be much more advanced within 10 or 20 years, and that it will be much easier to safely implement gene drives than it currently is (we’ll presumably know more about how to contain them, for example). Hopefully some gene drives will already have been successfully implemented, too, so the idea of using gene drives to assist wild animals or to otherwise improve the natural world, won’t seem so counter-intuitive anymore. Though CRISPR has been all the rage for a while, it’s reasonably likely that some other, superior type of gene editing will have replaced it within 10 or 20 years. It’ll be interesting to see what that new technology is capable of.
Also, I expect that the vegan social movement will make significant gains over the next 10 or 20 years. This is exciting in part because more ethical vegans means more people who are reasonably likely (or at least more likely than the average person) to be sympathetic to arguments for improving wild animal welfare. The rise of veganism also presents certain dangers, though. Animal agriculture is much less efficient than plant agriculture is, in part because the former uses so much more land. If enough of the world goes vegan, then presumably much of the land currently being used for agricultural purposes will no longer be needed anymore. Though it’s tempting to simply rewild all of this land, the reality of wild animal suffering suggests that rewilding is morally complicated. At the very least, rewilding should be done in a cautious manner with considerable attention given to the wellbeing of the animals it brings into existence. This suggests that raising awareness about wild animal suffering is important not only to build support for welfare-improving interventions, but also to prevent irresponsible interventions from being carried out in the future.
MH: One of the priorities of EA is to ensure that Artificial General Intelligence is created safely and is aligned with human values. For example, the Center for Human-Compatible AI is working towards these ends. It strikes me that there has been little attempt to align AI with non-human animals such as wild animals, or to take their interests into consideration. What are your views on AI alignment and the interests of non-human animals?
KJ: This is probably something that someone should publish a paper about. I’m not too familiar with the subject of AI alignment, though I know that one of the issues is that ‘superintelligent’ artificial intelligence might one day be developed, and that it could pose a real danger to human beings if we accidentally fail to program it with the ‘right’ values (values that align it with our interests). With respect to animals, the problem is that human beings might not even try to align AI with animals’ interests, and yeah, that could potentially prove quite harmful to animals. For example, suppose AI were to play a big role in future conservation-related interventions, and that it was programmed to prioritize biodiversity among native species. AI with such programming might be inclined to massacre non-native animals and to increase the size of native r-strategist populations, both of which are very problematic from the perspective of wild animal welfare. It could therefore prove to be important that future AI is programmed to care about wild animal welfare.
Following the author's work
MH: Thanks again for sharing your views. If readers wanted to ask you more questions, what’s the best way to contact you or follow your work?
KJ: Thanks for the interview, Michael. After publishing a paper, I usually post a version of it on my academia.edu page and on my philpeople.org page. Those are good places to follow my work. Anyone who’d like to contact me is welcome to send me an email. My main email address is email@example.com.