What We Owe the Future discusses reducing wild animal habitats and populations, but the idea of editing wild animals to reduce suffering is underexplored.
A grand unified theory of effective altruism
What We Owe the Future is a great step forward, but it is also a small step back, in that its vision focuses on what happens to people.
Future people count. There could be a lot of them. We can make their lives go better.
One suggested improvement from @sentientism:
Future *sentients* count. There could be a lot of them. We can make their lives better.
To do good better, altruism should not be restricted by arbitrary criteria like location (Famine, Affluence, and Morality), species (Animal Liberation) and time (What We Owe the Future). In short: everywhere, everyone, everytime.
This ties in nicely with the focus areas of effective altruism:
- Location: Global health and development
- Species: Animal welfare
- Time: Reducing risks to the future
- All of the above: Meta effective altruism
A controversial conclusion
On wild animal welfare, a brief section in Chapter 9 of What We Owe the Future is drawing attention for its conclusion.
On balance, various studies suggest that human activity over the last forty years has probably decreased vertebrate and invertebrate populations, though the evidence is limited and somewhat conflicting. How you evaluate this depends on your view on wild animal wellbeing. It’s very natural and intuitive to think of humans’ impact on wild animal life as a great moral loss. But if we assess the lives of wild animals as being worse than nothing on average, which I think is plausible (though uncertain), then we arrive at the dizzying conclusion that from the perspective of the wild animals themselves, the enormous growth and expansion of Homo sapiens has been a good thing.
MacAskill does emphasise the uncertainty of whether wild animal wellbeing is positive or negative, both in the book and in interviews.
I think it is true that you’re dealing with an environment that we don’t fully understand. From the wild animal suffering perspective, it may be very pro-more-research, more thinking about this. I’d be pretty wary of just paving over the jungle because, on the basis of our very non-robust evaluation, we think that animal lives are, on average, negative.
William MacAskill on Effective Altruism, Moral Progress, and Cultural Innovation (Ep. 156), Conversations with Tyler
The idea has been discussed before in effective altruism. In 2016, Brian Tomasik explored the idea of encouraging the loss of wild habitats to reduce suffering.
Given that most wild animals that are born have net-negative experiences, loss of wildlife habitat should in general be encouraged rather than opposed.
With the successful launch of What We Owe the Future, the idea of reducing wild animal habitats and populations is receiving renewed mainstream attention.
One problem with this idea is it could just as easily apply to humans as it does to non-human animals. If a town, region or country has a population with net-negative experiences, due to war, disease or disaster, does it mean we should reduce their living area or their population size? It seems better to reduce the negative experiences. For diseases, that could mean preventing and treating the disease, and alleviating the pain and suffering caused by the disease.
The problem with wild animals is they don’t see the veterinarian, or pop down to the local pharmacy, to treat diseases or alleviate suffering. They suffer alone, without help.
The case for CRISPR
An alternative to reducing wild animal habitats and populations is changing them so they suffer less. Analgesia through gene editing, as opposed to analgesia through drugs.
Removing r-strategists’ capacity to suffer without removing their capacity to feel mere pain is similar to giving them a permanent pain killer. It promises to significantly reduce the unpleasantness of their lives without making them less well-adapted to their environment.
Kyle Johannsen, Chapter 5 - Editing Nature, Wild Animal Ethics
The gene drive is a potential way of editing the genomes of wild animal populations.
Combining CRISPR genome editing with the natural phenomenon of gene drive allows us to rewrite the genomes of wild organisms. The benefits of saving children from malaria by editing mosquitoes are obvious and much discussed, but humans aren’t the only creatures who suffer. If we gain the power to intervene in a natural world “red in tooth and claw,” yet decline to use it, are we morally responsible for the animal suffering that we could have prevented?
Kevin Esvelt, When Are We Obligated To Edit Wild Creatures?
Like saving the drowning child in Singer’s thought experiment, now that gene drive technology is available, there is a choice between doing nothing and intervening to do good.
In the post-CRISPR era, whether intelligent agents decide to preserve, reform, or phase out the biology of involuntary suffering will be an ethical choice.
David Pearce, Compassionate Biology
The concept of editing animals, including ourselves, to reduce suffering needs a book of its own. There are many issues: obtaining informed consent, ensuring safety and control, designing constrained and reversible technologies, and regulating dual use.
But the potential of the technology to increase wellbeing deserves more exploration, in MacAskill’s new book and in others.