Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

by Jordan_Warner1 min read25th Oct 202044 comments

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Criticism of effective altruist causesWild animal welfare
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I figured I'd write this to articulate a concern, or really more of a vague suspicion, that makes me nervous whenever I read anything about Wild Animal Suffering. This is going to seem like I'm being really uncharitable, but I'll say it anyway in case other people feel similarly.

Whenever anyone talks about how we should look into this, because wild animals suffer a lot, I have this nagging feeling that they're going to do rigorous research for a few decades, then conclude that the majority of animals on Earth would be better off dead. At this point they'll presumably recommend that we start purging the world of animal life, and to me that sounds like a bad thing, regardless of how convincing the research is.

As far as I'm aware, nobody is saying this, but the almost non-existent state of the current research allows me to fill in the gaps with whatever I think is most plausible. I assume the people interested in the field fill in the blanks differently to me, and it's unlikely that a large body of research will exactly match my totally uninformed worst expectations.

The problem is that it's pretty easy to measure suffering, but it's probably impossible to determine what makes an animal's life worth living. With that in mind, I assume that research into Wild Animal Suffering will adopt a negative utilitarian approach, and negative utilitarianism scares me because I don't think it regards life as inherently worth living. 

Of course, maybe it isn't?

I'd rather not find out.

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I co-founded 2 of and have worked at another of the 6 organizations that have worked on wild animal welfare with an EA lens. I've been writing or thinking about these things since around 2014. Here are a handful of thoughts related to this:

  • I think almost none of the people working in the space professionally are full on negative utilitarians. Probably many are very focused on reducing suffering (myself included), but pretty much everyone really likes animals - that's why they work on making their lives better!
  • In 2018, I helped organize the first wild animal welfare summit for the space. We unanimously agreed that this perspective was an unproductive one, and I don't think any group working in the space today (Wild Animal Initiative, Animal Ethics, Rethink Priorities) holds a view that is this strong. So I think in general, the space has been moving away from anything like what you're discussing.
  • Speaking from personal experience, I was much more sympathetic to this sort of view when I first got involved. Wild animal suffering is really overwhelming, especially if you care about animals. For me, it was extremely sad to learn how horrible lives are for many animals (especially those who die young). But, the research I've done and read has both made me a lot less sympathetic to a totalizing view of wild animals of this sort (e.g. I think many more wild animals than I previously thought live good lives), and less sympathetic to taking such a radical action. I think that this problem seems really hard at first, so it's easy to point to an intervention that provides conclusive results. But, research has generally made me think that we are both wrong about how bad many (though definitely not most) animal lives are, and how tractable these problems are. I think there are much more promising avenues for reducing wild animal suffering available.
  • People on the internet talk about reducing populations as being the project of wild animal welfare. My impression is that most or all of those folks don't actually work on wild animal welfare. And the groups working in the space aren't really engaged in the online conversation, probably in part because of disagreement with this view.
  • I hope that there are no negative utilitarians who hold 0 doubts about their ethics. I guess if I were a full negative utilitarian, or something, I probably wouldn't be 100% confident in that belief. And given that irreversibility of the intervention you describe, if I wasn't 100% confident, I'd be really hesitant to do anything like that. Instead, improving welfare is acceptable under a variety of frameworks, including negative utilitarianism, so it seems like we'd probably be inclined to just improve animal's lives.

Overall, I think this concern is pretty unwarranted, though understandable given the online discussion. Everyone I know who works on wild animal welfare cares about animals a lot, and the space has been burdened by these concerns despite them not really referring to views held by folks who lead the space.

Also, one note:

[they will] conclude that the majority of animals on Earth would be better off dead

I think it's pretty important to differentiate between people thinking animals would be better off dead (a view held by no one I know), and thinking that some animals who will live will have better lives if we reduce juvenile mortality via reduced fertility, and through the latter, that we would prevent a lot of very bad, extremely short lives. We already try to non-lethally reduce populations of many wild animals via fertility control (e.g. mosquitos, screwworms, horses, cats). These projects are mainstream (outside of EA), widely accepted as good, and for some of them, done for the explicit benefit of the animals who are impacted. 

But, the research I've done and read has both made me a lot less sympathetic to a totalizing view of wild animals of this sort (e.g. I think many more wild animals than I previously thought live good lives), and less sympathetic to taking such a radical action.

This is very interesting to me.

Is there an accessible summary anywhere of the research underlying this shift in viewpoint?

Would you say this is a general shift in opinion in the WAW field as a whole?

Is there an accessible summary anywhere of the research underlying this shift in viewpoint?

I don't think there has been a summary, but that sounds like a good thing to write. But to quickly summarize things that are probably most informing this:

  1. I'm less confident in negative utilitarianism. I was never that confident in it, and feel much less so now. I don't think this is due to novel research, but just my views changing upon reflecting on my own life. I still broadly probably have an asymmetric view of welfare, but am more sympathetic to weighing positive experiences to some degree (or maybe have just become a moral particularist). I also think if I am less confident in my ethics (which them changing over time indicates I ought to be), then taking reversible actions robust under a variety of moral frameworks that seem plausibly good seems like a better approach.
  2. I feel a lot less confident that I know how long most animals' subjective experiences last, in part due to research like Jason Schukraft on the subjective experience of time. I think the best argument that most animal lives are net-negative is something like "most animals die really young before they accumulate any positive welfare, so the painfulness of their death outweighs basically everything else." This seems less true if their experiences are subjectively longer than they appear. I also have realized that I have a possibly bad intuition that 30 years of good experiences + 10 years of suffering is better than 3 minutes of good experiences and 1 minute of suffering, partially informing this.
  3. I think learning more about specific animals has made me a lot less confident that we can broadly say things like "r-selectors mostly have bad lives." 

Would you say this is a general shift in opinion in the WAW field as a whole?

When I started working in wild animal welfare, basically no one with a bio/ecology background worked in the space. Now many do. Probably many of those people accurately believe that most things we wrote / argued historically were dramatic oversimplifications (because they definitely were). I'm not sure if opinion is shifting, but there is a lot more actual expertise now, and I'd guess that many of those new experts have more accurate views of animals' lives, which I believe ought to incline one to be a least a bit skeptical of some claims made early in the space.

Fertility control is the kind of intervention very few people would have a problem with as long as all the consequences were thought through, I guess it's everything else in the space of possible solutions that makes me nervous.

Isn't it only one thing in the space of possible solutions that makes you nervous: wiping out animals?

I think the entire space of dramatically intervening in natural ecosystems in order to align them with our own moral preferences should make anyone nervous (including fertility control , that could go horribly wrong), especially when the space includes "wiping out animals".

I'm not sure I'd call it one thing exactly, that covers everything from total extinction of all life to specific extinction of some species to merely human management of existing populations. The last option is something we already do to some extent, deer aren't going to hunt themselves and we already wiped out most of the wolves.

The fact that I consider some plausible solutions repellent is not a reason not to look into the space, I'm just trying to explain why I'm averse to it.

One thing that is easy to forget is that we are already dramatically intervening in natural ecosystems without paying attention to the impact on animals. E.g. any city, road, mine, etc. is a pretty massive intervention. Or just using any conventionally grown foods probably impacts tons of insects via pesticides. Or contributing to climate change. At a minimum, ensuring those things are done in a way that is kinder way for animals seems like a goal that anyone could be on board with (assuming it is an effective use of charitable money, etc.).

I do also think that most things like you describe are already broadly done without animal welfare in mind. For example, we could probably come up with less harmful deer population management strategies than hunting, and we've already attempted to wipe out species (e.g. screwworms, probably mosquitos at some point in the future).

This comment should clearly have more karma than mine.

I co-founded 2 of and have worked at another of the 6 organizations that have worked on wild animal welfare with an EA lens.

I don't recall there being this many EA-aligned orgs working on wild animal welfare! :O Which ones were they?

I know Utility Farm and Wild Animal Suffering Research merged into Wild Animal Initiative. There's Animal Ethics and Rethink Priorities. Were the other orgs sub-projects of these?

You have 5/6 there already, so we're only missing one.

I think Abraham suggested there were at least 8: he co-founded 2 and worked at another 6.

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He said he worked at "another of the 6". (Emphasis mine)

i.e. He co-founded 2 (UF and WAI) and worked at another 1, out of 6 total.

(I don't know what the 6th is)

Woops, ya, you're right.

Animal Charity Evaluators is the 6th, which did some surveying and research work in the space. I guess that counts. My phrasing was ambiguous. There have been 6, I co-founded 2 (UF and WAI), worked at another (Rethink Priorities).

In the time since Abraham wrote this comment, Animal Charity Evaluators recommended one of the orgs he started as a Top Charity! So ACE definitely counts now, and Abe needs to update his resume.

I also think Abe was right to count ACE as working in wild animal welfare before, because their early explorations directly contributed to the formation of the field. For example, the intern that carried out their 2016 survey on attitudes toward wild animal welfare is now a researcher at Wild Animal Initiative. (You can see some of Luke Hecht's recent work here.)

[Views my own, not my (former) employer's. I no longer work in the wild-animal-welfare sector and do not speak for them.]

Firstly, most of the wild-animal-welfare EAs I've worked with closely are not negative utilitarians. Most of them care deeply about wild animals living good lives, so I expect them to be quite motivated to find ways to improve WAW without removing WA populations, especially given how controversial that would be, and how huge the side-effects are.

That said...

I have this nagging feeling that they're going to do rigorous research for a few decades, then conclude that the majority of animals on Earth would be better off dead. At this point they'll presumably recommend that we start purging the world of animal life, and to me that sounds like a bad thing, regardless of how convincing the research is.

"Regardless of how convincing the research is" sets off big alarm bells for me. What if it's actually true that the majority of animals on Earth would be better off not existing? This seems pretty likely to be the case for factory farms, for example, so I'm not sure why you're so sure it's wrong for wild animals, many of whom live lives at least that bad.

I'm also not sure what the alternative to researching WAW would be. Just ignore the (plausibly very large) problem? How is that different from ignoring, say, the suffering of animals in factory farms, or of people in chronic pain?

I'll concede that opposing research because I suspect I won't like the conclusions is blatant science denialism. This is more about me trying to explain my feelings than my logical conclusions. I guess I worry it will be convincing to people with a different ethical framework to me, and I won't be able to articulate an equally convincing objection?

I'm totally anthropomorphising here, but if another species decided that humans lives were net negative and chose the simplest solution I'd object, even if they had a lot of convincing research to back them up.

I guess I worry it will be convincing to people with a different ethical framework to me, and I won't be able to articulate an equally convincing objection?

A world in which consequentialists are able to convince a lot of people to accept the destruction of nature for welfare reasons is a pretty surprising world, given how much people like (and depend on) nature. In that hypothetical future, they must have come up with something really quite convincing.

That, or someone's been and gone and unilaterally done something drastic, but we all agree that's probably a bad idea.

To address the first point, it's definitely not something I see as happening any time soon, and I'm much less concerned about the future of the field now that I've read the replies to my post. 

But since you ask, I can only conceive of being convinced that any of my deeply held beliefs are wrong through appeal to an even more deeply held belief, and a lot of my beliefs (and interest in EA) rest on the idea that "Life is Worth Living". At some point, surely there has to be something that isn't up for debate? 

As for why I'd be opposed to human extinction on principle and even against my better judgement, G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, Chapter 5 puts it best: "A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration."

(This is the basis for his argument against optimism, jingoism, pessimism and suicide)

Ah, I deleted the second half of my comment but you must have already been writing your response to it. It's a bad habit of mine – my apologies for muddling the dialogue here.

I can only conceive of being convinced that any of my deeply held beliefs are wrong through appeal to an even more deeply held belief [...].

I think this is maybe the locus of our disagreement about how to think about statements like "regardless of how convincing the research is".

To me it seems important to be able to conceive of being convinced of something even if you can't currently think of any plausible way that would happen. Otherwise you're not really imagining the scenario as stated, which leads to various issues. This is mostly just Cromwell's rule as applied to philosophical/moral beliefs:

leave a little probability for the moon being made of green cheese; it can be as small as 1 in a million, but have it there since otherwise an army of astronauts returning with samples of the said cheese will leave you unmoved.

If I'm honest I don't understand the Chesterton quote, so I'm not sure we'll make much progress there right now.

In general I think it's a mistake to put value on a species or an ecosystem instead of the beings within that species or ecosystem; but humanity is a more plausible exception to this than most.

It probably makes more sense in context, but the context is an entire book of Christian apologetics (sequel to a book on  early 20th century philosophy called "Heretics") so I doubt you have time for that right now.

I guess what I really meant was "regardless of how convincing it is to people other than me". By definition if I found something convincing it would change my mind, but in the hypothetical example it's more of a difference in values rather than facts.

I too think it makes the most sense to care about groups only as collections of individuals, but  reasonable people could think the reverse is true.

It probably makes more sense in context, but the context is an entire book of Christian apologetics (sequel to a book on early 20th century philosophy called "Heretics") so I doubt you have time for that right now.

Honestly, I wish people said something like this more often.

I guess what I really meant was "regardless of how convincing it is to people other than me". By definition if I found something convincing it would change my mind, but in the hypothetical example it's more of a difference in values rather than facts.

This feels like it's teetering at the brink of a big moral-uncertainty rabbit hole, and I didn't read that book yet, so I propose leaving this here for now. ☺

It's maybe worth noting that there's an asymmetry: For people who think wild-animal lives are net positive, there are many things that contain even more sentient value than rainforest. By contrast, if you think wild-animal lives are net negative, only few things contain more sentient disvalue than rainforest. (Of course, in comparison to expected future sentience, biological life only makes up a tiny portion, so rainforest is unlikely to be a priority from a longtermist perspective.)

I understand the worries described in the OP (apart from the "let's better not find out" part).  I
 think it's important for  EAs in the WAS reduction movement to proactively counter simplistic memes and advocate interventions that don't cause great harm from the perspective of some very popular moral perspectives. I think that's a moral responsibility for animal advocates with suffering-focused views. (And as we see in other replies here, this sounds like it's already common practice!) 

At the same time, I feel like the discourse on this topic can be a bit disingenuous sometimes, where people whose actions otherwise don't indicate much concern for the moral importance of the action-omission distinction (esp. when it comes to non-persons) suddenly employ rhetorical tactics that make it sound like "wrongly thinking animal lives are negative" is a worse mistake than "wrongly thinking they are positive". 

I also think this issue is thorny because, IMO, there's no clear answer. There are moral judgment calls to make that count for at least as much as empirical discoveries.
 

For people who think wild-animal lives are net positive, there are many things that contain even more sentient value than rainforest.

Doesn't this lead to replacement anyway for welfarists/consequentialists, like discussed here? I.e. we should replace rainforest with things that produce more value.

At the same time, I feel like the discourse on this topic can be a bit disingenuous sometimes, where people whose actions otherwise don't indicate much concern for the moral importance of the action-omission distinction (esp. when it comes to non-persons) suddenly employ rhetorical tactics that make it sound like "wrongly thinking animal lives are negative" is a worse mistake than "wrongly thinking they are positive". 

It may be intuitions about reversibility. It's harder to bring a species back than it is to eliminate it. Or, not only welfare matters to them. Or, maybe they really shouldn't consider themselves consequentialists.

I believe we're  already replacing the rainforest with many things of more (economic) value, like palm oil and cows. I guess in future we'll just have the palm oil, at least until we discover plants can suffer and they have to go too.

If being a consequentialist implies I should, under certain circumstances, destroy the world, I think I'm going to prioritise the world over consequentialism. 

Also Simon from Wild Animal Initiative has written about the importance of reversibility (and persistence) in wild animal interventions. Talk here. Wiping out animals is not very reversible.

I don't think the first one actually tells us much, because I don't think many of the wild-animal-welfare EAs I know were significantly influenced by the original result.

I'd never heard of it until I saw the talk debunking it.

FWIW, I remember that result (i.e. the paper by Ng) being moderately prominent among (mostly negative-leaning) people I discussed wild animal welfare with in 2016. However, I think they treated it as one of several lines of evidence pointing in the same direction, and so I doubt that learning about this result being wrong would have by itself have changed anyone's bottom line in an immediately action-guiding way. (I do think it would have made people somewhat less confident that many wild animals' lives are net bad.)

That being said, there are some other useful insights from that work and surrounding discussion besides correcting the error, e.g. "when the probability of suffering increases, the severity of suffering should decrease", and this can be applied to animals who are likely to die shortly after being born, which have been part of the focus of wild animal welfare in EA.

I agree. I'm not sure when I first heard about it; it might actually have been Zach pointing out that it was wrong on Facebook, but even if the proof had been correct, it still seemed like it was proving too much, so I think I'd have assumed the assumptions were too strong.

Then again, this might be hindsight bias.

I think that Toward Welfare Biology was, until maybe 2016 or so, the default thing people pointed to (along with Brian Tomasik's website), as the introductory text to wild animal welfare. I saw it referenced a lot, especially when I started working in the space.

Weren't that paper and Brian's work pretty much the only EA-aligned (welfarist/consequentialist) writings on the topic until recently? And Towards Welfare Biology also covers more than just that one result.

I think there were a few other philosophy papers that were sort of EA aligned I think, but yeah, basically just those 2. So maybe it was the default by default.

Some of Oscar Horta's papers also mostly predate EA discourse on wild animals, e.g. his 2010 Debunking the idyllic view of natural processes. And even earlier, in 2003, there was Tyler Cowen's Policing nature.

Matheny and Chan's (2005) attempted rebuttal of the 'logic of the larder' objection to veg*ism also is based on impacts on wild animals, though if I remember correctly they're mostly using an unexamined premise that their lives are usually worth living in an argument about human diets rather than discussing wild animal welfare in any detail.

There probably are other classics I don't remember off the top of my head. I'm sure Brian Tomasik or one of the orgs working on wild animal welfare has a bibliography somewhere.

Pablo Stafforini has a great bibliography of articles on wild animal welfare that includes some earlier work coming from outside the EA space.

While I think the future you suggest is unlikely for reasons others have articulated, I will say that I really appreciate you making this post in the first place! Challenging a popular idea can be difficult, and I appreciate the work you did to hedge your concerns:

  • Using "concerns me" in the title (rather than e.g. "Why WAS research is a bad idea")
  • Noting that you assume people interested in the field don't actually want the bad outcome you're worried about (but that despite this assumption, you still want to be sure)

I'm guessing plenty of other people who have read or will read the Forum shared this concern to some degree, and I'm glad this post gives our site's researchers a chance to explain their positions directly.

I just wanted to thank everyone for their replies, it's addressed most of my concerns. 

Based on my initial exposure to the field I was assuming that Wild Animal Welfare's long term goal would be to convince people of a worldview directly opposed to my own, i.e.  some form of negative utilitarianism, which I reject for both philosophical and mental health reasons. Regardless of how likely this project was to succeed, it seemed like the kind of thing I should be against, since arguments in favour of destroying the natural world could be very useful to people who planned on doing that anyway.  Nature seems pretty useful, I'd hate to lose it without good reason.

I mentioned negative utilitarianism, and so inevitably world destruction came up. I'll make it clear that I'm totally on board with destroying the world in order to replace it with something better, but for practical reasons we're going to have to do that incrementally. I'm opposed to destroying the world in order to prevent anyone from suffering, which was what I assumed the field would lead to before hearing more about it. I now feel that this will probably be the first kind of destruction, which I'm fine with.

Upvoted. Thank you for raising your concerns in an honest but constructive / curious manner!

FWIW I think I've been the closest to what one might call the "weird radical view" of wild-animal welfare in this discussion, and I am very much not a negative utilitarian. I really hope we can make the future of nature a happy one.

This was such an interesting discussion! Jordan, I was particularly impressed by (and grateful for) the way you continued to clarify the nature of your concerns while simultaneously remaining open to the new evidence and arguments others shared.

And for what it's worth, I think "Other people are doing this thing wrong!" is a great reason to do that thing yourself. I hope anyone with concerns about wild animal welfare will join the movement and make it better -- or at least voice those concerns as productively as you did.

Also, for what it's worth, even if negative utilitarians happened to dominate the wild animal welfare orgs (which apparently they don't, see Abraham's and Will's answers), for cooperative and strategic reasons, I think advocacy for wiping out animals would probably be counterproductive. Trying to wipe out animals sneakily would also be high-risk (in case it's found out), and we should support transparency/honesty as EAs.

Some related discussion with further links here.

I think organizations working on wild animal welfare are trying to distance themselves from negative utilitarian views and any impression that they'll support the destruction of ecosystems or wiping out animals, and at least some people working at them have symmetric views. I don't know that most have negative views. Well, this is my impression of Wild Animal Initiative and Rethink Priorities. I suspect Animal Ethics might be more negative-leaning than them, but I'm not sure.

I say this as a negative consequentialist myself. I don't think good lives, even if they're possible (I'm doubtful), can make up for bad lives. The procreation asymmetry is one of my strongest intuitions, is actually a pretty common intuition generally, and I think there are few ways to apply it as a welfarist consequentialist without ending up at a principled antinatalism (although there may be instrumental reasons to reject antinatalism in practice for someone with such asymmetric views). They all require giving up the independence of irrelevant alternatives, e.g. this paper, this paper, and Dasgupta's approach discussed here (although I think this is not an unreasonable thing to do).