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Utilitarianism, which holds that we ought to maximize well-being, is thought to conflict with animal rights because it does not regard activities such as the exploitation of domesticated animals and extermination of wild animals as, in principle, morally wrong. Jeff Sebo, a clinical assistant professor at New York University, argues that this conflict is overstated. When we account for indirect effects, such as the role that policies play in shaping moral attitudes and behaviour, we can see that utilitarianism may converge with animal rights significantly, even if not entirely. This talk was filmed at EA Global: London 2019.

Transcript of the talk 

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So, imagine that you have an aspiration to do the most good possible. You want to maximize happiness and minimize suffering, for all human and non-human animals, all sentient beings, from now until the end of time. You might have this aspiration for different reasons, you might be a utilitarian - who thinks that we morally ought to maximize happiness and minimize suffering in the world - or you might be an effective altruist - for some other reason - wants to maximize happiness and minimize suffering in the world. Some effective altruists have that specific aspiration, others have different aspirations. But if you do have that aspiration, you want to maximize happiness, minimize suffering, by any means necessary, my question is: what should you think about rights? What should you think about the idea that there are certain ways that we should not treat human and non-human animals, period?

At least in the animal ethics and animal advocacy communities, people have perceived a tension, between on one hand, the aspiration to do the most good possible, and on the other hand, an aspiration to respect rights and take rights seriously. And I think the source of that tension is pretty clear: it may be the case that nine times out of ten respecting rights happens to be what does the most good possible. But we can at least imagine situations where violating rights will be what does the most good possible, where we need to kill one/harm one to save five, or kill many/harm many to save very, very, very many. And, at least in principle, a consequentialist, a utilitarian, someone who wants to do the most good possible, should be open to making the hard choice - violating those rights, harming and killing for the greater good - and rights theorists do not like this; they think we are simply not allowed to treat individuals in those ways, we are simply not allowed to violate rights, to harm or kill the few as an expedient way to save the many.

I think that this conflict, this tension makes sense, but is also overstated.  There are some differences between consequentialist and rights-theoretic thinking about things, but again, I think that these differences are overstated.  Because I think that if we genuinely do want to do the most good possible, if we genuinely do want to maximize happiness and minimize suffering, for all sentient beings, from now until the end of time, in the long run, then, investing in a real system of rights for human and non-human animals, a genuine system of rights that we take seriously, and treat as inviolable, is an important means to that end. So I want to talk about that today.

So my talk is partly going to be about this relationship between welfare and rights, and implications for farmed animals, and wild animals, but the talk is also going to be about a broader and deeper question for effective altruists, which is again: to the degree that we do want to do the most good possible, how should we think about what to do? And how should we think about how to live? In what moments should we pursue that aim directly by trying to promote positive well-being directly? And in what moments should we pursue that aim indirectly, by investing in the kinds of psychological, and social, and political structures that will naturally lead to good outcomes? Now these are questions that utilitarians have been asking for centuries, ever since utilitarianism was a thing, almost all of the main prominent utilitarians, have asked this question and then made the following basic point: if we wanted to the most could possible it can often be ineffective, counterproductive, self-defeating, to try to consciously and deliberately think about doing the most good possible in everyday life. Mill, Sidgwick, Singer, all sorts of people at various points, in various ways, have made this point, for pretty straight-forward reasons.

One reason is most of us, if not all of us, lack the time/energy/information/intelligence necessary to think through every possible outcome, of every possible course of action, and make an informed decision about what to do.  We make thousands of decisions every day; imagine what it would be like if before every decision you made, you thought through the expected costs and benefits of every alternative course of action and then selected the action that maximized expected utility! You would never get out the front door most days, to say nothing of living an active life where you actually help others.

Another reason, of course, is that many of our decisions, consciously or not, are heavily influenced by social and psychological factors. Whether we think explicitly about what to do or not, our decision-making is very heavily influenced by our social environment, and what that incentivizes, and, by our character, our habits, and those features of our psychology that naturally inclined us to think and feel and behave in certain ways. And so this led the vast majority of utilitarians - over the course of the past several hundred years - to think, if we want to do the most good possible, then _sometimes_ we should think about how to do the most good possible, in the cool moment of deliberation, or in quiet moments of reflection, we should think about what the world should be like in the long run, and what our social and political and economic system should look like in order to make that world possible, and then what social and professional roles I should play to make those systems possible, and then what rules I should follow, and what character traits I should cultivate, in order to make those roles possible.

But then in everyday life, in the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life, I should be thinking about those things instead. I should be focusing on following the roles, and cultivating the character traits and expressing the character traits, that allow me to play those roles, that allow me to participate in bringing about these systems, that allow us together, to bring about a world in which people will make good decisions and treat each other with respect and compassion. So in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the principle of utility, the goal - doing the most good possible - kind of fades into the background, to the point that sometimes it might even disappear entirely.

This is the point that utilitarians have made a lot, and I think it has a lot of important implications for Effective Altruism, to the degree that we are consequentialist, and are trying to pragmatically bring about good consequences.  So at a previous Effective Altruism Global, I talked about some of the implications for how we should influence the development of the animal advocacy movement. And in particular, I argued that instead of trying to divert all resources toward a small number of seemingly highly effective animal advocacy organizations - though I do think that we should divert lots of resources towards those organizations - we should also be influencing the distribution of resources, so it can support the development of a broad, pluralistic, animal advocacy movement, that involves a lot of different groups taking a lot of different and seemingly conflicting approaches, because _that_ is the kind of movement that is going to do more good in the long run, than a movement that consists primarily, or exclusively, of the types of organizations that do the work that we happen to see highly effective right now.

So what I want to focus on now, are the implications for how we should think about the welfare or rights of farmed animals and wild animals. So think about farmed animals first. We all know, we can all agree that industrial animal agriculture is one of the worst things that we have ever done as a species: it harms and kills 100-plus billion domesticated animals every year, consumes much more land water and energy than alternative food systems, produces much more waste pollution and greenhouse gas emissions than alternative food systems.  But!  What about the mythic small local organic free-range farm where animals have - by hypothesis - happy lives and painless deaths? Should we support those types of farms? Many people have thought that a utilitarian, a consequentialist, an effective altruist, should think all else equal, yes, we should support those farms, we should eat those animals, we should exploit those animals, because yes, they die, but they get to live, it adds positive value for there to be more happy, if short, lives, so yes, we should eat, we should exploit in that case.

But I think that we have very strong, if not decisive, reasons not to do that.  And of course there are all sorts of reasons why we might be skeptical: we might be skeptical in practice that these animals really do have net positive lives, and of course we should also still be attending to the public health and environmental costs of that type of food system. But even setting those impacts aside, I think that we have a much more important and fundamental reason not to support this kind of food system, which is basically what the care theorists and virtue theorists have been saying for decades: when we eat animals, when we exploit animals, we start to see them as objects, as property, as commodities.  We place them in the category of the edible, we stop seeing them as subjects deserving of moral respect, and compassion. This is what care theorists and virtue theorists have been saying for a long time, and the evidence seems to support this.

So studies show, that when you eat meat, you become less likely to see animals as sentient beings who have moral standing. You see their mental states and their moral status as diminished. There are various possible explanations for this, but one standard explanation is that our moral intuitions are kind of rights-theoretic. So, if we are eating animals, then they must not be the types of beings who have rich emotional lives, and moral status that we should be paying attention to. So we resolve that tension by downgrading their perceived moral status.

There are also slippery slope concerns. So even if you start out eating meat only when the animals have happy lives and painless deaths, once you start making those exceptions, they can become convenient rationalizations for eating meat kind of when you feel like it, or when you eating meat is convenient for you. And so you can go down this slippery slope, where you start eating it in other situations, to where the animals had unhappy lives and painful deaths.  I can tell you from my own experience that this happened in my case. After I was vegan for about six years I experimented with making principled exceptions, by dumpster diving and eating roadkill, and it was great, it was delicious, I liked it, and once I started doing that, I did immediately start looking at that part of the menu again, and I had to talk myself down from ordering animal products at restaurants, or buying them at supermarkets. And that for me really reinforced how true, at least in my case, these observations are.

So there is utilitarian value in not allowing yourself to make those kinds of principled exceptions, and simply having a rule of not eating animals, and regarding them as inedible, as subjects instead of objects.

This is true at the societal level too. Even having a legal system of animal agriculture has these kinds of impacts on society at large. Part of the function of the law is to signal what practices are socially acceptable. So if you have a legally sanctioned system of exploitation and violence against non-human animals, then that will signal to the public that exploitation and violence against non-human animals is, in principle, in some circumstances, acceptable. That will, to that degree, risk leading the public in general to see animals as less sentient, as having a lower moral status, and that will institutionally risk similar slippery slopes, where we start out by legitimizing the system in the happy lives in painless deaths case, but then capitalist pressures push it towards a model that more closely resembles industrial animal agriculture. So here too, there can be utilitarian value in simply having laws and regulations that say we are not permitting ourselves to treat other sentient beings this way, even if it does promote happiness in the short term.

Similarly consider wild animals. So, many people, including utilitarians, and some effective altruists, have thought that if wild animals have net negative lives if wild animals experience more suffering than happiness, then we are morally permitted, if not morally required, to exterminate them, to bring about fewer wild animals who experience suffering in the future. Here too, I am concerned about this kind of reasoning. Now as with the farmed animal case, there are all kinds of reasons we might be skeptical. We might for example wonder whether wild animals really do have net negative lives, maybe they experience more happiness or less suffering than we think. We might also once again be attending to some of the other effects of extermination of wild animal populations, like what will that do to biodiversity and ecosystems and essential life support services on this planet, and maybe it would make all life impossible, or at least much worse.

But again, even setting those issues aside, I think that we have a more fundamental reason to be, at the very least concerned, about this type of reasoning: which is that it can once again cultivate psychological and social norms, perspectives, that will lead us to see other beings and treat other beings as fungible, as expendable, as eliminable when doing so is convenient or seems necessary.

So we have less data to draw on here, but I think that some of the data that we see in the farmed animal case can extend to the wild animal case, or we can at least hypothesize that it might extend to the wild animal case. So in particular, if you start a practice of killing/exterminating others for their own good, or for the good in general of wild animal populations, then that can lead you to coarsen yourself, to develop a coarse set of attitudes about them, you have to psychologically detach yourself from them in order to be okay with this violence.  You see this in animal agriculture, in animal research: they think that this violence is morally necessary because it feeds people or because it produces knowledge, but committing violence in your everyday life is also a hard thing to do, so you have to detach yourself from it. You have to pull back and stop feeling the kind of compassion/sympathy/empathy that would make this feel morally problematic to you.

And so if we individually and collectively did this to wild animals, then I do worry that it might have that same coarsening effect, that it would psychologically detach us from wild animals as sentient beings, and in general it would also potentially lead down a slippery slope where we start to have this attitude that, if we have a world that fails to accommodate someone, if we have a world within which it is hard for somebody to live well, then the solution to that problem is to eliminate the individuals who are having a hard time living well, rather than restructuring our world so that it can be more inclusive and more accommodating.

And so I worry that exterminating wild animals as a solution to their suffering is maybe in the short-term going to reduce suffering, but in the long run, is going to give us this detached stance towards the suffering of vulnerable others, and is also going to lead to the set of policies according to which when there are vulnerable others who are suffering, the solution is their elimination, rather than the creation of a more inclusive, accommodating world, in which everybody has a better chance of being happy.

Now the hard thing, and this will be the set of questions that I close on, is that I am not sure that these types of considerations are decisive. I do think that they are in the farmed animal case: I think that we have decisive reason as utilitarians or as effective altruists to be abolitionists about animal agriculture, because the benefits of promoting a system of rights and social and psychological factors that lead us to see animals as subjects instead of objects, easily outweighs any short-term benefits we would get from raising farmed animals with happy lives.

But in the case of wild animals, I'm honestly not sure how these things balance out. Because if wild animals do experience suffering on-net, and there are quintillions of them experiencing suffering on-net, then it does seem like a real open question, whether eliminating that suffering is better, than cultivating social and psychological structures that lead us to see them as sentient, vulnerable, subjects, and create a world that can be more accommodating. I think these are very difficult to weigh against each other.

And this is I think, a hard question in general, a hard methodological question in general, for utilitarians and effective altruists, insofar as we aspire to do the most good possible: in what moment should we think directly about how to pursue that goal by promoting positive well-being, diminishing negative well-being? And to what degree, in what moment, should we think indirectly about how to pursue that goal?  By again trying to bring about the kinds of social, political, economic, systems that will lead everyone, ourselves and others, to have the right kinds of moral attitudes, and to be naturally inclined to treat each other with respect and compassion.

I'm not sure what the answer to that question is but I think that that question is going to become increasingly important and increasingly difficult for effective altruists as this movement grows and prominence and influence, because we are going to eventually have to figure out a virtuous way to strike a balance between these things. Because if all we ever do is calculate the expected consequences of things, then we miss out on _all_ of the important features of this more indirect, sophisticated way of doing consequentialism.  But, if we _never_ think about the expected consequences, then we lose what makes effective altruism a distinctive and important intervention on ordinary ways of doing good in the world. And so neither of those extremes is going to be the solution. We need to find a virtuous balance, which might mean different things for different people in different situations. I think that is a question that we need to be asking much more. Some of the implications will concern our treatment of farmed animals and wild animals but there will be lots of other implications too, so I'll stop there, thank you.


Q: Thank you Jeff, that was great. So there are a couple questions for you.  I'm gonna start with this one: so with regard to the work being done in the realm of animal rights, how do you see the work of organizations like the Nonhuman Rights Project, playing into this framework?

Yeah so the Nonhuman Rights Project is an organization, an ACE recommended charity for that matter, that is trying to promote animal welfare by promoting legal personhood and legal rights for non-human animals. And the quick version of their legal thinking is that in most jurisdictions, currently you can have one of two statuses: you can either be a person with rights or a thing without rights. And right now humans are persons with rights, and animals are all things without rights under the law. So there can be animal welfare laws, but ultimately animals are things without rights, and there can only be animal welfare laws if we happen to care about them and want those laws to be the case. So the Nonhuman Rights Project is basically trying to achieve legal personhood and legal rights for non-human animals by bringing lawsuits to courts, suing on behalf of chimpanzees, elephants and so on, usually with habeas corpus petitions, so that they can get the judges to acknowledge that animals have standing in the court and that they should be regarded as persons with rights.

I think that this is really important work. I think that we absolutely should be supporting this work, for basically the reasons that I was mentioning in the talk. And I should mention too, that one of one of the books that Sophia mentioned, that I co-authored last year, called 'Chimpanzee Rights', was based on collaboration with the Nonhuman Rights Project. Basically this was an amicus brief, that I wrote with some other philosophers where we argued that lower courts have been wrong to say that animals are not persons, that they lack rights and both philosophically and legally we have no choice, if we want to be both consistent and inclusive, but to extend animals rights and regard them as persons.

So I think that this work is important; I think we should be doing more of it, and I'm glad that the animal advocacy movement and effective altruism movement is supporting it.

Q: Great. And I have a small follow-up on that, do you want to explain why the Nonhuman Rights Project focuses on chimps and elephants over other animals?

So I think the reason they focus on chimpanzees and elephants, as opposed to other animals, is that these animals are most psychologically continuous with us.  So to the degree that courts think that autonomy is necessary for having rights, or being a person, it can be pretty easy to establish that chimpanzees and elephants have autonomy in the relevant sense. And so if you focus on the animals who are most relevantly similar to humans, then you can make that jump across species boundaries more easily.

The concern of course, is that in making things easy for yourself in that way,you reinforce the idea that a certain sophisticated kind of autonomy is necessary for legal personhood or legal rights, and that could make things harder down the line, for animals who lack that kind of autonomy, so there is a trade-off there, but I think their view is that all we need to do is get our foot in the door, go over the species boundary, and then that will make a kind of incremental change that down the line will make it easier to achieve rights for other types of animals - and and I'm sympathetic with that response.

Q: Great, thank you. I have another question here. So you make a good point about the reasons for keeping long term effectiveness in mind when deciding on near-term interventions, but many people at this conference are particularly concerned with existential risk, with varying senses of timelines of that risk.  So how would you factor your own assessment of the likelihood of near-term extinction, or global catastrophic risk, into your recommendation here? And so, in other words, if human civilization ends any time soon, we would have been better off prioritizing eliminating the near-term animal suffering. So what are your thoughts on that?

That is a really good question. I do not think that it is obvious that we will survive the next 50 or 100 or 300 or 500 years, and I am very happy that many effective altruists are focusing on existential risk reduction. I definitely think that needs to be a top priority. I think that in the animal welfare side of things, we should be taking an approach that is consistent with the people doing the existential risk approach being successful, and we should try to lay the groundwork for a future that would actually be positive, in the event that we do secure a future for people. So I think even if we do secure a future for people, it might not be obviously the case that that future world will involve more happiness than suffering, so I would like for us to focus on a kind of moral circle expansion that leads us to see all sentient beings, including humans, including nonhumans, including digital beings, who might be coming into existence soon, as worthy of respect and compassion, so if we can avoid nuclear war, if we can avoid artificial intelligence takeover and destruction of humanity etc., then we might have a chance of having a genuinely positive future, and all of that will have been worth it.

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