Director of Operations at Rethink Priorities.

I previously co-founded and served as Executive Director at Wild Animal Initiative and one of its predecessor organizations, Utility Farm. I also ran corporate animal welfare campaigns for Mercy For Animals.

I run a monthly newsletter on invertebrate welfare. Archives are here: https://www.invertebratewelfare.org/newsletter


Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

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).

Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

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.

Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

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.

Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

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).

Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

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.

Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

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. 

EA's abstract moral epistemology

I think it's plausible that some major funders stopped funding some groups  (like farm sanctuaries) in favor of ACE top charities, for example, but I doubt that it has happened with large numbers of smaller donors. But, it's hard to know how much EA is responsible for this. For example, when GFI was founded, I think a lot of people found it to be really compelling, independent of it be promising from an EA lens. While it's a fairly EA-aligned organization, in a world without EA, something like it probably would have been founded anyway, and because it  compelling, lots of donors might have switched from whatever they were donating to before to donating to GFI. My impression is also that a lot of funding that has left charities is going into investing in clean / plant-based meat companies. I also expect that would have happened had EA not existed.

EA's abstract moral epistemology

I volunteered but didn't work in the animal advocacy space prior to EA (starting in maybe 2012 or so), but have worked at EA-aligned animal organizations, and been on the board of non-EA aligned (but I think very effective) animal organizations in recent years. Probably someone who worked more in the space prior to ~2014 or 2015 could speak more to what changed in animal advocacy from EA showing up.

The relevant quote:

The animal policy summit I attended in February permitted time for casual conversation among a variety of activists. These included sanctuary managers, directors of non-profits dedicated to ending factory farming, vegan educators, directors of veganism-oriented, anti-racist public health and food access programs, etc. It also included some academics. As some of the activists were talking, they got on to the topic of how charitable giving on EA’s principles had either deprived them of significant funding, or, through the threat of the loss of funding, pushed them to pursue programs at variance with their missions. There was general agreement that EA was having a damaging influence on animal advocacy.

I think that EA has definitely had some negative impact on animal advocacy, but overall has been very good for the space.

The Good

There is definitely way more funding in the space due to EA, and not less - OpenPhil makes up a massive percentage of overall animal welfare donations, and gives a large amount to groups who aren't purely dedicated to corporate welfare campaigns (though the OpenPhil gift itself might be restricted to welfare campaigns). Mercy For Animals, Animal Equality, etc., receive large gifts from OpenPhil and do vegan education / work to end factory farming, and not just reform it. ACE has probably brought in other EAs who would not have otherwise donated to animal welfare work (I'd guess at least a few million dollars a year). 

I think it is plausible that over the last few years, EA-aligned donors have stopped donating to some non-EA aligned organizations. Animal advocacy charities are generally very top-heavy — a huge percentage of donations are coming from a few people. If a couple of those people change where they are donating, it might significantly impact a charity, especially a smaller one. But, overall I'd guess that this isn't for purely EA reasons — lots of large donors in the space are investing in plant-based meat companies, for example, and might have chosen to do that independently of EA.

Also, EA has really opened up what I believe are the most promising avenues for future animal advocacy - addressing wild animal welfare (in a species-neutral way) and addressing invertebrate welfare. I think both areas would basically be impossible to fund in the short-term if EA funding wasn't available.

The Bad

I think the compelling critique of how EA has negatively impacted animal advocacy is something similar to the institutional critique the author presents. For example, at least early on, the focus on corporate campaigns meant that activities like community building were relatively neglected. I feel uncertain about the long-term impact of this, but I'd wager that most EAA organizations in the US, for example, have a lot more trouble getting volunteers to events than they did maybe 7-10 years ago or so. I think it's plausible that there are similar programmatic shifts away from activities that didn't have obvious impact that will harm the effectiveness of organizations down the line. Also, as the author says, this sort of critique could be viewed as an internal critique of activities, as opposed to a critique of EA as a whole.

There are probably some highly effective animal advocacy organizations totally neglected by EA (at least compared to ACE top charities). I also think that an GiveWell-style apples-to-apples comparison of different charities doing a similar and related activity doesn't necessarily make sense for, say, organizations doing corporate campaigns, since the organizations are highly coordinated. But again, this seems like an internal critique.

I see ending factory farming / vegan advocacy as likely deeply aligned with EA. I think that the animal advocacy space really struggled to make progress on these issues over the past few decades, but has made more progress in the last 5 years. I don't know if this is due to plant-based meats becoming more popular, EA showing up, or something else, but broadly, we're doing better now than we were before, I think, at helping animals.

The "remark on institutional culture" is a pretty good critique of EA, though I don't know what to conclude from it. But, if the essay is focused on EAA specifically, I think that comment is a lot less relevant, as I'd guess as a whole, EAA is much more open to social justice / non-EA ethics, etc. than some other communities in EA.

Overall, most this critique just seems to be that the author just disagrees with many people in EA about ethics and metaethics.

When does it make sense to support/oppose political candidates on EA grounds?

I really appreciated this post! Thanks for writing it. I also really appreciated the original post and am a bit bummed it got buried. I also want to note that I find it odd that post got downvoted (possibly for being explicitly partisan?) vs posts like this, which don't explicitly claim to be partisan / engaging in politics but I think are actually extremely political.

One thought, slightly unrelated to the question of whether or not there are good EA grounds for supporting / opposing political candidates (and I think it's highly likely that there are):

Effective altruism has long had a culture of shying away from explicit engagement in partisan politics

I think one really useful and accurate idea from the social justice community is the idea that you can't be neutral on many political issues. This seems like it ought to be even more compelling from a consequentialist perspective as well, as inaction on certain political opportunities (not exclusively, but definitely including removing Trump from office / Joe Biden winning the 2020 election in the US) might contribute directly to the worse outcome. The status quo is already a manifestation of political positions, so if you're not engaging in changing the status quo, you are taking whatever political positions built it.

For example, I live in Pennsylvania, and theoretically my vote might matter in the US presidential election this year. I can vote for Joe Biden, not vote (or vote for a third party), or vote for Donald Trump. I think it seems clear that the downside risk from Trump winning is very high compared to Joe Biden, and given that Trump will win if Joe Biden doesn't, there is almost as much risk in not voting. I think that I pretty clearly on (some kind of rough near-termist) consequentialist grounds should vote for Joe Biden, and probably should try to get as many people as possible to do the same.

I think there are probably lots of good reasons to think that dollars directed by the EA community shouldn't go to political candidates as a general rule of thumb (though there are probably really good giving opportunities at times), but broadly, as a community interested in ethics, it seems like we are inherently taking fairly strong political positions, but then not really willing to discuss them or make them explicit .

This was a bit of a ramble because my thoughts aren't well-formed, but I think it is pretty likely that attempting to be "neutral" on political issues is close to being as bad as taking the political position that will lead to the worse outcome, or something along those lines.

EricHerboso's Shortform

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I guess part of the reason I feel more strongly that this kind of comment ought not to be upvoted is that EricHerboso seemed to bring up the Facebook thread not to open a debate on its content, but to point out that the behavior of some of the Facebook commentors harmed EAs or EA adjacent organizations through putting an emotional toll on people, and that this kind of behavior is explicitly costing EA. That seems like a really important thing to discuss - regardless of what you think of the content of the thread, the content EricHerboso refers to in it negatively impacted the movement.

Dale's comment feels unnecessarily trollish, but also tries to turn the thread into a conversation about what I see as an unrelated topic (the rules of conduct in a random animal rights Facebook group). It vaguely tries to tie back to the post, but mostly this seems like a weak disguise for trolling EricHerboso.

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