Ben Stevenson

Animal Welfare Research Assistant @ Rethink Priorities
413 karmaJoined London, UK


Super cool! I'll preorder. Also, I'm sure Jeff won't mind me flagging a similar upcoming book from Jonathan Birch, in case anybody is interested in reading both:

Can octopuses feel pain and pleasure? 

What about crabs, shrimps, insects or spiders

How do we tell whether a person unresponsive after severe brain injury might be suffering? 

When does a fetus in the womb start to have conscious experiences? 

Could there even be rudimentary feelings in miniature models of the human brain, grown from human stem cells? 

... and what about AI

These are questions about the edge of sentience, and they are subject to enormous, disorienting uncertainty. The stakes are immense, and neglecting the risks can have terrible costs. 

We need to err on the side of caution, yet it’s often far from clear what ‘erring on the side of caution’ should mean in practice. When are we going too far? When are we not doing enough? 

The Edge of Sentience presents a precautionary framework designed to help us reach ethically sound, evidence-based decisions despite our uncertainty.  

Thanks for completing the consultation, and for your time assessment (I hope that helps others judge accurately!)

I agree almost entirely. I would only change “knowingly or not” to “knowingly”; there’s no argument from ignorance at this point.

I'm seeing commenters criticise this piece for factual errors (e.g. misidentifying Manifund as a prediction market) and I think The Guardian should issue corrections for those errors.

But I'm much more concerned about the racist ties:

One, Jonathan Anomaly, published a paper in 2018 entitled Defending Eugenics, which called for a “non-coercive” or “liberal eugenics” to “increase the prevalence of traits that promote individual and social welfare”. The publication triggered an open letter of protest by Australian academics to the journal that published the paper, and protests at the University of Pennsylvania when he commenced working there in 2019. (Anomaly now works at a private institution in Quito, Ecuador, and claims on his website that US universities have been “ideologically captured”.)

Another, Razib Khan, saw his contract as a New York Times opinion writer abruptly withdrawn just one day after his appointment had been announced, following a Gawker report that highlighted his contributions to outlets including the paleoconservative Taki’s Magazine and anti-immigrant website VDare.

The Michigan State University professor Stephen Hsu, another billed guest, resigned as vice-president of research there in 2020 after protests by the MSU Graduate Employees Union and the MSU student association accusing Hsu of promoting scientific racism.

Brian Chau, executive director of the “effective accelerationist” non-profit Alliance for the Future (AFF), was another billed guest. A report last month catalogued Chau’s long history of racist and sexist online commentary, including false claims about George Floyd, and the claim that the US is a “Black supremacist” country. “Effective accelerationists” argue that human problems are best solved by unrestricted technological development.

I'm unfamiliar with these people but I don't like what I'm learning. Khan wrote a letter to "a white nationalist website" about "the threat of the United States becoming 'more genetically and culturally Mexican'." Chau believes "the narrative" around George Floyd's death "was every bit as fake as an AI-generated video". And Richard Hanania, also invited to Manifest, believes "we need more policing, incarceration and surveillance of black people."

The response by a Manifest representative is also concerning:

“We were aware that some of these folks have expressed views considered controversial.”

He went on: “Some of these folks we’re bringing in because of their past experience with prediction markets (eg [Richard] Hanania has used them extensively and partnered with many prediction market platforms). Others we’re bringing in for their particular expertise (eg Brian Chau is participating in a debate on AI safety, related to his work at Alliance for the Future).”

I think "high decouplers" believe there is negligible risk in platforming intolerant people because rationalists can isolate their relevant thoughts (e.g. prediction markets) from their dangerous thoughts (e.g. there should be more incarceration of Black people).

But the poor quality of reasoning demonstrated in somebody's more controversial thinking should reflect poorly on their general intellectual rigour. Do you really have a lot to learn from somebody who, like Chau, thinks the US is a "Black supremacist country" or is that person maybe just a controversialist?

And it seems disingenuous to suggest that rationalists aren't interested in those controversial views. We know that rationalists are unusually and disturbingly pro-eugenics. And it's hard to see it as a coincidence that this event attracted ~five racist public intellectuals.

Manifest's representative also said:

“We did not invite them to give talks about race and IQ” and concluded: “Manifest has no specific views on eugenics or race & IQ.”

As with critiquing factual errors without engaging the central claims about racist ties, declining this opportunity to condemn scientific racism goes some way to validating the report's argument: that rationalists have a blind spot on racism.

As an effective altruist, not a rationalist, I align instead with the Centre for Effective Altruism's statement in response to Nick Bostrom's email:

Effective altruism is based on the core belief that all people count equally. We unequivocally condemn Nick Bostrom’s recklessly flawed and reprehensible words. We reject this unacceptable racist language, and the callous discussion of ideas that can and have harmed Black people. It is fundamentally inconsistent with our mission of building an inclusive and welcoming community.

(I'm writing in a personal capacity)

I was surprised to learn from GFI's 2023 State of Global Policy report that "Uruguay, through a quiet amendment to a budget bill passed in October, banned the “importation, manufacture and commercialization” of cultivated meat for human consumption in the country for a period of five years".

My understanding is that Uruguay, Italy, Florida and Alabama now have cultivated meat bans, with Italy's held up by the EU. I believe the Uruguayan ban is the only one with a sunset clause.

EDIT 2024-06-10: We are no longer accepting applications. Thank you to all who got in touch.

The Animal Welfare Department at Rethink Priorities is recruiting volunteer researchers to support on a high-impact project!

We’re conducting a review on interventions to reduce meat consumption, and we’re seeking help checking whether academic studies meet our eligibility criteria. This will involve reviewing the full text of studies, especially methodology sections.

We’re interested in volunteers who have some experience reading empirical academic literature, especially postgraduates. The role is an unpaid volunteer opportunity. We expect this to be a ten week project, requiring approximately five hours per week. But your time commitment can be flexible, depending on your availability.

This is an exciting opportunity for graduate students and early career researchers to gain research experience, learn about an interesting topic, and directly participate in an impactful project. The Animal Welfare Department will provide support and, if desired, letters of experience for volunteers.

If you are interested in volunteering with us, contact Ben Stevenson at Please share either your CV, or a short statement (~4 sentences) about your experience engaging with empirical academic literature. Candidates will be invited to complete a skills assessment. We are accepting applications on a rolling basis, and will update this listing when we are no longer accepting applications.

Please reach out to Ben if you have any questions. If you know anybody who might be interested, please forward this opportunity to them!

Hi Miguel! Sorry I'm a week late replying to you here. I agree with your point, and I'm updating my document to reflect this. I'm copying your wording, but please let me know if you'd rather I rewrite. I was initially trying to balance minimising respondents' time commitment with pushing on the most important/tractable questions, but I think you're right that expanding the scope of affected animal products could really matter.

This was meant as a joke (I think OP got this) but on reflection it probably wasn't funny / a good opportunity to try to be funny. I actually agree with your empirical/normative point, and I'll retract the comment so others aren't confused.

Moral trade opportunity: Alice donates a kidney, Bob donates part of their liver?

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply


The responses were written with input from animal welfare professionals, but they're only suggestions and I would encourage you to share your own opinions too. I'm happy to talk through the object-level of any disagreements, if helpful.

On images specifically, I agree that misleading pictures could undermine the label's effectiveness but I personally doubt the risk outweighs the reward of informing consumers about the real conditions of animal farming. Whether you choose 'agree' or 'disagree', I think you should detail your thoughts in the 'explanation' section and emphasise that businesses shouldn't be allowed to use misleading photos of animals.

The labels will be imperfect, and it's an open question whether policymakers and the public will stall on further progress. More empirical research here would be good. (If you've not seen it, you might find this resource interesting although it is a few years old). But I think that we have to try to score a goal whenever the opportunity presents itself, and that it's very plausible both that political wins build momentum for the animal movement and that labelling increases public salience of welfare issues.

Independent assessment of welfare claims is covered in question 72. I've suggested strongly supporting it, except in cases where it made the labelling scheme unworkable.

Load more