Deputy Director of Wild Animal Initiative


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Building healthy relationships between people and nature and synergizing stewardship projects to benefit the wellbeing of wild animals

Agreed! I appreciate the correction.

Thanks for sharing Catia's dissertation! I hadn't seen that before and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Measuring happiness increases happiness

Anecdatum: This is consistent with my recent experience measuring my own happiness!

I recently started using UpLift (a cognitive behavioral therapy app developed by our friend Spencer Greenberg of to manage some mood changes that might be mild depression. The app prompts you to rate and reflect on your happiness several times each day.

Each time I tried to rate my mood, I thought:

"Huh, I don't feel that great. But I do feel better than before. So I have to say a higher number this time. Dammit, I can't even measure my mood accurately. This damn app is confounding everything by making me slightly happier! ...Oh."

Building healthy relationships between people and nature and synergizing stewardship projects to benefit the wellbeing of wild animals

Great point, Eze Paez! I'm glad you added it.

1. For what it's worth, I don't think Jane was trying to say you have to be a utilitarian to support wild animal welfare. I interpreted her comment as mostly referring to the intellectual history of the wild animal welfare movement, which does seem to have its roots primarily in utilitarianism.

2. One of my favorite illustrations of a non-consequentialist/non-welfarist rationale for improving wild animal welfare (backing up your points b and c) is "Legal Personhood and the Positive Rights of Wild Animals" (Jay Shooster 2017). Well worth checking out if you haven't already!

Why I'm Not Vegan
Another argument against this position is its effect on your moral attitudes as Jeff Sebo argued in his talk at EA global in 2019. You could dismiss this if you are certain it will not effect the relative value you place on other being and by not advertising your position as to not effect others.

(FYI, this is the argument I was referring to as the "epistemic" argument in my other comment. Thanks for linking to that talk, George!)

Why I'm Not Vegan

Hi Abraham! Thanks for pointing out that it would be helpful to clarify what is meant by the tradeoff values.

I differ on this point:

if you're just saying, with little basis, that a pig has 1/100 human moral worth, I don't know how to evaluate it. It isn't an argument. It's just an arbitrary discount to make your actions feel justified from a utilitarian standpoint.

I think we should give Jeff the benefit of the doubt here. I don't think his estimates are arbitrary. I think they are honest reflections of the conclusions he has come to given his experience and his understanding of the evidence.

It would be nice to hear more about Jeff's rationale. But in terms of community norms, I'd like to keep space open for people who want to present novel arguments without having to exhaustively justify every premise.

Why I'm Not Vegan

Another kind of reason to do both: There is epistemic value to going vegan.

It's legitimately hard to understand the experiences and needs of individuals that are different from us. Most of the time, it's even harder than it needs to be, because we approach them with unfounded prejudices.

Going vegan might be a psychologically necessary step to considering animals' experiences and needs in at least a somewhat objective manner.

(I'm hoping to elaborate on this later, and apologies for the doc-dump, but the elegantly argued and eminently readable John & Sebo 2019 does a great job elaborating on this point: .)

Why I'm Not Vegan

One kind of reason to do both: It's not a true tradeoff.

It's easy to spend a lot of money on top-of-the-line vegan cheeses and meats. But it's also quite feasible to meet most people's dietary requirements with vegan foods that cost just as much as, or even less than, animal-based foods. (Shout out to my boi rice-and-beans.)

In that case, we're not trading off dollars for dollars. We're trading off time, effort, and comfort for dollars.

At some point, if you spend enough time on something, it might cut into your earning potential. But many of us have jobs that only allow us to work a certain number of hours per week anyway, or minds that only allow us to be focused and productive for a certain number of hours per week. For these people, it's possible to spend additional time and effort without cutting into earning potential.

So the question is not "Can I do more good than veganism with my money?" but rather "Can I do more good than veganism with my time?" Not a lot of other volunteer opportunities give you the chance to spare multiple individuals from torture every year, so I think it's likely still a good use of time.

(Though this obviously intersects with the other question of "Just how morally valuable is it to spare animals from factory farming?")

Why I'm Not Vegan
I think veganism doesn't represent a very good tradeoff, and I think we should put our altruistic efforts elsewhere.

For the sake of this comment thread, let's assume that veganism is a substantially worse tradeoff than other altruistic efforts.

Personally, I think that's likely to be true. For people (like me) who place a high likelihood on the sentience of farmed animals, it's worth considering how the costs and benefits of going vegan compare to the costs and benefits of donating to a nonprofit that is attempting to end animal farming through systematic/institutional change (meat alternatives, corporate campaigns, legislative campaigns, etc.). Seems like those nonprofits are probably a lot more efficient at doing good for animals than I am.

However, it doesn't necessarily follow that we shouldn't both go vegan and donate to highly cost-effective charities. Let's use this comment thread to discuss why that might be.

Why I'm Not Vegan

Here are the main reasons I find it overwhelmingly likely that mammals and birds (and very likely that fish) have morally relevant subjective experiences:

  • Behavior. They respond to potentially-painful things in almost all the same ways humans do (except for verbally articulating their experiences in a language I understand).
  • Evolution. The best evolutionary rationale I can think of for why humans have subjective experiences is that that might be a good way of motivating us to avoid experiences that tend to be bad for our reproductive fitness. (Note that this evolutionary story doesn't suggest a strong connection between sentience and intelligence. In fact, it might suggest that less intelligent species are more reliant on strong subjective experiences to learn and motivate their behavior.) That rationale would apply to almost all mobile creatures (but much less so for mostly immobile ones like mussels or plants).

Here are the main reasons I doubt that mammals, birds, or fish have morally relevant subjective experiences:

  • Inaccessibility. Subjective experiences are, by their nature, personal. So I can't directly observe these experiences in others. This applies to other humans' sentience.
  • Programmability. For any given behavior, I can imagine a computer program that responds to the same stimulus in the same way without having a morally relevant subjective experience. This applies to other adult humans' sentience somewhat, but not quite as well, because we seem to have pretty similar machinery. It applies more so to babies, children, or other humans with brains that are more different than mine.
  • Radical uncertainty. I really don't have a good idea of what sentience consists of, what anatomy is needed to support it, or why it evolved. This applies to other humans' sentience.

In the end, while there are good reasons to be uncertain about the sentience of other species, these reasons are at least somewhat applicable to other humans, too. So my uncertainty about the sentience of other vertebrate species isn't much more than an order of magnitude higher than my uncertainty about the sentience of other humans.

Why I'm Not Vegan
[T]his is the main place where I think I differ from most ethical vegans: I think humans matter much more than these animals.

I agree that this is the biggest difference between you and most ethical vegans!

Let's use this comment thread to discuss differences in estimates of the likelihood that nonhuman animals (or non-me humans) are sentient (where "sentient" means "having morally relevant subjective experiences such as the ability to feel pain").

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