Jason Schukraft

Dr. Jason Schukraft is a Senior Research Manager at Rethink Priorities. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin.

Jason Schukraft's Comments

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Hey Michael,

Thanks again. Regarding (2), I may be conflating a conversation I had with Luke about the subject back in February with the actual contents of his old LessWrong post on the topic. You're right that it's not clear that he's focusing on capacity for welfare in that post: he moves pretty quickly between moral status, capacity for welfare, and something like average realized welfare of the

"typical" conscious experience of "typical" members of different species when undergoing various "canonical" positive and negative experiences

Frankly, it's a bit confusing. (To be fair to Luke, he wrote that post before Kagan's book came out.) One hope of mine is that by collectively working on this topic more, we can establish a common conceptual framework within the community to better clarify points of agreement and disagreement.

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your comment.

  1. I'll admit that I'm not wedded to the term 'status-adjusted welfare.' I agree that it is less than ideal. I don't think 'moral weight' is better, but I also don't think it's much worse. If anyone has suggestions for a catch-all term for factors that might affect characteristic comparative moral value, I would be interested to hear them.

  2. Interesting. My reading of Muehlhauser is that when he talks of moral weight he almost exclusively means 'capacity for welfare' and basically never means 'moral status.' From conversations with him, I get the impression he is a unitarian and so doesn't endorse differences in moral status.

  3. Did you mean that status-adjusted welfare "captures" capacity for welfare to the extent that a lower or higher capacity for welfare will tend to reduce or increase the amount of welfare that is being experienced or changed?

This is close to what I meant, though I grant that maybe this isn't strong enough to qualify as 'capturing' capacity for welfare. The basic idea is that a unitarian and a hierarchist could in theory agree that, say, the status-adjusted welfare of a cow is generally higher than the status-adjusted welfare of a mealworm even if they disagree about the nature of moral status. The hierarchist might believe that the mealworm and the cow have the same welfare level, but the mealworm's welfare is adjusted downward. The unitarian might believe that the cow and the mealworm have the same moral status, but the cow has a greater capacity for welfare.

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Hi Michael,

First, to clarify, strictly speaking welfare subject is not meant to be synonymous with moral patient. Some people believe that things that lack moral standing can still be welfare subjects. You might think, for example, that plants aren't sentient and so don't have moral standing, but nevertheless there are things that are non-instrumentally good for plants, so plants can be welfare subjects. (I don't hold this view, but some do.)

Otherwise, I'm mostly sympathetic to your points. I don't object to talk of 'moral patienthood.' 'Moral standing' appears to be more popular in the literature, but maybe that's a terminological mistake.

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Hi Michael,

The sentence you quote is meant to express a sufficiency claim, not a necessity claim. But note that the sentence is about both sentience and agency. I don't know of any serious contemporary philosopher who has denied that the conjunction of sentience and agency is sufficient for moral standing, though there are philosophers who deny that agency is sufficient and a small number who deny that sentience is sufficient.

It's true that one could hold a view that moral standing is wholly grounded in the possession of a Cartesian soul, that the possession of a Cartesian soul grants agency and sentience, and that there are other ways to be a sentient agent that don't require a Cartesian soul. If that were true, then agency and sentience would not be sufficient for moral standing. But I don't know anybody who holds that view. Do you?

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Hi Michael,

Strictly speaking, the two sentences aren't equivalent. If you remove the two instances of "or" in the second sentence, then they are.

Footnote 59 has been fixed, thanks.

Yep, those are meant to be annual deaths.

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your many comments. The section of the report you quote hints at the debate between moral realists and moral anti-realists, which is too vexed a topic to discuss fully here. However, it seems to me that you and I basically agree about coffee mugs. The way I would describe it is that coffee mugs lack moral standing (and hence lack moral status) because they are neither sentient nor agential. Entities that lack moral standing can be excluded from our moral reasoning (though of course they might matter instrumentally). According to you, coffee mugs should be excluded from our moral reasoning because they are not welfare subjects. Depending on your theory of welfare and moral status, the list of welfare subjects might be coextensive with the list of entities with moral standing.

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Hi Oscar,

Thanks again. Much (though not all) of my credence in the claim that there are significant differences in capacity for welfare across species derives from the credence I put in non-hedonistic theories of welfare. But I agree that differences in capacity for welfare don't entail that the interests of the animal with a greater capacity ought always be prioritized over the interests of the animal with the smaller capacity. And of course I agree that numbers matter. As you know, I'm quite concerned about our treatment of some invertebrates. When I express that concern to people, many suggest that even if, say, bees are sentient, they don't count for as much as, say, cows. I hope that thinking about both the number of exploited invertebrates and their capacity for welfare will help us figure out whether our current neglect of invertebrate welfare is justified. I suspect that when we get clear on what plausibly can and can't influence capacity for welfare (and to what extent), we'll see that the differences between mammals and arthropods aren't great enough to justify our current allocation of resources. At the very least, thinking more about it might reveal that we are deeply ignorant about differences in capacity for welfare across species. We can then try to account for that uncertainty in our allocation of resources.

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Hi Nicolas,

Thanks for the comment! There’s a lot of good stuff to unpack here. First I should acknowledge that the subject matter in question is complex, and the post intentionally simplifies some issues just to keep it readable. (For instance, the post assumes intrinsicalism about moral status.) If you’d like, I’d love to schedule a call to discuss the topic in more detail.

I agree that Kagan faces both a double-counting worry and an arbitrariness worry. On the whole, I think these two concerns are decent reasons to reject Kagan’s view. However, if I were to put on my hierarchical hat, I would suggest that so long as the intrinsic characteristics that determine moral status are distinct from the characteristics that determine capacity for welfare, the double-counting worry can be avoided. (I think there are other, more complicated ways to try to sidestep the double-counting worry as well.) The arbitrariness worry is harder to handle, but if one is wedded to certain intuitions, then it might be a bullet worth biting. If appeal to differences in moral status is the only way to avoid obligations that one finds deeply counterintuitive, then the appeal isn’t necessarily arbitrary. (Taking off my hierarchical hat, I think Sebo’s review of Kagan’s book does a good job summarizing why we should be skeptical of the sort of intuitions Kagan consistently draws on.)

I also agree that one can endorse a hierarchy of characteristic moral value without endorsing Kagan’s view. (Kagan says as much in chapter two of his book.) In the post, I’ve tried to suggest that a hierarchy based on capacity for welfare is importantly distinct from a hierarchy based on Kagan-style moral status. I’m sympathetic to the view that ultimately moral status is context-sensitive or agent-relative or somehow multidimensional, but it’s not clear how much of practical value we lose by suppressing this complication. I’ll think more about it!

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Hi Oscar,

Thanks for another insightful comment. I think we agree that what ultimately matters morally is realized welfare. I think we disagree about the extent and size of differences in capacity for welfare, our ability to measure capacity for welfare, and the usefulness of thinking about capacity for welfare. (Please correct me if I have misconstrued our points of agreement and disagreement!) I'll take our points of disagreement in reverse order.

It's certainly true that differences in capacity for welfare won't always make a difference to the way we ought to allocate resources. If we are only alleviating mild suffering (or promoting mild pleasure) and we have reason to believe that more or less all welfare subjects have the capacity to experience welfare outcomes greater than mild suffering and mild pleasure, then capacity for welfare isn't really relevant. But it seems to me that most of the time humans exploit nonhuman animals, they inflict what prima facie looks to be intense suffering. If that's right, then knowing something about capacity for welfare might be important. Alleviating the suffering of the animals with a greater capacity for welfare would generally make a bigger welfare improvement.

On the second point: measuring capacity for welfare is going to be extremely difficult and doing so well is a big and long-term project. Nonetheless, I am cautiously optimistic that if we take this topic seriously, we can make real progress. Admittedly, there are a lot of ways such a project could go wrong, so maybe my optimism is misplaced. I lay out my thoughts in much more detail in the second post in this series (due to be released June 1), so maybe we should discuss the issue more then.

Finally, my reading of the literature suggests that most (though not all) plausible theories of welfare predict differences in capacity for welfare, though of course the size and extent of such differences depend on the details of the theory and various empirical facts. I would be curious to know which combination of theoretical and empirical claims you endorse that lead you to believe there aren't significant differences in capacity for welfare across species. (If you're right, thinking about capacity for welfare might still be useful if for no other reason than to dispel the old myth that such differences exist!)

Thanks again for reading and engaging with the post!

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

To clarify, this is if we're increasing their welfare by the same amount, right? Prioritarianism and egalitarianism wouldn't imply that it's better for the mouse to be moved to 10 than for the human to be moved to 100.

Right. The claim is that the prioritarian and the egalitarian would prefer to move the mouse from 9/10 to 10/10 before moving the human from 10/100 to 11/100. Kagan argues this is the wrong result, but because he doesn't want to throw out distributive principles altogether, he thinks the best move is to appeal to differences in moral status between the mouse and the human.

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