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.
Thanks for the interesting comment and many useful references. Speaking for myself and not for the rest of the team, I am very confident that dogs, pigs, cows, rats, and apes are all sentient and have the capacity for valenced experience. (That is, there is something it is like to be these animals and that experience includes pleasures and pains.) Whether or not these creatures are capable of higher-order conscious thought (that is, reflecting on their own first-order beliefs, desires, or emotional states) is debatable. I don't think higher-order conscious thought is a necessary condition for sentience, but I do think it may be relevant to moral status. In fact, many of the features mentioned in your comment (e.g., episodic memory, emotional complexity and awareness, social communication, cause-and-effect thinking, executive control, autonomy, biographical sense of self) plausibly help determine a creature's moral status. (Even if you are suspicious of degrees of moral status, you might think that these features contribute to the range and types of experiential states a creature can undergo and thus are important for determining a creature's welfare.) So I think it would be good for the animal welfare movement to have a decent grasp of which of these features (as well as the other features that plausibly affect moral status) are exhibited by which animals. In the coming months, Rethink Priorities might have something more concrete to say about the topic.
Thanks for the question. I don’t have an all-things-considered view on whether a given individual should avoid honey. It’s a complicated issue. Here are some thoughts:
First, to simplify, I’ll assume that you only care about welfare and thus I’ll set any deontological considerations to the side.
Next, you should ask yourself whether you think bees are likely to lead net-negative lives. The standard argument (note: I’m not endorsing the argument here) for the position that insects lead net-negative lives appeals to the fact that most insects have a huge number of young that don’t survive to adulthood. That’s not the case for honey bees. Juvenile mortality in honey bees is fairly low, probably no more than about 30%. Every colony has so-called ‘nurse bees’ that oversee feeding the larvae. That said, honey bees are hard workers their whole lives (aside from a small number of drones), and it’s not uncommon for beekeepers to claim that honey bees literally work themselves to death.
Next, you should ask yourself what type of honey you’re considering eating. Bees thrive when colonies have plenty of space and access to a wide variety of natural forage. Bees suffer when they’re hauled hundreds of miles in cramped trucks then stuffed in monocultural, pesticide-ridden agricultural landscapes. In most regions, there are plenty of small, local honey producers that treat their bees well, or at least as well as you can if you’re in the honey business. There’s no general label for this type of honey, but it’s often called “wildflower honey.” If you’re unsure about how the honey is produced, you can sometimes find good information by browsing the producer’s website or, if you’re at a farmer’s market, talking to the beekeeper directly.
Finally, you should ask yourself a number of consistency questions. Are you a vegan? Is it easier to keep to a vegan diet if you don’t carve exceptions for yourself? Is it easier to explain your dietary restrictions (and avoid charge of hypocrisy) if you don’t make exceptions? If you truly care about bee welfare, are you willing to alter other parts of your diet? Plenty of crops depend on bees for pollination, especially almonds. Are you willing to avoid almonds, too? (Side note: commercial almond milk is mostly water, so despite the bad press it’s gotten in some circles recently, I would be more concerned about what’s in your granola rather than what’s in the milk you pour on top of it.)
On the question of how vocal you should be about avoiding honey, I think the answer is: not very. You can be vocal about bee welfare without making people feel bad about eating honey. The reforms that help honey bees the most probably aren’t going to require trying to directly change people’s dietary preferences, so I don’t think we should risk any sort of confrontational advocacy that could reflect poorly on the movement or otherwise cause people to disengage with us.
Hi Jonas, thanks for the comment. I'll change the main text and accompanying footnote to make clear environmental benefits were not the main aim of the initiatives.
You should correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the proposals were eventually weakened to the point that conservation of resources became the primary (perhaps sole?) focus.
Thanks! That's helpful way of thinking about the topic and a useful strategy for addressing the problem.
My impression is that I'm considerably less of a consequentialist than the average EA. Mostly I'm just pretty uncertain and so I put some stock in (some forms of) deontology and virtue ethics.
I'm a metaethical realist.
One's obligations are context-sensitive, so I can't say for sure what altruistic obligations others have. But for a person in my circumstances, I believe altruism (in many forms) is a moral obligation, one that I'm continually failing to fulfill.
If I hadn't been hired by RP, I probably would have ended up working for a random tech company in Austin, where I live, or maybe I would have ended up doing admissions counseling remotely (which is lucrative but soul-sucking work). If I left RP now I would try to work for a different EA research org.
My background is in philosophy, so I've been familiar with (and convinced by) Peter Singer's work since roughly 2007. I first heard about EA in early 2015 when Will MacAskill gave a talk at UT Austin, where I was working on my PhD. He and I chatted a bit about Bostrom's Superintelligence, which I happened to be reading at the time for totally unrelated reasons. Talking about AI safety and global poverty (the subject of Will's talk) in the same conversation was kind of a revelatory moment, and all of EA's conceptual pieces just sort of fell into place.
The thing that keeps me motivated is how intrinsically interesting I find my research. Of course I hope to make a difference, but my work is so far removed from immediate measurable impact that I don't really think about that on a day-to-day basis.
I've generally become much more chill about coexisting with invertebrates in and around my house. Mostly I just find them fascinating now rather than scary or repugnant, especially arthropods (the phylum that insects and spiders belong to). That said, I did recently kill a scorpion that had stung my daughter, so I guess there are limits to my tolerance.
I agree that bivalves are probably the least likely to be sentient of the animals that are easily available to eat. I wouldn't necessarily recommend eating them because there may be issues with the way they are collected. (I haven't looked into this at all.) I don't eat them because I don't find it particularly hard not to eat meat, and it's easier to explain my dietary restrictions to people if there aren't too many exceptions.
The research I did for my honey bee report has affected the way I feel about almonds. It hasn't really reduced my almond consumption, but I now feel slightly guilty about eating almonds. Modern almond farming is pretty bad for bees, and bees are super cool and smart. From a bee welfare perspective, I'm pretty confident eating commercially farmed almonds is worse than eating wildflower honey. (Note that most honey is not wildflower honey.)
My research would not be at the same level of quality if I were operating independently. The ability to easily draw on the knowledge, experience, skills, and general expertise of my colleagues at RP greatly improves my work. I can always count on getting high-quality feedback from at least half a dozen people, and if I get stuck in the middle of the project, I can normally count on someone to help me out. There is some loss of independence working at RP versus being funded directly, but I think the research guidance I receive more than makes up for the loss of independence. And RP's research agenda is mostly set collectively, anyway. So, in short, I expect that in most cases researchers at organizations like RP are going to be much more productive than independent researchers. ("Synergy" is the buzzword that comes to mind.)