MichaelStJules

Research fellow (intern) at Animal Charity Evaluators. Organizer for Effective Altruism Waterloo.

Background mostly in pure math and machine learning, but also some in statistics/econometrics and agricultural economics. Earned to give in deep learning at a startup for 2 years for animal charities, and now trying to get into effective animal advocacy research. Former animal welfare research intern at Charity Entrepreneurship. Curious about s-risks.

Suffering-focused, anti-speciesist, prioritarian, consequentialist. Also, I like math and ethics.

My shortform.

Comments

Linch's Shortform

Besides just extrapolating trends in cost of production/prices, I think the main things to track would be feed conversion ratios and the possibility of feeding animals more waste products or otherwise cheaper inputs, since feed is often the main cost of production. Some FCRs are already < 2 and close to 1, e.g. it takes less than 2kg of input to get 1kg of animal product (this could be measured in just weight, calories, protein weight, etc..), e.g. for chickens, some fishes and some insects.

I keep hearing that animal protein comes from the protein in what animals eat (but I think there are some exceptions, at least), so this would put a lower bound of 1 on FCR in protein terms, and there wouldn't be much further to go for animals close to that.

I think a lower bound of around 1 for weight of feed to weight of animal product also makes sense, maybe especially if you ignore water in and out.

So, I think chicken meat prices could roughly at most halve again, based on these theoretical limits, and it's probably much harder to keep pushing. Companies are also adopting less efficient breeds to meet welfare standards like the Better Chicken Commitment, since these breeds have really poor welfare due to their accelerated growth.

This might be on Lewis Bollard's radar, since he has written about the cost of production, prices and more general trends in animal agriculture.

Avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion is not necessary for population ethics: new many-author collaboration.

From the paper itself:

The fact that the Repugnant Conclusion is implied by many plausible principles of axiology and social welfare is not a reason to doubt the existence or coherence of ethics and value theory (although we do not rule out that there may be other reasons for moral skepticism).

If your moral intuitions are not logically compatible, that's a problem for the coherence of your views, right? Is the point that your views are just not the "right ones"? But still, if ethics fundamentally relies on moral intuitions, then I think the more intuitions we need to drop, the more doubt we should have about the reliability of moral intuitions generally and the coherence of ethics altogether.

Of course, some people do not find the RC repugnant at all and never did.

(i) The Repugnant Conclusion depends crucially on intuitions about cases with very large numbers of people. The size of such very large numbers is hard to grasp on an intuitive level (Broome 2004; Huemer 2008; Gustafsson, forthcoming).

My intuitions against the repugnant conclusion don't have anything to do with the large numbers involved. I think it's wrong to add extra people if it means those who would exist otherwise (in a wide non-identity sense, or in a personal sense) will be worse off. This already holds for 1 extra person.

Personally, I lean towards a hard procreation asymmetry and something like negative utilitarianism. If I wanted "more moderate" views, I'd also rather reject the independence of irrelevant alternatives than accept that adding people with sufficiently good lives to the world makes things better, all else equal.

The impossibility theorems in population ethics can be read as strong arguments for the Repugnant Conclusion.

I agree, but they could also be read as strong arguments against any of the other conditions, like the independence of irrelevant alternatives, which seems usually taken for granted in these theorems.

RogerAckroyd's Shortform

To add to this, Animal Ethics has done some research on attitudes towards helping wild animals:

  1. https://www.animal-ethics.org/survey-helping-wild-animals-scientists-students/
  2. https://www.animal-ethics.org/scientists-attitudes-animals-wild-qualitative/ (another summary by Faunalytics)

From the first link, which looked at attitudes among scholars and students in life sciences towards helping wild animals in urban settings, with vaccinations and for weather events:

Responses were mostly favorable in all cases. Levels of support and perceived support by others ranged, depending on the question, from over 60% to over 90%. Students and scholars tended to give similar responses. The level of support was highest in almost all cases for the second project, Urban Ecology. The first project, Vaccination, also received substantial support. It was ranked second except in one very important category – expected support at university departments, in which it was ranked third. The third project, Weather Effects, was ranked first in this category. The results showed no substantial conflict between the perceptions and attitudes among scholars and students.

 

I do not think large-scale efforts to help wild animals should be an EA cause at the moment, but in the long-term I don't think environmentalist concerns will be a limiting factor.

For what it's worth, I think the current focus is primarily research, advocacy for wild animals and field building, not the implementation or promotion of specific direct interventions.

RogerAckroyd's Shortform

I think it's basically that moral circle expansion is an approach to reduce s-risks (mostly related to artificial sentience), and ending factory farming advances moral circle expansion. Those links have posts on the topic, but the most specific tag is probably Non-humans and the long-term future. From a recent paper on the topic:

The fact that there are over 100 billion animals on factory farms is partly why we consider them one of the most important frontiers of today’s moral circle (K. Anthis & J. R. Anthis, 2019).

I think Sentience Institute and the Center for Reducing Suffering are doing the most research on this these days.

Interview with Christine M. Korsgaard: Animal Ethics, Kantianism, Utilitarianism

I wonder what she thinks of EA's approach to animal advocacy. I know that many rights theorists object to welfare reform for allowing or promoting animal exploitation.

Also, intervening to promote wild animal welfare, too. There's been some writing in EA connecting wild animal welfare and rights:

  1. https://was-research.org/writing-by-others/legal-personhood-positive-rights-wild-animals/
  2. https://was-research.org/blog/wild-animals-a-rights-based-approach/
Interview with Christine M. Korsgaard: Animal Ethics, Kantianism, Utilitarianism

Thanks for the clarifications!

And though your example beings may not be able to pursue their own functional goods, they are still the sorts of creatures who do.

(...)

But I think she would argue similarly about creatures that are defective in other ways, e.g. who has no power to control what they experience or to pursue goals.

Maybe having valenced experiences means they have goods and bads, and not being able to pursue them makes them defective, regardless of what type of creature they are (e.g. if they were designed from scratch to lack the ability to pursue their ends)?

 

A human infant is not a particular kind of creature, but a human creature at a particular life stage. I believe that it is not proper to assign moral standing, and the properties on which it is grounded, to life stages or to the subjects of those stages. Moral standing should be accorded to persons and animals considered as the subjects of their whole lives, at least in the case of animals with enough psychic unity over time to be regarded as the subjects of their whole life.

Aren't human infants pretty psychologically disconnected from their future rational selves, though? It's extremely rare for adult humans to retain memories from experiences in infancy, although I suppose experiences in infancy might still shape their adult personalities.

 

If I understand you correctly, I think she would agree. Her distinction between "final goods" and "functional goods" comes, I think, from this 1983 paper of hers, though there she calls functional goods "instrumental" instead. The functional good is basically that which allows a thing to function well, e.g. a whetstone is good for the blade because it keeps it sharp and tar is good for the boat because it keeps it from taking in water. The final good is "the end or aim of all our strivings, or at any rate the crown of their success, the summum bonum, a state of affairs that is desirable or valuable or worth achieving for its own sake". Where does the final good come from? Korsgaard basically argues, if I recall correctly, following Aristotle, that creatures have functions, and that, when we act to achieve some end, to attain whatever we value as good-for us, we take that end to be good in the final sense. I think this is pretty similar to what you were getting at?

Are final goods also functional goods, though? It seems to me that our functions are also supposed to determine our final goods, not just that functional goods are instrumental. Or maybe they happen to coincide for humans? From the abstract of this paper of hers (assuming this is the view she is promoting generally, not just a specific defense of Aristotle):

Drawing on the account of form and matter in Aristotle's Metaphysics, it argues that “function” does not mean purpose but rather a way of functioning — how a thing does what it does. The way human beings do things is by making rational choices. The human good or happiness is not merely a result of rational choice, but consists in it, because a rational action or activity is one whose principle expresses the agent's conception of what is worth doing for the sake of what.

 

A rational being who lacks some of the properties that together make rational functioning possible is not non-rational, but rather defectively rational, and therefore unable to function well. [...] It is not as if you could simply subtract "rationality" from a human animal. A non-rational animal, after all, functions perfectly well without understanding the principles of reason, since he makes his choices in a different way.

This gets into modal personism/personhood. I have some objections to this and her responses to the argument from marginal cases in general, some coming from the literature on this topic (I think here and here, but it's been a while since I read those), but maybe they are based on misunderstandings, since my understanding is pretty shallow here:

  1. I think you could subtract rationality from a human being and they could still function well (in terms of achieving their ends), depending on the context. We still have a lot of instinct and more basic forms of learning that non-rational animals rely on to survive and pursue their own ends, so we could potentially get by on those alone. Of course, our ancestors who lacked rationality probably did make up for it in other ways.
  2. If functions are just the ways we do things, as in her paper that I cite above, and a particular human lacks rationality, rationality can't be their function. (See also points 3 and 4 for objections to possible responses to this.)
  3. Why would we consider a human whose genes do not support rationality to be defectively rational or a "rational being", rather than a non-rational being? If it's determined by their genes, isn't it in their nature? Why wouldn't this be a different type/category of creature from a rational human? And by changing enough genes, we could get a completely different non-rational species.
  4. Why isn't every individual being their own type? On what basis are we grouping them? If we reference species in our definitions, this would be a kind of speciesism. We can even imagine creatures without anything similar to genes or designs, like Boltzmann brains, although maybe they are too unlikely to ever exist.
  5. What if a human never becomes rational due to some omission, e.g. something to do with the environment in the womb or inadequate nutrition? If we gain the ability to enhance nonhuman animals to be rational, couldn't failing to do so make them defectively rational, too? If we can gain the ability to enhance otherwise non-rational nonhuman animals, couldn't they be defectively rational now? Is function determined by the "design", the genes?
Interview with Christine M. Korsgaard: Animal Ethics, Kantianism, Utilitarianism

The problem of global poverty requires a political solution; charity, no matter how extensive, can never be more than a band-aid.

(...)

We should think about it politically. People in this condition aren’t just needy. They are not free. Their rights are being violated. We need more international forms of governance to address this kind of problem.

I wonder what she has in mind, especially what reforms she thinks are most politically feasible. Also, to what extent will developing countries essentially free their own citizens as they develop? Maybe there isn't much we can feasibly do other than speed up growth and ensure it makes it to the people (with more and better trade agreements, oversight in supply chains), rather than just the government and the corrupt?

Interview with Christine M. Korsgaard: Animal Ethics, Kantianism, Utilitarianism

I would think the impartiality and demandingness of utilitarianism are the main motivators to do so much good. Others' interests matter as much as your own, up to equal consideration of equal interests, and should be promoted to the same extent, all else equal. My impression of Kantian ethics is that it's much more permissible to pursue your own interests even if it means not promoting others' to a greater extent. On the other hand, in utilitarianism, your own interests are effectively dominated by others', and so should basically be treated instrumentally (i.e. you need to take care of yourself to help others sustainably and effectively), although they do still matter in themselves.

Interview with Christine M. Korsgaard: Animal Ethics, Kantianism, Utilitarianism

If I understand things correctly, in Fellow Creatures, you write that animals have moral standing because (1) things can be good or bad for them, (2) they experience things as good or bad through their senses, and (3) they are self-maintaining. You also write that “[i]f we invented a machine that was conscious and had valenced experiences that guided her to pursue her own functional good, then she would be an animal, by my definition”.

I haven't read her work myself and probably should, but I was told by someone that basically condition 3 or even having goal-directed behaviour is not necessary. I would hope it wouldn't be, because we could have a being who experiences good and bad and so has their own ends, but has no power to control what they experience and so would just be completely vulnerable and unable to pursue their own ends. Wouldn't such a being still matter? It seems like many young animals and (conscious) fetuses are in such a state. Maybe one way of putting it is that these experiences do in fact guide them to pursue their own (functional) good, but they are just unable to actually do so. But then what does it mean to say these experiences guide them to pursue their own good if they can't pursue their own good?

I also wonder what she has in mind by "functional" in "functional good". Do we need to decide what something's function is, if any, to define their goods and bads, and how do we do that? In my view, animals define their own goods and bads through their valenced experiences and/or desires, not just that they happen to experience their goods and bads or that their experiences guide them towards their own functional goods.

And what if their valenced experiences guided them to violate their own functional good?

It's interesting that she brings up artwork and the environment, too, as potential ends in themselves:

The hardest problems arise in cases where you are dealing with something that isn’t a person, but doesn’t seem like it should be treated merely as instrument or a resource either. Animals, fetuses and embryos, artworks that are part of a shared cultural tradition, the environment. These things aren’t mere means. Are they ends in themselves, or do we need more categories? In Fellow Creatures, I concluded that there are two different ways of being an end in itself, with different implications.

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