Oscar_Horta

40Joined Sep 2019

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Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Hi Jason,

Thanks for reconstructing and summarizing the discussion. I think this is generally true:

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.

I guess our strongest disagreement might be about our ability to measure capacity for welfare. And I think maybe we can agree too on some of the dangers of giving too much importance to the capacity for welfare.

Here's why I think this. My concern is that accepting capacity for welfare as a rule of thumb to consider who counts for more often leads people to assume that the interests of certain animals count for more in general than the interests of other animals, even in situations in which the harms they are facing are less important ones. It also leads people to disregard numbers. This is one of the reasons why the interests of mammals typically get much more attention than those of invertebrates and fish(es) even when the situation of those mammals as individuals is not necessarily worse than that of a fish, and even if, due to their very different numbers, their aggregate interests should count for significantly less. This kind of mistakes are made all the time, not just among the general public, but also among animal advocates.

I suspect you'll probably agree that this is problematic too. If that's so, then our disagreement concerning the usefulness of thinking about capacity for welfare will be smaller than it may seem at first!

As for your question regarding the claims I endorse, axiologically, I think only experiences can be positive or negative. Of course if one defends some forms of preference-satisfactionism and certain objective list theories of welfare one will reach a different conclusion. According to these views, being able to read novels, or being a social animal, may make your capacity for welfare higher. But I don’t find those views plausible.

Concerning my views about what types of minds there may be, to a great degree I'm just agnostic about the differences in intensity of experience. Maybe things are as you think, I just think that the evidence we have doesn't allow us to reach that conclusion. Being able to have experiences that are more complex doesn’t necessarily entail being able to have experiences that are more intense. I find it quite plausible that an animal may only have very simple experiences but equally intense to the ones that animals with complex minds could have. The point of the intensity of experiences like pain is not to help you in decision making process, like being able to deal with complex information is, but just to give you some motivation to act. I don't think that beings with more complex minds necessarily need more motivation of this kind than those with simpler ones.

Empirically, much of the evidence about the minds of animals that are very different from us is about the complexity of the information those animals can deal with. Significantly less evidence seems to tell us something that can be relevant for drawing differences between the intensity of the experiences of different animals, and such evidence is often very uncertain. However, I can see that there are exceptions to this, such as the fact that some arthropods go on with a certain behavior despite having suffered important physical harms. This strikes me as evidence in favor of your view. But I think we would need much more in order to be able to conclude something here more conclusively. And even if it were true in this case we can't be certain that this applies in the case of other animals like vertebrates. Maybe there is some point from which all beings have the capacity to have roughly equally intense experiences (but arthropods are below that level). We just don't have enough evidence (or ways to get it at this point).

Thanks!

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Hi Jason,

I agree that many thoughtful people reject impartiality (the majority of human beings probably reject impartiality). But this is not necessarily a reason to think there may be a sound epistemic case not to completely reject partialism. Thoughtful people can be wrong, as shown by the fact that you can find thoughtful people defending almost all kind of views, and they can be biased. And then, there are very few basic moral ideas that seem harder to abandon that how much a certain given (dis)value should count should be completely independent of the identity of the one who suffers it.

I agree that if the way different animals are affected are coincident, and if some suffer more because of some capacity they have, then knowing more about this is certainly relevant. I just don't think the situations in which animals that are very diverse typically are are similar enough to make these comparisons. (But then I must confess I'm skeptical from the start about the whole idea that given what we know now we can really learn about the possible differences in the capacities for welfare between animals. In fact I also think it may well be the case that there aren't significant differences in that respect at least among vertebrates and invertebrates with relatively complex nervous systems. But I think the above claim stands even if you disagree with me on this.)

Anyway, my opinions about the capacities of different animals and their usefulness in situations like the ones you mention may well be all wrong! But would you agree with the main point that what ultimately matters is not capacity for welfare but the actual interests at stake in each case?

If you accept this, then maybe you can share my concern that, when different animals are in different situations, considering capacity for welfare instead of the actual interests at stake (as it seems to happen often) can lead us to make wrong decisions.

Thanks!

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

It is good to be open to reconsider one's most basic assumptions every now and then. But I was nevertheless surprised when I read this post, as it questions one of the core ideas of EA, which is that of impartiality, that is, the idea that equal interests count the same. EA without impartiality wouldn't look very much like EA anymore. Partiality drives people to engage in causes that do significantly less good than others, because in doing so they do more good for those favored by their partial views.

In the literature, one of the main ways to oppose impartiality is by using the construct of moral status, according to which equal interests don't always count the same. This is very different from claiming that in different situations we can have different interests. It is not against impartiality to claim that, say, the interest in not dying of a human and a mouse, or of an old human and a young human, may be different. If these interests do differ, then, as they are different interests, they count differently. This is perfectly in accordance with the idea of the equal consideration of interests. But this is totally different from saying that the equal interests of a mouse and a human, or of an old and a young humans, shouldn't count the same, because their status is different.

As for the capacity for (positive or negative) welfare, its usefulness is very limited. It can allow you do compare the weight of different individuals only when they're facing the same situation. But, in many other cases, considering that their capacity for welfare is relevant can drive us to make very wrong decisions. Suppose Nemo the fish has a lower capacity for welfare than Jason the human. Suppose I can choose between causing some pain to Jason or a slightly worse pain to Nemo. Other things being equal, choosing the latter would be wrong. This is because what matters for this decision is not Jason and Nemo's capacity for welfare, but the actual interests involved, which, again, other things being equal are determined only by the actual alternative pains at stake.

In practice, most of the decisions we have to make are of this kind, as those affected by the different causes we can compare aren't in the same situation (which is what would allow us to make our decisions on the basis of their capacity for welfare). Rather, they are in situations that differ significantly from each other.

What is wild animal suffering?

Hi Will, thanks again for your comments!

It seems we agree that it’s reasonable to make word choices according to what will work best for successful communication in different contexts. Below I’ll make some remarks about this. But there is another issue that is more relevant as it doesn’t involve just language. This is the question of whether the harms that animals suffer due partly or totally to natural reasons are constitute distinct and unique problem that needs to be tackled specifically (or, in other words, a cause area). I believe this is the case, for the following reasons:

1. The measures needed to address both issues are totally different (in the case of anthropogenic harms, we just need to avoid causing them, in the case of natural harms, the question is way more complex).

2. The kind of scientific research that each problem requires us to do is also different.

3. The way in which the public understands natural harms suffered by animals is very different from how they understand the ways animals are harmed by humans. Outreach focused exclusively in challenging anthropogenic harms doesn’t raise concerns about natural harms. The public (and scientists too) have very diverging attitudes towards both. It’s likely that this is due to the widespread idyllic view of nature and the related opinion that we shouldn’t intervene in the natural harms animals suffer.

The latter is something that a point you mention actually shows, when you point out:

being inclusive of anthropogenic harms has been very helpful at getting academic collaborators on board

One would expect this, as a result of the third reason mentioned above. In fact, you asked academic collaborators about restricting the scope of wild animal welfare to mean anthropogenic harms alone, excluding not natural ones, they might agree even more.

Having said this, I’m very supportive of combining outreach and research about animals harmed by natural and by anthropogenic causes if that is strategically useful to favor the former. But I reach this conclusion after recognizing the specific nature of the problem of the natural harms suffered by animals.

You didn't link to the Kirkwood paper so I don't know exactly which definition he uses

I didn’t mean any paper by him in particular. I picked his name because he’s probably the most representative wild animal welfare scientists in the traditional way of understanding the term, which excludes natural harms. Most of the literature on wild animal welfare was assuming this too, and it’s also the one that organizations like UFAW or IFAW have assumed to date. The new understanding of the term to include natural harms just started around a couple of years ago (and I mentioned Luke because AFAIK a forthcoming paper from him will be the first in the scientific literature to use a different meaning). [Regardless of that, among Kirkwood’s most relevant papers on this topic I would mention these ones (especially the 2nd and the 3rd one): Kirkwood, J. K. (1992) “Wild animal welfare”, in International Whaling Commission (ed.), Report of the Whale Welfare and Ethics Workshop, Eden Project (IWC/63/WKM&AWI4). Cambridge: International Whaling Commission, 66-68; Kirkwood, J. K.; Sainsbury, A. W. and Bennett, P. M. (1994) “The welfare of free-living wild animals: Methods of assessment,” Animal Welfare, 3, 257-273; Kirkwood, J. K. and Sainsbury, A. W. (1996) “Ethics of interventions for the welfare of free-living wild animals”, Animal Welfare, 5: 235-243; Kirkwood, J. K. (2013) “Wild animal welfare,” Animal Welfare, 22, 147-148].

death is included as a (potential) harm under WAW but not WAS

Yes, that’s why in the description of the meaning of WAS the clarification was made that while death is not a form of suffering, if it is included among the natural harms animals suffer we can consider it to be part of the cause area defined with the term WAS. I agree that this is imprecise, which is why such explanation was needed.

It's a reasonable point that if you're targeting traditional animal rights activists who oppose more welfarist approaches to animal issues then you might want to avoid welfarist language.

Animal Ethics targets all kind of animal advocates, not just those assuming a certain viewpoint. It wants to achieve the wider possible support among them. As I said above, when Animal Ethics does outreach aiming at biologists and animal welfare scientists it uses a language that is intended to suit that purpose as best as possible. (Let me clarify that while the views expressed in previous paragraphs just reflected my own opinions, in this one I’ve tried to present what I think is Animal Ethics’s position).

This might just be a WAI/AE strategic difference, though.

But the discussion is relevant, because I think it’s not quite so that WAI only focuses on scientists and AE tries to reach both scientists and also other audiences. It seems to me that WAI also reaches other audiences too, even if to a less degree.

it might have been better to be more explicit about this in this post: "For [these reasons], Animal Ethics prefers to define WAS [thusly] when communicating with [target groups]. Other groups may make different communication decisions in other contexts."

With this I have to disagree, because the post is not about this issue. In this exchange, you and I have been discussing the question of communication decisions because you brought it up in your first comment, but the post never addressed it. The post only tries to do something much more modest, which is to describe what the cause area commonly named “wild animal suffering” is. The post was not written to argue in favor of using one or another term (in the case of the term “wild animal welfare” it just warns that it has several meanings and that confusions can happen, but this doesn’t rule out that there may be other reasons to use it). The subsequent discussion led us away from the topics addressed in the post. But it’s been interesting anyway, I think! :)

What is wild animal suffering?

I’m part of the group of people who wrote this blog post, so thanks for your comments! I’ll try to clarify first my understanding of the views Animal Ethics has, and then make some points that will just express my own opinions.

The post is basically looking for a definition of the term “wild animal suffering”, and is intending to be partly descriptive, in trying to recognize the use the term has had, though at some points we do propose some ways to solving possible confusions.

One thing Animal Ethics doesn’t really try to do is to advocate for the use of the term “wild animal suffering” (though we do recognize problems with the alternative “wild animal welfare”). In fact, when started to work we used the term “helping wild animals”, rather than “wild animal suffering”, because we thought it would be more appealing to both the general public and animal advocates.

However, the term “wild animal suffering” eventually became well-established among effective altruists and animal advocates. The creation of Wild Animal Suffering Research first as a project and afterwards as an organization confirmed this. So eventually, a couple of years ago, Animal Ethics decided to should follow suit and use the established language too. The different language we were using wasn’t leading to better communication, but the opposite (people sometimes didn’t recognize us as working on wild animal suffering just because of the language we were using). Since then, the term has become even more firmly established, and due to this we’ve kept using it. If a better alternative became established among EAs and animal advocates, we might start to use it instead. As for the general public, most people are perfectly familiar with the idea of animal suffering (still, we often choose to speak of “helping wild animals” instead).

However, we don’t use this term when we want to reach scientists, as they are unfamiliar with it and it may sound strange to them. We totally agree with you on that. We try to have a nuanced and strategic approach, and to use the language that will work best with the audiences we’re addressing. Of course this is tricky, as it’s not always easy to separate your audiences.

As for the problems with the term “wild animal welfare”, the use of this term may not be confusing to people who are familiar with its multiple meanings. But most people are not. When you use the term, you can’t be always explaining what is the meaning with which you’re using it. As a result, people may be familiar with one use and understand you mean that meaning, when you’re actually using it with another one.

For instance, suppose someone looks for papers about “wild animal welfare” and finds one paper by James Kirkwood and another one by Luke Hecht. If the reader is quite familiar with the literature, she will know they are meaning two different things with the term. Otherwise, she won’t be aware of the fact that they mean different things.

Another problem is that among many animal advocates the term “animal welfare” has a terrible reputation, as it is identified with animal exploitation industries trying to justify animal abuse. Perhaps this is unfortunate and wrong, but that’s the situation we face, it’s been like that for the last two decades at least and it’s not likely to change in the near future. It wouldn't be a good thing to alienate those people. Animal Ethics doesn't believes in creating a “wild animal suffering movement”. Rather, it believes in making concern for animals in the wild an integral part of animal advocacy. Due to this, we try to use the language that best avoids not just misunderstandings but also negative reactions that may hurt that goal. Of course, again, when we are addressing scientists using the term “animal welfare” is not a concern, and we certainly use it.

I now move to the definition of the term “wild animal suffering” not to name directly anthropogenic harms. Natural and directly anthropogenic harms are not just different in kind; they differ in the attention they have got and in the ways in which they need to be addressed. Advocacy against hunting, fishing, zoos, circuses, and other forms human directly harm undomesticated animals is mainstream in animal advocacy, and has been on for a very long time. But this has never triggered any concern for the natural harms animals suffer. Mainstream animal advocacy draws an important distinction between natural and other harms, and doesn’t address the former. So, when some people started to worry about natural harms suffered by animals, which had not been tackled yet, it was clear that we were facing a new cause area. This is why the term “wild animal suffering” was coined, in order to name it.

If we decided to stop using the term “wild animal suffering” to name this specific cause area in order to use it to include also directly anthropogenic harms such as the ones caused by fishing, zoos, etc., then the term would no longer be very useful, as it would not name any concrete cause area, but a mixture of different ones. Moreover, we would then have to find another label to name specifically the cause area related to the natural harms.

Concerning this:

I also think including death or other non-welfarist harms in the definition is odd and confusing

I assume that by “non-welfarist harms” you mean harms that can’t be described as events or states negatively affecting someone’s wellbeing. No such harms are considered in the post in the description of what wild animal suffering is. We say explicitly that wild animal suffering concerns only things affecting animals’ wellbeing.

The account of the harm of death that is standard today claims that death is harmful because it reduces your wellbeing. It does so by depriving you of the positive wellbeing that you would otherwise suffer. That is, if the total wellbeing you’d experience by not dying at time t1 is worse than the one you’d experience by dying later, at t2, then dying at y1 is a harm. If you agree with this, and think death is something that negatively affects our wellbeing, you’ll take it into account as one of the ways animals can be harmed by natural reasons. If you think death is not a harm at all, then you won’t. The definition to be compatible with both views, it would be incompatible, however, with including other things not related to the animals' wellbeing.

(Btw, we've used "wellbeing" and "welfare" as synonyms here, as the literature about welfarism typically does, even though there are certain contexts different from this one where they may be used differently).

Concerning your final concern about conservationism, I don’t think the post argues against what you point out. The paper doesn’t argue in favor of certain strategy over another one. At any rate, this is another point where we need a nuanced approach. We need to always bear in mind who our audience is. I agree with you (and so does Animal Ethics, I think), that when addressing scientists and doing academic outreach it is useful to stress the confluences between the defense of wild animals and conservationist aims. No disagreement here!

Things are not the same when we consider the general public, as most people, including many EAs, get confused about what concern about wild animals mean, and tend to confuse it with conservationist concerns. This results in people misunderstanding what wild animal suffering and helping wild animals is about. In this case, it's necessary to clarify the distinctions between both approaches, in order for people to understand what we are talking about.

So, again, a nuanced view is needed here, even if , as I said above, it’s not always easy to completely separate your audience.

Finally, I’d also like to clarify that the term “wild animal suffering” doesn’t imply a commitment to a suffering-focused view (whether a negative consequentialist one, utilitarian or not, or a non-consequentialist one). As far as I know this is not something that has been discussed at Animal Ethics, I’ll just explain my own views about this.

The main reason why there's no such commitment is that not only suffering-focused views are concerned with suffering. Many others do too (I think any plausible view does). This includes of course views that, like standard utilitarianism, prioritarianism or perfectionism, aim at some sort of maximization of positive minus negative things. All these views, and many others, aim at minimizing suffering, what happens is that they aim at other things too.

An extra reason may be that, given how things are in the wild, helping wild animals is a very promising cause area in terms of reducing suffering, but not really in terms of promoting positive wellbeing. Given a certain amount of resources r, using r to increase positive experiences among wild animals would achieve very poor results in comparison to using r to reduce suffering in the wild.

Due to this, many people, both suffering-focused and not, have used the term “wild animal suffering” regardless of their different ethical views. (In fact, we should bear in mind also that the terms “welfare” and “wellbeing” are optimistically biased, as wellbeing can be negative. So, suffering-focused people could object to it by claiming it is not representative of all views. I have never heard such complaints, though they would have more grounding than the opposite one that the term “animal suffering” is not representative. At any rate, in line with what I said at the beginning, the terms we have to use are often not the ones that best name things, but the ones that achieve successful communication).

Thanks again for your remarks!