Ren Ryba

Research Scientist @ Animal Ask
1205 karmaJoined Apr 2022animalask.org


You are welcome to contact me via email, which is my preferred form of communication: ren (dot) springlea (at) animalask (dot) org.

I recently changed my surname (formerly Springlea) 😊 My email address is unchanged.

My name is Ren, and my pronouns are they/them. My work focuses on animal advocacy. I have experience in ecology, fisheries science, and statistics from my time in academia and government. I'm also personally interested in a wide range of other cause areas, particularly around politics and social justice. I mostly work from a suffering-focused and neartermist perspective, though I also support other views. I live on Kaurna Land (South Australia). I like soccer.

"The easiest pain to bear is someone else's."


Thank you, fixed.

I did search for related articles on the EA Forum before posting mine, but I missed that one. The irony!! I'll add a link to that post in this article.

There is a considerable academic and scientific literature that engages with many of these points. It would make sense to engage with the literature on that post, as there are numerous papers that have debated and tested many of these points in detail. You mention experiments, but there are many studies that conduct such experiments. Have you reviewed these studies and found them to be missing something, e.g. having a consistent methodological flaw or missing a key indicator of consciousness?

If you think that the authors of those papers have not considered these points (e.g. if you think one indicator of qualia/sentience/moral patienthood is more valid than other indicators; or if you think there are specific methodological flaws in existing studies), then would it not be better to publish a scientific paper on this topic or at least conduct a more thorough literature review? If your argument is robust to criticism, and it withstands scrutiny when you show how your argument addresses shortcomings in the existing academic literature, then you may indeed cause society (and the EA community) to make more informed decisions about which lives to improve. I would be glad to work with you to write and publish this paper.

I think your argument would be more compelling if you listed the specific assumptions in the specific papers on the topic of invertebrate and/or fish sentience (whether academic, such as Birch et al 2021 or similar reviews for fish and insects, or the work by Rethink you are critical of) and then, point-by-point, made the argument that those assumptions are false. That would allow readers to more clearly see whether, and on which specific points, you are diverging from existing thinking. For what it's worth, there are papers that have criticised those reviews I mentioned on various grounds, so this process would also help readers to see whether your criticism is adding anything new to existing debates and whether your points have been made before in the literature (as this has been an area of research and debate for decades). This also applies to the question of "burden of proof", which I think was raised in another comment thread. It is well-accepted that investigations about the subjective experiences of non-human animals necessarily depend on the weight of evidence, rather than one particular smoking gun.

And re: the experiment on empathy - there are a number of studies that have looked at brain activity in various social situations in a few different types of fish. Do none of these studies meet your standards? If so, why not, and would your proposed experiment be an improvement on experiments that have been conducted already?

The title of the post is ("It's OK to eat shrimp") doesn't really follow from the text of the article. There are many reasons, whether precautionary or strategic, why we might think it wise to spend resources on improving particular lives even if we, "by default, not consider that things they don't expect to talk about qualia can have qualia." The article seems more to support a title along the lines of "we should be cautious about attributing qualia to shrimp".

I agree with the point asking for more high-quality studies, which would be a non-controversial view among most academics who research in this area.

(I am a marine biologist and familiar with the literature on fish sentience and shrimp sentience, both of which are pretty complex bodies of literature.)

(edited a bunch for focus and clarity)

I'll have detailed information in the report I mentioned - looking into this specific question over the next few days. (Though I'm being careful to take my time with it, as this is quite a horrific topic even compared to the topics I normally research.)

I'm currently writing an in-depth report on wild-caught shrimp fisheries. It'll focus more on global distribution (e.g. by species and country) and common industry practices, with a list of options for wild shrimp advocacy. I expect it'll be done within a couple of weeks.

I'd definitely be keen to see people advocating for wild-caught shrimp welfare. I won't be working on shrimp advocacy myself after finishing the report (though I do think it is an extremely impactful opportunity - if it were up to me, I'd put a large proportion of the movement's resources into shrimp welfare).

Yep I agree with all of this. I think the important thing for discussions like these is that, as you propose in your article, retiring the term "moral circle" in favour of more specific hypotheses (as we're discussing) will facilitate more rigorous evaluation of claims and therefore better decision-making.

Thank you for this high-quality and thoughtful post. I found myself agreeing with most of the key claims.

Overall, I’d actually rather use the term “moral circle” less, and instead focus on finer-grained consequences of work to benefit groups like nonhuman animals or artificial sentience. [...] These all point to important flawed assumptions in standard framings of the moral circle, and may merit retiring the term “moral circle” altogether to prevent confusion.

I strongly agree here. I think it's a little dangerous that the "moral circle" was introduced as a metaphor, but it has been unwittingly applied as an actual political strategy ("moral circle expansion") without going through the intermediate process of rigorously testing whether a "moral circle" is actually a consistently measurable thing that exists (whether in an individual's mind or society's broad attitudes).

For example, I've noticed in my work that some people assume that "moral circle expansion" is a benefit of some animal advocacy campaigns (e.g. fish welfare) and not others (e.g. dog welfare). For any proposed psychological or social construct, wouldn't we need to subject that construct to rigorous testing before making it the target of political and advocacy strategies? It might be more constructive to discuss these views (as you suggest) in terms like "advocating for fish welfare, rather than dog welfare, might have longer-term effects on people's attitudes/behaviours towards other animals like shrimp", which is more clearly a hypothesis that can be debated, tested, and falsified.

TL;DR: I think donations to SWP may be in the conversation for the single most cost-effective opportunity available to humanity.


Just saw this comment by chance when doing some of my usual late-night reading about shrimp welfare, and thought I'd reply because somebody mentioned me on the internet!

I've thought about this specific question (weightings between the different pain categories) at length, and there's quite a bit of uncertainty as with any esoteric area of philosophy. I don't put that much weight on my own experience that Michael described (as these decisions are too important to rely on my own experiences). I know a few people are thinking about this, so I've seen what various people have written about this; a small amount of academic research; some informal surveys; and a fair amount of philosophy. I think that any discussion of this topic needs to acknowledge this uncertainty. I think in a couple of years, we'll be in a much more informed position about the trade-offs between pain categories, perhaps with the exception of excruciating pain.

I've also given shrimp welfare and shrimp stunning some detailed thought (and my colleagues will know just how critical and conservative I am when conducting research!).

That said:

  • I agree that 6.67x (disabling:hurtful) and 5x (excruciating:disabling) are conservative.
  • In my work, I use many sets of weightings, and I assign a rough probability to each one. The weighted mean is quite close to those above numbers. But averages obscure, which is why I use a set of weightings to arrive at a more informed judgement about any particular decision.
  • I think there's a >30% chance that disabling:hurtful is above 15x (rather than 6.67x) and that excruciating:disabling is above 100x (rather than 5x). I also think the idea that excruciating is infinitely worse should be taken seriously.

Overall, given this thinking as well as my own detailed research into various aspects of the animal advocacy movement, I think donations to SWP may be in the conversation for the single most cost-effective opportunity available to humanity today, possibly ever (subject to usual moral uncertainty stuff around the big worldview questions, of course). Some healthy uncertainty around the pain weightings doesn't change that.

Also, might be worth saying that if anybody strongly disagrees with this claim, I'd be keen to collaborate on a cost-effectiveness analysis of SWP and some other highly cost-effective opportunity (especially outside of the animal space) to see where the cruxes are.

Thanks for the positive feedback :)

I haven't looked in detail, but there are three main differences between our analysis and the analysis of Whitton et al:

  • We included fish, while Whitton et al did not.
  • We calculated the slope, while Whitton et al (I think) calculated the percentage difference between the first year and the last year.
  • We used data from 1960-2020, while Whitton et al used data from 1990-2017.

(Our analysis was also done on a per capita basis.)

More generally, this raises an important point regarding our analysis. Our analysis was conducted at a global scale. The purpose of our report was to search for countries with interesting trends - then, if any interesting countries are identified, we can zoom in and look at those countries in more detail. If you (or anybody else) is interested in any country in particular, the first step would be to obtain and examine more detailed data that is specific to that country. When you look at the level of a specific country, the trends that we identify may or may not hold up (as we mentioned, we deliberately cast a wide net, as we'd rather have false positives than false negatives). Some countries in our analysis were edge cases, where small changes in our methods may well have ruled those countries in or out. I suspect Nigeria is one of these cases.

Yep, that's probably the case in some of these countries. I don't think such laws would be fatal to this approach in most jurisdictions. In countries where such laws exist, there are probably solutions, though the best solution would need to be informed by on-the-ground knowledge. From the perspective of party politics as a whole, it is relatively small amounts of money that we're talking about.

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