Stijn's Comments

Probability estimate for wild animal welfare prioritization

As mentioned, those percentages wher my own subjective estimates, and they were determined based on the considerations that I mentioned ("This estimate is based on"). When I clearly state that these are my personal, subjective estimates, I don't think it is misleading: it does not give a veneer of objectivity.

The clarifying part is that you can now decide whether you agree or disagree with the probability estimates. Breaking the estimate into factors helps you to clarify the relevant considerations and improves your accuracy. It is better than simply guessing the overall estimate of the probability that wild animal suffering is the priority.

If you don't like the wide margins, perhaps you can improve the estimates? But knowing we often have an overconfidence bias (our error estimates are often too narrow), we should a priori not expect narrow error margins and we should correct this bias by taking wider margins.

Probability estimate for wild animal welfare prioritization

the personal probability estimates are pulled out of my 'air' of intuitive judgments. You are allowed to play with the numbers according to your intuitive judgments. Breaking down the total estimate into factors allows you to make more accurate estimates, because you better reflect on all your beliefs that are relevant for the estimate

Probability estimate for wild animal welfare prioritization

Suppose we can choose between A: adding one person with negative utility -100, versus B: adding thousand people, each with small positive utility +1. If the critical level was fixed at say +10, then situation A decreases social welfare with 100, whereas B decreases it with 900, so traditional critical level theory indeed implies a sadistic conclusion to choose A. However, variable critical level utilitarianism can avoid this: the one person in A can choose a very high critical level for him in A, the thousand people in B can set their critical levels in B at say +1. Then B gets chosen. In general, people can choose their critical levels such that they can steer away from the most counterintuitive conclusions. The critical levels can depend on the situation and the choice set, which gives the flexibility. You can also model this with game theory, as in my draft article:

Probability estimate for wild animal welfare prioritization

Perhaps I'm too sloppy with the terminology. I've rewritten the part about suffering focused ethics in the main text. What I meant is that these theories are characterized by a (procreation) asymmetry. That allows the avoidance of the repugnant sadistic conclusion (which is indeed called the very repugnant conclusion by Arrhenius).

So the suffering focused ethic that I am proposing, does not imply that sadistic conclusion that you mentioned (where the state with everyone experiencing extreme suffering is considered better). My personal favorite suffering focused ethic is variable critical level utilitarianism: a flexible version of critical level utilitarianism where everyone can freely choose their own non-negative critical level, which can be different for different persons, different situations and even different choice sets. This flexibility allows to steer away from the most counterintuitive conclusions.

Defending the Procreation Asymmetry with Conditional Interests

I'm still not perfectly convinced: there still seems to be a symmetric formulation. You describe it in terms of pushing instead of pulling. But what about the symmetry between expressions "an existing individual in X pushes the situation from X to Y", versus "an existing individual in Y pulls the situation from X to Y"? Why would there be no money pump in pulling cases if there could be a money pump in a pushing case?

That being said, my gut feeling tells me that your reference to game theoretic instability or money pumps is similar (analogous or perhaps exactly the same?) as my reference to dynamic inconsistency (subgame imperfect situations) that I described in my variable critical level utilitarianism draft paper So in the end you could be pointing at a valid argument indeed.

Defending the Procreation Asymmetry with Conditional Interests

It seems that with the formulation of the Comparative Interest principle, you already assume an asymmetry. Consider the symmetric (equally reasonable) formulation, by writing ‘better’ instead of ‘worse’ and switching X and Y: An outcome X is in one way better than an outcome Y if, conditional on X, the individuals in X would have a stronger overall interest in outcome X than in Y and, conditional on Y, the individuals in Y would not have an even stronger overall interest in Y than in X.

With this formulation, the procreation asymmetry illustriation looks different: there is an arrow from non-existence to positive existence (top arrow from right to left), but no arrow from negative existence to non-existence.

Your formulation of the comparative interest principle, means that you focus on the tails of the arrows in the figure: an arrow can only be drawn if someone exists (and has interests) at the position of the tail of the arrow. My formulation focuses on the arrowheads: an arrow can only be drawn if someone exists (and has interests) at the position of the head of the arrow. There is a symmetry in choosing heads or tails, so your comparative interest principle is not suitable for a good defense of the procreation asymmetry.

I have another defense, based on my theory of variable critical level utilitarianism ( This is a critical level utilitarianism, where now everyone is free to choose their own critical level. The condition is: everyone should be willing to accept a life at the chosen critical level. This means that no-one will choose a negative critical level. Critical levels always have to be positive. That introduces an asymmetry between the positive and the negative, and this asymmetry is at the root of the procreation asymmetry.

Some solutions to utilitarian problems

Now that's a suggestion :-) My intention is to do academic economic research about the implications of such population ethical theories for cost-benefit analysis. My preliminary, highly uncertain guess is that a variable critical level utilitarianism results in a higher priority for avoiding current suffering (e.g. livestock farming, wild animal suffering), because it is closer to a negative utilitarianism or person affecting views, compared to e.g. total utilitarianism which prioritizes the far future (existential risk reduction). And my even more uncertain guess is that variable critical level utilitarianism is less vulnerable than total utilitarianism to counterintuitive sadistic repugnant conclusions. This means that also future generations can be inclined to be variable critical levellers instead of totalists, and that means we should discount future generations more (i.e. prioritize current generations more and focus less on existential risk reduction). But this conclusion will be very senstitive on the critical levels chosen by current and future generations.

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