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Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

What is your view on how longtermism relates to or affects animal welfare work? Are you interested in potentially supporting someone to look into this intersection? If yes, what might be some of the sub-topics that you might be interested in? Thank you!

Extinction risk reduction and moral circle expansion: Speculating suspicious convergence

I think the last useful thing in this thread might be your last reply above. But I am going to share my final thoughts anyway.

I think I am still not convinced that the suspicion that animal/MCE advocates  had "suddenly embraced longtermism" (in the loose sense, not the EA/philosophical/Toby Ordian sense)  is justified, even if the animal advocates I said (like the ones in MFA) haven't thought explicitly about the future beyond 100+ yrs, because they might have thought that they roughly had, maybe in a tacit assumption that what is being achieved in a few decades is going to be staying to be the norm for very long. 

So using my MFA example again, I believe the exercise used 30 yrs for thinking not because they (we?) wanted to think only 30 years ahead, but that we kind of thought it might be the most realistic timeline for factory farming to disappear, maybe also that they can't tolerate the thought that they and animals have to wait longer than 30 years. Imagine that if most of the team members in that exercise think that 100 years, or 200, or 1000 is the realistic timeline instead of 30, the exercise could easily have been done for 1000 years, which "magically" (and incorrectly) refutes the suspicion of "suddenly embracing longtermism". But 30 years or 1000 years it be, the argument is the same, because they are thinking the same thing: that the terminal success will stay with the world for very long.

Actually everything said before can be summarised with this simple claim: that some (many?) animal advocates tend to tacitly think that they are going to have very long term or even eternal impacts. For example, if there isn't a movement to eliminate factory farming, it will be there forever.

I think I actually have an alternative accusation toward average farmed animal advocates rather than "suddenly embracing longtermism". I think their suffer from an overconfidence about the persistence and level of goodness of their perceived terminal success, which in turn might be due to lack of imagination, lack of thinking about counterfactual worlds, lack of knowledge about technologies/history, or reluctance to think of the possibility of bad things happening for too much longer. 

P.S. An alternative way to thinking about my counter to your counter argument is that, if whether someone's thinking counts as long term thinking has to fit in some already given definition, it is possible for someone who seriously think a billion yrs ahead to accuse someone who had only previously thought about only a million yrs ahead to be "suddenly embracing longtermism".

But, in terms of most of the picture, I think we are already quite on the same page, probably just not on the same sentence. I probably spent too much time on something trivial.

Extinction risk reduction and moral circle expansion: Speculating suspicious convergence

Thank you for the really cool and interesting post! I think it deserves much more attention and hope my comment would refresh some priority to it.

I want to comment on your recalled memory on people's reaction to MCE as one of the best interventions within longtermism. I think the meaning of the phrase "before they (MCE and animal advocates) learn and became interested in longtermism" is either being unclear or being unfair. 

If the meaning of "longtermism" here means EA/philosophical/Toby Ordian longtermism, then the claim that MCE and animal advocates seems to have "learned it later" is almost universally true. But it is also unfair, because one doesn't have to learn specific type of longtermism to think that one's action should mainly consider long term effects. And as someone working in the EA tangential animal movement for 3 yr+, I actually came across multiple EA/non-EA animal advocates/groups whose work and philosophy are decidedly for the "long term" benefit of non-human animals (though they don't specify what "long term" means in ways like the average EA longtermists do), and some of them haven't even heard of the word longtermism (until I asked and mentioned). *

If the meaning of "longtermism" here means simply doing and thinking things for the sake of making the far future better, then I think it is fair to say that at least some MCE/animal adovacates had been "longtermists in the rough sense" all the way. Some EA longtermists might object here, possibly pointing out that the lack of discussion about the physical possibilities/technological possibilities/deepness/scale/modes of existence of the future essentially renders a discussion not about longtermism. But notice that an MCE/animal advocate can still legitimately claim that they had always thought about the very long term, even if they had never thought about how long/deep/strange/potentious the future can maximally be.

Notice the above are also true for MCE advocates too, and they probably have even less suspicion of being "suddenly longtermist".

To conclude, I am very skeptical that the argument that because "animal/MCE advocates had only later learned and became interested in longtermism, therefore there is a suspicious emergence in their attempt to argue that MCE is among one of the best or maybe the best intervention within longtermism.


*For example, in Mercy For Animals which was my previous employer, we had done the exercise of trying to imagine what the world will be like in 30 years due to the animal movement's current work, and in that exercise we even tried to think what more could be done. 30 years certainly isn't "long" for EA longtermists, maybe isn't even mid-term for some. But it still shows that the animal advocates are not just interested in alleviating suffering that is happening now. 

Problem areas beyond 80,000 Hours' current priorities

Hey Will (or anyone that sees this), if you can still see this reply, can you let me know what you think about this set arguments supporting that WAS is a longtermist issue? 

The four main arguments:

  1. I think it is quite clearly plausible to argue that what we do now will probably impact wild animals in the far future. This argument means that current WAS work can be perceived as potentially longtermist. But we have to establish WAS as a worthy longtermist issue.
  2. In terms of potential, the number of wild animals that can exist in the future seems to far exceed the number of humans/human-like organisms that can exist in the future (but maybe lower than the potential "number" of artificial minds). This makes it seem plausible to argue that the amount of potential well-being and suffering at stake for wild animals is at least of the same order of magnitude of importance for such potential for humans/human-like organisms. This argument means that WAS is plausibly a worthy longtermist issue.
  3. One way to view the cause area of WAS is to view it as the first stage of achieving high positive welfare for wild animals. If we have certain obligations in making future humans/human-like organisms capable of attaining more, higher, and longer positive experiences than average humans now are, it seems to me to be plausible to conceive the possibility that the correct moral theory could entail certain obligations to make non-human animals more capable of attaining positive experiences. And since the potential number of possible non-human animals that can exist seems to far exceed humans/human like organisms, it seems to me plausible to argue that such obligation is at least on the same order of magnitude to that toward humans/human-like organisms.
    • Notice that if one thinks that there is an obligation to create more humans/human-like organisms to experience good lives, this point is actually made stronger. You might see why this is the case later.
  4. This argument is similar to the arguments made on value spreading made by others in this thread, but not exactly. Changing the society's current view on WAS might have huge implications/impacts on the welfare of future artificial minds that take the form or appearance of wild animals, for example those that exist in nature/evolution simulations. It is conceivable that humanity's current and near-future views on WAS will partially stay in the far future, and if it does it seems quite possibly catastrophic. For example, if humans continue to value the "intrinsic beauty/value" of thriving and diverse ecosystems over the suffering that happens together, or even sees the suffering as part of the "beauty", nature simulations might be deliberately built with the suffering.

The first two arguments hinge largely on the premise that the potential number of non-human animals that can exist in the future far exceed that of humans/human-like organisms. As some of you might not agree with this, I think it might be necessary for me to explain why I think so. If you don't disagree with this, you don't need to read further.

First, I am only speaking of the highest potential numbers, not an expected estimate of the actual numbers. Second, I meant to separate physically existing animals and humans from digitally simulated/emulated animals and humans, because I can't see a convincing reason why the number of digital humans will be more than animals, nor the reverse.

So why is the potential number of non-human animals higher than that of humans? Basically it is because for any planet that is habitable for humans and can be turned into human-habitable ones, it will also be extremely likely to become habitable for non-human animals. And since non-human animals can be much smaller than humans, their number potential has to be higher.

Also, after arguing for the potential number of organisms, I would like to express my view on the expected number of animals that are human/non-human: I think the expected number of physical non-human animals is (maybe substantially) higher than physical humans/human-like organisms. Four arguments makes me quite confident about this:

A. It is possible that future humans/human-like organisms would want to intentionally bring or create wild animals to terraformed planets. A 1% chance of this being true would imply more non-human animals than humans brought to life.

B. Even if humans won't be specifically interested in bringing/creating animals, an interest in bringing or just allowing some "nature" or "wilderness" (which basically have to have at least plants) to those planets will likely spawn animals to live naturally.

C. Even if humans will be eager to prevent nature/wilderness as much as practical, some animals might still be allowed to spawn to life. For example, because they have no interest in preventing or destroying "every bit of nature" due to diligence of energy use, or because biological processes might still be perceived as one of the most efficient ways to produce certain things (such as metabolizable calories). 

D. It seems likely or at least possible that humans/human-like organisms will not be the last physical animal to go extinct. 

Last but not least, I have one last potential argument in reply to the view that some hold, that claims that the expected number of non-human animals will be far less than humans/human-like organisms/artificial minds (and therefore WAS is not a longtermist issue). The argument probably is better illustrated in the form of a question: Should it be the case? Regardless of what probability distribution we assign to this future scenario, whether this future scenario is ethically good/ideal/right is another question, one that we have yet to ask let alone answer. To decide now that this scenario will be the case and we will leave it as it is seems to me to be premature and irresponsible. (Part of the current WAS research agenda is to gain insights on relevant population ethics problems.)

Why "animal welfare" is a thing?

marsxr, thank you for putting this blogpost up. While I appreciate that your contribution to the forum, I disagree with the solutions and the objections you raised, and also the strategy you used in writing this blogpost.

First, I am a believer to get the best argument from oneself, one needs to steel-man the arguments/positions held by the party you are arguing against, instead of straw-manning them. The way you put the animal welfare movement's work as playing music to animals is not only unrepresentative of EA+non EA farmed animal welfare groups's work, it is downright inaccurate. No farmed animal advocacy group I know of prmote the use of music, instead, they advocate for welfare reforms such as moving away from cages or using regulated stunning during slaughter, to legal reforms, to the promotion of plant based options.

Second, I suggest to stick to less points that are more crucial, especially ones that you haven't developed or explained in details. For example I am confused by the point on the religious aspects of killing. I am probably equally confused by your point on using anti cruelty laws to our advantage. This is actually a pillar of many farmed animal groups. It seems to me that you are unaware of both existing work on this area, and the difficulty to use general anti animal cruelty laws to the advantage of farmed animals.

So let's discuss about your core arguments, and let me attempt to steel man your arguments. You seem to be suggesting these key points:

1. That meat's demand is driven by the low price-essential nutrient level, which I very much agree.

2. That meat's current low price in the consumer market is caused by two main factors, the non-consideration of meat's external costs, and the subsidies given on top of that. I agree on this.

3. You seem to implicitly deduce that if we succeed in forcing those externalities back to the farmers, we will have much less meat demanded. If this is what you meant I am not very sure about it validity (or mine). This might be true for commonly eaten meats in the west such as lamb and beef. But the externalities are much lower for animal products like eggs, poultry, fish and crustaceans, and even more so when in the future insect farming becomes popular. It is unclear to me that even requiring the farmers of the mentioned animal products to pay for all the externalities would make all animal products demanded by so much less that welfare reform becomes meaningless.

4. You didn't explcitly conclude it this way, but it seems like your conclusion is therefore that we should not focus on animal welfare improvement, but instead work on retifying the government policies that support the production of meat (animal products).

I actually cannot agree with this conclusion, if I presented it correctly. My objections are fourfold, one argument is in point 3 above, the others are:

A. Unless welfare reform will slow down the elimination of factory farming or even make it impossible. It seems to me that even if there will be a day factory farming will be totally eliminated, improving welfare before reaching that day is important. And I don't see how welfare reforms can impair the ultimate goal.

B. Some government policies are hard to change, and this is quite true for those that involve agricultural products. And I think we should consider the possibility that factory farming will still be supported by governments for a long time. As you had pointed out, a lot of poor people rely on these "cheap proteins", why would the governments risk destroying their lives? Also, the fact that a lot of externalities of producing meat actually are burndened upon countries that do not produce that piece of meat. I don't quite see how governments will suddenly become so morally enlightened that they dare to charge for externalities that are external to their countries.

C. If anything would eliminate factory farming, it seems to me to be the emergence of meat alternatives that are superior to real animal products in all meaningful ways such as economics, environment, aesthetics, tastes and nutrition. It could either be plant based mock animal products, or cultivated animal products. I actually see this as the way more likely reason why factory farming might go obsolete. But I don't think, and I haven't heard anyone working to promote alternatives, that we should stop promoting better welfare (or elimination of the worst welfare practices). To the contrary, they are actually generally very supportive of welfare reforms.

To conclude my own, I think welfare reforms has a lot of benefits, both in the short run and mid-to-long run, that it is worth pursuing.

Looking forward to feedbacks to my take!