Some Crucial Considerations for WAS

A “crucial consideration”– a term invented by Nick Bostrom— is a piece of evidence that radically changes the value of pursuing a particular intervention or focus area. For example, if a particular piece of technology is scientifically impossible, it’s not very effective to pursue developing it anyway; if animals are not moral patients, then it doesn’t make sense to advocate against factory farming. Since so little is known about how to best pursue wild-animal welfare, there are a lot of crucial considerations, and having different opinions on them may radically change what interventions you support and how cost-effective the interventions are. This is a summary of some crucial considerations that effective altruists reasonably disagree on, but does not try to advocate for any particular view or resolve them. (That would take a lot more than a single blog post.)

Do we support animal rights, animal welfare, or human responsibility for domestic animals?

Among the animal activism community, there are several different philosophies about how we should treat animals. Animal rights advocates such as Tom Regan argue that animals have a right to live free from exploitation, such as in medical research or agriculture. Animal welfare advocates such as Peter Singer argue that many of the ways we treat animals cause them great suffering and give us relatively trivial benefits. Since it is wrong to cause a being suffering except to prevent a greater suffering, we must stop mistreating animals. Still others argue that we have a specific duty to domestic animals, because we domesticated them, and the way animals are used in animal agriculture is neglecting that responsibility. I will discuss the implications of these views for wild-animal welfare in later blog posts, but suffice it to say that all three views have different implications about how we should treat wild animals.

What population ethics do we subscribe to?

Population ethics is the ethical study of issues related to creating beings and causing beings to stop existing. Population ethics examines issues like:

  • Is it better to create a small number of very happy people or a large number of somewhat happy people?
  • Is it wrong to fail to create a happy being, or to create a predictably unhappy being?
  • Is it possible to hurt people who don’t exist yet (for example, by polluting the Earth)?
  • Is not creating a being different from killing a being? If so, why?

Many of the ways human beings affect nature affect the number of animals that exist, not simply the welfare of animals that exist. For example, sometimes humans destroy habitats that support many animals and replace them with habitats that don’t support many animals at all. Sometimes humans try to reduce the populations of certain species, such as rats and deer. Many potential interventions into wild-animal suffering, such as wildlife contraception, prevent animals from existing. Unfortunately for wild-animal welfare advocates, however, there is no philosophical consensus on population ethics, and most systems of population ethics violate some of our moral intuitions.

Are invertebrates moral patients?

There are many orders of magnitude more invertebrates than vertebrates in the world. If invertebrates have even a little moral weight, the effects of our actions on invertebrates are very important. Unfortunately, invertebrates often have thousands of offspring. To maintain a stable population, only two of their offspring can survive to reproduce; the rest can be expected to live short lives potentially filled with terrible pain. Since there are so many invertebrates and many of them are so small, it is difficult to improve their lives in any way other than preventing them from existing.

Does biodiversity matter?

Many people argue that protecting biodiversity improves human well-being. The services provided by intact ecosystems– ranging from timber to climate regulation, soil formation to spiritual benefits– have been valued at tens of trillions of dollars a year. Many people also believe that biodiversity is intrinsically valuable for its own sake. Certain proposed interventions to promote wild-animal welfare, such as habitat destruction, reduce the level of biodiversity. Future research may find that other promising ways to promote wild-animal welfare have an effect on biodiversity, and if we care about biodiversity (either instrumentally or intrinsically) that will affect our decision-making about interventions.

How unpredictable is nature?

Nature is complicated, and many decisions have unexpected consequences. We see that already when we interact with nature for human benefit. After a few years of unexpectedly bad weather, a fishery believed to be sustainably fished can collapse. Fertilizer runoff from farms can cause more algae to grow, which increases the density of snails, which are an intermediate host for a species of frog parasites, which causes higher parasite loads in frogs. If nature is sufficiently unpredictable, it may be very difficult to come up with an intervention that we’re sure has a positive effect. On the other hand, humans do make many accurate predictions about nature: if we couldn’t, it’d be impossible to know that habitat destruction makes species more likely to be endangered or that climate change harms ecosystems. It may be possible to make sufficiently reliable predictions about how our actions affect wild-animal welfare as well.

How common is chronic stress in nature?

Chronic stress happens when an animal experiences a stressor, such as low social status or hunger, for a long period of time; in humans, it is linked not only to anxiety and depression but to physical health conditions like heart disease. Experts disagree wildly about how common chronic stress is in nature. Some experts, like Oscar Horta, argue that predation and other stressors make chronic stress very common. Other experts, like Robert Sapolsky, claim that chronic stress is basically unknown in nature. Still other experts, like Rudy Boonstra, say that chronic stress appears only in certain species in which it is adaptive. If most wild animals experience a great deal of chronic stress, it’s more likely that their lives aren’t worth living. Conversely, if wild animals experience far less chronic stress than humans, their lives may be more pleasant than ours.

How bad is dying?

Many deaths in the wild are fairly gruesome, ranging from animals that are eaten alive by predators to termites that vomit up their guts at predators. But how painful are those deaths? It is possible that death by starvation, for example, is less painful than one would naively believe. Conversely, if death is extraordinarily painful, the death itself may make an animal’s life not worth living, even if otherwise the animal was very happy. That is particularly true for short-lived species, who have fewer positive experiences to outweigh the cost of a horrible death.

How do we account for leverage?

Many charities seek to influence how other charities, private donors, or the government spend money or other resources; the charity evaluator GiveWell calls this leverage. Several of the most promising interventions into wild-animal suffering– including encouraging the use of wildlife contraception, spreading concern about wild animals, and seeding the field of welfare biology– are highly leveraged. Depending on how one accounts for the opportunity cost, these interventions may be very cost-effective or not very cost-effective at all.