How do you compare human and animal suffering?

post by Harry_Taussig · 2021-04-29T18:19:15.782Z · EA · GW · 2 comments

This is a question post.

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  Answers
    Kevin Kuruc
    MichaelStJules
    RogerAckroyd
None
2 comments

Epistemic Status: This is uncertain and not deeply researched, but I could not find a simple way to come to a different conclusion.

How do you compare human and non-human animal suffering and interventions?

With the vast numbers of factory farmed animals raised and killed every year (~60 billion), I find it hard to imagine that this is not a more promising cause area than any short to medium-term human interventions.

It seems to me that factory farming is a worse atrocity than anything currently harming humans. There seems to be far greater suffering for far greater numbers than in humans although there may be a longtermist argument against this? Still, wouldn't there be a case for ensuring a permanent end to factory farming over the likelihood of improving or extended future human well-being, because a future where we are committing an on-going moral atrocity is not a good one?

I also find it hard to discount the negative impact of factory farming because if animals are worthy of moral status, we are causing immense suffering that would not have happened otherwise (as opposed to wild animal welfare where we have a less direct role).

To discount factory farming to the extent that would make it similar in importance to short-term human based interventions (like GiveWell's recommendations), it seems to me that you would have to believe at least one of the following:
- animals are not conscious or less conscious than humans
- animals suffer less than humans
- animal suffering matters less than human suffering
- we can't know how much we are improving animal suffering

But I can't find a serious case for thinking any of these things—at the very least with greater than 50% certainty—and even then the amount of animal suffering would vastly outweigh that of human suffering.

Regarding tractability, I can't currently find any dollar estimates for "years of factory farmed animal suffering prevented" or a similar metric (if you know of these, please send them!). It does seem likely to me that direct interventions or investing in alternative animal protein would likely reduce more suffering per dollar than we could for humans.

My other intuition here is that with whatever limited consciousness or pain an animal can feel, it seems that being a factory farmed animal would be significantly worse than not being alive at all. I'm significantly less confident about this regarding, for example, the 10% least fortunate people alive today.

But I doubt I'm accurately representing the good arguments that discount animal suffering, so please let me know what you think! How does the scale and intensity of suffering in factory farming not outweigh the scale and intensity of human suffering?

Answers

answer by Kevin Kuruc · 2021-04-29T19:51:36.132Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi! I agree with basically everything written here, in particular about their lives probably not being worth living. My sense is that this depends less on differences in intensity of experiences across species, which makes it a useful starting point for my thinking. I admittedly know less about on-the-ground conditions than activists in this area, but if their lives are void of good experiences, and include at least some subjectively bad ones, its hard to come up with a rationale for how they could have worthwhile lives. 

So, conditional on focusing on near-term problems, I think there is a very good case for prioritizing factory farming (and many EAs do!). I'm less certain about the longtermist point you make. If factory farming phases out eventually without EA effort (which seems likely to me), then your efforts aren't counterfactually ending an indefinite future of factory farming, just speeding this transition up. Preventing extinction or totalitarian lock-in really would create a counterfactual stream of goodness that's (approximately) indefinite. Though this also assumes the future is likely to be a stream of goodness, rather than badness; here's a related discussion [EA · GW] on this point you might find useful.

comment by Harry_Taussig · 2021-04-29T21:03:18.916Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Kevin, I definitely agree with your point on longtermism, and thanks for sending that article as I think it gets a lot closer to one my main concerns here which is indefinitely extending a bad future.

answer by MichaelStJules · 2021-04-29T22:39:15.800Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would guess most arguments for global health and poverty over animal welfare fall under the following:

- animals are not conscious or less conscious than humans
- animals suffer less than humans

See A Debate on Animal Consciousness, Why might one value animals far less than humans? [EA · GW] and this thread here [EA(p) · GW(p)].

The arguments for the former mostly depend on nonhuman animals not being sufficiently self-reflective in the right way, and the arguments for the latter depend on brain size/complexity or particular welfare-relevant capacities that humans have that nonhuman animals lack or have less of, e.g. preferences for the future.

But also see Rethink Priorities' research:

https://www.rethinkpriorities.org/publications#moralweight

https://www.rethinkpriorities.org/invertebrate-sentience-table

ASENT's research:

https://www.lse.ac.uk/cpnss/research/ASENT

And Luke Muehlhauser's older work:

https://www.openphilanthropy.org/2017-report-consciousness-and-moral-patienthood

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/2jTQTxYNwo6zb3Kyp/preliminary-thoughts-on-moral-weight [LW · GW]

 

we can't know how much we are improving animal suffering

There's also skepticism about the specific interventions supported to help nonhuman animals, because their welfare effects actually seem plausibly bad, or because the evidence is just much less rigorous, or because of interactions with wild animals (as discussed in this thread [EA(p) · GW(p)]).

 

My own view is that farmed vertebrates are very likely to be conscious and brain size/complexity is relevant and probably the most important factor, and I would tentatively use something between square root and linear weighting for brain regions involved in hedonistic experience. I also think that nonhuman animals (farmed and wild vertebrates) suffer about as much in practice as some of the worst off humans in the world, because of the horrible conditions they face. I also worry about the meat-eater problem [? · GW], so that helping humans may harm nonhuman animals. Overall, I currently prioritize helping farmed chickens, and doing research on how to best help them and other nonhuman animals (including prioritizing between species).

comment by Carl_Shulman · 2021-04-30T02:13:51.595Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"I would guess most arguments for global health and poverty over animal welfare fall under the following:

- animals are not conscious or less conscious than humans
- animals suffer less than humans

"

I'm pretty skeptical that these arguments descriptively  account for most of the people explicitly choosing global poverty interventions over animal welfare interventions, although they certainly account for some people. Polls show  wide agreement that birds and mammals are conscious and have welfare to at least some degree. And I think most models on which degree of consciousness (in at least some senses) varies greatly, it's not so greatly that one would say that, e.g. it's more expensive to improve consciousness-adjusted welfare in chickens than humans today. And I say that as someone who thinks it pretty plausible that there are important orders-of-magnitude differences in quantitative aspects of consciousness. 

I'd say descriptively the bigger thing is people just feeling more emotional/moral obligations to humans than other animals, not thinking human welfare varies a millionfold more, in the same way that people who choose to 'donate locally' in rich communities where cost to save a life is hundreds of times greater than abroad don't think that poor foreigners are a thousand times less conscious, even as they tradeoff charitable options as though weighting locals hundreds of times more than foreigners.

An explicit philosophical articulation of this is found in Shelly Kagan's book on weighing the interests of different animals. While even on Kagan's view factory farming is very bad, he describes a view that assigns greater importance of interests of a given strength for beings with more of certain psychological properties (or counterfactual potential for those properties). The philosopher Mary Anne Warren articulates something similar in her book on moral status, which assigns increasing moral status on the basis of a number of grounds including life (possessed by plants and bacteria, and calling for some status), consciousness, capacity to engage in reciprocal social relations, actual relationships, moral understanding, readinesss to forbear in mutual cooperation, various powers, etc.

I predict that if you polled philosophers on cases involving helping different numbers of various animals, those sorts of accounts would be more frequent explanations of the results than doubt about animal consciousness (as a binary or quantitative scale).

This would be pretty susceptible to polling, e.g. you could ask the EA Survey team to try some questions on it (maybe for a random subset). 

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-04-30T07:47:33.832Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with this for the broader philanthropic community, but I had the EA community in mind specifically. I think just speciesism and rationalization of eating animals account for most of the differences in society and charity broadly.

I think most of the other reasons you give wouldn't fit the EA community, especially given how utilitarian we are. The people who have thought about the issues will give answers related to consciousness and intensity of experience, and maybe moral status like Kagan as you mention. I suppose many newer EAs will not have thought about the issues much at all, though, and so could still have more speciesist views. I think half of EAs in the last EA survey were vegetarian or vegan, though.

I might have underestimated how much EAs prioritizing global health and poverty do so for the better evidence base, and the belief that it is more cost-effective with pretty skeptical prior.

Replies from: Carl_Shulman
comment by Carl_Shulman · 2021-04-30T20:41:40.098Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I suspect there are biases in the EA conversation where hedonistic-compatible arguments get discussed more than reasons that hedonistic utilitarians would be upset by, and intuitions coming from other areas may then lead to demand and supply subsidies for such arguments.

answer by RogerAckroyd · 2021-04-30T14:45:06.414Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

We can't measure suffering of course across species. (Really, we can barely measure it among humans.) So we have to rely on extrapolation from our own experience, which in a way amounts to extrapolating from one datapoint. My intuition says that non-humans animals don't have a full consciousness by humans standards, and that their moral value is correspondingly less. I feel relatively confident in that judgement. But given scale of factory farming, how neglected the issue is among the general public, and that it intuitively it feels like at least chickens and mammals have some consciousness I still focus my support for EA causes on animal welfare ones. 

I think that if you simply make a point estimate of the scale of human and animal suffering you could end up with them being comparable, (see eg here https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/TEu5SroJYRezrMuf7/how-much-physical-suffering-is-there-part-ii-animals) [EA · GW] but you could also easily end up with human suffering or animal suffering being much larger. One major reason the EA movement works on both causes is I think a form of risk-aversion, not because it is what an expected value calculation suggests. 

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comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-04-29T20:02:32.588Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

On estimates, from Lewis Bollard's recent AMA [EA(p) · GW(p)]:

Our current very rough estimate is that our average $ spent on corporate campaigns and all supporting work (which is ~40% of our total animal grant-making) achieves the equivalent of ~7 animals spared a year of complete suffering. We use this a rough benchmark for BOTECs on  new grants, and my best guess is this reflects roughly the range we should hope for the last pro-animal dollar. 

Rethink Priorities' estimate "Corporate campaigns affect 9 to 120 years of chicken life per dollar spent [EA · GW]" (on average, not on the margin).

Founders Pledge also did a direct comparison between The Humane League and the Against Malaria Foundation here [EA · GW]. They've done their own research, and summarizing others' and theirs together: "Cost-effectiveness analyses have found that for every dollar donated, the lives of between 10 and 160 birds are affected."

Charity Entrepreneurship has some research on this, and Animal Charity Evaluators has estimates of number of animals affected by corporate campaigns for specific charities, too; you can see their reviews of recommended charities working on corporate campaigns, and this model and this spreadsheet. (I'm an intern at ACE, but only speaking for myself.)

 

But also see Global poverty could be more cost-effective than animal advocacy (even for non-speciesists) [EA · GW] by Peter Hurford.

Replies from: Harry_Taussig
comment by Harry_Taussig · 2021-04-29T20:53:58.150Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you so much!! This is really helpful and I'm taking a look at it now, and that last article looks like it gets to the center of my concern.