Posts

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species 2020-05-18T00:42:04.134Z · score: 82 (25 votes)
Intervention Profile: Ballot Initiatives 2020-01-13T15:41:06.182Z · score: 96 (29 votes)
Managed Honey Bee Welfare: Problems and Potential Interventions 2019-11-14T19:03:33.709Z · score: 72 (25 votes)
Opinion: Estimating Invertebrate Sentience 2019-11-07T02:38:06.420Z · score: 122 (45 votes)
Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile 2019-07-09T17:28:26.735Z · score: 94 (36 votes)
Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 3 2019-06-12T14:49:38.772Z · score: 26 (13 votes)
Invertebrate Sentience: A Useful Empirical Resource 2019-06-12T01:15:59.645Z · score: 81 (37 votes)
Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 2019-06-11T15:23:59.244Z · score: 25 (13 votes)
Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 1 2019-06-10T18:00:49.478Z · score: 50 (22 votes)
EA Research Organizations Should Post Jobs on PhilJobs.org 2019-05-02T19:37:11.592Z · score: 45 (23 votes)
Detecting Morally Significant Pain in Nonhumans: Some Philosophical Difficulties 2018-12-23T17:49:00.750Z · score: 63 (31 votes)

Comments

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-23T01:52:47.028Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hey Michael,

Thanks again. Regarding (2), I may be conflating a conversation I had with Luke about the subject back in February with the actual contents of his old LessWrong post on the topic. You're right that it's not clear that he's focusing on capacity for welfare in that post: he moves pretty quickly between moral status, capacity for welfare, and something like average realized welfare of the

"typical" conscious experience of "typical" members of different species when undergoing various "canonical" positive and negative experiences

Frankly, it's a bit confusing. (To be fair to Luke, he wrote that post before Kagan's book came out.) One hope of mine is that by collectively working on this topic more, we can establish a common conceptual framework within the community to better clarify points of agreement and disagreement.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-22T14:49:13.908Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your comment.

  1. I'll admit that I'm not wedded to the term 'status-adjusted welfare.' I agree that it is less than ideal. I don't think 'moral weight' is better, but I also don't think it's much worse. If anyone has suggestions for a catch-all term for factors that might affect characteristic comparative moral value, I would be interested to hear them.

  2. Interesting. My reading of Muehlhauser is that when he talks of moral weight he almost exclusively means 'capacity for welfare' and basically never means 'moral status.' From conversations with him, I get the impression he is a unitarian and so doesn't endorse differences in moral status.

  3. Did you mean that status-adjusted welfare "captures" capacity for welfare to the extent that a lower or higher capacity for welfare will tend to reduce or increase the amount of welfare that is being experienced or changed?

This is close to what I meant, though I grant that maybe this isn't strong enough to qualify as 'capturing' capacity for welfare. The basic idea is that a unitarian and a hierarchist could in theory agree that, say, the status-adjusted welfare of a cow is generally higher than the status-adjusted welfare of a mealworm even if they disagree about the nature of moral status. The hierarchist might believe that the mealworm and the cow have the same welfare level, but the mealworm's welfare is adjusted downward. The unitarian might believe that the cow and the mealworm have the same moral status, but the cow has a greater capacity for welfare.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-22T14:36:53.950Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael,

First, to clarify, strictly speaking welfare subject is not meant to be synonymous with moral patient. Some people believe that things that lack moral standing can still be welfare subjects. You might think, for example, that plants aren't sentient and so don't have moral standing, but nevertheless there are things that are non-instrumentally good for plants, so plants can be welfare subjects. (I don't hold this view, but some do.)

Otherwise, I'm mostly sympathetic to your points. I don't object to talk of 'moral patienthood.' 'Moral standing' appears to be more popular in the literature, but maybe that's a terminological mistake.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-22T14:30:17.800Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael,

The sentence you quote is meant to express a sufficiency claim, not a necessity claim. But note that the sentence is about both sentience and agency. I don't know of any serious contemporary philosopher who has denied that the conjunction of sentience and agency is sufficient for moral standing, though there are philosophers who deny that agency is sufficient and a small number who deny that sentience is sufficient.

It's true that one could hold a view that moral standing is wholly grounded in the possession of a Cartesian soul, that the possession of a Cartesian soul grants agency and sentience, and that there are other ways to be a sentient agent that don't require a Cartesian soul. If that were true, then agency and sentience would not be sufficient for moral standing. But I don't know anybody who holds that view. Do you?

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-22T14:20:55.735Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael,

Strictly speaking, the two sentences aren't equivalent. If you remove the two instances of "or" in the second sentence, then they are.

Footnote 59 has been fixed, thanks.

Yep, those are meant to be annual deaths.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-22T14:10:33.840Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your many comments. The section of the report you quote hints at the debate between moral realists and moral anti-realists, which is too vexed a topic to discuss fully here. However, it seems to me that you and I basically agree about coffee mugs. The way I would describe it is that coffee mugs lack moral standing (and hence lack moral status) because they are neither sentient nor agential. Entities that lack moral standing can be excluded from our moral reasoning (though of course they might matter instrumentally). According to you, coffee mugs should be excluded from our moral reasoning because they are not welfare subjects. Depending on your theory of welfare and moral status, the list of welfare subjects might be coextensive with the list of entities with moral standing.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-22T01:51:10.966Z · score: 10 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Oscar,

Thanks again. Much (though not all) of my credence in the claim that there are significant differences in capacity for welfare across species derives from the credence I put in non-hedonistic theories of welfare. But I agree that differences in capacity for welfare don't entail that the interests of the animal with a greater capacity ought always be prioritized over the interests of the animal with the smaller capacity. And of course I agree that numbers matter. As you know, I'm quite concerned about our treatment of some invertebrates. When I express that concern to people, many suggest that even if, say, bees are sentient, they don't count for as much as, say, cows. I hope that thinking about both the number of exploited invertebrates and their capacity for welfare will help us figure out whether our current neglect of invertebrate welfare is justified. I suspect that when we get clear on what plausibly can and can't influence capacity for welfare (and to what extent), we'll see that the differences between mammals and arthropods aren't great enough to justify our current allocation of resources. At the very least, thinking more about it might reveal that we are deeply ignorant about differences in capacity for welfare across species. We can then try to account for that uncertainty in our allocation of resources.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-22T01:33:00.898Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Nicolas,

Thanks for the comment! There’s a lot of good stuff to unpack here. First I should acknowledge that the subject matter in question is complex, and the post intentionally simplifies some issues just to keep it readable. (For instance, the post assumes intrinsicalism about moral status.) If you’d like, I’d love to schedule a call to discuss the topic in more detail.

I agree that Kagan faces both a double-counting worry and an arbitrariness worry. On the whole, I think these two concerns are decent reasons to reject Kagan’s view. However, if I were to put on my hierarchical hat, I would suggest that so long as the intrinsic characteristics that determine moral status are distinct from the characteristics that determine capacity for welfare, the double-counting worry can be avoided. (I think there are other, more complicated ways to try to sidestep the double-counting worry as well.) The arbitrariness worry is harder to handle, but if one is wedded to certain intuitions, then it might be a bullet worth biting. If appeal to differences in moral status is the only way to avoid obligations that one finds deeply counterintuitive, then the appeal isn’t necessarily arbitrary. (Taking off my hierarchical hat, I think Sebo’s review of Kagan’s book does a good job summarizing why we should be skeptical of the sort of intuitions Kagan consistently draws on.)

I also agree that one can endorse a hierarchy of characteristic moral value without endorsing Kagan’s view. (Kagan says as much in chapter two of his book.) In the post, I’ve tried to suggest that a hierarchy based on capacity for welfare is importantly distinct from a hierarchy based on Kagan-style moral status. I’m sympathetic to the view that ultimately moral status is context-sensitive or agent-relative or somehow multidimensional, but it’s not clear how much of practical value we lose by suppressing this complication. I’ll think more about it!

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-19T13:26:24.315Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Oscar,

Thanks for another insightful comment. I think we agree that what ultimately matters morally is realized welfare. I think we disagree about the extent and size of differences in capacity for welfare, our ability to measure capacity for welfare, and the usefulness of thinking about capacity for welfare. (Please correct me if I have misconstrued our points of agreement and disagreement!) I'll take our points of disagreement in reverse order.

It's certainly true that differences in capacity for welfare won't always make a difference to the way we ought to allocate resources. If we are only alleviating mild suffering (or promoting mild pleasure) and we have reason to believe that more or less all welfare subjects have the capacity to experience welfare outcomes greater than mild suffering and mild pleasure, then capacity for welfare isn't really relevant. But it seems to me that most of the time humans exploit nonhuman animals, they inflict what prima facie looks to be intense suffering. If that's right, then knowing something about capacity for welfare might be important. Alleviating the suffering of the animals with a greater capacity for welfare would generally make a bigger welfare improvement.

On the second point: measuring capacity for welfare is going to be extremely difficult and doing so well is a big and long-term project. Nonetheless, I am cautiously optimistic that if we take this topic seriously, we can make real progress. Admittedly, there are a lot of ways such a project could go wrong, so maybe my optimism is misplaced. I lay out my thoughts in much more detail in the second post in this series (due to be released June 1), so maybe we should discuss the issue more then.

Finally, my reading of the literature suggests that most (though not all) plausible theories of welfare predict differences in capacity for welfare, though of course the size and extent of such differences depend on the details of the theory and various empirical facts. I would be curious to know which combination of theoretical and empirical claims you endorse that lead you to believe there aren't significant differences in capacity for welfare across species. (If you're right, thinking about capacity for welfare might still be useful if for no other reason than to dispel the old myth that such differences exist!)

Thanks again for reading and engaging with the post!

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-18T18:19:09.362Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA · GW

To clarify, this is if we're increasing their welfare by the same amount, right? Prioritarianism and egalitarianism wouldn't imply that it's better for the mouse to be moved to 10 than for the human to be moved to 100.

Right. The claim is that the prioritarian and the egalitarian would prefer to move the mouse from 9/10 to 10/10 before moving the human from 10/100 to 11/100. Kagan argues this is the wrong result, but because he doesn't want to throw out distributive principles altogether, he thinks the best move is to appeal to differences in moral status between the mouse and the human.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-18T18:15:13.631Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the comment. The question of value lexicality is a big issue, and I can't possibly do it justice in these comments alone, so if you want to schedule a call to discuss in more detail, I'm happy to do so.

That caveat aside, I'm pretty skeptical consent-based views can ground the relevant thresholds in a way that escapes the arbitrariness worry. The basic concern is that we can expect differences in ability to consent across circumstances and species that don't track morally relevant facts. A lot hangs on the exact nature of consent, which is surprisingly hard to pin down. See recent debates about the nature of consent in clinical trials, political legitimacy, human organ sales, sex, and general decision-making capacity.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-18T17:34:57.758Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the comment. The examples are purely illustrative, so it's probably best not to wrangle over the specifics of cleaner wrasse behavior and octopus drug responses. I think it's plausible there are some creatures that by virtue of their natural solitary behavior are incapable of developing intimate bonds with other animals. And although definitions of moral agency certainly vary, I find it plausible that many animals are moral patients but not moral agents. If those two claims are right, then it shows that objective list theories of welfare predict differences in capacity for welfare, which is the point I aim to make in the text.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-18T17:25:19.560Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the comment. The definition is meant to be neutral with respect to IIA.

The definition does assume that either S is identical across the relevant worlds or (as I mention in footnote 12) the subjects in the world stand in the counterpart relation to one another. Transworld identity is a notoriously difficult topic. I'm here assuming that there is some reasonable solution to the problem.

I'm not sure how much genetic change an individual can undergo whilst remaining the same individual. (I suspect lots, but intuitions seem to differ on this question.) As I mention in footnote 9, it's also unclear how much genetic change an individual can undergo whilst remaining the same species.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-18T16:22:21.887Z · score: 13 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the comment. You're right that realized welfare is ultimately what matters. My hope is that thinking about capacity for welfare will sometimes help inform our estimates of realized welfare, though this certainly won't be true in every case. As an example of an instance where thinking about capacity for welfare does matter, consider honey bees. At any given time, there are more than a trillion managed honey bees under human control. Varroa destructor mites are a common problem in commercial hives. When a mite attaches to an adult bee, it slowly drains the bee's blood and fat. (It might be comparable to a tick the size of a baseball latching on to a human.) How does this affect the bee's welfare? If bees have a capacity for welfare roughly similar to vertebrates, it seems like in the long-run we can do a lot more good by focusing on honey bee welfare.

I believe that interspecies comparisons of welfare are extraordinarily difficult, but I think you are still too pessimistic about the prospect of making such comparisons. It's true that on many views welfare will be constituted (in whole or in part) by subjective (i.e., private) states for which we don't have direct evidence. But we can still use inference to the best explanation to justifiably infer the existence of such states. We only have access to our own subjective experiences, but we infer the existence of such states in other humans all the time. (Humans can give self-reports, but of course we can't independently verify such reports.) I think we can do the same with varying degrees of confidence for nonhuman animals.

For a discussion of possible cross-species measures of animal welfare, see this paper by Heather Browning.

Happy to really get in the weeds of this issue if you want to talk more.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-18T15:57:03.704Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael,

As an example of how capacity for welfare might be distinct from moral status, one might be a hedonist about welfare (and thus think that capacity for welfare is wholly determined by possible range of valenced experience and maybe subjective experience of time) but think that moral status is determined by degree of autonomy or rationality. The precise definition of welfarism is contentious, so I'll leave it to you to decide if that's a violation of welfarism.

However, I think even a welfarist should be wary of letting capacity for welfare determine moral status. The moral status of an individual tells us how much that individual's welfare is worth. If capacity for welfare determines moral status, then it seems like individuals with small capacities for welfare are unjustifiably doubly-penalized: they can only ever obtain a small amount of welfare and, in virtue of that fact, that small amount of welfare counts for less than an equal amount of welfare for an individual with a greater capacity for welfare. That strikes me as the wrong result.

On some interpretations of welfarism, I think the truth of welfarism gives us pretty good reason to endorse unitarianism. I'm also sympathetic to welfarism, but of course there are plenty of people who reject it. Anyone who endorses a retributive principle of justice, for instance, must reject welfarism.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-18T15:29:44.047Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael,

The way I'm using the terms, moral status and capacity for welfare are independent of realized welfare. Increasing realized welfare (e.g., through art/entertainment) doesn't raise one's capacity for welfare or moral status.

However, on some views, it does seem at least in principle possible to raise capacity for welfare through things like education. (I view your example of the intellectual stimulation of nonhuman animals as a type of education.) Educating a child might increase her capacity for certain objective goods, thereby increasing her capacity for welfare. On the other hand, it might be that educating the child simply makes it more likely that she will obtain those goods, thus raising her expected realized welfare rather than capacity for welfare. (Or perhaps education does both.) The answer depends on where we draw the line between potential and capacity, which naturally is going to be contentious. I'm hopeful that not much in practice hangs on this question, but I'm open to examples where it does.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species · 2020-05-18T15:15:48.259Z · score: 17 (8 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Oscar,

Thanks for your comment. For what it's worth, I am not myself very sympathetic to the hierarchical view that holds that there are differences in moral status among creatures with moral standing. However, I think there are enough thoughtful people who do endorse such a view that it would be epistemically inappropriate to completely dismiss the position. These questions are tough, and I've tried to reflect our deep collective uncertainty about these matters in the post.

(I should perhaps also flag that even if there are differences in moral status, there is no a priori guarantee that humans have the highest moral status. I'm currently working on a piece about the subjective experience of time, and if there are differences in characteristic temporal experience across species, humans certainly don't come out on top of that metric. But perhaps that's irrelevant to moral status.)

Regarding the usefulness of capacity for welfare, naturally I disagree. Take fish, for instance. Fish are a tremendously diverse group of animals, and this diversity is reflected in human exploitation of fish. (By my count, humans exploit five times as many taxonomic families of fish as they do birds.) There is prima facie good reason to think that capacity for welfare differs substantially among different families of fish. The harms we inflict on fish, through aquaculture and commercial fishing, are severe, plausibly among the worst conditions the fish could experience. If capacity for welfare differs among fish, and we are inflicting severe harm on all exploited fish, then those differences in capacity for welfare would give us reason to prioritize some types of fish over others. The fish with the greater capacity for welfare are suffering more, so easing their suffering is more urgent.

Happy to talk more if you'd like.

Comment by jason-schukraft on MichaelA's Shortform · 2020-05-09T01:36:49.792Z · score: 13 (4 votes) · EA · GW

The term 'moral weight' is occasionally used in philosophy (David DeGrazia uses it from time to time, for instance) but not super often. There are a number of closely related but conceptually distinct issues that often get lumped together under the heading moral weight:

  1. Capacity for welfare, which is how well or poorly a given animal's life can go
  2. Average realized welfare, which is how well or poorly the life of a typical member of a given species actually goes
  3. Moral status, which is how much the welfare of a given animal matters morally

Differences in any of those three things might generate differences in how we prioritize interventions that target different species.

Rethink Priorities is going to release a report on this subject in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned for more details!

Comment by jason-schukraft on MichaelA's Shortform · 2020-05-08T13:17:13.595Z · score: 15 (5 votes) · EA · GW

A few months ago I compiled a bibliography of academic publications about comparative moral status. It's not exhaustive and I don't plan to update it, but it might be a good place for folks to start if they're interested in the topic.

Comment by jason-schukraft on How good is The Humane League compared to the Against Malaria Foundation? · 2020-04-30T01:24:05.970Z · score: 7 (2 votes) · EA · GW

In Compassion, by the Pound, Norwood and Lusk estimate that a transition from cage to cage-free eggs would increase prices 21% which would decrease consumption 4% (350-351). But cage-free eggs also require more chickens. Norwood and Lusk estimate that one cage egg requires 0.003212204 chickens and one cage-free egg requires 0.003229267 chickens (233).

Comment by jason-schukraft on How good is The Humane League compared to the Against Malaria Foundation? · 2020-04-29T14:38:25.967Z · score: 9 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks Stephen and Aidan for this great report! These sorts of questions are super difficult but plausibly quite important. I appreciate how transparent you are about your uncertainty. Rethink Priorities has been doing some work on moral weight that will point to ways to hopefully reduce some key uncertainties. Stay tuned in the next few weeks as we begin to release our reports!

Comment by jason-schukraft on How would crop pollination work without commercial beekeeping? · 2020-03-20T14:03:13.220Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Beekeepers in the U.S. earn about half their revenue from pollination services so even if demand for honey were reduced, commercial crop pollination would not cease (though it would probably get more expensive). I discuss ways to reduce demand for managed honey bee pollination here, including self-fertile varieties of pollinator-dependent crops, mechanical pollination, and local wild pollination.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Opinion: Estimating Invertebrate Sentience · 2020-01-25T16:14:26.633Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the interesting comment and many useful references. Speaking for myself and not for the rest of the team, I am very confident that dogs, pigs, cows, rats, and apes are all sentient and have the capacity for valenced experience. (That is, there is something it is like to be these animals and that experience includes pleasures and pains.) Whether or not these creatures are capable of higher-order conscious thought (that is, reflecting on their own first-order beliefs, desires, or emotional states) is debatable. I don't think higher-order conscious thought is a necessary condition for sentience, but I do think it may be relevant to moral status. In fact, many of the features mentioned in your comment (e.g., episodic memory, emotional complexity and awareness, social communication, cause-and-effect thinking, executive control, autonomy, biographical sense of self) plausibly help determine a creature's moral status. (Even if you are suspicious of degrees of moral status, you might think that these features contribute to the range and types of experiential states a creature can undergo and thus are important for determining a creature's welfare.) So I think it would be good for the animal welfare movement to have a decent grasp of which of these features (as well as the other features that plausibly affect moral status) are exhibited by which animals. In the coming months, Rethink Priorities might have something more concrete to say about the topic.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Managed Honey Bee Welfare: Problems and Potential Interventions · 2020-01-23T02:50:14.668Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Haven!

Thanks for the question. I don’t have an all-things-considered view on whether a given individual should avoid honey. It’s a complicated issue. Here are some thoughts:

First, to simplify, I’ll assume that you only care about welfare and thus I’ll set any deontological considerations to the side.

Next, you should ask yourself whether you think bees are likely to lead net-negative lives. The standard argument (note: I’m not endorsing the argument here) for the position that insects lead net-negative lives appeals to the fact that most insects have a huge number of young that don’t survive to adulthood. That’s not the case for honey bees. Juvenile mortality in honey bees is fairly low, probably no more than about 30%. Every colony has so-called ‘nurse bees’ that oversee feeding the larvae. That said, honey bees are hard workers their whole lives (aside from a small number of drones), and it’s not uncommon for beekeepers to claim that honey bees literally work themselves to death.

Next, you should ask yourself what type of honey you’re considering eating. Bees thrive when colonies have plenty of space and access to a wide variety of natural forage. Bees suffer when they’re hauled hundreds of miles in cramped trucks then stuffed in monocultural, pesticide-ridden agricultural landscapes. In most regions, there are plenty of small, local honey producers that treat their bees well, or at least as well as you can if you’re in the honey business. There’s no general label for this type of honey, but it’s often called “wildflower honey.” If you’re unsure about how the honey is produced, you can sometimes find good information by browsing the producer’s website or, if you’re at a farmer’s market, talking to the beekeeper directly.

Finally, you should ask yourself a number of consistency questions. Are you a vegan? Is it easier to keep to a vegan diet if you don’t carve exceptions for yourself? Is it easier to explain your dietary restrictions (and avoid charge of hypocrisy) if you don’t make exceptions? If you truly care about bee welfare, are you willing to alter other parts of your diet? Plenty of crops depend on bees for pollination, especially almonds. Are you willing to avoid almonds, too? (Side note: commercial almond milk is mostly water, so despite the bad press it’s gotten in some circles recently, I would be more concerned about what’s in your granola rather than what’s in the milk you pour on top of it.)

On the question of how vocal you should be about avoiding honey, I think the answer is: not very. You can be vocal about bee welfare without making people feel bad about eating honey. The reforms that help honey bees the most probably aren’t going to require trying to directly change people’s dietary preferences, so I don’t think we should risk any sort of confrontational advocacy that could reflect poorly on the movement or otherwise cause people to disengage with us.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Intervention Profile: Ballot Initiatives · 2020-01-17T17:10:21.949Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Jonas, thanks for the comment. I'll change the main text and accompanying footnote to make clear environmental benefits were not the main aim of the initiatives.

You should correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the proposals were eventually weakened to the point that conservation of resources became the primary (perhaps sole?) focus.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Opinion: Estimating Invertebrate Sentience · 2019-12-13T17:14:51.602Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks! That's helpful way of thinking about the topic and a useful strategy for addressing the problem.

Comment by jason-schukraft on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-13T16:01:08.925Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

My impression is that I'm considerably less of a consequentialist than the average EA. Mostly I'm just pretty uncertain and so I put some stock in (some forms of) deontology and virtue ethics.

I'm a metaethical realist.

One's obligations are context-sensitive, so I can't say for sure what altruistic obligations others have. But for a person in my circumstances, I believe altruism (in many forms) is a moral obligation, one that I'm continually failing to fulfill.

Comment by jason-schukraft on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-13T15:53:36.350Z · score: 13 (9 votes) · EA · GW

If I hadn't been hired by RP, I probably would have ended up working for a random tech company in Austin, where I live, or maybe I would have ended up doing admissions counseling remotely (which is lucrative but soul-sucking work). If I left RP now I would try to work for a different EA research org.

Comment by jason-schukraft on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-13T15:50:18.603Z · score: 10 (8 votes) · EA · GW

My background is in philosophy, so I've been familiar with (and convinced by) Peter Singer's work since roughly 2007. I first heard about EA in early 2015 when Will MacAskill gave a talk at UT Austin, where I was working on my PhD. He and I chatted a bit about Bostrom's Superintelligence, which I happened to be reading at the time for totally unrelated reasons. Talking about AI safety and global poverty (the subject of Will's talk) in the same conversation was kind of a revelatory moment, and all of EA's conceptual pieces just sort of fell into place.

The thing that keeps me motivated is how intrinsically interesting I find my research. Of course I hope to make a difference, but my work is so far removed from immediate measurable impact that I don't really think about that on a day-to-day basis.

Comment by jason-schukraft on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-13T15:23:02.323Z · score: 14 (10 votes) · EA · GW

I've generally become much more chill about coexisting with invertebrates in and around my house. Mostly I just find them fascinating now rather than scary or repugnant, especially arthropods (the phylum that insects and spiders belong to). That said, I did recently kill a scorpion that had stung my daughter, so I guess there are limits to my tolerance.

Comment by jason-schukraft on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-13T15:17:32.519Z · score: 31 (12 votes) · EA · GW

I agree that bivalves are probably the least likely to be sentient of the animals that are easily available to eat. I wouldn't necessarily recommend eating them because there may be issues with the way they are collected. (I haven't looked into this at all.) I don't eat them because I don't find it particularly hard not to eat meat, and it's easier to explain my dietary restrictions to people if there aren't too many exceptions.

The research I did for my honey bee report has affected the way I feel about almonds. It hasn't really reduced my almond consumption, but I now feel slightly guilty about eating almonds. Modern almond farming is pretty bad for bees, and bees are super cool and smart. From a bee welfare perspective, I'm pretty confident eating commercially farmed almonds is worse than eating wildflower honey. (Note that most honey is not wildflower honey.)

Comment by jason-schukraft on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-13T15:08:20.036Z · score: 19 (15 votes) · EA · GW

My research would not be at the same level of quality if I were operating independently. The ability to easily draw on the knowledge, experience, skills, and general expertise of my colleagues at RP greatly improves my work. I can always count on getting high-quality feedback from at least half a dozen people, and if I get stuck in the middle of the project, I can normally count on someone to help me out. There is some loss of independence working at RP versus being funded directly, but I think the research guidance I receive more than makes up for the loss of independence. And RP's research agenda is mostly set collectively, anyway. So, in short, I expect that in most cases researchers at organizations like RP are going to be much more productive than independent researchers. ("Synergy" is the buzzword that comes to mind.)

Comment by jason-schukraft on Opinion: Estimating Invertebrate Sentience · 2019-11-20T02:18:19.697Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Hey Max, good question. I think we need to clearly separate our metaphysics from our epistemology in this area. If an entity is sentient if and only if there is something it is like to be that entity, then it's hard to see how sentience could come in degrees. (There are closely related phenomena that might come in degrees--like the intensity of experience or the grain of sensory input--but those phenomena are distinct from sentience.) There are certainly going to be cases where it's difficult to know if an entity is sentient, but our uncertainty doesn't imply that the entity is only partially sentient. I think it's plausible that this area of epistemic indeterminacy could remain quite large even with all the empirical facts in hand.

However, there are some theories of mind on which it looks like there could be cases of metaphysical indeterminacy. If a certain type of reductive physicalism is true, and sentience doesn't reduce to any one feature of the brain but is instead a cluster concept, and the features that constitute the concept aren't coextensive, then there could be cases in which we don't know if an entity is sentient even with all the empirical and the philosophical facts in hand. (Technically, the fact that it can be metaphysically indeterminate that an entity possesses a property doesn't entail that the property comes in degrees, but it's a natural extension.)

Comment by jason-schukraft on Opinion: Estimating Invertebrate Sentience · 2019-11-09T02:38:00.028Z · score: 8 (6 votes) · EA · GW

I'd also be interest in all of your thoughts on what exactly a percentage probability of valenced experience (or whatever the morally relevant mind-stuff should be called) is - obviously, they aren't the close to the true probabilities these organisms have valenced experience (which, unless the world is very strange, should be 1 or 0 for all things)

I may be an odd person to answer this question, as I chose not to offer probability estimates, but I'll respond anyway.

I agree that sentience, at least as we've defined it, is an all-or-nothing phenomenon (which is a common view in philosophy but not as common in neuroscience). As I understand them, the probabilities we discuss are credences, sometimes called subjective probabilities or degrees of belief, in the proposition "x is sentient." Credence 1 (or 100%) represents certainty that the proposition is true and credence 0 (or 0%) represents certainty that the proposition is false. Since there are very few propositions one should be absolutely certain about, the appropriate credences will fall between 0 and 1. The betting analysis of credence is common, though there are some well known problems.

Thinking of these probabilities as credences is neutral on the question of the best way to develop and refine these credences. Someone might base her/his credences entirely on intuition; another person might completely disregard her/his intuitions. This post details what we take to be the best available methodology to investigate invertebrate sentience.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Opinion: Estimating Invertebrate Sentience · 2019-11-07T13:45:54.012Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Fixed!

Comment by jason-schukraft on Linch's Shortform · 2019-09-21T01:31:50.582Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · EA · GW

You might be interested in the following posts on the subject from Daily Nous, an excellent philosophy blog:

"Why Progress Is Slower In Philosophy Than In Science"

"How Philosophy Makes Progress (guest post by Daniel Stoljar)"

"How Philosophy Makes Progress (guest post by Agnes Callard)"

"Whether Philosophical Questions Can Be Answered"

"Convergence as Progress in Philosophy"

Comment by jason-schukraft on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-30T18:59:31.234Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Tobias!

That's a good point. I hadn't really thought about the issue in those terms. I'll bring it up with the rest of the team and see what they think. Thanks!

Comment by jason-schukraft on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-30T01:39:38.675Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Tobias!

Thanks for the comment. You're right. Entomophagy is just one segment of the farmed insect sector. There are huge numbers of insects farmed for animal feed. There are also huge numbers of insects farmed for pollination and huge numbers of insects farmed as biological control agents (e.g., parasitoids that prey on crop pests). Then there's silk, honey, shellac, carmine and a number of other products derived primarily from farmed insects.

All told, there are dozens of different types of insects farmed commercially. (And I'm just counting insects; if you include all invertebrates, the number is probably in the hundreds.) Right now we're working on a project to get a better understanding of the number of insects farmed for various purposes and the conditions in which these insects are reared. Appealing to the "yuck factor" may be a way to put the brakes on one fast-growing segment of the farmed insect industry, but there is a lot more basic research that needs to be completed before we will be in a position to recommend concrete interventions.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-17T19:10:17.744Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Good catch! I had terrestrial gastropods in mind, so I've changed the original post from "class Gastropoda" to "order Stylommatophora" (which includes Helix pomatia, the most commonly consumed snail) to reflect this focus.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-10T14:19:01.038Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Gavin! Thanks for your comment. It raises an important but extremely difficult question. The short answer is that nobody really knows what to say about moral weighting. Slightly longer answer below.

First, on consciousness. Strictly speaking, I don’t think it makes sense to talk about consciousness occurring on a scale. An entity is conscious if and only if there is something it is like to be that entity. If there’s any phenomenology, no matter how faint or weird, the entity is conscious. If there’s no phenomenology, the entity is not conscious.

Nonetheless, there are some aspects of consciousness that admit of gradations, and these gradations are plausibly morally significant. I’m pretty comfortable asserting that human experiences are ‘richer,’ in some sense of the term, than fruit fly experiences, and this difference in ‘richness’ is part of what accounts for differences in the moral value of fruit fly and human experiences. But it’s not clear to me how to spell out the appropriate sense of ‘richness.’ It’s certainly not as simple as number of sensory modalities. (I don’t think Helen Keller’s experiences were worth less than my experiences.) Phenomenal intensity is probably part of the answer but again not the whole of it. Elements of cognitive, emotional, or social complexity may also help determine moral weight. Philosophers are accustomed to talking about the moral value of agency, autonomy, rationality, and self-awareness. Those things might also factor into moral weight.

As for how to determine moral weight in practice, it depends of course on how we resolve the theoretical question, but I think there’s also going to be ample uncertainty here. There are probably some rough characterizations we can make, but in general I think we know too little about most invertebrates to be able to say much about their (relative) cognitive, emotional, and social complexity. I would love to be able to spend a good chunk of my career investigating these questions!

Thanks for the research advice! I can safely say that I never would have specifically targeted German research from the 50s to the 80s on my own initiative. One worry, though: how many of those papers are exclusively in German?

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 3 · 2019-06-25T19:00:44.141Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Hey Gavin. Once again, thanks for the wealth of insights and references! I have a few thoughts in response, but at this point it might be more valuable if we scheduled a videochat. I'm going to send you a message in a few minutes.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Invertebrate Sentience Table · 2019-06-25T18:55:32.242Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hey Gavin!

Thanks for another fascinating comment. Although we haven’t been framing the subject in this way (the Braitenberg reference is new to me), we’ve been thinking about similar issues for a long time. At an early stage of the project we had a spreadsheet that attempted to judge the extent to which a handful of robots and AI programs exhibited the 53 features we investigated for invertebrates. We de-prioritized the spreadsheet because filling it in required too many subjective judgment calls and we worried that the methodology we used to investigate invertebrate sentience wouldn’t be applicable to non-biological organisms. Ultimately, this is a question we hope to return to. There is ample material to explore: functionalism (and its denial) in philosophy of mind, graded states of consciousness, “evolution” in artificial reinforcement learning, the analogy between nonhuman animals and robots, and many others.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-19T14:11:06.364Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for the references, Gavin! You truly are an inexhaustible resource. The paper on uncertainty monitoring in ants looks particularly impressive and relevant. I hope to give it a full read later this week. The ability of eusocial insects to incorporate diverse streams of information into an integrated decision-making framework is, to my mind, decent evidence that they are conscious.

(Also, I'm getting a session timed out error on the aphid link.)

Comment by jason-schukraft on Invertebrate Sentience Table · 2019-06-19T13:40:48.470Z · score: 7 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Sammy. I’m one of the researchers on Rethink Priorities’ invertebrate sentience team. Thanks for your comment. This is an issue our team has thought a lot about and plans to address explicitly in forthcoming work. I agree that our research would be more digestible if we provided an overall probability of sentience for each taxon. Unfortunately, assigning a “sentience score” is extraordinarily difficult. The 53 features we investigated are not equally important, and the context in which they are displayed often makes a substantial difference to their evidential weight. One would have to have an expert grasp on biology, philosophy, and neuroscience (as well as lots of time on her/his hands) to even justifiably begin such a scoring project. And because subjective experience is, well, subjective, strict calibration in this domain is necessarily impossible.

Despite the above difficulties, Rethink Priorities is considering reporting our best guesses about the probability of sentience for our studied taxa. We are still figuring out the best way to present these preliminary estimates. We want the estimates to be viewed as hypotheses to be further refined (or perhaps completely abandoned) as more evidence comes in rather than hard conclusions that our work definitively supports. One concern is that interested parties might skip straight to our (uncalibrated, somewhat unjustified, extremely speculative) numerical estimates without taking the time to understand the nuance and intricacy of the issue. Personally, I worry that assigning sentience scores sacrifices too much in the name of digestibility.

Nonetheless, it’s not as if our currently published findings are completely silent on the matter. Clearly, there is better evidence for sentience for cephalopods and arthropods than there is for annelids and nematodes. Stay tuned for our invertebrate welfare cause profile (slated to go up in late July) for more on the implications of our research.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-18T18:20:14.489Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks Gavin! I've added Beyond Boundaries to my reading list.

The potential connection between BCI and self-recognition is fascinating. Offhand, do you know any references for insect neural interface studies that might be comparable to the monkey example you describe?

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 3 · 2019-06-18T18:11:36.907Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Gavin!

(Apologies for the delayed response; I’ve been traveling the last few days.)

Again, thanks so much for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments! My background is in philosophy, where the science of these issues gets handled at a rather superficial level, so it’s a pleasure to be able to correspond with someone with such a deep knowledge of the field.

The distinction between operant conditioning and operant conditioning with an unfamiliar action is somewhat arbitrary. We were trying to capture the fact that some types of learning require more cognitive flexibility than others. Perhaps the distinction between elemental and non-elemental learning is a more important one. There are probably a number of other important distinctions that I’ve either glossed over or just missed completely. I think it would be interesting to see a taxonomy of learning abilities and an analysis of which learning abilities give the strongest evidence for valenced experience. I certainly agree with you that contextual learning provides stronger evidence of cognitive flexibility than many other types of learning.

I’m interested to hear more about why you think novelty-seeking behavior might be evidence for the capacity for valenced experience. I suppose the fact that novelty salience can override innate preference is further evidence of behavioral plasticity. Is that what you had in mind or were you thinking of something more specific?

Definitely interested to hear your thoughts about navigation.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-13T01:07:25.146Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Gavin, if you have the time, I'd love to see references for those abilities. We've got another round of invertebrate posts coming out in mid-to-late July, and most if not all of your examples can be used to bolster the case that arthropods in general and insects in particular deserve a close look from the effective animal advocacy movement. Thanks for your contributions!

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-12T17:52:34.697Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Gavin,

Thanks for the examples; keep them coming! Whether or not they possess the capacity for valenced experience, eusocial insects truly are remarkable creatures. Do you have an easy reference for the cuckoo bumblebee behavior? I’ve got a running list of amazing things different invertebrates do, and I’d love to add it to the list.

(On the subject of videos, check out the video I’ve linked in footnote 53. It always brings a smile to my face.)

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 1 · 2019-06-11T17:54:34.048Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Gavin,

Thanks for the compliment and especially for the thoughtful reply. I’ll take your comments in turn.

  1. In the third part of the mini-series on features potentially relevant to invertebrate sentience, we discuss a number of learning indicators, including both classical and operant conditioning. That post is going up June 12. I would be interested to hear your take on the relevant sections.

  2. There is certainly not going to be a perfect correlation between lifespan and potential for learning. (Indeed, there might not be any correlation at all.) The claim that we’re defending is that, in general, longer-lived organisms would benefit more from learning abilities than shorter-live organisms. We expect there to be exceptions both ways (i.e., relatively short-lived organisms that would benefit from learning abilities and relatively long-lived organisms that wouldn't). Much depends on context of various kinds. Your point about the learning abilities of monarchs vs. bees is well-taken. In future work (to be published mid-July), we take an especially close look at eusocial insects, which are pretty amazing.

  3. Your question about warning pheromones is a great example of a difficulty that has hounded us for the length of the project. Classifying and assessing complex behaviors is context-sensitive. I think you’re right that warning pheromones could fall into at least three categories. (Or maybe different pheromones fall into different categories?) Assessing the evidential force of these features is often even more context-sensitive. A behavior that looks like good evidence for sentience in one context doesn’t always look like good evidence for sentience in a different context. (e.g., a human reporting “I am in pain” is normally great evidence of painful experience. A very simple robot programmed to utter the same sounds is not great evidence of painful experience.)

Comment by jason-schukraft on EA Research Organizations Should Post Jobs on PhilJobs.org · 2019-05-04T17:24:37.463Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Unfortunately, I don't have any hard data to back up that claim, just extensive anecdotal evidence from roughly seven years interacting with professional philosophers and philosophy graduate students. And my anecdotal evidence skews heavily toward the US, so I'm not in a position to even hazard a guess about the prevalence of philosophy PhDs with STEM backgrounds in continental Europe. Sorry!