Bob Fischer


I'm a Senior Research Manager at Rethink Priorities, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Texas State University, and the Director of the Society for the Study of Ethics & Animals.


The CURVE Sequence
The Moral Weight Project Sequence


Great question, Caroline! We think there's quite a lot of room right now. We could easily grant out ~$100K per year for the next couple of years; and as the field grows, we would expect to be able to grant out two or three times that annually. However, even relatively small amounts can be useful. Funding a master's student in the US, for instance, often costs less than $35K per year and some studies can cost roughly the same amount. So, every little bit helps!

Just to clarify: the problem is that we don't know what is and isn't torture. Is freezing insects the humane way to kill them---or is it a slow and painful way for them to die? The default view among entomologists is the former, but there are lots of physiological considerations that point in the other direction. I think you're assuming that we know a lot more than we do about how to improve the lives of insects on farms given the options available.

Hi Henry. I think you're running together the Moral Weight Project, where your criticism about wide confidence intervals is fair, and the kind of empirical work that welfare scientists do, where that criticism isn't fair. 

Here's a concrete example of what welfare science can do. We might have thought that the most humane way to kill insects is by grinding them, as that's likely to lead to instaneous death. However, we now know that grinding often does not kill instantaneously. So, insofar as insects matter, it's important to specify the exact conditions where grinding does and doesn't leave animals mangled but still alive. Likewise, it's important that advocates don't start pushing for practices that are intuitively better for animals but aren't actually better. Welfare science can prevent people from making mistaken recommendations. It can also help identify the best recommendations.

Granted, many worthwhile causes are funding-constrained. However, our view is both that it's especially hard to fund empirical research and that it's especially important to fund it, as it's essential to improving industry practices. Understandably, others may have different priorities, but after thinking long and hard about the various strategic considerations, this is where we land.

Good question, Michael. Yes, we're open to funding research on other arthropods. For now, the best way to ensure that there's a stable field of insect of welfare science seems to be to back work on farmed insect welfare. But as that changes, funding priorities will change too.

Good question, Keyvan. This was pragmatic: our main goal was to make a point about welfare ranges, not p(sentience), so we wanted to discuss things that way in the key takeaways. But knowing people would want a single number per species to play with in models, we figured we should give people placeholders that are already adjusted.

Thanks for your discussion of the Moral Weight Project's methodology, Carl. (And to everyone else for the useful back-and-forth!) We have some thoughts about this important issue and we're keen to write more about it. Perhaps 2024 will provide the opportunity!

For now, we'll just make one brief point, which is that it’s important to separate two questions. The first concerns the relevance of the two envelopes problem to the Moral Weight Project. The second concerns alternative ways of generating moral weights. We considered the two envelopes problem at some length when we were working on the Moral Weight Project and concluded that our approach was still worth developing. We’d be glad to revisit this and appreciate the challenge to the methodology.

However, even if it turns out that the methodology has issues, it’s an open question how best to proceed. We grant the possibility that, as you suggest, more neurons = more compute = the possibility of more intense pleasures and pains. But it's also possible that more neurons = more intelligence = less biological need for intense pleasures and pains, as other cognitive abilities can provide the relevant fitness benefits, effectively muting the intensities of those states. Or perhaps there's some very low threshold of cognitive complexity for sentience after which point all variation in behavior is due to non-hedonic capacities. Or perhaps cardinal interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible. And so on. In short, while it's true that there are hypotheses on which elephants have massively more intense pains than fruit flies, there are also hypotheses on which the opposite is true and on which equality is (more or less) true. Once we account for all these hypotheses, it may still work out that elephants and fruit flies differ by a few orders of magnitude in expectation, but perhaps not by five or six. Presumably, we should all want some approach, whatever it is, that avoids being mugged by whatever low-probability hypothesis posits the largest difference between humans and other animals.

That said, you've raised some significant concerns about methods that aggregate over different relative scales of value. So, we’ll be sure to think more about the degree to which this is a problem for the work we’ve done—and, if it is, how much it would change the bottom line. 

Nope, not assuming neartermism. The report has the details. Short version: across a range of decision theories, chickens look really good.

That said, I totally agree that from a purely conceptual perspective, we should "be more open-minded about how we should think of the different 'buckets' in a Worldview-Diversified portfolio, and cautious of completely dismissing common-sense priorities (even as we give significant weight and support to a range of theoretically well-supported counterintuitive cause areas)." 

Admittedly, we weren't factoring in the (ostensible) ripple effects, but our modeling indicates that if we're interested in robust goodness, we should be spending on chickens.

Also, for the reasons that @Ariel Simnegar already notes, even if there are unappreciated benefits of investing in GHD, there would need to be a lot of those benefits to justify not spending on animals. Could work out that way, but I'd like to see the evidence. (When I investigated this myself, making the case seemed quite difficult.)

Thanks for the idea, Pablo. I've added summaries to the sequence page.

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