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Human impacts on animals
Welfare and moral weights


Topic contributions

(Not speaking for this group.)

I’ve never been able to understand how any serious consideration of insect welfare doesn’t immediately lead to the unacceptable conclusion that any cause other than the welfare of demodex mites or nematodes is almost meaningless.

Adding to what others have said already, you could also have moral/normative uncertainty about decision theory and aim to do well across multiple attitudes to risk and uncertainty/ambiguity, and some attitudes will prioritize animals that seem less likely to be conscious more or less than others, some possibly severely discounting invertebrates. You can also be morally uncertain about moral aggregation (by addition in particular, say), and then helping humans might look better on non-aggregative (or only partially aggregative) views.

You can also be morally uncertain about the moral weights of animals in other ways, although I've recently argued against it being very important here, so for me, it's mostly attitudes towards risk and uncertainty/ambiguity and aggregation, and, of course, the particular probabilities and other numbers involved.

I'm personally inclined to focus on arthropods using a decent share of my altruistic budget, but not most of it. I'm fairly concerned about mites, but not specifically demodex mites. I don't care much about nematodes (which are not arthropods, and seem particularly unlikely to matter much to me).

Ya, someone might argue that the average person contributes to economic growth and technological development, and so accelerates and increases x-risk. So, saving lives and increasing incomes could increase x-risk. Some subgroups of people may be exceptions, like EAs/x-risk people or poor people in low-income countries (who are far from the frontier of technological development), but even those could be questionable.

There’s no good reason to think that GiveWell’s top charities are net harmful.

The effects on farmed animals and wild animals could make GiveWell top charities net harmful in the near term. See Comparison between the hedonic utility of human life and poultry living time and Finding bugs in GiveWell's top charities by Vasco Grilo.

My own best guess is that they're net good for wild animals based on my suffering-focused views and the resulting reductions of wild arthropod populations. I also endorse hedging in portfolios of interventions.

many people can find it motivating, and that is important to think about, but also really doesn't fit nicely into a harm-reducing framework.

Ya, I guess the value towards harm reduction would be more indirect/instrumental in this case.

I mean, being an onmivore would allow you to choose between more options. Generally having more options very rarely hurts you.

I think this is true of idealized rational agents with fixed preferences, but I'm much less sure about actual people, who are motivated in ways they wouldn't endorse upon reflection and who aren't acting optimally impartially even if they think it would be better on reflection if they did.

By going veg, you eliminate or more easily resist the motivation to eat more expensive animal products that could have net impartial opportunity costs. Maybe skipping (expensive) meats hurts you in the moment (because you want meat), but it saves you money to donate to things you think matter more. You'd be less likely to correctly — by reflection on your impartial preferences — skip the meat and save the money if you weren't veg.

And some people are not even really open to (cheaper) plant-based options like beans and tofu, and that goes away going veg. That was the case for me. My attitude before going veg would have been irrational from an impartial perspective, just considering the $ costs that could be donated instead.

Of course, some people will endorse being inherently partial to themselves upon reflection, so eating animal products might seem fine to them even at greater cost. But the people inclined to cut out animal products by comparing their personal costs to the harms to animals probably wouldn't end up endorsing their selfish motivation to eat animal products over the harms to animals.

The other side is that a veg*n is more motivated to eat the more expensive plant-based substitutes and go to vegan restaurants, which (in my experience) tend to be more expensive.

I'm not inclined to judge how things will shake out based on idealized models of agents. I really don't know either way, and it will depend on the person. Cheap veg diets seem cheaper than cheap omni diets, but if people are eating enough plant-based meats, their food costs would probably increase.

Here are prices in Canadian $/kg of protein, for the versions of foods that seemed cheapest per kg of protein from Walmart Canada and Amazon Canada.

And then extra supplements for veg EAs.

For restaurants, as long as you avoid expensive plant-based substitutes and vegan-specific restaurants, I think veg options are usually cheaper. Of course, a veg EA will be tempted by these sometimes, too!


To be clear, I don't think it's that important to minimize the cost of your diet. Things like rent, vehicle, travel, and how often you eat out (when it doesn't help you do more work) are probably more important if you want to save money.

I have had >30 conversations with EA vegetarians and vegans about their reasoning here. The people who thought about it the most seem to usually settle on it for signaling reasons. Maybe this changed over the last few years in EA, but it seemed to be where most people I talked to where at when I had lots of conversations with them in 2018. 

I guess this is a bit pedantic, but you originally wrote "My best guess is that most people who are vegetarians, vegans or reducetarians, and are actually interested in scope-sensitivity, are explicitly doing so for signaling and social coordination reasons". I think veg EAs are generally "actually interested in scope-sensitivity", whether or not they're thinking about their diets correctly and in scope-sensitive ~utilitarian terms. "The people who thought about it the most" might not be representative, and more representative motivations might be better described as "in it to prevent harm", even if the motivations turn out to be not utilitarian, not appropriately scope-sensitive or misguided.

Great to see!

Here it sounds like the fund is focused on farmed insects, but the website seems more broadly concerned with arthropods. Will it include other arthropods? Will it include wild arthropods, too?

I think the vast majority of arthropods, by numbers of individuals, are wild mites, springtails and copepods, and it seems important to know more about them, like their possible sentience and moral weights, whether their lives are good or bad, and how they are affected by human activity. I'd guess interventions that affect the numbers of animals used by humans usually affect many times more mites, springtails and/or copepods.

I agree that many people say (1), but when you dig into it it seems clear that people incur costs that would be better spent on donations, and so I don't think it's good reasoning.

Do you mean financial costs, or all net costs together, including potentially through time, motivation, energy, cognition? I think it's reasonably likely that for many people, there are ~no real net (opportunity) costs, or that it's actually net good (but if net good in those ways, then that would probably be a better reason than 1). Putting my thoughts in a footnote, because they're long and might miss what you have in mind.[1]

I also think (4) is probably the most common reason, and I do think probably captures something important, but it seems like a bad inference that "someone is in it to prevent harm" if (4) is their reason for being vegetarian or vegan.

Ya, that seems fair. If they had the option to just stop thinking and feeling bad about it and chose that over going veg, which is what my framing suggests they would do, then it seems the motivation is to feel better and get more time, not avoid harming animals through their diets. This would be like seeing someone in trouble, like a homeless person, and avoiding them to avoid thinking and feeling bad about them. This can be either selfish or instrumentally other-regarding, given opportunity costs.

If they thought (or felt!) the right response to the feelings is to just go veg and not to just stop thinking and feeling bad about it, then I would say they are in it to prevent harm, just guided by their feelings. And their feelings might not be very scope-sensitive, even if they make donation and career decisions in scope-sensitive ways. I think this is kind of what virtue ethics is about. Also potentially related: "Do the math, then burn the math and go with your gut".

  1. ^

    Financial/donations: It's not clear to me that my diet is more expensive than if I were omnivorous. Some things I've substituted for animal products are cheaper and others are more expensive. I haven't carefully worked through this, though. It's also not clear that if it were more expensive, that I would donate more, because of how I decide how much to donate, which is based on my income and a vague sense of my costs of living, which probably won't pick up differences due to diet (but maybe it does in expectation, and maybe it means donating less later, because I'll have less money to donate later). If I budgeted more precisely, that would have time costs (which might not come out of work, anyway, though). And if I weren't vegan, maybe I'd be less motivated to donate as much (although this is more like "self-signaling", or altruism sharpens altruism).

    Time: I doubt most veg*ns would work more hours (allowing more impactful work or more donations) if they weren't managing or accommodating their veg*n diet. Time spent on the diet is small and probably doesn't really come out of work hours. But this can depend on their particular circumstances. Maybe someone gets their blood tested more frequently because of their diet, and this specifically comes out of their work hours.

    Time costs might also be incurred by others, like event or working space organizers (like you, as I think you've brought up before), and veg*ns may not appreciate this, or might (I'd guess correctly) think one more vegan makes ~no difference. Maybe it would be better if everyone agreed to eat whatever at events, and the animal products were offset by animal charity donations, or that time was just given back to organizers to work on other important things without any specific donation offset.

    Effects on energy and cognition will vary by person. I think there are risks here people should make some effort to minimize (e.g. blood testing, supplements). That effort can come out of their time and donations, but that's already accounted for above. There might be some remaining (expected) costs even after this. Or there could be net benefits, in case they end up with an overall healthier diet this way (and might not be motivated to do so except to go veg; it's easier to avoid unhealthy foods you also object to morally).

Have you actually just talked to people about their motives for reducing their animal product consumption, or read about them? Do you expect them to tell you it's mostly for signaling or social coordination, or (knowingly or unknowingly) lie that it isn't?

I'd guess only a minority of EAs go veg mostly for signaling or social coordinaton.

Other reasons I find more plausibly common, even among those who make bigger decisons in scope-sensitive ways:

  1. Finding it cost-effective in an absolute sense, e.g. >20 chickens spared per year, at small personal cost (usually ignoring opportunity costs to help others more). (And then maybe falsely thinking you should go veg to do this, rather than just cut out certain animal products, or finding it easier to just go veg than navigate exceptions.)
  2. Wanting to minimize the harm they personally cause to others, or to avoid participating in overall harmful practices, or deontological or virtue ethics reasons, separately from actively helping others or utilitarian-ish reasons.
  3. Not finding not eating animal products very costly, or not being very sensitive to the costs. It may be easy or take from motivational "budgets" psychologically separate from work or donations.
  4. Finding eating animal products psychologically or time costly, e.g. just feeling guilty and worrying about it, cognitive dissonance.
  5. Seeing so many other EAs veg, and this making it seem very impactful to be veg for animals (whether or not it actually is).
  6. As a way to live out their commitment daily that other animals matter and increase/maintain their concern for them (and/or other vulnerable moral patients easy to ignore).
  7. To get other people around them interested in helping animals.

I'd guess most EAs who go veg or reducetarian do so for reasons like 1, 2, 3, 4 and/or 5. 1, 2, 3 and 4 are why I went vegan, around when I first got into EA. I also used to make arguments like 1, just comparing the harms to animals and your personal costs (after the drowning child thought experiment) when I was an EA organizer a few years ago.

I don’t think the opportunity costs of veg diets are on people's minds much, so it seems likely that people are ignoring them, either for bad reasons or because they don’t seem important enough to them.

I'm still (bival)vegan, but mostly for reasons like 3, 6, just preferring not to eat animal products anymore, and maybe to meet (my perception of) others' expectations of me.

I'm not even convinced veganism is better for animals anymore through its supply and demand effects, when you include the effects on wild animals (mostly wild arthropods and fish).

We should, but if that means they'll automate less than otherwise or less efficiently than otherwise, then the short-term financial incentives could outweigh the risks to companies or governments (from their perspectives), and they could push through with risky AIs, anyway.

I gave two examples of the kinds of things that could convince me that it really understands shutdown: writing malicious code and spawning copies of itself in response to prompts to resist shutdown (without hinting that those are options in any way, but perhaps asking it to do something other than just try to persuade you).

I think "autonomously prove theorems", "write entire functional apps as complex as Photoshop, could verbally explain all the consequences of being shut down and how that would impact its work" are all very consistent with just character associations.

I'd guess "fully automate the job of a lawyer" means doing more than just character associations and actually having some deeper understanding of the referents, e.g. if it's been trained to send e-mails, consult the internet, open and read documents, write documents, post things online, etc., from a general environment with access to those functions, without this looking too much like hardcoding. Then it seems to associate English language with the actual actions. This still wouldn't mean it really understood what it meant to be shut down, in particular, though. It has some understanding of the things it's doing.

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