Is intellect healthspan the problem? Would increasing neuroplasticity help?
People develop biases over their lives which will affect their work. You might call some of these biases wisdom or expertise or crystallized intelligence. Researchers develop tools and intuitions that will come to serve them well, so they’ll learn to rely on them. And then they start to rely on them too much. Is this a failure of neuroplasticity, or just something that happens when people work in a given field for a long time?
What does it mean for suffering/pleasure to be measured on a linear scale, or any other scale?
What does it mean for one pain to be twice as intense as another? Maybe, from a baseline neutral state, you would be indifferent between experiencing the less intense pain for twice as long as the more intense one?
And, if we’re using a hedonistic view of utility rather than a preference-based one, we’re already skeptical of preferences, so can we justify trusting our preferences in these hypotheticals?
More on the issue here: https://foundational-research.org/measuring-happiness-and-suffering/
I agree, but I think it goes a bit further: if preference satisfaction and subjective wellbeing (including suffering and happiness/pleasure) don’t matter in themselves for a particular nonhuman animal with the capacity for either, how can they matter in themselves for anyone at all, including any human? I think a theory that does not promote the preference satisfaction or the subjective wellbeing as an end in itself for the individual is far too implausible.
I suppose this is a statement of a special case of the equal consideration of equal interests.
However, in the linked post I took the numbers displayed by ACE in 2019, and scaled them back a few times to be conservative, so it would be tough to argue that they are over-optimistic. I also used conservative estimates of climate change charities to offset the climate impacts, and also toyed with using climate change charities to offset animal suffering by using the fungible welfare estimates (I didn’t post that part but it’s easy to replicate).
With a skeptical prior, multiplying by factors like this might not be enough. A charity could be 100s of times (or literally any number of times) less cost-effective than the EV without such a prior if the evidence is weak, and if there are negative effects with more robust evidence than the positive ones, these might come to dominate and turn your positive EV negative. From “Why we can’t take expected value estimates literally (even when they’re unbiased)”:
I have seen some using the EEV framework who can tell that their estimates seem too optimistic, so they make various “downward adjustments,” multiplying their EEV by apparently ad hoc figures (1%, 10%, 20%). What isn’t clear is whether the size of the adjustment they’re making has the correct relationship to (a) the weakness of the estimate itself (b) the strength of the prior (c) distance of the estimate from the prior. An example of how this approach can go astray can be seen in the “Pascal’s Mugging” analysis above: assigning one’s framework a 99.99% chance of being totally wrong may seem to be amply conservative, but in fact the proper Bayesian adjustment is much larger and leads to a completely different conclusion.
On the other hand, the more direct effects of abstaining from specific animal products rely largely on estimates of elasticities, which are much more robust.
Is veganism a foot in the door towards effective animal advocacy (EAA) and donation to EAA charities? Maybe it’s an easier sell than getting people to donate while remaining omnivores, because it’s easier to rationalize indifference to farmed animals if you’re still eating them.
Maybe veganism is also closer to a small daily and often public protest than turning off the lights, and as such is more likely to lead to further action later than be used as an excuse to accomplish less overall.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should push for EAs to go vegan. However, if we want the support (e.g. donations) of the wider animal protection movement, it might be better to respect their norms and go veg, especially or only if you work at an EA or EAA org or are fairly prominent in the movement. (And, the norm itself against unnecessary harm is probably actually valuable to promote in the long-term.)
Finally, in trying to promote donating to animal charities face-to-face, will people take you more or less seriously if you aren’t yourself vegan? I can see arguments each way. If you’re not vegan, then this might reduce their fear of becoming or being perceived as a hypocrite if they donate to animal charities but aren’t vegan, so they could be more likely to donate. On the other hand, they might see you as a hypocrite, and feel that if you don’t take your views seriously enough to abstain from animal products, then they don’t have to take your views seriously either.
I think if you decide what we should promote in a human for its own sake (and there could be multiple such values), then you’d need to explain why it isn’t worth promoting in nonhumans. For example, if preference satisfaction matters in itself for a human, then why does the presence or absence of a given property in another animal imply that it does not matter for that animal? For example, why would the absence of personhood, however you want to define it, mean the preferences of an animal don’t matter, if they still have preferences? In what way is personhood relevant and nonarbitrary where say skin colour is not? Like “preferences matter, but only if X”. The “but only if X” needs to be justified, or else it’s arbitrary, and anyone can put anything there.
I see personhood as binary, but also graded. You can be a person or not, and if you are one, you may have the qualities that define personhood to a greater or lesser degree.
If you’re interested in some more reading defending the case for the consideration of the interests of animals along similar lines, here are a few papers:
(I’m not disagreeing with your overall point about the emphasis on the vegan diet)
You can of course supplement, but at the cost of extra time and money—and that’s assuming that you remember to supplement. For some people who are simply bad at keeping habits—me, at least—supplementing for an important nutrient just isn’t a reliable option; I can set my mind to do it but I predictably fail to keep up with it.
One way to make this easier could be to keep your supplements next to your toothbrush, and take them around the first time you brush your teeth in a day.
I actually have most of my supplements (capsules/pills) on my desk in front of or next to my laptop. I also keep my toothbrush and toothpaste next to my desk in my room.
I would usually put creatine powder in my breakfast, but I’ve been eating breakfast at work more often lately, so I haven’t been consistent. Switching to capsules/pills would probably be a good idea.
I think you could keep your supplements under $2 a day. Some of these supplements you might want to take anyway, veg or not, too. So I don’t think you’d necessarily be spending more on a vegan diet than an omnivorous one, if you’re very concerned with cost, since plant proteins and fats are often cheaper than animal products. If you’re not that concerned with cost in the first place, then you don’t need to be that concerned with the cost of supplements.
There’s a lot that we don’t understand, including chemicals that may play a valuable health role but haven’t been properly identified as such. Therefore, in the absence of clear guidance it’s wise to defer to eating (a) a wide variety of foods, which is enhanced by including animal products, and (b) foods that we evolved to eat, which has usually included at least a small amount of meat.
You could also be bivalvegan/ostrovegan, and you don’t need to eat bivalves every day; just use them to fill in any missing unknowns in your diet, so the daily cost can be reduced even if they aren’t cheap near you. Bivalves also tend to have relatively low mercury concentrations among sea animals, and some are good sources of iron or omega-3.
Here’s a potentially useful meta-analysis of studies on food groups and all-cause mortality, but the weaknesses you’ve already pointed out still apply, of course. See Table 1, especially, and, of course, the discussions of the limitations and strength of the evidence. They also looked at processed meats separately, but I don’t think they looked at unprocessed meats separately.
Another issue with applying this meta-analysis to compare vegan and nonvegan diets, though, is that the average diet with 0 servings of beef probably has chicken in it, and possibly more than the average diet with some beef in it. Or maybe they adjusted for these kinds of effects; I haven’t looked at the methodology that closely.
unhealthy foods such as store-bought bread (with so many preservatives, flavorings etc)
Do you think it’s better to not eat any store-bought whole grain bread at all? I think there’s a lot of research to support their benefits. See also the meta-analysis I already mentioned; even a few servings of refined grains per day were associated with reduced mortality. (Of course, you need to ask what people were eating less of when they ate more refined grains.)
How bad are preservatives and flavourings?
On being ruthless, do you think we should focus on framing EA as a moral obligation instead of a mere opportunity? What about using a little shaming, like this? I think the existence of the Giving Pledge with its prominent members, and the fact that most people aren’t rich (although people in the developed world are in relative terms) could prevent this light shaming from backfiring too much.
I think the best explanation for the moral significance of humans is consciousness. Conscious individuals (and those who have been and can again be conscious) matter because what happens to them matters to them. They have preferences and positive and negative experiences.
On the other hand, (1) something that is intelligent (or has any other property) but could never be conscious doesn’t matter in itself, while (2) a human who is conscious but not intelligent (or any other property) would still matter in themself. I think most would agree with (2) here (but probably not (1)), and we can use it to defend the moral significance of nonhuman animals, because the category “human” is not in itself morally relevant.
Are you familiar with the argument from species overlap?
Unless the post has been edited, I don’t see this as necessarily question begging, although I can also see why you might think that. My reading is that the claim is assumed to be true, and the post is about how to best convince people of it (or to become more empathetic) in practice, which need not be through a logical argument. It’s not about proving the claim.
It could be that making it easier for people to avoid animal products is a way to convince them (or the next generation) of the claim. Another way might be getting them to interact with or learn more about animals and their personalities.
I think it would be a good idea to be more explicit that other considerations besides those from (i) can inform how we do (ii), since otherwise we’re committed to consequentialism.
Also, I’m being a bit pedantic, but if the maximizing course(s) of action are ruled out for nonconsequentialist reasons, then since (i) only cares about maximization, we won’t necessarily have information ranking the options that aren’t (near) maximal (we might devote most of our research to decisions we suspect might be maximal, to the neglect of others), and (ii) won’t necessarily be informed by the value of outcomes.
I won’t say I’m convinced by my own responses here, but I’ll offer them anyway.
I think B could reasonably claim that Lottery 1 is less fair to them than Lottery 2, while A could not claim that Lottery 2 is less fair to them than Lottery 1 (it benefits them less in expectation, but this is not a matter of fairness). This seems a bit clearer with the understanding that von Neumann-Morgenstern rational agents maximize expected (ex ante) utility, so an individual’s ex ante utility could matter to that individual in itself, and an ex ante view respects this. (And I think the claim that ex post prioritarianism is Pareto-suboptimal may only be meaningful in the context of vNM-rational agents; the universe doesn’t give us a way to make tradeoffs between happiness and suffering (or other values) except through individual preferences. If we’re hedonistic consequentialists, then we can’t refer to preferences or the veil of ignorance to justify classical utilitarianism over hedonistic prioritarianism.)
Furthermore, if you would imagine repeating the same lottery with the same individuals and independent probabilities over and over, you’d find in the long run, either in Lottery 1, A would benefit by 100 on average and B would benefit by 0 on average, or with Lottery 2, A would benefit by 20 on average and B would benefit by 20 on average. On these grounds, a prioritarian could reasonably prefer Lottery 2 to Lottery 1. Of course, an ex post prioritarian would come to the same conclusion if they’re allowed to consider the whole sequence of independent lotteries and aggregate each individual’s own utilities within each individual before aggregating over individuals.
(On the other hand, if you repeat Lottery 1, but swap the positions of A and B each time, then Lottery 1 benefits A by 50 on average and B by 50 on average, and this is better than Lottery 2. The utilitairan, ex ante prioritarian and ex post prioritarian would all agree.)
A similar problem is illustrated in “Decide As You Would With Full Information! An Argument Against Ex Ante Pareto” by Marc Fleurbaey & Alex Voorhoeve (I read parts of this after I wrote the post). You can check Table 1 on p.6 and the surrounding discussion. I’m changing the numbers here. EDIT: I suppose the examples can be used to illustrate the same thing (except the utilitarian preference for Lottery 1): Ex post you prefer Lottery 1 and would realize you’d made a mistake, and if you find out ahead of time exactly which outcome Lottery 2 would have given, you’d also prefer Lottery 1 and want to change your mind.
Suppose there are two diseases, SEVERE and MILD. An individual with SEVERE will have utility 10, while an individual with MILD will have utility 100. If SEVERE is treated, it will instead have utility 20, a gain of 10. If MILD is treated, it will instead have utility 120, a gain of 20.
Now, suppose there are two individuals, A and B. One will have SEVERE, and the other will have MILD. You can treat either SEVERE or MILD, but not both. Which should you treat?
1. If you know who will have SEVERE with certainty, then with a sufficiently prioritarian view, you should treat SEVERE. To see why, suppose you know A has SEVERE. Then, by treating SEVERE, the utilities would be (20, 100) for A and B, respectively, but by treating MILD, they would be (10, 120). (20, 100) is better than (10, 120) if you’re sufficiently prioritarian. Symmetrically, if you know B has SEVERE, you get (100, 20) for treating SEVERE or (120, 10) for treating MILD, and again it’s better to treat SEVERE.
2. If you think each will have SEVERE or MILD with probability 0.5 each (and one will have SEVERE and the other, MILD), then you should treat MILD. This is because the expected utility if you treat MILD is (10+120)*0.5 = 65 for each individual, while the expected utility if you treat SEVERE is (20+100)*0.5 = 60 for each individual. Treating MILD is ex ante better than treating SEVERE for each of A and B. If neither of them knows who has which, they’d both want to you treat MILD.
What’s the difference from your point of view between 1 and 2? Extra information in 1. In 1, whether you find out that A will have SEVERE or B will have SEVERE, it’s better to treat SEVERE. So, no matter which you learn is the case in reality, it’s better to treat SEVERE. But if you don’t know, it’s better to treat MILD.
So, in your ignorance, you would treat MILD, but if you found out who had SEVERE and who had MILD, no matter which way it goes, you’d realize you had made a mistake. You also know that seeking out this information of who has which ahead of time, no matter which way it goes, will cause you to change your mind about which disease to treat. EDIT: I suppose both of these statements are true of your example. Ex post you prefer Lottery 1 and would realize you’d made a mistake, and if you find out ahead of time exactly which outcome Lottery 2 would have given, you’d also prefer Lottery 1.
I agree that this feels too harsh. My first reaction to the extreme numbers would be to claim that expected values are actually not the right way to deal with uncertainty (without offering a better alternative). I think you could use a probability of 0.1 for an amazing life (even infinitely good), and I would arrive at the same conclusion: giving them little weight is too harsh. Because this remains true in my view no matter how great the value of the amazing life, I do think this is still a problem for expected values, or at least expected values applied directly to affective wellbeing.
I also do lean towards a preference-based account of wellbeing, which allows individuals to be risk-averse. Some people are just not that risk-averse, and (if something like closed individualism were true and their preferences never changed), giving greater weight to worse states is basically asserting that they are mistaken for not being more risk-averse. However, I also suspect most people wouldn’t value anything at values ≥ 3^^^^3 (or ≤ −3^^^^3, for that matter) if they were vNM-rational, and most of them are probably risk-averse to some degree.
Maybe ex ante prioritarianism makes more sense with a preference-based account of wellbeing?
Also, FWIW, it’s possible to blend ex ante and ex post views. An individual’s actual utility (treated as a random variable) and their expected utility could be combined in some way (weighted average, minimum of the two, etc.) before aggregating and taking the expected value. This seems very ad hoc, though.
Tbh, I find this fairly intuitive (under the assumption that something like closed individualism is true and cryonics would preserve identity). You can think about it like decreasing marginal value of expected utility (to compare to decreasing marginal value of income/wealth), so people who have higher EU for their lives should be given (slightly) less weight.
If they do eventually get revived, and we had spent significant resources on them, this could mean we prioritized the wrong people. We could be wrong either way.
Sorry that was unclear: I meant the subjective probabilities of the person using the ethical system (“you”) applied to everyone, not using their own subjective probabilities.
Allowing each individual to use their own subjective probabilities would be interesting, and have problems like you point out. It could respect individual autonomy further, especially for von Neumann-Morgenstern rational agents with vNM utility as our measure of wellbeing; we would rank choices for them (ignoring other individuals) exactly as they would rank these choices for themselves. However, I’m doubtful that this would make up for the issues, like the one you point out. Furthermore, many individuals don’t have subjective probabilities about most things that would be important for ethical deliberation in practical cases, including, I suspect, most people and all nonhuman animals.
Another problematic example would be healthcare professionals (policy makers, doctors, etc.) using the subjective probabilities of patients instead of subjective probabilities informed by actual research (or even their own experience as professionals).
One issue is how you decide whether a given person exists in a given history or not. For example, if I had been born with a different hair color, would I be the same person? Maybe. How about a different personality? At what point do “I” stop existing and someone else starts existing? I guess similar issues bedevil the question of whether a person stays the same person over time, though there we can also use spatiotemporal continuity to help maintain personal identity.
Here are some interesting examples I thought of. If I rearranged someone’s brain cells (and maybe atoms) to basically make a (possibly) completely different brain structure with (possibly) completely different memories and personality, should we consider these different individuals? Consider the following cases:
1. What if all brain function stops, I rearrange their brain, and then brain function starts again?
2. What if all brain function stops, I rearrange their brain to have the same structure (and memories and personality), but with each atom/cell in a completely different area from where it started, and then brain function starts again?
3. What if all brain function stops, the cells and atoms move or change as they naturally would without my intervention, and then brain function starts again?
To me, 1 clearly brings about a completely different individual, and unless we’re willing to say that two physically separate people with the same brain structure, memories and personality are actually one individual, I think 2 should also bring about a completely different individual. 3 only really differs from 1 and 2 only by degree of change, so I think it should also bring about a completely different individual, too.
What this tells me is that if we’re going to use some kind of continuity to track identity at all, it should also include continuity of conscious experiences. Then we have to ask:
Are there frequent (e.g. daily) discontinuities or breaks in a person’s conscious experiences?
Whether there are or not, should our theory of identity even depend on this fact? If it happened to be the case that sleep involved such discontinuities/breaks and people woke up as completely different individuals, would our theory of identity be satisfactory?
Maybe a way around this is to claim that there are continuous degrees of identification between a person at different moments in their life, e.g. me now and me in a week are only 99% the same individual. I’m not sure how we could do ethical calculus with this, though.
If I understand the view correctly, it would say that a world where everyone has a 49.99% chance of experiencing pain with utility of −10^1000 and a 50.01% chance of experiencing pleasure with utility of 10^1000 is fine, but as soon as anyone’s probability of the pain goes above 50%, things start to become very worrisome (assuming the prioritarian weighting function cares a lot more about negative than positive values)?
Yes, although it’s possible that a single individual even having a 100% possibility of pain might not outweigh the pleasure of the others, if the number of other individuals is large enough and the social welfare function is sufficiently continuous and “additive”, e.g. it takes the form S(V)=∑i:vi∈Vf(vi) for f:R→R strictly increasing everywhere.
What probability distribution are the expectations taken with respect to? If you were God and knew everything that would happen, there would be no uncertainty (except maybe due to quantum randomness depending on one’s view about that). If there’s no randomness, I think ex ante prioritarianism collapses to regular prioritarianism.
I intended for your own subjective probability distribution to be used, but what you say here leads to some more weird examples (besides collapsing to regular prioritarianism (possibly while aggregating actual utilities over each individual first before aggregating across them)):
I’ve played a board game where the player who gets to go first is the one who has the pointiest ears. The value of this outcome would be different if you knew ahead of time who this would be compared to if you didn’t. In particular, if there’s were morally significant tradeoff between utilities, then this rule could be better or worse than a more (subjectively) random choice, depending on whether the worse off players are expected to benefit more or less. Of course, a random selection could be better or worse than one whose actual outcome you know in advance for utilitarians, but there are some differences.
For ex ante prioritarianism, this is also the case before and after you would realize the outcome of the rolls of dice or coin flips; once you realize what the outcome of the random selection is, it’s no longer random, and the value of following through with it changes. In particular, if each person had the same wellbeing before the rolls of the dice and stood to gain or lose the same amount if they won (regardless of the selection process), then random selection would be optimal and better than any fixed selection with whose outcome you know in advance, but once you know the outcome of the random selection process, before you apply it, it reduces to using any particular rule whose outcome you know in advance.
Yes, I think it’s basically the same issue. If we can use something like spatiotemporal continuity (I am doubtful that this can be made precise and coherent enough in a way that’s very plausible), then we could start before a person is even conceived. Right before conception, the sperm cells and ova could be used to determine the identities of the potential future people. Before the sperm cell used in conception even exists, you could imagine two sperm cells with different physical (spatiotemporal) origins in different outcomes that happen to carry the same genetic information, and you might consider the outcomes in which one is used to have a different person than the outcomes in which the the other is. Of course, you might have to divide up these two groups of outcomes further still. For example, you wouldn’t want to treat identical twins as a single individual, even if they originated from some common group of cells.
I think this is a good place to start, although not written by Brian:
There’s ongoing sickening cruelty: violent child pornography, chickens are boiled alive, and so on. We should help these victims and prevent such suffering, rather than focus on ensuring that many individuals come into existence in the future. When spending resources on increasing the number of beings instead of preventing extreme suffering, one is essentially saying to the victims: “I could have helped you, but I didn’t, because I think it’s more important that individuals are brought into existence. Sorry.” (See this essay for a longer case for suffering-focused ethics.)
What’s more, stipulating preferences can/must be laundered is also borderline inconsistent with subjectivism: if you tell me that some of my preferences doesn’t count towards my well-being because they ‘irrational’ you don’t seem to be respecting the view that my well-being consists in whatever I say it does.
I don’t think this need be the case, since we can have preferences that are mutually exclusive in their satisfaction, and having such preferences means we can’t be maximally satisfied. So, if the mathematician’s preference upon reflection is to not count blades of grass (and do something else) but they have the urge to do so, at least one of these two preferences will go unsatisfied, which detracts from their wellbeing.
However, this on its own wouldn’t tell us the mathematician is better off not counting blades of grass, and if we did always prioritize rational preferences over irrational ones, or preferences about preferences over the preferences to which they refer, then it would be as if the irrational/lower preferences count for nothing, as you suggest.
On the experience machine, this only helps preference satisfactionists, not life satisfactionist: I could plug you into the experience machine such that you judged yourself to be maximally satisfied with your life. If well-being just consists in judging one’s life is going well, it doesn’t matter how you come to that judgement.
I agree, although it also doesn’t help preference satisfactionists who only count preference satisfaction/frustration when it’s experienced consciously, and it might also not help them if we’re allowed to change your preferences, since having easier preferences to satisfy might outweigh the preference frustration that would result from having your old preferences replaced by and ignored for the new preferences.
I think the involuntary experience machine and wireheading are problems for all the consequentialist theories with which I’m familiar (at least under the assumption of something like closed individualism, which I actually find to be unlikely).