My name is Ren, and my pronouns are they/them. I work as a Research Scientist at Animal Ask.
My work focuses on animal advocacy. I have experience in ecology, fisheries science, and statistics from my time in academia and government. I’m also personally interested in a wide range of other cause areas, particularly around politics and social justice.
My name is Ren, and my pronouns are they/them. I work as a Research Scientist at Animal Ask.
Thanks for sharing this. It sounds like you found childbirth to be qualitatively more awful than your other experiences? I definitely agree with one of your takeaways—the fact that some experiences have been rates as even worse than this on the pain scale, for me, serves as a very strong motivation to reduce suffering in any way I can.
(I did ask around a fair bit before posting this article, and got the opinions of a number of people close to me who have gone through different painful experiences, both acute and chronic, many of which are mentioned on the pain scale graph. This is part of why I point out that the PRI scores I report aren’t supposed to be taken as scientific or literal, emphasise that it’s n=1, I’m untrained, definitely only moderate level, etc. But it does reinforce my point, which is basically “wow, all I did was mess around with a tattoo gun for an afternoon and it was this bad, that’s all the more reason to do as much as we can to prevent others from experiencing actual pain.”)
I mostly agree with what you’ve said, and I think that your view and my view are pretty much consistent. My main message isn’t really “physical pain is worse than other types of suffering”, rather: “I found even moderate physical pain to be really, really awful, which suggests that it’s probably really, really morally urgent to prevent both extreme physical pain and other types of extreme suffering”.
The hedonistic focus probably arose from the fact that I can subject myself to physical pain quite easily, but less so other types of suffering. I mention this in the limitations section.
Sure, makes sense. Thanks for your reply.
If I wanted to prove or support the claim:
“given the choice between preventing extreme suffering and giving people more [pleasure/happiness/tranquility/truth], we should pick the latter option”
How would you recommend I go about proving or supporting that claim? I’d be keen to read or experience the strongest possible evidence for that claim. I’ve read a fair bit about pleasure and happiness, but for the other, less-tangible values (tranquility and truth) I’m less familiar with any arguments.
It would be a major update for me if I found evidence strong enough to convince me that giving people more tranquility and truth (and pleasure and happiness in any practical setting, under which I include many forms of longtermism) could be good enough to forego preventing extreme suffering. This would have major implications for my current work and my future directions, so I would like to understand this view as well as I can in case I’m wrong and therefore missing out on something important.
I’m happy to consider this further if there are people who would find value in the outcome (particularly if there are people who would change decisions based on the outcome). I think it would be tractable to design something safe and legal, whether through psychedelics or some other tool.
Ah I wasn’t aware Schmidt had recently died. That’s a shame, he must have died after I wrote the first draft of this article. I read his book (The Sting of the Wild) which helped inform this article. Thanks for sharing this, I’ll read the obituary.
I think this is a fair point, if you believe that pleasure can outweigh really awful suffering in practice. I do not currently believe this, for all practical purposes. Basically, my position is that these other human values—while somewhat valuable—are simply trivial in the face of the really awful suffering that is very common in our world.
Do you know of any ways I could experimentally expose myself to extreme amounts of pleasure, happiness, tranquility, and truth?
I’d be willing to expose myself to whatever you suggest, plus extreme suffering, to see if this changes my mind. Or we can work together to design a different experimental setup if you think that would produce better evidence.
Thanks for your positive feedback :)
I haven’t thought too hard about specific charities. Since I work for a relatively young charity startup, I don’t take a very high salary and it wouldn’t make sense to increase my salary just to donate.
If I had a large amount of money to donate, I’d probably pick an animal advocacy charity with a strong, well-backed theory of change that focuses on reforms that a) are large-scale and b) prevent high-intensity suffering. Examples of this might include charities working on cage-free hen reforms, the Better Chicken Commitment, or fish slaughter reform. I suspect Fish Welfare Initiative and Shrimp Welfare Project would also fare well from this perspective.
I haven’t researched this question specifically, so there’s a good chance my specific interventions/charities would change with further consideration.
Since my day job is in animal advocacy, I’m less informed about human charities. Other people probably have better-informed opinions on human charities for preventing extreme suffering than I could. A fair few people have written on the EA Forum about the importance of preventing extreme suffering, so those people might have some well-informed recommendations.
Yes this should probably say “Hurtful”. In my personal interpretation of the PainTrack categories, doing a day of work would only really be possible at “Hurtful” or less.
They felt awful, but I kept going with them voluntarily (albeit with some breaks). Under the definition of Excruciating-level pain, that would typically be impossible: “the threshold of pain under which many people choose to take their lives rather than endure the pain”. So, there is no way that pain could be Excruciating-level, even though it hurt really bad.
Reminding myself just how awful pain can get (plus, an experiment on myself)
Thanks a lot for this post. I think it’s really great to inform this debate with new data and a clever framework, as you’ve done—it’s a useful contribution, and I hope similar experiments get conducted in other contexts.
Not directly related to this article, but I have a few broad thoughts on this general topic:
When I began working in animal advocacy, I was definitely on the abolitionist end of the spectrum. Since then, I’ve developed a much more diversified view. In general, the debate between abolitionism vs welfarism a) is very speculative, in that we have limited data to go on; and b) will profoundly affect the lives of millions or billions of animals living in extreme suffering. I think these are great reasons to have humility in either position.
Even if we never abolish animal exploitation (which I dearly hope we do), welfare reforms can bring about major improvements in farmed animals’ lives. For example, Saulius’s comment here briefly shows how much suffering can be reduced by corporate campaigns on broiler chickens. I’m doing similar work at the moment, and I’ve arrived at similar findings to those of Saulius.
I’ve also enjoyed these two sources on this topic, which caused major updates in my thinking:
I wrote the article on reducing catch shares, and just wanted to comment saying that I strongly agree with Saulius’s analysis here.
Currently, implementing humane slaughter for wild-caught fish seems like a slam dunk.
Currently, reducing the catch of wild fish seems extremely ambiguous. My catch share article mostly concluded with “we should do more research on this to reduce these uncertainties”. I also wrote a later article about subsidies—abolishing fisheries subsidies seems like a fairly easy way to reduce the catch. But in many cases, it would cause the population size of the target fish population to increase, causing more deaths by fishing over time even if effort remains low. (Plus, the effects on other wild animals...)
So I strongly agree with Saulius that:
Humane slaughter seems fantastic, and
We probably shouldn’t try to reduce the fish catch yet because we don’t know if it’s good or bad—though I do believe that dedicated research could quite readily make substantial progress on this question.
Thanks, I’ve changed the language to make it clearer (possibly my Aussie vernacular getting the better of me)
Five tools that make our research lives easier
The consequences on the welfare of all affected wild animals seem nearly impossible to determine, even with a lot of research. Also, research in one ecosystem might not generalize to other ecosystems.
However, this is the same as the concern of cluelessness that applies to all causes. To me, cluelessness seems a bigger problem in WAW because first-order effects are usually dwarfed by second and third-order effects. For example, vaccinations may increase the population of that species, which could be bad if their lives are still full of suffering. But overall, I’m confused about cluelessness.
I wanted to emphasise this point and how important I think it is. I feel that cluelessness about the effects of wild animal interventions (particularly as it relates to wild animal population dynamics) is one of the most important topics in EA that could be resolved by further research.
Cluelessness about wild animals comes up a lot even in my research on farmed animals—e.g. the effects of reducing meat consumption on fish caught for fishmeal, or the effects of reducing fisheries subsidies on wild fish and other wild animals.
These dynamics are extremely non-intuitive (e.g. catching fewer fish does weirdly seem bad for fish in many contexts under some philosophical views). And they’re strongly context-dependent. But with some dedicated research in ecological modelling and experimental ecology, I do think that we could make substantial progress on understanding this topic.
Longtermism and animals: Resources + join our Discord community!
But what if we stopped putting the community on a pedestal? It’s kind of disorienting, but it might be freeing, as we could individually embrace the ideas of EA without feeling the need to defend the EA movement as much.
This is well-expressed, and puts into words something I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately. One person’s answer to the question “How do we do the most good?” does not always have to mean being deeply involved with other members of the community who are trying to answer that same question.
Thanks, this is a super useful article.
In case readers of this article are interested: we recently completed a collaboration with Animal Welfare Competence Centre for Africa, a new charity based in Uganda. Our recommendations centred on both welfare reforms and limiting the spread of industrialised farming practices. Our write-up is available here: https://www.animalask.org/post/farmed-animal-advocacy-in-uganda
Currently, we (Animal Ask) are also doing some research on the trajectory of animal agriculture in developing countries and how moldable it is, as the author mentions.
This is exciting to see. I definitely agree—sometimes getting your foot in the door, either at the local level or with a more limited version of the policy, can let you expand the policy later when people have seen the benefit. And your scorecard approach is similar to what Australian Alliance for Animals has recently done: https://www.allianceforanimals.org.au/victorian-election-2022
Thanks everybody for the discussion on this post. I’m glad to see it has inspired some thought and debate, and that other people are sharing their experiences.
I’ve reached my limit for engaging with these comments, so now I need to return to my main tasks (doing my best to prevent suffering + self-care) and I won’t reply to future comments (but happy to correct objective errors). Thanks again everyone.