Thursday, February 10, 2022

Guest Post: Animal Population Ethics

Evan Dawson-Baglien wrote to me with some interesting thoughts on the challenge of incorporating non-persons into (non-total views of) population ethics. I asked him if he'd be willing to compose and share his thoughts as a guest post, and he generously agreed. Here's the result. Enjoy!

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Most people have a very strong moral intuition that people are not replaceable. This intuition is usually grounded in our unique personal identities and future-oriented desires.  Animals, which likely lack these features, are often regarded as more replaceable than human beings. Richard succinctly states this idea in his post “When Death Doesn’t Harm You:”

It is good to have chicken-pleasure in the world. But it doesn't much matter which chickens have it. If some die and are replaced by others which go on to have just as pleasant an experience, this change makes no moral difference.

People are not replaceable in this sense, due to their persisting identities and future-regarding desires… So when one person dies and is "replaced" with another, something is lost that has no analogue in cases of chicken-replacement.

This argument is consequentialist, not deontological.  Someone’s “replacement” is bad whether it happens naturally or through human agency.  It is not infinitely bad, it may be outweighed by other factors. It seems wrong, for example, to sterilize humanity to extend one person’s life by one day. Rather, the argument is that something important has been lost in the replacement, and appropriate disvalue must be assigned to that loss.

This argument is persuasive, but is difficult to convert into population ethics. I will explore ways to modify theories of population ethics to account for the central moral intuition of nonreplaceability. I will use terms from population ethics, Richard’s introduction to the subject defines them in detail.

1.      Standard Critical Range Utilitarianism. Of the existing theories, this one accommodates intuitions about replaceability the best.  In order for the “mere addition” of a new person to be good their level of welfare must significantly exceed the “barely worth living” level. This means that someone with welfare level X is not morally equivalent to two people with welfare level 0.5X.

However, this theory would likely treat most animal life on Earth as “meh.” If lower animals are disconnected “moments” of consciousness, it is unlikely that any “moments” will surpass the critical range. If the lower bound of the range is set near zero, which should be done anyway to avoid the Sadistic Conclusion, the existence of animals at least doesn’t generate a counterintuitively large amount of disvalue. However, this theory implies that a world of happy lower animals is “on a par” with an empty one. Can we do better?

2.     Critical Range Utilitarianism with Differing Critical Ranges: When discussing replaceability, Peter Singer considered treating preferences as “debts” that are “paid” when they are satisfied. This framework makes people nonreplaceable, but implausibly suggests that a person’s existence can never be better than neutral.  However, it can be improved. Instead of treating the creation of people/preferences as “debts,” we could instead treat them as “investments.”

Creating a new person/preference creates an initial “debt,” but that debt can “pay off” later by generating greater value when the person has a flourishing life/the preference is satisfied.  Creatures with persisting identities/future-oriented preferences such as humans produces the largest initial “debt,” but also the largest “payoff” later.  This means that replacement of people generates twice as much “debt” for the same “payoff.”  Creating simpler creatures with simpler desires generates much less “debt,” making them more “replaceable.” But it also a produces a much smaller “payoff” of value, so humans cannot easily be replaced by animals either.

This framework easily translates into critical level/range utilitarianism.  The “debt” is the critical level or the upper bound of the critical range. The “value blur” in the critical range could be modeled as uncertainty/pluralism about the size of the “debt,” or tension between respecting value versus promoting it. This reflects moral intuitions about replaceability without declaring all of animal life to be “meh,” but has a few problems. It may suggest that the Repugnant Conclusion holds true for some animals.  It gives initially counterintuitive results when comparing populations with different critical levels. Most seriously, it might overvalue creating animals over creating people. Likely people generate sufficiently more value than animals once they surpass “critical level” that this isn’t an issue. But perhaps we can do even better:

3.      Critical Range Utilitarianism with Fractional Critical Ranges:  This theory refines the previous one. If animals have no individual identity, we could assign critical levels to portions of their psyche. For example, we could assign a critical level to “satisfaction of animal desires” or some other identity-less measure of animal flourishing.  While each “unit” of animal welfare would have a lower critical range than a person, a lifetimes’ worth of them might have a similar aggregate range. If calibrated correctly this could alleviate both the Animal Repugnant Conclusion and the problem of undervaluing humans.

4.      Average Utilitarianism with Fractional Denominators: Average utilitarianism could count creatures without personal identities as fractions of lives. When adding them to the denominator to determine the average, it could count them as “0.1,” “0.0001,” or some other number instead of “1.” 

5.      Fractional Variable Value Utilitarianism:  Variable value utilitarianism acts like total utilitarianism for small populations and like average utilitarianism for large ones.  It could be modified to act like one of the critical range theories discussed earlier when the population is small, and like average utilitarianism with fractional denominators when it is large.

6.      Standard Critical Range Utilitarianism plus a nonwelfarist value of “Humans Living with Nature:” This theory assigns some nonwelfarist value to preserving nature world that, under some circumstances, would overcome the “value blur.” If this value includes people and animals happily coexisting, we could assign positive value to animal lives without concluding that a huge world of only happy animals is better than one that contains both animals and people.  This fits common moral intuitions about the value of nature. Most people want to preserve biodiversity, not just the species most capable of happiness.

Each of these ideas could be expanded on or modified further.  However, they demonstrate that it is possible to incorporate moral intuitions about replaceability into the field of population ethics.  

- Evan Dawson-Baglien


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