Update on my blog, podcast and Youtube channel

I’ve been a little quiet in the last few months as I’m in the final steps of completing my PhD. I’m finalising my thesis as we speak, and should be submitting it within the next month or two. Once I do, I’m excited to get back to making more blog posts and Youtube videos, and rebooting the Morality is Hard podcast.

I just want to thank everyone for their support so far. I recently hit 550 subscribers on Youtube, which is just incredible. My video on why I will never have children has reached 6,600 views, which makes it by far the most viewed piece of content I have ever made (more views than my thesis will likely ever reach, sadly!). Message received – antinatalism is a topic of interest to many of you. I will be doing more on this in the future. I have been overwhelmed by your support, and it’s clear that many people feel alone in their views on this – surrounded by a society where breeding is seen as the norm, and anything else is seen as odd.

In other plans, I will be doing a collaboration video on antinatalism in the near future, and I have some other collaborations lined up with other Youtubers to talk about ethics and philosophy. You can expect some videos on my research from my PhD, including the pros and cons of developing space technology, off-Earth mining and space colonisation. If you have any topics you’re burning for me to cover, please do let me know.

Thank you.

Preparing for the unimaginable

How can we predict and prepare for unexpected events that we may not have even thought of yet?

I gave a talk on some of the work I do as part of my PhD and discuss how we can predict and prepare for unexpected events known as black swans.

Thanks to UNSW and the UNSOMNIA team for helping me put this together!

If anything positive comes out of COVID19, I hope it’s that we will have better disease control protocols and public health around the world – but also that we might use this unexpected event to think about how we can prepare for future unprecedented events.

See my talk “Preparing for the unimaginable” online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzDE2UJ8ufM

On the relationship between a parent and a child

I made a similar point in a video a few weeks ago, but I want to reiterate and expand upon it for two reasons. One, this is so prevalent in most (possibly all?) societies, and two, it’s extremely toxic and harmful.

Consider the relationship between a human and their biological child. Many people would agree that this child should be extra respectful and subservient to their parent, to a point that would seem deeply questionable if you were to propose this relationship between any two other humans. In some ways, and to an extent, there are some valid reasons for this.

At a certain age, a child is not able to make informed decisions for themselves. For example, a 6 year old’s opinion on what to have for dinner shouldn’t matter as much as their parent’s opinion. But if this is the rationale, then naturally it should stop applying at a certain age. Many countries start granting people ‘adulthood rights’ from the ages of around 16-21. I’ve always thought these ages were fairly arbitrary, but let’s take 21 for sake of argument. At 21 years of age, a child’s opinion on most topics should matter as much as their parent’s, because they are both independent, sentient adults.

If a person is legally and morally recognised as being able to make their own choices about alcohol, property ownership, sexual relations and everything in between, then it surely doesn’t make sense anymore for their views on things like preferences and moral values to be valued less than the views of their parents, in both the eyes of their parents and society. Of course there will still be some exceptions on opinions about factual matters where the parent might be more informed, but by the age of 21, there will naturally be some factual matters that the child is more informed on. Their view on those matters should get more weighting than their parents. But typically, they don’t.

Some common excuses used by parents to extend this subservient relationship longer than it could be reasonably argued that it should include ‘but I own the house you live in’, ‘but I pay the bills’, ‘but you’ve had a good life’, ‘but I raised you’. In what way are any of these things relevant to the way in which one should treat another living, sentient human? None of these provide any justification for mistreating another human.

To take the antinatalist approach, no child asked their parent to be born. In most cases, two humans made the decision to bring another human in to existence. When they make this decision, they should surely be responsible for their wellbeing. Anything less than a good life, within reason of the parent’s control, is wrong. And so the above examples aren’t justifications for anything, because they are the bare minimum for what should be expected of a parent.

Can you imagine this justification being used in any other scenario? For example, ‘it’s ok that I treat my spouse less than perfect in some cases, because I own the house they live in and gave them a good life’. The fact that a human happens to be the biological child of someone stops being relevant at the legal adult age, and possibly earlier (or maybe later), since I don’t trust governments to have coincidentally all arrived at roughly the best age for this.

So what’s the ideal outcome? People should be seen as being on the same level as their parents once they reach a certain age in almost all aspects. Parents should not see themselves as somehow higher, more deserving of respect or anything else from their child than the reverse. It makes no sense for a child to respect their parent more than the parent respects their child.

We live in a society where people think that one should respect their parents beyond how much they respect other adults of the same age. Many justifications for this are similar to those I’ve mentioned above. But as I also said above, these are the bare minimum for how children should be treated by their parents anyway, so why should it be seen as making someone more worthy of respect?

To go back to the point about children not asking to be born – (granted my view might deviate a little here from some other antinatalists, as I’m glad that I was born and exist, however, this isn’t relevant to the point I’m about to make) Having a child without their consent and expecting them to be subservient to you for even 21 years, let alone their whole lives, is deeply ethically questionable. You are creating a power situation that ultimately benefits you. It may benefit the child as well, but it may not, and in general I don’t think you can justifiably set up a power relationship that benefits you with any other human just because it might benefit the other individual.

Let’s start seeing children as their own independent sentient entity that is worthy of just as much respect and wellbeing as their parents are.

A 2 metre asteroid has a 0.5% chance of hitting Earth this year

A 2 metre wide asteroid has a 1 in 200 chance of entering Earth’s atmosphere on November 2 this year. The most likely scenario is that it will blow up in the atmosphere, causing some damage at the surface.

The Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded over Russia in 2013 caused ~1,491 human injuries and some property damage (mostly shattered windows). This was 20 m wide, so we can expect less damage than that, but still some kind of damage.

There’s not much we can do about it now except monitor it to better understand up the impact probability, and where it would hit if it did.

Segue – Look at the headline and first paragraph of this Channel 7 News article.

“Astrophysicist weighs in on asteroid zooming towards earth” sounds scary, and “The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is monitoring an asteroid that appears to be on a direct collision course with earth.” sounds like we’re a bit fucked.

Asteroid impacts are no laughing matter, and I think we should be more worried about them in general than most of the public is (you’re more likely to be killed by an asteroid than a shark), but this kind of click/scarebait in news is frustrating.

News outlets are barely held accountable for misleading or false information, let alone clickbait, and that needs to change.

Stop saying ex-vegans were definitely never vegan

This post is prompted by the recent news that Miley Cyrus is no longer vegan, which she revealed on Joe Rogan’s podcast, but is a response to the consistent trend I see of people claiming that a vegan who stops being vegan was never a vegan to begin with. I want to talk about why that doesn’t make sense.

Let’s clarify the claim people are making. It goes something like:

If someone seems to be an ethical vegan (vegan because they think animal exploitation and/or suffering is wrong), but at some point in the future they start eating animal products again, then they were never an ethical vegan to begin with, they were just plant-based (meaning they didn’t eat animal products but were never an ethical vegan).

First, I don’t think this is how human minds work. We are not perfect rational actors, and we do weird things that don’t make sense all the time. We also change our minds a lot. I think it is absolutely possible for someone to fully believe that purchasing animal products is wrong, and to later change their mind on that. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s possible to change your mind in the opposite direction (indeed, that’s how most of us became vegan). It might seem unfathomable to me to consume animal products for pleasure again, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible.

Someone told me that they would die before eating animal products again. I note that Cyrus said something similar. If someone says that they would die before being friends with someone of another race, but then they reject their racist ways, does that mean they were never really racist, or has their character changed?

Misinformation, pressure and a lot of other factors lead well meaning people to think and do some strange things which are against their prior values and beliefs.

I don’t know the specifics behind Cyrus’ backflip, and to be honest I don’t care, but it seems disingenuous to say that she was definitely never vegan. Maybe she actually was never an ethical vegan, and only promoted ethical vegan and animal rights messages because it suited her image. But to say this is definitely the case without proof doesn’t make sense.

Let’s say it’s impossible for someone to be an ethical vegan for 10 years and then start eating animal products again. If that were the case, there would have to be a way to tell whether someone is plant-based, not just vegan, in a way that doesn’t require the retrospective judgement. To put that another way, how can you tell that a current ‘ethical vegan’ is actually just plant-based, if they haven’t started eating animal products again?

What’s the effect of the vegan community thinking that all ex-vegans were never really vegan to begin with? I have no idea. Maybe it makes the community look dogmatic and off-putting, or maybe it encourages people to not change their mind. But I know that it just doesn’t make sense, unless there is something I’m missing.

Preparing for the unimaginable

How can we predict and prepare for unexpected events that we may not have even thought of yet?

I gave a talk on some of the work I do as part of my PhD and discuss how we can predict and prepare for unexpected events known as black swans.

Thanks to UNSW and the UNSOMNIA team for helping me put this together!

“Do you lie awake at night worrying about volcano eruptions, asteroid impacts, global pandemics, evil robots, or nuclear warfare? Have you spared a moment to consider that there might be existential threats humans can’t even imagine? If anything positive comes out of COVID-19, it’s that we will have better disease control protocols and public health around the world – but also that we might use this unexpected event to think about how we can prepare for future unprecedented events. What can we do today to prepare for the unimaginable?”


On violence as a means of social change

A video version of this post is available here.

A few days ago a Han (the main ethnic group in China) Chinese citizen, Li Wei, armed with a rifle took 14 Han’s hostage on a bus in the Xinshi District, Ürümqi, west China. Li Wei was demanding justice for the Uyghur people, a Turkic ethnic group in a region of west China that was invaded by China in around 1750 following a decade long war (and culminating in an attempted genocide of some of the regions’ ethnic groups).

Today, the Uyghurs remain an exploited minority to an extent that I’m sure most people would find horrifying, and some people might even be genuinely surprised is happening in our modern world (I certainly was a few years ago). Today, Uyghurs are being forcibly removed from their homeland and sent to east China to work in factories against their will, among other atrocities.

The hostage situation played out for 12 hours, and ended when the hostages demand was met. After a 15 minute phone call between Li Wei and Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping made a public and international statement that the country’s treatment of the Uyghur people was wrong. Li Wei then turned himself in to the authorities without physically harming anyone.

How do you feel about this? It remains to be seen, but Li Wei may have created some meaningful change for Uyghurs. However, they did it through the threat of violence. Should we never use violence, or should we consider it in the face of extreme oppression? I will point out that, while the 14 hostages were innocent, they were also complicit in the treatment of the Uyghur people. There are some indications that they worked at a factory where Uyghurs are exploited and that’s why they were targeted, but I can’t verify this. But supposing they were indirectly causing the suffering of the Uyghurs, would this then be acceptable?

I want you to really contemplate how you feel right now, and capture this. I’m about to make a point.

I made up some of this story. The plight of the Uyghur people is entirely real and entirely horrific. However, the hostage situation a few days ago was not in China, it was in Ukraine’s western city of Lutsk. 13 people were taken hostage at gunpoint by a man who released them and turned himself in after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy publicly urged Ukrainians to watch Earthlings, a documentary from 2005 with footage of the cruel exploitation of non-humans in the agriculture industry.

How do you feel about this now? I’m trying to make a point, but I’m also genuinely curious. Please consider sharing your thoughts. Do you feel any different about the use of violence in this situation? If so, why do you think that is?

I want to be clear that I’m not condoning the use of violence for social change. However, I have the impression that many people are supportive of violence to end human on human oppression (we’d call them freedom fighters), but not to end human on non-human oppression (we’d call them terrorists). There are possibly some valid reasons for this difference, and some non-valid reasons.

The simple fact that the victims are not human is not a valid reason. Non-human animals feel pain just as we do, and their exploitation and suffering should be seen as also tragic. Indeed, the scale of farmed animal suffering today is greater than the suffering of human-caused human suffering today. Someone might claim that they don’t care about non-humans as much as humans, just as someone might claim they don’t care about Uyghurs as much as non-Uyghurs, but is this an opinion we should value? Or should we just say they are wrong, and that their suffering is still bad?

One of several plausibly valid reasons for having a different position on the violence used for non-human and human freedom is that we are just at different stages of progress for both. Many people see human oppression as wrong, but many people see non-human exploitation as acceptable. If it is the case that, because of this difference, violence for the benefit of non-humans backfires and harms the movement/victims rather than benefits them, this is an important difference.

I honestly don’t know if this has happened here in Lutsk. I genuinely think anyone who claims they know whether this was positive or harmful for animals at this point is lying. But I absolutely accept that well-intended actions don’t always have good consequences, and that we can’t just do things ‘for the animals’ and think that’s good enough. But I do think that if it is possible for violence used against oppressors to have a net positive outcome (as some people would say), then it should be possible for violence used against oppressors to have a net positive outcome.

If you think that violence is just unacceptable for ending exploitation of non-humans as a rule, consider whether you would have held the same position regarding aggressors in Nazi Germany, or in slave-holding USA. If these don’t do it for you, it surely can’t be difficult to construct a realistic scenario where, if you are consistent in your logic, you shouldn’t support violence for ending the exploitation of humans in a place where the majority of people support the exploitation, or are at least entirely complicit. Perhaps, say, in western China.

Comments on Sam Harris’ interview with Future of Life Institute

I finally got around to listening to Sam Harris’ interview with Lucas Perry on the Future of Life Institute podcast. Overall I thought it was pretty good. I didn’t personally update on or learn much, but I enjoy listening to conversations about reducing suffering, the far future and existential/catastrophic risk.

Conversations they touched on include global priorities, existential risk, wild and farmed animal suffering, global poverty, artificial general intelligence risk and AI alignment and ethics/moral realism.

I agreed with most of what Sam said, so I won’t touch on that. I also felt like this particular instance of Sam explaining his version of moral realism to be the most clear explanation I’ve heard from him, so it’s worth catching the last 20 odd minutes for that. There were a few things however that I disagreed with Sam on, and want to briefly share why.

First is the intuition he has that there is an asymmetry between suffering and pleasure. He’s not talking about the asymmetry of the asymmetry argument put forth by David Benatar, but rather that the worst possible suffering that we could experience seems worse than the best possible pleasure we could experience could be good. To put it another way, Sam says that if you could choose to get an hour of the most blissful possible experience, followed by an hour of the most painful possible experience, most people, following their intuition, would say ‘no thanks’.

But this is just an intuition, and our intuitions aren’t always right, even when they are about our preferences. I might think that I would prefer some experience over another, but I could very well be wrong about which would actually bring me the most joy. I think it’s possible that the worst suffering could be more bad than the best pleasure is good, but I don’t take it for granted. It could be the opposite.

We can’t yet imagine just how good the best possible pleasure could be. We might be biased towards thinking suffering is worse because nature tends to make us more suffering focused through evolution (see the wild-animal suffering argument), but it needn’t be that way forever. We could hack our minds or biology as David Pearce suggests to experience less suffering and more pleasure.

Also, when ones’ life is pretty good, one might think that the 1 hour of pain followed by 1 hour of pleasure is not a trade off worth making, and maybe even for good reason – if your life is already net positive, this would be a net bad trade off. Someone experiencing unimaginable chronic pain through some disease might feel differently.

The second thing I disagreed with Sam on was his position on veganism. In particular, his position on children being vegan. He said that it was effectively a longitudinal experiment on their health that we don’t yet know the outcome of. To the extent that nutrition is by its nature a difficult science, and that we can never be completely sure of the effect of various changes to our diet on long term health, I agree.

However, we don’t completely understand the long term health outcomes of consuming animal products either. This has certainly been the status quo in western culture, but it’s not inherently obvious that the status quo is good. The unknown could be bad, or it could be good. You can have an unhealthy vegan diet, and you can have an unhealthy non-vegan diet. The pressures that parents have to not harm their children through nutrition remain the same. We hear about malnourished vegan children in the media more because of the sensationalist media bias and confirmation bias – we don’t pay attention to the hundreds of malnourished non-vegan kids because they’re either not reported or their ‘veganness’ doesn’t come in to the reporting.

Finally, some words to Sam himself. Sam you’re not a child, and yet you’re not vegan. You admit to all of the moral shortcomings of animal agriculture, and yet you partake in it. Surely if there is a peak in the moral landscape we are working our way towards, you eating animal products is not helping us get there, indeed it might be moving us away. You have even more of a responsibility to be vegan given your follower-base. You being vegan could encourage thousands of others to follow suit.

The relationship between atheism and veganism

In many ways, atheism and veganism are similar. They are both about rejecting traditions that don’t make sense, valuing the truth and being ethical.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on a video with Pat Bateman (That Vegan Lawyer) on the links and similarities between veganism and atheism. We talked about the overlap between the demographics, and why both are fundamentally about valuing what is true and what is ethically right.

I drew pretty heavily on Kim Socha’s book Animal Liberation and Atheism which I highly recommend for anyone interested in learning more about the overlap.


Burnside Council Votes Against Fur Ban – My Speech and Thoughts

Last night, Burnside Council voted on a motion to ban the sales of fur at events on council land. I gave a speech to council in support of this motion. The council voted against this motion 10 votes to 2. This is truly disappointing. In this video, I read the speech I gave to council, and voice some concerns I have with the content of the council debate.

This set back to the campaign had me frustrated, but I won’t let it slow me down, and I will never stop fighting for animals (humans and non-humans alike).