Thoughts about Yew-Kwang Ng

I really enjoyed this 80,000 Hours podcast interview with Yew-Kwang Ng. His views around utilitarianism and moral realism are very similar to mine. That is – suffering and wellbeing are the only two things that can intrinsically matter, everything else is instrumentally valuable as a means to achieving wellbeing or less suffering. He also is concerned about wild-animal suffering, which is how I first heard about him several years ago.

I did disagree with his views on how we can most effectively reduce farmed animal suffering. He believes that improving welfare standards would be better in the long run than reducing the number of animals farmed by various means. The best steelman for this would be that if we could get animals in farms net positive lives, then farming more animals would be good (utilitarianly speaking).

I find this view strange in the face of Kwang’s strong concern (strong even within the space of pro-climate policy, but in line with other existential risk researchers) of the risk of human extinction due to climate change. His view is that, even if extinction risk is very small, we must act far more than we are to reduce that risk. Given that the animal agriculture industry is such a major contributor to climate change (~15-50% depending on whether you arbitrarily use a 100 or 20 year timescale), why doesn’t he advocate for solving the farmed animal suffering problem and the climate change problem with the one solution? Surely this would be more efficient than improving farmed animal welfare and then working on energy policy separately? A strange oversight (in my opinion) in an otherwise enjoyable interview.

Why non-utilitarians are wrong (unless you’re a moral nihilist)

Moral realism is the idea that there is such a thing as a moral fact. It is often used to refer to the existence of a single true or best code of ethics, and if anyone disagrees with this code, they are wrong. I have previously subscribed to this idea, though while I wish this were true, I do not believe it to be the case. However, I would like to propose an intermediate version of moral realism which I think is accurate.

Let us examine the two broad schools of ethical thought; deontology and consequentialism (or utilitarianism). These each have many sub-categories, but for now I will just consider them in general.

Deontology suggests that there are some actions that are always wrong, regardless of the outcome. Examples include lying, killing (usually only referring to humans or some subset of all sentient minds), and stealing. Deontology often, but not always, draws on the principles of a particular religion.

Consequentialism is somewhat the opposite of deontology. An action is defined as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on its outcome. For example, lying or killing someone might be good if it saved 100 people from dying. From a purely theoretical standpoint, there is no action that couldn’t be justified if the outcome was sufficiently positive.

I would like to propose that a consequentialist code of ethics that seeks to maximise the amount of wellbeing and/or minimise the amount of suffering of sentient minds in the universe (or some slight variation of this), is the best possible code of ethics, if any could be considered ‘best’ (I’m not the first one to say something like this). This is sometimes known as total classical utilitarianism. I argue that this is the case because it is the only code of ethics that actually includes the felt experiences that sentient minds care about (again, this could instead be some slight variation of total classical utilitarianism). To make my case, I will use several examples.

Many actions are only seen as ‘bad’ because they have historically been largely associated with causing suffering, and having them as social norms cause suffering. Lying is bad because being lied to feels bad, and it creates societal norms that result in bad consequences (suffering). Killing humans is bad because a societal norm of killing people for no reason causes suffering. At the end of the day, people only care about suffering and wellbeing – they are the only felt experiences. Everything else is a means to that end whether they accept it or not.

If someone thinks they they fundamentally/intrinsically care about something else, I argue that they are wrong or misguided. Intellectual pursuits are desirable because it brings one pleasure. Freedom is desirable because it is almost always associated with positive felt experience and a lack of suffering.

In a non-human animals context, some argue that rights are what are most important, intrinsically so. However, if animals care about anything at all (and I think they do), it’s avoiding suffering and having pleasurable experiences. It doesn’t make sense for humans to impose our construct of rights or deontology on them. Again, rights for animals are useful because it will probably mean we can’t exploit some 80 billion land animals each year for food, causing much suffering in the mean time.

But – the rights aren’t intrinsically valuable themselves, and it is easy to construct realistic scenarios where not having certain rights like freedom from exploitation are in the best interests of the animals. Just like a parent will sometimes stop a child from doing something that is not their best interest (even though it might be freedom), we should feel comfortable stopping an animal from doing something that is not in their best interest.

In conclusion, if someone thinks that they or others don’t care about wellbeing or suffering, they are wrong (I argue). If they think they or others only care about rights or rules for their own sake, they are wrong. I can’t make you care about ethics or ‘doing good’ (though I can certainly try), but if you do, I argue you should be utilitarian, otherwise you are applying values that no sentient mind actually cares about intrinsically, and that’s selfish at best.

Los Angeles banning fur is great, but why not leather too?

The city of Los Angeles has banned the sale of new fur products. This is a fantastic outcome – there is no justification for the harms caused to animals raised for their fur when so many perfectly fine alternatives exist. The state of California is relatively progressive on issues relating to animals (San Francisco also banned fur sales earlier in the year), but one must wonder how best to use this momentum to have fur banned in other cities in the US and globally.

I also wonder how this momentum might be used to gain traction on related issues, such as banning the sale of leather. I have always found it interesting that the wearing of fur has been so strongly disdained by the public for so long, while the wearing of leather is seen by most (besides probably just vegans) as being benign. I’m quite unsure why this is the case, both involve the killing of a non-human to turn their bodies into clothing.

The only meaningful perceived difference I can think of is that cows, the animal leather is most commonly taken from, are also exploited for their flesh and milk, while fur animals are generally not (although I doubt most people think about it this much). However, the production of leather isn’t really a by-product, according to the documentary Dominion. Leather production is an economic factor in its own right, and thus buying leather should be expected to result in more cows being farmed.

If you have celebrated the banning of the backward practice of selling animal fur as clothing, please also consider not buying animal skin for clothing. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can even consider not engaging in the ultimate unnecessary use of animals – using their flesh and excretions for food.

Asteroids and comets as space weapons

A video version of this is available here.


Approximately 66 million years ago, a 10 km sized body struck Earth, and was likely one of the main contributors to the extinction of many species at the time. Bodies the size of 5 km or larger impact Earth on average every 20 million years (one might say we are overdue for one, but then one wouldn’t understand statistics). Asteroids 1 km or larger impact Earth every 500,000 years on average. Smaller bodies which can still do considerable local damage occur much more frequently (10 m wide bodies impact Earth on average every 10 years). It seems reasonable to say that only the first category (>~5 km) pose an existential threat, however many others pose major catastrophic threats*.

Given the likelihood of an asteroid impact (I use the word asteroid instead of asteroid and/or comet from here for sake of brevity), some argue that further improving detection and deflection technology are critical. Matheny (2007) estimates that, even if asteroid extinction events are improbable, due to the loss of future human generations if one were to occur, asteroid detection/deflection research and development could save a human life-year for $2.50 (US). Asteroid impact mitigation is not thought to be the most pressing existential threat (e.g. artificial intelligence or global pandemics), and yet it already seems to have better return on investment than the best now-centric human charities (though not non-human charities – I am largely ignoring non-humans here for simplicity and sake of argument).

The purpose of this article is to explore a depressing cautionary note in the field of asteroid impact mitigation. As we improve our ability to detect and (especially) deflect asteroids with an Earth-intersecting orbit away from Earth, we also improve our ability to deflect asteroids without an Earth-intersecting orbit in to Earth. This idea was first explored by Steven Ostro and Carl Sagan, and I will summarise their argument below.

Asteroid deflection as a DURC

A dual use research of concern (DURC) refers to research in the life sciences that, while intended for public benefit, could also be repurposed to cause public harm. One prominent example is that of disease and contagion research (can improve disease control, but can also be used to spread disease more effectively, either accidentally or maliciously). I will argue here that DURC can and should be applicable to any technology that has a potential dual use such as this.

Ostro and Sagan (1998) proposed that asteroid impacts could act as a double edged explanation for the Fermi paradox (why don’t we see any evidence of extraterrestrial civilisations?). The argument goes as follows: Those species that don’t develop asteroid deflection technology eventually go extinct due to some large impact, while those that do eventually go extinct because they accidentally or maliciously deflect a large asteroid into their planet. This has since been termed the ‘deflection dilemma‘.

The question arises: does the likelihood of a large impact increase as asteroid deflection technology is developed, rather than decrease? The most pressing existential and catastrophic threats today seem to be those that were created by technology (artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons, global health pandemics, anthropogenic global warming) rather than natural events (asteroid impacts, supervolcanoes, gamma ray bursts). Humanity has survived for millions of years (depending on how you define humanity), yet in the last 70 years have seen the advent of nuclear weapons and other technology that could meaningfully cause a catastrophic at any time. It seems possible therefore that the bigger risk will be that caused by technology, not the natural risk.

Ostro and Sagan (1994) argue that development of asteroid deflection technology is at the time of writing (and presumably today) premature, given the track record of global politics.

Who would maliciously deflect an asteroid?

Ignoring accidental deflection, which might occur when an asteroid is moved to an Earth or Lunar orbit for research or mining purposes (see this now scrapped proposal to bring a small asteroid in to Lunar orbit), there are two categories of actors that might maliciously deflect such a body; state actors and terrorist groups.

A state actor might be incentivised to authorise an asteroid strike on an enemy or potential enemy in situations where they wouldn’t necessarily authorise a nuclear strike or conventional invasion. For example, let us consider an asteroid of around 20 m in diameter. Near Earth orbit asteroids of around this size are often only detected several hours or days before passing between Earth and the Moon. If a state actor is able to identify an asteroid that will pass near Earth in secret before the global community has, they can feasibly send a mission to alter its orbit to intersect with Earth in a way such that it would not be detected until it is much too late. Assuming the state actor did its job well enough, it would be impossible for anyone to lay blame on them, let alone even guess that it might have been caused by malicious intent.

An asteroid of this size would be expected to have enough energy to cause an explosion 30 times the strength of the nuclear bomb dropped over Hiroshima in WWII.

We can temper the likelihood of this scenario by speculating that it is unlikely for some state actor to covertly discover a new asteroid and track its orbit without any other actor discovering it, considering there are transparent organisations working on tracking them. However, is it possible that a government organisation (e.g. NASA) could be ordered to not share information about a new asteroid?

What to do about this problem

Even if we don’t directly develop asteroid deflection technology, as other technologies progress (e.g. launching payloads becomes cheaper, propulsion systems become more efficient), it will become easier over time anyway. Other space weapons, such as anti-satellite weapons (direct ascent kinetic kill projectiles or directed energy weapons), space stored nuclear weapons, and kinetic bombardment (rods from god) will all become easier with general improvements in relevant technology.

The question arises – even if a small group of people were to decide that developing asteroid deflection technology causes more harm than good, what can they meaningfully do about it? The idea that developing asteroid deflection technology is good is so entrenched in popular opinion that it seems like arguing for less or no spending in the area might be a bad idea. This seems like a similar situation to where AI safety researchers find themselves. Advocating for less funding and development of AI seems relatively intractable, so they instead work on solutions to make AI safer. Another similar example is that of pandemics research – it has obvious benefits in building resilience to natural pandemics, but may also enable a malicious or accidental outbreak of an engineered pathogen.

Final thoughts

I have not considered the possibility of altering the orbit of an extinction class body (~10 km diameter or greater) in to an Earth intersecting orbit. While the damage of this would obviously be much greater, even ignoring considerations about future generations that would be lost, it would be significantly harder to alter the orbit of such a body. Also, we believe we have discovered all of the bodies of this size in a near Earth orbit (Huebner et al 2009), and so it would be much harder to do this covertly and without risking retaliation (e.g. mutually assured destruction via nuclear weapons). The possibility of altering the orbit of such bodies should still be considered, as it poses an existential/catastrophic risk while smaller bodies do not.

I have also chosen to largely not focus on other types of space weapons (see this book for an overview of space weapons generally) for similar reasons – the potential for dual-use is less clear, thus in theory making it harder to set up such technologies in space. It would also be more difficult to make the utilisation of such weapons look like an accident.

Future work

A cost benefit analysis that examines the pros and cons of developing asteroid deflection technology in a rigorous and numerical way should be a high priority. Such an analysis would consider the expected value of damage of natural asteroid impacts in comparison with the increased risk from developing technology (and possibly examine the opportunity cost of what could otherwise be done with the R&D funding). An example of such an analysis exists in the space of global health pandemics research, which would be a good starting point. I believe it is unclear at this time whether the benefits outweigh the risks, or vice versa (though at this time I lean towards the risks outweighing the benefits – an unfortunate conclusion for a PhD candidate researching asteroid exploration and deflection to come to).

Research regarding the technical feasibility of deflecting an asteroid into a specific target (e.g. a city) should be examined, however this analysis comes with drawbacks (see section on information hazards).

We should also consider policy and international cooperation solutions that can be set in place today to reduce the likelihood of accidental and malicious asteroid deflection occurring.

Information hazard disclaimer

An information hazard is “a risk that arises from the dissemination or the potential dissemination of (true) information that may cause harm or enable some agent to cause harm.” Much of the research in to the risk side of DURCs could be considered an information hazard. For example, a paper that demonstrates how easy it might be to engineer and release an advanced pathogen with the intent of raising concern could make it easier for someone to do just that. It even seems plausible that publishing such a paper could cause more harm than good. Similar research into asteroids as a DURC would have the same issue (indeed, this post itself could be an information hazard).

* An ‘existential threat’ typically refers to an event that could kill either all human life, or all life in general. A ‘catastrophic threat’ refers to an event that would cause substantial damage and suffering, but wouldn’t be expected to kill all human life, which would eventually rebuild.

Why I support the Australian Animal Justice Party and why you should too

Ever since I got interested in politics, I had always been hesitant to align myself with a given party. My rationale was mainly that I like to update my beliefs based on evidence and rational thought, and I worried that if I became a member of a party, I would become biased. Even if I wasn’t biased, there would be an external perception that I was, and it might be harder encourage others to vote for what I thought was the best party.

Also, it would be fair to say that I don’t agree with any Australian party on all of their policies and priorities. Of course, there are some that I agree with more, but I like to vote in elections based on the current landscape, not a pre-committed allegiance.

Voting for the best party is important – more so than many might first assume. I’ve written about this before. To recap:

People often say that you’re unlikely to have any impact when voting, or that the impact of your vote is so small that it’s not worth thinking about, but this is only true if you only care about yourself. In Doing Good Better, Will MacAskill simplistically estimates that the expected value of voting for a US citizen, when spread out across all citizens in USA, is around $5,200 USD (~$7,000 AUD at the time of writing [and I believe the value for an Australian voter is quite similar]). That is to say, on average, $5,200 of the budget will be spent differently as a result of your vote (see the appendix for a more detailed explanation of why this is so). This means it’s very important to vote for the party that will spend the budget in the best way possible.

The impact of your vote on you personally, however, is worth significantly less than $1. So unless you think you’re really, really important, you should probably vote for the best party for others in general.

While many in the effective altruism and effective animal advocacy space are quite comfortable to say they believe a particular charity, intervention or career path is effective at reducing suffering and why, few are comfortable talking about why they think a given political party is effective at reducing suffering (relatively speaking), and I think that’s a shame. We need to change the culture of talking about politics to one that is truth-seeking and open to changing minds.

Part of it may be the perception of bias, and I want to talk about this. After years of consideration, I currently think that the Animal Justice Party is the party that I expect to most reduce suffering if they are successful (e.g. get more votes, funding, seats etc.). As a result, I went to AJP events, I eventually became a member, and now I am considering becoming significantly more involved with the party in to the future. My involvement follows my research. It is not the case, at least now, that I would support or promote the AJP because I am a member.

People often assume that one’s motivation is biased if they promote X, but the rationale can come from the other direction. People can believe the evidence and therefore act on it, and political parties are no exception. We should be wary of someone who says the party they support is the best party because [insert evidence], but not outright distrustful.

With that preamble, I want to talk a little about why I am a supporter of the AJP, and why I think you should be too (before the perception of my bias becomes even stronger, if it’s not too late). In fact, I think you should be a supporter of the AJP even if you aren’t vegan, for similar reasons that I put forth in my post about why you should support animal charities even if you aren’t vegan.

What do I mean by supporter? I mostly mean signing up as a member ($30 AU per year*), and voting for them, but could also include other stuff. Of course, this doesn’t mean you are committing to support them for life. For a while this was a major source of reservation for me in not becoming a member. But I reserve the right to part ways with the party if I disagree with them or think supporting another party would be more effective. But I think that if you are more confident than not that a party is ‘best’, you should support it until you think otherwise.

The first political party I felt strongly about was the Greens, due to my concerns about human rights and the environment. However, I worry that the Greens don’t go anywhere near far enough for non-humans, and hold, in my view, anti-science policies around energy (e.g. they are strongly opposed to nuclear energy, and make little to no reference of the environmental harms of the livestock industry). They are ‘pretty good’, but I am confident that AJP largely addresses these concerns and then some.

One thing I find partly but not completely surprising is that many vegans, vegetarians, and others concerned largely with animal suffering, don’t vote for or support the AJP. Perhaps they think AJP doesn’t go far enough still, or that there are other important issues. But to this, I say that AJP arguably goes the furthest thus far, and that you may as well vote first preference for AJP, and second preference for the presumably larger party you believe is better informed about other issues.

So, dear reader, if you trust my judgement and impartiality (and if not at least consider and look in to it), you should sign on as an AJP member and vote for them at the state and federal level unless some valid information changes your mind. As an AJP member you will have a stronger say over their priorities, as well as increasing the strength of their influence on Australian politics. In the words of AJP themselves:

Every additional member means added strength, funds and political capital for the AJP to pursue its animal protection agenda. Your membership sends a message to the other parties that animal protection is a political force to be reckoned with – one that our members are prepared to put their vote behind.

If you want to look at some of my thinking on different parties, you can see this analysis I did with Hugo Burgin on 6 parties at the time of the last federal election in 2016, though note that it is somewhat out of date and my views have shifted somewhat.

Finally, a quick reminder that voting for a party that is relatively unlikely to gain a seat in Australia is not a wasted vote, captured perfectly by this comic.

* Even if you donate all or much of your disposable income to effective charities, as I know some of my friends and readers do, I still think this is a highly impactful use of your marginal $30.

Why do vegans talk about veganism so much?

Being a vegan, I meet many people who get on some level why I am vegan, but just don’t understand why vegans talk so much about non-human animals and how they are treated in farming. I have come up with a story which, I hope, will enable you to understand, even if you don’t agree. I want you to really try and visualise yourself in this scenario and be honest with yourself for maximum effect. My goal here is not to convince you to be a vegan, but to convince you that, if you were vegan, you would want to talk about it all the time too.

Imagine you lived in a society where 99% of the population ate humans. These humans are farmed in ways that bring about unimaginable suffering, and they are killed at very young ages. When you find out how most of your food is made, you make a decision to stop contributing to it. You stop purchasing human products.

But most of your friends and family still eat humans. You might go to dinner with friends and see them eating humans around you. They ask you why you don’t eat humans and you explain. They might crack a few jokes, or say that these humans are bred for food, so it’s ok, or that they are less intelligent, so it’s ok. They might say that it’s necessary to eat humans for survival or to be healthy, but you know it’s not.

Perhaps you would feel compelled to tell your friends what really happens in human farms, and why it is wrong to eat them. I can almost guarantee that you wouldn’t be silent. You would want to tell everyone, and wouldn’t care if people thought you were being too ‘pushy’ or ‘preachy’. When your friends listen but ignore your plea, you might start to feel helpless and dejected. You might think about the footage of humans suffering, and know that it doesn’t have to be that way. Your friends are good people, so you just can’t understand why they choose to continue eating humans.

Perhaps you disagree that non-humans should be given ethical consideration. Perhaps you think that the taste of their flesh outweighs their suffering. But through this hypothetical, you can now see why vegans talk about it so much. Because we do think non-humans are as or almost as worthy of moral consideration as humans. We know how easy it is to reduce the suffering caused by animal agriculture, and it is hard for us to live in a society where 99% of people disagree with us. If you don’t think you can understand, then you are deceiving someone, and it’s probably yourself.


The intriguing history and ethics of having a lawn

From a young age I had resolved to never have a lawn if I owned my own house. This might seem incredibly trivial, but as I’ll show, it isn’t. Lawns are something I have thought about again several times throughout my life, each time becoming increasingly validated in my decision to not have a lawn.

My first (and perhaps partially childish) motivation was a general dislike for gardening. My childhood home had a large garden and I helped out from time to time. I didn’t see the point at the time, though I understand now that there are some benefits to property value and people can derive some enjoyment from having a lawn (though I never really did).

Many years later, I learned an interesting fact from Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens about the history of lawns. Here are some quotes:

A young couple building a new home for themselves may ask the architect for a nice lawn in the front yard. Why a lawn? ‘Because lawns are beautiful,’ the couple might explain. But why do they think so? It has a history behind it.

Well kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. In exchange, they produce nothing of value. You can’t even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass. Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious land or time on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. It boldly proclaimed to every passerby: ‘I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.’” [bolded emphasis my own]

The last sentence really stuck with me. It seemed true even today – lawns are almost purely a status symbol. They don’t produce fruit or veggies and barely have a useful carbon storage effect. I felt more justified in my attitude towards lawns.

Around the same time, I had become convinced by arguments about wild-animal suffering. If you are not familiar with this argument, I strongly encourage you to see this introduction, but in short, it is plausible that many wild-animals (including invertebrates such as insects) have lives with more suffering than wellbeing. If you accept this, then at the least you should accept that it would be wrong to bring these lives in to existence (for the same reason it is wrong to bring farmed animals in to existence when they will experience so much suffering).

Creating a lawn can be an effective way of increasing insect suffering, as it increases the available plant biomass for insects to breed and increase their population. Brian Tomasik argues for having gravel instead of lawns to reduce insect suffering. Tomasik’s rough estimate shows that the amount of suffering one can reduce by replacing a lawn with gravel is immense.

Having lawns can even be bad for the environment, especially if you regularly mow them. The carbon that would otherwise be stored in the grass is cut off and released to the atmosphere via decay. Some carbon would be stored in the ground in the grass and humus still, however the emissions from mowing ones’ lawn should outweigh this. As an alternative, white gravel would reflect sunlight, having a net cooling effect compared to grass, which would absorb heat.

Long story short – I don’t ever want a grass lawn and I wish this view was more commonly held – it’s more important than it seems at first glance.

Why rational animal lovers should donate to animal charities even if they aren’t vegan

This is something I’ve thought a lot about but have not really expressed much in writing. When it comes down to it, almost everyone cares about non-human animals in some way. No one really wants to see a pig, or a cow, or a dog or a whale suffer, just as no one really wants to see a human suffer. Even with this in mind, many people say that they just can’t go vegan because it would be too hard, too expensive, they enjoy the taste of animal products too much, or they are worried about their health.

All of these concerns can and have been addressed, but let’s suppose we grant that some people just don’t want to be vegan themselves, even if they care about non-human animals. Assuming this individual (possibly you, dear reader) is rational, they should be happy if there are more vegans in the world, even if they never become one themselves. After all, a lot of people care about the environment, but go to varying lengths of effort when it comes to recycling etc. However, they are still happy for the sake of the environment when someone else goes to more effort than them.

Unless you can find a flaw here, you must surely agree that people who care about non-human animals must at the very least be happy about there being more people in the world trying to reduce animal suffering. Having accepted this, know that there are many ways you can reduce animal suffering without being vegan yourself.

One of the most effective ways to do this is to donate money to a highly effective animal charity. I am a big fan of the work that Animal Charity Evaluators do, particularly their recommendations on effective animal charities. For as little as a $10 donation to one of these charities, it’s possible to spare dozens of animals from a life of suffering. Even for a non-vegan, this is a very small sacrifice to make to have a huge impact. Check out their top recommended charities here, or consider donating directly to ACE to maximise your impact.

I truly believe that, if you care about non-human animals but don’t support non-human animal charities, unless you are financially unable, or you think that there are more effective ways to reduce suffering with your money, there is surely some serious cognitive dissonance going on.

Should we have children? Weighing in on the anti-natalism debate

Recently a lot of people, particularly in the vegan community, have been having an often heated discussion about whether one should have a child or not. Some even go as far as to say that having a children is ‘not vegan’, due to the impact it causes. As with a lot of such issues I weigh in on, I think both sides are missing some key points*.

Let me begin by acknowledging that this can be a very difficult topic to speak rationally about. If one is non-vegan, they can realise they were wrong and become vegan somewhat easily (relatively speaking). If one has kids, changing their mind and even just admitting to oneself that it was unethical to have a child would be world shattering. As soon as this internal conflict becomes a possibility, being completely open often goes out the window.

I also want to add that I am not talking about the personal pleasure of having a child. Many do seem to get a lot of intrinsic happiness from having a child, and I’m just not touching that. I’m talking about purely external impact on wellbeing. My goal here is not to attack either people who have had children or have decided not to, I just want to add some extra considerations.

Let’s first examine why one would make the case that ‘it is more ethical to not have a child’. I think it mostly comes down to the impact that having one additional human on the planet causes. Even if your child is vegan (which is not a guarantee even for two vegan parents), they will still have an impact on others. Just through their food consumption, they will contribute to 0.3 vertebrate animal deaths per year, they will contribute to climate change, and basically any issue relating to population growth. Granted, they will have a lower impact in all of these areas than an omnivore, but an impact they will have nonetheless.

This is the case that anti-natalists make, however I rarely see them acknowledge the pros to having a child. Either they don’t think there are any relative to not having a child, or they don’t think they are strong enough to consider. I hope I am not making too strong of a strawman here.

The external benefits of having a child

Let’s ignore opportunity cost (what else you could be doing with your time and money if you didn’t have a child) and just consider whether having a child is net good compared to doing no other ‘advocacy’ with your life (e.g. activism, donations etc). There is a lot to weigh up here.

There is a chance your child will be share your values (e.g. be vegan = lower impact on suffering over their life, but higher than if they hadn’t been born ; chance of converting additional vegans), and a chance they won’t be (e.g. not be vegan = higher impact on suffering). However, if you believe that you can do a lot of good over your life via other means, e.g. donating a percent of your income to effective charities, via your career and outreach, your child might have similar goals in life (via upbringing and shared genetics).

Let’s do a toy expected value estimate (not to be taken seriously, only illustratively). Suppose you estimate your impact in life to be the equivalent of creating 10 vegans (honestly a very low estimate if you take effectiveness seriously), but your impact of just existing to be equivalent to 0.5 non-vegans (that is to say, 2 vegans have the same impact on suffering, environmental damage etc. as 2 non-vegans – surely an exaggeration). Your life net effect is then to create 9.5 vegans.

Let us now suppose that your child could share your values (create 9.5 vegans), be the opposite (-1 vegans), or somewhere in between. Even if we assume that the child of a vegan is only 50% likely to stay so (which seems low to me, but happy to be proven wrong), the average effect of having a child is equivalent to creating 4.5 vegans in this massively oversimplified example.

Having kids as a personal choice

Sometimes, people say something like “Have kids if you want to have kids, and don’t if you don’t. You can’t tell people not to have kids, it’s a personal choice.” What is interesting to me is that a lot of vegans make this argument, but it sounds so similar to the argument many use to justify eating animals, e.g. “Eat meat if you want to, and don’t if you don’t. Respect my personal choice.”

Anti-natalists typically attack this view, and I agree that it is flawed, but I want to add a nuance here. Anti-natalists see having a child as bad (comparable to eating meat) while natalists see it as good (not comparable to eating meat). I think that people are generally talking past each other and not disagreeing where they think they are.

Opportunity cost

I think the strongest argument (but one I rarely see) for not having a child is actually just that having a child seems like a highly inefficient way of improving the world. Even given the argument that ‘your child will likely (not definitely) share your genes and behaviour and do good in the world’, the amount of time and money that it costs to have a kid could be spent elsewhere. We need to think about it in terms of opportunity cost.

Using Australia as an example, it costs an average of $406,000 (in 2012) to have and raise a child to adulthood, not including time. This money alone could convert dozens of additional vegans on the low end of the estimate, if that is the primary thing you are concerned about. Even if I thought having a child would be an enjoyable experience on the whole, this reason alone is enough to convince me to not to. Along the same vein, instead of having a child, you could mentor or influence multiple people.

Population ethics

Finally, I also rarely see any nod to population ethics in these discussions. I am going to attempt to summarise a complicated and much debated field in a few sentences. If this field intrigues you, please go actually read about it rather than let my text form your view.

People are concerned about overpopulation often because they believe that additional human lives would make the lives of humans already existing less positive. This is probably broadly correct. However, if extra child has a positive life (better off being alive than not being born, as I believe my life is), that has to be weighed against the negative impact of them being born on others. One can conceive of a scenario where having more children is better on balance for global wellbeing even if it makes life for others worse.

Of course, taking farmed *and* wild animal suffering into consideration, this gets far more complicated, but I just wanted to at least acknowledge this field which gets no mention in this debate.

In summary, I lean heavily to the side of the anti-natalism argument, but I admit that the steelman of both sides has good points.

* I should make it clear that by ‘both sides’ I’m referring to the two versions of the argument I’m presenting here. I don’t doubt that many also provide a more nuanced view.

Melbourne steakhouse protest – acceptable in what circumstance?

Several days ago, a group of activists peacefully (by all accounts) entered a Melbourne, Australia, steakhouse restaurant with signs, and began repeating phrases relating to the treatment of animals in slaughterhouses. The aim: to show the diners what had happened to the food on their plate while it was still sentient.

I wanted to weigh in on this, but not for the same reason many other animal advocates are. There has certainly been a general divide among the animal advocacy community regarding whether this was an effective way of achieving our ultimate goal – reducing suffering and/or exploitation of all sentient beings.

I actually don’t know whether this was effective. It has been a good platform for raising awareness and may show that a lot of people take this seriously (pros), but it may backfire, as it seems to have already done, and make people think those who care about all non-human animals are ‘crazy’ (con). Both sides are true. Which one outweighs the other? I don’t know.

The point I want to get to here is this: I think that a lot of non-vegans who are opposed to this protest aren’t actually opposed to the means as they say, but to the message behind the protest. Let me give you a thought experiment.

Suppose a new restaurant opened up in your neighborhood, and you find out they serve human. Humans who did not want to killed for the enjoyment of others. You might feel compelled to go and protest at this restaurant. You might feel a duty to educate the diners there on what the humans went through during their final days; the pain, the fear. I’m willing to go out on a limb and suggest that you would feel comfortable with the exact same peaceful protest that took place in Melbourne. If not you personally, you would surely be in support of the protest.

This is why I believe that many people opposed to this protest are opposed to it for different reasons than they claim. Not all, of course, and maybe not even most. After all, there are many vegans who opposed the protest. But I would ask you, dear reader, to make sure you ask yourself exactly why you are against the protest. Is it because you think the protest was harmful, or disrespectful? Or is it because you don’t really agree with the message behind it?