Uncertainty about fundamental ethics is, in my view, the greatest roadblock to large-scale intervention for wild animal welfare. However, there is also plenty of uncertainty on more empirical questions. Fortunately, these questions seem much more tractable, and answers to some may reveal actions we can take that are robustly good under a range of ethics. Here I will summarize the major points of moral and practical uncertainty that impact my own research at Wild Animal Initiative and how I think uncertainty should be addressed in this kind of work going forward.
In this opinion piece, I explore an important area of uncertainty in wild-animal welfare research: determining who is a moral patient, using insects as a case study. A moral patient is one whose well-being deserves moral consideration. I take welfare to be intrinsically valuable; I also think that only (and all) sentient individuals have welfare. The definition of sentience I use is primary or phenomenal consciousness: the capacity to experience good or bad mental states. Sentience can occur in the absence of secondary (or access) consciousness: the ability to reflect upon or report those experiences.
Uncertainty is not an intractable problem nor should uncertainty necessarily stop us from studying interventions to improve wild animal welfare. Restoration ecology has a long history of environmental interventions from which animal welfare advocates can draw to reduce uncertainty in interventions. One such tool is the reference system. Another is adaptive management. Ultimately, if interventions are designed as experiments in nature, then even failed interventions will generate knowledge to help animals in the future.
Critiques based on nontarget uncertainty should not be viewed as unique to wild animal welfare. If there is a strong case for dismissing a cause area on the basis of nontarget uncertainty, then we’d have good reason to dismiss many large-scale charitable projects, including addressing global health and factory farming. Although this critique fails to apply exclusively to wild animal welfare, we should still strive to improve our ability to predict nontarget consequences of our interventions in all cause areas, and work to resolve some types of uncertainty that are particularly relevant to wild animal welfare.
As a growing nonprofit, we continue to look to the effective altruist community for support. We estimate that our staff’s work is around one-half the hours dedicated to these issues globally, which demonstrates the degree of its neglectedness. To that end, this summer we are raising $50,000 to continue our work. Please continue to follow our progress, and donate today to help us reach this goal.
After a thorough search process and thoughtful consideration, the Board of Directors has selected Michelle Graham as the next Executive Director of Wild Animal Initiative. “The hiring committee was deeply impressed by Michelle's exceptional research experience, dedication to our mission, strategic vision, and leadership ability,” said Emily Hatch, president of Wild Animal Initiative’s board.
One of Wild Animal Initiative’s foundational questions is: “what can we do to improve the welfare of wild animals?” Currently, we are reviewing and summarizing relevant literature from restoration and conservation ecology, as these fields often evaluate the impacts and effectiveness of wildlife interventions. Even if conservation ecologists are not necessarily value-aligned with animal welfare advocates, impact assessments from conservation are still useful to wild animal welfare. Reviews of conservation evidence increase our understanding of the outcomes of interventions in nature and enables us to apply these interventions to welfare causes.
Historically there has been little overlap between effective altruist interested in improving wild animal welfare and conservationists. But conservation offers insight, approaches, and tools that are incredibly valuable to the work of reducing wild animal suffering. It would be highly productive for wild animal welfare advocates to actively work with conservationists on research projects, both to encourage a collaborative relationship between our fields, and to find allies for our work.
Abraham Rowe has resigned from his role as the Executive Director of Wild Animal Initiative, effective June 30th, 2019. We are initiating a search for a new Executive Director better positioned to lead this effort.
Today, Wild Animal Initiative released the research agenda that will shape our work over the next 12 to 18 months. The full research agenda can be found here. But, we also wanted to take some time to outline our approach to designing the agenda and prioritizing projects.