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Wild animals can count on human avarice, but not compassion, to end their suffering.

David Pearce endorses reprogramming nature to reduce wild animal suffering:

“A biosphere without suffering is technically feasible. In principle, science can deliver a cruelty-free world that lacks the molecular signature of unpleasant experience. Not merely can a living world support human life based on genetically preprogrammed gradients of human well-being. If carried to completion, the abolitionist project entails ecosystem redesign, immunocontraception, marine nanorobots, rewriting the vertebrate genome, and harnessing the exponential growth of computational resources to manage a compassionate global ecosystem. Ultimately, it’s an ethical choice whether intelligent moral agents opt to create such a world – or instead express our natural status quo bias and perpetuate the biology of suffering indefinitely.

Conversely, members of “prey” species can be bio-engineered to lose their currently well-justified terror of predators. Again, this re-engineering sounds technically daunting. Yet recall how rodents infected with the parasitic protozoan Toxoplasma gondii lose their normal fears and actually seek out cat urine-marked areas. Pharmacology, neuroelectrodes and genetic technologies all offer possible solutions to the molecular pathology of fear when its persistence becomes functionally redundant. In the long run, the same kinds of hedonic enrichment, intelligence-amplification and life-extension technologies available to humans later this century can be extended across the phylogenetic tree.

The technical details of such a program are of course challenging, to say the least. Nature has few food chains in the strict sense; complex food webs abound.”

I agree with David that we should worry about the suffering of animals in the wild as much as the suffering of anyone else. David is doing a great service by raising such an ignored issue. However, I think it is exceedingly unlikely that humans or their descendants will ever decide to reengineer nature along these lines.

It would be a hugely expensive engineering project which would mostly benefit animals we do not have much concern for. Humans as we are currently programmed have compassion for specific animals in order to show how empathetic and loyal we are (especially animals which look like human children) and occasionally develop more consistent compassion for animals in general as a way of showing how nice and intelligent we are or to show we identify as members of a specific group (utilitarians, liberals, consistent people).

Our general disregard is shown by the fact that most humans are comfortable torturing animals far away from themselves, merely to make their products especially cheap to eat. We don’t have to worry about looking bad eating factory farmed meat because (i) most people do it so we won’t stick out (ii) are not friends with farm animals, unlike pets, and so don’t need to show we are loyal people by caring for them (iii) we almost never see them, so paying for them to be tortured doesn’t make us look unempathetic (iv) most people are do not reflect on their core values in detail and so don’t notice when they are hypocrites (consistency isn’t a trait much valued by others anyway).

If we care so little for the welfare of animals under our direct control, it is hard to believe we will ever care so much for animals far away that we will dedicate vast resources to reengineering the world’s ecosystem.

Noticing this, we might be optimistic that future humans will reprogram themselves to using either biotechnology or computers if we exist as emulations. Transhumans could choose to become more compassionate or loyal (which is really just extra compassion for people close to us) in order to better succeed in society. More loyalty would work against far away animals, while more raw compassion would work in their favour. Some compassion is useful for helping us to avoid a bad reputation in society, but too much is bad for us because it causes us to sacrifice ourselves for others or at least feel bad about their suffering. Because of this downside, it is unlikely that future humans will choose more empathy than is needed to prevent us breaking the laws and norms of society. If running as emulations makes our character traits more transparent then we will need compassion for animals even less – we mostly use our attitude towards animals as a signal of other traits. Either way, wild animals are unlikely to get much love from future ‘transhumans’ unless we can find no way to make ourselves more desirable to interact with without inadvertently also increasing our compassion for those animals. If we start by increasing our intelligence alone, it is likely that animals will get more compassion because intelligent people worry more about consistency. I expect intelligent people would run themselves in circles trying to consistently implement all of their conflicting values and so would also want to program themselves to become more self serving, but that’s harder to predict.

There is another path to ending animal suffering in nature which is much more likely to predict. We are on track to destroy nature and turn its resources over to beings like humans and their descendants who have the skills needed to create a lot of wealth and buy whatever they need to be happy.

Robin Hanson confident predicts humans will absorb and destroy nature once they work out how to produce for themselves the resources what they currently derive from nature:

“With familiar competitive habits, this growth rate change implies falling wages for intelligent labor, canceling nature’s recent high-wage reprieve.  So if we continue to use all the nature our abilities allow, abilities growing much faster than nature’s abilities to resist us, within ten thousand years at most (and more likely a few centuries) we’ll use pretty much all of nature, with only farms, pets and (economically) small parks remaining.  If we keep growing competitively, nature is doomed.

Of course for we’ll still need some functioning ecosystems to support farming a while longer, until we learn how to make food without farms, or bodies using simpler fuels.  Hopefully we’ll assimilate most innovations worth digging out of nature, and deep underground single cell life will probably last the longest.  But these may be cold comfort to most nature lovers.”

If our descendants ever do get rich enough that reengineering nature is a cheap project they would want to pursue, they will probably already have destroyed most wilderness in the process.

Given the vast suffering that exists in nature, and the fact that our descendants will probably be able to reengineer themselves to be happy even on very low incomes and even replicate the joy they experience when in nature, maybe we shouldn’t be as sad to see it go as most would be today. I would, of course, rather see thriving, happy herbivorous animals in the wilderness. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem like the realistic alternative.

There are moral reasons we might think this isn’t the case. Many, if not most people, think that nature has intrinsic value – this would have to be weighed against the suffering in nature. Deontologists may believe that potential future wild animals have a right to exist that we would violate by shrinking the wilderness. There are also practical uncertainties, such as the risk that we will shrink the wilderness while we still need it, and inadvertently destroy ourselves in the process. The quality of life of animals in nature is also uncertain, both because we don’t understand animals’ experiences, and because we don’t know how those translate to sensations. Despite regular risks of hunger and predation, it may nevertheless be the case that wild animals have a good quality of life.

Evaluating these arguments is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I would love to see more debate about them.

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Robert WiblinHi! I am a young Australian man ostensibly interested in the truth and maximising the total number of preferences that are ever satisfied, weighted by their intensity. I also enjoy reading and writing about the topics listed above. If you share my interests, friend me on , , or or subscribe to my RSS feed .

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