1 min read27th Apr 202126 comments
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I watched all 7 hours of Dominic Cummings' testimony to parliament yesterday on the UK government response to COVID. (Cummings was the Prime Minister’s top adviser.)

Key points he made that are relevant to rationalists (some hardly mentioned by the media):

  • Groupthink throughout government and its SAGE committee of scientific advisers meant their initial plan - no lockdown, await herd immunity - wasn't abandoned soon enough. Psychological 'memes' - that Britons wouldn't accept lockdowns or track & trace - were believed with little basis. The groupthink was broken in part by Cummings seeking an outside view of technical documents from Demis Hassabis and Tim Gowers (interestingly).
  • Institutional design failure means incompetent people get promoted to leadership and decision-making roles in UK government and political parties. Various highly competent individuals in more junior ranks were sidelined and left. People aren't incentivized to do the right things. Cummings said he himself shouldn't have been in such a high-powered job, which should have been held by someone far more intelligent & capable. (Cummings was in fact considered the smartest person in Downing St, though he lacks a technical background.)
  • Weak planning for catastrophes, e.g. poor access to data, inability to circumvent slow bureaucratic procedures, lack of detailed advance plans and lines of responsibility for them. He mentioned anthrax attacks and solar flares as other potential scenarios.
  • Human challenge trials should have occurred early on - perhaps even in Jan 2020.

Overall I found him a credible witness, because his testimony was very detailed (e.g. he recalled numerous dates of meetings & events), and quite self-critical, blaming himself for not forcing a lockdown sooner, and for not resigning at various points. His analysis above also seems sound.

A good, plausible movie about AI risk might be an indirect way to raise the chance of government action via public awareness (if that would be useful). Have there been such AI risk movies that I've missed? If not, how could people get one to happen?

Cf I get the impression governments take asteroid risks a bit more seriously thanks to various asteroid-strike movies over the years. Not least the recent Don't Look Up on Netflix, which despite being a comedy was probably quite thought-provoking to many viewers (e.g. showing how there could well be government & public denial, resulting in disaster).

When reading Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom it struck me parts of it would make excellent movie plots. Eg the AI's ingenious ways of escaping an AI box by social engineering. (Though, googling, I see that a dire-looking romcom called Superintelligence, perhaps inspired by but very far removed from the book, was released in 2020.)

While not for activist reasons, more for entertainment, I have a general outline in my head about a realistic thriller movie about a quantitative finance company that accidentally comes up with AGI. The plot follows a security consultant who is called in; they don't really know what's happening at first and they think it's a hacker, but it also could be a bug, they're not sure... Kind of writes itself really.

'Up to' is a misleading rhetorical device widely used in marketing, politics, etc. It precedes a statistic that is an impressive or scary maximum, where some kind of average would almost always be the relevant figure instead. So I'm immediately suspicious of any claim containing the phrase 'up to'.

Eg broadband providers that quote maximum speeds (that only a few optimally-located customers might get in the early hours of the morning) instead of averages. IIRC the UK's advertising regulator has banned this particular trick.

Indeed maxima are often nearly meaningless, such as 'up to x% of COVID cases result in death'. Why not a single figure? In practice it may mean something like: among various studies, the highest estimate produced was x%. (So why not give the range, or just the average?) Or it means something almost irrelevant, like: among various unstated categories of people, the highest figure is x% - likely to be a small, unrepresentative subgroup (e.g. aged over 90, or those with BMI > 30).

I can't be the only person who's noticed this rhetorical device everywhere (I haven't checked), though I've never read/heard anyone else mention it.

I see this most often with toothbrushes, "Removes up to 100% of plaque!".

There seems a big contradiction in the position of environmentalists who support animal rights (as almost all do). They say we shouldn’t eat meat because animals, and animal feed, contribute to CO2 emissions. But if we didn't eat meat, the animals we breed for that purpose wouldn’t exist.

Surely animal rights include the right to life. So denying billions of cows & chickens any life at all seems a strongly anti-animal position.

While meat production involves killing animals, at least they get some life. And if (a big 'if') they were well treated, so they'd enjoy the life they do get, that's a good deal for the animals. Because they'd be much better off than in the wild - a grim existence of starvation, disease, fear, and being torn to bits by predators. And they'd also be better off than not existing.

(The environmentalist assumption that life in the wild is good - because 'nature is good' - doesn't follow. Life in the natural state - e.g. the Stone Age - is nasty, brutish, and short. Human history is the struggle to escape the natural state.)

So, CO2 aside, my position is that meat eating is fine as long as the animals are well treated. Which would mean more expensive meat, and less of it, but that's OK. Happy cows are better than no cows.

(At this point some people object that 'the demand for meat is so high that it can't be met while treating the animals well' - but that ignores that demands don't have to be met; if supply is restricted by a welfare requirement, prices will rise accordingly, so only those who can afford to pay for happy cows will eat steak. It's like saying 'billions of people would want a private jet, so unless we ban private jets they'll all get one'. Well, they would if they cost $10, but not if they cost $10 million.)

I guess one important question not raised here (but lurking in unspoken assumptions) is whether it is better for 1000 animals to be killed after about 3 months on average, or for 50 animals to live an average of 5 possibly painful years each in the wild.

If you scaled up for humans (1000 humans each killed at 3 years old versus 50 humans living to an average of 60) it seems obvious, but that's probably a false equivalency.

I'd split the first case into two:

  • (a) Current meat production: 1000 animals poorly treated and killed young for cheap meat
  • (b) My ideal: (say) 200 animals very well treated and killed, preferably not quite so young, for expensive meat.

Then if we call your 50 wild animals case (c), my claim is that:

  • b > c (as more animals, better conditions, and maybe not much shorter lifespan, but probably more total life-years anyway, and more happiness x years); and
  • b > a (assuming (a) involves conditions worse than, or not much better than, non-existence).

I'm not sure what position you're taking here.

"Right to life" doesn't mean "right to have as many individuals of some group brought into existence as physically possible". It usually means more like "a living individual has a right to not be killed". If you're interpreting it as the former, then it seems to me that you're grossly misinformed about what people actually mean by the term.

In theory some position of total utilitarianism might lead to something along the lines you imply, but even that would have to be traded off against other possible ways of increasing whatever total utility function is being proposed. Most such theories are incompatible with "right to life" in either sense.

I do agree with part of your argument, but think it would have been better stated alone, and not following from and in conjunction with a complete strawman.

My position is in the penultimate paragraph.

OK it looks like I didn't understand what people mean by 'right to life' - probably because I'm inclined towards consequentialism, so don't understand or believe in rights-talk.

However I think an analogous argument could be made along the lines of a 'right to reproduce' (which I suspect many might reckon exists). Non-existent animals don't have the right to exist per se, but their parents have a right to reproduce, which would make them exist.

Cf in the human sphere, mass forced sterilization (of an ethnic group, say) would no doubt be deemed a form of genocide - i.e. infringing something similar to a right to life.

Cf 'right to family life'

Yes, there is an idea of "right to reproduce", but hardly anyone believes that it should hold for animals in the sense of your article. The exceptions seem mainly to apply to critically endangered species.

Rather a lot of people don't hold "right to reproduce" in unrestricted form for humans either. It certainly doesn't have the same near-universality as human right to life.

While mass forced sterilization of particular ethnic groups is absolutely a form of genocide, this again goes way beyond any analogous beliefs that animal rights people hold. Nobody is saying that all chickens and cows should be sterilized so that their species becomes extinct. The closest it gets is "stop force-breeding them".

I didn’t mean make them extinct. I meant not let them reproduce freely, and control their numbers by sterilisation and culling. If done to a severe extent (which may not be necessary in the case of food animals) I can see an analogy with genocide.

(Cf though I’m not an animal rights activist in any way, even as a child I thought there was something odd about the mass extermination of coypu in the UK merely because they ate crops.)

Having the right to live tends to mean the right not to be killed once you exist. It doesn't generally mean all possible lives need to be brought into existence. The nonexistent kids of people who decided not to have any, or not to have as many kids as was physically possible are perfectly well off as far as that goes.

Neolithic innovations are pretty far beyond the natural state, and parts of human history like intensive agriculture may have resulted in worse experiences at an individual level while still being necessary to survive the situation or other pressures. History doesn't always march to something more pleasant. Stone age humans in general probably had much more capable social structures and healing ability than most wild animals have to look forward to - what nonhuman society can both set a broken bone so it will heal right and look after the creature healing?

It doesn't generally mean all possible lives need to be brought into existence.

1. A living animal has a right to life.

2. A living species has a right to life. This isn't the same thing as 'all possible lives need to be brought into existence'.

2 is similar to my reply above about 'right to reproduce'. Sounds like you mean the right not to go extinct (re which arguments for biodiversity would also apply); though it's not likely that cows & chickens would actually go extinct if meat production were banned.

OK I guess this is the 'person-affecting view' I've heard slightly about - that nothing is lost by animals/people not being brought into existence. No doubt this is gone into far greater depth in population ethics etc (of which I know little), but my gut response would be that by not being brought into existence the potential animals in question are missing out, even though they don't know they are. As their potential happiness is being prevented. We might say, the world is missing their happiness.

If Stone Age people were happier than wild animals, that only strengthens my case. And I expect in the Stone Age they weren't happy at all, by modern standards, if we consider the least happy current country in the world (Afghanistan), whose people rate themselves 2.5 on a 0-10 scale, which is around 'barely worth living' (worse than death being considered below about 2). I assume levels of suffering from violence, disease, injury, cold and starvation were typically higher in Stone Age societies then in present Afghanistan, hence happiness lower. And wild animals' 'happiness' lower still.

While I have a position on the case - I'd rather eat lab-grown meat and conduct trades with other animals that don't involve their suffering and slaughter, even if that results in somewhat fewer lives barely worth living existing in the first place - I wasn't arguing against it with that point, rather thinking that your view of the stone age and human progress may benefit from challenging some of the assumptions to it.

Peoples' level of happiness and peoples' level of suffering are somewhat distinct, for one. For happiness, there are baseline levels, hedonic adaptation, adjusting to the situation, deliberate abuse... I can tweak my baseline happiness upward, but I don't necessarily want to.

People in Afghanistan and other modern places have versions of suffering available to them that would have been far less available in the (early especially) stone age, including weapons technology for war, the ability to muster state violence in a significant degree and other political innovations, chemical pollution and the physical risks specifically of heavy machinery, having people a continent away readily able to offset their reduction in suffering by inflicting the externalities to you ... I think it is reasonable to look into the idea of whether levels of suffering actually were higher in Stone Age societies on a by person level. (Ones in regions where it never gets cold would likely not have higher levels of suffering from cold, as a trivial example...)

(Edit, additionally to address first paragraph)
For person-affecting view - Some is lost by animals and people not being brought into existence, but I don't feel like it has much ethical implication short of when that is actually genocidal, which is group-level ethics rather than individual.

The fact the infinite combinations of genes and experiences I could possibly have grown from are missing out on experiencing life is a much less serious tragedy to me than the suffering of any person who actually exists.

If I was one of a set of possible embryos selected from to deliberately not have benign or at least survivable traits because society discriminates against (for example) left-handed people, I'd have somewhat more concerns.

Re Stone Age suffering, as you probably know, violence has been in long-term big decline, and much higher in non-states than states:


Life expectancy at birth in Afghanistan is 64, which is 2 or 3 times in the Stone Age. Suggesting worse general health back then, with attendant suffering. (Infant deaths are of course a substantial part of the lower life expectancy, but by no means all.)

Indeed there's a wider ranges of potential causes of suffering now, but I'm not convinced they're worse overall. E.g. being shot is not clearly worse than being stabbed. People are rarely burnt at the stake now. Chemical pollution is fairly new, but there were plenty of other poisons before. Disease/death from air pollution is predominantly a problem of non-industrial societies (from cooking over open fires), not cars etc.

And of course modern medicine provides ways of alleviating suffering, via treatments and anaesthetics, mostly unavailable in the Stone Age (though at least to some extent available in Afghanistan).

Two comments:

There could be something that is at least deontologically iffy about killing gigantic numbers of sentient beings for comparatively pedestrian purposes. If one isn't completely certain of consequentialism, then that might weigh into ones considerations.

It also seems much less likely that animals are going to be treated well enough than for factory farming to be outlawed and/or superseded by clean meat. This is kind of answered by your answer to the hypothetical objection in your last paragraph, though.

Re your first point, indeed, though if one believes in deontology, hence in rights, you may also think there's something iffy about denying many sentient beings happy lives (ended by painless deaths), which is what I argue they should have. (And there is no plausible middle ground in which cows & chickens would be bred in large numbers and well treated but not eaten - i.e. get to live the lives of pets.)

Re your second point, I can envisage a scenario in which factory farming (i.e. conditions that make animals unhappy) is outlawed, and/or meat is mostly superseded by lab/plant products, but much smaller amounts of expensive happy animal meat are still produced, because (a) it tastes better (or has better texture etc.) to most people, or (b) to a few people, or (c) has sufficient cachet & signalling value (e.g. due to rarity/price) that it is treated as if it tastes better.

(And there is no plausible middle ground in which cows & chickens would be bred in large numbers and well treated but not eaten - i.e. get to live the lives of pets.)

The key word in that sentence is probably 'in large numbers'. However, this seems to ignore the fact that:

  • 'Pets' don't usually produce food. (The prior sentence might be false.)
  • Both uses can coexist (leaning more towards eating than not, while instances of not still exist).
  • How many chickens would there be if everyone had a chicken? (More seriously, extrapolating from the past, what's the upper bound on chicken population, under the 'lots of people have (a few) chickens' model?)

Not sure what you mean by 'both uses can coexist' - i.e. a chicken treated as a pet then eaten? Unlikely.

You may have more of a point re people owning a hen as a kind of pet (i.e. well treated) in order to lay eggs, rather than be eaten; as some people of course already do. I can see that could become more widespread.

Not sure what you mean by 'both uses can coexist' - i.e. a chicken treated as a pet then eaten? Unlikely.

Multiple chickens owned, most eaten, one (particularly useful one) treated more like a (working) pet.

as some people of course already do

I think this used to be more common that it is today.

Cf very surprisingly, a few years ago Princess Anne, a noted horse-rider who competed in the Olympics, called for horses to be eaten so as to improve their welfare. (I.e. so those unsuitable, or no longer suitable, for riding still have a value.) She said this in a speech for the World Horse Welfare charity, of which she is president.


Regulations around backyard chickens have been kind of a hotly argued issue in my locality in my lifetime, so that trend is not necessarily always voluntary or irreversible.

(Regarding 'wild' animals and middle ground, people may also decide to do things like build birdhouses, provide feeders, and treat injury, which may enhance quality/length of life without making either lifestock or pet of those interacted with. Populations of feral chickens also exist some places, so farm-raised chickens aren't the only group in consideration for farm-chicken-descended birds.)