Do Effective Altruists Appreciate Nature?

An effective altruist recently made this post in a Facebook group:

How do you personally reconcile your views about nature with enjoying natural spaces?

It seems to me many (most?) EAs think nature, broadly defined as any living space including stuff like gardens and planted trees, contains a lot of suffering. Some might see it as the single biggest, ongoing moral catastrophe yet observed, much worse than the very worst humans have done to each other.

But I also see lots of us posting pictures of ourselves in parks rather than parking lots. We go outdoors to forests, rivers, mountains, gardens, avenues and seem to enjoy it as much as anyone else.

Not just philosophically, but personally, how do you go through life believing nature to contain misery, while also enjoying it?

What do you think when you’re looking at a beautiful view, or old tree, or somewhere like Stonehenge or the Grand Canyon or Central Park or anywhere with living things in it?

A significant minority of effective altruists believe non-human animal well-being is the most important focus area. Within that group, a minority, believe the most important focus is the welfare of wild animals, including from naturally occurring causes (as opposed to from human-made causes). As far as I know, there is little to no good quantified or empirical data on the proportion of EAs primarily focused on wild animal welfare who believe the suffering of wild animals is so great in nature environments themselves are net negative in their existence. It’s my impression those among them who believe nature itself is net negative in expectation are in the minority. However, they’re more vocal due to the fact of how imperative they may see the problem relative to others. They also appear better coordinated. This is also true on the level of the whole movement, such that their voices are disproportionally magnified relative to those who disagree with them. I expect this can create the impression they’re much greater in number in EA than is actually the case.

So it’s simply the case the majority of effective altruists go through life enjoying nature because they don’t believe it’s full of misery; they don’t believe the misery in nature justifies destroying it; they don’t believe misery matters so much relative to other values destroying nature is justified; or they don’t believe the misery in nature outweighs other factors of positive well-being in nature.

I personally don’t believe nature is so full of misery that it’s worth destroying, because that isn’t borne out by empirical evidence that’s yet been collected. I don’t personally believe destroying nature is either justified or desirable, and even if it were on consequentialist grounds, it wouldn’t dominate expected value estimates. I don’t have sufficient reason to believe misery or simple dimensions of well-being is all that is of value. I also don’t believe there is sufficient evidence to conclude the animals in nature whose suffering is thought to dominate so much its destruction would be justified, i.e., invertebrates, either have morally relevant experiences, or we know enough about what those experiences are like to conclude they’re primarily of suffering.

I believe it’s possible nature may be net negative because of all the potential suffering in it, to the extent it might dominate anything else in or part of nature. I cope with it by ignoring it, because I can holistically enjoy nature beyond a degree I’d even describe as aesthetics. That’s because to not let myself enjoy nature even given the assumption it’s so full of suffering as to be the worst thing ever does nothing to reduce wild animal suffering. In the meantime, if enjoying nature is what makes someone’s life meaningful enough it motivates them more to reduce wild animal suffering or do the most good as they best judge it by their own values, than indeed doing so could motivate one to reduce wild animal suffering. To experience nature in commiseration may drive motivation to those who faithfully believe to reduce wild animal suffering is the most important cause. However, there are many effective altruists I know and who I expect experience scrupulosity regarding nature as their sensitive to language in arguments melodramatic relative not to the potential scale of suffering in nature, but what evidence any effective altruists currently have to justify those sentiments as real.


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