Matti Wilks

“Children are much less speciesist than adults” – Psychological Researcher Matti Wilks – New Sentientist Conversation

Matti (@matti_wilks​ & mattiwilks.com​) is a post-doctoral researcher at Yale University, working with Professor Paul Bloom. She studies moral psychology & moral development – including attitudes to cultivated meat & the “natural”, the moral status of various types of entities & altruism.

In these Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?” Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” Click on the video above or here to watch. The audio is also on our Podcast – subscribe on Apple here & the other platforms here.

We discuss:

  • Doing research to make the world a better place (& curiosity)
  • Growing up non-religious (w/ ex-Jewish father) & vegetarian
  • Seeing the benefits & value in religion: Community & compassion
  • Open-mindedness & humility
  • The danger of over-confidence in naturalism & science
  • Researching ve*an children in meat-eating households
  • Parallels between religious & omnivore societal defaults and indoctrination/norm setting
  • Many “religious” people don’t actually hold to the supernatural beliefs
  • Why do we have morality & what should morality be about?
  • Being uncertain about whether there are moral truths
  • Harm & suffering as inherently bad. The drive to reduce suffering
  • Haidt et al’s Moral Foundations Theory
  • Even if nothing matters to the universe, experiences matter to each individual sentient being
  • Would Isaac killing his son have been right? (No)
  • Isn’t choosing whether to care about suffering just choosing whether to be moral?
  • People seem to be more ethically motivated than they used to be
  • Even Greenwashing is a sign that more people care about the environment
  • Public negativity re: factory farming
  • Having the capacity to act more ethically is a privilege (being free of survival needs)
  • Moral relativism
  • Growing up around animals & becoming an “outraged” activist at 15-16 yrs
  • Studying animal cognition. “The Gap” by Thomas Suddendorf
  • Humans do have distinctive capacities but all sentient animals qualify for moral consideration
  • The importance of the moral scope boundary
  • Sentientism as pluralistic re: ethical systems
  • Degrees of sentience vs. egalitarian approaches
  • Sentience as a class of information processing?
  • Most people don’t want to cause animal suffering, but personal/cognitive costs impede & their level of concern is lower than it should be vs. human exceptionalism
  • Cognitive dissonance & motivated reasoning
  • Most religious people still use naturalism for most decisions
  • Supernatural and (flawed) scientific ways of justifying radical human supremacy
  • Simpler sentients (non-human animals, human babies?) might even suffer more than humans. We can often mitigate our suffering
  • “Humans are special, but not quite as special as we think we are”
  • “We need to stop asking people to do the hard moral work”. Activists really want people to make a moral change
  • “Once people change their behaviour they might be able to change their attitudes and start caring more”
  • Cultured/cultivated meat as an example. People can keep doing what they enjoy but without the harms
  • Righteousness & preaching are understandable but rarely effective
  • The challenges of hiding our righteous indignation in order to engage constructively with others
  • To change minds: Start from source they trust or with something they already agree with
  • “If you care enough to be an advocate, you’re already not representative of your audience”. What motivates you probably won’t motivate them (e.g. many people go veg*n for health reasons)
  • Tracy Schultz’ work re: disturbing images
  • Is it naive to think kids are compassionate naturalists?
  • “Young children weigh human & animal lives much more closely than adults do”
  • “Young children are much less speciesist than adults” 1 human : 1.5 dogs or 6 pigs vs. 1 human : 100 animals
  • In-group bias peaks at 4-5 yrs
  • “Our strong speciesism is something we learn socially”
  • The gap between belief & behaviour “X is wrong but I’m curious/tempted”
  • We’ve won the moral argument. So focus more on making it easy (& normal) for people to change behaviour (but keep eyes on the moral outcome!)
  • Going veg*n with others makes it much easier & more sticky
  • It’s great you’re on a journey but don’t stop
  • “Natural” rejection of GMOs/Golden Rice & similar risks for cultivated meat. Process over content
  • Emotion (strong) vs. evidence (weak) re: updating beliefs.

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at sentientism.info​​​​​​​​​​​​​.

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Thanks, Graham for the post-production. Follow him at @cgbessellieu​.

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