Moral weight research
Understanding animals’ experiences and moral standing to prioritise welfare interventions

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This profile is tailored towards students studying biological sciences, philosophy, political science and psychology, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

How confident can we be that different species have the conscious experiences we take to be necessary for moral standing? Do some species have a much higher or lower capacity to suffer or experience wellbeing than others? When trying to improve the world, which animals should we prioritise helping and in what circumstances? These are examples of moral weight questions – in other words, they are questions that address how much the ‘lives, interests, or experiences’ of potential moral patients (beings that have moral value) matter.

There are many trillions or quintillions of beings in existence whose welfare we could potentially try to improve, but the resources that can be drawn upon are comparatively very limited. This makes it particularly important that we understand more about the moral weight of different beings and can make interspecies comparisons. There are two key questions we need to answer: which animals are moral patients, and how much weight should we give their interests? Further research on these questions could drastically improve the effectiveness with which we can work to increase the welfare of moral patients.

This profile is written primarily from a sentientist perspective, which is the perspective that the capacity to experience pleasure or suffering is what causes a being to matter ethically. According to most researchers, sentience is particularly ethically important. Some researchers think that other capacities, such as agency, self-awareness, and normative reasoning are necessary for or relevant to moral standing.

In the video below, Jason Schukraft discusses how to determine the moral weight of different animals and the skills necessary to make progress in this area. 


Explore existing research

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

We’ve split up the research questions below by discipline, however addressing many of the questions will require an interdisciplinary approach.

  • ‘What constitutes evidence for sentience?’ (Jason Schukraft)
  • ‘What is the evolutionary function of valenced experience?’ (Jason Schukraft)
  • ‘How do animals differ (if at all) in their subjective experience of time?’ (Jason Schukraft)
  • What range of affects are different species capable of experiencing, and how do these differentially contribute to their overall welfare experience?
  • Which features or capacities are relevant to capacity for welfare? Which animals have these features, and to what degree?
  • ‘What constitutes evidence for sentience?’ (Jason Schukraft)
  • ‘What is the evolutionary function of valenced experience?’ (Jason Schukraft)
  • ‘How do animals differ (if at all) in their subjective experience of time?’ (Jason Schukraft)
  • ‘Which distributive principles (if any) should we apply when deciding how to allocate resources to help animals at different levels of welfare?’ (Jason Schukraft)
  • ‘Is welfare invariabilism [the view that the same theory of welfare is true of every welfare subject] the right view?’ (Jason Schukraft)
    • If not, this raises two important questions: what is the correct theory of animal welfare and how (if at all) does this affect trade-offs between the welfare of different animals and between animals and humans.
  • In the face of uncertain evidence, what precautionary measures are proportionate for protecting the welfare of potentially sentient animals? (from the paper Animal Sentience).
  • ‘Do farmed animals and wild animals live net positive or negative lives respectively? What are the differences across species?’ (EA psychology research agenda)
  • ‘To what extent can we reliably attribute affectively valenced experience to entities of different kinds? What is the physiological basis of conscious experience and of affectively valenced experience?’ (EA psychology research agenda)
  • ‘How do animals differ (if at all) in their subjective experience of time?’ (Jason Schukraft)
  • ‘How should different welfare constituents be weighted when comparing realised welfare?’ (Jason Schukraft)

Further resources

See the recordings from this conference on interspecies comparisons of welfare.

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas.

If you want to do research on the moral weight of wild animals, we also recommend applying to join the Wild Animal Initiative’s online research community. You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in peer connections with others working in this area.

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.

Some academic research groups doing relevant research are:

Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.

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Our profile on Improving the measurement of animal welfare explores how we should prioritise efforts to improve animals’ lives using ageing biomarkers.

Moral weight questions are not only relevant to understanding humans and non-human animals, but also apply to potential future artificial intelligence systems. To learn more, see our profile on AI sentience, moral status and rights.


This profile was last updated 5/01/23. Thanks for originally creating this profile to Jason Schukraft. Thanks to Jeff Sebo, Leonard Dung and Heather Browning for helpful feedback. All errors remain our own. Learn more about how we create our profiles.

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