Life on farms may be worse than death

Robin has long had a possible moral defence for meat consumption on his personal site. The basic idea is this:

  • If everyone switched to vegetarianism/veganism, we would convert land that currently supports farm animals into land that supports plants.
  • This would result in fewer living animals, or at the limit, no animals at all.
  • Though the lives of farm animals aren’t great, they would still prefer to exist than not. [1]
  • Therefore we are actually doing farm animals a favour by consuming meat and in so doing funding their, albeit brief, existence.

This general argument is called the ‘logic of the larder‘. It is a clever defence of meat eating, though perhaps it is more a rationalisation, coming most often from people who have previously shown little concern for farm animals.

Personally, I am glad I was created, even though I will suffer at times, am enslaved (by physics and my biology, if not by a conscious agent) and will eventually be murdered (by ageing, if not a butcher), so am willing to go along with the argument in principle. But in practice, it is not a compelling defence of meat consumption today.

It is far from obvious that “most farm animals prefer living to dying; they do not want to commit suicide.” How do we know they do not want to commit suicide?

  • Most farm animals do not have the mental faculties to weigh up the choice of whether to commit suicide or not, and make a reasoned decision based on their quality of life.
  • Even if they did, evolution should strongly bias animals against deciding to kill themselves, because doing so could never serve the interest of their genes. In addition, committing suicide is itself unpleasant, so your experiences could be worse than nothing and you might still prefer to stay alive.
  • Further, even if farm animals could think through such a decision, and were not too biased, they do not have the knowledge or tools necessary to commit suicide.

Unfortunately then, we have no choice but to make our own judgements about their welfare. Surprisingly, Robin doesn’t cite any evidence on this point, instead suggesting those in doubt visit a farm.

It is quite hard to visit a farm, or find an impartial account of animal lifestyles, because commercial farms and slaughterhouses, especially factory farms, do not want consumers to know about the living conditions of the animals they eat. This itself seems fairly damning. As a result, advocates end up doing most of the reporting. Nonetheless, such reports are still informative and paint a dim picture of quality of life in a typical farm. Many animal lives, particularly those of caged chickens, pigs and farmed fish feature little freedom of movement, high rates of stress, discomfort and disease, and from videos appear worse than nothing to me. Certainly, we would regard someone who treated their pets this way as contemptible. More impartial accounts are apparently to be found in the book Compassion by the Pound (buy), which I have bought but not yet read. Given what I currently know, I would rather stop existing than become an enclosed chicken, fish or pig, and so do not eat those products, in particular caged chickens.

It is a harder call for dairy and meat cows. Their quality of life looks better than that of most other farmed species. They also raise a significant complication Robin also briefly mentions. On the margin, farming animals requires many more grain crops, because farm animals must consume many calories of feed to produce a single calorie of meat. As such, farm animals displace wild animals through the conversation of wilderness to cropland. This effect is especially dramatic for cows, because their conversion rate of feed to meat is less than one in ten. If feedlot cows enjoy better lives than the numerous wild animals they displace –  many of them small creatures with tiny life expectancies – this could be an argument in favor of consuming beef or milk. However, such products have other drawbacks,

  • they are probably bad for health (though it pays to be skeptical about the reliability of such research)
  • feeding grain to animals raises food prices (good for poor farmers, but bad for poor non-farmers)
  • livestock farming alone contributes some 18% of anthropogenic greenhouse gasses.

I would appreciate someone trying to weigh up these harms to see which are most worth worrying about. Working out the true effects of our actions is sometimes challenging, but we should make a collective effort, and so I would be keen to learn from your comments.

[1] I have even heard people claim that all creatures would necessarily rather live than die. I trust such people have never weighed death against a lifetime of torture.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.com/ Eric Crampton

    1. Try to eat animals where you would choose their existence over non-existence behind the veil. Pretty easily done here in NZ.
    2. Note that many feed grains fed to animals are grains that would have been fed to people but for adverse growing conditions that led to poor quality: higher levels of mold or other defects that make them unsuitable for human food. A lot of feed-grade crops would only have been suitable for human consumption with pretty high cost intervention.

    • Robert Wiblin

      Thanks Eric.
      1. Is the NZ meat market exposed to international markets? If so, eating more good NZ meat may cause other less scrupulous people to move onto other less compassionate products. I’m not sure what the elasticities involved are though.
      2. Do you know if that is the source of additional feed on the margin?

      • http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.com/ Eric Crampton

        Right questions on both. 

        1. Definitely. Much of the meat we get is actually raised on a small semi-rural block by a friend, who keeps a few animals to keep the grass down and who does so because he knows he has friends willing to buy his product. A good chunk of our consumption comes from his pet beef, lamb and pork. So this is less a worry for us than it could be for others. Were we not to consume his product, he’d raise fewer animals. So a reasonable proportion of the stuff we’re eating has only Wickard v Filburn potential effects on international commerce (ie none). 

        Were we strictly market meat, I’d expect we’d be doing more to increase relative demand for free range over barn chicken / pork (thereby affecting supply) than we would be displacing foreign free-range. For ones that are strictly free range, like beef and lamb here, it would depend what portion of that demand from abroad would shift into other pastured meats, into unhappy meats, and into vegetables. 

        2. I’d expect that the marginal grain is a lower quality would-be-for-people-but-too-low-quality product in any particular year. Every year farmers plant corn and soy intended to be animal feed; that’s inframarginal in each year’s demand. Then there’s the barley that wasn’t good enough for malt; the oats that weren’t good enough for oatmeal; the wheat that had a bit of fusarium head blight but not too much. That’ll be the marginal feed in any given year. But any big change in demand for meat would be met with increased baseload feed production, so it then becomes marginal. Need more coffee to be able to sort it out.

  • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

    If “evolution should strongly bias animals against deciding to kill themselves, because doing so could never serve the interest of their genes” why shouldn’t evolution also give animals the equivalent of preferences to continue existing rather than die? 

    • Robert Wiblin

      Given that they will all die anyway, the question is whether it’s better for them to live longer, which will come down to their quality of life.

      Even if you didn’t grant that, a creature which didn’t want to die but suffered overall through its life would be better off not being created. That way it never has to die, nor would it have to suffer to avoid dying.

      • Carl Shulman

        You switched “wanting to live” for “wanting to never die,” a move which glosses over wanting to live longer.

      • Robert Wiblin

        Yes good point. However, I don’t think that it really makes sense to say “I prefer to be alive, but find being alive to be predominantly suffering.” What is preferring to live and getting that, if not an enjoyable experience that would counterbalance suffering? Can you ‘prefer’ without experiencing? I find that hard to conceive.

    • Robert Wiblin

      My other objection is that I care about providing experiences organisms like, not about fulfilling preferences that fail to result in any desirable experience.

      I don’t really see it as valuable to give somebody something they want if they can never get any subjective payoff from knowing they got what they wanted. We can’t help the dead by giving them what they want after they are dead.

      I would care about the animals continuing to live, if they got enjoyment from not dying, but that’s the question in dispute.

      This is a tough issue though.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Remind me not to have you be executor of my will! 

      • Robert Wiblin

        Flattered you would consider it! :P
        We should follow through on wills anyway for the benefit of the expectations formed by those left living. If we didn’t follow through on wills people would do undesirable things with their property close to death and be unhappy it would be used as they want after they die.
        Do you consider it moral to do things long-dead neanderthals would have wanted us to do? If the preferences of the dead matter, why not?

      • Katja Grace

        If you are a hedonistic utilitarian, I’m not sure why you would hope to learn much of value from revealed preferences ever – it seems few people are close to hedonistic consequentialists with regards to themselves.

      • Hedonic Treader

        In what way do you mean? Irrational time discounting?

  • http://newstechnica.com David Gerard

    All life on earth should be destroyed so as to reduce total suffering in the Darwinian holocaust of nature.

  • http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.com/ Eric Crampton

    Not for farm animals. Cows whose calves are persistently ornery about going to market are more likely to be slaughtered, producing no more calves, than those whose calves are placid. (Meant as reply to Hanson, below)

  • Kelly

    You guys never disappoint, great way to shine light on a very important issue, keep it up. http://www.ficksitall.blogspot.com

  • Pablo

    Surprisingly, Robin doesn’t cite any evidence on this point, instead suggesting those in doubt visit a farm.

    As I told Robin when I had had dinner with him, Nick and Katja a while ago, the fact that farm owners are so reluctant to allow external visitors into their farms is itself good evidence that, if we did visit a farm, we’d find the conditions appalling.  Since Robin’s argument critically depends on the judgements that farm visitors would make, the fact that we would make such negative judgements itself is strong evidence against Robin’s argument.

    For a great discussion of “the logic of the larder”, I recommend Matheny, J.G., K.M.A. Chan, “Human diets and animal welfare,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 18 (6), 2005.

    • xan

      Careful.  Even if the average person finds farm conditions appalling, there may be good reason not to fully trust that reaction.  Modern americans are distanced from real-life blood and gore.  As a result, the average person is grossed out by the sight of a bloody slaughter, even if the cow is unconscious the entire time.  The instant that aversion affects a person’s moral feelings about animal slaughter, an alarm bell should go off.  If you are grossed out by something the cow doesn’t experience, that is a fact about your wellbeing, not the cow’s.

      Similarly, people may systematically overreact to an animal’s living conditions, because we have a tendency to anthropomorphize and draw overly strong analogies to how a human would feel in those conditions.  A chicken in terrible living conditions has never known anything different, and that significantly ameliorates its suffering.  I’m not saying the conditions aren’t bad, but there is good reason to think that the average person will *over*react to them.

      • Pablo

        Careful.  Even if the average person finds farm conditions appalling, there may be good reason not to fully trust that reaction.

        Sure, but Robin is the one who proposes that we should rely on reactions to farm visits to estimate the welfare of farm animals.  If people’s reactions are unreliable, that is a reason to reject Robin’s proposal.

      • xan

        Evidently he thought a visit would be sufficient to convince people.  The fact that it’s not sufficient, however, does not show his proposal should be rejected, just that we don’t have a conclusive argument in favor of it.  We also don’t have a conclusive argument against it, so it’s unfair to “reject” the proposal just because we aren’t sure.

        In any case, Robin’s considerations, even if they form an incomplete argument, will be an important component of any complete argument.  The effects of meat-eating choices on cow life quality/quantity are *relevant* and we shouldn’t lose sight of them.  I don’t like the way Robert calls the argument a “clever defense…a rationalisation.”  Isn’t it an integral part of the whole picture?

      • Pablo

        (In reply to this comment by xan.)

        Evidently he thought a visit would be sufficient to convince people.  The fact that it’s not sufficient, however, does not show his proposal should be rejected, just that we don’t have a conclusive argument in favor of it.  We also don’t have a conclusive argument against it, so it’s unfair to “reject” the proposal just because we aren’t sure.

        By ‘proposal’ I didn’t mean Robin’s whole argument, but the premise that we should rely on the impressions of farm visitors to estimate the welfare of farm animals.  If people’s impressions are unreliable, as you claim they are, this is a problem for Robin’s proposal, not a problem for those who want to resist Robin’s argument, as you seem to believe.

        In any case, Robin’s considerations, even if they form an incomplete argument, will be an important component of any complete argument.  The effects of meat-eating choices on cow life quality/quantity are *relevant* and we shouldn’t lose sight of them.

        Of course, I agree that the welfare of farm animals is an important consideration in assessing the morality of factory farming.  But I don’t think anyone was denying that.

        I don’t like the way Robert calls the argument a “clever defense…a rationalisation.”  Isn’t it an integral part of the whole picture?

        Robert is not denying that the welfare of farm animals is a relevant consideration.  He is instead suggesting that those who invoke the welfare of farm animals to justify consumption of meat might be rationalizing an antecedent and uncritical belief that meat-eating is morally permissible.  There is evidence that omnivores are rationalizers, so this suggestion is not unreasonable.

      • xan

        Pablo, if Robin’s “proposal” is the premise that we should rely on the impressions of the average farm visitor to estimate the welfare of farm animals, then yes, I happily reject that. 

        My point is that Robin could have changed that premise to something better if he expected it to meet with resistance, so his argument (charitably interpreted) doesn’t truly depend on it.  There’s a systematic bias to anthropomorphize chickens and overstate their suffering.  If we visit a farm *and* attempt to correct for that bias, maybe then many people will conclude that farm chickens have acceptable lives.  The argument can be rescued by changing “visit a farm” to something like “visit a farm and ignore your aversion to blood and keep in mind that these chickens do not have human brains and have never known a better life.” (really “visit a farm” should be changed to a much larger discussion about this, but you get the point).

        Returning to your original comment: Robin’s argument (charitably interpreted) depends on the best sense we can get of the chickens’ suffering, while the farm’s decision to disallow visitors depends on the actual sense those visitors will get from visiting.  These things are quite different, so the fact that a farm may disallow visitors isn’t particularly strong evidence against Robin’s argument (charitably interpreted).

    • Daniel Cotter

      The farm owners may be reluctant to allow visitors because those visitors are self selected to be opposed to factory farming. The average person investigating the living conditions of animals likely made up their mind long ago.

  • Faze

    The quality of life of farm animals needs to be measured against the fact that we don’t NEED to eat meat (or have leather car seats). Whatever we do to farm animals is done to gratify a non-vital preference. We immiserate millions of animals for the course of their entire lives so that we can enjoy a few minutes of pleasure while chewing. In the case of mindless eating, the pleasure may be very small or barely register.  

    • Robert Wiblin

      In this post I’m going ahead as if the benefit to humans is very small, which seems right.

      • Rationalist

        As a meat-and-dairy-eater, I would consider the disutility of eating only plants to be very high, on a par with the disutility of losing a finger

      • Hedonic Treader

        But this is in a world that is used to animal products being available.
        Let one decade pass in which animals can’t be bred or slaughtered en
        masse, and the resulting innovations in substitutes (taste, texture,
        price, nutrition) would probably be considerable.

      • http://www.facebook.com/chris.pine.3152 Chris Pine

        Do you know how many animals have to suffer and die over the course of your life for you to “keep that finger”?

      • http://www.facebook.com/chris.pine.3152 Chris Pine

        Also, what’s the disutility of cutting your meat-and-dairy consumption down to half of your current level? One seventh? One thirtieth?

    • Type Error

      Shouldn’t you compare the lifespan of a single animal to the total pleasure obtained from consuming that animal to the lifespan of all animals for a fraction of the pleasure obtained from eating one of those animals?

    • Daniel Carrier

      > The quality of life of farm animals needs to be measured against the fact that we don’t NEED to eat meat

      I disagree. If we needed to eat meat it would be measured against this fact. We would have to find the lesser of these two evils. As it is, we can consider farm animals on their own.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joao.lourenco.90410 João Lourenço

    Most of US and many Brazilians farms – two of the biggest red meat producers in the world – follows Temple Gardin’s protocols on farming cows (http://www.grandin.com/humane/rec.slaughter.html), which are SCIENTIFICALLY (I’m not talking about people going in farms, looking at the cows for 5min and deciding if they are happy or suffering) proven to provide high-standards of well being for the cows. Given that, stopping eating red meat would certainly cause a huge decrease of well being in the world. But, I’m fairly sure all of this will continue to be ignored by most vegans.

    • Ben West

      Red meat requires a huge amount of land, so keeping cows around means there are a huge number of wild animals who don’t get to exist. It’s possible that wild animals live such abominable lives that it’s better for a few cows to exist than thousands of birds, rodents etc., but it seems unlikely.

      • Daniel Carrier

        Why do you say that? I’d guess it’s around neutral.

  • Robert Koslover

    But what are the alternatives?
    After all, consider:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ov5Jgw_Nwx4

  • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

    I’m less convinced that farm shyness of visitors is such damning evidence. Is it damning evidence against most people’s ugliness when naked that they don’t post naked pictures of themselves to the web? Is it damning evidence against the honesty of most politicians that they don’t record their lives 24/7 and post that to the web? How about the fact that most restaurants won’t let you into their kitchen to watch? 

    • Pablo

      If it was normal for people to post naked pictures of themselves online or to record their lives 24/7, then yes, I’d say that the few that refused to follow this practice would be suspect of having something to hide.  Factory farmers are as abnormally “shy” of visitors as these imagined people, and hence equally suspect.

      I don’t think the kitchen analogy is valid.  Maybe most restaurants won’t let random people into their kitchen, but I’d be surprised if they refused entry to someone they thought was sincerely interested in the conditions inside, such as a kid doing a school assignment.  A further disanalogy is that the government-sanctioned hygiene standards for restaurant kitchens are much stronger than the welfare standards for factory farms.  So the decision to refuse visitors provides weaker evidence of substandard hygiene in kitchens than it does of substandard welfare in farms.

      • http://profiles.google.com/prakash.chandrashekar Prakash Chandrashekar

        Most workplaces don’t allow visits willy-nilly. I worked at a software firm in India and even they don’t allow visits during working days for relatives. The only visiting times were during weekends when there was no work. I don’t think factory farms can be singled out here. Management time and attention is a scarce resource and can’t be spent on (non-potential customer) visitors.  Also, the economics of the factory farming business may not allow for receptionist style roles where someone can be designated to do the same.

      • Pablo

        My understanding is that factory farms were much more willing to allow visitors in the early days, and that have since become much more restrictive.  I don’t think this is the case for other industries that we would intuitively say have nothing to hide.  So I do think factory farms can be singled out (perhaps together with a few other industries that are also antecedently suspect).

    • Robert Wiblin

      If the conditions were pleasant, would they be willing to let neutral reporters with cameras freely walk around their facilities from time to time? I think so.

      Those analogies are a bit tenuous. It would be suspicious if most restaurants would never let you see their kitchen. People have good reasons not to want to be seen naked, or filmed through their private lives, other than being ugly or doing immoral things.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Farms might not allow visitors if there were rare situations where a picture could be taken of a repulsive situation, which might then be distributed widely to give a distorted impression of typical situations. 

      • Rafal Smigrodzki

        Indeed, the post we are commenting on is case in point: the sick chicken picture is grossly out of line with what you normally see in a chicken farm, no doubt specifically selected with emotional manipulation in mind.

      • Robert Wiblin

        Flattered you would consider it! :P

        We should follow through on wills anyway for the benefit of the expectations formed by those left living. If we didn’t follow through on wills people would do undesirable things with their property close to death and be unhappy it would be used as they want after they die.

        Do you consider it moral to do things long-dead neanderthals would have wanted us to do? If the preferences of the dead matter, why not?

  • http://twitter.com/danielharan Daniel Haran

    There are other ways to get meat than from factory farms. Polyface is a model worth supporting.

    A proper account of total suffering caused by animal farming would also have to deal with methane and CO2 equivalent emissions.

  • Guest

    The simplest argument is merely to ask whether a person condoning the logic of the larder would do the same for humans. If it’s permissible (or indeed, praiseworthy mind you!) to raise individuals in farmed conditions to kill and eat, wouldn’t we know much better (albeit still imperfectly) when the requisite threshold is met for humans than for beings with such different mental lives – this would support a move from animal farming to human farming.
    At this point, the L.L. defender either resorts to speciesist justifications of why the human case is not permissible, or, worse, backs away to claim something like “that this is a reductio of modern ethics” or something absurd of this sort, while wanting to maintain the continued justification of their present eating habits.

    • Daniel Carrier

      I don’t trust humans’ opinions on stuff like this. For example, humans tend to be against humans selling their own internal organs. Obviously, keeping someone from selling organs of their own free will is not worth letting someone die for.

      • Pablo

        This is not an argument from authority, but a consistency argument.  Regardless of whether you trust other people’s opinions, what do you yourself believe?  Would it be okay to raise human babies for food, if for some reason these beings could not have existed otherwise?

      • OP Guest

         @benthamite:disqus : Is it, strictly speaking, true that they could not have existed otherwise? That doesn’t seem to be the case: for some $500, one could probably purchase any animal that one causes to be bred. The proper analogue then would seem to be:
        A. Breed and farm a human baby for food. Cost=$0
        B. Breed and raise a human baby normally. Cost=$500.
        C. Do neither.

        In this case, as in the analogous animal farming case, option A seems horrific.

      • Daniel Carrier

        You can only pick option B until you run out of money. Once that happens, you still have to choose between A and C.

      • Pablo

        Is it, strictly speaking, true that they could not have existed otherwise? That doesn’t seem to be the case: for some $500, one could probably purchase any animal that one causes to be bred.

        Yes, that’s a very good point.  Constructed in the manner you suggest, the analogy provides an even stronger reason to reject the logic of the larder.

      • Margin

        Guest:

        I would pay $0 to make a new happy being, assuming no additional costs.

        I would not pay $500 to make a new happy being.

      • Daniel Carrier

        I think it would be fine. We’re okay with raising babies that we know almost certainly won’t survive a century. Most people seem to be against cannibalism, but that seems silly to me. The only thing left is life span. If you consider death intrinsically bad, and don’t consider birth symmetrically good, then people would have to live a certain amount to make it worth the death. I don’t accept that. If you do, all it does is just say how long you have to raise the baby for it to be worth while.

    • Carl Shulman

      I don’t think Robin is guilty of this supposed hypocrisy. He speaks warmly of the creation and destruction of extremely short-lived sapient human-like minds for any usage that pays for itself/increases GDP in the context of human brain emulations. If anything, he was probably using the logic of the larder piece and discussion of animals to showcase his views about population ethics and treatment of humans.

  • Wallace Forman

    We will breed animals to love their captivity. No doubt we are not there yet though.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8786932

    • Robert Wiblin

      There is a good chance we will find better/cheaper meat substitutes before then.

      • xan

        Crocodiles are farmed for meat and leather in Asia and Australia, among other places.  It actually seems like reptile meat would compare favorably to chicken by the above arguments. Reptiles are naturally less active than mammals and birds.  Small cages are presumably not torture for animals that, in the absence of a cage, would mostly like to sit around in one place anyway. 

        By the way, every argument we’re considering right now hinges critically on our attempts to figure out what’s going on in a chicken’s mind as it sits in its cage.  It is tempting to analogize from our perspectives as humans.  We would be suffering and bored out of our minds.  But reptiles provide an interesting counterpoint. 

        The behavior that reptiles pursue naturally in the wild seems like it would be torturously boring to us.  But surely it isn’t for them.  So we are *forced* to admit that their experience must be quite alien to us, that our intuition is woefully misguided. 

        Is a chicken’s mental experience closer to humans or crocodiles?  I don’t know.  But I suspect a cooped up chicken who has never known another life is suffering far less than human intuition would suggest.

  • Jesper Ostman

    Nice post. Some points:

    *If we include smaller animals the density of wild animals/land is very high, with the result that the interaction between meat eating and more/less cropland might dominate the question whether it is bad or good to eat farmed animals.

    *It is unclear to me whether emission of greenhouse gas leads to more or less expected welfare. It might be a net negative if we consider existential risk implications, but if we are utilitarians and take existential risk seriously that issue should likely dominate animal suffering worries in any case.

    *If I recall correctly the author of Compassion by the pound was of the opinion that enclosed chickens had a positive 

  • Guest

    Rob, what makes you think that Compassion By The Pound provides an impartial account? Having read it, and read about the author – much of his academic career is staked on the claim that some conventional modern factory farming methods are actually humane, and the introduction of the book reflects a speciesist attitude that the value of animals can be determined by their relative economic valuation by humans.

    Here is the author’s facebook profile picture, showing off his engagement in a brutal American sport: http://sphotos-f.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash3/5408_673500273062_6915708_n.jpg

    • Muga Sofer

      He specifically noted that it was not.

  • A.

    The fact that meat (particularly cow) requires more land than food plants is often raised in defence of vegetarianism. It might be a valid defence; however three factors worth considering are

    1) Livestock can make use of marginal land that would be useless for crops. I live in a mountainous region where most of the high ground is grazed by sheep, but would be impossible to grow any food crops on because it’s rough, wet, exposed and infertile.

    2) In developed countries in particular, the low profit margins to be had from growing food crops (due to high land values) might well mean that if the land weren’t used for livestock it might not be used at all.

    3) The “X food needs more land than Y” argument is almost never used to criticise the eating of, say, lemons, or artichokes, or any of the many other kinds of plant crop that need a lot of land or resources; but surely it should apply equally to them? Sure, people don’t eat ONLY lemons or artichokes, but people don’t tend to eat ONLY meat either.

    • Robert Wiblin

      1) Land which can only be used for raising livestock is already being used to raise livestock. Hence, that’s not how livestock are raised on the margin.
      2) How can the land be valuable enough to have a high price, but then not be used at all? You mean not used for agriculture?3) The differences in efficiency for plant foods people eat in large quantities are not so large. But if that were not the case, it should be used to criticise lemons and artichokes.

      • VV

         

        The differences in efficiency for plant foods people eat in large
        quantities are not so large. But if that were not the case, it should be
        used to criticise lemons and artichokes.

        People need a varied diet. While cereals and legumes may perhaps provide the highest quantity of macronutrients per unit of agricultural resources, people also need micronutrients which are found in lemons, artichokes and other foodstuffs.

      • Robert Wiblin

        Sure that’s a good defence of consuming some.

  • VV

    [ ... ] This general argument is called the ‘logic of the larder’.

    It’s also called “repugnant conclusion”, and it’s exactly the kind of moral absurdity you get when you buy into total utilitarianism.

    It’s not even coherent, especially when you consider non-human agents. If you are interested in maximizing the number of existing agents, why don’t you farm mice? Or nematodes? Or plants? Or bacteria?

    What about simulated agents? Do Farmville cows count in the total utility computation?

    feeding grain to animals raises food prices (good for poor farmers, but bad for poor non-farmers)

    Very bad for people who can’t afford food and starve to death. But I suppose utilitarians can somehow cook up their utility calculations so that the life of an African child is worth less than the life of a cow.

    • Robert Wiblin

      “If you are interested in maximizing the number of existing agents”

      Total utilitarianism clearly doesn’t support that goal.

      “I suppose utilitarians can somehow cook up their utility calculations so that the life of an African child is worth less than the life of a cow.”

      I know of nobody, including utilitarians, who try to do that, or have that view. And I am explicitly worrying about the harm for people who can’t afford food (as would any total utilitarian). So your criticisms seems misplaced.

      • VV

         

        Total utilitarianism clearly doesn’t support that goal.

        Utility monsters notwithstanding, it generally does:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mere_addition_paradox
         http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/repugnant-conclusion/

        I know of nobody, including utilitarians, who try to do that, or have
        that view. And I am explicitly worrying about the harm for people who
        can’t afford food (as would any total utilitarian). So your criticisms
        seems misplaced.

        That criticism wasn’t directed at you, but at Hanson, and in general, at total utilitarians. I don’t know if you consider yourself a total utilitarian, if you do, you should consider whether your moral position are consistent.

      • Hedonic Treader

        Utility monsters notwithstanding, it generally does

        No, it doesn’t. It’s just your misuse of a strawman utilitarianism that does that. If you confuse the mere existence of a miserable person with “utility”, then you get the “repugnant conclusion”. It’s repugnant because you envision a world of many miserable people instead of a world of fewer happy people.

        Only someone with the goal to slander utilitarianism would present a giant misery generator as the goal of utilitarianism! Actual utilitarians require people to be at least somewhat happy for more of them coming into existence to be a good thing within the framework.

        The critics using strawman utilitarianism, however, envision trillions of unhappy people forced to live in misery, and then say, “See? That’s what those evil utilitarians are up to!” It’s really disingenious.

      • VV

         @329fd46bb4318d6135ad05f18f287d33:disqus
        Assuming that the utility functions of the agents are similar and they are sublinear w.r.t. the amount of resources allocated to the agent, then you will minimize their sum by maximizing the number of agents, allocating to each of them resources only barely above the minimum required for positive utility.

        E.g. Assume that you use 10 times the resources of a subsistence farmer (a reasonable assumption for many first-worlders). It is hard to argue that you are 10 times happier than a subsistence farmer (to avoid the interpersonal utility comparison problem, you can consider an alternate universe version of yourself who happens to be a subsistence farmer). Therefore, if you were replaced by 10 of these farmers, total utility would increase.

        The critics using strawman utilitarianism, however, envision trillions
        of unhappy people forced to live in misery, and then say, “See? That’s what those evil utilitarians are up to!” It’s really disingenious.

        That “strawman” is actually Hanson’s imagined future society: trillions of brain-emulations slaving in a Malthusian economy. And he thinks that is actually ethical.

      • VV

        Errata:

         

        then you will minimize their sum

        hen you will maximize their sum

      • Hedonic Treader

        It is hard to argue that you are 10 times happier than a subsistence farmer
        No shit. My happiness is negative.

        Therefore, if you were replaced by 10 of these farmers, total utility would increase.
        Wrong: my misery would be replaced by the even worse misery of 10 subsistence farmers.

        That “strawman” is actually Hanson’s imagined future society: trillions of brain-emulations slaving in a Malthusian economy. And he thinks that is actually ethical.
        Hanson is hardly an authority on population ethics. FWIW, if we assume their psychology to be drastically more fine-tuned for pleasure (hedonic enhancement), he’s probably not wrong.

      • VV

        @329fd46bb4318d6135ad05f18f287d33:disqus

        No shit. My happiness is negative.

        If you consider your life not worth living, then why don’t you kill yourself?

        DISCLAIMER: Least I’m accused of inciting suicide I remark that I’m arguing on a purely theoretical basis. I’m not actually suggesting you to kill yourself. If you are depressed, you’d better seek professional help.

        Wrong: my misery would be replaced by the even worse misery of 10 subsistence farmers.

        Subsistence farmers are rarely depressed.

        FWIW, if we assume their psychology to be drastically more fine-tuned
        for pleasure (hedonic enhancement), he’s probably not wrong.

        Ah, wireheading.

      • Hedonic Treader

        @5dcdf28d944831f2fb87d48b81500c66:disqus

        If you consider your life not worth living, then why don’t you kill yourself?
        I’m hoping the baseline goes up above zero again – but certainly not at 1/10 of my current resources! In addition, suicide is unpleasant business and not completely reliable either.

        Subsistence farmers are rarely depressed.
        I don’t know that. I also don’t know how much of all sentient misery is really captured by the “depression” model. “Depressed” vs. “not depressed” is probably not a comprehensive model of moment-to-moment pleasantness-over-unplesantness in animals (including the human one).

        Ah, wireheading.
        Not quite. The core idea of hedonic enhancement is that the happiness set-point could be shifted upwards without destroying adequate behavior. David Pearce speculates that this could be done until all suffering is abolished. Even if that is false, minor improvements are certainly plausible.

        But you are not wrong about wireheading, as a society as rich as the “em” society could probably sponsor many superhappy minds who don’t have to be productive to exist (e.g. financed by rich benefactors or redistributive governments). The extreme version of this is “hedonium”, resources optimized to create intense pleasure efficiently for its own sake.

      • Robert Wiblin

        It endorses maximising the amount of welfare, not the number of agents. They will not be the same in practice, especially once we can change the kind of creatures that exist.

      • VV

         @google-a440896de6828195755813ebe44bbdf9:disqus  If you can change kind of creatures that exist then you select the type of agents that maximize their happiness (or welfare, or degree of preference fulfilment).

        E.g. Wireheaded humans over normal humans, wireheaded mice over wireheaded humans, algae over mice, bacteria over algae, minimalistic always-happy software agents over bacteria…

      • VV

        @329fd46bb4318d6135ad05f18f287d33:disqus

        I’m hoping the baseline goes up above zero again

        Then while your instantaneous utility might be negative, your expected discounted cumulative is positive.

        I don’t know that. I also don’t know how much of all sentient misery is
        really captured by the “depression” model. “Depressed” vs. “not
        depressed” is probably not a comprehensive model of moment-to-moment
        pleasantness-over-unplesantness in animals (including the human one).

        Well, they are usually not as unhappy as the people who contemplate suicide.

        Not quite. The core idea of hedonic enhancement is that the happiness
        set-point could be shifted upwards without destroying adequate behavior.
        David Pearce speculates that this could be done until all suffering is
        abolished. Even if that is false, minor improvements are certainly
        plausible.

        Above some basic level, e.g. painkillers to negate chronic pain, I don’t think that you can mess with your reward system without causing major behavioural disruptions.

        Consider heroin addicts, for instance. They lose interest to anything but their drug. They become unable to work and care for themselves. Even if they are independently wealthy so that they never have to worry about obtaining the next dose, their lives are miserable and short.

        But you are not wrong about wireheading, as a society as rich as the
        “em” society could probably sponsor many superhappy minds who don’t have
        to be productive to exist (e.g. financed by rich benefactors or
        redistributive governments). The extreme version of this is “hedonium”,
        resources optimized to create intense pleasure efficiently for its own
        sake.

        You don’t have to speculate about futuristic societies. Today, rich benefactors or
        redistributive governments could sponsor many superhappy minds by providing them with a lifetime supply of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other happy pills.

        Is anybody doing that? Is there anybody sane demanding that?

      • Goldferder

        @5dcdf28d944831f2fb87d48b81500c66:disqus

        Then while your instantaneous utility might be negative, your expected discounted cumulative is positive.
        This doesn’t follow. For all I know, I might burn alive in a car crash at the end of this process, which is pretty unpleasant. If people had perfectly reliable suicide options and were perfectly rational about them, the expected discounted cumulative utility of their existence would probably be positive.

        However, these two conditions are rarely met, and in order for the repugnant conclusion to pan out, you also have to assume that creating new people/animals/whatever is a more efficient use of marginal resources than improving the lives of existing ones.

        Well, they are usually not as unhappy as the people who contemplate suicide.
        I will openly admit that my epistemic state of their average well-being is not very good, but I don’t imagine a state of starvation or civil war or in a filthy shag with no access to sanitation and a high probability of malaria to be particularly awesome.

        Above some basic level, e.g. painkillers to negate chronic pain, I don’t think that you can mess with your reward system without causing major behavioural disruptions.
        You’re right. But note that “messing with” is not the same as a careful redesign with potential future technologies and a more comprehensive understanding of how the brain works. This also refutes your heroin example, which is clearly “messing with”, not improving.

        You don’t have to speculate about futuristic societies. Today, rich benefactors or redistributive governments could sponsor many superhappy minds by providing them with a lifetime supply of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other happy pills.
        1) It’s not clear that spending their money now instead of investing it into making more money or researching the basis of hedonic states in the brain is optimal.
        2) Even if spending it now were optimal, it’s not clear that giving health-destroying addictive drugs to people would be optimal (compared to reducing poverty, reducing suffering in factory farms, reducing suffering in wild animals, enabling more young people to be productive etc.)

      • Hedonic Treader

        (The comment from “Goldferder” is from “Hedonic Treader”, I had a copy and paste accident)

      • http://www.facebook.com/davidpearce David Pearce

        VW, I worry you may be attacking a straw man. Drug-free life underpinned by gradients of bliss is feasible for human and nonhuman animals alike. Not least, the very happiest of hyperthymic people alive today serve as an “existence proof” that life animated by gradients of intelligent well-being is feasible. Conversely, some depressive people – and billions of factory-farmed nonhuman animals – spend almost their whole lives below Sidgwick’s “hedonic zero”.
        Just how rich a quality of life we want our grandchildren to enjoy is an open question. But choosing and/or designing benign alleles of e.g. the COMT gene http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17687265 promises to enrich our quality of life without resorting to drugs or wireheading – and without loss of cognitive function or critical insight. By the same token, there is no technical reason why we can’t extend our benevolence to sentient beings of other species. Of course, such benevolence would stand in stark contrast to the cruelties of factory-farming.

    • Muga Sofer

      >>feeding grain to animals raises food prices (good for poor farmers, but bad for poor non-farmers)

      >Very bad for people who can’t afford food and starve to death.”I have yet to hear of a famine that was caused by this. It’s generally some natural disaster, coupled with poor infrastructure.

  • http://twitter.com/creedofhubris Frederic Bush

    So is this “logic of the larder” also an argument against all human birth control? 

  • Game

    Rationally, I don’t really care much about animals. On an emotional level I do care, but that’s just me running on corrupted hardware. So I try to avoid images and knowledge that triggers my animal empathy.

    • Muga Sofer

      Um … what makes you think this is irrational? Generally more empathy is more rational, to overgeneralize a bit. I’d be interested in hearing your reasoning on the topic.

      • dEMOCRATIC_cENTRALIST

        I’m not “Game”–at least not capitalized–but I’d like to answer your question anyway. What’s arguably irrational about empathy for livestock is that such empathy places no constraints on my interaction with humans, who are the only beings who can intentionally punish me for failing to show empathy. (If you disagree with the premises, I would ask you what is the utility for an agent in cultivating empathy for livestock.)

        The reason I say arguably irrational is that it’s possible that empathy for animals increases empathy for humans, in which case there would be a rational basis for cultivating it. (Empirically, those who are maliciously–rather than instrumentally–cruel to animals do tend to behave cruelly to humans; but the converse doesn’t seem to hold.)

        What’ confounds me is how Robert can treat empathy as an inherent moral good, yet claim not to be a moral realist. I’m sure the only plausible antirealist argument I see for empathy toward livestock would be anathema to him.

      • Muga Sofer

        Well sure, if you’re a psychopath, cultivating empathy towards nonhumans isn’t going to further your goals. But most humans see moral behavior as a goal in and of itself, and humans have a tendency to irrationally treat out-group individuals as subhuman due to the lack of empathy. It’s hard to be clear how human morality works, but if you simplify to e.g. minimizing pain or something then empathy for animals, or a lack of it, might well have results you care about.

      • dEMOCRATIC_cENTRALIST

        But most humans see moral behavior as a goal in and of itself

        Then most people are moral realists. But Robert Wiblin claims not to be a moral realist, yet he (somehow) treats moral behavior as an end in itself.

        The question was about rationality. Treating moral behavior as an end in itself means cultivating moral concerns. That isn’t rational since moral concerns impose constraints–unless there’s compensation. To constrain yourself without compensating utility is irrational.

        If it sounds psychopathic, its because psychopaths lack conscience, where moral nihilists admit to lack conscience as its conceived by moral realists. (For a nonpsychopathic moral antirealism, see my “Why do what you ought?”–A habit theory of explicit morality — http://tinyurl.com/7dcbt7y — or the whole “Morality series”: http://tinyurl.com/7advgq5 )

      • Daniel Carrier

        I think what he meant is that most humans have moral behavior as a goal in and of itself. I don’t want to hurt sentient beings. If ignoring empathy causes me to hurt them, I an failing at my goals, and therefore being irrational.

      • Muga Sofer

        “Moral realist” is not identical with “moral”.

        In other words, having goals does not require believing them to be magic.

    • Robert Wiblin

      Seems very strange to call lack of empathy for the suffering of others ‘rational’.

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidpearce David Pearce

      Game, the notion of humans versus “animals” is pre-scientific. There are human and nonhuman animals. Insofar as we want to be scientific rationalists, such pre-Darwinian dichotomies are best avoided.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rave.cave.wild.child Ruairí Donnelly

    Great post Rob!

    I wish I had time to read the comments but unfortunately I don’t. I’ll list a few objections and apologize if they’ve already been covered:To a utilitarian there are (often) better uses of money than expensive meat.Being veg*n promotes anti-speciesism which is very important for promoting utilitarian values, especially if one is a public figure (*ahem*Rob*ahem* ;) ).Lives of farm animals are negative, you already cover this (excellently). 

    Even if they don’t want to commit suicide this doesn’t mean
    their welfare is positive. There is a different between
    liking and wanting, though maybe things are different for you as a preference utilitarian rather than a hedonistic utilitarian. See http://www.felicifia.org/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=623&hilit=wanting+liking+suicide

    Thank you again for the great post!:D!

    Ruairí

  • http://www.facebook.com/davidpearce David Pearce

    An important post: thanks Robert. If we were considering the ethics of human slavery, then we’d give little weight to the arguments of ethicists who were slaveowners – not because the slaveowners were necessarily insincere, but because we know how the human capacity for self-serving bias is deep-rooted – and also abundant evidence that humans have only weak introspective insight into our own motivations. So analogously, what about the ethics of nonhuman animal exploitation? Who should decide what’s legally and ethically permissible? Can meat-eaters with a vested interest in the continuation of animal exploitation (“But I like the taste!”) be trusted to offer a reliable source of unbiased judgement?

    Of course, when considering the ethics of human and nonhuman slavery, just citing the potentially ethically catastrophic risk of self-serving bias doesn’t disqualify, on its own, appeals either to the logic of the larder or any other potential rationalisation of human exploitation of members of other races or species. Lifelong vegetarians doubtless have biases of their own, e.g. maybe they’re unusually prone to signaling their caring disposition to prospective mates or whatever. However, it is (almost) literally incredible to suppose that any ethicist accustomed to a meatless diet would conclude that we have an obligation to turn a vegetation-rich, animal-poor environment into today’s gulag of factory farms and slaughterhouses – and an obligation to do so in the notional interests of the currently non-existing creatures who would be brought into being to suffer inside them. For a start, recall how factory-farmed animals are so distressed they have to be physically prevented (via tail-docking, debeaking, castration, etc) from mutilating themselves and each other. Humans have to be extraordinarily traumatized or psychotic to do anything of the kind. In short, if humans think we’re behaving ethically, we’re simply kidding ourselves.

  • Elithrion

    “I have even heard people claim that all creatures would necessarily rather live than die. I trust such people have never weighed death against a lifetime of torture.”
    Having once had a discussion along these lines on a forum, I can tell you that there was a significant minority (20-40%) that said they would prefer a lifetime of torture to death, although most conceded that their opinion may change if faced with the actual choice (also I’m not sure if choice at the time is necessarily more valid than an advance choice). Which is to say, there may be significant variations between individuals, and the people you mention may have been expressing genuine well-considered beliefs.

    In a somewhat related vein, it seems that on the whole each human stabilizes to their happiness set point over time in most circumstances. E.g. you probably would not be significantly less happy as a subsistence farmer (except possibly when you fell ill more often). You would need to argue that this does not work similarly for animals (or that I’m wrong), or that it breaks down below some level of misery which is achieved at current farms, of which I am not really convinced. (Assuming happiness is what we’re trying to optimize.)

    Furthermore, at most you seem likely to prove that current animal conditions cause disutility (or whatever). The market solution would seem to be to make farms that are slightly less dense and to market the resulting meat to people who accept your argument (I don’t think surpassing the utility of wild living animals would be too hard). Well, I’m pretty sure those already exist, really, though I have not investigated the issue closely, so you should look into it and buy from those.

    (Disclosure: I don’t like utilitarianism and I do support species/intelligence discrimination, so I don’t especially care which way this argument turns out.)

    • Muga Sofer

      Species discrimination is not the same thing as intelligence discrimination; chimps are clearly sentient, if subhuman. And of course some humans are subchimp, due to injury or developmental defect.

      Also,it’s not clear that disutility from death is the same as disutility from “never existing”.

      • Elithrion

        My discrimination rules are a little off-topic, but let’s say that approximately I’d put “humans” in one category, and “everything else” in the other at present, and things in the other category would be cared about very minimally.

        It’s also not clear that disutility from (a sufficiently discomfort-free) death isn’t the same as from “never existing”. I think it’s a little easier to argue that they’re the same, although that might just be because of my personal basic assumptions, and there’s probably no general answer.

      • Muga Sofer

        >My discrimination rules are a little off-topic, but let’s say that approximately I’d put “humans” in one category, and “everything else” in the other at present, and things in the other category would be cared about very minimally.

        Sure, and “humans” is a category defined by species, not intelligence.

        >It’s also not clear that disutility from (a sufficiently discomfort-free) death isn’t the same as from “never existing”.

        No, it’s not. But I don’t think it’s clear that they *are* the same, and with potential high stakes moral uncertainty is worth taking into account.

      • Daniel Carrier

        The disutility of never existing is huge. It’s the opportunity cost of failing to gain the utility of an entire lifetime. Death has that disutility. I think that if it has other disutility, it’s not likely to be of the same scale.

      • Muga Sofer

        The idea that we should take into account the wishes of agents who don’t exist, never will exist, and have never existed is … far from obvious.

      • Daniel Carrier

        If it’s good to exist, then there is an opportunity cost in not existing.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Ergo, since there’s no opportunity cost in not existing (due to the absence of an agent who might suffer the cost), it isn’t good to exist. (Which isn’t to say that it’s bad to exist, a proposition that could be refuted as easily.)

      • Daniel Carrier

        An opportunity cost is not an actual cost, and is never suffered. It’s just a way of moving the zero point to aid in thinking.

        If you want precision: While nobody is hurt by not existing, there would be good if someone does exist. Good is better than neutral, so go with existing.

      • Muga Sofer

        Good FOR WHO?

        If more animals gives us utility, by all means, it’s an opportunity cost. This has other implications, however, and generally seems like an ad-hoc hypothesis designed to render factory farming excusable. Why would we value having as many animals living as possible?

        THOSE ANIMALS clearly get utility by existing – unless, as this article postulates, they get negative utility, but lets ignore that for the moment. Since THOSE ANIMALS will, by definition, not exist if we do not create them, the opportunity cost to them is purely hypothetical, an has no moral force – unless you care about the wishes of all hypothetical agents, I suppose, but that has it’s own problems.

      • Daniel Carrier

        I think there’s some confusion as to “utility”.

        If you don’t care about animals, it is clear that eating meat is okay, not because of the logic of the larder or something to that effect, but simply because you don’t care about them.

        If you do care about animals, and you think, for example, that not torturing animals is better than torturing animals, you have to have some preference ordering of happy animal, sad animal, and no animal. Not having such an ordering would leave you open to a money pump.

        Perhaps I’m misinterpreting something, but it sounds as if people are saying that their_utility(happy animal) = their_utility no animal) and their_utility(sad animal) = their_utility(no animal) on the basis that, since the animal doesn’t exist, it can’t be better or worse. People are still saying their_utility(happy animal) = their_utility(sad animal).

        Let me perform a thought experiment: I decide to raise a happy cow, but then I ask you if you mind of I don’t raise a cow. You tell me that you don’t mind. I then decide to raise a sad cow. Again, you tell me that you don’t mind. You then ask if I’d mind treating the cow better. I tell you that I do mind, but I’ll be willing to do so for $10. You pay me, and we start the cycle over. You wouldn’t do this in real life, of course, but I’m not sure I understand why. On which step did I err?

      • Muga Sofer

        An opportunity cost to who? Ghosts?

        It’s not trivially wrong, but it’s not trivially right,either.

      • Daniel Carrier

        > An opportunity cost to who?

        It’s an opportunity cost, not a true cost. It’s simply the lack of a benefit. If they existed, there would be someone to benefit, thus there’s opportunity cost to not existing.

      • Muga Sofer

        OK, I’ve been thinking about this problem a bit more.

        My existence gives me utility, because I can act to improve the world. Also, I enjoy living. Thus destroying me is an opportunity cost to me.

        Another agent’s existence may give me utility, if it acts to shape the world according to our shared goals. It may also give me utility simply by existing. Thus, failing to create it is an opportunity cost to me.

        Any agent’s existence grants it utility, because it can act to shape the world. It may or may not gain utility by existing. Regardless, destroying an agent is almost always an opportunity cost to it.

        If I care about any agent fulfilling it’s goals – because I’m an altruist – then destroying it is also an opportunity cost to me.

        If I care about ANY agent’s goals being fulfilled, then any agent failing to exist is an opportunity cost to me, although it is not as great as the failure of an agent that considers the current world a perfect fulfillment of it’s goals, forever, is.

        It is only in this last case – where what we value is the total number of agents succeeding at their respective goals – that an agent failing to exist is an opportunity cost to us, although it’s not as big a cost as failing to create an agent that consider the world as it is the perfect fulfillment of it’s goals.

        I find this extremely unlikely, but you might have better luck with Buddhists who think not caring about a problem counts as solving it, so we should all strive for apathy.

  • MFawful

    Does Hanson also oppose the creation of cultured meats or other meat substitutes? If/when cultured meats become good enough and cheap enough to make conventional meat farming obsolete, should we view the decline in the number of animals raised for slaughter as a tragedy?

  • David

    > “feeding grain to animals raises food prices (good for poor farmers, but bad for poor non-farmers)”

    Good for all farmers, bad for all non-farmers, regardless of whether they’re rich or poor.

    • Robert Wiblin

      Sure, but the biggest harms are going to come to the poor, for whom the marginal value of income is high, and who spend a large share of their income on food. It barely affects me at all if grain prices double.

  • Barnley

    If Chickens have no concept of self, do not engage in ‘I’  thoughts, and are not capable of meta-cognition. Then there is no it that can come to believe it is suffering. Then the first question that we should ask in an argument such as this is whether the animal in question is self-aware and capable of suffering.

    • Muga Sofer

      It seems trivially true that they are capable of suffering, albeit not some forms of suffering (what they don’t know can’t hurt them.) They feel pain, for example. Perhaps you meant we should not *care* about their suffering unless they’re self-aware.

    • Robert Wiblin

      That is not what most people who study the brain believe about what is required to experience pain. For instance: 

      ““The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.””

      http://mindhacks.com/2012/08/20/animals-conscious-say-leading-neuroscientists/

      Even if you thought there were some chance animals did not have subjective experience, you would have to be unjustifiably confident about this to justify treating animals with the disregard found in factory farms.

      • Barnley

        Pain is not suffering. Pain is first order in character. To show that something is capable of suffering you have to show that it is capable of higher order or meta level thinking. That it is self-conscious. 

        Whether non-human animals are capable of meta-cognition is still a controversial subject. I think those who strongly believe that most non-human animals do have that ability are unduly confident given the lack of experimental evidence. http://faculty.philosophy.umd.edu/pcarruthers/Meta-cognition.pdf

        I do not know the answer as to which non-human animals are capable of meta-cognition. I am willing to grant that some non-human animals are capable of meta-cognition. 
        Even those who claim that the evidence points to meta-cognition in some non-human animals do not go as far as you:

        “In sharp contrast,” he says, “pigeons in several studies have so far not expressed any capacity for metacognition. In addition, several converging studies now show that capuchin monkeys barely express a capacity for metacognition.

        http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090914172644.htm

        Are you really quite confident that a chicken is capable of meta-cognition? 

      • Robert Wiblin

        I don’t know much about metacognition yet, but will read more about it. However I am not confident that the following is correct:

        “Pain is not suffering. Pain is first order in character. To show that something is capable of suffering you have to show that it is capable of higher order or meta level thinking. That it is self-conscious.”

        What is the evidence for this?

        FYI, I think your uses of the words pain and suffering are idiosyncratic, so you should be careful to define them in future conversations about this.

      • http://www.facebook.com/davidpearce David Pearce

        Barnley, blind panic or raw agony are intensely unpleasant. Such experiences are charactered by an absence of meta-cognition. To claim that picnic-ridden and agony-racked _humans_ don’t suffer because they are too distressed to be capable of reflective self-awareness would be perverse. So what entitles humans to make such a claim of nonhuman animals? A pig for example, is of comparable sentience (and for what it’s worth intelligence: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/10/science/10angier.html?_r=0) to a human prelinguistic toddler. Only irrational speciesist bias prevents us from treating pigs and toddlers with comparable care and respect.

      • Barnley

        “What is the evidence for this?”
        The conceptual difference between pain and suffering. I know the words can be used loosely and interchangeably in common conversation, but it is generally held that suffering is something more than mere pain. People can suffer without physical pain. We wouldn’t say that someone who is incapable of feeling pain (like someone with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain, CIP) is incapable of suffering. Pain is a bodily sensation. Whereas suffering is a negative emotional state or a state of mental distress often associated with physical pain, but not necessarily. Here perhaps is where I am being idiosyncratic, but I think it is straightforward to believe that self-awareness (true self-awareness not just bodily self-awareness as in mirror self-recognition) is required to experience suffering. That one needs to reflect upon an experience to suffer which necessitates meta-cognition. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/davidpearce David Pearce

        Barnley, if you belive that “true self-awareness” is a precondition for suffering, do you also believe that “true self-awareness” is a precondition for pleasure? If so, does a loss of meta-cognitive capacity during sexual orgasm entail that orgasm isn’t really pleasurable?

        I’m sceptical. Either way, this perspective is ethically catastrophic.

      • Barnley

        David – No. If we narrowly construe pleasure as physical pleasure then pleasure, like that experienced during an orgasm, is first order in character just as pain is. That’s an uncontroversial statement. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/nameisthedugan Patrick Dugan

    Maybe you should look at some humane farms and how the animals live there: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mftwXBAwnBU

  • Ben West

    Great post Robert. You left off an important piece: farm animals take up a lot of resources that would instead be used by wild animals, so we need to judge not just that farm animals’ lives are “worth living”, but that they are “worth more” than wild animals’.

    • Robert Wiblin

      Don’t I make that specific point about cows? For chickens it seems like agriculture results in more farmed animals than there would be wild animals. I am also pessimistic about wild animal quality of life (though it is probably better than life on a factory farm).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=599840205 Christian Kleineidam

    Given those issues with grain fed cows, we don’t have to do things that way. Cows can also eat grass. Cows who eat grass walk around to eat the grass and aren’t as strongly encaged as factory chickens. Grassfed cows provide healthier beef and milk.

    At the moment grain is heavily subsidized. A farmer who chooses to feed his cows grass doesn’t profit from subsidized grain and therefore can’t produce products at the same price. 

    If we would just get rid of the grain subsidizes we would have more grassfed cows. 

  • Tim Tyler

    Surely no one really believes that very many farm animals are suffering so seriously that they would prefer to be dead. Animals are strongly programmed by evolution to prefer existence to non-existence under most circumstances. This post apparently tries to make the case that most of them would prefer to be dead – but surely that case is indefensible.
     

    • Hedonic Treader

      Animals are strongly programmed by evolution to prefer existence to non-existence under most circumstances.
      This hypothesis is implausible. Most animals have little comprehension of the concept of existence vs. non-existence! They are programmed with appetence and aversion of correlates of fitness-relevant stimuli and respective behavioral patterns.

      In factory farming, many stimuli are created that corresponded to fitness-reducing correlates in the ancestral environment! Debeaking, confinement and castration are integrity violations that would have marked great danger in the past!

      • Tim Tyler

        When it’s great danger vs certain death, we can expect evolved creatures to choose great danger – every time.

      • Hedonic Treader

        I know evolutionism is your religion, but that doesn’t make your associated hypotheses accurate. Suicidality in humans – the only evolved creatures of which we know that they have a concept of non-existence! – is a well-established empirical fact.

        For all other animals, and for humans most of the time, “certain death” cannot be had without “great danger” – how does an animal in the wild get to certain death without the instinctive triggers of great danger?

        And as I just told you in the above comment, those are the very triggers that are systematically presented in factory farming. Animals other than humans have no concept of “never being born” – and lo and behold, we are perfectly comfortable using contraception.

        Your motivated cognition surrounding evoutionism doesn’t grant you any truth about the subjetive wellbeing of farmed animals. It may well be negative (and it probably is), even though their genes are widespread now.

      • Tim Tyler

        I guess this thread shows that there are always a few folk on the internet who are prepared to defend even completely daft positions.  Yes, some humans do prefer death sometimes (a tiny number).  No doubt a few non-human animals do too.  Indeed, there are even times when death is adaptive.  There’s still no way that the majority of domestic livestock would prefer to be dead.

        Mass vegetarianism would indeed herald an animal apocalypse. If domestic farm animals could speak, by now they’d be begging for us to eat them – much as envisaged by Douglas Adams.

      • Hedonic Treader

        There’s still no way that the majority of domestic livestock would prefer to be dead…  If
        domestic farm animals could speak, by now they’d be begging for us to
        eat them – much as envisaged by Douglas Adams.

        Do you have any scientific evidence for this, or are you just projecting?

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidpearce David Pearce

      Tim, in common with humans infants and toddlers, nonhuman animals lack our sophisticated (and false) belief in an enduing metaphysical ego. So they don’t set out to commit suicide. But in conditions of extreme distress, human and nonhuman animals alike will self-mutilate; harm themselves and their companions; and display all the signs of severe psychosis. This is the reason why factory-farmed animals are subjected to tail-docking, debeaking, [unanaesthetised] castration and so forth. For sure, self-serving humans can devise sophisticated reasons to rationalise animal abuse and child abuse if they have a taste for either; but on some fairly modest assumptions, they are both ethically indefefensible.

  • Tim Tyler

    As custodians of the planet, our mission is surely to make our solar system into a living explosion.  Surely the fates of today’s farm animals are an insignificant side issue.  So, please: forget about signalling to each other how caring you are, and focus on the real problem at hand.

    • Hedonic Treader

      While it is clear that we are intelligent and powerful enough to comprehend ethical issues and affect the future greatly, it is not axiomatic at all that we have a mission to make the solar system into a living explosion. We need to figure out whether this is what we value, and if so, whether we can make it happen at acceptable cost.

      It seems you’re confusing evolutionary concepts with value concepts. While you could probably define them as such without being incoherent, it still strikes me as a category error to consider it axiomatic.

      • http://www.facebook.com/davidpearce David Pearce

        Hedonic Treader, yes, the term “speciesism” is often misinterpreted. The antispeciesist does not claim that all species are equal, or that the well-being of a mosquito as valuable as a pig or a human toddler. Rather beings of equivalent sentience deserve equal consideration. Intuitively, animal advocates care disproportionately about the interests of non-humans. But few would argue that if human infants and prelinguistic toddlers were treated in the way we treat factory-farmed animals, then bringing the infant and toddler holocaust to an end would be our overriding ethical priority. _If_we grant what the scientific evidence suggests, namely that a pig is of comparable sentience to a human toddler, then the same considerations apply.

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidpearce David Pearce

      Tim, imagine if someone claimed, “Surely the fates of today’s Third World infants and toddlers are an insignificant side issue. So, please forget about signalling to each other how caring you are, and focus on the real problem at hand”. You would give such an argument short shrift. But the plight of nonhumans animals of comparable sentience to human infants and toddlers is precisely what’s at stake here.

      • Tim Tyler

        Third world infants (when they grow up) are better placed to contribute than most non-human animals are.  Perhaps they can’t contribute very much – but helping them is quite inexpensive.  So: they seem rather different from most non-human animals to me.

        It isn’t very fair to compare babies with non-human animals – that ignores what they might grow into.

      • http://www.facebook.com/davidpearce David Pearce

        Tim, we recognise that a human toddler with a progressive disorder who will never live to celebrate his third birthday deserves just as much love, care, and respect as his normally developing peers. In the case of  members of our own species, we respect the interests of infants and toddlers for who they are, not for who they may – or may not – one day become. To deny that beings of equivalent sentience deserve equal consideration reflects mere speciesist bias on our part. No doubt such bias has been genetically fitness-enhancing; but it’s also arbitrary, irrational, and ethically catastrophic.

      • Tim Tyler

         I see speciesism as commonplace – and not “arbitrary”, “irrational”, or “ethically catastrophic”.

        I don’t award infants full human rights.  Indeed, I regard infanticide favourably, prioritizing maternal rights – rather like Peter Singer does.

      • Hedonic Treader

        I see speciesism as commonplace – and not “arbitrary”, “irrational”, or “ethically catastrophic”.

        I think there’s a partial misunderstanding here revolving around the definition of speciesism: Caring differently about individuals of different species because of objectively different properties (e.g. capacity for cognition and usefulness later in life) vs. caring differently about individuals of different species despite objectively similar properties (e.g. equal capacity to suffer).

        It seems David is more talking about the latter form of speciesism (demanding equal consideration), while Tim is talking more about the former (focussing on what they might grow into).

        I would be taht David is also a speciesist in the former sense, e.g. he probably doesn’t care as much about trees as about pigs (because trees presumably can’t suffer in the way pigs can).

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

      So, please: forget about signalling to each other how caring you are …

      On a blog dealing with signaling and with such an abundant supply of livestock-rights’ signalers, it’s disconcerting that no attention has been devoted to analyzing what they’re signaling.

      I don’t think the willingness to offer care to allies who need it, signaled by the ordinary “caring” charities, signals the same virtue as does animal rights. (I’ve suggested also that doomsday cult charities signal a still different virtue: ultimate tribal loyalty.) What livestock-rights activists signal is: I’m not a psychopath

      You have to look at the unique meaning of particular signals. Livestock rights commitment lacks any pragmatic justification. Being committed to a costly regime of forgoing (some) animal products proves you can completely subordinate your personal interests to a principle–where there’s absolutely no gain for the person doing the forgoing. A psychopath couldn’t do that.

      • http://www.facebook.com/davidpearce David Pearce

        srdiamond, Robinson Crusoe can be just as ethically concerned  – or amorally unconcerned – with the interests of other sentient beings on his island as are contributors here about factory-farming. Empathetic intelligence is not purely about “signalling”. Conceiving of other subjects of experience as “livestock”, i.e. mere objects to be treated as property, reveals our profound cognitive deficits in perspective-taking capacity – the distinctively human intelligence that helped make one species the most cognitively successful on the planet. We need to enrich and de-bias this perspective-taking capacity, not stunt it.

      • dEMOCRATIC_cENTRALIST

        Robinson Crusoe can be just as ethically concerned  – or amorally unconcerned – with the interests of other sentient beings on his island as are contributors here about factory-farming.

        My claim is that it is pure signaling. To review the reason: it provides no self-interested benefits—ultimately, the only kind—to the moralizer, unlike other forms of charity, which signal that you will benefit other humans, who can benefit you in return. (I develop the general analysis in “A habit theory of civic morality” — http://tinyurl.com/7t3zrrl ) (Your  point about Robinson Crusoe is an unsubstantiated empirical claim to the contrary.

        Conceiving of other subjects of experience as “livestock”, i.e. mere objects to be treated as property, reveals our profound cognitive deficits in perspective-taking capacity – the distinctively human intelligence that helped make one species the most cognitively successful on the planet.

        I doubt that sympathy for the “plight” of livestock has anything to do with taking their perspective. At best, it seems to involve the displacement of affects normally experienced for other humans to infra-human animals. The evidence is that unlike our typical empathy with other humans, it takes recourse to new scientific findings to ground your claims about animal “experience.” No perspective taking seems to be involved.

        But this is at least a potential argument, probably your only one. It is at least possible that concern for livestock somehow generalizes to concern for humans. But it’s probably untrue, and in any event, it’s an argument you or Robert Wiblin probably shouldn’t want to make.

        (I’m S.R. Diamond)
         

      • http://www.facebook.com/davidpearce David Pearce

        srdiamond / demcentralist….Nonhuman animals do not have “experiences”. They have experiences. Or are you proposing that suffering arose with the advent of Homo sapiens? This pre-Darwinian idea seems hard to reconcile with the genetic, neurological and behavioural evidence.

        Humans clearly vary in their perspective-taking capacities, ranging from hyper-empathetic mirror-touch synaesthetes to victims of the more severe forms of autism spectrum disorder who lack any theory of mind at all. The mind-reading prowess of even low-AQ folk is still biased and selective; very few of us can aspire to a Jain-like concern for all sentient beings. For evolutionary reasons, ethnocentric and anthropocentric bias is endemic. Some people try harder than others to overcome it; other folk don’t even try at all. 

        I’m not quite sure why you doubt that some people, at least, empathise with the victims of factory farming. For example, what do you think it feels like to be a pig castrated without an anaesthetic? The subjective agony of the castrated pig is as much a fact about the natural world as the rest mass of the electron or the second law of thermodynamics. If we aspire to full-spectrum superintelligence, then we’ll need a richer understanding of third-person and first-person facts alike.

        Signalling? Well, in common with discussions of psychological hedonism and the claim that everyone is “really” selfish, where do they ultimately leave us? For example, does devising an entirely self-interested account of the motivations of campaigners against (human) child abuse detract from the case against abusing children? Likewise with the case against abusing nonhuman animals – our fellow subjects of experience.

      • Tim Tyler

         Most “moral” signalling is of the form: see how nice and trustworthy I am – and how much I care and love.  So: I am a good an reliable trading partner/friend/lover/whatever.

        Affiliations with different causes signals this with different nuances – depending on what signals people want to send out and who they want to appeal to.

      • http://www.facebook.com/davidpearce David Pearce

        All this talk of “signalling” is an open invitation to construct our own Just So stories. Are defenders of meat-eating and factory farming really just signalling to prospective mates they are tough-minded dominant alphas – with the potential reproductive payoffs such alpha male status brings? If we’re not careful, the debate just collapses into an exchange of ad hominems. Are cannibals who quit eating babies just trying to signal their caring disposition to  nubile females? Who knows; maybe so. But this in no way detracts from the case against baby-eating – human or nonhuman.

    • Michael Dickens

      Please read this piece. It addresses why population expansion may be a bad idea.

      http://www.utilitarian-essays.com/suffering-nature.html

      • Tim Tyler

        Yes, I’m aware some people think it’s important. I would argue that they’re wrong – their priorities are messed up; humanity should ensure its own survival first.

      • Sam

        What for?

  • Efalken

    The essence of human despair is an existential anxiety animals simply don’t have. Surely animals feel stress from physical deprivation and abuse as humans do, and status among primates does affect their hormone level, but basically, it’s out of sight out of mind. When not being bullied by alpha males or predators, they don’t have the worries that drive our depression. 

    So, I don’t think they have bad lives, or even think about whether their life is bad or good, they just exist in the moment for the most part, acting on instinct when prepping their nests or preparing their hunts. If we treat them humanely when alive, and kill them quickly without stress, they have as good a life as any animal can have.

  • IMASBA

    Someone who really believes in this “logic of the larder” should 1) have 20+ children, 2) eat nothing but farmed crickets and 3) live on a surface area that’s as small as possible.

    1) If it’s ethical to give life to as many beings as possible, no matter how miserable their lives, this should also apply to humans.

    2) Farming crickets brings far more being into this world than farming cows does.

    3) If horrible living conditions for beings are indeed inevitable then the ethical thing is to distribute the burden among all beings, so people should give up some of their room so the crickets can have more.

    So yeah, obviously 99.999% of people invoking the “logic of the larder” are full of it. In addition to the excellent arguments made by Robert Wiblin (we don’t know if animals prefer horrible life over death, even if they don’t want to commit suicide, they still may prefer not to procreate: it certainly seems humans who have access to contraceptives choose to bring few descendants into this world to maintain quality of living, and farming does reduce the number of beings living in the wild) I wish to add that there is also a hidden assumption that eating less meat necessarily leads to less farm animals existing, while this is not inevitable at all, humans could choose to keep these populations around. After all, it’s absurd to hold that horrific living conditions can be overridden by some sense of greater ethics, but petty profit margin chasing cannot.

  • Xanstabs

    Your decision then would depend on the fact of animal welfare in agriculture. Sometimes it’s terrible, sometimes it’s fantastic, it really depends on who you buy from. Cattle don’t have to go to a feedlot, and while raising them on pasture all of their lives is less efficient, if someone really cares about animal welfare according to the logic of the larder argument then they would want to convert as much agricultural land to pasture as possible. For me it’s still extremely easy to get 100% pasture raised beef that was slaughtered in a less painful manner than wild animals die.

    Though I’m no proponent of animal welfare, more like my welfare with a splash of virtue ethics that suggests that we should probably make conditions for food animals as good as possible without compromising our goals.

  • Sally Brown

    Thank you for writing about Farm animals. Human beings are monsters in their treatment of animals. Factory farms need to be abolished! I have come to the conclusion that 6 billion (and growing) humans are definitely a cancer on this planet.

  • Pingback: “No animals were harmed”: Strict film standards are not evidence that violence toward animals is decreasing | Sentientist