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Effective Altruism Through Advertising Vegetarianism?

18 Post author: peter_hurford 12 June 2013 06:50PM

Abstract: If you value the welfare of nonhuman animals from a consequentialist perspective, there is a lot of potential for reducing suffering by funding the persuasion of people to go vegetarian through either online ads or pamphlets.  In this essay, I develop a calculator for people to come up with their own estimates, and I personally come up with a cost-effectiveness estimate of $0.02 to $65.92 needed to avert a year of suffering in a factory farm.  I then discuss the methodological criticism that merits skepticism of this estimate and conclude by suggesting (1) a guarded approach of putting in just enough money to help the organizations learn and (2) the need for more studies should be developed that explore advertising vegetarianism in a wide variety of media in a wide variety of ways, that include decent control groups.

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Introduction

I start with the claim that it's good for people to eat less meat, whether they become vegetarian -- or, better yet, vegan -- because this means less nonhuman animals are being painfully factory farmed.  I've defended this claim previously in my essay "Why Eat Less Meat?".  I recognize that some people, even those who consider themselves effective altruists, do not value the well-being of nonhuman animals.  For them, I hope this essay is interesting, but I admit it will be a lot less relevant.

The second idea is that it shouldn't matter who is eating less meat.  As long as less meat is being eaten, less animals will be farmed, and this is a good thing.  Therefore, we should try to get other people to also try and eat less meat.

The third idea is that it also doesn't matter who is doing the convincing.  Therefore, instead of convincing our own friends and family, we can pay other people to convince people to eat less meat.  And this is exactly what organizations like Vegan Outreach and The Humane League are doing.  With a certain amount of money, one can hire someone to distribute pamphlets to other people or put advertisements on the internet, and some percentage of people who receive the pamphlets or see the ads will go on to eat less meat.  This idea and the previous one should be uncontroversial for consequentialists.

But the fourth idea is the complication.  I want my philanthropic dollars to go as far as possible, so as to help as much as possible.  Therefore, it becomes very important to try and figure out how much money it takes to get people to eat less meat, so I can compare this to other estimations and see what gets me the best "bang for my buck".


Other Estimations

I have seen other estimates floating around the internet that try to estimate the cost of distributing pamphlets, how many conversions each pamphlet produces, and how much less meat is ate via each conversion.  Brian Tomasik calculates $0.02 to $3.65 [PDF] per year of nonhuman animal suffering prevented, later $2.97 per year, and then later $0.55 to $3.65 per year.

Jess Whittlestone provides statistics that reveal an estimate of less than a penny per year[1]. 

Effective Animal Activism, a non-profit evaluator for animal welfare charities, came up with an estimate [Excel Document] of $0.04 to $16.60 per year of suffering averted, that also takes into account a variety of additional variables, like product elasticity.

Jeff Kaufman uses a different line of reasoning, by estimating how many vegetarians there are and guessing how many of them came via pamphlets, estimates it would take $4.29 to $536 to make someone vegetarian for one year.  Extrapolating from that using at a rate of 255 animals saved per year and a weighted average of 329.6 days lived per animal (see below for justification of both assumptions), would give $0.02 to $1.90 per year of suffering averted[2].

A third line of reasoning, also by Jeff Kaufman, was to measure the amount of comments on the pro-vegetarian websites advertised in these campaigns and found that 2-22% of them were about an intended behavior change (eating less meat, going vegetarian, or going vegan), depending on the website.  I don't think we can draw any conclusions from this, but it's interesting.

To make my calculations, I decided to make a calculator.  Unfortunately, I can't embed it here, so you'd have to open it in a new tab as a companion piece.

I'm going to start by using the following formula: Years of Suffering Averted per Dollar = (Pamphlets / dollar) * (Conversions / pamphlet) * (Veg years / conversion) * (Animals saved / veg year) * (Days lived / animal)

Now, to get estimations for these variables.


Pamphlets Per Dollar

How much does it cost to place the advertisement, whether it be the paper pamphlet or a Facebook advertisement?  Nick Cooney, head of the Humane League, says the cost-per-click of Facebook ads is 20 cents.

But what about the cost per pamphlet?  This is more of a guess, but I'm going to go with <a href="">Vegan Outreach's suggested donation of $0.13 per "Compassionate choices" booklet.

However, it's important to note that this cost must also include opportunity cost -- leafleters must forego the ability to use that time to work a job.  This means I must include an opportunity cost of say $8/hr on top of that, making the actual cost $0.27 assuming a pamphlet is given out each minute of volunteer time, meaning 3.7 people are reached per dollar from pamphlets.  For Facebook advertisements, the opportunity cost is trivial.


Conversions Per Pamphlet

This is the estimate with the biggest target on it's head, so to speak.  How many people do we get to actually change their behavior with a simple pamphlet or Facebook advertisement?  Right now, we have three lines of evidence:

Facebook Study

Humane League did A $5000 Facebook advertisement campaign.  They bought ads that look like this...

 

...and sent people to websites (like this one or this one) with auto-playing videos that start playing and show the horrors of factory farming.

Afterward, there was another advertisement run to people who "liked" the video page, offering a 1 in 10 chance of winning a free movie ticket in order to take a survey.  Everyone who emailed in asking for a free vegetarian starter kit were also emailed a survey.  104 people took the survey and there were 32 reported vegetarians[3] and 45 people reported, for example, that their chicken consumption decreased "slightly" or "significantly".

7% of visitors liked the page and 1.5% of visitors ordered a starter kit.  Assuming all the other people went away from the video not changing their consumption, this survey would lead us to (very tenuously) think about 2.6% of people seeing the video will become a vegetarian[4].

(Here's the results of the survey in PDF.)

Pamphlet Study

A second study discussed in "The Powerful Impact of College Leafleting (Part 1)" and "The Powerful Impact of College Leafleting: Additional Findings and Details (Part 2)" looked specifically at pamphlets.

Here, Humane League staff visited two large East Coast state schools and distributed leaflets.  They then returned two months later and surveyed people walking by.  Those who remember receiving a leaflet earlier were counted.  They found about 2% of those receiving a pamphlet went vegetarian.

Vegetarian Years Per Conversion

But once a pamphlet or Facebook advertisement captures someone, how long will they stay vegetarian?  One survey showed vegetarians refrain from eating meat for an average of 6 years or more.  Another study I found says 93% of vegetarians stay vegetarian for at least three years.

 

Animals Saved Per Vegetarian Year

And once you have a vegetarian, how many animals do they save per year?  CountingAnimals says 406 animals saved per year.

The Humane League suggests 28 chickens, 2 egg industry hens, 1/8 beef cow, 1/2 pig, 1 turkey, and 1/30 dairy cow per year (total = 31.66 animals), and does not provide statistics on fish.  This agrees with CountingAnimals on non-fish totals.

Days Lived Per Animal

One problem, however, is that saving a cow that could suffer for years is different from saving a chicken that suffers for only about a month.  Using data from Farm Sanctuary plus World Society for the Protection of Animals data on fish [PDF], I get this table:

Animal Number Days Alive
Chicken (Meat) 28 42
Chicken (Egg) 2 365
Cow (Beef) 0.125 365
Cow (Milk) 0.033 1460
Fish 225 365

This makes the weighted average 329.6 days[5].

 

Accounting For Biases

As I said before, our formula was Years of Suffering Averted = (Pamphlets / dollar) * (Conversions / pamphlet) * (Veg years / conversion) * (Animals saved / veg year) * (Days lived / animal).

Let's plug these values in... Years of Suffering Averted per Dollar = 5 * 0.02 * 3 * 255.16 * 329.6/365 = 69.12.

Or, assuming all this is right (and that's a big assumption), it would cost less than 2 cents to prevent a year of suffering on a factory farm by buying vegetarians.

I don't want to make it sound like I'm beholden to this cost estimate or that this estimate is the "end all, be all" of vegan outreach.  Indeed, I share many of the skepticisms that have been expressed by others.  The simple calculation is... well... simple, and it needs some "beefing up", no pun intended.  Therefore, I also built a "complex calculator" that works on a much more complex formula[6] that is hopefully correct[7] and will provide a more accurate estimation.

 

The big, big deal for the surveys is concern for bias.  The most frequently mentioned bias is social desirability bias, or people who say they reduced meat just because they want to please the surveyor or look like a good person, which actually happens a lot more on surveys than we'd like.

To account for this, we'll have to figure out how inflated answers are because of this bias and then scale the answers down by that amount.  Nick Cooney who says that he's been reading studies that about 25% to 50% of people who say they are vegetarian actually are, though I don't yet have the citations.  Thus, if we find out that an advertisement creates two meat reducers, we'd scale that down to one reducer if we're expecting a 50% desirability bias.

 

The second bias that will be a problem for us is non-response bias, as those who don't reduce their diet are less likely to take the survey and therefore less likely to be counted.  This is especially true in the Facebook study, which only measures people who "liked" or requested a starter kit, showing some pro-vegetarian affiliation.

We can balance this out by assuming everyone who didn't take the survey went on to have no behavior change whatsoever.  Nick Cooney's Facebook Ad Survey is for the 7% of people who liked the page (and then responded to the survey), and obviously those who liked the page are more likely to reduce their consumption.  I chose an optimistic value of 90% to consider the survey completely representative of the 7% who liked the page, and then a bit more for those who reduced their consumption but did not like the page.  My pessimistic value was 95%, assuming everyone who did not like the survey went unchanged and assuming a small response bias among those who liked the page but chose not to take the survey.

For the pamphlets, however, there should be no response bias since the entire population of college students was surveyed from randomly, and no one was said to reject taking the survey.

 

Additional People Are Being Reached

In the Facebook survey, those who said they reduced their meat consumption were also asked if they influenced any of their friends and family to also reduce eating meat, and found that they usually produced 0.86 additional reducers.

This figure seems very high, but I do strongly expect the figure to be positive -- people who reduce eating meat will talk about it sometimes, essentially becoming free advertisements.  I'd be very surprised if they ended up being a net negative.

 

Accounting for Product Elasticity

Another way to boost the effectiveness of the estimate is to be more accurate about what happens when someone stops eating meat.  The change isn't from the actual refusal to eat, but rather from the reduced demand for meat, which leads to a reduced supply.  Following the laws of economics, however, this reduction won't necessarially be one-for-one, but rather depend on the elasticity of product demand and supply.  By getting this number, we can find out how much meat is reduced for every meat not demanded.

My guesses in the calculator come from the following sources, some of which are PDFs: Beef #1Beef #2Dairy #1Dairy #2Pork #1, Pork #2Egg #1, Egg #2PoultrySalmon, and for all fish.

 

Putting It All Together

Implementing the formula on the calculator, we end up with an estimate of $0.03 to $36.52 to reduce one year of suffering on a factory farm based on the Facebook ad data and an estimate of $0.02 to $65.92 based on the pamphlet data.

Of course, many people are skeptical of these figures.  Perhaps surprisingly, so am I.  I'm trying to strike a balance between being an advocate of vegan outreach as a very promising path for making the world a better place, while not losing sight of the methodological hurdles that have not yet been met, and open to the possibility that I'm wrong about this.

The big methodological elephant in the room is that my entire cost estimate depends on having a plausible guess for how likely someone is to change their behavior based on seeing an advertisement.

I feel slightly reassured because:

  1. There are two surveys for two different media, and they both provide estimates of impact that agree with each other.
  2. These estimates also match anecdotes from leafleters about approximately how many people come back and say they went vegetarian because of a pamphlet.
  3. Even if we were to take the simple calculator and drop the "2% chance of getting four years of vegetarianism" assumption down to, say, a pessimistic "0.1% chance of getting one year" conversion rate, the estimate is still not too bad -- $0.91 to avert a year of suffering.
  4. More studies are on the way.  Nick Cooney is going to do a bunch more to study leaflets, and Xio Kikauka and Joey Savoieďťż have publicly published some survey methodology [Google Docs].

That said, the possibility for desirability bias in the survey is a large concern as long as the surveys continue to be from overt animal welfare groups and continue to clearly state that they're looking for reductions in meat consumption.

Also, so long as surveys are only given to people that remember the leaflet or advertisement, there will be a strong possibility of response bias, as those who remember the ad are more likely to be the ones who changed their behavior.  We can attempt to compensate for these things, but we can only do so much.

Furthermore, and more worrying, there's a concern that the surveys are just measuring normal drift in vegetarianism, without any changes being attributable to the ads themselves.  For example, imagine that every year, 2% of people become vegetarians and 2% quit.  Surveying these people at random and not capturing those who quit will end up finding a 2% conversion rate.

How can we address these?  I think all three problems can be solved with a decent control group, whether it be a group of people that receive a leaflet not about vegetarianism, or no leaflet at all.  Luckily, Kikauka and Savoie's survey intend to do just that.

Jeff Kaufman has a good proposal for a survey design I'd like to see implemented in this area.

 

Market Saturation and Diminishing Marginal Returns?

Another concern is that there are diminishing marginal returns to these ads.  As the critique goes, there are only so many people that will be easily swayed by the advertisement, and once all of them are quickly reached by Facebook ads and pamphlets, things will dry up.

Unlike the others, I don't think this criticism works well.  After all, even if it were true, it still would be worthwhile to take the market as far as it will go, and we can keep monitoring for saturation and find the point where it's no longer cost-effective.

However, I don't think the market has been tapped up yet at all.  According to Nick Cooney [PDF], there are still many opportunities in foreign markets and outside the young, college kid demographic.

 

The Conjunction Fallacy?

The conjunction fallacy is a classic fallacy that reminds us that no matter what, the chance of event A happening can never be smaller than the chance of event A happening, followed by event B.  For example, the probability that Linda is a bank teller will always be larger than (or equal to) the probability that Linda is a bank teller and a feminist.

What does this mean for vegetarian outreach?  Well, for the simple calculator, we're estimating five factors.  In the complex calculator, we're estimating 90 factors.  Even if each factor is 99% likely to be correct, the chance that all five are right is 95%, and the chance that all 50 are right is only 60%.  If each factor is only 90% likely to be correct, the complex calculator will be right with a probability of 0.5%!

This is a cause for concern, but I don't think there's any way around this.  It's just an inherent problem with estimation.  Hopefully we'll be balanced by (1) using the different bounds and (2) hoping underestimates and overestimates will cancel each other out.

 

Conversion and The 100 Yard Line

Something we should take into account that helps the case for this outreach rather than hurts it is the idea that conversions aren't binary -- someone can be pushed by the ad to be more likely to reduce their meat intake as opposed to fully converted.  As Brian Tomasik puts it:

Yes, some of the people we convince were already on the border, but there might be lots of other people who get pushed further along and don’t get all the way to vegism by our influence. If we picture the path to vegism as a 100-yard line, then maybe we push everyone along by 20 yards. 1/5 of people cross the line, and this is what we see, but the other 4/5 get pushed closer too. (Obviously an overly simplistic model, but it illustrates the idea.)

This would be either very difficult or outright impossible to capture in a survey, but is something to take into account.

 

Three Places I Might Donate Before Donating to Vegan Outreach

When all is said and done, I like the case for funding this outreach.  However, I think there are three other possibilities along these lines that I find more promising:

Funding the research of vegan outreach: There needs to be more and higher-quality studies of this before one can feel confident enough in the cost-effectiveness of this outreach.  However, initial results are very promising, and the value of information of more studies is therefore very high.  Studies can also find ways to advertise more effectively, increasing the impact of each dollar spent.  Right now, however, it looks like all ongoing studies are fully funded, but if there were opportunities to fund more, I would jump on it.

Funding Effective Animal Activism: EAA is an organization pushing for more cost-effectiveness in the domain of nonhuman animal welfare and is working to further evaluate what opportunities are the best, Givewell-style.  Giving them more money can potentially attract a lot more attention to this outreach, and get it more scrutiny, research, and money down the line.

Funding Centre for Effective Altruism: Overall, it might just be better to get more people involved in the idea of giving effectively, and then getting them interested in vegan outreach, among other things.

 

Conclusion

Vegan outreach is a promising, though not fully studied, method of outreach that deserves both excitement and skepticism.  Should one put money into it?  Overall, I'd take a guarded approach of putting in just enough money to help the organizations learn, develop better cost-effective measurements and transparency, and become more effective.  It shouldn't be too long before this area will become studied well enough to have good confidence in how things are doing.

More studies should be developed that explore advertising vegetarianism in a wide variety of media in a wide variety of ways, with decent control groups.

I look forward to seeing how this develops.  Don't forget to play around with my calculator.

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Footnotes

[1]: Cost effectiveness in years of suffering prevented per dollar = (Pamphlets / dollar) * (Conversions / pamphlet) * (Veg years / conversion) * (Animals saved / veg year) * (Years lived / animal).

Plugging in 80K's values... Cost effectiveness = (Pamphlets / dollar) * 0.01 to 0.03 * 25 * 100 * (Years lived / animal)

Filling in the gaps with my best guesses... Cost effectiveness = 5 * 0.01 to 0.03 * 25 * 100 * 0.90 = 112.5 to 337.5 years of suffering averted per dollar
I personally think 25 veg-years per conversion on average is possible but too high; I personally err from 4 to 7.
[2]: I feel like there's an error in this calculation or that Kaufman might disagree with my assumptions of number of animals or days per animal, because I've been told before that these estimates with this method are supposed to be about an order of magnitude higher than other estimates.  However, I emailed Kaufman and he seemed to not find any fault with the calculation, though he does think the methodology is bad and the calculation should not be taken at face value.
[3]: I calculated the number of vegetarians by eyeballing about how many people said they no longer eat fish, which I'd guess only a vegetarian would be willing to give up.
[4]: 32 vegetarians / 104 people = 30.7%.  That population is 8.5% (7% for likes + 1.5% for the starter kit) of the overall population, leading to 2.61% (30.7% * 8.5%).
[5]: Formula is [(Number Meat Chickens)(Days Alive) + (Number Egg Chickens)(Days Alive) + (Number Beef Cows)(Days Alive) + (Number Milk Cows)(Days Alive) + (Number Fish)(Days Alive)] / (Total Number Animals).  ...Plugging things in: [(28)(42) + (2)(365) + (0.125)(365) + (0.033)(1460) + (225)(365)] / 255.16] = 329.6 days

[6]:
Cost effectiveness in amount of days prevented per dollar = (People Reached / Dollar + (People Reached / Dollar * Additional People Reached / Direct Reach * Response Bias * Desirability Bias)) * Years Spent Reducing * (((Percent Increasing Beef * Increase Value) + (Percent Staying Same with Beef * Staying Same Value) + (Percent Decreasing Beef Slightly * Decrease Slightly Value) + (Percent Decreasing Beef Significantly * Decrease Significantly Value) + (Percent Eliminating Beef * Elimination Value) + (Percent Never Ate Beef * Never Ate Value)) * Normal Beef Consumption * Beef Elasticity * (Average Beef Lifespan + Days of Suffering from Beef Slaughter)) + (((Percent Increasing Dairy * Increase Value) + (Percent Staying Same with Dairy * Staying Same Value) + (Percent Decreasing Dairy Slightly * Decrease Slightly Value) + (Percent Decreasing Dairy Significantly * Decrease Significantly Value) + (Percent Eliminating Dairy * Elimination Value) + (Percent Never Ate Dairy * Never Ate Value)) * Normal Dairy Consumption * Dairy Elasticity * (Average Dairy Lifespan + Days of Suffering from Dairy Slaughter)) + (((Percent Increasing Pig * Increase Value) + (Percent Staying Same with Pig * Staying Same Value) + (Percent Decreasing Pig Slightly * Decrease Slightly Value) + (Percent Decreasing Pig Significantly * Decrease Significantly Value) + (Percent Eliminating Pig * Elimination Value) + (Percent Never Ate Pig * Never Ate Value)) * Normal Pig Consumption * Pig Elasticity * (Average Pig Lifespan + Days of Suffering from Pig Slaughter)) + (((Percent Increasing Broiler Chicken * Increase Value) + (Percent Staying Same with Broiler Chicken * Staying Same Value) + (Percent Decreasing Broiler Chicken Slightly * Decrease Slightly Value) + (Percent Decreasing Broiler Chicken Significantly * Decrease Significantly Value) + (Percent Eliminating Broiler Chicken * Elimination Value) + (Percent Never Ate Broiler Chicken * Never Ate Value)) * Normal Broiler Chicken Consumption * Broiler Chicken Elasticity * (Average Broiler Chicken Lifespan + Days of Suffering from Broiler Chicken Slaughter)) + (((Percent Increasing Egg * Increase Value) + (Percent Staying Same with Egg * Staying Same Value) + (Percent Decreasing Egg Slightly * Decrease Slightly Value) + (Percent Decreasing Egg Significantly * Decrease Significantly Value) + (Percent Eliminating Egg * Elimination Value) + (Percent Never Ate Egg * Never Ate Value)) * Normal Egg Consumption * Egg Elasticity * (Average Egg Lifespan + Days of Suffering from Egg Slaughter)) + (((Percent Increasing Turkey * Increase Value) + (Percent Staying Same with Turkey * Staying Same Value) + (Percent Decreasing Turkey Slightly * Decrease Slightly Value) + (Percent Decreasing Turkey Significantly * Decrease Significantly Value) + (Percent Eliminating Turkey * Elimination Value) + (Percent Never Ate Turkey * Never Ate Value)) * Normal Turkey Consumption * Turkey Elasticity * (Average Turkey Lifespan + Days of Suffering from Turkey Slaughter)) + (((Percent Increasing Farmed Fish * Increase Value) + (Percent Staying Same with Farmed Fish * Staying Same Value) + (Percent Decreasing Farmed Fish Slightly * Decrease Slightly Value) + (Percent Decreasing Farmed Fish Significantly * Decrease Significantly Value) + (Percent Eliminating Farmed Fish * Elimination Value) + (Percent Never Ate Farmed Fish * Never Ate Value)) * Normal Farmed Fish Consumption * Farmed Fish Elasticity * (Average Farmed Fish Lifespan + Days of Suffering from Farmed Fish Slaughter)) + (((Percent Increasing Sea Fish * Increase Value) + (Percent Staying Same with Sea Fish * Staying Same Value) + (Percent Decreasing Sea Fish Slightly * Decrease Slightly Value) + (Percent Decreasing Sea Fish Significantly * Decrease Significantly Value) + (Percent Eliminating Sea Fish * Elimination Value) + (Percent Never Ate Sea Fish * Never Ate Value)) * Normal Sea Fish Consumption * Sea Fish Elasticity * Days of Suffering from Sea Fish Slaughter) * Response Bias * Desirability Bias
[7]: Feel free to check the formula for accuracy and also check to make sure the calculator implements the formula correctly.  I worry that the added accuracy from the complex calculator is outweighed by the risk that the formula is wrong.

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Edited 18 June to correct two typos and update footnote #2.

Also cross-posted on my blog.

Comments (532)

Comment author: CarlShulman 12 June 2013 09:21:41PM *  23 points [-]

Nick Cooney who says that he's been reading studies that about 25% to 50% of people who say they are vegetarian actually are, though I don't yet have the citations. Thus, if we find out that an advertisement creates two meat reducers, we'd scale that down to one reducer if we're expecting a 50% desirability bias

This doesn't follow. The intervention is increasing the desirability bias, so the portion of purported vegetarians who are actually vegetarian is likely to change, in the direction of a lower proportion of true vegetarianism. It's plausible that 90%+ of the marginal purported vegetarians are bogus. Consider ethics and philosophy professors, who are significantly more likely to profess that eating meat is wrong:

There is no statistically detectable difference between the ethicists and either group of non-ethicists. (The difference between non-ethicists philosophers and the comparison professors was significant to marginal, depending on the test.)

Conclusion? Ethicists condemn meat-eating more than the other groups, but actually eat meat at about the same rate. Perhaps also, they're more likely to misrepresent their meat-eating practices (on the meals-per-week question and at philosophy functions) than the other groups.

A different frame: the claim here is that facebook ads for vegetarianism are unbelievably effective. We can decompose supporting arguments for that into "facebook ads are unbelievably effective" and "vegetarianism is incredibly easy to proselytize."

For comparison, estimates from randomized trials of get-out-the-vote campaigns (where one can actually measure changes in turnout, as votes are counted) are in the tens to hundreds of dollars per marginal voter turned out (before adjustments for other biases, etc (quotes below)).

Some other differences between vegetarianism and voting:

  • There is a much stronger moral consensus about voting than vegetarianism
  • Vegetarianism is a sustained costly effort, whereas voting is a one-time event
  • There are more GOTV campaigns, so vegetarian ads may face lower-hanging fruit
  • Images of animals may or may not be more effective than GOTV reminders/arguments

One handy reference is Donald Green and Alan Gerber's Get Out the Vote, which reviews dozens of experiments bearing on the cost-effectiveness of get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.

The key results are summarized in a table on page 139 (viewable on the Google Books preview linked). The strongest well-confirmed effect is for door-to-door GOTV drives, which average 14 voters contacted to induce one vote (plus spillover effects), with a cost per vote of $29 (including spillover effects) assuming that staff time costs $16/hour for staff. Phone banks require more contacts per vote, but are cheaper per contact, with Green and Gerber estimating the cost per vote at $38 for campaign volunteer callers, and $90 for untrained commercial callers.

In recent years, the U.S. political parties have adjusted their GOTV strategy in line with these experiments, and turnout has increased. For instance, in 2004 Green and Gerber predicted predicted that the parties would increase GOTV spending by some $200 million using methods averaging $50 per vote, for an increase in turnout of 4 million, and the turnout data seems consistent with that. This money was concentrated in swing states, and in 2004 turnout increased 9% to 63% in the twelve most competitive states, while increasing 2% to 53% in the twelve least competitive states (while clearly leaving many potential voters home).

ETA:

Cattle have a bit less than 1/3rd the brain mass of humans, chickens hundreds of times less, and fish down more than an additional order of magnitude relative to body size (moreso by cortex). If you weight expected value by neurons, which is made plausible by thinking about things like split-brain patients and local computations in nervous systems, that will drastically change the picture and reduce cost-effectiveness.

Personally, I would care more about a day's experience for a cow than for a small feed fish with orders of magnitude less neural capacity.

Comment author: peter_hurford 13 June 2013 03:45:50AM 4 points [-]

This is actually a really good point that makes me less confident in the effectiveness of vegetarianism advocacy.

Comment author: peter_hurford 13 June 2013 06:33:10AM *  3 points [-]

This is something I've considered a lot, though chicken also dominate the calculations along with fish. I'm not currently sure if I value welfare in proportion to neuron count, though I might. I'd have to sort that out first.

A question at this point I might ask is how good does the final estimate have to be? If AMF can add about 30 years of healthy human life for $2000 by averting malaria and a human is worth 40x that of a chicken, then we'd need to pay less than $1.67 to avert a year of suffering for a chicken (assuming averting a year of suffering is the same as adding a year of healthy life, which is a messy assumption).

Comment author: CarlShulman 13 June 2013 06:50:06AM *  7 points [-]

A question at this point I might ask is how good does the final estimate have to be?

First, there are multiple applications of accurate estimates.

The unreasonably low estimates would suggest things like "I'm net reducing factory-farming suffering if I eat meat and donate a few bucks, so I should eat meat if it makes me happier or healthier sufficiently to earn and donate an extra indulgence of $5 ."

There are some people going around making the claim, based on the extreme low-ball cost estimates, that these veg ads would save human lives more cheaply than AMF by reducing food prices. With saner estimates, not so, I think.

Second, there's the question of flow-through effects, which presumably dominate in a total utilitarian calculation anyway, if that's what you're into. The animal experiences probably don't have much effect there, but people being vegetarian might have some, as could effects on human health, pollution, food prices, social movements, etc.

To address the total utilitarian question would require a different sort of evidence, at least in the realistic ranges.

Comment author: Louie 16 June 2013 10:24:35AM 1 point [-]

The unreasonably low estimates would suggest things like "I'm net reducing factory-farming suffering if I eat meat and donate a few bucks, so I should eat meat if it makes me happier or healthier sufficiently to earn and donate an extra indulgence of $5 ." There are some people going around making the claim, based on the extreme low-ball cost estimates.

Correct. I make this claim. If vegetarianism is that cheap, it's reasonable to bin it with other wastefully low-value virtues like recycling paper, taking shorter showers, turning off lights, voting, "staying informed", volunteering at food banks, and commenting on less wrong.

Comment author: KatieHartman 17 June 2013 03:03:17AM 3 points [-]

If AMF can add about 30 years of healthy human life for $2000 by averting malaria and a human is worth 40x that of a chicken, then we'd need to pay less than $1.67 to avert a year of suffering for a chicken (assuming averting a year of suffering is the same as adding a year of healthy life, which is a messy assumption).

This might be a minor point, but I don't think it's necessarily a given that one year of healthy, average-quality life offsets one year of factory farm-style confinement. If we were only discussing humans, I don't think anyone would consider a year under those conditions to be offset by a healthy year.

Comment author: RobertWiblin 14 June 2013 11:24:06PM 6 points [-]

I think some weighting for the sophistication of a brain is appropriate, but I think the weighting should be sub-linear w.r.t. the number of neurones; I expect that in simpler organisms, a larger share of the brain will be dedicated to processing sensory data and generating experiences. I would love someone to look into this to check if I'm right.

Comment author: CarlShulman 15 June 2013 06:12:10PM 2 points [-]

I agree on that effect, I left out various complications. A flip side to that would be the number of cortex neurons (and equivalents). These decrease rapidly in simpler nervous systems.

We don't object nearly as much to our own pains that we are not conscious of and don't notice or know about, so weighting by consciousness of pain, rather than pain/nociception itself, is a possibility ( I think that Brian Tomasik is into this).

Comment author: KatieHartman 16 June 2013 12:15:26PM 12 points [-]

I'm really curious why all of the major animal welfare/rights organizations seem to be putting more emphasis on vegan outreach than on in-vitro meat/genetic modification research. I have a hard time imagining a scenario where any arbitrary (but large) contribution toward vegan outreach leads to greater suffering reduction than the same amount put toward hastening a more efficient and cruelty-free system for producing meat.

Comment author: CAE_Jones 16 June 2013 12:39:37PM 9 points [-]

There seems to be, based just on my non-rigorous observations, significant overlap between the Vegan/Vegetarian communities and the "Genetically Modified Foods and big Pharma will turn your babies into money-forging cancer" theorists. Obviously not all Vegans are "chemicals=bad because nature" conspiracy theorists, and not all such conspiracy theorists are vegan, but the overlap seems significant. That vocal overlap group strikes me as likely to oppose lab-grown meat because it's unnatural, and then the conspiracy theories will begin. And the animal rights groups probably don't want to divide up their base any further.

(This comment felt harsh to me as I was writing it, even after I cut out other bits. The feeling I'm getting is very similar to political indignation. If this looks as mind-killd to anyone else, please please correct me.)

Comment author: KatieHartman 16 June 2013 01:05:27PM 3 points [-]

That seems plausible, though PETA already has a million-dollar prize for anyone who can mass-market an in-vitro meat product. Given their annual revenues (~$30 million) and the cost associated with that kind of project, it seems like they're going about it the wrong way.

From a utilitarian perspective, wireheading livestock might be an even better option - though that probably would be perceived by most animal activists (and people in general) as vaguely dystopian.

Comment author: Hedonic_Treader 17 June 2013 11:20:34AM 2 points [-]

Does the technology to reliably and cheaply wirehead farmed animals now exist at all? Without claiming expertise, I find that unlikely.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 18 June 2013 02:09:42PM 4 points [-]

Opium in the feed? Cut their nerves? Some sort of computerised gamma-ray brain surgery? I'm certain that if there were a tiny financial incentive for agribusiness to do it then a way would swiftly be found.

It's not so hard to turn humans into living vegetables. Some sorts of head trauma seem to do it. How hard can it be to make that reliable (or at least reasonably reliable) for cows?

Least convenient world and all that: If we could prevent animal suffering by skilfully whacking calves over the head with a claw hammer, would that be a goal to which the rational vegan would aspire? It would be just as good as killing them, plus pleasure for the meat eaters. Also it would probably be possible to find people who'd enjoy doing it, so that's another plus.

Comment author: Nornagest 18 June 2013 08:00:53PM 4 points [-]

It's not so hard to turn humans into living vegetables. Some sorts of head trauma seem to do it. How hard can it be to make that reliable (or at least reasonably reliable) for cows?

Probably not that hard. Doing it without ruining the meat or at least reducing yields sounds harder to me, though -- muscles atrophy if they don't get used, and they don't get used if nothing's giving them commands. I'd also expect force-feeding a braindead animal to be more expensive and probably more conducive to health problems than letting it feed itself.

Comment author: gwern 18 June 2013 08:48:16PM 5 points [-]

To continue the 'living vegetables' approach, one could point out that to keep a human in a coma alive and (somewhat) well will cost you somewhere from $500-$3k+. Per day.

Even assuming that animals are much cheaper by taking the bottom of the range and then cutting it by an entire order of magnitude, the 1.5-3 year aging of standard cattles being butchered means 50 * 1.5 * 365 = >$27.4k extra expenses.

That's some expensive meat.

Comment author: ialdabaoth 17 June 2013 11:38:10AM 0 points [-]

though that probably would be perceived by most animal activists (and people in general) as vaguely dystopian.

I find this interesting, because it seems to imply that people have an intuitive sense that eudaimonia applies to animals. I'll have to think about the consequences of this.

Comment author: peter_hurford 17 June 2013 04:31:06AM 2 points [-]

A lot of animal welfare/rights organizations provide funding for in-vitro meat / fake meat, though they don't do much to advertise it. The idea is that these meat substitutes won't take off unless they create some demand for them. Vegan Outreach is one of the biggest funders of Beyond Meat and New Harvest.

Comment author: KatieHartman 19 June 2013 12:32:16AM 12 points [-]

I like Beyond Meat, but I think the praise for it has been overblown. For example, the Effective Animal Activism link you've provided says:

[Beyond Meat] mimics chicken to such a degree that renowned New York Times food journalist and author Mark Bittman claimed that it "fooled me badly in a blind tasting".

But reading Bittman's piece, the reader will quickly realize that the quote above is taken out of context:

It doesn’t taste much like chicken, but since most white meat chicken doesn’t taste like much anyway, that’s hardly a problem; both are about texture, chew and the ingredients you put on them or combine with them. When you take Brown’s product, cut it up and combine it with, say, chopped tomato and lettuce and mayonnaise with some seasoning in it, and wrap it in a burrito, you won’t know the difference between that and chicken.

I like soy meat alternatives just fine, but vegans and vegetarians are the market. People who enjoy the taste of meat and don't see the ethical problems with it don't want a relatively expensive alternative with a flavor they have to mask. There's demand for in-vitro meat because there's demand for meat. If you can make a product that tastes the same and costs less, people will buy it.

Maybe it's likely impossible to scale vat meat such that it is actually cheaper to produce, long-term, than meat from conventionally-raised livestock. Has this sort of analysis been done? I'd assume from the numbers New Harvest quotes - 45% reduction in energy use, 95% reduction in water use, etc. - that it is actually possible.

If you put vat meat on a styrofoam plate with a label with a big red barn on it and a cheaper price tag than the stuff next to it, people almost certainly will buy it. If consumers were that discerning about how their meat was produced, they wouldn't buy the stuff that came from an animal that spent its entire life knee-deep in its own excrement.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 June 2013 01:44:23AM 6 points [-]

Maybe it's likely impossible to scale vat meat such that it is actually cheaper to produce, long-term, than meat from conventionally-raised livestock.

It seems overwhelmingly unlikely that the optimal method of meat production is to have it walking around eating plant matter and going 'Moo!'.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 22 June 2013 02:29:55AM 11 points [-]

Especially for sheep. The training costs would be prohibitive.

Comment author: Jabberslythe 16 June 2013 07:08:07PM *  1 point [-]

Well if vegan/vegetarian outreach is particularly effective then it may do more to develope lab meat than just donating to lab meat causes themselves (because there would be more people interested in this and similar technologies). Additionally, making people vegan/vegetarian may have a stronger effect in promoting anti speciesism in general which seems like it will be of larger overall benefit than just ending factory farming. This seems like it would happen because thoughts follow actions.

Comment author: drnickbone 13 June 2013 11:33:37AM 4 points [-]

An important question is whether there is a net loss or gain of sentient life by avoiding eating meat. Or, if there is a substitution between different sentient life-forms, is there a net gain to quality of life?

  1. Do we know where the biomass that currently goes into farmed animals would end up if we stopped using farmed animals? Would it go into humans, or into vehicles (biofuels) or into wildlife via land taken out of agricultural production?

  2. Should we assume that farmed animals have a negative quality of life (so that in utilitarian terms, the world would be better if they stopped existing and weren't replaced by other sentient beings)? The animals themselves would probably not assess their lives as having negative value (as far as I'm aware, farmed animals do not attempt to commit suicide at every available opportunity).

  3. Do farmed animals have a lower quality of life than animals living in the wild? Remember that nature is not a nice place either...

My personal guess is that without meat, we would end up with more humans, though mostly poorer humans. Since even the poorest humans would probably have a higher quality of life than the animals they substituted, it looks like a net gain from the point of view of total utility. But whether that is really a good thing or not may depend on whether you are a total utilitarian or an average utilitarian.

Comment author: Raemon 13 June 2013 06:34:06PM *  4 points [-]

(as far as I'm aware, farmed animals do not attempt to commit suicide at every available opportunity)

I object to this as the general metric for "should a life be brought into existence?" (I'm something approximating an average utilitarian. To the extent that I'm a total utilitarian, I think Eliezer's post about Lives Worth Celebrating is relevant)

Also, less controversial, I'd like to note that factory-farmed animals really don't have much opportunity to end their own lives even if they wanted to.

Comment author: Desrtopa 13 June 2013 06:49:41PM 9 points [-]

For that matter, even if they did have the opportunity, livestock species may not have the abstract reasoning abilities to recognize that suicide is even a possible thing.

Pigs might have the intelligence for that, but for cows and chickens, I doubt it. It's not like suicide is an evolutionarily favorable adaptation, it's a product of abstract reasoning about death that most animals are not likely to be be capable of.

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 13 June 2013 05:16:46PM *  1 point [-]

Good points, but I suspect they are dominated by another part of the calculation: In the future, with advanced technology, we might be able to seed live on other planets or even simulate ecosystems. By getting people now to care about suffering in nonhumans, we make it more likely that future generations care for them as well. And antispeciesism also seems closely related to anti-substratism (e.g. caring about the simulation of humans, even though they're not carbon-based).

If you are the sort of person that cares about all sorts of suffering, raising antispeciesist awareness might be very positive for far future-related reasons, regardless of whether the direct (short-term) impact is actually positive, neutral, or even slightly negative.

Comment author: drnickbone 14 June 2013 05:39:16PM *  2 points [-]

The other long-term consideration is that whatever we do to animals, AIs may well do to us.

We don't want future AIs raising us in cramped cages, purely for their own amusement, on the grounds that their utility is much more important than ours. But we also don't want them to exterminate us on "compassionate" grounds. (Those poor humans, why let them suffer so? Let's replace them by a few more happy, wire-heading AIs like us!)

Comment author: Jiro 14 June 2013 07:16:41PM 1 point [-]

That argument would seem to apply to plants or even to non-intelligent machines as well as to animals, unless you include a missing premise stating that AI/human interaction is similar to human/animal interaction in a way that 1) human/plant or human/washing machine interaction is not, and 2) is relevant. Any such missing premise would basically be an entire argument for vegetarianism already--the "in comparison to AIs" part of the argument is an insubstantial gloss on it.

Furthermore, why would you expect what we do to constrain what AIs do anyway? I'd sooner expect that AIs would do things to us based on their own reasons regardless of what we do to other targets.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 12 June 2013 07:50:59PM 9 points [-]

You could also reduce meat consumption by advertising good vegetarian meal recipes.

(Generally, the idea is that you can reduce eating meat even without explicitly promoting not eating meat.)

Comment author: peter_hurford 12 June 2013 09:10:57PM *  2 points [-]

Are you suggesting that one simply advertise the existence of good vegetarian recipes without mentioning surrounding reasons for reducing meat?

This is already a strong component in existing advocacy, though none of it mentions recipes alone. Leading pamphlets like "Compassionate Choices" <PDF> and "Even if You Like Meat" have recipe sections at the end of the book. Peter Singer's book Animal Liberation has recipes. Vegan Outreach has a starter guide section with lots of recipes.

As far as I know, the videos used on the internet don't directly mention recipes, but do point to ChooseVeg.com which has tons of recipes and essentially advertises vegetarianism via a recipe-based argument. Another recent campaign, The Seven Day Vegan Challenge also advertises based on a lot of recipes.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 13 June 2013 12:07:53AM 9 points [-]

Are you suggesting that one simply advertise the existence of good vegetarian recipes without mentioning surrounding reasons for reducing meat?

I agree with Viliam_Bur that this may be effective, and here's why.

I bake as a hobby (desserts — cakes, pies, etc.). I am not a vegetarian; I find moral arguments for vegetarianism utterly unconvincing and am not interesting in reducing the suffering of animals and so forth.

However, I often like to try new recipes, to expand my repertoire, hone my baking skills, try new things, etc. Sometimes I try out vegan dessert recipes, for the novelty and the challenge of making something that is delicious without containing eggs or dairy or white sugar or any of the usual things that go into making desserts taste good.[1]

More, and more readily available, high-quality vegan dessert recipes would mean that I substitute more vegan dessert dishes for non-vegan ones. This effect would be quite negated if the recipes came bundled with admonitions to become vegan, pro-vegan propaganda, comments about how many animals this recipe saves, etc.; I don't want to be preached to, which I think is a common attitude.

[1] My other (less salient) motivation for learning to make vegan baked goods is to be prepared if I ever have vegan/vegetarian friends who can't eat my usual stuff (hasn't ever been the case so far, but it could happen).

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 13 June 2013 07:21:31AM *  7 points [-]

Thanks, this is what I tried to say. Reducing suffering is far, eating well is near.

Also, if a book or a website comes with vegetarian/vegan propaganda, I would assume those people are likely to lie or exaggerate. No propaganda -- no suspicion.

This may be just about vegetarians around me, but often people who are into vegetarianism are also into other forms of food limitations, so I often find their food unappealing. They act like an anti-advertisement to vegetarian food. (Perhaps there is an unconscious status motive here: the less people join them, the more noble they are. Which is not how an effective altruist should think.) On the other hand, when I go to some Indian or similar ethnic restaurant, I love the food. It tastes well, it has different components and good spice. I mean, what's wrong about using spice? If your goal is to reduce animal suffering, nothing. But if your goal is to have a weirdest diet possible (no meat, no cooking, no taste, everything compatible with the latest popular book or your horoscope), spice is usually on the list of forbidden components.

In short, vegetarianism is often not about not eating animals. So if you focus on "good meal (without meat)" part, and ignore the vegetarianism, you may win people like me. Even if I don't promise to give up meat completely, I can reduce its consumption simply because tasty meals without meat outcompete tasty meals with meat on my table.

Comment author: amcknight 18 June 2013 11:59:02PM 1 point [-]

This may be just about vegetarians around me, but often people who are into vegetarianism are also into other forms of food limitations

I think I've noticed this a bit since switching to a vegan(ish) diet 4 months ago. My guess is that once a person starts making diet restrictions, it becomes much easier to make diet restrictions, and once a person starts learning where their food comes from, it becomes easier to find reasons to make diet restrictions (even dumb reasons).

Comment author: Swimmer963 13 June 2013 12:49:46PM 2 points [-]

White sugar has animal products in it?

Comment author: GordonAitchJay 13 June 2013 11:59:42AM 2 points [-]

What were the moral arguments for vegetarianism that you found utterly unconvincing? Where did you hear or read these?

Are you interested in reducing the suffering of humans? If so, why?

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 13 June 2013 02:26:06PM 1 point [-]

What were the moral arguments for vegetarianism that you found utterly unconvincing? Where did you hear or read these?

The ones that say we should care about what happens to animals and what animals experience, including arguments from suffering. I've heard them in lots of places; the OP has himself posted an example — his own essay "Why Eat Less Meat?"

Are you interested in reducing the suffering of humans?

Yeah.

If so, why?

I think if you unpacked this aspect of my values, you'd find something like "sapient / self-aware beings matter" or "conscious minds that are able to think and reason matter". That's more or less how I think about it, though converting that into something rigorous is nontrivial. "Matter" here is used in a broad sense; I care about sapient beings, think that their suffering is wrong, and also consider such beings the appropriate reference class for "veil of ignorance" type arguments, which I find relevant and at least partly convincing.

My caring about reducing human suffering has limits (in more than one dimension). It is not necessarily my highest value, and interacts with my other values in various ways, although I mostly use consequentialism in my moral reasoning and so those interactions are reasonably straightforward for the most part.

Comment author: AspiringRationalist 13 June 2013 02:00:23AM *  4 points [-]

This is already a strong component in existing advocacy, though none of it mentions recipes alone. Leading pamphlets like "Compassionate Choices" <PDF> and "Even if You Like Meat" have recipe sections at the end of the book. Peter Singer's book Animal Liberation has recipes. Vegan Outreach has a starter guide section with lots of recipes.

Many non-vegetarians are suspicious of organizations that try to convince them to be vegetarian. It might be more effective to promote vegetarian recipes separately from "don't eat meat" efforts.

Incidentally, I would love to know of more (not too difficult) ways to cook tofu.

Comment author: Alicorn 13 June 2013 02:16:14AM 5 points [-]

I like to take the firmest tofu I can find (this is usually vacuum-packed, not water-packed) and cut it into slices or little cubes, and then pan-fry it in olive oil with a splash of lemon juice added halfway through till it's golden-brown and chewy. Then I put it in pasta (cubes) or on sandwiches (slices) - the sandwich kind is especially nice with spinach sauteed with cheese and hummus.

Comment author: Raemon 13 June 2013 06:25:38PM *  2 points [-]

I think that simply promoting good vegetarian meals would potentially reduce meat consumption among certain groups of people that would be less receptive to accompanying pro-vegetarian arguments. I think it should be part of a vegan-advocacy arsenal (i.e. you do a bunch of different sorts of flyers/ads/promotions, some of which is just recipe spreading without any further context)

However, if one of your goals is to increase human compassion for nonhumans, then recipe spreading is dramatically less useful in the long term. One of the biggest arguments (among LW folk anyway) for animal advocacy is that not only are factory farms (and the wilderness) pretty awful, but that it'll hopefully translate into more humanely managed eco-systems, once we go off terraforming or creating virtual worlds.

(It may turn out to be effective to get people to try out vegan recipes [without accompanying pro-vegan context] and then later on promote actual vegan ideals to the same people, after they've already taken small steps that indirectly bias themselves towards identifying with veganism)

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 June 2013 06:40:13PM *  8 points [-]

Several people have been attempting to reductio my pro-human point of view, so I'll do the same back to the pro-animal people here: how simple is the simplest animal you're willing to assign moral worth to? Are you taking into account meta-uncertainty about the moral worth of even very simple animals? (What about living organisms outside of the animal kingdom, like bacteria? Viruses?) If you don't care about organisms simple enough that they don't suffer, does it seem "arbitrary" to you to single out a particular mental behavior as being the mental behavior that signifies moral worth? Does it seem "mindist" to you to single out having a particular kind of mind as being the thing that signifies moral worth?

If you calculated that assigning even very small moral worth to a simple but sufficiently numerous organism leads to the conclusion that the moral worth of non-human organisms on Earth strongly outweighs, in aggregate, the moral worth of humans, would you act on it (e.g. by making the world a substantially better place for some bacterium by infecting many other animals, such as humans, with it)?

If you were the only human left on Earth and you couldn't find enough non-meat to survive on, would you kill yourself to avoid having to hunt to survive?

How do you resolve conflicts among organisms (e.g. predatorial or parasitic relationships)?

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 14 June 2013 10:23:34PM 10 points [-]

how simple is the simplest animal you're willing to assign moral worth to?

I don't value animals per se, it is their suffering I care about and want to prevent. If it turns out that even the tiniest animals can suffer, I will take this into consideration. I'm already taking insects or nematodes into consideration probabilistically; I think it is highly unlikely that they are sentient, and I think that even if they are sentient, their suffering might not be as intense as that of mammals, but since their numbers are so huge, the well-being of all those small creatures makes up a non-negligible term in my utility function.

If you don't care about organisms simple enough that they don't suffer, does it seem "arbitrary" to you to single out a particular mental behavior as being the mental behavior that signifies moral worth?

No, it seems completely non-arbitrary to me. Only sentient beings have a first-person point of view, only for them can states of the world be good or bad. A stone cannot be harmed in the same way a sentient being can be harmed. Introspectively, my suffering is bad because it is suffering, there is no other reason.

If you calculated that assigning even very small moral worth to a simple but sufficiently numerous organism leads to the conclusion that the moral worth of non-human organisms on Earth strongly outweighs, in aggregate, the moral worth of humans, would you act on it (e.g. by making the world a substantially better place for some bacterium by infecting many other animals, such as humans, with it)?

I don't care about maximizing the amount of morally relevant entities, so this is an unlikely scenario. But I guess the point of your question is whether I am serious about the criteria I'm endorsing. Yes, I am. If my best estimates come out in a way leading to counterintuitive conclusions, and if that remains the case even if I adjust for overconfidence on my part before doing something irreversible, then I would indeed act accordingly.

If you were the only human left on Earth and you couldn't find enough non-meat to survive on, would you kill yourself to avoid having to hunt to survive?

The lives of most wild animals involve a lot of suffering already, and at some point, they are likely going to die painfully anyway. It is unclear whether me killing them (assuming I'd even be skilled enough to get one of them) would be net bad. I don't intrinsically object to beings dying/being killed. But again, if it turns out that some action (e.g. killing myself) is what best fulfills the values I've come up with under reflection, I will do that, or, if I'm not mentally capable of doing it, I'd take a pill that would make me capable.

How do you resolve conflicts among organisms (e.g. predatorial or parasitic relationships)?

I don't know, but I assume that an AI would be able to find a great solution. Maybe through reengineering animals so they become incapable of experiencing suffering, while somehow keeping the function of pain intact. Or maybe simply get rid of Darwinian nature and replace it, if that is deemed necessary, with something artificial and nice.

Comment author: Watercressed 17 June 2013 05:26:23AM 9 points [-]

I'm already taking insects or nematodes into consideration probabilistically; I think it is highly unlikely that they are sentient, and I think that even if they are sentient, their suffering might not be as intense as that of mammals, but since their numbers are so huge, the well-being of all those small creatures makes up a non-negligible term in my utility function.

A priori, it seems that the moral weight of insects would either be dominated by their massive numbers or by their tiny capacities. It's a narrow space where the two balance and you get a non-negligible but still-not-overwhelming weight for insects in a utility function. How did you decide that this was right?

Comment author: Jabberslythe 17 June 2013 06:17:00AM 4 points [-]

I think there are good arguments for for suffering not being weighted by number of neurons and if you assign even a 10% to that being the case you end up with insects (and maybe nematodes and zooplankton) dominating the utility function because of their overwhelming numbers.

Having said that, ways on increasing the well being of these may be quite a bit different from increasing it for larger animals. In particular, because they so many of them die so within the first few days of life, their averaged life quality seems like it would be terrible. So reducing the populations looks like the current best option.

There may be good instrumental reasons for focusing on less controversial animals and hoping that they promote the kind of antispeciesism that spills over to concern about insects and does work for improving similar situations in the future.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 17 June 2013 05:59:47PM *  6 points [-]

For what is worth, here are the results of a survey that Vallinder and I circulated recently. 85% of expert respondents, and 89% of LessWrong respondents, believe that there is at least a 1% chance that insects are sentient, and 77% of experts and 69% of LessWrongers believe there is at least a 20% chance that they are sentient.

Comment author: Jabberslythe 17 June 2013 07:23:17PM 3 points [-]

Very interesting. What were they experts in? And how many people responded?

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 17 June 2013 07:39:27PM 4 points [-]

They were experts in pain perception and related fields. We sent the survey to about 25 people, of whom 13 responded (you can find the individual responses in the 'Data: experts' tab of the spreadsheet).

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 17 June 2013 03:19:34PM *  1 point [-]

Yes, my current estimate for that is less than 1%, but this is definitely something I should look into more closely. This has been on my to-do list for quite a while already.

Another thing to consider is that insects are a diverse bunch. I'm virtually certain that some of them aren't conscious, see for instance this type of behavior. OTOH, cockroaches or bees seem to be much more likely to be sentient.

Comment author: Jabberslythe 17 June 2013 06:22:33PM *  1 point [-]

Yes. Bees and Cockroaches both have about a million neurons compared with maybe 100,000 for most insects.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 17 June 2013 03:59:36PM 1 point [-]

Can you summarize the properties you look for when making these kinds of estimates of whether an insect is conscious/sentient/etc.? Or do you make these judgments based on more implicit/instinctive inspection?

Comment author: Jabberslythe 17 June 2013 07:10:43PM 1 point [-]

I mostly do it by thinking about what I would accept as evidence of pain in more complex animals and see if it is present in insects. Complex pain behavior and evolutionary and functional homology relating to pain are things to look for.

There is a quite a bit of research on complex pain behavior in crabs by Robert Elwood. I'd link his site but it doesn't seem to be up right now. You should be able to find the articles, though. Crabs have 100,000 neurons which is around what many insects have.

Here is a pdf of a paper that find that a bunch of common human mind altering drugs affecting crawfish and fruit flies.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 June 2013 10:40:35PM *  3 points [-]

Only sentient beings have a first-person point of view, only for them can states of the world be good or bad.

Is the blue-minimizing robot suffering if it sees a lot of blue? Would you want to help alleviate that suffering by recoloring blue things so that they are no longer blue?

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 16 June 2013 02:56:26PM 6 points [-]

I don't see the relevance of this question, but judging by the upvotes it received, it seems that I'm missing something.

I think suffering is suffering, no matter the substrate it is based on. Whether such a robot would be sentient is an empirical question (in my view anyway, it has recently come to my attention that some people disagree with this). Once we solve the problem of consciousness, it will turn out that such a robot is either conscious or that it isn't. If it is conscious, I will try to reduce its suffering. If the only way to do that would involve doing "weird" things, I would do weird things.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 16 June 2013 07:13:36PM 3 points [-]

The relevance is that my moral intuitions suggest that the blue-minimizing robot is morally irrelevant. But if you're willing to bite the bullet here, then at least you're being consistent (although I'm no longer sure that consistency is such a great property of a moral system for humans).

Comment author: Xodarap 14 June 2013 08:21:40PM 3 points [-]

It doesn't seem like you're really criticizing "pro-animal people" - you're just critiquing utilitarianism. (e.g. "Is it arbitrary to state that suffering is bad?" "What if you could help others only at great expense to yourself?")

Supposing one does accept utilitarian principles, is there any reason why we shouldn't care about the suffering of non-humans?

Comment author: Raemon 14 June 2013 08:17:36PM 6 points [-]

1) I am okay with humanely raised farm meat (I found a local butcher shop that sources from farms I consider ethical)

2) If I didn't have access to civilization, I would probably end up hunting to survive, although I'd try to do so as rarely and humanely as was possible given my circumstances. (I'm only like 5% altruist, I just try to direct that altruism as effectively as possible and if push comes to shove I'm a primal animal that needs to eat. I'm skeptical of people who claim otherwise)

3) I'm currently okay with eating insects, mussels, and similar simplish animals, where I can make pretty good guesses about the lack of sentience of. (If insects do turn out to have sentience, that's a pretty inconvenient world to have to live in, morally.)

4) I'm approximately average-preference-utilitarian. I value there being more creatures with more complex and interesting capacities for preference satisfaction (this is arbitrary and I'm fine with that). If I had to choose between humans and animals, I'd choose humans. But that's not the choice offered to humans RE vegetarianism - what's at stake is not humanity and complex relationships/art/intellectual-endeavors - it's pretty straightforward pleasure (of a sort that I'm expect large swaths of the animal kingdom to be capable of experiencing - visceral enjoyment of food almost certainly evolved fairly early. You are not exercising any special human-ness to experience it)

Most people don't need meat (or much of it) to be productive (the amount most people think they need is pretty grossly wrong), and the amount of hedonic satisfaction you're getting from eating meat is vastly dwarfed by the anti-hedons that enabled it.

5) Ultimately, what I actually advocate is making the best decisions you can, given your circumstances. This includes trading off the willpower and energy you spend on Vegetarianism vs other ways you might be reducing suffering or increasing pleasure/joy/complex-beauty. I wouldn't push too hard for an effective altruist to be Vegetarian. If you argue that devoting your "give a shit" energy is better spent on fighting poverty or injustice or preventing the destruction of the world by unfriendly AI, I won't argue with you.

But I'd like people to at least have animal suffering on the radar of "things I'd like to give a shit about, if I had the energy, and that if it became much more convenient to care about, I'd make small modifications to my lifestyle." So that when in-vitro meat becomes cheap and tasty, I think people should make the initial effort to switch over. (Possibly even while it's still a bit more expensive). Meanwhile, humanely-raised meat tends to be tastier (it's overall higher quality) so if you have leftover budget for nicer food in the first place, I'd consider that.

I don't know how to resolve things like "the ecosystem is full of terribleness". It is possible than plans that include "destroy all natural ecosystems" will turn out to be correct, but my prior on any given person deciding correctly to do that and execute on it without making lots of things worse is low.

Comment author: Swimmer963 14 June 2013 10:02:14PM *  3 points [-]

But I'd like people to at least have animal suffering on the radar of "things I'd like to give a shit about, if I had the energy, and that if it became much more convenient to care about, I'd make small modifications to my lifestyle." So that when in-vitro meat becomes cheap and tasty, I think people should make the initial effort to switch over. (Possibly even while it's still a bit more expensive).

This is pretty much the case for me. I was vegetarian for a while in high school–oddly enough, less for reducing-suffering ethical reasons than for "it costs fewer resources to produce enough plants to feed the world population than to produce enough meat, as animals have to be fed plants and are a low-efficiency conversion of plant calories, so in order to better use the planet's resources, everyone should eat more plants and less meat." I consistently ended up with low iron and B12. It's possible to get enough iron, B12, and protein as a vegetarian, but you do have to plan your meals a bit more carefully (i.e. always have beans with rice so you get complete protein) and possibly eat foods that you don't like as much. Right now I cook about one dish with meat in it per week, and I haven't had any iron or B12 deficiency problems since graduating high school 4 years ago.

In general, I optimize food for low cost as well as health value and ethics, but if in-vitro meat became available, I think this is valuable enough in the long run that I would be willing to "subsidize" its production and commercialization by paying higher prices.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 14 June 2013 08:43:40PM 2 points [-]

Most people don't need meat (or much of it) to be productive (the amount most people think they need is pretty grossly wrong)

Could you (very briefly) expand on this, or even just give a link with a reasonably accessible explanation? I am curious.

Comment author: MugaSofer 15 June 2013 09:40:14PM *  1 point [-]

Well, considering the existence of healthy vegetarians, it seems clear that we evolved to be at least capable of surviving in a low-meat environment.

I don't have any sources or anything, and I'm pretty lazy, but I've been vegetarian since childhood, and never had any health problems as a result AFAICT.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 15 June 2013 09:53:00PM 4 points [-]

I am entirely willing to take your word on this, but you know what they say about "anecdote" and declensions thereof. In this case specifically, one of the few things that seem to be reliably true about nutrition is that "people are different, and what works for some may fail or be outright disastrous for others".

In any case, Raemon seemed to be making a weaker claim than "vegetarianism has no serious health downsides". "Healthy portions of meat amount to far less than the 32 oz steak a day implied by some anti-vegetarian doomsayers" is something I'm completely willing to grant.

Comment author: MTGandP 15 June 2013 10:35:25PM 1 point [-]

From the American Dietetic Association: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19562864

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 June 2013 08:26:24PM *  1 point [-]

This all seems pretty reasonable (except that I don't think the validity of a human preference has much to do with how difficult it is for non-humans to have the same preference).

Comment author: shminux 14 June 2013 07:27:22PM *  2 points [-]

I'm parsing this as follows: I don't have a good intuition on whose suffering matters, and unbounded utilitarianism is vulnerable to the Repugnant Conclusion, so I will pick an obvious threshold: humans and decide to not care about other animals until and unless the reason to care arises.

EDIT: the Schelling point for the caring threshold seems to be shifting toward progressively less intelligent (but still cute and harmless) species as time passes

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 June 2013 08:08:08PM 3 points [-]

EDIT: the Schelling point for the caring threshold seems to be shifting toward progressively less intelligent (but still cute and harmless) species as time passes

Have you read The Narrowing Circle?

Comment author: shminux 14 June 2013 09:03:52PM 3 points [-]

Have you read The Narrowing Circle?

I tried. But it's written in extreme Gwernian: well researched, but long, rambling and without a decent summary upfront. I skipped to the (also poorly written) conclusion, missing most of the arguments, and decided that it's not worth my time. The essay would be right at home as a chapter in some dissertation, though.

Leaving aside the dynamics of the Schelling point, did the rest of my reply miss the mark?

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 June 2013 09:51:12PM 2 points [-]

What I mostly got out of it is that there are two big ways in which the circle of things with moral worth has shrunk rather than grown throughout history: it shrunk to exclude gods, and it shrunk to exclude dead people.

Leaving aside the dynamics of the Schelling point, did the rest of my reply miss the mark?

I'm not sure what your comment was intended to be, but if it was intended to be a summary of the point I was implicitly trying to make, then it's close enough.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 14 June 2013 08:10:56PM *  1 point [-]

the Schelling point for the caring threshold seems to be shifting toward progressively less intelligent (but still cute and harmless) species as time passes

"Cute" I'll give you.
"Harmless" I'm not sure about.

That is, it's not in the least bit clear to me that I can reliably predict, from species S being harmful and cute, that the Schelling point you describe won't/hasn't shifted so as to include S on the cared-about side.

For clarity: I make no moral claims here about any of this, and am uninterested in the associated moral claims, I'm just disagreeing with the bare empirical claim.

Comment author: Vaniver 14 June 2013 07:00:09PM 4 points [-]

What about living organisms outside of the animal kingdom, like bugs?

Bugs, both true and not, are most definitely part of the animal kingdom.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 June 2013 08:14:15PM 1 point [-]

Whoops. Edited.

Comment author: Vaniver 12 June 2013 09:30:05PM 8 points [-]

Something we should take into account that helps the case for this outreach rather than hurts it is the idea that conversions aren't binary -- someone can be pushed by the ad to be more likely to reduce their meat intake as opposed to fully converted.

Eh, don't forget that humans often hate other humans. Exposing an anti-vegetarian to vegetarian advertisements might induce them to increase their meat intake, and an annoying advocate may move someone from neutral to anti-vegetarian. This effect is very unlikely to be captured by surveys- and so while it's reasonable to expect the net effect to be positive, it seems reasonable to lower estimates by a bit.

(Most 'political' moves have polarizing effects; you should expect supporters to like you more, and detractors to like you less, afterwards, which seems like a better model than everyone slowly moving towards vegetarianism.)

Comment author: peter_hurford 13 June 2013 01:55:50AM 7 points [-]

Eh, don't forget that humans often hate other humans. Exposing an anti-vegetarian to vegetarian advertisements might induce them to increase their meat intake, and an annoying advocate may move someone from neutral to anti-vegetarian.

If you take a non-vegetarian and make them more non-vegetarian, I don't think much is lost, because you never would have captured them anyway. I suppose they might eat more meat or try and persuade other people to become anti-vegetarian, but my intuition is that this effect would be really small.

But you're right that it would need to be considered.

Comment author: MTGandP 15 June 2013 10:28:25PM 7 points [-]

I agree. In addition, I think people who claim that they will eat more meat after seeing a pamphlet or some other promotion for vegetarianism just feel some anger in the moment, but they'll likely forget about it within an hour or so. I can't see someone several weeks later saying to eirself, "I'd better eat extra meat today because of that pamphlet I read three weeks ago."

Comment author: army1987 13 June 2013 04:51:05PM 2 points [-]

BTW, how comes certain omnivores dislike vegetarians so much? All other things being equal, one fewer person eating meat will reduce its price, about which a meat-eater should be glad. (Similarly, why do certain straight men dislike gay men that much?)

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 13 June 2013 07:09:48PM 11 points [-]

If someone says that they are vegetarian for moral reasons, then it's an implicit (often explicit) claim that non-vegetarians are less moral, and therefore a status grab. If an omnivore doesn't want to become vegetarian nor to lose status, they need to aggressively deny the claim of vegetarianism being more moral.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 16 June 2013 06:13:06AM 1 point [-]

Similarly, why do certain straight men dislike gay men that much

This has to do with the way gay sex interacts with status.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 June 2013 08:58:39PM 9 points [-]

Since all of my work output goes to effective altruism, I can't afford any optimization of my meals that isn't about health x productivity. This does sometimes make me feel worried about what happens if the ethical hidden variables turn out unfavorably. Assuming I go on eating one meat meal per day, how much vegetarian advocacy would I have to buy in order to offset all of my annual meat consumption? If it's on the order of $20, I'd pay $30 just to be able to say I'm 50% more ethical than an actual vegetarian.

Comment author: ThrustVectoring 13 June 2013 01:46:06AM 8 points [-]

If it's on the order of $20, I'd pay $30 just to be able to say I'm 50% more ethical than an actual vegetarian.

That's not exactly true, since advocating vegetarianism has more effects than simply reducing the consumption of meat. For one thing, it alters how people think about and live their lives. If that $30 of spending produces a certain amount of human suffering (say, from self-induced guilt over eating meat), then your ethicalness isn't as high as calculated.

Comment author: davidpearce 13 June 2013 12:16:32PM 19 points [-]

Eliezer, is that the right way to do the maths? If a high-status opinion-former publicly signals that he's quitting meat because it's ethically indefensible, then others are more likely to follow suit - and the chain-reaction continues. For sure, studies purportedly showing longer lifespans, higher IQs etc of vegetarians aren't very impressive because there are too many possible confounding variables. But what such studies surely do illustrate is that any health-benefits of meat-eating vs vegetarianism, if they exist, must be exceedingly subtle. Either way, practising friendliness towards cognitively humble lifeforms might not strike AI researchers as an urgent challenge now. But isn't the task of ensuring that precisely such an outcome ensues from a hypothetical Intelligence Explosion right at the heart of MIRI's mission - as I understand it at any rate?

Comment author: RobertWiblin 14 June 2013 11:29:06PM 4 points [-]

I think David is right. It is important that people who may have a big influence on the values of the future lead the way by publicly declaring and demonstrating that suffering (and pleasure) are important where-ever they occur, whether in humans or mice.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 15 June 2013 12:16:04AM -1 points [-]

I have to disagree on two points:

  1. I don't think that we should take this thesis ("suffering (and pleasure) are important where-ever they occur, whether in humans or mice") to be well-established and uncontroversial, even among the transhumanist/singularitarian/lesswrongian crowd.

  2. More importantly, I don't think Eliezer or people like him have any obligation to "lead the way", set examples, or be a role model, except insofar as it's necessary for him to display certain positive character traits in order for people to e.g. donate to MIRI, work for MIRI, etc. (For the record, I think Eliezer already does this; he seems, as near as I can tell, to be a pretty decent and honest guy.) It's really not necessary for him to make any public declarations or demonstrations; let's not encourage signaling for signaling's sake.

Comment author: RobertWiblin 15 June 2013 01:57:58AM 6 points [-]

Needless to say, I think 1 is settled. As for the second point - Eliezer and his colleagues hope to exercise a lot of control over the future. If he is inadvertently promoting bad values to those around him (e.g. it's OK to harm the weak), he is increasing the chance that any influence they have will be directed towards bad outcomes.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 15 June 2013 02:44:27AM 0 points [-]

Eliezer and his colleagues hope to exercise a lot of control over the future. If he is inadvertently promoting bad values to those around him (e.g. it's OK to harm the weak), he is increasing the chance that any influence they have will be directed towards bad outcomes.

That has very little to do with whether Eliezer should make public declarations of things. Are you of the opinion that Eliezer does not share your view on this matter? (I don't know whether he does, personally.) If so, you should be attempting to convince him, I guess. If you think that he already agrees with you, your work is done. Public declarations would only be signaling, having little to do with maximizing good outcomes.

As for the other thing — I should think the fact that we're having some disagreement in the comments on this very post, about whether animal suffering is important, would be evidence that it's not quite as uncontroversial as you imply. I am also not aware of any Less Wrong post or sequence establishing (or really even arguing for) your view as the correct one. Perhaps you should write one? I'd be interested in reading it.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 15 June 2013 11:41:24AM *  6 points [-]

I am also not aware of any Less Wrong post or sequence establishing (or really even arguing for) your view as the correct one.

I think we should be wary of reasoning that takes the form: "There is no good argument for x on Less Wrong, therefore there are likely no good arguments for x."

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 15 June 2013 03:53:00PM 2 points [-]

Certainly we should, but that was not my reasoning. What I said was:

I don't think that we should take this thesis ("suffering (and pleasure) are important where-ever they occur, whether in humans or mice") to be well-established and uncontroversial, even among the transhumanist/singularitarian/lesswrongian crowd. [emphasis added]

I object to treating an issue as settled and uncontroversial when it's not. And the implication was that if this issue is not settled here, then it's likely to be even less settled elsewhere; after all, we do have a greater proportion of vegetarians here at Less Wrong than in the general population.

"I will act as if this is a settled issue" in such a case is an attempt to take an epistemic shortcut. You're skipping the whole part where you actually, you know, argue for your viewpoint, present reasoning and evidence to support it, etc. I would like to think that we don't resort to such tricks here.

If caring about animal suffering is such a straightforward thing, then please, write a post or two outlining the reasons why. Posters on Less Wrong have convinced us of far weirder things; it's not as if this isn't a receptive audience. (Or, if there are such posts and I've just missed them, link please. Or! If you think there are very good, LW-quality arguments elsewhere, why not write a Main post with a few links, with maybe brief summaries of each?)

Comment author: davidpearce 15 June 2013 06:18:58PM 2 points [-]

SaidAchmiz, you're right. The issue isn't settled: I wish it were so. The Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) of the World Transhumanist Association / Humanity Plus does express a non-anthropocentric commitment to the well-being of all sentience. ["We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise" : http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/] But I wonder what percentage of lesswrongers would support such a far-reaching statement?

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 15 June 2013 06:16:15PM *  1 point [-]

I object to treating an issue as settled and uncontroversial when it's not. And the implication was that if this issue is not settled here, then it's likely to be even less settled elsewhere; after all, we do have a greater proportion of vegetarians here at Less Wrong than in the general population.

Those who have thought most about this issue, namely professional moral philosophers, generally agree (1) that suffering is bad for creatures of any species and (2) that it's wrong for people to consume meat and perhaps other animal products (the two claims that seem to be the primary subjects of dispute in this thread). As an anecdote, Jeff McMahan--a leading ethicist and political philosopher--mentioned at a recent conference that the moral case for vegetarianism was one of the easiest cases to make in all philosophy (a discipline where peer disagreement is pervasive).

I mention this, not as evidence that the issue is completely settled, but as a reply to your speculation that there is even more disagreement in the relevant community outside Less Wrong.

(Or, if there are such posts and I've just missed them, link please. Or! If you think there are very good, LW-quality arguments elsewhere, why not write a Main post with a few links, with maybe brief summaries of each?)

Frankly, I'm baffled by your insistence that the relevant arguments must be found in the Less Wrong archives. There's plenty of good material out there which I'm happy to recommend if you are interested in reading what others who have thought about these issues much more than either of us have written on the subject.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 15 June 2013 07:28:31PM 1 point [-]

Those who have thought most about this issue, namely professional moral philosophers, almost universally agree [...] that it's wrong for people to consume meat and perhaps other animal products

Citation needed. :)

As an anecdote, Jeff McMahan mentioned at a recent conference that the moral case for vegetarianism was one of the easiest cases to make in all philosophy (a discipline where peer disagreement is pervasive).

It's interesting that you use Jeff McMahan as an example. In his essay The Meat Eaters, McMahan makes some excellent arguments; his replies to the "playing God" and "against Nature" objections, for instance, are excellent examples of clear reasoning and argument, as is his commentary on the sacredness of species. (As an aside, when McMahan started talking about the hypothetical modification or extinction of carnivorous species, I immediately thought of Stanislaw Lem's Return From the Stars, where the human civilization of a century hence has chemically modified all carnivores, including humans, to be nonviolent, evidently having found some way to solve the ecological issues.)

But one thing he doesn't do is make any argument for why we should care about the suffering of animals. The moral case, as such, goes entirely unmade; McMahan only alludes to its obviousness once or twice. If he thinks it's an easy case to make — perhaps he should go ahead and make it! (Maybe he does elsewhere? If so, a quick googling does not turn it up. Links, as always, would be appreciated.) He just takes "animal suffering is bad" as an axiom. Well, fair enough, but if I don't share that axiom, you wouldn't expect me to be convinced by his arguments, yes?

I mention this, not as evidence that the issue is completely settled, but as a reply to your speculation that there is even more disagreement in the relevant community outside Less Wrong.

I don't think the relevant community outside Less Wrong is professional moral philosophers. I meant something more like... "intellectuals/educated people/technophiles/etc. in general", and then even more broadly than that, "people in general". However, this is a peripheral issue, so I'm ok with dropping it.

Frankly, I'm baffled by your insistence that the relevant arguments must be found in the Less Wrong archives. There's plenty of good material out there which I'm happy to recommend if you are interested in reading what others who have thought about these issues much more than either of us have written on the subject.

In case it wasn't clear (sorry!), yes, I am interested in reading good material elsewhere (preferably in the form of blog posts or articles rather than entire books or long papers, at least as summaries); if you have some to recommend, I'd appreciate it. I just think that if such very convincing material exists, you (or someone) should post it (links or even better, a topic summary/survey) on Less Wrong, such that we, a community with a high level of discourse, may discuss, debate, and examine it.

Comment author: RobertWiblin 15 June 2013 11:07:27AM *  2 points [-]

"Public declarations would only be signaling, having little to do with maximizing good outcomes."

On the contrary, trying to influence other people in the AI community to share Eliezer's (apparent) concern for the suffering of animals is very important, for the reason given by David.

"I am also not aware of any Less Wrong post or sequence establishing (or really even arguing for) your view as the correct one."

a) Less Wrong doesn't contain the best content on this topic. b) Most of the posts disputing whether animal suffering matter are written by un-empathetic non-realists, so we would have to discuss meta-ethics and how to deal with meta-ethical uncertainty to convince them. c) The reason has been given by Pablo Stafforini - when I directly experience the badness of suffering, I don't only perceive that suffering is bad for me (or bad for someone with blonde hair, etc), but that suffering would be bad regardless of who experienced it (so long as they did actually have the subjective experience of suffering). d) Even if there is some uncertainty about whether animal suffering is important, that would still require that it be taken quite seriously; even if there were only a 50% chance that other humans mattered, it would be bad to lock them up in horrible conditions, or signal through my actions to potentially influential people that doing so is OK.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 15 June 2013 03:56:21PM 1 point [-]

a) Less Wrong doesn't contain the best content on this topic.

Where is the best content on this topic, in your opinion?

b) Most of the posts disputing whether animal suffering matter are written by un-empathetic non-realists

Eh? Unpack this, please.

Comment author: peter_hurford 13 June 2013 05:44:30AM 4 points [-]

Since all of my work output goes to effective altruism, I can't afford any optimization of my meals that isn't about health x productivity.

Allegedly, vegetarian diets are supposed to be healthier, but I don't know if that's true. I also don't know how much of a productivity drain, if any, a vegetarian diet would be. I've personally noticed no difference.

~

Assuming I go on eating one meat meal per day, how much vegetarian advocacy would I have to buy in order to offset all of my annual meat consumption? If it's on the order of $20, I'd pay $30 just to be able to say I'm 50% more ethical than an actual vegetarian.

It depends on what the cost-effectiveness ends up looking like, but $30 sounds fine to me. Additionally or alternatively, you could eat larger animals instead of smaller animals (i.e. more beef and less chicken) so as to do less harm with each meal.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 12 June 2013 09:53:59PM *  6 points [-]

I asked this before but don't remember if I got any good answers: I am still not convinced that I should care about animal suffering. Human suffering seems orders of magnitude more important. Also, meat is delicious and contains protein. What are the strongest arguments you can offer me in favor of caring about animal suffering to the point that I would be willing to incur the costs involved in becoming more vegetarian? Alternatively, how much would you be willing to pay me to stop eating meat?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 13 June 2013 10:43:52AM 14 points [-]

What are the strongest arguments you can offer me in favor of caring about animal suffering to the point that I would be willing to incur the costs involved in becoming more vegetarian?

Huh. I'm drawing a similar blank as if someone asked me to provide an argument for why the suffering of red-haired people should count equally to the suffering of black-haired people. Why would the suffering of one species be more important than the suffering of another? Yes, it is plausible that once your nervous system becomes simple enough, you no longer experience anything that we would classify as suffering, but then you said "human suffering is more important", not "there are some classes of animals that suffer less". I'm not sure I can offer a good argument against "human suffering is more important", because it strikes me as so completely arbitrary and unjustified that I'm not sure what the arguments for it would be.

Comment author: army1987 13 June 2013 04:33:22PM 2 points [-]

why the suffering of red-haired people should count equally to the suffering of black-haired people

I've interacted with enough red-haired people and enough black-haired people that (assuming the anti-zombie principle) I'm somewhat confident that there's no big difference in average between the ways they suffer . I'm nowhere near as confident about fish.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 13 June 2013 07:16:57PM 7 points [-]

I already addressed that uncertainty in my comment:

Yes, it is plausible that once your nervous system becomes simple enough, you no longer experience anything that we would classify as suffering, but then you said "human suffering is more important", not "there are some classes of animals that suffer less".

To elaborate: it's perfectly reasonable to discount the suffering of e.g. fish by some factor because one thinks that fish probably suffer less. But as I read it, someone who says "human suffering is more important" isn't saying that: they're saying that they wouldn't care about animal suffering even if it was certain that animals suffered just as much as humans, or even if it was certain that animals suffered more than humans. It's saying that no matter the intensity or nature of the suffering, only suffering that comes from humans counts.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 June 2013 07:17:31PM *  1 point [-]

Why would the suffering of one species be more important than the suffering of another?

Because one of those species is mine?

I'm not sure I can offer a good argument against "human suffering is more important", because it strikes me as so completely arbitrary and unjustified that I'm not sure what the arguments for it would be.

Historically, most humans have viewed a much smaller set of (living, mortal) organisms as being the set of (living, mortal) organisms whose suffering matters, e.g. human members of their own tribe. How would you classify these humans? Would you say that their morality is arbitrary and unjustified? If so, I wonder why they're so similar. If I were to imagine a collection of arbitrary moralities, I'd expect it to look much more diverse than this. Would you also say that they were all morally confused and that we have made a great deal of moral progress from most of history until now? If so, have you read gwern's The Narrowing Circle (which is the reason for the living and mortal qualifiers above)?

There is something in human nature that cares about things similar to itself. Even if we're currently infected with memes suggesting that this something should be rejected insofar as it distinguishes between different humans (and I think we should be honest with ourselves about the extent to which this is a contingent fact about current moral fashions rather than a deep moral truth), trying to reject it as much as we can is forgetting that we're rebelling within nature.

I care about humans because I think that in principle I'm capable of having a meaningful interaction with any human: in principle, I could talk to them, laugh with them, cry with them, sing with them, dance with them... I can't do any of these things with, say, a fish. When I ask my brain in what category it places fish, it responds "natural resources." And natural resources should be conserved, of course (for the sake of future humans), but I don't assign them moral value.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 14 June 2013 08:03:14PM 8 points [-]

Would you also say that they were all morally confused and that we have made a great deal of moral progress from most of history until now?

Yes! We know stuff that our ancestors didn't know; we have capabilities that they didn't have. If pain and suffering are bad when implemented in my skull, then they also have to be bad when implemented elsewhere. Yes, given bounded resources, I'm going to protect me and my friends and other humans before worrying about other creatures, but that's not because nonhumans don't matter, but because in this horribly, monstrously unfair universe, we are forced to make tradeoffs. We do what we must, but that doesn't make it okay.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 June 2013 08:10:56PM *  3 points [-]

We know stuff that our ancestors didn't know; we have capabilities that they didn't have.

I'm more than willing to agree that our ancestors were factually confused, but I think it's important to distinguish between moral and factual confusion. Consider the following quote from C.S. Lewis:

I have met people who exaggerate the differences [between the morality of different cultures], because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct? But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did-if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbors or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did. There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.

I think our ancestors were primarily factually, rather than morally, confused. I don't see strong reasons to believe that humans over time have made moral, as opposed to factual, progress, and I think attempts to convince me and people like me that we should care about animals should rest primarily on factual, rather than moral, arguments (e.g. claims that smarter animals like pigs are more psychologically similar to humans than I think they are).

If pain and suffering are bad when implemented in my skull, then they also have to be bad when implemented elsewhere.

If I write a computer program with a variable called isSuffering that I set to true, is it suffering?

Yes, given bounded resources, I'm going to protect me and my friends and other humans before worrying about other creatures

Cool. Then we're in agreement about the practical consequences (humans, right now, who are spending time and effort to fight animal suffering should be spending their time and effort to fight human suffering instead), which is fine with me.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 14 June 2013 08:38:22PM 5 points [-]

If I write a computer program with a variable called isSuffering that I set to true, is it suffering?

(I have no idea how consciousness works, so in general, I can't answer these sorts of questions, but) in this case I feel extremely confident saying No, because the variable names in the source code of present-day computer programs can't affect what the program is actually doing.

humans, right now, who are spending time and effort to fight animal suffering should be spending their time and effort to fight human suffering instead

That doesn't follow if it turns out that preventing animal suffering is sufficiently cheap.

Comment author: RobbBB 15 June 2013 11:53:50AM *  1 point [-]

I'm not sure moral intuitions divide as cleanly into factual and nonfactual components as this suggests. Learning new facts can change our motivations in ways that are in no way logically or empirically required of us, because our motivational and doxastic mechanisms aren't wholly independent. (For instance, knowing a certain fact may involve visualizing certain circumstances more concretely, and vivid visualizations can certainly change one's affective state.) If this motivational component isn't what you had in mind as the 'moral', nonfactual component of our judgments, then I don't know what you do have in mind.

If I write a computer program with a variable called isSuffering that I set to true, is it suffering?

I don't think this is specifically relevant. I upvoted your 'blue robot' comment because this is an important issue to worry about, but 'that's a black box' can't be used as a universal bludgeon. (Particularly given that it defeats appeals to 'isHuman' even more thoroughly than it defeats appeals to 'isSuffering'.)

Cool. Then we're in agreement about the practical consequences (humans, right now, who are spending time and effort to fight animal suffering should be spending their time and effort to fight human suffering instead)

I assume you're being tongue-in-cheek here, but be careful not to mislead spectators. 'Human life isn't perfect, ergo we are under no moral obligation to eschew torturing non-humans' obviously isn't sufficient here, so you need to provide more details showing that the threats to humanity warrant (provisionally?) ignoring non-humans' welfare. White slave-owners had plenty of white-person-specific problems to deal with, but that didn't exonerate them for worrying about their (white) friends and family to the extreme exclusion of black people.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 15 June 2013 07:06:53PM *  2 points [-]

If this motivational component isn't what you had in mind as the 'moral', nonfactual component of our judgments, then I don't know what you do have in mind.

I think of moral confusion as a failure to understand your actual current or extrapolated moral preferences (introspection being unreliable and so forth).

I assume you're being tongue-in-cheek here

Nope.

White slave-owners had plenty of white-person-specific problems to deal with, but that didn't exonerate them for worrying about their (white) friends and family to the extreme exclusion of black people.

I don't think this analogy holds water. White slave-owners were aware that their slaves were capable of learning their language and bearing their children and all sorts of things that fish can't do.

Comment author: RobbBB 15 June 2013 09:21:58PM 1 point [-]

White slave-owners were aware that their slaves were capable of learning their language and bearing their children and all sorts of things that fish can't do.

Sure. And humans are aware that fish are capable of all sorts of things that rocks and sea hydras can't do. I don't see a relevant disanalogy. (Other than the question-begging one 'fish aren't human'.)

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 15 June 2013 09:36:27PM 4 points [-]

I guess that should've ended "...that fish can't do and that are important parts of how they interact with other white people." Black people are capable of participating in human society in a way that fish aren't.

A "reversed stupidity is not intelligence" warning also seems appropriate here: I don't think the correct response to disagreeing with racism and sexism is to stop discriminating altogether in the sense of not trying to make distinctions between things.

Comment author: RobbBB 15 June 2013 09:59:26PM *  1 point [-]

I don't think we should stop making distinctions altogether either; I'm just trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past, or analogous mistakes. The straw-man version of this historical focus is to take 'the expanding circle' as a universal or inevitable historical progression; the more interesting version is to try to spot a pattern in our past intellectual and moral advances and use it to hack the system, taking a shortcut to a moral code that's improved far beyond contemporary society's hodgepodge of standards.

I think the main lesson from 'expanding circle' events is that we should be relatively cautious about assuming that something isn't a moral patient, unless we can come up with an extremely principled and clear example of a necessary condition for moral consideration that it lacks. 'Black people don't have moral standing because they're less intelligent than us' fails that criterion, because white children can be unintelligent and yet deserve to be treated well. Likewise, 'fish can't participate in human society' fails, because extremely pathologically antisocial or socially inept people (of the sort that can't function in society at all) still shouldn't be tortured.

(Plus many fish can participate in their own societies. If we encountered an extremely alien sentient species that was highly prosocial but just found it too grating to be around us for our societies to mesh, would we be justified in torturing them? Likewise, if two human civilizations get along fine internally but have social conventions that make fruitful interaction impossible, that doesn't give either civilization the right to oppress the other.)

On the other hand, 'rocks aren't conscious' does seem to draw on a good and principled necessary condition -- anything unconscious (hence incapable of suffering or desiring or preferring) does seem categorically morally irrelevant, in a vacuum. So excluding completely unconscious things has the shape of a good policy. (Sure, it's a bit of an explanatory IOU until we know exactly what the neural basis of 'consciousness' is, but 'intelligent' and 'able to participate in human society' are IOUs in the same sense.) Likewise for gods and dead bodies -- the former don't exist, and the latter again fail very general criteria like 'is it conscious?' and 'can it suffer?' and 'can it desire?'. These are fully general criteria, not ad-hoc or parochial ones, so they're a lot less likely to fall into the racism trap.

Possibly they fall into a new and different trap, though? Even so, I feel more comfortable placing most of the burden of proof on those who want to narrow our circle, rather than those who want to broaden it. The chances of our engineering (or encountering in the stars) new species that blur the lines between our concepts of psychological 'humanity' and 'inhumanity' are significant, and that makes it dangerous to adopt a policy of 'assume everything with a weird appearance or behavior has no moral rights until we've conclusively proved that its difference from us is only skin-deep'.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 14 June 2013 08:15:34PM *  1 point [-]

If pain and suffering are bad when implemented in my skull, then they also have to be bad when implemented elsewhere.

No they don't. Are you saying it's not possible to construct a mind for which pain and suffering are not bad? Or are you defining pain and suffering as bad things? In that case, I can respond the neural correlates of human pain and human suffering might not be bad when implemented in brains that differ from human brains in certain relevant ways (Edit: and would therefore not actually qualify as pain and suffering under your new definition).

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 14 June 2013 01:13:52PM 3 points [-]

On why the suffering of one species would be more important than the suffering of another:

Because one of those species is mine?

Does that also apply to race and gender? If not, why not? Assuming a line-up of ancestors, always mother and daughter, from Homo sapiens back to the common ancestor of humans and chickens and forward in time again to modern chickens, where would you draw the line? A common definition for species is biology is that two groups of organisms belong to different species if they cannot have fertile offspring. Is that really a morally relevant criterion that justifies treating a daughter different from her mother? Is that really the criterion you want to use for making your decisions? And does it at all bother you that racists or sexists can use an analogous line of defense?

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 June 2013 06:12:47PM *  0 points [-]

Does that also apply to race and gender? If not, why not?

I feel psychologically similar to humans of different races and genders but I don't feel psychologically similar to members of most different species.

A common definition for species is biology is that two groups of organisms belong to different species if they cannot have fertile offspring. Is that really a morally relevant criterion that justifies treating a daughter different from her mother?

Uh, no. System 1 doesn't know what a species is; that's just a word System 2 is using to approximately communicate an underlying feeling System 1 has. But System 1 knows what a friend is. Other humans can be my friends, at least in principle. Probably various kinds of posthumans and AIs can as well. As far as I can tell, a fish can't, not really.

This general argument of "the algorithm you claim to be using to make moral decisions might fail on some edge cases, therefore it is bad" strikes me as disingenuous. Do you have an algorithm you use to make moral decisions that doesn't have this property?

And does it at all bother you that racists or sexists can use an analogous line of defense?

Also no. I think current moral fashion is prejudiced against prejudice. Racism and sexism are not crazy or evil points of view; historically, they were points of view held by many sane humans who would have been regarded by their peers as morally upstanding. Have you read What You Can't Say?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 14 June 2013 06:18:44PM 2 points [-]

I should add to this that even if I endorse what you call "prejudice against prejudice" here -- that is, even if I agree with current moral fashion that racism and sexism are not as good as their absence -- it doesn't follow that because racists or sexists can use a particular argument A as a line of defense, there's therefore something wrong with A.

There are all sorts of positions which I endorse and which racists and sexists (and Babyeaters and Nazis and Sith Lords and...) might also endorse.

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 14 June 2013 08:32:46PM -1 points [-]

This general argument of "the algorithm you claim to be using to make moral decisions might fail on some edge cases, therefore it is bad" strikes me as disingenuous. Do you have an algorithm you use to make moral decisions that doesn't have this property?

Actually, I do. I try to rely on System 1 as little as possible when it comes to figuring out my terminal value(s). One reason for that, I guess, is that at some point I started out with the premise that I don't want to be the sort of person that would have been racist or sexist in previous centuries. If you don't share that premise, there is no way for me to show that you're being inconsistent -- I acknowledge that.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 16 June 2013 09:15:40AM 1 point [-]

Would you say that their morality is arbitrary and unjustified? If so, I wonder why they're so similar. If I were to imagine a collection of arbitrary moralities, I'd expect it to look much more diverse than this. Would you also say that they were all morally confused and that we have made a great deal of moral progress from most of history until now?

I should probably clarify - when I said that valuing humans over animals strikes me as arbitrary, I'm saying that it's arbitrary within the context of my personal moral framework, which contains no axioms from which such a distinction could be derived. All morality is ultimately arbitrary and unjustified, so that's not really an argument for or against any moral system. Internal inconsistencies could be arguments, if you value consistency, but your system does seem internally consistent. My original comment was meant more of an explanation of my initial reaction to your question rather than anything that would be convincing on logical grounds, though I did also assign some probability to it possibly being convincing on non-logical grounds. (Our moral axioms are influenced by what other people think, and somebody expressing their disagreement with a moral position has some chance of weakening another person's belief in that position, regardless of whether that effect is "logical".)

Comment author: RobbBB 13 June 2013 08:33:25AM *  7 points [-]

Human suffering might be orders of magnitude more important. (Though: what reason do you have in mind for this?) But non-human animal suffering is likely to be orders of magnitude more common. Some non-human animals are probably capable of suffering, and we care a great deal about suffering in the case of humans (as, presumably, we would in the case of intelligent aliens). So it seems arbitrary to exclude non-human animal suffering from our concerns completely. Moreover, if you're uncertain about whether animals suffer, you should err on the side of assuming that they do because this is the safer assumption. Mistakenly killing thousands of suffering moral patients over your lifetime is plausibly a much bigger worry than mistakenly sparing thousands of unconscious zombies and missing out on some mouth-pleasures.

I'm not a vegetarian myself, but I do think vegetarianism is a morally superior option. I also think vegetarians should adopt a general policy of not paying people to become vegetarians (except perhaps as a short-term experiment, to incentivize trying out the lifestyle).

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 June 2013 07:03:31PM 1 point [-]

Human suffering might be orders of magnitude more important. (Though: what reason do you have in mind for this?)

I'm a human and I care about humans. Animals only matter insofar as they affect the lives of humans. Is this really such a difficult concept?

But non-human animal suffering is likely to be orders of magnitude more common.

I don't mean per organism, I mean in aggregate. In aggregate, I think the totality of animal suffering is orders of magnitude less important than the totality of human suffering.

Moreover, if you're uncertain about whether animals suffer, you should err on the side of assuming that they do because this is the safer assumption.

I'm not disagreeing that animals suffer. I'm telling you that I don't care whether they suffer.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 13 June 2013 07:45:09PM *  11 points [-]

I'm a human and I care about humans.

You are many things: a physical object, a living being, a mammal, a member of the species Homo sapiens, an East Asian (I believe), etc. What's so special about the particular category you picked?

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 June 2013 07:51:03PM 0 points [-]
Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 13 June 2013 08:08:08PM *  10 points [-]

Presumably mammals also exhibit more psychological similarity than non-mammals, and the same is probably true about East Asians relative to members of other races. What makes the psychological unity of mankind special?

Moreover, it seems that insofar as you care about humans because they have certain psychological traits, you should care about any creature that has those traits. Since many animals have many of the traits that humans have, and some animals have those traits to a greater degree than some humans do, it seems you should care about at least some nonhuman animals.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 June 2013 09:42:20PM *  2 points [-]

it seems you should care about at least some nonhuman animals.

I'm willing to entertain this possibility. I've recently been convinced that I should consider caring about dolphins and other similarly intelligent animals, possibly including pigs (so I might be willing to give up pork). I still don't care about fish or chickens. I don't think I can have a meaningful relationship with a fish or a chicken even in principle.

Comment author: Nornagest 14 June 2013 07:58:54AM *  1 point [-]

Moreover, it seems that insofar as you care about humans because they have certain psychological traits, you should care about any creature that has those traits. Since many animals have many of the traits that humans have, and some animals have those traits to a greater degree than some humans do, it seems you should care about at least some nonhuman animals.

Doesn't follow. If we imagine a personhood metric for animals evaluated over some reasonably large number of features, it might end up separating (most) humans from all nonhuman animals even if for each particular feature there exist some nonhuman animals that beat humans on it. There's no law of ethics saying that the parameter space has to be small.

It's not likely to be a clean separation, and there are almost certainly some exceptional specimens of H. sapiens that wouldn't stand up to such a metric, but -- although I can't speak for Qiaochu -- that's a bullet I'm willing to bite.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 13 June 2013 08:12:12PM *  1 point [-]

Since many animals have many of the traits that humans have, and some animals have those traits to a greater degree than some humans do, it seems you should care about at least some animals.

Does not follow, since an equally valid conclusion is that Qiaochu_Yuan should not-care about some humans (those that exhibit relevant traits less than some nonhuman animals). One person's modus ponens is etc.

Comment author: army1987 15 June 2013 07:10:13PM 1 point [-]

Presumably mammals also exhibit more psychological similarity than non-mammals, and the same is probably true about East Asians relative to members of other races. What makes the psychological unity of mankind special?

I suspect that if you plotted all living beings by psychological similarity with Qiaochu_Yuan, there would be a much bigger gap between the -- [reminds himself about small children, people with advanced-stage Alzheimer's, etc.] never mind.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 15 June 2013 07:12:25PM 2 points [-]

:-)

Comment author: army1987 16 June 2013 04:54:34PM 1 point [-]

(I could steelman my yesterday self by noticing that even though small children aren't similar to QY they can easily become so in the future, and by replacing “gap” with “sparsely populated region”.)

Comment author: RobbBB 13 June 2013 07:48:30PM *  7 points [-]

I'm a human and I care about humans. Animals only matter insofar as they affect the lives of humans.

Every human I know cares at least somewhat about animal suffering. We don't like seeing chickens endlessly and horrifically tortured -- and when we become vividly acquainted with such torture, our not-liking-it generally manifests as a desire for the torture to stop, not just as a desire to become ignorant that this is going on so it won't disturb our peace of mind. I'll need more information to see where the disanalogy is supposed to be between compassion for other species and compassion for other humans.

I'm not disagreeing that animals suffer. I'm telling you that I don't care whether they suffer.

Are you certain you don't care?

Are you certain that you won't end up viewing this dispassion as a bias on your part, analogous to people in history who genuinely didn't care at all about black people (but would regret and abandon this apathy if they knew all the facts)?

If you feel there's any realistic chance you might discover that you do care in the future, you should again err strongly on the side of vegetarianism. Feeling a bit silly 20 years from now because you avoided torturing beings it turns out you don't care about is a much smaller cost than learning 20 years from now you're the hitler of cows. Vegetarianism accommodates meta-uncertainty about ethical systems better than its rivals do.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 June 2013 09:47:57PM 3 points [-]

I'll need more information to see where the disanalogy is supposed to be between compassion for other species and compassion for other humans.

I don't feel psychologically similar to a chicken in the same way that I feel psychologically similar to other humans.

Are you certain you don't care?

No, or else I wouldn't be asking for arguments.

If you feel there's any chance you might discover that you do care in the future, you should again err strongly on the side of vegetarianism. Feeling a bit silly 20 years from now because you avoided torturing beings it turns out you don't care about is a much smaller cost than learning 20 years from now you're the hitler of cows. Vegetarianism accommodates meta-uncertainty about ethical systems better than its rivals do.

This is a good point.

Comment author: RobbBB 15 June 2013 08:28:12AM *  1 point [-]

I don't feel psychologically similar to a chicken in the same way that I feel psychologically similar to other humans.

I don't either, but unless I can come up with a sharp and universal criterion for distinguishing all chickens from all humans, chickens' psychological alienness to me will seem a difference of degree more than of kind. It's a lot easier to argue that chicken suffering matters less than human suffering (or to argue that chickens are zombies) than to argue that chicken suffering is completely morally irrelevant.

Some chickens may very well have more psychologically in common with me than I have in common with certain human infants or with certain brain-damaged humans; but I still find myself able to feel that sentient infants and disabled sentient humans oughtn't be tortured. (And not just because I don't want their cries to disturb my own peace of mind. Nor just because they could potentially become highly intelligent, through development or medical intervention. Those might enhance the moral standing of any of these organisms, but they don't appear to exhaust it..)

Comment author: shminux 13 June 2013 07:35:05PM 5 points [-]

I'm telling you that I don't care whether they suffer.

I don't believe you. If you see someone torturing a cat, a dolphin or a monkey, would you feel nothing? (Suppose that they are not likely to switch to torturing humans, to avoid "gateway torture" complications.)

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 June 2013 07:47:26PM *  0 points [-]

I don't want to see animals get tortured because that would be an unpleasant thing to see, but there are lots of things I think are unpleasant things to see that don't have moral valence (in another comment I gave the example of seeing corpses get raped).

I might also be willing to assign dolphins and monkeys moral value (I haven't made up my mind about this), but not most animals.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 13 June 2013 09:29:33PM 1 point [-]

My problem with this question is that if I see video of someone torturing a cat when I am confident there was no actual cat-torturing involved in creating those images (e.g., I am confident it was all photoshopped), what I feel is pretty much indistinguishable from what I feel if I see video of someone torturing a cat when I am confident there was actual cat-torturing.

So I'm reluctant to treat what I feel in either case as expressing much of an opinion about suffering, since I feel it roughly equally when I believe suffering is present and when I don't.

Comment author: Kawoomba 13 June 2013 09:40:37PM 1 point [-]

So if you can factor-out, so to speak, the actual animal suffering: If you had to choose between "watch that video, no animal was harmed" versus "watch that video, an animal was harmed, also you get a biscuit (not the food, the 100 squid (not the animals, the pounds (not the weight unit, the monetary unit)))", which would you choose? (Your feelings would be the same, as you say, your decision probably wouldn't be. Just checking.)

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 June 2013 10:57:59PM 5 points [-]

you get a biscuit (not the food, the 100 squid (not the animals, the pounds (not the weight unit, the monetary unit)))

What?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 June 2013 11:51:05PM 6 points [-]

A biscuit provides the same number of calories as 100 SQUID, which stands for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, which weigh a pound apiece, which masses 453.6 grams, which converts to 4 * 10^16 joules, which can be converted into 1.13 * 10^10 kilowatt-hours, which are worth 12 cents per kW-hr, so around 136 billion dollars or so.

Comment author: Vaniver 14 June 2013 12:24:17AM *  5 points [-]

"squid" is slang for a GBP, i.e. Pound Sterling, although I'm more used to hearing the similar "quid." One hundred of them can be referred to as a "biscuit," apparently because of casino chips, similar to how people in America will sometimes refer to a hundred dollars as a "benjamin."

That is, what are TheOtherDave's preferences between watching an unsettling movie that does not correspond to reality and watching an unsettling movie that does correspond to reality, but they're paid some cash.

Comment author: ciphergoth 14 June 2013 04:56:47PM *  4 points [-]

"Quid" is slang, "squid" is a commonly used jokey soundalike. There's a joke that ends "here's that sick squid I owe you".

EDIT: also, never heard "biscuit" = £100 before; that's a "ton".

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 June 2013 12:26:11AM *  1 point [-]

Well, I figured that much out from googling, but I was more reacting to what seems like a deliberate act of obfuscation on Kawoomba's part that serves no real purpose.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 June 2013 07:21:45PM 2 points [-]

Ethical generalizations check: Do you care about Babyeaters? Would you eat Yoda?

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 June 2013 07:30:24PM 3 points [-]

Nope (can't parse them as approximately human without revulsion). Nope (approximately human).

Comment author: wedrifid 14 June 2013 05:05:07AM *  4 points [-]

Would you eat Yoda?

Would that allow absorbing some of his midichlorians? Black magic! Well, I might try (since he died of natural causes anyway). But yoda dies without leaving a corpse. It would be difficult. The only viable strategy would seem to be to have Yoda anethetize himself a minute before he ghosts ("becomes one with the force"). Then the flesh would remain corporeal for consumption.

The real ethical test would be would I freeze yoda's head in carbonite, acquire brain scanning technology and upload him into a robot body? Yoda may have religious objections to the practice so I may honour his preferences while being severely disappointed. I suspect I'd choose the Dark Side of the Force myself. The Sith philosophy seems much more compatible with life extension by whatever means necessary.

Comment author: CCC 14 June 2013 08:51:07AM 4 points [-]

It should be noted that Yoda has an observable afterlife. Obi-wan had already appeared after his body had died, apparently in full possession of his memories and his reasoning abilities; Yoda proposes to follow in Obi-wan's footsteps, and has good reason to believe that he will be able to do so.

Comment author: Kawoomba 14 June 2013 07:54:48AM 2 points [-]

Sith philosophy, for reference:

Peace is a lie, there is only passion.

Through passion, I gain strength.

Through strength, I gain power.

Through power, I gain victory.

Through victory, my chains are broken.

The Force shall free me.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 June 2013 02:05:04PM 7 points [-]

Actual use of Sith techniques seems to turn people evil at ridiculously accelerated rates. At least in-universe it seems that sensible people would write off this attractive-sounding philosophy as window dressing on an extremely damaging set of psychic techniques.

Comment author: Vaniver 12 June 2013 10:31:35PM *  2 points [-]

What are the strongest arguments you can offer me in favor of caring about animal suffering to the point that I would be willing to incur the costs involved in becoming more vegetarian? Alternatively, how much would you be willing to pay me to stop eating meat?

I found it interesting to compare "this is the price at which we could buy animals not existing" to the "this is the price people are willing to pay for animals to exist so they can eat them," because it looks like the second is larger, often by orders of magnitude. (This shouldn't be that surprising for persuasion; if you can get other people to spend their own resources, your costs are much lower.)

It also bothers me that the so many of the animals saved are fish; they dominate the weighted mean, have very different lifespans from chickens, and to the best of my knowledge cannot be 'factory farmed' in the same way. [Edit: It appears that conditions for fish on fish farms are actually pretty bad, to the point that many species of fish cannot survive modern farming techniques. So, no comment on the relative badness.]

Comment author: peter_hurford 13 June 2013 01:49:21AM 3 points [-]

It also bothers me that the so many of the animals saved are fish; they dominate the weighted mean, have very different lifespans from chickens, and to the best of my knowledge cannot be 'factory farmed' in the same way. (It seems to me that fish farms are much more like their natural habitat than chicken farms are like their natural habitat, but that may be mistaken.)

From what I know, fish farming doesn't sound pleasant, though perhaps it's not nearly as bad as chicken farming.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 13 June 2013 05:15:31PM *  1 point [-]

If that description makes you think that fish farming might possibly be in the same ballpark as chicken farming, then you're pretty ignorant of factory farming. Maybe you haven't seen enough propaganda?

Your other link is about killing the fish. Focus on the death rather than life may be good for propaganda, but do you really believe that the much of the suffering is there? Indeed, your post claimed to be about days of life.

Added: it makes me wonder if activists are corrupted by dealing with propaganda to focus on the aspects for which propaganda is most effective. Or maybe it's just that the propaganda works on them.

Comment author: peter_hurford 17 June 2013 04:36:34AM 2 points [-]

If that description makes you think that fish farming might possibly be in the same ballpark as chicken farming, then you're pretty ignorant of factory farming.

I never said they were in the same ballpark. Just that fish farming is also something I don't like.

~

Your other link is about killing the fish. Focus on the death rather than life may be good for propaganda, but do you really believe that the much of the suffering is there?

Yes, I do.

~

Indeed, your post claimed to be about days of life.

I agree that might not make much sense for fish, except in so far as farming causes more fish to be birthed than otherwise would.

~

Added: it makes me wonder if activists are corrupted by dealing with propaganda to focus on the aspects for which propaganda is most effective. Or maybe it's just that the propaganda works on them.

I think this is a bias that is present in any kind of person that cares about advocating for or against a cause.

Comment author: peter_hurford 13 June 2013 06:28:02AM 2 points [-]

Here's a gruesome video on the whole fish thing if you're in to gruesome videos.

Comment author: peter_hurford 13 June 2013 01:54:11AM 5 points [-]

What are the strongest arguments you can offer me in favor of caring about animal suffering to the point that I would be willing to incur the costs involved in becoming more vegetarian?

I am a moral anti-realist, so I don't think there's any argument I could give you to persuade you to change your values. To me, it feels very inconsistent to not value animals -- it sounds to me exactly like someone who wants to know argument about why they ought to care about foreigners.

Also, do you really not value animals? I think if you were to see someone torturing an animal in front of you for fun, you would have some sort of negative reaction. Though maybe you wouldn't, or you would think the reaction irrational? I don't know.

However, if you really do care about humans and humans alone, the environmental argument still has weight, though certainly less.

~

Also, meat is delicious and contains protein.

One can get both protein and deliciousness from non-meat sources.

~

Alternatively, how much would you be willing to pay me to stop eating meat?

I'm not sure. I don't think there's a way I could make that transaction work.

Comment author: Vaniver 13 June 2013 02:23:25AM *  8 points [-]

Also, do you really not value animals? I think if you were to see someone torturing an animal in front of you for fun, you would have some sort of negative reaction.

Some interesting things about this example:

  1. Distance seems to have a huge impact when it comes to the bystander effect, and it's not clear that it's irrational. If you are the person who is clearly best situated to save a puppy from torture, that seems different from the fact that dogs are routinely farmed for meat in other parts of the world, by armies of people you could not hope to personally defeat or control.

  2. Someone who is willing to be sadistic to animals might be sadistic towards humans as well, and so they may be a poor choice to associate with (and possibly a good choice to anti-associate with).

  3. Many first world countries have some sort of law against bestiality. (In the US, this varies by state.) However, any justification for these laws based on the rights of the animals would also rule out related behavior in agribusiness, which is generally legal. There seems to be a difference between what people are allowed to do for fun and what they're allowed to do for profit; this makes sense in light of viewing the laws as not against actions, but kinds of people.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 June 2013 06:09:51AM *  3 points [-]

To me, it feels very inconsistent to not value animals -- it sounds to me exactly like someone who wants to know argument about why they ought to care about foreigners.

Well, and what would you say to someone who thought that?

Also, do you really not value animals?

I don't know. It doesn't feel like I do. You could try to convince me that I do even if you're a moral anti-realist. It's plausible I just haven't spent enough time around animals.

I think if you were to see someone torturing an animal in front of you for fun, you would have some sort of negative reaction.

Probably. I mean, all else being equal I would prefer that an animal not be tortured, but in the case of farming and so forth all else is not equal. Also, like Vaniver said, any negative reaction I have directed at the person is based on inferences I would make about that person's character, not based on any moral weight I directly assign to what they did. I would also have some sort of negative reaction to someone raping a corpse, but it's not because I value corpses.

One can get both protein and deliciousness from non-meat sources.

My favorite non-meat dish is substantially less delicious than my favorite meat dish. I do currently get a decent amount of protein from non-meat sources, but asking someone who gets their protein primarily from meat to give up meat means asking them to incur a cost in finding and purchasing other sources of protein, and that cost needs to be justified somehow.

I'm not sure. I don't think there's a way I could make that transaction work.

Really? This can't be that hard a problem to solve. We could use a service like Fiverr, with you paying me $5 not to eat meat for some period of time.

Comment author: peter_hurford 13 June 2013 06:37:11AM 3 points [-]

And what would you say to someone who thought that [we shouldn't value the lives of foreigners]?

Right now, I don't know. I feel like it would be playing a losing game. What would you say?

You could try to convince me that I do [value nonhuman animals] even if you're a moral anti-realist.

I'm not sure how I would do that. Would you kick a puppy? If not, why not?

We could use a service like Fiverr, with you paying me $5 not to eat meat for some period of time.

How could I verify that you actually refrain from eating meat?

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 June 2013 07:25:32AM *  3 points [-]

Right now, I don't know. I feel like it would be playing a losing game. What would you say?

I would probably say something like "you just haven't spent enough time around them. They're less different from you than you think. Get to know them, and you might come to see them as not much different from the people you're more familiar with." In other words, I would bet on the psychological unity of mankind. Some of this argument applies to my relationship with the smarter animals (e.g. maybe pigs) but not to the dumber ones (e.g. fish). Although I'm not sure how I would go about getting to know a pig.

I'm not sure how I would do that. Would you kick a puppy? If not, why not?

No. Again, all else being equal, I would prefer that animals not suffer, but in the context of reducing animal suffering coming from human activity like farming, all else is not equal. I wouldn't chop down a tree either, but it's not because I think trees have moral value, and I don't plan to take any action against the logging industry as a result.

How could I verify that you actually refrain from eating meat?

Oh, that's what you were concerned about. It would be beneath my dignity to lie for $5, but if that isn't convincing, then I dunno. (On further thought, this seems like a big problem for measuring the actual impact of any proposed vegetarian proselytizing. How can you verify that anyone actually refrains from eating meat?)

Comment author: army1987 15 June 2013 07:04:21PM 2 points [-]

I think if you were to see someone torturing an animal in front of you for fun, you would have some sort of negative reaction.

That doesn't necessarily mean that I have animals being tortured as a negative terminal value: I might only dislike that because it generates negative warm fuzzies.

Comment author: Larks 13 June 2013 08:52:46AM 1 point [-]

To me, it feels very inconsistent to not value animals -- it sounds to me exactly like someone who wants to know argument about why they ought to care about foreigners.

Unfortunately, the typical argument in favour of caring about foreigners, people of other races, etc., is that they are human too.

Comment author: RobbBB 13 June 2013 09:03:51AM 9 points [-]

If distinct races were instead distinct human subspecies or closely-related species, would the moral case for treating these groups equally ipso facto collapse?

If not, then 'they're human too' must be a stand-in for some other feature that's really doing the pushing and pulling of our moral intuitions. At the very least, we need to taboo 'human' to figure out what the actual relevant concept is, since it's not the standard contemporary biological definition.

Comment author: CCC 13 June 2013 09:56:01AM 3 points [-]

In my case, I think that the relevant concept is human-level (or higher) intelligence. Of all the known species on Earth, humanity is the only one that I know to possess human-level or higher intelligence.

One potentially suitable test for human-level intelligence is the Turing test; due to their voice-mimic abilities, a parrot or a mynah bird may sound human at first, but it will not in general pass a Turing test.

Biological engineering on an almost-sufficiently-intelligent species (such as a dolphin) may lead to another suitably intelligent species with very little relation to a human.

Comment author: RobbBB 13 June 2013 10:04:28AM *  10 points [-]

That different races have effectively the same intellectual capacities is surely an important part of why we treat them as moral equals. But this doesn't seem to me to be entirely necessary — young children and the mentally handicapped may deserve most (though not all) moral rights, while having a substantially lower level of intelligence. Intelligence might also turn out not to be sufficient; if a lot of why we care about other humans is that they can experience suffering and pleasure, and if intelligent behavior is possible without affective and evaluative states like those, then we might be able to build an AI that rivaled our intelligence but did not qualify as a moral patient, or did not qualify as one to the same extent as less-intelligent-but-more-suffering-prone entities.

Comment author: MugaSofer 15 June 2013 11:11:23PM 0 points [-]

Clearly, below-human-average intelligence is still worth something ... so is there a cutoff point or what?

(I think you're onto something with "intelligence", but since intelligence varies, shouldn't how much we care vary too? Shouldn't there be some sort of sliding scale?)

Comment author: CCC 17 June 2013 09:18:29AM *  2 points [-]

That's a very good question.

I don't know.

Thinking through my mental landscape, I find that in most cases I value children (slightly) above adults. I think that this is more a matter of potential than anything else. I also put some value on an unborn human child, which could reasonably be said to have no intelligence at all (especially early on).

So, given that, I think that I put some fairly significant value on potential future intelligence as well as on present intelligence.

But, as you point out, below-human intelligence is still worth something.

...

I don't think there's really a firm cutoff point, such that one side is "worthless" and the other side is "worthy". It's a bit like a painting.

At one time, there's a blank canvas, a paintbrush, and a pile of tubes of paint. At this point, it is not a painting. At a later time, there's a painting. But there isn't one particular moment, one particular stroke of the brush, when it goes from "not-a-painting" to "painting". Similarly for intelligence; there isn't any particular moment when it switches automatically from "worthless" to "worthy".

If I'm going to eat meat, I have to find the point at which I'm willing to eat it by some other means than administering I.Q. tests (especially as, when I'm in the supermarket deciding whether or not to purchase a steak, it's a bit late to administer any tests to the cow). Therefore, I have to use some sort of proxy measurement with correlation to intelligence instead. For the moment, i.e. until some other species is proven to have human-level or near-human intelligence, I'm going to continue to use 'species' as my proxy measurement.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 13 June 2013 07:09:10AM *  1 point [-]

I am a moral anti-realist, so I don't think there's any argument I could give you to persuade you to change your values.

The relevant sense of changing values is change of someone else's purposeful behavior. The philosophical classification of your views doesn't seem like useful evidence about that possibility.

Comment author: peter_hurford 13 June 2013 12:42:46PM 1 point [-]

I don't understand what that means for my situation, though. How am I supposed to argue him out of his current values?

I mean, it's certainly possible to change someone's values through anti-realist argumentation. My values were changed in that way several times. But I don't know how to do it.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 15 June 2013 10:10:10PM *  1 point [-]

You may want to take a look at this brief list of relevant writings I compiled in response to a comment by SaidAchmiz.

Comment author: army1987 15 June 2013 06:43:23PM 1 point [-]

There are decent arguments (e.g. this) for eating less meat even if you don't care about non-human animals as a terminal value.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 17 June 2013 08:23:09PM 2 points [-]

Hang on, aren't you valuing the non-existence of an animal as 0 and the existence of a farm animal as some negative number per unit time?

Doesn't that imply that someone who kills farm animals, or prevents their existence in the first place is an altruist?

And what about wild animals, which presumably suffer more than farm animals? Should an altruist try to destroy them too?

Is your ideal final society just humans, plants and pets? I'd be quite unhappy in such a world, I imagine, so do I get it in the neck too?

Comment author: peter_hurford 17 June 2013 09:06:54PM *  1 point [-]

Hang on, aren't you valuing the non-existence of an animal as 0 and the existence of a farm animal as some negative number per unit time?

Yes.

~

Doesn't that imply that someone who kills farm animals [is an altruist?]

Only if they kill the farm animals painlessly and only if there aren't any other problems. For example, I don't think the strategy of bomb factory farms or sneak in and kill all their livestock will be net positive strategies. However, if a factory farm owner were to shut down the farm and order a painless slaughter of all the animals, that would be good.

~

[Doesn't that imply that someone who] prevents their existence in the first place is an altruist?

Yes. I suspect vegetarians make an impact by doing that.

~

And what about wild animals, which presumably suffer more than farm animals? Should an altruist try to destroy them too?

At this moment, it seems unclear. Wild animals are definitely a problem. I don't think they suffer more than farm animals, but they might. I'm not sure what the best intervention strategy is, but it's clear that some kind of strategy is needed, both in the short-run and long-run.

~

Is your ideal final society just humans, plants and pets?

Not necessarily.

~

I'd be quite unhappy in such a world, I imagine, so do I get it in the neck too?

Of course not.

Comment author: Desrtopa 18 June 2013 02:44:07PM 8 points [-]

At this moment, it seems unclear. Wild animals are definitely a problem. I don't think they suffer more than farm animals, but they might. I'm not sure what the best intervention strategy is, but it's clear that some kind of strategy is needed, both in the short-run and long-run.

I've heard a considerable number of people on this site echo the position that wild animals suffer so much their existence must be a net negative. This strikes me as awfully unlikely; they live in the situations they're adapted to, and have the hedonic treadmill principle going for them as well. You can observe at a zoo how many animals can become neurotic when they're removed from the sorts of circumstances they're accustomed to in the wild, but all their physical needs are accounted for.

Animals are adapted to be reproductively successful in their environments, not to be maximally happy, but considering the effects constant stress can have on the fitness of animals as well as humans, it would be quite maladaptive for them to be unhappy nearly all the time.

Comment author: Jabberslythe 18 June 2013 07:35:39PM 2 points [-]

For animals that are R-selected or, in other words, having many offspring in the hopes that some will survive, the vast majority of the offspring die very quickly. Most species of Fish, Amphibians and many less complex animals do this. 99.9% of them dieing in before reaching adulthood might be a good approximation for some species. A painful death doesn't seem worth a brief life as a wild animal.

It's true that most people wouldn't be functioning optimally if they were not somewhat happy and extrapolating this to other animals who seem to be similar to us in basic emotion, I would agree that an adult wild animal seem like they would live an alright life.

Comment author: Desrtopa 18 June 2013 09:39:57PM *  2 points [-]

Most species of Fish, Amphibians and many less complex animals do this. 99.9% of them dieing in before reaching adulthood might be a good approximation for some species. A painful death doesn't seem worth a brief life as a wild animal.

Juvenile r-type species tend to have so little neurological development, I think their capacity for experience is probably pretty minimal in any case.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 18 June 2013 01:47:46PM 2 points [-]

Crikey, full marks for honesty! I've never seen the position put quite so starkly before. It sounds a bit like 'the crime is life, the sentence is death'.

I don't see why you wouldn't want me dead, since I'd loathe a world without the wild, and would probably be unhappy. Certainly I would die to prevent it if I could see a way to.

In fact I think I'd sacrifice my own life to save a single (likeable) mammal species if I could. But that's probably too much an emotional response to discuss rationally.

And what about the vegan argument that you could feed four times as many people if we were all vegans? Would you consider a world of 28 billion people living on rice an improvement?

When you say 'Not necessarily', should I take that to mean 'just humans and plants, actually', or 'just humans and yeast', or have I taken that the wrong way?

If we could wirehead the farm animals, would you become an enthusiastic meat-eater?

Comment author: peter_hurford 18 June 2013 05:06:23PM 1 point [-]

It sounds a bit like 'the crime is life, the sentence is death'.

That's a very misleading way of putting it. The situation is one of dire, unending, inescapable torture for all of life. How would death, or better yet nonexistence, not be preferable?

~

I don't see why you wouldn't want me dead, since I'd loathe a world without the wild, and would probably be unhappy. Certainly I would die to prevent it if I could see a way to.

I'd speculate you wouldn't actually be suicidal in a world without the wild. Furthermore, I certainly wouldn't want you killed just because you're unhappy, because that's reversible. And even if it weren't, I think a policy of killing people for being unhappy would have tremendously bad short-run and long-run consequences.

Also, I don't think elimination of the wild is the only option. Mass welfare plans are potentially feasible. We could eliminate the wild and replicate it with holograms or robots that don't feel pain. Forcing animals to suffer just so you can have a beautiful wild doesn't sound moral to me. And it's possible that a number of species actually live net positive lives already.

Lastly, none of my outside-the-mainstream positions on wildlife need distract from the very real problem of factory farming. I think that case should be dealt with first.

~

In fact I think I'd sacrifice my own life to save a single (likeable) mammal species if I could.

Why? If you care about their existence, why don't you also care about their welfare?

~

And what about the vegan argument that you could feed four times as many people if we were all vegans?

I'm unsure (no position one way or the other yet) on the accuracy of that argument.

~

Would you consider a world of 28 billion people living on rice an improvement?

It depends on a lot of other factors. More people living good lives seems like an improvement to me, all else being equal. I think it would be worth giving up richness and variety in food in order to facilitate this, though obviously that one aspect would be regrettable.

Why do you ask? What are you getting at?

~

When you say 'Not necessarily', should I take that to mean 'just humans and plants, actually', or 'just humans and yeast', or have I taken that the wrong way?

You've taken it the wrong way. You asked if my "ideal final society" includes "just humans, plants and pets". I think there's a strong possibility it can include more than that (i.e. wild animals, robots, etc.).

My ideal final society would be some sort of transhumanist utopia, I think.

~

If we could wirehead the farm animals, would you become an enthusiastic meat-eater?

I'm currently unsure because I don't understand accurately the nature of wireheading. But if one could hypothetically remove all suffering from the factory farming process, I would then morally permit eating meat.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 21 June 2013 01:34:13PM 4 points [-]

The situation is one of dire, unending, inescapable torture for all of life. How would death, or better yet nonexistence, not be preferable?

Are you sure about this? The lives of our medieval ancestors seem unedurably horrifying to me, and yet many of those people exhibited strong desires to live.

All wild animals exhibit strong desires to live. Why not take them at their word?

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 21 June 2013 01:53:12PM 2 points [-]

Why? If you care about their existence, why don't you also care about their welfare?

I think I care about both, but don't ask me where my desires come from. Some weird evolution-thing combined with all the experiences of my life and some randomness, most prob'ly.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 21 June 2013 01:49:59PM 2 points [-]

Lastly, none of my outside-the-mainstream positions on wildlife need distract from the very real problem of factory farming. I think that case should be dealt with first.

I could not agree more! But it does sound like we have very different ideas about what 'dealing with it' means.

I'd like all farms to be like the farm I grew up next to. I was much more of an animal lover as a child than I am now, but even then I thought that the animals next door seemed happy.

Ironically I used to worry about the morality of killing them for food, but it never occurred to me that their lives were so bad that they should be killed and then not eaten.

Comment author: CCC 18 June 2013 06:36:32PM 2 points [-]

I don't see why you wouldn't want me dead, since I'd loathe a world without the wild, and would probably be unhappy. Certainly I would die to prevent it if I could see a way to.

I'd speculate you wouldn't actually be suicidal in a world without the wild. Furthermore, I certainly wouldn't want you killed just because you're unhappy, because that's reversible. And even if it weren't, I think a policy of killing people for being unhappy would have tremendously bad short-run and long-run consequences.

If a non-human animal is unhappy, you would prefer it to be painlessly killed. If a human is unhappy, you would prefer it not to be painlessly killed.

Am I mis-stating something here? If not, could you please explain the difference?

If we could wirehead the farm animals, would you become an enthusiastic meat-eater?

I'm currently unsure because I don't understand accurately the nature of wireheading. But if one could hypothetically remove all suffering from the factory farming process, I would then morally permit eating meat.

As I understand the concept, it involves connecting a wire to the animal's brain in such a way that it always experiences euphoric pleasure (and presumably disconnecting the parts of the brain that experience suffering).

Comment author: peter_hurford 18 June 2013 07:20:20PM 3 points [-]

If a non-human animal is unhappy, you would prefer it to be painlessly killed. If a human is unhappy, you would prefer it not to be painlessly killed. Am I mis-stating something here? If not, could you please explain the difference?

Humans (and potentially some nonhumans like dolphins and apes) are special in that they have forward-looking desires, including an enduring desire to not die. I don't want to trample on these desires, so I'd only want the human killed with their consent (though some exceptions might apply).

Nonhuman animals without these forward-looking desires aren't harmed by death, and thus I'm fine with them being killed, provided it realizes a net benefit. (And making a meal more delicious is not a net benefit.)

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 21 June 2013 01:26:42PM 2 points [-]

(And making a meal more delicious is not a net benefit.)

why not? (blah,blah, googolplex of spectacular meals vs death of tb bacillus, blah)

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 21 June 2013 02:21:37PM 1 point [-]

Humans (and potentially some nonhumans like dolphins and apes) are special in that they have forward-looking desires, including an enduring desire to not die. I don't want to trample on these desires, so I'd only want the human killed with their consent (though some exceptions might apply).

This is interesting. Even though I usually love life minute to minute, and think I am one of the happiest people I know, I don't have a strong desire to be alive in a year's time, or even tomorrow morning. And yet I constantly act to prevent my death and I fully intend to be frozen, 'just in case'. This seems completely incoherent to me, and I notice that I am confused.

Wild animals go to some lengths to prolong their lives. Whether they are mistaken about the value of their lives or not, what is the difference between them and me?

P.S. I'm not winding you up here. In the context of a discussion about cryonics, ciphergoth found the above literally unbelievable and recommend I seek medical help! After that I introspected a lot. After a year or so of reflection, I'm as sure as I can be that it's true.

Comment author: Morendil 21 June 2013 03:35:57PM 1 point [-]

I don't have a strong desire to be alive in a year's time, or even tomorrow morning.

If you did have such a desire, how do you suppose it might manifest?

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 21 June 2013 03:58:30PM 1 point [-]

Very similarly to my actual behaviour of course. As I say, I notice that I am confused.

But if you're saying that my behaviour implies that I feel the desire that I don't perceive feeling, then surely we can apply the same reasoning to animals. They clearly want to continue their own lives.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 21 June 2013 02:11:31PM 0 points [-]

Would you consider a world of 28 billion people living on rice an improvement?

It depends on a lot of other factors. More people living good lives seems like an improvement to me, all else being equal. I think it would be worth giving up richness and variety in food in order to facilitate this, though obviously that one aspect would be regrettable.

Why do you ask? What are you getting at?

I'm trying to see where your morality is coming from. It looks like 'assign a real value to every (multicellular) living creature according to how much fun it's having, add all the values up, and bigger is better'.

Whereas I greatly prefer 'A few people living in luxury in a beautiful vast wilderness' to 'Countless millions living on rice in a world where everything you see is a human creation'. I don't have a theory to explain why. I just do.

I'm sure that that's my evolved animal nature speaking about 'where is the best place to set up home'. And probably I'm dutchbookable, and maybe by your lights I'm evil.

But it seems odd to try to come up with new desires according to a theory. I'd rather go with the desires I've already got.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 18 June 2013 01:52:08PM 1 point [-]

Voting up, by the way. very thought-provoking. I have clever vegan friends I must discuss this with.

Comment author: ThrustVectoring 16 June 2013 03:40:33AM 2 points [-]

As far as improving the world through behavioral changes go, advertising e-cigarettes is probably much more cost effective than advertising vegetarianism. You could even target it to smokers (either through statistics and social information, or just be grabbing low-income people in general and restaurant, fast food, and retail workers in particular).

Comment author: waveman 13 June 2013 02:34:38AM 4 points [-]

It would have been better, I think, to submit an argument for veganism (or vegetarianism) for scrutiny here first. Then an argument about the best way to promote it. As it stands, the two issues are confused.

My own view is that for me, the productivity hit and adverse health impact outweigh the benefits. (vegan diet contributed to the loss of sight in my left eye among other things).

If we stop eating meat, these animals will not thereafter frolic gaily in the meadow. They will not exist at all. The merits of veganism make for a big enough topic on their own. You may also want to justify why this is a priority issue.

I am concerned about attempts to coopt LW in other causes that seem to me to not be rational at their core.

Comment author: peter_hurford 13 June 2013 03:26:22AM 6 points [-]

It would have been better, I think, to submit an argument for veganism (or vegetarianism) for scrutiny here first. Then an argument about the best way to promote it. As it stands, the two issues are confused.

Perhaps I'm a bad advocate, but I don't think there is an "argument" for veganism/vegetarianism, outside what you would see in the pamphlets, videos, or "Why Eat Less Meat?" linked within. I suppose I could upload my "Why Eat Less Meat" piece?

Another problem I'm having is that there are like sixty million objections that someone might raise against veganism/vegetarianism, and it would be impossible to answer them all.

~

My own view is that for me, the productivity hit and adverse health impact outweigh the benefits. (vegan diet contributed to the loss of sight in my left eye among other things).

I'm not going to be a lecturer on vegan health or say you "did it wrong", but the eye thing definitely strikes me as an atypical result. I'm doing a vegetarian diet right now with no health or productivity demerits.

~

If we stop eating meat, these animals will not thereafter frolic gaily in the meadow. They will not exist at all.

Of that, I'm obviously aware. I count that as suffering reduced.

~

The merits of veganism make for a big enough topic on their own. You may also want to justify why this is a priority issue.

It's potentially a priority issue if it can be accomplished so cheaply; hence the cost-effectiveness estimate. I wasn't even here to argue that veganism was a global priority. Right now, I think at best it would be in the "top five". Even if this essay were read as an advocacy piece instead of an evaluation piece, it's advocating for philanthropy toward vegetarianism rather than vegetarianism itself.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 13 June 2013 05:56:31AM 1 point [-]

I have to agree with waveman that we should establish that vegetarianism is a worthwhile cause before we devote LW posts to figuring out how best to promote it. We could, in theory, investigate how best to promote all sorts of things, but let's not actually advocate promoting arbitrary values or ideologies that may or may not be good ideas. Doing so seems like a straightforward way of wasting our time and doing actual harm (by, among other things, creating the impression that the cause in question has been accepted by the LW community as being worthwhile). (i.e. "What is the best way to get out the word about cheese-only diets?" implicates that we've already determined cheese-only diets to be not only a good idea, but worth actively advocating.)

Even if this essay were read as an advocacy piece instead of an evaluation piece, it's advocating for philanthropy toward vegetarianism rather than vegetarianism itself.

It seems nonsensical to view advocacy for philanthropy toward vegetarianism as different from advocacy for vegetarianism itself, if you take the view (as you seem to do) that vegetarianism is a moral issue.

Comment author: peter_hurford 13 June 2013 06:06:16AM 4 points [-]

we should establish that vegetarianism is a worthwhile cause before we devote LW posts to figuring out how best to promote it.

I don't know how to establish it as a worthwhile cause to those who don't already value nonhuman animals, so I skipped that step.

For those who do already value nonhuman animals, though, I had hoped this essay was such an evaluation, given that it is a cost-effectiveness estimate and evidence survey. It's not a comparison of advocacy efforts, since no other advocacy efforts are considered.

-

It seems nonsensical to view advocacy for philanthropy toward vegetarianism as different from advocacy for vegetarianism itself, if you take the view (as you seem to do) that vegetarianism is a moral issue.

That's true. I suppose one could consider advocating vegetarianism without personally becoming vegetarian, though that would be somewhat hypocritical.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 13 June 2013 06:44:03AM *  2 points [-]

I don't know how to establish it as a worthwhile cause to those who don't already value nonhuman animals, so I skipped that step.

I do sympathize with the difficulty of persuading someone with whom you do not share the relevant values, but I'm afraid I can't help but object to "this part of the argument is hard, so I skipped it".

Changing values is not impossible. I don't think valuing nonhuman animals is a terminal value; the terminal value in question probably looks something more like "valuing the experiences of minds that are capable of conscious suffering" or something to that general effect. (That is, if we insist on tracing this preference to a value per se, rather than assuming that it's just signaling or somesuch.) And most people here do, I think, place at least some importance on reflective equilibrium, which is a force for value change.

The problem I have with your approach (and I hope you'll forgive me for this continued criticism of what is, to be truthful, a fairly interesting post) is that it's a nigh-fully-general justification for advocating arbitrary things, like so:

"Here is an analysis of how to most cost-effectively promote the eating of babies. I don't know how to establish baby-eating as a worthwhile cause for people who don't already think that eating babies is a good idea, so I skipped that step."

Ditto " ... saving cute kittens from rare diseases ...", ditto " ... reducing the incidence of premarital sex ...", ditto pretty much anything ever.

What I would be curious to see is whether the LW populace perhaps already thinks that vegetarianism is a settled question. If so, my objections might be misplaced. Was this covered in one of the surveys? Hmm...

Edit: Aha.

VEGETARIAN:
No: 906, 76.6%
Yes: 147, 12.4%
No answer: 130, 11%

For comparison, 3.2% of US adults are vegetarian.

Comment author: davidpearce 13 June 2013 05:36:48PM 6 points [-]

SaidAchmiz, I wonder if a more revealing question would be to ask if / when in vitro meat products of equivalent taste and price hit the market, will you switch? Lesswrong readers tend not to be technophobes, so I assume the majority(?) of lesswrongers who are not already vegetarian will make the transition. However, you say above that you are "not interested in reducing the suffering of animals". Do you mean that you are literally indifferent one way or the other to nonhuman animal suffering - in which case presumably you won't bother changing to the cruelty-free alternative? Or do you mean merely that you don't consider nonhuman animal suffering important?

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 13 June 2013 05:56:25PM 0 points [-]

Do you mean that you are literally indifferent one way or the other to nonhuman animal suffering - in which case presumably you won't bother changing to the cruelty-free alternative? Or do you mean merely that you don't consider nonhuman animal suffering important?

In (current) practice those are the same, as you realize, I'm sure. My attitude is closest to something like "no amount of animal suffering adds up to any amount of human suffering", or more generally "no amount of utility to animals [to the extent that the concept of utility to a non-sapient being is coherent] adds up to any amount of utility to humans". However, note that I am skeptical of the concept of consistent aggregation of utility across individuals in general (and thus of utilitarian ethical theories, though I endorse consequentialism), so adjust your appraisal of my views accordingly.

In vitro meat products could change that; that is, the existence of in vitro meat would make the two views you listed meaningfully different in practice, as you suggest. If in vitro meat cost no more than regular meat, and tasted no worse, and had no worse health consequences, and in general if there was no downside for me to switch...

... well, in that case, I would switch, with the caveat that "switch" is not exactly the right term; I simply would not care whether the meat I bought were IV or non, making my purchasing decisions based on price, taste, and all those other mundane factors by means of which people typically make their food purchasing decisions.

I guess that's a longwinded way of saying that no, I wouldn't switch exclusively to IV meat if doing so cost me anything.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 13 June 2013 11:04:12AM *  7 points [-]

My personal reason for pursuing vegetarianism (and ultimately veganism) is simple: I want the result of me having existed, as compared to an alternative universe where I did not exist, to be less overall suffering in the world. If I eat meat for my whole life, I'll already have contributed to the creation of such a vast amount of suffering that it will be very hard to do anything that will reliably catch up with that. Each day of my life, I'll be racking up more "suffering debt" to pay off, and I'd rather not have my mere existence contribute to adding more suffering.

Comment author: Kawoomba 13 June 2013 11:30:58AM 5 points [-]

I want the result of me having existed, as compared to an alternative universe where I did not exist, to be less overall suffering in the world.

That's probably the abridged version, because if that were the actual goal, a doomsday machine would do the trick.

Comment author: army1987 14 June 2013 09:08:02PM 1 point [-]

If you count pleasure as negative suffering...

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 13 June 2013 12:24:48PM 0 points [-]

That's probably the abridged version

Yes.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 13 June 2013 02:14:21PM *  3 points [-]

I want the result of me having existed, as compared to an alternative universe where I did not exist, to be...

This seems like an arbitrary distinction. The value relevant to your ongoing decisions is in opportunity cost of the decisions (and you know that). Why take the popular sentiment seriously, or even merely indulge yourself in it, when it's known to be wrong?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 13 June 2013 07:51:50PM 2 points [-]

It is indeed wrong, but it seems to mostly produce the same recommendations as framing the issue in terms of opportunity costs while being more motivating. "Shifting to vegetarianism has a high expected suffering reduction" doesn't compel action in nearly the same way as "I'm currently racking up a suffering debt every day of my life" does.

Comment author: MTGandP 15 June 2013 10:46:05PM 2 points [-]

I'll already have contributed to the creation of such a vast amount of suffering that it will be very hard to do anything that will reliably catch up with that.

Actually, it's pretty easy: just donate enough money to organizations like Vegan Outreach such that you're confident that you have caused the creation of a new vegetarian/vegan.

Comment author: shminux 12 June 2013 09:21:14PM *  2 points [-]

I start with the claim that it's good for people to eat less meat, whether they become vegetarian -- or, better yet, vegan -- because this means less nonhuman animals are being painfully factory farmed.

If your reason for vegetarianism is mainly prevention of animal suffering, shouldn't you be concentrating on ethical farming? Or are you against raising a happy cow and painlessly killing it some time later?

If you value the welfare of nonhuman animals from a consequentialist perspective

if you value happy animals, than you ought to value happy farm animals, and more vegetarianism results in fewer of those.

and I personally come up with a cost-effectiveness estimate of $0.02 to $65.92

4-digit precision on the accuracy equivalent of 0.1 sigfig? If so, then it's hard for me to take any of your calculations seriously.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 13 June 2013 10:55:20AM 6 points [-]

If your reason for vegetarianism is mainly prevention of animal suffering, shouldn't you be concentrating on ethical farming? Or are you against raising a happy cow and painlessly killing it some time later?

In principle, it might be better to support companies making ethical meat than to entirely boycott meat. In practice, companies lie about their practices all the time, and things that are marketed as something often turn out to be something else entirely. At least for me personally, becoming certain enough about the ethicalness of a meat product that I'd feel confident about buying it would require far more time and energy than just achieving the certainty by avoiding meat overall.

Comment author: Watercressed 12 June 2013 10:15:39PM 5 points [-]

It's not really fair to call a range of .02 to 65.92 four digit precision just because the upper bound was written with four digits.

Comment author: peter_hurford 13 June 2013 01:36:43AM 6 points [-]

If your reason for vegetarianism is mainly prevention of animal suffering, shouldn't you be concentrating on ethical farming? Or are you against raising a happy cow and painlessly killing it some time later?

I don't think so. I wouldn't be against happy cows with painless deaths, but I think achieving that outcome, especially via the advocacy available to me, is very unlikely.

if you value happy animals, than you ought to value happy farm animals, and more vegetarianism results in fewer of those.

I don't understand. This assumes there are happy farm animals. If any farm animals are happy, they're certainly in the extreme minority.

Comment author: seanwelsh77 14 June 2013 01:06:20AM -1 points [-]

I have no argument with your desire to establish the most cost-effective way to get the most bang for your bucks. I simply do not accept the premise that it is wrong to eat meat.

Consider the life of a steer in Cape York. It is born the property of a grazier. It is given health care of a sort (dips, jabs, anti-tick treatment). It lives a free life grazing for a few hundred days in fenced enclosures protected by the grazier's guns from predators. Towards the end, it is mustered by jackaroos and jillaroos, shipped in a truck to the lush volcanic grasslands of the Atherton Tableland to be fattened up. On its last day, it is trucked to an abattoir to be stunned and killed.

If the grazier did not exist the steer would not exist. Now I could make some argument about 'utility' but I won't. And indeed there is a distinction between the factory farming you object to (grain-fed beef) versus older ways (grass-fed beef).

I would not like to be given this treatment myself but I am not a domesticated animal. I am not a beast or a dumb animal. I am a top predator. We have evolved to prefer meat and vegetables in our diet. We have arranged the ecosystem to satisfy our desire for meat. I value steers dead, butchered and then grilled or roasted. I have no interest, rational, emotional or otherwise, in funding a life for free steers in the wild.

A fundamental political problem for vegan advocacy is that people enjoy meat and that it is 'natural' to eat it. Now being natural is not a right maker but going against nature and being dependent on vitamin supplements to avoid anemia is not a right maker either. Stick people in the bush with no food and a bow and arrow and they will figure out how to shoot cute kangaroos and koalas quick smart rather than starve. Submit homo sapiens to enough stress and those predator instincts and drives that are suppressed in the civilized ecosystem come to the fore.

Desire drives us all. Argument that goes against basic human desire goes uphill. Vegetarian advocacy has been around for a long time (since Buddha, Mahavira) as have the moral arguments. Alas, human moral functionality is limited. Your research dollars would be better spent on finding an ethical alternative to meat that tastes way better than soy burgers. When vegans can provide a product that rivals that of the butchers in taste and appeal, then they will succeed.

Until then, they are a tiny minority that get recruits and suffers defections at more or less similarly measurable rates. In the meantime, I prefer organic and free-range products.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 14 June 2013 01:51:48AM 3 points [-]

I have no interest, rational, emotional or otherwise, in funding a life for free steers in the wild.

Without engaging with any of your other points, I'd just like to point out that the OP considers the good outcome to be one where farm animals don't exist at all, rather than one where they're free in the wild. (Because if animals don't exist then they can't suffer.)

Comment author: RichardKennaway 14 June 2013 08:13:43AM 2 points [-]

(Because if animals don't exist then they can't suffer.)

Ex-ter-min-ate! Ex-ter-min-ate!! EX-TER-MIN-ATE!!!

That explains the Daleks. They're failed FAIs that were built to eliminate suffering from the universe.

Comment author: seanwelsh77 14 June 2013 02:14:44AM 2 points [-]

Quite so. The OP I think is more concerned about factory farming than the more traditional grazing approaches to cattle. But I think if you push a morality too far up against the hill of human desire it will collapse. Many activists overestimate the "care factor". My ability to care is pretty limited. I can't and won't care about 7 billion other humans on this planet except in the thinnest and most meaningless senses (i.e. stated preferences in surveys which are near worthless) let along the x billion animals. In terms of revealed preferences (where I put my dollars and power) I favour the near and the dear over the stranger and the genetically unrelated.