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Why Eat Less Meat?

45 Post author: peter_hurford 23 July 2013 09:30PM

Previously, I wrote on LessWrong about the preliminary evidence in favor of using leaflets to promote veganism as a way of cost-effectively reducing suffering.  In response, there was a large discussion with 530+ comments.   In this discussion, I found that a lot of people wanted me to write about why I think nonhuman animals deserve our concern anyway.

Therefore, I wrote this essay with an attempt to defend the view that if one cares about suffering, one should also care about nonhuman animals, since (1) they are capable of suffering, (2) they do suffer quite a lot, and (3) we can prevent their suffering.   I hope that we can have a sober, non mind-killing discussion about this topic, since it’s possibly quite important.

 

Introduction

For the past two years, the only place I ate meat was at home with my family.  As of October 2012, I've finally stopped eating meat altogether and can't see a reason why I would want to go back to eating meat.  This kind of attitude toward eating is commonly classified as "vegetarianism" where one refrains from eating the flesh of all animals, including fish, but still will consume animal products like eggs and milk (though I try to avoid egg as best I can).

Why might I want to do this?  And why might I see it as a serious issue?  It's because I'm very concerned about the reality of suffering done to our "food animals" in the process of making them into meat, because I see vegetarianism as a way to reduce this suffering by stopping the harmful process, and because vegetarianism has not been hard at all for me to accomplish.

 

Animals Can Suffer

Back in the 1600s, Réné Descartes thought nonhuman animals were soulless automatons that could respond to their environment and react to stimuli, but could not feel anything — humans were the only species that were truly conscious. Descartes hit on an important point — since feelings are completely internal to the animal doing the feeling, it is impossible to demonstrate that anyone is truly conscious.

However, when it comes to humans, we don’t let that stop us from assuming other people feel pain. When we jab a person with a needle, no matter who they are, where they come from, or what they look like, they share a rather universal reaction of what we consider to be evidence of pain. We also extend this to our pets — we make great strides to avoid harming kittens, puppies, or other companion animals, and no one would want to kick a puppy or light a kitten on fire just because their consciousness cannot be directly observed. That’s why we even go as far as having laws against animal cruelty.

The animals we eat are no different. Pigs, chickens, cows, and fish all have incredibly analogous responses to stimuli that we would normally agree cause pain to humans and pets.  Jab a pig with a needle, kick a chicken, or light a cow on fire, and they will react aversively like any cat, dog, horse, or human.

 

The Science

But we don't need to rely on just our intuition -- instead, we can look at the science.  Animal scientists Temple Grandin and Mark Deesing conclude that "[o]ur review of the literature on frontal cortex development enables us to conclude that all mammals, including rats, have a sufficiently developed prefrontal cortex to suffer from pain".  An interview of seven different scientists concludes that animals can suffer.

Dr. Jane Goodall, famous for having studied animals, writes in her introduction to The Inner World of Farm Animals that "farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear, and pain. They are far more aware and intelligent than we ever imagined…they are individuals in their own right."  Farm Sanctuary, an animal welfare organization, has a good overview documenting this research on animal emotion.

Lastly, among much other evidence, in the "Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness", prominent international group of cognitive  neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists states:

Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.  Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also  possess these neurological substrates.

 

Factory Farming Causes Considerable Suffering

However, the fact that animals can suffer is just one piece of the picture; we next have to establish that animals do suffer as a result of people eating meat.  Honestly, this is easier shown than told -- there's an extremely harrowing and shocking 11-minute video about the cruelty available.  Watching that video is perhaps the easiest way to see the suffering of nonhuman animals first hand in these "factory farms".

In making the case clear, Vegan Outreach writes "Many people believe that animals raised for food must be treated well because sick or dead animals would be of no use to agribusiness. This is not true."

They then go on to document, with sources, how virtually all birds raised for food are from factory farms where "resulting ammonia levels [from densely populated sheds and accumulated waste] commonly cause painful burns to the birds' skin, eyes, and respiratory tracts" and how hens "become immobilized and die of asphyxiation or dehydration", having been "[p]acked in cages (usually less than half a square foot of floor space per bird)".  In fact, 137 million chickens suffer to death each year before they can even make it to slaughter -- more than the number of animals killed for fur, in shelters and in laboratories combined!

Farm Sanctuary also provides an excellent overview of the cruelty of factory farming, writing "Animals on factory farms are regarded as commodities to be exploited for profit. They undergo painful mutilations and are bred to grow unnaturally fast and large for the purpose of maximizing meat, egg, and milk production for the food industry."

It seems clear that factory farming practices are truly deplorable, and certainly are not worth the benefit of eating a slightly tastier meal.  In "An Animal's Place", Michael Pollan writes:

To visit a modern CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) is to enter a world that, for all its technological sophistication, is still designed according to Cartesian principles: animals are machines incapable of feeling pain. Since no thinking person can possibly believe this any more, industrial animal agriculture depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert your eyes on the part of everyone else.

 

Vegetarianism Can Make a Difference

Many people see the staggering amount of suffering in factory farms, and if they don't aim to dismiss it outright will say that there's no way they can make a difference by changing their eating habits.  However, this is certainly not the case!

 

How Many Would Be Saved?

Drawing from the 2010 Livestock Slaughter Animal Summary and the Poultry Slaughter Animal Summary, 9.1 billion land animals are either grown in the US or imported (94% of which are chickens!), 1.6 billion are exported, and 631 million die before anyone can eat them, leaving 8.1 billion land animals for US consumption each year.

A naïve average would divide this total among the population of the US, which is 311 million, assigning 26 land animals for each person's annual consumption.  Thus, by being vegetarian, you are saving 26 land animals a year you would have otherwise eaten.  And this doesn't even count fish, which could be quite high given how many fish need to be grown just to be fed to bigger fish!

Yet, this is not quite true.  It's important to note that supply and demand aren't perfectly linear.  If you reduce your demand for meat, the suppliers will react by lowering the price of meat a little bit, making it so more people can buy it.  Since chickens dominate the meat market, we'll adjust by the supply elasticity of chickens, which is 0.22 and the demand elasticity of chickens, which is -0.52, and calculate the change in supply, which is 0.3.  Taking this multiplier, it's more accurate to say you're saving 7.8 land animals a year or more.  Though, there are a lot of complex considerations in calculating elasticity, so we should take this figure to have some uncertainty.

 

Collective Action

One might critique this response by responding that since meat is often bought in bulk, reducing meat consumption won't affect the amount of meat bought, and thus the suffering will still be the same, except with meat gone to waste.  However, this ignores the effect of many different vegetarians acting together.

Imagine that you're supermarket buys cases of 200 chicken wings.  It would thus take 200 people together to agree to buy 1 less wing in order for the supermarket to buy less wings.  However, you have no idea if you're vegetarian #1 or vegetarian #56 or vegetarian #200, making the tipping point for 200 less wings to be bought.  You thus can estimate that by buying one less wing you have a 1 in 200 chance of reducing 200 wings, which is equivalent to reducing the supply by one wing.  So the effect basically cancels out.  See here or here for more.

Every time you buy factory farmed meat, you are creating demand for that product, essentially saying "Thank you, I liked what you are doing and want to encourage you to do it more".  By eating less meat, we can stop our support of this industry.

 

Vegetarianism Is Easier Than You Think

So nonhuman animals can suffer and do suffer in factory farms, and we can help stop this suffering by eating less meat.  I know people who get this far, but then stop and say that, as much as they would like to, there's no way they could be a vegetarian because they like meat too much!  However, such a joy for meat shouldn't count much compared to the massive suffering each animal undergoes just to be farmed -- imagine if someone wouldn't stop eating your pet just because they like eating your pet so much!

This is less than a problem than you might think, because being a vegetarian is really easy.  Most people only think about what they would have to give up and how good it tastes, and don't think about what tasty things they could eat instead that have no meat in them.  When I first decided to be a vegetarian, I simply switched from tasty hamburgers to tasty veggieburgers and there was no problem at all.

 

A Challenge

To those who say that vegetarianism is too hard, I’d like to simply challenge you to just try it for a few days. Feel free to give up afterward if you find it too hard. But I imagine that you should do just fine, find great replacements, and be able to save animals from suffering in the process.

If reducing suffering is one of your goals, there’s no reason why you must either be a die-hard meat eater or a die-hard vegetarian. Instead, feel free to explore some middle ground. You could be a vegetarian on weekdays but eat meat on weekends, or just try Meatless Mondays, or simply try to eat less meat. You could try to eat bigger animals like cows instead of fish or chicken, thus getting the same amount of meat with significantly less suffering.

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(This was also cross-posted on my blog.)

Comments (512)

Comment author: RobbBB 23 July 2013 11:03:59PM *  42 points [-]

As someone who agrees with (almost) everything you wrote above, I fear that you haven't seriously addressed what I take to be any of the best arguments against vegetarianism, which are:

  1. Present Triviality. Becoming a vegetarian is at least a minor inconvenience — it restricts your social activities, forces you to devote extra resources to keeping yourself healthy, etc. If you're an Effective Altruist, then your time, money, and mental energy would be much better spent on directly impacting society than on changing your personal behavior. Even minor inconveniences and attention drains will be a net negative. So you should tell everyone else (outside of EA) to be a vegetarian, but not be one yourself.

  2. Future Triviality. Meanwhile, almost all potential suffering and well-being lies in the distant future; that is, even if we have only a small chance of expanding to the stars, the aggregate value for that vast sum of life dwarfs that of the present. So we should invest everything we have into making it as likely as possible that humans and non-humans will thrive in the distant future, e.g., by making Friendly AI that values non-human suffering. Even minor distractions from that goal are a big net loss.

  3. Experiential Suffering Needn't Correlate With Damage-Avoiding or Damage-Signaling Behavior. We have reason to think the two correlate in humans (or at least developed, cognitively normal humans) because we introspectively seem to suffer across a variety of neural and psychological states in our own lives. Since I remain a moral patient while changing dramatically over a lifetime, other humans, who differ from me little more than I differ from myself over time, must also be moral patients. But we lack any such evidence in the case of non-humans, especially non-humans with very different brains. For the same reason we can't be confident that four-month-old fetuses feel pain, we can't be confident that cows or chickens feel pain. Why is the inner experience of suffering causally indispensable for neurally mediated damage-avoiding behavior? If it isn't causally indispensable, then why think it is selected at all in non-sapients? Alternatively, what indispensable mechanism could it be an evolutionarily unsurprising byproduct of?

  4. Something About Sapience Is What Makes Suffering Bad. (Or, alternatively: Something about sapience is what makes true suffering possible.) There are LessWrongers who subscribe to the view that suffering doesn't matter, unless accompanied by some higher cognitive function, like abstract thought, a concept of self, long-term preferences, or narratively structured memories — functions that are much less likely to exist in non-humans than ordinary suffering. So even if we grant that non-humans suffer, why think that it's bad in non-humans? Perhaps the reason is something that falls victim to...

  5. Aren't You Just Anthropomorphizing Non-Humans? People don't avoid kicking their pets because they have sophisticated ethical or psychological theories that demand as much. They avoid kicking their pets because they anthropomorphize their pets, reflexively put themselves in their pets' shoes even though there is little scientific evidence that goldfish and cockatoos have a valenced inner life. (Plus being kind to pets is good signaling, and usually makes the pets more fun to be around.) If we built robots that looked and acted vaguely like humans, we'd be able to make humans empathize with those things too, just as they empathize with fictional characters. But this isn't evidence that the thing empathized with is actually conscious.

I think these arguments can be resisted, but they can't just be dismissed out of hand.

You also don't give what I think is the best argument in favor of vegetarianism, which is that vegetarianism does a better job of accounting for uncertainty in our understanding of normative ethics (does suffering matter?) and our understanding of non-human psychology (do non-humans suffer?).

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 24 July 2013 03:18:29PM 17 points [-]

Becoming a vegetarian is at least a minor inconvenience — it restricts your social activities, forces you to devote extra resources to keeping yourself healthy, etc.

How about becoming a mostly vegetarian? Avoid eating meat... unless it would be really inconvenient to do so.

Depending on your specific situations, perhaps you could reduce your meat consumption by 50%, which from the utilitarian viewpoint is 50% as good as becoming a full vegetarian. And the costs are trivial.

This is what I am doing recently, and it works well for me. For example, if I have a lunch menu, by default I read the vegetarian option first, and I choose otherwise only if it is something I dislike (or if it contains sugar), which is maybe 20% of cases. The only difficult thing was to do it for the first week, then it works automatically; it is actually easier than reading the full list and deciding between similar options.

Comment author: RobbBB 24 July 2013 05:54:12PM *  2 points [-]

How about becoming a mostly vegetarian? Avoid eating meat... unless it would be really inconvenient to do so.

I think that would pretty much do away with the 'it's a minor inconvenience' objections. However, I suspect it would also diminish most of the social and psychological benefits of vegetarianism -- as willpower training, proof to yourself of your own virtue, proof to others of your virtue, etc. Still, this might be a good option for EAists to consider.

It's worth keeping in mind that different people following this rule will end up committing to vegetarianism to very different extents, because both the level of inconvenience incurred, and the level of inconvenience that seems justifiable, will vary from person to person.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 24 July 2013 07:38:33PM 1 point [-]

suspect it would also diminish most of the social and psychological benefits of vegetarianism -- as willpower training, proof to yourself of your own virtue, proof to others of your virtue, etc. Still, this might be a good option for EAists to consider.

I can train my willpower on many other situations, so that's not an issue. So it's about the virtue, or more precisely, signalling. Well, depending on one's mindset, one can find a "feeling of virtue" even in this. Whether the partial vegetarianism is easier to spread than full vegetarianism, I don't know -- and that is probably the most important part. But some people spreading full vegetarianism, and other people spreading partial vegetarianism where the former fail, feels like a good solution.

Comment author: MTGandP 23 July 2013 11:56:12PM *  11 points [-]

Your points (1) and (2) seem like fully general counterarguments against any activity at all, other than the single most effective activity at any given time. I do agree with you that future suffering could potentially greatly outweigh present suffering, and I think it's very important to try to prevent future suffering of non-human animals. However, it seems that one of the best ways to do that is to encourage others to care more for the welfare of non-human animals, i.e. become veg*ans.

Perhaps more importantly, it makes sense from a psychological perspective to become a veg*an if you care about non-human animals. It seems that if I ate meat, cognitive dissonance would make it much harder for me to make an effort to prevent non-human suffering on a broader scale.

(4): Although I see no way to falsify this belief, I also don't see any reason to believe that it's true. Furthermore, it runs counter to my intuitions. Are profoundly mentally disabled humans incapable of "true" suffering?

(5): Humans and non-human animals evolved in the same way, so it strikes me as highly implausible that humans would be capable of suffering while all non-humans would lack this capacity.

Comment author: RobbBB 24 July 2013 12:27:12AM *  4 points [-]

Your points (1) and (2) seem like fully general counterarguments against any activity at all, other than the single most effective activity at any given time.

That's more or less what I intended them to be. Isn't doing only the most effective activities available to you... a good idea?

However, I'd phrase the argument in terms of degrees: Activities are good to the extent they conduce to your making better decisions for the future, bad to the extent they conduce to your making worse decisions for the future. So doing the dishes might be OK even if it's not the Single Best Thing You Could Possibly Be Doing Right Now, provided it indirectly helps you do better things than you otherwise would. Some suboptimal things are more suboptimal than others.

However, it seems that one of the best ways to do that is to encourage others to care more for the welfare of non-human animals

Maybe? If you could give such an argument, though, it would show that my argument isn't a fully general counterargument -- vegetarianism would be an exception, precisely because it would be the optimal decision.

it makes sense from a psychological perspective to become a veg*an if you care about non-human animals.

Right. I think the disagreement is about the ethical character of vegetarianism, not about whether it's a psychologically or aesthetically appealing life-decision (to some people). It's possible to care about the wrong things, and it's possible to assign moral weight to things that don't deserve it. Ghosts, blastocysts, broccoli stalks, abstract objects....

Although I see no way to falsify this belief, I also don't see any reason to believe that it's true.

To assess (4) I think we'd need to look at the broader ethical and neurological theories that entail it, and assess the evidence for and against them. This is a big project. Personally, my uncertainty about the moral character of non-sapients is very large, though I think I lean in your direction. (Actually, my uncertainty and confusion about most things sapience- and sentience- related are very large.)

Comment author: Desrtopa 24 July 2013 02:12:06AM 3 points [-]

That's more or less what I intended them to be. Isn't doing only the most effective activities available to you... a good idea?

Within practical limits. It's not effective altruism if you drive yourself crazy trying to hold yourself to unattainable standards and burn yourself out.

Comment author: RobbBB 24 July 2013 02:53:57AM *  4 points [-]

Practical limits are built into 'effective'. The most effective activity for you to engage in is the most effective activity for you to engage in, not for a perfectly rational arbitrarily computationally powerful god to engage in. Going easy on yourself, to the optimal degree, is (for creatures like us) part of behaving optimally at all. If your choice (foreseeably) burns you out, and the burnout isn't worth the gain, your choice was just wrong.

Comment author: MTGandP 24 July 2013 02:26:33AM 1 point [-]

That's more or less what I intended them to be. Isn't doing only the most effective activities available to you... a good idea?

I felt like it was a bit unfair for you to use fully general counterarguments against veganism in particular. However, after your most recent reply, I can better see where you're coming from. I think a better message to take from this essay (although I'm not sure Peter would agree) is that *people in general should eat less meat, not necessarily you in particular. If you can get one other person to become a veg*an in lieu of becoming one yourself, that's just as good.

I think the disagreement is about the ethical character of vegetarianism, not about whether it's a psychologically or aesthetically appealing life-decision (to some people).

If non-vegans are less effective at reducing suffering than vegans due to a quirk of human psychology (i.e. cognitive dissonance preventing them from caring sufficiently about non-humans), then this becomes an ethical issue and not just a psychological one.

To assess (4) I think we'd need to look at the broader ethical and neurological theories that entail it, and assess the evidence for and against them. This is a big project.

I agree with you here. I feel sufficiently confident that animal suffering matters, but the empirical evidence here is rather weak.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 July 2013 02:27:45AM 6 points [-]

I don't engage in the vast majority of possible activities. Neither do you, so on net, the class of arguments you accept must mitigate against almost all activities, right?

Comment author: MTGandP 24 July 2013 02:37:21AM 2 points [-]

Are you saying that most arguments that you should to X are fully general counterarguments against doing anything other than X?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 July 2013 02:59:59AM 3 points [-]

Why did you type that comment? Did you consider the arguments for typing that comment as fully general counterarguments against all the other possible comments you could have made? If not, why not post them too?

Comment author: MTGandP 24 July 2013 03:07:14AM 5 points [-]

I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to say. It sounds like you're saying that we make decisions without considering all possible arguments for and against them, in which case I'm not sure what you're saying with regard to my original comment.

To construct the comment that you just replied to, I considered various possible questions that I roughly rated by how effectively they would help me to understand what you're saying, and limited my search due to time constraints. The arguments for posting that comment work as counterarguments against posting any other comment I considered, e.g. it was the best comment I considered. It's not the best possible comment, but it would be a waste of time to search the entirety of comment-space to find the optimal comment.

Comment author: DxE 25 July 2013 04:44:27PM *  7 points [-]

Here is a thought experiment. Suppose that explorers arrive in a previously unknown area of the Amazon, where a strange tribe exists. The tribe suffers from a rare genetic anomaly, whereby all of its individuals are physically and cognitively stuck at the age of 3.

They laugh and they cry. They love and they hate. But they have no capacity for complex planning, or normative sophistication. So they live their lives as young children do -- on a moment to moment basis -- and they have no hope for ever developing beyond that.

If the explorers took these gentle creatures and murdered them -- for science, for food, or for fun -- would we say, "Oh but those children are not so intelligent, so the violence is ok." Or would we be even more horrified by the violence, precisely because the children had no capacity to fend for themselves?

I would submit that the argument against animal exploitation is even stronger than the argument against violence in this thought experiment, because we could be quite confident that whatever awareness these children had, it was "less than" what a normal human has. We are comparing the same species after all, and presumably whatever the Amazonian children are missing, due to genetic anomaly, is not made up for in higher or richer awareness in other dimensions.

We cannot say that about other species. A dog may not be able to reason. But perhaps she delights in smells in a way that a less sensitive nose could never understand. Perhaps she enjoys food with a sophistication that a lesser palate cannot begin to grasp. Perhaps she feels loneliness with an intensity that a human being could never appreciate.

Richard Dawkins makes the very important point that cleverness, which we certainly have, gives us no reason to think that animal consciousness is any less rich or intense than human consciousness (http://directactioneverywhere.com/theliberationist/2013/7/18/g2givxwjippfa92qt9pgorvvheired). Indeed, since cleverness is, in a sense, an alternative mechanism for evolutionary survival to feelings (a perfect computational machine would need no feelings, as feelings are just a heuristic), there is a plausible case that clever animals should be given LESS consideration.

But all of this is really irrelevant. Because the basis of political equality, as Peter Singer has argued, has nothing to do with the facts of our experience. Someone who is born without the ability to feel pain does not somehow lose her rights because of that difference. Because equality is not a factual description, it is a normative demand -- namely, that every being who crosses the threshold of sentience, every being that could be said to HAVE a will -- ought be given the same respect and freedom that we ask for ourselves, as "willing" creatures.

Comment author: jkaufman 25 July 2013 07:23:25PM *  9 points [-]

This is a variant of the argument from marginal cases: if there is some quality that makes you count morally, and we can find some example humans (ex: 3 year olds) that have less of that quality than some animals, what do we do?

I'm very sure than an 8 year old human counts morally and that a chicken does not, and while I'm not very clear on where along that spectrum the quality I care about starts getting up to levels where it matters, I think it's probably something no or almost no animals have and some humans don't have. Making this distinction among humans, however, would be incredibly socially destructive, especially given how unsure I am about where the line should go, and so I think we end up with a much better society if we treat all humans as morally equal. This means I end up saying things like "value all humans equally; don't value animals" when that's not my real distinction, just the closest schelling point.

Comment author: Dchudz 26 July 2013 10:14:16PM 3 points [-]

It seems like your answer to the argument from marginal cases is that maybe the (human) marginal cases don't matter and "Making this distinction among humans, however, would be incredibly socially destructive."

That may work for you, but I think it doesn't work for the vast majority of people who don't count animals as morally relevant. You are "very sure than an 8 year old human counts morally" (intrinsically, by which I mean "not just because doing otherwise would be socially destructive). I'm not sure if you think 3 year old humans count (intrinsically), but I'm sure that almost everyone does. I know that they count these humans intrinsically (and not just to avoid social destruction), because in fact most people do make these distinctions among humans: For example, median opinion in the US seems to be that humans start counting sometime in the second trimester.

Given this, it's entirely reasonable to try to figure out what quality makes things count morally, and if you (a) care intrinsically about 3 year old humans (or 1 year old or minus 2 months old or whatever), and (b) find that chickens (or whatever) have more of this quality than 3 year old humans, you should care about chickens.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 25 July 2013 11:17:49PM 3 points [-]

I'm very sure than an 8 year old human counts morally and that a chicken does not,

Consider an experience which, if had by an eight-year-old human, would be morally very bad, such as an experience of intense suffering. Now suppose that a chicken could have an experience that was phenomenally indistinguishable from that of the child. Would you be "very sure" that it would be very bad for this experience to be had by the human child, but not at all bad to be had by the chicken?

Comment author: Jiro 26 July 2013 02:28:28PM *  1 point [-]

I smell a variation of Pascal's Mugging here. In Pascal's Mugging, you are told that you should consider a possibility with a small probability because the large consequence makes up for the fact that the probability is small. Here you are suggesting that someone may not be "very sure" (i.e. that he may have a small degree of uncertainty), but that even a small degree of uncertainty justifies becoming a vegetarian because something about the consequence of being wrong (presumably, multiplying by the high badness, though you don't explicitly say so) makes up for the fact that the degree of uncertainty is small.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 26 July 2013 12:15:16AM 1 point [-]

Now suppose that a chicken could have an experience that was phenomenally indistinguishable from that of the child.

"Phenomenally indistinguishable"... to whom?

In other words, what is the mind that's having both of these experiences and then attempting to distinguish between them?

Thomas Nagel famously pointed out that we can't know "what it's like" to be — in his example — a bat; even if we found our mind suddenly transplanted into the body of a bat, all we'd know is what's it's like for us to be a bat, not what it's like for the bat to be a bat. If our mind were transformed into the mind of a bat (and placed in a bat's body), we could not analyze our experiences in order to compare them with anything, nor, in that form, would we have comprehension of what it had been like to be a human.

Phenomenal properties are always, inherently, relative to a point of view — the point of view of the mind experiencing them. So it is entirely unclear to me what it means for two experiences, instantiated in organisms of very different species, to be "phenomenally indistinguishable".

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 26 July 2013 01:33:47AM *  3 points [-]

In other words, what is the mind that's having both of these experiences and then attempting to distinguish between them?

When a subject is having a phenomenal experience, certain phenomenal properties are instantiated. In saying that two experiences are phenomenally indistinguishable, I simply meant that they instantiate the same phenomenal properties. As should be obvious, there need not be any mind having both experiences in order for them to be indistinguishable from one another. For example, two people looking at the same patch of red may have phenomenally indistinguishable visual experiences--experiences that instantiate the same property of phenomenal redness. I'm simply asking Jeff to imagine a chicken having a painful experience that instantiates the property of unpleasantness to the same degree that a human child does, when we believe that the child's painful experience is a morally bad thing.

Thomas Nagel famously pointed out that we can't know "what it's like" to be — in his example — a bat; even if we found our mind suddenly transplanted into the body of a bat, all we'd know is what's it's like for us to be a bat, not what it's like for the bat to be a bat.

Sorry, but this is not an accurate characterization of Nagel's argument.

Comment author: Jiro 26 July 2013 02:19:42PM 2 points [-]

How does this not apply to me imagining that I'm a toaster making toast? I can imagine a toaster having an experience all I want. That doesn't imply that an actual toaster can have that experience or anything which can be meaningfully compared to a human experience at all.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 26 July 2013 02:56:21AM 2 points [-]

That's a view of phenomenal experience (namely, that phenomenal properties are intersubjectively comparable, and that "phenomenal properties" can be described from a third-person perspective) that is far, far from uncontroversial among professional philosophers, and I, personally, take it to be almost entirely unsupported (and probably unsupportable).

For example, two people looking at the same patch of red may have phenomenally indistinguishable visual experiences--experiences that instantiate the same property of phenomenal redness.

Intersubjective incomparability of color experiences is one of the classic examples of (alleged) intersubjective incomparability in the literature (cf. the huge piles of writing on the inverted spectrum problem, to which even I have contributed).

... imagine a chicken having a painful experience that instantiates the property of unpleasantness to the same degree that a human child does...

I really don't think this is a coherent thing to imagine. Once again — unpleasantness to whom? "Unpleasant" is not a one-place predicate.

Sorry, but this is not an accurate characterization of Nagel's argument.

If your objection is that Nagel only says that the structure of our minds and sensory organs does not allow us to imagine the what-it's-like-ness of being a bat, and does not mention transplantation and the like, then I grant it; but my extension of it is, imo, consistent with his thesis. The point, in any case, is that it doesn't make sense to speak of one mind having some experience which is generated by another mind (where "mind" is used broadly, in Nagel-esque examples, to include sensory modalities, i.e. sense organs and the brain hardware necessary to process their input; but in our example need not necessarily include input from the external world).

Comment author: peter_hurford 24 July 2013 06:28:26AM 10 points [-]

You're right it might have been good to answer these in the core essay.

Present Triviality. Becoming a vegetarian is at least a minor inconvenience...

I disagree that being a vegetarian is an inconvenience. I haven't found my social activities restricted in any non-trivial way and being healthy has been just as easy/hard as when eating meat. It does not drain my attention from other EA activities.

~

Future Triviality. [...] we should invest everything we have into making it as likely as possible that humans and non-humans will thrive in the distant future

I agree with this in principle, but again don't think vegetarianism is a stop from that. Certainly removing factory farming is a small win compared to successful star colonization, but I don't think there's much we can do now to ensure successful colonization, while there is stuff we can do now to ensure factory farming elimination.

~

Experiential Suffering Needn't Correlate With Damage-Avoiding or Damage-Signaling Behavior.

It need not, which is what makes consciousness thorny. I don't think there is a tidy resolution to this problem. We'll have to take our best guess, and that involves thinking nonhuman animals suffer. We'd probably even want to err on the safe side, which would increase our consideration toward nonhuman animals. It would also be consistent with an Ocham's razor approach.

~

Something About Sapience Is What Makes Suffering Bad.

This doesn't feature among my ethical framework, at least. I don't know how this intuitively works for other people. I also don't think there's much I can say about it.

~

Aren't You Just Anthropomorphizing Non-Humans? [...] But this isn't evidence that the thing empathized with is actually conscious.

It's not. But there's other considerations and lines of evidence, so my worry that we're just anthropomorphizing is present, but rather low.

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 23 July 2013 11:25:13PM *  10 points [-]

Good points!

1) This is indeed an important consideration, although I think for most people the inconveniences would only present themselves during the transition phase. Once you get used to it sufficiently and if you live somewhere with lots of tasty veg*an food options, it might not be a problem anymore. Also, in the social context, being a vegetarian can be a good conversation starter which one can use to steer the conversation towards whatever ethical issues one considers most important. ("I'm not just concerned about personal purity, I also want to actively prevent suffering. For instance...")

I suspect paying others to go veg*an for you might indeed be more effective, but especially for people who serve as social role models, personal choices may be very important as well, up to the point of being dominant.

2) Yeah but how is the AI going to care about non-human suffering if few humans (and, it seems to me, few people working on fAI) take it seriously?

3)-5) These are reasons for some probabilistic discounting, and then the question becomes whether it's significant enough. They don't strike me as too strong but this is worthy of discussion. Personally I never found 4. convincing at all but I'm curious as to whether people have arguments for this type of position that I'm not yet aware of.

Comment author: RobbBB 23 July 2013 11:40:22PM *  2 points [-]

1) I agree that being a good role model is an important consideration, especially if you're a good spokesperson or are just generally very social. To many liberals and EA folks, vegetarianism signals ethical consistency, felt compassion, and a commitment to following through on your ideals.

I'm less convinced that vegetarianism only has opportunity costs during transition. I'm sure it becomes easier, but it might still be a significant drain, depending on your prior eating and social habits. Of course, this doesn't matter as much if you aren't involved in EA, or are involved in relatively low-priority EA.

(I'd add that vegetarianism might also make you better Effective Altruist in general, via virtue-ethics-style psychological mechanisms. I think this is one of the very best arguments for vegetarianism, though it may depend on the psychology and ethical code of each individual EAist.)

2) Coherent extrapolated volition. We aren't virtuous enough to make healthy, scalable, sustainable economic decisions, but we wish we were.

3)-5) I agree that 4) doesn't persuade me much, but it's very interesting, and I'd like to hear it defended in more detail with a specific psychological model of what makes humans moral patients. 3) I think is a much more serious and convincing argument; indeed, it convinces me that at least some animals with complex nervous systems and damage-avoiding behavior do not suffer. Though my confidence is low enough that I'd probably still consider it immoral to, say, needlessly torture large numbers of insects.

Comment author: MTGandP 24 July 2013 12:19:45AM 2 points [-]

I don't understand how CEV would be capable of deducing that non-human animals have moral value purely from current human values.

Comment author: RobbBB 24 July 2013 12:33:28AM *  2 points [-]

CEV asks what humans would value if their knowledge and rationality were vastly greater. I don't find it implausible that if we knew more about the neural underpinnings of our own suffering and pleasure, knew more about the neurology of non-humans, and were more rational and internally consistent in relating this knowledge to our preferences, then our preferences would assign at least some moral weight to the well-being of non-sapients, independent of whether that well-being impacts any sapient.

As a simpler base case: I think the CEV of 19th-century slave-owners in the American South would have valued black and white people effectively equally. Do we at least agree about that much?

Comment author: MTGandP 24 July 2013 01:09:00AM 3 points [-]

I don't know much about CEV (I started to read Eliezer's paper but I didn't get very far), but I'm not sure it's possible to extrapolate values like that. What if 19th-century slave owners hold white-people-are-better as a terminal value?

On the other hand, it does seem plausible that slave owner would oppose slavery if he weren't himself a slave owner, so his CEV may indeed support racial equality. I simply don't know enough about CEV or how to implement it to make a judgment one way or the other.

Comment author: RobbBB 24 July 2013 01:53:05AM *  1 point [-]

Terminal values can change with education. Saying that the coherent extrapolated volition of 19th-century slave owners would have been racist is equivalent to saying that either racism is justified by the facts, or the fundamental norms of rationality latent in 19th-century slave-owner cognition are radically unlike our contemporary fundamental norms of rationality. For instance, slave-owners don't don't on any deep level value consistency between their moral intuitions, or they assign zero weight to moral intuitions involving empathy.

If new experiences and rationality training couldn't ever persuade a slave-owner to become an egalitarian, then I'm extremely confused by the fact that society has successfully eradicated the memes that restructured those slave-owners' brains so quickly. Maybe I'm just more sanguine than most people about the possibility that new information can actually change people's minds (including their values). Science doesn't progress purely via the eradication of previous generations.

Comment author: Nornagest 24 July 2013 02:37:02AM *  4 points [-]

I'm not sure I'd agree with that framing. If an ethical feature changes with education, that's good evidence that it's not a terminal value, to whatever extent that it makes sense to talk about terminal values in humans. Which may very well be "not very much"; our value structure is a lot messier than that of the theoretical entities for which the terminal/instrumental dichotomy works well, and if we had a good way of cleaning it up we wouldn't need proposals like CEV.

People can change between egalitarian and hierarchical ethics without neurological insults or biochemical tinkering, so human "terminal" values clearly don't necessitate one or the other. More importantly, though, CEV is not magic; it can resolve contradictions between the ethics you feed into it, and it might be able to find refinements of those ethics that our biases blind us to or that we're just not smart enough to figure out, but it's only as good as its inputs. In particular, it's not guaranteed to find universal human values when evaluated over a subset of humanity.

If you took a collection of 19th-century slave owners and extrapolated their ethical preferences according to CEV-like rules, I wouldn't expect that to spit out an ethic that allowed slavery -- the historical arguments I've read for the practice didn't seem very good -- but I wouldn't be hugely surprised if it did, either. Either way it wouldn't imply that the resulting ethic applies to all humans or that it derives from immutable laws of rationality; it'd just tell us whether it's possible to reconcile slavery with middle-and-upper-class 19th-century ethics without downstream contradictions.

Comment author: Ruairi 25 July 2013 09:29:40AM 2 points [-]

"Saying that the coherent extrapolated volition of 19th-century slave owners would have been racist is equivalent to saying that either racism is justified by the facts, or the fundamental norms of rationality latent in 19th-century slave-owner cognition are radically unlike our contemporary fundamental norms of rationality."

Could you elaborate on this please? If you're saying what I think you're saying then I would strongly like to argue against your point.

You might also like Brian Tomasik's critique of CEV

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 23 July 2013 11:52:33PM 3 points [-]

2) Yes, I really hope CEV is going to come out in a way that also attributes moral relevance to nonhumans. But the fact that there might not be a unique way to coherently extrapolate values and that there might be arbitrariness in choosing the starting points makes me worried. Also, it is not guaranteed that a singleton will happen through an AI implementing CEV, so it would be nice to have a humanity with decent values as a back-up.

Comment author: shminux 23 July 2013 11:23:15PM *  3 points [-]

That's some excellent steelmanning. I would also add that creating animals for food with lives barely worth living is better than not creating them at all, from a utilitarian (if repugnant) point of view. And it's not clear whether a farm chicken's life is below that threshold.

Comment author: MTGandP 23 July 2013 11:58:35PM *  16 points [-]

I think it's fairly clear that a farm chicken's life is well below that threshold. If I had the choice between losing consciousness for an hour or spending an hour as a chicken on a factory farm, I would definitely choose the former.

Ninja Edit: I think a lot of people have poor intuitions when comparing life to non-life because our brains are wired to strongly shy away from non-life. That's why the example I gave above used temporary loss of consciousness rather than death. Even if you don't buy the above example, I think it's possible to see that factory-farmed life is worse than death. This article discussed how doctors--the people most familiar with medical treatment--frequently choose to die sooner rather than attempt to prolong their lives when they know they will suffer greatly in their last days. It seems that life on a factory farm would entail much more suffering than death by a common illness.

Comment author: shminux 24 July 2013 12:05:37AM 0 points [-]

If I could choose to live for an additional hour but had to spend that time as a chicken on a factory farm, I would certainly decline.

I probably would too, but I am not a chicken. I think you are over-anthropomorphizing them.

Comment author: MTGandP 24 July 2013 12:20:48AM 5 points [-]

I don't see why a chicken would choose any differently. We have no reason to believe that chicken-suffering is categorically different from human-suffering.

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 23 July 2013 11:41:12PM *  5 points [-]

Even if this is correct, in terms of value spreading it seems to be a very problematic message to convey. Most people are deontologists and would never even consider accepting this argument for human infants, so if we implicitly or explicitly accept it for animals, then this is just going to reinforce the prejudice that some forms of suffering are less important simply because they are not experienced by humans/our species. And such a defect in our value system may potentially have much more drastic consequences than the opportunity costs of not getting some extra live-years that are slightly worth living.

Then there is also an objection from moral uncertainty: If the animals in farms and especially factory farms (where most animals raised for food-purposes are held) are above "worth living", then barely so! It's not like much is at stake (the situation would be different if we'd wirehead them to experience constant orgasm). Conversely, if you're wrong about classical utilitarianism being your terminal value, then all the suffering inflicted on them would be highly significant.

Comment author: Quinn 24 July 2013 08:04:42PM 1 point [-]

Robin Hanson has advocated this point of view.

I find the argument quite unconvincing; Hanson seems to be making the mistake of conflating "life worth living" with "not committing suicide" that is well addressed in MTGandP's reply (and grandchildren).

Comment author: Xodarap 24 July 2013 01:36:34PM 2 points [-]

Regarding (4) (and to a certain extent 3 and 5): I assume you agree that a species feels phenomenal pain just in case it proves evolutionarily beneficial. So why would it improve fitness to feel pain only if you have "abstract thought"?

The major reason I have heard for phenomenal pain is learning, and all vertebrates show long-term behavior modification as the result of painful stimuli, as anyone who has taken a pet to the vet can verify. (Notably, many invertebrates do not show long-term modification, suggesting that vertebrate vs. invertebrate may be a non-trivial distinction.)

Richard Dawkins has even suggested that phenomenal pain is inversely related to things like "abstract thought", although I'm not sure I would go that far.

Comment author: imaginaryphiend 25 July 2013 03:22:36AM *  14 points [-]

My interesting perspective is that I raise Scottish Highland cattle and keep my own back yard chicken coop and also enjoy the company of my family pets. I am also finding my self more and more sympathetic to the sentiments and reasoning of the vegan position when it comes to food politics.

My animals feel and interact socially. They have personal, unique characters - Yes, even the chickens. They display emotions, trust, empathize, grieve... They are fellow beings deserving of our care and compassion[.]

My 2000 lb bull likes to nuzzle and enjoys being brushed. If any of the bovines in my care see me with a pail they anticipate a treat of grains and will come at a run. They will come when called and some even know their names. They enjoy nice grass fed open pastures and woods and clean water and shelter and even protection from predators so that i am quite confident that they have a better quality of life than the wild deer in the neighborhood.

My dogs, similarly have a better life than the wild koyotes. The chickens have it pretty good too in their nursing home (coop) for aged chickens not providing their eggs part of the bargain any more - another story.

But... The kind of farming i am doing is not commercially viable. I look around at many of the other farmers i know and i see that the only ones who are succeeding commercially are the ones growing bigger and engaging in the more economically rewarding (short to medium term, personal business economics horizons) practices of industrial farming.

The genersl comsuming public wants their cake (conveniently packaged, cheap, sugar coated, fat saturated and ready for them in air conditioned mega food boutiques) and want to eat it too. They want variety in and out of season from wherever it can be sourced and they'll buy it at the best price offered regardless of the back story of how it got there.

The food industry/industrial complex is business. It doesn't have a conscience. It has a bottom line. It tries to assist in creating to some extent the demands of the general comsumer, but mostly it just responds to consumer demand in ways that will best make it $$$$.

I've discovered in trying to farm ethically that if i'm not subsidizing my farm operation with outside income, and in effect therefore subsidizing my customers, then i can't afford to farm. Even selling directly to my customers i cannot compete on price with the supermarkets. That's telling. Industrial, factory farming is the response to the demands of the general consumer, the indifferent and little caring or hardly consciencous general consumer.

I would like to be able to say that the great masses of people can have what they want and be assured that animals will be treated ethically and humanely and with dignity and caring treatment, but i think the reality is that as long as people can maintain their ignorance about how things work they will continue to consume without conscience - and the producers will do whatever it takes to survive and thrive in the very competitive and demanding business that is farming.

Maybe population pressures will drive us to better practices and vegetarian or vegan values will win out. I don't know, but i suspect that our generally omnivorous population will likely not change their ways as long as they can maintain their protective mix of ignorance, denial and indifference.

'If' the consumer can be offered tastier, more convenient, cheaper alternatives... But, of course, anyone trying to come up with those alternative would have to compete openly with the powers that be, the established systems we have in place that many have vested interests in. Tuff to fight with the momentum of the way things are when many are fighting to maintain things the way they and some are even fighting for their notions of how things used to be in 'the good old days'.

If you eat eggs or dairy or beef, lamb, chicken, pork etc and you don't know the personal particulars of the animals or animal products you are consuming, then you likely are contributing to the inhumane exploitation of animals in our factory farming industrial complex food supply system ---

I have no simple solutions or grand ideas of how to change things. I'm just another voice in the conversation, with, hopefully, a perspective helpful to the ongoing narrative.

i

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 25 July 2013 03:28:48AM 1 point [-]

Please break this up into paragraphs.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 24 July 2013 08:12:30PM *  5 points [-]

Thank you for writing this. For future reference, I am much more convinced by arguments that animals suffer in a way that is similar to how humans suffer (e.g. in a way that, if I saw it, would activate the same neurons in my head that activate when I see a human suffer) than by arguments that animals suffer in some more abstract sense, and I expect that I'm not alone in this preference.

Comment author: DanielLC 26 July 2013 03:59:19AM 2 points [-]

If you were unable to feel a specific unpleasant emotion, would you care about other people feeling it?

Comment author: peter_hurford 24 July 2013 09:19:37PM 5 points [-]

I'm not clear as to what would count as evidence toward satisfying your preference. Do you need fMRI scans of animals? Those probably exist.

Nonhuman animals react in very analogous ways to analogous painful stimuli.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 24 July 2013 09:21:19PM 1 point [-]

Something like that would help. I would also say "videos of animals suffering," but I anticipate already reacting negatively to those in a way that is similar to how I would react negatively to videos of humans suffering, so that's probably unnecessary.

Comment author: peter_hurford 24 July 2013 10:11:41PM 6 points [-]
Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 25 July 2013 03:28:14AM 1 point [-]

Thanks!

Comment author: James_Miller 23 July 2013 10:15:08PM 4 points [-]

Don't farmers kill huge numbers of animals when they grow food because of tractors running over animals or from chemicals designed to kill animals that would otherwise eat the grown food? I suspect that most of the marginal animal suffering arising from my eating steak comes from the production of the food used to feed the cow.

Comment author: Xodarap 23 July 2013 10:46:26PM 9 points [-]

This is a great point, and was advanced by Steven Davis, who claimed that eating grass-fed cows would cause fewer deaths than being vegetarian. Matheny however found an error in his calculation - you can see the paper for full details, but the short version is that veg diets cause much less harm.

Comment author: Ruairi 23 July 2013 10:28:54PM 6 points [-]

Yes, food has to be grown to feed cows, quite a lot of food. Apparently it takes about 10 times as much land to make a certain number of calories in the form of animals compared to other foods. So if you're worried about the wild animals being killed when you eat then that's an argument for not eating animals and animal products.

Comment author: MTGandP 23 July 2013 11:31:26PM 3 points [-]

In addition to what others have said, I think it's important to distinguish between killing and suffering. The real problem here isn't the killing of animals; it's the suffering they undergo before they're killed. I don't know what it's like for those animals that die as a result of agriculture, but suppose they generally have painful deaths that last for several hours. On the other hand, animals on factory farms suffer greatly for a much longer period of time.

Comment author: peter_hurford 23 July 2013 10:31:25PM 5 points [-]

I suspect that most of the marginal animal suffering arising from my eating steak comes from the production of the food used to feed the cow.

I don't know for sure, but that would be pretty surprising. I know that tractors often kill animals, but I don't think it's in sufficiently high quantity to dominate.

Regardless, as you mention, eating meat requires even more grain than eating grain directly, so the vegetarian/vegan diet still results in less animal deaths.

Comment author: shminux 24 July 2013 12:03:52AM *  17 points [-]

My other comment was downvoted below the troll level, so I'll ask here. Suppose we found a morphine-like drug which effectively and provably wireheads chickens to be happy with their living conditions, and with no side effects for humans consuming the meat. Would that answer your arguments about suffering?

Comment author: Desrtopa 24 July 2013 02:22:41AM 16 points [-]

Personally, my issues with eating meat are at least as much about ecological concerns as humane ones, but I would definitely be in favor of eating vat meat which can be cultured with minimal ecological impact.

Comment author: DanielLC 24 July 2013 12:19:42AM 23 points [-]

I'd be happy with that.

Until we do, I'm not eating meat.

Comment author: RobbBB 24 July 2013 06:34:39PM *  7 points [-]

This is not at all an unrealistic possibility. It probably will be via gene knockout rather than a drug injection, if it happens. See Adam Shriver, "Knocking Out Pain in Livestock: Can Technology Succeed Where Morality Has Stalled?"

If this doesn't happen, it will probably be either because lab-grown meat ended up being cheaper to mass-produce, or because the people strongly pushing for animal rights were too squeamish to recognize the value of this option.

Comment author: Document 07 August 2013 09:24:12PM *  1 point [-]

Previously discussed here at Overcoming Bias. (I also remember Michael Anissimov responding, but I can't find that.)

Also, you're certainly optimistic about advancing from chickens having a reduced experience of pain to their being undisputedly proven to be happy with all aspects of their experience.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 24 July 2013 03:24:37PM *  4 points [-]

Uhm, somehow it feels even worse. I am not taking this feeling as a rational answer to the question, just as a warning that the topic may be more difficult than it seems. (One possible explanation is Shelling point against using wireheading as a solution.)

Comment author: lsparrish 24 July 2013 03:10:40AM 2 points [-]

I agree with others that vegetarianism is likely more practical and addresses other concerns besides suffering. However, perhaps there is a lot of utility that could be gained in the near term by e.g. keeping factory-farmed animals high on morphine for most of their lives. Would this impose additional costs that keep it from being economical? One would be food purity -- people might not like morphine in their meat/eggs/milk.

Comment author: Nornagest 24 July 2013 03:46:49AM 6 points [-]

Opiates quickly build tolerance. They're also not terribly cheap, although fully synthetic opioids like methadone would probably be more amenable to production at these scales than poppy derivatives like morphine.

Comment author: DxE 24 July 2013 04:36:35PM 0 points [-]

"Suppose we found a morphine-like drug which effectively and provably wireheads NON-WHITE PEOPLE to be happy with their living conditions, and with no side effects for WHITE PEOPLE consuming their flesh."

Has a different sort of emotional impact, no?

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 24 July 2013 08:13:38PM 9 points [-]

This is a silly strawman, but I'll respond anyway, because why not.

The difference is that we (well, not me, but the OP and people who agree with him) only care about chickens to the extent that they are (allegedly) suffering, and we think it's not ok for them to suffer. On the other hand, we think that NON-WHITE PEOPLE (just like WHITE PEOPLE) have the right of self-determination, that it's wrong to forcibly modify their minds, etc.

Comment author: wedrifid 24 July 2013 05:07:50PM *  6 points [-]

"Suppose we found a morphine-like drug which effectively and provably wireheads NON-WHITE PEOPLE to be happy with their living conditions, and with no side effects for WHITE PEOPLE consuming their flesh."

Has a different sort of emotional impact, no?

Mostly it sounds like you are calling all NON-WHITE PEOPLE chickens.

Comment author: shminux 24 July 2013 06:57:18PM 3 points [-]

Not sure why the parent is downvoted, it's an interesting question. Where does one build a Schelling fence for farming meat without suffering?

Comment author: aelephant 27 July 2013 01:29:09AM -1 points [-]

To me it is not the suffering per se that bothers me about factory farming. I'm having trouble finding the right words, but I want to say it is the "un-naturalness" of it. Animals are not meant to live their whole lives in cages pumped full of antibiotics. I also believe it is harmful to humans, both to the humans who operate these factories (psychologically) & to the humans that consume the product (physically).

On the other hand, it is natural for animals to eat other animals, and properly raised animal products are arguably one of the best sources of nutrition for humans. I also don't think raising chickens on an open farm & slaughtering them is psychologically harmful; I imagine those farmers feel deeply in tune with nature & at peace with their way of life.

Comment author: lavalamp 27 July 2013 01:35:44AM 0 points [-]

Animals are not meant to live their whole lives in cages pumped full of antibiotics.

Meaning requires a mind to provide it. Animals are not "meant" to do anything...

Comment author: Solitaire 05 January 2014 08:41:27PM 1 point [-]

So basically a chicken version of The Matrix?

Comment author: BarbaraB 05 January 2014 09:21:16PM 0 points [-]

Sell this idea to Hollywood !

Comment author: BarbaraB 05 January 2014 09:19:44PM 0 points [-]

It would still be sorry for the chicken.

However, I bet, somebody is working on it already.

In my previous research institution, they fed chicken with grain mixed with sand and afterwards cut the heads of and measured the concentration of happiness chemicals. The justification was, that these chicken breeds gain weight too quickly, which kills them before their age of reproduction. However, the farmers need to reproduce some of them, so they have to keep them half hungry, until they reach sexual maturity. The research was supposed to find out, whether the starvation is more pleasant with sand mixed into feed. Luckily for my mental health, I did not participate on this research. Duh, these memories make me shudder !

Comment author: Alicorn 24 July 2013 07:23:02AM 12 points [-]

Incidental: I don't care unusually much about evangelizing vegetarianism, but I happen to like to talk about food and most of what I know about it is vegetarianism-specialized, so if people are curious about practicalities I am happy to answer questions about what vegetarians eat and how it can be yummy.

Comment author: [deleted] 24 July 2013 01:50:35PM 2 points [-]

I'm interested! I became a vegetarian about 4 months ago, shortly after I started doing my own cooking. My abilities are basically limited to pasta, salads, mushrooms in sandwiches or tortilla wraps, and lots more pasta. To learn recipes, Youtube videos were my main sources. I just haven't gotten around to searching for vegetarian specific foods. What are some more options out there?

Comment author: Alicorn 24 July 2013 11:21:18PM *  8 points [-]

Not to knock pasta (and I recommend my signature sauce, as well as putting artichokes through the blender and adding them to cream sauces for pasta), but I'm more of a soup fan. Bean soup, veggie soup (here's one way to do veggie soup), eggdrop soup, chowder (clam if you eat seafood, broccoli or corn if you don't), polenta leaf soup, miso soup.

There's also more things you can put in sandwiches besides mushrooms. I like Tofurkey, but even if you don't, here are things I put on bread (all of these things include cheese, but you could omit it if you aren't a huge fan of cheese):

  • Panfried tofu slices, spinach sauteed with cheese, hummus
  • Hummus, avocado, shredded cheddar, cucumber slices, sprouts, lettuce
  • Goat cheese, avocado slices, over-easy egg with dill and cayenne
  • Particularly copious amounts of cheese (melted), with optional hummus, avocado, onion slices
  • Fried zucchini and eggplant slices, avocado, hummus, fresh mozzarella
  • Minced garlic, basil leaves, fresh mozzarella

In most of the above cases I make the sandwiches open-faced, and fry them in butter to crisp them up (the last I put in the toaster oven with olive oil, and add the basil and mozzarella after they come out toasty).

Many veggies are lovely roasted. For pretty much all of them, you cut them into bites, put them on an oil-spritzed baking pan, and put them in a 400º oven for twenty minutes. This works for several kinds of squash, asparagus, broccoli, potatoes, etc. You can eat roasted veggies by themselves, or put them in omelets or your pasta or whatever.

I go on Foodgawker for inspiration. For advanced food-related fun, learn to deep fry things - I use my wok and spider skimmer, I don't usually bother with a thermometer and just flick little bits of whatever I'm cooking to see how it reacts, and then I filter the oil for reuse with paper towels and a funnel.

Comment author: jbay 24 July 2013 03:39:03PM 3 points [-]

I recommend getting familiar with chickpeas and tofu. They are both very cheap, very filling, and very nutritious (chickpeas in particular, once you learn how to reconstitute the dried ones). Experimenting with recipes that involve those ingredients is definitely a good idea. Learning to cook quinoa and rice is another helpful skill (wild rice is also nutritious and filling, and quinoa offers a complete protein). Working with those four ingredients and mixing in other vegetables, spices, mushrooms, sauces, etc will offer a very wide range of delicious and nutritious foods that you can make as a baseline.

You can also look into the dishes of different cultures that have vegetarian traditions. For example, Indian food has a very large range of interesting vegetarian dishes. So does Taiwan, and other strongly Buddhist-influenced cultures. In Japan, Buddhism-inspired vegetarian food is referred to as "Shojin-ryouri", so if you like Japanese food, you might look up some shojin recipes. Those are just some examples =)

Comment author: AlexanderD 24 July 2013 07:14:16PM 1 point [-]

Tofu is a good choice, and can be used in many ways. One secret to tofu is to pay attention to the amount of water in the tofu, as that seriously changes the way it tastes, feels, and acts in dishes. For example, when you are making a stew with tofu, such as the spicy and delicious Korean soup kimchi jiggae, you probably want to choose silken tofu, which is soft and will interact well with the rich broth. But if you are making something like McFoo, a tofu sandwich where you marinate the tofu in select spices until it tastes like junk food, then you want a firm and chewy tofu. You can achieve the latter by pressing your tofu for an hour (there are special things to do this, but a towel, cutting boards, and a brick does just fine). You can make it even firmer and more textured by freezing it first, so most of my tofu goes right into the freezer until I need it.

There are also a few veg-specific things that you almost certainly have never had, such as TVP: textured vegetable protein. Despite the unappetizing sci-fi name, it's actually an amazing thing to include in your diet. The trick to learning to love and use it is not to make the sad mistake of just pretending it's meat. Most fake meat things don't taste anything like meat, but instead have a rank and lingering chemical taste and overwhelming profile of salt and sugar, as they try to mimic what you might have liked about meat. TVP and other decent meat substitutes are different, and they just taste good without trying to taste like meat. So TVP chili is hearty and rich and has a great mouthfeel, giving you that chewiness and resistance that's part of what makes meat good, but it doesn't try to ape meat.

Other things you can make: veggie shepherd's pie (lentils and veggies for the filling), pumpkin mac and cheese (add shredded pumpkin when making mac and cheese; if you use a sharp cheese the tastes blend amazingly), filo-wrapped spinach and veggies (you can buy prepared filo dough), loaded baked potatoes, pizza, calzones, quiches, grilled cheese and chard sandwiches, and lots of variations on curries and stews and things.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 24 July 2013 03:26:40PM 1 point [-]

Do you eat eggs and dairy?

If you do not, then question: what is the best non-eggs/dairy solution to desserts? That is, what would you substitute in e.g. pastry cream, whipped cream, meringue, cakes, pastry dough, etc.? Is there some general solution, or is it handled on a case-by-case basis?

(If you do eat eggs/dairy, disregard this question.)

Comment author: Allison_Smith 24 July 2013 05:13:50PM 6 points [-]

I am not Alicorn, but I also like talking about delicious food and I do not eat eggs and dairy. Unfortunately, there is no general solution to the egg/dairy substitution problem, especially for the eggs end of it.

There are some things I just don't try to adapt: meringue, pastry cream, and whipped cream fall more-or-less into this category. I have had delicious dairy-free versions of whipped cream that seem to have been based on the fatty part of coconut milk, but I haven't made any myself.

There are some substitutions that are easy and consistent. In baking cakes, cookies, and similar things, you can usually use any unsweetened soy or nut milk 1:1 for milk, and use margarine in place of butter, or mild flavored vegetable oil in place of melted butter. It is easiest to get good results if your recipe is for spice or chocolate cake, or is otherwise meant to taste like something other than butter, as even the best non-dairy butter substitutes do not taste quite like the real thing. Eggs are a slightly harder thing to substitute for, so for a really easy experience, go for a recipe that does not use them; sometimes these are "light" cakes or recipes written when food was expensive or rationed.

Eggs, even in baking where they are non-obvious in the final product, can be tricky to substitute for because they do so many things. If the eggs are mainly adjusting the consistency of the batter or dough, you can substitute for 1 egg with 1/4 cup of soft silken tofu , applesauce, or soy yogurt, or anything of a similar texture that you think would taste good. If I expect the egg to actually do some work on helping the rising process, I use 1/4 cup of the liquid from the recipe or of soy milk, plus 1 Tbsp ground flaxseed or 1 tsp ground psyllium husk. If there are more than 1 or 2 eggs called for, I re-evaluate whether I want to use this recipe (things that are supposed to get flavor from eggs, or that use eggs in complicated ways, like with yolks and whites separated, are beyond my skill level to adapt), and if I still want to, I use some combination of the substitutions available to me, to avoid the food tasting heavily of flax or applesauce when I didn't intend that.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 24 July 2013 06:51:41PM 1 point [-]

Thank you for your response!

I was, in fact, largely thinking of recipes where the butter, eggs, cream, etc. are doing a lot of the flavor and texture work. It sounds like that's something that is lost in an eggs/dairy free diet. This is valuable information.

Next question: would you be able to recommend a good source of dessert recipes that make the most of veg*an limitations on ingredients (rather than attempting to imperfectly substitute for eggs/dairy/etc.)?

(My motivation for these questions, by the way, is that I regularly bake desserts for my friends, and I'd like to be able to make sure that any people of my acquaintance who have veg*an dietary limitations don't feel left out.)

Comment author: Allison_Smith 24 July 2013 09:59:51PM 1 point [-]

There seem to be a lot of vegan dessert cookbooks out there these days, but of course they are of varying quality. My personal favorites are by Isa Chandra Moskowitz; the link goes to the Desserts category of her blog, so you can see if you like her style.

One really specific recipe that I found surprising, in terms of successfully replacing a food that depends heavily on dairy, is this chocolate mousse. The other creamy food it is easy to successfully replace milk in is pudding; a blancmange (aka Jello cook'n'serve) will work fine with soymilk or with a thick enough nut milk. (Rice milk in particular is thin enough that you have to adjust the ratios or cooking time to get it to set properly.)

Comment author: Alicorn 24 July 2013 10:59:13PM *  1 point [-]

I do eat eggs and dairy - and lots of 'em - but I have a really good vegan chocolate cake recipe which I will paste below. Churros are also vegan and delicious, and they're not really hard to make if you know how to deep-fry. Direct substitution for dairy ingredients is mostly disappointing, although coconut products can do some neat things and coconut oil often substitutes straight across with butter.

1 1/2 c flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 c sugar
1/4 c cocoa or carob powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tsp vanilla
1/3 c canola oil
1 c water

Preheat oven to 350º. Mix the dry ingredients in an 8" square pan. Add the wet ingredients and stir well, making sure the edges and corners of the pan are not omitted. When the batter is smooth and incorporated, bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 24 July 2013 05:00:04AM 8 points [-]

I appreciate you making this post, peter_hurford (though I admit I skipped over the parts about vegetarianism's effectiveness and easiness, as those are not the parts of the argument I am interested in). However, I'm afraid that (as far as my objection to your view goes), your argument entirely begs the question.

You open with seemingly the following logic:

(1) We care about suffering.
(2) Animals can suffer.
(3) Animals do suffer.
(4) We can prevent animal suffering.
(5) By (1) and (4), we should prevent animal suffering.

But such a formulation leaves out some important qualifications. The actual logic behind your view is like so:

(1) We care about suffering, regardless of who or what is doing the suffering.
(2) Animals can suffer.
(3) Animals do suffer.
(4) We can prevent animal suffering.
(5) By (1) and (4), we should prevent animal suffering.

My objection was precisely to (1). Why should we care about suffering regardless of who or what is suffering? I care about the suffering of humans, or other beings of sufficient (i.e. approximately-human) intelligence to be self-aware. You seem to think I should care about "suffering"[1] more broadly. You take this broader caring as an assumption, but it's actually exactly what I'd like you to convince me of; otherwise, as far as I am concerned, your entire argument collapses.

[1] Though I easily grant that e.g. cows can experience pain, I am not entirely convinced that it's sensible to refer to their mental states and ours by the same word, "suffering". I think this terminological conflation, too, begs the question. But that is a side issue.

Comment author: peter_hurford 24 July 2013 06:14:27AM 1 point [-]

Though I easily grant that e.g. cows can experience pain, I am not entirely convinced that it's sensible to refer to their mental states and ours by the same word, "suffering". I think this terminological conflation, too, begs the question. But that is a side issue.

Why? I actually think this is an important consideration. Is "suffering" by definition something only humans can do? If so, isn't this arbitrarily restricting the definition? If not, do you doubt something empirical about nonhuman animal minds?

~

My objection was precisely to (1). Why should we care about suffering regardless of who or what is suffering? I care about the suffering of humans, or other beings of sufficient (i.e. approximately-human) intelligence to be self-aware. You seem to think I should care about "suffering"[1] more broadly.

You've characterized my argument correctly. It seems to me that most people already care about the suffering of nonhuman animals without quite realizing it, i.e. why they on the intuitive level resist kicking kittens and puppies. But I acknowledge that some people aren't like this.

I don't think there's a good track record for the success of moral arguments. As a moral anti-realist, I must admit that there's nothing irrational per se about restricting your moral sphere to humans. I guess my only counterargument would be that it seems weird and arbitrary.

What would you say to someone who thinks we should only care about the suffering of white humans of European descent? Would you be fine with that?

Comment author: Vaniver 24 July 2013 11:25:50PM *  3 points [-]

As a moral anti-realist, I must admit that there's nothing irrational per se about restricting your moral sphere to humans. I guess my only counterargument would be that it seems weird and arbitrary.

Suppose morality is a 'mutual sympathy pact,' and it seems neither weird nor arbitrary to decide how sympathetic to be to others by their ability to be sympathetic towards you. Suppose instead that morality is a 'demonstration of compassion,' and the reverse effect holds--sympathizing with the suffering of those unable to defend themselves (and thus unable to defend you) demonstrates more compassion than the previous approach which requires direct returns. (There are, of course, indirect returns to this approach.)

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 24 July 2013 06:42:11AM 2 points [-]

Why? I actually think this is an important consideration. Is "suffering" by definition something only humans can do? If so, isn't this arbitrarily restricting the definition? If not, do you doubt something empirical about nonhuman animal minds?

I try not to argue by definition, so it's the latter: I have empirical concerns. See this post, point 4 (but also 3 and 5), for a near-perfect summary of my concerns.

That said, my overall objection to your view does not hinge on this point.

As a moral anti-realist, I must admit that there's nothing irrational per se about restricting your moral sphere to humans. I guess my only counterargument would be that it seems weird and arbitrary.

Well, firstly, I have to point out that I am not restricting my moral sphere to humans, per se. (Of known existing creatures, dolphins may qualify for membership; of imaginable creatures, aliens and AIs might.) In any case, the circle I draw seems quite non-arbitrary, even obvious, to me; but I suppose this only speaks to the non-universality of moral intuitions.

What would you say to someone who thinks we should only care about the suffering of white humans of European descent? Would you be fine with that?

That would indeed seem weird and arbitrary. One objection I might raise to such a person is that it's non-trivial, in many cases, to discern someone's "whiteness", not to mention one's exact ancestry. "European" is not a sharp boundary where humans are concerned, and a great many factors confound such categorization. Most of my other objections would be aimed at drawing out the moral intuitions behind this person's judgments about what sorts of beings are objects of morality (do they think "superficial" characteristics matter as much as functional ones? what is their response to various thought experiments such as brain transplant scenarios? etc.). It seems to me that there are both empirical facts and analytic arguments that would shift this person's position closer to my own; a logically contradictory, empirically incoherent, or reflectively inconsistent moral position is generally bound to be less convincing.

(Of course, I might answer entirely differently. I might say: no, I would not be fine with that, because my own ancestry may or may not be classified as "European" or "white", depending on who's doing the classifying. So I would, quite naturally, argue against a moral circle drawn thus. Moral anti-realism notwithstanding, I might convince some people (and in fact that seems to be, in part, how the American civil rights movement, and similar social movements across the world, have succeeded: by means of people who were previously outside the moral circle arguing for their own inclusion). Cows, of course, cannot attempt to persuade us that we should include them in our moral considerations. I do not take this to be an irrelevant fact.)

Comment author: peter_hurford 24 July 2013 08:39:46AM 1 point [-]

Me: What would you say to someone who thinks we should only care about the suffering of white humans of European descent? Would you be fine with that?

You: That would indeed seem weird and arbitrary. One objection I might raise to such a person is that it's non-trivial, in many cases, to discern someone's "whiteness", not to mention one's exact ancestry. "European" is not a sharp boundary where humans are concerned...

I think that fights the hypothetical a bit much. Imagine something a bit sharper, like citizenship. Why not restrict our moral sphere to US citizens? Or take Derek Parfit's within-a-mile altruism, where you only have concern for people within a mile of you. Weird, I agree. But irrational? Hard to demonstrate.

~

I try not to argue by definition, so it's the latter: I have empirical concerns. See this post, point 4 (but also 3 and 5), for a near-perfect summary of my concerns.

So do you think nonhuman animals may not suffer? I agree that's a possibility, but it's not likely. What do you think of the body of evidence provided in this post?

I don't think there is a tidy resolution to this problem. We'll have to take our best guess, and that involves thinking nonhuman animals suffer. We'd probably even want to err on the safe side, which would increase our consideration toward nonhuman animals. It would also be consistent with an Ocham's razor approach.

~

It seems to me that there are both empirical facts and analytic arguments that would shift this person's position closer to my own; a logically contradictory, empirically incoherent, or reflectively inconsistent moral position is generally bound to be less convincing.

What would you suggest?

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 24 July 2013 01:13:48PM *  2 points [-]

I basically agree with pragmatist's response, with the caveat only that I think many (most?) people's moral spheres have too steep a gradient between "family, for whom I would happily murder any ten strangers" and "strangers, who can go take a flying leap for all I care". My own gradient is not nearly that steep, but the idea of a gradient rather than a sharp border is sound. (Of course, since it's still the case that I would kill N chickens to save my grandmother, where N can be any number, it seems that chickens fall nowhere at all on this gradient.)

So do you think nonhuman animals may not suffer? I agree that's a possibility, but it's not likely. What do you think of the body of evidence provided in this post?

Well, you can phrase this as "nonhuman animals don't suffer", or as "nonhuman animal suffering is morally uninteresting", as you see fit; I'm not here to dispute definitions, I assure you. As for the evidence, to be honest, I don't see that you've provided any. What specifically do you think offers up evidence against points 3 through 5 of RobbBB's post?

[Thinking that nonhuman animals suffer] would also be consistent with an Ocham's razor approach.

I don't think so; or at least this is not obviously the case.

What [empirical facts and analytic arguments] would you suggest?

Well, just the stuff about boundaries and hypotheticals and such that you referred to as "fighting the hypothetical". Is there something specific you're looking for, here?

Comment author: MTGandP 24 July 2013 11:23:42PM 2 points [-]

As for the evidence, to be honest, I don't see that you've provided any.

The essay cited the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, as well as a couple of other pieces of evidence.

Here is another (more informal) piece that I find compelling.

Comment author: Lumifer 25 July 2013 12:39:12AM *  2 points [-]

The essay cited the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, as well as a couple of other pieces of evidence.

That's not evidence, that's a declaration of opinion.

In particular, reading things like "Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots" (emphasis mine) makes me highly sceptical of that opinion.

Comment author: MTGandP 25 July 2013 03:15:36AM *  3 points [-]

It's not scientific evidence, but it is rational evidence. In Bayesian terms, a consensus statement of experts in the field is probably much stronger evidence than, say, a single peer-reviewed study. Expert consensus statements are less likely to be wrong than almost any other form of evidence where I don't have the necessary expertise to independently evaluate claims.

Comment author: pragmatist 24 July 2013 09:17:32AM *  3 points [-]

The moral sphere needn't work like a threshold, where one should extend equal concern to everyone within the sphere and no concern at all to anyone outside it. My moral beliefs are not cosmopolitan -- I think it is morally right to care more for my family than for absolute strangers. In fact, I think it is a huge failing of standard utilitarianism that it doesn't deliver this verdict (without having to rely on post-hoc contortions about long-term utility benefits). I also think it is morally acceptable to care more for people cognitively similar to me than for people cognitively distant (people with radically different interests/beliefs/cultural backgrounds).

This doesn't mean that I don't have any moral concern at all for the cognitively distant. I still think they're owed the usual suite of liberal rights, and that I have obligations of assistance to them, etc. It's just that I would save the life of one of my friends over the lives of, say, three random Japanese people, and I consider this the right thing to do.

I follow a similar heuristic when I move across species. I think we owe the great apes more moral consideration than we owe, say, dolphins. I don't eat any mammals but I eat chicken.

The idea of a completely cosmopolitan ethic just seems bizarre to me. I can see why one would be motivated to adopt it if the only alternative were caring about some subset of people/sentient beings and not caring at all about anyone else. Then there would be something arbitrary about where one draws the line. But this is not the most plausible alternative. One could have a sphere of moral concern that doesn't just stop suddenly but instead attenuates with distance.

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 24 July 2013 03:31:08PM *  2 points [-]

The morality you suggest is what Derek Parfit calls collectively self-defeating. This means that if everyone were to follow it perfectly, there could be empirical situations where your actual goals, namely the well-being of those closest to you, are achieved less well than they would be if everyone followed a different moral view. So there could be situations in which people have more influence on the well-being of the family of strangers, and if they'd all favor their own relatives, everyone would end up worse off, despite everyone acting perfectly moral. Personally I want a world where everyone acts perfectly moral to be as close to Paradise as is empirically possible, but whether this is something you are concerned about is a different question (that depends on what question your seeking to answer by coming up with a coherent moral view).

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 25 July 2013 02:30:41AM 2 points [-]

This seems nonsensical; a utility function does not prescribe actions. If I care about my family most, but acting in a certain way will cause them to be worse off, then I won't act that way. In other words, if everyone acting perfectly moral causes everyone to end up worse off, then by definition, at least some people were not acting perfectly moral.

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 25 July 2013 02:53:30AM *  1 point [-]

The problem is not with your actions, but with the actions of all the others (who are following the same general kind of utility function but because your utility function is agent-relative, they use different variables, i.e. they care primarily about their family and friend as opposed to yours). However, I was in fact wondering whether this problem disappears if we make the agents timeless (or whatever does the job), so they would cooperate with each other to avoid the suboptimal outcome. This is seems fair enough since acting "perfectly moral" seems to imply the best decision theory.

Does this solve the problem? I think not; we could tweak the thought experiment further to account for it: we could imagine that due to empirical circumstances, such cooperation is prohibited. Let's assume that the agents lack the knowledge that the other agents are timeless. Is this an unfair addendum to the scenario? I don't see why, because given the empirical situation (which seems perfectly logically possible) the agents find themselves in, the moral algorithm they collectively follow may still lead to results that are suboptimal for everyone concerned.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 25 July 2013 02:58:51AM 2 points [-]

You don't follow a utility function. Utility functions don't prescribe actions.

... are you suggesting that we solve prisoner's dilemmas and similar problems by modifying our utility function?

Comment author: Jiro 24 July 2013 03:45:24PM 2 points [-]

By this reasoning everyone should give all their money and resources to charity (except to the extent that they need some of their resources to keep their job and make money).

Comment author: jkaufman 25 July 2013 02:30:13PM 4 points [-]

That's not much of a reductio ad absurdum. It would be much better if people did that, or at least moved a lot in that direction.

Comment author: Jiro 27 July 2013 04:26:35AM 1 point [-]

People are motivated to do things that make money because the money benefits themselves and their loved ones. Many such things are also beneficial to everyone, either directly (inventors, for instance, or people who manufacture useful goods), or indirectly (someone who is just willing to work hard because working hard benefits themselves, thus producing more and improiving the economy). In a world where everyone gave their money to random strangers and kept them at an equal level of wealth, nobody would be able to make any money (since 1) any money they made would be accompanied by a reduction by the money other people gave them, and 2) they would feel (by hypothesis) obligated to give away the proceeds anyway). This would mean that money as a motivation would no longer exist, and we would lose everything that we gain when money is a motivation. Thts would be bad.

Even if you modified the rule to "I should give money to people so as to arranbge an equal level of wealth except where necessary to provide motivation", in deciding exactly who gets your money you'd essentially have a planned economy done piecemeal by billions of individual decisions. Unlike a normal planned economy, it wouldn't be imposed from the top, but it would have the same problem as a normal planned economy in that there's really nobody competent to plan such a thing. The result would be disaster. So overall it would be a better world if people kept the money they made even if someone else could use it more than they could.

Furthermore, the state where everyone acts this way is unstable. Even if your family would be better off if everyone acted that altruistically, your family would be worse off if half the world acted that way and you and they were part of that half.

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 24 July 2013 04:01:58PM *  3 points [-]

Yes. At least as long as there are problems in the world. What's wrong with that?

Everyone, including nonhumans, would have their interests/welfare-function fulfilled as well as possible. If I had to determine the utility function of moral agents before being placed into the world in any position at random, I would choose some form of utilitarianism from a selfish point of view because it maximizes my expected well-being. If doing the "morally right" thing doesn't make the world a better place for the sentient beings in the world, I don't see a reason to call it "right". Also note that this is not an all-or-nothing issue, it seems unfruitful to single out only those actions that produce the perfect outcome, or the perfect outcome in expectation. Every improvement into the right direction counts, because every improvement leads to someone else being better off.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 25 July 2013 04:05:40AM 2 points [-]

That's a game theory/decision theory problem, not a problem with the utility function.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 26 July 2013 06:49:00PM 3 points [-]

By the way, for everyone who's interested in convincing people that animals suffer and that animal suffering is morally relevant, I recommend reading (and quoting to people) Stanislaw Lem's short story "The Seventh Sally, or How Trurl's Own Perfection Led to No Good". I found it to be possibly the most emotionally and logically salient argument for the "suffering matters, no matter what sort" position I've ever read. Here's the most relevant passage (Klapaucius's reply to Trurl arguing that his creations are mere simulacra, and so are not capable of real suffering):

"Come now, don't pretend not to understand what I'm saying, I know you're not that stupid! A phonograph record won't run errands for you, won't beg for mercy or fall on its knees! You say there's no way of knowing whether Excelcius's subjects groan, when beaten, purely because of the electrons hopping about inside—like wheels grinding out the mimicry of a voice—or whether they really groan, that is, because they honestly experience the pain? A pretty distinction, this! No, Trurl, a sufferer is not one who hands you his suffering, that you may touch it, weigh it, bite it like a coin; a sufferer is one who behaves like a sufferer! Prove to me here and now, once and for all, that they do not feel, that they do not think, that they do not in any way exist as being conscious of their enclosure between the two abysses of oblivion—the abyss before birth and the abyss that follows death—prove this to me, Trurl, and I'll leave you be! Prove that you only imitated suffering, and did not create it!"

"You know perfectly well that's impossible," answered Trurl quietly, "Even before I took my instruments in hand, when the box was still empty, I had to anticipate the possibility of precisely such a proof—in order to rule it out. ...

The entire story is well worth a read for anyone interested in this debate.

Comment author: Moss_Piglet 04 September 2013 05:27:37PM 0 points [-]

I think part of the problem here is that there is still an unsupported assumption, a pretty big one, at the core of the argument which it seems like people aren't seriously addressing. Why is it exactly we should be going around trying to prevent suffering in the first place?

Obviously most of us already care about suffering, at least under certain circumstances, because of the human drive of empathy. And if you or the OP were to say "I am upset by the suffering of these animals because I empathize with them, and as such here is a solution I would endorse..." then that would be fine; I can't see any flaw in that argument at all. Of course it's not terribly convincing, which is a bit of an issue of efficiency if you want to get other people on board with your plan, but waving the flag of morality seems like a Dark Side sort of solution; it puts a pretty big target on someone's back when they have to essentially swear team allegiance before they're allowed to engage with the argument critically. An ethical argument is not exempt from having to have a solid foundation; assumptions should be acknowledged and named where reasonably possible if the objective is to present a strong argument.

This is especially problematic because this argument implicitly calls for restrictions on the behavior of people who don't agree with it's assumptions. People using very similar arguments have already severely restricted access to lab animals for medical / biological experimentation, so it's hardly unreasonable to see that these sorts of arguments have potential real-world political traction. If someone is trying to control my behavior, I certainly expect an explanation better than 'the alternative would upset me'!

I get that, in the long-run, empaths win and the sphere of things-we-care-about keeps expanding. But since this is a blog about rationality, maybe we could at least naming empathy as the motivator for these sorts of posts rather than dressing it all up in morality?

Comment author: Moss_Piglet 04 September 2013 05:28:34PM 1 point [-]

I misread the comment above mine; please ignore comment this as it is off-topic.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 25 July 2013 03:32:09AM 3 points [-]

Starting from the perspective that the best way to cause a behavior change is to convince System 1 of something rather than System 2, one strategy for convincing people that they should care about animal suffering is to provide more opportunities for them to interact with non-pet animals in a substantial way (so not at a zoo). I have essentially no direct experience with animals other than cats, dogs, and the like.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 25 July 2013 05:11:26AM *  4 points [-]

Well, in the days when most people farmed their own meat, they had much less compunction about killing their livestock.

Comment author: MTGandP 25 July 2013 10:01:59PM 5 points [-]

At the same time, they treated their animals a lot better than factory farms do.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 24 July 2013 04:41:30AM 3 points [-]

In fact, 137 million chickens suffer to death each year before they can even make it to slaughter -- number of animals killed for fur, in shelters and in laboratories combined!

Is this sentence missing words? Should be "more than the number of ...", I assume?

Comment author: novalis 23 July 2013 10:10:51PM 12 points [-]

This essay's thesis is that we should eat less meat, but its evidence is only that factory-farmed meat is a problem.

Most (but not all) of the meat I eat is not factory-farmed. The coop where I buy my meat says (pdf) that it buys only "humanely and sustainably raised" meat and poultry ... from animals that are free to range on chemical-free pastures, raised on a grass-based diet with quality grain used only as necessary, never given hormones and produced and processed by small-scale farmers." (For eggs, the coop does offer less-humane options, but I only buy the most-humane ones).

I might stop eating most of the factory-farmed meat that I eat. It would simply mean never eating out at non-frou-frou places. The exception would be dealing with non-local family (for local family, I could simply bring meat from the coop to share).

That said, it's hard to know when a restaurant is serving humanely raised meat. It seems like it would be nice to have a site where I could type in a restaurant's name, and find out who their suppliers are and what standards they adhere to. For the vast majority of restaurants, the answer would be that they just don't care. But, at least in NYC, it's common for foodie sorts of restaurants to list their suppliers. My favorite restaurant, Momofuku, for instance, sometimes specifically lists that some dish's meat is from e.g. Niman Ranch. Niman Ranch claims to raise their animals humanely. Do they really? And such a site would increase the pressure on restaurants to choose humane suppliers.

Comment author: peter_hurford 23 July 2013 10:28:20PM 14 points [-]

This essay's thesis is that we should eat less meat, but its evidence is only that factory-farmed meat is a problem.

I only think factory-farmed meat is the problem. I use "eat less meat" as a shorthand, since nearly all meat is factory-farmed meat.

~

The coop where I buy my meat says (pdf) that it buys only "humanely and sustainably raised" meat and poultry

I definitely agree it's better to buy "humanely raised" meat and poultry than not "humanely raised" meat/poultry. And perhaps you have found a trustworthy source.

But be careful of why I put "humanely raised" in quotes -- many such operations are not actually humane. Cage-free is much better than not cage-free, but conditions are still pretty bad. Free-range is better than not free-range, but just legally requires the animal be allowed to stay outside. There are no legal restrictions on the quality of the outside section, how long they can stay outside, or crowding. Vegan Outreach has more information.

~

I might stop eating most of the factory-farmed meat that I eat. It would simply mean never eating out at non-frou-frou places. The exception would be dealing with non-local family (for local family, I could simply bring meat from the coop to share).

That sounds like an excellent idea!

Comment author: Larks 24 July 2013 09:59:22AM *  4 points [-]

How much of that is US-specific? According to defra:

Stocking rate in the house is as follows: ... Chickens = 13 birds but not more than 27.5 kg live weight per m²;

"the birds have had during at least half their lifetime continuous daytime access to open-air runs, comprising an area mainly covered by vegetation, of not less than:

1m² per chicken or guinea fowl (in the case of guinea fowls, open-air runs may be replaced by a perchery having a floor space of at least that of the house and a height of at least 2m, with perches of at least 10 cm length available per bird in total (house and perchery)).

2m² per duck

4m² per turkey or goose

source

Comment author: novalis 23 July 2013 11:04:32PM *  8 points [-]

I was going to ask what you thought about http://www.certifiedhumane.com/ but it is completely fucking useless: "The Animal Care Standards for Chickens Used in Broiler Production do not require that chickens have access to range." So nevermind.

So instead I'll ask why a meaningful set of standards doesn't exist. http://www.globalanimalpartnership.org/ Step 5, maybe? Their web site sucks, because it doesn't give me a searchable list of products, but maybe they just need some help.

Anyway, this seems like it would be a way more effective thing for EAA to do than just about anything else -- I bet lots more people would be willing to pay more for meat, than would be convinceable to eat less meat directly.

Comment author: MTGandP 24 July 2013 12:07:19AM *  3 points [-]

Anyway, this seems like it would be a way more effective thing for EAA to do than just about anything else -- I bet lots more people would be willing to pay more for meat, than would be convinceable to eat less meat directly.

That sounds like it could be a good idea. One immediate problem I see with this is that most consumers wouldn't be able to distinguish EAA's label from the dozens of nearly-meaningless labels such as "Free Range", "Cage-Free", etc.

Comment author: Larks 24 July 2013 09:54:23AM 2 points [-]

There are no legal restrictions ... how long they can stay outside

That's not quite what the source (beware, unpleasant images) says;

No other requirements - such as ... the amount of time spent outdoors ... are specified

An animal that is allowed to go outside every day, but always chooses not to, satisfies the latter but not the former. Which is actually the case? Moreover, these are very morally distinct! People who are forced to stay in a cell are prisoners; people who choose to stay in a cell are recluses.

Comment author: PeerGynt 24 July 2013 12:05:03AM 4 points [-]

I only think factory-farmed meat is the problem. I use "eat less meat" as a shorthand, since nearly all meat is factory-farmed meat.

Factory-farmed meat converts photosynthetic energy (grass) to food much more efficiently than free-range farming. Factory farming requires less inputs in terms of arable land and water, and emits less CO2. If everyone in the world ate non-factory farmed meat, we would have to cut down the Amazon many times over, thereby drastically reducing earth's capacity to convert CO2 back to carbohydrates.

When you decide whether your meat should be factory farmed or not, , there are consequences on two scales that are negatively correlated: Animal welfare and global warming. Which of these scales you give most weight to, will depend on your prior for anthropogenic global warming, on your beliefs about the consequences of global warming, and on the priority you give animals in your aggregation scheme over individuals with moral standing.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 24 July 2013 02:39:33PM 11 points [-]

Modern farming techniques are designed to minimize labor, especially managerial labor, not energy.

Factory-farmed meat converts photosynthetic energy (grass) to food much more efficiently than free-range farming.

Factory-farmed animals don't eat grass. This is a really important detail.

Comment author: peter_hurford 24 July 2013 06:10:12AM 3 points [-]

I hadn't considered that. Do you have any sources for your claims?

Personally, I don't eat meat of any type, so this wouldn't be a problem for my diet.

Comment author: PeerGynt 24 July 2013 03:37:15PM *  6 points [-]

A source is "Allison, Richard. “Organic chicken production criticised for leaving a larger carbon footprint.” Poultry World. 1 Mar. 2007". This article is behind a paywall. I am pasting a table from the article:

AVERAGE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT FROM POULTRY PRODUCTION (% DIFFERENCE TO CONVENTIONAL) Organic Free range

Energy use +33% +25%

Global warming potential (CO2) +46% +20%

Eutrophication potential +75% +28%

Acidification potential +52% +33%

Pesticide use (dose/ha) -92% +12%

Note: This article is in a trade publication and could be biased. It is based on an original report which I could not locate, and which apparently has sparse data. Obviously, more research is needed.

My prior beliefs are not the result of scientific studies, but follow from the following observations:

(1) To reduce global warming, we need to maximize the number of calories produced per unit of CO2 emission

(2) The most effective way we can alter that ratio, is by reducing the amount of biochemical energy that is used to power the biochemical processes of farm animals over the course of their lives. This is primarily a function of duration of their lives.

(3) Factory farming achieves shorter duration, by having the animals grow more quickly

(4) Another way we can reduce the net amount of CO2 produced per unit food, is by reducing the amount of land used, thus allowing less deforestation.

(5) Factory farming achieves this by using less land

(6) I cannot see any other mechanisms that differ between factory farming and organic farming which would have a major net effect on the carbon cycle.

Comment author: magfrump 26 July 2013 09:02:04PM 1 point [-]

How much value would this conversion have relative to vegetarianism?

For example, I recently changed to only buying grass-fed beef (in part for health/taste reasons); how much humane value would you think that has relative to replacing my beef with whatever else?

What about replacing eggs with cage free or free range eggs versus a vegan replacement?

Comment author: Xodarap 23 July 2013 10:57:34PM 16 points [-]

Niman Ranch claims to raise their animals humanely. Do they really?

The shareholders of Niman Ranch voted to reduce their standards to increase profits. As a result, Bill Niman (who originally founded the company) now refuses to eat their products, Wikipedia has more

Comment author: lsparrish 24 July 2013 06:30:02AM *  5 points [-]

I've been eating less meat lately for a reason that has nothing directly to do with animal suffering. Rather I have been experimenting with a lifestyle of nutrient powders, aka DIY Soylent, to substitute for meals. The recipe I settled on happened to be vegan, since it uses soy powder as the main protein source. One could substitute whey (the main Soylent is whey based) or meat based protein, however I am thus far happy with the taste and effects of the soy version.

Anyway, I don't know how widely this practice is likely to spread. It makes remarkable sense to me, and people like me, but perhaps not to the majority. I am attracted to novelty to an above-average degree, and not particularly attached to eating (as long as I can be full/satisfied). The idea that humans can live (not just live, but thrive) on a bit of powder, oil, and water, is somehow fascinating and thrilling -- more so than the idea of surviving on lettuce and veggie burgers, which sounds like more of a boring halfway solution. The reports of less sleep / more energy / better cognition (which seem true to my experience so far) also caught my attention -- perhaps for the same reasons that transhumanism seems like a good idea.

So maybe when advertising veganism to transhumanists specifically, Soylent / quantified self / powder based diet is a good pitch. Market it as "cyborg food" or something. Yes, animals suffering is bad, we get that... But if we focus on animals suffering, what happens? Lab research gets subjected to a bunch of new regs that slow things down, while the food factories in their arrogance keep cranking away and making us look like idiots. The economics are strongly in favor of the meat industry continuing for as long as people remain attached to their meat products, ensuring that they are the last to go despite doing more harm and less good than labs. And as a transhumanist, I really want the labs to succeed -- at least on the important life extension related stuff.

Comment author: AlexanderD 25 July 2013 12:48:40AM 4 points [-]

This seems rather a separate issue, especially since you admit that your choice of "cyborg food" only happened to be vegan. You're an accidental vegan. Next week, you might discover that a powder made from lamb faces had more bio-available iron, and that'd be the end of that.

Unrelated: The Accidental Vegan also sounds like the most boring movie imaginable.

Comment author: Lumifer 24 July 2013 05:42:47PM 9 points [-]

Thus, by being vegetarian, you are saving 26 land animals a year

I don't quite understand in which meaning is the word "save" used here.

It seems to me that an equivalent statement would be "After a short period of adjustment, you being a vegetarian would result in 26 land animals not existing any more (as in, not being born)".

In the ultimate case of everyone becoming a full vegetarian, domestic animals raised for meat would become endangered species in danger of extinction. I don't think it counts as "saving".

Comment author: Swimmer963 24 July 2013 08:20:29PM *  10 points [-]

I agree with you on the technicality-it's a weird use of the word "save". Philosophically I agree with the original poster. As an individual who can suffer, I would prefer to not exist (edit: not have existed in the first place) than to live my life in a factory farm.

Comment author: Lumifer 24 July 2013 08:45:37PM -1 points [-]

As an individual who can suffer, I would prefer to not exist than to live my life in a factory farm.

Are you willing to make that choice for others?

If you see a creature living in a factory farm and have an opportunity to save it from the rest of its existence, will you kill it?

Comment author: Swimmer963 24 July 2013 08:54:05PM 5 points [-]

will you kill it?

Whoa. I didn't say that if I was living in factory farm, I would prefer to be killed. I might, and I might seek suicide, but that's a hard choice, because the will-to-live-above-all-else exists and is quite strong (for good evolutionary reasons). Also, approaching death is scary = suffering. So no, I wouldn't make that choice for another person, if I couldn't communicate with them and ask. If I could ask them, I'm not sure.

(This is a situation I've imagined myself in, i.e. if I have a patient someday who is able to convince me that they have made a rational decision that they want to commit assisted suicide. I can't model myself well enough to know what I'd do in that situation either.)

An individual that doesn't exist in the first place, i.e. because of better birth control or because fewer animals are farmed for food, doesn't exist to have to make a choice; at least that's how I see it. I could conceive of people thinking they're philosophically the same situation, but I strongly think that they aren't.

Comment author: Lumifer 24 July 2013 09:06:46PM *  -1 points [-]

I didn't say that if I was living in factory farm, I would prefer to be killed.

To quote you to you, "I would prefer to not exist than to live my life in a factory farm."

That's a pretty unambiguous statement. Maybe you want to modify it?

EDIT: Ah, I see you modified it. But that's not really a choice: the past is fixed. It's only an expression of a wish that the past were different. And, of course, it it were realized there would be no you to make the choice...

Comment author: Nisan 26 July 2013 02:45:20AM 3 points [-]

An agent can have a preference to never have existed, operationalized as a tendency to act in such a way that agents that act that way are less likely to come into existence; e.g., if agent A creates agent B because A believes B will do X, and if B does not want to have existed, then B could refrain from doing X for that reason.

Comment author: Swimmer963 24 July 2013 09:10:04PM *  2 points [-]

I went back and edited it. I personally thought it was ambiguous tending in the direction of not exist=never have existed in the first place, as opposed to 'stop existing'. Illusion of transparency, etc.

Comment author: DanielLC 26 July 2013 04:03:51AM 2 points [-]

Are you willing to make that choice for others?

As opposed to what? I can't not make a choice. I can either buy meat, and choose for them to live a painful existence, or not buy meat, and choose for them not to. It's not as if I can offer them the opportunity to go back in time and kill their own grandfathers and make the choice for themselves.

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 24 July 2013 05:52:16PM 3 points [-]

I think Peter is concerned about individual animals and not about the abstract/semantic fence we draw about some of them, labelling it their "species". But you're right to point out that the word "save" is used in a very unusual way. If we're talking about factory farmed animals, abstaining from consumption prevents the existence of individual beings that live short and miserable lives with slaughter at the end. Whether we call this "saving" or not, I regard it as something I want to be done more often in the world.

Comment author: peter_hurford 24 July 2013 09:16:49PM 3 points [-]

"Save" as in "saved" from a life of suffering.

Comment author: blacktrance 06 January 2014 03:46:43PM 2 points [-]

I care about animal suffering in the same sense I care about dust specks not getting into my eye - if I'd be otherwise indifferent, I'd rather not have it, but it's very easily outweighed, in this case by the taste of animals. To the extent that factory farming causes meat to be cheaper, I welcome it. Why should I be a vegetarian?

Comment author: peter_hurford 06 January 2014 04:45:56PM 1 point [-]

I wrote that "if one cares about suffering, one should also care about nonhuman animals, since (1) they are capable of suffering, (2) they do suffer quite a lot, and (3) we can prevent their suffering."

Presumably you either disagree with one of my three empirical claims (which means we can have a good discussion) or you don't care about suffering generally (perhaps you only care about human or sapient suffering alone) and there's not much we can discuss. I, or someone else, could attempt to throw some thought experiments at you, I suppose, but I don't expect they'll do much.

Comment author: blacktrance 07 January 2014 12:36:08AM *  1 point [-]

if one cares about suffering, one should also care about nonhuman animals

This assumes that if I care about suffering, my utility function places some negative weight on suffering much in the same way it places a positive weight on me eating food I like, but this need not be the case. If I care about suffering, it means I want less of it, but it doesn't mean that I'm willing to give up much to reduce the amount. Ceteris paribus, I want less suffering in the world, but that doesn't mean I care enough about it to not eat delicious hamburgers, or even to pay more for a burger. I care about not getting dust specks in my eye too, but if I got one dust speck in my eye per month, and I could get rid of it by never eating burgers, I'd keep eating burgers. It doesn't mean that I don't care, though.

Comment author: peter_hurford 07 January 2014 01:34:33AM *  1 point [-]

That's technically true, yeah. It means you don't care very much (or care very very much about eating burgers)...

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 12 January 2014 05:02:37AM 0 points [-]

Or it means that the formalism of a utility function does not fully describe your preferences.

That is, asking "how much do you care about X", and getting some real number as the answer to that question for any value of X, will not describe the preferences and choices of the agent in question. (This is one way to interpret my previously offered "chickens vs. grandmother" conundrum.)

A more apt formalism might be some sort of multi-tier system, perhaps. I haven't settled on an answer, myself.

Comment author: pianoforte611 24 July 2013 02:06:57PM *  2 points [-]

Consider the two groups of animals.

Group A consists of factory farmed animals which suffer a total of X units of pain in their lives. Group B consists of animals in the wild that also suffer a total of X units of pain in their lives*

We could try to reduce suffering by preventing Group A's existence (your suggestion), or we could try to reduce suffering by preventing Group B's existence. Ignoring convenience why should we choose your option?

*I used the groups so as to address the fact that the individual animals may suffer different amounts.

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 24 July 2013 02:37:05PM 4 points [-]

Why not choose both as long as this doesn't lead to unwanted side-effects? It gets interesting when the two are mutually exclusive. If it turns out that eating more meat reduces the amount of wild animals that are suffering, then that would imo be the best argument against vegetarianism. It is hard to estimate what the effects of global warming will be on wild animal populations though. And even if the argument goes through, I think the biggest benefit from raising the issue of vegetarianism comes from promoting concern for the interests/suffering of nonhumans. To the extent that current memes determine the trajectory of the far future, this would dominate over the direct impact of personal consumption.

Comment author: Solitaire 05 January 2014 11:03:58PM 0 points [-]

Perhaps the ultimate rational position for the continued survival of humans and the reduction of suffering would be to have no animals at all and turn all available land mass over to trees for oxygen and the growing of crops for some kind of sustainably producible, nutritionally perfect food (perhaps a further developed version of the Soylent reference above), but pure rationality aside, don't we also value something that can't so easily be quantified about wild animals and the wild environment? I for one take great pleasure from the diversity of life exhibited on our planet. I would feel pretty depressed if I knew the future survival of life was predicated on such cold, unappealing utility alone.

Comment author: hyporational 06 January 2014 09:41:11AM 0 points [-]

don't we also value something that can't so easily be quantified about wild animals and the wild environment?

This an interestingly common position (that I share) considering how little time people spend in the nature. What exactly is it that I value, some vague idea about wildlife that can't be had without diverse wildlife existing somewhere out there? I like to watch nature documentaries, but I'm not sure what exactly I value in them.

Comment author: Solitaire 06 January 2014 12:24:22PM 0 points [-]

I do agree with you that many people have a romanticised idea of the natural world that probably has little to do with the reality; they appreciate the polished, TV-friendly aesthetics of nature documentaries without actually spending much time beyond their urban boundaries. I come at it from the perspective of someone who grew up in the countryside and love the feeling of being in wild places far more than in a city, so I suppose I have a different perspective. Personally I find busy cities really bring me down and leave me yearning for space and greenery.

Comment author: BlueSun 23 July 2013 10:08:13PM *  2 points [-]

A question I have is how to evaluate the morality of the two options:

  • A) Make it so that an animal is born, then later cause it considerable suffering
  • B) Change the conditions so that the animal never exists

If everyone went vegetarian, the animal population would likely be greatly diminished and it isn't obvious to me that I'd choose option B over option A if I were on the menu. Are there some standard objections to the idea that option A is better than option B?

One quick objection might be that it proves too much. If John Beatmykids told me he wouldn't have kids unless he was permitted to beat them, I wouldn't give him a pass to beat any future children. Another objection might be that there's always a choice C, but here I don't see another option as realistic.

Comment author: Xodarap 23 July 2013 10:49:46PM *  3 points [-]

This is a great argument, and is known as the "Logic of the Larder" (for reasons I have never comprehended). This paper goes into more detail than you probably care about; the main point is that your guess:

the animal population would likely be greatly diminished

Isn't generally true, because wild animals have a much greater density than farm animals.

Comment author: Ruairi 23 July 2013 10:32:30PM *  3 points [-]

Have you read much about the lives of farm animals? In general once people do I think they agree that these are lives that are not worth living. There's plenty of footage on the web too.

Comment author: davidpearce 24 July 2013 10:18:13AM 8 points [-]

Indeed so. Factory-farmed nonhuman animals are debeaked, tail-docked, castrated (etc) to prevent them from mutilating themselves and each other. Self-mutilitary behaviour in particular suggests an extraordinarily severe level of chronic distress. Compare how desperate human beings must be before we self-mutilate. A meat-eater can (correctly) respond that the behavioural and neuroscientific evidence that factory-farmed animals suffer a lot is merely suggestive, not conclusive. But we're not trying to defeat philosophical scepticism, just act on the best available evidence. Humans who persuade ourselves that factory-farmed animals are happy are simply kidding ourselves - we're trying to rationalise the ethically indefensible.

Comment author: drnickbone 24 July 2013 12:02:04PM 0 points [-]

I'm interested if that is the real objection though.

Presumably it is possible to design a more humane farming system such that the quality of farmed animal life is > 0 (i.e. these are genuinely lives worth living). Presumably it is also possible to legislate to enforce such a system on meat producers.

And it may well be easier to do that than to persuade everyone to give up eating meat, or to persuade them voluntarily to eat humane meat (at a higher price). So that on consequentialist grounds, campaigning for "humane farms" legislation is a better strategy.

But that's not what the original poster is advocating. I'm not sure why.

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 24 July 2013 01:12:25PM *  2 points [-]

I'm not sure whether that would be feasible. The current rate of meat consumption in affluent countries is already straining the global amount of resources, and projections suggest that meat consumption is on the rise. Increasing animal welfare while keeping production constant (or even scaling it) will be even more inefficient and will require even more resources. So this only seems feasible if you reduce the overall rate of consumption, and how would you do that more effectively than by promoting vegetarianism or something similar?

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 25 July 2013 03:07:58AM 0 points [-]

The current rate of meat consumption in affluent countries is already straining the global amount of resources,

If this were true, I'd expect it to be reflected in the price of meat.

Comment author: Lukas_Gloor 25 July 2013 03:12:19AM 1 point [-]

Unless governments subsidize the hell out of it.

Comment author: peter_hurford 23 July 2013 10:23:43PM 3 points [-]

Are there some standard objections to the idea that option A is better than option B?

The reason to prefer option B over option A is the standard considerations of "suffering is bad". On most consequentialist considerations, a life of entirely suffering is not worth living. Would you want to exist if the only thing that would happen to you is torture and then death?

Your example with John Beatmykids is a good one.

~

Another objection might be that there's always a choice C, but here I don't see another option as realistic.

Choice C might be to raise animals that are engineered to not feel pain.

Comment author: aelephant 26 July 2013 11:47:41AM 3 points [-]

If dogs & cats were raised specifically to be eaten & not involved socially in our lives as if they were members of the family, I don't think I'd care about them any more than I care about chickens or cows.

This article seems to assume that I oppose all suffering everywhere, which I'm not sure is true. Getting caught stealing causes suffering to the thief and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I care about chickens & cows significantly less than I care about thieves because thieves are at least human.

Comment author: [deleted] 26 July 2013 12:18:14PM 2 points [-]

Indeed, few westerners appear to be that bothered that it is customary to eat dog meat in China.

Comment author: MTGandP 26 July 2013 04:11:32PM 2 points [-]

Why don't you care about non-humans? If other animals suffer in roughly the same way as humans, why should it matter at all what species they belong to?

Getting caught stealing causes suffering to the thief and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

In this case I think that's justified because catching a thief leads to less suffering overall than failing to catch the thief.

Comment author: Vaniver 26 July 2013 05:58:20PM 5 points [-]

In this case I think that's justified because catching a thief leads to less suffering overall than failing to catch the thief.

Not everyone has harm (avoidance) as their primary moral value; many people would voluntarily accept harm to have more purity, autonomy, or economic efficiency, to give three examples.

Comment author: aelephant 27 July 2013 01:36:38AM 4 points [-]

If a moral theory accepted and acted upon by all moral people led to an average decrease in suffering, I'd take that as a sign that it was doing something right. For example, if no one initiated violence against anyone else (except in self defense), I have a hard time imagining how that could create more net suffering though it certainly would create more suffering for the subset of the population who previously used violence to get what they wanted.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 26 July 2013 06:36:55PM 2 points [-]

While I definitely value autonomy (and, to a lesser extent, some sorts of purity), and would trade away some pleasure or happiness to get those things, a theory of harm could include autonomy, purity, etc., by counting lack of satisfaction of preferences for those things as harm.

Comment author: Vaniver 26 July 2013 08:22:22PM 4 points [-]

I mean harm as one of the moral foundations. It seems like a five-factor model of morality fits human intuitions better than contorting everything into feeding into one morality and calling it 'harm' or 'weal' or something else.

Comment author: rationalnoodles 04 September 2013 04:35:03PM 0 points [-]

are at least human

How does this make you care?

Comment author: aelephant 04 September 2013 11:31:38PM 3 points [-]

To me morality is an agreement that people can come to with one another. Since animals can't come to agreements with one another, what happens between animals is amoral. It isn't immoral when a bird kills a worm or a cat kills a rat and it doesn't make me feel bad either. Humans could make agreements between themselves about how they want to treat other animals, but humans can't make agreements with other animals. For this reason, I consider all interactions with animals to be outside the realm of morality, although there are certain behaviors that disgust me & that are probably indicative of mental illness & a sign that someone is probably a danger to others (eg torturing kittens).

Comment author: Salemicus 04 September 2013 11:40:36PM 2 points [-]

What about the way we treat others with whom we can't come to agreements? Is that a matter of morality? For example, consider young children. I suspect most people regard cruelty to a young child as a particular moral horror, precisely because the child cannot argue back or defend itself. Indeed, I would argue that our moral obligations are strongest to groups such as children.

Comment author: aelephant 06 September 2013 12:10:06AM 1 point [-]

To be completely honest, I agree with you but find it hard to come up for a good argument for why that should be. One way I've thought about it in the past is that the parents or caretakers of a child are sort of like stewards of a property that will be inherited one day. If I'm going to inherit a mansion from my grandfather on my 18th birthday, my parents can't arbitrarily decide to burn it down when I'm 17 & 364 days old. Harming children (physically or emotionally) is damaging the person they will be when they are an adult in a similar way.

Comment author: Xodarap 23 July 2013 10:55:04PM *  3 points [-]

Thanks for posting this Peter. I've found it hard to find an action with a higher benefit/cost ratio than ordering a bean burrito instead of a chicken one, and I'm interested to see what others have to say on the subject.

Comment author: Grant 24 July 2013 05:52:57AM -1 points [-]

I admit to being perplexed by this and some other pro-altruism posts on LW. If we're trying to be rationalists, shouldn't we come out and say: "I don't often care about other's suffering, especially of those people I don't know personally, but I do try and signal that I care because this signaling benefits me. Sometimes this signaling benefits others too, which is nice".

I agree everyone likely benefits from a society structured to reward altruism. We all might be in need of altruism one day. But there seems to be a disconnect between the prose of articles like this one and what I thought was the general rationalist belief that altruism in extended societies largely exists for signaling reasons.

Also, the benefits of altruism seem significantly less substantial when the targets are animals. Outside of personal experience animals are just unable to return any favors. If I save the lives of some children in Africa, I can hope those people contribute to the global economy and help make the world a better place for my children. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about my food.

I realize the article starts with the conditional statement "if one cares about suffering", so my comments above aren't really a critique. A more direct critique would be "who really cares about suffering?". If we only care about signaling altruism then I think we should just come out and say that.

I like animals and have owned many pets, but I do not care about the suffering of animals far outside my personal experience. If I was surrounded by people who cared about such things then I likely would learn to as well; to do otherwise would signal barbarism. I might also learn to care if I was interested in signaling moral superiority over my peers.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 24 July 2013 08:13:43AM *  10 points [-]

I don't often care about other's suffering, especially of those people I don't know personally, but I do try and signal that I care because this signaling benefits me

Remember the evolutionary-cognitive boundary. "We have evolved behaviors whose function is to signal altruism rather than to genuinely cause altruistic behavior" is not the same thing as "we act kind-of-altruistically because consciously or unconsciously expect it to signal favorable things about us".

If you realize that evolution has programmed you to do something for some purpose, then embracing that evolutionary goal is certainly one possibility. But you can also decide that you genuinely care about some other purpose, and use the knowledge about yourself to figure out how to put yourself in situations which promote the kind of purpose that you prefer. Maybe I know that status benefits cause me to more reliably take altruistic action than rational calculation about altruism does, so I seek to put myself in communities where rationally calculating the most altruistic course of action and then taking that action is high status. And I also try to make this more high status in general, so that even people who genuinely only care about the status benefits end up taking altruistic actions.

Note that choosing to embrace most kinds of selfishness is no less arbitrary and going against evolution's goals than choosing to embrace altruism. What evolution really cares about is inclusive fitness: if you're going by the "oh, this is what evolution really intended you to do" route, then for the sake of consistency you should say "oh, evolution really intended us to have lots of surviving offspring, so I should ensure that I make regular egg/sperm donations and also get as many women as possible pregnant / spend as much time as possible being pregnant myself".

Most people don't actually want that, no matter what evolution designed us to do. So they rather choose to act selfishly, or altruistically, or some mixture of the two, or in some way that doesn't really map to the selfish/altruistic axis at all, and if that seems to go beyond the original evolutionary purposes of the cognitive modules which are pushing us in whatever direction we do end up caring about, then so what?

And of course, talking about the "purpose" or "intention" of evolution in the first place is anthropomorphism. Evolution doesn't actually care about anything, and claims like "we don't really care about altruism" are only shorthand for "we come equipped with cognitive modules which, when put in certain situations, push us to act in particular ways which - according to one kind of analysis - do not reliably correlate with the achievement of altruistic acts while more reliably correlating with achieving status; when put in different situations, the analysis may come out differently". That's a purely empirical fact about yourself, not one which says anything about what you should care about.

Comment author: Grant 24 July 2013 04:54:02PM *  4 points [-]

Thank you for the explanation. I was trying to play the devil's advocate a bit and I didn't think my comment would be well-received. I'm glad to have gotten a thoughtful reply.

Thinking about it some more, I was not meaning to anthropomorphize evolution, just point out homo-hypocritus. On any particular value of a person's, we have:

  • What they tell people about it.
  • How they act on it.
  • How they feel about it.

I feel bad about a lot of suffering (mostly that closest to me, of course). However its not clear to me that what I feel is any more "me" than what I do or what I say.

Most everyone (except psychopaths) feels bad about suffering, and tells their friends the same, but they don't do much about it unless its close to their personal experience. Evolution programmed us to be hypocritical. However in this context its not clear to me why we'd chose to act on our feelings instead of feel like our actions (stop caring about distant non-cute animals), or why we'd chose to stop being hypocritical at all. We have lots of examples throughout history of large groups of people ceasing to care about suffering of certain groups, often due to social pressures. I think the tide can swing both ways here.

So I have trouble seeing how these movements would work without social pressures and appeals to self-interest. I guess there's already a lot of pro-altruism social pressure on LW?

Edit: as a personal example, I feel more altruistic than I act, and act more altruistic than I let on to others. I do this because I've only gotten disutility from being seen as a nice guy, and have refrained from a lot of overt altruism because of this. I think I'd need a change in micro-culture to change my behavior here; appeals to logic aren't going to sway me.

Comment author: [deleted] 26 July 2013 07:29:06PM 4 points [-]

I've only gotten disutility from being seen as a nice guy

Any examples?

Comment author: Grant 05 August 2013 03:19:04AM 1 point [-]

"Only" was a gross exaggeration. I'm not sure why I typed it.

I think my examples are pretty typical though. Charitable people get lobbied by people who want charity. This occurs with both personal and extended charity. In my case it gets me bugged into spending more time on other people's technical problems (e.g. open-source software projects) than I'd like.

I haven't contributed to many charities, but the ones I have seem to have put me on mailing and call lists. I also once contributed to a political candidate for his anti-war stance, and have been rewarded with political spam ever since. I'm not into politics at all so its rather unwelcome.

Comment author: Solitaire 06 January 2014 01:40:02PM 0 points [-]

Most everyone (except psychopaths) feels bad about suffering, and tells their friends the same, but they don't do much about it unless its close to their personal experience.

I'm not sure how much truth there is in this generalisation. Countless environmental activists, conservationists and humanitarian workers across the globe willingly give their time and energy to causes that have little or nothing to do with satisfying their own local needs or wants. Whilst they may not be in the majority, there are nevertheless a significant minority. I doubt many of them would be happy to be told they are only 'signalling altruism' to appear better in the eyes of their peers.

On the other hand, I suppose you could argue the case that such people have X-altruistic personalities and that perhaps that isn't a desirable quality in terms of creating a hypothetical perfect society.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 July 2013 06:08:30AM 17 points [-]

what I thought was the general rationalist belief that altruism in extended societies largely exists for signaling reasons.

That's, um, not a general rationalist belief.

Comment author: DanielLC 26 July 2013 04:54:42AM 5 points [-]

More accurately, we evolved to be altruistic for signalling reasons. However, we don't really care why we evolved to be altruistic. We just care about others.

Comment author: peter_hurford 24 July 2013 06:16:34AM 5 points [-]

Sometimes, pleas for altruism are exactly what they seem. Not everything is a covert attempt at signaling. Trying to say that altruism is not serving self-interested reasons is kind of missing the point.

Comment author: Grant 24 July 2013 08:06:40PM *  1 point [-]

Idea: if you're very interested in promoting veganism or vegitarianism, help make it taste better, or invest in or donate to those who are helping make it taste better. As my other much-downvoted comment showed, I am very skeptical that appeals to altruism will have nearly as much of an affect as appeals to self-interest, especially outside of this community. I believe most people eat meat because it just tastes better than their alternatives.

Grown crops are far more efficient to produce than livestock, so there are plenty of other good reasons to transition away from the use of livestock in agriculture. If steak were made to "grow on trees", why pay all that extra for the real thing? If you lower the cost of vegetarianism by improving taste, more people will adopt it. If they don't adopt it they'll still be more likely to forgo meats for vegetarian dishes if those dishes taste better.

In the case of low-quality meats (e.g. McDonalds) the taste bar isn't even set very high.

When I first decided to be a vegetarian, I simply switched from tasty hamburgers to tasty veggieburgers and there was no problem at all.

I think your sample size might have lead you astray here. My personal experience is exactly the opposite. That said, I looked for studies of meat vs. faux meat taste and didn't find anything. I wonder if a love of meat over alternatives is innate or is learned, and if there exist vegetarian recipes which really do taste as good as the real thing.

Comment author: Nornagest 24 July 2013 11:10:38PM *  3 points [-]

I think your sample size might have lead you astray here. My personal experience is exactly the opposite. That said, I looked for studies of meat vs. faux meat taste and didn't find anything.

Well, as a meat-eater I've got to admit that meat substitutes have come a long way in the last few years. A couple days ago I ended up eating vegan burgers which would have passed muster as mediocre cow, and vegetarian sausage tends to be fairly acceptable as well. I can't say the same for anything made from chunks too big to stir-fry, though, and I've never eaten any vegetarian products passing as rare meat, which I tend to prefer.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 26 July 2013 11:34:11AM 2 points [-]

I believe most people eat meat because it just tastes better than their alternatives.

Data point: I do.

In the case of low-quality meats (e.g. McDonalds) the taste bar isn't even set very high.

This is probably low-status, but I do prefer the taste of meat even in the junk foods to most of the alternatives. In my experience, most of the alternatives are significantly improved by adding some meat to them.

I wonder if ... there exist vegetarian recipes which really do taste as good as the real thing.

Most likely, no. Otherwise we would already see them sold everywhere. Unless they were invented yesterday, or are extra expensive, or something like that.

Comment author: Xodarap 24 July 2013 10:46:07PM 4 points [-]

My personal experience is exactly the opposite

It varies a lot by brand. The food columnist for the New York Times couldn't tell that Beyond Meat wasn't chicken, for example.

Comment author: Grant 24 July 2013 11:09:49PM 2 points [-]

Good article, thanks. The author does say the taste was quite different from chicken, you just can't tell when its in a burrito as the chicken is mostly used for texture. The producer's website is here.

Another idea, with potentially better returns than the above: invest in faux-meat producers. There appear to be plenty of them.

Comment author: Xodarap 25 July 2013 12:29:38AM *  2 points [-]

I agree that this is potentially a high-impact avenue. New harvest is a charity which sponsors meat substitutes, both plant based and tissue engineered, if you are interested.

Comment author: Ruairi 25 July 2013 09:22:42AM 2 points [-]

You seem to be missing a link? Perhaps he meant to link to the group "new harvest".

Comment author: Xodarap 26 July 2013 12:37:06AM 1 point [-]

Thanks ruari. I had forgotten the http, which apparently makes the link invisible.

Comment author: Ruairi 25 July 2013 09:24:50AM 1 point [-]

Perhaps, but some preliminary findings show that online ads may be very effective (Peter posted about this on LW recently). Hopefully more research into effective outreach will be done in the future.

Comment author: Solitaire 06 January 2014 01:53:23PM 0 points [-]

When I envision a hypothetical future in which humans don't consume meat, I don't imagine everyone getting their protein from some kind of tank-grown super-tasty 'I Can't Believe It's Not McDonalds!' meat substitute . The meat-heavy diet of Western societies has no basis in evolutionary terms and I don't see why we should seek to perpetuate this relatively modern obsession and dietary imbalance. Contrary to what many meat eaters think, a vegan diet can be incredibly varied and tasty once you get used to cooking using a wider variety of herbs, spices and ingredients which aren't currently mainstream in Western cuisine. I personally find things like smoked tofu, coconut oil and milk and nuts like pistachios and cashews to be every bit as tasty as any meat product. The consumption of large quantities of red meat and animal-derived fats is cultural, not essential, and in terms of nuitrition not even especially desirable. The massive over-consumption of bovine dairy products is particularly nonsensical when more efficient, more nutritional alternatives exist.

Comment author: [deleted] 24 July 2013 01:25:47AM 1 point [-]

You know those Chick-fil-A advertisements with the cows beseeching you to eat more chicken? The ironic thing is, if you eat more chickens, there will actually be more chickens in the world, and if you eat fewer cows, there will be fewer cows in the world. It's just supply and demand. The survival of cows and chickens is controlled by the farmers, who are profit-oriented. If it stops being profitable to raise cows for the slaughter, then cows won't be raised at all.

Or consider this: suppose everyone in the world right now switches to vegetarianism. All the cows and chickens on the farms will die. The farmers will have no incentive to feed them. They'll kill the cows for their leather and the chickens for their...I have no idea, and any animals they don't kill will be left to starve, with all their independent survival ability bred and raised out of them.

I would be willing to become vegetarian were it not for my belief that the only way to keep cows alive is to eat them. How do you speak to that concern?

Is it better never to have been born than to be born, raised in cruel conditions, and then slaughtered? The answer is not obvious to me.

Comment author: MTGandP 24 July 2013 01:31:53AM 1 point [-]

There are some other comments in this thread to that effect. In short, it's worth keeping animals alive if their lives are worth living. In the case of animals on factory farms, their lives are so horrible that they're probably not worth living. To find more comments on this thread, ctrl-F "not worth living".

Comment author: Zaine 24 July 2013 08:14:37AM *  -1 points [-]

Obtaining optimal health is an unsolved problem. With optimal health, a human will live longer. This human weights probably sentient life as worth more than probably non-sentient life. According to this human's values, the amount of probably non-sentient life this human must consume in order to obtain optimal health does not justify consumption in and of itself. As a human will live longer with optimal health, this human also has more time they can devote to offsetting their consumption, in the end making their human life worth more in net than the cumulative probably non-sentient lives consumed in sustaining optimal health.

The more resources required optimal health, the greater the burden on the human to offset the negative externalities produced utilising those resources.

Comment author: Jiro 26 July 2013 06:52:15PM 1 point [-]

To those who say that vegetarianism is too hard, I’d like to simply challenge you to just try it for a few days.

People who say that vegetarianism is too hard generally don't mean that being too hard is the only reason they won't do it.

Comment author: MugaSofer 29 July 2013 07:03:03AM 2 points [-]

Well, I can't see the true meaning in their hearts or whatever, but I have definitely had people admit that vegetarianism is morally obligatory, only to claim they are completely incapable of doing anything about this because it just tastes so good. (I was raised vegetarian, so I of course simply don't know what I'm missing.)

Comment author: peter_hurford 26 July 2013 08:41:43PM 2 points [-]

I have seen people pretty startled by the ease of vegetarianism once they take it on as a challenge, however.

Comment author: DxE 26 July 2013 06:57:13PM 0 points [-]

Agreed. The proper translation of "too hard" is usually "I don't care."

Comment author: ygert 26 July 2013 10:48:53PM 8 points [-]

That is to say, "the difficulty is higher than the amount I care."

Comment author: lavalamp 25 July 2013 12:58:21AM 1 point [-]

This appears to be an argument for buying ethically raised meats instead of factory farmed meats, not an argument for never eating meat.

Comment author: MTGandP 25 July 2013 03:04:54AM 2 points [-]

Here is a comment that addresses this point.