The ethics of breeding to kill

post by George (George3d6) · 2020-09-06T20:12:00.519Z · score: -3 (13 votes) · LW · GW · 24 comments

Contents

  Hedonic Regression
  Suicide as an indicator of objective happiness
  Can hedonic regression go on forever?
None
24 comments

Veganism, vegetarianism, and "ethical" farming seem to be gaining a lot of ground lately, which is something I find fascinatingly absurd.

In part, I think this comes from a felicitous style of reasoning that I outlined here.

But, in hindsight, I think a lot of people that consume meat don't have any foundation that backs up their choice of killing animals for food. So I think it's worth outlining one here.

First, let's get the two "main" arguments against killing animals for food and factory farming on the table:

  1. The utilitarian argument - Farming animals for meat often causes more "suffering" than "joy" to the animals.
  2. The normative argument - Breeding something in order to kill it is "wronger" than not having it live at all.

Second, I want to look at the kind of animals me (and presumably many people) would feel bad about killing or eating. I'm going to ignore cats and dogs here because there's too much baggage to take in due to the role they play in our society. But disregarding those, I think there are three categories:

That's not to say we would eat all other types of animals, but if an Inuit tribesman would hand you a traditional dish made with seal or bever you might begrudgingly (or, in my case, happily) give it a go. However, you would probably refuse if that same tribesman handed you human or blue whale meat.

Why?

Hedonic Regression

Utilitarianism is a good ethics framework if you refuse to understand how a brain works. In the real world, suffering and joy aren't so clean cut. Animals adapt their "level of suffering" to their environment. If an animal is in a hostile land for a few months, and when you deprive it of water, that animal might feel equally bad as one that has lived in parades for the last few months but has just been deprived of a mating opportunity.

The world's happiness index can be a good showcase we humans experience this to some extent. Note, for example, how Saudi Arabia (a harsh and unequal Islamic theocratic monarchy that still practices beheading and crucifixion sprawling over an unforgiving desert) is overall "happier" than Spain... which, is Spain, it's so nice it's among the top 5 global destinations for foreign holidays.

To give a more extreme example, Somalia is at 112 out of 156, above countries like Ukraine. Somalia seems to be a horrifying place to be even by Subsaharan African standard. Somalia's GDP per capita as of 2019 is 348$ (almost 200 times lower than that of the US and with higher income inequality), the rate of female genital mutilation is 98% (see wiki article if you want more graphic details, whatever you're thinking of, I assure you it's worst than that). I won't go into more details here, but feel free to dig through it's Wikipedia page if you want to see exactly how horrible a place can get.

Granted, some of the countries ranked lower such as Ukraine, India, Iran, and Georgia aren't ideal. But the problems there seem more akin to those in Eastern Europe around the turn of the 21st century, rather than... whatever the hell is happening in Somalia.

This is just a nit-picky showcase, but feel free to dig into the issue further if it's the first time you heard about it, I feel like it's hardly a controversial phenomenon.

The question that remains is something like: How far does hedonic regression go? To which the answer varies. You can probably get a personal answer by looking at metrics of happiness during your life (e.g. amount of good sleep, money, sex, romantic relationships, nice objects, good friends, drugs, quality time with your parents and, the free time you had) vs how happy you felt at any given time.

I assume a Buddhist monk might claim 90% of the thing is constructed and your circumstances don't matter at all, while a hardcore Marxist might say reverse those percentages. Still, regardless of what the number is, we seem to agree that "objective" happiness is enough of a thing to motivate us towards (trying at) improving the human condition through material means.

These material means includes things like not farming our fellow humans in tight cages or confined pastures in order to slaughter and eat them.

Suicide as an indicator of objective happiness

While it's hard to quantify objective happiness, I think it's fair to use suicide as a benchmark for when someone's life becomes miserable enough for them to end it.

Granted, a lot of suicides are "spur of the moment" psychotic acts, but some are cold and calculated and spurred on by chronic suffering. Overall, they account for 1.5% of human deaths, which is quite significant.

Even more so, a larger number of people probably live in "suicide-inducing" conditions, but carry on due to hoping for happiness in the future.

This is all to say, hedonic regression or not, there's certainly a breaking point for humans when the suffering outweighs the pleasure enough for life to not be worth living.

There's some debate as to whether or not animals commit suicide due to "suffering". The only "obvious" cases are in dolphins, with the most well studied being Flipper and the lesser-known Peter.

We can argue over the exact definition of "knowing" what life and death are and thus "consciously" deciding to commit suicide. But in the case of a dolphin-like Peter, it seems that the chain of events is something like:

Is there some anthropomorphizing going on here? Maybe. But I think it's hard to make this seem like anything but a human-like suicide due to life being too miserable for it to be worth living. This is not a cell committing apoptosis, this is not a mother jumping in front of a predator to give her kids time to escape, this is not an old alpha male dying in a battle to protect his fading status, it's not a scared bison being chased off a cliff.

The case for suicide in other cetaceans is vaguer, but it still seems plausible that they would exhibit such behavior based on their other actions.

To my knowledge, it hasn't been observed in monkeys (other than vervet monkeys, arguably), but then again, studying monkeys in the wild is hard and we usually treat them fairly well in captivity. Still, I think it's a safe bet based on how similar apes are to us that they might be capable of suicide, they are certainly capable of many other forms of self-harm.

Can hedonic regression go on forever?

Conversely, it seems that there are no documented cases of suicide amongst commonly farmed animals. The closest I can get to is an incident in the alps with cows throwing themselves off a cliff. But knowing how cows are treated in the Swiss alps (hint: fairly nicely, arguably better than we treat most humans, certainly not in any way resembling factory farms) plus many other cases of scared bovines accidentally running off cliffs, I think it's fair to assume this is not a "suicide" but rather an accident.

Granted, the absence of evidence is not proof, but I'd think we'd have observed this if there were a significant number of cases. Self-harm amongst farmed animals does seem to happen, but it never seems to directly lead to death, at most it leads to infections that kill them later (e.g. due to the excessive grooming behavior that most animals exhibit in captivity).

The obvious conclusion from this ought to be that animals in captivity are on the whole "happy", even those in factory farms. Or at least, not suffering so much as to think their condition to be worst than death.

You may retort that the kind of animals we farm aren't able of the reasoning needed to conclude "My present condition is worst than not being at all". But then, why assume the concepts of joy and suffering as we understand them to apply to them at all? If they aren't agentic enough to reason about their condition in that objective sense, then the obvious model seems one where they lack our partially objective concepts of "good" and "bad" entirely.

To summarize:

The assumption that factory-farmed animals lead a life of "suffering", that is to say, they get "negative" joy out of life and they'd be better off being dead, seem shacky.

Suffering and happiness are human concepts, and we can in part attest there are forms of suffering worst than death by looking at our choice to commit suicide (i.e. chose death over suffering).

This behavior seems to be exhibited by some animals of presumably similar intelligence (cetaceans and monkeys), but not by the animals we farm.

Thus, based on our best interpretation of the hard subject of consciousness and feeling in different species, it seems reasonable to assume that:

a) The animals we farm "prefer" living in their current state to dying.

b) The animals we farm lack any concepts of suffering and joy similar to ours.

The utilitarian argument for not farming animals would fall over in both of these situations. Even worst, if the problem falls into the case a), then as a utilitarian, you'd have a duty to eat as many animals as possible, thus ensuring the birth and happiness-positive lives of as many farm animals as you can. Being a vegetarian would not only fail to prevent any suffering but might actually diminish the amount of happiness in the world.

The normative argument for not farming animals might still stand if it involves religious reasons (e.g. the insistence upon not killing in certain branches of Buddhism and Hinduism). But the version that is based on the normative value assigned to "happiness" and "suffering" would be invalid in this paradigm.

This is not to say that we can certainly conclude that animals being farmed don't actually dislike life more than they enjoy it. This could certainly be the case, and they might just lack the reasoning to commit suicide. But this is an arbitrary anthropomorphic trait we decide to assign upon them and it could equally well be assigned to mosquitos, or waps, or mycelia.

Thus I fail to see a strong ethical argument against the eating of animals from this perspective. Although there's a completely unrelated environmental perspective against farming animals which this doesn't address.

It seems that we should at most "shelf" this problem for later when there is enough time to actually address the fundamental question of whether or not these animals would or could prefer inexistence to their current state.

Until then, the sanest choice would seem to be that of focusing our suffering-diminishing potential onto the beings that can most certainly suffer so much as to make their condition seem worst than death.

24 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-08T03:39:37.789Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think suicide is a very poor measure of welfare for nonhuman animals, because they typically don't understand death or how they could kill themselves, so it's not an option they understand. I think you could plausibly torture farmed animals almost nonstop and they would generally not commit suicide. I'd expect the same to apply to typically developing toddlers, and it's plausible to me that you could in principle shelter normally developing humans from understanding of death and suicide into adulthood, and torture them, and they too would not attempt suicide.

We (humans and other animals) also have instincts (especially fear) that deter us from committing suicide or harming ourselves regardless of our quality of life, and nonhuman animals rely on instinct more, so I'd expect suicide rates to underestimate the prevalence of bad lives.

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-09-08T12:18:30.714Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
I'd expect the same to apply to typically developing toddlers

Very quick search reveals suicide as young as 6:

https://ewn.co.za/2019/10/10/youngest-person-to-ever-commit-suicide-in-sa-was-a-six-year-old-sadag

Murder as young as 4:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_youngest_killers

Presumably cloud happen earlier in kids with a better developmental environment, but suicide and murder at an age this young is going to come from outliers that lived in a hellish developmental environment.

Not sure about ages < 1 or 2 years of age, but:

1. We think that beyond a certain point of brain development abortion is acceptable since the kid is not in any way "human". So why not start you argument there ? and if you do, well, you reach a very tricky gray line

2. Surgeons did use to think toddlers couldn't feel "pain" the way we do and operate on them without anesthesia. This was stopped due to concerns/proof of PTSD, not due to anyone remembering the exact experience, after all there's a lot of traumatic pain one goes through before the age of 1 that none will remember. Conscious experience might be present at that age but... this is really arguable. People don't have memories at ages bellow 1 or 2 and certainly no memories indicative of conscious experience. It might exist, but I think this falls in the same realms as "monkeys" rather than fully fledged humans in terms of certainty.

and it's plausible to me that you could in principle shelter normally developing humans from understanding of death and suicide into adulthood, and torture them, and they too would not attempt suicide.

This I find, harder to believe, but it could be a good thought experiment to counter my intuition if I ever have the time to mold it into a form that fits my own conception of the world and of people.

We (humans and other animals) also have instincts (especially fear) that deter us from committing suicide or harming ourselves regardless of our quality of life, and nonhuman animals rely on instinct more, so I'd expect suicide rates to underestimate the prevalence of bad lives.

I don't see how this undermines the point, unless you want to argue the "fear" of death can be so powerful one can lead what is essentially a negative value life because an instinct to not die (similarly to, say, how one would be able to feel pain from a certain muscle twitch yet be unable to stop in until it becomes unbearable).

I don't necessarily disagree with this perspective, but from this angle you reach a antinatalist utilitarian view of "Kill every single form of potentially conscious life in a painless way as quickly as possible, and most humans for good measure, and either have a planet with no life, or with very few forms of conscious life that have nothing to cause them harm". No matter how valid this perspective is, almost by definition it will never make it into the zeitgeist and it's fairly pointless to think about since it's impossible to act upon and the moral downside of being wrong would be gigantic.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-08T18:37:05.051Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think understanding of death is largely experiential (witnessing death) and conceptual (passed on through language), and intentional suicide attempt would further require understanding what would kill you. Maybe people could infer some things based on their experience with sleep, though.

Here's an article on the development of understanding of death in children; it seems they tend to start to understand at 3 years old. I would expect understanding of suicide to generally come later still. Do you think 2-3 year olds can have lives worse than death despite not committing suicide or being able do judge that their lives are/will be worse than death? I'd expect there will be periods for most children where they can speak and be taught to understand death and suicide, but since they won't have been taught yet, they won't understand.

An individual's experience of torture could be similar to ours, and we could deprive them of all pleasure, too, so on a hedonistic account, it wouldn't at all be plausible that their life is good, and yet they might not understand death and suicide enough to attempt suicide. If we think their hedonistic experiences are sufficiently similar to ours, even though they don't have well-informed preferences, we can make judgements in their place.

On a preferential account of value, if an individual doesn't recognize or understand an option and then fails to choose it, we can't conclude that that option is worse for that individual. This is also an everyday issue for typical adult humans given our very limited understanding, but it's worse the more ill-informed the preferences, especially in children and nonhuman animals. If you generally take an individual's actions as indicating what's best for them, then we shouldn't stop children from sticking forks into electrical outlets or touching hot stovetops.

1. We think that beyond a certain point of brain development abortion is acceptable since the kid is not in any way "human". So why not start you argument there ? and if you do, well, you reach a very tricky gray line

I don't start my argument there precisely because it's a grey area for consciousness. I chose examples I'd expect you to accept as conscious and capable of suffering (although it seems you have doubts), and would generally not commit suicide even if tortured.

People don't have memories at ages bellow 1 or 2 and certainly no memories indicative of conscious experience.

I'm guessing you mean episodic memories? Children that young (and farmed animals) certainly remember things like words, individuals, how to do things, etc.. There's also research on episodic-like memory in many different species of nonhuman animals, not just the obviously smart ones (I haven't looked into similar research for young children). Also dreams seem relevant.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Episodic-like_memory

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/147470491301100307

I don't see how this undermines the point, unless you want to argue the "fear" of death can be so powerful one can lead what is essentially a negative value life because an instinct to not die (similarly to, say, how one would be able to feel pain from a certain muscle twitch yet be unable to stop in until it becomes unbearable).
I don't necessarily disagree with this perspective, but from this angle you reach a antinatalist utilitarian view of "Kill every single form of potentially conscious life in a painless way as quickly as possible, and most humans for good measure, and either have a planet with no life, or with very few forms of conscious life that have nothing to cause them harm".

It's also possible for an individual to be so focused on the present that any suicide attempt would feel worse than what they're otherwise feeling at that moment (which could still be overall bad), and this would prevent them from doing it. This can be the case even if it would prevent more intense suffering later. Again, however, I think farmed animals just usually don't understand suicide properly as an option.

My point is that suicide is not a good objective measure on its own. I think suicide attempt is fairly strong evidence of misery, but absence of suicide attempt is really not very good evidence for a life better than death, because of the obstacles (understanding, fear, access to suicide methods, guilt, etc.).

comment by Slider · 2020-09-08T19:58:22.332Z · score: 8 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Using this kinf od logic a slave owner could argue that since his slaves don't commit suicide they live in a arrangement that is mutually beneficial.

The analogous question of whether it is good or bad to bring up more people living in slavery seems rather tricky. If you have a slaver owner that breeds his slaves and one that doesn't has one done a bigger bad than the other? However there it seems that the comparison point isn't so much non-existence but rather existence "in the wild" or as free members of society. With animals it would mean that while living a caged life could be positive in absolute terms it would negatively compare to life in the wild. If you kidnap someone they don't thank you for your upkeep but blame you for their loss of freedom of movement.

comment by Dustin · 2020-09-08T18:56:03.663Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
I think it's fair to use suicide as a benchmark for when someone's life becomes miserable enough for them to end it.

Yes, but that's because it's a tautology!

I don't think I agree that suicide is a sufficient proxy for whether an entity enjoys life more than it dislikes life because I can imagine too many plausible, yet currently unknown mechanisms wherein there are mitigating factors. For example:

I imagine that there are mental processes and instincts in most evolved entities that adds a significant extra prohibition against making the active choice to end their own life and thus that mental ability has a much smaller role in suicide "decisions".

In the world where there is no built-in prohibition against ending your own life, if the "enjoys life" indicator is at level 10 and the "hates life" indicator is at level 11, then suicide is on the table.

In, what I think is probably our world, when the "enjoys life" indicator is at level 10 the "hates life" indicator has to be at level 50.

What's more, it seems plausible to me that the value of this own-life-valuing indicator addon varies from species to species and individual to individual.

If this holds true, then own-life-valuing indicator addon would only be there for a being that already exists.


This is not to say that we can certainly conclude that animals being farmed don't actually dislike life more than they enjoy it. This could certainly be the case, and they might just lack the reasoning to commit suicide.
...
Thus I fail to see a strong ethical argument against the eating of animals from this perspective.

Here you're seemingly willing to acknowledge that it's at least *possible* that animals dislike life more than they enjoy it. If I read you correctly and that is what you're acknowledging, then you would really need to compare the cost of that possibility being correct vs the cost of not eating meat before making any conclusion about the ethical state of eating animals.

Until then, the sanest choice would seem to be that of focusing our suffering-diminishing potential onto the beings that can most certainly suffer so much as to make their condition seem worst than death.

This seems to me similar to the arguments made akin to "why waste money on space telescopes (or whatever) when people are going hungry right here on earth?".

Neither reducing the suffering of beings that can most certainly suffer and those that might be suffering seems likely to consume all of our suffering-diminishing potential. Maybe we can conclude that the likelihood of farm animals suffering in a way that we should care about is so low as to be worth absolutely no suffering-diminishing potential, but I don't think you've made that case.


In summary, I think the main critique I have of the line of argument presented in this post is that it hangs on suicide being a proxy for life-worth-living and that it's equivalent to not having existed in the first place.

I don't think you've made a strong enough case that suicide is a sufficient measure of suffering-has-exceeded-the-cost-of-continuing-to-live. There are too many potential and plausible confounding factors. I think that the case needs to be really strong to outweigh the costs of being wrong.


(Hilariously, I'm not a vegan or a vegetarian.)

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-09-11T09:09:24.360Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You bring up good points, I don't have time to answer in full, but notes on a few of them to which I can properly retort:

I don't think I agree that suicide is a sufficient proxy for whether an entity enjoys life more than it dislikes life because I can imagine too many plausible, yet currently unknown mechanisms wherein there are mitigating factors. For example:
I imagine that there are mental processes and instincts in most evolved entities that adds a significant extra prohibition against making the active choice to end their own life and thus that mental ability has a much smaller role in suicide "decisions".
In the world where there is no built-in prohibition against ending your own life, if the "enjoys life" indicator is at level 10 and the "hates life" indicator is at level 11, then suicide is on the table.
In, what I think is probably our world, when the "enjoys life" indicator is at level 10 the "hates life" indicator has to be at level 50.
What's more, it seems plausible to me that the value of this own-life-valuing indicator addon varies from species to species and individual to individual.

But, if we applied this model, what would make it unique to suicide and not to any other preference ?

And if you apply this model to any other preference and extent it to humans, things get really dystopian really fast.

This seems to me similar to the arguments made akin to "why waste money on space telescopes (or whatever) when people are going hungry right here on earth?".

This is not really analogous, in that my example is "potential to reduce suffering" vs "obviously reducing suffering". A telescope is neither of those, it's working towards what I'd argue is more of a transcedent goal.

It's more like arguing "Let's give homeless people a place to sleep now, rather than focusing on market policies that have potential for reducing housing costs later down the line" (which I still think is a good counter-example).

In summary, I think the main critique I have of the line of argument presented in this post is that it hangs on suicide being a proxy for life-worth-living and that it's equivalent to not having existed in the first place.
I don't think you've made a strong enough case that suicide is a sufficient measure of suffering-has-exceeded-the-cost-of-continuing-to-live. There are too many potential and plausible confounding factors. I think that the case needs to be really strong to outweigh the costs of being wrong.

I don't think what I was trying is to make a definitive case for "suicide is a sufficient measure of suffering-has-exceeded-the-cost-of-continuing-to-live" I was making a case for something close to "suicide is better than any other measure of suffering-has-exceeded-the-cost-of-continuing-to-live if we want to keep living in a society where we treat humans as free conscious agents and give them rights based on that assumption, and while it is still imperfect, any other arbitrary measure will also be so, but worst" (which is still a case I don't make perfectly, but at least one I could argue I'm creeping towards).

My base assumption here is that in a society of animal-killers, the ball is in the court of the animal-antinatalists to come up with a sufficient argument to justify the (human-pleasure-reducing) change. But it seems to me like the intuitions based on which we breed&kill animals are almost never spelled out, so I tried to give words to what I hoped might be a common intuition as to why we are fine with breeding&killing animals but not humans.

Here you're seemingly willing to acknowledge that it's at least *possible* that animals dislike life more than they enjoy it. If I read you correctly and that is what you're acknowledging, then you would really need to compare the cost of that possibility being correct vs the cost of not eating meat before making any conclusion about the ethical state of eating animals.

I am also willing to acknowledge that it is at least *possible* some humans might benefit from actions that they don't consent to, but still I don't engage in those actions because I think it's preferable to treat them as agentic beings that can make their own choices about what makes them happy.

If I give that same "agentic being" treatment to animals, then the suicide argument kind-of-hold. If I don't give that same "agentic being" treatment to animals, then what is to say suffering as a concept even applies to them ? After all a mycelia or an ecosystem is also a very complex "reasoning" machine but I don't feel any moral guilt when plucking a leaf or a mushroom.

comment by Dustin · 2020-09-11T16:57:34.137Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
But, if we applied this model, what would make it unique to suicide and not to any other preference ?
And if you apply this model to any other preference and extent it to humans, things get really dystopian really fast.

I'm not sure it is unique to suicide, and regardless I'd imagine we'd have to take it on a case by case basis because evolution is messy. I think whether it leads to dystopia or not is not a useful way to determine if it actually describes reality.

Regardless, the argument I'm trying to make is not that this model I described is the correct model, but that it's at least a plausible model and that there are probably other plausible models and if there are such alternative plausible models then you have to seriously engage them before you can make a considered decision that the suicide rate is a good proxy for value of animal life.

This is not really analogous, in that my example is "potential to reduce suffering" vs "obviously reducing suffering". A telescope is neither of those, it's working towards what I'd argue is more of a transcedent goal.

Yes, I agree that along that dimension it is not analogous. I was using it as an example of the fact that addressing more than one different issue is possible when the resources available are equal to or greater than the sum of resources required to address each issue.

I am also willing to acknowledge that it is at least *possible* some humans might benefit from actions that they don't consent to, but still I don't engage in those actions because I think it's preferable to treat them as agentic beings that can make their own choices about what makes them happy.

I think my point was that until you're willing to put a semblance of confidence levels on your beliefs, then you're making it easy to succumb to inconsistent actions.

How possible is it that we don't understand the mental lives of animals well enough to use the suicide argument? What are the costs if we're wrong? What are the costs if we forgo eating them?

Most of society has agreed that actually yes we should coerce some humans into actions that they don't consent to. See laws, prisons, etc. This is because we can look at individual cases, weigh the costs and benefits, and act accordingly. A generalized principle of "prefer to treat them as agentic beings with exceptions" is how most modern societies currently work. (How effective we are at that seems to vary widely...but I think most would agree that it's better than the alternative.)

Regardless, I'm not sure that arranging our food chain to lessen or eliminate the number of animals born to be eaten actually intersects with interfering with independent agents abilities to self-determine. If it did, it seems like we are failing in a major way by not encouraging everyone to bring as many possible humans into existence as possible until we're all living at the subsistence level.

People mostly don't commit suicide just because they're living at such a level. Thus, I think by your argument, we are doing the wrong thing by not increasing the production of humans greatly. However, I think most people's moral intuitions cut against that course of action.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-11T17:15:04.493Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nonhuman animals and children have limited agency, irrational and poorly informed preferences. We should use behaviour as an indication of preferences, but not only behaviour and especially not only behaviour when faced with the given situation (since other behaviour is also relevant). We should try to put ourselves in their shoes and reason about what they would want were they more rational and better informed. The more informed and rational, the more we can just defer to their choices.

If I give that same "agentic being" treatment to animals, then the suicide argument kind-of-hold. If I don't give that same "agentic being" treatment to animals, then what is to say suffering as a concept even applies to them ? After all a mycelia or an ecosystem is also a very complex "reasoning" machine but I don't feel any moral guilt when plucking a leaf or a mushroom.

I think this is a good discussion of evidence for the capacity to suffer in several large taxa of animals.

I think also not having agency is not a defeater for suffering. You can imagine in some of our worst moments of suffering that we lose agency (e.g. in a state of panic), or that we could artificially disrupt someone's agency (e.g. through transcranial magnetic stimulation, drugs or brain damage) without taking the unpleasantness of an experience away. Just conceptually, agency isn't required for hedonistic experience.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-09T23:33:40.896Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Until then, the sanest choice would seem to be that of focusing our suffering-diminishing potential onto the beings that can most certainly suffer so much as to make their condition seem worst than death.

Even if you thought factory farmed animals might plausibly have good lives on the aggregate (like humans, and perhaps many or most humans who do end up committing suicide), many do not have good deaths, and working on that would still be valuable. Negligent or intentional live boiling[1][2][3][4], CO2 slaughter without stunning, on-farm and transportation mortality, barn fires. I don't think it's very plausible that these conditions aren't worse than death.

comment by gbear605 · 2020-09-06T21:08:42.726Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that your argument for "The animals we farm lack any concepts of suffering and joy similar to ours" is seriously lacking. The cruxes are (roughly) "if they have the mental ability to choose to commit suicide but don't, then their lives are worth living" and "if they don't have the mental ability to choose to commit suicide, they don't have high level reasoning and therefore don't suffer."

The first point seems fallacious, since most factory farmed animals don't have the physical ability to commit suicide.

As for the second point, making assumptions about their mental perception of suffering based on their cognitive capacity for certain unrelated tasks (ie. ability to conceptualize suicide and death) seems obviously wrong to me. There are many humans who don't have the ability to reason about suicide but undoubtedly suffer. I'd say that most factory farmed animals likely don't have the mental ability to do the reasoning of "if I do X action, it will cause me to die, which will end the pain," but they still have very obvious levels of suffering.

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-09-07T05:52:09.653Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
The first point seems fallacious, since most factory farmed animals don't have the physical ability to commit suicide.

Does the argument require for that to be the case ? In the ideal scenario yes, but in the pragamatic scenario one can just look for such behavior in conditions where it can be expressed. Since, much like humans vary enough that some "suffer" under the best of conditions enough to commit suicide, presumably so would animals.

There are many humans who don't have the ability to reason about suicide but undoubtedly suffer

Wait, what ? Ahm, can I ask for source on that ?

comment by gbear605 · 2020-09-07T11:57:01.797Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wait, what ? Ahm, can I ask for source on that ?

I’m taking it as granted that every human not in a coma can suffer, which I hope is uncontroversial. There are also many people who have an intellectual disability such that they don’t seem to be mentally capable of reasoning about death. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51532566_Concept_of_death_and_perceptions_of_bereavement_in_adults_with_intellectual_disabilities says that of the patients surveyed, which excluded people with a severe intellectual disability, 6% had a limited understanding of death, which I presume is a prerequisite for a concept of suicide. They also say that “many take a fatalistic view of death and believe that death only applies to the old or sick” and that many don’t believe that it can happen to them, both of which seem like issues for having a concept of suicide.

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-09-08T12:31:19.442Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
I’m taking it as granted that every human not in a coma can suffer, which I hope is uncontroversial.

I don't think it's that uncontroversial

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion#Gestational_age_and_method

Similarly, in England and Wales in 2006, 89% of terminations occurred at or under 12 weeks, 9% between 13 and 19 weeks, and 2% at or over 20 weeks.

CNS starts developing at ~4 weeks, but the cerebral hemispheres start differentiating around week 8. Given 200,000 abortions a year in the UK alone, which the people doing and most (all?) of us don't see as an immoral act, that's at least 12,000 human children with a functioning brain killed a year in the UK, a number that is probably 10x in the US and hundreds of times higher if you account for all the world.

When you reach 20 weeks, where abortions still happens, well, one could argue the brain could be more developed than that of living human being, unless you want to assume it's not a question of synaptic activity, nr of neurons & axons but instead of divine transubstantiation ( in which case the whole debate is moot).

So I would indeed say many humans agree that suffering is not a universal experience for every single being that shares our genetic code and exception such as human still in a mother's womb are made. Whether that is true or not is another question entirely.

Many of us might claim this is not the case, but as I made it clear in this article, I'm a fan of looking at our actions rather than the moral stances we echo from soapboxes.

comment by gbear605 · 2020-09-08T12:54:30.513Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, let me amend my statement to “every adult human not in a coma”

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-08T06:53:34.690Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you looked at suicide rates by country? A lot of these don't accord with my intuitions about quality of life, either. Somalia has the 100th highest rate in the world, after many Western countries. Spain has a higher rate than Saudi Arabia (where suicide (attempt) is illegal). There are important cultural forces (and laws) around suicide, especially religious ones. Then again, maybe the numbers are being misreported in some countries.

comment by shminux · 2020-09-07T21:24:07.471Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you talk to a real vegan, their ethical argument will likely be "do not create animals in order to kill and eat them later", period. Any discussion of the quality of life of the farm animal is rather secondary. This is your second argument, basically. The justification is not based on what the animals feel, or on their quality of life, but on what it means to be a moral human being, which is not a utilitarian approach at all. So, none of your utilitarian arguments are likely to have much effect on an ethical vegan. Note that rationalist utilitarian people here are not too far from that vegan, or at least that's my conclusion from the comments to my post Wirehead Your Chickens [LW · GW].

comment by player_03 · 2020-09-06T22:03:38.655Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm afraid I don't have time to write out my own views on this topic, but I think it's important to note that several researchers have looked into the question of whether animals experience emotion. I think your post would be a lot stronger if you addressed and/or cited some of this research.

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-09-07T05:54:48.375Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The problem with that research is that it's shabby, I encountered this problem when dealing with the research on animal suicide and the one on animal emotions expands that trend.

Fundamentally, it's a problem that can't be studied unless you are able to metaphorically see as a bat, which you can't, so I chose to think the closest thing we can do is treat it much like we do with other humans, assume their mental state based on their actions and act accordingly.

comment by player_03 · 2020-09-07T17:57:58.324Z · score: 19 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of the research is aware of that limitation. Either they address it directly, or the experiment is designed to work around it, assuming mental state based on actions just as you suggest.

My point here isn't necessarily that you're wrong, but that you can make a stronger point by acknowledging and addressing the existing literature. Explain why you've settled on suicidal behavior as the best available indicator, as opposed to vocalizations and mannerisms.

This is important because, as gbear605 pointed out, most farms restrict animals' ability to attempt suicide. If suicide attempts are your main criterion, that seems likely to skew your results. (The same is true of several other obvious indicators of dissatisfaction, such as escape attempts.)

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-08T04:11:26.739Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Besides observations of behaviour, there are also neurological evidence (e.g. Do they have structures functionally similar to those important/responsible for emotions in humans and are they important/responsible for similar behaviour in these animals? Are they actually evolutionarily preserved structures?), and evolutionary/adaptive arguments, although these ultimately tie back to behaviour in some way, but sometimes specifically human behaviour, not the animals' behaviour, although both together could strengthen the argument.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2020-09-07T21:15:16.248Z · score: 2 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I eat meat, and I don't have a problem with it, because I basically don't much care about animal suffering. I mean, people shouldn't torture kittens, intensive animal farming is pretty unaesthetic, and I wouldn't eat primates, but that's about the extent of my caring. I am not interested in inquiring into the source of the animal products I eat or use, except as far as it may affect my own health. If countries want to have laws against animal cruelty, fine, but it's not a cause I have any motivation to take up myself. I am especially uninterested in engineering carnivorous animals out of existence, or exterminating ichneumon wasps, or eschewing limestone because it's made of dead animals.

Which I mention because it's a viewpoint I do not see expressed much. Am I an outlier, or do people uninterested in animal welfare just pass over discussions such as this?

comment by Dagon · 2020-09-08T14:58:41.482Z · score: 4 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
it's a viewpoint I do not see expressed much.

It's the common viewpoint, outside of over-intellectual insanely rich discussion groups. It doesn't get discussed much because there's no need to defend it - just go on with your life. And because there's a subset of vegetarian and vegan proponents who will be uncomfortable around such arguments, and that may make you uncomfortable as well.

I eat meat. I eat factory-farmed meat. I do care about animal suffering (and animal joy and the question of "what's a net-positive life?" for all things). I weight my caring by some high-order function of complexity of mind-space, so I care FAR FAR more about the least human than I do the most exalted cow, and I care about diversity in experience-space, so I care for a marginal factory animal (who's extremely similar in experience to all the others) less than a wild animal or a pet.

comment by waveman · 2020-09-08T02:59:33.585Z · score: -5 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it is more common to have the attitude that they are not prepared to sacrifice their health and vitality for claimed animal welfare.

Don't tell me vegan diets are healthy. Without supplements you will die. That is the good news, Because you will first go mad (from B12 deficiency). And many other problems... was a vegan myself for a while many years ago, never again.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-09T23:39:21.286Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Supplements are part of a person's diet. Vegans who don't take B12 are being stupid.