28 September 2009

vegetarianism and animal welfare

Based on a conversation with Charlie Bennett.

There are two reasonable assumptions that imply a surprising conclusion: vegetarianism increases human welfare at the expense of animal welfare.

  • Assumption 1: Living things are generally better off existing than not existing. The only exceptions involve constant pain of some kind, and are generally rare.
  • Assumption 2: Animals in factory farms may sometimes be worse off than if they were in the wild, but their lives are not so terrible as to be worse than non-existence.
To accept these assumptions you don't need to believe that factory farms are humane (only that a pig would rather be on a farm than not exist), or that abortion/birth control is immoral (since the loss your descendants experience by not existing is balanced by the benefits to everyone else).

To test assumption #1, I think suicide is the wrong way to think about it, since that has many other cultural associations. Rather, think about reincarnation. Morpheus offers you a red pill or a blue pill. Neither pill will have any effect until you die at the end of your natural life. At that point if you've taken the red pill then you have no afterlife. If you take the blue pill, you get reincarnated as a newborn piglet in an industrial farm somewhere in Utah, where you share a cramped space with 100,000 other pigs. (And after this, no more reincarnation.) Which pill would you take? If you prefer the blue pill, then I would say you accept the above two assumptions. (Apparently, the Talmud does not accept them, claiming that "It would have been better for man not to have been born, but now that he is born, let him look to his deeds." But let's leave this to the side for now.)

In this case, a higher rate of vegetarianism means that fewer animals will be raised and eaten, and as a result the Earth will be able to support more people. (Ok, so assumption #3 is that we reach an equilibrium without blowing ourselves up.) Thus human welfare will be higher, since there are more of us, and animal welfare will be lower since there are fewer animals.

What are my personal views? Well, I agree with the above two assumptions, and I prefer people to animals, so I think that vegetarianism is the more moral choice. However, I'm a hypocrite, so I eat meat.


Anonymous said...

dude, i'd take the red pill. - shefali

aram harrow said...

but think of the truffles. and the slops!

wolfemi1 said...

First, as someone who eats meat but doesn't like factory farms, I am a bit conflicted here. However, I take exception to Rule 1. I think that living beings ONCE THEY EXIST prefer existence to non-existence. The red-pill vs. blue-pill argument just assumes this qualification, since the question is asked of a living being that already exists. Besides, the inevitable outcome of that train of thought is that it is just as moral, or slightly less moral, to kill your children than it is to simply not have any. Sorry to take it to the emotional extreme, but I think it's a fair comparison.

Besides, industrial farm pigs don't get truffles! :P

aram harrow said...

Right, once we exist, we have an instinct to survive. So that's (part of the reason) why it's bad to kill living things that already have this instinct. But to think about moral value of animals (or children) that don't yet exist, I think we should use thought experiments like red pill/blue pill.

Now maybe that doesn't get us strongly enough away from the path dependence, because being alive is so addictive that we'd rather continue as a pig than not at all. But it's hard to avoid this problem if you want currently alive people to give their personal opinions on this.

aram harrow said...

probably the right comparison for animal welfare is something like
this chicken.

Mike said...

Heh, that's a pretty funny chicken. I'm reminded of the beast from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. "Don't worry, I'll be very humane about it."

Still, I think the red pill/blue pill argument is somewhat specious. I would think that there isn't anyone around who really understands how bad a factory farm life would be (I don't mean in a "nothing could be worse" sense, just in a "people don't actually know, myself included" sense). I know that there are people who commit suicide, whose lives are so bad that they prefer nonexistence, so I guess that's the benchmark (is it better or worse than their lives). But it's also good to remember that there isn't any suicide option once you're there, an who knows, maybe you would change your mind once it happened?

I dunno, I think I lost my actual point in there somewhere. :P

By the way, where are you now? Still at Bristol?

Debbie said...

Agree with Mike. I won't be able to (and I don't believe anyone can) decide on the red and blue pills until I spend a day in the worst pigfarm, and another day on the verge of dying and believing that I will be no more.