The conversation continues.  Huemer’s in blockquotes, I’m not.

My response to Bryan Caplan, on the ethical treatment of animals:

As far as I understand it, Bryan’s argument is something like this:

1. Killing bugs isn’t wrong. Sub-argument:

1a. Even animal rights advocates don’t think killing bugs is wrong.
1b. If even the animal rights advocates don’t think killing bugs is wrong, then it probably isn’t wrong.
2. If factory farming is wrong, then killing bugs is wrong.
3. So factory farming isn’t wrong.

He spent most of his time talking about (1).

True, because I’m trying to extract what I see as two major concessions:

First, causing immense pain for minor gain is sometimes morally acceptable.

Second, one key factor that makes such pain morally acceptable is low intelligence of the creature that suffers and high intelligence of the suffering’s beneficiary.

But (2) is the controversial claim and indeed seems clearly false.

I agree that (2) does not logically follow from (1).  However, once you make the two concessions I seek, the burden of proof shifts back to the critic of conventional human treatment of animals.  Happily, you try to meet that burden below.

Why would one think (2)? I guess the assumption is that there are no
morally significant differences between factory farming and killing
bugs, or at least no factors that would render factory farming *worse*
than killing bugs.

Too strong.  If you accept that killing multitudes of bugs for trivial gain is morally acceptable by a big margin, then factory farming could be vastly worse than killing multitudes of bugs, but remain morally acceptable.  So all of the following premises need to be toned down.  But for the sake of argument, I’ll critique them as written:

But how could that be defended? It seems that one
would have to claim:

2a. Factory farming doesn’t cause more pain and suffering than killing bugs.
2b. Farm animals are not more intelligent than bugs.
2c. There are not stronger reasons for killing bugs than there are for
factory farming. (For instance, it would not be a greater sacrifice to
stop killing bugs than it would be to stop factory farming.)

any of 2a-2c are false, then it would be plausible that factory farming
might be wrong even if killing bugs is not. Bryan might endorse 2a (he
appears to hold that bugs feel pain just like the pain of other
animals), though I myself find 2a highly dubious.

On 2a, the number of bug deaths is key.  By one estimate, American cars alone kill over 30 trillion bugs a year.  So it seems very likely that aggregate bug suffering vastly exceeds suffering of domesticated animals.

But I’m pretty
sure Bryan doesn’t believe 2b or 2c (both of which are obviously false).

I grant that 2b is false.

Bryan was even explaining some reasons why 2c is false – we would have
to abandon civilization (and perhaps even commit suicide) in order to
stop killing bugs. So it seems that by Bryan’s own lights, it is easy to
see why factory farming is much worse than killing bugs. And so I just
don’t see how the main argument could be convincing.

Sorry, you’re not thinking enough like an economist.  Yes, we’d have to end civilization (and mankind) to utterly stop killing bugs.  But we could clearly vastly reduce bug suffering with marginal lifestyle adjustments.  And many of these marginal adjustments would be less burdensome than adjustments vegetarians and vegans already advocate!  For example, I’d much rather drive 10% less than stop eating animal products. 

Maybe I misunderstood the main argument. Maybe the argument was something like this: There are two theories:

T1 A being’s suffering (of a given intensity & duration) is equally bad regardless of the being’s intelligence.
T2 The badness of suffering is proportional to the intelligence of the
sufferer. (Or something like that. Maybe the theory is just that it is
an increasing function of the being’s intelligence.)

I embrace the parenthetical.  The badness is some monotonically increasing function of the intelligence of the sufferer, but it’s not proportional to intelligence.

Perhaps the argument is roughly:

4. Either T1 or T2 is true.
5. T1 is false. (Why? Because if T1 were true, that would mean that killing bugs is wrong.)
6. If T2 is true, then factory farming is permissible.
7. So factory farming is permissible.

(I have labeled these #4-7, to avoid confusion with the previously
mentioned propositions #1-3.) Now it seems to me that 6 is certainly
false. If the badness of suffering is proportional to one’s
intelligence, factory farming is still definitely wrong.

Right.  But if the badness increases much faster than proportionally, then the conventional view still follows.  And that’s precisely my view.

Here’s the problem. The total quantity of animal suffering caused by
the meat industry is so unbelievably, insanely, astronomically huge that
even on the above assumptions, the meat industry is still the worst
thing in the world by far – it’s still going to be orders of magnitude
worse than any other problem that people talk about.


What if farm animal
pain is only one thousandth as bad as human pain? Then the situation is
only as bad as having *50 million* people being tortured in
concentration camps. Again, this would still be far and away the worst
problem in the world. And that is assuming that you take what seems to
me an incredibly, implausibly extreme view about the relative importance
of humans compared to animals.

Despite your incredulity, I think 1/1000 is excessive.  If cows provided no human enjoyment, I would in good conscience sacrifice a million cows to save one creature of normal human intelligence.  If this seems crazy, I say you assign similarly microscopic value to the welfare of bugs.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

To close:

1. Your anti-factory farming conclusion follows readily from the premise that you shouldn’t inflict immense pain on a creature for a minor benefit.

2. But this premise implies that everyone, even you, is treating bugs very wrongfully, which is absurd.  (Unless bugs feel zero or vastly reduced pain, of course).

3. You can avoid this conclusion by switching to the view that bug suffering is only microscopically bad.

4. But then why are you so puzzled by the view that non-bug animal suffering is (a) more important than bug suffering, but (b) still only microscopically bad?