Guest post by Mike Huemer begins… now.

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

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. 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.

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

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.)

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.

Here is a
story. There are two people, call them “Jeb” and “Don”. Jeb is a person
of normal intelligence. Don is a severely retarded person. You are
thinking of torturing one of them for fun. Assume that there will be no
further consequences (e.g., torturing Jeb won’t prevent him from doing
some great thing, torturing Don won’t cause him to commit a great evil,
etc.) Now consider:

Question 1: Is it morally much worse to torture Jeb than Don?
I myself find this unclear. I don’t think it’s at all obvious that
it’s worse to torture Jeb. Nevertheless, let’s suppose that we agree
with Bryan: it’s much better to torture Don, because Don is dumb. That
leads to . . .

Question 2: How much worse is it?
How much
worse could we seriously claim that it is to torture the average person,
compared to the retarded Donald? Twice as bad? Maybe, I guess. Ten
times as bad? That feels to me like a stretch. I don’t even know why
it’s worse to torture the smart person at all, and I definitely don’t
see that it’s ten times worse. But whatever, let’s say we grant that
it’s ten times worse, just because Jeb is so much smarter than Don.

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.

The number
of land animals slaughtered for food worldwide, per year, is estimated
between 40 and 60 billion. (If you include sea creatures, closer to 150
billion.) Almost all of them suffered enormously on factory farms, in
conditions that we would certainly call “torture” if they were imposed
on any person. For simplicity, let’s take the number to be 50 billion.
That is seven times larger than the entire human population of the

Obviously, if 50 billion people were subjected to torture
on an ongoing basis, that would be the worst problem in the world. But
now, we’re assuming that suffering by farm animals is only one tenth as
bad as human suffering, because farm animals are so much less
intelligent than humans. So the problem is really “only” as bad as the
situation if 5 billion people were being tortured on a regular basis.
Still the worst problem in the world, by far.

Okay, what if you
hold a really extreme view: the suffering of a cow is only 1/100 as bad
as similar suffering for a human, because humans are so smart. In that
case, the factory farming situation is “only” as bad as having 500
million people subjected to constant torture.

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.

What is the worst thing that ever
happened in human history? Many people would say it is the Holocaust,
during which 11 million people were subjected to severe suffering before
being killed, in concentration camps. Animals, however, are regularly
subjected to similar (or even more severe) suffering before being killed
in factory farms. Suppose that the suffering and death of an average
human in an average concentration camp is one thousand times worse than
the suffering and death of an average animal in an average farm. In that
case, a single year of the meat industry is about five times as bad as
the Holocaust. It’s as if we were repeating the Holocaust five times
every year. Again, that’s on extremely optimistic assumptions. It might
actually be as bad as 500 Holocausts per year.

It’s hard to see
how this amount of badness might be justified by the extra pleasure that
we get three times a day by tasting the flesh of the creatures who are
being tortured. I don’t know exactly how much suffering it is
permissible to cause to other creatures in return for some pleasure for
myself, but it seems to me that there has to be *some limit* – and it
seems to me that this case must surely go over the limit if anything

Now I haven’t addressed whether it is permissible to buy
meat from humane (e.g., free range) farms. My view is that that is
mostly a red herring, because almost all meat comes from factory farms,
which are unbelievably awful. We should first try to get people to stop
doing the clearly, unbelievably horrible thing that almost everyone is
doing almost every day, before we start worrying about some much more
debatable and much rarer practice.