The latest reply from Mike Huemer on the ethical treatment of animals, this time with a cool graph.

Bryan Caplan posted this further comment on animal welfare arguments on his blog.

I didn’t have time to address this earlier (partly because I was
traveling for the talk that, coincidentally, Bryan Caplan invited me to
give at GMU, on an unrelated topic). I have a few comments now.

My main reactions:

I. The argument from insects has too many controversial assumptions to
be useful. We should instead look more directly at Bryan’s theoretical
account of how factory farming could be acceptable.
II. That theory is ad hoc and lacks intrinsic intuitive or theoretical plausibility.
III. There are much more natural theories, which don’t support factory farming.


To elaborate on (I), it looks like (after the explanations in his latest post), Bryan is assuming:

a. Insects feel pain that is qualitatively like the suffering that, e.g., cows on factory farms feel.
b. If (a) is true, it is still permissible to kill bugs
indiscriminately, e.g., we don’t even have good reason to reduce our
driving by 10%.

(a) and (b) are too controversial to be good
starting points to try to figure out other controversial animal ethics
issues. I and (I think) most others reject (a); I also think (b) is very
non-obvious (especially to animal welfare advocates). Finally, note
that most animal welfare advocates claim that factory farming is wrong
because of the great suffering of animals on factory farms (not just
because of the killing of the animals), which is mostly due to the
conditions in which they are raised. Bugs aren’t raised in such
conditions, and the amount of pain a bug would endure upon being hit by a
car (if it has any pain at all) might be less than the pain it would
normally endure from a natural death. So I think Bryan would also have
to use assumption (c):

c. If factory farming is wrong, it’s wrong
because it’s wrong to painfully kill sentient beings, not, e.g.,
because it’s wrong to raise them in conditions of almost constant
suffering, nor because it’s wrong to create beings with net negative
utility, etc.

So to figure out anything about factory farming
using Bryan’s approach, we’d first have to settle disputes about (a),
(b), and (c), none of which are obvious, and none of which is really
likely to be settled. So this is not promising.


would be more promising? Let’s just look at Bryan’s account of the
badness of pain and suffering. (Note: I include all forms of suffering
as bad, not merely sensory pain.) I think his view must be something
like what the graph below depicts.


As your intelligence increases, the moral badness of your pain increases. But it’s a non-linear function. In particular:

i. The graph starts out almost horizontal. But somewhere between the
intelligence of a typical cow and that of a typical human, the graph
takes a sharp upturn, soaring up about a million times higher than where
it was for the cow IQ. This is required in order to say that the pain
of billions of farm animals is unimportant, and yet also claim that
similar pain for (a much smaller number of) humans is very important.

ii. But then the graph very quickly turns almost horizontal again. This
is required in order to make it so that the interests of a very smart
human, such as Albert Einstein, don’t wind up being vastly more
important than those of the rest of us. Also, so that even smarter
aliens can’t inflict great pain on us for the sake of minor amusements
for themselves.

Sure, this is a logically possible (not
contradictory) view. But it is very odd and (to me) hard to believe. It
isn’t obvious to begin with why IQ makes a difference to the badness of
pain. But assuming it does, features (i) and (ii) above are very odd. Is
there any explanation of either of these things? Can someone even think
of a possible explanation? If you just think about this theory on its
own (without considering, for example, how it impacts your own interests
or what it implies about your own behavior), would anyone have thought
this was how it worked? Would anyone find this intuitively obvious? As a
famous ethical intuiter, I must say that this doesn’t strike me as
intuitive at all.

Now, that graph might be a fair account of most people’s implicit attitudes. But what is the best explanation for that:

1) That we have directly intuited the brute, unexplained moral facts that the above graph depicts, or
2) That we are biased?

I think we can know that explanation (1) is not the case. We can know
that because we can just think about the major claims in this theory,
and see if they’re self-evident. They aren’t.

To me, explanation
(2) thrusts itself forward. How convenient that this drastic upturn in
moral significance occurs after the IQ level of all the animals we like
the taste of, but before the IQ level of any of us. Good thing the
inexplicable upturn doesn’t occur between bug-IQ and cow-IQ (or even
earlier). Good thing it goes up by a factor of a million before reaching
human IQ, and not just a factor of a hundred or a thousand, because
otherwise we’d have to modify our behavior anyway.

And how
convenient again that the moral significance suddenly levels off again.
Good thing it doesn’t just keep going up, because then smart people or
even smarter aliens would be able to discount our suffering in the same
way that we discount the suffering of all the creatures whose suffering
we profit from.

I have no explanation for why features (i) and
(ii) would hold, but I can easily explain why a human would want to
claim that they do.

Imagine a person living in the slavery era,
who claims that the moral significance of a person’s well-being is
inversely related to their skin pigmentation (this is a brute moral fact
that you just have to see intuitively), and that the graph of moral
significance as a function of skin pigmentation takes a sudden, drastic
drop just after the pigmentation level of a suntanned European but
before that of a typical mulatto. This is a logically consistent theory.
It also has the same theoretical oddness of Bryan’s theory (“Why would
it work like that?”) and a similar air of rationalizing bias or
self-interest (“How convenient that the inexplicable downturn occurs
after the level of the people you like and before the level of the
people you profit from enslaving.”)


A more natural
view would be, e.g., that the graph of “pain badness” versus IQ would
just be a line. Or maybe a simple concave or convex curve. But then we
wouldn’t be able to just carry on doing what is most convenient and
enjoyable for us.

I mentioned, also, that the moral significance of
IQ was not obvious to me. But here is a much more plausible theory that
is in the same neighborhood. Degree of cognitive sophistication matters
to the badness of pain, because:

1. There are degrees of consciousness (or self-awareness).
2. The more conscious a pain is, the worse it is. E.g., if you can
divert your attention from a pain that you’re having, it becomes less
bad. If there could be a completely unconscious pain, it wouldn’t be bad
at all.
3. The creatures we think of as less intelligent are also,
in general, less conscious. That is, all their mental states have a low
level of consciousness. (Perhaps bugs are completely non-conscious.)

I think this theory is much more believable and less ad hoc than
Bryan’s theory. Point 2 strikes me as independently intuitive (unlike
the brute declaration that IQ matters to badness of pain). Points 1 and 3
strike me as reasonable, and while I wouldn’t say they are obviously
correct, I also don’t think there is anything odd or puzzling about
them. This theory does not look like it was just designed to give us the
moral results that are convenient for us.

Of course, the “cost” is
that this theory does not in fact give us the moral results that are
most convenient for us. You can reasonably hold that the pain of a
typical cow is less bad than the pain of a typical person, because maybe
cow pains are less conscious than typical human pains. (Btw, the pain
of an infant would also be less intrinsically bad than that of an adult.
However, infants are also easier to hurt; also, excessive infant pain
might cause lasting psychological damage, etc. So take that into account
before slapping your baby.) But it just isn’t plausible that the
difference in level of consciousness is so great that the human pain is a
million times worse than the (otherwise similar) cow pain.