Bryan Caplan  

Further Reply to Huemer on the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Deltas... Huemer Seminar at GMU - MONDAY...

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.)

If 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?

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Steve J writes:

Bryan thinks we are doing harm to the bugs? From my perspective the bugs are doing harm to us by invading our private property. We own the roads and have every right to be driving on them. The proportion of surface area of the earth covered by roads is very small yet the bugs refuse to abide our property rights. Bugs even invade the sanctity of our homes. I am legally justified to kill these intruders. Same goes for cows but they seem to have the sense to stay out of my house.

austrartsua writes:

I would sacrifice all the cows in the world to save one creature of human intelligence. And all the bugs. And all animals (including the cute ones like dogs). It seems to me that the "badness" is of a different type, which is difficult for utilitarians to understand as they live in a world of 1D utility functions.

But if a super intelligent alien species came across earth would they be justified in bulldozing it to create a galactic freeway? Perhaps not. After all, Einstein would not be within his rights killing his secretary. It is a difference of magnitude, not type. Nevertheless if there are higher intelligence "types" that we are not aware of, then the "badness" would continue to be proportional to it.

Of course all this intellectual hot air doesn't change the fact that morality is emotional. We feel it. We simply feel nothing for cows when we feel a lot for our fellow man. The rationalization comes after the feeling. Huemer's arguments are feeling-laden as well. Much like Peter Singer's. They see animals as the neoproletariat crushed by modern capitalism. Just another victim of cruel and unnecessary industry. It's old feelings directed towards new targets.

Ethan writes:

I am partial to Caplan's point of view but I do worry about this issue. I was reading a book about the colonization of Australia and the early interactions with the hunter-gathering aborigines. The natives wrote and spoke no english and had no understanding or experience of civilization - courts, private property, common law, voting etc. The British gov. told the colonists that the aborigines had the full protection of the law. Nevertheless white invaders way of life was at odds with the aborigines. The natives had no private land or property and roamed freely (until butting up against neighboring tribes).

My fear is that the atrocities committed against the aborigines were unavoidable. I fear that we only feel morally obliged, not to creatures of a certain intelligence, but to people who share the same culture (up to a point) as us. The aborigines, as equally intelligent human beings, did not deserve extermination (as they were in Tasmania).

Is it possible that we only feel morally obliged to fellow members of our society (which thankfully now includes every human being on the planet but in 1800 did not include hunter-gatherers)? In which case there is no fundamental basis of morality - it is simply a protocol which evolved so that societies run smoothly.

Pajser writes:

If Huemer called Caplan on Tu quoque, discussion would be over. He did not (we do not know why, probably Huemer is not sure about scope of that fallacy), so Caplan is still fighting. Huemer, it is still not too late.

    Caplan: 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)."

If "absurd" means "inconsistency of theory and practice", these two claims are true.

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

It would be wrong. Nothing in inconsistency of theory and practice implies that one should change his theory. Quite contrary, in such situation one should -- as much as he is moral -- try to improve his practice.

It doesn't mean that animals rights advocates theory is right, just that appeal to hypocrisy is not argument against it.

Alex writes:

Rights are not proportional to the degree of intelligence. If that were the case, a more intelligent person would have more human rights than a mentally retarded person. This is not the case.
Humans have rights. Period.
Animals and bugs are qualitatively different to humans. Apples and oranges. It makes no sense to compare the suffering of an animal to the suffering of a human. (By the way, I like animals and dislike people who are cruel to them)
The following question will make Huemer's incoherence evident: How many cows would you sacrifice to save one human? One? Ten? fifty seven? Fifty seven and a half? Give us a number.

It's really odd how Bryan insists in attributing to vegetarians incoherent behaviors that are in reality typical of nonvegetarians. Example: most vegetarians that I know tend to also care about damage to the environment caused by different types of mobility technology, that's why many prefer mass transportation over personal transportation, the first imposing much less significant negative externalities on animals of all kinds including bugs. And the really important discussion on animal rights are not about comparisons of the relative values of lives of cows and humans (when it could be even argued that some humans have less moral value than most cows), since these are not dilemmas that present themselves in our daily routine, but about the small marginal benefit to some and not all humans of consumption of a beef patty over a soy patty, which can hardly justify, by any rational or moral standard, the will to torture and kill animals that are genetically and evolutionary very close to humans.

James writes:

This debate shows the weakness of utilitarian arguments based on anything like an aggregate utility function. Any conclusion can be justified given the right assumption as to the shape of the function relating the badness of suffering with the intelligence of the sufferer. Since no one ever bothers to clearly express and justify their claims as to the shape of that function it's hard to take these kinds of arguments seriously.

Neither Caplan nor Huemer are actually utilitarians. For them utilitarian analysis seems to be just a useful guide to morality and any sort of aggregate utility function is just a simplifying assumption. In this case, their difference of belief seems to turn entirely on a difference in what simplifying assumptions they choose to make.

Pedro Albuquerque,

You are using the word "torture" inappropriately. The way animals are treated on modern farms may be (extremely) unpleasant, but the farm workers do not cause pain for the sake of causing pain.

Liam writes:

(I don't think my initial posting of this worked - and there are some corrections in this version anyway.)

Caplan seems to think we have these two options regarding the ethical status of animals:

1. Accept that the treatment of animals doesn't matter very much at all (unless they are somebody's property, I suppose), because only beings with human levels of intelligence count. So if somebody wants to torture animals for fun all day long, this is fine. Firing a blowtorch at an animal's face as it wails in agony is OK if you get some trivial benefit from it, like if you mildly enjoy the sound of it wailing in pain. Factory farming involves the torture of billions and billions of animals in order to get some slightly tastier meals, and this is fine.

2. Accept that we should drive 10% less, and perhaps make some other adjustments, to decrease the suffering of trillions of bugs.

The problem for Caplan's position is that 1 seems far, far crazier than 2.

Notice that Caplan is apparently willing to concede that we do not have to give up civilization entirely so that we avoid killing *all* bugs. He is aware of the suffering that this would cause to humanity (the lack of modern science and medicine, generally reduced incentives to start the kinds of businesses which have made modern living standards possible, etc.). He is saying that some smaller reduction in our activities might be called for if Huemer's argument against factory farming goes through, as this will stop many bugs experiencing pain - perhaps trillions of them.

Now, far from being a knock-down argument against Huemer's position, it seems to me that Caplan's post should make us consider what the appropriate response to bug suffering should be. There is no reason to think that our intuitions will be particularly clear or reliable on this matter. We seem to have incompatible attitudes towards it. On the one hand, people often talk and behave as if bugs don't matter at all. On the other hand, many people will try to remove bugs from their homes without killing them; and children are scolded for burning ants with magnifying glasses or pulling the wings off of flies. And we know that there are people in the world who have the intuition that we should treat bugs with real respect - like Jain monks and some Buddhists - to the point where they even wear masks over their faces to avoid accidentally swallowing them. This is a question that calls for proper reflection. If it's true that trillions of bugs are experiencing huge amounts of pain because of what we are doing, I don't see why Caplan feels justified in casually dismissing it. It doesn't seem so obvious to me that we can do this; and, again, it seems far less crazy than the view that factory farming is fine and animals can just be tortured on a whim because even their excruciating agony never matters (or matters very little).

Moreover, Caplan's underlying moral principles are not clear on this issue. What justifies the view that our level of intelligence is the level that really matters? This seems incredibly anthropocentric when you consider how low we must be on the scale of possible intelligence. What if there are aliens who are vastly more intelligent than us? What does Caplan think about the pain of the severely mentally handicapped? Some handicapped people are less intelligent than animals, and the same is true of babies. Is Caplan simply embracing the view that causing immense suffering for trivial benefits is OK? If so, does this mean that Ted Bundy could justify his actions? As Bentham said, long ago, what is it that traces the insuperable line between humans and animals? All these questions are currently unanswered.

A final point. Perhaps it is Caplan who isn't thinking like an economist - at the margin. One big difference between the suffering of animals on factory farms and the painful deaths of bugs on car windscreens, for example, is that farm animals have been brought into existence by humans. They wouldn't exist but for the meat industry. If we don't kill them, it's not like we have to consider what other kinds of suffering they might experience in the wild. On the other hand, we don't breed bugs to be splatted against our windscreens. They are just there in nature. We have to ask what pain the bugs would actually be spared if we drove less. Thinking about it, sudden death on a windscreen is probably preferable to starving, being swallowed and chewed by a predator, or being caught in a web to struggle before the spider eventually comes to kill you (and spiders obviously kill things in a horrific way). Those are just a few examples of the awful deaths that bugs experience.

These are the same considerations that lead people like Peter Singer to say that hunting is nowhere near as bad as factory farming. I remember hearing him say something like the following in an interview (I'm sorry that I don't have the source): If the hunter is a good shot, you have an added complication because you have to consider the other ways that the animal might die in the wild. It could freeze to death, or starve, or be ripped to shreds by a predator. Shooting the animal painlessly could actually reduce the total amount of pain in the world.

Come to think of it, Bentham himself used this argument to justify killing wild animals for food. More recently, others have used it to explain why eating fish from the sea is less bad than buying meat from factory farms. And, of course, you don't have to be a utilitarian to think that these factors are morally relevant.


Not at all, I think you misunderstand the meaning of the word "torture." From Wikipedia:
'Torture (from the Latin tortus, "twisted") is the act of deliberately inflicting physical or psychological pain on an organism in order to fulfill some desire of the torturer or compel some action from the victim. Torture, by definition, is a knowing and intentional act; deeds which unknowingly or negligently inflict pain without a specific intent to do so are not typically considered torture.'

You can find numerous cases of animal treatment in farming that clearly qualify as torture, the torturer being fully aware that he or she causes suffering and pain to animals in order to fulfill some desire or compel some action. Forced feeding, violent coercion, abhorrent caging, insalubrious environments, among other morally unacceptable procedures are commonly found in the food industry, willingly imposed for personal gain or costumer pleasure - leaving aside known cases of unregulated psychopathic violence against animals. These problems are so well known that an entire industry of "ethical" farming has bloomed recently based on quality signaling though labeling and as a result of higher levels of consumer awareness and education.

Inadvertently killing thousands of bugs by the way isn't torture. It's regrettable but it isn't torture. One of the main differences between nonvegetarians and vegetarians is that the first promote habits based on torture and are aware of it, while the latter make conscious efforts to not promote torture through their habits.


Thanks a lot for your post above, really thoughtful, instructive and enlightening points.

Liam writes:

Thanks for saying so, Pedro!

By the way, I think I can anticipate what Caplan might say in response to my last point. He might ask: If killing bugs is more justifiable than factory farming because there is a reasonable chance that the bugs would have suffered a worse death from starvation, predators, etc., then does this mean that it is OK for me to painlessly shoot a human in the back of the head if I think they would otherwise have an even worse death ahead? That seems absurd, so there must be something wrong with the argument.

Reply 1: Perhaps we could adopt something like Robert Nozick's position and defend Kantianism for humans and utilitarianism for animals and bugs. On this view, rational agents like adult humans have rights against interference, even if it's for their own good. When it comes to beings that are not moral agents, utilitarianism applies. This is not an obviously absurd position to take.

Reply 2: Let's consider the intuition more carefully. Why does it seem bad to shoot a human just because they might have an even more painful death ahead? I think it probably has something to do with how such a scenario would actually play out in the real world. There would be a general panic if people thought they could be killed at any moment by the involuntary euthanasia squad. Add in the general horror of murder and the devastation of the family, and it seems highly unlikely that such a policy would work to decrease suffering overall. This does not apply to bugs in anything like the same way. Moreover, we simply would not trust that anybody could have reliable information about such matters. In the case of the human you were about to shoot, how on earth could you be sure that they had a more painful death ahead of them? We are not in the same situation as bugs; most humans do not die horrible deaths from predators or starvation. How could you be sure you were sparing the family a degree of additional suffering? Presumably this would not be possible unless, for example, they had just been diagnosed with a very painful terminal illness. But in a situation like that, why not simply see if they would prefer euthanasia? Killing them against their will would almost certainly make things worse for the victim, the family, and society as a whole if generally applied.

Let's try to undermine the intuition further. Painlessly killing bugs does not seem as bad as killing humans, perhaps because they cannot anticipate and dread their deaths in the same way we can. I think this is indeed part of the answer to why it is generally worse to painlessly kill humans, but it is not an absolute. To see why, imagine the following scenario:

A race of superintelligent aliens has a machine that can help them predict the future. One of the aliens looks down on a human couple, Joe and Anne. The alien can predict that Joe will be diagnosed with cancer in the next couple of days. An incredibly painful and distressing year awaits. The family will be miserable and devastated by Joe's slow decline, as well as the severe pain and discomfort that he will experience. Anne will have awful memories etched into her mind forever, like memories of Joe collapsing on the bathroom floor, crying in agony and delirium.

The alien decides that it would be better for all if he just made Joe quietly and painlessly die in his sleep, next to his wife. He makes it look like death from natural causes, so nobody ever knows.

Did the alien act wrongly? I can honestly say that I don't think so. This is essentially non-voluntary euthanasia, and it's of a similar sort as that which is applied in the case of coma patients who will suffer horribly once they wake up. The alien just has more information than a normal human.

The best explanation for these intuitions is that we usually think such actions are wrong because we lack knowledge, and in many cases we can simply ask the human anyway.

Does the argument suggest that we can randomly kill non-farm animals like tigers for mild entertainment because they might suffer an even worse death in the wild? Perhaps, although I admit this *seems* wrong. A possible answer is that our hearts would have to be hardened against our fellow sentient beings to such a degree that this would make it highly likely that we would fail to consider their interests properly in other contexts - like factory farming, which is what we were originally discussing. Why doesn't this apply to bugs? It seems to me that there is a big psychological difference between going out of your way to club tigers to death for fun and *inadvertently* killing bugs as a result of driving and building. Deliberately killing creatures for pleasure is likely to have far greater spillover costs to society - and, indeed, other animals. This might also explain why we many of us object when children pull the wings off of flies or burn ants with magnifying glasses. We think this sort of deliberate acts requires a cruel nature, and we want to stamp it out because of the harmful consequences it might have in other contexts. And, of course, we also want to stop it because the bug's pain *does count*, even if they are far less intelligent than us.

I'm not entirely sure about all this, but at the very least it gives an answer to Caplan's question of why factory farming is worse than the inadvertent killing of bugs. There are additional thorny moral issues (including highly complex questions from population ethics) involved in the latter. On the other hand, it seems to me that factory farming is pretty much a closed case.

James writes:


Reread what you quoted from wikipedia. Farmers don't deliberately inflict pain on animals to achieve some outcome. So far as I understand it, farms are indifferent to the pain of the animals they raise.

Taking an example of fowl raised for foie gras, those animals are force fed to cause fatty liver. The intended outcome is the change to the liver, not the pain. If a particular duck was determined to have congential analgesia, the farmer would not fear that the animal's condition was an obstacle to the plan.

Now consider a mentally ill person planning on hurting a dog in order to take pleasure in hurting it. If the dog had congenital analgesia, that person's plan would be entirely ruined.

Anonymous writes:


Continuing our conversation from where we left off:

on the base of estimation that 25% of world land is used for livestock food, and number of livestock on earth is 2*10^10, while number of mammals (10^11-10^12), birds (6×10^10-4×10^11), reptiles (10^12-10^13) and amphibians (same as reptiles) I conclude that farming is not efficient way for creating animals. The reason is, I guess, that farm animals are all large - even hens are 5kg.
Interesting, but doesn't seem at all conclusive. For example, the question of how many animals live on the land that is used for livestock food is surely relevant. If the animal population living in a wild area that is converted to e.g. a cornfield is reduced by less than the number of farmed animals that corn is fed to, the result of this change is to increase, not decrease, the number of animals that exist.

It also strikes me that if your claim is correct, then it suggests that those who believe that both wild animals and factory farmed animals have lives that are similarly negative utility ought to eat more meat, not less.

I do not think my claim implies that it's morally neutral to "bring someone into existence" to torture them. Torture is done to actual live beings, they can be harmed. Creator can be responsible for destiny of actual live being. I only claim that non-existing beings cannot be harmed.
If bringing someone into existence and giving them a good life is morally neutral, why isn't bringing someone into existence and giving them a bad (i.e. negative-utility) life also morally neutral?

This concept is fully consistent with the possibility that killing someone who already exists is worse than not bringing someone into existence. A person's death usually negatively impacts lots of other people in a way that a potential person's nonexistence doesn't.

It's also consistent with the imposition of lots of additional rules that in some cases preclude certain utility gains. The pragmatic argument for rule utilitarianism is that you just can't generally produce any outcome you want with full precision, in almost any situation. Creating solutions is difficult work. So just pointing to a theoretical utility gain that is prevented by a rule we impose just isn't anywhere near sufficient to demonstrate that the effect of said rule is to decrease utility.

Pajser writes:

Anonymous -

Farmers try hard to prevent wild animal eating their plants, they prevent bugs too, which in turn reduces food for vertebrates, and they prevent other plants ("weed") from growing on fields. I expect all that has some significant impact on number of wild animals fed on cropland.

As number of wild animals (vertebrates only) fed on same area, according to data above, may be 250 times greater than number of livestock fed on same land, even reduction of wild animals for few percents causes net loss of lives. I think it is because all farm animals are big. If people eat mouses only maybe there would be net gain of lives.


    "If bringing someone into existence and giving them a good life is morally neutral, why isn't bringing someone into existence and giving them a bad (i.e. negative-utility) life also morally neutral?"

I think that if live being is created, creator is morally responsible for its destiny. But if live being is not created - there is no actual being that is harmed or that benefits from that, only imaginary beings. It can be only morally neutral. If one doesn't have to create live being, its creation cannot be justification for harming actual live being.

I think it is logically consistent and also, consistent with intuition. I (most of people too, I guess) think that it is immoral to kill children for organs, even if children are raised and murdered without causing suffering of any other man, they have good life, even if otherwise they wouldn't exist at all ... it can be easily derived from claim that imaginary live beings are not important. I do not see how it can be explained on some other way.

Animal rights advocate can call on same or similar approach toward animals as toward humans. It seems as good argument. Our philosophies are funny, they can be even be right, but it is hard to be sure.

I still have intuition that creating the live being which will have good life have some value.

How utility function that is consistent to that intuition can look like? I can think about two alternatives, that (a) moral value of creation is zero, but creation has some other value (b) moral value of creation is positive, but infinitesimally smaller than moral value of actual beings. My guess (and not more than that) is that (a) creation has aesthetic value. The world with lots of life is prettier.

Thank you for good discussion.

Benjamin R Kennedy writes:

Human moral plumbing is black and white. We don't intrinsically support a concept of a sliding scale of badness. This is particularly true with with murder. Something is murder and should be condemned, or not. There is no such things as "partial murder". Nobody says "well, that murder was partially justified" - that is a nonsense concept. Our brains don't work that way. I know a lot of people probably want to deny this, but just think about how "guilt" and "innocence" are ingrained into our conception of justice. Moral culpability is like a status property, or object or we hold. It is there, or it is not.

Note that this does not mean there are degrees of transgression - that is clearly the case. The wheelman in a bank robbery may deserve a lesser penalty from the the guy that shot the teller. The point is that our moral ontology has two buckets - "transgressor", and "innocent". Everyone is in one bucket or the other. "Justification" is evidence that a person belongs in the "innocent" pile, e.g. self-defense in homicide. A person who is justified is treated as though no crime was committed, and there is no culpability.

So when people talk about this business sliding scales of badness, it is pretty much post-hoc rationalization of the position "innocent". This is most blatantly obvious in the abortion debate. Guess which side gravitates toward a sliding scale of "personhood"? It's the one that favors abortion! I mean, if people individually formulated their conception of "personhood" outside the debate but somehow independently managed to arrive at the moral position that favors their political preferences, it would be the coincidence to end all coincidences - like flipping a coin heads 10 million times in a row.

Michael Huemer writes:

I agree with what Liam said. Thanks for the very well-thought-out and articulate posts.

Peter Gerdes writes:

How does death fit in here at all?

For animals that don't mourn the dead and aren't aware enough to see their fate coming it doesn't seem to have anything to do with suffering.

I have no problem killing and eating a great many cows. Their deaths don't bother me. I find causing them pain hugely problematic.


Intelligence seems like a very poor proxy for how bad ill treatment of that animal might be. It seems what we want to estimate is something like how intensely does that animal feel pain.

We reason that we feel pain quite intensely but assume that plants feel it barely at all. True, we are more intelligent than plants but that's hardly the only difference.

A more plausible theory is that there is some kind of brain process/capability that is controls the intensity of suffering an animal experiences and it's reasonable to assume that it very roughly tracks overall brain complexity. Thus we expect mammals to suffer more than fish.

However, I see no reason to think it is specifically intelligence. Someone with a severe mental deficiency might find it difficult to reason, interact socially or speak but we don't assume they also have poor eyesight, hearing or proprioception (absent generalized brain injury like fetal alcohol syndrome). It seems quite plausible they would have exactly the same ability to suffer (indeed there is a strong moral case that it is morally mandatory to abort fetuses that test as disabled in ways that will cause suffering).

As far as animals go I suspect intelligence tracks suffering very imperfectly. I suspect that monkeys suffer more intensely than crows even though the later are often more intelligent simply because I am less confident they share the same brain features etc.

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