Bryan Caplan  

Huemer on Ethical Treatment of Animals (Including Bugs)

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Mike Huemer, my favorite philosopher, responded to yesterday's post on Facebook.  Huemer's words, reprinted with his permission:

I don't think the best way of determining whether x is true is by seeing whether x-advocates are hypocritical or morally flawed. (Btw, on this criterion, the slavery-defenders who knew Thomas Jefferson would presumably have declared that slavery is probably right, since even Jefferson held slaves.)

Rather, the best way to find out whether x is true is to just look at the arguments for and against x, especially if those arguments are simple and easy to find.

The arguments on ethical vegetarianism are simple and easily found. It seems wrong to cause extreme amounts of pain and suffering for the sake of minor benefits to oneself. If you just look at some of the things that go on on factory farms, you're going to be horrified. If you look, I think you are going to find it extremely difficult to say, "Oh yeah, that seems fine."

If you think it is not wrong to inflict severe suffering as long as the victim of the suffering is stupid, then you'd have to say that it is permissible to torture retarded people for fun. Etc. (I don't have anything to add to the standard arguments.) You also have to explain why pain isn't bad when the victim is stupid.

Now, what is the proposed response to the argument? The fact that people kill many insects is supposed to be evidence that . . . pain isn't really bad? That it's not really wrong to cause lots of bad things for the sake of minor benefits to oneself? But how could the number of insects that people kill be evidence for any of these things?

The blog post even seems to suggest that it's impossible that it's wrong to cause pain to stupid creatures. That is, that we know that pain is only bad if you're smart. But really, could that plausibly be said to be something that we know? How would that be? Is there some proof of that proposition?

Maybe the suggestion is that it's self-evident that pain is only bad if you're smart. But then, rather than trying to draw inferences about this by looking at the behavior of PETA-members, etc., it seems like we could just introspect and see whether that's self-evident. When I do, I see that it's not self-evident (indeed, it isn't even plausible). I don't have to make any inferences or look at anyone else's behavior, since I can just look and see.

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Intuitionism writes:

What is Huemer'a position on the moral relevancy of animals? If moral realism is true, it's probably encapsulated by some sort of non-naturalist ethical intuitionism or some naturalist moral sense theory. I side with moral anti-realist positions, however, along with around a third of metaethicists, but that's beside the point. Huemer, in the absence of defeaters, seems non-trivially amenable to vegetarianism.

Sarah writes:

I think the argument for looking at the proponents of a principle isn't a logical one, but a probabilistic one. In the same way that ad hominem isn't valid logically, but is reasonable probabilistically (if I know that a car dealer has been convicted of fraud, that doesn't logically mean that her newest pitch for her cars is false, but I may want to avoid her anyway). So it may not be logically true that a principle is wrong if its proponents don't follow it, but it makes it more likely that there's something wrong with the principle. (You could argue that if there's something wrong with the principle then you would definitely be able to figure it out by analyzing the principle itself, but that seems like intellectual hubris.)

Sarah writes:

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Maurizio writes:

In a later comment, Huemer also added that most people follow conventions, even when conventions go against their own morality, because they care more about social acceptance than about being good.

For this reason, it seems we cannot infer their beliefs judging from their behavior. In other words, the principle of revealed preference seems to be invalid in this case.

Jared Tobin writes:

This is an issue I'd love to see Huemer touch on further in your hypothesized *Ethical Answers*.

Denver writes:

I think Bryan's Argument From Conscience is correct with one modification: people's actions imply prima facie truth, not just truth itself. Another way of putting that, if the most morally scrupulous people are doing X, despite saying Y, then that implies X is truth, and Y is a lie, unless there is stronger evidence that Y is truth but X is difficult.

Thus, Thomas Jefferson holding slaves is indeed evidence that slavery is morally just (if you assume Jefferson himself was morally just, which I don't think he was), but there are also overriding factors. Namely, our intuitions to respect the rights of other humans. Plus, it's understandable given the institutions at that time, that Jefferson was incentivised to keep his slaves instead of releasing them (though you could argue he should have anyway).

This logic doesn't apply to bugs. Even the most morally scrupulous animal lovers kill bugs, and there aren't really any overriding intuitions to suggest that they are in the wrong to kill bugs. Humans don't seem to owe bugs the recognition of any rights. And the fact that we do kill them is itself evidence of that.

As Michael states, this creates some grey area in the realm of the mentally handicapped. But I think his case is overstated, most mentally handicapped people have the cognitive abilities of at least children: they can communicate, indicate preferences, etc. Which alone separates them from animals. A more appropriate comparison would have been to compare animals to a comatose person who may or may not ever wake up. And that is indeed a grey area in whether it is ok or not to purposefully kill them.

James writes:

The fact that people kill lots of insects (and other animals) is evidence that these people don't take their own claims all that seriously. If the vocal proponents of a claim do not take it seriously, that provides at least some evidence that the claim is incorrect.

Tangentially, whenever any animal is killed for human purposes, there are only two other things that might have happened. Either that animal could have never lived at all (in the case of a farm animal that was raised to be eaten) or that animal could have been killed by some other cause (predation, starvation, disease, etc.) Huemer and the ethical vegetarians he references fail to make the relevant comparison in order to show that eating animals is actually worse than the alternatives.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Yeah, it usually isn't worse than the alternatives. Which I suppose proves that almost all life is inherently immoral.

That is the reductio ad absurdum but is it any more absurd than the idea that human killing of all life is wrong?

Pajser writes:

James, "never lived" part is questionable. If man has child only to kill him and sell his organs, does it justify his action? Finally, killed child would never live - if not for that purpose. Most people think it doesn't justify murder. Whatever the reason one made that child - the child should be protected. If wannabe murderer cannot accept it, he should not have children.

Brad writes:

I am a semi vegan and part of the reason for that choice is ethical.

Heumer's argument is part of the reason why I made that choice. Simply put it is wrong to cause pain, suffering, and destruction for minor pleasures.

Where I differ is that while I do think that creatures other than humans have moral worth, I don't view them all equally. While I think it is wrong to go out of your way to kill invertebrates, they don't enter into my moral calculus a nearly the weight of say mammals.

Also the conditions in which the animal is raised and slaughtered matter to me. All animals die and it is usually painful. But a wild fish or deer lived its life doing the things it was born to do right up until the moment of death a factory farmed chicken probably lived a life of misery.

Toby writes:
It seems wrong to cause extreme amounts of pain and suffering for the sake of minor benefits to oneself.

The problem with this argument is the same as the problem with utilitarianism in general. What if there are those who enjoy inflicting pain more than it hurts those upon whom the pain is inflicted?

Also, there is now no bright line rule of what's moral or not. It's all a question of subjective costs and benefits. I, for example, would not torture my child to save the rhino. That is, if ever such a situation would arise. I'd rather let that species go extinct or have every member of that species suffer horribly than hurt my child.

What's a minor benefit is in the eye of the beholder. And someone who supports factory farming might even be said to care more about animal welfare than someone who is a vegan. They just perceive the benefits differently.

austrartsua writes:

Huemer's arguments is full of equivocations. He needs to properly define "stupid". Huemer wants you to imagine, in your head, an innocent simpleton with an IQ of 80 who is forced into a factory farm in a bewildered state for the pleasure of evil cannibals. This is not the correct picture. If you mean a person in a permanent semi-conscious vegetative state, unable to communicate and with severe brain damage, then they are perhaps on a similar level/type of consciousness to a mere cow. That being said, we don't know that for sure, so the human get's the benefit of the doubt while the cow does not.

The problem with "self-evident" beliefs is not all selfs can agree on them.

Benjamin R Kennedy writes:

Comon Bryan - moral intuitionism? It boils down to "X is true because I think it is". I don't know whether or not the universe supplies a True Answer to the question of whether or not it is ok to eat a cow. However, I highly doubt that my mere intuition is sufficient for me to access such Truth (should it actually exist)

Bravin Neff writes:

Huemer says: "I don't think the best way of determining whether x is true is by seeing whether x-advocates are hypocritical or morally flawed."

Consider helping Huemer's claim by using some examples from nearby:

Anarcho capitalists generally believe that current governmental arrangements are immoral, based as they are on taxation, among other things. And to the extent one participates in such an arrangement (perhaps even teaching at a public university and having one's living be a function of taxation), one could thereby use Caplan's argument that anarcho capitalism is false - as long as there are some anarcho capitalists that teach at public institutions.

Pajser writes:

Huemer is right about everything he wrote here. The mistake in original thesis is usual enough that it has the name, fallacy "tu quoque" or "appeal to hypocrisy."

Anonymous writes:

I disagree with the assertion that factory farms are obviously comprised of mainly suffering and misery. It's quite easy to find videos of factory farms, and while the animals you see could certainly have better lives, they don't typically seem like they would prefer to be dead than alive.

Some people argue that, because most of us would probably rather spend an hour asleep than spend it as a broiler chicken, broiler chickens obviously have lives that are not worth living. The main problem with this is that the concept of diminishing marginal value seems to apply to experiences. For example, given the choice, I would happily miss out a relatively dull car or plane journey, when my life will still be long and generally enjoyable. But given the choice between dying immediately, versus experiencing a relatively dull car or plane journey and then dying, I would definitely prefer the latter. So I don't think a comparison, from the perspective of a rich Westerner, between an hour of being a chicken versus an hour of nothing, is very relevant.

Some argue that pain is such a horrifically bad experience that it vastly outweighs neutral non-painful experience, so even if the typical moment-to-moment experience of a broiler chicken is positive, their high ratio of minutes spent dying versus minutes spent not dying makes their lives still net negative. But I think this greatly underestimates how much of a difference is made by the duration of the experience. Experiencing pain, even excruciating pain, for only a few seconds just really isn't a very bad thing, I don't think. And actually the thing I fear most from serious injuries isn't the temporary pain, it's the permanent disfigurement. Receiving a serious injury just before you die is probably quite significantly less bad than receiving a similar injury midway through a long life.

Some seem to think that going vegan is a safe option, that in the best case you create vast amounts of utility, in the worst case you do something unnecessary, neither creating nor reducing utility. But if the lives of farmed animals are actually mostly okay, preventing them is not neutral but bad. There just isn't a safe option available.

I think the justification for eating animals but not humans is more a useful heuristic than anything else, and so don't feel a need to justify why I don't apply the same rule to both cases. There are obvious reasons why it's beneficial for humans to agree not to try to eat each other, that don't apply when it comes to other animals.

Handle writes:
If you just look at some of the things that go on on factory farms, you're going to be horrified. If you look, I think you are going to find it extremely difficult to say, "Oh yeah, that seems fine."

This seems to me to be a typical instance of moral presentism relying on 'revelation by contemporary attitudes'. That's small beer as far as arguments go.

It also suffers from social desirability bias, since, even when true, people are reluctant to admit that these things "don't bother me a bit" because they are likely to expose themselves to inaccurate judgments and social inferences about their character when dealing with other humans. I.e. it is predictable that many modern people are liable to wrongly interpret such statements about attitudes towards animals - especially large mammals - in the direction of being a cold and heartless psychopathic monster who doesn't 'care' about other people. Well, only a fool will then admit as much in public.

Also, people are a lot more squeamish about these things today than yesterday, when it's pretty clear that many folks were indifferent. That's not because of some kind of general progress of moral enlightenment but instead because, in the evolution of the modern economy, most people outside the military or emergency medicine fields never witness anything gory, are numerous steps removed from meat production, and their experience of animals is mostly through pets (which are bred to be lovable) or glorifying media portrayals of those famous 'charismatic macrofauna'.

Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature charts a similar evolution in attitudes about human suffering, but it's simple Whig History to deem it as some kind objective progress instead of merely normative evolution which can always turn back around when and if conditions change.

James writes:


If we use what "most people would think" as our ethical standard we don't need to consider the ethics of eating animals at all.

I prefer to show that utilitarian arguments against eating animals fail according to the standards of the people who raise those arguments.

Pajser writes:

James, I wrote "most of people would think" because I thought you might think that way. I guess you believe that the fact that one had child with purpose to kill him and sell his organs doesn't justify the murder, and that murder shouldn't be allowed even if price is that such child will never be born. Do you agree?

If you do, apply the same reasoning on animals.

I think I gave you the answer why farming and killing animals is not morally justified.

Is it utilitarian argument? I think it is. Murder done to actual live being has great negative utility for that being. "Not being born" is done to imaginary life being. I do not believe imaginary life beings can be harmed. They do not exist.

OK now?

Pajser writes:

Anonymous, I think I have answers for you:

(1) If mankind stops farming animals, total number of animals will not be reduced. Soil used for growing food for farm animal will not be used for that purpose any more. Some other plants will grow on that soil. Some animals will move from neighboring areas to that land. There will be total more animals, because wild animals are on average smaller and need less food than farmed animals. Roughly 100-1000 times more (counting only mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.)

(2) See my answer to James above. Not being born is harm done to imaginary animals. Killing is harm done to real animals. Those two are not the same. If they are same, we would say that people who had only 5 children - while they could have 15 - are equally immoral as those who murdered ten children.

Charlie writes:

I don't understand Huener's punchline. It seems by his arguments either:

1. Killing/causing pain to insects is wrong, therefore we should stop.

2. Unlike eating meat, killing insects through construction, driving, etc. causes a large enough benefit to be morally justified.

If 1 is true, or put more extremely, we should treat each insect the same way we would treat a mentally handicapped person, that requires an extreme reorganization of our way of life.

If 1 is false, it seems to inevitably lead back to weighing how much benefit you can derive from how much you are harming something however smart/dumb it is, which is a strange calculus. The argument seems to get quickly back to how tasty is meat vs how good a cows life should be.

David Condon writes:

I don't think looking at things through the lens of intelligence approximates the way people actually have decided it is okay to eat meat. The only people who seem to be making decisions based on intelligence are vegetarians and vegans. The intelligence defense of eating meat simply runs into too many problems.

So we treat people's pets kindly, even when the pet is very dumb. I think this can be best treated with an affiliation bias. Pets are to be treated well when they are affiliated with a human, or when they are commonly associated with humans (such as in the case of cats or dogs). It's okay to kill a cockroach, but not okay to kill your friend's pet screeching cockroach; no matter how dumb you think your friend is for choosing a screeching cockroach as a pet.

The disabilities issue runs into even bigger problems than the pets issue when considered from the intelligence angle. We don't just advocate for treating people with the IQ of a pigeon (yes, they exist) with respect and decency; we as a society argue that the least able-bodied should receive the most aid and benefits.

There is a common argument out there that everyone should receive a minimum level of care, and freedom in life. Even anarchists will often argue for taking care of the disabled; they simply argue that this should be handled through charity rather than the state. This can't be reconciled with an intelligence argument very easily. If intelligence is a major criteria for determining moral worth, shouldn't we give the most aid to the most intelligent rather than the most aid to the least intelligent?

A more plausible explanation is simple empathy. When we see something that has a human face, and we know or believe that the human face stems from a biological organism, we believe that person should be cared for. This would explain why we expend so much money caring for people with the IQ of a cow, but are perfectly willing to torture and then slaughter cows.

Dolphins, whales, and primates have many human-like characteristics and so are often treated well because of these human-like characteristics rather than intelligence per se. Many people are perfectly willing to eat octopus despite their high intelligence. When people refuse octopus, it is most likely to be because of a disgust factor rather than in moral protest.

I think the intelligence argument comes up because people want to believe their meat eating habits are based on something that they feel is more rational than simple empathy. But this is a post-hoc rationalization rather than the original cause of the decision.

A weakness of this argument is severe deformities, but I think this slight issue can be reconciled more readily than the intelligence argument. Even the most severe deformities will roughly approximate the human shape and look. I've never seen a human that could be mistaken for a dog, for instance.

Ben Kennedy writes:
I think the intelligence argument comes up because people want to believe their meat eating habits are based on something that they feel is more rational than simple empathy. But this is a post-hoc rationalization rather than the original cause of the decision.

True - of meet eating, but also of all moral decision-making. For example, who do you have more empathy for - unborn children, or scared pregnant women? The answer is going to inform your moral beliefs on "personhood". Who do you have more empathy for - local victims of terrorism, or the families of terrorists? The answer is going to inform your moral belief system on "just killing". Humans are happier thinking their moral decisions are Laws of the Universe, rather then simple emotional responses

James writes:


I'm not a utilitarian. As I said I am only pointing out the implications of utilitarian principles where utilitarians seem to ignore them.

You fail to provide any reason to exclude from consideration the future benefits to organisms that don't currently exist.

Musca writes:

Benjamin's/Ben's earlier comments are spot-on, with perhaps one minor change.

Can anyone justify why "ethical intuitions" or "moral intuitions" are substantively different than "feelings"? In other words, an "intuition" may reflect just that one individual, or some larger aggregate, but ultimately it and the similar phrase "it seems" boil down to "I feel as if...".

Except perhaps in cases of aggregated data meant to make a point about evolutionary biology and ethics, why should anyone's immediate feelings be used a basis for morality?

Ben Kennedy writes:
Can anyone justify why "ethical intuitions" or "moral intuitions" are substantively different than "feelings"?

Well, they are different. An ethical intuition that "eating animals is wrong" is generally considered to a statement about the Universe itself, not about you. This is different from "eating cows makes me feel bad" which is about feelings. The argument for intuitionism is roughly analogous to other senses - if a stadium of 80,000 people say "that player just hit a home run", we think that is true statement about reality because we trust the information gathered from seeing things. If a stadium of 80,000 people use their moral sense to believe "murder is wrong", then that is also a true statement of reality.

Of course, there are reasons why 80,000 people could converge to the belief "murder is wrong" that don't involve referencing the truth of those beliefs, or requiring the Universe to have moral facts. Such facts may exist, but it is dubious that intuition is all that we need to access them

Pajser writes:

James - "You fail to provide any reason to exclude from consideration the future benefits to organisms that don't currently exist."

I can compare utility of alternatives for individual animal only if animal exists. I cannot say that for me, Pajser, utility of being conceived is greater than utility of not being conceived. Only after I am conceived, the utility of some event for me can be, in principle, calculated.

If I want to calculate total utility, utility for the world as whole, then everything else being same, it is better that one additional animal is alive and it experiences some positive utility. However, if farming of animals for food is stopped, land that was used for feeding farm animals wouldn't be used for that purpose. It will feed wild animals. The quality of life of wild animals and even number of wild animals supported by land of same area is greater than farm alternative.

OK now?

Maurizio writes:

It seems to me several comments here deny moral objectivism. For example this one:

"Humans are happier thinking their moral decisions are Laws of the Universe, rather then simple emotional responses."

I think many would find this essay by Huemer on moral objectivism and subjectivism useful:

Ben Kennedy writes:

Oh, I agree that morality is objective. As we experience morality, it feels like rules that are universally binding, and that breaking those rules feels like transgression which may create guilt. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. If a behavior is useful adaptation for a species (like, not murdering your neighbor), then feeling like that behavior is a obligatory requirement rather than a mere preference would be highly useful.

So, the error theorist is entirely on board with the objective, mind-independent nature of morality - that is, if moral facts exist, it would look pretty much like we expect them to. Skeptism stands opposed to realism, not objectivism

On skepticism, Huemer just writes "This theory is really quite outrageous." But is it really? He's in the camp of philosophers that are so afraid of nihilism that if an argument leads in that direction, that alone is a reason to dismiss it. Put a little thought into it, and it's actually quite sensible.

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