Bryan Caplan  

Huemer Replies on the Ethical Treatment of Animals

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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.)

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.

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 world.

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 does.

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.



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COMMENTS (25 to date)
AntiSchiff writes:

Dr. Caplan,

Why would you equate animals and insects? Of course, the distinction is subjective in the sense of moral values, but as humans we naturally favor species more like us.

Particularly, insects aren't capable of the same level of consciousness as animals, especially mammals. Assuming this is true, the suffering of insects would be qualitatively different.

Also, of course, there's a big difference between the conditions animals slaughtered for food exist in their whole lives before being killed and insects, the latter of which typically have free existence before being crushed or poisoned rather quickly.

Gabriel writes:

Starts off very rational, ends up being the classic vegetarian/vegan argument of appealing to emotion (Holocaust analogy included!)

@AntiSchiff: Dr. Caplan is doing the typical economist thing of thinking at the margin. Bugs are still animals. Why should give "fair" treatment to dogs and cats but not to cockroaches and mosquitoes.

Serious scientists and people are proposing eliminating all mosquitoes. They spread disease and they're, according the the Gates foundation, the animal that causes the most human deaths.

Mosquitoes are still animals.

Thomas Sewell writes:

If you believe humans are qualitatively different than animals, vs. quantitatively different, then your Jeb and Don example doesn't hold and trying to compare two different things by using the amount of them isn't valid.

No matter how many or how few apples you stack up, they aren't going to be equivalent to a certain number of children.

That's more likely the issue in convincing people you're going to have, namely that you can equate animals with people.

But I commend you for your logic and analysis of argument in the piece, while remaining unconvinced.

Thomas Leske writes:

The civilized way to deal with the problem of pain would not be the abolition of factory farming. Rather the livestock breeding should select for animals that enjoy factory farming the way we routinely adapt animals to our needs. Or one could routinely use drugs so that the animals do not care about their environment, just as Heroin addicts enjoy lying on the floor in any ugly public toilet. Or one could destroy the parts of their brain that make them feel unhappy. As the brain itself does not feel any pain, this should not be too hard for a robot to routinely do the trick. The main rationale is not to make the animal stupid, but rather less demanding. For example if a pig would feel lonely inside its box, one should destroy the part of its brain, that makes it a social being.

So animal rights seem to be qualitatively different from human rights, because animals have no morally relevant purpose of their own. Maybe things are different for animals kept as pets and their lifes become meaningful even though they are relatively stupid.

Excellent text filled with wonderfully logical arguments, I want to thanks Mike Huemer for further enlightening me on this subject - you made my day!

Chris writes:

Godwin's Law strikes again!

Matthew Moore writes:

I wonder how many animals Mr Huemer would torture and kill to prevent the identical torture and killing of, say, a human child (that no one knows of). He seems to think that considering human suffering is at most 100 times greater. So he should prefer to kill a child than 101 cows.

I struggle to believe this.

I also hope that, if Mr Huemer did find himself in a US that was rounding up and torturing, say, half a million people a year, he might take more direct action that he has against factory farming. Since he doesn't act as if this were a genocide, I conclude that he doesn't really believe that it is.

James writes:

Reading all of this I'm surprised that Huemer has devoted himself to the problem of political authority rather than the problem of factory farms. The latter problem would seem to be more severe.

Denver writes:

It's sort of 2b.

But it's not that animals are significantly smarter than bugs. It's that neither animals nor bugs are of the level of intelligence/consciousness required for humans to respect their rights.

And I suspect this should be quite an intuitive truth. Most humans throughout history needed, at some point, to hunt and/or slaughter animals to survive. We've been bred to be nice to other humans, not to animals.

While this doesn't mean that we ought to cruelly slaughter animals today, the fact that people still act in accordance with their evolved values, such as killing bugs, is itself evidence that our preferences haven't changed.

If Mike wants to prove that factory farms are so terrible, he first has to prove that humans owe some sort of consideration to animals.

Javier writes:

I agree with Michael Huemer. But I have a question about his view. I agree that factory farming is a moral monstrosity. But I'm less clear on what I, an average consumer, should do about it. This is because I have very little sense about whether my own individual purchases make any difference, or have any significant probability of making a difference, to the number of animals killed and tortured in factory farms. In other words, I'm curious what Huemer thinks about the "inefficacy" objection to ethical consumerism. This is outlined more here.

[url for downloadable attachment changed to url for pdf file--Econlib Ed.]

Pajser writes:

I liked Huemer's first answer better. Proper answer is

    "Criticism of my argument on the base of hypocrisy is logical fallacy Tu quoque. If you are interested to check my arguments directly, great. If you are not - hopefully you'll do it in future. "

Strictly speaking, by trying to respond on appeal on hypocrisy, Huemer committed logical fallacy of irrelevance, Ignoratio elenchi.

Human selfishness is strong, our empathy is weak. However, as individuals, and as societies, humans have some level of habitual morality, which can and should be marginally improved. Discontinued meat eating doesn't require much moral effort, yet benefit - marginally reducing industry that torture and murder beings fairly similar to humans, and few other benefits (health - at least cardiovascular, ecology, cheaper plant food for humans, joy from leaving more emphatic life in more emphatic world) are relatively large. It is low hanging fruit, yet it still requires some effort.

And bugs? We'll eventually move in that direction too. People already care a little. If you habitually kill butterfly for pleasure on your first date, likely you'll not get second date. It is not much, but we started already. We should move in that direction too.

I'm glad to see that there are pro-animal libertarians.

Levi Russell writes:

It's really saddening to see an intelligent person use the term "factory farming." It's even more saddening to see modern agriculture trotted out as an example of animal abuse. The basic logic seems to be lost on many: abusing an animal will not result in profitability. Thus, producers of food animals who are abusive to said animals will go out of business over time.

brad writes:

I agree with Prof. Huemer in general on this topic but I think he is off on his ratios. If I retrospect I would kill 100's of thousands of cows to save a human life. At least if that was a direct choice, Probably also if it were more of a statistical choice (ie reduce the risk to 1000 people by 0.1% by increasing the risk to 100,000 cows by 1%).

But here is the thing, that is not the choice we are presented with. By most accounts veganism is a healthy lifestyle compared to the Standard American Diet (SAD), so by adopting it we are likely increasing human life. Veganism done well can also be much cheaper and is likely better for the planet. What we are forgoing is some pleasure to to avoid massive suffering of animals.

But maybe for some going with out meat is forgoing a major pleasure equivalent to say being forced to sleep in a tent for the rest of your life. That is not the case for me, but maybe eating meat for some is one of the things that makes life worth living. If that is the case I would just like folks to consider the marginal benefit. Could you do with 10% less? Do you get the same benefit from the last 10% as the first? Could you get some of your meat from lower intelligence species that are more bug like? Could you spend the same dollar amount on meat but obtain it from non factory sources? Or spend more to get it from non factory sources so you are not giving up any meat eating pleasure but forgoing some dollars.


Failure to think on the margin is the the hypocrisy I see with many ethical vegans. Any reduction in consumption is a positive but many ethical vegans frame the issue in semi religious terms. If they really wanted to reduce suffering they would not present the issue as a stark contrast, but as one we can each make improvements on bit by bit. That is much more likely to find a receptive audience.

brad writes:

"retrospect" should have been "introspect"

pyroseed13 writes:

"Almost all of them suffered enormously on factory farms, in conditions that we would certainly call "torture" if they were imposed on any person."

How could anyone possibly know this? Animals don't have preferences, so this argument amounts to saying something like, "Well, as person I wouldn't want to live in those conditions, therefore animals must be suffering by living there."

Cliff writes:

Most of my meat consumption is pastured bison, shipped to my house frozen, for about twice the cost of comparable beef (actually I pay extra to get 100% grass-fed these days). It tastes better and has a much better nutritional profile.

I have heard the argument that eating beef is better than chicken, etc. since less cows have to be killed to provide an equivalent amount of meat.

KevinDC writes:

I tend to agree with Michael Huemer here. There seem to be two basic premises that we can use to divide the issue.

P1: The pain and suffering of non-human animals has literally zero moral significance. The only animal suffering with any moral significance above zero is that of human animals.

P2: The pain and suffering of non-human animals has at least some moral significance, though perhaps less than that of human animals, maybe scaling with intelligence, awareness, capacity, etc.

Premise 1 leads to wildly implausible conclusions. Suppose I saw a dolphin which has been stranded on the beach. I could easily return it to the water, but instead I decided to take out my pocketknife and slowly carve it to death. On P1, we should be indifferent between my doing that, or saving its life. Or suppose I found a lost puppy, and suppose there was no way for me to return it to its original owners. If P1 is true, we should be morally indifferent between me finding it a new home or tossing it in my oven and burning it alive. Premise 2 seems far more plausible than Premise 1, and certainly more plausible that the implications which follow from Premise 1.

Of course, some people will respond by pointing out that dolphins and dogs are different from bugs or farmyard animals. But that is also entailed in P2. Unless you think that the suffering of non-human animals is of literally zero moral worth, and would willingly accept the conclusions which follow from that, then all that's left is to debate over the exchange rate. And as Huemer notes, even if you assume an exchange rate between human and animal suffering that is vastly favorable to humans, this still leaves large scale farm activities as morally unacceptable.

Ryder Lee writes:
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.
This sounds like someone whose experience of farms comes from YouTube and not from going to farms. The sideswiping of farmers in this argument is outrageous.

No matter the size of farm you go to animals raised for food spend their time "hanging around" and eating. If they get sick they are treated. If their diet is less than optimal it gets changed. Would that I was treated so well.

Torture? Try risking your livelihood, risking your employees, risking your sanity. I am not saying bad events don't happen I am saying people cannot afford for them to be the norm.

Farmers feed their families with the food they provide to others. Remember that when you question their motives. They are the same as yours, feed and shelter themselves and their families and hopefully have enough time and money left over for a good life. And do it in a responsible way so you can continue doing it and pass your business on to the next generation.

We outsource our food production because it is difficult, year round work. Visit a farm. Most states and provinces have associations that would help you do so.

Benjamin R Kennedy writes:
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.

So the new poster-child for evil should be... Frank Perdue? Remind me again why the skeptics get dinged for making unintuitive statements about morality?

Abscalon writes:
"P1: The pain and suffering of non-human animals has literally zero moral significance. The only animal suffering with any moral significance above zero is that of human animals."
"Premise 1 leads to wildly implausible conclusions. Suppose I saw a dolphin which has been stranded on the beach. I could easily return it to the water, but instead I decided to take out my pocketknife and slowly carve it to death. On P1, we should be indifferent between my doing that, or saving its life. Or suppose I found a lost puppy, and suppose there was no way for me to return it to its original owners. If P1 is true, we should be morally indifferent between me finding it a new home or tossing it in my oven and burning it alive."

Try replacing "non-human animals" with "inanimate objects", "dolphin" with "cute rubber ducky", and "puppy" with "stuffed animal". Maybe I'm just a big softy, but I definitely don't feel entirely indifferent about "torturing" these inanimate objects. In fact, I'd say that the content of my emotional response is pretty much indistinguishable from how I feel about the notion of torturing real animals (perhaps a lower magnitude though).

If my sense of morality can be tricked by "victims" that objectively have no moral significance, then the fact that I don't feel indifferent between loving or torturing a puppy doesn't mean that P1 is not true.

austrartsua writes:

"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 . . ."

Great, so we have finally struck the crux of the matter! Kudos to Huemer for bringing this about. I completely and totally disagree with Huemer on this point. It is to me completely obvious that torturing a normal human being is worse than torturing a severely mentally retarded one. Jeb is fully aware of his situation, fully capable of understanding what is going on. In short, Jeb is fully capable of suffering, in the complete sense of the word. Note that pain is not suffering nor suffering pain. Pain is a physical sensation which often accompanies suffering, but suffering is a mental and emotional state. Is Don capable of suffering? He does not understand his situation. He is not capable of knowing what is going on. I doubt that he is. Sure he "feels" pain, but pain is not as bad as suffering.

Huemer runs into the same old utilitarian traps as everyone else (perhaps Caplan should rething who his favorite philosopher is). It's in the attempt to put numbers on things where his argument really falls apart. Simply say torturing a cow is worth 10^{-12} of the "badness" of torturing a human. Why is 10^{-12} any worse than 1/1000? They are all arbitrary numbers, this is completely unscientific. On the other side, Huemer is willing to put numbers on everything except the amount of enjoyment we get from eating meat. This is absurd! If you are gonna be a utilitarian you have to try to account for everything!

Benjamin R Kennedy writes:

The problem with utilitarianism as a complete moral theory is that it doesn't match common experience of morality. The average human experiences moral rules that feel obligatory, and that transgressions are actions that create culpability, and hence guilt. There is no plumbing in utilitarian thinking that explains any of it. It's great to try to minimize suffering, but why? Utilitarianism provides no answer as to why suffering is "bad"

I think it's fine to a certain degree as a contingent guide to action. Yeah you can't exactly weight suffering in precise quantities, but it can be good enough. Knowing that mosquito nets are more useful that de-worming, for example

Max writes:

I believe that Mike Huemer has failed to consider that bacon is delicious.

Ari writes:

I agree that factory lifes of animals is horrible.

Peter Gerdes writes:

Why can't we drug food animals.

Drugs, such as powerful opiates like car-fentanyl or etorphine are super cheap per dosage unit and who cares if there are a few mistakes or less fervent mooing. Even if you don't want to use something like opiates I doubt it would be particularly hard to come up with drugs that had some kind of zoning out or dissassociative effect.

At the very least we should be spending a modest amount of money developing drugs to this end.

Sadly, every time I try and push this idea I find out that most of the people who claim to care about animal suffering really care about signalling their moral superiority, disdain for commercialism and affinity for natural solution.

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