Bryan Caplan  

Reply to Huemer on Ethical Treatment of Animals (including Bugs)

My Writing Tutor: Dan Seligman... Henderson on the 2016 Nobel Pr...
Here's my reply to Mike Huemer's reply to my challenge to animal rights.  Huemer's in blockqutes, I'm not.

I don't think the best way of determining whether x is true is by seeing whether x-advocates are hypocritical or morally flawed.
I never claimed it was the best way.  But I do claim that the Argument from Hypocrisy and the Argument from Conscience provide us with additional moral insight, which occasionally suffices to break otherwise intractable moral impasses.
(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.)
"Probably right"?  No.  But Jefferson's hypocrisy at least slightly undermined the credibility of the case against slavery.  And the more morally thoughtful and morally scrupulous he seemed overall, the more his continued practice of slavery would undermine its credibility.
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.
Normally, yes.
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.
I agree this claim has great superficial appeal.  But I think that like utilitarianism, Kantianism, and other grand moral theories, it's subject to devastating counter-examples.  Like: "What if you have to painfully kill one bug to build a house rather live in a tent?"
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."
I agree I would be horrified.  However, I would also be horrified to watch life-saving surgery on humans.  On reflection, both seem morally fine to me despite my squeamishness.
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.)
It depends on the degree of stupidity.  I'm not saying it's okay for Einstein to murder his secretary.  But if a creature with human appearance literally had the mind of a bug, then it would be morally appropriate to treat him like a bug.  Almost all humans classified as mentally retarded are far smarter than that, of course.

A stronger objection is that human babies are much stupider than adult humans, but everyone knows it's wrong to inflict pain on babies.  The obvious amendment here, though, is that creatures that will normally develop human-level intelligence are also of great moral importance, though probably not as much as creatures that already possess such intelligence.*
You also have to explain why pain isn't bad when the victim is stupid.
If the victim is as stupid as a bug?  At minimum, it seems obvious that the pain of such a creature is extremely morally unimportant.
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?
It's supposed to be evidence that people who deny the obviousness of my preceding claim - that the pain of extremely stupid creatures is morally unimportant - actually find it obvious, too.
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?
Suppose a seemingly morally thoughtful and morally scrupulous person such as yourself painfully kills many bugs for minor benefits.  But he stills says it's "obvious" that you shouldn't painfully kill any creature for minor benefits.  My Argument from Conscience says, "Since you're morally thoughtful and morally scrupulous, you wouldn't do that if you really thought it was wrong."  This seems like a good argument to me - good enough to break what otherwise looks like a moral impasse.
The blog post even seems to suggest that it's impossible that it's wrong to cause pain to stupid creatures.
No.  My argument is only meant to provide some additional insight, not prove that anything's "impossible."
That is, that we know that pain is only bad if you're smart.
More precisely, that the badness of the pain depends on the intelligence of the creature experiencing it (as well as the intelligence it will normally attain).
But really, could that plausibly be said to be something that we know? How would that be? Is there some proof of that proposition?
It seems obvious once you ponder basic counter-examples to your general principle.  Do you really think painfully killing bugs to build a house is morally wrong?
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.
To repeat, I insist it ultimately is highly plausible to you, since you painfully kill a lot of bugs - at least indirectly by living in a house, driving a car, etc.  And you're a wonderful person, so you wouldn't do such things if you really believed your general principle.

You could protest, of course, that bugs don't feel pain.  That seems unlikely to me, for reasons well-explained by the pro-bug rights people I discussed.  But suppose we grant that bugs don't feel pain.  Your position still implies that if bugs did feel pain, it would be morally impermissible to build a house.  After all, you could just live in a tent and leave the bugs in peace.  Is that really plausible to you?

* While this doesn't imply that abortion is murder, it strongly suggests that killing a fetus is far worse than killing a bug.

COMMENTS (34 to date)
Mike H writes:

I was eagerly awaiting this. There are few things as fascinating as seeing two people I deeply respect disagree about something.

I also really want to know the answer to these moral quandaries.

Even though Mike is the philosopher and I instinctively want to believe him on things like this, I'm closer to Bryan's position on this subject.

It's wrong to go out of your way to harm anything. For instance, it seems wrong to torture even bugs. But as much less intelligent beings interfere with humans goals, there comes a point where disregarding their existence seems to become permissible.

The bar becomes higher the more complex, intelligent, and charismatic an animal becomes. The fact that it's permissible to cause pain and suffering to animals in certain cases doesn't mean it's OK to cause any amount of pain for any reason or that it's wrong to go out of your way to avoid harming them.

I, of course, reserve the right to be wrong and change my mind several times as new information is presented to me.

Alex writes:

The difficulty is where do you draw the line. I have no problem with someone who kills a bug but would be horrified at someone who kills a panda bear. I also dislike hunting but think that fishing is ok. I would say, the closer an animal is to a human being, the more affinity I feel towards it. Killing a monkey is almost as bad as killing a person, since monkeys are so close to us. Also, I think that killing a cow or a pig in order to eat it is fine. These animals are domestic and can barely survive without humans.

Tristan writes:

I'm not quite sure I follow your reasoning. You say that:

It depends on the degree of stupidity. I'm not saying it's okay for Einstein to murder his secretary. But if a creature with human appearance literally had the mind of a bug, then it would be morally appropriate to treat him like a bug. Almost all humans classified as mentally retarded are far smarter than that, of course.

I roughly agree with your claim that it's the degree of intelligence that determines to what degree a being is deserving a moral respect, but I don't think your conclusion follows from that.

Firstly, I think you vastly overrate bug intelligence relative to farm animal intelligence, but let's forget about bugs for a moment and focus on the animals we tend to eat. There are lots of humans who have cognitive capacities similar to that of chickens or pigs. Even if you exclude babies, people with severe mental disabilities have comparable mental capabilities to many of the animals we eat.

You could of course argue that mentally impaired humans would, if not born with some sort of defect, be fully functioning and intelligent humans. But this seems as arbitrary as saying something like "if a pig were born a human rather than a pig, he would be highly intelligent and capable of fully integrating into human society," or something along those lines.

BC writes:

Slightly off-topic, but I have always been curious about the following: why is there so much moral outrage in the West directed at those in the East that eat dog meat? I would find eating dog meat gross, but no more immoral than eating chicken, ducks, pigs, cows, frogs, fish, etc.

My feeling is that the moral outrage is the result of cultural bias: we accept that it's ok to eat the animals that we do because we are acculturated to it, but we aren't acculturated to eating dogs. Also, politically, there is a bootleggers-and-baptists effect. Those that believe eating any animal is immoral lack enough political power to shame meat eaters in our own country. When directing their outrage at foreigners, however, their political power is combined with those with strong anti-foreign bias to form a stronger coalition. Finally, many people that would normally be inclined to defend foreign cultures also happen to be sympathetic to animal rights so there end up being fewer people to defend the foreigners.

Would an objective standard lead to such a *huge* moral difference between eating dogs and other animals or is this a result of subjective cultural standards?

Pajser writes:

Huemer gave good answer, actually, he was politically correct. "Appeal to hypocrisy" is well known logical fallacy

Reasoning about subject's personality is commonly accepted in life, even in courts. Then, how it can be logical fallacy? Because it cannot refute actual argument given by allegedly hypocritical man, and in "tu quoque" fallacy it is used as refutation.

If Caplan wrote something like "I have no time or motive to analyse actual arguments of animal rights advocates, so it is the most I can know now ... " it wouldn't be fallacy. But he explicitly presents it as a "challenge to the animal rights", and it is fallacy. Proper answer on that is exactly what Huemer wrote - check actual arguments.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

Shouldn't we apply these standards to the animal kingdom? Should we try to eliminate whale species that kill billions of krill? What about snakes that eat mammals? Or invertebrates in the sea that kill fish? Aren't there billions of morally problematic predators out there, trading the life of one animal for another in ways that a seriously ethical judge would consider quantitatively wrong, based on whatever standard they are applying? Don't we have as much of a duty to prevent those actions as we do to make sure our or other humans' actions aren't causing too much pain for the wrong species?

Olivier Massin writes:

The distinction between pain and suffering is missing here : bugs may have pains but lack the ability of suffering them, while cows may have pains and be such that they suffer them (pain is a sensation located in one's body, suffering is a mental state deprived of apparent bodily location). Killing animals that suffers seems to be worse than killing animals that only have pains. Could undermine the bugs-to-cows argument.

On the other hand, conservative considerations about the cultural, aesthetical and ecological values of breeding should also be taken into account: whole traditions, ecosystems, species (including cows themselves) depends on breeding.

There's no hypocrisy:
(1) Bryan appears to deny the fact that there's clear recognition among most moral humans that we're causing pain and destruction.
(2) Bryan falsely equals the (for him) "minor" benefits of building a house over a tent with the *really* minor benefit of eating steak over soybean patties.

I could reverse the argument and state that Bryan's arguments are a form of hypocrisy, he appears to be using philosophical tools not to search for some higher understanding but to justify received habits that offer him minor benefits.

The important point isn't that we don't care about bugs or that killing them is morally acceptable, the important point is that we care about bugs but given the current economic and technology boundaries we cannot realistically and always avoid doing some level of what we consider to be immoral.

James writes:


Tu quoque is not a fallacy when it is taken to be indicative but inconclusive, as was the case here. Tu quoque is a fallacy only when it is used as a conclusive argument, as you incorrectly claimed.

Mike W writes:

"I never claimed it was the best way."

Mott and bailey argument in the making? 

Mike W writes:

Wow, is there any better example of why libertarians are not seriously considered in the realm of public policy?

brad writes:

Huemer seems to want to draw a bright line here where I don't think one is necessary.

To me it is simple to say that living creatures have moral weight roughly in proportion to their closeness to humans.

The wrongness of killing/suffering is then proportional to the moral weight of the creature. Algae get very low weight humans very high.

Then Huemer's proposition of

"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."

Where the wrongness is proportional to the moral weight we place on the creature. Then the question is how to I trade off my lack of pain or happiness against that wrongness.

In the case of eating plants, low weight on the living thing and high weight on the bad outcome to me (I would die without food).

On the case of eating a cow much higher weight on the living thing and much lower weight on missing out on the pleasure of eating beef.

Bugs are somewhere in between. For me I don't go out of my way to harm them, but they are closer to plant than cow in my moral calculus.

Dustin writes:

"But if a creature with human appearance literally had the mind of a bug, then it would be morally appropriate to treat him like a bug."

Suppose a highly advanced type IV civilization happens upon us ... they would be morally justified in killing us? Or better: would you feel justified killing a person in a persistent vegetative state with no discernible cognitive function, literally the mind of a bug? How about if this person's guardians desired otherwise and had the means to sustain this person's life indefinitely?

The egocentric arguments are troubling. I think it better to start with a moral framework that considers the feelings of the thing being killed and the feelings of other things that love and care for the thing being killed. Does the bug care if you kill it? Does the bug's progenitor? It's offspring? Friends? How about the cow's? The vegetative person's?

These criteria, while probably not complete, would seem to me to be an instructive point of reference and universally applicable to all forms life. There is probably some layered logic, but at the foundation we should consider the wishes of the thing being killed as well as those who love and care for it.

Suppose I have an ant colony that I maintain and care for. Would you feel morally justified killing all of my ants because they are 'stupid'?

Disclosure: I am very hypocritical omnivore and consume the flesh of animals that probably would have preferred life. I also lie and do a number of other things that I consider to be immoral.

Matt Skene writes:

Mike's position wasn't that it was wrong to kill any living thing for small benefits, his position was that it is wrong to cause massive amounts of suffering for small benefits. Killing an insect may cause a small amount of brief suffering that would be easily counter-balanced by the benefits of superior shelter for a human being. The much harder thing to justify is putting animals into living conditions that cause perpetual and intense suffering for years in order to get an increase in pleasure for the time that you are eating their flesh. What you say here isn't adequate to respond to that concern.

David Hurwitz writes:

So Professor Caplan, you would have no objection to someone who gets pleasure out of chainsawing the limbs off dogs? You would not feel sorry for the animal and think the perpetrator was a sick monster who most likely would also have little compunction about perpetrating violence against humans? Do you really not differentiate your revulsion at that from what you would feel if you were watching "a life-saving surgery on humans"?

Perhaps your model of how the brain works that associates intelligence with pain is a bit simplistic. Our mammalian nervous system developed long before the human cerebrum reached its present state. We simply have far more in common in regard to pain with pigs and dogs than we do to insects. Perhaps a brilliant person might suffer more psychological angst than someone two standard deviations below the mean in intelligence, but I don't think most economists, philosophers, or neurologists would think the brilliant person would suffer more from physical torture. A rat has just as much motivation to avoid a predator and perpetuate his genes as your savanna living ancestors did when running from a lion. Protecting your house from invading insects is one thing, but pouring salt on even a lowly snail just to gain "pleasure" brings one's humanity into question.

Mindful of the proclivity of our species to rape, murder, enslave and otherwise violate other humans perhaps we shouldn't be quite as dismissive of any considerations toward our treatment of other sentient beings. Our beastly nature has slowly been curtailed during the course of human development. Any advanced alien would see us as barely evolved apes. Considering how recently our nation tolerated slavery in spite of the noble words about all men created equal found in the Declaration of Independence, should we not be suspicious of our rationalizations? As Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Autobiography: "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do."

Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense was what convinced the American Colonists to pursue an independent, monarchy-free republic (and who was also a staunch abolitionist), wrote in his Age of Reason (a work that was perceived to be such a threat to organized religion that historians marginalized his contributions to American independence): "...every thing of persecution and revenge between man and man, and every thing of cruelty to animals, is a violation of moral duty."

Perhaps it is a sign of our having less adherence to the law of the jungle when we can treat animals with greater "humanity". As Charles Darwin wrote in the Descent of Man: "Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is, humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions."

Pajser writes:

James, words "conclusive" is not mentioned in definitions of "tu quoque", "appeal on hypocrisy" as given in, for instance, Wikipedia, Internet encyclopedia of philosophy, or here:

    "TU QUOQUE Tu quoque (Latin for “you as well”) is an informal fallacy which occurs when the reasoner, in attempting to demonstrate the inadequacy of another person’s argument, accuses the person presenting the argument of not acting in accordance with their own conclusion, implying (incorrectly) that this is a reason for rejecting the argument."

    Roy T. Cook, A dictionary of philosophical logic, Edinburgh University Press, (2009), p. 297., bolds by Cook.

Caplan actually dismissed arguments of Peta and Animal rights FAQ on the base of appeal on hypocrisy.

The word "conclusive" is not necessary for definition because appeal on hypocrisy is defined as fallacy only if used against argument. Cook bolded it. That's why it is informal fallacy; in other circumstances, like against witness in court, appeal on hypocrisy is not fallacy. However, basic rule of logic is that arguments must be checked on their own. Even argument against conclusion by contradiction is not strong enough to dismiss original argument. One really must find error in argument to dismiss it.

Either that or one pulls himself from discussion. If Caplan wrote "it is the best I can do, now I'm going to discuss open borders" animal rights advocates should say "fine, Caplan, maybe we'll meet again." But Caplan didn't left discussion, he tries to stay in discussion, while dismissing arguments of animal rights advocates on the base of appeal on hypocrisy, in which case it is tu quoque. I apologize if I repeat myself a little, I try to minimize misunderstanding. These are really complicated issues.

Anonymous writes:


In response to your reply to me from Bryan's previous post on this topic, which I never got around to answering:

(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.)
I'm not convinced. Factory farms are really quite densely packed. Do you have any data to back this up?
(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.
I can't see this argument as anything more than a rhetorical trick. For one thing, it has implications that I think most people would find disturbing - e.g., that it's morally neutral to bring someone into existence to torture them.

But more than that, it just seems to me that retrospective preference satisfaction is in fact a perfectly reasonable thing to acknowledge and care about. I can be grateful if someone gives me a gift that I didn't know I wanted, for example. And more to the point - I am grateful to be alive! I really am! Aren't you? I think that if you create a person, and they turn around and thank you for bringing them into existence, that seems obviously a good thing to have done.

Brian writes:

One of the problems with Huemer's argument, and a problem that Bryan appears to adopt also, is the ethical status of pain and suffering. Huemer says things like

"You also have to explain why pain isn't bad when the victim is stupid."


"That is, that we know that pain is only bad if you're smart."


"Maybe the suggestion is that it's self-evident that pain is only bad if you're smart."

In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong with pain at all. In fact, we frequently choose painful activities, like working out or doing hard physical labor or doing hard mental labor, as a means to achieve desirable aims. No one considers these actions morally wrong.

We do consider pain "bad," of course, because we don't like it. We are designed NOT to like it. But that would appear to be more of a preference than a moral imperative.

In terms of inflicting pain on other creatures, then, we can ask whether they prefer that we do not. This would really seem to be a more libertarian approach to things--does the other organism have a preference and to what degree does that preference deserve my respect? If they are incapable of having a preference, then there is no moral issue with inflicting pain.

With regard to bugs, they don't seem to care. If my squashing of bugs on the windshield caused thousands of their compatriots to attack me, I would probably stop that behavior immediately and consider it wrong. But neither the bugs nor their relatives and friends seem to care, so why should I? Should I express more concern for them than they do for themselves?

I think this really cuts to the heart of why more human-like animals gain more respect from us. The more human and intelligent they are, the more likely they are to care about how we treat them and others like them. Increased awareness implies increased capacity for preference.

But pain per se? That has nothing to do with it.

Abscalon writes:

"everyone knows it's wrong to inflict pain on babies."

This is probably only true because "everyone" doesn't bother spending any time reflecting on the issue. I was once a baby, but I have no memory of the experience. Therefore, I'm pretty confident I wouldn't be any worse off today had I been tortured as a baby, provided the torture didn't cause any permanent damage (including any invisible damage that might be caused by abnormal prolonged exposure to elevated stress hormones or whatnot as an infant).

For people who are pro-choice because they don't think a fetus has any moral weight, I think the revulsion they experience when contemplating someone harming infants probably doesn't really come from a principled concern for the moral relevance of infant suffering. Instead, I'd point to three other concerns:

First, any permanent harm represents real damage to the morally relevant person that the infant may one day become. This only matters if that future person is likely to exist. If one doesn't expect an infant to become a person, this is irrelevant. Going back to fetuses for a second, a pregnant woman who drinks heavily at the bar all week might be a bad person for the harm she's doing to her future child, but not if she has scheduled an abortion for next week.

Second, intentionally harming an infant is basically the desecration of a possession that represents both massive investment and sentimental value for the parents. Imagine someone defacing an irreplaceable wedding scrapbook or a hundred year old family heirloom. The culprit might plausibly claim ignorance of the value for those things, but nobody who harms a baby can claim they were ignorant of its value to the parents.

Third, intentionally harming an infant goes against our social norms that say it's unacceptable to take pleasure in watching something suffer. Even if you don't assign moral value to insect suffering, you'd still probably be disgusted by someone who likes to pull wings off of flies or burn ants with a magnifying glass for fun. If you think there is an outside chance that bugs are morally relevant, imagine a robot that is programmed to act like it is suffering after being kicked or beaten (no need for fancy AI, just a simple procedural program that makes the robot limp and play wimper.mp3 if the accelerometer detects a kick). Wouldn't you be disgusted if someone seems to enjoy kicking the robot too much? What about someone who likes to "torture" stuffed animals by cutting, burning, dismembering, and posing them? In that case, the "suffering" is entirely inside the torturer's own head! Under the current social norm, it really doesn't matter if the suffering is morally relevant.

Given how complicated it would be to parse these concerns and the added wrinkle that we don't have any way to pinpoint when a young human achieves moral value, and given that there aren't any compelling reasons to tolerate people harming infants, it totally makes sense that we simplify everything and treat crimes against babies the same way we treat crimes against older humans.

If we ever perfect artificial wombs, the ability to do research on many human fetuses under controlled circumstances in the lab could bypass all three of the above issues. Such research would have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of human biology and I could see how society would need to revisit this simplification.

Steve J writes:

Am I missing something or is Bryan saying because our cars sometimes run over ants that makes it ok to factory farm cows?

Anonymous writes:

@Matt Skene

The much harder thing to justify is putting animals into living conditions that cause perpetual and intense suffering for years in order to get an increase in pleasure for the time that you are eating their flesh.

I'm really not sure the conditions farmed animals live in actually are so bad that their lives aren't worth living.

If I'm right and they do in fact have lives that are better than nothing, going vegan will cause a quite significant amount of harm, by preventing a great many positive utility lives from happening.

Chris Wegener writes:

The whole thing boils down to be alive requires consuming other living things or their remains.

There is no escaping this conundrum thus we must choose at what point we draw the line of acceptable consumption. Animals, plants, insects or bacteria are all alive or recently dead when we consume them to survive. To argue about pain or morality is largely missing the point.

Buck Shlegeris writes:

I think it's quite plausible that pain in insects is not morally relevant. I think the far stronger case to be made here is that chickens and pigs and dogs are similar enough to us for their pain to be morally relevant.

Bryan, I think you're still relying on heuristic arguments instead of digging into the strongest arguments made by proponents of animal rights; I wish you'd directly talk about those arguments.

Luke Simpson writes:

I agree with Dr. Huemer's intuition about pain being bad for the stupid as well as for the intelligent. The reason why is that it strongly seems to me that pain is bad primarily because when in the midst of experiencing it the phenomenological effects of experiencing the pain are unpleasant for the one experiencing them, and it seems unlikely that this unpleasantness depends upon the intelligence of the one in pain.

To be fair, it also seems that the degree of badness is proportional to the degree of intensity of the pain. (Plucking a hair and thereby causing very slight momentary pain is less bad than pulling back someone's fingernails.) And I suppose it is possible that less advanced minds or brains or whatever experience less pronounced phenomenal effects.

For example, perhaps an organism with a sufficiently rudimentary nervous system goes through the biological mental processes associated with pain but also has less intense phenomenal experiences corresponding to the level of sophistication of the nervous system. (Perhaps this is unlikely, not sure.) But then I'd say we're getting into some deep philosophical puzzles concerning mind/body relationship, personal identity, consciousness, etc. And since there is so much contention in that neighborhood, it seems an unfruitful path for settling issues. In any case, I think that if an organism responds to harm in ways that seem recognizable as indications of unpleasant phenomenal experiences (perhaps by comparison with how humans respond), then prima facie this ought to be considered evidence of actual unpleasant phenomenal experiences.

Also, and I really must stress this, it seems very strongly to me that the badness of pain must be differentiated from the badness of killing, as must the respective reasons for those distinct badnesses. In my opinion, this may make all the difference.

It may be that bugs have a right not to be tortured but not a right to continued existence. Or perhaps their right not to be tortured isn't easily overturned by other factors but their right to continued existence is more easily overturned. This seems plausible to me because I'm sympathetic to Don Marquis style future of value accounts for why killing is wrong. When killed, most insects are not deprived of much future value as compared to the amount of value deprived of humans when they are killed.

Pajser writes:

Anonymous - 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.

Other part of your criticism. I claim that killing existing animal is worse than not making new animal, because not making new animal is harm done to something that doesn't exist. And that something that doesn't exist cannot be harmed.

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.

I am actual being with reasonably good life. I am happy it turned that way. Is it retrospective preference satisfaction? It make sense to me to care about that. Still, it has sense only if I exist. If, alternatively, I was never created, there would be no preference dissatisfaction.

We do not allow killing children for organs, even if consequence is that some children that could be bred for organs will not exist. That means we value "not being murdered" more than we disvalue "not being created." I apply same logic on animals. Why you do not?

Liam writes:

A few points:

1. Let's suppose your argument from conscience works. There actually are people who take the treatment of bugs very seriously. Jain monks, for example, will gently sweep a broom in front of them as they walk to encourage bugs to move. They wear masks and drink through cloth to avoid swallowing them. Some are fruitarians. But the argument from conscience doesn't work anyway. People are very selfish, and this often stops them doing the right thing. Think of the number of philosophers who are persuaded by Peter Singer's drowning child example in his argument for giving to charity. A lot of us don't act on it because we want our television sets. We are too selfish.

2. It's not obvious to me that the treatment of bugs is unimportant. If I caught a child torturing a bug by ripping its wings and legs off slowly, I would intervene. At the very least, it's not clear to me that it's perfectly OK to do that to a bug.

3. It's quite plausible to think that bugs do not experience anything like the same degree of suffering and pain that higher animals do. This claim is based on the best neuroscientific evidence we have about the regions of the brain that are responsible for these feelings. One thing that probably makes pain worse for us is our self-awareness, meaning that we can anticipate pain and suffering and recognise that it will actually be ourselves undergoing that pain. We can also remember it more vividly. While we are suffering pain, we have a greater awareness of what we are losing out on in our lives. We have a greater sense of loss. You ask on Twitter why a bug would feel less pain if pain evolved to get us to move away from dangers. This is a bad question. It's like asking why some creatures would have better sight than others if sight evolved to get us to notice obstacles and dangers. The capacity can be developed and enhanced by evolution. That is probably what has happened with higher animals with more developed brains. Pain and suffering are multifaceted.

4. Why is intelligence relevant to the badness of pain? Suppose a vastly, vastly more intelligent race of aliens started torturing us and putting us in alien burgers, and they justified this by pointing to the fact that their children can solve Fermat's last theorem in a microsecond. Would we find this argument convincing? If not, why is it any more convincing when applied to bugs? If you are saying that it is some particular level of intelligence that is important, then why our level? Why is it OK for humans to torture pigs? This smacks of bias and anthropocentrism.

5. You bring up the point about babies and their relative lack of intelligence compared to adults and some animals. You say this does not count because they will develop our level of intelligence. This doesn't work because there are humans who will never have our level of intelligence. Think of the profoundly handicapped or demented. Is it OK to torture them?

6. How might we justify building homes and other large buildings? Well, when I consider the level of suffering we would experience if we did not build things like hospitals or supermarkets to meet our needs, then this probably outweighs the suffering of the bugs. We need cars and trucks to get food properly distributed around and to get people to hospitals. Why have a house rather than a tent? This one actually is less obvious to me, but again I think a number of our very fundamental needs would not be met if we lived crammed together in small spaces. Think of babies crying in the night, teenagers who cannot get any privacy, the lack of any entertainment (from things like TV sets or tables big enough to play chess on) to break up the drudgery of working life. There would be no incentive to innovate and start businesses which improve our lives if people could only expect to live in a tent. The ramifications would be huge. Remember that these benefits can extent to animals too (think of veterinary science, which would not be possible without this kind of construction). When you start interfering with these kinds of human desires, it's no longer just a question of, 'I'd rather have the meat burger than the veggie burger'. It's a matter of the alternatives. Meat is a trivial benefit to get from the horrors of factory farming, and we can get perfectly good food without torturing animals. We can't, on the other hand, get reasonable living space without killing some bugs.

Hazel Meade writes:

I'm just going to throw out again that I don't think the criterion should just be the ability to feel physical pain, but the capacity for emotions.
Bugs don't cry when they feel pain. They don't weep for their children. But babies and mentally incapacitated humans do, as do some farm animals. They are cognitively aware of their own suffering. You can't torture a bug, because it doesn't know it is being tortured.

Michael Huemer writes:

Here is the response I posted on my Facebook page:

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.

Pajser writes:

Hazel Meade, it is believed that babies have no consciousness until 24-28 week. We still want to protect them from pain. Adult people probably have that awareness. But we do not think that adult people deserve priority for curing their pain.

Bugs are more sophisticated than we believe. If you blow the air on cockroach, he'll run away. But if nothing bad happens, and you continue to blow the air on him, he will eventually start to ignore you. Isn't it fascinating? Drosophila react on Valium, exactly on way you expect. They can have mutation on dopamine receptors that causes ADHD in humans; such Drosophila are - hyperactive. Mammals can have deformation in brain that causes them to stay away from the center of the room; they prefer to be close to the wall. Drosophila can have same deformation. If they do, they also stay away from the center of the room. They can develop addiction to alcohol. If they are deprived of ... opposite gender, they consume more alcohol. I think it is all fascinating too.

Alot can be done for protection of bugs. First, we must get rid of eating meat. It will allow us less intensive agriculture, and less pesticides. It is good place for start. In future, we might develop technologies to keep insects away from roads and building areas. I believe that in some 200-300 years, protection of bugs will be big issue.

Ben Kennedy writes:

As a skeptic reading this thread, I feel the same way as an atheist would watching Christians debate the nature of the trinity - it only makes sense if you are true believer

Brian writes:


I don't see how Bryan made any of the inferences you attribute to him. It's true that he doesn't see anything wrong with factory farming, but he doesn't appear to base that judgment on the status of insects.

Instead, his point appears to be that many AR advocates apply general principles, like "cause no unnecessary suffering," to both mammals and bugs, but then show no evidence of following the principle in the matter of bugs. Their dedication to such a principle seems suspect if, after saying it applies uniformly, then clearly don't apply it uniformly. And if their belief in the general principle is suspect in the matter of bugs, why isn't it suspect in other cases? Finally, perhaps these advocates have alternate principles that cover mammals and not bugs. But if so, why don't they start with those principles and avoid the conflict with their actual behavior? Since they don't propose these alternative principles (which apply only to mammals and not bugs), it leads one to suspect that such principles either don't exist or are hard to justify. Either way, AR advocates are stuck with basing their position on the indefensible. At least, that's how I understand Bryan's position.

Putting aside his position, I would add my own objection. On what basis do you ascribe moral weight to the existence of pain and suffering? That we generally don't like pain and suffering, especially in ourselves, is both self-evident and tautological, but what does liking and avoidance have to do with morality?

Luke Simpson writes:

"Putting aside his position, I would add my own objection. On what basis do you ascribe moral weight to the existence of pain and suffering? That we generally don't like pain and suffering, especially in ourselves, is both self-evident and tautological, but what does liking and avoidance have to do with morality?"

Obviously, I can't really speak for Dr. Huemer, but I imagine the answer is that intuition strongly indicates that causing others to go through experiences they dislike is prima facie immoral. Since intuitions are a means by which beliefs can be justified, this potentially justifies that view, assuming there are no compelling defeaters.

Brian writes:


So if I amputate someone's leg without anesthetic because that's the only option for saving their life, I am acting immorally? And coaches who make their players do terribly painful activities as part of their training, just to help them become champions, are acting immorally?

It seems to me that the potential immorality of causing pain or suffering is not in the pain itself, but in making them do something against their will. Since most people don't want to experience painful things, imposing that on them requires me to force it on them. But in the case of pain freely chosen, I do nothing immoral by causing it.

As I said in the previous post, from this point of view, we do animals no wrong by inflicting pain. We only do wrong to them by acting toward them in a way contrary to their own will. But in the case of most animals, there is no conscious will nor chosen preferences to countermand. Certainly that's true in the case of bugs. So there can be no act against them that is intrinsically immoral simply for having acted against them.

Luke Simpson writes:

"So if I amputate someone's leg without anesthetic because that's the only option for saving their life, I am acting immorally? And coaches who make their players do terribly painful activities as part of their training, just to help them become champions, are acting immorally?"

No. Extenuating circumstances can override a prima facie immoral status. Huemer gives examples of this sort of thing in his work. In any case, I was merely speculating on what Huemer's response would be to the question.

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