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Frequently Asked Questions
At risk of taxing readers' patience, here's my rejoinder to Mike Huemer's last guest post on the ethical treatment of animals. He's in blockquotes, I'm not.
My main reactions:My argument may not change the minds of people who are convinced that factory farming is unacceptable, but I think it's very useful at (a) changing the minds of people who are genuinely undecided, and (b) clarifying the views of people who have modest doubts about conventional treatment of animals.
Disagree on both counts; see below.
You might be right about how many people believe (a), but I suspect my view is actually more common. Pain has great evolutionary value. So why wouldn't bugs feel pain?
As my original post noted, even conscientious people like Mike put little mental effort into investigating whether bugs feel pain. Which to me strongly suggests they find (b) pretty obvious.
I haven't investigated how horribly bugs suffer when humans accidentally kill them. But it seems entirely possible that humans condemn trillions of bugs to excruciating, drawn-out deaths every year. My moral theory implies there's little need for me to investigate this issue. But if you really doubt (b), it's a vital question. And since animal welfare advocates put little time into investigating (b), I infer they probably tacitly agree with me.
I could be wrong, but I think most people - regardless of their views on the ethical treatment of animals - would see little difference between these moral theories. Either you find them all plausible, or you find none plausible. Hence (c) is barely at issue.
Your graph accurately describes my view.
However, it's also very plausible to me that the gap in intelligence between cows and the average human is so enormous that even a linear value function would yield similar results. This is trivially true on a conventional IQ test, where all bugs and cows would score zero. But it seems substantively true for any reasonable intelligence test: Bugs' and cows' ability to evaluate or construct even simple logical arguments stems from their deficient intellects, not inability to communicate. Or at least that seems clear to me.
Then we have a deep clash of intuitions. My bug hypotheticals were meant to overcome such clashes. But if those seem lame to you, we are at an impasse.
Again, the idea that the well-being of creatures of human intelligence is much more morally important than the well-being of cows or bugs seems quite self-evident to me. And it also seems self-evident to the vast majority of creatures capable of comprehending the idea.
I don't see how your case for alleged bias is any stronger than the standard utilitarians' claim that affluent First Worlders are too biased to see their moral duty to give all their surplus wealth to the global poor. The same goes for numerous other onerous-and-implausible moral duties, like our duty to create as many children as possible, or perhaps the duty to adopt as many needy orphans as possible.
In all of these cases, I admit, we should calmly reflect on our potential bias. I've genuinely tried. But even when I bend over backwards to adjust for my alleged bias against animals, I keep getting the same answer: They barely matter.
One of my strongest intuitions is that mental traits have a large effect on moral value, while physical traits do not. You really don't share this intuition?
What's odd/puzzling to me is (3). Why would bugs or cows would be less conscious of their pain than we are? If anything, I'd think less intelligent creatures' minds would focus on their physical survival, while smart creatures' minds often wander to impractical topics.
I fear we're at an impasse. But let me say this: If Mike convinced me that animal pain were morally important, I would live as he does. I'd stop eating meat and wearing leather. I'd desperately search for a cruelty-free way to get dairy; but if I couldn't, I'd even give up ice cream. I understand Mike.* What I don't understand is people who claim to agree with him, but don't repent and live a cruelty-free life.
* Well, almost. If I thought like Mike, I would also evangelically focus my intellectual career on the ethical treatment of animals, and spend thousands of hours reading biology journals to learn more about which animals feel how much pain. I know Mike hasn't done the former, and doubt he's done the latter. And I don't understand why he hasn't.