(Note: I wasn't quite sure whether this warranted a high level post or just a discussion. I haven't made a high level post yet, and wasn't entirely sure what the requirements are. For now I made it a discussion, but I'd like some feedback on that)

I've been somewhat surprised by the lack of many threads on Less Wrong dealing with vegetarianism, either for or against. Is there some near-universally accepted-but-unspoken philosophy here, or is it just not something people think of much? I was particularly taken aback by the Newtonmas invitation not even mentioning a vegetarian option. If a bunch of hyper-rationalists aren't even thinking about it, then either something is pretty wrong with my thinking or theirs.

I'm not going to go through all the arguments in detail here, but I'll list the basic ideas. If you've read "Diet for a Small Planet" or are otherwise aware of the specifics, and have counterarguments, feel free to object. If you haven't, I consider reading it (or something similar) a prerequisite for making a decision about whether you eat meat, just as reading the sequences is important to have meaningful discussion on this site.

The issues:

1. "It's cruel to animals." Factory farming is cruel on a massive scale, beyond what we find in nature. Even if animal suffering has only 1% the weight of a humans, there's enough multiplying going on that you can't just ignore it. I haven't precisely clarified my ethics in a way that avoids the Repugnant Conclusion (I've been vaguely describing myself as a "Preference Utilitarian" but I confess that I haven't fully explored the ramifications of it), but it seems to me that if you're not okay with breeding a subservient, less intelligent species of humans for slave labor and consumption, you shouldn't be okay with how we treat animals. I don't think intelligence gives humans any additional intrinsic value, and I don't think most humans use their intelligence to contribute to the universe on a scale meaningful enough to make a binary distinction between the instrumental value of the average human vs the average cow.

2. "It's bad for humans." The scale on which we eat meat is demonstrably unhealthy, wasteful and recent (arising in Western culture in the last hundred years). The way Westerners eat in general is unhealthy and meat is just a part of that, but it's a significant factor.

3. "It's bad for the environment (which is bad for both human and non-human animals)." Massive amounts of cows require massive amounts of grain, which require unsustainable agriculture which damages the soil. The cows themselves are a major pollution. (Edit: removed an attention grabbing fact that may or may not have been strictly true but I'm not currently prepared to defend)


Now, there are some legitimate counterarguments against strict vegetarianism. It's not necessary to be a pure vegetarian for health or environmental reasons. I do not object to free range farms that provide their animals with a decent life and painless death. I am fine with hunting. (In fact, until a super-AI somehow rewrites the rules of the ecosystem, hunting certain animals is necessary since humans have eliminated the natural predators). On top of all that,  animal cruelty is only one of a million problems facing the world, factoring farming is only one of its causes, and dealing with it takes effort. You could be spending that effort dealing with one of the other 999,999 kinds of injustice that the world faces. And if that is your choice, after having given serious consideration to the issue, I understand. 

I actually eat meat approximately once a month, for each of the above reasons. Western Society makes it difficult to live perfectly, and once-a-month turns out to be approximately how often I fail to live up to my ideals. My end goal for food consumption is to derive my meat, eggs and dairy products from ethical sources, after which I'll consider it "good enough" (i.e. diminishing returns of effort vs improving-the-world) and move on to another area of self improvement.



New Comment
179 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:36 PM
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

Vegetarianism feels to me kind of like an issue where bike shed arguments are rampant because everyone eats and everyone wants to be moral and "how hard can it be to decide what to have for dinner"? So everyone has an opinion... and feels entitled to speechify about it :-)

In the meantime I suspect that if there is a correct answer here (like there is some kind of diet that simultaneously optimizes moral, health, economic, social, and deliciousness issues) it probably doesn't exist yet and could take decades of research to properly nail down. Maybe some sort of vegan school would actually make sense, rather than just being a fun joke? But if a vegan school makes sense then non-experts who talk about the subject are likely to be spreading BS...

And in the meantime there's this huge number of moral prerequisites to being right about moral vegetarianism that I'm just not sure about. Despite being opportunistic omnivores rather than obligate carnivores, humans are the apex predator of the planet. (This isn't quite as weird as it seems, because for a while grizzly bears occupied much the same niche in north america.) As far as I can tell, this makes humans (not otters or s... (read more)

There are Buddhists who are vegetarians, but who also believe that accepting hospitality is more important than not eating meat.
An Orthodox rabbi of my acquaintance earned significant points from me by preemptively expressing a related belief having to do with visiting with a mourning family, in order to prevent his hosts from stressing themselves out attempting to justify the kashrut of whatever they offered him.

This is a pretty good post -- check out Politics is the Mindkiller to see if you think it's appropriate for the main page. My guess is that people have avoided vegetarian posts in the past in order to avoid the controversy...we tend not to advocate for specific lifestyles on LW unless it's necessary to teach some more general, underlying point about rationality.

Still pondering this. I understand why the politics taboo is necessary, but the definition of "politics" is rather hazy. I consider this approximately in the same boat as cryonics in terms of "lifestyle choice," and cryonics is a very popular topic here, but I don't know if that's a reference on what topics are acceptable or if cryonics is an exception made because there are few places on the internet where you can have frank discussions of it, period. I'm pondering the nature of a hypothetical top level post I might make. If I do it, the crux of my argument will not be "you should all be vegetarian," but rather "I want you all to look seriously at your moral system, think about how the following three points relate to it, decide how much value an animal life has, and then, if your behavior does not line up with your actual morals, make an honest effort to change your behavior. Which might not mean becoming a full fledged vegetarian (as I said, I haven't even been successful at that myself). But I suspect that most of us, for one reason or another, are consuming far more meat than is actually rational given our respective worldviews.
Sounds promising. A fair litmus test is to show it to a non-vegetarian friend without comment and see if she thinks it's about vegetarianism or rationality. Alternatively, if you can identify the flaw in people's rationality that is apparently leading them to act inconsistently with their morals, and that flaw is something more generally applicable than "failure to take my 3 arguments seriously," then you've got a winner.
It counts as political because you're talking about the deservedness of rights for a social group (animals) that would be costly for another social group (humans) to recognize. As a question of "who deserves what social status/share of the pie", it's about politics. Second, a lot of problems you point to necessitate discussion of political issues. Specifically, when you talk about animal farming methods being bad because of the negative environmental costs they impose on other humans ("negative externalities") (which I completely agree should be internalized), you're on a topic that necessarily involves discussing a political solution -- i.e., who deserves compensation for these acts, what can rightfully be done to prevent it, etc. (To get the environmental benefits you describe, you need massive action an enforcement, not a few people's personal abstinence.) So, other than the personal health benefits and personal moral choicemaking you discuss, I have to conclude that your post counts as politics, but that could be fixed by removing the problematic issues I mentioned in the preceding paragraphs. (Just found this discussion.)

I eat meat only occasionally, giving weight to your reasons (2) and (3), but not (1). I think it takes quite a few farm animal deaths to add up to a papercut to a human, morality-wise.

I do find it quite interesting to see how people react when you say you don't eat meat. I'm from the midwest, and often get reactions like:

  • "Wuss."

  • "I am going to make you eat meat."

  • "What about protein, huh?"

I don't quite understand why people are offended by my dietary choices that don't affect them at all, but I've come to think it's something like "You don't eat meat, so you must think it's better not to eat meat. I eat meat, so therefore you think you're better than me."

I get similar reactions when I say I don't drink.

Really? I have just the opposite intuition. (2) seems like a reason for not consuming too much meat rather than none. It seems like (3) is a lot of effort for very little improvement in the environment. (1) I do take seriously. We consume a lot of animals.
What if you put numbers to it? If Omega offered you the choice between one saving human's life and giving N chickens a long, perfect, chicken life on Planet Chicken, at what value of N would you pick the chickens? Assuming none of the N animals are particularly special to any sentient being, for me it's well north of 10^9. I would pick a smaller N for animals like dolphins, dogs (again, not talking about animals that are special to people), elephants, etc., due to their intelligence. But in general, for animals typically used for their meat, N is high enough that it doesn't affect my decision whether to eat meat.
I agree that the answer to such questions lead to astronomical values in number-of-animals for any sort of equivalent. Why I still do not eat meat is simply because it is not necessary, and I can get the same joy of eating by eating something else. It is completely avoidable, no advantage for me, disadvantage for the animals. (Well, there was an argument on LW once that a cow should be happy that we eat cows because this dramatically increases the healthy-cow-life-years, so the cow-utilitarian calculation is mega-positive. However, total-utilitarianism does not seem to match my moral intuitions; I do not know about others.) However, I do not know how strong exactly the joy of tasting meat is for other people, maybe due to their enjoyment the animals get irrelevant compared to it. I also do not know if the amount of people avoiding killing animals if high-quality synthesized meat would exist.
Given that a human life can be saved for $1000 (this is a very conservative estimate, I understand the figure can get as low as $200 per life), this means that if Omega gave you the choice of one (presumably ideally altruistic) human getting a penny and saving 10,000 chickens who would otherwise live perfectly happy chicken lives, you'd take the penny. Now, this is a bit silly, but when you look at suffering rather than life it gets more serious. Humane treatment of animals costs money (to some extent though it's profitable). Should we not bother to waste money on experiments to determine which slaughtering procedures cause the least pain and distress? Should we allow wealthy gourmets to eat animals that were intentionally tortured before being slaughtered because they prefer the taste?
I like the numeric approach. However, something seems off, and I think it's that you're conflating the cost of saving a human life with the value of a human life. Your question is interesting, though. If Omega gives you the choice of N dollars or giving 10,000 chickens a perfect chicken life,at what N do you pick the money?
I guess part of the issue is quality of life. I'd pay more to get chickens who are/otherwise would lead painful and unpleasant lives onto Planet Chicken than I would to have Omega create them out of thin air. On the human side of it, there's more to life than avoiding malaria and elephantiasis. Ten million dollars is an obvious upper limit, in that I prefer a human living a life of hardship to a chicken living life at its best. I suppose I'd go for about $5 a head to "save" a chicken from never having existed, and maybe somewhere between $20 and $100 to save one from a horrific life. These are nothing more than nice, round numbers, which to some extent include emotional considerations like wanting to look nice rather than greedy. I'm majoring in genetics, and part of the prac work includes bioethics classes so after I've spent more time studying specific cases (and in later years possibly being involved in animal experimentation) I'll probably get a better grasp of the value of animal life and welfare. I think we can all agree that a human life is worth somewhere between 10 and several billion chickens though.
I think the numbers are large enough to make me suspicious of my own reasoning. Since I reason better about quality of life, let's talk about the break-even point where putting N chickens in factory-farming conditions are the moral equivalent of putting a single human in a factory-farming condition. A billion seems way too large. Maybe I'd say 100,000? A million? I hate chickens, but that seems like an awful lot of suffering. Like I said, I don't think my brain works on this level [http://lesswrong.com/lw/kn/torture_vs_dust_specks/]. More importantly, you're presenting a false dichotomy. We aren't talking about killing people, or putting them into factory farming conditions. We're talking about eating hamburgers instead of eating fried zucchini. How many hamburgers would you replace with non-meat foods to save a human life? 10^9? If it's anywhere near the N you assigned earlier, you should seriously consider not eating chickens. Disclaimer: While I don't eat pork or beef, I do eat chickens. Then again...this argument is making me rethink that decision.
Like I said earlier, I eat meat only rarely. I don't hate chickens or anything, but I don't think the welfare of non-sentient beings weighs very heavily on the scales of justice. If the choice is between factory-farm torturing a human and factory-farming N farm animals, I pick very large N again. If Omega asks me how many meals of meat I'd replace with non-meat meals to save one human, I'd give up all of mine. I don't like hamburgers that much anyway.

I'm assuming you mean non-sapient, rather than non-sentient.

I suggest you actually try to work out your break even numbers. Here are mine:

1 human, born into factory farming conditions, killed after 16 years, is about the same as 100 times as many pigs raised in similar conditions until killed at 8 months, for N = 2,400. For chickens killed at 6 weeks, my multiplier is around 20,000, so N = 2,800,000.

Given how much I like meat, I'm willing to subject a perfect stranger to factory-farming conditions for M years in order to be able to eat pork/chicken (produced out of thin air by Omega) for the rest of my life. My M is maybe 3 days. Cruel, but that's why I don't get to be the FAI. Although, I might be willing to be tortured in that way for 3 days in order to get a lifetime of meat.

This numerically suggests that I am cruel enough to eat up to 1.2 pigs or up to 1400 chickens during my life, if I can count that as an entire life's worth of pleasure from eating meat. If we can vat-grow meat within 40 years, this is more than 1kg / week (of chicken), more than I used to eat.

But wouldn't it be better if I just stopped liking meat? I've mostly done that already, and these calculations are based on remembering how much I used to enjoy meat. I've eaten meat four times in the last year, and never enjoyed it, so this calculation might not be valid anymore. Still, it offers some excuse for eating chicken, if not pork.

I generally avoid arguing with people who are already doing what I'd prefer they do. But I do find this point interesting. Try framing the argument this way: Omega lets you save one human life, but doing so requires you to create X humans who are extremely mentally retarded, to the point that they have no long term goals, can probably only experience pain or joy in the moment, and are incapable of the more complex pleasures and suffering that a regular human would be able to. But those X humans must spend their lives locked in a box that is rarely cleaned, force-fed food that is unhealthy for them, for about a year or two until they are killed. Then try the argument again, but replace the long description I gave with "human babies, who will never develop past baby-hood." Because I think it's legitimately similar. If there was a gene that caused a human to live up to about a year and then die, with no chance of growing up, but also be extremely tasty, would it be okay to clone a bunch of them to eat? For the record, my answer in terms of "lives saved" for this question is probably around 10,000 (basically started with the life expectancy of the human, multiplied by about a hundred, which is about how much more I think the average human is capable of appreciating life than the average pig. Note that this is an average human. The numbers do change if I knew what kind of life the human was likely to lead). I could be persuaded that the coefficient should be a bit more, but I really can't imagine it being higher than x10,000, for a total ratio of 1,000,000 : 1. If you assign a higher number for the average human, I think that's a decision made purely out of human-centric bias rather than the value of intelligence or human capacity for joy. And my answer in terms of "If you had to live your life being marginally less happy because you didn't get to eat tasty retarded-human-flesh, how many retarded-humans/babies would have to be saved in order to give up that amount o

"It's bad for humans." The scale on which we eat meat is demonstrably unhealthy, wasteful and recent (arising in Western culture in the last hundred years). The way Westerners eat in general is unhealthy and meat is just a part of that, but it's a significant factor.

There was a lot of discussion of nutrition a while ago. The general conclusion is that the literature is too confused to assign any one hypothesis high probability, but was leaning toward Atkins-style low-carb high-protein diets.

The conclusion I remember was learning towards low glycemic load diets, which includes low-carb diets but also includes pretty much anything that cuts down on processed sugar and flour. Notably also includes the leading diet among medical practitioners, the "eat your fruits and vegetables and cut down on the sweets" diet.
Leaning to low-carb high-protein for weight-loss, or as an everyday diet?

I have varying levels of empathy for different classes of beings (for example: my family and neighbours > people that live in a faraway and different country > my mother's cat > murderers and rapists > cows > insects > telemarketers who call during dinner to sell insurance > plants > rocks). The ordering seems to roughly correspond both to "things who are likely to be nicer towards me if I'm nicer towards them" and "genetic relatedness", both of which probably account for the evolution of our current morals in the first place.

Of course, "our morals evolved in order to fulfill goal X" doesn't mean that we should try to fulfill goal X instead of following our morals. But it explains why our moral intuitions generally have weird patterns. It' not clear to me whether that means our intuitions are something wrong, or that we should be cautious about coming up with simple rules to explain our morality.

My current position is to acknowledge that I care less about some entities than others, and that while some moral systems say that I shouldn't, those systems go against my intuitions, so it's not clear which of my intuitions or the moral systems are wrong - the fact that ultimately, moral systems aren't justified by anything much stronger than intuitions (and possibly something like game theory) is enough for me to stick to my badly-formalized intuitions for now.

I assume the telemarketer bit is a joke due to the placement below insects and, you know, murderers and rapists. I don't get why poor telemarketers have become such a punchline. They're just doing their jobs and happen to be creating trivial conveniences for the rest of us.
What is this, 2003? Do people still get telemarketing calls?
Yes, it was meant to be obvious that that was a joke. Other people might be more annoyed by telemarketers than you. [http://lesswrong.com/lw/dr/generalizing_from_one_example/] Also, a statement like this does not need to be considered accurate to be funny, it just needs to mention a group that is disliked at least slightly.
Oh, it's certainly a joke. But if you compare the subjective disutility generated per incident and the expected number of incidents over a career, telemarketers don't come out looking too good. Probably not murderer- or rapist-level bad, but I wouldn't be surprised if it came out to a mean total disutility in the same order of magnitude as your average mugger.

Among people who are aware of some of these issues, I frequently hear the most amazingly complex discussions concerning which kinds of meat consumption are ethically OK and which aren't. The ethical systems constructed in this way can become quite baroque. Needless to say, a large degree of assuming-the-consequent is involved in creating these ethical "systems."

That is, it reminds me of nothing so much as the sort of handwaving that well-meaning people sometimes do concerning the necessity of death (recently discussed, e.g., here and here). In both situations, there's one possibility that seems too fantastic to most people to be worth discussing: in one case, that death is unnecessary and worth fighting against; in the other; that it's wrong to kill and eat creatures that can feel and suffer.

Unfortunately, the suggestion that there might be ethical considerations to one's diet is usually considered extremely impolite to discuss. Obviously, various community consensuses do arise about these things in certain circles, but in society at large there's this sense that "nobody has the right to pass judgment on someone else's diet."

Anyway, whenever I hear these kinds of contortions I'm tempted to chime in: embrace the consequences of your beliefs. On some level you know you shouldn't be killing animals and eating them. Stop it.

What strikes me as particularly weird is that I have a vegan friend who made a point of saying "I'm not going to tell someone else they shouldn't eat meat." I don't actually know what she meant by that - whether she honestly didn't think it was her business, or whether she simply had observed that telling people they shouldn't eat meat has the opposite intended effect - they get pissed at you for telling them what they should and shouldn't do, and either ignore you or eat more meat just to spite you.

If she meant the latter, I agree. I don't think I've ever gotten someone else to become Vegetarian, but the approach that seems to produce most.... "respect" I guess is when I:

a) Make an effort to point out that I will have a hard time eating at a particular restaurant or event because of few vegetarian options. I say this as matter-of-fact-ly as I can. When people go "wait what?" I say "yeah I'm vegetarian" without attaching any particular judgment to it.

b) when/if people ask "why," I focus almost entirely on reasons to cut back on meat that are [i]entirely in humanity's best interest.[/i] Most people are vaguely aware that there are &q... (read more)

This is called leaving a line of retreat [http://lesswrong.com/lw/o4/leave_a_line_of_retreat/], and it's a very good strategic consideration within a disagreement.
Not nearly as bad as you seem to think it is.

I've voted this down because it lacks helpful information or reasons. This topic can turn uncivil, or at least useless, rather quickly.

Applied ethics is often a mindkiller.

I... don't see a quantification in his comment, and so I'm not sure how you're so confident he's misjudging it. The only implied one is "not worth the pleasure of eating meat," which strikes me as plausible.
It's actually even less than that: my implied quantification is "significant enough that you should at least make an attempt to study the issue before coming to a conclusion that you are acting correctly."
Well, as thew cows we currently need for meat alone produce about 18% CO2 equivalent gases, that's about 1/2 to 2/3 what traffic produces, it is an issue. It would remain an issue if we would go the zero-CO2 route through a thought-through nuclear option. It will become more an issue as traffic and heating/cooling gets improved through technology, but as more people get richer, the meat-consumption increases. ETD: see this line as deleted. kept for history. Well, these are just the facts. Judge by yourself.
Voted down because of the last line. I don't mean to imply that I disagree; what you've said sounds plausible enough to my admittedly rather uninformed mind. I appreciate facts (especially ones that come with citations). But your last line is unnecessary and snarky. Either (a) you've given us enough facts that we can come to a reasonable judgment without needing anything further, or (b) you have not. If (a), then why the final sentence? If (b), then why refer to what you've said as "the" facts?
Well, it seems that "just the" does not have the same softening tone in English than "lediglich" in German, and "judge by yourself" is somehow negatively associated. Wieder ins Fettnäpfchen getreten.
Yes, "these are just the facts" usually indicates strong disapproval of anyone who doesn't agree. No, not that I know of.
Thanks for the pointer.
A shorter version of my comment: I very much doubt that there is a convincing rebuttal to Bentham's and Singer's view that the crucial question we should ask when deciding whether to kill something and eat it is "Can it suffer?"
Taboo [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Rationalist_taboo] "suffer".

I do not believe that this is an instance in which an extended taboo facilitates better understanding. Particularly if you go as far as to insist on tabooing even 'pain'. It is true that if you 'taboo' for long enough you will end up with a reductionist technical explanation of physiology such that applying moral evaluations of any kind seems inappropriate. Yet given that the meaning of 'pain' is rather well understood this obfuscates discussion of values more than it helps.

It is also utterly absurd to insist that your opponent taboo 'suffer' and 'pain' while you yourself throw around "subjective experience" as a more appropriate alternative.

Why? (I'm not doubting you have a good reason, but the weight of the word "suffer" is essential to what morality's about IMO. I think it's valuable to be able to explain your views without using the word, but not necessary. If necessary "experience pain" works just as well.)
So, this is what Nietzsche called the morality of timidity. He enjoyed contrasting moralities that were about seeking X and moralities that were about avoiding Y- and I think that's a pretty good way to look at moralities (though I don't agree with his approach very strongly). A morality that pursues pleasure- even at the cost of pain- strikes me as more vibrant than a morality that pursues lack of pain- even at the cost of pleasure. Now, that's not an argument for happy vegetarians to become carnivores, but it is an argument for happy carnivores to not care about unhappy animals.
I don't know this aspect of Nietzsche's thought well at all, but this seems to be a case where he was just completely wrong. What metaethics makes judgments based on whether some ethical system is more "vibrant" than some other? What does that mean? Can moralities really be consistently classified into "seeking" and "avoiding"? What happens if you replace "carnivores" and "animals" in your last phrase with "criminals" and "victims"?
One could see it as an extension of natural selection. I agree with you it's odd- but metaethics is even more slippery than ethics, so I am reluctant to pass judgments instead of making descriptions. If I recall correctly, he had significant affection for the likes of Genghis Khan. I don't think he would sympathize very much with the petty robber but considers the mighty and powerful as operating on a different level from normal people, with correspondingly different morality. But it's been a while since I've read his work along those lines, and so I'm not entirely confident about that. I do recall a passage where Zarathustra claimed his favorite animals were the eagle and the snake, and he approves of predation in general, I suspect.

I do recall a passage where Zarathustra claimed his favorite animals were the eagle and the snake, and he approves of predation in general, I suspect.

So basically he's the real-world version of Salazar Slytherin?

With due respect to your wit, I would point out that although Slytherin the fictional character lived centuries ago, he was, in fact, invented after Nietzsche, and it is possible the correlation is noncoincidental and begins with Nietzsche as a cause.

I lolled. Apparently, yes.
Interestingly, Nietzsche's famous last rational action was interposing himself between a horse and its owner, who was beating it. I'm a little leery of the whole idea that the powerful have a different set of moral standards applied to them (as opposed to their having a different morality, which seems psychologically likely). Praising the great and powerful no matter what they do while still condemning Leopold and Loeb as monsters is a very convenient stance to take.
I don't have a perfect reply to that suggestion, but here's a start, which perhaps is good enough for the case at hand. I loosely paraphrase Peter Singer. Let's suppose we know what it means for ourselves (humans) to suffer -- we could get really specific about what that means, but we seem to have a kind of intersubjective consensus that suffices for the moment. Now, unless we believe we have immortal souls or something that enables us uniquely to suffer, our suffering (if, say, someone decided to kill and eat us) is due to our neurological makeup and is demonstrated externally by various kinds of observable behaviors. So, when we see that other organisms have neurological systems that are rather similar to ours (as most vertebrates do), and exhibit similar behaviors when injured or killed, a good hypothesis is that they are experiencing something like we are when we suffer. This is another case where, it seems to me, rather tortured reasoning is required to argue that other animals aren't really suffering even when we have every reason to think they are. Surely we want to err on the side of not causing the kind of suffering we ourselves would feel if injured or killed?
How far up the evolutionary tree do you believe suffering extends? Primates? Mammals? Vertebrates? Any animal with a nervous system? What about plant suffering? Does an overworked computer suffer as it frantically swaps memory between RAM and disk? Are you sure you're not committing the mind projection fallacy [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Mind_projection_fallacy]. Also, while we're on the subject why should suffering be the basis of morality, as opposed to something like subjective experience? I suspect your definition of "tortured reasoning" amounts to any complex reasoning that leads to conclusions you don't like.
I'm doing my best not to commit these fallacies, though of course not claiming to be infallible. I mean, we know a fair bit about what causes pain for humans in the physiological/neurological sense -- we know about nociceptors and how they work -- and we also know what kinds of behavior we expect to see when a human is in pain. We also know that mammals have the same kinds of physiological mechanisms that humans do for pain, and we know they respond to injury with the same kinds of external behavior that humans do when injured. (All this could not be said of plants, computers, or even quite likely non-vertebrate animals (although I do err on the side of caution with those and don't eat them either).) So, yes, I am claiming that there is a lot of evidence that pain and suffering for non-human mammals is a similar kind of thing to the pain and suffering that humans experience. And I am suggesting that when we cannot possibly know another being's subjective experience as if from the inside, but everything we do know about that experience (the neurology and the behavior) is consistent with it being the kind of thing we would normally hold ourselves ethically obligated to avoid, then we are ethically obligated to avoid it.
(Disclaimer: although it's still under development, my current moral system is based on satisfying the preferences as many entities as possible.) I believe it is possible that any of the above experience suffering. But I recognize that attempting to consider every possible source of suffering is impossible. So I'm using my best judgment based on how I know that I personally experience suffering, and how other creatures are likely to be similar to me. I am assuming that suffering requires a fairly complex nervous system, and that it is unlikely to have developed in lifeforms that don't respond much to stimuli. I eat clams, because as far as I can tell there is no reason for them to have developed the ability to suffer. They also (as far as I know, although it is possible I am wrong here) usually farmed in a manner that's most independent of the rest of the ecosystem. (Whereas I'd be okay with eating shrimp, but they are harvested from the ocean, not only catching other animals in the process but disrupting the food chain of creatures that eat them).
When it stops being under development, will you describe it in a top-level post?
It is not clear what you mean by this statement. Are you suggesting subjective experience is a better alternative or that both are equally absurd? It has already been interpreted to be the former [http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/3g8/vegetarianism/37va] at least once.
Replace "suffer" with "experience negative pleasure". How's that?
I think Nietzsche has put forward some rather tempting justifications for ignoring that. I don't think he's put forward convincing reasons for ignoring the pain of others, and so I don't know whether or not to call that a convincing rebuttal. Essentially, Singer's view strikes me as unconvincing because it's tautological. We should care about suffering because we should care about suffering.
No. We should care about suffering because suffering is bad. We care about the suffering of our fellow humans (surely you don't dispute that we are correct to do so?), and Singer's view is that most of the animals we eat are sufficiently close to humans neurologically that we should care about their suffering too. There's no tautology there.
This is where the tautology resides. (Perhaps it would be clearer to call it "defining your conclusion" or "circularity"?) I am ambivalent that we should categorically seek to reduce the suffering of our fellow humans (and ourselves). I am personally moved by most suffering I see, but I recognize that as an emotional response. I am aware of many situations in which suffering is a dramatically positive force, and many in which it is not. I don't like calling things bad, I like calling them bad at X. I also don't think our justifications for working to minimize the pain of our fellow humans are neurological- and so the biological similarity does not strike me as relevant for many valid approaches to the situation.
The idea that suffering can have positive effects is in no way mutually exclusive with the idea that it is itself bad. Is there any reason why the suffering of factory-farmed animals would be worth it?
Here we're discussing definitions, I think. If you assume suffering is bad a priori, that seems to me to preclude there being (worthwhile) benefits from suffering. I find that difficult to swallow. And this isn't just "surgery is worth it, even with the pain, but it would be more worth it without the pain"- this is looking at "no pain no gain" situations. Do they exist? I strongly suspect so. (I think many people overestimate how many there are, but that doesn't mean something things aren't better with a sting.)
Bacon. This is to say economics says yes. People's observable behavior indicates that they do consider the process worth it.
It shows that the benefit to the people is greater than the pain to the people. The pain of the pig is ignored. Considering the vast majority of the pain is to the pig, that's a pretty big oversight.
No, it doesn't say anything about pain to humans. It shows that people collectively consider it worth it. That information is valuable when considering questions like:
But, if you could pith the pig painlessly (or engineer pigs that did not suffer while their meat is grown / harvested), then the quality of the bacon would not alter (unless you're a sadist).
The question was 'worth it?', not intrinsically desirable. I'm sure there is an obligatory link in there somewhere. ;)
Our justifications for working to minimize the pain of our fellow humans aren't neurological. Our justifications for thinking that our fellow humans do experience pain are, in part, neurological (and in part based on our observations of their behavior). Once we have good reason to think that some action of ours does cause our fellow humans pain, then we have a moral reason to avoid that action. That moral reason may or may not be an insurmountable one, but causing a fellow human pain at least requires some appeal to some good that outweighs the pain. I had assumed that the leap here for most people would be extending moral consideration to non-humans. I'm surprised to see that the leap in this case appears to be extending moral consideration to beings other than oneself. I don't buy this. There may be situations in which suffering motivates some other positive action, but I can't see in what sense suffering itself could be positive -- as in, ceteris paribus, better to have suffering than not to.
I'm sorry, I'm being unclear. I'm not arguing that person X should maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain and not care about anyone else. I'm arguing that person X should find a different utility function than pleasure minus pain (and that includes their own). I'm very glad you included this phrase, because that's where our disagreement lies. I don't think ceteris paribus is an option in most of the cases I'm considering. For example, the positive effect of a rite of passage scales with the amount of suffering undergone during it.
My favorite pieces of art are mostly very sad. If you could somehow preserve everything else about them while taking away only the tragedy, I'd value them much less. Ceteris paribus, I prefer to live in a world where I can be driven to tears by stories of heroic self-sacrifice (for example). This is totally irrelevant to the question of animal suffering, though.
"Can it suffer" is relevant when the decision is about its suffering. "How much is its potential future life valued" (by humans, and by itself if it has a concept of the future) is more relevant to killing in particular. Arguably you could weigh the suffering involved in an immanent death more than the suffering in a much later death.

The same moral arguments keep cropping up in multiple threads, and responding to them all separately seems inefficient. Here's an attempt to summarize my views and head off a lot of identical conversations:

As I said before, I'm operating off of Preference Utilitarianism. I am still in the process of working through that (it's only recently that I tacked on the word "preference," I'm not 100% sure it solves the problems I wanted it to solve). But I strongly believe that the happiness and suffering of others IS important.

That is not a fact I will ... (read more)

I care less about the suffering of some groups, but can't really explain what criterion I use (and am in general wary [http://lesswrong.com/lw/3by/folk_grammar_and_morality/] of coming up with simple rules). I can explain why from an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense for me to care less about those who are only distantly related, and are unlikely to punish me if I'm not nice to them. I agree that this "why" is probably not the one you were asking about.
Truth be told, in my day to day life I instinctively care less as well. It's fairly easy to get myself to care about mammals with facial expressions I can recognize, harder for things like reptiles. At some point I made a conscious decision to choose "universal preferences" over "what personally makes me feel squicky or warm and fuzzy." That decision could, at least in part, be considered cooperating on a massive scale prisoner's dilemma. If I let my personal squick-factors persuade me on moral issues, I'm giving approval for other people to do the same. Humans used to consider the other tribe over the hill unworthy of moral consideration because they were "other." You can use "other" as a criterion, but you're increasing, in some small way, the chance that others will use that criterion to avoid giving consideration to you or people you care about. If you care about animal suffering but assign some coefficient of otherness to it, I think you should at least figure out what that coefficient IS, and then shut up and multiply.
I don't think "other" is the main criterion either - if we visit another planet and find it inhabited by aliens with approximatively 19th century europe technology, and consider them unlikely to harm us (their planet has no uranium, they're two feet tall and not particularly warlike, and we have nanoweapons and orbital lasers), I would still consider it very immoral to kill one of them, even though they are very "other", even less related to us than broccoli is, and being nice to them isn't particularly in our interest.

I was particularly taken aback by the Newtonmas invitation not even mentioning a vegetarian option.

God forbid someone should offer to make free food at their expense that isn't to your taste.

Am I the only one that this presumption strikes as breathtakingly rude?

See, the difference is not that meat isn't "to my taste". I like the taste. The problem is that it's EVIL.
Well, as I am seemingly just learning what thinks are "rude" in English: How strong is "taken aback" in this context? The dictionaries give me everything from "well, I was surprised" to "this is a real disaster!". I read it as the former, and would agree, as moral theory is so often a topic here that I would also be surprised if vegetarianism is no topic //at all//... Semi-OT: The sad thing is that although statistics show that moral philosophers do significantly more often agree to "killing animals for the purpose of eating them is wrong", they have a more or less exactly the same percentage of vegans/vegetarians in their group than other people. This is sad because whereas first aid course causes people to help others and escape the bystander effect, studying and teaching moral philosophy obviously does not. We often assume, especially for CEV, that knowledge of the facts is a much stronger divider for different human morals than our actual core values. However, this shows that even significant knowledge and even outspoken positions do not really lead to actually different valuations. And this is bad because it seems possible that there could live some supercharged posthumans side by side with regular humans (maybe semi-mutated, for life-span and health, maybe not at all). Will those posthumans decide that humans are not worth of moral considerations? I do not intent to stay on the Luddite side, but I do not want to associate with a group which thinks that abstract intellectual ability is the single-most everything-else overriding factor for moral reasoning.
In this case "taken aback" is a little stronger and hostile than "surprised," but it's not at all in terms of "I should get free food of my choosing." I'm not frustrated that a Holiday party on the other side of the continent isn't offering free food that I like. I'm frustrated that in a gathering of intellectuals who have dedicated their lives to rationality and the study of how to create AI that will, hopefully, be able to radically change the world, eating meat doesn't seem to have even registered as a bad thing with any of them. This does not bode well, IMO, on the nature of the hypothetical utopian future I might look forward to. (It was later pointed out that the menu DID include vegetarian things, but those things were all things I'd consider obviously a "side dish" as opposed to a main course. Other vegetarians might disagree with me on that, and if that was the intent of the organizers, than I do apologize. But when the subject was brought up in that thread it didn't seem to be)
Perhaps the intellectuals of less wrong individually have decided that they don't see animal suffering as a bad thing, or eating meat as leading to animal suffering, or any other very normal reasons for not choosing to not eat meat. I avoid eating meat because I prefer to get a higher percentage of my calories from carbohydrates in my diet than protein and fat. But when I'm working out, you can't get a better protein-to-fat ratio than you can in meat (nuts, grains, etc. all have at least a 1:2 protein:Fat ratio, lean meat is more like 9:1, and I don't like getting my dietary protein from supplements). Which is only to say there are reasons for eating meat (I guess I only addressed reason 2, but I've thought about reason 1, and reason 3 is initially unconvincing to me, although I should do more research about it.) It seems to me that you are surprised and/or upset by the fact that other rational people haven't come to the same rational conclusions as you. What you should rather be pointing out is that this is an actual discussion that rational people should be having, and such a discussion hasn't yet happened.
I agree. There is a reasonable expectation of vegetarian choices at public functions.

I think this is top-levelworthy as an exemplar of applying our x-rationality.

Related: a survey on dietary choices from last year.

What is the most convincing argument that a factory animal is suffering on a day to day basis?

I would note that the very act of eating is a pleasure for all creatures, and so is the process of going to sleep. I suspect the life of a factory cow is pretty routinized, such that it can learn the basic daily patterns and anticipate that it will be fed and that it will be able to rest and sleep on a regular basis. My dog is all about routine.

I wonder if there is a physiological correlate of suffering that is measurable. High cortisol? Beta-endorphins? Some change in brain structure?

Your dog doesn't spend its entire life in a box, you take it to the vet when it gets sick or injured, and you take it outside to poop so that it doesn't have to live in its own feces. You presumably feed it food intended to taste good and be healthy for dogs. I actually DO think seriously about the rest of your argument, but before I seriously respond to it I want to be clear that the comparison with your dog is almost completely irrelevant, and distracts from the issue. I don't know how the "net suffering" works out. I don't know whether, if given a choice somehow, animals in a factory would choose to die or to live, and how much they'd care. But I know that, at least with mammals, chances are the neural pathways are similar enough to humans that I can make some assumptions. Self reported happiness levels suggest that human happiness DOES adjust to new circumstances. People have a baseline level they usually return to, with dramatic events mostly causing temporary spikes. I've also read that people tend to be less happy when they have to agonize over available choices. So given that factory-farmed animals have pretty much one constant state of existence, and they are probably incapable of imagining anything better, I AM willing to grant the possibility (perhaps even likelihood) that their existence isn't a constant stream of torture, but rather a dull, aching pointlessness. Plenty of humans live in conditions just as bad and, however bad it gets, opt not to kill themselves. But I don't think "opt not to kill themselves" is a useful metric for determining a good moral framework. Human slaves may have adapted to their situation and made the best of it. That doesn't mean that "breed a race of slaves that doesn't know any better" is a good thing. I'm of the opinion that if we've decided that we have moral justification for producing infinite creatures with abysmal but barely livable lives, then it's far more likely that we have a made a mistake than devised a usefu
Your use of "pointlessness" makes me think of something. Saying that someone's life has a point (purpose) usually means they have some long-term goal that they work toward, which implies thinking about future possibilities and developing abstractions like "purpose". Not to say that the animals most people eat can't think into the future, but if they do live "in the moment" to a much greater extent than humans, doesn't that greatly reduce the cruelty argument? I think a sufficiently unintelligent human would be happy to sit and eat all day (as some are wont to do already, of their own volition), to say nothing of what a chicken might like. I'm not implying they're in paradise, but if a chicken's daily list of desires is "eat stand sit eat groom stand eat sit stand sleep", it doesn't sound like they'd even be experiencing a "dull, aching pointlessness", because that is precisely what they want and would be doing otherwise. I suppose my question is, do cows, chickens, pigs, etc. have long-term notions of contentment like humans do?
I don't think cows and chickens have much real sense of long term contentment. Pointlessness was perhaps a bad choice of word, since it implies human-style abstract thinking. I didn't mean the chicken sits in its cage thinking "man, what is the meaning of life? Why do I sit hear every day? Nothing changes... nothing gets accomplished, what am I doing with my lif--" (abruptly gets its head cut off). But I do think there may be a sort of proto-wondering. There's no complex question or desire for change, it just sits there with a vague dissatisfaction about its existence. I don't think there's a way to prove this yet, and probably never. (Unless we identify the exact neuron pattern for it in humans and discover something very similar in chickens. Maybe.) Food and sleep are definitely sources of pleasure, but being able to get exercise is another important one. Resting is nice, but if you're stuck in the same place too long you get cranky and irritable, and if you're stuck in the same place for weeks. I believe chicken-farming is less ethical than cow farming because chickens are literally stuck in either a 1'x1' box for their entire life, or they are thrown in a giant coop where each chicken still only gets about a cubic foot of space. In addition, they are given growth hormones to maximize production of meat, making them grow larger than their legs can support, leaving them practically immobile if not actually breaking their legs. Describing this situation as "they get to sit around and eat all day" is pretty significantly mischaracterizing it. On the flipside, cows by nature need to be able to graze, so they usually get to move around. I consider that a step up, but if they injure themselves while walking they're pretty much screwed. I'm a little less angry about this because, honestly that IS the situation they'd face in the wild (by contrast, the chicken situation is absolutely nothing like how they'd exist in the natural world). But they still are pumped full
Just one comment on chicken farming. I'm not too sure if you have actually worked or spent a large amount of time in a chicken processing plant or chicken farm, but you have used incorrect specifics about it. I have worked in one and the facts you used about chickens being "literally stuck in a 1'x1' box... or in a giant coop where each chicken still only gets about a cubic foot of space" is actually wrong - at least on the farms I have witnessed firsthand. If meat is stressed throughout life, and in particular before death, then it will be a terrible product. Businesses do not want bad products. Chicken farming actually regulates the heat for perfect comfort, delivers a constant amount of fresh water, a mixture of dietary requirements that delivers the right growth (if growth is too fast then it becomes a bad product), and also perfect amounts of light. Also chickens have been domesticated so what is the situation they would face in the wild? Instead of being eaten by humans they would be eaten by foxes, wolves, dogs, etc. I think that would be more traumatic (if they actually knew what that was) than being rendered unconscious through an electric shock before a quick death.
I realize the grandparent explicitly mentioned chicken meat, but I think a lot of the memes about chicken mistreatment come out of the egg industry, and may have crosspollinated. Do you have comparable insights about egg-laying chickens' conditions?
My intuition is that your view of animal happiness is closer to the truth than the vegetarians. First, I consider research on happiness even in humans, especially "Stumbling on Happiness" which book I highly recommend. Even for humans, happiness does not generally correlate with what you or I think would make you happy. A compelling example: conjoined twins are generally as happy as "singleton" (i.e. normal) people, but virtually no singleton would guess that intuitively. Generally, we adjust to the status quo across gigantically broad ranges: those who live in the slums of Bombay are not clearly happier or less happy than those of us living in mansions. So I would imagine chickens in ooky coops, cows in stockyards, like humans, adjust to the mean. Then have their moments of pleasure and moments of pain primarily as variations around that. And the terror or fear at slaughter? It seems very unlikely that they spend much time dreading it, as my dog trainer said to a couple who was sure the dog was punishing them for going out by pooping on the floor: "I think dogs live more in the moment than that." And I expect that for cows, pigs, and certainly chickens. So far, we live in only one world of a possible MWI. So far, mammals are born, they live, they experience emotions positive and negative, and they die. How much sense does it make to adopt a moral system which thinks we are wrong for just doing what nature has very many animals do for millions of years?

One nitpick:

How much sense does it make to adopt a moral system which thinks we are wrong for just doing what nature has very many animals do for millions of years?

Maybe a lot. Nature is fucked up. For example, remember Charles Darwin's parasitic wasps. The hell with nature.

Generally a very insightful post, though.

I for one like to bring up such tasteful subjects as traumatic insemination, "homoerotic necrophillia in the mallard duck", and baby eating.
Certainly chickens? Do you think birds are generally less intelligent/self-aware than mammals? Also see the following links that indicate how similar/intelligent some other species might be: * Bigger Not Necessarily Better, When It Comes to Brains [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091117124009.htm] * Clever New Caledonian crows use one tool to acquire another [http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/06/clever_new_caledonian_crows_use_one_tool_to_acquire_another.php] * Meet the Genius Bird: Crafty Crows Use Tools to Solve a Three-Step Problem [http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/04/21/meet-the-genius-bird-crafty-crows-use-tools-to-solve-a-three-step-problem/] * Metacognitive Apes [http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/03/metacognitive_apes.php] * Chimpanzees Prefer Fair Play To Reaping An Unjust Reward [http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2010/04/chimpanzees_prefer_fair_play_o.php] * Scientists say dolphins should be treated as non-human persons [http://www.physorg.com/news181981904.html] * Evidence suggesting that humans and other primates process numbers using common cognitive skills with a shared evolutionary origin. [http://scienceblogs.com/neurophilosophy/2010/01/single_cells_in_the_monkey_brain_encode_abstract_mathematical_concepts.php] * Good Dog, Smart Dog [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/01/weekinreview/01kershaw.html?_r=2&partner=rss&emc=rss] * Common fish species has 'human' ability to learn [http://esciencenews.com/articles/2009/06/16/common.fish.species.has.human.ability.learn] * Octopus carries around coconut shells as suits of armour [http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/12/octopus_carries_around_coconut_shells_as_suits_of_armour.php] * Altruistic chimpanzees clearly help each other out [http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/05/altruistic_chimpanzees_clearly_help_each_other_out.php] * Amazing rats [http://blog.the-scientist.com/2010/03/25/amazing-rats/] * R
Hm. I am currently not clear enough in my head to think it through, but something inside my head thinks that as transhumanists/singularitarians (I somehow dislike those nouns) we have to deal with a quantification of negative utility in inferior species in a way that makes it difficult to dismiss neurological facts with regard to "moral worth" of any entity. I have not thought it through, tough.
Hm. I am currently not clear enough in my head to think it through, but something inside my head thinks that as transhumanists/singularitarians (I somehow dislike those nouns) we have to deal with a quantification of negative utility in inferior species in a way that makes it difficult to dismiss neurological facts with regard to "moral worth" of any entity. I have not thought it through, tough.
I nominate this for the title of "Most Gratuitous Quantum Mechanics Reference of the Month".
I think that what you bring up is a good reason to avoid using happiness as the sole or majority measure for utility or moral value. Because I doubt you would be at all willing to relocate to the slums of Bombay, even knowing this, and you shouldn't. Likewise, swine might get used to (and be as happy) living practically swimming in their own feces and stillborn siblings, but to the extent that we realize that they would really rather not, we shouldn't force them to. If they are really so mindless as to be indifferent, I don't see that we should care, but I don't think that's the case. Also, a nitpick; research shows that happiness isn't correlated with all those things we think make us happy above a threshold. People who starve on a regular basis, or are continually abused really are less happy than the rest of us. We don't fully adapt to regular torment. The threshold is perhaps shockingly low, but shouldn't be ignored.

If this thread can bear anything so prosaic:

On the off-chance that anyone is interested in eating more vegetarian food but doesn't know where to begin, I've found Mark Bittman's vegetarian cookbook to be pretty good. It contains hundreds of dishes, most of which have several variations. The effect of this is that you learn not just rigid recipes, but highly extensible techniques and templates. I've used this book for a couple of years and by now I improvise most of my cooking based on things I've learned from it.

On related note, "Diet for a Small Planet" not only contains a lot of important facts about the food industry, but is also an excellent cookbook, in case that matters to anyone.
I have briefly glimpsed through it (a vegetarian friend owns it) and greatly enjoyed its section on "here is how you match together staple foods to have a balanced diet," since that is probably the hardest part about turning vegetarian.
It is actually not hard at all. Some recent studies (don't have references, sorry) showed that you don't need to get all of your essential amino acids in a single serving so there is no real need to stack your meals to contain a complete protein. The key is that on average you get all of your essential amino acids which, except for one or two (in recent debated studies), you can't really overdose on. Another study showed that it is actually really hard to not get all of your amino acids in any diet. Since just about every food you eat has some combination of amino acids in it, unless you are eating literally the same thing every meal of every day you are incredibly likely to get all of your essential amino acids on a daily (and even likely a per meal) basis. The study I read indicated that the author couldn't come up with a reasonable "average daily meatless meal set" that did not contain all of the essential amino acids throughout the day. The same goes for a vegan diet. Unfortunately a while back, when vegetarianism and veganism hit off there was the incorrect belief that you needed to get complete proteins in a single sitting. While this has since been shown to be incorrect, it seems that it will forever fuel the fires of anti-vegetarianism debate.
I also don't have references, but I believe this is only true for diets mostly composed of Real Food. I seem to remember that in the past, foods with gelatin as the main protein have caused fairly widespread amino acid deficiencies among those who ate a lot of processed foods. Not that I would recommend this in any case!
This is (was) my diet; which was pretty low on lysine (but probably not deficient). I've now added some oats and quinoa which I believe have solved the problem (and am looking into amaranth flour).

A lot of us probably just call it akrasia and shrug (me included). I don't know any convincing reason for eating meat that doesn't make one immoral by usual modern standards.

If the whole thing seems way too daunting, you can consider simply cutting back rather than going... well.... cold turkey. (Pun semi intended). If you approach it solely as a health issue and try to reduce your meat intake to what is actually recommended, that by itself would probably be a tremendous improvement.

Massive amounts of cows require massive amounts of grain

If that was the limiting factor I'd expect it to show up in the price of meat.

Vegetarians tell me that this is because of agricultural subsidies.
I grew up on a beef farm. There were no agricultural subsidies of that kind in place in the jurisdiction. It was still profitable to sell beef and the prices were not particularly exorbitant.
What did you feed them [http://www.thefreemanonline.org/uncategorized/feeding-bread-to-pigs/]? I strongly suspect that's where the subsidies would show up. What I hear is that it's water prices- if they were allowed to float, that would dramatically raise the price of meat. But I haven't researched that issue, so treat that as hearsay.
Ridiculous subsidies to the agricultural industry is not a worldwide phenomenon. Pun intended? (Incidentally the prices are allowed to float here.)
Lucky! Are you outside the OECD? I haven't looked into it heavily, but I was under the impression that all of those countries had rather massive agricultural supports.
Given that I mentioned my background I assume you mean lucky for everyone else. Subsidies may not be efficient but the actual recipients tend to benefit. More government based income would have been handy. New Zealand then Australia (here) are the most efficient agricultural producers in the OECD in terms of Producer Subsidy Estimate (PSE). About one fifth of the average. We tend to be the ones bitching about subsidies (and tariffs). Their impact on us is primarily to damage our export market.
Does this make sense? I've heard the figure that cattle require 40 units of grain to produce beef with as many calories as one unit of grain. If this is true, and beef costs only ten times as much as flour, we should be subsidizing about 75% of the cost of raising cattle beyond whatever subsidies we have for the grain we feed them (much of the latter should be reflected in ground corn and wheat flour prices). I don't actually know the numbers. My uneducated hunch is that we subsidize, but not to that level. I could also be missing something important in my model, like if the way we subsidize corn makes it basically free to feed to cattle, but still costly to feed to humans.
I wouldn't be surprised if transportation + milling + packaging make for a lot of this difference. I would expect bulk meat prices per unit to drop more slowly than bulk grain prices per unit, which is in the right direction to turn a 1:40 ratio into a 1:10 ratio.
I believe this does actually show up in the price of grain in poor countries. So even if you don't care about bovine suffering, if you care about human suffering there are mechanisms that reward eating less meat.
I believe this does show up. Quick Googling indicates that the wholesale price of ground beef is about ten times that of flour, and that squares with how much I think I've seen in supermarkets. Is there a reason you don't think that counts?
The point was that it showed up in damage to soil that doesn't cost more NOW but will later.
At any rate this is an argument in favour of pricing externalities better, not an argument against meat in general.
What exactly are the externalities supposed to be here? If the farming land is privately owned and the property rights secure in the long run, the cost of soil depletion is fully internalized. Or is there some wider-scale process going on that presents a collective action problem for farmers?
Internalizing future negative externalities without accounting for them now doesn't solve the problem, especially if people aren't aware of it. In a larger sense, the negative externalities of climate change are fully internalized to the human race, but as long as they don't affect us yet, we have little individual incentive to care. Which is to say that a farmer that may go bankrupt in 20 years because the farm will no longer be able to sustain production is not going to increase prices unless the farmer is quite cognizant of the fact and is planning for it. Most won't.
So, new American tractors are now satellite-driven to ensure they don't take the same path, in order to decrease the amount of soil they kick up and erosion that happens. I find it unlikely many American farmers are oblivious to these issues.
That's pretty cool. Part of my reply to Vladimir addresses your question; I think [North] American farmers aren't all that oblivious, but I suspect that they are still more optimistic than they ought to be. 20 years also might be too short a time window; 50 years might be more appropriate, and the problem still remains. If nothing else, psychology tells us that once we start talking about a 50 year time window, we should have a very high prior for people being overly optimistic and insufficiently discounting future costs.
But why? In countries with stable governments and secure property titles, plenty of economic activity takes place with time horizons of this magnitude, and even much longer ones. What is it that makes landowners so irrationally shortsighted?
Poverty. If you have no income, and $X in savings that produce 5% interest, if 0.05X isn't enough to live on, you're still going to live on the money you have, even if you're aware that it will run out. I think farmers in developed nations are much better off, but that farmers in the developing world are depleting topsoil faster than we can afford to have it depleted, to say nothing of the future cost to themselves. I further am under the impression that topsoil depletion is still a problem in the US, and its current resolution is forcing faster topsoil depletion in the rest of the world. If you have specific information that this is not the case, I'm basing this impression off a large number of things that I've read that all might be out of date, or collectively too pessimistic about current conditions. Edit: also note the last paragraph of my reply [http://lesswrong.com/lw/3g8/vegetarianism/38q7] to Vaniver.
Well a large number of problems facing humanity can be dismissed as "just price in externalities/reduce transaction costs and everything will be fine" but until that's achieved tactics for reducing the social costs must be considered. I do wonder how many of the people responding to a given complaint with "Externalities!" actually go on to at the very least think about and discuss those external effects, and how many respond with the mentalese equivalent of "that's that problem sorted". This example is particularly instructive, since it's unlikely anyone on this board is in a position to make major reforms with respect to land tenure and property rights.

I wish TGGP was still around to expound on his Ass-Kicking Theory of Morality. But to sum it up (although I know I do it no justice) - animals have no moral weight because they have no ability to hurt us.*

Isn't this the same reason we're so worried about creating a FAI? Because we know that we won't have ANY ass-kicking-ability vs a GAI and therefor our moral weight to it will be nil. We have to impose our values onto the GAI before it is beyond our ability to hurt.

(*For simplicity's sake this ignores the moral weight that humans can give to certain animals (pets, livestock, etc) by threatening to use their own ass-kicking-ability to support the chosen beneficiaries)

On New Year's Eve this year, I made a spontaneous resolution to go vegetarian. It wasn't exactly a well-thought out rational decision; I mainly just wanted to see what it was like and if I could do it. I never really liked the cruelty argument, probably because that would entail coming to face with the fact that I was responsible for quite a bit of that cruelty. Mainly, I was interested in health benefits, and figured a good way to test those would be to become my own guinea pig. Ten days into the new year, I've only eaten meat twice (I had sushi with ... (read more)

Hi TheRev. I became vegetarian at the age of 20. In my case, the conversion wasn't accompanied by any emotion, and was the result of rational reflection: I just concluded that eating meat caused much unnecessary suffering to other sentient beings. There is of course a selection bias, but most of the vegetarians I know (including many folks at 80,000 Hours, my current employer) have become vegetarians for similar reasons. Here's a relevant comment [http://www.halfsigma.com/2006/12/vegetarianism_a.html?cid=26886048#comment-6a00d8341bf6ae53ef00d834d1623353ef] by Carl Shulman:
Okay, I realize I'm pretty late for a reply to this post, but anyway: Yes, I did try to make a rational decision about my diet. In my case that was a step to being a vegan, but I don't think that's very relevant in this context. I'm surprised no one else commented on this, but maybe that's due to other reasons than lack of people who decide on their diet using rational thinking. About 2 years ago, I heard of a book called "Eating animals" by Jonathan S. Foer and felt that this might be an okay source to get some insight in a subject I didn't know much about; the live of farm animals. The book provided a lot of insights and sources and the author seemed to try being as unbiased as possible, while giving a very close insight in how animals live under different farming conditions. I reacted very emotionally to the book. So I guess my decision wasn't completely rational, but I do think the arguments are watertight if you look at factory farming and your premises are the same as mine (as in, definition of suffering, whether suffering (of animals) should be diminished, ...). I did make a conscious effort to decide rationally. Actually the author was in favor of becoming a vegetarian (which I was already, for more vague reasons, when I read the book) but from the arguments alone I immediately thought going vegan was the best option. It was a significant hurdle to go from that thought to being a vegan in practice, with thoughts like "But I like [unvegan food option]!" "Me a vegan? I never associated with that label" "Won't I be a pain for other people to live around?". Anyway: Feeling the appropriate emotion about the facts doesn't make a decision less rational. I am a very empathic person and that made it easier for me to stay with the choice. Two other people I know switched to a vegan diet after I spoke to them, both involved with rational thinking. So that would make three.
If you're still eating pseudo-vegetarian diet and motivated by the cruelty argument, you should probably check out: http://www.utilitarian-essays.com/suffering-per-kg.html [http://www.utilitarian-essays.com/suffering-per-kg.html] and http://measureofdoubt.com/2011/06/22/why-a-vegetarian-might-kill-more-animals-than-an-omnivore/ [http://measureofdoubt.com/2011/06/22/why-a-vegetarian-might-kill-more-animals-than-an-omnivore/] It seems eating eggs might be much worse than eating most kinds of meat (except fish).

About a year ago I stopped eating mammals; for some time before that, eating them had started to make me queasy.

I do not feel that killing animals amounts in any way to murder, but I would on an emotional level feel moral discomfort if asked to kill an animal, or at least most mammals. To prevent myself from encouraging acts I otherwise don't like, I try not to take actions that ask or force people to do things I'm morally repelled by, even if that moral revulsion isn't one I have a strong argument for.

I think it is fair to draw a distinction between murder and whatever-you-call-it-when-you-eat-things-that-can-suffer. I think murder has a specific connotation of killing something intelligent enough that you could have made a contract with it. Whether that's worse or not, I'm not sure. (Probably won't get universal consensus here, since the word "murder" predates any widespread concern for anything other than humans, but I think that's what I'd go with).
Currently, for normal people, murder is simply killing of humans, even if they are to young (baby) or to dumb to be ever made a contract with. Do not overcomplicate your argument, it's not necessary.
I don't think there's anything wrong with formulating a moral system that can survive the realization that certain animals are intelligent or that aliens exist. I think there's a good reason to make murder distinct from killing, but "because they are human" is a bad reason to draw moral distinctions. So unless I'm actually talking to "normal people" (instead of a blog of people dedicated to rationality) I don't see a reason to oversimplify my definitions.
Sorry, I meant it to concentrate more on the "make a contract" with than "human", and I got the impression that many LWers still would not-killing-babies see as correct.
I agree. I think killing a non-human animal is a lot less than murder, but still probably / possibly bad. I see no reason to make animals suffer, either from poor living conditions or from the method of their execution. If we raised animals in pleasant conditions and killed them painlessly, I would be hard pressed to object on the grounds of suffering to their death, except for possibly the most intelligent / seemingly self-aware animals. Of course, since we don't raise animals like that, I have earlier objections. As far as suffering goes, I rate the suffering of pigs > sheep > cows > chickens >> fish >> arthropods. The very miserable living conditions of pigs upsets me, but I don't plan to dedicate my life to effecting change in that area. Many primates and cetaceans are far enough up the list that I would actively try to stop someone who was killing them. I realize that both are killed for food, and it upsets me, but human suffering is more important to me, and I think I can be more effective at stopping it.

Edit: I originally wrote some defense of responsibly raised food with respect to point 3, which you actually seem to have addressed in the original post.

I believe the other issues are much more complicated than you make them seem, which is to be expected but makes convincing someone more difficult (and makes it way harder to compete against justifications of the status quo). A lot of the meat I eat I can justify from the perspective of animal cruelty (I am fine, for example,being cruel to most of the life on earth, and I am completely fine killing almost a... (read more)

From the (very limited) stuff I've seen on this issue, I believe the environmental burden is smaller for smaller animals. So sheep and chickens are more defensible than cows and horses, say. As for changing your eating habits, it's always easier to make positive changes than negative changes. Find replacements for things you enjoy now, and work them into your diet. When I started baking my own bread and got my hands on grains with good amino acid balances, I stopped wanting to get chicken. But I really like bread, and your mileage may vary. (I hear about 10% of people simply do not thrive on a vegetarian diet.)
There was a period of time (before converting to vegetarianism) where I tried to mostly eat chicken and other smaller animals, for that reason. But the more I learned, the more my best guesses about how animals experience suffering led me to believe that while chickens are more environmentally friendly, they also suffer more, and I wasn't sure how those factors weighed against each other. Obviously I solved the issue eventually by becoming vegetarian. But if animal cruelty isn't a concern for whatever reason, it does make more sense to eat chicken than cow. (Not entirely sure, but I think the ratio of energy input : output when farming cows was something like 40:1, whereas with chickens it's something like 7:1)
I still eat chicken. This thread is making me rethink that decision once more. However, I have lived around chickens, and am convinced that they have been bred to the point of minimal intelligence and awareness. I know there exist "smart" chickens, but the ones I've been around have been unable to learn to stay away from painful and dangerous things, even after nearly daily exposure. If we have to keep a chicken behind a fence because after five days in a row it still doesn't know not to go near the dog that keeps biting it, I think its suffering is very low on my scale of importance. Pigs, on the other hand, learn quickly, have long memories, and seem to exhibit a wide range of emotions. Their suffering hurts me quite a lot, though still not nearly as much as a human's.
I'm not really sure how I feel about intelligence relating to "deserving compassion." I think high intelligence is an indicator of a complex brain system, and that it might indicate the ability to suffer ADDITIONALLY because it is able to perceive long term dread or hopelessness or something like that, but I think it's perfectly possible to be stupid enough to keep touching a burning stove, yet still hurt every time, and it doesn't mean that continuously, deliberately burning that entity is okay. I'm not entirely sure what you mean by awareness. If the chicken honestly doesn't even seem that bothered by the dog... well, I'm not sure what to think about that. But I'm also not sure how much I'd generalize from that one example either. As far as intelligent animals go, however I will note that squid are not only pretty smart, but the manner in which they are caught (at least some of the time, haven't done enough research yet to see whether there are other practices and how frequent they are) involves tricking them into wrapping their mouth around a series of barbs and then trapping them on it. If anyone does know some specifics about the calamari industry I'd be curious. So far my google-fu hasn't worked out that well. http://www.squidjig.com/commercialstylesquidjigs/coastalsquidjigs.htm [http://www.squidjig.com/commercialstylesquidjigs/coastalsquidjigs.htm]
In my moral calculus, intelligence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for deserving compassion or consideration. Other entities can have "derived" compassion if they are valued by those that I value. I feel I should partially share the values of others, which usually includes valuing themselves. Entities that aren't aware or intelligent enough to have even rudimentary goals or values don't normally get my concern. An entity could also simply not value itself, but evolution doesn't produce many of those, so I haven't seen any. That chicken was exceptionally stupid, but it was among dozens not much smarter. The example wasn't intended to illustrate that memory is necessary for value...but evolution also doesn't produce many intelligent entities that are unable to learn. Chickens seem very reflexive, and not at all self-aware to me. I'm not willing to bet my life on this, but I currently don't care much for them. Maybe 20,000 chicken-years to each human-year. I've never thought much about the moral value of cephalopods, but until I think more about it I won't eat them. I don't really enjoy eating them much anyway.
One thing kind of bugs me. Chicken is normally cheaper than beef at grocery stores and at most of the medium-priced chain restaurants I've been to. If chicken costs less to produce than beef, this makes sense. On the other hand, at every fast food restaurant I've been to, the hamburgers are always cheaper than the chicken, and I have no idea why.
I think that's just a demand (and sort of supply) thing. At fast food places, hamburgers are the established, traditional "common" thing, whereas chicken is slightly exotic and interesting. (Exotic is too strong a word, but on the nonexotic-exotic spectrum, chicken sandwiches are higher than beef).
And thus, we evolve into Babyeaters.
As I said, the issues are a lot more complicated. I'm supplying the basic gists of the arguments with the intention that people who aren't familiar with them should go find some professional literature to get themselves familiar with them. I'm not educated enough to defend it that well myself (at least, not tonight). Someone who is better equipped can probably beat me in an argument about how precisely it impacts the environment. But beating me is irrelevant - winning arguments doesn't make you right. If you HAVEN'T looked at the environmental issues, there's a good chance you're missing out on important considerations. The cow pollution > automobile pollution statement might be more hyperbolic or complicated than I made it out to be, but the bottom line is that cow pollution IS a real concern, however it compares to automobile pollution. There are ways to eat meat that doesn't impact the environment, doesn't impact human health standards, and causes minimal suffering to the animals in question. But my general heuristic is that unless you know exactly where your meat is coming from, chances are it comes from a food industry that is harmful in all three categories.


[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

You missed valuing the lives of nonhumans.

Perhaps the intellectuals of less wrong individually have decided that they don't see animal suffering as a bad thing, or eating meat as leading to animal suffering, or any other very normal reasons for not choosing to not eat meat.
I avoid eating meat because I prefer to get a higher percentage of my calories from carbohydrates in my diet than protein and fat. But when I'm working out, you can't get a better protein-to-fat ratio than you can in meat (nuts, grains, etc. all have at least a 1:2 protein:Fat ratio, lean meat is more like 9:1, and I don't like ... (read more)

If eating meat is wrong because animals suffer, is it bad to eat animals that don't suffer? Most farm animals are man-made, genetically modified by breeding, to provide food for man. I have been told that some humans cannot experience pain. I suppose that condition may occur from time to time in domestic animals. Suppose pain was bred out of animals raised for food or labs genetically modified animals to eliminate pain. Would meat eating then be less immoral? Because domestic animals are bred for food, they are highly specialized. Dairy cattle and chicken ... (read more)

Well, you start with an interesting tidbit: You probably know The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. There, the food presents itself before committing suicide to be eaten later. Nice thought, though as I think currently I would disapprove of creating a sentient being that wants to kill itself. But maybe that's just me. However, I would rate it as much less bad to kill a no-suffer animal, as I already disapprove much less of killing insects than of fish. Well, most of humans could not survive with other humans assistance either... I for instance would definitely not survive on my own. Not eating meat is often anthropomorphic too. Try killing a kitten on the streets to eat it by yourself. Even better: Buy a dog, go out, kick it. You will be charged with cruelty to animals (at least where I live, and I support that charge). Most people here want that to be changed. Some people here, EY for instance, even simply want to change it, if it just would be so simple... From statistics within industrialized countries we know that not eating meat does not cause earlier death. So I would cancel the meat out of the causality loop here. There is lot of protein deficiency in the 3rd world. Meat is one way to solve that issue, but not the only. Depending on the natural givens around, local food production may even depend on it. Well, only partly agree. Even in Austria (with relatively high de-facto standards for farm animals) wild animals do not live worse, and for pigs, for instance, the standard for farm animals is horribly low. Cows, in general, die very painlessly. There are some farmers who even shoot the cow while on the grass, to reduce any pre-death stress to practically zero. Well, taking the correct amount and relations of macro- and micronutrients is healthier than incomplete diets. Meat is a (health-wise) good possibility, but not the only option. Well, I am glad you explained my moral system to me.
Ugh. Without paragraph breaks, the above is very unpleasant to read. Please add more structure to your posts. Human vegetables cannot experience pain. Some aware humans may not experience pain from being burnt or cut, but they still experience emotional and psychological pain. This is a very important distinction. I think much of the suffering we cause animals is in the latter categories, although I think they have far less ability to experience such (so the same situations cause far less pain then they would a human). That said, if we treat and kill animals humanely, their deaths don't bother me unless the animals seem aware and intelligent enough to be invested in goals that we might be thwarting by ending their lives. Likewise, if we could engineer animals so that they could not feel any sort of pain or distress, physical or emotional, I don't think I could object to any sort of ill-treatment. I wouldn't necessarily approve, but that's more of a squick thing than an actual offense to my morals.
I did. It seemed fine in the 'post' window. But the original formatting was done in Word.

Personally I would prefer growing up in prison and being slaughtered when done growing to never having existed in the first place.

The consequence of eating less meat would seem to be fewer farm animals existing. It seems possible, even likely, that many farm animals suffer so much that their existence is net negative, though I find that hard to judge. But arguing that this has to be the case for any and all kinds of farming seems to be a stretch to me. If you are concerned about the wellbeing of animals buying low suffering high happiness meat and encoura... (read more)

Seriously? I wouldn't. (I wonder if it would be worth doing a poll on that...)
Does it depend to the life quality in prison and the life span before being slaughtered at all? Maybe I'm just envisioning a nicer prison.
American prisons are orders of magnitude nicer than what factory farm animals grow up in.
Semi-related: an interesting argument for legalizing bestiality is that what the zoophile does to their animals in their home is done in the agribusiness industry but on scales orders of magnitude larger (and the goal is to get a buck, not get off). When you frame the issue of "should the person down the street be able to rape their dog?" in the context of "should the farm down the street be able to rape hundreds of cows routinely?" things look somewhat different.
There's some odd stuff in the culture to the effect that doing a bad thing for fun is drastically worse than doing it as part of one's job.
As there should be. Doing it as part of one's job makes barely any impact at the margin. Doing it for fun usually makes the full bad effect.
You're saying that people are apt to be more thorough about doing what they enjoy? However, the badness done as part of jobs can happen on a grand scale and scarcely be noticed.
No, just referring to a basic principle of economics as it relates to personal responsibility.
I still don't know what you mean. Margin of what? Impact of what? Possibly relevant: [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superior_Orders]
If you refuse a job getting paid to do 478 units of bad things for $3,000 you will not prevent 478 bad things from being done. At best removing yourself from the labour market may mean that the sinister employer may only be able to afford someone who can do 475 bad things for the $3,000. There are also cases where taking the job yourself may reduce the amount of 'bad' that gets done. If you actually care about what is happening you may be able to minimise the damage. You will not take shortcuts, maybe you will put in some extra effort to give the employer what they want while doing slightly less damage. Conscientious objection and blaming the individual employee (calling them 'bad', etc) is a naive approach to achieving change.
There are a couple of problems with this. First, it proves too much: it allows one to engage in all sorts of wrongdoing so long as someone is willing to pay for it. Second, there's some acausal effects whereby if you refuse to do bad things, people using the same algorithm as you will similarly refuse to do bad things. Also, by doing bad things, you give your implicit approval of others doing them. Finally, by accepting pay to do wrong, you encourage employers to pay people to do wrong.
This is hardly odd- it's not hard to see someone choosing to be a janitor because someone has to do it, but it's weird to see someone choosing to be a janitor because they enjoy working with shit. That still works the same if you move from janitor to executioner or animal rapist.
What's odd about it is that if something is bad and people do it for pleasure, there's probably going to be less of it than if it's part of what's considered valuable for large institutions. I think. Actually, there are examples pointing in both directions. Your example of animals being raped backs my theory-- I don't think there are nearly as many animals being sexually abused by people who like that sort of thing (nor would there be if bestiality were socially accepted) as there are animals being forced into breeding in the food industry. On the other hand, there are plausibly more dogs forced into fighting because there's money to be made at it than there would be it it were only a private pastime.
I actually made this exact argument recently (I am currently in a production of Albee's The Goat, so zoophilia is coming up rather more frequently in my conversation than it typically does), and it was officially declared the most appalling thing I'd said in recent memory. I managed to suppress the urge to reply "Moving on to child sacrifice..."
A more direct comparison is cockfighting and poultry farming [http://liberationbc.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/battery_cage_01.jpg].

I'm >95% vegan for trophic and taste reasons (at many restaurants, the most palatable option includes meat; thankfully I get less than 5% of my calories from eating out). I have no strong opinions on the moral side of things.

The materialistic approach states that everything can be explained by the laws of physics, and all is caused by the interaction between the particles which compose all things. This approach is mostly accepted by the scientific community, and I believe most atheists accept it. Considering this approach, the suffering is nothing but chemical and physical reactions that occur in the central nervous system, not to mention that the animals themselves are just a bunch of particles that are not greatly different than the air itself. On the other hand, if you co... (read more)

New to LessWrong?