When I imagine an animal welfare EA group, I imagine views breaking down something like:
- 50%: If factory farmed animals are moral patients, it's more likely that they have net-negative lives (i.e., it would better for them not to exist, than to live such terrible lives).
- 50%: If factory farmed animals are moral patients, it's more likely that they have net-positive lives (i.e., their lives may be terrible, but they aren't so lacking in value that preventing the life altogether is a net improvement).
This seems like a super hard question, and not one that changes the importance of working to promote animal welfare, so naively (absent some argument for a more informative prior) it should have a 50/50 split within animal welfare circles.
(Possibly more effort should go into the net-positive view within EA because it's more neglected by animal welfare activists, who tend to be veg*ns; but the space as a whole is so neglected that I suspect this shouldn't be a large factor.)
Within the "net-negative" camp, in my unanchored "what would I naively expect?" hypothetical, I then imagine dietary preferences breaking down something like:
- 10%: Approximate veg*nism or approximate reducetarianism. ("Approximate" to allow for carve-outs like bivalves and especially-moral animal products. The group generally strongly encourages all members to have at least one carve-out, because bivalves in particular are such a clear case and dietary purity ethics is a risky attractor to avoid.)
- 10%: Handshake-itarianism.
- 20%: Boycott-itarianism.
- 60%: Anything goes. A normal meat-eating diet, optimized only for health and convenience. This is the standard animal welfare EA diet, because EA is generally about optimizing your positive impact on the world, not about purifying your personal actions of any possible negative impact.
The number would be much higher than 60% on strictly utilitarian grounds, but humans aren't strict utilitarians and it makes sense for people working hard on improving animal lives to develop strong feelings about their own personal relationship to factory farming, or to want to self-signal their commitment in some fashion.
Within the "net-positive" camp, I imagine:
- 10%: Sentience-maximizing diets. If you think animals in factory farms have net-positive lives, then it makes sense to want to increase the number of animals (by eating the most meat-heavy healthy diet possible) while also working to improve their welfare.
- 10%: Handshake-itarianism.
- 20%: Boycott-itarianism.
- 60%: Anything goes.
Handshake-itarianism observes that the ~veg*ns and the sentience-maximizers are sort of offsetting each other's efforts, and that it can make more sense for Bob the ~Veg*n and Alice the Sentience-Maximizer to pair off and each agree to eat a "compromise" diet (e.g., both eat meat but only on the weekend). This has a few nice consequences:
- Both diets are likely to be healthier, because they'll be more nutritionally diverse/balanced. This makes it likelier that both EAs will be more productive and have better lives.
- The outcome can be closer to an optimal trade between Alice and Bob's values, because it's less likely to be constrained by either individual's personal circumstances or limitations.
Maybe Alice has an easier time sticking to her ideal diet than Bob does, but Bob is more confident in his view than Alice is; in that case, a handshake diet can produce an outcome that's closer to a compromise between Alice and Bob's ideal diets, because less-extreme diets are easier to maintain and because the handshake agreement has more adjustable parameters. (Like, Alice is lactose-intolerant so Bob drinks more milk on Alice's behalf.)
- Trades like this are likely to have positive social and psychological effects. If Alice and Bob are actively trying to undo each other's efforts, then they may feel (at least slightly) less cooperation and goodwill about collaborating on other animal welfare projects, even if they don't reflectively endorse that attitude. A joint effort to produce a good compromise outcome is likely to feel better.
The main downside of handshake-itarianism is that, like reducetarianism, it's complicated — 'never eat meat' is a simple heuristic, whereas 'only eat meat on the weekend' is easier to mess up.
Some people will have an easier time going ~veg*an than reducetarian, e.g., because they find it less stressful to pick a clear black line and stick to it. Others will find handshake-itarianism or reducetarianism easier to stick to, because the rules can be stipulated in ways that provide more leeway ('I can break my diet at the party tonight, as long as I make a note to buy an extra hamburger tomorrow').
Boycott-itarianism is the most popular EA dietary restriction (in this visualization), and has a lot of the nice features of the above options. Animal welfare EAs disagree about whether factory-farmed animals have net-positive lives, but they agree that it's good to improve those lives, and they agree about a lot of interventions that would improve those lives. So a robustly good dietary intervention is one that:
- Chooses some concrete threshold (e.g., 'I'll only eat chickens if they're cage-free'), and loudly sticks to it. This gives meat producers an economic incentive to switch to the more ethical option.
- Makes the threshold relatively easy to achieve, so the incentive is stronger. A specific action that can be done today is better than a long list, a fuzzy heuristic, or a thing that's economically / technologically unviable today.
- Make the threshold simple and obvious, so it's easier for lots of people to coordinate around the same threshold(s) (thereby making the incentive stronger).
I would guess that most people who are serious enough about these types of questions to be involved in animal EA would probably distinguish between different animals. I feel like after reading about (sorry, I'm not going to take the time to dig up the sources) the subject and talking to some people in the EA community, my views are now approximately:
-80% confident factory-farmed, caged, chickens are net negative (agree they're less similar to humans, but the conditions are so bad, that the physical pain alone seems very bad)
-70% confident factory-farmed pigs are net negative (better conditions than chickens, but seem more likely to be bothered emotionally by being in captivity)
-70% confident factory-farmed cattle are net positive (probably depends on the farm and how much time they spend on a grass diet)
By net positive/negative, I mean just for the animal itself, not for the world, which might require health and environmental concerns, though I tend to think animal welfare is the largest factor in most cases. Also, confidence that their lives are net positive or negative does not really matter as much as the distribution of how positive or negative, but obviously that would be a lot harder to communicate quickly here.
I assume most other birds are treated like chickens, though I don't really know. I have not given enough thought to fish.
For reference, I'm only like 80% sure that the average human life is net positive. It just seems like a really hard thing to know, but that's a conversation for another time. I'm just stating this for calibration.
So agree with this, and I have another option to add to the list: where you evaluate the net value of an animal's life individually. Because some animals seem clearly net negative (e.g. caged egg-laying hens) and others seem very plausibly net positive (beef cattle).
Because of this reasoning, I myself am no longer vegetarian/vegan, despite being vegan since I was 17 and vegetarian since I was 12 (so around 18 years veg). Instead, I eat cow products because my investigations into their lives make me feel decently confident that they're net positive. I still never eat anything from factory-farmed chickens, fish, or pigs, including eggs, because my research shows them to be very probably net negative. I'll also eat wild-caught fish because their lives up until death were unaffected by my actions and their death, while bad, would have happened anyways, and most ways of dying are bad, and I don't think that human-caused death for fish is much worse on average than the counterfactual*.
Also, you mention coordination and what's a good thing to promote in the community. I think that for the public as a whole, my approach is too complicated. However, in the EA / rationalist sphere, I think this method of making an internal model of animals could actually be far more popular and effective. Being a vegan except for cow products is a loooot easier of a change to make than giving up cheese and all meat.
*Of note, I'm the least confident about wild-caught fish and dairy. I think the thing that's most likely to destroy my reasoning there is that I'm secretly sneaking in speciesism. Like, would I do the same for humans, controlling for flow-through effects?
I think the kind of diet you outline also makes sense on asymmetric consequentialist views, including negative utilitarianism. See Brian Tomasik's writing. That being said, the net positive lives are for pretty large animals (cows), so you have very little impact on them either way, and the main effects are likely on wild animals, and then you'd want to judge their lives and the effects on them.
Population effects on wild-caught fish (including for fishmeal, fed mostly to farmed fish and shrimp) and other animals in their ecosystems together can be messy, but wild-caught fish supply may be so inelastic (regionally and in the aggregate) that the main (short-term) effect of eating wild-caught fish on animals would be to increase fish farming. In case wild-caught fish supply is sufficiently elastic (regionally, even if aggregate supply is inelastic due to negative elasticities from overfishing and positive elasticities from underfishing cancelling out when aggregated), then eating farmed fish (fed fishmeal) could have very large effects on wild animals with very uncertain sign.
In the "factory farmed animals have positive lives" camp, I'd imagine that people aren't going to think that those lives make for particularly cost-effective ways to generate hedons. Maybe I'm wrong but I'd imagine most people who consider these lives positive would say they're weakly positive. By contrast, among the people who consider these lives negative, many consider them highly negative. Most people don't actually care about maximizing sentience per se (though some people might); instead, it's about the quality.
I'm not sure what points can actually be made by this line of reasoning. What I mean is taking the naive view throws out any useful information and leaves us with the status quo.
And you conclude with boycott-itarianism + the status quo essentially with each side cancelling each other out in all other subgroups. The boycott-itarianism addition comes mainly from the assumption of utilitarianism (since we're talking about EA and all).
Let's use this reasoning in a different situation e.g. human population.
Whether a human life is net negative or net positive seems like a very difficult question. So naively there should be a 50/50 split (minus any arguments for a better prior).
50% we should reduce the human population
50% we should increase the human population
we can have similar splits
with each side having its die hards (euthanasia vs octo-moms/dads)
handshakes ("I'll kill one less person if you have one less kid" and vice versa)
welfarists (we should increase the welfare of current humans)
anything (normal 2.5 kids)
which adds up to the status quo + the welfarists.
it'll always be the status quo + the moderates if you give them equal splits and assume the utilitarian position at the offset.
You made a great point for canibalism.
My intuition is that many people are drawn into animal welfare specifically because they think that factory farming is clearly net-negative, thus making this an important cause area, while people who think that factory farming is positive are likely to see other EA cause areas as more urgent and gravitate towards them.
Sentience-maximizing diets would make logical sense, but I don't think I recall ever meeting anyone (EA or otherwise) who would follow such a diet, while I have met plenty of people (EA or otherwise) who follow approximate veg*nism or approximate reductarianism. For that reason I'd also be surprised if both camps really had the same numbers of Handshake-itarians, simply because there seem to me to be vastly fewer sentience-maximizers to trade with than there are ~veg*ns.
See also the discussion on the EA Forum post.
After looking at the evidence, I think conventional factory farmed chickens (for eggs and meat) have net negative lives in expectation (on symmetric ethical views). See my thread.
Note that there might be other crucial factors in assessing whether 'more factory farming' or 'less factory farming' is good on net — e.g., the effect on wild animals, including indirect effects like 'factory farming changes the global climate, which changes various ecosystems around the world, which increases/decreases the population of various species (or changes what their lives are like)'.
It then matters a lot how likely various wild animal species are to be moral patients, whether their lives tend to be 'worse than death' vs. 'better than death', etc.
I do think that most of EA's distinctive moral views are best understood as 'moves in the direction of utilitarianism' relative to the typical layperson's moral intuitions. This is interesting because utilitarianism seems false as a general theory of human value (e.g., I don't reflectively endorse being perfectly morally impartial between my family and a stranger). But utilitarianism seems to get one important core thing right, which is 'when the stakes are sufficiently high and there aren't complicating factors, you should definitely be impartial, consequentialist, scope-sensitive, etc. in your high-impact decisions'; the weird features of EA morality seem to mostly be about emulating impartial benevolent maximization in this specific way, without endorsing utilitarianism as a whole.
Like, an interest in human challenge trials is a very recognizably ‘EA-moral-orientation’ thing to do, even though it’s not a thing EAs have traditionally cared about — and that’s because it’s thinking seriously, quantitatively, and consistently about costs and benefits, it’s consequentialist, it’s impartially trying to improve welfare, etc.
There’s a general, very simple and unified thread running through all of these moral divergences AFAICT, and it’s something like ‘when choices are simultaneously low-effort enough and high-impact enough, and don’t involve severe obvious violations of ordinary interpersonal ethics like "don’t murder", utilitarianism gets the right answer’. And I think this is because ‘impartially maximize welfare’ is itself a simple idea, and an incredibly crucial part of human morality.
I'd guess the most controversial part of this post will be the claim 'it's not incredibly obvious that factory-farmed animals (if conscious) have lives that are worse than nonexistence'?
But I don't see why. It's hard to be confident of any view on this, when we understand so little about consciousness, animal cognition, or morality. Combining three different mysteries doesn't tend to create an environment for extreme confidence — rather, you end up even more uncertain in the combination than in each individual component.
And there are obvious (speciesist) reasons people would tend to put too much confidence in 'factory-farmed animals have net-negative lives'.
E.g., when we imagine the Holocaust, we imagine relatively rich and diverse experiences, rather than reducing concentration camp victims to a very simple thing like 'pain in the void'.
I would guess that humans' nightmarish experience in concentration camps was usually better than nonexistence; and even if you suspect this is false, it seems easy to imagine how it could be true, because there's a lot more to human experience than 'pain, and beyond that pain, darkness'. It feels like a very open question in the human case.
But just because chickens lack some of the specific faculties humans have, doesn't mean that (if conscious) chicken minds are 'simple', or simple in the particular ways people tend to assume. In particular, it's far from obvious (and depends on contingent theories about consciousness and cognition) that you need human-style language or abstraction in order to have 'rich' experience that just has a lot of morally important stuff going on. A blank map doesn't correspond to a blank territory; it corresponds to a thing we know very little about.
(For similar reasons, I think EAs in general worry far too little about whether chickens and other animals are utility monsters — this seems like a very live hypothesis to me, whether factory-farmed chickens have net-positive lives or net-negative ones.)
Pretty much all the writing I've read by Holocaust survivors says that this was not true, that the experience was unambiguously worse than being dead, and that the only thing that kept them going was the hope of being freed. (E.g. according to Victor Frankl in "Man's Search for Meaning", all the prisoners in his camp agreed that, not only was it worse than being dead, it was so bad that any good experiences after being freed could not make up for it how bad it was. Why they didn't kill themselves is an interesting question that he explores a bit in the book.) Are there any Holocaust survivors who claim otherwise?
I can't really imagine this – at least for people in extermination camps, who weren't killed. I'd assume that, all else equal, the vast majority of prisoners would choose to skip that part of their life. But maybe I'm missing something or have unusual intuitions.
Entirely agree. There are certainly chunks of my life (as a privileged first-worlder) I'd prefer not to have experienced, and these generally these seem less bad than "an average period of the same duration as a Holocaust prisoner." Given that animals are sentient, I'd put it at at ~98% that their lives are net negative.
Preferring not to experience something is not the same thing as it being net negative. You are comparing it to a baseline of your normal life (because not experiencing it is simply continuing to experience your usual utility level).
I think what was meant is that they'd rather experience nothing at all for the same duration, so they're comparing the concentration camp to non-experience/non-existence, not their average experience.
In other words, the question is: Would you prefer to experience X, or spend the same amount of time in coma?
I don't think that that follows either, though. Because in practice temporarily not experiencing anything basically just means skipping to the next time you are experiencing something. So you may well intuit that you'd rather that any time the quality of your experience dips a lot.
For example, if you have a fine but mostly quite boring job, but your life outside of work is exceptionally blissful, you may well choose to 'skip' the work parts, to not experience them and just regain consciousness when you clock off to go live your life of luxury unendingly. That certainly doesn't mean your time at work has negative value- it's just nowhere near as good as the rest, so you'd rather stick to the bliss.
So I would say that no, actually this intuition merely proves that those experiences you'd prefer not to experience are below average, rather than below zero.
I think what you're saying is coherent and could in principle explain some comparisons people make, although I think people can imagine what an experience with very little affective value, negative or positive, feels like, and then compare other experiences to that. For example, the vast majority of my experiences seem near neutral to me. We can also tell if something feels good or bad in absolute terms (or we have such judgements).
I also think your argument can prove too much: people would choose to skip all but their peak experiences in their lives, which collectively might make up a few days of life. So, I don't think people are actually thinking about these tradeoffs the way you suggest (although I don't think it's implausible, either, just likely not most of the time, imo).
We also know that positive and negative affect correspond to different neural patterns using different regions of the brain, and (I think) we can tell through imaging when negative affect is absent. And more intense affect in either direction takes more of our attention. So, animals (including humans) are not physically shift-invariant with respect to affect, either.
Someone could still coherently think none of this matters morally, and what only matters is the average welfare in a life, but I think that doesn't capture judgements we make that I do care about.
MichaelStJules is right about what I meant. While it's true that preferring not to experience something doesn't necessarily imply that the thing is net-negative, it seems to me very strong evidence in that direction.
Hi, instead of clogging up the thread I just thought I'd alert you that I responded to MichaelStJules, which should function equally as a response to your comment.
When you say that it could be true, do you mean that it could be true that the person themselves would judge their experience as better than nonexistence?
(Your paragraph reads to me as implying that there could be some more objective answer to this separate from a person's own judgment of it, but it's hard for me to imagine what that would even mean.)
When I look at factory-farmed animals, I feel awful for them. So coming into this, I have some expectation that my eventual understanding of consciousness, animal cognition, and morality (C/A/M) will add up to normalcy (i.e. not net positive for many animals). But maybe my gut reaction isn't that trustworthy—that's often the case in ethical dilemmas. I do think that that gut reaction is important information, even though I don't have a detailed model of C/A/M.
(I think the main way I end up changing my mind here is being persuaded that my gut reaction is balking at their bad quality of life, but not actually considering the net-positive/negative question)
I just disagree. I think it's not important at all, except insofar as it helps us notice the hypothesis that life might be terrible, net-negative, etc. for chickens in factory farms.
E.g., a lot of people seem to think that chickens are obviously conscious, but that ants aren't obviously conscious (or even that they're obviously not conscious). This seems like an obviously silly position to me, unless the person has a very detailed, well-supported, predictive model of consciousness that makes that prediction. In this case, I think that going through the imaginative exercise of anthropomorphizing ants could be quite epistemically useful, to make it more salient that this really is a live possibility.
But no, I don't think the imaginative exercise actually gives us Bayesian evidence about what's going on inside ants' brains — it's purely 'helping correct for a bias that made us bizarrely neglect a hypothesis a superintelligence would never neglect'; the way the exercise plays out in one's head doesn't covary with ant consciousness across possible worlds. And exactly the same is true for chickens.
I'm confused why you wrote "It doesn't mean 'you should assume your initial intuitions and snap judgments are correct'" when in the very next sentence I said "But maybe my gut reaction isn't that trustworthy—that's often the case in ethical dilemmas."?
OK, but do you disagree with the claim 'Turntrout's gut reaction is that factory-farmed pigs would be better off not existing'? Because that's true for me, at least on my first consideration of the issue.
[ETA: Removed superfluous reaction]
Attempted restatement of my point: My gut reaction is evidence about what my implicit C/A/M theories predict, which I should take seriously to the extent that I have been actually ingraining all the thought experiments I've considered. And just because the reaction isn't subvocalized via a verbalized explicit theory, doesn't mean it's not important evidence.
Similarly: When considering an action, I may snap-judge it to be squidgy and bad, even though I didn't yet run a full-blown game-theoretic analysis in my head.
(Let me know if I also seem to be sliding off of your point!)
I avoid factory farmed pork because their existence seems net negative to me, but don’t do this for chickens. This is largely because I believe pigs have qualia similar enough to me that I don’t need to worry about the animal cognition part of c/a/m (I do want to note that you seem to be arguing from a perspective wherein pro-existence is the null, and so you need to reason yourself out of it to be anti-natalist for the animals). I find chickens difficult to model using the machinery I use for humans, but that machinery works okay on pigs (although this is largely through seeing videos of them instead of in person interaction, so it’s absolutely possible I’m mistaken).
I’m not sure how to handle the “consciousness” part, since they cannot advocate for themselves or express preferences for or against existence in ways that are legible to me.
There is also the slightly odd perspective that starts by saying 2 computers running the same computation only morally count once, and then goes on to claim that 2 battery hens are so mentally similar as to count as the same mind morally.
I think this misses opportunity costs. If farm animals have net positive lives, then accidentally filling the universe with animal farms would be better than accidentally filling it with paperclips. But we might want to use the universe for something else.
Accordingly, the fork in this naive imaginary community of naive idealized utilitarians shouldn't be whether people think farm animals have net-positive or net-negative lives. It should be whether those lives are better or worse than the lives that would otherwise be supported by those resources, plus the improvement or degradation in lives that already exist, on the margin.
I wonder if that alters the 50/50 split imagined here? Evolution isn't interested wild animal welfare, and farming isn't interested in farm animal welfare. But humans are very interested in human welfare. So in our naive thought experiment, transferring resources from farm use to human use will be net positive for welfare, not a 50-50 coin toss.
First, this assumes total utilitarianism. While I don't fully endorse any kind of utilitarianism, average utilitarianism is more appropriate for this purpose IMO (i.e reflects our intrinsic preferences better). I want the world at large to be nicer, not to contain as many minds as possible. I doubt anyone cares that much whether there is one zillion or two zillion minds out there, these numbers don't mean much to a person. (And, no, I don't think it's a "bias".) And, it seems quite plausible that factory farmed lives are below average. Moreover, the close association of factory farming to human civilization makes the situation worse (because the average is actually weighted by some kind of "distance"). To put it simply, factory farming is an ugly, incredibly cruel thing and I don't want it to exist, much less to exist anywhere in my "vicinity".
Second, I don't understand the statement "EA is generally about optimizing your positive impact on the world, not about purifying your personal actions of any possible negative impact." I'm guessing that you're using a model where a person has some limited number of "spoons" for altruistic deeds, so spending spoons on veganism takes them away from other things. This does seem like a popular model in EA, but I also think it's entirely fake. The reality is, we do a limited number of altruistic deeds because we are just not that altruistic.
If judged by intrinsic preferences alone, then plausibly the tradeoff between selfish and altruistic preferences is s.t. going vegan is not worth it individually but worth it as a society. The reason people go vegan anyway is probably signaling (i.e. reputational gain). And, signaling is a good thing! Signaling is the only tool we have to overcome tragedies of the commons, like this one. The role of EA should be, IMO, precisely creating norms that incentivize behavior which makes the world better. Hence, I want EA to award reputation points for veganism.
I imagine the ultimate solution to non-human welfare as follows:
From this point of view:
Your Boycott-itarianism could work just through market signals. As long as your diet makes you purchase less high-cruelty food and more low-cruelty food, you'll increase the average welfare of farm animals, right? Choosing a simple threshold and telling everyone about it is additionally useful for coordination and maybe sending farmers non-market signals, if you believe those work.
If you really want the diet to be robustly good with respect to the question of whether farm animals' lives are net-positive, you'd want to tune the threshold so as not to change the number of animals consumed (per person per year, compared to a default diet, over the whole community). One would have to estimate price elasticities and dig into the details of "cage-free", etc.
There is another approach that says something along the line of not all farm-factories animals have the same treatment, for example the median cow is treated way better than the median chicken, I for one would have to guess that cows are net positive, and chickens are probably net negative (and probably even have worse lives than wild animals)
In most circumstances any given act of (non-)consumption is unlikely to make a difference -- but aggregate present consumption must play a large role in determining future production.
My default assumption is that each decision not to consume 1 animal's worth of meat has a 1/n chance of preventing the raising for slaughter of n animals. That can only be an approximation of the truth, but what is a more reasonable estimate?
Or if that is agreed to be a reasonable estimate, why should a utilitarian who cares about animal welfare, and believes that agricultural animals' lives are net negative, not change their diet as a result?