[link] SMBC on utilitarianism and vegatarianism.

by mkehrt1 min read16th Oct 201169 comments

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http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2393#comic

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This picture is just mistaken - because plant cultivation destroys a lot of small animals. Even if you were for some reason only interested in the lives of mice etc. and assigned literally zero value to cow lives, it takes more plants to sustain a cow until it can be turned into food than to get an equivalent amount of food directly from soybeans or something. It may be that, say, turning a herd of goats loose on uncultivated land and then eating the goats is very cheap in mouse lives, but this isn't how meat is normally procured in the developed world. Cows are fed things like soybeans and corn that humans could be eating directly, or that are produced in place of and using the resources that could have been directed towards producing other plants humans could be eating directly.

All the more reason to eat wild animals like pandas and overweight koalas right?

I actually have a fair amount of respect for people who go out hunting and shoot their food themselves. Pandas and koalas in particular I have separate reasons to wince over the notion of shooting for supper, but hunting wild animals in general does not have the plant cultivation problem (or the mistreatment associated with factory farming, or what seems to me a slightly perverse willful ignorance of the causal history of meat that one purchases at the grocery store).

"I actually have a fair amount of respect for people who go out hunting and shoot their food themselves. "

I hear this a lot and agree in a vague sense that felt a lot like a cached thought. So I started thinking about it: Should we really respect people who go out to hunt and kill animals themselves?

My initial reaction was that I'm wary, not respectful, of someone comfortable/enthusiastic about ending a life! As a display of character, it's worrying.

But on second examination, I changed my mind. Even from a virtue ethics perspective, I admire a person who's willing to face the consequences of their actions rather than letting the factory farming go on out of sight. You're right, willful ignorance is not something to respect.

And from a consequentialist standpoint, hunters almost certainly cause less suffering to the animals than factory farmers do.

Having grown up in a city on the East Coast, I didn't exactly grow up with an appreciation for hunters. But I think I respect them a bit more now.

I'm not sure how valid your point is in practice. Being enthusiastic about hunting does not necessarily indicate a willingness to face the consequences of one's actions, nor does it indicate any particular attitude toward factory farming. It may just indicate a lack of visceral discomfort when encountering animal suffering.

It is plausible that some/many/most hunters simply enjoy pursuing and eating prey, and that the comparative advantages to overall utility make little or no difference to them. In this case, I wouldn't say that the utility advantage says anything positive about the individual's character, but I certainly do think it's fortunate that self-serving behaviors can occasionally lead to greater overall utility.

(Note: I'm sure there are hunters who subsist on hunted meats because they find mainstream meat production ethically appalling. I just doubt that they're representative of all hunters.)

[-][anonymous]10y 5

My initial reaction was that I'm wary, not respectful, of someone comfortable/enthusiastic about ending a life! As a display of character, it's worrying.

Your mileage may vary, I suppose.

I find a willingness to let other people do all the squicky, dirty, ethically-questionable and unpleasant tasks, sorted by low socioeconomic status, and then reap the benefits feeling one's own hands are clean and all is right with the world pretty darn worrying myself. And that trait seems ubiquitous in my society.

Cows are fed things like soybeans and corn that humans could be eating directly,

Only in the last stage, the "feeding up" process in feedlots. During most of their lives they eat grass, and if over-wintered in colder areas hay with maybe some grain.

The critical part of the quote you made is:

,

That is, the comma which is followed by an 'or' clause which totally invalidates your refutation.

I think the ethics of farming is another place where problems in utilitarianism crop up.

There's a Parfitian argument that, since none of these animals would have existed otherwise, then killing them for food is no problem. But this would also apply to farming people, whether for food or chattel slavery, which we find repugnant. Obviously, though, this world is just as utility maximizing as Hanson's Malthusian em soup universe, neither of which seem particularly "good" (in fact, it is the em soup, just with fleshy people).

I don't have a "solution" to this, I think it just demonstrates one of the edges of utility theory's map.

One problem with this argument is that to eat chicken or pork, you have to be okay not only with killing animals, but with torturing them as well - there's no better word for the conditions in which chickens and pigs are typically kept.

This is perfectly well true, but I'm not interested in addressing this because I have never known this to be anyone's sufficient objection to eating meat.

Would you eat a well-treated chicken? How about a deer instantly killed by a Predator drone equipped to vaporize its brain faster than neurons react?

A number of people are motivated to be vegan or vegetarian by the conditions under which factory-farm animals live. For example, Julia Galef in this podcast.

Are you talking about objections or disgust? I can, through emotional manipulation, make you "object" to many things, but these don't occupy the same space as considered argument.

Torture (not murder) is my stated objection to eating meat.

I'm a vegetarian who is fine with deer hunting and chickens/cows that are raised humanely, able to live their lives doing more or less what cows and chickens would normally spend their lives doing.

I'd guess that the poor treatment of animals is the main reason why people switch to vegetarianism. Most don't make the fine distinctions that would allow them to continue to eat the rare well-treated animals (although some do), but if food animals typically had pleasant lives and painless deaths then I expect that there would be far fewer vegetarians.

Those are both moral improvements on typical chicken. Another example is mutton: sheep are commonly kept on rocky hillsides which would otherwise go to waste, and commonly have a life that's about as good as it can get for a sheep, being mostly left alone to live as they would in the wild, except protected from predators and parasites.

I know this comment has already been objected to, but I'll pile on anyway. Torture is my objection to eating dairy and eggs. Stop the torture, and I will switch back to vegetarianism over veganism. I am currently willing to buy dairy, at least, from "humanely raised" farms (though I never see it in stores, it does exist).

There's a Parfitian argument that, since none of these animals would have existed otherwise, then killing them for food is no problem.

Only if their lives are worth living.

But this would also apply to farming people, whether for food or chattel slavery, which we find repugnant.

You're willing to create people who are doomed to die of old age. Does it really matter how you die?

Does it really matter how you die?

Um, yes?

Why?

Some methods of dying are more drawn out and painful than others. Given that no rancher has ever killed their animals with a method anywhere near as bad as old age, that's not really a point against ranching.

Does it really matter how you die?

Some methods of dying are more drawn out and painful than others.

I think you just answered your own question.

My original point was that if creating people who are doomed to die of old age is okay, then creating people who die by whatever method of execution is convenient is okay. If both methods of death are the same, then this works. If old age is worse, the argument works better. As such, my original point still stands.

Also, with the exception of incredibly drawn out methods of dying (such as old age, chronic illness, and virtually nothing else), I don't think the pain of death is comparable to the opportunity cost of not living. As such, it doesn't really matter much which death is worse.

So you're OK with being tortured by matrix lords?

More to the point, I don't think not existing is an opportunity cost. Who would it be a cost to?

There are possible ways to die that are worse than old age. They are not how you are going to die if you're raised as food.

Who would it be a cost to?

You. It would be good for you if you existed, and it cannot be good for you if you don't exist. It can't be bad for you either, but opportunity costs aren't real costs. They're what you get when you set something else as a baseline.

... point.

Surely dying young has a higher opportunity cost than dying of old age, regardless of other costs?

True, but it's still lower than the opportunity cost of not being born at all.

So you admit killing animals for food is wrong, but claim vegetarianism is worse because it creates less lives?

That sounds wrong. If there was a weird cult that birthed lots of children and killed them painlessly at 18, I would try to shut it down.

Huh?

I'm saying that raising people for food would be better than not raising them at all (so long as their lives are worth living).

I'm given to understand that on factory farms, animals lives are not worth living. As such, vegetarianism is good.

Ah, OK. That makes more sense.

I thought you were claiming that the utility of being born outweighed the disutility of growing up in a factory farm, dying violently etc.

First, see my thing on irrelevant critiques and context agreement.

Second, your question suggests an answer which we would generally find repugnant. We could likewsie ask whether it matters so much if, for example, they are doomed to die when a small bomb planted in their brain at birth goes off without which their birth would have not occurred.

There's a Parfitian argument that, since none of these animals would have existed otherwise, then killing them for food is no problem.

There's a Parfitian argument that, since you would have not existed otherwise unless your parents gave you birth, then your parents should be allowed to kill you for food.

Well, that's my point. There's all these arguments hanging around here and when you take any of the general approaches, like utility theory, you tend to bump into them with nasty consequences. As I said: I don't really have a way to "solve" this.

Why can't we just reject that Parfitian argument?

I can't remember where I saw it (I hope it wasn't on here), but someone recommended that someone with vegetarian sympathies could do some good just by switching from chicken to beef. The idea is that if you're eating a constant amount of meat by weight, you have to kill a couple hundred chickens to get the same amount of meat as killing one cow. If you don't believe there's a significant "personhood" difference between cows and chickens, that's cutting your death toll by orders of magnitude.

I'm not sure what I think of this argument, because small differences in intelligence can have major differences in "personhood" - for example, I can't even name a number of cows it would take such that I would be equally comfortable killing X cows as one person. That means that even a small intelligence difference between cows and chickens could more than cancel out the gains from extra weight.

Really, what we need is some sort of animal which is both very large and very stupid. If only a stray prehistoric asteroid hadn't killed off our ideal food source.

I switched the other way. Not only does raising chickens have a lesser ecological impact by mass, chickens are already so witless that if you cut their heads off, they don't get any dumber.

chickens are already so witless that if you cut their heads off, they don't get any dumber.

It's a good link, but there is no call to say this. Chickens are not particularly stupid, have a reasonably advanced social hierarchy and can be trained.

I was being facetious. Chickens are not literally that stupid, but they're a lot dumber than many of the things we could be eating instead.

I was being facetious. Chickens are not literally that stupid, but they're a lot dumber than many of the things we could be eating instead.

Crows for example. ;)

I sometimes suspect my family's chickens are smarter than our cat. Bird's brains are organized differently, and while I haven't studies it or even though about it all that deeply so I could be dead wrong, birds seem vastly better at things humans tend to associate with smartness (presumably the things there is the most variation in between humans) than mammals relative to their total intelligence.

It was probably that, but note that that page is not concerned with minimizing killing, but minimizing the suffering-adjusted days of life that went into your food. (Which I think is a good idea; I've used that page's stats to choose my animal products for a year now.)

Unfortunately, it seems that the best choices for which animals to eat are opposite depending on whether your goal is killing fewer animals or minimizing your carbon footprint.

The obvious solution is to stop eating all those kinds of animal/animal products. That would satisfy CO2 concerns and killing concerns.

Of course, it might not satisfy things like fun of eating meat, ease of eating meat, health etc.

I'm not sure what I think of this argument, because small differences in intelligence can have major differences in "personhood" - for example, I can't even name a number of cows it would take such that I would be equally comfortable killing X cows as one person.

I believe you - for as long as you are typing at a keyboard. Once we put it to the test and you are forced out into a field with a knife and blood pouring down your arm your 'comfort' would become far more measurable.

Really? I would have gone the opposite way - utilitarianism seems to tell me that if cows have nonzero value then a certain number of them must add up to one human, but I have much stronger mental conditioning against killing humans than cows.

Even as a vegetarian, if I was forced to kill some arbitrarily large number of cows or a single human, I'd probably find a way to rationalize the cows as non-people pretty quickly. Mostly, I'd get sick of having to do the manual labor of killing them all by hand, if that's the route we're going.

On the other hand, this is just flat out wrong.

EDIT: (I'm referring to another comic which assigns atoms individual identities.)

But surely any sin against rationality must be forgiven if it's done in the name of ball jokes.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

I think that by killing one million roundworm neurons I could kill quite a few roundworms, but by killing one million monkey neurons I wouldn't be sure the monkey would even notice.