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Apr 21Liked by Bentham's Bulldog

I was thinking about this topic earlier today. What a remarkable coincidence! As always, this is an excellent article.

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Thank you!

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In the most convenient world, form all the creatures on planet Earth only humans are sentient and have ethical worth. I really hope that we live in it, it would mean that there are so much less sufferings to alleviate but it's quite unlikely. There are no reasons why the universe would be so convenient. Most likely there are other sentient creatures that we are torturing with our actions to feed ourselves. And, therefore, veganism is most likely morally correct. But there are obviously less and more evil stances in between. So the idea of estimating "moral worth" of a creature based on the probability that it's sentient makes a lot of sense.

However, these numbers look crazy. In a space of all possible minds sentience may be orthogonal to intelligence, but among the kind of minds that are produced by evolution through natural selection these qualities seem to be highly correlated. And when a report estimating moral weight claims that highly intelligent octopuses, capable of solving complex puzzles, are *less* significant than chickens with tiny brains - this is a clear signal that the methodology is ridiculously off.

The fact that a chicken can in principle live longer doesn't make it more morally valuable while evaluating the evils of factory farming chickens compared to octopuses. If two creature have a life full of torture for half a year and then killed, what matters is how sentient these creatures were during this time, not how long they could have lived counter-factually. If anything, shorter life cycle of octopuses should mean that they are more likely to be sentient from earlier age, while chicken have more probability not to be conscious at the time of the slaughter.

Likewise, Tomasik calculator default values gives a chicken half the moral weight of a pig, which is bizarre if we take into account the difference in the brain size. We also need to take into account that suffering doesn't add up linearly. And the huge second order effect of climate change, towards which beef/milk industry contributes much much then poultry/eggs one.

So in the end, I don't think that the title of the post is correct. I suspect that it's quite likely that eating chicken is, in fact, more ethical than eating beef. On the other hand, turkeys seem to be about as likely to be sentient as chickens but produce more meet per death. So eating them instead of chickens seems a much safer bet.

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I'm not convinced we shouldn't eat animals (if they have a better than nothing life seems fine to me) but I'm only here to ask a practical question:

How do you find humanely raised beef/dairy without paying extra for all sorts of bullshit about GMO free/no corn feed/organic?

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One must also consider elasticities of supply and demand curves: if you give up a gallon of milk, the price will in expectation drop a little, thus making other people consume more milk, though less than a gallon: roughly 0.44 of one. So buying milk is actually roughly half as bad as you claim. Here you can find estimates for those elasticities: https://reducing-suffering.org/comments-on-compassion-by-the-pound/#Elasticities.

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author

Oh interesting.

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This is ridiculous. The space of conscious suffering is vastly multidimensional. There are no 'equivalences', especially not between the gathering of a gallon of milk and 70 minutes of baby torture.

For one thing, once an animal is broken, their suffering is much lighter. It's the transition from freedom to captivity that really hurts. The process of breaking a horse is essentially torture-- that's why you hire someone else to do it. After that, the horse is willing to let you ride it for the rest of its life.

I won't contest your essentially random sentience and suffering multipliers. Still, there's a part of the calculation you must add: the difference between confinement and wild life. Wild creatures do not live idyllic lives. They spend half of their time hungry and terrified. Don't measure the difference between life as a confined animal and life as a modern human. Measure the difference between life as a confined animal and life as a wild animal.

In some cases, you will find that the confined animal lives better.

I was very rude in this comment. Feel free to be rude in return. I like a good argument.

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I don't really think we know whether it's preferable to be wild, free, terrified, cold, hungry, and subject to predators vs confined bored and safe. I always firmly believed it was obviously superior for cats to be indoor only, where they're safe and live longer (and obviously better for the local birds). Now I'm not so sure. Cats sure like to roam and do their thing. I don't know how we could ever determine this.

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We probably can't determine what it's like to be another creature. The subjective experience of others is a huge mystery. That's why it's called the hard problem of consciousness.

There are a few guesses, though. We can estimate the experiences of others by looking at their actions and comparing them to our actions when we were feeling certain qualia. This method is good for reasoning about other humans. It's much weaker when you're trying to understand what it's like to be a chicken, a bean sprout, or GPT-4.

Think of the suicide rate of first world vs. third world countries. This is a human analog for our wild vs. confined animals comparison. People who never experience starvation, deadly violence, or the senseless loss of loved ones in preventable ways often take their own lives more frequently than those who face such hardships. Some think that this is because self-determination, the quality of having your future decided by your actions, is fundamental to life as a human. When you don't have this, when nothing you do seems to change anything, people take the easy way out. I suppose this means that being in a cage would suck pretty bad, even if you're well-fed.

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I have taken in stray cats who were so very happy to be inside and no longer cold, scared, or hungry that they never wanted to go outside ever again. And I've raised cats indoors from kittenhood who are always trying to get outside. Though the latter doesn't truly know what "outside" means, so perhaps more weight should be given to the first category. Then there are cats who have always been indoor/outdoor cats and my guess is they're most satisfied with the arrangement. Presumably virtually all creatures (including us) would ideally like to have that best of both worlds situation...the freedom to go have adventures and total autonomy and no rules or boundaries, but also risk...but also a nice safe, warm, well provisioned place to go back to whenever one chooses. I guess that's the ideal, but not an available option for almost any creature outside a few very lucky humans and cats. We don't let any other animal do that.

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Moo.

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Too bad that the healthiest sources of protein are the least utility-maximizing!

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author

It’s true, though dairy is pretty fine on both counts. You could also eat plants.

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Cultivated chicken is almost there!

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What about pasture-raised eggs?

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author

Unclear, but my article is about meat eating in typical circumstances

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I was thinking the same irt keeping one's own small flock of backyard chickens for their eggs (and as pets). I've thought about this for decades and can't find a moral issue with it.

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My neighbor has 4 or 5 who get to wander around the yard, clucking and scratching for insects and doing what they please all day. They go in the coop/fenced in area at night. Seems like a pretty nice life for them, that I can tell by observing them. Of course, every once in a while a raccoon or hawk gets at them and that's a pretty brutal situation. No worse though, and arguably better, than wild birds.

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Apr 22·edited Apr 22

This seems straightforwardly good, even, as long as you keep them in decent conditions.

Edit: I suppose you would increase suffering by buying them as chicks, since whoever is breeding them likely doesn't care about animal wellbeing. I'm not sure how significant is that, probably not that much. And you will likely treat them better than whoever else would buy them otherwise.

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author

Most of the chick breeders grind up baby males.

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Right. Maybe a well-lived chicken life is worth that, though. Depends on the elasticities again.

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They seems to be the ~best generic label, see https://thehumaneleague.org/article/cage-free. I don't know how to estimate how much numerically better they are, though.

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Thanks for the article, you bring forth a very good point, this is worth keeping in mind

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What’s your opinion on Wild Caught Fish? The chart has farmed fish, and I know a few pescatarians that maintain that wild caught fish is better than beef.

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author

Unclear but probably bad--Tomasik has a good piece on that.

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I find it interesting that "your" approach to pork is so different from that of Anatoly Karlin:

https://www.unz.com/akarlin/animals/

You're a vegetarian, but if you were to eat meat, then pork would be the next best thing after beef and milk. But Anatoly Karlin has a much more negative view of eating pork relative to eating fish, et cetera.

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Free range chickens decimate local insect populations. They use their talons to shred apart the fecal matter where flies and beetles house their offspring and devour the defenseless baby insects. The only humane thing for us to do is to eat more chicken in defense of the insect nurseries!

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author

Wouldn't that mean you shouldn't eat them?

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I believe that evolution (both natural selection and cultural evolution) have given us a Circle of Empathy. Our empathy is not binary (we either have it or we don't) but it does drop off quite rapidly once you get outside the circle. Call this speciesism if you like — in which case, OK. I am speciesist. I think the circle is getting bigger as the generations go by but it's not big enough yet to exclude cows, pigs and chickens! Maybe one day. EXCEPT!…

Industrial farming changes my thinking a lot. In the USA, cows are raised in an absolutely horrific environment. Chickens even worse. It's different in more empathetic countries and I think that changes the calculation. If they figure out how to industrially farm octopuses (for example), I would stop eating them. I'm OK with eating the wild ones.

I think it's more complex with pigs and chickens, but it's an easy choice for cows, IMO. I eat them very rarely as a special treat and I make an effort to eat cows that have been humanely raised.

If I were the Head of the Union of Cows and humans offered me the option of a life of relative luxury (compared to living in the wild with the wolves and the leopards) but at the end of my life, they get to eat me, I would take that deal. I think if we stop eating cows, that will be the end of cows. They'll be extinct in a couple of generations. I'd rather cows stick around, even if they ultimately get eaten.

Related question: should we ban leopards from eating antelopes to save the antelopes from a horrible death. If not, why not?

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Chickens don't lay eggs under stress.

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I was under the impression that it's easier to find satisfactorily ethical eggs in a grocery store (https://vitalfarms.com/organic-pasture-raised-eggs/) vs. dairy. Vital farms AFAIK doesn't kill male chicks and actually lets the hens live in decent conditions.

I will look more into this because I may flip to lacto-vegetarian.

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Question: how can you on the one hand claim “speciesism is wholly indefensible” but then on the other have a sentience multiplier per species? Is the latter based solely on average “natural” lifespan?

I no doubt have other issues with - and disagree with - your assertion that “speciesism is wholly indefensible”, but just starting by explaining the apparent contradiction would be helpful.

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Speceisism is the claim that species matters inherently. Obviously it matters in that it correlates with other things that matter but it doesn't matter in itself. So if cows were as smart and sentient as people they'd matter as much.

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But you write it as if black flies matter as much as humans. At least that’s how it plainly reads in your piece showing black flies on your chart.

And you say “wholly”. So it reads to me that you are saying it is morally indefensible to deliberately kill a silkworm or a black soldier fly. Do I have that right? And if not, then in what sense that matters is “speciesism is wholly indefensible” a meaningful statement?

Or are you in fact agreeing with my common sense intuitions but you just happen to use a very confusing phrase that to the uninitiated sounds like the opposite of what you actually mean?

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I did not in fact write that. Speceisism is wholly indefensible in that caring about species in itself is indefensible.

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