Response to: "Why Meat is Moral, and Veggies are Immoral"

Author’s Note: this post based on an old Discord rant

I ran into this article by Robin Hanson recently. First of all, I want to disclaim that I do not consider this article to be the strongest set of arguments in defense of meat eating out there, and in fact, considering how old it is, it is very possible Hanson himself no longer endorses all of these points. That said, as a rationalistish vegan like me, who has recently (briefly) brought up both Hanson’s interesting ideas and his not so great ones, the article did catch my attention. The arguments contained within it range from outright incorrect, to questionable, to apt in ways I still consider worth rejecting, and I decided it would be at least interesting enough to respond to the article blow by blow to be worth a post.

In the first place he opens with some fairly trivial and uncontroversial arguments: you aren’t helping an animal by not eating it, you are just not contributing to future demand, i.e. it’s a boycott. I won’t respond to this part, because I agree with the points. The first point Hanson makes that leaves me floored (largely because it is a bad economics take, not even a bad philosophy take) is:

“This results in fewer pig farms and more asparagus farms, and pretty much the same overall amount of land devoted to farming.” (Hanson)

This is incorrect. Unlike with pigs, you don’t need a separate farm to grow a lifetime worth of plants to feed to the asparagus, as a result animal agriculture takes up a strong majority of agricultural land use in the US. This point is meant as a counter-argument to a possible objection Hanson notes (which I will call the land use argument), that farming animals takes up land wild animals, who would have better lives, could be filling. This objection and Hanson’s counter-argument are not actually entirely straight-forward, the objection as presented is compelling as presented under the assumption that:

1. Wild animal lives are better than most farmed animal lives
2. Wild animals would inhabit the freed land at least as densely as farmed animals would
3. Farm animal lives are worth living
4. Wild animal lives are worth living (implied by 1 and 3 being true)

I don’t deny 1, but its significance depends in part on 2, which is not discussed by Hanson. 2 is complex, on its face it seems wrong since the land used to grow the feed of the farmed animals will be optimized. Growing only high-nutrient foods, and using all of those grown to feed as many animals as can be supported, as opposed to the land supporting wild animals. On the other hand if you account for the difference in average animal sizes, especially if insects and other small invertebrates are counted, it may be enough to shift the balance the other way (though this is further complicated by whether size is in some way associated with moral worth, for instance through degree or likelihood of sentience). However if 2 is wrong, it doesn’t just invalidate the argument.

If we reject 2 and 4 (and so implicitly 3), low density gives us an even stronger reason for appreciating the land use objection, since less land for animal agriculture means more land used for creatures who, though badly off, are both better off and less numerous than farm animals. If we reject 3 but accept 4, then low density gives us less reason for the land use argument, since if wild animal lives are good it would be even better if they were more numerous, but we still always have some reason for it overall. If we accept every premise except for 2, then the relevance of the argument depends on the strength of 1, since even if wild animal lives were better than farm animal lives, if they were still bad and they were also going to be more numerous, their occupation of the land might still be worse. Considering that Hanson’s main reason for rejecting this land use argument is the false assumption that the same amount of farm land would be used for farming plants and animals, this puts him on unsteady ground. The land use argument might hold up even if 3 and 4 are correct as he assumes, although the degree of this is weakened by denying 2. Accepting 2, as I mentioned, may hold up when accounting for insects, and would make Hanson’s counter argument entirely fail because of his mistake. It also might give trouble to the version of the land use argument that rejects 3 and 4, which I am sympathetic to, but even if accepting 2 is enough to shift the balance, the rejection of 3 still suggests that animal agriculture is not the best solution to the problem. Any neutral land use would be a significantly better solution, even if farmed land were preferable to wild land. I will challenge both 3 and 4 shortly, particularly 3.

Next we get into one of the more common and philosophical arguments:

“Is it good or bad to create pigs who live for a while and then die? Well, is it good to create people that will eventually die? We usually say yes, if their lives are ‘worth living’ overall. That is, if they get value out of being alive, and are not in a situation like severe torture, where they would rather be dead than alive.” (Hanson)

I am superficially sympathetic to this argument, especially because it is a fairly utilitarian one, but it is a much more disturbing argument than seems to be depicted here. Indeed it is an area where I much prefer the implications of principled views other than my own, like person-affecting population ethics (you may bring such a being into existence, but you may not subsequently harm it, even if you had planned to, and even if not doing so will collapse future demand for similar births. Something like the argument Singer embraced in the first edition of Animal Liberation before being dissuaded by Derek Parfit), and may just selectively reject this implication even if it has the better principle behind it.

This argument, as it currently stands, does not appeal to anything that differs between humans and non-humans. Most arguments in defense of our treatment of animals appeal to some sort of proxy for species, like intelligence, even if they don’t apply this consistently as pointed out by things like the argument from marginal cases. Hanson’s argument however seems to provide just as good a justification for farming and slaughtering humans for food as non-humans, because the only thing it appeals to is that their lives are worth living.

There are more complicated arguments you could appeal to that would try to highlight points of disanalogy 1, which Hanson does not make. Still, putting aside motivated reasoning, it’s hard not to see this as a devastating reductio against this type of argument for animal agriculture.

Next he makes the point:

“We might well agree that wild pigs have lives more worth living, per day at least, just as humans may be happier in the wild instead of fighting traffic to work in a cubical all day. But even these human lives are worth living, and it is my judgment that most farm animal’s lives are worth living too. Most farm animals prefer living to dying; they do not want to commit suicide.” (Hanson)

The argument that farmed animal lives are worth living in general, as I hope I have already shown, might not be sufficient, but it is necessary for his point. So, are they? I find it unlikely. The comparison to humans working in cubicles only holds if you, upon viewing things like footage of factory farms, have neutral feelings about trading your cubicle for this. Footage of factory farms, from the accounts I have seen, may actually seriously underestimate how bad the conditions are, because they don’t depict the air quality. Indeed the simplest way to answer the question is this: when you are about to die, you are offered a choice. You can either be allowed to die, or you can get a few more years by living the life of a farmed pig. You will have your mind changed so it is less intelligent, and different in the other ways pig minds are, and you will live out your life on the factory farm. Is this something you want to do? Or would you rather just die after your human lifespan ended? My own answer is not a hard choice.

The other fishy implicit claim here is that “life worth living” is equivalent to “don’t want to commit suicide”. The issue is there seems to be a pretty clear birth/death asymmetry, either in practice or intrinsically depending on your view, between what would motivate someone to suicide versus what may make someone’s life not worth starting. A proof of concept here is moral antinatalists like David Benatar who neither commit nor promote suicide, despite saying their lives weren’t worth bringing about in the first place. More specifically the idea of “now I’m here, now I’m not” seems to be part of both many accounts of the harm in death, and the intuitive horror some (myself included) feel when reflecting on death in particular. Your quality of life is one factor, but there are other factors that are absent when deciding whether your life is worth bringing about in the first place. “Want to kill yourself” is a higher, possibly significantly higher bar, than “not worth being born”.

I also mention Hanson’s assumption that wild animal lives are worth living. I do not think this is actually clear. There are many regular sources of discomfort and suffering in nature, such as disease and exposure and fear of predation. While I think people have an intuition that nature must inherently be positive or neutral 2, from a welfare perspective this is doubtful anyway, considering the existence of “R-Strategists” who produce many offspring, only two of which survive per litter in expectation. This is not directly relevant to say individual wild pigs, but it has been used to ably defend the view that nature likely contains net negative welfare, which should disenchant us from the beginning with the assumption that nature is good to its constituents. If we doubt Hanson’s assumption that life in nature is a positive, then a welfare standard even higher than nature may be required to justify breeding animals ourselves 3.

Finally, at the end Hanson suggests that if you are uncertain, you should visit a farm yourself. On the one hand this is not an unreasonable step, on the other hand factory farms are not generally fond of visitors, and US consumers get something like 99% of their animal products from factory farms, so odds are if you see farm animals in person, you won’t be getting a representative sample of your diet.

Overall, I think Hanson could have benefited from doing more research on this debate first, but this is only a short piece, and it does touch on some relevant and interesting points even if I believe they ultimately fail. To make it clear once again, this piece is nearly 20 years old, so Hanson may not endorse it anymore anyway. Still, these are my responses to his arguments as they stand, and since some of these arguments are fairly common in my experience, hopefully my responses were helpful to lay out.

  1. Is farming humans unsustainable and likely to spark revolution or something? Probably 4, but accepting this argument allows for farming humans if you have good enough security. More promising perhaps is an appeal to some unmentioned difference between humans and non-humans that makes farming humans far far more harmful to them. Allowing something like this, it just brings the argument back to the marginal cases. ↩︎

  2. Ed. Note: See the fallacy and the trope↩︎

  3. Ed. Note: This is why the ethics of pet ownership are less obvious, under utilitarianism, than the ethics of factory farming. ↩︎

  4. Ed. Note: Relevant examples include the U.S. Civil War, as well as every slave rebellion ever. ↩︎

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