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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Some animals are more equal than others

By Julia Galef
In these bitterly partisan times, you might be tempted to declare that the Democrats and Republicans can't agree on anything. However, you'd be wrong. In November, every member of the Senate and nearly every member of the House voted in favor of banning “crush” videos: fetish videos in which scantily-clad women stomp on small mammals, like mice and rabbits, crushing them to death.
If you're thinking “?!?!” — or maybe, more articulately, “Good lord why is that even a thing” — well, you’re not alone. I think we’d all be grateful for a few jumbo-sized jugs of Brain Bleach right about now. But I’d like to attempt to set aside our visceral reactions to the crush video case for now and focus instead on the general moral question it raises: Is it acceptable to hurt animals for our pleasure?
Judging from the public outcry against the crush videos, society thinks the answer in this case is a clear “No.” Which is the same answer that society usually gives to this question. For example, in 2007 football star Michael Vick was discovered to be running a dogfighting ring, an illegal sport in which dogs are put through violent training regimens and forced to fight each other, often to the death. Vick was vilified by the papers and sentenced to two years in jail. Whatever pleasure Vick and his compatriots got out of watching the dogs fight, it didn't justify the dogs' suffering, as far as the American public was concerned.
But society's answer to the question “Is it acceptable to hurt animals for our pleasure?” isn't always “No.” Odds are that most of the people who objected to the dog fighting and crush videos are frequent consumers of meat, milk, and eggs from industrialized farms. And the life of an animal in a typical industrialized farm is notoriously punishing. Many spend their lives in cages so confining they can barely move; ammonia fumes burn their eyes; their beaks or tails are chopped off to prevent them from biting each other out of stress; and the farm's conditions make many of them so sick or weak that they die in their cages or on the way to slaughter. As a society, however, we apparently believe that the pleasure we get from eating those animals makes their suffering worth it.
Why the disparate answers? Is there a morally relevant difference between industrial farming and dogfighting, or crush videos? All three involve inflicting suffering on animals for people's pleasure, whether gustatory (in the case of industrialized farms), recreational (from dogfighting) or sexual (from crush videos). Is there any non-arbitrary moral principle that would allow the first and prohibit the latter two?
I suspect many people will object that eating animals isn’t a matter of pleasure at all, but of the need for sustenance. While that may have been true for our ancestors who survived by hunting wild animals, I don’t think it has much relevance to our current situation. First, it's questionable whether we actually do need to eat animal products in order to be healthy; the American Dietetic Association has given the thumbs up to vegetarian and even vegan diets. But even if you believe that some amount of animal product consumption is medically necessary, we could still buy from farms that raise their livestock much more humanely. It would cost more, but we could always compensate by cutting back on other luxuries, or simply by eating less meat. By any reasonable estimate, Americans could cut their meat consumption drastically with no ill effects on their health (and likely with many positive effects). Buying the sheer amount of meat that Americans do, at the low prices made possible by industrialized farms, is a luxury that can’t be defended with a “need for sustenance” argument. It’s about pleasure — the pleasure of eating more meat than strictly necessary for health, and the pleasure of saving money that can then be spent on other things we enjoy.
As far as I can tell, there are several reasons why people regard consumers of industrial farming differently than consumers of crush videos and dogfighting. The first has to do with the types of animals involved: pigs, cows, and chickens simply aren't as cute as dogs, bunnies, and kittens. I don't know how many people would explicitly cite that as the reason they're willing to inflict suffering on the former and not the latter, but it seems to play a role, even if people won't admit as much. People who have no qualms about a pig spending its life in a small, dark crate would nevertheless be outraged if a dog were treated in the same way.
Cuteness is a pretty silly criterion by which to assign moral status, though. It's not as if unappealing animals are less intelligent or less sensitive to pain. Pigs may not make us want to pet and cuddle them and dress them in hand-knit sweaters, but they're just as intelligent as dogs, and we have no reason to believe they suffer any less than dogs would if kept in the same conditions. And if you have any trouble seeing the absurdity of basing moral judgments on cuteness, it helps to try out the principle in other contexts. (Is it worse to abuse a cute child than an ugly one?)

But I think the biggest reason that different examples of hurting animals for pleasure elicit different reactions from people is not about the types of animals involved, but about the types of pleasure. Frankly, the desires of crush video enthusiasts make most of us want to retch. I suspect that even if no actual animals were being harmed to make the crush videos, most people would still find the idea of someone getting off on them revolting. But that alone can't be sufficient reason to proscribe them — if you're going to try to make a moral argument at all, it has to go farther than “Ick!” You have to be able to point to some objective feature of the act and explain why that makes it immoral, rather than simply citing your own visceral reaction as an argument. (Of course, in practice, “Ick!” often is at the core of people's moral condemnations. For example, I've talked to people who claimed certain acts of sodomy were immoral, and when pressed, their reason was simply “Well, it's gross!” But they can't legitimately claim to be making an argument; all they're really doing is emoting.)

One objective difference people might cite is the fact that a desire to eat meat is “natural” while a desire to watch kittens being crushed is not. Which is true, in the sense that our species did evolve to eat meat while a fetish for crushing kittens is an aberration. But using naturalness as a criterion for moral rightness is a dubious move. First, it seems rather arbitrary, from a logical perspective, which is why it's often referred to as the naturalistic fallacy. And second, it would justify some pretty unsavory “natural” urges, like rape and tribalism, while prohibiting other “unnatural” urges, like the desire to wear clothing or to refrain from having children.
The closest thing that I can find to a morally relevant distinction between industrial farming, dogfighting, and crush videos is this: While it’s true that all three acts cause animal suffering in order to give people pleasure, the nature of that tradeoff differs. The consumers of crush videos and dogfighting are taking pleasure in the suffering itself, whereas the consumers of industrially-farmed meat are taking pleasure in the meat that was produced by the suffering. From a purely harm-based perspective, the moral calculus is the same: the animal suffers so that you can experience pleasure. But the degree of directness of that tradeoff makes a difference in how we perceive your character. Someone whose motive is “I enjoy seeing another creature suffer” seems more evil than someone whose motive is “I want a tasty meal,” even if both people cause the same amount of suffering.

And I can certainly understand why people would want to call a crush video enthusiast more “evil” than a person who buys meat from industrial farms, because of the difference in their motivations. That's a reasonable way to define evilness. But in that case we're left with the fact that a person's evilness may be totally unrelated to the amount of harm she causes; and that, in fact, some of the greatest harm may be caused by people whose motivations seem unobjectionable to us. Apathy, denial, conformity; none of these inspire the same outrage as sadism, but they've caused some pretty horrible outcomes. And if you believe that it's wrong to make animals suffer for our pleasure, but you reserve your moral condemnation only for cases that viscerally upset you, like dogfighting or crush videos, then you're falling prey to the trap that Isaac Asimov famously warned us against: “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.”


  1. Julia, very nice *philosophical* argument you laid out here, complete with "moves" and counter-moves. Keep it up and I might have to ask CUNY to give you an honorary PhD (you know, a real PhD, as in Philosophy Doctor...).

    Seriously, nice essay. The only debatable point comes at the end, when you admit that part of the force of your argument depends on taking a consequentialist view of morality. But if one resisted that move, then it would be defensible to say that eating animals is at least less morally objectionable (I really resist the "evil" label thing) than crushing them, a conclusion that does accord with most people's intuitions (including yours, since I'm sure we wouldn't be friends if I started jumping on animals for the pure pleasure of crushing them).

    Not that intuitions by themselves are the ultimate arbiters, of course, but it's nice when logic and intuition line up.

  2. Evolving a taste for meat, and for subjecting animals to domestication in order to get meat, was probably favored by natural selection as it enhanced survival to adulthood and thus reproduction of genes associated with that taste. On the other hand, evolving a feeling of pleasure from sadistic treatment of animals may have been associated to the same process (pointlessly killing your animals does not contribute to your survival), while encouraging competition between some of your animals (bulls, dogs, horses) certainly enhances the overall quality of your herd in the same manner than sexual selection by females enhances the overall quality of a band of peacocks or sea elephants.

    Our modern cultures, partly evolved from those ancestral pressures, has of course modified them, often beyond recognition, but a rational reconstruction of the process leading to those feelings in the first place is surely possible.

    Moral feelings (and especially disgust feelings that are somewhat "prior" to moral disapproval) are not the result of a rational deliberation about good and evil, but a result of our bestowing approval or disgust on certain behaviors, especially behaviors our ancestors may have faced some million years ago (such as killing animals for food or pleasure). Philosophical elaboration of those feelings comes later. Primum vivere, deinde philosophare.

    This is of course evolutionary psychology. Nobody can directly observe it happening, as nobody has witnessed the evolution of white fur in bears when they live surrounded by ice all year round, but all evolutionary biology is based on such chains of inference.

    But I may have just forgotten that "evolutionary psychology" is verboten in this neighborhood. My excuses.

  3. "As a society, however, we apparently believe that the pleasure we get from eating those animals makes their suffering worth it."

    I expect this statement will incite a response equal to the vegetarian response to your pepperoni pizza post. Some people feel biblically entitled to eat meat, some simply like the taste, while others find carnivory an essential part of asserting one's manhood (or rather, that not eating meat is effeminate). I think its probably the case, though, that most people simply don't think about the suffering of conscious creatures at all while considering their dining options.

    Ultimately, while on the face of it these three behaviors seem closely related because they all concern animal suffering, I think there are three very different psychological phenomena underlying them. The dogs that are used in dog fights are often not very cute, but are bred to be overly aggressive and vicious. The people (men) involved in dog fights seem to use it as a form of vicarious aggression, not entirely dissimilar to boxing. Although, boxers generally have a choice about their participation, which is a crucial distinction. Crush videos, from what I've heard, are all about breaking taboos, which is why they feature adorable kittens and puppies (I'm guessing). Much of these types of fetish videos deal with intermingling sexual arousal and disgust (see also: two girls and a cup).

    It seems to me that the major difference between factory farming and and dog fighting/crush videos is that the latter are specifically done in order to evoke something in the viewer. I don't think its accurate to say that dog fighters take pleasure in the suffering of the losing dog, but the triumph of the winner and its dominance over the loser. I also don't think its accurate to say that fetishists take pleasure in the suffering itself, but the shock that it evokes in themselves. If they actually didn't care about the animal suffering, I doubt it would be very exciting at all to watch.

    Also, what the heck is that image depicting? It looks like a sheep on an inversion table.

  4. This sounds similar to the point you made on the last Q&A podcast about why is bestiality wrong if eating animals is OK.

    I think the reason people regard one as wrong and the other as fine is that people's moral intuitions aren't based on an analysis of how harmful the action is. I think moral intuitions have more to do with people discerning the extent to which another person is "like us." For example, people tend to feel more aversion toward someone who commits rape than murder, even though most people would agree that murder is the worse of the two. But most people can also understand the desire to kill someone more than the desire to rape someone. Our intuition tells us that someone who rapes, or someone who has sex with animals, is in some way "damaged" and not like us. Whether or not that's a valid view of morality is questionable, but I think it's more accurate than that people are making the distinction based on cuteness of the animal. In our society, we see dogs as pets and not food, so people who eat them are thought to be different from us.

    Also, I think you downplay the utility of factory farming. It doesn't just make us a bit better off, factory farming is what allows countries to move away from having largely agricultural economies and move to an industrial, modern economy. It wasn't really that long ago in the western world where a bad farming season caused people to starve to death. That doesn't happen here anymore, but it does in plenty of other places. If it turns out that factory farming is the only way to ensure that nobody goes hungry, is it OK?

  5. Eating animals may be less objectionable, only if you separate the process by which they become a meal. Cramped quarters, unclean living conditions, and slaughtering processes are the reasons "eating meat" is not much different than crush videos, imho.

    Any form of eating meat, means taking the life of a sentient creature, who feels pain, fear, and stress. People eat meat because they do not value non-human life and for the most part, think raising the status of animals means lowering the status of humans.

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  7. An easier way to point to the problematic aspects of most people's relationships with animals:

    Why do people who get outraged at dogs, cats and whales being eaten go home and eat chicken, pork and beef?

    In this case the act is the same (eating meat) - it is only the animal that differs.

    So yes, it is the argument from cuteness once again.

    Cute animals are just as delicious as ugly ones.

  8. Julia,

    You concluded, “And if you believe that it's wrong to make animals suffer for our pleasure, but you reserve your moral condemnation only for cases that viscerally upset you, like dogfighting or crush videos, then you're falling prey to the trap…”

    Although I share your concerns about “Apathy, denial, conformity,” I still believe that there are essential moral distinctions between “crush” videos and meat-eating:

    1. Although I think that we both agree that human morality should extend to concerns for the welfare of animals, there are pragmatic considerations that negatively impact both animal and man. If we don’t eat cows and deers, they’ll overpopulate and make life difficult for everyone.

    2. Animal sadism must be penalized because it’s needless and will eventually generalize into human sadism.

    Nevertheless, I think that we should be rethinking our meat industry to make it more “humane.”

  9. Not all overt cruelty is universally reviled. We don't need to take in extreme cases to find examples of sadistic animal treatment. Traditions like bullfighting, cock fighting, fox hunting and other "blood sports" have been around for centuries, and while some of these have been banned in certain areas, there's hardly a unilateral rejection of these practices. The reason seems similar to the naturalist argument: we've been doing them for a long time, so it's not that big of a deal. If dog fighting had been practiced by the Queen of England, Michael Vick's public image wouldn't have been so stained. Really, I could even imagine an alternate history where the Colosseum persisted into the modern day and we'd have a justification for it. After all, the gladiators would all sign waivers.

    I think the best way to make this case to a general audience is to often focus on the integrity of human character. Animal pain and suffering is nebulous in the public mind, and while it is important to illustrate that this suffering *does* exist, the bigger issue to press is that these motivations and actions on our part (sadism and apathy) are simply inexcusable in the modern world.

    When a bull is killed in a bullfight, sure, it stinks for the bull, but I'm more worried about the people who gain intense pleasure from death. Beakless chickens in a factory is horrible, but I'm more worried about the severe disconnect someone has between their food and how it's produced. The suffering is horrid, but the core of the problem is something in ourselves that needs to be corrected. The greatest evils, as we know, aren't fueled by overt "evilness," but rather when people lazily avoid assessing their own actions.

    Animal cruelty is a wretched thing, but it's just one symptom of the Human Disconnect.

  10. Important erratum:
    In the second sentence of my first paragraph above, where I wrote: " On the other hand, evolving a feeling of pleasure from sadistic treatment of animals" I should have written: "On the other hand, evolving a feeling of disgust from sadistic treatment of animals".

  11. I supposed I should clarify that even if I am correct about the psychological origins of these behaviors, it does not make them less morally objectionable. I do think you've laid out that argument well. However, it might be an important consideration if your goal is to evaluate the origins of these moral intuitions.

  12. "If we don’t eat cows and deers, they’ll overpopulate and make life difficult for everyone." - Manns Word

    As it stands, we're at least partially responsible for the overpopulation of wild prey due to our aggressively culling their natural predators to protect livestock. And I don't really see any evidence that cattle would ever reach higher numbers than currently exist without human beings purposefully breeding them.

    Which isn't to say that inflicting suffering/death on animals doesn't sometimes create massive tangible benefits for human beings AND other animals, but I think (some) animal testing is probably a better example of that.

    On another note, it seems to me that there may be some evolutionary benefit to being viscerally repulsed by people who take pleasure from causing pain in animals. They're probably more likely than average to enjoy causing pain in their fellow human beings, as well.

  13. A very good, thought-provoking essay!

    One might contend that animals which have been selectively bred as food sources may suffer less than animals bred for other purposes, or not selectively bred at all... in other words, a chicken suffers less from confinement than a mouse does from being crushed, or a dog does from fighting to the death. But even so, there is no doubt that factory farming practices are abominable... and more importantly, unnecessary.

    Raised awareness has had an impact, though. More money than ever is available in farm subsidies for small family-style farms, and the phasing out of gestation cages. Vegetarian, organic/free-range and Locovore movements are putting pressure on the industry, which is the only real way to enact change.

  14. Hector:

    "This is of course evolutionary psychology. Nobody can directly observe it happening, as nobody has witnessed the evolution of white fur in bears when they live surrounded by ice all year round, but all evolutionary biology is based on such chains of inference.

    But I may have just forgotten that 'evolutionary psychology' is verboten in this neighborhood. My excuses."

    A little defensive, are we?

  15. Lest we forget, the world's food chain somewhere along the line will consist of some form of animal eaten alive by another. Life eats life. Perhaps its some consolation that we have learned the value of killing our food before we eat it rather than during.
    And hey, if it wasn't destined to be eaten, the turkey wouldn't get to live on the farm.

  16. Massimo> "The only debatable point comes at the end, when you admit that part of the force of your argument depends on taking a consequentialist view of morality."

    Of course the consequences matter — that's what we care about. The entire reason we have a moral discourse is to try to change the behaviors of those around us… in order to realize different states of affairs. Of course, it just so happens that the best way implement morality is probably not to take an "act utilitarian" approach (a la Sam Harris) — but that's not because we don't care about the consequences, it's because we do.

  17. Here's an interesting note on the dog-fighter, Michael Vick. According to World, Dec. 18, 2010, Vick stated:

    "Through this situation I found Jesus and asked Him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God...Pre-incarceration, it was all about me. When I got to prison, I realized I couldn't do it anymore...Five months ago I was worried with what was going to happen, but now I'm more at peace...I don't worry about being dynamic. God is in control of that."

  18. You hit the nail on the head twice in this article.

    First, yes, it's morally repulsive to treat farm animals the way we do. I try to support responsible farming in my meat-buying - grass-fed cows, free-range chickens, etc. Factory farming is an abomination.

    Second, inflicting pain for the sake of the pain is morally worse than inflicting pain as an incidental side-effect of a different goal. This is why, for example, pinching someone is considered mean, but the needle prick from a doctor giving you a shot is perfectly fine. We're morally obligated to reduce such incidental suffering, but it doesn't stain us as badly in general.

  19. Kip, I never said that the consequences don't matter. But some non-consequentialist systems of ethics put the emphasis on intentions as well, which means that Julia's distinction between killing animals for the sheer pleasure of seeing them suffer can be construed as ethically different from killing animals for the (indirect and somewhat useful even if not strictly necessary) pleasure of eating them.

  20. Manns Word hypothesis that unless humans eat cows and hunt deers those species would overpopulate the earth shows total disregard for natural selection. No species (with the probable exception of ours) can ever "overpopulate" their environment: resource exhaustion and predators would take care of them much before. Of course, in the process they may drive some other (plant or animal) species to extinction, especially in "closed" environments such as islands, and that might count as "overpopulation" although to survive they necessarily should find an alternative means of sustenance, therefore making the "overpopulation" point moot. Species come and go, and there is always some species that are being driven to extinction by some environmental factor, including other species.

    By the way, most people worried about the suffering inflicted in slaughterhouses or hunting expeditions would not include fleas, mosquitoes, flies and other insects (never mind micro-organisms) in their preoccupations. Crushing a rabbit is repulsive enough to be worried about, but crushing a mosquito against a wall is usually not seen in that light (even if the particular mosquito is not the bearer of any infectious disease, like Aedes Egypti or Anopheles). Why not? (This "why" does not mean "what is the rational, philosophical or moral chain of reasoning that justifies those differential behaviors" but "how this differential behaviors have ever come to prevail among humans").

  21. @Hector, you wrote:

    "By the way, most people worried about the suffering inflicted in slaughterhouses or hunting expeditions would not include fleas, mosquitoes, flies and other insects (never mind micro-organisms) in their preoccupations. Crushing a rabbit is repulsive enough to be worried about, but crushing a mosquito against a wall is usually not seen in that light ... Why not?"

    Because, for instance, I have reason to believe that cows and pigs can suffer much greater pain than fleas, mosquitoes, and flies. For me, this evaluation is based on a) valuing sentience, ie, the ability to feel pain and suffering, and b) neural circuitry that suggests whether an animal might have sentience (or comes close enough to give the benefit of the doubt).

    Now, rabbits are another matter ... which I just might tackle in a forthcoming essay here :)

  22. Hector M, I don't think "evolutionary psychology" is "verboten," as much as "airy just-so adaptationism" is "frowned upon." I think you've traced out a vague hypothesis, with no real explanation of its prior plausibility in terms of known facts of genetics or anthropology, and given no explanation of what predictions it might lead to. If the facts were completely different, one could just as convincingly rationalize them in exactly the same way. Why, of course it's considered moral derive pleasure from killing small animals! After all, they spread disease, and our paleolithic ancestors didn't have modern medicine...

    Clearly humans have a kind of "moral faculty," in the same way that they have language faculty or visuospatial faculty. Clearly there is some genetic basis for this, which has been shaped by evolution in some way. But it's a looooooong way from those facts to "this particular expression of human moral faculties in this particular context derives straightforwardly from a specific adaptive pressure that existed in a specific time period."

    At a minimum I would want to ask some questions like, "Do humans universally, or at least generally, believe that pointless sadism towards small animals is highly immoral?" I seem to remember that setting cats on fire was considered hilarious entertainment right into late Medieval Europe, for example. Perhaps we could come up with an evo-psych explanation of the adaptive value of such a practice...

  23. I always imagined a link between people's interest in punishing animal-torturers and the fact that serial killers start out killing animals. I think the reaction to crush videos should be examined from an evolutionary sociological perspective, as a groups' perception of social dysfunction.

  24. Michael De Dora writes,
    "Because, for instance, I have reason to believe that cows and pigs can suffer much greater pain than fleas, mosquitoes, and flies."
    Does that imply that we shouldn't swat flies or mosquitoes unless we plan to eat them? Because I had thought we swatted them because they plan to eat us -?

  25. Evan,
    I did not aim at "proving" any evopsych argument, just pointing out that the debate about practices such as killing cattle for food or killing cats for entertainment should not be organized only in terms of a philosophical justification without trying to ascertain how these practices arise, and what functions they might have had. I mentioned possible functions in our evolutionary (remote) past, but they may also have fulfilled some function in the more recent past (such as your merry medieval people rejoicing on a burning cat, or more recent crowds cheering at the public execution of criminals, or merrily watching a corrida de toros in Spain or Mexico).
    I think my hastily sketched EvoPsych hypotheses are worthy of consideration, just as the hypothesis that bears with gens for a lighter fur are likely to be selected for in the Arctic, whereas neither hypothesis is directly verifiable in empirical terms.

  26. Julia said: From a purely harm-based perspective, the moral calculus is the same: the animal suffers so that you can experience pleasure.

    Both animals end up dead, so the difference seems to pivot on the amount of suffering prior to death, right? And how much do we really know about the life of the animal prior to being crushed? Was it certainly better than the animal slaughtered for food? Not necessarily.

    This line of inquiry leads me to focus on the question: Which act causes more suffering to the animal: crushing or (conventional/industrial methods of) slaughter?

    My hunch is that crushing causes more suffering than slaughter. And, even if that hunch proves (eventually) to be a product of ignorance, citing it as a factor is fair game, so long as the goal is merely psychological (i.e. to explain why people respond differently to each scenario).

    If so, then it is only true that "From a purely harm-based perspective, the moral calculus is the same" if we mean by "harm" something other than folks' beliefs or perceptions about the animal's degree of suffering.

  27. Thanks for the post, Julia. Two articles your readers might be interested in.
    Are animal models predictive for humans? http://www.peh-med.com/content/pdf/1747-5341-4-2.pdf
    Is the use of sentient animals in basic research justifiable? http://www.peh-med.com/content/pdf/1747-5341-5-14.pdf
    Both are in the journal Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine http://www.peh-med.com/home/ and both address a related issue of using animals.

  28. Even in a consequentialist morality, the question of how responsible a person is, how much blame they should receive for the consequences of their actions, doesn't have to depend only on the amount of harm done. A drunk driver and a psychopathic murderer may cause the same amount of harm (the death of a person), but even a consequentialist can see that the two should receive different punishments.

    It sounds like the distinction you are trying to get at is between intended and foreseen consequences. A person who wants to cause some harm (the suffering of an animal in your case) is a worse person than a person who wants to cause some good (their own pleasure in your case) that has the same harm as a side effect. That seems like a sound moral principle to me. And if we are to weigh the blame (rather than the harm) against the benefit, it is at least conceivable that it might be morally permissible to eat meat but not to engage in the other activities you describe.

  29. Great post, Julia! Are you a vegetarian then? (I'm in the process of phasing out meat).

    So this raises a lot of questions I keep thinking about. In one of Michael Sandel's lectures, he asks whether gladiatorial combat could be justified under consequentialism IF the spectators got enough pleasure out of it to offset the pain to the contestants.

    When he raised this I immediately thought of several rebuttals, good consequentialist reasons to Say No To Blood Sport.

    BUT it's very hard to work into that calculus the unworthy pleasure that the spectators are getting from the event. Not impossible to work in, but hard.

    Cases like the gladiators and Newcomb's problem have started to make me think that we should really be consequentialists, virtue ethicists, AND deontologists (in that order). Or if you like:

    Consequentialism - to figure out what needs to be done.
    Virtue ethics - to be the sort of person who does it.
    Deontology - to bind yourself, preventing catastrophic individual choice phenomena.

    I find myself driven to this by cases like the gladiators above, and the Prisoners' dilemma (note apostrophe position!). Too bad it sounds REALLY wishy-washy.

    @Manns Word:
    I will likely regret asking, but what are we to conclude from Vick's conversion/reawakening there? I ask because you seem to think it argues in favour of Christian ethics somehow, whereas for me it does (if anything) the opposite.

    It looks to me like Vick behaved reprehensibly, then ran straight for the most forgiving ethical system he could find, which if he grew up Christian (good odds), happened to be the one that failed to, y'know, prevent the original behaviour. (Although I hasten to add that obviously the main fault is in Vick, not in whatever philosophy he does/did subscribe to).

  30. I agree with many of the others: An excellent post!

    Graham, your first point sounds plausible: We can identify more with the psychology of the meat eaters. This is in part due to what I think is the most obvious difference: Namely, that meat eaters are far more numerous and mainstream in our society. It's the same reason we regard Christians as normal but members of alien cults as "weird." Needless to say, this isn't a moral distinction; just an explanatory one. I have to disagree with Graham's second point about industrial economies, because factory-farmed meat requires several times more crop land than does vegetarian protein.

    As far as Julia's statement, "You have to be able to point to some objective feature of the act and explain why that makes it immoral, rather than simply citing your own visceral reaction as an argument," I have to quibble, since I take the emotivist view of metaethics. I don't know what an "objective" moral feature of an act could possibly look like except for an emotional reaction to it. But I suppose that most moral arguments take place among people who share some basic criteria for what counts and what doesn't. (I personally agree that the "Ick" factor is irrelevant, but I recognize that's nothing more than my emotional sentiment.)

    Finally, I like Julia's consequentialist view on these matters. What's morally important is how much harm is caused and how much suffering could be prevented by our choices. Of course, it's highly relevant to know about intentions for instrumental reasons, but at the end of the day, what matters is how badly organisms are suffering. The injured mouse or caged hen doesn't care about your mindset when you take your actions: It just wants the pain to stop. I like Winston's thought from 1984: "In the face of pain there are no heroes, no heroes [...]."

    Looking just at the scale of animal suffering involved, I think the pain, fear, and stress endured by creatures in the wild is overwhelmingly the most significant animal-welfare issue today, orders of magnitude above factory farming. It's harder to draw an analogy like the one Julia used for factory farming to this case: We don't get pleasure from animal suffering in the wild (unless it's the pleasure of using our time and money for things other than helping them, but that's a bit more of a stretch). Still, as a consequentialist, I don't see a distinction between harming vs. failing to help, so I think we should do as much as we can to encourage concern for wild animals and research toward long-sighted solutions for improving their lives (probably not short-term ecological engineering but instead more fundamental approaches, perhaps requiring artificial intelligence and nanotechnology).

  31. Crush videos with bugs should be acceptable. They don't remind me of me so I have less of an emotional attachment to them.

  32. "Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right."

    Okay. I live in an environment where a species has over bred and continues to over breed to the point of environmental destruction and pollution on a planetary scale exterminating species by the millions and making the environment toxic by polluting the air, water and soil up to and including changing the weather patterns with their pollutants. And it looks like it will get a lot worse in the near future. These creatures steadfastly refuse to even so much as discuss limiting their own numbers and each of them strive to live a life of maximal destruction to the environment in the use of energy and resources.

    What is the 'Right' thing to do?

  33. There is a long tradition of feeling that those who perform cruel deeds to non-humans (not our group) will progress to harming humans (our group). I would suggest that it is this threat from people who enjoy cruelty -(which itself is (?) probably a striving after the relief - even amounting to orgasmic - of controlling something horrible happening to someone else, to the Other, not to oneself) which produces our differential response to various acts, each of which may have effects equally harmful to the patient. The person who strives after pleasure in this release of tension may well look for their pleasure within our group, not just in "outsiders", and this produces a frisson of horror as we realise that here is a school of thought with possibly threatening methods of acquiring their primary goods.

    Peter Singer has also pointed out that we do not consider ourselves murderers when we fail to relieve lethal wants. Humans are not very good at seeing past their own caprices when it comes to serious ethical choices, perhaps?

    Those of us who count ourselves as vegans do indeed think of the hot-dog eater in the stands as on a moral plane with the wretched Mr. Vick and his tortured dogs, by the way - it's a point that's been made many times in vegan writings.

  34. @Alan
    Those stats that vegetarians always quote are misleading. We aren't growing the same quality corn and wheat for animals that we need to for humans to eat. To grow high quality crops for human consumption is a lot more resource-consuming than the crops for animals. There's a legitimate debate about which is more environmental, but it's not as cut and dry as vegetarians generally claim.

  35. Massimo, thanks. I should note that I'm not crazy about the word "evil" -- it's so cartoonish! -- but I was grasping for a word that indicates someone whose character inspires moral outrage, irrespective of the consequences of their actions. Perhaps "despicable" would've been a better word choice.

  36. Dan!, you wrote "most people simply don't think about the suffering of conscious creatures at all while considering their dining options."
    I think that's true. And I considered acknowledging in the essay that most people aren't fully aware of the horrors of factory farms... but ultimately I left that out because, in my experience, when those horrors ARE brought to people's attention, the most typical reaction is either (1) to shrug and say, basically, "That sucks, but I'm not giving up meat" or (2) to rationalize it away with arguments like "Well, animals don't really suffer" or "They wouldn't have existed without us."

    Oh also, you wrote that the dogs used in dogfighting aren't "cute," which is also probably true, but the point I was trying to make is that dogs, as a species, are appealing to us in some emotional way, making us care more about them than most other animals.

    Regarding that image, I have no idea! Massimo put it on there!

  37. Graham, you wrote: "I think you downplay the utility of factory farming. It doesn't just make us a bit better off, factory farming is what allows countries to move away from having largely agricultural economies and move to an industrial, modern economy."

    I'm skeptical of this claim, though if you can cite anything I'll check it out. Sure, modern methods of growing crops made us hugely more efficient -- but that's crops, not livestock. I find it very hard to believe that we couldn't feed just as many people, if not more, by producing less meat and more plants.

  38. Baron P, you wrote, "Lest we forget, the world's food chain somewhere along the line will consist of some form of animal eaten alive by another. Life eats life."
    That's true, but (1) wild animals need to eat other animals alive in order to survive, whereas we don't need to subject animals to factory farms (at the least, we could raise them humanely)

    You also wrote, "And hey, if it wasn't destined to be eaten, the turkey wouldn't get to live on the farm."
    This argument suggests that it's okay to bring creatures into existence and make them suffer, because at least it's better than non-existence. Is any kind of torture okay if you've bred the animal expressly for that reason? For example, would crush videos be okay if the animals were bred for that reason? Most people have a problem with the idea of inflicting unnecessary suffering on a creature even if they've brought it into existence.
    And surely there are some lives that are horrible enough to be worse than non-existence; I think many factory-farmed animals arguably lead such lives.

  39. JackalMage, you wrote, "Second, inflicting pain for the sake of the pain is morally worse than inflicting pain as an incidental side-effect of a different goal. This is why, for example, pinching someone is considered mean, but the needle prick from a doctor giving you a shot is perfectly fine."

    I don't think this is a good analogy, because the needle prick is for your own benefit overall (and you've probably chosen it voluntarily!). Whereas causing animal suffering with factory farms, while it isn't directly for the purpose of causing pain, is still certainly for our own benefit, and not theirs. A more apt analogy might be someone pinching you, not out of the joy of causing you pain, but to get you to move because you're in their way.

  40. Frank Bellamy, you argued that a person's moral culpability isn't just based on the consequences of his actions, and you compared a drunk driver to a psychopathic murderer. I don't think that's a good analogy, though. The drunk driver took on a small risk of killing someone whereas the psychopathic killer intentionally killed someone, and that's why we treat them differently. By allowing factory farms, our society isn't taking on a small risk of hurting animals, we're knowingly hurting animals, albeit not for sadistic purposes.
    A better analogy might be between a psychopathic murderer and a drunk driver who knows (somehow) that he is going to end up running a person over that night if he drives, but gets on the road anyway because he doesn't care.

  41. jcm, you wrote, "My hunch is that crushing causes more suffering than slaughter."

    That may be true, but the majority of the suffering incurred by factory farmed animals isn't in the killing itself, but in the months or years of life leading up to the killing.

  42. @ianpollock -- With rare exceptions, I don't buy animal products unless they've been raised according to stringently humane standards (Animal Welfare Approved is what I usually check for: http://www.animalwelfareapproved.org).

    I will eat regular animal products if they're going to be thrown away and I can be confident that my eating them isn't going to encourage someone to buy more such products in the future.

    In practice, this amounts to me being vegan most of the time.

  43. Julia, the hypothetical turkeys I referred to were not factory farmed. It's those hypothetical chickens that would have been better off served up as fried eggs.

  44. Also as to gladiators and contests, two questions: How willing would the spectators be to take their turn in the proverbial barrel, and what's it really like there in the barrel.

  45. Julia said: ...the majority of the suffering incurred by factory farmed animals isn't in the killing itself, but in the months or years of life leading up to the killing.

    I'll put it like this: There's no comparison between a crush video and a hunk of meat in the butcher section, in terms of how much information is immediately available with respect to the animal's suffering. That fact alone, I think, is sufficient to explain the bias you observe (again, psychologically).

    I agree that, if more background information were readily available, that might tip the scale in the other direction. But I think we would need to know more about the lives of both animals (i.e. the slaughtered and the crushed) - not to mention some knowledge of their species (e.g. neurological differences) - before we can make an apples-to-apples comparison and conclude that, over the full course of its lifetime (from birth to death), the one suffered more than the other.

    Lacking that, it seems safer to trust one's own senses and assume that the crushed animal suffered more, and therefore to disapprove of it more strongly. [I can think of other reasons to disapprove of it more strongly (which are nonetheless compatible with strong disapproval of inhumane farming & slaughterhouse conditions), but I'll put those aside for now.]

  46. Suffering is the price that all life pays to find itself alive - especially so if those of you who find no purpose in the living of it are correct.
    Those who are the ones as well that judge by consequence alone, exclusive of the need, intent or negligence of the perpetrator.

  47. Ian, I don't think your three-part ethical formula is wishy-washy at all. I've been thinking something along those lines for a while (sometimes labeling it ethical "pluralism" or "heterodoxy"), but haven't been able to put into such clear and concise terms. Well said!

    Julia, a postscript to my last comment: I would very much approve of Washington's passing a law (and enforcing it!) that bans any inhumane farming techniques that currently remain legal and in practice - even if that law were to significantly drive up the cost of meat. Like you said, we can live with less meat in our diets (although I think the health benefits of vegetarianism and, more so, veganism are debatable), plus it would only be fair to ethical farmers if they could practice on a level playing field.

    That said, I think the measure passed against crush videos says a lot more about politics than it does about ethics. (Does the crush video industry even have a lobby?) They don't call it the "art of the possible" for nothing, and this ban report comes only as good news to me (notwithstanding the bad news that such a market for cruelty exists).

  48. @jcm:
    Ethical heterodoxy, eh? Funny how giving it a name makes it sound so much more dignified. All right, colour me recategorized. :)

    Your comment seems strange. Are you dismissing ethics entirely? If so, why does your argument for dismissing it take the form of an ethical argument?

    Also, lest we become overzealous in beating up on H. sapiens, let us remember that we are apparently the only species to ever even *think* of providing for posterity farther ahead than a year or so. To be honest, I am very suspicious of such chest-beating lamentations, as they always seem in practice to mean something like "let's not even bother."

  49. @ ianpollock

    Well I am a strange guy. At least in this world I am, but I was responding to Julia's posting of Asimov's comment, because the right thing to do would be to cull that species and limit their future numbers to secure a better environment for those and for the other species in the environment, but that would be regarded as very highly immoral which I thought terribly ironic.

    As far as cruelty to animals (or people) goes people can endure the thought of it as long as it is nebulous, as long as they don't see it and are not forced to think about it. What upsets them is not the cruelty itself it is confronting them with it and making them think about the cruelty. Which relates back to the Podcast with Carol Travis and self-justification. Allowing horrendous cruelty is bad and as long as it happens off screen you don't need to feel like you need to do anything about it and are still a good person. If those acts had taken place and no videos were made people would be a lot less upset. Then it would just be a story you could dismiss.

    And as far as beating up on Homo Sapiens goes - Every day I work with the toxic and radioactive legacy of those who created weapons with the express purpose of instantly vaporizing by the millions other humans who had a different political philosophy and a different flag and would have had a secondary outcome of all but sterilizing our biosphere. Although the weapons were only used twice (so far) this legacy will last for hundreds and millions of years. This makes me just a bit cynical about people. The questions 'What have we done?' as well as 'What are we doing?' run through my mind frequently. Those who are, or who work with, bight-eyed optimistic, young adults doubtless have a different perspective.

  50. My problem Julia with your approach to equate the crushing of animals with the eating of animals is that is based on the assumption that there is an option that is better than eating the animals. And that option is to eat plants/vegetables.
    But why the discrimination against plants? It is simply because they can't run away from you? Then eating clams should be ok. Or is it that they can't communicate with you? Then any animal that is mute (or communicates in non perceptible ways for humans) should be ok to eat then. The arguments about poor conditions for growth (of animals) could be made thousandfold for plants.

    Ah, but there is the argument that plants don't react to us eating them.
    So if I could prove that plants have reactions to being eaten/wounded, or that have intra plant networks for communicating sensory inputs, then what?
    For example
    Volatile signaling in plant–plant–herbivore interactions: what is real?
    Current Opinion in Plant Biology
    Volume 5, Issue 4, 1 August 2002, Pages 351-354
    Electrical signalling and systemic proteinase inhibitor induction in the wounded plant
    Nature 360, 62 - 65 (05 November 1992); doi:10.1038/360062a0
    Jasmonates and related compounds in plant-insect interactions
    Volume 23, Number 3, 238-245, DOI: 10.1007/BF02637264

    I'm sure that if you ask your botanist friends, they will tell you that plant-plant/plant-herbivore/plant-insect pair-interaction literature is full of examples like this. So it seems to me that the argument for vegan/vegetarianism would only hold for the health issues, and I don't think that health by itself should be a moral requirements (then you should ban TV, alcohol binges, etc). The fact that "we" are animals don't give animals a moral superiority to plants. We could even say that is more moral to eat animals, because usually we kill/harm lots of plants for only one portion, while usually one animal feeds us more than one time.

    If we follow the argument against eating meat above, then I would recommend you to change your diet to only minerals. Or even better, become a breatharian. http://www.breatharian.com/ (sorry Julia and everybody, this has nothing to do with the argument, but it was too funny not to add it to the discussion).

    Personally, I like Pollan's(from the Omnivore Dilemma) idea that people should be aware of the fact that we are killing the animals to eat them, so you could face the responsibility for the act, and appreciate the food more. But we should still eat them anyways. And eat the plants too.

  51. Baron P, you wrote, "Suffering is the price that all life pays to find itself alive"

    Is that meant to be an argument for why it's okay to buy factory-farmed products? Because it seems like a general argument for why it's okay to inflict suffering, period. So it works just as well as a defense of pretty much any harmful act, from assault to rape to torture. Was that your intent?

  52. Ian, I too liked the way you laid out the three-part ethical formula. That's probably a good way to approximate the moral intuitions that many of us have. What's less clear to me (and this is an issue I've been chewing over for some months now!) is when we should use those intuitions to shape our moral system. Because, as you know, our intuition suffers from some serious flaws (e.g., scope insensitivity) and it also evolved for evolutionarily adaptive reasons, which we have no reason to expect would line up properly with any rational, internally consistent moral system. Anyway... this is going to be a post, someday, when I've sorted things out a bit better.

  53. @Yannis -- come on, man. The distinction isn't about whether the object of our harm can move, or communicate (those are straw men!) but whether it can suffer. No brain, no suffering.

  54. Julia,

    What does suffering mean without self-awareness, or even consciousness? Why should an animal's ability to suffer be the measure by which we allow it to be harmed (why not potential self-awareness or its ability to cause suffering in those that already have self-awareness)? At what point/area does an animal's ability to suffer, along a continuum, make it acceptable to cause it harm?

  55. Julia, check out the second part of my remarks.
    My point was to infer that those who don't believe we can acquire purpose will be more inclined to think that suffering is a necessary evil. And ethical behaviors are purposive - in human as well as certain other cultures. Individuals may have expectations for the short term only, but cultures are determinant of their futures.

  56. As to eating as a possible cause of suffering in plants, the thing about plants is that a large percentage of them produce seeds that are 'begging' to be eaten to serve the purposes of the plants' survival.
    Perhaps why fruit tastes good to those animals that plants have selected out to eat it. (Or did animals over time select for plants that had a taste for certain minerals?)(Or all of the above?)

  57. So far I only see arguments against animal cruelty, not meat.

    This is not about vegetarianism, this is about being non-animal-torturers. And I agree with that.

    One thing I don't understand about such conversations is that considering animal suffering on a global scale is a relatively minor issue. Why is there so much effort put in this debate and being vegetarian, then there is about say curing cancer, ending world poverty or anything you know... priorities.

    Not eating meat does not solve the issue of the industry being this way. Nor it ever will (realistically.) The only solution is to somehow figure out how to grow tasty meat cheaply or how to pass a law forbidding animal cruelty.

    Besides these long stretched endeavors, why not put our ethical drives to a good use instead, and try to be part of permanent solutions. For example we can donate money to medical research.

    We can of course do all of these things and in addition invite a homeless person to live for free in our house. But I think our effort for these things is very limited and I don't want to occupy my mind with constantly worrying about food ingredients when there are things (at least to my mind) causing manifold more suffering in the world.

  58. Is all suffering bad or just the suffering that human beings inflict on animals? Because animals induce quite a lot of suffering on each other (by eating other alive among other things) which we might theoretically be able to stop.

    We would for instance reduce the suffering of the deer by killing all the wolves who pull them down and eat them in a very cruel fashion and taking over their job. Being killed with bullets is probably a lot less horrid than being slowly torn to pieces.

  59. Baron P. can't tell the difference between "infer" and "imply". And Julia, heartfelt congratulations on taking a logical position on how humans treat other species!

  60. @Dan! - I have to disagree with your comments regarding dog fighting dogs and how cute or not they may be. A lot of people who run dog fighting rings steal dogs off of their owner's front yards, regardless of breed. Also, pitbulls (since I'm assuming you mean pitbulls when you talk about bloodthirsty fighter dogs) are not bred to be "vicious", they're bred to be obedient to their human masters.

  61. @Eugene -- of course we should work to reduce human suffering. But it's not an either/or. There's no reason we can't cut back on our meat consumption (e.g., buying 1 chicken from a humane farm for every 3 that we would've bought from a factory farm) while we work for the worthy causes you mention. It's not like it takes more energy or money to eat humanely raised products (if you're willing to eat a little less meat, that is), so I don't see the tradeoff you implied between this issue and the others.

  62. Cavall de Quer said...
    'Baron P. can't tell the difference between "infer" and "imply".'
    Yet Ms. de Quer can't tell where to properly put her periods. Or when it's proper to use 'infer' for emphasis. The pedantic fallacy of eschewing the colloquial? Oh, the frisson of horror!

  63. To Thameron: if you include all of the surface tests, underground tests, atmospheric tests and accidents of nuclear weaponry, then they have been used many times. I only mention it because it is important to remember when calculating the impact nuclear technology has had on the environment; to support your point.

  64. @Julia

    I was wrong. I was misremembering what I'd read, which was generally about industrial farming (inclusive of both agriculture and animals, not exclusive to animals) and it's contribution the economic growth, and as such there's no reason for me to think that less meat/more agriculture would be less effective.

  65. I have a hard time wrapping my mind about what we mean by "suffering" in the case of domesticated animals, and its measurement. Is there less suffering if they lived in the wild? Starvation and being eaten alive are common endings to lives in the wild. Not to mention that few domesticated animals are equipped to live in the wild (they have been bred to have alot of muscle for meat, not for survival in the wild). Is it a matter of reducing the number of animals that are used for meat? What would be the goal then: reducing the suffering per individual creature, or reducing the aggregate suffering by reducing the amound of meat we all eat?

  66. ccbowers said: What would be the goal then: reducing the suffering per individual creature, or reducing the aggregate suffering by reducing the amount of meat we all eat?

    To me, at least, the answer is obvious: the goal should be to reduce the suffering per individual creature. In other words (in an ideal world), no creature should have to suffer (unless, of course, it's for its own long-term good) - not even one.

    That said, I do sometimes question to what degree inhumane farming practice is simply a function of scale; e.g. if factory-style techniques are required to raise enough supply to meet the current demand (which itself follows from certain demographic trends, like population growth and the adoption of "Western"-style diets in developing countries). If so, then this might be an argument in favor of reducing the amount of meat that we eat - except that the age of mass production arrived a long time ago and (barring a catastrophe) isn't likely to go away any time soon.

    Then, upon further reflection, I tend to think that the main problem is perverse economic incentives. So long as the meat passes government inspection, makes it to market, and sells at a profit, whatever production techniques are the least expensive (no matter how inhumane) are the ones that are most likely to be adopted. That's why (in my view) it's government's role to shift the economics; i.e. to attack the perverse incentives to abuse via legislation of higher ethical (not to mention health and environmental) standards and via aggressive oversight. The politics are daunting, but sometimes even the threat of such change can apparently lead to progress.

  67. The "Banality of Evil" link at the bottom of the article sent me off on a quasi-random walk through the interwebs, in which I ended up watching an interview with Ron Rosenbaum, the author of "Explaining Hitler," which is the sort of tome my dad thinks of as light reading.

    The book is apparently about all the myriad theories on Hitler's sincerity, religious views, sexuality, etc. It struck me in listening to Rosenbaum theorize, that he was making a big unwarranted assumption - namely, that the behaviour of a person who perpetrated a lot of evil must necessarily require an elaborate explanation.

    He then goes on to say that he is uncomfortable with calling Hitler a sincere true believer, because that would be "like the Menendez defence" and somehow let him off the hook morally. As though that concern affected the reality of Hitler's actual motivations. *Sigh.*

    It's really getting hard for me to consume any non-fiction not written by some species of skeptic. Even when it's well-intentioned and thoughtful it often seems like every page contains at least one DOES NOT FOLLOW or CATEGORY ERROR. So now I have the choice of risking total echo-chamber groupthink, or facepalming every five minutes.

  68. I like how "To me, at least, the answer is obvious..." develops into something more nuanced and not-so-obvious. I agree that the individual suffering impacts our emotions more, but increased demand also increases the supply, and this results in increased suffering from many angles. In addition, I'm not sure that suffering alone is a sufficient consideration. As the end of the Julia's article gets into: I do not have a problem with "evilness" not being perfectly related to the "harm" caused. I think that must be the case, because motivations are important, and the world is imperfect and full of grays.

    This is mostly unrelated to the animal suffering thing, but how many hitlers or stalins just never got the chance? That does not make them any less "evil." And a well intentioned person can cause much harm, but how much blame do we need? We can't ignore external factors unrelated to a person's actions just to satisfy our perception of justice.

  69. ccbowers,

    You asked what the goal should be, and my gut reaction was to interpret that question as: what's the ultimate goal, which (in my view) is "reducing the suffering per individual creature", whereas "reducing the aggregate suffering" implies to me that simply reducing the population of suffering is acceptable. I'm saying that it's not. At best, it's an instrumental goal, which one can only hope is part of a trend towards achievement of the ultimate goal (however pie-in-the-sky that may be).

    As a bonus, I also gave you some of my thoughts and observations about the politics & economics facing the animal welfare cause. Sorry if that muddied my (more abstract) answer to your question.

  70. ccbowers said: In addition, I'm not sure that suffering alone is a sufficient consideration.

    I've never claimed otherwise. But is suffering a necessary consideration (at least in this case)? After all, I may judge your hypothetically disarmed hitlers and stalins as a lot of poor, deranged, perhaps even "evil", characters. But I think my main concern there is their greater-than-average will and/or potential to do harm, such that the harm itself seems to me like the real enemy (if you'll permit the anthropomorphism), and they are merely its misguided deliverers.

    But here's an example of where I think the harm/suffering reductionism breaks down: What if we knew that a life of abstinence from crush videos causes its (human) fetishists to suffer more, in total, than its (non-human) victims? [This conclusion is even more likely if we weigh human interests more greatly than those of, say, mice or rabbits, as I think most of us do. Biology and abnormal psychology would likely factor in, as well.] Would we then suddenly shift our attention away from suffering to some other moral criterion (like a rule or a character trait)?

    I think I would automatically make the switch, and I can't think of a single rational defense for doing so. The thought of people "getting off" on cruel acts in themselves is like a trump card ingrained in my moral programming.

  71. "where to properly put her periods" - least I don't split infinitives, nur,nur,nur-nur, nur.....

  72. "least I don't split infinitives"
    Too busy splitting hairs?

  73. Okay you two, please stick to substantive contributions, yes?

  74. Which animal has a better life - a prize cockfighter that eventually dies in battle, or a chicken raised in a cage, minus its beak, too heavy to even walk?

  75. I think a "prize cockfighter that eventually dies in battle" would be karmic retribution, not animal cruelty. :P

  76. The fighting cock. At least it gets to satisfy its inbred urge to fight. And if its death is painful in the end, it will have had no memory of the suffering.

    The same may apply to a fighting bull. At least I hope so because I'd hate to see the demise of the Spanish bullfight.

  77. jcm:

    This first point I will make is not an argument against anything you are saying, in fact you may agree (or not) with some of this... but there is a problem with looking at harm alone, because it is only looking at one side (if that) of the equation. Lets assume that domesticated animal "A" would suffer more in the wild, and our goal is to reduce the aggregate harm/suffering of this animal. It would be hard to show how allowing/promoting extinction of this animal is not the best option if the reduction of aggregate suffering is the primary goal. This argument could also be used in the senario of reducing individual harm if practical factors are also considered.

    jcm "that the harm itself seems to me like the real enemy (if you'll permit the anthropomorphism), and they are merely its misguided deliverers."

    I disagree with this, because if you just look at harm you are incorporating external factors into the equation. Perhaps this is not a great analogy, but this approach reminds me of someone evaluating performance based upon results rather than having a sound process. For example a coach of a sports team: a good coaching job may result in a 2-16 record and a bad coaching job may result in a 9-7 record, depending on the talent of the teams in question. Looking at the records alone is insufficient for a proper assessment. A similar analogy could be made for politics, personal relationships, etc. Although looking at harm/suffering is required, it has to be viewed in the context in which it is happening and relative to reasonable alternatives.

  78. @Derek

    The trouble is only the chicken and cockfighter have any perpective on this question, and neither one could answer for the other since they are different creatures altogether. The question reminds me that as humans we really are putting our own perspectives and making a lot of assumptions about suffering and what is important for animals. The truth is that we really don't know what is "best" for animals, but we still have to make the decisions about it.

    Also, not all suffering is bad... Take a human for example: If you attempt to eliminate all suffering for a human you will likely fail and cause more suffering. Overcoming adversity is important to humans and actually contributes to happiness and sense of purpose and accomplishment, but in the moment of the struggle it may feel and appear to be suffering. Those who spend their lives avoiding any struggles are often miserable. We don't even know what is "best" for a given human... its hard to extrapolate to a chicken or pig. Since I assume that these animals don't have the life planning abilities of humans, my best guess is to look at what activities a given animal appears to do the most when given choices.

  79. Also keep in mind even for cockfighting, breeding is only part of the equation to create the agressiveness. Physical abuse is also used to increase aggression, so its not simply a matter of "satisfy(ing) its inbred urge."

  80. Julia, about the issue of the animals and suffering...I agree with the commenter after me that synthesized better the argument, that is, where do you put the line? Is it ok to eat clams then? And if I am able to create a cow that has no pain receptors, then it is ok to torture it?
    The point with the "plants" arguments is that they are also able to respond to environmental stimuli that harms them, and they notify other member of their species that this is happening to them. Why is it different than an animal that bleats/cries etc? Just because it has a brain? Are you being "brain"-centric? How did we decided that the level of reaction after the harmful stimuli has to be processed in a brain to be considered "immoral? What about organisms that have their neurons in separated ganglionar structures? Is it moral to hurt them and torture them because evolutionarily they developed a different way to process information?
    If we take not the issue of the structure of the brain, but the issue of consciousness...then again we go to the demarcation problem...where do you stop? Only if they pass the self identification tests they should not be eaten? Then again I can use the argument of the mentally underdeveloped cow and ask you how you would distinguish it from a botanical super-organism that communicates the hurt/health status between them. Why is the lack of a centralized brain makes the animal unable to receive moral protection?. When I read your points it feels to me that you don't like the plants argument because you realize that to survive you actually have to eat something, so if you accept it then you wouldn't be able to eat anything!

    Also want to respond to your comment to Eugene, regarding the setting of priorities. I do not know your birth background so I will not guess your apriori expectations. I will use mine (which are clearly biased, I know). I was born in a third world country (which is still a third world country) where arguments about humane treatments of poultry would be laughed at by the "common man". I have stayed in houses where there were 10 human beings in 1 small bedroom,so talking to them about chicken being overcrowded would be hilarious. The idea of "humane" animal handling is sadly unavailable there, as we have lots of people that barely have money to survive each day. We could postulate that to avoid this "immoral" management of animals, then we could
    ask them not to eat any meat. Well, I can tell you that it leads to kwashiorkor in our kids (many of them have that, specifically because their families have so little money that they can't even get the cheap "overcrowded" poultry).
    This makes me feel that this moral position against killing animals for eating them is much more "observer" dependent than most moral positions, and it depends on the "observer" being well off.
    Also for a counterpoint to the "humane" treatment of animals as a more/better moral stance than the "overcrowded" one, I can give you another example. One of the companies in my home country lost one of their export contracts to a first country restaurant chain because they couldn't maintain the "organic" label requirements (it was not that exactly, I don't remember which label it was). So they had to lay off people in the restructuring. So by you buying the humanely treated chicken you "harmed" human beings. Thinking about this, it seems to me that it just moves the argument to the usual consequentialist versus deontological morality. But through chicken...(to finish in a lighter note)
    To avoid the discussion to go on a tangent, I reiterate that I agree with the argument to decrease animal consumption for overall health and environmental reasons. Just not for the specific moral ones that you have established.

  81. I was only able to skim the above, so apologies if I'm repeating someone else's point.

    Julia, I have to agree with Massimo's first post overall, but it seems to me that your argument depends on an overly narrow scope. If we widen the scope across which we "search" for the harm done by these videos, we find a possible consequentialist argument for banning crush videos that has nothing to do with the harm done to the animal.

    It's a generally-held view -- whether correct or not -- that people who take pleasure in the suffering of animals are more likely to take pleasure in and cause human suffering. Furthermore, it seems possible that taking pleasure in the suffering of animals is a learnable behavior. Assuming that the causal relationships work out the right way, there is a line of argument showing that even viewing crush videos causes harm, in that it raises the chances that the viewer may cause harm in the future. We might even say that these videos harm their viewers, in the sense that they raise the chances of viewers committing acts that will earn them punishment.

    This depends, of course, on the truth of the above three assumptions. I don't know enough of the relevant research to tell whether they hold; but I don't think they've yet been empirically discounted.

  82. ccbowers said: It would be hard to show how allowing/promoting extinction of this animal is not the best option if the reduction of aggregate suffering is the primary goal.

    I agree, which is presumably why conservationists tend to rely on ecological (e.g. biodiversity) or aesthetic, rather than harm- or welfare-based, arguments to support their causes. Once we enter the human social sphere (of which farming is a part), however, the rules naturally shift to an emphasis on the harm/suffering for which we (rather than blind natural forces) are directly responsible.

    I disagree with this, because if you just look at harm you are incorporating external factors into the equation.

    I don't follow your logic here. I agreed with you that your potential hitlers and stalins were a lot of vicious characters (in the sense promoted by virtue ethicists). But I find something mystical in that judgment (even though I made it), until I consider the humanitarian risks that they represent (as in: their greater potentials to cause great harm/suffering to others). That's why I offered a different example, where I might agree with you that harm/suffering appears to be of secondary importance.

    However, even in my example, the typical reaction might share some of the same risk-based concerns. For example, I detect a hitler/stalin-like trait in the crush video fetishists, which causes me to worry about what other harm-based pleasures these fetishists might indulge or inspire in others. But that is somewhat of an empirical question (i.e. given that it's logically possible that the crush video fetish does not correlate with any other cruel fetishes, and remains limited to small animals), and lacking strong evidence pointing one way or the other, I think it's a reasonable practice simply to rely upon a rule-of-thumb here and give a general thumbs-down to cruel fetishes, even in the absence of any precise utilitarian/consequentialist calculus.

  83. "I don't follow your logic here."

    Maybe I can make my point clearer. I don't think the "evilness" of a person should be determined by their opportunities to create harm (for things outside of their control). For example, Hitler and Stalin would not have been able to commit their murders without many societal and political factors that allowed them to take control. Yet, they would not necessarily be less evil if they did not rise to power. So the magnitude of harm alone is somewhat detached from the level of "evilness."

    Therefore measuring the harm is not a great surrogate marker for how "evil" a person is, and it is only used because it is relatively easy to measure. Placing a greater value to a variable just because it is easier to measure/ quantitfy is a logical fallacy.

  84. ccbowers, Yet, they would not necessarily be less evil if they did not rise to power.So the magnitude of harm alone is somewhat detached from the level of "evilness."

    I'm less concerned about "evilness" (in the sense that you use it, where nobody actually gets hurt) than I am about actual harm/suffering. Again, that doesn't mean that I don't share your negative judgment of these characters, which I suppose qualifies as a weak form of moral objection. However, to really stimulate my moral instincts, I think it takes more than a mere potential to do harm (which, arguably, many more of us possess than we might like to admit). The moral agent has to actually act on his potential and inflict some real pain.

  85. jcm-

    I prefer to look at intent when possible because looking at harm alone can be misleading. It is possible that a less objectionable act can result in much more harm than an action with bad intentions. For example, person A could punch someone in an altercation and accidentally kill that person, while person B could try to rob and kill someone with a gun, but fail at killing the person. I would not conclude that the death in the first example makes his act more morally objectable.

    I prefer to look at intent (if this assessment is possible) since it limits the external factors and unintended and unforseeable consequences. Only when there is blatant disregard for potential consequences, would I weigh those consequences more heavily. This is expressed somewhat in our criminal justice system with the varieties of murder, manslaughter, and noncriminal homocide. I think the same concept should apply to any other type of harm.

  86. ccbowers, I think we agree that intent is morally significant, but just to split one more hair, let's turn to a legal dictionary:


    n. mental desire and will to act in a particular way, including wishing not to participate. Intent is a crucial element in determining if certain acts were criminal. Occasionally a judge or jury may find that "there was no criminal intent." Example: lack of intent may reduce a charge of manslaughter to a finding of reckless homicide or other lesser crime.

    With this definition in mind, I suspect that you're emphasizing the "mental desire and will" part, whereas I'm emphasizing the "act in a particular way" part. Neither emphasis is wrong, but I think it's important to approach the matter with a mind towards risk management; i.e. with the understanding that certain mental desires and wills are more likely than others to lead to particular acts, which are causally related to negative consequences. After all, even the "lesser crime" of "reckless homicide" is still a crime. Someone is still dead, and society had better deal with it before someone else does (e.g. the aggrieved family, as in the old days).

    I cited suffering as an example of a negative consequence (for which I suppose pleasure or happiness is the positive counterpart). That's because I think suffering is basic enough that most other examples of negative consequences can be reduced to it. But I would agree that, just because it can do a lot of work, doesn't necessarily mean that it can do all of the work, all of the time.

  87. jcm-
    I largely agree with your perspective in the last post, but I want to take it a step further: Not all homicide is considered a crime. There is a concept called "justifiable homocide," which is difficult to fit in the perspective you have been putting forth. Admittedly we are splitting hairs thinner and thinner as we probably do not have much disagreement in the big picture.

  88. I would agree that the "justifiable homicide" judgment is not obviously related to the amount of suffering caused by the act. But I would doubt the validity of the decision if I knew that the judge & jury had not even considered that factor. After all, it could make all the difference between a judgment of justifiability and recklessness, where the agent's "mental desire and will" was not necessarily malicious, yet the act (and perhaps the agent, as well) nonetheless is judged risky, and thereby qualifies as a threat to society's interests, unless treated in some appropriate way (be it punitive/deterrable or rehabilitative).

  89. There are other ways to raise and slaughter animals than CAFOs. There are defensible health reasons for eating meat. Most of our meat production and consumption practices cannot be defended be appeals to either of these facts, but it is possible to eat meat morally, I believe. An open range, grass-fed, adult cow, may meet a less painful demise from the swift cut of a blade or bullet from a gun than it would a pack of wild dogs. Ought we return our domesticated, meat providing animals to the wild?