The poor meat eater problem

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Jesper Östman
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The poor meat eater problem

Postby Jesper Östman » Sun Dec 20, 2009 7:29 am

A somewhat disturbing problem is that there may be a direct conflict between saving poor humans and caring about the welfare of animals. This is not the well-known problem of prioritizing, that it may be rational for a utilitarian to spend all one's resources on a single cause, ignoring other causes. Rather the problem is that (according to Gaverick, in conversation) better health and thus wealth among the poor increases their meat eating. So saving human lives may lead to the loss of many animal lives.

For a utilitarian the question is not about lives but rather about pleasure/pain (or preferences). According to Gaverick increases in consumption will lead to increased factory farming. Given the assumption that factory farming leads to more suffering than pleasure, perhaps much more, we get the conclusion that the more effective human charities (charities targeting poor humans) are the more disutility we will get.

This especially relates to effective mechanisms for charity such as GWWC which get considerable support among many utilitarians. Although it has seemed to me earlier that it is more important to use one's own resources on other matters, such as avoidance of existential risk and reducing suffering among animals I still supported effective human charities very much. After all, it seemed like their work was very good, even if not optimal. Better to save many human lives, than doing nothing. It also seemed possible to get some low hanging fruit by convincing people who would not be prepared to contribute to other causes to give to human charities. But if there really is a conflict such efforts are worse than useless - they are harmful.

There is some relevant information regarding the problem in this article-summary: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091211074425.htm

The authors argue that poor people need more meat to get better health. They also predict an increased milk consumption (and presumably meat consumption) in the developing world:

"The authors note, for example, that although annual consumption of milk in the developing world is expected by 2050 to rise from an average of 44 to 78 kilograms per person, this is still far less than the 202 kilos per person consumed today in wealthy countries."

One interesting point is that most of the contemporary animal-farming in poorer parts of the world seem to be small scale. Plausibly, these animals suffer far less than factory farmed animals, and may even produce positively to the total happiness (unless outweighed by wild animals).

"According to the ILRI study, most livestock operations in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are far from industrial. Livestock are either raised on small farms where they feed largely on leaves, stalks and other non-edible remains of food crops, or are herded over marginal lands unsuited for crop cultivation by pastoralists in search of grass."

But perhaps increased meat consumption among the poor will in any case primarily lead to increased factory farming, and not small scale farming (Gaverick seemed to think so). The authors of the cited paper seemed to suggest that what the poor needed is increased "productivity" in third-world animal farming, which could be taken as a sign of that.

However, as Pablo Stafforini mentioned in conversation it might be premature to stop supporting human charities (and similar causes) for this reason. Rather, it seems like the best way to proceed on this question would be to look for an effective way of helping the poor without increasing their meat-eating. Do people like Toby Ord or Peter Singer know about the problem? One would think that especially someone like Singer would be prepared to take it seriously. The possible ways to work further on the issue that I've thought of this far are (except discussing it here in Felicifia):

A. Email Toby and/or Singer
B. Write a post on the GWWC forum.

Also, anyone have any ideas of ways of improving the situation for the world's poor without increasing meat-eating?

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby RyanCarey » Sun Dec 20, 2009 10:09 am

Jesper this concern is completely new to me. It's plausible, and it seems like we have to look into it really seriously. How much does industrialisation or improvement of health increase meat-eating? We ought to look at this study and related ones seriously!
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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby spindoctor » Sun Dec 20, 2009 4:24 pm

Thanks for crystallizing an issue that has occurred to me before in the context of China's economic miracle, which has resulted in a large increase in (presumably factory-farmed) meat-eating. The clash of interests seems to me to be a very important concern and I'd love to see an empirical study that examines it. For example, exactly how much has factory farming increased in China in line with its development?

Regarding solutions. Vegfam is listed as a recommended charity on the Life You Can Save site. Their MO is development aid that doesn't exploit animals, such as irrigation and support for plant-based farming. But I'm not sure whether this kind of aid would do anything to prevent the expansion of factory farming that apparently accompanies economic development in the longer term.

The easiest way around this problem would be to support cost-effective humanitarian charities that have negligible impact on economic development, such as the Fred Hollows Foundation. What other example are there of these -- Red Cross/disaster relief agencies perhaps?

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby Jesper Östman » Mon Dec 21, 2009 6:48 am

I e-mailed Gaverick and asked if he knew of any specific studies or data on the issue. Here is his reply. The first four links concern the connection between meat-eating and income. The next four links concern the connection between increased meat eating and increased factory farming in developing countries:

Figure 11 here http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/content/full/133/11/4048S
http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2009/09/meat-f ... -money.php
http://smas.chemeng.ntua.gr/miram/files ... 2_2005.pdf
Slide 10 in http://www.slideshare.net/guycollender/ ... world-bank

One could update these studies by using consumption data from FAOSTAT and regressing against World Bank PPP-adjusted GDP per capita data. I expect the results would be similar: increases in GDP per capita are associated with significant increases in meat consumption (although there is significant regional variation).

It is worth noting that most of this increase in meat consumption is poultry and pork, which are produced under the most intensive conditions. And there is less meat per animal than with beef, so more animals killed.

At the margin, new farming in developing countries is factory farming:
Slide 20 http://www.slideshare.net/guycollender/ ... world-bank
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0308-521X(02)00085-9
http://www.ciwf.org.uk/includes/documen ... s_2000.pdf
http://www.worldwatch.org/node/1826

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby DanielLC » Mon Dec 21, 2009 9:14 pm

Meat is expensive. Of course richer people will eat more meat. In third-world countries, I don't think it's factory farmed, so it shouldn't be as bad to eat. That said, increasing industrialization would make it so they start factory farming their meat sooner, as would increasing the demand for meat.

I think India is largely vegetarian. Should we focus on helping them?
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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby TobyOrd » Tue Dec 22, 2009 8:37 pm

Jesper Östman wrote:So saving human lives may lead to the loss of many animal lives.


This is a very interesting point: some ways of relieving human suffering could well lead to more net animal suffering and possibly a worse world overall. I think there is some truth in this, but I'm not sure quite how it should affect our actions. I don't have time to give a full treatment of this, but I'll try to list some salient points:

1) If you think this, then the consequences might go much further than not helping the world's poorest people. Is spending on healthcare bad because it saves the lives of people who are most likely meat-eaters and thus probably increases the amount of factory farmed meat by a lot? Are almost all cases of saving lives like this? Is it better to let people die or even to kill them? What about your near and dear? I ask these questions because it seems that the versions of the view being proposed which are strong enough to suggest we shouldn't give to fight poverty are strong enough to have very outlandish consequences on more local issues.

2) People often choose to become vegetarians on the view that they don't need to cause so much suffering in order to have a meal. They thus sidestep the question of whether any net unhappiness of animals is larger than the happiness in the human meat-eater's life. This question is legitimately sidestepped because there is the option of having the life with no meat eating. However, this option is likely to be absent when talking about saving lives in developing countries, so it must be confronted.

3) I've looked at the ethics of eating animals quite extensively, including watching many videos of nasty factory farming techniques. I've been convinced that factory farming of animals is often *much* worse than more benign farming techniques. However, there is also the question of whether it would be better for factory farmed animals never to have lived. I think this is very probably true for battery farmed chickens, quite unclear for factory farmed chicken for meat and factory farmed pork, and not that likely for beef, dairy, duck and lamb. I'm sure others will come to their own conclusions, but these are my best guesses at the moment (and based on UK farming practice which is a bit more animal-friendly than most of Europe or Australia and quite a lot more animal-friendly than the US). I think that if the lives of the animals are worth living then the argument under consideration doesn't go through. Some people will disagree with this, but probably not utilitarians.

4) You could perhaps split the concern into life-saving interventions and enriching interventions, each of which leads to more factory farming in its own way. Interventions like deworming don't do much of either: they mainly remove suffering from humans and lead to better school attendance. They will have a small effect on increased lifespan and income, but will have a more beneficial ratio than many other possibilities.

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby Jesper Östman » Wed Dec 23, 2009 12:53 am

I do think it is a very sad possibility that when the poorest and most powerless among humans get better lives this might create much more suffering among many more creatures that are even more poor and powerless.

Unexpected consequences?
If you think this, then the consequences might go much further than not helping the world's poorest people. Is spending on healthcare bad because it saves the lives of people who are most likely meat-eaters and thus probably increases the amount of factory farmed meat by a lot? Are almost all cases of saving lives like this? Is it better to let people die or even to kill them? What about your near and dear? I ask these questions because it seems that the versions of the view being proposed which are strong enough to suggest we shouldn't give to fight poverty are strong enough to have very outlandish consequences on more local issues.


1) I hadn't thought about the possibilities of decreasing healthcare or kill to save animals lives. Surely, it seems not even the most extreme militant vegans are prepared to that. I guess some people would have been prepared to it if it had been humans that were factory farmed and then cannibalized. But consider: it doesn't seem obviously good to save the life of someone who kill humans and is prepared to do it again. In any case, from utilitarian considerations it would be a tremendously bad plan since it would be extremely contra-productive. In addition to the harm done to the humans the bad PR for the utilitarian and animal welfare movements would make it the case that far more animals would die.

I do make some non utilitarian prioritizations. These may include spending some resources on fun for myself, or caring about the near and dear. Some such "selfishness" may be defended on the grounds that it is psychologically very hard or impossible to avoid it. However, in the same way as I don't see a reason for favoring a fellow country-man before a poor person in the third world I neither see a reason for favoring the poor person before many suffering animals.

Another reason why killing wouldn't be justified is that is a high priority to ensure human survival and development. Not because humans are important as humans, but because plausibly an enlightened and technologically enhanced humanity can make the universe a much much better place. Of course, this could provide a reason for developmental aid also. If increasing welfare for the poor could lead to big enough decreases of existential risk in the long run it could be justified even if it would cost much animal suffering in the short run.

2) Indeed.

Hedonic level of factory farmed animals
3) I've looked at the ethics of eating animals quite extensively, including watching many videos of nasty factory farming techniques. I've been convinced that factory farming of animals is often *much* worse than more benign farming techniques. However, there is also the question of whether it would be better for factory farmed animals never to have lived. I think this is very probably true for battery farmed chickens, quite unclear for factory farmed chicken for meat and factory farmed pork, and not that likely for beef, dairy, duck and lamb. I'm sure others will come to their own conclusions, but these are my best guesses at the moment (and based on UK farming practice which is a bit more animal-friendly than most of Europe or Australia and quite a lot more animal-friendly than the US). I think that if the lives of the animals are worth living then the argument under consideration doesn't go through. Some people will disagree with this, but probably not utilitarians.


This is a very important and complex question. I used to eat meat myself until recently, on similar grounds. What convinced me to go (mostly) vegan was that I came to the belief that the everyday life of factory farmed animals at best would be just above the 0 hedonic level and at worst below it. If that is the case it seems very unlikely that these everyday experiences could outweigh the horrific suffering all animals would feel some part of their life (slughter etc) and some animals might feel most of their life. Of course, this reasoning depends on many empirical facts which may be different for different species of animal and farming practices.

A sad fact is that most of the increase in meat consumption seems to come from chicken and pork, which as you said may very well (or even probably) have lives not worth living (I'll elaborate on this in a later post). Another consideration is the point that Mattheny and Chen has made, that factory farming and even ordinary farming prevents the lives of many more wild animals which arguably would have lead better lives than the farmed animals. Together I think these two points imply that factory farming cannot be justified on the ground that the farmed animals had lives worth living. However, because of utilitarian importance of the question I think an even more rigorous analysis of the topic might be needed. (Also a small point, the reply wouldn't go through for negative utilitarians.)

Charities which won't increase factory farming
4) You could perhaps split the concern into life-saving interventions and enriching interventions, each of which leads to more factory farming in its own way. Interventions like deworming don't do much of either: they mainly remove suffering from humans and lead to better school attendance. They will have a small effect on increased lifespan and income, but will have a more beneficial ratio than many other possibilities.


This is a very interesting possibility, and it is such suggestions I've been looking for in making this thread. Hopefully it should be possible to find a charity that is effective at relieving human suffering without increasing meat-consumption significantly. Information about such a charity could be very valueable to utilitarians and animal welfare people who care a lot both about the suffering of humans and of animals.

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby RyanCarey » Wed Dec 23, 2009 5:16 am

One would imagine that a charity based on family planning etc. would dodge this problem. Although better family planning would contribute to economic prosperity, thereby contributing to animal suffering, this would be a very small effect. The much larger effect of family planning interventions on animal suffering would be by reducing population, thereby reducing the demand for meat.

Here is how I believe the issue must someday be approached:
1) Should utilitarians sidestep the issue of how prosperity increases meat-eating by donating to animal welfare charities? Are animal welfare charities more effective than human charities by conventional measurements? If no, proceed to step 2.
2) To what extent does economic prosperity (and/or health) increase consumption of meat and other animal products? If its effect is significant, proceed to step 3.
3) To what extent does consumption of these animal products decrease animal wellbeing?
4) Which kinds of charities are made less helpful or even harmful by considering their effects on animal wellbeing?
5) Which kinds of charities are now most successful using the new and more thorough utilitarian measurement?
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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby TobyOrd » Wed Dec 23, 2009 7:16 pm

Here is another possibility.

The standard understanding of the demographic transition (the trend to smaller family sizes) is that people have enough children to have a sufficient chance of having enough survive to be cared for in your old age. Thus, when the chance of death due to disease goes down, they have fewer children, and the drop in birthrate can even outpace the drop in deathrate (due to considerations about needing at least 2 children to survive, not an average of 2) and this makes the population size rise more slowly of even fall.

This means that saving lives in developing countries should typically lead to fewer lives being led in total, at least on the timescale of 50 to 100 years (since the bulk effect of saving many many lives is lower birthrates and a halt to population increase). I've generally thought this was a reason for total utilitarians to be less interested in saving lives (unless we are past the point where adding a life is still a net good). However, if extra people in developing countries (in, say, 30 years time when they would be rich enough to consume factory-farmed meat) is considered to be a bad thing according to a given theory, then saving lives now could reduce the number of such people and thus count as a good thing on the same theory.

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby SJM » Thu Dec 24, 2009 4:09 am

TobyOrd wrote:Here is another possibility.

The standard understanding of the demographic transition (the trend to smaller family sizes) is that people have enough children to have a sufficient chance of having enough survive to be cared for in your old age. Thus, when the chance of death due to disease goes down, they have fewer children, and the drop in birthrate can even outpace the drop in deathrate (due to considerations about needing at least 2 children to survive, not an average of 2) and this makes the population size rise more slowly of even fall.

This means that saving lives in developing countries should typically lead to fewer lives being led in total, at least on the timescale of 50 to 100 years (since the bulk effect of saving many many lives is lower birthrates and a halt to population increase). I've generally thought this was a reason for total utilitarians to be less interested in saving lives (unless we are past the point where adding a life is still a net good). However, if extra people in developing countries (in, say, 30 years time when they would be rich enough to consume factory-farmed meat) is considered to be a bad thing according to a given theory, then saving lives now could reduce the number of such people and thus count as a good thing on the same theory.


You might to to put this the context of urbanisation general deveopment, and female education and access to contraception. If a countries population is largely rural you might not as large a decrease if they stay where they are.

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby SJM » Thu Dec 24, 2009 4:36 am

I think this is only the tip of the iceberg and without looking at the wider context is largely irrelevant.Sorry to be blunt.

We are living on a planet with finite resources and we are quickly approaching a point where we will be hitting a peak resource situation. People are already talking about the perfect storm of Climate Change, Peak oil and Peak General resources.

It has already been worked out we are using more renewable natural resources than the biosphere can generate therefore actually depleting the natural capital base. To make things worse we have created a world economy and industrial food system that is fundamentally dependent on cheap fossil fuels, allowing us to overshoot with our population by a large margin. One estimate thinks we would only be able to support less than half our current population without cheap oil. Throw in overuse and pollution of water and any thoughts of continuing to see meat and dairy as a fundamental part of anyone’s diet-given their water intensity- isn’t dealing with the reality of the situation.

This brings up fundamental questions concerning the ethics of finite resources, not only about sharing resources between humans, but between us and other species as well. What justification does humanity have to dominate - oftento the point of extinction-the consumption of the world’s resources? What ethical justification can have some people consuming more than their needs while others cannot even satisfy their needs. There are so many issues like this that don’t seem to be on the radar.

So unfortunately IMO talking about the “The poor meat eater problem” or even ‘The Drowning Child’, totally fails to comprehend the bigger picture or the huge mess we are in. More like rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby gaverick » Thu Dec 24, 2009 1:14 pm

I think this consideration, raised by Jesper, dominates:
If increasing welfare for the poor could lead to big enough decreases of existential risk in the long run it could be justified even if it would cost much animal suffering in the short run.

(See Bostrom http://www.nickbostrom.com/astronomical/waste.html ) Health and development projects might decrease existential risk by increasing social stability, or they might increase existential risk by accelerating technology development and diffusion. In any case, I think the most cost-effective action is probably to donate one's money directly to organizations that aim to reduce existential risks, such as Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute and the Singularity Institute.

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby DanielLC » Thu Dec 24, 2009 5:29 pm

I'm not sure welfare to the poor will decrease existential dangers. I don't think nuclear war would kill everything, but it would certainly be a huge catastrophe. That's just what we can do so far. Given how low the existential dangers are normally, humanity is very likely increasing it.

On the other hand, there's more than one kind of existential danger. If we can dramatically increase the state of the world, and we do nothing, that's also an existential danger.
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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby Richard Pearce » Mon Sep 20, 2010 3:38 pm

It is reassuring to hear sensible debate about whether saving human lives increases suffering in the world.
However, I do wonder why it need be asked whether it is better to have lived at all than to have never lived. If an organism has never lived, will it know what it is missing? I doubt it. So there is no such organism to feel sorry for. Don't we get pleasure from looking at the moon through its tranquility? Isn't it beautiful to think that there is no suffering there? I don't think we should give to Oxfam and the like to increase the amount of non-human animals that are bred. The fewer non-humans that live the better, or at least the lesser harm. Furthermore, humans often breed through philosophical choice, implying that for many of us at least up to a point in our lives, we find our own lives worth living and are happy to vicariously multiply our experience by having kids. We have no evidence to suggest that non-human animals breed through philosophical choice. What is there to suggest that their lives are worth living even at the best of times? I think that negative utilitarianism for non-human animals is the best policy. I also think that for humans it is the best policy, but that is another discussion.
Also, I believe that since each human will die anyway, charities that 'save' lives might increase human suffering since they lengthen the person's life, during which the person will suffer more, and then will die a more or less agonising death than that which was postponed by the charity. As this post has pointed out, if you add to that the suffering caused by the person's consumption of hypersensitive non-human animals then human 'life-saving' charities do cause more suffering.
Finally, one of my compassionate fellow Felicifia commentators implied that there is a danger that if we condone the deaths of for example starving Africans, then there is a danger that that condoning might lead us to condone murdering humans to decrease suffering. That is a slippery slope argument. Even if murdering humans is morally wrong, it doesn't necessarily make not giving to a human saving charity morally wrong.

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby DanielLC » Mon Sep 20, 2010 9:31 pm

"However, I do wonder why it need be asked whether it is better to have lived at all than to have never lived."

Some parts of life are good and some are bad. It's not obvious whether the total is positive or negative. Especially when dealing with a mind unlike your own.

"If we condone the deaths of for example starving Africans, then there is a danger that that condoning might lead us to condone murdering humans to decrease suffering."

I believe my opinions tend to go from less accurate to more accurate. It's not strictly true, but it's enough that if my past and future self disagree, I think my future self is more likely to be correct. I doubt that I'm going to believe murdering people is generally a good idea, but if I was sure I would, I'd start believing it now.
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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby Richard Pearce » Thu Sep 23, 2010 3:00 pm

Hi Daniel,

thanks for your reply to my comment.
You mentioned the difficult in quantifying the total 'sum' (not your word, Daniel, mine for want of a better one) of positive or negative utility in the lives of others. But need we try to work out whether they would experience more pleasure than pain to justify not letting them be born? From memory I will outline at leasst the gist of a point that Peter Singer raised with which I agree. He was responding to an argument from people who condoned factory farming (or perhaps animal testing or both, I can't remember which). Their argument was that it was better to have lived than to have never lived at all. Peter Singer's rebuttal was that in centuries to come, when it becomes possible to through scientific procedures breed humans and other animals from matter around us, we will see the absurdity of the 'it is better to have lived than not at all' argument. He asked how much non-sentient matter will these people be trying to 'save' into becoming sentient beings.
I think Singer has some great points. But to be honest, I think that although he calls expresses his views as utilitarian, I believe that they are better described as negative utilitarian. Richard Ryder criticised Singer's utilitarianism, saying that it could justify the gang rape of a woman, providing that the rape gave enough pleasure to the gang. While I don't know enough about Singer's utilitarianism to say whether it can justify gang rape, I do believe that because utilitarianism and greater good thinking can in certain forms justify the torturous lives and agonising deaths of the millions or perhaps billions of the more abused farm animals (and not just factory farmed ones, read Tolstoy's essay on Carnivorism if you doubt this), I believe that negative utilitarianism is a more compassionate policy.

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby Richard Pearce » Thu Sep 23, 2010 3:18 pm

Just to add, when we hear of someone dieing peacefully in their sleep, if we believe that they died so, we are pleased that they were unconscious through such pain, even though they have 'missed out on those moments of consciousness.'

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby Richard Pearce » Thu Sep 23, 2010 3:21 pm

Heartfelt apologies. I shat the bed with my last comment. I meant it to read:

"Just to add, when we hear of someone dieing peacefully in their sleep, if we believe that they died so, we are pleased that they were unconscious through such pain, even though they have 'missed out' on those moments of consciousness."

Makes all the difference, eh?

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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby DanielLC » Thu Sep 23, 2010 9:31 pm

The gang rape example seems biased. I don't know how bad it is, but it's said that it's worse than death. I don't expect ethical thought experiments to be perfect, but when you're assuming a difference of orders of magnitude from what's accurate, I think that will bias the response a bit. People will emotionally respond to that example based on how it would be in real life, not in a universe where it's just a bad day for the girl.

By the same token, you can justify torturing animals, if you assume they're not being tortured as much as they are. If you want to avoid it, just try and find out how the animals really feel. Don't assume they can't feel happiness.

Would you let me pinch you for a million dollars? If so, you probably think your own happiness can outweigh your own pain. Why wouldn't this be true in general?
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Re: The poor meat eater problem

Postby RyanCarey » Sat Sep 25, 2010 1:49 am

Hi Richard,

it seems like you favour negative utilitarianism because it allows you to condemn factory farming. Traditional classical utilitarianism can allow you to condemn factory farming too. You just need to have a concept of life that is worse than not living at all. That is, you need to say that once life becomes sufficiently painful, its utility is negative. Then, you can say that the life of a factory-farmed cow or chicken is this sort of negative utility life. i.e. it would be better for these lives not to have existed in the first place.

It seems dubious that classical utilitarianism could support gang rape. Clearly the victim would experience suffering that could last for many years whereas the perpitrators would experience a pleasure that is not as great or long-lasting.

While your objections to classical utilitarianism seem easily managed, I think the age-old objection to negative utilitarianism runs deeper. If all that matters is the abolition of suffering, then the abolition of experience is desirable. We shouldn't just prevent factory-farmed animals from having lived. We should prevent all experience, even a life like yours or mine whose pleasure outweighs its suffering.
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