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November 18, 2008


Vijay Krishnan: "What stance would do you think is most common among meat eaters?"

Great question. I can't comment about what's most common, but I can say what my stance is.

I eat meat because it's a convenient and abundant source of protein. I need protein to maintain a shape that is comparatively attractive as a sexual partner. If everyone declared that no one is going to eat meat, I would gladly stop, because then everyone would be similarly disadvantaged with regards to their source of protein. Alternative, though less abundant sources would develop, and I would gladly use them. In fact, I would much prefer that situation, compared to the suffering we inflict on animals now.

But I don't prefer it so much as to sacrifice either my physical appearance, or the significant inconvenience of trying to get the resources I need another way.

Sadly, a poll I conducted on an unrelated site indicated that 95% of 200 or so voters would be against prohibiting the eating of meat. Strikingly, some 5-10% were vegetarians, and 50% of vegetarians voted against prohibiting the eating of meat.

That people overwhelmingly vote like that reviles me. Perhaps many voted this way because someone convinced them that eating meat is required for health, and they are shortsighted enough not to consider that alternative solutions would develop if eating meat were simply banned. It could be also that a large proportion of people are rather selfish, cynical, and evil. However, stupidity, misinformation and short-sightedness seem somewhat more likely, and also more hope-inspiring factors.

To those who commented on my post, thank you but please note I was making a very narrow point about certain kinds of pain being impossible without concepts (e.g. You can't feel the pain of being a prisoner if you can't grasp the idea "prisoner"). I was not saying that this makes anything ok or not.


Regarding virtue ethics: Yes, I would argue that it's unlikely for torturing folks to be good for me (though that's an empirical question). Yes, I could imagine there are beings for whom torturing people would be good. Should they do it? Yes. Should I stop them from doing it? Yes. This is not a contradiction, but rather statements about what different beings should do.

@"I suggest using self-awarness as the line. To my knowledge, that would make monkeys, elephants, dolphins and magpies out of limit... Why not."

food for thought.

This is an e mail to a professor with whom I was discussing animal rights maybe it will be of interest.

Dear Professor X

I am writing you to continue our conversation the other day. I felt like I had not been very clear about my thoughts regarding the idea of animal rights and the ethical treatment of animals. I wanted to make my position as clear as possible.

I should perhaps begin by making what I believe is a critical distinction, that is the difference in my mind between ethics and rights. By ethics I mean what should humans do, that is how should they act. This does not mean how should a person act in society, but how should he or she act in general. By contract I understand the idea of individual rights to be about securing the social needs of humans. (by the way when I say human, I mean rational creatures including those that aren‘t human)

As far as the question of ethics go I am a rational egoist. I hold that values, things one acts for the sake of obtaining, have no meaning out side of the context of living organisms. If a living thing dies, its constituent atoms and molecules continue to exist, but its life, the process of self sustaining - self generating action, goes out of existence. That is to say that living organisms are conditionally existent. It is only from this prospective that one can say something is good or bad. A lack of air, water, or food, is bad for a living entity, their presence is good for it. Thus I hold that life is the standard of moral value and that for every living thing, its own life is it moral purpose.

Thus for every living thing, plant, animal, or human the pursuit of life is the end all a be all of ethical behavior. Now of course one can’t judge plants which after all only act vegetatively without conscious intent. They are only successful or unsuccessful. Like wise with the lower animals. It is only with the higher primates, cetaceans, and pachyderms that it is permissible to talk about moral and immoral acts or at least right and wrong ones. In fact from what we understand of the level of intelligence of other animals thus far, I would be unwilling to call any species other than humans capable of morality or immorality. That is to say only humans can know what is right for them, but do something else. ( a suicide bomber is all else being equal is acting in a profoundly immoral fashion even setting aside the question of murder, because he knows perfectly well that his actions are not good for him) The other higher animals as far as I understand are really operating properly or not, but not morally or immorally.

Regarding the ethical treatment of plants and animals, I hold that since life is the standard of value, that someone who killed plants or animals for the sake of their death and who drew enjoyment from the fact of their non existence itself, would profoundly morally disordered. However one must be very careful to draw distinctions. I think a gardener who is happy to kill weeds and slugs because they are bad for his flower garden is acting morally to preserve the value he derives from the garden. He is not killing for the sake of death but for the sake of the life and beauty of the garden. Likewise a hunter who enjoys venison or enjoys getting in touch with the primal hunter gather part of himself is not acting immorally. He is pursing the legitimate pleasure of eating food he enjoys which from my perspective is a profoundly moral act or he is reveling in a part of his nature which seems understandable.

A person in contrast who reveled in the infliction of pain on animals for its own sake would be a sick person to say the least. The pleasure pain mechanism is a powerful tool which helps animals to act morally, that is to pursue their life. To pervert it into a system for the infliction of gratuitous suffering for the sake of suffering is profoundly immoral . However again I would make careful distinctions, a person inflicting pain on lab animals for a legitimate purpose such as finding ways to save or even just to improve human life would be acting morally.

Likewise it is perfectly moral for us to commit genocide against living organisms whose sole form of prey is us. I have no compunction about wiping out small pox or other viruses that prey exclusively on humans. Individual predators that take to preying on humans and out pets and live stock should be shot in self defense. I am perfectly willing to grant that from their “point of view” they are acting morally in preying upon us, or they would be if we didn’t have long memories and the intelligence to deal with them, but we are equally justified in trying to kill them to preserve our life and wellbeing.

Now on the question of rights, as I mentioned earlier, I look on individual rights as principals that secure the social needs of humans. Since man is a social animal he has much to gain by interacting with his fellows. However this can’t be on any terms. If people could go around killing people on whim, then society would not serve to advance and promote the life and wellbeing of its members. The right to life is the principal that for social life to be fruitful, we must not kill one another. However these principals are only contextually absolute. That is to say as long as a person acts as though he and others have a right to life, then so does he. However if he chooses not to respect the right to life of others, then we are not required to respect his.

Now the right to life is only the most basic principal of human social interaction. From it other rights such as the liberty of thought and action, the right to property, etc. are derived. It should be noted that a basic principal of rights based analysis is that rightly understood interests of human do not conflict. That is to say that while it might be in my interests to have part of Bill Gates’ wealth, it is more in my interest to have my much smaller property protected and he to have his protected, than to live in a society where there is no protection for wealth at all. It might be in some instance to my interest to kill someone, but it is more in my interest to live in a society where I am not constantly worried about people trying to kill me.

It is this reciprocal nature of rights and its basis in the harmonious interests of people that makes me highly skeptical of the idea of animal rights. If we respected the right to life of rhinos would they respect ours. What would it even mean to say that both cheetahs and gazelles have a right to life. Their interests in the matter are directly opposed to one another. They are both acting morally, the gazelle to escape and live and the cheetah to kill its food and live, but they cannot both succeed. If the gazelle has a right life then the cheetah must die and vice versa.

That is only to look at the right to life. Most of the derivative rights, free thought, free speech, free press, are even less applicable to animals and are derivative of a right to life that does not make sense in the context of the lower animals. I admit that in the case of the higher animals that we should be careful not to write them wholly out of the community of the potentially rights bearing, but I would want evidence before I would concede that they have rights.

In close, while I agree that is wrong to kill animals for the purpose of enjoying their death, or torturing them for the sake seeing them suffer, I do not agree that they have rights.

Sincerely Yours,

Stephen W. Houghton II

PS I look forward to your reply and would be interested in discussing such topics as laws to ban the deliberate torture of animals as a form of malum prohibitum, the behaviour of the higher primates, cetaceans, and pachyderms and if and how we could discover that they are or are not rights bearing creatures, the question of artificial life and rights, etc.


It is of course clear that more vegetarians means less animals since there would be less of a domestication industry. But that's hardly the point.

On paper I don't think overpopulation of humans is bad either from a pure numbers game. Without contraceptives, I am pretty sure humans too could have the natural method of birth control working for them aka. starvation. I am quite certain that all of us prefer a world where the population is stable by way of contraceptives than one where it is stable by way of widespread starvation, though both are probably identical from a numbers/evolutionary perspective.

Likewise it could be argued that it is more humane to let animals breed/survive at their natural rate, than enable them to breed much faster and then kill them for meat.


It is of course clear that more vegetarians means less animals since there would be less of a domestication industry. But that's hardly the point.

On paper I don't think overpopulation of humans is bad either from a pure numbers game. Without contraceptives, I am pretty sure humans too could have the natural method of birth control working for them aka. starvation. I am quite certain that all of us prefer a world where the population is stable by way of contraceptives than one where it is stable by way of widespread starvation, though both are probably identical from a numbers/evolutionary perspective.

Likewise it could be argued that it is more humane to let animals breed/survive at their natural rate, than enable them to breed much faster and then kill them for meat.

I stand little chance of being able to keep up with all these comments, so I’ll respond to a couple of the earlier ones, which I saw before I left the office yesterday, and have had time to think about – sorry to those who have directed a question to me to which I don’t have time to respond.

Boris: In response to my claim that the view that it is acceptable to inflict suffering on one type of being in order to spare another type is widely reviled, you said, ‘The thing is, that latter view is indeed perfectly acceptable in a large range of circumstances’, followed by some examples. With some qualification, you are quite right: my point was lazily expressed. I should have said something along the lines of, ‘The view that it is acceptable to inflict suffering on one type of being in order to spare another type, when there is no morally relevant reason to distinguish the members of one group from the members of the other, is widely reviled’. The qualification is this: it is far from clear that the examples you gave are cases in which suffering is inflicted. I addressed the issue (which you also mention) of different types of being experiencing different types of suffering in an earlier comment, and what exactly a full account of suffering might look like is a big issue to which I can’t do justice here, but as a place-holder I suggest that suffering might count as physical pain and/or psychological distress (and if anyone else has a better suggestion, please feel free to mention it!). I’m not sure that any of the examples you gave involve suffering based on that account: possibly the mosquitos and earthworms example, but I’m not qualified to assess how likely it is that those animals feel pain.
Of course, there are instances where the decision to inflict suffering on one type of being for the sake of another type is made on a case-by-case basis, as your example of the athlete cut from the team demonstrates. In that case, there is an ethically relevant reason to distinguish between the athlete and the rest of the team (i.e. presumably all members of the team recognise that the benefits of the team as a whole are important, and must accept when they join that their membership depends on their abilities being beneficial to the team). Your later comment, in which you say ‘The correct question is not "Is animal experimentation morally acceptable?" but, for each experiment to be performed, "Is this particular experiment on this particular kind of animal morally acceptable given these possible pieces of knowledge that could be derived from it?"’ suggests to me that we are probably in agreement on this point – I just ought to have made the initial distinction clearer.
You also said, ‘My gut feeling is that you're defining "animal" in the colloquial "cute and fuzzy mammal" sense’. Absolutely not: I made it clear in my previous comment that the ‘cuteness’ of an animal is hardly relevant to its moral status.

Tom: ‘Can I ask for a clarification? Are we supposing that animals have certain inviolable rights, making it naturally a crime for humans to harm animals, or are we seeing this from a consequentialist perspective - that reducing harm to animals reduces suffering in general (which is good)?’
This is a really good question, and your follow-up is very interesting. I’ve already given these questions some thought, but I’m not yet entirely clear what I think about them, which is the main reason why I avoided mentioning rights in my post. I think it’s certainly true to say that animals have interests, but whether the language of rights is more likely to help than hinder the debate, I’m not sure at the moment. I will continue to think about this issue – thanks for raising it and for exploring some of the consequences.
On a related note, I did see a paper by someone that addressed the question of, if we assume that wild animals (i.e. ones that don’t have any contact with humans, and so who aren’t pets, etc) inflict certain harms on each other, whether we should be trying to prevent those harms. I can’t remember who wrote it now …

John: ‘I think you argument has the same basic weakness that all of Singer's do, namely you start with some unexamined assumptions about what is not OK to do to humans, and then try to defeat distinctions. But you have no underlying argument about why, taking your example, it is wrong to kill Jews. You just say, whatever the reason, it applies to animals too. … What is your reason why we shouldn't kill people? If you can articulate a decent one then I will consider adopting it. If you can't explain why we shouldn't kill people then I don't think I'll bother with your thoughts about why we shouldn't kill animals.’
You are quite right that I haven’t provided an argument about why we shouldn’t kill/torture/oppress humans, and also right that I appeal to the assumption that we shouldn’t do so in my argument. I’m a little confused as to how strong a point you are trying to make. If you are suggesting that it is bad philosophy to appeal to any unargued assumptions when constructing an argument? That would make it impossible to do any philosophy at all. And, in ethics, it’s simply not possible to construct an ethical argument in a vacuum of values: unless we start out with some deeply-held value, there is no reason for us to adopt any other value. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t question that deeply-held value – just that if we had to do so before we argued for anything else, we’d never get on to the ‘anything else’ (plenty of philosophers spend their entire careers questioning deeply-held values, and still don’t finish answering all the important questions)! A famous quotation from Neurath is relevant here: ‘we are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom’.
In this case, I haven’t taken my own assumptions about what is acceptable treatment of humans as the starting point. I’ve tried to appeal only to assumptions that I think the vast majority of people would accept (or rather, the vast majority of people who have beliefs that they are willing to analyse, justify, and argue for).

The instincts and habits that are the basis of our morals were developed many thousand years ago: Killing insects is good, many of them spread diseases. Killing cows is bad, except when it is time to process the cow. One who tortures animals is a suspicious person, maybe he would just as willingly torture humans, too. For the same reason, killing mammal infants is bad, as they resemble (surface analogy) human babies (a.k.a cute).

Such banal facts are not much more than accidental byproducts of human interaction with a very complex environment. But if you take these away, you do not have much left to build your ethics on. You have two options: 1. You embrace these, being aware that your ethics depends on such ad hoc, self-contradicting and obsolete stuff. 2. You try to build your ethics from "more basic" notions, such as suffering and reciprocity, and then it will not resemble anything an average human could find intuitive. (And you may even realize that these so called more basic notions are inherently intertwined with the ad hoc stuff.)

Bummer, I wrote a nice long response yesterday, and I must have failed to post it properly. Alas.

I submit that Humans are the only species on this planet that, as of this date, has the potential capacity to save all the other species from certain annihilation (from asteroid, the Sun's red giant expansion phase, failure of the magnetic field, etc). We do not have the technology yet to do this, but we will at some point in the future.

If you agree with this statement, then we have a simple base principle to look at:
a) If humans did not exist, animals would not suffer at human hands, but they would all go extinct at some point, many rather violently.

b) Once humans have the technology to deflect asteroids, colonize space, etc, then the Earth's animals are effectively as immortal as we are.

c) To some extent, experimentation on animals is important to further the progress of human technology and knowledge, getting us closer to (b).

to my mind, this is why it is ethically ok to allow animals to suffer - because if we don't get off this planet in time, it won't matter how eden-like the planet is - everything on it will be dead. If they were capable of abstract reasoning, I suggest that the animals would recognize the importance of technological advance as a form of species-level self-preservation.

Or put into sci-fi parable form: let's say we discover a black hole on a collision course with the Sun, in 5 years. We have no means of deflecting this black hole. Humanity is doomed. An alien shows up in his space craft and says "I can save you... well, half of you. I have technology that can eliminate this black hole. Alas, it requires approximately 3 billion human brains to be fed into my V23 Space Modulator machine in order to properly work... It's highly advanced, but something about the brains of higher creatures capable of abstract reasoning just makes it work... There will be some suffering...

While there would be significant wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes, sackcloth and ashes, etc, the suffering of 3 billion humans is not as bad, ethnically and morally, as the complete destruction of the Earth and all the creatures on it. Those 3 billion can be replaced. The Earth, as of yet, cannot.

Thus, my belief that it is ethically sound to experiment on animals. Anything that gets us off this planet and colonizing space faster is morally good, because the alternative - that we fail to get off the planet in time - is so very, very, very double-plus ungood, both for humans and animals.

Although they adhere more often than I would prefer to the reigning world orthodoxy on matters moral and political, Eliezer and Robin's writing contain much of great value. In contrast this post by Rebecca offers nothing of value except that it's tone is moderate and reasonable and that it is a perfectly orthodox example out of millions of examples of the reigning world ideology: political correctness or progressivism.

The opinions and arguments of this post would be considered bizarre and extreme by most of the current residents of, say, mainland China. (Of course among mainland Chinese who decide to learn English and either to talk to Westerners or to travel to the West it would seem less bizarre.) It would likewise be considered bizarre and weird by most people of 17th-Century England, where the ideology originated (among Dissenting Protestant Christians) and by practically everyone living everywhere else in the world at the time.

Since I do not have time to explain more fully, I place those wanting more information in the competent hands of asked for opinions on what he and Robin should do with this blog after he and Robin reduce their posting rate. I wish they'd close the blog to new posts if the alternative is posts like this one. I'd like to be able to continue to recommend the blog without complicated instructions about posters or time periods to ignore.

P.S. I endorse the comment by jb right above mine.

Uh oh, there's a problem with my markup, namely a missing double quote after blogspot.com/

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@Richard Hollerith

You seem to believe that saying arguments would "look weird" to certain people (17th century English people and mainland Chinese) is evidence that Rebecca's arguments have little value and are simply ideological dogma.

If I could show that your argument would look weird to New Guinea aborigines and that 7th century denizens of inner Mongolia would find it unbelievable, does that refute you?

No, Orange, it is not a refutation of the moral beliefs of progressives (or modern-day Whigs or crypto-Christians in the English low-church tradition as Mencius Moldbug sometimes calls them) but it might cause someone to question them who accepted them only because they are implied by the majority of moral messages he receives from educated people. It is an attempt to set the process of questioning into motion; it is expecting too much of me to expect me to refute the reigning world ideology in a series of blog comments.

I should explain that my objection is to the position that causing an animal to suffer is intrinsically evil. (That avoiding doing so is morally good for its own sake.) I expressly leave open the possibility that it is evil for instrumental reasons. Experimenting on animals for example might harden the hearts of the experimenters with the result that they show less empathy for their fellow humans, which produces negative effects that outweigh the positive effects of the experimentation. Here the words "negative" and "positive" refer to some system of terminal values, which again I suggest should not contain a categorical ban on causing an animal to suffer.

Rebecca makes the argument that if it is evil to cause a human to suffer then it must also be evil to cause a non-human animal to suffer. I agree! Specifically, I agree that if it were intrinsically evil to cause a human to suffer, it would also be intrinsically evil to cause a non-human animal to suffer. So, logic dictates that I do not believe that it is intrinsically evil to cause a human to suffer. I admit that that is an unusual belief. And I must stress that there are almost always excellent instrumental reasons to avoid causing a human to suffer.

Most authors are much too ready to add to their set or list of intrinsic values. Although this readiness might not cause significant harm in ordinary life, it will lead to severe error when singularitarians and leaders of other projects to develop ultratechnologies indulge in it. It is them that I ask to question the reigning world ideology of progressivism.

If the reader has the ability to edit comments, won't you please insert a double-quote character after blogspot.com/ in my previous post? I promise to exercise more care in the future to avoid that sort of mistake.

As a scientist and a vegetarian, let me just say that I kill fewer animals per year than most of you, and the ones I do kill I put to far better use than most of you, and that includes the inconclusive experiments that had to be redone.

Now then, moral equivalence. Moral equivalence to whom? To me? Not morally equivalent. Problem solved. The paradoxical Polyanna bias of this otherwise rational blog notwithstanding, there IS no such thing as universal morality. There are only game-theoretical equilibria. Can animals sign a contract with you and be trusted to hold to it? Can an animal give informed consent? Will they ever mount an organized rebellion against you? Can you mate with an animal and have viable offspring?

Exactly. That's why most of you eat them, why we wear them, and why I kill them in my experiments. We don't mistreat them unnecessarily because it usually detracts from the benefit the animal provides to us, just like we respect each other's rights because doing otherwise detracts from the benefit we can provide each other.

Oh, and the senile/retarded/brain-damaged? It's a gray area, and society seems to have decided to give lip-service to their rights while simultaneously abridging them 'for their own protection'. I'm sure this is the practical thing to do, but the line between human the human species and everything else is a lot less ambiguous than any such lines we are forced by necessity to draw within our species.

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