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January 17, 2006

Eating animals

Yesterday I mentioned that I don't eat octopus for ethical reasons.* A couple of readers asked why I eat some animals and not others. My rough personal guideline is that I don't want to eat anything too intelligent. I believe that chickens can feel pain and that chicken pain matters. Therefore, I think it's wrong torture chickens for fun. I also think it's wrong to torture millions of chickens in factory farms so that chicken can be priced as a staple food rather than as a luxury item. However, I don't believe that it's wrong to kill a chicken painlessly for food if the bird has lived a good life up until that point.

I just don't respect chickens very much. I don't consider them to be individuals who can have meaningful preferences about their own futures. A chicken has preferences about the here and now, but it doesn't have preferences about its future existence. A chicken isn't capable of conceiving of itself as a self over time. So, as long as the chicken doesn't suffer, it can't matter to the chicken whether it has a long life or a short one.

You might argue that the lives of chickens have intrinsic value, regardless of whether the chickens realize it. However, chickens have such simple minds that chicken consciousness pretty much interchangeable. If you kill one chicken and replace it with a new one that wouldn't otherwise have been born, the sum total of chicken consciousness stays the same. (Farming produces many more chicken life-years than there otherwise would have been.) There's not enough difference between one chicken's experiences and another's to worry about how chicken conscioussness gets divided up between chickens. I think it's morally equivalent for eight chickens have two good months vs. one chicken having 16 good months.

A complex mental life makes a creature more of an individual. At a certain point, I feel like some edible species have enough going on upstairs that the unfolding drama of each self is valuable for its own sake. As an animal's cognitive capacity increases, it becomes more plausible to think about the animal's attitude towards itself and its existence over time. 

Suppose your vet tells you that your elderly German Shepard needs an expensive operation that will prolong her life for 6 months. Without the surgery she will die painlessly in the next few days. Most people, myself included, would pay for the operation, even if it meant that I couldn't afford to adopt a new puppy for a very long time after my old dog passed away.

I think it's telling that I'd feel obliged to do whatever I could to prolong my dog's life as long as I believed that her life would be, on balance, worth living. So, I would still want to get her the surgery, even if I knew that she would still have to live with a certain amount of pain in her last months. That would be excess pain that I would be inflicting on her, because the alternative would be a painless death. Yet, there's something about the continued existence of that individual that has intrinsic value.

However, now suppose the vet tells you that your elderly goldfish needs some very expensive therapy in order to prolong its life. Personally, I would much rather let nature take its course and buy a new goldfish instead of shelling out for some super-expensive fish ointment to keep the old goldfish going.

The difference in moral status between a dog and a goldfish is analogous to the difference between an octopus and a chicken. It's not just a question of whether I know the creature, or whether I have some custodial responsibility for it.

I probably haven't explained this very well. Maybe you guys can help me clarify my instincts about not eating "smart" animals.

*There is no consensus on the plural of "octopus", but there are many options.

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» What the hell? from Letters of Marque
This astonishing piece of heresy can in no way be justified. I just don't respect chickens very much. I don't consider them to be individuals who can have meaningful preferences about their own futures. A chicken has preferences about the... [Read More]

» Wait, wait, don't eat me! from MeMo
1. Should you eat an octopus, even though it might be smarter than you (and is clearly smarter than your co-workers)? Yeah, but what if you could buy lab-grown human flesh by the pound at Kroger? Hmmmm? 2. My local... [Read More]

» Wait, wait, don't eat me! from MeMo
1. Should you eat an octopus, even though it might be smarter than you (and is clearly smarter than your co-workers)? Yeah, but what if you could buy lab-grown human flesh by the pound at Kroger? Hmmmm? 2. My local... [Read More]

Comments

I hope Heidi Bond doesn't see this post about chickens! And isn't the plural of "octopus" "octopuseses"?

Suppose your vet tells you that your elderly German Shepard needs an expensive operation that will prolong her life for 6 months. Without the surgery she will die painlessly in the next few days. Most people, myself included, would pay for the operation, even if it meant that I couldn't afford to adopt a new puppy for a very long time after my old dog passed away.

My fiance are being faced with essentially this choice right now: one of my cats has a malignant mammary tumor. We had it taken out (at a cost of about $1,700) only to discover that it has spread to her lymph nodes.

After much discussion, we have decided that it's more important to us for her to live her remaining days in as little pain as possible than it is for us to have more time with her. We haven't gotten the final verdict from the oncologist yet, but we've agreed that if it's a choice between letting her pass (relatively) painlessly or extending a pain-wracked life for an extra couple of months, we would prefer to let her go. Forcing her to continue a pain-filled existence for our emotional attachment would be, frankly, cruel, IMO.

Oh, and I believe it's "octopuses." People who say "octopi" are under the impression that the word is Latin and has the Latin suffix "-us" when the word is actually Greek and has the Greek suffix "-pus" ("foot"). So "octopuses" is correct, and "octopi" is not.

octopodes!

Wow. Let me get this straight. It's OK to kill a chicken after it has had a fun-filled couple of months because it is too stupid to understand the value of a longer life. How do you measure this? By how stupid chickens look? Where is the line drawn? How stupid do you have to be to make it OK to be killed for someone's culinary pleasure? Is it species-specific? What if I love my pet chicken?

I'm not Vegan, and I love bacon. And I also think pigs are very intelligent. It's something I'm struggling with, but I don't want to just come up with lame excuses, and sorry Lindsay, but this reads like grasping for straws.

Mnemosyne, I'm so sorry to hear about your in-laws' dog.

For me, it all depends on how much pain we're talking about (for any creature, myself included). In the post, I was envisioning a scenario in which the dog would have some pain, but not so much that her life wasn't worth living. Of course, in real life, that's a devastatingly hard call to make.

Children have enough of a sense of self that they aren't a counter-example. Even a human infant is orders of magnitude "smarter" than a chicken or a fish.

My theories about the intelligence of chickens are admittedly vague--but the damned things sure don't act smart. They don't seem to learn very much or engage in any complex social behaviors. They have tiny brains. I've spent a lot of time with parrot-like birds, including budgies. Despite having tiny brains, budgies are just obviously tuned in to each other and to their environment in a way that chickens aren't.

Besides, I'm not saying that it's necessarily open season on anything that isn't intelligent. There might be other moral reasons not to kill various unintelligent things and eat them. However, I don't see how any of those apply to the painless killing of chickens.

Addendum: If you love your chicken, then that's a very good moral reason for me not to kill it and eat it.

I'm a fairly libertarian leaning liberal, and I have no objection in principle to eating human flesh. If I could sell the right to eat my body after I die I'd give it serious consideration, especially if the transplantable organs were taken out first. There are obviously disease issues that have to be taken into account, but they do not pose insurmountable obstacles.

It's obviously wrong to kill someone simply to eat them (at least under ordinary circumstances), but what if the person has given their consent prior to death by natural causes? If that is OK (I think it is) where do we draw the line between eating someone who has given their consent and eating an animal who has not given consent? I find it hard to draw a clear line based on sentience alone that doesn't end up making it OK to conceive a baby so it can be aborted prior to the development of a central nervous system and served up as hors d'ouvres.

In my last research assistant position, I was house- and dogsitting for one of my bosses when I discovered three tumors on his and his wife's dog. I had to call them in Australia and tell them that their dog might not live, and the only way it even had a chance was having a chunk of its face removed.

Not really on topic, but that's my dying dog story.

This was fascinating, Lindsay. Thanks.

Mnemosyne, I'm so sorry to hear about your in-laws' dog.

Actually, it's my and my fiance's cat, but I appreciate the sentiment. ;-)

It's a little strange right now -- she's basically under a death sentence, but otherwise she's perfectly healthy. We have strict orders to not let her run, jump, or play until she heals from the surgery, and yet she's desperate to do every one of those things, even though she's stitched together from front to back.

This is going to be all over the Free Republic tomorrow (heh):

I'm a fairly libertarian leaning liberal, and I have no objection in principle to eating human flesh.

I think it's fine to eat human flesh with the consent of the former owner. However, I'm skeptical that any sane person would give their consent to be killed in order to be eaten, except in those "I've got a gammy leg and I'm going fast [...] you'd better eat me"-lifeboat scenarios. So, if someone consents to be killed in order to be eaten, you should probably assume that they aren't in a position to give informed consent.

As far as aborting pre-sentient fetuses for snacks, I think that's gross, but not necessarily wrong--except insofar as it poses an occupational health and safety risk to the woman gestating the fetus.

You're making a great many metaphysical statements without the first hand experience to back them up. Often, chickens will seek to escape capture when you try to pick them up. That's a preference. The preference is even more obvious in, say, wild game fowl. Any animal raised in a captive environment in which handling is common will eventually not exhibit such strong preferences against handling, but that doesn't mean that they don't have preferences about their future. Just look at humans: most humans are conditioned to respond passively and compliantly to police authority even when they think that their interests are directly opposed from the interests of the state. No wild animal does that. Does that mean that wild turkeys care more about their lives than humans do?

I don't have a lot to add to this but octopi are actually pretty intelligent.

This is an interesting problem!

I would say that from the perspective of the animal it doesn't matter what we do (yes, I know, this sounds nonsensical), because I'm a fan of ideas like this:

http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0102010

Suppose you have an animal whose fate you are going to decide. If you take the conclusions of the article serious, then you have to conclude that there exists two futures. One in which you let the animal live and one in which it is dead.

The probabilities of these two futures are fixed by the laws of physics. There is nothing to choose here. Of course, after you choose you can say that you made that particular choice. But your copy says the same thing about the other choice.

So, from the perspective of the animal, one should say that there exists a future state in which it lives on with some probability. That probability is not something we can change.

All we do by making one choice is deciding to be part of one of the two possible alternate realities.

Walker, I agreed in the original post that chickens have preferences about the here and now. I'm not saying that they're zombies or reflex-driven automata. Obviously, they'll run if you try to grab them. They recoil from painful stimuli and so on.

I don't think chickens care about the prospect of their own existence or non-existence. I think we should care about chicken suffering, but I don't see any overriding reason to care about chicken killing.

A good measure of the intelligence of a domesticated animal is whether they can take up the lifestyle of their wild cousins if they are released from captivity. Domesticated turkeys cannot do this at all. Some heirloom breeds of chicken can, but those white ones used for broilers by industrial farms (a local farmer here calls the breed itself "Tyson chickens") cannot. Pigs, when released into the wild, take up the exact lifestyle of a European Wild Boar, including forming the same social groups.

There is a lot of good philosophical work done on the nature of animal minds. The first wave of research was from guys like Bernie Rollin and David DeGrazia. Good stuff is being done now by Collin Allen and Gary Varner. Animal welfare laws in the EU is driving a lot of good scientific work on animal behavior as well.

Lindsay's judgments of animal intelligence are perfectly in line with the academic lit--and I imagine largely derived from exposure to it.

Another thing to note: the number of chickens created and destroyed by industrial farms is way beyond the millions. In the US alone the number is around 5 billion. (This from the last edition of Animal Liberation, which was about ten years ago. The number has probably only increased since then.)

A chicken doesn’t have to have much moral worth before the suffering of all those chickens becomes a big deal. Also, the question in abstaining from meat is not “should I eat some hypothetical animal raised in decent circumstances?” but “should I eat this animal right here?”

I think it all comes down to whether you consider humans to be a higher order and intrinsically worth more than animals. People like to fudge in different directions, but it's safe to say that pretty much everyone believes this except for Jains and those with similar ethical structures.

Being an animal that considers all animals to be equal makes you a bizarre sort of beast, because the basic commandment of any animal is to survive. The core of this argument is that humans, by virtue of consciousness, can actually weigh these things. Well, doesn't that give us discretion, and a certain level of authority (and privilege?) Would we still be able to make the same choice were we less powerful?

More apropos, is your discretion equal to another's lack of it?

A chicken has preferences about the here and now, but it doesn't have preferences about its future existence. A chicken isn't capable of conceiving of itself as a self over time.

According to Daniel Dennett, you don't know whether I conceive anything. And I agree with him that there's no empirical way that you could know that.

Anyway, I'm sure a chicken or even a flea has preferences about its future - but only in proportion to its activity, which obviously isn't much compared to a pig's activity.

Lindsay,

A chicken's "here-and-now" behavior in which it seeks to avoid painful (or dare I say it frightening) stimuli is certainly quantitatively different from a human's abstract planning in the form of food storage, but they are not qualitatively different. They are both emotional complexes which exist and propogate in order to keep the organism alive.

On some level, then, chickens do care about their existence or not-existence. It's biologically hardwired into them to care. And since you are not and never have been a chicken (I'm guessing), I can't really grant credibility to your assertions that they don't have preferences about their future existences. I mean you're talking about one fo the most fundamental biological drives - to survive.

It's encoded deep in the neurons of every creature which has neurons. How can you say that it subjectively weighs less upon the consciousness of a chicken than it does upon a human? Because human adaptations are more complex? Well yeah, but that has nothing to do with emotional desire to continue living. In fact, as I attempt to point out with my example of police authority above, it might be an inverse correlation.

I dunno, this all seems awfully contingent to me. Or more precisely it seems like rationalizing a line where one really doesn't make a great deal of sense. We're talking about fine lines here--I've not conversed with many octopi (and incidentally, it's octopi, and I won't accept any argument on the point--it's one of the most pretentious words you can use in everyday conversation, and it would be too much of a loss to lose it just because it doesn't technically make sense) but I grew up surrounded by pigs, cows and chickens, and there ain't much of a difference. I'm sorry to say this, and I wish I could come up with an argument for it, but it really feels like you're grasping for a moral distinction to resolve the conflict that a) you think a lot of animals have preferences you recognize as such, but b) meat is really, really good.

As for me, for some reason that I honestly don't understand (and, again, can't pretend to justify) this problem just doesn't move me at all. Weber called himself religiously unmusical; maybe I'm ethically unmusical. Anyway, show me an animal that can condescend and I'll consider its moral status. Oh, wait, that would be the cat. And I don't eat cat.

Dennett doesn't worry too much about the problem of other minds. He doesn't even think that we know very much about our own first-person consciousness, let alone the consciousness of other creatures.

However, he believes that observations of behavior provide evidence about consciousness.

If chicken-consciousness were something magical and ethereal that I can never have any evidence for one way or the other, then why should I let it's alleged existence influence my moral decisionmaking.

On the other hand, if I assume that chickens have beliefs and desires, I can predict their behavior very well. So, on Dennett's view, it's fair to assume that chickens have consciousness of some sort. It's just that simple hypotheses predict chicken behavior very well and complex, nuanced hypotheses about chickens' mental states either don't fit the data or aren't parsimonious.

Octopi are a fascinating example of the mechanics of evolution obviating any intelligent design.

One the one hand it seems their opposable-thumb-like tentacles enable advanced intelligence.

Indeed, they routinely solve complicated tasks intentionally (discovering how to unscrew a cap to get at a lobster) and unintentionally (a mysterious trail of slime leads from the octopus tank, the inhabitant of which is hiding guiltily in the corner, to a now empty tank which held other fish; the lids of both tanks are slightly misaligned).

On the other hand, what the hell are they, and what the hell will they do with such intelligence? They are more complicated clams, are born in unnurtured myriads and live for 2 years at most.

It seems like a possible torture than an intelligence which might be more cognizant than we have yet measured might become aware of itself just in time for its inferior body to expire.

I don't think there are ironclad arguments for drawing the line at eating any particular species. I'm not suggesting that there should be a universal moral precept against eating octopi and a universal "pass" on eating chicken. These are just my personal guidelines--they're subject to rational evaluation, but ultimately I think we have to be agnostic about what the optimal moral stance is. Being a vegetarian is morally safer than being any kind of meat eater. On the other hand, you have to give up meat in order to do that, and that's a big sacrifice. The vegetarians haven't convinced me that there's a moral imperative to give up all meat.

I tend to agree that it's morally better not to kill other sentient beings, if you can help it. That's consistent with my belief that stupid animals like chickens have some moral status, in line with their ability to suffer, their moment-to-moment preferences, etc.

But exactly how much moral status do they have? Probably not so much that I MUST refrain from killing all chickens--even though giving up chicken would cause me a lot of distress and inconvenience. I am after all a busy sentient being whose preferences matter, too.

It's even more problematic to argue that all animals have an equal right to be left alone than to attempt to make rough distinctions amongst animals.

Arguably, amoebas have preferences. They are hardwired to recoil from touch. But virtually nobody would argue sea slugs have the same moral status as chickens.

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