Cake or death, PETA or cockfights

[originally from October 16th, 2014]

what if I were rational, and truly believed that an animal life has exactly the same ethical value as a human life. Or even ten times less. Or one hundred. Generally, this equation:
value(human) = x * value(animal)
For different x, what would I think?

Actually, for all non-zero positive x it’s pretty much the same. When Nazis were putting Jews into death camps to make the whole thing work (I don’t know if they ever had the exact wording of “obviously they’re better off in death camps: if you just throw them in a forest they will die”, but you can imagine how ridiculous this excuse sounds), would you be content boycotting the good they produce, and trying to convince them that killing Jews is bad? No, you would bomb them, you would storm the death camps, killing the guards and freeing the prisoners. And if any of the guards survived, they should be put to trial afterwards. This is what you do. So, the only animal rights organization that actually does something sensible is PETA, although they’re not harsh enough: if they cannot sneak into a farm to liberate the slaves, they should just bomb the entrance, and to the hell the lives of farmers.
How big should x be for this kind of thinking? Well, if “the total number of all animals killed for food in 2000 was 9.7 billion” then believing that animal live costs one thousand times less than a human life (which doesn’t sound like a crazy idea on the first sight) makes farming just as bad as the Holocaust.

Hmm… what if we make x equal to one in ten billion? That definitely sounds like a statement from someone who doesn’t give a single shit about animals, and probably enjoys cockfights. Still, points stands. If to feed the Earth to the same extent we’re doing it now we had to murder one innocent person per year, wouldn’t you take some action? Going below one human per year only gives you murdering one human in several years – still terrible.

Thus, if you’re utilitarian, and x is positive, you shouldn’t go vegan, you should go terrorist.

OK, what if x is zero? Well, as I said about cockfights, but worse: if animal lives worth nothing, then it’s totally ethical to slowly wring a living cat for entertainment. No worse than doing so with a plush toy – the only minor problem is that is could be someone’s favorite toy.

There is a very nice and simple hack to resolve the paradox: simply claim that the value of a human life is ontologically different from the value of an animal life. You can optimize for them separately, but making trade-offs between them is deontologically prohibited. And whereas it doesn’t sound even remotely as crazy as the two options described above for the general non-utilitarian public, unaware of the word speciesism, it covers a deep problem in decision theory: pure utilitarianism doesn’t work. Also, any utility-based AI will be a crapshoot.

[originally from January 10th, 2015]

The picture is just an argument to moderation, which is decidedly not the best way to represent the article. Besides, using the treatment of dogs to illustrate an ethical point about animals isn’t a very good idea either – chickens or cows would work better. If the author’s point is that it’s OK to use and kill animals as long as it’s done in a way that doesn’t cause a lot of suffering, then it’s way more fair to illustrate it with the animals that actually get used and killed at the rate of few billions per year, instead of those that get toys, medications, and surgeries.

But as for the actual argument, it’s not that easy. Sure, conflating animal rights and animal welfare could be a mistake or even malicious equivocation, but it’s not fair to say that they’re completely disconnected either.

Classic libertarian philosophers, when inventing the idea of unalienable human rights, basically justified it by saying “just because”. Well, OK, the justification was a little bit better, but it boiled down to the idea that it’s the natural order of things – IIRC, they even used the idea of soul to argue that humans and only humans have rights. For this kind of philosophy, it doesn’t matter whether certain rights increase or decrease welfare; they’re valuable by themselves (thus, the idea that freedom should never be sacrificed for safety). Within this framework, one may or may not care about the welfare of other humans or animals, but this is indeed a matter of choice, not the universal ethical standard. Descartes, for one, didn’t:

The problem is that in the modern social democratic philosophy, within which the author presumably operates, welfare supersedes the rights. Humans are still believed to have rights, but the reason for that is the belief that having rights increases one’s welfare, and human welfare should be cared about, because humans are moral patients. This idea is very important, since otherwise it’s impossible to argue in favor welfare-increasing actions that limit one’s rights, like regulating the economy, thus helping the poor, but limiting the possibility to make any kinds of arbitrary contracts. Also, it’s important that the human welfare should be cared about because of their being moral patients. For example, I care about the state of the oceans and rainforests, but only because their state indirectly affects me and other humans; there’s nothing unethical in cutting down a tree per se. So, within this framework, we can either say that we don’t care about animals at all, or say that we do care about their welfare, and do so not just because the meat of a stressed animal tastes worse [citation needed], but because they are in fact moral patients. In this case, it’s only natural to ask why then we don’t think they have rights, since having rights is a direct conclusion from being a moral patient for humans.

Now, the author may actually have an explanation for why it is different for non-human animals. Intelligence is an obvious candidate, but it’s a rather weak point: we still believe that infants and even patients in coma (unless diagnosed as brain dead) have right to life, which is refused to other animals. Saying that animal welfare is less valuable than human welfare is also an option, but given the sheer number of animals used in farming, to make it look OK we have to tune it so damn low that we’d have hard time arguing why vivisection and cockfights are bad, leave alone zoophilia (in which case it’s often quite hard to argue that the animal is suffering at all; the strongest argument against zoophilia involves the notion that animals cannot consent to sex, which automatically assigns them the right to autonomy).

So, animal welfare is a very slippery slope, that leads to PETA pretty quickly, once you start trying to apply ethical principles in a consistent way. We can possibly set a Schelling fence on that slope (alternatively, either discover that cockfights are OK, or PETA was right all along), but doing so would require far stronger arguments that the author presents.


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