A couple of months ago I wrote a piece called “Practical Veganism”.
I didn’t choose the title. I don’t think anyone likes “the v word” but it was a bit of a tongue in cheek title from the editors. It has led to many assumptions about the case I make- that I was simply advocating veganism, when I was not. I was advocating a quantified suffering approach to eating animal products. A couple of people have made a similar case: Julia Galef wrote an article saying that if you want to reduce suffering you should eat fewer eggs and this Slate Star Codex blog “vegetarianism for meat eaters” also discusses offsetting.
In summary, Practical Veganism was about what animal foods cause more and less suffering- information that people very rarely consider when they’re deciding what to eat. The “suffering footprint” is a way of quantifying the amount of suffering caused when you buy animal products. 53% of people in a nationally representative US survey said they were trying to consumer fewer animal based foods (and 63% thought everyone else should consume fewer animal based foods!). But when people reduce their consumption of animal products they usually shift from eating pigs and cows to eating fish, chicken and eggs. The claim I make in the piece is that this shift actually increases the suffering footprint relative to something like a diet of only red meat. This is because chickens and fish are much smaller than pigs and cows, which means there is more suffering per calorie and chickens and fish have worse lives on average than cows and maybe pigs. There were some criticisms of the piece that I’ll unpack further here. See for example some interesting critique on Reddit and on Twitter.
Read below to see my answers to questions about the environment, fish sentience, whether domesticated animals actually have it really good, and whether aliens are going to farm us for food.
Do you have any evidence that animals are sentient? Fish aren’t sentient, are they?
It’s easy to make a case that animals are sentient if you appeal to authority, for example the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. But it’s more difficult to make this case on the basis of first principles, especially for the large number of people who think there is a fundamental difference in consciousness between human and nonhuman animals.
Here is an abridged version of the case for animal sentience that I lay out in my chapter on evolutionary psychology and animal ethics.
How can we establish which animals are sentient, and therefore deserving of moral consideration?
Sentience is the ability to experience pain and pleasure subjectively. Nociception, or the experience of pain, is the simple and ancient capacity of most animals to respond to injuries that cause tissue damage. Nociception is specific to animals with a nervous system, but even simpler organisms may have a similar capacity to respond to harmful stimuli (Tomasik). Behavioral evidence of nociception is, for example, a shrimp grooming an injured antenna (Elwood) or, physiologically, the measurement of neurons firing in response to sensory stimulation (Braithwaite). Sentience and the ability to suffer is the subjective awareness of pleasure and pain and can be demonstrated when the response to stimuli is more complex than a simple response to physical damage. Considering an evolutionary and functional perspective, we can infer that subjective awareness of suffering evolved to prevent and manage bodily damage. If we take as given that humans can suffer, and suffering has important adaptive functions in enabling our survival and reproduction, it’s parsimonious to assume that sentience and suffering evolved in other related animals, including many other vertebrates (Tomasik). There is a solid foundation of evidence that vertebrates and even some invertebrates evolved both nociception and sentience (Braithwaite). Vertebrates as a group generally have the same neurons, synapses, and other neural hardware associated with the ability to feel pain found in sentient humans.
Many people are incredulous that fish can suffer. Certainly, I had little to no sympathy for fish, which is why around the time I went vegan I made this picture (inspired by the cover of Ani DiFranco’s Little Plastic Castle).
But, there is actually fairly good evidence that fish have some degree of consiousness. In addition to the passage below, I highly recommend checking out Erasmus, the clicker trained fish.
Fish brains, once thought to lack the fundamental hardware of sentience, have been found to have a brain region similar to the limbic system such that they may have the ability to ‘process information with an emotional component’ (Braithwaite, 2010: 102). Animal responses to pain, such as soliciting help, and avoiding stimuli previously associated with pain, are behavioral evidence of sentience. Many studies have shown that invertebrates widely thought to be incapable of sentience – show responses consistent with subjective awareness of pain. For example, hermit crabs have been shown to make adaptive tradeoffs when exposed to shock, choosing to endure more painful shock in a high-quality as opposed to a low-quality shell (Appel and Elwood, 2009). Trout given a painful injection in their lips failed to show the normal neophobic response to a novel stimulus (a colorful block tower), compared to trout in the control condition; the trout’s distraction from normal behavior because of pain suggests a subjective awareness of pain, and thus suffering and sentience (Sneddon). Using crabs and fish as examples is instructive, because they show better objective evidence for suffering than human neonates do (Braithwaite, 2010: 153) – but babies would almost certainly be more likely to get the benefit of our doubt.
You assume that all animals have the same sentience- isn’t that, like, really stupid?
In the article I didn’t want to get into the weeds about differences in sentience among different animals especially because people have really strong feelings about it and it’s not that precisely quantifiable. So, in the table I assumed equal sentience of chickens, fish, cows and pigs. This is not to say that I believe fish are equally sentient with these other animals. There are many potentially good reasons to prioritize some animals over others by virtue of their greater ability to suffer. However I left this out because even if you account for different levels of sentience, this doesn’t affect the ranking of the animal products that cause the most suffering. The animals we commonly farm for food that produce the most calories, dairy cows and beef cows, have lives that aren’t nearly as bad as egg laying hens or broiler chickens, which are both smaller and have worse lives. Pigs are highly intelligent and very likely conscious, and this could make a big difference, but if you look at Brian Tomasik’s original table, he ascribes a different degree of sentience (see sentience multiplier) and still comes up with the same rank order.
So, unless you radically changed the estimation of sentience, to say that chickens and fish have a tiny percentage of the sentience of cows and pigs, or even no sentience at all (itself a big leap) you will get the same rank order of which animal foods are most and least bad in terms of suffering. You’d have to think a few bad days for 1 cow are worse than 42 bad days for 200 chickens.
Shouldn’t we focus on humane animal farming instead?
There is a wishful delusion among many people that animal products are produced humanely. 75% of Americans think the animal products they buy are produced humanely when less than 1% of animal products in the USA come from non factory farms. I have a close friend who lives in the country near two free range farms and due to the availability heuristic it really colors her perception of how all animals are raised for food, making her very skeptical of veganism.
I think it is possible to raise animal products humanely and I don’t think killing animals for food is necessarily wrong in and of itself. But, for a many reasons I don’t focus on humane animal products as an alternative. Here they are, in brief.
- There have been many undercover activists who have filmed terrible abuses at so called “humane” operations. Animal activists I know personally (and I admit this isn’t an unbiased source of information) claim they seen abuse at every operation – I don’t know any animal activist who, for example, had to move on to a different farm because there wasn’t anything bad going on where they had gone undercover.
- Following on from the above- there is very little oversight of animal operations and animals have no way to communicate their mistreatment, unlike, disenfranchised people who are kept in terrible working conditions. Farmers, even in “humane” operations still have a bottom line and still become desensitized to animal suffering after seeing it day in and day out.
- A large amount of animal suffering isn’t that contingent on the environment in which they are raised. Egg laying hens have been bred to lay far more eggs than their wild ancestors and experience uterine prolapse. Their bones become brittle from laying. Broiler chickens raised for meat have several painful problems due to their large size. There are similar problems with the domestication of cows and pigs. It’s wrong to breed animals who suffer by their mere existence and humane animal farming generally raises animals who have these same genetic problems.
- Evidence points to the idea that people want to signal that they are eating humanely raised animal products but individual consumer behavior really doesn’t demonstrate this (see the vote/buy gap: 80% of consumers who chose to buy cookies made with battery cage eggs said that battery cage eggs should be illegal). Even if you are conscientious enough to make sure that your animal products meet some standard, other people inspired by you to also signal they are buying humanely raised products are unlikely to actually check up on what they are eating.
So, in brief, I don’t believe there is the oversight for humane animal products to be produced, I think people are more interested in signaling concern for animals than actually buying humane animal products and I think most humane farms still use animals who have a painful existence simply by dint of their breeding and use.
Don’t domesticated animals have it really good, actually?
There are some really good and there are some really misguided arguments about whether or not animals would prefer to be brought into the world than to not exist at all and overall that these animals have lives worth living. Even agricultural economists Lusk and Bailey, certainly no friend to vegan ideals, believe that some animals have lives that are not worth living.
The good argument here is that perhaps some animals we breed for food have good lives, on average, and the pleasure of their existence rivals nonexistence. When I was a really hardcore vegan 10 years ago this argument really offended me, but now I seriously consider it. There is an argument called “Logic of the Larder” that says eating meat is actually ethically good because we are bringing animals into the world who would otherwise not exist and their existence, is on average good. You could perhaps make this argument for animals who are living really good lives, like free-range cattle but I think that for a broiler hen inhaling ammonia or a fish living in a dirty aquaculture pond, nonexistence is better than existence.
Really, one of the only means of insight we have into animal lives is our insight into how we would feel given certain conditions. We are animals and there is a reason that anthropomorphism is likely a valid means of knowing. Rejecting anthropomorphism entirely and also assuming that a broiler chicken or a farmed fish has a life worth living seems like a convenient way to not consider the ethical problems with animal suffering.
I don’t have a satisfactory answer for the logic of the larder problem other than that I think most animals we raise for food don’t have lives worth living and the work of raising and slaughtering these animals makes human lives worse, on average. I’m a big proponent of clean meat (which, interestingly, if you were a true believer in the logic of the larder you would think was immoral compared with raising animals for food) and it will solve many of these problems.
Ok, that’s the good argument out of the way. There is an alternative argument about bringing animals into the world that really doesn’t pass the smell test. The idea here is that animals are doing great from a Darwinian perspective, there are billions of chickens and a billion cows, these domesticated animals are much more successful than their undomesticated ancestors. This is a bizarre argument because it implies that these animals get some kind of satisfaction from being evolutionarily successful. Anthropomorphism (imagining what we would feel like if we were kept in factory farm conditions, for example) as I said earlier, can be one of the only ways we have insight into how animals feel. But, animals have no idea how big or small their population is. If there is one zebra left on earth or there is one zebra separated by a mountain range from 10 million other zebras, those two zebras feel the same. Animals compete with one another and get no pleasure out of the success of their species.
Imagine if an alien race was keeping us in captivity to eat our flesh or drink our milk or for some other equally perverse reason. Let’s say these aliens packed us together and bred us such that instead of 10 billion people in the near future, there were instead 40 billion people on earth. Who would console themselves while being milked or walked to slaughter with the idea that “wow, this is great, the human species is so successful”.
The Twighlight Zone’s “To Serve Man” about aliens eating people
What about the environment?
One of the most common criticisms of the piece is that if you ate more red meat, you’d have a greater carbon footprint, which would be worse for the environment. This makes sense. Here is what I wrote about this on a forum:
I’m a utilitarian – what I tried to do in the article was to figure out easier ways that people could minimize the suffering they cause with their demand than going vegan. Of course there are many other considerations- many people think that farming pigs especially and chickens potentially is likely to create another pandemic as H1N1 likely emerged from factory farming pigs.Unlike many other people- I don’t consider wild places and the environment to be a good in and of themselves. I don’t know how much damage to the environment is caused by various food choices. I don’t know how good wild animal lives are given that most small wild animals are in constant fear of predation and often suffer from parasites or disease and small animals including insects make up the vast majority of wild animals. Check out r/wildanimalsuffering I can’t calculate the suffering caused by climate change and I’m unsure if it’s worse than the suffering in nature that already exists. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, a vegan diet is best followed by a vegetarian diet followed by a diet of eggs, fish and chicken. As I said in the piece- consumers are very bad at enacting their ethics with their consumer choices – so clean meat is really going to be the game changer in terms of reducing suffering and reducing environmental damage. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, a vegan diet is best followed by a vegetarian diet followed by a diet of eggs, fish and chicken. As I said in the piece- consumers are very bad at enacting their ethics with their consumer choices – so clean meat is really going to be the game changer in terms of reducing suffering and reducing environmental damage.
As you can see, there are a lot of complicated issues with considering how good it is to preserve the environment. When it comes to climate change, however, eating vegan for a full year is only about as good for the environment as missing one transatlantic flight. I’m not sure how important environmental damage is compared to direct suffering- but to me direct suffering is much more morally important.
Isn’t it better to just tell people to go vegan?
I think the ideal would be for people to be vegan or bivalvegan. But what I’ve seen as someone active in animal movements for a long time is very little success in encouraging people to go vegan. And as I lay out in the piece as well as my chapter, most people who say they’re vegetarian really aren’t.
Attitude and diet change don’t occur in a vacuum- let’s say someone decides they can’t go vegan but they’re going to stop eating fish, eggs and chicken to reduce the direct suffering they cause. That person, after taking the initial step, is much more likely to reduce their meat intake further, maybe just eating meat once a week. Most vegans took a step in that direction first, by being vegetarian or reducing their meat consumption. I think what I lay out in Practical Veganism is important because most people think the next best thing to being vegan is eating eggs, fish, and chicken – the way most vegetarians eat while signaling their ethical commitment to animals.