Before I became vegetarian I had very little desire to help animals. Even when I first became one, it was more of a “I shouldn’t completely mistreat them” rather than “I really care about them”. That’s still fairly true, though I now believe animal suffering is really important. This post describes why.
Do animals have any value?
I will first describe various attempts which conclude the answer is no, and then propose a positive account. A first justification for animals not mattering is that they aren’t human. This is a base assumption, that humans are the only thing that matter, to conclude the very same. The issue is it’s entirely circular and has no further justification – I could just as similarly say all non-human animals are the only things that matter. It would be equally (un)justified. It’s unsatisfactory to not have further justification.
There are attempts to provide justification. Perhaps there are some criteria, which we can use to define what matters, which picks out all humans and no non-human animals. Examples of suggestions would be a being matters if and only if it is intelligent, or if and only if it has formal language. Whilst there may be justification for these defining value, they don’t conclude that only humans matter. Babies, for example, are neither intelligent nor have formal language. We could be more generous but whatever criteria we use we’re bound to run into issues – dolphins aren’t far off our intelligence, so to cater for babies mattering dolphins would have to be included. The bottom line is these criteria say that some animals are morally valuable, which then leads to the question of why others are not.
One more interesting justification is animals are less able to suffer. Therefore, we should care about them less. But where does is the justification for this? The broad reasoning is likely to be that humans are bigger, therefore have more neurons etc., and therefore feel more pain. The issue is with the last inference, as there is no evidence to link amount of neurons to pain felt. Indeed, considering from an evolutionary perspective, there seems to be little reason to think the suffering is much different. Both humans and non-human animals have had the same reason to feel pain – to respond to hunger, feeling cold, fear of death, and so on. So the evolutionary roots seem similar, so the pain should presumably be pretty similar. There is of course a non-negligible chance that despite this smaller animals suffer less anyway, and I intuitively agree. The issue is that in the absence of evidence, we simply cannot assume they suffer much less.
How much value, and what are the implications?
I believe value is determined based off the ability to suffer (and also the ability to be happy, but this is negligible given the prevalence of suffering, as I will elaborate later). As detailed above, the suffering of non-human animals may be less but it cannot be assumed to be much less – and even if it is, the amount of suffering is so much greater for animals means that you have to go way beyond evidence to conclude that eating meat outweighs the suffering caused.
The last sentence ought to be justified – how much suffering does eating meat really cause? First there’s the issue of whether it has any effect on the supply chain. The short answer is it does – if burgers are ordered in packs of 100, and 100 fewer are demanded, you’d expect one fewer batch to be ordered (perhaps lower, say 0.7, owing to supermarkets/suppliers not perfectly responding). You can say that you’re not going to be the 100th person, but you have a 1/100 chance of being that person who stops 100 being ordered – meaning you can expect to stop 1 being ordered. This is even more clear when you go vegetarian for your whole life – you can make sure you’re the person stopping the batch being ordered by buying 100 fewer burgers over your lifetime. For a longer, more detailed explanation, see here.
So now we’ve established, there is an effect, let’s measure the size. There’s a table here, but here’s the gist: the type has a massive impact. Noting that the estimates are all pessimistic, a kilo of beef causes about a day of suffering on a factory farm, whereas a kilo of eggs causes about 10 weeks worth. Smaller animals have worse conditions in factory farms (though the rest hardly have it easy), as they are put into smaller space (amongst other reasons), and they have more difficulty producing the same amount of meat/eggs.
What should I do?
It is clearly best to eat fewer meat and dairy products. That said, whilst I found/am finding the transition relatively simple, it’s not going to be easy for everyone – it’ll be more of an achievement for some people to stop having eggs than it will be for others to vegan entirely. So here are a few things I want to recommend (not all applicable to everyone, though some combination ought to be):
- Eat less meat/dairy products
- Eat types which do less harm – in order from most important to reduce to least (as in the table linked earlier): Fish, eggs, chicken, turkey (pork, beef and milk). If you replace all instances of fish, eggs, chicken and turkey for pork and beef, you can expect to divide the suffering your diet causes by way over 10 times. It’s not going to be feasible for every meal, but doing it every now and then, especially for fish, has a massive impact.
- Donate to charities which make other promote veganism. The wonderful thing about charity cost-effectiveness is that you really don’t need to give much – pessimistically, it costs $11 for someone to go vegetarian for a year (for certain charities). So by doing 1 & 2, and giving £10/year, you’ve easily done your fair share. And that’s not too much to ask for.
- Buy meat not from factory farms
I want to elaborate on 4. First, the estimates I’ve used focus around factory farmed animals, and there’ll be less suffering in non-factory farms. Second, people use it to insist that it means they don’t have to change their eating habits at all, which it is wrong to conclude. If there is just a 2% chance that the eggs are from factory farms, then you’ll still be expecting it to do more harm than beef would even if we knew the cow was from a factory farm. For salmon, we need just a 0.5% chance. We like to think that the meat we eat is reliably sourced but with the recent horsemeat scandal and secrecy of the farming industry, the chance is probably much higher than 2% – and that 2% was still sufficient to cause more suffering than eating beef would (which is a full day of suffering/kilo). The reasons we have for thinking farms are reliable are most likely anecdotal, if they even exist – we have trust because the people selling meat to us have nice advertisements with happy animals. We just don’t know, and that don’t know could mean masses of suffering.
I hope to write soon about how the importance of animal suffering affects what the most important intervention is, though I do plan to update this later with lots more links. As you can tell from the links, I owe a lot to Brian Tomasik for his excellent essays, and he is the main reason I looked into animal suffering.