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TLDR; When considering veganism why isn't the trade-off between the welfare of the farmed animals and the wild animals the farm replaces considered? 

Disclaimer: Medium term listener, first time poster, and definitely non-expert in moral philosophy or ethics.

When considering the veganism in with respect to animal suffering (for now ignoring the climate, land use, efficiency etc) the debate is rarely set out in terms that makes sense to me.

Using the example of the welfare of the animals involved in egg farming, to me the intuitive, consequentialist, analysis is to trade-off:

  • The reduction (or increase) in welfare of the chickens not existing  vs:
  • The change in welfare of the animals that would habitat the land use given up by a the chicken farm if it were abandoned, less whatever land is used to farm the protein I replace eggs with.

However there doesn't seem to be much in the way of analysis or debate in this space, which makes me question whether I am missing something fundamental.

On the contrary:

So instead, with limited guidance, I perform a subjective analysis, namely : "do I think its more likely than not that some free-range** chickens have better quality of life than the wild animals they replace".  

My observation is: 

  • Free-range chickens are allowed to exhibit natural behaviours and are gifted a few luxuries beside : housing/ constant supply of food/ (imperfect) protection from predators / (limited) treatment for disease and a death likely to be quicker than in the wild. 
  • Wild animals- they get the natural behaviours minus the luxuries

So I conclude that eating free-range eggs is net positive, in ethical terms.

But that conclusion appears to put me at odds with the much of the EA community so presumably my analysis is flawed.

Ways I could be wrong:

  • Judging wild animal suffering is hard. So safer just to stay off the eggs. Counter: "Hard" doesnt normally stop the debate in EA..
  • "Free-range" has a vague definition so its hard to analyse. Counter: as above
  • I have not considered the number of wild animals replaced by a chicken farm - and is likely nWild > nChickens
  • The climate and land use arguments are big enough to justify veganism without getting into the weeds of suffering trade-offs. Counter: Foodimpacts.org suggests there is interest in trading off climate and suffering
  • Caged eggs are by far the more numerous in the US. Counter: Not in europe, and caging farm animals will be banned in 2027.
  • Any number of other reasons... 

*This is a unfair- it is not the point of the tool, and 1 person questioned this in the thread in which was posted. But the fact it was only 1 is my point, and the author of the data it was based on didn't seem to interested in the caged/non-caged distinction either.

**The free-range descriptor is obviously important here, but more often than not the comparison is to caged animals in EA forums. Why? Surely most EAer's considering veganism already eat free-range meat & dairy?




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There are some articles, although I think they typically consider conventionally raised (mostly factory farmed animals), not free range ones, except cattle. Cattle often live on pasture, but chickens are rarely free range; cage-free systems are mostly very densely packed barns.

From a negative utilitarian perspective including invertebrates: https://reducing-suffering.org/vegetarianism-and-wild-animals/

If I recall correctly, from a classical utilitarian perspective excluding invertebrates: https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Assuming wild animals have bad lives on average: https://reflectivedisequilibrium.blogspot.com/2013/07/vegan-advocacy-and-pessimism-about-wild.html?m=1

Do you know if the eggs they sell as “pasture raised” are any better?

I would guess so. There are still some potential welfare concerns: harms from producing eggs almost daily, slaughter, chick culling, maybe beak trimming, maybe keel bone fractures, predators. I haven't really looked into this, though. I also don't know how often they need to be on pasture to qualify as "pasture raised".
Also spent hens are almost always sold to be slaughtered, where many are probably exposed to torture-level suffering. I remember looking into this a while back and only found one pasture farm where spent hens were not sold for slaughter. You can find details for many farms here: https://www.cornucopia.org/scorecard/eggs/

Thanks Michael these looks like interesting links

I'm still left with the impression though that this is a bit of a niche interest, and unsure why.

To a new comer to EA, veganism almost seems axiomatic 

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These free range animals are unlikely to fully subsist off the natural land. To feed them you need to buy or grow crops, which is another land use. It's very hard to make an EA argument in favor of humans eating higher on the food chain than is necessary. 

I think what may be missing from your analysis are different alternatives than the two you propose. For example, you've only considered using the land for free-range animals vs wild animals. You haven't considered using it for plant based protein sources to feed humans. You haven't considered using it as an animal sanctuary. And you haven't considered ways to reduce the harms/suffering that come to wild animals on this land. 

Nor have you considered the wider impact of expanding wild animals' habitats by gifting them this land. What is the larger impact of the existence of farmed animals on this land for wild animals in nearby habitats? 

And if they are raised and killed in these ways you deem "humane" then must their meat be used for humans? Is there a better use for it? For instance perhaps to feed wild carnivores? Or rescued carnivores? Is it really most efficient to use them to feed humans who have so many other choices?

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