Cross-post of this.  

“King Lear, late at night on the cliffs asks the blind Earl of Gloucester

“How do you see the world?”

And the blind man Gloucester replies “I see it feelingly”.

Shouldn’t we all?

Animals must be off the menu – because tonight they are screaming in terror in the slaughterhouse, in crates, and cages. Vile ignoble gulags of Despair.

I heard the screams of my dying father as his body was ravaged by the cancer that killed him. And I realised I had heard these screams before.

In the slaughterhouse, eyes stabbed out and tendons slashed, on the cattle ships to the Middle East and the dying mother whale as a Japanese harpoon explodes in her brain as she calls out to her calf.

Their cries were the cries of my father.

I discovered when we suffer, we suffer as equals.

And in their capacity to suffer, a dog is a pig is a bear. . . . . . is a boy.”

—Phillip Wollen in a speech I’d highly recommend

When a quarter million birds are stuffed into a single shed, unable even to flap their wings, when more than a million pigs inhabit a single farm, never once stepping into the light of day, when every year tens of millions of creatures go to their death without knowing the least measure of human kindness, it is time to question old assumptions, to ask what we are doing and what spirit drives us on.

— Matthew Scully “Dominion”

Some ethical questions are difficult. One can’t be particularly confident in their views about population ethics, most political issues, normative ethics, etc. Yet the morality of our current consumption of meat is not one of those difficult issues. It is as close to a no-brainer as you get in normative ethics. The question we face is whether we should torture billions of sentient beings before killing them because we like the taste of their flesh.

Whether pigs should be roasted to death, hot steam choking and burning them to death. Whether pigs who are smarter than dogs should be forced to give birth in tiny crates where they can’t move around. Whether they should be castrated with no anesthetic, have their tails and teeth cut off with a sharp object and no anesthetic, whether parts of their ears should be cut off for identification purposes, cruelly cramped together during transport[1] unable to stand or move around, and whether they should have a knife dragged across their throat. All of these are the price we pay for cheap pig flesh.

Whether chickens should be hung upside down by one leg before being brought on a conveyor to a knife being dragged across their throat—the only saving grace being an error prone electric bath that knocks them unconscious; sometimes. Of course, the combination of blade and electric bath is sufficiently error-prone to boil to death half a million or so sentient beings every year. It becomes abundantly clear that we’re acting horrendously when animal advocates are hoping that we’ll gas animals to death—kill them the way the Nazi’s did, for the ways we do it now are far crueler. Whether chickens should be crammed in a space far smaller than a sheet of paper, living their whole lives without seeing the sun, except in the moments before they’re transferred to their grisly slaughter. We do this to about 80 billion land animals and trillions of sea creatures.

Are cheap eggs worth forcing sentient beings to live in shit, with the smell of feces being the only thing detectable from inside the barn? Forcing sentient beings to get osteoporosis and heart disease, all in an attempt to reduce the cost of eggs. This barrage of shit is not limited to egg-laying hens—it’s why a full 80% of pigs have pneumonia upon slaughter. A life lived in so much shit that it causes pneumonia the vast majority of the time is not how we ought to treat sentient beings. Veterinary care is rarely given to animals who suffer in agony and terror. Mothers are separated from their children at birth, both of whom cry out for days or weeks. 90% of the chickens for meat that you eat can’t walk properly because of genetic manipulation. Chickens were placed into darkness, killing 5-10% of them, all in an attempt to increase their egg laying. Broiler chickens develop horrific diseases and experience unimaginable pain.

Because a large amount of calcium goes into egg production, almost all battery hens suffer from osteoporosis, which is exacerbated by lack of exercise in cages

A description of conditions

It’s standard practice in the pork industry to “thump piglets. Thumping is when farmers slam the pigs headfirst into the ground because they won’t meet a size requirement or are sick and deemed a waste.

More horrors of this nightmarish industry

Farmers use pliers to pull the skin off of live fish. Dozens are crammed into buckets and baskets, gasping for oxygen. They’re often flailing and struggling, trying to escape the workers’ knives.

Ibid

When they have young, sows are jammed between two rails, so that they cannot turn around and take care of the piglets, only feed them. This is done to prevent the sow from crushing a piglet to death, because of the lack of space. The piglets are brought to the weaning section after the nursing period of only 3 to 4 weeks (instead of the natural 14 weeks). At the age of about 72 days they go to the fattening farm, where 14 of them are put in a sty of 10 m², usually on a grid floor without straw.

More horrors that those of you who eat meat pay for

Pollan describes the horrors of modern factory farms — I’ll just quote a few passages.

Beef cattle in America at least still live outdoors, albeit standing ankle deep in their own waste eating a diet that makes them sick.

And broiler chickens, although they do get their beaks snipped off with a hot knife to keep them from cannibalizing one another under the stress of their confinement, at least don't spend their eight-week lives in cages too small to ever stretch a wing. That fate is reserved for the American laying hen, who passes her brief span piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage whose floor a single page of this magazine could carpet. Every natural instinct of this animal is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral ''vices'' that can include cannibalizing her cagemates and rubbing her body against the wire mesh until it is featherless and bleeding. Pain? Suffering? Madness? The operative suspension of disbelief depends on more neutral descriptors, like ''vices'' and ''stress.'' Whatever you want to call what's going on in those cages, the 10 percent or so of hens that can't bear it and simply die is built into the cost of production. And when the output of the others begins to ebb, the hens will be ''force-molted'' -- starved of food and water and light for several days in order to stimulate a final bout of egg laying before their life's work is done.

Later he said

Piglets in confinement operations are weaned from their mothers 10 days after birth (compared with 13 weeks in nature) because they gain weight faster on their hormone- and antibiotic-fortified feed. This premature weaning leaves the pigs with a lifelong craving to suck and chew, a desire they gratify in confinement by biting the tail of the animal in front of them. A normal pig would fight off his molester, but a demoralized pig has stopped caring. ''Learned helplessness'' is the psychological term, and it's not uncommon in confinement operations, where tens of thousands of hogs spend their entire lives ignorant of sunshine or earth or straw, crowded together beneath a metal roof upon metal slats suspended over a manure pit. So it's not surprising that an animal as sensitive and intelligent as a pig would get depressed, and a depressed pig will allow his tail to be chewed on to the point of infection. Sick pigs, being underperforming ''production units,'' are clubbed to death on the spot. The U.S.D.A.'s recommended solution to the problem is called ''tail docking.'' Using a pair of pliers (and no anesthetic), most but not all of the tail is snipped off. Why the little stump? Because the whole point of the exercise is not to remove the object of tail-biting so much as to render it more sensitive. Now, a bite on the tail is so painful that even the most demoralized pig will mount a struggle to avoid it.

One horrifying line came later in the article.

Simply reciting these facts, most of which are drawn from poultry-trade magazines, makes me sound like one of those animal people, doesn't it? I don't mean to, but this is what can happen when . . . you look.

An objective description of what goes on in factory farms sounds like the claims of shrill activists; this is a testament to just how horrible they are.

Even the supposedly high welfare farms kill the pigs by beating them to death against concrete—totally legal industry practice.

Matthew Scully started his book “Dominion” with the following description.

It began with one pig at a British slaughterhouse. Somewhere along the production line it was observed that the animal had blisters in his mouth and was salivating. The worst suspicions were confirmed, and within days borders had been sealed and a course of action determined. Soon all of England and the world watched as hundreds, and then hundreds of thousands, of pigs, cows, and sheep and their newborn lambs were taken outdoors, shot, thrown into burning pyres, and bulldozed into muddy graves. Reports described terrified cattle being chased by sharpshooters, clambering over one another to escape. Some were still stirring and blinking a day after being shot. The plague meanwhile had slipped into mainland Europe, where the same ritual followed until, when it was all over, more than ten million animals had been disposed of. Completing the story with the requisite happy ending was a calf heard calling from underneath the body of her mother in a mound of carcasses to be set aflame. Christened “Phoenix,” after the bird of myth that rose from the ashes, the calf was spared.

He later said

Here were innocent, living creatures, and they deserved better, and we just can’t treat life that way. We realized, if only for an instant, that it wasn’t even necessary, that we had brought the whole thing upon them and upon ourselves. Foot-and-mouth disease is a form of flu, treatable by proper veterinary care, preventable by vaccination, lethal neither to humans nor to animals. These animals, millions of them not even infected, were all killed only because their market value had been diminished and because trade policies required it—because, in short, under the circumstances it was the quick and convenient thing to do.

One report from the WSJ at the time said

The British response to foot-and-mouth disease, shared by most rich countries, is to slaughter and burn all animals showing symptoms, plus those that may have been exposed to the diseased animals.

On top of this, thousands of animals burn alive in barn fires, caused by the ammonia and other gasses released by the farms. However, when animals burn alive, even when 200,000 sentient beings burn to death in a fire, to quote an industry spokesperson, “no one was injured.” Hundreds of thousands or millions of animals burn to death—yet despite that, the industry keeps chugging on.

Animals are shipped overseas in horrible conditions, in many ways resembling the ships that were used to ship slaves to the Americas. To quote one report

Once on board, animals face miserable, weeks-long journeys. Confined to small areas, they have no choice but to lie in their own feces and urine. Frequently, the ships are not properly ventilated, and some animals die from intense heat or succumb to respiratory diseases. The bodies of dead animals are usually crushed and thrown into the sea.

Scully describes some more horrific conditions.

As it turns out, such details are at issue in a case now before the Supreme Court of the United States. The dispute, National Pork Producers Council v. Ross, centers on the use of gestation crates for female pigs. These are the iron, fit-to-size cages in which the creatures, about six million of them at any given moment in our country, are kept almost completely immobilized for all of their lives, unable to walk or even turn around.

This four-sided encasement, at 2 feet x 7 feet, or even slightly smaller, confines animals weighing between 400 and 500 pounds, and it’s one of those details about industrial farming that stay with you once you’ve heard about them. When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Court heard a 2020 case involving a pig farm owned by a subsidiarity of Smithfield Foods, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III remarked during oral argument on “the inhumanity to the animals and the fatality rate” at the farm, and later noted “the outrageous conditions,” the “almost suffocating closeness” of the pigs, the “animal suffering” — and wondered in his written opinion “How did it come to this?” He was referring to the same confinement methods to be examined in National Pork Producers Council v. Ross.

He notes an important point

It would be reasonable for the justices to ask themselves this question, too: If the use of gestation crates is proper and defensible animal husbandry, why has the NPPC lobbied to make it a crime to photograph that very practice?

Imagine if there were rumors that you were mistreating your dog. Would you ban anyone from every entering your house and seeing how you treat your dog? No, of course not. It is only because the factory farms have everything to fear from consumers knowing about the unimaginable cruelty they dispense that they lobby for laws—in flagrant violation of the first amendment—that make it illegal to photograph the horrors that they administer.

These beings cannot be reduced to mere statistics. If you lived every life that was ever lived, you’d spend far more time living as a victim of factory farming than as a person consuming meat. If you experienced all the pleasure of meat from factory farms, but also the suffering caused by it, you’d demand that we end these vicious torture chambers immediately. But alas, the victims cannot speak as their infected flesh wastes away, so their cries go unheard.

Here’s a question that shouldn’t be difficult for anyone with a moral compass: should babies be ground to death in blenders? Should they be suffocated in bags? If your answer is no—as no doubt it should be—you should oppose this horrific practice done to billions of baby chicks. Are you really in favor of paying for the blending of babies?

If you think you’re not opposed to what goes on here, I’d recommend the movie watch dominion. See if, when you look at what actually goes on, when you see the animals not merely as a piece of meat but as actual beings, you can stomach it. If you can, you might be a psychopath, but at least you’re consistent. Yet for those of you who are repulsed by it, you should stop funding it, stop paying for more animals to be viciously tortured to death in these vile, ignoble gulags of despair.

The things we do to animals in many ways resemble the things done to humans in history’s worst atrocities, including slavery and the holocaust. Sentient beings boiled alive, having their throat cut, living in feces, having their limbs taken off. The cruelty is staggering. Drab descriptions of industry practices don’t resemble what goes on in other industries—they resemble horror stories. One shudders imagining themself having to risk being in a situation like that—before they realize that this is the fate of billions. Actions that we’d never risk in a million years shouldn’t be forced on billions of sentient, helpless animals—animals who scream, shriek, and wail, all to no avail. For the cries of the helpless calf who sobs before their dying mother do not endanger the profits of the industry—they’re thus totally ignored.

Hopefully, you think that this is bad—that this horrific treatment of billions of beings is one of history’s greatest crimes. However, if you are not yet swayed, here are some ethical arguments for why this grisly maltreatment is bad.

First is that animal cruelty is on its face immoral. When we see a person kicking a dog, we all have the intuition that the dog kicking shouldn’t be done. And yet the treatment of the vast majority of animals that we eat—99% of which come from factory farms—is far crueler than a person kicking a dog. It’s far crueler than a person who beats a dog to death with a shovel—at least the dog’s suffering is short, while the animals we abuse have their suffering drawn out across weeks.

Can we really condemn those who abuse animals if we ourselves pay for far greater cruelty? Can we really judge those who brutally kill their pets or those who practice bestiality, when we pay for greater cruelty on a daily basis?

Second, consider a different case. Imagine someone was paying for pigs to be put in gas chambers because they liked the way their squeals sounded. We would be outraged—animal abuse isn’t worth enjoying particular sounds. What if they were gassed because we liked the way they smelled? A cry of outrage would erupt throughout the public—surely a pleasant smell wouldn’t be worth horrific torture. What about one who enjoyed the way that tortured corpses of animals looked? We’d be outraged—looks don’t justify horrific torture. How about taste. We’d be similarly outraged. Oh wait, that’s literally what we do. We pay for animals to be brutally tortured and killed because we like the taste of their tortured corpse. Surely there’s no morally relevant difference between a pleasant smell and a pleasant taste.

Maybe you think you’re morally different from those who torture pigs for the smell of their corpse. After all you just want a byproduct of suffering, not the suffering itself. It’s not clear why this matters, but even if it does, there’s still a parallel case. One who enjoys the smell of animals corpses doesn’t gain extra pleasure from them being tortured. Torture is just a means towards and end, the end being cheap animal corpses which can be smelled.

A third argument is the Name the Trait Argument/The Argument from Marginal cases. Is there anything that justifies treating animals horrifically? If so, what is it? Is it intelligence? Well if it’s intelligence, then that justifies torturing and eating severely mentally disabled people or terminally ill babies. Any trait that justifies the difference in treatment would similarly justify mistreating some humans, for the humans with the least of any trait possess less of it than the animals with the most of it. This is true whether it’s moral agency, intelligence, or anything else.

Maybe you think that being a human is what intrinsically matters. Aside from being ad hoc, this has an insane conclusion. Imagine we stumbled across an alien civilization that looked like us, talked like us, and acted like us. However, they were not technically humans—they had a different evolutionary lineage. Would it really be okay to brutally torture them to death so we can devour their corpses? Doesn’t seem too plausible.

More traits can be named, not all of which can be addressed here. They all fail.

Fourth, a basic principle of empathy is that ethics should be impartial. We should put ourselves in the shoes of the beings affected. That’s why rocks don’t matter—they aren’t sentient, they have no interests. A good way of doing this is imagining one behind a veil of ignorance, where they’re equally likely to be any of the affected parties. Let’s imagine that for animals. If you were just as likely to be the chicken that adorns your plate as you were to be yourself, eating a lovely meal, wouldn’t you rather not eat meat. It’s only gross neglect of the affected sentient beings that causes us to mistreat them these ways.

Fifth, a very plausible ethical principle is that vast suffering for trivial benefits is bad. That is what we do to animals. It should thus end.

This is not just some bad thing. Even if we ignore all sea creatures and value land animals at 1/1000 what we value humans, our treatment of animals is morally equivalent to brutally torturing and killing about 80 million people every year. 80 billion animals being brutally tortured is such a vast number, that even if we devalue animals to a fairly large degree, it still wins out as the worst thing in the world. And this is a gross underestimate of its true immorality.

Your individual consumption decisions can make a difference. We have data that bears this out. This chart provides a rough estimate, showing that consumption causes weeks of suffering for animal products like chicken. Weeks of torture is not worth a chicken sandwich.

There’s an obvious reason for this; the reason these animals are bred in such horrific conditions is that people will pay for their flesh. They breed a number of beings proportional to the number that will be consumed. One fewer consumer, one fewer animal produced in expectation. In reality, they group things in terms of thresholds, say every 900 people who consume animals will trigger an increase, resulting in 900 extra animals being bred into existence. But that still means that the expected harm from consuming meat is the same. So if you still eat meat, you really should stop immediately—you’re inflicting unfathomable suffering on enormous numbers of beings.

Yet even if we ignored the brutal torture of billions of animals we’d still conclude that factory farming must end. The end of it would massively improve health. Healthline reviewed 16 studies veganism has a positive impact on health causing weight loss, drop in LDL cholesterol, reduced heart disease risk,  vegans got more fiber, less fat, blood sugar lowering, etc.  Casini et al in 2016 wrote in a comprehensive meta analysis

“Conclusions: This comprehensive meta-analysis reports a significant protective effect of a vegetarian diet versus the incidence and/or mortality from ischemic heart disease (-25%) and incidence from total cancer (-8%). Vegan diet conferred a significant reduced risk (-15%) of incidence from total cancer.”

When it comes to health, it’s not just that a plant based diet has been shown to be healthy and nutritionally adequate for all stages of life, including pregnancy and infancy, as stated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It’s that a whole-foods plant based diet has been shown to help the gut microbiome, reduce inflammation, lower high cholesterol and high blood pressure, boost your immune system and also reduce the risk of developing many leading chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, type two diabetes , strokes, certain forms of cancer such as colon, breast, and prostate and may even protect against cognitive decline. 

Factory-farmed animals use two-thirds of the world’s antibiotics.  The World health organization finds by 2050 anti biotic resistant microbes will kill 10 million people a year, which is more than cancer.  Much of the antibiotic resistance comes from factory farms.  Most new diseases come from animals. Factory farming is a breeding ground for new disease.

Factory farms also devastate the environment, contributing to large amounts of GHG emissions.

The case against factory farming is overdetermined. We ought not support an industry which devastates the environment, harms health, enables pandemics and diseases broadly, and brutally tortures and kills billions of sentient land animals and trillions of total sentient beings. Factory farming delenda est.

This article lays out in detail organizations to which people can donate to fight factory farms.

The end of factory farming must come as soon as possible. Our horrific mistreatment of animals is perhaps the worst thing ever. Let us one day look back upon it as the horror it is.

The horrors of factory farming should be relatively uncontroversial; babies should not be ground up in blenders so we can enjoy their byproduct. If there is a god, he will have to beg the victims of factory farming for forgiveness, for giving man free will.

 

  1. ^

    “Fortunately many producers are now selecting pigs that are stress gene free to improve meat quality.”

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And will we bring all creatures in,
Circle, grow and grow.
feather, fur, or silicon?
Circle, grow and grow.
Though their unseen thought beguile —
strange the substrate they employ —
all who suffer or enjoy
are brother soul, in body wild.

Circle, circle, grow and grow.

And will we bring the future in?
Circle, grow and grow.
All of time is ours to win!
Circle, grow and grow.
Will our children rise in power?
overwhelm the starry deep?
Lights unborn, for you we keep
will and hope, though dark the hour.

Circle, circle, grow and grow.

 

“Proper?” asked the Comet King. “I come to you with a plan to fight off Hell and save the world, and you tell me it isn’t proper?”

Vihaan stared at the priest, as if begging him to step in. “I swear,” said Father Ellis, “it’s like explaining the nature of virtue to a rock”.

“Do you know,” interrupted Jalaketu, “that whenever it’s quiet, and I listen hard, I can hear them? The screams of everybody suffering. In Hell, around the world, anywhere. I think it is a power of the angels which I inherited from my father.” He spoke calmly, without emotion. “I think I can hear them right now.”

Ellis’ eyes opened wide. “Really?” he asked. “I’m sorry. I didn’t…”

“No,” said the Comet King. “Not really.”

They looked at him, confused.

“No, I do not really hear the screams of everyone suffering in Hell. But I thought to myself, ‘I suppose if I tell them now that I have the magic power to hear the screams of the suffering in Hell, then they will go quiet, and become sympathetic, and act as if that changes something.’ Even though it changes nothing. Who cares if you can hear the screams, as long as you know that they are there? So maybe what I said was not fully wrong. Maybe it is a magic power granted only to the Comet King. Not the power to hear the screams. But the power not to have to.”

Merry Christmas. May hell be destroyed.

The first quote apparently is from this song

Such a beautiful song, thank you for sharing it!

The second I think is from Unsong, I still haven't read it but this quote really makes me want to

Pereat mundus?

No, getting rid of factory farming (“fiat iustitia”) won’t increase X-risk (“pereat mundus”).

Or are you implying that resources are in competition for the two? (Perhaps weakly true)

Actually, I was just reminding that [spoiler alert] Jalaketu was willing to destroy the world in order to destroy Hell. But he eventually compromised, causing only nuclear war and killing his kids to go to Hell and destroy it.

calebp
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I didn’t like this post very much despite being sympathetic to the underlying claims. This was a tricky comment for me to write as I do actually just have a lot of common ground with the op.

In general the post aimed to persuade people rather than inform or explain, often using overly emotive language. A lot of the examples were cherry picked, there was little discussions aimed at trying to get an accurate sense of the scale of moral harm caused by factory farming and it seemed pretty 1 dimensional and not very thoughtful. It also seemed adversarial and tribalist to me (e.g. saying things like

More horrors that those of you who eat meat pay for ).

I do (again despite being very sympathetic to the underlying claims) think that these issues are less clear cut than the post seems to imply - the post claims that factory farming is an atrocity is a no brainer from most moral views and that doesn’t seem obvious to me. I feel pretty empirically confused about the capacity for suffering of various nonhuman animal lives relative to each other. I don’t feel like I have time right now to point at concrete issues and I would ideally much prefer to bullet some concrete points I found problematic.

I know this was a cross post, I personally wouldn’t have taken issue if it had been more of a short form factor summary. I don’t think that was a poor post by my light relative to the median ea forum post, but I think it probably was epistemically much worse than I’d like for one with high karma.

I think reasonable people can disagree about the norms for EA Forum posts. Personally, I'm very happy that posts like this exist amidst the sea of hyperrational evaluation-focused posts. As said in one of my favorite posts:

Sidenote for the rigorous readers of this forum: I ask you to read this essay somewhat impressionistically. “The logic is incomplete, but let’s see if he’s still onto something,” is the attitude I'd suggest.

This post does not have complete logic by any means, but it's onto something - in my view, it's onto a moral intuition that we should pay more attention to than we often do. That's not at odds with rationality, because rationality can only offer limited guidance on what morality should be, it can't free us from relying on moral intuitions. So posts that are purely evaluative will miss a lot of ground on which people can (and do) make decisions. Put differently, moral intuitions and rational evaluation are complements, not substitutes.

I think the high karma of this post reflects the fact that for many people, including myself, it's a reminder to keep alive the flame of trying to live ethically.

Fwiw I don’t think forum norms need be doomed to reasonable disagreement. I think someone probably has some vision for why the forum should exists by altruistic lights. It’s probably grounded in some model of the world that we can discuss here.

I don’t think that’s this post is presenting something new or trying to pin down a moral intuition. In fact I don’t think it talks about morality very much at all, it’s more of a list of reasons why the author dislikes factory farming. I think people are mostly upvoting because they agree with it rather than it being very insightful.

Thanks for flagging this.

I have mixed feelings here. I generally don't like emotionally-focused posts, but I think having some good ones, properly contextualized, can be pretty useful. They can show insight into certain perspectives that are hard to grasp for more epistemically-ideal posts. 

Maybe we could eventually have norms to flag that posts like these should be treated and understood very different to most evaluation posts. There's the "Inspiration" tag, which is doing some of this, but I assume there's more that could be done. 

My intuition is that it's very easy for people to tell that this is very different from most evaluation posts, and a flag wouldn't add any new information, but it's probably not harmful either.

I think the policy that I am currently most in favour of is for the moderators to implement (certainly not limited to just this post) is to keep these as personal posts and not promote to the front page unless they reach some standard of epistemic rigour.

Thank you for  aptly conveying the hell that is the factory farming system. Upon learning of the abomination that is this process, even those who eat meat are repulsed and horrified.

We need to provide an opportunity for the meat-eaters to eliminate the harm they cause by participating in the system. Asking people to change their dietary habits is a difficult ask  and we need to provide a simple process that enables a larger set of the public that is repulsed by the process to be a part of the solution (or at least mitigate their contribution to the problem). 

With a set of experts in the farmed animal welfare/charity space, create a fund that benefits the most cost effective charities.

  • Create a questionnaire in which people can estimate their dietary habits (amount of poultry, egg, beef, etc. consumption on a weekly basis).
  • Calculate the harm caused by this consumption on an annual basis.
  • Calculate the cost to eliminate these harms by contributing to the farmed animal welfare fund.
  • Give people the opportunity to negate their impact by donating that much money (negation cost)
  • Give people the opportunity to be part of the solution by donating a multiple of their negation cost.

 

The vast majority of the planet (a) eats meat and (b) hates torture. We need to provide an easy way for a portion of them to help destroy hell as well, or at least not be part of the problem.

I really hope someone runs with this. I would, but I have a full time job and also run a nonprofit that also seeks to make systemic changes that would benefit, among other causes, farmed animal welfare. It is bizarre that we have not tried to make it easy for meat eaters to offset their impact.

I appreciate this proposal for large-scale "vegan offsetting"! I agree that it's important that the rest of the world, full of people who aren't going to change their diets overnight, find ways to help with reducing animal suffering.

That being said, I'm not sure if moral offsetting checks out theoretically, and there are some unique complications with the vegan case that come up in the comments on this post. I also don't think the idea is intuitive outside of a subset of consequentialist and mathematically-inclined people, since most of the public probably isn't okay with offsetting something like murder or domestic animal abuse.

If we're really trying to get the vast majority of the world — people who like meat and hate torture — on board, I think a stronger solution might be helping meat eaters advocate for legislation or corporate action to improve farm conditions, or maybe even replace some of their consumption with alternatives like higher-welfare animal products or compelling alt proteins like Beyond. These might be preferable because, unlike offsetting, they make sense from a variety of moral perspectives and also make individual change feel achievable (which is important because the theories of change for the most effective animal charities do rely on people changing the products they eat eventually).

I'm particularly interested in demand offsetting for factory farming. I think this form of offsetting makes about as much sense as directly purchasing higher-welfare animal products.

Interesting — if you’d ever be interested in expanding on your post, I’d be curious to hear your response to the objections I bring up, or that are mentioned in the comments here.

The idea is: if I eat an egg and buy a certificate, I don't increase demand for factory farmed eggs, and if I buy 2 certificates per egg I actually decrease demand. So I'm not offsetting and causing harm to hens, I'm directly decreasing the amount of harm to hens. I think this is OK according to most moral perspectives, though people might find it uncompelling. (Not sure which particular objections you have in mind.)

Right! I appreciated reading your post about this.

I think the objection that I find is most relevant is that moral offsetting only seems intuitive to a subset of consequentalist-leaning people (who may be overrepresented on this forum), but strikes many as morally abhorrent, at least for harming living creatures. I guess carbon offsetting is more popular, but I don’t think an offset for beating your dog would be widely admired, so I’m not sure what people would make of an offset about the treatment of farmed animals. But I think people thinking caged eggs are wrong but then offsetting them so they can keep eating them might not be seen with any moral credibility by the wider public.

I also think the other objections raised in the forum post are interesting — that it might be psychologically complicated to both eat animals raised under poor conditions and still aim to better their lot, and that the signaling effects of being vegan (or abstaining from particularly bad animal products, in your case) are probably underrated.

I don't think those objections to offsetting really apply to demand offsetting. If I paid someone for a high-welfare egg, I shouldn't think about my action as bringing an unhappy hen into existence and then "offsetting" that by making it better off. And that would be true even if I paid someone for a high-welfare egg, but then swapped my egg with someone else's normal egg. And by the same token if I pay someone to sell a high-welfare egg on the market labeled as a normal egg, and then buy a normal egg from the market, I haven't increased the net demand for normal eggs at all and so am not causally responsible for any additional factory-farmed hens.

I agree on this — what you bring up is more about the immediate logic of demand offsetting, and less about the optics or longer-term implications of demand offsetting. My first objection was that this doesn’t scale well to the broader public as OP mentioned (because to them you are voluntarily purchasing and eating a product from an animal you think was mistreated, while also sparing a totally separate animal, or two). So I don’t think it avoids the bad optics that things like murder offsets would carry.

But it’s not that it doesn’t make a certain sense within the consequentialist framework (which I think it does, though I hesitate on account of the other objections I mentioned — how this would impact someone’s psychology long-term and the lack of some signaling effects in abstaining from low-welfare products).

It's not one or the other- in fact I think an offsetting campaign would be complementary to political action because it would further awareness of the hell of factory farming. Indeed, some of the effective charities in the farmed animal welfare portfolio might be very promising legislative advocacy campaigns.

I think offsetting could appeal to more people than you think. People don't like being complicit in torture and offsetting offers them the chance not to be. Of course, there's no way of knowing until we actually make it easier for people to do.

I just wish these "other moral perspectives" would stop impeding the betterment of welfare of conscious beings...

The animal welfare movement (if my understanding is correct) has barely been able to move the needle on veganism over the decades it has been revealing its horrors. If we can identify effective charities that can help us toward systemic change in the farmed animal welfare space, maybe we should gain mass buy -in for creating a world with a default of consumption without torture. We need to make available an ask that could be just as, or more effective, but easier for a lot of people: fund effective farmed animal welfare charities and be part of the solution-we can help you do it in 10 minutes.

Hmm, that's interesting — I would be curious to see how many people offsetting appeals to in the broader public. This actually comes up in a SSC post, where he draws out the weird optics pretty well.

And I agree it's not one or the other — in fact, I think the Askell piece brings that up as a point against offsetting. If we're pursuing both, it might not be as useful to think of it as offsetting some inaction or moral wrong, but rather giving money plain and simple (in addition to other personal changes you're making).

The animal welfare movement (if my understanding is correct) has barely been able to move the needle on veganism over the decades it has been revealing its horrors.

I might push back on this — in fact, I think the reason that it remains a major EA cause area is because there's clear evidence of tractability. I suppose the significance of change could be debated, but 30 years ago, people barely knew what vegans were, and today there's been a massive rise in awareness + acceptance + self-identification with the movement (though changes in consumption habits are a more complicated question) and just in the last 10 there's been a ton of momentum improving things for animals and making veganism an easier ask (banning of battery cages in the EU, corporate cage-free campaigns pushing US cage-free from 5% to 35% in less than a decade, cultivated meat coming into existence and having the potential to scale, etc.)

We need to make available an ask that could be just as, or more effective, but easier for a lot of people: fund effective farmed animal welfare charities and be part of the solution-we can help you do it in 10 minutes.

FWIW, this ask is already out there (EA Funds and Animal Charity Evaluators both have pools you can contribute to in 2 minutes, where experts will then direct the money in a more thorough way). They don't suggest a single dollar amount as an "offset," probably for some of the reasons mentioned above, but everything else is there for people who do want to contribute financially rather than with their own dietary choices.

Yeah. I would too... But I think people feel more compelled to not do bad things than to positively do good things.

Maybe I'm wrong about veganism: my impression was that the rate of veganism has stayed relatively constant and farmed animal welfare charities have orders of magnitude less funding than global health and development. I think there's definitely been progress in farmed animal welfare, but not necessarily in getting broader public buy in.

It all comes down to whether or not the public would be motivated by the offset framing. I know the framing was compelling to me when I was donating to Givewell charities (now I donate all my money to my own nonprofit). I figured I should at least donate enough to compensate for my own contribution to animal torture, and maybe some multiple of that... I figured there would be an easy way to do this online, but there wasn't really an easy button.

Anyway, I think the search costs are well worth the possibility that offset-framing might be worth exploring... But they won't be borne by me. I'm off trying to save the world by enabling consumers discrimination in favor of effective charities (buy the same shit for the same cost, but Against Malaria Foundation gets the profit rather than traditional shareholders).

Yeah the question about progress in the vegan movement is complicated and as you point out, there is a big difference between animal welfare improvements and the public actually going vegan.

For the raw stats of whether or not people identified as veg*n are consuming less meat, the best review I’ve read isn’t super optimistic, but I do think that awarness of veganism is increasing, the plant-based food industry is scaling super quickly, and better alternatives will hopefully make dietary shift more accessible to people. So especially when you compare where we are today to something like where we are 30+ years ago, I do think the progress is there, which is especially promising given that funding is lower as you mentioned.

But if a fundraising strategy like this could prove effective, I would be on board pretty easily. My only end goal is the world getting better, whether it’s because of choices individuals make or the choices the charities they help fund make. I’m still a bit pessimistic about the prospects, but fingers crossed that there is something here if someone does look into it.

Thanks for the post. It's a good review I plan to consult whenever I need a reference on farmed animals welfare. However, I believe that, at least for now, focusing on chicken prices / demand will likely be more effective than throwing disturbing truths on people. If you have any particular suggestions regarding this, I'd like to know.

I used to think along these lines, but I’ve been coming around recently, in part thanks to James Ozden’s writings on the radical flank effect. My current best guess is that the optimal path forward involves a predominant focus on the most pressing, incremental changes (welfare improvements for chickens and fish) while also having some people occasionally jumping in the public square and loudly reminding everyone that we’re doing something truly awful at a massive scale.

I clicked the link about pig thumping but that wasn't mentioned anywhere on the linked page. You might want to update that one.

Great post, thanks for highlighting the issue here and for the fantastic references.

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