Crosspost of this from my Substack.  

Somewhere, right now, a cat is probably being harmed. Some psychopathic child is stomping on it, or beating it, or burying it alive, or dousing it in gasoline before he sets it on fire. This is, sadly, not uncommon. And almost everyone agrees that it’s bad.

Almost everyone agrees that, though animals don’t have the same rights as people, we should not hurt them for trivial reasons. Even if this child and a few friends are having a good time hurting a cat, this is still immoral. And it’s wrong not just because of what it does to the character of the boys—it’s partly wrong because of what is being done to the cat. Torturing a cat is worse than torturing a robot that one believes to be a cat, even though they’d have the same effects on one’s character because one causes actual torment to an animal and the other does not.

The common sense view around animals seems to be “it’s okay to eat them, but we should try our hardest not to mistreat them.” The philosophical merits of such a position can be debated, but this seems like something that almost everyone agrees with. But if this is true, then common sense condemns our current ghastly mistreatment of animals.

People act like the vegan position that our current meat eating is seriously wrong is a radical position—a position that requires believing extreme views. But it’s not—it’s about as moderate as you can get.

It’s not radical to be opposed to eating eggs from chickens that were stuffed in a cage, covered in the falling, acidic feces of those above them, that burns their flesh and enters their nose, making it impossible to breathe and making their eyes constantly burn. It’s not radical to not want to buy eggs from chickens stuffed in a tiny wire cage that causes them to develop foot conditions, constantly rubbing against sharp metal, too small for them to ever be able to turn around or lie down comfortably. It’s not radical not to want to buy eggs from suppliers when every second of every day, there are at least 6 million hens being systematically starved, because there’s a way to trick the bodies of the hens into thinking it’s egg-laying season by starving them, resulting in more eggs being laid. When this is the way that 5-10% of hens die, it’s not radical not to want to pay to exacerbate their torment. When the egg industry grinds up billions of bouncy baby male chicks, just because they can’t lay eggs, it isn’t radical to say that we shouldn’t be paying them to grind up more. When the conditions are so bad that the hens go crazy and throw themselves against the sides of the cages, every natural behavior thwarted, everything that might bring them joy snuffed out in the dark, filthy, disgusting juggernauts of death, torment, and despair, it’s not radical to not want to fund that.

It’s not radical to think that it’s wrong to buy chickens when they have been artificially engineered to be in constant pain—their entire bodies twisted and warped into maximally efficient machines for generating flesh. When thousands of chickens are stuffed into crates in transport every hour in extreme weather, killing 5-10% of them, it’s not wrong to say that we won’t pay for that until they stop their systematic abuse. Chickens live in windowless sheds, constantly sleep-deprived from artificial lighting. When animals have their beaks, tails, and testicles cut off with a sharp knife, with no anesthetic, when they’re given third-degree burns because it makes it easier to identify them, it isn’t wrong to refuse to pay for that until the people systematically torturing them can get their act together and stop the torture.

And yes, it is torture. This is not hyperbole or exaggeration—it is the inevitable conclusion of a sober assessment of the facts. If a person stuffed tens of thousands of dogs in filthy, feces and ammonia-ridden barns, with artificial lighting leaving them chronically sleep-deprived and miserable, with no ability to ever play or have fun, where disease is routine and mutilation is universal, we’d say they were torturing dogs. The things that we do to literally billions of animals are so sick, disgusting, cruel, and depraved that if one read a local news story about someone doing them to dogs, they’d call the person a psychopath, a sick puppy.

The things that the factory farms do are the types of things that would disgust us if we ever saw them. If someone revealed to you that they were keeping tens of thousands of chickens in a tiny barn, living in constant feces and filth, on broken bones, with disease constantly spreading, you’d regard them as a sick person—someone akin to a serial killer. But because of this, the position that, given current conditions, it’s wrong to eat meat is utterly commonsensical—we shouldn’t pay for an industry that does things that only a psychopath would do voluntarily.

Sometimes, some screwed up kid will burn a cat alive. Whenever this happens, everyone will agree this is horrifying and sickening and disgusting. But the pig industry roasts pigs to death—forces hot steam into an enclosed barn until they either burn or suffocate to death on 150-degree steam. I’d take being burned alive over choking to death on 150-degree steam any day. Oh, and the industry also fails to take simple safety precautions, and as a result, over 6 million extra animals have burned alive in fires over the course of a decade. So while the industry doesn’t intentionally burn animals alive, it fails to take precautions that would easily prevent them from being burned alive, because it barely cares when a few million chickens burn to death.

And the sad thing is that good people contribute to this. People who would never intentionally harm an animal pay for meat from factory farms which are far crueler to animals than the worst abuser of dogs could ever be. Because factory farms operate discreetly and pass laws that make it impossible to report on their practices, most people have no idea what’s going on. When one’s industry is solely devoted to torture and killing, it can only operate under the cover of darkness.

This sure as hell doesn’t require being a utilitarian or sharing any of the radical views I profess on this blog. My friend James Reilly is a deeply devoted Catholic, and yet he recognizes the evil of factory farms. His article Dark Satanic Mills describes how sickeningly immoral factory farms are and argues that even if one is a radical Christian, one should obviously oppose factory farms. Opposing the factory farms from which 99% of our meat comes requires the most basic moral commitment—the commitment that one should not inflict horrifying, senseless torment for the sake of small personal benefit. The idea that one should not abuse animals for small pleasure, in the most grotesque and despicable ways.

If one does not accept that, then I’m afraid they may be unable to reason about morality. If one cannot see that it’s wrong to brutally torture others to produce a pleasant stimulation of the mouth, then they are a moral imbecile.

But most people are not like that. Most people do think it’s wrong to hurt animals, that it would be wrong to skin cats alive, even if that produced a pleasant taste in one’s mouth. But if people believe that utterly commonsensical view, then they must recognize that factory farming must end and it must end now. For each moment it continues, untold numbers of animals are being tortured, mutilated, and maimed, all for the sake of the tiniest pleasures. Until the factory farms can get their fucking acts together, we should not pay them to expand their despicable operations.

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99% of meat comes from factory farms? A good percent of cows (and sheep, that in Europe, AU and NZ still have some relevance) are pasture fed, as anybody driving a car can easily check by herself. 

https://extension.psu.edu/grass-fed-beef-production

"Rather than debate advantages and disadvantages of the grain versus grass-fed systems, the take-home here is that all beef cattle, whether farmers choose to raise them as grass-fed or grain-fed animals, spend at least two-thirds of their lifetime in a pasture setting. Therefore, all beef may be considered "grass-fed" for the majority of its life. Thus, beef production in the United States has been, and continues to be, a forage-based industry. The differentiation in what makes cattle grass-fed then, generally occurs towards the end of life and will be discussed in more detail."

I researched this fairly extensively a few years ago, and it is a true (but maybe misleading, depending on context) claim. 

The usual source for this claim is the Sentience Institute, although if you go to a huge amount of effort to check government records by hand you get basically the same number so I'm not worried that the source is somewhat biased. They get the 99% number by using USDA data on the size of farms, and then defining any farm over a certain size as a 'factory' farm. This makes sense to me, and is how I'd approach the definitional problem unless I was shown extremely compelling evidence of a farm processing eg 5000 pigs a year using traditional 'mom and pop' techniques.

The reason the claim might be misleading is that it is using 'meat' as a shorthand for 'meat animals' rather than eg 'carcass weight'. Because the vast majority of farmed animals are chickens, and chickens are overwhelmingly factory farmed when farmed, the result of the Sentience Institute methodology is that it appears the overwhelming percentage of farmed animals are factory farmed. In fact, by carcass weight it is 'only' about 90% of meat which is factory farmed.

This could in theory drop a bit lower if you say that the process for factory farming cows is not all that morally relevant for the 2/3 of their life they spend in pastures and hence were very exacting with your definitions (ie maybe for the sake of argument we would say something like "85% of meat-by-weight is farmed in a way that would be extremely distressing for the animal" rather than "99% of meat is factory farmed"), but it is hard to get very much lower than this because pigs and chickens are almost exclusively raised in cramped factory conditions and also make up a great deal of the meat we eat.

Opposing the factory farms from which 99% of our meat comes requires the most basic moral commitment

The reason the claim might be misleading is that it is using 'meat' as a shorthand for 'meat animals' rather than eg 'carcass weight'.

That seems very misleading! I think normal people interpret meat as a mass noun, with a pound of chicken being similar to a pound of beef. To make the example more extreme, suppose in the future 99.99% of all meat-by-weight was synthetic lab-grown, and 0.01% was from chickens. According to the OP's methodology, 100% of meat would come from factory farms, but this seems clearly contrary to how any ordinary person would describe the situation.

To be clear the Sentience Institute itself is beyond reproach, describing their approach as being "We estimate that 99% of US farmed animals are living in factory farms at present", which is totally unambiguous.

I'm quite sympathetic to the idea of moral arguments treating the basic unit of 'meat' as being the animal - that seems to be the morally relevant unit

Agreed, the issue is with the OP, not SI.

by using USDA data on the size of farms, and then defining any farm over a certain size as a 'factory' farm

Does the size tell you what sorts of methods are being used? I'm confused as to how it could.

Yes; the Environmental Protection Agency uses various criteria to distinguish between 'Animal Feeding Operations' (AFOs) and 'Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations' (CAFOs, aka Factory Farms). Within this, there is further subdivision between small, medium and large CAFOs. The definition of a 'large CAFO' relies exclusively on the number of animals in that AFO so you can confidently identify a 'large CAFO' using the Sentience Institute methodology. This will undercount the true number of factory farms, since it will miss eg some 'Medium CAFOs' which need to be a certain size AND meet some other criteria about how they handle sewage, but since most factory farmed animals are farmed in Large CAFOs it doesn't make much difference.

That sure is some information. Doesn't address my question.

I'm a bit confused. It answers your question unless you believe there are farms with more than half a million chickens / 5000 pigs under farm at a time which are not 'Factory' farms. Do you believe such farms exist? Do you have any evidence they exist? If not, in what way has your question not been answered?

Do you believe such farms exist? Do you have any evidence they exist?

I do know of one non-atrocity pig farm franchise that runs at least 5000 pigs worth of farms (IIRC they're the main pork brand at most supermarkets in NZ) freedom farms. I'm having difficulty finding specifics about where the farms are and whether any individual freedom farm is huge. But they'd be good people to ask about this. Shall I?

Slow-growing chicken operations exist, why wouldn't they aggregate into huge farms for economies of scale for the same reasons any industry does that?

That's really interesting, and honestly pretty surprising - I'd really have to quite radically change my view if it turns out Freedom Farms have found a way to raise >5000 animals on one farm in conditions which are broadly acceptable. If I understand you correctly you're saying that each individual farm could plausibly be much smaller than 5000 animals though, which I would still find interesting that there's a way for the system to produce meat in aggregate without atrocity-level cruelty, but less challenging to my existing worldview because I think it is the 'factory' element of factory farms which is what drives them to be especially cruel.

I'd be very interested in anything you can find on the distribution of farm sizes - or if you can wait a week or two for me to get some work deadlines out the way I'd also be happy to investigate myself and get back to you.

I can certainly wait, as I still don't eat pork for nutritional reasons (fat composition). I guess it should be you who makes contact, I'd be a lot less rigorous. If you need locals, I could connect you with people in the community. I don't know anyone who's been involved in pig welfare, but I know some people who've done chicken stuff (meat chicken welfare in NZ is still bad, but egg chicken welfare is mostly fine.)

At this point I'm expecting we're going to find that yes, humane farms would benefit from aggregating, but still, very large contiguous parcels of land are just rare or hard to acquire, so a large number of stock on a single farm is going to be strongly correlated with overcrowding, as you expect.

the 'factory' element of factory farms

You still haven't explained what you mean by this. A factory is just a process that produces something. A factory can have humans monitoring every stage of the process and making sure nothing is going wrong. A factory can be subject to certification requirements.

Yes, this is true. There is a huge difference between dairy and eggs (very low neg-utility by euro of final product), rumiants (medium neg utility), and chicken and pigs (hell on earth)

This difference matters A LOT to any policy proposal.

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/txQJcvTGdsWyXuZLr/effective-altruism-and-the-trust-business

Even assuming cows and egg-laying hens live equally bad lives (egg-laying hens have it far worse), from one hen you can get about 40,000 calories worth of eggs - from one cow it's 500,000 calories of beef (rough calculations). I'd definitely say buying eggs is far worse than buying beef.

Of course, if “moral weigth” of a chicken is equal to that of a cow, then, it is always better to sacrifice cows. My view is that moral weight grows more than linearly with relative encephalic mass

I'm not sure about what you mean by "relative encephalic mass", but you can see a model of the relative harm of various animal products here. It suggests that (ignoring the effects on climate change), you would need to weigh the suffering of 1 cow >50 times more than the equivalent suffering of a hen to consider eggs less harmful per-kcal

You can find more estimates here. The vast majority of estimates consider eggs more harmful than beef, but indeed, they don't weigh by neuron count (it might be worth noting that, afaik, estimates like QALYs used for humans also don't weigh by neuron count or brain mass)

Dear Lorenzo,

Thank you very much. It is clear that there is consensus on the large neg-utility of eggs. I correct this in my post.

Yep and don't forget about the developing world like here in Uganda where almost no beef or goat is factory farmed and not much chicken (although all layers are in cages)

For more on this line of argument, I recommend one of my favorite articles on ethical vegetarianism: Alastair Norcross's "Puppies, Pigs, and People".

Important post, makes a very clear point.

The consequences of that are far reaching - when looking at the idea of progress, civilization, growth, etc... We must remind ourselves that the majority of those impacted are animals, not humans.

I'm personally much less motivated to work on X-risks while this is going on.

Important post, makes a very clear point.

The consequences of that are far reaching - when looking at the idea of progress, civilization, growth, etc... We must remind ourselves that the majority of those impacted are animals, not humans.

I'm personally much less motivated to work on X-risks while this is going on.

Great post. I used it as another opportunity to shout-text my non-vegan family. It didn't work.

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