281 karmaJoined Dec 2022


Thank you! Great to see that you’re considering some of these questions and thanks for linking to your general election manifesto. I agree with the broad theme that, since some/many farms do abide by your standards (even when you’re not looking) and may not have done otherwise, millions of animals have better lives as a result. But for every farm found to be falling short during an undercover investigation, I imagine there are also many more getting away with it, which is what prompted my questions about compliance rates - hopefully we’ll be able to get better estimates as a result of the review into your assessment and monitoring process.

Hi Emma, thanks for your work. It was encouraging to see the plight of chickens being featured so prominently by the RSPCA at the beginning of the year. Some questions:

  • How do you respond to accusations of “humane washing”, and do you think your standards are the best they could be? For instance, your standards allow for pigs to be gassed in slaughterhouses despite the RSPCA having called for a ban on the gassing of pigs in 2018 and expressed concern about chickens being exposed to highly aversive levels of carbon dioxide?
  • There has also been a lot of coverage recently (some of it driven by the concerns of your President, the broadcaster Chris Packham) about the atrocious welfare standards on UK salmon farms, including the high prevalence of sea lice infestation and high mortality rates. Yet, in a submission to a Parliamentary committee, you said that 100% of salmon production in the UK is RSPCA-certified, meaning that as a September 2023 report found, RSPCA-certified farms with mortality rates of up to 74 percent can carry the label.
  • Even though your standards are clearly better for farmed animals, how confident are you that farms are actually adhering to them? A number of investigations over the years have found poor welfare for animals at RSCPA-assured farms. I see that your scheme involves pre-announced inspections unless there has been a complaint, in which case unannounced inspections may occur. Would you be willing to move to unannounced inspections across the board? We now have CCTV cameras in slaughterhouses in the UK (though it has led to some improvement, the degree to which the footage is being monitored is in question) - would you support mandatory CCTV on RSPCA-certified farms too?
  • How many farms have been RSCPA-certified over the years and how many have you removed from the scheme due to poor welfare practices?
  • How do you balance engagement with industry with ensuring that your standards are as stringent as possible? I see that the egg industry has recently complained about your proposed new standards (around natural lighting and verandas) for egg-laying hens.
  •  I see that you have an email campaign encouraging supermarkets to adopt the Better Chicken Commitment. How combative are you willing to be if they don't? 
  • Do you see the Better Chicken Commitment as complementary to your existing scheme? Are there any major differences between your own scheme and the Commitment? As your website notes, only 1.2% of chicken produced in the UK is RSCPA-assured, so if retailers and suppliers follow through on the Commitment do you envisage that this percentage will rise?
  • The RSPCA has tremendous respect and therefore has social and political capital. What would you say to people who think you should use some of that capital to more forcefully argue that people should drastically reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products, particularly chickens, turkeys, eggs, fishes and pigs?
  • What are some of the major pledges on farmed animal welfare that you’d like to see from political parties ahead of this year’s UK general election? 

Thank you for this post. I agree that utilitarians and EAs in general should keep common-sense morality in mind, on consequentialist grounds.

One difficulty with this is that it’s not always clear what common-sense morality prescribes. It’s likely but not at all certain that public opinion would endorse the mission in Saving Private Ryan in the real world, for instance.

You also mention the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an example of wartime consequentialism (which you’re contrasting with common-sense morality), but a majority of Americans endorse the bombings, and a lot of the people who oppose the bombings do so not because they think the ends never justify the means but because they disagree on whether Japan would have surrendered in the counterfactual.

Finally, to draw on another wartime Spielberg film, it’s interesting that common-sense morality considers Oskar Schindler a hero. He worked in a role that many would consider ethically dubious and accumulated enough wealth (“I could have got more out… If I’d made more money”) and influence to save more than 1,000 lives.

All of this is to say that we shouldn’t caricature common-sense morality and overstate its differences with utilitarianism. As Sidgwick recognised more than a century ago, they are more similar than some utilitarians and common-sense proponents think.

I don’t think that this is a problem, unless the concern is that this undermines support for reproductive freedoms. But in the real world, all things are not equal, and we can defend the legalisation of abortion without having to deny that the well-being of potential beings matters.

Not all utilitarians are hedonists or totalists, which is why you’ll get different answers to the question. Personally, I agree with the reasoning you presented and would save the baby (all things being equal).

I notice that on your Distributions page, you have distributions pencilled in for the Democratic Republic of the Congo up to 2025. Are these distributions contingent on additional funding? If not, which countries would you be most likely to expand your distributions to in 2024 and 2025 if your funding gap is closed? Thanks!

Being “agnostic” in all situations is itself a dogmatic position. It’s like claiming to be “agnostic” on every epistemic claim or belief. Sure, you can be, but some beliefs might be much more likely than others. I continue to consider the possibility that pleasure is not the only good; I just find it extremely unlikely. That could change.

I do not think biological and psychological “reasons” are actually reasons, but you’re right that this gets us into a separate meta-ethical discussion. Thank you for the discussion!

It wasn’t clear which aspect of Catholic dogma you were referring to. Catholic claims about ethics seem to crucially depend on a bunch of empirical claims that they make. Even so, I view such claims as just a subset of claims about ethics that depend on our intuitions.

As above, these conflicting intuitions can only be resolved through a process of reflection. I am glad that you support such a process. You seem disappointed that the result of this process has, for me, led to utilitarianism. This is not a “premature closing of this process” any more than your pluralist stance is a premature closing of this process. What we are both doing is going back and forth saying “please reflect harder”. I have sprinkled some reading recommendations throughout to facilitate this.

The post does not mention whether we have reasons to hold certain things dear. It actually rejects such a framing altogether, claiming that the idea that we “should” (in a reason-implying sense) hold certain things dear doesn’t make sense. This is tantamount to nihilism, in my view. The first two points, meanwhile, are psychological rather than normative claims. As Sidgwick stated, the point of philosophy is not to tell people what they do think, but what they ought to think.

I am always very happy to examine the plural goods that some say they value, but which I do not, and see whether convergence is possible.

Catholics make empirical claims about the natural world. Logical and moral truths do not fit into that category, so I disagree with the comparison.

The parent post makes no case whatsoever for caring about the things we value! All it does is assert that we ought to value everything that we already care emotionally about. Why should we act on everything we care emotionally about? How do we know that everything we care about is worth acting on? More humility may be required in all quarters!

Don’t worry, I still aim to maximise the well-being of all sentient beings because I think the very nature of pleasure gives me strong reason to want to increase it and that there are no other facts about the universe which give me similar reasons for action. The table in front of me certainly doesn’t. “Virtues” and “rights” are man-made fictions, not facts. Conscious experiences in general seem like a better bet, but the ‘redness’ of an object also doesn’t give me reason to act. It is only valenced experiences which do. Hypothetically, though, were I to reject utilitarianism, I would by default become a nihilist precisely because I am humble about our ability to know things! I might still care about the suffering of sentient beings, but my caring about something is not a reason to act on it. Parfit is very good on this.

I don’t consider the intuitions of adherents to competing moral theories to be strong evidence against the detailed, painstaking process of reflection that I and other utilitarians have been through. I also think that utilitarianism best accommodates and explains our common-sense moral intuitions, as Sidgwick argued in detail. Therefore, there is not as much disagreement between the broad mass of people and utilitarians as there might seem to be at first glance. Those who have invented ‘rights’ and ‘virtues’ out of thin air have much more serious disagreements with common-sense morality, which is a problem for them.

If most people thought that an object can simultaneously be red and green all over, their intuitions here wouldn’t be strong evidence against the fact that this is self-evidently absurd. For many centuries, Europeans rejected the idea that you could work with negative numbers. In cultures where negative numbers were being used, I don’t think this disagreement would have been good evidence against the self-evidence of negative numbers being useful in mathematics.

I fully accept that others can say similar things to me. That is fine. To use the example from your other post, you can say that it’s self-evident that Alice should take the morphine; I will say that it would be self-evidently wrong of Alice to deprive Bob of such a special experience. All utilitarians can do is trust that, in time, reason will prevail. Pinker and Singer have both written about this. This is why we have been ahead of our time, while Kant’s views, for example, on various object-level issues are recognised as having been horribly wrong.

It is certainly conceivable that I am “under the pernicious influence of utilitarianism”, in which case I would by default become a nihilist and abandon any attempt to reduce the suffering of sentient beings.

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