To begin with, I am a total-sum utilitarian; that is to say, I do not think the repugnant conclusion is repugnant. Creating people who would prefer to live is doing them a favor. Creating someone on condition he later die for you is ethical as long as he would agree that, yup, existing had totally been worth it, and as long as his life didn't cause enough suffering (in side effects) to counterbalance it. So for this reason, I default to non-vegetarianism.
I think this is built on a false premise. Correct me if I misread your argument with this example. We have 1,000,000 chickens on a factory farm. You are assuming their lives are net util even if their lives may be miserable. (which I think is the repugnant conclusion? I've never really liked the framing of it either) Let's break this down. Of those 1,000,000 chickens, 500,000 are male chicks. They are killed after birth because they are deemed worthless. I don't believe these were net util lives. I believe they were negative lives. Therefore, the repugnant conclusion doesn't come into play here with these lives. The other 500,000 are females. Many of them live a life full of torture from birth, due to genetic modifications that have crippled some of them and made life painful for others. (These genetic modifications include inducing egg production and increasing the amount of meat on their bodies.) They are slaughtered about 7 weeks into their existence. Some of these lives I believe are net negative. I will assume that some of these chickens lead net util lives. Even then, the marginal net util of the sample of females I believe is outweighed by the treatment of their male counterparts.
Additionally, there are other negative externalities which you are not acknowledging, they include the following:- Environmental Impact- Psychological trauma of the slaughterhouse workers- The land that is repurposed for factory farming. Mass plant agriculture requires less land and therefore, we can assume some of the land will be repurposed. This is an assumption but I believe nearly any purpose for the land, whether that be rewilding the terrain or building infrastructure for humans would be a better purpose for the land.
There is still the 'factory farming is uniquely terrible' argument! I have a great deal of sympathy for this argument! However, I think the case is weaker than it seems.
First, I am not in fact convinced that animals have qualia? Like, that is kind of a weak argument, just multiply the probability that animals have qualia by the total sum of the utility conditional that they do and go on from there? But - we really don't understand where consciousness comes from or how it works and I don't really know that there's anything actually inside a chicken's skull capable of suffering. So I do want this point made before I go on with the second, more important one:
Qualia is a complicated subject regarding animals since they can't explicitly tell us about their experiences. However, this is a limited view and can cast doubt on the qualia experience of humans as well. Even though animals may not be able to communicate their experience in English, we have other analyses that lead us to value animal welfare. There are couple different arguments here that animal welfare advocates will make:
1. We don't care about qualia. We care about suffering. Based off the research of many animals, we believe many of them feel pain. To simplify, these experiments are typically done by shocking an animal (negative stimuli) and then analyzing the animal's behavior against said stimuli in the future. Animals such as dogs/cats/pigs/even crustaceans will try to avoid the negative stimuli in the future. This is one way of trying to understand whether animals suffer.
2. Based off what we know about the human brain, we have no reason to cast doubt over the qualia experience of many animals. The current conception of consciousness (correct me if I'm wrong any neuroscientists in the crowd) is that consciousness is the interaction of the thalamus and the cortex. This thalamus cortex connection is believed to be what constitutes consciousness or rather our level of consciousness. Obviously, consciousness is weird and we can say all things are conscious (Koch) but I think we can both agree you are not operating on the same level of a chair for example. (which someone like Koch who believes all things are conscious also subscribes to) If we accept this view of consciousness, then all animals with a brain or more precisely, the thalamus cortex connection deserve the benefit of the doubt of consciousness as we would give a human who may be non-verbal. It's important to note this view excludes two groups (one of which being some animals): Plants and certain animals like oysters which have nerve ganglia clusters but no brain. It is an ongoing debate in the vegan community about animals like oysters and the different levels of consciousness we ascribe to different beings. Some believe we should give oysters the benefit of the doubt while others believe that this is too slippery of a view and at that point, why not give plants the benefit of the doubt too?
I believe in the hedonic treadmill; that is, that people vastly overestimate and underestimate how much their happiness will change based on predictable factors (see https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/03/23/the-price-of-glee-in-china/ for a recent extreme case). I know enough history to know that the past was really extremely horrifyingly terrible - and, yet, mass suicides are not a common feature of life at any period in history, even those periods where nobody believed in a morally-relevant afterlife. Mass suicides did still happen occasionally, but (a) only under really extreme circumstances and (b) by people who did not know about the hedonic treadmill. So while I have no doubt that factory farming is worse for animals than conventional farming (other than the doubt of whether or not the animals are morally relevant), the question of "is it literally worse than death" is a much harder one.
(see above argument on male chicks, I believe humans, too, taken away from their parents upon birth, live for a couple days in torturous conditions, and then are slaughtered, lived net negative lives. Increasing the number of these lives is just increasing the amount of suffering of the world.) I don't understand this argument about mass suicides. Some people live net negative lives and won't off themselves because they think suicide is a net neutral decision. (infinite bad and infinite good possibility after death) I don't see how them persisting is justification of net util.
You could still argue that, even if these arguments were persuasive, I should avoid eating meat anyway, just on the off chance it's a moral catastrophe. My response to that really just is that I am uncomfortable around Pascal's Mugging arguments and while I feel that I should probably investigate them I don't feel that I am compelled to obey every request that goes "Change your behavior or be at fault for a moral catastrophe!" I feel that being shaped like that is bad, because then anyone can just extort you effortlessly. Low-probability arguments that might be important are going on a queue based on probability, where I investigate one at a time as I have time. Right now I'm trying to figure out which religion is true, if any. Next on the queue is a Serious Long-Term Investigation Of Animal Welfare, but I expect it will take a while to get there.
I do not find these arguments persuasive and therefore I do not wish to engage in a discussion on Pascal's Mugging.
It's a tough balance. Different things will work with different people in terms of animal welfare arguments. I also think that art can manifest in many ways. There is a place for delicate and tender art, and other art should be more pointed and direct.
Do I think the majority of people who read this story will be offended to the point where they will become more anti-vegan as a result? Not really. Do I think some people will read it and reflect? I think so. Even people who were initially offended? Possibly. I think you're right in that it is an idealistic belief to think that the initially offended will sit back and reflect on why they feel that way; however, for those people who don't reflect, I am confident there are other avenues of animal welfare advocacy that will be effective and I don't believe this story will undermine that work in a meaningful way.
Can it inspire some interesting conversations between vegans and non-vegans? I hope so. Do I think it will turn someone vegan? Most likely not but it doesn't really have to. I think in a lot of ways, the animal welfare art community is about planting lots of seeds to get people to think more critically and deeply about these issues and the animals that were slaughtered for their lifestyles. Then in combination with the work of GFI and others making plant based alternatives cheaper/tastier/convenient, and the education community (earthling ed for example) we will continue to see a shift toward veganism.
Also, the goal for a piece like this isn't just to convince people to go vegan. It's also to make vegans reflect about their own engagement on the issue. Do they truly believe what they live? Sometimes, vegans will hide from their true opinions in order to not come across as confrontational or aggressive but if you truly believe animals are being slaughtered and enslaved by the trillions, is there an appropriate way for you to channel that anger and passion somewhere in the discourse and by not doing so, are you complicit in the actions of the people around you?
You said you feel threatened by a piece like this which paints the current treatment of animals as something that will be viewed as horrific in the future and understand you may contribute in a small way to that? What do you make of the current treatment of animals in our society? (I'm very open to hearing your thoughts, even if they may be very different than my own)
I appreciate your perspective on the piece. It's very interesting. I think when it comes to recognizing animal welfare, different things work for different people. So I think your criticism is valid and I can see this piece potentially pushing some people away from the movement who may feel targeted or shamed which is a limitation of it. (especially if they identify with Whittaker in the piece) That said, Emrik and Dicentra did a very nice job articulating some of my goals with it.
Ultimately, I think it just tries to shake up how someone might view animal welfare by seeing it through the lens of a version of the future of our society.
For example, someone may read it, and at first, feel offended by the idea that how we treat animals in the modern day will be viewed as abhorrent in the future, to the point where we start retroactively holding otherwise morally upstanding people in history accountable for their association with the treatment. After the initial reaction, I hope it inspires some thought and discussion.
What about our current system may be viewed as abhorrent? Is it really that bad? Is it fair to compare it to morally irreprehensible actions of the past? Is this piece just hyperbolizing the issue to an extreme unrealistic degree? What other issues of today may we look back on with disgust over how we acted? Why do we currently accept these issues as normal? Is that even a valid exercise in determining the morality of actions? Is this exercise helpful in identifying actions we do today that may be immoral?
Regarding cancel culture, I really don't think this piece has an opinion regarding it. (My personal view probably aligns more with you regarding the toxicity of the current version of it which seems to be more about morally grandstanding than actually trying to understand what happened, why it happened, and doing something meaningfully about it. Oftentimes, it leads to internal battles in communities where already marginalized members get further marginalized for not having the 'right' opinions at all times which I think is not conducive to intellectual inquiry.)
Thank you for your thoughtful critique.
Thanks for checking it out! And whoops... Fixed!
Thank you for the comment, Aaron! If you ever check it out, let me know your thoughts. We had a couple members of the EA community give feedback during development which was super helpful!
Hey Miranda, just responded to your email but wanted to put a message here for all to see: Please email firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll send you a copy. - The latest version only works via steam right now as we added achievements to the game. Thanks again for checking it out!
It takes about 1-2 hours to complete.
Thank you so much! Wishlists help a lot!
Thank you! Let me know what you think :)