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Meat eating and animal research

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Meat eating and animal research

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(Response to a blog post on Mano Singham's blog)

I would rather live in a world where people lived to be a hundred on average, rather than one with the same population, but faster turnover so people died around 50. The reason is that people have qualitatively different experiences at different ages. We go from an extended childhood to extended adolescence to career development to being a parent to retirement and so on. We also pick up skills over time, like the piano, or a PhD in something. These are both things that aren’t true of cows or fish.

Take cows. The average American will eat two cows in their lifetime. Say they do the right thing and buy meat from cows living in spacious pleasant environments, presumably experiencing cow happiness. Say it costs twice as much, so they eat half as much, and it’s only one cow. Imagine that the cow is killed quickly and painlessly in a way that it can’t anticipate. Dying makes up a vanishingly small percentage of that cow’s life, and there’s the same number of cows every year on those fields experiencing cow happiness. If we stopped eating cows altogether, they can’t exactly live in the wild, being domesticated, so there will be dramatically fewer cows in the world. I don’t really think that not eating beef is necessarily better for cows in general. I think we should define what we’re trying to achieve on their behalf if it’s not maximizing cow-years of cow happiness.

If I had to guess, and presume optimistically that the world will be less religious in the future, I think people as a whole will care a lot more about suffering and a lot less about death. So cows will live on luscious green pastures, but we still won’t find it appalling to eat beef occasionally. (Though fish are better for us and less intelligent.) As for humans, hopefully we will find it appalling that people didn’t always have health insurance. And similarly, I think we’ll be more reasonable about death. For example, if someone wanted to die six months earlier to save their family (or society if it’s socialized) large sums of money that they’d rather see spent somewhere else, that’d be fine. Also, do we really see society becoming more and more pro-life? An early fetus is very similar to a tadpole, complete with the tail, and my pro-choice stance is based on the same arguments as how I feel about simple animals.

A word on the intelligence argument, that we treat severely retarded humans better than animals: I personally think that it’s a matter of having a convenient place to draw a line, and I do think that a chimp should have more rights at some point, but it’s really a matter of how disabled, since a severely retarded or senile human or can still think circles around a cat. Animal level intelligence is truly severe brain damage. You can probably get a better idea about what people think about this not by asking about another person, but about themselves. A lot of people, if they were to end up in a vegetative state, would be horrified and want to be humanely euthanized rather than be a burden. But out of respect for personal beliefs (particularly religious ones) as a society we feel it’s better to consume the resources and let people live on in however limited a capacity. Though I think hospitals can draw a line at some point once most of the brain is dead.
I agree that people get offended too often in general, but there is a point where the holocaust/slavery arguments become threatening, as soon as you look at any quantitative application of that mindset. Should we really dedicate equal resources towards preventing and opposing such things? Should we hold Nurenburg trials for butchers? The only animal rights activists I think really believe in their heart that these things are equivalent end up like the ones who set fire to a professor’s house in Santa Cruz last weekend, while he, his wife and two kids were asleep.

I feel pretty strongly about this since one of my biggest worries is that healthy people will one day manage to shut down medical research, as well as pure neuroscience, which is very important to me. Besides the human suffering and death that would not be prevented, I think it’d be pretty sad to hardly ever learn anything new about the brain. I could live in a country where it was illegal to eat mammals (though at shell fish I’d be protesting since my laptop computer NEURON simulator is probably more sentient, thus my problem with the scallop argument), and we can do an awful lot of research with very little suffering (seriously, neuroscience labs can be nice environments for people who like animals) but I realize that most people see more value in tasty meat than in science and I find that alarming.
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