Let Them Eat Cows!

I can't re-find the post, but I'm pretty sure that a while ago Bryan Caplan made the following argument:

1. Most animals that will get eaten only live because they will get eaten.

2. The utility of living is positive, and hence bigger than the utility of never having been born, which is zero.

3. Hence, if you care about animals, you should eat as much meat as you can.

I think that's an original and fascinating argument. I also think it's a bit simplistic.

I see two problems with Bryan's argument. As for pt. # 1, most fish are not alive because they're meant to be eaten. What's more, if you kill a fish, you obviously reduce its chances of reproducing to zero, preventing their potential offspring's lives.

As for pt. # 2, the problem, of course, is that if you ask animals about the utility they get out of life, they're not going to answer. So you have to do some wild guessing. My guess is that chickens that are held in cages, the typical base of which is 25 square centimetres, get negative utility out of life, while the average cow and pig is getting positive utility out of life.

If the above reasoning is correct, it follows that you shouldn't eat fish and chickens, but you should eat pigs and cows. If you care about animals, that is.

A related post


Political Scientist said...

Roger Scruton has a go at a similar argument in "Eating our friends", which is a response to some of Peter Singer's thoughts.

However, he follows your line of thought in that merely living (in the sense of existence vs. non-existence)
is hardly evidence of positive utility - some fates can be worse than death. He solves this by arguing that only a "good" existence can justify raising food for consumption.

Re: fish. Although the fish are not
not alive "because they are meant to be eaten", all fish are mortal. So they will all eventually die, and the question is: is dying in the wild better/kinder/less cruel than however they die when they are caught?

LemmusLemmus said...

As for the fish, when they're caught, they suffocate. It's not easy to come up with a more horrible death than that. That's why I practically stopped eating fish a few years ago.

You'd also want to take into account that eating them shortens their lives.

Political Scientist said...

"It's not easy to come up with a more horrible death than that."

Yes, I hadn't though about it like that. Yuck. OTOH, if the fish species
tends to be prey, it's likely that it'll be eaten alive, which is not much of an improvement.

Maybe it could be ethical to eat fish that are eaten by other creatures, and not those at the top of the food chain - although it seems a bit paradoxical.

PS: Glad you liked the "In the future" post - thank you for the link!

John Althouse Cohen said...

Premise 2 is wrong. Animals that are raised for meat in factory farms have such a miserable existence that it would be better for them not to exist.