My top ideas of 2022

In 2022, I published two academic articles, one in economics and one in ethics, that contain perhaps my most important ideas of the year. Both articles deal with the problem of farm animal welfare.

The first article, The Animal Welfare Cost of Meat, published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Policy, showed that most people believe that most farm animals have lives not worth living, or rather lives worth not living. Their lives are dominated by negative experiences, so it is better not to born at all than to be born as a random farm animal. Furthermore, especially for chickens, their negative welfare levels cannot be compensated by the increased pleasure of human meat eaters who enjoy eating chicken meat. But also pigs and cows have a net-negative welfare.

Chicken meat is far worse than pork and beef, measured according to the moral footprint or deathprint. As a result of this research, for consumers I recommend prioritizing a reduction of chicken meat consumption, avoiding insect meat products, and not replacing red meat (beef and pork) by chicken meat. Replace beef and other animal-based meats by plant-based meats instead. For policymakers, I recommend introducing a meat tax that includes both the external costs of climate change and animal suffering, and making sure that the tax rate for chicken meat is at least as high as the tax rate for beef. Also stop subsidizing research on insect meat, and increase subsidies for research and development of animal-free meat such as plant-based and cell-cultured meat.

The second article, Population Ethics and Animal Farming, published in Environmental Ethics, shows that even if farm animals have lives worth living, with a net-positive welfare, animal farming and meat consumption remain problematic according to many reasonable population ethical theories. We should not eat ‘happy meat’ (i.e. meat from happy animals who had lives worth living). This may seem counter-intuitive at first: if a human causes the birth of a happy farm animal, and the welfare of the human also increases by eating that animal, we seem to have a win-win situation where both the farm animal and the human meat eater benefit. If the human was not allowed to eat the animal, the happy animal would not be born and no-one would be better-off.

If you have a moral view that permits you to eat happy farm animals, most likely your moral theory entails a repugnant conclusion, for example that you should sacrifice everything in order to cause the existence of a huge number of animals that all have lives barely worth living, even if that means maximum suffering for you. You can change your moral theory to avoid this counter-intuitive repugnant conclusion, but then your new moral theory will run in other counter-intuitive implications (such as a sadistic conclusion), or it will reject eating happy meat.

My personally favorite moral theory that I further developed in 2022, explains the problems with eating (happy) meat. I call this theory ‘mild welfarism’, as it is a theory that focuses on improving welfare, but it is a milder, less-demanding theory than the better-known total welfarism that maximizes the sum of everyone’s welfare (see the infographic and article). As total welfarism is so demanding, requiring a lot of sacrifices, it can also be called totalitarian welfarism.

Let’s apply mild welfarism to the problem of eating meat. Consider first the case when a farm animal has a life not worth living, with more suffering than happiness. That animal has a valid reason to complain against being born and used as a farm animal. In the theory of mild welfarism, that animal can discount the welfare gain of the human meat eater. The joy of eating that animal no longer counts. As the joy of the human doesn’t count and the suffering of the farm animal does count, animal farming is bad overall. Now the human could complain that his joy of eating animal meat should count, but that complaint is invalid, because the human would not have been better off if the animal did not exist. If the animal did not exist, the human could no longer kill and eat the animal and hence could no longer enjoy eating that animal. The existence of the animal is necessary for the joy of the human. The crucial idea is that the human cannot validly complain against his welfare gain being discounted because the existence of the animal is necessary for that welfare gain. This idea implies that every individual (for example a farm animal) has a right not to be used as a means (for example as meat) against its will for the benefit of someone else (for example the human meat eater).

Now consider the case when a farm animal has a life worth living. Then another consideration applies. Instead of killing and eating the animal, the human has another option, call it ‘sanctuary’, where the animal is not killed but is raised on an animal sanctuary and taken care of by the human. The human can no longer enjoy eating the animal, but instead has to sacrifice some time to take care of the animal, give the animal enough food, freedom and health care. In this case, the human would have a lower welfare than in the situation where the animal was not born at all. So the human faces three options: ‘no-breeding’ (not causing the birth of the animal), ‘farming’ (breeding the animal and then killing and eating it) and ‘sanctuary’ (breeding the animal but then taking maximally care of the animal, making the animal maximally happy). The human does not prefer the third option ‘sanctuary’, even if this option has the highest total welfare. To avoid choosing this option, the human could discount the welfare that the animal gets in that option. So the happiness of the sanctuary animal does not count, the unpleasant sacrifice of the human for the animal does count, which means option ‘sanctuary’ should not be chosen. This could result in choosing the option ‘farming’. However, in this option, the farm animal has a lower welfare than in option ‘sanctuary’. That means the animal has valid reason to complain against its welfare being discounted in option ‘sanctuary’.

The human can now decide to no longer discount the welfare of the animal in option ‘sanctuary’, which results in choosing that option. But then it would also be good to breed even more animals and sacrifice more time and resources to take care of all those animals on a sanctuary. We end up with the abovementioned repugnant conclusion. Or the human can decide to discount the welfare of the animal in both options ‘sanctuary’ and ‘farming’. The human can subtract a discount from the welfare of the animal in both options where the animal exists. If the discount is large enough, the welfare of the human plus the welfare of the animal minus the discount of the animal in options ‘farming’ and ‘sanctuary’ is lower than the welfare of the human in option ‘no-breeding’. That means option ‘no-breeding’ should be chosen. In that option, the animal does not exist. That also means that the (non-existing) animal cannot validly complain against its welfare being discounted in options ‘farming’ and ‘sanctuary’.

If the option is chosen where the animal does not exist, we can say that the existence of the animal is not necessary. In summary, if the farm animal has a net-negative welfare, the animal should not be born, option ‘farming’ should not be chosen, because the existence of the animal is in a sense necessary for the human welfare gain. If the farm animal has a net-positive welfare, the animal should not be born, option ‘farming’ should not be chosen, because the existence of the animal is in a sense not necessary.

This moral theory of mild welfarism, which is a part of what I call dual moral theory, is a revision of older ideas discussed on my website (for example this, this, this and this). It is important to improve and refine your moral theory. That means it is also likely that I will modify the theory in the future. So don’t take this theory as something written in stone.

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2 reacties op My top ideas of 2022

  1. M zegt:

    Late comment but hopefully you read it. I’d like to read the population ethics paper but currently don’t have digital access to that journal and the paper is not on SciHub. Could you post an unpaywalled copy of the PDF or, if that’s not possible, a preprint version? Thanks.

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