What Would Derek Parfit Do?

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William Saletan argues that we should replace our current methods of producing meat with lab-grown meat:
With all the problems facing humanity\u2014war, terrorism, poverty, tyranny--you probably don't worry much about whether it's right or wrong to eat meat. That's understandable. Every society lives with two kinds of moral problems: the ones it's ready to face, and the ones that will become clear or compelling only in retrospect. Human sacrifice, slavery, the subjugation of women--every tradition seems normal and indispensable until we're ready, morally and economically, to move beyond it.

The case for eating meat is like the case for other traditions: It's natural, it's necessary, and there's nothing wrong with it. But sometimes, we're mistaken. We used to think we were the only creatures that could manipulate grammar, make sophisticated plans, or recognize names out of context. In the past month, we've discovered the same skills in birds and dolphins. In recent years, we've learned that crows fashion leaves and metal into tools. Pigeons deceive each other. Rats run mazes in their dreams. Dolphins teach their young to use sponges as protection. Chimps can pick locks. Parrots can work with numbers. Dogs can learn words from context. We thought animals weren't smart enough to deserve protection. It turns out we weren't smart enough to realize they do.

It's certainly true that our methods of meat production aren't exactly something that most people would want to be on the other end of, but that doesn't necessarily imply that the world would be better if we stopped them--even if you assume that vat-grown meat is equivalently attractive from every other perspective.

The thing to remember here is that most of those animals owe their existence to the fact that they're destined for slaughter. For comparison, there are about 100 million head cattle in the United States. By comparison, bison, which are much less commonly eaten, have a population of about 350,000. Given that most food animals are heavily bred for the semi-industrial production methods we use, it's doubtful that the population of chickens, pigs, cattle, etc. would be anywhere near as high as they are now if we weren't eating them.

This runs us smack into Parfit's repugnant conclusion:

For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better, even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.

Since it doesn't seem likely that if we stop growing animals for food, a lot of people are going to choose to keep cattle and pigs as pets, as a practical matter, we get to choose between two possible futures:

  1. There are a very large number of animals which are treated quite poorly and eventually eaten.
  2. There are a much smaller (near zero?) number of animals which are treated perhaps somewhat better and eventually die of more or less natural causes.

If you're a utilitarian, it's not entirely clear that (2) is preferable to (1).

There are a number of ways to get past this. First, you could just argue that the quality of life of the animals is below Parfit's "Bad Level". I.e., it's of negative utility to them and they would prefer not to live. We can't ask them, of course, but you can ask yourself how you would feel about it if you were in their position. Truth be told, I'm not sure how I would answer that question. Obviously, being bred as a meat animal wouldn't be a lot of fun, but compared to not existing at all.... The second is to deny the utilitarian analysis completely, but it's not clear that the same argument doesn't apply with other modes of analysis. Consider, for instance, the perspective from behind the veil of ignorance.

Of course, all this is rather complicated by the fact that while animals obviously do experience discomfort, they're clearly not people and so we can't ask them and can only imagine what their "preferences" would be. And my intuitive sense is indeed that the world would be better if we stopped raising animals for meat, but it would be nice to have an analytic framework that backed up that intuition.


The thing to remember here is that most of those animals owe their existence to the fact that they're destined for slaughter.

Are you serious? Substitute "people" for "animals" and "slavery" for "slaughter" and you'll end up with a logically equivalent argument that you'll no doubt find morally unbearable.

Obviously, being bred as a meat animal wouldn't be a lot of fun, but compared to not existing at all...

It's logically falacious to assign some level of preference to not existing, since something that doesn't exist can't judge it's quality of life. There's no comparison to be made here, it's simply a question of whether a being bred as a meat animal is a life worth living.

I actually did consider your point about slavery, but I don't think it really is in fact a logically equivalent argument, since alternative isn't that the people in question wouldn't exist but rather that they would be free. That's not really an alternative with domestic meat animals.

I don't really get your second point, since I see preferring not to exist rather than live life X as logically equivalent to having life X not being worth living. Anyway, while I think it's certainly possible that being bred as a meat animal isn't a life worth living, I don't consider it to be a slam dunk.

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