Sunday, October 4, 2015

Tobias is Blogging Up a Storm!

This piece emphasizes the point that the easier we make it for people to try compassionate foods, the more people will join us.

This piece - Confessions of an Abolitionist - is really fascinating.

What I take from it is that it is very important to try to understand where the other person is coming from. We shouldn't just "try to win an argument," but rather, try to put ourselves in the other person's shoes and see what their motivations are, etc.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Does Altering Your Diet Really Help Animals?

Modified from “Expected Utility, Contributory Causation, and Vegetarianism” (PDF)

Some people argue vegetarianism isn’t morally necessary because a single meat purchase will not actually cause more farm animals to be raised or slaughtered. Thus, regardless of whether or not the production of meat is inhumane to animals, someone who buys meat is doing nothing wrong. This argument fails to show that meat purchases are morally permissible, however, because our choice to buy meat affects the expected number of animals bred, raised, and slaughtered.

Given the size of modern animal agriculture, it seems plausible to assume that a single meat purchase is too insignificant, relative to the vast number of other meat purchases, to be noticed by the manager of a factory farm. If the manager cannot perceive any increase in demand caused by a single meat purchase, no additional animals will be raised or slaughtered, and thus no harm will have been done to animals by the purchase. In other words, it is claimed that most meat purchases are “causally inefficacious.”

This may be true but it is irrelevant to how we ought to make moral decisions under uncertainty. When we make a decision about how to act, we can never know for certain all of the actual consequences that will result from al our possible actions. We may, after making a decision to act in a particular way, come to know the actual consequences that resulted from the one action we decided upon. However, this knowledge is not helpful in making the original decision, since it is not only reached after the fact, but also limited to only one of the many possible actions we may have had to choose from. Consequently, it is more reasonable that we should make decisions, not on the basis of actual consequences (which we can’t know for certain), but on the basis of expected consequences – the product of those consequences resulting from an action and the probability of those consequences resulting – that one might reasonably predict given the available evidence. Since the expected consequences, not actual consequences, can be known when making decisions, only expected consequences can help ethical individuals decide what course of action to take.

Acting on expected consequences can be understood in problems of “contributory causation,” where many people seem responsible for causing something to happen. Jonathan Glover provides an example of contributory causation called The100 Bandits, where 100 bandits descend on a village that has 100 villagers, and each villager has one bowl containing 100 baked beans. Each bandit takes one bean from each bowl, so that each bandit ends up with a bowl of 100 beans. Now, no villager can perceive the difference made by one bean being stolen from his bowl (either at the moment or later, due to malnutrition). Thus none of the bandits would seem to have individually harmed any of the villagers and so none of the villagers should have been harmed. Yet 100 villagers are without lunch and hungry. So something is wrong.

Glover suggests we approach contributory problems like The 100 Bandits by employing a “divisibility principle” – in other words, a single agent is causally responsible for the consequences of a contributory result divided by the number of contributing agents. In this case, the hunger of 100 lunch-less villagers is divided over 100 bandits. Glover would thus say that each bandit is responsible for the hunger of one lunch-less villager. If we accept Glover’s divisibility principle, each bandit ought not to steal 100 beans because he would then be causally responsible for the disutility of one lunch-less villager.

There may be a more compelling solution to contributory problems such as this one, however, that does not attempt to reconcile actual causal responsibility with our intuitions about moral responsibility. For in the case of the Bandits, it is not true that none of the bandits is actually causally responsible for harming the villagers. At the very least a handful of the bandits are causally responsible for the villagers’ hunger – those bandits who complete threshold units. While it is true that no villager can perceive the difference made by one bean stolen from their bowl, each can clearly perceive the difference made by 100 beans stolen from their bowl. Thus there must be some number of beans between one and 100 that is the smallest number of beans a villager can perceive. Call this number the threshold unit. Say, for instance, the threshold unit is 20. Any number of beans stolen below 20 cannot be perceived. Any number of beans stolen between 20 and is perceived only as 20 beans being stolen; between 40 and 59, only as 40 beans being stolen; and so on, up to 100 beans. Thus bandits who cause a 20th bean to be stolen are responsible for the disutility of 20 beans being stolen. For instance, bandits who cause the 100th bean to be stolen from a bowl are responsible for the consequence of 20 beans being stolen, since had they not caused the 100th bean to be stolen, only 80 beans would have been perceived as stolen.

This is the approach to take in describing the causal responsibility, after the fact, of agents in similar problems of contributory causation. However, as suggested above, this retrospective description of actual consequences does not help us to decide on a course of action.

For this, ethical individuals must combine the knowledge of thresholds with expected consequences. Imagine that the bandits are contemplating stealing beans again. This time, each bandit knows villagers can perceive only threshold units of 20, but each bandit does not know whether he will be stealing a 20th bean from each bowl. Under this uncertainty, each bandit ought to calculate the expected consequence of stealing 100 beans as the probability of completing a threshold unit in each bowl (1/20) times the consequence of perceiving that threshold unit (20) times the number of bowls (100), which equals 100 – one hungry villager.

Even if each bandit knows neither the size of the threshold unit nor which bean he is stealing, he can still calculate the expected consequences. In each case he will know that the consequences of reaching a threshold unit times the probability of completing a threshold unit in each bowl is one. (This is so because the size of the threshold unit and the probability of completing it always vary inversely.) Hence the expected consequence of stealing 100 beans will always be 100. The only condition under which the expected consequence will be les than 100 is when the Bandit has information about both the exact size of the threshold unit and the exact position of a particular bean within that unit. In most cases of contributory causation, this kind of information will not be available.

As a decision procedure, expected consequences yield the same prescription as Glover’s divisibility principle: don't steal beans. This makes sense, since the sum of all the bandits’ chances of completing a perceptible unit is one and the product of each of these probabilities is also one. One virtue of calculating expected consequences, then, is that it provides the same prescriptions as Glover’s divisibility principle but without a questionable view of actual causal responsibility.

Recognizing the expected consequences of an action, the “causal inefficacy” defense of buying meat no longer holds. There must be some threshold at which point a unit of meat demanded by some group of customers is perceived by the grocer. At the very most, the size of this threshold unit is the difference between the demand for no meat and the current demand for meat. Likewise, there must be some threshold where a unit of meat demanded by some group of grocers is perceived by the butcher. And so on, all the way to the farmer. The expected consequence of completing a threshold unit that affects the production and slaughter of animals is thus the product of al the probabilities of completing each threshold unit [p(Al)=p(Grocer)* p(Butcher) *…* p(Farmer)] times the consequence of that entire threshold unit of animal production. It is likely that the probability is quite small. However, the consequence of completing the threshold unit is the consequence of the entire unit, not some portion of it. This consequence is quite large and terrible, since it involves raising and slaughtering a significant number of animals.

For example, take the case of The 200 Million Consumers. There are 200 million consumers, each of whom eats 50 farmed animals each year. In this market, there are only ten possible annual outputs of animals for farmers: one billion animals, two billion, and so on, up to ten billion. The difference between each of these annual outputs – one billion – is the smallest unit of demand perceivable to the farmer and is thus the threshold unit. Since there are 20 million customers per threshold unit, and only one of these customers will actually complete the unit of which his other purchase is a part, the probability of my completing a unit is one in 20 million. That means by buying meat for the year, an individual has a one-in-20 million chance of affecting the production and slaughter of one billion animals. The expected consequence is then one-20-millionth times one billion, which equals 50 – that is, raising and slaughtering 50 animals per year. Given the horrors of today's animal agriculture, that is a substantial consequence. These hypothetical numbers are close to the actual numbers for meat production and consumption in the United States.

As with The 100 Bandits, in the case of The 200 Million Consumers, only a small fraction of individuals may actually cause harm, as determined after the fact. While at first glance this seems to weaken the argument against buying meat, on closer inspection it makes no difference. Since we can never have perfect knowledge beforehand, only a decision procedure can tell us whether or not we ought to buy meat. An ethical individual must thus use expected consequences to make a decision about buying meat, and the expected consequences of buying meat are terrible.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Hawk Not Happy!

There was an absolute racket in the Eucalyptus tree behind us. Anne went out to look and a Cooper's Hawk was constantly calling and hopping from branch to branch.

Anne walked around and saw there was a Great Horned Owl in the tree. Cooper's Hawks no likey Great Horned!!

Excitement in the big city!!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Speaking of Our Hen House

The incomparable Jasmin and Mariann wrote this over at the OHH blog:

We wanted to tell you about Anne Green, Our Hen House’s Director of Operations. There is no “ask” behind this post, no bottom line from us, no secret agenda. We just deeply appreciate the work Anne does for us — and has done, consistently, in this movement, for decades now — and we wanted to share that awesomeness with you.

Anne Green has been working on behalf of the animals for almost a quarter century, starting as Director of Outreach for Students for Animal Rights. She has helped found a major organization, and offered counsel and support for countless activists and organizations, always striving to help everyone have the greatest possible impact for animals.

Anne has made extraordinary sacrifices to help animals. From the early years when she used her earnings as a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University to underwrite an organization she helped found, to her current role working round the clock for Our Hen House (for far less than what she earned in academia), Anne has always made her decisions based on what will help the most animals, rather than what would increase her visibility, fame or income.

If you’ve ever communicated with us, then you already know that Anne has a role in just about every aspect of this organization, including finding and promoting new and otherwise obscure activists and thinkers who benefit from the exposure Our Hen House can provide. These individuals also help the movement progress, further changing the world for animals!

We are so lucky that Anne is a part of the OHH family. The progress we make for animals is driven by the diligent day-to-day efforts of people working tirelessly, relentlessly, and with unflagging attention to strategy, behind the scenes. Anne is absolutely the epitome of selfless, dedicated, and effective, and Our Hen House could not possibly be what it is without her — the woman behind the curtain.

Postscript: Our longtime pal, Joe Espinosa (whom I've known almost exactly as long as Anne — 24 years), wrote the following about Anne:

How many people have altered the course of a major social movement, yet almost no one knows them?

Back in the early 90s, the animal advocacy movement in the US focused almost exclusively on fur and vivisection (as noted by The Economist in 1995). FARM did Meatout once a year, and Farm Sanctuary had some rescued animals in upstate New York. But even though ~99% of animals killed each year are slaughtered to be eaten, relatively speaking, almost no time or resources went into advocating for farmed animals or promoting compassionate diets.

In 1993, Anne Green and two others founded an organization dedicated to focusing on the greatest area of suffering with the greatest potential for advancement: working to expose and end factory farming. Although her co-founders went on to fame, few people realize none of their work would have been possible without Dr. Green’s financial underwriting and organizational efforts. As is far too often the case, the woman behind the scenes has been left out of the history books. No one knew that she bought the car used for the first college leafleting tour. No one knew that when one of her co-founders left activism to go to chiropractic school, Anne kept building the organization behind the scenes, so that when he changed his mind, he could come back and pursue personal projects while working for the organization.

And when, after fourteen years, the group needed her to work full time, Dr. Green left her job in academia, despite the fact she had achieved the pinnacle of her profession: full professor, winner of Carnegie Mellon’s top teaching prize, and President of the national organization for her field. Carnegie Mellon offered to make her Dean if she stayed! But it was more important to her to focus directly on helping as many animals as possible.

Her co-founders were inducted into the Animal Rights Hall of Fame a decade ago, honored for the organization’s work: having eloquently and powerfully made the case for focused, maximum-impact advocacy, and having altered the course of animal advocacy forever. As always, Anne stood in the background. No one knew her co-founders wouldn’t have been there without her. And few know that she has continued to work, all day, every day, behind the scenes, never seeking glory, never seeking power, never seeking popularity, but always striving to help animals as much as possible.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Coming Out for Animals

Here is a great approach to making that connection. Congrats to Our Hen House (a group worthy of your support!)!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Tobias and What We Really Want

My good friend Tobias just put up this great talk (which has many parallels to this draft talk (below) that I just put up for comments). His follow-up talk is even better! I can't remember the last time I was so impressed by talks. (Bravo, Tobias — truly outstanding!)

Although the information in his talk is important, I found Tobias' answer to one question (at about 47 minutes) even more compelling (he makes the point explicitly in the second talk). The questioner said we are selling out our ethics if we ask for anything short of veganism. Tobias rightly notes that veganism isn't an end, but rather a means — a means to a cruelty-free world.

The bottom line isn't veganism, but reducing cruelty to animals. Don't worry about vegan, worry about why veganism matters — individuals like Bean and Pedro and Reba. And if we know that a certain non-vegan message is more likely to convince more people to take steps that reduce more cruelty to animals, then we aren't selling out our values by using the more compelling message. Rather, we are staying true to what we really want.

To look at it another way, it would be immoral to use the less compelling (but dogmatically "pure") message, because doing so would lead to more suffering in the world than if we had used a message that is more attractive and compelling.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Ellen's Theme Song

E found this song, which isn't normally our type of music, but how can you top the lyrics??

The reason that I'm not a nihilist
Is some day I wanna live like in Star Trek
And I know that we'll never build starships
Until we tackle poverty, war, and hardship

So we fight overnight and over lifetimes
Organize for that warp drive
And of course I realize
That we're a long way from it
But what better reason to start runnin'? [literally]

No friction; no flame
No struggle; no progress
No sweat
How many times do we have to win
'Til you realize that we are not lost yet?

There is no Superman in that phone booth
There is no rewarding our faith
There is no one who can save us
So it's a good thing we don't need to be saved

There are no starships in low earth orbit [yet]
No aliens to save us from ourselves
There is no voice willing to speak for us
So it's a good thing we know how to yell

There is no chosen one, no destiny, no fate
There is no such thing as magic
There is no light at the end of this tunnel

So it's a good thing we brought matches

Thursday, September 3, 2015

What IS the Health Argument?

OK, I'll put aside the fact that the push to "eat healthy" has led to people replacing red meat with many many more chickens (and sometimes fish).

And I'll put aside that the people who go veg for health are the ones who revert back to eating meat.

With that said, just look at the world. For all intents and purposes, every doctor, nutritionist, and public health official says eating chicken is healthy. Every media outlet, every men's and women's magazine, and every friend and family member says eating chicken is healthy (and are consuming chicken without any negative consequence). Every leading athlete, whose career depends on optimal health, eats chicken*. Etc.

So in the real world, what is the health argument that will overpower all of that and convince a significant percentage of people that they absolutely cannot consume any chicken whatsoever?

Let me put it another way: During the last 28 years, I have heard every pro-veg health argument anyone has ever imagined. I am well educated, and I definitely want to live a healthy, happy life for as long as possible.

But if you could somehow prove to me that chickens have no consciousness, no subjective experience, or if someone developed in vitro chicken exactly the same, I would have absolutely no qualms about eating chicken.

So what is the magical health argument that is completely unpersuasive to me (and my PhD wife, my National Merit Scholar daughter, and nearly every doctor, nutritionist, and athlete) and yet can actually help chickens in the real world?

*Yes, I know there are exceptions. But for every current vegan athlete you can point to, there are several former vegan athletes, and thousands of chicken-eating athletes.

If you like this article, please check out 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Seeing the Full Picture (Previously: Advocacy Can Hurt Animals)

It never ceases to amaze me
how we continue to look only at the self-selecting circle around them, while refusing to consider the implications of our actions in the broader world. I'm not certain how I can make the below any clearer—please let me know if you have ideas.

Thanks so much!

Let’s say we have developed what we think is the most powerful pro-veg argument ever, and we present it to ten people. Incredibly, five of them stop eating animals; the others decide to “eat better”—following the mainstream suggestions of their doctor and friends by giving up red meat.

We might think, “Fifty percent conversion rate? That must be the way to go!” This is how I used to think. But after years, I finally learned to ask: How does this argument actually affect animals?

Every year, the average American eats  twenty-three birds, a third of a pig, and a tenth of a cow. It currently takes about 193 birds (chickens + turkeys) to provide the same number of meals as one steer. It takes fifty-six birds to equal one pig.

So, before our presentation, the ten people consumed a combined 234 land animals every year. After our presentation, the same ten—including the five who joined our vegetarian club—eat 296 land animals per year. This is because, even though our argument convinced fully half of them to stop eating animals entirely, the others replaced their red meat intake with birds in order to eat more healthfully.

Moving from red meat to chicken is a well-documented fact. For example: “‘If you look at dietary recommendations put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture [and other health institutions], they are to decrease red meat and substitute lean meat, poultry and fish,’ says Daniel [a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center]. ‘We’ve seen in other data that people are gravitating toward poultry.’”

Finally, the National Institutes of Health notes “[t]he growing preference in the US for poultry, but not fish, as a replacement for red meat.”

There are contradictory studies on how much chicken is eaten by people who give up red meat entirely. But for people who reduce the amount of red meat they eat—the majority of people who change their diet for health reasons—all the data are absolutely clear: red-meat reducers eat much, much more chicken. For example, in the largest recent study, those who consumed the lowest amount of red meat ate fifty percent more chicken than those who consumed the most red meat. [Aston, L. M., et al. Meat Intake in Britain in Relation to Other Dietary Components and to Demographic and Risk Factor Variables: Analyses Based on the National Diet and Nutrition Survey of 2000/2001. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics 26(1), October 18, 2012.]

Fifty percent more! The facts are clear: anything at all that might possibly lead anyone to cut back on red meat actively harms animals.

Of course, we all know people who have gone veg for health reasons. As vegetarian advocates, we are obviously in a position to hear from and remember them. When we survey vegetarians (and/or meat reducers), of course we sometimes hear the “health argument” as a motivation. But looking only at vegetarians doesn’t begin to show the full impact of any argument. The error is thinking the “health” vegetarians we know or survey are a true sample of society. They aren’t. Rather, they represent a highly self-selected sub-sample.

History shows that eating fewer large animals and more small animals for health reasons isn’t a made-up, worst-case scenario. It has been the driving force for the suffering and slaughter of billions and billions of birds. Just look at any graph of animals killed in the U.S.: as the consumption of mammals declined, the slaughter of chickens skyrocketed over the decades!

This is one of the reasons I don't use any argument that could, in any way, support the general move toward giving up only red meat. Every person who decides to “eat better” more than counters the good done by a new vegetarian.

In other words: I won’t repeat anti-meat arguments. We promote pro-animal arguments. Obviously, it feels good to say: “Vegans have lower rates of disease X.” But the point isn’t to feel good about ourselves or our diet. We’re not out to justify or glorify our choices. Our goal is to keep as many animals from suffering as possible.

Of course, advocates can claim eating birds is bad for everyone’s health and the environment. Putting aside the veracity of those health and environmental claims, this simply isn’t the way the world works. People don’t simply accept what a vegan advocate says as gospel truth. Rather, they combine what they hear from all sources, paying more attention to what their doctor and friends say. On top of this, people generally give much more weight to advice that leads toward what they want to do—i.e., continuing to eat the familiar and convenient foods their friends and family eat.

More importantly, we simply don’t make decisions based on what is “perfect” for our health or the environment. None of us, vegans included, exercise the optimal amount, sleep the optimal amount, floss every day, work standing up, give up our car, etc. With few exceptions, we all follow our habits/peers. For most people (not a self-selected vegetarian sub-sample), if we change anything, we do something somewhat “better”—eating chickens instead of cows.

In other words, no matter what vegans claim is true or what we want, people will react from where they are, based on what they’re used to and with an eye for what they want. No matter how strong we think our arguments are, no matter how noble our intentions or passionate our desires, when we advocate without considering human nature, history, and the numbers, we cause more animals to suffer and die.

If we want to help animals, we need to advocate for animals.

Post script, Sept. 3: I have been asked what advocacy like this would look like. It would look like this: