Replaceability

I’ll write about Christmas and such sometime, but right now this is what I’m thinking about.

I sometimes think about animal rights. Not really often, but I occasionally do. The other day, I think I had a pretty sensible thought about them.

I’ll start off by noting where I’m coming from as regards animal rights. I eat meat; this isn’t a secret. For a little while, as I first started thinking of vegetarianism as a valid idea that people could have, and not as a kind of crazy thing that only other people do, I didn’t know exactly how to justify the eating of meat to myself. Later on, I figured out an idea that’s worked for me, which is that the entire ecosystem is predicated on animals eating other animals—as surely as it’s predicated on other animals eating plants and on plants eating sunlight. Now, something I’m not in favor of is factory farming. That there is some messed-up stuff, and if you don’t want to take my word for it, you can go to pretty much any website about veganism and they’ll be more than eager to tell you the details. Suffice it to say, there are some animal rights being seriously violated in those places. So, my preference would be eating meat that has been raised humanely and killed humanely, or, even better, that I (or someone I know) have hunted, killed, and butchered myself. I still eat factory-farmed meat for a few reasons. One is the pretty lame reason that meat is so tasty and the majority of it that I’m likely to ever come across is factory-farmed. (However, for an exception see Chipotle.) Another is that it’s harder to follow a vegetarian diet while getting all the right nutrients and that, as far as I can see, it takes a fair amount of effort to avoid meat. And another is that factory-farmed plants aren’t without their own special set of problems, with which I also take issue, but which I definitely can’t avoid. I still make an effort to eat reputable meat. While I’m at college I eat the dining hall’s meat, which is of unknown and probably unsavory origins, but when I cook for myself I’ve only used meat from Dayton Meats in Malcom, Iowa. Actually, I’ve mostly avoided meat in cooking for myself, since I don’t use cook for myself often enough to keep meat from rotting and getting wasted. If I didn’t eat meat at the dining hall, it would get thrown out at the end of the meal, so I might as well.

So that’s the lengthy preface to this main idea that I’m getting to. My main idea has to do with which animals get rights, and which ones don’t. You’ve noticed that, above, I implied that I’m willing to kill animals, which is true. It’s true for some animals more than others, though. The number of mosquitoes I’ve killed is definitely in the thousands, but I’ve only personally and knowingly killed one mammal, a squirrel that had just been hit by a car in front of me and wasn’t going to live long. So, what dictates why I’m willing to kill one animal but not another? And is the criterion something I’ve just made up, or does it have some sort of valid, or at least mostly universal, usefulness?

There are different ideas on this. The way I would have thought of it until the other day was that animals that are the most like humans are the ones we humans are least willing to kill, and they get progressively more killable as they get weirder. I believe there’s definitely something to this, but it’s not the only thing. Even so, it’s fairly entrenched, and variants on it have been latched onto by important people. A speaker named David Cantor (class of ’77) came to my college in November as part of a symposium on rights and the environment. He founded Responsible Policies for Animals, an animal rights organization, and in the symposium he gave a talk about why all animals deserve rights. His argument boiled down to the idea that this is true because animals “experience” life, rather than “merely living” it. So, organisms that are sentient are all deserving of equal rights, because of their sentience. In the Q&A at the end, no one really succeeded in getting Cantor to tell what might give some animals lesser or greater rights. Someone asked him where there’s a cut-off point between the killable and the non-killable, and he put it at the threshold between experiencing and living, without ever defining what he meant by those. Do mosquitoes experience a life? Earthworms, sponges?

What I realized the other day is that another thing we all take unconsciously into consideration when we think about this is how replaceable the animal in question is. Replaceability is made up of a few different pieces, main ones being lifespan, current age, and energy needed to make the animal (or organism in general). Replaceability explains why I would be willing to kill a deer for food, but it would be next to impossible to convince me to cut down an ancient bristlecone pine for shelter or firewood. The deer is obviously way more human-like, but it’s also probably not more than a decade old, and there are (and will be) plenty more like it. Its current age is maybe 2 or 3, which means there hasn’t been a whole lot of energy invested in bringing it to where it is, compared to the bristlecone pine I mentioned, which has been sucking in sunlight every day for the past four thousand years. But, compare the deer to a rabbit, and I’m more willing to snare the rabbit, because even though it’s probably around the same age, a lot less of the ecosystem’s energy has gone into making this lightweight rabbit than the rather big deer. (If it were a question of my survival, though, I’d kill the deer instead, obviously, since it’d keep me alive longer—just to point that out.) For most cases that I can think of, replaceability works better than similarity to humans. Given a theoretical sort of monkey—I don’t know if such a monkey actually exists—that lives only about seven years, and so breeds pretty prolifically, and a Galápagos tortoise in its 150th year, I’d kill the monkey, even if it is much more human. And I’m willing to bet lots of money that even David Cantor, who would afford all animals the same exact set of rights, would concede that it makes sense, because I’m sure that he has less compunction about killing mosquitoes than, say, horses, any rights agenda aside.

However, I’m not going to claim that replaceability is the only thing going on. I’ve definitely got a humanoid bias, as illustrated best by the fact that, in the undesirable position of having to kill either an old blue whale or a person, I would probably go with the whale—although it certainly depends on the particular person. Or, go with a two-year-old rabbit and a two-year-old sponge, and I’ll pull up the sponge, even if I’m told they’ve both consumed the same amount of energy to get to this point in life. The idea of suffering has to do with this. I would feel responsible for considerably more anguish in the rabbit’s case, because the sponge has no central nervous system, and, as far as I know, can’t feel the pain of dying. Intelligence runs alongside this. I know cuttlefish are pretty smart, and accordingly I feel some sort of kinship with them and would feel more guilty killing one than if they were a less bright fish. This, I suppose, is the human side of the mental equation, with replaceability serving as the more calculated side. There’s not, I suppose, a strictly scientific reason to favor less suffering. This is why we have morality, or, rather, I suppose, morality is why we have this. And the morality in question, I’d suggest, comes from the evolutionary advantages of empathy in keeping tribes together and, maybe, the advantage of the extension of empathy to animals in limiting overkill that could lead to starvation. Or maybe just the human mind’s tendency to extend things.

Anyhow, hopefully this was interesting. I thought it was. In my very minimal research on this subject—what I’ve written is pretty much a thought experiment, and doesn’t cite any material facts or other works, as you can see—I haven’t really found anything like this. I just discovered that there is, in fact, an animal-rights idea called the replaceability argument, but oddly enough it’s something else entirely. So maybe, just maybe, I’m contributing something original here, and animal-rights people will find this and run with the idea and I’ll have made a little impact on the academic community. Although this blog is probably not a very likely place for people to stumble upon ideas.

File under: deep thoughts, meat


Anonymous

History

Check out this informative and inspiring video on why people choose vegan: http://veganvideo.org/

Also see Gary Yourofsky: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bagt5L9wXGo

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Anonymous

History

The root of your arguement is—

Are rare things/living things of higher value than common things?

I think this arguement is esoteric at best. The people who ponder these things sit in the 95'th percentile or higher of "win" on this planet.

The shlubs who live in the bottom half of planetary "win" just want something to eat today, and to not die.

However, as a fellow 5%'er, I agree that our food sucks. What the hell is in a damn chicken McNugget anyway? It ain't chicken!

I would hazard a guess that less than half of all americans eat ANY raw or un-processed foods in a week.

Dave

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Chuck

History

In that case, factory farming of animals should still be condemned, because it uses up way more resources than farming of plants, even factory farming, simply because it takes so much more energy to make a 1500-pound steer than it does to make 1500 pounds of wheat. Less energy per pound of food means it can be sold cheaper, and the poorest people can buy it.

However, the other side of this problem is that there are too many people on the planet to sustain without resorting to factory farming, clearcuts, and other Very Bad Things. There was once a time when a group of humans functioned as part of an existing ecosystem. Now, groups of humans have become magnitudes larger and don't work with ecosystems, but rather destroy them and replace them with monocrops or buildings.

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Anonymous

History

We'll learn to take care of the house, or the house will take care of us. We'll keep eveolving and get it right, or this is just one big Easter Island.

Dave

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Chuck

History

The choices aren't status quo or extinction. They're status quo or contraction, and I certainly believe the status quo can't continue forever, or, come to that, a whole lot longer. The contraction won't be pretty, but it won't be the end of Earth.

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kendra

History

I randomly stumbled upon your blog by accidentally clicking a wrong button from mine, and don't particularly like when people read my blog. But within reading the first few lines of yours I became intrigued, hope you don't mind I'm a random.
First of all you have a very sensible approach to thinking about a topic such as this, and you come across as being very informed about your topic even though you say this is rather helter-skelter.
Secondly, with the start of the new year i made my first ever resolution, to only eat meat that i know the origins of. It's important to say I live on a small beef farm and am hoping to go to school for environmental agriculture. I understand that human consumption of meat is now part of the food chain, however we have taken it to a level far beyond reasonable, with not only over consuming but expanding our populations far beyond the point where we can sustain life. So, I agree it's difficult to consume non factory-farmed meat, but it makes a big difference, day six and I'm still good.
You're replaceability ideas are brilliant, I have never thought about this so much, but you blew my mind with the talk of lifespan, age and energy! Everything makes sense, I agreed with it all, except for the sponge versus rabbit. Solely because the sponge is much more rare, rabbits reproduce quickly and sponges, just like any coral are much more sensitive to their environment. Although i do agree with the suffering, as it is horrible to watch an animal suffer. It also seems that there is the "cute" factor, many people would save the rabbit because of its soft cuddly physique, as opposed to a rat or carp.
Thanks for expanding my mind tonight.

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Chuck

History

Hey, I'm thrilled that you found something interesting here! This blog doesn't often get a readership outside of my friends and family, but I secretly wish it did, and you're welcome to keep reading, although there's only rarely philiosophical stuff like this—it's usually accounts of what I've been doing lately.

Your resolution sounds like a great idea to me, and if I were buying all my own food, I'd probably make the same one, but my food comes from all sorts of sources uncontrolled by me (mainly my parents and the college dining hall). I wish you the very best of luck on it—let me know how it goes, if you come back further into it and feel like writing. If you blog about your beef farm, I wouldn't mind reading about it if you don't. I'm tickled pink that my idea had an impact. Thanks for your comment. Oh, and about the sponges—I used those because they're the least human-like animal I could think of. They're actually in a different phylum from corals—corals are colonies, but sponges are single individuals, and I tried to set the energy investment equal to the rabbit's by making them the same age.

The cute factor is a good bit to figure in that I hadn't thought of. I guess I was unconsciously lumping it in with similarity to humans, but that can't be quite right, or we'd all think naked mole rats are the cutest animal around, since they're so similar to humans in their hairlessness. Thanks!

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