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The Poor Meat Investor Problem

Crossposted with zachgroff.com

 

Scott Weathers wrote a post recently on “the poor meat eater problem,” wherein people who want to address global poverty but are anti-speciesist have to deal with the worry that their money will hurt a great number of animals. Today I want to turn to a different problem: for many people in developing countries, “purchasing” an animal is a form of investment when savings are difficult to come by and an important business decision. There’s also evidence that this helps boost people’s income, particularly when coupled with other goods (full disclosure: I work at Innovations for Poverty Action, which did the linked-to study). Nearly every survey of poverty in developing countries asks, in a disinterested way, whether somebody owns “livestock”, which type, and how much.

 

I struggle with this a lot. Part of it is probably good old-fashioned cognitive dissonance. Part of it is probably not wanting to think that one good thing (helping someone in severe poverty develop a stable income) can come at the cost of another (dozens of animals killed in frequently horrifically botched slaughter), or vice versa. I’ve tried not to think about it, but being in Ghana since becoming an activist for animals (and while doing a tiny bit of activism over the web) has forced me to come to terms with this dilemma.

 

I’ve come to the terms with recognizing that promoting the ownership of livestock, even for those in severe poverty, is wrong and I think this conclusion should be less controversial than it likely would be (even among my supportive colleagues, I would guess). It's wrong because of the basic cogency of anti-speciesism. I'm not going to explain that; for that argument see here. I do want to explain why the idea of restricting anti-poverty policies in this way is more controversial than it should be.

 

There are two ways in which I think speciesism makes people have a generally insurmountable knee-jerk reaction against the idea of rejecting using animals when it will actually help people. The first is that it frames the window through which we see the world and potential solutions to poverty. The second is that it dramatically affects our calculation of the benefits.

 

First, the window: when we look at policies to address poverty, we don’t look at every policy, though we may not notice the ones we exclude. For instance, I don’t think many Western economists would look at ways to experiment with the use of child labor and how it can increase farm productivity, even though it probably could indeed do that. I also doubt anyone would study the effect of slavery (or sexual slavery) on productivity (at least in an experimental way) on poor businesses in developing countries. Nobody would study a drug known to be toxic to one class of humans that could still affect their household. Even with animals, nobody would study the effect of what is commonly accepted as aberrant animal abuse on productivity.

 

That is all to say that the norms we accept frame the set of actions we consider to address a problem, though it’s often invisible. So when someone says that it’s wrong to not consider providing “livestock” to alleviate poverty, they are really saying that not using “livestock” is not a norm worth following the way that, say, not using child labor is. That is, they are begging the question: a question that I think Singer and others have answered decisively.

 

Second, the benefits: even once we decide what policies to consider, speciesism frames the benefits from that policy that we include in our consideration. Fifty years ago, an economist might have neglected female income or treated female wellbeing in a very different way. A hundred fifty years ago, an economist would have all sorts of paternalistic views of nonwhite people that would skew the way they considered benefits to them. An economist might also have viewed children’s desire not to work as a matter of temper tantrums and neglect the harms to a child involved in child labor.

 

Today, economists generally consider the interests of all the humans affected by a policy. But where animals’ interests are affected, there is no plausible moral case not to consider animals as well.

 

A few years ago, I was torn between focusing on global poverty and focusing on animal liberation. I’m increasingly persuaded that animal liberation – the question that affects the vast majority of the mammals and birds on this planet and could determine the future of the planet’s wild animals – is the question where I should spend my time. I think it’s reasonable to disagree, though, depending on how one ways certainty of evidence or the importance of human development for the far future.

 

 

It seems pretty clear to me, though, that there isn’t a good case for addressing poverty by using animals. One of the most vital questions of the twenty-first century may be whether developing countries develop the hellish animal death camps that exist in the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia. Let’s not play a role in making that happen.

Comments (14)

Comment author: DavidMoss 22 April 2016 04:19:44PM *  5 points [-]

It seems slightly ambiguous to me which of two different conceptions of "anti-speciesism" are being used here (unfortunately the term allows/encourages this confusion):

(1) "Neutral anti-speciesism": count persons of different species' interests no more/less than those of any other species, and maximise all interests impartially (basically utilitarianism)

(2) "Side-constraint anti-speciesism": just as we would never discriminate, disrespect, exploit or harm black people in certain ways (even if it was for the greater good) so too we shouldn't do analogous things to members of certain species because that would be speciesist, and we shouldn't be racist, speciesist etc. even if it is for the greater good, impartially considered.

If anti-speciesism is being used in sense (1), i.e. in a utilitarian way which means simply not weighting person's interests differently based on species-membership, then whether we should permit or promote the very poor owning livestock depends entirely on empirical questions about whether this is for the greater good impartially considered. So based on everything said in this post, the poor owning more livestock could be a great thing.

If anti-speciesism is being used in sense (2), then sure, we should not allow the poor to own livestock no matter the suffering averted and benefits to persons impartially considered. But I don't find that view very attractive.

Comment author: Gregory_Lewis 22 April 2016 10:04:47PM 2 points [-]

Accord.

It is unclear to me about the consequentialist case, but it would seem to be a subset of the poor meat-eater problem.

The post seems more in a deontic mode that use of animals in this way is exploitative and wrong regardless of the consequentialist benefit. I also find this view fairly unattractive, and I suspect many deontologists would agree: deontic theories are often 'speciesist', as they tend to have higher thresholds for personhood or moral concern, ones which livestock (unlike women, children, different ethnic groups, etc.) do not satisfy.

Comment author: JesseClifton 24 April 2016 05:06:28PM 1 point [-]

I think adopting and spreading some deontic heuristics regarding the exploitation of animals is good from a consequentialist perspective. Presumably, EAs don't consider whether enslaving, murdering, and eating other humans "is for the greater good impartially considered". Even putting that on the table would make EA look much more heartless and crazy than it already does, and risk spreading some very dangerous memes. Likewise, not taking a firm stand against animal exploitation as a development tool makes EA seem less serious about helping animals, and reinforces the idea that animals are here to benefit humans.

Comment author: DavidMoss 24 April 2016 07:08:35PM 0 points [-]

It's true that we should promote certain heuristics after careful consideration of the consequentialist impact of doing so. That's not what's going on here. Assuming Zach is defending the deontic side constraint picture, no consequentialist case for being deontic has been made for this.

It's true we should follow certain heuristics in cases where we cannot properly assess the consequentialist case (per two level consequentialism) e.g. we should eschew lying to and stealing from our friends as a default rule, even when it might appear in a given case that it's consequentially justified, because we can't do a consequentialist calculation about everything all the time and if we try, in certain areas, it'll lead to disaster. That's not what's happening here, because the case in question is an abstract discussion of a huge policy question regarding what stance we should take in the future, with little time pressure. These are precisely the areas where we should be consequentialist if ever we should be.

If we're actually consequentialists then the effects of the policy on the non-humans and the humans actually needs to be weighed and taken account. That's not what the OP seems to be doing. On the second interpretation, it seems to be saying we should never allow animals to be used in this way, regardless of the costs and benefits.

As to the two considerations you mention:

EAs don't consider whether enslaving, murdering, and eating other humans "is for the greater good impartially considered". Even putting that on the table would make EA look much more heartless and crazy than it already does, and risk spreading some very dangerous memes.

I don't find this to carry much weight. For almost everyone in the world, eating other humans is viewed very differently to eating animals and a fortiori to members of the global poor owning and raising a small number of animals. So the worry about "heartless and crazy" does not transfer from the human cannibalism to allowing the very poor to own livestock as assets, nor does it seem like this risks shifting people's norms (since almost everyone not on this forum endorses this anyway).

not taking a firm stand against animal exploitation as a development tool makes EA seem less serious about helping animals, and reinforces the idea that animals are here to benefit humans.

I find it very unlikely that this is a serious consideration. Almost everyone is not a vegan, so purely in terms of considering signalling, I doubt that we are well-advised to insist that people in the developing world cannot should not own animals as assets (regardless of the balance of cost and benefits).

Comment author: JesseClifton 26 April 2016 01:05:39AM 2 points [-]

"That's not what's happening here, because the case in question is an abstract discussion of a huge policy question regarding what stance we should take in the future, with little time pressure. These are precisely the areas where we should be consequentialist if ever we should be."

Most people's thinking is not nearly as targeted and consequentialist as this. On my model of human psychology, supporting the exploitation of animals in service of third-world development reinforces the belief that animals are for human benefit in general (rather than in this one instance where the benefits to all sentient beings were found to outweigh the harms). Given that speciesism is responsible for the vast majority of human-caused suffering, I think we should be extremely careful about supporting animal exploitation, even when it looks net-positive at first blush.

And I'm not concerned about EA looking "heartless and crazy" by endorsing livestock as a development tool, I was just pointing out that there are certain things EA should take off the table for signalling and memetic reasons.

"I doubt that we are well-advised to insist that people in the developing world cannot should not own animals as assets (regardless of the balance of cost and benefits)."

There's a difference between insisting that people in the developing world not own animals as assets, which I agree would be mistaken, and opposing the adoption of livestock ownership as a development strategy.

Comment author: zdgroff 26 April 2016 03:28:19PM 0 points [-]

I answered some of the broader concerns above in my first reply, but I sympathize with Jesse's concern that promoting animal ownership in the developing world makes our support for animals seem unserious. I don't think it's that people look at us and say "hypocrites" or insufficiently absolutist but rather that they look at us and say "ahah, even they think it's okay to own animals, just not if you treat them badly."

Comment author: zdgroff 26 April 2016 03:25:55PM 1 point [-]

Sorry I could not respond earlier as I was traveling. The first point is somewhat about (2) and the second point is about (1). On the second point, I could flesh this out more and may in a future post but basically even if we find animal investment/ownership does help (and there's some indication it does), I think when you factor the extremely painful deaths that most of these animals have after a pretty brief life and more so the propagation of the idea of animal ownership that significantly increases the likelihood of the sort of unambiguously bad animal agriculture industry we have in the U.S. and Europe, that is likely to be pretty easily outweighed. Maybe I'm overconfident on this but I think as soon as we consider animals' interests equally the picture changes dramatically.

On the first point, I say somewhat because I would argue for these side constraints for consequentialist reasons. At a rough level I would argue based on revealed preferences that our upholding norms for violence against humans suggests this is consequentially useful. That suggests we should extend those same norms to animals.

Comment author: MichaelDello 22 April 2016 11:35:13AM 2 points [-]

Nice discussion, this is something I've thought about before but haven't put to paper.

As for the effectiveness of using animals to lift people out of poverty vs other methods, I have no grounds to comment. I can see why the well-being of animals wouldn't be considered in the economic equation (though disagree with it) for the very line of reasoning you've proposed about certain subsets of humanity not being considered in years past.

Even as a non-speciesist, from a utilitarian standpoint, I could still see the 'possibility' of animals as investment being a good option in that humans tend to have more flow on effects than animals. Increase the well-being of a human and bring them out of poverty and they might go on to develop their nations economy, reduce population growth (through the relationship between child mortality and pop. growth), and develop new technology. Increase the well-being of an animal and nothing really happens beyond that. Having said that, there are also negative flow on effects of reducing poverty, such as the poor meat eater problem and, I suspect, increased environmental damage.

Even if we accept that though, taking the long view on animal welfare means that we ought to search for viable and effective alternatives to animal exploitation for animal use to bring people out of poverty. If we eliminated animal use today, many billions of animals won't be exploited in the future, in a way somewhat reminiscent of the X-risk argument.

It comes back to the practical nature of the question though. Presumably animals are used to reduce poverty because they work. Some important work could be in either proving that this is not the case (if it's not the case), proving that something else is better (if that's the case) or in finding/developing a more effective solution that doesn't involve animal abuse. Fact of the matter is, for those people that don't mind animal exploitation, or place very low weight on it, they will do what is most effective for the humans involved. If that happens to not involve animals, all the better.

As an after thought, it's similar to the problem of global warming. In an ideal world, few people actually want fossil fuels to be the leading source of energy, it just happens to be the most cost-effective and easiest in the short term. Find a better solution and the market will switch (assuming no mass misleading of the populace), almost no question.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 22 April 2016 05:10:05PM 0 points [-]

Assuming the case made in the essay is sound, where would as individuals go from here? Is there an argument to be made that effective altruism should go out of it's way to advocate against the support and spread of animals-as-livestock as a poverty-alleviating intervention?

Even as a non-speciesist, from a utilitarian standpoint, I could still see the 'possibility' of animals as investment being a good option in that humans tend to have more flow on effects than animals. Increase the well-being of a human and bring them out of poverty and they might go on to develop their nations economy, reduce population growth (through the relationship between child mortality and pop. growth), and develop new technology. Increase the well-being of an animal and nothing really happens beyond that. Having said that, there are also negative flow on effects of reducing poverty, such as the poor meat eater problem and, I suspect, increased environmental damage.

It seems to me teasing out the effects of reducing the use of animals-as-livestock by the very poorest in developing economies is difficult, and Michael Dello has pointed out. This still seems to fall into the broader class of issues associated with the (poor) meat eater problem, which to me is starting to seem more and more like a swathe of multiple problems and considerations which are both normatively and empirically difficult to tease the causal impact of our or anyone's actions on.

It seems the case is that if one prioritizes animal welfare or liberation over poverty alleviation, and/or other (exclusively) human well-being considerations, simply finding the most effective ways to spread anti-speciesist values, or reduce/eliminate the need or want of people anywhere and everywhere to depend on animals-as-livestock, are upstream of direct actions on the meat-eater problem. I still think it's worth producing reports and research looking into this are for good measure, though.

One of the most vital questions of the twenty-first century may be whether developing countries develop the hellish animal death camps that exist in the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia. Let’s not play a role in making that happen.

Preventing this from happening, reducing speciesism and the abuse of animals in developed countries, and also preventing the increase of animal abuse in economies currently undergoing demographic shifts towards much larger middle classes, such as China, seems most important, re: animal liberation.

Comment author: zdgroff 26 April 2016 03:31:50PM 0 points [-]

I think advocating strongly against animal use in development is unlikely to be fruitful, but I think those of us involved in global poverty work should resist it insofar as we encounter it and should insist on considering the animals' interests when people discuss these sorts of programs. But yes, I agree it's a cluster of difficult problems.

Comment author: Larks 24 April 2016 08:36:47PM 0 points [-]

First, the window: when we look at policies to address poverty, we don’t look at every policy, though we may not notice the ones we exclude. For instance, I don’t think many Western economists would look at ways to experiment with the use of child labor and how it can increase farm productivity, even though it probably could indeed do that. I also doubt anyone would study the effect of slavery (or sexual slavery) on productivity (at least in an experimental way) on poor businesses in developing countries. Nobody would study a drug known to be toxic to one class of humans that could still affect their household. Even with animals, nobody would study the effect of what is commonly accepted as aberrant animal abuse on productivity.

It's interesting how we often do investigate verbotten interventions, but we just give them different names. For example, mandatory child labour is often studied by economists and enforced by governments - we just make sure it's not profitable and call it school. The effect of slavery on productivity, and how best to incentivise slaves, is a widely studied topic. And some practices involved in factory farming would probably be considered abuse in other contexts.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 26 April 2016 02:08:41AM *  -1 points [-]

That Nozick thought experiment you linked is an argument that voting doesn't necessarily entail legitimacy of taxation. And the Laffer curve is about tax policy, not slavery incentives. They don't back up your claims.

For example, mandatory child labour is often studied by economists and enforced by governments - we just make sure it's not profitable and call it school.

Except there's pretty much nobody who would consider school to be "labour", because there's pretty much no accepted definition of labour where education would fit in. Presumably the reason mandatory schooling is widely considered okay is that it's in the best interests of the children who are being sent to school.

People are down voting me but honestly, you don't seem to have any idea what you're talking about.

Comment author: zdgroff 26 April 2016 03:33:21PM 0 points [-]

There actually was a federal court case in the U.S. where parents sued that mandatory schooling violated the 13th amendment (prohibition on slavery). The suit failed.

Comment author: Carla_Fin 26 April 2016 07:46:43AM *  -3 points [-]

it's in the best interests of the children who are being sent to school.

No, but it makes them more useful for economic exploitation by the rich and the politicians in their pockets.

Pretending it's for the children's own good just sounds nicer.