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[content warning: discussion of murdering babies, use of disabled people in philosophy thought experiments]

The Logic of the Larder

One important issue for effective animal altruists is the logic of the larder. The argument goes like this: if farmed animal lives are worth living, then it is good to eat meat, because if you eat lots of meat then more farmed animals will exist and live happy lives. Advocates for the welfare of farmed animals should encourage people to eat more meat to cause more happy animals to come into being.

In most cases, farmed animal lives are unpleasant enough that the logic of the larder doesn’t apply. Their lives are not worth living, so it’s good not to eat animal products. However, in some cases– such as cows raised for beef, or Certified Humane chickens– some reasonable and thoughtful people argue that the farmed animals’ lives are worth living. In those cases, the logic of the larder suggests, effective animal advocates should eat more meat.

 The Baby Farm

Imagine that, among very wealthy people, there is a new fad for eating babies. Out baby farmer is an ethical person and he wants to make sure that his babies are farmed as ethically as possible. The babies are produced through artificial wombs; there are no adults who are particularly invested in the babies’ continued life. The babies are slaughtered at one month, well before they have long-term plans and preferences that are thwarted by death. In their one month of life, the babies have the happiest possible baby life: they are picked up immediately whenever they cry, they get lots of delicious milk, they’re held and rocked and sung to, their medical concerns are treated quickly, and they don’t ever have to sit in a poopy diaper. In every way, they live as happy and flourishing a life as a two-week-old baby can. Is the baby farm unethical?

If you’re like me, the answer is a quick “yes.”

My intuition suggests three things. First, it is a harm– at least to some beings– to kill them. That is, I do not adopt the Epicurean position that the only harm of death comes from the grief other people feel, your unfulfilled plans, etc., none of which apply to the one-year-old babies in the baby farm. You might say that some beings have “a right to life.”

Second, my intuition is not a speciesist intuition. My intuition suggests we should also not farm Vulcan babies, orc babies, house elf babies, Twi’lek babies, or chimpanzee babies. Therefore, my intuition is not grounded in the fact that babies are members of the human species per se.

Third, the “right to life” does not depend on certain sophisticated cognitive capacities unique (or allegedly unique) to the human species, such as autonomy, practical reason, a capacity to form relationships with other beings, awareness of oneself as a subject of mental states, desires and plans for the future, the capacity to bargain, an understanding of one’s duties and responsibilities, etc. One-month-olds are pretty stupid and do not have any of these capacities.

I am horrified by the idea of a baby farm. I am not horrified by the idea of a beef cow farm. Perhaps I am being inconsistent and speciesist; whatever it is about babies that makes it wrong to murder them is perhaps also true of cows, except that I grew up in a society that undervalues beef cow lives, so I undervalue them as well. Conversely, perhaps my judgment of the baby farm is influenced by morally irrelevant factors, like it being very disgusting, and perhaps it is ethical to raise babies for meat.

Incompletely Realized Sophisticated Cognitive Capacities

I believe the solution here is that the right to life comes from certain incompletely realized sophisticated cognitive capacities. What does this mean?

Adult humans without certain disabilities have various sophisticated cognitive capacities, which I listed off a few paragraphs ago. It is not necessary right now to determine which ones give you a right to life. To have concrete examples, I’m going to talk about practical reason (the ability to understand the good for yourself, set goals and create plans, and reflect on your goals and plans) and affiliation (social interaction, putting yourself in other people’s shoes, and love and care for others). But this is purely for illustration and the argument works the same whatever capacities you use.

I will use the terminology “threshold capacity for practical reason and affiliation” as a shorthand for “sufficient capacity for practical reason and affiliation that we believe that you have a ‘right to life.'” It does not matter, for the sake of this argument, what threshold you adopt, assuming that you agree that nearly all adult humans are above the threshold. I believe that most people agree.

It is reasonable to believe that neither babies nor cows have a threshold capacity for affiliation and practical reason. A cow may very well have more capacity for practical reason than a newborn baby. But that doesn’t mean that their position with regards to capacities are the same. A cow has all of the capacities it is ever going to have; it has fully developed cow capacities. A baby has incompletely developed adult human capacities. When a newborn baby cries until it is picked up, or recognizes the face of its parents, that is the beginning of a human ability for affiliation. When a newborn baby waves its arms in front of its eyes, is delighted by the movement, and repeats it, that is the beginning of a human ability for practical reason. We consider not just what the baby is able to do but what its abilities are incomplete fragments of.

As an analogy, consider the difference between a blind person and a blind cave tetra. A blind cave tetra does not have eyes; it does not have any capacity to see in any form. Blind people, on the other hand, have an incomplete form of the capacity to see, in the sense we’re using it here. This has real, concrete effects. A blind person generally has eyes, eyelashes, eyebrows, a visual cortex, and so on. Most legally blind people have at least some vision, such as the ability to perceive light. Some blind people can respond to stimuli they don’t consciously see. Blind people repurpose the visual cortex of the brain to handle language. A blind person and a blind cave tetra may have an equal ability to see, but their situations are concretely different, because a blind cave tetra is not the sort of being that sees at all, while a blind person can has much of the equipment generally associated with seeing.

Running through a list of hard problems, I believe this rule gives satisfactory results. (Again, I use “practical reason” and “affiliation” merely as examples.)

Vulcans, house elves, Twi’leks, and orcs? All capable of affiliation and practical reason, and therefore have a right to life.

Sufficiently advanced artificial intelligences? Capable of affiliation and practical reason, have a right to life.

Fetuses? It is difficult to decide when a fetus begins to have the capacity for affiliation and practical reason, even in an incomplete form. There is little opportunity to plan one’s life in the womb, and it can be difficult to distinguish reflex behavior from complex planning. Nevertheless, it is important to be very very conservative about committing murder; if your plan involves even a one percent chance of killing a person, you shouldn’t do it unless you have a very very good reason. For this reason, society should improve access to highly reliable contraceptives and provide poor and single parents the support they need to avoid abortion. Abortion regulations should be considered thoughtfully, balancing the bodily autonomy of pregnant people with the potential right to life of the fetus. Abortion regulations that lead to later abortions (for example, waiting periods) should be avoided, because they increase the chance that the abortion is murder.

People with impairments in their capacities for practical reason and affiliation? This is a complicated issue and there are several possible considerations. In many cases, impaired people can exercise a threshold capacity for practical reason and affiliation if provided with appropriate support. For example, the vast majority of autistic people are capable of understanding other people with appropriate supports, such as clearly written explanations of things that neurotypicals understand instinctively. Similarly, intellectually disabled people can almost always set life goals, but may need supported decision making. In rare cases, a human may unambiguously not have any capacity for practical reason or affiliation, even in an incomplete form, as in babies with anencephaly; in this case, the human would have no right to life.

Some disabled people will have partial or incomplete capacities. This case is similar to the case of the blind person: while the blind person cannot see, and certain disabled people cannot affiliate at the threshold level, in either case the disabled person has these capacities in an incomplete form. Finally, it is very very common among the severely disabled that we can’t know whether a person has the threshold capacity. Consider a person with total locked-in syndrome: they may be able to reason or affiliate, but if they cannot communicate, how can we know? It can be very difficult to assess the true abilities of nonspeaking disabled people or disabled people with severe motor control issues. For this reason, it is important to be conservative and extend the right to life very widely.

Animals? The threshold capacity is, by stipulation, placed at a point where nearly all adult humans pass it. How many animal species have a right to life will depend on what the threshold capacity should be, which is a subject that is too large to discuss in this blog post.

It seems unlikely that there are no species in which certain gifted members have threshold-passing capacities (or an incomplete form of the same) and others do not. In theory, if we had perfect knowledge, the right to life would be correlated with species but not determined by it, as in general beings have the capacities of other members of their species. In practice, except in extremely unusual cases such as anencephaly, a conservative approach suggests that we should extend the right to life to all members of a species of which at least one member has demonstrated threshold-passing capacities.