More Ethical to Eat Less Poultry and More Pork?

“Figuring out how to make your diet responsive to the true suffering of the animals you consume.”

My diet is a huge hole in my moral life. I eat beef, eggs, kale, rice, carrots, peanut butter, bananas, and sourdough bread. I chase affordability and simplicity and, for the most part, I avoid fully examining the moral ramifications of these actions. Part of this is because I have some sneaking suspicions that I, and most other humans, require meat consumption to meet our full physical potential (for another post), but it’s also because the arguments for ethical veganism are pretty damning…

I have a hard time understanding how ethical vegans can maintain sanity in their day-to-day lives, walking around with the full conviction that the diet of the entire world is built on the unjust slavery and deaths of billions of animals. Damn. I sort of unconsciously choose to live in ignorance. Ignore my own choices as much as I can. Slowly, though, I am coming to terms with some taking some intermediary steps toward outright veganism which are responsive to the suffering of the animals I live off of.

Many of my friends are ovo-lacto-vegetarians or pescatarians or just anti-red meat. In our folk understanding of ethical eating, red meat is the most contemptible. I think part of this is caused by the very controversial and mostly debunked series of propagandistic Netflix documentaries, Cowspiracy and What the Health. These taught us to blame climate change and water shortage on meat consumption with a special emphasis on the impact of beef. A lot of this has been outright refuted, but, for the most part, the conclusion still holds: a certain type of vegan diet that is responsive to vegan alternative foods that are atrociously inefficient and environmentally destructive can be significantly more earth friendly than the typical meat-based diet.

In addition to the primary shortcomings of the films — namely being dishonest, manipulative, cherrypicked, pieces of trash that give science a bad name — they reinforced some possibly harmful notions that fish and poultry consumption is just straightforwardly more ethical than red meat consumption. This plays to our emotions pretty well. For whatever reason, we are seriously biased to being more responsive to the suffering of certain types of animals and v.v. Without going into any deep hypothesizing for why this is, we are just better at being sympathetic to the suffering of dogs, pigs, and cows, but we have very little ability to care about and understand how fish and poultry suffer. So, once these films come out, they give us these powerful moral arguments that align pretty well with our feelings→ “you know how seeing cow suffering makes you squirm but fish suffering doesn’t? Well, good news, not only is it more ethical to eat fish and poultry, it’s also better for the environment.”

Of course, it’s not that easy. Some research put forward by Brian Tomasick on suggests that fish and poultry consumption may be the most unethical form of meat consumption when you account for days of suffering, meat production per animal, and “sentience.”

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I am blown away by this idea behind this chart, and just Tomasik’s site in general. He does a considerably better job of breaking down the limitations of this approach than I ever could. So I highly recommend reading the full article and scanning the site.

But to just break this down a bit, he forces us to add a little more detail to our folk intuitions about the ethics and sentience of the different types of animals we eat. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told “I don’t eat pork because pigs are smart.” Although I understand the intuitive push for this argument — seems immoral to eat very cognitively complex things since the smarter and more complex the more suffering (I’m not completely sure on this and there are a lot of awful ways this logic can be used, for instance, I hope people won’t misuse this to argue for the moral permissibility of causing certain people to suffer more, but I wouldn’t put it past folks and people have certainly done it in the past) — the argument is missing a lot of details.

For instance, when you’re eating pork, you’re eating a very small section of that pig. The rest of the pork is going to be eaten by many more people. So presumably the moral weight of the suffering of that particular pig is then distributed across all the people taking part. Compare this to a chicken. It is easy for one person to eat a whole chicken without sharing, so the moral weight of that chicken’s death is entirely on that one person. So, if you thought that all the animals are equally cognitively complex and that each animals death was equally as bad, then accounting for the amount of meat produced by each animal still makes it so that chickens and fish are still considerably more unethical to eat (in terms of amount of suffering caused by tht consumption) than pigs or cows.

And now the sentience multiplier. He built this to align with our intuitions about the cognitive complexity. You can change this to reflect many different possible views of the amount of suffering that an animal would experience depending on cognitive complexity. If you take greater intelligence to mean more suffering, than you pretty easily use the sentience multiplier to reflect the brain-size-to-body size ratio. But you could do this in many other ways. None of these numbers are going to be perfect, but our best estimates of these values give, I think, a pretty helpful guide for how much suffering our meat consumption will actually cause.

Now, I should say, there are ways to argue for sentience multipliers that still make beef consumption worse than salmon or chicken consumption: i.e. if you thought killing a cow is 10,000 times worse than killing a chicken. So there is that downside and a lot of it will come down to arguments about suffering that are out of the scope of this article. And if you take a hard line on the impact of climate change from meat consumption, you may even want to try and account for the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by each animal and how that can lead to downstream suffering. Not sure how to do that, but if you are a hardline vegan, it’s unlikely that you’d be persuaded by any of this.

The point is that we need to revise our intuitions about ethical meat consumption and be more careful about how we are forming moral opinions on it. It’s more complicated than we are sold.

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