The Philosophical Cow

by on March 3, 2010 at 7:32 am in Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

Suppose that you are a cow philosopher contemplating the welfare of cows.  In the world today there are about 1.3 billion of your compatriots.  It would be a fine thing for cows if all cows were well treated and if none were slaughtered for food.  Nevertheless, being a clever cow, you understand that it's the demand for beef that brings cows to life.  How do you regard such a trade off?

If each cow brought to life adds even some small bit of cow utility to the grand total of cow welfare must not beef eaters be lauded, at least if they are hungry enough?  Or is the pro beef-eater argument simply repugnant

Should a cow behind a haystack of ignorance choose the world with the highest expectation of utility?  In which case, a world of many cows each destined for slaughter could well be preferable to one with many fewer but happier cows.

Or is it wrong to compare the zero of non-existence with existence?  Should a cow philosopher focus on making cows happy or on making happy cows?  If the former, would one (or two) supremely happy cows not be best?

I think these questions are important both for thinking about cows and animal rights and for human beings.  Tyler has thought a lot about these issues (e.g. here, here and elsewhere).  Some people, however, think that cow philosophy is just a bunch of bull.

Morten March 3, 2010 at 7:47 am

I am sure you will find plenty discussion in the literature on this. A good place to start might be http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/repugnant-conclusion/

Millian March 3, 2010 at 7:52 am

As a cow, encourage humans to embrace Hinduism.

Luis Enrique March 3, 2010 at 7:59 am

I know so little about this I hesitate to comment … but hey, what’s the internet for? I understand the arguments that utility cannot be compared across individuals, but I’ve often thought that we’re likely to do best by acting as if it can be.

I’d be interested to learn from anybody who knows about these things, what are the practical implications of proceeding on the basis that utility cannot be compared across individuals? What does it rule out and rule in?

Dave March 3, 2010 at 8:40 am

Mike Munger brought up some related points in a recent EconTalk.

Rob March 3, 2010 at 8:47 am

This is an easy argument to make with respect to cows, but if you turn it around and substitute people, it’s easy to see how repugnant it is.

The assumption here is that the quantity of good X from the cow having lived is greater than the quantity of harm Y from the cow living a lifetime of abuse, and being slaughtered while it’s young and tender.

If we replace cows with humans, do we think that the quantity of good X from a child having lived is greater than the quantity of harm Y from the child living a lifetime of abuse and being killed while she’s young (and tender)? No, of course we don’t. Parents who abuse and/or kill their children are condemned, and rightfully so. If you ask the child (assuming she’s still alive) she may be glad to have lived. But that doesn’t mean that we can absolve her parents. And this isn’t even a perfect analogy. Instead it’s as if someone forced two people to have a child, abused and killed the child, and then claimed to be a humanitarian.

I don’t mean to say that cows are the equivalent of human children. Perhaps cows are only 1/10 as conscious, or 1/100 as conscious. The point is that qualitatively, we know that simply having brought a living thing into the world doesn’t give us justification to do whatever we want it.

anon March 3, 2010 at 9:08 am

This is why I read MR.

The posts, the comments, links to hilarious YouTube videos.

eccdogg March 3, 2010 at 9:28 am

I think the key is does the cow have a “reasonable” life free from torture and of a suitable length to be worthwhile.

Compare a cow to a gazelle.

The gazelle is born, struggles for food every day and constantly runs from lions. Eventually he may be eaten by a lion. Was his life worthwile?

Now for the cow there seems to be two routes. Traditionally he would be born and grazed in the open in his natural environment eventually he would be killed by a farmer and eaten.

Today he is born, probably separated from his mother, fed by a machine in a feed lot the slaughtered.

In the first case I don’t see much difference between the farmer and the lion. Both are natural carnivors/omnivors and the gazelle/cow gets to live a reasonable life before it is eaten.

In the second case I would imagine the cow would rather never to have been born.

I am a vegetarian myself, but it is because of this logic that I do not believe meat eating is inherently immoral. I do believe however that the method that we raise and consume meat is of questionable morality. Particularly given the fact that meat is a luxury and not a necessity of life.

Pat Mathews March 3, 2010 at 9:35 am

The underlying philosophy here: “Dulce et decorum est….”

Robbie March 3, 2010 at 10:06 am

Suppose making cows happy rather than making happy cows is the goal. To me this doesn’t suggest only one (or two) supremely happy cows existing is best, what about the enjoyment cows get from being part of a herd?

Of course for humans the same is even more true. Not only does being one of 7 bn humans spare me the loneliness of a solitary existance, it is also the reason I am surrounded by possessions.

TGGP March 3, 2010 at 10:25 am

Some people think that no humans should ever be born. David Benatar, for instance. And this guy, who also has a book coming out.

Trevindor March 3, 2010 at 10:48 am

Start with the assumption that utility per person can be negative.
Also, the utility per person (u) diminishes with population (N). u=a-bN.

Total utility (U) is N*u. U=aN-bN^2

U=0 at two points: When N=0, and when N=a/b.

Max total utility occurs at a/2b. Paradox resolved.

Is this a naive oversimplification? Sure! But no more so than the assumptions leading to the original repugnant conclusion.

Yancey Ward March 3, 2010 at 11:08 am

Congratulations, Alex, on obtaining that grant from Chick-fil-a.

Anna Lekas Miller March 3, 2010 at 11:12 am

My name is Anna Lekas Miller, I work for GRITtv as their web and marketing intern. I just wanted to let anyone who would be interested know that today we will be hosting David Kirby on the show and he will be discussion factory farming! It will be today, 3/3 at 12 PM EST on http://grittv.org, and probably posted as a clip on the same website around 8 PM EST tonight. Embed codes for both clips and livestream are available via contacting GRITtv or the website!

Enjoy! Thank you for your support!

Anna Lekas Miller
GRITtv Web Intern

Philo March 3, 2010 at 11:24 am

“. . . must not beef eaters be lauded . . .?” Of course not. You don’t get credit just because your actions produce good results, when those results were *not intended by you*. Anyway, good results are unimpressive, when *better* results were easily available to you.

But let us hope that the cow philosopher is a good enough philosopher to avoid *speciesism*. *Cow* welfare is not the final good; welfare *simpliciter* (regardless of species) is. So a world with more cows enjoying better lives is not a proper goal, if (as is likely) there is an even better possible world with fewer cows. My guess is that a world with very few cows and many more human beings would yield the maximum attainable total welfare.

Efinancial March 3, 2010 at 11:34 am

Moo Moo Moo-Moo. Mo-Moo Moo Moo MMMMMMOOOO! Moom Moo Mo MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

Ryan Vann March 3, 2010 at 12:13 pm

If there were sentient philsopher cows, I doubt humans would be so keen to eat them, but maybe I’m a bit optimistic here. My question is whether we’d grant them monopolies on dairy products to redress past wrongs?

“Congratulations, Alex, on obtaining that grant from Chick-fil-a.”
Excellent sponsor

“Since 28% of all cows live happily in India where the demand for beef consumption is nil, I think the cow philosopher would be arguing for the Hindu religion.”
That’s hilarious, and most likely true.

Ryan Vann March 3, 2010 at 12:18 pm

“I think that most new cows brought into the world experience net negative utility and this simplifies the question greatly.”

I think your conclusion is right, but why would be assume a net negative utility?

Will March 3, 2010 at 12:35 pm

“If each cow brought to life adds even some small bit of cow utility to the grand total of cow welfare”

You lost me right there. I don’t think the above is remotely true. If I was a cow …. I’d prefer no slaughter. If you asked me (the cow) would I be OK being slaughtered if it allowed another million cows …. I wouldn’t be moooooved.

David Curran March 3, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Maybe you could have democraticly minded turkeys. Would these turkeys vote for christmas?

Dan March 3, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Slaughtering cows for food and treating them poorly are two separate issues, and this line of argument is much more relevant to the former than to the latter. If we stopped slaughtering & eating cows then the cow population would plummet and you might have a point. But if we treated them better, we’d just see a bit of a dip in the cow population which should be more than compensated for (in a utilitarian calculation) by their improved quality of life.

Barkley Rosser March 3, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Turkeys would take Christmas over Thanksgiving. Pigs would be especially unhappy with New Year’s. Maybe each could make appeals to the cows for support, but the latter might be hard to pull in as they do not have an obvious holiday to offer support to ban in exchange (and the cows might see themselves as the possible substitute victims if there were cutbacks in consumption of the other species due to cutbacks on those holidays).

anon March 3, 2010 at 2:54 pm
Doug March 3, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Imagine an alien race conquers the planet earth and enslaves the human race in really horrible conditions. You find some alien technology that will kill all the aliens and end the enslavement, but will also render most of the earth permanently uninhabitable, so that only a few thousand humans will ever be able to live on the planet. Do you press the button?

Mike M March 3, 2010 at 6:02 pm

The comments on this blog are so much better then the actual posts. The original posters should get their hands dirty and respond to some comments instead of just typing up a post and walking away.

Dan March 3, 2010 at 11:52 pm

I vote for cow rights:
1. Each cow shall have a massage at least once a week
2. Each cow shall have one reasonably good beer (e.g., Chimay) once a week
3. A minimum slaughtering age shell be maintained at current average levels in Japan’s Kobe region
:-)

Robert Wiblin March 4, 2010 at 3:45 am

Are the lives of farm cows worth living? They look pretty painful and unpleasant to me.

Some posts on this:

http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2009/08/13/mistakes-with-nonexistent-people/

http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com/2009/09/04/non_existent_people/

John March 4, 2010 at 2:33 pm

You would, of course, encourage people to eat more chicken: http://www.facebook.com/EatMorChikin

pll fm July 31, 2010 at 1:55 am

Should a cow behind a haystack of ignorance choose the world with the highest expectation of utility? In which case, a world of many cows each destined for slaughter could well be preferable to one with many fewer but happier cows.

Frank September 18, 2010 at 6:05 pm
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