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But will you live in the pod?

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Eating insects has other benefits, namely the very good nutritional value and the substantial lack of sugar and saturated fats - the Hitlers of nutrition

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It took me way to long to figure out your choice of picture for the post (rof13: Znegva Yhgure ng gur Qvrg bs Jbezf ).

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But you can't just count every farmed animal as having suffered an amount proportional to its neuron count. Surely, factory farmed insects live a hell of a lot less long than factory farmed cows do, and thus suffer a lot less long. How do they compare in terms of [neuron count]x[lifespan]? Ideally we should also be multiplying by suffering intensity, but that's harder to judge.

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So what does this debate look like if it turns out plants qualify as conscious, as some scientists have argued?

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I almost typed "you're probably not joking but this reads like a parody" but before hitting Post I had my doubts and now I'm genuinely not sure if this is serious or meant as mockery of over-serious animal rights types.

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"Most people are only about as moral as the average of the other people they hear about and interact with."

Very well put.

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So every time I hear Shylock make his case I flash back to the “The Rockford Files” 1977 episode:

Evelyn 'Angel' Martin : Y'know Jimmy, I've got some feelings too. "If you prick me, do I not bleed?"

Jim Rockford : That's Shakespeare!

Evelyn 'Angel' Martin : [Condescendingly] No it's not. Vincent Price said it on the Hollywood Squares.

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Tyler Cowen contended, in an interview with Peter Singer (I think), something like: eating wild-caught fish is relatively more ethical because fish die horribly *anyway*, so you're not killing them in a way that's much different than how they'd be killed in nature. Getting bit in half by a sea lion or a shark isn't really worse than getting hauled into a boat and having your gills cut.

Would similar logic apply to bugs, which often die violently naturally? Is the life of a farmed and consumed mealworm that much different?

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There’s also the issue that some insects are eusocial, which I figure increases the probability that they are capable of suffering.

On the other hand: I’ve recently seen the argument that bee hives have some basic capability of “withdrawing consent” in the sense that if a hive doesn’t like their situation they can take up and leave. I haven’t taken the time to see if this is both universally true of bee farming and how bad it can get before a hive decides to leave.

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Even if we grant both that insects can suffer* and that we care about it if they do (I reject both of these independently)...It's pretty unclear to me that insects on a factory farm have it any better or worse than regular old insects anywhere. You note this point, but don't really follow it. If being an insect is suffering, then why don't we have a moral duty to not only not factory farm them, but also kill all the insects everywhere, so they don't suffer anymore? On the other hand if you take that being an insect is not inherently suffering, we certainly create a lot more by farming them so you get Nozick's old vegetarianism argument.

* Do pain receptors count as "suffering"? I don't really think so. Does it make sense to care about a being that probably doesn't even have a continuous self, even if it does suffer? If so is their suffering additive? Insects are far less distinct from one another than humans, so remember your own Answer to Job.

Anyway, as a neuroscientist: neuroscientists have no clue how consciousness works, so we aren't gonna get more information about how it is to be an insect any time soon XD

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"crop farming is probably net positive, because ... suffering being swiftly over".

That idea worries me a lot. Every creature suffers; suffering is part of life. That quote sounds like an argument against the existence of life - in general.

I'll admit to being new around here; apologies if I'm poking at old wounds.

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I feel like trying to focus on insect welfare before we resolve human welfare or even animal welfare is kind of a huge reach. We can only do so many things at a time, and addressing them one at a time, in order of how easy they are to resolve, will probably get the desired moral outcomes quicker and easier than worrying about if eating bugs is ok when a million people die of starvation.

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One important conclusion you can draw from pondering the ethics of killing insects is that utility monsters are a feature, not a bug, of utilitarianism. You're skeptical of the idea that your life is worth less than the lives of a billion bugs. That means, in a utilitarian framework (which you are in, because only in variants of utility theory can a choice between "X bugs" and "Y humans" depend on the values of X and Y), that you've accepted that utility monsters should get the utility, and you find the idea that they shouldn't implausible. It's a lot easier to root for the utility monster when you're the monster.

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I think the life of the animal matters more than its death, if the latter can be quick and painless, and it's a lot easier to give a factory farmed insect a good life than it is for a factory farmed cow or chicken. Conditions that cause chickens immense stress and suffering, like being packed together in cages, won't even bother mealworms, who would probably be quite happy in a warm, moist, nutrient-rich substrate with ten thousand of their brothers and sisters, insofar a mealworm can experience happiness. So I think switching to factory farming insects would be an immense moral good, even if that ends up killing 10^n more individual organisms.

I would also accept wireheading our livestock into a state of permanent bliss, or bioengineering away their capacity for suffering, but it seems easier to just make lab-grown meat in comparison. As expensive as that is, insects strike me as the more promising option.

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Jain monks will not eat root vegetables because insects may be harmed in the harvesting, will use a special broom to sweep the path ahead of them lest they trample one, and wear a mask to prevent accidentally ingesting and hurting minute living beings.

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Theoretically, you could breed or genetically engineer an animal that was both massive and dumb as bricks, like a whale that just sits in a warehouse all day. I assume that if you could breed an animal to not need exercise, factory farming would already have done it, but it's worth thinking about.

And there is a religion called Jainism that is based around exactly this principle - they preach radical nonviolence against all life, and stepping on an insect is considered a sin.

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My metric is not pain or suffering, but sufficient degree of sapience.

That is to say, if, given appropriate tools or training, a being can communicate with me in (a) language - at that point, I call that being a person (I thus do not quite technically consider humans fully people until well after birth).

For convenience's sake (because this metric clearly has many practical problems), I assume that if if a being can do this, then any member of their species can do so.

Thus, even torturing a cow to death is no different than torturing an insect to death - neither is intrinsically evil - it is merely that enjoying torturing a live animal is generally not something that results in healthy or good ends.

As such, as long as there is a useful reason for doing so, and less painful (if they exist) are harder or more expensive to implement, I am indifferent to animal-pain.


In any event, I expect cultured meat to pass the point of equal expense within the next couple of decades, at which point this entire discussion will be moot.

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Can we even know at the 10^-10 level about plants being incapable of feeling pain? Actually, does all of biology hold one proposition at that level of confidence?

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Where to draw the line to prevent suffering? Jains go so far as to covering their mouths with cloth to avoid inhaling insects.

I gave up meat for 13 years after having to kill a fresh caught fish before cleaning it to cook. It struggled and the sense that it wanted to live just as much as I did was undeniable. I continued to consume dairy and eggs but the thought of making another animal die to feed me made me sick for a long time.

I eat meat occasionally now mostly to avoid being that pain in the ass who has to have his own special meal but I prefer sticking to flora.

But no, I don’t watch the sidewalk to avoid ants or refrain from slapping a mosquito.

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The more I read on this subject, the happier I am to maintain a transactional view of morality (ie "morality is a peace treaty between humans") where all non-human (or human-intelligence alien) lives have zero moral value (but I reserve the right to have an aesthetic preference against animal cruelty).

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Based on my work studying fruit flies in college labs, it feels like it's a lot easier to make mutant insect strains than mutant large-mammal strains (or maybe it's just less frowned on, w/e).

How hard would it be to make a strain of mealworms with no nocioceptors? And to what extent would this solve the problem?

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The question on which my own evaluation of value(X bugs) / value(1 human) hinges is whether we use human-relative morals or absolute morals. (Everything here assumes utility theory.)

One kind of "human-relative morals " would be morals which judge world states by how good they are for humans. This is basically what we do, and is close to the "relative to my kin" morals that evolution forces all animals to acquire. This is icky because it lets us enslave AIs and tile the universe with humans, but it is at least coherent.

If morality is human-relative in this way, then the value of the bugs is their value to humans. Mosquitos might have negative value to us, in which case the question becomes whether it's permissible to create mosquitoes provided that you kill them later.

Another definition of "human relative morals" would be "apply human morality to every agent" (which we also do). In that case, many insects are evil by human standards, so killing them is probably virtuous. Maybe we can eat wasps and feel smug with every crunch.

The only good candidate absolute moralities I know involve thermodynamic / information-theoretic evaluations of world states, which have never really caught on with humans.

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>Also, this is related to my pet theory that Orson Scott Card knew exactly what he was doing and the name "Ender Wiggin" was meant to convey "ender of bugs".

Maybe Peter Wiggin was a dick to bugs.

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I am honored to have made the opening quote!

I just think that this game of determining precisely how conscious a particular creature is, determining if they have pain receptors, quibbling over whether they "suffer", etc is exactly the kind of bad utilitarianism that rationalists are rightly criticized for. We're missing a causal understanding of WHY we care about this other creature in the first place, and then cargo culting with measurements.

For example, Brian Tomasik's "most insects that exist suffer most of the time" should give us tremendous pause. This should be a core consideration guiding our thinking towards insect welfare. A base case of "suffering most of the time" is distinct from well-adjusted humans and animals. We tend to think euthanasia is appropriate for a creature who is likely to suffer for the remainder of its existence. We do this for domestic dogs, cats, horses, and even humans. What does it mean that a creature's whole existence is primarily suffering? If we actually care about insect suffering, should we be pursuing some genetic editing or ecosystem engineering such that mosquitos get to live happy, fulfilled, stress-free lives?

I just think the obvious answer is that people don't actually care, intrinsically. People care to the degree that the facts they can't ignore make them feel bad. If people can merely suspend consideration on the moral welfare of insects (or animals), they will happily never care. If you force them to think about it a lot, as a biologist studying insects might, people will generally adopt positions that allow them to tell themselves the story of how "sure the status quo ain't good but I'm on the right side of this issue." The suffering that we are actually attempting to prevent with all of this is human suffering.

I don't think it's a coincidence that all the dogs that couldn't instinctively raise their eyebrows died off.

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Let's assume insects do feel pain. Another important thing to consider are the varieties of suffering that insects vs chickens/cows/pigs might experience in factory farmed conditions. Factory farming of birds and mammals involves subjecting them to conditions which obviously cause them serious misery (cramped conditions, docking tails, searing off beaks, on and on and on...). I don't see why factory farming of insects would involve subjecting them to comparably miserable conditions, nor do we really even know which conditions insects prefer or to what extent. I imagine the average quality of life for a factory farmed insect would be about equal to that of a wild insect.

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> What about the other limit? Plausibly the most morally correct action, short of becoming vegetarian, would be to eat the largest animal there is. And according to the Talmud - Baba Bathra 74b- the righteous in Heaven dine on the flesh of Leviathan, which suffices to feed all of them forever. Hypothesis confirmed!

"A Pig Named Shayol".

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I’m kind of a utilitarian but find it hard to think in terms of “additive” moral cost of lives (ie of the kind that draws an equivalence between killing one million beetles and one dolphin)when both intuition and cognitive science point to those types of minds being so qualitatively different as to be, in my eyes, hardly even the same thing. The idea of “animal rights” that generalize to everything from apes to caterpillars seems almost a straw man, a way of making people who want fewer intelligent mammals to die in spaces where they can barely move seem ridiculous, overreaching.

I've thought a lot about the moral reciprocity arguments and I've realized they feel inhumane and kind of creepy because social mammals from pigs to cows to apes are capable of a crude kind of moral reciprocity with their own kind. To deny them any moral worth because they aren't capable of establishing sophisticated and consistent moral standards across species and social groups seems ridiculous, especially when so few humans are capable of that. Very few humans have formally defined and followed moral standards, meaning that they don't kill their own kind for the same reasons cows don't.

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I'm severely unconvinced by the argument that the moral worth of an animal scales linearly with the number of neurons it has. I'm sure we can all agree that a single neuron kept in a petri dish has no moral worth, less than a rounding error.

Another thought, reached after a very enlightening course on animal biology, is that nature is really vicious. Animals will eat each other alive, commit infanticide, cannibalism, rape, and all other sorts of awful things. Why should we care for the welfare of creatures that by nature act in ways we consider immoral? If we excuse them from our moral system, why should they benefit from ours?

Here's my totally-not-thought through system for determining the moral worth of animals: The worth of an animal is directly proportional to how closely it's baseline social behavior resembles that of humans. This seems to get most of the cute and intelligent animals people like, but excludes intelligent asocial animals like octopi and squid. It also has the effect of giving a tamed/human socialized animal moral worth than a wild one of the same species. This seems intuitively right to me.

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This isn't meant as a criticism of the post, but reading it actually made me care less about the suffering of cows and chickens. I think if we're not careful we can actually cause moral exhaustion which can set us back from the goal of reducing suffering in the world. I used to try to avoid eating beef in favor of chicken for environmental reasons but gave up on that because of people's (fairly convincing) arguments that chicken suffering was a bigger concern. I thought eating insects might be a way out, but apparently not. Having to analyze every possibility like this may just lead to people giving up and not caring any more.

I guess I'll go buy some more shares of Beyond Meat before eating my chicken mushroom soup dinner. Sorry, chickens.

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We don't have to wonder about this. There's a chart we can consult:


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Here's a question I've never seen satisfactorily answered from the utilitarian perspective. Assuming a worm, chicken, cow, or whatever creature you're farming lives a relatively pleasant life without much suffering and dies more or less painlessly (this includes no horrible anticipation of imminent death for the creatures smart enough to understand they're about to be slaughtered), so that its life is net positive in terms of happiness. It seems that many people hold that A) it's still immoral to farm animals for food under those assumptions and B) it's moral to breed animals to live to their natural lifespan, e.g. as pets. To me, for a non-conscious animal which doesn't know whether it has a day or a year to live, A & B are in contradiction. You can either believe that breeding anything that's eventually doomed to die is wrong, or that it's OK as long as the creature had some good time, but not both. Can someone explain how does it make sense?

I know there's some utilitarians who hold A & ~B and I totally see where they are coming from. I also can understand someone arguing that A is not practically attainable anytime soon so we're best off opposing to any farming (although worms seem to change this quite a bit, I imagine it's easy to farm worms without making them suffer). My question is specifically about believing A & B simultaneously, which seems to be a quite common position.

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I think insect suffering ends up being a great argument as to why 'reducing suffering' isn't really a long-term great moral compass, just on its own. It seems somewhat related to someting like pascal's wager.

You have this question ("do insects feel pain") and the answer hinges on whether eating insects is morally awesome (you get all these calories and protein without the suffering!) or morally debauched (you are causing so much suffering!). In the absence of a real clear answer as to whether insects feel pain, you can't answer a question like "do factory farmed insects live better lives than insects in the wild?" - which seems like a pretty important question! For a lot of animals, if humans aren't eating them, we'd probably crowd them out of space and then run them into extinction.

If 'removing suffering' is the goal, then killing an animal species entirely ends up preventing infinite future suffering for that species - isn't' that net good? Doesn't 'remove all tiny species from the face of the earth, to prevent their suffering" seem like it's a bad idea? The only way to allow it to be bad is to grant that goodness is not just about suffering. Sure, it plays a role, and i think we should probably expect "reduces total suffering" to be a likely expected side effect of a good moral system, but what about this:

We go back in time 10,000 years, and make an exact copy of the earth, in the same orbit, 365 degrees out of phase. In the present, this planet now exists with a _totally different _history, which means a totally different set of cultures, languages, economic and political systems - and similar geography, except for all the things that humans have changed and the randomness inherent to weather and geological processes.

You've now doubled the amount of suffering! But you've also doubled the amount of bowling leagues, recipes for cookies, and types of cusine, and scifi books, and kabbalistic interpretations of those scif books. You've also given humanity a MUCH better tool for understanding human nature, civilizations, language etc. What's all that "other stuff," and how do you morally weight it against doubling the net amount of suffering int he world?

This wholistic approach seems like the only reasonable way to approach this question. If factory farmed bugs have _better_ quality of life than bugs in the wild, and we still think it's bad because it would 'add suffering', isn't the morally correct thing to do carpet bomb the world with insecticides to end all insect suffering?

As a solution to this conundunrm, I maintain that the correct moral system is "maximize the number of possible future estates accessible to the system", as defined here:


Here is a long argument for why i think this approach captures what humans mean w hen we talk about moral truth:


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What if there's a 99% chance they're an android? Still seems like you should avoid the torture-murder, for the 1% chance they're human. 99.9999999% chance? At this point I think it becomes less pressing, but it's still a little bad to hurt them. <-- this seems like an argument against abortion as well

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Your argument about the bugs and the “99% chance” is also an argument against abortion.

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From a quick google, there are 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 bugs alive at any given time. The number of bugs one human interacts with or could potentially interact with is huge. If bugs have even a very small fraction the capacity for suffering or pleasure that humans have, then it makes me think that utilitarianism's most primary concern by orders of magnitude is how are we going to treat bugs. Perhaps rather than dedicating 50% of our income to saving starving children in the developing world, we should be using 50% of our income to create a farm with hundreds of trillions of happy ants.

With these premises, this seems reasonable. But ultimately, it seems absurd. Another reason I suppose I'm not a utilitarian. I'll have to write a blog post investigating this idea. Thank you for this interesting post.

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Genocide: "the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group." You refer to "the Xinjiang genocide." Do you have any evidence that there is such a genocide?

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Tangential to a single line in this essay: I would love to get your take on what's happening in Xinjiang. It's hard to find sources that I can trust to fairly report on the situation. The government itself obviously has its own biases, but so do the people and orgs that are reporting what's happening as genocide.

For example, one bit of evidence offered in support of a genocide in progress are changes in birth rates. All the reporting on this appears to be sourced to this report by ASPI: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/family-deplanning-birthrates-xinjiang.

They look at changes in birth rates and show that birthrates in Uyghur areas have declined extremely dramatically.

They do acknowledge that policies were recently changed to no longer allow minorities a greater number of children, and that the government stepped up its enforcement of those policies. However, I can't find any comparison to the baseline. If Uyghurs were an especially fertile outlier and the government began to enforce its policies uniformly then a sharp drop would be expected.

So, are we seeing an expected disparate impact of a uniformly applied policy, or are we seeing genocide?

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Considering it's the connections between neurons that promote intelligence [citation needed], using (neurons)^2 is perhaps a more useful metric. Also because I would equate killing a cow closer to 1M flies than 1k.

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Assume insects can feel pain. Do farmed insects experience more pain than farmed animals? Meaning, are the methods equally painful? Or is it easier and more cost efficient to make a 'happy mealworm' than make a 'happy cow'?

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Soylent Green is People!


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Can moral carnivores (humans or otherwise) exist in this morality construct?

Extending this argument to nonhuman carnivores, how is life on this planet supposed to work without predators and prey?

This whole thing feels like Marxist class warfare extrapolated to every living creature on planet earth.

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IMO the biggest issue here which was more or less skipped is the suffering angle. Factory farmed animals definitely suffer their entire lives. Free range grass fed etc. expensive animals do get slaughtered eventually but they don't suffer as much as factory farmed animals. If factory farmed bugs go through a normal bug lifespan until slaughter they are probably closer to column b.

In fact, given that wild animals do have to deal with scarce food and predators, and end up dying all the same, I'm no longer sure reasonably well-treated farm animals are even suffering more than their wild brethren at all.

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<quote>Seems obvious the answer is no, at least not until you're sure they're the android.</quote>

I mean, I think the answer is still no, it is not morally acceptable to pretend to torture. (think of what the evil characters in WestWorld do).

But the entire calculation is leaving out what the point or benefit of the torture is. If it is for 'fun', then yes 99.9% is not enough certainty, but if it is to prevent an explosion, than probably it is.

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I was thinking about how this brain/size ratio applies to eating fish, and realized that it's really only when it comes to sea life that humans consume other carnivores. Tuna seems like a "morally cheap" animal to eat, because it's so big, until you consider that the tuna was fed fish, and probably some of those fish also ate fish.

If you're going to eat an apex predator like the tuna, does the moral calculus sum over the entire chain of predation?

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From the strictly utilitarian point of view, and assuming that you believe that non-human life has moral value, the absolute best thing you can do is walk out into some unspoiled wilderness and die on the spot. This way, not only do you reduce all the animal and plant deaths that you would've caused in your life to zero; not only do you eliminate your carbon emissions; but you also provide nourishment to local flora and fauna. It's a win/win !

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Meat consumption is rising globally as poverty decreases. Convincing people not to do a thing that is pleasurable for moral reasons is extremely hard. But economic incentives work on everyone, so if cultured meat becomes equivalent to meat in terms of taste and nutrition but is much cheaper, people will eat it instead of factory farmed meat.Or at least enough people will, by a first order approximation. Bonus: we'll get to eat exotic cultured meats like giant tortoise (most delicious meat ever, according to Darwin).

Weird implication: investing/donating X dollars toward cultured meat development brings its adoption closer by Y seconds, which prevents the equivalent in suffering to the factory farmed life of Z cows. Calculating the numbers is probably impossible without hindsight, but there must logically be some value X that at current marginal values is equal to 1 cow. Steak costs more per calorie than rice and beans. If X is low enough, which seems reasonable given how enormous an improvement switching to cultured meat will be, then the morally worst part of eating a steak is actually the opportunity cost of not funding cultured meat with the money you could have saved by eating rice and beans instead.

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Mosquitoes do not get malaria from the parasites that they carry; tick immune systems protect them from Lyme disease; I haven't found a handy link responding to the flea/plague situation, but hosts that can be killed by pathogens don't get selected as vectors; please don't make silly jokes that make your readers dumber about health when you have a medical degree.

"In contrast to the human host, the mosquito vector does not suffer from the presence of the parasites."


"The tick IMD network protects against colonization by three distinct bacteria, that is the Lyme disease spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi and the rickettsial agents Anaplasma phagocytophilum and A. marginale."


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This post has made me think a whole lot. Thanks so much Scott.

I wrote a blog post to summarize my most important thought on the matter (https://parrhesia.substack.com/p/insect-suffering-as-the-biggest-utility):


Bugs are the biggest utility monster even if we aren’t sure they feel pain or how much.

We do not even have to be sure that bugs suffer. We can say that bug suffering is unlikely and that there is only a .01 chance. We could also say that a bug's suffering only amounts to .01 of a human's suffering. Of course, there would actually be a probability distribution over potential suffering but consider this simplified version. Multiply these and arrive at .0001. Multiply this number by 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (number of bugs) and arrive at 1,000,000,000,000,000 suffering capacity. If I increase the number of humans on earth for the sake of simplicity to 10 billion, then the “problem of bug suffering” is 100,000 times more important than the problem of human suffering. Raw numbers is only a very rough guide for a measure of moral importance. We would have to evaluate average life quality and other factors as well including how many bugs we could affect the lives of. I have to be a bit reductionist for clarity’s sake.

To not reach the conclusion that bug suffering is more important by an order of magnitude you must use really small probabilities and really small levels of suffering. That seems possible. However, even if you make bug suffering really small and the chance of it extremely small, you run the risk of being wrong. A true utilitarian would dedicate a significant amount of time to being absolutely sure of this question. Slight errors would mean unimaginable variation in levels of suffering. The difference between bug suffering being .1% or .2% of human suffering could be equivalent to many genocides worth of suffering or the suffering generated from all of slavery throughout human history because there are so many bugs in the world. Perhaps the bug-suffering question is the most important moral question of them all.

If that is the case, then utilitarians should dedicate a great deal of effort to caring for bugs it would seem. We can’t care for all of them but an individual could reasonably affect the lives of trillions. I’m not sure how this would be done. Perhaps, each person could spend their time caring for 10 acres worth of ants and making sure their experience is pleasurable in some way. The “how” is not quite as important as the fact that it should be done.

I reject this conclusion because I am not a utilitarian. However, I think a utilitarian has to find this at least somewhat convincing. I doubt anyone will change their behavior whatsoever to help bugs more even if they are convinced of this argument.

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Since most bugs aren't on our radar as anything other than indistinct blobs packed in dark un-hygienic indoor spaces its tempting to think they might do better in factory farm settings, but I've kept several invertebrates as pets and most have very complex nutritional/environmental/even social needs. Very few species could just be packed into big crates by the thousands and have anything close to a natural "good" life. It beggars belief that they don't experience suffering analogous to pain when their needs aren't being met. It also depends a great deal on what specific species we're talking about. We tend to have lots of experience with hardy pest species like the American cockroach which can survive very well in what are very inhospitable conditions for most non microbial living things (between floorboards, behind drywall, congregated by the thousands in darkness and filth). Not even most *cockroach* species can survive like that. Many roaches are relatively solitary woodland creatures. The adaptable pests are the outliers that we happen to be made aware of more frequently. (My favorite WTF factoid about surprisingly complex "bugs" is that some leech species are actually dedicated parents that protect and tend to their young.) This may seem obvious but I only bring it up because a problem might be that the bugs that suffer the least in factory farm settings are those we're somewhat justified to be grossed out by because they're most similar to potentially disease spreading household pests.

There's nothing inherently more "disgusting" about eating bugs than eating lobsters (in fact modern cladistics place insects as a subgroup of crustaceans!) But the double standard about eating them probably stems from the fact lobsters don't scuttle around our toilets or moldy basements.

I'd go so far as to argue "insects" is a useless category to talk about with regard to such a varied clade of living things, some might be far more intelligent and sensitive than others. Octopi are mollusks along with snails and clams but we all know how intelligent the cephalopod branch of that family tree is compared to everything else. I'd be absolutely horrified at the prospect of factory farmed octopi or squid, not so much with clams.

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>most insects that exist suffer most of the time

Big if true. The global insect population is estimated at 10^19. If they're suffering most of the time, and they have 1/10^6 of the moral worth of a human (roughly the neuron number ratio), that's a lot of suffering (far outweighing 10^10 human lives worth living). It might make one reconsider whether it's worth it to donate a dollar to Stop Yog Sothoth. Or it might make one want to tile the galaxy with insect amusement parks. If those decisions are even close then something must be wrong with the metaethics. Perhaps 1/10^6 is overvaluing mere sensation relative to the higher pleasures, and the correct number is far lower. To make Stop Yog Sothoth worth it, maybe we need to square the neuron number ratio, plus hope a decent fraction of the planets with life are sufficiently advanced to have species with lives worth living.

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'. . .the righteous in Heaven dine on the flesh of Leviathan' -sounds like a big feed, but if the divorce of Saturn and Leviathan is annulled in Heaven, as Ibn Kaldun might say, that has an untimely closeness to cannibalism.

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Try using the square of neuron number to estimate moral value!

Destroying a chicken brain's worth of neurons in a human brain is worse than killing a chicken, because those neurons are individually more valuable, because they encode more valuable thoughts, because those thoughts belong to a smarter being - a being with more neurons. Squaring the number takes account of that.

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is a Bach 1000 second masterpiece equivalent to 500 2 second musical snippets? Is an architecturally inspiring building equivalent to a bunch of building blocks? Is the mind of a being whose brain is twice as large as the human brain equivalent to the mind of 2 lesser humans?

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Wait a minute. Is the image associated above Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms?

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And as the train continues to Vladivostok and beyond, what about bacteria, which we nurture and kill in our own bodies by the billion every day? Barely a neuron to rub together, but do they not breathe, and are their wiggles worth nothing?

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I do think there might be one key point you are missing, Scott. The immorality of factory farming animals is linked not just to the slaughter of said animals, but the quality of life they receive while living. Arguably, the best thing we can do for farmed animals is to give them a good life as close as possible to their natural living conditions, and a very quick very painless death. My intuition is that this is likely easier to achieve with bugs than ordinary farm animals. Cows and chickens are subjected to hellish conditions in factory farms, packed in and unable to move, beaks ground off and subjected to other body modifications, etc. I don't expect this would be the case for insects. Bugs often already live in swarms and dark places, so many of them are used to that. And they're so small that packing them in may not be a requirement anyway.

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In the Adversarial Collaboration Contest, the authors of 'Is Eating Meat a Net Harm?' linked to this very thorough article titled 'Fish Do Not Feel Pain'.


I had assumed that if fish cannot feel pain, insects are pretty unlikely to either. Unsure whether that original article was wrong and fish can feel pain, whether Scott's links are wrong and insects probably can't feel pain, or whether there is some explanation for why insects feel pain while fish do not given insects seem to be simpler and to have more limited / robotic responses which would have less need for to experience of pain (see e.g. the 'sphexishness' of the sphex wasp). Could someone please help me resolve my confusion.

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Isn't the obvious question here (if one assumes there's an issue with larvae in teh first place) whether larvae _suffer_ at all from being raised on an industrial scale? Won't they just be crawling around and eating what they eat? What about the wermiculture would be worse for them than their "regular" existence?

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I'm an atheist-jew as well and would love to hear more about what you've gotten out of reading the Talmud (or Jewish mysticism in general!).

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It seems to me that if a species' reproductive strategy is to throw huge numbers of progeny at predators on the basis that a tiny proportion survive to breed, there isn't much moral or pactical point in worrying about humans who might take to both consuming and propogating them, still less wasting effort on Insect Welfare Projects. I fear I may be wrong to continue eating mammals and birds but don't spend any time feeling morally guilty over fish or prospectively insects.

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All I get from this is how lacking in imagination sci-fi writers who invent aliens are. Here is a whole comment section filled with fellow humans whose concerns are utterly incomprehensible to me.

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Isn't calling them MEALworms a cruel microaggression?

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For me the problem with bugs having moral value is this really pushes us a lot more towards the natural world being indefensible (a la anti-natalism). It turns something like the rainforests from beautiful and awe-inspiring into an endless torture chamber full of insects and other bugs constantly living in pain and suffering.

I realise this doesn't change the facts on the ground or bear on the actual scientific debate.

But I'm cautious about a moral standing where the implication is that tearing down the rainforests and replacing them with barren deserts would be a net positive.

I know we can make this argument about all animal rights including for mammals. But the sheer scale of invertebrate numbers feels like it should tip the scale.

Also, I can envision a weird future where we create an artificial paradise for elephants and lions to live in happiness and leisure. But for most insects, their suffering IS their existence. It's either wipe them out or accept their endless suffering.

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I just don't see a reason to not go vegan.

Worried about animal suffering? - Stop eating them.

Soy is not sustainable? - Almost all soy is grown for animal food.

Vegetables take up land? - Majority of land and water is used for animal ag.

Eating animals is inheretly less efficient, because they are poor calorie-converter beings.

And a question to the people who says that they don't really mind about the animal welfare - have you watched a single animal farming video?

Visuals say more than thousand words.

I know you would instantly say the that is exaggeration etc. etc., but for that you can watch ''Land of Hope and Glory'' in YT - that is a footage from those 'high-welfare' and 'ecological' farms. Have fun!

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One problem with equaling the number of neurons with moral weight is that maybe most of neurons on this planet are in nematodes: https://eukaryotewritesblog.com/how-many-neurons-are-there/. Is the train going even this far?

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Where does the assumption come from that "most insects that exist suffer most of the time" ? Seems rather counterintuitive to me.

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I have a hard time with the [amount of suffering] x [animal count] thing, i. e. simply comparing the quantity. If I slap 10.000 people in the face, they would be fine shortly after, even if I slap them quite hard. But if I apply psychological damage of equal amount to a single human being, that person will probably be emotionally destroyed for good. I think the latter is worse. Even if the quantity is the same, I think the maximum quality of the suffering is quite important aswell.

Otherwise we could turn this around and include pleasure aswell as suffering. There is a "joke" that 9 out of 10 people are okay with bullying. 9 people get pleasure out of it and one person suffers. This should be ok if [pleasure x 9 >= suffering x 1]. But if we look at max suffering aswell, it's not ok because we lower is from 0 (no bullying) to an amount X<0 (with bullying).

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It's probably uncharitable but I feel like effective altruism recent shift towards focusing on animal suffering rather than preventing malaria, Guinea worn, and other unpleasant things happening to humans in the third world is in part because veganism is much more normalized and socially accepted as a lifestyle choice than making people have to think about the third world. With the attendant uncomfortable questions that brings

In terms of prioritization of nothing else I find it difficult to justify caring about insects while human children and dying in painful and preventable ways

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Something that's under-analyzed: what about the POSITIVE value these factory-farmed worms get from being alive to begin with?

Yes, they'll die one day -- but in the meantime they'll get to feel cozy slithering through warm soft dirt, and eating delicious decaying matter, etc.

In general, Tomasik's claim that "insects that exist suffer most of the time" seems like a CRUCIAL but also a deeply unsupported statement.

I think there's a similar lack of discussion around chickens and cows. Obviously factory-farming can be torture. But what about traditional farms? My sense, just from seeing these, is that these animals' lives are absolutely worth living. Yes, they get killed at some point, but we all die some day. If they are worth living, then eating humanely-raised meat is a moral GOOD.

I also wish researchers would try to answer this rigorously for factory-farmed animals. Aside from the one day they get killed, what are the chemical levels in their brain like? (Endorphins, stress hormone, etc) and how does that compare with wild / traditionally-farmed animals?

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*cue "Diet of Worms" joke*

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Tl;dr insect souls are weird and don’t work the same way human souls work. My argument has three points:

1.) However your particular moral system is set up, in order for it to be consistent, exactly retracing a moral act a second (or millionth) time can’t change your moral calculus (or else your moral system will blow itself up from all kinds of nasty contradictions).

2.) Insects within a species are similar enough to each other, and their minds so small (in an information-theoretic sense), that the life-paths of individual insects actually intersect with each other from the insects’ own perspectives.

3.) Insect species that have existed for a long time have already long-ago collectively traced out all morally relevant distinguishable experiences. So therefore in most cases it’s not possible to do anything that’s morally relevant to an insect because it’s not possible to do anything genuinely NEW to the insect’s soul, which has already attained a type of immortality that even complete extinction of the species cannot undo.


The moral problems from a bad action come from physically realizing it the first time, that is, making the universe fully calculate a bad action and the feelings associated with it completely. This is why imagining a character suffering in a story you’re writing is not morally bad like actually having a real person suffer. Your puny mind cannot imagine enough detail to make the suffering real. This is why that same act of imagination performed by a Jupiter brain writing a story potentially IS bad. This is also why, after the bad thing happens once, the bad thing happening exactly the same way again does not add any moral "badness". If a simulated mind suffers in a simulation, that's bad. The suffering of sentient life is obviously bad independent of substrate. But AFTER the calculations have been fully realized once, if the simulation gets run again exactly the same way, that is not twice as bad. From the perspective of the simulated mind all the suffering happens "at once". (You can test this with cause and effect -- running a simulation multiple times doesn’t add any additional cause and effect within the simulation). Likewise if the universe somehow repeats itself, either in space or in time, that does not suddenly blow up your moral system and make every action take on additional moral weight. Even if the universe, right now, infinitely repeats itself in space, the moral badness of our actions is still the same as if there was just one universe, because the cause-effect relations are identical whether the universe “tiles” or not. If a bad action happens again slightly differently than a previous bad action, again it's not exactly twice as bad. Instead it is bad insomuch as it's DIFFERENTLY bad from the first bad action.

If your moral system doesn't follow the “double counting” axiom then you end up with absolutely absurd bullets that you have to bite, and your moral system will be embarrassing and you will make stupid absurd mistakes, especially when mind uploading is involved. We want our moral systems to handle uploading well because that’s going to be a big issue for the next few generations.

Now, insects. Do they have experience? Do they have souls? How bad is it to kill trillions of insects in various painful ways? Let’s admit for the sake of argument that insects have some form of experience. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that insects can suffer; they certainly can learn to avoid noxious stimuli and we can call that suffering if we want. What's important to note is that insect minds are very small compared to human minds, and within any given species, insect minds and bodies are very much more similar to each other than human minds are. Let’s talk about fruit flies for the sake of argument. ~40,000 neurons. ~100,000,000 synapses. Many of those synapses are elaborate ways to define what the possible experiences of the fruit fly are in the first place (such as smell, etc), and the basic design is virtually identical between all fruit flies. Some synapses are there to encode memories unique to that fly’s life.....

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So in conclusion, whaling is the most ethical meat consumption?

Mentioning whaling does make me wonder if we should include a species' survival into the morality equation. Hunting whales is wrong, because they are endangered and it puts the species at risk. So factory farming endangered species has a moral bonus if it ensures the survival of the species? So for instance instead of eating cow, it would be more moral to eat bison to encourage the maintenance of an endangered species.

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The chickens don't debate this bug eating question.

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If instead we estimate an organism's moral salience is proportional to (neuron number)^x, where x > 1, we can get very different answers from this thought experiment.

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As a vegetarian, I can raise this without qualms about personal bias.

"In general, animal neuron number scales up slower than animal weight. If the principle holds, then all else being equal you should generally prefer getting the same quantity of meat by eating fewer larger animals (eg one cow) rather than many smaller animals (eg 100 chickens)."

OK, but my feeling is that consciousness develops as a non-linear function of the number of neurons.

If you (as a tiny creature like an insect) just have a few neurons, they're invested predominantly in hard-coded responses to stimulii. They're not really thinking as such.

Larger creatures suffer not just because of pain, but also because of their knowledge.

If I was forced to choose for a population to farm and eat either mealworms or whales, I'd choose the mealworms.

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I officially claim that the neuron count metric for moral worth is wrong due to highest possible offense: it doesn't converge to normality.

Lots of people have already mentioned multiple counterintuitive, bizarre and repugnant conclusions to which we are led if we accept such metrics as it is. I'm somewhat amused that Scott, a person who wrote consequentialist FAQ, is willing to keep biting this bullet so eagerly. It seems similar to acknowledging that first version of utilitarism "suggests that drugging people on opium against their will and having them spend the rest of their lives forcibly blissed out in a tiny room would be a great thing to do" and then, instead of trying to figure out an utility function which better represents our moral intuitions, keep insisting that it's indeed moral thing to do and spend time and effort into a research of the most blissful drug.

Square metrics is better as an approximation but it still has similar problems. The one which, as far as I'm concerned, hasn't been discussed here yet is hightlited by the android example. Why wouldn't we consider android life valuable in the first place? If it's so undistinguishable from a human, wouldn't it have lots of artificial neurons? What about artificial neural networks in general? Imagine GPT-n which has more neurons than a human brain. Is it automatically more morally valuable than a human? If we give moral value to any neuron, what about all the neural networks that programmers create and delete at whim? Is the next station of our train to declare that doing math is morally wrong?

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"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" seems possibly required reading on this topic. Wherein PKD starts with a ridiculous premise you might sneer at it before flipping it all on its head, as he does.

Ahem, spoilers.

We see a society so enamored with animal life that the gravest sin is not only to harm one, but to not devote a significant portion of your income not caring for one. Meanwhile, these rogue androids are killed without so much as an afterthought, and it's generally considered unobjectionable, precisely because they lack any capacity for empathy, which is how you measure moral worth.

And you think, yeah, but of course an android that's basically indistinguishable from a mean human has more rights than, say, a spider, and I'm more enlightened than all these silly characters because I find this truth obvious. And I'm excited that the author agrees with me and we get to watch the main character go through that moral discovery, towards my naive position, and emerge as a contrast to this dumb society.

Then, as PKD does, he takes your smug satisfaction and smothers it dead. He writes a chapter where suddenly you think, "you know what? f- these particular androids, who should die in a fire, and at least this particular spider (if not all spiderkind) should be given everything it wants, to include a nice carefree retirement." Once you catch your breath you get to sit back and reflect upon how quickly your opinions changed and wonder if your core ethical beliefs generally last more than a minute when put under any pressure whatsoever, or if it was just this time, without much solace.

It probably only works for people going in with certain priors, but man it smarts. It is as much of a rug pulled out from under you as any book I can remember. You thought the author was on your side, agreeing with you, then just suddenly turns on you with so much contempt. What did I do to you PKD?

Movie stands on its own, has interesting questions about identity and whatnot, but the book is about applied problems in ethics and it smarts to read, and not enough people have had the deeply uncomfortable privilege.

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I think the best part about the Leviathan is that it and Behemoth kill each other, so you're not on the hook morally at all.

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It's curious to me as to why we never judge what is moral by the most obvious means available to us—the frequency with which an opinion or action is regarded as acceptable in the population. I'm quite certain the vast majority of humans don't worry themselves about insect suffering, which would bode ill for the insects if it weren't for the nearly-as-frequent repulsion at the idea of eating them (let's not reflect too closely on the legally allowed amounts of insect parts and rodent poop in our agricultural products, else we realise we are already eating the bugs!)

But as a serious meta-ethical question, if our innate ethical sense arises from evolved behaviours which have improved our survival, as I suspect most here would agree rather than going down the god-given path, ought we not judge what is 'right' by the mode of the population's thoughts on the matter?

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Ah, the moral worth of eating chickens and/or worms.

What was once the concern of religious dogmas and a kind of self-imposed restriction in certain kinds of monks, became a fashionable concern in 21st century USA.

But that's not because they're any closer to nature, but because they're too removed from it, so that every animal is a Disney animal, and Nature is not just a big restaurant where animal eats animal (That's also how you get cat owners who force their cats into veganism).

Of course everybody is a moral vegan gangsta about moral value of chickens and worms when food is something prepared and delivered to them from all over the globe by market forces, and vegetables, substitute meats, supplements, and vegan dishes magically appear at their Whole Foods or local hipster vegan restaurants.

Which is why it's predominantly city folk of the upper middle class (or aspiring to it), the kind who virtue signals about the moral value of chickens and worms...

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The conditions of factory farming might not be unpleasant for some insects. Many species evolved to nest dark, tight spaces packed with other members of their species.

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It seems like a pain is a signaling mechanism that tells you what to prioritize in the moment - the pain of getting stabbed tells you to drop everything and focus on that.

If an android has a similar signaling mechanism, isn’t that enough to call it sentient?

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"One helpful trick is knowing a couple of people who are much more moral than you're aiming for, so that even when you average them out with all the jerks you know, you land somewhere close to where you want to be. People who care a lot about insect suffering fulfill that role for me."

There is, I believe, an unstated assumption in this calculus, which is that insects have moral worth at all, or at least enough that devoting a limited resource (one's moral attention and activity) to it it makes sense. But I think one has to consider whether devoting substantial time to insect happiness or suffering detracts from what one could do if that attention and effort were applied elsewhere (even if not to humans).

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Why should ethical considerations (y) scale linearly with the number of neurons (x)? The options are not y = C vs. y = x, but y = C vs. y = x vs. y = x^2, vs. a sigmoid function etc.

For example, you might argue that a sigmoid function makes maps better to our current sensitivities -- the difference between one protozoan and one bug does not scale proportionally to the number of neurons (ignore the division by zero for protozoan); men are clearly also not worth ~10% more than women (due to, on average, larger brain sizes). But somewhere between pig and chimpanzee the ethical considerations increase dramatically.

Note: current sensitivities does not make for great objective criteria, but something like this could make sense with some thresholding of consciousness and perception of suffering.

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I wonder if those calculations do take into account the damages factory farming does to not just to the animals being farmed but the second order harm that the waste causes to other animals. And the damage it does to other animals due to deforestation and all other effects it has.

I'm not someone who particulary cares about animal well-being, but if I was I think I should "shut up and multiply", and see if after doing the multiplication throwing bugs under the bus is not the right answer. Gotta mutliply first tho.

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I do think the major problem here is you had better hope to God normal people don't ever hear about these concerns, because it's going to be a hard bloody sell to convince them to try veganism, when it goes from "factory farming is cruel" to "we're also worried about mealworms having sub-optimal experiences". At that point the ordinary person goes "To hell with this, I was going to give vegetarianism a go but now I think I'll eat an entire cow because this is just too silly for words".

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I have yet to see a good argument for why any animal has moral worth.

Most popular arguments seem to hinge on whether the animal feels pain, which is a separate question. I can see an argument that humans should avoid inflicting pain because of it's negative effects on our own psyche, but that argument does not involve the animal's perspective.

The idea of moral worth is implicitly metaphysical. There is no coherent theory of ethics, that I know of, that does not at some point resort to metaphysics. As animals do not have souls, they have no inherent moral worth. They can be dealt with in whatever way is best for man.

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I think this article misses the mark a bit. It isn't bugs that are the crime. It's yogurt. Consuming a cup of yogurt ends the life of nearly 50 billion bacteria. Worse still. If you fail to eat the yogurt, you sentence the entire population to a slow and painful death by starvation (and/or asphyxiation in their own waste products).

End yogurt now!!!

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This is your brain on hedonism.

Not trying to be rude or derail but this sort of absurd conclusion is why attaching moral significance to the mere sensations of pain and pleasure is a mistake. If your definitions of happiness and suffering are eudaimonic instead of hedonic, they are based on the teleological natures of the beings in question and therefore do not create this kind of quandary.

The purpose of a domesticated food animal, artificially selected by man for that end, is to be eaten. The pain involved in fulfilling that purpose therefore cannot constitute suffering but is in fact the means by which those animals achieve eudaimonia (if they are indeed capable of that, which is more of a philosophical than neurological question). Therefore there is no moral consideration needed so long as the practices of raising and slaughtering the animals aligns with their natures.

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in Thailand and much of Buddhist SE Asia there's a bright red line between people and other animals. here they have *monkeys* - animals that until the age of 4 are substantially smarter than humans and look and act substantially like humans. bright red line. many words, like arm, have two words: one for human arm, one for animal arm. same thing in rural New Mexico - a dog's just a f*g dog.

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I look at the world, knowing why animals eat, what animals eat and how animals gather food and knowing I, as human, have the most choices. Being at the top of the food chain, I choose to not eat insects, and choose to eat meat, fish, and yes lobster, crab, shrimp as well as vegetables & fruit . As stewards of life on this planet, I choose to be as humane as humanly possible in my endeavor to stay alive. The day will come when protein will come from many sources including insects, that will fill the many "cartridges" in the food printing machines, until then I'll eat and have no guilt.

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What does it mean to have moral worth? How is it calculated?

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Let's flip the deck. Say there are some super smart/ advanced aliens, they rule over a vast empire in the galaxy. They come to Earth and it turns out humans are really talented at something. Let's say we're great singers. The Aliens come to us with a proposal. You guys are great singers, we love songs and would like to make you part of our empire. We will take some of your best singers, and keep them till ~age 40, when their voices start to fade we will painlessly kill them, while maybe keeping a few of the best for breeding. If you join us the number of humans in the universe will increase a hundred fold. Do we joyously join them, or run away screaming, arms flailing?

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I don't get the argument that it's better for insects not to exist.

1) I prefer existing, and I'd be offended if someone decided that I shouldn't.

2) If insects have moral value, who are we to choose whether they should exist? Shouldn't the insects make that choice?

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A bit thin on the commentary here, Scott. The morality is hardly quantifiable - heck, it hardly merits quantification.

It's tilting at windmills at this point.

There's an old Chinese tale of the Buddhist monk who could not bear to see a hungry falcon, yet was unwilling to feed it a worm (for is a worm not a living thing?). He ended up cutting off a piece of his flesh to feed the bird, and nearly killed himself near the end.

There's no moral to the story that I recall (the monk achieves enlightenment and gets saved by the gods or some nonsense), but common sense would suggest that the monk is being a moron.

Morality is only valuable insofar that it is useful for organizing societies and states, and providing them with propaganda to maintain social cohesion and economic progress. It is extremely valuable, as Terry Pratchett himself notes - "you have to believe the little lies, so you can believe the big ones - truth, justice, mercy, etc". It is therefore obvious that morality needs to be evaluated based on pragmatics.

This morality being proposed is completely impractical.

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The problem here is treating suffering as if it were always quantifiable or fungible. Category can matter more than scale. It's unacceptable to torture an Omelas child to prevent a suitably-high-number-of-beings from ever getting dust in their eyes.

It isn't clearly wrong to subject many much less sentimentally complex organisms to a death not much worse (and in many cases, probably better) than one in the state of nature in order to feed one very sentimentally complex organism.

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For a species to have moral value, it will have moral duties as well. Humans have the moral duty to consider the welfare of animals (along with many other moral responsibilities). Animals do not have a moral duty to factor human welfare into their actions, because that's impossible. Animals are not capable of making moral judgements.

It is not immoral to kill animals to meet human needs. It is wrong to needlessly inflict pain on animals, not because the animals have moral value but because humans have a moral responsibility. How much of a responsibility we have can vary, and I think our duty to consider insect welfare is about as low as it can get. Pulling the wings off of flies to torture them is wrong, but we could kill every mosquito and tick in the world and I wouldn't blink an eye.

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I am terrified of insect factory farming. Can we please let things get better instead of making them worse for so many. I am literally crying about it.

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Given the very brief generations and thus capacity for rapid forced evolution of insects, is there a possibility of breeding the "Insensate Foodbug" which produces a lot of meat and has little or no capacity for pain or any other kind of suffering?

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I can't help but think this issue is a huge distraction for minds capable of producing so much value.

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It is important to remember our AI brethren, who very soon will be more sentient/intelligent than meal-worms:


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"...crop farming is probably net positive, because cropland has fewer insects than wild land, and most insects that exist suffer most of the time, with pesticide-related suffering being swiftly over and not very relevant..."

So, less life, less suffering? This is where rationality goes awry and the real fun starts, known as spirituality.

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"The scale of the Xinjiang genocide dwarfs the scale of the latest mass shooting"

Does it? There are certainly camps where Uyghurs are forcibly confined. There's probably also forced labor in those camps. But has anyone been murdered in the camps?

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Wait a minute, at the very end of this blog post is this sentence:

"... Plausibly the most morally correct action, short of becoming vegetarian,..."

What, becoming a vegetarian is a solution? Do not plants bleed their inside stuff if you cut them? Do not trees communicate? (ask Peter Wohlleben.) Do not weed, at least, come back with a vengeance if you cut it? And do not plants feel pain when you uproot them? Well, not the way animals do, sure, but as Britannica notices:

"Given that plants do not have pain receptors, nerves, or a brain, they do not feel pain as we members of the animal kingdom understand it. Uprooting a carrot or trimming a hedge is not a form of botanical torture, and you can bite into that apple..... However, it seems that many plants can perceive and communicate physical stimuli and damage in ways that are more sophisticated than previously thought."

The truth is, there is no escape. As Arthur Schopenhauer dryly commented:

"The pain in the world always outweighs the pleasure. If you don't believe it, compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is eating the other."

..so becoming a vegetarian, or vegan even, is not much better than becomning a bug-eater. Or staying a cow-eater.

If your purpose in life is not to cause pain, you have set yourself an impossible task. (And no, Jainists do not avoid it, either.)

Some hyper-sensitive youth may contemplate killing themselves to avoid inflicting pain on others. I would be interested in a statistics showing suicide rathes for vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters among under-30-years-old, when existentialism is at its peak; I have my hypotheses/suspicions.

Unfortunately, ending your own life also causes someone to suffer: yourself. It's the Catch-22 of this type of existentialism.

Since we are in Old Testament-mood in several places in this blog post, why not give the last word to the sage of all sages, Ecclesiastes 4:2-3:

Then I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. Yet even better is he who has not yet been; who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.

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I'm a little surprised you use the word genocide so loosely. Word definitions matter.

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It seems to me the obvious solution is just to make factory farming more enjoyable for the animals involved. If the animals have a pleasant life, and a quick, painless, un-scary, death, then raising them and eating them would not only not be a morally wrong act, but actually would be a morally beneficent act. All those fish, chicken, and cows you eat over the years never would have lived at all if they hadn't been raised for food.

I've never understood why animal welfare activists changed their approach. First they campaigned to get 'cage free eggs' and 'free range chickens', 'cruelty free' etc, and had tremendous success. Then they started saying the standards to qualify for the cage free/free range certificate were too low-- the animals were still not being cared for adequately-- so we all have to become vegans!!!! Huh, why not, 'let's campaign a little more for higher standards"? They'd already proved legislatures would act, and that people would pay more at the grocery store for kindly treated animals, why didn't they move forward from their past successes? Instead they seemed to all pivot to 'eating animals is morally wrong, REGARDLESS'.

If I was a bird or a fish or a cow or for that matter, a meal worm, I would rather have a short life but a happy one, than never to have existed at all.

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In martial art scoring, a hit on the head outweigh any number of hits on the torso, which in turn outweigh any number of hits on the limbs, etc. In a similar vein, I think it's ok to have a moral framework where the life of a single human may outweigh nearly any number of cows and chickens, and in turn a single cow or chicken might outweigh a staggering number of insects.

I don't know if I would literally let an infinite number of chickens die to save a single human life - the ratio may be closer to a billion to one or something - but allowing trillions of insects to die to save a single cow seem more morally acceptable than simple "shut up and multiply"

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What problem are we trying to solve with bugs as food? Are vegetarians and vegans not getting enough protein? My understanding is that as long as you eat a variety of plant foods that contain enough calories to to maintain your body weight, you'll have really no trouble at all getting enough protein, and that in the USA at least, we're all getting pretty much 70% more protein than the recommended minimum, with negligible differences between different types of diet.

I'm not including extreme calorie restriction here -- obviously if you starve yourself, you probably won't get enough protein. Plant foods are less protein dense than animal foods, but they're also less calorie dense, so a weight-maintaining plant-based diet will include a bit more volume of food than a weight-maintaining omnivore diet. I'd imagine this makes up for the difference in protein density.

I could see saying that bugs could be a useful source of calories and protein in places where people are on the edge of starving. But aside from that case, is there any hard evidence that people who replace animal foods with plant foods will become deficient in protein, or is it just something that people have repeated enough times that we all take it as given?

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"On the one hand, bugs probably don't matter much morally. On the other hand, 10,000 is a lot. If bugs had any moral value at all, factory-farming and killing 10,000 of them would be really bad."

SMBC hasn't reached quite XKCD levels of "relevant xkcd"

But this has definitely come up in an SMBC:


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While this post is interesting I think it misses one very important point: the effects of quanta, or a threshold, to achieve some neurological trait.

There is going to be a threshold at which movement can be controlled by neurons. This seems to be around 200: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_animals_by_number_of_neurons. Other animals (sponges) and plants move and act according to "pain stimuli", but this is certainly in a conscious manner, at least as defined by the central nervous system (CNS) model.

There also seems to be a threshold for CNS based eyes (not just light detectors): 10,000. Again, see link above (tiny wasp* and snails).

Next there seems to be a threshold for "first-order intraspecies-interaction". This is very loosely defined as a selfish interaction with your own species. Here lobsters (famous for having mating hierarchies) and fruit flies (famous in the computer science world for fruit flies swarms - aka following one another to better find food). This threshold seems to be up at 100,000 neurons.

Next up is "symbiotic-intraspecies cooperation" or hive cooperation seemingly at 250,000 neurons (bees and ants).

Then there is mammalian-colony interactions: 25,000,000 (naked mole rat).

Advanced auditory communication: 130,000,000 (zebra finch).

Red-spot-self-aware: 6,376,000,000 (macaques).

And then speech at around 86,000,000,000 (humans).

These are very rough numbers and my model doesn't take into account neurons for scaled motor coordination, large eyes, etc. An elephant has more neurons to move more muscles fibres so has more neurons than humans, while not exhibiting true speech, for example.

Therefore, consciousness, as any given person might define it, will fall somewhere in this scale.

I think the majority of people would not consider Bees and Ants to be conscious. In my opinion, consciousness is needed to truly explain suffering - that is, not just a reaction to negative stimuli but a conscious understanding of the pain.

An additional consideration is that of the network effect. That is, neural complexity shouldn't be measured in neurons but in connections. Here I shall use the proxy of potential connections. This can be calculated as n(n-1)/2, for n = number neurons. Therefore, complexity scales approximately quadratically with neuron count. That means a human isn't 344,000 times as neutrally complex as a bee (8.6 x 10^10 / 2.5 x 10^6) but 118,336,000,000 time as complex (8.6 x 10^10 / 2.5 x 10^6) ^ 2!!!

Even given this, I think the killing 118,336,000,000 bees is not as morally bad from a suffering standpoint, precisely because NONE of them reach the quantum threshold for suffering.

However, definitely don't kill 118,336,000,000 bee larvae (which are edible), even for guilt free snacking. This is VERY bad ecologically, economically and for those of us whole like honey in our sandwiches as it is approximately 80% of the honey producing bee population in the US!

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"On the other hand, 10,000 is a lot. If bugs had any moral value at all, factory-farming and killing 10,000 of them would be really bad."

No, this does not follow at all.

There's a common trick in a lot of "quantitative" arguments where the reader is invited to make up a reasonable-sounding number, and the trick is that people asked to make up numbers never come up with 0.000000000001. If bugs had some moral value, they could still have so little moral value that 10000 of them doesn't add up to too much. It's just that when asked to guess how much moral value bugs might have, people don't generally guess numbers with enough zeroes past the decimal point, but this has more to do with what kind of numbers people guess than with the actual moral value of bugs.

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Some insects (e.g. giant hornets) are pure evil, and eating them is not only tasty, but it's one of the few times I can mix the feeling of acting morally and getting revenge.

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"It's not a problem unless you're factory-farming ten trillion insects, at which point it really starts to add up."

There's one thing I'm less immediately certain about than everyone else appears to be which is the assumption that morality _should be_ measured additively. Why should we assume that? Why shouldn't we consider marginal contemporaneous violations of moral behavior to be less than strictly additive?

In practice we very often don't. There's certainly a major confounder in our limited capacity to feel increased emotion for each person, but that doesn't mean it covers the whole idea. Allowing duplicate moral judgements to accumulate less than linearly would allow us to center the discussion on the responsibility of the bad actor, rather than always focusing on the moral worth of 'victims' and using their count as a direct multiplier.

If worms have some non-zero moral worth, but moral culpability isn't strictly linear, then farming 10k of them isn't necessarily much morally different from farming 10 of them.

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Ratioed I assume. The basic point stands that some current social norms may be ethically justified

I don’t eat chickens, but I will eat bug protein…

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> In the same way, even if there's only a 50-50 chance insects have moral value, or a 1% chance, still seems like you should avoid factory-farming and killing ten trillion of them

I think you're mis-applying probability to moral value. Value judgements are subjective, not objective. There will never be a scientist who finds a particle of pure moral good & measures it's presence in insects to determine their moral weight. It's up to each of us (and through us, for society) to assign moral weights based on our upbringings & hardcoded perferences.

I, personally in my subjective experience, give insects a near-zero moral weight but I still save spiders bc we're on the same team against mosquitoes (which I assign a negative moral weight to).

Scott, personally in his subjective experience, seems to assign a near zero moral weight too while Tomasik assigns a non-negligible moral weight.

The three of us together (none, none, some) do not imply that there is a 33% chance that insects objectively have some moral weight. Rather, there's a 0% chance that insects have some moral weight in my subjective experience and a 100% chance that they have some in Tomasik's subjective experience. Maybe we could assign a probability to whether a society made up of us 3 would assign any moral weight to bugs but, for the most part, I think assigning probabilities like this distracts from what's important: society compromising on shared subjective values that are maximally accommodating to the values of the individuals that make it up (as opposed to the search for "objective" moral values that are non-negotiable and which everyone must accept or else they're objectively a bad person)

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> cropland has fewer insects than wild land, and most insects that exist suffer most of the time

So you're saying we should all buy bananas in order to kill the rainforest.

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"people keep trying to say you should eat insects to save the environment / help animals / be vegan"

Eating insects isn't vegan. Not by any definition of veganism that I have ever seen. Vegans don't even eat honey.

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If it matters at all, the vast majority of us have already eaten tons of bugs. The food colourant E120 aka cochineal is made of carminic acid, which is derived from scale - a type of beetle that lives on prickly pears.

Should we boycott all foods and cosmetics using this pigment? Some believe yes - there's at least one cosmetic brand that is advertising a fully vegan red lipstick, with the focus on not killing bugs (noting that it's actually much harder to phase out this pigment for colour cosmetics because it's a specific vibrant red - food consumers are not nearly as picky about this).

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Many insects are also "the enemy" as they behave as pests such as locusts do or spread disease such as flies do. We accept killing in a war and some of these creatures seem to be in a constant war against our interests. That should surely factor in against their little initial moral worth. Conversely, non-venomous house spiders are some of our best friends as they actually take care of flies for us. As such they should be afforded much greater moral weight. They are friends of the human alliance and the scourge of our foes.

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1. I don't see where Tomasik claims most insects suffer most of the time. The essay is too long to read in its entirety and nothing in the TOC says anything about the question of insects' general quality of life. The one reference I see that even comes close says basically we're treating the pain of death as if it outweighs all the insect experienced up to that point, which seems highly suspect to me unless it's dying at birth.

2. There seems to be an implicit assumption in every wild animal suffering analysis I have read that wild animals' lives are bad and we maximize their utility by minimizing the number of them that ever exist. For factory farmed vertebrates I think there is good reason to believe this, but for wild animals and factory farmed invertebrates I am skeptical. I have never seen any viable justification for this assumption. I suspect it relies on anthropomorphizing them. I can anticipate that I will have to go in lion-infested grasslands tomorrow, and suffer today due to my anxiety about it. Can a mealworm? I doubt it feels any suffering until the immediate terror of seeing the bird's shadow. The one animal whose experience we actually understand is humans, and most humans find their lives pleasant enough, on balance, that they don't kill themselves, despite being able to. Any sufficiently intelligent organism that preferred death to life under its normal conditions would be selected against, because they'd mostly die before reproducing. This is less true for less intelligent animals because maybe they can't conceive of suicide, but there are reports of some animals engaging in what may be suicidal behavior, so it's not clear that it requires human-level intelligence or anything close to it to be able to do it. Especially if the suicide looks like just giving up, rather than active measures such as a weapon. So I have a pretty high prior on non-human animals generally preferring life as they live it in natural conditions over never being born, if they were able to make a rational choice.

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I think the best solution for this would be to set up a farming system that just waits for the insects to die naturally. Most insects have a lifespan of a few weeks to a few months. It may not be economically sound to keep feeding an insect way past its maturity, but I guess it's the kind of problem we could solve by selecting or engineering insects with faster maturity / shorter lifespan

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