What’s so special about living longer?

Atheist death panel: Red America's suspicions confirmed.

After reading about the death panel we held at Skepticon IV last week, a very clever philosopher friend of mine named Henry Shevlin wrote to me with a challenge to the transhumanist perspective. The transhumanist argument, which Eliezer made eloquently in the panel, is that death is a terrible thing that we should be striving to prevent for as long as possible.
Henry asks:

“Is death a tragedy because it involves a possible loss of utility, or because there’s some special harm in the annihilation of the individual? So consider two scenarios… Earth 1B and Earth 2B. Both of them have 100 million inhabitants at any one time. But Earth 1B has a very high life expectancy and a very low birth rate, while Earth 2B has a lower life expectancy and a very high birth rate. Otherwise, though, the two worlds are very similar. Which world is morally superior, by which I mean, generates more utils? “

Good question. Why, exactly, is prolonging existing lives better than creating new lives?

Let’s start with Henry’s Option 1 — that a person’s death is a tragedy because of the loss of the utility that person would have had, if he hadn’t died. Starting with this premise, can we justify our intuition that it’s better to sustain a pre-existing life than to create a new one?

One possible tack is to say that we can only compare utilities of possible outcomes for currently existing people — so the utility of adding a new, happy person to this world is undefined (and, being undefined, it can’t compensate for the utility lost from an existing person’s death). Sounds reasonable, perhaps. But that also implies that the utility of adding a new, miserable person to this world is undefined. That doesn’t sound right! I definitely want a moral theory which says that it’s bad to create beings whose lives are sheer agony.

You might also be tempted to argue that utility’s not fungible between people. In other words, my loss of utility from dying can’t be compensated for by the creation of new utility somewhere else in the world. But that renders utilitarianism completely useless! If utility’s not fungible, then you can’t say that it’s good for me to pay one penny to save you from a lifetime of torture.

Or you could just stray from utilitarianism in this case, and claim that the loss of a life is bad not just because of the loss of utility it causes. That’s Henry’s Option 2 — that death is a tragedy because there’s some special harm in the annihilation of the individual. You could then argue that the harm caused by the death of an existing person vastly outweighs the good caused by creating a new person. I’m uncomfortable with this idea, partly because there doesn’t seem to be any way to quantify the value of a life if you’re not willing to stick to the measuring system of utils. But I’m also uncomfortable with it because it seems to imply that it’s always bad to create new people, since, after all, the badness of their deaths is going to outweigh the good of their lives.

ETA: Of course, you could also argue that you care more about the utils experienced by your friends and family than about the utils that would be experienced by new people. That’s probably true, for most people, and understandably so. But it doesn’t resolve the question of why you should prefer that an unknown stranger’s life be prolonged than that a new life be created.

What is “objectification,” and what’s wrong with it?

I was pleased to discover that one of my favorite bloggers, Luke Muehlhauser, had recently tackled a topic that’s been on my mind too: what do people mean when they talk about men “objectifying” women, and why exactly is it a bad thing? As per usual with Luke’s posts, it’s a clear-headed and thoughtful analysis, and it’s obvious that he isn’t trying to attack anyone — just genuinely trying to parse the concept and determine the degree to which it makes sense.

Luke lists several typical ways people define “objectification,” most of which center around the idea of treating another person as a means to an end, without being conscious of their feelings and goals and preferences. I’ve always felt this is an odd definition for two reasons, both of which Luke raises: First, it seems like an incomplete definition, in that there are many cases that match that definition perfectly but which no one would call instances of objectification (Luke has a clever photographic example).

And second, if objectification is “using someone as a means to an end,” it isn’t clear why objectification is inherently bad, even though the word typically carries a strong connotation of condemnation. After all, we all use each other as means to an end all the time! When I buy a cup of coffee, I’m treating the barista as a means to the end of getting a cup of coffee. I’m not really thinking about his feelings or goals — and I don’t think he expects or particularly wants me to be.

Of course, if not-thinking about someone’s feelings means that you harm him (like if I were rude to the barista) then it’s easy to see why that’s bad. But the proper conclusion from that fact is “harming people is bad,” not “objectification is bad.” It’s certainly possible to use someone as a means to an end without harming him, and so it’s still not clear why objectification per se is bad.

At least, that’s the form my argument typically took until yesterday. I thought about it a bit more after reading Luke’s analysis, and concluded that I had been missing part of the picture. So to the extent that I’m now sympathetic to arguments against objectification, it’s for this reason:

Objectification’s not necessarily a problem at the individual level. When Person A uses Person B as a means to an end, as long as B’s not being harmed, then it’s ethically unproblematic (at least for us utilitarian-minded folks). The tricky thing is that when you have a lot of A’s systematically treating a lot of B’s as a means to an end in the same kind of way, it can start to become a problem. Because at that scale, it can affect the way A’s and B’s think about each other — people’s attitudes are influenced by the way the people around them think and act. So it can have this self-reinforcing ripple effect that ends up stifling other kinds of interactions and relationships that many A’s and B’s would’ve found fulfilling.

So, that’s my current theory. It’s the best I can do at reconciling the facts that (1) I’m not at all bothered by the idea of a particular man being interested in a particular woman only for sex, and (2) I hate the idea of a society in which most men are only interested in women for sex (and I think such a society would be seriously sub-optimal for both men and women).*

I think this is a very under-appreciated aspect of the objectification debate. I also think it poses interesting problems for utilitarian ethics; how do you assign blame in situations where any single person doing X is harmless, but many people doing X is harmful? It’s somewhat akin to problems like pollution, where each individual actor can truthfully argue, “Given that everyone else is polluting, it’s not going to make any difference if I do it too.”

And with objectification, not only do you have the fact that no single person’s actions are going to measurably change the overall culture, you also have the fact that the overall culture is partly to blame for each individual’s actions. And all of the individuals’ actions, in turn, are to blame for the overall culture. The circularity makes it especially tricky to figure out the degree to which any individual actor deserves blame for his actions.

*Of course, men objectifying women isn’t the only kind of objectification; you could fill in any gender in place of either “men” or “women.” I just used that pairing because it’s the typical one in these discussions, but my argument isn’t actually gender-dependent.

Ethics of the sex tape

A friend was telling me last week about a celebrity sex tape that he particularly enjoys. I’m not going to help publicize this tape, for reasons that should become clear from reading my post, but I can sketch out the rough details for you: The woman is a young singer, publicly Christian, and she’s having sex with a married man. The tape was stolen (or hacked, I’m not sure) and leaked to the public. It’s theoretically possible that she leaked it herself for publicity, I suppose, but it seems unlikely given the cheating and the Christianity — it definitely tarnished the public image she’d carefully constructed for herself, in addition to being humiliating simply by virtue of it being a sex tape.

So I asked my friend if he feels any guilt about watching this tape, knowing that the woman didn’t want other people to see it, and we ended up having a friendly debate about whether there was anything ethically problematic about his behavior. Of course, the answer to that depends on what ethical system you’re using. You could, for example, take a deontological approach and declare that it’s just a self-evident principle that we don’t have a right to watch someone else’s private tape. Or alternately, you could take a virtue ethics approach and declare that enjoying the tape, after it’s already been leaked, is exploiting someone else’s misfortune, which isn’t a virtuous thing to do.

But my friend and I are both utilitarians, at heart, and neither of those lines of argument resonated with us. We were concerned, instead, with what I think is a more interesting question: does watching the tape harm the woman? As my friend emphasized, she’ll never know that he watched it. (At least, that’s true as long as he downloads it from Bit Torrent, or some other file-sharing site where the number of views of the video aren’t recorded such that she could ever see how much traffic it’s gotten.)

I agreed, but was still reluctant to conclude that no harm was done. Do I necessarily have to know about something in order for its outcome to matter to me? If you tell me about two possible states of the world, one in which everyone has seen my awful humiliating sex tape, and one in which no one has, I’m going to have a very strong preference for the latter, even if people behave identically towards me in both potential worlds. So maybe it makes more sense to define “harming someone” to mean, “helping create a world which that person would not want to exist, given the option,” rather than “causing that person to experience suffering or disutility.” My friend’s decision to watch the tape harmed the woman according to the first, but not the second, definition.

Then my friend advanced what I had to admit was a pretty clever argument:

“Well, presumably the reason she doesn’t want people to see her tape is that she assumes it will make them think worse of her. But I am totally non-judgmental about sex, and don’t think worse of her at all for having made a sex tape. So even if you think there can be harm done to someone without the person ever knowing about it, still, the ‘harm’ is not in people watching the tape but in them thinking worse of her. Which I didn’t, so — no harm done.”

Of course, it’s hard to speculate about someone’s mental state. Maybe the woman would’ve been embarrassed even if she knew people weren’t judging her poorly for the tape. After all, a lot of people don’t like the idea of someone accidentally seeing them naked. And there’s no danger of someone thinking worse of you if he’s the one who accidentally walked in on you — obviously you didn’t do anything wrong — so the embarrassment people feel in cases like that is clearly just from the fact of being seen naked.

So I suppose I didn’t entirely buy my friend’s argument (I’m not sure he did either, honestly), and I’m still left a bit torn about how to evaluate situations like this. But even if you don’t think you’re causing any harm by watching leaked sex tapes like this one, you’ll have to admit that you are ceding your “right” to complain if something like this ever happens to you. So if I find out that you help yourself to celebrity sex tapes, be warned: if a private sex tape of yours ever finds its way onto the Internet, I’ll have no qualms about watching it.

Why being vegetarian can kill more animals than eating meat

The most common justification I hear for vegetarianism is “It’s wrong to kill an animal for food.” Of course there are other motivations, such as health, religion, environmentalism, preventing suffering, and trying to score with liberal chicks — but the moral wrongness of killing an animal for food is the probably the most common, at least in my experience.

Consequently, I’ve found it surprising that people so rarely acknowledge that vegetarians do kill millions of animals for food.  If you buy eggs or milk or cheese, it’s true in theory that the dairy cows and laying hens don’t have to be killed in order to supply you with those products, but in practice, they are. A modern factory farm isn’t just going to let their animals die of old age; they kill them at whatever point the farm considers to be the most profit-maximizing. For dairy cows, that’s usually at age 3-5, out of a natural 20-25 year lifespan. For egg-laying hens, it’s usually after one or two laying cycles. And since the males of the laying species are useless to the egg farmer, they’re killed right after they hatch.

But surely eating a vegetarian diet must kill far fewer animals than an omnivore diet, right? Well… sort of. I’m sure that a typical vegetarian kills fewer animals than a typical omnivore. But it’s certainly possible to be a vegetarian and kill more animals than an omnivore, and in fact, I’m confident that many vegetarians fall into that category.

The culprit is eggs. While you only need to kill one single steer to get about 450 pounds (405,000 calories) worth of meat, you’d need to kill about 20 chickens to get enough eggs to match that number of calories. So if you’re a vegetarian who eats a lot of omelets, you’re likely responsible for more animal deaths than someone who chows down on burgers and steaks but doesn’t like eggs.

I’ve scrounged up data on the typical amount of meat, eggs, and dairy that we get out of a modern farm animal, and combined it with data on the calorie counts of those foods. That allowed me to calculate the number of calories of food that we get out of each type of animal, or more to the point, the “lives-per-calorie” statistic for each food. The results are below, with the foods ordered from “kills the fewest animals per calorie” to “kills the most animals per calorie.” (All numbers are approximate, of course, but they’re from as recent and reliable sources as I could find. Detailed citations are at the end of this post.)

*The yield for a laying hen over its lifetime is actually about 550 eggs, but I’ve divided it by two because approximately one male chick is killed for each laying hen.

The lives-per-calories cost of eggs is so many times higher than that of beef that even a small amount of eggs outweighs the life cost of a larger amount of beef. So let’s say you’re a vegetarian and you go out to lunch with your omnivorous friend, where he orders a burger and you order an egg-salad sandwich. The two eggs in your sandwich are only 150 calories, compared to the 300 calories in his beef patty, but the eggs cost almost 9 times as much life as the beef.

Of course, as I said earlier, these calculations are only concerned with the question of taking animals’ lives. They don’t take into account the amount of suffering the animal experiences. That would change the calculations somewhat, but I suspect the overall verdict would remain similar if you were looking at suffering-per-calorie – or, if anything, things would look even grimmer for egg-lovers. Laying hens arguably lead some of the most miserable lives out of all livestock, spending all their time crammed into cages with less space than half a piece of paper, having their beaks cut off, and being starved to induce molting. (Although the male chicks would count less if you’re looking at suffering-per-calorie, since their lives are so short.)

These calculations also don’t take into account impact on the environment. Raising beef is pretty clearly the worst industry in terms of things like producing greenhouse gases, breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and requiring huge amounts of farmland just to feed the cattle. So there’s still a good case for choosing eggs over beef in the sense of minimizing your environmental impact, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’d be making a tradeoff: killing more animals to hurt the environment less.


According to the USDA, the average dairy cow produced 21,000 lbs of milk last year, and according to several sources, the average dairy cow is culled from the herd after about 3 years, so I multiplied 21,000*3 to get the average amount of milk produced over the lifetime of a dairy cow. It takes about 1 gallon of milk to produce 1 lb of cheese, and there are about 8.5 lbs of milk per gallon, so I divided 63,000 lbs by 8.5 to get the 7,400 lbs of cheese figure.

The figures on beef and pork come from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.

The average number of eggs per laying hen per year comes from the USDA, and I multiplied by two because that’s the most common figure I found for the number of laying cycles. The average weight of a broiler chicken I got from the USDA’s annual Poultry Slaughter publication.

Does “socially responsible” investing do any good?

In this video, I’m discussing “socially responsible” investing with the mathematician from http://askamathematician.com. If you limit your investments to companies that uphold ethical principles you care about — for example, environmental protection, human rights, diversity, etc. — how much of an impact does your investment decision have?

The Transplant Problem

In this week’s video, I field a question about a tricky dilemma in moral philosophy: if you had to kill one innocent person to save five people, should you do it?

RS#33: New Dilemmas in Bioethics

During the taping of Rationally Speaking episode #33, at NECSS 2011. (Photo credit: Brian Gregory)

Episode #33 of the Rationally Speaking podcast is out: “New Dilemmas in Bioethics.”  This is the one Massimo and I recorded live at the 2011 Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism. We discuss bioethics with two special guests: Jacob Appel, doctor, author, lawyer and bioethicist; and Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet and historian of science. Topics covered included: Should parents be allowed to select the gender and sexual orientation of their babies? Should pharmacists and physicians be allowed to refuse to provide treatments that violate their own religious or ethical principles? And when is assisted suicide acceptable?

One of the interesting things about this episode was the strikingly different approaches Jacob and Jennifer used when considering bioethical issues — Jacob clearly has pretty utilitarian inclinations, so the guiding principle behind his answers was “What would the expected positive and negative effects of this policy be?” He also has a relatively libertarian approach to bioethical policy, which I think grows naturally out of his utilitarianism — in general, allowing people the freedom to make their own choices will maximize utility (though of course you can find plenty of exceptions; I don’t mean to imply that Jacob’s worldview is that absolute).

Jennifer, meanwhile, had a much more deontological (rule-based) approach to ethics: she appears to judge some things as wrong not necessarily because they reduce overall utility, but because they’re inherently distasteful or because they violate a principle that she holds sacrosanct. (I’m interpreting their respective views, of course, so let me add the disclaimer that I can’t guarantee they’d agree with these characterizations).

I suspect most people are closer to Jennifer’s worldview, but Jacob’s is much more aligned with mine.

What’s my ethical system? A disambiguation.

Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism

A friend of mine recently asked me what system of ethics I subscribe to. For all that I’ve thought, read, and talked about ethics over the years, I still have trouble answering that question clearly and coherently. This time, at least, I had the useful realization that my difficulty discussing this in the past is partly due to the fact that there are several ways of interpreting the question, each of which leads to a different answer from me.

I’m sure I’ll write a lot more about each of these topics in the future, but for now, I want to share a brief disambiguation. Even if your answers to these questions are different from mine, it still might be helpful for you to break down your own answer along these or similar lines.

“What’s my ethical system,” then, could be interpreted any of the following ways:

1. What ethical system am I most comfortable with intellectually? Act utilitarianism. This system holds that in any given situation, you should do whatever will maximize expected utility over all sentient beings. There are some tricky questions involved (for example, are you maximizing the sum of total utility, or the average? How do you take into account the utility of future beings?). Nevertheless, utility is the only good which I think it makes sense to care about — if you told me “We should try to pursue/avoid result X, even though it won’t affect anyone’s utility,” that wouldn’t make any sense to me intellectually.

2. What ethical system am I most comfortable with emotionally? Some mishmash of act utilitarianism + rights theory. Even though my emotional intuitions usually accord with act utilitarianism, there are some cases in which I simply don’t like the action that act utilitarianism prescribes. For example, I tend to feel that people have a “right” to autonomy even if you knew that they would end up happier if you forced them to make a certain choice. I also tend to feel that people have a “right” to know the truth about certain things, even if you knew that it would make them less happy overall.

But I don’t have any justification for my feelings about those situations, nor do I think any such justification exists — I don’t think the concept of a “right” makes any sense except as a convention we all choose to respect. So I’m still trying to figure out how to reconcile my strong overall preference for act utilitarianism with my strong emotional inclination to discard it in cases like these.

3. What ethical system do I think is “correct?” None. I’m pretty much an error theorist when it comes to ethics, which means that I think ethical claims (e.g., “Causing gratuitous suffering is wrong”) can’t be said to be true or false the way empirical claims (e.g., “Poisoning the well will cause gratuitous suffering”) can. That doesn’t imply that ethical claims are entirely meaningless. Clearly ethical claims can express emotions like disgust and outrage, and a kind of prescriptivism, i.e., “Don’t do X”.

But in my experience, people making ethical claims tend to also believe they are making a factual claim about a property (“wrongness”) that some act has, and that’s where the “error” in “error theory” comes in — I don’t think that properties of rightness and wrongness exist, objectively, in the world.  The explanation that most closely matches my views on this is J. L. Mackie’s, laid out in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.  So the preferences I laid out in #1 and #2 are just that — preferences.

4. What ethical system do I actually follow on a day-to-day basis? Some mishmash of #2 + weakness of will + selective apathy + social pressures and habits. I’m not perfect, even by the standards of the system of ethics I myself have chosen. There are plenty of relatively easy things I could be doing to reduce suffering in the world which I am not doing, mainly out of inertia and the knowledge that society won’t judge me harshly for not doing them. I can and intend to remedy this gap, to some extent, but there’s no clear answer to the question of how high a standard to hold oneself to.

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