I have recently been encouraged to write more posts, so I decided to test my fast writing this time with a topic that sat in my mind for very long, and just post it quickly. I haven’t discussed it with anyone, nor checked if the topic has been discussed already, nor done any research. I literally just wrote the whole thing out without doing any new research (or even just search), except when I went back to insert links to some claims. It took me 5 hours to write this.
Letting technological advancement in alternative protein and economics do most/all of the job of replacing factory farming could be bad, especially from the longtermist perspective. We likely only have one chance to eliminate factory farming (for food) for moral reasons, and we might lose a lot by losing this chance.
UPDATE: My new conclusion after reading comments (especially Tehas') is that we should still do, actually speed up the development of alternative proteins. And then at a point where a lot of people are vegans, or at least big reducetarians (i.e. society's animal product consumption is 20% of now), we start doing a lot of moral advocacy.
The lock-in is this: Unless there are other planets with other intelligent beings doing factory farming, or we somehow restart it after eliminating it, we likely only have one chance to eliminate factory farming (for food) for moral reasons. The moment plant-based alternative/cultivated meat (PB/CM) replaces virtually all factory farming for food (btw, I doubt this will be certain, see this post), we lose the chance to do so for moral reasons. Yes, after that we can still change our laws and say that we “ban” factory farming for food in a time where there is virtually none, but I argue that even the motivation behind making such legal bans matters. This leads to the second section.
Why might the lock-in be bad?
Let’s first talk about using laws to ban factory farming. We have, coarsely speaking, two options:
- Ban it when we still have factory farming (btw, please consider supporting the federal ballot initiative to abolish factory farming in Switzerland, September 25)
- Ban it after we virtually eliminated it for non-morally relevant reasons (and excuse me for emphasizing again, I don’t think it’s 100% guaranteed).
The moral character (and therefore the education that is based on it) we show in the two scenarios will be drastically different - It seems much better if we are so morally determined that we simply make a law to ban factory farming, than we eliminate it for economic reasons and then say we ban it. Some of my more particular worries include: If we ban one form of animal exploitation but not all, it might mislead people to think that those that are still legal are morally acceptable. I also worry that using laws to capture our abolition of moral catastrophes after they become economically inviable, can create a false sense of progress - making us feel overly confident about our moral progress and moral capacity, and therefore makes us not informed enough to have good future progress.
Another scenario is we simply replace factory farming for food with technologies, without ever banning it. There was a historical example that is very similar: Animal advocates often use the example of automobiles replacing horses being exploited for transportation to explain the importance of technologies in our moral progress. But the same example can also be evidence that the (near) elimination of a moral catastrophe using technological advancement can be bad in the long-term. Horse riding, and the riding of other animals, still exist in different forms of entertainment, such as tourism, sports, and gambling. Yes, they cause much less direct suffering than the use of animals as transports, but the value they communicate is still very bad, and virtually the same - an animal can be caused to exist, raised, and exploited for human use however we like.
Also, besides actively communicating speciesist values, the way we improve our values, generally, also matters. Always waiting for technological changes might mislead us to think that we have less obligation to improve our moral values or actions when the technological/economic incentives are lower. And it seems that there are people who hold this view. (For example, I am pretty depressed by the fact that people, including vegans and farmed animal advocates, often say “yes maybe wild animals’ lives are indeed horrible, but let’s wait for technologies to be viable before we try to help. But if it is important to help, why not invest in research and technologies that will help, now?) Therefore, in a sense, by letting automobiles replace horses as practical transport instead of listening to the horse advocates and becoming better humans, humanity has lost a great opportunity to do something for the animals for moral reasons, and do so by accepting an economic loss.
Now let’s turn this issue of how we do our moral progress to replacing factory farming for food. Look at the slogans of PB/CM companies, they want to make PB/CM tastier, safer, more healthy, more environmentally friendly, and cheaper - in other words, better than animal products in every single way. Now, humanity, are we going to admit to our future generations that this is really what it takes for us to eliminate factory farming for food? Let’s say, fantastically, we eliminate factory farming for food with PB/CM in 2030, and then in 2100 people are facing another moral catastrophe (Maybe factory farming for reasons? Maybe exploitation of AI/digital beings?), how much confidence will the advocates at that time have, looking at how much incentives it took for humanity to stop doing factory farming for food? Well, I personally did not have much hope in humanity's moral progress, until I recently got moderately convinced that it’s more likely than not that we abolished slavery mainly for non-economic reasons.
And in case you think that it is impossible to have moral progress without economic reasons. I tend to disagree, and Will Macaskill also. He wrote in What We Owe The Future that the view that it was economic incentives caused by new technologies that cause slavery to be abolished, is now out of fashion in academia. He thinks that it was pretty much the triumph of the abolitionists. So there's a reason to think that moral progress is a genuine alternative to technologically forced social progress.
A third reason this lock-in could be bad is explained in the next section, titled “other types of factory farming”.
Other types of factory farming
You might have noticed I said “factory farming for food” (FFFF) many times. This is because we can have factory farming for other reasons. As of now, there is factory farming for fashion materials, companion/ornamental animals, animal experimentation, medicines and medical supplies, pigments, for waste treatment. In the future, there might be factory farming for replacement organs, for making semiconductors, and for animal neurons used to make computers/AI. These non-food-motivated factory farming most likely won’t be replaced by the same technology.
And this has huge relevance to the core claim of this post. If these types of factory farming are of smaller scales than FFFF at the point FFFF is replaced by technologies, there could be little incentive in continuing to try to eliminate them.
You might think: Well if the other types of factory farming are much smaller problems then we shouldn’t worry! I disagree with this view.
- Moral catastrophes on smaller scales are still horrific.
- They still communicate and propagate bad values, in this case, speciesism, or more particularly, animals can be raised and used in ways we like.
- Slightly side-tracking: Maybe speciesism could also carry over to other kinds of relations. Maybe it could affect how we treat digital beings. There were also memes, maybe even serious discussions, about AI learning from how humans treat animals as a model for how they treat humans.
- They could become larger than the current FFFF. There is no way to guarantee that they won’t. For example, let’s say we somehow (fantastically) made cultivated meat 80% cheaper than animal products and eliminate FFFF in 2030, and along the way we also “banned” it. At that point “only” 1 billion insects were farmed for semiconductors, and we didn’t ban it at the same time. Yes, the scale of the problem is still relatively small in 2030 and it might appear to animal advocates that most of the problem of factory farming is solved, except maybe it is not. Who can say for sure that insects will not be the way to make most of the world’s semiconductors (or something that we can't even imagine future generations producing) in the future?
Adopting longtermism in animal advocacy
I have made a few attempts trying to convince longtermists that animals could be one of the priorities for longtermists, including on the EA forum. But I have yet to make major attempts to convince effective animal advocates to adopt longtermism. And these are two separate projects. This post presents an opportunity to do a bit of the latter.
If we do not think in terms of very long-term (typical longtermists seem to think in terms of at least billions of years, if not trillions. So hundreds of years, or the time when we are very old, is not "long-term", not even "mid-term"), then it makes sense to just use technology to replace FFFF, because the chance of technology winning it does seem many orders of magnitude higher than moral progress winning it. But if we consider the long-term impacts of our actions, the conclusion can flip. This is because if the worries I wrote in this post are correct, we should be asking ourselves:
- Will eliminating FFFF using technologies increase the chance that other types of factory farming will stay very long (like billion-years-long)?
- Will eliminating FFFF using technologies increase the difficulty of future advocacy for sentient beings who are not animals? (i.e. by making future advocates less confident about humanity)
- Given that we pretty much can't stop PB/CM from advancing even if all effective animal advocates agree to stop our support. What would the timeline for PB/CM be like, if we do stop our share of our support? This question about the counterfactual timeline is important, as it will inform how we plan moral advocacy, or even how much the whole EA movement should prioritize resources and talents.
- I said "pretty much can't stop", except, maybe we can? Even though I find this hard to say, and we should indeed be extremely careful in doing things that can be categorized as sabotaging (especially if we will be sabotaging what we do before!), theoretically speaking, it is possible to campaign against what we used to support. In thinking about whether that's worth doing, we should ask ourselves: How long will it take for FFFF to be eliminated solely by moral progress? What's the probability distribution of achieving that? What's the expected value, over the long-term, of doing so?
- And, for people who are also interested in AI risk, having this step in our moral progress before we have AGI seems extremely valuable, and not having it before AGI seems extremely bad). This is because humanity is yet to have a major large-scale shift away from systematic speciesist actions that is not based made based on self-interests, such as our love for cute animals, public health, the environment (yes, I argue that environmentalism is fundamentally human-centric), or economics. This is possibly more important than any other considerations that I wrote in this post.
I have a sense that quite a number of animal advocates think that we might soon go extinct because of pandemics and climate change, and therefore we don't have hundreds of years beyond, let alone billions or trillions. So in a sense, they are myopic because they think other humans are myopic. But even if you hold that global catastrophes will likely wipe humans out, the extremely long-term future is still worth thinking about if you think the near-term extinction risk is not 0. This is because if there is a future with billions or trillions of years, even a 0.1% chance of humanity living that long will make values and disvalues in the long-term dominate, and therefore should be enough to make you consider the possibility that most of the values of what we do now might be how we affect the future. And you can't justify a view that says "no, it's literally 0%", without doing any research.
- Future generations can lie about this part of history and spread a narrative that humanity has eliminated factory farming for moral reasons.
- Counter-counter: What if the lie is debunked?
- A lie has to be developed by someone, whoever controls that can smuggle in other values that they want to propagate.
- And if society in the future is then structured in a way that doesn’t allow a small group of people to dominate the writing of history, (e.g. no authoritarian government) then how likely can a lie be established?
- If it was a lie, then those good “flow-through impacts” that can only happen from actual moral progress might not exist.
- Economic reasons could happen together with moral reasons, giving something like “eliminating factory farming for 10% moral reasons, 10% aesthetic reasons, and 80% economic reasons.
- Counter-counter: But still, that means we can still lose the chance to eliminate it for mostly moral reasons by waiting for technologies to do the job.
- There seems to be a tendency for people, even sometimes historians and philosophers, to claim that there is only one reason for some historical changes as if other factors didn’t contribute. So there’s a chance that the main reason will still be mentioned as the sole reason.
- The technology that will replace factory farming is exactly done by people motivated by helping animals!
- Counter-counter: Some players in the field are clearly not doing it for the animals.
- And it seems that even for those who are motivated by concern for animals, most of them are not 100% doing it for animals only.
- And even if all the PB/CM people are doing it solely for the animals, it’s only them, not all humans. It’s still not moral progress of all humans.
- (from Tejas' comment, but Tobias also mentioned it) "A lot of people’s moral reasoning about animals is posthoc/based on cognitive dissonance. That is, people like eating meat, or it’s a valuable part of their culture, and their moral intuitions around animal exploitation are built around that. So it seems plausible to me that moral advocacy efforts become substantially more effective if we’re able to quickly replace one of the biggest uses of animals. "
- Counter-counter: Can't think of. I think the argument is powerful, especially if we consider that we can use this to our advantage to do moral advocacy when 80% of FFFF is replaced. This updated me a lot.
- The probability moral progress will eliminate factory farming is too low (even with a longtermist perspective), or is virtually 0, so there is no other choice other than technological advancement. This seems to me to be the best counterargument to my main thesis in the post. I would love to be wrong about this. But I am yet to be convinced otherwise.
- Counter-counter: Can’t think of. Maybe this counterargument does make my post useless.