Knowledge, Reality, and Value: Huemer’s Response, Part 5 – Econlib

Thanks to everyone, again, for the excellent discussion. Some selected replies to “Book Club, Part 5”:

Bryan’s Comments

(1) Abstract Principles vs. Concrete Judgments

In earlier work, I said philosophers have often mistakenly started from general, abstract principles and deduced implausible conclusions about particular cases, when they should instead have started from the apparent facts about particular cases and generalized from there.

Bryan thinks that I just made the mistake that I’ve criticized in other philosophers. I started from the general principle that you shouldn’t cause enormous suffering for the sake of minor benefits, then (with some background empirical facts) deduced the supposedly implausible conclusion that we should stop buying meat from factory farms.

Two comments:

  1. There’s no difference in my intuitions depending on whether I start from general principles or concrete judgments. If I consider a particular case of someone torturing an animal, it seems obviously awful. When I read section 1 of Stuart Rachels’ paper on “Vegetarianism” (, all the things it describes happening on factory farms immediately strike me as horrific. Here’s a video that shows some of the same things: Again, they seem horrible. And lots of people have similar reactions, which is why animal activists use things like that to recruit people to their cause.

I find it horrifying that there are some people who have no negative reaction to cases of severe animal cruelty. When I think about that, I feel approximately the same way that you probably feel when you hear about psychopaths who have no negative reaction to human suffering, and there’s simply no way to convince them that they shouldn’t torture other people for fun.

  1. Sometimes, you should revise a specific judgement in light of a theoretical principle. E.g., it seems to you that interacting with foreigners is bad and harmful; then some economist comes along and gives some clever theoretical arguments about how importing foreign goods helps us, bringing more immigrants into the country helps us, etc. You should not say, “Intuitively, foreign imports are bad, so the law of comparative advantage is false” or “Intuitively, immigration is bad, so one or more of the economist’s premises must be false”.

To take another example, say you’ve committed the conjunction fallacy in probabilistic reasoning – you judged Linda to be more likely to be a feminist bank teller than to be a bank teller. Someone gives you a proof that this is impossible, from the axioms of probability theory. You should not respond by saying that the axioms must be wrong, since intuitively, “Linda is a feminist bank teller” sounds more likely than “Linda is a bank teller.”

What is the difference between the good cases and the bad cases of revising particular judgments in light of general principles? Three thoughts:

  1. In the bad cases that I had in mind, the starting principle simply wasn’t self-evident; it was at most sort of vaguely plausible. E.g.: David Hume starts from the premise “All ideas are copies of impressions”, and winds up inferring that we have no concept of causation.
  2. In some cases, you can see that a principle would have to be known by generalizing from particular cases. E.g., “all ideas are copies of impressions.” But in other cases, you can directly see the truth of a principle, because it holds in virtue of the nature of the abstract objects that the principle is about. E.g., “7 is larger than 5”, or “suffering is pro tanto bad”.

iii.  Sometimes, our concrete judgments are biased, and more abstract generalizations avoid bias and can be used to correct the bias. (See my paper “Revisionary Intuitionism”, E.g., we’re biased against foreigners, but the general principles of economics are relatively unbiased, so we can use them to overcome our bias. It is similarly plausible, given everything we know about humans, that we’re biased against other species. But we can correct that bias using general ethical principles.

Bryan gives the example of building a swimming pool, and in the process causing a den of mice to “horribly suffer”. Why are the mice horribly suffering instead of just running away? I guess for some reason they can’t get away, and somehow they get tortured by the bulldozer rather than dying quickly. Apparently, we’re supposed to think that this would be fine. But, again, I think that’s obviously wrong. If I were building the pool, I would certainly take the trouble to move the mice first. No vegan would hesitate to say the same thing. None of them would answer as in Bryan’s imagined dialogue.

(2) Is it like Political Authority?

Bryan agrees with me about political authority being an illusion. But given what he says in his last post, I don’t understand why. Bryan writes, “the case against government pits ubiquitous concrete, particular views about the ethical treatment of humans against sweeping moral generalizations about government authority.” Why would the authority-monger start from sweeping generalizations? Why wouldn’t they just start with “Taxing Jeff Bezos is fine”?

Now, why don’t I defer to other people’s political intuitions? That’s a longer story than I can detail here. A big part of it is about how people’s attitudes toward government are affected by a host of biases, which are discussed in chapter 6 of The Problem of Political Authority. There’s also some arguments in section 1.6 in the same book.

There’s a strong parallel with people’s attitudes toward non-human animal species. Some of the same biases apply (e.g., status quo bias, social proof, self-interest, cognitive dissonance). Even the form of argument is the same in the two cases: In the political case, I argue by debunking the various theories that are supposed to explain what is special about the government. They turn out to be pretty terrible. In the animal ethics case, I argue by debunking the theories that are supposed to explain what is special about humans. They turn out to be pretty terrible too.

(3) Is Pain Bad Because You’re Smart?

BC:      “This is not supposed to be a deductive argument, so it makes no sense to call it a ‘non sequitur.’ Instead, it is a moral premise – ‘The suffering of intelligent beings is much more morally important than the suffering of less-intelligent beings.’ And this premise strikes most of us as highly intuitive.

The “non sequitur” I referred to was the inference, “animals are not smart; therefore, their suffering doesn’t matter.” Of course, you could make that valid by adding the premise “if a being isn’t smart, then its suffering doesn’t matter”. In that case, I’d just say that that’s an arbitrary premise. What on earth does your intelligence have to do with how bad your suffering is? To me, that’s like saying that pain is only bad when the person in pain is able to solve differential equations. The badness of pain just doesn’t on its face have anything to do with that. Does the claim make more sense if you add a bunch of other intellectual tasks that a person could do?

Bryan says that intelligence is the ability to learn. So pain is only bad if you have a lot of learning ability? Imagine putting your hand on a hot stove. Imagine the intense pain. You can just see that that is a bad experience. Now, is part of what makes it bad the fact that you are able to learn a lot of stuff in general? Again, that just seems obviously not true.

Here’s a hypothetical that my former colleague David Barnett used to give. There are two people who have headaches, and you only have one aspirin (and you can’t divide it). One of those people scored higher on an IQ test. True or false: “You should give the aspirin to that person, because his pain is worse, because he’s smarter”? False. I have no idea why someone would think that.

Bryan cites the permissibility of killing banthas and the impermissibility of killing Ewoks. But the issue I raised was about pain and suffering, not killing. So change it to “it’s okay to torture banthas.” All vegans would say that it is not permissible to torture banthas for minor reasons. Furthermore, I bet lots of other Star Wars fans would agree.

Anecdotally, I’ve found that many people, when actually made aware of the sort of extreme cruelty that occurs on factory farms, do in fact have an intuitive reaction that that is wrong. Hardly anyone says, “Oh yeah, that sounds fine.” Other cases: Michael Vick was sent to jail for running a dog-fighting ring, and many people regarded him as a bad person for that. If someone sees you beating the crap out of your dog, or lighting your cat on fire, they’ll judge you to be a terrible person. So I don’t think it’s at all intuitive to think “animal cruelty is fine”.

It’s only clever intellectuals who wind up claiming that animal cruelty is fine, because they see that they’re going to have to say that in order to justify continuing their current practices.

(4) Is it Fine to Torture Babies?

I don’t think it’s controversial that newborn babies are dumb. If you give them problems to solve, they’re extremely bad at it. Rats can solve a new maze a lot faster than a baby can, etc. So I don’t see why Bryan shouldn’t favor baby torture.

Bryan could just alter his theory, as in this suggestion:

BC:      “The suffering of beings who will normally develop intelligence is much more morally important than the suffering of beings who will never develop intelligence, though probably not as important as the suffering of beings who are already intelligent.” [emphasis Bryan’s]

This, again, strikes me as arbitrary and obviously false. It’s even more implausible than the previous idea, because of two new features of this principle: (a) It makes the intrinsic badness of your current pain dependent on something in the future. So if you’re going to be intelligent in 10 years, that future development retroactively makes your current suffering bad. (b) Actually, the principle makes the intrinsic badness of your current pain dependent, not on your actual characteristics, but on what normally happens with beings like you. This is about maximally implausible. The intrinsic badness of an experience you’re having obviously does not depend on the intelligence of other beings, or anyone’s intelligence at another time.

Caplan notes that this leads to a “moderately anti-abortion view”. Why “moderately”? I assume that the above principle would also apply to death, as well as suffering, right? Since fetuses will normally develop intelligence later, shouldn’t Bryan take a very strong stance against virtually all abortion?


(5) Is it Fine to Torture Retarded Humans?

BC:      “Most mentally retarded humans are still much more intelligent than almost any animal…”

I think that’s just false. Many animals are smarter than many retarded humans. Here are some videos showing some striking behavior: (crow solves problems using water displacement) (man drops phone, beluga whale retrieves) (parrot answers questions requiring abstraction) (squirrel gets a man to save her baby) (hippos save a wildebeest from crocodiles)


BC:      “In the rare cases where humans are reduced to the mental level of an animal, we routinely consider options like euthanasia…”

So let’s take a case of a severely retarded human. True story: Another professor once introduced me to her severely mentally disabled sister. The sister could not talk. She just occasionally made random, inarticulate noises. She appeared less competent than a typical adult animal. It seems as if Bryan is suggesting here that it would be okay to kill such a person for trivial reasons. Is that right?

And would it have been permissible for me to torture my colleague’s sister for the sake of some minor benefit for myself?

Bryan’s remark about being “reduced” to the level of an animal suggests that perhaps he is thinking of people who have suffered brain damage or some other mental deterioration. So let’s suppose that happens: a person has suffered severe brain damage such that he is left with about the abilities of a normal cow. Like a cow, he’s still able to walk around, eat, and experience pleasure or pain. Would it be okay to torture this person, if doing so would get you some little temporary pleasure?

Maybe Bryan would say “yes” to all these. But virtually everyone else would say “no”.

(6) Is It Obvious?

BC:      “While Huemer concludes that – in light of their terrible arguments – meat-eaters are desperately trying to rationalize obviously evil behavior, I have an alternative explanation.  Namely: The moral unimportance of animal welfare is so obvious to almost everyone that asking them for arguments confuses them.”

You could say that. But notice how unfalsifiable Bryan’s views are. If the arguments for view X are terrible, that doesn’t count against X; instead, it just means that X is even more obviously right than the positions that have good arguments for them! We don’t have to give any justification for X, because we can say it’s just obvious. (Even if many other smart people consider it obviously false.) If someone gives counter-examples to our principle, we can always modify the principle ad hoc to exclude them. Our principle and the modifications don’t have to be plausible on their own, and there doesn’t have to be any explanation of why they would be true, because we can just say it’s a brute fact, and we can just appeal to X itself. These strategies could be used to defend any awful practice, and no one could talk you out of it.

To illustrate, I turn to two hypothetical characters, Jefferson Caplan and Statist Caplan.

(7) Jefferson Caplan

We’re back in the slavery era. Thomas Jefferson is against slavery; Jefferson Caplan is pro-slavery. They talk about it:


TJ:       Slavery is an abomination.

JC:       You own slaves! And you hang out with other slave masters, like George Washington. That shows that deep down, you really know that slavery is cool.


I don’t know what TJ says after that. But I know that JC is not helping the two of them get at ethical truth. Maybe JC will succeed in getting TJ to endorse slavery because TJ doesn’t like being called a hypocrite, he doesn’t like cognitive dissonance, etc. But he won’t induce any rational belief change, since JC isn’t providing any significant amount of relevant evidence.

There are many cases where a society had some horrible practice, and some people in the society said that it was wrong but didn’t fully dissociate themselves from the practice and its practitioners – in fact, I bet that pretty much always happens. Why? I don’t know, but talking about that is not going to help us understand our actual ethical obligations. The way to philosophical truth does not start with impugning your interlocutor’s sincerity, or otherwise starting a debate about their psychology. Those things virtually never help.

Let’s imagine that, contrary to JC’s wishes, they manage to avoid that trap.


TJ:       Look, you agree that white people have rights and shouldn’t be enslaved. What’s so different about blacks?

JC:       Whites are smarter.

TJ:       So what? How does being smarter than someone mean you get to oppress and exploit them? [“But whatever may be the degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.” –Thomas Jefferson, letter to Henri Gregoire]

JC:       It’s just a brute fact, with no explanation needed.

TJ:       Why should anyone believe that?

JC:       Intuition. I just beat one of my slaves today, and that seemed fine to me. Lots of people do it, and they don’t feel bad about it either. But it’s of course wrong to beat other white people. The best explanation is that greater racial average IQ gives us the right to beat the shit out of people of another race.


Today, Bryan Caplan doesn’t share Jefferson Caplan’s intuitions. But plenty of people in the slavery era did.

(8) Statist Caplan

Statist Caplan is philosopher who reasons similarly to Bryan Caplan except that he supports conventional, statist political views. Regular Caplan talks to Statist Caplan about it:


RC:      Government is violating our rights. Taxation is theft. War is mass murder. Etc. We should have anarcho-capitalism.

SC:       You’re friendly with some government employees! And you certainly don’t react to veterans like mass murderers. That proves that you really know, deep down, that government is cool.


Again, I don’t think RC and SC should proceed to have a debate about RC’s psychology. I think that’s just obviously going to deteriorate the discourse and lead them away from understanding the truth about the main subject. So let’s say they avoid that trap, again.


RC:      What’s so special about the government?

SC:       Democratic governments have the right to rule.

RC:      Really? Why is that?

SC:       Brute fact; no explanation needed.

RC:      Well, why should we believe this?

SC:       Intuition. It’s obviously fine to tax people’s income, throw drug users in jail, and bar Mexican migrants from crossing the border. The best explanation of all this is that democratic governments really have authority.

RC:      What about a case in which four friends at a table vote to steal money from the fifth? It’s democratic, but it’s still wrong.

SC:       Oh yeah, that’s because they’re not a government. The principle is that democratic governments have authority. Again, best explanation of the obvious fact that taxing people is fine, etc.


RC is never going to convince SC. SC simply has built up an impregnable belief system defense. Even if RC comes up with some counter-example to the principle about democratic authority, SC will just modify his principle to exclude that example, then justify the modified principle by appealing to his intuitions about how taxation, drug prohibition, etc., are fine.

Again, Bryan Caplan does not share Statist Caplan’s political intuitions. But Statist Caplan’s intuitions are actually way more common than Bryan’s. So I don’t see how Bryan has any answer to Statist Caplan. One more exchange:


RC:      Most of the arguments for political authority are terrible. So they’re probably trying to rationalize a bias.

SC:       No, that just shows how truly self-evident political authority is! It’s just so obvious that when you ask people about it, it confuses them.


Fortunately, most people do not argue like the Caplans. Even though most people tend to assume the government has authority, they can easily be brought to see that this needs an explanation. Most can see that it would be odd and unsatisfying and just false to claim that there’s some brute, self-evident principle about democratic government authority. So they don’t say that. And so you can reason with them.

Likewise, most people, when confronted about the issue, see the intrinsic oddness of the idea that only the pain of smart beings matters. People other than Bryan don’t claim this as a brute, self-evident axiom, because they can see that it would need an explanation. Not everything needs an explanation, but “Pain is only bad if you’re smart” definitely needs one. Clever intellectuals, though, see that they’re not going to be able to give the explanation, but they also see that no one can logically prove that it isn’t a self-evident, fundamental axiom, so that’s what they say.


(9) Digression About Abortion

Here’s something that I’ve heard a couple of times from pro-choice people:

It turns out that spontaneous abortion (where the embryo dies of natural causes, usually due to failure to implant in the womb) is much more common than medically induced abortion. In fact, that’s what happens to most embryos. But pro-life activists aren’t going around worrying about all the embryos that die in this way. They’re not, e.g., campaigning for medical research to figure out how to stop it. This proves that the pro-life people are lying: they don’t really think embryos are people, and they don’t really care about the lives of the unborn.

When I heard that, I thought it was terrible. I don’t find it plausible or helpful to suggest that pro-lifers don’t believe their position. And that’s not because I’m some kind of ideological pro-lifer. I’m in fact agnostic about whether and when fetuses have rights. So I have an open mind on the ethics of abortion, as much as anyone does. But the above doesn’t move me one inch toward the pro-choice position. I think it’s obvious that thinking about the above is not going to help me figure out the morality of abortion.


(10) The Caplan Alternative to Anesthetic

Imagine that you’re about to go in for surgery. The anesthesiologist comes and tells you that, unfortunately, they’ve just run out of their usual pain-blocking drug. They have a plan, though. They can strap you down really tightly so you can’t move, and administer a different drug instead of the pain-blocker. This other drug will simply addle your mind so that you can’t reason clearly and your IQ will temporarily drastically decline. Of course, you’ll still feel extremely intense pain and suffering as the doctors cut you open and such, but you’ll be so stupid that the pain won’t be bad. What say you? Are you ready to proceed with the surgery?


Reader Comments

(1)        What if vastly super-intelligent aliens tortured humans for mild amusement? It can even be the case that, like modern factory farming, the torture of humanity wasn’t the direct goal of those aliens, but rather just the predictable side effect (a side effect the aliens don’t care about) of achieving their goal of getting mild amusement.

Good point. Btw, I discussed this in my Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism, p. 7.


(2)        “A vegetarian could respond “sure, but chickens are only killing each other because they are confined in these factory farms”. And that may be true, but chickens are not humans. You would first have to prove that chickens have a right to not be constrained.”


I don’t have to prove that, because my argument was not that factory farms violate animals’ rights. The claim was that they cause a lot of suffering. You said, “But we have to inflict the suffering, because otherwise they would peck each other to death” (my paraphrase). You imagine someone saying, “That’s only because we’re confining them in tiny spaces; we could stop doing that.” You then say, “You haven’t proved that confining them is intrinsically bad.” That last remark just forgets the original point and leaves no reason why inflicting the pain would be okay. (If confining them in tiny spaces causes you to have to inflict severe pain on them, then don’t confine them.)


(3)        “Most humans like the taste of meat. The price of steak at your local grocery store should be at least some indication to the truth of this statement. It seems weird to only say this is a minor benefit.”

Imagine that you heard about someone who was recently arrested for torturing and killing people. Suppose the guy explained that he did it to make money; he got paid $200 for each person that he tortured and murdered. I think it would be completely fair and not weird at all to describe this as torturing and killing “for the sake of a minor benefit.” And I bet that’s more than the amount of money most people would pay for the meat from an entire animal.


(4)        [KevinDC] “I was among those who followed the initial debate between Huemer and Caplan years ago…”

Thanks, KevinDC, for your comments. All good points.


(5)        “But it turns out that taste buds are remarkably adaptable – when you make a permanent change to the way you eat, the kinds of food which appeal to you also change quickly.”

My experience is the same. It was only the transition period that was difficult. After the transition, it’s been easy to remain vegan for the last few decades. I have plenty of great meals. We vegans also have lower risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease.


(6)        “It’s not at all clear to me that murdering 100 cows is worse than murdering 100 mice.”

I assume cows are more intelligent than mice (larger brains), so even on Bryan’s view, it’s plausible that harming cows would be worse than harming mice.


(7)        “Almost nobody is a vegan, and almost nobody feels bad about this or considers it weird in any way.”

This is similar to how most human societies in history have accepted slavery, and they didn’t feel bad about that either. Most people suck.


“Whenever I discussed the issue with others, I got pretty much the same response; we pretty quickly reached a point where they admitted that my arguments were sound, but they just weren’t going to change their behavior. That’s not what I would expect from people who strongly intuited that causing suffering was wrong.”


That happens to me a lot too. This is what I would expect if your arguments were in fact sound, and the other people were immoral.


“Theory two: People are just behaving as evolutionary biology would predict.”


That’s right, most people are. Most people are selfish and have minimal moral motivation. There are many other pieces of evidence that show this. E.g., the fact that most people will electrocute an innocent person if told to do so by a man in a white lab coat. I have a post coming up on my blog about how most people are amoral ( The most plausible explanation is not that electrocuting innocent people is morally okay, nor that torturing other creatures for trivial reasons is fine.


(8)        “I don’t have evidence at hand for the following claim, but it seems very common that people solve health issues with meat-related diets…”

I couldn’t address all related issues, since this was just one chapter in a book that’s meant as an introduction to philosophy in general (not an animal ethics book, or even an ethics book). That being said, if you adopt a vegan or nearly-vegan diet, I recommend taking supplements. You should take B12 supplements (alternately, there is a lot of B12 in clams and other bivalves, which are perfectly ethical to eat). I also take a calcium/vitamin D supplement, and taurine. You can find supplements for pretty much any nutrient you want.


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