why do you even think that

Originally published December 12, 2015

This is an experiment in drastically lowering my standards for post quality, that I might post more often.

I see a lot of people talking about offsetting the suffering they cause as meat eaters by consuming more cow relative to chicken and eggs, and to donate money to vegan activism organizations. I'm all for donating to veganism charities because they seem to be prioritizing a problem that is neglected on the margin. These discussions usually come with what seem to me to be ridiculously overblown calculations for how effective these organizations are per donated dollar, which allows people who donate to them to feel less guilty for eating meat, but I'm not going to try to calculate how effective they are because that's not what I want to focus on today.

These discussions always seem to come with some caveat about how maybe cows are worth a lot more moral weight than chickens, because they're more """evolutionarily advanced""" than chickens. It makes me want to wonder, have these people ever spent time with chickens or cows? Want to wonder, rather than wonder, because it is obvious that anyone who talks like that has never spent time with a chicken.

Chickens are relatively smart. They play dominance games, whence "pecking orders". They hunt bugs. They have individual personalities; some are meaner and bitier than others; many actually like humans. They know fear, and get made fun of a lot for their cowardliness (which is unfair; would you be brave if your combat capability was that of a chicken?). Virtuous or not, cowardliness is at least brain activity. Fear is an emotion. They visibly suffer.

Cows stand around and chew the cud.

The thrust of my point thus far is that this is an unexamined assumption that people keep making, occasionally with the regular lip service admitting uncertainty. If questioned, people will probably react by mentioning brain size, but whales have enormous brains and are not very smart. Yes brain size is correlated with intelligence, but to measure intelligence you have to consider how things behave and not how big their organs are, unless you want to measure moral weight in pounds.

Which reminds me, how bad is its suffering? should be the relevant question when determining moral weight, not how intelligent is it? Bentham knew this.

You know that people don't believe things for the right reasons, so let me speculate on why people automatically default to assuming cows have more moral weight than chickens. I have observed that humans have a bias toward mammals. This should be obvious. Humans are mammals. Isaac Asimov asserted the principle that ceteris paribus one serves the interests of things more similar to oneself. Many people reify this bias into a moral principle. That's stupid. It's what people do. Birds are much less popular as pets than dogs and cats. On the OKcupid thing for whether you want pets, you can select "dogs", "cats", or "none". You can't select birds.

It's harder to empathize with things you understand less well, almost by definition. People don't understand birds as well as they do mammals. When getting a new pet bird, people's first instinct is to pet it in the places that a mammal would enjoy being touched. They have to be taught that birds usually only want to be pet in the head and neck area, with species and individual variations in preferences.

I don't think this is the main reason people default to that assumption, but it's something I wanted to explain somewhere.

Okay, I guess I'm done for now.

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