Posts

There Is No Moral Case for Meat

The non-profit environmental magazine Grist is doing a month-long feature on the future of meat. Monday's piece considers the morality of meat. There's not nearly the same sort of sophistry in the piece I've come to expect from foodie writing. Nonetheless, it merited a reply.

In Monday's piece, Nathanael Johnson argues that "we should strive to do better by animals, but that doesn’t mean we should condemn ourselves for eating meat." We should treat vegetarianism "the way religious traditions treat virtues" - as something to strive for but not to condemn ourselves for failing. Interestingly, this proposal by philosopher Paul Thompson fails by the philosopher's own standard that we "should also be prepared to apply it to humans." Would we be okay treating cannibalism in this way? No, because we know that eating someone is such a bad, easily avoidable harm that committing it is reprehensible. If this is Jesus-level sacrifice, as the the pi…

A Comment on the "Dismal Science"

Howie Lempel pointed out that my post yesterday described "today's economics" in overly broad strokes. There are indeed many economists, for example, comparing outcomes between persons. Anytime an economist argues for a policy on the basis of some averaging or aggregating metric is comparing outcomes across persons. Using the effect on GDP per capita to determine the value of a policy, for instance, implies that the gain from an additional dollar is equal regardless of who is gaining the extra dollar. Though Piketty and Saez's work on inequality is largely descriptive, it clearly implies that distribution matters. Similar things can be said for the work of organizations, like my employer, that study global poverty. Many scholars of public choice theory and welfare economics propose ways to evaluate outcomes across persons. So there is a more recent history of work with an eye toward a more robust conception of justice.

More precisely, what concerns me are the followin…

The Dismal Science Could Not Be So Dismal

This weekend the Library of Economics and Liberty has a nice piece on why economics is often called the "dismal science." According to the post, the phrase originated not in a debate over economic growth, as is commonly believed, but in a debate over slavery. John Stuart Mill, one of economics's foundational thinkers, strongly supported emancipation because "economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty."

It's interesting to note the contrast between the strong morality in John Stuart Mill's economics and the flaccid morality of today's economics, which is restrained by its rejection of any comparison between two persons' outcomes (one exception might be todays' economists' broad support of open borders).

One way this bears itself out is the treatment of animals in modern economics. John Stuart Mill's intellectual forbears and descendants are notable for supporting basic equality for animal…

Where have I seen this before?

From today's New York Times Briefing:
President Obama visits the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution near Oklahoma City today, where he will talk about the need for more humane conditions in prisons.
As with the case of animal agriculture, it's easy to call for humane treatment, but we should really ask ourselves, "why are they locked up at all?" According to the Sentencing Project, nearly half a million of those locked up - about a quarter of the total incarcerated population - are locked up for drug offenses.  Beyond incarceration, half of all drug arrests are for the possession of marijuana.
Among its many consequences, one result of this policy is a staggering number of missing black men.
Humane is better, but what we most need is freedom for people wrongly behind bars. And it bears saying that drug offenses are the low-hanging fruit. The American incarceration problem goes well deeper than that. More broadly, we deal with violent offenses with a view to re…

The Effective Altruist's Prisoners' Dilemma

A discussion recently erupted with several friends over a tweet about an extra credit question posed by a professor at the University of Maryland:

WHAT KIND OF PROFESSOR DOES THIS pic.twitter.com/ACtQ0FCwRm — name (@shaunhin) July 1, 2015

One of my friends commented that the rational thing to do is to select 6% - unless you happen to be that marginal student whose choice brings everyone down, you can only expect to gain by selecting 6%.

My immediate reaction was that, well no, that's the rational thing to do provided you are egoistic and only care about your own exam score. If you're a rational altruist, though, the rational thing to do may be to select 2%, since in the unlikely event that you are the marginal student, you threaten to lose points for everyone. Depending on the size of the class and the way you value each additional point on the exam, this could easily outweigh the slight chance of getting an extra 4% for yourself.

As is often the case, things are more complicated…

Join, or Die: A Comment

I had a comment raised (by Owen Cotton-Barratt) in response to my post on protests that was important enough I felt I should post it:

... the EPA's estimated net global benefits of climate regulations ($67 billion), this march would, on expectation, yield an expected $201 million in benefits - enough to save 60,000 lives. Careful. An important fact is that money goes differently far in different contexts, and the figure that you are using for "enough to save 60,000 lives" represents an extremely good use of money. The benefits under discussion will not be distributed so as to all go on such cases. In fact many of them are health benefits which have been converted into a dollar value (I couldn't find the conversion rate on a skim read, but I can guarantee that it will be a lot more expensive than $3,500 per life -- probably between 1 and 3 orders of magnitude more, depending on the country they benchmark from). My estimate of the impact of the global effect of the Clima…

Join, or Die (Part 2)

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In my last long post, I argued that if we can greatly help a promising collective action, we are obligated to do so. I did not argue that any particular protest has or will be effective, although I offered a few illustrative examples. I thank Carl Shulman and Ben Kuhn for their helpful responses to my original post. In this post, I would like to argue that the habit of supporting social movements is a good one to have and offer a few examples.

To start, let's consider a few problems where protesting could likely make a difference. It seems to me protests rely on having a problem that is fairly concrete and direct, with an identifiable institution at fault. Poverty in developing countries strikes me as lacking in a clear target for a protest, and existential risk strikes me as too abstract and, again, lacking in a clear target.

These are problems that severely affect large numbers of people and are at least somewhat tractable:

-Mass incarceration
-Climate change
-Global institutional re…