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April 18, 2006


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Anup Malani

A few quick ideas on why.

1) Implicitly many economists have made the assumption that the social welfare function only includes humans.

2) It is awkward (though not impossible) to reconcile animals as part of the social welfare function because we allow the eating of animals by humans (and don't want to say there has been an increase in welfare when an animals kills a human).

I cannot defend 1 or 2.

3) Economics is about allocation of resources under scarcity. Economics has little to say about how animals allocate resources under scarcity. There is very little trade among animals and there is no social planning among them.

I think this may be false in some cases. (Leaders of a pack allocate reources; and animals may trade companionship for protection.) But we certainly do not have much data on this.

4) Economists are willing to consider animal welfare as it enters human preferences. But there is nothing unique about altruism towards animals versus towards poor people. So economists don't talk about it in a special way.

5) We have very little data on animal behavior that economists can use to develop a theory of animal behavior or deduce revealed preferences (except for the obvious: they get hungry, want shelter, etc.).


One interesting discussion of this issue I came across is the debate between Judge Posner and Professor Peter Singer in 2001. Here is a link to their debate:


Kimball Corson

Take dogs, for example. The Fidos of this world have a very limited wealth positions -- a bone or two and maybe a dog house -- and survive largely becasue they are given weight in their masters' utility functions to the extent they are liked -- i.e., provide good pet service -- and are not seriously bad doggies, i.e., threaten the master's wealth position and dirivatively their own by biting, stealing and destroying neighbor's shurbs and assets. Except via their masters, these Fidos are largely outside the market economy and are therefore or in that regard similar to the seriously mentally handicapped, aside from circus dogs, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. Computing Fido's consumer surplus or willingness to pay is therefore rough going. Fido's real asset is the good will his antics and doings incure in his master's mind which shape the master's utility function and casue Fido to be included in it and therefore be cared for. Talk about a slave economy. Fidos are bought and sold like chattle everyday. Until they can weigh in on someone's utility function they are just fugible doggies to be bought and sold. Too, they are not scarce, so zoos don't really want them. Some are homeless with the homeless on the streets. Others with good will with the right owners live better than we do. Then too they cannot speak, so voicing their preferences, even for dirivative expression through their masters, is pretty hard. Determing a Fido's indifference curve is almost as hard as estimate his derived demand functions, and they are derived differently too. The demand behind the master's demand. Even getting water can be tough at times. Its a dog's life in this market economy.


"Then too they cannot speak, so voicing their preferences, even for dirivative expression through their masters, is pretty hard."

I picture a room full of economists debating the question, "What do dogs want?"

When I Say Proof Of Contradiction, I Mean Proof Of Contradiction

There is an interestin Richard Epstein vs. Steve [someone], a Harvard professor, debate on Odyssey, the now-canceled Chicago Public Radio program. It is very funny. Epstein shows what a nutbag the Steve dude is.

When I Say Proof Of Contradiction, I Mean Proof Of Contradiction

It was Steven Wise!

When I Say Proof Of Contradiction, I Mean Proof Of Contradiction


Kimball Corson

Steven Wise' book Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals, inspired my legal research paper "On Gnat Standing."


One huge issue in defining animal welfare is in indentifying which animals we should attempt to benefit. Mammals, particularly large mammals, get the lion's share of the publicity and are generally what people identify with in terms of animal welfare. Fewer people care about reptiles and fish suffering and even fewer are concerned with invertebrate suffering (if such animals are indeed capable of "suffering" in the sense of the human experience).

I have no problem with raising animals for the use of humans and treating such animals as property (the slave analogy). While I certainly do not want animals to suffer, I have been around many agricultural operations and can say that a steer in a feed lot doesn't suffer much - just watch them lazily chew cud in the afteroon, which is better than most days in a law firm. True, the last moments of life for that steer at the slaughterhouse are violent, but I do not think that steers understand what an air hammer is for and whether it should be dreaded - they simply die. Admittedly, there are times the process does not work ideally and the animals do suffer - but I am not sure that a steer suffers in the same way a human suffers. That is to say, even if we were to impose an economic calculation, there is a zero for a steer's anticipation of the problem, a near zero for their ability to recall the problem (watch them touch the electric fence over and over), and something for the physical pain as steers do certainly feel pain on castration and dehorning day. However, steers bounce back remarkably well from physical pain. So for the psychological damage, steers are barely on the board and for the physical suffering, there is something there, but not like for us - probably because it lacks the strong physcological component.

These calculations could be done for all animals and certain animals would get a zero for everything - coral - and others would be near humans - chimpanzees.

The simple fact is that we should always work to limit suffering of all creatures, but the benefits of animal use to humans is real and as a society we have certainly decided that some suffering of some animals is worth it, which is why we have allowed experiments on chimpanzees to test drugs that are critical to humans, allows steers to be eaten and allow the wholesale destruction of ants by Orkin merely for being there. The major issue I see in this debate is whether the utility derrived from people who want male cattle to remain bulls and run wild and free outweighs the utilty derrived from people who want to steers raised in feed lots so they can barbeque reasonably priced hamburgers on the Fourth of July is greater. The same analysis applies to all uses of animals by humans and all animal suffering caused by humans. I simply do not see how the animal's utility enters into the equation apart from the human observer.

Kimball Corson

That "large mammels" stuff sounds to me like serious discrimination against gnats when it comes to, more correctly, "other specie" welfare.


1. Animals can't speak and therefore it is nearly impossible to measure animal suffering (not that an inability to measure things accurately otherwise stops dismal scientists from making normative or positive claims)

2. Animals are personal property and as such make up a part of the measure of their owner's utility whether they enjoy eating bacon or enjoy watching a cock fight. That has to figure into it somehow. if I like bacon and I'm the economist making claims about utility, porky's welfare is probably going to be the first to go in my calculation of what is and should be.

3. Pervasive Judeo-Christian bias for human beings being the only worthy animals on the planet. We were made in his image right? Most economists are still operating under a rational actor model, so before we get to addressing potential misconceptions about animals, dismal scientists really need to deal with their ridiculous assumptions about human primates first, no? I mean what's the point of addressing a difficult problem like animals when talking about human utility is still kind of a ridiculous joke?

3. Potentials/Capabilities/function. Animals seem made to live a hostile brutish life full of suffering. The only way in which most animals can escape suffering is due to the organization and benevolence of humans. Without humans, the vast majority of animals would probably suffer more than any domestic animal suffers today, both in how they live and how they die. They simply do not have the potential to live good lives, as we would define utility. It is our human functioning alone that allows most animals to suffer less. And because animals do not enjoy a perception of individuality that human mental functioning provides us, I don't think it registers to most people that even if a domestic pig leads a happier, if shorter, life than a wild pig, there are many many more domestic pigs and aggregating their suffering doesn't ever really happen. That is, a million pigs that lead lives of well-fed domesticity will always seem to suffer less to most people than a few wild pisg who live hostile and brutish lives, because people don't aggregate harm when it is hard to differntiate individuals. There is a lumping and anti-aggregation effect to certain non-human species.


As no one has mentioned Robert Nozick's discussion of animal rights in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, I thought I'd toss out a thought of his for consideration:

Nozick assumes that eating animals is necessary neither for health nor for economic reasons, and that therefore we eat them for pleasure. Says Nozick: “Suppose then that I enjoy swinging a baseball bat. It happens that in front of the only place to swing it stands a cow. Swinging the bat unfortunately would involve smashing the cow’s head… Would it be all right for me to swing the bat in order to get the extra pleasure of swinging it as compared to the best available alternative activity that does not involve harming the animal?” (ASU, p. 37)

Perhaps we don’t give cows the same set of rights that we reserve for humans, but even so, many of us would consider it appropriate to prevent people from smashing cows’ heads for fun. So we may say that we grant animals some limited rights in a very weak sense. If we really do eat animals just for pleasure (which is certainly a convincing claim), then, are we any more justified in eating them than in smashing their heads for fun?


Yes. If cattle were not to be used by humans, they would not exist. The reason for cattle's being is to satisfy a human's utility for their meat and other products derrived from cattle. However, gratuitous cruelty is always wrong and whether an individual gains utility from it is irrelevant. I do disagree with the point that by making animal cruelty a crime we have bestowed rights on the animal. If someone is gratuitously cruel to my VW, that person can be criminally punished under vandalism statutes. The fact that such a statute exists does not mean that my VW somehow has acquired legal rights.

The point about animals suffering in the wild is a good one. I would venture to say that the wildebeast caught by a crocodile suffers a great deal more that the steers on the feed lot. Nature is unforgiving and often cruel.


Let's not go too far with this suffering in nature point. Some animals clearly have a lot of fun in nature. If you've ever seen dolphins playing around, or seals and sea lions basking in the sun, you can at least imagine their lives being worthwhile (or downright enjoyable). Same goes for elephants, except when humans mess things up for them. Yes, time and chance happeneth to them all, but humans aren't spared painful and undignified deaths either.

Kimball Corson

And who was it that said, or words to that effect, that sex, thoughtfully and objectively considered, was no more gross or absurd than the process of dying. We share an awful lot in common with mammals and our thinking has been colored on too much here by silly religious instruction. The fact that our bodies require an emzyne that only meat readily provides makes us all the more absurd when we go too far in the other direction. It is hard to be principled when we are so socially and genetically determined.

Kimball Corson

As a child, I hunted a lot on my Uncle’s large farm. The rule was anything I shot, we had to eat, except for raccoons which destroyed the garden and some crops. My Aunt diced and curried an awful lot of what I shot, but the rule was the rule. I now applaud them for their patience with me. But the lesson I was being taught was that we only destroy what we need to live.


"The fact that our bodies require an emzyne that only meat readily provides makes us all the more absurd when we go too far in the other direction."

I believe you mean "enzyme." And thankfully, our science & technology has advanced far enough to the point where meat is not the only ready provider of essential amino acids (I assume the enzyme you are referring to is within that category). We no longer need to eat animals to live, or even to body-build.


"While I certainly do not want animals to suffer, I have been around many agricultural operations and can say that a steer in a feed lot doesn't suffer much - just watch them lazily chew cud in the afteroon, which is better than most days in a law firm."

While cows on small farms do not have the worst of lives, unfortunately the cows you've seen are a small non-representative sample of the large majority of cows that are bred, confined, and killed on Factory Farms. There is no question that suffering is a large part of this life experience.

See Wikipedia's Definition & Photos:

and the Humane Society's of the United States. http://www.hsus.org/farm/

In addition, it is easy to mistake the use of animals as a benefit to humans, when in fact these animal uses may be only traditions, and there are in fact equal or better alternatives.

cup beans

I have read the post comments with great interest and have put a link to the post in my blog.

I'd love to hear your opinion.

In essence I believe the question is not whether animals are creature that are included in economic discussion but rather the willingness of the people to depend their rights.

If animals are important to people then the concern for their welfare would become part of the economy.

Bea Elliott

agree with Erik who says: "We no longer need to eat animals to live". From that point on we can no longer justify their use regardless of how good a life we give them or how "humane" their slaughter is.

But because economics and social structure is so hinged on their continued use - this subject, grounded in speciesism, will continue to be ignored.

However, all the negative impacts of animal agriculture - to human health, the environment, world hunger and the animals I think it's passed due time to contront this issue of animal "use" at least in the fields of animals as "entertainment", "clothing" and animals as "food".

I believe that veganism is the answer. Thanks for inviting comment.

Bailey Norwood

FYI, my colleague Jayson Lusk and I are doing an economic analysis of improving farm animal welfare. We have measured the benefits (public and private) and costs of improving the lives of layers and hogs. The results are currently being written in a book. A draft of the book can be found at


Happy Trails,

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