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Just how smart is an octopus? (washingtonpost.com)
348 points by Petiver on Jan 9, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 312 comments

Total anecdote here, but when I volunteered at our aquarium in Charleston, SC (amazing aquarium, go check it out), we had a problem where our flounder were vanishing from their tank. We suspected theft and so put a camera up in the back room. The next time flounder disappeared we checked the feed - one of our octopi was escaping from his tank that we thought we had already anti-octopus'd, climbing over the walls, breaking into the flounder tank, eating a flounder, and then breaking back out of the flounder tank and back into his.

The weird thing isn't that he went to go eat a flounder, it's that he broke back into his own tank after, leaving us scratching our head for weeks over where the flounder were going. Obviously if we came in one day to see an octopus in the flounder tank the mystery would be solved day 1.

Anyway we put carpet on the walls so his little suckers couldn't stick and let him carouse around the aquarium like some sort of aquatic monkey.

Presumably he (or she?) wanted to go back to his own tank to get the regular food. Frankly I think you should take the carpet down - OK you don't want to keep losing flounder, but if the guy can wander around and climb out of his own tank you should be studying that, not trying to make the behavior go away. If nothing else, it's cruel to bore him like that. Yes, I'm serious.

That might be something that you would want to try in a research aquarium, but sadly a lot of aquariums are more for human entertainment, than for study and preservation of species.

Give the cepheid a laser and let him work it out himself.

Hah, I mean, we weren't a research aquarium, and this was ten years ago, but calling the local university wouldn't have been a terrible idea.

Just make sure there are no internet connected keyboards nearby.

he broke back into his own tank after

Octopus have dens that they only leave to eat and mate. they always return to their den after, and they only move every few weeks. So wouldnt that be normal behavior?

I guess he could have moved his den to the flounder tank.. but maybe he just found out where it was, and caught him before he decided where to move to. or maybe there was something about the flounder tank that made it difficult to find a good spot.

I guess you could say the same for Humans we too have dens or homes, and often return to them after an adventure.

You're lucky all he wanted was to eat a flounder and then return peacefully to his tank instead of going full Dawn of the Planet of the Octopuses on you.

Day of the tentacle is more appropriate in this case.

thanks for clearing that up

I'm also a veteran of working at an aquarium and have heard this story before. Is it something you witnessed? I've wondered where this story came from:

- http://belizeadventure.com/2013/08/octopus-facts/

- https://www.tonmo.com/threads/midnight-tank-escapes-fact-or-...

Edit: this is not to call you out for you story, it's very possible that this happened at CHS aquarium, I'm just wondering the origins since it's such a fascinating and strange story.

I heard this story in three different marine biology labs going back to the 1980s (prey type differed depending on location). All were "it happened a few years ago", it was "caught on camera back then" and no actual eyewitnesses who could attest to seeing the film.

Then again, I've also had to clean up a couple (witnessed) octopus escapes, though not with the full "got out, got prey, got back in." So they are at least somewhat prone to roaming.

Woah, wild. Well, in my case, I don't have the video footage because this was 10 years ago, so yup this falls right into the same hearsay category as those two.

I would guess that Octopi just tend to do this. They really are smart and can fit through crazy small spaces.

This reminds me of one of my favorite chainsawsuit comics - http://chainsawsuit.com/comic/2013/08/29/the-cephalopod-gamb...

> Obviously if we came in one day to see an octopus in the flounder tank the mystery would be solved day 1.

It's hard not to speculate that the octopus had a sufficiently sophisticated model of its keepers in relation to itself (which implies self-consciousness) that it knew this.

I can come up with other theories (some territorial affinity, perhaps), and I'm sure people have. I wonder which have been tested/explored...

I would love to see that footage. I've seen videos of them solving simple problems, but I've never seen them go all MacGyver. The way their described makes me think of our local raccoons, shifty, conniving and sort of belligerent. You have to respect their audacity and resolve.

> I would love to see that footage.

Different footage but a similar crazy feat:


Ha! I'd say it deserves the occasional fancy meal from that.

I hope you at least deliver him flounder now, from time to time.

> amazing aquarium, go check it out

Is it OK to feel sad about the aquarium based on this story?

Sounds like the octopus from Finding Dory!

Perfect setup for Octopusnado

Pedantic mode here: linguistically it should be octopodes (but nobody who isn't speaking Greek would say that); by usage it should be octopuses; octopi or octopii are just wrong (it's not a second declension noun, despite the 'us' ending)

Octopus has three acceptable pluralizations in English.

  Octopuses is correct by English rules.
  Octopodes is correct by strict etymological Greek-origin rules.
  Octopi is correct by English's pseudo-Latin cognate rules.
The latter means that any singular noun ending in a consonant and "-us" can be pluralized by chopping off the "-us" and appending an "-i" or "-ii", like alumnus, hippopotamus, virus, bacillus, hummus, lotus, oculus, cactus, and platypus. This has even been abused to facetiously pluralize similar-sounding endings, like Elvis or Winklevoss.

This is likely due to the many Anglophone schoolchildren subjected to Latin language lessons over the centuries who simply never cared about proper Latin grammar rules.

In the parking lot near my house, there are a bunch of Toyota Priuses that park in one corner. We've started calling them Prii.

why do robots group together in the dark?

Except there is no single authority of the English language (as seen in other language academies). As I mentioned in another comment, you may fall into a prescriptivist or descriptivist camp, but there's no authority to which one can appeal for a single answer.

Generally speaking, octopuses is preferred by most if not all well known dictionaries in modern usage, and the pseudo-Latin cognate has fallen out of favor. I don't think it's reflective of reality to argue that all three are equivalently correct.

Neither the prescriptivists nor the descriptivists are correct.

There is, in fact, a way to assume greater authority over the English language than the power wielded by the median speaker. The person who can inject a memorable phrase into the popular culture--whether by writing a line that is read by many, or by speaking one that is heard by many--can steer the language closer to the path they may prefer.

For all our quibbling over technical correctness, if an author or scriptwriter decides to keep "octopi" alive, all they have to do is write it, with no explanation or justification necessary.

Stam that in your rassoodock and let it digimmer. It could make you frumious or mimsy, but you will grok who the lords of language are.

The goal of descriptivists is to collect information about how words are being used currently and to compile a dictionary based on that information, so what you said about viral memes is compatible with descriptivism.

The best argument for prescriptivism has less to do with authority and more to do with people who have an interest in being able to communicate clearly. A better word than "prescriptivism" might be "subscriptivism". Presumably, we subscribe to the normal rules of the English language so that we mitigate miscommunication.

Purpose matters. The person who demands that everyone use "octopuses" is just an elitist asshole. The science institution, which demands that its members conform to a precise standard of language, is just doing its job.

A cromulent point indeed!

The style guides to most scientific journals will assert "octopuses", so you're unlikely to get "octopi" past that collective editorial authority, in any case - the others are however deemed acceptable alternates in common use.

... most scientific journals will assert "octopuses" ...

I saw a lecture by Peter Godfrey-Smith, the author of the book in TFA, and he also comes down on the side of "octopuses".

Honestly, as a native english speaker who is usually a nazi in spelling, grammar and pronunciation - octopi sounds most intuitively "correct" to me. Octopuses sounds awkward and inconsistent with idiomatic English, like a non-native speaker might guess at. Octopodes sounds like a scientific term.

As far as I'm concerned octopi is correct. Screw the etymology.

AFAIK (I'm not a native speaker), English language has short and long words. Short words are native, long words are foreign. It's because long words in other languages are composed: short root, and suffix(es) to make proper form. English language uses other rules, so remnants of foreign languages are not welcome, but foreign languages are associated with wisdom, so longer words are associated with wisdom and science too. Can you confirm that?


It's always difficult to produce hard and fast rules with English. But there are often two words (or stems) for things, one from the Germanic roots and one from Latin (either via Norman French, or from later scientific etc. addition) which leads us to see with our visual system. The older Germanic words tend to be for more commonplace vocabulary, whereas the Latin tends to be for more formal or technical usage (YMMV). But because the inputs to English are mostly indo-European these two roots are sometimes similar anyway.

It's more than difficult - it's impossible. The number of exceptions to every supposed rule in English is ridiculous. There is no way to learn the language except by absorption and rote.

That's sort of why I support octopi. It is predictable, idiomatic and consistent. You shouldn't have to research the origins of a word in order to pluralise it.

English follows other languages into dark alleys, beats them senseless, then rifles through their pockets for loose vocabulary.

The various irregular forms and tenses of the existential verb, "to be", is etymologically stitched together from at least three distinct languages.

Remnants of foreign languages certainly are welcome, though they certainly get rough treatment in comparison to their language of origin. The majority of the whole corpus is "foreign", and a significant fraction of the 1000 most commonly used "core words" are from a different branch of the linguistic tree as the official branch for English.

This is, in large part, due to the Saxon and Norman invasions.

Pseudo-Greco-Latin words are associated with higher education, because for a long time, Latin was required for higher education at English-speaking universities. Thanks to the fact that such words can be composited from a variety of common Greek and Latin roots, it remains the etymological origin of choice for newly-coined words describing new scientific knowledge. English, of course, tosses their grammar onto the tire fire, and chops up the vocabulary like a butcher disassembles a side of beef.

Length is likely just a side effect of the etymological origins.

Octopie is a baked dish with eight lobes.

I don't know, could it also be because what became England was pretty romanised before the Saxon influence began in earnest?

Well the word Octopus was invented from the whole cloth by Linnaeus, presumably inspired by applying the prefix for eight, to the Ancient Greek work for an octopus which was "polypous"

I basically agree with you, but this also reflects where you are on the prescriptivist/descriptivist split.


Anyway, while I wouldn't put it like you have, I agree with the bottom line -- spread the message of "octopuses"!

Nobody who's speaking Greek would say that either, as it's ancient Greek. Today, we say "octapodia", or, colloquially, "ctapodia".

Linguistically this is known as reanalysis.

According to James Bond it should be octopussies (or is it octopussys?).

Not quite:

https://youtu.be/wFyY2mK8pxk (Octopus - Merriam-Webster Ask the Editor)

You just can't win with grammar Nazis. If they'd written octopuses, someone would be in here telling them "It's octopi".

> grammar nazis

I think you mean "spelling nazis". ;)

I love how completely alien they are compared to us. The sort of decentralized nature of their nervous system compared to our path of evolution. (I'm no marine/evolutionary biologist so I'm probably butchering the terminology...)

I loved reading the two pieces Sy Montgomery wrote that are in Orion Magazine.


And the follow-up:


(Edit: Si -> Sy)

If you like reading about minds that are fundamentally different from our own, you might also enjoy the science fiction novel "Blindsight" by Peter Watts. Exploring the space of possible minds in the universe is a fundamental theme of that work.

To give a bit more context for others, the novel is a really well done first contact story. I'd highly recommend it, especially because Watts makes it available online for free.


Just to run down this alley, highly seconded. It is a great, if somewhat depressing, novel. _Echopraxia_ is a continuation of the themes/story, and is just as good (and also depressing).

I personally put Watts near the top of the list of first-rate, active science fiction authors.

His eye for hard science is very keen. I love that he has notes at the end of Blindsight that try to dig deeper into the approaches he had taken in the writing and add background.

I couldn't put Echophraxia down. I might hazard that I like it more than Blindsight but it'd be hard to put in words.

Which do you enjoy more?

I just read the whole thing. Wow! Thanks for the recommendation.

> ... reading about minds that are fundamentally different from our own...

so is 'a fire upon the deep' by vernor vinge. where you have 'tines', iirc, a race of canids comprising 4-10 (or thereabouts) members sharing a group mind (new members can be added when old ones die etc.)

Tine culture is explored in much greater depth in "Children of the Sky", the sequel to "A Fire upon the Deep".

Solaris is another good novel about this.

Yes - I was young when I read, but here goes, it is REALLY alien life.

Also, the recent movie "Arrival" (or the short story it's based on).

> The first problem was keeping the octopuses alive. The four-hundred-gallon tank was divided into separate compartments for each animal. But even though students hammered in dividers, the octopuses found ways to dig beneath them — and eat each other. Or they’d mate, which is equally lethal. Octopuses die after mating and laying eggs, but first they go senile, acting like a person with dementia. “They swim loop-the-loop in the tank, they look all googly-eyed, they won’t look you in the eye.. (o)

the mating ritual is very alien as well

it's fascinating

first of all sex can be identified in octopodes(i) checking the 8th appendage

on the males this appendage has a small portion at the end without suckers, this is because the male uses this appendage to reach inside his head.. mantel cavity(ii).. remove a sac of sperm.. spermatophore.. and then place it inside the head of a woman (iii)(iv)

and i was told by a worker at an aquarium that if other males have already placed their spermatophore into a females mantel a later male can remove those when inserting his own

(o) https://orionmagazine.org/article/deep-intellect/

(i) http://grammarist.com/usage/octopi-octopuses/

(ii) http://www.asnailsodyssey.com/IMAGES/OCTOPUS/octopusMate.gif

(iii) http://www.asnailsodyssey.com/LEARNABOUT/OCTOPUS/octoRepr.ph...

(iv) https://youtu.be/4fkQZrfeYXQ?t=132

I went diving with a retired marine biologist who said, half-jokingly, that if octopodes had ever formed the same tribal culture as primates that we would have been competing with them for dominance at some point.

Fortunately for us, they have two biological strikes against developing that kind of culture.

1. They have short lifespans, limiting how much knowledge and wisdom an individual can acquire over its lifetime.

2. Reproduction is fatal. Males dies a few months after mating. Females spend all their time after the eggs are laid guarding them, and neglect to eat. They die of starvation around the time the eggs hatch. The octopus young are on their own, with no living parents to pass on learned knowledge and wisdom.

I think you've identified precisely why tribal culture would have helped octopodes: (never thought I'd be saying that today)

1. Before writing, technology was passed down through word of mouth from elders to younger generations in tribes.

2. Rearing/protecting young is assigned to specialized members of the tribe while others hunt/gather resources.

As an experiment, I wonder if octopuses could be taught rudiments of culture that would have evolutionary advantages...

"You were so busy wondering if you could do it, you never stopped to ask if you should"

That's going on your headstone come the Great Octopus War of 2033.

Nah, evolution will take a while to produce killer octopodes. I figure I'm good for a few million years, until after humanity has already gone full star-robot.

I also suspect it's a lot harder to advance technologically when you live underwater. One of the big boosts to human evolution was the mastery of fire and development of cooking.

Depends on whether or not cooking would expand an octopode diet the way it did with humans. They're also technically "cold" blooded.

Also booze. The desire to make our own alcohol is what triggered the spread of agriculture, if I remember my old history classes correctly.

Agriculture predates history.

Recorded history, perhaps. Doesn't mean we can't still figure things out about what happened before recorded history.

But don't ask me how we figured out that humans switched to agriculture in order to make booze, because I'm not qualified to answer that, all I can tell you is that I learned this at some point from someone else who is more qualified than I am to talk about this.

Well, essentially cooking is trying to dissolve food in water - a non existing problem for octopi, mussels taste raw, too!

Cooking is about breaking down cell walls, allowing us to expend less effort digesting food, making more calories available.

I have never heard of that reasoning. What's the advantage of dissolving in water? There are other advantages of cooking such as producing shelf stable foodstuffs and increasing the bioavailability of nutrients.

It's hard to light a fire under the water. You're not going to do much industry there. The deck is stacked against water-based intelligence developing technology.

Might be a good thing for us. I bet they could evolve into awesome tool users.

This being said, they have the 'third hand' that every technician dreams of. Two hands to hold the work steady, and the third to do the action.

But I can just see octopuses hankering for that fourth hand. You probably can't have too many hands, and wanting N+1 is going to be universal . . . :-)

How do you know the parents don't psss on information chemically or genetically? There's studies in humans suggesting trauma can alter the genome (see https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/08/24/holocaus... for a skpetically-minded overview of the paper), and it's not like we know genetics backwards and forwards. I'm wary of assuming other species should have to follow a recognizable parallel to human development. After all, fish that live in schools are essentially tribal but it doesn't seem to have led to an increase in sophistication.

I assume evolution would eventually take its course by selectively choosing the ocotopodes whose mothers lived long enough to pass some sort of knowledge down. The longer and longer mothers live, perhaps the more those types of octopodes get selected because they outcompete orphans.

>I love how completely alien they are compared to us.

If you want to read a book which takes this idea to the extreme check out Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. It deals with a living ocean which has been completely incomprehensible to humans for hundreds of years - a neat thought exercise on the limits of knowledge.

My favorite part of the second article was how the octopus was able to attend to 3 or 4 people at once and still manage to steal the bucket of fish. It's part hivemind, part single entity and I agree, very alien. What's also interesting is that despite having diverged a very long time ago, chromatophore lobes of octopus are surprisingly sophisticated and mammal like (especially for a mollusk).

Others have already recommended Blindsight, but if you want a short story by Peter Watts specifically dealing with octopus consciousness, Colony Creature is a good read: http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=5875

Those are shorter forms of pieces in her long-form book:


Quick read, and also recommended for more good octopus anecdotes that inform this question.

Weird pupils let octopuses see their colorful gardens (berkeley.edu) https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13084534

Way to make me feel worse about eating them.

Apart from cognitive skills, an important factor is the capacity of suffering. So even dumb animals might be able to feel intense pain.

In humans, while forms of suffering like loneliness, depression can be bad, pure physical pain can itself a terrible thing. For instance severe torture for 10 minutes can be worse than months of depression.

Now even if cognitive aspects are diminished in animals, the physical senses are active and often much more sharp(birds eye sight, dogs hearing).

So, what we can do is independent of whether we are eating animals or not, is to recognize this fact that animals can suffer, and ensure that factory farms which deal with billions of animals atleast stop some of the more terrible forms of animal cruelty (dunking birds in hot water while still alive).

In her book "Animals make is human" - Temple Grandin makes the argument (among many others, this is not the main thesis of the book) that we can have a symbiotic relationship with animals, wherein we provide secure food supply, protection from predation and the associated stress, etc. and in return we eat the animal. Factory farming, by contrast has more in common with a parasitic relationship.

I always think of factory farming as a horror story written by a cow in a parallel universe where cows are the dominant life form.

I'm always struck by the way that so many horror stories / movies are literally just something else treating us the way we treat animals.

I think of alien abduction stories and related horror fiction as our species' fear of someone else doing to us what we do to animals in factory farms.

To play devil's advocate, would you accept the same trade? We've provided you with medicine, police protection, and subsidized food and shelter. Does that give me the right to presume that I should be able to eat you?

Well, since we were discussing different forms of suffering... They [the state, the company] effectively eat most of my soul and half of my conscious life. In return I get wages and spend them on police protection, medicine etc.

So you're saying it might be moral to eat the unemployed? They don't pay time or money to anyone, yet they still receive some basic level of access to infrastructure. They take more than they give, and that means killing them and eating them could be a viable way to make up the difference.

That's before you get into the fact that we don't give animals a choice in the matter. They can't opt out of our protection and their eventual slaughter. We presume that it's acceptable to agree to that bargain on their behalf.

Like I said, it's a thought experiment, but it's one that leaves me uneasy with the consequences.

A Modest Proposal by Jonathon Swift:


Are you familiar with it? Obviously, it's not quite the same, but this was the first thing that came to mind from your comment.

I don't get the beef with cannabilism

Well yeah, cannibalism is only beef when cows do it.

This is how mad cow disease spreads.

It might be a bit off-topic, but this is the idea behind one of the most popular episodes of the Twilight Zone.[0]

[0] - https://youtu.be/6g7vz6c2fog

I think our ancestors called it hunting.

I agree that this would be a better situation. Does it explore if that symbiotic relationship would change the impact on the environment animal farming has? I have in mind the movie cowspiracy, which explained that cow farming causes a big greenhouse effect.

Anyone who thinks animals do not suffer is an idiot. They have nervous system, therefore they feel pain, just like us. They also suffer emotional pain, not just physical. Kill a pig in front of another pig and he/she is going to be terrified.

>They have nervous system, therefore they feel pain, just like us. //

The second part doesn't follow from the first.

People have largely the same nervous systems and largely the same brain structures (AFAIK), and yet they react quite differently to pain and in the extremes they react exceedingly differently to the suffering of others.

Do you think that sows when they crush some of their piglets by lying on them behave how a human mother who accidentally sat on and crushed their own child would? Many animals eat their own offspring seemingly without any response one could term emotional.

You're anthropomorphising.

Now pigs are an interesting species and I wouldn't be personally surprised to find that they show some response which could be deemed a form of emotion.

Just because an animal exhibits herd behaviours, eg wariness when a member of the herd is wary/alert, doesn't mean they are empathising with that other animal.

>Anyone who thinks animals do not suffer is an idiot. //

The question is whether there is an internal pain that matches the external one. If I program a robot to exhibit pained behaviour and to scream when it's stabbed, then stab it, would you consider that robot to be in pain? The external reaction isn't necessarily linked to an internal feeling. Someone who refuses to leap to such a conclusion IMO is acting logically.

One annoying thing when this conversation comes up is where the burden of proof seems to lie: somehow, despite the fact that animals produce unambiguous behavior that they feel pain very profoundly, we are called upon to 'prove' that they can actually feel it, instead of the pain-deniers being called upon to prove the opposite.

It's so analogous to the days when people debated as to whether black people should be enslaved for their own good, or whether they were too stupid to mind being enslaved [see e.g., 1], that it would be farcical if it wasn't so fucking sad. Who else, one wonders, might not feel pain? Autistics? Mutes? Republicans?

[1] Plous, S., & Williams, T. (1995). Racial Stereotypes From the Days of American Slavery: A Continuing Legacy. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25(9), 795-817.

Similarly, I can look you straight in the eye and tell you that I feel fine, while I am in fact suffering great pain internally. Does this mean that I am not in pain? How could you know? You can't. There is no reason for an animal to dissimulate in this way, so we may as well accept their outward expression of pain or pleasure at face value.

Are we talking about human mothers that have been confined in gestation crates for months, having been separated from their mother and their children in the past for generations?

> They have nervous system, therefore they feel pain, just like us.

That's two non-sequiturs in one sentence. I'm pretty sure there exist lifeforms that have a nervous system without an analog of pain. (Hint: If you want to defend your argument, start by defining "pain".) And it's quite egregious to just assume that there exist only one kind and quality of pain in all living animals. (Again, start by asking yourself how to rigorously define "pain".)

> They also suffer emotional pain, not just physical. Kill a pig in front of another pig and he/she is going to be terrified.

If at all, that's just an argument not to kill pigs in front of other pigs (unless the emotional pain is a desired outcome).

"unless the emotional pain is a desired outcome"

Seriously, who are some of you people?

In "Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting", the author describes two pair-bonded pig brothers who had lived in the same pen since birth were friendly and warm with each other, cuddled, etc.

One day he goes out and shoots one of the pigs to slaughter it. Before he can get the dead pig out of the pen the other pig comes running over and starts eargly licking up the blood up of his brother from its dead body.

They may be smart, but we should not anthropomoprhize to the point that we imagine them having the same kind of empathy and self-consciousness as us.

Great article on eating lobsters by the inimitable, late David Foster Wallace:


oh, thank you for this. Really good stuff.

Good lord, ten pages.

There is no TL;DR version of DFW's prose, you read his stuff because it's fun, not to get to the point.


(For those who dislike clicking through 10 pages, or want to save to pocket or similar)

FWIW, the last 3 pages are footnotes.

Yes, but the Pratchettesque endnotes are part of the fun. It's too bad they're left to the end instead of being inserted into the footer to stand alongside the main article.

It's worth the time.

I agree. Some humans have lower cognitive capacity than farm animals, still we wouldn't think it's okay to use mentally challenged humans for food, vivisection, etc.

Focusing on cognitive skills to make ethical judgments is incredibly flawed when you think about it for more than 2 minutes. Specially when you add companion animals into the equation, given that pigs seem to have higher cognitive abilities when compared to dogs[1].


It's also interesting to read up on how plants have community, call for help and offer resources, have fear responses, and such things as well. In many ways they are a generally equivalent form of social macro life forms as "humans" and "animals"; they just happen to move slower and eat differently.

Cephalopods are the only invertebrates that are banned from certain types of research because of this.

Guidelines or laws and where? My Googling shows Canada having laws for Cephalopods, the U.K. for octopodes (I read the above Greek guide) and the EU considering them. To my amusement the Nature article (2011) mentions researchers complaining at potential paperwork burden and that some research might not be allowed.

Are the laws new?

Why worry? They'd eat you. Realize that all animal ethics are entirely manmade and foreign to the background of the Universe's amorality.

Edit: Really down voting because you don't agree? The comment was on topic, provided a view, and contributed to the conversation in some way. If you want to down vote, please be responsible enough to say why.

There's quite a bit of philosophical support behind the view that there are objective moral truths. See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-realism/ for a not so brief overview.

Also related is moral cognitivism and/or noncognitivism (are moral statements factual statements, or more like expressions of emotion, preference or command?). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-cognitivism/

Here's a drastically simplified argument for moral realism:

1. I have the intuition that everyone ought to avoid causing unecessary suffering.

2. When I mean that everyone ought to avoid causing unecessary suffering, I am personally making a factual claim.

3. My intuition of 1. provides at least some evidence that 1 may be true. Addendum: When dealing with philosophy, often intuitions are the best evidence we've got.

4. If I have the intuition described in 1, 1 is a factual claim, and my intuition of 1 provides at least some evidence for 1, then there is some evidence of an objective moral fact.

C. Therefore, there is some evidence of an objective moral fact.

Finally, here's a survey of academic philosophers. You can Ctrl-F for "moral realism" and "cognitivism" to see what proportion of philosophers hold these views. You'll note that both views have >50% support.


Of course, a view's popularity doesn't guarantee its truth. But Philosphers aren't dummies, so it does show that it's at least plausible.

Edit: formatting & philpapers link

I'm a theist. I totally agree that there are absolute truths. You're logic breaks down at step 2. If I don't agree with 1, your whole argument breaks down. In my experience debating philosophy throughout my education, seldom is there a Joker as in Heath Ledger's character. If a person fully believes that others don't count, at all, then the rule breaks down.

Take a counter example: homosexuals. Most societies, regardless of source, were anti-homosexual. This is historically accurate (modern times are uprooting them, but let's say we're in the 1950's).

1. I have the intuition that everyone ought to avoid homosexuality. 2. When I mean that everyone ought to avoid homosexuality, I am personally making a factual claim. 3. My intuition of 1 provides at least some evidence that 1 may be true. 4. If I have the intuition describe in 1, 1 is a factual claim, and my intuition of 1 provides at least some evidence for 1, then there is some evidence of an objective moral fact. C. Therefore, there is some evidence for any objective moral fact.

We've now shown an implication that homosexuality is in fact immoral in a general sense. Are we ok with this? Why? Why not? Our ethics and morality, sans a center like an unmoved mover, can vacillate. Sometimes this is "good" (such as gay or interracial marriage [I am neither]) for me as it brings improved economic conditions that selfishly improve my lot directly or possibly, which I arbitrarily deem as good, from an agnostic world view. Sometimes it's "bad" (for example expelling Jews from the Spain since it took the engineers and literate people, which limited economic freedom and would have probably negatively impacted my Spanish life if my present personality and general thoughtful profession was true then).

As a quick aside for the postulate of cultural issues with homosexuality, http://news.trust.org//item/20140516162146-jipm9/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_in_ancient_Rome which shows that Rome did not really have a great view of homosexual relationship. You didn't want to be the receiver. If you were, you were property.

You might be interested in experimental philosophy. It's where philosophers quiz people to probe at how common a given intuition is. There's ongoing debate regarding whether the results pose a problem for certain meta-ethical positions (e.g. moral-realism). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/experimental-moral/#MorJu...

Also of note is Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a moral theory that we ought to maximize the amount of happiness in the world/universe/multiverse while minimizing the amount of suffering. And that the morality of an action just relates to its consequences. So it's ok to lie/cheat/steal for the greater good.

Often, objections to Utilitarianism come in the form of "consider situation X. In X, maximizing utility requires us to do something horrible. Our intuitions scream not to do it, so utilitarianism is wrong". However, if these intuitions are unreliable, then so are the objections. Utilitarians can then come out and say 'the intuitions required for our theory are much more obvious/reliable/<other positive adjectives>, so our theory is better supported'.

But I don't want to say that Utilitarianism is the be all end all. For instance, there's Kant, who built his moral theory on abstract first principles rather than situational intuitions. I, unfortunately, am not well versed in him, so that's all the detail that I'll go into.

Now, there are a couple of points that you made which I'd like to respond to.

> If I don't agree with 1, your whole argument breaks down.

As an addendum, this is a good thing! It means that this premise, if true, directly supports the conclusion. Arguments with unnecessary premises get confusing. They're bad practice - just like dead code is bad. It's expected that you need to accept all of the premises in order to get to the conclusion.

Oh, and I think that your points above are really a rebuttal of (3.), not (1.). Even if other people have other intuitions, hopefully you still believe that (1.) I have the intuition that everyone ought to avoid causing unecessary suffering? It's just not clear that (3.) my intuition of 1. provides at least some evidence that 1 may be true.

> <virmundi's examples of questionable intuitions>

Your examples are all great, but I disagree with the point you're trying to make. 100% consensus on moral intuitions isn't necessary. They're clearly a flawed sense that is prone to error. The important question is, rather, do they lead to truth more often than they lead to falsehood? I don't know the answer to that question, but it's the vital one.

> seldom is there a Joker as in Heath Ledger's character. If a person fully believes that others don't count, at all, then the rule breaks down.

I want to take a hit at this one separately too. The existence of s/a hypothetical Joker/very real sociopaths/ is not necessarily proof against moral intuitions. These people might just have an impaired ability to sense moral truths.

And all of this leads us back to whether moral intuitions are generally mostly sort-of good indicators of truth. Here experimental philosophers could disprove this by showing great enough variance in moral intuitions. Or close off this avenue of criticism by showing a high degree of correlation between many moral views of many people.

Otherwise, questioning whether moral intuitions are evidence go pretty deep into Epistomology, the study of how we know what we know. That's a giant pile of worms. Great fun, but I've already created a monster with this post so I'll leave it.

TL;DR: It's all really a question of whether or not moral intuitions provide solid evidence for moral claims. Also, I want to see Batman again.

That's the side effect of being self conscious beings, with the capacity of understanding things deeper than survival 101. If other animals had this capacity, you can't say it's just man made thing.

You've made it a side-effect. As a conscious being I know that there is a circle of life. I know that animals eat each other. I know that without getting into franen-foods, the human body evolved to eat other animals too. You picked an ethic. Probably because it felt good.

I too picked an ethic. Mine is Christian with a good deal of Epicurean infusion. Religiously I believe we can eat animals, but need to care for the whole world (that's man's job). So I eat them. I don't kill things for the fun of it.

Presuming an agnostic world view for a moment, the same applies. You can do what you want. There are consequences. You've made one of them feeling bad at the thought of eating a complex animal. Why does that matter? I'm not saying you're totally wrong for thinking that. Just try to understand truly why. Is it because something got imported into your world view to make you think that it should matter. If so is that a valid importation?

Christianity (at least Catholicism) has an animal ethic that is not man-made, but comes from divine revelation. Genesis says that man is given the responsibility to care for creation, and while since the time of the flood we have permission to eat animals, the general (at least Catholic) interpretation is that doesn't mean we can be cruel to animals. In other words, if we have a reasonable need to kill an animal for food, it may be done in as humane a way as is practical. Otherwise, we should care for them.

I agree. In the comment above I played it from two world views. The one you espouse is the same (or similar enough) as the Christian view I mentioned.

The agnostic view is there since I think, or at least assume, the majority of people on HN are agnostic. From such a view point, there is no tenable, logical reason that one should not eat meat or, in this specific case, a creature of intelligence. Such an argument comes from emotion. That's as equal as anything else in an agonistic, amoral universe. I just want to people to realize that it's a simple choice, not an absolute. Further, I prefer people coming from such a world view to ponder what they view properly. I find many pull from a Judeo-Christian ethic without realizing it. I'd like people to either break from it for a new model, or, at least, realize there is common ground between them and their theistic peers.

This seems a bit ethnocentric. Judeo-Christianity did bring some novel moral requirements, but the ones that it shares with most agnostics and atheists are not Judeo-Christian inventions. For example, Buddhists have been practicing compassion without any need for the Hebrew god for thousands of years, and Jains are some of the most extreme animal rights wonks you'll meet.

That is a valid critique of my context. I presumed a Post-Enlighment Western world view of a European atheist bent.

Unfortunately Buddhists and Jains don't get away any better. They have an underlying belief in a Universal truth. The Universe can punish (at least for Buddhists; I have trouble pinning Jains down on from a karmic perspective since I'm not terribly familiar with them).

Edit: critic -> critique

I'd like to note that agnosticism and theism are not opposing. Agnosticism simply declares that you view the existence and / or properties of one or more deities as unknowable [0]. That is not incompatible with theism. In fact, I argue that such is the definition of faith -- to believe despite not knowing.

[0] Or, for weak agnosticism, currently unknown.

I find your lack of [a good definition of] faith disturbing. -- Darth Webster

Seriously though, I think the "blind faith" usage of the term faith is its weakest form. "Trust" and "confidence" are good synonyms. Because as a rule, humans have faith in a great many things, and the vast majority of those faiths are not characterized by a lack of knowledge or evidence. Consider the following statements:

- The astronauts had faith in the laws of physics.

- My husband was unfaithful to me.

- I've lost my faith in humanity because FooBar was elected.

- Have you no faith in me?

- The war started when our allies broke faith with us.

- You should always negotiate in good faith.

- My dog has been my faithful companion for a great many years.

Think about the faith being represented by those phrases. Does the person who had the faith have it without intimate knowledge of the object of the faith? No! The faith existed because of what they knew about the object, not in spite of it.

I'm not sure if you think your making a point against my definition. Replace the word "believe" with "trust" and it could fit perfectly as one of your examples:

> In fact, I argue that such is the definition of faith -- to trust despite not knowing.

I don't think that's such a big difference. Believing in something is trusting it to exist and to have the properties that you think it does. If the astronauts were wrong about the laws of physics, it would have broken their trust and thus their faith.

Hell, just for funsies, to drive the point home:

> belief - Trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something


You argue that the definition of faith is to (trust, believe, have faith) in something despite not knowing.

We agree in the main. My point is one of where we put the emphasis.

My counterargument, if it is one, is simply that when humans actually have faith in something, it's almost always "trusting what I don't know is going on, because of what I know of this object in other circumstances".

The husband "trusts" his wife to be faithful, not because he has a tracker on her and so knows where she goes at all hours, but because he knows who she is when she's with him.

A soldier "has faith in" in the general's battle plan because of the general's past victories.

I'm just arguing that all the really useful definitions of faith imply that the trust is actually rooted in knowledge and past experience, not merely blind, hopeful, stick-your-fingers-in-your-ears-and-sing-la-la-la ignorance of reality.

Ah, I see. I don't think I necessarily agree with that definition of faith. For two reasons:

1. I don't think it serves much purpose if it's directly synonymous with trust.

2. Such a definition of faith runs directly against the definition of agnosticism, which asserts that such knowledge is unattainable.

I think the word faith brings to the table much of the denotation of trust, but with the connotation of doing it despite not knowing. After all, there are many husbands who find their wife cheating. There are many soldiers that end up dead, despite the best general's most careful planning. There's a level of the unknowable in all these scenarios, and faith is the continuation of belief in the face of these unknowns.

Or, put this way: The saying is that "trust is something earned". It's earned through proof of intention via past experience. I think faith removes this "earning" step -- it's trust without necessarily being earned.

> The astronauts had faith in the laws of physics.

You have used an analogy here, in order to aid your point, but it is not valid. Laws of physics do not intersect with faith. At all.

> From [an agnostic] view point, there is no tenable, logical reason that one should not eat meat

Sure there is. Mass production of meat is one of the major fuels for global warming, so if our fitness function optimizes for survival of our species, we better go veggie.

inb4 Prisoner's Dilemma

Not a bad answer, presuming humanity is a thing to preserve (not proven). Though it answer the question "Should we eat meat farmed in a mass production way" much more than should we eat meat at all. There is a theory that we can use cows to reclaim deserts (https://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_worl...). Given your argument, we could eat those cows when they come to market since they should have a positive impact on the problem.

Edit: grammar clarification.

I certainly agree that many people today hold to Christian ethics while rejecting the supernatural basis for it, not realizing that their worldview doesn't support their ethics.

Except we no longer need to kill animals for food. Animal products are, on the whole, deleterious to our health.

So, why is it still acceptable to most Catholics?

> Animal products are, on the whole, deleterious to our health.

Because this is not proven. Soy is pretty bad for us. The best diet to date is the mediterranean diet. While not having much beef, it does include ample amounts of fish with some chicken. If we focus on science, vegetarianism is not the best course. Moderation that includes taking life is so far (and this can change) the best solution.

Edit: formatting to break response from quote.

> Because this is not proven.

There's enough evidence to suggest that it is, and conclusively.

When I went vegan, I also thought I was choosing a sub-optimum diet, but it was a compromise I was willing to make. As I got more educated on nutrition, I came to realize that the benefits outweighed the drawbacks substantially.

People have been vegan for thousands of years. There's a plethora of information on the problems that animal products cause. Do a search for endotoxemia, if you want one (of the many) general issues cause by animal products.

> Soy is pretty bad for us.

No it's not, Vincent Price foundation-sponsored research notwithstanding. There's more actual estrogen in cow's milk. To suffer deleterious effects from soy, you need to eat nothing but soy. Not no other protein - nothing but soy.

And that just soy, that's not 'no animal products'. I know people who avoid both due to allergies, and are healthy. I eat plenty of soy, and my doctor tells me I'm doing great. My bloodwork never comes back 'ok' - it's comes back 'optimum'.

> If we focus on science, vegetarianism is not the best course.

It is. Please don't trust me: go look it up.

And regardless: what is 'best' for our health, isn't 'what is necessary', which was my original question, and is the edict I am questioning. Thousands of people live and thrive without animal products, include centenarians and high performance athletes, so clearly, it is not so deleterious as to prevent one from thriving.

Is it not important to strive to be a good person, if you can? Is this not a part of catholicism too?

Call me a skeptic, but can we trust nutritionists?

A few years ago foods like eggs and coffee were poison. You should eat margarine instead of butter, now it is the other way around.

This science branch seems to attract charlatans.

>This science branch seems to attract charlatans.

It seems like it is incredibly difficult to perform conclusive research around nutrition, human growth etc without violating a bunch of ethical standards. The relative inability to perform research that comes to solid conclusions combined with the fact that food is something that people make purchasing decisions around every day (ie there are lots of $'s involved) creates huge scope for dubious ideas and ethically dubious businesses to thrive.

I understand (and share) your skepticism, particularly in the light of what science and health reporting has become. Moreover, the popular press tends to lump vegetarianism with every other orthorexic/antiscience fad to come along - from non-celiac gluten avoidance to 'juice' cleanses to wheatgrass enemas. It's not a minor frustration to be lumped in with the self-absorbed orthorexic crowd, but what are you going to do? :)

Regardless, the healthiness of vegetables isn't new science, nor is our understanding of the fundamental requirements of the human body. We know humans require iodine, vitamin d and other essential vitamins to survive. We know humans can't manufacture 9 specific amines that we colloquially refer to as 'protein', and require them from their diet. This isn't new science, and we know that it's possible to be healthy and vegan, which is why the World Health Organization, Kaiser Permanente, among other health organizations have started promoting plant-based diets.

(If I'm feeling cynical, my usual answer to the question 'where do you get your protein?' is 'which ones are you specifically concerned about?', since the questioner invariably doesn't actually know what a protein is, but vaguely knows that meat has it, and broccoli "doesn't".)

(Broccoli has almost as much protein, on a caloric basis, as steak (8 grams per 100 cals vs 11 grams). Though, that's kind of a cop-out answer, because while broccoli contains all the right proteins, it only has very little of one of them. Then again, nobody has to live just on broccoli - just like nobody in their right mind would live on nothing but steak. Add a few beans to your diet and boom, broccoli is now as complete as steak. I have more trouble >choosing< what to eat than ever having trouble 'finding enough things I can eat' :) )

There have been vegans for literally thousands of years - both buddhist and jainist religions espouse vegan or at least extremely plant based diets. What is new, however, is the plethora of new vegan food products and services, that have made being vegan vastly easier than it has ever been to be vegan - fermented cheeses, dozens of 'meat' substitutes, even brand new kinds of food, like Quorn. It's kind of crazy (and not entirely good for my waist :))

If you have any further questions, I'd be happy to answer them. I also have sources that I consider science-based and would recommend to others, but particularly those with a skeptical eye :)





Habit, tradition, (Small-c) conservatism.

It's true we (most of us) don't absolutely need to kill animals for food. On the other hand there is a vast human momentum in the direction of raising, killing, and eating animals. That doesn't change overnight, or even in a generation or 5. It takes a long time to change such things.

My theory: It's for a similar reason that homosexuality has been taboo for so long. In the beginning, tribes needed to procreate in order to survive, and homosexuality didn't help with that, and it may have hurt. So it was written into old books: go forth and multiply, and don't have fun with those of the same gender. That won't produce offspring.

But now the challenges of survival do not involve "not enough offspring". So we no longer NEED to worry so much about homosexuality, not for 1000 years. And yet, the belief and habit of mind continues.

> As a conscious being I know that there is a circle of life

I would argue there are two pre-requisites for that: consciousness, and culture.

With no culture, starting from zero, during the limited span of a single life, it would be pretty hard to come up with grand concepts such as the circle of life.

> Realize that all animal ethics are entirely manmade and foreign to the background of the Universe's amorality.

Alternatively, some scientists and philosophers believe that ethics predate human beings - that they exist in many if not all social animals. In other words, some basic ethical emotions evolved. They then form the basis for our more sophisticated ethical and legal systems.

Also, while you can argue that at some level the universe is "amoral" - it's just particles and laws of physics, right? - you can see that logic requires similar ethical systems in all social creatures. Things like "don't harm others, reciprocate help that you receive, help your elders, protect the young, etc." At some level, those derive logically for social organisms. So one could argue that such ethical laws are fixed and given in the same way that higher mathematics is fixed and given.

The mathematics of ethics is very much rooted in Game Theory

All ethics are entirely manmade, so this is not particularly helpful. Are you ok with torturing criminals, as long as they seem like they'd be willing to torture you?

No, because we've found empirically that torture doesn't work. If it did, why not?

I know many will not like that conclusion, but again, presuming an amoral universe, and I have little evidence outside of a religious world view that I'm wrong to presume such, there is no right or wrong. You admitted in your first sentence. Comment is helpful in that many people, from all backgrounds, assume that ethics are absolute. An atheist will never claim otherwise in discourse. However, they act contrarily to this view. They get mad when someone violates one of their rules.

Edit: corrected to empirically.

I doubt most people around here are moral absolutists. I didn't downvote your comment, but it did feel a little irrelevant, in that "ethics are manmade" applies to every situation if you believe it, and no situation if you don't.

I'm not sure what you mean by your atheist comment. It is not contradictory to hold strong morals while accepting moral relativism. As long as you accept that there is no objective moral truth, but have some coherent basis for your beliefs, there is no contradiction. Having no morals whatsoever would be inhuman.

Well articulated.

The entirety of my atheist morality is centered around the recognition that other humans are as acutely conscious as I am, and inflicting suffering on them (or allowing them to suffer through negligence or inaction) is cruel and distasteful. This is a fancy version of "treat others as you want to be treated", and is rooted in basic human empathy which stretches back millions of years - there is evidence of early hominids surviving years after grievous injuries because they were supported by other hominids.

That I feel this was selected for as an effective strategy to ensure survival rather than laid down by a god does not mean I reject the views or hold them weakly. I see no contradiction in stating that my feelings are a byproduct of biology while still having them.

This worldview is fine, so long as you keep it to yourself.

The trouble with this worldview comes when someone who holds it thinks anyone other than themselves ought to behave this way. Once you say people should treat others a certain way, you've crossed the line into moral absolutism. You think other people should live by some standard which you find better than the one they live by. Why should they?

In the morally relativistic worldview, where do the terms "wrong", "bad", and "evil" find their roots?

Put another way, why shouldn't I go around raping people? Isn't that good for the survival of my genes?

> Put another way, why shouldn't I go around raping people? Isn't that good for the survival of my genes?

Quoting myself: "The entirety of my atheist morality is centered around the recognition that other humans are as acutely conscious as I am, and inflicting suffering on them...is cruel and distasteful". I'm honestly not sure how you made the leap to my comment justifying rape, though I take your question in good faith.

Maybe you're pointing out that I've misunderstood relativism/absolutism? I feel that a moral hierarchy exists, but it does not exist independently of the (collective) human mind. I do think that everyone should behave with empathy because all humans have an equal capacity to suffer, and from that conclusion you get obvious things like "rape is bad", "murder is bad", etc. This still leaves a lot of ambiguity, however, and doesn't result in a strict, absolute code of ethics.

Am I actually a moral absolutist, but misunderstanding the terminology?

Thank you for taking the time to understand my comment in its best interpretation!

Taking your reply in reverse order:

    > Am I actually a moral absolutist, but misunderstanding 
    > the terminology?
I could be misunderstanding what you mean by "absolutist", because the terms I'm used to seeing in this context are Objective Morality vs. Subjective Morality. I'm assuming you're arguing for Subjective Morality (aka, moral relativism, aka "morality is a human invention, we decide what's right and wrong for ourselves"). If by Moral Absolutist you instead mean "there's a finite list of rules and regulations by which all humanity in all situations at all times should be living by," then I'm not arguing for that at all. So, I'm assuming you don't mean that, and that we're actually talking about Objective vs. Subjective Morality when we talk about relativism/absolutism.

I think as soon as you use terms like "should", "ought to", "right", "wrong", "good", "bad", and "evil" that you're making an objective statement about an ideal state to which you think the world should conform, ought to conform, etc. From a theistic point of view, those words make sense, but from an atheistic point of view, every time you use one of those words to refer to someone else's behavior, I'm going to ask, "Why?". Basically, if you try to effect any moral change at all in anyone, you've proven that you actually think there is at least one thing which you consider to be "right" for the other person to do, regardless of what they think about it.

    > I do think that everyone should behave with empathy 
    > because all humans have an equal capacity to suffer, 
    > and from that conclusion you get obvious things like 
    > "rape is bad", "murder is bad",
You may think it's bad, but you haven't really got a strong argument there for why it's true that murder is bad at all. You may not like murder, but why should the murderer care what your preferences are at all?

Here's what I think is a stronger, more formalized version of your argument:

    Premise #1: All humans have an equal capacity to suffer.
    Premise #2: Suffering is a specific electrochemical impulse in a human's brain.
    Premise #3: Every human dislikes the "Suffering Impulse"
    Premise #4: Human beings *ought* to reciprocate their dislikes.
    Conclusion: Therefore, everyone *should* behave with empathy.
Note that even in that argument, I couldn't even come up with a good premise for #4 that didn't use the word "ought" (and again, I'm trying to come up with a good atheistic argument for why anyone should behave in any particular way at all). And you need #4 for the argument so that the conclusion will follow from the premises.

    > I feel that a moral hierarchy exists, but it does not 
    > exist independently of the (collective) human mind.
To see where this idea logically leads, I'd encourage you to read some articles by John Gray[0]. He's an atheist who writes a great deal about the implications of atheist worldviews on morality. He's a clear thinker, and not afraid to ruffle feathers.

Also, I highly recommend that atheists read Frederich Nietzsche's "Parable of the Madman"[1]. It's another take on the moral implications of atheism.

[0]: https://www.theguardian.com/profile/johngray

[1]: http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/nietzsche-madman.asp

This does not make sense to me. Skimming Wikipedia, it sounds like you're describing "normative moral relativism": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_relativism

I think when most people say "moral relativism", they're talking about the descriptive or meta-ethical definitions. Even though I don't believe there is any objective universal truth that says murder is wrong, I still have based my moral system on the idea that society will not function if murder is allowed, so I and my society should remove anyone who violates this standard from our society. That is ideally what jail is for.

Your definition seems to push this to the absurd, and almost circle back on itself. Who are you to say that I shouldn't force others to live by my standard? Isn't that just your personal position, that you should keep to yourself?

Torture is used for reasons other than obtaining information. It's also used as a form of punishment/vengeance. Does that context change your answer?

If we're doing it for those reason, sure, go ahead as long as you don't weaken society. An arbitrary line is that society is good. If you Torture and it causes civil unrest to the degree that it destabilizes an otherwise productive society, then you should not do it.

...torture doesn't work.

If torturing animals could make them talk, maybe we should do it for research, even if they end up telling us lies...

Are you saying that we shouldn't have any moral consideration towards beings that don't have the cognitive capacity to understand ethics?

If that's the case, do you think it's okay if a human sets a dog on fire just for fun? How about mentally challenged humans? Should their pain be disregarded?

P.S: I didn't down vote.

I'm arguing that any moral consideration you have is arbitrary. If you want to protect dogs, go ahead. If the person lighting them kills you in the process, I can't necessarily say it's wrong, as an agnostic. If you can band together with other pro-life dog watchers, you can probably force your view. You don't have any more hold on the Truth than the Dog Lighters of America. You're not more legitimate in an ultimate sense. It comes down to, who can create a board with the biggest nail (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treehouse_of_Horror_II). I just want people to realize that.

No, it's not arbitrary at all. It's based on the concept that inflicting pain and suffering on another being should be justified.

I'm sure that given the choice between not being tortured and being tortured, you would pick the former. And that's because you recognize that pain -even if subjective and sometimes necessary- is a negative feeling for the one experiencing it.

What's arbitrary is saying that you don't want to inflict pain on human babies but are okay with inflicting pain on baby pigs, assuming both are equally capable of experiencing pain and distress. You are picking an arbitrary trait (species) and ignoring the relevant one (ability to feel pain).

This seems fundamentally to be an argument against ethics in general. Whatever your personal values may be, a viewpoint that would justify nearly any atrocity is not very useful.

It is an argument against an absolute truth. Ironically, the absolute truth is, under an agnostic view, there is no Truth.

Every ethics system that we have is a might makes right. People need to realize this. When someone makes any ethics claim they have to realize that it is at best only useful for a specific location and point in time. Eating animals or not is a preference. Who we keep alive and who we don't is too.

What I wanted to make people think about is why they hold their views. What assumptions are they making? Are those assumptions sound?

For example, why not kill people for food? Best argument I can have from an amoral background (the universe created ducks that rape and hamsters that eat their young) is it destabilizes a society. The assumption is that society is good. Therefore anything that makes it worse, is bad.

An interesting thing to ponder are questions like "Is society good?" Could we have limited cannibalism? Would that make society more stable?

The words "truth" and "god" are not synonyms. I don't know if there is a god, but I feel quite certain there are things that are true.

Why? Let me limit that a bit: why are there ethical/moral truths? There are probably statistical truths. Such as generally don't kill people. However, every society has loopholes or outs for such a law. What leads you to believe that there is a universal truth especially in light of the fact that the universe does little to actively preserve life, and doesn't seem to evolve too many creates that could even care.

By one point of view, our ethics evolved - as in, were created by biological evolution. And their form isn't arbitrary, just like evolution isn't - it can take many forms, but what it generates must work in order to survive, and it must work with what it has.

In particular, there are only so many ethical systems that can work for a social species like ours.

If that is true, then our ethics predate humanity and are not arbitrary, or at least their core isn't. In some sense, then, our ethics are true and universal.

> why are there ethical/moral truths?

I'd say yes, for me, as long as I will them. Or, put differently, they're decisions more than discoveries. Decisions based on discoveries, but ultimately decisions nonetheless. I consider murder evil because I decided it is. I can explain my reasons but even the ideas I have from others I made my own by thinking them through, so they're my reasons. I agree to the law that makes murder illegal because I consider murder wrong, I don't consider murder wrong just because it's illegal. There is clearly some overlap there and some amount of rationalization, but that's what I strive for. Vet everything, repeatedly, kick my own tires. If it's in my pocket I either have to make it mine or get rid of it. I don't to leave the world the clusterfuck of second-hand half-truths I started out as, if I can avoid it. Even my own errors would be an improvement.

> There are probably statistical truths. Such as generally don't kill people.

I don't know anything about statistics but I know that that's not how statistics work :P

Ultimately science is of no help here. Seeing the world more clearly gives us better tools to make decisions, but those can't make those decisions for us. They can't even try. Science can tell you how much weight a bridge can bear, not whether you should build or cross or burn it.

From your previous comment:

> Every ethics system that we have is a might makes right. People need to realize this.

I absolutely agree. The disagreement is mostly about what constitutes might. For example, I genuinely think slavery, all sorts of exploitation and parasitism, harm and hurt people on both ends. Always, without fail, quick or slow it will do the work. In the same vein I think obedience is fit for children, not for adults.

More importantly, I think "might" or "power" are very crude words. I like to differentiate between power as in "not being powerless" (the German word for unconscious, "ohnmächtig", which literally means "without any power", gives a hint of that), and power over others. One I consider positive (and it's not zero-sum either, to the contrary), the other very much negative.

I think only a weak person, someone compensating something, would seek power over others, or not look for ways to responsibly get rid of it once it was trusted upon them (by becoming a parent or a million other perfectly legitimate situations).

Last but not least, and the universe "has morality" only in the sense that I and others in it insist they do. Morals only make sense between "persons", however you want to define those, so of course the universe is amoral.

> What leads you to believe that there is a universal truth especially in light of the fact that the universe does little to actively preserve life

As for universal truth, well, there is something here, something is going on. None of us can ever know it completely, and none of us can know it the same way, but it's still the same thing we have different views about. I can't prove this, but I'm at ease with this assumption for now. Worked out so far, on my scale.

But truth and morals are apples and oranges, and as for morals, exactly because the universe, certainly empty space and a lot of planetoids, is so very hostile to life (as we know it) I think we should stop following narcissistic pied pipers who in the end get nothing out of it either into all sorts of dead ends. Just because why not.

But also:

> the fact that the universe does little to actively preserve life

What does "actively" even mean? What "actions" would an universe do? We are part of the universe, do our actions count towards the actions of the universe?

It passively sustains us, for a while. Which, for all we know, might mean the universe is as busy as a one-legged person in an ass-kicking contest. Should it shoot food from space at starving people? We have the sun, that people still starve is our doing at this point. When I called the universe and outer space hostile to life, I was harsh. The universe is rich in elements and bursting with energy. It bombards our planet with so much sun light we get skin cancer from lying on the beach for looking better to others, while people starve and wars are waged. And we call the universe hostile to life? No. Even accepting the heat death of the universe, we're clearly projecting.

How does a parent actively support their child becoming an adult? What about supporting them being an adult? At some point, "active" becomes an oxymoron. So, if you actively sustain life, then what is the life doing? Don't get me wrong, just laboring to live is not a desirable life to me either - but "just living" is not even life, it's just hysteria in a void or a mall which are the same thing.

Some or all of the above may be BS, I admit I layed it on as thick as I could. For better or worse, this is how I see it :)

That seems like reductio ad absurdum. You could argue amorality in the specific case of you vs. the octopus, in the wild, but that's now how most of us get the octopus or other animals we eat.

The instinctual human ability to mentalize about another creature's state of being is likely where our capacity to, for example, domesticate animals and keep them as a food source came from in the first place. That same ability is what enables us to consider the ethics of whether or not, or how much, to eat them.

Unless one is strictly involved in a predator-prey food relationship (i.e. hunting is your only means of procuring animal-based food), you can't separate the practice of mass-production or collection of animals for food with the "worry" about their welfare, both at an individual and population level.

Actually, I argue amorality in all things from an agnostic view. There is no such thing as a universal ethic. There is only force and its decay.

For the general concept of animal herd vs people collective (effectually herd vs herd), this doesn't much matter. The best argument one can muster its that we, being rational, should preserve a reasonable food chain. The idea goes like this: A stable, sustainable food chain allows us to continue living; continue living is a good thing; therefore we will manage the food chain. Nothing here says that we should exclude from the food chain anything with an intelligence. Such a pronouncement is merely a feel good. It's an extension onto the animals of the view that we, ourselves, would not like to be eaten. If such a measure were carried out without hypocrisy, one would not eat any animals. Drawing an arbitrary line is ok for the individual. It has no weight as moral imperative or generalizable postulate.

> continue living is a good thing

Why stop there? Why is continued living a good thing in the broader scope of the universe?

> Nothing here says that we should exclude from the food chain anything with an intelligence.

Then why not eat other humans too. If you do away with all ethics what argument do you have against it?

To deny that human emotion and feeling have any value is to deny the value of humanity.

> Why stop there? Why is continued living a good thing in the broader scope of the universe?

I don't necessarily think it is. I empathize with Joker in the dark night series. If I wasn't a Christian, I'd be a Nihilistic Existentialist (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihilism).

> Nothing here says that we should exclude from the food chain anything with an intelligence.

I addressed this elsewhere. TL;DR: as long as you don't disturb society, go ahead. Disturbing society is a relativistic metric that I chose since it seems to make my life nicer.

> Actually, I argue amorality in all things from an agnostic view. There is no such thing as a universal ethic. There is only force and its decay.

There are personal (and group) ethics which the OP appeared to be reflecting on when they pondered whether or not to eat the octopus. These arise from a mix of rational, irrational, habitual, and even hypocritical thought processes, and that's all part of the human condition.

>If such a measure were carried out without hypocrisy, one would not eat any animals.

A very reasonable, consistent position.

The trouble comes with eating plants. Do they want to be eaten? So far we pushed our desire to live onto animals. Why not push that view onto plants? At least to the core plant (seed bearing plants appear to need, and I guess therefore desire, for their fruit to be eaten to decimate their germs)? The trouble with the lauded projection is we are left with not eating anything. Perhaps after the singularity then?

Sentience is the line I and many others use to make that distinction.

Although there is a gray area the closer to the line you get (insects for example), that does not diminish the fact that we can say with high degree of certainly are sentient (cows) and are not sentient (wheat).

There's considerable evidence that plants are sentient by the usual external functional definitions (the traditional internal "subjective experience" definition is not directly testable), which is why some vegans have adopted structural standards regarding distinct "sense organs" so as to keep sentience restricted to animals.

What would you say are the "usual functional definitions"? The only evidence I'm aware of that gets distorted into an argument for plant sentience is that plants are able to respond to their environment, which is a feature of all living organisms.

@Falling3 > Sentience is the line I and many others use to make that distinction.

Fine line you got there. Why do you have it? I'd take an actual response, but the question is rhetorical. I just want people to know why they make decisions they do. I also don't want people to harm others that don't agree. For example, you should have no power to prevent me from eating a chicken legally.

To sidestep the ethical debate, I'd point out that your presumption that all other animals would simply "eat you" is itself anthropocentric, and incorrect. Many other species show the capacity for affection and altruism.

They would eat us for their own survival. We are now at a technological point that we eat them for our own pleasure. I argue that the latter if frivolous.

> Really down voting because you don't agree?

High expectations for someone thats been here for almost 10 years

But I should correct you, ALL ethics are manmade, although I'm sure you are aware because anybody that would say that has accepted nihilism and the futility of moral relativity.

> High expectations for someone thats been here for almost 10 years.

A) now you've gone and made me feel old. :( B) I hope to raise awareness about how HN should be. I'm not making a rallying cry, "Make HN Great Again!" We should be more civil. People coming in for the first time might not know that.

Okay, I agree with the civility, I wasn't trying to be hurtful

This. Everytime I feel bad about eating meat, I just watch Planet Earth.

Are there any other situations where you look up to lions as the compass for your ethical conduct?

Honest question, why not?

Are you better than lions? Are you better than sharks? Are you better than the bacteria in your guts? They all are pretty successful.

Humans are so arrogant.

Straw man. I never asked who is better, specially because that word doesn't mean anything on its own. Better than lions in which aspect?

Lions are much better than me at hunting, but on making moral judgements that aim to minimize harm, I think I am better.

If you go down the road of basing your morals on what lions do, you will end up trying to justify why infanticide is a good practice when a father dies. Or why might makes right.

I agree that humans are arrogant. That is pretty evident in the way they treat other species.

Arrogant, maybe, but we're the only species that has the wherewithal to expand life as we know it beyond this one rock. The future of the DNA that we all share (animals, plants, fungi, bacteria) is riding on us.

Last time I was in Hawaii, I had the opportunity to interact with an octopus in the wild. I will never eat one again.

What happened?

Was it afraid of you? I've never seen an octopus in the wild so I'm guessing it must be an experience. Would you mind sharing a bit more of what happened?

I had an experience in Hawaii while I was on a scuba tour.

In retrospective I kind of wish it hadn't happened but I appreciate that I have experience to share:

The PADI divemaster located one while we were scouting a reef and chased it out with knife then placed it on my hand. I disagree that the experience was forced upon the octopus now .. I respect them; they are very intelligent.

Anyway -- in my hand it expressed itself with touch. Initially tightening and posing itself in a drawn-back manner it spread on my hand and decided I was safe to explore. Our eyes met and my body relaxed. The octopus began to relax.

A tentacle wrapped around my wrist almost reassuringly. The octopus let me know I was not food. He / she seemed content to just hang out but I chose to let the encounter deescalate and put my hand near a rock then slowly unwound his / her tentacle.

The octopus seemed to understand my intent (my fear?) and glided over to the nearby rock to watch me go.

Same here. I was on the Big Island snorkeling. I was chasing a fish and dove down to the bottom when all of a sudden an octopus uncloaked and inked me. Without thinking I just started bird dogging him. Eventually it started shaking in fear (my assumption) and couldn't cloak. I felt bad for stressing it so much and broke off the chase. It's pretty amazing to look into their eyes. There is definitely something going on there.

It's pretty sad what we are doing to the oceans.

Well pigs are smarter than dogs, and many people eat them.

Pet pig owner here. Pigs are problem solvers. Pigs are optimizers.

The following videos of my pig demonstrate this.

Video 2: Pig is first learning the task.

Video 3: Pig has slightly optimized the task.

Video 1: Pig has mastered the task.


That's pretty excellent. For those who don't watch the videos, they feature a feeding device that must be spun to release food. Video 2 features the pig figuring out that spinning the wheel releases food, and by the last video, the pig is spinning the wheel numerous times to release several food drops before eating.

I was waiting for the pig to push all the balls out of the frame so that it could spin the feeding wheel without rooting through the balls.

I think they like rooting around

Yeah, but a dog's got personality. Personality goes a long way.

Having dealt with both I would rate pigs higher in personality than dogs. They are very smart, learn stuff quickly and definitely have individual personalities.

I always find it very hypocritical that the same people who have no problem eating pork are outraged over people eating dogs in Asia.

The issue with dogs is that there are no dog farms. All of the dogs eaten are stolen or taken from the street.

I think people would still be outraged if there were dog farms. Especially if the living conditions wee like in pig farms.

in korea where dogs are eaten often, the dogs come from dog farms.

> there are no dog farms

Definitely are Asia (Laos and Cambodia, I think)

I think the key difference here is that dogs were bred for thousands of years, to be our companions, while pigs were bred as food. That's where it comes from.

You are looking at the extrinsic value of a pig, but when it comes to ethics, you should look at its intrinsic value.

A pig wants to live just like a dog does. They want to avoid pain and suffering just like a dog does. They seek comfort just like dogs. The fact that they were bred for a certain human purpose, doesn't change any of that.

Intrinsically, an ant, or a fly, wants to live just like pigs or dogs. It's ok to kill ants and flies because it is socially approved by the majority of humans around you. In some communities in china, it's ok to kill dogs for eating them, so a person would feel ok doing it. The animal doesn't matter at all, only the opinion of humans around you. As it happens, lighting dogs on fire is not widely accepted, and killing pigs for food is. It's the culture that matters.

In what way is that a meaningful distinction?

I've been thinking about this recently.

In a society, people seem to taboo things which indicate a general lack of emotion toward other members of the society. With farm animals, there are social (and religious and legal!) rules around maintenance and slaughter, and farmers deal with large groups of animals, so the relationship between farmer and animal is one-to-many and doesn't leave much room for long term emotional bonds to form.

For working animals and pets, the bond is one-to-one, and involves working directly with the animal in question. The relationship with a working animal is much closer to the relationship with another human. Thus, killing a dog in a society where the role of a dog is to herd cattle makes you seem dangerous to the people around you, while killing a cow in a society where cows are food is explicitly sanctioned and not an indication that you might murder your co-workers.

I think those are some good observations around explaining the taboo, but I think you'll agree that they're descriptive rather than prospective.

Because when one curates something for a specific purpose, it is sub optimal to use it contrary that purpose. In this case, dogs have specifically been domesticated to be companions for humans for something like 15,000 years. Humans specifically selected for specific behaviors and traits for dogs for them to be more compatible with humans. In the United States, dogs are used almost exclusively as pets and helper animals.

Pigs have never been domesticated in that way in large numbers and have always generally been used as food, or for limited other purposes, occasionally as pets.

I think this difference in lineage and purpose leads to a very meaningful distinction.

It's a betrayal of trust.

You know how Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has a pig that has been genetically bred to want to be eaten? Like that is it's greatest desire in the world.

Dogs have been selectively bred over thousands of years to want to be our friends - to trust us, and to work together as companions. To deliberately kill and eat an animal like that is worse than eating any other.

You're conflating things at the species and individual level.

The dog species doesn't trust us (in any meaningful way). Individuals dogs do. Likewise, regardless of what we've bred "food" animals for, properly cared for farmed animal will hold the same implicit trust in a farmer as a dog does with his owner.

These evaluations need to be made at the individual level to make any sense.

Not a pig it was (will be?) a cow.

Pigs have personality too. But most people would never know it given how livestock are treated.

As someone who has been around beef-cattle and also had milk cows growing up, cows are much the same way. They have a lot of personality and are not altogether different than dogs or anything else. Cattle raised for beef have a lot less human interaction and therefore have less "personality". Our cows knew their names and were very affectionate but they also had been interacted with since birth.

Most farm animals are probably psychotic and can't develop a personality just because of the circumstances they are raised in. If you threw 20 humans into a small pen where they have to live from birth to death they would probably be crippled psychologically and not appear very smart too.

Dogs have co-evolved with humans for tens of thousands of years, and demonstrate traits and behaviors that makes it much easier for humans to empathize and socialize with them. For example, you can tell when a dog is happy because their facial expressions resemble a human smile. Not so with livestock. Sure, you can figure it out after spending time with them, but it's inarguably not the same thing.

No, dogs don't smile. Some learn the baring of teeth as being peaceful instead of defensive, but most of them don't, or rather can't smile.

You can find the same exact "smile" in goats, sheep and pigs, they're definitely not making that face because they're happy.

Yes, wrong example. Anyway, science has shown us that human-dog coevolution does have a noticeable impact on the way we interact with dogs. Specifically, sustained eye contact between a human and a familiar dog raises oxytocin levels to increase in both. The same type of relationship has not been demonstrated with other domesticated animals, to my knowledge.


Yeah, I know all that.

But a dog's smile is so much more, posture, sounds, tail wagging..

A dog's smile makes me smile.

And for that matter, humans can bare their teeth as well..

As a kid in 4H I raised purebred Duroc and showed them at the Evergreen State Fair. You had to train them to respond to cane taps, move right and left, stop start, strike standard poses so the judges could rate breed characteristics, etc. I can assure you that a healthy, well-cared for pig has plenty of personality.

For those who are confused, the above line is just quoting the movie Pulp Fiction.

Heh, was going to mention this. Funny how nobody expects inline pop culture references in HN discussions, so they're often just taken at face value.

> Funny how nobody expects inline pop culture references in HN discussions, so they're often just taken at face value.

Or the average age of the site is too young to remember Pulp Fiction.

You'd be surprised how interesting a pig can be as a pet. They show amazing social behaviours, and they also seem to be quite good at understanding simple spoken communication.

So by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal? Is that true?

Huge misconception about pigs. Pigs are very clean and if given a choice will never go to the bathroom anywhere close to where they sleep or eat.

Pigs use mud to avoid sunburn.

« Some people have gone so far, especially with show pigs, as to slather sun screen onto their pigs when they know that they will be out in the sun for a considerable time and they don't want them to get dirty with mud. » -- http://petcaretips.net/pigs-sunburn.html

You could also just keep your pet pig indoors all the time.

Yep, pigs are highly intelligent. They've been shown to be able to learn how to use mirrors to locate food, are possibly capable of theory of mind, deception and visual perspective taking. Some of these can be disputed as associative learning but we're also finding out that the same can also be said of aspects of higher human cognition. And from work in machine learning, we know how far even just associative learning and pattern matching can take you.

This is a short survey article that goes into more detail on pig intelligence: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982210...

Personally, I don't eat anything above a certain (arbitrarily defined) intelligence threshold. So octopus and pig are out. Chicken, however...

I've got bad news for you buddy. :)

(2 January 2017) http://www.springer.com/gp/about-springer/media/research-new...

I dunno. Have been feeding the neighbour's chooks for the last few weeks.

Amazing creatures, incredibly friendly and even affectionate.

I really enjoy going to visit them. I come away with a huge grin on my face.

I don't feel great about that either, but octopuses have shown repeatedly their problem solving abilities.

Perhaps that would be an interesting area of study. I think the lack of dexterous limbs probably inhibits the pig's ability to solve certain problems they would otherwise be mentally capable of tackling.

I've seen an experiment in which pigs controlled an object on a screen, using a 'joystick', by controlling it with their snout. It certainly looked as if they were demonstrating a level of intelligence.

I read about that study as well, it's what I was thinking of when I made the previous comment! Cool stuff! Do you have a link by any chance?

All I know is that it was a TV programme in the UK; sorry, I know that's not very useful!

We had two pigs together with our horse and they were really creative at figuring out how to open doors and get into the food containers.

Well, why not stop eating them?

This is the route I took. I'm a meat-eater and eat plenty of it (including pork, which someone else mentioned in this thread), but I decided to stop eating octopodes. It feels a little funny compared to people who avoid meat in general or eat all of it, but at least for now it's the only thing I don't eat.

I bet there are other mammals you 'don't' eat - at least, that you'd refuse to eat. Man is the obvious one, but what about other primates, elephants, giraffes, etc.?

I bet there are more animals that you don't eat than you do, and maybe there are even more that you would not be prepared to eat than you would.

At the end of the day, if it comes down to me or that animal, I'm choosing me. But that's not the reality for any of us on Hacker News. A lot of us have more money than we know what to do with, we don't struggle feed ourselves, we're not out hunting animals in the woods. We can make choices.

Not really..

I would consider heating human. I have nothing against another mammal. However, I would require humane treatment of said human (or any animal or byproduct I eat).

I'm not going to pretend I'm some morally superior being. But I'd like to at least reduce suffering of beings. After all, something else must die for me to eat (and I can't live on milk and honey).

This can't be serious

I don't care for eating them either. I imagine them someday becoming the dominant species and eating us in return.

I don't fear that at all. The males die after mating and the females starve to death on their egg brood. So there is no inter-generational knowledge transfer.

They would revert back to natural tool users with each succeeding generation. As an order, they wouldn't even be able to dominate house cats.

They taste ridiculously good. However I am conscious of it, and I rarely have it.

Also, they are part of the few edible maritime species whose populations are increasing (http://www.humanosphere.org/environment/2016/05/rapidly-chan...).

I believe this is only a current indicator because of less predators. Ie over-fishing.

We don't know, but most studies that look at what does well in acidic oceans come up with jelly fish. Lots of jelly fish.

Yum, heavy metal infused jelly fish...


Did that 18 years ago. Haven't looked back once.

But when the octopus hunts its prey does it have the same feeling ?

The females of the species eat the males after mating if they can, so ...

Thtat's probably more of a self-sacrifice type thing so the mother get's all the nutrients she needs to raise her offspring, not an invite for humans to eat more Octopi.


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