Friday 25 January 2013

Optimal cats

I'm not sure that you can make a case for the phased abolition of cats from New Zealand within a utilitarian framework, even one counting animals' utility directly, without arguing that you also have to abolish any carnivore elsewhere in the world whose prey is not at the Malthusean fringe.

It's conceptually easy to add animals' utility to utilitarianism; read Peter Singer. Animals utility will be weighted by their self-awareness and capacity for pleasure and pain, but it counts positively and directly in the social welfare function. This interview of Peter Singer by Tyler Cowen is superb, though it doesn't hit this topic directly.

If the marginal increase in terror imposed by cats on their prey*, accounting for that cats may have greater self-awareness and greater capacity for pain and pleasure than do prey species, outweighs the cat's enjoyment of its own life (including all the murder) and the cat owner's enjoyment of the cat, then a Singer framework would support getting rid of cats. If pet owners get particular disutility from the forced euthanasia of their pets relative to not being allowed to get a new one, then it could be consistent with Gareth Morgan's proposed mandatory neutering and non-replacement.

But it's also consistent with other required policies. The proposal above is only optimal where prey animals would otherwise have had happier lives and deaths: trading starvation at the Malthusean fringe for death by cat might not be all that bad. But consider rabbits and mice in Britain that feed on crops and are not at the Malthusean fringe. Foxes that eat them then do harms little different from the harms imposed by cats here. And what of the terrors keas impose on helpless sheep?

Aha, you might say: rabbits and mice are not endangered, while some New Zealand native bats and birds could be. This matters in a Singer setup to the extent that people value endangered species more at the margin than they value rabbits and mice, and to the extent that any extinction may have flow-on effects elsewhere, but we also have to weigh it against cat owners' enjoyment. And given the likely rather large consumer surplus provided by cats, well, I'm not sure the case is obvious.

If you step outside of the utilitarian framework, it's perhaps easier to derive a "abolish cats but leave foxes alone" conclusion. Harry Clarke puts up a biodiversity standard, arguing that biodiversity should be sought for its own sake and regardless of whether people gain enjoyment from biodiversity. But if there's a continuum of policies that could be undertaken to encourage biodiversity, and if some are very costly, we have to draw a line somewhere about trading off biodiversity against other goods. And that puts us back into a utilitarian cost-benefit assessment even if we're adding in biodiversity as a non-preference-related constraint.

I'm not against this kind of messy pluralism; it's close enough to my own messy pluralism, where I invoke liberty side-constraints on utilitarianism rather than biodiversity side-constraints. But isn't it worth weighing up the shadow prices of the incremental gains? You have to put ridiculously high weight on the side constraint to reckon we shouldn't even consider cat owners' forgone enjoyment. And I'm not sure that there isn't a fundamental underlying anthropocentrism even to biodiversity standards where at least some of it seems to require choice among equilibria, and a lot of weight put on particular ex ante status quos. If many of New Zealand's species arrived here long after separation from Gondwanaland, and then evolved here, how far back should we go in turning back the clock? Sure, there was a stable equilibrium here before the arrival of Maori. But there would have been a stable equilibrium before the arrival of bats and buttercups too. And if the pre-human equilibrium was the 'best' one because it included some best stable set of creatures that didn't exist elsewhere, and we should invest resources in maintaining that set of creatures at the expense of other ones, why shouldn't we also invest resources in developing new creatures that do not exist elsewhere? There are lots of ways of increasing biodiversity.

* Every animal dies of something, eventually. If the cat kills an animal that otherwise would have died a painful death of Malthusean starvation, it has done no harm and may have done good. If the cat kills an animal that otherwise would have had a long and happy life because the environment is well below carrying capacity because there are too many predators, then it has done harm. If it kills an animal that otherwise would have soon been eaten by a weasel, rat, stoat or possum, then it's done no harm. See discussion of vegetarianism and eating fish in the Cowen-Singer discussion above-linked.


  1. Sure, there was a stable equilibrium here before the arrival of Maori.

    Au contraire, nothing is stable in nature. There is some body of evidence to show that moa were heading for extinction before the Maori arrived.

    There were some millions of kea on the Mainland however. Most of them were killed in vast numbers by the early high country sheep farmers. I doubt the Mainlanders want a flock of kea that size again. No fridge or car on the island would be safe.

  2. Correct to "relatively stable" perhaps.

    The fridges would likely be safe; we'd have grates on the windows to keep the keas out. Suspect you're right about the cars though.

  3. The disutility of all the neighbourhood cats cr@pping on my lawn outweighs everything. Off with their heads!!!!

  4. I think people need to know how grandiose and socopathic Gareth Morgan has become.
    Just for a start read below about his next tax regime for you.
    Morgan proposes we go from a tax scheme that taxes everything that you earn,[ income tax ] everything you buy [gst] to include everything that you thought you owned.
    Your home business and assets.
    He will redistribute this money in a way he see fit. He Garteh Morgan is mad.

  5. Great title... My own optimal number of cats is zero, but that's just me... Gareth Morgan comes across more and more like a whacko every day... if it were harmless nonsense that he were pedalling then we could pass him off as an eccentric... but sadly he isn't and he is not.

    THe optimal number of Gareth Morgans in my view is also zero.

  6. cats pose no threat to humans. Some dogs do.

    The control of dangerous dogs is hard fought with penalties against owners of dogs that cause death or injury often too light.

    This is a tactical message for those that attempt to control companion animals that are harmless to people.

  7. Yeah... you see... I was just trying to make a small joke about the optimal number of Gareth Morgans...