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Ethics & Economics Of Repugnance: An Interview With Nobel Prize Winner Alvin Roth


Fighting Climate Change in a Big CityIn the name of economic growth, we have created a society in which most of us put on clothes that are the outcome of toxic dyes and sweatshop labor; drive a car producing deleterious gases; order a salad for lunch and then toss the plastic bowl, fork, and bag that will never biodegrade after just 15 minutes of use; type into a computer for 8 to 15 hours a day; avoid sweltering heat from climate change by turning up the air conditioning, which emits HCFCs (2,100 times more heat-trapping than CO2); and get up the next morning to do it all over again. As our GDP grows, so does our disillusionment with our increasingly uninhabitable world.

But now even more than ever, politicians cite the economy as the reason for drilling for oil, blocking immigration, and allowing industry to pump greenhouse gases. Yet, it is not just politicians and demagogues who posit that sustainability, human welfare, and animal rights are antithetical to prosperity. Many sustainability advocates and green tech leaders also believe that economy overrides ethics. The Bill Gates-backed egg-less mayo startup Hampton Creek is the perfect example, eschewing the “vegan” label and insisting that it is “a tech company that happens to be working with food.” The idea is to lead with consumer preference, marketing, and lower cost, but not with the discussion of ethics—let the market decide what’s good, but inadvertently. 

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Alvin Roth, however, leaving ethics out of the consideration would be a mistake. The market not only decides based on lower cost and higher margins, as we currently assume—but also on moral compunction. Ethics, then, isn’t the antithesis of economy, but an integral part of it. Here’s how the little known game theory can be harnessed to transform the future of food—and of our planet.

Alvin E. Roth is the Craig and Susan McCaw professor of economics at Stanford University and the Gund professor of economics and business administration emeritus at Harvard University. He works in the areas of game theory, experimental economics and market design. He shared the 2012 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.

Factory farming evolved to produce meat in the cheapest and most efficient way possible. As an economist, do you think that there is an economic cost to factory farming?

Factory farming rose at a time when we were worried about feeding a large number of the population. Fortunately, in America we’re no longer worried about malnutrition. Instead, we’re now concerned about chickens being abused. So our welfare focus has shifted—and insofar as economics deals with increasing welfare (utility), factory farming can be seen as an economic problem.

Could you tell us about your work in real-life market design based on how “repugnance” drives the market?

Repugnance doesn’t exist in every market, but it can constrain certain markets. Take organ transplant market, for instance. People don’t need two kidneys to survive, and they can live healthy lives with just one. But you can’t sell me a kidney, and you can’t go buy a kidney. This is because there is a repugnance to selling of organs. That contributes to a situation of mass shortage. Right now, there are approximately 100,000 Americans on the wait list to receive a kidney transplant. So I helped design a kidney-exchange program where an incompatible donor-patient pair can “trade kidneys” with another incompatible donor-patient pair. This solution didn’t arouse repugnance like selling of organs.

What about examples of repugnance as it relates to food?

It is illegal to sell horse meat for human consumption in the state of California. It is not illegal to kill horses in California, because it is assumed that there might be circumstances where putting down a horse is more humane than letting it suffer. This law isn’t something passed down from the horse-loving cowboys in the Old West—it was actually passed in 1998. So that was when Californians decided that it is repugnant to eat horse meat, so much that it was declared against the law. But in the lean years after WWII, Americans did eat horse meat. The Harvard Faculty Club served “chicken-fried horse meat with onion gravy” until 1985. So that change in attitude happened both recently and relatively suddenly.

Notice the difference between “Disgust” and “Repugnance” here. If you enjoy eating cockroaches, it might be considered “disgusting” but not “repugnant,” though I might not go over to your house for a dinner party. So, there is no law against selling or eating cockroaches, not only because the demand there is quite small, but because there is no moral connotation.

 There is a change in the notion of animal cruelty...Interview with Professor Alvin RothIf Californians decided that eating horse meat should be banned due to repugnance, is it possible that more common meats might also be banned?

I imagine that if such changes happen, it would be gradual. Our understanding of “cruelty” can change. So before we outlaw eating chicken, it is far more likely to see banning of battery cages and the worst treatments.

It’s worth noting that repugnance isn’t universal; it can evolve regionally or even locally. So I predict that meat eating won’t go away completely.

Consider same sex marriage, for instance. It’s legal in sixteen states, but it’s not only unrecognized in 28 other states, it’s unconstitutional. So repugnance is expressed locally, and two seemingly incompatible paradigms can co-exist side-by-side.

What’s certain and more universal is that there is a change in the notion of animal cruelty. There will be localized reaction to that change—so if New York state becomes vegan, Texas on the other hand might ban some forms of industrial livestock production.

Exclusive Interview: Nobel Prize Winner Alvin Roth on Future of Food

After the horse meat scandal in Europe, a sign reassuring customers serves unintentionally to highlight the paper-thin distinction between the two domesticated animal species.

As an economist, your job is to ensure the balance of supply and demand; and in most of the cases you’ve worked on or written about, like legalizing organ sales or even dwarf tossing, repugnance seems to be a constraint on markets. Is there any case in which repugnance was a good thing from an economic perspective?

There is the example of the slave market. Once people became repugnant to trading and owning slaves, the slave market collapsed—but we’ve settled, universally, that it’s a good thing. A good economic model isn’t just one where people can buy or sell anything they want; it’s about increasing welfare (utility). We decided that slaves have rights, and that their welfare matters more than the frustrated wants of the would-be slave owner.

Can this be compared to animals? What if we decide that animals have rights and that their welfare matters more than the frustrations of the would-be meat eater?

That’s certainly a possibility. There are already animals for which we make an exception, like horses or whales or chimpanzees. In our culture, we’ve decided that whales are too intelligent, in some sense too near us, to be eaten.

And what really is the difference between a whale and a cow? It seems to me that a whale is no closer to us, in appearance or nature, than a cow—and that humanity has a greater shared history with the latter. So what’s stopping us from changing our minds about eating cows?

More Americans currently believe that whales have higher intelligence, and a capacity to anticipate and fear death—but whales weren’t always considered off-limits. Early colonialists continued the European practice of hunting and eating whale, and in the 1800s, of course, we hunted whales for oil, and I’m sure the meat wasn’t wasted, either.

With more studies proving the intelligence of cows, their anticipation of death and will to live, people may well change their attitudes toward them, just as they did with whales.

Some skeptics of veganism argue that if there is no market for cows, chickens, pigs, etc., that these domestic animals would eventually die off—and that would be worse fate for these species.

That is an assumption based on what hasn’t happened. For instance, think about children. You can have a few children and have enough resources to raise them lavishly—or, you can have many children and not have enough for each child. So we’re concerned about the children’s utility here, which can serve as a metaphor for that of animals. And you can’t regret the happiness of children you never had–or that of the chickens that were never born because there wasn’t a market for their meat any longer.

How do you envision the growth of veganism?

"Instead of focusing on making people repugnant to meat, promote the positive aspects of vegan eating." -Alvin Roth

Instead of focusing on making people repugnant to meat, promote the positive aspects of vegan eating. Remember that repugnance can grow or fade.

Get allies and recruit people who are more in the middle of the spectrum, who might be undecided, neutral, or at different levels of vegetarianism. Form a coalition with people who are in it for different reasons—such as those motivated by health or aesthetic reasons.

And join with people who are on even more extreme end of the plant-eating spectrum, such as Jains, who avoid harming even plants and don’t eat anything that comes from the ground. To them, you eating a carrot might make you an assassin. So remaining open-minded is very important.

An assassin for eating a carrot? That’s a bit harsh. I think I subscribe more to the Peter Singer school of thought, where concept of self and will to live count more than pure ability to regenerate.

But what if one day we realize that carrots can think? Things might change.

Last question: what’s your favorite vegan restaurant?

I live in San Francisco, where there are a lot of vegan places. Millenium is a great place to go with friends and family who might have dietary restrictions or keep kosher. The nice thing about vegan restaurants is that anyone can eat there.


Read more about Professor Roth’s work on his blog on market design.

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Photo: Duncan C via Flickr; Chris Campbell via Flickr

Juhea Kim
Originally from Portland, Oregon, Juhea now lives in NYC with her Oreo cookie cat, Zeus. When she is not writing, she enjoys running in Central Park, yoga, and teaching Barre classes. Follow Juhea on Instagram @peacefuldumpling, Google+ and Pinterest.
  • Satish Karandikar

    God bless Prof Roth!

  • Pingback: Ganhador do Prêmio Nobel acredita que nos próximos 100 anos o veganismo se tornará a regra e não a exceção | Vista-se()

  • Great article, I became vegetarian 2 1/2 years ago and intend to become fully plant based, I support veganism! People are becoming more conscious, more peaceful, more intuned with nature. Thank you for sharing!

    • Juhea Kim

      Thanks Amber! Also, congratulations on your compassionate lifestyle journey. 😀

  • Delisa

    I, too, believe veganism will become the new norm. I don’t know when, but it only makes sense that it is much more in alignment with our values than meat eating. Even die-hard carnists love animals. . . they just haven’t connected the dots. I know how it is, as I was there also. And from a health and environmental perspective, we can’t keep destroying our health and planet with animal agriculture.

    • kyle

      If this is truly the way we as living beings are supposed to be, then how come in every species (dating back to the dinosaurs obviously) there are carnivores and herbivores? I don’t believe a fully plant based diet is what we are meant to live off of. I do agree we (meat eaters) have taken it way too far . I LOVE fruits and vegetables as much as I love meat. I couldn’t live without either source. I just think we as a society need a more harmonic balance between the two.
      However, to say eating meat will be a social pariah of sorts is ludicrous. Since the first recollection of man we have lived off of meat.
      I commend anyone who truly lives this lifestyle, Not because I believe it to be the only way, but because you are standing up for your beliefs.

      • Matt Battaglia

        Ludicrous? What is ludicrous is the inefficient use of water and grain resources to produce meat. It takes 2000 gallons of water to produce 1 lb of beef. 13 lbs of corn are needed to make just 1 lb of beef. It is much more responsible and efficient use of resources for humans to consume the grains directly.

        Of course I agree humans are capable of eating meat. But, the mass-scale factory farming of today is nothing like what our ancestors did when hunting wild herds. You have to remember the population of the earth and the resulting strain on the earth’s resources was MUCH less thousands of years ago compared to now.

        Today with world population increasing by a billion every decade or so, we do not have enough resources for me and you to (with clear conscious) maintain a meat-eating diet. Meat-eating is just not sustainable given humanity’s huge numbers. This is not even to mention the cruel practices that have evolved out of this mass-scale meat production.

      • Samantha Burton

        “What we were meant to live off of”

        ^ What do you mean by “meant to”? Like from an intelligent design perspective? I don’t personally believe we were created for a specific purpose.

        We are creatures that can adapt and shift to the necessary environment. Like, if our planet goes caddywonkus and we can only grow vegetables, we will figure out how to survive on just that (I do already). I also don’t think the argument of “since the dawn of time we did __________” so we should continue it. If you put anything in the “___________” along the lines of slavery, raping, patriarchal & oppressive norms, etc. (which are all still present today, maybe just not as prevalent), any good and moral person would say “well, we should definitely not rape! ….even if our cavemen ancestors did it.”

        Sorry for the slight stream of consciousness… I’m a bit hopped up on java. I hope my points came through.

      • Alejandra Garceau

        In science, the term “omnivorous” doesn’t even exist! we’re either carnivores or hervibores. We’re not lions, and homo sapiens (the human animal species) are nowadays eating meat and animal products 100 times more than an actual carnivore. We’re apes. And ALL apes are herbivores, including one of the biggest animals on earth: the gorilla, who actually has long fangs and they’re twice as tall and as big as a human animal, AND they’re herbivores. Yep, gorillas are herbivores. We, by the way, the human animal species share 98% of our DNA with gorillas. Yep, we are herbivores. Sorry you’ve been so brainwashed. And just look around and see how unhealthy people are nowadays. Yes they live longer, but in what hideous shape and all diseased! by the time they’re 50 years old! The average American is on 11 medications!!!!! What a monstrous and abnormal fact!!! wow! As the saying goes: “Wherever the masses are going, run the opposite way!!”

  • kyle

    Mind you this is just from my own personal experiences. I’m in no way shape or form trying to talk down on anyone’s personal beliefs. I’m just a curious person.
    With that said , any “vegan” I know “cheat eat” all the time.. I’m not saying all do but of the 10 or so I do know they all will sneak something they shouldn’t.. my point being that people may be mixing fad in with the new “norm”. I knew of one true vegan , my aunt molly, I never set eyes on her eating outside of her plant based diet .
    While it may be truly repugnant to TRUE VEGANS , we as a society seem to jump on the bandwagon for anything, then once were sick of the effort needed to be put in we switch to the next.
    My main question here is , are you counting “vegan” growth as in anyone doing it for any amount of time? Or someone who truly believes and has been at it for a while (plans on forever) . Because I read online that most ppl will switch over , then they will get sick of the guidelines or will fall to temptation and will revert back (not fully, may omit certain meats )

    • 별빛

      It’s just amazing you know so many vegans (whether they are carrying the label falsely or not). I’ve been vegan for more than 10 years and have met only one other without trying. Of course when I tried I was able to meet others through animal rights group and what not…

      Those people eating animals bits here and there aren’t vegans (yet). They are “flexitarians” or plant-based somethings.

      I’m not sure but I think the prediction is based on more than just surveys but also from trends in vegan products, brands, establishments, etc..

      A lot of people that tried plant-based diets and went back to consuming a lot of animal products actually go back to plant-based on more than one instance because they feel it’s right. Sometimes it takes 3 or 4 tries before they get finally succeed. They’re struggling against convenience, habit, and animal-consuming culture. I give them credit because it’s not easy for everyone to figure out proper nutrition or go against social norms. It will become easier as veganism goes mainstream since the necessary information will be more readily available, and it becomes more socially acceptable. I live in a city of 200,000 and we have three totally vegan restaurants and 1 vegetarian/vegan restaurant. These weren’t here ten years ago so I see the growth occurring even if it’s not immediately apparent.

  • I always have my fingers crossed that veganism will become more normalized as time moves on. My boyfriend just gave up bacon this month, which was a huge step forward! I found this article to be so meaningful that I’ve included a link to it to my readers. Wonderful insight.

    Juliette |

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