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

January 15, 2014

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 greenhouse 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 itself worsens climate change; and get up the next morning to do it all over again. As our GDP grows, so does our disillusionment with the increasingly uninhabitable world of our own making.

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: (Al Roth) public domain; Duncan C via Flickr; Chris Campbell via Flickr

Juhea is the founder and editor of Peaceful Dumpling and the author of bestselling novel Beasts of a Little Land. Follow Juhea on Instagram @peacefuldumpling, @juhea_writes and Pinterest.


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