Carnivores on the Run

It’s holiday time, and lots of good food is being ingested, so I figured this might be a good opportunity to explore an issue that’s caused me significant moral squirming over the past several years.  I’m a carnivore.  Yes, I said it.  But I’m finding there to be less and less of a rational justification for this position.  (That’s probably an inaccurate way of putting it, for it may be that there just is no rational justification for it, and never has been, in which case the scalar dimension of this comment refers literally to the degree of scales that have fallen from my eyes, rather than to the degree of justification itself.)  Nevertheless, I also find myself utterly unmotivated to change my ways.  And I know I’m not alone here (I know for a fact that there’s at least one other PEA brain, for example, who is in the same situation).  So what’s going on?

The arguments against eating meat are both familiar and straightforward (and the one I’ll draw from here is Singer-esque).  All creatures falling under the scope of what we can call the Basic Principle of Equality (BPE) deserve equal consideration (albeit not necessarily equal treatment) if they have (roughly) equal interests.  All of us (or at least those of us who are remotely reasonable) accept this as a good normative principle for dealing with our fellow human beings.  But it turns out there is no good non-arbitrary reason to restrict the scope of this principle to all and only humans.  Picking some feature that draws a distinction between humans and other animals excludes some humans we clearly want to include.  For example, pointing to the need for a certain level of intelligence, or the capacity for moral agency, excludes infants and the cognitively disabled.  It looks, then, as if the only feature that will ground the BPE as applying to all humans is the capacity for pleasure and pain, given the universal interest in avoiding pain and getting pleasure.  But non-human animals have this capacity (and interest) as well, so we need to include them under the rubric of the BPE too.  Couple this point with the overwhelmingly plausible principle that a significant amount of pain and suffering to X cannot, other things equal, be justified by a trivial amount of pleasure to Y, and you wind up with the conclusion that the pain and suffering caused to animals (under our current practices of factory farming, etc.) cannot be justified by the trivial pleasure we get from eating their flesh.

There are several possible replies to the argument, but they all seem to be attempts at rationalizing away the real issue.  You might, e.g., say that we simply need to introduce a painless method of raising and killing the animals, but then there’s a powerful consistency response available.  Suppose that infant meat was very tasty.  Insofar as we think it’s wrong to fry up human infants, and there’s no morally relevant difference between infants and other tasty creatures, we shouldn’t be frying up chickens either.  Or you might insist that, because humans have a far richer set of pains and pleasures (only we suffer from existential angst and many other psychological pains, after all), we should get greater consideration than animals, on the above argument’s own terms.  But while this argument might provide a justification for animal experimentation, surely it can’t overcome the basic challenge when it comes to eating them: how could our trivial dining pleasures ever justify killing another creature with even partial moral standing?  Finally, you might insist that we simply have a kind of sympathy “for our own” that provides a kind of defense of carnivorism.  I won’t go into the details of how this reply might work (Bonnie Steinbock runs a line like this, and one could also borrow from Jane English’s “Abortion and the Concept of a Person” to flesh it out).  But suffice it to say that – as when this move is attempted in defense of abortion – sympathies are malleable and by no means univocal.  Certainly many vegetarians’ sympathies extend to all sentient creatures (and the Jains’ sympathies may extend even further).  What possible reason could there be, then, to privilege the carnivorous sympathies over these others?

So what’s a rational carnivore to do?  To continue to eat meat, you’re likely in one of four states: (1) Denial — in this state you simply forge ahead in your carnivorism, denying it’s wrong, while failing to have any rational justification for saying so; (2) Weak-willed – in this state you affirm vegetarianism as an important ideal in your life, but then you continually fail to live up to it when dinnertime rolls around; (3) Immoralism – in this state you non-akratically do what you know to be the wrong thing; (4) Agnosticism – in this state you suspend judgment on whether or not eating meat is wrong (perhaps until all the arguments are in), but since ya gotta eat, your default position is to forge ahead in your carnivorous ways.  But (1) is philosophically (and humanly, it seems) unsatisfactory; (2) is a sorry state to be in, and anyway it’s not rational; (3) is a nasty state to be in (and may not be rational either, depending on your view of internalism); and (4) is a bizarre state to be in: it seems the proper “better safe than sorry” default position would be to refrain from eating meat until you’re satisfied one way or the other by the arguments.

Of course, you might be in a fifth state, viz., you’ve found an argument that provides a solid (non-rationalizing) rational defense for carnivorism.  But then what might that argument be?

24 Replies to “Carnivores on the Run

  1. Three comments:
    (1) I don’t think that BPE is a “good normative principle for dealing with our fellow human beings.” It seems that BPE is incompatible with both agent-centered options (options to devote attention and resources to one’s own interests and personal projects out of proportion to their weight in the impersonal calculus) and special obligations (obligations that arise due to past promises or through institutionally defined roles and that require us to give special weight to the interests of those to whom we have such obligations). Nevertheless, I don’t think that we need to rely on BPE to argue against meat-eating, especially if we’re talking about factory farmed meat.
    (2) I do think that we can use the replaceability argument to justify eating meat that comes from beings (human or non-human) that (i) are not self-governing to the extent that they are able to make sacrifices for the sake of future benefits (perhaps, fish), (ii) are reared for the purposes of eating them, and (iii) are reared and killed in a humane way.
    (3) I think that the position that I’m in is mainly what you label position 2. But I also rationalize my meat-eating in consequentialist terms: “Would my switching to vegetarianism really make any difference in the life of even one animal?” I think that the answer is probably “yes,” but sometimes I tend to rationalize and think “no.”

  2. Doug:
    1. BPE isn’t about equal treatment; it’s about equal consideration, which is (I take it) just another way of according equal moral status. It’s supposed to be a principle that we gloss in saying “all humans are fundamentally equal,” especially when denying racism and sexism. It’s what gets your foot in the door for moral consideration, such that your interests can’t simply be ignored tout court when they’re at stake. Your references to special obligations and the like aren’t counterexamples to this more basic principle, then.
    (2) This strikes me as yielding a serious epistemological problem, for how could I tell which animals, if any, “are not self-governing to the extent that they are able to make sacrifices for the sake of future benefits”? And why think this is the proper gloss on “self-governing”? And why is the capacity for self-governance even relevant for moral status?
    (3) I wonder if you’d be so quick to rationalize after running that consequentialist reasoning with regard to actions you perform requiring the death of humans from other races or sexes. Indeed, this is part of what I’m wondering generally in this post: being convinced to extend the range of the BPE to include humans of other races and sexes would seem to have an immediate impact on one’s motivations that I’m not sure occurs in the case of the extension to sentient creatures. In part, I’m wondering why that is.

  3. (1) The principle of equal consideration of interests doesn’t necessarily require that X and Y be treated equally because X’s interests and Y’s interests may not always be equal. But when their interests are equal, then doesn’t BPE (or the principle of equal consideration of interests, at any rate) require equal treatment? If not, then perhaps you should explain what the equal consideration of interests does require. And note that both agent-centered options and special obligations involve treating X and Y differently even when their interests are equal.
    (2) The reason the ability to self-govern, in the sense I’ve specified, is relevant has to do with the particular theory of welfare that I accept, which entails that such beings are not replaceable. But it’s complicated. Perhaps, I’ll write a post on it later. In any case, I wasn’t holding that self-governance was necessary to have moral status. I thought the issue was whether it is permissible to eat animals, not whether they had moral status. I concede that all sentient creatures have moral status; indeed, that’s why I insisted that they would have to be reared and killed humanely.
    (3) I agree. As to why this is, I think that the answer is that we’re speciesist.

  4. The dilemma you describe is one I share. It has occurred to me that there is an interesting parallel here to the question of why we don’t give more to charity than we do. When faced with the Singer challenge to justify spending money on a chocolate bar for myself or food aid via Oxfam, it seems impossible to justify buying the bar, yet most (all?) of us do it anyway. Doug’s comment about rationalizing seems right for both eating meat and buying the chocolate.
    Another reason that denial might be an important player here is because the situation is too depressing to really face. Even if I start to save every spare penny I can (not only no more chocolate bars, but no non-necessary spending at all) I will still not see a perceptible reduction in human suffering. There is so much of it it can feel futile to even try. And if I cannot face trying, then it is better (psychologically) if I am in denial.
    With animals, eating meat is only one part of it. To completely abstain from buying any product made from animals – food, clothing, or otherwise – is a big and difficult change to impose on ones life. It seems odd to accept the moral argument and only go part way, so it really is all or nothing (or partial denial in a more schizophrenic way). The end result again is it is likely I will see no benefit to animals, and so it will seem futile to try. So again, if I cannot face trying, then it is better (psychologically) if I am in denial.
    It’s not a satisfying subject to think about, but an answer that is part denial and part weakness of will based on a foundation of a sense of futility seems to be the best answer I can come up with.

  5. One of the things I thought Singer used to make his equal consideration of interests principle more plausible was the idea that different creatures had different enough interests that we could in fact treat them differently. Some creatures, for instance, had no interest in their long-term future and hence could reasonable be killed, so long as it was humanely done. And so on.
    So one thing that puzzles me about your original posting is that you seem to think that there would be something wrong with humanely killing creatures of this kind, bolstering that with an analogy to humanely killing and eating infants. While I suspect there are ways to resist the analogy (I doubt infants and fish have the same interests), I think that Singer’s original argument is stronger precisely because it recognizes differences in interests between kinds of creatures. If you take that away, it will be harder for people to hang onto Singer’s equal consideration principle as they try to put that into reflective equilibrium with other things they believe about morality.
    Maybe this connects with the your original question, though maybe only as a matter of psychology (since I recognize that true theories can be self-effacing). I tend to think that if you go whole hog (so to speak) in the defense of vegetarianism you wind up with less compliance than if you take a somewhat more moderate approach. I have several friends who think that vegetarianism is morally required and who still eat meat. I eat fish along with an otherwise vegetarian diet, though I’m not too picky about what people sneak in to what I eat, and have been known to eat turkey on rare occasions. I think that I find it easier to avoid meat partly because I think the wrongness involved is largely a matter of degree. Originally my reasons were resource related, so eating less meat used less resources even when I occasionally lapsed. Thus any lapse did not seem like giving up the principle I was acting on.
    Of course, having given up meat for resource reasons, I found it easier to recognize the arguments based on the cruelty involved in most factory farmed meat. So now I recognize extra reasons not to eat meat. I guess what I’m saying is that if I was committed to the thought that every time I ate meat or even fish I did something akin to eating infants, it would not be surprising if psychological defense mechanisms kicked in to keep me from really recognizing or believing that. But when you think that eating meat is not quite that bad, but still not sufficiently responsive to the interests of other creatures, it is easier to modify one’s behaviour by trying to be more responsive.

  6. I’d tried to put together the original post so as to avoid textual debates over the specific Singer arguments, so let me simply re-emphasize the main point, setting Singer aside, drawing attention to what I take to be the key move. First, it seems hard, if not impossible, to deny that many nonhuman animals have at least partial moral standing, i.e., when doing the moral “calculus,” their interests get included in the mix. Second, it can’t be morally permissible, other things being equal, to engage in some activity that brings about only trivial pleasures at the expense of significant pain or death to another creature with at least partial moral standing. Eating meat seems to do just that. Thus, eating meat cannot be morally permissible.
    The infant analogy, I take it, is meant to ward off the objection that says, “Well, if it’s pain that matters morally, then we could eliminate all pain to the animals in question by killing them painlessly, or in some humane fashion, say.” If we wouldn’t want to allow humane killing of infants *for the sake of some trivial pleasure*, then we shouldn’t do so to these other creatures with (at least partial) moral standing either.
    I think David White’s analogy to the other famous Singerian argument, regarding poverty and aid, is a good one. I could just as easily have named the post “Uncharitable People on the Run.”
    I’m intrigued by Mark’s idea of degrees of moral wrongness, and how believing that might facilitate the psychological transition to becoming a vegetarian. What I don’t quite understand, though, is how the possibility of having “extra reasons” against some action makes the wrongness of that action scalar. If action A is wrong for reason R1, why exactly would the extra consideration R2 for A’s wrongness make it *more* wrong, as opposed to merely “wrong for an addition reason”? Perhaps this is merely a terminological issue, but I’m not sure: if the “degrees of wrongness” of carnivorism is to facilitate motivation, then I don’t yet see how it’s supposed to do so.
    To be more specific: it looks like you were convinced by the resource argument *to eat less meat* than some previous amount, say, so when you ate meat, it wasn’t wrong, as long as you were, overall, eating less. (That’s why your “lapses” didn’t seem like you were giving up the principle — that’s because you weren’t even *violating* that principle, it seems to me.) Now perhaps this kind of vigilance made you more receptive to the cruelty/factory farming argument, but that seems to be an argument for a different principle, viz., eating meat *produced by factory farming* is wrong. But then this doesn’t yet reveal degrees of the moral *wrongness* of carnivorism, only that there are degrees of *carnivorism*, some of which may be wrong simpliciter, some of which may be permissible simpliciter.

  7. Thanks, Dave, for clarifying things. I was thrown off by your statement of BPE in terms of “equal consideration.” In any case, I think the following assumption of yours is contentious: “it can’t be morally permissible, other things being equal, to engage in some activity that brings about only trivial pleasures at the expense of significant pain or [emphasis added] death to another creature with at least partial moral standing.” I think that it can be morally permissible, other things being equal, to engage in some activity that brings about only trivial pleasures for oneself at the expense of the death of another creature who has at least partial moral standing. Assume that the activity in question, viz., purchasing meat, creates an economic incentive for farmers to breed and rear more animals of the type that you purchased, that these animals are reared in such a way that they have on the whole pleasant lives, that they are killed painlessly, and that the lives of those belonging to the species in question don’t have any narrative structure to them, so there isn’t any potentially morally relevant relations between the various instances of momentary pleasure and momentary pain that they experience. Suppose that farmed catfish meet all these conditions. In this case, I think that it is morally permissible to buy and consume farmed catfish even though, being sentient, such catfish have at least partial moral standing. Although your activity results in more fish being slaughtered, it also results in more fish being brought into existence. On the whole, there is more fishy pleasure in the universe as a result of those who buy and consume farmed catfish. You’re not violating the fish’s autonomy (the fish isn’t autonomous). You’re not rendering the fish’s prior sacrifices pointless (the fish isn’t capable of making such rational plans). Moreover, it seems the fish owes whatever period of existence that it enjoys (however short) to meat-eaters. So what’s wrong with eating farmed catfish?

  8. And to stave off any potential objection from marginal cases: yes, I think that it would be permissible, other things being equal, to breed, rear, and eat humans that were genetically engineered to have a fish’s mentality. Of course, other things are not equal. Such a practice would, I suspect, cause a lot of emotional pain for other humans, whereas I assume the practice of farming and eating catfish doesn’t cause anyone (human or fish) much, if any, emotional pain.

  9. Doug, that’s interesting. Let’s assume catfish meet your conditions. I wonder, though, if you’ve simply defined catfish out of the set of things with moral standing, though, by essentially denying that they have interests. In stipulating that these creatures not have any “morally relevant relations between the various instances of momentary pleasure and momentary pain that they experience,” you seem to have eliminated the very conditions of having interests at all. So you might have defined a case of sentience, technically, where there are no interests. But I take it that the key to the Singerian argument is that it’s the having of *interests* that generates moral standing.
    On the other hand, I’m not sure I can make sense of the notion of pain/pleasure without *some* kind of “morally relevant relations between the various instances of momentary pleasure and momentary pain that they experience.” On the most plausible theories of welfare, pain and pleasure are functional states, which require, at the very least, a desire-that-the-pleasure-continue, or that-the-pain-cease, and subsequently that the creature takes steps in either direction (other things equal). But this is to assume that there are relations between the desirer and the actor that provide the creature-qua-agent with a greater temporal duration than on the atomistic picture you suggest. And this non-atomistic view of such creatures also reveals how their interests actually arise, making those relations morally relevant.
    So on the one hand, either you define their interests away, which renders them without moral standing, or, on the other hand, you have an implausible view of pleasures and pains. But this obviously opens up a huge can of worms (which could very well be rather tasty).
    One other thing: I understand your attempt to stave off the infants-objection here, but why wouldn’t it be the case that, if catfish met your conditions, all other tasty animals would as well (as long as the farming practices were changed)?

  10. David,
    Sorry to confuse.
    You wrote: “What I don’t quite understand, though, is how the possibility of having “extra reasons” against some action makes the wrongness of that action scalar.”
    I wasn’t saying that, though I see why you thought I was. I was saying that the original resource argument made it scalar. The resource arguments convinced me that it would be better to eat less meat and best to eat none at all. When I on occasion have eaten a bit of meat to be polite or to deal with a less than accommodating menu, I was not giving up the general policy of eating less meat. I was giving up the goal of eating none at all. But since (on resource grounds anyway) eating little meat is only a little worse than eating none, I think that there is less reason for denial defense mechanisms and the like to kick in. Whatever guilt I feel is such that I can deal with it and both continue to believe I ought to eat less meat, and to be (mostly) motivated by that thought.
    The extra reasons provided by the animal cruelty arguments as presented by Singer don’t obviously generate scalar wrongness(though I believe that Alistair Norcross thinks all wrongness is scalar). Still, you could think it worse to violate certain sorts of interests than other sorts and also think that some creatures have fewer of the interests it is worst to violate. So you might get some sort of scalar notion out of that too.

  11. Dave,
    You say,

    On the most plausible theories of welfare, pain and pleasure are functional states, which require, at the very least, a desire-that-the-pleasure-continue, or that-the-pain-cease, and subsequently that the creature takes steps in either direction (other things equal). But this is to assume that there are relations between the desirer and the actor that provide the creature-qua-agent with a greater temporal duration than on the atomistic picture you suggest.

    I was talking about relations between various moments of momentary pleasure and momentary pain. You seem to be talking about a relation between a being’s intentional attitude (e.g., desiring that, being pleased that) and the intentional object of that attitude. I’m perfectly happy with an attitudinal account of pleasure and pain. So let’s assume that catfish are sufficiently mentally sophisticated such that they have the relevant intentional attitudes and thus are, for instance, sometimes pleased that their having a given sensation. (We can even assume, as you seem to, that the relevant attitude must be future directed, involving a desire for the sensation to continue.) In any case, I certainly wasn’t assuming that catfish don’t have such intentional attitudes; rather I was assuming only that their lives don’t have the sort of narrative structure that leads people like David Velleman and myself to conclude that we cannot, in the case of normal adult humans beings, determine the welfare value of their lives by merely summing the momentary welfare that they contain.
    Here’s the sort of thing that I have in mind: Because normal adult humans make sacrifices for the sake of future benefits, an early death might not only deprive them of those future benefits but also render their earlier sacrifices pointless. If we reject the view that the welfare value of a narrative life (a life with the relevant kind of narrative structure) isn’t simply equal to the sum of momentary welfare contained within it, then the badness of cutting such a life short can be greater than the badness of depriving that being of whatever sum of momentary welfare that it might otherwise have had. By contrast, I think that the welfare value of a non-narrative life (a life without the relevant kind of narrative structure) is just equal to the sum of momentary welfare contained within it. In the case of such a non-narrative life, the only thing bad about cutting such a life short would seem to be that we’re depriving that being of the sum of momentary welfare that it would have otherwise had. But, in the case of eating farmed catfish, this bad effect is offset by the corresponding good of effect of bringing happy catfish into existence and increasing the net sum of fishy momentary welfare that there is in the world.
    It seems to me that there are many animals that do have interests but don’t have lives with the relevant kind of narrative structure. Such animals are, I think, replaceable even though they do have interests (which we ought to weigh in our moral deliberations).

  12. Hi
    I would like to suggest a few additional philosophical resources for those who are interested in this question. Cora Diamond, herself a vegetarian, wrote an attack on the Singer-style arguments in “Eating Meat and Eating People”, reprinted in her The Realistic Spirit, MITP 1991 and originally in Philosophy 1978. Raimond Gaita, not a vegetarian, gives a nuanced perspective on the commonalities and differences between our relations with animals and people in The Philosopher’s Dog 2004/5 (Routledge in the UK, Random House in the US, RiverText in Australia). J.M. Coetzee, not a philosopher, provided an intriguing pro-animal polemic in his The Lives of Animals (Princeton UP in the US).
    For myself, I am an untroubled carnivore. I am somewhat more concerned about my relationship to my pets (cats and dogs) since the relationship is a peculiar one. On the one hand, they are “mine” and I can decide when to put them down. On the other, I think they are beings who ought to be afforded some independence and choice in their lives. There is a point of tension here, though it revolves around power asymmetries.
    I do not understood the force of Singer-style arguments in favor of eating meat because they make, like many of his arguments, unstated presumptions about what is morally relevant or important. The way the argument is set up in this thread seems to be an enthymeme too, because you do not provide the premiss by which we ought to discard the many obvious differences between animals and people. Here are a few:

    • We don’t hold animals morally responsible.
    • Punishing an animal is a form of conditioning and has no moral content. Punishment of people, as the debate on the matter shows, has a moral purpose.
    • Only people have reactive attitudes with moral content such as indignation and resentment.
    • Only people have moral emotions such as remorse and apology
    • It is essential to being a person that one has a name, even foundlings are immediately named. Denying someone’s name is ordinarily a moral injury. The majority of animals do not get, and are not injured through the lack of, names.
    • Human life is characterized not only by so-called higher pleasures, but by a character different in kind from animals. The difference springs from the human capacities for hope, faith, long-term goals, hubris, tragedy and the other things we try to express through the arts.

    On the face of it, these are enormous differences between people and animals. It seems odd to suggest that these are not moral differences. Each is quite obviously a feature of the moral life of people. Your argument suggests a few possible differences, but not these. Why not these? Why think these are not relevant? I’d like to know the principle by which they are discounted.
    The differences above suggest that whatever else is the case concerning our moral relations with animals, they cannot be the sort we have with people. There is a certain symmetry in inter-personal moral relations, because the differences I note above do not exist (at least not at the level of potential). Our moral relations with animals, whatever they may be, must at least be asymmetric because of the above differences, e.g. I am held morally responsible for my actions but my pet is not.
    Asymmetry can be present in moral relations between people in unusual circumstances. For instance, for someone in a vegetative state, the criticism that one was treating him paternalistically would be idle. The same is true for infants. But asymmetry is not the ordinary case, the BPE is an expression of the equality–that is symmetry–of moral status between people.
    You mentioned infants as a vexing case for making a distinction between animals and people. Again, one obvious difference between an animal and an infant is potential. Infants have the potential to become adult humans with all the features I describe above as differences with animals. Cows, and other animals, simply lack this potential. There is a difference, one of the first importance. There are of course others, including the nature of the human parental relation as opposed to animal parents.
    A different story can be told for the persistently vegetative, as well as profoundly disabled infants. There will again be differences and asymmetries with ordinary moral relations, but those differences are still not ones which make those relations the same as the moral relations we have with animals.
    The idea that the central element in moral status is the capacity to feel pain is not at all obvious unless you assume a lot of moral theory. First, you can be morally injured without feeling pain. Consider someone who goes to his grave unaware that he was betrayed. Second, you can be morally injured, I suggest, without the capacity to feel pain. Suppose there were Zombies, either philosophical or movie ones, without pain qualia. It would still be wrong to deceive them, I suggest. An interesting test for your intuitions is, even if you are vegetarian, would it be OK to eat Zombies? Third, somewhat controversially, the dead can be wronged though they feel no pain. (Can you wrong a dead animal? I doubt it.) Fourth, very controversially, you can wrong someone though you don’t act against them. Consider someone fixed in a callous and untrue judgement, against whom the judgement-maker does not act.
    Dialectically, then I think the position is as follows. You say the following:
    1. If there are no morally relevant differences between animals and people, we should treat them similarly.
    2. There are no morally relevant differences.
    3. We don’t eat people.
    4. Therefore, we shouldn’t eat animals.
    I deny 2. There are relevant differences. The dispute turns on the criteria of morally relevance. I deny that it can be pain or pain-related for the reasons I just gave. Please give me another criteria. I suggest the burden of proof is on you, since the vegetarian is revisionary of ordinary practice.
    In the meantime, what I think about our relations with animals is complicated. But, I do think that under some fairly ordinary circumstances we can kill animals for our purposes without properly being subject to moral criticism. For instance, it would ordinarily be wrong to eat your pet. For many kinds of pelt, fur coats are a cruel extravagance–but not, for instance, leather jackets. We do not demean ourselves by eating meat which is raised and killed with some sensitivity for the life of the animal. In a fuller elaboration of my account, the question would turn on what moral criticisms we could properly be subject to for the various things we do to animals. I am not offering that account here, but it is on the basis of the falsehood of your arguments and the elaboration of my own that I consider myself in your fifth category of carnivore.
    David.

  13. A quick observation on the Basic Principle of Equality. Like Singer’s similar Principle of Equal Consideration it’s not so basic. Both of these principles incorporate fairly substantive positions on impartial treatment since both entail that preference-satisfaction provides a morally relevant reason for discriminating in treatment. For all of the Ethics 101 reasons, this is a poor basis for discriminating in treatment.
    But things, I think, are a little worse. BPE won’t help the case for vegetarianism (much) since no instance of foregoing carnivorous consumption increases preference-satisfaction among sentient, non-humans. It’s similar to foregoing the consumption of road kill (in fairness, I first heard this line of argument from Don Hubin and later learned that Allan Gibbard had suggested a similar argument). No increase in preference-satisfaction there (except your own!).
    I’m not trying to provide aid and comfort to the carnivorous. I’m suggesting that it takes a pretty sophisticated argument to clinch the vegetarian conclusion. I do think it is the right conclusion.

  14. David (Levy),
    When you speak of the “many obvious differences between animals and people,” what do you mean by ‘people’? I don’t think that you mean ‘member of the species Homo sapiens’, for not all members of the species Homo sapiens possess the characteristics you speak of, nor do all of them have the potential to develop the characteristics you speak of. I have in mind here human infants with anencephaly. Perhaps, you are pointing to typical differences between certain species of non-human animals and the species Homo sapiens. But shouldn’t we treat individual beings on the basis of the (actual or potential) properties that they have as opposed to on the basis of what properties are typical of their kind? I wouldn’t think that you should select me over some faster and stronger female candidate (and there are quite a few) for some job that requires physical speed and strength just because I belong to the sex that is typically faster and stronger. So would you be as untroubled by someone who ate anencephalic infants as you are about someone who eats cows, pigs, chickens, etc.?

  15. Mark: I appreciate the clarification. That’s helpful, although now you’ve got me obsessing about the notion of degrees of moral wrongness some more. Thanks. Thanks a lot.
    Doug: As you recognized in an earlier comment, your position now leaves you open for the “marginal cases” worry, for surely infants and humans with severe cognitive disabilities are no different than the catfish on your criteria. (The infant will eventually have a narrative structure, but we could eliminate that possibility by “growing” them and killing them early so that potentiality is cut off. Man, I hope I’m not being monitored by a thickheaded government bureaucrat now.) What you said earlier was that “other things wouldn’t be equal” in that case, because of the emotional pain eating infants would cause other humans, but as I implied in my original post, the amount of emotional pain caused by such activities is, for the most part, a function of people’s *moral* assessments of the action in question, whereas what we’re looking for are the morally relevant factors at the root of the reaction. In other words, change enough people’s minds on the morality of catfish-eating, and you’ll get far greater emotional pain at their deaths (e.g., see the Jains).
    As for David, thanks for the comment. The obvious reason I didn’t go through the list of possible morally relevant differences between people and animals is precisely the one you imply: none of them capture all and only humans in their net. True, we don’t hold cows morally responsible, but neither do we hold infants and the severely cognitively disabled morally responsible.
    You then discuss asymmetries in our moral dealings with some other humans (like the marginal cases I just mentioned), but you suggest, rather oddly, that our moral dealings with infants count as “unusual” circumstances. Why? Surely it’s not statistically unusual, given the significant number of infants in the world and the regular dealings all parents have with them.
    You then mention the potential of infants to achieve the moral status the rest of us have. What counts as “potential” here is of course a vexed question (do fetuses have it? what of sperm and ova?), but at any rate, why think that potential-to-be-an-adult-human gets you a moral status not accorded to non-human animals? Why does *potential* matter morally?
    In addition, unless your view denies *any* moral status to animals (which I don’t think it does), there is still the main challenge hanging in the air: how can the pain or death or creatures with even just *partial* moral status be justified for the sake of merely trivial pleasures?
    BTW, let me just remark once more how strange it is for me to be taking up this argumentative stance.

  16. I find the Policing Nature argument somewhat convincing. It runs (sort of) as follows:
    1. If there is a moral principle that obliges people not to eat animals, then that moral principle obliges animals not to eat other animals.
    2. There’s no moral principle obliging animals not to eat other animals.
    3. Therefore, there’s no moral principle that obliges people not to eat animals.
    Obviously (1) is the premise to attack, since (2) seems obvious. The most common attack to (1) seems to be something along the lines of: people are bound by moral principles because they are moral agents, or sentient, or any number of other plausible reasons, and animals aren’t, therefore it’s false to say that the same moral principles force obligations equally on both. But (and here is where the name of the argument comes in) even in cases where people are not moral agents (e.g. children, sociopaths, and so forth), we do not simply ignore their immoral actions — we take steps to prevent their recurrence (by holding parents responsible for their children or by making children wards of the state, confining sociopaths, etc.). Thus, even if animals are not moral agents, we should take steps to prevent the recurrence of THEIR immoral (or destructive) actions.
    But: clearly we should not police nature. We should not, in fact, be out patrolling the savannahs imprisoning lions and feeding them gazelle-substitute. Yet this conduct is implied by any view or moral principle denying (1). Hence (1) is true by reductio, (2) is obvious, and (3) follows from (1) and (2).
    Here’s a paper covering this argument in more detail: http://www.gmu.edu/jbc/Tyler/police.doc

  17. Well, I don’t think there is a general argument that we ought to prevent others from acting immorally or amorally. So even if one did think that animals were violating the same moral principle people do when they eat meat out of a preference for meat over other sources of nutrition, I don’t think your reductio works. We might have some obligation to mitigate the bad effects of the actions of other creatures (if we can’t use our time better in other ways), but it isn’t obvious that stopping wild animals from eating each other has effects that are on balance good even for the other animals around. OTOH, abolishing factory farms would likely have effects which are good on balance.
    And actually, I take it that your reductio is really aimed at the second premise since the idea is that if there is an obligation of the sort postulated for animals, we should be policing them. And you infer that since we shouldn’t be policing them that there is no such obligation. I don’t see how one could use the claim that we ought not police the actions of animals to support the first premise of the argument, since if it worked it would only make it harder to show the first premise was true.

  18. The worry I have with the argument presented here for vegetarianism is the following. I think the argument is perhaps best put as a two horned dillemma:
    Either:
    (a) Quality X (pain?) determines the moral status of any object, and this entails that animals have the same moral standing as persons, or:
    (b) Quality Y (consciousness?) determines the moral status of any object, and this entails that not all humans are persons: that not all humans have moral standing.
    (where X is a very broad quality that tries to capture all humans that we intuitively think are persons, and Y is a fairly narrow quality that accurately distinguishes most humans most animals)
    The problem, as I see it, is that we need to reject one of the intuitions: Either not all the humans that we think are persons are actually persons, or many animals that we do not consider persons are in fact persons.
    Slightly less precisely, its “Infants should not be eaten!” against “The end of animals rights is votes for Oysters”.
    And, given that people seem to divide quite sharply on this issue, it seems to me that there needs to be reference to an independent argument that settles the issue. Without such an argument, its unclear which side to take since both seem so repulsive.
    Frankfurt, for example, argues that second-order desires are definitive of personhood: No doubt ruling out some humans from personhood (infants), but since his argument is independent of the vegetarianism argument, at least he’s not begging any questions. (he may well be wrong of course!)
    So, I guess what I’m saying is that I’m waiting to see something plausible elsewhere (personal identity, philosophy of mind, free will) that will determine the answer here.

  19. Well, we’re not just talking about factory farms here, presumably. If the case for getting rid of those is granted, then it’s not clear to me why restricting wild animals from eating one another would have fewer benefits for animals than restricting humans from eating them would. (The paper I referenced discusses this at more length.)
    You can think of the first premise as simply a rejection of speciesism. So, for some people, it may be more obvious than (2). Maybe a better way of stating the argument is:
    4. If there are no morally significant differences between humans and animals such that it’s impermissible for humans to eat animals, then it’s also impermissible for animals to eat other animals.
    5. If it’s impermissible for animals to eat other animals, we’re obliged to police nature.
    6. We’re not obliged to police nature.
    7. Therefore it’s permissible for animals to eat other animals.
    8. Therefore it’s not the case that there are no morally significant differences between humans and animals such that it’s impermissible for humans to eat animals.
    Note that (5) goes through just as well even if, as you say, we merely have an obligation to mitigate the bad effects of others’ actions, rather than a general obligation to prevent immoral behavior (or rights-violating behavior, or some other defined subset of immoral behavior).

  20. Ananda,
    What might you think of the following sort of argument?
    4*. If there are no morally significant differences between humans and animals such that it’s impermissible for humans to kill (and possibly eat) their own young, then it’s also impermissible for animals to kill (and possibly eat) their own young.
    5*. If it’s impermissible for animals to kill (and possibly eat) their own young, we’re obliged to police nature. [Think of male polar bears, lions, many fish, etc.]
    6*. We’re not obliged to police nature.
    7*. Therefore it’s permissible for animals to kill (and possibly eat) their own young.
    8*. Therefore it’s not the case that there are no morally significant differences between humans and animals such that it’s impermissible for humans to kill (and possibly eat) their own young.

  21. My immediate impression is that the argument is sound, but: the reason why it’s impermissible for humans to kill and eat their own young has nothing to do with the differences between humans and animals, so while (8*) is true, it does not require us to adopt the counterintuitive idea that we can eat babies. This does not apply to the argument I gave, since whether humans can eat animals has everything to do with the differences between humans and animals.
    Turning your parallel argument on its head: are we humans obliged to protect e.g. lion cubs in Africa from male lions who did not father them? Or, to quote, the paper I linked:
    “The question is simple: if human beings should restrict or regulate their own behavior towards animals, why should humans not also restrict how animals treat each other? To the extent that we reject an anthropocentric worldview, it seems that restrictions on human treatment of animals will imply corresponding restrictions on animal treatment of other animals. Human beings are, after all, simply one animal of many.”

  22. David (Shoemaker)
    You said:
    As for David, thanks for the comment. The obvious reason I didn’t go through the list of possible morally relevant differences between people and animals is precisely the one you imply: none of them capture all and only humans in their net. True, we don’t hold cows morally responsible, but neither do we hold infants and the severely cognitively disabled morally responsible.

    You then discuss asymmetries in our moral dealings with some other humans (like the marginal cases I just mentioned), but you suggest, rather oddly, that our moral dealings with infants count as “unusual” circumstances. Why? Surely it’s not statistically unusual, given the significant number of infants in the world and the regular dealings all parents have with them.

    You then mention the potential of infants to achieve the moral status the rest of us have. What counts as “potential” here is of course a vexed question (do fetuses have it? what of sperm and ova?), but at any rate, why think that potential-to-be-an-adult-human gets you a moral status not accorded to non-human animals? Why does *potential* matter morally?

    In addition, unless your view denies *any* moral status to animals (which I don’t think it does), there is still the main challenge hanging in the air: how can the pain or death or creatures with even just *partial* moral status be justified for the sake of merely trivial pleasures?

    BTW, let me just remark once more how strange it is for me to be taking up this argumentative stance.


    I think you’re overextending the dialectical reach of the argument you can make using the BPE, by assuming that there is one quality that will “capture all and only humans” and divide them from animals. Why presume that our moral relations to other humans are of only one kind, or in each case derive from only one basis for moral status? Indeed, it seems improbable, because our moral obligations flow in large part from inter-personal relations which are limited in scope, e.g. being parents, children, siblings, co-workers, countrymen, etc. The scope of my potential obligations to any arbitrary person will emerge from more or less common qualities (including relational ones) of that person.
    Dialectically, the following possibility exists. Suppose we divide humans into three categories the A’s, B’s and C’s, e.g. infants, ordinary adults and the disabled. It doesn’t really matter, we could (following the Sphinx) divide people into those that walk on four, two and three legs if there were moral salience in the distinctions. The BPE will of course apply within members of a group. But it is not obvious that it should apply between groups, precisely because the groups are distinct. Now, assuming that there are differences between animals and each group [A..C]–though not necessarily the same differences in each case–than the BPE will not get a hold there either. If that is right, then the BPE will never be operative in demanding we give the same treatment to animals as we give to a category of humans.
    This dialectical possibility is the sort I had in mind in my response as being actual. It is not true that one size fits all for moral relations and the obligations that flow from them. The paradigm is the symmetric relations between two competent adults. The relations between adults and infants is similar, but asymmetric and derivative. It was in that sense unusual (which was a poor choice of word, I meant not the paradigm). So too the relation between adults and the profoundly disabled. Each is asymmetric and derivative. Derivative because many of our usual morally critical concepts will apply, but asymmetric because some will not such as those relating to responsibility or paternalism. Killing is exactly one element in which the relations are different from the paradigm. We are prepared, without wronging her, to let (or cause) the terminally ill (to) die; or to use a recent case in the UK, to all but absolve a man of murder for smothering his profoundly ill 10-year old.
    Of course some of the differences I described between people and animals do not apply to some groups, they were not conditions on being human. They were hallmarks or indicators of moral status. But it does not follow that all hallmarks must be present for moral status. Nor does it follow that moral status will be of only one type (as it were a binary condition), if by moral status we have in mind the condition that must be satisfied for someone to properly demand moral consideration and what comes with that, e.g. remorse when we wrong them.
    Now I maintain that the moral relations we have to animals, if we do, do not obviously make killing them for food or other purposes (e.g. footwear) wrong. That I take it is the position of the last few centuries and of the majority of people and it is from them that I take the initial or intuitive application of morally critical terms, such as cruel, wasteful, etc. The application of those terms makes it blameless to do some things and wrong to do others. That is not an argument, except insofar as it establishes that there is a rational basis for eating meat, namely the application of relevant critical terms and concepts. It is, as it were the status quo that the Singer-style argument seeks to revise by using the BPE. If the BPE-based argument is not cogent or convincing, than we are safe (rational?) to revert to the status quo. Hence my place in your fifth category of carnivore.
    That is the further elaboration of my argument in response to your remarks. You said a few other things for which I only have passing remarks–that may be unsatisfying and I am sorry if it is .
    The question of potential is relevant to the expectations we can reasonably think an infant would have later in life when they are capable of forming and expressing them. We can act on those when considering what our obligations might be relative to what they would want. Animals do not and will not have those sorts of expectations (insert possible world case here if you must). In the context of this argument, the metaphysical questions regarding potential I file in the same folder of research concerning the number of angels that will fit on the head of a pin.
    I have not really tried to answer what you call the main challenge regarding the moral status of animals. I have tried to show a rational basis for continuing to eat meat without falling into one of your four categories. I do not think that killing animals for merely trivial pleasures is blameless. But I do not think that eating meat is trivial, merely or otherwise. Sometimes it is a pleasure, but that is not always or the sole motive for doing it. (I think it is notable that you needed to load up the comparison between death and pleasure–which might have seemed sufficient–with ‘merely’ and ‘trivial’.) Similarly, I don’t think making clothing out of animals is trivial or especially pleasurable. In short, the main challenge as you put it seems morally loaded against the carnivore by characterising his goals in killing animals as pleasure, trivial and so on. But why accept that characterisation? It is hardly obvious or one with which many other cultures would agree. When the Esquimaux make use of seals, we don’t think it is trivial or mere pleasure. Speak for yourself if you think eating meat is trivial or merely pleasurable (if you do, since you feel it is ‘strange’).
    Thank you for your response. I was glad of the opportunity to think about it.
    David.

  23. David: This is helpful and quite interesting. And while I’m sympathetic to much of what you say, I’ll focus here just on one aspect on behalf of the non-carnivore. Let me substitute just one phrase for what you’ve said in an earlier paragraph (the subsitution will have asterisks around it):
    “Dialectically, the following possibility exists. Suppose we divide humans into three categories the A’s, B’s and C’s, e.g. *white males, women, and nonwhite males*. The BPE will of course apply within members of a group. But it is not obvious that it should apply between groups, precisely because the groups are distinct. Now, assuming that there are differences between animals and each group [A..C]–though not necessarily the same differences in each case–then the BPE will not get a hold there either. If that is right, then the BPE will never be operative in demanding we give the same treatment to animals as we give to a category of humans.”
    For racists and sexists of the past (and present!), this would have been perfectly legitimate reasoning as well, although we now obviously reject it in their case. It’s unclear how we might do so, however, given what you’ve said. Your view seems to be that it’s our moral relations that ground differences in moral status, but if that were right there’d be no reason for racists and sexists to change their ways (those women and nonwhites were thought to be incapable of the type of moral dealings white males could have with one another — Singer actually cites a piece parodying the plea for women’s rights by comparing it to a plea for animal rights). If it’s current moral relationships that determine the relevant distinctions of moral status, this sort of conservatism yields no reason or motivation to change the status quo.
    Instead, I take it that what Singer (and others) suggest is that moral status grounds moral relations (not the other way round), and so once we extend moral status outward from white males to women and nonwhite males, *and then subsequently, as a result, change our network of moral dealings and relationships*, we’ll see there’s no nonarbitrary reason not to continue the extension to nonhuman animals.

  24. David
    Your response is helpful, I see where you are coming from and why we disagree. However, I deny the route to female or non-white emancipation. I deny it as a matter of historical fact and as a matter of dialectical necessity. In part this is because I don’t think the idea of moral status can do the work you think it can.
    I don’t believe the argument for female suffrage was women have the same moral status as men, therefore they should have the vote. They already had a moral status, by which I mean something like men had various obligations toward them, such as to help them, not kill them, etc. There were various reasons why they were denied the vote. For instance, they were thought ill-suited to voting because they were too “nervous” or insufficiently capable of deciding. But these claims about them were shown to be false. They were not too nervous, their educational achievements showed them equal to the task of deciding and so on. On that basis, denying them the vote was denying them something to which they could be entitled, unlike, e.g., children who still don’t have the vote because they are unequal to deciding.
    Bigots usually claim a factual basis for the distinctions they make. The racism of the early 20th century was based in large part around now discredited quasi-scientific claims about the inferiority of the non-white races. For these bigots, there were perfectly good reasons for keeping inferiors down. However, those reasons depended on false claims about the inferiority (or non-equality) of non-whites. My point is that moral progress depends on, inter alia, factual progress as well as conceptual revision in the light of historical/cultural development. (There is no reason to suppose, e.g., that our moral concepts c. 1950 would do for dealing with the mutable genders of modern science.)
    Dialectically you are placing a lot of weight on the idea of moral status. The idea of moral status as you use it will not do the work you want though. If it is a simple binary matter (you’ve got it or you don’t), then it is quite idle as it will not determine the specific content of our moral obligations or the application of morally critical terms. True, it will tell us to consider the object with moral status during moral deliberations, but it is no guide to what would be morally proper in our interactions with them.*
    If on the other hand, the possession of moral status does tell us what to do, then it has a rather epic task insofar as it had better be one size fits all–otherwise we could have moral responses not emerging from moral status (in which case their status as moral responses is suspect). But the variety of moral relations is sufficiently wide to make one-size-fits-all problematic.
    Perhaps there is a conception of moral status that is an amalgam of these two positions. But that amalgam seems unlikely to function within the BPE/Singer-style arguments.
    I noted with an asterisk the first way in which moral status can be conceptually empty. Naturally, there is an obvious way in which the concern could be met, viz. making the basis for moral status normative. It is easy enough to see that this is what a utilitarian position attempts. There, moral status supervenes on or otherwise depends on the capacity to feel pleasure and pain. One has moral status if one has the capacity. Normative content comes in relation to that capacity by the further thought (which could be resisted) that one ought therefore to acknowledge moral status by maximizing (or similar) pleasure and minimizing pain. It is notable that this is not the route Mill took. He argues, roughly, that pleasure is the only valuable thing because that, as a matter fact, is what everyone desires. (There is, notoriously, a bit more to fill in.) The notable point is that, on this argument, people must already have a moral status for what they desire to have the possibility of conferring value/moral important on what they desire. If you do not make that move, then it is unclear why we ought to consider pain or pleasure valuable; or something, the capacity for the experience of which, that confers moral status. If the identification between a property and moral status becomes too close, the possibility of adapting the open-question argument will loom.
    I have suggested, in any case, earlier reasons for doubting that pain-feeling capacity could be the basis for moral status. Another difficulty I would raise with this is the possibility that one could lose one’s moral status by losing the capacity to feel pain. That seems quite odd, especially if the loss were the product of wrongdoing. In such a case, a wrongdoer could “cover his tracks” by destroying the moral status of his victim.
    At any rate, I suspect you are interested in moral status because it provides a good procedure for theory building. First determine the province of morality by determining what has moral status, then work out what the implications of having moral status are for normative content. On this approach, moral status will be foundational. That would be good if you thought moral theory was important.
    Implicit in my approach is the rejection of the foundational place for moral status. I begin in media res with a collection of moral concepts–e.g. cruel, deceit, thief–whose moral valence has been remarkably stable over time. At no time, has thief been a term of praise. The application of the concept of thief has changed over time as its conceptual inter-relations have shifted with time, progress, factual discovery, etc. Thief, with its moral valence, does not apply to animals. So in this respect, animals are outside the moral domain. So too with many other moral concepts–specifically those relevant to the differences between animals and people I noted in my first post. The point is that which is in the moral domain–roughly, has moral status in your terms–will be determined on the basis of the applications of concepts relevant to the judgements in question. The differences I note are reasons to think that the criticisms I will be subject to will vary depending on whether the object of my action is a person, an animal, a baby, etc. I gave an example: paternalism, a critical term with a moral valence, will only be applicable to my interactions with a person, not with the others listed. So in respect of paternalism, I am clear when dealing with animals. Does it matter whether animals have moral status?
    So on my view, whether killing and eating animals is wrong will depend on what morally critical terms can be correctly applied to my actions.
    Now if I also thought that the application of concepts was arbitrary, then my position would be like some kind of subjectivism (and maybe idealism). But nothing in what I have said commits me to the view that the application of concepts is arbitrary: constraints abound. Nor is there anything in what I have said that would oblige me to think that the application of concepts ought to be fixed by moral theory or by a prior determination of moral status. As I said, moral status is, on my view, a largely idle concept–i.e. its applications are few.
    This has been too long a post–plainly my style is unsuited to blog responses. In sum, I think that what does the work in Singer-style arguments is the presumption that what matters is to get clear about the basis for moral consideration, as if that were seriously in question. As I tried to show, what plainly can be in question is the specific content of our moral relations to animals, but not because this flows from a soi-disant moral status. If that is right, then the BPE provides no reason to feel on the back foot (or hoof) about being a carnivore. That, at any rate, is my view.
    cheers
    David.

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