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?