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Valar Qringaomis

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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

A Critique of Moral Vegetarianism

A Critique of Moral Vegetarianism
Michael Martin
1976

"One job of a moral philosophy should be to evaluate vegetarianism as a moral position, a position P will call moral vegetarianism. Unfortunately, there has been little critical evaluation of moral vegetarianism in the philosophical literature. Most moral philosophers have not been concerned with the problem, and those who have, e.g. Nozick, have made little attempt to analyze and evaluate the position. As a result, important problems implicit in the moral vegetarian's position have gone unnoticed, and unsound arguments are still widely accepted...

Suppose you are marooned on a desert island inhabited by edible birds. Suppose there is no edible plant life on the island and you have a gun. For nonvegetarians the choice is easy. You should survive as best you can, and killing the birds and eating them is the only way, given the situation as described. But what does the nonvegetarian assume in arguing in this way? Presumably that a bird's life is less valuable than one's own. This is exactly what strict moral vegetarians would question.

Consider a different situation. Suppose that instead of birds the island contains people. Would it be morally permissible for you to kill some people and eat, them?... It would be argued that to suppose that a bird's life is less valuable than a human life is a form of speciesism, a doctrine of prejudice analogous to racism and sexism. Ow this hard-line view one ought never to kill any nonhuman animal unless it were right to kill a human being in the same circumstance. Clearly in our second hypothetical situation, it would be said, it would not be right to kill a human being for food. Consequently it would be wrong to kill and eat a bird.

A vegetarian holding a moderate position might argue that it is prima facie wrong to kill an animal for food but that certain human rights, e.g., the right to life, can override this prima facie wrong. On this view there are cases in which it would not be right to kill a human being but it would be right to kill an animal. One such case would be where human life depended on the nourishment that animals give when killed and eaten. Note that this would not justify the killing and consuming of animals in contemporary society where various meat substitutes are available. An important question for the moderate is: On what plausible moral principle can the distinction between animals and human beings be made?

A vegetarian holding a moderate position might argue that it is prima facie wrong to kill an animal for food but that certain human rights, e.g., the right to life, can override this prima facie wrong. On this view there are cases in which it would not be right to kill a human being but it would be right to kill an animal. One such case would be where human life depended on the nourishment that animals give when killed and eaten. Note that this would not justify the killing and consuming of animals in contemporary society where various meat substitutes are available. An important question for the moderate is: On what plausible moral principle can the distinction between animals and human beings be made?

With respect to traditional moral vegetarianism some problems immediately come to the fore. Who exactly is not supposed to eat animals or produces of animals? This problem is especially acute with respect to carnivorous animals. What animals is it morally wrong to eat? The answer to this becomes problematic with respect to micro-organisms but also with respect to animals that might be capable of consenting to being eaten. If animals could be created by genetic engineering, could they be created so that there were no moral objections to eating them? Depending on the answer to this question, moral arguments for vegetarianism could be undercut by technology. What exactly is an animal product, and how does an animal product differ morally from an animal part? This brings up the question of how one can distinguish between what is forbidden by lactovo moral vegetarianism and vegan moral vegetarianism. Let us consider some of these problems in more detail.

Vegetarians certainly cannot think that only vegetarians have a prima facie duty not to eat animals or animal products. For if they base their beliefs on a moral position it must be universalizable. But what is the extent of the universal moral principle? Presumably it would include all human beings, whether they are in the habit of eating animals or not. But why would it not extend to all animals, including carnivorous animals?

One might be inclined to say that this question is beside the point. Since animals cannot be judged morally praise-worthy or blameworthy, the question of whether it is morally wrong for them to eat meat cannot be raised. But this reply is based on a confusion between the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of a moral agent and the rightness or wrongness of the action of an agent. Although animals may be free from blame in eating meat since they are not moral agents, animals in eating meat may still be doing something that is prima facie wrong...

Even if dogs needed meat to live, it is not obvious that it is prima facie less wrong to eat meat than wrong to sacrifice a dog's health or life. This becomes especially true when one realizes that vegetarians often argue that a reason that it is prima facie wrong to eat animals is that animals must be killed to provide the food. So in order to save the dog's life or health, another animal must die.

The vegetarian with a dog might also argue that, even if a dog could survive on a nonmeat diet, to refuse to give the dog meat would not be in keeping with the dog's right to eat what it wants and what dogs want is meat. This argument cuts too deep, however. Many humans want to eat meat, but this does not stop vegetarians from saying that it is wrong for people to eat meat. Moreover, it is unclear why the dog's wants should overrule the alleged prima facie wrong of eating meat, especially when this wrong is based on the alleged prima facie wrong of killing an animal.

The issue of what the vegetarian should feed his dog is just the beginning of the problem. What should the attitude of a vegetarian be toward ""nature red in tooth and claw"? The vegetarian knows that some animals in the wild eat other animals. Should he oppose this eating? If so, how? What other values should be sacrificed in order to prevent the killing and eating of wild animals by other wild animals? Suppose it were discovered that with proper training lions and tigers could live on zebra-flavored soy products. Should vegetarians promote a society that trains lions and tigers to eat such meat substitutes? This training would involve interfering with the freedom of lions and tigers, with the ecological balance, and so on. Many morally sensitive persons would look with disfavor on this interference. How much should the disvalue of this interference be weighed against the prevention of the killing of animal life?

What is forbidden meat? Most moral vegetarians list fish and fowl as animals one should not eat. But what about microorganisms? Vegan vegetarians who eat only vegetables, fruit, and nuts do not completely remove all micro- organisms from their food, even with repeated cleaning. Has the vegetarian who eats microorganisms along with his salad sinned against his own principles? Vegetarians may attempt to justify the eating of microorganisms in three different ways.

First, it may be argued that only animals who can feel pain are not to be eaten. Since it is unlikely that microorganisms can feel pain, the vegetarian can eat them without scruples, But this suggestion has a peculiar implication. If beef cattle who could not feel pain were developed, then it would be permissible to eat them. The ability to feel pain is not an obviously plausible way of morally distinguishing microorganisms from other organisms...

Why should microorganisms be sacrificed rather than humans? Why is human life more valued than the life of microorganisms?...

In his comic strip, Little Abner, Al Capp created an animal called a shmoo whose greatest joy was to be eaten. We may smile at the absurdity of this idea. But shmoo-type creatures may not just be creations of cartoonists in the next century; they may be creations of genetic engineers...

Furthermore, genetic engineering may develop animals that lack all of the properties that vegetarians usually associate with the wrongness of killing animals for food: (1) the ability to feel pain, (2) consciousness, (3) having a self-concept. Suppose that by genetic engineering we could develop beef cattle that were born unconscious and remained unconscious all of their lives (they would be fed and bred artificially). Such animals would be incapable of feeling pain or having experiences of any kind. Would it be permissible to eat them? If not, why not?

Furthermore, genetic engineering might be able to produce meat-bearing animals that could be used for food without being killed. If so, no moral objection based on the killing of animals could be raised to the eating of meat...

Suppose someone enjoys drinking the blood of cattle and hogs. Suppose further that such blood is obtained without killing the animal and without causing the animal pain. Would the blood drinker be sinning against the principles of lactovo moral vegetarianism or just the principles of vegan moral vegetarianism? Would the blood be analogous to milk or eggs?...

A variety of arguments have been given for vegetarianism. Sometimes they take such a sketchy form that it is not completely clear they are moral arguments... Even when it is clear that a moral argument is intended, however, exactly what the premises of the argument are is not always clear. There appears to he a gap in some of the arguments that it is difficult to fill with plausible premises...

Mel Morse, former president of the Humane Society of the United States, once remarked: "If every one of our slaughter houses were constructed of glass this would be a nation of vegetarians"... One suspects that there would be fewer peanut butter lovers if the walls of peanut butter factories were made of glass, for it has been reported by Consumer Reports (May 1972) that rodent hairs and other disgusting materials were found in many of the jars of peanut butter they tested. Conditions inside peanut butter factories may be less than appetizing, yet this hardly provides moral grounds for refraining from eating peanut butter...

According to [speciesism], the view that eating the meat of nonhuman animals is morally permissible but eating the meat of human beings is morally forbidden is analogous to racism or sexism. Just as racism and sexism are to be morally condemned, so is speciesism... the animal kingdom per se (in contrast to particular animal species) does not provide any morally relevant grounds for the positive content of vegetarianism. To suppose otherwise would be a form of kingdomism, no different in principle from the speciesism, racism, and sexism that this argument condemns. After all, what is the justification for eating plants and not animals? Is there a morally relevant difference between the two? The vegetarian, to make his case, must draw a line - a morally relevant line - between the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. For this another argument is needed.

The argument usually provided by vegetarians to fill the void created by the argument from speciesism is this: Animals are sentient creatures; they feel pain and have other feelings. But no plant is sentient; no plant can see, hear, or feel. Consequently, it is wrong to eat animals but not wrong to eat plants.

Two questions can be raised about this argument from sentience. First, is it really true that plants feel no pain? The recent bestseller, The Secret Life of Plants, and other less well known studies may give us some pause.? To be sure, most biologists have not taken the thesis of the mental life of plants seriously, and in the light of our present evidence they are undoubtedly justified. But what if new biological findings were to indicate that speculations about the mental life of plants should be taken seriously? Should we then stop eating plants as well as animals?

Without new discoveries in synthetic food made from inorganic material, our refraining from eating plants would spell the end of the human species. But is species suicide really necessary? After all, why should the discovery that plants feel pain have any effect on whether we eat them or not? Presumably this discovery should have some effect on how we kill plants. If we knew that plants felt pain, our killing them would, or at least should, take a humane form. We might somehow anesthetize grain before it was harvested, and so on. But it is completely unclear why the knowledge that plants feel pain should prevent our eating them...

Still, it may be objected that this is to overlook actual practice. In fact, animals used for food do suffer a great deal...

It might be a much more efficient means of changing practice to stage protests at meat-packing companies, put pressure on congressmen, and work through existing humane organizations. One suspects that the SPCA and the American Humane Society have done more to stop cruelty to animals than vegetarians ever could. That these organizations have not gone far enough and that wide areas of animal cruelty still exist does not show that their methods are wrong. In any case, which various political strategies would be most efficient for achieving humane treatment of animals is an empirical question. Vegetarianism is not obviously the best strategy, and its worth would have to be shown...

Although it might be argued that there is something of an inconsistency in persisting in eating meat while maintaining that animals are being treated cruelly in producing meat, it is hard to see why this is so. It does not seem to be true in general that one is inconsistent if one uses a product that is produced, by some process that one believes violates one's moral principles. Am I inconsistent if I drink fluoridated water rather than buy pure water when I believe that the government has no right to fluoridate water? Am I inconsistent if I am opposed to exploitation and buy an automobile from a company that I believe produces cars by exploiting labor? (If I were, then there would be an inconsistency in a Marxist living in a capitalistic society or buying anything produced by that society .) The answer seems to be: not necessarily. It is not obvious why the case of eating meat is different. We do well to remember that an inconsistency between an agent's moral principles and his practices can only be shown via the agent's other beliefs concerning the practice. Consequently, a moral principle and what might seem like an inconsistent practice can be consistent given other appropriate beliefs.

[Ed: Similarly, it is not inconsistent for those who are against gay rights to use Facebook]

In sum, then, not eating meat may well be used as a protest against cruelty to animals. But there is certainly no moral duty to protest in this way even if one thinks animals are being treated cruelly, and indeed, such a protest may not be the best means available...

It is argued [in a proof by contradiction] that since every animal will suffer at least once in its life, we have a duty to kill all animals painlessly to prevent this future suffering...

John Harris advances the following consideration to show the immorality of eating meat.

Suppose that tomorrow a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth, beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals. Would they have the right to treat you as you treat animals you breed, keep, and kill for food?

The implication is certainly that it would be inconsistent for us to think that it is morally permissible for us to eat nonhuman animals but wrong for superior aliens to eat us.

But it is not clear that it is inconsistent if there is a relevant moral difference between animals and humans not found between humans and superior aliens. Our discussion above of the concept of person suggests a difference. Most human beings and presumably all of Harris's aliens are persons. Most animals are probably not persons. Consequently, if personhood is the ground for the right to life, there need be no inconsistency in maintaining that it is morally permissible for us to kill and eat most animals, given that we cause them no pain, preserve the ecological balance, and so on, and that it is wrong for the aliens to kill and eat us, even though they kill us painlessly and so on...

It is argued that beef cattle and hogs are protein factories in reserve... Given the people in the world who are hungry or even starving, we should not eat meat, since in eating meat we are, as it were, wasting grain that could be used to feed the hungry people of the world...

One must be clear on what this argument assumes in order to arrive at its conclusion. First of all, it assumes that if many people in countries with surplus grain, e.g., in the United States, did not eat grain-fed meat this would cut down on the amount of grain used to feed animals that produce meat. Second, it seems to assume that not eating meat is the best way to conserve grain. Third, the argument assumes that if the grain used to feed cattle in the United States, e.g., was not fed to cattle, the grain would be used to feed the hungry people.

None of these assumptions seems plausible...

If beef cattle and other meat-producing animals were fed on waste products instead of on grain, there would be no reason not to eat meat in order to feed the hungry people of the world. Indeed, one might feel that there was an obligation to eat meat. Eating meat from animals fed on waste products would be a way of saving grain that could be shipped to the hungry people of the world...

To put it in a nutshell, without vast changes in the economic systems and the policies of governments with surplus grain, not eating meat in order to help the starving people of the world is an idle gesture. Such a gesture may make people happier and may make them feel less guilty, but it does no good...

One has no moral duty not to eat meat as a symbolic commitment to help the hungry people of the world, although one may have a duty to help the hungry people of the world. One may have a duty to be committed to some worthwhile cause without having the duty to express that commitment in some particular symbolic way...

It is argued that the killing and eating of meat indirectly tends to brutalize people. Conversely, vegetarianism, it is argued, tends to humanize people...

Pacifists like Gandhi are often cited as examples of people who are vegetarians and who are opposed to violence. But Hitler was also a vegetarian. Indeed, Hitler's vegetarianism is a constant source of embarrassment to vegetarians, and they sometimes attempt to explain it away...

It might be suggested that although becoming a vegetarian as a protest against animal suffering or a way of committing oneself to helping the hungry people of the world is not a moral duty, it is still a moral act; it is a supererogatory act. This view is not implausible, but it needs to be qualified in certain ways. A supererogatory act, whatever else it is, is an act that is good but not obligatory. The question is whether becoming a vegetarian in order to protest animal suffering or as a way of committing oneself to feeding the hungry people of the world is good but not obligatory...

If becoming a vegetarian is not the best way to [fulfil one's moral aims], however, moral vegetarians would deserve some praise but not as much praise as some other people who protest cruelty to animals and commit themselves to feeding the hungry people of the world. Indeed, it is not implausible to claim that moral vegetarians deserve some criticism. Their moral idealism is in a sense wasted or at least used badly. One is inclined to say: "'If you really want to protest animal suffering or commit yourself to helping hungry people, instead of not eating meat you should . . ." (see above for various suggestions)

There is, I believe, nothing paradoxical about the idea that a supererogatory act can be blameworthy. Jumping in a swift river and saving a drowning man when you are only a fair swimmer is a paradigm case of a supererogatory act and deserves praise. But such an act may deserve some criticism as well if the drowning man could have been easily saved by tossing him a life buoy."
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