Friday, February 18, 2005

Food for Thought

The ever-thought-provoking Anal Philosopher has another post that's really got me thinking. This time his topic is animal rights and the (im)morality of meat-eating. He argues that "if animal suffering has any weight on the moral scale (i.e., if it weighs more than nothing), it outweighs your taste preferences." Much as I would like to justify my carniverous diet, I am at a loss for any argument to respond to this as he has framed it.

My only response is to wonder about the full consequences and implications of such a moral theory, and whether it can be completely coherent. The first open question I'd want to pin down is what exactly constitutes suffering, and what sorts of creatures have the capacity for it. I do know people who are vegetarians on grounds of animal suffering, and later came to accept eating fish when they became convinced that fish did not suffer. And recently, such a claim has been specifically advanced about lobsters and crabs. Those at least have small brains, even if magnitudes fewer sensory neurons. Clams, oysters, and other molluscs have no brains at all. Does "suffering" require some kind of capacity to feel pain and not to like it? Does it matter whether the method of killing is quick and painless? Or is it the cutting short of the animal's life, denying it the living out of its natural life? If the latter has moral consequence, how far does it go? Should we be concerned with the cutting short of the natural life of insects? Of bacteria? Of plants? Where and how do we draw the lines?

I also wonder about how to square this moral theory with the natural occurrence of predation. If animal suffering and killing does matter, then it is clearly evil. Then do we not have some moral obligation to prevent evil from occurring where we can? Is it a sin of omission not to protect the gazelle from the lion? And if animal predation is somehow moral, then are we not entitled to play our role in the natural food chain?

If animal suffering matters in a consequentialist framework, are there not situations where killing animals quickly is more humane than the alternative? One example are creatures such as deer that if left unchecked could devastate some areas of plantlife and ultimately many deer would die of starvation. Human hunting of deer serves an arguably benevolent purpose in keeping their population in check. (Fox-hunting proponents raise similar arguments, though they become suspect when they are having too much fun at it.) I realize here that I am doing moral calculus in the aggregate, which we would never do with humans. But does this moral theory preclude such considerations for animals, or must we consider each deer as an individual? We have of course ventured into new questions where more than mere taste preferences are being piled onto the moral scales as weight against the animals' claims. But how do such counter-claims as damage to the environment or to our productivity get weighed? For instance, I freely admit I bear the deadliest of malice against the gopher that ravages my backyard garden.

I have heard that there are also interesting economic arguments to be made for vegetarianism, to the effect that meat may require something like 10 times the amount of resources to produce as an equivalent amount of vegetable nutrition. I don't know the exact role farm subsidies play in the meat industry, but I'm easily persuaded that the true full costs are not being fully externalized. (Not to mention that some of the mega-pig-sties and mega-chicken-coops add a whole new dimension of animal suffering.) Such an argument would certainly have a strong conservative appeal (in that our resources are something that ought to be conserved), and arguably has a moral dimension as well (if you believe, as I do, that there is a moral requirement for responsible stewardship of the earth's resources for future generations). This line of argument may not have the same absolute conclusion that we should never eat meat, but on such lines we ought to be eating a whole lot less of it. Personally, I would find such arguments more compelling.

In considering all this, it dawns on me that the Anal Philosopher has managed to pull me through the looking glass. There he is suggesting that we trust the lights of abstract rationality to justify abandoning a deeply ingrained human tradition that has been a human way of life since before recorded history, and that accords with natural law. And here I am, desperately clinging to the traditional way of life, despite having no rational basis better than hair-splitting rationalizations over what constitutes suffering. (Can we get Alberto Gonzales on this case?) Prof. Burgess-Jackson asserts that "there is more rationalization about meat-eating than any other topic". I daresay he's right, although gay issues are becoming a close second. I have to say it gives me a new appreciation about how it feels to be on the inside of a rationalization. In left-wing parlance, I suppose I'm the bigot on this issue. I'm not saying I'm persuaded yet, but I do have a dreadful inkling that I am the bigot on this one, and that I'm going to end up like Thomas Jefferson with his slaves, knowing full well the injustice of it, but not quite knowing how to let go.


Louis said...

This whole argument makes me hungry. I think I'll go get a hamburger.

Smallholder said...

The economic/resource/world hunger arguments made by vegetarians are specious. They apply only to factory farming, not traditional grassland agriculture - a distinction that animal rights folks would rather people not make because it is easier to condemn feedlots than pastures.

Agricultural subsidies are directly responsible for many of the health problems associated with excessive meat consumption. Artificially low corn prices (possible because the government makes up the difference between the market price and a "floor" price) encourage the feeding of grain to animals, leading to fattier meat. Meat isn't the health problem: grain-fed fatty meat is. In fact, doctors encourage people with high cholesteral to eat grassfed beef and consume heart-healthy pastured eggs.

You can find a fuller discussion of the health/environment/animal welfare topics at:

Love the blogg, Mr. Chatt.