Conversation in the Comments

Because I want to make sure you're all aware of it, I'm re-posting the conversation that's been happening in the comments of the guest post Justin wrote a couple of weeks ago, A Simple Argument for (Quasi) Vegetarianism:

Boris said...

     Justin, your post inspired me to write like you, a philosopher. As a university town, Madison is a center of rationality first. Vegetarianism and other convictions come next as products of rationality. Vegetarianism can be inferred from ethical standards, energy efficiency, health, and other considerations. Rationality starts with setting some assumptions and then deriving consequences. Let us consider whether we agree with the following premises dealing with factors of happiness.
     1. The main thing that living creatures desire is to exist, to be alive. They prefer almost any level of suffering to the non-existence of death. Those who happened to have different preferences are eliminated by natural selection.
     2. Youth when we are free from handicaps of old age is the most enjoyable period of life.
     3. Among other factors of happiness are:
     - Availability of food.
     - Protection against elements, predators, and pests.
     - Minimum of efforts to get the food and protection.
     - Quick and painless death.
     - Some unexpected consequences can be drawn from these premises.
     4. The greatest benefactors of our eating meat are chicken and cows: short life of plenty is preferable to non-existence. Vegetarianism may be good for your health but bad for the animals: majority of them would not have chance to exist.
     5. Now when the crowded and polluted environment of feeding lots is on the way out yielding place for free-range systems, meat-eating humans appear not as cruel exploiters but as suicidal (cholesterol kills us) altruists.
     June 10, 2011 6:29 PM

JH said...

Boris: Thank you very much for the reply. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to respond.

Some people respond to vegetarian arguments by denying that animal suffering matters. Your reply is interesting in that it takes the opposite tack: you assume that animal well-being matters and then claim that we should eat meat because this benefits animals. You reason that existence, however brief and miserable, is preferable to non-existence, and farm animals will only be able to exist in large numbers if we eat substantial quantities of meat.

One concern with this approach is that it is hard to assess the relative preferability of never existing vs. living a life as a factory-farmed animal. You appeal to the preferences of existing animals, but it seems to me this isn't quite the relevant measure. Animals prefer a painful existence to dying, but this does not show that a painful existence is preferable to never having been born. When I ask myself whether I would prefer a) an eternity of nothingness after my death, or b) to return to earth as a factory farmed animal, I think I'd prefer the nothingness.

But this is highly speculative, and I think there is a more promising way of responding to your objection. As you mention, moral reasoning involves inferring the logical consequences of principles, and assessing those consequences. I'd like to continue by drawing out the implications of the position you sketch. Your argument seems to rely on a the following assumption: if creating an organism and then using it for our own ends creates more well-being for that organism than it would have if we never allowed it to exist, then we cannot be accused of treating the organism unethically. Indeed, by your lights, failing to bring such an organism into existence would be immoral.

I suggest that this approach is implausible when applied to other contexts, and should be rejected for this reason. Suppose that tomorrow, President Obama were to issue an executive order for a certain line of stem cells, which are currently set to be destroyed, to be transformed into human clones. Further suppose that the plan is to use these clones for "spare parts"; whenever an American citizen needs an organ, we simply kill a clone and harvest that organ. Applying your principle, there can be no objection to this. Had we not created the clones, they would not exist. And in the case I've described, we never would have created them unless we intended to use their organs. Since a short life is preferable to no life at all, such a practice of cloning and organ harvesting would be morally praiseworthy. But in fact such a practice seems completely monstrous.

It seems that the problem is that consequentialist reasoning runs into trouble when we apply it to issues of creating new life. Painful existence is preferable to non-existence, but the mere fact that we're responsible for a creature's existence does not entitle us to treat it however we please provided its life is better than non-existence. No organism has any "right" to be brought into existence; this explains why there is nothing wrong with couples deciding to remain childless. If a being does not exist, it can hardly complain that it is being wronged! It seems more plausible to conclude that only organisms that actually exist at some time are entitled to our moral consideration. Thus, it seems to me that any “harm” caused by failing to bring new chickens and cows into existence is of no moral concern.

Thanks again for responding to my post. If you have more thoughts on my thoughts, I'd be interested to hear them.
     June 24, 2011 1:22 PM

Boris said...

Justin, who am I to argue with a specialist in metaethics? Surely, you are right. It occurred to me that we are dealing with different dualities. My thinking concerns the opposition between natural and unnatural rather than moral/immoral. Ethically, it may be true (though I doubt it) that there is nothing wrong with couples deciding to remain childless. But definitely those couples are not natural because they are not able to pass their traits to the posterity. Eating chicken and even cabbage is immoral (because it involves killing other organisms) but it is natural. It is natural to prefer a short life to no life at all.

For us, natural behavior is called anthropocentrism. It does not mean cruel or even egotistic. Anthropocentrism includes care and responsibility for other creatures, except those that harm us. The real opposition is between the immediate gratification of short-sighted anthropocentrism and inclusive anthropocentrism concerned with all species useful for us now and in the future. Can such inclusive anthropocentrism be called morality?
     June 24, 2011 5:30 PM

JH said...

Hi Boris,

Thanks for the further comments. Your opening sentences sound disconcertingly like something Socrates would say. I hope I fare better than his interlocutors!

I have a hard time assessing claims about what is “natural” or “unnatural”, and I think this is because these terms have a number of different senses, such that a single thing can be “natural” in some senses and not in others. In claiming that a behavior is “unnatural”, one might be claiming that it is statistically unusual, or that it is not practiced by other animals besides humans, or it does not proceed from innate desires, or that it somehow violates the “natural purpose” of some organ, or something else entirely. Behaviors might be natural in some of these senses and not others, so I think claims that something is “natural” or “unnatural” are hard to assess until one clarifies the sense of “naturalness” that is in play. As as philosopher, I'd prefer this to take the form of an analysis, along the lines of “x is natural if and only if...”. But I'd settle for some clarification that falls short of this.

Even with this clarification, though, I think another step of argument would be needed: we would need some explanation of why considerations of “naturalness” give us any reason to act some ways rather than others. One might reasonably claim that vaccines are “unnatural” in at least some of the senses listed above, but this does not establish that we should stop using them. Likewise, I accept that there is some sense in which the decision to remain childless is “unnatural”, but I think more would need to be said to show that such a decision is worthy of condemnation.

I doubt very much that you actually think that eating cabbage is immoral. I should further point out that vegetarians are not committed to such an implausible position. The argument of my original post was simply this: given that it is immoral to cause large amounts of suffering for the sake of trivial pleasures (a principle most of us already accept), eating meat from factory farms is immoral. Cabbages don't suffer, so this argument has no implications about the morality of eating cabbage.

I'm puzzled by your identification of “natural behavior” with anthropocentrism. As already mentioned, to assess this I would need a clarification of what sense of “natural” you intend. I'd also need a clarification of “anthropocentrism”. In philosophical debates in environmental ethics, “anthropocentrism” typically refers to the view that only human beings are morally valuable for their own sakes. According to this view, to the extent that we have any moral obligations at all concerning animals, these derive from our moral obligations to humans. So, for example, an anthropocentrist could claim that I have an obligation not to harm your pet dog in virtue of the fact that I have an obligation not to harm your property. Kant famously adopted an anthropocentrist position and argued that we have a duty to treat animals kindly only because those who are cruel to animals inevitably become cruel to humans as well. I find anthropocentric positions implausible because they entail that there is nothing wrong with gratuitous torture of animals in cases where doing so does not harm any humans (directly or indirectly).

June 25, 2011 10:22 PM


  1. I can see why your students love your husband almost as much as you do, Anna!


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