Vegetarianism Debate: Meat is Yummy

 Posted by on 2 December 2004 at 1:02 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 022004

Today, I presented my pro-factory-farming argument in the second “TA Debate” in Robert Hanna’s “Introduction to Ethics” class. As with the first debate on 9/11 and its aftermath, the students are now charged with the assignment of writing up short “critical response papers” on the subject. The text of my (very short and hastily written) presentation is below. Comments are welcome.

By most accounts, factory farm animals do not lead particularly pleasant lives. They suffer at the hands of their human masters, in both life and death. In considering such practices from a moral perspective, we must ask: Do we humans have the moral right to condemn those millions of pigs, cows, and chickens to a miserable existence in order to cheaply satisfy our desires for the pleasure of eating animal flesh? Sure, we’re smart enough to effectively subjugate our animal cousins, but does that mental might make right?

Moral debates about vegetarianism are often framed in terms of two stark options. Option 1 says: Animals do not merit any moral consideration. Use and abuse them as you please. If you wish, spend your vacations clubbing baby seals, drowning puppies, and throwing rocks at kittens. All that matters morally is whether you treat other humans well or not. (That’s pretty horrific. So even though we don’t yet know what Option 2 says, it’s looking better all the time.) Option 2 says: Animals are morally considerable in their own right. Like us, they feel pleasure and pain. So we should recoil at the thought of painfully ending the miserable life of a turkey merely to enjoy the insignificant pleasure of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Animals have value in their own right (i.e. independent of their usefulness to us) which we are obliged to respect. (That seems pretty reasonable in comparison to Option 1.)

The thought experiment of Robert Nozick cited by Matt Seacord on Tuesday frames the debate about vegetarianism in those stark terms. It says:

If you felt like snapping your fingers, perhaps to the beat of some music, and you knew that by some strange causal connection your snapping your fingers would cause 10,000 contented, unowned cows to die after great pain and suffering, or even painlessly and instantaneously, would it be perfectly all right to snap your fingers? (Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p 36)

Mr. Seacord then leveraged our intuitive “hell no!” response to that question to justify prima facie (or overridable) moral obligations to animals. On his view, utilitarianism cannot adequately protect animals from either death or harm, so we ought to think of our moral obligations to animals in terms of duties, duties which cannot be overridden for the sake of “trivial” or “inessential” pleasures. In his words, that will “require us to drastically alter our behavior” toward animals in both “agriculture and scientific research.” Clearly, the steak I was planning for dinner tonight is not a moral choice on that view.

However, I do not think that the rejection of Option 1 (in which gratuitous cruelty to animals is morally permissible) necessitates the acceptance of Option 2 (in which we have strong duties not to harm or kill animals for their own sake). In particular, I want to consider a number of anthropocentric (i.e. human-centered) reasons why inflicting pain upon animals generally ought to be avoided. (That’s Option 3.) Then we’ll see what that general view implies for factory farming. And finally we’ll consider whether it is “speciesist” to so privilege humanity over other animals.

So what human-centered reasons do we have to refrain from abusing animals? Let’s start by considering two easy cases. Case 1: I cause pain to my dog in the course of cleaning out an infected wound. Case 2: I cause pain to my dog either arbitrarily (for no reason at all), sadistically (for the pleasure of watching her suffer), or furiously (in an out of control rage). Even though the pain experienced is the same (let’s say), why is the first a moral course of action, whereas the second is not?

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two cases is that the first (cleaning the wound) serves a legitimate purpose, whereas the second (arbitrary, sadistic, or furious treatment) doesn’t. I chose to adopt my dog in order to enjoy her doggy company. That’s a reasonable pursuit; she was certainly pleased to leave the shelter. Cleaning her wound serves that purpose by preserving her health. In contrast, arbitrary, sadistic, or furious treatment of my dog would serve no such legitimate purpose. By definition, arbitrary infliction of pain serves no purpose whatsoever, while also damaging my good, trusting relationship with my dog. It’s obviously better to spend that time throwing her the ball, taking her for a walk, or even ignoring her completely. Sadistic pleasure in the torture of a dog is just one small manifestation of generally twisted and dangerous psychology. People who actively enjoy inflicting pain do not limit themselves to the torture of puppies and kittens; humans are just so much more satisfying. They are a danger to everyone, not just their own pets. Whatever pleasure sadists might gain from torture is more than offset by the pleasures their twisted psychology precludes, such as close friendships, romantic relationships, and life outside prison. Similarly, the furious abuse of my dog would be a manifestation of a defective moral character. A person of good moral character understands that virtues like patience, kindness, empathy, and thoughtfulness are required for good relations with both fellow men and beasts. He recognizes that dogs that puke on the carpet or beg for food aren’t malicious or even blameworthy. Most importantly, such a person doesn’t vent his anger (whether physically or verbally) at certain creatures merely because they are easy targets, as both pets and children are. All in all, those are pretty strong reasons to condemn the arbitrary, sadistic, or furious infliction of pain upon my dog as immoral.

Some of those considerations also constitute good reason to alter some factory farming methods. Sadistic treatment of the animals by the workers ought never be tolerated, as cultivating that psychology poses a grave danger to humans. Practices which desensitize workers to the pain of animals is also likely to degrade moral character by dulling empathy. More directly, abused and frightened animals are far more likely to pose a physical danger to themselves, other animals, and their human handlers.

Yet I also think that we have good anthropocentric reasons for maintaining the institution of factory farming generally. Perhaps most importantly, the consumption of meat is a significant source of pleasure for many people, meaning that converting to vegetarianism would constitute a great sacrifice of one of the values that makes life worth living. Personally, when I am mentally and physically exhausted, beaten down from the grind of daily life, nothing recharges me like a hearty meal of well-prepared animal flesh. Tofu and veggies simply will not do. Mr. Seacord dismisses such pleasures as “trivial” and “inessential,” but that seems wrong to me. Such immediate bodily pleasures give us the psychological fuel required to carry on with the difficult tasks and long-range projects in our lives. Notably, unlike humane farming, factory farming makes such pleasures widely and cheaply available to all people, not just to the rich folks as a luxury item. And just as we ought not diminish the importance of pleasure in human life, we ought not inflate the significance of pain in animal life. Does it really matter whether the chicken roasting in the oven experienced a few minutes of pain (even if substantial) in the course of slaughter? I think not. After all, the life of animals in the wild is not necessarily better than those lived in factory farms. Since most of our interactions with animals are with our beloved pets, I fear that we tend to regard that cushy life as the standard, the norm for animals. But in fact, life in the wild is not frolicking through the fields, but rather a harsh life of oppressive heat, painful cold, biting insects, bone-chilling downpours, exhausting pursuit of food, parched droughts, slow starvation, painful injury, and gnawing disease. So while some reforms of factory farming might be good, I’m doubtful that a massive transition to humane farming is morally required of us.

As already mentioned, I’ve been arguing from an anthropocentric perspective. I’ve presumed that humans are generally more morally significant than beasts. Defenders of animal rights (like Tom Regan) and of animal liberation (like Peter Singer) condemn that viewpoint as “speciesist.” They would say that I am arbitrarily privileging humans over other animals, just like racists elevate their race over all others. But in fact, humans are substantially different from animals. We have amazing cognitive powers not found in other animals. By themselves, those powers do not give us the moral right to use and abuse animals. Nonetheless, those mental powers mean that we have a much more complex psychology–which in turn means that we are capable of experiencing delights and sufferings which other animals will never know, that our welfare depends upon more than just satisfaction of basic physical needs, and that we face moral choices inconceivable to animals. And ultimately, those kinds of differences do warrant treating animals in unsavory ways in order to promote human welfare.

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