A simple argument for vegetarianism

The New York Times “Ethicist” column recently challeged its readers to submit essays making the case for why it’s ethically okay to eat meat. The submissions are supposed to offer a pro-meat answer to the question “Whether it is right to eat animals in the first place, at least when human survival is not at stake.” The essays will be judged by a panel consisting of Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light.

One interesting thing about this contest is that it puts the onus back on meat-eaters to justify a practice that’s usually taken for granted as the normal thing to do. Getting people to question this assumption is a worthy goal in itself.

But for the sake of clarity, let’s flesh out (so to speak) the anti-meat (or pro-vegetarian) argument. Here, in schematic form, is what I take to be a simple, but powerful, moral argument for vegetarianism:

1. It’s wrong, other things being equal, to be the cause of avoidable suffering.
2. Meat-eating causes avoidable suffering.
3. Therefore, meat-eating is wrong.

The first premise is about as close to a moral truism as you could find. It would be a very different value system from any most of us would recognize that endorsed the idea of causing avoidable suffering. Most of us also think, of course, that sometimes there are good reasons for being the cause of suffering (e.g., a painful medical procedure that saves someone’s life). But to cause suffering when it’s not necessary seems like a paradigm case of acting immorally.

The second premise is more contentious. Let’s stipulate, along with the Times, that we’re talking about cases where meat-eating isn’t necessary for human survival. The question then becomes: is the suffering caused by meat-eating justifiable on some other grounds?

For this infliction of suffering to be justifiable, the human interest in meat-eating would have to outweigh the animals’ interest in avoiding suffering. So what human interest is at stake? Well, pleasure is one obvious one: many people really like the taste of meat. There are also cultural and culinary goods associated with the practices of preparing and eating meat which, in a meatless world, would have to be abandoned or at least modified (the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, for example).

Now, the tricky thing is that there’s no mechanical way of weighing competing interests to find out whether the animal’s interest in not suffering should trump the human’s interest in having a tasty meal. That being said, though, I think it’s intuitively quite plausible that an animal’s interest in not suffering is greater than my interest in the pleasure I’d get from eating a steak. Consider the case of a sadist who derives great pleasure from torturing kittens: would any of us say that his pleasure outweighs the kitten’s interest in not being made to suffer? The only way I can see to decisively tip the scales toward meat-eating is if you’re willing to say that animal interests count for nothing, or for so little as to be trumped by even the most trivial human interest.

You could also develop a parallel argument where “avoidable suffering” is replaced with “avoidable death.” That is, even if animals could be raised and slaughtered for food without being made to suffer (a questionable proposition, but let’s concede it for now), they would still be killed, and, other things being equal, killing a sentient being seems like a significant harm. Now, there are some philosophers (including, ironicially, Peter Singer) who say that painlessly killing an animal doesn’t actually harm the animal, because they don’t have a concept of death and thus can’t take an interest in not being killed. This response only works, though, if you’re willing to accept Singer’s particular version of preference-based utilitarianism, and other philosophers have argued (persuasively, in my opinion) that death is indeed a harm for animals.

Assuming this is all correct, or at least plausible, let’s note a couple of things about this argument. First, it doesn’t require accepting that humans and animals are “morally equivalent” or denying “human exceptionalism.” It’s quite possible to hold that humans are more important than animals but that trivial human interests don’t justify overriding or disregarding vital animal interests. Second, it doesn’t rest on detailed claims about the horrible state of factory farming. So long as raising and slaughtering animals for food entails any significant suffering–which includes both factory and traditional farms–the argument can get some traction. Finally, it doesn’t require adopting any controversial ethical theories like utilitarianism or a particular notion of animal rights. All it assumes is that it’s wrong to cause avoidable suffering (or death) and that animals’ interests count for something, even if not as much as comparable human interests. I think these minimalist assumptions help make it a pretty strong argument.

What do you think?

98 thoughts on “A simple argument for vegetarianism

  1. gcallah

    1) Christ fed people fish: strong evidence that there is nothing wrong with eating animals, at least for a Christian.
    2) Eating vegetables entails killing animals also: one simply must wipe out all the things that will eat your crops, or you will have no crops.
    3) Why pick on plants, anyway, other than mere “kingdomism”?

    1. 1) Yes, you are right! Christians is one of the very few religions that have no dietary restrictions. In fact, vegetarianism is condemned in the Bible, as the “doctrine of demons”. One of the reasons that I rejected the Bible as an authority.
      2) Yes, again you are correct. You cannot avoid killing. The strategy is to minimize killing.
      3) Using animals for food requires around 15x the plant resources for the end result. In other words, it is 15x more efficient to use the plants directly than to eat the animal that eats the plants. No one can deny this. So, even if you were more concerned about plants than animals, you would still prefer the eat the plants than the animal (that eats the plants), because fewer plants would die in the process.

      1. D.M.J MONDAY

        In what bible is vegetarianism condemned, and consider as the doctrine of demons. If you reject the Bible as an authority at least do not makeup lies to enforce your point of view.

    2. Jeff spiteri

      actually if you feed your crops correctly i.e. provide them with the correct amount of nutrients and water they should be able to ward off pests themselves being that adequate nutrition to your crops and soils creates stronger immunity and resistance to said pests. if plants relied on us to exterminate pests.. how do they flourish with out us in nature?

      1. Rob Bowman

        Most of the food plants that we consume are man made or altered to be the version we know today. There is no such thing as genetically yellow corn. This statement is based on false empirical data. Crops are ravaged on a mass scale if there is no human intervention. In reality, these plant groups did not evolve to be mass produced. We do that in an effort to be more efficient. An to Jim, if you believe in science over the Bible, you would know that the brain size in humans directly correlates to our consumption of higher proteins such as fish. We would not have survived on a purely agrarian diet. We today can due to GMO’s and the like, but by stating that eating animals I wrong based on some moral quandary you have. Also, the 15X rule is not going to be removed, unless you decide to kill off all grazing animals in the world, because they will still need to eat. So you are going to just kill them off, while someone else would use them for food. Which now is more morally wrong? If you are talking about letting them die off naturally and then not try to allow them to reproduce to create the same population as now, then you are still denying what it is in the nature of the animals to do. We already sterilize most males bovines to prevent overpopulation. Your logic baffles me, because you are making the assumption that everything will be better if we just stop eating meat, however, you do not take in to consideration the long term effect on the planet. To maintain a healthy lifestyle as a vegetarian, you need to consume multiple plants, many of which are not indigenous to the region that you live in, so now do we stop importing those? Vegetarianism is a healthy life choice, but it is by no means natural. It is a fabricated thing that was developed by overly moral people who try to claim superiority over another where there is not a competition occurring. Evolution designed us to eat meat and vegetation, our bodies have developed to do so. Your choice is your own, do not try to justify it by whatever means you wish. Native American cultures believe that all animals and plants have spirits, so if you are trying to use the animals have a right to life, why don’t plants? Hypocrisy upon hypocrisy does not make one or the other the right choice, it is just your choice.

  2. Here are my responses:

    1. I think, at most, this shows that it was OK to eat fish, under certain conditions where nutritionally adequate substitues probably weren’t readily available.

    2. Raising animals requires raising the animals and raising the crops to feed the animals. And since raising animals is more resource-intensive than raising plants, you’re probably going to have to dedicate more land to raising feed for animals than you would be required to feed the same number of people with plants. So, on that calculus, meat-eating still entails more animal killing (and suffering).

    3. Plants don’t feel pain–or at least we have no good reason to believe they do. (Also note that this argument doesn’t rest on any claims about the wrongness of speciesism.)

    1. gcallah

      1. Jesus was performing a miracle: he could have made tofu.
      2. Nah it doesn’t. Yes, if you want to eat the amount of meat we eat you need to feed animals feed, but you can raise them on pasture and forage just fine.
      3. I think we have no good reason to think plants don’t feel pain. They are far more active than we had ever imagined.

      1. 1. Well, Jesus was multiplying already-existing fish and I think that we should avoid interpreting that story as one about an ethically permissible diet. But mainly I just think the example is of limited relevance, particularly since fish are a borderline case anyway. (The Gadarene Swine might actually provide a stronger example here.)

        2. If you want to agree that we should only eat meat to the extent it can be pasture-raised, then I’ll happily take that deal. Where do I sign?

        3. “We have no good reason to think plants don’t feel pain” is hardly the same as saying that we have good reason to think they do feel pain. What is the evidence that they feel pain? The absence of a nervous system seems to tell against them experiencing pain in anything like the sense we would mean, doesn’t it? Don’t you treat plants differently than you treat dogs and cats, in part because you assume the latter can suffer and the former can’t?

        P.S. Here’s an interesting discussion (with links to further resources) on the “till-kill” issue: http://kazez.blogspot.com/2011/03/till-kill-argument.html#more

      2. Your arguments (especially #3) are specious and laughable. Your argument is based on the premise that “plants may feel pain”. Do you believe that it is accurate to state that “animals certainly feel pain”?

        And argument #2: “you can raise (the animals) on pasture and forage just fine”. Um, excuse me, but what do you think “pasture and forage” are? Rocks and minerals? No, they are plants.

        Your weak arguments make me wonder what your REAL motivation is against a plant-based diet. Never mind, I think I know your true agenda: “Meat tastes good! My taste buds are more important than the suffering of others!”. Correct me if I am wrong.

  3. A simple argument for my carnivorisim:
    I have a medical condition that seriously limits my body’s ability to absorb iron.
    Plants and supplements do not provide enough iron for my body to create red blood cells. I tried once, wound up in the hospital being transfused and was told that if I don’t eat meat, I die.

    So, you know, you all go over there and worry about the moral issue. For me? Eating meat is a matter of life or death, and you know what? I’m okay with a bunch of animals dying so I can live.

    This blog really used to be a lot more interesting before it became all vegetarian guilt trip, all the time.

    1. Exactly what medical condition do you have? I am sure it has a name. Every medical condition or syndrome has a name. What is it? I want to research it. For example, I want to know how you can absorb iron from meat and not from supplements.

  4. Er, so did you read that part where I wrote that “we’re talking about cases where meat-eating isn’t necessary for human survival”?

    And, p.s. in 2012 so far I’ve had two posts about vegetarianism.

  5. I think your argument is good. Most of the people that I know who eat meat, however, are unmotivated to examine their choice. I heard a talk by Jeff McMahan at Philosophy Bites in which he answered a question of why most people were not vegetarians – I posted his answer here.

    1. That’s an interesting quote. I’ll have to listen to the rest of the podcast. Thanks!

      I think people are rarely motivated to make a major life change simply because of an argument, no matter how persuasive it might be. At least in some cases, I think something like a “gestalt shift” has to occur such that you begin to see the world differently–almost like a religious conversion actually. Arguments can maybe help facilitate that by, among other things, showing that the justification of a current practice is weak or nonexistent, but I doubt they typically effect the change all by themselves.

  6. C

    I feel just the same attraction to the principle that causing avoidable suffering (or unjustified suffering, which you seem – rightly, I think – more interested in when you come to flesh out your argument) is always wrong. But there is a weaker competing principle – that it is always better to cause less (unjustified) suffering than more, without there being a duty to cause none at all. I find it hard to actually try to act on the second principle without being drawn to the first, but I think a common attitude among meat eaters is that vegetarianism would be a good thing to take up, and even that vegetarians are extra-virtuous people for doing so, but among all the good things competing for the attention they haven’t been moved to try it, or they find they just don’t want to, and they don’t have any duty to take it up (so why won’t you get off my back already…). Compare giving to charity, abstaining from gluttony, etc.. When I write about good things competing for the attention, I don’t mean that the opportunity cost justifies not taking up vegetarianism. There are lots of good things we pass by because we aren’t motivated to act to attain them for some reason, and as long as we aren’t failing our duties we’re not doing wrong; we’re just not as wonderful as we could be. (Maybe we have a duty to be as wonderful as we can be, though. I don’t know.)

    I also have a couple of quick points (none novel) on your second premise. Firstly, it’s hard to say of some creatures – most invertebrates, maybe fish – whether they can suffer, or at least whether they can suffer in a way similar enough to our human understanding of suffering to be morally relevant. Second, there’s a lot of room between factory farms and Singer’s hypothetical painless slaughter. If animals are born into a comfortable farm environment for the purpose of being eaten later, and at the very end undergo a brief episode of suffering (e.g. a quick death, with no awareness that it’s coming), the net lifetime suffering caused for them by the existence of the meat industry may well be negative. I.e., even before we consider human interests, the net good for the animals of being cared for, being fattened up, never growing old, and maybe having lots of offspring to supply the next generation of burgers will outweigh the badness involved in humane slaughter. Lastly, even if the existence of the meat industry can’t be justified, individual acts of meat-eating may still fail to be wrong. After all, most meat eaters don’t eat anything that wouldn’t have been raised and killed even if they’d taken up vegetarianism. And if they buy meat from the supermarket, they aren’t even directly paying for meat – the supermarket would still have placed that order for 1000 burgers regardless of what any individual bought. Does the fact that if enough people didn’t pay for meat then none would be produced mean that it’s wrong for any individual to pay for meat? Is it OK for me to buy and eat meat as long as, if I find a way of helping to end meat production, I take it? Is it OK to eat meat as long as I get it for free? Again, I don’t really know.

  7. Thanks for this comment! I think your first paragraph raises an important and interesting point/question, and one I was thinking about a bit after I wrote this. I don’t really know if I would characterize being vegetarian as a duty, or a matter of supererogation, or what. It could be, as you suggest, that it’s a matter of “going the extra mile” so to speak but not a strict obligation. Perhaps it depends in part on what kind of overall moral theory we’re working with. For a strict utilitarian, for instance, we have an obligation to try to act so as to maximize goodness, which would seem (if the rest of the argument is sound) to suggest an obligation. Similarly if you took a strict rights-based line where meat-eating is a violation of animals’ rights: surely we have an obligation to avoid violating rights wherever possible! But I can also see the case for saying that it’s more a matter of committing to one particular project of enhancing the good in the world or reducing suffering, but not one that everyone is necessarily called to. I’ll have to think about this some more…

    Good thoughts/questions in the second paragraph, too. My understanding of recent research is that it suggests that fish at least do feel pain (see, e.g., http://www.amazon.com/Fish-Feel-Pain-Victoria-Braithwaite/dp/0199551200/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1332465882&sr=8-1), but certainly there will be borderline cases no matter where we draw the line. I’m also open to the possibility of genuinely humane farms where the badness of slaughter is potentially outweighed by the goodness of the lives animals lead–though I’m probably a bit skeptical that a scenario as idyllic as the one you describe would really be possible or economically viable, at least on a large scale (though I’d be happy to be proven wrong!). And finally, I agree wholeheartedly that the question of causal efficacy is a thorny one, and not one I necessarily have a good answer for. I did try to address it here: https://thinkingreed.wordpress.com/2010/02/02/causal-impotence-and-reasons-for-vegetarianism/, but I’m not completely satisfied with any of the answers I canvassed.

    Again–thanks for these thoughtful and challenging comments.

  8. The question of avoidable suffering is thorny when it comes to animals. Natural death is often pretty miserable for them, since few live in societies with a habit of caring for the sick and the old, and they can overpopulate if they are not hunted. Granted, the human presence gives animals less space to ‘overpopulate’, but if you accept the fact that humans are here, then you can even argue that being a top predator is a responsibility to nature. I’m not sure how that would translate in our modern world, but the concept seems sound enough.

    This also connects with the second point that C made. How good does an animal’s life have to be to outweigh its death? Given that all life involves suffering, how much is too much? We have enough trouble with this question when it comes to human beings…

  9. It’s true that death is often slow and painful, for people and for animals – watched both my mom and my cats suffer and die. But in the case of people, we balk at deciding for another that a swift painless death is better for them than letting them die more slowly/naturally (though we often let them decide that for themselves, of course). To decide that animals should die quickly/painlessly in order to be our next meal rather than of natural causes is so fraught with a self-interested agenda that I doubt its morality.

    1. I think we also have to consider that it’s not a question of whether all the animals we currently raise for food would otherwise be dying slow, painful deaths in nature: many (most?) of them wouldn’t exist!

      1. Actually, there seem to be a fair number of people who do think you can decide that for people when they’re incapacitated and can’t decide for themselves, e.g. in a coma. Since animals are permanently incapacitated when it comes to making that kind of decision, people commonly euthanize their pets when they seem to be suffering too much, and not with the intention of eating them. The thing is, ‘they should decide for themselves’ is a concept based on agency and dignity, not suffering per se. So I have trouble fitting that under the simple ‘avoidable suffering’ rule.

        But the larger point I was trying to make was about living within an ecosystem. We humans live a kind of double life as, on the one hand, social beings with moral rules such as these, and on the other hand, as top predators within an ecosystem that has evolved to include predators. All prey animals have evolved to reproduce far beyond replacement levels due to expected predation (in the case of something like houseflies, to extreme levels). Yes, people like meat for selfish reasons, but so does every other carnivore out there. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t do some good. So I don’t see how you can put an appetite for meat in the same category as a weird impulse to torture kittens.

        Like I said, this is a long way from factory farming, but I was thinking about the larger question of whether there’s any good reason to eat meat besides human survival. And even accounting for our world of agriculture, the fact that many of these animals wouldn’t exist without us is part of the point I was trying to make. Do we do these animals a favor by bringing them into existence? If not, why is killing them a bad thing?

  10. Gabe Ruth

    Regarding the theological argument, Acts 10 also seems relevant (yes, the animals were a symbol, but that the symbol assumes the legitimacy of meat eating). This line of argument always makes me uncomfortable, which I always take to be a signal that I know there’s something there, whether I like it or not. That kills me because when I imagine life without the possibility of meat, I feel despondent. Also, is cheese ethical? I might be able to make myself get out of bed in the morning if it were.

    And while I agree that eating only pasture animals would be a great improvement (from several perspectives) it doesn’t have anything to do with the argument. Some of C’s points are not very good (an industry that violates your moral standards satisfying a social demand does not make it OK for you to partake of its products because they’re going to do it anyway (hypothetically; I shop at the supermarket and I am not a vegetarian)), but the one about animals having a pleasant pre-slaughter existence is somewhat comforting to me (though obviously not relevant to the current state of meat production).

    I’ve been thinking a little about your last post, specifically whether animals are in need of reconciliation. I’m inclined to disagree, and to think that even if it is so it doesn’t really mean much for humans. But one consequence of this possibility is that we need to consider the effects of domestication on the soul of animals, and whether we are interfering with their telos. On the other hand, though it is quite a self-serving philosophical hypothesis, this raises the possibility that feeding humans is a part of their telos. See Lewis’ argument about ducklings feeling the urge to swim, and what do know? Water exists. Etc.

    1. Yes, I agree with the point that animals’ telos (teloi?) may be thwarted by (at least some forms of) domestication. Andrew Linzey makes this a key point in his work: animals have a right to live the kinds of lives suited to their natures.

  11. Andy

    Your first premise, as stated and without qualification, probably isn’t as close to a truism as you might like. For instance, as Crystal states above, there is a tremendous amount of avoidable suffering involved in what we euphemestically call “dying of natural causes.” I can’t think of a way to “calculate” the suffering in which euthanization at the onset of at least some terminal illnesses wouldn’t result in a net reduction in suffering — even if you count the suffering of surviving loved ones (who also suffer much through the illness) and the suffering associated with anxiety over possible illness leading to euthanasia. Notice here that I don’t even need to ask whether the terminally ill person wants to be euthanized. If the good of avoiding unnecessary suffering is accepted as a trusim, then the case for assisted suicide becomes a slam dunk, yet that isn’t universally accepted as ethically permissible.

    Pushing the point even further, if we were to accept your first premise without qualification, then an argument could be made that a great deal of suffering would be avoided by the sterilization of people on welfare. Please note that I’m not actually arguing for that, but don’t write this off as reductio ad absurdum just yet, because it’s relevant to the present discussion.

    Your second premise, I think, is at least questionable and verges on denying the reality of death. This has been touched on by previous comments, but for me it’s the heart of the matter. While there are no doubt many agricultural practices that cause unecessary suffering apart from the death of the animal, I don’t think this can be strictly equated with the practice of meat-eating, which could be accomplished by more humane means (though possibly not in such volume as we practice here in the U.S.). So that leaves death as the unavoidable consequence of meat eating. But death is an unavoidable consequence of life. Granted there are many more individual animals of some sorts alive as a result of human meat consumption than there otherwise would be, but I don’t think you can make a clear ethical argument that a cow, for instance, would be better off never having lived than having been raised for slaughter.

    If humans were to suddenly en masse accept vegetarianism (even just in the U.S.) we would be faced with the task of gruadally and humanely eliminating the vast majority of the bovine population, which brings me back to my point above about sterilization of welfare recipients. Given the choice between imposed extinction (or near extinction), however humane, and continuation of the status quo and all the suffering it involves, which would cattle choose? We can’t know, of course. We do know, however, which choice humans would make.

    If we chose a third route and simply withdrew our support and protection, even perhaps agreeing not to overrun their habitat, the cattle would be hunted for food by other animals (if you can call the process of a wolf killing a cow a “hunt”) and again their population would be drastically very quickly. So would it be wrong for humans to also engage in the “hunt”? You could, perhaps, still argue that it would be, but not with the argument above.

    1. Careful there–my premise was that it’s wrong to be the cause of avoidable suffering. Now, there are some ethical systems that make no distinction between causing something to happen and allowing it to happen, but most traditional morality does. For instance, I’m not considered a murderer even though I could probably save the lives of some poverty-stricken people by giving most of my disposable income away to Oxfam.

      Second, I’m not aware of anyone who advocates vegetarianism that envisions an instantaneous mass conversion. Now I personally am extremely pessimistic about the prospects of even gradual universal vegetarianism, but the way people usually think of this is that, over time, as demand for meat diminished, the “supply” of food animals would diminish. So there would be no problem of caring for millions (or billions in the case of chickens) of suddenly “liberated” livestock. Perhaps once the populations had dwindled to a manageable level they could be “rewilded” or preserved on land set aside for the purpose.

      And relevant to your point, and I think Camassia’s, is the question of whether we’re somehow entitled to use the animals for food because we brought them into existence–an existence that they would otherwise not have enjoyed. First, I think to bring something into existence and subject it to a life of suffering and frustration–as is the case with factory farming–is not exactly doing it a favor. Killing it may be the merciful alternative to continuing to make it suffer, but that’s hardly a practice that commends itself. But even assuming that we provide the animals with good lives, does bringing something into existence confer upon us the right to kill it whenever we like? We certainly don’t apply that principle to, say, children. And most people, I think, would even blanch at the idea of someone who bred dogs and had them euthanized whenever they got bored of them or when the dogs became inconvenient.

      1. Andy

        I’ll grant that there’s an important distinction between causing and allowing suffering, but if there are cases where allowing suffering isn’t just tolerated but is promoted, then I think it undermines the “truism” status of your premise. You did offer some fringe examples in your original argument where causing suffering can be acceptable because of the good it brings, but I think it’s worth noting that so-called “life saving” medical procedures do not really avoid death but simply delay it. Yet we recognize that the interval of life, even of diminished quality, between the suffering of the medical procedure and the suffering of death is of great value.

        As for the right to take the animal’s life, I would argue for a different approach to the question. Does a wolf have the right to take a sheep’s life? The question is meaningless. Is it morally wrong for a wolf to kill a sheep? So, is the situation of raising animals for slaughter worse than the situation of hunting them in the wild? In a lot of ways, I think, the agricultural setting is, or at least could be, better for the animal.

  12. C

    On the subject of the welfare of food-animals, it strikes me now that we don’t actually need to slaughter them. If we can make sure that most of them die by natural causes or by accident, we can eat those without any risk to our health. The downsides for us are that the meat won’t be as succulent and we won’t be able to plan when we get the meat, but this at least provides a second challenge to the meat eater – to justify eating meat obtained by slaughter rather than (safe and professionally-reared) carrion. The improved taste and texture may not be good enough reason. The resources needed to maintain animals to old age without illness might provide a better reason, especially if, in order to keep the meat safe, we’d have to dangerously overuse antibiotics on the animals. It’s also interesting to imagine a society where meat has only ever been obtained from already-dead animals, but in which there is an ethical movement to introduce slaughter, in order to prevent animals having to undergo the suffering involved in old age and natural death just so people can eat them.

    (At the moment, most individual meat eaters don’t have a reliable supply of high-quality carrion and do have a reliable and cheap supply of slaughtered meat, so this is a question for society/industry rather than individuals. I wonder if there’s a niche in the ethical-food market for non-slaughtered meat, though?)

    Also, in response to Lee’s very generous reply to my first post, there is one reason that occurs to me to avoid buying meat even if individual boycotts will have no effect. It is that the group of all people who pay for meat is, as a group, to blame for the evils of meat production, and I should aim not to be part of a group that is to blame for a significant wrong. A modified version of this is that there is blame on individual meat-eaters that results directly from the group blame, rather than from individual actions. Then the fact that individual actions have negligible consequences doesn’t matter for individual blameworthiness, because the consequences of the action of the group are very great and the blameworthiness of the group descends to the individuals.

  13. We do euthanize pets that are suffering, but that’s very different than killing animals to eat them. The suffering of pets is not usually caused by our treatment of them – we work to avoid the suffering of our pets – and euthanizing them is a last resort when we’ve decided that their suffering outweighs what life they have left.

    We euthanize some people who are in vegetative states who are thought to have no chance of recovery and even that is full of controversy.

    About being the top predator – imagine with me a larger ecosystem, the universe, and that aliens stronger and technologically more advanced than us come to earth. To them we are just one of the animals of the planet and they decide to use us for medical research, labor, entertainment, and for food. Would we be ok with this? Would it be morally acceptable? Tha ‘appeal to nature’ – that idea that because we seem to be the top predator means that we should act as a predator – is part of that whole naturalistic fallacy thingy.

    1. gcallah

      “The ‘appeal to nature’ – that idea that because we seem to be the top predator means that we should act as a predator – is part of that whole naturalistic fallacy thingy.”

      Of course, Crystal, any good Aristotelian knows that the naturalistic fallacy is not a fallacy at all!

      1. “The naturalistic fallacy” can refer to different things, so best to be clear about what the (purported) fallacy is in this specific case.

        It does seem fallacious to me, for example, to infer that because meat-eating is a widespread practice, it’s justified.

        But the “top predator” argument Camassia is making seems to be of a different order–more of a consequentialist argument to the effect that if we stopped eating meat, the consequences would (or may) be worse than if we continued. Whether or not some meat-eating by humans is necessary for preventing worse evils (e.g., mass starvation of overpopulating animals), I certainly don’t think it suffices as a justification of factory farming. This is because factory farming brings into existence millions, or even billions, of animals that wouldn’t otherwise exist, so there’s no need for humans to consume them to maintain some sort of ecological “balance.”

      2. gcallah

        Lee, smoking cigarettes is a widespread practice, but I’ve never heard anyone claim it is natural! It seems to me you have set up a strawman here: who has claimed, “Eating meat is widespread, therefore it is good”?

    2. I realize I am getting back to this late, but Lee is correct that I was making more of a consequentialist argument than a naturalistic one (and I said it’s a general point about eating meat, not factory farming). However, I don’t think you can just blow off the natural system that birthed and sustains us because it doesn’t fit your morality, especially if you’re trying to make a purely secular argument for vegetarianism as this post seems to be doing. The belief that people can ‘rise above’ nature in a moral or any other sense is essentially a metaphysical one. Scientific materialists who think about ethics consider them a human creation, and many simply refrain from extending them into the non-human world on the theory that that way lies madness. In fact, an example of the kind of madness that can lead to appears in this week’s New Yorker review of two books arguing that it’s immoral for people to procreate, partly because of the fact that it prevents suffering both human and otherwise (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/04/09/120409crbo_books_kolbert). Christian eschatology has an answer for that, but the fact that serious philosophers are apparently concluding that humans have no good reason to exist, because existence goes against our own moral precepts, is rather disturbing.

      1. I’m not sure how useful I think it is to talk about ethics as requiring us to “rise above nature”. (Though I can’t help but be reminded of Katherine Hepburn’s line to Humphry Bogart in “The African Queen” that “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put in this world to rise above.”) It’s clear that human beings have to make choices about what we do–we don’t have a single “natural” behavior that we can simply default to. And given that we have to make choices, it’s reasonable to ask what the best choice is, all things considered. And given that animals are sentient, it’s reasonable (or so I maintain) to ask whether our choices should take their interests into account and if so how they should be weighed against human interests. Now, it’s possible to argue that a particular choice that takes those interests into account (e.g., vegetarianism) will actually result in more harm than good; but that strikes me as an empirical question and not one that can be resolved by pointing to the alleged futility of rising above nature.

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  15. Fair enough–I was simply trying to point out that the argument Camassia was making even isn’t even an example of the so-called naturalistic fallacy, which essentially boils down to inferring an “ought” from an “is.” It does seem that some people try to defend meat-eating on the grounds that it’s “natural” (whatever that means), but I don’t think that’s what she was doing.

    1. gcallah

      But there is a big difference between “natural” and “widespread”: Thomistic ethics typically would hold, for instance, masturbation to be an unnatural act, however widespread it may be.

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  22. James Stewart

    Many people believe in vegetarianism, similarly many people believe in eating meat. This has gone on since the evolution between man and animals. It is up to man to accept the notion to stop eating meat, and accept the vegetarianism way of consuming food. We must slowly teach ourselves to do so because eating meat has been in our life-blood for centuries. The practice of being a vegetarianism may take a long time to become accustomed to for many people, some may not want to change from eating meat and this raises the question, can a substitute for meat be introduced to those people that may help them realize and understand a healthier lifestyle.

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  45. Chocolate Daddy

    Ok. So for the sake of argument as it was presented. This makes no sense. Humans are not the only species that consume living organism. Take for example my frogs,turtles, Spiders, Wild Animals, etc … I can go on and on. Animals consume other animals for nourishment and survival. Now maybe not on the same scale as humans, but I find it hard to say it wrong to eat meat because animals unnecessary pain or death. Sharks eat other animals, its part of the process.

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