Monday, October 29, 2007

Eating Our Fellow Animals: The Real Question

Which is the proper condition for a duck to be in? Like this (call it condition #1)?



Or like this (call it condition #2)?



Okay, I'm going a little too fast here. I should back up and say first why I am putting the question this way. (What question? I'll eventually get to that too.)

Robert Nozick has asks some very interesting questions about eating animals.

Suppose (as I believe the evidence supports) that eating animals is not necessary for health and is not less expensive than alternative equally healthy diets available to people in the United States. The gain, then, from the eating of animals is pleasures of the palate, gustatory delights, varied tastes. I would not claim that these are not truly pleasant, delightful, and interesting. The question is: do they, or rather does the marginal addition in them gained by eating animals rather than only nonanimals, outweigh the moral weight to be given to animals' lives and pain? Given that animals are to count for something, is the extra gain obtained by eating them rather than nonanimals products greater than the moral cost? How might these questions be decided? (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 36-37.)
Yes, these are indeed the questions. Note that on this account of it the question is not whether killing and eating the duck violates its rights.

The idea of animal rights makes little or no sense to me, probably because I think of rights as freedom-extenders. The reason it is important that I have rights to this pencil, this computer, this car, etc. is that it means it is not wrong of me to use it without anyone's consent and, at least as important, that I can exchange them by mutual consent with other rights-holders, to get things I want more. Nothing a duck can do is either right or wrong in this sense, nor can it give or withhold consent. [Very different implications follow if you hold another view of rights: that they are security-enhancers. The fact that you have a right to something is important because it enhances the security of your holding on to it. Security, safety, is something animals can have.]

But supposing I am right about this, that animals do not have rights, it does not follow that they aren't morally considerable at all, that you can do just any old thing you want with them, without justifying your actions. What would a justification of eating animals be like, in that case? Again, Nozick asks an interesting and helpful question:
Suppose then that I enjoy swinging a baseball bat. It happens that in front of the only place to swing it stands a cow. Swinging the bat unfortunately would involve smashing the cow's head. But I wouldn't get fun from doing that; the pleasure comes from exercising my muscles, swinging well, and so on. ... Is there some principle that would allow the killing and eating of animals, but would not allow swinging the bat for the extra pleasure it brings? (ASU p. 37.)
So now you can see why I put my question in the way I did at the beginning. The value humans get from moving the duck from condition #1 to condition #2: is it relevantly different from the pleasure of swinging that baseball bat? Nozick thinks the answer is "no."

I'll be talking to the students in my political philosophy class about this tomorrow. I'll post on possible answers to this question after that.

11 comments:

Ruchira Paul said...

This is a dilemma that bothers me a lot as a meat eater and an animal lover. I would look forward to yours and your students' input on this matter.

Lester Hunt said...

Darn! I thought you would answer the question for me! I guess I have to do everything myself. Mutter mutter grumble.

Kali Fontecchio said...

I'm also a meat-lover in conflict- I love my naimal friends! But they're so.... yummy!!! AHHH!!!

"The question is: do they, or rather does the marginal addition in them gained by eating animals rather than only nonanimals, outweigh the moral weight to be given to animals' lives and pain?"

It's a nice thought, to eat food that doesn't involve murdering a cute, defenseless animal friend. But it's just that, a nice thought. I, myself, can barely cook. So, mostly I depend on others or professionals for feeding, thus the old saying: beggars can't be choosers!

"Given that animals are to count for something, is the extra gain obtained by eating them rather than nonanimals products greater than the moral cost?"

Not really- except maybe the protein, perhaps...

"How might these questions be decided?"

Ask Doctor Stupid!

Dear Dr. Stupid,

what do you think about the mass slaughter and consumption of kindly animal friends?

Kali Kazoo

"Well Ms. Kazoo, it depends on whether the animal has an article of clothing on. The naked heathens are God's Will, but would you go eat out Yogi Bear? Would you eat out a Beaver? I think not. Wait...oh, uh, nevermind..."

Thank you, Dr. Stupid.

Jorge Garrido said...

It's ok to eat animals that aren't consideed pets by the society you live in.

Therefore, it is immoral to eat dogs and cats and canaries.

But it is ok to eat rabbit, duck, and things of that nature because their status as pets is less widespread, so it counts for less. Also, they were food in our society before they were pets. Dogs have always been pets so therefore it is immoral to eat them.

But ti is preferable to eat animals that are never considered pets, like cows, pigs and chicken.

Drake said...

Glad to see you are not *ducking* the hard questions. (Okay, sorry about that.)

Serious question: How does your notion of rights as "freedom extenders" apply to a case like the protagonist (as it were) in Johnny Got His Gun. On your conception of rights, it seems that he would have no rights at all: He is not capable of using or exchanging implements (though he can "use" or "exchange" information).

Serious question no. 2: Why not suppose that rights are both freedom-extending *and* security-enhancing? So far from being mutually exclusive, the two seem complementary.

Mitch K said...

Ducks make fantastic pets. In the wild, they mate for life with only one partner. As a pet, they can form an attachment to their owner.

Ducks aren't food!

Anonymous said...

Many of the plants we eat are alive when we eat them, or we kill them to eat them. Sort of in between animals and plants are insects, and people kill and eat them too - or even chomp them up alive. And of course animals eat other animals all the time, and eat them alive without regard to the terror they feel.

Ben Franklin was a vegetarian until he noticed that in the stomachs of some fish that were being cleaned were smaller fish. Then, he wrote, he decided that if they could eat other fish, then he could eat them.

Unless you're a plant, you can't exist without eating other living things. It is morally good and acceptable for a higher form of life - a more evolved form, and humans are the most evolved - to survive by eating a less evolved form. Nature or life is continually striving towards a higher and higher consciousness, and if that means that the lower forms of consciousness contribute to that by being food for the highest forms, then so be it.

You might argue that its the moral obligation of the highest forms to survive on the lowest forms of life rather than the higher. So eat plants rather than animals, and eat animals rather than retarded people (just kidding). But whether we like it or not we are physical animals who need food, and our bodies evolved to flourish on meat AND vegetables. Pure vegans do not flourish. A "paleolithic" diet, based on what our ancestors evolved on over hundreds of thousands of years, best suits us. And a paleolithic diet is significantly based on meat. As long as we are not cruel in our method of killing the animals, it is no more immoral to kill animals for food than it is to breath air or drink water. It is necessary for life.

That is not the case with swinging a baseball bat and hitting a cow. We do not eat only for the whim of pleasure but to survive, and every living thing must struggle to survive and is morally entitled to try to survive. Killing for pleasure is entirely different. It is not necessary to our survival.

Lester Hunt said...

Anonymous, You are of course rejecting one of Nozick's assumptions, that eating animal food is not necessary for health. From what I've read about it, he seems to be right about that.

Jorge and Mitch, I've often noticed that people do not eat animals that they think of as pets. I would think that's because there is something about the psychology of the two relationships involved -- eating something versus keeping it as a pet -- that clashes violently. But I don't think that I would want to say that it's wrong to eat an animal that is considered a pet "in the society that you live in," since that gives too much moral authority to society. We don't make the moral status of humans depend on the way that society (actually) treats them, and why should animals be any different in that respect?

Lester Hunt said...

Drake, Those are some tough questions! To give very short answers: Rights do both, they extend freedom and enhance security. In fact, they can't really do one (for humans) without also doing the other. The question is though which one is the more fundamental, and thus indispensable, explanation of the importance of rights. One explanation might allow animals to have rights, while the other one pretty clearly excludes them. As to the Johnny question: though the examples I gave were cases of implements, the essential element of my account of rights involved the fact that the giving and withholding of consent alters the rightness or wrongness of things that people do. Johnny can give or withhold consent. The more serious problem for my theory is humans who cannot give or withhold consent (young infants, fetuses, the extremely retarded, the comatose). I would have to handle these problem cases one at a time, I'm afraid. I hope this makes sense!

Drake said...

Makes perfect sense, though I want to revisit the issue in your new post, but no time now. I'll pipe in tomorrow...

Lester Hunt said...

Great! See you then!