Monday, March 28, 2011

Eating Animals: A Defense

My political philosophy class has been discussing Robert Nozick's ethical argument for vegetarianism (IMHO, the best such argument I have seen), so I thought I would repost this essay, which I posted when I was discussing the same argument, with another group of students, four years ago...

I didn't want to post on this question again until after I had finished talking about it in class. And the discussion went on for almost two fifty minute class periods -- way more than I originally intended. People had a lot more ideas about this than I thought they would! The other thing that surprised me was that no one (except for one student, who came up to me after class) tried to answer what I thought was ultimately the real question.

As you may not recall, Nozick asks us:
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?
I had thought this ultimately boils down to the question of how we should fill in the blank in this sentence: One may kill animals or impose unpleasant living conditions on them in order to provide _____ for humans.

Almost no one tried to answer this question directly. There were some attempts to reject the question. One person suggested, following in the footsteps of Descartes and Malebranche, that animals simply don't have mental states. (This is a philosophy class, after all!) Another suggested that since eating animals is an activity that rests on pain and death it is morally tainted and the question of whether there is something good about it that is good enough to justify the death and pain involved is simply inconceivable. Another wanted to divide the question (killing animals raises different issues from making them suffer). Others had skeptical doubts about whether we can know the kinds of things that would be required for answering this question. There was also a lot of discussion of side issues that popped up here and there. I declared that eating at MacDonald's is immoral, "unless the alternative is starving to death," and some wanted to defend MacDonald's. And so on.

I'm sufficiently impressed with the fact that almost no one filled in my blank that I offer my own attempt with some hesitation. I assume the reason for this is that it seems like an impossible task. Which of course is Nozick's point.

The one student who came up after class suggested trying to use John Stuart Mill's idea of higher and lower pleasures. Also, he suggested changing Nozick's question: What if hitting the cow is the only action you can ever perform? This is roughly the sort of approach I would take. I guess my question would be: What if, if people didn't do things like this to the cow, the game of baseball would be wiped off the earth? That of course involves values (and even pleasures) that are very different from the pleasure of swinging the bat.

Nozick's question (or more exactly his principled refusal to answer it) supposes that the value of Peking duck is simply a pleasure, conceived as a mere sensation, like the sensation in one's muscles while swinging a stick. It ignores the existence of cuisine. Cuisine is a rich, complex artifact of human history, like baseball. And like certain other rich, complex artifacts of history, it produces results that in some sense are like works of art. Results like Peking duck. The pleasure of eating it, I submit, is in a completely and qualitatively different category from the pleasure of swinging a stick. Peking duck is an ancient dish. Like all high art, it was originally meant only for the rich and powerful few but now, thanks to the miracle of democratic capitalism, is available to all. It originated during the Yuan Dynasty (coinciding with our High Middle Ages) and was perfected during the Qing Dynasty (late nineteenth century). I would say that it is a thing of beauty, except that for some reason we reserve this word for the sense-modalities of sight and sound, rather than taste, smell, and textural discrimination.

Of all the great cuisines on earth, only one of them as far as I know is "vegetarian" in any sense of the word. This is one of the cuisines of India (which has an ancient tradition of not killing animals). And it is very far from being vegan. It swims in milk, cream, butter, ghee (clairified butter), and yogurt. All of the other great cuisines -- French, Italian, Japanese, the regional cuisines of China and Mexico -- are very meat-centric.

If we all became vegans today, many of the great ideas of Escoffier, CarĂªme, and the achievements of thousands of unsung geniuses who have created the cuisines of the world, would be wiped out overnight. This would be a horrible loss to the human spirit.

Of course, something that you could call cuisine could continue to exist. But the loss would still be horrific. Consider again Peking duck. Recipes for Peking duck focus on the skin. Some call for inflating the duck's skin with air (one reason for leaving its head on). One often sees directions like "hang in a cool, windy place for six hours." The point is to achieve a certain level of crispness and in some cases a jewel-like glaze.

You just can't do that with a pumpkin. Or boiled barley. Or tofu. Forget it!

So I'm not sure exactly how I would fill in my blank, but it's obvious there are lots of ways that include eating Peking duck but exclude hitting the cow.

But there still is an important moral residue to the exercise that Nozick has let us into here. The way we treat animals does have to be justified -- which means we have to treat them in justifiable ways. And that doesn't include just any old thing. The chance that what we do to animals is justified is increased if we increase the probability that the bad of what we do to them is less than the good of what we get out of it. This probability is increased if we depress the badness of the bad. Which means treating animals more humanely. It is also increased if we enhance the goodness of what they do for us. There is a moral responsibility on us as cooks to make the most of our animal ingredients. The next time you bite into a bland, gray fast food hamburger, remember that some cow died so you can do this. Did that cow die in vain?


Anonymous said...

It seems a question-begging stretch to say that the giving up non-vegetarian cuisine would be a "horrific loss" to humanity. That conclusion rests on the ethical validity of non-vegetarianism, which is precisely what's in question.

If human slavery strikes you as intolerable, then you will not find the creative traditions and flourishes of slave-traders, nor the rich culture of the enslaved, to be acceptable defenses of a terrible institution. Similarly, to somehow who can't abide factory-farming or slaughterhouses, the cultural value of its product -- whether its fois gras or chicken nuggets -- is entirely beside the point.

Lester Hunt said...

Not question-begging: there's an assumption that has explicitly been made -- that animals don't have rights in the sense that people do. But even if they did, I would still maintain that the sacrifice of virtually every cuisine on earth would still be a horrific loss, though a loss we would have a duty to shoulder. Here's an analogy: Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that Nietzsche was right, and great cultural achievement are only possible in societies in which slavery (or something like it) exists. If so, then I would say that we would have a duty to live in a society in which great literature, music, painting, etc., would no longer be created. But I would also say that the loss would be horrible. Admittedly, though, I am assuming that killing a cow is not in the same moral category as enslaving a person. That's another issue.

Anonymous said...

If you are a great fan of animal products, whatever they may be, giving them up could certainly be a personal loss. But, again, this is equivalent to the loss of a slave-owner who realizes that, on the whole, he would prefer not to participate in such a trade, despite his personal potential for loss.

I don't think that the concept of animal rights needs to be invoked here. If a person values the consumption of animal products over the welfare of those animals, then naturally they will consider it loss to give those products up. On the other hand, someone with the opposite inclination would just as naturally consider it a loss when the same animal is killed in the name of consumerism or aesthetic. Neither one is any more or less a loss, since each only exists in the mind of a person who feels that way.

I think part of the confusion stems from the use of "society", "humanity" as entities instead of merely convenient labels for collections of entities. "Humanity" cannot lose or gain anything. It is not a thing which can experience loss. Individuals can, and certainly do, experience loss when making sacrifices in the name of ethics. But what I fail to understand is why that should be especially relevant to an evaluation of any particular behavior.

We can suppose that someone is being killed in Darfur this morning, but does my political opinion about the region have any bearing on the event itself? Is anything about the event changed if, by chance, I'm having a particularly indifferent or enraged day? I don't see any reason to think that it does. And similarly I see no reason to think that the nature of an animal's life and death is affected one way or the other by a person (or, in this case, many person's) desire to consume them. Why do you suppose the two are related?

"Q" the Enchanter said...

I think I basically agree with your conclusion, but I want to challenge (mildly) the idea that animals don't have meaningful "rights" because they aren't able to give or withhold morally meaningful consent. I object on two grounds.

First, certain types of mental illness render a person incompetent to consent. Yet victims of such mental illness do retain some residue of rights. (This objection speaks also to the conception of rights as entailing either reciprocal moral obligation or the ability to conceive of such.)

Second, animals, though not capable of consent, are capable of reliably self-preserving resistance and acquiescence. These abilities seem at least to be precursors to the apparently peculiarly human ability to consent. I'm not sure exactly what to make of this behavioral genealogy, but an animal's instinctive resistance to the chopping block looks close enough to the withholding of consent that we might want to take it into moral account.

So while I'd agree that animals don't have "rights" in the same sense that humans have "rights" (and sometimes I'm skeptical about the very idea of rights generally), it seems at least plausible that the concept of rights usefully stands in for whatever it is that grounds the kind of moral concern humans ought to have for animals qua moral patients.

As a side note, I'll add that a proper comparison between the benefit of the culinary arts and the cost of animal slaughter is deceptively hard. The meal served to us is (as a practical matter) always going to be more salient than the preceding activity at the slaughterhouse. And while we can enjoy the flavor of the meat, we can never experience the psychological and physical pain of the creatures who enabled our fine dining.

Midodok said...

Hey Lester,

My buddy in Beijing was able to visit your blog. If it doesn't show up in your map, then I'm not sure why.

Lester Hunt said...

Midodok, Thanks much for the information. (For anyone who doesn't know what this is about, M. is referring to the "Visitor Map" at the bottom of the sidebar.) It's a mystery to me too!

Lester Hunt said...

Stewart, I think I agree with your first two paragraphs. We part company, I believe, when you say: "Individuals can, and certainly do, experience loss when making sacrifices in the name of ethics. But what I fail to understand is why that should be especially relevant to an evaluation of any particular behavior."

One way it could make a big difference is: suppose that we are inflicting pain and death on some animals (say lab rats) because we have a reasonable hope that this will lead to curing (human) cancer. Surely that would be a stronger reason (even if not strong enough by your standards) for being willing to inflict these things on them. The amount of suffering and death is not affected by this (for the sake of the argument) reasonable hope. But it is nonetheless relevant to the ethics of making those rats suffer and die. What we are doing to the rats is not the only issue. What we are doing for other organisms by doing this to the rats can also make a difference, at least in principle (unless, once again, we think the rats have human-like rights).

The assumption behind Nozick's question, I think, is that some moral considerations fall short of the absolute constrainingness of rights but nonetheless can have serious implications. Avoiding causing pain to to animals is an important goal. So is avoiding causing pain to people. But countervailing considerations can justify doing so. Firing a inefficient employee is going to hurt them. We wouldn't do it if there weren't other values at stake, besides avoiding causing pain. We are willing to do it (regretfully it may be) if these other values are important enough.

Anonymous said...

Nozick's question asks, "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?" Your response is to invoke the value of cuisine, and the loss of that value to people who had known it previously.

But such a response, and others like it, seem merely to be side-steps around the fact that the value of cuisine is objectively equivalent to "the extra pleasure it brings", and that swinging a butcher's blade is not much different than swinging a bat.

The obvious difference is that, as the example points out, the goal is not to bash in the cow's head, but rather to stretch one's muscles and swing the bat. This is quite beside the point. As I mentioned above, a person's opinion of an event does not effect the event itself (e.g. my opinion of Sudanese strife does not, by itself, affect Sudanese strife). From the cow's point of view -- or anyone's, in fact -- the intent of wailing on an animal has no effect on the trauma that will be incurred by such an action.

One can swing the bat with the intent of harming the cow, or one can swing the bat with some other intent entirely. The difference between the two possibilities exists solely within the actor's neurology, though. Which is to say that, if you believe there is an ethical difference between the two events, either (A) that difference is purely subjective, or (B) that difference is metaphysical. And either result is an indictment of the entire exercise.

Lester Hunt said...

Drake, Hoo-boy, you raise tough issues! Yes, there are whole classes of humans who cannot give or withhold consent. My view is that most of these categories (I would exclude the permanently comatose and fetuses, though for different reasons) should in the context of our culture be treated as having rights. They only have this status however because they are members of a biological species who normally are competent to give consent, enter into agreements, and so forth. The status of these groups as right-possessors (or maybe they are possessors of quasi-rights) is parasitic on the fact that the core of their species consists of primary or full rights possessors.

I think there may indeed be an ethical point to saying that animals are capable of a sort of proto-consent. They try to get things, and try to get away from things. I'm just not sure what this ethical point should be - beyond the fact that they experience pleasure and pain. Maybe it means they are a little bit more like us -- and so a little bit closer to being rights-possessors? I don't know.

Your last point - that we are prone to over-emphasize the benefits of eating the animal in comparison with the bad stuff it imposes on the animal - is true and important. We should avoid doing that. If we do, we will eat less meat. And be healthier too.

Lester Hunt said...

Stewart, "One can swing the bat with the intent of harming the cow, or one can swing the bat with some other intent entirely. The difference between the two possibilities exists solely within the actor's neurology, though." I guess what you are saying is that the ethical status of an act depends solely on what the act is and the nature of the being to which the act is done. All else, including agent's state of mind, is irrelevant. I think this depends on what sorts of ethical considerations are at stake. If the question is whether the act violates rights, something like this has to be true. If I run over your foot with my car, that violates your rights, whether I did it on purpose or accidentally. My state of mind doesn't matter. (It would be awful to think that your rights go out of existence just because I am being careless! Or have some noble purpose in mind!) My reply to this is bound to be disappointing: I am not talking about this sort of issue here. I am assuming, for the moment and for the sake of the argument, that these sorts of considerations don't apply to animals. I have been putting this as "assuming that animals don't have rights," but, as you are pointing out, one could see the assumption as actually being broader than this. Maybe I should post about this broader issue.

Lester Hunt said...

Midodok, Finally, the one visit from Beijing has appeared on the map. So far, it's the only one from either China or any part of the former USSR, a vast portion of the Earth, but with time, one hopes, there will be more.

Midodok said...

I'm glad that hit finally showed up. Unfortunately, my friend says that blogger blogs were once again blocked. Sometimes I think just making things really slow and unreliable can be as effective as making them inaccessible. . .

Anonymous said...

I would fill in the blank with survival, and note that survival does not mean living as the alternative to dying.

Psychological fitness is also essential to survival; this includes a constant upwards traversal of Maslow's hierarchy.

One needs to feel good in terms of experience in case of the consumer of cuisine and in terms of income in the case of the producer.

Lester Hunt said...

Pranab Salian, What you are calling survival is something that I would rather call "flourishing." Not whether you live but how well you live.

Aeon J. Skoble said...

How is it moral for a lion to eat a lamb, yet immoral for me to eat one? Food chain. Big fish eat little fish, why can't I eat a little fish?

Tommy said...

"The next time you bite into a bland, gray fast food hamburger, remember that some cow died so you can do this. Did that cow die in vain?"

I posed this exact question the last time I dined at the Great Dane. answer was yes (I blame the bun).