About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Massimo's picks

* With all the controversy about the stolen emails concerning climate change, where is the data, really? Online, available for everyone to play with.

* The CIA used to teach his agents magic tricks. Now they prefer setting up torture chambers. Times are a-change.

* Would vegetarians object to meat created from cell cultures? It may soon come to a supermarket near you.

* More about those stolen emails and the worldwide conspiracy that doesn't exist.


  1. My dad told me that the fact that Richard Lindzen both opposes Anthropogenic Global Warming and is a professor at MIT shows that there is no scientific consensus on the causes of global warming.

    And my daddy is always right.

  2. Meat created from cell cultures: well, it gets off to a dodgy start, using cells from live animals: if the product can eventually be independent of this, it would at least save lives, I suppose. The problem vegans (and vegetarians, to some extent) are tackling is the use of sentient beings as means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves, i.e they are against any and all exploitation of animals which is not actually necessary for a given human or group of humans to stay alive. That's the bottom line - anything can just be measured up to that. I've been vegan for years and I can say that I've never felt the need for meat substitutes at all. If humans get the point, they'll stop exploiting animals, if they don't, just fabricating pork in a lab. won't do anything for all the myriad hideous abuses animals suffer at human hands. Still, it might make people think a bit.

  3. Regarding the article about meat created from cells, I have some questions about the process itself that need answering before I can give my stamp of a approval. I mean, what exactly does the process entail? If it involves lab animals and invasive procedures, I would neither support such endeavors or consume the products. It is important to understand why a particular person is a vegetarian. It seems that the stereotypical vegetarian is one who feels bad for animals or doesn't like the taste of meat. These people would probably eat meat grown from cell cultures.

    The reality is that many people are vegetarians due to either a belief in the intrinsic value of all living things or some sort of utilitarian ethics. Some from both camps might eat this meat, but many would also refrain. Personally, I gravitate towards utilitarianism and autonomy. Eating meat of this origin is preferable to eating dead animals, but I will still continue to be vegetarian. Unless the creature consents to being poked an prodded, its autonomy is being violated. Now there are situations where I would find this approach to be ethical. If people will starve without animal products, and there are no other viable options, then I would have no problem with giving them cultured meat. However I am in a situation where I do not need meat, period. I am perfectly happy and healthy eating vegetables and other alternatives, so why would I eat something that simply causes less suffering? My diet choice is already based on the minimal amount of animal suffering anyway. The ability to create cultured meat won't my values. I'll still choose "no suffering" relatively rather than "less suffering", thank you very much. :)

  4. All the frenzy and hysteria relating to the hacked e-mails (and now we know there was a document theft motivated break in at a Canadian climate research facility) really demonstrates how much of a parallel, alternate reality many of the deniers are living in.

    They actuall believe that global warming is a hoax which is part of some planetary communist plot to install a one world totalitarian government. like some kind of non-anti-semitic variant of New World Order conspiracy theory.

    I can't help but recall Arthur Schlesinger's having said, "Anti-intellectualism has long been the anti-Semitism of the businessman."

  5. "Would vegetarians object to meat created from cell cultures?" is not the important question. Would meat eaters object to meat created from cell cultures is much more relevant, since it is us meat eaters who are contributing much more to global warming than vegetarians do.

    Personally, I'm doing what I can by cutting back on my consumption of beef. I'm looking forward to lab-created beef.


  6. Regarding meat: I haven't eaten meat in many years and the idea of eating it makes me a little nauseous. The human body is just not designed for eating meat and there are no advantages to eating meat. There is no reason to eat meat except that people like it. And many health reasons to not eat it. This seems like a silly waste of time and resources.
    We don't need meat. Let's get off the meat wagon.

  7. minus' statement "the human body is just not designed for eating meat" is absolutely wrong.

  8. I don't want to turn this into one of those stupid word wars. But, Richie the Bear, when I see you go down to the river, pull out a salmon and eat it like it is, the way your namesake can do, then I will agree that your body is equipped to eat meat.

  9. minus,

    I'm afraid you are in the wrong here, biologically speaking. First, of course, human beings are not "designed," though I assume you were using the word metaphorically.

    Second, and more to the point, biologically we are omnivores, which means that we are indeed well equipped to take advantage of the habit of eating meat (extra source of proteins and such). Whether we should do it or not, of course, is another example of a philosophical, not scientific, question.

  10. Massimo,

    I am curious what your own thoughts on this matter are.
    You might have covered this elsewhere, but I have yet to read it.

  11. Oops! I meant to say "on the matter of animal rights."

    That's kind of an important part to leave out.

  12. Ah, complex issue. The short version is that I see a sliding scale in the case of animal rights, roughly proportional to their degree of sentience and self-awareness.

    So, for instance, I think chimps and such should have *almost* equal rights to humans (though not quite), while I don't recognize rights for, say, ants. Obviously, much more need to be said.

  13. Thanks for identifying the whole animal/human who-does-what-to-who issue as a philosophical, not a scientific one. No favours are done to anyone by missing this essential point and chasing off after spurious (and even not so spurious) scientific "evidence". You can't justify ethical choices by recourse to science - it's not there to provide answers to such questions: Science can tell us how to make a bigger bomb, not whether to drop it: that vivisection may be in the interests of humans, not whether it is right to do it, and so forth. The ill effects of, for example factory farming on global warming, or too much red meat on human health may be considered straws in the wind, showing us that our behaviour in these respects is probably not good for us in the long run, but they only invite technological rectification, not abolition of animal exploitation, which is where the philosophical arguments would point to those convinced by them.

  14. "Would vegetarians object to meat created from cell cultures?"

    Based on the fact that most vegetarians I know will actually pick the pepperoni off of their pizza and throw it away rather than eat it, I'd say probably. Of course, this kind of vegetarianism never made any sense to me (at least if they're professing to be vegetarian for animal welfare reasons rather than health reasons).

  15. I believe a lot of you vegans/vegetarians are missing the point of the question. The real issue isn't if you would eat meat created from cell cultures. Would it be ethical, according to your ethics, for someone to eat meat created from cell cultures. I have seen this question asked to Peter Singer and he does not seem to have a problem with it (assuming the animal was not hurt or anything).

  16. No, I'm pretty sure I got the point. ;)

    The ethics depend on the procedure itself. If it involves any sort of lab animals and intrusive experiments, then no, it would not be ethical. This is assuming some sort of "equal" human suffering of course. In reality it would depend on the individual. It would not be ethical for me, or someone like me. Peter Singer would probably express a similar sentiment.

  17. The "point" is, I think that any being which can be said to have an interest in his or her own life should not have that interest disregarded by another (if said other wishes to maintain an image of ethical behaviour and does not depend for their life on the disregarding), simply because the latter is in a position to do so and serves some non-essential interest of their own in the act. Starting from this point, anyone should be able to work out whether a vegan would eat meat created from cell cultures, as I tried to explain in my first post.
    Since most people would agree that animal exploitation leaves a lot to be desired ethically, I'm always a mite surprised that more don't turn to veganism simply to behave "better" - like stepping up one's contribution to Oxfam or Amnesty International - and voilá, one has done somthing to make the world a better place and oneself a better person!

  18. Cavall,

    I'm not so sure that *most* people would agree that all animal "exploitation" in unethical. Is it unethical to eat ants, really? Are all animals equally deserving of rights? What about plants? Or bacteria?

    Besides, your position seems to be an extreme version of Kantian ethics, and Kantian ethics is hard to apply consistently even to humans, let alone animals.

  19. I meant animal exploitation as it is carried out at the moment - and that many people, even though they take advantage of factory farming, fur farming etc. do appear to have qualms about these processes - I didn't say most people find these things unethical, but that they find they "leave a lot to be desired" - which the amount of animal welfare legislation, and the campaigning for more, even by non-vegetarians,(Californian proposition 2, famously, e.g.) seems to reflect. My surprise is that these people - and of course, you're right, I shouldn't say "most" with no figures to back it up, but anyone who does have doubts about the ethics of what goes on for humans to be able to consume animal products - doesn't just stop exploiting animals on the grounds that it would be a simple step in the right direction, even if they don't see it as an ethical imperative, as I do - a step towards acting "better", which presumably we would all like to do.
    Ruminations about whether it is right to eat ants etc,(which probably doesn't affect many of us here)- I'll leave aside the plants-and-bacteria question, since I am only talking about beings with central nervous systems and behaviours which demonstrate they have an interest in their own lives - still leaves one with the daily decision about whether to join in the killing and exploitation of cows, sheep etc, which probably does. The idea would then be not to see how much exploitation one can "get away with" ethically so much as to see how respecting the interests that other sentient beings have in their own lives represents a good way for humans to behave. If there were no doubts on this score, of course, the way would be open, but this doesn't seem to be the case - I refer again to animal protection legislation, which exists in every country (except one, to my knowledge) in the world.
    I think this probably is is an extreme of the Kantian position - not that it seems extreme to me, only reasonable - as strained through John Rawls and Mark Rowlands, but I am very much sitting at the philosophical feet of those on this blog, especially yourself, so I'm grateful for your insights here. If an ethical position is correct, even if it's "hard to apply", surely one should have a stab at following it up?
    Thanks again.

  20. I and many like me are vegetarians because we see no reason to eat meat, and are aware that it is unhealthy. I could care less about "ethics." I don't know or care what they are in the abstract. I'm interested in the real material world. I know that there is no reason to eat meat; it has no health benefits. The only reason to eat it is because you like it. If you enjoy killing animals for pleasure, go ahead on, but please don't get all "ethical" about it. Whatever turns you on.

  21. Eating meat has no health benefits? Back that claim up and differentiate between different types of meat.

  22. Must you make us all look bad minus? Heh.

    Eating meat is not unhealthy any more than not eating meat is. Personally I find it much harder to stay healthy as a vegetarian because I have to think about what I eat. Vegetarians must obtain the proper amount of nutrients from sources other than meat. This takes some planning. Vegans will DIE if they do not do this. If a vegan is not taking vitamin b supplements, they either a) are not truly vegans and are getting vitamin b from processed foods which contain dairy products or b) ignoring serious health problems.

  23. I'm really sorry I got sucked into this endless argument. The fact is that there are over a billion people walking around who have never eaten meat. And they are just as healthy and happy as everybody else. Vegetarians in the US live approximately seven years longer than those that eat meat. Many major diseases have been connected with meat eating. There is no record of any disease or other medical problem connected with not eating meat. It is easier to eat a balanced diet if you are a vegetarian than if you are not. Can you or anyone give me one good reason to eat meat?

    Sorry to make you look bad. I'll leave you the task of peace making. Bye.

  24. Cavall,

    I appreciate your latest round of comments, they seem very reasonable. The issue, then, seems to be that we should respect animals that have enough brain power to have an interest in their own lives, as you say.

    My point would then be that such brain power and interest comes in degrees (highest in humans and some other primates). Should that not be reflected in a sliding scale of animal rights? (With close to zero for ants?)


    actually I think that it is well understood that it is harder to get a balanced diet as a vegetarian, and really difficult (though possible) for a vegan. The studies you refer to about the negative health consequences of eating meat usually refer to people who eat large quantities of red meat - it is different for people who eat moderate quantities of white meat or fish.

  25. The adoption of a sliding scale for animal rights - giving a right to life and freedom from exploitation to animals deemed to have life interests would be a gigantic step towards fairer, "better" behaviour on the part of human beings. I'm not sure that "brain power" should be the criterion, though (and I hope I didn't misleadingly suggest it should - my mention was of a central nervous system and behaviours which indicate an interest in one's own destiny, social behaviours, avoidance of suffering, seeking out of pleasure, resisting the abstraction of young, carrying out in general what Bernard Rollin calls one's "telos"), because what exactly would it mean? One would be up against all the problems of deciding what "intelligence" means in humans and then some - and this is not be considered a fair criterion for deciding how we treat our own conspecifics. Nor am I sure how a scale of own interests could be devised intra- or inter-species. Recent European legislation describes all animals - including fish, based on recent research - as sentient beings. Although the legislation does not take this to mean that they have a right to an interest in their own lives which should not be overridden, I do not really see why it doesn't - perhaps this could be a rule of thumb. Or perhaps the onus should be on those who wish to exploit &/or kill animals to show which ones definitely have no interest in continuance.
    Since I think the animals who could, on any reasonable showing, be held to have an interest in their own lives include most of the species humans exploit and kill on a daily basis, there is a lot could be done to improve human ethics as regards animals before we get down to hard or equivocal cases - those poor ants! I can see they're doomed.

  26. I am not sure if it is even necessary to develop some universal scale. We are already approaching this from the perspective of equal consideration of interests. This means we look at an individual (or species in this case) and determine/consider its interest. All the criterion involved in your "telos" of sort would be examined under this principle.

    Once we have established all this we can then ascertain the utility of each interest. This is where sliding scale is useful. The question is not whether ants have an interest in living, but what the exact "value", and its given utility, of being an ant is. A sliding scale allows us to say, "Sure, ants have an interest in doing ant-like stuff, but utility of human interests holds much more priority."

    With regard to human ethics- yeah, you are right that there is a lot to be done before this really matters to most, but we are already ahead of the game! If the interest of ants is ever taken seriously, we will say, "Pssh. Thought of that shit 50 years ago." Heh, maybe then we will see those ever-so-elusive philosophy grants. ;)

  27. In what ways are plants not autonomous beings? Being rooted to the ground and executing their behaviours on a far slower time scale doesn't mean they don't do everything in their power to avoid predators, beat out other plants in the competition for sunlight, and generally ensure their own survival.

    "Autonomy" is a pretty muddy concept on which to base a vegetarian philosophy.

  28. Colldén; Oddly enough, Leonardo da Vinci addressed this question, you can see his remarks translated on the "Atheist Vegan" blog if you so wish.
    I must state again that not knowing where to stop in extending human empathy does not exempt us from finding a realistic place to start.


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