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.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Is a Humane Killing Ethical?

by Scott Berjot-Stafiej
My name is Scott Berjot-Stafiej. I am a volunteer for the Center for Inquiry—New York and general advocate of science, critical thinking, and assorted other buzz words with which the readers of RS most likely associate. Recently, my good friend Michael DeDora wrote an article called "Vegetarianism: moral stance or mere preference?" I deeply respect Michael and yet, as is the case with many of the people I respect, I sometimes disagree with him. The following article underlines that disagreement in regard to being a vegetarian.

Let me begin by stating that Michael and I agree on the vast majority of our ethical stances — vegetarianism included. Both of us view ethics to principally affect questions of well-being; both of us believe it is important for the ethical system by which we live to be internally consistent; and as vegetarians, we don’t view our ethical values to be human centric.

Like Michael, I see no shortage of reasons to be vegetarian. One may point to problems with the meat industry’s treatment of workers, negative environmental effects caused by meat production, or even arguments from an economic perspective. While these are potentially poignant and important points, they are not my primary motivation for vegetarianism. My motivation, and the argument to which I will restrict this article, is merely the value I believe we should attribute to many non-human animals (here on out, just animals).

I chose the title question of this article — Is Humane Killing Ethical? — because, according to Michael, one may promote animal quality of life and, in a humane way (i.e., with a minimum amount of mental or physical suffering), kill animals without substantial ethical qualms. I disagree.

Michael summarizes his argument as follows:

"Kant argued that every human being is deserving of respect (i.e., moral concern) because of its cognitive faculties — its autonomy, ability to reason, make free choices, and plan for the future. Vegetarians would have us expand this to non-human animals. But there is no reason to suppose that animals have such capacities, and I see little reason — judging from scientific evidence and philosophical thinking — to give them the benefit of the doubt."

My first disagreement comes from what I believe to be an unintentional over-simplification. What I assume Michael means with the above statement is that animals exhibit the mentioned capacities to a lesser degree than humans, not that they don't exhibit them at all. Virtually all of the traits described may be found to some degree in the animal kingdom: dolphins have been known to hoard trash at the bottom of a pool when there was the prospect of future reward for gathering it; certain fish have shown memory of a year or more and have used memory of negative experiences to develop ways of becoming less easy to catch; ravens make tools; rats solve puzzles; many mammals socialize, etc. While it is relatively certain that most animals have a far less defined sense of self, it is, I believe, scientifically uncontroversial to say that many animals have the ability to reason and make projections at least to a degree.

The next question, and where I believe the substance of our disagreement lies, is “how should we respond to a difference in degree for each of the cognitive faculties Kant (and Michael) views to be worthy of moral concern? To simplify our discussion, I’ve framed what I view Michael’s argument to be using the following symbols:

Reason (R) + Enjoyment/Happiness (E) + Suffering (S) + Projection (P) = Value of Life/Rights attributed to Life (V)


R+E+S+P = V

(Note: If readers feel like singing the RESP acronym in their heads to a certain tune by Aretha, they will not be alone.)

The first thing I’d like to point out about this ethical equation is that, in our current ethical system, different rights are attributed to an entity based upon each variable. Relatively few rights are attributed based upon R, for example. It’s not because I can think critically, that I can marry my wife or own a house. We don’t get out of our cars at intersections and solve rubric’s cubes to determine who has the right of way. However, we may grant someone the right to vote based upon their mental faculties (however low we may set the bar for those faculties). Each variable within the equation comes with different ethical considerations.

If we explore the variables of RESP by adjusting them in degree, we may see how our sentiments regarding the right in question — the right to life — are affected within our current ethical system. If someone, for example, has congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP — an inability to feel pain), do we put into question their right to make decisions about their life? No, we do not. To even raise the question would seem silly. A person with CIP has the same ownership of his/her life as a person without.

What about one’s ability or inclination to project into the future? Do we value the particularly ambitious or hopeful over those hedonists who live only for the moment? Again, no.

Adjusting or even removing the other two variables yields the same result. Thus, we find that the RESP equation is sufficient in determining many rights (i.e., quality of life, social freedoms, etc), but it is not effective in determining the right to life even in our current ethical system. Thus, it seems a new variable must be proposed to account for our current ethical values.

What I feel Michael has neglected in this ethical equation is a sentient being’s will to live. I will argue here that the mere desire to continue existing justifies us granting the right to do so. Since RESP cannot fully account for those we currently grant the right to live, it should not matter that a chicken has no capacity to reflect, “I’ll never see my eggs hatch” or “I’ll never teach my son to crow,” when being herded for slaughter. If a sentient creature has some range of experience, however different in scope or degree that experience may be from our own, we should attribute to it the right to continue that experience should it so desire (all else held constant).

That caveat — “all else held constant” — is important for reasons my wife quickly underlined to me. After I explained my argument, she commented, “what about cockroaches? They’re sentient to a degree; do you think we should kill them?… If you stop killing cockroaches I may, in fact, divorce you.” This point is salient not only for the health of my marriage, but also because the will to live is not the only consideration once we attempt to apply our ethics practically. While respecting the will to live would, in fact, grant cockroaches the right to life in theory, other ethical considerations such as hygiene and human communal well-being could arguably trump a cockroach’s life.

Similarly, if there is a starving village in some under-developed country, and a pig is the most cost and time effective means of solving that issue, then I would say turn on the grill and have a BBQ. The point of my argument is simply to demonstrate that animal life has an ethical value in itself, when divorced of other considerations. That value should, where possible, be weighed. This value alone, I would argue, is sufficient to claim that everyone in a developed nation should be a vegetarian.

Michael worries that “vegetarianism risks degenerating from a moral stance to the level of preference," but the base assumptions of any ethical system always boil down to a societal preference, no matter the justifications we assign them. We, as a society, prefer to live in a system that increases well-being and diminishes suffering; this is not a morally relativist stance. It is merely a recognition that the vast majority of people are referring to well-being when they make noises about ethics. In the same way, when we make similar noises in regard to the right to life, I argue that what we are really talking about is the value of a creature’s will to live.

We could arbitrarily limit our sphere of ethical consideration in regard to this question to the human species. However, I find no coherent reasons for doing so. If what we are valuing, in fact, is RESP and the will to live, as I argue we are, then we should recognize those values wherever we find them. Not doing so would be to ignore the long history of ethical progress.

Throughout the history of philosophy, we look out at the world and say, “that being is more like me than I have previously recognized, and thus, I should grant it rights in so much as it has the capacity to appreciate that right.” We extended equal rights to women and racial minorities; we have begun extending the right to marry to sexual minorities; etc. While I would not argue for the “desegregation of a barnyard” or “access to university level education for all schools of fish” — precisely because animals don’t have the capacity to appreciate such rights — awarding animals a basic right to live due to their inherent desire to do so, and not due to secondary considerations, seems to me the next expansion of our sphere of consideration.

In closing, I’d like to thank Massimo and Michael, for providing me the opportunity to disagree with them.


  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/22/science/22angi.html?_r=4&8dpc

    http://vegweb.com/index.php?topic=30861.0 has some

    "Some people choose to eat only fruits and nuts, and seeds so that no plant dies. I believe they are called fruitarians."

    I wonder then if fruitarianism is a more ethical stance than vegetarianism. Hmm...

  2. I'm sorry, I couldn't read your post due to the picture of the scantily clad woman. Peta lost my interest years ago by the use of sex to get their message across, and now you have as well.

  3. RSB, strange, but their use of sex to get their message across, is the only reason PETA holds my interest.

  4. Just what does all this stuff have to do with the beautiful woman in the picture?

  5. RSB, that was the point, you might want to work a tiny bit on your sense of irony ;-)

    ciceronianus, did you read the sign the woman is holding?

  6. I suspect that my immediate desire to extend certain rights to other members of my species (e.g. even to those with CIP and hedonists), but not to others, has less to do with your formula than with: (1) an ingrained feeling of solidarity with other humans; and (2) my selfish calculation that even I or one of my loved ones could have such a rare trait, which brings to mind Rawls' veil of ignorance. Wouldn't I want those rights extended to me and mine?

    That doesn't necessarily rule out extending the circle wider, or the notions of "rights" or "social contract", so as to include members of other species (i.e. even those that they are categorically incapable of understanding these concepts, let alone consenting to them and modifying their behavior on that basis). But the idea must first resonate with enough humans, and I, for one, am still not feelin' it.

  7. Yes, but Massimo, by using the picture wo explicitly stating why you are using it, you (author?) are simply using the picture, which in my mind is basically the same as PETA. Call it a knee-jerk reaction if you prefer. I will own up to that.

  8. @Weiye, I limit my argument to sentient creatures, because I believe what we value is experience (RESP) and the will to live. A plant, to our best knowledge, does not have either of those things. Therefore, in my view, to eat only fruit would not be any more or less ethical than simple vegetarianism.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. RSB, as I said, I (not Scott) was going for subtle irony. Oh well.

  11. I have trouble squaring this view with evolution. The "purpose" of any species is to propagate its DNA into future generations. Our behavior is designed by evolution - just like the chickens' - to increase as far as possible the amount of the DNA that defines our respective genotypes - into the future.

    Who could deny that there is vastly more steer, pig and chicken DNA running around out there today than would be the case if all or even most humans were vegetarians. And there are many more humans too because of that high quality nutrition available on the hoof.

    We creative carnivores are the best friends those animals ever had. If their DNA could vote I suspect they'd pick us over a hyena-ruled world anyday. But wait, their DNA did vote.

  12. I should have posted this little intro first. I came here by way of a link posted by one of your fans at another forum. I've been reading some of your threads over the last few days and I like the civil exchange of interesting ideas going on here. Hope you don't mind if I drop by occasionally.

  13. @Ray in Seattle, I believe you are committing the naturalistic fallacy. "Nature or evolution or my DNA are telling me to do this." Evolution has also "designed" us to create in-groups. Yet, is precisely because we engage in ethical reasoning that we try to extend rights to people/creatures who are not in our in-group.

    The idea that there may be less pigs, chickens, and steer if we were all vegetarians should not deter us from attributing the value to life to those that do exist. IMHO.

    Rationally Speaking is one of the best outlets I know for civil exchange of interesting ideas. Welcome :)

  14. "I will argue here that the mere desire to continue existing justifies us granting the right to do so. Since RESP cannot fully account for those we currently grant the right to live, it should not matter that a chicken has no capacity to reflect, 'I’ll never see my eggs hatch' or 'I’ll never teach my son to crow,' when being herded for slaughter. If a sentient creature has some range of experience, however different in scope or degree that experience may be from our own, we should attribute to it the right to continue that experience should it so desire (all else held constant)."

    Are you asserting they are actually having the experience, or that our own desire justifies the assumption and attribution of this selfsame desire to other creatures?

    It seems like you conflated an is and an ought in order to create a rule that doesn't exist so your "exception" would seem reasonable.

  15. @Harry C Pharisee, I'm asserting that many creatures have similar experiences (will to live prominently included in that list) based upon what we know of their brains partnered with their behavior. I don't think that assertion is in any way overstepping what we can reasonably derive with current information.

    I then assert that, within our current ethical system in regards to humans, we value RESP + the will to live. If this assessment of our current value system is correct, then extending our value system to include any creature which has a degree of RESP + the will to live would be the next step to attain coherence in our current system.

    Again, we could arbitrarily limit our ethical system to only include humans, but I see no reason to do so.

    I don't believe I've jumped Hume's gap anywhere in this argument, but please correct me if you feel I'm wrong.

  16. Thanks Scott for the welcome. Here I am again at a philosophy forum exhibiting my very limited understanding of it. Hope I don't try your patience too much.

    Are you saying that ethics exists in a special place not subject to the rules of the natural universe - but that refining and understanding these extra-natural rules are a very honorable pursuit, nonetheless?

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. I intended to be amusing myself, Professor, though I'll admit I question the usefulness of this approach by PETA. I did read the sign, but the woman was, for reasons which have nothing to do with PETA or its concerns, far more interesting.

  19. I don't buy into the RESP equation. I would have no problem being shot in the back of the head if I wasn't aware of my impending death, and if no one suffered from my death. Rationally, I don't see how anyone could have a problem with such a scenario. Of course, I would like to continue living, but instant termination of my consciousness would have no affect on that consideration.

    Also, the CIP argument is entirely flawed. Someone with CIP can still suffer, or feel emotional pain.

  20. ciceronianus, yeah, I kind of agree with you...

  21. Even if we buy into the formula, where is the border between food and non-food? Wouldn't its determination be just as arbitrary (or nearly so) as the taboo against cannibalism (as in: humans are off-limits for food, except perhaps in emergency lifeboat scenarios)?

  22. Leave the picture. Its great marketing.

  23. @scott stafiej

    I was hung up on your use of the word desire. For some reason I thought this, "I will argue here that the mere desire to continue existing justifies us granting the right to do so," was actually referring to our desire for survival "granting the right" to life for other animals.

    Even if I had been correct, you wouldn't have crossed the is/ought anyway, that was my mistake. I was thinking of acting on knowledge vs. acting on emotion. Which ironically is something Hume would consider a false dichotomy.

    Mea culpa.

  24. This is an interesting post, and addresses something I have thought about quite a bit, and come to a slightly different conclusion. In the area I live in (high altitude, arid mountain western U.S.) an ecological viewpoint can lead to a different view. Partially because it is difficult to grow local, fresh vegetables most of the year, and because humans exterminated grizzlies and wolves about 100 years ago, ranching and hunting are one way to support a sustainable local food source and provide for habitat conservation at the same time. http://www.diablotrust.org/index.htm
    Does this mean that the animals involved deserve to be treated as humanely as possible? Of course it does, and maintaining a sustainable population of cattle or elk without non-human predators unfortunately requires that some of the herd be killed. From this view, it seems that allowing the herds to overgraze the land and starve would be more unethical than killing some of them. From a practical, ecological viewpoint, with an interest in maintaining biodiversity and the lowest impacts on the area, not eating some meat and buying irrigated vegetables shipped hundreds or thousands of miles seems like the less ethical choice. It does not absolve us of trying to minimize any suffering that we can either.

  25. Thanks for the article. But just like with Julia's article I have a problem with your a priori decision that plants can't experience existence.

    How would you define experiencing life? Reacting to the environment? Transmitting signals to other members of their own species? Plants are perfectly able to do those things (http://www.scribd.com/doc/7696566/Plant-Response-to-Stimuli).
    So why do you discriminate against plants? Because they are less like you than animals? Because with your "animal" senses you can't perceive their distress? So if you could perceive their hormonal secretion, you would decide NOT to eat plants either?(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21133760)

    You are killing hundreds of plants to make one plate of vegetables, instead of killing one pig to make multiple dishes, only because of your animal biased perception. Even worse. If your main issue is with the violation of the right to continue living, plants are much more likely to live for a longer time than animals, so every time you kill one to eat it, you are depriving that living being from a much longer period of potential lifetime compared to an animal.

    So which criteria you use to select preferentially plants over animals as the target of your killing? Even if you are a frutarian, you would have to make sure that every fruit that you eat is planted and given the best possible chance to grow. Not to do it would be the equivalent (in the utilitarian sense of reproduction) of letting the calves die when you eat their mother cows.

    I've always thought that vegetarians ignore this issue because they realize that they have to eat something, and as nobody cares about plant torture/killing, then they can keep preferentially killing and depriving plants from their potential life and use their arguments on animals alone to feel morally superior to meat eaters.

    I just don't see the moral difference between eating an animal or a plant (again, I do agree with both you and Julia that vegetarianism is a much more energy efficient option, but using that as the only criteria would lead us to really terrible decisions)

  26. I find the essay intriguing because it's similar to the dialogue in the back of my head. Ultimately, though, because of my inability to even imagine what an objective morality would look like I tend to fall back on the fact that causing suffering/death is abhorrent to me. (Mind that I am a Materialist; subjectivity is no less true than objectivity insofar as I say "abhorrent to me" rather than simply "abhorrent")
    Simultaneously I recognize that my existence is thanks to a good 3 billion years of meat-eating, murder, cannibalism, warfare, racism, and a good many other things I wish we were rid of. I am in the privileged position reject those actions, and I accept that there are humans and non-humans alike that are not.

  27. "any ethical system always boil down to a societal preference, no matter the justifications we assign them."

    So it would seem that ethics is just another word for 'opinion'. Saying "That action isn't ethical" is not all that different from saying "I don't think you should do that". Now you could prove me wrong and appeal to the Unbiased Arbiter of Ethics except of course that there isn't one.

    And here we go again with 'rights'. You don't get any rights. When you are born you two things. One is the guarantee of death. The other if you are fortunate is the ability to negotiate agreements based on your inherent value as determined by your physical, mental and social characteristics (and your starting resources in this culture). That's it. If you want to live in a place with heat, electricity and hot showers then you obey the law and you get to do that. You can either negotiate these agreements well or poorly. If you have the inclination and the option you can seek a different agreement elsewhere (by moving).

    Now what do the lower animals have to negotiate with? Their value as food, their value as entertainment, their value as parts of the ecosphere, their value as subjects of study and their value as pets and that is about it if they have none of those then they are simply in the way of continuing human expansion. So if you want to renegotiate their agreement you would need to find a value for them greater than their value as food. I think for most species you would fail.

    I think that a human centric value system is justified and pretty much the only one there can be given the present circumstances. Human decisions have a much greater impact than any animal decision. Also for better or worse we are right now the only hope of spreading life to other worlds. The chickens and fish wont be doing that.

  28. This comment has been removed by the author.

  29. Thameron, I agree with you. Not that I necessarily have a problem, under the right circumstances, with expanding the moral circle beyond our own species...but only to a point which *feels* right (e.g. those measures which minimize their pain and suffering) and which most others are willing to go along with. Otherwise, the cause of animal rights/liberation seems a pretty hard sell indeed.

  30. @Yannis,I limit my argument to sentient creatures. In order to have experience and be aware of that experience, one must have a brain (to the best of our knowledge). If experience is what we value, as I believe it is, then my argument holds.

    @Thameron, there is a point in any ethical system where it is reduced to base assumptions. It doesn't mean those assumptions are arbitrary. The reason we all more or less pursue well-being is because we all have in the ability to experience and a general desire to continue doing so.

    I agree with you that nothing is "born with rights" as an intrinsic attribute of said thing. I was very careful to say that we, as a species, collectively "attribute rights" according to certain criteria.

    In asking, "Is humane killing ethical," there is a nested question of "To whom do we give rights and for what reason?" My answer to that question - and I believe Society's answer to that question - is: rights are attributed based upon an entity's capacity to experience and its' desire to continue exercising it. Thus, to remain consistent with the values we currently have, we should extend our sphere of consideration to anything meeting that criteria, including animals.

    @Lefaw, if there were a universal machine tallying up the well-being of all creatures, I would agree with you that your death would be an approximate wash given your scenario.

    However, I put a value on your life without knowing you because you have a possible range of experience and plans to continue it, and I would not want someone to put a gun to the back of your head. Though I may not be affected by your death, the value I attribute to your life drives me to desire a system where solitary individuals, otherwise forgotten, run no risk of being killed. For similar reasons, I desire a system in which animals are not killed despite my disconnect from any solitary animal's suffering or potential death.

  31. Here in my part of the world there are plants that are illegal to allow to grow on your property. Not drug bearing plants, but plants that grow so pervasively that they drive out other plants that are more useful to humans.

    One of these is a species of thistle. This thistle normally grows one vertical stalk, at the top of which it places clusters of blossoms. When mowed, the thistle will grow sideways out of the stump, in order to produce its blossoms. It seems to have a will to survive and reproduce. That might be the essence of life, contra Julia's anti-essentialism and Massimo's "life=DNA".

    Somne Materialists who on the one hand deny free will because it violates causality, on the other hand wish to bestow sentience and will to live upon certain categories of living creatures. Other Materialists, PZ Myers notably, deny any value to embryos, even to "babies" who are, to him, just meat.

    Which brings us to this juncture: Humans are abortable, at the fetal stage. They are endowed with no value. If value is the determining factor for eating meat, and if human fetuses are meat and without value, why not eat fetuses? It should be unethical to just throw them away. They are not even buried or otherwise recognized as human. The pregnancy would acquire value if the fetus had value as food.

    Same for cattle fetuses, I suppose. If abortion is ethical for humans, why not for cattle? Aborting the calf should make it OK to eat.

    Ethicists are insisting that post-fetal abortion is ethical too. After all, how does the value of a fetus change merely because it passed through a birth canal? Given this, why is it not the same post-fetal abortion to abort the lives of calves (painlessly) at the arbitrary age of 6 months? or 12 months, or 18 months? At least these post fetal abortions produce value.

  32. Scott said: I believe Society's answer to that question - is: rights are attributed based upon an entity's capacity to experience and its' desire to continue exercising it

    It is an empirical (or descriptive) question whether or not this is a popular basis for rights within any particular society. Lacking sufficient evidence that points one way or the other, I plead agnosticism for now.

    But, as far as the normative (or prescriptive) question of whether or not this *should* be society's basis for rights, let's assume so, for the sake of argument. Does it then logically follow that all animal/livestock species deserve protection from slaughter? I think it depends on whatever criteria of "capacity to experience" and "desire to continue exercising it" it decides upon. As with many real-world criteria (e.g. age thresholds and limits), the chosen criteria are likely to strike nearly everyone as somewhat arbitrary, and either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, depending upon one's angle. (This observation basically restates my comment above, where I asked about "the border between food and non-food.")

    In other words, I would not presume that the world's first predominantly vegetarian or vegan society would emerge from such a consensus on the meaning of rights. It might, however, result in more protection for certain species (or, rather, individuals thereof), if/when the political obstacles and special interests are surmounted.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.