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.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Vegetarianism: moral stance or mere preference?

by Michael De Dora
I became a vegetarian in early 2008 because, after a good deal of thought, I decided that eating non-human animals was immoral. I judged that using animals for the sake of pleasure was wrong, and I adopted the moral stance of vegetarianism. Nearly three years later, I am still a vegetarian. Yet the moral basis for my position has changed. Allow me to explain.
I made the switch from omnivore to vegetarian on or around Feb. 18, 2008. That day marked the largest ground beef recall in United States history, after the government learned that cattle unfit for consumption were entering the food supply. Undercover videos shot by the Humane Society showed factory workers kicking and prodding cows with forklifts to get them into the slaughterhouse. I did more research into how animals are treated at factory farms, and my conscience was shaken. How could we treat sentient animals in such ways? I quickly concluded that the factory farming system is inherently bad, as it treats animals as commodities not worthy of moral concern, and I became a vegetarian. I haven’t eaten meat since that day.
However, I now see a flaw in my reasoning. I equated the treatment of animals to the killing of animals. My concern was not the act of killing, but the suffering these animals would endure (and even that is a complex debate, of course, for not all non-human animals have the same capacity to feel pain). I never had a reason to oppose the consumption of animals per se, I only objected to treating them poorly.
Many vegetarians (and vegan, but let’s stick with one position) argue that we should not use animals as a means to some end, but as inherently important, worthy of certain rights and protections. This is a morsel from Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy. 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.
Here, then, is where we reach an interesting juncture: if there are no compelling ethical reasons to not kill animals for food, then vegetarianism risks degenerating from a moral stance to the level of preference.
Then again, there may be other compelling reasons in favor of the vegetarian stance. An immediate and undeniable one is the manner in which meat is typically produced, as it relates to the animals themselves.* In the U.S., factory-farmed animals are treated horribly. This matters because of the fact that animals are sentient – that is, they can feel or perceive pain. Thus, one could argue that eating meat is immoral given how the meat is produced. This would once again make vegetarianism a moral stance. This is now the basis of my vegetarianism. In fact, I have realized that it was all along.
Of course, vegetarians like myself can’t just sit out the meat-eating game and claim the highest moral ground. We also need to go out and make our moral case. The means by which humans produce meat for mass consumption are largely immoral, but they need not be so. And I think the key is to focus on improving how we “use” sentient animals. Simply put, we ought to treat the animals that we do eat well before they are killed. Not only do I think this is the correct moral argument to make, but it also seems that it would be more acceptable to society because it’s not really asking very much.
Yet, even if these changes were made, I think I still wouldn’t eat meat. That would no longer be because I think it is morally wrong – it would be because I simply don’t prefer it any longer.
* I specify that this consideration centers on animals because this could also lead to a discussion of the damage that mass meat production does to the environment. This is an important issue, but I didn’t have the time to expand on it in this essay. More here. But notice that we need not completely cut off meat production to make significant improvements in this area.


  1. If these qualities are the only thing that's keeping us from eating humans: "its autonomy, ability to reason, make free choices, and plan for the future." Then why don't we eat the mentally ill, or brain dead?

    Or reverse this, dogs, dolphins, monkeys have all, with proper training, been shown to rival the intelligence of a human three year old. Taking this into account are we allowed to eat humans under three years of age?

  2. If the bottom-line boils down to "cognitive faculties" that make us different, would humans who lack these faculties (MR population etc.) be excluded? Just because animals can't reason it out, it shouldn't be a reason to exclude them; on the contrary, we do need to evolve more to help and protect the ones who can't ask for help.
    Lines between animals and humans are more blurry than we'd like to think, and we sure are not "special". It does not have to the sanctimonious morally superior ground to make this decision on moral grounds.

  3. Nice that you follow one flaw in reasoning with another. Why would you imagine that the *only* reason that anyone would object to depriving non-human of their lives animals, is out of a Kantian regard for the exercising of certain cognitive faculties? One could just as easily regard the capacity to experience affection and/or pleasure as a basis for respecting the lives of other living beings.

  4. No life, human or animal, is free of stress, pain, or other negatives. I would argue that the animal bred for human consumption is far better off for it:
    1. Compared to wild animals, domestic ones need not fear hunger, disease, predation, pursuit and a torturous death (not that animals spend their time in ratiocinative fear, but that's another matter.)
    2. Domestic animals, for the most part, have been bred so far from their wild ancestors that they could not live apart from humans. And indeed, the huge numbers of such animals raised for human consumption could not possibly survive even if they had more survival skills.
    So one could argue that, for all but a small portion of their lives, domestic animals profit from the fact that they are going to be eaten.
    As for mistreatment. Vegetarians, being evangelists, have created a fiction of mistreatment based on thin fact and much inflated. No intelligent farmer is going to treat his animals in such a way as to damage the factors that underlie their growth, and these include health, nutrition, etc. There are, of course, bad farmers and some animals are mistreated. But regulating such behavior is a far cry from not eating meat.
    So let us give vegetarians and vegans free rein to puritanize, reducing their own pleasure and nutritional welfare, let us be amused by their preachments just as we are amused by the Christian TV evangelists, and let us take pleasure and derive health from the meat that they leave for us to consume.
    Bon appetit!

  5. Kirby, Roshan,

    You both make a good point. I'd argue that what separates humans in that case is that humans have future interests (ie, we understand and/or plan for tomorrow, while cows very likely don't). We also have relatives and friends that share our future interests.

    Even if you could make a case that eating humans was ethically OK, it would not give reason to actually eat humans (and even so, health concerns could tell us not to eat them).

  6. I am a lifelong vegetarian who dislikes the taste, texture, and smell of meat. I won't eat it. Since I'm the family cook, vegetarianism is imposed on my family as well. Even as a child, I realized that there were other benefits (to animals and the environment.) However, I don't feel the necessity to frown at other people's dinner, to condemn the Thanksgiving turkey, or to proselytize for a no-meat "lifestyle"; "mere preference" is why I don't eat meat. And so after a lifetime of vegetarianism, I frequently find myself attacked as not a "real vegetarian".

  7. Regarding vegetarianism, you said that you want to stick to just one position. But seriously, given what you know about the cruelties of factory farming, how do you rationalize being vegetarian and not vegan?

    Are you concerned about the suffering of beef cows, but not milk cows? Do you think chickens don’t suffer miserable lives and horrible deaths?

  8. Also, yes, animals contain a range capacities for experience (from ants to cows to dolphins and humans). I said that in the third paragraph.

    But it seems to me that humans are unique in having such great capacity for experience (consciousness). Even so, the animals humans currently eat in mass -- cows and chickens -- would not be in consideration for some level of this capacity (that'd be dolphins and great apes, though pigs seem an interesting case).

  9. I've been vegetarian for seven years. And I too struggle to find a good reason not to eat meat.

    The problem here, I think, is that in trying to come up with a reason *not* to eat meat we allow the meat-eaters to frame the debate in their own terms.

    I know personally that I can live happily without meat, I don't miss. My girlfriend, who grew up in India, has never eaten meat in her entire life. It's clearly not a barrier to our living a fulfilling existence. And so now I see no reason *to* eat meat. Moreover, the idea of going back to eating meat makes me feel a little queasy. I don't think I could do it.

    But even if I did desire meat, I'd struggle to find a justification for going back to it. "We're born to eat meat"? Even were that the case, that's not a justification, rather it's an instance of the naturalistic fallacy. "It tastes nice"? Maybe so, but pleasure does not in itself entail moral virtue. Ultimately, I'm attempting to justify the killing of a sentient being for my own gain, there's no getting around this. I can't see a justification for that. To me, it's a side issue as to whether the animal has lived a miserable life or has been raised in some utopian manner - important for the specific animal in question, but a cop-out on the broader question of whether it's ok to eat meat.

    If we're to make any progress on this question, I think it's important that we stop seeing "It's ok to eat meat" as the default position. The question we should be asking is this: If you eat meat, why?

  10. @Lawrence said: Vegetarians, being evangelists, have created a fiction of mistreatment based on thin fact and much inflated.

    I challenge you to watch this 13 minute video, narrated by Paul McCartney, and then rationally argue that claims about the mistreatment of factory-farmed animals are grossly inflated. To the contrary, you are grossly uninformed and/or are blinding yourself to the evidence.


  11. "Personhood" which is simply put, the right to rights (freedom from imprisonment, torture, and killing) increases with a being's ability to appreciate those rights. A human should have greater rights than cows, and cows should have greater rights than mullosks or tubers. Humanity fails in setting the bar for lifelong torture and brutal murder below humans instead of somewhere in the vicinity of mullosks.
    This moral flaw is exacerbated by the reasoning. We humans do so for convenience and taste. "Torturing for fun" is a pretty well accept ethical no-no. I don't see much difference between a steak and torturing for fun.
    Some argue that at some point some animal may have to be exploited in some way for certain food products. They then conclude that having a cheeseburger, aka Industrial mass slaughter, is fine. That great moral flaw also condemns the stance of humanity on this issue.
    I'd like your next article to be on how milk (extended rape and torture) is worse than steak (slaughter that need not include torture). Excluding meat products should preclude exclusion of meat itself in the industrial food case.

  12. "This matters because of the fact that animals are sentient – that is, they can feel or perceive pain. Thus, one could argue that eating meat is immoral given how the meat is produced."

    Michael, what does it mean for animals without self awareness to suffer, and why should suffering be the standard by which causing harm to animals becomes morally objectionable. If you can't answer this, then your position is irrational.

  13. Michael,

    Ever hear of Temple Grandin? (There was a biographical movie of the same name on HBO, which is now available on DVD.) Her designs for humane livestock handling have reportedly done a lot to relieve animal suffering. That's not to suggest that there isn't still more room for improvement in the industry. But I doubt that boycotting it entirely is an effective strategy for attaining that goal.

    BTW, the environmental angle is indeed another matter. But, to some up my own conclusion: to be an ethical omnivore (e.g. a consumer who endeavors to support humane and ecologically conscientious farmers, while eating healthily) is a more admirable goal. Sorry if we disagree on this one.

  14. What's the confusion?

    When you choose factory farm over traditional farm, it's clearly a matter of preference; much less morality. (blurry line between the two options)

    When you choose to not eat animals (and/or animal products) because you don't want to have animals suffer and die in your name, that has to do with morality (clear line between the two options).

    As a moral option, the basic "we're animals that need to kill" stand is poor and disappointing.

    "Many vegetarians (and vegan, but let’s stick with one position) argue that we should not use animals as a means to some end, but as inherently important, worthy of certain rights and protections. "

    The better moral standard of this is: we don't consume other animals because we have the power to do it... we choices, that's what makes us better than lower animals. We have the power to abstain from hurting animals.

    If you go into the whole "we're just omnivore animals" deal, you just dilute the whole point of having higher brain function.

    Kant was pointing out this superior property of humans, not setting of standard for other animals (or was he a neurobiologist from the future?).

    It's the exercise of sympathy and empathy; that's what makes it moral and desirable even in human society, where sympathy and empathy are needed just as much.

  15. With Stu, I think Lawrence is either "grossly uniformed" or deliberately ignoring the evidence. The way that most animals are raised for meat, both in the U.S. and world-wide, is truly horrific.

    With Michael, I think the major issue with *most* of the animals we eat for food is the miserable lives they are forced to lead before being eaten. With Michael, I think that pigs are a tricky case.

    So, for example, for chickens, I don't worry much about their future planning or self-reflexive understanding of their lives. I do worry about whether they have lived a life appropriate for a chicken -- that is, one in which they get to wander around, peck at the dirt, enjoy the company of other chickens, etc. A life spent in a tiny cage, with their beaks burned off, living in filth, is simply cruel, and encouraging people to torture chickens like that for cheap meat is at the very least irresponsible and perhaps actually evil.

    But again, that's because the chickens are tortured throughout most of their lives, not because they are eventually killed. So, I support local farmers who raise and butcher chickens in ways I approve of. I think that Lawrence has a point if it is restricted to animals raised relatively well -- I don't think the life of a chicken on one of farms I buy from is a bad life at all. It is sometimes a short life, but it is a nice one. And probably easier than a life in the wild, and on average, longer (thought that's not really a fair measure, but whatever).

    Similarly, while I suspect that cows have more sophisticated cognitive capacities than chickens, I'm not too concerned about eating cows that have had the opportunity to live good lives. They are harder to kill in ways that aren't cruel, and that's a problem, but it is one I think is an OK "trade" for a good cow-y life. Similarly for sheep.

    Pigs, I have real problems with, because I worry that their cognitive capacities do rise to the level of planning and perhaps even a kind of reflection. I have been forced to essentially give up eating pork, because I can't justify eating an animal that is as smart and social and pigs would seem to be. I make the occasional exception for "special cases" but here I am simply acting badly and w/o any reasonable justification.

    I also make occasional exceptions to my rules regarding who/where I buy from, especially when traveling. Again, this is not a moral stance, it is weakness and I must admit I am simply acting badly and behaving immorally. It is one of the ways in which I am forced to confront that I'm really *not* a very good person, morally speaking.

    It would be easier to just ignore the issue and pretend that the lives of the animals we eat are all fine, and/or that the animals are all too unaware of their suffering for it to matter. But it is better, I think, to confront the reality of the way non-human animals are raised, and how they are killed, and to make our decisions honestly.

    - Jonathan

  16. "Taking this into account are we allowed to eat humans under three years of age?", asks Kirby. That is a "modest proposal" that may be taken in consideration, especially at hungry countries. But then Jonathan Swift discovered it first.

  17. Primum vivere. Meat has been around human evolution for a very long time. Humans "in the wild" do not feel any compunction about it, even those "in the urban wild" of today, far from the musings of philosophers.
    Primum vivere, deinde philophare, is not only about an order of priority in practical life, but has also epistemological value: philosophy comes after experience, and should learn from experience, or otherwise drift into empty scholastic speculation. And "experience" here includes empirically observed moral (and other) feelings and judgments of Homo Sapiens, over various cultures and epochs.

  18. Lawrence said...

    No life, human or animal, is free of stress, pain, or other negatives.

    You can throw out almost any law books and philosophy books by that reasoning. If everything sucks, you should add to that, too!

    domestic ones need not fear hunger, disease, predation, pursuit and a torturous death (not that animals spend their time in ratiocinative fear, but that's another matter.)

    You're confusing farm animals with pet animals.

    There is starvation in farms, when the money dries up. There is disease, lots of it, because animals live right next to each other, out of sunlight and surrounded by bad bacteria and viruses; their diets create high deficiencies and they get diseased easily, so most of the antibiotics in the West actually go into farm animals (even if such antibiotics are unsafe for humans or prescription based) and death is most certainly very ugly by the hands of the predators - humans.

    Domestic animals, for the most part, have been bred so far from their wild ancestors that they could not live apart from humans.

    Fine, let them die off if they can't adapt or get adopted as pets. It's fair enough. Some of them will make it, but their species will be free.

    And indeed, the huge numbers of such animals raised for human consumption could not possibly survive even if they had more survival skills.

    This is the old "we have to kill them for their own safety" fallacy.

    So one could argue that, for all but a small portion of their lives, domestic animals profit from the fact that they are going to be eaten.

    How could they possibly profit from being killed and eaten? Do you think they're amassing a ghost-army to take over the World or what? This is just another fallacy which may as well be used in support of slavery ("black slaves were exploiting the dominant white class for profit").

  19. As for mistreatment. Vegetarians, being evangelists, have created a fiction of mistreatment based on thin fact and much inflated.

    No, fiction is personifying farm animals as workers who come to "the job", do their "duty" and go home to their families, such as cows used in ads as amusing milk-dealers who live happy, satisfied lives frolicking on green pastures.

    No intelligent farmer is going to treat his animals in such a way as to damage the factors that underlie their growth, and these include health, nutrition, etc.

    Well, that can only mean that farmers are not intelligent. Surely there's something wrong with that idea. Also, you assume that growth is good, but that's not a rule. Just think about cancer or infections.

    There are, of course, bad farmers and some animals are mistreated. But regulating such behavior is a far cry from not eating meat.

    Yeah, it's better to boycott the industry, so it shrinks, but it would be nice to see farming subsidies cut or to have equal subsidies for people who grow vegetables, fruits and stuff which is not strictly grown for animals... But that has to do with politics, not morality.

    "So let us give vegetarians and vegans free rein to puritanize,"

    Wrong again. Vegetarianism and veganism can be full of pleasure.

    "reducing their own pleasure"

    Nope, pleasure can be easily found in vegetarianism and veganism. It's not a matter of reducing, but of replacing.

    "and nutritional welfare,"

    That just bullshit. It takes more education to eat well as a vegan, but it can be done, and it gets easier as more people are doing it. The omnivore-carnivore diet is easier because it's more common, not because it's better.

    let us be amused by their preachments just as we are amused by the Christian TV evangelists, and let us take pleasure and derive health from the meat that they leave for us to consume.

    Ironically, you share an amazing level of ignorance about science, with christian evangelists. I wouldn't be surprised if you also thought smoking had medicinal benefit.

  20. Fine, let them die off if they can't adapt or get adopted as pets. It's fair enough. Some of them will make it, but their species will be free.

    Thanks for demonstrating that the animal liberation cause is motivated less by sympathy for livestock (let alone for farmers) than by an obsession with certain abstract concepts.

    No, thanks.

  21. Here in New Zealand the SPCA certifies cruelty-free free-range meat options. Although I almost never buy meat because of its cost, I'm not a full vegetarian because I do occasionally buy mussels, which I kill myself when steaming them or putting them in a gumbo, and the other day I thoroughly enjoyed some snapper that one of my daughters caught. I also accept meat on the rare occasion that others offer it to me, as I don't think that doing so constitutes my adding to economic demand for it, and my refusal would not bring the animal back to life or erase its suffering.

  22. @Richard Selnikoff: As for cost, yesterday I bought the following items at my neighborhood Lucky:
    1 ham, shank portion, $0.99/lb
    10 lb chicken legs and hindquarters, $0.69/lb
    1 bunch broccoli @ $2.49/lb
    1 bunch spinach, $1.39
    1 head iceberg lettuce, $1.69
    My wife plans to make soup of the chicken (the onions will cost close to $1.00/lb) , with multiple purposes. The soup will serve as stock for numerous later soups and sauces. The meat will mostly supplement our dogs' dry kibble (they love it, and the chicken is actually somewhat cheaper than the kibble!)
    And, as ZDragomir may note, the above list does not involve "Nope, pleasure can be easily found in vegetarianism and veganism. It's not a matter of reducing, but of replacing." I enjoy a full range of foods, vegetable as well as animal, and I have noted that the best cuisines are those that incorporate the broadest scope of foods. And thank you, ZDragomir, for so vividly illustrating my statement that veggies are evangelists.

  23. I think when ZD wrote: "Fine, let them die off if they can't adapt or get adopted as pets. It's fair enough. Some of them will make it, but their species will be free." the implication was not that individual animals be permitted to suffer pointlessly. I didn't take the recommendation to be that we simply let loose all the pigs currently confined in 'farms' and let them live or die as they might.

    The claim that ZD's comments imply that "animal liberation cause is motivated less by sympathy for livestock (let alone for farmers) than by an obsession with certain abstract concepts" would seem to suggest that the above is more or less what the author is imagining.

    I *think* that what most ethical vegetarians would wish for is an end to raising animals for food; this wouldn't mean killing all the current food animals or letting them go, but rather phasing out factory farming as a means of meat production, and moving those animals currently suffering to better environments for the remainder of their lives.

    There is no fact of the matter about how many cows "should" be in the world, so reducing the cow population isn't necessarily doing harm to anything, if it is done humanely. No individual cow needs be harmed in order to reduce the cow population to essentially zero within thirty years.

    I do disagree w/ ZD in one key place -- I don't think individual cows care about being free (I think they'd be as happy as cows can be if they were given access to healthy food including especially good grazing land, other cows, open space, etc), and I am confident that "species" aren't the kinds of things that care about anything, freedom included.

    I am a bit horrified and disappointed at Lawrence's shopping list, and the apparent pride he takes in it. It is, for all intents and purposes, impossible to produce meat at those low costs without substantial "externalities" including substantial environmental damage, and of course the pain and suffering of the animals. It's sad that we've created a system that can get chicken on the shelves at a lower immediate cost than most vegetables.


  24. @jcm

    It's sympathy for the plight of those animals. If you want to stop the suffering, you have to break the cycle somewhere. It would be nice to have a form of welfare for ex-farm animals, so they can live out their lives (like stray dogs), but first there would have to be more of that for people, and that's going back to politics.

    And please say what are those abstract concepts in what I said... I am curious.

  25. Eating animals is no longer necessary to human survival (for the majority of people with access to this blog at least, I'm sure in some parts of the world it is required for survival) and therefore we kill animals for our pleasure (the pleasure of eating meat).

    To me this says that by eating meat one takes the stance of 'it is okay to cause pain to animals for my pleasure.'

    Is it then okay to torture animals in ways such as dog fighting? Why not, it is also causing an animal pain for our pleasure.

  26. @Lawrence

    Your point is futile. Animal products are cheap in the USA because the State gives free money to grain producers (which makes it cheap to raise animals); the money is proportional to the size of their crop yields.

    You're eating state-funded food, while the veggies are closer to market price. (Do you know any economics?) Just visit countries which don't have subsidies for grains and you'll see how expensive meat and dairy is.

    I made the point about pleasure because you tried to claim it exclusively for omnivores. I don't care what you eat, this is not about you.

    As for "evangelism", I don't have a "gospel" to preach, since I'm an atheist. It might seem like that, because growing up in a very evangelical culture gives you that perspective, but it's a poor comparison. This fallacy is similar to the misunderstanding of the word "theory" by christians, especially creationists.

    I'm not evangelical, but I do react. You won't see me knocking on your door or standing on the sidewalk with a sign, however, I will participate and reply to comments and declarations.

  27. Kirby,

    There's no reason to think dog fighting is morally objectionable. After all, as far as we know dogs aren't self aware. However, people are self-aware and people in the West love dogs (including me). Most of these people suffer when dogs suffer, and so they make laws against harming dogs.

  28. My only plausible ethical response to Kirby is that, with respect to the animals raised on the farms that I've visited near me, I am hoping that the relatively good life the animals have lived before being killed is a good enough life, and the pain/suffering of being killed short enough, that it is a fair trade. Lawrence is right about (at least) one thing -- everything dies. The question is what kind of life the animal leads, and what kind of death it experiences.

    With respect to the times that I 'cheat' on my standards for where I get meat from (and hence for how the animals it came from is raised), I have no good excuse. Indeed, I am forced to admit that this is one of the areas where the fact that something I have good reason to believe is deeply immoral is a 'normal' part of our culture permits me to act very badly without having to confront that fact as regularly as I should. I worry that if other horribly immoral practices were tolerated in our culture and I benefited from them, I might well be one of the people that just went along with them. (If, on reflection, you don't worry about this, consider the Milgram experiments, and ask yourself how likely it is that you would really be one of the few people to refuse to go further after the actor first objected...)

    So I hope that a two-pronged approach, reducing the extent to which I encourage deeply unethical practices and arguing publicly for changing those practices, will in time meet with some success, and I'll no longer be in a position to be tempted.

  29. Lefaw,

    So you're saying it's okay to torture animals in any conceivable manor, for no reason other than you take pleasure in their pain?

    Whether or not animals are 'self aware' there is no question to whether or not they experience pain.

  30. Kirby,

    I'm not making a positive claim, you are. I see no reason to think an animal feeling pain without self-awareness is meaningful. Without concept of self, I imagine an animal feeling pain would be something closer to how a plant responds to stimuli than a human.

  31. Atheism comes with no moral values, so Atheists get to make up their own, as De Dora constantly does. When others don't hold the same values, they are immoral. De Dora and the moral vegetarians certainly have a right to choose what to eat and for what reasons. But their ad hoc morality does not apply universally.

    My cattle are treated well. Cattle that are not treated well become either ill or fearful. Ill animals lose weight, won't breed and lose money; Fearful animals become dark cutters, meaning that their adrenaline floods the meat with blood, ruining it. It is not standard practice to abuse animals, contra any video produced by evangelical vegetarians.

    De Dora has not visited my farm, nor the processing house I use. He is condemning us based on second hand, inflammatory videos, which he conflates with standard practice.

    I deny that De Dora has grounds to universally condemn meat producers and meat eaters based on his personally fabricated definitions of morality, not to mention his myopic view of reality from which he pontificates.

  32. ZDragomir, I fail to recognize much sympathy for animal welfare in the "let them die off if they can't adapt" part of your comment. Whether you intended it or not, the words suggest to me that the abstract concept of freedom is of unlimited worth to you, even in cases where its pursuit actually increases suffering in practice (if only temporarily, until the breeds die out).*

    The "or get adopted as pets" part of your comment is a different matter, one that begs the question whether or not livestock animals (i.e. those currently bred for food) make good pets. Personally, I have no use for a cow or pig other than for food, and I suspect that the majority of people around the world would agree, which brings us back to your die-off scenario...or to the one that I prefer, in which (to paraphrase Temple Grandin) we arrange to provide those farm animals with a decent life and a painless death, because we recognize that, while they would not exist were it not for their consumption by humans, we still owe them some respect.

    * That's putting aside all of the human costs of animal liberation; e.g. to everyone employed, now and in the future, in animal husbandry, meat-packing & shipping, etc. Yet it's by no means obvious that these costs are morally negligible.

  33. Stan, I have no idea where you get the bizarre idea that atheists come with no moral values. We as a group are demonstrably just as moral as any religious group, and arguably more, so please drop that silly talk, it doesn't advance the conversation.

  34. Massimo, you're a biologist, do you know what it means for an animal to feel pain without self-awareness?

  35. Lefaw, some degree of self-awareness, seems to me, is necessary in order to feel pain. That's what pain *is*, it is being aware of damage being done somewhere to your body. The problem, of course, is that self-awareness comes in degrees, and it's hard to say when it's so low that moral considerations lose their force.

  36. Massimo, don't be coy with Stan. Of course we have no moral values. We don't believe in a "higher" power. Unbelief and a lack of morality are practically synonymous. They go together like elephants and dry martinis, the color orange and your left elbow, the rings of Saturn and a French mime.

    All this is obvious Massimo, we don't need to keep them in the dark.



    I was near laughter at the beginning of your post. I thought, "Another pro-choice vegetarian."

    But I was pleasantly surprised. Congrats, I see no inconsistency with your views toward unborn humans and "sentient" animals.

  37. Massimo, I'm using pain interchangeably with a reaction that looks to us like pain. For example, we could imagine a creature with no consciousness or awareness of its pain, but still capable of producing all the symptoms of pain, correct? Also, I agree that self-awareness is along a continuum, but while we might not be able to pinpoint where it's significant, I think we can make a safe estimate. So, while it's good sense to apply the precautionary principle to harming pigs, dolphins, and many other animals. I think fish and chickens, for example, are safe to eat without having any moral dilemma.

  38. Massimo and Lefaw,

    It is possible to drastically change the habits of an animal by inflicting pain on it. This is clearly evident in animals that have been abused and are extremely afraid of humans/loud noises/etc. Is this not a somewhat high degree of self awareness? The animal is obviously aware that it has felt pain, and is likely to feel it again.

  39. Massimo how about a different interpretation of Singer's equal consideration of interests? After all well-being/life relations don’t have to be grounded in a desire for continued existence, but can be grounded in other ways as well.

  40. I am not a vegetarian, but my preferred argument for going vegetarian is that eating meat is a total waste of energy. The amount of food and energy needed to supply a single cow is crazy. I don't have any evidence for the following assertion, but I think not eating meat is one of the best actions one can take to curb global warming (along with not having children).

    I am considering vegetarianism for that very reason. I love the taste of meat but I feel as though I am a hypocrite when I attack people who do not wish to change their lifestyles for a better future.

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  42. Kirby, even insects have the ability to exhibit the learned behavior your described.

  43. I tend to make the moral argument for vegetarianism from three places: Deontology, virtue ethics, and Nietzschean ethics.

    Deontologically, the maxim, "Act such that you minimize unnecessary suffering within the world" would predicate standing against the current mode of meat production. Further, if one does this, and opts for another, then in order for this maxim to be universalizable, then one needs to also decrease the amount of meat they eat, because switching production modes will decrease the amount of meat available.

    Virtue ethics: The virtue of "compassion" is served well by vegetarianism, or even pescetarianism. Those animals which are closer to our make up deserve more moral consideration, because compassion is inherently tied to empathy. Further, one wouldn't want to become a vegan, because this would violate the golden mean.

    On Nietzchean ethics: One has the ability to eat meat, but the noble person harnesses in his Procrustean desires to consume other animals. Eventually such nobility becomes mere habit.

    Of these arguments, predictably, the last one is the least popular. :D

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  45. 1. Be vegetarian.
    2. Find reasons to support vegetarianism.

    I don't know why vegetarians are afraid to admit that they don't eat meat because it's a preference. I think it's wrong to claim morality as you are implying that those who do eat meat are thereby immoral. At that point it's not a choice of diet but a religion.

    You can claim your preference, but you can't claim moral authority. Especially when the basis of your morality is an illogical extrapolation from someone else's moral philosophy that it seems you don't understand.

  46. I agree with your sentiments that choosing not to eat meat based on animal welfare is basically reduced to mere preference, and I think this is doubly so when these same people are also pro-choice for reasons of fetuses not being moral persons. (A fetus, I'd reckon, is on par with animals in terms of cognitive abilities.)

    However, I think veganism and vegetarianism are best justified on environmental grounds. A lot of resources go into producing meat, and the production of meat leads to a lot of environmental problems. The reason we see E. coli recalls for plants like spinach is because of all the animal manure runoff. Eating meat also contributes to global warming.

    I personally could no longer eat meat when I considered that it was hypocritical of me to defend environmentalism and global warming while supporting one of the major industries that contributes greatest to it, especially when removing meat from my diet would be relatively easy to accomplish!

  47. Sam --

    Thinking that a particular practice is immoral is not the same as endorsing a religious point of view -- one can think that particular practices are immoral, and indeed, that the people that engage in those practices fully aware of the consequences of their actions are themselves immoral, without thinking that there are moral laws are god given.

    I don't want to equate supporting factory farmed meat with a much more serious moral wrong like, e.g., slavery, but, like many philosophers, I'm willing to use an extreme case to make a point. Not keeping slaves -- not buying and selling humans -- isn't a "preference" or a "choice of lifestyle" and to claim that slavery is wrong isn't to endorse a religion. To say of someone who argued for the abolition of slavery was merely expressing a "preference" and that if they went further and argued it was wrong it was a "religion" is at best odd.

    If indeed factory farming results in serious unnecessary suffering of animals that are capable of experiencing suffering, and if that unnecessary suffering is a very bad thing, and if we do it because we enjoy eating cheap meat, and not eating cheap meat wouldn't be as bad as the suffering that doing so causes, then it seems we are doing something wrong. If one chooses to do something wrong, knowing it is wrong, that is a mark against one's status as a morally sound person. It doesn't, itself, make one immoral (I don't think morality is an all or nothing affair), but it sure doesn't help.

    Dustin --

    I don't see the connection between being pro-choice and being against the long-term torture of animals for our pleasure. First, going through with a pregnancy might seem to be a bigger deal than not eating cheap meat. So even if harm were done in both cases (abortion and eating cheap meat), there reasons to do so in the case of abortion might be much better. One might argue that one having a right to control one's own body is a bigger deal than cheap meat - that indeed it would trump the generic rights of a person. And, in addition, one could be pro-choice, and yet think that the decision to abort was immoral -- not every moral issue should be a legal issue. Finally, I very much doubt that a first-trimester fetus has anything like the ability to feel pain, reflect on the pain, and to suffer, that even a chicken has. By the time we get to the third trimester, things are obviously a lot trickier. So one could just deny a big part of your argument.

    Your points re: the environmental damage is well-taken.

    Lefaw -- I'm at a loss re: your comment on dog fighting. Dogs are obviously able to feel pain, able to suffer, are modestly self-aware, can fear the future, worry, etc. They are able to enjoy life, anticipate pleasure, etc. Forcing them to fight not only causes extreme physical pain, but emotionally damages them as well, and makes them less able to enjoy life more generally. If that's not wrong, I'm not sure what is.

  48. BTW regarding Vegetarianism: moral stance or mere preference? Say it is a preference, is it still just a preference regarding non person human cannibalism?

    They aren’t persons, it could be done humanely and it could be limited to unwanted non person humans. If you are a meat eater, you think speciesism is wrong and it comes down to a preference, then equally eating these ‘animals’ could also just be a preference and equally an option.

    Whether other people want them or it is no cost to you aren’t treated as reasons to stop similar treatment of other similarly cognitively endowed animals, so why should it here?

  49. What about Kobe beef? I hear those cows are massaged and given beer.

  50. @jcm

    * That's putting aside all of the human costs of animal liberation; e.g. to everyone employed, now and in the future, in animal husbandry, meat-packing & shipping, etc. Yet it's by no means obvious that these costs are morally negligible.

    Yes, and people can adapt; that's what we're good at. This happens all the time and is an inevitable phenomenon. We can and should offer some help to those who will need it, but not too much, so as not to cause regress.

  51. @Lefaw

    So, while it's good sense to apply the precautionary principle to harming pigs, dolphins, and many other animals. I think fish and chickens, for example, are safe to eat without having any moral dilemma.

    This is an argument from ignorance. If you actually study biology will find out that these animals are vertebrates with nervous systems and that we share a very old common ancestor with them. They do have nervous systems and they do suffer.

    You're also confusing self-awareness with self-consciousness. And you're missing the point of the morality behind veganism and vegetarianism. It's an exercise in trying to NOT use our powers, as very smart primates, in ways that CAUSE suffering to other animals.

  52. I wish I'd read this before all the other comments. Worthy as they might be. But that's the bad side of blogging. There's no way to have a one-on-one conversation with blogging. I accept that all previous posters are far smarter and correct than me, so there's no need for any to respond to me, and only Michael can respond if he wishes....

    So, accepting that all the previous posters are smarter than me, and more well read than me, and so on. I'll rudely ask this:

    "then vegetarianism risks degenerating from a moral stance to the level of preference."

    Since when did morality not be a preference? I mean Islamists will happily kill non Islamists (including faithful muslims) as if they were grass to be shorn. Surely, that shows that morality is who we preference as worthy of consideration or not. The inquisition will show the same. The US, land of liberty and just treatment, will happilly bomb the bejeebus out of a non US wedding or garden party because they might have been non USians and are probably not on US territory. Isn't that all preference? We're tribal animals, we always preference our tribe. The thing we need to do is enlarge our tribe to all sentient animals.....

  53. Good luck converting all the cats to vegetarianism because raising or killing animals in order to feed those particular pets would also be immoral by this standard.

  54. @Thameron

    That's a good point. Serious vegetarians will not keep carnivore pets or will feed them dry grain-based foods (dogs have dog snacks/biscuits), while even more serious people who care about animals will not buy any pets (maybe rescue some).

  55. Lefaw, we do have better methods to infer whether an animal feels pain or not, looking at the structure and complexity of the nervous system. Behavior is an okay proxy, but remember that even bacteria actively avoid harmful substances, and I really don't think they feel pain.

    ZD, not keeping pets that are carnivores is to project morality where it doesn't belong. Animals that do not reflect on what they do cannot be moral or immoral, they just are.

    kirby, yes, again, behavior can give you a strong clue, but see my example of bacteria (or for that matter, plants!) above.

    Simon, I sympathize with some of Singer's ideas, but I'm a bit unclear on what exactly you are suggesting.

  56. Massimo (and perhaps Lefaw),

    One line of reasoning Singer has provided to suppose that many, perhaps all, of the non-human animals raised for human consumption can feel pain in the morally relevant way goes as follows:

    1. The parts of our nervous systems that experience pain and some forms of suffering were developed very early on (evolutionarily speaking), and as such, we share those parts with mammals and birds (and perhaps fish).
    2. Mammals and birds exhibit avoidance behavior similar to that which we would exhibit were we in a similar situation (cries of pain, attempts to flee, panic, etc.)
    3. Sharing relevant parts of the nervous system, and demonstrating similar behavior, one can make a strong inference that birds and mammals feel pain in a morally relevant way.
    4. To deny (3), one must propose an unparsimonious explanation to the effect that non-human animals have the required parts, and demonstrate the behavior we'd expect, but STILL somehow they do not really feel pain.

    None of this makes any mention of self-awareness, or self-consciousness. To be honest, I am a bit puzzled why you would think that self-awareness is necessary for experiencing pain. Do you not think infants experience pain?

    I really want to urge you, Massimo, to critically examine why you resist moral arguments against factory farmed meat eating. It cannot be merely that you think utilitarianism is wrong, because there are strong virtue ethics arguments as well. I really think you are suffering from some cultural bias on this one.

  57. SJK, first off, what makes you think that I resist moral arguments against factory farmed meat eating? I have conceded several times that there are good arguments based both on pain and suffering and on environmental grounds. I eat little meat partly as a consequence of that (but see Jonathan's comments above).

    Second, I would agree with Singer's argument for those precise reasons, though I'm not sure about fish, and I wager that most invertebrates (with the exception of squids, octopuses and the like) do not feel pain.

    Lastly, it seems to me that in order to feel pain one has to be at least partially self-aware, aware that something wrong is happening to one's body. How else would one feel pain? But no, self-consciousness isn't needed.

  58. Massimo,

    Sorry if I was making an unfair assumption. I guess I made the inference based on recent comments you've made in podcasts etc. I can't recall the particulars.

    Your final point makes assumptions that there is a sort of Cartesian self somewhere in the brain, receiving all the input, etc. There are good reasons to think this view of the self is inadequate given what we've learned from neuroscience. Plus, we know from Hume that it is notoriously difficult to pin down the referent of "the self".

    It makes sense to talk about awareness of pain without being aware that "it is me that is in pain". Again, human infants surely feel pain, but it is not likely that they have self-awareness up to 12 months (see the Rouge Test).

  59. SJK, no problem. I can assure you that I'm not making any Cartesian assumption here. I just have a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept of an animal feeling pain without awareness of it. If the Rouge Test says that human infants who can feel pain are not aware, then I'm inclined to say too bad for the Rouge Test, but I need to give this some more thought.

  60. Massimo,

    Consider a dog that has not eaten in several days. Does it not make sense to say that the dog can experience hunger? Is it necessary that the dog's hunger center be activated AND that the dog be aware that "I am the one that is hungry"? Or rather than pain, we can consider pleasure. If animals do not experience pleasure during sex, then surely natural selection has done something in a much more complicated way than it needed to. I doubt that the animals must be aware that it is one's self that is experiencing the pleasure. Just as we can make a distinction with pleasure, we can make the distinction with pain.

  61. SJK, but I'm not sure I would make that distinction with pleasure either. Do ants feel pleasure when they do what natural selection instructs them to do? If it is not the self - in however minimal a fashion it may be present - that experiences pain or pleasure, what/who is it? Bacteria, as I mentioned earlier, do not experience pain, and yet can still react to meaningful environmental signals, so the ability to react in itself is not sufficient to claim that a living organism is experiencing pain.

  62. Massimo,

    No, I don't think ants or bacteria experience pleasure or pain. I deny this for reasons similar to those given by Singer, not because ants and bacteria lack self-awareness. It is about the nervous system, not a self. I take Singer's conditions to be necessary and jointly sufficient for a strong inference that an animal experiences pain and pleasure, among other things.

    Perhaps you're right, and the ability to experience pain and pleasure entails some degree of self-awareness. My counterexamples involving hungry dogs and animals experiencing pleasure during sex may not be persuasive. But if you are denying that animals have self-awareness, then based on the above entailment, you are also denying that they experience pleasure. Are you denying that animals experience pleasure? That seems to me to be a radical view. It also seems to contradict your earlier agreement with Singer's argument.

    It seems our disagreement now is merely whether the conditional, "If an animal feels pain/pleaure, then it has some degree of self-awareness" is true. I am inclined to deny this conditional, and you seem to be defending it. I'm not sure anything about the morals of factory-farmed meat eating will turn on this debate.

  63. SJK, I think we are much closer than you think. You are correct that I don't find the example of hungry dogs persuasive, but I don't think I ever denied that those animals feel pain. To me that means that they also have to be somewhat self-aware. But the latter is an academic discussion that does not hinge on the morality of the issue. So we shouldn't eat dogs, but bacteria and plants are okay ;-)

  64. Massimo and Lefaw,

    I may be incorrect in this, but when bacteria/plants/insects respond to pain (or stimuli) it is only for the duration of that stimuli, and there is nothing to suggest that there has been a shift in mentality. (barring actual physical changes such as a lost limb, obviously the way they walk would change)

    This is apposed to say an abused cat, that will forever exhibit signs of distress and altered 'personality.' (such as shying from humans or loud noises from fear of pain, in a way that it did not pre abuse)

    This is where I see the important difference (and please Massimo tell me if I am biologically mistaken)

  65. kirby, yes, I think you are correct, except that I simply don't see the reason to equate response to stimuli with pain. As far as any reasonable biologist can tell, plants and bacteria react to stimuli, but they are simply not equipped to feel anything, much less pain.

  66. Yes that seems right. So let me summarize.

    One can make a strong inference that the animals experiences pain IF AND ONLY IF
    1. a species of animal has a nervous system sufficiently similar to that of humans with regards to pain and some suffering AND
    2. when in situations in which humans would experience pain and suffering the animals exhibits similar pain-avoidance behavior,

    So, bacteria, ants, and many invertebrates fail to meet the first condition, although some meet the second condition, but this alone is not sufficient to conclude that they feel pain.

    Having agreed that mammals and birds feel pain, you think that this entails that they have some degree of self-awareness, while I'm inclined to say that this needn't be so. But, because we both agree that the ability to experience pain is a morally relevant property, nothing turns on our disagreement with regard to the self.

    However, should someone argue that mammals and birds completely lack self-awareness, then for you that will entail that they cannot experience pain, and are therefore not morally relevant. Additionally, this would entail that Singer's conditions (as I've presented them) are not jointly sufficient. Of course, you could say that this person would be factually wrong, but then we'd have to do science!

  67. Massimo,

    Maybe I'm missing something, I'm no philosopher, but to me it seems animals have the biology to experience pain (nervous system) and show an intelligent and sophisticated response to pain (learning from it, altering future behavior long after the pain has gone, avoiding future pain) differentiating them from lower level life such as insects and bacteria. This is where I must be confused, because I cannot think of another reasonable criterion to judge meaningful pain by.

    Although these two might not be conclusive to some, I think it's enough to say we should probably avoid causing it if unnecessary, and it is no longer necessary for most of us in the modern world.

    (don't feel obliged to respond, I'm not really asserting anything new)

  68. Kirby, I think most neurobiologists would disagree that a nervous system is sufficient to feel pain, though it is certainly necessary.

    And as I said, non-feeling organisms like bacteria do learn to avoid certain stimuli, so clearly learning does not imply feeling pain.

  69. "*That's putting aside all of the human costs of animal liberation; e.g. to everyone employed, now and in the future, in animal husbandry, meat-packing & shipping, etc. Yet it's by no means obvious that these costs are morally negligible."

    I strongly suspect that a move away from factory farmed animals and towards small-scale, careful "animal husbandry," that respected the animals in question and tried to give them decent lives appropriate to those kinds of animals before killing them as quickly and painlessly as possible would employ *more*, not fewer, people. And the people employed would be working at jobs that didn't systematically dehumanize them, and didn't entail the odious levels of risk current meat-packing systems produce.

    The cost would be (much) more expensive meat, not fewer jobs.

  70. With Massimo, I agree that one has to do "science" in order to figure out what kinds of creatures we need have moral qualms about, and what level of qualms those should be. There are not (yet) any good hard and fast answers.

    But, with Massimo, it seems obvious to me that some level of self-awareness is necessary. So just having the systems to register damage and to avoid that damage isn't yet experiencing 'pain' (but it is likely an evolutionary precursor to pain). I have some doubts about the ability of e.g. (most?) fish to experience pain for this reason, but the research I've seen on this is quite mixed. But by the time we get to chickens, it's pretty obvious to me that they not only react to damage but feel pain.

    The question re: non-person humans is an interesting one. The argument for not eating -- or otherwise abusing -- non-person humans is by necessity trickier. So for example, what's wrong with eating, or otherwise abusing, infants born with severe anacephaly (pretty much no brain at all, and limited brain-stem)? Here we would have to appeal not to the harm done to the infant (there is nothing there to harm, really), but to the harm done to other people, and/or to ourselves (we are probably the kinds of being that can't torture something that looks just like -- or even rather like -- a baby without it having psychological effects on us, even if we know it isn't a baby in the relevant sense). This is the same kind of reason that is wrong is "desecrate" a corpse (or, to be specific and not prejudge the issue, say, dress the dead guy up in funny clothes and do puppet shows with him) -- you aren't harming the corpse (well, not in the relevant sense, anyway), but, given the cultural context and the kinds of being that we are, you are likely harming / disturbing other people and yourself by doing this.

  71. Since the pain pleasure principle arguably applies to biological life in general as the motivational basis of taking action, it would seem that the pain itself is not as an important as the degree of suffering involved. In other words, where does agony kick in, or at what level of awareness or consciousness is the pain or suffering excruciating?

    Instead of the rather simplistic balancing of eat or not eat with pain or not pain, perhaps the need for our forms of pleasure should be balanced against the degree of suffering we can imagine we are causing in response. People have struggled with that balance on a cultural level for ages. And not just about our feeding or refueling pleasures.

  72. Jonathan replies to me: I strongly suspect that a move away from factory farmed animals and towards small-scale, careful "animal husbandry,"...

    I've had similar thoughts in the past. But, upon further reflection, I'm not so sure that cruelty to livestock is necessarily a function of scale.

    For example, as a rural resident, I read on occasion of small-scale ("family") farmers being cited on charges of abuse to their livestock - most recently, on a local dairy farm, where dozens of cows were found famished and dying of thirst. Also, there was another sad case last year, when a local farmer shot all of his cows before turning the gun on himself.

    What's more, Temple Grandin (whom I cited above) has designed large-scale ("factory") methods that seem quite humane (or perhaps I should say "bovine", given their basis in animal science and the cattle industry). I'm not sure exactly how widespread these methods are at this point, but her example at least demonstrates that it's possible to do.

    And it's probably easier to regulate a few large farms than to regulate a lot of small ones. My point being: regardless of scale, what's probably required in the pursuit of animal welfare is not so much a smaller scale as more enlightened practice in the industry, combined with better laws and tighter regulation.

    I strongly doubt that a personal lifestyle choice like vegetarianism (especially given the unlikelihood, based on current trends, of its becoming widespread) is helping to achieve that goal.

  73. I think it's a shame that the climate change was not considered in the original article, given that, as far as I'm concerned, it's the single most important reason to drastically reduce meat consumption.

    Debates about whether or not it is OK to harm animals are far more interesting than the discussions one can have on the environmental impact, but it really can't be left to the confines of footnotes anymore. If this dimension were not in the equation, a genuine debate could be had. Since the environment is firmly on the agenda, however, I don't think there is much of an excuse to continue eating large amounts of meat.

  74. I don't understand why humans shouldn't eat meat while other animals are free to do so and no one bats an eye. If your reason for being a vegetarian is because of the treatment animals receive then you should be protesting the way they are kept and killed and not giving up eating meat.

  75. Dave,

    On your first point, people do not hold non-human animals morally responsible for eating other non-human animals because non-human animals are not moral agents. However, some non-human animals (those that can suffer and experience pain to a sufficient degree) are moral patients, which means they should receive ethical treatment.

    On your second point, I agree with you. It really isn't something about the killing and eating of animals that is intrinsically wrong, but rather the way in which they happen to be raised in the current factory-farmed system.

  76. Michael,

    A metaethical question for you:

    It seems like your shift in rationale for vegetarianism reflects a shift from a Kantian (means/ends) system of moral evaluation to a rule-consequentialist perspective.

    Does the rationale change reflect a shift in your overall theoretical commitments?

  77. @Sam

    I don't think vegetarians are afraid of admitting preference. I think the vegetarian stance is a moral stance, and so it's framed as one. Further, one can disagree on a moral stance and still find another person moral. And, if the vegetarian does think that meat-eaters are immoral, and has ethical reasons to back that up, why wouldn't they say so? Is it immoral to criticize what one sees as immoral? That seems like a very backwards way of going about doing ethics, and whether the stance comes from religion or not is entirely irrelevant, at least if that's all we have to go off of.

  78. Hey all,

    I've been really busy with work the past two days, so I haven't been able to reply to your questions and concerns. I'll likely get to them tomorrow. However, I have been reading your responses, and they're all good. Thanks!


  79. @ M.P.

    "ZD, not keeping pets that are carnivores is to project morality where it doesn't belong. Animals that do not reflect on what they do cannot be moral or immoral, they just are."

    It is not about projecting morality. When you keep meat-eating pets, they are your responsibility. So you have to get them food, animal-based food, which means you are infringing your own rules, i.e. a double standard.

    To avoid having pets suffer from various deficiencies, the most rational practice is to not have ANY carnivorous pets. Just avoid them.

    I didn't mean to imply that we should change the minds of those animals (because it is a ridiculous idea, for now) to make them vegan and even if it involves sacrifice (this would be an unethical moral projection).

    P.S. I am speaking in the context of choice, of ethics; not politics. A law to uphold such matters should be ignored.

  80. ZD, thanks for the clarification, but I still don't buy it. So what happens to the carnivorous pets? Do we kill them? Let them starve? Because of *our* moral concerns about eating meat? How is that ethical?

    (And yes, thanks for clarifying the bit about ethics vs. legality, good point of course.)

  81. dave7444 said...
    I don't understand why humans shouldn't eat meat while other animals are free to do so and no one bats an eye.

    Animals are not free to do it, it's in their nature. Humanity can live without such behavior, so anything after that is questionable... (or based in traditions - which is not a rational argument.)

    "If your reason for being a vegetarian is because of the treatment animals receive then you should be protesting the way they are kept and killed and not giving up eating meat."

    Since almost everyone buys the meat, it means there's a clear link between the consumer and the animal farmer. This is the main connection; but there's also the practice of hunting and farming, which is much harder to boycott (unless you are a grower and grow your own vegan foods or barter with others).

    There are many ignorant people who try to help animals, who volunteer to animal shelters, but they eat hamburgers and drink milk.

    It's just a failure of integrity... you love dogs and cats, but you eat pigs and chickens; you love pigeons and parakeets, but you eat chickens and geese... Double standards.

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  83. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRSLQu-d6ZQ

    "We taught a lion to eat tofu!"

    But seriously... If one is an ethical vegetarian, one clearly ought not *encourage* keeping carnivores as pets, and one ought not permit carnivorous pets to breed. (Here I am reminded of the SNL headline following the first successful cloning of a house-cat "so finally ending our great house-cat shortage" -- sadly, carnivorous pets are all too easy to rescue.)I don't know what an ethical vegetarian should do re: obligate carnivores in the wild (one reason I'm not an ethical vegetarian); I suppose one could make some arguments re: the suffering of obligate carnivores or something.

    In my view, which I've defended above, humans are free to eat meat. What we aren't free to do is create significant unnecessary suffering.

    jcm raises a good point re: small scale not necessarily equaling good practice. I doubt that large-scale systems, as they are practiced now, can be sufficiently responsive to the needs of the animals, but that is an empirical question. What I do think is fairly clear is that we simply don't have the *space* to give the number of animals now being raised as food decent lives. So I think the total number needs to be reduced, and more time, money, and effort spent raising each individual animals, if we are to avoid cruelty. Whether the best thing for the welfare of animals raised as food would be a massively distributed system of small farms, or a few large scale corporations, is, though, as jcm notes, an empirical issue, and while I have my own views, I don't think the question is anything like settled.

    This would also, I think, go a long way towards addressing the environmental / climate change issues involved in eating meat. If we raise animals well, giving them good lives before killing then, the meat will be much more expensive. We'll eat less of it. There will be far fewer animals raise for food. And the environmental impacts will be similarly reduced.

    (I'm hoping that the best way to move in the directions I've been suggesting is to support local farms whose practices I approve of, both by buying their meat and by 'proselytizing'; my wife agrees that if animals raised for food were given good lives and killed in ways that minimized suffering, her concerns re: eating meat would be much reduced, but thinks that maintaining a (mostly) vegetarian diet is the best way of moving towards that goal. Again, it isn't clear what the right answer is, or even if there is one, in this case.)

  84. To the person who related self-awareness and pain and asked "do infants not feel pain" - according to Bernard Rollin ("The Unheeded Cry") infants were operated on without anaesthesia, just muscle paralyser, until the 1960's, on just these grounds. Now we know better.....
    Those who use what is anyway the naturalistic fallacy in favour of continuing to eat meat perhaps should consider that predators will bring down the helpless or less abled amongst their prey: only humans breed and render helpless entire populations of young, healthy animals: there is nothing resembling "nature" in this.
    Heartiest congratulations to Mr de Dora for knowing an ethical choice when he sees one - and many of the comments here will have reinforced his position: it is becoming ever clearer that the good arguments are coming from vegetarians/vegans: but what are we to make of those who see clearly that killing animals (with or without cruelty, everyone thinks cruelty is a bad thing) for non-essential reasons (see the American Dietetic Association's endorsement of vegan diets from cradle to grave)
    is wrong, yet proclaim their intention to continue doing something they know is morally faulty? Just what is going on there? I refer to a posting I made here some time ago: wouldn't vegetariansim/veganism be a BETTER way to live? So why wouldn't people take this step forward?

  85. Thanks Cavall,

    But no one was arguing that infants do not feel pain. I proposed infants as a counterexample to the claim that the ability to feel pain requires some degree of self-awareness. I am assuming infants below 12 months are not at all self-aware, but that they can still feel pain. Massimo agrees that infants can feel pain, but he think this entails that they have some degree of self-awareness.

  86. Massimo, SJK, and Kirby:

    Pain is obviously one of the most complicated concepts, very akin to mental health/illness.
    At the very minimum, there is the "feeling" part, and then there is the "remembering" part.
    Sounds like everyone agrees with the feeling or the experiencing part (and the reflexive part of response), but not as much with the remembering part. The conditional or unconditional response to noxious stimulii (eg. pain) may not be sufficient to describe the sum of all the parts of the experience of pain itself, as we understand it in humans, but it's a stretch to say that the lower animals don't experience it or that they are not aware of it. Would this not be a classic example of Qualia?

    We are barely understanding all the complex pathways of pain in humans(not to mention the cognitive and emotional aspects). How about fear? Is is not linked to pain? Pain may not be the only part of suffering, and fear and manifestations of fear similar to PTSD are evident in animals as well. On a digressive not, how about pleasure or laughter? How about the experiments that showed that even rats experience "laughter" when tickled?

    We are clearly long ways from understanding pain in it's entirety in humans. Would it not be better to err on the side of sentient beings being able to experience pain, albeit not in similar ways, at least until we understand the complexities of the pathways?

  87. This blog seems populated by city denizens whose reality is limited to pigeons on pavement. I own cattle. Yes cattle feel pain; they feel hunger and thirst. But they don't have to worry about that here. Nor do they have to worry about internal or external parasites, or the multitude of diseases that affect wild animals. They have food, water, shade and shelter.

    No, we don't wipe out entire generations of young animals; we keep the best for replacement bulls and cows. Sweeping moral generalizations are usually wrong.

    And no, the land is not taken out of grain or vegetable production in order to produce meat. Cattle are found primarily on land that is not suitable for cropping. Remove animal cropping and the land goes out of production. The bulk of a beef animal's protein comes from grass, with less than 15 to 20% coming from grain during the finishing process. Much of the grain is residue from other manufacturing, such as cotton residuals, distiller's grain residuals and so forth.

    I was a vegetarian for 20 years. It requires consciously (if there is consciousness) balancing the diet. It requires faith that the soil raised for the vegetable crop was balanced - without animal manure or chemical rebalancing (where does one find such soil?). It requires faith that the flour manufacturers didn't grind up a few roaches, that the rice and legumes don't contain any larvae, and that the supplements really contain something besides soy powder. And keep in mind that sugar (white death) is a vegetable product.

    You may make up all the "moral" arguments you wish. Evolutionarily speaking, animals eat animals, and humans are just another animal. You really have no argument that stands against eating meat.

    At least educate yourselves before philosophizing. Reality is out there. Go look at it.

  88. Stan, I admit to be a "city denizens whose reality is limited to pigeons on pavement," but your argument has a huge whole right in the middle of it:

    "Evolutionarily speaking, animals eat animals, and humans are just another animal. You really have no argument that stands against eating meat."

    Yes, we do, you are committing the naturalistic fallacy, equating what is natural with what is good. I wonder if you also think it's good to eat poisonous mushrooms, they are natural, you know?

  89. As far as "the remembering part" is concerned, anything that feels pain remembers it. That's the whole point of its existence - of the purpose it has evolved or been evolved to serve. Pain is anticipatory. Don't touch that or I'll likely experience that feeling again just as I remember I experienced it the previous time or times. Pain is there to be experienced by anything that's capable of experiencing it, and experience is there to be remembered in whatever memory system an organism has that will allow it to learn. There is really no sentient non-sentient dividing line where some element of pain is not remembered.

  90. Further, I also grew up on a farm, belonged to the 4-H club (which supported humane treatment of all animals), raised chickens, cows, goats, etc. I understand where Stan is coming from, and no, we were not so stupid as to eat poisonous mushrooms, or for that matter, let our animals eat certain kinds of noxious weeds or grasses. Farmers, as a matter of their hands-on familiarity with nature, are the last to automatically equate natural with good.

  91. Baron, I didn't say that you or anyone else is stupid enough to eat poisonous mushrooms. I simply used that as an example of the well known fact that to argue that something is natural and *therefore* good / acceptable is bad reasoning.

  92. Massimo, I took Stan's argument to be that everything that's natural is natural for a reason. But then we get into the philosophical no man's land of purpose, and that's another hill of (vegan?) beans.

  93. Baron:

    Pain is not a unitary concept as you have suggested. The anticipatory part is true, but that's a different, and more reflexive, pathway vs the more complicated emotional pathways in how "we"- as in humans- understand pain. This is where there is dualism (not Cartesian) in experiencing something and "how" we remember it. (Daniel Kahneman alluded to this in one of his Behavioral Economics TED talks).

    Furthermore, there are multiple pathways when it comes to memory, and I'd reference Eric Kandel's work on memory systems, and the hardest memory pathways to understand and map out are the emotional memories.

    We still have a long way to understand all the facets of psychology, esp emotions, from Evolutionary stand-point, let alone concepts like Ethics and Morlaity!

  94. Baron, there is no "reason" behind what's natural. Nature just is. Human beings have reasons, hence the distinction between non-moral actions (most animals) and moral decisions (us).

  95. @ Stan:

    The most common argument contra-vegetarianism I encounter is "But did you think about...", which your faith paragraph is supported by. Naturally a vegetarian, or any moral agent, didn't calculate or think of every possible effect of their moral action. This doesn't invalidate ethical actions or their supporting grounds, however, because you're presuming a sweeping ethical argument from a moral vegetarian of a specific kind. This applies equally well to the arguments against cat owning vegetarians. Actions and their effects and intents can come in gradations, and it may actually be more moral to fall somewhere in between extremes -- so we can be moral vegetarians, yet still use some animal products like glue, leather, fertilizer, cat food, and so on. This mimimized use of animals may still necessitate vegetarianism, or other moral considerations may necessitate vegetarianism. (Or, not everyone nor are all moral propositions linked to a utilitarian causal fatalism)

    For example, it may be viewed as compassionate to not eat animals, whether or not you use other animal products. The limitation of animal suffering is still a fact, even if animal suffering is not eliminated.

  96. Roshan, pain by definition is a unitary concept for suffering. How the signaling functions work at different evolutionary stages of development in different species is not unitary. And of course there are multiple pathways to multiple memory repositories.
    But if your argument is that certain suffering is felt but not remembered consciously, even if the organism lives in some fear of it, I'd say your concept of consciousness as other than an evolved state of awareness is flawed.
    Bottom line, if a sensation is painful, it's meant to be remembered and on some level consciously avoided.

    But then again, if you're of the same school as Massimo on the subject, it's only clear that humans have reasons for their actions, and that clearness somehow fades away as we look back down our evolutionary pathways.
    Unconscious behavioral assessments are somehow not classifiable as reasonable. Behavior is at that level "just is."

  97. Stan --

    Cows that graze primarily on grass, are given ample space to graze, are well cared for, etc., are, sadly, the minority. When I buy beef, I try to buy it from farms that raise their cows in humane and sustainable ways -- that treat them well, give them plenty of space, let them spend most of their lives eating what they evolved to eat, etc. I've visited a few of the local farms I buy from, and I've been happy with what I've seen. It sounds like I might be pretty happy with what I'd see at your farm, too.

    I've seen giant feedlots, too, and I don't like what I see there. Nothing I've read about how most cows are treated in massive farms, how they live, what they eat, etc., makes me think that the majority of cows raised for beef in the U.S. have had good lives. (I also don't like sub-therapeutic antibiotic use, but that's another issue).

    I don't think the *primary* issue is that is "immoral" to eat meat per se. The current way that most meat is produced in the U.S. and most of the world encourages the long-term mistreatment of animals (that's bad), and encourages us to eat more meat than can be sustainably raised given the environmental costs (that's bad).

    Vegetarianism is an easy response to do these problems, and one that could be practiced universally. There are other plausible responses.

    If the concern is a more Kantian one (treating animals as means, etc.) then I'm going to need a better argument to the conclusion that the non-human animals that we eat are capable of setting the kinds of ends for themselves that a Kantian approach pre-supposes. Again, I worry that pigs might. I don't worry that chickens do (though we keep 3 chickens for eggs, and are quite fond of them in a weird way, I don't think they have life-plans, and I don't think killing one would be a misfortune for it, if it could be done w/o the chicken suffering).

  98. Roshan,
    As to what I've derived from the talk by Daniel Kahneman, rather than discussing the difference between the experience and how it's remembered (and with respect to human rather than another species), it seems he's discussing what you eventually choose to remember and not necessarily how you choose as much as why.
    But there's a difference between what you choose to consciously remember from experience and what you end up learning from it, and how the cumulative effects of those experiences will in time become responsible for a species' instinctive behaviors.
    Unless of course you believe that instinctive behavior has nothing at all to do with learning from experience.

  99. Ethically grown meat on the future menu?


    New excuses may be needed not to eat it.

  100. There seem to be several different arguments going on here.

    The first is that eating meat (presumably any kind of meat is immoral). The reasoning behind this is I guess that it is immoral because vegetarians say it is. The suffering argument does not hold because it is possible to kill wild (freest range)animals almost instantly (bullet through the brain) and then eat them all virtually without making it suffer. So where exactly would the immorality be in that circumstance? Hunting game animals (as long as you are a decent hunter) seems just fine.

    The second is that factory farming is immoral because the animals are capable of feeling pain, are treated poorly and thus suffer. I pretty much agree with this, but the reason I agree is not from some moral consideration. It is that I have empathy for creatures which are at least vaguely like me (mammals). The further from our branch of the tree of life you stray the less my empathy becomes. My empathy for insects for instance is virtually non-existent and I feel no guilt at all killing them. Who besides Jainists mourn the death of a cockroach or bedbug?

    The practicality argument - that raising beef cattle for consumption is an inefficient use of resources in order to obtain protein seems to be a rather separate issue (unless you consider inefficiency immoral).

    So the answer to the question of whether meat is moral seems to depend on how it lived and how it died.

    Now we come to a few interesting twists in the 'causing suffering is immoral' argument.

    Let us suppose that creatures with the most advanced nervous system are capable of the most suffering so it might be fairly argued that human beings are the best equipped creatures to experience suffering currently on the planet. In fact I think humans suffer uniquely in that they are probably the only creatures here that have knowledge of their inescapable death. I think it is fair to say that a vast majority of human lives contain suffering. Some contain quite a lot. So what could we say about people who intentionally create a human life knowing that it will suffer? By the 'causing suffering is immoral' argument you would have to count that as an immoral act. Therefore all human parents are immoral.

    Conversely eliminating suffering would be a moral act and we can be pretty sure that the dead do not suffer. Therefore while torture is immoral killing is not. In fact if you were able to instantly kill every animal on this planet all at once when the sun rose tomorrow there would be no suffering at all. None.

  101. "Baron, there is no "reason" behind what's natural. Nature just is. Human beings have reasons, hence the distinction between non-moral actions (most animals) and moral decisions (us)."

    Here is something you don't see every day. A fellow schooled in evolutionary biology who makes a statement implying (at least on the face of it) that human beings are somehow not animals and their thoughts are separate from nature.

    How very peculiar since human beings are in fact animals and are part of nature therefore everything we do, think and create will be part of nature as well including 'reasons' and morality.

  102. The conservation of diminishing natural resources is arguably an ethical reason to go vegetarian, Massimo. That said, per the link Baron P. posted, Dutch, or other, scientists may make "artificial meat" and thereby bring that into a different light.

    Or, per your noting of the cognitive differences of animals, one could eliminate pork, or pork and beef, but still eat, if not beef, at least chicken and fish, as far as the most common American meatstuffs.

  103. @ Thameron

    You neglected where I pointed out how the mean between extremes might actually be the more moral position. You're fishing for a reductio ad absurdum, but doing so against straw men by taking a single phrase out of my argument to draw it to some silly conclusion that my position wouldn't endorse. Further, you're equivocating with the word "suffering". As you've lain it out, suffering here is a necessary suffering, a part of life, something that is inescapable. That is clearly not what I'm pointing out in my deontological argument, however, because I state that we should reduce unnecessary suffering.

    Further, you haven't addressed either my virtue-theory argument from the virtue of compassion, which is radically different from the focus on suffering within my deontological argument in that it is actor centered, not action centered, or my Nietzschean argument which has nothing to do with suffering, though it is somewhat analogous to another take on virtue-theory.

    Could you clarify how empathy is somehow not tied up with morals?

  104. Jonathan said: What I do think is fairly clear is that we simply don't have the *space* to give the number of animals now being raised as food decent lives.

    Technically, there may be enough space, but at what cost? For example, one of the arguments for reducing meat consumption is that the economic interests of ranchers compete with other interests (e.g. wilderness conservation and non-agrarian human settlement) in terms of land use. This is a problem even (or especially) if the livestock that comes to occupy that space is given a decent life and a painless death (i.e. by the standards of its breed). So it seems that one of the criteria of an ethical omnivore would be that the farm take up enough space so that the animals can move around comfortably. (Note that, from an animal welfare point-of-view, this implies "large scale" in a good sense.) And, of course, the more animals, the more space required.

    Yet, at least in developed countries, where the supply of cheap land is relatively scarce, there is an economic incentive to concentrate livestock animals into smaller, more crowded spaces (analogous to cities) - both to meet consumer demand and to turn a profit. So, one can reasonably expect that the combined forces of human population growth, free-market dynamics, and a natural human appetite for animal flesh will eventually lead to a "factory farm" scenario.

    Sure, reducing demand for animal products through the collective practice of restrictive diets (e.g. vegetarian, vegan, and locavore) might add up to a counter-incentive (i.e. if the demand reduction were to create a meaningful price signal), and better laws and tighter regulation almost certainly would. It's a question of which strategy is more appealing and which stands a better chance of success. Clearly, I prefer the latter, which plays out more like a political cause than a personal lifestyle choice (although I have in the past experimented with plant-based diets, and still try to take it easy on the meat consumption).

  105. Well FUG let me see. Mostly what I was doing was trying to answer that question at the top of the article. "Vegetarianism: moral stance or mere preference?"

    I suppose I could have just said - 'mere preference' and let it go at that, but I (as many do) have an instinctive defensive reaction when people accuse me of being immoral. It threatens my self-image as a good person. Perhaps people should have a morality score like a credit score so that we could compare.

    Since I don't regularly read philosophical tracts I am afraid most of the jargon went by me, but I will answer as I can.

    Right now out there in the world predators are killing and eating other animals but they are not immoral because they don't have a mental model which enables them to understand that their prey has a nervous system and thus can feel pain and suffering. I guess if a pure carnivore ever did have such a realization it could then choose between immorality and starvation.

    Human beings on the other hand are immoral if they make other creatures suffer because their mental model of the world and how it works does enable them to understand that they are causing creatures pain.

    According to my interpretation of the title question Vegetarianism is the stance that humans eating meat (of any sort, garnered in any fashion) is immoral either because this causes suffering to animals or because we don't have to in order to survive.

    In truth the definition of the word 'morality' is slippery as a snake. If I say something is moral and you say it isn't what happens then? No purely objective judge will miraculously appear to settle the issue.

    Anyway I do have a question for you. Who gets to decide what is necessary suffering? Obviously the people who eat meat knowing that it is factory farmed have decided that the suffering of those animals is necessary in order for them to enjoy the taste of them. On what grounds will you tell them that their suffering is unnecessary?

    As part of a social species I think that I was born with a degree of empathy and compassion in which case these are just inherent characteristics and no more moral than my being right handed.

  106. Ah, my bad. I read you as responding to me because of your word choice. I would then simply point up and say that I provided other justifications for vegetarianism than the one you're attacking.

    On the objectivity of morals: I would claim that all claims are subject to dispute, and that these disputes don't have a judge yet are still able to be settled in a rational fashion. For example, it was once thought that Newton's Law of Gravitation was true. But then a dispute arose over that, and we no longer think that now. Further, the slipperiness of the word "moral" isn't a problem for moral discourse, and arises more out of ignorance of moral discourse than it does from some intrinsic property of the subject matter itself (though I would agree that it's "soft", I don't think "soft-ness" discludes discourse)

    To answer your question:

    I would say that no one gets to decide what constitutes necessary suffering. If it's necessary, then decisions have nothing to do with its presence. I would agree that persons judge whether or not suffering is necessary, but that's separate from whether or not suffering is necessary.

    The grounds I would use:
    I would point out that it's possible to change our meat eating habits, and even reasonably so, and that therefore meat eating is not necessary or even implausible to stop.

    Since humans are a social species, with a sense of empathy, I would argue that this is one good way of placing morals within a naturalistic framework. It certainly requires more argument than this simple sentence, but I generally tie our feelings and emotions as intimately associated with our moral reasoning, which I would agree is just as factual as being right handed.

  107. Uuufff, first of all, it seems I have come late. There are a lot of comments to the initial posts and different approaches.

    I will tell mine as brief as I can. Without referring to previous ones.

    In my case, I am not really a vegetarian. From time to time I eat meat and fish, but rarely. Usually, when I am with my family, which is not vegetarian. And I also accept meat if it comes from my family.

    I started to think about vegetarianism after reading a book, basically. The book said that eating meat to produce meat does not seem the best way to do it. Although there are predators that eat (and so, control) hervibore animals produce meat eating vegetables. This way of thinking stroke me quite a lot for some reason. And I liked it.

  108. What if there is a continuum in consciousness rather than a threshold beyond which morality applies. Even plants have their own system of communication and of "being conscious" of their surroundings. So the question would be not so much about setting a morality threshold but about how to minimize the unavoidable fact of having to eat to remain alive. Vegetarianism -better even veganism- is the consequential choice.

  109. There certainly is a continuum, but it's reasonable to think that it stops way before plants. I have no compassion for my broccoli.

  110. The only reason I can justify myself being a vegetarian is I can relate myself to the pain & suffering of these animals. I can't imagine myself being treated or bred for the sole purpose of being a meal for someone else. People can still argue even Vegans are killing plants. I say yes we are killing, but I say that I can't relate to them. The only question I put is, slavery was abolished long back specifying fellow human beings are not to be mistreated/are to be provided rights to live on their free will. If it applies for abolishment for slavery, whats wrong in feeling the same about animals by Vegans.


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