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.
Thursday, March 01, 2012
Okay, I turned vegetarian, almost
For some time now I have been conceding — on this blog, on my podcast, and in informal conversations — that vegetarians have the better moral (and health related) argument over most of the alternatives, with a couple of caveats. Why, then, have I kept behaving as an omnivore? Akrasia, Aristotle would say. It’s our innate weakness of the will that represents a major obstacle to human flourishing and a eudaimonic life.
Still, the inconsistency has been bothering me, despite the well known quote by
Walt Whitman: “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Cute, but a lousy excuse for an inconsistent personal philosophy. Better to practice what I preach and engage in a bit of reflective equilibrium, the philosophical method by which we continually adjust our beliefs and practices because of reflection on other people's arguments and on the available facts.
The final straw that caused me to embrace a different philosophy of eating happened a few nights ago, when I was watching a 2005 advocacy piece called Earthlings. Directed by Shaun Monson, it presents a pretty brutal look at how we treat animals, not just in the sphere of food production, but also as pets, for the production of clothing, for entertaining, and for scientific research. Earthlings has a declared agenda, and not everything that is shown or said there should be taken as correct or fairly representative. Nonetheless, the piece simply translated into relentlessly disturbing images what I pretty much already knew to be the case, and had tried hard to ignore. Hence my resolution to do some reflecting and adjusting as soon as the movie was over.
Now, there are two major reasons to change your dietary habits: health and ethics. In terms of health, as Julia and I explained during the podcast episode, it turns out that vegetarians and people who eat fish and poultry have the best long term outcomes, followed by vegans and by red meat eaters, other things being equal (which they often aren’t, since vegetarians tend to take good care of themselves in general, thus making it a bit more complicated to disentangle the effects of diet per se from those of other relevant variables).
But my recent philosophical realignment has been motivated by ethics, not health practices. When it comes to the ethical domain, at the cost of simplifying things a bit, there are two issues pertinent to human use of animals: treatment and exploitation. To make the distinction clear, one could argue that keeping a pet dog or cat “exploits” them for the purposes of human companionship. Yet, most people — including yours truly — would not object to the practice as long as the animals in question are treated well (i.e., not abused, well fed, taken care of in terms of health, and even of their psychological needs). And of course domesticated animals have been bred by humans for precisely that purpose, so that one can even argue that it is in the best interest of those animals to be human pets, it aligns with their (modified) genetic instincts. To put it yet another way, the animals are getting something (a cozy, predator free and more healthy life than they would be able to pursue in the wild) in return for the companionship they provide.
An obvious objection to this line of argument is that the animals didn’t ask for this arrangement, and that the relationship is intrinsically asymmetrical. True on both counts, but we live with asymmetrical relationships all the time, for instance between employers and employees, or between parents and children (and, needless to say, children didn’t ask to be born either). Moreover, animals are simply not on the same cognitive level as humans, which means that we are the ones who have to take into consideration both our own and the animals’ interests as far as it is possible. If that smacks of paternalism, just remember that that’s precisely what you do with your children. (Yes, I know that the goal with children is different, since they will grow up and eventually become autonomous agents, though even that’s not true in the case of severely mentally or emotionally deficient ones.)
This distinction between treatment and exploitation, I suspect, is also at the root of some differences among vegetarians themselves: vegans, for instance, make the argument that eating eggs and dairy products is unethical on the grounds that they are derived by exploiting animals. Presumably, ovo-lacto-vegetarians do not find this argument entirely convincing. Indeed, the latter seem to be drawing the line at treatment, not use: they will eat cheese, milk and eggs as long as the animals are not subjected to artificial hormonal treatments and are given a reasonably healthy diet and life style (e.g., free ranging chicken and cows).
The treatment-exploitation divide, then, also helps us make sense of why some vegetarians think it is okay to use, say, horses for races, or a range of animals for transportation of people or goods. They may see these activities as relatively benign as long as the animals are well treated, as each party (again, asymmetrically) gets something out of the symbiosis. For instance, horse racing may be acceptable on the condition that the horses are well taken care of, while a rodeo is could well be unacceptable because the animals are usually abused before and during the performance. (I do admit that there are plenty of grey areas here, but I think the general picture holds.)
If I am okay with using animals, including possibly as food, as long as the good treatment criterion holds, what sort of diet should I then follow? At a minimum, a vegetarian diet (as opposed to vegan), if I take care to check that my eggs and dairy products come from free ranging animals. Indeed, one can consistently (from an ethical perspective) go further and include some meat, beginning with fish, as long as it is not the result of the type of large scale industrial practices that are so horrifically depicted in Earthlings (and as long as one also doesn’t run into environmental problems, such as the possibility of over exploitation of fisheries leading to the near extinction of some species).
If the above makes sense, or is at least more coherent than my previous fundamentally omnivorous attitude, then in practice I would have to make vegetables and fruits the larger base of my diet, followed by eggs and dairy, if I'm reasonably sure of the benign treatment of the animals involved (possibly easier for an upper middle class person living in New York around the corner from a large Whole Foods store, more difficult for others), occasionally by poultry (again, assuming free ranging etc.), and by fish (once I check out the advisability of eating a particular species based on ecological criteria — for instance using the excellent iPhone / Android app out out by the Monterey Aquarium). Pretty much all red meat will be out, and so too will be poultry, fish, eggs and dairy in the many cases in which I will not be able to ascertain that my minimal conditions for humane treatment have been met. To complicate things further, I have decided that there simply is no justification for eating animals that are capable of sophisticated cognitive processes, which includes humans — there goes my chance for cannibalism — whales, dolphins and, alas, squid and octopi. Oh well.
So, this is where the most recent round of reflective equilibrium has led me. I'm sure there is room for improvement, so by all means, take aim with your comments.