And its discontents
Any semi functioning society enshrines a fundamental respect for the individual in law, it is enshrined through the intuitions of its individual members (the majority at least), it pumps through the veins of its institutions and culture. This could be a respect for the individual’s need to fulfill short and long term goals, their capacity for pain and their capacity for flourishing. This respect must surely be grounded in some universal quality that all individuals possess; the matter of their physical bodies seems to be imbued with a property that we collectively regard with the upmost sanctity. The human intellect has devoted lifetimes of philosophy to the analysis of when – if ever – it may be permissible to violate this quality.
So just what is it exactly? Is it the quality of rationality found only in humans? Is it that we recognize other humans as similar to ourselves, valuing similar qualities in them that we are conscious of and value in ourselves? Philosophers have posited a plethora of thought experiments aimed at this contested notion of respect, and what it amounts to, with a view to weeding out our most deeply held intuitions regarding trade-offs between competing values. What circumstances must pertain for us to consider doing harm to an individual? Save one person on a sinking boat, or save a group of people on a second sinking boat? Save people stuck on one sinking boat or save a pregnant woman and a doctor stuck on another? The classic trolley problems and all its variants; slaughter one person and harvest their organs to save the lives of five others? The list goes on…and on.
Such thought experiments can lead to some amusing theoretical dead ends, but ultimately they are designed to sort the wheat of reasoning patterns beneath the chaff of hypothetical contingencies people insist on introducing to dilute their answers to various moral dilemmas: the difference between allowing someone to die and actually killing them, the difference between what you intend and what will actually happen as a result of your actions. One such harvest of reason attempts to make the case for vegetarianism and ultimately veganism. If I state this argument in its most basic form now it will not change your life, arguments rarely do when they come up against the brute force of daily routine, habit, time, empty pockets, ease, and social pressures. Explaining the argument to others will rarely result in a moment of divine revelation, where one portion of the population having seen the light, wishes to guide the other into the wooded glade of enlightenment where we smell each others revoltingly regular farts. But I am going to spend my time stating it anyway…because it’s fun I guess.
It is not routed in an overly emotional response to the suffering of other creatures; it simply asks you to extend the sphere of moral concern already afforded to humanity to include other animals. Even those with extreme prejudices towards certain groups of people have a moral sphere, a group of humans they think are worth a higher level of moral consideration than other beings, this sphere is just smaller than most. It is the size of the moral sphere that this argument is concerned with.
What mental faculties does a person have to lose before we no longer consider their continued well-being a moral issue? In terms of a person’s mental capabilities, the answer, more often than not, will fall far below the mental capabilities of the average farm animal. In Bioethics this argument has been given the unfortunate shorthand:
‘The argument from marginal cases’
This argument does not ask you to conjure up newfound compassion for animals by explaining the social life of a chicken for instance, it simply asks you to consider what compassion you already hold for humans, and argues that the justification for this moral consideration applies to most animals as well. The moral line dividing humans on one level and animals on another is arbitrary, routed in habit, history, contingent cultural factors, and the emotional bonds humans form for each other. If we extended a fraction of the moral concern we hold for so called ‘marginal humans’ – the severely mentally handicapped, the very old and the very young, the comatose, the temporarily inebriated – to all animals, many of whom prima facie have more awareness of their existence than many of these members of the human race, then vast swathes of meat production, egg production, dairy production, and medical research would no longer be permitted. The term ‘marginal cases’ has proved to be an unfortunately sticky one that does a great disservice to what the argument is trying to accomplish. This is because not only does it imply that these humans it refers to are only marginally worthy of our moral respect, but also that – in moral terms – they should be reduced to the same level as animals. Defenders of the argument say that the intention is to raise the moral status of animals to the level held for individual humans, not caste certain humans outside the sphere of moral protection afforded to the fully rational. Critics of the argument claim that there is no theoretical justification for this assertion, other than to massage our moral squeamishness and make the argument work intuitively. I’ll set this aside for now to save us from the analytical clusterfuck of pedantry such speculations can lead to.
For all the humans whose mental capacities are diminished in some way we would want to point to some contingency that warrants our respect for them over animals: whether this be the potential of a young child to become a rational adult, the emotional bond we have developed with elderly relatives, the service they have rendered humanity in the past, the profound emotional obligation we feel to the vulnerable, to family members and close friends with diminished mental faculties. But if we were to remove all of these contingent factors, and imagine such a human with no living friends or relatives, who never possessed a rational faculty and has no chance of doing so in the future, intuitively there is still a moral obligation on society to offer this human the protection and care we would expect to be bestowed on a loved one. At the very least not to use them for food, or to use them for medical experiments without the consent they are unable to give.
The case for using animals in medical research is complicated. The nature of experimentation is a bet, the outcome is uncertain, ranging from no benefit at all on one end, to revolutionising the course of human betterment at the other. The pain caused to animals is often the only certainty, but deploying moral dilemmas to siphon out our intuitions does not fit in most cases because it is rarely as simple as a ‘torture one to save one thousand’ case. Some would argue that violating the lives of creatures such as mice in order to advance medical science is a necessary evil…others would argue that a lot of this research is advancing fiscal interests not humanitarian ones, and a surer way to advance humanity is to buy a child in a malaria ridden region of the world a mosquito net as no cost/benefit gamble is involved. Some argue that the difference between performing experiments on fully rational humans as opposed to other animals is that in the human case, we are not only causing great physical and mental pain but we are violating this universal respect for the individual that society demands; more specifically we violate the ability to give consent. To put it crudely: it adds insult to injury. However, if we think about the abhorrence we would have towards a society that allowed medical experiments on the elderly with advanced dementia for example, or those in long term comas (who would make more suitable scientific models than animals), it is clear that the ability to give consent is not the moral mechanism at work here. Some may still wish to argue that the potential benefits of such medical research could be so great there may be a case for such research to go ahead.
Whatever your initial reaction to this, there is no doubt that the moral case is much clearer with meat consumption, dairy consumption, mass production of eggs, any industry where animals are at risk of untold harm on an almost unimaginable scale. If societies are judged by how they treat their most vulnerable, on a human level we fail this test by most standards one wishes to apply. But the case is brutally stark when applied to animals unable to defend themselves from the hands of industry, unable to lobby and campaign for their own emancipation. The daily massacre and mutilation of animals on an industrial scale does not provoke mass outrage because animals cannot articulate their non-consent to being used in such a way; it is usually left to a few human kooks on the peripheries to screech their outrage onto deaf ears. Our interaction with the products of animals in our shops is distant, sterile; it lacks the respect due to a food source that arrives on our plates at so great a cost in suffering and resources. This is because we have not extended animals the same level of respect we already bestow on these so called ‘marginal humans’.
All that is needed to establish at least a presumption against meat consumption is the fact that animals are creatures that can suffer, and creatures capable of flourishing, that our actions can have an impact for better or worse on this fact, and that in a developed society, meat for the majority of us is not a necessary or even beneficial part of a balanced diet. And this presumption is established by extending the moral concern we already hold for all of humanity to include other animals, because to draw the line anywhere else is arbitrary, grounded in sentiment, even prejudice. That is our obligation to animals. The sustainability of the meat and fish industry, the damage it does to the planet, these are crucial issues, but they are weaker ethically as they do not establish the prohibition of meat production on its own terms, ultimately relying on self interest to make the case. But the fact that refraining from buying meat can have a positive impact on both climate change and the alleviation of suffering is a happy marriage of compassion and prudential reasoning.
Establishing this obligation is easy, establishing how to fulfill it leads to many complex and bizarre arguments regarding the mental life of mussels, the central nervous system of carrots, and the wellbeing of field mice. Only the red hot knife of reasoned clarity can cut through the butter of mudge and fudge that is slung around in this area. Compromise and trade-offs between competing obligations will vary depending on the person, their circumstances, their disposition. Here are some examples of fudge and some examples of mudge.
The obligation need not immediately require a puritanical dedication to its ends. If the lifestyle change required is complex and multifaceted, there need not be a contradiction in allowing time to lapse between recognising a moral obligation and deciding how best to honour it, and slowly weaving it into the tapestry of a daily routine. Many people in the UK eat meat twice, sometimes thrice a day. If everyone in Britain cut this down to one meal a week the impact on needless animal suffering could be world changing.
When asked if I would eat an animal raised in comfort and peace, from a relatively sustainable farm or benign food source, my answer is still no. Simply because there is still an outside chance that a premature death will cause this animal undue pain, however brief. When the steaks (pun intended) are as high as claimed, it is essential to err on the side of caution. Meat as a good or benefit to me is simply not worth this risk. The same line of reasoning applies when considering where to draw the boundary of the moral sphere, where animals on one side are worthy of our moral concern, animals on the other side are not. Do you include crustaceans? Do you include shellfish? Do you include fish? My answer is normally to caste the net (pun intended) of moral consideration as wide as possible, because again the risk of causing undue suffering and death is so great. A mussel may not have much of an internal existence over plant life, living purely on instinct with no sense of its own self. But all other things being equal we still owe this creature non-interference. By that I mean that my diet does not require their consumption, and only that would constitute a reason for me to eat them. The fact that a line is hard to draw does not mean we should not draw it somewhere. If milk and eggs could be produced without causing such pain there may again be a case to eat them on these grounds, but as things currently stand this is not so.
‘You ate the leftovers from last night’s roast.’ ‘How can you wear leather shoes?’ ‘You can never be sure there are no animal products in essential medication, in your clothes, in a whole spectrum of products you buy and consume.’ ‘Mice and other small creatures are killed in the process of harvesting various grains.’ ‘Almonds require inordinate amounts of water to produce yet I have seen you eat them’.
All of these questions are attempting to expose the hypocrisy of the choice. The vegetarian and the vegan are often accused of preaching to the point of self-satisfaction, because they have positioned themselves on a moral high ground above others by a simple choice. Rather than address the reasons for making this choice, it is easier to point to the hypocrisy of the individuals as a way of shutting down the debate before it begins. The above statements do not constitute a reason to eat meat. At most they constitute a reason to reassess the best way to meet an obligation already established.
‘Would you eat roadkill, or animals that die of natural causes?’
This is not an interesting question to dwell upon simply because such an opportunity never confronts most of us day to day. If I was thrust into circumstances where this could be my chief source of sustenance and the animal is already dead there is no moral question to consider, but like the previous point it is a smokescreen. There are many communities that do rely on hunting and killing animals as an important food source. It would be the height of hubris for me to apply this argument to their way of life because my way of life is simply different. The balance of when it is justifiable to kill an animal works differently depending on need. We do not need meat to survive, some communities do. The same would very simply apply to the ‘If you were stranded on a desert island’ question. Our current obligation to animals is not a universal that applies to all humans throughout the world and throughout history, it is an obligation thrust upon us based on circumstances. Is it also a judgement on communities that do eat meat? Does the case for moral relativism apply here? Do liberal westerners agonise over judging the abhorrent practices of other communities whilst dreading moral imperialism? Maybe…don’t eat meat! This is a philosophical argument with real practical import for how you and I live today, not how we may live after the bombs have dropped and we are left to scavenge.
‘We need meat and animal products as part of a balanced diet, making the switch can be expensive, time consuming, and lead to an uninteresting diet.’
We don’t need meat (or nearly as much as what the average Westerner consumes) for a balanced diet, but ensuring a balanced diet as a vegan is essential and more difficult for some than others. In the UK these points are sometimes couched as a class issue. Vegetarianism is the pursuit of the middle classes who have the time and money to do so. It is true, if you do not put the effort into making your diet interesting and varied, substituting the protein and iron you are not getting from animals elsewhere, then you may do harm to yourself. It is true that depending on how strict you are with the consumption of animal products it can be expensive and time consuming to maintain a balanced diet. And it’s true that if you have a nut allergy and go vegan, food may suddenly lose its appeal. But as with the previous points, this does not constitute a reason to eat meat. It amounts to a set of parameters to consider when attempting to fulfil this obligation. In many ways this is society’s crime, not ours. There are many things that society has allowed in the past that it now prohibits, and once this prohibition takes place a change in the general makeup of society usually follows to accommodate the changes in people’s lifestyles and buying habits.
‘If we all stopped eating meat tomorrow, then animals would be slaughtered on a mass scale, they would be a valueless commodity for meat producers’. ‘Farm animals would not survive if left to their own devices.’ ‘Hundreds of small and large businesses would suffer, unemployment would go up and local areas defined by regional dishes and industries such as fishing would lose their identity and fall into poverty, not to mention communities that rely on hunting or cattle herding as a way of life’.
We won’t all stop eating meat tomorrow, but if we did, the potential for any of these things to happen should not be taken lightly; they are serious consequences that deserve extensive contingency planning, even as some of them take place gradually. But again, they do not constitute a reason for you and I to eat meat. They constitute a reason to give the proper consideration to just how meat production is phased out, to consider what is due to communities that rely on these industries, and what we owe to farm animals whose economic value has been stripped. That is our priority over propping up a heavily subsidised industry that is unethical and inefficient at its core.
There are many more arguments along similar lines, some concerning the far reaching consequences of a world turned vegan and the impact it would have for agriculture and ecology; some with no practical or theoretical import such as asking whether plants feel pain. But for me, all of these miss the ultimate point. They all tacitly agree to the logic of this one original obligation: that the mass consumption of animals and what they produce is at odds with acknowledging them as creatures with lives that can go well or ill for them, that have desires that can be fulfilled and frustrated, that animals are similar enough to humans to be worthy of our compassion and our respect, and this is routed in the respect and compassion we already hold for members of our own species lacking a fully rational capacity. The benefits we receive from the eating of animals flesh, the drinking of their milk, and the frying of their eggs, are far outweighed by the damage done to animal flourishing in producing these goods. The dissenting points above should not be ignored, but they should not be misconstrued as a reason to dismiss our obligations outright. The direction of moral progress has been established, assessing how to traverse the practical obstacles in the way of this progress are just that, practicalities, they do not absolve us from anything.