Eating more humanely

In response to my earlier post on the hostile response that vegetarians and vegans experience, commenter Mary Jo said she became a vegetarian but later returned to eating meat but with a renewed sensibility, saying “I still feel really sorry for the animals I eat. I eat meat that is certified to be humanely raised and slaughtered by the Humane Farm Animal Care organization.” She gave a link to Certified Humane, an organization whose label on products certifies that it “Meets the Humane Farm Animal Care program standards, which includes nutritous diet without antibiotics or hormones, animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors.”
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The hostile response that vegetarians and vegans experience

I recently had lunch with a group of people including one young woman who was a vegan. She said that she often received negative, even hostile, receptions from people she worked with or others in social settings when they found out she was a vegan, even though she was not a proselytizer about it and even if she mentioned it only in passing during casual conversation and it was relevant to the conversation.

I had noticed this before. For some reason, some omnivores seem to view vegetarians and vegans as a threat to their own values and often try to convince them that meat eating is better for them. Playwright George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian who lived a very long and healthy life, amusingly described this odd response (quoted in Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality by Hesketh Pearson (1961), p. 171):

When a man of normal habits is ill, everyone hastens to assure him that he is going to recover. When a vegetarian is ill (which fortunately very seldom happens), everyone assures him that he is going to die, and that they told him so, and that it serves him right. They implore him to take at least a little gravy, so as to give himself a chance of lasting out the night. They tell him awful stories of cases just like his own which ended fatally after indescribable torments; and when he tremblingly inquires whether the victims were not hardened meat-eaters, they tell him he must not talk, as it is not good for him.

Some people tell vegans that human beings have evolved as omnivores and thus eating meat is ‘natural’, and that vegans and vegetarians are therefore going against nature. Others argue that a healthy diet requires some meat products, and that a vegan diet runs the risk of not providing some essential nutrients. Yet others argue that plants also have feelings and that eating them is as bad as eating meat. Yet others try to find contradictions in the vegan lifestyle, by arguing that if they are to be consistent, they should not wear leather products or use insect sprays or antibiotics, since these also harm living things.

All these arguments are unconvincing.

It is true that humans have evolved as omnivores in that our bodies are capable of extracting nutrients from animal products, but that does not mean that being an omnivore is the preferred state. Just because something occurs in nature does not automatically make it desirable. Our evolutionary history has resulted in many features (the ability to use violence to satisfy our needs, for example) that we try to suppress in the name of civilized behavior.

It is true that being a vegan requires closer attention to what one eats to make sure that all the required nutrients (such as iron, zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids) are in one’s diet but these can be easily dealt with by taking supplements if one does not want to go through the bother of carefully balancing one’s meals. While some studies indicate that there can be negative health risks of a vegan diet, the consensus is that a vegetarian diet is superior to a meat-based diet for overall health.

The idea that plants are also living things that may have feelings and that vegans are hypocritical for eating them and not meat is really quite silly. The key issue is whether we are causing unnecessary suffering in other living things by using them for our purposes. Suffering requires a minimal central nervous system. Where one draws the line on what life forms can suffer is not easy but plants (and even bacteria and jellyfish) seem to not have the kind of system we think is necessary to experience suffering.

The idea that unless one is 100% consistent in one’s actions, then one should not be a vegan at all is not tenable. If the ethical goal is to minimize suffering, then the fact that a vegan wears leather shoes or kills bugs does not take away from the fact that they cause less suffering than someone who eats meat.

The arguments that vegans encounter have little merit. But what interests me is why they face this kind of gratuitous hostility at all. If people want to be vegans, why not simply let them be? After all, they are not harming anyone else. Why does it bother some meat eaters to discover a vegan in their midst?

I think that it is because we all realize deep down that when it comes to ethical behavior, the vegans (and vegetarians) clearly occupy the ethical high ground. It is more ethical to be a vegan than it is to be a vegetarian, which in turn is more ethical than it is to be an omnivore. Some of us accept this even if we do not convert to veganism.

For example, I am an omnivore. I know that I should be a vegan, or at least a vegetarian, and that it is only weakness and laziness that prevents me from overcoming my life-long addiction to a diet that includes meat. My efforts to minimize suffering are limited to merely reducing my level of meat consumption and opposing factory farming practices. I freely concede that vegans and vegetarians are doing a lot more. But others seem not to be able to accept this and feel the need to claim that they are morally equal (or even superior) to vegans and thus attack them, using the weak arguments above. I think they realize deep down that the vegans are right and it makes them feel uncomfortable to feel ethically inferior.

In some ways this is similar to why saying one is an atheist also seems to arouse antagonistic responses in some people. It could well be that deep down these people realize that atheists are right and that there is no god but cannot come to terms with it. They cannot accept, even to themselves, that there really is no reason to believe in god and that they believe in god purely for emotional reasons or out of habit or because society, at least in the US, expects one to. The presence of atheists makes them uncomfortable because it brings them face to face with a reality that they wish to suppress and so they too concoct weak arguments to justify their belief.

The ethics of food-10: Minimizing suffering

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

The theory of evolution says that we are all connected in the tree of life. So humans are not only related to apes and other animals, we are also related to plants and even to the ‘lowly’ fungi. But no one is arguing that therefore we should stop eating vegetables too.

Clearly to survive we have to draw at least some lines as to what species we include within our moral community and what species we exclude. Such lines are necessarily arbitrary but need not be without some justification.

If we are going to use suffering as the measure of whether we are justified in killing and eating animals, then that implies that sentience is a key marker. But what level of sentience? Peter Singer and other animal rights philosophers argue that some level of sophistication of the nervous system is necessary to include the species within our moral compass. They draw the line at the nervous system of scallops, so that anything with an equal or more primitive nervous system than a scallop can be eaten.

Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) points out that a purely vegetarian diet does not solve the problem of killing animals.

Killing animals is probably unavoidable no matter what we choose to eat. If America were suddenly to adopt a strictly vegetarian diet, it isn’t at all clear that the total number of animals killed each year would necessarily decline, since to feed everyone animal pasture and rangeland would have to give way to more intensively cultivated row crops. (p. 326)

From this he draws a surprising conclusion:

If our goal is to kill as few animals as possible people should try to eat the largest possible animal that can live on the least cultivated land: grass-finished steaks for everyone.
. . .
Indeed, it is doubtful that you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature – rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls – then eating animals may be the most ethical thing to do. (p. 326)

It is undoubtedly true that in the competition for land, food, water, and other resources to maintain life, humans are unavoidably, even if indirectly, causing the death of other animals, whether we eat them or not, and even causing damage to the planet as a whole. (There is a group called The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement that argues that to reduce suffering and for the health of the planet, humans should choose to not have any more children and thus eventually become extinct.)

While the above arguments can be used by meat eaters to justify their continued practice, we should be wary of being too easily persuaded by them. It is always the case that people can usually come up with reasons to justify whatever we want to do, and meat eaters are no exception, especially since the desire to eat meat is so strong. Benjamin Franklin pointed out that “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

Singer cautions that it is hard for meat eaters to really understand the case against eating animals. He warns that we meat eaters cannot really be objective about this question because of the strong rationalization tendencies that come into play. “We have a strong interest in convincing others that our concern for other animals does not require us to stop eating them. . . . No one in the habit of eating an animal can be completely without bias in judging whether the conditions in which that animal is reared cause suffering.” (Pollan, p. 313)

Singer’s argument about the danger of self-deception impressed writer Pollan so much that he became a vegetarian while studying this question so as to try and increase his objectivity. He reverted to eating meat afterwards, though. (As was pointed out by commenter Dave to an earlier post, those who decide to adopt a vegan, or even vegetarian, diet need to find ways to supplement their diet with the essential vitamin B12, which is normally obtained only from meat and dairy products.)

Wherever one finds oneself in the debate of whether it is ethical to eat meat or not, I think that we can probably all agree that animals should be treated well while they are alive and that if they are to be put to death for whatever reason, it should be done in as humane way as possible in order to minimize suffering.

But it is clear that even this very limited goal is not being met. Our present industrial-scale food production system (more on this later) not only treats animals extremely cruelly, it pollutes the environment, destroys the soil, and poisons everything.

When I was very young and passing through my phase of infatuation with all things cowboy, my parents gave me an air rifle for my birthday. Excited, I wandered through my aunt’s backyard in northern Sri Lanka, shooting and missing at all kinds of targets, while imagining myself as one of my cowboy heroes. Seeing a crow in a tree, I aimed and fired, never dreaming that I would hit it. To my surprise, the bird dropped like a stone, dead. Soon after, the sky was filled with other crows making a terrific racket, which I took to be them rebuking me for this wanton act of destruction. My horror at the experience of having personally killed an animal and causing what seemed like great grief to other birds resulted in my only shooting at inanimate targets in the future.

There is a person who works for the maintenance department at my university who once a year gets a license to hunt deer and spends a weekend in the woods to shoot an animal. He has described his experiences to me. There was a time when my childhood experience with killing an animal would have resulted in me considering this a blot on the character of an otherwise decent person, treating him as the equivalent of the killer of Bambi’s mother. But now I realize that by buying meat that is produced by the industrial farming production system, I am guilty of more inhumane behavior than he is, because the animal he kills and eats has likely lived a far better life than the ones that I buy from the supermarket freezers.

POST SCRIPT: Free screening of award-winning documentary Peaceable Kingdom

Peaceable Kingdom is an inspiring story of personal redemption, compassion, healing and hope. Propelled by the eloquent testimony of animal farmers questioning the fundamental assumptions behind their way of life, Peaceable Kingdom gives a riveting portrayal of human and animal lives caught in an out-of-control industrial machine.”

You can see a preview here.
“Peaceable Kingdom is a masterpiece.” ~ Dr. Jane Goodall
Where: Talkies Film & Coffee Bar, 2521 Market Avenue in the Ohio City neighborhood in Cleveland (across from Great Lakes Brewing Co.)

When: Friday, August 15, 2008, 6:00 p.m.
For more info about this screening, contact Sunny Simon at 216-291-8773.

For some reason, the film is not showing on the Talkies website but Sunny Simon assures me that the event will take place.

(Thanks to commenter Mary for this information)

The ethics of food-9: Does a good life compensate for an early death?

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

In trying to arrive at some ethical consensus on how humans should treat nonhuman animals, I think we might all agree on a minimal condition: that once born, every animal deserves to have a good life while they are living. So that means that the inhumane treatment of animals that currently takes place in the industrial farming system in the US and other developed countries cannot be justified under any circumstances. Those animals are kept in cramped, feces-filled conditions, force-fed with food that their systems are not designed to digest, and treated with drugs to combat the problems arising from an inappropriate diet and awful conditions. The very fact that such places are hidden from public view and guarded to prevent observers entering is a telling indication that those animals are being treated badly.
[Read more…]

The ethics of food-8: Interests of species versus interests of individuals

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

I wrote before that the theory of evolution, by giving all animals equal standing in the evolutionary tree of life, provides a strong argument against the exploitation of one sentient species by another. There seems to be no defensible criteria by which we can prefer the interests of an individual human over that of an individual nonhuman animal, because they each have an interest in avoiding pain and suffering.

This seems to imply that killing animals in order to obtain meat for eating is wrong under all circumstances. But in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan suggests that this need not necessarily follow.

The argument is a tricky one that involves disentangling the interests of a species from the interests of individual members of the species. Recall that it was argued that we could not and should not give preferential treatment to our species as a whole over other species as a whole because whatever marker we might use for doing so (intelligence, language, consciousness, etc.), we would find at least some individual members of our species who had less of that quality than some members of other species.

But if we keep the argument at the level of species, a case can be made for eating meat.

One argument says that if the human species as a whole possesses some significant quality (say intelligence or consciousness) that other species either do not possess or possess at a lower level, that entitles all members of the human species privileged treatment, even those who may possess less of that particular quality than some members of other species. In other words, this argument rejects entirely the premise of the argument from marginal cases. But this line of argument has significant consequences if applied within the human species. If, for example, we discovered some important quality that (say) females possessed on average more than males, would we then be willing to privilege all women over all men?

Another argument says that being domesticated for the purpose of being eaten or otherwise exploited by humans has benefited such species of animals. The domesticated species we eat (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.) would most likely become extinct if we ceased to eat them. After all, the reason that their numbers are much greater than their wild cousins is because they have benefited from the protection that humans have given them. At some point in evolutionary history, these animals showed signs of being amenable to living alongside humans, adapted to doing so, and as a result they have experienced an explosive growth in numbers.

“[D]omestication took place when a handful of especially opportunistic species discovered, through Darwinian trial and error, that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk, eggs, and – yes – their flesh.” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 320) This language is somewhat misleading in that it implies that both sides were equal and conscious partners to this deal and that the animals voluntarily submitted. In fact, it is humans who unilaterally set the terms.

But as a result of this ‘bargain’, it is undoubtedly true that many of the animals we don’t eat like wolves, lions, and tigers are in danger of extinction, while dogs, cows, chickens, and pigs have flourished, at least in numbers. If we all became vegans and released domesticated animals into the wild, the numbers of these domesticated species would dramatically decrease and may even perish entirely within just a few generations.

The problem here is how to decide between what is good (at least numerically) for (say) the species of chicken (which favors domestication and the consequent meat eating) and what is good for an individual chicken (which clearly has an interest in not being eaten). The issue is further complicated by the question of whether the individual chicken has an interest in being born at all, if the price for that opportunity is to be killed and eaten later.

Answering such questions involve difficult, even impossible, metaphysical calculations. Is it better to have not lived at all or to have lived a good life even if that means being eventually killed to be eaten by others? Does the life of a single chicken that lives a long life result in more or less net happiness and suffering than two (or more) chickens whose lives are cut short? And so on.

Next: How do we weigh the benefits of a good life against a quick and painless but early death?

POST SCRIPT: This Modern World

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on stupidity in politics.

The ethics of food-7: Increasing the rights of animals

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

In addition to the morality of treating all animals humanely, the arguments of the animal rights philosophers and activists that animals should have more legal rights are slowly gaining ground. It is clear that over time, humans are slowly expanding our circle of consideration to be more inclusive of other species.

For example, Spain’s parliament on June 25, 2008 gave rights to Great Apes, the family of animals that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans.

Spain’s parliament voiced its support on Wednesday for the rights of great apes to life and freedom in what will apparently be the first time any national legislature has called for such rights for non-humans.

Parliament’s environmental committee approved resolutions urging Spain to comply with the Great Apes Project, devised by scientists and philosophers who say our closest genetic relatives deserve rights hitherto limited to humans.
. . .
Keeping apes for circuses, television commercials or filming will also be forbidden and breaking the new laws will become an offence under Spain’s penal code.

Keeping an estimated 315 apes in Spanish zoos will not be illegal, but supporters of the bill say conditions will need to improve drastically in 70 percent of establishments to comply with the new law.

Philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri founded the Great Ape Project in 1993, arguing that “non-human hominids” like chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and bonobos should enjoy the right to life, freedom and not to be tortured.

Of course, the idea that we extend our protections to just those that are close to us on the evolutionary tree can still be criticized as just an extended form of speciesism.

Broader protections have been extended to vertebrates in Britain due to legislation passed in 1986.

In Britain, such considerations have already led to legislation that restricts the use of animals in education. Scientific procedures that cause ‘adverse effects’ such as pain and stress to living vertebrates are regulated by the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, and are allowed only at undergraduate level and above. The act specifically prohibits such procedures in primary and secondary schools. The restrictions extend to fetuses, including hen’s eggs, from halfway through gestation or incubation, and larval forms such as tadpoles from the time they become capable of feeding independently

To reduce or refrain from eating meat is not asking a lot from people. Restricting the use of animals in research is much more problematic because the cost/benefit balance swings much more to the benefits side.

It is true that in the past we have been too cavalier in the way that animals have been used, sometimes allowing animal experimentation merely to develop commercial products such as cosmetics and perfumes, or simply to give students dissection experience that may not have been necessary or could be obtained other ways. While those kinds of abuses are now becoming less common, the question of where to draw the line is not easy.

While few are arguing for a total ban on animal experimentation, there is an increasing awareness that for such experiments to be allowed, a strong case must be made that the benefits are considerable and important and cannot be obtained in any other way.

[I]t is not necessary to insist that all animal experiments stop immediately. All we need to say is that experiments serving no direct and urgent purpose should stop immediately, and in the remaining fields of research, we should, whenever possible, seek to replace experiments that involve animals with alternative methods that do not. (p. 48) . . . [W]henever experimenters claim that their experiments are important enough to justify the use of animals, we should ask them whether they would be prepared to use a brain-damaged human being at a mental level similar to that of the animals they are planning to use. (p. 52) . . . Since a speciesist bias, like a racist bias, is unjustifiable, an experiment cannot be justifiable unless the experiment is so important that the use of a brain-damaged human would also be justifiable. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 53.)

Singer argues that the pursuit of knowledge, however beneficial we might claim it to be, is not an unfettered right.

[T]he ethical question of the justifiability of animal experimentation cannot be settled by pointing to its benefits for us, no matter how persuasive the evidence in favor of such benefits may be. The ethical principle of equal consideration of interests will rule out some means of obtaining knowledge. There is nothing sacred about the right to pursue knowledge. We already accept many restrictions on scientific enterprise. We do not believe that scientists have a general right to perform painful or lethal experiments on human beings without their consent, although there are many cases in which such experiments would advance knowledge far more rapidly than any other method. Now we need to broaden the scope of this existing restriction on scientific research. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 56.)

Singer is saying that such experiments are not allowable unless they are crucial enough that we would be as willing to do the experiment on a severely brain damaged human (who also has no friends and relatives) instead of a chimpanzee.

This is quite a high bar and it is on this point that Singer is likely to lose people, even those who otherwise support his views about the way we should treat animals. While we do allow human experimentation currently in the form of clinical trials and other forms of experimental treatment, it is only after the case has been made that there is only a small risk of harm. As far as I am aware, the standard is lower for experimentation on animals.

Finding a common standard that would meet the needs of scientific researchers and animal rights activists is likely to be the biggest obstacle.

(Note: One of the commenters to the previous post (Cindy) actually does some of this kind of medical research and her thoughts on this topic carry the weight of actual knowledge.)


The ethics of food-6: Against speciesism

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Peter Singer opens his 1975 book Animal Liberation with this statement:

This book, Animal Liberation, is about the tyranny of human over nonhuman animals. This tyranny has caused and today is still causing an amount of pain and suffering that can only be compared with that which has resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white human over black humans. The struggle against this tyranny is a struggle as important as any of the moral and social issues that have been fought over in recent years. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 21)

Equating the present treatment of animals with the horrors of slavery is strong stuff. It is important to realize that by doing so he is not in any way minimizing the horror of slavery. In fact, one thing that shines through in Singer’s writings is his deep abhorrence of all kinds of exploitation. On the contrary, he is trying to make us view our treatment of animals with the same horror that we rightly view slavery. His rhetoric is being used to shock us into a realization of how barbaric is our present-day treatment of animals.

Is it possible that future generations will look back in horror at our current treatment of animals and wonder how we could have been so blind to the barbarity of our actions, the way that we now look back at slave owners?

[C]ould it be . . . we will someday come to regard speciesism as an evil comparable to that of racism? Is it possible that history will someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans who went about their lives in the shadow of Treblinka? The South African novelist J. M. Coetzee posed precisely that question in a lecture at Princeton not long ago; he answered it in the affirmative. If the animal rightists are right, then “a crime of stupendous proportions” (in Coetzee’s words) is going on all around us every day, just beneath our notice. (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 309)

The problem in a nutshell is this: A bedrock assumption is that we as humans should extend our full consideration to other humans. We think it is wrong to exploit them for our own ends, and would condemn the killing and eating of other humans. Even if someone had ceased to be of any value at all to society, we would consider it wrong to devalue that person’s life.

So what gives us the right to devalue the lives of members of other species?

It is important to realize that Singer is not an absolutist. He does not condemn all killing and eating of animals. Even if we do not give the interests of animals the same full consideration we give to the interests of humans, Singer argues that at the very least, what should drive our decision making is the desire to eliminate, or at least reduce, pain and suffering. And one of the things that we should target is the present day industrial farming model that treats animals unbelievably cruelly. This is a clearly avoidable evil that even meat eaters could and should embrace.

Only the tiniest fraction of the tens of billions of farm animals slaughtered for food each year – the figure for the United States alone is nine billion – were treated during their lives in ways that respected their interests. Questions about the wrongness of killing in itself are not relevant to the moral issue of eating meat or eggs from factory-farmed animals, as most people in developed countries do. . . . In the light of these facts, the issue to focus on is not whether there are some circumstances in which it could be right to eat meat, but on what we can do to avoid contributing to this immense amount of animal suffering. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 70)

Whatever one’s views on eating meat, I think most people would agree that animals should be treated as kindly and humanely as possible. We rightly react with horror to stories in which animals have been treated badly and look upon with disgust the perpetrators of such acts.

This may be why it is that many of the darker aspects of our industrial food production system involving animals are kept away from public view. Michael Pollan found that he could not get to see the places where beef cattle are slaughtered or where layer chickens are kept. In fact, he argues that one of the best ways to improve the conditions of animals in the food chain might be to legislate complete transparency in all aspects of the production line, to the extent of requiring the walls of the facilities be made of glass, open to the public, and easily visible to anyone who wants to see exactly how their meat and eggs get to their supermarkets. This is not an absurd idea. Pollan reports that one company (Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minnesota) “is so confident of their treatment of animals that they have walled their abattoir in glass.” (p. 333)

Pollan also describes his experience on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm where people are welcome to visit and see how the animals live and how they die. Pollan himself took part in the process where he personally killed chickens, watched by members of the local community who had come to buy chicken. While there is no doubt that such an experience might turn someone off meat eating forever, Pollan reports that having lived on the farm and having seen how well the animals were treated in life and how humanely they were killed, the experience did not turn him off meat as he had expected it to.

Somehow, for reasons he could not quite explain, the fact that the animals had led a good life and had what seemed like a quick and painless death made the situation acceptable to him.

POST SCRIPT: Now, this is the ‘on’ switch . . .

John McCain apparently does not know how to use a computer, even to surf the net or get email. This has caused some snickering but Jackie and Dunlap have some advice for him on how to deal with this issue.

The ethics of food-5: Pain and suffering

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Philosopher and advocate of animal rights Peter Singer is sometimes accused of going out of his way to make deliberately outrageous statements. From what I have read of him, this charge seems unjust. He strikes me as a very thoughtful philosopher who is not being merely a provocateur but is skillfully using the argument from marginal cases to show us the consequences of carrying the often glib justifications we use to justify our treatment of animals to their logical conclusion. The end result often makes us uncomfortable, which may explain the somewhat heated responses he generates.
[Read more…]

The ethics of food-4: Are humans privileged in some way?

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Our current attitudes towards nonhuman animals seem to be based on two assumptions. The first is that all humans are believed to be equal in some sense and one person has no right to exploit another. The second is that nonhuman animals are somehow inferior to humans and thus have lesser rights and can be used for our benefit. But how do we justify this distinction?

Philosopher Peter Singer points out that people are manifestly not equal in all kinds of ways, some important and some trivial, and this realization has important consequences.

Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans; it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings. (Italics in original. From his book Animal Liberation, excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 31)

Of course, meat eaters can always take ultimate refuge by invoking speciesism, by just arbitrarily deciding that other members of our own species deserve more consideration from us than other species.

But this is not a moral argument. It is just as arbitrary as earlier rules that we now despise as racist or sexist, that argued that other races or women were intrinsically inferior and thus did not deserve the same rights. As Singer argues, “To exclude the chimp from moral consideration simply because he’s not human is no different than excluding the slave simply because he’s not white.” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006, p. 308)

To avoid pleading guilty to the charge of naked speciesism, those who feel that humans have some property that entitles them to be privileged over nonhuman animals have looked for at least one quality that humans possess that animals don’t (or at least possess to a significantly lesser degree) that would justify such differential treatment.

But finding such a marker proves to be remarkably elusive. Although human beings do possess certain features that are unique it is hard to argue that those features give us the right to kill those animals that do not possess that feature, any more than the fact that the elephant has a unique trunk gives it the right to kill and eat other animals. One has to make the case why that quality matters in a morally significant way.

Animal rights philosophers like Peter Singer have squarely targeted the various candidates proposed for this privileging property and come to the conclusion that no such marker exists.

What about intelligence or language, something that humans undoubtedly possess? The problem is that it is not the case that all humans possess more intelligence or language than all nonhumans. For example, an adult chimp or dog or horse could well have more intelligence, or communicate better, than a newborn infant, and yet we accord the infant full rights while denying them to the animals.

A chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of advanced senility. So if we base the right to life on these characteristics, we must grant these animals a right to life as good as, or better than, such retarded or senile humans. . . . What we must do is bring nonhuman animals within our sphere of moral concern and cease to treat their lives as expendable for whatever trivial purposes we may have. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 45)

So “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006, p. 307)

The argument that the infant has the potential to develop into a fully intelligent human being does not work either because there are a few sad cases where an individual, due to birth defects or injury, is severely retarded and will never develop much. In fact, any quality that we can name that has the possibility of being used to give preferential treatment to humans runs into the problem that we can always find a few humans who, due to a host of reasons, have less of that quality than some nonhuman animals. And yet we always give preference to the ‘inferior’ humans over the ‘superior’ animal.

This kind of argument against giving privileged status to the right of humans is called the ‘argument from marginal cases’ and is a powerful one.

Next: The role of pain and suffering

POST SCRIPT: Pointless

Since I am known as someone who follows politics, I am sometimes asked to comment on who I think will be the likely vice-presidential picks of Obama and McCain. This is a topic about which I feel it is useless to speculate. What’s the point? When the candidates are good and ready, they will pick someone on the basis of criteria that they deem important. Since those criteria are kept secret from us, any name is as likely as any other.

Of course, there are people that I would prefer and whom I think would help the candidate. But those are based on my criteria and there is no reason to think that the candidates are using the same criteria.

So why don’t we just forget about this topic until the candidates are ready to tell us?

The ethics of food-3: Evolutionary implications

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The theory of evolution has, of course, implications for the question of whether we should eat meat. One popular view of evolution lends support to the perceived superiority of humans over other species. This view sees evolution as a ladder-like hierarchy, rising ever upwards to higher and higher forms: as a sequence: amoebas→ sponges→ jellyfish→ flatworms→ trout→ frogs→ lizards→ dinosaurs→ anteaters→ monkeys→ chimpanzees→ Homo sapiens. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994, p. 352)
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