The hard problems of vegetarianism

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EXCERPT: . . . So far, I have not discussed the different philosophical arguments that are typically advanced in favor of animal welfare. This is partly because their strengths and weaknesses have already been examined at length elsewhere. The other reason is that I believe, despite all their differences, they all collapse into a version of utilitarian consequentialism in some non-trivial sense.

Our understanding of animals’ mental capacities has advanced tremendously since the days of Descartes’s “soulless machines.” However, decades of research have not brought us much closer to a subjective understanding of what is going on inside the head of a pig, a cow, or a dog. As Thomas Nagel famously argued, while we can understand how bats use echolocation to navigate, we do not understand what it is like to be a bat. We can, albeit with some difficulty, put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but not in a horse’s hoofs, so to speak. Absent the experience of an animal’s qualia, we rely on somewhat crude behavioral observations to judge how our actions affect them. Pain and pleasure, joy and sadness are at least in principle observable, and they are typically used to justify who does and doesn’t count as a “moral patient.” Even those non-utilitarian theorists who hold that animal lives are intrinsically valuable will draw the line somewhere, and will not demand that bugs or amoebas be awarded the same rights as humans.

Now, if some form of utilitarianism underlies all animal welfare theories, the notion that animals’ interests need to be taken into account can be challenged by denying that the utilitarian calculus can be meaningfully applied across species. All it takes is to argue that we are not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively different from non-human animals. Both human and non-human animals suffer pain, yet presumably only humans are able to anticipate it, reflect upon it, and live their lives in dread of it. You can psychologically abuse and torture human beings, but you wouldn’t be able to achieve the same results with animals. Although far from the only reason for punishing criminals—we convict murderers even if the victim did not see it coming, died instantly and painlessly, and is not survived by grieving relatives—the mental landscape matters to ethical judgements. Those judgements, after all, are products of the mind as well, and thus differential treatment may well be justified.

The typical rejoinder points to what came to be known as marginal cases. There are humans whose mental capacities are extremely impaired for one reason or another, yet we emphatically refuse to treat them the way we treat cattle, pigs, or chickens. (Nor should we—saying that animals deserve to be treated better than we currently do does not imply that we should treat humans worse!) The problem with the argument from marginal cases is a different one: Firstly, while it is true that some humans lack the full conscious experience to which an ordinary member of the species has access, it is also true that there are no “super-feline” cats whose cognitive capacities are way above the typical repertoire—the situation is not symmetrical.

What does that mean? By treating animals (purely based on species affiliation) in psychologically damaging ways, we do not risk traumatizing them accidentally. Doing the same to people with intellectual disabilities, we cannot be so sure. This is a kind of consequentialist argument for speciesism, according to which, species membership is used as a proxy for a creature’s cognitive architecture. How much force it carries depends on how sure you are that an animal’s inner life is indeed qualitatively different from that of an average human.

Secondly, humans with severe brain damage will generally still be interwoven into the fabric of society, and other people will have a personal stake in their well-being, just like they have a stake in the well-being of their pet. Whether or not this justifies vastly different treatment is a tough question, but we have a strong inclination to treat human beings as ends in themselves.

For the good of whom?

But let’s move away from thought experiments and speculations. Let’s assume that we had, by divine revelation or other suitable means, collectively come to realize that vegetarianism is the correct philosophy. Even then, problems remain for which the vegetarian framework doesn’t provide obvious answers... (MORE - details)

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