radical Jainism makes more sense to me than veganism


Freddie deBoer used to blog at lhote.blogspot.com, and may again someday. Now he blogs here.

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45 Responses

  1. Kyle says:

    Not that I have any answers but I wanted to say posts like these are why I came to this blog and keep coming back.

    Thoughtful, interesting, well organized. Job well done and an enjoyable read at that.Report

  2. Conor Friedersdorf says:

    I’d rather shoot a squirrel than chop down a 3,000 year old giant sequoia.Report

    • Ryan in reply to Conor Friedersdorf says:

      On the other hand, I feel no compunctions about indiscriminately slaughtering bugs. But, even if cows had infested my living room, I probably wouldn’t call an exterminator.

      Maybe sublimity is the actual criterion. Majestic tree > cow > squirrel > bug. Where “beautiful woman” fits into that sequence is an exercise I’ll leave for the reader.Report

  3. Paul B says:

    Surely, the association of the prohibition against eating meat with consciousness, and the association with preventing pain, are both very troubled constructions, with a vast amount of logical consequences that I don’t think many vegetarians or vegans have considered.

    Yes! The great irony is that those who advocate compassion towards non-human life (I’m thinking of Peter Singer here, or perhaps a caricature thereof), tend to do so precisely to the degree that it exhibits these characteristically human traits — i.e. consciousness, forethought, etc. Ultimately it’s an argument against cannibalism, very broadly defined.

    This is good as far as it goes–it’s part of the same long process that has established other tribes, genders, races, etc. as worthy of moral consideration–but I don’t see why there hasn’t been more of Copernican revolution to knock humans from the center of the moral universe. Seriously, what basis do we have for deciding that a capacity for thought trumps a capacity for photosynthesis, besides the fact that we can clearly do one and not the other?Report

  4. Lee says:

    If you think vegans and vegetarians haven’t considered these arguments or tried to develop philosophical underpinnings for their view, then I suspect you haven’t really looked that deeply into the literature. Philosophers have been batting these questions around since at least the 70s, and there’s been a lot of in-depth writing on the subject from a variety of perspectives (Singer’s book already mentioned, Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, Stephen Clark’s The Moral Status of Animals, Mary Midgley’s Animals and Why they Matter, Steve Sapontzis’ Morals, Reason, and Animals, Evelyn Pluhar’s Beyond Prejudice, Mark Rowlands’ Animals Like Us, just to name a few. Plus the many popular-level books like Matthew Scully’s Dominion.)

    Even without delving into all that, though, I think it’s possible to provide a pretty pithy argument for vegetarianism:

    1. Other things being equal, it’s wrong to cause unnecessary suffering.

    2. Raising and slaughtering animals for meat causes unnecessary suffering.

    3. Therefore, other things being equal, raising and slaughtering animals for meat is wrong.

    This argument is perfectly consistent with the possibility that non-sentient organisms (or even inanimate objects) might also have some kind of moral standing. But the thrust of the argument is to focus on the suffering that we know we’re causing right now and stopping or minimizing it.Report

    • Freddie in reply to Lee says:

      Rather, that the average vegetarian assumes a simplicity to his argument that is perhaps unfounded.

      The question about the argument towards suffering is whether this means that removing that suffering removes the right of an animal to life. That seems strange. And it’s not an entirely academic question; it would certainly possible to have an animal anesthetized to prevent suffering. Would that remove their claim to life?Report

    • Paul B in reply to Lee says:

      But Singer, at least, doesn’t ground his argument in the mere capacity for suffering — rather, he weighs that against an account of a (human or otherwise) person’s “future interests,” so that it’s worse to kill a cow (which we can see has some degree of the self-conciousness necessary to have a future interest) than an insect (which we presume doesn’t).

      But I might be missing something–does he or anyone else give a thorough account of why these future interests are important?Report

      • E.D. Kain in reply to Paul B says:

        Then again, we base our entire very vague sense of suffering/conscience on our perceptions of what those things mean to us – and on at least a degree of anthropomorphizing. Things we cannot easily anthropomorphize, we assume have no conscience or capacity to suffer. We can empathize with the suffering of beasts but not the suffering of plants or trees. It’s a shallow – and certainly not fleshed out – (un)philosophical stance, but there it is.Report

      • Lee in reply to Paul B says:

        Paul B: Mark Rowland’s Animals Like Us has a very clear discussion of future-directed interests and why they matter. Rowlands distinguishes between having a future in a strong sense (i.e., having a lot invested in projects, desires, aspirations, etc. with a future-specific orientation) and a weak sense. Humans, he says, typically have futures in a strong sense, while most animals probably only have them in the weak sense. But he still thinks it’s wrong (other things being equal) to kill an animal, even if less wrong than killing a human. Here’s a brief quote:

        “killing an animal is wrong [because] it deprives the animal of a future. It is true (probably) that it only has a future in a weak sense, but, nevertheless, in dying it loses a future. Holding on to a future, even in this weak sense, is unarguably a vital interest of the animal, for if this interest is thwarted, then all its other interests are automatically thwarted too. The animal may have less invested in its future, but in losing a future it still loses out on all the opportunities for satisfaction that the future brings with it.” (p. 94 of the hardcover edition)Report

        • Paul B in reply to Lee says:

          Lee: Cool, thanks! I’m not familiar with Rowland, but this definitely gets at my concern (albeit by mere assertion here, but I’m sure there’s more to it).

          E.D.: Sure, we all anthropomorphize, but I’m just wondering aloud whether that tendency should be the basis of our ethics.Report

  5. Lee says:

    I think it’s safe to say that veg(etari)ans don’t have a consensus on whether animals have a right to life. Singer doesn’t think so; Regan does. On the face of it, there does seem to be something wrong with ending an animal’s life merely for my pleasure or convenience. (Robert Nozick, of all people, has a very convincing argument on this score in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.) The difficulty of providing a philosophical foundation for this intuition, though, isn’t a devastating argument against it, though. As far as I know, no one’s been able to come up with a philosophical theory of what’s wrong with taking human life that commands universal assent.

    On the second point, while it surely (maybe?) is possible to imagine an anesthtizing an animal for the entire duration of its life (or maybe genetically engineering cows that don’t feel pain), I think it’s safe to say that our current system of raising animals inflicts massive suffering on literally billions of animals. And it’s very difficult to imagine a system of producing meat in the near future that doesn’t do that. Why is that not enough of a consideration to motivate a personal boycott of that industry at the very least?Report

    • Freddie in reply to Lee says:

      The difficulty of providing a philosophical foundation for this intuition, though, isn’t a devastating argument against it, though.

      Of course not.

      Why is that not enough of a consideration to motivate a personal boycott of that industry at the very least?

      I’m sure it is enough of a motivation for many, and I wouldn’t discount it.Report

  6. Interesting post Freddie.

    I’m sure there are interesting points of discussion around notions of a ‘soul’ in humans and animals and not vegetables. But what about atheist vegetarians ( I assume there are more than a few of those)? Then we can cross-reference this whole conversation with liberal allowances for abortion. If a fetus is the property of the mother what about the cow that the farmer helps deliver, raise, etc or the vegetables that the gardner plants, nourishes, etc?

    As a hunter I have all sorts of morally complicated thoughts whenever I pursue my chosen hobby/sport/lifestyle so it’s of course good to know that even vegetaraians might have moral dillemas as well.Report

  7. E.D. Kain says:

    It’s okay to eat fish cause they don’t have any feelings.Report

    • Mr. Prosser in reply to E.D. Kain says:

      Interesting comment, sure to raise hackles somewhere. I used to fly fish and thought I was morally straight since I only practiced catch-and-release and I hate trout, too bony and tasteless. But when I looked at the mouths of the trout I caught I could see tremendous scarring and even old hooks. So, my decision to stop fishing was based on the fact that I caused suffering to no purpose because I don’t like the taste of trout and would not eat them. I suppose even if fish have no feelings, over fishing and drift nets are a moral problem for those concerned with the condition of the seas. What’s more important, my eating a fishstick or the cod population coming back from the brink?Report

      • I stopped fishing for sport years ago. I abhor catch and release because to me it just seems cruel. I will very occassionally fish for dinner and I have no problem with that. Dragging a fish into the bank by its lip, letting it nearly suffocate while removing the hook and then tossing it back in so I can do it again seems pretty messed up to me.

        When I hunt I only shoot what I intend to eat…period.Report

      • Andy Smith in reply to Mr. Prosser says:

        I fish and eat everything I catch. I agree with Mike that catch-and-release is rather stupid. If you aren’t going to eat the fish, why hassle it just for your pleasure?

        I can’t prove this, and it may sound self-serving, but I don’t think fish feel pain, at least not sensory pain from the hook. In addition to not having the nervous system structures that we know are associated with pain in humans, and which are found in higher vertebrates that behave as though they felt pain (dogs, e.g.), the behavior of a hooked fish is not consistent with feeling pain. If someone hooked you in the mouth while you were swimming, would you pull against it? I wouldn’t, the pain would dictate I did everything possible to minimize it. Other aspects of fish behavior don’t seem consistent to me with feeling pain. For example, if given the chance, they will try to swallow other fish nearly their size. Occasionally they die because the fish gets stuck in their throat. If they felt pain, wouldn’t they cease and desist before it reached this point.

        Not arguments that firmly settle the issue, but something to think about.Report

  8. Andy Smith says:

    It’s not anthromorphic to believe plants don’t suffer. We do know enough about the nervous system to say quite about which organisms feel pain and which don’t, or to say which feel more and which feel less.

    Also, there is another point entirely about what meat eating is doing to the ecology of the planet. Eating meat is a gross waste of energy, when the same nutrients can be obtained much more cheaply and efficiently by eating the plants that carnivores feed on. Surely everyone in this forum is also aware of still other problems with meat eating, e.g., the toxic effects of hormones used to stimulate growth of livestock, the pollution caused by feed lots, etc.

    Basically, people who eat meat do so because our species has evolved to enjoy the taste of animal protein and animal fat (which is generally far less healthy than other types of fat–still another argument against meat-eating). A major theme in the history of human civilization has been our species transcending or modifying hard-wired drives as overwhelming information becomes available that following these drives indiscriminately is not in our best interests. Judging from the general quality of posts in this forum, I really, really, really have trouble believing that anyone here is not very much aware of all of these very strong reasons for not eating meat.Report

    • Freddie in reply to Andy Smith says:

      But, again– you are assuming that it is simply the case that the argument against eating meat is an argument in favor of preventing suffering. Further, this argument elides a right to life and merely posits a right to not suffer, which are two very different things with vastly different moral consequences. What I am asking of you is to read into your own presuppositions with more critical inquiry, and further I am asking that you consider more deeply what the consequences are of making the right to not be killed a function of the right not to suffer. Because that is profound and, in many respects, antithetical to the history of Western moral philosophy.Report

  9. Freddie says:

    Incidentally, I think one argument that the average vegetarian or vegan doesn’t grapple with enough is the fact that ending widespread meat eating will result inevitably in a massive slaughter of cows, chickens, pigs and other animals we farm, as they will have lost their economic reason for being. You’d be talking about pushing those species to the brink of effective extinction, where their numbers would be reduced by an enormous percentage and they would continue to exist only in small handfuls as pets or in zoos. Surely, that is a massive amount of suffering and a vast ending of life, two things that vegetarians and vegans stand against. Yet I find this massive culling to be an inevitable consequence of the ending of eating meat.

    Incidentally, I’m very interested to know how these arguments invoking future happiness coexists with the decision not to raise more animals– does a potential life have a right to future happiness?Report

    • William Brafford in reply to Freddie says:

      Ending widespread meat eating immediately would probably lead to a great deal of animal slaughter, but an immediate end to meat consumption is, in my view, so unlikely as to be impossible. Practically, meaningfully reducing meat consumption would be a slow process, and farms would reduce stock in response to decreased demand by breeding fewer animals.

      I’m not a vegetarian, and there are a number of issues that I find more pressing than industrial meat production. Still, it’s one of my moral failings that I don’t boycott the industry.

      By the way, I’m suspicious of talking about a right to life for animals, or even a right not to suffer. I prefer to talk about a general human obligation not to cause unnecessary suffering, and to derive a right to life from this obligation when possible.Report

    • strech in reply to Freddie says:

      Incidentally, I think one argument that the average vegetarian or vegan doesn’t grapple with enough is the fact that ending widespread meat eating will result inevitably in a massive slaughter of cows, chickens, pigs and other animals we farm, as they will have lost their economic reason for being.

      Yes, because it will all happen instantaneously overnight.
      Look, that’s simply not going to happen because even if the world somehow goes vegan/vegeterian en masse it will be over time, a long slow shuttering of farms and so on and so forth as it becomes uneconomical to keep running. There’s never going to be a mass cull, let alone the kind of slaughter that occurs right now.Report

  10. Andy Smith says:

    Freddie, I really don’t understand what you’re saying. I agree that right to life is not the same as right not to suffer. Does that distinction matter when one passes on meat eating because of the suffering that it requires? I don’t think so. Given that we have to eat, and given that the reasons for believing that suffering increases with evolution, it is overwhelmingly the wiser course to assume that the lower on the food chain, the less suffering.

    The notion that there will be a massive slaughter of livestock if people stop eating them is ludicrous. Large numbers of people never change their habits that quickly. What would almost certainly happen is that the livestock business would scale down over a period of many years. I can’t imagine there would ever be a situation when there was no eating of animals whatsoever. Game animals are more healthful than livestock for a number of reasons, chicken is generally more healthful than beef, fish more than chicken, and so on. There are reasonable–not compelling, but reasonable–arguments to be made for killing some wild animals for food, given that their populations have traditionally depended on predator-prey relationships to remain in balance.

    Some day science might advance to the point where laboratory animals were no longer needed for experiments. Should we worry about an impending slaughter of white rats, and their extinction as a species? Good grief, I think you are really grasping at straws.

    The basic fact remains: eating meat is not healthier, cheaper nor more ecologically sustaining than a vegetarian diet. People continue to do it not because of any coherent arguments for it, but simply because they grew up in a culture supportive of this, and because it gives them basic pleasure.Report

    • Freddie in reply to Andy Smith says:

      I’ve heard this all before. And here’s the dilemma, for you: what you are then arguing for is not that many people stop eating meat. Rather you are arguing that a small number of people stop eating meat, and that their number gradually increase. So since you are in fact arguing for a kind of incrementalism, I have to ask: isn’t my intransigence on this issue– my continuing to eat meat– satisfying, in some way, your vision of progress? And how can you hold both a vision of a moral way to end meat-eating through gradual reduction and the attitude that there is “no coherent arguments” for meat-eating? You are, in fact, making a coherent argument that not everyone should stop eating meat.Report

      • Andy Smith in reply to Freddie says:

        No, I’m recognizing that my voice is one of many that contributes to some outcome. I’m well aware that no matter how much I might agitate in favor of some view, that view will not instantly come to pass. If there were an instantaneous realization by everyone on earth that eating animals was unjustified, we would be left with huge numbers of them that were suddenly too expensive to keep alive. The owners would want to slaughter them, and at that point many people would say, well, if you’re going to kill them, anyway, let’s at least not waste the meat, let’s eat them. Others would press for funds to keep them alive. And some half-ass compromise would ensue. Some animals would be slaughtered, some might not , and eventually all slaughter would be done with.

        Societies live on a much longer time scale than the individuals who compose them. This is one reason individuals frequently become frustrated at the pace of social change, as well as its outcome. I do understand this. On a smaller scale, I understood when I opined that we should get out of Iraq, that withdrawal could not be instantaneous. Whenever massive social resources go into supporting some institution, you can’t simply pull the legs out from under that table. You do have to have a long transition period, even if you really believe that every day some atrocity is being allowed to continue. Society has its own morals, and they are not the same as those of its individual members. I think a lot of stress goes on in the political world because people don’t understand this.

        This is not an argument for meat eating, or not caring, as you seem to think. It’s another argument for at least drastically reducing meat eating. Realizing how long it’s going to take to slow the vehicle down and make the turn is all the more reason for getting on the brakes now. Just because we can’t stop and turn on a dime is not an argument against those who are yelling Stop.Report

      • strech in reply to Freddie says:

        I’ve heard this all before. And here’s the dilemma, for you: what you are then arguing for is not that many people stop eating meat. Rather you are arguing that a small number of people stop eating meat, and that their number gradually increase. So since you are in fact arguing for a kind of incrementalism, I have to ask: isn’t my intransigence on this issue– my continuing to eat meat– satisfying, in some way, your vision of progress?

        No, it’s simply an admittance that vegans/vegetarians do not have magic powers to defy the path of every single previous social change in history. And hell, if *everyone* did instantly switch to vegeterian/vegan, they’d simply stop running the killing machines and let the cows live out their life where they are now, with likely a bunch of funding from all the newly converted vegans/vegetarians to buy larger amounts of land to do so. Since we’re talking about mass conversions here.

        You’re making an argument saying “isn’t the practical consequence of what you’re arguing” when relies on an event that will never actually happen, so there’s no way is in any way an actual practical consequence.Report

  11. Jaybird says:

    Beer exploits yeast.

    Anyway, seeing this setup: “Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it.”

    It makes me wonder if Jonathan Safran-Foer would agree that taking one’s matters into, ahem, one’s own hands would not also result in the needless slaughter of countless gametes.

    Indeed, one wonders at the writer’s opinion of women having the right to determine their own sexual destinies.

    When one makes a mental connection between the folks marching in front of a KFC with pictures of butchered chickens and the folks marching in front of a Planned Parenthood with equally graphic signs, one is hard pressed to stop seeing it.Report

  12. Kirk says:

    The argument that “there is no bright-line between consciousness and non-consciousness, and therefore animal right authors are being arbitrary” does more to undermine the pro-speciesism position than its opposite. If consciousness/sentience/etc. are arbitrary standards for moral worth, then how much more arbitrary is intelligence, moral capacity, or whatever animal torture apologists offer as there line for moral worth?
    There are rarely clean answers in ethical deliberation, and throwing up one’s hands at it being “too difficult” counts as a poor argument for restricting moral worth to humans.

    And as other posters have noted, animal rights philosophers have wrestled with all these questions. For you to imply that they somehow haven’t occurred to them shows more about your unfamiliarity with this field than it does about animal rights.Report

    • Freddie in reply to Kirk says:

      You fail to mention the logical extension of your position: if consciousness generates the right to life, and some species have more or less consciousness than others, than we have more or less right to kill them. A chimp’s right to life is much higher in that schema than that of a chicken. You cool with that? Can I eat tuna but not dolphin?

      Secondly, as I said, multiple times, I am not considering those devoted to philosophy of vegetarianism but to the casual arguments constantly banded about by evangelistic vegatarians. For you to ignore the fact that I made that distinction shows more about your commitment to intellectual honesty than it does to my arguments.Report

      • Kirk in reply to Freddie says:

        Is moral worth a sliding scale? Animal rights advocates could say that all entities that possess sentience have equal moral worth.
        Your position that “greater consciousness justifies greater moral worth” seems a justification for a Nazi reading of the Ubermensch. If certain people or more moral, conscious, or whatever your criteria is, then that does that justify them subordinating humans with less of this quality?Report

  13. Kirk says:

    One additional thought: What is your justification for human worth? How does it escape the difficulties you raise?Report

  14. Nathan says:

    How advanced would an AI have to be for someone not to eat it?Report

  15. Matt C says:

    Veganism and its philosophical justifications are easily countered by the empirical evidence available in human evolution. Anthropologists and evolutionary scientists have argued for some time now that a differentiation in early hominid species occured when man became a more carnivorous/omnivorous species instead of strictly herbivorous. Scientists have discovered hominid fossil data showing an expansion in brain size, and the theory is that an uptick in the various molecules consumed (i.e. proteins) through meat-eating lead to a more intelligent early human species that survived while the primarily “vegan” species died out.

    The need to argue about a “sliding” moral scale in terms of consciousness is therefore irrelevant in the debate on meat-eating and animal rights. If meat-eating, in evolutionary terms, actually increased human consciousness by increasing brain power, how could we turn around and renounce it? Irony of ironies: it may be our elevated consiousness in part derived by a transition to an omnivorous diet that even allows us to debate the merits of being omnivorous! That’s a philoshopical paradox you should be discussing.Report

  16. aboulien says:

    Have you read Elizabeth Costello?Report

  17. strech says:

    (For instance, consciousness is not a binary, but rather a spectrum, so the question becomes whether an animal has more right to life if it is more conscious– a cow has more right to life than a lobster, which has more right to life than an earth worm, etc.)

    You can’t dodge this judgment by not being vegan/vegetarian. You undoubtedly find killing and eating humans morally distasteful; this is not because of there mere humanity, but because of properties (consciousness or others) that humanity holds. Pretty much everything we have that can be considered morally relevant is on a spectrum. And so we draw a line.

    That the line is in some ways imperfect or slightly arbitrary because it is placed on a spectrum does not make it invalid, anymore than the sliding level of maturity of a child growing up makes the idea of an age of consent invalid.

    Also, the question is met with derision because
    (1) We’ve all heard it before, even those of us who never bring up our vegetarianism/veganism, and people seem to think we haven’t considered it.
    (2) It usually is being asked by someone who’s just being an asshole, and so derision is usually the appropriate response.Report

  18. JosephFM says:

    I think I’m probably closer to vegetarianism than most of your regular commenters, but for me it’s always been taste first and morality second, which is why I can’t ever see myself giving up bagels & lox with cream cheese, or sushi.

    As far as I’m concerned , I worry far more about the public-health and ecological consequences of our current meat-production system than I do about the animals within it. I worry more about lakes of pigshit than I do about the suffering of pigs, more about the growth of drug-resistant bacteria due to pumping cows full of antibiotics than I do the violence of the slaughterhouse. But I do realize this is a matter of priorities.

    I do think our conception of animal rights as a society tends to be totally arbitrary and based on traditional relationships and nothing else (which is why killing dogs is “cruel” but killing pigs – arguably more intelligent creatures – is just business).Report

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