“Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy”

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Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, gamingvulture.tumblr.com. And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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145 Responses

  1. Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

    I think the kosher and halal traditions fit here, banning needless suffering.

    That most meat animals wouldn’t have been born at all were they not bred to be eaten rather balances out “taking their lives,” at least on some metaphysical level. Better they’d not been born at all?  That’s a metaphysical or at least moral judgment, but not the only valid one.  [Again, with the proviso against “needless suffering.”]

    A kosher butcher takes his calling very seriously and keeps his knife sharp and ready.  Part of the kosher practice is to eat meat prepared without pain and to respect the sacrifice given by the animal.  Animals are respected and their comfort is taken into consideration when they die.  If the animal suffers in any way, for instance the knife is nicked and not sharp the animal is non kosher. 

    http://www.alljewishlinks.com/kosher-butcher-ensuring-the-beef-is-kosher/

    Clearly, a moral seriousness here.  I find your essay well-considered, Mr. Gach, and as we see, your concerns have been acknowledged by at least some traditions with an internal coherence.

    [The cruelty of factory farms is of course indefensible, but I think it’s a separate question from the ethical Problem of Meat itself.]Report

    • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      I agree.

      For those who are religious, the exile from Eden story carries with it the implication for how we survive.

      I have seen scientific studies that suggest plants also have emotions and feel pain; while I’m not convinced, I admit it is entirely possible. The tenderness and nurturing we feel towards baby calves is purely instinctive, as if put there by God- yet the hunger to kill them and eat them is also instinctive.

      Meaning we were not allowed by God to subsist only on air or minerals; we were designed to eat other living things, and to understand and be horrified at their suffering.

      Is this  a dilemma? Of course. But life itself is a dilemma- we are called to fiercely embrace life, yet accept death.

      So the practice of killing animals while praying over them, seems entirely appropriate to me.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      “That most meat animals wouldn’t have been born at all were they not bred to be eaten rather balances out ‘taking their lives,’ at least on some metaphysical level.”

      This proves too much, unless you’re willing to argue that it also justifies raising humans for meat.Report

  2. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    Why does the manner in which they are slaughtered matter more than the fact that it occurs, and that they are bred for it.

    For the same reasons why we would regard someone as a sadist were they to swerve their car in order to run over the hindquarters of a kitten, but not a manslaughterer if they ran over one by accident, or a murderer if they shoot a snake in their pasture.

    The value of life is not universal.  Most frameworks of thought acknowledge that even if we talk just about sapient human life.

    Surely reducing suffering is a powerful and compelling moral principle. 

    Sure.  But this, in and of itself, says nothing about anything other than “reducing suffering”.

    Is unilaterally ending another creature’s life not also something to be avoided? 

    Is it?  To what extent?

    Is untimely death not also a form of suffering?

    No.  This one I’m pretty sure of, although one can make the case.  It may cause suffering for those who survive.  It may cause suffering for the creature about to expire, if it has self-awareness of its approaching death.  But untimely death itself causes no suffering to an entity.  It just is.  All death is untimely to any entity that isn’t actively seeking its own destruction.

    With the amount of starvation and hunger that remains in the world, how feasible is it to breed and raise animals, who consume many more calories than they ever give back in the form of meat, so that we can eat them?

    There’s a long laundry list of things that perhaps we ought to be doing about starvation and hunger in the world.  That doesn’t make “not doing them” necessarily immoral, on the face of it.  Of all the arguments against the consumption of meat, this one is the weakest sauce, IMO.

    But I would hope their reasoning would amount to something better than “well the other animals do it.”

    Quite frankly, I don’t find this line of argument very interesting, but I can think of at least two frameworks of thought where it’s completely justifiable following from base principles that aren’t too controversial.

    Even if you’re not natural law folk concerned with rights to life, it’s not exactly out of bounds to say that evolutionarily speaking we’re omnivores and (barring sapience of whatever it is we’re looking to spit and put over the fire) it takes rather exceptional pleading to argue that we ought not to eat foods that are edible, instead of the other way around.

    It’s completely ridiculous to call breeding animals for slaughter a form of respect simply because the living conditions are pleasant while they last.

    Is allowing a species to go extinct always immoral?Report

    • But untimely death itself causes no suffering to an entity.  It just is.

      I’m not sure how we can know this.  Although I am aware of reports that have examined near-death experiences and some feeling of peacefulness, I have a hard time acknowledging that therefore there is no suffering after death.  I’m not going to insist on it; I’ll find out when I find out.

       Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      Why does the manner in which they are slaughtered matter more than the fact that it occurs, and that they are bred for it.

      For the same reasons why we would regard someone as a sadist were they to swerve their car in order to run over the hindquarters of a kitten, but not a manslaughterer if they ran over one by accident, or a murderer if they shoot a snake in their pasture.

      I dont think the reasoning there is fully fleshed out. When it comes to humans, the fact of deliberate killing is often considered to be more serious than the manner in which it was killed.

      Even if we were to concede that animals are lesser beings worthy of less consideration than humans, it is not clear why that would reduce the moral badness of animal killing a lot more than it reduces the badness of animal suffering. After all, it seems plausible that the badness of killing and suffering are reduced proportionately.

      No. This one I’m pretty sure of, although one can make the case. It may cause suffering for those who survive. It may cause suffering for the creature about to expire, if it has self-awareness of its approaching death. But untimely death itself causes no suffering to an entity. It just is. All death is untimely to any entity that isn’t actively seeking its own destruction.

      Untimely death can still be a kind of harm even though it does not count as suffering per se.

      There’s a long laundry list of things that perhaps we ought to be doing about starvation and hunger in the world. That doesn’t make “not doing them” necessarily immoral, on the face of it. Of all the arguments against the consumption of meat, this one is the weakest sauce, IMO

      But it does make doing your part to consume efficiently and sustainably a morally better choice than the alternative.

      It’s completely ridiculous to call breeding animals for slaughter a form of respect simply because the living conditions are pleasant while they last.

      Is allowing a species to go extinct always immoral?

      The issue is not about letting a species go extinct. After all cows and chickens are not anywhere near going extinct. It is about the relative severity between killing an animal with more suffering or less. While doing the former is worse than the latter, Ethan’s point (and mine I supppose) is that it is ridiculous to suppose that the relative lack of animal suffering is morally significant enough to show up against the fact of killing. Killing animals is still more serious that causing them pain. (of course if death is imminent either way, doing it painlessly is better, but then I am pro euthanasia)Report

      • Avatar Fnord in reply to Murali says:

        Killing animals is still more serious that causing them pain.

        Why is that?

        It’s not even obviously true for humans. Causing “gratuitous suffering” in humans can be called torture, and is generally condemned in civilized society even where punitive executions are acceptable. And humans have a vastly increased ability to imagine, plan, and hope for possible futures (and to imagine and fear death) compared to animals.Report

        • Avatar Murali in reply to Fnord says:

          Why is that?

          Seriously I dont know. I certainly wont say it is the case in all circumstances. But It might hold as a rough generalisation. What seems morally salient when we treat others is their preferences (or maybe even their meta preferences). I act badly towards another being when I fail to take into account the appropriate preferences the guy has. I also think I can reasonably attribute preferences to animals. Normally, what would count as the animal’s own heirarchy of preferences. But, given that I dont really know what the animal’s own heirarchy is, I’m imposing my own heirarchy (where appropriate) on the animal.

          Causing “gratuitous suffering” in humans can be called torture, and is generally condemned in civilized society even where punitive executions are acceptable.

          Torture may be condemned in societies with the death penalty, but the circumstances are different. One is used as a punishment on people who have been formally convicted of a heinous crime (by due process) and the other is performed on people who have not been formally convicted yet (or given due process). When we compare the death penalty to caning, it is easy to see that caning is a lesser punishment than the death penalty.Report

          • Avatar Fnord in reply to Murali says:

            Punitive torture used to be quite common, too. It is intuitively obviously that caning is less severe than the death penalty. It’s far less obvious for, eg, stretching on the rack (at least for me, and I can’t honestly say how much of that is familiarity bias). Much less any of the numerous methods that combined torture and execution. You say “it is ridiculous to suppose that the relative lack of…suffering is morally significant enough to show up against the fact of killing”; which suggests that not only that death is worse than suffering, but that the harm of killing is so much greater that the manner of death is essentially irrelevant. But I think it’s intuitively obvious that torturous methods like drawing and quartering are significantly worse with lethal injection (at least, if the anesthetic works as advertised).

            It’s not just in judicial situations, either. Killing in war occurs without due process, and even the deaths of non-combatants is generally not considered a war crime unless civilians are intentionally targeted. But torture of prisoners is generally considered to be a war crime, even when it serves a legitimate military purpose.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to Fnord says:

          According to one strain of thought, common in the ethics literature, ending a life early cuts off all possible experiences for that life, including all possible joy, happiness, etc. (all the good experiences), which is a bad thing. Therefore, all things being equal, ending a life prematurely is a morally bad thing. The arguments are a little more sophisticated than that, of course, and the “all things being equal” does a lot of work, but you get the point.Report

          • Avatar Fnord in reply to Chris says:

            I’m not disputing that killing is a harm (at least for certain organisms; humans, obviously, amoebas, not so much).

            I’m disputing that killing is necessarily a worse harm than causing suffering, and especially that the harm done by killing is so much greater that differences in suffering are essentially irrelevant.

            Ending a life early cuts off all possible experiences for that life, including all possible joy, happiness, etc. 

            And I’d argue that humans ability to anticipate and plan for those experiences makes the death of a human especially harmful.  When we compare the harm done by the death of a human versus the harm done by the suffering of a human, the “cutting off” should be given additional weight, versus comparing the death of an animal to the suffering of an animal.Report

  3. Look, there are arguments for eating animals that are both legitimate and vigorously reasoned.  The circle of life is not one of them.  Many predators kill other predators over food, reproduction, and general dominance.  This is also “natural.”  But this observation hardly serves as justification for humans behaving this way toward other humans.

    I think, though, if we couple this observation–which I agree with as far as it goes–with Tovar’s observation, we face a test over how necessary meat is to our diet, which to my mind implicates the argument you bring up later in the post about the global morality of breeding animals from whose meat we can garner only a fraction of the input when it comes to energy (I wonder if this is everywhere as devastating an argument as it might seem:  are there some areas of the world on which the only vegetation that can be grown is inedible to humans but edible to animals that humans can eat?  If so, that might change the calculus in some cases).

    I presume meat is usually not a necessity, but I’ve heard that it’s the most efficient way to deliver proteins to the body, and I’ve also heard that some people need those proteins a lot more than others and meat is the best way for them to live a healthy life.  Of course, even if what I’ve heard is true, that doesn’t mean we don’t eat too much meat and that our current approach to eating it is moral.  (It might not even mean that eating any meat is moral.)

    For what it’s worth, I share your qualms about meat eating even as I also share your fancy for meat.Report

  4. Avatar wardsmith says:

    Are you familiar with the Shmoo?Report

  5. Avatar Andy Smith says:

    “For the same reasons why we would regard someone as a sadist were they to swerve their car in order to run over the hindquarters of a kitten, but not a manslaughterer if they ran over one by accident, or a murderer if they shoot a snake in their pasture.”

     

    The accident scenario obviously is not relevant here. Shooting a snake, if it threatens human life (which it almost always does not; snakes generally kill other prey which are far more troublesome to humans) is also not relevant to killing animals for food. I really don’t see the point of these examples at all.

     

    “The value of life is not universal.  Most frameworks of thought acknowledge that even if we talk just about sapient human life.”

     

    We value the life of other animals differently from our own, of course. That is not to say that we don’t, shouldn’t or couldn’t value the life of animals that we in fact slaughter for food.

     

    “But untimely death itself causes no suffering to an entity.  It just is.  All death is untimely to any entity that isn’t actively seeking its own destruction.”

     

    So in principle, you see no reason not to kill any animal at any time for any reason—or for no reason? How in the world would you justify not killing an animal?

     

    “Even if you’re not natural law folk concerned with rights to life, it’s not exactly out of bounds to say that evolutionarily speaking we’re omnivores and (barring sapience of whatever it is we’re looking to spit and put over the fire) it takes rather exceptional pleading to argue that we ought not to eat foods that are edible, instead of the other way around.”

     

    Again, the argument that we are not necessarily served by following our animal natures is relevant here. Just because we evolved to eat meat among other foods does not mean that we can’t change or shouldn’t change. Most advances in civilization have in fact required “exceptional pleading”.

     

    I’m surprised there isn’t more about the health aspects here. It has been pretty well documented that a vegetarian diet, if constructed wisely, can be healthier in most respects than one eating meat. The bottom line is that meat is not necessary, which really ought to be the end of the argument. And as always, the people arguing that it’s healthy to eat meat may be appealing to principles which, however carefully thought out, are not at all representative of the thinking of most people. The fact remains that large numbers of people in our society eat far too much meat than is healthy for them. Meat eating contributes to many serious diseases. Eating meat sparingly might be very healthy, but most people don’t eat meat sparingly.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Andy Smith says:

      You made my rebuttal for me.

      On the point about the relative health of one or the other, I didn’t go that route because I am not versed on the issue, and not in a position to go one way or the other.

       Report

    • The fact remains that large numbers of people in our society eat far too much meat than is healthy for them. Meat eating contributes to many serious diseases. Eating meat sparingly might be very healthy, but most people don’t eat meat sparingly.

      I agree.  And the “eats too much meat” applies to me as much as anyone, and more than a lot of people.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Andy Smith says:

      We value the life of other animals differently from our own, of course. That is not to say that we don’t, shouldn’t or couldn’t value the life of animals that we in fact slaughter for food.

      Absolutely.  Unless I know what your “differently valuing” means, though, I’m not sure where to go.  Ethan seems to value them differently enough that he doesn’t change, but enough that it worries him.  Dodgy place to be stuck, he has my sympathies.  Other people value them not much differently at all, and they look at the whole affair as barbarism.  Not very dodgy, but you get a lot of self-righteousness here.  Some people don’t care – that’s most Americans and sure, it might be a good idea for them to kill a few braincycles thinking about this instead of American Idol.  (Other people value them just as much as the strictest vegan does, but they kill them precisely for that reason – they’re sick people.)

      My original comment wasn’t meant as an argument.  My position is… well, complicated.  I’m just trying to suss out where people are coming from.

      So in principle, you see no reason not to kill any animal at any time for any reason—or for no reason? How in the world would you justify not killing an animal?

      I killed an animal this morning, in the bathroom.  Didn’t think twice about it.  Don’t feel compelled to justify it.  More on that in a second.

      I can think of lots of reasons why one should justify killing anything.  Kris’s horrible reducto downthread is the cheapest cheap shot in the question of the ethics of death (made cheaper because it’s framed as complaining about the other side being cheap)… if we’re going to take that route then the only principled response is to sit quietly until you starve to death.  Even then, you’re killing off all the e coli in your gut that depend upon you to live.  Sucks, you’re going to burn in Hell for that.  We are condemned to a pointless existence of being sources of suffering and agony for the rest of Creation.  I will now go read some Russian literature and smoke unfiltered cigarettes and curse the misfortune that led to my birth.

      People generally seem far more concerned about killing animals when they’re fuzzy… and doubly so when the babies are cute… than they are about killing any other sort of animal.  When you start drilling down, you start getting all sorts of “well, they’re a ‘higher’ form of animal you see…” responses that are usually not based on anything other than they’re fuzzy and their babies are cute.  If you’ve got a ratio interval ranking of higher forms of life bust one out, I’ve been working on one for twenty years and I don’t like mine.

      That animal I killed this morning?  Didn’t have a spine.  Small.  Annoying as all hell.  You probably crush one every time you gambol across the grass.  Ant.  How monstrous am I?  I’ve gone on fevered campaigns of genocide against these little buggers.  Mashed them with my fist.

      Does that matter?  Or does it only matter when the thing I’m crushing has big cute puppydog eyes?  If you’re going to start this conversation, tell me why we ought to worry about pigs and cows and not worry about ants.  Maybe you have an answer.  Maybe your answer doesn’t boil down to “they’re fuzzy and their babies are cute”.  Maybe your answer is well thought out, and has a large frame of serious consideration behind it.

      I live in California, so I’ve had this conversation about a hundred billion times, and I’ve had a reasonable version of it about five times.  This might be number six, but statistically speaking the odds are not good.

      Again, the argument that we are not necessarily served by following our animal natures is relevant here. 

      I wasn’t making that argument, or refuting it.  Are you?  Stand it up.  I bet I can push it over.  That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, of course.  There’s lots of beautiful arguments to make in this space.  The trouble with all of them is the foundation.

      Just because we evolved to eat meat among other foods does not mean that we can’t change or shouldn’t change. Most advances in civilization have in fact required “exceptional pleading”.

      I’m not making that argument, either.  In fact, I agree with the second sentence wholeheartedly.  The first sentence can take you lots of different directions.

      Look, this discussion is one of those ones that Jaybird will eventually chime in on at one point with his observation about matters of taste vs matters of morality.  We can go around the maypole or we can set the ground rules, and if we set the ground rules I can tell you ahead of time where we’re going to wind up.  Whoever has the burden of proof is going to lose, because all positions are untenable. It comes down to your axioms, and the guy with the burden of proof doesn’t have to assert his.

      It boils down to the fact that we’re all instruments of death.  We walk, we breathe, we drink, we eat.  Things are living on us and in us and everything we do kills something and spares something else.  People are uncomfortable with the implications of that.  It’s one of the great ethical paradoxes of human existence, another one of the jokes that God plays on us.  Damn, time for some more cigarettes and Russian literature.

      When you know the answer to the question, “How ought I as a person to interact with the world in the best way, that leaves both me fulfilled and the world better off than without me”, your ethics of death follow naturally.  If you don’t know the answer to that question and you try to build an ethics of death as an intellectual exercise, you wind up with a constructed ethics of death which will likely put you in a position where you are no longer interacting with the world in a way that leaves you fulfilled and the world better off than without you.

      Generally, here’s where I’m at.

      I’m okay with the idea that we ought to take primates and whales and maybe octopi off of our “mess with” list, they exhibit enough traits of sapience that I’m willing to give them the benefit of child species status even though they’re not capable of abstraction the way people are.  Sapience isn’t a bright line.  On the other hand, it’s not exactly a continuum, either.  My dog isn’t sapient.  He’s loveable and silly and grand fun and I love him in the way a dog owner loves a good dog, but that’s almost all anthropomorphism on my part, not the dog being a higher animal than a pig.  Or a crab, for that matter.

      If you draw the line somewhere other than sapience or near-sapience, you’re going to have a very hard time convincing me that there aren’t things on the other side of that line that belong on this side; people always wind up with the mammals on this side, but oh, it’s totally okay to kill a scorpion or spiders or ants or…Report

      • Avatar Andy Smith in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        Pat, let’s cut to the chase here. Of course we kill forms of life routinely just to survive, all those bacteria in our gut, for that matter, all those bodily cells we consider “ours” which have to die in order for the larger organism to survive. Death is part of nature, and we can’t remove ourselves from cycles involving it. I agree very much with the “instruments of death” view.

        But eating meat is optional. No one has to do it. On one side, there are substantial arguments involving ethics, environment and health against eating meat. On the other side there is nothing at all except people’s desire to eat meat. I don’t think that desire is a good enough reason. If there were significant health benefits to eating meat, I could understand; there aren’t. If there were significant environmental benefits to eating meat, I could understand; there aren’t. If there were truly a reason for believing killing most animals causes absolutely no pain or suffering on their part, that it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference one way or another, I could understand. But for the species that are most commonly eaten by us, there are very good reasons for believing the opposite.

        People who defend eating meat have no leg to stand on here. They’re attached to this pleasure, and are apparently so unwilling to give it up that they try to construct elaborate justifications for it. There are no justifications. If people want to eat meat, so be it, but I regard it as irrational behavior. At the end of the day, all they can say is “because I want to”.

        As far as ranking animals according to intelligence or emotion or pain, for example, it really is not that difficult. We know enough about the functions of the brain to say, for example, that, your dog is definitely more intelligent than a crab. There are good reasons for valuing the life of vertebrates more than those of most invertebrates. This still does not justify killing some animals wantonly. We do recognize that there are compelling reasons for killing some kinds of animals some of the time, and how we value them might provide more justification for killing some than othersReport

        • Avatar Scott in reply to Andy Smith says:

          Andy:

          Why should folks that eat meat have to justify it to you or anyone else?Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Andy Smith says:

          But eating meat is optional.

          So’s… well, quite a lot of things.

          On one side, there are substantial arguments involving ethics, environment and health against eating meat. On the other side there is nothing at all except people’s desire to eat meat.

          The problem, Andy, is that on that one side there are a bunch of arguments (the substantial nature of which we’ll avoid commenting on at the moment) that are all predicated on a lot of assumptions.  Those arguments are complex and interesting all all that… but again, those assumptions have to hold for the arguments to be anchored in anything.

          We have to grant that “the environment” has a certain level of importance beyond which certain types of behavior ought to be limited or abolished.  Eating meat is below a lot of other things that can be regarded as “nothing at all except people’s desire to foo for some foo (comment on blogs, for example)”.  If this is a standard, we have to cut a lot of stuff out.

          We have to grant that “health” is something that we ought to enforce.  There’s all sorts of worms in that can.

          This is why I said the side with the burden of proof loses.Report

          • Avatar Andy Smith in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            “Why should folks that eat meat have to justify it to you or anyone else?”

             

            Well, people who want to vote for Ron Paul don’t have to justify it to me or you or anyone else, do they? People who want to Occupy Wall Street don’t have to justify it to anyone else, do they? This is a forum, we are discussing certain ideas, and I’m just pointing out that people can’t justify eating meat. If you want to reply that no one has to justify certain particular actions they take, I take that as a concession that you have no rational argument in support of those actions. You are retreating to a position that you define as outside of argument.  In that case, you shouldn’t even be entering this discussion, since you don’t want to play by the generally acknowledged rules of debate.

             

            “The problem, Andy, is that on that one side there are a bunch of arguments (the substantial nature of which we’ll avoid commenting on at the moment) that are all predicated on a lot of assumptions.  Those arguments are complex and interesting all all that… but again, those assumptions have to hold for the arguments to be anchored in anything.”

             

            The assumptions do not have to be certain to give the arguments weight. E.g., I’m not saying that we have to enforce good health habits in people—though that is certainly a reasonable objective, one this society has in fact been engaged in for some time (why should there be such heavy taxes on cigarettes? Is that fair?), and really implied by any form of national health coverage. If we are going to ensure that everyone has adequate medical insurance, I think we have a right to ask in return they take responsibility for maximizing their health. I don’t want my tax dollars supporting medical care for someone who might not have needed it if he had eaten more wisely. Privileges are supposed to go hand in hand with responsibility.

             

            BUT, it is not necessary to take this approach, sensible as it is to me. The point is that promoting good health, even short of mandating it, is a far superior argument to anything people who want to eat meat can offer to justify their desire. To the question, why should someone stop eating meat, one important answer is, because it is healthier. That response is true regardless of whether society believes in enforcing healthier habits or not. Likewise, the environmental argument carries weight even if one believes there are other actions one could take which would have more beneficial effects. The fact that not eating meat may not be high on your list of needed environmental actions does not nullify it as an argument.

             

            You don’t seem to understand that when one side has nothing going for it but a glorification of weakness, an inability or unwillingness to struggle against a primal drive, the other side does not have to be very strong. You talk about a burden of proof, but meat-eaters can’t prove anything except that they are going to cling to their views regardless of the arguments against them.

             

            And the arguments about different forms of life simply serve to obfuscate. If you can’t understand how someone would value the life of a dog more than that of a spider, how do you come to value the life of a human more than a dog? In both cases, we base our understanding on observable behavior, which we have learned to associate with internal states of consciousness. It is not rocket science.

             

            The fact that we can’t clearly and unambiguously rank every species on the planet according to level of intelligence or consciousness is no more relevant than saying that because someone who lives five miles from you in the same city is really no more distant than someone who lives ten miles from you in the same city, then someone who lives thousands of miles from you is also no more distant. The fact that there is fuzziness in a ranking system does not prevent us from identifying clear-cut, unambiguous differences. And even if no clear-cut differences could be identified, the simple fact that we can say with some reasonable assurance that certain animals have more intelligence or more consciousness than others is, again, a stronger point than anything people defending meat-eating have going for them.Report

            • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Andy Smith says:

              You’re so right, Andy Smith.  Thank hevens you’re here.  They justify racism and sexism and homophobia and eating meat and wars and environmental terrorism if it  can make them a buck or if they just like the taste of it in their greed.

              And smoke cigaretts and cigars probably too.  Second hand greed for the rest of us.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Andy Smith says:

              And the arguments about different forms of life simply serve to obfuscate.

              No, they’re not.  They are a demand that you clarify.  See, back to the burden of proof.  Your inability (or your desire to avoid) clarification isn’t obfuscation on my part.

              If you can’t understand how someone would value the life of a dog more than that of a spider, how do you come to value the life of a human more than a dog?

              I never said I can’t understand it.  I’m asking you to explain to me why you do.  I can understand it just fine.

              I can value the life of a person over non-sapient animals for a long laundry list of perfectly defensible reasons; certainly they’re just as defensible as a laundry list of reasons why we ought to value animal life over vegetable life instead, as our yardstick for “what’s justifiable to eat and what’s not”.

              The fact that there is fuzziness in a ranking system does not prevent us from identifying clear-cut, unambiguous differences.

              Identify them, would you?  Since you apparently have some in mind.

              The assumptions do not have to be certain to give the arguments weight.

              Oh, certainly.  But most people throw the argument out, and when I ask them to start drilling down to their root principles… to explain to me what these unambiguous differences are… to explain why they value this over that, and more to the point why it’s okay for one of their arguments which ties into, say, environmental impact is an okay argument to make when it comes to foodstuffs but not okay to make when it comes to consumer electronics, I hear lots and lots of special pleadings that bring me back to Jaybird’s “ah, so this is a matter of taste, not a matter of morality.”

              Put another way, you seem to believe you have a substantive case, but you’re not making it.  You’re declaring your case to be substantive and declaring that the other side is lazy and hedonistic and you win.  That’s all well and good, I guess this isn’t number six.

              E.g., I’m not saying that we have to enforce good health habits in people—though that is certainly a reasonable objective, one this society has in fact been engaged in for some time (why should there be such heavy taxes on cigarettes? Is that fair?), and really implied by any form of national health coverage. If we are going to ensure that everyone has adequate medical insurance, I think we have a right to ask in return they take responsibility for maximizing their health. I don’t want my tax dollars supporting medical care for someone who might not have needed it if he had eaten more wisely. Privileges are supposed to go hand in hand with responsibility.

              Out of all of the possible critiques of liberalism, this one is the killer.

              Privileges do indeed go hand in hand with responsibility.  On the other hand, if you mandate something it’s not a privilege.  If you want to declare that health coverage is a societal good and everyone needs to have it, that’s your prerogative.  If you can get a substantive majority of people to agree with you, you can go ahead and make it universal.

              You don’t get to force people to quit smoking, or lose weight, or anything else.  You can’t make health care a “right” and then turn around and demand that people treat it like a “privilege” for which they have “responsibilities”.  Sorry.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                BingBangBoom, Cahalan.  You’re hot today.

                They are a demand that you clarify.  See, back to the burden of proof.  Your inability (or your desire to avoid) clarification isn’t obfuscation on my part.

                 Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Patrick,

                I never said I can’t understand it.  I’m asking you to explain to me why you do.  I can understand it just fine.

                Not to speak for Andy, but here’s how I approach these issues.

                First, there is a hierarchy of morally considerable properties which arguably extend the moral community beyond humans. The ability to feel pain may be the most basic relevant moral property for the discussion we’re having in this thread. So, on the assumption that pain is morally considerable wrt to humans, the same considerability (Ie, inclusion in the moral community) ought to apply to other beings which in fact do experience pain.

                Above this, there might be other important properties that are also relevant, like exhibiting intentionality insofar as those intentions can be frustrated or fostered.  And insofar as intentionality (and the accompanying level of intelligence) is considered morally relevant, other animals having this property ought to be included in the moral community.

                A higher level is perhaps the property of being a moral agent, that is, a being who can consciously choose between right and wrong (or at least being aware of the difference).

                The second point is that working backwards is necessary to identify the properties which ground our moral judgments of humans and their differing levels of cognition, consciousness, intellectual abilities, etc. So the point of this hierarchy, again working backwards, is that some of them clearly extend to non-human animals. Not all of the properties held by some humans are held by all humans. So the list is a collection of sufficient conditions for membership into the moral community, but they aren’t  collectively necessary.

                So, to go to the example given, a spider may be able to feel pain, and that might suffice for moral considerability (it does for me). But a dog may have other properties that are morally relevant – intentionality, personality, empathy, regard for others well being – expanding the number of moral scope of a dogs morally considerable properties. Likewise, some humans possess a maximal amount (let’s say this is true) of morally relevant properties, while other humans may not possess as many morally relevant properties as some dogs.

                The upshot is that possession of any one morally relevant property which is sufficient for a human’s inclusion into the moral community also suffices for other beings inclusion as well. Otherwise, the human properties are just arbitrarily, and question-beggingly, restricted.

                 Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                I garbled that pretty good. I think you can tease out the meaning in there, in particular, where I said ‘the second point’, I meant that to be a new (the second!) line of thought.

                {{mental note: don’t write about moral properties while helping family members Christmas shop}}Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Stillwater says:

                This is what I was asking for.  Not bad.  Okay, maybe number six after all.

                Likewise, some humans possess a maximal amount (let’s say this is true) of morally relevant properties, while other humans may not possess as many morally relevant properties as some dogs. The upshot is that possession of any one morally relevant property which is sufficient for a human’s inclusion into the moral community also suffices for other beings inclusion as well.

                Let’s say that there is a finite set of morally relevant properties, of order N.  Humans have N-M of them for some M >= 0 (we ought not to assume humans have all of the morally relevant properties, after all).  By this last paragraph, you’re saying that possessing any of the elements is sufficient to be included in the moral community?

                If so, existence is pretty profane.  Dang, Russian literature and cigarettes again.  Hey, that’s okay, maybe that’s where you’re at.  But if all of existence is pretty profane, we’re back to matters of taste vs. matters of morality again.

                If instead it requires some non-trivial subset of the morally relevant properties, then it’s okay to exclude some members of the animal kingdom (or the fungi, for that matter), but not others, because they possess more than X properties (for whatever number of properties is nontrivial).

                So what are these properties?  We’ve got “feeling pain” <- does this mean “responds to stimuli that are damaging to the organism”, or is this less general (Possess a spinal column?  Have neurons?  Do unicellular critters count?  Plants will respond to stimuli that are damaging to the organism, so we’ve got a problem if we go this general).

                But a dog may have other properties that are morally relevant – intentionality, personality, empathy, regard for others well being

                Any of these might be the case, but you’ve got some lifting to do to describe them.  Far, far more often than not I find descriptions of “my dog’s personality” to be a list of anthropomorphisms that aren’t actually attributable to “my dog” vs. “dogs”, and they’re less “personality” traits as they are bred behavioral tendencies.   “Regard for others well being” <- who are the others?  Other members of the moral community?  Or other members of the pack?  One is a sign of intelligence, the other is quite likely a naturally selected behavioral tendency.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Patrick,

                What are these properties?

                They are, for example, any of the properties you consider morally relevant. If pain is morally relevant property for humans in your own calculus, then other beings which experience pain according to your non-arbitrary standard ought to be included in the community. How we define pain is probably a mix of behavioral as well as neuronal evidence. I mean, big pharma has made a bunch of money on the premise that rabbits, chimps, cats, rats and dogs experience pain exactly as we do.

                You have some heavy lifting to do to describe them.

                Not really. Again, insofar as observations from normal human activity leads us to believe humans have intentions, cognition, personality, etc., then the exact same observational evidence can lead us to believe that dogs (and other animals) have intentions, cognition, personality, etc. (The fact they were bred that way seems irrelevant to me.) Coupled with a basic similarity in brain functions and neuroanatomy, I think the argument that dogs and chimps and other animals are dissimilar to humans in all morally relevant ways has the burden of proof here.

                Again, from the pov I’m advocating here, the burden is on the person who denies that dogs (say) are morally considerable, or have a right to life (an even more extreme view I personally hold), by challenging them to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for possession of moral properties (rights, harms, etc) which grants inclusion to all humans, but excludes other animals (without begging questions). I don’t think this is an easy thing to do.

                (Btw, the cases are sometimes recherche, but mostly just real world: infants, senile old people, amnesiacs, the severely mentally retarded, people living in vegetative states, etc. In all these cases, we ascribe some moral property to humans which constitutes the boundary of what’s permissible. Identifying what that property is in a non-arbitrary way opens the door for any other being possessing that property to be morally considerable (wrt to just that property, of course, not all of em).)

                 Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Not really. Again, insofar as observations from normal human activity leads us to believe humans have intentions, cognition, personality, etc., then the exact same observational evidence can lead us to believe that dogs (and other animals) have intentions, cognition, personality, etc.

                Observations from normal human activity leads me to believe that humans have intentions, cognition, personality, etc.  Those exact same observations of dogs (and other animals) leads me to believe that they do not have intentions, cognition, or personality in the same kind (or even to a lesser degree) than humans.  So either our definitions are fuzzy (likely) or you have observational data I don’t (unlikely), or you’re anthropomorphizing, or I’m crazy (jury’s out on the last two, but I confess I think the first is more likely than the second).

                At any rate, what you and Andy regard as eminently self-evident, I don’t.  So either you’re using different standards for evaluating self-evidentness or somebody’s crazy or deluded.  I’ll give us all the benefit of the doubt and say we ought to clarify how we rate our observations.

                Coupled with a basic similarity in brain functions and neuroanatomy, I think the argument that dogs and chimps and other animals are dissimilar to humans in all morally relevant ways has the burden of proof here.

                I would posit two things from this statement: one, I believe it unlikely that you’ve done a lot of hard reading about brain functions and neurology, and two, you’ve at least subliminally recognized that the burden of proof is the killer here.  Since you are advocating the change (that we treat all animals as moral agents equivalent to humans), I reject your attempt to shift the burden of proof to me.

                You’re certainly welcome to reject that rejection.  But then I think we’re unlikely to go very far in the rest of this conversation.  You believe that I’m incorrect but are unwilling to try and convince me otherwise, and I don’t find your argument as it stands very compelling and I’m not inclined to give it much weight.

                If you can point me to some newer neuropsych research that might change my mind about animal higher brain functions, that’d be cool.  I don’t read a *lot* of neuropsych but I’ve not yet read anything that gives me the impression that there is much in the way of research to back up animal cognition models that don’t jibe with my assessment of them.  Source papers, though.  Just like some other topics, I’m not interested in popular media reporting of science.  I don’t expect that you actually have any, but I’ve been surprised before.  Gimme the citation 🙂  I’m unswayed by people’s gut feelings based upon popular reportings of science, or interpretations of what studies may or may not say when filtered through other communication channels.

                Btw, the cases are sometimes recherche, but mostly just real world: infants, senile old people, amnesiacs, the severely mentally retarded, people living in vegetative states, etc. In all these cases, we ascribe some moral property to humans which constitutes the boundary of what’s permissible.

                Legally, we ascribe some property to humans regarding the boundary of what’s permissible in those cases, yes. That’s not the same thing as moral properties.

                I’m somewhat more than passing familiar with the severely mentally retarded, senile old people, and people living in vegetative states and I reject both the current popular estimation of their state of moral awareness and our presupposed moral duty to those people, but that’s a different discussion altogether.  Also: I’m not terribly invested in changing the status quo, there, so I’m kind of disinterested in going around *that* maypole at the moment.  Infants and amnesiacs are a different case.

                In any event, legal status != moral status.  The legal status of people in these conditions doesn’t tell us anything about the moral status of these people.  The legal status of food animals doesn’t tell us anything about their moral status, either.  But if you’re asking me to recognize a change in their moral status and then further reflect that change in their legal status, hey, I’m game.

                But you have to do the work.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Patrick, I think you’re misunderstanding what the argument is here. For one thing, moral properties are not empirically determined – say by science. So I think you’re overestimating the utility of empirical evidence in determining answers to these types of questions. (Hint: they’re philosophical.)

                Second, I actually am fairly well read in neuroscience literature (or once was) – I funded part of my undergrad experience in a neuro lab and took many courses at the graduate level while doing so. So I think the challenge there is misplaced. The lab I was working in derived conclusions about human brain functions (neurotransitters) based on evidence derived from rats. The two species aren’t so dissimilar that reliable inferences from one to the other cannot be made, or empirically justified. But also neuroanatomy and neurophysiology are functionally indisinguishable in lots of respects between the species.The idea that human brain functions are type-distinct from other animals importantly begs the fundamental question here.

                As for the part of me having the burden here, I again think you’re missing the point. For my part, I’ve met the burden: I’ve read the literature on moral properties and am convinced that some moral properties which humans possess are also possessed by animals. So the extension of those  properties to animals is, in my mind, completely justified. So two things about that.

                One is that extending moral properties to non-human animals is a conditional: if the property of experiencing pleasure/pain is a morally significant property in humans, and animals of type X experience pleasure/pain, then animals of type X have morally significant properties. I see no non-arbitrary reason to restrict the extension in these types of cases to animals, so the burden really is on the person who denies the validity of the extension. Either they have to say that pleasure/pain isn’t a morally relevant property for humans, or that animals of type X don’t experience pleasure/pain. Both are prima facie absurd. So when you say I’m anthropomorphizing about this, I’m baffled: what could possibly constitute evidence that animals experience pain other than watching animals react to painful stimuli? It’s the same criterion my which we determine that other humans are experiencing pain!

                The other is that I think you misinterpret the point of a moral argument as compelling you to do something or imposing a restriction on your behavior. But that’s not the case. All you have to do when confronted with a moral argument is to demonstrate the argument is unsound. It’s pretty simple really.

                So here’s one argument pretty much directly following from EC’s OP:

                1) The pain is a morally relavant property in humans.

                2) Animals experience pain.

                Therefore, 3) pain is a morally relevant property in animals.

                If sound, the conclusion may mean we revise our ideas of morality of traditional factory farming practices to minimize the pain experienced by animals. It may mean we revise our ideas of eating meat to try to eliminate the pain experienced by animals. event. What follows from the argument is an open question – and maybe nothing of consequence does follow! But it follows only from establishing the soundness of the argument.

                You seem to think the argument is unsound. So I think the burden at this point is on you.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Mr. Stillwater, I’m monitoring yr discussion w/Cahalan and don’t see your argument.

                For my part, I’ve met the burden: I’ve read the literature on moral properties and am convinced that some moral properties which humans possess are also possessed by animals. 

                Citing the “literature” is an appeal to authority,  and “I am convinced” is mere subjective opinion, followed by a moral assertion, not argument.

                My notes here are on the formal level argument, not on the particulars.  But I would say I’m unsatisfied that just because human and rat brains use electrochemical impulses between analogous structures of the brain is no reason to lump human consciousness in with rat thought and thereby draw a moral conclusion.

                When there’s rat poetry and rat church and rat science, perhaps.

                I will note that the question of pain was brought up by yrs truly in one of the early comments re kosher/halal practice.  Although it could be justified by the argument that cruelty to animals is bad for the human psyche and that’s reason enough to be humane, there is a human acknowledgement 1000s of years old that there’s a difference between eating meat and eating fruit.

                [I’ve been told the pagan Greeks had to offer sacrifice for eating meat, although not fish.  But I heard it from a rather unsturdy pagan.]Report

              • Avatar Andy Smith in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                “Identify them, would you?  Since you apparently have some in mind.”

                 

                Pain is certainly one of the most fundamental. We know that higher vertebrates have the same brain structures that in our own species are associated with pain—and likewise for many emotions. We also known that most invertebrates lack these structures. We have no reason, e.g., to believe spiders feel pain. We could of course be wrong about this, but the evidence is most definitely on the side that they do not feel pain as we do and as higher vertebrates almost certainly do.

                 

                More on this below.

                 

                “why it’s okay for one of their arguments which ties into, say, environmental impact is an okay argument to make when it comes to foodstuffs but not okay to make when it comes to consumer electronics,”

                 

                I wouldn’t make that distinction myself. I think environmental arguments are very relevant not just to consumer electronics, but to all our patterns of consumption.

                 

                “On the other hand, if you mandate something it’s not a privilege.”

                 

                We mandate though shalt not kill. I regard it as a privilege that I live in a society where this mandate is in force. In return, it is my responsibility not to kill.

                 

                “Observations from normal human activity leads me to believe that humans have intentions, cognition, personality, etc.  Those exact same observations of dogs (and other animals) leads me to believe that they do not have intentions, cognition, or personality in the same kind (or even to a lesser degree) than humans.”

                 

                Tinbergen described intentions in herring gulls more than half a century ago. If dogs don’t have intentions, what exactly is going on when one growls at a stranger? Do you think the dog has no intention to attack the person? Or has no intention to go our for a walk? What do you call an intention that you see it in humans and not in dogs? Of course we can have far more complex, abstract and sophisticated intentions than other animals, but that’s not to say that other animals have no intentions at all. Intentions flow from desires, and neurophysiology makes it quite clear that dogs have desires, and suffer when these desires are frustrated, just as we do.

                 

                If dogs don’t have cognition, how are they able to learn fairly complex associations? Maybe you need to define cognition more precisely, because dogs have many abilities that I would call cognitive. Again, the fact that our cognition is much more complex is not the issue here.

                 

                If dogs don’t have personality, how are they able to recognize other dogs, and people, and other organisms, as individuals, and respond to them differently on this basis? Most vertebrates, by the way, can probably recognize other members of their species as distinct individuals. Very few invertebrates can. In fact, we can grade lifeforms according to how they perceive other organisms: self/other (very primitive invertebrates); kin vs. non-kin (arthropods and many other invertebrates); individuals (lower vertebrates); individuals in different psychological states (e.g., Tinbergen’s gulls do not simply distinguish different individuals, but different states—intentional states—in any particular individual at any particular time); individuals who persist over time (mostly us, probably some non-human primates to some extent).

                 

                 Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                For the record, “Thou shalt not kill” translates as not to “murder.”  You can’t murder an animal; indeed executing a murderer isn’t murder either.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                TVD, Yeah, that was a bit loose. What I was trying to say is that I’m convinced of this but I’m not trying to convince others of this since ultimately it requires doing the work yourself. It was more an invitation – or suggestion – to Patrick to do the mental work of teasing out the potential human properties which uniquely circumscribe the moral community to only humans. So it wasn’t an appeal to authority. It was more an assertion, one I’m happy to justify to others. So, let’s do it!

                Here’s where I’m at on all this:

                1. That there is no single uniquely human property (moral agency, abstract reasoning, language use, etc.) sufficient for membership of all humans into the human moral community (that is, it would leave some humans out). This requires going thru the cases: language use, abstract reasoning, awareness of mortality, etc etc. There will be – at least on the proposed properties I’ve considered – a counterexample to that principle’s universality.

                And 2. That other moral properties we ascribe to humans in important cases – be they ceteris paribus or whatever – can also be ascribed to many types of animals.

                The experience of pain is a clear one, and that alone – to my mind – accords animals a moral status which moral agents ought to consider during decision-making. But other properties come into play as well. For some people, sentience is a moral property, or consciousness, or self-awareness, or others. For some people writing on this thread, having a personality is a morally considerable property. The argument I’m making is that insofar as these properties are morally relevant in humans and animals possess them, then animals possess that specific morally significant property. They have climbed, so to speak, up the moral ladder. But the other argument I’m making is that none of these properties (or variations of them) is uniquely true of all humans.

                So getting back to Patrick’s challenge that I’m begging the question – or anthropomorphizing – when I say that dogs have a personality, here’s the point I was trying to make (which I did think was sorta obvious): insofar as dogs exhibit mixed collections of behavioral traits (risk aversion, compliance, dominance, aggression, playfulness, quirky behavior, sullenness, obedience, loyalty, disregard, etc)  they have just as much a personality as humans do even if we concede that human personalities are more complex and varied (personally, I’m not persuaded that they are, fwiw).

                If so, then if personality is a morally considerable property in humans, and if dogs possess personality, then dogs have (yet another!) morally significant property.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                TVD, I just saw this:

                When there’s rat poetry and rat church and rat science, perhaps.

                That’s a good way to nail down the distinction I’m trying to make. It’s not that rats possess all the moral properties humans do, just some of them (or maybe even only one). So if the creation of poetry is a moral good, then humans clearly have one moral property that rats, to the best of our knowledge, lack.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                So I think you’re overestimating the utility of empirical evidence in determining answers to these types of questions.

                If one makes a moral claim that depends upon an observation, then I would argue that the utility of empirical evidence is pretty goshdarn important to the claim.

                But also neuroanatomy and neurophysiology are functionally indisinguishable in lots of respects between the species.The idea that human brain functions are type-distinct from other animals importantly begs the fundamental question here.

                The first sentence is certainly true.  The second one does not follow; indeed, the first clause leading you to the second implies to me that we’re discussing two different fundamental questions.

                Human observably do not respond to stimuli the same way that animals do.  Ergo, the indistinguishableness of neurotransmitter operations in a rat’s brain vs. a human’s brain tells us that the wiring is similar, but that tells us nothing about the operational capabilities.  If operational capabilities are important (and I believe that they are for decidedly nontrivial and ergo non-arbitrary reasons) then the first point is not relevant.  Side note: if operational capabilities are *not* important, you have a serious problem with abortion, but we don’t need to go down that merry path at the moment.  Forget I brought it up.

                Animals do not engage in double-loop learning; it’s highly arguable as to whether or not they’re even capable of single-loop abstract learning.  Most species can’t even accept conditioning reliably.  Animals do not abstract.  Animals cannot encapsulate physical stimuli behind abstract thinking.  An animal cannot differentiate between a human being clubbing it in the leg and a human being attempting to set a leg bone.  An animal cannot choose to endure pain for an abstract goal.  An animal cannot apply inductive or deductive reasoning.

                Shorter: almost all animal species aren’t intelligent at all, they’re fishing stupid.  And not stupid in the sense of “less intelligent on a continuum”, but stupid in the sense of, “categorically different from human cognition in kind.”

                One is that extending moral properties to non-human animals is a conditional: if the property of experiencing pleasure/pain is a morally significant property in humans, and animals of type X experience pleasure/pain, then animals of type X have morally significant properties. I see no non-arbitrary reason to restrict the extension in these types of cases to animals, so the burden really is on the person who denies the validity of the extension.

                You’ve turned an “if” into an “if and only if”, and then claimed that this is necessary because you see only arbitrary reasons to separate the two.  I have plenty of non-arbitrary reasons that you’re discounting as arbitrary because they challenge your conflation of the if with the if and only if.  There’s a circularity problem there.

                Note: the property of experiencing pleasure/pain is a morally significant property in humans, but it is not absolutely morally significant.  I can inflict great pain on a human being for a moral purpose and it’s okay (just ask anybody who was in a field hospital in 1864).  I can similarly provide great pleasure to a human being and have it not be morally okay (I can’t inject you with a massive dose of heroin just because I want you to feel pleasure).  So this is not nearly so cut and dried as you’re making it out to be.

                1) The pain is a morally relavant property in humans.
                2) Animals experience pain.
                Therefore, 3) pain is a morally relevant property in animals.
                If sound, the conclusion may mean we revise our ideas of morality of traditional factory farming practices to minimize the pain experienced by animals.

                Oh, sorry.  Here I may be conflating your position with Andy’s.
                Even without knowing the difference between human cognition and animal cognition, even without attributing stimuli response in humans vs. animals to an equivalency, I’ll readily grant that minimizing harm is a fine goal in and of itself.  If that’s the extent to which you wanted the conversation to travel, that’s not terribly far.
                But saying “we ought to regard minimizing pain as important to some degree” is categorically different from “eating meat is right out”.

                You seem to think the argument is unsound. So I think the burden at this point is on you.

                No, I think the argument is limited to the degree where it doesn’t really tell us much. Here’s the actual argument I’m trying to frame out:

                1) The ability to process stimuli as pain is a morally relevant property in sapient beings.

                2)  Human beings are sapient, ergo the ability to process stimuli as pain is a morally relevant property.

                2a) Animals experience pain.

                3) The cognitive capabilities of animals are in dispute.

                3a) Ergo, the ability to process stimuli as pain may or may not be a morally relevant property in animals.

                You can go lots of places from here, granted.  But this frame is obviously different from the one you laid out, and not for arbitrary reasons.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Mr. Stillwater: Rat morality?

                I remain open to us learning more about the nature of animals.  I have a pet theory that some animals can learn certain uniquely human characteristics from interaction with humans, although they’d never come up with them on their own in the wild.

                I’m getting into a bit of woo here, so I’ll leave off.  But google “animal morality” and there’s an article from the Telegraph there that I think is germane.

                 Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                Patrick, no one, and certainly not me, is arguing that humans are identical to dogs, or cats, or rats. The argument, which you haven’t understood yet, is that many properties that are morally significant in humans are properties of animals as well. So all that empirical stuff doesn’t really matter at the end of the day unless you’re trying to argue that the only beings in the moral community ought to be humans. And that seems to be what you’re arguing. But interestingly, you conceded that animals feel pain while arguing that such experiences of pain can be discounted because they process it differently than humans do. But hypothesis, the morally relevant property is feeling pain. So as far as I’m concerned, the argument is made.

                If you don’t see that, I’m not sure what else I can say.

                 

                 Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Stillwater says:

                The argument, which you haven’t understood yet, is that many properties that are morally significant in humans are properties of animals as well.

                That’s not an argument, that’s a proposition.  So far we’ve only talked about the ability to process pain.

                So all that empirical stuff doesn’t really matter at the end of the day unless you’re trying to argue that the only beings in the moral community ought to be humans. And that seems to be what you’re arguing.

                You’re confusing the outcome with the motivation.  I include cetaceans and primates as (provisional) members of the moral community, choosing to err on the side of caution.  If a sapient alien species drops by, they get in too.  Heck, if it were possible to engineer a truly artificial intelligence then robots belong in there as much as people, and those last two might not even possess the capability to process pain.  So I’m not sure that processing pain like people (or animals) is either necessary *or* sufficient.

                But interestingly, you conceded that animals feel pain while arguing that such experiences of pain can be discounted because they process it differently than humans do.

                I didn’t say that they can be discounted.  There’s a difference between “they don’t count” and “they don’t weigh the same”.

                But hypothesis, the morally relevant property is feeling pain.

                I guess my point is that this isn’t a binary switch.  You’re saying it is.  Well, I can think of lots of reasons why this is insufficient, so I don’t find it terribly useful.

                From farther upthread, you wrote:

                1. That there is no single uniquely human property (moral agency, abstract reasoning, language use, etc.) sufficient for membership of all humans into the human moral community (that is, it would leave some humans out). This requires going thru the cases: language use, abstract reasoning, awareness of mortality, etc etc. There will be – at least on the proposed properties I’ve considered – a counterexample to that principle’s universality.

                And 2. That other moral properties we ascribe to humans in important cases – be they ceteris paribus or whatever – can also be ascribed to many types of animals.

                To clarify: you’re saying that there is some set of properties which get you in the moral community, but for humans that set is basically reducible.  So, we have a bunch of human properties that get all humans in on the gig, but if you take one of those human properties out, some humans won’t be in on the gig, and since all humans belong in on the gig, we have to assume that any critter that has any of the properties but not the others is just like a person who some of the properties but not the others.

                Yes?

                Okay, that’s not entirely unreasonable (it’s certainly defensible as a stance).  However…

                … one, I can believe that your first premise is wrong, and that the set can be trivially reduced.  For example, I can believe that the capability of cognition is required to be in on the gig, and have no moral qualms about pulling the plug on the braindead or aborting first term fetuses with no brain matter.  For another example: I can believe that recognition that the moral community exists is a requirement to be called a member of the moral community; hence animals are right out (and sociopaths are too).  There’s nothing arbitrary about either of those positions, and I’d argue that this is likewise a completely reasonable position to take.

                 Report

              • Avatar Andy Smith in reply to Stillwater says:

                I continue to be intrigued how people who have no defense at all for eating meat insist that we argue in a framework that completely ignores this. The tacit assumption, which no one on this thread has provided any reason to believe, is that there is some really strong argument to be made for meat-eating, and hence, only equally strong arguments against meat-eating will suffice. While I will play along with this charade, I will note again that all this discussion is about is finding rationalizations for a habit one personally doesn’t want to struggle against. I think it’s much like the classic religious fundamentalist approach, where the desired conclusion is defined at the outset, then all arguments considered in light of how much they favor this conclusion.

                IOW, you’re not saying, let’s look at meat eating, pro and con. You’re saying, I eat meat and want to continue to do so. Convince me that I shouldn’t. That is a much more difficult standard to argue against, because one can always claim that one’s pleasure in eating meat is hugely important, so important it trumps any arguments against eating meat. That seems to me what some of you are doing. You’re minimizing the arguments provided against meat-eating, without ever providing any evidence that would allow us to assess just how strong the arguments would have to be to trump the pleasure of eating meat.

                E.g., Patrick, if we are going to get all substantive here, why don’t you quantitate how important it is for someone to eat meat? Why don’t you provide some empirical evidence supporting the idea that pleasure in eating meat outweighs the pain that slaughtered animals might experience? Or why not compare the amount of pleasure from eating meat with the amount of pleasurable experiences the slaughtered animal will never have? Obviously you not only believe that a human life has more value than that of an animal, as I do, but you also believe that a certain pleasure—which in no way is necessary for human existence, and may even be detrimental to it (a little like your heroin example)—has more value than the life of an animal. If you want me to provide evidence in support of viewing animal lives as having some moral value, why don’t you provide some evidence indicating exactly how much value we should put in some momentary pleasure? Because until I have a handle on that, I really have no idea how strong the arguments against eating meat have to be to satisfy you.

                “Human observably do not respond to stimuli the same way that animals do.”

                In many cases we do respond to stimuli in the same way that animals do. We tend to be very similar with respect to basic sensory and emotional stimuli, and these are very relevant to moral issues.

                “Shorter: almost all animal species aren’t intelligent at all, they’re fishing stupid.”

                So you would have no problem slaughtering for food people who are severely retarded? You do understand, I presume, that very little intelligence is required to experience certain kinds of pain?

                 

                 Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Stillwater says:

                I continue to be intrigued how people who have no defense at all for eating meat insist that we argue in a framework that completely ignores this.

                Andy, for the record, you don’t even know that I eat meat.  And I would hazard a guess that someone can tick off, right now, a nice long laundry list of things you do for which you have no defense at all other than preference, which some people regard as morally dubious.

                The fact that someone regards something as morally dubious when someone else regards it as a preference isn’t a particularly novel occurrence.  Whether or not I regard eating meat as a preference or not isn’t particularly relevant.  You regard it as morally dubious.  If I’m to give a snot about your argument, you need to defend that on its own ground.  Not just laugh at the other side for being creatures of preference.

                For the record, I have no defense at all for lots of things.  I would hazard a guess that when those line up with things that you consider to be “moral”, you’d be flabbergasted if someone said that we needed a defense for what was clearly a matter of preference for us.

                The tacit assumption, which no one on this thread has provided any reason to believe, is that there is some really strong argument to be made for meat-eating, and hence, only equally strong arguments against meat-eating will suffice.

                You are assuming quite a lot by assuming that this is an assumption.

                While I will play along with this charade, I will note again that all this discussion is about is finding rationalizations for a habit one personally doesn’t want to struggle against. I think it’s much like the classic religious fundamentalist approach, where the desired conclusion is defined at the outset, then all arguments considered in light of how much they favor this conclusion.

                Honestly, if you regard this conversation as a charade, save us both the trouble.  You’re not participating charitably, you’re in fact going to miss quite a bit of what I’m saying by assigning it “smoke and mirrors” status, and really, this is a giant waste of both of our times.

                IOW, you’re not saying, let’s look at meat eating, pro and con. You’re saying, I eat meat and want to continue to do so. Convince me that I shouldn’t.

                No, not at all.

                I’m saying: you have specified that you have a moral objection to eating meat.  You’ve thrown up a lot of practical arguments not to eat meat (environmental impact, health, whatever), some of which are all fine and good objections and are worthy of discussion (as long as you’re willing to immediately put on the table all your cards about environmental impact, health, whatever)… but the crux of your argument is that you have a moral criteria for rejecting the practice.  I’m curious as to the nature of this criteria.  I find your position intriguing.  I’d like to know more about it.  Instead of talking about it on that basis, you’re assuming a mother truck load of assumptions regarding either my character or my intellectual capacity and mounting both a moral and rhetorical high horse.  Get down off it and explain it to me.  Or find someone else to play with, like I said I’ve done this a hundred billion times already and it’s not particularly interesting when your dance partner keeps thumbing you in the eye, particularly when they’re snotty and unapologetic about it.

                That is a much more difficult standard to argue against, because one can always claim that one’s pleasure in eating meat is hugely important, so important it trumps any arguments against eating meat.

                This is a fair complaint.  Life is hard all over.  Some people will reject you on that basis.  I won’t, if you make your case.  So far you ain’t done that.

                That seems to me what some of you are doing. You’re minimizing the arguments provided against meat-eating, without ever providing any evidence that would allow us to assess just how strong the arguments would have to be to trump the pleasure of eating meat.

                I *did* warn you this entire conversation was going to be about the burden of proof.  Twice!

                E.g., Patrick, if we are going to get all substantive here, why don’t you quantitate how important it is for someone to eat meat?

                Why should I do this?

                Look, dude, I’ve been on this planet for a while.  Every day I see people doing stuff I would never do in a million years.  Every week I see someone doing something I regard as morally abhorrent.  Every month I see someone doing something that – should I be king in the ancient world sense – I should have them cast out of my kingdom on pain of death should they return.  This ain’t my kingdom and it’s not yours and unless I can show a pretty strong empirical case that they’re seriously messing up someone else, I got no call to prevent them from doing that thing.  Most of the time I spend arguing with people about how they really ought to leave those gay people alone or those women alone or those kids alone or those religious nuts alone, or those smokers alone or those hunters alone or those homeschoolers alone.  Many of those things are things I don’t do, or wouldn’t do, or used to do but don’t do any more… or never would do in a million years.  Just because I do or don’t like those things doesn’t mean a damn thing.  You want them to change.  You make the case that I should care enough that I tell them that they need to not do those things any more.  That’s a pretty strong case to make – I think people should install fewer lights in their house and drive less (if at all) and buy an order of magnitude less crap and I don’t normally go around telling people those things.  If you want to make a policy case out of it you need to make a much, much stronger case – there’s a ton of stuff that people do that I don’t like that I’d be willing to tell ’em so to their face and I’d still stop way short of making it illegal.

                Hey, I’ll tell you what: you quanitate how important all your preferences are, and then I’ll show you mine.  If we’re going to talk about how full of crap I am with my preferences, you get to go first.

                Why don’t you provide some empirical evidence supporting the idea that pleasure in eating meat outweighs the pain that slaughtered animals might experience?

                I don’t know how to measure either of these two things, that’s why.  I strongly suspect that they are incommensurable.

                Hey, why don’t you?

                Or why not compare the amount of pleasure from eating meat with the amount of pleasurable experiences the slaughtered animal will never have?

                I will say this: I care very little about the amount of pleasurable experiences that people (in general) will never have, so I’m less likely to care about the amount of pleasurable experiences that animals will never have by like a billion orders of magnitude.  Particularly when the existence of those animals is entirely predicated on human largess.  And frankly, I find it vanishingly unlikely that you really care much about the pleasurable experiences the slaughtered animal will never have, so I don’t think you have any grounds to even ask.

                This isn’t carte blanche for people to treat animals like machines.  One can still have respect for nonhuman life.  But by the standards you’ve laid out so far, one could dispute that this is possible for anyone that doesn’t take a farm pig in and let it sleep on your couch.

                I mean, come on, that’s a pleasurable experience that the pig will otherwise never have.  How can you justify spending more money in a year on broadband internet access just to give you pleasurable experiences when you’re unwilling to use it to spare even one pig from horrendous death?  What kind of monster are you?

                Obviously you not only believe that a human life has more value than that of an animal, as I do, but you also believe that a certain pleasure—which in no way is necessary for human existence, and may even be detrimental to it (a little like your heroin example)—has more value than the life of an animal.

                Here’s an assignment for you.  Put down a scale of value for the following things, in some unit with ratio interval properties.

                • A pig’s life
                • An ant’s life
                • You having a car
                • Buying Starbucks once a week
                • A good glass of your favorite libation every third night
                • Reading a good book
                • Listening to a live symphony
                • An average human’s life
                • A psycho murder’s life
                • A human fetus in its first trimester
                • Your life
                • A plane ticket to Maui

                Then you can presuppose to tell me how much I do or don’t value anything. Hell, if you can even get to the point where you can measure the value of your own life against an average other folk’s life you’ll be one up on most of the great philosophers in history.

                If we’re just drawing the lines at “how much pleasure” is “worth” the life of an animal, I’m not convinced your line is any less arbitrary than mine.  Although you have self-righteousness goin’ full bore for you.

                I really have no idea how strong the arguments against eating meat have to be to satisfy you.

                You have to convince me that the life of an animal is a measurable moral good in such a way that it deserves a protected status, and you have to frame that protected status in such a way that it is not self-contradictory nor does it interfere with human life’s protected status.  I don’t think you can do any of those things (passionate vegans for whom I had strong affection in the past have tried for naught), but it’s possible.  Otherwise, eating meat is just like any other vice: pleasurable when done in moderation, bad for you when done to excess, and really none of my business, nor is it yours.

                “Shorter: almost all animal species aren’t intelligent at all, they’re fishing stupid.”

                So you would have no problem slaughtering for food people who are severely retarded? You do understand, I presume, that very little intelligence is required to experience certain kinds of pain?

                Wow, you’re almost as bad as Duck.

                So are you saying that you draw a direct equivalence between the severely retarded and a pig?  Do you?  If not, why are you asking me this question?  Fess up, dude, how long have you been beating *your* wife?Report

              • Avatar Andy Smith in reply to Stillwater says:

                (not sure where this will end up. This is a reply to Patrick’s last—I think—post, but I could not reply directly to that.)

                “I would hazard a guess that someone can tick off, right now, a nice long laundry list of things you do for which you have no defense at all other than preference, which some people regard as morally dubious…For the record, I have no defense at all for lots of things.  I would hazard a guess that when those line up with things that you consider to be “moral”, you’d be flabbergasted if someone said that we needed a defense for what was clearly a matter of preference for us.”

                I’d like to see some examples. Not simply behavior that has the ethical and other problems that are associated with meat-eating, but which is as easily terminated as the practice of eating meat is. E.g., while I agree with you that consumer electronics have environmental problems associated with them, they do not have some of the other problems associated with eating meat. Moreover, some electronic devices are absolutely essential to our lives today, in a way that eating meat is not.

                “You are assuming quite a lot by assuming that this is an assumption.”

                It’s the only assumption that explains many of these posts. Why would a strong argument against meat-eating be needed unless there were some strong argument for it? Most people are abhorred by the practice of some kids to torture animals. But much of this torture may not be any worse than what occurs in the food industry. The abhorrence results because this behavior is considered so totally wanton and unnecessary. If a kid were starving to death, and he needed, for some reason, to torture an animal in order to eat it, presumably no one would object.

                Likewise, to defend meat-eating, you must argue that it rises well above a wanton act in some respect—and the strength of the pleasure seems to be the only thing put forward in its defense. Am I missing something? Is there any other reason people use to justify eating meat except “I enjoy it”? This is the assumption (i.e., that this enjoyment is so major) I find lurking in your argument (and btw, I’m making no assumptions about whether you personally eat meat. I’m simply responding to your arguments. For all I know, you could be a strict vegetarian, for whatever reasons, who wants to claim that a lot of arguments for eating meat aren’t very sound).

                “This ain’t my kingdom and it’s not yours and unless I can show a pretty strong empirical case that they’re seriously messing up someone else, I got no call to prevent them from doing that thing. “

                Oh, come on. No one is arguing about passing laws against eating meat. We’re talking about why they shouldn’t do it. If you object to other kinds of behavior in others, you’re perfectly free to argue against it, as vehemently as you wish.

                “I think people should install fewer lights in their house and drive less (if at all) and buy an order of magnitude less crap and I don’t normally go around telling people those things.”

                Why not? Do you go around telling people they should or shouldn’t vote for a certain candidate? Even if you don’t, we both know a great many people do. I don’t hear anyone complaining that it’s no one else’s business who he votes for, and that no one should foist his political opinions on him. Why not? Because we recognize that elections affect all of us.

                The same is certainly true of patterns of consumption. In fact, it seems to me that a much better case can be made for the importance of certain lifestyle changes than for favoring one candidate over another. Who really knows if the country will be better off or worse off if Obama vs. some Republican candidate wins? There are so many unknown factors, including all the things that any President is mostly powerless to change, that it’s very difficult to predict where we will be in four years under one candidate vs. another. Whereas reducing consumption of certain items, it seems to me, is a much safer bet for having value.

                “If you want to make a policy case out of it you need to make a much, much stronger case – there’s a ton of stuff that people do that I don’t like that I’d be willing to tell ‘em so to their face and I’d still stop way short of making it illegal.”

                Where in any of my posts did I say anything about making it government policy? There was one paragraph where I suggested that the health effects of eating meat might justify laws against it. I quickly emphasized that this argument was unnecessary to the point I was making. And note that this sole foray into legality was based on precedent—the government promoting what it considers healthy actions—rather than on the government promoting a certain kind of moral view.

                “I don’t know how to measure either of these two things, that’s why.  I strongly suspect that they are incommensurable.”

                So when in doubt, go with what you enjoy, and not worry about the possible consequences?

                “How can you justify spending more money in a year on broadband internet access just to give you pleasurable experiences when you’re unwilling to use it to spare even one pig from horrendous death?”

                Actually, I save money by behavior that spares animals’ death. It doesn’t cost me anything financially not to eat meat. Yet another argument in favor of this.

                “Here’s an assignment for you.  Put down a scale of value for the following things, in some unit with ratio interval properties.”

                I wouldn’t have a lot of trouble doing this. But the exercise is lacking in some relevant features. Most of the choices are unrelated. For example, my desire to read a good book or drink a glass of wine is pretty much separated from killing a pig or killing an ant. I don’t have to choose one over the other. There may be some relationship in some cases, but it is generally not nearly as strong and direct as that between eating meat and killing animals.

                “You have to convince me that the life of an animal is a measurable moral good in such a way that it deserves a protected status, and you have to frame that protected status in such a way that it is not self-contradictory nor does it interfere with human life’s protected status.”

                I don’t see any self-contradiction, nor do I see that it interferes at all with a human life’s protected status. Protected from what?

                “So are you saying that you draw a direct equivalence between the severely retarded and a pig?”

                You were the one who insisted that evidence about the intelligence of animals was relevant to how we treat them. If you believe that, how can one not bring in someone who is severely retarded? If one of your criteria for how you treat animals is (your view of) their intelligence level, doesn’t the same logic apply to people?

                OK, maybe I was a little over the top implying that your logic treats the two as identical. But by bringing in intelligence level, your logic does imply that the severely retarded might not have the same rights as people of normal intelligence. If one of your points is, animals are much stupider than we are, so this justifies our eating them, doesn’t this suggest that people who are much stupider than we are might not enjoy all the rights we do?

                If not, why not? What exactly is the missing criterion here? Number of chromosomes? Suppose by any conceivable measure of intelligence, some human could be found to be dumber than a non-human mammal. Exactly how and why do we justify treating that human differently from an animal? What if it has no capacity to fear death? What exactly is the cost to this person of killing him? How is the existential experience of death for this person any different from that of an animal?

                I think you’re in difficult terrain here. You have to postulate there is something special about the human that mandates different treatment from an animal, and yet all the empirical evidence, which you seem to regard as key, suggests that there is in fact nothing at all special about this individual.

                Many though not all of us believe that it is wisest not to support someone who is brain dead if there seems to be virtually no hope of recovery. In cases like this, the view seems to be that human life is not so special (again, recognizing that not everyone agrees with this position). This shows that it isn’t all about chromosomes, that behavior or lack of it also matters. Given this, it seems to me that any attempts to argue on the basis of behavior that killing animals is justified are going to become ensnarled in questions of justifiably killing humans as well.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Stillwater says:

                Andy, you’ve spent by my count somewhere between eight and ten times as much verbiage talking about my position as you have talking about yours.

                In addition, you’ve used a bunch of words like “evident”, “easy to do” when describing your own position, instead of actually describing it.  When I state, for example, that I suspect two things are incommensurable, and it seems to me that you believe that they are in fact not, and I ask you to explain how you would measure them, you ask me to justify the conclusion behind my statement instead of putting your answer out there.  I can reach one of three conclusions: one, it’s not easy at all, and you’re not comfortable doing it… two, it may or may not be easy, but you’ve never actually done it… or three, you really don’t think you need to do this because of (probably uncharitable on my part) reasons I won’t bother to list.

                In short, you aren’t giving much to this conversation except criticism.  Which is all well and good provided that I first buy your underlying premise: that animals deserve some sort of protection which you want me to offer them.  And yet you’re not doing any of the work necessary to convince me of anything.

                When you get around to it, I’ll read it.

                For the record, again, I worked in a slaughterhouse.  I’m of the direct and well considered opinion that the pig felt nothing during the process. My understanding of EU and US standards is that the method of slaughtering pigs is fairly standard.

                This may not be true of all slaughterhouses, granted.  But the “ability to feel pain” standard is carrying a lot of water for the “don’t eat meat” side, and the American Veterinary Medical Association gives modern slaughterhouses a pass on the infliction of pain charge.

                I can provide you with some documentation, if you’d like to read it.

                If animals belong in the moral community because they can feel pain (with or without other factors), this may not be relevant.  But if the consideration that “we ought not to inflict pain” is the sticker, proper slaughterhouse procedures take care of that.

                I do feel compelled to comment:

                OK, maybe I was a little over the top implying that your logic treats the two as identical. But by bringing in intelligence level, your logic does imply that the severely retarded might not have the same rights as people of normal intelligence.

                Severely retarded people do not have the same rights as people of normal intelligence.  That’s indeed a consequence of my logic, but surprise! it also happens to be utterly true, and completely non-controversial.  Should I list off a few things that severely retarded people can’t do?  Indeed, that they don’t have a right to do?

                Now, that doesn’t mean that people are going to/should slaughter them for meat animals.  But I’m not drawing an equivalence between pigs and retarded people, either; they’re not equal.  Just because a toddler has the mental capacity of a chimpanzee doesn’t mean that we ought to treat a toddler like a chimpanzee.  It doesn’t mean that a chimpanzee has the same rights as a toddler.  But some rights, certainly.

                You know what?  You don’t draw an equivalence, either.  If you did, you’d agree that eating the flesh of people who died of normal circumstances would be completely rational and moral and ought to be socially acceptable, too.  After all, ecologically speaking it makes a lot more sense than burning them, burying them, or dumping them in the Thames – it even makes more sense than vegetarianism.Report

              • Avatar Andy Smith in reply to Stillwater says:

                I want to make one other point. In addition to the arguments from morality, health and environment, there is another important one relevant to the meat-eating debate. I have been using this argument implicitly, and want to be explicit about it now.

                This argument is spiritual. By spiritual, I mean not some sacred reverence for all forms of life—I think this can be dealt with under morality—but rather individual efforts to struggle with desires, which in my experience is the basis of all spirituality. One does not by any means have to give up eating meat to live a spiritual life, but one does have to struggle with all desires, and since most of us have a strong desire to eat meat, this is a natural place to bring the struggle.

                IOW, resisting the temptation to eat meat offers a way to growth. In so doing we have a chance to see ourselves more objectively than we ordinarily do, to learn things about ourselves that we are ordinarily blind to. There is nothing special about meat eating in this regard. This type of struggle applied to any desire is valuable. But since there are other good reasons, in the opinion of many of us, for not eating meat, and since everyone seems to agree that not eating meat has no negative consequences other than our frustrated desire, this particular struggle can fit in well in our lives.

                We might find it much more difficult, for example, to struggle with our desire to have a job or a family—though, yes, we must do this, too. In fact, the struggle against eating meat can be regarded as a sort of baby step, in that we can simply stop eating meat all the time—whereas we will probably have to struggle against our desires for other, seemingly much more necessary things, not by actually giving them up, but by giving up just the desire for them. This is trickier, so having the more straightforward struggle with eating meat can help in the beginning.

                I think this also speaks to one of Patrick’s points. Patrick has argued that all of us engage in behavior that, in someone’s view, is of dubious moral value. Given this, he asks, how can we push one particular view that others may not share when we have our own failings? I would turn this around. I would say just because none of us is perfect, we should make some effort to bring out examples that others could benefit from. I welcome examples of possible moral/practical failings that I might benefit from by seeing them from the perspective of others. I myself have not always been a vegetarian. In order to change, I had to be exposed to the views of people that some in this forum, no doubt, would regard as self-righteous.

                In fact, I think E.C. Gach’s opening post perfectly captures the situation for many people. He admits he loves to eat meat, wants to do so, but also admits to some qualms about this. In other words, he sits in a precarious position, where perhaps all he needs is a little push to begin change. Those who are so certain that there is nothing wrong with eating meat do not have to join this discussion, but I take the fact that many do as evidence that they, too, may be looking for better reasons to justify doing something they suspect they should be doing.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Stillwater says:

                This is actually a much more interesting conversation to have.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                Nicely said Andy. I agree. At the bottom of it is the desire, or maybe something even a little deeper, each of us feels to look candidly at our behaviors and figure out a better way to exist on this planet. On our own terms. I think this is a fundamental part of everyone’s approach to being human, so moral arguments for X, Y or Z shouldn’t be understood as an imposition, but rather an invitation to think more reflectively on what we do and why we do it.

                In some non-trivial sense, this is the first step of leading a more spiritual life. Even for athiests.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Stillwater says:

                For the record, I said this pretty early on in this discussion:

                When you know the answer to the question, “How ought I as a person to interact with the world in the best way, that leaves both me fulfilled and the world better off than without me”, your ethics of death follow naturally.  If you don’t know the answer to that question and you try to build an ethics of death as an intellectual exercise, you wind up with a constructed ethics of death which will likely put you in a position where you are no longer interacting with the world in a way that leaves you fulfilled and the world better off than without you.Report

  6. Avatar David Ryan says:

    Quoting:

    My very temporary colleague Jeffrey Goldberg says “pigs should not be eaten because they are noble and intelligent creatures,” which I suppose is a good reason not to eat them.  I eat them because I always have, and even after having spent sometime around barnyard pigs, I don’t find that I think of them differently than cattle, or sheep, or fish; which is to say, I don’t have any trouble looking past whatever endearing qualities they have as living beings and seeing them as food.

    That doesn’t mean that Jeffrey Goldberg is wrong. It means that I eat pork.

    Report

    • Avatar Andy Smith in reply to David Ryan says:

      Actually, the worst treatment of pigs comes not as food, but as experimental animals. It turns out that pig’s skin is a lot like our skin, and hence, a great deal of burn research, e.g., is carried out on pigs. Even people who think there is nothing wrong with slaughtering pigs or other livestock “compassionately” should be revolted at this (though granted, the number of animals involved is far smaller, which I suppose counts for a lot in some ethicists’ views). I’m a scientist, and frequently defend animal research as being the only way we can develop new treatments for human diseases, but this is an example of research–and there are others–that I’m uncomfortable with, and in which I certainly sympathize with the view of activists.

      A major reason I think the arguments for eating meat are so misplaced is just because we have nothing to lose–but our ignorance of how we are slaves to our desires–by ceasing to eat meat. Once individuals come to terms with not doing something that most of us enjoy, there really is no downside. Animal research is a far more difficult area. The arguments both for and against IMO are much more complex. And as the pig example shows, sometimes suffering is inevitable, it’s required by the experimental design.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to David Ryan says:

      Hogs kill a couple of people each year. Those animals fight back.Report

  7. Avatar Murali says:

    Mr Gach, fantastic Post! I agree with very much all of it except for the meat part. Having been vegetarian all my life, I am not in a position to judge whether it tastes good or not. A lot of people who miss eating meat, but want to go vegetarian often eat mock meat instead. Have you tried mock meat, and how does it compare to eating the real thing?Report

    • Speaking for myself, I’ve tried mock meat.  Some is better than others, but on the whole, I find it pretty much disgusting.  If I were to go vegetarian, I wouldn’t eat mock meat unless I had no other choice.  (Of course, I realize that this statement reflects my privilege:  I have access to a lot of affordable food.)Report

  8. Avatar Herb says:

    But I would hope their reasoning would amount to something better than “well the other animals do it.”

    How about this one?  “The stomach is not a vestigial organ.”   Until we evolve some other way of getting nutrition, we will still have to get it by digesting organic matter.  Choosing to become a vegetarian is a luxury we have in the modern world.  Other people in other times were vegetarians, too, but not by choice.  The nutritional deficiencies are recorded in their bones.

    Also this:

    It’s completely ridiculous to call breeding animals for slaughter a form of respect simply because the living conditions are pleasant while they last.

    I’m not so sure I’d call that ridiculous.  As long as humans are eating them, cows, chickens, and pigs need not worry about ever going extinct.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Herb says:

      Other people in other times were vegetarians, too, but not by choice.  The nutritional deficiencies are recorded in their bones.

      Large portions of the people in the Indian subcontinent have been vegetarians for religious reasons for millennia. large portions of Indians (especially the more traditional ones) continue to be vegetarians to this day.Report

  9. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    We kill fruits and vegetables, as well. Indeed, most of the time there’s no effort to make sure that the biological processes of life have ceased before we boil, fry, or simply eat them raw.Report

  10. Avatar Anderson says:

    Thoughtful post. I think vegetarian/vegan vs. carnivore shouldn’t be such a binary. In general, yes, we are best off by maintaining a balanced diet with limited servings of red meat, but that does not mean we have to throw such a delicious delicacy like red meat under the bus. We should consume less of it–especially meat that has spent too much time being processed on the supply chain– and we should look to the food pyramid for guidance. The reality is that we can’t sustain a planet on the eating habits of contemporary Americans. We already produce way too much (subsidized) corn and soybeans just to feed animals that will eventually fill us up. Also, imagine global health care costs if every country achieves America’s 35% adult obesity rate. Wall-E anyone? While his advice is primarily focused on wealthier countries where diet is a matter of choice, Michael Pollen says it best with, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”Report

  11. Avatar wardsmith says:

    The difference between involved and committed.

    Eggs and bacon.

    The chicken is involved, the pig is committed.Report

  12. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    I assume that you don’t consider killing animals to be a moral evil on par with murdering humans. I mean, I wouldn’t keep on paying someone to murder people and give me their meat just because I’d acquired a taste for it when I didn’t know any better.

    If you do consider killing animals to be a lesser evil than murdering humans, how much of a difference is there? How do you measure it? What is the salient difference that makes killing lesser animals less evil than killing humans? Is it possible that it’s not evil at all?Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      What is most persuasive to me is that it’s connected to the capacity for experiencing suffering, and to a lesser degree, the capacity to be aware of future events.

       Either other animals are different from humans in kind or in degree.  And that’s an empirical question that science is getting better at answering.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to E.C. Gach says:

        Either other animals are different from humans in kind or in degree. 

        I take it currently you come down on the side of “in kind, but I’m worried about being wrong”?Report

        • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          Actually, I’m more at “Animal suffer like (but seemingly less) than human, ergo I’m engaged in immoral behavior.”

          I woulnd’t call myself a hypocrite, so much as troublingly weak kneed when it comes to changing my behavior.  As a result, I’m happy to condemn myself along with the practice, with the hope that I edge slowly closer toward a diet bereft of flesh.

           Report

  13. Avatar Kris says:

    i enjoy dog fighting, bull-fighting, and creating crush videos. These things are all moral by some the criteria discussed in the comments. Here are some things I’ve learned on this thread on how to defend my position.

    1. Killing dogs is perfectly natural. It’s even more natural that they should fight and kill each other. And getting sexual pleasure from killing puppies. Nothing more natural than sex and violence. I am also glad that I can now continje my work slaughtering dolphins in Tai Ji. (I’ll be gentle though.)

    2. If I don’t kill the dogs to watch dog fighting, I’ll have to watch more TV, and that requires electricity. And electricity is generated by windmills which kill birds and power plants that create insect-killing smoke. So somehow the dog killing is not wrong. (Please note this argument is not at all an instance of the fallacy of “two wrongs make a right.” No sirree. Not at all.)

    3. We kill plants. So killing puppies in crush videos is okay. (Never mind that plants don’t have minds.) You gotta kill, so all killing is justified.

    4. As we all know, killing puppies in crush videos and raping dolphins twive a day is as necessary as eating meat for your health. It’s been proven by some anecdotes.

    5. Okay, somaybe crush videos are wrong, but I still enjoy them. To make you feel better, I’ll give kitten some heavy anasthesia before I stomp it’s brains in while wearing a stilleto heal. Problem solved.

    6. Well, maybe eating the chimps brains seared and blended with Klingon livers (Klingon’s are animals, no?) in a thermomix (hat tip to McCardle for the recipe) is morally controversial. But it’s so delicious. And the kitten videos are so stimulating. I can’t stop. Maybe I am a bad person.

    Please forgive the snark. But this debate brings out the worst arguments.Report

  14. Avatar Roger says:

    Ethan,

    Great piece. Killing living things is wrong in some way. I suspect in the not-too-distant future humanity will look back in revulsion on this practice. Once we get cheaper, better and healthier lab cultured meat, the tide will quickly turn against killing for food.Report

  15. Avatar North says:

    When I was ten my parents got a cow to raise for meat. My father, being a sardonic wit, named her Ribbles. I have fond memories of that cow, we’d run along the fence and she’d stroll along after us. When we got off the bus from school she’d come ambling over and we’d pick flowers and plants for her. She was an amiable sort.

    In the fullness of time Ribbles was in her prime and I was conscripted to assist in dispatching her. My part in the process was never defined, it mostly seemed to consist of bearing witness. The gunshot to the head seemed fast and painless but I certainly will admit to being frightened. The butchery was messy and quite unpleasant as well. I had to hold tools and get my hands bloody.

    I must tell you though, I’ve never had a more succulent and wonderful cut of beef than Ribbles. She was a sweet cow and a sweet meal. I think people would benefit from being involved in preparing their own meals. It certainly adds savor.

    All that being said, I imagine that the logic of scientific advancement points inevitable to synthesized meat products. I’m relatively sanguine about the prospect.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to North says:

      That sounds traumatizing.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to E.C. Gach says:

        I recall being rather wincy about the actual gunshot and being mightily displeased about the mess (but it’s possible a different boy or girl may have found the gore cool) but we understood from the get go that Ribbles was food on the hoof. I personally think in hindsight that it was a healthy experience and it should be emphasized what spectacular beef it was. Truly sublime. Everyone should be able to put a name to their meat; I swear it heightens the flavor.Report

  16. Avatar J.L. Wall says:

    Thus sayeth a vegetarian:

    The problem with meat is that it has become, basically, a product of pre-prepared or neatly packaged foodstuffs that grows organically from supermarket freezers and refrigerators.  And when that’s the case, there’s no real reason for concern at the fact that it’s been slaughtered not by the guy you’re buying it from, whose practices and nature and carefulness you know and can see weekly (or, Ethan, several times a day, it would seem) but in a factory that shows just as much concern for the animal or the slaughtering as they tend to concern themselves with the quality of those little green plastic army men.

    Which is to say: there is nothing more hypocritical than a carnivore who’s repelled by the thought of hunting* or the workroom of a butcher’s shop.

    *Fine, fine.  For this first part I’ll let people off for religious reasons.  But if you want that strip of bacon, you’re hunting a wild boar for it!Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to J.L. Wall says:

      “Which is to say: there is nothing more hypocritical than a carnivore who’s repelled by the thought of hunting* or the workroom of a butcher’s shop.”

      Being repelled by hungting or butchery seems like a perfectly sane response.  That so many people would not be able to kill their own food (myself included), demonstrates an underlying repulsion that should motivate a moral stance on the issue.

      Having developed a taste for meat doesn’t seem to be in conflict with wishing one hadn’t because of the consequences of such an addiction.Report

      • Avatar Fnord in reply to E.C. Gach says:

        And does the fact that I’m not generally repelled by hunting and butchery inform my opinions about the morality of meat-eating? Should it? Should our moral intuitions depend upon a quirk of character?

        And, while we’re discussing irrational responses, should my gut-level repulsion at seeing a human cut open affect my view of surgical ethics?Report

        • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Fnord says:

          Having a general revulsion to a human body sliced open has less to say about surgical ethics than about more general principles of harming one another.

          I think there is in large part an objective quality to the thing we call morality.  However, I would be hardpressed to say what relevance it had in a world of sociopaths.  If no one is in the least bit discomfeted by pain, mutilation, and the general harm caused to another, and the suffering which results, I’m not sure where that would leave morality. 

          But emotional revulsions to butchery are for me about cutting to the chase.  I’m still comfortable explaining why you should recoil at slaughtering other animals, even if you aren’t, for more or less all the reasons I listed above.  My basic argument is that if you subscribe to some convetional form of human-centric moraltiy, than biological, zoological, and neurological scientific discoveries pose problems for how we treat other creatures that need to be reconciled.

          Exploring the nexus of morality’s subjective and objective characteristics certainly would be interesting though.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to E.C. Gach says:

            if a few fewer rich bastards were sociopaths, the world would be a FAR better place.

            Watch Human Centipede as a documentary.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to E.C. Gach says:

            From whence does this revulsion arise?   Western medicine had a hard-and-fast proscription on surgery and anatomical dissections for centuries.   Morality isn’t really any guide here:  the Buddhists know life is suffering from top to bottom and there’s no escaping it.    The Jains take things even farther.   I’m not sure there’s anything objective about morality:  morality arises from a process of subjective equivalence.   We see ourselves in others, even in animals.

            You make the point about harming each other, probably our only sensible guide to this problem.   At some level, we all kneel weeping with Nietzche over the beaten horse.   We know it’s wrong to beat the horse.   But if that horse was beyond the reach of modern medicine, we know it’s wrong to prolong that horse’s suffering.  Primum non nocere.Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Of course, that was the moment when Nietzsche’s insanity became manifest. Just sayin’.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

                Yeah, which is why I put him in the comment.   But there are equally-insane people who insist on prolonging life until it is unbearable suffering.   Just sayin’Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Oh, you won’t get any argument from me there. I think quality of life is the most important issue in medicine.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

                So true.  I heard some appalling statistic wherein most of the cost of medical care in the West is spent on the last two weeks of life.

                I put a do-not-resuscitate order on myself every time I enter a hospital.  I have a horror of coming back to consciousness on a respirator.    There are worst things than dying.

                Another pet peeve, pain management.  I come from a family of surgeons and anesthesiologists.  Though I hear things have changed for the better, somewhat, there is a school of thought which says allowing the patient to manage his own level of analgesia is a bad thing, that patients must be rationed.  We believe it’s cruel, the whole lot of us.   Yes, terminally ill patients will become addicted to their morphine, but So Fishing What:  they’re dying.   If by some fluke the patient recovers, we can manage the addiction quite sensibly.   The patients don’t really enjoy the side-effects of a morphine addiction, read De Quincey’s complaints about constipation and insomnia, nightmares and the like.

                Though the poets tell us life is short, life is very long for the terminally ill and we who survive them ought to bear that in mind.   It is the quality of life which ought to matter most.Report

          • Avatar Fnord in reply to E.C. Gach says:

            I did not mean to get start a detailed discussion about medical ethics when I mentioned surgery; merely to point out that our gut-level intuitions, especially untrained intuitions, can be a poor guide (or at least extremely imprecise) to what is harmful. Saying a revulsion to seeing humans cut open should speak about “general principles of harming one another” is all well and good, but it is only the very start of a reasonable ethical approach to violence and pseudoviolence.  There are repulsive but ethical things, and things that are harmful unethical but don’t produce that revulsion.

            My gut doesn’t know the difference between someone cut open for surgery and cut open by violence. And I don’t think other people’s revulsion to hunting and butchery is capable of making a distinction between humane and inhumane slaughter of animals.

            If all slaughter is inherently inhumane, then make a argument for that using reason. On some level, it all comes down to moral intuitions, including gut-level revulsion, but I do think we share similar moral intuitions. I don’t think indiscriminate violence against animals is ethical, and I do have a revulsion to seeing animals in pain (at least some classes of animals, which, using reason, I can extrapolate to less photogenic but neurologically similar animals). We’re not talking about convincing a sociopath.Report

  17. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Human dentitition shows we’ve evolved to eat cooked meat.  Other hominids don’t exhibit this same dentition:  It’s a long way from Australopithecus to Homo erectus but we’ve been eating meat a very long time.

    But it wasn’t the same sort of meat for most of that time.   The notes from the Lewis and Clark expedition show the men eating prodigious amounts of meat: nine pounds of meat per man per day.   It didn’t contain the same ratio of fat to lean as our domesticated stock today.   Jeff McMahan’s “vast unceasing slaughter” and that fatuous quote from Isaiah 11 (how I do wish people who quote the Bible had actually read it!) is a bit thin on context.  Allow me to supply some.   Though the animals are wished to become vegetarians, we come to verse 14, in which the then-divided Israelites will unite to plunder the pesky Philistines to the west.   The Holy Mountain might be vegetarian, the slopes of Philistia would feature genocidal warfare in Isaiah’s utopia.

    No, such as McMahan are intellectual pantywaists, unused to life on the farm, where the plow and the harrow destroy the rodent burrows and extirpate the native plants from the fields.   Robert Burns (a boy who knew the life of a poor farmer’s son) gives the picture to us:

    Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie, 
     O, what a panic’s in thy breastie! 
     Thou need na start awa sae hasty, 
     Wi’ bickering brattle! 
     I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee, 
     Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

    I’m truly sorry man’s dominion, 
     Has broken nature’s social union, 
     An’ justifies that ill opinion, 
     Which makes thee startle 
     At me, thy poor, earth-born companion, 
    An’ fellow-mortal!

    I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve; 
     What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!

    Tom has the matter summed up well enough:  those who must raise the animals we eat have evolved their own morality about animal suffering, knowing it exists and doing everything possible to avoid it.  Hunter cultures worship the animals they eat and beg their forgiveness, believing themselves part of a larger circle of life.  Even those of us who have pets know there comes a time where a merciful death is preferable to animal suffering.

    All their lives our animals have eaten the food we provide, lived in shelters we made for them, been treated for illnesses and their shit shoveled up every morning, noon and night.   It hasn’t been until the rise of the Corporate Farm where chickens’ beaks have been mutilated, sows confined to gestation pens, cattle penned into filthy feed lots to fatten on corn, a foodstock their guts were never meant to endure — that we have lost that sense of honor we once afforded the cattle and even Robert Burns’ mouse.   The plastic wrap and styrofoam has isolated us from the reality of those animals’ lives and deaths.    And that’s where the great crime against the animals has its roots.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

      That we evolved to eat cooked meat is a highly controversial position. It’s equally, if not more likely that we evolved specifically to eat marine life.

      Still, as others have noted here, what we evolved to do, or not do, is pretty much irrelevant to the morality of the issue if there are functional alternatives. We may have evolved to kill rival mates, or to rape when possible (not saying either of these is true, simply that they’re possible), but that doesn’t mean we should rape.

      To me, the morality of eating meat is highly relative. Eating a balanced diet that doesn’t contain meat is an expensive lifestyle, and one that many people can’t afford. For those people, not eating meat is not an option, and therefore it is not immoral for them to eat meat. For those of us who can afford not to eat meat, the issue becomes trickier. I can’t fathom a moral world view in which it is possible to avoid factory-raised chicken, hog, or cattle, but not avoiding those things is not immoral. When it comes to free range, grass fed, etc., on the other hand, I’m not so sure. There’s a huge literature on the issue, and I’m ambivalent. I still eat meat, but I make sure I know where it’s coming from (eat local meat when I can, eat non-factory meat from elsewhere when I can’t), because I can afford to be picky. Sometimes I think this is probably wrong, and sometimes I have a difficult time finding anything wrong with it.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Chris says:

        “Eating a balanced diet that doesn’t contain meat is an expensive lifestyle”

        Any evidence for this?  As far as I can tell, grains and lagooms are dramatically cheaper than meat per mass unit of nutrition.

        Then again perhaps you’re right.  A lb. of meat for 1.99 vs. 1 lb. of beans and rice for possibly .50 more.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to E.C. Gach says:

          Gach,

          that’s regional specific. down south youc an find good cornmeal and beans at reasonable prices.

          Here a pound of beans is well over a dollar, and ground lean beef is well over two dollars.

          Nuts may be cheaper here, unless they’re homegrown.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

        You make an interesting point about human consumption of marine life.   Since the end of the last big Ice Age, the oceans have risen, drowning many important archaeological sites along the ancient shorelines.   There are a few sites where we still find vast middens of oyster and mussel shells.  Yet the dentition argument shows we were eating cooked, not raw meat, enough for evolutionary pressures to push our mandibles around a fair bit.

        In the Indus Valley, men did grow enough of a conscience to become vegetarian.   Most advanced cultures do manifest vegetarianism in some form or other.   Based on what I’ve seen in Africa, Laos and Central America, human beings have always been at sixes and sevens about what constitutes cruelty to animals.  It seems to be a human constant, this aversion to needless cruelty.   Men have always domesticated animals, especially the pig.

        Trying to fit the conscience into evolution is always a tough push.   The Curse of the Eponym arises again with “Darwinian”:  though we might have arisen from vicious hominids (the chimps are still horribly cruel to each other and they’ve developed a taste for meat) we didn’t stay that way.   Once the Ice Age ended and the possibility of farming the same plot of land, year after year arose, we quickly changed the jumpers on human society, creating vast city-states where individuals could specialize.   That we developed morals and prohibitions on nasty treatment of each other shouldn’t surprise anyone:  it wasn’t good for business.   Waging war on other cultures?   Different story, they didn’t abide by Our Rules.

        The book of Genesis is one long sad story told by nomads being pushed off their land by these new farmers in human history:  going right back to Cain and Abel, where Abel’s sacrifice of a lamb was acceptable and Cain’s sacrifice of cultivated food was rejected.   Sodom and Gomorrah, wicked cities, righteous shepherds.   The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.    If the story of the Garden of Eden isn’t true, it appears in every mythology, some utopia from which we never truly arose and to which we can never truly return.

         Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Our gut’s still too long to properly digest raw meat. Evolution in progress.

      Huntergatherers were lucky to have a meat meal once or twice a week. Farmers ate meat during festivals, because a cow could feed a village. And lambing time meant a bloody slaughter.

      Nine pounds of meat? That’s about 9000 calories (just guessing by 85% lean beef). That… sounds like a bit much, unless we’re talking Indians doing 40 miles on foot alongside horses.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

        The Iroquois and Osage (the only tribes I’ve studied in any depth) were farmers who also worshipped what the Iroquois called the deohako, the life sustaining plants, corn, squash and beans.

        But they also had pemmican, a high-energy food used by runners and hunters.   The best pemmican was made from marrow and berries but it all had a high fat and natural sugar content.   It’s not something you’d relish eating but it’s certainly sustaining.

        The Plains Indians were completely different.   They ate much more meat and only harvested the plants they found along their hunting routes.   Curiously, the Kiowa, who were forced off the Mississippi River valley into the Great Plains, still had planting rituals, though they had converted into a horse culture, the horse another artifact of Western influence, since early North American cultures had eaten all the horses.   They didn’t even have a word for the horse.  They called him the Tall Dog or the Spiritual Dog in many cases.

        You have it sorta-backwards:  hunter-gatherers do eat meat and lots of it.   It’s the sedentary tribes who took to farming and a vegetarian culture.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP says:

          In the actual pre-agricultural wild, meat was much higher energy/protein payoff than plants.  Most plants that you eat nowadays don’t look like their ancestors, and many of their ancestors weren’t terribly edible.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            Collard greens being a notable exception.

            Meat was indeed a much higher payoff. However, it was much chancier to find, and highly unreliable. Plus, people bred until population pressure made them stop, so meat was, if not completely extinct, at least under a good deal of pressure around the camp.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

          The plains indians are a special case — a hunter/gatherer society rather out of balance. The more original hunting, which involved pit traps, etc. sounds more like what I describe above.

          However, great disparities do exist, even between different modern hunter-gatherer societies. The animal-derived calorie percentage ranges from 25% in the Gwi people of southern Africa, to 99% in Alaskan Nunamiut.[87] The animal-derived percentage value is skewed upwards by polar hunter-gatherer societies, who have no choice but to eat animal food because of the inaccessibility of plant foods. Since those environments were only populated relatively recently (for example, Paleo-Indian ancestors of Nunamiut are thought to have arrived to Alaska no earlier than 30,000 years ago), such diets represent recent adaptations rather than conditions that shaped human evolution during much of the Paleolithic. More generally, hunting and fishing tend to provide a higher percentage of energy in forager societies living at higher latitudes. Excluding cold-climate and equestrian foragers results in a diet structure of 52% plant calories, 26% hunting calories, and 22% fishing calories.[86] Furthermore, those numbers may still not be representative of a typical Stone Age diet, since fishing did not become common in many parts of the world until the Upper Paleolithic period 35-40 thousand years ago,[88] and early humans’ hunting abilities were relatively limited[dubiousdiscuss], compared to modern hunter-gatherers, as well (the oldest incontrovertible evidence for the existence of bows only dates to about 8000 BCE,[89] and nets and traps were invented 22,000 to 29,000 years ago.)

          Just grabbing something from wikipedia…Report

  18. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    For the record, I worked at the Clougherty Meat Packing Plant in Slauson, CA (where they make Farmer John branded products, including Dodger Dogs) for a summer.

    So I’m somewhat more than passing familiar with the actual process of how a slaughterhouse works.

    If that’s relevant to anyone’s impressions, there you go.Report

  19. Avatar Fnord says:

    Of course, there are deeply anthropocentric reasons to question meat eating as well.  With the amount of starvation and hunger that remains in the world, how feasible is it to breed and raise animals, who consume many more calories than they ever give back in the form of meat, so that we can eat them?

    Does unilaterally abstaining from meat eating actually help those feeling starvation and hunger? I don’t have a lot of experience, but it’s seems like it’s not significantly less expensive to have a (equally healthy, etc) vegetarian diet than a carnivorous one. To the extent that there are resource savings, you’re not capturing them (and presumably transferring them to the poor).  In contrast, the whole world driving like Americans is at least as unsustainable as the whole world eating like Americans, and if I reduce my driving, the resource savings are obvious: money saved on gasoline, which I can charitably transfer to the poor. Sure, there’s no probably equilibrium where 8 billion people eat significant meat calories when it consumes many times that many calories to raise meat animals. But it’s not clear to me that the marginal effect of one American switching to vegetarianism is helpful.

    Nor is it obvious that an equilibrium where 8 billion people eat like vegetarian Americans (if that is possible) is preferable to, say, 2 billion people eating whatever they please (or, for that matter, 8 billion people eating efficiently lab-cultured meat, as Roger suggests).Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Fnord says:

      What is also left out of his analysis is that some kinds of meat farming use land that is utterly unsuitable for any form of practical crop food generation. Goats, sheep and roaming cattle, for instance, eat off of heaths, barrens and rocky scrub lands that would never grow a field of soy beans in a million years.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to North says:

        while this is true, wouldn’t you rather have some wild animals there, and spend our gas money on more efficient food production? (n.b.: the real argument is how much gas we spend on producing a field of soy, and whether non-fertilized cropland actually produces more (accounting for the gradual loss of topsoil as well) than the scrubland produces meatprotein)Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Kim says:

          I’d rather have global modern society and global womans equality. Everything I’ve seen of modern civilizations suggest that when those two things are accomplished population pressures will probably be a thing of the past. Hell we’ll probably have to pay people to have kids. There’ll be plenty of room for the beasties o’ the wild in that situation.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to North says:

            Give a girl child 11 years of education and she’ll have fewer than two children, statistically.    Those will be born somewhat later in life, they will live to maturity, she will ensure they receive as much education as she did and she will have the resources to care for them.

            All the developed cultures in the world have plummeting birth rates.   When I was there a few years back, they had public service ads on Japanese television, urging families to have more children.

            As varies the lot of girls and women, so varies the suffering of the world itself.   It is the first and most useful yardstick for measuring any culture.Report

            • Avatar Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Blaise,

              Interestingly enough, they were paying to run TV shows that suggested that early teenage pregnancy (semi-incestuous) was a good thing. Now what does that do to your numbers?

              If we wanted to do what is best for our daughters, we’d get them pregnant at about age 14, and then care for the baby ourselves. Girls would learn more at school too, I’d wager — puberty does nasty things to young virgin women (statistically).Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

                Yow.   Sounds like an outstandingly stupid idea to me but then, I raised two daughters.    As with other subject of this sort, it’s my contention I’ll have a valid opinion when I grow a uterus.Report

            • Avatar North in reply to BlaiseP says:

              That last paragraph was so spot on it brought a tear to my eye Blaise.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to North says:

            point’s yours, my good man, and well put!Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to North says:

        Heh, heh.   The goat created the Sahara.   Ever seen a goat in operation?   Just hell on trees.   We had to keep our trees wrapped in chicken wire to keep them from being nibbled up by those goats.

        A visit to Scotland and Ireland will show what’s become of those once-rich landscapes, courtesy of the sheep.   Once the sheep and goats are taken off the land, the ancient forests return.   Genuinely natural landscapes aren’t barren.   Life has evolved into niches for every biome on earth.

        We’ve been at this farming business for a long time, long enough to wreck millions of hectares of arable land.   The “Fertile Crescent” has been reduced to a miserable desert by irrigation which salinated the land over a few thousand years.   And then there’s that goat again, eating up any semblance of trees or bushes which might hold down the soil.

        In Guatemala, I worked with an effort to reforest upland Guatemala up in the Cobán / Alta Veracruz area.    Turns out the best coffee grows in the shade of native trees and the birds will fertilize the coffee from their perches in the new trees.   It seems the Classic and Late Maya cultures cut down the jungles:  there were probably three times more people on that land than now.   Show me arable land, I’ll show you somebody or something fertilizing it, managing it, maintaining it.   For all its riotous forms of life, the jungle is absolutely terrible land to farm.   All the nutrients are already bound up in the biome:  something has to die for something else to live in the jungle.

        But show me ranch land where the land’s so poor it won’t support a crop, I’ll show you overgrazed and mismanaged land.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

          ,,, What ancient forests?

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moorland

          hmm… actually surprised there’s not more pine. we get pine barrens in NJ, don’t we? And there’s plenty of pine up in WV, in acid soils.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

            The Caledonian Forest.  The history of Scotland over the last five centuries is one long tale of stupidity and mismanagement.   We may thank the FSM that a few honest botanists and archaeologists are bringing back the ancient forests where they once grew.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Overgrazed and mismanaged I’ll happily allow Blaise, poverty and ignorance do terrible things to land whether the instrument of that damage is an axe, an irrigation canal or a goat. But even if those lands weren’t overgrazed you wouldn’t be laying in big fields of soy or what-not to feed the masses in their place.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to North says:

            Ecch, there ought to be fewer of us.   That said, I’d get in a competent botanist to help me remediate that soil and find what would do well on it in context.   When life gives you lemons, etc.Report

            • Avatar North in reply to BlaiseP says:

              We’re more in agreement than not Blaise, much more. If we could get the globe into modern or near modern economies and governments we probably wouldn’t need to try and scrape sustinance out of those poor abused regions.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to North says:

                I suppose we could put all the good aspects of “modern economies” in one pile and discard the rest as bad thinking.   Such is not the case.   The Modern Economy has refined the ancient art of plunder to an art form, aided and abetted by that most-efficient of compliant government, the tinhorn dictator, who loads his miserable country up with debt from the World Bank, encumbering its future with all manner of trouble.    The World Bank will get its money back and doesn’t much care about the mechanisms by which it gets repaid.   Got resources?  Sell ’em.

                I’m not here to criticize the World Bank or the IMF or their goals.   I merely observe this Modern Economy business is mostly about scraping and more’s the pity because it’s unnecessary.

                The fatuous Liberal wrings his hands and weeps tears over the lack of diversity in the world.   The more sanguine among us feel this Diversity business is overrated.   Genuine diversity means specialization, one man’s noxious weed is another man’s hothouse flower.   The USSR once fell prey to a charlatan name of Trofim Lysenko who gulled Stalin into all sorts of unscientific nonsense.   Andrei Sakharov, an ackshul fakshul scientist once said of him:  “”He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.””

                But how much better are we, trying to impose our own pseudo-scientific nonsense about World Economies and what might do well in a given context upon the Third World.   Not much better, IMHO.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to BlaiseP says:

                You won’t catch me giving diversity much lip service Blaise nor claiming the modern economy is an unalloyed good. I don’t have to be as experienced as you to know that things ain’t that simple.Report

  20. Avatar Chris says:

    Also, from the post title, I assumed it was going to be about the morality of eating yuppies.Report

  21. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    Regarding the “evolved to eat meat/fish/whatever” note.

    That’s not how evolution works.  There isn’t any direction.  You don’t evolve “to” eat meat, you evolve, and some of the evolutionary adaptations make it easier (or more difficult) for you to process certain types of foodstuffs or not… and those certain types of foodstuffs are staples or not… and you survive to pass on that trait, or you don’t.

    You don’t “evolve to eat meat”.  Mankind isn’t “meant” to eat meat, any more than it’s “meant” to eat wheat or apples or porcupine quills or spiny echinoderms or anything else.  Prehistoric humans probably tried eating everything at one time or another, when caloric intake was so damn low that you died if you didn’t try that bark soaked in water. Crap, nowadays if someone’s hungry enough they’ll try dirt.

    Some types of bark actually kill your dumb behind, for that matter.  We didn’t evolve “not to eat acorns” or “to eat acorns”, people figured out at one point that if you ate them one way you got sick and if you ate them another way you didn’t.  You can eat them, or not.  There’s no foodie Manifest Destiny going on here.Report

    • Avatar Andy Smith in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      “Evolved to eat meat” is acceptable scientific shorthand for “certain adaptations appeared in association with eating meat”. If eating meat had survival value, then adaptations such as certain kinds of teeth, certain kinds of digestive enzymes, and yes, certain kinds of pleasurable taste, followed. The point is that part of our physiological legacy resulted from eating meat, and this legacy does make it more difficult in some ways not to eat meat.

      And yes, evolution often does go in a particular direction. Because once certain adaptations are selected for, other adaptations that also promote the behavior become more likely to be selected. Evolution has no pre-determined direction, but it does go in certain directions. The most obvious example is complexity. Not all evolution is towards greater complexity, but certainly that is a significant trend.Report

  22. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Good post EC. There’s a lot of red meat to chew on here.

    I think two things are in play here. One is the utilitarian argument against suffering/pain that standard factory farming inflicts on animals. Along those lines, lessening the amount of pain constitutes a moral good (ie., we ought to lessen it), so utilitarianism makes a good case for more humane farming practices. The problem (or not, depending on your view) is that if animals experienced no pain during the birth-death cycle, then killing and eating them could be entirely justified on other grounds. And this is – as you say – ‘squishy’ for all the reasons utiltarianism is squishy: it can justify just about anything if the scope of ‘morally significant properties’ is extended enough and cleverly weighted.

    The other thing in play is more rights based: if animals have basic rights, then perhaps animal husbandry is morally wrong in any event. Along those lines, I’ve been persuaded that there are no relevant properties distinguishing humans from animals wrt the basic right to life, and killing them requires meeting a heavy burden. If so, then we have to revise our views (as individuals, at least) of what constitutes morally permissible actions wrt how we treat them, potentially including refraining from raising them for slaughter.

    As I said, I’ve been persuaded that deliberately raising animals for slaughter to be consumed by humans is morally questionable (if not outright morally wrong), but I can’t say that my behavior has moved into accordance with that belief. I was vegetarian for quite a while, but found that my lifestyle at the time (lots of calories expenditure on a daily basis) wasn’t suited for a meat-free lifestyle. I was tired all the time. Vegetarians informed me I was Doin it Rong, but I never went back to veggieism after all the instruction. So I live in that murky middle ground of not being able to morally justify my actions, even when most of the meat I consume is open range, cage free, hormone free, etc.

    The practical arguments in favor of centralized meat-farms doesn’t effect this one way or the other, at least on my view. If the purpose of centralized farming practices is to produce food more efficiently, eliminating cows as food would trivially follow. Really, it comes down to people liking the taste of meat and finding ways to rationalize it. Or not.

     Report

  23. Avatar James K says:

    For me the issue is one of empathy, or rather lack thereof.  I simply cannot see anything in an animal worth preserving.  Humans have goals, dreams and ambitions.  Humans have a morally-relevant distinctiveness that makes every one of us worth preserving (perhaps with rare exceptions for the truly monstrous among us).  But pigs are really all the same, at least in every sense I care about.  What is lost if a cow dies?  Nothing I care about.  In this sense animals are more like plants than humans.  Nothing relevant is lost in their destruction.

    Furthermore, pretty much all the meat we eat comes form species that are domesticated.  They exist in their present form because humans made them that way, for the purposes of being eaten.  If the animals were able to object, that wouldn’t be enough, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the likely result of mass vegetarianism / synthetic meat is the extinction of farm animal species.

    Now maybe I’m just living up to the stereotype of libertarians (or economists, or atheists, there is a reason why I chose my avatar), but I cannot summon up any fellow feeling for animals less advanced than cetaceans or primates.

    Oh, one other thing:

    The only real meatballs are made with beef

    Had you ever tried venison meatballs you would know how hollow those words are 🙂Report

    • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to James K says:

      Ah, you raise the specter of teleology, JamesK.

      And the one thing that’s never been proven is that the beasts—outside immediate danger to it— have any inkling of their own mortality.

      Men have been touched, perhaps anthropomorphically, when the great apes consider the body of a dead member of their group, or when elephants “mourn” at the corpse of one of their pack, even return to the site of their bones.

      I do not doubt they try to understand, but they cannot.  Being human is a blessing in its way, and it sucks, knowing that we each will die.

       Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        Knowing that I will die doesn’t make it more likely that I will die, and in some ways may make it less likely (what we can anticipate, we can make plans against).

        Knowing of death may indeed suck, but it’s better than ignorance.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James K says:

      I simply cannot see anything in an animal worth preserving. 

      I don’t believe that. Not even under the most charitable reading. I don’t know why you’d say it, but it’s surely false.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Stillwater says:

        You sure about that?  Because I really am indifferent to the continued existence of a particular cow or pig.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James K says:

          Isn’t the emotion of feeling something is ‘worth preserving’ based on the personal connection you feel towards that thing? I mean, I can understand the abstraction under which animal-value is ascribed only to things with hopes and dreams, but surely individual people (humans!) lack hopes and dreams – or at least carry them with different levels of intensity and clarity. Are those people not worth preserving? The abstraction requires argument – as a necessary condition for moral consideration – one which I don’t think is so easy to do.

          More to the point, if you saw a pig suffering from a pain it was in your power to alleviate – it’s foot badly caught in a barbed wire fence, say –  wouldn’t you feel compelled to do so? Even if you didn’t act on that feeling?

           Report

          • Avatar James K in reply to Stillwater says:

            Isn’t the emotion of feeling something is ‘worth preserving’ based on the personal connection you feel towards that thing?

            Quite possibly, I simply lack any such connection with non-sapients and don’t understand how someone could create such a connection.  It would be like falling in love with your computer.  Maybe a pet would be different, but then I’ve never really “gotten” pets.

            but surely individual people (humans!) lack hopes and dreams – or at least carry them with different levels of intensity and clarity

            Language may be failing me here.  Humans have clearly independent personalities with unique preferences and memories.  Were I given to mysticism I might call it soul, but in the absence of that all I can say is that people have a distinctiveness that I don’t perceive in animals.

            This is a little difficult for me since I haven’t really articulated this before, and I may not have defined my True Rejection yet.  But I simply can’t summon up any feeling over the issue over animals dying.  I can see their suffering as distasteful if it is gratuitous, but even this isn’t a strong feeling.Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to James K says:

              This is, strangely, a sort of 17th century view of animals. It ignores much of what we’ve learned about animals since, well, at least Darwin, and particularly what we’ve learned about animal intelligence in the last 50-100 years. We know that primates, for example, particularly chimps and bonobos, are very much like us mentally — like toddlers, perhaps — and certainly have distinct personalities. But it’s not just other primates: toothless whales, canines (domesticated dogs have an ability unique to humans and dogs: the ability to follow pointing, which requires fairly sophisticated theory of mind capabilities), even several members of the genus Corvus. Hell, they’ve done studies on personality differences in hyenas and octopi (some species of which, despite being invertebrates, display remarkable intelligence). It seems your lack of empathy for animals is either based on something you aren’t able to articulate, or is based on ignorance. I wonder, if you read up on animal intelligence, whether you’d develop some empathy for them, or if there really is something else at work here.Report

              • Avatar James K in reply to Chris says:

                No I have read about animal intelligence, but bear in mind that I’m not really  talking about primates or cetaceans (in fact I did give them a pass in my original comment), I know that crows and ravens are remarkably intelligent, but humans don’t really eat them not do we?  The same is mostly true for hyenas and octopi.

                I guess I’m not disagreeing that there’s a line, I just don’t think the boundary between animals and other kingdoms is the right place to draw it.  I’m not sure most vegetarians really do either, how many vegetarians are morally opposed (as distinct from being aesthetically opposed) to eating insects?  And how do the ones that are feel about the use of pesticides to control insect populations?

                Where I am different from a vegetarian is I don’t think the animals traditionally farmed for food fall within the Do Not Eat set.  They don’t appear to have the cognitive features that you mentioned in your comment, and if those features are the reason not to eat animals then there’s no reason not to eat pigs, cows, chickens etc.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to James K says:

                Well, pigs are remarkably intelligent, so you might want to leave them out of your diet if you don’t want to eat dogs because they’re smart and have individual personalities. Chickens are dumb as dirt, though, so they’re fair game (literally!). I don’t know much about bovine intelligence, but I do know that they’re funny. Google the video of cows watching the New Orleans jazz band, for example.

                Also, I love octupus, it’s deeeeeeelicious, both in pasta and as a sushi dish.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

                Also goats.Report

              • Avatar James K in reply to Chris says:

                You see, this looks a sensible place for the debate to be held.  What obligations do we have to which animals?  And how do we decide?

                My lack of empathy aside, I think my biggest issue here is that talking about the morality of eating animals is a category error.  Different animals demand different rules.

                 Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to James K says:

                Yeah, some taste better than others.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James K says:

                Especially the recipes.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to James K says:

                I suspect this is likely to be the best way to approach it. I can think of several factors that might (might, mind you)  figure into a moral calculus: the intelligence of the animal, the relative efficiency with which it provides us nutrition (several factors would go into the efficiency calculatuion, including availability, ease of raising and slaughter, cost, etc.), cutlural factors like whether we’ve decided that species X is a pet animal, and whether it is possible to raise the animal/hung the animal without causing unnecessary suffering come to mind immediately. So long as we haven’t decided, through reasoning or prejudice, that all meat eating is immoral, this seems like rich ground for debate.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to James K says:

                By the way, here’s the link to the jazz band playing for cows:

                Now, these are French cows, so they’re almost certainly more sophisticated than American cows. American cows prefer something like Rebecca Black to jazz.Report