17 December 2003

Human Predators

I received the following letter from a reader:
Hi Keith: You have argued against eating meat along the following lines: Meat eating causes undue pain and suffering to animals. You have also argued that we humans try as hard as possible to hide our animalness from ourselves. You have also said that we very much belong to the animal world. If this is so, although I am not paraphrasing, then isn't meat eating a trait that we would share with lots of other animals and therefore wouldn't the act of devouring flesh be a trait that is inherent to our species. I argue along the following lines: Humans are animals. A lot of animals derive their sustenance from eating other animals. If humans eat animal meat then it is a normal occurrence in the animal world.
Thanks for the feedback! The first thing to notice is that from the fact that humans have some things in common with animals, it doesn't follow that they have everything in common (i.e., that there are no differences). Men and women are alike, but also different. The question is whether the differences, such as they are, are morally significant.

Every animal species has special features. Dogs can smell much better than humans can. Eagles have better eyesight. Humans have greater intellectual capacities. The question is whether any of these differences make a moral difference. They may. If only humans have the capacity to project themselves into the distant future, then only humans can suffer at the prospect of future suffering (or death). But this cuts both ways. Animals can't be told that an intervention is intended to help rather than hurt them. (Think of Marlin Perkins of Wild Kingdom shooting a dart into a rhinoceros to sedate it and allow rescuers to relocate it.) So the special features of humans both increase and decrease the amount of suffering they experience.

One morally relevant difference between humans and other animals is that only humans are moral agents. That is to say, only humans have the capacity to (1) reflect on their conduct and (2) control their behavior in accordance with principles. Only humans can go against their natural impulses. But if we can do these things, then it is an open question whether we ought to. Moral theory is an attempt to determine how humans ought to behave, given their capacities. Moral argument is an attempt to persuade, rationally.

The slogan "'ought' implies 'can'" means that one has a moral obligation to do something only if it is possible to do that thing. If a thing can't be done, then there's no obligation to do it. But animals can't conform their behavior to moral principles, as humans can, so they have no obligation to conform. They are moral patients who can be acted upon, but not moral agents who act. This is why it makes no sense to blame animals for their behavior. We might say, "Bad dog," but we don't think that the dog is responsible for its conduct. Animals are like mentally defective humans in this respect.

To cut to the chase, only humans are morally responsible. That animals harm each other, either intraspecifically or extraspecifically, is irrelevant to how we humans ought to behave toward them. We're special. Our cognitive abilities both liberate us from nature (so to speak) and impose responsibility on us to act morally.

Incidentally, those who reason that because animals kill and eat each other, humans may kill and eat animals, are not consistent. They do not look to animals for guidance about how to raise their children, construct their dwellings, prepare their food, or reproduce. If you think that humans should do as other animals do, then apply the principle consistently. Pick a species and emulate it slavishly. Don't pick and choose among animal behaviors, following animals where it pleases and not following where it doesn't please. That is as disingenuous as abiding only by certain parts of the Bible.

One more thing. It's pretty clear that humans are omnivores. They are capable, biologically, of subsisting on either plant or animal products, or both. But this is just a fact about us. Nothing of a moral nature follows from it. To see this, think of some other natural features. Humans (especially males, who have much more testosterone than females) are naturally aggressive. Does it follow that we may aggress on each other without constraint? Of course not. It may be that human males have an impulse to rape females (in the sense of forcing sexual intercourse on them). Does it follow that they may do so? Of course not. That something is the case is no reason whatsoever for thinking that it ought to be the case.