24 May 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 7

I’ve heard it said many times (usually by students in my Ethics course) that if people become vegetarians, as Peter Singer and others recommend, we’ll be overrun by animals. All the cows, pigs, goats, turkeys, and chickens being confined on farms and ranches will be roaming the streets and countrysides, interfering with our activities and generally making nuisances of themselves. You will wake up one morning to see a cow munching the grass in your front yard, or a pig rooting in your garden, or a turkey pooping on your driveway, or, god forbid, a goat eating the tin cans out of your recycling bin.

I’m not sure what’s supposed to follow from this. Imagine saying that slavery should not be abolished because it will result in unemployed former slaves roaming the countryside. Actually, now that I think of it, this argument was made. But surely there are more than two options: retain slavery and create anarchy. And even if there were only two options, we should opt for anarchy and the social disruption it entails rather than slavery! The former is an enormous problem; the latter is an enormity.

Perhaps the thought is this. An act is right only if it is universally prescribable. But one cannot universally prescribe that confined animals be liberated, since it will produce the aforementioned rampage. Therefore, it is not right to liberate one’s own animals. The problem is that this principle proves too much. It proves, for example, that it’s wrong for me to flush my toilet at five o’clock, since, if everyone did so, it would be ruinous. It proves that it’s wrong for me to withdraw my savings from the bank, since, if everyone did so, it would be disastrous.

I think we can see what went wrong. It’s highly unlikely that everyone, or even most people, will flush their toilets at five o’clock (although I’ve heard it said that halftime of the Super Bowl puts a severe strain on city sewage systems). Thus, there’s no harm in my doing so. In the case of animals, it’s highly unlikely that everyone will become a vegetarian at the same time. What will happen is what happens all the time in a market. Demand for a product will fall, causing producers to produce less. As demand continues to fall, marginal producers will cease production, and then the largest producers. There will no longer be a profit in producing animal flesh for human consumption.

At this point I get a different line of argument. It is said that people will be put out of work by these altered dietary choices. Those who made their living producing animal flesh, from the farmers and ranchers to the butchers, will be in trouble. But that’s how markets work. Imagine making a living producing horse-drawn carriages at the time the automobile was invented. The demand for automobiles lessens the demand for your carriages, much to your chagrin. Are you wronged? No. You have no right that people buy your products. You’re not wronged by their decisions to buy automobiles instead of carriages. You must adapt to the needs of consumers. We may regret that there is no longer a carriage industry, just as we regret that there are dead languages such as Latin, but nobody is wronged by their respective demises.

I sincerely hope, for the sake of the animals, that everyone who makes a living producing animal flesh for human consumption is put out of business, like the carriage producers. It won’t happen overnight, but it can happen—and will, if we choose rightly. Singer and others are simply trying to move us closer to that day by rationally persuading people to change their dietary habits.

No comments: