14 July 2004


I’ve received several letters from people who don’t like my posts on animals. Some of them are nasty. One reader said I was on the verge of becoming Andrew Sullivan, who is obsessed with homosexuality. I replied that, just as I stopped reading Sullivan’s blog, he should stop reading mine.

But I’ve been thinking. My decision to stop reading Sullivan’s blog was based on more than the fact that he writes a lot about homosexuality. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that he won’t listen to reason. He tars opponents of homosexual “marriage” as “the religious right,” implying that the only basis for objecting to homosexual “marriage” is religious. He knows better. Many of us oppose it on secular grounds. I also think Sullivan is disingenuous in calling himself a federalist (he’s not) and in not taking seriously the possibility—indeed, the high probability, according to many constitutional scholars—that the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution will be used to force homosexual “marriage” on all states. When I made this argument to him, he retorted, “It’s never been applied to marriage.” I guess that means it can’t be or never will be.

In short, I object to Sullivan’s irrationality, not to his interest in homosexuality.

Am I as irrational about animals as Sullivan is about homosexuality? I don’t think so. I’m perfectly happy to argue about the moral status of animals, which I’ve been doing for more than two decades. I teach the subject. I’ve published essays on it. I don’t resort to name-calling or manipulative rhetoric, as Sullivan does. I take pains to make relevant distinctions, to get my facts right, and correctly to characterize my opponents’ arguments before criticizing them. I’m committed to rational persuasion as a means of social change.

I believe that meat-eaters have inconsistent beliefs. They believe (1) that suffering is intrinsically bad; (2) that, as such, it must be justified; and (3) that the animals whose flesh they consume were made to suffer in its production. It follows logically from these beliefs that meat-eating is morally questionable. In philosophical terms, there is a strong prima facie case against consuming animal products. And yet, when I point this out, I get everything from denial to evasion to ridicule to abuse.

In my judgment, the most important moral issue in the world today is the status of nonhuman animals. Nothing else, even war, comes close. Why, believing this, would I forbear to discuss it? That readers of my blog prefer not to hear me discuss it may signify discomfort on their part. They grew up eating meat and enjoy it. They don’t like feeling guilty as they consume animal flesh. I make them feel guilty, for I remind them that they’re not living up to their own moral principles about not harming others. Please note: I’m not imposing my values on you. I’m imposing your values on you. Don’t react defensively or angrily. I’m trying to help you. I want you to have a coherent set of beliefs. I want you to live up to your moral principles. I want you to be a good person. Ask yourself whether your values commit you to changing your behavior. Follow my reasoning. If there’s something wrong with it, say so.

Some people say that animals don’t count for as much as humans or that they don’t have the same rights as humans. That’s irrelevant. If animals have any moral status at all—if they’re anything more than objects—then it’s wrong to eat them, because eating them is unnecessary. But surely, as sentient beings, they have at least some moral status. Any being that can suffer has an interest in not suffering. Isn’t it a requirement of rationality, and therefore of morality, that one take all relevant interests into account before acting? Is your interest in satisfying your taste sensations more important than an animal’s interest in not suffering? That, ultimately, is the question you must confront. Don’t evade it. Confront it. The unexamined life is not worth living.

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