20 July 2004

Compartmentalized Thinking

Suppose I tell you that I don’t care about Ohioans. When I act, I disregard their interests. They are as nothing to me. You would be aghast. “Why treat Ohioans differently from others, such as Texans?” you ask. Because they’re Ohioans, I say. I don’t care about Ohioans. “But why not? They have the same interests you and I do. They can suffer every bit as much.” “I know, but I just don’t care about them,” I reply.

You would rightly accuse me of inconsistency. Unless I can point to some morally relevant difference between Ohioans and nonOhioans that would justify my differential treatment, I act wrongly in treating them differently. As Aristotle pointed out long ago, justice consists in treating like cases alike and different cases differently—and in strict proportion to the differences.

This is the situation of people who eat meat. Unless they’re stupid, they know that the meat they eat is the result of a process that inflicts a great deal of undeserved suffering. They would never think to inflict such suffering on a fellow human. “Why treat animals differently from humans?” I ask. “Because they’re animals,” you say. “I just don’t care about animals.”

One reader accused me of going emotional. Where’s the emotion in what I just wrote? It’s an argument. I’m claiming that meat-eaters are inconsistent in treating suffering differently depending on the species of the individual who suffers. If you think animals don’t matter, morally, then the burden is on you to point to a morally relevant difference. If you think blacks don’t matter, morally, then the burden is on you to point to a morally relevant difference. Can we agree that this is where the burden lies?

Racists disregard or discount the interests of other races. Sexists disregard or discount the interests of the other sex. Ethnocentrists disregard or discount the interests of other ethnicities. Nationalists disregard or discount the interests of other nationalities. Speciesists disregard or discount the interests of other species.

One reader said that not all the animals he eats have suffered. Does he know that? If you buy meat in a grocery store, the probability is near 1.0 that it came from an animal that was made to suffer. Do you know the facts about factory farming? If not, then you’re culpably ignorant. There is no excuse for not inquiring into the means by which all of the products you use were produced. Would you buy a pair of sneakers if you had reason to believe that they were made by slave labor? What if you went out of your way to remain ignorant of how your sneakers were produced? Does that exculpate you? Surely not. Personal responsibility means being responsible (accountable) for whatever went into the products one buys. If you buy sneakers made with slave labor, you enslaved someone. That you didn’t see the sneakers made is irrelevant.

Unless you know for a fact that the animal whose flesh you eat did not suffer, it is morally irresponsible for you to eat its flesh. I suspect that only a tiny fraction of meat consumed satisfies this requirement.

Another reader asked what meat-eating has to do with war, since I discussed the two issues in a single post. The obvious answer is that both involve the infliction of harm. Any reasonable person, and certainly a philosopher, should strive to develop a coherent view of the permissibility of harm-infliction (including killing). If you think that the suffering of Iraqis counts for as much as the suffering of Americans, how can you consistently discount or disregard the suffering of animals? Why do you insist that Iraqis be given full moral consideration but allow that animals be given less than full moral consideration (or none at all)?

As every psychologist knows, people compartmentalize their thinking. It’s a defense mechanism, a way of avoiding cognitive dissonance and uncomfortable feelings such as guilt and shame. For example, people have a view about abortion, about capital punishment, about war, about meat-eating, about suicide, and about self-defense. Is there an underlying principle for these views? Shouldn’t there be? Isn’t it the job of a philosopher to induce people to work out a coherent ethic of killing?

One reason people are so testy about my posts on animals is that they’ve compartmentalized their thinking. I can see it in their letters. They put animals into a separate moral category. Either animals don’t count at all or they don’t count for as much as humans. This compartmentalization allows people to eat meat with a clear conscience. Well, I’m here to dirty your conscience. Stop compartmentalizing and start being consistent. Unless you can cite a morally relevant difference between humans and animals that justifies discounting or disregarding the suffering of the latter, you are irrational and irresponsible. Why not stop eating meat until you’ve thought things through? Isn’t that what a conscientious person would do?

By the way, one person keeps saying that animals aren’t innocent. What the hell are they, guilty? For the last time, animals are innocent in the same sense as Iraqi children. All this means is that they don’t deserve to suffer. If you care about the suffering of Iraqi children, you must, to be consistent, care about the suffering of animals. Suffering is suffering, whether it’s in a black body, a white body, an Iraqi body, an American body, a human body, or an animal body. Suffering is intrinsically bad. Therefore, it is prima facie wrong to inflict it. Since there is no need or other justification for inflicting it on animals, it is wrong, all things considered, to do so. That’s my argument. If you can’t find anything wrong with it, then either stop eating meat or admit that you’re too weak to do so.

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