19 July 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 15

I’m always stunned to hear intelligent people defend meat-eating on the ground that animals kill and eat each other. (See here.) To quote Ronald Dworkin from another context, this is an “album of confusions.”

First, not all animals kill and eat each other. Some animals are herbivores. Perhaps we should emulate them rather than omnivores or carnivores.

Second, what’s the underlying principle? Is it that we may (morally) do anything any animal does? But surely that’s not acceptable, for it implies, inter alia, that we may dominate other humans. Do we really want to look to animals for moral guidance? Any less-inclusive principle runs the risk of being self-serving. People who want to eat meat will justify it by citing the fact that some animals eat meat; but they won’t cite animal behavior as justification for behaviors they dislike, such as incest and conquest.

Third, even if it’s in our nature as human beings to eat meat, it doesn’t follow that we may. It’s in our nature as human beings to do many things that are wrong, such as inseminate women against their will, aggress on others, disregard the interests of those of other races and religions, and deceive others. That something is natural for humans goes no way toward showing that it’s morally permissible. This violates Hume’s law, which prohibits inferences from “is” to “ought.”

Fourth, there’s a relevant difference between humans and animals. Only humans are moral agents. (Animals are moral patients.) Only humans have the capacity to reflect on their desires and act against them. Only humans can act on the basis of principle. Only humans are responsible for their conduct. To blame an animal for harming another animal would be as absurd and pointless as blaming lightning for causing a fire. Since humans can decide how to act, we must decide, using reason, how to act. This difference between humans and animals imposes a special responsibility on humans. With moral agency comes responsibility. To say that we ought to act as animals do is to shirk this responsibility and become mere animals. It is a rationalization of something one wants to do but can’t justify doing.

By the way, I wrote about this confusion on 26 April (see here), but I keep getting letters from people that suggest that they haven’t read or understood it. Some things bear repeating.

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