19 July 2004

Selective Concern

I’ve made a decision. Henceforth, when someone tells me that he or she opposed the war in Iraq, I’ll ask why. If the answer includes concern for innocent Iraqis who were killed during the war, I’ll ask whether the speaker eats meat. If the answer is yes, I’ll end the discussion.

How can I take seriously someone who professes concern for innocent human beings but willingly inflicts terrible suffering on innocent nonhuman animals? This is as flagrant an inconsistency as can be imagined. That people don’t notice it testifies to an almost infinite human capacity for denial, delusion, rationalization, and self-servingness.

Someone might say that there are morally relevant differences between humans and animals. Of course there are. But to say that there are morally relevant differences between X and Y is not to say that there are no morally relevant similarities between X and Y. Two beings can be alike in some respects but different in others. Suppose one of my children has been bad and another good. There’s a morally relevant difference between them that would justify differential treatment; but this doesn’t mean the bad child loses all moral status.

Follow along with me. Sentient beings, i.e., beings who have the capacity to suffer, have an interest in not suffering. Suffering is intrinsically bad. Therefore, it’s prima facie wrong to inflict suffering. This means that, unless there is a good reason to inflict suffering, it is wrong to do so. But what is the good reason for making animals suffer? That you like the taste of their cooked flesh? If that’s a moral reason at all, it’s extremely weak. Certainly it’s not strong enough to justify the infliction of pain! How would you like it if someone put his or her trivial interests ahead of your significant interests? You would be outraged. Morally outraged.

Meat-eaters are walking contradictions. They violate their own moral principles. How can I take seriously someone whose heart bleeds for innocent Iraqis but who happily kills and eats innocent animals? I can’t. Until meat-eating opponents of the war in Iraq change their diets, they forfeit their right to be taken seriously.

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