16 August 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 18

A few years ago, I had a discussion with a friend (and fellow philosopher) about comparative wrongdoing. I asked him whether a person who eats only fish is doing less wrong than someone who eats fish and other animals. It seems obvious to me that these sorts of comparative moral judgments make sense, but he resisted. I gave an analogy. Imagine two men, I said. One rapes twenty-four women. The other rapes one woman. Isn’t the first man worse, morally speaking? Doesn’t he do more wrong than the second?

My friend finally—reluctantly—conceded the point. He said that the man who rapes only one woman does less wrong than the man who rapes twenty-four women, but he quickly added that that’s not good enough. He shouldn’t rape any women! We agree that nobody should rape. I just wanted him to admit that fewer rapes are better, morally speaking. Why, then, is it not better to eat only fish than to eat fish and other animals? I think my friend thought that by admitting this, he would be endorsing fish-eating. But he wouldn’t. Saying that A is morally worse than B isn’t to say (or imply) that B is morally acceptable.

Here’s the kicker. This same friend thinks it’s moral progress to get egg-laying hens a few more inches of cage space. But shouldn’t he resist this judgment just as strenuously as he resisted the judgment about the rapists? Shouldn’t he say that there shouldn’t be any hens in cages? Many of us think that PETA and other organizations are making things worse by agitating for more cage space for hens. PETA thinks this improves the lives of the hens, or at least makes them suffer less. Perhaps this is so, but what is the long-term effect of agitating for more cage space? Isn’t it to reinforce the idea that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with confining hens for the purpose of collecting their eggs?

Imagine working for improvements in the lives of slaves rather than for the abolition of slavery. That’s outrageous. Why don’t we say the same about improvements in the lives of factory-farmed animals or animals kept in laboratories? PETA might say that there is no inconsistency in working toward both goals. Is this correct? What evidence does PETA have that working for improvements in the lives of factory-farmed animals or animals kept in laboratories leads to abolition of those institutions? I’ve never seen such evidence. In fact, there’s reason to believe that working for improvements decreases the likelihood of abolition by reinforcing the idea that animals are resources for human consumption. People who care about animals must stop sending mixed messages. Don’t try to get more cage room for hens. Work to get hens out of cages.

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