21 September 2004

Fallacy Update

I appreciate the letters I receive. It keeps me on my toes. Unfortunately, the letters I’ve received so far in response to Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 19 have missed the point. Several of them appear to reason as follows:
1. Keith feeds his dogs meat-based products.
2. It’s morally permissible for me to eat meat.
This is obviously invalid, which leads me to believe that the readers are groping for an excuse to eat meat. Am I your moral authority? Does my doing something license your doing it? And even if it did, you’ve drawn the wrong conclusion! My feeding my dogs meat-based products would license your feeding your dogs meat-based products, not your eating meat.

My post, if you’ll reread it, was a solicitation for help. I want someone to help me reconcile—if possible—the proposition that it’s wrong to harm others with the proposition that it’s permissible to feed one’s dogs meat-based products. It’s a puzzle, folks, not an invitation to judge me! Some of you simply assumed, without analysis or argument, that the propositions can’t be reconciled. This shows that you have no philosophical aptitude. A philosopher should be able to make a case for any proposition. I’m an atheist, for example, but I can make a case for the existence of God. A damn good one, in fact. If you’re a theist, can you make a case for the nonexistence of God? If not, why not? Do you think that your belief is unassailable? Have you not probed and tested it?

Lawyers are expected to be able to represent anyone, even those whom they detest or whose actions are reprehensible. This is not a failing of lawyers; it’s a virtue. To say that there’s a better case for p than for its denial, non-p, is not to say that nothing can be said for non-p or that nothing can be said against p. It’s to look at both sides of the case, to seek out strengths and weaknesses. This is part of what it means to be rational. To understand one’s own position, one must be able to make a case for its denial. Something can be said in behalf of everything. Even Hitler had good qualities.

Nobody who wrote to me mentioned that I have an obligation to Sophie and Shelbie, which I clearly do. It isn’t a matter of my liking to eat meat and thinking that this fact justifies it. Some readers thought this is what I was arguing. It’s not even that my dogs like meat (or that meat makes them happy, as one reader put it). That misstates what I’m saying. Dogs have a strong, innate preference for a meat-based diet, just as they have a strong, innate preference to be free rather than confined. A dog can live a long life in a cage, but it will be horribly frustrated. A dog can live on a vegetarian diet, but it will be horribly frustrated. Arguably, my obligation to Sophie and Shelbie implies that I not frustrate their strong, innate preferences. This is a far cry from saying that I should (or may) do whatever makes them happy.

Nobody mentioned that we’re talking about by-products. A by-product of a process is an unintended but desired consequence of that process. The meat used in dog food is a by-product of a process that would exist even if the by-product were not used. Cows, pigs, chickens, and lambs are killed for their flesh—for humans. Undesired parts of their bodies are used for pet food. I believe that this fact is morally relevant, for, by purchasing dog food made from by-products, I am not increasing the demand for animal flesh and therefore not harming animals. In their eagerness to criticize me, nobody noticed this.

Why is everyone playing “Gotcha!”? Have I pissed so many people off with my posts about animals that, when I present them with a moral puzzle, all they can think to do is say, “Gotcha!”? It’s depressing. It shows me that some of my readers—perhaps many of them—have no philosophical aptitude, no patience with intellectual or moral puzzles, no desire to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable. Just be glad that you’re not taking one of my exams, for you would fail. I routinely ask my students to make a case for propositions that I know many of them reject.

By the way, I have never tried to impose my values on anyone. What I have tried to do—and this may be what pisses people off—is impose their values on them. I believe that if you examine your beliefs and values carefully, you will see that you are committed to vegetarianism. Read Mylan Engel’s essay “The Immorality of Eating Meat,” a link to which is on the left side of this blog. Don’t read the essay defensively, with a chip on your shoulder. Read it with an open mind and no bias. Read it calmly and dispassionately, with the idea that you may learn something and become a better person—not by Mylan’s standards, but by yours.

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