15 November 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 20

A couple of months ago, I asked my readers for logical help. I wanted to know whether it’s possible to reconcile my obligation not to harm others (I’m a deontologist) with my obligation to provide a good life for my canine companions, Sophie and Shelbie. Some readers missed the point of this post. Instead of helping me reconcile the obligations, which is all I wanted, they took me to task for feeding meat to Sophie and Shelbie. In other words, they used the post as an occasion to bash me. Thanks a lot. Several people concluded that my obligation not to harm others is more stringent than my obligation to provide a good life for my canine companions, but they didn’t explain why. Are negative obligations always more stringent than positive obligations? One reader tried to draw me into a pointless discussion about whether dogs are carnivores.

I begin with a fact: “Dogs prefer meat to vegetable protein and display preferences for one meat over another. These are, in order, beef, pork, lamb, chicken and horse-meat” (Chris Thorne, “Feeding Behavior of Domestic Dogs and the Role of Experience,” chap. 7 in The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour, and Interactions with People, ed. James Serpell [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995], 103-14, at 104). If my only obligation to Sophie and Shelbie were to keep them alive, I could resolve the moral dilemma by feeding them a vegetarian diet. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a moral dilemma! But my obligation goes far beyond that. It is to make them happy, to give them a good life, to cause them to flourish. There is no doubt in my mind that they would be significantly less happy, maybe even unhappy, if I fed them a vegetarian diet.

Suppose, contrary to fact, that I enjoyed eating meat, but that my moral scruples prohibited it. I might be less happy by eating a vegetarian diet, but I would be doing the right thing by my standards. The cost of my standards, in terms of my happiness, would be borne exclusively by me. But if I impose my standards on Sophie and Shelbie, they are being made to bear the costs of my moral standards. Is that fair to them? This aspect of the situation doesn’t have overriding weight, admittedly, but it seems to me that it must be taken into account. I have every right to reduce my own happiness for the sake of a greater moral good, but do I have a right to reduce Sophie and Shelbie’s happiness for the sake of a greater moral good?

It might be objected that I haven’t made a fair trial of vegetarian dog foods. Until I do, I should not assume that Sophie and Shelbie would be significantly less happy on a vegetarian diet. I admit that I haven’t made a fair trial. I’m trying to work out the logic of the situation before doing so. I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that Sophie and Shelbie prefer meat to vegetable protein.

Morality is messy. There are moral dilemmas. Sometimes, no matter what one does, something morally significant is lost. This is why we sometimes regret doing even what we believe to be right, all things considered. If I feed Sophie and Shelbie meat-based foods, I will be violating my principle against harming others. If I feed them a vegetarian diet, I will be failing to discharge my obligation to provide them a good life. If you think there’s no dilemma here, then you’re in no position to help me.

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