29 November 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 21

Eleven days ago (see here), I posted a letter from my friend Joanna Lucas in which she criticized me for feeding meat-based products to my canine companions, Sophie and Shelbie. Joanna wrote:
Do my obligations towards the animals (or humans) in my care entitle me to harm the animals (or humans) who are not in my care? Specifically, does my obligation to give my dog Louie a good life entitle me to cause suffering and death to Michele’s cow, Sherman?
I take these as rhetorical questions. That is, I take it that Joanna wants to assert that my obligation to give Sophie and Shelbie good lives does not entitle me to cause suffering and death to the animals whose body parts they consume.

Is Joanna right? The first thing to note is that only an absolutist deontologist would hold that one may never harm one to benefit another. Absolutist deontologists say that certain act-types—lying, killing the innocent, and torture, for example—may not be performed even if a great deal of good would be brought about thereby. One must not do evil that good may come. Moderate deontologists say that certain actions may not be performed unless X amount of good would be brought about thereby. As the “X” indicates, moderate deontology comes in degrees. The higher the threshold, the closer moderate deontologists come to absolutist deontologists. The lower the threshold, the closer moderate deontologists come to consequentialists (who say that no act-types—even torture—are intrinsically wrong).

Even if I had no special responsibility for (or to) Sophie and Shelbie, therefore, I might be able to justify harming some in order to benefit them. Whether this is so would depend on two things: (1) how much harm I do and (2) how much good I produce. Other things being equal, the more harm I do, the less likely I am to be justified in bringing it about. Other things being equal, the more good I produce, the more likely I am to be justified in doing the harm that brings it about.

When you add the fact that I stand in a special relationship to Sophie and Shelbie, an even stronger case can be made that I may harm some to benefit them. As Samuel Scheffler writes, “it may be thought that circumstances can arise in which I would be required or at least permitted to harm some person, or to violate his property rights, in order to provide a badly needed benefit for my brother or my child, even though it would be wrong for me to do the same thing in order to provide a comparable benefit for a stranger” (Samuel Scheffler, Boundaries and Allegiances: Problems of Justice and Responsibility in Liberal Thought [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001], 52).

Obviously, one may not do just any amount or kind of harm to a stranger in order to benefit a loved one. I may not kill a stranger in order to get the funds to take my child to Six Flags over Texas (or pay for my child’s dental work). Scheffler’s point is more modest. He’s saying that one may (perhaps must) do more harm in order to benefit a loved one (someone to whom I stand in a special relationship) than to benefit a stranger. However much harm one may do to stranger A in order to benefit stranger B, in other words, one may do more harm if B is a loved one rather than a stranger. Loved ones have greater claims on us than strangers.

Let’s return to the dog-food case. Granted that it’s not always wrong to harm some to benefit others (in other words, assuming moderate deontology or consequentialism), and granted that I have a special responsibility to benefit Sophie and Shelbie, does the calculation come out in their favor? Is the harm insignificant enough? Is the benefit great enough? I believe the benefit is substantial. Some readers are skeptical that Sophie and Shelbie prefer meat-based foods. I’m convinced that they do and that they would have inferior lives if they had to eat vegetarian diets.

What about the other prong? How much harm am I doing, really, by feeding them meat-based products? Here, I think, is something that’s been ignored in the debate. I don’t think I’m doing any harm at all by purchasing meat-based products. The animal products used in dog foods are by-products. Cows are killed for their flesh, which is to be consumed by humans. Some of the unusable parts end up in dog foods. It’s not like I went out and killed a cow—Joanna’s poor Sherman!—in order to feed Sophie and Shelbie. They’re eating the equivalent of table scraps, scraps that would be thrown into the garbage if they weren’t used. In short, I’m not doing any harm; or, if I am, it’s insignificant. When you add this fact to the picture, a strong case can be made that it’s not wrong, all things considered, for me to feed Sophie and Shelbie meat-based foods.

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