06 December 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 22

I appreciate the feedback I’ve received about whether feeding meat-based products to Sophie and Shelbie is compatible with my deontological principle that it’s wrong to harm others. I’m not yet convinced that I have inconsistent beliefs. I don’t consider this an easy case by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s quite hard. It involves the strength of the principle against harming others, the extent of my obligations to Sophie and Shelbie, and problems of causation.

One obvious solution of the problem is to be a moderate rather than an absolutist deontologist. Moderate deontologists say that it’s wrong to harm others, but not if enough good would be brought about thereby. In other words, sometimes the end justifies the means. So the question is where I place the threshold. Does the good I bring into Sophie and Shelbie’s lives justify contributing to an institution that harms others? What if the contribution is small, as it appears to be?

I hope nobody thinks I’m rationalizing. To rationalize a decision is to state reasons in its support that played no role in one’s deliberations. It is to dress up a decision made on other grounds. If, after deliberating, I conclude that I have incompatible beliefs, I’ll decide which of them to modify or abandon. Having said that, I’m going to do the best I can to reconcile the beliefs. I have two strong intuitions: that it’s wrong to harm others and that I have a solemn obligation to give Sophie and Shelbie good lives. I will try to do justice to both intuitions.

By the way, several people have said or implied that, if it turns out to be morally acceptable for me to feed meat-based products to Sophie and Shelbie, then it’s morally acceptable for anyone, including me, to consume meat. But this doesn’t follow. Most people eat meat because they enjoy the taste of it. They don’t do it because they have an obligation to make themselves happy. The conflict I face isn’t between taste and duty, between satisfying my desires and doing the right thing; it’s between two duties, both of which I take seriously. By bringing Sophie and Shelbie into my life, I undertook to give them good lives. It’s this duty, and not some generalized desire to promote their happiness, that’s creating the logical difficulty.

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