30 November 2004

The Lives of Animals

You ought to read this, especially if you eat factory-farmed meat.

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.

28 November 2004

One Year

It's been a year since I began this blog. See here for the first post, on 28 November 2003. According to Blogger, I've posted 392 items on this blog, which is an average of 1.07 per day. The site odometer shows 12,007 visits, which is an average of 32.8 visits per day. Thank you for visiting. I try to post something every two or three days, even if it's just a letter to the editor on some animal-related topic. If you'd like something posted or if you have a link that may be of interest to the blog's readers, let me know.

26 November 2004

From the Mailbag

Hello Professor Burgess-Jackson,

In your blog, you wrote: "There is no doubt in my mind that [Sophie and Shelbie] would be significantly less happy, maybe even unhappy, if I fed them a vegetarian diet."

I'm not sure that you are right. If dogs are anything like people, then switching the dogs to a vegetarian diet would—at worst—make them unhappy for a relatively short while. Psychologists who study happiness in humans find that people generally have a specific "set point," and their level of happiness does not usually deviate much from that set point. Changes in life circumstances have only a transient effect on happiness. For example, lottery winners become much happier shortly after they win the lottery, and paraplegics become much less happy in the months after their accident. But within about a year, the lottery winners and the paraplegics are back to their previous, baseline-level of happiness. Here's the specific reference: Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and R. Janoff-Bulman, "Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36 (August 1978): 917-27.

Other studies also support this principle. Psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman (based at the University of Pennsylvania) discusses some of this research in his recent book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).

Anyway, back to your Sophie and Shelbie: I suspect that they probably wouldn't enjoy being vegetarians at first, but they'd adjust fairly quickly and would be none the worse for wear (assuming, of course, that the vegetarian diet had the necessary nutritional and caloric content).

Incidentally, I'm a vegan, but my cat is not. So I suppose I'm a hypocrite.

Kindest regards,
Alex Chernavsky

23 November 2004

Go Organic!

Americans are the people of plenty, but they have atrocious diets. If you care about any of the following—animals, other humans, your family, yourself—you will eat only organic plant foods. See here. There is simply no excuse, in the modern world, for using sentient beings as mere means to one's gustatory ends. Might does not make right.

22 November 2004

Twenty Years Ago

11-22-84 Today is Thanksgiving, the day on which several Pilgrims are supposed to have met with a group of Indians to enjoy an autumn feast more than three hundred years ago. Legend has it that the Pilgrims and Indians gave thanks to “God” for the bounty of their harvest. This is undoubtedly a myth, however, for there were seldom any good feelings between the intolerant Europeans and the suspicious Indians. Today, the holiday is celebrated by having a large meal and by watching football games on television, at least in my family. We always had a large turkey on the table and an assortment of side dishes, including cranberries, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and desserts. Mom went out of her way to make the day special for us. Now, of course, I do not eat turkey. It is wrong. Before I left school yesterday, I wrote on the blackboard in the T.A. office: “Have a nice Thanksgiving; but remember, eating turkey is wrong.” I take my moral commitments very seriously. But on television this evening, there was this bit of inanity by a reporter at a turkey farm: “If you’re having second thoughts about eating your turkey this Thanksgiving day, don’t. These turkeys are DUMB!!!” The point, I take it, was that if something is dumb (read: unintelligent), then it has no moral claim on our behavior. This is false, else people would be eating their infants and senile parents on Thanksgiving Day. I am sick of the ignorance and callousness that permeates this society.

21 November 2004

Dave Barry

Thanksgiving is nigh. Here is Dave Barry's take on it. Don't read it unless you have a hanky handy.

18 November 2004

From the Mailbag

Dear Keith,

On the subject of vegetarian dogs [see here], a few questions and a couple of facts.
1. 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?

2. Why is it wrong to impose my moral standards on Louie but acceptable to impose my moral standards on Sherman (whose flesh Louie would like to eat)? Can I disregard the life and death concerns of a stranger if that means enriching the life of a friend?

3. If having dogs and cats forces me to impose misery on other animals, shouldn't I refrain from having dogs and cats in the first place?

4. What does Louie lose if I stop feeding him meat? What does Sherman lose if I feed him to Louie?

5. Can dogs be healthy on a vegan diet? Can they be happy?
The vegan dogs I've met are in perfect health. I'm sure they would choose meat over plant based protein if they had a choice but, since they are not given that choice, they enthusiastically eat their nutritionally complete, vet-approved vegetarian kibble.

I believe they are as happy as they act. They get companionship, respect, gentleness, inclusion in the pack, walks, hikes, runs in the park, ample opportunities to play, explore, and socialize. They are well cared for, well fed. They are loved.

If indeed eating becomes less exciting for vegetarian dogs, what they lose is negligible compared to what cows, pigs, lambs, chickens, and horses stand to lose if we grind them up into dog food.

Best regards,
Joanna Lucas

17 November 2004


Mylan Engel sent a link to this disturbing story about species extinction.

Virtual Hunting

I hope this is a joke, but I fear it isn't. (Thanks to Joanna Lucas of Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary for the link.)

From the Mailbag


Since I'm a new visitor to your blog (but have been enjoying your columns at Tech Central Station for a while), maybe you've posted about this before. Is meat the only thing you feed your dogs? [See here.] If so, I wonder if they are getting enough balance. We have a couple of greyhounds that we feed table scraps after almost every meal, but also give them IAMS twice a day. Since you have made room in your life for these dogs, I don't think you're doing anything wrong feeding them what they like. I am a hunter and meat eater, but I certainly respect your choice of diet. It may seem contradictory to be a hunter and care for animals, but I do. In some far corner of my mind I want to believe they have souls. In fact, getting the greyhounds was the first time I saw gambling in a bad light. I thought if people want to gamble let them. But when we adopted our dogs we learned that last year was the first time over half of the retired racers were adopted. But that still had over 7,000 being put down. Killing 7,000 of these wonderful animals just because they lost their usefulness to us is wrong. Two dogs is probably enough, but if you ever want another, check out greyhounds. They're great dogs.

Your Cheesehead Buddy,

Jeff Gostisha
Mukwonago, WI

16 November 2004

Bernard Williams (1929-2003) on the Hazards of Moral Philosophy

Writing about moral philosophy should be a hazardous business, not just for the reasons attendant on writing about any difficult subject, or writing about anything, but for two special reasons. The first is that one is likely to reveal the limitations and inadequacies of one’s own perceptions more directly than in, at least, other parts of philosophy. The second is that one could run the risk, if one were taken seriously, of misleading people about matters of importance. While few writers on the subject have avoided the first hazard, very many have avoided the second, either by making it impossible to take them seriously, or by refusing to write about anything of importance, or both.

(Bernard Williams, Morality: An Introduction to Ethics [New York: Harper & Row, 1972], ix)

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.

10 November 2004

Liberal Hypocrisy

If you listened only to liberals, and I don't recommend it, you would think that only they care about the downtrodden and disadvantaged. See here for evidence to the contrary. My liberal friends (or former friends, for I've lost respect for most of them) live in affluence. They want to take other people's money but won't give any of their own. And most liberals treat animals as mere means to their ends. They eat meat, wear leather jackets, and buy vehicles and furniture made out of animal skins. Where's the compassion in that? Where's the concern for the powerless, the unfortunate, the vulnerable, the oppressed? Where's the decency? Liberals are all talk.

09 November 2004

Gary Snyder on Animality

Do you really believe you are an animal? We are now taught this in school. It is a wonderful piece of information: I have been enjoying it all my life and I come back to it over and over again, as something to investigate and test. I grew up on a small farm with cows and chickens, and with a second-growth forest right at the back fence, so I had the good fortune of seeing the human and animal as in the same realm. But many people who have been hearing this since childhood have not absorbed the implications of it, perhaps feel remote from the nonhuman world, are not sure they are animals. They would like to feel they might be something better than animals. That’s understandable: other animals might feel they are something different than “just animals” too. But we must contemplate the shared ground of our common biological being before emphasizing the differences.

(Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild [San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990], 15-6 [italics in original])

08 November 2004

Lawrence Finsen and Susan Finsen on Peter Singer

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation has had a profound influence; many activists refer to this book as a turning point in their thinking about animals and in their lives generally. It is largely as a result of Singer’s pioneering work, together with that of Tom Regan, that questions about the treatment of animals have become a serious topic of discussion today, within both moral philosophy and American society. Of course others have raised serious questions about our relations with animals, especially in the English tradition (Singer, though Australian, did his graduate work at Oxford University, where he was influenced by others to take up issues concerning animals), but the contemporary scene is much more profoundly influenced by Singer than by his predecessors. Perhaps the influence of Animal Liberation is to be traced to Singer’s success in bringing philosophical argument about the moral status of animals to bear in a straightforward way on factual information about the treatment of animals in modern farms and laboratories. When juxtaposed with a hard look at self-interested human bias, the facts (of which most people remained happily ignorant) lead to some startling questions and conclusions about our cherished institutions and personal habits.

(Lawrence Finsen and Susan Finsen, The Animal Rights Movement in America: From Compassion to Respect [New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994], 179-80 [endnote omitted])

05 November 2004


Wayne Pacelle is the new Chief Executive Officer of The Humane Society of the United States. You can read about him here.

04 November 2004

02 November 2004

From the Mailbag


You are a skilled writer and philosopher. I enjoyed reading your work on TCS and your blog site. However, the post on 11/1/04 about eating meat [see here] is extremely overstated. I don't have the time to write a detailed reason for my opinion. I will say this: It didn't pass the "giggle test." You lost me as a reader.

"In my opinion, the most pressing moral issue in the world today, with the possible exception of defending Western civilization from its Islamic enemies, is the treatment of nonhuman animals by humans."

Do you really believe this?

Dr. Matt T. Smith

Note from kbj: Yes.

01 November 2004


In my opinion, the most pressing moral issue in the world today, with the possible exception of defending Western civilization from its Islamic enemies, is the treatment of nonhuman animals by humans. Humans don't need to harm animals in order to survive and flourish. If you eat meat, especially meat produced on factory farms, you are making animals suffer and die solely because you like the taste of their flesh. Why would you do such a thing? I'm sure you don't think of yourself as a moral monster, but your actions are indefensible. Please stop. Please at least issue a personal moratorium on meat-eating until you think things through. There is no reason humans can't live together peacefully with all other animals. See here for an example of people who make a difference, day in and day out, to the cats, dogs, and other animals who live around and with them. I'm sure they would appreciate any donation you can make.