17 June 2008

Jan Narveson on Moral Vegetarianism

What the utilitarian who defends human carnivorousness must say, then, is something like this: that the amount of pleasure which humans derive per pound of animal flesh exceeds the amount of discomfort and pain per pound which are inflicted on the animals in the process, all things taken into account. Is this plausible? I am not persuaded that it isn't, as far as it goes. But it should be noted that this is only a leading premise, as it were, of a complete argument on the issue. For we must realize that the question is whether this justifies the eating of animals in comparison with alternatives. And there are two relevant kinds of alternatives here: one is treating the animals better before we eat them, the only disadvantage of which is that it would make meat considerably more expensive. And the other is taking up vegetarianism. Utilitarians persuaded of the leading premise here should, I think, be willing to pay the higher prices, and to plump for protections of animals of the kind in question. But what about the vegetarian alternative? Here what one needs to do is calculate the pleasure, interest, satisfaction, etc., by which animal diets exceed vegetable diets for us. And most of us, of course, just don't know about this. How do we know but what, once we got used to a vegetarian diet, we would find that our pleasure is scarcely diminished at all? Human ingenuity is great, and undoubtedly a skilful vegetarian cook can come up with quite a panoply of delicious dishes. It would remain true, of course, that the vegetarian diet is more limited, since every pleasure available to the vegetarian is also available to the carnivore (not counting the moral satisfactions involved, of course—which would be question-begging), plus more which are not available to the vegetarian so long as he remains one. But unless we attach a high intrinsic value to greater aesthetic variety in our diet (and some of us do; but most of us, perhaps, do not), this won't be a decisive consideration.

Once one bears in mind that it is this comparative assessment that is required, then it seems to me there will be a strong case (1) for Humane Slaughter, and humane treatment prior to slaughter, and (2) insofar as really painless and comfortable animal-raising is not attained or attainable, giving vegetarianism a try, at least. In present circumstances, the following would seem to be indicated. Depending on the time and energy available, utilitarians persuaded of the foregoing should try a period of vegetarianism, at least, in order to see how they get on, and perhaps as a weapon in the form of boycotting such meat and dairy products as are produced in excessive disregard for the comfort of the animals in question: a much milder program than the one Singer and Regan call for, but one giving more to the animals than we usually do, and leaving our consciences rather less comfortable than they perhaps typically are.

(Jan Narveson, "Animal Rights," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7 [March 1977]: 161-78, at 173-4 [italics in original])

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