09 January 2009

Moral Vegetarianism, Part 1 of 13

Michael Martin is a professor of philosophy at Boston University. He is the author of several books, including Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) and The Case Against Christianity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991). For what it’s worth, I consider Martin a good philosopher, indeed, a very good philosopher. His book on atheism is among the best I have read on that topic, which is why I used it in my Philosophy of Religion course many years ago. (I use different books in my courses to keep things interesting for me.)

A third of a century ago, when the modern animal-liberation movement was in its infancy, Martin published an essay entitled “A Critique of Moral Vegetarianism,” Reason Papers (fall 1976): 13-43. This was two years after Robert Nozick discussed the moral status of nonhuman animals in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974) and one year after Peter Singer published Animal Liberation (New York: Avon Books, 1975). I read Martin’s essay only recently, having discovered it by accident. I propose to publish it in 13 installments, commenting on it as I go. I suspect that many readers of this blog are Christians but not vegetarians. You will, therefore, agree with Martin about moral vegetarianism but not about Christianity. I’m just the opposite; I agree with him about Christianity but not about moral vegetarianism. Let’s see whether his criticisms of moral vegetarianism are good ones. At no point will we speculate about Martin’s motives. For example, we will not claim that Martin is opposed to moral vegetarianism because he likes to eat meat without a guilty conscience. What motivates people to argue as they do is outside the province of philosophy. Philosophy is about reasons, not causes.

Martin’s text is indented. Mine is not. I omit the endnotes. If you would like a PDF file of Martin’s essay, please write to me.


Michael Martin
Boston University

Vegetarianism is an old and respectable doctrine, and its popularity seems to be growing. This would be of little interest to moral philosophers except for one fact, namely that some people advocate vegetarianism on moral grounds. Indeed, two well-known moral and social philosophers, Robert Nozick and Peter Singer, have recently advocated not eating meat on moral grounds.

One job of a moral philosophy [sic] should be to evaluate vegetarianism as a moral position, a position I will call moral vegetarianism. Unfortunately, there has been little critical evaluation of moral vegetarianism in the philosophical literature. Most moral philosophers have not been concerned with the problem, and those who have, e.g., Nozick, have made little attempt to analyze and evaluate the position. As a result, important problems implicit in the moral vegetarian’s position have gone unnoticed, and unsound arguments are still widely accepted.

KBJ: There are different reasons to abstain from meat. One is health. Some people believe (correctly or not) that a diet without meat is healthier than a diet with meat, and since they care about their health, they abstain. Another reason is moral. Some people believe (correctly or not) that it is wrong to eat meat. Martin’s concern is the latter, which is why he calls the view “moral vegetarianism.” The contrast would be, for example, “health vegetarianism.”

In this paper, I will critically examine moral vegetarianism. My examination will not be complete, of course. Some of the arguments I will present are not worked out in detail, and no detailed criticisms of any one provegetarian argument will be given. All the major provegetarian arguments I know will be critically considered, however. My examination will be divided into two parts. First, I will raise some questions that usually are not asked, let alone answered, by moral vegetarians. These questions will have the effect of forcing the moral vegetarian to come to grips with some ambiguities and unclarities in his position. Second, I will consider critically some of the major arguments given for moral vegetarianism.

KBJ: Permit me a comment on the organization of Martin’s essay (for the benefit of my students). First, he provides a short introduction to the topic of the essay, designed to lure the reader in; then he explains why he is writing it; and finally, he tells the reader what is to come. Good writers never leave their readers wondering what is going on.


Moral vegetarianism will be understood as the view that because of some moral principles one ought not to eat certain edible animals and perhaps animal products. Two varieties of moral vegetarianism can be distinguished: lactovo moral vegetarianism and vegan moral vegetarianism. On the lactovo variety, eating animal products, e.g., milk and eggs, would not be considered morally wrong, although eating certain animals would be; on the vegan variety, eating animal products would be morally forbidden as well.

Lactovo and vegan moral vegetarianism can be subdivided into what might be called new and old or traditional moral vegetarianism. On the traditional position, justification of vegetarianism was in terms of animal welfare, happiness, rights, and so on. In recent years another type of justification has been given: vegetarianism has been justified in terms of human suffering, rights, etc. There is, of course, nothing incompatible with using both kinds of considerations in justifying vegetarianism. What seems to be absent in some recent vegetarian arguments, however, is any consideration of animals. (Arguments for the new moral vegetarianism will be considered later.)

KBJ: Martin has already made two distinctions. One can go on all day making distinctions, obviously, but that would be pointless. Philosophers make distinctions in order to focus attention on particular classes of things. For example, there may be an argument for lactovo moral vegetarianism that is not also an argument for vegan moral vegetarianism. The distinction between old and new moral vegetarianism shows that new arguments continue to be made. Each argument has an audience. People who care only about humans, for example, will not be persuaded by “old” vegetarian arguments, for those arguments rested on concern for animals. People who care about both humans and animals will have two reasons, rather than one, to abstain from meat—provided, of course, that the arguments are good ones.

It is clear that in order to have any plausibility moral vegetarianism must be construed as the view that there is a prima facie duty, rather than an absolute duty, not to eat meat or animal products. Suppose a mad scientist will blow up the world unless you consume a beef steak. If the duty not to eat meat were an absolute one, you should not eat the steak. But surely this is absurd. So the duty not to eat meat cannot be an absolute one. The important question, then, is when this alleged prima facie duty can be overruled.

KBJ: Think of a prima facie duty as a presumptive duty. It is a duty, but it can be “overruled,” overridden, or rebutted by other moral considerations. For example, I have a duty to keep my promise to meet a friend for dinner, but this duty can be overridden by a stronger duty, say, to rescue people who are involved in an accident. Don’t be thrown off by the fanciful nature of Martin’s example. He is making a simple point: that the duty to abstain from meat (if there is such a duty) is presumptive rather than absolute. It may help to think of a scale. A presumptive duty means that one side of the scale has weight on it (representing the duty). Unless enough weight is put on the other side of the scale to outweigh that side, it prevails.

In old moral vegetarianism one can distinguish at least two positions (a hard-line and a moderate position) on this question, and these can be illustrated by the following example. Suppose you are marooned on a desert island inhabited by edible birds. Suppose there is no edible plant life on the island and you have a gun. For nonvegetarians the choice is easy. You should survive as best you can, and killing the birds and eating them is the only way, given the situation as described. But what does the nonvegetarian assume in arguing in this way? Presumably that a bird’s life is less valuable than one’s own. This is exactly what strict moral vegetarians would question.

Consider a different situation. Suppose that instead of birds the island contains people. Would it be morally permissible for you to kill some people and eat them? It is certainly not clear that it would be, unless perhaps all the people on the island agree to some form of cannibalism and draw lots to decide who is to be sacrificed for food. The question that would be asked by the hard-line moral vegetarian is why there is a difference if there are birds on the island instead of people. It would be argued that to suppose that a bird’s life is less valuable than a human life is a form of speciesism, a doctrine of prejudice analogous to racism and sexism. On this hard-line view one ought never to kill any nonhuman animal unless it were right to kill a human being in the same circumstance. Clearly in our second hypothetical situation, it would be said, it would not be right to kill a human being for food. Consequently it would be wrong to kill and eat a bird.

A vegetarian holding a moderate position might argue that it is prima facie wrong to kill an animal for food but that certain human rights, e.g., the right to life, can override this prima facie wrong. On this view there are cases in which it would not be right to kill a human being but it would be right to kill an animal. One such case would be where human life depended on the nourishment that animals give when killed and eaten. Note that this would not justify the killing and consuming of animals in contemporary society where various meat substitutes are available. An important question for the moderate is: On what plausible moral principle can the distinction between animals and human beings be made?

KBJ: Martin is not yet arguing, or even criticizing. He is analyzing. Specifically, he is drawing out the implications of two positions: the hard-line position, which always requires equal treatment between humans and animals, and the moderate position, which doesn’t always require it. By this time, you should be able to locate yourself in Martin’s logical space. He has drawn five distinctions: (1) between vegetarianism and nonvegetarianism; (2) between moral vegetarianism and nonmoral vegetarianism; (3) between lactovo and vegan moral vegetarianism; (4) between new and old moral vegetarianism; and (5) between hard-line (absolutist) and moderate moral vegetarianism.