21 January 2009

Moral Vegetarianism, Part 2 of 13

For an explanation of this feature, click on “Moral Vegetarianism” at the bottom of this post.


With respect to traditional moral vegetarianism some problems immediately come to the fore. Who exactly is not supposed to eat animals or products of animals? This problem is especially acute with respect to carnivorous animals. What animals is it morally wrong to eat? The answer to this becomes problematic with respect to microorganisms but also with respect to animals that might be capable of consenting to being eaten. If animals could be created by genetic engineering, could they be created so that there were no moral objections to eating them? Depending on the answer to this question, moral arguments for vegetarianism could be undercut by technology. What exactly is an animal product, and how does an animal product differ morally from an animal part? This brings up the question of how one can distinguish between what is forbidden by lactovo moral vegetarianism and vegan moral vegetarianism. Let us consider some of these problems in more detail.

Who Should Not Eat Meat, or What Does a Vegetarian Feed His Dog?

Vegetarians certainly cannot think that only vegetarians have a prima facie duty not to eat animals or animal products. For if they base their beliefs on a moral position it must be universalizable. But what is the extent of the universal moral principle? Presumably it would include all human beings, whether they are in the habit of eating animals or not. But why would it not extend to all animals, including carnivorous animals?

One might be inclined to say that this question is beside the point. Since animals cannot be judged morally praiseworthy or blameworthy, the question of whether it is morally wrong for them to eat meat cannot be raised. But this reply is based on a confusion between the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of a moral agent and the rightness or wrongness of the action of an agent. Although animals may be free from blame in eating meat since they are not moral agents, animals in eating meat may still be doing something that is prima facie wrong.

KBJ: Martin cannot be serious. Moral concepts such as “right” and “wrong” apply only to autonomous beings. Since no animals are autonomous (in the sense of being capable of making laws for themselves, or acting on principle), moral concepts such as “right” and “wrong” don’t apply to them. Animals are like children and mentally defective adults in this respect. We don’t just withhold praise and blame from them; we refrain from evaluating their acts as right or wrong. This doesn’t mean we let them run wild, for we need to protect ourselves. It means we don’t make moral judgments about their behavior while we are incapacitating them. To see this, imagine animal-control officers putting a dog into their vehicle. The dog, let us say, has bitten a child. Wouldn’t it be funny for one of the officers to say to the other, “What that dog did to that child was wrong”?

Does this mean that a vegetarian would have to feed his dog some meat substitute? Not necessarily. The vegetarian might argue that there are other considerations that outweigh the prima facie wrong. For example, he might maintain that dogs need meat to live or at least to be healthy; that it would be more morally wrong for him to deprive the dog of life or health than morally wrong to feed it meat. In the case of human beings, the situation is different. Human beings can do without meat.

Now whether dogs can live and thrive without meat I do not know. It is certainly not self-evident that they could not live on meat substitutes. But even if dogs needed meat to live, it is not obvious that it is prima facie less wrong to eat meat than wrong to sacrifice a dog’s health or life. This becomes especially true when one realizes that vegetarians often argue that a reason that it is prima facie wrong to eat animals is that animals must be killed to provide the food. So in order to save the dog’s life or health, another animal must die.

KBJ: Martin has raised a genuine issue here, but it is not about whether it is wrong for a dog to eat meat; it is about whether it is wrong for a human to feed a dog meat. Why Martin is discussing this issue is puzzling. It is at best a side issue in the debate about moral vegetarianism. To see this, consider that the issue could be avoided altogether by not having a dog.

The vegetarian with a dog might also argue that, even if a dog could survive
on a nonmeat diet, to refuse to give the dog meat would not be in keeping with
the dog’s right to eat what it wants and what dogs want is meat. This argument
cuts too deep, however. Many humans want to eat meat, but this does not stop
vegetarians from saying that it is wrong for people to eat meat. Moreover, it is
unclear why the dog’s wants should overrule the alleged prima facie wrong of
eating meat, especially when this wrong is based on the alleged prima facie
wrong of killing an animal.

KBJ: I’ve never heard anyone defend the feeding of meat to his or her dog on the ground that the dog “wants” it. What might be argued is that the dog needs meat to survive or thrive, and then the question is whether one’s duty to the dog outweighs one’s duty to the animals the dog would eat. The very most Martin has shown is that one should not have a dog, since having a dog creates a moral dilemma for the person.

The issue of what the vegetarian should feed his dog is just the beginning of the problem. What should the attitude of a vegetarian be toward “nature red in tooth and claw”? The vegetarian knows that some animals in the wild eat other animals. Should he oppose this eating? If so, how? What other values should be sacrificed in order to prevent the killing and eating of wild animals by other wild animals? Suppose it were discovered that with proper training lions and tigers could live on zebra-flavored soy products. Should vegetarians promote a society that trains lions and tigers to eat such meat substitutes? This training would involve interfering with the freedom of lions and tigers, with the ecological balance, and so on. Many morally sensitive persons would look with disfavor on this interference. How much should the disvalue of this interference be weighed against the prevention of the killing of animal life?

KBJ: Three points. First, nobody is responsible for the actions of others, whether human or animal. I am responsible for my actions, you for yours, and so forth. Animals are not responsible even for their own actions, as I pointed out above. Second, intervening in predator-prey relationships to prevent suffering by (or death to) the prey is pointless, since it will cause the predator to suffer and die. Given how wild animals are, there is going to be suffering and death, no matter what we humans do. Third, there is nothing wrong, in general, with hypothetical questions, but Martin’s question about the lions and tigers is so fanciful that I don’t know what to say in reply to it. It’s like asking whether, if humans evolved the ability to fly, using only their arms, it would be permissible for government to regulate their flight.