08 March 2009

Moral Vegetarianism, Part 4 of 13

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

What Is an Animal Part?

The last example suggests the difficulty of making a clear distinction between an animal part and an animal product. If a genetically engineered animal’s legs periodically fell off, would not its legs be more like a product of an animal (analogous to eggs) than a part of the animal? If so, the lactovo vegetarian should have no qualms about someone’s eating such legs.

KBJ: Agreed. But keep in mind that many lactovo vegetarians care about how animal products are produced, not just the fact that they are animal products. These people abstain from eggs and dairy products the production of which involves suffering for the animals. The same would be true of Martin’s hypothetical animal legs. To avoid this complication, Martin should have stipulated that no suffering is involved in the production of animal legs. For example, if one could pick up shed animal legs in a pasture in which animals roam freely among their own kind, there might be no moral objection to eating the legs. If, on the other hand, the legs are produced in factory conditions, there is a moral objection.

This sort of question can also be raised without benefit of hypothetical examples from future genetic engineering. Suppose someone enjoys drinking the blood of cattle and hogs. Suppose further that such blood is obtained without killing the animal and without causing the animal pain. Would the blood drinker be sinning against the principles of lactovo moral vegetarianism or just the principles of vegan moral vegetarianism? Would the blood be analogous to milk or eggs?

KBJ: Again, the answer for many lactovo vegetarians would depend on whether the production of the blood involved suffering. Suffering is more than pain. Deprivation of liberty, for example, is a kind of suffering that need not be painful in any straightforward sense. Think of the suffering involved in solitary confinement.

Functionally, we might attempt to distinguish between an animal product and an animal part in the following way: X is a part of an animal A if X is derived or could be derived from A and A could not function well without X. X is a product of an animal A if X is derived from A and A can function well without X and X has some useful purpose for some Z. On this analysis, the shed legs of genetically designed leg-shedding animals would be a product, not a part; the blood of an animal taken in small quantities would be a product and not a part.

KBJ: Martin is assuming (again) that lactovo vegetarians care only about whether the item is an animal part or an animal product. As I said above, many of them care about more than this. Among other things, they care about whether the animal products involved suffering.

But this account seems overly permissive in one respect. One can imagine the possibility of amputating the legs of animals and using them for food and fitting the animals with mechanical limbs that enabled them to function normally. Would we still wish to say that the amputated limbs were products rather than parts of the animals?

KBJ: Ditto.

Moreover, this account also seems overly restrictive in one respect. Suppose there was a breed of sheep that became very ill when the sheep’s fleece was removed; they did not function normally. Or suppose that by genetic engineering we could develop a milk-producing animal that became sick when it had the milk removed by members of other species, e.g., human beings. On the above definitions the wool and the milk of such animals would not be animal products.

These conceptual difficulties do not show that a distinction between parts and products of animals cannot be made in individual cases. But they do point up the difficulty of making any general distinction between parts and products and the correlated difficulty of making a clear distinction between vegan and lactovo vegetarianism.

KBJ: The most that this shows is that people should be vegans rather than lactovo vegetarians. That way, they won’t have to make the problematic (to Martin) distinction between animal parts and animal products.

The above problems and questions should give vegetarians some pause. They suggest that any simple moral vegetarianism is impossible. There are many complex problems connected with moral vegetarianism, and a fully articulate and comprehensive moral vegetarianism is yet to be produced.

KBJ: This is true of every normative ethical theory, from natural law to divine command to utilitarianism to egoism to contractarianism to Kantian deontology. What is supposed to follow? That we should suspend moral evaluation and live amoral lives until all the theoretical problems are solved and all the conceptual questions are answered?

Still, it might be maintained that this does not mean that moral vegetarianism is an unsound view. After all, it might be said, there are unsolved problems implicit in any moral position. Although there may be difficult problems at the core of moral vegetarianism, it may be maintained that there are sound reasons for taking the position.

KBJ: Bingo.