27 March 2009

Moral Vegetarianism, Part 5 of 13

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A variety of arguments have been given for vegetarianism. Sometimes they take such a sketchy form that it is not completely clear they are moral arguments. I outline two arguments of this sort in what follows in order to illustrate some of the difficulties in evaluating moral vegetarianism. Even when it is clear that a moral argument is intended, however, exactly what the premises of the argument are is not always clear. There appears to be a gap in some of the arguments that it is difficult to fill with plausible premises.

The Argument from Monkeys

According to Gerald Carson, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a well-known advocate of vegetarianism and inventor of some eighty ready-to-eat breakfast foods, used to persuade people to adopt vegetarianism in the following way:

Dr. Kellogg, a superb publicist, kept a morose chimpanzee, which he used for a stunt. The doctor would toss a juicy beefsteak to the suspicious animal. The chimp would examine it and quickly slam the meat right back at him. Then Dr. Kellogg would offer a banana, which the ape munched with evident enjoyment. Kellog [sic] drew the conclusion “Eat what the monkey eats—our nearest relative.”

I assume—although this assumption may not be justified—that Dr. Kellogg was using this stunt to show the moral superiority of vegetarianism. But it is unclear what premises Dr. Kellogg was presupposing to get his conclusion, “Eat what the monkey eats.” Is he assuming that man’s meat eating is a perversion of his natural instincts, which are inherited from monkeys? But even if this is true, what moral import does this have unless one also assumes that what is natural should be done? Yet this further assumption is surely unjustified. After all, it may be quite natural for both chimpanzees and men to perform acts of violence. But it is questionable whether they should perform them.

Perhaps the assumption is only that one should eat what man’s nearest relative in evolutionary development eats. But aside from the fact that the truth of this ethical assumption is not obvious, it is not true that monkeys are man’s nearest relatives. Scientists have discovered closer relatives of homo sapiens than monkeys, e.g., homo erectus. There is little reason to suppose that all of these near relatives were vegetarians.

Finally, one cannot resist asking the question: What would Dr. Kellogg’s chimp have done if Dr. Kellogg had tossed it a bowl of corn flakes? The animal’s response and the conclusion “Eat what the monkey eats” could have ended Dr. Kellogg’s breakfast-cereal empire.

KBJ: I agree with Martin that this is a weak argument for moral vegetarianism. Even if it were true that meat-eating is unnatural for humans (in some nonmoral sense), it would not follow that it is wrong. Hume’s Law says that one cannot infer an “ought” statement from an “is” statement. An evaluative conclusion, in other words, requires at least one evaluative premise.