04 June 2009

Moral Vegetarianism, Part 8 of 13

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

The Argument from Actual Practice

Still, it may be objected that this is to overlook actual practice. In fact, animals used for food do suffer a great deal. Not only are they killed in cruel ways, but it is well documented that they are raised in ways that cause them great discomfort and agony. Consequently, one ought not to eat meat until actual practice is changed.

Now there is no doubt that the actual treatment of animals used for food is immoral, that animals are made to suffer needlessly. The question that must be raised, however, is how the conclusion not to eat meat follows from this. One argument is this: The present practice of treating animals used for food is immoral and should be changed. So, if one wants to change the present practice, the best means is to stop eating meat. One ought to adopt the best means. Consequently, one ought not to eat meat. This seems to be one of Singer’s basic arguments.

Becoming a vegetarian is not merely a symbolic gesture. . . . Becoming a vegetarian is the most practical and effective step one can take towards [sic; kbj] ending both the killing of non-human [sic; kbj] animals and the infliction of suffering upon them.

KBJ: Singer’s claim is that one should not contribute, even incrementally, to animal suffering. This includes refusing to support business firms that cause, or profit from, animal suffering. As he puts it, “Until we boycott meat we are, each one of us, contributing to the continued existence, prosperity, and growth of factory farming and all the other cruel practices used in rearing animals for food” (Animal Liberation, 167).

There is at least one premise in this argument that seems questionable, namely, that the best means to change this practice is to stop eating meat. First, it is dubious that becoming a vegetarian would have much effect on present practice. Unless vegetarians were a large movement it would have little appreciable effect on the economic market. Surely the idea suggested by Singer that if only one person becomes a vegetarian he or she can know that his or her actions will contribute to the reduction of the suffering of animals is absurd.

KBJ: This misrepresents Singer’s view, which I described above.

Second, even if it did have an economic impact, it is unclear whether this would cause a reduction in animal suffering. Knowing the irrationality of the market on the one hand and the cunning of meat producers on the other, one may well have doubts. Cattle might be overproduced because of government subsidies and new markets found for meat. Meat-packing companies might encourage, for example, an increased dog population to take up the slack.

In other contexts a similar phenomenon has occurred. It has been recently reported in the Boston Globe (Jane O’Reilly, “The Bottle and the 3rd World,” July 8, 1976, p. 26) that in order to compensate for a declining birth rate in the U.S., infant formula producers expanded their market to Third World countries, saturating some of these countries with mass advertising. This advertising created a need; it did not fill any need. It is certainly likely that a similar phenomenon would occur if vegan vegetarianism became a widespread movement in the U.S. causing a decline in U.S. milk production.

More important, it might be a much more efficient means of changing practice to stage protests at meat-packing companies, put pressure on congressmen, and work through existing humane organizations. One suspects that the SPCA and the American Humane Society have done more to stop cruelty to animals than vegetarians ever could. That these organizations have not gone far enough and that wide areas of animal cruelty still exist does not show that their methods are wrong. In any case, which various political strategies would be most efficient for achieving humane treatment of animals is an empirical question. Vegetarianism is not obviously the best strategy, and its worth would have to be shown.

KBJ: Martin acts as though each of us can do only one thing. Each of us can—and should—do many things. The simplest thing to do is to abstain from meat.

A different argument from actual practice can be made, however. It need not be claimed that refraining from eating meat is the best way to change the situation. It can be argued instead that by eating meat one is giving one’s tacit consent or approval to the present situation, that the only way to be true to one’s moral conviction that the present treatment of animals is inhumane is not to eat meat.

But is it true that by eating meat one is giving one’s tacit consent to the cruel treatment of animals? It is certainly not clear what one gives one’s tacit consent to in following a practice. If I visit Arlington Cemetery, do I give my tacit consent to the various wars that produced the graves? Certainly not. If I pay my taxes during the Vietnam war, does this mean I am tacitly supporting the war? It certainly is not clear that it does. What if I don’t eat meat? Do I tacitly approve of Hare Krishna? That is absurd. The argument from tacit consent becomes extremely implausible when one remembers that most of the greatest workers for the elimination of animal suffering down through history have been nonvegetarians. According to the present argument, these people would be inconsistent: they would be explicitly advocating elimination of cruelty and tacitly approving of it. Such a supposition seems ludicrous to me.

The trouble is, of course, that it is not clear what tacit approval is supposed to mean. One suggested analysis that may capture part of what might be meant is this: One tacitly approves of a practice or institution X by doing A if and only if doing A is instrumental in keeping X in existence. Consequently, to say that by eating meat one is tacitly approving of cruelty to animals is to say eating meat is instrumental in keeping the practice of cruelty in operation.

Interpreted in this way, however, the claim is either false or dubious or without force, depending on how one interprets “instrumental.” “Instrumental in keeping X in existence” could mean a necessary condition for keeping X in existence. But my eating meat is not such a necessary condition for cruelty to animals. It could mean a sufficient condition for keeping X in existence. My eating meat, however, is not a sufficient condition for cruelty to animals. A more plausible candidate is this: “Instrumental in keeping X in existence” could mean “being part of a sufficient condition for keeping X in existence.” I am not at all sure that my eating meat is a part of a sufficient condition that brings about cruelty to animals in operation, but suppose it is. The question arises: Why should such indirect causal influence have any moral import? The effect of my not eating meat on the way animals are treated would be virtually nil.

KBJ: I addressed this claim earlier. The argument, to repeat, is that one should not contribute, even incrementally, to animal suffering. This sort of argument is common, by the way. One should not support business firms that pollute, that use slave labor, that discriminate on the basis of race and sex, and so forth. It’s a matter of expending one’s resources in accordance with one’s values.

There is another reason that could be given for not eating meat in view of the present inhumane treatment of animals. It would be a way of protesting present practice, a way of saying, “I disagree strongly with the treatment of animals used for food.” Certainly, not eating meat could have this protest function. But so could lots of other things: wearing an animal rights button, picketing meat-packing houses, and so on. The important question seems to me to be: Which kind of protest will be most effective in educating people to the cruelties? It is certainly not obvious that not eating meat will have the greatest effect. Indeed, it seems to me that more effective protest techniques are available, for example, advertisements in the newspapers and protest marches.

KBJ: Once again, Martin is assuming that one can do only one thing. One can do many things.

Although it might be argued that there is something of an inconsistency in persisting in eating meat while maintaining that animals are being treated cruelly in producing meat, it is hard to see why this is so. It does not seem to be true in general that one is inconsistent if one uses a product that is produced by some process that one believes violates one’s moral principles. Am I inconsistent if I drink fluoridated water rather than buy pure water when I believe that the government has no right to fluoridate water? Am I inconsistent if I am opposed to exploitation and buy an automobile from a company that I believe produces cars by exploiting labor? (If I were, then there would be an inconsistency in a Marxist living in a capitalistic society or buying anything produced by that society.) The answer seems to be: not necessarily. It is not obvious why the case of eating meat is different. We do well to remember that an inconsistency between an agent’s moral principles and his practices can only be shown via the agent’s other beliefs concerning the practice. Consequently, a moral principle and what might seem like an inconsistent practice can be consistent given other appropriate beliefs.

In sum, then, not eating meat may well be used as a protest against cruelty to animals. But there is certainly no moral duty to protest in this way even if one thinks animals are being treated cruelly, and indeed, such a protest may not be the best means available. So it would seem that the argument from actual practice is not strong enough to justify not eating meat.

KBJ: The “argument from actual practice,” properly understood, is plenty strong enough to justify not eating meat.