06 December 2009

Moral Vegetarianism, Part 13 of 13

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


There is no doubt that moral vegetarianism will continue to be a position that attracts people concerned with the plight of animals and with humanitarian goals. If the conclusions of this paper are correct, however, moral vegetarianism cannot be separated from a number of ethical issues and questions, issues that need to be settled and questions that need to be answered if a comprehensive and considered moral vegetarianism is to be maintained: the problem of carnivorous animals; the moral status of eating microorganisms, consenting animals, and genetically engineered animals; the difficulty of distinguishing animal parts and animal products.

Although I have found no compelling moral arguments for vegetarianism, there still may be reasons why morally sensitive people would wish to become vegetarians. As I have suggested above, vegetarianism may have a protest or symbolic function. Nevertheless there is, as far as I can determine, no moral duty not to eat meat, and one who eats meat is not thereby committing any moral error.

One final point. It might be suggested that although becoming a vegetarian as a protest against animal suffering or a way of committing oneself to helping the hungry people of the world is not a moral duty, it is still a moral act; it is a supererogatory act. This view is not implausible, but it needs to be qualified in certain ways. A supererogatory act, whatever else it is, is an act that is good but not obligatory. The question is whether becoming a vegetarian in order to protest animal suffering or as a way of committing oneself to feeding the hungry people of the world is good but not obligatory.

Suppose first that there is a moral obligation to protest cruelty to animals or to commit onself [sic] to feeding the hungry people of the world. Becoming a vegetarian in this case would not be a supererogatory act; nor would it be an obligatory act. It would be one way of fulfilling one’s moral obligation, although not necessarily the best way.

Second, suppose that there is no moral obligation to so protest or commit onself [sic]. It is not implausible to suppose that doing so would nevertheless be a good thing. Then becoming a vegetarian would be a supererogatory act. If becoming a vegetarian is not the best way to do so, however, moral vegetarians would deserve some praise but not as much praise as some other people who protest cruelty to animals and commit themselves to feeding the hungry people of the world. Indeed, it is not implausible to claim that moral vegetarians deserve some criticism. Their moral idealism is in a sense wasted or at least used badly. One is inclined to say: “If you really want to protest animal suffering or commit yourself to helping hungry people, instead of not eating meat you should . . .” (see above for various suggestions).

There is, I believe, nothing paradoxical about the idea that a supererogatory act can be blameworthy. Jumping in a swift river and saving a drowning man when you are only a fair swimmer is a paradigm case of a supererogatory act and deserves praise. But such an act may deserve some criticism as well if the drowning man could have been easily saved by tossing him a life buoy.
KBJ: This completes the task of quoting and discussing Martin's essay. I hope you enjoyed it.