06 February 2010

Philip E. Devine on the Vegetarian's Dilemma

Philip E. Devine The sum of the matter is as follows. Either the vegetarian argues on utilitarian premises, or he tries to supplement or replace his utilitarianism with some plausible non-utilitarian principles implying the wrongfulness of rearing and killing animals for food. In the first case, there is no way around the suggestion, which many people appear to believe, that animal experience is so lacking in intensity that the pains of animals are overridden by the pleasures experienced by human beings. That the argument may appear cynical is no concern of the utilitarian, who is forced by his moral theory to admit the relevance of even the most cynical-seeming arguments. On the other hand, all the non-utilitarian principles which have been put forward turn out on inspection to have reference only to human beings. If they were to be abandoned, the practical result would be more likely to be that human beings would be treated as we now treat animals rather than animals as we now treat (or believe that we should treat) human beings.

(Philip E. Devine, "The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism," Philosophy 53 [October 1978]: 481-505, at 491)

Note from KBJ: Devine's argument takes the following form:
1. Either the vegetarian argues on utilitarian grounds or the vegetarian argues on nonutilitarian grounds.

2. If the vegetarian argues on utilitarian grounds, then vegetarianism is unsupported.

3. If the vegetarian argues on nonutilitarian grounds, then vegetarianism is unsupported.


4. Either vegetarianism is unsupported or vegetarianism is unsupported (from 1, 2, and 3, constructive dilemma).


5. Vegetarianism is unsupported (from 4, tautology).
The argument is valid (i.e., truth-preserving), and the first premise is true, but the second premise is false. Devine seems to think that if humans cease eating meat, they will derive no pleasure from eating. But not eating meat doesn't mean you get no pleasure from eating; it means, at most, that you get less pleasure from eating. Think of the difference between eating a hamburger and eating a veggie burger, for example. It is not as though the latter produces no pleasure! So the choice is between inflicting terrible pain and deprivation on animals and getting slightly less pleasure from eating. It's pretty clear that utilitarianism supports vegetarianism. Certainly Devine has not established that it does not.