26 April 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 3

“Animals kill each other, so why can’t we kill them?” Anyone who lectures on the moral status of animals, as I’ve been doing for twenty years (almost to the day), has heard this question dozens of times. It has a powerful appeal to certain minds. But it’s thoroughly, almost ludicrously, confused.

Nobody doubts that animals kill each other. It’s just that nothing of a normative nature follows from that fact. In general, that something is the case is no reason that it ought to be the case. This principle—that one cannot validly infer an “ought” statement from “is” statements—is known as Hume’s Law, after the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). (Some people mistakenly call it “the naturalistic fallacy,” but that refers to something else.) Imagine a parallel argument: “People murder each other, so why can’t I murder?” Pretty lame, eh?

Let’s reconstruct the questioner’s reasoning to make it valid. In other words, let’s make it so that the conclusion follows logically from the premise(s). This will focus attention on the truth or acceptability of the premise(s). Perhaps the person who asks the question is reasoning as follows:
1. Predation is morally permissible.
2. When humans kill and eat other animals, they are preying.
3. It is morally permissible for humans to kill and eat other animals.
This reasoning would justify interspecific predation but not murder.

The problem with the reasoning is that the first premise is nonsensical. It has a false presupposition. To say that predation is morally permissible is to presuppose that the animals who engage in it are moral agents, capable of reasoning and acting on principle. No animal is a moral agent. Only humans are moral agents. Only humans, therefore, are morally responsible for their conduct. Predation is just a fact about our world. Those who engage in it are neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy.

It might be said that if no animal is a moral agent, then no animal has moral status. But moral status comes in two forms: moral agency and moral patienthood. Children are moral patients, but not moral agents. The severely retarded are moral patients, but not moral agents. The senile are moral patients, but not moral agents. Are we to cast these individuals out of the moral community because they cannot reason or act on principle? To be a moral patient, one needs only interests, and animals clearly have interests, the main one being in not suffering.

There’s also a relevant difference between humans and animals that undermines the analogy. Humans don’t need animal flesh in order to survive. Many animals (the carnivores) do. (Humans are omnivores, not carnivores.) Even if animals were moral agents, and therefore morally responsible for their conduct, it would not follow from the fact that they kill and eat each other that humans may follow suit. In the case of animals, it’s self-defense (which is not to say that they think in those terms). They kill to survive. They have no choice. Humans don’t need to kill animals to survive. We have a choice.

At this point it might be said that something has to die for another thing to live. This is true, but, as I argued a week ago (see here), there are morally relevant differences between animals and plants. Both are alive, but only animals can suffer, and suffering is intrinsically bad. Humans must eat. Nobody denies that. They do not have to add to the world’s suffering in order to do so.

Isn’t it odd that the people who ask the question posed at the outset don’t look to the animal world for moral guidance in other areas? If we’re to emulate animals with respect to diet, why shouldn’t we emulate them with respect to habitat, reproduction, child-rearing, hygiene, social structure, and other matters? Let’s not be selective! I suspect that people who ask the question aren’t thinking clearly and carefully. They’re groping for a reason to continue eating meat.

No comments: