14 June 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 10

I’ve written a great deal (some would say too much) about liberalism and conservatism as political moralities. Did you know that there are analogues in epistemology? (Epistemology is the science, study, or theory [logos] of knowledge [episteme].) Epistemological liberals accord no presumption to commonsense or ordinary belief. In their view, beliefs are guilty until proved innocent, i.e., unjustified until justified. Epistemological conservatives, by contrast, accord a presumption to commonsense or ordinary belief. In their view, beliefs are innocent (justified) until proved guilty (unjustified).

It will not surprise you to learn that I’m an epistemological conservative as well as a political conservative. I see no reason why anyone’s commonsense beliefs need justification. If someone points out to me that two of my beliefs are contradictory, it will of course concern me (for I find cognitive dissonance uncomfortable), and I will take steps to resolve the inconsistency. How I do so, however, is up to me. A conservative will change as little as possible. If the choice is between giving up a belief that lies at the center of my noetic web and giving up a belief that lies at its periphery, rationality dictates that I give up the peripheral belief. I won’t argue the point here, but I believe rationality entails epistemological conservatism. Isn’t it irrational to give up (pay) more than one has to? Isn’t this the case in other realms, such as the economic?

Many people, probably most people, believe that there is nothing morally wrong with eating animal flesh, either because animals don’t matter at all, morally, or because animal interests count for less than human interests. It would seem that an epistemological conservative would presume this belief innocent until proved guilty. But that’s not so. Conservatives don’t accord infinite value to tradition or to commonsense belief. They accord a presumption to them. Presumptions are by their nature rebuttable (overridable). I have argued in various places that, just as the liberal presumption in favor of individual liberty can be (and sometimes is) rebutted (overridden), so the conservative presumption in favor of tradition can be (and sometimes is) rebutted (overridden). Neither liberals nor conservatives, in other words, are absolutists.

In both cases, what does the rebutting is harm to others. My liberty stops at the tip of your nose. I’m free to do as I please provided I don’t harm anyone. By the same token, traditions are morally benign provided they don’t harm anyone. But animals are harmed (egregiously, profoundly, irreversibly) by meat-eating, so the presumption in favor of tradition is rebutted in this case, as is the corresponding commonsense belief that meat-eating is morally acceptable.

The practical upshot of these reflections is that meat-eaters should institute a moratorium on meat-eating until they have thought things through. Don’t just continue with the diet your parents had or that you find tastiest. Take responsibility for your diet. Until you have justified your belief that meat-eating is morally acceptable, it’s morally risky to continue eating meat. Suppose there’s a one-in-ten chance that a human being is on the other side of the target you’re shooting at. Wouldn’t it be irresponsible—reckless—to shoot? You could easily kill someone! Why does this reasoning not apply to meat-eating? Unless you have thought things through and justified your belief, you are taking a moral chance (i.e., playing with moral fire).

Stop. Think. If, after thinking it through in good faith, in light of the facts of meat production, taking all counterarguments into consideration and finding them wanting, you are convinced that meat-eating is morally acceptable, you will be acting responsibly. This is the least we can expect of moral agents. You are a moral agent, aren’t you?

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