23 December 2006

Prima Facie vs. Ultima Facie Wrongness

Jonathan Hubbell, a philosophy major at the University of Texas at Arlington, is the newest member of the Animal Ethics blog, and once again, I would like to welcome him aboard. Like Keith, I think it will be interesting and instructive to observe as Jonathan works through his views on the myriad of ethical issues that surround our current treatment of animals. In my role as co-blogger, I hope to help Jonathan (and his readers) think more clearly about some of the issues with which Jonathan will be dealing. It is in that spirit that I wish to make a clarificatory observation regarding Jonathan's first post.

In his fresh and candid first post (available here), Jonathan admitted that he is struggling with the issue of ethical vegetarianism. He thinks that the treatment of animals in factory farms is morally unjustifiable, and yet, he continues to support those practices financially by purchasing and eating meat and animal products. He clearly thinks that it is wrong to cause animals to suffer unnecessarily, but he appears to be somewhat ambivalent about killing animals (provided the killing is carried out humanely). I suspect that underlying his thinking here is a common rationalization that many of my students initially embrace. It goes something like this:
Yes, I agree that factory farming is morally unjustifiable and ought to be abolished. It truly is horrific and despicable to treat animals so badly. But the wrongness and vileness of factory farming does not show that eating meat is morally wrong, because it is theoretically possible to raise animals outdoors in idyllic settings, to give them wonderful, enjoyable, rich lives, and then after 6 months to a year of such blissful existence, to kill them entirely painlessly. Since it would not be wrong to eat the flesh of animals raised in that manner, eating meat is not morally wrong!
[As we shall see, this is a bad argument, and I am not attributing any such worked-out argument to Jonathan. It's just that I see hints of this argument lurking in the background of Jonathan's thoughts, as will become clearer in Problem #2 below.]

The above argument/rationalization is problematic in numerous respects, but I will focus on only two.

Problem #1

Let us temporarily assume for the sake of argument that it would be permissible to eat the flesh of an animal who was raised humanely and killed entirely painlessly. All that follows from that assumption is that it is morally permissible to eat some meat. It does not follow that it is permissible to eat all meat. And it certainly doesn't follow that it is permissible to eat meat that comes from animals who were forced to endure horribly inhumane factory farm conditions and who were then slaughtered inhumanely. The question is not: "Is there any conceivable set of circumstances in which it would be permissible to eat meat?" Rather, the question is: "Is it morally permissible to eat this meat—the meat you are about to purchase—which did come from an inhumanely raised and cruelly slaughtered animal?" Anyone who accepts the highly plausible and widely held principle that "Causing animals to suffer unnecessarily is morally wrong and ought not be supported" is committed to the wrongness of eating the flesh of animals who were raised in factory farms, because by purchasing these products one is financially supporting the unnecessary cruelty inherent in those farms. So, even if it were permissible to eat the flesh of humanely raised animals who were painlessly killed (as we have been assuming), the permissibility of eating such animals does not entail the permissibility of eating inhumanely raised animals. Over 95% of all animals raised for food in the U.S. are raised in cruel, inhumane factory farms. Rest assured that if you are purchasing meat from your favorite fast food restaurant, your favorite sit-down chain restaurant, or your local grocery store, you are purchasing the flesh of a tortured animal. So, if you think that it is wrong to contribute to unnecessary animal suffering and if you are purchasing your meat from any of these sources, what you are doing is morally wrong by your own lights, regardless of the theoretical possibility (but commercial impracticality) of raising animals in a humane way.

[Those who have doubts as to whether or not factory farming really is inhumane can view the graphic but accurate documentary "Meet Your Meat" here or here. Running time: 12 Minutes. If you do view the documentary, I suspect that you will agree that "raising," transporting and slaughtering animals in this way is, indeed, wrong and ought not be supported.]

Problem #2

The above rationalization acknowledges the wrongness of contributing to unnecessary suffering, but tries to find a way around the argument for ethical vegetarianism by considering the merely theoretical possibility of humanely raised animals. However, the above rationalization does not directly address the issue of contributing to the unnecessary killing of a conscious sentient being. Of course, when hamburgers aren't at stake, most of us think that it would be morally wrong to kill an animal for no good reason. Even hunters try to justify their killing of animals with reasons, e.g., "If we don't cull the deer herd, there will be massive starvation of deer come winter, so we are doing the deer a favor by providing them a quick death (assuming accurate shooting, which one really shouldn't assume!) rather than a slow death from starvation." [Compassion like that almost makes one think that we should start shooting the 1 billion humans on the brink of starvation to provide them quick and relatively painless deaths rather than slow protracted ones.] The point is that even hunters seem to think that they need a reason to justify killing these animals. You don't find many hunters who candidly and unapologetically say: "I hunt because I like to kill. I take great pleasure in shooting animals with high-powered rifles or better yet with high-powered crossbows so that I can watch them die a painful, agonizing death." Hunting wouldn't be the "noble," "manly" "sport" that it is, if these were the reasons for doing it. So, we are given the "cull the herd for its own good" defense, or the "cull the herd to prevent automobile accidents" defense, or the "I hunt to put food on my family's table" defense. The weakness of these "defenses" must await another occasion. What is relevant here is that even hunters think that killing animals for no good reason is wrong, and thus, they feel obligated to provide some sort of reason for why they kill the animals they do.

We have already seen that Jonathan thinks that it is wrong to cause animals to suffer unnecessarily. What does he think about killing animals? Like many of my students, he seems to be somewhat ambivalent as to whether or not it is permissible to kill animals, for he writes: "Currently, I do not believe that killing an animal is prima facie morally wrong."

Some readers might be unfamiliar with the notion of prima facie moral wrongness. What does it mean to say that an action is prima facie morally wrong? The expression 'prima facie morally wrong' literally translates as "on the face of it morally wrong." However, philosophers and ethicists use the expression in a more technical and more precise way. To say that an action is prima facie morally wrong is to say that that action is wrong unless there are overriding reasons that justify doing that action. Formally:
An action X is prima facie morally wrong just in case X is morally wrong in the absence of overriding reasons to the contrary that justify doing X.
So, e.g., to say that killing a conscious sentient animal is prima facie morally wrong is to say that it is morally wrong to kill a conscious sentient animal unless there is some overriding reason that justifies and warrants killing that animal. In simple terms, to say that an action is prima facie wrong is to say that the wrongness of that action can, in principle, be overridden by other weightier moral considerations. We can gain a deeper insight into the nature of prima facie moral wrongness by contrasting it with ultima facie moral wrongness:
An action X is ultima facie morally wrong just in case (i) X is prima facie morally wrong and (ii) there are no overriding justifying reasons for doing X.
So, e.g., if it is prima facie morally wrong to kill a conscious sentient animal, then, absent an overriding justifying reason for killing that animal, it is also ultima facie morally wrong to kill that animal. [Think of ultima facie wrongness as all-things-considered-wrongness.]

Jonathan admits that "the idea that the killing of animals is not necessary due to the availability of alternative, nutritious food sources, and therefore all suffering on the part of the animal killed is done merely for preference in taste" is "a very powerful moral argument that is compelling to anyone who gives animals moral consideration." The reason it is such a powerful moral argument is because if there is no good reason to kill animals, then the prima facie moral wrongness of killing animals entails the ultima facie moral wrongness of killing animals. Moreover, if it is ultima facie morally wrong to kill animals for food when plant-based foods are readily available, then the above rationalization that only addresses the wrongness of supporting unnecessary suffering collapses.

I think Jonathan is sensitive to this very point because, as I noted above, he claims: "Currently, I do not believe that killing an animal is prima facie morally wrong." The clarificatory point that I wish to make concerning Jonathan's post is this: I think that Jonathan does believe that killing an animal is prima facie morally wrong. Why? Because, after claiming that he thinks that killing an animal is not prima facie morally wrong, he goes on to claim: "I simply believe that when animals are killed it ought to be for a good purpose, and in a manner that is respectful to their capacity to suffer" (emphasis mine). But this latter claim just is to admit that killing animals is prima facie morally wrong, for it just is to admit that killing conscious sentient animals in the absence of an overriding good reason for doing so is morally wrong, and that is just what it means for an action to be prima facie morally wrong.

Now apply these insights to the above rationalization. Even if we could raise animals outdoors in idyllic settings and give them wonderful, enjoyable, rich lives, in order to eat them, we would still have to kill them. Now, if killing animals is prima facie morally wrong—as Jonathan and even most hunters seem to admit—then if there is no good reason for killing these animals for food, then it is ultima facie morally wrong to kill them for food. Of course, the prima facie status of the moral wrongness of killing animals cuts both ways, because if killing these animals is necessary for some important overriding human benefit that can't be achieved in any other way, then the killing might be justified, after all. So, the central issue is this: Is there a good reason for us to kill animals for food? Is it necessary for us to kill animals for food? Or are we killing animals unnecessarily when we kill them for food?

To answer these questions, we need to reflect on what "necessary" means in the present context. To say that something is "necessary" is to say that it is something that cannot be done without. According to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, something "necessary" is something that is "absolutely required: essential, indispensable." Things that are necessary for our survival are absolutely required for our survival; they are essential NEEDS, as opposed to mere WANTS or DESIRES. Here are some things that are necessary/absolutely required for our survival: Water, oxygen, and food. Meat, however, is not absolutely required for our survival. When plant-based foods are available, meat is not needed for our survival at all. How can I be so sure? Simple. If eating meat were essential for our survival, then the hundreds of millions of vegetarians worldwide would have long since died out, but they haven't. They are alive and well.

Is eating meat necessary for optimal health? No, quite the opposite in fact. Numerous epidemiological studies have demonstrated that vegetarians, and especially vegans, have far lower rates of heart disease, cancer, stroke, hypertension, and diabetes compared to meat-eaters. For example, the famous Framingham heart study has been tracking the daily living and eating habits of thousands of residents of Framingham, Massachusetts since 1948. Dr. William Castelli, director of the study for the last 20 years, maintains that based on his research the most heart healthy diet is a pure vegetarian diet. Perhaps vegetarians suffer from other illnesses or die of other diseases earlier than their meat-eating counterparts. Not according to Dr. Castelli: “The vegetarian societies of the world have the best diet. Within our own country, they outlive the rest of us by at least seven years, and they have only 10 or 15 percent of our heart attack rate.” Castelli adds: “Vegetarians not only outlive the rest of us, they also aren’t prey to other degenerative diseases, such as diabetes, strokes, etc., that slow us down and make us chronically ill.” Dr. Dean Ornish has also documented the heart-protective effects of plant-based diets, as has Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn of the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. T. Colin Campbell of Cornell University is the director of the Cornell/Oxford/China Study, the largest epidemiological study ever conducted. The data collected in this study has led Campbell to conclude that 80-90% of all cancers can be controlled or prevented by a lowfat (10-15% fat) vegetarian diet. For more information regarding the health benefits of plant-based diets, check out the American Dietetic Association's Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets here.

An enormous body of scientific research confirms that meat consumption is not necessary for optimal health nor is it necessary for promoting longevity. Perhaps eating meat is "necessary" in some weaker sense in that it is not necessary to satisfy any of our needs but rather is necessary to satisfy one of our stronger wants: Taste. Most people know that Big Macs and Whoppers aren't good for them. People eat high cholesterol, saturated-fat-laden bacon cheeseburgers because they like the taste. The questions we honestly have to ask ourselves are these: Does our experiencing a pleasant, but fleeting taste sensation justify causing an animal an entire lifetime of painful sensations and horrible suffering? Does our experiencing a pleasant, but fleeting taste sensation justify dramatically cutting short the only life that that animal has? Not if one can derive equally enjoyable (or nearly as enjoyable) taste sensations from plant-based foods. Why not? Because if one can derive similar enjoyment from eating plant-based foods, then all of the suffering and the premature death inflicted upon the animal is gratuitous. It serves no purpose whatsoever, not even the purpose of taste. As I have noted elsewhere, with minimal effort, people can learn to cook delicious vegetarian meals. If there is any reason to kill animals for food that overrides the prima facie wrongness of killing animals, we have yet to have been told what that reason is. Absent such a reason, killing animals for food is ultima facie morally wrong. That's one more reason to forego the Christmas Turkey or Ham this year.

The Bottom Line:

Eating animals is not necessary for survival, it is not necessary for optimal health, it is not necessary for being a world class athlete, it is not necessary for being a super model, it is not necessary for reaching one's highest level of mental development [see my post on Vegetarianism and IQ here], it is not necessary for increased longevity, and it is not necessary in order to experience the pleasures of tasty meals. There simply is no good reason to kill animals for food when plant-based foods are available. That fact, coupled with the prima facie moral wrongness of killing animals for food, entails the ultima facie moral wrongness of killing animals for food. This conclusion is not derived from some esoteric, highly contentious moral theory that one can easily reject. It derives from the extremely modest, widely shared principle that it is wrong to kill animals for no good reason. Anyone who embraces this modest principle is committed to the all-things-considered wrongness of killing animals for food (at least whenever plant-based foods are available, which in modern societies is practically always).

Wishing you a Happy, Healthy, Humane Holiday!

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