Friday, August 06, 2010

Ethics and Animals

I encourage those taking Ethics and Animals this fall to read and reply:

(The "meat" question is but one of many we will raise, including the ethics of all types of animal use (scientific and medical, as entertainment, in zoos, circuses, as companions-animals, etc.).


  1. If I'm taking the title literally, I'm not sure I completely agree with the notion that "eating animals is indefensible." I think there are a few extreme situations (life-or-death scenarios, etc.) in which eating animals may be morally permissible. As someone mentions in the article's comments, we are talking about humans eating animals, as non-human animals eating animals is a completely different, morally defensible topic. I suppose "Humans Eating Animals is (Usually) Indefensible" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

    Someone commented on this article with:

    "I raise all of my meat. The animals are treated humanely and they eat what I grow. There is no impact on grain prices. There is no pollution as all manure is used to grow crops. You cannot buy meat of this quality. One size does *not* fit all."

    We touched on this in Constructing Reality last semester: if one were to raise an animal as such, and then slaughter it in such a way that the animal does not anticipate or have anxiety about it's murder, and surrounding animals are not distressed because they don't know about the animal's murder, is this morally defensible?

    My instinct tells me this is still wrong, but I can't quite put my finger on why.

  2. Thoughtful comments. Since nearly anything goes in "extreme" situations (including killing other humans), he's safe enough claiming that eating animals has no reasonable defense. (He's not including natural predation between nonhumans.)

    As for the happy sustainable farm comment, I have four responses: 1. It's never that happy/humane/sustainable. 2. Murder -- as you call it -- is never justifiable by definition. One would have to argue that it is not a case of murder, first. 3. What justification, assuming it can be done entirely painlessly, is there for prematurely and unnecessarily (this is not a "lifeboat" case) ending the animal's life? 4. Even if morally unproblematic, I have aesthetic and other nonmoral reasons for opposing advocating the premature death and consumption of a highly intelligent, domesticated animal.

  3. Katherine MarchandAugust 11, 2010 at 2:07 PM

    You're going to have to add a "suggest things" section to this website sometime.

    An article (wrongfully categorized as a comment to this post) about "Philosophy as a satire on beauty."

    The Phenomenology of Ugly--The New York Times

  4. Thanks for the link. I'll look into a permanent "suggested links/articles" box.

  5. Alexandra NichiporAugust 13, 2010 at 1:38 PM

    Shelby brings up a great point. Is there any scenario in which eating an animal is morally permissible?

    I'm going to try to elucidate what makes you uncomfortable with this scenario, Shelbs. First of all, it involves deception, on two counts. One nurtures the animal, then kills it. One hides this from other animals, though they may notice that one of their own is missing. Of course, is this deception morally permissible towards animals, who may not have the capacity to recognize it?

    I'm also skeptical of the author's hyperbolic "Eating Animals is Indefensible," because he raises another ethical question here: do we have a right to impose our personal viewpoints on others? The author comes from a position of privelege, being a resident of the so-called "First World," that other people may not share. There are many reasons someone may choose not to be vegetarian: perhaps they have anemia or other health issues, perhaps meat-eating is part of their heritage, etc.

    Then again, since when is compassion optional? We would step in if we saw someone eating a human - why isn't this morally imperative regarding animals?

  6. Not to knock vegetarianism at all, but for the sake of debate, here are some, in my opinion, cogent comments that people could raise on Dave's Aug 10 1124 post:

    1. I have to disagree with the use of “never”, though I agree it is extremely rare per animal capita, but it is a growing trend and should be encouraged. In fact sustainable farm situations can most certainly be more safe, and less stressful than animals living in the wild where they will be constantly under threat, hunted, murdered, injured, in pain, and killed premature. Also for instance a farmer could take injured animals from the wild that were destined for death, rehabilitate them, allow them to have offspring, and then continually reproduce more offspring from the same families of animals. All future farm animals would be their offspring and so exist only due to the actions of humans. The choice between death and being able to have perpetual generations of children is hardly cruel.

    2. Many native american's for instance believe that if we give back equal or more than we take and worship/revere/love the animals it is certainly not murder. western law also states that murder is a criminal act and criminal acts require criminal intent. So there definitely are arguments against it being murder.

    3 and 4. It does not have to be prematurely first of all, it can be to the end of an animal's natural life, also "prematurely" should be equated to the natural average age of animals of the same type living in the wild without the benefits of human protection, comfort, and medical care. And don’t forget to take into account the stress from being hunted, pain from wolf bites or broken bones from accidents, watching family members eaten, and compare that to being, as Shelby said, taken in a way that no stress is created for any of the animals.


  7. Good comments, all.

    Alex: what follows your "then again" is a sufficient reply to your middle paragraph.

    Maarty: You write: "The choice between death and being able to have perpetual generations of children is hardly cruel." But that strikes me as a false dilemma: one could simply save the dying animal and not eat it or its offspring. The fact that those future generations exist because of our actions is also irrelevant, since the same holds for humans.

  8. Alexandra NichiporAugust 13, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    I don't think it is a sufficient reply. The extent to which vegetarians should "proselytize" is a very thorny issue. I'll compare it to Christian evangelism (both are concerned with the welfare of the other, though the evangelist takes a spiritual perspective and the vegetarian a materialist one), in which one tries to present one's ideas as the only viable option. In fact, this may have the opposite effect, causing the listener to despise the message of the preacher. People move towards things (or away) because of internal motivations; outside encouragement has only partial effect. And I say that as a sociology major.

    Or am I being a coward?

  9. Although the title of the article is, "Eating Meat is Indefensible," it seems as though most people think just the opposite. Eating meat is the norm; it's the thing to do. Who doesn't eat meat? Come on, now.

    I have been trying so hard to be a vegetarian ever since I started High School but I have no support whatsoever from my family and friends. After encouraging them to see videos of the meat industry, animals being slaughtered, and having them read article after article about the benefits of vegetarianism, I still get such little support. I've finally learned to overcome their comments and tendencies to stick a rare-steak in my face (rare-steak was my favorite) and now I've been a vegetarian for a year. I'm still so frustrated that the people around me can't just support my views and respect what I eat and don't eat. It's not like I'm forcing them to change their ways.

    My main question is: Is there any way to get people to truly understand and realize the cruelty and unethical ways of the meat industry? It's like society is brainwashed to be meat lovers and people don't want to know where their food is coming from. Ignorance is bliss, in this case, and it is really too bad.

  10. Alex:

    A moral imperative -- if it is indeed such-- speaks for itself. The value/efficacy of teaching/proselytizing/preaching is a separate issue, one that often serves only to distract attention from the real issue (the welfare/fate of the nonhumans). The popular, related phrase "no one has a right to tell me what to do" is self-refuting (since it implies a universal moral imperative not to tell each other what to do).


    There are none so blind as those who will not see.

  11. Alexandra NichiporAugust 14, 2010 at 2:30 PM

    Prof Johnson: Well put. Thanks for shedding some light on that topic for me.

    Skyla: I definitely agree with you! I have had similar experiences - even one of my best friends will still try to get me to eat buffalao wings (my former favorite food). Why do people feel so threatened by a vegetarian? And as for getting people to understand the wickedness of the meat industry, is an emotional-based or rationally-based approach more effective?

    I also wonder about gender in this. Shelby introduced me to a book called "The Sexual Politics of Meat" which argues, among other things, that meat has been designated a "male" food, and therefore superior. According to this theory, refusing to eat meat is refusing to buy into the gender hierarchy, which may explain why some folks are so threatened by vegetarianism.

  12. Alex: I think gender plays a significant role in perpetuating common myths and practices related to meat-consumption. Adams' book is a real eye-opener (for those willing to look).

  13. This discussion represents an impressive level of participation for a course that hasn't even started yet!

  14. I think Alex hit the nail on the head when she refered to Friedrich's title as being, "hyperbolic." In addition, second main argument was a bit exagerant. It states that eatting meat raises the prices of cereal which leads to starvation and food riots. The fact that eatting meat raises the price of cereal is true. Of course the more meat we consume, the more live stock is produced and the more food they need -- the less grain there is for us. But I've never seen a "food riot" in isle three because the price of special K went up $1.00. Or maybe I'm misinterpreting?

  15. Perhaps. The point is not a local but a global one about the economics of food. There are lots of hungry people in the world, though there is far more than enough grain to meet everyone's caloric needs. Part of the problem is distribution, but a large and growing factor is that vast amounts of grain is fed to livestock, which is wildly inefficient (12-20 pounds of grain, and 2,500 gallons of clean water, yields a pound of meat).

    Another reason you haven't witnessed riots over the price of food is that you live in the U.S., which for 40 years has systematically suppressed the cost of food (and drastically reduced its quality while degrading the environment) by heavily subsidizing agribusiness and undermining small-scale and local food production. The political reason they did this is that there actually used to be regular revolts at rising food costs (the Nixon administration was the last to be seriously threatened by such reaction).