Since becoming vegetarian (or something very similar to it) I have frequently been asked why I have made what some see as a drastic and seemingly sudden change to my lifestyle. Since my reasons are based on philosophical arguments regarding the moral status of non-human animals, it is generally quite difficult to expound these over the course of a family outing to our local Prezzo. For this reason I have found it helpful to write down a summary of the arguments that have compelled me to refrain from eating meat, mainly for my own reference, and for the benefit of anyone particularly interested either in my beliefs or in the arguments for vegetarianism in general. The post is a long one, which is why I have tried to split it into easily identifiable segments, so that one can read specific bits of the discourse regarding vegetarianism that one finds interesting.
Most of the arguments below are those of the ethicist Peter Singer, perhaps one of the most important proponents of the animal welfare movement, and I have tried to summarise his work on animal welfare. As well as Singer, I consider the work of other ethicists and their influence on both sides of the debate.
Why care about animal welfare?
Why should we care about animal welfare at all when so many more important evils are occurring every day to humans? Isn’t talk of animal rights the domain of unwashed, greasy-haired types who want to hug trees and be “at one with nature”? This is a surprisingly common response to talk of animal welfare and is sometimes seen as sufficient reason to reject vegetarianism. The first obvious response is that greater moral evils do not invalidate concerns about lesser moral evils. That genocides and famine occur around the world does not mean that I should give up my moral conviction that an instance of school bullying is wrong. More importantly though, it is precisely this kind of reasoning, which allows us to disregard the welfare of a certain group without even thinking about it, that has led to our species committing so much evil through the course of history. At every point in history, we tend to rest on the hubristic notion that we have reached the pinnacle of moral enlightenment, until some paradigm shift occurs and subsequent generations look back in disgust at the conduct of their forebears. A good example of such a shift is our views on slavery and particularly the slave trade in Europe and America. It is now widely accepted that the colour of someone’s skin is not a morally relevant property, since people of all colours and ethnicities are able to suffer, and have interests just the same. Similarly, the issue of women’s rights rose to prominence in the 19th and 20th century in the Western world, where before the oppression of women was, for the most part, seldom questioned.
Equality in humans
With regard to historical racism and sexism, it is easy for us to judge the perpetrators with the clarity of hindsight, but it is far more difficult for us to be able to turn a critical eye on our own beliefs and intuitions. The biggest problem with our moral intuitions is that they are so strongly influenced by our day to day experiences, and the influence of the current society in which we live, with all of its norms. Had I lived in the American Deep South in the early 19th century, I would most probably have found it very intuitive that slavery is morally permissible. But if we want to be able to say anything about the morality of historical events, we surely must challenge and test our own intuitions and look above and beyond the influences of our society. Alongside intuition, we also need to test the internal consistency of our moral beliefs using some very fundamental starting points. We can then say, had the perpetrators of racism and sexism throughout history tested the consistency of their own moral views they would have found contradictions. For they surely believe that enslaving a white person is wrong, so the question then is what moral difference exists between people with white skin and people with black skin? Surely the mere pigmentation of their skin cells is not a morally relevant characteristic. Most advocates of slavery recognised this and advanced several arguments attempting to show relevant differences. Some argued that black people were not capable of civilisation without stewardship by white people, and that living and working on a plantation is better than the savagery they would otherwise be subjected to in their own land. Other arguments, based on mudsill theory, suggested that there must always be a class of slaves in any functioning society to stop it from collapsing altogether. Any unbiased observer, living either then or now, who undertakes an intellectually honest survey of the facts, would come to the conclusion that these arguments fail and that, in fact, there is no morally relevant difference between people of different coloured skin.
So here we are in the 21st century, full of confidence in our current moral beliefs. But how far do we test those beliefs? Can we devise an easy way to test our moral convictions for internal consistency? Singer proposes the principle of equal consideration of interests.
The principle of equal consideration of interests
Why is it that kicking your next door neighbour, or even your neighbour’s pet cat, is wrong, but kicking a rock isn’t? An obvious answer seems to be that, while the former will suffer when kicked, the latter will not. Suffering can be construed in different ways. Some see it as an evil in itself, others consider the deprivation of pleasure as the most important consideration, while others still take the negative impact on well-being as all-important. A broader concept that includes suffering, pleasure and well-being is the concept of a being having ‘interests’. Generally, we are able to suffer and therefore we have interests; at the very least an interest not to experience suffering. Equality of races and of sexes is predicated on our conviction that no one group’s interests are more important than another’s. In other words, all people’s interests should be considered equally.
The difference between acting morally and acting prudentially (in self interest) is that prudential reasoning involves our putting our own interests above anyone else’s, while moral reasoning involves our considering the interests of others as well as our own. Suppose you find yourself in a room with another person. You are both quite hungry and there is an apple in the middle of the room. Prudential reasoning dictates that you should eat the apple. If you were being moral however, you would consider that there exists another person, with their own interests, and that splitting the apple between the two of you would serve both your interests. If you found yourself in the room with a starving person, and you were only slightly hungry, you would decide that giving them the whole apple is the most moral course of action since equal weighing of considerations dictates that their interests are better served by eating the whole apple than the mild satisfaction of your hunger and a lesser satisfaction of their severe hunger that would result were you to split the apple. This last example highlights the difference between equal consideration of interests and equal treatment. The latter generally leads to absurd conclusions and should not be confused with the former.
So given this basic principle, what can we say about the slave owners of generations gone by? Well it is clear that they were not weighing the interests of black people equally with the interests of white people. Did they have a defensible reason for placing less importance on the interests of people with dark skin? Perhaps the most popular justification at the time was the idea that black people are less intellectually capable than white people and therefore their interests are less important. Whole areas of research at the time were dedicated to showing the superiority of the white race compared to non-white races. A discussion of the quality of this research is unnecessary, since the premise that intelligence has a bearing on moral status is itself false. If the ability to suffer entails that an individual has interests, and individuals who suffer have an interest not to feel pain, to enjoy warmth, food, shelter, relationships, free from interference, then intelligence should have no bearing at all, since one’s intelligence does not affect their experience of suffering and contentment. We would think it absurd to suppose that Albert Einstein’s interests should have taken precedence over someone else’s on account of his intelligence, so why not think the same of the converse scenario?
Other characteristics become equally irrelevant when considering interests e.g. one’s gender or sexuality. The equal considerations principle allows us to include all humans, with all their varying differences, in our bracket of equal consideration.
Note the equal consideration of interests principle is one of a number of possible universalisable moral principles. Though it is one I find appealing, one can substitute any number of different principles into the arguments below, or even consider different principles in conjunction.
So then here we are as enlightened individuals in the 21st century, with reasonable confidence in our moral convictions. We have all but come to the conclusion that the interests of no group of humans should be discounted, but there remains a very large group whose interests have, until recently, been universally ignored without consideration. So that we aren’t guilty of the same mistakes as our predecessors, we must be able to point to a morally relevant difference between humans and non-human animals such that killing the latter for food is acceptable but rearing a human so that we can produce tasty cuts of meat from their flesh is not. The upshot of this blog post is that no such difference is clear, and that we are therefore not justified in killing animals for food.
Suffering in non-human animals
If animals suffer, it seems inconsistent to disregard their suffering while counting the suffering of humans as significant. One could simply assert that humans are humans, and as humans we are more important. The consideration of one’s own species above any other purely on the basis of membership of the species is called speciesism. Upon closer inspection, speciesism is no different to racism or sexism: there is no better reason to suppose that someone’s race or gender should dictate their moral status than someone’s species. When dealing with racism and sexism, we concluded that the capacity to suffer and therefore have interests was the property that brought individuals into equal moral consideration. Why then should we ignore this conclusion when we are faced with another biological difference between organisms that has no bearing on suffering and interests in itself? There appears no better reason for speciesism than for racism.
The best way to highlight why the mere biological category of membership to the species Homo sapiens is meaningless is by considering a thought experiment proposed by ethicist Michael Tooley. Tooley asks us to consider an extraterrestrial, identical to ET from the Spielberg movie. ET is highly intelligent, has complex emotions, is able to experience love, anger, pain, joy, fear, and has had the misfortune of crash-landing on our planet. We would all reject the idea that organisms like ET should have no moral status, and that their suffering is meaningless, but according to speciesism that is precisely the conclusion we should reach, since ET is not a member of the species Homo sapiens. Our strong intuition that ET has moral value then is based not on his membership of any particular species, but on some moral-making properties he possesses.
We have said that if animals suffer then we have not established a good reason so far to disregard their suffering. But perhaps it can be argued that as humans, we have more complex mental lives and therefore have a much greater awareness. This includes a greater awareness of our suffering and of the thwarting of our interests, making our suffering more significant. This would explain why we feel compassion for ET even though he’s not a human. But at most this can only mean that, when considering the balance of interests, we should bear in mind that a human will suffer more from the same state of affairs than a non-human animal. But this does not go far enough in justifying the intense suffering of an animal in order to satisfy the interest that a human has to eat a steak. Toddlers and severely mentally disabled people have reduced awareness but we would not say that they no longer have a right to an equal consideration of interests. The question then depends on whether non-human animals suffer.
Do animals feel pain?
When considering whether non-human animals feel pain, it is important not to fall into the trap of solipsism. We should start by asking ourselves how we know that anyone feels pain. When I see a cyclist fall off their bike (a common occurrence in Oxford) what indicates to me that they are feeling pain? I can’t directly experience her pain as I can experience my own. There are various indications that someone is feeling pain, e.g. by their external behaviour, or by recordings of neural activity made by neurologists, but none of those allow us to actually experience the pain ourselves. Generally we accept that we are justified in inferring that the cyclist is feeling pain when she grimaces or yells, so is there any reason we should not assume a non-human animal is also feeling pain when they display external signs of pain?
Practically all non-language pain behaviour seen in humans can also be seen in various animals. These include writhing, yelping, grimacing, and avoidance of the source of pain. These external signs are also accompanied by physiological responses identical to ours, such as changes in blood pressure, pupil diameter and heart rate. Our brains differ most with those of other animals in the degree of development of the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is concerned with higher order cognitive functions. Lower order functions like impulses and emotional states are found in regions of the brain common to humans and many animals.
We know that animals evolved in the same way that we did, with a shared ancestry that did not diverge until many of the features of our nervous system were already in place. We also know that a capacity to feel pain is a great survival tool, since it compels organisms to avoid potential hazards.
So given the similarity of our pain behaviour, our physiological responses, both the morphology and evolution of our brains and the common evolutionary function of pain, it would be very unreasonable to suppose that animals nevertheless do not feel pain. Ignoring this evidence and supposing that animals are like robots in whom everything except conscious perception of pain has evolved is little short of solipsism.
In any case, it seems obvious we should err on the side of caution if there exists a reasonable possibility that animals do feel pain. We wouldn’t send an electric current through a wire if we thought there was good chance that someone’s holding on to it. In fact, unless the counterbalancing reason were a very good one, we would not electrify the wire even if there’s a small chance that someone could get hurt. So next we consider whether there are any good counterbalancing reasons for us to eat meat, in spite of the suffering of animals.
Is eating animals a necessary evil?
This kind of argument for killing non-human animals for meat generally takes two forms. The first contends that meat is important as part of a healthy nutritious diet, and the second is a population perspective, whereby it is suggested that the problem of world hunger is bad enough as it is, and will be greatly exacerbated if we cut animals out as a source of food. The first point to make is that, at present, particularly in industrialised countries, animals are largely eaten for pleasure, and not out of necessity. It is incredibly easy for you and I to receive adequate nutrition without having to eat animals. From a population point of view, eating animals is extremely inefficient. Animals are fed using plants that could have been eaten directly, and when we eat animals, we are receiving at most around 10% of the nutritional content we would have otherwise received had we eaten energy producers. So neither the health argument, nor the argument from food supply give any support for killing animals for food. Note however that people living simpler ways of life, whose lives depend on successfully hunting and eating animals, and who have no practical alternative, are justified in killing animals for food, since it is generally accepted that killing someone else to save your own life is morally permissible (something akin to the principle of self-defence). Further arguments in favour of killing animals out of necessity can be made on the basis that human suffering is more important due to our increased awareness…etc. however it is not important to elaborate on these any further.
Animals eat other animals so why can’t we?
Nature is red in tooth and claw. Animals kill and eat each other in violent ways, so why is it wrong for us to do the same? The first reason to reject this kind of response to vegetarianism is that animals eat each other out of necessity, whereas for us it is a luxury. Secondly, we do not usually look to the behaviour of animals to justify our own behaviour, so why do this with regard to eating meat? It would be quite odd for me to justify my urinating on lamp posts, or attacking a rival male who is currently dating someone with whom I am enamoured by pointing to the fact that this kind of behaviour pervades the animal kingdom. Finally, animals do not have the ability to reflect on the ethics of their actions whereas we do. That an organism without the ability to reason would have done X does not absolve me of blame if I were also to do X.
Some argue that the persistence of this behaviour in nature suggests that it is a natural way for all living things to behave. But why should ‘natural’ mean ‘right’? It is natural for women to give birth every year, or for severely disabled people to die out due to natural selection, but clearly we do not believe that the natural way is necessarily the right way in these examples.
Self-consciousness as the distinguishing moral property
The idea that awareness of oneself is a property that confers an enhanced moral status is appealing for a number of reasons and I will consider its implications on killing animals painlessly below. However in terms of self-consciousness and suffering, we can say that self-consciousness leads to a greater degree of suffering in certain stressful situations to any being that possesses it compared to one that doesn’t. For example if a being without self-awareness is locked in a cage, they will suffer due to the immediate discomfort of not having freedom to roam around or the rough handling and treatment it receives by its captors. However, as a being with self-awareness, I would experience suffering for those reasons plus extra suffering since I know how much I have to lose, I feel anxious about the loss of my future freedom and the prospect of future torment. So self-consciousness seems to make it such that we will suffer more in some situations. At most then, it seems we can say that, faced with the dilemma of putting either a self-conscious or a non-self conscious being in a stressful situation we would choose the latter. However note, self-consciousness doesn’t get us as far as to say that a great deal of suffering experienced by a non-self-conscious being is mitigated by a small benefit to a self-conscious being – viz. the benefit of enjoying meat.
What is required to justify permitting animal suffering on self-consciousness grounds is for self-consciousness itself to be an important moral property directly, and not just indirectly through its effect on suffering and interests. An argument of this type would hold that self-conscious beings are more valuable kinds of beings. But why should we accept this anymore than we should accept race or sex as important characteristics? What about very young or severely intellectually disabled humans who cannot be said to be self-conscious in the same way? Most of us would not contend that they are less valuable kinds of beings on this basis. We would, at most, only consider the impact of their lack of self-awareness on the extent to which they suffer in a given situation (and even this is a pretty controversial position to hold). So in what way can the self-consciousness argument be defended in the face of marginal cases?
One possibility is to appeal to the fact that severely disabled people are human beings and as such we have special relations with them that we do not have with non-human animals (Francis and Norman 1978). Humans are more valuable to humans because we are able to build relations with each other including political, economic, communicative and familial relations. But the proponent of this line of reasoning has a lot of work to do to demonstrate why it should be that our moral obligations to a being should be based on our relations with them. Some people form much better relations with non-human animals than humans. Furthermore, some humans do not have the capacity to enter into decent political, economic, and communicative relations, so this argument, in its simplest form, still falls prey to the argument from marginal cases.
Another way self-consciousness has been defended against marginal cases is to say that severely disabled people and newborn babies should still be treated as if they have these abilities because they are of a kind of being that usually has them.
In fact, even the relations argument can use this defence. Cohen argued, in his 1986 work on the topic, that arguments from marginal cases can be countered because humans are members of a kind whose standard members are morally considerable. Since the vast majority of humans are morally considerable, they form a kind that is morally considerable. Very young humans and brain-damaged humans belong to this kind, and therefore they should count as morally considerable on account of their membership of this kind. James Rachels points out the absurd conclusion that, according to Cohen’s objection, individuals should be treated not based on their own qualities, but on other individuals’ qualities. Alan Carter provides the following analogy to highlight the absurdity: imagine a job that requires a tall person to perform it, for example shelf-stacking. To employ a short man rather than a tall woman because men are normally taller than women would be irrational, and many would deem it immoral. It seems bizarre to ascribe a status to a being on the basis of a property possessed by others typical of its kind which that individual does not actually possess.
Other topics relevant to animal welfare include the Kantian perspective on the suffering of animals and the contractarian objection to animal welfare based on the inability of animals to reciprocate. I have omitted the former, because it is not directly relevant to the present discussion, and rather is a commentary on ways it may nevertheless be bad to harm animals even if it is not strictly morally wrong. With regard to contractarianism, I have excluded it in the interest of brevity, and because I consider the objection a rather weak one, which is based on very controversial metaethical views to begin with. Singer and others do respond to contractarianism and reciprocity for those who are interested.
Killing animals painlessly
The keen-eyed reader will notice that much of what has been said so far has hinged on the suffering of animals, but it is clearly possible to kill animals without causing them any pain at all. Any defence of animal welfare then must not only give an account of suffering, but also of the value of life.
The idea that human life is ‘sacred’ has more or less been constant in our history, to varying degrees. Thousands of years ago, there were rules that forbade members of a tribe from killing innocent members of the same tribe, but members of other tribes were fair game. In the era of nation-states, this was extended to members of the same nation (sometimes with the exception of minorities), and today it is generally accepted that killing an innocent person is wrong regardless of their race, religion, or nationality.
We have already said that mere membership of a species is not an acceptable moral property, so if not or our species, is there another idea of humanness that is morally meaningful? Some philosophers propose a separate category, namely personhood, where a person is any being who possesses features usually associated with humanness that give us moral worth. Features usually cited are those that seem distinct to humans, such as rationality and self-consciousness, and we shall stick to these in this discussion. The reason killing a rational and self-conscious person is particularly bad is that the act thwarts the interests of a being aware of itself as a distinct entity, with a past and a future, and therefore with desires for the future. Since beings of this kind have preferences and interests about themselves into the future, it is not just the preference for immediate prefences being thwarted, but a wide range of significant and far-reaching preferences. If we are to abide by our principle of equal consideration of interests, we must say that killing a self-conscious being is a kind of action that thwarts interests in the most extreme way. By contrast, beings without self-consciousness cannot have preferences about their own future existence. When a fish struggles against being placed in a net, it is not because of any kind of complex preference about its future life, but rather due to a preference to end the current distressing state of affairs. Killing it would end the distressing state of affairs without thwarting any other interests. So when considering the morality of killing, at most we can say that we should not kill a fish by distressing means, but we cannot say that it is wrong to kill a fish at all. Some philosophers, like Tooley, go beyond talk of preferences and talk about rights of persons, a concept more fundamental than mere preferences, but since talk of rights is often fraught with difficulty, and because it will not make much of a difference to this discussion, I will leave it out.
Are some animals persons?
It seems odd to call animals persons, but since our definition of personhood depends on properties not necessarily specific to humans, it is possible that some animals are persons. So are some animals rational and self-conscious? There seems good evidence that at least some are. These include experiments in which chimpanzees were able to identify that they were seeing themselves in the mirror (Allen and Gardner). Similarly, gorillas would make faces or check their teeth in the mirror indicating an awareness of self. Apes taught simple sign language would refer to past and future events, indicating a sense of time. I hope I can be forgiven for such a cursory and superficial treatment of such a large body of scientific literature that exists on this topic, but it seems that there is reasonable evidence to suggest that some apes at least are self-conscious to some degree. In practice, it is quite plausible that other higher order animals like cats, dogs, pigs and other large mammals are also self-conscious, and therefore it would follow that killing them, even painlessly, is wrong.
The most powerful argument regarding killing though is the epistemic argument we saw when looking at suffering in animals. That is to say, even if there is a small chance that the animal is self-conscious, it seems far more morally responsible to refrain from killing it than to take the chance that we are doing something very seriously wrong for the sake of enjoying the taste. There are clearly some animals though that are very unlikely to be self-conscious. Many kinds of fish for example, likely feel pain, and have interests, but are highly unlikely to have a central nervous system complex enough for self-consciousness. The arguments against killing become far more murky here. The usual kinds of arguments tend to involve controversial premises depending on classical utilitarian principles of maximising pleasure, whereby the killing even of a non-self-conscious animal would lead to the loss of a being that more or less acts as a receptacle for pleasure. An examination of these arguments reveals that they are not without their problems, and although quite sophisticated defences of the right to life of these animals exist, I will not go into them.
The implications of the above discussion are, admittedly, not altogether clear. We have seen that eating meat is not at all necessary, since easy alternatives exist, and that it is therefore not justified to cause pain and suffering to any being for the sake of our enjoyment. Attempts to draw a line between humans and non-human animals have often been susceptible to objections from marginal cases, and we have seen that the responses to these have been unconvincing. With regard to the painless killing of animals, we have seen that some good evidence exists that at least some animals are persons, and that it is therefore wrong to kill them even if we are sure to do it without causing any suffering.
The most important argument for vegetarianism though is the epistemic one. We wouldn’t blow up a building for our own enjoyment if there were even quite a small chance that someone is inside, so as long as there is a non-negligible chance that animals suffer, we should not torture them, and as long as there is a non-negligible chance that animals are self-conscious, we should not kill them for food. Though these arguments do not, explicitly, lead to vegetarianism, it seems that in practice, most of us should be vegetarians nevertheless. This is due to a combination of the argument from reasonable doubt, and also because, practically, we cannot know exactly how the animals we are eating, even the non-self-conscious ones, are being killed, and therefore it is best to avoid meat altogether, given the easy alternatives that exist.
I have intentionally left out discussion of animal testing, though it should be clear that, in light of the above, we must also reject much of animal testing. Curiously however, animal testing is, in principle, more morally acceptable, even if not in practice. Given that that there may be good reasons to think that human life is more valuable than animal life, it seems that some research can be justified if it is shown that it would lead to significant benefits to humans, so long as animals do not suffer gratuitously or to an unacceptable degree.
Admittedly there are those who reject outright the fundamental moral principles set out in this post, and they may well have good reasons for this. Various religions for example, hold that the sharp distinction between animals and humans is grounded in divine authority, and I do not expect people compelled by starkly different frameworks to be convinced by this post. I have used what I think are relatively benign, and uncontroversial principles on which to base the discussion, and it is eminently possible to rerun these arguments using different principles. Nor are the principles used here exclusive. For example, I believe in other fundamental moral principles for the value of human life that do not rely on the principle of equal consideration of interests. This does not mean however that I must reject the equal consideration of interests principle, and in fact I find that the conjunction of principles leads me to a more complete view on the morality of certain acts or states of affairs.