Wednesday, February 23, 2005


I'm not really an animal rights activist. The only reason necessary to forswear meat from one's diet, in my opinion, is the argument from health. When researching the health ramifications of meat, though, on inevitably comes upon the multitude of other reasons why one might become a vegetarian, ranging from ecological and environmental reasons to the far more esoteric animal rights arguments.

First of all, suffering, by its very definition, is undesirable and bad. In any instances where suffering is not bad (for instances, masochistic sexual tendencies), then it is not suffering, by definition.

There are a variety of premises held at large about suffering. For instance, it would be safe to say that most people would agree that if one is able to prevent suffering with no or very little cost to their own wellbeing then they should make the effort to stop that suffering. Additionally, if there is a choice between causing suffering or non-suffering that could be inflicted on another being, most people would agree, I'm sure, that the choice involving the non-suffering would be the better choice, all other things being equal. In fact, suffering, being inherently bad, should be avoided at all costs (not, of course, if the avoidance of suffering were to cause undue suffering on ourselves, but assuming instead that the avoidance of suffering caused us little to no effort or personal suffering).

If you believe any of the premises listed above, then you must accept vegetarianism as the best possible choice of diet. Eating an animal obviously causes it harm, yet humans have no biological need to eat meat. By abstaining from meat consumption we inflict little to no pain on ourselves (in fact we are doing better for ourselves given the health problems associated with meat consumption), and we save the animal in question a world of hurt.

You don't even have to be a utilitarian to come to this conclusion. Deontologicalists who accept non-violence as a tenant of their beliefs must accept vegetarianism, as to do otherwise would be to perpetrate violence. Consequentialists must accept vegetarianism, as between the two consequences of eating meat (a dead animal and an unhealthy, satiated human) there is little good to be had.

In all circumstances, though, the argument can simply be circumnavigated by saying that either animals don't suffer, or that their suffering is irrelevant. To say either would be to commit the speciesism that Peter Singer wrote so passionately about. In short, there is little to separate animals from humans outside of our genetic structure, and genetics alone does not invalidate the suffering and animal feels. While I do not generally agree with Singer on most topics, I believe that here, at least, he is on to something.

In short, most ethical theories I know necessarily prohibit meat eating. Egoism precludes meat eating on the grounds that meat eating is detrimental to your health where there are perfectly acceptable alternatives. Christianity prohibits meat eating, as the scriptures don't read "and thou shalt torture and kill God's creation," but rather "and you will have dominion over the animals of the land and sea," and dominion never implied the power of killing. Utilitarians must reject meat for the Singer argument, while Kantians and deontologicalists must reject meat because they have to kill to get it. Perhaps an ethical relativist would advocate meat eating, but then, who listens to the ethical relativists, anyway?

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the perfect vegetarian. I eat fish occasionally, and while I generally abstain from dairy products I find that some slip into my diet every once in a while anyway, probably because I'm not myself totally convinced of these moral arguments. The reason I'm not convinced of these moral arguments, though, stems from the fact that meat eating is so widespread. Why is animal consumption such a cultural staple? Why do people eat meat?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you believe that "suffering, being inherently bad, should be avoided at all costs," do you arrive at Singer's conclusion that you ought to donate half your income to development assistance to alleviate foreign poverty?

(And if you were to object on the basis that foreign aid doesn't work, then would you still have an obligation to redistribute your income to the poor in countries with good institutions, like the US?)

1:17 AM  
Blogger RCowan said...

No, I do not agree with Singer's premise. I am not a Utilitarian, and definitely not a Singer brand of Utilitarian. I brought up to separate premises here, and only one that I agree with (which is why I pointed out that I generally disagree with Singer in matters unrelated to speciesism). If you'll remember, the premise that you mention is his, the premise that I also raise is the notion that "if one can avoid suffering for others at reletivly little to no cost to oneself, then it would be better to avoid that suffering."

The rationale for this premise is, in my mind, strictly egoist. In a situation where one can spend next to nothing in order to save someone from suffering the egoist has made a significant investment. By saving someone from suffering we potentially assure our salvation from suffering by them sometime in the future.

With animals this doesn't quite stand, as animals do not have the same sense of justice that we do (at least they do not have a perceptible sense of justice). Perhaps that makes it invalid, although there are significant ecological gains in keeping a healthy balance of animals on the earth.

Mostly, my personal support of vegetarianism ends with health reasons. I simply raise some other supports as I suspect that a large segment of people hold one if not both of those premises to be true, and if one does, then one must support vegetarianism.

11:18 AM  
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5:51 PM  

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