Vegetarianism, Causation and Ethical Theory

BY: RUSS SHAFER-LANDAU


Oct 5, USA (SUN) — Originally published in Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol. 8.

Is it wrong to raise and kill animals so that human beings can eat meat and fish? Does it stop being wrong if the processes involved are carried out humanely? Eating animals poses two moral problems: Is it wrong in principle to raise and kill animals so that human beings can eat meat and fish? Does it stop being wrong if the processes involved are carried out humanely?

Eating animals is also criticised on health and ecological grounds, but this article only deals with wrongs to the animals involved. If you accept that animals have rights, raising and killing animals for food is morally wrong. An animal raised for food is being used by others rather than being respected for itself. In philosopher's terms it is being treated as a means to human ends and not as an end in itself. This is a clear violation of the animal's rights.

No matter how humanely an animal is treated in the process, raising and killing it for food remains morally wrong. But: This is using 'rights' in a rather technical philosophical sense. When people talk about animal rights colloquially, they are usually talking about animal interests.

Violated Interests

Even the most humane forms of rearing and killing animals for food always violates the animal's most basic interest - to continue living. Modern agriculture often violates other key animal interests as well - for example:

  • to live in natural (or at least, decent) conditions
  • to make free choices
  • to be free from fear and pain
  • to live healthy lives without needing medical intervention
  • to eat a natural diet
  • to enjoy the normal social/family/community life of its species

Human Interests Versus Animal Interests

Many human beings don't believe animals have rights, but do think that animals have important interests that should not be violated. But some of these people enjoy eating meat and fish, and so face a conflict between animal and human interests: the trivial human interest in eating meat versus the basic animal interest in staying alive. The human interest is classed as trivial because human beings don't need to eat meat in order to live. The animal interest in staying alive is classed as basic, because if the animal is killed then all its other interests are frustrated as well.

  • Ethical question: Should the trivial human interest in eating meat be satisfied at the expense of the animal interest in staying alive?

The Rights Argument Against Eating Animals

The rights argument is based only on not violating rights. It disregards the consequences of eating animals. The argument goes like this:

  • Higher non-human animals have rights
  • The most basic right is the right to be treated as an end in oneself, not as a means to someone else's ends
  • Raising and killing animals for food uses them as a means to human gratification, it does not treat them respectfully as ends in themselves
  • Eating animals is therefore wrong
  • There is no important human need to be considered in this case
  • Philosophers who respect rights and accept that animals have rights should be vegetarians

Problem: Surely one person not eating animals will have no effect on whether animals are raised and killed for food - so there's no point in being a vegetarian... Wrong! The pointlessness of a single person removing meat from their diet is irrelevant to the rights argument for being a vegetarian - if something is wrong, a moral person should not do it.

The Consequentialist (Utilitarian) Argument

This sort of argument is based entirely on the results of an action (or the total result of a lot of similar actions). It is only concerned with the consequences of eating animals. The argument goes like this:

  • We should act so as to increase the amount of goodness in the world
  • Raising and killing animals for food is cruel and so reduces the total amount of goodness in the world
  • If everyone was a vegetarian, there would be no demand for meat
  • If there were no demand for meat no one would raise and kill animals for food
  • Therefore if everyone was a vegetarian, the total amount of goodness in the world would be higher
  • Therefore everyone should be a vegetarian

You may want to ask yourself whether it matters that individual consumers don't themselves commit the wrongful acts of raising and killing the animals.

Problems With the Consequentialist Argument

If it is true that the world would be a better place if everyone was a vegetarian, does it follow that any particular individual should be a vegetarian? Some philosophers say it doesn't. They say:

    The meat business is so huge that the loss of an individual consumer will make no difference to it, and so will make no difference to the amount of goodness in the world.

Other philosophers disagree, and say:

    Someone who eats meat is approving of and collaborating in the wrongful acts of the agriculture business, and it is morally wrong to approve of and collaborate in wrongful acts, even indirectly.

The first philosopher might reply:

    Because the meat business is so huge, the indirect participation or non-participation of an individual in any wrongful acts that the industry may carry will not influence the continuing of those acts.

    Since an individual's acts do not cause or encourage the wrong-doing to take place, they are not themselves morally wrong.

The Virtue Argument

Virtue ethics regard the motivation and character of a person as crucial to whether an act is good or bad. A morally good act is one that a virtuous person would carry out, and a morally bad act is one that they wouldn't. Virtuous people live lives that demonstrate virtue. They are generous, kind and compassionate. People who participate in a system that treats animals cruelly, and that kills animals to provide trivial pleasures to human beings, are behaving selfishly, and not as a virtuous person would. Since their behaviour is not virtuous, their behaviour is morally wrong, whether or not it has any effect on whether people continue to raise and kill animals for food.

One must refuse (even symbolic) support of essentially cruel practices, if a comparably costly alternative that is not tied to essentially cruel practices is readily available.



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