Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Article of the Day: The Meat Eaters

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 18, 2012

Rutgers professor Jeff McMahan wrote an intriguing essay for the New York Times about the ethics of how we treat animals.

At the start of the essay, he determines that we have a moral obligation not to eat meat: “Our factory farms, which supply most of the meat and eggs consumed in developed societies, inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey[.]” I would make a small amendment here: although he is technically correct that most of our meat and eggs come from factory farms, he understates the true proportion, which in fact exceeds 99% (according to data collected by the United States Department of Agriculture).

Having established this fact, McMahan moves on to discuss the subject of wild-animal suffering. He explains why it is a problem and why we should do something about it, and addresses a number of objections to his argument. His main thesis is that we should work toward the extinction of all carnivorous species once we gain the capacity to do so without serious environmental disruption.

McMahan also wrote a response to critics. It is well worth a read if you find yourself skeptical of his ideas after reading “The Meat Eaters.” McMahan makes a number of excellent points in this essay, but one thing he says is especially worth quoting:

The commentators’ gesture toward the alleged suffering of plants seemed no more than a rhetorical move in their attack on my argument. But if one became convinced, as some of the commentators appear to be, that plants are conscious, feel pain, and experience suffering, that ought to prompt serious reconsideration of the permissibility of countless practices that we have always assumed to be benign. If you really believed that plants suffer, would you continue to think that it’s perfectly acceptable to mow your grass? . . . Shouldn’t that elicit serious moral reflection rather than being deployed as a mere debating point?

This sort of thing happens all the time in arguments over ethics: someone makes an ostensibly-outlandish claim merely for the purpose of refuting an argument, and does not carry it to its logical conclusion. If plants really do suffer, for example, then we ought to consider the moral implications of that fact.

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8 Responses to “Article of the Day: The Meat Eaters”

  1. phynnboi said

    There seems to be something deeply and fundamentally flawed with the notion that we should practice massive predation because we’re against predation. It’s right up there with killing murderers and cheering the prison rape of sex offenders.

    I didn’t read the whole piece–maybe he mentions this–but what about the suffering herbivores cause to each other, typically as part of their mating rituals? Arguably worse than predation, such rituals can result in serious injury but rarely death–so the animal gets to go on feeling pain for the rest of its life. Should we kill off those species?

    What about animals who tend to accidentally eat other animals (like insects) that happen to be on the plants they’re eating? Kill them?

    Here’s one I haven’t heard much about: What about animal senescence? Once we master control of our own aging, are we also indebted to help wild animals live forever?

    As far as whether or not plants suffer, my guess is that Mr. McMahan’s unnamed commentators bring that issue up not because they believe that plants suffer in the same way that animals suffer, but that plants do suffer in their own way. If you really want to get down to the nuts and bolts of it, pain is a mechanism that helps mobile creatures survive long enough to reproduce. Plants aren’t mobile, so have little need for pain. Plants /do/, however, reproduce. Thus, anything that prevents plants from reproducing, or significantly impairs same, could be considered a form of suffering. The point of bringing this up to someone like McMahan isn’t to say, “I really believe plants suffer,” but to ask, “Why do you give animals preference over plants when both can be argued to suffer?” (Although I can’t remember the name of it now, I do remember reading a while back about super-strict vegans who will only eat parts of plants, but never enough to kill or significantly impair the plant. It was not fruitarianism; it included things besides fruits.)

    (Actually, what I lead off with there brings up another question: What about animals that never get to mate because they’re never the alpha? That would seem to also be a rather large source of suffering. Should we ensure that all animals who are interested get the chance to mate?)

    Just wondering how deep this rabbit hole goes. :)

    • Well anything we can do to prevent suffering is worth considering. You’ve raised some interesting points here; I’ll address them one at a time.

      There seems to be something deeply and fundamentally flawed with the notion that we should practice massive predation because we’re against predation.

      Predation is not inherently wrong. It is only wrong insofar as it causes suffering. We would kill off carnivorous species in order to prevent suffering.

      What about the suffering herbivores cause to each other, typically as part of their mating rituals?

      That is a problem worth considering. Philosophers who want to prevent wild-animal suffering acknowledge the existence of myriad sources of suffering. Predation is one (rather large) such source, and it is easy to see how to stop it (although not easy to do in practice). David Pearce, a modern utilitarian philosopher, advocates for the end of all suffering. He would agree that we should prevent herbivores from causing each other pain, although he would probably also acknowledge that we have no idea how to do that right now.

      As a side note, I don’t think herbivores cause each other as much pain as carnivores cause herbivores. I don’t have a very high confidence on this point, but I think it is more likely true than not. See: http://www.utilitarian-essays.com/suffering-nature.html

      Here’s one I haven’t heard much about: What about animal senescence? Once we master control of our own aging, are we also indebted to help wild animals live forever?

      Living forever is probably not optimal, because we would have diminishing marginal utility. (Empirically, it seems that this must take a long time, because plenty of people in their 80’s seem to enjoy life just as much as they did in their 20’s.) At some point, it’s better for a person (or non-human animal) to die to make room for another person (or animal) who will likely be more happy.

      Other than that, I don’t know if we should try to increase wild animals’ lifespans, and I don’t think most wild-animal-suffering philosophers would know either. Not very many people have seriously thought about the problem of wild-animal suffering, so we don’t have a lot of solutions yet. It also happens to be a really hard problem.

      Regarding plant suffering, I don’t see any evidence that plants can suffer. It’s more likely that plants can suffer than that rocks can suffer, but it still seems very unlikely at this point. They do not exhibit the same neurological or behavioral evidence that conscious creatures do.

      • oneworldnet said

        What is your problem with pain? What trauma in your life resulted in this obsessive hatred of something that is, after all, a self-protecting signal system to warn us of danger to the organism. It is not insurmountable in the long term even, as other species which seek out opiates in the wild clearly understand, and in the short term of dying from a predator’s attack, together with the resulting adrenaline rush and endorphin release, there is probably less actual pain experience than a bad toothache before we get to a dentist. Wolves typically cut off the windpipe and unconsciousness is quick. But you’d kill them all off and leave their prey species to die of arthritis, cancerous tumours, lameness and starvation. Kill off the predatory insects and the world will fill with the prey insects which, unchecked, will increase dramatically. Remove the balancing species and the rest will go haywire. We already know this of course from the killing of wolves in some areas; sickly animals result, and even scavengers way down the food chain benefit when a top predator re-establishes, because there’s enough left for all, right down to the larvae which complete the [re]cycle. But you don’t appear to understand this. The trouble I’ve always found with those who call themselves philosophers, is they rarely seem to do anything in the real world so lack connection with it. Their thinking is in isolation, theory merely not experience, let alone science. This theory, if we can grace it with such, is typically disconnected from everything and appears to be based on an intolerance of pain. Since I live with pain, I do not speak out of ignorance, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Long term is manageable with opiates or substitutes, and we always have the choice of not continuing to experience it, although it’s quite possible to ignore it with practice. The pain of a worm being eaten by a bird, oh no, you have to kill off all the insect eating birds, which is most of the songbirds, brilliant, so now Rachel’s Silent Spring takes on a different meaning. You aren’t anti-suffering, you are anti-nature, but then there’s a history of that in your species of hominid. They’re shooting wolves again in the US, if you hurry you could get in on it.

        • You seem to be saying two different things: (a) pain is not bad; (b) exterminating predators is bad because it will lead to more pain. To me, these points appear contradictory.

          If you have some justification for (a), I think it could be interesting. But your point (b) is insubstantial. I do not believe we should kill off predators and allow animals to overpopulate and then starve to death, nor does McMahan. He addresses this point at length in “Predators: A Response”: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/predators-a-response/

          As an aside, your paragraph was really hard to read. Try breaking it up into smaller paragraphs.

  2. oneworldnet said

    I’ve argued this issue with David Pearce a number of times, it’s utterly illogical to even contemplate interfering in nature and the ecosystem, we’ve done enough damage already with that approach. I object fundamentally with the idea of removing predators, largely because they are the most highly evolved and intelligent animals species, and also because their role in the ecosystem is crucial, something people with no understanding of it ignore when they come out with ideas like this.
    It indicates a profound ignorance of evolution, and little awareness of the sheer complexity of the web of life. The idea that humans could bio-engineer the complete linked interdependent ecosystem so it functions as a cuddly, smiley, happy clappy theme park for the sensitive fills me with a mixture or horror and hilarity; horror because the result would be truly appalling, and hilarity because it’s totally impossible for us to accomplish and if we ever tried, it would signal the demise of life on this planet.
    The attitude of wanting to preclude suffering presumably originates in veganism, which has achieved cult status on this very principle and is composed of people who are so sensitive to the pain of others that it appals them and they want none of it. I would say that the only sane response to that is to commit suicide, since one might cause suffering unconsiously, and one would still be in the world which has so much suffering that it would be too painful. To instead decide to transform the planetary ecosystem instead seems a trifle megalomaniac.
    Obviously, the best way to proceed for anyone thinking this is a good idea would be to study evolution and the ecosystem in detail; they might then understand how ludicrous it is to propose removing all predatory species and sterlise all non-preadators or food species; the two would have to be linked since numbers of prey species will rise and rise, that’s how they have evolved to continue despite predation.
    This includes a species such as the pigeon which used to supply meat to rural people as well as to foxes, raptors and all the many species involved in the gradual breakdown and recycling of organic matter. Since none of this would exist, humans would have to also accomplish this recycling since otherwise there would be mountains of bodies, albeit all dead from old age.
    I consider this ‘theory’ a result of vegans agnosising too long over the suffering in the world, and would suggest they study Buddhism instead. Removing suffering won’t happen, can’t happen and should not happen.

    • No one’s saying it is presently feasible to eliminate predation. It’s obviously not. See Jeff McMahan’s “Predators: A Response” (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/predators-a-response/).

      The attitude of wanting to preclude suffering presumably originates in veganism, which has achieved cult status on this very principle and is composed of people who are so sensitive to the pain of others that it appals them and they want none of it. I would say that the only sane response to that is to commit suicide, since one might cause suffering unconsiously, and one would still be in the world which has so much suffering that it would be too painful.

      That wouldn’t make much sense. I can do a much better job of alleviating suffering if I’m alive than otherwise. By declining to eat animal products, a relatively insignificant choice, I prevent hundreds of years of suffering. I cannot comprehend how I could choose to do otherwise.

      Removing suffering won’t happen, can’t happen and should not happen.

      Removing suffering entirely certainly does not seem technically feasible in the near future (or possibly ever); still, we can do a lot to remove what suffering we can control. If, say, your friend gets trapped under a heavy log, would you try to help her out, or would you say, “It’s impossible to eliminate suffering entirely, so there’s no point in helping you”?

      Why do you think we should not try to reduce suffering?

  3. oneworldnet said

    Of course, it’s more complex than that too; not only do predators keep numbers of grazers at manageable levels [that the food sources can sustain without starvation, more suffering] but they strengthen the prey species by removing sick, old or injured animals, thus both shortening the suffering of gradual death by old age and starvation or injury and infection, and keeping the herd at peak condition. It’s a result of evolution over millions of years, and no mere hominid is going to interfere with that without dire results.
    Our digestive systems depend on billions of micro-organism, many of whom suffer and die in the process of our digestion of food, and in vast numbers if we take penicillin to cure an infection. What are we to do then? Bio-engineer our bodies to exist without the aid of these other species? How then would we digest food? It would have to be pre-digested in a factory and served up as gloop; and that is a future to strive for???
    There are countless other example that could be given for why this is a crazy, and pointless idea. I suspect that along with pain would also go joy, exhileration, triumph, hilarity, satisfaction and desire. What would be left in this sterilised, bland world would be brainwashed hominids with no desire to live, let alone to create and prosper. It would be the end of evolution, and the end of the great experiment of life.

  4. oneworldnet said

    ‘If plants really do suffer, for example, then we ought to consider the moral implications of that fact.’

    Why? What is thi ‘ought’ about? Where did it come from? God? I’m an atheist, convince me. Seems to me some hominids get ideas about their place in evolution and think they are somehow special, above all other species and must make ‘moral’ decisions as a result of being so special, almost demi-gods. All total nonsense; we are primates, and we shall soon be extinct by own own spupdifty. How special is that?

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