Feeling uncomfortable about my arguments against vegetarianism

A long while ago, one Christmas, I had a lengthy discussion with my younger brother, Sherlock Dov. It was prompted by his refusal to help washing up the dishes after a meal, because he’d become a vegetarian and didn’t want to touch anything that had been near meat. I’d got angry, because it seemed to be a fear of homeopathic contamination but in fact it was rooted in him not wanting to be complicit in the death of animals.

I couldn’t let it pass – that’s what family arguments are for – so I wrote up angrily that night a pseudo-Spinozan and Utilitarian point-by-point argument about how I could be a moral carnivore. It’s here, but I’ve edited substantially following criticisms in the comments. It’s taken me literally years to get around to finishing this.

  1. Premiss: The most important thing in any life is to be free from pain.
  2. Premiss: The next most important thing in any life is to have your desires satisfied.
  3. Premiss: There is no life after death, for animals (including men), plants, rocks or anything else
  4. Premiss: All things die.
  5. Premiss: Animals’ desires are simple and satisfiable.
  6. Premiss: If your death is forseeable, then that will cause anxiety – crudely, another form of pain.
  7. Premiss: All things considered, animals desires in the wild are satisfied less and they suffer more pain than animals’ lives in humane – that is free range – farming and well-regulated abattoirs. 
  8. If we must die, a death which is free from pain and is unforeseen is the best death. And we must die. (From 1, 4 & 6.)
  9. A life which involves the satisfaction of desires and ends as in 8 is called good. (From 1 & 2 & 3 & 5.)
  10. The length of the life should not matter to the individual, as long as it fulfils all conditions of 9 (3 & 4.) A leap, this one. 
  11. If an animal is raised and dies in a humane condition, it is the best life. (From 9 & 10.)
  12. For an animal, a life on a free-range farm ended sharply in a professional abattoir is the best life. (from 7 & 11)

I’m still pretty happy with the logic of these propositions. To me, they make a crude sense. If it fitted with the above propositions, was legal and well-cooked, I’d eat human flesh. (With humans, of course, there’s an element of choice – as fellow ‘rational’ organisms, they get a say in their lives and deaths.) I don’t think we’re qualitatively different from other animals, after all. My brother, I know, doesn’t believe me because he thinks I won’t ever have to defend this – by contrast, I think there’s a reasonable chance of human DNA-derived meat or faux meat being on the shelves at some point in my lifetime, and I’m happy to try it.

Point 7 worries me. I’m not sure abattoirs are sufficiently humane – the ones I’ve seen seem horribly primitive. But they are mostly fast enough, I think and hope, to not infringe 6. Worries about point 7 are enough to make me consider vegetarianism, now, years after the original discussion.

That said, I’m aware that point 10 is my biggest leap – and that from that point, the argument as a whole could be construed as justifying genocide. That’s worrying, but it has started me wondering whether our concern with racial preservation is itself suspect. If we killed every chicken on the planet, humanely, what’s the problem? I don’t think chickens particularly care about the preservation of genetic data, and if we don’t worry about killing one, why do we worry about killing all of them.

Please, now – tear this logic apart.

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  1. Graham Smith

    “Premiss: Animals’ desires are simple and satisfiable.”

    As are the desires of children. Let’s loosely hang a dagger above their crib while they sleep, that they might have the best death possible before the ennui and anxieties and adulthood possess them.

    There are arguments that a pig’s mental complexity is roughly equivalent to that of, I think, a six-month-old baby. But I never find these arguments do much for people; we’re understandably conditioned to value human lives more, and it all feels a bit like trying to trick people into caring about animals. Still, it’s a problem with your logic.

    (What happens when we invent a pill that raises everyone’s hedonic setpoint to some higher-than-normal level, eliminating suffering and gifting happiness for smaller degrees of effort? Government-sanctioned hit squads, culling the population with surprise killings – as per the best death – in order to solve the nation’s woes? I would watch your Black Mirror episode.)

    “The length of the life should not matter to the individual, as long as it fulfils all conditions of 9 (3 & 4.)”

    You call it a leap, but I think the whole thing falls down here. If your needs are met for five minutes, but could be met for ten, do you not desire them to be met for ten? Animals have self-preservation instincts as much as humans do, so can’t we assume that continuing to live is one of their desires? This is not being satisfied if we’re killing and eating them.

    But I think the real problem is that you’re talking about this in the abstract at all.

    “Premiss: All things considered, animals desires in the wild are satisfied less and they suffer more pain than animals’ lives in humane – that is free range – farming and well-regulated abattoirs.”

    You worry about this yourself, and the worry is correct: “I’m not sure abattoirs are sufficiently humane.”

    What if you move the conversation away from “can it ever be morally acceptable to kill animals in order to eat them?” and towards “is it morally acceptable to eat the animals that are being killed right now, given the current situation?”

    You don’t have to look very far to find stories of abattoirs not following government regulation. You don’t have to look very far to see the ways in which government regulation still leaves room for a lot of cruelty. You don’t have to look very far to see that the supposedly humane methods we have right now, which involve imperfect means of “stunning” animals, do not always work.

    You don’t have to look very far to see all the meat-industry-adjacent practices that are no less troublesome than the final act of killing. Eg. pigs tend to be kept in very close quarters in farms, which makes them anxious, and so rather than adapt the factory, we’ve adapted the pigs to no longer have that flight response. This in turn causes other health problems (eg. now they stand around listlessly without moving much) and so we tweak further and further. We, in a way, turn the pig itself into the factory. Is this humane?

    Or, for fun, let’s stretch beyond vegetarianism towards issues of veganism. If your issue is the suffering of animals, and humane killing after a happy life seems fine, then why is it OK to keep cows in a constant state of swollen, artificial pregnancy so we can hook them up to uncomfortable and/or painful machinery in order to extract their milk? Bees make honey for themselves; we spray them with chemicals so they produce more then take all of it from them, leaving them with an artificial substitute that’s not as good.

    In the current situation, there’s no way to morally eat meat. Maybe in a perfect world, but I doubt it. Could you, perhaps, campaign for change to the meat industry, in order to offset the scales and morally justify continuing to eat meat? I don’t think so, but if free range farming and well-regulated abattoirs are important to you, it’s a start.


  2. Laurence Ashmore

    Hm, now it reminds me of the cow in the restaurant at the end of the universe..

    10 is difficult but you acknowledged that yourself. If I remember correctly the previous version talked about animals in captivity having longer lives as well as better ones. Was there a reason that was removed?

    For me the logic falls down at 5 and 7. I’m not comfortable with the presumption that animals’ desires are simple enough to fully understand and optimise for. My problem isn’t the abattoir (that’s a real world issue, sure), but the claim that an animal can be more satisfied with human intervention, and it seems the logic relies on you giving an animal a better life before terminating it.

    I had an evolutionary argument but I’m not sure it’s applicable. Centuries of selective breeding, the last decades of which geared strongly towards industrialisation, have resulted in animals that can’t take care of themselves. Talking about satisfying their desires is tricky when we’ve adapted them to our needs. They shouldn’t have been bred to begin with. This is dodged by talking about free-range farms, but I’m not convinced it can be ignored.

    Ultimately though, it would be extremely difficult to implement these criteria in the real world. You only consume meat that you confirm has come from farms/abattoirs with absolute high standards. This meat is extremely scarce.

    Do you want to solve this problem for yourself or for everyone? Are you happy with other people eating meat that does not fit your moral standard? For some reason I think that’s important (I need to think on it more though).

    Maybe you _could_ be a moral carnivore, but the exercise is pointless unless you follow it.


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