Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Immorality of Eating Meat: Reflections on Engel's essay

I have read, as suggested by Animal Ethics, Mylan Engel's essay "The Immorality of Eating Meat".

This is what it made me think.

Often, when one argues for vegetarianism, one hears a reply by somebody who claims s/he has no duty to be vegetarian because ‘plants feel pain too’. Therefore, so the claim goes, since we must eat something and anything we may eat was alive and sentient, we may as well eat whatever we like.

When we demonstrate to the person who made that claim that s/he is actually causing the death of, on average, 10 times as many plants by eating meat as s/he would if vegetarian, due to the waste of nutrients along the food chain, what happens? Does that person realize that, in virtue of the claim that himself/herself has made, s/he should, if consistent, become vegetarian?

What does all this tell you?

It tells you that the alleged reason for continuing meat-eating (in this case sentience of plants) was not a reason at all, but rather an excuse that that person, albeit misguidedly and naively, found convenient for the purpose.

When I read Mylan Engel's essay "The Immorality of Eating Meat", I was reminded of that type of occurrence.

As Engels himself at one point admits, philosophers who reject the ethical argument for vegetarianism are relying on excuses, not reasons.

All of which begs the question: what is the point of trying to convince them by re-formulating the argument in a different way?
His argument, with his stress on avoiding unnecessary suffering, on performing calculations balancing pleasure and pain of all involved, and on animals' sentient nature, seems to me a re-formulation of the utilitarian argument.

His quotation from the philosopher Bonnie Steinbock in her Speciesism And The Idea Of Equality is particularly interesting. In that paper she writes:
‘I doubt that anyone will be able to come up with a concrete and morally relevant difference that would justify, say, using a chimpanzee in an experiment rather than a human being with less capacity for reasoning, moral responsibility, etc. Should we then experiment on the severely retarded? Utilitarian considerations aside (the difficulty of comparing intelligence between species, for example), we feel a special obligation to care for the handicapped members of our own species, who cannot survive in this world without such care. Nonhuman animals manage very well, despite their "lower intelligence" and lesser capacities; most of them do not require special care from us. This does not, of course, justify experimenting on them. However, to subject to experimentation those people who depend on us seems even worse than subjecting members of other species to it. In addition, when we consider the severely retarded, we think, "That could be me." It makes sense to think that one might have been born retarded, but not to think that one might have been born a monkey. And so, although one can imagine oneself in the monkey's place, one feels a closer identification with the severely retarded human being. Here we are getting away from such things as "morally relevant differences" and are talking about something much more difficult to articulate, namely, the role of feelings and sentiment in moral thinking.’

Funny. I thought that the role of philosophy, since the time of Socratic dialogue, was to challenge what we feel to be true and analyze if it stands up to the scrutiny of reason and logic, and not to use our feelings as the basis of our theories.


Anonymous said...

You wrote: "It tells you that the alleged reason for continuing meat-eating (in this case sentience of plants) was not a reason at all, but rather an excuse that that person, albeit misguidedly and naively, found convenient for the purpose."

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt (at the University of Virginia) argues that people make moral judgements not through rational thinking but through the same sort of intuitive process by which they make aesthetic judgments. Rational reasons are generated after-the-fact as a plausible "cover".

Haidt runs experiments by presenting people with a scenario and then asking them whether the behavior in the scenario was moral. Here's an example:


THE BELIEVER: I want to start out talking about the phenomenon you call “moral dumbfounding.” You do an experiment where you present five scenarios to a subject and get their reaction. One of these scenarios describes a brother and sister Julie and Mark vacationing in the south of France. They have some wine, one thing leads to another, and they decide they want to have sex. They use two different kinds of contraception and enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. How do people react to this, and what conclusions do you draw from their reaction?

JONATHAN HAIDT: People almost always start out by saying it’s wrong. Then they start to give reasons. The most common reasons involve genetic abnormalities or that it will somehow damage their relationship. But we say in the story that they use two forms of birth control, and we say in the story that they keep that night as a special secret and that it makes them even closer. So people seem to want to disregard certain facts about the story. When the experimenter points out these facts and says “Oh, well, sure, if they were going to have kids, that would cause problems, but they are using birth control, so would you say that it’s OK?” And people never say “Ooooh, right, I forgot about the birth control. So then it is OK.” Instead, they say, “Oh, yeah. Huh. Well, OK, let me think.”

So what’s really clear, you can see it in the videotapes of the experiment, is: people give a reason. When that reason is stripped from them, they give another reason. When the new reason is stripped from them, they reach for another reason. And it’s only when they reach deep into their pocket for another reason, and come up empty-handed, that they enter the state we call “moral dumbfounding.” Because they fully expect to find reasons. They’re surprised when they don’t find reasons.

Of Human and Non-Human Animals said...

Thank you for your comment.
I find it interesting.

I'm not convinced that the hypothesis of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, although it has some merits, can serve as a total explanation. It seems to me that such a complex question as the origin of moral judgements is unlikely to be resolved by means of a single, simple cause (eg intuition).

I am more inclined to believe that there are several factors at work.
Reason and emotion often work together, subjectively, as mental faculties, and ethics is an area where this happens more frequently than in other areas.

I think that it is only our idea that reason and emotion should be in opposition.

In fact, I would say that it is a measure, if not of mental health, at least of mental well functionality how much reason and emotion can influence and complement each other.

The more dysfunctional a mind is, the more conflict there is in that mind between reason and emotion.

I think that the work of Haidt is of great interest, though, even if, as I said, not conclusive.