Implications, As Promised

In my post from last week I suggested that there would be some implications that flow from the unethical foundations of all ethics.  So, even though they are not completely thought-through, here are the ones which strike me as fairly obvious:

  • All reasoning about ethics/morality is wrong – though not, I should say, in the sense in which orderlies stealing from old ladies in nursing homes is wrong, but in the sense of factual error.  At best, one could say that all ethical reasoning is partial.  This is, of course, because any conception of the Good will necessarily have one or more holes or blind-spots in its analysis which it cannot acknowledge since to do so would be to undermine itself.  As I pointed out before, any conception of the Good requires the suppression of certain beliefs, behaviours, or desires that are inimical to its successful realization.  However, if these beliefs (etc.) are not ‘bad’ apart from their utility/disutility to one or another conception of the Good and, more importantly, comprise the conception of and striving after the Good of the one who has them, then the suppression of same by some other ‘Good’ and its agents constitutes a harm for that person.  The suppressing ‘Good’, however, cannot acknowledge that it is doing actual harm, else it wouldn’t be Good (or even good) – and thus we arrive at notions of ‘restorative punishments’ and ‘merely perceived harms’ which, to my mind, are pretty obvious attempts at bootstrapping coherency and universality. [1]
  • Another consequence is that to a significant degree, might makes right.  For society to be possible among numerous individuals it is necessary that there be some commonality of expectations, understandings, etc.  In order to achieve this, some conception of the Good – it will probably be easiest with one already broadly agreed to, but that is a matter of practicality – will need to be privileged over all others, even if this means doing harm to those who may not share in this conception.  Once a conception of the Good is being enforced, however, it becomes extremely difficult to resist seeing as ‘Good’ for many reasons: practicality, it grounds one’s way of life, simple lack of imagination, fear of social disapproval, etc.  By way of illustration, consider the case of hereditary monarchies.  It is difficult to imagine how any large number of people (thousands, millions) would have originally assented to absolute power being wielded over their lives by a single person and all his descendants thereafter except through coercion, but we do know that it was eventually taken for granted by most that this was simply the natural state-of-affairs and was a Good thing.  Moreover, it isn’t clear that this should strike us as overly troubling either.  Beijing is trying to enforce the use of a single language and a dominant culture throughout China, which is no doubt harmful to cultural and linguistic conservatives throughout that country [2], but which is no different in kind from any number of similar programs enacted throughout Europe which gave us all those countries we know today. [3]  Of course, this is meant to deny neither the reality of moral disagreement nor that the exercise of might (whether social or physical) can and often does do harm [4], but is rather to say that we should acknowledge that enforcement and the regularity it provides does, over time, tend towards legitimacy.
  • We should probably drop any worries about ‘doing the right thing’ or ‘being in the right’ because these are only possible from within the framework of some conception of the Good.  There are several problems with this.  First, as mentioned above (1), it will actually make us blind to certain situations that require moral consideration but which our favoured idea of the Good won’t admit of.  Second, since any conception of the Good necessarily and categorically does harm to some number of people based on the ‘appropriateness’ of their beliefs, behaviours, desires, etc., then actions flowing from any such conception will be prone to causing harm in the ways characteristic to that idea, making it entirely likely that if we do harm when acting on our idea of the Good we shall ignore or rationalize away said harm.  Third, even if we can acknowledge an area of ethical concern, trying to stay too closely within the boundaries delineated by our theory will constrain our scope of action in ways that may not be useful and may even prevent us from ever getting around to being useful because we cannot make our ethical algorithm compute.

Endnotes:

[1] I am assuming here that we are considering universalist-type conceptions of the Good (e.g. Christianity, Buddhism, Socialism/Marxism).  An obvious objection is that such criticism wouldn’t apply to conceptions of the Good that are more local in scope like, for example, Jewish rules regarding diet or ethnic-chauvinist moralities.  It is an interesting question but one which I must set aside for now although, as a pre-reflective sort of comment, I will note that most ‘local’ conceptions of the Good tend to be those held by less-powerful groups.

[2] Who, in an attempt to find allies to apply external political pressure against such policies, have formed a partnership of convenience with Western Progressives who have little patience for such linguistic and cultural conservatives within their own countries.  The irony is both palpable and delicious.

[3] Similar programs were successfully undertaken in places such as France, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain (among others) and unsuccessfully in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia,  greater Spain (Spain, Portugal, the Basques), and the Soviet Union (among others).  Presently, the European project is attempting to forge a supra-nationality among the European nations – time will tell whether that will take (and perhaps, looking at the current European situation, not much time at that).

[4] Nor is it meant to imply that I am untroubled by the implementation of such policies in the Chinese case (or generally, for that matter).

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The Thing About Ethics…

… is that it is foundationally unethical.  Gone off my rocker, have I?  Not entirely, I should think.

Think of it this way.  Ethics/morality/’whatever you want to call it’ comes down to articulating some vision of the Good and then influencing or regulating the behaviours of some set of people – typically members of a social or cultural group – in order to facilitate or make possible the realization of that conception of the Good.  This, it should be noted, requires both encouragement and discouragement.  What this means is that whatever the Good is thought to be, its pursuit will necessitate harming some other people’s legitimate interests (that is, making them act contrary to their conception of the Good).

Some examples:

Say that the Good in Puritanistan is thought to be a near-monkish celibacy.  Now, it is pretty easy to imagine that most people would find this onerous, even if they agreed that such restraint is Good.  There would undoubtedly be, however, some individuals, perhaps those who are constitutionally hornier than average, who would still be required to stick to the conception of the Good – on pain of punishment, whether corporal or social (shaming, etc.) – even though they, by dint of their individual natures, would likely not choose to live the Puritanistanian lifestyle (and for the sake of argument let’s suspend judgements and suggest that there is nothing wrong with sexual longings in themselves).  They might be happier in Swingerovia, where free love is the Good.  Of course, even an as ‘do-as-you-please’ lifestyle as the Swingerovian will, in order to work effectively, necessitate the suppression of certain normal, wired-in human emotions. [1]  Specifically in this case, sexual jealousy: it is hard to freely love someone when his/her other lovers are conspiring to kill you.  Therefore, jealousy and its expression will need be heavily stigmatized in order for such a society to continue functioning as it does.  The very jealous might do better in a society with the expectation of greater sexual restraint (again, let’s suspend judgements and assume that there is nothing wrong with jealousy in itself).

Now, in neither case are the wired-in emotional dispositions of people problematic except insofar as they are disruptive of the conditions necessary for the realization of each society’s conception of the Good.  But to ensure that those conditions obtain some people [2] must act or be made to act (or punished for failing to act) in ways that are contrary to their individual natures, which is counted as a harm by those whose natures are inimical to the ‘Good’. [3]  Furthermore, this is true of all moral/ethical systems, to one extent or another.  Again, stepping back from our own valuations a bit, what is ‘bad’ about accurate or earned, outspoken self-regard – i.e. arrogance – except that it irritates us and our conception of the Good seems to involve never having anyone point out they are better than us (and Jesus was pretty much against it)?  Our morality/code of ethics demands that those who have accomplished great things nevertheless pretend that they did not or that it was somehow accidental or that their role in this accomplishment is of merely secondary importance.  Surely this does some amount of harm to the interests of those who have accomplished some great feat? [4]

We can now put our own ethical caps back on now.  It should now be obvious, though, why I believe that ethics are foundationally unethical.  There are some implications that fall out of this but I will look into them later.

Endnotes:

[1] I should say that I am not a fan of the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), I find the ‘Integrated Model’ described on the same linked page far more plausible.

[2] Actually, all of the people, some of the time.

[3] For a little background on how I think about morality, see here.

[4] This is on my mind because of the London Olympics.

A FURTHER NOTE!!!:

This is a much condensed version of my original post because WordPress is evil and – even though I definitely hit ‘save’ – I apparently saved only the first line of this post, even though I had written much more.  I get a lot of guff from WordPress and, I swear, were it not free I’d be on a different platform.

No Moral Properties: Morally Relevant Properties

I do not think it overly incautious to say that most people view morality as something that exists apart from themselves.  I take no position between the various ways in which this is explained (whether as the Will of God, or of the law of karma, etc.) but I would be willing to go far enough out on a limb to say (without providing any strong evidence in support of the claim, mind you) that the perception of moral valuations as existing ‘out there’ as properties adhering to acts and objects, just as ‘red’ adheres to a fire-engine, is probably innate, the default setting of the human mind.  While it could be the case that this is so (who am I to say?),  it strikes me as unlikely that this should be the case.  After all, despite many years – our entire species-history since we attained sapience, in point of fact – of believing in morality, of arguing morality, and enacting (however poorly) morality, we have failed to achieve any robust species-wide agreement upon the content of morality.  Granted, there are such platitudinous agreements that, for example, we ought not to kill, but when we dig deeper into how different cultures and different individuals within those same cultures understand and operationalize such principles, we find that there exists hardly any common ground at all, even relating to such arguably fundamental positions.  Given our extraordinary successes in expanding human knowledge in other domains (e.g. astronomy, physics, medicine), it seems improbably that we might nevertheless have failed to achieve some degree of success in the moral sphere if, in fact, moral properties are obvious and actually existing features of the external world. [1]

Still, we feel very keenly (at least, most of us do) the strength and pull of morality and moral reasoning and we strive with mixed success to act within the boundaries these define.  Quite obviously, morality is a real phenomenon and we experience it as such.  Equally obviously, if morality is not an aspect of the external world, it will necessarily be a feature of the human mind.  The goodness that we observe in kindness and the evil from which we recoil in cruelty are not properties of the acts themselves, but are valuations that we have made and projected (instantaneously) onto the happenings themselves.  Thought the universe may be amoral, we most certainly are not.

Now, perhaps this doesn’t strike some of those reading this as plausible, which is fine – it is not really my intention here to change anyone’s opinion on this count.  Indeed, a good many will be sure to remain unconvinced because they know (or claim to) that it is perfectly obvious that there is a moral order independent of ourselves.  There will be others, however, perhaps fewer, who resist the view because they are unsure that they want to accept what they believe to be its consequences.  After all, if we lose the objective moral order, don’t we thereby fling to doors wide open to relativisms of all sorts, not to mention losing the basis of justification for our own actions? [2]  Such concerns, however, lively as they may be, have much less substance than they appear to, for two reasons.  First, and most importantly, there is no danger whatsoever that we are at risk of collapsing into barbarism and immorality/amorality on an account of morality as non-independently existing – what we take to constitute acting morally might change, but we do and shall retain our moral compass (whichever way it points) until evolution has stripped it from us.  Second, although there may be no such things as moral properties,  out there and ready-made to guide our actions, it nevertheless remains the case that there are morally relevant properties of objects and states-of-affairs to which we may turn for grounding our moral reasoning.

In order to determine what properties might count as morally relevant, we will necessarily need to first determine what exactly morality concerns itself with.  This, as any who has tried can attest, is a maddeningly difficult thing to do, at least to everyone’s satisfaction, but one or two tentative and broad definitions are available.  A minimally acceptable definition of morality obviously has something to do with guiding/constraining our actions, but this is too vague to serve as a definition since it says nothing about the reasons why we may declare certain acts impermissible in the absence of objective moral properties.  There is one family of accounts – one which I find compelling – that claims that morality exists as a way of constraining the acts of members of groups of particular species of social animals in order to bring about and maintain a modus vivendi necessary for their flourishing.  Some will find this to be too restrictive however, arguing that it misses out on the universality of the moral imperative – we generally, they would claim, extend the sphere of moral concern beyond the (sometimes very) narrow confines of our social groups.  Instead, morality is about acting appropriately toward everything.  There is something to this objection/definition, but I don’t think that it disproves the evolutionary account – I think, rather, that it serves as an interesting expression of the particular moral make-up of the human animal. [3]  I don’t see these two as incompatible as it is surely possible that our in-group moral sense is, like our intellect, far more powerful than strictly required for our survival and reproductive success and, like our intellect, has been applied to problems beyond those it arose to cope with.  But if this account does replace the other which I have given above, then morality will simply be concerned with the prescription of those actions which are of benefit to others and the proscription of those that are detrimental.  For the time being, then, I shall use this benefit/harm criterion as it arguably is a more broadly applicable standard (e.g. how we deal with a biting mosquito has little if anything to do with social cohesion) and is, in any case, widely assented to, even among those who don’t believe it to be the whole of morality. [4]

In order for some property of an object or situation to be morally relevant, therefore, it must be some property whereby an object (whether this object is the one which possesses the property or is some other thing) of moral concern may be brought to harm or benefit.  Unfortunately, this introduces a further complication into the matter – how do we judge whether an object has been harmed or benefitted?  I propose simply that for any action to count as a harm or benefit, it must have been done to an object which possesses some property whereby it can come to harm or benefit and would (had it the ability) judge itself to have been so affected.  This last bit is critical, since this is what allows moral action to be meaningful and coherent.  For example, we are not harming chimpanzees by refusing to educate them in mathematics since chimps’ natures are such that they do not consider themselves to be harmed by such withholding – indeed, they cannot even understand what it is that we are withholding.  If, however, we were to confine them to cages and refuse to feed them, then we are clearly doing them harm (they have a nature such that they require food and experience its absence as harmful).  Moreover, it is this own-judgement of benefit/harm that allows us to make moral arguments and appeals against the powerful and the opinions of our peers – but for this own-judgement there could not have been any case against slavery, patriarchy, etc.

From this it follows that the greater the number of properties by which an object can be affected, the greater moral consideration is due that thing.  A rock, for instance, cannot judge itself to have been harmed by anything, so is owed no moral consideration, except perhaps derivatively by being of interest to something to which we do owe moral consideration (by being someone’s property, say).  Conscious entities that feel pain and pleasure will deserve some minimal moral concern, while self-aware entities will deserve yet more.  Social animals will merit much, much more, since they can be affected not only by what  happens to themselves but also by what happens to members of their social groups.  Humans, finally, will bear the greatest degree of moral consideration since we can be affected in the greatest number of ways (indeed, by having our rights violated or our plans interfered with).

In any case, it should not be difficult, on inspecting an object, to ascertain which of its properties may be morally relevant.  The fundamental morally relevant property must be consciousness, since without consciousness there can be neither perception nor judgement of harm or benefit.  Emotional attachment, plan-making, and others are potential candidates.  But to compile a list would take much more effort than I would be willing to do on a blog!

Endnotes:

[1] Unless, of course, our moral science (please pardon the term) is still in its infancy.  Morality may, on this eventuality, actually be a part of the external world as much as is the sphericity of the Earth.  As was the case with the Earth in days of old, ‘natural’ moral properties may not yet be obvious minus some conceptual equivalent of manned space-flight.

[2] As to why the prospect of relativism should be so troublesome to any but the most rigid of religious fundamentalists, I have to admit that I find myself at a loss.  Surely we can all agree that moral relativism is, quite apart from normative concerns, a descriptive fact of human morality as it manifests in practice?  What further harm can result from acknowledging relativism that doesn’t already obtain from the mere fact of it?

[3] I would be interested to know whether some evolutionary psychologist has addressed the question of why it should be that humans are so readily able to extend our sphere of moral  concern so far beyond our most intimate acquaintances – as far as other living species and even, on some occasions, to inanimate objects!

[4] And because, furthermore, one could make the case that many of our apparently non-harm/beneficence matters of moral concern (social cohesion, say) could be derived from harm/benefit considerations, it would just take a lot of work.  How this can be should become apparent later.

Small Thoughts on Anti-Natalism and Potential Persons

Well, I haven’t been a very good blogger in the recent past.  It would seem that recently, when not at work, I have been in a reading and not a writing phase.  I have been working at a longer essay but I have to admit that my enthusiasm for it is low, so that will be done whenever it is done.  Meanwhile, I imagine that I will be keeping to shorter bits (and I suppose that I could get some book reviews in, since I’ve read a few in recent weeks).

Anyway, I was at our local megabookstore yesterday (though I prefer to spend my money at smaller booksellers, I had some gift cards to spend, so no option).  There, I happened to discover a book titled Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate by one Christine Overall (MIT Press 2012).  I didn’t buy it, though it seems interesting enough to eventually make its way into my tower of books that I have yet to read (besides, I’m on a bit of a fiction kick and Heinlein is calling to me…).  It caught my eye, both because I find the natalist/anti-natalist debate to be a rather interesting one and, further, personally relevant [1].  The author takes the question from a feminist perspective and, somewhat surprisingly for feminists who cover the question of the ethics of procreation, finds in favour of it.  I look forward to reading it.

There was a time when one of my primary ethical interests just was the question of anti-natalism.  Now, it seems that there are two general approaches that have brought most anti-natalists to their position [2].  The first focuses on the ethical impact of child-bearing upon those already living, whether those impacts are related to environment, parents’ hedonistic calculus, etc.  There’s much to be discussed in this vein, but it is the second that I am (and usually have been) more interested in, which concerns itself with the ethical impact of procreation upon the yet-to-be born.

The arguments are various, but usually go something like the following:

  1. Even on the sunniest (credible) review of life’s ups and downs, it’s clearly a mixed bag – though there is much that is good and enjoyable in life, there is also much that is bad and harmful [3].  No one who is born, after all, can escape sickness, ageing, or death (as to whatever compensations come with these, it is telling that we think of them as compensations).
  2. It is uncontroversially granted that causing unnecessary harm is bad and best avoided.
  3. The harms listed in (1) obviously cannot be suffered by someone who hasn’t been born.
  4. Whether or not someone is born is obviously a consequence of his parents’ decisions on the matter (due to modern contraceptives, etc.).
  5. Given (3) and (4), the harms that come from being born are obviously evitable.
  6. Therefore, by (2) and (5), it must be concluded that potential parents should not become actual parents.

Now, there are a couple of ways of countering this argument, should one be so inclined, but I personally think it fails because it seems implicitly to suppose the existence of potential persons.  Harms must be done to someone in order to be harms at all, but how could harms be done to someone who doesn’t exist?  Surely (most) anti-natalists do not believe that there are ethereal little people hovering around women which are then unwillingly trapped in wombs by the procreative act.  If such was the case then, yes, it would be a harm – I highly doubt that it is, though.  More seriously, I cannot see how to make a precondition of one’s own existence into a harm against oneself.  It strikes me as about as plausible an argument as saying that because we must breathe in order to survive, and some of us will at some point have difficulty with that, we therefore would be better off not having to breathe at all.  There’s nothing obviously fallacious about such an argument, but it still strikes me as wrong.

Endnotes:

[1]  My wife and I have just passed our first anniversary and as it would seem we haven’t come to loathe each other any more than we already did (joke!), so starting to think about whether and how we might fit kids into the plan seems pertinent.  And since I’m a philosophy nerd, this also means thinking about children and the having-of-them philosophically.

[2]  When that position in fact does have some justifications grounding it, rather than simply being an expression of personal distaste for children or the raising of them (not that there is anything wrong with such an attitude – surely not everyone is of a sort to have children – and not that there is anything necessarily wrong witha posteriori justifications for one’s preferences).

[3]  And this of the best lives available to anyone.  There surely are, have been, and shall be lives in which that which is bad and best avoided overwhelm that which could potentially have been enjoyed (the famine children of late-night television donation drives come to mind).  A related and interesting question: are there lives that are not worth living?

A Response to a Vegan Critic

In the comments section to my last post on vegetarianism, vlastimilvohanka posted some of his friend’s criticisms of my piece.  Three of the four were without philosophical content and so rather beside the point on a philosophy blog (but if you wish, you can find my response to them here).  The last one, however, was more philosophically substantive and, I believe, worth addressing:

4.  Even if the author did need dairy and eggs to survive, he makes a serious mistake when he reasons that if his diet supports industries that kill intelligent animals, he might as well go ahead and eat meat, thus supporting even more industries that kill animals. This would be like a general saying, “In order to defend ourselves, we must kill enemy combatants. But if we’re going to do that, we are no longer morally pure. We might as well go ahead and kill the women and children too.” The flaw in this reasoning should be obvious.

As I understand it – interpretation is required, unfortunately, since the author fails to make his reasoning explicit – the critique is dependent upon two different but closely linked claims. The first is that my claim “that the only morally consistent vegetarianism is veganism” is, in a word, wrong. There is room, on what I take to be my critic’s view, for the identification of a moral imperative for harm reduction with moral vegetarianism. The second is that from lacto-ovo vegetarianism’s failure to meet ethical purity standards, it does not follow that a vegetarian ought to abandon their vegetarianism for omnivory instead. It is these arguments that I will address here.

1.      Some Preliminary Statements and Definitions

I don’t suppose that it shall be necessary to define omnivory, while veganism is (or can be) defined simply as an avoidance of all animal products tout court. What stands in need of definition are ‘vegetarianism’ and its cognates. For the duration of this essay, by ‘vegetarian’ I shall be referring not to veganism (which is itself a variety of vegetarianism), but only to those diets that exclude flesh foods while accepting other animal products. On this definition, lacto-, ovo-, and lacto-ovo vegetarianism count, while pescetarianism – a diet that includes seafood but excludes all other flesh foods – does not (but, for some bizarre reason, is considered by many to be included under the vegetarian umbrella). Also, the mental distinction between vegetarianism as a dietary description and vegetarianism as a moral doctrine must be assiduously maintained – therefore, I shall be differentiating between the two as, respectively, ‘vegetarianism’ and ‘moral vegetarianism’ (the same goes for veganism and omnivory). This distinction is an important one to make, since a mere diet cannot be subject to claims of consistency or inconsistency, but a moral doctrine that prescribes a certain diet or set of specific dietary restrictions (e.g. abstention from pork products or the use of yeast in baking) most certainly can. Therefore, at risk of belabouring the point, I am confining myself to the discussion only of moral vegetarianism – the avoidance of flesh foods for reasons of personal distaste or the pursuit of expected health benefits resulting from their abandonment will not be under consideration here.  How, then, is moral vegetarianism to be defined?

As I understand it, the key doctrine of moral vegetarianism is that killing an animal is a wrong or, what is the same, impermissible act[1].  There are different routes used by vegetarian theorists to arrive at this point – for some it is axiomatic, for others it may be based upon animal consciousness or religious imperatives, and there are many more possible justifications for the doctrine – but that this is the crucial component of any moral vegetarianism cannot seriously be denied (the moral case for omnivory, for example, rests on the assumption, whether explicit or implicit, that killing an animal is not wrong simpliciter).  From this disavowal of killing, it is a short step to arguing against the permissibility of the consumption of meat, for obvious reasons.  What differentiates moral vegetarianism from moral veganism (which concurs with this line of argument so far) is that the former permits the use and consumption of animal products which are not harvested through killing (lacto-ovo vegetarianism), whereas the latter, for various reasons, does not.  Of course, I recognize that there is little chance that this (or any given) definition will command universal assent, but this particular account has, I believe, two particular virtues.  The first is that it is general enough and, I think, close enough to the doctrinal core of all moral vegetarianisms that it is a good enough proxy for any of them.  Second, is that this is the skeleton of the moral case for vegetarianism that I found compelling and, since the original essay was specifically about my reasons for and against adhering to a vegetarian diet, this is the appropriate definition to use.  Others may wish to argue for alternative core doctrines for moral vegetarianism, but they shall have to do so on their own time.

2.      My Basic Argument for Moral Inconsistency

The original argument I made was as follows.  If we turn our attention to dairy production, some of its realities become readily apparent.  Just as is the case for humans and other mammalian species, the milk given by dairy cows is intended for the nourishment of their offspring.  This means that in order to give milk dairy cows must be made and kept pregnant.  Like most mammalian species, the sex ratio for dairy cows is approximately 1:1 – for every female calf born, there is (statistically speaking) a male calf born.  The implication of this is that, as far as dairy production is concerned, just fewer than half of all calves are of no use (only a very small number of bulls is required to make and keep an army of dairy-cows pregnant).  Given that this is the case, something or other must be done with all these surplus males.  Even if a dairy-farmer wished to keep the males alive and well, the sheer (and growing) number of them would very quickly prove to be prohibitive[2] – ultimately, the solution is culling.  Much the same may be said for egg production.  With this fact in mind, the inconsistency of the moral case for a vegetarian diet is readily apparent.  Moral vegetarianism is premised upon the doctrine that the killing of animals is wrong, but dairy and egg production for the sake of human consumption necessitates the killing (of a very large number) of animals.  It is certainly not clear to me what meaningful difference exists between the killing of a cow so that one may eat steak and the killing of a cow so that one may drink milk or eat cheese – it seems a distinction without a difference.  For this reason, I suggest that a moral vegetarianism worth its salt actually cannot tolerate the adherence to a mere (lacto-ovo) vegetarian diet and must instead promote a vegan diet[3].  But even if this argument is right, there may be some means by which we might still reconcile moral vegetarianism to (dietary) vegetarianism, so the question is whether there is some other justification of vegetarianism that could be called a moral vegetarianism?

3.      The Inconsistency of Moral Vegetarianism as Harm Reduction

My critic’s example of the war-time general deciding to massacre civilians as a clear example of a moral wrong actually suggests a way to potentially save moral vegetarianism.  The implication of the example is, of course, that the general would be acting as morally as possible (given the circumstances) if he made all efforts to minimize the harms caused by his army.  Likewise, moral vegetarianism could be construed as the moral claim that killing animals for food is wrong and therefore, a minimization of harm (measured, in part, as number of animals killed) is imperative.  Unfortunately for moral vegetarians, this too is an inconsistent position, both for theoretical and practical reasons.

I first turn my attention toward the theoretical inconsistency of moral vegetarianism as harm reduction.  The main problem for this construal of moral vegetarianism is that it elides the distinction between what is wrong or impermissible and what is merely unfortunate or undesirable.  Generally, we think that if something is wrong, it simply ought not to be done, not that it ought to be done less frequently or to lesser extremes.  Take the example of torture – one thinks either that torture qua torture is wrong and ought not to be done, or that torture is acceptable under some certain set of circumstances (and provided the methods used are not disproportionate, etc.)[4].  Given this, it is difficult to see how a ‘moral vegetarianism’ that is equivalent to a harm reduction approach actually is a moral vegetarianism.  This is because even with the universal adoption of lacto-ovo vegetarianism by the population, it would still be the case that many animals will be killed to enable egg and dairy consumption.  Moral vegetarianism, however, takes it for granted that killing animals is impermissible.  ‘Moral vegetarian’ harm reduction must ultimately amount to the adoption of a vegan diet.  Otherwise, if instead ‘moral vegetarianism’ takes the position that such killing is merely unfortunate and worth minimizing, it is unclear what differentiates that position from a compassionate omnivory – especially in light of what is said below.

There is a very serious practical problem for the position that moral vegetarianism can be equivalent to harm reduction.  The problem is this – any harm reduction approach that is not vegan will necessarily demand the consumption of meat.  The reasoning is as follows.  All humans have a certain set of nutritional needs that must be satisfied in order to survive and to flourish.  If we are to allow the consumption of eggs and dairy products to meet some or all of those needs, there will necessarily be animals slaughtered.  Now we have a choice – we can either eat the slaughtered animals or not.  Obviously, if we are going to keep to a vegetarian diet we are not going to eat them.  Unfortunately, this will have the end result that more animals will be slaughtered than if we chose to eat the already dead ones.  This is because animal flesh is incontrovertibly a rich source of nutrition for human beings, a much richer source than either of eggs or dairy.  If we consumed the dead animals, we would much more quickly satisfy our nutritional needs than without doing so, but since we have chosen not to, we will have to make up the deficit through other means.  This most probably would mean more eggs and dairy, which means more producing animals, which means more animals slaughtered.

Of course, it will be argued that we could make up the difference elsewhere, through farming beans or somesuch – we could even use the slaughtered animals as fertilizer.  But this proposed solution fails.  One, it raises the question of why, if we are able to meet our nutritional needs without animal products (that is, on a vegan diet) and we are interested in minimizing harm, we would opt to consume eggs and dairy in the first place.  Second, it fails to account for the fact that with every step in the process, nutritional value is lost.  In the transition from slaughtered animal to fertilizer, we lose a lot of nutritional value, and so again for the transitions from fertilizer to plant food to processed plant food, etc.  Every bit of nutritional value lost at every point along the chain will eventually equal the nutritional value of a whole slaughtered animal, at which point that animal has been killed for no reason and harm is no longer at a minimum.  Third, it raises questions about for whose sake we are committed to our vegetarianism.  After all, it makes absolutely no difference to the dead animal what our intentions were when we killed it or what our plans are for its body once it is dead.  It begins to look suspiciously like we are avoiding eating the slaughtered animals not because we are actually committed to minimizing harm, but because we are squeamish about the implications of our failure (for whatever reason) to advocate veganism.

4.      From Inconsistency to Either Veganism or Omnivory

So, to briefly recap, moral vegetarianism is inconsistent in its advocacy of mere vegetarianism, because both egg and dairy production necessitate the killing of many animals, which stands in direct contradiction to the moral impermissibility of killing.  In order to avoid this inconsistency, moral vegetarianism must advocate vegan diets.  If moral vegetarianism is construed as harm reduction, however, it once again either collapses into veganism, or is inconsistent.  If it is inconsistent, it is because it willingly permits the slaughter of animals despite its own position that killing animals is impermissible.  Harm reduction plus the moral impermissibility of killing animals amounts to veganism, while harm reduction that admits the permissibility of killing animals is not meaningfully different from a compassionate omnivory.

What my critic accuses me of, and what I am eminently not guilty of, is having, at this point, decided that because my diet already causes some harm, then, for this reason alone, I “might as well go ahead and eat meat,” just as the general might as well go ahead and massacre the civilians[5].  This is so obviously stupid a thought, and so obviously not what took place (to quote myself: “[a]ll this led me to a reevaluation of what morality demanded of me as regards meat and meat-eating”) that it cannot have escaped his notice.  Indeed, his usage of “might as well” is intended to suggest the occurrence of a logical non sequitur where in fact there was none.  I say this because from the inconsistency of moral vegetarianism alone, omnivory clearly isn’t the only theoretical possibility – veganism is also an option (what isn’t an option, however, is to continue to eat eggs and dairy while imagining oneself some sort of morally superior being).  Having reached this point (and vegetarians who have read this essay will now be well on their way) one is faced with the stark reality of one’s diet.  Either killing to eat is wrong and should not be done at all, or it is not wrong to kill in order to eat.

Furthermore, if it is not wrong to kill in order to eat, it is hard to see any principled limiting factors on how often or how many animals one is permitted to eat (though numerous unprincipled factors will sway one’s judgement on this count).  For instance, if it is acceptable to swat one mosquito to save oneself from contracting a blood-borne disease, it is acceptable to swat any number of them – an endless addition of zeros still sums to zero.  And to return to his analogy of the war-time general, if it is acceptable to kill one enemy soldier in order to win a war, then it is acceptable to kill any number of enemy soldiers to win the war.  From this it does not follow that killing civilians is acceptable – this because killing civilians is an entirely different class of action from killing enemy combatants.  The real-world equivalent of his massacre analogy is if one were to make the leap from “killing animals to eat is morally permissible” to “killing animals for any reason whatsoever (e.g. fun, curiosity) is morally permissible.”  That would be a non sequitur, but it is certainly not what I have argued for.

Here, then, is the real crux of the issue – he and I have irreconcilable differences of opinion over the nutritional feasibility of veganism.  I think it can’t work and that to think the opposite is to be ignoring reality in favour of an ideology.  He obviously thinks me stupid (or evil, or deluded), else his critique wouldn’t have had the tone that it did[6, 7].  But if I am right about veganism being an inadequate diet for human flourishing (and the evidence in favour of veganism is less than overwhelming), then it can no more be wrong for a human being to consume animals for sustenance than it is for the wolf, barring some cosmic principle of morality that puts me and the wolf equally in the wrong.  If I am incorrect, however, then veganism is the only morally consistent position left (and vegans should be pleased about this).  The fact remains, however, that one either believes that killing animals in order to eat is wrong, or it isn’t.  I made my choice.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Some moral vegetarianisms may build in exceptions to this doctrine, just as many moral theorists allow that killing a human in self-defence is permissible.  Tom Reagan, for instance, permits the killing and consumption of animal flesh in life-or-death situations.

[2] This is so for reasons of cost, but also for reasons of pure practicality.  Feeding and housing these animals would prove very difficult to do, requiring ever greater utilization of unmolested natural lands for farming (for feed) and for living-space for these animals.  Not to mention, bulls do not get along well.

[3] Perhaps, in some science fiction future wherein we have altered the genetic code of dairy cows such that the sex ratio is precisely set so as to avoid the need for culls, this will no longer be the case, but so long as dairy production remains what it is, veganism is the only morally consistent vegetarianism.

[4] This is not to say, of course, that if one believes something to be wrong he cannot argue for taking measures intended to effect a general reduction in its occurrence (for instance, making illegal the manufacture, sale, and possession of date rape drugs).  What it does mean, however, is that harm reduction is ultimately inappropriate for something that is wrong, especially when it is as susceptible to control as what we put in our mouths.

[5] I feel that I ought to point out just how absurd the posited moral equivalence between a militarily pointless massacre of civilians and the slaughtering of chickens to make soup really is.  I can’t imagine that anyone who isn’t a vegan would accept that these cases really are analogous.

[6] But then, the criticism wasn’t really directed at me (I only know of it because his friend reposted here) – it was really for the benefit of his fellow vegans.

[7] Update: He responds in the comment below that he did not intend to make this impression.  I think it appropriate to mention this and I have apologized for my cognitively structuring his comments in a negative way.

Why I Was, and No Longer Am, A Vegetarian

I spent six years as a lacto-ovo vegetarian, which is quite a bit of time, by my reckoning – at the time I went back to omnivory, I had been a vegetarian for just over a quarter of my then-current time on this planet.  So while that may seem a laughable amount of time to some, I certainly did better than most of those who explore vegetarianism for a month or two before finally giving in to their cravings for a cheeseburger (or bacon – it seems most people I’ve spoken with caved-in for one of those two).  My motivations for taking the vegetarian path were mixed, as I imagine most people’s are – although I wish I could say that they were entirely selfless and pure, it simply wasn’t the case.

Let’s start with the ‘selfless’ reasons first.  My vegetarianism was in part born of my newfound appreciation for the fact that animals are conscious entities that feel pain, fear, and the rest of these negative emotions, and that killing them in order to eat them really does cause them harm.  I actually had a moment at work one day when, for no discernible reason, without an environmental trigger, I suddenly ‘experienced’ myself as a pig having its throat slit.  Needless to say, this was a bit of a distressing experience and I went cold-turkey on meat after that (for six years I never ate a single piece of meat) – I no longer wanted to participate in that.

But then there were the ‘selfish’ reasons.  First and most important among these was my own fear of death.  In no small way, my vegetarianism was an attempt to strike a bargain with the universe to the effect that if I did not kill things in order to live, then maybe I would not have to die.  Of course this was futile and, if asked, I would certainly have disavowed this aim, but it was a big part of what was going on, only just beneath the surface.  Second, there were the health benefits that I encountered at the beginning (though they would give way to health problems).  I felt lighter and I had more energy, and no longer felt gross after meals.  Third, it gave me a massive sense of moral superiority over those who did eat meat (this is extremely common among vegetarians).  While I don’t believe that I ever got too sanctimonious (at least, I hope I didn’t), for the first four years I was definitely sure that virtually everyone around me had this basic issue totally wrong.

In time, however, I wound up going back to meat – I broke my flesh-fast with Salmon, one of my favourite foods prior to abandoning meat – for several other reasons.

First, my health was deteriorating.  [1]  Each year that went by, I was putting on more and more weight, and it wasn’t the under-the-skin, jiggly type of fat – rather, it was the hard-packing-around-the-organs type of fat, the sort that is associated with shorter life-spans and heart-disease.  And this while I was exercising more than I’ve ever done in my life (I was running approximately 40km/week at the time).  I was tired all the time, and I was really cranky when I hadn’t eaten recently – near the end I needed to eat about every three hours or I could no longer think.  In fact, I think I was in a pre-diabetes stage.  Also, my sex drive was so low it was in the basement (and I won’t say anything more about that).  My brain knew what it wanted though, ideology be damned (thank goodness for that too) – every time I had a meal I was dissatisfied because I wanted chewy, bloody steak.  I once saw a deer running around at work (I worked in a quarry at the time) and actually caught myself thinking “dinner!”

Second, I consciously realized that I was bargaining with death and that it wouldn’t work in any case.  Obviously, there is the fact that one cannot escape death.  But there was also the matter of the end of my ignorance about just what the dairy and egg industries implied (remember, I was lacto-ovo).  Essentially, you are still participating in a system that requires the death of animals if you are going to consume dairy or eggs.  Dairy cows would normally only produce milk for their offspring (obviously), so they had to be kept pregnant in order to produce milk for human consumption.  The sex-ratio of cows, however, is much like any other mammalian species: approximately 50/50.  What this means is that for every daughter a dairy-cow had, she would also (statistically speaking) have a son.  Daughters, of course, would grow up to give their own milk, but the sons could not.  Dairy farms not being animal sanctuaries (farmers have bills to pay, afterall), the males would have only one destination – the plate.  So all the males would be culled one way or another (veal or steak).  Much the same story can be told for egg operations.  When my ignorance about the process was lifted, I realized that in order to survive (I do not believe long-term veganism is appropriate for human flourishing – I think that’s an ideologically driven fantasy), I still required the death of intelligent beings.  If these animals were going to die so that I could have cheesy-omelettes, then I might as well eat meat too.  I was certainly no longer any more ethically pure than meat-eaters and refusing to eat meat because I didn’t like the killing would just have been prissiness on my part.

All this led me to a reevaluation of what morality demanded of me as regards meat and meat-eating.  I no longer believed in the healthfulness of long-term vegetarianism, especially veganism, but I knew that the only morally consistent vegetarianism is veganism.  But it occurred to me that perhaps I had this all wrong – certainly, eating meat is not a ‘nice’ thing to do, but maybe that didn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done at all.  I thought about the wolf: a natural carnivore, it needs flesh-food in order to survive and to flourish.  I thought about how we don’t think the wolf to be doing something morally wrong when it does what it has to do to survive and flourish.  We don’t blame the wolf or insist that it ought to be something other than it is because some transcendent moral principle demands it – we recognize that such criticisms just don’t apply.  If humans are not simply omnivores, but are obligate omnivores, then it is an error to ask us to avoid animal foods entirely.  I don’t believe that a morality that demands gross contortions of our given nature can actually be a morality worth adhering to.

So I have gone back to meat, but I eat meat with a vegetarian’s conscience.

Endnotes:

[1] Now, self-assured vegetarians will at this juncture tell me that I was obviously doing it wrong, else I would have been able to keep going longer.  Maybe: but I don’t think so.  I read all the books, took all the supplements for B, D, and my Omega-3’s, combined my proteins, and so on.  I think that it genuinely wasn’t working for me.  I make no strong commitments on whether it can work for other people, but in honesty I have my doubts – humans are able to talk themselves out of believing their lying eyes about a lot of things, vegetarianism being no exception.

Shaming Believers?

Dawkins' 'Proposal'

A post over at Thoughtful Faith discusses Dawkins not infrequently given bit of advice to shame and mock believers in an attempt to, let’s be frank, coerce them out of their beliefs – such behaviour is repellent to me.  Now, as an atheist, I will disagree with the author about virtually everything, but the responses offered by the atheists in the comments section were disappointing to me – so it seems that it falls to me to play the part of the dissenting atheist.  There were three basic lines of response: 1) theists do it to us and turn-about is fair play; and 2) satire (i.e. mockery) does a very good job of revealing the failings of institutions and beliefs, so is a legitimate tool in the struggle against religious belief; and 3) religious belief is so harmful that these sorts of tactics are entirely acceptable.  I think that all these arguments are wrong in their own way and do not, individually or collectively, justify the mistreatment of theists.  Moreover, Dawkins and those who support such measures are, in any case, simply wrong about the effectiveness of shaming as a strategy to change people’s minds.

As for the first vein of response, that turn-about is fair play, I have the following to say.  There are atheists out there who really and truly were badly treated by religious doctrines, individuals, or institutions.  These people may feel anger towards the source of their pain, anger that may be completely justified, but this does not justify one’s own becoming an aggressor or victimizer even if one’s new belief set is more correct or overall leading to a better life.  Remember that it is not Believer-x who harmed you, it was some particular believer(s) who did (and who are the rightful targets of one’s anger).  Furthermore, it should be remembered that attacks on believers will be attacks on people who are, per hypothesis, in the grip of delusion and at risk for precisely the same maltreatment as once was one’s own fate – it would be ridiculous to abuse a slave for refusing to rebel, would it not?

Turning to the question of satire and its effectiveness, there is not much to say.  I am in complete agreement that satire is a useful and effective tool for the pointing out of bad institutions and beliefs.  But what Dawkins is suggesting isn’t (only) that we satirize the Catholic Church (an institution that richly deserves it) or its officials (horny nuns and gay priests, etc.), but that we also just mock individual believers, wherever we find them.  I shouldn’t have to point this out, but there is a difference here – the one is an attack on an ideology, the other an attack on people.  We want to change the ideas, not hurt people.

Finally, there is the suggestion that because religious beliefs motivate such dangerous behaviour as suicide-bombings and wars, aggressive tactics are entirely legitimate.  I should only point out the inconsistency in that suggestion.  If believers are dangerous because of their belief set, and you attack them and those beliefs, you have just signalled not merely that you disagree, but that you are an enemy.  From this two things follow.  First, you will be provoking the sort of dangerous behaviour you claim to want less of in the world.  Second, you will have made yourself a target.

All this brings me, at last, to question the very notion that mockery is an effective strategy for changing people’s minds.  I think Dawkins is letting his obvious disdain for those who think differently than himself cloud his judgement (as he frequently does).  Mockery and shaming do represent extremely powerful tools for maintaining cohesion in human social groups, but this is because those at whom the treatment is directed already belong to the group.  Social ostracism is an in-group mechanism and it has precisely the wrong effect on members of out-groups.  With members of out-groups, such tactics will only drive them deeper into the fold and strengthen the division between the two groups.  Mockery and shaming, then, are the wrong ways to go about changing minds – but they feel really good to use, since they feed two human, all too human psychological needs for group-identification and feelings of superiority.

I close with verses 3 – 5 from “The Pairs”, found in the Dhammapada:

“He abused me, mistreated me, defeated me, robbed me.” Harboring such thoughts keeps hatred alive.

“He abused me, mistreated me, defeated me, robbed me.” Releasing such thoughts banished hatred for all time.

Animosity does not eradicate animosity.  Only by loving kindness is animosity dissolved.  This law is ancient and eternal.