Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Animals are tasty, but hurting them is wrong(-ish)

Note: If you're familiar with the common arguments for and against vegetarianism, this may be a boring post.

I found myself in an interesting argument last night, in which my position was approximately the following:

Assertion: Animals in some measure are capable of feeling pain.
Assertion: Causing unnecessary pain to animals is undesirable.
Conclusion 1: I might be a better person if I was a vegetarian.

Of course, there are various arguments for and against vegetarianism, and one can't expect a group of people (or at least, a group of people chosen on a non-animal-related basis) to agree with this conclusion unanimously. So I chose a second point to try to prove:

Conclusion 2: All other things being equal, a world in which animals are not hurt is preferable to one in which they are hurt.

Somewhat to my surprise, this point also did not go uncontested. Some of the counterarguments were as follows:

Objection 1: Animals aren't people, so it doesn't matter.

My response to this objection is generally to assume that the person making it actually believes what I believe, namely, that the pain of non-human animals matters much less than the pain (or even the comfort) of humans. This is a valid argument against conclusion 1, but it doesn't refute or even address conclusion 2. If people could be just as comfortable, well-nourished, etc. without eating animals (which is arguably true in the present, and certainly could become true in the future; it's not technologically impossible), then as long as the pain of animals matters even a little tiny bit, a world in which they're not hurt is preferable to one in which they are. On the other hand, there are people (I think) who do not believe my modified form of the statement, but instead believe the statement itself: that the pain of animals literally does not matter at all in a moral sense. There are arguments to be made here too, probably, but I'm more inclined to say that if you believe this, I cannot argue with you. Anyone who accepts as a basic premise that the pain of animals literally does not have any moral significance whatsoever, has premises sufficiently different from mine that our viewpoints are irreconcilable (on this matter, at least). Thankfully, we didn't spend too much time on this point.

Objection 2: This might justify eating free-range, but doesn't justify vegetarianism.

To this, the best I can manage is "well, yes, maybe." This is one of the reasons why I included in conclusion 1 the qualification that I "might" be a better person. I don't know how painful or pleasant the lives of animals are in various situations. I am fairly certain that they are fairly miserable in factory farms and the like. There is also the argument to be made that most farm animals would not exist if they were not being raised for food, to which I can only respond that some of their existences are not preferable to non-existence, and some perhaps are. The assertion that there are existences that are not preferable to non-existence, lives not worth living as it were, is a contentious one. These are all interesting discussions to have, but in a sense all of them miss the mark: while they address conclusion 1, they have no impact on conclusion 2 whatsoever. Raising animals and treating them well (and then maybe even killing them for food) is still preferable to raising animals and torturing them and then killing them for food.

Objection 3: In this hypothetical world, can I still eat animals?
Response: You can eat something that to you is completely indistinguishable from animals.
Objection 3: Then no.

This is a logically void argument, of course, since the objector would have no way of distinguishing between the situation he accepts and the situation to which he objects. If he can't tell whether he's eating animals or the hypothetical food that is completely indistinguishable from animals, which he can't by definition of "indistinguishable", then he can't very well object to the indistinguishable food. However, the existence of this objection does raise an interesting question: can it be ethical for a government to lie to its people? Suppose that the world I conjecture in conclusion 2 has been made technologically possible. A substance (call it food i) has been developed which is as nutritious as meat, tastes the same as meat, costs less to produce than meat, and can be produced without harming animals. (Anyone who responds to this with the argument that this isn't possible may, again, have a viewpoint irreconcilable with mine. This seems easily within the reach of technology to me, and probably feasible within the next 100 years.) The government accepts conclusion 2 as truth, and would like to mandate the replacement of meat products with food i, since this would be a clear moral improvement. However, there are people under this government who make objection 3 despite its logical invalidity, and since their objection is logically invalid, they cannot be convinced otherwise. Would it be right for the government to execute the replacement secretly, since it would be a moral good and the objectors would be literally incapable of telling the difference? Things to ponder.

Anyway, my conclusion here is that none of these arguments really have anything to say against conclusion 2, and in fact I will go so far as to assert that conclusion 2 follows necessarily from my assumptions. This is a risky assertion for a logician to make. So I'm curious: if you're reading this, can you think of any logical objections to conclusion 2? Of course, if you have any other thoughts on the matter, I'd love to hear them too. It's been a while since I've had a proper debate. Looking forward to hearing from you, dear hypothetical readers!


  1. If we're being precise, Conclusion 2 does suggest something stronger than the assertions. Assertion 2 says that it is undesirable to "Cause" unnecessary animal pain, whereas the conclusion says that animal pain in general is undesirable. That conclusion could be taken to refer not just to the pain of animals we raise, but also to the pain of animals in the wild, and one might say that animals struggling against each other for survival in the wild is just what it means to have a healthy ecosystem.

    I think that rather than suggesting that some lives are not worth living, it'd also be more effective to suggest that there isn't an inherent value in there being more or less of a species of animal in the world, but for those creatures that are, in fact, in the world, we may have a duty to minimize their suffering.

    It's also worth pointing out that an objection can be raised to Assertion 1, that "in some manner" is being used to make it difficult to object to, but it reads as implicitly meaning "in some manner significantly similar to human pain." The fact of the matter is, animals exhibit behaviors that we read as pain, but we know that other species, even intelligent ones, think very differently from how we do, and it may be an open question as to what kind of experience of pain different animals are capable of having. Maybe other mammals have an experience of pain that's sufficiently similar to ours to carry moral weight analogized from a claim about human pain, but then fish and birds might not. The fact that a fish tries to avoid certain stimuli doesn't show that it has pain - viruses on my computer might also try to avoid being deleted, but I've never heard someone argue that computer viruses feel pain.

    My final thought is that the "free-range" argument can be taken further. Not only might it be just as good to be free-range as vegetarian, it might be better. That's because factory farms are the result of economic influence, not any kind of sinister intent, and that buying free-range meat not only absolves you of the guilt of supporting such a practice, but also actively supports a better practice. This falls into a larger category of replies to Conclusion 1 that it's not clear what effect YOUR choosing to be vegetarian actually has on animal pain.

  2. To the first, yeah, I meant to use "hurt" and "cause pain" synonymously, but that's not the only possible interpretation. To the second, I'm not sure I want to assert that there's no inherent value in having more of a species. I'm not at all convinced that a world with 10 super-happy people is better than a world with a billion fairly happy people. To the third, yes, though this argument wasn't presented when the subject arose; people arguing against vegetarianism are usually fighting for their right to eat cows and/or pigs, which are pretty high up on the "probably feels pain" scale. To the fourth, absolutely, though for me to accept that premise I'd have to believe that animals on free-range farms live in decent conditions (I don't know whether this is true or not).