Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Arguments for Vegetarianism

Peter Singer, Tom Regan, James Rachels, Stephen R. L. Clark, Henry Spira, 1979

Here I consider two contrasting philosophical arguments for vegetarianism. Peter Singer's rests on his flavour of utilitarianism; Tom Regan's on the notion of inherent rights. Both utilise the notion of speciesism.

Peter Singer’s argument is a little involved, but goes something like this:

Premise 1
We should do what minimises suffering for all affected
Premise 2
We consider equally the interests of humans in avoiding suffering
Premise 3
There is no morally relevant trait that humans have that some non human animals don’t
Conclusion 1
We should consider equally the interests of some non human animals in avoiding suffering
Premise 4
Intensive farming causes great animal suffering
Premise 5
For most of us the pleasure from eating meat does not outweigh the suffering of the animals intensively farmed
Premise 6
Most of us cannot know the provenance of what we eat
Conclusion 2
Most of us should not eat meat

P2 and P3 derive from the wrongness of speciesism, per Singer. He argues that speciesism is wrong  by comparing it to racism. Racists draw an unjustifiable moral distinction between races. Just as the colour of someone’s skin is irrelevant when deciding who or what has equal moral standing, so too is the furriness of their skin, say. It’s speciesist, then, to treat beings unequally based simply on their species - the species boundary is not morally relevant. Singer starts from the respect we show other humans; he establishes a line has been drawn between those beings we consider to have moral standing and those we don't, and then questions whether we draw it in the right place. P1 assumes that minimising suffering is good. So, we don’t baulk at kicking a rock, but we would baulk at kicking a child, because the child suffers. Suffering is a morally relevant trait, then, he thinks; so sentience is paramount, not species. Many might refer to human rationality, for example, as a morally distinguishing feature, but that introduces its own problems.  J.B.S. Haldane summed these problems up thus:
Has a hopeless idiot the right to life and care, though he or she is not a rational being nor likely to become one? If so, has a chimpanzee with considerably greater intelligence similar rights, and if not, why not?
The difficulty of finding a morally relevant trait makes speciesism a powerful argument, but it does not go unchallenged. Mary Midgley, for example, while accepting many of the comparisons with sexism and racism, also notes another -ism that we might not all agree is wrong: we might call it family-ism:
...we would have to show that the differential response to our own species was a far stronger emotional tendency than our differential response to our own tribe or our own children, because nobody doubts that our duty can sometimes call on us to subordinate tribal or family interest to that of outsiders. It would have to be so strong that all attempts to extend consideration to animals were doomed to failure as unnatural.
If Singer had a mentally incapacitated daughter, for example, and if during a visit to the ape house at the zoo a fire broke out, would he save his child in preference to the adult chimpanzees? I think we all would (save our child), and if Singer did not, in keeping with his principles, I think we would consider that the wrong decision. It seems to me that Midgley is right to point out that speciesism might not always be wrong, even if we can allow it is often wrong.

Note that Singer is not arguing for an absolute ban on eating animals; if meat could be produced in a way that reduced suffering or increased utility in the world, then he would conclude that it was morally right to do so. But premises 4 to 6 show that this is not the state of affairs in the world today, so we should not eat meat as things stand. P4 and P6 I agree with; P5 I think could be challenged for some. But these premises are empirical, and I want to stick to the philosophical issues as far as possible.

When he discusses whether or not we should kill, Singer appears to flirt with rationality and self consciousness as relevant traits. He defines a person, distinct from a human, as ‘a rational and self-conscious being’. Do these traits distinguish homo sapiens? The more we discover about other species, the less unique these features appear. And, more problematically, they’re not universal in humans. Some animals appear to be as rational as babies or mentally retarded humans. We either concede these humans have a moral standing less than or equivalent to animals, or we fall foul of speciesism. 

Singer's definition of person has a whiff of speciesism about it, since it appeals to characteristics (rationality and self-consciousness) that many see as peculiarly human. A person in Singer's sense has desires and plans which will be frustrated if killed (and desires satisfied and desires frustrated are definitions of happiness and suffering that utilitarians like Singer also use). Non-persons will have no such desires and plans, so nothing to frustrate. Killing humans, then, is worse than killing chickens because humans are aware of their lives in ways that chickens aren’t. It’s not worse because the human’s human. So Singer isn’t being speciesist, because he isn’t using rationality etc. to arbitrarily draw the moral line, but is using it to quantify the utility in his calculations. But in other circumstances animals may suffer more than humans because of ‘their more limited understanding’, so a different calculus would apply.

So, if we can adjust for the capacity that different animals have to satisfy desires in Singer's scheme, can factory-farming chickens, for example, be justified because they have fewer desires? I think not, because we are not comparing cramped chickens with cramped humans, but cramped chickens with the difference between eating meat and eating vegetables. The suffering of factory chickens surely does outweigh this marginal difference (Singer has made great efforts to establish animal suffering empirically, to support P4 - see The Ethics of What We Eat, for example). His argument compares the like suffering involved, and the beings are only relevant as their characteristics affect the amount of suffering.

Direct utilitarianism suggests that non-persons can be painlessly killed if replaced. Singer seems dissatisfied with this, since he invokes indirect utilitarianism and concludes it may not be right to kill non-persons, to encourage a respect for them that, if absent, would result in their mistreatment. Does this justify factory-farming then? Again, I think not. Singer isn’t expecting an immediate move to vegetarianism, and in a gradual change-over, much lost utility will be replaced by new utility; for example, in the vegetarian food chain.

Tom Regan objects that aggregating suffering in utilitarian moral theories leads to dire consequences for individuals – a good end justifying evil means. For example, it suggests that secretly transplanting organs from, say, one orphaned child to five sick people is good. As we’ve seen, Singer could counter with an appeal to indirect utility, and argue that the benefits of such a ‘general practice’ should be included in the calculation, to safeguard individuals. It’s not at all clear to me that this does provide sufficient minority protection. If we are to include the indirect suffering caused by the general practice we must also include the indirect utility gained by five individuals going on to lead healthy lives, which could be substantial.

Furthermore I think that a sacrifice of happiness in excess of the suffering relieved would be appropriate in some cases, reducing aggregate utility. For example, if a heavy table was on a person’s toe causing some discomfort, but hardly agony, I’d still feel obliged to ask five people enjoying lollies to help lift the table, even if their lollies melted. The suffering of those who lost five lollies could be more than the suffering of the toe-crushed, but if the suffering of the toe exceeds the suffering of the lost lolly for each person, it seems right that a number of individuals make that small sacrifice. Singer would no doubt reply that this is irrational if looked at in toto, and we should jettison our intuitions. But since we are looking for a system that explains and justifies our moral intuitions it seems to me that this highlights a flaw in utilitarianism.

In summary, I agree with Singer that speciesism is wrong in a similar way to racism. If suffering is the primary consideration, the charge of speciesism sticks if we treat babies with more respect than all animals. So I agree suffering is a relevant trait, but I am not convinced it is paramount. I would note that speciesism doesn't mean we should deny our natural urge to look after our own, as even animal rights campaigners surely would. Further, the flaws I see when we make moral judgements using aggregate suffering lead me to reject P1, so I cannot endorse Singer’s argument for vegetarianism.

As mentionedTom Regan finds the focus on suffering objectionable, since it gives no value to the being per se that has the feelings. His argument tries to rectify this perceived failing:

Premise 1
Every person has an equal inherent value, affording them the right to equal respect
Premise 2
Treating a person’s inherent value less than another’s is immoral
Premise 3
A person is a being who is an experiencing subject of a life
Premise 4
Some animals are experiencing subjects of a life
Conclusion 1
Treating some animals as if they have less inherent value than humans is immoral; they have a right to equal respect
Premise 5
Treating a person as a resource breaches their right to equal respect
Premise 6
Using animals in science, agriculture and sport is treating them as resources
Conclusion 2
Using animals in science, agriculture and sport breaches their right to equal respect, so is immoral

Regan also makes a speciesist appeal, with P3 and P4. Observing inherent values grants rights to those who are ‘experiencing subjects of a life’. Many animals may not fit this description, but we should be cautious and accept that many farmed animals do experience life in this way.

The Legend of the Wolf of Gubbio - Sassetta
Roger Scruton objects that only members of a moral community can have rights, because they need to be the ‘kind of thing’ that can have duties and responsibilities (to others). And David Wiggins agrees that a moral community only includes those who can owe ‘things’ to one another, ‘not least a duty to negotiate conflicts of interest’. We recognise that the events depicted in Sassetta’s The Legend of the Wolf of Gubbio, for example, where townsfolk draw up an agreement with a wolf to stop it terrorising them, are just not possible, since wolves do not understand the background duties and responsibilities to such agreements that humans do.

But it’s plain that not all humans would belong to this moral community either, since babies and the mentally retarded cannot adopt these responsibilities either. If we grant vulnerable humans a particular right, then the speciesist argument forces us to concede that we must grant animals that particular right. Regan wants to grant animals the right not to be used in science, agriculture and sport, so if we think vulnerable humans have this right, and we surely do, then his argument succeeds, or we have to show how vulnerable humans are different from animals, in a way that is relevant to the issue.

Scruton argues that babies are potential moral beings - they could sometime adopt responsibilities the way animals never could. This seems a plausible and relevant difference to me, although it raises questions about when potentiality is recognised. A human egg has the potential to be a moral being, but I doubt Scruton would grant it rights. However, to defend the standing of the mentally-incapacitated, who cannot even be potential moral beings, he claims human life is sacrosanct, which is blatantly speciesist.

P1 and P2 argue for personal rights, by suggesting that every person has an immutable value that demands respect. Regan has the laudable aim of protecting individuals, including many animals, from abuse by the majority. But in eliminating ‘evil’ means to achieve good ends, he also stops us avoiding bad ends, if ‘evil’ means are the only way to achieve that, because his approach takes no account of consequences. So, for example, if the killing of a cow is the only way to save 100 children, he would still consider the killing of the cow evil, and to be avoided. He might argue that there would always be a moral, rights based approach available to solve such dilemmas, but I cannot see this is always true. His rights based approach is too absolutist for many dilemmas that face us.

Further, I think rights are unnecessary to establish obligations to animals, and these obligations could include Regan’s aims: to remove their use from science, agriculture and sports. By granting rights, duties are imposed on others. But not every duty is spawned from a right; for example, we feel an obligation to the environment without granting it ‘rights’. So we can treat animals, and other things, well without giving them rights.

In summary, Regan’s speciesism argument works well, once we grant an inherent value to experiencing subjects of a life, and subject to the issues I raise above surrounding 'family-ism'. But inherent value would take too little account of the consequences of an act, and is an overreaction to the problem. Therefore, I cannot agree with Regan’s argument for vegetarianism eitherBoth Singer and Regan give good reasons for why we should treat animals better than we currently do, however.


Hursthouse, R. (2002) Humans and Other Animals (A211 Book 2), Milton Keynes, The Open University


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