Perhaps We’re at an Impasse

In a recent contribution to the discussion, Mike Huemer mischaracterizes some of my points and begs some questions in defending his own. Huemer begins by calling me unlibertarian because I praised developments in agriculture that make more and a wider variety of food available to poorer people.

Last I checked, one of the main selling points of classical liberalism is that it raises the standard of living for everyone. It is only in the grossest caricatures of libertarianism that it is a ruse to benefit the wealthy and protect artificial privilege. The reality is that markets allow for greater enrichment of worst off. Modern agricultural practices have made an enormous abundance of nutritious food more widely available now than at any previous point in human history. There’s nothing unlibertarian in my being happy about that. Nothing in my post implies that I think there’s a positive right to be given meat, but if we outlawed “factory farming,” whatever that means, we’d be using the power of the state to make certain goods only available to elites, which is morally different from a market pricing system, and that is unlibertarian for sure. Huemer’s objection, I suspect, is that we are wrong to celebrate the increased abundance and greater affordability of nutritious food because that abundance includes things we are morally wrong to eat in the first place; viz. meat. But this just brings us back to square one: I deny that it’s a moral wrong to eat meat.

I have tried to set out a conceptual space wherein lighting a kitten on fire for fun is wrong, but chopping a chicken’s head off to obtain food is not. The differences seem to be a function of the agent’s intention. It’s morally relevant that the reason for the former is itself illegitimate, while the reason for the latter is not. Deriving pleasure from the infliction of pain for its own sake is evidence of, and exacerbates, vicious character. Deriving pleasure and sustenance from consuming living things is not. My appeal to human nature continues to come in for heavy doses of mockery; I’ll return to that momentarily. But in the meantime, the motivational difference is real.

Huemer thinks my appeal to natural-ness is hopelessly confused, so I now address some of these concerns. Here’s what he seems to think is happening:

H: It’s wrong to eat meat
S: How could it be wrong? It’s natural!
H: That’s moronic, rape is natural too but we think that’s immoral, so the naturalness of ominvory can also be immoral.

I have already noted that that’s not what I’m doing, but the rape analogy keeps recurring. For instance Huemer says that one thing I might mean is “Natural = necessary for our health, survival, and/or well-being. [But] In this sense, neither rape nor meat-eating is natural. Many vegans have long, healthy, and flourishing lives, as do many non-rapists.”

I agree with Huemer that rape is not necessary for our health, survival, or well-being—indeed, it is contrary to it. But the fact that vegans can have a good life doesn’t falsify the naturalness claim about omnivory. Vegans must get the same nutrients that other humans get. The fact that we can use science to discover alternate sources of nutrients doesn’t mean it’s not natural to need those nutrients.

The pro-vegan argument is that since we can use science to discover alternate sources of equivalent nutrition, we don’t need meat. It’s true that this means we don’t need it nutritionally, but we may still need it for other aspects of well-being, such as the not-irrelevant pleasure that people take in an omnivorous diet, or the various religious and cultural meanings attached to certain kinds of meat-eating. Huemer’s response to that is “It is wrong to cause great pain and suffering to others for the sake of small benefits to oneself.” But why should we think these are small benefits?

More broadly, I am happy to agree with the following modification of Huemer’s claim: It is wrong to cause great pain and suffering to other people for the sake of small benefits to oneself. But the subtle difference between the two sentences seems like it will continue to divide us. I think our relationship to other people is substantively different than our relationship to other living things. We cut down trees to make paper and houses; other plants we eat; some plants we kill just to make room for buildings, or to get a view, or to play baseball. Some animals are used as workers, some we keep around for companionship. Some we kill because they threaten us, some we kill because they’re annoying, and some we kill to eat. I don’t think any of these are small benefits, but in any case, to apply Huemer’s original version of the principle to all these situations would mean that the disutility of a bush or a fish is commensurable with that of a person.

As Shawn Klein noted, this begs the question: “We can form attachments to these animals, but the nature of that relationship is different than the kind of relationships that can exist between humans. And as I suggested in my earlier essay, this gives us some reason to care about what happens to these animals and treat them well, but it doesn’t generate the kind of obligations we have towards other people.” I think that’s correct. The obligation to refrain from rape is based on our shared humanity. That doesn’t get us anywhere near an obligation to refrain from eating fish.

Huemer thinks this means I actually cannot criticize torturing kittens for fun, because the torturer does derive pleasure from the torture. But I’m rejecting utilitarian analysis. Rejecting utilitarianism means both that we can prioritize human good above shrimp good or bush good, and that we do not uncritically aggregate all human preferences. If we aggregate all human preferences, then the serial killer’s wants count as much as the scholar’s. We (dare I say naturally?) empathize with torture victims, both people and kittens, not just because of the pain inflicted, but because of our judgment of the person who would derive pleasure from inflicting senseless pain. But eating food isn’t senseless. Eating food is part of being alive. To equate that with rape is bizarre. Huemer accuses me of begging the question by asserting that human good is substantively different from other creatures’ good, yet he is just as much assuming the point at issue by insisting that it is not. Perhaps this is an impasse, though I suspect neither of us will stop trying to breach it.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Michael Huemer argues that even if the pain experienced by nonhuman animals is only a little bit bad, the total quantity of pain that we inflict on animals must mean that we are committing a grave wrong in the ways that we use animals for food and clothing. Huemer addresses some of the key objections to this claim, and he emphasizes that while the full extent of our duties to animals isn’t entirely clear to him, we ought “at a minimum… to refrain from inflicting enormous pain and suffering on other beings for the sake of obtaining comparatively small gastronomic pleasures.”

Response Essays

  • It is not a moral wrong to eat meat, writes Aeon J. Skoble. Analogies between human suffering and the suffering of animals are facially implausible, and it is not obviously wrong, for a human, to privilege human well-being above that of other species. It is not from a failure of conscience that we eat meat, but from our natural inclination toward it, and from the nutritional benefits that meat provides. In this we closely resemble many other animals.

  • Andy Lamey argues that animal suffering is indeed worth taking seriously as a moral concern. So too, he adds, is animal killing. He observes that animal cruelty and the desire to hide it have prompted at least some policies that should be opposed on libertarian grounds, including farm subsidies and ag-gag laws, which prohibit reporting about conditions in factory farms.

  • Shawn E. Klein denies that the badness of animal suffering is such that we should always avoid it. Many types of suffering, he notes, are instrumental to higher values. While we should avoid suffering when other things are equal, that may not be the case for the uses that humans make of animals. While Klein agrees that animal cruelty should be avoided when it can be, he proposes that eating and otherwise making use of animals for human benefit is in keeping with an ethical code that seeks to further human life.