Replies to Huemer

I wanted to respond to some of the counters that Michael Huemer has offered against my claims.


Huemer quotes me: “if one can afford humane products, they ought to try to go that way.” Since most people probably can afford humane products, he thinks it follows from my claim that I have to agree that most people are behaving immorally. But my claim is far weaker than he is making it out to be. The ‘try’ is an important qualifier that captures the fact that people have different preferences and value hierarchies. We have to make trade-offs, and there are opportunity costs to these trade-offs. For example, Malcolm can afford to buy cage-free chicken products, but that might mean forgoing other things that are far more important for him. Or the store he normally shops for these products is closed (and the only open store sells only conventional products) but he still needs to purchase the chicken he needs for the dinner that he’s promised to make for his son. Certainly, if eating meat is just flatly wrong no matter what, then the trade-offs would be wrong except in the most desperate situations. However, that begs the question: we haven’t established or agreed that meat-eating is flatly wrong (only that cruelty is wrong).

The point I am making is that while we agree that reducing cruelty in meat production is something to shoot for, that has to be balanced against all our values. Compared to the myriad of other choices we have to make, the obligation to go for humane products over conventional may not be as strong as it is for others. So my claim that “if one can afford humane products, they ought to try to go that way” is consistent with the denial of the claim that the overwhelming majority are acting immorally when they eat meat.

Feasibility of Mass Vegetarianism

I don’t claim: “We can’t all be vegetarians, because the world can’t produce so many vegetables.”

I am not asserting that it will indeed be more expensive to produce sufficient food for mass vegetarianism. I am, though, denying the idea that it is obvious that mass vegetarianism will be cheaper because individual vegetarianism is cheaper today. Yes, we have to produce feed for the animals that we eat. So it looks like it would be cheaper just to eat the vegetables directly instead of feeding them to the animals first. But the vegetables we grow for animal feed are not the same as what humans eat. Further, animal feed can be grown on land and in conditions that don’t produce human quality vegetables. So we can’t just turn those plots over to produce human food or it might require great expense to convert and keep that land able to produce human quality food. The point being that we cannot extrapolate from current costs to future costs, and there are variables that suggest increases in cost to human vegetable production as the scale grows.

Causal Chain

I agree with Huemer that “if it is wrong to do X, then it is wrong to pay someone to do X.” It is not, though, obvious what this tells us about the morality of eating meat.

When Kailey buys a hamburger, she is not paying someone to torture anything. First, the hamburger is not being tortured; it’s dead. Second, she is paying for the burger, she is not paying for torture.[1]

But at some point in the process of bringing her the hamburger, cows are likely to have been treated badly, and this is something Kailey is generally aware of, so surely Kailey is complicit in the moral wrong done even if it forms no part of her intention. Teasing out the moral causality here is very tricky, to say the least. We can’t be too cavalier with this complicity claim without making all participation in society immoral. For example, if we didn’t live in cities, there wouldn’t be the crime that comes from city living. We know this, yet we choose to continue to live in cities. By this reasoning, we are complicit in those crimes. But this ends in the reductio that there is no way to be moral.

Since it is wrong to torture animals, it would be wrong to pay someone to torture animals. But eating meat is not the same as torturing animals, so this principle is not relevant. It would only be applicable here if we could draw a clear causal line of responsibility from eating meat to animal torture. But since such causal chains of responsibilities for these kinds of cases are extremely controversial and contentious, it doesn’t follows that meat eaters are violating the principle that if it is wrong to do X, then it is wrong to pay someone to do X.

Marginal Cases

I think this claim that Huemer makes is false: “If nonhuman animals have lower moral status due to failing to participate in [human] social relationships, then [certain] people should have similarly lower moral status.”

First, I would state the antecedent differently: Nonhumans have lower moral status because they are incapable of being a part of the moral and social context. It’s not just that they fail to participate or fail to form these relationships with us: it is that they are incapable of doing so.

Second, it doesn’t follow, without begging the question, that Huemer’s examples of nonsocial humans must have the same moral status as nonhuman animals. The hermit case is unproblematic. The argument is about capabilities, not actual choices. That one is capable of choosing to exclude themselves from the social context is evidence that they are capable of being a part the social context.

Furthermore, we in fact do treat the individuals in the remaining cases (a,b, and c) as having a different moral status in unproblematic ways. Their autonomy is limited in all kinds of ways that would be regarded as unconscionable for your typical adult human. And we allow, even require, these limitations, in large part, because such individuals are not, due to their conditions, able to be part of the moral and social context.

Nevertheless, there is an important difference between these cases and nonhuman animals. These cases involve people with conditions that are caused by some damage that has hindered their normal development. Under normal developmental circumstances, these individuals would have developed in ways that would have allowed them to participate in the moral and social context as full agents. This is precisely not the case in nonhuman animals.

This counterfactual argument is relevant because it conceivable that this damage could be repaired and normal development commenced. There is a real potential for the individuals in these cases to be a part of our moral and social context, and so we have good reasons to include them to a degree. There is no such potentiality with animals. Though, perhaps we could enhance some of our close primate cousins, and that would just mean that those specially enhanced animals ought to be treated as moral agents as well.

So it is just not true that we don’t have a non-arbitrary reason to draw different lines around nonhuman animals as we do around these so-called marginal human cases.


[1] I owe this example to conversations with Peter de Marneffe.

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.