Response to a Vegetarian Argument

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Jonathan Ichikawa has an interesting argument for vegetarianism. It would be immoral to have a party where we throw human parts around just for the fun of it, parts from people grown specifically so that we can have enjoyment in doing exactly that. Jonathan suggests that it would be wrong to attend the party even if such attendance doesn't cause the practice or fund it in any way. He says this is because it supports it. I'm not sure that's the real reason it's wrong. I agree with Richard's comment that mere participation in an evil practice is wrong. I don't think it's supporting it that's the issue. It might be ok to support an evil practice as long as one's reason for doing so is not to use that evil practice as a means to your end but rather that the support is an unintended side-effect that your end doesn't itself rely on. But in this case that's not what's going on, since you're actively participating in the practice. That's what seems to me to be wrong about it. Is the same true for eating animal meat produced in factory farms? The argument assumes that animals in factory farms really are treated immorally, but that's something I agree with.

One way to distinguish between the two cases is if you have a basic distinction between our moral obligations to animals and our moral obligations to humans. Some people, for instance, think we have moral relationships with humans as our fellow members of a moral community that we don't have with animals. This doesn't mean we have no moral obligations toward animals, but the fact that they're not in the moral community with us in terms of being moral agents themselves is, on some ethical theories, reason for taking them to have moral properties of a different order. Perhaps this is not having rights of the same sort. For example, it's easier for our obligations to animals to be outweighed by other considerations than it is for our obligations to humans, or perhaps our obligations to humans can never be outweighed, while our obligations to animals can.

I don't myself think this is sufficient, because I think attending such a party with animal parts is immoral (even if you don't pay to attend). I do think it's much less wrong than with people parts, but it's wrong. The reason is not that you're funding the killing of animals for mere entertainment (although if it's also that, it might add to its wrongness). It's also not that it's merely supporting such a practice. You're engaging in the very entertainment goal that constitutes the evil practice. You're not merely supporting it, and I think engaging in it without supporting it is wrong. Suppose, for example, that you were able to sneak in, take an animal part or two off to your own private room with some friends, and engage in your own game of catch for enjoyment. I don't see how that provides any support for the practice. You even detract from it by stealing some of their animal parts without ever engaging with those who are doing it in any positive way. But you participate in an important way in the behavior that constitutes the practice.

So I don't think this is the right way for those who defend meat-eating to respond to Jonathan's argument. Merely distinguishing between the moral status of humans and animals won't be sufficient if the same practice with animal parts is wrong, and it's wrong merely to participate in it. If eating meat is analogous to playing games with it, then merely eating it is wrong. That's participating in it. It doesn't matter if you aren't providing any noticeable (or even any) support to the practice that will help it continue or fund those who do it. Even if you stole all the meat you eat, you'd be participating. So I think defending omnivorous practices in a world where most meat comes from factory meat-market is going to require finding some disanalogy between the case of eating meat and the case of throwing animal meat around for entertainment.

One difference that comes to mind immediately is easier to see when you think of a similar practice with food that doesn't come from animals. I know a group that regularly plays what it calls Food Games. At retreats and things of that nature, they will use food for fun group games. Sometimes it does involve eating some of it, but a lot of it is just for messy group activities, and even the eating games don't use all the food up. I've always been disgusted by this practice. It just strikes me as wasteful behavior. Wasting good food for mere entertainment value is wrong. I struggle enough with the practice of cooking more food than you'll eat and not being able to finish the leftovers before they go bad. We do that, and I think it's immoral enough to waste food unintentionally. Isn't it much worse if you're doing it deliberately? It's true that it's not a complete waste, because some gets eaten, and what doesn't is at least used for fun, but the entertainment value isn't a sufficient reason to waste food in those proportions.

I think once we see this, it becomes much less clear that the problem with throwing food around is that we're using the animal parts as a means to an end. The problem seems to me to be that it's using it for a particularly frivolous end, not that it's using those dead animals as a means to an end. Once you've distinguished between the kind of moral status animals have (which may not prohibit using animals as a means to an end) and the kind of moral status humans have (which may well prohibit using people as a means to an end), I think that opens up a lot of room for some means-to-end use of animal parts. Isn't deriving sustenance from them a much better use of such animal parts?

I realize that vegetarians can be relatively healthy and survive plenty long without meat, but I've never been convinced by the claim that it's healthier to be a vegetarian. Doctors and biologists who don't seem to have an axe to grind generally tell us that our ideal diet is lean meat with supplementation from other sources. The only people I've ever seen claim otherwise are vegetarian apologists. Some people even say it's best to have the kind of animal proteins that are only found in meats (only some of which are even in eggs and milk). It's possible that some people have even more reason to need animal proteins for specific health conditions. But the key point is this. Throwing animal parts around for fun is what's wrong, and taking part in that activity is taking part in the wrong. Eating meat is not wrong in itself (I'm convinced; I'm granting here only that factory farming is wrong, not that eating meat in other circumstances is wrong). Eating meat, then, is benefiting from others' wrongdoing. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

Now none of this provides any reason to accept the status quo. Meat eaters ought to oppose factory farming. I'm not convinced that boycotts are the best way to convince businesses to change their practices anyway, so I don't think vegetarians are having much effect on the factory farmers by not eating meat. I do think more people ought to make this issue a priority, particularly those who eat meat who don't approve of factory farming. It may also be that certain animals are treated more cruelly, enough moreso that it's worth avoiding those (e.g. maybe refraining from eating veal), but I'm not convinced of that at this point. But I don't think it's the same sort of participation issue as throwing meat around for fun. It's the mere frivolity of that case that makes me willing to say merely participating in the practice is wrong, even if you aren't funding it or supporting it in any other way. Since that isn't true of eating meat, I don't see how the analogy is going to work as easily.

8 Comments

Interesting. Do you realise that you are effectively offering an argument for most ball games being morally wrong? After all, most balls are made of leather, which is an animal product - or at least they used to be, although plastics are more used now. So ball games are throwing animal parts around for fun (well, expect for professional sportsmen and women, who do it for money, which doesn't make it less immoral). I suppose you could defend this on the basis that the animals were, perhaps, not killed just for their leather, but the leather is a by-product of killing them for meat. But then would your general argument be less strong if the body parts thrown about were inedible or rarely eaten ones like offal or eyes?

I suspect that your real reason for disliking games with animal parts, or for that matter with other food even if it cannot be eaten, is not so much a moral one as a general squeamishness about something which seems messy and unhygienic. Just as many vegetarians don't eat meat because they can't stand the sight or even the thought of blood, so I wonder if you don't like the idea of throwing meat around for the same reason.

Peter, I do think there's a difference between throwing the ball around for the fun of throwing a ball around (and it happens to be made of animal parts) and throwing animal parts around for the fun of throwing animal parts around. The latter is what struck me as being wrong about attending a party in order to throw around animal parts for fun. It's less clear that it applies as easily to the former.

There might be a good argument for not using animal parts for sports, but it's not as clear to me that this is what makes sports immoral. But then there are enough things already that make sports immoral that we don't need this to get that conclusion.

The point that it's a by-product of animals already killed for meat is the final straw in shooting down such an argument. Suppose I'm an organ donor, and someone murders me. Is it wrong to use my organs just because the way I died involved someone doing something wrong? As long as you can deal with consent issues (which I don't think should be an issue for animals), then I think using already-killed animals for their skins is just fine, even if it turns out that it was thoroughly immoral to kill them in the first place. (A complication might arise if the person using the skins is paying the person who did the immoral killing. That's worth taking into account, but in the end it might not be decisive against buying a leather-bound ball.)

I don't think the argument against the animal part entertainment party is affected too much if it's not food being wasted (but just offal etc.), because it's the use of animal parts for a frivolous purpose that was the issue, not just that it was wasting good food. It's still using them for a frivolous purpose, even if it's not wasting food.

I'm not squeamish about messiness. If I get into the right mood and have clothes on that I don't care about, I can be happy to take part in games that get people messy, provided that they don't waste food or aren't merely for the sake of using animal parts for frivolous purposes (and I think throwing gizzards around when you already are eating a chicken is fine; it's the eating that's the purpose of its death). Food products with no nutritional value like marshmallows make for some excellent games, as do liquids that are mostly water with food coloring. Give it the consistency and color of blood. Fashion something like meat out of something edible but with no nutritional value. Play games with that all you want. Maybe it's a waste of time, but it wouldn't be immoral in the same way, even if the parts function just like blood and meat. Squeamishness is not the issue.

Ya know, while reading this, I thought about what Paul said. He said that though the meat had been offered to an idol (and immoral practice) that is was okay to eat the meat. Strange parells there.

That's a fascinating case. I guess it is parallel in that the killing is for the purpose of sacrificing to a false god, which Paul certainly considered one of the most serious sins someone could do. His insistence that it's ok to eat it is largely from his unwillingness to concede to idolaters that anything important really happens to the meat when you do such a thing. But he very clearly saw the act of killing the animal as evil, and he had no problem if someone ate it as long as it didn't lead anyone to eat it who didn't understand its insignificance and who thus thought they were sinning by eating it.

I think it fits with my analysis, too. Eating it isn't participating in the evil, and it doesn't necessarily fund the evil or support it in any other way. It doesn't take delight in merely frivolous use of the meat. But it's willing to use the meat that's a result of an act that's not just frivolous but idolatrous!

Paul would say that it's bad to do it if it's going to lead someone to do it who does think eating it is participating in the evil (and perhaps Paul would say meat-eaters thus shouldn't eat meat in situations where it might tempt vegetarians who accept Jonathan's argument to eat it). I'm not sure that's a high possibility in most contexts I'd ever be in, though.

But then there are enough things already that make sports immoral

expand on this, please...and use little words.

That was sort of a joke that I expected someone to ask about within minutes of my posting it. I'm surprised no one said anything about it before now, actually. I was never any good at sports (except sprinting short distances, which earned me an MVP award for track in 8th grade). I've never been greatly interested in them, and I've never understood anyone's desire to pay much attention to them when other people are playing. I don't really think they're immoral, though.

I do think some of what they do in some sports is immoral. American football is particularly violent in a way that often leads to permanent injuries, and the idea of delighting in violence makes me worry even outside the context of video games and movies. This is actual violence, not just pretend.

I also think it's a huge time suck for many people who get way too into it, to the point where their priorities are way out of whack. Of course that could be true of all sorts of things, including things I'm really into.

I also think it's a huge time suck for many people who get way too into it, to the point where their priorities are way out of whack.

Just like blogging, perhaps?

I must get down to some work...

That's exactly one of the things I was thinking of, although I can't help mentioning that blogging might count as more productive by measures that I consider higher priorities. But neither athletic activity nor blogging is an especially high intrinsic good, and each can be measured largely by what other good things it accomplishes. I can imagine circumstances where blogging is not worth the time it takes and circumstances where athletic activity very much is. In my case, it's the reverse, at least at this point in my life.

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