From More equal than others, Julian Baggini, TLS 20/7/16

Julian Baggini has a witty, stylish review of various books on the ethics of the human, animal relationship in the latest TLS. I was particularly struck by his trenchant criticism of utilitarian approaches to this issue:

The utilitarian’s exclusive focus on the traceable consequences of action also means that there is a surprisingly vibrant debate among animal ethicists about whether an individual’s choice to eat meat is morally important. The problem is that modern food chains are insensitive to individual buyers’ choices and hence the principled vegetarian’s refusal to eat meat does not save a single animal life. The only consequence of abstinence is a sense of moral superiority and purity.

This is the kind of nonsense that could only be spouted by a philosopher (or perhaps an economist) in the grip of a reductive, mechanistic theory that reduces morality to algorithms of cause and effect. Everyone else knows that complicity in wrongdoing – or right-doing for that matter – does not require that your contribution makes a measurable difference. The suicide bomber whose explosives fail to detonate is not let off the hook. And if ten people give what turns out to be more than enough food to someone who has none, the first nine are no more praiseworthy than the last one. If utilitarian thinking cannot make sense of that, so much for utilitarianism.

The utilitarian approach leads to other conclusions that are counterintuitive, to put it mildly. Could it not be the case, for example, that my cat, without a care in the world, experiences more and purer pleasure than me and so we should have more pets and fewer babies? Even more bizarre is the “replaceability argument”, endorsed by Peter Singer, that just as long as you replace an animal you kill with another with at least as good a life, all is well. Come to think of it, replacing with more than one would be even better. The greatest good of the greatest number could be served by our eating ever larger quantities of humanely reared animals, up to the point at which any decrease in pleasure we felt as a result of the related bloating and health problems outweighed that of all the happy, skipping lambs. And as Belshaw suggests, since it seems that young, playful animals have more fun than their parents – who basically just eat, excrete and reproduce – it really is better that we eat the little darlings before they get old and bitter.


As with so much of the philosophical discourse on this issue, I am struck by how little consideration there is of the perspectives of people who actually deal with animals in daily life. Ethicists are surely right to consider to potentially de-moralising effect of consuming meat and animal products disconnected from any sense of how they got to the plate. Yet the people who are very far from being disconnected from the practices of animal husbandry and slaughter seem rarely to have their voices heard.

His closing paragraphs cites one of those arguments-from-experience that are weak philosophically but powerful at the level of everyday lives.:

Many are unimpressed by the so-called Benjamin Franklin argument. Franklin had been a vegetarian until he accompanied some fishermen in a trip from Boston. His hosts caught and fried some fish, which “smelt admirably well”. Then he saw that, when the fish were opened, they contained smaller fish in their stomachs. “If you eat one another”, he thought, “I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.”

As an argument, this is indeed weak. But the truth behind the anecdote is not an argument, more an inexorable fact. We live in a world in which death is unavoidable and suffering is everywhere. The only debate should be about the nature and extent of our contribution to that killing.

To live honestly, as creatures of flesh and blood, we need to face these facts squarely. Such realism is often missing in ethical theories that see any kind of human hand in animal death as unacceptable. For instance, Ben Bramble makes a somewhat speculative suggestion that eating meat might cause us unconscious psychological suffering. What he doesn’t consider, though, is that it might be good that there is something troubling in consuming flesh. This isn’t Disneyland and living authentically, as an adult, requires us to embrace full


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s