Sunday 2 January 2011

Meat-eating and moral confusion

Intelligence Squared debate – 'Don't Eat Animals', Kensington Town Hall, London, 9 December 2010

I was anticipating this last of the Intelligence Squared Winter Season 2010 debates both eagerly and anxiously. Eagerly because because the question of the moral defensibility of eating meat is an important one and, as a life-long meat eater, it is a question to which I should have, or at least be actively seeking, an answer. Part of living a morally consistent life is being able to justify your actions to yourself – even before you justify them to anyone else – and I hoped that by attending a typically robust and high quality Intelligence Squared debate I would be helped in this aim.

I was also anxiously anticipating this debate, because it had the potential to lead me to a rather difficult conclusion. If compelled by the arguments of the proponents of the motion, moral consistency would demand that I drastically change my eating habits and stop eating meat – potentially a very traumatic experience. As it turned out, I had little reason to be either eager or anxious. Firstly, because, by Intelligence Squared standards, the quality of much of the debate was poor. And secondly, because by the end of the debate I was still without a clear answer. Indeed, I left the debate with more questions than when I arrived. 

The first speaker for the motion Abbas Daneshvari, Professor of Art History at California State University, set the tone for much of his side’s contribution when he said: ‘I would like to impress upon you that while I will, of course, will be rational tonight, this problem cannot be solved through our rational prisms. It is fundamentally an emotional issue’. He continued:

‘If you expect to move from one side to the other, if you expect to become pro or against this issue of animal rights, you are not going to get there by simply thinking of the logic of it. For the logic of man is fundamentally flawed and has nothing valuable in it. A Nazi thinks that he is logical. Just as a religious fundamentalist thinks he is logical. Just as a Taliban, when they kill their women, stone them to death, cut their noses and their ears, they fully believe that they are logical and they are rational.’

On first impressions, Professor Daneshvari’s hyperbole is actually hilarious, but there are also quite a few things wrong with what he is saying. First, he overstates the importance of emotion. Purely emotional responses can, of course, lead us to nice, fluffy conclusions, but they can also lead us to primitive, and barbaric conclusions, too. Second, Professor Daneshvari completely misrepresents human rationality. It is naïve and misguided to think it knows no bounds, but is nonsensical and deeply misanthropic to think human rationality has nothing valuable in it. In fact, this crude misanthropy is a theme that runs throughout the contributions of the proponents of the motion. Third, by what method is the professor evaluating the logic of Nazis, fundamentalists and the Taliban? When he says they ‘think’ they are logical and rational, does he not have a ‘correct’ standard of logic and rationality in mind? Just because human rationality can be used for evil or has been illegitimately invoked as a justification for evil, it, quite obviously, does not mean that it is itself evil. Finally, the fact Daneshvari made his first reference to Hitler so early on in his contribution suggested worrying signs of desperation.

Professor Daneshvari, and many other animal rights activists, do seem to think there is a genuine similarity between the behaviour of the Nazis (or Europeans during the slave trade, or the Ku Klux Klan, etc.) and meat-eaters. It is, I think, why they are so passionate – often aggressive and even sometimes violent – about this issue, in a way I always found difficult to understand. They think that the farming, killing and eating of animals is equivalent to the exploitation of Africans during the slave trade, or the oppression of German Jews during the Holocaust and African Americans in the Deep South in the Jim Crow era. They think ‘speciesism’ is equivalent to racism.
Heather Mills, the third speaker for the motion, and Animals Rights Campaigner of the Year 2008, spent most of her time outlining the alleged health benefits of a vegan diet. Not only was this boring, it was also irrelevant. Settling the issue of whether or not meat is good for you does not even begin to address the moral issue of whether eating meat is morally permissible. Although the motion ‘Don’t Eat Animals’ does not make explicit that the debate is about the moral defensibility of eating meat, it should have been pretty obvious.

I will refrain from commenting on the numerous examples of astonishing piousness, self-congratulation and -aggrandizement that littered Heather Mills’ speech. Instead, I will limit my further comments to her confident assertion that if we all turned vegan, it would end world hunger. The final speaker against the motion, Julian Baggini of the Philosophers’ Magazine (and author of several books, including The pig that wants to be eaten), quite rightly challenged this idea, noting that it’s generally understood world hunger is not about a shortage of calories in the world, but structural and politics problems, especially in conflict zones. The dialogue that ensued sums up much of the debate:

Heather Mills: ‘How many of them have you been out to?’
Julian Baggini: ‘Sorry?’
Mills: ‘How many of them have you been out to? How many conflicts have you been out to? And how many fields of grain have you seen in Africa that are flourishing that could actually be utilised in there own country?’
Baggini: ‘I’m afraid that’s not really an argument. The fact that I’ve been there doesn’t mean that its an argument…’

I was actually embarrassed.

The real and interesting debate occurred between the two philosophers in the room: Peter Singer and Julian Baggini. Peter Singer (who was speaking via videolink, which gave him a transient, somewhat holy aura), Professor of Bioethics at the University Centre for Human Values at Princeton University and guru of the animal liberation movement, was the second speaker for the motion, sandwiched between the irrationality of Professor Daneshvari and irrelevance of Heather Mills. His argument had two independent fronts. First, killing animals for their meat is speciesism. About speciesism, he says:

‘We regard beings who are not members of our species as if they do not count morally or they count very little morally. And that is simply because they are not members of our species which, I think, does not give us any justification for disregarding the interests of any being who has interests. In just the way in which the slave traders disregarded the interests of Africans because they were not members of their race, so we still, despite having improved with regard to human rights, we still draw up moral boundary at the bounds of our species, which I don’t think is justifiable. I think if a being suffers, then that suffering ought to be taken into consideration and should be given just as much weight as the similar suffering of any other being.’

Before addressing this in detail, let’s consider the second horn of Singer’s argument, which related to the environmental harm caused by the farming of animals. He said: ‘We now realise that one of the major contributing factors to greenhouse emissions is animal production… livestock emissions exceed all transport emissions.’ I have always been unsettled by climate change arguments that have as their final recommendation some limitation of something otherwise permissible or even celebrated. Such recommendations often exhibit the most backward and anti-human instincts. I think to myself: if we should stop eating meat because of its ramifications for the environment, then why not give-up on industrialisation and its benefits altogether? But I must concede that this response is not really good enough. Just because it may undesirable to do everything we possibly can to avert climate change, it does not mean that we should do nothing.

There maybe some other problems with Singer’s environmental case against eating meat, however. Baggini states noted that, ‘From a resource point of view there’s are a lot of arguments that producing some kinds of meat can actually have an environmental benefit’. Even George Monbiot, the Guardian’s environmentalist columnist, recently retreated from his very vocal endorsement of veganism on the basis of climate change. Putting all of these things to one side, I would say Singer’s climate change argument against eating meat is the weaker of the two. It offers conditional reasons not to eat meat, but not necessary ones. Its says: ‘because meat production is bad for the environment, and assuming that we care about the environment, we should stop eating meat.’ If we found a way of producing meat that was not so bad, then presumably it would be fine on the climate change front.

Singer’s first, animal-centred argument is the stronger of the two, because it offers necessary and absolute reasons not to eat meat. But I do not agree with it. In fact, I am quite offended by it. However nice it may sound to some people, the idea that we should treat all animals with the same respect we afford to humans is monstrous (and, you guessed it, somewhat misanthropic). As Baggini highlights: ‘Anyone here who would treat the life of an infant mouse with the same respect as that of an infant human is not a moral person as far as I’m concerned at all. No one truthfully does that, so the idea that all life should be treated with equal respect is a non-starter’. If you think about it, for this to work we would have to mourn the death of every fly was accidentally swallowed. How would we ever rid ourselves of infections or viruses? They are caused by living things too.

All meat-eaters would be guilty of the charge of speciesism if there was no morally relevant difference between different living things. I think there is. Julian Baggini was right when he said: ‘The fundamental point is that there is a continuum of sentience and complexity in life, that creatures can suffer, they can feel pain but their capacity for the sophistication of their experience… does make a moral difference to how we treat them’. But my quest for a definitive answer on this subject received a bodyblow when he went on to say: ‘The only way through this is, unfortunately, one which involves imprecision, imperfect judgements, erring on the side of caution… if we are not sure in a given case with a particular type of animal if it is OK to eat it, let’s not eat it’. Is that it, then?

I left the debate with many more questions. The most pressing of all was: even if we accept there is a continuum of sentience and complexity, and a corollary continuum of respect and treatment, why is ‘do not kill and eat’ the first thing that we disregard when we start to think of non-human animals? There are many other ways we could express our greater regard for human life without going so far as actually killing and eating animals. The answer probably relates to the importance of things that make human lives– and sometimes also animal’s lives – better in the long-run, such as animal testing, and the specific nature of the capacities, and hence interests, of specific species. The capacity to have ambitions, a life-plan and be able to pursue that life-plan, for example, is surely a highly morally relevant feature. Julian Baggini left these questions unanswered, while, perhaps even worse, the proponents of the motion didn’t even bother to ask them.

Even more questions follow. Where is the allowed to eat/not allowed to eat cut-off point? Are there animals that we know currently exist that we are not permitted to eat? What happens if we find the missing link, a community of half-human half-apes? Would eating them be wrong? What if highly evolved aliens crash landed on earth and fancied some barbecued Brazilian rump? Would their higher state of sentience and complexity entitle them to eat us? I was getting a bit confused so I started to chew my thumb – I do that sometimes. ‘Wait’, I thought, ‘is that even allowed?’ 

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