Brian Leiter has a very interesting and largely apt argument against the claim that veganism is morally superior to meat-eating. I find this particularly interesting, because I have some sympathy toward ethical vegetarianism, though not enough to outweigh my enjoyment of meat. So let’s think about it some.
The crux of Brian’s argument is that there’s no plausible theory grounding the claim that animals have a right to life, as opposed to the more plausible right to be free from the infliction of pain. The best chance for getting such a theory comes from some variety of utilitarian theory (since animals don’t have the reasoning capacity to support direct moral standing in deontological theories). But that won’t fly. In his words:
Let’s suppose, plausibly enough, that sentience (the ability to experience pleasure and pain) is a morally relevant characteristic. Since animals are sentient, it seems there ought to be a moral obligation not to inflict gratuitous pain and suffering on them (a central part of the argument against “factory farming”).
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an animal’s well-being is constituted by pleasant and unpleasant experiences at particular moments (synchronic well-being), and they lack a conception of their lives going well across time (diachronic well-being), such that losing their life could be a harm to them
This seems pretty plausible. I do have some reservations about the idea that what constitutes an animal’s well-being comes from the sorts of affective states that it has the capacity to have — but I take Brian’s main point to be that we don’t really have anything better — we can’t, for example, say that an animal’s well-being is determined relative to its plan for its life, because it simply doesn’t have one. I’d also wonder whether or not the fact that animals will furiously resist death (for evolutionary obvious reasons) could be taken to suggest that some animals have some kind rudimentary recognition that death is a bad for them. But that is a question for the biologists.
Still, however, there seem to be at least two arguments for veganism that might go through.
The non-ideal theory argument for veganism
This is quite straightforward. In an ideal world where meat isn’t cruelly produced, such a vegan might argue, it’s acceptable to eat meat. But we live in a world where meat is cruelly produced, and it’s difficult if not impossible (or overwhelmingly expensive) to find non-cruelty meat. In such a world, it is morally obligatory to avoid meat.
The anti-hypocrisy argument for veganism
This argument is a little deeper, and works in both ideal and non-ideal theory. It’s related to Kant’s argument against animal cruelty on the grounds that it warps our own character. I think a similar argument can be made against the killing of animals in general. Here’s roughly how it might run.
For many (most?) of us, participating in the killing of an animal or encountering a dead animal produces a feeling of revulsion. The revulsion is at least partly a moral feeling, in that it expresses our intuition that killing animals is wrong, even if that intuition is, strictly speaking, incorrect.
Suppose we think that feelings like the revulsion at death are generally good for our moral character — they more or less often give us reliable guides as to how to live our lives on a day-to-day basis. (For example, we might reasonably think that the revulsion we feel at killing an animal arises from the same mechanism that produces the revulsion we feel at killing a human.)
Suppose we also think that certain kinds of hypocrisy undermine these moral senses. There are at least two kinds of hypocrisy at play here. First, we are revolted by being directly responsible for the deaths of animals but have no qualms about taking the benefit of other peoples’ bringing them to their deaths.
Second, we accept the deaths of disfavored animals but reject the deaths of favored animals (puppies and kittens) with no legitimate moral reason for the distinction. (I take it that most westerners would be horrified at the notion of eating a puppy even if it was killed painlessly — and many would say that killing the puppy to get it on the plate is immoral.)
Then, by eating meat killed by others, we train ourselves to ignore our visceral reactions to morally questionable situations, as well as the implicit moral judgment (accurate or inaccurate) that we’ve made that lies underneath the reactions. And by permitting ourselves to act on the inconsistent claims “it’s ok to kill cows for food” and “it’s not ok to kill puppies for food,” we damage our capacity to engage in moral reasoning in other areas. Both of these cognitive habits are bad for our overall moral characters.