In this post I will discuss morally motivated vegetarianism. I will give some arguments for and against vegetarianism and analyse them. I shall also use parody as I think it is quite an effective way of illustrating points in these matters.
Arguments against vegetarianism:
1) The animal wouldn't be there if it were not for the meat industry. Surely any life is preferable to no life at all?
Parody: If I were to bring a few hundred children into the world for the purpose of killing them all at 3 years old and I kept them in cages until then would that be ok as they wouldn't have existed if it weren't for me?
The rights or morality of how to treat an individual are not effected by who brought that individual into the world and why they did it. It is not inherently better to have more animals alive at any one time. Just because cows would become very rare if we didn't breed them isn't an excuse to treat them badly. As Cow numbers fall numbers of people would rise (meat production is inefficient at feeding people) so if you think total number of individuals (perhaps a weighted total) is important then we'd be better off not farming animals.
2) Surely its ok if the animal feels no pain at death? / if the animal is not factory farmed?
Parody: If I were on a desert island with one other person (who was no threat to me) and without any particular need to do so I killed them in a painless manner would this be ok?
There is a widespread position that animal suffering is the only negative associated with our farming practises. When we consider human matters it is very clear that this is not the case for us. The only let out here is to find some aspect of homo sapiens that would account for such a large moral difference here (see argument 4).
3) Animals are not conscious/have no soul so why is it wrong to kill them?
There is ample evidence for consciousness amongst animals. The extent of this varies by degrees from very little self determination amongst some fish to very well formed intentions, attitudes and states of mind in pigs (considering only common cattle here). Furthermore the brain is incredibly plastic with far distant regions capable of taking on each others roles. As such consciousness seems likely to be an emergent property of brains in general not something special about ours.
The problem with pegging morality on something like a soul (rather than mind) is because a soul by its very definition cannot be detected (if it exists at all). I could maintain that no-one else apart from me had a soul and treat them all very badly as a result. Even if souls exist they shouldn't be used to base your morality on.
4) To be an entity of moral value you must be capable of communicating with others. Why is it wrong to kill an animal if that animal has no meaningful interaction with others?
There are several responses to this: Firstly animals do communicate with each other even if almost certainly in a very basic way (and probably in a very autistic way). Secondly if you base your morality on communication then new borns, hermits and certain others would have no value and very few people argue that.
To really argue against this though I need to bring in a thought experiment:
Suppose that the world consisted of individuals some of which communicated with others on the same planet as them. Some of those planets communicated with other planets within their galaxy. Some of those galaxies communicate with other galaxies. Now someone visiting from a nearby universe might wonder which individuals were Worthy of moral consideration. Is it the individuals, the individuals who talk to others or is it the planets (considered as entities) which bother to or are capable of talking to other planets? I submit that there is no sensible answer to that if you think its only the ability to communicate that matters. Essentially if you say that interactions below a certain scale don't matter (such as interactions between neurons) your viewpoint is arbitrary in as much as you choose that scale.
I would allow for communication to be something that raises the value of an individual. However, the amount of information exchanged by people is nothing compared to the movement of information inside their heads so the increase should be much less than 100%.
5) The brain of cattle animals is so much smaller/less dense/less complex than our brain that the animal shouldn't be considered to be worthy of moral consideration.
Cows have quite large brains. Even Chickens have brains one thousandth the size of ours. Although that might not seem large consider how small a benefit comes from the death. We know that meat is not necessary for a healthy diet (Both the US and UK medical authorities consider a vegetarian diet as posing no appreciable excess risk), meat is inefficient in terms of feeding people.
There is another important point here which is that benefit from killing an animal generally scales with body size. Sure a mouse might be have much brain but you need to kill more mice to make your meal.
If you feel (as I do) that this scaling rule breaks down when animals brains are very small then you might feel it justified to eat insects, prawns or a few other very tiny animals.
Arguments for vegetarianism:
A) Most animals are factory farmed and this causes them much pain/boredom.
It is true that animals suffer much pain and boredom in a factory farm. It has been shown that pigs will work very hard to have a children's mobile or a rubber ball placed in their cage with them. Chickens will go to extraordinary lengths to spend time in a cage made of a softer material than the wire cages commonly used for broiler chickens.
However this argument by itself is not sufficiently strong to mandate vegetarianism. The vast majority but not all meat is raised in poor conditions (often factory farmed). Some people do eat only free range meats and this argument alone would not be sufficient to convince them to stop.
B) Taking an animal's life is wrong no matter what the circumstances.
No moral position (so simply definable) is likely to be absolute. It may be argued that animal's use in medical research can be justified by the positive effects on medical science. I haven't decided upon this particular issue (partly because of hearing a very interesting study by an independent body arguing for the replacement of animal tests with a suite of alternatives) but there is no doubt that there are instances where the killing of animals (or people) can be justified.
There are situations in which taking a life might be regarded as not so bad including euthanasia or immediately before the moment of death. On the whole though I do consider this to be true (see arguments 2,3 and 4 above). I would tend to argue however that not all animals lives are equally valuable and if made to choose between gorillas and mice I would not give them equal weightings.
C) Animals can and do communicate with each other. When you take the life of one animal others suffer the loss (of a relative or companion).
This is true although it has taken painstaking research to demonstrate it in some animals, many animals (especially herd animals) get very agitated at the loss of a dear one. This isn't a great argument though as many herds go to the slaughterhouse together and have little time to experience separation anxiety before its their turn. Tom Lehrer's "We will all go together when we go" comes to mind (if you haven't heard of Tom Lehrer go out and get a CD of his now).
In future posts I shall look at how to construct a sensible morality with varying moral weight given to animals. I shall also tie this into this issues surrounding the advent of AI.
Questions for the reader:
1) What is it about the taking of a life that makes it wrong (in people or animals)?
2) Why is it that certain arguments that would never fly if applied to humans are regularly proposed regarding animals?
3) Why is it that people place so much value on pain and much less on boredom or liberty for animals?
4) Do we have any duty of care towards wild animals?
5) How do you think the break down of communication barriers with animals might effect thinking on this debate?