This post is a reaction to Brett Hall's Humans and Other Animals. Hall’s post, which I encourage everyone to read, concerns the ethics of killing animals in order to consume their meat. He argues that meat eaters do not face any ethical dilemmas. Hall makes many novel arguments and I agree with much of what he has written. In fact, I have yet to read a better critique of veganism.
What I wrote here is misleading. Hall, as he points out in he response to this post, did not say that there are no ethical dilemmas. As he rightly points out this would have made his original post on the matter much shorter.
That being said, I still disagree with the overarching claim of the blog: that it is morally permissible to kill animals in order to eat their meat. In the following post I will explain where my disagreement with Hall stems from, but firstly I will explain, to the best of my abilities, Hall’s case for eating meat. Hall’s main argument is that the experience of suffering might be exclusive to universal explainers. The logic of his argument is as follows. Pain is an experience conscious beings, but the presence of pain in the mind is not equivalent to suffering. This is evident for the fact that pain is sometimes pleasant, such as during a working out. Why is this pain pleasant? Because the person working out is aware the pain is due to the progress he is making; being aware of this explanation makes the pain pleasant.
Suffering is similarly the result of pain combined with an explanation of why that pain is bad. Pain resulting from a terminal illness causes suffering because the pain signals your future inability to make progress.
However, I am not convinced that only people (universal explainers) can suffer. Consider, for instance, why people think animals suffer: people think animals suffer because the behavior of animals seems to indicate a subjective experience to us. This should strike a thinking person as odd; most animals did not evolve their facial expression for the purpose of communicating to humans how they feel.
In fact, Deutsch has made a similar observation in regards to the beauty of flowers. In The Beginning of Infinity Deutsch argues for the existence of objective beauty. He does so by pointing out that both humans and bees are attracted to flowers and that this is a novel phenomenon. Bees and flowers co-evolved together and thus it is unsurprising that this evolution gave rise to a signaling system between flowers and bees, the signaling system being the flowers beauty. However, it is strange that people are able to appreciate the flowers beauty as well; humans and flowers didn’t co-evolve together so there is no reason why they should.
Thus, Deutsch argues, it might be the case that the flowers have exploited objective beauty as a way to signal information to the bees; people, being universal explainers, are able to appreciate this objective beauty because they understand it.
I think that the ability of human beings to --- at least seemingly --- understand the suffering of animals is similarly novel. Most humans and animals did not co-evolve together, yet our appreciation of “the inner lives of animals” extends to most of the animal kingdom. E.g., children who torture small animals, such as frogs, rabbits and guinea pigs, almost always turn out to have sociopathic tendencies and go on to become criminal offenders as adults. Why is it that this lack of empathy towards animals is so neatly correlated with a similar lack of empathy towards other people, and perhaps more profoundly, why is it that the fast majority of people are empathic towards animals?
Of course it is possible that this might all be a coincidence or even a mistake on our end. As Hall points out in his blog post: without a theory of consciousness we don’t know what constitutes suffering, nor do we know whether animals suffer. But in the absence of this theory of consciousness we need to make decisions about whether or not to eat meat. Thus we are presented with the following trade-off: eat meat and hope animals don’t suffer or don’t eat meat and miss out on animal products.
If animals turn out to suffer, i.e. if they have subjective experiences that are morally bad, then the factory farming of today must be evil. Conversely, if the animals turn out to lack this kind of subjective experience and we have decided not to eat them then we have lost out on the enjoyment of meat and other animal products. I think the world is worse of in the former scenario than in the latter and furthermore there are good indications that both might be right.
To summarize: Hall has produced some very good arguments for why it is possible that animals don’t suffer; there are also good arguments for why animals do suffer. We don’t yet how these issues will be resolved. However, we do know that a world in which suffering animals are killed for food is decidedly worse than a world in which no animals are harmed, but instead people miss out on the delights of animal products. Sad is this may be, it seems this is the reality to which we have to conform.
Response to Hall's response:Recently Brett Hall responded to this post and I thought it would be worthwhile going through this new post of his. His response can be found here: bretthall.org/blog. The layout of my response is as follows. I have edited my original post using boldface and underlined text to correct my misrepresentation of Hall's arguments. I will also explain how I failed to take into account some of Hall's more subtle positions down here and add to my own arguments. Before I begin, let me also thank Hall for having taken the time to read through and write about my post. I also appreciated his his kind words about my blog. That being said, let's get started!
First of all, one of Hall's main arguments I failed to take into account in the original post was that it might be difficult, er even impossible, to imagine what it is like to be an animal in pain. The relevant excerpt from Hall's Humans and Other Animals is: "The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously remarked that “If a lion could speak we could not understand him”... he meant that the internal workings of the *mind* of the lion may have been so far removed from our own as to have no analogue that could be captured by our own vocabulary...I guess animals experience pain but I also concede in saying this that though they experience something (we call pain), it might not be like what we experience as pain - at all."
Hall argues that the difference between us and the lion is that we are universal explainers and the lion is not. Our ability to suffer is based on our ability to explain the world around us. We do not know what the lion experiences when it feels pain, because we have a fundamentally different mental landscape.
Hall continues by arguing that "I guess it must feel like something. I don’t know if it would be “bad” but because I cannot know, for now, I withhold judgement and I argue to not do evil (like cause unnecessary pain of a kind we don’t understand to a creature whose internal subjective state we do not know about.)" Here his position overlaps with my own. We currently do not have an adequate explanatory theory of mind/consciousness which allows us to make a moral judgement about animals, so we err on the side of caution.
What does this mean? If I understand Hall correctly this means that it is not bad to kill animals, granted that they do not feel pain in the process. Consider the example of a cow living a life without a trace of pain, killed to be eaten by people (I recall this being an example Hall used but I cannot find it in his twitter history, so I will leave it up to him to verify his use this example). In this case it is at least morally neutral and probably even good to kill the cow! One reason for this is that the cow cannot make progress; we are not disrupting anything the cow is doing --- other than just existing. We might erase one cow-mind from the planet and all other things being equal, that is probably a net loss. However, we have also given people a very pleasant dinner and I am convinced that the pleasure people experience from eating the cow's meat far outweighs the disappearance of one cow-mind. Why? Because people make progress when they eat. Either they creatively interacting with their food and how it taste, or they use it to be creative in other areas of their lives.
This is an important point, and I feel the need to develop it further. Hall's arguments not only shows us that human suffering is worse than anything animals can experience; it shows us that human pleasure (which is derived from their ability to be creative) is also better than anything animals can experience. Hence why I think the example of the happy cow dying to feed people is a netto moral gain. The world is better when morally neutral animals die painlessly to feed people.
However, the factory farming of today does not use morally neutral animals. Animals used in factory farming are usually mistreated and abused. They cannot suffer but, as I think Hall would agree with, it is possible they experience something that is morally bad. Despite the fact that Hall and I seem to agree on almost everything up until now, here is the point where I think we disagree. Here I say we need to stop eating animals that where abused and mistreated in order to err on the side of caution, regardless of whether people enjoying eating the meat of such animals. Why do I think this? I think that there is an asymmetry between morally good experiences and morally bad experiences. Karl Popper explained it best when he wrote the following explanation of this position.
"I believe that there is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and pleasure. Both the greatest happiness principle of the Utilitarian and Kant's principle, 'Promote other people's happiness... ', seem to me (at least in their formulation) fundamentally wrong in this point, which is, however not one for rational argument ... In my opinion... human suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a who is doing well anyway." (I believe this is from The Open Society and Its Enemies but I refound the quote here) I think the same is true of animals but there are some caveats (which I will explain shortly). I think that people should not eat factory farmed animals that were needlessly abused/subjected to excessive amounts of pain. I also think that enjoying eating such animals is a not a good enough reason for continuing to eat them. The only exceptions being situations where people suffer excessively from not being allowed to eat meat. An example would be people who are starving (but I also think people like cooks would suffer tremendously from no longer being allowed to work with meat). We must at the very least strive to buy animal products which are produced from morally neutral animals and optimally we should use meat substitutes. People can creatively interact with these kinds of products similarly to how they can with actual meat and there is even the creativity involved in finding new types of food to prepare and flavours to explore (although I will readily admit not everyone will enjoy this). I can imagine no longer being allowed to eat meat being disappointment to some people and depending on how much you suffer --- and I do think the word suffering applies here --- you can explore the spectrum ranging from meat replacements to more ethically produced animal products.
At the end, this debate boils down to the trade-off between the importance of enjoying making and eating meat and the importance to err on the side of caution. My main argument is that we can all do less harm to animals whilst still enjoying ourselves. Hopefully one day there will be the ultimate morally neutral animal that we can all feast upon---artificially produced meat seems very promising--- but until then we can at least try to be kinder to the animals we eat.
I wanted to take some separate time to expound my agreement with Hall. I think that the role that explanation has in our experience of suffering should be taken seriously; if animals feel pain then they can only feel “raw pain”. Animals are unbothered by the explanation as to why their pain is bad. As such, the proclamation that there is a “holocaust on ones dinner plate” is palpably untrue, regardless of whether animals do or do not feel pain. Animals cannot know that they are being used as food for people and thus they are spared the burdensomeness weight of this knowledge. It is for this reason that I find a large part of the animal rights activists movement cringy and sometimes even morally appalling.