Honestly, I find the impasse with Trevor over my views on animal ethics extremely weird, especially since as far as I can tell we agree on the fundamental issue, suffereing caused by cruel practices. The problem doesn’t seem to be that Trevor disagrees with the conclusions for action (most of my friends disagree), but that my views are confused and difficult to make out. The source of my frustration is this gap in understanding.
In order to root it out I think it’s necessary to be clear exactly what we’re talking about and lack of clarity is at the heart of the problem I have with the article. What is Smith arguing? That many PETA activists are scary nuts or that veganism isn’t in some plausible sense better for animals on average than meat eating? I think he's arguing both, but they're so different! I agree with one and disagree with the other. Soooo...
- If his problem is with activists willing to do violence against people and property associated with animal testing, factory farming etc. then cool, I have a problem with them too. In fact I have a special interest in not being lumped in with them. Some people just see them, see that they're crazy and then dismiss concerns over animal ethics as eccentric. There's an analogy with feminism. Some feminists think that e=mc^2 is a sexist equation and that all sex is rape. Dismissing these people doesn't imply that we're living in a predjudice free utopia. You wanna argue against a school of thought, you gotta tackle the strongest case for it. Sorry, thems the rules. You wanna argue against libertarianism, read Robert Nozick not Ayn Rand. Remember that most moral philosophers hold stronger views on amimal rights than the average person, they may be wrong but it's unlikley that very weak arguments would persist and gain such traction.
- So is veganism worse on average for animals? Unless we agree on what "worse" actually means we have no chance to reach agreement and Smith uses the crazy activist criteria rather than the criteria that more respectable animal rights defenders (seriously, Peter Singer isn't exactly obscure) use. He assumes that death is the only issue rather than suffering and that fish hold the same moral status as pigs. Since I think both postions are really stupid whatever analysis follows from them isn't especially interesting to me Though it's worth noting that the paper he links to makes it clear that the numbers used are basically a guess. Also, if you take 'deaths per hectare of farmland' it's probably true that more die on crop land, but a) it's mostly bugs and mice b) you need to grow grain to feed the livestock so basically it's a pointless observation and c) going vegan reduces the amount of farmland needed by a factor of twenty!
Trevor's not very concerned about death and that isn't my major concern either, though I don't understand the, "It seems to me to be a `non-intelligent' animals role?" comment at all. I also don't really get the rest of his comment. When he says, "I think you could have a greater impact campaigning for more humane conditions and slaughter." Is the "you" here, me? Because this has always been my principle concern. "Fewer people would disagree there." Yeah, fewer people disagree, but it's also my experience that people don't alter their meat buying patterns as a result (I can't speak for Trevor, but both Tyler Cowen and Greg admitt to this. Trevor?). "Go ahead. Get as upset as you want" again, is this me?
So, in discussions of animal rights on my blog and Trevor's we can take the statement, "Militant activists are not worth arguing with." as given and then move on from there.
Finally, in keeping with my battle against black and white and the desire to distinguish between different shades of gray, there is no claim about moral perfection here. I honestly believe I should be way stricter about my dairy consumption, I'm not proud of this but I also I haven't gone beyond a vague feeling that I'll try to do bettere in the future. Also, I'm on record as saying that morality is over rated. Even if my ethical views are correct that doesn't automatically imply a particular response. We consciously act in morally imperfect ways all the time! That's often OK but unless we think about these things, we'll never know when it's OK and when it's really not.