Saturday, August 16, 2008

"Many of us are not suicide bombers"

I think Trevor dealt with the exasperated tone of my last post very well. I’ve also been impressed by the fact that Trevor is actually willing to change his views which is pretty unusual.

Having said that, I don’t want to let Trevor off the hook so easily. I’ve been a “vegetarian” for three and a half years and I’ve been having conversations with Trevor about this right from the start. I’ve also been blogging my views on animal rights for about two and a half years and my fundamental position has been the same this whole time! Trevor often comments on these posts. Over this time I’ve read books and articles on animal rights, ethics, evolution, philosophy and politics and considered how the content should impact on my views. This inspired blog posts and is reflected in other posts I have written.

In other words, few laymen in the history of the world (I mean this in relative terms) have taken as much time and effort to make his views on animal ethics consistent and open to public scrutiny. I cannot fathom how Trevor could have failed to be more aware of what they were. In fact I actually began to worry that the views I had blogged were completely different so I trawled through the archives to check. Not only are they more or less the same, Trevor had read them, hence my pointing this out in my last post. Aware that I might be babbling incoherently, I've linked to books and articles (especially this essay) where the case is made better than I could ever make it. Since Trevor recently said on his blog, “be your own biggest critic” I thought this was fair game.

Given the narrow focus nature of this debate I tried to put the vast majority of what can be said on the subject to one side in favour of explaining what I thought was the simplest and best way of making a decision not to eat meat understandable. Not philosophically compelling in a way that could be published in journals of moral philosophy. Not how this decision could be grounded in a consequentialist, deontological or virtue ethical moral philosophy and with no reference to meta-ethics. All of these things can be done mind you, but I thought that wouldn’t help Trevor gain an intuitive understanding of a decision not to eat meat so I consciously didn’t bring them up. Not that I could make these arguments well anyway, that's what professional philosophers are for.

So what I chose was to take something that Trevor already believed and add one empirical fact, and tada! We’re done! These are of course
  • Animal suffering is morally relevant. Less is better than more. As Trevor said “I am opposed to cruelty which leads to unnecessary suffering.”
  • Most commercially available meat depends on practices that cause considerable suffering.

It follows that

  • To the extent that eating this meat supports these practices, its better not to eat it.

Trevor seems excited by the fact that this doesn’t logically rule out eating meat that didn’t involve suffering (which is true and not denied by me). So it seems to me that Trevor has shifted to not understanding these viewpoints.

  • Given how much meat is as a result of suffering a good general rule to adopt is to not eat meat. In support of this view is the evidence (now sited several times) that a resolution to eat humanely raised meat tends to result in tolerance of eating non-humanely raised meat. Trevor may think well, we should just be stricter on ourselves. Fine, but he should also accept that it could be easier, practically to just not eat meat

    We endorse moral rules like “don’t lie” and “keep promises” even though we know that there are plenty of cases were we’ll justifiably break these rules.
  • Even humanly raised meat is likely to involve suffering because of the incentives and humans involved. We’re often appalled to hear of abuse of prisoners, the elderly and the mentally ill. There are famous stories of students abusing other students put under their power. Given how easily we abuse other humans (Trevor laments this often) I find it bizarre that Trevor thinks this wont happen on many farms promising humanely raised meat.

    I also wish that Trevor showed such enthusiasm for free markets in other contexts. I agree that it could provide humanely raised meat, but I also think that the only way this would happen in practice is if there was a very broad base of consumers who were active in punishing companies for being mean to their animals. This doesn't sound much like Trevor, who sounds like he'd be happy with a pretty sticker, or not. A free market doesn’t guarantee great food in places where consumers can’t tell the difference between good and average food. This is easy to check empirically by comparing the food in Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg.
  • The belief that telling a host “I’m sorry, but I’m a vegetarian” is more tactful than, “I’ll only eat meat you provide if it meets these stringent criteria”.
  • Choosing vegetarianism as one of the best ways of reducing your carbon footprint, which many people regard as a moral issue.

Again, it’s not just that Trevor is not won over by these points, but that he doesn’t understand how people can hold them in good faith.

I’m not clear on this, but I think Trevor is retreating to his understanding the views of “most vegetarians” as what he was talking about. Most vegetarians are probably vegetarian for economic or religious reasons. The kind Trevor finds so objectionable are much more visible than other vegetarians because they’re loud and obnoxious, so we need to correct for this overrepresentation in our mental view of the category. The same is true of feminists, atheist and as is very often noted, Muslims! Have you heard? They’re not all suicide bombers!

It’s pretty common for lefties to practically define a libertarian as someone who is opposed to any kind of social safety net. These same people enjoy hating “ultra-libertarians” like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek who, err, supported social safety nets! This is exactly what Jeremy Strangroom (who I really like) did in this book. But these lefties don’t suddenly claim that these guys are not libertarians, Friedman is the most famous libertarian of the 20th century. The answer is just to expand your understanding of libertarian to include Friedman and half the people who self identify as libertarian! What Trevor seems to be doing is the equivalent of saying, “but Friedman wasn’t a libertarian!” and this is true for particular definitions of libertarian, including the definition that they oppose safety nets. Some libertarians do prefer “classical liberal”, but in the real world, we just need to deal with the fact that people think of us as libertarians.

I used to not call myself a vegetarian because of the fish thing. Trevor simply must accept that the reason I changed is because of social pressure to do so (of course I could resist this and continue to annoy people with my pompous explanation of what a Pescatarians is). I do this even though I know in advance that people in the future will get a kick out of pointing out that fish are animals.

But in the end, the views of the average vegetarian are irrelevant if we’re trying to understand why a person might not eat meat. For this it’s only necessary to understand the best reasons. Same goes for feminism, patriotism (maybe I should relentlessly explain that my understanding of patriotism involves hating people from other nations), and atheism, whatever.

Trevor seems to be trying to catch me out by apparently believing I’ll eat humanely raised meat once presented with it. I said that I don’t even have a moral issue with eating human flesh. But I will almost certainly never do it. In an earlier discussion Trevor mentioned something about not liking the idea of eating chimps and dolphins even though he realised that this distinction isn’t especially principled. I have never said “I don’t understand why Trevor doesn’t eat chimp” or, ”I’ll provide Trevor with a delicious chimp bicep.”

It seems I’m being punished for keeping the discussion so narrow. I do have a (relatively small) problem with raising animals with the sole goal of eating them. But this is different from having a problem with eating meat. Stopping on the side of the road for a yummy bit or road kill is different from raising a pig for food.

I think the view that painlessly killing animals is OK is defensible even though I don’t hold it myself. There is a substantial literature arguing both sides of this issue (and note that the anti-death side does not depend on animal suffering!!). There is not a big literature defending factory farming. This is why I didn’t pursue it, I consider it a distraction, it’s complicated and I’d say indeterminate. Just look at the problems we have with other moral problems. Even with my anti-death stance, I just don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s also worth pointing out that even if I thought that the “pro painless death” side was more likely to be correct say 60%. I believe that a 40% chance of the other side being right would be a good enough reason to be concerned over the view. I’ve said before that these issues are involved. I’d guess the anti-death view is one that Trevor doesn’t understand, but then he should study up rather than treating people who hold this view as weird. It would be really bizarre for Trevor to declare, “I have a very poor understanding of people who hold the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.” even if he didn’t understand it.

I agree that a maximally healthy diet will probably involve meat. But nobody eats a maximally healthy diet. There are several Olympic gold medallist vegan athletes. The empirical issue I was pushing is that an average person is much more likely to be eating too much meat than too little and yes, this probably applies to Trevor too.

A few posts back Trevor expressed some anxiety over giving up some of his favourite foods. I think it’s a mistake to view our current preferences as significant and static. Kids rocking out to Britney don’t want to enjoy the Beatles or Bach right now, but most kids do move on and are glad for it. I still miss meat sometimes, but not nearly as much as I did in the beginning.

Trevor gives the impression of wanting to argue for a conclusion he already holds. This is the biggest mistake of all. I’ve blogged about that a lot and so has Trevor. It shouldn’t count as surprising that we can find ways not to be convinced by an alternative view, but this is possible for every single question, even questions of physics. There are no universally compelling arguments. None. Not ever. Really weird views persist because people want them too.

Finally, it’s true that some people as just vegetarian because they like feeling all moral and superior. They’re annoying and stuff, but equally some people choose to go vegetarian because on reflection, they really, truly, honestly, in good faith believe it’s the right thing to do and there are some real costs to doing so. Some of us liked meat, it’s inconvenient sometimes, we don’t like putting hosts out and it really is true that we have to deal with people who get annoyed with us for daring to say that ethics had anything to do with our decisions. These people really do like us less because of this and we know it! I’ve met far more vegetarians who even after discovering my position comically emphasise how they don’t go round trying to convert people. Why the hell is this? People are constantly trying to persuade others of their ethical views without apologising for saying something that others disagree with. Why should this case be any different?

Added: A link!

1 comment:

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