Vegetarianism and Jodi Picoult

The hosts of the Philosophy Bites podcast recently had vegetarian Jeff McMahan as their guest. In his interview, he made some very compelling arguments for vegetarianism. His basic approach is a utilitarian view of suffering with two prongs: killing animals causes them to suffer (however briefly), and it also deprives them of the various pleasures they might have experienced if they had been permitted to live.

The increase in pleasure that we gain from consuming animals is, McMahan argues, not great enough to offset the two above-mentioned negative effects. Furthermore, a healthy diet does not strictly require the consumption of animals: we have readily available vegetarian alternatives that would cause us only minor inconvenience, and may even make us healthier.

I am an avid meat eater, but I must say I am compelled by McMahan’s argument. The objections seem to be weak. We might protest that animals are specifically bred to be eaten, so that somehow makes it permissible to kill them. I’m not sure I understand this argument. Is it responsible to bring a life into the world for the sole purpose of taking it out again?

This reminds me of My Sister’s Keeper, a thought-provoking novel by Jodi Picoult, which describes a family’s decision to have a second daughter for the sole purpose of providing an organ donor for her sickly older sister. The family does not, in this case, actually intend to murder the younger daughter in order to harvest her organs. Rather, they hope that the daughter will, when the time comes, agree to donate those organs and other tissues that she can live without.

Is this morally irresponsible?  In the case of My Sister’s Keeper, I’m not sure. On the one hand, we have a new life being brought into the world for a very specific purpose, and if that purpose is to be fulfilled, then the freedom and autonomy of that individual will have to be limited, and the individual will be made to suffer (imagine finding out that you are only alive because you carry organs that might be of help to someone else, and imagine having to decide whether you are willing to go through the physical suffering involved in organ donation). Yet on the other hand, we have the older daughter who will surely die at a young age if she does not receive the right organ transplant. This means that she will be deprived of many, possibly very healthy years of life.

So what about breeding animals for food? We have new lives being brought into the world for a very specific reason, one that certainly violates whatever freedom and autonomy individuals of that type might have enjoyed, and which guarantees the imposition of suffering.

In the case of modern farm animals, it is a little difficult to argue for the violation of freedom, since such animals, by the nature of their breeding, are wholly dependent on us for their well-being, and therefore have little autonomy. However, there are cases when violation of freedoms are more obvious: the use of battery farming is surely an example of a practice that strongly restricts the natural freedoms that the animals would otherwise have enjoyed.

Of course, we might argue that animals like cattle have considerably greater freedoms than their wild ancestors might have done. Wild cattle would have contended with less nutritious, less easily available sources of food, and with the constant threat of predatory attacks. Domesticated cattle, on the other hand, live a life of relative luxury, free from these concerns.

But this latter argument is, I believe, a distraction. We are not doing any specific cow a favor by breeding her. We are not rescuing her from an inevitable life of stress and fear in the wild. If we were, then we could argue that we were improving her life, thereby offsetting the suffering caused by her eventual slaughter. But we are not.

Even worse for animal breeding, we have alternatives. In the Picoult story, there were no viable alternatives for the older daughter. I forget the details now, but all possible means of healing her were essentially exhausted, and she was approaching death’s door. Receiving transplants from a sibling was the only option.

In summary, then, I think we need to ask the following question. Which of these two worlds is better: a world in which humans are all vegetarians, and there is no suffering of livestock, because there is no livestock, and a world in which humans are meat eaters, and there is always some suffering among livestock, and the shortening of otherwise long, potentially happy lives? Right now, I cannot see any reason to opt for the latter.


2 Responses to Vegetarianism and Jodi Picoult

  1. NFQ says:

    You might be interested in this post from Marginal Revolution yesterday, about how the existence of meat improves everyone’s welfare by ensuring a sufficient supply of grains and vegetables. It’s not obviously true, and there’s a lot of interesting discussion in the comments there, but I just had to share this because it’s so fresh in my mind.

  2. Keith says:

    Thanks NFQ.

    It’s an interesting angle, but I’m not sure I buy it. The argument runs, as far as I can tell, that animals provide a useful sink for excess grains and other plant products, but this seems more like a justification for growing excess crops than for breeding animals.

    We need to ask whether more suffering is involved when we have animals to eat excess crops than when we throw excess crops away, and I think the answer is pretty clear. Not only does the presence of animals mean suffering for them, when they are eventually slaughtered but, conversely, the lack of animals poses no threat to our own happiness: if we’re talking about excess crops, then it’s clear that we’d have enough crops for ourselves whether animals were present or not.

    If we consider the case of crop shortages then, once again, there is more suffering when animals are present, either because they are left to starve or because they need to be slaughtered to satisfy our hunger.

    If we were raising animals with the sole purpose of feeding them crops, and not with the added purpose of cutting their lives short to eat their meat, then that makes the case for animals marginally better, although it’s still problematic in the case of crop shortages.

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