Wednesday, November 23, 2016

All Men Are Socrates: the Fallacy of Necessity as an Argument for Eating Animals

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I write about the argument that many have made for why animals lack rights and may therefore be slaughtered and consumed with impunity by humans:  the fact that animals lack moral agency.  Quite apart from the responses I give in my column, it is also the case that animals have what one might call emergent morality, as discussed by ethologists such as Jonathan Balcombe.  In this post, however, I want to focus on a different issue that comes up in debates about animal rights:  the notion that unlike frivolous uses of animals (such as in dog fighting), which are morally wrong, the use of animals for food is a necessity and therefore morally beyond reproach.

We see this argument play out in different forms.  People will say that they are against sport hunting, for example, but that they are fine with hunting for one's food, because then one is hunting for a necessity rather than a luxury.  People will also say that they are opposed to cruelty to animals, and our laws reflect this value (by prohibiting such cruelty), but such people regard the infliction of suffering on animals as necessary and acceptable when it is an essential part of raising those animals for food.  For example, kicking a cow for fun would be considered cruelty, but taking a cow's newborn baby calf away from her and thereby inflicting far greater suffering than would a kick is acceptable conduct, because it is necessary to the dairy industry (which impregnates cattle and then steals what was to be their babies' milk for human consumption).

The way people think about food and animals resembles a false syllogism that appears in the Woody Allen Movie Love and Death.  In the movie, Woody Allen's character states as follows:  "All Men Are Mortal.  Socrates Is a Man.  Therefore, All Men are Socrates."  The analogous syllogism that seems to operate for people discussing the use of animals for food is as follows:  "All Humans Need Food.  Animal-based Food is Food.  Therefore, All Humans Need Animal-based Food."

In most of the world, people who have access to animal-based foods also have access to plant-based foods.  In fact, animal-based food is in some impoverished parts of the world considered a luxury, so that plant-based staples such as rice and beans are the rule.  Plant-based foods (and mushrooms, technically a fungus rather than a plant) can be prepared deliciously and are nutritious and, even according to the conservative Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, can meet the needs of people in every phase of life, including childhood, pregnancy, and nursing, and offer benefits in resisting chronic diseases (such as heart disease and diabetes).  Virtually no one has to eat animal-based foods (just as almost no one is Socrates).

So when you come across (or yourself advance) the argument that hurting and killing animals for food is "necessary" and therefore less objectionable than other uses of animals (such as fur coats or circuses), remember the syllogism.  That people need to eat is obvious, but they do not need to eat animals and their hormonal secretions.  When they choose nonetheless to do so, they are therefore unnecessarily causing great suffering and distress among our fellow earthlings.  And as most people will acknowledge believing, it is wrong to cause unnecessary harm to nonhuman animals.  Happy Thanksgiving.

3 comments:

David Ricardo said...

Again, another timely and provocative essay on this subject from Ms. Colb. As an avowed anti-hunter and evolving anti-meat eater (not there yet) I wonder if these two things are different, that is, is hunting (or more correctly, murdering animals) a different issue than eating meat. I think it may be.

Consider pre-historic communities. Unlike us, where the abundance of food is so great that none of us even think about where our next meal is coming from, these communities literally lived and died by the success of the hunt. So when a herd was found and slaughtered there was tremendous pleasure released to the community, and the greater the pleasure the greater the drive to kill animals. And the more successful the drive to kill animals, the higher the likelihood that evolution would favor the more skillful and driven killers over the less successful killers.

So are today’s hunters the descendants of those whose pleasure was most responsive to killing animals? Maybe so, in which case the act of hunting is separate from the act of providing food. Probably a majority of hunters do not eat what they kill, and instead derive a magnificent ‘high’ from the act of killing. In this case the argument against the need to kill for food fails; hunters do not kill for food, they kill for the pleasure of killing.

How to reverse evolution, how to change the psyche of hunters from deriving pleasure from killing to deriving pleasure from promoting a humane life of animals seems to me to be the challenge of those of us who oppose hunting. It cannot be done de jure, it must be done by an evolutionary change in society, a change where a society condemns hunters murdering animals.

Finally, Ms. Colb is correct in that

“Plant-based foods (and mushrooms, technically a fungus rather than a plant) can be prepared deliciously and are nutritious and, even according to the conservative Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, can meet the needs of people in every phase of life, including childhood, pregnancy, and nursing, and offer benefits in resisting chronic diseases (such as heart disease and diabetes). Virtually no one has to eat animal-based foods (just as almost no one is Socrates).”

but let’s all agree that Tofurkey is not the answer here.

A Happy Vegan Thanksgiving to Mr. Dorf, Ms. Colb and Mr. Buchanan, with our thanks for providing an intelligent and thought provoking forum.

Joe said...

"but let’s all agree that Tofurkey is not the answer here"

The whole "tofurkey" might not be the answer but various faux meats from my personal experience are quite tasty, including the slices for sandwiches and "crumbles" and the like for stews and so forth.

Hunting often seems to me to be a cultural thing (a tricky case there being basically symbolic hunts by native groups). I don't support it (and find it cruel) but one on one direct action like this does seem significantly better than mass production of animals for food ala factory farming. And, "culture" often includes unsavory things, so it's fine to discuss the whole story there.

Addendum: Some might be interested in the movie "The Lobster." Its premise is that people go to a hotel and have 45 days to find a mate. If they don't, they turn into an animal of their choice. There are regular "hunts" where guests go at each other with dart guns though it appears to be open season (one guest is a sociopath and violently attacks targets). It is well done but found it hard to take after a while.

F. John Caldwell, Jr. said...

I am one visit to a slaughterhouse from being at least a vegetarian. Aside from liking meat, I don't have any real argument in its favor. I wear leather shoes (but my toughest shoes, my hiking boots, are all man-made or plant-made materials), a leather belt, and sit on leather in my house and car. I can do without all these things in the future. It is by pure self delusion that I disconnect the slaughtering from the food (or leather). I can't kill even an insect myself (we had a huge palmetto bug in the house the other day (essentially a gigantic roach for you non-Floridians!) and I dealt with it by just hoping it would find its way back outside -- finally the cat got it (ah, nature!)). I can't bait a fish hook and certainly can't kill the fish I might catch (and really don't fish anyway, but once or twice when I have, it made me ill!). I find the display of deer heads or other animal parts grotesque. I truly believe homo sapiens are arrogant in believing other animals are not sentient (I know my very old dog gets my sense of humor, and I can't believe cows in your example above don't grieve when they lose their young -- ever look in a cow's, or a horse's, or a dog's eyes? There's a being in there!). So thanks Professor Colb! You upset me. And the first part of change is being upset.