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There is an ongoing debate around the morality of food habits. About this debate, I have only heard one side - the side of the moral vegans. Bentham, Singer and others propose a veganism based on utilitarian principles, and there is an abolitionist view as well.

I have personally never seen any substantial philosophical rebuttal to the claims made by P. Singer, in his book Animal Liberation. Is there any good rebuttal or criticisms, based on moral philosophy (rather than other arguments like health, the economy, etc.), to the works of P. Singer? Is there any good source to learn more about this debate?

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  • Wikipedia lists arguments against vegetarianism. For a more academic take see Mancilla's survey Veganism.
    – Conifold
    Sep 21, 2020 at 21:25
  • Why the downvote? Can someone tell me what the problem is with the question so that I can ask better question next time? Sep 22, 2020 at 10:49
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    I'll upvote the question but mention that it sort of asks four questions instead of one. Sep 23, 2020 at 5:42
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    I think it's an excellent question. I have read some Singer, and I myself would be interested. I find his metric of degree of consciousness compelling despite my love of bacon. I would love to not be inconsistent. I'm going to shake the branches of SE Philosophy and see if anything falls out that addresses.
    – J D
    Sep 24, 2020 at 15:30
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    @Noah This is very late, but might I ask why you think that the burden of proof lies on vegans to demonstrate that their moral claim is correct? It is certainly true that the status quo in the world right now is to eat meat, but (at least to me) that shouldn't imply a burden of proof. In fact, I would argue that, a priori, it would seem unreasonable to kill and consume another sentient being when it's unnecessary. That would in turn seem to imply that the burden of proof lies on meat eaters to justify the positive action of participating in a system that does that killing.
    – EE18
    Dec 1, 2020 at 20:46

4 Answers 4

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The defences I see focus on cost/accessibility, and issues around management of landscapes and wellbeing of the animals. There are also arguments about traditional diets, and free choices about diet.

The cost issue is fudged by the fact that farming subsidies disproportionately go towards animal products. Plus economies if scale around what are traditional diets versus innovating.

Vegan diets would reduce land use gigantically by around 75%, allowing a return of wild animals which currently in total only make up 4% of animal biomass. Rewilding projects show a possible transition style of farming, towards reintroducing a fully wild landscape which would require the return of large carnivores which is controversial.

Many traditional dishes have been banned, like foi gras in many countries outside of France, and South Korea recently decided to ban eating dogs. Free range eggs, and pigs being raised outdoors, are other examples of legislation that is 'ratcheting up' concern for animals. Singer's argument is that the direction of moral progress is clear, and it leads to veganism. Traditional dishes and gratification of tastebuds ha e been overuled by widespread consensus already in certain cases, so it seems like it is just about cultural and social change and the premise of law changing diets yo reduce cruelty is accepted, the only dispute is how much cruelty is ok.

So, the defences people present tend to be more rhetorical than philosophical, appealing to sentiments rather than reason.

See related discussions:

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There are multiple directions to take this answer.

The first is that Singer is not a Vegan, and his animal welfare position is not absolutist like Veganism is. https://www.abolitionistapproach.com/peter-singer-oh-my-god-these-vegans/ Singer is not opposed to eating free range eggs, or honey, or use of feathers/wool/silk provided the animals are treated humanely, or the eating of meat or production of leather/feathers from animals that die naturally.

Singer's argument for this position is based on utilitarianism, where the object of utilitarian calculus should be any entity that can experience suffering.

There are ways to reach different moral conclusions, based on different assumptions about moral value and principles.

Some of these moral approaches are MORE extreme than Singer. Tom Regan, who wrote The Case for Animal Rights, takes a "rights" rather than utilitarian approach to ethics, and argues for the extension of full rights to all adult mammals. This still does not get one to veganism, or even vegetarianism (one can eat naturally dying mammals, and silkworms, bees, fish, and birds are not adult mammals), but it does get one closer to both, as animal farming even with no mistreatment (for wool, and milk) would be prohibited.

Another somewhat extreme approach is Deep Ecology, which treats the object of utilitarian calculus as the biosphere, rather than individuals. Deep Ecology does not care so much about our eating individual animals -- after all, LOTS of other animals eat other animals too. Deep Ecology cares about the way we have damaged the robustness of the global ecosystem, by consuming so much of the biosphere in the biomass of humans. This has weakened the robustness of the biosphere against global stressors (solar flares, global climate change, magnetic pole reversals, etc.). Under Deep Ecology we are obligated morally to PROTECT the biosphere, rather than parasitize upon it. Reducing human biomass, and restoring as many of the wild ecosystems as is feasible while humans maintaining our technologic capability to defend Gaia against geological and astronomic threats -- is a very different moral prescription from Veganism.

The human centric moral rebuttals tend to be based on Darwinian ethics of varying types. The most violent of these encourage the morality of "Nature Red in Tooth and Claw", and consider the morality of killing to be validated by evolutionary success. However, within biological ethics, the more aggressive/selfish moral arguments have been mostly refuted by the relative success of eusocial creatures, and even more interestingly, by the way we multi-cellular animals are ourselves eusocial relative to cells. Under eusociality, the community needs to be the object of moral utility, as opposed to individuals. The eusocial argument against Vegetarianism is that we humans are a eusocial community, and we humans are in competition with other species, whom we justifiably treat as a resource, to promote our community.

Note that the Deep Ecology view basically extends Eusociality to INCLUDE all ecosystems.

There are problems with most of these views. For both Veganism and Vegetarianism, we humans would not be able to do any farming. Farming requires clearing land of its vegetation, and doing this will kill adult mammals. So will plowing, mining, any construction, or any vehicle operation. The Vegan position, as well as that of Animal Rights, requires that we humans engage in no disturbing of the planetary surface beyond what low impact gathering would impose. Animal Liberation, a la Singer, would not be quite as extreme. But we could not justify any farming that would kill any significant quantity of animals -- the death rate we cause should not exceed what we would accept in child-deaths to do the same thing. And that would prohibit most farming.

Eusociality leaves a massive moral hole where rights need to exist, even if ABSOLUTE rights are probably not viable as a moral theory.

Of these alternatives, Deep Ecology, despite its apparent extremism, has the least apparent faults. It could be adopted as a guideline rather than a dogma, with an addendum to promote human welfare, and a secondary addendum to promote animal welfare, and this pragmatic approximation could satisfy most moral intuitions.

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  • Great answer, +1.
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 13 at 0:03
  • @CriglCragl -- my preferred moral theory is Love virtue, but Virtue ethics is not that useful in thinking thru this question, so I relied upon the next tier of moral theories.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 13 at 0:07
  • I think you can claim extending intersubjectivity as virtuous, as per this answer: 'Studies exploring the rationale of gender equality' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/90227/…
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 13 at 0:12
  • I think we are obligated by sanity to protect the biosphere - no moral argument is required. It's just that the problems are not really solvable by individuals or even large groups of people.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 14 at 3:50
  • @ScottRowe Moral thinking is a crucial way to get societies working in the same direction. That is why moral thinking is tested as key to societal function in eusocial evolutionary thinking. Morality however is absolutist rather than pragmatic. Gaia’s welfare is THE moral value in deep ecology. Yes pragmatism says keep Gaia reasonably healthy. But the limitation of our collective misuse of Gaia can only be accomplished thru moralizing!
    – Dcleve
    Jan 14 at 13:18
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The only thing I have seen that comes close is to postulate that humans somehow need animal products to be healthy. However, since that is nowhere near being the current consensus in nutritional science, that response falls apart, unless one also explains why the current scientific consensus is wrong, and why the one making the argument is more trustworthy than the rest of the nutritional scientific community.

Another thing I have seen (which still does not defend current agricultural practices), is that it would be alright to breed and slaughter animals if they experience mostly happiness and joy in their lives before they are killed. Since they are only bred because of the money that comes through selling those products, their very birth only happens due to them being used for food. Therefore they can only experience this happiness through people using them for food, even though it means they eventually die.

The problem with this argument is that if you put it in the human context (or even a dog), most people's ethical intuitions (including mine) screams that this is wrong. Breeding humans, even if they are happy, to slaughter them at a young age to eat them, seems clearly wrong to most people.

Any objection to veganism, therefore, most explain the morally relevant difference between other animals and humans that justifies the difference in treatment. This difference must also work when applied to humans. For example, if one says that the differrence is that other animals are less intelligent, it must also apply to a human being with the same intelligence (with an intellectual disability, for example). In other words, it must mean that it is fine to breed and slaughter intelectually disabled humans for food. Otherwise, using that trait falls apart. This is called the "Name the Trait Argument" and is commonly used by vegans to argue for animal rights.

Personally, I have not seen good answers to this question. Therefore, I currently see the positions of veganism and animal rights as morally sound, similarly to positions such as human rights, a belief in democracy, etc.

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  • I guess you can make a capacities-based argument, about awareness of mortality. Many animals clearly grieve though. And their capacities keep exceeding what has been expected, from tool use in pigs, to playfulness in bees, to dreaming in octopuses. We cannot truly claim to know about animals what we have not been truly interested in learning about them, because our exploitation of them has been convenient & we haven't wished to know about their suffering, eg seperation trauma of mothers not getting to rear calfs.
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 12 at 18:09
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    @CriglCragl Even if you do make the capacities-based argument, you will always find some human beings who do not have that capacity. For example, there are cognitively impaired humans who do not have awareness of mortality. Where would that render them? Would it be alright to exploit those humans for their meat and milk? Surely not.
    – Fiksdal
    Jan 12 at 23:03
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In the ethical dimension, one needn't address Singer's arguments at all. One simply can reject his meta-ethical theory. To that I bring to the table the non-cognitivism of Ayer and others. Singer's position is very strong in that what he says is quite rational. The advantages for veganism are many, but ultimately, one can just maintain that his rational position reduces to a "yay!" instead of a "boo!". Thus, instead of attacking the argument head on, one can simply just declare his metaphysical presumptions in error.

Thus, the debate goes like this:

P1: Veganism has health, financial, and ethical benefits.
P2: I acknowledge your position, but I find your "facts" to be driven by your values. Your Is-es are really Oughts in disguise, and I don't agree with your values that you use to arrive at facts.
P1: So you don't value health, financial, and ethical benefits???
P2: I do, but the best end solution is government subsidized bacon as part of a balanced diet. Think of a world in which no human goes without nutrition, in which the world economy grows in adopting a global and equitable production strategy, and the elimination of warfare over resources like arable land and food? Isn't a meal in every belly of a every hungry child and an attempt to deprive people of the motives of crime and war a morally superior strategy?

But mightn't P1 object to the claim that facts and values are distinct, as in the case Hume has laid out regarding Oughts and Is-es? To which an astute philosopher would merely point out, as Searle has done in his Speech Acts that every measurement and every logic system that forms the basis of the Is, requires an Ought in regards to the which and how of measurement and logic. If one claims something is a fact, one often simply can quip, it's a fact according to such and such presumptions, because how one prefers to perform inference is in no sense necessary in an absolute sense.

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  • Drawing a circle of any definition to include all humans but nothing else, as due special moral consideration, just cannot be done without resorting to religion. Sure what you do then is up to you. But many smart animals are more cognitively developed than young human children. This simply has to be accounted for, by whatever argument. "You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts."
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 13 at 0:09
  • @CriglCragl Bacon.
    – J D
    Jan 13 at 7:25

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