Monday, September 20, 2010

Jeff McMahan on meat eaters

. . . can be found on the NY Times website here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] If I had been in a position to design and create a world, I would have tried to arrange for all conscious individuals to be able to survive without tormenting and killing other conscious individuals. I hope most other people would have done the same. Certainly this and related ideas have been entertained since human beings began to reflect on the fearful nature of their world — for example, when the prophet Isaiah, writing in the 8th century B.C.E., sketched a few of the elements of his utopian vision. He began with people’s abandonment of war: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” But human beings would not be the only ones to change; animals would join us in universal veganism: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and the little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” (Isaiah 2: 4 and 11: 6-7)

Isaiah was, of course, looking to the future rather than indulging in whimsical fantasies of doing a better job of Creation, and we should do the same. We should start by withdrawing our own participation in the mass orgy of preying and feeding upon the weak.

Our own form of predation is of course more refined than those of other meat-eaters, who must capture their prey and tear it apart as it struggles to escape. We instead employ professionals to breed our prey in captivity and prepare their bodies for us behind a veil of propriety, so that our sensibilities are spared the recognition that we too are predators, red in tooth if not in claw (though some of us, for reasons I have never understood, do go to the trouble to paint their vestigial claws a sanguinary hue). The reality behind the veil is, however, far worse than that in the natural world. Our factory farms, which supply most of the meat and eggs consumed in developed societies, inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey, in contrast to the relatively brief agonies endured by the victims of predators in the wild. From the moral perspective, there is nothing that can plausibly be said in defense of this practice. To be entitled to regard ourselves as civilized, we must, like Isaiah’s morally reformed lion, eat straw like the ox, or at least the moral equivalent of straw. [. . .]"

Terrific stuff, as usual. I highly recommend readers view the full op-ed.


Matt said...

I found the McMahan piece really interesting and rewarding, but I have trouble seeing that the argument ultimately succeeds: I think he needs it to be the case that there is less animal suffering in the aggregate in a world without carnivores, and that doesn't seem right. I say more about my worry here:

The Brooks Blog said...

Many thanks for sharing your post, Matt. I suppose a further concern may relate to fish. Many vegetarians eat fish. Many fish suffer relatively little when killed (or so I've been told). Thus, perhaps we might rule out being 'carnivores' (e.g., eating meat) without ruling out being 'predators' (e.g., eating fish)...

jon said...

Matt: Isn't McMahan's argument that IF it would be feasible (including generating outcomes with less total animal suffering) THEN we should phase out predators? That was my take on a quick read of it at least.

Brooks: You might be underestimating the suffering of fish. The number of individual animals killed are also staggering: trillions!

The Brooks Blog said...

Many thanks for your helpful comments, Jeff. I did have a quick question for you. Perhaps the number of fish killed in the "global food industry" (my phrase) is staggering. Surely though we might kill even staggering numbers of fish without causing them suffering. To say many are killed may be true, but it does not then follow that many suffer when killed as a result. Could you say more?

Oscar Horta said...

As regards fish sentiency, as well as figures concerning the numbers in which they are captured and other useful information, I'd recommend this site:
As for the balance between suffering and happiness in nature I think this paper is useful: Alan Dawrst's "The Predominance of Wild-Animal Su ering over Happiness: An Open Problem", available here: