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Vol. 14, No. 6, 2015
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the moral and philosophical arguments



Some arguments for moral vegetarianism proceed by appealing to widely held beliefs about the immorality of causing unjustified pain. Combined with the claim that meat is not needed for our nourishment and that killing animals for this reason causes them unjustified pain, they yield the conclusion that eating meat is immoral.

However, what counts as a good enough reason for causing pain depends largely what we think about the moral status of animals. Implicit in these arguments is the claim that sentience is sufficient for having moral status. These arguments, however, fail to specify the conceptual connection between sentience and moral status. Although animals experience pain as it is physically bad, their experience of it is not in itself morally bad. They are harmed in feeling pain, but this harm is not of a moral kind. This distinction parallels the more familiar distinction between moral and nonmoral goods. When considered, this significantly mitigates the force of sentience-based arguments for moral vegetarianism. Since animals lack moral status, it is not wrong to eat meat, even if this is not essential to nutrition.
Most of us have the intuition that it is wrong to inflict pain upon someone without a morally good reason. If causing unjustified pain is wrong, then the ability to feel pain would appear to be a morally salient property that provides us with a sufficient condition for having moral standing. Now if it is wrong to cause unjustified pain, then it is also wrong to support or partake in practices that involve this. One class of arguments for moral vegetarianism employs these widely shared beliefs in arguing against the consumption of meat. Since it is possible for us to nourish ourselves without eating meat, the act of killing animals for consumption causes them unjustified pain, from which it then follows that eating meat is prima facie morally wrong. This is sometimes bolstered with empirical claims about the inhumane conditions of factory farms and animal agri-businesses. This strategy, which Rachels calls the basic argument for vegetarianism, can be formulated as follows:

(1) It is wrong to cause pain without a morally good reason.
(2) If it is wrong to cause pain without a morally good reason, then it is also wrong to support practices that cause pain without a morally good reason.
(3) If we can nourish ourselves without eating meat, then nourishment is not a morally good reason to cause pain to animals or to support practices that cause pain to animals.
(4) We can nourish ourselves without eating meat.
(5) Therefore, nourishment is not a morally good reason to cause pain to animals or to support practices that cause pain to animals
(6) Therefore, it is wrong to eat meat

Critics of this argument can respond in several ways. Some grant the moral relevance of sentience, but argue that this only implies that we should strive to reduce or eliminate animal pain when slaughtering them. One also might question the premise that we can nourish ourselves without eating meat. Another objection is that one’s individual actions are causally impotent in stopping the practices of large animal agri-businesses.

The concept of a ‘morally good reason’ needs explication. Morally good reasons are distinct from good reasons considered generally. Whether or not some reason is ‘good’ will depend on whether it adequately justifies, grounds, or motivates some course of action. Good reasons need not be moral reasons. If my goal is to be a good athlete, then my wanting to be a good athlete is a good reason to practice hard. If my goal is to arrive to a meeting on time, then arriving on time is a good reason to leave early. Neither of these are necessarily moral activities, since they hinge on the acceptance of a conditional premise. Morally good reasons are good reasons that appeal to moral facts for the purpose of guiding action. The claim that eating meat is wrong because it involves unnecessary pain to animals appeals to one such reason. The proponent of the basic argument is committed to the thesis that sentience is a morally salient property, the possession of which is sufficient to confer moral standing.

Moral interests are categorically more important than non-moral interests. Moral interests are welfare interests of members of the moral community. They refer to things that members of the moral community need in order to flourish. Non-moral interests are welfare interests of non-moral entities. Barring cases where acting against a non-moral interest may indirectly affect a moral-interest, moral interests seem always to take precedence over non-moral interests.

Animals lack moral status altogether. More specifically, I mean that animal pain is bad, but not morally bad. It is only a certain type of pain experience -- namely those of beings capable of rational agency -- that matters in a moral sense. This distinction between pain as it is physically bad and pain as it is morally bad is entailed by a more basic distinction between moral and non-moral goods. If animals lack moral status, then given the principle that the welfare interests of moral beings take precedent over those of nonmoral beings, it follows that our moral welfare interest in eating meat takes precedence over the non-moral welfare interests of animals. If this strategy works, then we have a basis for putting our own welfare interests over the welfare interests of animals when it comes to their use as food. I am not taking the Cartesian position that animals are incapable of feeling pain, a thesis that is contradicted by an overwhelming amount of physiological and neurological evidence. Nor am I denying that it is wrong to cause unjustified pain. It is indeed wrong to cause unjustified pain, but what counts as justified and unjustified will depend on what kind of thing we are dealing with. We can formulate the argument in defense of eating meat quite simply:

(1) Moral welfare interests trump non-moral welfare interests.
(2) Human consumption of meat for the sake of nutrition is a moral welfare interest.
(3) The interests of non-human animals in not feeling pain is a non-moral welfare interest.
(4) Therefore, human consumption of meat for the sake of nutrition trumps the interests of non-human animals.

Hence to be a part of the moral community is to have one’s welfare interests matter categorically. Members of the moral community are superior in a way that is different in kind from those outside of the moral community.

The most controversial premise of the argument I have offered will likely be, which asserts that animals lack moral status. I now turn to a defense of this particular premise.


What exactly is moral status? At its most general level, to have status, standing, or to be a subject is to have membership within a community. Consider the concepts of educational status and religious status. One’s status in each of these areas is dependent upon the nature of the relevant institution. Given the nature of educational institutions, someone who is enrolled in a school may be said to have standing as a student, while someone who is not enrolled may lack standing altogether or possess a different kind of standing. Similarly, an atheist, under certain conceptions of what it means to be religious, will not have standing in religious bodies because he does not share a belief in the divine. Those within a community will often be subject to and enjoy certain rights, rules and regulations that are relevant to the goals of that community. For instance, students in a school have the right to learn in a safe and distraction-free environment. At the same time, they are subject to rules regarding dress code, attendance, and homework. Depending on the community, not all members of the community may share the same amount of standing (teachers and religious figureheads, for example, will have higher standing than students and laypersons). Hence, status within a community may come in degrees of significance.

But what is the moral community? Communities are groups of individuals (or smaller subgroups) ordered around a common factor or objective shared by each member. The conditions for membership within a certain community are determined by that community’s nature or purpose. Educational status in a university, for example, depends on meeting certain minimum admissions criteria pertinent to the goal(s) of the university. The concept of membership, like the concept of status, makes sense only when understood in relation to a group organized around a common factor. These common factors can either be a natural property (such as in biological kinds) or stipulations made by an organizing authority (such as in a club). We cannot know what it means to have standing in a certain community without first knowing the common factor around which that community is structured. So too with the moral community. The defining feature of the moral community is related to the nature of morality itself. Hence, to know what the moral community is, we first must have some idea of what morality is and what it is about.

We should also distinguish the concept of moral status from the grounds of moral status. In order to draw distinctions between what is and what isn’t relevant to moral standing, one needs to begin with an understanding of what moral status is. However, theories of the grounds of moral status are very often put forth with little to no theoretical elaboration tying the purported morally relevant property or properties to membership in the moral community. Many times the only reason in favour of adopting a specific conception of the grounds of moral status is just an assertion that its moral relevance is intuitively obvious. But this will not do, especially given that many theories that claim intuitive support are mutually exclusive. What we want from a theory of moral status is a robust conceptual framework for understanding moral status, not just a list of properties that are justified by a mere appeal to intuition. There will need to be theoretical elaboration on why a supposed property or list of properties is relevant to membership in the moral community. Appeals to intuition, though helpful, do not go far in satisfying this requirement. It may be intuitively obvious that some property is in some way relevant to moral status, but this in itself does not tell us how it is relevant (which may reveal crucial points that cannot be uncovered by mere reflection on one’s intuitions).

The defender of the basic vegetarian argument is committed to the claim that sentience is sufficient for conferring moral status. However it is not clear what the connection is supposed to be. To see this, consider the distinction between moral and non-moral goodness. This distinction holds simply that things can be good in ways other than their being morally good, and that moral goodness is a subset of goodness considered generally. Good is a term that is used to assess the worthiness of a particular thing in relation to some end, kind, or purpose. That is to say, something is good in that it is good for some x. If I say that a toaster is good, I mean that it is particularly adept at doing the sort of thing that toasters are supposed to do, which is toasting bread. But being good in one respect is conceptually distinct from being good in other respects. Hence, although a toaster might be good for the end of toasting bread, it is not good for the end of telling time. A good toaster, good watch, good firefighter, and good person are all good in different ways. In each case, the content of the good depends on the thing of which it is attributed. Goodness can be spoken of in many different ways, with moral goodness being just one way in which something can be said to be good. Thus, that something is good in some sense does not in itself entail its being morally good as well, for not all goods are moral goods.

Now why should we think that sentience is sufficient for moral status? An obvious answer is that causing pain harms the being that suffers. Since we ought not harm others without a morally good reason, it follows that it is morally wrong to cause unjustified pain. But this will not do. Each living being possesses a set of welfare conditions according to which its life can be evaluated as well or ill. Humans need oxygen or else they will suffocate, cows need grass or else they still starve, and plants need water or else they will wither. Some non-living things also possess welfare conditions. A car that is improperly maintained or a computer infected with a malicious program is not functioning as it should. A harm is just a setback to one or more of a being’s welfare conditions, with the harm of pain consisting in the impairment of a subject’s physical and mental well-being.

The question we should ask, then, is this: What is it about pain that makes its harm a distinctively moral harm? Stated differently, what does pain add that makes it different from the violation of just any other welfare condition? It will not do merely to appeal to intuition, for although we do have a strong intuition that pain is linked with moral badness, this intuition does not tell us whether the moral badness of pain derives from the very nature of pain itself or from some further fact that makes pain experiences morally significant. If the latter turns out to be the case, then our intuitions about pain contain a masking effect that affects our ability to discriminate accurately between relevant and irrelevant forms of pain experiences. That is, our intuitions may cause us to focus too much on irrelevant features that present themselves strongly to us, with the result that we miss other subtle but relevant ones.

Perhaps the moral relevance of sentience consists in the fact that pain experiences imply the existence of a subject who is consciously aware of his or her experience of pain. Kuhse and Singer acknowledge that a variety of living and non-living things can have welfare conditions, but maintain that only those welfare conditions that bear on consciousness have moral import. Thwarting a desire counts as an instance of mental harm in the same way that thwarting growth counts as an instance of physical harm. In neither case can we infer that they are intrinsically moral harms. Thus, although the presence of conscious states or mental properties certainly makes a being’s welfare more complex, they do not seem to add anything beyond a new set of welfare conditions. Even though it does intuitively seem as if consciousness of a certain kind is relevant to moral status, consciousness as such is not what confers moral status. There needs to be a further fact that conceptually links the two together.


Earlier it was said that communities are organized around common factors. The moral community is likewise organized around something shared in common by all of its members. This common factor is none other than the capacity for rational agency. Moral philosophy studies topics such as the good, obligatory and forbidden actions, responsibility, virtue, habits, attitudes, emotions and practical reasoning. All of these have to do in some way with the pursuit of the good life. Virtue, for instance, is typically understood as being a disposition towards a certain kind of action. The terms action and pursuit refer to more than just a mere tending towards an end, such as digestion or the heart’s pumping blood. Moral action is free action, which requires (among other things) that an agent have the ability to know his reasons for action. Oderberg notes that “knowledge and action are the two essential objects of ethics, what the person who wants to ‘be moral’ or ‘act morally’ has to aim at.” Morality itself, then, is concerned with delineating standards for the purpose of guiding behaviour. Gert defines morality as “an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behaviour that affects others, and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.” The purpose of morality is to provide a code of conduct that those in the moral community can use to guide their behavior with the final aim of flourishing or living the good. The moral community is thus a community of rational and free beings. It is this common factor that defines the moral community as moral.

Moral subjects must therefore be capable of knowing, understanding, deliberating, choosing, and acting for the sake of the good. Furthermore, since morality is about the pursuit of the good, and because the good is species-specific, a moral subject must also have the further ability to know his own good and the good of others in the moral community. This in turn requires that a moral subject have the ability to have at least partial knowledge of his nature and the nature of others like him, which requires that he possess an intellect capable of grasping the essential nature of things and abstracting it as something held in common by many.

It is unlikely that animals have any of these cognitive powers. We come to know what something is through observing its actions. That is, we know what kind of being/entity something is by seeing how its powers, capacities, and dispositions are manifested. I know what a plant is by observing its physical structure and growth patterns. I know what a dog is by observing its behavior. If some animals really are capable of rational agency, then we should expect them to manifest some of the characteristics indicative of it. But any evidence of this sort is completely absent in animals. This can be seen simply by noting the huge gaps in achievements between humans and animals. If animals possessed the same sort of intelligence, then we would expect to see similar achievements in the animal world. We would expect their intellectual, moral, social, and cultural development to parallel our own. Yet this is obviously not the case.

A lion that devours a zebra does not act immorally, since neither the lion nor the zebra is capable of having duties of any sort. If I am mauled by a grizzly bear, the grizzly bear is not morally blameworthy for mauling me because it has no duty to respect my rights. Should we put carnivorous predators on trial, punish them, and create provisions to protect them from harming each other? Most of us would rightly balk at such suggestions. Whatever intelligence animals do possess, our reluctance to attribute duties to them on the basis of such intelligence is evidence that it is not the kind of intelligence relevant to moral standing.

What of the complaint that any moral theory that denies moral status to animals is unable to account adequately for the wrongness of cruelty? Here it is not clear why someone who denies that animals have moral status cannot be committed to the thesis that animal cruelty is wrong in part because of what it does to the animal. Animals, along with all living things, possess welfare conditions, and so acts of cruelty harm them in a real sense. Even though it is persons (either oneself or others) who are morally harmed, it is not incorrect to say that that animal cruelty is wrong in part because it harms animals, since it is through harming animals that persons are morally harmed. In other words, the harm dealt to animals is a necessary -- but not sufficient -- feature of what grounds the wrongness of animal cruelty.

But perhaps an advocate of moral vegetarianism might have a way out. “Whether a particular treatment is cruel, very much lies in the eyes of the beholder. As a consequence, people might have different views about what harms the moral status of humans. As such, the moral status of animals becomes irrelevant for determining whether eating meat is immoral. It all depends on how much harm a particular object inflicts upon the moral status of humans.”

It is true that what constitutes cruelty will, to some extent, be person-relative. Nevertheless, this is not enough to support a general argument for vegetarianism. Cruelty, whatever else it may be, consists of practices that inflict needless or excessive suffering (i.e. suffering beyond what is required) or suffering for its own sake. In other words, one way that cruelty may be perpetrated is if someone inflicts more harm that is required to accomplish some end, even if that end is morally legitimate. Implicit in this analysis is that practices that are proportionate to some morally legitimate end do not count as cruel. By legitimate end I mean any practice that contributes to our flourishing. Since animals lack moral status and can be used for the purpose of satisfying a legitimate welfare interest (i.e. nutrition), then their use for this end is morally permissible in principle. Acts of harming animals that are disproportionate to the end of nutrition, would, under this analysis, rightly be immoral. Perhaps this requires drastic changes to current practices, perhaps it doesn’t. My goal here is not to defend current practices involving the use of animals for food, but to critique the more general idea that we ought to be vegetarians because nourishment is not a morally good reason to cause pain to animals or to support practices that cause pain to animals.


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By your own view, those humans who will never possess or have permanently lost the capacity for "knowing, understanding, deliberating, choosing, and acting for the sake of the good" (e.g., some permanently severely cognitively disabled humans) are not moral subjects. That's a reductio of your view.










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