Recently, the Hulkster has argued that, unless one needs meat for survival or to feed other animals, one should not kill animals for food. He gives two arguments, one theological and the other non-theological. Since he spends most of his time on the non-theological argument I will focus on it as well. He avoids some controversy in his non-theological argument by making no appeal to the moral status of animals, rather he focuses on human virtue and argues that “virtue demands” that one be a vegetarian (in non-survival circumstances).
A bold claim. Virtue demands that one be a vegetarian. In other words, unless one needs to kill an animal in order to survive in the wilderness, one cannot be virtuous if one kills animals for food. Presumably he has moral virtues in mind, so he is saying that one cannot be morally good (or perhaps fully morally good as far as life this side of the Beatific Vision is concerned) if one kills animals for food. But there is more! Not only is it against moral virtue to kill them for food, it is against virtue to eat animals farmed for food even if you were not involved in the killing:
It will do someone no good to rebut that he doesn’t directly slaughter the animals in his meat consumption, if he shops at Wal-Mart, say, for if he is purchasing animal meat, then he is directly perpetuating and cooperating with animal slaughter. It’ll also do him no good to justify any decision to keep an omnivorous lifestyle with the claim that meat is tasty and enjoyable to eat, because giving up some of what we like to eat, but do not need to eat, is a small but totally acceptable sacrifice for the virtuous life.
But what sort of moral virtues does Hulk have in mind? And precisely how is one not living up to or cultivating these virtues if one is eating farmed animals? He adds, “It is virtuous to be compassionate, kind, respectful, thoughtful, and empathetic. But compassionate toward whom or what? Minimally, compassion is directed toward entities capable of pain and suffering, because pain and suffering suck for those who can feel it.”
Perhaps under the influence of Pope Francis rather than St. Francis, Catholic Hulk appeals to such squishy modern virtues (if virtues they are) as compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness, and empathy rather than hearty, traditional virtues such as fortitude (bravery!), temperance, justice, and wisdom. The idea is that if one even eats food as a result of farming animals unnecessary for survival, this is against the cultivation of these virtues. Why? It’s unclear, but it has something do with animals being subjects of pain and suffering–though this can’t be what he thinks gives them moral worth because, recall, he intended his argument to make no appeal to the moral status of animals.
On a plausible reading, Hulk is channeling Kant and his argument against the cruel treatment of animals. Kant famously held that animals are not subject to moral appraisal and have no moral worth due to a lack of autonomy, nonetheless humans should treat them as if they had worth because in doing so one is more likely to treat humans with dignity. Similarly, one should avoid the cruel treatment of animals because it will lead one to treat humans cruelly.
There are several problems with Kant’s argument, but I will focus only on one, since it seems to apply to Hulk’s argument as well. Kant’s claim, notice is an empirical one, so it needs to be supported with empirical psychology for it to be plausible. For it could very well be the case that human psychology is such that (at least for the most part) humans can and do treat animals differently than humans all the while cultivating without hindrance the virtues Hulk has in mind. In fact, it seems manifestly true that in a number of areas we treat animals quite differently, so much so that it hardly seems worth mentioning. We humans have routinely shot animals in mercy killings but are reluctant to do so when it comes to humans. We routinely bury humans we’ve never met in war but only bury our pets. We treat other humans as morally responsible agents deserving of moral praise and blame but rarely treat animals that way. The western world has for the most part abolished slavery but we routinely sell and use animals for their labor. And only in the most dire of circumstances have humans been eaten by other humans but animals have been eaten by us and by each other since the very beginning (or, well, since very near the beginning, depending on your interpretation of Genesis).
I find it very hard to see how someone who does not even think about the ethics of eating meat–something not even on the radar of most Walmart shoppers–would be affected in any way in terms of their virtues or vices. To repeat, we’re ignoring whether animals have objective worth and considering only whether the cultivation of virtues is inconsistent with meat eating. Couldn’t a Walmart shopper still cultivate justice? Temperance? Faith? Fortitude? Wisdom? Or even compassion, kindness, respect, and empathy (though perhaps not with respect to meat eating since we’re stipulating that the person hasn’t spent much time thinking about that the ethics of it)? It has only been relatively recently in human history that humans have been afforded the luxury of worrying more about the ethics of factory farming than finding their next meal. Have all the meat eaters in centuries past been deprived of these virtues when they spent little time thinking about the ethics of meat eating? If not, why would most people today who similarly think little about the ethics of meat eating be deprived of virtue?
But more to the point, some of what Hulk lists are not even in fact virtues. Empathy is not a virtue for the reasons given by Kant. It is as morally unreliable as self-interest. Both are aimed at someone’s happiness, in the former at someone else’s and in the latter my own. Empathy can and often does go wrong, for instance when one empathizes with a murderer and lets him go. Compassion? Jesus was compassionate but only in certain circumstances. Perhaps compassion is a virtue but it’s not obvious that it is. The cardinal virtues like justice, wisdom, fortitude, and temperance, on the other hand, are obviously and always good. It’s never bad to be wise, for example.
In conclusion, my hunch is that the only plausible non-theistic arguments for vegetarianism will need to appeal to the moral status of animals to justify its moral claims, and such arguments, in turn, will be only as plausible as utilitarianism.
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