Fellow RC blogger AR-15 replied to my post about animals, vegetarianism and the pursuit of virtue. I thank him for his effort, but I regret to inform our readers that much of what he had to say, or at least how he understood my argument, was just wrong. Really wrong, in fact. Consequently, my argument remains unscathed. Here I explain why.
AR-15 depicts my argument thusly:
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.
That’s wrong. My argument allows for animals to be killed if that is necessary for survival or our well-being and sustenance. For example, a person might be able to survive on a vegetarian diet within the wilderness, or far up North, but there might be cases where he does not thrive or live well on this diet. In such a case, I take no issue to killing an animal for his well-being or sustenance. That should be clear from a proper reading of my argument. That’s the first misinterpretation.
The second misinterpretation? Consider what AR-15 says about my argument:
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.
Kant? What the…hell, no! I don’t like that dude. This is a bad interpretation. I didn’t mention Kant. I didn’t mention our treatment of humans and cruelty, and nothing I said entails these ideas either. Instead, the concern is with the sort of person I want to be. I am concerned with the pursuit of virtue, not duty.
I see that omnivorous diets cause a lot of pain and suffering, and that these diets remove the possibility of any further joy and pleasure for animals. As a compassionate person, such plight concerns me, not because of what animals are, but simply because pain and suffering sucks for whomever and whatever experiences it. So I want to minimize that pain and suffering within reason and opportunity, not because of duty, but because that is what compassion moves me to do. It would be callous for me to do otherwise, a sure vice. And so, in my case, and in the case of many other westerners, this move to minimize their pain and suffering calls for vegetarian diets. I explained why in my initial post.
Now, suppose it came to be known that animals themselves have no moral worth. On such a case, l will ask, do they feel any less pain and suffering? Do they gain any more possibility for future joy and pleasure? No, of course not. So then compassion still compels me to try to minimize that pain and suffering within reason and opportunity. If I do otherwise, then I act callously, which is to therein act as a lesser man.
Sometimes people ask, why should I care about animal pain and suffering? My answer is this: Because that is what virtuous people do and what callous people don’t do. We know that pain and suffering sucks for whomever and whatever experiences it; and part of being virtuous is being compassionate, which is always the proper response to those in pain and suffering. Hence, virtuous people extend compassion to animals in pain and suffering. To be sure, the specifics about how we respond to an animal in pain and suffering depends on the particular situation, but that we should try to minimize their pain and suffering within reason and opportunity is not. That is what compassion moves us to do, always.
Other times, people ask, why isn’t the good taste of their meat reason enough to kill animals for their meat, causing all that pain and suffering? I must admit, if this question were asked sincerely, and in genuine ignorance, the asker would strike me as morally incompetent. Seriously. But to answer the question, such a reason lacks temperance (a cardinal virtue). Appetitive and sensual pleasures are sorts of goods, no doubt, but they are of the lower, more animalistic goods, those that are tempered for the sake of the higher goods, such as moral character and excellence. Thus, if keeping a vegetarian diet is the more compassionate choice, one that still serves our basic dietary needs, then it what virtuous men should do if they wish to pursue virtue and avoid vice (which all good men should want to do).
On this note, I should remark upon masculinity. Sometimes masculinity is understood to be closely associated to meat-eating, which would imply that vegetarian diets are not. Vegetarians are thus depicted as being unmanly.
No offence, men, but that’s stupid. The problem here is that we are embracing masculinities that idealize and define men in terms of their appetitive and sensual pleasures, our lower qualities. This is the same mistake made with those masculinities that depict men as promiscuous, violent, insensitive, and uncaring. These masculinities are wrong. An authentic masculinity is one that idealizes and defines men in terms of their rational and virtuous characters, not their lower appetites and animalistic behaviours.
Objectors might balk, “But we are animals!” Of course we are. However, we are rational animals. It’s our rationality that divides us from the rest; hence, we should understand ourselves, first and foremost, as rational beings, those who have mastery over their appetites rather than those who are enslaved by them.
In a way, then, those who insist on eating meat for taste, while still being in situations like my own, are unfree. They are held captive to their appetites or sensual pleasures, or by the vice of callousness, or by sin, or however you wish to understand it. Just as in the sexual realm, people love their vice and its binds.
Here’s the third misunderstanding, the final one. AR-15 writes:
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)?
Sadly, the first paragraph is largely irrelevant, since I did not say anything about our treatment toward other human beings.
In any case, I know that some people treat human beings perfectly well while taking pleasure in the pain and suffering of animals. So the point here is not that there will be a immoral spillover if an omnivorous diet is kept, but just that, in cases like my own, an omnivorous diet is not what virtuous people keep, because it lacks compassion.
Now, I do not doubt that those people in question can still cultivate and exercise other virtues even if they keep an omnivorous diet. I don’t question that. I’m simply saying that such people do not therein act with virtue, but with vice. Thus, they therein act as lesser men.
II. Factual Dispute
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.
Wrong. Empathy is a virtue because it enables an appreciation about the condition of others, which then strengthens our bond with them. It also informs and tempers our judgement, helping us to make prudent and just decisions. Hence, it helps us be better people.
Neither empathy nor compassion can “go wrong”. Instead, like in the case of the murderer, our judgements can be bad. For example, perhaps, in our judgement, we did not exercise enough produce or justice, or maybe we lacked fortitude; in each of case, these are all faults in our judgement, not in empathy or compassion itself. To help navigate these difficult judgements, virtue ethicists refer to something called practical wisdom. I encourage AR-15 to read about it.
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