Evolution Does Not Morally Obligate Us to Be Vegetarians

I don’t have a lot of time to listen to all the podcasts to which I’m subscribed, so I often get behind. The result is that I only recently listened to an episode of Reasonable Doubts from a few weeks ago entitled "Stewards of this Earth". In that episode one of the things the crew of “doubtcasters” addressed is whether or not one is obligated to become a vegetarian if you accept evolutionary theory in biology. They all came to the consensus that one is, and, as they all accept evolutionary theory, they are all vegetarians (though there is some discussion as to the success they have had maintaining this status in practice). But is this right? Are you actually morally obligated to be a vegetarian if you also accept the biological theory of evolution?

The basic argument they offer up is one modeled after Peter Singer’s arguments about animal rights.  They suggest that evolutionary theory informs us that there is no qualitative distinction between our species and others.  If we are not different in kind, then we need to have some good reason to grant rights to humans and not to other animals.  They point out that intelligence is not a good cut-off point as many humans suffer from any number of issues that result in their having lower intelligence, yet we do not eat them.  Hence, we cannot say that it is proper to grant rights (such as not being eaten) to humans and not to animals on that ground.  Following Singer, they decide that what makes an organism the kind of thing that has rights is whether or not it is sentient (though they spend almost no time explaining exactly what that means, and I would suggest that it is far from obvious).  They quote Singer who said, “In suffering, at least, animals are equal.”  So, as soon as an organism can suffer, it has rights, and one is then obligated to consider those rights when weighing out one’s moral obligations to that organism.  Thus, the argument can be broken down like this:

1) If you suffer, you have rights.
2) Animals (that we eat) suffer.
Hence, animals (that we eat) have rights.

Taking the conclusion from above we get this:

1) Animals (that we eat) have rights.
2) The rights in question include not being eaten.
3) Animals (that we eat) have the right to not be eaten.

And we can move to the big conclusion like this:

1) We are morally obligated to not infringe upon others’ rights.
2) Eating animals that have the right not to be eaten infringes upon their rights.
3) We are morally obligated to not eat these animals.

For anyone versed in philosophy of mind to any degree the question of whether or not it is appropriate to suggest that other species “suffer” should jump out at you.  Do other animals suffer?  We just don’t know.  Even worse, we do not even know what the criteria are for knowing this.  Indeed, it’s not entirely clear just in what suffering, nor many of the qualitative experiences we have, consists.  “Suffering” could be prove to be especially tendentious, so, to illustrate the point, we can look at something that seems fairly easy to identify and understand, namely pain. 

I imagine that most everyone reading this would agree that one of the necessary characteristics of pain is that it is undesirable.  That is, if someone were to begin talking about how much pain they were having and how it was not at all bothersome, we likely would suspect that they either did not know what pain was, or they were lying.  However, any number of studies have demonstrated that everyday people can feel pain and not find it undesirable at all.  It is very common for patients on methadone to report that they are experiencing pain, sometimes very strong pain, and yet it is not undesirable in the least.  That’s just one of the effects of methadone.  It doesn’t get rid of pain, it just makes you not care that you have it.  So, what are we to think in that case?  Are the individuals in question feeling pain or not?  If they are, then it is not true that one of the necessary characteristics of pain is that it is undesirable.  If they are not feeling pain, then we need some explanation as to why so many people who are completely familiar with the concept of pain, have experienced it before, can detect when others are in pain, and can predict when pain will occur are getting something so simple so wrong.  The point here is that when dealing with questions of the mind even things that seem simple and straightforward can get messy and complicated when we look closely.  If we are not sure what pain is, then we certainly are not sure what suffering is.  And if we are not even certain what suffering is, then it is clearly difficult to say what kinds of things suffer.

There is little room here to get into all the details of the various ontological positions concerning the mind, but possibly the largest failure of the most common of these is philosophical behaviorism (not to be confused with methodological behaviorism).  Simply put, behaviorism says that mental states, such as suffering, just are the behaviors that entities exhibit when “suffering.”  That is, the mental state just is the set of behaviors (along with the predisposition to those behaviors).  This view would allow us to say for certain that any entity that displayed the behaviors that we would normally take to be indicative of suffering would be suffering as the behaviors would themselves be the state rather than pointing at something beyond themselves.  The failure of behaviorism is largely due to the recognition that behaviors do, in fact, point to something beyond themselves, and it is that something else that is the mental state.  However, that means that we can go wrong by looking at behaviors in attempting to identify mental states, and this is a common experience.  Pain is not equal to jumping up and down, swearing, massaging the area in “pain,” nor any of the other behaviors one might exhibit while experiencing that mental state.  Pain is something beyond those behaviors, and it is an open question as to whether or not those behaviors even point to the state.  It is at least possible that one could feel pain and exhibit none of the behaviors generally associated with pain at all.  The take-home here is that behavior alone just is not a good indicator of mental states.

What ontology is best for describing mental states is an enormous question, but, if it is not behavior, then we are in a rough spot suggesting that other animals are feeling what we are feeling when we suffer.  Again, I think it would be difficult to come to generally agreed upon set of criteria for suffering in humans.  To attempt to discover whether or not such things are experienced by other animals without the ability to communicate with them in any meaningful way is next to hopeless.  We just have no idea whether or not other animals suffer at all, even if they exhibit behavior that we imagine would be the kind of thing we would exhibit if we were them.  We are not them, and that is the point.

Some might still want to argue that even with all the problems of behaviorism (and I did not even scratch the surface here), that when other organisms go out of their way to avoid certain circumstances, then some (I would suggest highly debatable) notion of suffering has been achieved.  And this is where the problem of identifying mental states by way of behaviors becomes so clear.  There are any number of organisms that we just cannot think of as suffering.  There are single-celled organisms that lack any sort of central nervous system along with any sort of brain.  That means they lack both the apparatus to transmit the information that would detect suffering along with the ability to process such information.  Yet, they are able to “avoid” circumstances that would be deadly for them; they “seek” out food; they “find” other individuals of their species.  I use the scare quotes in each of those cases because of the baggage that goes along with the concepts.  Each of them has built into it some sense of wanting, desiring, fearing, etc.  In short, it has built into it some sense of mentality, and yet these are things which the organisms in question completely obviously lack.  They exhibit the behavior we associate with such states, yet it is plainly impossible for them to have such.  And that is one of the big reasons why attempts to identity mental states by way of those behaviors so completely fails.

The message in all this talk about behavior is that we cannot rely on other animals’ behaviors as a way of discovering whether or not they are actually suffering.  It is entirely possible that there is just nothing like what we would think of as suffering going on with those organisms.  As that is the case, the argument spelled out earlier is cut off at the knees as we have no way to get to a place where we can say that these animals are suffering, so we can’t say they have rights.  As such, the argument fails.

There is a further problem where the doubtcasters commit the naturalistic fallacy.  What they do is try to move from an “is” to an “ought” by saying that because we are not different in kind from other animals we should not treat them differently.  They want to say that the fact of the matter is what determines what we should do, and this is exactly what the naturalistic fallacy is.  What’s funny about that is that they are explicitly aware of the naturalistic fallacy.  They address it as a possible response to their position.  They suggest that someone might say that features of our physiology, such as our teeth, are suited for eating meat and clearly evolved under pressures of eating meat, so we should eat meat.  Moving from that is to ought is, of course, illegitimate.  But so is their assertion that the mere fact that we are related to other animals in that we have a common ancestor somehow commits us to treating other animals in any way whatsoever.  That is just as bad a mistake as the one they criticize.  It just is not the case that our natural relationship to other species in and of itself in any way morally commits us to treating them any particular way whatsoever.

This point cannot be stressed enough.  Any attempt to read a moral prescription off a naturalistic description is fallacious.  There is no time where this is not the case. (Funny enough, this was the subject for my Bachelor’s thesis.)  You cannot under any circumstances use the facts of biology to determine moral imperatives.  The best for which one could hope are prudential imperatives, and even this requires all sorts of values that are not themselves justified by a naturalistic description of the facts of the matter.  This completely undermines the heart of their position.

Funny enough, these are not the least of the problems.  Perhaps the biggest issue facing the guys of Reasonable Doubts is the simple and straightforward mistake of including in the moral community those individuals whom they, at the same time, do not include in the moral community.  This is really where I am just left scratching my head with anyone who attempts to make similar arguments.  They point out that there is a problem of holding other animals to our moral standards.  They ask exactly the right question, but then they move on without addressing the issue.  They say, "Why don’t we judge animals that eat other animals as being morally wrong?”  But there is no response to this question in the podcast.  They just move on and leave this question hanging in the ether.  And, of course, that question brings up the most important issue.  We don’t judge lions eating gazelles as committing murder simply because we do not hold them to our moral standards.  We do not include them, or gazelles, within our moral community.  They are not subject to praise and blame in the way that other humans are.  And this is the whole point!  If other animals are not in any way members of the moral community, then they are not in any way members of the moral community, and that means they are not privy to the moral rights that actual members of the community have.  As such, they do not have the right to not be eaten, and this is true even if they have the ability to suffer and the fallacious reasoning noted above is ignored.  We only grant such rights to those individuals we hold morally accountable for their actions, and this is clearly not the case for the animals we eat.  If we start charging cows with murder and chickens with destruction of property, then things might change.  But even then it wouldn’t be our genetic relationship with these animals that would change our moral obligations to them.  It would be the inclusion in the larger moral community that would make the difference, and this has nothing at all to do with evolution.

This last point is likely to be much more controversial than the other points, but it needs to be made.  It strikes at the core of any Singer-esque account of animal rights.  All this “moral community” talk requires a lot of explication, and, of course, I am hitting only the broadest strokes.  Liza plans on addressing this in more detail in her critique of this same podcast, so if you’re foaming at the mouth over this, or even if you’re just mildly skeptical of the argument I’ve laid out, there is some chance that your criticisms will be addressed in her post.

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5 Responses to “Evolution Does Not Morally Obligate Us to Be Vegetarians”

  1. John Says:

    one shot, one kill
    quick and painless

  2. Tim Says:

    I grasp your point, but it difficult to shake the assumed context of animals feeling pain. And more to the point, my empathy and pity encourages a desire to prevent that pain. Obviously, since I am not a vegetarian, it is not enough to change my eating habits, but the innate desire prevent pain to animals does exist within my psyche. As a society, justified or not by your argument, we hold those who willingly inflict pain upon (some) animals with contempt of our ethical values. Indeed, you can be sent to prison for mistreatment of animals. But the last argument you made, where exclusion from the ‘moral community’ would logically exclude rights was very persuasive. I will have to give it some thought.

    • Liza Says:

      Jim and I were talking about this the other day. I think it is important to distinguish between our sentiment and what might be called the intrinsic value of happiness/pleasure/absence of pain. There are obvious biological explanations for why we react emotionally when we see or hear other animals that appear to be in pain. The reaction is the strongest with other humans, especially human babies, but it’s there with other animals as well, especially the ones that come close to looking like our offspring, such as wide-eyed, baby mammals. But our emotional reactions (while often a good rule of thumb) are not justifcations for claims about value or moral rights. After all, emotional reactions to similar circumstances differ widely not just among people in different cultures but among people within the same culture and even within a single person over a range of times. What people like Singer want to argue is that our abhorrence to intentional cruelty is evidence that there is some objective value to pleasure and objective disvalue to pain, but there are alternative ways to explain our instinctual aborrence to cruelty. The simplest is this: It’s not in my interest to be around someone who is cruel to other animals (including humans) unless I have some good reason to believe that he won’t be cruel to me or others who are valuable to me.

      • Jim Says:

        What she said.

      • Jim Says:

        The more I think about that, the more I think it’s right that we just don’t like unjustified destruction in general. I think it is a fairly common desire to chastise and avoid those who would go out and knock down trees for no reason, or throw paint on rocks for no reason, or pretty much anything else that we might take to be destructive when no purpose other than the destruction is known. We just don’t like that kind of behavior, and it has nothing to do with conferring rights to rocks.


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