welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Big Ears Bites Back!

Jerry Goodenough explains why he isn’t a vegetarian.

Liz Mabbott’s article ‘Big Ears, Meat and Morals’ (Philosophy Now, Autumn 1994) raises a number of thought-provoking questions both for those of us with larger ears and for those of us who eat or use animal products. She does a great service in distinguishing clearly those arguments for vegetarianism which rest upon animal-centred considerations from those which argue that vegetarianism is better for humans. But I believe that Liz is wrong to think that vegetarians are in error in concentrating upon the latter. Rather it is the case that philosophical proponents of vegetarianism are driven to this by the failure of animal-centred arguments alone to achieve their goal. Even the two sets of arguments together may not constitute a watertight case for vegetarianism.

Basic to Liz’s animal-centred arguments seems to be the belief that animals have rights, interests, preferences, or innate values. The use of rights-based language, whether we are considering animals or people, is problematic in the extreme; we face the question of where these rights are supposed to come from and what bases they rest upon. It is at least arguable (though I don’t propose to argue for it here) that rights are human in origin, that we invent them and award them to each other. Animals would then have only those rights which humans award them. To the extent that we do indeed grant animals rights, this seems to be on the basis of other considerations, upon their sentience, evolutionary development, and so on. Perhaps then we should concentrate upon these more foundational aspects of animals rather than upon the vague notion of rights.

The notion of animal preferences and interests is equally problematic. It is certainly the case that all animals, even the lowest forms, exhibit behaviour which can be interpreted as choosing between one environment and another, one food-stuff and another, and so forth. In the case of larger animals they certainly seem to prefer being in non-threatening situations to being in situations of danger or pain. But we can grant all this without being compelled to believe that animals have an interest in continuing to live or a preference for not dying. Even the most advanced non-human mammals have such limited mental powers that it does not seem to make sense to attribute to them belief-states concerning their own continued existence, especially concerning their existence in the future. A human being could be put into a painful state of anguish by being told that they were to be killed tomorrow, but the same is not true of animals since they live in the continuous present and seem to lack any significant powers of language or abstract reasoning. Animals can fear what is immediately threatening to them but they cannot dread their own impending non-existence.

Can we then argue at least that animals have some innate value which we compromise or destroy if we kill the animal for our purposes? Well, we can but then the same argument would appear to apply to vegetables and minerals. It is at least plausible to argue that, say, trees and mountains possess the same kind of innate value. When we chop down a tree for its wood or open-cast mine a mountain-side for its minerals, we would then be destroying this innate value in the furtherance of human purposes. Environmental considerations may lead us to conclude that we should not wantonly or carelessly destroy these vegetable or mineral values and that we should make every effort to renew them, plant fresh trees, re-sculpt landscapes, etc. Similarly, we should not wantonly destroy animal value and should make every effort to ensure that it is renewable, e.g. that species do not become extinct. But this is an argument for respecting animal value; it is not an argument for desisting from the limited and purposeful killing of animals.

We come, then, to perhaps the strongest animal-centred argument for vegetarianism, that animals can suffer and feel pain in a way that trees or mountains cannot. As it stands, this proposition is far from universal. There is no credible evidence, for instance, that oysters, locusts or cod can suffer. Most lower forms of life have nervous systems which are much too primitive to sustain anything like a sense of consciousness – there is nothing it is like to be an oyster. And most seem to lack the complexity of nervous structure which we know underlies the experience of pain-states in mammals. So the argument from animal suffering is not an argument in support of total vegetarianism but at most an argument against the eating of those higher forms of life which clearly or probably are capable of pain-experiences.

Even if we admit that some animals can experience pain and suffering, this is still not sufficient to necessitate vegetarianism; this would require the truth of the further premise that eating meat inevitably entails animal suffering, and this is by no means obvious. It may well be that some present agricultural practices cause suffering to animals, both in the raising of battery animals and birds and in some of the processes of slaughter. But the argument from suffering merely compels us to eliminate or minimise the suffering involved in animal husbandry. It is possible to raise animals in a friendly non-battery environment which respects their basic needs – humans did it for many centuries before battery-farms were invented. And it is certainly possible to improve slaughtering procedures, both in terms of the pain caused by the act of slaughter itself and in terms of the evident distress which many types of animal seem to experience if they witness their fellows being slaughtered.

It is, of course, open to the vegetarian to point out that such desirable reforms would inevitably make meat more expensive and might perhaps raise its price to the point where it became an occasional luxury rather than a staple of our diet. Whether this would occur I should not care to say – anyone who has contemplated the Common Agricultural Policy for more than a few moments is aware of how irrational and unpredictable our system of food-pricing is! – but even if this were so the most that the argument from animal suffering could hope to support then would be dietary reform rather than total vegetarianism.

Must we be committed to the elimination of every last vestige of animal suffering? I think not. For one thing, the majority of animal suffering is brought about at the hands (or should I say paws and beaks?) of other animals. Nature, as Tennyson said, is red in tooth and claw. Now the vegetarian justifiably points out that animals have no reason while humans are generally aware of the nature of their actions. Therefore humans can be held morally responsible for the animal suffering they cause whereas we cannot similarly hold the owl responsible for killing mice or the lioness for killing zebra. But I do not believe that we can therefore dismiss all this animal suffering from any further consideration.

Suppose that I see Mr. Smith inflicting suffering upon Mrs. Jones. Intuitively we feel both that Mr. Smith is morally responsible for the suffering his actions are bringing about and that I bear some responsibility for trying to bring the suffering to an end, by intervening on Mrs. Jones’ behalf or by fetching help or so on. Now suppose that Mr. Smith is acting violently in this way solely because he is suffering from some terrible brain disease which has robbed him of his reason. We would then cease to hold him morally responsible for the suffering that he is causing. But this would in no way affect my responsibility to help limit or end the suffering that Mrs. Jones is undergoing. Indeed, even if Mrs. Jones’ suffering was being brought about by some inanimate cause, if she was drowning in a river or being swept away by a landslide, I should still be morally obliged to do whatever was reasonably in my power to assist her in ending her suffering.

Now we would generally feel the same about animal suffering brought about by inanimate causes; most of us witnessing a dog drowning in a river would feel some moral obligation to help it rather than walk on by, even if we felt a lesser obligation to risk our lives than would be the case for a similarly-placed human being. Why, then, do we not feel the same about animal suffering brought about by animate but non-rational causes, that is to say by other animals? Ought we not to intervene here where ever possible to limit or end the suffering being caused?

Of course there are obvious practical difficulties involved, for all over the globe (not to mention under the surface of the sea) creatures are killing other creatures by the million. No practicable human project could hope to intervene in more than the tiniest fraction of cases. But this is not a moral argument for total inaction; if I see a lot of people drowning in the river the fact that I cannot help all of them surely does not excuse me from responsibility in the matter and allow me not to try to help any of them.

A further difficulty here is that some animal suffering only seems to be preventable at the cost of other animal suffering. For if we do succeed in preventing owls from eating mice or lionesses from eating zebra then the owls and lionesses (not to mention the lazy lions who steal their kills!) are going to suffer since their innate biological structure makes them incapable of living on a non-carnivorous diet and so they will surely starve to death.

All this being so, we have to accept that if we are going to live in a world with a large and diverse animal population then there is always going to be a lot of animal suffering. We might feel that this is an acceptable price to pay for living in a biologically diverse ecosystem and this indicates that a certain amount of animal suffering may be acceptable in a trade-off for other benefits. A biologically diverse ecosystem has many obvious benefits for humans but few for animals – most individual animals require a continuing source of whatever it is that they eat and little more than that. So if we continue to accept the presence of carnivorous or omnivorous creatures in the ecosystem then this means that we are turning a blind eye to a lot of animal suffering in order to reap benefits primarily for humans. This does not in itself justify human meat-eating but it does leave the door open for arguments that do just that; for if some animal suffering is acceptable in exchange for benefits, may it not be argued that these benefits include eating meat?

It is only when we see the weaknesses and flaws of the animal-centred arguments for vegetarianism that we begin to realise why proponents of vegetarianism feel the need to shore up their position with human-centred arguments too. If the quality of pro-vegetarian arguments is not sufficient to do the job then perhaps quantity might assist. Or perhaps appeals to self-interest may be thought to be more effective than appeals to somewhat abstract and arguable animal rights. This may not be, despite what Liz Mabbott says in her article, philosophical confusion amongst proponents of vegetarianism so much as an innate recognition that the case for total vegetarianism is so shaky that it needs all the support that it can get.

Human-centred arguments for vegetarianism tend to concentrate upon considerations of health or economics. The argument that a vegetarian diet is healthier than a carnivorous or mixed diet is, to say the least, unproven. Indeed, the continued existence of the aboriginal peoples of the Arctic regions, the Inuit and others, who until recently subsisted entirely on a diet of meat and fish with no vegetable content whatsoever, would seem to indicate that the vegetarian case is being somewhat overstated here. There may well be sound health-based reasons establishable for restricting or eliminating our consumption of certain animal products but these are neither clearly proven nor sufficient to make the case for total vegetarianism that Liz Mabbott wishes to propound. At best they can combine with the animal suffering argument to demonstrate the need for dietary reform.

What, then, of the economic argument raised by vegetarian proponents such as Peter Singer in his Practical Ethics (quoted by Liz in her article), the argument that we can feed more people with grain and vegetables direct than we can by feeding the grain or vegetables to animals first and then feeding the animals to the people? Once again the argument goes nowhere near to establishing the conclusion that the vegetarian desires.

We can indeed accept the basic claim of the vegetarian here that in terms of protein and foodvalue more is preserved by feeding vegetables directly to people than by feeding them indirectly via meat-providing animals. But two seldomnoticed considerations come into play here. Firstly, large areas of the earth’s surface cannot grow vegetables that people can eat. Mountains, moorland, tundra, etc., will support little or no arable agriculture. But they will support animals such as goats, sheep, deer, etc.. So if our sole interest is in maximising the amount of protein available for the starving of the Third World then we should certainly agree with the vegetarian that it is wrong to feed corn to cattle in order to produce beef for human consumption. But it is equally right to feed useless grass and shrubland to sheep and goats: in this way we convert inedible grass into something the starving can eat.

Secondly, the vegetarian-proponent who plays this economic argument frequently makes the unwarranted assumption that animal-raising is always in competition with arable farming for resources, and again this is not so. For instance, when in Britain environmental considerations finally led us to ban the unpleasant practice of stubble-burning, farmers were forced to come up with other or older methods of dealing with harvested fields. Many farmers now keep pigs on their cornfields after all the harvest has been gathered in. The field must lie fallow for a period, the pigs exist quite happily on the stubble and chaff, and their dung helps to fertilise the cornfield for the next growing season. Thus a single piece of land is used to maximise the amount of food, animal and vegetable, that is available for feeding the hungry. If our sole consideration is tackling the problem of Third World starvation then we would appear to be morally obliged to make the maximum use of our agricultural resources in this fashion. So the economic arguments turn out to be not so much pro-vegetarian as anti-cattle and pro-sheep and pigs – less hamburger and more bacon. Not the conclusion the vegetarian desires at all!

There remains only the accusation of speciesism which lurks behind Liz’s argument concerning big-eared and little-eared people. Why should we treat animals differently or worse than we treat each other? cries the vegetarian. To which a perfectly proper response may be: why not? If animals are significantly different from humans then it may be either allowable or indeed necessary to treat them differently. Here we must disperse a smokescreen that some less-thanscrupulous animals rights proponents have laid. The accusation of speciesism is not on a par with accusations of racism or sexism, for in the latter two cases the differences between average members of different races or genders tend to be insignificant or irrelevant and so cannot support significantly discriminatory treatment for those portions of the human population. But in the case of animals the differences between them and us are many and profound; it cannot automatically, then, be wrong to wish to treat them differently provided that we respect their natures and avoid gratuitously inflicting suffering on them.

Furthermore, we could not hope to justify the treatment of a sub-set of human beings, say those with big ears, as a source of food unless the difference between them and the rest of humanity was so great that we could safely say that big-eared people lack consciousness or cannot feel pain or have no interest in continued existence into the future – all statements which are plainly false. The mere hypothesised benefit of eating people with big ears is nowhere near sufficient to override our belief in the sentience of big-eared people with all that that entails. In the real world big ears, like black skins or penises, are in most circumstances irrelevant secondary characteristics.

Where certain categories of human being (small infants or people in comas, perhaps) may lack feelings or interests then sound evolutionary reasons for respecting even the weaker members of our own species kick in. It makes sense to have a high regard for those who have been, will be, or may once again be fully sentient creatures like ourselves; it is part of recognising that our morality and our survival depends upon our common humanity rather than upon our individual characteristics. Animals, of course, are not and will not become fully sentient beings like ourselves; this restricts the attitudes that we can sensibly adopt towards them because it bars them from full membership of the moral community to which sentient beings belong. At its simplest, they can never treat us as moral beings and so they cannot themselves be treated as equal moral partners with humans. This justifies our treating them differently; though I must again emphasise that it does not justify our treating them with no consideration whatsoever.

In summary, the use of economic arguments by the vegetarian turns out to have had less of an effect than they wished. These are in fact arguments for agricultural reform rather than for the total abolition of animal husbandry. And the arguments concerning animal value and animal suffering are equally arguments for reform. But the existence of philosophical vegetarians like Liz Mabbott still performs a valuable moral function. It reminds us that we should not allow practices which entail unnecessary pain and suffering for animals, for this does not show a genuine respect for their value or for our own moral natures. Philosophical vegetarians force those of us, with or without big ears, who eat meat to face up to the true costs of this practice and to advocate those reforms which both minimise animal suffering and make the best usage of our food-producing capacities in a world in which there remains too much starvation. We can appreciate all this yet still hold that the philosophical arguments for vegetarianism do not compel those of us who are partial carnivores to abandon meat and fish entirely. Nor should they lead those of us with big ears to fear for our lives at the hands of our small-eared fellow humans!

J.M.Goodenough 1994

Jerry Goodenough is a mature postgraduate philosophy student at the University of East Anglia. Philosophy

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X