Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “How should vegetarians actually live? A reply to Xavier Cohen.” Written by Thomas Sittler

This essay is a joint winner in the Undergraduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford student, Thomas Sittler

“How should vegetarians actually live? A reply to Xavier Cohen.”

Ethical vegetarians abstain from eating animal flesh because they care about the harm done to farmed animals. More precisely, they believe that farmed animals have lives so bad they are not worth living, so that it is better for them not to come into existence. Vegetarians reduce the demand for meat, so that farmers will breed fewer animals, preventing the existence of additional animals. If ethical vegetarians believed animals have lives that are unpleasant but still better than non-existence, they would focus on reducing harm to these animals without reducing their numbers, for instance by supporting humane slaughter or buying meat from free-range cows.

I will argue that if vegetarians were to apply this principle consistently, wild animal suffering would dominate their concerns, and may lead them to be stringent anti-environmentalists.

If animals like free-range cows have lives that are not worth living, almost all wild animals could plausibly be thought to also have lives that are worse than non-existence. Nature is often romanticised as a well-balanced idyll, so this may seem counter-intuitive. But extreme forms of suffering like starvation, dehydration, or being eaten alive by a predator are much more common in wild animals than farm animals. Crocodiles and hyenas disembowel their prey before killing them[1]. In birds, diseases like avian salmonellosis produce excruciating symptoms in the final days of life, such as depression, shivering, loss of appetite, and just before death, blindness, incoordination, staggering, tremor and convulsions.[2] While a farmed animal like a free-range cow has to endure some confinement and a premature and potentially painful death (stunning sometimes fails), a wild animal may suffer comparable experiences, such as surviving a cold winter or having to fear predators, while additionally undergoing the aforementioned extreme suffering[3]. Wild animals do experience significant pleasure, for instance when they eat, play or have sex, or engage in other normal physical activity. One reason to suspect that this pleasure is outweighed by suffering is that most species use the reproductive strategy of r-selection, which means that the overwhelming majority of their offspring starve or are eaten shortly after birth and only very few reach reproductive age.[4],[5] For instance, ‘in her lifetime a lioness might have 20 cubs; a pigeon, 150 chicks; a mouse, 1000 kits’,[6] the vast majority of which will die before they could have had many pleasurable experiences. Overall, it seems plausible that wild animals have worse lives than, say, free-range cows. If vegetarians think the latter are better off not existing, they must believe the same thing about wild animals.

A second important empirical fact is that wild animals far outnumber farmed animals. Using figures from the FAO, Tomasik estimates that the global livestock population is 24 billion (including 17 billion chicken)[7]. I restrict my count of wild animals to those at least as complex as chicken or small fish, which vegetarians clearly believe do have moral weight. Using studies of animal density in different biomes, Tomasik estimates conservatively that there are at least 6*1010 land birds, 1011 land mammals, and 1013 fish. Animals in each of these categories alone are several times more numerous than livestock.

If wild animals’ well-being is negative and the above numbers are remotely correct, the scale of wild animal suffering is vast. As Richard Dawkins writes, ‘During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease.’[8] If they accept the premises so far, consistent vegetarians should focus on preventing the existence of as many wild animals as possible, since even a small reduction in the global number of wild animals would outweigh the impact of ending all livestock production. For example, they could reduce animal populations by sterilising them, or by destroying highly dense animal habitats such as rainforests. This would place them directly at odds with environmentalists who try to preserve nature from human intervention. It may even be the case that vegetarians should react to this argument by eating more meat, since feeding the livestock requires more surface area for agriculture, and fields contain far fewer wild animals per square kilometre than other biomes such as forests.

An intuitive response to wild animal suffering can be that cycles of predation and starvation are natural, and therefore they must be neutral morally. But what is natural is not necessarily what is good, for instance, humans will routinely use technology to remove diseases which are natural.

It is important to emphasize that the claim ‘wild animal suffering is bad’ does not imply a guilt claim of the form ‘predators are morally guilty’. A lion’s instinct is indeed natural and does not deserve our moral condemnation. However, we can avoid much confusion if we remember to keep separate the concepts of guilt of an agent and wrongness of an action. It is perfectly possible to claim that X is harmful and should be prevented while also holding that the direct cause of X is not a moral agent. The fact that we are so used to thinking about cases of human behaviour, where guilt and wrongness are largely aligned, may partly explain why arguments about wild animal suffering seem counter-intuitive.

Underlying some of these principled arguments is the intuition that harmful acts, like killing livestock, are worse than harmful omissions, like failing to avert wild animal suffering. I cannot begin to give a full treatment to the act/omission debate here, but one thought experiment suggests harmful omissions matter at least somewhat. Imagine you see a fire spreading in a forest and, while walking away from the fire, you see an injured fawn: a broken leg prevents her from fleeing. You carry a rifle and could instantly kill the fawn at no cost to yourself, preventing her from the extreme suffering of being burned alive. In this situation, for vegetarians who care about harm to animals, it is clear that it would be immoral to omit to act and allow wild animal suffering to happen. So the general principle ‘allowing wild animals to suffer is morally neutral’ cannot hold.

A second set of counter-arguments are empirical: they concede that consistent vegetarians are morally obliged to reduce wild animal suffering, but attack various empirical claims made above.

It may be objected that we cannot reduce the number of animals by sterilising them, because as soon as fewer animals are born, more resources (like food and territory) become available, which increases the evolutionary payoff of producing more animals. If we sterilise some deer, there will at first be fewer fawns, so there will be more nuts and berries available, which allows other deer (or other species) to have more offspring, until we are back to the original equilibrium. The existence of such evolutionary pressures towards an equilibrium population seems plausible, but it remains an unsolved empirical question. It may be the case that the population takes several years to reach its equilibrium again, in which case much animal suffering would be averted in the meantime. Regardless, this is only an objection against one particular method for reducing wild animal numbers, and it only tells us that sterilisation would be ineffective, not harmful. If we reject sterilisation on these grounds, habitat destruction, for instance, evidently does reduce animal numbers for the long run.

A frequent objection against intervening in nature is that we are uncertain about the consequences: for instance, culling predators might cause an ecological catastrophe. While our uncertainty is a good reason to do more research in order to reduce it, it is not in principle an argument for inaction. If we are so uncertain, inaction towards predation could also be causing vastly more suffering than we currently estimate. In order to make sure our aversion to intervene is not caused by status quo bias, we can use the reversal test,[9] an elegant instance of which is provided by the reintroduction of wolves in Scotland, where they had been hunted to extinction in the 1700s.[10] If we are more worried about the uncertain effects of reintroducing wolves than we are about the uncertainty of inaction towards wolf predation, this may be due to status quo bias.

Possibly the strongest counter-argument is that we are extremely uncertain about whether wild animals’ lives are worth living. How much pain or pleasure animals feel in response to certain stimuli is dependent on facts about their neurology which is not well understood. While we may make some reasonable extrapolation from our human experience (being eaten alive is very painful), animal subjective experience may differ significantly. While animals might experience hedonic adaptation[11] to their circumstances, encounters with predators produce lasting psychological damage similar to post-traumatic stress disorder in humans.[12] There is some evidence that domesticated animals are less stressed,[13] but measures of stress hormones may not coincide with animals’ revealed preferences[14]. Clearly, I do not pretend to have solved this difficult empirical question. However I note that these considerations should also make us uncertain about the subjective well-being of farmed animals; and I have already offered reasons why wild animals plausibly have worse lives than free-range animals.

Even if vegetarians still reject this argument, and believe that wild animals’ lives are better than the lives of farm animals, to the extent that they are worth living, this does not imply they should do nothing. They should not reduce animal numbers, but they should still reduce the suffering of existing animals. Because there are so many animals and the suffering they undergo can be so extreme, this consideration would likely still dominate concern about farmed animals. One could vaccinate animals against diseases: rabies has already been eliminated from foxes for human benefit[15]. After elephants’ teeth wear out, they are no longer able to chew food and eventually collapse from hunger, after which they may be eaten alive by scavengers and predators. Fitting elephants with artificial dentures, which has already been done on captive animals, would significantly increase their healthspan[16]. Or one could cull predator populations by allowing more of them to be hunted.

A possible concern with this type of intervention may be that any advantage given to a particular individual by reducing their suffering would increase the suffering of others. For instance, if elephants can eat for longer, more other herbivores will starve; or if we kill predators, their prey will proliferate and their competitors will starve. If we think that ecosystems lie on such a razor-sharp evolutionary equilibrium where all animals are strongly competing for every piece of resource, this objection is plausible. But crucially, if we accept this, then it is becomes plausible that wild animals actually do have lives that are not worth living: if evolution produces so many animals that each can just barely survive, it is likely that they endure much suffering and little pleasure. So it seems like we must either accept that some interventions can reduce extreme wild animal suffering, or concede that animals’ lives are plausibly not worth living.

Some may choose to treat this outlandish conclusion as a reductio against vegetarianism (either against the idea that farm animals matter morally or against the belief that we should prevent them from coming into existence). Perhaps vegetarians who still reject the conclusion should increase their confidence that buying free-range meat is a good thing. For those who accept it, the question of how most effectively to reduce wild animal suffering is left open. As I have repeatedly emphasised, we are still very ignorant about many relevant empirical questions, so immediate large-scale intervention will not be very effective. In addition, intervention may have significant backlash effects and reduce sympathy for the anti-speciesist message. The best immediate action is probably to produce more research on wild animal suffering, in order to make future action more likely to be effective.

 

Footnotes:http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2015/03/the-oxford-uehiro-prize-in-practical-ethics-how-should-vegans-live-by-xavier-cohen/

[1] Dawrst, Alan. “The predominance of wild-animal suffering over happiness: An open problem.” Essays on Reducing Suffering (2009): 255-85.

[2] Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “Salmonellosis.” Quoted in Tomasik, “The Importance of Wild Animal Suffering”

[3] Tomasik, Brian. “Intention-Based Moral Reactions Distort Intuitions about Wild Animals.” Essays on Reducing Suffering (2013)

[4] Horta, Oscar. “Debunking the idyllic view of natural processes: population dynamics and suffering in the wild.” Télos 17.1 (2010): 73-88.

[5] Ng, Yew-Kwang. “Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal consciousness and suffering.” Biology and Philosophy 10.3 (1995): 255-285.

[6] Fred, Hapgood. Why males exist: an inquiry into the evolution of sex. 1979. Quoted in Tomasik, “The Importance of Wild Animal Suffering”.

[7] Tomasik, Brian. “How Many Wild Animals Are There?.” Essays on Reducing Suffering (2014).

[8] Dawkins, Richard. River out of Eden: A Darwinian view of life. Basic Books, 1996.

[9] Bostrom, Nick, and Toby Ord. “The Reversal Test: Eliminating Status Quo Bias in Applied Ethics*.” Ethics 116.4 (2006): 656-679.

[10] “Wild Wolves ‘good for Ecosystems'” BBC News. BBC, 31 Jan. 2007. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

[11] Frederick, Shane, and George Loewenstein. “Hedonic adaptation.” (1999).

[12] Zoladz, Phillip R. An ethologically relevant animal model of post-traumatic stress disorder: Physiological, pharmacological and behavioral sequelae in rats exposed to predator stress and social instability. Diss. University of South Florida, 2008.

[13] Wilcox, Chritie. “Bambi or Bessie: Are Wild Animals Happier?” Scientific American Blog. N.p., 21 Apr. 2011. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.

[14] Dawkins, M. S. “Using behaviour to assess animal welfare.” Animal welfare-potters bar then Wheathampstead- 13 (2004): S3-S8.

[15] Freuling, Conrad M., et al. “The elimination of fox rabies from Europe: determinants of success and lessons for the future.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 368.1623 (2013): 20120142.

[16] Pearce, David. “A Welfare State for Elephants?.” RELATIONS 3.2. November 2015-Wild Animal Suffering and Intervention in Nature: Part II (2015): 153.

References (other than those in footnotes)

Cowen, Tyler. “Policing nature.” Environmental Ethics 25.2 (2003): 169-182.

Dawkins, Marian. Animal suffering: the science of animal welfare. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.

Ebert, Rainer, and Tibor R. Machan. “Innocent threats and the moral problem of carnivorous animals.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 29.2 (2012): 146-159.

Howard-Snyder, F. “Doing versus allowing harm.” The Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy (2014).

Allen, Colin & Trestman, Michael. “Animal consciousness.” The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2009)

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57 Responses to Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “How should vegetarians actually live? A reply to Xavier Cohen.” Written by Thomas Sittler

  • SWM says:

    I think the initial premise is very eccentric and hardly plausible.

    I can’t see how being an ethical vegetarian commits one to the view that the lives of farmed animals are not worth living – is it not more likely that being an ethical vegetarian commits one to the opposite view, i.e. it is wrong to kill animals precisely because their lives are worth living?

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      No, because buying meat does not kill pre-existing animals. It incentivizes the future breeding, and subsequent killing, of more animals through the elasticity of supply (more demand for meat increaes prices, which increases incentives to produce more meat).

      This means that more farmed animals will come into existence.

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      Perhaps the most charitable view of your position is that we could save the money from forgone meat consumption and donate it to humane animal shelters.

  • AWO says:

    Agree with SWM: “More precisely, they believe that farmed animals have lives so bad they are not worth living, so that it is better for them not to come into existence.” – may be true for some vegetarians, but some (i.e., myself) simply find it unnecessary to take the life of an animal in order to live; the relative badness of of the life farmed animals is an extension of the premise. I look forward to the author’s essay that claims that the life of a shaft of wheat is on par with the life of an animal.

    • GVS says:

      it will be obvious that i can’t speak to the level of intellect on this board, but i think a lot is lost even comparing those in the wild, and the natural suffering of such, with so-called free-range animals. we as humans have a choice here, where the great mother of the natural is totally in charge of her beasts.

      i am not a so-called vegetarian, but less methane and trampling of earth, we do have control of.

      • JDA says:

        Actually, the trampling can have positive effects for the environment. There was a TED talk not too long ago that found the best solution for desertification was to actually bring in herds of animals to “trample” the dying land to bring it back to life. It’s obviously a lot more detailed, so if you’re interested go to the TED website, ted.com and tack this on the end:

        /talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change/transcript?language=en

        Links have been disabled or I’d just paste the whole thing.

        Free range animal farming really is a good all around solution. Let the animals have a good life with space to roam and deal with the increases in prices by eating a less meat in your diet. Red meat is especially bad for both your body and the environment. Cows are the most costly to raise and have the biggest impact on the environment. If we focused on animal proteins coming from birds, fish, and occasionally pigs our health, animal lives, and the environment would all benefit. Research into Blue Zones shows they almost all live mostly off the land with veggies, grains, legumes, nuts, and fruits. It’s another TED topic if you’re interested (I obviously watch a lot of it).

    • Rich says:

      Interesting article. As an ethical vegan my thought has always been that it is better to have a short life in the wild than a long life in captivity. Better to die on your feet than live on your knees as the saying goes. 🙂 Another reason I don’t consume animal products is because of the damage caused to the environment in their production. Growing plants causes damage as well which is why I try to buy organic, although I’m aware that even with organics there may be environmental issues, although it is unlikely that these are as extensive and long lasting as with the traditional chemicals. Furthermore the act of taking the possibility of a natural life from animals is something that goes against my Buddhist thinking. Do no harm sums that up. I try to do the best I can to do as little harm in this world and this article helps me question what I’m doing and whether it’s for naught. I’ll stick with my choices for now. Maybe someday I can survive only on oxygen!

  • Charles Zigmund says:

    The suffering in Syria is terrible and widespread. A solution is to sterilize most surviving Syrians to prevent more Syrians from being born and suffering.

    Or, a justification for warfare in Yemen is that heavier warfare takes place in Syria, therefore we should not concern ourselves with what goes on in Yemen.

    Meanwhile billions of sentient animals suffer every minute, not on the what author euphemistically terms “farms”, but in steel factories. Call them what they are. Many of the animals endure long months of torturous existence, for example not being able to lie down or turn around; not afforded what would be the relative blessing of quick kills by predators. In the meantime this author weaves logically consistent structures detached from reality which he calls ethical and moral. This is a good example of why contemporary philosophy is of interest mostly or only to professional philosophers.

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      While you are correct in pointing out the bad conditions many animals in the industry, you are empirically wrong in assuming quick kills in nature. Suffering in nature, including the killing by predators, can be quite prolonged, as the original post in fact pointed out.

      You have not actually provided arguments for your assertion that the logical structure in the OP is detached from empirical reality.

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      The suffering in Syria is terrible and widespread. A solution is to sterilize most surviving Syrians to prevent more Syrians from being born and suffering.

      The most important difference is that humans can control their own reproduction, which makes forced sterilization a far less acceptable option. Furthermore, they would predictably see forced sterilization as an act of aggression and a rights violation, which would lead to additional unintended consequences like political backlash and retaliation. In contrast, most nonhuman animals have no understanding of the causal link between sex and reproduction, and the only plausible retaliation would come from offended environmentalists. Of course, there can be other unintended consequences, but the OP already conceded that.

      Or, a justification for warfare in Yemen is that heavier warfare takes place in Syria, therefore we should not concern ourselves with what goes on in Yemen.

      If you could affect only one of two wars because you have only limited political capital to spend on it, there would indeed be a moral case to focus on the one where you can make the largest difference.

  • Thubten says:

    You have stumbled upon the foundational insight of the Buddha on suffering,the origin of suffering,the possibility of the cessation of suffering, and the path whereby suffering may end. Carry on with your studies.Best wishes

  • DDC says:

    Even if we would accept the first premise, i.e., ethical vegetarians believe that farmed animals have lives so bad they are not worth living, and the second premise, i.e., animals living in the wild often have worse lives than farmed animals, we can’t conclude that it’s ethically more consistent for ethical vegetarians to focus on wild animals well-being instead of farmed animals. We have a certain moral responsibility for the animals we keep and/or use. Take for example a farm boy, Jimmy, who managed to catch a mouse running on his parent’s cornfield and decides to keep it as a pet. Jimmy, however, starts neglecting his newfound pet after a few days and often forgets feeding his mouse or cleaning its cage. Even though the other mice in the cornfield are worse off than Jimmy’s mouse, we won’t morally condemn Jimmy for not trying to save these mice from starvation or predators but we will condemn Jimmy for not taking care of the mouse he took as a pet.
    I think this also counts for the animals we keep for consumption. Even if they are better off living on farms instead of living in the wild we still have a certain responsibility due to being able to control their suffering more directly.

    • Anthony Drinkwater says:

      I fear that your argument, DDC, though attractive prima facie, is in fact attacking a straw man. Thomas is not defending a view that farmers can treat animals any way they want to, any more than he would defend Jimmy’s mistreatment of his mouse.
      He is merely pointing out that a consequence of 100% vegetarianism would be that farm animals would not exist at all, leaving in existence only wild animals, whose suffering is at least as great as farm animals, and (probably) greater.

      Whilst I don’t agree with all Thomas’s arguments, I think this is an excellent philosophical essay, clearly argued, well structured and refreshingly iconoclast.

      • DDC says:

        Agree, excellent essay. However, I’m not saying that Thomas defends the view that farmers can neglect their animals. I’m arguing that because of this responsibility farmers have towards their animals, we can not equal farmed animal suffering and wild animal suffering which Thomas assumes.

      • Jaime says:

        “He is merely pointing out that a consequence of 100% vegetarianism would be that farm animals would not exist at all, leaving in existence only wild animals, whose suffering is at least as great as farm animals, and (probably) greater.”

        But wild animals already exist, so vegetarians are still doing good (within the argument’s premises) by reducing the amount of farm animals. If I help my suffering neighbor I am still doing good, even if there is a more suffering person somewhere across town. And, as the essay explains, meddling with wild ecosystems is a very complicated process for which we cannot predict the outcomes, whereas getting rid of farm animals is completely within our control.

  • Philippe Gaeng says:

    I’m sorry to say that this piece is a pure exemple of vain rhetoric: the question raised by vegetarians is why do we raise industrially animals in the intent to kill them to feed us, while we have today the TECHNOLOGY to have a satisfying diet without animal intake.
    If there were no alternatives to killing animals to survive, then there will be no ethical question: Humans will have to keep killing animals to survive like they have done since their inception, or like thousand of species, ranging from the tinies ant to the mighty lion, keep doing.
    But once we acknowledge that man has the TECHNOLOGY to not kill animals and still enjoy a balanced diet,
    once we acknowledge that modernity has completely unbalanced the human diet by rationalizing cattling and cutting the cost of meat, at the expense of overweight, obesity, high cholesterol and so many other diseases,
    once we acknowledge that cattling is the most resource intensive form of agriculture and therefore, and by a far distance, the least effective,
    once we acknowledge that most of the Amazon has been cut to raise maize to feed cattle or just to raise cattle,
    then you understand that the ethical call of the vegetarian is a pretty strong one.

    The only counter argument I have against vegetarian is one of the culture and tradition of each and every human groups, which is so much linked to their cuisine. Do we have to forget about hundreds of years of heritage and cut ourselves from the great tradition of man raising animal that has given us dogs, horses, cows, sheep and so on?

    I don’t really know, so I think that a balanced diet, indulging meat in reasonable portion once a week could be a great way to balance everything.

    PS: all this argument about the worthiness of life for animals is a completely inept: one has just to observe how a fly will fight until its last breath while being trapped in a spider web to acknowledge that every single moment of every single life is worth living.

    PPS: if there were not industrial cattle raising, if cows were still living out there in the pastures, giving milk and being slaughtered once in a while for a big occasion like a wedding, then there would not be vegetarians. Vegetarians, as most activist are important because they raise a legitimate debate. They may be too intransigent in their call and too passionate in their fight, yet they raise the point, and are helping a lot in improving farming: organic farming, more breed of vegetables on your markets, one can not say that the call of these activists has no influence in these major lifestyle changes.

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      PS: all this argument about the worthiness of life for animals is a completely inept: one has just to observe how a fly will fight until its last breath while being trapped in a spider web to acknowledge that every single moment of every single life is worth living.

      What would the fly’s behavior look like if it were driven by fear, pain or instinct rather than a rational assessment of its overall quality of life? Hm…

      the question raised by vegetarians is why do we raise industrially animals in the intent to kill them to feed us, while we have today the TECHNOLOGY to have a satisfying diet without animal intake.

      Because it tastes good and provides culinary diversity. Duh. The real question is not why we should eat meat, but why we shouldn’t. One classical response is that it causes more suffering animals, and if we take that seriously, then it is reasonable to ask what else we can do to prevent suffering animals. In that context, the OP was anything but a “pure exemple of vain rhetoric”, it was a quite comprehensive analysis.

      • Philippe Gaeng says:

        The real question is not why we should eat meat, but why we shouldn’t.

        The way you write the question definitely influences the outcome, isn’t it.
        The reason we eat meat is just because we are used to do so. It is interesting enough that most religious practices, have they been animist or more completely thought through, have discussed the way meat shall be consumed. Animist pray for their prey, Abraham and the patriarchs were making a specific holocaust etc… therefore Man has always recognized a specific status to the animals he killed back in the days when he was living in osmosis with them.

        I maintain my point that the question at times where science enables us to have a non-animal diet should be: why should we still eat meat while it is not necessary anymore to our survival?

        he OP was anything but a “pure exemple of vain rhetoric”, it was a quite comprehensive analysis.

        I am not discussing the brilliance and comprehensiveness of the analysis, I’m not qualified for that,
        yet I believe that using a discussion of whether animals will experience more suffering in the wild than animals who are farmed, to discredit the claims of vegetarian is simply vain, or maybe you are claiming that Man shall simply kill all animals at once so to end their suffering? Or maybe in a more human way feed them with Valium so they can cope with the tragedy of their lives?

        Even if vegetarians still reject this argument, and believe that wild animals’ lives are better than the lives of farm animals, to the extent that they are worth living, this does not imply they should do nothing. They should not reduce animal numbers, but they should still reduce the suffering of existing animals. Because there are so many animals and the suffering they undergo can be so extreme, this consideration would likely still dominate concern about farmed animals. One could vaccinate animals against diseases: rabies has already been eliminated from foxes for human benefit[15]. After elephants’ teeth wear out, they are no longer able to chew food and eventually collapse from hunger, after which they may be eaten alive by scavengers and predators. Fitting elephants with artificial dentures, which has already been done on captive animals, would significantly increase their healthspan[16].

        The above paragraph is quite a funny example of your irony, irony you are using in a quite brillant way,
        but in my humble opinion, if you are not able to demonstrate why we should eat meat, then you are not demonstrating anything.

        • Rick C says:

          The burden of proof is on the one making the claim. The claim is that it is immoral to eat meat since humankind has the technology to survive on a diet that does not include animal meat. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the moral vegetarian as to why it is immoral to eat animal meat. The treatment of livestock animals specifically raised for human consumption is another topic separate from the original claim. Attempting to twist the conversation in the other direction is intellectually lazy, and provides no substance to the discussion.

  • Jim Birch says:

    DDC, I always thought that ethics was supposed to counter the “not my problem” attitude, not convert it to a guiding principle. The central argument of this piece is that ethical values are inconsistently applied. Exactly the same argument of inconsistency can be made about Jimmy as our vegetarian friends, though the way you write it he may be to young to be considered a full ethical agent so is off the hook.

    • DDC says:

      I don’t feel that I’m trying to encourage a ‘not my problem’ attitude as much as I’m arguing that we should focus on the duties we have towards the animals we keep. The author uses a very utilitarian approach to argue that wild animal suffering and farmed animal suffering are equal and if ethical vegetarians are consistent they should focus more on wild animal suffering. I find that ethical vegetarians are justified in believing that farmed animal suffering is a priority (even if wild animals’ lives are worse) because their suffering is dependent on our decisions.

      Taking Jimmy as an example again: we would say Jimmy is rather cruel for consciously neglecting and starving his newfound pet even if he afterwards went out to the cornfield and saves two new mouses. We would even say Jimmy is more cruel if he believes that torturing his pet is justified as long as he’s able to save more mice’s lives in the end. The same reasoning can be applied to the meat industry: it seems inhuman to consciously put farmed animals in awful conditions even if we would outbalance their suffering by, for example, vaccinating wild foxes for rabies. We have to take a certain responsibility for the harm we deliberately put farm animals through, especially if we have the resources and technology available to avoid their suffering.

  • Marco says:

    The whole point of discussion makes no sense to me. It is indeed true that extreme forms of suffering are much more common in wild animals, and we all know nature can be cruel. So what? This has nothing to do with individual ethics of people who chose not to eat animals.

    • Moosh says:

      But it is related! The author is challenging the type of vegetarian who thinks we should avoid eating meat because lower meat sales will decrease the prevalence of farmed animals (with the implicit premise that farmed animals suffer harsh conditions).If that’s you’re reason for being a vegetarian then (the author argues) you are really wasting your time worrying about meat eating; the vast majority of animal suffering happens in the wild. The point is that your reason to be a vegetarian should really make you an “anti-environmentalist”. You may disagree with the argument but it’s definitely related to individual ethics!

  • EP says:

    It saddens me that theBrowser linked to this. As a vegetarian I am sincerely interested in arguments both for and against eating animals. I assumed, incorrectly, that theBrowser’s editorial stamp of approval meant the arguments, regardless of their position, would be well reasoned and conveyed. This whole post reeks of the hubris of someone who after ten minutes of moderate thought believes himself to possess a deep critique of positions on which (many) others have staked substantial claims.

    Why, as a vegetarian, is my moral obligation greater than a carnivore’s? Why shouldn’t we all try our best to reduce the suffering of all beings? At least vegetarians are doing something. If I donate a dollar to charity does that resign me to deplete my entire wealth? If I am against murder, should I not, if given the opportunity, go back in time and kill Osama? What is this fetish with moral consistency? People see eating meat as easily avoidable, with an obvious, reasonable, and inexpensive alternative. If fitting wild elephants with dentures is possible, then sure, we should do that too.

    • KHO says:

      I am also a vegetarian, and I found this essay extremely persuasive.

      As you say yourself — and the author implies that vegetarians think — we should all try our best to reduce the suffering of all beings. The author goes on to show — convincingly for me at least — that animal suffering in the wild completely overshadows captive animal suffering, and highly probably human suffering as well. It then follows from your own admonition to try our best to reduce the suffering of all beings that we should direct the vast majority of our efforts towards reducing wild animal suffering.

      Yes vegetarians are doing something, but the author never denies that. What he is saying is that vegetarianism is a drop in the ocean compared to the suffering of wild animals. To paraphrase: if vegetarians truly cared about animal suffering, they would start nuking rainforests, and I agree.

      We must not think that an argument is false simply because it is not intuitive.

  • popple says:

    “I will argue that if vegetarians were to apply this principle consistently, wild animal suffering would dominate their concerns, and may lead them to be stringent anti-environmentalists.”

    The implicit message seems to be that vegetarians are either illogical or hypocritical.
    But how many of us follow ethical principles wherever they may lead?
    I’m fortunate enough to have a spare room, a spare kidney, enough disposable cash to treat myself to proper coffees, and the spare time to enjoy them. A total ethical fail.

  • Sly says:

    It is my understanding that slavery caused the number of Africans in the United States to increase drastically (only about 500 000 were shipped to the U.S, which increased to about 4 million by 1860). Due to the industrial breeding of slaves in the U.S. many people were born who otherwise would not have been.

    Given this fact, would it have required me to believe that slaves have lives so bad they are not worth living, so that it is better for them not to come into existence, to oppose slavery at the time?

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      It’s obvious that slaves did not have lives worth living on net. None of us would prefer a representative set of experiences over no experience, all else equal.

      So you are using a weird hypothetical, since we all know the answer.

      Would it have been a requirement? No. For example, you could have believed that without slavery, the market wages for voluntary labour would have been higher, and therefore overall quality of life would have increased.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    I think that the author of this essay has deliberately confused readers with his terminology, particularly by avoiding the term ‘vegan’. That may explain the confusion in the comments. For the purposes of his arguments, Thomas Sittler suggests that what he calls ‘vegetarians’ are environmentalists. In fact he is talking about vegans, and they are not environmentalists at all, and increasingly they are anti-environmentalists.

    A vegetarian is a person who follows a vegetarian diet, and that is purely a personal preference, although the choice of diet might have ethical motives. However, a ‘vegetarian’ is not necessarily concerned about animal suffering at all: for instance, the more you know about the meat processing industry, the less your appetite for meat. In English-speaking countries the term ‘vegan’ is commonly used for those vegetarians who are motivated by avoidance of harm to animals. Thomas Sittler uses the term “ethical vegetarian” in the opening paragraph, but then drops it, and speaks simply of vegetarians, without any explanation of why he has altered his definition. That definition has significant consequences for his arguments – in fact they make no sense, as for vegetarians who are unconcerned with animal suffering.

    I pointed out in comments on an earlier post (by Catia Faria) that we need a name for the emerging pro-extinctionist, anti-nature, and anti-environmentalist position of some of those who started as vegans, and I suggested ‘post-vegan’ until something better is found. Even if he does not use that term, or even the term vegan, Thomas Sittler evidently knows what that position is, since he refers to aspects of it in his essay. He must know that his implicit attribution of opposition to that position to ‘vegetarians’ is misleading. I personally would not award a prize to an essay on ethics, if it switched terminology in the middle of the argument.

  • Nathan says:

    The crux of the point of this essay fails miserably upon the assumption that humans are at the center of all things – advanced, special, superior, and empowered in a chain of being.

    By the way, this historic and very, very deep-seated ideology with many roots and corollaries also happens to be the same that justifies experimentation on non-human animals. Because, although humans are also animals, we supposedly have every right and duty to project whatever we may upon other animals (alas, of course, except upon other humans?!) in the names of (human) science, (human) progress, (human) ends.

    Doesn’t Philosophy 101 teach us that the future of the planet – and, as it were, humanity – increasingly depends upon the recognition that, well, we just can’t do whatever we may…?

    I’m frankly disturbed this essay and its logic was awarded a prize at Oxford. Don’t they have a course on Kant there?

    • Anthony Drinkwater says:

      You are of course right, Nathan.
      I’m however a little surprised that no dogs, dolphins, cattle or field mice have replied to reject the view that humans are advanced, special, superior or empowered.
      As to Kant, I agree : it is evidently a scandal that his condemnation of meat-eating has been so successfully suppressed that it is rarely discussed at Oxford.

  • Nathan says:

    Anthony,

    Just because non-human animals are not party to this conversation here, online, using a set of highly context-specific languages, doesn’t equate to an absolute, natural assumption of inferiority on *their* part. Surely you have experience in trying to persuade others – whether they be adult or child humans, or any non-human animal – to do, or not do, x,, y, or z?

    And any thoughts from Kant on meat-eating is not my point: approachment to full appreciation of *our* limits, as well as our abilities and maturity, is…..

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Thanks for your reply, Nathan.
    But I doubt that non-human animals would be party to such a conversation anywhere, anytime, on- or off-line using even a very low context-free language. Yes, I know that Tinbergen showed that bees communicate some fairly sophisticated things, and there are plenty of other examples of animal communication, but they are IMHO a long distance from ordinary human conversation, let alone rivalling Shakespeare or Flaubert. Birds sing, too….. But is this the same singing as a Handel aria or Bessie Smith’s blues ?
    But I agree with you (and Kant, and Charles Foster) that cruelty to animals is undignified and wrong. As, I suspect, does Thomas Sittler : the point of his post, it seems to me, is not to defend the mistreatment of animals – but he can write for himself !

  • Nathan says:

    Anthony, are you stating that, because human animals in various degrees do x, y, or z, they as a whole are more advanced, special, superior, and/or ‎empowered in a supposed chain of being of life? ‎

    As I stated, among other assumptions Mr. Sittler’s essay thoroughly does, and a response from him is also most welcome. ‎

    Finally, my point about Kant is that, apparently the abilities, limitations, and maturity to knowledge, reason‎, understanding etc that Kant in particular came to influence culturally appear sorely lacking in Mr. Sittler’s essay, the consideration of its being awarded at Oxford, and much of so-called philosophy and science still to this day.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Thanks, Nathan
    Not sure that I’d recognise a chain of being of life if I saw one, nor that heavily-laden words like “advanced” or “superior” are helpful – and I shouldn’t have used them in my reply to you.
    But until an aardvark or a zebra writes a Mme Bovary or a Hamlet I’ll maintain that there is something unique to humanity : so “yes”, human beings are special and have abilities that no other animal has.
    Please note that this does NOT imply that they have greater moral worth (how could I ? – Hitler and Stalin were also humans), nor a greater claim to inherit the earth, nor that their extinction would be worse than the disappearance of other animals, nor that they can treat other animals any way they choose to.
    Finally, I don’t see any evidence at all in Thomas’ post that he is ignorant of Kant or his legacy.

  • Nathan says:

    Anthony, then, if I may – by saying that human animals are special, are you by definition not also presuming there is a natural hierarchical order (i.e. a chain of being) of…specialness in Life, with human animals toward the top?

    But, in your view, what is the standard of measure to specialness? What criteria are involved in defining specialness? How should anyone come to agree, let alone live by, resonate with, or teach this standard of criteria? What does such a standard mean for everyone and everything else? Where can it be found for everyone, and everything, to recognize or be conscious of?

    …And are you also not presuming that, naturally, there are some human animals that are therefore more special than other human animals?

    I of course agree that each of us are unique, that you may excel at certain things that I do not, and that I may create things that may amaze everyone or a dog may piss on. But drawing any comparisons between human animals and between human animals and everything else invariably involves only gross approximations, at best, to principles not found in the human animal or its systems alone.

  • Nathan says:

    Anthony, then, if I may – by saying that human animals are special, are you by definition not also presuming there is a natural hierarchical order (i.e. a chain of being) of…specialness in Life, with human animals at or toward the top?

    But, in your view, what is the standard of measure to specialness? What criteria are involved in defining specialness? How should anyone come to agree, let alone live by, resonate with, or teach this standard of criteria? What does such a standard mean for everyone and everything else? Where can it be found for everyone, and everything, to recognize or be conscious of? What is at the top, and what is at the bottom of this standard?…

    …And are you also not presuming that, naturally, there are some human animals that are therefore more special than other human animals?

    I of course agree that each of us are unique, that you may excel at certain things that I do not, and that I may create things that may amaze everyone or a dog may piss on. But drawing any comparisons between human animals and between human animals and everything else invariably involves only gross approximations, at best, to principles not found in the human animal or its systems alone.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    To reply briefly, I personally excel at nothing, but I maintain that Einstein, Flaubert, Leonardo da Vinci, Schubert and many others did. And that very few human animals, and no non-human animals, have approached them.
    If you think that this is a gross approximation, that is your right.
    But I repeat that IMHO this does not imply that there is a “natural hierarchical order”, nor that Einstein etc have greater moral worth …..

  • Nathan says:

    Anthony, are you saying Einstein, Flaubert et al are special because of their actions, or that they themselves are inherently and entirely special (and their actions merely show this)?

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Stating that people excel at something implies necessarily that they are actors. Whether Einstein’s genius was in some way “inherent” is in any case irrelevant to my position: viz. no other beings that we know other than people have displayed anything remotely similar.

  • Mike Evans BSc(hons), MSc(hons) says:

    I’d fail this. It begins by setting up a false dichotomy in the first paragraph (with no data referenced) rather than researching the opinions and views of actual vegetarians. So it appears that no data were collected and so not conclusions can possibly be made. This may be good enough for Oxford but it certainly would not have been good enough for my tutors. But then again, I studied science.

  • Josh says:

    “Ethical vegetarians abstain from eating animal flesh because they care about the harm done to farmed animals. More precisely, they believe that farmed animals have lives so bad they are not worth living, so that it is better for them not to come into existence. ”

    Now you might be on to something with the first part, thats probably close to what people think. But you are gonna have to pull a Socrates (or Peter Singer) on someone to get that second part.

    What I mean is I’d be willing to bet pretty much no one would think that, because they are not approaching it ‘rationally’ or stepwise. I think you’d be better off to consider the feeling of dis-ease from widespread human control. Maybe coupled with the feeling of empathy with the animals. Now some people do get that empathy with what you are calling wild animals and their deaths, but a lot don’t because it doesn’t directly involve human ends. I mean you did touch on “we just don’t know . . maybe it will harm things if we mess with stuff” but that potential harm is just the most salient human concern (as in I don’t want to mess up my own house) but there are likely other emotionally driven reasons.

    You know that one drunk friend who starts punching everyone at a party. Sometimes you gotta stop that guy. You hate drunk punching. Now, that doesn’t mean, or imply, you ought to forget about him and focusing on stopping punching in general. No, it just means practically (practical ethics) you sit that dude down. But, if the buddhist dream comes true and all suffering is figured out, then sure, I bet the vegetarians might be like “ya you got something now with this article” but until then they are just simply stopping that drunk idiot because its emotionally salient and seemingly accomplishable.

  • m4ps says:

    I thought dolphins were the only other species that felt pleasure from sex?? Or maybe, it is that they’re the only other species who sometimes has sex purely for pleasure?

  • Jez Lister says:

    The whole premise of this debate is to suggest that vegetarians should not mind eating domestic animals because wild animals have it so much worse. I agree that wild animals must endure stress, pain and suffering but it misses the point entirely about why people are vegetarian. As a vegetarian I choose not to eat animals because there is no need to – that is it. There is enough plant based food to go round without eating animals. Even if domesticated animals led an idyllic life and pain free slaughter (which they don’t), I would still not eat them. I just don’t see the need. Being a vegetarian cannot always be rationalised either – even by the vegetarian. In many cases it is simply something that does not sit well with you. I suppose it is like when people who are OK eating one animal but won’t eat another e.g. cat or dog. There is no logical difference but it just seems wrong. To a vegetarian, the eating of any animal is something that feels wrong; whether domesticated or wild.

    Raising livestock also messes up the environment!

    • Rick C says:

      “The whole premise of this debate is to suggest that vegetarians should not mind eating domestic animals because wild animals have it so much worse.”

      No, it isn’t. From the Essay in clear terms: “I will argue that if vegetarians were to apply this principle consistently, wild animal suffering would dominate their concerns, and may lead them to be stringent anti-environmentalists.”

      The whole premise is that moral vegetarians do not apply their moral position equally and thoroughly. Vegetarianism and moral vegetarianism are two different things. Some people choose to follow a vegetarian diet for health reasons, religious reasons, moral/ethical reasons, etc. There are many different reasons to follow vegetarian diet, and as you yourself said, sometimes you can’t really articulate why you choose to do so, you just do. The author does not argue that no one should be vegetarian. Only that a Moral Vegetarian (as opposed to other types of reasoning for being vegetarian) does not apply their morality equally to all animals. Nothing that you said refutes that position in any way, or even really contributes to the discussion.

  • Billy W says:

    This is a interesting piece: the author is clearly very intelligent, the piece is well-written and I am sure quite compelling for some people. However, I have to criticise even the fact that this piece was written and that it was given a prize: while there is consensus amongst most ethicists that meat consumption is wrong (Schwitzgebel, 2013), most people do not seem to think so and there is a huge degree of confirmation bias that exists on this topic. Well-written articles like this allow people to justify behaviour that is probably inconsistent with fairly basic moral principles, and continue to act immorally.

    Obviously though it needs to be shown that the arguments presented are defective. There may be empirical issues with the argument, but set these aside, I see 4 non-empirical issues:

    1.

    [vegetarians] believe that farmed animals have lives so bad they are not worth living, so that it is better for them not to come into existence.

    I doubt it, I used to think something along these lines, it tends to lead you to a conclusion that only factory farming is problematic, whereas free-range animals are fair game to be eaten. Instead, I (like many vegetarians) usually ask the question of what would be permissible to do with a human of similar cognitive abilities to the animal in question. It is clear to me that it would not be permissible to breed cognitively impaired humans, give them decent lives, and then kill them for food, and it is wrong to pay people to do that for you. I have heard no compelling arguments that suggest that cognitively impaired humans and (at least) most mammals should have differing moral value, so the argument is compelling to me.
    I therefore tend to favour a view that bringing animals into existence is morally neutral, but inflicting pain on them or killing them is clearly morally bad. Personally I think that’s because animals have rights that we should not infringe (at least, not for the trivial pleasure of eating meat), though you could also appeal to a theory like average utilitarianism.

    2. Wild animals: I generally agree they often have bad lives, I also think we should care about it and take actions in some cases. It may be permissible to cull a few deer to prevent their population exploding and leading to mass-starvation of all the deer. However, even if it is true that wild animals suffer more than farmed animals, there are differing levels of responsibility insofar as we are responsible for the existence of farm animals. We generally think parents have special obligations to look after their child, because they caused the child to exist which they must either fulfil themselves, or they must find others who they believe will look after the child well. For example, if your child is beaten on a monthly basis for the entertainment of others, but in another location another child is beaten every week, it is still the case that you have a stronger obligation to alleviate the suffering of your child because you are responsible for its existence.

    3.

    It may even be the case that vegetarians should react to this argument by eating more meat, since feeding the livestock requires more surface area for agriculture, and fields contain far fewer wild animals per square kilometre than other biomes such as forests.

    This was a little outrageous: even if wild animals suffer more and we should care about it more than farmed animals, it’s still the case that you have assumed that farmed animals have lives that are not worth living, hence under your argument it would clearly be better to just deforest an area and not rear animals there than to deforest it and rear animals there. Perhaps we could use such land to produce biofuels for instance.

    4. The author is correct that omissions matter, but they plausibly matter quite a lot less than actions. Even in the example given with the fawn: it might well be the case that it is wrong to not shoot the fawn, but it is clearly far worse to break a fawn’s leg and then leave her to die in a forest fire even though the consequences of each action are the same. Failing to save wild animals from bad lives doesn’t make the world worse, it just fails to make it better (maybe). Farming animals probably does make the world worse (or violates the rights of animals), we shouldn’t do it, we shouldn’t fund it.

    I think we can view this article as providing us with compelling reasons that perhaps we should care about wild animals more than we do. That is a valuable contribution, unfortunately this contribution is soured by his attempt to undermine the actions of people who are trying to avoid making the world worse.

  • Essayist says:

    The weak axioms on which this essay is founded can be easily highlighted by editing it to be an anti-abortion essay instead of an anti-vegetarian essay.

    Ethical pro-abortionists want to legalise abortion because they care about the harm done to babies who are born to mothers who don’t want them. More precisely, they believe that these unborn babies would have lives so bad they are not worth living, so that it is better for them not to come into existence. Pro-abortionists want legal access to abortions, so that fewer pregnant women who don’t want their babies will give birth, preventing the existence of unwanted babies. If ethical pro-abortionists believed unwanted babies have lives that are unpleasant but still better than non-existence, they would focus on reducing harm to these unwanted babies without reducing their numbers, for instance by increasing support for mothers or offering to adopt these babies themselves.

    I will argue that if pro-abortionists were to apply this principle consistently, child-suffering in the developing world would dominate their concerns, and may lead them to be stringent anti-abortionists.

    If babies born to mothers who don’t want them to have lives that are not worth living, children in developing countries could plausibly be thought to also have lives that are worse than non-existence. Childhood is often romanticised as idyllic, so this may seem counter-intuitive. But extreme forms of suffering like starvation, dehydration or disease are much more common in children born in developing countries than in children whose mothers wanted an abortion. Children with HIV have seizures and frequent infections[http://www.webmd.com/hiv-aids/guide/hiv-in-children]. In the developing world, diseases like childhood salmonellosis, which produce excruciating symptoms in the final days of life, such as depression, shivering, loss of appetite, and just before death, blindness, incoordination, staggering, tremor and convulsions, are an improtant public health problem.[http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12686884] While a baby born to a mother who wanted an abortion has to endure potentially less love and care from its mother, a baby born in the developing world may suffer comparable experiences, such as surviving a famine or having to fear violence from political instability, while additionally undergoing the aforementioned extreme suffering[http://www.who.int/pmnch/media/press_materials/fs/fs_mdg4_childmortality/en/]. Children born in developing countries do experience significant pleasure, for instance when they eat or play, or engage in other normal physical activity. One reason to suspect that this pleasure is outweighed by suffering is that often families in developing countries have many children, without expecting them all to survive to adulthood.[http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/general/lancet_3.pdf] For instance, in Niger, ‘Child mortality remains very high with more than a quarter of children dying by age 5 years’,[6] meaning that these children die before they could have had many pleasurable experiences. Overall, it seems plausible that children in developing countries have worse lives than, say, children in the devloped world whose mothers did not want children and became pregnant by accident. If pro-abortionists think the latter are better off not existing, they must believe the same thing about children in developing countries.

    A second important empirical fact is that children in developing countries far outnumber children born to mothers who did not intend to become pregnant.

    If the well-being of children in developing countries is negative, the scale of child-suffering in the developing world is vast. As Eddie Izzard says, ‘In every minute of every day, four children die of hunger.'[http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22935692] If they accept the premises so far, consistent pro-abortionists should focus on preventing the existence of as many children in the developing world as possible, since even a small reduction in the global number of these children would outweigh the impact of preventing all unwanted children from being born. For example, they could reduce the birth rate in developing countries by sterilising people. This would place them directly at odds with human rights activists who argue for sexual and reproductive rights.

    An intuitive response to child suffering in the developing world can be that cycles of disease and starvation are natural, and therefore they must be neutral morally. But what is natural is not necessarily what is good, for instance, humans will routinely use technology to remove diseases which are natural.

    It is important to emphasize that the claim ‘child suffering in the developing world is bad’ does not imply a guilt claim of the form ‘parents of children in developing countries are morally guilty’. A parent’s inability to prevent starvation and disease does not deserve our moral condemnation. However, we can avoid much confusion if we remember to keep separate the concepts of guilt of an agent and wrongness of an action. It is perfectly possible to claim that X is harmful and should be prevented while also holding that the direct cause of X is not a moral agent. The fact that we are so used to thinking about cases of human behaviour, where guilt and wrongness are largely aligned, may partly explain why arguments about child suffering in developing countries seem counter-intuitive.

    Underlying some of these principled arguments is the intuition that harmful acts, like forcing a child to be born to an unwilling mother, are worse than harmful omissions, like failing to end the suffering of children in developing countries. I cannot begin to give a full treatment to the act/omission debate here, but one thought experiment suggests harmful omissions matter at least somewhat. Imagine you see a fire spreading in a forest and, while walking away from the fire, you see an injured child: a broken leg prevents her from fleeing. You carry a rifle and could instantly kill the child at no cost to yourself, preventing her from the extreme suffering of being burned alive. In this situation, for pro-abortionists who care about harm to children, it is clear that it would be immoral to omit to act and allow child suffering to happen. So the general principle ‘allowing children in developing countries to suffer is morally neutral’ cannot hold.

    A second set of counter-arguments are empirical: they concede that consistent pro-abortionists are morally obliged to reduce child suffering in developing countries, but attack various empirical claims made above.

    It may be objected that we cannot reduce the number of children in developing countries by sterilising people, because as soon as fewer children are born, more resources (like food and territory) become available, which increases the evolutionary payoff of producing more children. If we sterilise some people, there will at first be fewer children, so there will be more food available, which allows other people to have more offspring, until we are back to the original equilibrium. The existence of such evolutionary pressures towards an equilibrium population seems plausible, but it remains an unsolved empirical question. It may be the case that the population takes several years to reach its equilibrium again, in which case much child suffering would be averted in the meantime. Regardless, this is only an objection against one particular method for reducing child numbers, and it only tells us that sterilisation would be ineffective, not harmful. If we reject sterilisation on these grounds, habitat destruction, for instance, evidently does reduce population numbers for the long run.

    A frequent objection against intervening in other countries is that we are uncertain about the consequences: for instance, sterilising people might cause a diplomatic catastrophe. While our uncertainty is a good reason to do more research in order to reduce it, it is not in principle an argument for inaction. If we are so uncertain, inaction towards disease could also be causing vastly more suffering than we currently estimate. In order to make sure our aversion to intervene is not caused by status quo bias, we can use the reversal test,[9] an elegant instance of which is provided by the reintroduction of wolves in Scotland, where they had been hunted to extinction in the 1700s.[10] If we are more worried about the uncertain effects of reintroducing wolves than we are about the uncertainty of inaction towards wolf predation, this may be due to status quo bias.

    Possibly the strongest counter-argument is that we are extremely uncertain about whether developing-country-children’s lives are worth living. How much pain or pleasure young children feel in response to certain stimuli is dependent on communication of their feelings, which they are not able to do at such a young age. While we may make some reasonable extrapolation from our adult experience (tuberculosis is very painful), children’s subjective experience may differ significantly. Clearly, I do not pretend to have solved this difficult empirical question. However I note that these considerations should also make us uncertain about the subjective well-being of children born to mother who did not want children; and I have already offered reasons why children in developing countries plausibly have worse lives than children born in richer countries to mothers who did not want children.

    Even if pro-abortionists still reject this argument, and believe that children in developing countires have lives that are better than the lives of children born to mother who did not want children, to the extent that they are worth living, this does not imply they should do nothing. They should not reduce child numbers, but they should still reduce the suffering of existing children. Because there are so many children and the suffering they undergo can be so extreme, this consideration would likely still dominate concern about children born to mother who did not want them. One could vaccinate children against diseases: polio has already been eliminated[http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/polio/en/]. If a child’s parents die from ebola, they are not able to educate themselves and either die or grow up on the streets, exposed to unhealthy lifestyles, and are given no education. Charities such as Street Child intervene and help orphans find new families, increasing their health and improving their level of education[http://www.street-child.co.uk/].

    A possible concern with this type of intervention may be that any advantage given to a particular individual by reducing their suffering would increase the suffering of others. For instance, if one child is better educated, there will be more competition for good jobs, and another person will not get a job at their expense. If we think that societies lie on such a razor-sharp equilibrium where all people are strongly competing for every piece of resource, this objection is plausible. But crucially, if we accept this, then it is becomes plausible that children in developing countries actually do have lives that are not worth living: if human reproduction produces so many children that each can just barely survive, it is likely that they endure much suffering and little pleasure. So it seems like we must either accept that some interventions can reduce extreme suffering for children in developing countries, or concede that their lives are plausibly not worth living.

    Some may choose to treat this outlandish conclusion as a reductio against pro-abortionism (either against the idea that children born to mothers who did not want children matter morally or against the belief that we should prevent them from coming into existence). Perhaps pro-abortionists who still reject the conclusion should increase their confidence that forcing pregnant women who do not want an abortion, but would treat a baby well if they were not allowed to have an abortion, is a good thing. For those who accept it, the question of how most effectively to reduce child suffering in the developing world is left open. As I have repeatedly emphasised, we are still very ignorant about many relevant empirical questions, so immediate large-scale intervention will not be very effective. The best immediate action is probably to produce more research on child suffering in the developing world, in order to make future action more likely to be effective.

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      “The weak axioms on which this essay is founded can be easily highlighted by editing it to be an anti-abortion essay instead of an anti-vegetarian essay.”

      Woooow, so smart and thoughtful! If only you had chosen an analogy that actually has the same logical structure. Well, I guess you tried.

  • Essayist says:

    Hedonic Treader, exactly how would you say the logical structures differ?

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      I’ll cherrypick three examples:

      “For example, they could reduce the birth rate in developing countries by sterilising people.”

      As pointed out weeks ago in the comments, this is an absurd non-sequitur. Not only can humans control their own reproduction without coercion (unlike wild animals), but they can also defend themselves and retaliate against those who would sterilize them, and their reproduction happens in a culture of speciesism, where it is perfectly accepted to sterilize pets and even slaughter animals, whereas forced sterilization of people is a huge cultural taboo with massive political costs.

      “It is important to emphasize that the claim ‘child suffering in the developing world is bad’ does not imply a guilt claim of the form ‘parents of children in developing countries are morally guilty’. A parent’s inability to prevent starvation and disease does not deserve our moral condemnation.”

      Yes it does. For wild animals, who have no moral insight and no knowledge of the link between coitus and reproduction, there is indeed no reasonable moral condemnation. In contrast, humans who choose to reproduce in a circumstance that will predictably lead to their children’s suffering with high probability, are indeed making a choice that does deserve moral condemnation (whether that does anything to help the situation is a different question).

      “For instance, if one child is better educated, there will be more competition for good jobs, and another person will not get a job at their expense.”

      This is not how the economy works at any currently realistic margin in developing countries. It is, however, how many ecosystems work in their long-term equilibria.

      • Nathan says:

        Hedonic Treader, you said:

        “For wild animals, who have no moral insight…”

        This statement is particularly ridiculous and odious, in my view, for the following reasons:

        1) It is impossible to make such an absolute, categorical, and invariable claim [upon other beings/consciousnesses] with any certainty. Any such judgment is, and always will be based entirely upon partial data, partial language, and gross approximation and projection, at best.

        2) You have also made no clear and compelling distinctions between “wild” and “non-wild” animals, between “human” animals and “non-human” animals, and between human animal A and human animal X,Y, or Z, in order to base such an ontological claim of moral existence against any “animal,” individually or collectively.

        3) However, there is tons and tons and TONS of evidence to demonstrate that each and every morality, as a belief-system or association of value(s), has a unique origin, development, and application; and that what “we” may find morally commendable/reprehensible today, was probably not the case at some point(s) in the past, and may/may not be again at a point(s) in the future or across other cultures. Therefore, given that it does not take brain science to appreciate the fact that all animals of all stripes are making decisions of various degrees ALL THE FRIGGIN TIME, it isn’t much of a reach to also grasp how the simplest judgment can evolve into the most complex of moralities over space and time.

        • Hedonic Treader says:

          You should aspire to become a politician, as you are very talented at producing rhetoric free of substance.

  • Benny Malone says:

    For a ‘Practical Ethics’ essay it is remarkably short on practical suggestions apart from causing more environmental damage in order to prevent the existence of wild animals.

  • Essayist says:

    The rewrite of the essay was intended to highlight the weak axioms on which it is founded, of which there are two in particular.

    The first axiom is that making a decision that results in a being not coming into existence must represent a judgement that the being’s non-existence is preferable to its existence with suffering. This argument is commonly used to imply that people who believe abortion should be legal have actively chosen to deny existence to the unborn embryos. In the abortion debate this is known as Marquis’ deprivation argument, and various counter-arguments have famously been made, most of which argue that the being that never came into existence is not contiguous with the being that did, and that they are therefore not comparable.

    The second axiom is that it is inconsistent to make a decision based on a principle without applying that principle to its extreme. The premise is that anyone who has made a decision based on wanting to reduce animal suffering is being inconsistent unless they also take a consequentialist stance towards minimising all animal suffering, with no regard for other principles, such as environmentalism. Because this argument is so commonly used against vegetarianism, it is easy not to notice how absurd it sounds, which is why the child suffering analogy was used.

    With respect to these axioms, the logical structures of the two arguments presented in the two essays are the same.

    The details of the rest of the essay are relatively unimportant compared to the axioms on which it is founded, but to address Hedonic Treader’s three points briefly: (1) the sterilisation of a whole species of animals and the sterilisation of a population of humans would both be impractical, (2) clearly there is a debate to be had on the morality of having children in an environment in which disease and famine are major problems, but in which there are also pleasant aspects to life and in which contraception is not readily available, and (3) it is well-known to the dynamical systems community that the economy and the environment react to small perturbations in ways that are comparably unpredictable.

  • Simon James says:

    Your article ignores deontological rights based arguments for veganism, specifically those developed by Tom Regan and others that we should not use animals as a means to an end.

  • Benny Malone says:

    This argument is a non-sequitur following on from a false dilemma. Animal exploitation and environmental destruction are offered as the status quo ‘solutions’ to maintain or even increase human encroachment on wildlife. I don’t see a mention of the suffering brought to animals by environmental destruction and global warming. If the author is committed to preventing wild animal suffering through wild animals not existing then why isn’t maintaining animal sanctuaries of farmed animals offered as a solution rather than exploiting and killing those animals? That would satisfy their criteria far more than exploiting and killing animals in terms of welfare. It is no more ridiculous a suggestion than the author’s idea of environmental destruction. How is killing animals around six months of age the best they can think of for ‘high welfare’. Obviously it isn’t as the aim is still to exploit animals and eat their flesh etc. This seems like a smug exercise in sophistry in order to rationalise a bacon sandwich.

    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/False_dilemma

    ‘Where the common people are free, they are even worse off than slaves. This argument became popular in the South in the decades before the War Between the States. Its leading exponent was the proslavery writer George Fitzhugh, whose book titles speak for themselves: Sociology for the South, or, the Failure of Free Society (1854) and Cannibals All!, or, Slaves Without Masters (1857). Fitzhugh seems to have taken many of his ideas from the reactionary, racist, Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. The expression “wage slave” still echoes this antebellum outlook. True to his sociological theories, Fitzhugh wanted to extend slavery in the United States to working-class white people, for their own good!’ – https://fee.org/articles/ten-reasons-not-to-abolish-slavery/

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