Could Eating Animals Be Just Slightly Wrong?

Thinking about yesterday's post, a question occurs to me. Eric Schwitzgebel says he considers eating animals to be "just slightly wrong"--like not answering the emails of undergraduates.  The more I think about it, the more I find that an odd notion. I can see how causing suffering and death to animals could be considered not bad at all, and I can see how it could be considered less bad than doing the same thing to people (I actually argue for that in my book), but how could it really be "just slightly wrong"?  What way of thinking about the suffering and death of animals could allow you to make that tepid assessment?  Suddenly I'm puzzled.  Anybody have any ideas?


Aeolus said...

If causing suffering and death to animals can be somewhat less bad than doing the same to humans, why can't it be a great deal less bad? Schwitzgebel could believe that animals have only a very limited capacity to suffer, or he could believe the suffering, of whatever magnitude, either is not experienced at all by the animal, or is only minimally experienced. Peter Carruthers argues that although animals have mental states, these states are not consciously experienced because animals cannot think about their thoughts. Peter Harrison claims that animals do not experience pain because they have no sense of self -- no "I" to own the pain.

Jeff McMahan argues that animals do not have the same psychological unity of the individual over time that humans have, so that they do not have the same interest in continuing to live. Nevertheless, says McMahan, the (more limited) loss of future goods, plus the ability to suffer, makes a strong case for vegetarianism.

There another possibility: Schwitzgebel is just not thinking very clearly.

Jean Kazez said...

(1) I read Carruthers and Harrison as saying there's no pain at all of the sort worthy of moral consideration.

(2) But OK, someone could think there's some pain, but very little--about like what undergraduates feel when you don't answer their emails! It's very little because it's not compounded by cognitive factors, or some such... Hmm. Not really too plausible, though.

(3) I think McMahan is a good example of someone who sees killing animals as significant, but not AS significant, as killing humans. But he doesn't discount animal pain in any way, as I recall. So it's a pretty serious matter to cause them pain, and he is in fact a vegetarian, I believe.

(4) Oh yeah, there's my view-the sliding scale. As you say, if it can be somewhat less bad to kill/harm animals, why not a lot less bad, or even just slightly bad? I admit--the whole idea is loose and intuitive, so it's hard to block that judgment. But it's so...counterintuitive. Killing a cow is like not answering an undergraduate's email. It just doesn't sound right.

Faust said...

I have trouble with "degree of wrongness" in general. If something, ANYTHING, is "slightly wrong" what does that mean? Does it mean you should be slightly punished for violating the norm? Only feel slightly guilty? Are there a set of wrongs that are so slightly wrong that they might as well not be wrong for all practical purposes?

We clearly have thresholds that get crossed where certain wrongs are very definitely very bad and wrong. Like: murder of innocent adult human beings. So that gets you more than a slap on the wrist.

But all those little wrongs...

It's the kind of thing that annoys me when people start talking about how such and such is supererogatory. If I don't do something that is supererogatory does that mean I should be punished? No, by definition. So basically it just means that if I do something supererogatory I should get a cookie.

Aeolus said...

The fact that Schwitzgebel likens the wrong of eating meat to the wrong of driving a gas-guzzling car suggests that perhaps it's not the suffering and death of animals that concerns him but the environmental impact of the meat industry.

amos said...

I have no trouble with the notion that some things are wronger than other things.

Torturing a child is wronger than torturing a cat, although it is wrong to torture a cat. To use a false identity in internet and to make up stories about what certain people did to others is wrong, but it doesn't seem very wrong to me, while to lie under oath in a criminal proceedings seems very wrong to me, etc.

If I see someone torturing a child, I will call the police. If I see someone torturing a cat, I may ask him (if he's not bigger than I am) why he is doing that.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the link and interesting comment, Jean.

I think there are two main moral justifications for eating less meat: The first is a duty to other people to protect the environment and not waste resources. Eating meat is a little bad by this measure. The second is the bad in harming others. The badness in harming varies with many factors, and the badness of harming a non-human animal is, in my view, vastly less than the badness of comparably harming a human being. If there is any fixed point in my moral thinking it is that if forced to choose between pushing a person off a cliff and pushing a lamb off a cliff I should choose to push the lamb.

For what it's worth, few of my survey respondents who rated "regularly eating the meat of mammals such as beef or pork" as morally bad rated it as "very morally bad" (1). Here is the distribution:

1: 2% (very morally bad)
2: 6%
3: 19% (somewhat morally bad)
4: 16%
5: 54% (morally neutral)
6: 1%
7: 1% (somewhat morally good)
8: 1%
9: 1% (very morally good)

For "not consistently responding to student emails" the distribution was:

1: 6%
2: 14%
3: 42%
4: 21%
5: 15%
6: 1%
7: 1%
8: 0%
9: 0%

So I don't seem to be unusual in my opinion.

Aeolus said...

The real moral issue is not whether, if forced to choose, one ought to push a human or a lamb off a cliff. The issue is whether it is morally bad to push a lamb off a cliff when one is not forced to push anyone off, and when the incentive to push the lamb off is personal pleasure. But let's not get too picky. (Meat, yum...) The Schwitzgebel study does raise the interesting question of why "conscience and behavior go separate ways" so frequently, even among philosophers.

Faust said...

"The Schwitzgebel study does raise the interesting question of why "conscience and behavior go separate ways" so frequently, even among philosophers."

I was going to sit down and type this very sentence but Aeolus beat me to it.

I'll extend it a little bit: until we have solved the problem of akrasia, does it matter whether or not we have zeroed in on "the moral facts?" Aren't we just talking to pass the hour?

Jean Kazez said...

Hi Eric, Thanks for your comment. Do you have any more data about the under 50 FPs? Since so many think eating mammals is bad, I wonder if they also (on average) see it as more bad than the total sample.

I'm prepared to accept that a lot of people think meat eating is bad, but do it anyway, because they think it's just slightly bad, or not very bad. The thing is, I encounter an interesting subpopulation that thinks it's quite bad, and still eats meat. So different things might explain "guilty meat eating" in different groups. I'm curious about these people and why they don't stop. It might seem like there's an obvious explanation (tastes good) but I'd be intrigued to see that studied more closely.

Anyhow--I think the whole question about ethics professors and whether they behave differently from other people is a great one.

amos said...

For what it's worth, in the last 10 years or so, during which I've begun to study ethics seriously, although not in an academic setting, and to examine my own often previously unconscious ethical tenets, I've changed some behaviors and have become much more scrupulous and consistent about others.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jean: I'd be happy to break down those data for you, but why don't we move this conversation to email? My address is eschwitz at domain: ucr.edu. Shoot me a line and I'll reply with the data.

Jean Kazez said...

Sure thing.

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