Reply to Huemer on Ethical Treatment of Animals (including Bugs)
By Bryan Caplan
don’t think the best way of determining whether x is true is by seeing
whether x-advocates are hypocritical or morally flawed.
I never claimed it was the best way. But I do claim that the Argument from Hypocrisy and the Argument from Conscience provide us with additional moral insight, which occasionally suffices to break otherwise intractable moral impasses.
(Btw, on this
criterion, the slavery-defenders who knew Thomas Jefferson would presumably have declared that slavery is probably right, since even Jefferson held slaves.)
“Probably right”? No. But Jefferson’s hypocrisy at least slightly undermined the credibility of the case against slavery. And the more morally thoughtful and morally scrupulous he seemed overall, the more his continued practice of slavery would undermine its credibility.
the best way to find out whether x is true is to just look at the
arguments for and against x, especially if those arguments are simple
and easy to find.
The arguments on ethical
vegetarianism are simple and easily found. It seems wrong to cause
extreme amounts of pain and suffering for the sake of minor benefits to
I agree this claim has great superficial appeal. But I think that like utilitarianism, Kantianism, and other grand moral theories, it’s subject to devastating counter-examples. Like: “What if you have to painfully kill one bug to build a house rather live in a tent?”
If you just look at some of the things that go on on factory
farms, you’re going to be horrified. If you look, I think you are going
to find it extremely difficult to say, “Oh yeah, that seems fine.”
I agree I would be horrified. However, I would also be horrified to watch life-saving surgery on humans. On reflection, both seem morally fine to me despite my squeamishness.
you think it is not wrong to inflict severe suffering as long as the
victim of the suffering is stupid, then you’d have to say that it is
permissible to torture retarded people for fun. Etc. (I don’t have
anything to add to the standard arguments.)
It depends on the degree of stupidity. I’m not saying it’s okay for Einstein to murder his secretary. But if a creature with human appearance literally had the mind of a bug, then it would be morally appropriate to treat him like a bug. Almost all humans classified as mentally retarded are far smarter than that, of course.
A stronger objection is that human babies are much stupider than adult humans, but everyone knows it’s wrong to inflict pain on babies. The obvious amendment here, though, is that creatures that will normally develop human-level intelligence are also of great moral importance, though probably not as much as creatures that already possess such intelligence.*
You also have to explain why
pain isn’t bad when the victim is stupid.
If the victim is as stupid as a bug? At minimum, it seems obvious that the pain of such a creature is extremely morally unimportant.
is the proposed response to the argument? The fact that people kill
many insects is supposed to be evidence that . . . pain isn’t really
It’s supposed to be evidence that people who deny the obviousness of my preceding claim – that the pain of extremely stupid creatures is morally unimportant – actually find it obvious, too.
That it’s not really wrong to cause lots of bad things for the sake
of minor benefits to oneself? But how could the number of insects that
people kill be evidence for any of these things?
Suppose a seemingly morally thoughtful and morally scrupulous person such as yourself painfully kills many bugs for minor benefits. But he stills says it’s “obvious” that you shouldn’t painfully kill any creature for minor benefits. My Argument from Conscience says, “Since you’re morally thoughtful and morally scrupulous, you wouldn’t do that if you really thought it was wrong.” This seems like a good argument to me – good enough to break what otherwise looks like a moral impasse.
blog post even seems to suggest that it’s impossible that it’s wrong
to cause pain to stupid creatures.
No. My argument is only meant to provide some additional insight, not prove that anything’s “impossible.”
That is, that we know that pain is
only bad if you’re smart.
More precisely, that the badness of the pain depends on the intelligence of the creature experiencing it (as well as the intelligence it will normally attain).
But really, could that plausibly be said to be
something that we know? How would that be? Is there some proof of that
It seems obvious once you ponder basic counter-examples to your general principle. Do you really think painfully killing bugs to build a house is morally wrong?
Maybe the suggestion is that it’s
self-evident that pain is only bad if you’re smart. But then, rather
than trying to draw inferences about this by looking at the behavior of
PETA-members, etc., it seems like we could just introspect and see
whether that’s self-evident. When I do, I see that it’s not self-evident
(indeed, it isn’t even plausible). I don’t have to make any inferences
or look at anyone else’s behavior, since I can just look and see.
To repeat, I insist it ultimately is highly plausible to you, since you painfully kill a lot of bugs – at least indirectly by living in a house, driving a car, etc. And you’re a wonderful person, so you wouldn’t do such things if you really believed your general principle.
You could protest, of course, that bugs don’t feel pain. That seems unlikely to me, for reasons well-explained by the pro-bug rights people I discussed. But suppose we grant that bugs don’t feel pain. Your position still implies that if bugs did feel pain, it would be morally impermissible to build a house. After all, you could just live in a tent and leave the bugs in peace. Is that really plausible to you?
* While this doesn’t imply that abortion is murder, it strongly
suggests that killing a fetus is far worse than killing a bug.