Now it’s time to finish up my tour and critique of Huemer’s new book.  This week: animal ethics.

My Preamble

Five years ago, I had an extended debate on animal ethics with Huemer on EconLog.  Here are segments 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

As expected, Huemer and I failed to convince each other.  Unexpectedly, at least two people I personally know told me that Huemer changed their minds.  No one has ever told me that I changed their minds on this issue.  If my favorite philosopher says I’m wrong, and successfully changes my friends’ minds in a fair debate, I have to suspect that he’s right and I’m wrong.  So while I’m tempted just to declare an impasse, I feel obliged to resume the argument.

Before I delve into this chapter, however, let me quote a passage from Huemer’s “Defending Liberty: The Commonsense Approach,” an essay in Foundations of a Free Society.

The fundamental fallacy of rationalism is the idea that human knowledge proceeds from the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the specific; that one arrives at particular judgments by applying pre-given abstract rules to particular circumstances. The evidence of human experience stands almost uniformly against these assumptions, in virtually every area of human intellectual endeavor. In the sciences, one does not begin with an abstract theory and then use it to interpret experiences. If one wants to develop a theory, one begins with a large collection of concrete facts; patterns may emerge and explanations may suggest themselves, once one has collected a sufficient body of background facts. One’s theories must conform to and be driven by the concrete facts, not the other way around…

The same is true in philosophy.  [I]f we wish to arrive ultimately at some general theory of ethics, we must start from a variety of relatively concrete, particular ethical truths. It is those who proceed in the opposite direction—declaring some general, abstract theory and then demanding that the particular facts conform to it—who are responsible for the mountains of failed (and often absurd) theories that dominate the landscape of the history of philosophy.

My fundamental problem with Chapter 17 is that Huemer almost completely loses sight of these insights.  Virtually everyone accepts a long list of “relatively concrete, particular ethical” views that give animals near-zero moral weight.  And instead of taking these ubiquitous intuitions seriously, Huemer sets them all aside in favor of two extremely abstract and general claims.  Namely:

1. Suffering is bad.
2. It is wrong to cause an enormous amount of something bad, for the sake of relatively minor benefits for ourselves.

The correct intuitionist approach, I say, would be much more concrete.  Along the lines of the following short dialogue:


A: It is wrong to cause an enormous amount of suffering, for the sake of relatively minor benefits for ourselves.

B: So if the only way for me to build a swimming pool is to bulldoze a den of mice, causing them to horribly suffer, it is wrong to build my pool?

A: Perhaps I overstated.

B: Indeed.


Why is this more concrete approach superior to Huemer’s?  Because B’s concrete, particular ethical claim that mouse suffering is no big deal is far more plausible than A’s sweeping moral generalization.

Doesn’t this undermine Huemer’s Problem of Political Authority, which makes an intuitionist case for anarchism?  No, because as Huemer shows in great detail, the case against government pits ubiquitous concrete, particular views about the ethical treatment of humans against sweeping moral generalizations about government authority.  In his words, “I do not, of course, lay claim to common sense political views. I claim that revisionary political views emerge out of common sense moral views.”  The whole project of Chapter 17, in contrast, is precisely to defend a revisionary moral view about the proper treatment of animals.  And as Huemer makes clear in Chapter 17, his view is deeply revisionary, condemning virtually all human beings as moral monsters.

Chapter 17: Applied Ethics, 2: Animal Ethics

In previous chapters, my disagreements with Huemer have been so rare that I’ve been able to register virtually all of my objections.  For Chapter 17, I’ll have to focus on my larger criticisms.  Here goes:

The most common argument for ethical vegetarianism is something like this:
1. Suffering is bad.
2. It is wrong to cause an enormous amount of something bad, for the sake of relatively minor benefits for ourselves.
3. Factory farming causes an enormous amount of suffering, for the sake of relatively minor benefits for humans.
4. Therefore, factory farming is wrong.
5. If it’s wrong to do something, it’s wrong to pay other people to do it.

6. Buying products from factory farms is paying people for factory farming.
7. Therefore, it’s wrong to buy products from factory farms.

Shortly thereafter, he adds:

The usual target is premise 1: Defenders of animal cruelty claim that only human suffering is bad; animal suffering isn’t. They then need to identify some relevant difference between humans and animals that explains why that would be so.

I’d say this is overly generous to Premise #1.  Making extremely evil humans like Hitler or a serial killer suffer is actually very good.  A weird view?  Hardly; it’s classic retributivism.

Furthermore, if animal suffering is only slightly bad, then an enormous amount of animal suffering would still not be enormously bad.  So you need an additional premise in between (1) and (2).

(Aside: We could delete (1) and replace (2) with little change in plausibility: “2.’ It is wrong to kill a living creature, for the sake of relatively minor benefits for ourselves.”)

The rest of the argument seems fine.

Huemer then moves on to “Defenses of Meat-Eating.”  The good news is that my preferred argument comes first.  The bad news is that he swiftly dismisses it.

Argument 1: It’s okay to torture other animals for our own pleasure, because we are intelligent, and other animals are not.
1. This is a non sequitur. What does intelligence have to do with the badness of pain and suffering? Is the claim that pain is only bad if you’re smart? Why would that be?
2. Human babies are also unintelligent. Argument 1 thus implies that it would be permissible to torture babies for fun.
3. Similarly, Argument 1 implies that it would be permissible to torture mentally retarded people for fun.

My replies to Huemer’s replies:

(1) This is not supposed to be a deductive argument, so it makes no sense to call it a “non sequitur.”  Instead, it is a moral premise – “The suffering of intelligent beings is much more morally important than the suffering of less-intelligent beings.”  And this premise strikes most of us as highly intuitive.  We can see this clearly in science fiction.  In the Star Wars universe, for example, we readily accept the idea that it is wrong to kill Wookies or Ewoks.  Why?  Because they are other intelligent beings.  Killing Banthas, on the other hand, is no big deal, because they’re just alien animals.

(2) If you haven’t had much time to learn, ignorance and intelligence are perfectly compatible.  Why?  Because “intelligence” is roughly synonymous with “learning ability.”  And since human babies go from knowing zero languages to one language in a couple of years, one can plausible say that they are in fact highly intelligent.  If that doesn’t convince you, I’d appeal to the separate moral premise that, “The suffering of beings who will normally develop intelligence is much more morally important than the suffering of beings who will never develop intelligence, though probably not as important as the suffering of beings who are already intelligent.”  Also highly plausible.

And yes, the latter premise lends some support to a moderately anti-abortion view, but I say that is a feature, not a bug.

(3) Most mentally retarded humans are still much more intelligent than almost any animal, so this does not follow.  In the rare cases where humans are reduced to the mental level of an animal, we routinely consider options like euthanasia (or at least “pulling the plug”) that would be out of the question for a functional yet mentally retarded human.

Huemer’s critique of Arguments #2-9 seem basically right.

His reply to Argument #10, though, falls short:

Argument 10: Plant farming also kills animals! Farmers kill insects with pesticides. Even if you buy organic foods, they probably kill field mice sometimes in the process of tilling fields and harvesting vegetables with machines. Therefore, vegetarians are no better than carnivores!
Reply: Animal agriculture is worse than plant agriculture in a number of ways.
1. Factory farms confine animals in unnatural and unpleasant conditions, subjecting them to pain and suffering for their entire, brief lives before killing them. Plant farms do not do this.
2. Chickens, pigs, and cows definitely feel pain and suffering. Insects almost certainly do not, due to the absence of nociceptors (the kind of nerves that generate pain sensations in us). This is why insects can continue what they are doing even when their bodies are severely injured, they place the same weight on an injured leg as on an intact leg, etc.113
3. Animal farms require food for the animals, which comes from plant farms. The amount of food you have to feed the animals in the course of raising them is greater than the amount of food you get out of them at the end. Hence, meat production causes more of whatever harms are caused by plant farming, in addition to the harms directly inflicted on the animals in the factory farms. Thus, while it might be true that plant farming causes some harm, this can’t be used to excuse animal farming. In general, one can’t justify some bad behavior by saying that the alternative action causes some (much smaller) amount of harm.

My reply:

(1) This is a hyperbolic caricature of a reasonable argument.  Namely: While “It is wrong to cause an enormous amount of something bad, for the sake of relatively minor benefits for ourselves,” probably allows you to incidentally kill animals in order to stay alive, even strict vegans usually cause far more animal suffering than they need to survive.  After all, cutting your calories by 5% wouldn’t ruin your vegan life, and cutting those vegan calories by 5% would probably reduce a lot of suffering.  Or you could try to buy food from areas with low rodent populations.  I’ve never heard of any vegan doing such things, though admittedly I’m out of their loop.  (The same goes for living in housing with a small footprint, since building any architectural foundation is likely to bring serious suffering to pre-existing animals in the vicinity).

(2) Upshot: You could say, “Fine, even strict vegans are moral monsters.”  Or you could reassess the “It is wrong to cause an enormous amount of something bad, for the sake of relatively minor benefits for ourselves” principle.

(3) The “insects almost certainly do not feel pain” argument still seems grossly overstated.  There could easily be many neurological pathways to pain, and pain has so much survival value that you would expect almost any ambient species to evolve it.  And while you can point out differences between how humans and insects respond to pain, these are dwarfed by the similarities.  Have you ever seen an insect fighting for its life?

(4) Even if Huemer is right about insects, moral philosophers couldn’t have known this until recent decades.  So until then, a proto-Huemer should have been as committed to reducing insect suffering as modern-day Huemer is to reducing non-insect suffering now.  Which again strikes me as a reductio ad absurdum.


General point: I agree that almost all of the pro-meat-eating arguments that Huemer analyzes are terrible.  And most of them are not straw men; I’ve heard people make them.

While Huemer concludes that – in light of their terrible arguments – meat-eaters are desperately trying to rationalize obviously evil behavior, I have an alternative explanation.  Namely: The moral unimportance of animal welfare is so obvious to almost everyone that asking them for arguments confuses them. 

As Huemer knows, normal humans often flounder when asked to justify the obvious.  If you ask people to “Prove they exist,” they present inane arguments.  The same goes if you ask people for proofs of the external world, knowledge, consciousness, or morality. While you could conclude that all of these “common-sense” beliefs are actually ridiculous, the more reasonable inference is that non-philosophers are too confused to say, “It’s obvious” (and too ignorant of the history of philosophy to appeal to G.E. Moore).

I say the same is going on with animal ethics.

All this explains why, if you agree with the arguments of this chapter, you should not only refrain from buying factory farm products yourself. You should also exert social pressure on other people around you. E.g., express serious disapproval whenever your friends buy products from factory farms. If you meet someone for a meal, you should insist on going to a vegetarian restaurant.

By the way, if you do this, you can expect other people to act resentful, and indignant, and often to insult you. This is because, again, they are horrible. Given their horribleness, their main thought when someone points out their immorality is to get angry at the other person for making them feel slightly uncomfortable. They won’t blame themselves for being immoral; they’ll blame you for making them aware of it. It’s sort of like how a serial murderer would get mad at you if you tried to stop him from murdering more people. He would then blame you for being “preachy”. Perhaps the murderer would then refuse to be your friend any more. If so, good riddance.

If Huemer is right, merely “exerting social pressure on other people around you” seems like a tremendous underreaction.  If non-vegans are half as awful as Huemer claims, he shouldn’t be “insisting on going to a vegetarian restaurant.”  He shouldn’t be socializing with them at all.  This is just an application of this moderate deontological principle: “Don’t socialize with moral monsters unless the benefits greatly exceed the costs.”  Seems plausible, doesn’t it?

And things don’t stop there.  If you insist on eating at a vegetarian restaurant, why not refuse to patronize any shopping center that allows non-vegan restaurants in the complex?  A single landlord will normally own the entire shopping center, after all.  Or you could refuse to eat vegan food unless the deliverymen are vegans as well.  Sure, don’t starve yourself to death for veganism.  But if comparisons to the Holocaust are in the right ballpark, extreme social pressure is well-warranted.

In saying this, my hope is not to turn Huemer and other ethical vegetarians into hermits.  I like Mike.  My point, rather, is that even they are less radical in their behavior than their rhetoric suggests.  And the best explanation is that on some level they intuit that their pro-vegan premises are considerably more dubious than they admit.

Chapter 18

No objections, so I’ll just quote my favorite passage:

[G]ood philosophers answer objections. If you have a philosophical view (or any view really), and you know that a lot of smart people disagree with it, you really need to think about why they disagree. And I don’t mean “Because they’re jerks” or “Because they’re evil.” What you need to think about are the best reasons someone could have for disagreeing. If you can’t think of any, then you probably haven’t thought or read enough about the issue; you should then go look up some intelligent opponents and see what they say. And I don’t mean television pundits or celebrities on Twitter. The best defenders of a view are usually academics who have written books about it. You should then think seriously about those objections and whether they might be correct. If you don’t find them persuasive, try to figure out why. This is the part of rational thought that most human beings tend to skip.