Saturday, November 19, 2016

An essay on animal welfare

“the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
                                                                                         Jeremy Bentham

In the United States, 25 million land animals are killed for food each day, most of whom spent their lives suffering in horrible conditions. The lives of most farm animals can be accurately described in terms of bodily mutilation, suffocation, disease, starvation, confinement to small cages and pens, chronic pain, and perpetual darkness. Annually, the number of animals slaughtered is more than the world’s current human population (~9 billion), and that is not counting any of the farm animals in Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, or Australia (~56 billion). Aside from the fact that conventional farming practices exploit billions of animals per year, they also result in serious environmental costs. Meat production results in the release of a significant amount of CO2 and methane gases, directly contributing to the potentially disastrous effects of anthropogenic global warming.

What should we glean from such facts? Some conclude that it is simply immoral to purchase meats that are produced from "factory farms" (large farms that treat animals inhumanely). The argument is rather straightforward. Purchasing factory farmed meat indirectly supports and perpetuates unjustifiable animal suffering on a massive scale. Causing suffering without sufficient reason is immoral. Therefore, factory farming is immoral and it is immoral to support or perpetuate such practices through purchasing their animal products. 

Given that the argument is valid, with premises hard to deny, there are several ways for meat-eaters to respond to such information. One would be to disregard such news and to continue one’s prior eating practices and food shopping habits. This would consist of taking up an attitude of moral indifference and extreme selfishness. Another way to respond would be to continue one’s prior eating practices but with a guilty conscience. I think the right way to respond is to become more critical about what you buy at the grocery store. This doesn’t entail full-blown veganism, or even vegetarianism. In my view, simply purchasing less meat counts as a moral improvement. One could also support humane farming practices (e.g. local farms with pasture raised animals) by purchasing their meats, as well as switching over to vegan dairy alternatives (e.g. soy milk, vegan butter). Just like there has been an increased awareness about nutrition amongst consumers, there ought to be an increased awareness of the ethical and environmental harms associated with our diets.

The cost in changing one’s eating habits is largely a matter of inconvenience. Our grocery bills might go up, awkward conversations with friends and family will likely increase in number, and we may no longer be able to eat our favorite foods. Having to live with such inconveniences may be too psychologically or financially demanding for some individuals. But for the vast majority of individuals, in the developed world, I think the attitude of indifference is morally indefensible and blameworthy. To be clear, I am not arguing for the abolishment of meat production or that everyone should become a vegetarian or vegan. I am arguing that 1) supporting factory farmed meat production is immoral and 2) we all ought to seriously reconsider our eating habits and make some changes. For those shaking your head in disagreement, I will now run through and dismantle a number of bad arguments commonly used to defend meat eating. I will then turn to possible objections from vegans and vegetarians who may argue that my approach is way too soft. 

Objections from meat eaters

1. What about the plants?  If we worry about the interests of non-human animals on factory farms, then we have also to worry about the interests of plants. The quickest response is to say that plants do not have interests because they cannot feel pain or suffer. No serious scientist even entertains that idea. It is worth pointing out that there are even plausible instances of animals that lack such capacities (e.g. oysters and other kinds of shellfish).

2. What about being healthy? Restrictive diets do have certain disadvantages, but it does not follow that meat is essential for a healthy diet. Meats contain high amounts of protein and some contain high amounts of vitamin B-12. Protein can be found in nuts, cereal grains, beans, soy-based products (e.g. protein powder, milk), and certain vegetables. B-12 can be found in soy milk, nutritional yeast, and certain cereals. B-12 can also be acquired through taking supplements. As long as one is health conscious, vegetarian or vegan diets can be just as healthy as one containing meat.

3. Why care about animal suffering? I take it that we all do care about animal suffering. After all, humans are animals, and most of us believe that human suffering—regardless of race, sex, or intelligence—matters a great deal. We are at a point in history where we now condemn racism and sexism on the grounds that such views unjustifiably exclude the interests of certain groups from equal consideration. The philosopher Peter Singer forcefully makes the point that we ought to be consistent with this moral principle and extend it to non-human animals as well.

“our concern for others ought not to depend on what they are like, or what abilities they possess…It is on this basis that we are able to say that the fact that some people are not members of our race does not entitle us to exploit them, and similarly the fact that some people are less intelligent than others does not mean that their interests may be disregarded. But the principle also implies that the fact that beings are not members of our species does not entitle us to exploit them, and similarly the fact that other animals are less intelligent than we are does not mean that their interests may be disregarded.” (Singer 1979)

Farm animals can feel pain and suffer. Hence, farm animals have interests that we need to consider; they have an interest not to undergo pain and suffering. If one accepts the principle of equal consideration of interests, but denies its extension to non-human animals, one must demonstrate where the morally relevant difference lies. One might point towards a difference in intelligence, but we do not accept this as a morally relevant factor in the case of human beings. If two human beings are suffering, we ought to try and help both, not ignore the one who is less intelligent. A refusal or inability to point out a relevant difference may indicate implicit speciesism (analogous to sexism or racism) or just an inability to articulate what they take the difference to be.

4. Animals kill each other all of time. Why is it wrong for us to do the same?
This point can be made in several other ways. Some argue for a kind of Darwinian ethics and that ‘survival of the fittest’ should be our moral slogan. To make such a claim is to commit the rather well known naturalistic fallacy. It does not logically follow that if something is natural that makes it good, safe, or morally acceptable. It also seems to derive an ought from an is; a direct violation of Hume’s law. Just because the world is a certain way, doesn't mean that it ought to be that way. A third issue is that it holds all animals to the same moral standard. The idea is that, if it’s morally acceptable for a lion to kill a gazelle, then it’s okay for a human to do so. There are at least two relevant differences between lions and humans. First, lions, like most non-human animals, do not have an understanding of right and wrong. Second, lions, unlike humans, are carnivores and need to consume some meat to be healthy. Given that most humans can reflect upon the moral status of their actions and are not living in the wilderness hunting for their survival, there is no comparison to the situation of the lion. Humans can choose to eat meat. It is a further moral consideration of whether or not they should. 

5. What about the majority of your peers who disagree with you?
I think they’re wrong. Just because a majority of the population believes something doesn’t make it true. One ought to believe things based on valid arguments and evidence, not through appealing to popular opinion. At one time, the majority of the population believed the Earth was flat. In that instance, the false belief was due to scientific ignorance. Perhaps an even better example, just a couple hundred years ago, most believed that slavery was morally permissible. And it’s not like beliefs about slavery changed overnight. It took a long time for people to realize their moral shortcomings. I think the same is true in the case of the mistreatment of non-human animals, only, that it may take even longer for people to accept such conclusions, given the role that animal products have played in our diets and cultural traditions throughout history. 

6. What about the rich culinary traditions from around the world that use animal products? Are you really suggesting no more Thanksgiving or BBQs?
It’s not clear that we will in fact lose such traditions. The development of lab-grown meats and meat/dairy alternatives may gradually come to replace farm-based animal products. For those skeptical, try some of the meatfree options (e.g. TVP, vegan orange "chicken") at a local Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Depending on how it is prepared, the taste of texturized vegetable protein (TVP) can be indistinguishable from ground beef. But even if we did have to give up some of our beloved recipes and traditions, would that constitute a moral reason in favor of meat production? It sounds like more of an aesthetic reason, one that should be weighed against the interests of the animals. Reflecting upon the consumption of a burger, what is more important? The well being of the animal used to make it, or the few minutes of human nourishment and pleasure derived from its consumption?

7. Aren’t you a man? Perhaps this isn’t an argument intended to be serious but, rather, a knee-jerk defense mechanism against moral criticism. Taken seriously, it seems to imply that actively participating in the exploitation of billions of conscious creatures is some kind of initiation ritual in becoming a “real man”. Even if this were true, there would still be grounds for criticism. If that’s what it takes to be a “real man”, why would anyone with a respectable moral character take the idea seriously? Anyways, doing what’s morally right seems to trump concerns of lower social status amongst some of our male peers.

8. I saw you eating a burger the other day! It’s true that, as of 2016, I eat meat, but my current eating habits are fairly consistent with everything I have said so far. I have recently reduced my overall intake of meat and have switched over to a number of dairy/meat alternatives. The majority of my meals are now vegetarian. If I had a bigger budget, I would buy meat from local farms and buy cage-free eggs on a regular basis. I’m far from perfect, but it’s a start.

Objection from vegans

1. Everyone should be a vegan. How can you defend even occasional meat eating? Ethical vegans abstain completely from purchasing or eating meat altogether, largely due to animal welfare concerns. While I sympathize with their attitudes regarding factory-farmed meats, I disagree with their assessment of various alternatives. If farm animals live a decent life and are slaughtered in a way that involves no pain or suffering, I don’t see much wrong with killing such animals for food. In fact, it could be argued that such lives would be preferable to not existing at all, an option many vegans seem to prefer. Secondly, going to the grocery store is not the only way to acquire meats. I think that hunting for food, provided that the hunter has an accurate shot, can be morally acceptable. Especially in cases where a region suffers from an overpopulation of animals, such as deer or wild pigs. Since the alternative modes of death for such animals would be starvation, predation, or collision with a car, taking a bullet may be one of the best ways to go.

If we are to make progress on improving the lives of non-human animals, we need to start off slow. Expressing moral superiority or condescension towards friends and family will likely be counterproductive in aims of spreading awareness and changing behavior. We should instead encourage and praise ethically motivated changes in behavior regardless of far it is from moral perfection.

There are reasons to be optimistic. Just recently, Perdue Farms have agreed to make serious changes to the living conditions and slaughtering practices of their chickens. This is significant because 7% of all factory-farmed meat in the United States comes from Perdue Farms. Due to consumer demand, other farms may end up following Perdue's lead. It is not clear when Perdue will implement its new guidelines (could take years), but the fact that they have announced such plans is still good news. 

To end the post, I will present a checklist of simple changes we can all make to support humane farming practices and to decrease the amount of animal suffering in the world.

1)      Reflect upon the ethical and environmental consequences of your eating habits.
2)      Switch from dairy to soy milk (same with butter).
3)      Try some of the meat alternatives (Some are tasty!).
4)      Cut back meat consumption, your heart will thank you too! (e.g. meatless Mondays).
5)      If you can afford it, buy meats and animal products from farms that humanely raise their animals, or look for wild caught meats (e.g. wild boar, deer). A good place to buy your meats would be from Whole Foods. All of their meats come from non-factory farms. They even have a rating system (1-5 stars) to inform you of the specific ethical guidelines followed by the farms. A 5 star rating means that the animals are pasture raised, humanely transported to the slaughterhouse (i.e. they're not crammed into a truck and driven several hours away), and humanely slaughtered. 
6)      When going out to eat, try restaurants that purchase meats from local farms (They typically disclose such information on their websites. Likely to only find these in the city, though).
7)      Read Peter Singer’s book “Animal Liberation” or recommend it to a friend.

Works cited

Singer, P. (1979). Practical ethics. 1993. New York.


An essay on abortion

Within the context of politics, the abortion debate is usually framed as having two sides: pro-life and pro-choice. Those who are pro-life believe that abortions are immoral. Pro-choice is the view that a woman should have the right to decide the outcome of the fetus, and that at least some abortions are morally permissible. Note that the pro-life view seems to make an absolute claim about abortion, namely, that it is always objectionable, though, some who consider themselves pro-life allow for a few exceptions to the rule (e.g. rape, incest). The pro-choice view is committed to a far weaker claim; there are some instances of morally acceptable abortions. Making broad moral generalizations about the practice of abortion would require one to ignore the fact that abortions involve a highly diverse set of circumstances that may make a difference to the moral evaluation of any given procedure. In order to make a well-informed moral evaluation of abortion, as a practice, one must consider all of the morally relevant details. I will argue that the vast majority of abortions (in the United States) are morally acceptable but that some late-term abortions are morally objectionable.

I think there are at least three broad kinds of moral difference makers when it comes to abortion. First, there is the fetal stage of development. Second, there is the type of procedure (relevant in how much harm it involves). Lastly, the health and well-being of the fetus and the mother. I must first set some groundwork defending the, perhaps, most controversial claim, that the stage of fetal development is morally relevant.

Human life is said to have intrinsic moral worth. That is to say, human lives have a certain kind of moral value that a rock or chair does not. Some believe that God bestowed souls or moral qualities upon us that give us a natural right to life. This is known as the sanctity of life view. On this view, all humans—no matter what stage of development—have equal moral value. Humans have a right to life, and it is simply wrong to kill them. An alternative view, which I shall call the developmental approach, argues that humans have moral worth because of certain mental capacities and features, and that these features emerge at different stages of development. At perhaps the earliest stage, creatures acquire the capacity to feel pain and to experience pleasure. It is at this stage where creatures begin to have interests (e.g. avoid pain and suffering) and when it becomes wrong to harm them. Later on in development, creatures acquire more complex psychological traits such as self-awareness, the capacity to form life narratives and long-term goals, the formation of complex social bonds, and an understanding of morality. Philosophers call creatures that possess such features persons. Persons have a far greater number of interests than do creatures lacking personhood, making it morally worse to do them harm. For instance, persons may have an interest in self-survival and in cultivating one’s abilities.

The sanctity of life view is not plausible because it is overcommitting and too restrictive. While it may sound intuitive to say that ‘it is always wrong to kill or end the life of an innocent human being’ there are some widely agreed upon exceptions to the rule. Anencephalic infants—which are born missing most of their brain—are not conscious beings. Their life expectancy is typically between several hours to a few days; at most, a few months. Few—on both sides of the debate—accept that it is wrong to end the life of a human with anencephaly. A second exception is the case of an adult human who lapses into a permanent vegetative state. It is commonly believed that a fully formed adult human that permanently loses all of their mental capacities, also loses their moral worth. It is not wrong to end the life of an individual in a vegetative state because there is no person to harm or stream of consciousness to end. The only subjects of harm would be their close family members, and even they, in most cases, decide to end their loved one’s life.

The sanctity of life view is also limited, as it seems to apply only to humans. It is implicitly speciesist (analogous to sexist or racist views). After all, there may be other kinds of creatures that are have as much moral worth as humans. Adult chimpanzees seem to be self-aware, possess a rudimentary sense of fairness and morality, and engage in long-term planning and complex sociality. If we were to ever run into any, we would be probably be inclined to attribute moral qualities to intelligent extra-terrestrials as well (e.g. ET, Spock).

Bearing in mind the developmental stage is relevant for making moral judgments because each stage comes with its own measure of moral worth based upon the capacities present. Personhood, I think, unfolds gradually. That is just to say that I do not think that all of the morally relevant capacities emerge at the same time. It is also the case that many of the features fall on a continuum, rather than being all-or-nothing. For instance, 10-month old children seem to possess a rudimentary understanding of moral norms and punishment. But the 10-month old’s understanding is nowhere as sophisticated as, say, a five or six year old’s understanding of moral norms. Exactly when the personhood features emerge is an empirical matter. Hence, one should take my estimations with a grain of salt. I think most would agree that it is more wrong to end the life of an adult than a young child; a young child than newborn; a newborn than 6-week old fetus. Those who hold the sanctity of life view might be inclined to agree with this, but would likely reject the idea that a fetus before 6 months lacks moral worth altogether. They might argue that while fetuses lack the features and capacities that are morally relevant, they have the potential to acquire them later in life. There is a lot more to be said about this point and I plan to take up it up in a future post. For now, the developmental view still seems to capture our intuitions about the value of human life at differing stages.

Other moral difference makers include how the abortion is performed, and the reasons for why it is performed.

When we hear of abortions, we tend to think of rather graphic surgical procedures. Those only make up 1% of abortions performed. About 25% of abortions come in the form of a pill. RU-486 is a common form of medical abortion, effective up until the second trimester. The most common form of abortion is surgical vacuum aspiration, a procedure performed when the fetus weighs less than an ounce and is only two inches tall. According to the CDC, the vast majority of abortions (92%) occur before the thirteenth week, and only 1% of abortions occur after week 22. Neuroscientists have determined that fetuses probably don’t develop the capacity to feel pain until week 26. They have determined this by looking at the development of the fetal brain. Most neuroscientists think the neocortex is involved in the processing and sensation of pain, and fetuses do not start developing neocortical regions until around week 26. Therefore, fetuses probably lack the capacity to feel pain until that time. Even if scientists are off by a wide margin (say 13 weeks), it would still be true that a majority of abortions would be morally permissible on this view. After all, if the procedure involves no fetal pain or suffering, the fetus is not harmed. One may argue that there may be other sources of harm (e.g. to society), but it is implausible to suggest that there is harm in killing the 13 week old fetus in itself.

Why do most women have abortions? A study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute found the following answers:
0.3 % (0.1-0.6 %)
0.03 % (0.01-0.1 %)
physical life of mother
0.1 % (0.01-0.2 %)
physical health of mother
0.8 % (0.1-3 %)
fetal health
0.5 % (0.1-1.0 %)
mental health of mother
?? (0.1-8 %)
--too young/immature/not ready for responsibility
--to avoid adjusting life
--mother single or in poor relationship
--enough children already
--sex selection
--selective reduction
98.3% (87-99 %)
--? (32 %)
--30% (25-40 %)
--? (16 %)
--? (12-13 %)
--? (4-8 %)
--0.1% (<0.1-? %)
--0.1% (<0.1-0.4 %)
(Johnston 2016)

Most agree that certain circumstances absolve the mother from blame. This is true when a rare genetic abnormality is detected late (e.g. huntington’s disease, microcephaly), potential harm or death to the mother is likely, and when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. But it turns out that 98% of abortions are performed for elective reasons, rather than for reasons related to the health of the fetus or mother. Based on such results, one may think that most abortions are morally objectionable. But on the developmental view, this would be a mistake. We need to also consider when most of these procedures take place. As stated earlier, 99% of abortions are carried out before a fetus has the capacity to feel pain. There is limited data to draw from when determining why most late-term abortions are carried out. But Professor Diane Foster, a researcher at the Bixby Center for Reproductive Health, suspects that fetal anomalies “make up a small minority of later abortions,”. If we assume that most late term abortions are morally objectionable, we still end up with a fairly low figure for morally objectionable abortions. Put in terms of numbers, there would be approximately 7000 morally objectionable abortions carried out each year in the US. On the developmental view, these 7000 abortions would not be the moral equivalent of killing 7000 adults. It might be more like killing 7000 non-human animals (e.g. cows, chickens) a year, or 20 a day. One might object that this comparison between human and non-human fetuses is illegitimate. It may be argued that only human fetuses have the potential to realize personhood and other morally relevant properties. Therefore, human fetuses have more moral worth than non-human animals. I will not take a stand on this issue here and will simply leave it to the reader to dwell over.

In this post, I’ve defended a developmental stance on abortion against the sanctity of life doctrine. On the developmental view, the moral permissibility of an abortion depends largely on when the procedure is carried out, but there are other morally relevant factors (e.g. procedure, health of fetus/mother). Given that most abortions occur before the fetus develops any of the morally relevant features, I have argued that most abortions are morally permissible. While the sanctity of life doctrine may be popular amongst laypeople (especially those who are religious), it is not the most sophisticated anti-abortion view to hold. In a future post, I will return to the subject of abortion to take on what I take to be the strongest positions.

Further reading: