I take it as a given that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to sentient beings, regardless of species. It is wrong to stab puppies in the eyes, wrong to yank off a cat’s tail, and wrong to slice off a chicken’s beak. And it’s wrong to do these things all for the same reason: it causes animals to undergo immense suffering. I don’t think it takes an argument to understand why this is true, but rather, I believe the wrongness of harming sentient beings for trivial reasons is self-evident. A non-obvious ethical question is whether it is morally permissible to end a sentient creature’s life for human consumption, provided the creature did not suffer or feel pain in the process of dying.
There are some philosophers that take issue with factory farms but not with the act of humanely killing animals. Philosopher Peter Singer has stated that if an animal has lived a good natural life and does not undergo any substantial suffering, it is morally permissible to kill the animal for food. One could imagine a farm where the animals live good lives. Suppose that the animals get to engage in natural behaviors, keep their offspring, are not systematically mutilated, and are slaughtered on site through a process that results in instantaneous destruction of their brain. Let’s also stipulate that the animals wouldn’t know that their death was near and that they would miss or worry about their slaughtered Given that there is no substantial suffering for the animals, Singer would say that we have an instance of ethical animal farming.
While the hypothetical case for ethical animal farming may sound very plausible, there is a powerful objection that may cause you to reconsider your views. Put simply, what if we changed the species of the animal being farmed from, say, cows to humans? If the humans get to live good lives, get to engage in natural behaviors, and are painlessly killed without any foreknowledge, would it be okay to kill humans for food? And if not, what is the morally relevant difference between humans and cows that renders the action wrong in one case and permissible in the other?
Vegan youtuber Ask Yourself (Isaac) poses the question as a challenge to “name the trait If there is a morally relevant difference, then there is some trait (or set of traits) that explains why it’s wrong to kill humans but not cows. While there are many attempts to name the trait (e.g. species, intelligence, rationality, reciprocation) I will focus on the answer that seems most plausible. In short, I don’t think it is a single trait that makes the moral difference, but rather, a set of traits.
The personhood response
Humans are morally superior to farm animals because they are persons. That is to say, humans are self-aware, have a strong desire to go on living, and have long-term life projects (e.g. raising a family, saving the rainforests). They are also involved in complex social relationships, which mean that their deaths can affect and harm lots of other persons. Cows do not have these psychological traits. They may have short term desires to eat and procreate, but it is unlikely that they have the cognitive capacities to understand their own existence or the nature of death. Therefore, because humans are persons, they have a higher moral status than cows, which in turn makes it wrong to kill humans, but permissible to kill cows.
While I do think personhood is the strongest response to the name-the-trait challenge, it has some (potentially) disturbing implications. Not all humans possess the psychological traits required for personhood (e.g. infants and humans with severe cognitive disabilities). Thus, the explanation I’m offering would not work in the case of painlessly killing marginal cases for food. So, if it’s morally permissible to kill creatures lacking personhood for food, then it would be morally permissible to kill babies or the cognitively disabled for food.
Isaac observes that many of the responses to name-the-trait have this implication (e.g. intelligence, rationality), and he believes that this renders all such responses absurd or unacceptable. If we are to deny any human the right the life, we have rejected a widely held moral principle: all humans have an equal right to life. Isaac implies that since the personhood response is inconsistent with widely held moral intuitions, we should reject or dismiss it. Put another way, if one concedes that some humans don’t have a right to life, they have lost the moral debate. I don’t find Isaac’s response compelling for several reasons. Assuming for the sake of argument that Isaac’s empirical claim is true, the popularity of a moral view is not a deciding factor in resolving difficult questions in ethics. If it were, then we would already have strong reasons to reject ethical veganism.
There seems to be an inconsistency in Isaac’s approach to ethics. To defend ethical veganism, Isaac appeals to rational arguments that explain why eating meat is immoral. But in responding to critics, he appeals to irrelevant considerations, like popularity. It could be that Isaac is just a pragmatist, using reason when it’s useful for moral persuasion. But given his strong emphasis on being logically consistent, I will continue to interpret his objections as substantive philosophical claims. In the next post of this series, I will further analyze the personhood and the implications for ethical veganism. Specifically, I will address the following questions:
Firstly, if one concedes that it is morally permissible to breed and kill babies for food, does one really lose the debate? Secondly, if one cannot name-the-trait, is veganism the only rationally defensible position?