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"Eating animals can't be bad because how do you know plants don't have feelings

"Eating animals can't be bad because how do you know plants don't have feelings" is a common argument against vegans. Is that a good argument?

No. Many vegans (and vegetarians) aim to minimize unnecessary suffering and believe that eating animals causes unnecessary suffering. A crucial premise of this argument is that animals can suffer pain, discomfort, and possibly even more complex unpleasant thoughts or emotions. What is the evidence for that premise? It's a best explanation (or abductive) argument. We have good reasons, based on a wide range of scientific evidence from psychology and neuroscience, to think that complex nervous systems are required to experience suffering, and the mammals we eat (and probably the birds and perhaps the fish) have nervous systems that support these experiences. Plus the behavior of these animals suggests that they can feel pain and discomfort.

Plants do not have nervous systems (or anything analogous) and they do not show the behavior associated with experiencing pain (or anything else). So, we have no reason to think they suffer while they live or when they are harvested. (Personally, I think humanely raising and killing animals is ethically defensible.)

Ironically, souls might be brought into the discussion to cut in both directions. Someone might argue that animals do not have the ineffable soul or mind required to experience suffering, so it's OK to do what may *seem* to cause them pain. Or someone might argue that, even though they don't have nervous systems, plants have the sort of soul (or being) that allows them to experience suffering.

No. Many vegans (and vegetarians) aim to minimize unnecessary suffering and believe that eating animals causes unnecessary suffering. A crucial premise of this argument is that animals can suffer pain, discomfort, and possibly even more complex unpleasant thoughts or emotions. What is the evidence for that premise? It's a best explanation (or abductive) argument. We have good reasons, based on a wide range of scientific evidence from psychology and neuroscience, to think that complex nervous systems are required to experience suffering, and the mammals we eat (and probably the birds and perhaps the fish) have nervous systems that support these experiences. Plus the behavior of these animals suggests that they can feel pain and discomfort. Plants do not have nervous systems (or anything analogous) and they do not show the behavior associated with experiencing pain (or anything else). So, we have no reason to think they suffer while they live or when they are harvested. (Personally, I think...

Is torturing an insect less immoral than torturing a non-human primate?

Is torturing an insect less immoral than torturing a non-human primate?

I take it that being tortured implies the experience of pain or other suffering (physical or psychological) or, at the very minimum, the frustration of the victim's desires. Now, insect brains are surprisingly complex: according to Wikipedia, there are 100,000 neurons in the brain of a fruit fly, and as many as 10 million synapses; no doubt there are many more in mantids. But are insect brains complex enough that insects can experience pain, suffering, or frustration? I don't think anyone knows. But the answer may well be no, in which case your question would rest on a false presupposition.

But suppose an insect can be tortured. If a case of torture is otherwise gratuitous, then its degree of immorality probably varies with the suffering that it causes. It seems highly likely that at least some nonhuman primates can suffer to a greater degree than insects can, making it worse to torture them, all else being equal.

Well, both are immoral and indications of bad character traits (and may 'harden' one for worse acts), assuming that the torturing is gratuitous, as the word suggests. But we have good reasons to think that insects do not experience pain and suffering nearly as much as monkeys and apes (e.g., their nervous systems are not as complex). So, if one measure of the immorality or badness of an act is the amount of unnecessary pain and suffering it produces--and that seems plausible on any moral theory--then yes, torturing an insect would be less immoral than torturing a non-human primate. Please do neither!

I'm thinking about cutting back my meat consumption for the sake of the

I'm thinking about cutting back my meat consumption for the sake of the environment, but I don't want to go completely meat free. I'm thinking about continuing to eat pork but not beef, since I respect cattle more than pigs as the former have been a vital part of human agriculture for centuries yet the latter would eat human babies trapped in its pen. Am I right in setting up this hierarchy of life unworthy of life?

I'd suggest doing some research on both the environmental impact of cattle and pork farming and production and the reasons to respect, as you put it, each species. My own research is incomplete, but from what I've seen, pig factory farming is particularly nasty for the environment (e.g., the sewage leaking into waterways in North Carolina), and pigs are likely the most intelligent of the animals we raise for food (some claim they are roughly on par with dogs). I'm not sure how relevant it is that they might eat human babies! (If true, let's make sure not to leave any babies in their pens.) In any case, I think the decision to cut down our production and consumption of all factory farmed animals is overdetermined: there are good reasons based on morality (preventing mass amounts of unnecessary suffering), protecting the environment (note that animal farts contribute to global warming!), and improving our health. Having said this, I admit I still purchase some factory farmed meat for my family. And until we make a concerted effort to change our society's dietary habits, it will be difficult to phase out factory farming in the way we should. For now, can the fast food joints at least offer veggie burgers!?

I'd suggest doing some research on both the environmental impact of cattle and pork farming and production and the reasons to respect, as you put it, each species. My own research is incomplete, but from what I've seen, pig factory farming is particularly nasty for the environment (e.g., the sewage leaking into waterways in North Carolina), and pigs are likely the most intelligent of the animals we raise for food (some claim they are roughly on par with dogs). I'm not sure how relevant it is that they might eat human babies! (If true, let's make sure not to leave any babies in their pens.) In any case, I think the decision to cut down our production and consumption of all factory farmed animals is overdetermined: there are good reasons based on morality (preventing mass amounts of unnecessary suffering), protecting the environment (note that animal farts contribute to global warming!), and improving our health. Having said this, I admit I still purchase some factory farmed meat for my family. And...

I have some questions with vegetarianism. The main thing is that I do believe

I have some questions with vegetarianism. The main thing is that I do believe that animal suffering is a bad thing, but I don't think that that is a reason for people not to eat animals. I'm not asking here about the whole issue, but only about the following real case: I own a small piece of land which has been mostly unused. Last year, I bought a dozen of chicks, gave them a nice place to live, bought them some grain, gathered other kinds of food for them (plants, insects, snails, etc.) and took care of them generally. Now I have a dozen of chicken that I am about to slaughter and eat. Is there a reason for me not to do so?! Should I feed them eternally? Should I free them so that a car will smash them? Shouldn't I have bought them in the first place?

I don't think you are doing anything wrong. But I think that precisely because I think that animals suffering is a bad thing and should be avoided if possible. It sounds to me like you are avoiding it as much as possible--and I assume that when you slaughter them you will do so in a way that minimizes pain and suffering (and likely will not be any worse, and may be much better, than their natural death would be).

So, I may be misunderstanding what you mean when you say that you think suffering is bad but you do NOT think "that [suffering] is a reason for people not to eat animals." My own view is that there are many reasons to try to phase out factory farming, the main two being animal suffering and environmental harm. But both of those problems might be minimized by raising animals in other ways--for instance, the way you are raising your chickens. Others may want to provide arguments for why it is wrong to eat animals no matter what. But I have not been convinced by those arguments, mainly because I don't think that most non-human animals (and all the ones we eat, though pigs might push the boundary) lack the mental capacities needed to deserve moral respect other than the capacity for suffering which is sufficient to provide a reason for us not to make them suffer (all else being equal).

I don't think you are doing anything wrong. But I think that precisely because I think that animals suffering is a bad thing and should be avoided if possible. It sounds to me like you are avoiding it as much as possible--and I assume that when you slaughter them you will do so in a way that minimizes pain and suffering (and likely will not be any worse, and may be much better, than their natural death would be). So, I may be misunderstanding what you mean when you say that you think suffering is bad but you do NOT think "that [suffering] is a reason for people not to eat animals." My own view is that there are many reasons to try to phase out factory farming, the main two being animal suffering and environmental harm. But both of those problems might be minimized by raising animals in other ways--for instance, the way you are raising your chickens. Others may want to provide arguments for why it is wrong to eat animals no matter what. But I have not been convinced by those arguments, mainly...

The responses to questions on this site regarding the ethics of eating animals

The responses to questions on this site regarding the ethics of eating animals seem to indicate that many of you endorse vegetarianism (in some form or another) but have not made a commitment to actually becoming a vegetarian. Though I understand the difficulty of truly living in accordance with certain philosophies that one might, in theory, endorse, the only major challenge faced by vegetarians in today's America is self control. If philosophers themselves find it so difficult to simply not put a piece of flesh in their mouths, how can we hope for considerable progress on this issue? One would think that the people who think so much about the minutiae of the arguments for and against eating meat would be the most likely to make a shift in their behavior. I can't help but worry.

Well, weakness of will is a human frailty, and philosophers are humans. But I share your intuition that someone who has accepted strong arguments for a conclusion, such as "It is wrong to eat meat," and who faces few difficulties acting on that conclusion, should be able to act on it. It may make you feel better to know that there is a much higher proportion of consistent vegetarians among philosophers than among the general population. But people who study ethics may be no different than other philosophers (except that they condemn meat eating more). See here.

Personally, I think that there are good reasons for our society to shut down factory farming (it causes a lot of unnecessary suffering, hurts the environment, and contributes to unhealthy eating habits). But it is not obvious how best to act on that view. I try to avoid factory farmed meat, but mainly to avoid hypocrisy rather than to further the cause (my not purchasing meat is unlikely to have an effect on the industry). But should I avoid eating all meat? Should I scold others who eat factory-farmed meat? Should I spend my time working to shut down the industry? Those questions become more complicated because of both competing ethical concerns and complicated empirical issues.

Oh, did I mention that philosophers are particularly good at coming up with rationalizations?

Well, weakness of will is a human frailty, and philosophers are humans. But I share your intuition that someone who has accepted strong arguments for a conclusion, such as "It is wrong to eat meat," and who faces few difficulties acting on that conclusion, should be able to act on it. It may make you feel better to know that there is a much higher proportion of consistent vegetarians among philosophers than among the general population. But people who study ethics may be no different than other philosophers (except that they condemn meat eating more). See here . Personally, I think that there are good reasons for our society to shut down factory farming (it causes a lot of unnecessary suffering, hurts the environment, and contributes to unhealthy eating habits). But it is not obvious how best to act on that view. I try to avoid factory farmed meat, but mainly to avoid hypocrisy rather than to further the cause (my not purchasing meat is unlikely to have an effect on the industry). But...

Why are the lives of plants not considered ethically relevant, when there are

Why are the lives of plants not considered ethically relevant, when there are more than a few people who think the lives of all animals, including the simplest insects, are? Plants, too, can whither and die. What's the difference between the ethical value of an apple tree and that of a termite?

You would probably appreciate this recent column in The New York Times on whether it is ethical to eat peas (and other plants): http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/28/if-peas-can-talk-should-we-eat-them/

I didn't. I thought it was pretty stupid. Why? Because the sort of "communication" that plants may be capable of does not seem relevant to being an object of ethical concern (which is not to say that we may not have ethical duties to protect the environment, including animals and plants).

I'm not sure you are right that more than a few people think insects have ethical value. Heck, given the way we treat and eat factory farmed animals, I'm not sure many people think mammals and birds (other than their pets) have ethical value or deserve ethical consideration.

Personally, I think people are wrong about the mammals and birds, probably right about insects (and maybe fish), and certainly right about plants. Why? Because for me, the main reason (and minimal threshold) for a being to deserve our ethical concern is that it can suffer. And all current evidence suggests that suffering requires having a complex enough nervous system to experience pain and other aversive feelings (such as fear and sadness), and that mammals and birds can experience such feelings, while insects probably cannot, and no way peas can. I'm talking about having conscious experiences here, not just showing aversive response behavior (so the wriggling of the worm is not sufficient evidence). We may have end up having ethical duties to robots (or even virtual beings) in the future if they are able to experience these feelings. In my view, the ethical facts here will depend on the facts about the functional capacities of the minds of the relevant creatures--not easy facts to discover.

There may be further reasons to worry about our treatment of some animals--e.g., pigs are damn smart and so the suffering they experience in pork-raising factories may even involve distress over severed relationships or over future mistreatment. And the capacity to suffer is not the only thing that matters when it comes to ethical value--humans deserve much more ethical concern than animals, in part because of other capacities we have, such as the capacity to consider moral value, to construct life plans, and to form particular relationships with each other.

Finally, there may be other reasons we should avoid destroying insects and plants (e.g., we have lots of reasons not to destroy endangered species, rain forests, etc.). But I don't think those reasons include that those living beings are individually proper subjects of ethical concern.

Peas can be raised for slaughter. Pigs cannot.

You would probably appreciate this recent column in The New York Times on whether it is ethical to eat peas (and other plants): http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/28/if-peas-can-talk-should-we-eat-them/ I didn't. I thought it was pretty stupid. Why? Because the sort of "communication" that plants may be capable of does not seem relevant to being an object of ethical concern (which is not to say that we may not have ethical duties to protect the environment, including animals and plants). I'm not sure you are right that more than a few people think insects have ethical value. Heck, given the way we treat and eat factory farmed animals, I'm not sure many people think mammals and birds (other than their pets) have ethical value or deserve ethical consideration. Personally, I think people are wrong about the mammals and birds, probably right about insects (and maybe fish), and certainly right about plants. Why? Because for me, the main reason (and minimal threshold) for a...

Many meat-eaters get angry when they feel that vegetarians are criticizing their

Many meat-eaters get angry when they feel that vegetarians are criticizing their lifestyle. "Feel free to abstain," they say, "but don't tell me what to do." I understand the appeal of non-judgmental vegetarianism, but I'm not sure it really makes sense. Suppose that I adopt vegetarianism for ethical reasons--that is, because I believe that eating animals is wrong. Doesn't it make perfect sense for me to criticize meat eaters, then? After all, the point of ethical vegetarianism is precisely that eating meat is wrong, not just _for me_, but for anyone. Imagine someone who said, "I think murder is wrong; but that's just my personal view, I wouldn't insist that others abstain from murder." This would be ridiculous! Obviously, meat-eating cannot be as serious a crime as murder. But why aren't these two cases analogous, nonetheless, with respect to the legitimacy of criticism?

You've got it right. If one believes meat-eating is wrong and has reasons and arguments for that view, then one should offer those reasons and arguments to others to try to convince them to stop doing something wrong. The reason meat-eaters respond this way is presumably that they do not think they are doing anything wrong or they think that vegetarians' reasons for avoiding meat are subjective (e.g., they don't like the taste or feel they don't need it) or, more likely, they are trying to avoid confronting reasons, facts, and arguments that would make them have to give up something they like doing. Conversely, some vegetarians might not want to confront meat-eaters because they don't take their position for ethical reasons or because they think the harm involved in meat-eating is minimal enough that they don't need to try to change the world, even if they do think it's wrong enough that they don't want to engage in that practice. The latter view seems difficult to pull off consistently.

I say all this as a half-hearted vegetarian, one who simply makes efforts to avoid buying or consuming factory-farmed meat (especially chickens and pigs) and who makes little effort to convert others to this position. Hence, I am likely failing to consider or internalize some good reasons to adopt a more consistent and stringent vegetarianism (or veganism), and I am not doing what I should to convince others to change their behavior. It's hard to do the right thing. It's at least as hard to argue against the majority. I'm very interesting in the "moral psychology" of all this--how can we get ourselves and others to do what we believe is right.

You've got it right. If one believes meat-eating is wrong and has reasons and arguments for that view, then one should offer those reasons and arguments to others to try to convince them to stop doing something wrong. The reason meat-eaters respond this way is presumably that they do not think they are doing anything wrong or they think that vegetarians' reasons for avoiding meat are subjective (e.g., they don't like the taste or feel they don't need it) or, more likely, they are trying to avoid confronting reasons, facts, and arguments that would make them have to give up something they like doing. Conversely, some vegetarians might not want to confront meat-eaters because they don't take their position for ethical reasons or because they think the harm involved in meat-eating is minimal enough that they don't need to try to change the world, even if they do think it's wrong enough that they don't want to engage in that practice. The latter view seems difficult to pull off consistently. I say...

What would we have to know about dolphins in order to conclude they are non

What would we have to know about dolphins in order to conclude they are non-human persons?

Of course, it depends on how one defines 'person'. If one defines person as an organism with a human genome, then dolphins can't be persons and human fetuses are persons. But personally, I think persons are conscious creatures that are able to think about their own and others' mental states, to represent and understand what they feel and believe, hold dear and hold true. Such self-awareness seems to allow one to represent oneself as a person, as separate from other persons, as continuous through time, as having a future self with interests that should be considered now. These capacities, I believe, are also what make persons autonomous and responsible in ways that non-persons are not. While there are important boundary conditions for personhood, so defined, it may involve many capacities, each of which is possessed to varying degrees, so it may be hard to delineate clearly which creatures count as persons and which don't, and to delineate exactly when an infant becomes a person. (I also don't know whether language is required for any of these capacities or is instead enabled by them.)

So, dolphins are persons if they are conscious (surely they are) and also self-aware in these ways. Some evidence suggests that dolphins, like apes (but not monkeys), have the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror and to represent mental states ('theory of mind'), not to mention their basic language skills. These tests seem to be reasonable ways to get at the capacities I'm suggesting are the grounds for personhood.

Of course, it depends on how one defines 'person'. If one defines person as an organism with a human genome, then dolphins can't be persons and human fetuses are persons. But person ally, I think persons are conscious creatures that are able to think about their own and others' mental states, to represent and understand what they feel and believe, hold dear and hold true. Such self-awareness seems to allow one to represent oneself as a person, as separate from other persons, as continuous through time, as having a future self with interests that should be considered now. These capacities, I believe, are also what make persons autonomous and responsible in ways that non-persons are not. While there are important boundary conditions for personhood, so defined, it may involve many capacities, each of which is possessed to varying degrees, so it may be hard to delineate clearly which creatures count as persons and which don't, and to delineate exactly when an infant becomes a person. (I also...

I do not eat animal flesh because I see the clear case that doing so comes at

I do not eat animal flesh because I see the clear case that doing so comes at the cost of killing another being that was definitely alive. The other day I was offered a breakfast sandwich that had both egg and turkey bacon on it. I decided to throw away the turkey and only eat the egg (and bread). Also, to add more background to the situation this was a sandwich that would have been eaten by someone else (turkey in all) if I declined. This then led me to think that maybe my actions of throwing away the turkey is actually more morally wrong than eating the turkey. So, my question is if throwing away meat is morally correct for vegetarians (or vegan) who base their diet on the ethical stance of not doing harm to animals.

The answer will depend on what your reasons are for not eating meat. For instance, I do not believe that eating meat is wrong because killing animals is wrong. Rather, I believe it is wrong to cause suffering to those animals we have good reason to believe can feel pain and suffer (unless we are justified in believing that the suffering will relieve more suffering, as is the case with some animal experimentation but is almost never the case with eating animals). So, I try to do what I can to avoid supporting factory farming, which is a manifest case of causing unnecessary suffering. I am not as good as I should be about this commitment. For instance, if I am in a situation where I have to choose between eating factory-farmed meat and not eating (or having to go to great lengths to eat), I tend to eat the meat. If I am served meat and the only way to avoid eating it is to throw it away, I will eat the meat (otherwise, one might even think the animal's pain was even more useless than it otherwise would be?). So, if you could have gotten another sandwich and someone else would have eaten the turkey sandwich, then you would have been more consistent to take a non-meat option.

The more general problem is that our individual actions in these cases (and across all our food-eating choices) are unlikely to have much of an impact on the problem of factory farming. It will take collective action to get our society's practices to change. And the best way to make that happen will involve convincing others to stop eating factory-farmed meat. Here, I wish I did more than I do.

The answer will depend on what your reasons are for not eating meat. For instance, I do not believe that eating meat is wrong because killing animals is wrong. Rather, I believe it is wrong to cause suffering to those animals we have good reason to believe can feel pain and suffer (unless we are justified in believing that the suffering will relieve more suffering, as is the case with some animal experimentation but is almost never the case with eating animals). So, I try to do what I can to avoid supporting factory farming, which is a manifest case of causing unnecessary suffering. I am not as good as I should be about this commitment. For instance, if I am in a situation where I have to choose between eating factory-farmed meat and not eating (or having to go to great lengths to eat), I tend to eat the meat. If I am served meat and the only way to avoid eating it is to throw it away, I will eat the meat (otherwise, one might even think the animal's pain was even more useless than it otherwise...

Can dogs lie? Our dog will 'pretend' to bark at something outside the house when

Can dogs lie? Our dog will 'pretend' to bark at something outside the house when it is near time for her meal or she has not been for a walk. As she has other behaviours to get our attention, patting with her paw, staring mournfully, or stand over us on our lounge - she is a big dog - it seems she 'chooses' to 'lie' at times to get our attention.

Good question, and I think it has a lot of philosophical import. Here's why. What we might call a "true lie" is one where the liar knows what she is doing. She knows that she needs to do or say something to alter what her target believes in order to get him to do something the liar wants. Contrast this with a "behavioristic lie," one that has the effect of getting the target to behave a certain way but without the "liar" knowing how she is doing it. Take the case of a 3-year-old girl who has learned that saying "I'm tired" often gets her out of doing something she doesn't want to do. One night her dad says "It's time to go to bed," so she repeats her standard ploy, "I'm tired." She does not seem to know how her lie works!

This difference between "true lying" and "behavioristic lying" seems to make a big difference. Behavioristic lying might not require any especially impressive cognitive abilities. Well, behavioristic learning itself is pretty impressive--and it allows more interesting and flexible forms of deception than, say, animal mimicry (the viceroy butterfly isn't doing anything cognitive in "pretending" to look like the poisonous monarch butterfly). But it's not as impressive as true lying. Your dog's behavior, if it is just behavioristic lying, does not seem to require understanding your mental states--your beliefs, desires, or intentions. Rather, your dog, like the 3-year-old girl, may have simply learned from past experience what works to get what she wants (e.g., to get fed or taken for a walk). Real lying, on the other hand, seems to require understanding that others perceive the world differently from you, they have different desires, beliefs, and intentions than your own. One cannot intentionally manipulate others' beliefs (i.e., truly lie) unless one understands that they have beliefs that can be manipulated (i.e., that can be false).

I happen to think the ability to "truly lie" may be unique to humans' (though perhaps it shows up in some other higher primates or dolphins or perhaps even dogs given their long co-evolution with humans). And I think it likely evolved because of our ancestors' complex social interactions (including reciprocal altruism) and in tandem with our remarkable ability to interpret, explain, and predict the behavior of others and ourselves in terms of beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. Once you've got that ability, you may be on your way to being able to think about alternative possibilities, choosing (freely) in light of such thinking about alternative future outcomes, thinking symbolically, doing philosophy, the whole shabang! Though I'm a bit leery of saying that so much of what makes us human is tied to our remarkable ability to truly lie...

Good question, and I think it has a lot of philosophical import. Here's why. What we might call a "true lie" is one where the liar knows what she is doing. She knows that she needs to do or say something to alter what her target believes in order to get him to do something the liar wants. Contrast this with a "behavioristic lie," one that has the effect of getting the target to behave a certain way but without the "liar" knowing how she is doing it. Take the case of a 3-year-old girl who has learned that saying "I'm tired" often gets her out of doing something she doesn't want to do. One night her dad says "It's time to go to bed," so she repeats her standard ploy, "I'm tired." She does not seem to know how her lie works! This difference between "true lying" and "behavioristic lying" seems to make a big difference. Behavioristic lying might not require any especially impressive cognitive abilities. Well, behavioristic learning itself is pretty impressive--and it allows more interesting and...

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