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In a hypothetical situation I am a vegan talking to a meat eater who buys his

In a hypothetical situation I am a vegan talking to a meat eater who buys his meat from a supermarket and has no interest in where it came from. I say that I don't think people have the right to eat meat unless they are willing to learn about what it takes to provide that meat, witness it first hand or even produce it for themselves. He says that he doesn't want to know where it came from and is quite happy for someone else to do the dirty work if they are happy to and does not feel at all guilty. Is he morally wrong and do I have a valid argument?

The phrase "insensitive to suffering" might mean--(1) "culpably unaware of it" or "unsympathetic to it." Or it might mean (2) "trivializing it" or "giving it too little weight."

If you shoot a rabbit, that's got to cause the rabbit to suffer quite a lot. Surely there's a good chance of not achieving a "clean kill." If you think the suffering you cause is worth it, for the pleasure of eating rabbit stew, then arguably you are trivializing the animal's suffering. So you are insensitive to it in the second sense.

It could be, but doesn't have to be, that you are also insensitive in the first sense. In fact, hunters I speak to (I teach an animal rights class in Texas) often seem very invested in the notion that it doesn't hurt animals much to be shot. They don't respond with sympathy to animals that surely are, in fact, suffering.

Even humanely raised beef cattle do suffer--when they are branded, castrated, dehorned, and probably when they are slaughtered. I don't think we can dismiss the worry that people involved in the practice, whether directly or as customers, are insensitive to suffering in one or both of the two senses.

I consider myself a compassionate person. Probably too compassionate,

I consider myself a compassionate person. Probably too compassionate, though. I have a hard time doing ANYTHING that causes death or harm to any other creature, even if it's as insignifigant as a bug, especially if it's something that is just 100% for my own pleasure, or satisfaction. Please forgive me because I know that this probably seems crazy, but this really is a problem for me. I've discussed this with other people and they have pointed out the fact that human beings seem to have a superior place in the world, and that bugs are just a part of an eco-system where they generally eat other insects, and or are food for other creatures. Even though I understand this, I find it impossible to do anything that causes them death or harm, especially things that are unimportant. For example, I have not cut my backyard all year because I know it will negatively affect the insects living there. I want to do it, but since it is only for my satisfaction I can't bring myself to do it. This is just...

What's crazy about your thinking? I see nothing crazy about it. You are following an extremely plausible moral principle--that you shouldn't cause serious harm to other creatures for trivial reasons. I think you should stick by that principle, and in fact recommend it to others!

Now about the lawn. If it bothers you to have a shaggy lawn, you might want to think through how your altogether plausible moral principle applies in this case. Do you really cause serious harm by mowing the lawn? You might also want to think about how trivial it is to want a nicely groomed lawn.

On the first question, it will be relevant to delve into the nature of insects. The lawnmower would do them more harm if they suffered pain or had goals or desires. But do they? Some do think so, but some don't. If you conclude they don't have such sophisticated mental states, there might still be harm (in some sense) in killing them, but mowing down insects might be like mowing down dandelions. If so, then even a pretty trivial reason would justify you in mowing the lawn.

You'll also want to look at your lawn-mowing desires. Are you a champion croquet player, missing out on Sunday games? Do you have a hoarde of kids who are being forced to stay inside, for fear of the insect-infested lawn?

After all due reflection, you may find yourself mowing the lawn again, without feeling bad about it.

Most people oppose cruelty to animals. But, I have often heard people say

Most people oppose cruelty to animals. But, I have often heard people say things like 'killing is a part of life', or that our methods of killing are generally less cruel than in nature. Some have even asked whether we are obliged to mitigate such naturally occurring cruelty, if we are obliged to reduce our own. I don't think these 'arguments' are well-reasoned. My sense is that our capacity to understand the suffering that our actions cause, and consider alternatives, confers greater responsibility, making our indifference to cruelty and suffering more troublesome. Is there a more elegant and thorough way of addressing all this?

Sometimes the argument you allude to is put like this: animals kill animals, so why can't we? I've heard many people say this to justify eating chickens, pigs, lambs and the like, and that's just strange, if you think about it. Somehow because a chicken and a tiger are both "animals"--that is, non-human--the chicken is supposed to be accountable for the tiger. If people would just restrict themselves to making this sort of argument in advance of going tiger hunting, it wouldn't be so bad. But then, I think in that case your answer is a good one. Because of our big brains and our capacity for morality, we should hold ourself to a higher standard. Unless under attack or just trying to survive, I can't think of any good reason to kill a tiger.

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...

Let us assume science has demonstrated that vegetarians and careful vegans are

Let us assume science has demonstrated that vegetarians and careful vegans are just as healthy as – indeed, considerably healthier than – meat-eaters. (It has.) Robert Nozick came up with an interesting hypothetical for those who continue to choose meat in a world where this is so – for those today who opt for the real bacon over the soy bacon not because it’s necessary for one’s health, and not because they bear ill-will towards pigs, but simply because they like the taste more: “Suppose . . . that I enjoy swinging a baseball bat. It happens that in front of the only place to swing it stands a cow. Swinging the bat unfortunately would involve smashing the cow’s head. But I wouldn’t get fun from doing that; the pleasure comes from exercising my muscles, swinging well, and so on. It's unfortunate that as a side effect (not a means) of my doing this, the animal's skull gets smashed. To be sure, I could forego swinging the bat, and instead bend down and touch my toes or do some other exercise. But this...

Thank you for the question. Having taught an animal rights class for many years, I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never run into this argument. I've now tracked it down to this very interesting excerpt from Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which I think I'll put on my syllabus. So thank you!

Analogies are both helpful and distracting. Using analogies to explore the ethics of meat-eating is helpful to the extent that people are so accustomed to the practise that many can barely see that it raises an ethical issue. But analogies are distracting as well. We think the bat-swinger acts wrongly. Should we think the same of the meat-eater? Well, only if the bat-swinger is in all morally relevant ways like the meat-eater. But now we have to work hard to see whether that's the case.

I think meat-eaters can rightly say that they're somewhat different. The meat-eater isn't so unfeeling as to have his pleasure while simultaneously watching a cow howl in pain. The dirty-work is done "out of sight, and out of mind." So the analogy might make us think worse of the meat-eater's character than we really should.

Yet I think the analogy does draw us to a correct assessment of the act of meat-eating, if not the character of the meat-eater. Considering that we have equally healthy alternatives, it really is just a certain pleasure we get from meat-eating, at the cost to animals of considerable suffering and death. There are alternative pleasures to be had. Even if inferior, it's hard to believe that the extra pleasure we get from meat-eating really justifies us in imposing so much harm on animals.

You aimed your question at "meat-eating philosophers in this forum," so let me explain: I don't eat meat, but I do eat a little fish, plus "humane" eggs and milk (which aren't really all that humane, if you read about the subject). My diet does cost animals a certain amount of death and suffering. I'm prepared to say I can't justify that, but would make this plea for myself (and meat-eaters). It's much easier to see the wrongness of harming animals for gastronomic pleasure than to change your habits. Eating habits are deep-rooted, in every possible sense, so patience (with yourself, with others) is a virtue here, even more than it usually is.

Is it animal abuse to spay/neuter an animal? Most people justify spay/neutering

Is it animal abuse to spay/neuter an animal? Most people justify spay/neutering by pointing out that if we sterilize animals, there will be fewer needier animals. But if that's true, why not forcibly sterilize people in third world countries (at least in areas with population problems)?

I agree with the you that spaying/neutering raises difficult moral questions. On its face, it's abusive, since sterilization probably lowers quality of life for animals. So why do animal protection groups like the Humane Society encourage it? Because sterilizing animals lowers the number of unwanted animals that wind up being euthanized in animal shelters. As it is, an animal is euthanized every 6 seconds.

On the issue of sterilizing humans, here's food for thought. Suppose that excess human populations were euthanized in "people" shelters. Make that one every 6 seconds. If that were the situation, and it could not be altered, it might not seem so terrible to sterilize people as a way of reducing the number of killings. Sterilizing to prevent later killing, makes a certain amount of sense in both cases.

Of course, we wouldn't put up with killing humans to control overpopulation, while even many animal protection groups don't object to killing animals for that purpose. That's the question that probably is the most basic one here. Why is it permissible kill animals to reduce overpopulation, if it's wrong in the human case? I think the answer is that, while killing is never trivial, there are major differences between killing people and killing animals having to do with the way human beings contemplate and value their futures.

So the answer to your question is--we sterilize animals to prevent having to kill them later, and we can justify killing animals for that purpose (but couldn't justify killing people for that purpose) because of very basic differences between animals and people.

Why is it more moral to eat a pig than it is to eat a retarded human with the

Why is it more moral to eat a pig than it is to eat a retarded human with the intelligence of a pig? What can account for our revulsion at one and not the other aside from the fact that one would-be morsel looks like us and the other doesn't? Let us assume that the retarded human in question has no friends / family who would be traumatized by his being eaten.

I don't think we ought to eat the pig, if we have no more serious reason to do so than liking the taste of pork chops or bacon. I don't think it's necessary to use "retarded humans" as leverage to see that. Liking the taste of pork is just too trivial a reason for taking a life--even a pig's life.

That being said, there's no reason not to think it's more revolting and morally worse to eat a retarded human. It is more revolting because it's more revolting--that's an emotional-sensory reaction that doesn't operate by the rules of logic. Eating people is revolting in the way sex with animals is revolting. The roots of these reactions are obviously deep.

As to why it's morally worse to eat a retarded human, you might think of it this way. It's wrong in just the way it's wrong to eat a pig, but it's wrong in an additional way as well. So there are two layers to the wrongness, instead of just one. The additional layer has to do with an implicit agreement. Some day you might be that retarded human, or that could be your child or your mother. We would like to protect ourselves and our loved ones from this eventuality. If we had a chance to set up a rule against eating retarded people, we would do so. In fact, you might as well say that we have set up such a rule, if only implicitly. The rule is (simply) "no eating people".

If you dine on porkchops, you do what's morally wrong. But if you dine on humanchops, you do something doubly wrong. You take a life without a sufficiently serious reason, plus you violate an agreement that's implictly in place. (Plus, you give yourself an upset stomach, because it's revolting.)

Dear philosophers,

Dear philosophers, I'd currently call myself a 'pseudo-vegetarian', in that I don't eat meat, but I do eat fish and dairy foods, and use other products derived from animals (e.g. leather, wool). I became a vegetarian when I was five; arguably, when it was easier for me to hold a black-and-white moral viewpoint. I would now like to re-evaluate my vegetarianism, so that I can make an informed and (hopefully) ethically coherent decision about the foods I eat and the products I use. Are there any books you could recommend for me to read? I studied some philosophy at university, and would be interested in reading some balanced discussions of animal rights, vegetarianism and veganism. Thank you for reading this e-mail, and thank you in advance for your help.

Given the difficulty in finding balanced treatments of these issues, you might try to achieve a balance of your own by reading people with strong opinions on either side of the issue. So in addition to reading Singer's Animal Liberation, which is the classic statement of the position in favor of animal rights, you might also read Peter Carruthers' The Animals Issue, which argues that animals do not have moral standing.

Pet owners neuter their animals. They rip out their claws, shave their fur,

Pet owners neuter their animals. They rip out their claws, shave their fur, slice off their tales, and clip their ears. What if I, for whatever reason, wanted to give my dog a sex-change operation? I’m not sure what would drive somebody to do such a thing but should it be considered acceptable? Would that be crossing a line? Would it be cruel? Is it a pet owner’s right since the pet is his/her property? Where do animal cruelty laws come into play?

Interesting question. In Texas (for example), animal cruelty laws forbid torturing, killing, "seriously injuring," or cruelly confining an animal. There is no exemption for pet owners; you don't get to do just anything you want to your own pet. Though it seems like "seriously injuring," having a vet remove testicles, rip out claws, slice off tails, etc., is not taken to be a violation.

In the case of farm animals, it's clear what the statute says about such things. You can castrate, clip beaks, cut off tails, and kill farm animals because the statute explicitly says "generally accepted" treatment of farm animals is exempt. I think this is implicit in the clauses about pets. Generally accepted veterinary practice is exempt.

As to the moral, as opposed to the legal issues, I think all these things need careful thought. You are basically arguing, I take it, that there has to be a limit on what can be done to pets. It surely can't be right to put your cat through a sex change operation. I agree. A pet owner ought to think of a pet not merely as a means to his own satisfaction; the animal's good has to be the first consideration (though perhaps not the only consideration).

Looking at things that way, I have a hard time believing it's ethical to have cosmetic surgery performed on animals--and that's what ear-clipping and tail-docking amount to.

Declawing is rather different. Some people would not save the lives of cats at shelters unless they had the option of declawing them. They don't mind keeping cats from climbing trees, since they think they're better off inside, where they live longer lives. They think cats can live happy lives without being able to exercise the instinct to scratch. If you value your furniture hightly, and attach high importance to saving and prolonging lives, declawing won't seem like a bad option. Personally, I don't value my furniture all that highly, and think quality of life is significantly higher for cats who retain their claws and get to explore the outside world. I have cats with claws, and furniture that doesn't look that good.

Neutering is a tricky issue. It does seem to take away a lot of quality of life to neuter animals. They lose out on a big part of their lives, and neutered males are deprived of testosterone. This might be quite a loss. Again, the issue is about quality and quantity of life. To allow animals the fullest possible lives, you'd have to be able to accept the idea that huge numbers will wind up as strays, and eventually be killed at animal shelters.

Peter Singer has popularized the term "speiciesism." It's the idea that we are

Peter Singer has popularized the term "speiciesism." It's the idea that we are biased or prejudiced towards our own species. Therefore, the argument says, we should have equal consideration for animals. However, this won't apply to animals. The lion will still eat the gazelle, the sharks will eat the dolphins, and any carnivore will eat any animal. I can imagine Singer replying that animals don't have the rational capacity to do ethics. The ideas that Singer presents only applies to us humans. But if this is the case, isn't that a form of speciesism?

Peter Fosl says "it makes no sense to characterize the conduct of a being that's not a moral agent in moral terms." I wonder about this. If a child's not a moral agent yet, can we not say she does something wrong, though not blameworthy? It's hard to say why that wouldn't be the right way to talk about gratuitously cruel orcas or cats. Of course, using moral labels wouldn't tell us what we ought to do--intervene or not intervene. In many cases, trying to stop animal wrongs ("wrongs"?) will likely do more harm than good.