On The Subject of Eating Animals: A Follow-up by Caleb Ontiveros

Member Caleb Ontiveros wrote a follow-up to his talk on the subject of eating animals. Read it below:

In this short post I would like to offer up an argument I wish I had given in my talk. I think this argument will be clearer and perhaps escape some of the issues of terminology people were concerned about.

I was glad to see that there was uniform agreement about factory farming—this was wonderful. Instead of swimming in consensus, I will give an argument for the claim that we shouldn’t kill animals in order to eat them.

Many people think it’s permissible to kill animals in order to eat them because humans possess higher cognitive faculties. We are self-conscious, can conceive of ourselves far into the future, are moral agents, develop plans and purposes, and so on. The possession of these higher faculties justifies the use of animals—or so the argument goes. There is a problem with such an approach however—not all humans possess these higher cognitive faculties. Let’s call these humans that don’t possess such faculties species overlap humans . For example infants, the radically cognitively limited, and those affected by severe aging do not possess these higher cognitive faculties—as such they overlap with many nonhuman animals. Would it then be permissible to kill them in order to eat them? Surely not.

The argument runs as follows:

1. It’s impermissible to kill species overlap humans

2. Species overlap humans and nonhuman animals are relevantly similar

3. So it’s impermissible to kill nonhuman animals

What are some objections to this argument? Most will object to premise (2) since most are not comfortable with denying that it’s impermissible to kill species overlap humans.

Many think being human, that is being a Homo sapiens, is a relevant characteristic. However being human is neither necessary nor sufficient for the right to life. For example, nonhuman animals that are modified to have the same psychological properties as humans or aliens with similar psychological properties as humans would surely have a right to life. So, being human is not necessary for possessing the right to life. It isn’t sufficient either. For humans who irreversibly lack consciousness do not possess a right to life.

Some might object to premise (2) because we are biologically designed to eat meat. I take it this means that we are biologically disposed to eat meat. But of course we are also biologically disposed to be violent and selfish—to say that we biologically disposed to x does not establish that x is permissible.

Some may think this argument establishes the absurd conclusion that insects have a right to life. But there is a relevant difference between insects and most nonhuman animals, namely, there is good reason to be skeptical that insects are sentient. They don’t show the behavioral signs of experiencing pain nor is it clear that they are physiologically similar enough to humans and other animals to be sentient.

Finally, some suggested that ethics are subjective, thus this argument doesn’t matter. I wonder if these same people say the same when it comes to other moral or political issues? At any rate, I think this is largely irrelevant to the issues. We find ourselves in the world with moral beliefs (such as the belief that species overlap humans shouldn’t be killed for no good reason) and we should make those moral commitments consistent, genuine, and non-arbitrary. That process will include reasoning like this.

There are of course other arguments for my conclusion as well as other objections, but I hope to have shown that, at least, this argument has promise.

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