The vacation continues, so, with Thanksgiving coming up, I thought I would post this article from my website.
This argument addresses the claim that it is wrong for us to kill animals for food.
Against this claim, some point to lions and tigers and bears and other predatory animals and argue, “It is permissible for them to kill other animals for food; why is it wrong for me to do it?”
The question has two common answers.
First, animals are not considered moral agents. You can hardly blame the lion for killing the antelope; the lion knows nothing about duty and obligation. The lion is simply acting the way biology has made the lion act. So, while we can morally condemn a human who performs a particular act. It is nonsense to argue for morally condemning the lion (or any other predator).
Second, animals do a lot of things that it is not permissible for humans to do. Male lions, for example, kill their stepchildren (because the mother will then go into heat and the male lion can then father and raise his own children). There is no argument to be made that “animals do X; therefore it is morally permissible for humans to do X.”
However, neither of these arguments work.
To see this, let us assume that the lions were hunting and eating human children, rather than antelope. In this case, the fact that the lions are not moral agents would be seen as entirely irrelevant. Our duty to protect our children includes not only a duty to protect them from the intentional or negligent harms inflicted by moral agents, but to protect them from the natural harms as well - from disease, from accident, and from predatory lions. The lion’s lack of moral agency does not imply that we are obligated or even permitted to allow the lion to kill and eat our children.
Some people might argue that it would be wrong to kill the lion simply because he kills and eats children. The lion is, after all, just being a lion. We should trap the lion and move it to where it is no longer a threat to our children. However, let us make the concern more immediate. There you are, in the African wilderness, with the means at hand to kill a lion, and you see the lion charge after a young child. Do you let nature take its’ course? Or do you prevent the lion from doing that which lions do?
The predator problem asks whether we, who are moral agents, are obligated or even permitted to allow lions to kill for food - where we have the power to prevent it. It is not a question about the lion’s moral-agency. It is a question about our moral agency - about what we permit and prohibit. Do we have an obligation to protect antelope from predatory lions?
It is important to note that most of the animal rights arguments are built on a utilitarian foundation. Killing and eating animals for food involves suffering. Utilitarians argue that there is no basis for distinguishing animal suffering from human suffering. The species of the sufferer is morally irrelevant. Therefore, it is wrong to treat an animal in any way that it would be wrong to treat a human with similar capacities. If we are going to prevent lions from eating human infants, then we should be preventing lions from killing antelopes who are more developed than the human infant.
Adding Meat to the Predator Problem
Let us take these arguments seriously for a moment. We can save all of the present and future antelope by simply killing off all of the lions (and other predators). Our obligations to prevent the killing of antelopes has been met.
However, we will then likely be faced with a problem of antelope overpopulation. They will breed, eat up their food supply and starve. Being hunted down and killed by a lion is bad enough. Starvation, at least from a utilitarian perspective, can be seen as significantly worse. So, it is better to allow the lions to hunt the antelope, then to subject the antelope to starvation. The predator problem has now been solved.
Not quite. We have a lot more options available to us. The lions are going to kill the antelope in particularly gruesome ways, involving a great deal of suffering - grievous wounds on the part of some who happen to escape, whole herds of antelope being frightened and terrified and chased over the plains. Clearly, there is a more utilitarian way of controlling the antelope population. We should still kill off all of the lions, but then implement some other method for controlling the antelope population. We can go in ourselves and kill off a few antelope from time to time, enough to keep the population in check. We can certainly do the job in ways that involve a lot less suffering on the part of those we do kill.
Now we have this pile of antelope carcasses. What are we going to do with them? Let them rot?
If we are assuming a utilitarian system of ethics, then it would be difficult to argue for letting rot that which can be put to good use. For example, maybe we do not need to kill off all of the lions. We can put them in a place where they cannot hunt antelope. We then feed them the antelope carcasses.
If it is morally permissible for us to kill the antelope and use them to feed the lions, then I can see no reason to object to taking the carcass and feeding it to humans.
In our utilitarian concern for the welfare of the antelope, we have as much reason to be concerned with the suffering caused by illness and injury as by lions and starvation. We could provide the antelope with inoculations against the worst diseases, protect them from parasites, and fence off areas where they could wander where there is a chance of accidental injury. We could also provide them with clean water (particularly in times of drought) and food (in times of scarcity).
This, of course, would cost money. However, we have the carcasses from our annual harvest to keep the herd at an optimum size, and there are people willing to pay money for them.
I am not going to try to argue that this line of reasoning can be used to defend all of the practices that are used in a modern ranch. It is unlikely that we can continue this story to the point that we are defending the practices found in factory farming or in many instances of animal testing. However, we also do not end up condemning the personal ranch. It is not automatically and obviously the case that the cattle kept on a range ranch are less well off, from a utilitarian perspective, than they would be if the gates were opened and they were released into the wild.
When faced with the predator problem, it appears that the animal-rights utilitarian is clutching at straws rather than following his premises to their logical conclusion. Wanting to eliminate the use of animals for food by humans, while not wanting to interfere with the hunting of animals for food by other animals, they are drawn to arguments that seem to bring these two conflicting attitudes into agreement.
However, they are being deceived by mere appearances. The predator problem — allowing predators killing for food — does have implications for the prohibition against humans killing for food. The predator may not be a moral agent, but we are — and preventing the predator from hunting for food is within our power. If we are obligated to allow the predator to kill for food, then why are we not obligated to allow humans to kill for food? The prey animals can be made to suffer less at the hands of humans than they do by the tooth and the claw of natural predators, so we cannot defend these policies by saying that it is in the prey animal’s best interest.