Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Posts Tagged ‘Peter Singer’

Veals Are Not Innocent

Posted by Jerry on October 1, 2007

When I started reading this article by philosopher Joel Marks, I almost felt a delightful sense of surprise. It was like a breath of fresh air after a long time. Ayn Rand has been particularly criticized for her “black and white” view of life; for stating that matters in life–and particularly moral issues–are black or white; that there are no grey areas if you look closely enough and think carefully enough, and while it may be incredibly difficult to arrive at a proper conclusion, know that one exists, it is certain, and the conclusion is attainable through the use of reason.

Therefore, when philosopher Joel Marks made the following comments that are so very similar to Rand’s own insight (although minus her unique flair and incisive precision), I was smiling in delight. Here are the particular comments I am talking about:

Life is so simple. I know somebody who complains about being overweight. She also keeps ice cream in her freezer. I suggested that she might stop stocking the stuff. “Oh, but I don’t eat it every day.” I mean, what more is there to say?

The good life, as I conceive it, consists in perceiving the truth by rational means and then acting accordingly. But is everything really so simple? I don’t mean that the right thing is always easy to do. It can be difficult to give up a habit, resist a temptation, stand up to evil, etc. I am talking in the first instance about knowing what to do to achieve these aims.

But is that simple – to know what to do? Can one just ‘perceive’ the truth of living, as one can see if it is daylight by opening one’s eyes (indeed, even through closed lids)?

I think it often is. But there is a method to it, which must be learned and practiced. Walking is simple too – put one foot in front of the other – but not at first. The rational method involves procuring and assessing reasons for what one believes.

Unfortunately, my optimism was squashed immediately thereafter. Having read the above, it came as a particularly sharp disappointment to see Marks advocating the right method but reaching a terribly false conclusion due to a failure in following his own advice. This is where he goes from the above:

The stakes are raised in reasoning when the issue is a moral one, by which I mean something that significantly affects others. The kind of case that comes most readily to my mind is the human treatment of other animals, who as a group are probably both more innocent and even more abused by us than the members of our own species.

Take the notorious case of veal. The calves are raised in pens so small that they cannot even turn around… for their entire lives! The purpose is to produce a tender meat for human pleasure. I cannot conceive of any good justification for such a practice. It strikes me as wrong pure and simple, indeed criminal (in the moral sense; but I would also make it so in the legal sense). The argument is simple: To inflict tremendous suffering on innocent creatures for a purpose that is ultimately frivolous, is very wrong. The production of veal does this. Ergo Q.E.D.

Note that Marks is not lamenting the wanton mistreatment and slaughter of animals for some pathological delight in bloody animal sports or some such malevolent end. He is railing against the treatment and slaughter of animals–veals in this case–for food, for nourishment, for the delightful satisfaction of human desires (which he calls frivolous), and even argues for making the act of killing veals for food a legal act of crime. This is a case of emotionalism gone haywire, not a case of rationality applied to reality. A concept like “innocence”–which is properly applicable only to humans not animals or even Gods–is used to confound the issue and emotionally appeal to one’s response of justice.

What does it mean to say that a cow is innocent? Does the cow even have the potential capacity to be non-innocent? Or guilty? Or sly? Or subsversive? Would you regard a tiger that killed a doe “guilty” of murder and therefore not innocent?

Marks’ use of this concept is as meaningless as saying God is a morally perfect being: well, if you mean in the way that a dead man is perfect because he can never do anything wrong, then yes, God in that sense is a morally perfect being. But, you see, it’s utterly meaningless!

Further, what about the slippery slope conundrum of the next in line to be criminalized: the slaughter of cows for steak? And then? 

Marks’ argument injects the emotionalist response to animal suffering to muddle the rational fact that there is no legitimate basis for criminalizing–or even morally condemning–the act of killing animals for food, even if it requires what may seem to be extreme measures of treating the animals before killing them. This is not to make the “end justifies the mean” argument, but to point out that there is no moral conflict at all between the end and the means.

Further, I’ve always been perplexed by the view that one can breed and eat animals as food but not breed them in particularly “harsh” conditions, and that one must treat them “humanely” till the moment they are butchered.

Here’s my point: there is no reason to be wantonly cruel toward animals unless you are a deranged psychopath with violent tendencies, which then makes you a threat to human society as well. Animals–as pets or as the object of our study, for example–can provide immense and enriching values to human life, like fostering a sense of responsibility in caring for one’s pets.

However, certain foods require a particular kind of treatment or preparation that some of us might emotionally consider “harsh” or “inhumane”, like Marks outlined in the case of veals and like in the case of foie gras.

Now, if we assume that animals have no rights (which indeed they don’t), and if we assume that the animals we breed for food are indeed going to be eaten anyway, then I fail to see the logic in depriving humanity of delectable dishes of veal and foie gras only to spare the animals (who will end up as food anyway–some stewed, some canned, some deep-fried, some dehydrated, some roasted, and then plucked, chopped, cut, diced, sliced, chewed, swallowed, etc.) of “mistreatment and harsh conditions” in the interim before they are chopped up and sent packing.

Far from being grounds for criminal prosecuting, the rearing and breeding of animals according to the necessary requirements of a particular culinary recipe is not even morally condemnable.

In fact, it is wonderful and admirable that man is so inventive, imaginative, and creative in offering this world such new pleasures of the palate to add value to our lives. Fine cuisine is inextricable from an experience of fine dining on expensive china; and this experience can function as an important landmark of your productive success, an evidence of your achievement, a celebration of your self-esteem, and a reward for a life well-lived.

Having said all that, I will whole-heartedly agree with Joel Marks’ final remark in the article, and it should be clear why I do. In typical Objectivist-speak, Marks says:

Thus, there is not only a right way to live, but also a right way to figure out what that is.

[Edit: A commenter raised the issue of “suffering of sentient beings” as the standard for determining the morality of killing animals. To get a full sense of the commenter’s argument, which is essentially Peter Singer’s utilitarian argument against killing animals for food, read the discussion below. My response takes off on two levels: on the basis of the nature of rights and on the basis of the purpose of morality. With regards to the latter, here are my views: 

A reason why suffering of sentient beings cannot be used as a standard by which one decides whether or not it is moral to kill animals (i.e., your standard of morality) is because it reverses the cause and effect of morality.

The purpose of morality is to show you how to live your life on this earth, since this knowledge is not automatic to humans. Thus, the ultimate purpose of morality is to show you how to achieve your happiness rationally, i.e., live this life happily, which includes, as just one aspect, how to avoid suffering in this life.

Thus, happiness and suffering are effects of the kind of morality you practice, the result of your actions–be they virtues or vices, which are the result of your moral premises. They are not the cause of your actions, nor are they the standard by which you determine your actions or the moral nature thereof. Those who use happiness as the standard are hedonists; those who use suffering as the standard are worshippers of death–like Christians who worship the crucifix as their most cherished symbol of virtue.

Thus, suffering is an invalid standard of judging moral actions.]

Posted in Animal Rights, Culture, General Work/Life, My Theories and Ideas, Philosophy, Political Issues, Rights and Morality, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments »

 
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