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VegetarianismReview - Vegetarianism
A Guide for the Perplexed
by Kerry Walters
Bloomsbury Academic, 2012
Review by Christophe Al-Saleh, Ph.D.
Jun 25th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 26)

 

The world (especially the wealthy western world) is dominated by meat-eaters. How can a vegetarian make her point ? Carol Adams once insisted (in The Sexual Politics of Meat. A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Continuum, 1995)that the voice of a vegetarian is primarily silenced, especially when it comes to sharing a dinner with meat-eaters.  Moral Veggies have now reasons to believe that their predicament is far better: silence is no more unavoidable. An huge quantity of arguments and moral theories to the effect that one should abstain from meat-eating flooded philosophy (especially applied ethics, though not only) since Singer and Regan issued their influential books.

The book written by Kerry Walters offers a short, readable and handy presentation of major strategies of defense of ethical vegetarianism. The style is clear. No technical phrases. Arguments and references are clearly stated. It is intended for general readers, but it may help lecturers who are willing to offer courses about food ethics, applied ethics and environmental issues. In particular, no special background-knowledge is needed to follow the arguments.

As such, it qualifies as an handbook for graduates students (especially second and third year). Though, as I just hinted, general readers, especially vegetarians wishing to back their dietary choices with strong arguments or to deepen their ethical stance with the help of philosophical reflection, will greatly enjoy this reading. They may take the book as providing a fairly thorough map of the philosophy of vegetarianism.

Kerry Walters describes seven arguments: the basic argument, the argument from interests, the argument from rights, the ecofeminist argument, the environmental argument, the anthrocentric argument, the reverence for life argument. The author describes each argument in detail, with alternative formulations, its main critics and objections, with the rejoinders.

One chapter is devoted to each argument. The first chapter recalls some basics and facts about animal pain and the appalling truth about factory farms and industrial slaughter.

Each chapter is self-contained, for the author is concerned with never alluding to a point made elsewhere in the book without summing it up.

Nowadays, the book reads as a whole, too.

The basic argument goes like this: (1) it is morally wrong to harm without necessity (to be cruel), whether we are ourselves cruel or that we benefit from acts done with cruelty. (2) Eating meat the way we do implies factory farms. (3) Factory-farmed animals are treated with cruelty.

Therefore, we should abstain from eating meat, or drastically reduce our consumption of meat.

The first statement is controversial. Why is it morally wrong or indecent to harm animals? Those who accept the basic argument without further ado generally found their acceptance on the idea that we are related to some animals (not all of them, but most, if not all, factory-farmed animals) by a relation of interspecifics kinship. It means that we are able to understand their emotions, pains, and so on, as we do for our kin human fellows.

We should then accept that, if we understand why it is morally indecent to harm without necessity one of our fellow humans, we must understand why it is morally indecent to harm one of our fellow creatures (like pigs, cows, ducks...).

If all moral vegetarians are ready to accept the basic argument, a lot of them think that kinship, kindness or empathy are hardly justifications of the claim expressed in the first statement of the basic argument. Regan, for example, has noticed that one does not need to feel empathy in order to act rightly, and, conversely, that kindness is never a warrant of justice or morality. The two levels are separate.

On the other hand, we can accept the idea that, without an ability to relate to what Cora Diamond calls our "fellow creatures", ethical vegetarianism is lacking an important affective dimension, without which ethical reasoning seems shallow. Nowadays, empathy does not allow ethical choices when it comes to difficult cases and dilemmas. And we have to justify on another basis the claim to the effect that it is morally wrong to harm animals.

The six following arguments are essays to justify this claim, for those who would not be satisfied with the prima facie acceptance (invoking kinship and empathy) of the basic argument. We are now going to sketch them briefly, according to the account given by Walters. We do not enter into the details of objections, critics and rejoinders.

The first three arguments (Interests, Rights, Eco-feminism and social) focus on animal welfare, while the other ones (Environment, anthrocentric, Reverence for life) focus on other perspectives (ecology, wealth of mankind, spirituality, whether religious of not).

Among the first three arguments, two are based on sustained rationality (Interests, Rights) while the third one opposes strictly rational arguments, on the claim that strict rationality and cruelty against animals are two sides of the same coin.

The utilitarian defense (Chapter 3) of vegetarianism takes as its core concept interest. Interest is related to experiences and not to individuals. If we take two worlds, and if we count more enjoyable experiences in the world A than in the world B, then it is morally wrong to desire the world B while not desiring the world B. All experiences are valuable, without consideration of their holder (even if human; claiming that human experiences value more is speciesism).

If a creature can suffer, this creature's experiences count: that is the principle of equality.

In a world without factory farms, a huge amount of painful experiences would be avoided, without causing a sum of harm that would exceed the amount of avoided pains, so it would be morally wrong not to desire a world without factory farms. Therefore, we should abstain from eating meat.

Whereas utilitarian ethics concerns itself with experiences only, not taking into account holders (subjects having those experiences), the argument from rights (Chapter 4) whose Tom Regan is the champion, get this perspective upside down. Regan, in effect, focus on holders of experiences (which are pure "receptacles", according to Singer). This choice is not the upshot of an arbitrary metaphysical decision.

Actually, Regan noticed a big flaw in Singer's method, he called the Singer Paradox. If Singer is right, my doing (abstaining from eating meat) is morally justified if World-A (where pains are diminishing because there are no more, or significantly less, factory-farmed animals) comes to reality. And it depends on the decisions of non-vegetarians. If nothing happens (the boycott of meat, eggs and dairy products fails), then we still depend on non-vegetarians, and their craving for meat.

What kind of moral vegetarianism is this, which depends, for its justification, on the very attitude which it morally dismisses? The computation of pleasures and pains is not doing the job. One needs a more principled approach. Moral reasoning does not equate with wagering.

Regan shares with Singer the same point of departure: human beings. The utilitarian concept of pain and interest, is, first, discovered in humans, and then demonstrated in other species. Regan is making the same move, but with another concept: "subject-of-a-life". Regan thinks that some of our rights (a right is defined as much as an entitlement as something that precludes others to do something to the right-owner) are natural, that a creature is endowed with them in virtue of an inherent value she's sharing with other right-owners.

Human beings may not be treated merely as means, because they are "subjects-of-a-life". But there are "subjects-of-a-life" which are not human beings (for example, factory-farmed animals). We must accordingly allow them the same natural rights, in particular, the right to be treated as ends and never merely as simple means.

This principle does not block the possibility to treat differently different kind of creatures, in case of conflicts of interests, but this difference is not part of the ethical principles, but of their applications, with all the relevant contextual cues.

Other defenders of the argument from rights think that the concept of "subject-of-a-life" is not necessary, to argue the fact that rights must be given to certain animals. They prefer lighter definitions of what gives an animal her inherent value.

We saw that the argument from interests and the argument from rights are not on the same. While the former focusses on experiences as parts of a whole system, which incidentally comprises individuals, the latter reminds us that holders of experiences, namely individual entities, matter more than the whole, as soon as they have an inherent value. Although those deep differences between utilitarians like Singer and proponents of an ethics based on rights like Regan, ecofeminists oppose both perspectives with one single criticism: "They believe that the 'sustained commitment to rational inquiry' endorsed by both Regan and Singer reflect the very worldview assumption that legitimizes the exploitation of animals in the first place" (p.95).

There are two points in ecofeminists arguments (Chapter five).

First, carnism (the implicit and pervasive hidden doctrine of meat-eaters) is an essential part of patriarchal power, and sums up all the forms of domination. Feminists should understand, according to Carol Adams, who is the champion of this kind of argument, that their fight for the liberation of women from male domination is closely related to the fight for the liberation of animals, and, hence, to vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is a radical embodied deconstruction of the patriarchal society.

Second, instead of leaning on rational inquiry, feminists should rely on ethics of care, for which the ascent is put on the relationship we can have with our fellow creatures.

Objections came from non-vegetarian feminists, and Singer and Regan both replied that they did not understand how they could be classified as conservative...

The next arguments for vegetarianism, described in chapters 6, 7, and 8 are not centered on animal welfare. They give reasons for being vegetarians, which focus on other aspects, like the environment, the wealth of mankind, and spirituality, whether religious (in the conventional meaning) or not.

In the Chapter 6, Walters shows that an environmentalist defense of vegetarianism never goes without qualification. The unity of concern is the ecosystem and its balance. As soon as eating meat does not imply severe damages to the environment, then there is nothing wrong with it. Walters provides us with graphic and appalling examples of environmental disasters (like the Ocean View Disaster, in June 1995) and a lot of interesting figures (p.119), which will certainly be of great interest for the vegetarian who wants to de-silence herself, in front of skeptical meat-eaters.

What is crucial for environmentalist theories is to make a substantial point about the intrinsic value of the environment. Walters reviews the different theories, from social ecology (Bookchin) to land ethics (Leopold) and deep ecology (Naess).

Sometimes, environmentalists dismiss vegetarianism, when it is not implied by a fight against factory-farming (which is obviously a moral ill for all environmentalists). The points made by Callicott, Rolston and Davis against bare ethical vegetarianism are developed and possible rejoinders are described.

In the chapter 7, Walters' interest centers on anthrocentric arguments, which run as follows:

Meat-eating is bad for health.

It is morally wrong not to take care of oneself.

Therefore, one should abstain from eating meat.

Anthrocentric vegetarians must give substantial reasons in order to make acceptable the claim that it is morally wrong not to take care of oneself. This leads us to a debate with libertarians, on utilitarian grounds.

In the Chapter 8, Walters shed light on the concept of "reverence for life", with both its religious and secularized uses (even is this secularization is not without theistic aspects). Schweitzer is at the origin of the idea that we should respect living beings for they are the holders of a value which a supreme being gave to them, by allowing them to exist. This argument took different forms, which Walters takes into account.

According to Walters, reverence is nevertheless a central concept, which is an essential part of any ethical vegetarianism (utilitarian, rights-centered, ecofeminist, environmentalist or anthrocentric): "Our food choices always gesture at a gestalt, a general way of thinking about the world and one's place in it. They reflect some of our most deeply held commitments and values. For the vegetarian, regardless of whether or not she's conventionaly religious, that gestalt is likely to be permeated by an abiding sense of awe at the world and respect for the creatures that dwell therein. This sense — this reverence — is the seasoning on every vegetarian meal." (p.176)

I have just one reservation, and that is about this point. Even if the point about reverence is nicely made, I find it too eclectic. Walters rightly insists that a vegetarian has come to vegetarianism and hinges on vegetarianism for a cluster of different reasons. And I agree. I agree, too, and that is the spirit in which this book is written, that,  instead of trying to decide between environmental arguments and arguments from interests, for example, we should first try to understand compatibilities between the two. But, I don't think that this principle of tolerance gives, as a result, an argument for the supposition that some rather vague capacity (like reverence) is shared by any ethical vegetarian.

This reservation made, I warmly recommend this book.

 

© 2013 Christophe Al-Saleh

 

 

Christophe Al-Saleh, PhD, Philosopher and vegetarian, Amiens, France


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Welcome to MHN's unique book review site Metapsychology. We feature over 7700 in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and perspectives. We update our front page weekly and add more than thirty new reviews each month. Our editor is Christian Perring, PhD. To contact him, use one of the forms available here.

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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716