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In 1789, Jeremy Bentham in The Principles of Morals and Legislation wrote about our relationship to non-human animals. "The question is not, 'Can they reason?' nor, 'Can they talk?' but 'Can they suffer?'" It took about two hundred years for a critical mass of people to take notice of this claim. And since 1975, with the publication of Peter Singer's influential Animal Liberation, the idea that non-human animals must be seriously considered to be part of the moral community has become almost a given. What Bentham and Singer (and a number of their followers) claim is that sentient creatures, i.e., creatures that can experience, that can feel, more specifically, can feel pain, must be taken account of in our moral deliberations. The claim that sentience is the defining characteristic of those included the moral community has also become something of a given. It is this claim that provides the central focus of Andrew F. Smith's A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism.
The short (174 pages), clearly written, book is divided into six chapters and is replete with footnotes and an extensive bibliography, both features being very helpful. In his brief preface, Smith describes how he came across a blog which made the by now familiar claim that the burden of justifying dietary habits falls more on omnivores than it does on vegetarians, "because omnivorism causes far more suffering and harm than vegetarianism does" (ix). The suffering in question here is due (so goes the usual claim) to the fact that animals (those we usually eat, anyway) are sentient, i.e. they can feel pain, whereas plants cannot. But Smith wonders "how the defense of vegetarianism would have to change if plants actually were sentient" (x). He came to doubt the traditional defense of vegetarianism. Hence the book.
The unsettling question put forth in the first chapter, "An Unsettling Question," is whether the planet would be better off without human beings. The traditional (or sentientist) account of vegetarianism claims that at least vegetarianism is a step in the right direction in terms reducing the negative impact of human habitation. But Smith says not so fast. "To continue to think and act is [sic] if the distinction between vegetarianism and omnivorism matters implicates us in perpetuating this culture" (5). The culture being perpetuated here is an overbearing and ultimately destructive one. It is this destructive culture that is Smith's real target in this book. Before he hones in on that target he first wants to be sure he offers the best defenses of vegetarianism he can so as to be sure nothing of them is left standing after his critique.
In his second chapter, Smith identifies the weakness of the traditional or sentientist argument as restricting the moral community too narrowly. Simply put, the sentientist position is that to be a member of the moral community one must be sentient. The reference to Bentham above calls attention to our moral history that only recently conceded sentience to other than human animals. Smith pushes this idea even further. "Yet, what if plants were sentient?" (12). Smith then calls on an array of neurobiological works that lead to the controversial claim that plants are indeed sentient. Because of this scientific work, Smith thinks that the sentientist argument must be expanded (what he calls the "expansionary sentientist argument") so that "we can attribute moral standing to plants and animals and still embrace vegetarianism" (13). This is a fascinating, though perhaps not ultimately convincing, review of the scientific literature on this topic that is well worth reading whatever one thinks of the rest of the book.
This expansionary sentientist argument does not rule out vegetarianism, according to Smith, as long as the killing and eating of plants is done "with care and respect" (39). But in the third chapter, "Animism," Smith shows that this new argument is still inadequate in that it presupposes "a conceptual framework that may permit slipping into problematic ways of thinking" (39). Building on the work of Val Plumwood, Smith offers yet another, he thinks better, defense of vegetarianism by relying on what he calls an "animistic conceptual framework" (41). This version of animism maintains "that the world is full of people, only some of whom are human or perhaps even sentient in the typical way that we understand this concept" (42). Smith concludes this chapter with what he calls a "care-sensitive ecological contextualist defense of vegetarianism" (42). This defense considers the "landbase" to be fundamental. So it isn't a particular creature's (those eaten or those doing the eating) moral standing that is decisive in these considerations, it is the context in which this eating and being eaten is taking place that is decisive. "Accordingly, vegetarianism is morally defensible so long as it works for our landbase" (8).
In his fourth chapter, "The Closed Loop," Smith understand the implications of his critique so far and is quick to point out that perhaps any moral defense of vegetarianism is simply beside the point. "We can articulate this ecologically based decision in moral terms if we wish. But we can just as easily regard it pragmatically, for calling it right amounts to little more than praising a way of eating that works within a given context (71). In fact, claims Smith, vegetarianism itself is impossible. In a clever bit of geometrical thinking (perhaps some would say this is an inappropriate metaphor), Smith says, "We are who we eat. We also are who we eat eats via the transitivity of eating. Because who we eat eats both animal life and plant life, we cannot be vegetarians" (72). Perhaps this is Smith's main point, that we are embedded in a "closed-loop" food system. In this context humans have by and large developed an "ecocidal culture" (97) meaning that the very distinction between vegetarianism and omnivorism is specific to, and has moral meaning only in, that particular culture.
In the fifth ("Two Objections, One Accommodation") and sixth ("Loose Ends") chapters, Smith faces objections and charts the implications of his arguments. Smith acknowledges his own vegetarianism and the importance such a stance to our food culture means to many people. Even though "[v]egetarianism may be morally indefensible and ontologically illusory" it may well be in many contexts a step in the right direction in that it connects, to one extent or another, people to the land. Smith is aware that his position that there really is no moral defense of vegetarianism per se might lead some to abandon it in despair and get in line at MacDonald's once again. But he thinks it important, perhaps rightfully so, that we fundamentally realign our relationship with the environment so that our food choices will be more intelligent, less harmful, and ultimately sustainable. "To be sure, it is much easier to be a sentientist, or even an expansionary sentientist, than to engage in the hard work of uprooting the deep-seated axioms of our ecocidal culture" (123).
Smith's A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism is a worthwhile read in many respects. Food choice has been moved from the background to the forefront in our cultural conversations. And like most important debates in our culture, talking about the right things to eat has been oversimplified and dominated by only a few lines of thinking. Smith helps us expand our horizons to gain a broader and more sophisticated perspective. His well-written summaries of much current work in philosophy and science, even if some might not be happy with his selections, alone are worth the price of the book.
© 2016 Ben Mulvey
Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences of Nova Southeastern University. He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics. He teaches philosophy at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network.