Dating Superheroes and Vegetarians: A Philosophical Review of Captain America – Civil War (2016)

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Once upon a time, I almost fell in love with a superhero.

We didn’t date the way mere mortals do. Humans plan their dates. They ask silly question like, “How about coffee on Friday afternoon?” No, this wasn’t our routine. Because we had no routine. We couldn’t. He was too busy saving lives for us to predict just when he’d be available to see me.

He’d arrive in his emergency uniform at my apartment between calls. 1 am, 3 am – whenever he had a break. He’d stumble through the front door, shedding reflective gear as he tripped to the bedroom. “Don’t have long,” he’d say, and throw me into bed.

The man I almost fell for was a paramedic.

Romantic? Yes. The lack of routine had its charms. And it helped that he was sculpted like Superman – he had to be, he said. It helped him save lives (I never did work out how, exactly). But no matter. That paramedic vest wrapped his pecs like a glove.

So what’s the problem? you ask.

The first sign of trouble was that he never switched off his radio. “Can’t,” he’d say, “they might need me.”

There we were, lying in a post- (or pre-!) coital bliss, when the radio would twitch. “Collision on the Mike One South,” it would screech. He’d leap out the bed and into his 911 response vehicle before I had a chance to kiss him goodbye. (For the record, he was off duty at the time).

Yes, that was my superhero.

Unreliable.

But it’s worse than that. In addition to the fact that they’re lousy cuddlers, superheroes have a deeper flaw. They’re nauseatingly good.

A superhero is what philosophers call a moral saint, or someone who performs the morally correct action, to the perfect degree, in every circumstance in which she finds herself. Sure, we might disagree on what morality is. You might think that morality involves making society happy (Utilitarianism), or respecting the dignity of everyone involved (Kantianism), or that morality depends on what your culture dictates (cultural relativism). Whatever morality is, moral saints are perfectly moral.

Now, nobody in real life is actually a moral saint. Everybody slips up once in a while. Everybody but …

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Aaaand this brings me to the movie I saw last night. Have you seen the latest Captain America? This one’s titled, Civil War, because the superheroes take it upon themselves to fight one another. Cool idea? Maybe. Captain America, or Steve Rogers, was particularly challenged this time round to perform the right choice each and every fucking moment (sorry, he did look a lot like my paramedic). And he did succeed in remaining entirely virtuous. Here are some particularly repellant lines of dialogue that he thinks right to smear our eardrums:

“This job … we try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody, but you don’t give up.”

“If I see a situation pointed south, I can’t ignore it. Sometimes I wish I could.”

“I can do this all day.” [While being beaten up, protecting his friend from harm.]

Did you also throw up while reading those lines? Alright, maybe this isn’t entirely fair. The movie is also full of disobedient superheroes who do bad things. And, granted, the action scenes are superb. But I’m interested here in the core question raised by the film:

Should we strive to become moral saints? In other words, should we strive to perform the perfectly moral action at all times? Should we strive … drumroll … to be Captain America?

You can probably guess where I fall on this question. A resounding no. But why? you ask. What’s so wrong with doing the right thing? And no, my answer isn’t just that moral sainthood ruined a potential relationship with my paramedic. The question of whether to pursue the life of a moral saint raises fascinating discussion in the Philosophy of Meta-ethics. For example, the question may help to decide lifestyle choices, such as, should I be a vegetarian?

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Susan Wolf, in her article, Moral Saints, provides a compelling argument for why it is not the case that we should always strive to do the right thing. It’s so compelling, in fact, that it changed my life. Yup, you heard it, folks. Philosophers change lives. Until I read Wolf’s work, I was a bona fide vegetarian. No longer!

Here’s Wolf’s argument.

Imagine for a moment what the life of a moral saint is like. Could she sit down to eat a gourmet meal? Nope. Not when others are starving mere miles away. She’d have to seize that leg of lamb you place in front of her, sprint to the nearest homeless person, and insist with all the love in the universe that he eat it.

Same goes for playing tennis, or reading a novel, or watching a movie, or (yes, you guessed it) having sex. While the moral saint is performing these activities, she could be helping others – initiating a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the homeless, or appealing to big corporates to fund education for the masses, or reading children’s stories at an orphanage.

Yup, the life of a moral saint has no room for fun.

Pffft, you scoff. Harrumph. Fun. Why should we care about tennis and gourmet meals when vast swathes of society starve around us? If we have to give up recreational activities to make the world a better place, so be it.

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But wait. It gets worse. The moral saint, by definition, performs the best possible action in every circumstance. So that means the moral saint is compelled to give away everything she has, and maintain just enough so she can do good in future. That means that not only will the moral saint have to give up a gourmet meal, she’ll have to give up most of her food to others who need it more than she does (and there’s always someone who needs it more).

Place a burger with fries in front of her, and she’ll do a quick calculation on the minimum portion of the meal she requires to survive the day, and rush to the nearest homeless shelter to donate the rest. Hell, she can’t even sit down with you to eat the meal, because it would be more moral to spend that time running while she eats, scurrying to the next person in need.

And it doesn’t end there. The moral saint wouldn’t stop at giving away her food and time. She’d have to give away everything she owns, other than the bare minimum required to stay alive. Because with a medium-class salary, she could keep 10, 20, who-knows-how-many other people alive. But why stop there? The moral saint has a surplus of organs required for survival. She doesn’t need both her lungs, both kidneys, both eyes, or her entire liver. Others need them far more than she does. She could easily survive donating a lung, kidney, eye and a portion of her liver.

A day in the life of the moral saint would involve sprinting between organ donation appointments. She’d snatch handfuls of leaves and berries on the way (but only just enough to sustain her meagre frame). And as she runs, she’ll fling aside whatever wealth she’s accumulated to the needy masses.

What a life.

So, should you strive to become a moral saint?

At this point, you’re probably shaking your head. But if you’re not convinced yet, here’s a question.

Would you instruct your child in the ways of moral sainthood? Would you encourage her each night before she falls asleep to give up everything inessential she will ever own, including her left eyeball?

If morality is the most valuable value there is, if morality trumps everything else, then surely you should convince your child to become a moral saint. Coo sweet nothing in her ear until she agrees to donate that left eyeball. “Don’t cry, angel. It’s okay, baby. Mommy is donating her eye too.”

I think you’ll agree this is bad parenting.

In fact, it seems that wishing the fate of moral sainthood upon someone is about the worst curse you could saddle them with. Now, Wolf is quick to point out that this doesn’t mean that you should never be moral. It merely means that is not the case that you should always be moral, and that when you are moral, you needn’t be maximally moral. (She then introduces her own system for determining just how much morality you should strive for, but I won’t go into that here).

Okay, so why is this important? you ask. Given that nobody could ever actually be a moral saint, why is it interesting to ask whether we should strive to become one? Well, it turns out that the notion of moral sainthood is at the core of lots of issues in everyday life. And here’s my favorite: vegetarianism.

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People become vegetarians for various reasons (aesthetic, health, or simply preference), but the most commonly cited reason is that eating meat is immoral. Animals bread for meat suffer horrifically; we shouldn’t kill them; and we shouldn’t eat them. Now there are two ways the carnivore might go about objecting to this position. First, he might argue that it is moral to eat meat. This usually results in corning ware being thrown around, and no real consensus. So I prefer to raise a second objection.

Sure, let’s grant that eating meat is immoral. But I’ve argued so far that it’s not the case that we should always do the moral thing. Maybe becoming a vegetarian is one of those moral activities that although the moral saint would pursue, we should not. And this is precisely my intuition. Eating meat seems like just the right sort of wrong that we should be permitted, since it’s not all that bad. Sure, it’s immoral. But it’s not on the same level of wrongness as murder, or cheating on your wife, or stealing. If the vegetarian insists that we renounce meat, she seems to be holding us to an extremely high moral standard. She seems to be insisting, in other words, that we become moral saints.

Have I convinced you not to become a moral saint (and perhaps, not to be a vegetarian)? Let me know in the poll below. And I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

About the Author

Human. Male. From an obscure planet in the Milky Way Galaxy. Sci-fi novelist with a PhD in philosophy. Likes chocolates, Labradors, and zombies (not necessarily in that order). Werbeloff spends his days constructing thought experiments, while trying to muster enough guilt to go to the gym.

He’s written the best-selling short story anthology, Obsidian Worlds, and two novels, Hedon and The Solace Pill. His books will make your brain hurt. And you’ll come back for more.

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  • Michael Ferguson

    I loved Captain America Civil War, but I can’t stand Captain America. I too want to punch him in his perfect teeth. #TeamIronMan. I voted no on the poll because life would be so boring if we always did the right thing and sometimes it feels good to be bad!

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Hahaha. It feels great to be bad, sometimes.

    • Lizlizzie2

      I haven’t seen the latest movie. I like Ironman much better than Captain America.

  • Me? Be a moral saint? Fuck that for a game! Pass me another leg of lamb!

  • allan jones

    that’s rather an interesting argument… don’t do the right thing all the time because you don’t want to go *too* far…

    essentially, then, we’re back to aristotle’s doctrine of the mean?

    for me, i don’t think that there’s anything close to moral absolutism – which, essentially, is at the heart of things. sometimes it’s about the bigger picture, and sometimes it’s about me. think of the start to ‘up’ – the old guy doesn’t want to give up his house despite it literally standing in the way or progress and happiness for countless others. and most people tend to side with him, so not utilitarianism.

    personally, i just don’t get why anyone could think that the life of one entity is more valuable than the life of another on an absolute level. sure, my kids and my wife are more valuable to me than a potato or a cow, so i’ll eat the potato or a cow. but if you crash in the mountains where there isn’t a handy potato or a convenient cow, i’m pretty sure my wife and kids would start to look pretty damn tasty to anyone who didn’t know them.

    end of the day, we’re still made of meat. if you kill me, or a cow, or a potato you’re still taking a life in order to eat, right? just because you can interact with one and the other lives underground and doesn’t move and isn’t furry doesn’t make it any less murderous.

    don’t get me wrong: i understand the bias. but either way, you’ve got to kill something to eat (at least ’til we get lab meat, i guess) so getting on a moral high horse about which death you’ll permit just makes you sound ludicrous as far as i’m concerned…

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Allan, I read your comment last night, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

      You’re quite right – Wolf does seem to be buying into something like Aristotelian moderation. Specifically, she argues that we should live lives filled with various ‘perfections’. Morality is one perfection, but there are lots of others – e.g. playing good tennis, or eating delicious food, or reading excellent literature. The problem she has with the moral saint is that the moral saint has developed one perfection (morality) in a way which crowds out all the other perfections. So the moral saint is being moral in an immoderate way.

      If I understand your position correctly, we’re in agreement that vegetarianism is incoherent. But the reason I thought about your comment for a while, is that I’ve been wondering how I might convince you that what you call ‘moral absolutism’, or the claim that some lives are more valuable than others, is correct. (I’d prefer to call that claim ‘Metaphysical Egalitarianism’ though, so as not to confuse it with certain Kantian claims about certain actions being right/wrong in all contexts).

      Just yesterday, there was a case in point that assesses Metaphysical Egalitarianism. A child at the Cincinnati zoo climbed over the barrier above the gorilla enclosure, and fell inside. The gorilla proceeded to fling the child around, dragging it violently through the small lake inside the enclosure. After some time monitoring the situation, the zoo staff came to the position that if they left the child in there much longer, the gorilla might seriously harm or kill the child. Darting the gorilla wasn’t an effective option, because the sedative would take too long to act, and might enrage the gorilla. So, in the end, they shot and killed the gorilla to save the child.

      Ignore issues around whether the child was properly supervised. Assume the child’s parents or guardians were not at fault – maybe they were legitimately distracted, taking care of another child, or something similar. Question: did the zoo staff do the right thing?

      My gut on this is: yes. The child’s life is more valuable than the gorilla’s, and so, they should have shot the gorilla. What’s your intuition on this, Allan?

      • allan

        for me, no – neither life was more valuable than the other in an absolute sense. to the zookeeper, I’m fairly sure the gorilla was worth more than the child’s life. to his parents, one would assume it’s their child. I’m pretty sure the gorilla holds a different view, too.
        their call was made on more than simply life vs life, too – if the child was killed by the gorilla, would visitors come back? would the zoo be shut down? would they be sued by the parents? on the other hand, who causes the zoo harm if they shoot the gorilla?
        but did the gorilla have less right to live than the boy? no, not at all.
        did they make the ‘right’ decision? imo, that’s not a real question. they made *a* decision that they can justify to themselves. as nietzsche said, ‘morality is the sign language of the emotions’ – so long as they can live with their decision, they made the right one for them, because there’s no absolute morality to fall back on.
        in other words, neither metaphysical egalitarianism nor moral absolutism feel correct to me, and further i think the former is merely a shadow of the latter.

        • Jason Werbeloff

          Ah, I see. Yes, I’ve assumed that there is an objective morality (although not necessarily absolute) – i.e. there are moral facts. If we drop this assumption, then you’re quite right – there’s no fact of the matter either way when it comes to whether a certain action is right/wrong, or whether one being is more/less valuable than another.

          But the vegetarian who supports her lifestyle ethically assumes that there are objective moral facts. One way of dealing with this is simply to deny moral facts. But that won’t convince her. A more interesting, and internal, objection is to agree for sake of argument that there are moral facts, but then argue that that those moral facts don’t imply that one should be a vegetarian. That’s what I tried to do in the post.

  • Sam

    Moral sainthood would mean giving up your own life, and that would be too high a price compared to the good you could do for others. And I’m not vegetarian, but there are animal welfare laws. Animals should be looked after well and killed with as little distress as possible. If I knew more about it, or if I had to kill my own food, I’d go vegetarian.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Good to hear from you, Sam. Interesting. I would also probably turn vegetarian if I had to slaughter my own meat. But not because it’s immoral – because it would be enormously unpleasant. I know some people would call that hypocrisy, because I don’t mind others doing it for me. But I’m not sure it is hypocritical. It makes sense to me to live a life that’s as fulfilled, or perfect, as possible. And killing animals by my own hand would reduce the perfection of my life in a way that it isn’t reduced when others kill animals for me. Now I sound like an ass, but I guess giving up on moral sainthood means being an ass sometimes.

  • Paulo

    A moral saint is the philosopher’s equivalent of a Boddhisattva: a Buddhist mythical being who seeks enlightenment not for their own sake but for that of all beings. In essence, it’s someone who devotes all their time and energy to the alleviation of the suffering of others. But there is a fundamental difference: whereas a moral saint has to strive to be good all the time, a Boddhisattva is always good because it’s in their nature to be so. They have no concept of self versus other. They have transcendental Wisdom. To them, they are not being good, they are simply being themselves. They embody their morality quite perfectly, A moral saint knows with their intellect what they ought to be doing, but they lack the wisdom to support and propell that knowledge. Their idealism comes up against their individualism, hence the inner conflict and the need to “strive to be good”. We, mere mortals, can only aspire to become Boddhisattvas by willingly giving up as much as we possibly can – each in their own time, at their own pace, but give up one must. Until, eventually, we are ready to give our spare eye balls too. And it’s not so very hard as you make it sound. Ask any organ donor – living ones, preferably 🙂

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Paulo, I take your point. I was a practicing Buddhist for eight years, and it’s an interesting framework within which to work when discussing moral issues.

      You make an interesting claim when you distinguish between someone who is ‘naturally’ good (Bodhisattvas), and someone who has to strive to be good. Suppose I grant you that there are Bodhisattvas. I think you’d agree that most of us are not Bodhisattvas, at least as we are currently. I understand that many Buddhists hold that our ‘true’ nature is Buddha-like; but as we are currently, right now, with all our ego-driven thoughts and emotions, we haven’t gotten in touch with that Buddha nature. So then the question becomes this: should we strive to get in touch with out fundamental Buddha nature? Should we strive to become ‘naturally’ moral?

      And I think all the arguments I made in the article still apply. If we choose this path, we’re committing ourselves to a life barren of many perfections (such as paying tennis, reading excellent literature, eating gourmet food, etc). As Sam in a comment above said, we’re committing ourselves to life without an identity. Should we do that?
      AssumiThe question I’m interested in here then becomes, should we strive to

      • Paulo

        I agree: for all intents and purposes, we are far from the Boddhisattva ideal. And I believe we do have to strive to be good, but only to the extent that our nature wants to drive us in the opposite direction. I don’t see how a commitment to being good means a life devoid of pleasures – unless you are a 100% selfish bastard, that is! Most of us have the capacity to be grossly selfish as well as wonderfully selfless, given the right circumstances. If I want to be good all the time, I need to strive *sometimes*, not *all the time*. Not only that, but from time to time my efforts will not be enough to live up to the moral saint/Boddhisattva ideal. I will fall short, but I will carry on, because I know nothing in life is black and white, despite what some philosophers would have us believe 🙂 Seriously though, it seems silly to think that your only options are to strive to be good and condemn yourself to a miserable life, or not even try. This is the old problem with metaphors: they can only take you so far in your quest to understand whatever it is in the real world what you want to understand. Beyond a certain point, they get in the way. It seems to me that most philosophers have trouble recognising that point! Of course I don’t mean any disrespect, it’s just my attempt to explain why I think certain philosophical paradoxes are not paradoxes at all, they are just over simplifications of real life.

        BTW Thanks for creating the opportunity for such interesting dialogues. And I live all you sci-fi!

  • Marty

    My best friend double majored in philosophy and international relations at the Sorbonne. We’ve had interesting discussions about vegetarianism and where one should set boundaries for interactions with other people. Both of us suffered from discrimination at work years ago because we are female. We’re older now and our kids are nearly grown, but they were all raised with the mantra that if you wouldn’t let someone treat your best friend that way, you shouldn’t let them treat you that way.
    I was told at a kindergarten and a high school parent teacher conference that my daughter “…is very, um, assertive.” To which I replied “Thank you. I’m glad to hear that.”
    So to NOT be a moral saint, one must assert their own boundaries in interactions with others. I’ll give money to this homeless guy, but not the next. I’ll by an extra bag of rice at the grocery store no donate it to the food pantry. Or use the food pantry, if that’s what it takes to get back on your feet.
    The argument that my vegetarian friends usually use is that eating in the vegetarian manner uses less of earth’s dwindling resources. Which I can’t really argue against. My argument against it for me is that would eventually starve to death as a vegetarian. I’m allergic to dairy, eggs, and even potatoes and rice. So I’ll stick with meat.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Your best friend sounds like someone I’d enjoy chatting with.

      I think the ability to draw boundaries around how much we’re willing to give is crucial to becoming an individual. The moral saint, as you’ve suggested, lacks those boundaries. That is, she lacks a full identity. To me, it seems more valuable to have an identity, than to do the right thing at all times.

  • Wordwizard

    You don’t need to be a moral saint to be a vegetarian, so your whole line of reasoning is whacked.

    Eating meat isn’t “just the right sort of wrong that we should be permitted, since it’s not all that bad. Sure, it’s immoral. But it’s not on the same level of wrongness as murder, or cheating on your wife, or stealing.”
    It IS murder, as you have paid for the death of another, stealing their life for your gluttony. Cheating on your wife is something I won’t get into.

    In addition, the ecosystems and species currently in existence, and the number of humans in existence can not be maintained if people keep eating meat. It endangers a whole log more lives than the individual animals concerned. On the other hand, pleasuring your palate by the death and destruction of others, when there are plenty of other good things to eat, is indefensible.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Thank you for your comment, Wordwizard! I’d like to respond to three parts of your objection.

      1. “You don’t need to be a moral saint to be a vegetarian.”
      This is a good point. It does seem coherent to hold that eating meat is one of the wrongs that we should not be permitted, even if there are other wrongs that we should be permitted. But I wonder then exactly what these other wrongs would be? Could you say more about which other wrongs you think we should be allowed, if not eating meat, and why they’re not as bad? If you think we shouldn’t be allowed to perform any moral wrongs at all, then you’re effectively arguing that we should become moral saints, which I’ve argued is too strong a position to defend.

      2. “It IS murder, as you have paid for the death of another, stealing their life for your gluttony.”
      There are two possible responses to this claim. First, murder is usually defined as the unnecessary, voluntary, intentional, and in some sense knowledgeable, killing of another person. But the animals we eat are not persons, because they lack the requisite level of rationality that we think persons require. So although killing animals involves killing a living being (probably with emotions and subjectivity), it is not murder, at least in the traditional sense of the term. This is not to say it’s moral to kill animals – I think it’s immoral – but my point is just that it’s not as bad as murder.

      Second, the case isn’t quite as simple as paying for the killing of the animal one eats. Because usually, when we contract the killing of someone or something, that person will not be killed unless we pay the killer. But the animal I eat and pay for would have been killed whether or not I paid the butcher, because I am not the only person who eats meat. Someone else would buy the meat. Sure, you could argue that if everyone stopped paying for meat, then the animals wouldn’t be killed. But I’m not interested here in whether everyone should become a moral saint. I’m interested in whether a specific person (you or I) should become a moral saint, given that not everyone else will.

      3. “In addition, the ecosystems and species currently in existence, and the number of humans in existence can not be maintained if people keep eating meat.”
      This is probably true. But there are many things many people do on a daily basis that intuitively are not highly immoral, and yet these actions undermine the sustainability of the planet’s ecosystems. Driving a petrol-powered car, drinking water (of which there is an ever-diminishing supply), reproducing, and flying aircraft. All these actions are probably somewhat immoral, but they don’t seem to be immoral enough to warrant not doing them.

      • Wordwizard

        1. Why should I have to list other things for you to judge and compare? Unless I rank and order everything, you’re going to want more? It isn’t hard to not-eat meat. Just don’t. Eat something else. It IS serious, to steal a sentient being’s one and only precious life. How about following the Golden Rule? How would you feel if someone killed and ate you, when they weren’t even starving? You, a human, have conveniently decided that human life is more important than other lives, so if you’re hungry, and FEEL like eating them, that’s OK, but I do not concede this.
        That is your chauvinism, your humanocentricism, and trivial gluttony.
        2. As the proud mother of four cats, and having observed them closely over time, I can say that they ARE people. You wouldn’t eat cats or dogs, but pigs are as smart as dogs. People who are familiar with chickens (not I) say every chicken has a unique personality. I consider it murder. You are being deliberately obtuse and ingenuous when you say you aren’t responsible for the deaths of animals the corpses of which you paid for, because they would be dead any way, and someone else would have bought them. Not so! They were killed to supply a demand you supply. If the demand goes down, so does the price, and the amount of killing. If you pay for killing a human, it’s murder. If you pay for the killing of another creature of a different species which you then eat, it is likewise murder. There is not always a next person. As vegetarians increase, the demand for meat decreases. We don’t have to wait until the last person in the world gives up meat to divorce ourselves as individuals, and decrease the amount of killing, even if we can’t individually stop it entirely. Just do what you can do. Don’t do the murder you needn’t do. Also, children who are cruel to small animals later graduate to hurting humans. Children can understand the hypocrisy of killing animals unnecessarily. they can feel uncomfortable about it, and some can dottier best to bury it, as parents do their best to talk their kids into validating what the parents do, even though it’s unhealthy, and doctors advise them to stop eating meat! Then children grow up more unfeeling, and as adults come to rationalize paying taxes for war, where humans get killed. They vote for hawkish politicians. They join armies. Even someone who thinks humans are most important should be able to understand that t’s well established that killing small animals (such as cats, dogs, chickens, etc.) leads to more and worse to humans.
        3. Now you want me to defend why people do all the other possible things they shouldn’t, before we get to this easy one? I’ll take your first one—Let’s end private petrol-consuming vehicles. I live in NYC, where there is mass transit, and where I cycle. There’s much improvement possible. Let’s do that, instead of saying, We drive cars, so why not eat meat, which does not hang together coherently.
        Allan:
        The purpose of life is to reproduce itself in future generations. Plants use being consumed as part of their reproductive strategies. They don’t have brains or nervous systems to feel pain, but were we to anthropomorphize them as you do when you call it murder to eat them, we could say they “wanted” to be eaten, because that’s how their seeds are distributed. Fruits evolved specifically to attract animals to eat them! That’s not murder! When we grow and tend the plants we cultivate to eat, we are doing our part in the bargain that benefits them. We are growing more of the plants, which is their objective in life.

        • allan

          sadly, i think you’re not actually making any coherent point when you’re talking about ‘cruelty to animals’. you’re ignoring ‘cruelty to vegetables’ because it doesn’t fit with your narrative. worse, you berate others for ‘humanocentricism’ without realising that you’re merely performing a variation on that theme when you eat vegetables but not humans.
          i myself live with two cats. i’d eat them quite happily. they’re ambulatory meat. i also grow plants in the garden, and i’ll eat those, too. it’s the same thing in each case: i’m killing something in order to survive myself. what i choose to eat is irrelevant; either way it’s death for what i’m eating.
          as to feeling pain – there is sufficient evidence of plants not only feeling pain, but warning other plants in the vicinity. they do this through ultrasonic emissions and various chemical outputs (ethylene, for example, is emitted when a plant is attacked e.g. by an insect bite). no, plants don’t have a brain (at least, one that we understand). but just because you have a brain doesn’t make your life any more previous than the flowers in your garden.
          let’s look at it from a different perspective, though: exploitation.
          farming is about cultivating a crop of some kind (whether ambulatory or not) in order that, at some later point, we can kill and harvest that crop. the crop gets no say in the matter. the crop is merely there to be exploited by the human farming it.
          the process does not distinguish as to whether said crop is plant or animal. either way, you’re exploiting that crop for your personal benefit. the crop doesn’t get any say in the matter.
          now you’re saying ‘that one’s fine to exploit, but that one isn’t’ – and i, personally, disagree.
          as to your point about fruit – do you plant the seeds from the fruit when you eat them? how about the fact that we now grow seedless fruit, having genetically mutated the plant into a form where it’s barren but still forced to produce the fruit for our consumption? how do you know that a plant doesn’t have a more rich life that you simply don’t understand or comprehend? you’re essentially suggesting that because you can’t identify with or understand the inner life of a vegetable, it’s fine to exploit that one. yet, despite not being able to fully validate or understand the inner life of another animal (or human being for that matter). hell, it wasn’t that long ago we used to sell other humans into slavery because we considered them lesser humans. and they’re demonstrably the same species.
          i mean, imagine if you found an intelligent alien species that didn’t have a brain or nervous system. what would you do then? according to what you’re saying, you could kill and eat and exploit them, quite happily.
          equally, it’s obvious that you’ve never worked on a farm – because cultivation, tending, etc. is *exactly* what farmers do. sheep, for example, are so stupid that they simply couldn’t exist in the wild. they need a farmer to feed and protect them, to rescue them when they get stuck, to remove their wool in the summer months so that they don’t overheat… in exactly the same way as we tend our vegetable crops, we tend and ensure the continued survival of our animal crops, too. like i’ve said elsewhere – i frequent a rare breeds butcher where the species on offer would be extinct if the farmers weren’t cultivating them for food.
          as to your first point: for a start, i wouldn’t feel anything if someone were to kill and eat me, because i’d be dead. however, i don’t regard my own life any *more* or any *less* worthy of continued existence than that of any other entity. but i want to continue surviving, so i’ll murder my way through animals and vegetables and any other edible thing going to survive. would i die to give my wife and kids something to eat? sure. but i’d kill and eat anyone else there with me first, as they’re worth more to me than any other humans.
          the other angle you’re failing to consider is the amount of animal death involved in growing arable crops. we remove hedgerows where small animals thrive. harvesting and threshing kills thousands upon thousands of small field creatures from insects to birds and rodents living in the fields. we destroy ecosystems in order to farm – that’s how it works no matter what you’re farming. just don’t kid yourself that your choice to only eat vegetables isn’t equally as murderous and destructive, because it is. whatever you eat, you kill.

          • Jason Werbeloff

            Excellent points, Allan. I can’t get on board with all beings having equal value, but you’re quite right that many animals would not exist if they weren’t farmed for food. Here’s an extreme case: sometimes the best way to increase the population of rhino is to hunt them. Radiolab did an excellent episode on this topic: http://www.radiolab.org/story/rhino-hunter/

    • allan

      so, wordwizard: why is murdering a plant permissable?
      jason and i have discussed this above, a little – it is my belief that the life of the plant you eat is no less valuable than the life of the animal i eat,or that of my children. a life is a life, no matter whether you can personally identify with it, and you have as much right to take one as any other.
      the plant you kill is (in most cases) still alive at the point which you flay it, slice it into chunks, and cook it. the fruit you eat is pretty much the unborn child of the tree (at best). essentially, you’ll eat the equivalent of the embryo of a tree because you don’t share the consciousness of the tree, or understand it as a life form equally worthy of life.
      this is the main issue i have with vegetarianism – it’s selective, and arbitrarily rates certain life forms above others. when we do that with humans, it’s classed as some form of -ism: sexism, ageism, racism… it’s wrong to eat a cow, but fine to eat a carrot. either way, you’re killing to eat.
      your point about resources is valid, for the most part, but only forms half of the picture. in several cases, the farms i go to keep rare breeds going because *and only because* people eat them. now, i’ve worked on a farm, helped raise and slaughter animals, and have made my peace with it. is it sustainable at present rates of consumption and population? probably not, no. so we’re investigating lab meat, and alternative protein sources (bugs are pretty good fun – i’ve got a dead scorpion in a bottle of vodka downstairs that i’ll be snacking on at some stage in the near future, for example – probably when i’ve had enough of the vodka to drink!). personally, i wouldn’t mind seeing a human cull to reduce numbers, or at least a significant intervention in birth rates to bring numbers down. but apparently that’s considered immoral as well, so there you go.
      i get annoyed at the attitude that because it’s got a face or through own anthropomorphic tendencies that it becomes ‘wrong’ to eat something we find cute or can identify with in some manner. no one cares about the blobfish, for example. a tree doesn’t have a face, but it lives far longer and arguably provides more utility to the planet than many humans i’ve met over the years.
      personally, i don’t rate humans all that highly as a species. we’re not that special. i’d cheerfully eat soylent green were it available. i think burying the dead is a terrible waste when there’s plenty of good eating on them, aside from organ donation and research and so on.

  • Eron

    Moral Sainthood: ‘X is a moral saint iff X always performs the action that is moral in any given circumstance.’

    Moral Sainthood appears to be a formal concept that lacks normative content on its own. In order to give Moral Sainthood a fair shake we still need to think about an appropriate normative theory to assess what it would look like in practice. Moral Sainthood may look very different depending on which normative ethical theory the Moral Saint endorses. Accordingly, there may be very different ‘portraits’ of Moral Sainthood not all of which would be as horrendous and unappealing as you suggest.

    Your specific argument gains a lot of philosophical mileage out of the wackiness of Utilitarian Consequentialism (UC) taken to its logical conclusion.

    After all, proponents of UC (I shall assume we are talking about Act and not Rule UC) believe at least three things:-

    (i) Intrinsically good consequences are the only normative factors that make an action moral or immoral

    (ii) All the good consequences (presumably we are talking about human happiness/well-being as the intrinsic good) are to be weighted equally across persons; and

    (iii) Intrinsically good consequences are to be maximized.

    To accept the above as a normative ethical theory is superficially attractive but leads to absurd consequences just as you suggest.

    To accept this view is to accept that every single significant action one performs in life is a moral decision. Every significant action needs to be weighed up against alternative actions and the action that maximizes the good must always be adopted. Maximizing the good is not merely permissive, it is downright obligatory on this view.

    The Utilitarian Moral Saint will, accordingly, always do what he is morally obligated to do. This of course leads to the portrait of a life that would be horrendous just in the way you describe. A person who lived in such a way would be abdicating his entire existence in the name of good consequences – a kind of moral self-immolation.

    Two broad possible responses:-

    1.Bite the bullet. So much the worse for your own existence. Given the truth of UC this is exactly what is expected of a person who desires to always act morally. Morality is superlatively demanding and you have no right to complain…now go give your laptop away to that homeless person you selfish capitalist swine!

    2. Reject UC as a correct moral theory. If moral self-immolation is what is demanded if we accept UC then so much the worse for that normative theory.

    The first route, rather than being a convincing rebuttal, seems patently absurd. The argument you presented seems to be a successful reductio ad absurdum of straightforward UC that shows it cannot be the correct normative theory. There is simply more to value in life than maximizing good consequences.

    The second route seems more plausible:-

    1.First, there may be varieties of Consequentialism that do not accept all of the UC beliefs.

    2.Second, outside of the realm of Consequentialism altogether, Deontologists (both of the Absolute and Moderate variety) will not accept any of the UC beliefs. On the contrary, they are likely to think:-

    (i) Good consequences do not exhaust the rightness or wrongness of an action.

    (ii) To maximize good consequences is permissible but there is no obligation to maximize good consequences.

    (iii) While we may in certain cases weigh human happiness and/or well-being equally we are not obligated to do so in every single case and may even be morally obliged not to do so in some cases (for example as a result of special obligations to children, friends, family etc).

    If this is so then it seems to me that your argument (at best) shows that one type of Moral Sainthood (premised on one type of normative theory) is horrendous and unappealing. However, it does not yet make substantial inroads into Moral Sainthood as a formal concept.

    It seems to me that in order to do that, one would have to take the strongest and most reasonable alternative normative ethical theories and demonstrate that when those are plugged into the formal definition of Moral Sainthood the result it still a horrendous and unpalatable individual existence.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Thank you for your detailed objection, Eron. I can’t address all of your points, but I’d like to focus on two.

      1. The problem of the moral saint is different to the problem of the demandingness of Utilitarianism. Here’s why.

      Suppose one softened one’s version of Utilitarianism to something like, “An action is right iff it increases utility for society to a certain degree D, compared with other actions available at the time,” where D is less than maximally. This would take care of the demandingness objection to Utilitarianism (provided we can provide a non-arbitrary reason for specifying D at a certain level). On this softened account, one can perform a moral action that does not maximize well-being for everyone involved.

      But the problem for the moral saint would not disappear, because the moral saint, by definition, performs the moral action to the maximum degree in every situation in which she finds herself. So the softening of Utilitarianism will not alter what she does, since she’ll always perform actions with maximally good consequences (assuming she’s a Utilitarian saint). She’ll always act supererogatively. The question then still remains: “Should one act as the moral saint does? (i.e. supererogatively).” And I think the answer is no.

      2. Wolf does discuss what a Kantian moral saint would be like – a saint who at all times acts so as to respect the dignity or rationality of everyone involved, or who acts in such a way that the maxim upon which she acts could be universalized. Wolf agrees that the Kantian saint wouldn’t be quite as nauseating as the Utilitarian saint. The Kantian saint probably couldn’t play tennis or eat a gourmet meal, but she could read good literature, since she has a duty to improve her rationality. And she has a duty to respect her own body because it’s the seat of her rationality, so she shouldn’t starve herself or give away all her organs. So the Kantian saint avoids many of the objections I raise in the blog post.

      But Wolf thinks that the Kantian saint is problematic for other reasons. For one, insofar as she does have fun, she’d be doing so for the wrong reason. She’d be reading Tolstoy not because she appreciates the beauty and elegance of the writing and plot, but because it improves her rationality. Second, she’d be unhappy. At least the Utilitarian saint considers her own well-being when she acts. The Kantian saint does not. Third, both the Utilitarian and Kantian saints would lack an identity. The only reason they ever act is to maximize the happiness of society (the Utilitarian saint), or to develop dignity and rationality (the Kantian saint). These don’t seem like great ice-breakers at a cocktail party, or on a date. Imagine the first date with a Kantian saint …
      “So, what do you do in your spare time?”
      “Well, I develop my rationality because I have a duty to do so, and because that way I’m best equipped to respect the rationality of others. And I don’t just do that in my spare time. I do that at all times.”
      “Uhuh. And do you enjoy that?”
      “Enjoyment? What’s that?”
      Yawns. Takes a long swig of his drink. “What are you passionate about?”
      “Passion?”

      Would you encourage your child to become such a monster?

      • Eron

        I have a problem wrapping my mind around the idea of the Moral Saint’s commitment to acting to the maximum degree when it relates to a normative theory other than Consequentialism.

        If the normative theory is not Consequentialist and not itself a maximizing theory then a Moral Saint who adopts that normative theory would not be obligated to maximize anything. He would just have to always act in accordance with whatever the normative theory obligates him to do in any given situation.

        Take the Kantian Saint for example. What does it mean to say that a Kantian Saint acts in accordance with the moral law to the maximum degree? Kantian Deontology certainly does not obligate an individual to maximize respect, dignity, or rationality in the world. Nor, to my mind, does Kantian Deontology obligate an individual to act only to develop/enhance/maximize respect, dignity or rationality in himself – he must just not act to undermine it.

        A Kantian Deontologist would not be prevented from playing tennis or eating a gourmet meal provided in doing so he always complied with the moral law. Playing tennis or eating a gourmet meal does not violate the moral law. Neither does having consensual sex, listening to music, enjoying art, going to the movies etc. None of these acts, on a Kantian view, are impermissible. Nor are they obligatory actions. They are correctly characterized as permissible actions.

        Furthermore, nothing about being a Kantian Deontologist seems to require that one forego (i) enjoyment and fun or (ii) identity defining interests provided that the fun and enjoyment one has and the identity defining interest pursued is done in accordance with the moral law. If the fun, enjoyment or cultivation of interests conflict with the moral law then they will be impermissible. Otherwise go to town.

        It could also be argued that insofar as A Kantian Deontologist does have duties to himself as a rational being, he may in fact have a duty to indulge in whimsy on occasion. – fun and enjoyment are, after all, critical to an any rational agent’s psychological, mental and intellectual health.

        A Kantian Saint would simply always act in accordance with the moral law and never treat another person solely as a means to an end and/or act on a non-universalizable maxim.. This is how a Kantian Saint acts to the maximum degree. This could still be a very attractive and appealing life (albeit a constrained one relative to how we presently live).

        • Jason Werbeloff

          I take it that if any theory of right action is to be plausible, it must distinguish between obligatory and supererogatory actions. That is, the theory must distinguish between actions that we must perform, and those actions that would be fantastic if we did perform but that we do not have to perform.

          If you do allow for this distinction, then you must agree that there are actions that a Kantian does not have to perform, but would be encouraged to do so if she was motivated by moral concerns at the time. You’re quite right that a Kantian could play tennis, have sex (although Kant thought this was wrong, but let’s ignore that), and even enjoy herself by eating a good meal – none of these actions is immoral. But while she is performing these actions, she could be performing supererogatory actions, like maximizing either her own and others’ rationality. She could be teaching a critical thinking course, for example. So we might cash out the notion of the Kantian saint by stipulating that the Kantian saint not only acts in a permissible way at all times, but that she acts in a supererogatory way whenever possible.

          And if she is acting in a supererogatory way whenever possible, all the problems are re-established. She wouldn’t play tennis, or have sex, or read for fun, etc.

          • Eron

            Ahhh. Yes. I see what you are saying now.

            A Moral Saint of whatever ‘flavour’ will always perform supererogatory acts when he can.

            Consequentialism appears to squeeze out the permissible and makes every action either obligatory or impermissible.

            Deontological theories, while being able to successfully carve out a space for permissible actions, still have to acknowledge that a class of permissible actions can be described as supererogatory (above and beyond the call of moral duty).

            Your claim is that even a Deontological Moral Saint would have to always perform supererogatory actions in every conceivable situation. It is this aspect that results in a horrendous and unpalatable existence.

            So the question becomes: “Ought one always perform supererogatory actions?”

            And if one wishes to answer ‘Yes” then one would have to show either that:-

            1. Those other aspects of life we think of as being valuable are not in fact valuable – we are axiologically mistaken; or

            2.Acknowledge the value of other aspects of human life but argue that performing supererogatory actions is more valuable (weightier) than those other aspects of life for ‘a,b,c’ reason.

            • Jason Werbeloff

              That’s an accurate representation of the problem. At first glance, it might look like not a very difficult problem. “Of course we shouldn’t always act in a supererogatory fashion,” someone might say. But what’s interesting is that I think this attitude immediately rules out certain lifestyles, like vegetarianism or a strongly religious existence.

              • Wordwizard

                You’re ignoring that vegetarianism is good for the person who does it, as well as for others. It’s good for one’s health, and for one’s own ease of conscience, not to be a hypocrite or mired in gobbledygook discussion of supererogatory thises and thatas you use to make committing murder OK because you don’t want to be a saint. It also helps one raise children in a healthy manner, free from guilt about killing animals for mere gluttony. Since it helps the person doing it, and their family, and community, it benefits that person directly and indirectly, which is hardly sainthood. Your discussion of whether or not to be a saint, the advantages and disadvantages of that, has nothing to do with whether one should be a vegetarian. I’m not a superhero, but I still save a life whenever I can (which is not constantly, but I give blood, and direct traffic when ambulances get stuck in it, etc.), and I’m a vegetarian, and it helps me live with myself as a selfish person.

                • Jason Werbeloff

                  Sure, I’m not denying the advantages of being a vegetarian. I’ll grant that it has health advantages, and frees up your conscience, and encourages children in the right ways, etc. But there are many other actions in life (such as enjoying a leg of lamb with friends) that have other advantages. The question that I’m asking in this blog post is whether the advantages associated with doing the right thing (in this case being a vegetarian) outweigh the advantages associated with sometimes not doing the right thing.

                • allan

                  ah, but it *isn’t*. humans are omnivorous, and we rely on proteins and dietary components that we only obtain from meat and can’t be synthesised for vegetables. a few examples of this are vitamin b12 (not present in *any* plant), creatine, carnosine and DHA. also, clinical studies of vegetarians/vegans have found them to be low in testosterone, which is required for a whole variety of bodily functions.. if you go full vegan, you’re also running into the risk of running low on calcium, vitamin D, iron, and zinc as well.
                  it’s every bit as harmful to humans as a meat-only diet – we also require the nutritional components from vegetable matter. it is, however, far easier to deal with the deficiencies from a meat-only diet through supplementation
                  the only truly healthy diet is a balanced diet consisting of both food groups. in other words, if you want a natural human diet that’s healthy and good for you, you require unprocessed meat alongside your vegetables.
                  you’re also still not answering the point about why it’s okay to kill a plant instead of an animal. you’re still mired in death, no matter what you’re eating.
                  if you happen to want to gloss over the point of the article (that certain actions taken to extremes are harmful, and that vegetarianism is an example of this, and as such should not be considered to be an obligatory action) then that’s fine – but you’re kind of missing the point of the discussion if that’s the case!
                  personally, my conscience is clear: i require the death of other entities to survive as a healthy human being. all consumption is destruction; i just don’t see the destruction of a potato as any less noteworthy than that of a chicken.

                  • Jason Werbeloff

                    I guess it’s often convenient to think that doing the right thing benefits the person performing the right action. We often exaggerate how good it feels to do the right thing, or how bad it feels to feel guilty about doing the wrong thing. That bias might explain the vegetarians’ tendency to ignore the disadvantages associated with vegetarianism.

                    • allan

                      i think that happens all the time – we make a decision, and then attempt to justify it to ourselves afterwards. vegetarianism is a bias, in exactly the same way that buying an iphone is a bias, or religion is a bias – you have to then justify the ‘cost’ and ‘convert’ others to your point of view in order to validate your choice.
                      like i said earlier – there’s a lot to be said for nietzsche’s view that ‘morality is the sign language of the emotions’. in this case, the idea of eating a cute little animal upsets me, so it’s therefore wrong to eat that cute little animal. i don’t feel upset at the thought of eating a potato, so that’s not wrong. i’m not actually making a moral statement in either case – i’m just stating how i feel about it in a roundabout sort of way.

                    • Wordwizard

                      I can only speak for myself as to how good it feels to do the right thing by being vegetarian, or how bad it felt before then. How can you, who don’t know me, accuse me of exaggerating? I didn’t even become a vegetarian for the usual reasons, but I did experience these byproduct effects. As for the disadvantages of being a vegetarian, the only one I’m aware of is being sneered at by vegans.

                  • Wordwizard

                    You are talking as if the choice was between meat and veganism. One can get protein, b-12, and calcium, etc. from eggs and milk. Your statement that we MUST eat meat for necessary nutrition is clearly false.

                    I already answered about why it’s not wrong to eat plants, so why are you saying I didnt?

                    Am I missing the point of the discussion, or do I find it silly?

              • Eron

                Ok. But then the question becomes: ‘Is being vegetarian supererogatory?’

                I would answer no. It would be obligatory. I think the case against eating meat is very strong indeed. (Let’s overlook my own moral failings in this regard since I do eat meat)

                You say: “Sure, let’s grant that eating meat is immoral. But I’ve argued so far that it’s not the case that we should always do the moral thing.”

                But is that what you argued? Surely even you agree we should always comply with our moral obligations.

                What you argued is that one ought not always do the supererogatory thing (that is to say the permissible actions that are above and beyond the call of moral duty).

                But if eating meat is impermissible and being vegetarian is obligatory then that is what we ought to do and in so doing we are not being Moral Saints, we are just being normal moral individuals.

                Or am I missing some further step here?

                • Jason Werbeloff

                  These are good points, Eron. Some responses.

                  1. Is being a vegetarian supererogatory?
                  I think it is. I’m not so sure the case against eating meat is that strong. It’s certainly not strong for the Kantian – the only reason Kant thought we shouldn’t be cruel to animals is that we might later be cruel to humans, which is both implausible, and gives the wrong reason for not being cruel. The case against eating meat or killing animals is much stronger on a Utilitarian framework, but even then I’m not sure that Utilitarianism implies that eating meat, rather than killing an animal, is that bad. Sure, it’s wrong under many conditions, but not under all. The Utilitarian would probably grant that you can eat meat if that’s going to make you much happier, or vastly improve your health, or save a marriage (this happens!). Point is, the choice to never eat meat under any circumstances seems to be a supererogatory choice.

                  2. You say: “Sure, let’s grant that eating meat is immoral. But I’ve argued so far that it’s not the case that we should always do the moral thing.” But is that what you argued? Surely even you agree we should always comply with our moral obligations.
                  This is a good objection. An outline of a possible response, which will require further argument to tease out, goes like this. If it is not the case that one should always perform supererogatory actions, then there is at least some value more important than morality. If there’s some value more important than morality, then at least some of the time, one shouldn’t perform morally obligatory actions.

                  I’m trying to work out where the fallacy is in that argument. But it’s not clear to me there is one? The problem might be in the first premise, but I’m uncertain. My intuition is torn between thinking that this line of reasoning works, and that it simply can’t. In either case, I think it’s the reasoning underlying Wolf’s article.

                  • Eron

                    As to (i) it seems to me that a deontologist (perhaps not a dyed-in-the-wool Kantian) can account for direct moral obligations to animals as follows:-

                    (A) The Prima Facie Constraint

                    1. The fact that a creature can feel pain and/or suffer is a prima facie reason not to harm/kill/eat that creature.

                    2. Most animals are sufficiently conscious that they are capable of feeling pain and/or suffering.

                    3. Therefore, there is a prima facie deontic constraint against harming/killing/eating most animals.

                    (B) Overriding the constraint

                    The prima facie deontic constraint is capable of being overridden in a particular circumstance iff substantially better consequences obtain by harming/killing/eating the conscious creature than not harming/killing/eating the conscious creature.

                    Obviously some non-arbitrary threshold for the quantum/amount of good consequences would need to be set that is not trivially easy to meet on the one hand but so unbelievably high that it may as well be an absolute deontic constraint. This is, in my view, the really hard part for any Moderate Deontologist.

                    As to (ii) your argument goes:-

                    1. If it is not the case that one should always perform supererogatory actions, then there is at least some value more important than morality.

                    2. If there’s some value more important than morality, then at least some of the time, one shouldn’t perform morally obligatory actions.

                    3. It is not the case that one should always perform supererogatory actions.

                    4. Therefore, there are at least some values that are more important than morality.

                    4. Therefore, some of the time, one shouldn’t perform morally obligatory actions.

                    I think the problem is that you have phrased premise one as “…there is some value more important than morality”.

                    Rather it should be put as ‘… there is some value more important than whatever is achieved by performing a supererogatory action in the circumstances’.

                    The supererogatory is PART of morality. But supererogatory actions don’t exhaust morality nor are they equated with morality. On the contrary, morality is what tells one what actions are and are not supererogatory.

  • Tom

    Very interesting post. I tend to feel the same about ethical buying. Pretty much every product I buy exploits someone somewhere in some way. On the subject of vegetarianism, there is another argument apart from cruelty – the ecological argument which shows that an over-emphasis on meat-based products in western culture is driving soil degradation, deforestation and global warming. That’s why I kinda liked this guy’s lecture: https://www.ted.com/talks/graham_hill_weekday_vegetarian

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Hey Tom. Good point regarding product purchases. It’s nearly impossible to purchase products that lack a tainted source. The moral saint will have to cease buying pretty much everything.

      Regarding your point on vegetarianism: I think the ecological argument might reduce to a moral argument as well. You shouldn’t eat meat because it has a negative impact on society as a whole, namely, a negative ecological impact. And you should perform those actions with the best consequences for society as a whole – i.e. Utilitarianism. Agreed, though – the support for the moral claim, that vegetarianism is obligatory, is distinct in the argument from cruelty.

      Thanks for the link to the TED talk. I like the the idea of being a vegetarian on weekdays. It’s a much softer approach than the – ‘eating meat is indefensible’ position. I wonder, though: why 5 days out of 7? That might be pragmatic – easier to remember. But after careful consideration we might think that the values attached to eating meat (having a good time with friends, delicious meals, protein) support a different weighting. E.g. we might think we should eat meat 4 days out of 7, or 6 days out of 7. It would be interesting to provide arguments around this to arrive at a solid number.

  • Jason Werbeloff

    Eron, you’ve outlined what’s probably the best solution for the Kantian to the problem of animal cruelty. However, the biggest problem, as I see it, is not so much specifying a non-arbitrary threshold for when we can harm the animal, but that this solution seems to collapse into Utilitarianism/Consequentialism, or something close enough. So much so, why not drop the deontology altogether? Consequences seem to be doing the work here. Come over to the dark side. It tastes good here.

    You’re quite right that I’m equivocating on morality in general and supererogatory actions in particular. But in this context, I think this equivocation is permissible (sorry for the pun) – it doesn’t generate a fallacy of ambiguity. My brain, however, has just imploded. Will need time to restart it before I can explain why.

    • Anonymous

      That is often the charge against the Moderate Deontologist – that ultimately consequences are doing all the normative work so why even bother with the deontic constraint at all.

      But Shelly Kagan in his book ‘Normative Ethics’ argues that this charge against the Moderate Deontologist is unfair.

      1. The Moderate Deontologist is not just a crypto-consequentialist. The reason being is that as part of his moral framework from the outset he recognizes that there are other intrinsically normative factors (other than consequences) that bare on the morality of an action. Consequentialists simply do not think this is the case.

      2. The deontic constraint is there to remind us of these other intrinsically normative factors and that consequences (merely one intrinsically normative factor) cannot ride rough shod over the other factors.

      3. By starting with the constraint, Moderate Deontology also shifts the burden of proof to the person who wishes to override the constraint to provide very good reasons for doing so (not just any old reason or small/negligible increase in the good will do).

      4. However, when enough good is at stake (given the circumstances under consideration) the constraint can be overridden.

      This is in accordance with common sense morality and I think best captures our moral intuitions given the available alternatives. .

      After all…

      Consequentialism permits an innocent man to be killed if it would prevent a mob from rioting. This seems morally absurd.

      Absolute Deontology does not permit me to kill one innocent man to save the entire world from apocalypse. This also seems absurd. Surely it is a great evil to allow an entire species of persons to perish rather than one even if he is innocent?.

      There has to be a reasonable middle path. I think Moderate Deontology is the best contender.

      My brain is also imploding. And I need to actually get to my essay on Transhumanism. Plus I also need to study for my exam on Saturday. Enjoyed this. Chat soon.

  • Lizlizzie2

    At some point doesn’t the moral saint’s altruism become self-destructive?

    • Jason Werbeloff

      I think so, yes. Maybe not destructive to others, but certainly destructive to herself. She loses her identity, and her individuality.

  • Wordwizard

    Since no one else has mentioned it, and I neglected to do so, let me mention the exponential increase in consumption of pesticides/herbicides/other pollutants when one eats meat, over fruit/vegetables. How is not poisoning oneself more than one has to not a being-good-to-ONESELF upside to vegetarianism?

    • bladesuk1

      you do, of course, realise that pesticides/herbicides etc are applied to *all* crops? generally, farmers don’t spray pesticides/herbicides on cows… to avoid those, one should logically avoid eating farmed vegetables and fruits, rather than meat. there is also surprisingly little evidence for the increase you mention from actual scientific sources not funded by the likes of peta, so agenda-free data isn’t readily available.
      equally, not all meat is raised in the manner that you imply. free-range, grass-fed herbivores actually taste better as well, so many meat-eaters prefer to buy those. organic meat also cannot use these pesticides/herbicides in their feed matter, plus as the contaminants are generally stored in the fat of the animal then the removal of the fat also removes the contaminant. equally, not all countries farm using the same standards as america – european regulation is far more stringent in many ways.
      however, i believe the main issue here is actually one of value bias: you have determined that your way must be the best because it’s the choice you made. at this point, we’re no longer discussing the article or the implications thereof – we’re into an ideological debate as to the merits of vegetarianism as filtering through your personal choice. but we’re not debating your choice. we’re debating moral/ethical implications around extreme actions based on the morality in effect.
      so, to turn this back to that end: your belief seems to allow you to preach your beliefs to others as being the only way, and denying their point of view as being valid. that implies (as jason said elsewhere) that you believe in absolute morality in some form or other. you also seem certain that certain lives have more ‘value’ than other lives (e.g. in your eyes, human > cow > potato).
      now, obviously, i vehemently disagree with the last part (i think you’re just making an arbitrary distinction there that allows you to feel comfortable about what you kill), but setting that to one side: if it’s not permissable to harm a cow, then i presume it’s also not permissable to harm a human? but you’re breathing from a limited supply of oxygen, and consuming from a limited amount of resources (clothes, food, energy etc) and so on. your absolute moral standpoint would imply that’s never allowed – so, according to that morality, the only moral action would be to stop consuming all of those resources. realistically, the only way to do that is to be dead – in which case, the moral saint’s ultimate endgame is suicide, is it not?

      • Wordwizard

        Of course I know the pesticides/herbicides are sprayed on plants, not animals. The animals eat roughly 10-16 or more pounds of plants to create a pound of meat, concentrating the poisons in their fat. Animal fat used to be yellow; now it’s white. Of course organically grown range-grass-fed meat doesn’t have that problem, but it’s too expensive for most to consider, so that hardly applies. People eating meat are ingesting concentrated poison, so if you DON’T believe in obligatory suicide, why not protect yourself? If you do WANT to commit suicide, digging your grave with your teeth, of course…

        Why do you insist on putting words into my mouth? I’m not a moral saint—I’m not even interested in that tiresome debate. You’re just setting up strawman arguments that I’m not interested in. I don’t believe I’m obliged to commit suicide, so don’t be silly. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with my consuming what I need to. I don’t believe human > cow > potato. Humans who believe they are better than other animals are speciesist / anthropocentric / humanocentric. I’m not. I believe in biodiversity. I’ve already said that since we help potatoes and other edible plants to reproduce, we aren’t harming them by consuming some, as we grow more. They also aren’t sentient, thus don’t feel pain as we do this. Animals suffer.

        • bladesuk1

          since the point of this discussion is, indeed, the moral saint, why are you writing on here at all if you find it ‘tiresome’?
          the reason many species of animals exist in farms at all is because we eat them or consume their produce in some way. sheep are entirely incapable of living wild, for example, and most species that we farm exist only because we eat them. if we didn’t eat them, they’d die out – in fact, many species of farmed animals have died out, hence the movement of ‘rare breed’ farms where such species are, in fact, kept going *because* we eat them. it’s no different to farming any other crop in that respect. by your own words, we’re not harming them because we consume some, and we’re helping them to procreate and breed.
          however, just because plants feel pain differently does not (in my opinion) give you the right to dismiss that pain. the lovely smell of cut grass? it’s a chemical pheromone exuded to warn of attack. that’s the way the plant screams, to anthropomorphise a little. so what if it feels pain differently to you? so what if you can’t, in fact, comprehend or understand it? just because you don’t understand it does not necessarily mean that it is not a form of suffering, or that it’s not worthy of consideration.

          • Wordwizard

            I understand that the chemical put out by grass is not triggered by a pain receptor. However, I never said we should cut grass, which does not benefit it, so why do you claim I dismissed what was never mentioned? Fruits are made by plants for eating, to procreate, and they don’t pain the plant. They drop the fruits. Potatoes feel no pain. By all means, don’t cut grass.

            Animals feel pain, and are usually raised in horrible conditions in factory farms, and often killed in fear. There’s a difference. If you want to raise an animal in humane conditions, then eat it after it has died naturally (which might not be in a healthy condition for you to eat), knock your socks off.

            • bladesuk1

              pain receptors are irrelevant – else you could argue that a human with a spinal block or under anaesthesia was exempt and could therefore be harmed because they couldn’t feel it, either. the point is that it releases the pheromone as a warning signal in response to something that causes it harm. i’m sure you’ve also read the recent papers about how trees rest their branches at night, and how they contain the dna required for a circadian rhythm. it wasn’t so long ago that scientists used to dissect live animals like dogs and cats without anaesthesia to ‘prove’ that their howls were merely mechanical responses to stimuli, which is what you’re arguing for with plants. me, i’m not convinced that they don’t feel and react. we already have proof that they can learn, and that they communicate with one another. just because we don’t understand an intelligence and can’t apply what (little) we know of intelligence doesn’t automatically lead to there not being an intelligence at all.
              as to the fruit – it’s still alive. unless they’ve been altered by man, the majority of them can still be planted and produce a living tree – by eating that fruit (or, worse, consuming the sterilised version of it – removing even the basic capability of passing on its genes) you’re destroying that potential for life as a tree.
              so, ultimately: you’re still inflicting suffering on the plants that you eat, and may be consuming an intelligence just because you can’t relate to it or understand it or communicate with it. there is absolutely no difference between raising an animal for food and raising a plant for food. either way, you’re exploiting the crop for your own gain. where we differ is that i don’t draw an arbitrary line between my food, nor do i have a particular problem with eating any of it given that me eating means i have to destroy something else in the process.

              • Wordwizard

                Your science is whacked. Plants don’t feel pain. Fruit is produced to enable seeds to grow the next generation. It’s designed (evolved) to be eaten. We grow the next generation. Fruit would rot if we didn’t eat it. If you insist on anthropomorphizing, complete with pain, would you like your reproductive organs to rot? Sound like fun?

                • bladesuk1

                  this comes down to what you can and can’t understand. as a species, we make a presumption that you need a nervous system to feel pain. however, that response is merely a chemical process that causes action in response to damage. humans can be born without nociceptors (which respond to pain) – as in, no way of feeling pain.
                  without a nervous system, we’ve discovered that plants have a circadian rhythm and respond to damage by releasing chemicals. we’ve also found that they communicate with one another, and are capable of learning, too. equally, if you anaesthetise a plant, you can prevent those actions from occurring, too. we know that when aphids attack leaves, for example, the plant propagates a signal to protect itself from leaf to leaf – and it does this without a neural system. in other words, neural systems are not the only known mechanism for processing information.
                  there is *still* no actual definition of intelligence. some plant neurobiologists believe that plants are conscious enough to react to their position in space, for example, and that learning and responding to multiple environmental variables makes them intelligent.
                  as for consciousness… you can’t actually prove that another being is conscious. you can only infer it from your own behaviour, and then projecting that outward. most people can’t project onto plants, so they presume they aren’t conscious. but *we have no way of knowing for certain*. they certainly exhibit complex behaviour that may or may not be evidence of consciousness. it’s essentially only a matter of degree, not kind.
                  all of that is, in reality, irrelevant to the point under discussion, however. i’m trying to suggest that your clear-cut line isn’t as clear-cut as you think it is, and that in eating fruit and vegetables you’re harming another conscious entity (since you don’t seem to think anything non-conscious is worth concerning yourself with, whereas i do).
                  as to growing the next generation – that’s what farmers do with animals. they breed cows to get more cows to eat. if we didn’t feed and husband sheep, they’d die out because they’re utterly useless creatures. we evolved them through farming and domestication to be eaten or consumed in other ways. arguably, we still do. that’s why we have dairy cows and meat cows, for example.
                  as to rotting reproductive organs – one could argue that’s what menopause does to women. it’s certainly what happens when humans die, which is what’s happening to the fruit. the difference between the fruit and tree is the difference between, let’s say, the egg and the chicken. the egg/fruit has the potential to become the chicken/tree. by consuming it, you’re denying it that chance, which is basically harming it. sure, it doesn’t hurt the chicken or the tree. but the life inherent in the egg or fruit is taken away before it even had a chance.

                  • Wordwizard

                    Going through menopause is not the same as having one’s organs rot, i.e., necrosis. I don’t consume the seeds of fruit, so I’m not denying them life, but even if I were, seeds, eggs, semen, and fetuses are only /potentially/ able to become beings, and I’m all for abortion rights. Yes, it never had a chance. Go weep for your wasted semen. Enough of this fruitless discussion!