Why I Am Not a Vegetarian

Why I Am Not a Vegetarian

Moral Value Comes from Cooperation, Not Sentience

Moral vegetarianism into the spotlight again, this time after Ezra Klein’s criticism of the Chick-Fil-A cows. It’s an article of faith among many in the intellectual class, even some meat eaters, that it’s inevitable that future generations will regard meat eating with moral horror. The case is easy to make: given that humans possess nothing qualitatively different from other animals, any theory of the basis of moral worth seems to imply giving at least some consideration to non-humans. And if it’s wrong to eat humans, eating other animals must be at least undesirable, if not outright wrong.

So what is it about humans that makes eating them, and otherwise treating them as means rather than ends, immoral? Answering this question should give us a broad sense of when, if ever, it’s permissible to eat animals.

Sentience is one popular answer. The more of a self-concept an animal has, the more moral worth it has. This criterion privileges humans, but also puts a great deal of moral weight on higher mammals like chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins, and possibly even smarter birds like corvids. Other ethicists, such as Peter Singer, point to the ability to feel pain. This is a somewhat more egalitarian criterion, and would ascribe moral value to nearly anything with a central nervous system.

Theories like these have broad appeal. They follow straightforwardly from the fundamentalist utilitarianism that dominates the study of ethics, and which prizes the avoidance of suffering above all. They are also quite compatible with the empathetic maximalism that has been the dominant lay theory of ethics in the West for a generation. If a cow is suffering, if a chicken is cooped up, this is an injustice that demands rectification!

The problem with theories like this is that you have to assume some basis for moral worth based on intuition. There are a few problems with this strategy. First, intuition isn’t enough to uniquely determine a theory of moral value. I suspect that most people will find both sentience and ability to feel pain to be intuitively plausible bases of moral worth, despite the fact that they will result in drastically different answers on the staggering number of animals that can feel pain, but have no theory of mind.

Second, what basis do we have for taking moral intuitions to be morally binding in the first place? It is the answer to this question that points us toward a constructive theory of moral value.

Why is it that humans have a moral sense at all? On the basis of work in game theory and anthropology, there is a convincing case that moral intuitions came about because they helped our ancestors cooperate with each other to provide goods that would be difficult to procure alone. The most important of these goods was the meat of large game. And indeed, the strongest moral intuitions in hunter-gatherers surround the hunting and the subsequent sharing of meat, both of which are intensely cooperative activities. It is likely, therefore, that humans would never have developed a moral sense at all if they had not come to occupy a meat-eating ecological niche.

All this is suggestive, but it would be a genetic fallacy to suppose that morality’s origin in meat-hunting demonstrates that meat-eating is itself moral in the present day. More convincing is the light that it sheds on the question of moral value. Why do humans have a moral sense? Because it helps us cooperate with each other to provide goods that we wouldn’t be able to provide otherwise. Broadly speaking, society itself is a collection of such goods, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, humans’ moral sense is what makes it possible.

Now the thing about cooperation is that it’s great if you’re cooperating with people who will cooperate back. But if you pull your weight and the other parties don’t, well – you’re the sucker.  You’re pulling a lot of weight to benefit other people. So if you can’t trust other people to cooperate, your best bet is not to cooperate either. That’s why cooperation is such a difficult problem, and why there are essentially no examples of animal cooperation in novel problem situations.

In other words, if moral behavior can only survive when cooperating with other cooperators, moral intuition itself is the thing that confers moral value.

Finally, the moral value of cooperation does not pertain to cooperation in general, as if an organism could have moral value to the universe. Rather, it implies cooperation with us, in some situation or another. Cows are useful to us, but they don’t cooperate with us. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, cooperate with each other to some extent for mutual defense and food provision, but not generally with humans. A chimpanzee therefore may have moral worth to another chimpanzee, but not to a human.

If this seems like splitting hairs, imagine a hyper-cooperative alien species bent on annihilating Earth. However much they cooperate with each other, is it morally obligatory for you to cooperate with them? Cooperation has to be played in a positive-sum game: if you cooperate though the heavens fall, if you cooperate in zero-sum or negative-sum games, cooperation dies out.

DogThis argument is not equivalent to humanist chauvinism. Dogs, for example, would deserve some moral consideration from humans on this basis: while not so sapient as chimpanzees or dolphins, dogs do appear to possess some amount of loyalty and altruism for their owners. Probably more so than cats, and I say this as someone whose gut intuitions react very strongly to the suffering of cats. Dogs are social and cooperative; like chimpanzees they band together for mutual defense and provision of food. But unlike chimpanzees, they are also able and eager to reciprocate with humans.

Second, to say that individual animals do not generally have moral worth is not to say that killing them is good, any more than to say that chopping trees is good simply because they don’t have inherent moral worth. The environmentalist logic, which values the population of animals, still holds. But the vegetarian logic, the logic that values individual animals, that would proscribe meat eating and product testing on animals, doesn’t.

So, in spite of Ezra’s plea, don’t feel bad for the Chick-Fil-A cows, or the chickens they’re encouraging you to eat. Your moral intuitions are the unlikely product of some very remarkable circumstances in the history of the human species. A greater appreciation of this fact should help distinguish between the situations where that intuition is helpful and valuable, and the situations where it is likely to be self-destructive.




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  • 1


    Aug 22, 2017 at 10:14 | Reply

    I thought this was genuinely interesting. I think there might be another feature worth exploring here too.

    Yes, cows don’t have cooperative interactions with us in the same way that a cat or dog would. But while most people believe it’s okay to kill and eat cows, I imagine that an overwhelming majority of people wouldn’t be okay with slaughterhouse employees unnecessarily torturing the cows before death.

    I think this is because it sets off our visceral tribal alarm bells.

    Someone who shows malice or excessive hostility towards an soon-to-be-slaughtered animal is likely someone who cannot be fully trusted to make decisions in the best interests of “the tribe.”

    Cooperation derives from trust. If we all act in a certain way or with similar priorities, the tribe will survive. It requires empathy and often individual altruism. The willingness to care for children, care for the sick, or risk life and limb seem to come from a sort reciprocal sense of empathy between tribe members. Animal abusers demonstrate to others that they lack this empathy. They cannot or will not empathize with the slaughtered cow, and their callousness is a reflection of selfishness. Our moral indignation is really a manifestation of severe distrust.

    So yes, I think it’s possible that the moral value of animals does come from their ability to cooperate with us. But it may also come from our need to anticipate other people’s cooperative behavior towards ourselves.

    • 1.1

      Cameron Harwick

      Aug 22, 2017 at 11:56

      Great point, and probably how overempathy got off the ground in the first place. Credible signals are really valuable!

  • 2


    Aug 22, 2017 at 12:53 | Reply

    I agree with the basic sentiment, but I also think this view is not going to prevail.

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Hi, I'm C. Harwick, an economist in New York State with an interest in monetary theory, institutional evolution, and folk music.

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