Why I Am Not a Vegetarian

Why I Am Not a Vegetarian

Moral Value Comes from Cooperation, Not Sentience

Many people, even some meat eaters, seem to think it’s inevitable that future generations will regard meat eating with moral horror. The argument is tidy: 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.

Sentience is one popular basis, one that privileges humans but also puts a great deal of moral weight on higher mammals like chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins. Ability to feel pain is another, more egalitarian one that would place a great deal of moral weight on anything with a central nervous system. It speaks particularly strongly to a stunted fundamentalist utilitarianism that prizes the avoidance of suffering above all, as well as to the reflexive unconditional sympathy that Westerners have been cultivating over the past few centuries. If a cow is suffering, if a chicken is cooped up, this is an injustice that demands rectification!

Theories like this are rather arbitrary and metaphysical. Clearly humans have a moral sense, one that requires a starting point that can’t be rationally justified. Nevertheless, the fact that no moral system can justify itself doesn’t mean that it can’t be explained by something else. In particular, a functionalist perspective on morality can tell us what it’s for – namely, cooperation in prisoner’s dilemmas and collective action problems. These are the kinds of pervasive situations that make morality necessary: if life were simply a series of coordination games and mutually beneficial trades, there would be no need for morality. The human evolutionary niche is one that positions us to take advantage of gains from cooperation in prisoner’s dilemmas that other animals are unable to.

It’s true that, even in this case, “is” doesn’t imply “ought”, and a functionalist perspective on morality is still firmly on the “is” side. It tells us where our “oughts” came from, but it doesn’t tell us what our “oughts” ought to be – at least not directly. Nevertheless, we only have to introduce a small and (hopefully) self-evident value proposition – the value of survival – to get us onto the “ought” side and narrow the field of possible contenders for the basis of moral worth. Indeed, to use anything other than cooperation as the basis for moral worth must eventually fall apart to the extent that it implies cooperating with non-cooperators.

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, with “us” being the group facing the cooperative dilemma in question. This requires some amount of reliable reciprocation at some cost to the self, as humans are generally able to offer to each other. Cows are useful to us, but they don’t cooperate with us because we face no prisoner’s-dilemma-type situations against them. 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. Similarly, it would be suicidal to place moral weight on individuals from a hyper-cooperative alien species bent on annihilating Earth. 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.

DogDogs would be a good example of an animal that 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 than cats – and I say this as someone whose innate sympathies react very strongly to the suffering of cats. Dogs are social – 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.

This is, of course, not to say that killing chimpanzees 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 chimpanzees, still holds. But the vegetarian logic, the logic that values individual chimpanzees, that would proscribe meat eating and product testing on animals, doesn’t. And in this sense, Chinese culture – with its general indifference to the apparent suffering of its food – is probably in a better position to assume global leadership than a West that relentlessly universalizes its sympathies.




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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 economics PhD candidate in Virginia with an interest in monetary theory, institutional evolution, and folk music.

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