For starters, this will be my final post here at Leiter Reports (at least this time around). Thanks again to Brian for the opportunity to stir the pot a bit. Thanks as well to the readers who have participated in the discussion threads (especially the threads about open access philosophy). For my last hurrah, I thought I would take things in a different direction. So, my parting shot across the philosophical bow is about one of Brian’s favorite subjects--namely, vegetarianism! Let me know what you think.
Shifting the Moral Burden of Proof
In the animal rights literature just as in everyday discourse and the popular press, nearly all parties to the debate about meat-eating seem to have collectively assumed that it is the vegetarian who owes us a positive argument for why meat-eating is morally impermissible. Unsurprisingly, vegetarians are often happy to rise to the challenge. Consequently, arguments against meat-eating are common-place while positive arguments explicitly for the moral permissibility of meat-eating are markedly scarcer—especially in the animal rights literature. In short, moral omnivorism—i.e., the view that eating meat is morally permissible—is usually simply assumed from the outset to be the default position both amongst applied ethicists and the public more generally. In this post, I am going to briefly suggest that this common dialectic gets things precisely backwards.
On my view, the default moral rule is always to either do no harm or, if doing harm is lamentably unavoidable, do as little harm as possible. Since I believe that causing harm is minimally prima facie (and perhaps even pro tanto) bad, morally speaking, I believe that actions and practices that cause harm require justification. So, while it is clear that there are cases wherein the prima facie duty not to cause harm and suffering is trumped by more important moral considerations—e.g., when doctors cause pain and suffering with chemotherapy in the short term in order to save patients’ lives in the long term—it does not seem to me that meat-eating (at least in advanced countries) is one of these morally exceptional cases.
Given that the practice of raising and killing animals for human consumption causes pain (and arguably suffering), proponents of the practice owe us a positive argument for its moral permissibility. Moreover, it won’t be enough to show that meat-eating is sometimes permissible—e.g., in cases where plant-based sources of protein and fat are either unavailable or unaffordable. Rather, it will need to be shown that meat-eating is permissible even for those of us for whom the practice is entirely optional. In the meantime, vegetarianism and not omnivorism ought to be the default position, morally speaking.
I have run this argument on friends, family members, students, and even strangers. In my experience, most of the pro-meat eating arguments are based upon mistaken empirical claims, fallacious reasoning, or questionable moral principles that we ought to reject. If I am right, then unless and until meat eaters can provide a positive argument for the practice of raising and killing animals for human consumption, this practice will remain as morally impermissible as it is unnecessary.
p.s. I will be moderating comments, so please be patient. Signed comments are preferred.