A response to Richard Carrier

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In Richard Carrier’s recent post at FreeThoughtBlog, http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/87, he takes aim at arguments for vegetarianism.  He spends most of his time responding to arguments for vegetarianism from economics considerations, like the inefficient use of water, grain, and other resources, and responding to arguments from environmental concerns, like the impact of factory farming on global warming.  I think there are good responses to his claims in those extended sections, but I won’t be able to address them here.  Instead, I’ll look at his brief treatment of why being a vegetarian for moral reasons is irrational.  I’ll state upfront that I’m a vegetarian on moral grounds, so I suppose I have a dog in this fight (maybe that’s a bad metaphor, what with animal welfare being the topic…).  I’m a grad student studying deontic logic, the logic of moral obligation, so whether a moral position is rational or not is near and dear to my heart anyway.

I’m not a dogmatic vegetarian.  I read Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation, and it convinced me with its philosophical and scientific arguments.  To cease being a vegetarian, I’d need a good argument against Singer’s case.  I don’t think Richard Carrier has presented such a case.  This disappoints me, as I much enjoyed the taste of meat, when I ate it.

Carrier is responding to a question posed by a commenter regarding the application of Carrier’s own moral philosophy.  Carrier holds that it is a moral fact (empirically discoverable by science) that compassion is a moral virtue.  The commenter asks if it follows from this that one ought to be a vegetarian.  Carrier denies the implication, stating instead, “being a vegetarian merely out of compassion for animals is irrational (it’s just another kind of phobia based on false associations between animals and people)…”  His argument is as follows:

Accordingly I think being a vegetarian out of “compassion” is irrational. I mean that in the classic sense: it’s a non sequitur, and thus illogical. It’s to treat animals like people, which they are not. I’ve looked and listened far and wide and there is just no logically valid argument that proceeds from “I ought to be compassionate” to “I ought to be a vegetarian.” Farming and eating animals is simply not evil, for the reason I stated: our own overall life satisfaction depends on being compassionate, and compassion compels us not to enjoy or want pointless torment to exist, no matter what or who is experiencing it. It would cause you pain, and thus diminish your life satisfaction, to be a cruel or wholly indifferent person. But destroying an animal humanely is not cruel. And it is not destroying a person. Again, an animal’s life is indifferent to when it dies, because it does not become anything and has no awareness of being something. Thus eating animals is fine as long as you aren’t torturing them (see my brief on this as the atheist correspondent for GodContention.com).

He must mean that there is no logically sound argument that goes from “I ought to be compassionate” to “I ought to be a vegetarian.”  It is easy to construct a valid argument.  Something like:

1. I ought to be compassionate.

2. If I ought to be compassionate, then I ought to care about some non-human animals.

3. If I ought to care about some non-human animals, then I ought to be a vegetarian.

4. Therefore, I ought to be a vegetarian.

This argument is valid.  But, it probably has a false premise, like maybe premise 3.  That must be what Carrier means when he says he has seen no valid argument: he hasn’t seen a valid argument with all true premises.  So, he hasn’t seen a sound argument to that effect yet.  Maybe not, but I think I can give a sound argument for a slightly weaker position, that one ought not contribute to factory farming.

1.  I ought to be compassionate.

2.  If I ought to be compassionate, then I ought to care about the suffering of beings other than myself.

3.  If I ought to care about the suffering of others, then I ought not contribute to any sources of unnecessary suffering of beings other than myself.

4.  The factory farming system in America is a source of unnecessary suffering of beings other than myself.

5. Therefore, I ought not contribute to the factory farming system in America.

I think that the moral reasons offered in defense of vegetarianism can really only establish this weaker conclusion.  It does not say that eating meat is morally wrong, and it does not say that killing animals is morally wrong.  Neither does it say that these things are permissible; it doesn’t speak to them.  I think the best way not to contribute to factory farming is to stop purchasing its products.  The easiest way to be sure that one is not purchasing factory farmed products is to become a vegetarian.  Of course this applies only to the normal American who is in my position.  If you own a farm that raises livestock humanely, then the argument simply does not apply to you; it is easy for you to avoid factory farmed meat.  For the rest of us, it is easiest to just abstain for the most part.

If Carrier is to reject the above argument, (1-5), he’d have to argue that one of the premises is false.  It is a valid argument.  Which premise might he reject?

Premise 1 is his claim.

Premise 2 is based on any reasonable definition of ‘compassion’.  I went to wikipedia.

He may disagree with 3.  He knows that when I say “beings,” I mean to include many non-human animals in the class.  I don’t think he wants to deny this, though, because he seems to tacitly accept the idea, when he says, “for the reason I stated: our own overall life satisfaction depends on being compassionate, and compassion compels us not to enjoy or want pointless torment to exist, no matter what or who is experiencing it.” [my emboldening].  So, premise 3 seems to gain Carrier’s endorsement.  The issue of what beings count for moral consideration is not as simple as drawing a line around all and only humans.  I think Bentham proposed the best solution when he said,

What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Well, can non-human animals suffer?  This is a question of biology and a reasonable agreement of what counts as suffering.  We do not anthropomorphize non-human animals by stating, “A negative response to noxious stimuli that reaches the hippocampus and amygdala indicates the capacity to suffer,” or something similar to that.  One is not merely looking at non-human animals reactions, projecting emotion onto their behaviors, and deciding they can suffer.  The relevant parts of our brains are similar enough to cows, pigs, and chickens, that we can reasonably expect that they operate similarly.

Here is a great post by PZ, responding to William Lane Craig’s assertion that non-human animals can’t suffer in any morally relevant way.  He gives pretty good reasons to think non-human animals are capable of suffering.

Clearly Carrier thinks 4 is false.  Premise (4) is mostly an empirical question about the actual living conditions of non-human animals in American factory farms.  It is difficult to collect reliable data on this issue, because both sides of the debate have reason to exaggerate in one direction or the other, and it is difficult to simply go look and see for oneself. Clearly the factory farmers want to release only images that make things look chummy and healthy, the epitome of the idea evoked by “farmland”, with cows lazily grazing, a handful of chickens clucking around the coop, and maybe a few pigs rolling around in their muddy pens.  Clearly PETA wants to release only disturbing images that evoke something close to the horrors of war.  Which side is more capable of producing misleading information?  The owners of the system, or the people banned from the premises, who must go undercover, risking felony charges in several states.  I think Singer makes a compelling case that the animals do in fact suffer from the living conditions institutionalized by factory farming.

The key to Carrier’s argument above is the following claim:

But destroying an animal humanely is not cruel

I agree with this, although I know many angry, evangelical-type vegetarians would disagree.  Definitely Peter Singer would agree.  The trouble is, the moral argument against factory farming is not about how the animals are destroyed.  But even if it were, Carrier produced no evidence to support his claim that the current system does implement humane methods of destruction.  I’ll just assume he’s right, that the methods used by factory farms in America to destroy the animals is humane.  This still misses the moral argument’s point, that the living conditions for the animals are what cause the unnecessary suffering.  Now, he has poisoned the well a bit by declaring in his post that the conditions of factory farming are misreported.  So, I’m sure no matter what evidence I produce, it will be an instance of misreporting.  He claims that “When you investigate the actual conditions on most farms, especially those vending major industries like KFC or McDonalds, you find they are not as bad as PETA videos claim,” but he does not produce any evidence to this effect.  He claims that, once one ignores the outliers where atrocities occur, we see that animal welfare activists often misconstrue what is actually good for the animal.  He doesn’t provide any evidence for what the actual statistics, sans outliers, are.

A lady sticking her arm into a cow's stomach.

pigs in a factory farm.

A cursory Google search of “living conditions in factory farms” produces a plethora of images and videos, not all from PETA.  Are we to assume that these are all mere outliers, somehow planned and exploited by the subversive animal welfare groups?  Are we to assume that all the websites documenting the ethically unfit conditions are spreading falsehoods?  Even wikipedia???!! I will concede that it is possible that all of these resources are misleading, but it will take a lot more than Carrier’s word that an investigation yields ethically permissible conditions to convince me, due to the only evidence I’ve been able to find showing otherwise.

Responses like Carrier’s are the norm in the skeptic community, as far as I can tell.  It is the consequence of a strange cultural bias in America for large amounts of meat consumption, and what Peter Singer calls “Speciesism.”  An objective, dispassionate reading of both Singer and Carrier make it pretty clear that Carrier’s response to the moral arguments is a hardcore case of special pleading, with little substance, and much rhetoric. Rather, Singer’s argument rests on solid science and compelling moral principles.

Because I know skeptics care not one shit about what I think, but do care about what Carrier thinks and Richard Dawkins thinks, I leave you with a quote from Dawkins about the cultural roots of speciesism, from The Blind Watchmaker,

Such is the breathtaking speciesism of our Christian-inspired attitudes, the abortion of a single human zygote (most of them are destined to be spontaneously aborted anyway) can arouse more moral solicitude and righteous indignation than the vivisection of any number of intelligent adult chimpanzees! […] The only reason we can be comfortable with such a double standard is that the intermediates between humans and chimps are all dead.

This continuum from the human species, through chimpanzees, and on through other species, is a clear lesson that we learn from evolutionary biology.  Dawkins mentions chimpanzees, but the point stands equally well for pigs, cows, and to a lesser extent chickens.

Here are Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer discussing the moral lessons we can learn from Darwin.

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Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy PhD student at the University of Missouri.  His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality.  He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers [EDIT: He recently shaved his mighty beard, and has thus lost all of his philosophical powers.  :(   ].  Feel free to contact Seth at SJK7v7@mail.missouri.edu with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!

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Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
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One thought on “A response to Richard Carrier

  1. When I was reading Carrier’s article a few days ago many of the same points came to mind – specifically the fact that he was skeptical about whether or not factory farms submit the animal to poor living conditions (and how such an … interesting claim left a bad taste in my mouth). I actually just finished taking a class on environmental political theory, which toward the end of the 20th century becomes inseparable from the animal rights movement, modern understandings of justice, moral agency, rights and interests, etc., so seeing him skip over such a large part of the theoretical conversation was a bit odd. Having met and chatted with Carrier before, he really is not as big of an ass as that essay makes him come off.

    I think the problem, as you’re probably aware, is that his thesis is so narrow “Narrow conceptions of ‘compassion’, ‘environmentalism’ and ‘health’ do not necessitate vegetarianism.” Had he a chance to expand upon these concepts and interrogate whether or not it is ETHICAL to sustain the current system (from, say, an anthropocentric perspective), whether or not the divide between “animals” and “humans” is natural, etc., I would be curious to hear what he would say.

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