Philosophers get a bad rap. People say that they are impractical, they analyze their objects into oblivion, they keep including horrifically racist and sexist philosophers and doctrines on syllabi, they want the field to be more diverse but they’d like to do this without taking seriously any contribution by a philosopher of color1, they try to attract “unlikely” students to logic courses by putting up ads in which they are surrounded by Britney Spears-esque sexy schoolgirls despite the fact that students least likely to take logic are women, . .. the list goes on and on.
The latest blunder comes by way of the comments section of a well-intentioned blog post in which the author asks whether we should place the justificatory burden of eating meat on those who eat meat as opposed to making justification the task of vegetarians/ vegans. Some of you may be trembling in fear right now as the memory of the New York Times essay competition, which requested justifications for eating animals, is still too recent to bear revisiting. You remember this, right? The competition in which every judge was a male because there is no such thing as a qualified female scholar working on critical animal issues or animal ethics?
Well, without fail, all of the old arguments are back, even the ol’ “but-what-about-plants?” argument, possibly a “but-what-about-computers?” argument, and one I’ve actually never heard before: the eat-meat-or-you-might-as-well-kill-yourself argument! And, verifying yet again that having the best training in critical thinking has no bearing on whether or not one can tell if one’s privileges are masquerading as sound premises, literally only one person had the mind to question the silent assumption that functioned in every single argument put forward, that question being (in my own words): Have we simply naturalized animals’ status as consumption items for ourselves such that even we (philosophers), the masters of isolating objects from contexts for the purpose of conceptual analysis, cannot consider the notion “animal” independent of our desire to eat animals?2
To be fair, although the piece was posted on the virtual hub for mainstream philosophers, there is no evidence that every comment belonged to a philosopher or a philosopher-in- training (or, at least, dear God I hope not!) It’s completely plausible that some graduate student in philosophy innocently posted the piece on her Facebook page and the topic attracted the ire of her non-philosophically inclined Paleo-diet friends. I’m not saying this to be a judgmental shrew. In fact, at least two participants in the comments section (who revealed their full names so I doubt they are trolls) agreed with one person’s observation: “Rarely outside of an introductory philosophy class, or even inside one for that matter, have I seen so many bad arguments in one place.”
To further support my hunch that many of these comments weren’t necessarily the mind-vomit of philosophers is the fact that all of my philosophy buddies, even those who are quite invested in the subject matter, found it futile to join the conversation and, as one friend pointed out, “when the caliber of argumentation is that low, it can’t possibly be a discussion that involves practicing philosophers.” To be clear, he wasn’t “dissing” the form of the arguments as much as he was disappointed that the same points were being regurgitated without further analysis. Kinda like seeing a really, really tight argument using racist premises, or something like that. So, for those of you who have faith in the philosophical community (I’m one such person!), hopefully your commitment hasn’t been rocked by a few wayward souls. Much like David Brent’s mundane lunch with some of the new office mates from the Slough branch, maybe the good ones just didn’t show up.3
A mere handful of comments did raise the most compelling views (philosophically) regarding the justification in favoring human interests over animals’ interests. These views are the “rational” superiority of humans and the closely connected view that this rationality affords us more cognitively complex experiences. In other words, our pleasure and pain is more substantial than the pleasure and pain animals experience in a myriad of ways, and because we are “rational” beings, morality is attached to our well-being in ways that do not map onto animals’ well-being. Cutting short the life of an animal, then, is nothing like cutting short the life of a human. My two worries are the following: first, western theories about rationality and mind initially rested on the assumption that animals do not possess reason. That is, this assumption was operative in motivating and articulating theories about rationality and the human mind. We generated these theories with an eye to making ourselves, well, special.
Let me put forward a parallel example to make clear this worry.
A common thought experiment in animal ethics classes is to imagine oneself in a building that is on fire and you are confronted with the choice to save either a human being trapped in the building or, say, a cat trapped in the same building. The answer to this question will serve as a foundational moral “intuition” on which we can build or affirm other moral principles. Predictably, most students choose to save the human over the cat. (My first question is usually: “Well, is it my cat? If so, I choose my cat!” My second question is usually: “Is the human my sister? If so, I choose the cat!” [Don’t worry, Aph! Not you!] But, I digress. .. ) To me, this result simply shows that we think or suppose human beings have more moral worth than animals. The thought experiment doesn’t magically reveal that. The thought experiment is already deeply entrenched in that presupposition. We construct the thought experiment already believing that animals have less moral worth than humans. So, why should we be surprised or think that something novel is revealed by the result? Why are we pretending the thought experiment is going to reveal anything philosophically interesting? The whole reason we even placed the cat and the human as the two subjects in this example is precisely because we already think there is something significantly different- in terms of moral worth- between the two.4 Similarly, when we appeal to arguments that focus on rationality or cognitive complexity, I fear we are simply borrowing from the very assumptions we used to initially construct the theories.
My second worry revolves around using such complicated machinery and highfalutin conceptions of “rationality” or what sentience might entail only to terminate in something trivial like “and this makes it totally okay to kill animals for that yummy, yummy taste!” Really, people? There is no consensus in philosophy or any of the sciences about what it is to be rational, which beings are, in fact, rational, and so on. Given this disagreement, it seems we have an interest (especially if we cannot possibly imagine giving up the yummy, yummy taste of animal flesh) in generating and favoring accounts that tend to place animals on the losing end. Perhaps very different (and more interesting) theories of rationality and mind would be welcomed and/or further developed and emphasized in academic circles if we were willing to allow for an end other than “this makes it totally okay to kill animals for that yummy, yummy taste!”
Furthermore, it has never been clear to me that, even if it were the case that there existed some independent standard that verified humans in fact are objectively at the top of the reason-pile , I don’t see why it follows that anything remotely under that standard necessarily qualifies as “up for grabs” or immediately become “things” at the mercy of those at the top of the pile. Maybe I slept through my entire why-colonialism-is-awesome class or something, but I just don’t see why my self-perceived awesomeness is grounds for completely ignoring the interests of anything that doesn’t quite meet my “level” or for thinking my awesomeness allows for calculations that inflates one of my mundane interests over the central, life-preserving interest of another being . How does one move from “I’m more rational than X” or “I’m more cognitively complex than X” to “X is mine to do with as I will”? These steps are clear to my philosophical buddies but completely invisible to me.5 Now that I’m admitting my confusion, I have to say I don’t even quite get the hierarchy stuff at all. Might we be thinking about beings as “lower” and “higher” because we keep dragging around one particular paradigm of thinking, namely that of a hierarchy for the purpose of exploiting anything deemed “lower”? Is this infecting the way we construe all of our relations?
These are the kinds of things I wish mainstream philosophers and those in philosophical spaces would press when it comes to the animal question. Certainly it would be uncomfortable and might even force us to confront other assumptions that are housed in standard arguments, ones that we have cradled for so long precisely because we gain some advantage from our failure to seriously investigate them.
I’d like to end on a completely random note, for health’s sake. One person mused:
The problem is that eating fish or chicken completely removes this need to include a multivitamin, swedish carrot root, and omega-3 pellets into your weekly diet. There is something strange, or perhaps I should say *stupid*, about needing to search out these things while instead you could just include a “dietary staple” like chicken breast, in the same way you include kale instead of 5 different other ingredients. I don’t know, it just seems to me to be irrational, it doesn’t really follow what the body genuinely requires and benefits from most. Instead you could eat some fish which cancels out the need to pour olive oil and flax seeds on everything.
Even if you didn’t find my remarks above particularly enlightening or simply hate-read the Vegan Feminist Network blog for the sole purpose of finding ways to slag off Aph Ko’s musical tastes, please heed the following words: Whether or not you are a vegan, GET THEE TO A DOCTOR and get a vitamin and blood panel every once in a while. It does not follow from eating a normative diet that you are exempt from taking supplements or seeking out “weird” roots to rectify vitamin or other nutritional deficiencies. Many people, regardless of diet, are lacking in B12. Most people, regardless of diet, are lacking in Vitamin D. Many people, regardless of diet, are lacking in calcium (yes, even among those who consume dairy) because they didn’t consume enough of it when they were younger or because of some other health issue. Seriously, look these things up. Grocery stores stock entire sections dedicated to supplements. There aren’t enough vegans to create that kind of demand. Also, vegans can’t even use most of those supplements since there is usually some animal product in them anyway.
Although the comments for the original post mentioned here was a bit disappointing, it’s worth mentioning that my critique is not directed at the original post itself or the blog on which it is posted, which is a fine resource for philosophers. My critique of the comments section of this particular piece is in no way directed at the blog itself.
(1) A very interesting paper that addresses this topic peripherally is Kristie Dotson’s “How is this paper philosophy?” Comparative Philosophy Volume 3, No.1 (2012): 03-29.
(2) Corey Lee Wrenn was another commenter who displayed her reason in another way. Instead of engaging with people who think plants are sentient, she simply posted this link.
(3) It’s also possible that some of the comments are simply from beginners in philosophy or from those still refining their skill. Of course, this doesn’t excuse utter blindness to species privilege but, to be fair, up until I was eighteen I was a hardcore conservative Republican completely comfortable writing up mediocre essays in which I tried to defend the party from charges of homophobia and racism. We all make mistakes. But look at me now! So, there’s always hope. . .
(4) Seriously, though, like why is this a thing we keep making our students do? What is the function of this exercise? If we changed the subjects in the example to a man and a woman, I’m willing to bet most students would choose to save the female. It can’t possibly be because we think women have more moral worth than men. Our society makes that very, very clear. All it reveals is that we have a sexist tendency to regard women as “weak” and “save-able”.
(5) One of my professors stressed over and over again that moving from “I am more rational than X” to “I’m justified in favoring my interests over X” is completely logical. (Shrug)
(6) Naturally, there was no way I could even begin to mention how our views about animals are intertwined with our views about race, gender, class, etc.