Why I might have reason not to eat honey

I’m a vegan, and someone recently asked me whether I ate honey, and if not, why not.  I wasn’t sure what to say, because I don’t eat honey, but I’m not sure I have good reason not to.

I take myself to have good reason not to eat fish, mammals, and birds or related animal products on the following grounds:

(1) These animals are sentient, i.e., they can have positive or negative affective responses to stimuli.

(2) Ceteris paribus, I prefer states of affairs in which sentient creatures don’t suffer (that’s them negative affective responses I was talkin’ about).

(3) Animal agriculture, including the production of eggs and dairy products, causes a great deal of suffering.

(4) I don’t think that the fact that I used to enjoy eating animal products gets me past the ceteris paribus in (2).

Therefore, I eat other things now (plants and salt, mostly).

In the case of honey, I’m not sure I have the same kind of reason, because I don’t know whether bees and other insects are sentient.  They don’t have brains, but they have rudimentary nervous systems and seem to respond aversively to certain harmful stimuli, etc., but it’s tough to say.  I currently give them the benefit of the doubt, but if I liked honey more, I might not.

So there you have it; “Peter Singer for one,” you might say.  Unlike Singer, I don’t think that everyone has a duty or reason to maximize utility, so I don’t assume that everyone has the same reasons I have for eschewing animal products.

That said, I’m curious to know why others don’t take themselves to have similar reasons to mine.  It seems to me that most people would agree, on reflection, that they don’t like the idea of animal suffering and would prefer that it weren’t so prevalent.  I doubt most people think that their current gustatory practices provide them with irreplaceable benefits.   So what gives?

One possible response would be to reject the desire/liking/pro-attitude-based model of reasons implicit in the above, and I guess that’s probably too big a topic to tackle in a thread that’s ostensibly about honey.

But if you’re on board with a compatible theory of reasons, you might say either (A) that the considerations I’ve presented above don’t actually constitute good reason — not even a “single-serving” good reason, just for me — not to eat animal products, or (B) that I have reason to be a vegan but that you don’t because of some relevant difference in your psychology and/or other parts of the world, e.g., you don’t believe that animals are sentient, you don’t mind when animals suffer, you think that farmers are nice to their little animal buddies, and/or you really, really like eating animals.

There’s also (C) I’m already a veg(etari)an, but my reason is much better than yours, (D) Shit, you’re right, I do have a reason!, and (E) all the considerations you cite apply to me, but some consideration you’ve neglected outweighs them.

What do you think?  (Yeah, you guessed it, this isn’t really so much about honey …)


67 Responses to Why I might have reason not to eat honey

  1. Bryan says:

    So, if you lived on zombie-earth, where beings behave exactly as they do here but do not have conscious experiences — then would you eat meat?

    I suppose you might as well just be a cannibal…

  2. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Bryan: I think that if zombie-me had no conscious experiences, he’d have no reason to do anything, but if he behaved exactly like I do here, he’d be a vegan.

    If, on the other hand, I (the real me, who can have conscious experiences) lived on zombie-earth, my reasons for action would only be constrained by my preferences and the efficacy of the zombie-police.

  3. dtlocke says:

    I’m a vegetarian, and if zombie-earth is indeed possible, I’d eat zombies.

    As for honey, even if you are giving bees the “benefit of the doubt”, why not eat honey? Does taking honey from bee hives harm the bees? I would think not, but I have to admit I don’t know much about it.

  4. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Good points, Dustin.

    First, zombies are delicious. Second, I’m not an expert, either, but I have read that large-scale honey producers cut off queen bees’ wings to keep them in the hives, take all the honey in the hives and leave only sugar solution for the bees to eat through the winter (which causes some to starve), and if they think it’s too expensive to keep the bees alive through winter, they just destroy the hives by burning them. They also tend to maim or kill individual bees through haphazard handling.

    However, these harms are all avoidable, and one could probably find humanely produced honey from smaller producers. Maybe I should look into that.

  5. Steve C. says:

    Nice post, Steve.

    1. Yes, it has little to do with honey.
    2. I’d eat zombies.
    3. I agree with (2), which is why I try to be a “conscientious omnivore,” as some have called it. (E.g. buying free-range meat and eggs.) Do you think (2) requires more than this?
    4. I’d be very interested to hear a defense of the moral permissibility of buying factory farmed meat. I can’t imagine what a reasonable one would be. But since there seems to be a sizeable number of philosophers (even ethicists!) out there who engage in this practice, perhaps there is some defense. Suggestions?

  6. Steve Nayak-Young says:


    Re “conscientious omnivory,” I think that the requirements of (2) depend on the strength of the desire/affect/pro-attitude/whatever that gives you the reason.

    Whatever one’s reasons demand, one should investigate what is involved in “free-range” production. With eggs, the definitions vary — in some cases, all it means is that the chickens are permitted to run around inside a warehouse. That’s leagues better than life in a battery cage, but it still kinda sucks. The Humane Society of the United States offers a guide to egg labeling at:


    As for free-range meat, it’s mostly about providing consumers with “grass-fed” and/or “hormone-free” meat, and there are no guarantees that the animals are better-treated. And whatever perks they experience on the farm, they have to endure the horrors of ordinary transport and slaughter, as free-range farms don’t typically have dedicated slaughterhouses.

    You can find further info/propaganda at:


  7. Steve C. says:

    Nice. I’ll check out the links.

    How sad that it isn’t easier to be a conscientious omnivore.

  8. alexandra plakias says:

    hey steve n-y: interesting post. i’m guessing that when you say it’s not about honey, you’re also thinking about oysters? shrimp?

    i have a feeling this is going to be a controversial point, but: one way to make it the case that sentient creatures don’t suffer (or that fewer do) is to make it the case that there are fewer sentient creatures. to be clear, i’m not saying this justifies large-scale production methods; i am horrified by these, and have been eating relatively little meat lately (which if you know me, is rather surprising in and of itself). but it is the case that many species- and breeds- exist because of demand for their meat or other products; without this demand, they wouldn’t. (again, this isn’t supposed to say anything goes as far as farming practice; i’m trying to raise a question about the intrinsic wrongness of using an animal for food.)

    but ok, my question is: suppose you have a choice between no honey because no bees, or preserving the existence of bee colonies for the purposes of getting honey from them?

    finally, you can look into the southern michigan beekeepers’ society; you could even get certified in beekeeping! there’s also a guy on the west side who makes his own honey and sells it off his porch on the honor system. if you email me i’ll try to find the address and give it to you.

  9. Sven says:

    The honey guy is on 5th street close to the 5th/Liberty intersection. The honey sold there is quite nice.

  10. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Hi Alex, I just meant that in order to answer the question about honey I needed to explain my reasons for not eating more clearly sentient creatures, so the post ended up being more about meat and such than about honey. Nonetheless, I think you’re right to include shrimp and oysters in the not-so-sure-they’re-sentient category.

    Re your point about reducing the number of sentient creatures, I would strongly prefer that few or no animals were bred to live short, awful lives before being trucked to the slaughterhouse. If that meant many fewer domesticated animals/species, I don’t think they’d be missing out on anything worthwhile by not existing.

    Re the intrinsic wrongness of using animals for food, I wouldn’t try to rule out that someone could reasonably think that it’s OK to raise cows in pleasant conditions and then painlessly euthanize them in their sleep or something. But nobody does anything of the sort, so far as I know. Similarly, if I were starving, etc., etc., but I’m kind of overfed most of the time.

    Re preserving the existence of bee colonies, I think I’ve heard that there’s a big problem with the bee population at the moment. Seems they’re shirking their pollination duties or something. So I should probably support amateur beekeeping, possibly while trying to persuade them to tone down the bee-smushing and hive-burning. I don’t think I’ll take up beekeeping myself, though, as I don’t care for the hats.

    And hey, thanks for the tip about the honey guy!

  11. James Gray says:

    I think almost everyone agrees that harming sentient animals is bad, but enjoy eating meat, see themselves as omnivores (partly predatory), don’t know about factory farming, don’t know how to have a well-balanced diet without meat, and so on.

  12. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    James: Thanks for your comments. I think you’re right about what many people think, but I was aiming my questions at philosophy types who are inclined to think about what they have reason to do or not do.

  13. James Gray says:

    I think it is interesting that you see “philosophy types” as so different from everyone else. The idea of “philosophy as a way of life” is not the dominant view right now. Instead, philosophers tend to be academics who are paid to be intellectual rather than practical. However, I agree that many people with a strong interest in philosophy often have a slightly different “way of life” than what is ordinary, often for ethical reasons. Peter Singer comes to mind.

    I personally find it difficult to live life so differently from everyone else and I have to prioritize what I think is important. “Not eating meat” would take effort that I haven’t yet given to it, but someday I might.

    I also think as philosophers we pick our battles, and “not eating meat” is a losing battle right now. For example, if everyone pollutes, then we are in a sense excused from the obligation “not to pollute” (when our not polluting won’t actually help the pollution problem.) One person not eating meat similarly doesn’t necessarily stop any animals from getting killed. Killing animals, if wrong, is probably (a) a symptom of cultural problems rather than the cure and (b) isn’t easily stopped by one person’s lack of participation.

    This isn’t to say that polluting is a good idea or that eating meat is a good idea. It has more to do with obligations, choosing our battles, prioritizing what battles to fight, etc.

  14. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    James: Philosophy types are different from everyone else in that they talk funny, especially when they talk about reasons.

  15. Steve C. says:

    Hi James,
    If you haven’t read it already, I’d highly recommend reading Ch. 3 of Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. It’s an excellent chapter and the thing that first moved me to want to be “part of the solution.”

  16. James Gray says:

    This is also related to an ethical issue that is too often ignored: People do bad things or financially support businesses with unethical practices all the time, but we simply realize that it would be nearly impossible or too difficult to be perfect and completely stop all of it. In other words, as we become wise we are able to do less harm and so forth, but we can’t expect everyone to be perfectly wise.

    Eating animals in and of itself isn’t wrong, but it does financially support businesses with unethical practices. Driving a car in and of itself does pollute the environment. One car doesn’t cause harm, but millions of cars do. (There are a lot of other bad things involved with cars, but I will keep it simple.) However, it is almost considered absurd to tell people they should stop driving cars.


    I have never heard of that book. I think we all want to be part of the solution, but you probably mean that it helped motivate you in new ways, or something like that.

  17. Jon S. says:

    Hi New Steve,

    The department appears to me lacking in committed omnivores in my absence, so I thought I’d weigh in, even a bit late. Sticking to honey: I take (B). If bees count as sentient, then ceteris paribus, I don’t prefer states of fairs where sentient beings don’t suffer. I just don’t care if bees suffer. I don’t really understand why anyone else would care if bees suffer, unless they (the bees) have a much more advanced nervous system than I think they do (or they [the people] have a much more advanced nervous system than I do, so that they have access to some Buddhist-y truths about bee suffering). Even giving bees the benefit of the doubt that they, say, experience pain, “mmm honey” easily outweighs any worries I’d have there; so does the satisfying sound a bee intruder makes when you greet its intrusion into your apartment with a tennis racket. (I’m not a consequentialist of any stripe, but if I were, say, a utilitarian, I might make some appeal to qualitative differences in the relevant calculus of utilities.)

    So that’s probably all very provocative. But I think the vast majority of the general populus would agree with me, and I’m pretty surprised nobody else plumped for (B).


  18. Jon S. says:

    States of fairs or state fairs or states of affairs. Take your pick. (In general: I blame any typos on Dutch people and their inability to speak grammatical English.)

  19. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Hi Jon,

    I think it’s great that you wrote and didn’t mention zombies and that you *can* write despite the pernicious influence of the Dutch.

    I agree that (B) would be the popular choice, and in the case of bees, I agree that it seems reasonable to wonder whether they can suffer to any degree that you or I would care about.

    However, this might conflate “I don’t care” with “I don’t think they feel pain,” or at least combine them in a way that we could pull apart. It’s one thing if you don’t care about bees’ suffering no matter how bad it is (say, just because they’re bees), and another if you don’t care about it because you think it’s not that bad.

    In my case, I suspect that bees’ suffering is not that bad and therefore don’t care about it that much, so I’m not sure whether my abstaining from honey is something I have reason to do or something I just do to be difficult at potluck dinners or otherwise to fit in with other vegans.

    In contrast, it seems clear to me that fish, birds, and mammals (e.g., weiner dogs) are capable of the sort of suffering that I wouldn’t want to cause (or pay other people to cause) unless I had some non-trivial reason for doing so. But I assume that not everyone cares about the same state fairs I do.

    Keeping it in (B) territory, one could disagree with me on the badness of the suffering (e.g., one could hold that fish, chickens, sheep, monkeys, and/or humans with double-digit IQs aren’t capable of much in the way of suffering), and/or one could agree that some animals other than oneself can suffer but that one doesn’t care about their suffering for some reason or other (e.g., “I feel great sympathy for most species, but I can’t abide marmosets”).

  20. Jon S. says:

    Hi again,

    I suppose how bad it is depends on their nervous systems, but I don’t think it would matter if the pain were excruciating, because I don’t think they’re capable of remembering that they were in pain, or even of conceptualizing that anything bad is happening to them. Let’s say they not only engage in pain behavior, but also suffer pain-like qualia. I still don’t care. No conflation there. (Assuming I can correctly guess what you mean by “negative affective responses”, the suffering of bees does not produce them in me. I genuinely don’t care.)

    I also don’t really care about the suffering of fish. Same reasons here, although slightly qualified because I can imagine imagining people doing things to fish that might bother me, but I would have to see them to find out, and they’d have to be very extreme. To be clear: I cannot presently imagine such things, but I think that if I tried harder I could probably come up with some.

    I’m on the fence about chickens and cows, because I don’t know how much they can conceptualize. I do care (very much) about the suffering of weiner dogs, and even (only recently) cats. If I were to become convinced that chickens and cows could conceptualize, remember, and have preferences to the same extent that I think weiner dogs can, I might have to start emphasizing how much I like eating chickens and cows in order to take (B) (by taking issue with (4) rather than (2)).

    At any rate, I have quite a lot of evidence about what induces me to have negative affective responses to the negative affective responses of other things, because Animal Planet is one of the few television channels that’s in English all day long here. I think it will help clear up the extent to which I am committed to option (B) if I share some of that. So, for instance, I care more about the suffering of an animal if, ceteris paribus, it’s been given a name. That’s psychologically explicable, but not really rational. However, if you pressed me on it, I think I would regard it as more rational to stop caring about named things than to start caring about unnamed things. Here’s an even stranger one: I care more about the perceived suffering of cute animated critters than I do about the suffering of snakes. That is, the former bothers me a lot more than the latter does. I take this to be evidence that I needn’t attach too much importance to how much the suffering of creatures without brains bothers me.

    (I would like to note that it wasn’t until the third reading of your post that I noticed the “state fairs” bit there. Thanks, Dutch people.)

    There’s more I could say, but I’ll let you drive the conversation if you have further questions.


  21. James Gray says:


    You have defended being an omnivore with one important point: Our pleasure might be more important than the pain of certain animals.

    However, it could still be seen as a good thing not to eat honey or animals because the pain caused could be seen as a bad thing.

    Also, eating animals and honey in and of itself doesn’t cause suffering anyway. The more important point is the unethical practices of the businesses that tend to be involved. I think it was already pointed out that taking honey from bees probably doesn’t harm them. Eating dead animals certainly doesn’t harm them. How we treat the animals while they are alive is the real issue.

  22. Steve C. says:

    Hi Jon,
    You’ve given us an interesting peek at your psychology.

    A few questions:
    -Why do you mention remembering as being a relevant consideration? Do you think pain is worse if you remember it afterwards? Is that because the remembering is itself painful? Or do you think pain is worse if remembered (even if the remembering is neutral or pleasurable)?
    -Why should we care about your pain? Suppose that I just don’t care about your pain. Can you make the case that I should? (Maybe that would be a good starting point to see if we can find a rationale for caring about the pain of other animals.)

    Old Steve (younger than New Steve!)

  23. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    I think Old Steve (aka “Steve the Younger”) raises some good questions, and I’d be interested to see Jon’s answers to them.

    For my part, I think that if some dastards said, “We’re going to torture you briefly, but we’ll erase the memories afterward, so don’t be a crybaby about it,” I think I would nonetheless reasonably complain, and anyone who cared even a tiny bit about my interests would have reason to object or intervene.

    However, those who didn’t care even a tiny bit about my interests wouldn’t have such reason, would they? Some folks contribute to Amnesty International and/or think it’s a worthwhile cause, and some folks don’t.

    I’m somewhat easy to fend off, because I don’t think there are any agent-neutral reasons, categorical imperatives, or attitudes or actions that are “important,” “good,” or “wrong,” sans phrase. All I can do is ask the following sorts of questions:

    Are you really OK with being indifferent to the suffering of certain others? Would you continue to be indifferent if you knew more about their suffering? If you would care more if you knew more, are you comfortable with remaining “blissfully ignorant”?

    It might turn out that by the time I ran out of such questions or got tired of being so earnest, you’d still be a happy-go-lucky supporter of whatever it is they do to the animals before shipping the tasty bits to you. I wouldn’t be happy that I’d failed to ferret a reason out of the stuff you care about, but I’m used to that sort of disappointment.

    Now, imagine that someone (e.g., you) asked you a bunch of questions along the lines I suggested above. Upon reflection, what sorts of attitudes would you come to think you have reason to hold and act upon — exactly the same ones you currently have?

    Reasons aren’t one-size-fits-all, and caring about animal suffering isn’t all or nothing. You could at least cut out the veal and foie gras, is all I’m saying …

  24. Jon S. says:

    Mr. Gray,

    I didn’t deny that the pain of (barely) sentient animals like bees *could be seen as* a bad thing. I denied that it *was* a bad thing. I think it’s morally indifferent. (I’m not confused; I’m opposing the vegetarian masses.)

    Steve the Younger,

    I react more negatively to pain that is remembered after the fact. The question was, in part, about what negative affective responses people have. My consequentialist intuitions are generally very weak, so I don’t think it has to do with the pleasantness of the remembering. It has more to do with the way an individual experiences its life. Insofar as memory shapes that experience, it matters. (Keep in mind, I’m just trying to describe my intuitions here. I’ll wax a bit Lockean to explain the experience bit below.) As for my pain, we can pretend to be non-cognitivists of a Michigan-y stripe. I say, “Don’t cause me pain!” I also say, “Cause bees pain if’n you wanna!”

    As you know, ethics isn’t my field, beyond what I need to know to teach intro courses. So I can’t expand much more on what kind of non-cognitivists we’re pretending to be. As you might also know, my actual intuitions tend to be Kantian. I can universalize a maxim like “sustainably exploit bees as brutally as you want”; they don’t have humanity to treat as a means (their limited cognitive faculties are relevant here); [insert something about compatibility of bee harming with the kingdom of ends]. More generally, I don’t see any reason to grant that I have a duty to minimize bee suffering. Harming me won’t pass the tests. (I can more or less adequately defend that claim, but I trust you don’t need me to.)

    I don’t have especially strong intuitions that it’s wrong to cause me pain if I don’t remember it and it has no other adverse effects. Insofar as I do have that intuition, I think it’s because I don’t believe there wouldn’t be adverse psychological effects. (Even if I didn’t remember it, it might negatively impact future experiences. I might have weird aversions, etc., without knowing why.) There’s also some opportunity cost because you’re wasting my time. And, of course, I have negative affective responses to people wasting my time. This is, indeed, my main objection to you doing painful things to me that I don’t remember and which have no lasting effects. (Of course, they would have to–very strictly–have *no* lasting effects for me to be really indifferent.) But insofar as they have no lasting effects (here comes Locke on personal identity), I don’t care, because I don’t identify with the thing you’re injuring.

    Before you ask, I don’t really care if bees have adverse psychological effects, but I suspect that there is some imaginative resistance getting in the way; I might be moved to care if you convinced me that they were capable of experiencing adverse psychological effects. But–now I will use a technical term to sound radical–I don’t think bees are even capable of *experience* (in Kant’s sense). (It sounds radical but it’s magically trivial.) Similarly, I don’t believe that it’s possible to waste a bee’s time; there’s no significant opportunity cost.

    I claim I’ve now answered all of Old Steve’s questions at some length. In case I haven’t sufficiently generated the intuition in your devil’s advocate that you should care about my pain, you may add to the non-cognitivist and Kantian tries also a Millian qualitative utilitarian account (and a Benthamite one, since they’re secretly equivalent). You can add others as well, but that’s all the references I can muster at 4 am with homework due tomorrow.

    Grandpa Steve:

    I claim I only need to start responding to your fifth paragraph; let me know if you’d like a direct response to something earlier.

    I am really OK with being indifferent to the suffering of bees, and I would continue to be indifferent regardless of what I learned (unless it were radically different than what I expect). If you switch to animals with more developed brains, like cows, my answers change, but not to the same as yours. I’m relatively indifferent to the suffering of cows; I probably wouldn’t be as indifferent if I knew more about their suffering; I prefer to remain blissfully ignorant. (Indeed, watching PETA videos makes me uncomfortable eating meat for a few days. So I don’t watch them.)

    It’s hard for me to know exactly what question my fellow Michiganders are asking when they ask me things about what reasons I think I have, because I don’t work on reasons, and I don’t know how theory-laden the conception of reasons in question is. But when it comes to reasons as I think of them, I will grant that there are reasons for me to not eat, say, veal. But I like veal more than I am compelled by those reasons. (Well, now I’m just being provocative. I almost never eat veal or foie gras, but not for moral reasons. If I liked it more, I would eat it more.)

    More generally, I mentioned above that I have fairly Kantian intuitions. That’s true insofar as I think that the good- or bad-making properties of actions have to do with their accordance with or divergence from duties. But I don’t think that I’m bound to act in accordance with duty all the time. I think that it’s even possible to recognize that something is a duty and then choose not to do it.

    Well, I’m sure all of that is provocative enough for now. Back to Montague grammar.


  25. Steve C. says:

    Jon, thanks for the reply. Here’s a thought…

    Suppose that I could fly to Amsterdam next week and wire your brain in such a way that, every 10 seconds, you’ll get a painful electric shock that lasts 1 second. But (magically!) I rig it up so that, after each painful shock, your memory is wiped clean of having been shocked, AND the shocking doesn’t interfere with your daily activities. The shocking doesn’t hinder your work, and it doesn’t hurt your relations with others. (They just think you have a twitch. When they ask you about it, you don’t report anything about feeling pain or recognizing that you were wincing.) So there’s no real opportunity cost, let’s suppose.

    You seem to be claiming that this pain wouldn’t matter. You seem to be claiming that it wouldn’t matter if 1/10th of the rest of your life involved getting an electric shock. This seems absurd to me, Jon. (And notice that we could increase the frequency of the shocks.)

  26. Jon S. says:

    Low on time, so I’ll have to give you a quick answer now and elaborate later if necessary. I don’t think you’ve described a logically possible situation (no opportunity cost + 1/10th of the rest of my life basically vanished = inconsistent). I agree that it would be absurd to claim that it wouldn’t matter if 1/10th of the rest of my life was spent being shocked. I want that tenth for other things. I think that, by the time the case is changed enough to really do away with the opportunity cost, it’ll seem a lot less absurd to embrace the conclusion.

  27. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Jon, thanks for your reply and for taking an interest in this discussion. I’m not disappointed that I couldn’t get you to weep for the bees, but I do wish I could have swayed you a bit more re the cows et al.

    Of course, only *you* could sway you — I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t care much what I think. But if seeing animals suffer makes you feel averse to eating animals, and you don’t like whistling in the dark, then … oh, well, I already tried this routine, so I’ll give it a rest.

    Thanks again, and enjoy the Montague grammar, unless that’s Dutch for “veal and foie gras sandwich.” (I have the feeling it’s even more unspeakable …)

  28. Steve C. says:

    Well, I think the case works fine as is. That part of your life isn’t vanished; it’s just spent in pain. You’re doing with your time whatever you would have done without the accompanying pain. (I grant, there is something unrealistic in the suggestion that you could experience sharp pain and still function as efficiently. That’s where the case gets mildly fanciful.)

    Speaking for myself, when I’m in pain, I tend to think it’s bad because it hurts and not just because it’s distracting me from other things or hindering me from pursuing my goals. Also, I can’t make much sense of the thought that remembering pain makes it bad, even less so if the pain experience isn’t itself bad.

  29. Jon S. says:

    Mr. N.Y., (BA, JD, MA,)

    You’re welcome. (I’m hope you’re familiar with the School Spirit skits on _The College Dropout_. Assuming you are equipped with a sense of irony, you will be amused.)

    Mr. C.,

    Drop me an email if you want to continue off thread. (I promise to continue making claims you’ll find vaguely absurd.)

    • Steve Nayak-Young says:

      Jon: I wasn’t familiar, but YouTube was. Now that I’ve heard it, yup, that’s me! I’m mostly going for the PhD because it has three letters.

      Now here are some video links:

      PETA’s Meet Your Meat (narrated by Alec Baldwin)
      PETA’s Chew on This (narrated by a bunch of superserious dorks)
      Humane Society of the United States’ Animal Channel

      Those are for interested passersby, if any. This one goes out to Jon:

      The Cluckin’ Chicken

  30. Andrew says:


    I’m late to the discussion, but I wanted to say a couple of things (which might already have been said) in support of the omnivores.

    First, is this a version of the argument you want to endorse?

    1. The animal agriculture industry causes pain and suffering.
    2. If (1), then my buying and consuming animal products causes pain and suffering.
    3. So, my buying and consuming animal products causes pain and suffering.
    4. If my doing something, x, causes pain and suffering, then I should not do x unless refraining from doing x would result in my sacrificing something of comparable moral significance.
    5. Refraining from buying and consuming animal products would not result in my sacrificing something of comparable moral significance.
    6. So, I should not buy and consume animal products.

    I have a couple of concerns about this sort of argument (none of them original).

    First, (2) looks false. I don’t think that counterfactual dependence is a necessary condition for causation because of various sorts of preemption cases. But, except where you’ve got weird preemption situations going on (and, that’s not what’s happening here, I think), an absence of counterfactual dependence is a pretty good indication that you don’t have causation. That is, doesn’t the fact that my becoming a vegetarian would have no effect on the animal agriculture industry give us good reason to think that premise (2) is false? Why should I become a vegetarian if my meat eating activities aren’t causing any suffering?

    Maybe you can make a case for the claim that I contribute only very slightly to pain and suffering by purchasing meat. But, then, (5) is likely to be false if I take even a moderate amount of pleasure in eating meat. If my contribution to pain and suffering is only very slight, then it shouldn’t take much of an interest in eating meat to be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance by opting for tofu.

    Also, there is a considerable industry surrounding animal agriculture. A huge portion of the worlds agriculture sector is devoted to producing animal products, or feed for the animals that produce animal products. Then, there’s all of equipment, transportation, upkeep, etc. that goes into the animal agriculture industry. Suppose we get fully on board with premise (2). That is, suppose we became convinced that my meat eating behavior does directly cause pain and suffering by impacting the animal agriculture industry. Then, wouldn’t it also be likely that my refusing to purchase and consume meat would adversely affect the animal agriculture industry? Because so many people depend on the animal agriculture industry for their livelihood, shouldn’t we think that I thereby sacrifice something of comparable moral significance to the suffering and pain felt by the animals?

  31. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for your contribution.

    I’m not endorsing a version of the argument you recite, because I’m not saying anything about “moral significance.” I’m not sure what that is, so I don’t make claims about it. However, I argue that I, given the things I care about, have reason to be a vegan, and some of your points are relevant to that.

    For example, you suggest that since my abstaining will have little effect on the meat industry, I shouldn’t bother. I don’t want to get into the counterfactuals and economics of it, but if what you mean is, “boycotts don’t work,” I disagree. More to the point, what the meat industry does to animals makes me very, very angry. If what an industry does makes me very, very angry, I think I have reason not to give it money and thereby encourage it.

    (I’m not suggesting that my anger is justified in virtue of its being written in the sky that the meat industry is wrong or anything like that. It just makes me angry when I think about what the industry does, and I wouldn’t want to change that. I think this disposition of mine suggests that I have sympathy and compassion for the suffering of other sentient beings, and I hope I’m always like that.)

    As for the “considerable industry surrounding animal agriculture,” I think that it has an enormously negative impact on both the environment and human health, in addition to the suffering it inflicts on animals, so I think the jobs it provides are far too “expensive” for what they offer to workers. After all, many jobs in the animal agriculture industry — especially those in slaughterhouses — are among the lowest-paid and most dangerous jobs in the country.

    Whether or not I’m right about that stuff, even if I can convince others to join my boycott, there’s not going to be any rapid change. When I’m pessimistic, I predict that the meat industry will always be around, and when I’m optimistic, I predict that it might eventually disappear, but not in my lifetime. Even the latter scenario would allow plenty of time for the people who currently farm animals to switch to farming plants or — like those who worked in the typewriter repair industry, etc. — to find something else to do. In any case, if I don’t want to buy meat anymore, I don’t care about preserving the jobs of the people who want to sell it to me, and I feel OK about that.

  32. Alexa F says:

    Hi All,

    Below find responses that address (what I perceive to be) mistakes made by Alex, Steve C., Jon S., and Andrew.

    I am a happy vegan for two reasons:

    1) It allows me to avoid participating in a market that I believe to be deplorable and imprudent. (Deplorable for the moral wrongs it does, imprudent for its environmental harms).

    2) I have been convinced by empirical evidence that it is better for my health to eat vegan, and I try generally to do things that are good for my health. (See: “The China Study” as a starting point for evidence to back up this claim.)

    Regarding 1, we may ask both whether the meat industry is deplorable and imprudent, and also why is it important to avoid participating in markets that are deplorable and imprudent.

    Why should we avoid participating in deplorable, imprudent markets? The suggestion that the only possible reason to do so would be if it is likely to end or make smaller the market seems misguided. There are also at least the following reasons beyond this:

    1) It makes one feel better about oneself.
    2) It makes it easier for other people to opt out of the deplorable/imprudent system by creating a support network and community based around the preparation and enjoyment of goods from outside that market. (I think this effect is DRASTICALLY UNDERESTIMATED).
    3) It allows one to express one’s concern and respect (in this case for animal welfare) in action regardless of success, similar to the way that my *trying* to save a kitten from drowning in a storm drain expresses concern for the kitten regardless of my chances of successfully saving the kitten.
    4) It helps keep other people from becoming complacent (i.e. from forgetting that they are participating in a deplorable and imprudent market).
    [Andrew, I’d be interested in your response here.]

    As for WHAT moral wrongs are done by the meat system, I take a modified Kantian approach. I agree with this much of Kant: The primary moral imperative is to treat those entities which are ends-in-themselves always as ends-in-themselves and never merely as means.

    But I disagree with Kant’s assumption about what makes an end-in-itself an end-in-itself. He believes it is the capacity for a certain type of rational self-governance. Against this, I believe, having interests (including, but not necessarily limited to, sentience-based interests) is what makes an entity an end-in-itself. Rationality is irrelevant. For support, please see: strong intuition that children and mentally disabled humans still count as ends-in-themselves. [Jon S….Be interested to hear whether you think children and mentally disabled deserve respect, and why].

    This being the case, it is wrong to ever use animals solely as the means to our ends. We can use them as means to our ends, but we also must also simultaneously respect them as ends as well (this dovetails nicely with my ideas about how pets ought to be treated.)

    This rules out most meat and dairy production (the two go hand in hand), even a great deal of “organic” and “free-range” meat and dairy, and most use of leather, etc. Of course, we can debate about whether and under what conditions it is ever possible to kill/cage an individual while simultaneously respecting that individual as an end-in-itself. [Steve C and Alex, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say here.]

    Also, Alex, with respect to the argument that we are doing animals a favor by bringing them into existence–please see the slave child thought experiment in Gregory Kavka’s “The Paradox of Future Individuals.” Take away lesson from that: We cannot USE “the gift of life” to excuse our (moral) failure to treat those lives we bring into existence as ends-in-themselves. In short: We should bring into existence only those individuals we intend to treat as ends.

    As for bees, I err on the side of compassion. Agave necture, maple syrup, cane sugar, corn syrup and fruit sugars are plenty enough sweeteners for me. Let the bees enjoy their honey.

    Note: In many cases it is impossible to fulfill all our obligations at once. We have a duty to treat all beings as ends, INCLUDING OURSELVES. Thus, if treating myself as an end requires me to treat some other end-in-itself as a means only, it might be justifiable. If a lion is charging me, my duty to myself may trump my duty to the lion. But when possible, we should try to accommodate the interests of all moral subjects.

    Note: It might be easier to become vegan than you think. If you are looking for good vegan recipes, let me know!


  33. Steve C. says:

    “…whether and under what conditions it is ever possible to kill/cage an individual while simultaneously respecting that individual as an end-in-itself.”

    Hi Alexa, neat comment. I like the addition of further reasons to go vegan.

    At this point, I’m inclined towards the Epicurean view of death (i.e. it’s not a harm to the one who dies), which may explain why I’m not averse to killing animals if it can be done humanely. Also, I don’t tend to think in Kantian terms.

    I think the morality of caging depends on how large the cage is and how much break-time there is from the cage, among other things. (Are cats who live in apartments “caged”? Maybe so. I once had a girlfriend whose cat lived in her bathroom. I was disturbed by this at the time, mainly because it watched me pee. But I think I should have been disturbed by the fact that the cat didn’t have more space.) I realize, of course, that factory farms often have unacceptably crowded conditions. I don’t favor this, but more for suffering-is-bad reasons than ends-in-themselves reasons.

  34. Jon S. says:

    Hi Alexa,

    I’ll respond to two things. First, re: your additional reasons for going vegan, only one of them counts (for me). 1 is false (for me, and I suspect for many others). Neither 2 nor 4 seem to me to be additional at all. They are part of the effect that one has by going vegan, but what is being doubted is the efficacy of the marginal act of going vegan in bringing about either 2 or 4, or the larger goal of shrinking/killing the market. The claim that 2 is drastically underestimated is essentially just the claim that the marginal effect is bigger than Andrew, among others (like me), might think. I don’t buy that marginal effects are non-negligible, and it’s not because I haven’t thought about 2 or 4. (I assume we just won’t see eye-to-eye here, because I’m also deeply dubious of the marginal effect of things like voting. So you can write me off as an extremist there if you like.) So, I only think 3 counts as genuinely additional. But it’s only a reason if one has and wants to express the concern you mention.

    Second, re: what you actually asked for my feedback about, Kant says something about humanity rather than rationality, which then gets explained in terms of rationality. You surely know the details here better than I do, because I only know the first Critique (and stuff like Groundwork for the Metaphysics and Morals). I agree that it shouldn’t be rationality per se that makes for humanity or personhood. (I don’t know if there are distinctions people might want to draw between humanity and personhood. I use “personhood” just because it feels like more of a technical term to me, so we can debate about what it should mean.) You say this:

    “He believes it is the capacity for a certain type of rational self-governance. Against this, I believe, having interests (including, but not necessarily limited to, sentience-based interests) is what makes an entity an end-in-itself. Rationality is irrelevant. For support, please see: strong intuition that children and mentally disabled humans still count as ends-in-themselves.”

    Seems like a big (big!) leap to me from “Rationality is irrelevant” (which we buy into because of intuitions about children) to saying, essentially, “sentience is irrelevant”. (Historical question, because I don’t know the second Critique: Is Kant really committed to denying that children are rational?) I think something’s being a human being is sufficient for personhood, thus for its being an end-in-itself. It seems plausible (but markedly less obvious) to me that being a bonobo is sufficient for personhood. This isn’t just blatant speciesism; it’s predicated on a genuine distinction in cognitive capacities. (So, it’s not obvious to me what the cognitive capacities of bonobos are.) Now, I would have to know a lot more than I do about the cognitive capacities of the brains of various types of animals to say where the line should fall. I’m committed to drawing it somewhere between humans on the one hand, and bees and fish on the other. (I’m not genuinely committed to dogs being on the human side, although I would like it if they were.) I should note that, if cognitive research should prove that animals have cognitive capacities only marginally different from those of humans, then some of my other commitments (e.g., to the falsehood of exactly that) would have to go, and then I might have to drop the commitment to bees and fish being on the food side of the line.

    (If you want to have a serious debate about personhood, you’d either have to wait until I read Parfit, which might be a long time, or summarize the necessary parts.)


  35. Alexa F says:


    Thanks for the response. A couple misunderstandings:

    You write:
    Seems like a big (big!) leap to me from “Rationality is irrelevant” (which we buy into because of intuitions about children) to saying, essentially, “sentience is irrelevant”.

    I totally agree, but neither did I suggest sentience is irrelevant. Quite the opposite, I suggest that having sentience-based interests is a key feature, and perhaps, though not necessarily, the only feature, that sets ends-in-themselves apart from mere means.

    You write:
    I think something’s being a human being is sufficient for personhood, thus for its being an end-in-itself. It seems plausible (but markedly less obvious) to me that being a bonobo is sufficient for personhood. This isn’t just blatant speciesism; it’s predicated on a genuine distinction in cognitive capacities.

    I do not understand how this is not blatant speciesism, unless you think all human beings have (relevant) cognitive capacities greater than Bonobos, pigs, dogs, crows, etc. But this is false.

    Suppose I said: I think being Caucasian is sufficient to ensure that you deserve to be a student at a top university, and thus deserve to be admitted. It seems plausible (but markedly less obvious to me) that being Black is sufficient to ensure that you deserve to be admitted. This isn’t just blatant racism; it’s predicated on a genuine distinction in cognitive capacities.

    Surely this is blatant racism. And the blatant racism is not the part that questions whether all blacks deserve to be admitted, rather it’s the part that assumes that all whites are.

    If you really want to make cognitive capacities the marker of who deserves to be afforded respect, be forewarned: pigs, dogs, chimps etc. have more advanced capacities for rational self-guidance and problem-solving than many humans (mentally impaired, children, etc.). Do you think we should be allowed to use these mentally impaired humans in lab experiments, etc.?

    As for Kant, he was blatantly racist and sexist and quite ignorant of what beings other than white European males are like (as in: he wrote extensively about how American Savages and Negro Savages are no different than animals). So, I would not look to him for direction on this matter. When concerned about ethically-relevant differences between beings, far better to consult contemporary physiological and experimental data.


  36. Andrew says:

    Hi Steve and Alexa,

    I grant that there might be prudential reasons to refrain from consuming animal products. Alexa mentions two factors which may give me a prudential reason for so refraining:

    (1) I might be healthier as a result of so refraining

    This might be right. But, I think, considerations involving health give me a prudential reason to consume animal products responsibly, not to avoid them entirely. If there is good reason to believe that eating any animal products at all will significantly and adversely affect ones health, then there is a good prudential reason to refrain from consuming animal products. But, is the antecedent of that conditional true?

    (2) I might feel better about myself as a result of so refraining.

    It might be a psychological fact about some people that they feel better about themselves simply in virtue of refraining from consuming products resulting from an industry which they take to be responsible for moral wrongs. In that case, given that feeling good about oneself is a good thing, they might have some prudential reason to so refrain. Of course, if the pleasure one gets from consuming animal products outweighs the value associated with feeling good about oneself, then, on balance, you may have a prudential reason to consume animal products. I’m not sure why, though, that you would feel good about yourself simply in virtue of so refraining unless you had some view about the moral propriety of consuming animal products. If you thought, for instance, that eating animal products was morally neutral, why would you feel good about not consuming such products?

    I think the more interesting issue (as measured by my interests) is whether we have any moral obligation to so refrain. I suggested that I, at least, don’t. I gave two reasons to think that I have no such obligation.

    (1*) The animal agriculture industry employs a lot of people. Doing serious harm to it would involve seriously harming those people. I shouldn’t do anything that would contribute to seriously harming a lot of people.

    I guess I think that what Steve said in response might be right. Calculating the costs and benefits associated with an industry as wide spread and influential as the animal agriculture industry is (as President Obama would say) beyond my pay grade. I don’t know how to do it. But, the industry is certainly responsible for a lot of pollution, deforestation, soil degradation, etc. So, perhaps we would be better off without it.

    (2*) It is not the case that my consuming animal products causes any pain and suffering. It is not the case, either, that if I were to so refrain, then there would be less pain and suffering than there would be if I didn’t. But, in that case, I’m not obligated to refrain.

    Alexa said two things that are (I think) in response to this claim.

    (1′) My refraining helps to encourage or support other people in choosing to refrain.
    (2′) My refraining helps to ensure that others do not become complacent concerning the industry.

    I take it that (1′) and (2′) provide a sort of response to (2*). If (1′) and (2′) are right, then perhaps my refraining can prevent suffering and pain insofar as my doing so encourages other people to similarly refrain. If I can rally a large enough group of omnivores and convince them (or, help them become convinced) to refrain from consuming animal products, then I can adversely affect the animal agriculture industry. That, in turn, will prevent pain and suffering.

    I think that there’s something to this. It’s right that if I could rally enough support, I could prevent pain and suffering. Given the size and scale of the animal agriculture industry, it would have to be quite a lot of support, though. But, I think that it’s wrong to think that I can rally that support. I’m one – not very intelligent, persuasive, or influential – man. It’s simply not in my power to make it the case that a significant number of omnivores who would not otherwise decide to become vegans do so. I suspect that the same is true of most people. So, even when we take into consideration, not just the direct effects of my choosing to refrain on the animal agriculture industry, but also on the “social climate”, I don’t think that my choosing to refrain would prevent any pain and suffering.

    It’s also not clear to me that (1′) and (2′) give me good reason to refrain. Suppose that I underestimated my influence on the social climate. Suppose that if I were to advocate for veganism, then I would influence a large enough group to refrain so that the animal agriculture industry was directly effected and fewer animals experienced pain and suffering. Then, it seems to me, I have an obligation to advocate for veganism. But, I don’t see that I have an obligation to be a vegan. It’s still right, I think, that my being a vegan doesn’t affect the animal agriculture industry. What is doing the work is my advocating for veganism. So, I should do that. Of course, being an effective advocate for veganism may require that I note eat cheeseburger while touting the virtues of veganism, but there’s nothing wrong (as far as I can tell) with eating the cheeseburger when I’m in the privacy of my home.

    Finally, Steve says that “if what you mean is, “boycotts don’t work,” I disagree.” The antecedent of that conditional is false. I don’t mean that boycotts don’t work. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, with large enough numbers, a boycott could surely prevent some pain and suffering. What I deny is that my contribution to the boycott would prevent any pain and suffering. If that’s so, I think that I’m not obligated to contribute.

  37. Jon S. says:

    Hi again,

    First you said this:

    “Against this, I believe, having interests (including, but not necessarily limited to, sentience-based interests) is what makes an entity an end-in-itself.”

    So if you have interests, whether you’re sentient or not, you get to be an end-in-itself. So sentience is not necessary. (I don’t really know how things that aren’t sentient have interests. Do plants have interests?)

    Then you said this:

    “I suggest that having sentience-based interests is a key feature, and perhaps, though not necessarily, the only feature, that sets ends-in-themselves apart from mere means.”

    If I had said this, I would have meant that sentience is perhaps, though not necessarily, sufficient for things being ends-in-themselves (which, on your view, = having interests). So, it sounds like you’ve denied necessity of, and opened the door to denying sufficiency of, being sentient for having interests. I don’t know how we get here from intuitions that kids and the mentally handicapped (both subsets of sentient beings!) are to be treated as ends-in-themselves.

    Three things I would need to have explained to begin to understand why you would hold the position you do:

    1. The intuitive appeal of attributing interests to non-sentient beings (but not to things like plants, whose interests, if such there be, strike me as morally indifferent).
    2. The intuitive appeal of associating interests (if these extend beyond the interests of non-sentient beings) with morally loaded terms.
    3. The relationship between sentience and having interests, if neither one of necessity nor of sufficiency.

    So, that’s for the first thing.

    Now for the second.

    “I do not understand how this is not blatant speciesism, unless you think all human beings have (relevant) cognitive capacities greater than Bonobos, pigs, dogs, crows, etc.”

    That would, indeed, be the implication. (I mean, it’s what I explicitly said!) But I didn’t say it was true, I said it struck me as non-obviously false. (Indeed, I think a lot of people would hold that it’s true!) Witness the whole passage:

    “I think something’s being a human being is sufficient for personhood, thus for its being an end-in-itself. It seems plausible (but markedly less obvious) to me that being a bonobo is sufficient for personhood. This isn’t just blatant speciesism; it’s predicated on a genuine distinction in cognitive capacities. (So, it’s not obvious to me what the cognitive capacities of bonobos are.)”

    Of course I agree that we need loads of physiological and experimental data in the background in order to determine what it is in virtue of which something is an EIT. I don’t have that data (or much interest in seeking it out), but I have a bit more to say about the speciesism charge for now. If we want to be really picky, I said it wasn’t *just* blatantly speciesist, i.e., there’s more to it than that. The intuition in question is something like: all humans are to be treated as ends-in-themselves, as are all other things with those cognitive capacities (or whatever) in virtue of which humans are to be treated as ends-in-themselves. Fair enough if the intuition is speciesist. (Don’t people have speciesist intuitions?) It’s a further question whether it’s somehow wrong. (Similarly for other -isms. One major “Western” democracy is overtly racist; people have overtly sexist sexual preferences; etc.) But the development is just an appeal to whatever it is about humans that generates the intuition that they’re to be treated as ends-in-themselves. Presumably the same intuition will be generated about whatever else has those properties. (Incidentally, if you find me something with the chromosomes of a human but the cognitive capacities of a fish, and it’s delicious and socially acceptable to eat it, then I will abandon the speciesist intuition and dig in.)

    Of course, I foresaw the claim about chimps, pigs, dogs, etc. I would be *very very* surprised if chimps didn’t have whatever it is that humans have that make us EITs. As for pigs and dogs, it’s open to hold that something about cognitive capacities tracks being an EIT, but it’s not a capacity for rational self-guidance or problem-solving. (Even if you made a computer that could do those things, I wouldn’t think it was an EIT. Would you?) For example, Mister Dave can tell if I’m acting strangely, but in general he fails to recognize suffering in others. That strikes me as relevant to his standing (or lack thereof) in the moral community. Further, re: children, we might want to talk about capacities to develop capacities, in addition to current capacities.

    Anyway, I would need more scientific data to say more, but I don’t see anything that puts enough pressure on my position to make me seek it out yet.


  38. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Hi all,

    Some of you have started to discuss the question, “is eating meat wrong/bad/permissible?”, and I don’t think anything is wrong, bad, or permissible in a mind-independent or agent-neutral sense, so I’ll stay out of that.

    I’ve noticed that omnivores often look at the putative reasons for abstaining from animal products in isolation, and those who conclude that they don’t have reason to abstain typically knock the reasons off one at a time, in something like the following manner:

    1. Animal suffering? Not sure they suffer that much, and I like the salty taste, so it’s kind of a wash, or at least, it’s not sufficient to convince me to abstain.

    2. The environment? Maybe, but we could have better regulations someday, etc., so it’s not sufficient.

    3. My health? Maybe I should cut down, but not stop.

    4. Human health? Sure, heart disease and cancer kill more people than anything else in my neck of the woods, and rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and cancer are strongly correlated with the consumption of animal products, but maybe *everyone* should just cut down, but not stop.

    5. Whatever else you’ve got — deplorably dangerous conditions for slaughterhouse workers; the inefficiency of animal food vs. plant food with respect to the use of water, land, and fossil fuels; devastation of rainforests to grow feed for farmed animals; we could easily feed the entire world’s human population, and then some, with the grain we use for animal feed — I’ll be able to explain why it, taken by itself, is not a sufficient reason for me to abstain.

    Tallying up the math, the would-be omnivore finds that she has been offered a number of putative reasons for abstaining from animal products but that all have been shown not to be reasons, since none of them entail that she should abstain. But this seems like the wrong way to think about this issue, for at least two reasons.

    First, all of the putative reasons I mentioned above are considerations that — if one cared about them — would be relevant to one’s decision whether or not to eat animal products. Even if none is a sufficient reason on its own, “not sufficient” doesn’t equal “neutral.” Instead, each of these insufficient reasons or considerations seems likely to belong on most peoples’ list of “Cons.”

    What are the putative “Pros”? (1) Yummy!, (2) Jobs. Re (1), I’m not suggesting that anyone stop enjoying food, but I think anyone could learn to enjoy different food — I know lots of vegan “foodies.” Re (2), the jobs are mostly pretty crappy, but it’s true that if the animal industry shut its doors tomorrow, a lot of workers would lose their jobs and be sad. It’s also true that the animal industry won’t stop tomorrow but will, at best, dwindle away, leaving plenty of time for people to find new (and probably better) occupations.

    (Moreover, if (as I contend) there are lots of reasons to want the industry to fade away, it seems crazy to argue that we should keep it going for the workers’ sake. Newspapers and video stores, record stores, and other “brick and mortar” retail outlets have been having a tough time in the Internet era. Presumably, you don’t think there’s much wrong with these industries, but do you take yourself to have a moral duty to buy newspapers and CDs and rent videos for the sake of the workers?)

    I think that when you look at the big picture (preferably when you’re not craving a burger), it’s tough to argue that the “Pros” are weightier than the “Cons.”

    Second, the piecemeal approach I described above — i.e., looking at each putative reason to abstain and arguing that it doesn’t mean that one “has to” or “is morally obliged to” stop eating animal products — seems beside the point at issue, at least as I have tried to define it. There are certainly other questions one could ask (e.g., “Is eating meat wrong?”, “What would Jesus think about the treatment of factory farmed animals?”, “Are animals ends in themselves?”), but I have suggested that you consider the following question:

    You were probably raised eating meat, but you don’t have to eat another bite if you decide not to. You have a choice, so you can ask yourself, “What should I do? Would it be best, by my lights, for me to continue to eat as many animal products as I currently do, to eat less of them, or to seek out animal products that involve less cruelty to animals, danger to workers, and/or harm to the environment? Or would it be best for me to abstain altogether or eat very little in the way of animal products?”

    I think that contemplating the question “what should I do?” instead of “what do I have to do?” might change your perspective on this issue. If you care about your own health, public health, the environment, workers’ rights, deforestation, world hunger, and/or animal suffering, I’ve suggested that you might have reason to reconsider your support of the animal industry. If you conclude that you don’t have reason to be a vegan, you might well be right, but that’s not your only option. For example, if everyone ate 20% less meat because they were worried about the environment, the meat industry would definitely take notice and perhaps even try to mitigate its environmental impact. So what should you do?

    Finally, I’d like to return to my favorite putative reason, concern for animals. I’m more concerned about animals than your average talking monkey, so I don’t expect others to find animal suffering as compelling as I do. But I would guess that you care about animals a bit, or that you would think or say you do.

    However, eating animals is pretty tough to square with having *any* concern whatsoever for their welfare. Nothing says, “I don’t care about X” like paying people to mistreat and kill X so that you can eat X’s corpse. You don’t “have to” care about animals, but if you say that you do — at all — but eat animals nonetheless, something just doesn’t add up.

  39. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    I just read over my last post, and I concluded that it’s really long. Here’s the Cliff Notes version:

    Let’s say you’ve heard lots of putative reasons for abstaining from animal products, and you’re not convinced that any is sufficient to establish the truth of “you have a moral obligation to be a vegan.”

    (I) The individually insufficient reasons might collectively give you more reason to abstain than to indulge.

    (II) They might give you reason to change your dietary behavior in some way other than abstaining completely. For example, you could cut down and/or as Steve C. suggested above, you could try to be a “compassionate omnivore.” Maybe you should. Why not?

  40. Jon S. says:

    Steve N.Y.,

    I just read over your last two posts and also concluded that the first one of them was long. Here’s a Cliff’s Notes version of an unapologetic omnivore’s response:

    (I) I don’t think any of the putative reasons give me any reason to abstain, and I think you can add nothing to nothing as long as you want without getting something other than nothing. It’s even a theorem of Peano arithmetic! (Dan can prove it!)

    (II) If moral neutrality is presumed, “Why not?” is pretty easy for me to answer! I kind of enjoy being provocative, and eating meat whenever I want to is a pretty easy way to do it. (So, in a way, engaging in these debates actually encourages me to eat meat.)

    Here’s a thought: I wonder if anybody claims that the interests of individuals count as having moral relevance just in case they are recognized as members of a community of (say) moral agents. Then membership in a moral community (and the concomitant moral importance of interests) could be granted or denied by the other members. Then, e.g., we could grant membership to pets but deny it to (animals that are going to be processed as) food, and membership could turn on practice rather than reason-giving. (To some extent, I’m thinking about what Kripke says about language communities here.) If nobody does say this, maybe somebody should, if only to offer a descriptive model of what people do (which need not be, or even approximate, a fully rational standard). (Maybe I should!) I’m curious if anybody has taken a line like this, and what people think of it, if nobody has. It strikes me as having strong affinities with projectivist views in ethics, although I only know those via Blackburn’s “The Individual Strikes Back”.


  41. James Gray says:


    I’m not sure exactly what position you are expressing, but Tibor R Machan’s “Do Animals Have Rights?” argues that animals do not have rights for similar reasons to what you are stating. However, he admits that animal life might have some moral relevance. This article was originally printed in Public Affairs Quarterly, vol 5, no. 9 (April 1991).

    Machan does make a point that human beings belong in a different category than other animals considering that we are in a moral community and the fact that our interests can be “granted or denied by other members” sounds like the idea of animal rights, which is precisely what he discusses.

    Some quotes:

    “Rights and liberties are political concepts applicable to human beings because human beings are moral agents, in need of what Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick calls “moral space,” that is, a definite sphere of moral jurisdiction where their authority to act is respected and protected…”

    “One reason for the propriety of our use of animals is that we are more important or valuable than other animals and some of our projects may require animals for them to be successful. Notice that this is different from saying that human beings are ‘uniquely important.'”

    Machan also wrote a book (that I haven’t read) with the title “Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature’s Favorite.”

  42. Jon S. says:

    Hum. That strikes me as too speciesist (for reasons to be given shortly). On some further reflection, I’m think I’m just leaning toward projectivist accounts now (insofar as I understand them). So, it’s not wrong to talk about ethical facts, but only because we project them onto the world (or ‘they are projected by the mind onto the world’, or whatever). Since we project them, features of how we project them are relevant for which facts we can talk about.

    Now, the reason Machan’s account as you’ve described it seems too speciesist is two-fold. First, because we sometimes afford animals rights in the same terms that we afford humans rights. For example, I think my dog has the right to lead a relatively happy, harm-free life. But (playing a bit of a devil’s advocate here) I don’t think that a cow does, because it’s food. (I’m pretty certain other unapologetic omnivores will say things like that, as well.) So it’s more about what creatures we, in fact, dignify as members of the moral community. Then you could cast the argument between me qua omnivore and others qua morally motivated vegans as an argument about the grounds for dignifying animals as members of that community. They say it turns on having interests. I say (somewhat disingenuously) it turns on having the right set of cognitive capacities. (You can tell it’s a bit disingenuous on my part because, whatever cognitive capacities cows turn out to have, I’m almost certainly still going to eat them.) Second, because people sometimes deny rights to humans (so species membership isn’t necessarily sufficient). As examples of the second claim, we can take my parents’ neighbor (and presumably many other Republicans), who says things like “I don’t care what they do to those people [inmates at Gitmo], because of the kind of stuff they’re doing”, which we can (very charitably) interpret as a denial of rights to terrorists (the charity here comes in assuming, with the neighbor, that none of the Gitmo inmates are innocent). Similarly, for another provocative example, I don’t really think Robert Mugabe at this point has a right not to be assassinated. One way to explain these things is to say that terrorists/Mugabe/etc. is no longer being dignified by my neighbor/me/etc. as a member of the moral community.

    Anyway, thanks for the reference. I might have a look at some point. I think projectivist views are more in line with what I’m thinking though.


  43. Steve C. says:

    I’m a bit confused by the view you’re claiming to support. Can you spell it out in more detail? You seem to saying that a projectivist metaethical account of what we’re up to when engage in normative thought/talk is correct. Then (puzzlingly), you seem to be taking this to vindicate a substantive or “normative ethical” position. This sounds to me like a morality-is-whatever-we-think view; or rather, it is a view on which moral truth is determined by whatever moral properties we happen to project onto the world. Of course, “we” think differently. To take one example: some people think we ought to try to minimize animal suffering; others do not. Which is it? Is it both? If so, is this a contradiction? There is also intrapersonal intertemporal disagreement. What does this view you’re espousing say about such disagreements? It’s not clear to me that you’re pushing a coherent view.

  44. Jon S. says:


    The Blackburn paper I mentioned, pp. 284-285, has a gloss of the view (which he has presumably developed further elsewhere). It’s supposed to be a version of expressivism.

    “it is a view on which moral truth is determined by whatever moral properties we happen to project onto the world”

    Not really. Blackburn calls it a kind of “quasi-realism”, and says this: “we speak and think ‘as if’ the world contained a certain kind of fact, whereas the true explanation of what we are doing is that we have certain reactions, habits or sentiments, which we voice and discuss by such talk.” So moral truth is kind of nothing, but we talk as though it’s something.

    I don’t know what quite your objection about what I puzzlingly seem to do yet. All I was doing was continuing the normal sort of moral talk, and suggesting that projectivism (or a story about moral communities) might explain what’s going on. (Liberally sprinkle scare quotes throughout what I said, if that helps.) If your objection is that the view I suggested isn’t the one Blackburn suggests there, why not?

    Now, spelling out a bit of a story, following the language community analogy, communities would form around some kind of consensus or common practice. It’s not very clear how big language communities are supposed to be, but we could think of moral communities as demarcated by membership relations projected by some members of the community. Different minds might project differently, which would create moral communities with different boundaries, but note that my partisans and I could project in a way such that we count you as a member of the community even if you don’t project the way we do.

    As for disagreements, if we project differently, you will talk as if there are different moral truths than I will talk as if there are. Indeed, that’s what happens! There won’t be contradictions, because the view doesn’t posit genuine truth conditions; just facts about how different communities project. Same thing goes for intrapersonal intertemporal disagreement. I would be surprised if there were incoherence lurking here.

    NB: I’m not claiming to have a complete story, since I thought of it yesterday. Maybe you will be able to point out a way in which this substantively departs from Blackburn’s view. (I really don’t know.) But I wonder if it fits.


  45. Alexa F says:

    Hi Steve, Steve, and Jon,

    Steve N-Y, the reason I think it is important to talk about wrongs is because when Jon says he doesn’t care, and that the “cons” you list don’t count as cons to him, I can say, “It doesn’t matter whether you care about these things, you are obligated to treat animals with respect, regardless of your particular interests.”

    Of course, Jon, presumably you think that my claim about obligation is not truth apt. Even so, I think it’s backed by good ole reflective equilibrium.

    As per your view, it seems straight-up contractarian to me. Regan dispenses with this view well, at least in my ‘projection’.

    P.S. Jon, some other ways of being provocative you might try: torture babies, enslave someone, light your neighbor’s house on fire, or better yet, light your neighbor’s dog on fire. Should we expect these soon? (I jest…)


  46. Jon S. says:

    Hi again, Alexa,

    First, to clear up a lurking confusion: the reason why a lot of the discussion was about what I do and don’t care about is because other people brought it up; Steve N-Y specifically asked about it, and your number 1 presupposed that people cared about certain things as well. So it was relevant, whatever my obligations. (I may have gotten carried away in the attempt to make it clear how starkly my intuitions differ from the intuitions of the typical morally motivated vegan, because I think sometimes people lose sight of how biased their own intuitions [mine included] are. But, y’know, that’s part of the fun of offering reactions to things in blog comments.)

    To clear up another confusion, I *do* think your claim about obligation is truth-apt. (Of course, I think it’s false, because I don’t think I’m obligated to treat insects with respect.) I just think there’s a defensible view on which it’s not truth-apt, which is interesting and has the potential to explain what’s going on in the discussion we’ve been having here. (Sorry if it wasn’t clear that I wasn’t being a projectivist because I’d reached from reflective equilibrium. I was just curious about the view and its resources; Steve C. had it right when he suggested I was just “claiming to support” the view.) But if Regan kills it, that would be worth reading. If you get back to the thread at some point, let me know which book he does it in.

    Now, being a moral realist with a compelling view not only requires providing a reasonable constitutive theory with a plausible epistemology, but also explaining why we should accept the view…that’s the compelling part! The nice thing about Kant’s CI, if I understand things right, is that we’re supposed to have to regard ourselves as subject to it in virtue of being rational. It not only tells us what it is in virtue of which we have certain duties, but how we’re supposed to know that we have them. And we aren’t supposed to have any choice, if we want to regard ourselves as moral agents (which we have to, apparently, to save the ‘categorical’ bit), other than embracing the CI and what it dictates. So we get 3 things from Kant: a constitutive theory, an epistemological theory, and an account of why we are compelled to accept both. If you had responded to the 3 points I asked about, it would be easier for me to see why, by your lights, I’m supposed to be subject to your version of the CI, i.e., why I should be compelled to accept your theory. (Maybe it requires having insect-respecting intuitions that I don’t have. But then I don’t feel any pressure.) Feel free to point me to a paper if you explain this somewhere.


    P.S. Those might get me in trouble! But I discovered that one of the dubious meat products that Dutch people eat a lot is made of veal. How’s that?

  47. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Get all your latest animal-suffering news here at GoGrue!

    Lobsters and crabs feel pain, study shows: Findings add to growing evidence that virtually all animals can suffer

    So, if virtually all animals can suffer, the real question is, how can we cause this to happen? No, sorry, I mean, how can we keep this from happening? Something like that.

  48. James Gray says:

    I think the real question is how can we stop causing unnecessary suffering to animals.

    It should be noted that pain and suffering are not the same thing. Pain according to the Stoics and Buddhists can be affirmed in a way that keeps it from bothering us. It’s hard to say if pain really bothers animals, and if so, which animals, and so on. I heard Killer Whales have temper tantrums, which is good evidence that they in particular suffer.

  49. Jon S. says:

    The more “is”s like that you give me the further they feel from “ought”s. (Also, I’m totally taking (4) when it comes to lobsters.)

  50. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    The “is” is all I or anyone can offer you. The “ought” is in you, if it’s anywhere. Seems like it ain’t in you.

  51. Steve Nayak-Young says:


    We philosophers tend to make heavy weather of the word “necessary,” so I’ll go along with you on this one. That suffering which is not necessary is contingent, so we should stop causing contingent suffering to animals. I suspect that’s most, if not all, of it.

    Re the Stoic and Buddhist mind tricks that let them think their way out of suffering, that might be a reason to worry *more* about animal suffering. If I took you and locked you in a cage for an hour, I could explain that it was only temporary, and you could reassure yourself that it’s probably a mistake, nobody’s going to kill you, etc. Animals can’t reassure themselves that way, so they are often terrified by things that we could quickly come to accept.

    However, some animals seem deliberately to hide their pain, since overt signs of weakness often lead quickly to death in “the wild.” If they are not well-hidden, they will be “stoic,” but once they find a hiding place, they will show distress and try to comfort themselves.

    Although it’s not always easy to say what hurts animals, we humans are clever at investigating. If you read the article linked above, you’ll see that the researchers identified various distress and self-comforting behaviors in the invertebrates they observed.

  52. James Gray says:

    To clarify: Suffering seems to be highly related to value judgments. Mammals, killer whales in particular, seem to have some kind of value judgment when they have a temper tantrum. That is a perfect example of suffering.

    To feel physical pain in and of itself isn’t necessarily that bad of a thing. It is the emotional pain (suffering) that seems to be a problem. Emotions are tied to beliefs. Anger, for example, relates to the belief that a wrong has been done or something similar. It is not clear that insects or lobsters can have value judgments or emotions that would cause suffering. We have to be careful not to anthropomorphize animals and expect their consciousness (or states of consciousness to be like our own.)

  53. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    I think that my cat makes a value judgment when he gets excited about a cat treat. I’m not being facetious. I think that my cat can like (and dislike) things, and simply (dis)liking something is a sort of “value judgment.” Similarly, if a value judgment is a claim or assertion, and it takes the form “I like X” or “I would like X,” then it can be true or false.

    If, however, a value judgment takes the form “X is good,” I’m not sure what it means, but if it means “everyone likes or would like X,” it’s probably false. If it means “everyone should like X,” that adds another layer of abstraction, and I’m even more skeptical about the claim. I suspect it’s either non-cognitive or false, but it would depend on the details of what, if anything, is being asserted about the world. If the claim “X is good” can be translated into an intelligible claim about the world, and the state of affairs it claims to be actual is, in fact, the case, then I’ll accept that the claim is true.

    Returning to the point at issue, you seem to be making various claims about the relations between pain, emotion, beliefs, and suffering, and I’m not sure how to assess these claims’ accuracy. Are you basing these claims on your understanding of the psychology or neuroscience of emotions?

    The limbic system in the brain, which is the main source of our emotions, evolved long before we did, and we share very similar limbic structures with most other animals. The course of evolution led to massive increases in the associational cortex and other areas in the human brain. Accordingly, we have superior abilities to represent and reflect on the nature of the external world, but there’s little evidence to suggest that we have “superior” emotions. The notion that we have emotions and other animals don’t is rejected by most ethologists and other scientists who know anything about animal cognition.

    The only reason I can rattle off the putative facts in the preceding paragraph is that I’ve lately been reading a bit about the neuroscience of emotions, but I can’t claim any particular expertise, and I’m sure I’m wrong about some of the details. So if you know something about the neuroscience of emotions that I don’t know, I’d be very interested to hear it. If, on the other hand, you have speculations based on your intuitions, I offer you the good news that we need not rely on such methods of investigation anymore.

  54. James Gray says:

    From Wikipedia: “Based on discoveries made through neural mapping of the limbic system, the neurobiological explanation of human emotion is that emotion is a pleasant or unpleasant mental state organized in the limbic system of the mammalian brain.” First, I admitted that mammals appear to have suffering. Second, it isn’t clear that they are talking about “emotions” here. If “anger” is an emotion, then they are not talking about emotions. Why? Anger isn’t a generic “I feel bad” state. We need to know the difference between anger, depression, sadness, etc., and the difference appears to be cognitive. Scientists have to be careful about the difference between feelings and emotions. You can’t use evidence of what “suffering” means involving a scientist’s assumptions of what the word “emotions” means. I think they are equivocating words.

    Emotions are understood by us to have a cognitive component. This is nothing but a simple kind of phenomenology. There is also a lot of information about cognitivist theories of emotion on the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy. “Philosophers have been especially partial to cognitivist theories, emphasizing analogies either with propositional judgments or with perception.”

    The question is: What exactly is suffering and emotions from the first person point of view? It might be that emotions don’t require the cognitive component, but then we need to know why it seems that it does.

    When you get angry, you are thinking about how a wrong has been done. When a killer whale has a temper tantrum, it is either angry and has a similar cognitive state to what we have, it is angry without the cognitive state, it has negative feelings without a cognitive state, or it has some other emotion involving cognitive states.

    The non-cognitive perspective of value doesn’t like to discuss the cognitive component of suffering and emotions because it is evidence against their view. The non-cognitivist perspective is counter-intuitive in the sense that it isn’t supported by everyday experience and phenomenology. That doesn’t mean it is false, but it means that it has to explain why there “appears to be a cognitive component” to emotions, value judgments, and suffering. Otherwise a non-cognitivist is just spouting their conviction and ignoring the fact that there is a great deal of counter-evidnece to their view.

    The fact that emotions and value judgments “appear to be cognitive” isn’t controversial. That is why Mackie decided to be an error theorist. The non-cognitive rout has more explaining to do. It might be that non-cognitivists have done a great deal of phenomenology and attempted to explain why the appearance that such things have a cognitive component is false.

  55. Jon S. says:

    Hi James,

    Just to weigh in while Grandpa Steve collects his thoughts, I think the phenomenology of anger that you’re offering might be a bit too controversial to carry the argumentative weight here. I don’t think my being angry requires my thinking about how a wrong has been done. Usually, if I’m angry, it’s because I didn’t get something I want; I assume it has more to do with testosterone than reflecting on some wrong. The limbic system story sounds plausible to me (from my outsider’s perspective).

    But there’s room to press Steve here in a slightly different way. We can grant that animals display pain behavior, and that they have limbic-system-driven experiences similar to the limbic-system-driven experiences we have, and we can even give Steve the word “suffering” to describe what’s happening when these things are going on. But it seems plausible to me that that kind of suffering isn’t going to generate any obligations (or moral facts or whatever you want to talk about). One reason to think it doesn’t is that I can display pain behavior and have limbic-system-driven pain experiences that I like. For example, if I’m in pain from a good work out, I think it’s a good thing. (On the flip side, there are some things that feel good that I think it would be morally wrong to do to me; e.g., to induce microtears in tendons in my hand, which generates a pleasant warm sensation rather than pain, but is still bad.) Taking it one step further, it also seems plausible to me that the thing that can take us from sensation reports to morally weighty claims is the reflection on limbic-system-driven stuff that occurs in the associational cortex (or wherever). So the fact that my dog doesn’t like certain things might not be enough to generate moral obligations if he lacks the cognitive capacity to reflect on and form preferences about them.

    Maybe there is some knock-down reply to this; I don’t have any idea. But the point is one that you should like, viz., that the scientific evidence that Steve adduced isn’t sufficient to tell us what generates moral obligations.

    Point of interest: I can imagine one quite interesting response, based on some hazy memories I have of some much ballyhooed xphi results about Kantian versus utilitarian moral judgments. Usually people extrapolate from the relative primitiveness of the part of the brain active while people make Kantian judgments to suggest that Kantian judgments are somehow suspect, and less trustworthy than utilitarian judgments. People who want the suffering of animals to carry moral weight might do two things. First, they might claim that animals can make the same kind of Kantian judgments we can, since they share the relevant parts of the brain. This would suggest that the line I’ve been pushing above is in trouble. Second, they might think that the relative universality of the anatomy responsible for Kantian judgments recommends them relative to utilitarian judgments, insofar as it makes morality more than an intra-species matter.

    Anyway, that last paragraph is all wild speculation. (I could be misremembering crucial parts of the xphi result.) But I think the beginning part is a reasonable way to respond to the evidence adduced by Steve, and tracks my intuitions about the article he linked.


  56. James Gray says:

    If it is controversial whether or not we experience anger as cognitive, then I need proof that there is a strong position for the opposite. This is a dismissive response for a strong philosophical position. I have experienced not getting what I want and it often doesn’t mean much at all.

    Phenomenology is one of the few ways we can get out of our academic abstract thinking and come back to earth and everyday life. If you have experienced physical and emotional pain, then you will realize that physical pain is much easier to deal with. Emotional pain is what bothers us the most. Even if that is false, we can still realize that “emotional pain” is cognitive by the mere fact of what emotional pain is. Anger has nothing to do with being wronged, but it has to do with “not getting what you want?” Isn’t what you want cognitive in some sense? Also, the death of a child is one of the most painful experiences. Isn’t the belief in the death of a child cognitive?

    Imagine what it would be like to have experiences that aren’t cognitive. You see color splotches, but you can’t differentiate between objects in the external world. You feel anger but it’s just a feeling with no meaning or “intentionality.” A child dies and you feel bad, but you in no way realize that your child died. The reaction to the child’s death was merely caused by stimulus with no cognitive meaning.

    Even Peter Singer admits that humans will tend to suffer more than animals when he says, “[I]f for some reason a choice has to be made between saving the life of a human being and that of a dog, we might well decide to save the human because he, with his greater awareness of what is going to happen, will suffer more before he dies.”

  57. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    James and Jon,

    Thanks for your further comments on emotions, etc.

    Note that the relevant question here is extraordinarily difficult, namely, “What is it like to be a _____?” I doubt we’ll ever find fully satisfying answers to questions re the phenomenal quality of other animals’ experiences, but I suspect that the empirical sciences will take us further than our intuitions about the meanings of emotion terms, the nature of animal minds, or other matters.

    Re pain, sure, not all pain is bad. But some experiences are bad, and if animals can have the bad kind, I’d rather they didn’t. I suspect that they can have the bad kind because (1) it looks (and sounds) as though they can; (2) I have them, and I don’t think that phenomenal consciousness popped into existence at the precise moment that the fur fell off — evolution doesn’t work that way; and (3) scientists who study animals are better judges of these matters than we are, and very few of them take seriously the idea that animals are non-sentient.

    Re moral obligations, I don’t think there are any such things. We have to figure out what to do all on our lonesomes. I’ve decided to try to be nice to human and nonhuman animals, just because it makes me feel like a swell guy.

  58. James Gray says:

    Steve Nayak-Young,

    Moral obligations are pretty important for a Kantian, but I don’t see how a Utilitarian or virtue theorist can get moral obligations (without some kind of Kantian theory.) I don’t know a lot about moral obligations or how a Kantian gets them, but there is probably an argument for it.

    However, I don’t know why we would need moral obligations anyway. If it is true that some action is “horrific,” then that should be good enough reason not to do it.

    There are three reasons that I can think of that can determine if we have good reason to be moral. One, if it is in our self-interest. This is what was appealed to in most ancient philosophy. Two, a social contract. Three, moral realism: If intrinsic values are real, then morality really does matter.

  59. Jon S. says:


    That is indeed the relevant question to my mind. It is very hard. The fact that it’s so hard is why I’m so surprised by other people’s confident pronouncements about moral obligations to animals. (Although I disagree with most of your position–both vis-a-vis its denial of the existence of moral obligations and re: its practical recommendations–I find it a lot more sympathetic than others.)

    I’m not sure how much of that paragraph about pain is a response to me, and how much is a response to James, but I’ve already said once that I would be *very surprised* if only humans had what it takes to generate obligations. (Indeed, part of what I don’t understand about Alexa’s position is that she hasn’t told me when having interests is sufficient for generating moral obligations in her view.) So (2) shouldn’t be directed at me. I assume (3) isn’t either. But (1) seems like it is, since I want to deny that experiences of the kind (sufficiently primitively brained) animals have per se can be bad. The point of my little examples were that it’s something like my attitude towards my limbic-system-y experiences that makes them good or bad. And nothing in the pain(/anxiety) behavior of (sufficiently primitively brained) animals reveals whether or not they can have those sorts of attitudes. At least, I take it to be non-obvious whether they can. You can point to scientists and claim they’re experts on what animal experiences all you want, but that doesn’t mean that what they call suffering is the morally weighty kind of suffering that philosophers like to talk about (the kind that is, intuitively, morally bad). That’s exactly the kind of question they aren’t competent to address. (If I’m right that the hard phenomenological question is what’s crucial, maybe none of us are.)


    P.S. James-I don’t know what to say about the phenomenology of anger, except that what you’re describing sounds nothing like what I think of when I think of anger. To answer your questions in order: by “not getting what you want” i mean something like “having your desires frustrated”, which neither requires nor is a belief. When I think of a child’s death, and reflecting on the belief that a child of mine died, I think of despair, sadness, shock, etc. Anger is pretty low on that list.

  60. James Gray says:

    The death of a child wasn’t meant to be an example of anger. It was an example of emotional pain/suffering. “Righteous Indignation” would be an example of anger that has a clear intentional object. If you want to say that anger has no intentional object, then

    According to Searle, desire has has a cognitive element because it has an intentional direction of fit. Other “emotions are cognitive” philosophers will have a similar view. How do you understand desire without any intentionality/cognitive element? Hunger could be just a feeling, but we ascribe meaning to it with an intentional object (want of food). Emotional pain makes no sense without intentional objects.

    To answer the truly relevant question, you need to ask yourself if the suffering involved with the death of a child would have anything to do with intentional objects.

    It might also be important to note that saying emotions have a cognitive element does not necessarily mean that they require language-based thoughts. From Stanford’s article on emotions:

    “A crucial mandate of cognitivist theories is to avert the charge that emotions are merely “subjective.” But propositional attitudes are not the only cognitive states. A more basic feature of cognition is that is has a “mind-to-world direction of fit.” The expression is meant to sum up the contrast between cognition and the conative orientation, in which success is defined in terms of the opposite, world-to-mind, direction of fit (Searle 1983). We will or desire what does not yet exist, and deem ourselves successful if the world is brought into line with the mind’s plan.”

  61. Jon S. says:

    So, when my dog sees a toy under the couch and scratches at it, what is he doing, if not trying to bring it closer to him, i.e., if not trying to make the world the way he wants it?

  62. Steve Nayak-Young says:


    That’s easy! He has a “fixed action pattern” or “production rule” response that is instinctively triggered by the toy-under-couch stimulus. It’s just like when you activate your knee reflex, except that in your dog’s case, it explains all of his behavior.

  63. Jon S. says:

    Poor non-sentient Mister Dave.

  64. John says:

    I wonder if any of you guys have come across the superb new book by Jeffrey Masson titled The Face on Your Plate.

    Plus this reference:


  65. Thom Blake says:

    I know this thread is kindof old, but it looks like there weren’t any egoist virtue theorists responding.

    I don’t eat people because it’s gross and I think it would damage my ability to be a good person. I don’t eat dogs for the same reason.

    I see no reason to have the same position towards eating cows. Though I do avoid eating things that look like animals (like a pig on a spit).

    In general, one should not act towards putative persons or putative non-persons in a way that would predispose one to act badly in situations where one’s behavior matters. Treating non-human animals brutally both results from and causes one to be a brutal person. Brutal people don’t live good lives.

  66. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Hi Thom,

    Thanks for your input from the so-far-absent egoist virtue theorist perspective. I’m no virtue theorist, but I can point you to Rosalind Hursthouse, who has written about virtue and our treatment of non-human animals. Among other things, she suggests that eating factory-farmed animals might indicate the vice of callousness or a failure of the virtue of compassion.

    It sounds like you’re on board with that to some degree, but that you’re willing to offer a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to factory farms, e.g., “ship it to me in a neat little package, don’t make it look like a dead animal, and I’ll eat it.” But you know that these animals live and die in awful conditions before they reach you as anonymous cuts wrapped in plastic, so you can’t opt out so easily. Would a virtuous person be indifferent to their suffering?

    Again, I’m no expert on virtue theory, but I encourage you to read Hursthouse’s “Ethics, Humans, and Other Animals” if you want to hash it out with someone who is.

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