The Vegetarian Fallacy

by Jerry Cayford

Atelier ecosystemes des communs, Alima El Bajnouni, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Vegetarian Fallacy was so dubbed by philosophy grad students in a well-oiled pub debate back in the 1980s. There is a fundamental conflict—so the argument went—between vegetarians and ecologists. The first principle of ecology—everything is connected to everything else (Barry Commoner’s first law)—is incompatible with the hands-off, “live and let live” ideal implicit in ethical vegetarianism. The ecologists took the match by arguing that, pragmatically, animals either have a symbiotic role in human life or else they compete with us for habitat, and those competitions go badly for the animals. In the long run, a moral stricture against eating animals will not benefit animals.

Now, pub debates are notoriously broad, and this one obviously was. A swirl of issues made appearances, tangential ones like pragmatism versus ethics, and central ones like holism versus atomism. In the end—philosophers being relatively convivial drinkers—all came to agree that pragmatism and ethics must be symbiotic as well, and that the practice of vegetarianism (beyond its ethical stance) could be more holistically approached and defended. Details, though, are fuzzy.

A fancy capitalized title like “Vegetarian Fallacy” may seem a bit grandiose, given the humble origins I just recounted. What justifies a grand title is when the bad thinking in a losing argument is also at work far beyond that one dispute. And that is my main thesis. So, although I will elaborate the two sides, it will be only a little bit. I am more interested in the mischief the Vegetarian Fallacy is perpetrating not in the academy but in wider political and cultural realms. Read more »

In Defense of Eating Meat

by Dwight Furrow

CowThere are many sound arguments for drastically cutting back on our consumption of meat—excessive meat consumption wastes resources, contributes to climate change, and has negative consequences for health. But there is no sound argument based on the rights of animals for avoiding meat entirely.

Last month, Grist's food writer Nathanael Johnson published an article in which he claims philosophers have failed to even take up, let alone defeat, the influential arguments against eating meat in Peter Singer's 1975 book, Animal Liberation.

My enquiries didn't turn up any sophisticated defense of meat. Certainly there are a few people here and there making arguments around the edges, but nothing that looked to me like a serious challenge to Singer.

I continue to be unimpressed with journalists' ability to do basic research. Even a simple Google search would turn up several arguments against Singer's view, including the well-known argument for speciesism by Carl Cohen. (No, a Google search isn't research but it's a good place to begin) Furthermore, Singer's arguments are based on utilitarian premises which have been subject to a host of substantive objections raised in the philosophical literature. I don't have current figures at hand but I doubt that even a majority of moral philosophers today are utilitarian. Thus, most moral philosophers would reject the foundations of Singer's argument; and indeed his argument is profoundly mistaken.

I don't want to get too deep in the philosophical weeds here, but essentially Singer argues that any being that suffers has full moral status. Since non-human animals suffer, their interest in not suffering should receive equal consideration to the interests of humans. To fail to give animals equal consideration is to be guilty of speciesism, which according to Singer is as indefensible as racism or sexism. There are many refinements that can be made to this argument but that is the basic idea.

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