On Animal Ethics, a critique of a critique of moral vegetarianism

Have just noticed that Animal Ethics is republishing Michael Martin’s ‘A Critique of Moral Vegetarianism’ in instalments with commentary:

“A third of a century ago, when the modern animal-liberation movement was in its infancy, Martin published an essay entitled “A Critique of Moral Vegetarianism,” Reason Papers (fall 1976): 13-43. This was two years after Robert Nozick discussed the moral status of nonhuman animals in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974) and one year after Peter Singer published Animal Liberation (New York: Avon Books, 1975). I read Martin’s essay only recently, having discovered it by accident. I propose to publish it in 13 installments, commenting on it as I go.”

Start from the bottom and read up. I haven’t finished yet. Not sure, but I’d imagine the environmental consequences of each of us attempting 10 meat meals a week hadn’t made themselves apparent at the time Martin was writing.

After exposure to the latest edition of Compassion In World Farming magazine and two protein-derelict vegan meals at a conference, I’ve been fairly upset for days. Exascerbating the upset are thoughts of what Al Gore neglected to mention in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. He talks about how his family farmed tobacco, even after the link between smoking and lung cancer was recognised, and even after his sister died of the disease. Now do you know what his family farm? Aberdeen Angus cattle. And you know what?  ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ didn’t mention meat-related emissions at all.  An inconvenience too far. Where is the hope?

Part of my problem is that I have a very simple regard for animals: knowing that pigs, cows and chicken have interests, we must free them, never farm them, and only eat them when desperate. Alternatively (and also) breeding pigs, cows and chicken is a significant impediment to mitigating climate change, a cause of environmental degradation, and resource consumption, so we must stop, for reasons any socialist must acknowledge – we live in a shared environment and what we want for ourselves should be no more than what that environment can afford.

I’m poor at reasoning this myself – the horror about the death of sentient beings intrudes on the requirements of making a cool, scientific climate change argument – but when people take a more nuanced view, I’m disarrayed. How could there be a more nuanced view of death and degradation which is so clearly, it seems to me, a matter of individual responsibility? Isn’t the evidence yet known to anybody with a television, a Web connection, and a social conscience? Don’t we now understand that a massive change to the way we live in the industrialised world, not just diet, is necessary? I am seriously upset.

Statistics: Mark Bittman’s TED talk (TED is the RSA of the US) on ‘What’s wrong with what we eat’, which touches on the artificial demand, pollution, diabolical health consequences, climate consequences, and also that

“…there’s no way to treat animals well when you’re killing 10,000,000,000 of them a year… That’s just the United States”.

Peter Singer at the RSA.

Rajendra Pachauri of the UN’s Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change, speaking last autumn. The slides and the recorded highlights.

Yes, “ought”.

Certainly, “should”.

Deal with it.


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