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Intelligence Squared debate – ‘Don’t eat Animals’, Kensington Town Hall, London, 9th December 2010

I was both eagerly and anxiously anticipating this the last of the Intelligence Squared Winter Season 2010 debates. Eagerly because because the question of the moral defensibility of eating meat is an important one and, as a life-long meat eater, it is a question to which I should have, or at least be actively seeking, an answer. Part of living a morally consistent life is being able to sincerely justify your actions to yourself – even before you justify them to anyone else – and I hoped that attending a typically robust and high quality Intelligence Squared debate help in this aim. I was also anxiously anticipating this debate because it had the potential to lead me to a rather difficult conclusion. If genuinely compelled by the arguments of the proponents of the motion, moral consistency would demand that I drastically change my eating habits and stop eating meat  – potentially a very traumatic experience. As it turned out, I had little reason to be either eager or anxious. Firstly, because, by Intelligence Squared standards, the quality of much of the debate was poor. And secondly, because by the end of the debate I was still without a clear answer. Indeed, I left the debate with more questions than when I arrived.

The first speaker for the motion Abbas Daneshvari, Professor of Art History at California State University, set the tone for much of his side’s contribution when he said: “I would like to impress upon you that while I will, of course, will be rational tonight, this problem cannot be solved through our rational prisms. It is fundamentally an emotional issue.” He continued:

“If you expect to move from one side to the other, if you expect to become pro or against this issue of animal rights, you are not going to get there by simply thinking of the logic of it. For the logic of man is fundamentally flawed and has nothing valuable in it. A Nazi thinks that he is logical. Just as a religious fundamentalist thinks he is logical. Just as a Taliban, when they kill their women, stone them to death, cut their noses and their ears, they fully believe that they are logical and they are rational.”

On first impressions, Professor Daneshvari’s hyperbole is actually quite hilarious, but I think that there are also quite a few things very wrong with what he is saying. First, he overstates the importance of emotion. Purely emotional responses can, of course, lead us to nice, fluffy, cuddly-wuddly conclusions, but they can also lead us to primitive, barbaric and grotesque conclusions, too. Second, Professor Daneshvari completely misrepresents human rationality. It is naïve and misguided to think that human rationality knows no bounds, but is nonsensical and deeply misanthropic to think that human rationality has nothing valuable in it. Third, by what method is the Professor evaluating the logic of Nazis, fundamentalists and the Taliban? When he says that they ‘think’ that they are logical and rational does he not have a ‘correct’ standard of logic and rationality in mind? Prof. Daneshvari should be careful not to completely reject the means by which he would make his own, or critically assess another’s, argument. Just because human rationality can be used for evil or has been illegitimately invoked as a justification for evil, it, quite obviously, does not mean that it is itself evil. The fourth problem relates to Daneshvari’s reference to the Nazis. There is a saying, coined by the American lawyer Mike Godwin in 1989 and known as Godwin’s law, which states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Godwin’s law is cited as a deterrent against the use of arguments in the Ridictio ad Hitlerum form – that is, x is bad because it is like something that the Nazis did. I think that Godwin’s law is also applicable outside of online forums and the fact that Daneshvari makes his first reference to Hitler so early on in his contribution suggests worrying signs of desperation.

It is the case, however, that Professor Daneshvari, and many other animal rights activists, do think that there is a genuine similarity between the behaviour of the Nazis (or Europeans during the slave trade, or the Ku Klux Klan, etc.) and meat-eaters. It is, I think, why they are so passionate – often aggressive and even sometimes violent – about this issue in a way that I always found so very difficult to understand. They think that the farming, killing and eating of animals is straightforward discrimination, equivalent to that of Africans during the slave trade, European Jews during the Holocaust and African Americans in the Jim Crow era. They think that it is speciesism.

Heather Mills, the third speaker for the motion and Animals Rights Campaigner of the Year 2008, spent most of her time outlining the alleged health benefits of a vegan diet. Not only was this boring, it was also irrelevant. Settling the prudential issue of whether or not meat is good for you does not even begin to address the moral issue of whether or not eating meat is morally permissible. We do many things that do not optimise our life expectancy and it is not clear that they are all prohibited by morality. Although the motion ‘Don’t Eat Animals’ does not make explicit that the debate is about the moral defensibility of eating meat, I think that it should have been pretty obvious.

For the sake of brevity, I will refrain from commenting on the numerous examples of astonishing piousness, self-congratulation and -aggrandisement that littered Heather Mills’s speech. Instead, I will limit my further comments to her delusion and ignorance. Take this quote: “If everybody became a vegan, we would wipe out world starvation… yes we could all live in peace and harmony… if the farmers started growing grain and we used it to feed ourselves.” This is obviously nonsense and Julian Baggini, editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine and author of several books, including The pig that wants to be eaten: And ninety-nine other thought experiments and the final speaker against the motion, quite rightly responded: “On the point about starvation, I think that it is generally acknowledged that the problem of starvation is not that there aren’t enough calories to feed everyone in the world, it’s about the distribution of them. So the idea that if we suddenly stopped eating meat suddenly there would be no more starvation, it wouldn’t solve the problems about inequality, and the regional conflicts and bad government…” The dialogue that ensued sums up much of the debate:

–       Heather Mills: “How many of them have you been out to?”

–       Julian Baggini: “Sorry?”

–       Mills: “How many of them have you been out to? How many conflicts have you been out to? And how many fields of grain have you seen in Africa that are flourishing that could actually be utilised in there own country?”

–       Baggini: “I’m afraid that’s not really an argument. The fact that I’ve been there doesn’t mean that its an argument…”

I was actually embarrassed.

The real and interesting debate occurred between the two philosophers involed: Peter Singer and Julian Baggini. Peter Singer (who was speaking via videolink), Professor of Bioethics at the University Centre for Human Values at Princeton University and guru of the animal liberation movement, was the second speaker for the motion, sandwiched inbetween the irrationality of Professor Daneshvari and irrelevance of Heather Mills. His argument had two independent fronts. First, killing animals for their meat is speciesism. About speciesism, he says:

“we regard beings who are not members of our species as if they do not count morally or they count very little morally. And that is simply because they are not members of our species which, I think, does not give us any justification for disregarding the interests of any being who has interests. In just the way in which the slave traders disregarded the interests of Africans because they were not members of their race, so we still, despite   having improved with regard to human rights, we still draw up moral boundary at the bounds of our species, which I don’t think is justifiable. I think if a being suffers, then that suffering ought to be taken into consideration and should be given just as much weight as the similar suffering of any other being.” 

Note the direct and explicit reference to the racism of the slave trade here. It is from their belief in the truth of this analogy that, I think, many animal rights activists derive much of their passion. The analogy is, on first reading, plausible and, if true, then passion, activism and even revolution would be not only justified but required. The second front of Singer’s argument related to the environmental harm caused by the farming of animals. He says: “we now realise that one of the major contributing factors to greenhouse emissions is animal  production… livestock emissions exceed all transport emissions.”

On the second part of Singer’s argument, I have always been somewhat unsettled by climate change arguments that have as their final recommendation some limitation of, or retrenchment and abstention from, something that is otherwise permissible or even celebrated. Such recommendations often exhibit the most backwards, ludite-ish and misanthropic instincts of some brands environmentalism. I think to myself: If we should stop eating meat because of its ramifications for the environment, then why not give-up on industrialisation and its benefits altogether? But I must concede that this response is not really good enough. Just because it may undesirable to do everything we possibly can to avert climate change, it does not mean that we should do nothing. There maybe some other problems with Singer’s environmental case against eating meat, however. Baggini states that “from a resource point of view there’s are a lot of arguments that producing some kinds of meat can actually have an environmental benefit” and George Monbiot, the Guardian’s environmental expert, recently retreated from his very vocal endorsement of veganism on the basis of climate change. Putting all of these things to one side, I would say that Singer’s climate change argument against eating meat is the weaker of the two. It offers conditional reasons not to eat meat, but not necessary ones. Its says: ‘because meat production is bad for the environment, and assuming that we care about the environment, we should stop eating meat.’ If we found a way of producing meat that was not so bad, then presumably it would be fine on the climate change front.

I think that Singer’s first, animal-centred argument is the stronger of the two, because it offers necessary and absolute reasons not to eat meat. But I do not agree with it. In fact, I am quite offended by it. However nice it may sound to some people, I think that the idea that we treat all animals with equal respect to human is monstrous. As Baggini highlights: “anyone here who would treat the life of an infant mouse with the same respect as that of an infant human is not a moral person as far as I’m concerned at all. No one truthfully does that, so the idea that all life should be treated with equal respect is a non-starter.” If you think about it, for this to work we would have to mourn the death of every fly was accidentally swallowed. How would we ever rid ourselves of infections or viruses? They are caused by living things too.

I think that all meat-eaters would be guilty of the charge of speciesism if there was no morally relevant difference between different living things. I think that there is. I think that Julian Baggini was right when he said: “The fundamental point is that there is a continuum of sentience and complexity in life, that creatures can suffer, they can feel pain but their capacity for the sophistication of their experience… does make a moral difference to how we treat them.” But my quest for a definitive answer on this subject received a bodyblow when he went on to say: “The only way through this is, unfortunately, one which involves imprecision, imperfect judgements, erring on the side of caution… if we are not sure in a given case with a particular type of animal if it is OK to eat it, let’s not eat it.” Is that it, then?

I left the debate with many more questions. The most pressing of all was: even if we accept that there is a continuum sentience and complexity, and am associated continuum of respect and treatment, why is ‘do not kill and eat’ the first thing that we disregard when we start to think of non-human animals? There are many other ways that we could express our greater regard for human life without going so far as actually killing and eating animals. I think that the answer to this question probably relates to the importance of things that make human lives– and sometimes also animal’s lives – better in the long-run, such as animal testing, and the specific nature of the capacities, and hence interests, of specific species. The capacity to have ambitions, a life-plan and be able to pursue that life-plan, for example, is surely a highly morally relevant feature. The point is Julian Baggini left these questions unanswered and, perhaps even worse, the proponents of the motion didn’t even bother to ask them.

Even more questions follow. Where is the allowed to eat/not allowed to eat cut-off point? Are there animals that we know currently exist that we are not permitted to eat? What happens if we find the missing link, a community of half-human half-apes? Would eating them be wrong? What if highly evolved aliens crash landed on earth and fancied some barbecued Brazilian rump? Would their higher state of sentience and complexity entitle them to eat us? I was getting a bit confused so I started to chew my thumb – I do that sometimes. ‘Wait’, I thought, ‘is that even allowed?’

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