Ask Dr. Cobb

September 2004 Question

In your FAQ answer on Animal Rights you make the statement: "If farmers raise chickens and cows and hogs, and if they are treated well so that they can enjoy their lives, killing them for food seems to me in line with the general order of things and not to be forbidden." How does being, "... in line with the general order of things," differ from "maintaining the status quo?" Isn't that the same as saying, "that's just the way things are?"

Dr. Cobb's Response

This is a thoughtful and probing question and pushes me to think more clearly on a topic about which I do not feel much confidence. The position I have adopted lies between those who regard the well-being of other animals as of little or no importance and those who extend ethical concerns that are appropriate to human relations quite fully to other animals. I think that a process perspective justifies a middle position.

Other animals have intrinsic value. Their suffering is an evil. Their enjoyment is a good. The fact that God participates with them in their suffering and their enjoyment undergirds and intensifies the reasons for our concern for them. On the other hand, animals vary greatly in their capacity for both suffering and enjoyment. Obviously, our judgments about the relative value of the experiences of other creatures are far from precise or wholly reliable. But I feel confident that my greater concern for the well being of a dog in comparison with a flea is justified. I do not hesitate to kill fleas for the sake of the dog.

Even in killing a flea, I prefer to do so quickly and painlessly. I doubt that the suffering of a flea is comparable to the suffering of a dog, but I believe it is preferable to avoid inflicting suffering in general. Also, when a dog suffers and there seems little we can do to relieve the suffering, I share the view that our moral responsibility to the dog is to kill it as painlessly as possible. Or when the absence of predators leads to deer exceeding the carrying capacity of the land, human killing of deer seems generally the best solution. The remaining deer can then avoid the miseries of starvation, which I assume exceed the suffering of being shot.

All of this is to say that I continue to believe that in relation to other animals in general, reducing suffering and adding to enjoyment is far more important than extending their lives. It is for this reason that I do not think that Whiteheadian thought points unequivocally to vegetarianism. It does oppose, unequivocally, the industrial production of meat that is now so widespread. It also opposes, unequivocally, the destruction of rain forests for the sake of expanding meat production. And it opposes the meat-oriented diets when they are unhealthful. But the quote was arguing that there are ways of producing meat for the table that are not immoral.

The order of nature, which I referred to rather vaguely, as the general order of things, is one in which many species produce far more offspring than the ecosystem can support and in which the great majority die soon. This is especially true of insects and fish. Much of the early dying is the result of being eaten by other creatures.

Many of these creatures survive only by such eating. There is no doubt that this causes suffering on the part of the prey. On the other hand, predation has some positive consequences. The old age reached by so few of the prey would be likely to include more suffering than the earlier killing by a predator. Over time, the complexity and richness of the experience of both predator and prey generally increases. "The general order of things" has worked rather well.

In my view industrial meat production is not in line with this general order of things. Yet it is today the status quo. Hence I was appealing to the general order of things against the status quo. However, I grant that the argument is vague and doubtful. One could argue that even hunting and gathering societies did not fully fit into the general order of things, since human ingenuity led to the extinction of species in a way that the predator prey relation elsewhere rarely does. The domestication of plants and animals further separated the human way from that of other animals. The qualities for which the domesticators selected actually degraded the domesticated animals. Hence the picture of family farming that I evoked is of a situation already quite removed from the general order of things. There is no way that human beings can return to that order.

My intention had been simply to say that being omnivorous and including meat in the human diet fits into the general order of things. And I was using that claim to indicate that its total moral condemnation is not warranted. However, that argument is weak. Since human beings are not simply one species of animals alongside others, but instead that species that has developed moral reflection and the capacity to organize life in a great variety of ways, simply continuing to eat as our distant ancestors ate may not be morally warranted. In this sense I was appealing positively to the status quo, and my questioner rightly asks what continuing ancient habits and traditions should be regarded as morally right.

In partial defense, I argue that the burden of proof falls on those who would have us change. On many topics I am one of those who believes that individually and collectively we should change quite drastically in many ways. One of those is the way we produce meat for the table. The question is whether we should give up meat eating altogether and on principle. I believe that the burden of proof falls on those who call for this, and I have not yet been persuaded.

I have tried to make clear that I do see excellent reasons for choosing vegetarianism today. It is a valid protest against the way the meat we eat is now actually produced, and if enough of us became vegetarians, the reduction of demand would benefit not only the animals but also the whole ecosystem. It would probably benefit human health as well. These are strong arguments, and I do not contest them.

The only argument I contest is that it is inherently wrong to kill. At this point, I believe that Whitehead helps us to avoid any absolutism. When we think in terms of the primary reality of the cow as being an enduring substance, then killing the cow can seem to be the destruction of something of value. Whitehead teaches us to locate the value in a series of occasions of experience. Killing the cow brings an end to that series. We can consider what values will not be realized because of this killing. We can also consider what values will be realized because of it. It is at least possible that the increased enjoyment of many eaters may outweigh the loss.

It is my judgment that it can. However, if the life of the cow has been miserable and its death one that includes prolonged suffering, my judgment is that it cannot. Of course, judgments of this sort are highly questionable. But this judgment remains the reason my emphasis is on the quality of actual experiences rather than on the loss of additional potential ones. I can make that argument without appealing to the general order of things. I thank my questioner for pushing me to do so.

Above I indicated that my judgment that the quality of experience is more important than its indefinite extension applied to animals other than human beings. I have argued that human beings are a quite distinct species. For one thing, we can speak and let our personal preferences be known, and respecting such expressed preferences is of clear moral importance.

Nevertheless, I would also emphasize continuities. I have argued that killing an animal is often preferable to its lingering aging and death. I believe this is true for human beings as well. Medical advances have made it possible to keep us alive, sometimes in conditions that are of little value to ourselves or to others. Some people would, quite reasonably, prefer to die and resent being kept alive. I also judge that the killing of some fetuses, although a real loss of great potential values, a killing that should never be taken as a minor or casual matter, is better than the alternatives. This is not the place for a detailed discussion of these difficult issues, but I believe this de-absolutization of the moral imperative to keep living things alive is consistent with Whitehead's understanding of the locus of reality and value.

What, then, of the appeal to the "general nature of things?” I still claim a certain usefulness of this appeal. In the general nature of things, there is a time to live and a time to die. The human effort to postpone death as long as possible works against this general nature of things. It contributes to the global overpopulation, which in turn contributes to the threat to the future well-being of the biosphere. Opposing the killing of animals overall can also work against the health of the biosphere. There are many respects in which fitting in better to the ways of nature can be a good guide for human beings.

Nevertheless, I have acknowledged that this is a useful guide only sometimes, and hence inappropriate as a general rule. For one thing, it is far too static. Nature is constantly changing and for human beings to change with it may be according to the general nature of things, but the appeal I made was not of this sort. And, second, I have acknowledged that human development has brought us into a situation in which moral questions arise for us in ways that must be considered in their own terms, not by appeal to what is characteristic of the natural world.

My questioner was right to challenge me. I will try to be more careful in future.

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