In “The Meat-Eater’s Dilemma” I explore the morality of people who have moral objections to the killing of animals for meat but who continue to eat meat nonetheless due to the willingness of others to kill the animals. I am one of the people that I place in this category so the dilemma is actually an argument against the morality of my own culinary behavior. This is important to emphasize since experience has shown me that there are few things that rankle people as quickly as a discussion of the moral dimensions of their diet. So please remember, I’m talking to myself before anybody else.
But how should one describe the moral principle that depending on others to kill the animals you wouldn’t kill is wrong? As is so often the case our moral intuitions run ahead of the principles they are supposed to be rooted in, like an exuberant Golden Lab on a leash. The challenge is to describe a principle that is the plausible grounding of the intuition and so to rein the intuition in. We’re after something a bit more profound than “That just don’t seem right.” And so I offered my “Revised General Principle”:
Revised General Principle (R-GP): If Jones refuses to do x because he believes it is morally wrong to do x, then it is morally wrong for him to benefit from the willingness of anybody else to do x.
According to this principle, if it is wrong for Jones to kill a cow so that Jones can eat a hamburger, it is also wrong for Jones to allow Miguel to kill a cow so that Jones can have a hamburger. This hits home! Yesterday I ate a hamburger for dinner. According to the R-GP this was wrong for me to do because I wouldn’t participate in the killing of the cow from which the burger was processed (assuming it was just one cow).
But maybe I’m not in such bad shape. Angra Mainyu (a Zoroastrian deity, as it turns out) offers what we might call an exploratory critique of R-GP. It starts like this:
On the issue of the R-GP (not on the issue of the morality of eating meat for pleasure), I would ask what kind of benefit counts as ‘benefit’ for the purposes of the principle. For instance, we may consider two modified troll scenarios, and some more scenarios:
Angra Mainyu then provides the following counterexamples that are worth quoting in full:
1. Alice is one of the people in the group. If she does not reach the castle in time, she will be captured by a beast that is pursuing her, and brutally beaten to death. But she can’t reach the castle in time if she has to walk 30 miles (say, she only has one leg and can’t go fast enough). She refuses to kill any infants (she believes that that’s always immoral), but after someone else does, she chooses to escape from a brutal death, benefiting from the action of the person who surrendered an infant.
2. Different troll scenario: The troll has a boy, John, in a cage. Two people arrive, Tom and Alice. The troll kidnaps them, and tells them:
‘If one of you takes that knife and tortures John slowly, until he dies painfully, I will allow both of you to leave before sundown. Else, I will not allow either of you to leave before sundown. I will kill any adult who hasn’t left before sundown’ (Tom and Alice are both adults).
Alice believes it would be immoral to torture John to death, and for that reason she refuses. Tom, on the other hand, goes on with the torturing to death, and then leaves. The troll allows him to leave.
Alice can choose to stay and probably be killed (the troll’s threat appears believable; at least, she believes the troll will kill her), or leave (or at least try, but she also reckons the troll will allow her to leave). John is already dead. So, Alice chooses to leave, and successfully escapes.
3. Bob is a bounty hunter. He makes a living out of capturing criminals for a reward. He believes it’s immoral to engage in the behaviors those criminals engage in, but benefits from their willingness to engage in such behaviors.
4. Alice believes that it’s always immoral to kill pigs, cows, or any other mammal, in order to sell their meat for a profit. But she’s been kidnapped, and her captor will only give her ham, beef, etc., to eat – meat her captor bought in a supermarket, and which comes from mammals killed for profit. Alice chooses not to starve to death, and eats the meat.
5. Bob believes it’s immoral to invade someone else’s land and take it. But he lives in a country that was founded after a war of in which a group of people stole land from another group of people, benefiting from the existence of such country, and from its laws, the freedom to vote, free speech, etc.
6. Similar to 5. Alice believes that it’s immoral to steal. But she knows that her ancestors (like likely everyone else’s) at some point stole land that was passed down to the generations to her.
There are no descendants of the people Alice’s ancestors stole from; alternatively, those people were in turn the descendants of other thieves, and so on, and so forth, and there is no way of knowing whether anyone in the world is a descendant of an owner who didn’t get the land in that fashion, and if there is one, who.
She chooses to keep the land for her and her family, as opposed to, say, donate it, or abandon it, or some other alternative from which she would obtain no benefit.
I would ask the following questions:
a. Is R-GP committed to the conclusion that the Alices and Bobs behaved immorally in all of those cases?
b. If not, how should one interpret R-GP, and which cases are excluded?
A Look at Scenarios 1 and 2
Let’s start by taking a look at the first two scenarios. Each of them illustrates one person acquiescing to an immoral demand (infant sacrifice; torture and murder) and a second person benefiting from the first person’s acquiescence. The question: should the second person have chosen to benefit from the first person’s willingness to do the immoral?
The problem is that most people have moral intuitions that Alice should benefit from the, er, moral turpitude of those willing to meet the demand. But the R-GP would preclude this action. So it seems the R-GP should go.
It may indeed be time rework the wording of the principle. But this doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly okay for me to eat the burger. Let’s revisit the second scenario, but rework it extensively so that it matches up closer to the scenario in which Miguel kills the cow so I can eat the hamburger.
Alice regularly takes a shortcut through the dark forest on the way to work rather than the long way through the meadow. Unfortunately there is a troll who guards the bridge that Alice must pass over in the dark forest. And the troll has a demand for every group travelling through the dark forest: “If you want to pass over my bridge you must torture one of the children I keep in my compound first.” Alice is unwilling to do this. However, John is willing to do it. So Alice travels every day on the shortcut through the Dark Forest with John. And while he takes ten minutes to torture the boy she walks off some distance to have a smoke and avoid the unpleasantness. “Okay Alice, I’m done!” John says as he wipes his bloody hands on his trousers. And in no time they’re over the bridge and on their way.
How does Alice come out in this scenario? Rather badly I would think! In fact, her behavior can be described as morally abominable.
What is so bad about Alice’s behavior? I would suggest there are two things. To begin with, the outcome was foreseen. Alice knew what the troll would demand and she nonetheless placed herself in the situation. This parallels the person who buys the hamburger knowing that the economic demand for a hamburger is what sustains the killing at the slaughterhouse. Second, the benefit is trivial. In Angra Mainyu’s scenario it is a matter of life and death, but in this scenario it is a shortened commute. That shortened commute parallels the trivial culinary benefit of eating a tasty hamburger instead of a less-tasty soy burger (for example).
Let’s revise the R-GP in light of these two stipulations:
Revised General Principle 2 (R-GP2): If Jones refuses to do x because he believes it is morally wrong to do x, then it is morally wrong for him to participate in a system in which he knows other willing parties will do x to satisfy his demand and where the benefit of their doing x is trivial for Jones.
The R-GP2 also dispatches with the bounty hunter example (3) because the bounty hunter is not participating in a system. (However, a true crime writer who writes bestsellers that he knows may inspire copycat crimes could be violating R-GP2.)
The R-GP2 also deals with the case of starving Alice (4) since the occasion Alice finds herself in is not foreseen and the benefits are not trivial. And it also addresses (5) and (6) since the folk who benefit from the culture are not engaging in a system of foreseen exploitation.
To sum up, I believe that the R-GP2 captures well the moral intuition that it is wrong for a person like me who has a moral aversion to killing animals for the culinary pleasure of eating them to depend knowingly on the willingness of others to do so.