I must say I’m surprised at the fact that many commenters on my article “Is it right to eat that which you wouldn’t kill?” did not address the central issue. That issue, our Meat-Eater’s Dilemma, can be summarized as follows:
If Jones would refuse to participate in the slaughter of an animal so he can have the pleasure of eating it, and that refusal would be due at least in part to a moral aversion to slaughtering animals for the pleasure of eating them, then it is wrong for Jones to expect others to slaughter an animal so he can have the pleasure of eating it.
At first blush, this conclusion would seem to rest on the following general principle.
General Principle (GP): If Jones refuses to do x because he believes it is morally wrong for him to do x then it is morally wrong for him to benefit from the willingness of anybody else to do x.
But surely GP can’t be right. Consider: it may be wrong for Jones to take Billy Smith to get an inoculation for measles, but it isn’t wrong for him to ask Mr. Smith (Billy’s dad) to take the boy. So GP is not correct.
The problem arises only isofar as it seems to Jones wrong not only for him to do x but for anybody else to do x as well. And so we should revise the General Principle accordingly:
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.
Now this does seem true. And it provides the support for our Meat-Eater’s Dilemma. Thus, we can conclude that those who would refuse to participate in the slaughter of a pig (to the extent that they are physically capable of doing so) ought not benefit from the fact that others are willing to do so. And that means it is wrong for them to have a ham sandwich, bacon bits or pulled pork.
An illustration of the revised general principle
Let me give you a rather vivid illustration to communicate the point. Let’s say that you are wandering in the forest with some elves and dwarves on a quest to reach the Golden Castle. You come across a bridge under which lurks a particularly grumpy troll. As you walk up to the bridge the troll lumbers out and says “If you want to cross my bridge one of you must sacrifice your newborn infant!” (I forgot to mention that the lot of you are carrying newborn infants in Baby Bjorn carriers on your chests. It is quite a sight, I must say.) You refuse because you think it is clearly wrong to do it. The troll then says “If one of you doesn’t surrender your child you’ll have to walk thirty miles downstream to cross.” What if, after hearing that, one other bloke in the party decided to offer his infant? Would it be wrong for you to benefit from his largesse? Certainly it would, because you believe it is wrong for any parent to offer their child to a troll just to cross a bridge. And that means that even if the fellow would offer his child, it would be wrong for you benefit from his act by crossing the bridge.
Hopefully nobody misses the point by thinking I’m equating the killing of animals for meat to the offering of one’s infant child to a troll. That’s not the point. The point, instead, is the Revised GP: if Jones believes it is morally wrong to do x then he shouldn’t benefit from others doing x.
The ethics of avoiding ethical reflection
Now we come to an uncomfortable fact: most people have serious ethical concerns about the idea of killing animals. Don’t believe me? Imagine that the anchor on the evening news announces: “Now we turn to a very disturbing footage that was filmed inside a nearby slaughterhouse.” You listen intently, immediately concerned about an issue of food safety. After all, you’d like to know if the beef you just purchased might be tainted with e-coli. The anchor continues: “The issue is the ethics of the humane treatment of cattle on the killing floor. We now turn to the footage and a warning, it is very disturbing.” Once they know that the issue is one of animal welfare rather than food safety, many people would not want to know more. To be sure, they would want animal mistreatment to be dealt with. But they wouldn’t want to see the footage and they definitely wouldn’t want to dwell on the issue of animal killing. This despite the fact that they benefit on a daily basis from the willingness of others to kill animals.
This reveals a disturbing refusal of ethical reflection. Consider this example:
Smith is prochoice. However, precisely to the degree that she has thought about the ethical dimensions of killing a fetus she has been bothered by it. She could choose to confront her concerns by studying the stages of fetal development, the methods of abortion, and the ethical discussion of these questions. What ought she to do?
I think most people reflecting on Smith’s case would say “Of course she has an obligation to study the issue closely to resolve it for herself. As it stands it is wrong for her to continue to support abortion on demand knowing that her support may depend, at least in part, on her refusal to examine the issue more closely.
There is no doubt that many people are like Smith with respect to the killing of animals for dietary pleasure. They support it and they choose intentionally not to reflect on it — not to watch the slaughterhouse footage — at least in part for fear of what they may see and how it might challenge them to change their behavior.
At this point we need to be honest with ourselves. If there is any area of ethical reflection in our lives where motivated reasoning is on display, it is here. If you’re like me and you love bacon then you have very powerful motivation to avoid ethical reflection where it may result in you facing some very difficult ethical decisions.
But this can’t be an excuse not to engage in that ethical reflection. So I think it is important for everyone to consider whether they would participate in the slaughter of their own animals for the pleasure of eating them. If they wouldn’t then they should consider why not. And if they conclude there is an ethical dimension to their aversion then they ought not benefit from the willingness of others to do the very thing they refuse to do.