Thoughts on Ethical Vegetarianism pt II (the “all things are alive” response and moral motivation)

I’ve been engaging in some debate on the moral merits of a vegetarian diet and in doing so I’ve found myself frequently responding to the interesting argument that runs: all things are alive, so a vegetarian diet is not morally better than an omnivorous diet. I say it is an interesting argument not because it is a good argument but because of what it reveals about our moral psychology. Actually, I think the argument is very weak, as the vegetarian is compelled to adopt their diet by the unnecessary suffering of beings, and it seems unlikely that plants suffer, but if they do then it still seems likely that flora suffer less than fauna, and as we need to consume something to survive we are justified in eating flora as it is necessary suffering, and less suffering than that done to fauna.

But what is fascinating about this argument is the manner in which it deflects moral criticism by implicating that a vegetarian diet is morally wrong too. The argument is not that both vegetarian and omnivorous diets are morally permissible, but rather that both are morally impermissible. It puts the vegetarian on the same level as the omnivore, and concludes that both diets are morally wrong — a further argument would be needed to show that both are permissible. It defends the morality of an action by going on the offense and challenging the morality of alternative actions. If one person knows that a habit of theirs is not morally permissible and that an alterative habit is morally permissible then it seems irrational for them to not change their behavior. Yet if one thinks that neither their habit nor the alternative options are morally permissible then it does not seem so irrational not to change their behavior.

Stipulating that the vegetarian is opposed to eating things that were ever alive (which is of course a misunderstanding of their view) it follows that eating food products, flora and fauna alike, would be morally impermissible, and so we could say “eating vegetables is wrong” and “eating animal is wrong”. As noted above, an omnivore might sincerely come to hold the belief “eating animals is wrong” but due to also having the belief “eating vegetables is wrong”, not stop eating animals, and not be irrational for doing so. Are our intuitions correct here? If they are, then a theoretical explanation for our intellectual observations might be that it is irrational to change from a morally impermissible action to a morally permissible action, but not irrational to change from a morally impermissible action to a different morally impermissible action.

What is going on here? It seems we have a moral belief without motivation to act accordingly – one has the belief “it is wrong to eat animals” without being motivated to stop eating animals, and this for the reason that they don’t have the belief “it is right [morally permissible] to eat plants”. Here a person is not motivated by a moral belief because they do not think that the alternative action is better. In order to be motivated by a belief that an action is wrong, it seems, at least here, we need to believe that the alternative action is right. But if this is so then it seems motivation to act on a moral belief is not internal to that belief, it depends on external factors, most importantly of which here and perhaps elsewhere, are moral judgments about the alternative actions.

The question of whether the omnivore sincerely holds the belief “it is wrong to eat animals” is of course quite pertinent here. In my discussions with the omnivores who raised this argument it wasn’t clear to me that they truly believed that it was wrong to eat animals. Still, I think it is conceptually possible to imagine an omnivore coming to have such a belief and yet being unmotivated to change their diet, and such a conceptual possibility does suggest an error in motivational internalism.

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  1. #1 by obscureecho on August 23, 2014 - 3:48 pm

    You provide quite an interesting riposte to the “all things are alive” argument, which I agree with you on. Defending one’s omnivorous diet by merely stating “well, both animals AND plants suffer, so its morally wrong to eat both” is a very flawed and cynical argument that condemns their own diet, while reducing vegetarianism to the same moral state of omnivorism. With that same reasoning, one could justify many acts of laziness. It doesn’t solve anything or offer any solutions. If individuals making such an argument truly cared about the suffering of flora and fauna, they could praise veganism for its moral principles, like part 1 of your Ethical Vegetarianism posts did. But thats not what individuals using the “all living things suffer” argument in this context are doing, they’re only using it to justify their lack of moral action.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on August 23, 2014 - 5:14 pm

      Well said, and thanks for the kind words! The “all things are alive” argument seems to be a method of letting oneself off the hook, as it were, rationalizing so as to not change one’s behavior, which only reveals bias. There are interesting and compelling arguments for why eating meat isn’t wrong, but the “all things are alive” argument is not among them. In fact, I think the argument is quite offensive. It takes some nerve to say “flora may suffer as much as fauna and so they might both wrong” when there is such incredibly graphic evidence of animal suffering in PETA videos and little evidence that flora suffer.

      You raise an important point in noting that the “all things are alive” argument is deeply pessimistic and doesn’t offer any solutions or ways forward in how we might better ourselves and the world. I think you are right that it is a serious flaw to an argument if it offers only despair in the status quo. Thanks for sharing this crucial insight.

  2. #3 by jmeqvist on August 24, 2014 - 6:40 pm

    Interesting post, and I think you are right on in pointing out the flaws of the “everything is alive” argument.

    Also, I agree with your argument that the fact that the “everything is alive” argument points to certain flaws in motivational internalism. However, over and above this I think that the everything is alive argument is absurd. If we see all diets that would sustain human beings as equally immoral then clearly we are faced with the stark choice of life and immorality, or starvation and death and morality. Consequently, it seems that this argument is not only implausible, but also absurd, because morality would be of little relevance if it is was incompatible with the sustenance of life.

    • #4 by ausomeawestin on August 24, 2014 - 10:18 pm

      Thank you, and let me say that I agree with you as well. It seems likely that if there are indeed moral reasons for action in a situation then those reasons would factor in the cost to the agent with the value to be gained for others. I don’t mean this in the hedonistic calculus way of utilitarianism but in more of a reasons-based value pluralism. Further highlighting the absurdity of the “everything is alive argument” is that given this reasons weighing approach and that argument, if we are not required not to eat plants, it would still be a virtuous act to sacrifice oneself by not eating plants because they were at some point alive. It seems obvious that not eating plants because they were once alive is not virtuous but utterly foolish. The error is of course in the idea that it is in some way bad to eat something that was at one point alive. Thanks for sharing this important point.

  3. #5 by SamL on August 26, 2014 - 5:39 am

    Hi, I really enjoyed this post (I particularly like the way you salvage a subtle insight from a poor argument).

    I wonder if a motivational internalist could get around this by saying that the “everything is alive argument” can be conveyed not as aiming at showing that both eating animals and eating plants is wrong, so much as to provide a modus tollens against vegetarianism. So it would go: if the vegetarian rationale implies that eating animals is morally impermissible, then by the same token it implies that eating plants is morally impermissible (this is the dubious inference). But then since it is morally impermissible to eat plants, the vegetarian rationale is flawed. (Not sure if that would work, just a quick thought.)


    • #6 by SamL on August 26, 2014 - 5:40 am

      *doh – meant to write “since it is morally permissible to eat plants”

    • #7 by ausomeawestin on August 26, 2014 - 9:44 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, and for your tweet on this entry, all very flattering.

      I think you are quite right that the internalist will argue that the omnivore advancing this argument does not genuinely/sincerely think that eating meat is wrong, and that it is for this reason that the judgment isn’t internally motivating, similar to internalist handlings of the amoralist. For the purposes of the entry, I had assumed that the moral assertion was sincere and took the argument at face value, finding the conclusion to be only that vegetarian diets are wrong too. I think you are right that persons who put forward this argument do mean it to show that the premise that would forbid eating meat would also forbid eating plants, and so that premise is suspect, along with the conclusion that eating meat is wrong.

      Though I think this is the true intention of most persons who use this argument, I do think the scenario described is conceivable, in that it is quite possible that someone believe that a practice of theirs is impermissible, but not be motivated to not do that action because they believe the only alternative practice to also be impermissible, and that is what matters for the argument against internalism to stick. Think of this scenario as a version of the amoralist argument, one that adds more flesh to the bones, in a way that makes the general amoralist argument against internalism less alien. To your point, I think the internalist will argue that the scenario is only conceivable if the belief ‘eating meat is wrong’ is not sincerely held, but I think we can conceive of the scenario with the belief ‘eating meat is wrong’ being sincerely held — even if the persons who made the argument to me did not sincerely hold that belief, this is enough to cast doubt on motivational internalism.

      I hadn’t thought of this scenario as a version of the amoralist argument until your comments, and so I am very thankful for your insightful objection. Cheers!

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