The Omnivore’s Duties

We all agree that it’s wrong to put cats in microwaves. Animals’ welfare matters to us. (I don’t think Damon Linker has it right when he says our moral concern for animals is simply a natural “expansion of the sphere of human concern and empathy.” My concern for my fellow human beings dictates precisely nothing about how I should treat a cat. If I think I ought to treat a cat well, that conclusion must be based on some concern for the animal’s well-being. At the same time, I agree with Linker that animals do not have moral rights, because they lack the ability to understand moral claims themselves. There is a middle position between animal rights and no-intrinsic-value-for-animals: animals have intrinsic value in virtue of their ability to suffer and to form basic social ties.)

How much should animal welfare matter? If it’s wrong for me to microwave a cat because it gives me a thrill (let’s assume), is it OK for me to eat a pig because I like its taste? But eating a pig is not the same as killing a pig. Still, eating a pig delegates the killing to others, and is that wrong? I have posed essentially this question before, without coming to a particular answer. Since then, I have come across good reasons to believe that it is impossible not to delegate some amount of animal killing to others, but that still doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and forget about the issue.

It’s impossible not to delegate some amount of animal killing to others because even vegetable farming involves some amount of animal killing. Eating grains means delegating the killing of rodents to granary operators. Packaged, washed greens available at the supermarket are grown with a surprising degree of animal killing (and ecological destruction). One philosopher has even argued that harm minimization principles suggest it is better to eat large mammals than lots of plants. If we should try to reduce the amount of animal suffering our eating practices cause, what follows?

While it’s difficult to come to any settled view of the matter, given the empirical controversies about precisely what does minimize harm, I believe I have found one area of clear ethical guidance, at least for North Americans. It is, as it were, a “moral free lunch.” If we are to be omnivorous, we should try, as much as possible, to eat invasive species.

In the United States, some game animals are particularly problematic for the environment: nutria, wild boar (“feral swine”), axis deer, and nilgai antelope among them. In some places the native white-tailed deer has also become a pest, because of the temporary absence of apex predators previously hunted out: wolves and cougars. It is beneficial to other animals to try to control invasive fauna’s spread, which inevitably involves hunting. If the animals are to be killed anyway, why not eat them? Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas sells most of these wild game meats. They shoot the game with high-powered rifles from long distance and butcher them on site, so the stress on the animals is minimal. We recently placed a small-ish, sampling sort of order from them and were surprised to pay, with shipping, about what we would pay per pound for frozen wild-caught salmon at the local grocery store. I can attest so far that the meat we have tried is very tasty. You can also find Dartagnan wild boar meat at certain supermarkets; the sausage is very good.

Shifting your animal consumption from domestic cows and chickens to these invasive species seems like a clear ethical gain. Yes, you will pay a little more than you would for grain-fed, factory-farmed meat, but for those of us who can afford it, it seems like a worthwhile tradeoff. What do you think?

14 thoughts on “The Omnivore’s Duties

  1. Wouldn’t simply killing, and not subsequently eating, invasive species (i.e., those problematic to the environment, etc.) accomplish the same result desired? (I’m rather ignorant of ecology and the such, and so I am currently unaware of any method at dispelling problems that arise in relation to invasive species other than killing or destroying, to some degree and as suggested in the blog post, the problematic species).

    I believe your point is to substitute the eating of non-invasive animals to invasive ones, and that the shift somehow gives rise to justification toward eating another set of animals, namely invasive ones, as a sort of trade off in order to be able to, morally, eat at least some animals.

    Killing off invasive species, in a way quite vaguely, for reasons of self-defense in the name of preserving natural ecology, it does not follow that we should eat the species as well. To what justice does eating subsequent to killing the invasive species add?

    By the way, fun website. Just recently started reading.

    1. Eating doesn’t “add justice” if I understand the term, but in my view it doesn’t create any new harm. After all, the original problem with eating (purchasing for consumption, really) was that it incentivized/delegated killing. But if the killing isn’t problematic for other reasons (done humanely, helps conserve environment for other animals), then eating also wouldn’t problematic, and humans might choose to do it for reasons of taste, health, etc.

      1. “I believe your point is to substitute the eating of non-invasive animals to [sic–the correct preposition is ‘with,’ you cretin.] invasive ones, and that the shift somehow gives rise to justification toward eating another set of animals, namely invasive ones, as a sort of trade off in order to be able to, morally, eat at least some animals.”

        What a poorly written sentence!

        “But if the killing isn’t problematic for other reasons…”

        Suppose there are techniques that mitigate (let’s assume completely) the invasiveness of invasive species so that a problematic species may be rendered non-invasive. Do we then have a duty to implement mitigation techniques, incurring some cost toward implementation and maintenance for continual efficacy, to avoid killing otherwise invasive species?

        A mitigation technique for a particular species may initially have a cost below a threshold wherein implementation is not onerous enough to unreasonably distort the incentive for implementation. Nevertheless, must we “endure all that we can” to avoid the killing of a bothersome species, supposing there are available methods other than killing? At what point do we set the threshold for cost over benefit to use techniques that mitigate the invasiveness of a species worthy for implementation?

      2. Don’t be so hard on yourself! I think I understood what you meant, but the clarification is helpful too.

        Anyway, if there are ways to control invasive species without killing them, then I think we should try to use those ways. Of course, everything has tradeoffs. If those methods are hugely expensive, then the moral loss may be greater than the moral benefit. Killing certain animals because they’re tasty isn’t a good enough reason in my view; killing them to avoid impoverishing ourselves or incurring great harms to the rest of nature may well be justified.

  2. Any argument that starts off with, “[w]e all agree” is probably going to be wrong.

    I don’t agree that putting cats into microwaves is wrong, at all. I have no moral objection to anyone doing so, and if it’s not immoral, then it’s not wrong.

    I would be displeased, aesthetically, about that. Just as I would be displeased aesthetically by someone who walks around covered in his own feces (or someone else’s, for that matter). It is unpleasant and offends my sensibilities.

    An animal’s ability to suffer does, indeed, play a part in that aesthetic judgment. But it is only an aesthetic judgment, and violating my sense of aesthetics does not convert something into a “wrongful” act.

    1. Do you think that morality exists outside the realm of human sentiments?

      All morality is a subset of aesthetics – attempts to externalize it are mere projection. And I’d say that the aesthetic judgement we may make with respect to the act of cooking a cat alive very firmly falls within that subset.

      I entirely exclude deontology from my own ethical principles, but if I learned that someone was microwaving a living cat, it would certainly raise my consequentialist and virtue-ethics hackles. And I don’t even like cats.

      As libertarians, we ought to recognize that the chief question is “which moral questions ought also be political ones?” and not let our unwillingness to bring state power into a dispute inspire us to exclude that dispute from the realm of moral considerations entirely; just as the state is not society, the law is not morality.

      We might not entrust the state with the power to punish animal abusers, but that doesn’t mean that we must withhold all moral censure, in all other contexts, against someone who would actually perform such an act.

      1. Conflating “morality” and “aesthetics” is pointless – the terms are separate for a reason.

        Morality deals with questions or “right” and “wrong.” It does not necessitate the involvement of a State or legal system, but it does open up the issue of force. If someone is doing some wrongful act, then I may justifiably use force to stop him, if I so choose, either by acting on my own or delegating that to some third party.

        So, the assertion made by anyone claiming something is immoral, is that it would be acceptable to violently suppress that action. Maybe he would not do so, or encourage others to do so (eg, if he were a pacifist), but he is asserting that such response /would/ be acceptable.

        I can’t think of any action against a /thing/ (even an animate thing) that would justify using violence against a /person/. I might experience aesthetic disgust, and refuse to associate with that person. I might even encourage others to do likewise. But I would never engage in a violent response against him, or even claim that such a response would be acceptable; if anyone did so, I would have to claim that individual was engaging in an immoral assault against a morally-innocent person.

  3. I have to say my fellow commenter is unpleasant and offends my sensibilities – and has a trace of sociopathic qualities.

    Re: your essay – I thought you presented a fascinating take on the subject and a brilliant ethical alternative. I don’t eat animals, but at least (as you pointed out) from an ecological perspective it’s a very compelling argument. Thanks for having the guts to tackle the issue, especially when others can’t be bothered to consider anything other than (1) “Screw you all! I can murder any damn animal I feel like murdering!”, and (2) “ERMAGERD save them all! Save the flies!”

    1. Thanks! There are multiple values at issue here, so it’s important to distinguish among possible conclusions carefully & see how they follow from those values.

    2. It’s impossible to murder an animal. Animals are things. “Murdering” an animal makes as much sense as “murdering” a car.

      1. Mr. Brown, your personal insecurities about your sense of masculinity do not mean you get to defy reality. As you well know, your statements are scientifically and logically absurd and are only being made to sound like a macho brute though in fact they make you appear like a clown. Thanks for weighing in, though – I don’t know what we would have done without your painfully moronic trollery on what had been a very interesting blog.

      2. Tiffany, once you resort to ad hominems, then it’s pretty clear that you have nothing else upon which to stand.

        “Murder” is the unjustified killing of a /person/. Animals are not “people,” so it’s literally impossible to “murder” them. /That/ is what science and logic have to say about it. Your ridiculous insistence that your personal, private opinions somehow outweigh science, logic, and morality, speaks of the sort of insecurity of which you falsely accuse me.

  4. How would this ethical reasoning apply to someone who enjoys meat, but has serious doubts about the concept of “invasive species”?

    1. I suppose it depends on what those doubts are. The population of feral swine is growing about 20% per year in Texas and has expanded its range to most of North America, and scientists say they cause immense damage to flora and soils from their rooting, wallowing, and eating. Regardless of the label that you apply, in the North American context feral swine seem highly ecologically destructive.

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