I’ve decided to become a vegetarian.
For a couple of years now I’ve been teaching a section in my ethics classes devoted to the ethics of what we eat (using this book, along with handouts and a variety of films). I’ve thought about Singer’s arguments for thinking the principle of equality requires that we include the interests of animals in our considerations about what we do. I’ve thought about Singer’s reasons for thinking that to refuse to take the interests of animals into consideration counts as “speciesism”. I see that they are very serious arguments, that they are very difficult to coherently respond to.
But I’ve also seen their ineffectiveness. The great majority of people with whom I’ve discussed these arguments see them as posing a puzzle, but very few think of them as having the kind of force they’re supposed to have. In this respect it’s a little like Descartes’ arguments for skepticism. They may saddle us with a puzzle in our discussion, but the conclusions at which they aim don’t seem to stick.
I’m not even sure whether in my own case I can credit these arguments for the switch, since I’d been working with them for a number of years without giving my eating meat a second thought.
One response to all this might be to come to think of those who don’t find themselves forced by the arguments to change their ways is to count them (myself included) as irrational. I expect as well that we should find ourselves forced to say, opting for this particular read, that those who don’t become skeptics on hearing Descartes’ dream argument or evil genius argument are likewise irrational. But this seems odd, given the widespread nature of this sort of reaction.
I think I may be tempted here to say that on this issue I find myself happier going in with something like Hume’s view that reason is a slave to the passions. The switch that I’ve made has been occasioned not by thinking things through or by coming to recognize the power of an argument, but by my coming to see animals differently. Maybe the argument helped me to this change, but I want to say the change wasn’t the result of the power of the argument as an argument.
Think, for instance, of this powerful quote from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House as capturing a way of seeing animals different from some standard ways of seeing animals:
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
Are there arguments that can demonstrate any of this? Are there arguments that can demonstrate the reverse of any of this? I don’t see that there are. In this kind of case, I’m tempted think the arguments that we summon up give pretty sophisticated voice of our attitudes, much as saying we are in pain, for instance, gives voice to our pain.