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The Carnivore Strikes Back

  • L. W. Sumner (a1)

Since philosophers began thinking seriously about the moral status of non-human animals, many of the practices we once took for granted have come to be condemned as unjustifiable, among them our reliance on animals as a food source. While the arguments which have been adduced in support of moral vegetarianism invoke quite different (indeed incompatible) moral frameworks, they begin with a common concern for the welfare of animals. In the real world of practising vegetarians, this concern tends to be subordinated to considerations of health or food scarcity. Philosophical vegetarians need not deny, and have not denied, the importance of these further considerations. But among philosophers the case for moral vegetarianism has rested primarily on arguments from animal welfare.

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1 See, for example, Singer Peter, Animal Liberation (New York: New York Review, 1975); Clark Stephen R. L., The Moral Status of Animals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977); and Regan Tom, The Casefor Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

2 Frey R. G., Rights, Killing, and Suffering: Moral Vegetarianism and Applied Ethics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983), xii, 256, $49.95. AH page references enclosed in parentheses in the text refer to this work.

3 See Frey R. G., Interests and Rights: The Case Against Animals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).

4 For one thing, it prevents negative vegetarians from maintaining that eating meat is wrong because it supports objectionable intensive farming practices (cf. Frey, Rights, Killing, and Suffering, 39,191). By doing so it also entails that negative vegetarianism is not, in Frey's own terms, a form of moral vegetarianism at all (see Frey's definition of moral vegetarianism, ibid., 6). Perhaps what Frey means is that negative vegetarians need not hold that eating meat is intrinsically wrong. But this, while true, is not what he says.

5 As Frey sometimes suggests that it is; see, for instance, ibid., 210–211.

6 My boycotting meat may additionally be a condition of the effectiveness of any other tactics which I choose to employ. If I undertake a campaign against the evils of factory farms while continuing to consume their products then I am unlikely to be taken seriously. Frey devotes an entire chapter to arguing that were I to behave in this way I would be neither inconsistent nor insincere. I find his arguments quite unconvincing, but even if he is right on this point the fact that most people would regard me as hypocritical would suffice to undermine my campaign.

7 I have benefited from discussing the issues which follow with Bernard Katz.

8 My example might, of course, encourage others to do the same, thus indirectly affecting the supply of meat products and, through that, the treatment of food animals.

9 Frey sometimes concedes that enough vegetarians will collectively make a difference. For example, he says, “Plainly for my act [of boycotting meat] to have any effect whatever, it must form part of an extensive and sustained series of similar acts” (ibid., 208; cf. 184). In other places, however, he appears to deny this, arguing that the millions of people who have become vegetarians over the past thirty years have collectively made no difference to the demand for meat (see, e.g., 210). But this denial rests on a non sequitur. From the fact that the demand for meat has increased over the past thirty years Frey concludes that these millions of vegetarians have not prevented it from increasing even more.

10 Cognoscenti will recognize this as a version of the Paradox of the Heap. For an interesting recent discussion of some other versions of this paradox, see Parfit Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), Section 29.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
  • URL: /core/journals/dialogue-canadian-philosophical-review-revue-canadienne-de-philosophie
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