There are many sound arguments for drastically cutting back on our consumption of meat—excessive meat consumption wastes resources, contributes to climate change, and has negative consequences for health. But there is no sound argument based on the rights of animals for avoiding meat entirely.
As far as the first sentence is concerned, I have no problem with rationally discussing the pros and cons of meat consumption as long as the emotional whims behind the reasons are laid on the table. I certainly agree with the second sentence, for the same reason cited by Westermarck more than a century ago; there is no such thing as objective morality, and it is therefore not subject to truth claims. Furrow “kind of” sees it that way, but not quite. Indeed, the core of his argument is very revealing. It exposes all the ambivalence of the modern moral philosopher who understands the evolutionary origins of morality, but can’t bear to accept the consequences of that truth. It reads as follows:
Singer’s argument is based on the idea that animals have moral status because they suffer. As a utilitarian he may not be comfortable using “rights” talk but it surely fits here. He thinks animals have a right to equal consideration. But animals cannot have moral rights, simply because the treatment of animals falls outside the scope of our core understanding of morality. Morality is not a set of principles written in the stars. Morality arises, because as human beings, we need to cooperate with each other in order to thrive, and such cooperation requires trust. The institution of morality is a set of considerations that helps to secure the requisite level of trust to enable that cooperation. That is why morality is a stable evolutionary development. It enhances the kind of flourishing characteristic of human beings. Rights, then, are entitlements that determine what a right-holder may demand of others that we decide to honor in order to maintain the requisite level of social trust.
We are not similarly dependent on the trustworthiness of animals. (Pets are a special case which is why we don’t eat them). Our flourishing does not depend on getting cows, tigers, or shrimp to trust us or we them, and thus we have no reciprocal moral relations with them. From the standpoint of human flourishing there simply is no reason to confer moral rights on animals.
Lovers of boneless ribeye steaks may well wish to simply accept this as it stands. Any port in a storm, right? Unfortunately, I’m a bit more fastidious than that. Before plunging ahead, however, a bit of background on the debate might be useful. Perhaps the best known crusader against the consumption of red meat is Peter Singer. His Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, published in 1975, has been, as Wiki puts it, “a formative influence on leaders of the modern animal liberation movement.” His arguments are based on his conclusion that the particular flavor of utilitarianism he favored at the time constituted an objective guide for establishing the legitimacy of truth claims about the rights of animals. As Furrow points out, the basic claim of the Utilitarians is that “only overall consequences matter in assessing the moral quality of an action.” The most coherent statement of this philosophy was probably John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, published in 1863. That was probably too early for the moral consequences of Darwin’s Origin, published in 1859, to sink in. I seriously doubt that Mill himself would have been a Utilitarian if he had lived a century later. He was too smart for that. Mill explicitly denied any belief in objective morality, noting that mankind had been struggling to find such an objective standard since the time of Socrates. In his words,
To inquire how far the bad effects of this deficiency have been mitigated in practice, or to what extent the moral beliefs of mankind have been vitiated or made uncertain by the absence of any distinct recognition of an ultimate standard, would imply a complete survey and criticism of past and present ethical doctrine. It would, however, be easy to show that whatever steadiness or consistency these moral beliefs have attained, has been mainly due to the tacit influence of a standard not recognized.
I think Mill would have grasped where the “standard not recognized” really came from if there had been time for the consequences of Darwin’s great theory to really dawn on him. Not so Singer, who apparently either never read or never appreciated Mill’s own reservations about his moral philosophy when he wrote his book, and treated utilitarianism as some kind of a moral gold standard.
Which brings us back to Furrow’s counter-arguments. Note in the above quote that he recognizes that morality is both subjective and an “evolutionary development.” From that point, however, he wanders off into an intellectual swamp. If morality is an evolutionary development, then it is quite out of the question that it arose, “…because as human beings, we need to cooperate with each other in order to thrive, and such cooperation requires trust.” Evolution is not driven by needs, nor does it serve any purpose. Robert Ardrey put it very succinctly in his bon mot, “Birds do not fly because they have wings. They have wings because they fly.” According to Furrow, “The institution of morality is a set of considerations that helps to secure the requisite level of trust to enable that cooperation.” No, evolution didn’t somehow create an “institution of morality” consisting of “a set of considerations.” Rather, it resulted in a set of behavioral responses in the form of emotions and feelings. In other words, it produced the “moral sense” whose existence was demonstrated by Francis Hutcheson a century and a half before Darwin. These emotions and feelings have their analogs in other animals. We can only “consider” what they might mean after we have experienced them. Had we not experienced them to begin with there would be nothing to consider, and therefore no morality. Morality is a fundamentally emotional behavioral phenomena, and not some cognitively distilled laundry list of legalistic prescriptions for developing trust so we can cooperate with each other.
Furrow goes on to claim that animals cannot have rights because our “flourishing” does not depend on trusting them. However, that can only be true if it is also true that the “purpose” of morality and therefore the “goal” of evolution was to promote “human flourishing,” which is nonsense. “Rights” are subjective emotional constructs that we commonly delude ourselves into perceiving as real things. It follows that any metric of their objective legitimacy when applied to animals is entirely equivalent to their objective legitimacy when applied to humans; zero.
My own opinion on the eating of red meat is not based on any claim that I understand the “purpose” of moral emotions better than Singer. Rather, it is based on the observation that morality exists because it has made our genetic survival more probable. It therefore seems to me that interpreting our moral emotions in a way that makes our survival less likely is a characteristic of a dysfunctional biological unit. In other words, it is what I call a morality inversion. Establishing artificial moral taboos against the eating of red meat or any other food that might increase our chances of survival in the event that there’s not enough food to go around strikes me as just such a morality inversion. It is based on the wildly improbable assumption that there will always be enough food to go around, in spite of the continuing increase of the human population, and in spite of the fact that such a state of affairs has often been more the exception rather than the rule throughout human history. In other words, it amounts to turning morality against itself.
There is nothing objectively wrong about morality inversions. It’s just that an aversion to them happens to be one of my personal whims. I like the idea of my own continued genetic survival and the continued survival of the human race because it seems to me to be in harmony with the reasons we happen to exist to begin with. As a result, I have a negative emotional response to moral systems that accomplish the opposite. In other words, according to my cognitive interpretation of my own subjective moral emotions, eating red meat is “good,” and morally induced vegetarianism is “evil.” As I said, it’s just a whim, but I see no reason why my whims should take a back seat to anyone else’s, and that’s all Singer’s infinitesimally elaborated version of utilitarianism really amounts to. Indeed, I’m encouraged by the hope that there are others who also place a certain value on survival, and therefore share my whims. I note in passing that they by no means coincide with the notion of “human flourishing” that currently prevails in the academy.