Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

August 5, 2014

Soylent Fido

by @ 1:09 PM. Filed under General, Personhood, Theory

Normally, I’m up for a good Devil’s-advocate following-your-principles-off-the-cliff screed as much as anyone. But it’s hard to figure out what triggered John Sutter of CNN to become so overwrought on the subject of eating dogs as food that he devoted an editorial to it and managed to wind up on both sides of the issue. Yes, as he notes, it’s traditional practice, and apparently big business, in some Asian countries, but it’s not much of an issue in the English-speaking world and he seems to be uniquely exercised about it. He both condemns the practice as barbaric and also suggests it is as justifiable as eating other animals (which he does not explicitly condemn), then concludes weakly that “it’s the [question] all of us should further examine”. Thus, it remains puzzling exactly how he feels or what he wants us to do about it.

Sutter describes the semi-clandestine trade in live dogs for food purposes, out of Thailand through Laos and into Vietnam where they are served up a la carte. Dog smugglers evade taxes but the business is otherwise tolerated; “once in Vietnam no part of it is illegal”. He notes that the dogs are treated badly before slaughter, which should be a reason to condemn this trade, but then points out that other domesticated food animals also suffer abuse, and there is little difference in principle between eating dogs and eating other non-pet domesticated animals. (“Unless you’re vegetarian or vegan . . . you don’t have any moral high ground to stand on.”) In this he follows much of the standard thinking on this issue, but it doesn’t bring him to a conclusion. He notes that “Here in the United States, . . . eating dog could be seen as a reasonable alternative to pig, which is another highly intelligent animal, capable of being a companion to the likes of George Clooney”*, but soon after suggests that “If we think dog shouldn’t be eaten . . . then maybe we should think about the other animals we eat, and if and why we don’t feel the same way about them.” Normally, partisans on this issue use the comparability of the two practices (eating pets; eating farm animals) to drive a conclusion for or (more typically) against both of them, appealing to the audience’s intuition that if they are morally comparable they must both be approved or banned. Sutter just seems puzzled by it all.

Finally, however, he introduces this odd twist: it would actually be beneficial, in the US, to adopt dog meat as human food, specifically for the purpose of reducing the population of abandoned dogs at animal shelters. Since most of them will be killed anyway, why not just . . . ? The benefits would include reducing the stray-dog population and also reducing our expenditure of resources on farm animals, a major source of waste and environmental degradation. (So, hey, as long as we’re eating any animals, we may as well eat the ones that are already in the way.)

In the end, Sutter seems to be advocating for just what he says, as watery as it is: to provoke people to think more clearly about the questions of which animals are eaten and what justifies those distinctions. “Clearly, the illegal dog trade needs to be cleaned up. But so does our thinking about what we eat and when and why.” He notes in the article that his exposure to the dog-meat trade actually came about while he was researching a similar article on illegal pangolin-meat smuggling, which has got to put him way up on the scale of taking his principles seriously. And that is something I admire a great deal.

I’m still not convinced this is a problem that needs to be solved, though.

What seems to bother Sutter, like others who take this line, is the arbitrariness of the distinctions made between species used as food and those kept as pets (also noting that those distinctions are made in different ways in different countries, further illustrating that it is personal preference, not moral clarity, which destines animals for cooking or coddling). Arguably, pigs are higher on the intelligence scale than dogs, and this would be a definitive distinction if we chose our foodstuffs on the basis of (low) intelligence. We don’t, but Sutter – again, like many others – appears to perceive an implicit moral hierarchy linked to this (putative) intellectual hierarchy: mental acuity relates to personhood which confers moral standing, therefore smarter beings have greater moral status and thus eating them is less justifiable than eating less-smart beings. Similar arguments arise from claims of an emotional content to animals’ lives, their sociability, etc. All this is a form of thinly-veiled anthropomorphism, in which the fact that animals seem to have subjective qualities to their lives similar to the subjective content of human personalities then aggrandizes to them some of the moral status of persons. Our moral culpability in eating them is underscored by the fact that, on some analyses, we seem to be eating the “wrong” animals, thus demonstrating that we don’t even care about true moral hierarchies even though we appeal to them to justify eating animals in general. That is, we justify eating animals because animals are much less mentally sophisticated than humans, but the apparent arbitrariness of our decisions which animals to eat (we eat pigs and not dogs, but pigs are smarter than dogs, plus George Clooney!) proves that we don’t really care about mental sophistication at all. For many, that invalidates all arguments in favor of eating animals; for Sutter, it merely suggests that we need to straighten out our perceived hierarchies and start eating stray dogs.

What I would like to suggest is that this arbitrariness of distinctions between non-human species, if it exists, is not morally significant – that is, that it’s OK to eat pigs or dogs, or both, or neither (and similarly for a number of other species, possibly with some limitations that aren’t the central issue here). The relative sophistication of subjective experience of any such species does not give it greater or lesser moral standing vis a’ vis other potential entrees, such that we are doing wrong in eating one species and not another because one is “smarter” or has deeper “emotions” than the other (which, anyway, are empirical questions that are notoriously controversial and difficult to resolve). What matters as a categorical moral issue is personhood: the possession of a sense of self and awareness of one’s own interests that grants status as a moral subject.

What matters in these cases – and all cases regarding the use or exploitation of animals taken on first principles** – is whether those animals are to be regarded as moral persons. Moral standing – status as a person – is preliminary to claims of moral protection. It is essentially an all-or-nothing claim: either you’re a person and subject to the protection of moral regard, or you’re not and you’re not. [But see Squidocto’s comment, below.] Mental qualities such as the putative intelligence of various species do not invoke moral protection in and of themselves; at most they are components of personhood, but that quality is the only decisive one.

I am here evading the actual question of the personhood of any of these species, except to note that it is generally accepted that none of them qualify – indeed, that no non-human species qualifies except possibly, and contentiously, some primates. Regarding Sutter’s piece, and most like it, it does not actually argue that dogs or pigs are moral persons; it does not even seem to recognize personhood as a moral status. Sutter seems to think the “arbitrariness” argument is sound simply because a distinction is being made. My point is that such distinctions among the category of non-persons do not violate any claims to moral protection, because non-persons do not benefit from such claims. And from that perspective, it is not only permissible to choose non-human species for eating, but it is permissible to do so on arbitrary grounds.

My real point is to reassert the significance of moral personhood as as determining criterion regarding the moral status of living entities. It is one that is almost universally overlooked in debates over animal welfare (except when it is asserted, usually dubiously, in favor of some chosen species; never to rule a species out of the realm of moral protection). Sutter’s apparent emotional ambivalence is understandable when viewing animals from the perspective of our already-established relations with them; it naturally seems repulsive to him to eat an animal he views in the status of a pet. But, as he himself proves, from that basis he cannot understand why other people would eat such an animal, even though they don’t view it as a pet. He has no grounds for determining moral status in an absolute sense – only relative to whether he, personally, has feelings for the species in question. He recognizes this as arbitrary but can only suggest that we “further examine” the issue, because he has no basis on which to resolve it.

There is such a basis. It is the foundation of all moral reasoning – the question “who counts?” (notably, not the question “Is George Clooney’s pig smarter than some hungry Vietnamese person’s dog?,” which ought to be recognizable as an awfully strange moral inquiry). And, while we should be wary of making moral decisions on an arbitrary basis, we should be aware of the difference between truly moral questions and ones that are merely practical or matters of preference.


* I have no idea what the George Clooney thing is about.

** There may be secondary arguments arising from environmental and ecological concerns, endangered-species status, etc., such that it would be wrong to kill certain animals for such reasons even if it would not be wrong on grounds of personhood or mental capacity. That is a different issue.

6 Responses to “Soylent Fido”

  1. Squidocto Says:

    If I get you right, questions regarding whether an action ‘done to’ X are only moral questions if X is a moral agent (moral person in your lingo). If X is not, you do not consider it to be a moral question.

    However, would you agree that such actions would reflect on the morality of the actor (perpetrator)? For instance, I might very well have moral objections to someone torturing a dog or pig, even if I agree that they are not moral agents. Based on the above, I think you’d agree.

    What I’m getting at is, if that is true, then the subjective experiences of non-moral agents can still have an indirect impact on moral arguments. In other words, the lives of non-persons can be legitimately included in moral equations.

    (I have no reason to think you’d disagree. I’m just saying hi. Honestly I didn’t even read the Sutter piece. But I enjoyed yours. See you soon)

  2. Kevin T. Keith Says:

    That’s a really good point. My claim that “Moral standing – status as a person – is preliminary to claims of moral protection. It is essentially an all-or-nothing claim” may have been phrased too strongly.

    There is undoubtedly a moral aspect to causing pain, even among creatures that would not qualify as persons. It is surprisingly hard to work out in detail (both because of the theoretical difficulty of identifying the interests of beings that are unaware of their own interests, and because identifying pain in non-primates is hard [merely watching them react is very bad evidence]). But that problem essentially ends with the issue of causing pain, specifically. For an animal that has no sense of self or future, you are not harming them by killing and eating them; only by causing pain in doing so. So the question of bad treatment separates out from that of eating per se.

    That is, there are moral issues to the treatment of non-persons, and it was bad writing to suggest there were no such considerations. But there is still a clear distinction, on the question of claims to protection on moral grounds, to be made between those categories.

  3. JP Says:

    You are basically arguing that might makes right. Our human standard of “personhood makes the man” is, of course, the most obvious and advantageous position to argue, if you are a human. But what if human interests are not the only ones that matter in this world? What if the dogs and pigs of the world would really rather not be tortured, slaughtered, and eaten? I doubt that they care whether or not we divvy up “personhood” to include them; they just want to be free to live their lives. We each–human and nonhuman alike–only get one chance at life. What a shame that we deny a reasonable existence to millions of other creatures, all for the sake of what we think will taste good for dinner.

    “Personhood” is nifty (and insidious) tool for human self-justification.

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