If our going-in belief is, “Meat-eating is morally acceptable as it is a personal decision,” this belief equates acceptable morality with personal preference: “I like to eat beef; therefore, it is acceptable to kill and eat cows.” This easily permits the equivalent expression, “I like to eat Soylent Green; therefore, it is acceptable to kill and eat people.”
However, if we use unnecessary suffering as our benchmark, we can easily defeat both arguments. We first grant that unnecessary suffering is bad. We then grant that the more unnecessary suffering our actions cause, the worse those actions are.
We know that eating animals causes suffering in at least one direct way and one indirect way.
Factory farming is a direct way in which animals suffer. Conditions in many large-scale meat production operations cause animals to suffer cramped quarters, little or no outdoor grazing ability, and inhumane slaughter.
An indirect way that meat production causes suffering is by diverting resources that could go to feed hungry people to instead feed animals that will in turn be used for human consumption. Giving grain to animals which will in turn be used to feed humans is often extremely inefficient. If we stopped this practice, more grain would be available to feed hungry people around the world.
One might make the argument that suffering-avoidance allows us to kill innocent humans so long as we do so without causing the victim any suffering. However, to live in such a world would inevitably lead to great anxiety as people with normally functioning brains do not want to die (or kill for that matter). Knowledge that it is socially acceptable to be killed at any time would likely cause great anxiety in people with normally functioning brains. This is undesirable in a world where humans’ prime objective is to reduce suffering. We also are probably hard-wired to act compassionately toward others.*
One might still argue that it is permissible to kill animals so long as it is done painlessly. It is easier, after all, to conceal an animal’s doom from that animal than it is to do so for a human. We know, however, that, so long as there are starving people on earth, grain will be better used in feeding those people than in feeding livestock in meat production. In the case of animal research, the research is currently justified by weighing potential benefit to society against the suffering experienced by the test subject. This would be upheld under suffering-avoidance philosophy.
In terms of abortion, we have reason to believe that when unwanted children are born, they grow to experience significantly greater personal hardships than wanted children and are more likely to burden society through criminal actions.* The cutoff would be tricky using suffering-avoidance as the basis. If we suppose that a child needs to be around the age of 1 year before s/he is able to experience fear at potentially being killed, then this might appear to allow for the killing of already-born babies. Societies in general are unlikely to allow abortion to that extent, though, as our aversion to killing our offspring and others’ offspring probably has deep evolutionary roots. The fact that ~90% of abortions take place in the first trimester and very few in the last trimester is perhaps further evidence of this. As it would likely cause many people great psychological stress if they knew that babies could be killed up to a year after birth, the suffering to those people would have to be weighed against the life of the baby.
One more important question would be where suffering avoidance philosophy would stand regarding people with disabilities. The utilitarian view might be that such a person might be more useful dead and “in parts” (say, as an organ donor) than alive. For instance, if such a person can die to ease the suffering of two otherwise healthy people, is that person’s death justifiable?
Once again, I think that the utilitarian answer would be, “yes — that person’s death would be justifiable.” But, here again, as with killing babies, we probably have strong evolutionary drives not to allow such “transactions” to take place.
Is the argument from evolution good, though? I don’t think so. If our knee-jerk argument against the idea of people giving up their organs is that it is “robotic” of us, then the argument is easily defeated by calling the alternative position “robotic” (i.e., “It is robotic of us not to harvest organs from one person to save the lives of two people.”) Why is one position “robotic” and the other “humane” or “organic”? This leaves us in very close to the same position as simply doing what we most prefer.
The utilitarian argument at least gives us clear guidance even if we might not be able to, by virtue of our evolutionary history, embrace every outcome.
—Farm Animal Rights Movement
—United Poultry Concerns
—Cornell University Science News
They believe they have discovered the biological basis for the parental instinct….”
—Nic Fleming, The Telegraph
—David Brown, The Washington Post