When I was a teenager, I was for some years a vegetarian. It was ill thought out - I was always fond of animals (thanking my lucky stars that Charlotte was able to pluck Wilbur from his baconward trajectory). I was also probably was attracted to the lifestyle's aesthetic properties - stricter, more virtuous, less mainstream. I lapsed from vegetarianism for equally specious reasons. My boyfriend at the time, who was an animal activist vegetarian, left me the day before Thanksgiving, and I consoled myself with turkey.
In the meantime, I've become something of a foodie and avid home cook. Mmmmm, meat!
But I have always felt that if I do anything immoral, anything I should be regretting, it is eating animals. I also think if there's any widely held cultural value right now that is ripe for moral re-evaluation, it's eating animals. Recently, I was considering watching Food, Inc. I didn't want to see it because I was worried it would make me feel guilty, and I didn't want to feel guilted out of eating meat. Which, of course, meant that I really need to take a look at what I'm doing.
The cause of animal rights suffers from its adherents. PETA attracts only attention with its antics - not converts. "Meat is Murder!" and "Love animals, don't eat them" are question-begging. It is obvious to me that a duck hunter who kills a few dozen ducks is not the moral equivalent of Timothy McVeigh. People who claim otherwise, who claim that animals are fully persons in the moral sense of the term, fail to convince me or the vast majority of people without some further argument.
The main moral defense of eating non-human animals is that they are not persons since they lack certain crucial cognitive abilities - most notably the ability to respect rights. The main response to this from the animal rights folks is that we don't accord rights on a sliding scale based on how intelligent one is. A whipsmart doctor does not deserve more moral consideration than a somewhat slower, more plainspoken farmer.
And we accord rights to humans with severe cognitive disabilities.
So I thought about all this quite seriously in the days after the birth of newest little guy. For those who are not regular readers of the blog (a group who should live and be well to 120), Edmund (aka the Mound) has Cri du Chat Syndrome, and is likely severely cognitively disabled. It seems perfectly obvious to me that he deserves equal love and attention, if necessarily different treatment, than my typical kid. (As it happens, he is ridiculously easy to love, as he is always either smiling and delighted, apparently made entirely of baby fat and dimples and glee, or sleeping). One might attribute my obligations to the special responsibilities of being a parent. But it also seems to me that he deserves respect from everyone else, too (warning to future parents of kids who tease the Mound - if you do not sufficiently intervene to prevent your child's bullying, I will do something we all will regret). Of course, I can't treat him exactly as I would a typical human. I can't grant him, say, autonomy over medical decisions. But nor can I mistreat him, and I am obligated to maximize his talents and be respectful of him.
Now the fact that we have moral obligations to Edmund does not necessarily mean we have the same obligations as we do to a similarly-abled animal (of course, Edmund has abilities that even the most able ape lacks, and lacks abilities that my cats have -- but you get the point, I hope). Species membership in itself does, as I have suggested, count for something morally.
However, it does not count for everything. I do think it's warranted to treat a fertilized human egg, and a brain-damaged person in a permanent coma somewhat differently than I would a fully able adult (that doesn't mean I may treat them without respect). I also think we would be required to treat, say, a chimp who was able to go through some neuron-growing process and had all the cognitive abilities that a typical human adult has, as a full person in the moral sense. Same with ET. Cognitive abilities in themselves, even without species membership, also seem to count morally.
So. I think neither cognitive abilities nor species membership are necessary for moral consideration, but each is sufficient. Sufficient, that is, for some moral consideration - not for full personhood. I don't know how much cognition warrants moral consideration (so, say, a thermostat doesn't count). It may well be something like the ability to suffer or having interests puts you in the moral consideration camp but is not enough for full personhood.
In light of the fact that I don't know how much cognition is required for moral consideration, and animals have quite a bit of cognition, I think I ought not to eat animals. (I don't promise I will never slip up and eat a bite or two of prosciutto at my in-laws' Christmas antipasto.) At the very least, it is absolutely clear to me that factory farming is an absolute moral outrage, one I want no part of perpetuating. And I made the leap in honor of Edmund, who, once upon a time, would have been thought unworthy of any moral consideration. I do not believe he is the moral equivalent of a non-human animal. But he has taught me to value more fully everything that a being can be without intellectual abilities. He has taught me that my love and treatment of him does not depend on what he can do. And he makes me want to treat all those who can feel and suffer, but can't do algebra, better.
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