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Why freedom of choice doesn't justify eating animals

If choice trumps what is ethically right, then horrendous penchants such as pedophilia would have to be respected, writes Alex Melonas.

Michael J. Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard, argues that good political theory helps to frame debates: What assumptions are in play? What are the logical implications of an argument? and so on.   

I want to try and do that here, in an attempt to clarify what I think we mean by freedom of choice, and why this freedom doesn’t justify eating animals.      

People make the assumption that we all have different tastes and outlooks. In other words, as individuals, we are unique. And this uniqueness ought to be respected in that we are rational animals, capable of deciding what is good for each of us.

Liberalism is built upon this assumption. Across the political spectrum, from Left to Right, this belief is shared (in degrees).

A defense of negative freedom, that is, we are free to the extent that constraints on our choices are absent, often follows.  

The claim, “I respect your choice to be a vegan; please respect mine not to be,” seems like a reasonable conversation stopper then, in that what and who we eat gets lumped into this view of freedom: it is a matter of choice, and each choice is equally good.

This often leads to the additional claim that there is something wrong with “pushing” veganism (my “lifestyle choice”) on others.

(Does the reasoning run the other way too? Wouldn’t it have to be true that it is unjust when commercials and other advertisements push non-vegan food options on those of us who have made a different choice? School lunch menus that are totally dominated by meat (animal carcasses), dairy and eggs (animal reproductive excrements) are de facto forcing a particular choice on most students. If advocating for veganism is wrong, or pushy, then conversely, the school lunch menu must be wrong, too.)       

But this conception of freedom of choice is something of a false neutrality isn’t it, for if it wasn’t the obvious implication is license, or the total lack of restraint on our choices.   

For if it wasn’t, the monsters that sexually prefer young children would make choices the need to be respected. There are those who can only be satisfied if their sexual encounters involve high levels of aggression. Oftentimes, willing participants are lacking, so the next rational step in pursuit of satisfying the rapist’s unconscionable preference is sex with an unwilling participant.

If choice trumps what is ethically right then these horrendous penchants would have to be respected. But liberals (and anybody else who’s not deranged) certainly don’t believe this.

The reason why actions such as these are wrong is because we implicitly place a limit on how far we can go in our individual pursuits. Our freedom is quite constrained indeed, and we all believe that is a good thing.

And what limits our freedom to choose is this: we are free to pursue our interests, and make choices, up to the point where we cause harm (in the form of suffering, for example).

It is quite sensible to hold this as a principle – when we begin to cause harm, freedom ends, because harm is intrinsically bad. This is commonsensical isn’t it?

How does this relate to animal rights then?

Because other animals are capable of being harmed, physically and psychologically, many to the same level of intensity that humans can, it follows that this ethical limit extends to our interactions with nonhuman animals.

Our attitude of not taking the harm we cause to nonhuman animals seriously is a prejudice called speciesism, by analogy to racism and sexism.

The speciesist bases the exclusion of a class of beings from the moral community on a biological distinction: species membership. And like race or sex, species is a morally irrelevant characteristic because it is an arbitrary result of the natural lottery.  

Remember, our freedom ends when we begin to cause harm; you have the right to swing your fist until it reaches the tip of my nose, in other words. We all believe this to be true.

When we put “to humans” after causing harm, that is simply a prejudice, logically akin to those who would put “to whites” or “to women” in its place.    

According to the American Dietetic Association, veganism is healthy at all stages of the life cycle. So our consumption of animals falls into the category of “choice”: alternative nutritional options abound (particularly in industrialized nations) that don’t involve the direct infliction of harm.

When presented with two options, the one that causes the least amount of harm is the ethical choice. It would seem, then, that the only rational conclusion is that going vegan is the right thing to do.

Here we have a basic negative right (a “freedom from”). Anybody, human or nonhuman, capable of being harmed, has a moral fence around them with a sign on it that says, “You’re free to do as you please…until you hurt me.” 

Alex Melonas is a first-year Ph.D. student in political theory at Temple University. He occasionally writes about animal rights at That Vegan Girl.



0 #2 Alex Melonas 2010-02-24 08:04
It seems to me that any animal, human or nonhuman, capable of being harmed, have moral claims against you and I, who are moral agents. These claims, however, as a matter of logic, can only extend to (or apply to) moral agents. Children, the mentally handicapped, the senile, and nonhuman animals, for example, are not moral agents; that is, for various reasons (e.g., intellectual capacities, language barriers) they are not the kinds of beings who hold principles, understand "right" and "wrong" (as we would define that) and can act accordingly. It follows, then, that while this "moral fence" applies to all sentient beings in the form of an obligation not to cause them harm, only moral agents, which is to say, only some humans, have a moral obligation to respect that fence.

A mentally handicapped adult, or human infant, in other words, cannot reasonable be held morally accountable. Likewise with nonhuman animals. Indeed, our entire system of justice, in the United States that is, is predicated on this distinction between "moral agents" and "non-moral agents".

So, as with human-human interaction, self-defense, for example, would override this obligation (I might add, an obligation we all tacitly accept, as I argued in the article), and questions of intervention, or indirect self-defense might arise. But as a matter of principle "Omnivore", we cannot exclude nonhuman animals from this moral sphere of protection.
0 #1 Omnivore 2010-02-21 19:04
"Anybody, human or nonhuman, capable of being harmed, has a moral fence around them with a sign on it that says, “You’re free to do as you please…until you hurt me.” "

Alex - Does the obligation to recognize this 'moral fence' only apply to humans or to all omnivores/carni vores? If yes then why?

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