Debating Meat III: Cartesian Cutlets

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In my previous post on this subject, I discussed the theology of eating meat. My main focus was on the Christian view of the matter as exemplified by the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. I now turn to look at the metaphysical view put forth by Rene Descartes and how this relates to the ethics of eating animals.

In his 1648 letter to Henry Moore Descartes addresses the question of whether or not animals have minds. He begins by presenting the main reason that we think that animals think: an argument by analogy. The gist of this argument is that animals resemble us in terms of their behavior and physiology. Hence, we infer that animals also think  because we do so.

Descartes first main argument is based on a common method in philosophy and science, that of Occam’s Razor.  The rough idea is that if something can be explained without assuming the existence of an entity (such as a metaphysical mind), then there is no reason to accept that such a thing exists.

In the case of animals, Descartes argues that all their movements and actions can be explained in purely mechanical terms. Hence, there is no need to accept the existence of animal minds in order to account for their doing what they do. In modern terms, Descartes takes animals to be biological robots-they do what they do on the basis of their mechanical parts rather than on the basis of a metaphysical mind.

While Descartes finds this argument convincing, he thinks that his strongest argument is the language argument. He contends that animals do not use true language (he does concede that they do make sounds that express the states of their bodies, such as pain or hunger) while humans do. He takes this distinction to be the key difference between people (who have minds and bodies) and animals (who are mere bodies).

He concludes his letter, interesting enough, by noting that he is speaking to  “those not committed to the extravagant position of Pythagoras, who held people under suspicion of a crime who ate or killed animals.”

In many ways this argument is similar to those put forth by Augustine and Aquinas. The basic idea is that animals are metaphysically different from us (inferior, of course) and this morally allows us to eat and kill them. While Descartes does not explicitly develop the moral argument, it seems quite reasonable to take this as his view of the matter.

This argument does have  a certain appeal. After all, the moral status of a being does seem to depend on its qualities and the mental qualities (or lack thereof) do seem to be especially relevant. For example, if I get angry and break my laptop, I might be wasting a perfectly good computer but I am committing no wrong against the laptop. After all, a laptop  is simply not the sort of thing that can be wronged. It lacks the qualities that enable it to be a morally relevant agent.

If animals lack minds, then they would be on par with laptops. While they would be complex machines, they would still be mere machines and hence lacking in moral status.

Of course, there are various ways to disagree with Descartes’ argument. One is to argue that animals do, in fact, have minds and that although they are not as complex as the typical human mind, this still entitles them to a moral status. Some folks have even tried to prove that certain animals do use true language. This status might (or might not) be suitable to make the killing or consumption of animals an immoral act.

Another way is to argue that animals have a moral status that does not depend on their having minds. Since Descartes concedes that animals feel pain (but not in the mental sense, since they lack minds) this could be used as a counter against his view (perhaps by making a utilitarian style argument).

One final point I will consider is that some philosophers and scientists (actually many) think that humans lack metaphysical minds. Interestingly enough, one view is that humans are as Descartes saw animals: complex biological automatons (that is, meatbots). So, if Descartes’ argument holds for animals then it would also hold for us as well. Of course, it can also be argued that while humans do not have Cartesian minds, humans do have minds and these minds are superior to animal minds in a way that justifies killing or eating animals.

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  1. Mustin Jorris

    I like it when you said, “meatbots.”

  2. The point isn’t whether animals think or not: some people don’t think. Animals are sentient beings; they feel pain and pleasure.

  3. Amos: Just like Bentham said: The question isn’t Can they reason? but Can they suffer?

    Anyway, I have two issues with Descartes’ method: 1.) He assumed without a way of knowing that animals are simply mechanical beings, and 2.) He claims that to have the right to be subject to moral recompense, a thing must have language and have some kind of recognisably complex mental status, i.e. not this mechanical being.

    There are other ways to evaluate whether something should be made part of our moral sphere: reciprocation (which obviously wouldn’t work out so well for animals), genetic personhood, etc. However, using “pain” as an evaluation might become too over-encompassing: how should we measure pain, and what if we found that somehow a plant could feel pain?—after all, it reacts to its environment and so forth.

  4. If we accept, for the sake of the argument, that Tom Regan is right when he says that animals are “subjects of a life,” does it follow that we must also accept his conclusion that they must be allowed to live their lives? His argument, it seems to me, does not hinge so much on the question of “minds” of which we can only speculate, but on the reality of their being, and on what he supposes is their inherent self-interest in remaining alive.

  5. Anyone who has witnessed a dog fight for his or her life cannot doubt that animals have an inherent self-interest in remaining alive.

  6. To me the argument does not revolve around the mind of the eaten, it is more centered on the condition/evolution of the eater. A lion is not found immoral as she eats the antelope. Lions need to do so in order to survive. The length of the digestive tract of carnivores verses herbivores seems to indicate that humans evolved to consume meat. Our guts are not long enough to efficiently absorb enough nutrients from plants. There is archeological evidence for the eating of meat. We have canine teeth for the mechanical digestion of meat. Seems like a physiological “game set match”…

    Measuring the length of digestive tracts smacks of phrenology. Measuring things in terms of herbivore or carnivore ignores the category under which humans are grouped: omnivore. Game, Set & Match? I’m not sure you even brought your racquet.

  8. Phrenology in my understanding is the study of the shape of the skull leading to inferences of intelligence and other cognitive traits. Phrenology has fallen out of favor due to significantly underwhelming evidence.

    The length of the digestive tract is analogous to the surface area of the system through which nutrients must pass. I used the extremes of the animal kingdom to make my point (a common tactic in science). Carnivores have short (less surface area) digestive systems essentially due to the fact that the food they ingest is very nutrient rich. They do not need a long system and any carnivore that takes the energy to make a long system and carry it around with them would be at a disadvantage. Evolution would weed them out. Herbivores ingest nutrient poor foods necessitating the longer digestive tract (more surface area). My point is simply that the length of the human alimentary canal is on the short end of the stick, make inferences as you will.

    BOB 4-ACES, your last sentence is quite insulting. There is no need for this, and I would ask that you stand in front of the mirror and berate yourself for it. Lets be civil here…

  9. Methinks the logical tactic in play is this: if animal are not intelligent, it’s okay to eat them; but (some) animals are intelligent, therefore we should eat veggies.

    I’d prefer the tactic, if’s its okay to eat animals, it has to be okay to eat humans. Why not? why not believe that eating the vital organs of an enemy will give the consumer the vitality of his/her enemy? Or something like that.

    I’d prefer to look at the ban on cannibalism, and then extend it to animals.

  10. @Kevin Duffy

    Humans are omnivores not carnivores. We thrive on a wide range of diets, including but not limited to a plant diet and/or a meat diet. There is no biological imperative for humans to eat meat.

  11. I never stated that humans were carnivores, only that we share a similarly short digestive tract. There is much supporting evidence for humans consuming meat throughout our evolution. My point is that historically (and I mean from a planetary standpoint here) humans have had other animals on the menu. I eat little meat, but that is for health reasons not philosophical or ethical ones. If a caveman ate it, then why not modern man.

  12. 1) “If a caveman ate it, then why not modern man.” ??? (Also other references to historical meat eating . . .) Under this logic, if a caveman beat his wife, then why not modern man? etc. Hopefully the human species is improving its behavior over time; behavior today should not be excused by the fact that it has occurred in the past. 2) loved the berating yourself in front of a mirror comment 🙂

  13. Kate,

    I think that your comparison of diet to behavior is flawed. Man (or Woman for that matter) do not need to beat their spouse to survive, eating is a necessity. I have heard the argument that meat is a luxury today and that the nutrients provided by meat is easily obtainable through a vegetarian diet. This is due to our technologies regarding safe storage and transportation of foods. This leads me to question how much energy is used to supply the average consumer with the variety of vegetables needed to have a healthy diet. Would adding meat to the mix mitigate the need to expend that energy and thus reduce the negative climatological impact?

    Meat consumption in the US leads to the epidemic of obesity that we are seeing. In that, I agree that a vegetarian diet would benefit most Americans. All things in moderation would work for all.

    Another observation that I have made regards modern humans and their detachment from nature. We build our own climate controlled enclosures, farm monocultures, work in cyberspace, and all too infrequently experience the wild. Vegetarianism seems to me to be removing us even farther from that natural state. “Nature, red of tooth and claw” (Tennyson) and all that. . .

    P.S. I was proud of the “berate” remark as well, thank you for mentioning it.

  14. “Nature, red of tooth and claw”

    Read Mutual Aid (Kropotkin). Nature is not inherently violent. Only a small percentage of species, and an even smaller percentage of individuals, are carnivores.

    Historically, agricultural societies going back thousands of years have thrived on a largely plant based diet. Beans and tortillas, tomatoes and squash are not modern health food innovations.

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