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Eliminating carnivores?

This provocative piece “The Meat Eaters” by Jeff McMahan in NYT has aroused much negative comment. The  idea is an extension of ‘animal liberation’ and ‘vegen’ philosophy. The question: Should we arrange for the gradual extinction of all carnivores so that only herbivores remain in order to avoid animal suffering?

The general idea is that animals suffer an awful existence both at the hands of man and through natural conflicts that result in their ‘agonised suffering and violent death’ – the lion eating the antelope.  This provides an instance of the ‘problem of evil’. Why would a benevolent God create such a world? Why not a peaceful world where ,as Isaiah argued:

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and the little child shall lead them.  And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

I wonder if the author is serious or trying to show the logical difficulties that arise if we did include animals in our computation of social welfare. The silliness is that, however one qualifies the argument, carnivores are a part of the world’s ecology so that destroying them would plausibly create devastation.  Would you seek to destroy all birds that eat worms?  Would you in fact wish to go further and wipe out vegetarian humans who inhale insects or devour a suffering carrot crop? There are other contradictions too. Should we destroy feral herbivore species – such as rabbits – that disrupt natural habitats. Many of the animals we eat only have an existence because we do eat them.

The obvious imperative for humans is to restrict suffering by providing animals with pleasurable lives by not using such technologies as factory farms and by employing quick and non-fear arousing terminations if we intend to eat them.

I do like McMahon’s references to Ronald Dworkin who has criticised our preferences for preserving biodiversity but not protecting the happiness of animal life:

“…we tend to treat distinct animal species (though not individual animals) as sacred.  We think it very important, and worth a considerable economic expense, to protect endangered species from destruction.

Few people believe the world would be worse if there had always been fewer species of birds, and few would think it important to engineer new bird species if that were possible.  What we believe important is not that there be any particular number of species but that a species that now exists not be extinguished by us.”

I always think of this as a ‘zoo ethic’. We seek to preserve species but don’t care about the individual welfare of animals.  I agree. We need to respect the lives of actual animals not just that a representative sample of them persist to satisfy our cravings for diversity.

Update: Here is McMahan’s response to his critics.

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