Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Default Permissibilities, Moral Problematics, and Omnivorism

Thomas Nadelhoffer has an interesting post on what he calls 'non-compassionate omnivorism'. In it he suggests that "if confinement agriculture is morally problematic, then knowingly eating meat produced by these methods—when doing so is unnecessary—is also morally problematic." I have an immense amount of sympathy for this line of reasoning, and especially for its conclusion. However, I think people who reason in this way tend not to have good arguments for their conclusion, and I don't think Nadelhoffer manages to resolve this initial problem. Nadelhoffer is considering the position of the person who does not insist that the meat he eats have been treated humanely when it was a living animal, and asks "Are there any compelling arguments for the permissibility of being a non-compassionate omnivore—especially when being a compassionate omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan is always an option?"

I think there is a straightforwardly compelling, although clearly defeasible, argument: for any action or behavior, if there is no good reason to regard it as otherwise, it is permissible. The reason for accepting default permissibility here is not quite burden of proof -- burdens of proof are simply a matter of argumentative convenience. Rather, the basis for this default is that, since it is morally deficient to go around forcing people to treat as immoral things that are not immoral, we should have reasons, such that a reasonable person of sound mind could accept, to justify our claim that it is immoral. Allowance can be made for mistakes about whether a given set of reasons is good or not; but even then there need to be reasons that could reasonably be mistaken for good ones. Perhaps an example will help. In eighteenth-century Scotland there was a big kerfuffle over the morality of stage plays. John Home, a member of the Moderate Party of the Church of Scotland (and David Hume's cousin), wrote a tragedy, Douglas, that was produced in Edinburgh. The Evangelical Party of the Church of Scotland protested this vehemently, and a sort of war of essays and pamphlets broke out. The problem was not the content of the play, which almost everyone ignores in their arguments; the point under debate was whether it was moral for anyone to produce and attend stage-plays. One of the major figures on the Evangelical side (stage plays are immoral) was John Witherspoon, who wrote a work called A Serious Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Stage. In it he argues, with all seriousness, that stage-plays are immoral, and he reasons this position out at great length. Many of his reasons -- e.g., the dissolute lives of actors, the creation of pseudo-sympathy, disconnection from reality -- are very intelligent and rational reasons to put forward against something. On some cases I think Witherspoon hits his target quite well: some people are morally escapist in the way they engage with drama, there are serious questions about whether we are morally improved by watching violent deaths and villainous successes. I don't think Witherspoon is right at all about the morality of stage-plays; but his reasons aren't stupid reasons to be against them. This contrasts with some of Witherspoon's Evangelical fellows, whose reasons for treating stage-plays as immoral were barely significant, when they had them at all. It is entirely reasonable for those who attended stage-plays to regard stage-play attendance as (defeasibly) permissible by default. To the extent that people like Witherspoon brought forward serious reasons, those reasons need to be engaged; but only so far. By analogy, we can say that the non-compassionate omnivore can, reasonably and in good faith, simply presume permissibility unless there are adequate reasons for thinking otherwise. Such default permissibilities can be abused, of course, since they are not an excuse for ignoring moral reasons in order to do whatever you please; but it is a morally reasonable default and, what is more, will as a matter of moral requirement be in play in most circumstances.

Now, Nadelhoffer and others often give reasons, but I am not so convinced that they are adequate. Nadelhoffer's whole reason, for example, is summarized in the sentence mentioned before, that "if confinement agriculture is morally problematic, then knowingly eating meat produced by these methods—when doing so is unnecessary—is also morally problematic." All well and good, so far as it goes. However, I don't think this gets one as far as Nadelhoffer seems to think, and I think we can see that when we recognize there are different shades of morally problematic, and that our response to all of them is not uniformly the same.

Consider the Douglas controversy again. Witherspoon brings up reasons, some of them good reasons, for considering attendance of stage-plays morally problematic. He can easily point to the disreputable lives of actors; he can easily identify temperaments that are made morally worse by attending stage-plays; he can easily show the scandal and social disruption created by a clergyman's writing a tragedy. There are morally problematic aspects to stage-plays, and this even before we get to the question of their content. But it doesn't follow from this that Home was wrong to write the stage-play, or that his friends were wrong to produce it. Witherspoon shows that stage-plays are to some extent morally problematic, but none of his reasons are adequate for showing that it is wrong to have stage-plays. They are adequate for showing that it is wrong to have stage-plays (or, at the very least, was wrong in the eighteenth-century) without recognizing that certain aspects of them present a moral challenge. But there are many, many different ways of handling this moral challenge; eliminating them altogether, the Evangelical option, is only one possible way to go. Another possibility might be to work for the reform of the theater (in which case Home's action might be eminently valuable); yet another might be to work to encourage a better understanding among stage-play audiences of the potential pitfalls; and so forth. The only limit here is the limit of ingenuity.

So there is a weak sense of 'morally problematic' in which it means nothing more than that the thing in question presents a moral problem that needs to be handled in some way or another. And we can see that this sort of thing is important when we consider the hard questions of moral complicity that inevitably arise in any human society. By living in society we facilitate excellence in our fellow human beings; we also facilitate many very bad things. This is morally problematic. But it does not follow from this that we should quit such a society altogether. However, the degree to which our participation in society is morally problematic is never stable: it is continually in flux, and there will be circumstances under which our participation in society will be much, much more problematic than others. In all these cases, there will usually be different paths that are acceptable to a reasonably cultivated conscience. But in some cases there will be a vast number of acceptable paths, because the morally problematic character of our participation will be analogous to the stage-play case: it's not that the action (e.g., attending stage-plays) is morally wrong, but only that it brings with it moral issues that should not be ignored. Even here, there is a spectrum of possibilities. In some cases if the issues are ignored, it is only a very venial failing; in others, it will be more serious. In some cases, however, the moral problems raised by our participation in society will become so many and so serious that acceptable options will be sharply constrained. These would be cases of a serious and troubling kind -- an obvious case is the participation of Germans in German society during the Holocaust. Merely living life in a society will put us into proximity with morally problematic features of that society. But there are many different ways in which such features can be morally problematic, and it would be silly of us to assume that the mere fact of their being morally problematic is always and ever a reason to eliminate them entirely. There is a word for such an assumption: it is called puritanical, and is not usually considered morally admirable.

So it is simply not enough to argue, as I think can reasonably be argued, that eating factory-farmed meat is morally problematic. If the question is no longer eating such meat at all, for instance, it must be argued that it is sufficiently problematic to warrant such a measure. And if the claim is that it is sufficiently problematic to be avoided unless a countervailing justification can be found -- then that is what must be argued. If eating such meat is morally problematic, and there is no adequate argument that it is morally problematic in a serious enough way, then the response to such a morally problem may well have nothing to do with continuing to eat factory-farmed meat or not. For instance, someone might argue that it isn't actually important whether you eat it or not; what is important is that we be taking steps, even if only small ones, to reform the factory system, and that this is enough to handle any morally problematic aspects to our participation in the factory system. If responses like these aren't enough, we need arguments for this -- and these arguments need to tell us much more than that it is morally problematic.

Otherwise history might have its revenge on us. No one takes Witherspoon's reasoning very seriously today, even though he occasionally brings up points that are genuinely worth thinking about; and, by the ultimate irony of history, his direct descendant is a very famous movie star, knee-deep in all the morally problematic features of plays that Witherspoon worried about. Our moral demands must be proportionate to our reasons for those demands, and I fear that the arguments against the 'non-compassionate omnivore' usually don't seem to exhibit such a proportion.

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