A Philosopher's Blog

Debating Meat III: Cartesian Cutlets

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics by Michael LaBossiere on March 3, 2010
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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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6 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on March 3, 2010 at 8:16 am

    “This status might (or might not) be suitable to make the killing or consumption of animals an immoral act.”

    What about animals eating animals? Does this make them immoral?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 3, 2010 at 7:05 pm

      It depends on what sort of moral agency animals posses. I think most animals can easily avoid any charge of immorality because they lack the intellectual ability to discern good from evil in regards to eating their prey.

      However, some animals might be capable of knowing better. Dogs seem to manifest some qualities that indicate they have moral potential (or they fake the appearance of guilt really well). Perhaps higher primates have some moral agency, too.

      • P.E.N.Name said, on March 3, 2010 at 8:24 pm

        These Q’s may sound silly. Do cats and dogs feel guilt when they’re caught doing something we’ve taught them not to do? Or do they just feel fear? Fear of pain. Fear of loss of companionship. Fear of loss of comfort. . .Which is a true sign of morality, fear or guilt?

  2. T. J. Babson said, on March 3, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Great title for the post!

  3. Carnap said, on March 4, 2010 at 7:35 am

    Perhaps higher primates have some moral agency, too.

    Humans = Higher primates.

  4. magus71 said, on March 4, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Your cats love mice and canned horsemeat.Try weaning them onto carrots and celery and they’ll probably kill you in your sleep. Unless you can turn them into Hindu cats. Then they’ll just become immaciated and docile.


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