You’ve Got to Crack Some Eggs

I.

Sometimes (oftentimes) I wonder about the role of intentionality in the ethics of consumption. Is there a moral difference between eating a portion of a (non-factory farmed) cow that was killed with the intention of being consumed and eating a loaf of bread that involved the deaths of however many insects, rodents, birds, reptiles, and amphibians that lived in the field from which the grain came.

Fortunately this is in Francione’s faq about veganism:

Question 12: If we become vegetarians, animals will inevitably be harmed when we plant vegetables, and what is the difference between raising and killing animals for food and unintentionally killing them as part of a plant-based agriculture?

The only thing I disagree with is the inevitability of harming animals (because I’m a strong proponent of changing the way we (re)produce food).

II.

What is the deontological reply to this question:

Answer: If we shift from a meat-based agriculture to a plant-based agriculture, we will inevitably displace and possibly kill sentient animals when we plant vegetables. Surely, however, there is a significant difference between raising and killing animals for food and unintentionally doing them harm in the course of planting vegetables, an activity that is itself intended to prevent the killing of sentient beings.

(I’m going to question whether we have a meat-based agriculture right now, but that is a discussion for another time).

Francione agrees that animals will continue to die for our plates.

Surely, however, there is a significant difference between raising and killing animals for food and unintentionally doing them harm in the course of planting vegetables, an activity that is itself intended to prevent the killing of sentient beings.

Does intentionality matter that much? Can one knowingly do something unintentionally? Or does knowledge of the consequences of actions not influence the intentionality of actions at all?

…doing them harm in the course of planting vegetables, an activity that is itself intended to prevent the killing of sentient beings.

Is causing harm to sentient beings while engaging in an action one claims prevents harm to (other) sentient beings another sort of, as Francione likes to say, “moral schizophrenia?”

III.

In order to understand this point, consider the following example. We build roads. We allow people to drive automobiles. We know as a statistical matter that when we build a road, some humans–we do not know who they are beforehand–will be harmed as the result of automobile accidents. Yet there is a fundamental moral difference between activity that has human harm as an inevitable but unintended consequence and the intentional killing of particular humans. Similarly, the fact that animals may be harmed as an unintended consequence of planting vegetables, even if we do not use toxic chemicals and even if we exercise great care to avoid harming animals, does not mean that it is morally acceptable to kill animals intentionally.

Are humans not aware that when they drive on roads they have the potential to die or, ethically worse, kill other humans?

Do we not accept these deaths because roads are useful for maintaining the flows of capital or because roads are just convenient?

Yet there is a fundamental moral difference between activity that has human harm as an inevitable but unintended consequence and the intentional killing of particular humans.

Despite a perceived moral difference for some between causing the death of someone on the road and “intentionally” killing someone, there is no difference for the person killed.

If something is inevitable, there can be no guilt.

Does this make me a consequentialist?

I don’t have a driver’s license to reduce my risk of killing someone “unintentionally.”

Similarly, the fact that animals may be harmed as an unintended consequence of planting vegetables, even if we do not use toxic chemicals and even if we exercise great care to avoid harming animals, does not mean that it is morally acceptable to kill animals intentionally.

But why is it more morally acceptable to kill animals “unintentionally” but knowingly.

IV.

This is a logic that flourishes under deontological regimes. Is BP in the ethical wrong for causing an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? It wasn’t intentional, but it was known that it could happen. Are the missionaries that wiped out cultures all over the globe for so many years in the wrong, even though that wasn’t their intention.

You’ve got to crack some eggs to make an omelette.

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One Response to You’ve Got to Crack Some Eggs

  1. mike says:

    Hey, I just found your blog through Vegans of Color. While I like the fact you raise questions about the appropriateness of talking about intentions when it comes to ethics & veganism, I feel like there’s an important detail that doesn’t come up in this post: What do industrially raised livestock/food-animals eat? Industrially-raised (i.e. field-animal-killing) grains. Shifting from one industrial source of food to another means our diets result in not only that much less direct suffering, but that much less suffering altogether. Similarly, were we to shift food production (meat-based on the one hand, plant-based on the other) away from industrialization, the plant-based would remain one step further removed from animal suffering.

    I think the one way I can think of in which AR-based omnivorism on a large scale makes sense is if one were to say that the best way to eliminate suffering from food production would be to have grass-fed cows (etc.) and humanely harvested crops, because the number of animals suffering would be lower and having just humanely harvested crops would be impossible somehow. But I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around those potentialities. And I’m having trouble envisioning a world in which I’d feel better (less speciesist/more vegan/less-suffering-inducing) buying a slab of grass-fed meat over some organic kale because x number of animals may or may not have died in the production of the latter. I admit that this is partly owing to my inability to visualize the suffering of latter animals in a really concrete way, but I think it’s also owing to the fact that I know one choice involves suffering on some level, and the other, I’m not sure. And “common sense,” but that’s a contingent substance anyway so I don’t really treat that like much of an argument.

    What are your thoughts?

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