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The Anti-Realist Vegetarian

by Bill Meacham on August 18th, 2015

I venture to guess that most people are moral realists. That is, they think that rules and principles of morality—that stealing and lying are wrong, for instance—actually exist in some form independently of what anybody thinks of them. By contrast moral anti-realists deny the independent reality of moral rules and principles. They say that moral rules are only social conventions. As evidence the anti-realists point to the fact that different cultures have different moral norms.

An extreme example is honor killing.(1) In some cultures it is considered morally obligatory to kill a woman who has brought disgrace to her family by having sex outside of marriage. This is so even if she was raped; she should not have put herself in a situation where that could happen to her. People in most western cultures consider honor killing hideously wrong. But there is no objective way to decide which one it is, right or wrong, obligatory or forbidden.

If one person says the weather is too hot, and another person says it’s not, there is no way to adjudicate who is right. But they can both look at a thermometer and determine exactly what the temperature is. They can come to objective agreement about the temperature and then recognize that the comfort level of that temperature may be different for different people.

Not so with morality. If you are convinced that honor killing is right, you can admit that other people don’t think so, but you’ll still think you are right and they are wrong. And they will think the same of you. The problem with morality is that there is no objective way to tell which view is correct. That conundrum leads moral anti-realists to say that neither one is correct. There is no moral fact of the matter because morals do not exist in the same way that physical reality exists.

Moral realism makes for a number of bad consequences: morality makes us angry; it promotes hypocrisy; it encourages arrogance; it is arbitrary, because there is no final justification for saying anything is right or wrong; it is imprudent, leading us to do things that have obviously bad consequences; it makes us intransigent, fueling endless strife; and it leads philosophers to waste time on silly puzzles.(2) Moral anti-realism avoids all these ill effects. As I argue elsewhere, we would be much better off speaking in terms of good and bad, the language, roughly speaking, of prudence, rather than in terms of right and wrong, the language of morality.

How would this work in practice? Let’s take a contemporary issue, whether to eat meat or not. Moralistic vegetarians say that killing animals—or at least big farm animals such as cows and pigs—for our benefit is wrong. Being a vegetarian is “the right thing to do” says food writer James McWilliams. It is a “basic moral truth” that we should not kill farm animals in order to eat them.(3) Doing so violates their “right to live.”(4) That’s because, it is alleged, farm animals are “sentient beings.”(5) They are, as philosopher and animal rights advocate Tom Regan says, subjects of a life.(6)

The argument, in abbreviated form, is this: Killing sentient beings needlessly is wrong. Big farm animals are sentient beings. Killing them so we can eat them is needless because there are other ways we can get nourished. Therefore killing big farm animals so we can eat them is wrong.

Now, there are a number of ways we could attack this argument. One is to deny that cows and pigs are sentient beings in the sense of subjects of their lives. They certainly do not pass the mirror test for self-awareness.(7) Another is to deny that we can get fully nourished without eating meat.(8) But the most fundamental objection is the anti-realist one: to deny the first premise. It is not the case that killing sentient beings is wrong, because objective rightness and wrongness do not exist.

As I have argued elsewhere morality is socially constructed or, in technical terms, intersubjectively constituted. It’s not just a matter of convention; we don’t all sit down and agree to abide by certain moral rules. And we do have a sense that moral rules are independent of what any one person thinks they are. But that independence is not the independence of physical reality, which would be there whether we were or not. It is the independence of a set of norms within a community or society. Everybody agrees (more or less) on what they are, everybody treats them the same way and everybody acts as if they are real. So, for members of such a community they are real.

Once you realize the socially constructed nature of morality, you get to choose whether or not to buy into it or not. There is some truth to the Existentialist assertion that you are what you choose. As Sartre says, “[A human being] … is what he wills …. [He] is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.”(9) Whether you should obey the purported moral injunction against eating meat is not predefined. You define yourself as one who does or does not take it seriously.

But what if you do think it makes sense to avoid eating meat and want others to do so as well? What is a concerned moral anti-realist vegetarian to do?

The answer is to appeal to self-interest. You can appeal to the benefits of vegetarianism without guilt-tripping others (which doesn’t work well anyway). Here are some useful arguments that avoid moralistic “shouldhoods”.(10)

  • You’ll feel better and be healthier if you don’t eat meat. There is evidence pro and con on this one, but you can certainly advise people to alter their diet and see how they feel. Then they will have a sound basis for deciding.
  • Raising meat contributes to global warming because animals emit methane, a greenhouse gas. If you want to reduce global warming, don’t eat meat, because the less demand there is for meat, the fewer animals will be raised for food. This argument appeals to the quite sensible desire not to live in a world of extreme temperature and weather events.
  • Meat is an inefficient way of feeding people. We can feed a lot more people on the plants that animals eat than on the animals themselves. If you want to alleviate people’s hunger, don’t eat meat. This argument appeals to our sense of compassion for others, not as a moral duty, but as a way of alleviating our own suffering.
  • Many ways of killing animals entail their suffering. If you want to minimize suffering, then don’t eat meat. This argument encourages us to enlarge the circle of beings we take as significantly like us. Again, doing so is not a moral duty. But it enables us to experience more compassion and empathy, which are rewarding in their own right.

Perhaps you can think of other non-moralistic arguments. Appeals to morality are intractable and only create conflict. Appeals to enlightened self-interest are far more likely to result in harmony and in lasting change.


(1) This example is taken from Rosenberg, “Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved?”

(2) Marks, Ethics Without Morals, chapter 4.

(3) McWilliams, The Modern Savage, p. 6.

(4) Ibid., p. 9.

(5) Ibid., p. 6

(6), “Subject of a Life.”

(7) Science Daily, “Mirror test.”

(8) See, for instance, Smil, “Should Humans Eat Meat?”

(9) The phrase is from psychologist Alfred Ellis. See Ellis and Dryden, The Practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, p 206.

(10) Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism.”

References “Subject of a life.” Online publication as of 17 August 2015.

Ellis, Albert, and Windy Dryden. The Practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2007.

Marks, Joel. Ethics Without Morals: In Defense of Amorality. New York and London: Routledge, 2013.

McWilliams, James. The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision To Eat Animals. New York: Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s Press), 2015.

Rosenberg, Alex. “Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved?” New York Times 13 July 2015. Online publication as of 13 July 2015.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Tr. Philip Mairet. Online publication as of 10 May 2014.

Science daily. “Mirror test.” Online publication as of 17 August 2015.

Smil, Vaclav. “Should Humans Eat Meat?” Online publication as of 17 August 2015.

From → Philosophy

  1. That blog was somewhat interesting, especially to me as a vegetarian since May, 1970, and one who does believe that killing animals is wrong. Yet, I sit peacefully at dinner tables over the carcasses of animals whom I would have rather petted and into whose eyes I would have looked with love, with dinner partners who are lifelong friends and who love their dogs and would never think of eating a dog, but have no problem eating a cow, chicken, pig, or fish. What’s wrong with this picture?

    Two words that don’t occur in your essay are “kindness” and “ignorance”, and I believe that your discussion of vegetarianism is seriously incomplete without them. (Also honor killing, for that matter.) I like the Dalai Lama’s saying, “My religion is kindness”. Instead of worrying about whether it’s wrong to kill animals (or adulterous daughters) it suffices to observe that it is unkind in the extreme. So how come people who are often kind in other areas of their lives still come to the dinner table with, in effect, their hands drenched in blood and the butcher’s evil countenance?

    That’s where the other word comes in: “ignorance”. They don’t actually have their hands drenched in blood. Very few of them would do their own butchering. (I have more respect for the few that will do it, in one sense, though they cannot plead ignorance as a defense.) They’ve been trained never to think about it. Look, I don’t put aside all my trivial personal concerns and go to Africa to help stop malaria, because I’ve formed a habitual mental wall that seals off the suffering of those victims from my personal life. Just so, my non-vegetarian friends have formed a mental wall that prevents them from thinking about the suffering of the animals while they are eating their bodies. This is more a question of psychology than morality.

    I am firmly in the moralist camp. Eating animals is wrong. Killing your daughter because she slept with a boy is wrong. If someone thinks otherwise, they too are wrong. I have little patience with attempts to whitewash these facts with moral relativism. I realize that this is not a popular view. I am accustomed to keeping my mouth shut and talking about people’s cute grandchildren while they eat the bodies of cute animals and I pour them a glass of wine. Sheesh, your blog at least touched a nerve here! I will take a deep breath and move on.

  2. Aidan permalink

    On the point that morals are socially constructed, I would disagree slightly. I agree that they do not exist independent of us I would say that they are biologically constructed and socially shaped. That is to say, at the base of ethics is our nature as social animals, thus we have inherent drives for altruism, fairness (justice) and reciprocity. To me virtue ethics bridges the gap between moral relativism and claims to universal rules. Our common biology sets the ground of how we ought to act towards others yet it is down to us to apply this appropriately based on our context. I therefore, disagree that enlightened self interest is sufficient on the grounds that we are social beings and therefore it is not only our self interest that can be called upon but our social instincts.

    On the vegetarian question I’m interested to know how you think about it given your adoption of panpsychism. My personal interpretation is that two points dissuade me from the view that killing animals is wrong. 1. Strong evidence for plant sentience. 2. If we take the argument of reducing the suffering of animals to its logical end, it could be construed as advocating domestication as domestic animals suffer less than wild ones. I am inclined to take an approach informed by indigenous understandings that also built on a panpsychist view, seeing everything as having a spirit (or in your language an inside) and thus deserving of respect and reverence. However, it is an understanding that all life is fed by other forms of life and nothing has the right not to be eaten, including us. So I acknowledge the problems with industrial agriculture and would hope that the animals and plants that I do consume were granted a dignified existence but I do not believe there is a strong argument for the complete forgoing of meat. For example, I am Australian and here we have access to Kangaroo meat which is not farmed but hunted in the wild to counter overpopulation, which would have a detrimental environmental effect.

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