Vegetarianism, Food Selection, and the Trolley Problem (Part 1)

Posted on June 1, 2012 by

We all must eat to survive, this statement is uncontroversial. With that said, we are all forced to answer a question; (a) what should we eat? When trying to answer (a) should certain foods be off-limits? In other words, should our choices be limited by ethical concerns? I think so, and I’m sure that almost anyone reading this would think so as well. For instance,  if I enjoy the taste of human flesh (see my last post for more on this) should I be allowed to kill and eat an abandoned baby or a cognitively impaired human, or should that be off-limits? If you answered that such a selection should be off-limits, why? Here, in part 1 of a 2 part series on meat-eating and vegetarianism I’ll try to show why any answer you can give to motivate the claim that eating humans should be off-limits will result in also claiming that either (a) – the killing of animals to eat them should also be off-limits in most cases as well, or (b) – it is OK to eat some humans even if other food options are available.

In part 2 of this post (which will be posted later this weekend–hopefully) I will try to motivate the intuition I’ll argue many of us have; most of us value the lives of individual animals more than we value the lives of individual plants. After motivating this claim with a new version of Phillipa Foot’s famous Trolley Problem I’ll conclude that those people who still decide to eat meat are not justified in doing so and any justification that they give will create and inconsistency and a dilemma for the meat-eater. This results in either the acceptance of vegetarianism as the only ethically consistent lifestyle or accepting that almost nothing should be off-limits when deciding what to eat (including babies and cognitively impaired humans of all ages).

So, assuming that it’s wrong to kill and eat a human being when other food selections are available how can meat-eaters justify this assumption while being consistent to their own flesh-eating habits? Here, I’ll consider some meat-eating options to (Q1).

(Q1) What justification can one give to say it’s wrong to kill and eat a human being?‎ In an effort to not build a straw-man let me offer the most intuitive answers I can think of and answers that have been offered to me in the past or that I have given during my 28+ years of eating meat.

A1 – It is wrong to kill and eat a human being  because (J1) – I wouldn’t want to be killed and eaten by another human being, and, (J2) – I wouldn’t want someone I love or like eaten because someone enjoyed the taste of human flesh (this was an actual answer given to me in a recent discussion about this very same topic a few days ago in a Facebook thread). This seems plausible, but let’s take a closer look. To (J1), I would say that to alleviate such a worry let’s regulate the eating and killing of humans for food. So, not just anyone can be killed and eaten, only small babies that have been abandoned  and cognitively impaired adults that have the cognitive function of a 2 yr old. You’re neither a small baby that has been abandoned nor are you a cognitively impaired human (I’m assuming this since you’re reading this) so you would not have to worry about being eaten. We’ve been able to handle the concern posed by (J1) by still allowing for some humans to be eaten by those that have the urge. Let’s consider (J2). Well, here I think this justification can be equally applied to animals on the grounds that millions of people love or like them. So, if we accept (J2) to justify why we shouldn’t allow one to kill and eat a human we must also accept it for support to the claim that we shouldn’t allow one to kill and eat an animal.

It seems that A1 is not the kind of justification the meat-eater is looking for. It still allows for the killing of innocent humans to feed others even when they have other options available for them to eat. So, for any meat-eater to argue that it’s wrong to do such a thing and still have the option to kill and eat a non-human animal they must look for a different sort of answer to (Q1)  Lets’ consider another answer.

A2 – It is wrong to kill and eat a human being because (J1) – humans feel pain and have special kinds of relationships. (J2) – Humans have rights! They have rights because they are the sorts of beings that  have the capacity for resolving, through reflection, the question of what one is to do. To kill such a being is wrong because you prematurely prevent them from accomplishing their goals and you severe there ties with others which is also wrong unless you have justification. And, sorry, “because they taste good” is no such justification. So, because of these considerations it is wrong to kill and eat an innocent human being.

Well, these sorts of justifications are quite good. Again, let’s dig a bit deeper. To (J1) I would agree, but I would argue that most animals feel pain and have inter-species relationships as well. These are not purely human characteristics. So, if we accept that (J1) is grounds for not killing and eating a human we must also grant that the same justification can be used to argue the same for most animals on the grounds that they too feel pain and have special kinds of relationships. To (J2) – it can’t be the case that humans have rights only “because they are the sorts of beings that  have the capacity for resolving, through reflection, the question of what one is to do.” Surely, humans that are between 1day old and almost 3 years old (maybe longer) do not have this special human cognitive feature yet we still grant that they at least have minimal rights, for instance, a right not to be killed for food.

An appeal to special human cognition can’t be the grounds for the claim that we should not kill and eat humans. Here, one could argue that those young humans WILL, at some point, be able to reflect and resolve what they ought to do and because of that they have rights and should not be killed and eaten. My worries about how taking such a stance affects the abortion debate aside, what about humans with cognitive impairments? They won’t meet the criteria of special human cognition. It seems in these cases that we are forced to allow for those people to be eaten then? The justifications of A2 still seems to allow for the killing and eating of SOME human beings.

One could appeal to other answers to (Q1), or provide different justifications to the answers I posed here, however,  I found these answers to be the ones that many give when confronted with trying to justify why it’s wrong to kill and eat a human. If someone has a better answer to (Q1) that eludes being used to also justify the killing of animals I’d love for you to chime in. And, as you can see, each justification can either be endorsed by the vegetarian to support the claim that we shouldn’t kill and eat animals, or, can be endorsed by the human-eater to support his habit of killing and eating humans because he enjoys the taste.

In the next post I’ll consider another important question; do stereo typical meat eaters value the lives of animals more than plants? As stated earlier, I think that they do. If this is the case, then it seems that when making food selections it would be inconsistent for the meat-eater to choose animal meat over the vegetarian option assuming that they have such options available to them. What makes the selection of meat inconsistent if they value animals more than plants? That will be the focus of part 2. I’ll work in a cool variation of the Trolley Problem as well.