A recent online-only op-ed, published in “the Stone,” the New York Times’ “forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless,” caught my attention. I think it caught my attention because it doesn’t seem to make much sense.
The op-ed, called “The Meat Eaters,” is by a heavily bearded Rutgers philosophy professor named Jeff McMahon. He proposes that if it could be done without messing up the earth’s ecological systems, it would be moral to gradually phase out/kill off all carnivorous animal species – since they cause pain and suffering by killing other animals – or to genetically engineer them to evolve into herbivorous species.
McMahon acknowledges various plausible arguments against his idea. One argument is that killing off carnivorous species would be “playing God.” But we wouldn’t be playing God if we were to kill all carnivorous animal species, McMahon says, because “one plays God, for example, if one administers a lethal injection to a patient at her own request in order to end her agony, but not if one gives her a largely ineffective analgesic only to mitigate the agony, though knowing that it will kill her as a side effect.” Huh?
McMahon also refutes the argument that eradicating all carnivorous animals would be “against Nature.” He claims we don’t have a moral “requirement” to act to stop pain and suffering due to animals killing other animals, but we have a moral “reason.” And it’s OK to act on that reason as long as we don’t cause more pain than the pain we’re trying to stop.
Finally, McMahon responds to the argument that killing off all the carnivorous species might kind of eff up our ecological systems by writing that maybe there’s some way that it…wouldn’t do that (via Technologies of the Future).
McMahon is religious, and either seems to presuppose that the other philosophers with whom he is in dialogue are also religious or that those millions who don’t believe in a Supreme Being are simply irrelevant.
My suggestion is that philosophical discussion of moral issues and ethics can occur with much less questionable assumptions and convoluted, dubious rhetoric and semantics. For example, McMahon uses a poetic, metaphorical excerpt from the Bible, the prophecy of Isaiah, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,” etc., as a basis for justifying a highly hypothetical, logistically and morally challenging, kind of insane-seeming idea. McMahon talks about “fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy” as if Isaiah had written a literal vision of the future (“For the wolves and lambs and lions shall be as bros to one another, and shall lie in a contented heap on a picnic blanket in Central Park, and they shall chill out with the eating each other thing”).
At another point in the article, after admitting that it seems kind of bad to wipe out a species, or a bunch of species, McMahon then backtracks and says, essentially, but what is a species, anyway? He argues that clumping a bunch of animals together that happen to share similar traits is kind of an arbitrary thing. Plus, maybe we could inject the lions with chemicals that make them infertile or something, in which case the lions alive now are totally fine, it’s just there won’t be any more of them ever again.
I don’t know. I don’t like being snarky. But I think in the context of philosophy and ethics an argument becomes ridiculous rhetoric if logic is only selectively maintained.