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Meat for Thought

 It's possible Jeff McMahon just wanted to get people's um goat, and raise a ruckus -- he almost says as much in the last paragraph -- and certainly getting 569 comments is quite a ruckus-raising; but still, this is so hilariously wrong-headed and odd that it can't just be that, it has to be serious:


His conclusion, which is so bare that it does really resemble a Swiftian modest proposal, is this:

"Here, then, is where matters stand thus far. It would be good to prevent the vast suffering and countless violent deaths caused by predation. There is therefore one reason to think that it would be instrumentally good if predatory animal species were to become extinct and be replaced by new herbivorous species, provided that this could occur without ecological upheaval involving more harm than would be prevented by the end of predation. The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species. I am therefore inclined to embrace the heretical conclusion that we have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species, and I await the usual fate of heretics when this article is opened to comment."  

He must know the great precept of -- well now what Catholic philosopher was it? -- about how if you will the outcome, you must necessarily will the means, and even contemplating the means is enough to raise a snort; but read the whole.  I will comment more further.  Can't help it.


( 42 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 23rd, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
This made it to the NYT? It's laughable in its stupidity. At once, he would have us sterilize billions of animals to impose a naive view of morality on the natural world, thereby effectively destroying a large part of the biosphere. Insanity. Taken to its absurd end, this would mean making extinct every variety of animal bacteria, the vast majority of insects, and all of the apex predators that keep a check on the equilibrium (not just the base populations) of herbivores. And don't anybody tell him what white blood cells do, or we'd have to give up our immune systems as well. The sheer depth of his idiocy astounds me. If we lost our minds enough to enact this death decree upon millions of species, the earth's ecosystem would be gone within a few decades (possibly leaving the crustal bacteria that we can't get to). I'm hoping that any biologist reading this will laugh loudly, and any theologian would at least roll his eyes. Somebody stop this man before he neuters all of the cockroaches!

Edited at 2010-09-23 12:59 pm (UTC)
Sep. 23rd, 2010 01:01 pm (UTC)
Still, it's an interesting idea for a near-future story.
Sep. 23rd, 2010 01:21 pm (UTC)
Oh my god. I'd like to respond but don't even know where to start.
Sep. 23rd, 2010 01:49 pm (UTC)
Who is this fellow?
Can anyone tell me who this guy is? I clicked on his name on the byline but no biographical data came up. I Googled him, but there are a few Jeff McMahons who could possibly be this fellow. Who is he? A professor somewhere? An author? Is he the True/Slant guy?
Sep. 23rd, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Who is this fellow?
He is Jeff McMahan and you can read a (very) little about him here:


I am not sure I want to go much further with McMahan's own approaches but he certainly has opened a productive discussion independent of his own ideas about how higher-level organisms operate.
Sep. 23rd, 2010 02:03 pm (UTC)
I presume it has something to do with his books on killing, which I haven't read.... The horror that is the biosphere has actually posed difficulties for more human beings than his rather culturally limited set of references allows for, but people have usually solved the problem by: (a) assuming that human beings are in a unique position to renounce the horrible circumstances that keep them captive on this crappy planet—a captivity from which human beings can be liberated, even if there is no world and no life other than this one in which to escape from prison; (b) or the opposite, assuming that human beings are particularly efficient predators and had better get good at it; or (c) assuming that things are the way they are, and yes, that really sucks, but we had better learn to live with it. (Re "sucks": I have decided to refute the assumption in the Atlantic that Jonathan Franzen's trivial language somehow renders his novel incapable of delivering profound insights. The language is not the problem. Unless you impose the anti-metaphoricity of Newspeak or the French Academy, ain't no reason you couldn't translate the philosophers into any jargon you choose...it would simply expand the capacities of the jargon. But I digress.)

Anyway, yes, there is a lot to be said about the premises of this article, which are simultaneously affirming option (a) and suggesting that option (c) is an insufficiently imaginative option, though it is the position of the world's naive realists; that there are options taking up the rest of the alphabet, and we ought to try to imagine them.

But of course the key in the article is its stated presupposition that we should do this if and only if somehow we would someday attain the godlike capacities of knowing that we were not doing currently unknowable ecological harm in our intervention. We do not know and epistemology would suggest that while we can reduce the limits of error, in something this big we cannot know. But it would fulfill the dreams of a certain percentage of humanity. Notice that dry aside "I hope most other people would have done the same" regarding developing a world in which sentient beings could survive without killing other sentient beings. Of course anyone who has written the books he has written knows that this is not the case for "most other people" throughout human history, else we would not have the history we have had.

I suspect he is also showing up the logical problems with the PETA folks and animal rights activists in general...but likewise the logical problems with their detractors. Most excellent.

So the article is a shot across the bow to those who are incapable of close reading, too. Not only a modest proposal, but a very layered one that catches out the merely stupid.

Edited at 2010-09-23 02:11 pm (UTC)
Sep. 23rd, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC)
How many trees were felled to print this article ?
How many Tea Party members will sing Born in the USA with gusto without knowing the verses that lie in between the choruses ?
How many vegans will be reading this article and agreeing with it whole heartedly.
Sometimes one can be over subtle.
(no subject) - joculum - Sep. 23rd, 2010 03:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thatmakesmemad - Sep. 23rd, 2010 05:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jackfirecat - Sep. 23rd, 2010 10:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thatmakesmemad - Sep. 24th, 2010 06:54 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crowleycrow - Sep. 24th, 2010 10:41 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joculum - Sep. 24th, 2010 07:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crowleycrow - Sep. 24th, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
re: preventing the death of animals - (Anonymous) - Sep. 24th, 2010 10:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: re: preventing the death of animals - crowleycrow - Sep. 25th, 2010 12:29 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thatmakesmemad - Sep. 25th, 2010 09:18 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crowleycrow - Sep. 25th, 2010 10:28 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thatmakesmemad - Sep. 25th, 2010 12:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crowleycrow - Sep. 25th, 2010 01:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thatmakesmemad - Sep. 25th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - Rodger Cunningham - Sep. 26th, 2010 05:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crowleycrow - Sep. 29th, 2010 12:29 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jackfirecat - Sep. 27th, 2010 08:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crowleycrow - Sep. 28th, 2010 02:00 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - Rodger Cunningham - Sep. 25th, 2010 04:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crowleycrow - Sep. 25th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Buddhism and meat-eating - (Anonymous) - Sep. 27th, 2010 01:37 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 23rd, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
An anthropomorphic tissue of pathetic fallacies.
Sep. 23rd, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
It reminds me of Clifford Simak's The City in which, in the far future, the uplifted dogs don't hunt (don't eat meat, I think) and try to have the other uplifted animals not do so either, IIRC.

The article is a logical proposition taken on a ride to see where it goes. Nothing wrong with that, esp. given the *if* we had godlike powers, pace Joculum.
Sep. 23rd, 2010 05:59 pm (UTC)
I assumed he was speaking of human beings, and there are good arguments for the elimination of that species.


Love, c.
Sep. 23rd, 2010 10:33 pm (UTC)
My somewhat tongue-in-cheek flash essay got way too long so I moved it to my journal page.

It appears that McMahon's chief concerns are with death and suffering of animals. How his proposal would solve more than one source of these problems eludes me, but most likely it is just an "attention-getting" ploy to cause people to think a little on a topic they hardly ever think about.
Sep. 24th, 2010 06:09 am (UTC)
What baffles me most is the rampant inconsistency of his argument: If it is suffering caused by cruelty that worries him so much, then why does he go against carnivores instead of species which bring about cruelty in the world? Carrion eaters don’t cause suffering. On the other hand poisonous plants do, and toxic fungi, and disease causing microbes and viruses. What about thorn bushes, and poison ivy and killer bees? What about cute furry species that cause others to starve painfully by depleting food resources?
As with most vegans, my suspicion is that this guy doesn’t care for animals at all. What he really is after, is having as many people living as he does as a means of ameliorating the insecurity that comes from dodging the hard problems of life and hiding behind pathos rich causes.
If he had his wish, and all the world went vegetarian, what would he put his neuroses to work on? He should thank us brutes who’ll kill for a steak for giving him something easy to pick at.
In case anybody’s wondering, no I’m not an NRA member; it’s just that my patience is very short with fallacious rants.
Sep. 24th, 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)
Pigs and lions
Many cogent comments here, and I'll add a couple.

1. It seems to me that those who would like to live in a world where meat-eating is forbidden haven't taken into account that this means the elimination of a few (non-carnivorous) species. There would be no more use for pigs. Cows and chickens would get a pass, maybe, or some of them, though not under vegan rule. Sheep, maybe, for the wool, unless taking the wool counts as abuse. But pigs? Useless to us except for meat. They can't be "liberated" -- the majority would die out of captivity and the strong who survive would make life unsustainable for thousands of species (look at Hawaii, and rememebr the harmless and inedible dodo.) No, they'd have to be exterminated, or whatever nicer word is chosen. Now suppose we could ask the pigs -- we can't, because thyey can't talk, and because they are unlikely to be capable of pondering the question -- which they would themselves prefer: a relatively brief life of ease and safety (I am absolutely in favor of humane and sensible animal raising, no matter how much it raises the cost of meast) followed by an episode of pain at the end; or the elimination of their entire species. Let's worry about lions and tigers after that.

2. Speaking of lions: McMahan and the anti-meat-eating activists, as well as many less active thinkers, talk a lot about "suffering" -- the suffering we cause to the species we eat (again, I'm restricting this to death, not the conditions of their lives, which must be improved). I think this is a misunderstanding of death. As delivered to most animals killed for food, it rarely counts as suffering, and where it does it ouht to be changed. Death very often involves no suffering. If I sneak up behind you and slug you with a 2x4, you do not suffer: those to whom similar things have happened that were not fatal usually do not remember any pain -- the pain is all in the recovery. If I hit you over the head with a 2x4 unbeknownst to you and when you are dead I cut you up in pieces, you do not suffer any greater pain, though my act becomes more horrendous and possibly, arguably, more immoral. If, however, I gather you and many others together in a special place and one by one pass you within a special building where you meet a man with a 2x4 whose intentions are obvious, you DO suffer: you suffer all the agonies of expected death, the loss of the world and the life you know, all your hopes and dreams, etc. That is suffering. I am unconvinced that pigs, chickens, fish, clams or lobsters feel any of that suffering, or anything beyond a certain alarm, the same felt by the herbivore sensing the presence of the lion.

Sep. 24th, 2010 12:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Pigs and lions
My comment ran too long for LJ -- here's the rest:

2A. This suffering thing with the lion brings up the experience of Dr. Livingston in Africa, who was attacked by a lion and badly mauled (he lived and flourished and went on exploring and converting.) The remarkable thing, he said, was that even as the lion was tossing him about in its jaws, he felt no pain -- felt, in fact, a weird peace and equanimity. And pondered the mercy of the Creator who thus mitigated the sufferings of prey in a world red in tooth and claw. (Then his faithful bearer shot the lion.) Of course modern medicine would say that the doctor was in shock, but the term doesn't change the experience.

2B Lions, under proper conditions, are highly efficient killers. Once having caught up with a fleeing herbivore, she leaps on its back and with a single big bite breaks the spinal chord, whereupon the prey collapses. As we've all seen on TV the young lions then come in and eviscerate the gnu or whatever it is while the gnu still is discernibly alive. Dreadful! But of course the gnu is in shock, like Livingston, and unable to feel pain, because its spinal cord is severed. What the gnu thinks, what horror and fear it experiences as it observes itself being eaten -- we can imagine it, but are we imagining a gnu or ourselves?

2C And as to the horror and awful threat of death -- I'm always impressed how, when the lion or cheetah or whatever has made its move and the flock of wildebeest has stampeded away, and when then the predator singles out a victim and brings it down, the rest of the herd, now knowing itself to be safe, just stops and begins cropping the grass again as before. pretty oblivious. They also seem not to mind living a life overseen by their executioners, who regard them from a vantage with proprietary calm. If humans did that -- and perhaps in extremis, as at Auschwitz, perhaps some did -- we would regard it as terrible, maybe more terrible even than the death, and frightfully wrong. But for them? It's all very strange.
Rodger Cunningham
Sep. 24th, 2010 12:56 pm (UTC)
There's a widespread Christian view that there were no carnivores before the Fall, or that their existence reflects a previous Fall of Nature. C. S. Lewis believed it; Tolkien used it in the Silmarillion. One of a number of places where that pair's notions of the good have logical holes.

Peter Singer, many years ago, proposed rounding up all the lions and making them eat vegieburgers or something. That was when I stopped taking Singer seriously. There's more than one kind of violence. RC
Sep. 24th, 2010 01:08 pm (UTC)
Did anyone ponder why God made those lions with the great big teeth and claws, which are somewhat inefficient for eating grass like an ox? Or did they all grow those later (evolution!) in response to their newly violent natures?
(no subject) - washa_way - Sep. 24th, 2010 02:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 24th, 2010 03:16 pm (UTC)
And we haven't even begun to consider the creatures of the sea, overwhelmingly given to consuming one another and with little appetite for the flora of the environment.
Sep. 25th, 2010 03:11 am (UTC)
The world becomes less powerful with each extinction. Why not eliminate predatory technologies instead? Computer viruses, over-sized trucks, cell phones - things of that, err, "nature." Why is there such a struggle determining what's important and what is not?
Sep. 25th, 2010 10:33 am (UTC)
Of course we are involved in mass extinctions, some of them of predators: soon the fish in the sea will no longer need fear the bluefin tuna; the seal will live free of the polar bear; the wolves are still hanging by a thread, as the deer increase geometrically. The bald eagle is returning from the brink of extinction, but other hawks not so much.
Sep. 25th, 2010 06:35 pm (UTC)
Oh, the possibilities!
Regardless of the author’s point, I agree with “rogerdr” that the proposed concept would be an intriguing setting for a futuristic or alternative history novel in which carnivores have been eliminated and the world is populated solely by herbivores. My mind is filling with possible story lines!
( 42 comments — Leave a comment )