Skeptics with a K: Episode #115

Vegetarians, ghostly spiders, chemtrails and cannibals.  Plus Eddie Murphy, killing angels, smashing wine bottles and NASA.  It’s just science, from Skeptics with a K.

  1. #1 by B. Root on February 14, 2014 - 12:07

    Interesting dietary discussion. You asked for feedback, so here goes.

    It could be said that, as an axiom, not suffering is preferable to suffering. Many meat-producing facilities cause suffering throughout the lives of the animals, not just when they are killed, therefore eating meat from those facilities promotes such suffering. Which is then axiomatically wrong.

    This would mean that eating meat that is produced and killed humanely should be okay, which leads to the axiomatic reason not being a perfectly logical argument for vegetarianism.

    However, perhaps that is something from which to build the argument. It certainly is how I would justify my vegetarianism, if I were one. And I do plan on switching, one day, when I cannot bear the guilt of promoting suffering anymore. Though, I’ll probably first switch from cheap mass-produced supermarket meat to a humanely produced meat.

  2. #2 by Mike on February 14, 2014 - 13:17

    I agree with your axiom, and its conclusion that humanely produced meat would therefore be okay. Though I do get hung up on the definition of “suffering”, and which living things can we show experience “suffering”? As I’d said on the show (though not very clearly…) if a fish out of water is writhing and flapping around — is it suffering? Is it in pain? Or are those autonomic reflexes that we are anthropomorphising? And how could we tell the difference?

  3. #3 by Tom Williamson on February 14, 2014 - 15:15

    Vegetarianism eh? I was raised vegetarian but became omnivorous in my early twenties, so I have given the subject some thought. Having said that, my decision to eat meat is probably littered with ethical and logical inconsistencies so I expect to be metaphorically torn to shreds if I state them here!

    Firstly, I don’t like seeing the issue of meat eating as a dichotomy. Whether I choose to eat animals is complicated. I choose to eat some animals and not others. As a vegetarian I believed it was wrong to eat animals because killing them was putting them through unnecessary suffering. I am now of the opinion that it is possible for an animal to have a healthy life, and as long as the death is as humane and as quick as possible, the enjoyment us humans get from consuming the animal outweighs the suffering the animal may endure.

    I know that sounds horrible and selfish, but the main reason any of us in the West have for eating meat is pure hedonism. We do it because we like it. We don’t need to eat meat for nutritional, or any other reasons. But why isn’t “because I like it” considered a good reason? Why do we do any number of things, like watch TV or play video games?

    As a side point, I think people who eat meat should be comfortable with the realities of it. For example, I would like supermarkets to have little screens showing the conditions that the animals were kept in by the meat aisle. I think anyone who eats meat should be happy with the idea of killing an animal and eating it. One thing I really don’t get is people who are “squeamish” about eating rare beef. If you don’t like the taste, then fine, but if you are OK with eating beef you should be OK with it being rare!

    Anyway, that’s my two cents! Make of them what you will.

  4. #4 by Benni on February 14, 2014 - 15:43

    Enjoyed the discussion on vegetarianism, it was particularly topical for me as I’ve become a vegetarian in the last 4 months and just had my first vegetarian Christmas which was an eye opener, because meat is such a big part of most people’s celebrations.

    Anyway, the rationale that swayed me was that I consider morality to be (by and large) about maximising welfare and minimising suffering, wherever possible. Keeping animals in awful conditions that cause them suffering and then ending their lives prematurely causes a great deal of suffering, and violates the autonomy of the animal. Clearly, certain actions that cause suffering can be justified (self defence etc), so this isn’t in itself enough to make meat eating immoral. What is, in my opinion, is that the justification for causing this suffering, in the western world, is nowhere near good enough. You spent a lot of time framing the discussion in terms of “eating meat to survive”. This may be true of African tribesmen or Inuit fishermen, but it just simply doesn’t apply to people in first world countries; we can get our nutrition perfectly well without eating animals, which is attested to by the fact that vegetarian diets are often cited as being healthier than a diet high in red meat. At the end of the day, I confessed to myself that the reason I ate meat was that I liked the taste. And “liking the taste” of something, for me, was nowhere near enough justification for killing a sentient being. I think more people would realise this if the production of meat wasn’t kept hidden behind closed doors. If you had to look a pig in the eye and slit it’s throat every time you fancied a bacon sandwich, I think a lot more people would be vegetarians. The fact that we can get meat in nice clean packages and on demand in burgers or sandwiches completely removes the idea of death from our food.

    I also think that there is a massive double standard, which you briefly referred to, in the way that we idolize and cherish pets and certain species such as dolphins or pandas or tigers. If someone killed your cat, they would probably be imprisoned or at the very least fined. And yet, when farms and slaughterhouses inflict a great deal more suffering on animals that are more intelligent (and therefore more acutely aware of their situation and their suffering) such as pigs on our behalf, we turn a blind eye. I guess legally this attitude stems from the idea that pets are our property. But this isn’t how most people view their pets; they see them as companions, and appreciate that they have personalities and feelings. To think any differently of other animals just because they happen to be less aesthetically pleasing or because they live far away from you seems completely arbitrary and inconsistent to me.

  5. #5 by Rob on February 14, 2014 - 19:58

    First off, if you’re looking for a line to draw on the continuum of living organisms it’s okay to eat, I can’t think of a reason fruits would be off-limits, since they serve the evolutionary function of getting animals to disseminate seed by eating them. Of course, I am now imagining plants screaming in indescribable pain and cursing evolution for not giving them legs to run away. Or mouths to swear at the animals.

    I’ve been vegan for about 6 months now and my reasoning is much the same as Benni’s – I have never been in a position where I had to eat meat to live, so choosing to eat meat or use some other animal products is causing harm or suffering to an animal for my own pleasure, which I don’t feel I can justify doing. I’m not really of the opinion that eating meat itself is necessarily bad – I think eating roadkill or animal products that have been thrown out by a supermarket would be morally consistent, if not hygienically appealing – but then I’m also okay with the voluntary cannibalism thing (humans are the only animal theoretically capable of consent) so I’m probably not the best person to ask.

  6. #6 by Mark on February 14, 2014 - 23:23

    As a hunter and unapologetic meat-eater, I thought I’d contribute my proverbial two cents… In short I will eat anything that I’d be prepared to kill and butcher myself.

    I know that might sound bloodthirsty, but it’s really just my way of trying to avoid being a hypocrite. Like most folks I buy most of my meat at the supermarket these days, but as a farm boy I’ve experienced the full cycle or raising cattle, sheep, pork, chickens and ducks, killing them on-site, and then butchering them for the freezer.
    As a hunter I’ve chosen to kill rabbits, kangaroos, deer and wild pigs and I’ll freely admit to doing so for the visceral thrill of the hunt, of being a predator, and not purely out of survival necessity.

    I expect there may be some vegetarians and vegans who are horrified at that thought, and I accept that it’s now more of a cultural fringe-practice than even 60 years go. In fact I have a great deal of respect for anyone who declares “I could never do that” and then lives by their own convictions and avoids eating meat.
    The kind of person who really annoys me, and strikes me as being a supreme hypocrite, is the one who judges me harshly for engaging in these activities while tucking into their McDonalds hamburger.

    I think if people, on an individual basis, want to eat meat they should regularly take a moment in the supermarket to critically examine their own capacity to kill and butcher the very animal that’s so neatly portioned and packaged in their hand. If you could still sleep at night having done that, then enjoy your meal.

  7. #7 by tronvillain on February 16, 2014 - 07:40

    I really don’t think there is any general objective rational answer to this, but I am a bit of an emotivist when it comes to individual morality. The problem is, you need somewhere to start from, such as “intelligence”, “consciousness”, or “suffering”, and there is no apparent argument to make someone care about those things more than they anyway do. As far as I can tell, most vegetarians are simply more bothered by the suffering (or at least the perceived suffering) of animals than I am: they have more empathy than I do.

    Now, cattle experience some suffering in their lives as a result of being raised for meat: tagging, dehorning, injections, neutering, branding in some cases, occasional overcrowding (shipping, feedlots for the months before slaughter), a potentiality higher frequency of calving, eventual separation of young cattle from mothers, and eventually being slaughtered. The thing is, none of that “suffering” is sufficient to bother me enough to not eat them, but I can understand how it could bother others, and why they might then consider me “immoral”. Of course, I would question why they think that all of those cattle would be better off never having lived at all, to say nothing of the other benefits of being taken care of by humans.

    Then we have, say, chimpanzees. For them, I have enough empathy that I am opposed to killing or inflicting suffering on them unless there is a benefit so significant that it outweighs the suffering that their suffering causes me. Someone had better be starving or curing cancer before I’m okay with killing or injuring them, but I can understand feeling less empathy for them than I.

  8. #8 by Fredrika on February 18, 2014 - 01:20

    Hello. I do not have time to read all the comments so maybe I am repeating something other people already have said and if that is the case I am sorry. I do not belive that plants have feelings pain etc the same way as animal does but lets pretend they do. If they do for me that dislike suffering killing less of them would be better than killing more of them.
    You need to use less plants if you eat them then if you feed them to an animal and then eat the animal. Therefore eating only plants is better than eating animals. Not perfect but better.

  9. #9 by Fredrika on February 18, 2014 - 01:35

    Mark: I do not understand your point. I could boy someother services from people that I do not want to do myself. Maybe I would not want to beacause I would find it hard emothionally or boring or to dirty or discusting.
    Does this make me a hypocrite? Is it only if its something I find discusting that I become a hypocrite or is it from every bad emotion?
    Please explain.

  10. #10 by Fredrika on February 18, 2014 - 01:36


  11. #11 by Mark on February 18, 2014 - 06:20

    @Fredrika: Only if you have an ethical objection (or are in an ethical quandry) about about the service in question, but continue to judge others who act directly rather than by proxy.

    So if you’re kind of laissez-faire about an issue, and not casting any judgement, then you can’t really hold a hypocritical position.

    But if you take a strong ethical position against some activity, and then you pay someone else to engage in that activity on your behalf then yes, I think that would make you a hypocrite when you judge people engaged in that activity.

  12. #12 by Fredrika on February 18, 2014 - 08:49

    Mark: Thank you now I understand.

  13. #13 by Rebecca on February 18, 2014 - 11:35

    I don’t know if anyone has mentioned it, but yes people eat other primates: it’s generally called bush meat.

    When it comes to eating other people, in more recent times the most reasonable argument against it is the danger of disease. A bit like feeding bone meal including parts of the central nervous system created the BSE issue, a similar thing could happen with humans.

    My other half is a vegetarian, and his reasoning is he doesn’t want to eat anything with an anus – I think that is pretty solid, kind of the same reasoning as nothing with a face…

    I did a few years ago hear an interview with a scientist that had become vegan as he believed that not only did all animals with a central nervous system feel pain but that because they lacked the kind of higher reasoning that their suffering was even greater. He argued that fish in particular do suffer and in the moment they have no cognition that the suffering is going to end thus it is even more cruel for us to knowingly inflict that. Now I can’t find this guy at all (it was an NPR Science Friday thing probably about 4 years ago), but the idea of fish feeling pain seems to be contested so I don’t know if any of that holds up at all.

    I am a “recovered” vegetarian, and I do think about it quite a bit but have yet to be strongly convinced on the kind of reasons Mick outlined. Mostly I consider it on environmental grounds as animal farming is so intensive, although in Ireland not much highly intensive farming takes place but meat does have a much higher carbon foot print. The larger impact of eating meat is something, I think, you should consider if you are proactive about your environmental footprint.

  14. #14 by Disagreeable Me on February 19, 2014 - 14:13

    There is no objective morality unless you believe in God, which I don’t think most of us do. Therefore looking for a rationally defensible correct answer to this question is wrong-headed.

    But we do have moral instincts, and most of us try to invent a coherent system of morality that matches those instincts as closely as possible. For most left-leaning liberal skeptic types, the best fit is the attempt to minimise suffering (whatever that is).

    There is no reason to think that there is any distinct line between animals which suffer and animals which don’t. Having a complex nervous system is almost certainly required. I see no reason to doubt that fish suffer, but I also see no reason to expect that their suffering is qualitatively the same as a human’s. I don’t see why we should require definitive proof one way or another when we can simply play it safe by making the choice to opt out of eating fish.

    In the end, it comes down to empathy. To the extent that you feel like you can empathise with a creature, it feels wrong to cause that creature to suffer. Don’t look for a perfectly rational criterion because it doesn’t exist.

    I myself am not a vegetarian, but am starting to feel increasingly guilty about this.

  15. #15 by Mike Hall on February 19, 2014 - 15:03

    > There is no objective morality unless you believe in God

    Completely reject this. With very few axioms, logic and reason can be used to construct a cohesive moral framework, with which we can identify objectively correct answers to moral questions, within a given situation.

    > Therefore looking for a rationally defensible correct answer to this question is wrong-headed.

    Also reject this. The things that we believe to be true should be based upon logic and reason. If there are things we believe that do not have a rationally defensible foundation, they should be rejected. I consider that to be foundational to a skeptical outlook: we do not get to pick and choose which of our beliefs are exempt from reason and evidence.

  16. #16 by Mark on February 21, 2014 - 02:47

    Mike & Disagreeable: Maybe this is just a question semantics, but aren’t you making an Ethics rather than Morals argument Mike? And even so I’m not sure I’d agree.

    I’m not sure what the proper distinctions are, but the way I look at it is this: Morals are derived from Authority, while Ethics are a social construct.

    Invariably a Moral Authority will always lay claim to the absolute, objective moral standard, with complete disregard for the fact that all previous Moral Authorities did exactly the same thing, and yet their standards were different.

    In contrast Ethical standards are crafted by a society based on the best knowledge and reason available to it at the time, guided by the relative social factors of survival, wonder, empathy, ambition, etc.
    I don’t think Ethics can (or does) ever lay claim to an objective standard, since it’s self-consciously a product of a particular time and place. As knowledge improves; as the society specialises; as environmental factors change, so too the Ethical Standards generally continue to improve.

    So in both cases I’m inclined to agree with Disagreeable; With logic and reason we can construct the strongest moral and ethical framework we’re capable of constructing, but a big part of its strength comes from the understanding that it’s -not- an absolute objective system.

  17. #17 by Disagreeable Me on March 3, 2014 - 16:17

    Sorry I didn’t answer you, Mike. I had forgotten I had commented here until listening to the latest podcast reminded me.

    > With very few axioms, logic and reason can be used to construct a cohesive moral framework

    Agreed. But since there is no objectively correct way to choose the axioms, there is no one true morality. Tell me which axioms you have chosen and maybe then there’s an objective answer within the system you have whether we should be vegetarian.

    >The things that we believe to be true should be based upon logic and reason.

    Agreed. Which is why I believe, based on logic and reason, that there is no objective morality, and why I believe, based on logic and reason, that there are some things which I subjectively find morally repugnant. This is similar to my views on what is beautiful or tasty. Morality is essentially aesthetic, in other words.

    However, like you, I want my morality to be consistent and boil down to a minimal set of axioms. Again, I think this is somewhat aesthetic (it’s just tidier that way!). Where I find something repugnant but cannot justify this view in terms of more general axioms (e.g. in terms of suffering or well-being), I tend to try to retrain my instincts and become more accepting of it.

    I suspect that in practice our moral views would largely coincide.

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