1 The Philosophical Stalemate Regarding Vegetarianism

We have just seen that the idea of a duty of virtue—a duty to adopt a certain end or practical-emotional stance—can make Kantianism for Animals a helpful resource for animal ethicists. Another noteworthy feature of the framework is its recognition of duties towards self, duties which aim at moral self-perfection. Now, this book started with the insight that these duties alone cannot provide an adequate account of our moral relations to animals (see Chap. 3). However, once we recognise duties to animals, the notion of a duty to self can be a helpful addition to the animal ethical vocabulary. In particular, Kantianism for Animals opens up the option that there are certain duties towards self which only exist because we have duties towards animals. Appealing to such duties can be useful when we try to express, for example, what is problematic about certain ways of treating animals that do not directly harm them.

I would like to discuss the most prominent instance of such treatment in this chapter: eating dead animals. Influential arguments against eating animals in the literature have focused on the wrongness of inflicting suffering and death. These arguments are primarily directed against slaughtering animals, not strictly against eating them once they are dead. In Diamond’s words, “there is nothing in the discussion which suggests that a cow is not something to eat; it is only that one must not help the process along” (Diamond 1978, 468). Subsequently, various philosophers have tried to show that the wrongness of eating animals can be derived from the wrongness of killing them. But these arguments are fraught with serious difficulties.

My aim in this chapter is to show how Kantianism for Animals can capture and convey the moral outlook of those vegetarians who refuse to see animals as ‘something to eat’. I will argue that ordinary meat eating exhibits a certain thoughtlessness or inconsideration towards animals which violates a duty towards self. In our treatment of dead bodies, we ought to cultivate a sense of the moral importance of others—that is, of the moral importance of those towards whom we used to have duties. By turning the dead into mundane resources, ordinary meat eating is contrary to this duty.

My discussion will take the following steps: First, I am going to briefly survey the most influential arguments in favour of vegetarianism. Secondly, I will lay out the additional resources Kantianism for Animals has to offer. It is only because we have duties towards animals, I argue, that we have a duty towards self to treat their deaths as morally important events, their bodies as morally important objects. The indifference with which ordinary meat eaters treat dead animal bodies then appears as a vice opposed to our duties to self. This also shows that vegetarianism can simultaneously be a matter of how we treat ourselves and how we treat animals.

Over twenty years ago, Curnutt declared that the philosophical debate about vegetarianism had reached a “stalemate” (Curnutt 1997, 153). By ‘vegetarianism’, he and I both mean the refusal, on moral grounds, to eat the body parts of animals who were once capable of happiness. Dominant approaches primarily view the practice of eating animals through the lens of harm—eating animals is objectionable due to its connection to the infliction of suffering and death. But such arguments evidently leave open the question whether there is anything morally repugnant about eating animals in itself.

Consider, for instance, the argument prominently featured in Singer’s Animal Liberation. As one might expect, Singer is mainly concerned with the suffering inflicted in the meat industry: “It is not practically possible to rear animals for food on a large scale without inflicting considerable suffering” (Singer 2002, 160). This suffering is not outweighed by so much pleasure that the meat industry could pass as utility-maximising. Therefore, we ought to abolish the meat industry and not uphold it by buying and consuming meat.

Regan has objected to Singer’s style of reasoning. As he puts it in The Case for Animal Rights:

For the utilitarian […] it is an open question whether the harm done to farm animals, even the harm they are made to bear in factory farms, is justifiable. If the aggregated consequences turn out to be optimal, then the harm is justified. (Regan 2004, 350)

The essential difference between Singer and Regan in this specific debate is that Singer still allows for a certain trade-off of human and animal interests, whereas Regan views this trading-off itself as morally repugnant if the rights of individuals are at stake (ibid.). In principle, it could have turned out that factory farming results in maximum utility, all things considered.Footnote 1 For Singer, this would imply that factory farming is morally desirable. For Regan, factory farming would still be unacceptable, since the rights of individuals must not be violated merely for the sake of greater overall utility. This disagreement about the permissibility of moral trade-offs however occurs against the backdrop of fundamental agreement that the wrongness of eating meat is a matter of the harm that is causally connected to it.

The merits of these arguments notwithstanding, they still view the morality of eating animals almost exclusively through the lens of suffering and death inflicted on animals who are, up until that point, alive. They are not so much concerned with the treatment of dead animals’ bodies itself. And an argument of this type will inevitably leave open certain loopholes and grey areas. What about a case Diamond brings up, of a cow suddenly struck by lightning (Diamond 1978, 468)? No further harm follows causally from the act of eating this body. Still, many real-life vegetarians would presumably find something objectionable in treating the cow’s dead body as just another foodstuff.

This problem extends beyond mere loopholes. Under real economic circumstances, the relation between individual meat consumption and the infliction of suffering and death on animals is complicated (as Hudson has pointed out, Hudson 1993). Fischer helpfully summarises this ‘causal impotence problem’ in the following example:

A grocery store can’t get a single can of Spam from its warehouse; it has to request boxes or maybe entire pallets. The warehouse’s supplier doesn’t deliver individual boxes or pallets but only truckloads. And the supplier’s supplier—which may not be the meat-packing plant itself, but let’s suppose it is—has a strong incentive to produce as much as anyone might buy. (Fischer 2018, 244)

Under these circumstances, the individual consumer’s choice to buy and consume meat has no direct and foreseeable consequence regarding the infliction of suffering and death on animals.

One solution to this problem is to appeal to collective responsibility: Though individual consumption makes little difference, collective consumption does. So we bear responsibility for the wrongs of the meat industry as parts of the collectives to whose consumption the industry responds (Hudson 1993). As Curnutt has pointed out, however, this argument counterintuitively assigns blame to individuals who could not have prevented the wrong (Curnutt 1997, 165). It also blames non-consumers, provided they are still part of the collective who is primarily to blame (ibid.).

Curnutt himself favours a different solution which rests on the claim that drawing personal profit from a morally nefarious practice makes one complicit: “Doing so, and especially doing so when morally innocuous alternatives are readily available, not only indicates support for and the endorsement of moral evil, it is also to participate in that evil. It is an act of complicity” (Curnutt 1997, 166). But this merely shifts the problem by one step: Why does an action ‘indicate support for’ or ‘endorse’ moral evil when omitting the action would not have made a difference? Imagine, for example, a meat eater who condemns the evil of the meat industry, campaigns politically against it, and only participates in consuming its products because she firmly believes that individual vegetarianism does not make a difference. Indeed, this activist might argue that vegetarianism is a dangerous pseudo-solution to the evil of the meat industry, because it shifts the view away from system change and towards individual diet change. To claim that this kind of meat eating ‘indicates support’ for the evils of the meat industry seems plainly ad hoc.Footnote 2

Chignell has proposed a specifically Kantian solution to the causal impotence problem (Chignell 2020), which rests on the view that striving for our own moral perfection requires that we do not let ourselves get demoralised (Chignell 2020, 224). If we take our actions to make no difference in the world, this erodes our resolve to observe our duties (ibid.). So we ought to have faith in the efficacy of our good actions (Chignell 2020, 228). Chignell’s solution essentially suggests that even though vegetarians cannot know they are making a difference, they have reason to act as though they made a difference, where that reason is based on hope.

However, this argument cannot defuse the causal impotence problem for vegetarians. First, Chignell seems to assume that if abstaining from meat makes no difference for animals, then no action at all makes a difference. In real life, however, there are many other things people could do to benefit animals, such as supporting animal advocacy and pushing for systemic change. Why, then, should it be so demoralising for vegetarians to accept the inefficacy of vegetarianism, given that there are other ways to make a difference for animals? Secondly, but relatedly, concern for our moral perfection also plausibly requires the opposite of faith in the efficacy of our actions, namely a healthy dose of scepticism and consideration of the available evidence. Demoralisation may be one danger we should avoid for the sake of our moral condition, but wilful ignorance is another. For instance, a good Kantian agent should not wilfully ignore the fact that sending ‘thoughts and prayers’ to earthquake victims does not make a difference to them. But this seems to be the position in which vegetarians are, according to Chignell’s argument. So, while the argument is an intriguing application of a Kantian idea to a real-life conundrum, it is not a satisfactory response to the causal impotence problem.

Even if we ignore the causal impotence problem, other problems plague harm-based arguments. Most importantly, vegetarian arguments focused on the wrongness of inflicting harm might backfire. As Bruckner points out, a harm-based argument seems to favour that we eat whatever causes the least harm. Given that harvesting plant-based foods also involves some harm to animals (Bruckner 2016, 35), we avoid the most harm not by producing more plant foods, but by deriving as much sustenance as we can from animals who have already died anyway, say, in road accidents (Bruckner 2016, 40). The more of our nutritional need we can meet without killing any more animals, the better.

If Singer, Regan, and Curnutt are right that the principal argument against eating animals revolves around the wrongness of inflicting harm on them, then this argument has no straightforward implications for the morality of ordinary meat eating. We may be obliged to fight for a future in which no more animals are raised and killed for meat, but in the meantime, it makes little difference whether we participate. Harm-based arguments may even demand that we eat some already-dead animals—though not those that are usually eaten—to help spare the lives of others.

One might hope that an argument for vegetarianism has a firmer foothold in Regan’s ‘respect principle’. The respect principle states that “we are to treat those individuals who have inherent value in ways that respect their inherent value” (Regan 2004, 248). As we have seen in Chap. 8, Regan’s idea is that we must not treat beings with inherent value as if they had only instrumental value, neither as a means to our own preconceived ends nor as a means to the maximisation of aggregate pleasure in the world (ibid.). It could be argued that eating someone’s dead body just is not respectful in this sense. Some vegetarians certainly think of their refusal to eat animals as a way of honouring or ‘respecting’ animals’ inherent value and of meat eating as an act of instrumentalisation and disrespect.

However, as Fischer has pointed out, “it is a contingent fact about us that we show respect for human beings by not eating their dead bodies” (Fischer 2018, 262). In other words, why does eating someone’s dead body necessarily represent a failure to appreciate their inherent value? And why, in the first place, must we express respect for animals by the same behaviour that expresses respect for human beings? At the very least, we must concede that Regan’s respect principle is too vague to straightforwardly support a duty of vegetarianism.

The existing literature offers two more, specifically Kantian, arguments against eating animals: One comes from Korsgaard and basically consists in a moral condemnation of what happens in farms and slaughterhouses (Korsgaard 2018, 220–225). What is innovative about her argument is that it sets traditional harm-based arguments on a neo-Kantian foundation. But neither does Korsgaard discuss the causal impotence problem, nor does her approach appear to offer a solution that is not open to other harm-based approaches.

The other Kantian argument for vegetarianism is based on Kant’s ‘indirect duty’ view. Denis puts the point as follows:

Many people become vegetarians as a result of an epiphany in which the fact that animals are killed for (nutritionally unnecessary) meat becomes vivid to them. For them, eating meat would certainly require acting against, and perhaps damaging, their moral sentiments. (Denis 2000, 415)

Denis’s central argument is that once we have made the connection between the dead animal on the plate and the once-living animal, our capacity for sympathy is affected. From that point onwards, we have a duty to cultivate our capacity for sympathy by refusing to eat meat.Footnote 3 Notice how this argument focuses on the act of meat eating itself. It is not all about the further consequences, about the disutility or the rights violations that may follow from it. Nor is it an argument about complicity through benefitting from a wrong. Denis rather judges the act of meat eating by what it does to the agent. For this reason, Denis’s argument is immune to the causal impotence problem, which is a general advantage over harm-based arguments.

However, Denis’s ‘indirect duty’ argument is too fragile to support vegetarianism as a moral cause. It relies on the fact that some people can connect the dead animal to the once-living animal and have a certain affective reaction, but it cannot explain why we ought to make this connection or have this reaction. And as Denis herself readily admits, not everybody’s sympathy is affected equally (Denis 2000, 415). Most people so far have never had the vegetarian ‘epiphany’. What Denis’s argument can support, then, is merely a duty of vegetarianism for the particularly perceptive. Counterintuitively, those whose sympathy is already less affected by animals have less of a duty to become vegetarians. The traditional Kantian case for vegetarianism is well-intentioned, but ultimately suffers from the general problem—already discussed in Chap. 3—that it triggers moral duties regarding animals only once we relate to them affectively in a certain way.

The upshot here is emphatically not that traditional arguments for vegetarianism are without merit, but that they serve some purposes better than others. Harm-based arguments are good at stating reasons to move away from harmful animal industries (which was exactly their original purpose in texts like Singer 2002, Regan 2004). But they are not as good at capturing what moves individuals to refuse to eat dead animals. If our goal is to better understand our own ethical outlook, we should be interested in additional argumentative resources.

2 A Kantian-for-Animals Argument Against Eating Animals

We have seen that traditional arguments for vegetarianism face various difficulties. The most dominant strand of argument, which focuses on the wrongness of inflicting death and suffering on animals, fails because there is only a contingent and complicated relation between harming animals and eating them once they are dead. The Kantian argument offered by Denis fares better in this regard, since it focuses on the act of meat eating itself. This argument however relies entirely on the impact of meat eating on our sympathy, which is also contingent and complicated, and hence cannot robustly ground a duty of vegetarianism.

I now want to suggest that Kantianism for Animals offers novel resources to address the moral problem of meat eating. In particular, it offers resources to strengthen and clarify a lesser-known consideration against meat eating that is usually couched in more literary language: that a commodifying and mundane treatment of dead bodies violates the “honour of corpses” (Gaita 2002, 44). As Taylor has pointed out, animals are usually considered “ungrievable”, and this is one of the ways in which the moral importance of their lives is often downplayed (Taylor 2013, 97). Alas, to my knowledge this line of argument has received no further technical attention in animal ethics. This lack of attention may be due to a central difficulty the argument faces: The dead are beyond harm, so the morality of their treatment appears to be merely a function of our duties to the living (Taylor 2013, 96). But then, to speak of the ‘honour of corpses’ is merely a roundabout way of speaking about our duties towards living others, and a particularly obscure one at that.

However, according to Kantianism for Animals, the morality of our treatment of the dead does not have to be a function of our duties towards other living beings alone. It may also be a matter of our duties towards self, of our moral perfection. Hence, it makes a crucial difference that Kantianism for Animals incorporates duties to animals (pace traditional Kantianism) as well as duties to self (pace dominant approaches to animal ethics). What we need in order to truly capture the ‘honour of corpses’, I want to suggest, is the notion of a duty to self which we have only because we also have duties towards others. We ought to treat the deceased in a certain way, for the sake of our moral condition, because they used to be the sort of being towards whom we have duties, until very recently. For convenience’s sake, call such duties towards self ‘quasi-interpersonal duties’, since they are not truly interpersonal (directed towards others), but still hinge on the existence of our duties towards others.

Admittedly, Kant himself does not explicitly introduce or discuss any duties of this kind, even when it comes to the treatment of other human beings. But he clearly sees duties to self and others as intertwined in a way not unlike what I have described. Consider the duty towards self not to lie from the Doctrine of Virtue: We have a duty to self not to lie, according to Kant’s account, because “the dishonour (to be an object of moral contempt) that accompanies it also accompanies a liar, like his shadow” (MM 6:429.11–13). The more general duty at issue here is the duty not to make ourselves the object of contempt in our own eyes, which does not befit the end of our own moral perfection. Evidently, we only make ourselves the object of self-contempt by lying because lying also violates a duty towards others. So here we have an example in Kant’s framework of a duty towards self which only obtains because we also have a certain duty towards others.

How can the construction of a quasi-interpersonal duty be used to account for the ‘honour of corpses’? The straightforward way is to appeal to such duties to justify the claim that we must not commodify the dead by treating their bodies as mundane resources. That is, because the dead are deceased moral patients towards whom we used to have duties, we ought not to treat the deceased the same way we treat ordinary things. So, while it may appear to us as though we had the duty not to eat a dead animal directly towards the animal, we really have this duty towards ourselves. This is an instance of the ‘amphiboly in moral concepts of reflection’. At least, that is the broad idea.

Can this line of argument be justified on the basis of Kantianism for Animals? To see to what extent it can, consider Kant’s own derivation procedure for duties towards self. As we have seen in Chap. 2, our duties to self stem from the obligatory end of our own moral perfection. For Kant, our moral perfection requires two things: First, as natural beings we ought to keep ourselves in a shape serviceable to morality. Duties of this kind Kant calls ‘duties towards self as an animal being’. For instance, we ought not to commit prudential suicide (MM 6:422.03), make ourselves the plaything of our sexual desires (MM 6:424.10), or increase our desires by overindulging in, or even becoming addicted to, food and drugs (MM 6:427.02–03). All of these endeavours would make us worse observers of duties. Secondly, we must act in accordance with the proper self-esteem for our own moral capacities. These Kant calls ‘duties towards self purely as a moral being’. The duty not to lie belongs in this category (MM 6:429.02), and Kant adds duties not to be overly frugal (MM 6:432.02) and not to be servile towards others (MM 6:434.20).

So Kant offers two lines of reasoning to justify duties to self: We can show that some endeavour helps in making us good observers of duty, or we can show that it is required as part of the esteem we ought to have for our own moral capacities. Both lines of reasoning can serve as templates for arguments in favour of vegetarianism.

Consider a putative duty to treat recently deceased moral patients in a manner serviceable to our capacity to observe our duties towards the living. Here, we can build on the suggestion that grief is the morally appropriate stance towards the recently deceased, including animals (Taylor 2013, 96). Although grief is certainly a complex stance or process, one of its core features is that we regard someone’s death as an important and morally lamentable event. Death is morally lamentable, but not so much because we can no longer derive pleasure from the company of the deceased. This makes the death of others an unfortunate event, but it does not make it morally more significant than other unfortunate events in life.Footnote 4 Rather, death is a morally important event because it is the disappearance of a member of the moral community. We can no longer live together in moral relations. In particular, we can no longer partake in moral relations of beneficence (the duty we had towards them, and perhaps they to us), since plainly, there is nothing more we can do to make the deceased happier. Hence, grief is inherently linked to interpersonal moral relations, and grieving is (among other things) a reflection on our moral task. This consideration of death as a morally lamentable event, and the associated reflection on our duties towards others, is straightforwardly serviceable to morality. We should lament it when it becomes impossible to stand in moral relations with others. We should particularly lament it when we can no longer benefit someone. So we plausibly have a duty towards ourselves to grieve for the deceased.

Consider, by contrast, someone who celebrates a moral patient’s death. It seems straightforward that there is something at least pro tanto morally wrong about such a celebration, but there is no harm to the deceased that could account for this wrong. On the account I suggest, celebrating another’s death is wrong because in so celebrating, we regard the death of a moral patient—the dissolution of moral relations and the ultimate destruction of their happiness—as a desirable event (although it at least seems to mark it out as important). And treating the bodies of the deceased as a commodity just like any other is only gradually different. From a blasé stance, we regard another’s death as morally neutral or unimportant. This is not the stance we ought to take towards death and the dead, because we have duties towards the living, particularly the duty to promote their happiness. So we ought not to treat the dead as foodstuffs or other commodities.Footnote 5

The other Kantian argument at our disposal is that treating the dead as foodstuffs does not befit us purely as moral beings. This argument is only plausible if we presuppose that our treatment of the dead is at least a morally delicate affair. Once we presuppose this, however, it seems plausible that esteem for ourselves as moral beings requires that we treat the dead according to moral considerations, not prudential ones. That is, we ought to exercise control over our conduct in such a morally difficult area. By giving our inclinations free reign over how we treat the dead, we debase ourselves.

It bears emphasising that these duties, like any duty of virtue, do not strictly rule out any specific act. They can prohibit certain practical-emotional stances towards the dead and ourselves, from which they and their death appear as banal and unimportant, and from which we appear like inclination-driven automatons unable to exercise moral control over our actions. Neither is compatible with our duties towards self. But there might also be instances of eating corpses where it is not such a casual and prudential affair. As Taylor points out, real-life examples come from the world of endocannibalism, the practice of eating the dead of one’s own community (Taylor 2013, 89). There have existed societies which treated ingesting the deceased as a ritual of grief. Consider the following account (also referred to by Taylor, ibid.) about the Wari’ culture which practised cannibalism until the 1960s:

Wari’ emphasise that they did not eat for self-gratification; indeed, the decayed state of many corpses could make cannibalism quite an unpleasant undertaking. Yet even when the flesh was so putrid that it made them nauseous, some individuals would still force themselves to swallow bits of it. To refuse to consume any of the corpse at all would have been seen as an insult to the dead person’s family and to the memory of the deceased. (Conklin 2001, xvii)

Evidently, the Wari’ society did not treat the dead casually, nor was their treatment of the dead guided by prudential, inclination-driven considerations. They did not commodify the bodies of the deceased, or otherwise treat them as if they were ordinary things. As Conklin’s account makes clear, members of the Wari’ society indeed had to overcome strong inclinations to observe this grieving practice. By all appearances, eating the recently deceased in this case constitutes observance of the duties discussed above, not their violation. Still, if we have these duties, then ordinary meat eating violates them precisely because it is so casual, banal, and inclination-driven. That is not how we ought to treat the bodies of the recently deceased, for our own moral condition’s sake. In fact, this is an interesting contrast between the Kantian argument and traditional cases for vegetarianism: Traditional arguments treat the culinary enjoyment of meat as a morally innocent pursuit, though it is insufficient to justify the harm to animals on which it depends. According to the Kantian argument, that we eat the dead for the sake of our own culinary enjoyment is constitutive of the wrong at issue.

To summarise, Kantianism for Animals offers an interesting new resource in the debate about vegetarianism, namely the notion of a duty to self which we only have because we also have duties towards others, a quasi-interpersonal duty. Dead animals and human beings are no longer moral patients, but insofar as they were moral patients until recently, special duties apply to the treatment of their bodies that are duties towards self. In this way, Kantianism for Animals combines ideas found only separately in the literature up to this point, namely the idea of a duty to self on the one hand, and the idea of a duty towards animals on the other.

In this chapter, my aim was to show how Kantianism for Animals brings new resources to the table in debates about vegetarianism. Vegetarian arguments that revolve around the infliction of harm are very limited at best, and counterproductive at worst. While the Kantian proposal is worthwhile that it is duties to self that prohibit eating meat, the argument is too weak if it bears no connection at all to duties towards the animals themselves. Kantianism for Animals can appeal to the notion of a quasi-interpersonal duty regarding dead animals: duties we have towards ourselves only because we also have duties towards others. On the conception I have sketched, vegetarianism is obligatory because we have a duty to treat death and the dead as lamentable and important. This is incompatible with a stance that treats the bodies of the deceased as mundane commodities.

Though the argument in this chapter does not condemn all meat eating—again, a certain mode of endocannibalism may be permissible—it does produce a fairly radical argument for vegetarianism. What we usually mean when we talk about ‘meat eating’ is thoroughly condemned by the argument. And it is an argument which does not hinge on the wrongness of the infliction of death and suffering. Even eating a cow struck by lightning does not appear morally innocuous on the view suggested in this chapter.