Arguments from Nonexistence. Was: Extropians and animal rights
Wed, 13 Jan 1999 13:49:59 -0800 (PST)

On Wed, 13 Jan 1999, Robin Hanson wrote:

> Mark ? writes:
> >I've had this discussion with militant vegetarians before; their argument
> >seems to be that they're so concerned about the welfare of cows that they'd
> >rather see them extinct than used for food (and I'm not paraphrasing, that's
> >what I finally get out of most of them if I keep pushing hard enough).
> >Personally I find that idea totally irrational, but that won't convince
> >them of anything.
> I'm more disturbed by analogous arguments made about people. Many people
> who comment on population policy are of the opinion that it is a bad thing
> to let poor people have impoverished kids, even though those kids would find
> their lives worth living.

It cannot be emphasized enough that an entity that never exists does not "miss" the life it hasn't attained, and that taking its fictional "desires" into account when making moral calculations seems to overcomplicate an already breathtakingly complicated business. The rhetoric here is interesting, painting animal rights folks and vegetarians as chauvinists stamping out a way of life they find distasteful, rather than as people seeking to protect sentient beings from unecessary suffering. I've been a vegetarian almost ten years, and an "ethical" one (as the saying goes, tho' I hope I'm not fascistic about it) almost all that time. I think it unlikely that domesticated animals will become extinct once we stop consuming them as food, and focus instead on the hope that the institutional practices by means of which they are transformed from animals into "meat" will become extinct instead. These practices and institutions don't comport well with the self-image of enlightened humane societies, as I understand them. Certainly, they don't seem to be "lifestyle" issues, in any of the usual understandings of that phrase. As far as human analogies go, the one that seems more relevant here is the one in which antiabortionists argue that no-one who was not aborted themselves can properly argue for the practice, since they would not be in a position to make the argument had they been aborted themselves. Surely a foetus has no more of a stake in a life it has not yet lead, than a cow a stake (or "steak"?) in a life she would have lead had the vegetarians not managed to incubate a culture in which meat-eating is no longer a widespread practice.

There, now we can play with two hot buttons at once, and get nowhere fast. Next up, incestuous gun-toting vegetarian socialists against abortion rights...

Best, Dale