Monday, September 20, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: Let's Go Extinguish Ourselves

The Korean has been a consistent advocate for dog meat eating, which have elicited ire from many people. One of the themes of those who strongly object to dog eating is their strong focus on the pain to be inflicted on the dog (and usually, all animals) in the process of eating meat. (See for example here, here, here.) The argument, essentially, goes -- dogs feel pain in the process of being turned into meat. Pain is bad. So we must not eat dog meat, because it causes pain.

That is an absurd argument. And the absurdity of that argument is plainly shown on this New York Times article.
Our factory farms, which supply most of the meat and eggs consumed in developed societies, inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey, in contrast to the relatively brief agonies endured by the victims of predators in the wild. From the moral perspective, there is nothing that can plausibly be said in defense of this practice. To be entitled to regard ourselves as civilized, we must, like Isaiah’s morally reformed lion, eat straw like the ox, or at least the moral equivalent of straw.

But ought we to go further? Suppose that we could arrange the gradual extinction of carnivorous species, replacing them with new herbivorous ones. Or suppose that we could intervene genetically, so that currently carnivorous species would gradually evolve into herbivorous ones, thereby fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. If we could bring about the end of predation by one or the other of these means at little cost to ourselves, ought we to do it?


The basic issue, then, seems to be a conflict between values: prevention of suffering and preservation of animal species. It is relatively uncontroversial that suffering is intrinsically bad for those who experience it, even if occasionally it is also instrumentally good for them, as when it has the purifying, redemptive effects that Dostoyevsky’s characters so often crave. Nor is it controversial that the extinction of an animal species is normally instrumentally bad.


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[.]
The Meat Eaters [New York Times]

If you missed that, Professor McMahan thinks it would be a good idea to get rid of all carnivorous species in nature, if we can. Few would disagree that this is crazy. But McMahan's position is perfectly logical, as long as one accepts all the assumptions that he makes. And the crucial assumption that logically leads to McMahan's crazy result is this: "It is relatively uncontroversial that suffering is intrinsically bad for those who experience it."

NO! It is very controversial as to whether suffering is intrinsically bad for animals that experience it. In fact, it is only a distinct (but very loud) minority of humans who think that animal suffering is unacceptable. Vast majority of humankind, throughout the globe and throughout history, has always thought that animals were there to be hunted and eaten, with pain necessarily being inflicted in the process.

To be sure, causing more pain than necessary to kill and eat an animal -- for example, gratuitous animal abuse -- has almost always been an object of universal human condemnation. This is the reason why many people who are not advocates for veganism are nonetheless repulsed by the manner in which some dogs are slaughtered in Korea, i.e. being beaten to death. And the Korean also agrees with them: "treating animals with dignity and respect means that the current way in which dogs raised for their meat in Korea must change. The tiny cages must go, and so must the unsanitary living condition for those dogs. The method of slaughtering the dogs must be regulated as well, so that the dogs may end their lives in a humane, dignified manner."

But once you accept the premise that any pain caused on any animal is bad, you are logically compelled to arrive at a crazy result, like the idea that to the extent possible, we should gradually remove the carnivorous species from the Earth -- which likely include ourselves.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. It is also a crazy proposition because herbivorous species would go extinct too if carnivorous ones weren't around. A single carnivorous species is far more important to an ecosystem than a single herbivorous one, scientifically speaking of course, if we are to get moral here, it may not be true, but it would still cause the herbivorous species to go extinct too in a very short time.

  2. It is unfair to ask people stop eating meat at one go.Dogmeat eating tradition is passed down for many centuries and is also prevalent within the Chinese origins, to heat up the bodies during chilly seasons. I agree that animals too feel pain like humans, but don't forget, God created animals not only to accompany mankind, but also to be served as food (prepared in proper manners:totally agree with AAK). You can't force a cow to go downstairs, if you are not by its side to guide it!
    Same goes with going vegetarian, you MUST guide that person step by step how to do it, not shoving words into their heads, cos it takes huge effort and time to be one.I have tried to be occasionally vegetarian for the past 7 years, and it could take me another decade before I could be one,by determination.

  3. Another crazy thing here is that he alludes to Isaiah, a book of the Bible. God is quite clear in the Bible (from the time of Noah on) that eating meat is quite acceptable. God even killed an animal to provide Adam and Eve with clothing. If you're going to use a source for your argument, you can't take out of context.

  4. You guys have completely missed the point of this essay.

    The Korean is particularly impressive when he contradicts himself about whether animal pain is intrinsically bad within 2 paragraphs.

    Skeptigirl clearly never even read the article because the point about consequences is always implicitly understood in utilitarian ethics but nevertheless McMahan takes time out for the more ignorant readers:

    > I concede, of course, that it would be unwise to attempt any such change given the current state of our scientific understanding. Our ignorance of the potential ramifications of our interventions in the natural world remains profound. Efforts to eliminate certain species and create new ones would have many unforeseeable and potentially catastrophic effects.

  5. Oh come on Korean guy, pain only matters to animals that are cutesey wutsey.

    Cows, Chicken, Pig etc are not cute therefore nobody gives a damn about them.... Anyway in America (and Britain) meat comes in prepackaged plastic!

    I do reckon though if you aren't willing to kill it yourself you shouldn't eat it. TCG grew up with headless chicken running around at home when his dad missed with the chopper. I grew up and started butchering chicken too. Quite a unique experience, though legally we're not allowed to do this any more. Though our chicken were free range, much like our rabbits.

    Park's girlfriend also made us that strange chicken ginger stuff too from a live chicken. God knows how she managed to get live chicken in Seoul though.

  6. The Korean is particularly impressive when he contradicts himself about whether animal pain is intrinsically bad within 2 paragraphs.

    So the distinction between necessary and unnecessary animal pain means nothing?

  7. If animal pain is not intrinsically bad, as you clearly think, then the distinction is nonexistent. If it is not intrinsically bad, then it is as 'necessary' as it is 'unnecessary' for me to torture a dog because I enjoy the swift syncopated movements of its limbs. If it is not intrinsically bad, then even the most farfetched reason suffices to make inflicting animal pain 'necessary'.

  8. What if human society decided that the desire to inflict gratuitous pain on animals -- that is, pain that does not serve any practical purpose other than watching the animal suffer -- is not an acceptable human desire, and wants to discourage it?

  9. Let's not forget that the development of the human species depended directly on our eating animals. If our evolutionary ancestors had remained vegetarians it is very likely we never would have developed our brains to the point where we are now, or maybe would have taken much longer. For us to now say we don't need to eat meat at this point in our evolution is to deny what made us human to begin with.

  10. If you look at this from a health point of view, some pain is good for us (us humans, and never mind animals for now) because it served an evolutionary purpose. We also evolved to be omnivores, not to mention by far the deadliest predators on earth, ergo killing and eating animals is good for us. Pain, killing, and eating meat: all have roles to play in the natural environment we are best adapted to.

    The argument that these things are no longer necessary in a modern technological society is fallacious because we still inhabit the same bodies (although some scientists think there may have been significant albeit small species changes even since the Middle Ages). The more time passes in this modern society, the more evidence amasses on its deleterious effects on our health, physical and psychological.

    So we should be eating at least some meat (and perhaps killing it ourselves). For the same pro-health reasons, we should be eating animals raised in conditions as near to nature as possible.

    Should we be eating dogs, however? There's no reason why we need to eat every species. Dogs make much better companions and helpers than livestock, unless you are blind to the possibility of having a social relationship with an animal. Once dogs' status as companions becomes established in a society, people's feelings are naturally revolted by the idea of eating them - and no amount of argument will change this. Moreover, there's Peter Singer's moral circle argument: the more enlightened you are, the more your moral circle expands to include other beings...

  11. Matt: points about the utility of eating meat immediately run into the same general _ceteris paribus_ clause already pointed out. Further, there are examples like Temple Grandin's work that our current systems are suboptimal in the sense that they are both not as profitable as possible and also inflict more pain. Tradeoffs only make sense if you are already at a Pareto optimum. Further, the massive surplus of dogs the world over (the US destroys *how* many dogs & cats each year?) suggests that all the 'companion and helper' niches are filled.

    The Korean: society could also decide that we should worship a teapot in orbit around Mercury. On what grounds does it make this requirement and discourage teapot-skepticism?

  12. society could also decide that we should worship a teapot in orbit around Mercury. On what grounds does it make this requirement and discourage teapot-skepticism?

    That has nothing to do with your initial objection. Your initial objection, essentially, was: "If animal pain is not intrinsically bad, there can be no justification for preventing human infliction of gratuitous pain on animals." The Korean's rejoinder, essentially, was: "One can justify preventing human infliction of gratuitous pain on animals without any reference to the moral value of animal pain." Hence, the Korean's example -- regardless of the moral value of animal pain, human society can indeed justifiably prohibit animal cruelty because human society wants to curb the barbaric impulse behind animal cruelty.

    Your response?

  13. You did not mention anything about 'barbaric' ness, and presented it as an entirely arbitrary decision by society. Now you've revised yourself with a putative reason.

    But what exactly is bad about inflicting pain, given that pain is neither good nor bad? What makes it 'barbaric'? Why would society want to discourage it? It does not discourage many other painful activities, such as tatooing or sports or martial arts; and many of the reasons one might offer for permitting the foregoing could be reused for hurting an animal.

    (eg. Tattoos - esthetic pleasure. See my previous comment about admiring the syncopation of twitching limbs.)

    The obvious answer is a moral one - but that's exactly what you are trying to avoid.

  14. OK, then allow the Korean to ask you this: supposing pain is inherently bad, is there any way to avoid the crazy conclusion that we must endeavor to gradually extinguish carnivores, like Prof. McMahan suggested?

  15. If 'carnivore' is defined as 'must inflict large amounts of pain unjustified by any other consideration', and gradually driving carnivores to extinction is the most efficient way, then it is not a crazy conclusion and follows from all the foregoing.

    However, _ceteris_ is rarely _paribus_ as the economists like to say. Why can't herbivores be re-engineered to feel no pain? (There are some results and theories from neurology that mental thoughts like 'my right foot is burning, so I will move it very quickly away' do not have to 'feel painful'.)

    Or maybe the scientific resources are better spent on urgent issues like malaria. And so on.

    The article lays out the framework and shows us that it is an interesting proposition worth considering. Which makes it a pretty good article for its length.


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