Let me begin by explaining what I mean when I say the phrase “minimal relative pleasure.” Different things in life give a person simple pleasures, e.g. eating Mac ‘n Cheese, playing BSG with friends, watching a good TV show, etc. Other sorts of things give a larger amount of pleasure, e.g. falling in love, having a child, achieving a great goal, etc. The difference between these two types of pleasures are clear; simple pleasures are fleeting, they don’t stay with you for a long amount of time. They leave no significant mark on your life. The bigger pleasures, by contrast, will stay with you. They are things you will remember and feel for a great deal longer, if not indefinitely, and will leave a strong mark on your life.It seems clear, then, that eating meat falls under the category of “simple” pleasures, i.e. that the pleasure I receive will fleet and does not make any significant mark on my life. After all, I cannot, right now, say that my life has been significantly impacted by the fact that I likely ate some sort of meat 5 years ago today. It left no mark and the pleasure I received from that meal fled a long time ago. I can say that getting married almost 3 years ago did leave a mark on my life and I still feel pleasure at the thought of it.
It is important to note as well that displeasure can also be categorized in the same two ways. A simple displeasure would be something to the effect of: stubbing your toe, losing a game of chess, having a crappy job, etc. And the bigger displeasures: getting divorced, being convicted of a crime, losing a loved one, etc. The same can be said as before, the bigger displeasures will stick with you, likely until you die, and the simple ones will fade with time, some sooner than others.
Whether non-human animals experience the same capacity and complexity of pleasure and displeasure is a question scientists, psychologists and philosophers have been unable to completely answer thus far, but progress is being made. Chair Philosopher Beth Dixon of Plattsburg University specializes in Ethics and Animals had this to say in her 2001 paper “Animal Emotion. Ethics and the Environment:
“Recent work in the area of ethics and animals suggests that it is philosophically legitimate to ascribe emotions to nonhuman animals. Furthermore, it is sometimes argued that emotionality is a morally relevant psychological state shared by humans and nonhumans.”
Dixon is not alone in her thinking and her opinion is surely not without its critics, but it merely reflects a shift in attitude.
So from Dixon’s claims alone we cannot ascribe such a complexity of emotion to a non-human animal. We can, however, posit whether certain pleasures and displeasures are of the more significant varieties. Eating, for example, is likely not a significant pleasure for non-human animals much like it is not for humans. Death, though, would seem to be the paradigm case of a negative marker being left on any sort of animal’s life, human or otherwise.
Therefore, if the pleasure I would receive from eating an animal’s flesh is of the simple variety, and the animal’s death is of the larger dis-pleasure variety, then the animal’s death far outweighs the minimal pleasure I would receive from eating her. So if the pleasure I would receive from eating meat does not outweigh the animal’s death, I am not justified in eating her at all.
One possible response to this is that eating isn’t really a simple pleasure at all. What’s That perhaps it has to be thought of in terms of the accumulated amount of meat eaten, and that that is a larger pleasure. The problem with this line of reasoning is that any small pleasure would then be turned into a greater pleasure if it accumulated over your life. If eating a certain type of meal over your lifetime is what determines whether it had a significant effect on us, then other single events would have to be thought of in the same way. An event like winning a card game. Perhaps I won a lot of card games in my life. It would be foolish to think that the effect of winning card games throughout my life placed any significant mark on me. If small pleasures are only valued in terms of their accumulated lifetime effect, then we would have to suggest that winning card games is a greater pleasure like falling in love or having a child. Surely no one would suggest this though, so the criticism falls short.
The second criticism is that perhaps animal’s feelings, good or bad, are irrelevant to our, humans, purposes. Animal Rights Philosopher, Peter Singer, argues that it is “speciesist” to think this way. And that non-human animals deserve the same regard and rights as disabled adults or infants. Immanuel Kant even argued, although he did not believe there was anything ethically wrong with treating animals as means to any human’s ends, that we indirectly are morally obligated to treat animals well. He held that we would be damaging ourselves if we were to treat animals poorly. Therefore we must treat them well or risk losing a part of our humanity.
It is possible eating a dead animal could be justified, but only if my pleasure was of the greater variety and the animal’s displeasure was of the simple variety. Alas, this is not the case and I must accept the results. A possible way to test whether or not eating meat is actually a greater pleasure as opposed to a simple one which I suggest it is, would be to determine whether not eating meat has left any significant negative mark on my life. It has left no such mark.