Animal Domestication, Suffering and the Vegan Axiom

I was wondering recently about a generally acknowledged vegan axiom which stipulates that it would be objectively better if human beings had not domesticated animals, and it is this conviction which often underlies the conviction that we ought not use animals today for any reason whatever. Now, putting aside the question of whether nature and evolution are set up in such a way that domestication by one species of many others is inevitable (such that, if we hadn’t done it, it would nevertheless have happened – this is an interesting question which begs the question of teleological readings of evolution such as the reading of Teilhard de Chardin, but I digress), the question I want to ask is: “is it true that the world would be better if human beings had not domesticated animals?”

Usually the argument would go something like this: since human domestication has lead to extreme animal suffering, there would be less animal suffering if human domestication had not existed. How sure can one really be that if human beings had not domesticated animals there would be less animal suffering in the world? Perhaps there would have been, but perhaps not. Consider it in possible world semantics: Are there logically possible worlds on which human beings did not domesticate animals and there was more animal suffering than there would have been if animals had been domesticated by humans? It seems clear to me that the least mental exercise demonstrates that there are (for instance worlds with many earthquakes or natural disasters which caused the slow death of many animals, etc). Perhaps to be fair the question ought to be posed: “Are most or all relevantly similar logically possible worlds where animals are not domesticated worlds which contain less suffering than all or most relevantly similar logically possible worlds where animals are domesticated?”

Supposing that in some logically possible worlds life on this planet goes extinct in the case that animals are domesticated, earlier than it would have in the case where animals were not domesticated. Certainly if animals went extinct there would be less suffering, so maybe we need to shore up the argument again – take ‘suffering’ to be defined as ‘the ratio of pain to pleasure is >x’ or something like that. Then when we look back at the argument, it isn’t so clear which way to go. Since, plausibly, the pain to pleasure ratio in most or all relevantly similar worlds on which animals are domesticated is plausibly <x. Since human beings have a greater capacity for both pleasure and pain than other life forms, it seems that causing pain to others which causes pleasure to humans may not yield the same amount of pain relative to pleasure as, say, when a lion causes the pain of its prey for its pleasure. Since human beings generally qualify as ‘animals’ for the purposes of most Vegans, then animal ‘suffering’ (as defined above) may be false in most worlds where animals are domesticated by human beings.

If one is Utilitarian it seems that this argument must be addressed, and it isn’t so clear which way Utilitarianism (in general) will yield. This is perhaps another good reason for a Vegan who wishes to retain her convictions about vegan ethics to ground them on something more plausible than Utilitarian ethics, such as, for instance, Catholicism.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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5 Responses to Animal Domestication, Suffering and the Vegan Axiom

  1. paginavorus says:

    I don’t see the sense in defining suffering as a ratio of pain to pleasure. Pain, if you mean the physical sensation, has a variable relation to the subjective experience of suffering. Pain can even occur without suffering at all, and suffering can occur without correlation to any physical sensation. I think we might have to take suffering as a primitive.

    • By “Pain” I wasn’t committing myself to any particular kind; in fact I intended the broadest possible meaning for the term pain, including plausibly psychological, spiritual, physical, psycho-physical or any combination. I use pain here in exactly the same way that a Utilitarian will want to talk about pain, and similarly pleasure is intended to be just as broad. Remember what my argument is aiming towards: to show that on Utilitarianism vegan ethics cannot properly stand.

      I’m not sure what you mean when you say that we should take suffering as a primitive. I would like to hear more on that – but note that it is in one sense irrelevant to my argument. I created a totally arbitrary definition for suffering for the sake of the language of my argument, and it proves useful in the ‘language game’ of that argument, but I didn’t intend by that to propose any formal English definition of that word.

      • paginavorus says:

        Yeah, I see what you mean. I guess your post boils down to: You can’t condemn domestication of nonhuman animals by humans on the basis of wanting to minimize total suffering, because it’s impossible to clearly show the contrafactual that total suffering would necessarily have been worse if humans had never domesticated other animals. Is that right?

        About taking suffering as a primitive – I don’t see a way to describe it in terms of other things. It’s an experience, not an ontological entity (can I say that? maybe I’m misusing those words), and it doesn’t seem to have a complex structure fundamentally, although particular instances of it can have a complex structure.

      • Yes, I think you’ve quite got my argument. I agree that suffering as we normative-ly speak of it is either an experience or else we can say that it is an instance of what a Theist will recognize as ‘evil’ (even if natural evil). Now, ‘evil’ in the Augustinian tradition will be seen as a lack of the good or a deprivation of the good, in the same way that cold is the deprivation of heat, darkness of light, and so on. Therefore, I can imagine speaking of ‘suffering’ in that more esoteric sense even without the experience of pain (for instance if one believes that Beauty is not a normative concept but rather that Beauty is objective, and that some object -say, a painting- is beautiful, and the painting is destroyed, it would seem as though this may be an instance of the deprivation of a good). However, of course, examples like this may plausibly all boil down to experiences of ‘pain’ I suppose. In any case, as I said, the way I was using the term for the purposes of my argument was precise and deliberate.

  2. John says:

    Hi, I am from Australia.
    With very rare exception Christianity does not even have a tradition of vegetarianism. Indeed vegetarians and especially vegans are and were widely regarded as sandal-wearing kooks!
    Please find a unique Illuminated Understanding of the non-humans and everything else too via this reference and website.
    On diet and sustenance
    Plus related references on the origins of our now everywhere dramatized barbarism on the UNIVERSAL SCAPEGOAT game

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