Paul D. Wilke
Descartes, Kant, and Darwin: The Three Philosophies of Animal Ethics
We love our pets.
We love our cheeseburgers.
We hate thinking about the irreconcilable moral contradictions lurking in those two loves.
And so we mostly don't dwell on it much.
Who would have thought that the essential act of eating animals could be so complicated?
Who would have thought that such misery and suffering could happen in our humane age?
But that is the case today as the morality of the dinner plate rests on three main philosophical pillars: a Cartesian, a Kantian, and a Darwinian. Descartes' thinking predicted the modern factory farm. Kant's ethics anticipated our ambivalence toward animals; we love our pets yet eat meat created in a nightmarish Cartesian system. By arguing for the continuities of life in evolutionary terms, Darwin set the stage for the animal rights movement of the twentieth century.
All three philosophies shape how we see ourselves vis-a-vis other animals. From the outside looking in, our culture appears as a schizoid mix of compassion, indifference, love, and remorseless appetite.
Billions of animals suffer and die every year, leading short lives of windowless misery for our consumer pleasure. Most of us lose not a wink of sleep at this daily carnage. Other animals, no less sentient but infinitely more fortunate, we love as pets, giving names and attributing unique personalities. They sleep in our beds and offer unconditional affection in a cruel and indifferent world. We genuinely love them and grieve for them when they are gone.
How can that be?
Part of it is the inertia of habit and custom. The contradictory way we view animals is the outcome of ancient religious and philosophical traditions. Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas supplied the core arguments from which Descartes and Kant developed their views later on animal ethics. These last two argued that human nature is fundamentally different from the rest of the animal kingdom by having the capacity to reason.
Beyond this similarity, however, Descartes and Kant drew different conclusions about how animals relate to people. For Descartes, animals were little more than soulless automatons, forever beyond our ethical consideration. They couldn't feel pain or suffer. We all but dismissed them as little more than fleshy machines. Here in Descartes' philosophy lurked the poisoned seed of the modern factory farm.
For Kant, the picture is similar yet critically different. Animals were still outside our umbrella of ethical consideration and fair game for exploitation. However, Kant believed we should not make animals suffer needlessly, even if they don't get the same moral attention. Animals should be treated kindly when possible. Here one finds the ambivalent seed of the modern, pet-loving meat eater.
The third philosophy of animal ethics is a relative latecomer and represents a massive break from everything that came before. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution challenged the grounds of our assumed superiority over other sentient creatures. Darwin's "Dangerous Idea" offered a radical shift from the old philosophical assumptions.
He made the scientific claim that homo sapiens descended from common ancestors, just like every other creature. If this was true, no radical separation in kind existed between man and animal, only continuities. We were all animals, different in many important ways but ultimately made of the same stuff.
In other words, humans share many of the same biological characteristics as other life, like the ability to experience pain and suffering. If animals did suffer in ways analogous to humans, then uncomfortable ethical questions about how we treat those animals must inevitably arise.
But even here, ideals of not harming other creatures are often outweighed by the pleasure of the dinner plate or the companionship of a loyal pet. The evils of the factory farm give us the food we want while at the same time sparing us from having to know too much about that process.
And yet we consider ourselves "animal lovers" while feasting on the fruits of suffering. Thanks to Darwin, we know this is the case even as most of us continue to participate in the system as it is.
Therefore, these three philosophies play critical, though contradictory roles, in our lives. Today we see a tripartite interweaving of the three, with the inconsistencies between them generating uncomfortable tensions that threaten the harmony of the dinner table.
Descartes: Origins of the Modern Cartesian Model
René Descartes is most famous as one of the founders of modern science and philosophy. He is also notoriously remembered for nailing the paws of his wife’s dog to a board to dissect it alive. All in the name of science. According to Descartes, the dog’s cries were no different than the springs and wheels of a clock automatically reacting when dismantled (Joy 109). Descartes acknowledged that animals were alive and experienced sensations. “For I do not deny that any animal has life – which, I claim, consists only in the heat of the heart” (Descartes 175).
However, he rejected that animals could feel pain or engage in rational thought. Animals, therefore, existed as little more than mechanical automatons incapable of experiencing pain (174). In a position echoing Plato and Augustine, Descartes believed that reason, or intelligence, and our dual mind-body nature, were the decisive factors governing human-animal interactions.
Descartes took it a step further, stating that only a mind with intellect could think. The human mind and consciousness rested on the intellect. If this were not true, the mind could not have any will, and without a will, a rational being could therefore not exist. Will, combined with the use of reason, or intelligence, thus decisively sets humans apart from animals in the Cartesian worldview (Broughton 408).
This division left animals entirely excluded from ethical consideration and explains the justification for Descartes’ brutal treatment of animals. While Descartes' view of animals is shocking to us today, his indifferent attitude toward their suffering exists in modern factory farms and animal experimentation labs. We just don't see it anymore, so we shake our heads at Descartes' barbarity while eating cheeseburgers and drinking milkshakes.
In Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan comments on the moral aspects of factory farming, and they are worth noting here in some detail.
"It is not easy to draw lines between pain and suffering in a modern egg or hog operation. These are places where the subtleties of moral philosophy and animal cognition mean less than nothing, indeed where everything we’ve learned about animals at least since Darwin has simply been…put aside. To visit a modern Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is to enter a world that for all its technological sophistication is still designed on seventeenth-century Cartesian principles: animals are treated as machines – “production units” – incapable of feeling pain. Since no one can believe this anymore, industrial animal agriculture depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert one’s eyes on the part of everyone else" (Pollan 317).
Though we shudder today at Descartes’ behavior, Pollan is correct to draw a comparison between the French philosopher and modern factory farming. The metaphor of the factory and the machine in relation to the production of animal products takes us directly back to Descartes and his wife’s dog. As Descartes argued, if animals cannot feel pain, it is possible to ignore even the most basic considerations for their welfare. That is precisely what has happened.
Market-based demands by affluent mass-market consumers mean ethical considerations for animals are set aside to keep grocery store shelves stocked with inexpensive animal products. Descartes' approach came to reflect a key strand of thought that gave producers and consumers the cognitive framework to set aside sentimentality in the name of mass production.
The rising affluence of modern industrial societies generated an insatiable demand for animal products that only a market-based system could meet. Satisfying such a demand for razor-thin profit margins requires ruthless efficiency and a vast economy of scale, all of which come at the expense of animal welfare.
Peter Singer argued that “The core issue is the commercial pressures that exist in a competitive market system in which animals are items of property, and the conditions in which they are kept are not regulated by federal or state animal-welfare law” (Singer, The Ethics 55).
The numbers are staggering. According to Michael Pollan, in the United States, about 125,000 square miles of farmland grow corn; 60% of this corn goes to the 100 million beef cattle that end up on our dinner tables (Pollan 65-66). Worldwide, as of 2018, factory farms slaughtered over 70 billion animals.
And to get enormous quantities of meat and dairy to market as cheaply as possible, most of these animals lead short, crowded, and abjectly miserable lives. For example, it is standard industry practice for chickens to have their beaks cut and pigs to have their tails docked to prevent injuring each other.
These procedures ostensibly happen to benefit the animals involved, but "benefit" is a relative term when you consider what the highly stressful conditions of confinement do to these animals psychologically.
Animal welfare takes a back seat in the ruthless drive for efficiency and profit. Melanie Joy states, “From a profit standpoint, animal welfare is a barrier to profit, as it costs less to mass-produce animals and discard those who die prematurely than it does to care for them adequately” (Joy 39).
The Cartesian model of animal welfare as practiced in agribusiness and medical labs over the last three-quarters of a century gained a veneer of scientific credibility due to the strong influence of B.F. Skinner’s behavioral psychology. Skinner’s ideas represented an updated version of Descartes’ mechanical view of animal consciousness.
According to Behaviorism, animals (and people) react entirely to environmental stimuli. In this model, anthropomorphizing animal behavior in research allowed subjective bias to creep in at the expense of objective research. The result was the banishment of descriptive language that seemed to anthropomorphize animals.
By rejecting supposedly anthropocentric descriptors to describe observed animal phenomena like emotion, empathy, and sensitivity, science set up cognitive and semantic barriers that reinforced the Cartesian model. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker relates with guilty conscious his time as a research assistant in an animal behavior lab that tested Skinner’s theories of operant conditioning on animals.
"To motivate the animals to work for food, we starved them to 80 percent of their free-feeding weight, which in a small animal means a state of gnawing hunger. In the lab next door, pigeons were shocked through beaded key chains that were fastened around the base of their wings; I saw that the chains had worn right through to their skin, exposing the muscle below. In another lab, rats were shocked through safety pins that pierced the skin of their chests. In one experiment on endorphins, animals were given unavoidable shocks described in the paper as “extremely intense, just subtetanizing” – that is, just short of the point where the animal's muscles would seize up in a state of tetanus" (Pinker 455).
Pinker finishes this disturbing anecdote by noting that one of the researchers in the lab would occasionally express anger by picking up the nearest rat and throwing it against the wall (455).
Similarly, Michael Shermer relates a story of his time as a research assistant whose job was to dispose of the lab rats no longer needed for experiments. Shermer had by then named many of the rats and found the prospect of killing them unappealing. “But then the experiment is over and the time comes to dispose of the subjects, which in the case of the rats was done by…I can barely type the words…gassing them with chloroform in a large plastic bag” (Shermer 276).
Indeed, this Cartesian model remained dominant in research labs until the early 1980s. Since then, regulatory oversight has mitigated the worst abuses, though animal experimentation continues today (Pinker 456).
The point is that the Cartesian model continues to play an important, though hidden role, in our society today. People feel they benefit from the cheap food that factory farms produce and the medical technology developed from animal testing. This makes it easy to turn a blind eye to the worst abuses. The specific example of Descartes cutting open live dogs horrifies us only because it is a particular example that we can picture in our imaginations.
Anyone doing that to the family pet today would be condemned as a monster and subject to criminal prosecution. However, what Descartes did is multiplied millions of times every day, though most shrug since suffering happening out-of-site in windowless buildings remains little more than an abstraction. Suffering tastes good, it seems.
Nevertheless, as we will see by examining the Kantian model, such ethical compartmentalization on the part of the average person creates an uncomfortable psychological tension between the costs versus benefits of these practices. This is where the Kantian model exists uneasily today.
The Kantian Model and the Ambivalence of the Modern Consumer
Immanuel Kant appears at first glance to represent more continuity with the past than anything novel. Similar to Aristotle, Kant stated, “But since animals exist only as means, and not for their own sakes, in that they have no self-consciousness, whereas man is the end, such that I can no longer ask: Why does he exist?, as can be done with animals, it follows that we have no immediate duties to animals; our duties towards them are indirect duties to humanity” (Kant, Lectures 212).
Like Descartes before him, the capacity to reason was paramount for Kant. Only a rational being can be a moral being capable of performing the duty of treating other rational beings as ends rather than as means. Irrational beings, including animals, could not be moral beings since they could not reason and were therefore exempt from ethical consideration (Kant, Ethical Philosophy 35-36).
Like Aquinas, Kant argued that people should avoid animal cruelty lest it leads to cruelty to people, which would be unethical. Andreas-Holger Maehle sums up Kant’s position on animals: “Animals suffering as such was not ethically relevant here, but only the effects of cruelty on human morality” (Manning 92). That is true as far as it goes, but it judges Kant’s position too harshly.
His emphasis on avoiding animal cruelty, whatever the motive, represents a contrast to Descartes’ utter indifference and left room for some common ground with later animal rights advocates when it came to the question of animal welfare. If one can get past Kant's excluding animals from our moral umbrella, there is a limited animal ethic here, representing an advance morally from the Cartesian.
It may seem paradoxical, but Kant’s guidance is that we should not mistreat animals, if not for their sake, then for ours. He notes that since animals are similar to people, we perform our ethical duty when animal behavior has clear a analog to our own.
Kant cites an old dog that loyally and faithfully long served his master as an example. According to Kant, the comparable moral behavior on the dog’s part is loyalty and faithfulness. As a result, the owner has an ethical duty to look after the dog in its old age rather than killing it for being useless.
Kant writes, “So if the acts of animals arise out of the same principium from which human actions spring, and the animal actions are analogs of this, we have duties to animals, in that we thereby promote the cause of humanity. For a person who already displays such cruelty to animals is also no less hardened towards men”(212).
When contrasted with the story about Descartes' dog, this example shows that even though the two philosophers drew from similar traditions, they nevertheless reached different conclusions (Kant, Lectures 212). The owner damages his own moral standing by killing the faithful dog for being useless.
What Kant implies is that animals suffer when mistreated. Only a cruel person could willfully harm animals. If someone can coldly inflict pain or death on an animal, it is but a short step to cruelty toward one’s fellow man. Though in Kant’s moral universe, people stand above animals in the hierarchy of life because of reason, animal suffering at least merits consideration, though only in relation to human morality.
Julian Franklin, agreeing with this interpretation, writes: “If the infliction of pain and death on animals, without legitimating cause, is not cruel per se, why should it harden us toward humans? And if it does, in fact, harden us toward humans, it must be because we have become insensitive to the wrongful harming of animals” (Franklin 37).
Kantian ambivalence toward animals and animal suffering came to represent a significant tension in the modern western mind. Kant believed that animals exist as a means to our ends and are not worthy of ethical consideration.
By this reasoning, an argument for unrestricted animal use would seem to follow that Descartes would agree with, thereby justifying our current methods of factory farming and animal experimentation. Nevertheless, the humane treatment of animals is still an indirect ethical duty, which seems to argue against policies that permit the horrors of factory farming. Indeed, this tension would later define the majority view in our modern society.
If the Cartesian model represents a categorical denial of animal suffering, the Kantian model is conflicted. Nevertheless, one cannot help but detect a nascent animal ethic in the great German philosopher that resonates today for many people. If animals are not worthy of direct ethical consideration, we still have an implied duty not to mistreat them.
In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls, one of the most influential Kantian intellectuals of the later twentieth century, makes a similar argument. Rawls argues that justice does not apply to animals because they do not have a moral sense of justice.
Rawls echoes Kant in saying that, even if we exclude animals ethically, we nevertheless have a duty not to be cruel to them. “Certainly it is wrong to be cruel to animals and the destruction of whole species can be a great evil. The capacity for feelings of pleasure and pain and for the forms of life of which animals are capable clearly imposes duties of compassion and humanity in their case” (Rawls 512).
While Rawls retains the hierarchy of life with man at the top, thus excluding animals from ethical consideration, he nevertheless advocates against unnecessary cruelty to animals. Again, the contrast with Cartesian indifference is stark.
The Catholic church likewise recently affirmed a stance similar to Kant and Rawls. In his Encyclical from 2015, Pope Francis wrote: "Moreover, when our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is contrary to human dignity" (Francis 92).
On the one hand, Kant’s traditional animals-as-means-to-our-ends approach appears to justify the tacit acceptance of factory farming. In this respect, at first glance, it appears that the Cartesian and Kantian models converge, and perhaps at least circumstantially, they do. Given the shadowy and secretive nature of agribusiness today, many Americans adopt this attitude to human-animal relations because they have only a vague idea of the ethical dilemmas involved in turning a live pig on the farm into bacon on the plate.
In the case of livestock, the suffering is so remote spatially that it becomes difficult to conceptualize. The closest the average consumer ever comes to a farm animal is while perusing the neatly packaged, bloodless meat section at the grocery store. “Indeed, it is only because of technology that widespread meat production is possible: modern methods enable us to eat billions of animals every year without witnessing a single part of the process by which these animals become our food” (Joy 124).
People live two parallel but contradictory ethical lives concerning animals. On the one hand, many Americans love their pets, giving them names and establishing deep emotional bonds. Meanwhile, there is nary a thought on how the meat on our dinner tables got there. “We tolerate this schizophrenia because the life of the pig has moved out of view; when’s the last time you saw a pig in person? Meat comes from the grocery store, where it is cut and packaged to look as little like parts of animals as possible” (Pollan 306).
Pollan calls this modern Kantian ambivalence toward animals the "Omnivore’s Dilemma" in that the ethics of eating presents a constant tension between the nobility of our good intentions and the consequences of our actions. Many otherwise decent and kind people can sometimes have glaring moral blind spots.
Covering the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet Magazine, David Foster Wallace expressed these contradictions when he mused about the festival’s star attraction, the tasty lobster. Wallace, an omnivore before and after the article, expressed the misgivings that often arise when one stops for a moment to challenge underlying assumptions about food.
"How do people who view themselves as morally responsible justify their participation in the current food production system? That is a difficult question for many to answer, or even face. The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think hard about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly" (Wallace).
Joy believes this contradiction thrives because the anonymity of animal suffering allows for a process of de-individuation. “De-individuation is the process of viewing individuals only in terms of their group identity and as having the same characteristics as everyone else in the group” (Joy 119). This process of de-individuation becomes easier when our role in the process is limited to consumption.
Consider a simple thought experiment: Would we allow our beloved pet to be treated the same way as a factory-farmed hog? Joy’s statement above is correct and arrives at a critical point about the contradictions involved in this way of thinking. We are biologically hardwired to identify emotionally with what we know and experience firsthand while rationalizing ethically dubious behavior for those outside our circle of direct experience (De Waal, Age of Empathy 221).
The modern Kantian must uphold an illusion to preserve this way of thinking, and it is an illusion made easier by willful ignorance and post hoc rationalization. For some, eating factory-farmed meat is just another lifestyle choice, no better or worse than vegans who choose a lifestyle devoid of animal products. This rationalization allows a person to downplay the ethical considerations of a lifestyle choice based on questionable moral grounds. After all, a lifestyle choice implies awareness, which bases itself on rationalization, whether sound or not (Tuttle 76).
In a recent New York Times essay contest to make the strongest ethical case for eating meat, most of the finalists felt the need to condemn factory farming first to make their subsequent case. One of the judges, Jonathan Safron Foer, noted that “Lurking beneath these submissions is a shared dissatisfaction with our current system of meat production, a shared anger” (Kaminer).
Also lurking is a growing awareness. Thus, the Cartesian factory farm model thrives on the margins, propped by blissfully unaware Kantian consumers dining on a nightmarishly cruel system's cheap and tasty products. Fortunately, there are signs that this is changing due to the recent surge of a third model: the Darwinian.
The Modern Darwinian Model and the Expansion of the Moral Arc
Charles Darwin revolutionized the way we view ourselves as a species. As we have seen, western tradition has long maintained that human nature contains intrinsic differences that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
For example, arguments have been used repeatedly by philosophers and theologians since the time of Plato that we are different from animals because we can reason and have a soul, making us reflections of God's divine image. Darwin shattered that myth by showing that we are also part of the animal kingdom. Humanity, like the chimpanzee, like the dolphin, like all life, is a product of evolution by natural selection.
E.O. Wilson describes just how pervasive the Darwinian view of life has become these days. It shifted humanity's lofty place in the vertical hierarchy of life just below God and the angels to just another branch on the tree of life. “The general traits of human nature appear limited and idiosyncratic when placed against the great backdrop of all other living species. Additional evidence suggests that the more stereotyped forms of human behavior are mammalian and even more specifically primate in character, as predicted on the basis of general evolutionary theory” (Wilson 32).
Far from arguing about what distinguishes us from animals, evolutionary science reveals all the ways we are the same. The work of primatologist Frans de Waal has confirmed many of Darwin’s assertions of this continuity and dispelled many of the cherished myths about the uniqueness of human nature. Indeed, Darwin went so far as to speculate that animals shared many of the same traits as humans, such as sympathy, grief, curiosity, excitement, and boredom, just to name a few (Darwin 100, Descent).
To understand just how radical this paradigm shift is, contrast the following quote by Darwin with the previously discussed ideas of Descartes (animals as mechanical automatons) and Kant (animals as means to ends): “The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery. Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, &c., when playing together, like our own children” (89).
This radically different assertion of humanity’s direct continuities ("...like our own children") with the rest of the animal kingdom provided the intellectual basis to re-conceptualize our ethical stance toward animals. In other words, Darwin set in motion a paradigm shift in our thinking.
Peter Singer, a contemporary philosopher and a leading intellectual in the animal liberation movement, echoes Darwin and expands upon it with his own ideas on animal welfare. At the heart of Singer’s philosophy is the crucial fact that man and animal share the ability to feel pain and suffer. “If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration” (Singer 8).
If this is the case, as Singer argues, then other arguments that animals do not feel pain (Descartes) or that they do not have interests (Kant) begin to fall apart. Since the 1970s, when Singer and others like him began advocating for the interests of animals, the Cartesian and Kantian models have been on the defensive. The logic that we do not owe animals any ethical consideration breaks down if Singer's arguments are valid.
Steven Pinker argues that ethical considerations toward animals represent one aspect of a larger “rights revolution” that has taken place over the last two centuries and includes race, sex, and sexual orientation. Pinker credits Peter Singer for the thesis of his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which argues that “…human beings were endowed by natural selection with a kernel of empathy toward kin and allies, and have gradually extended it to wider and wider circles of living things, from family and village to clan, tribe, nation, species, and all of sentient life” (Pinker 465).
According to Pinker, since the rise of the animal welfare movement in the 1970s, Western culture has developed less tolerance for mistreating animals. Modern legislation has curbed the worst abuses in animal testing and, to a much lesser extent, factory farming.
In his book The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer makes a similar argument to Pinker but draws on evolutionary theory to make his case for including animal welfare in our moral calculations. “A moral system based on continuous rather than categorical thinking gives us a biological and evolutionary foundation for the expansion of the moral sphere to include nonhuman animals, based on objective criteria of genetic relatedness, cognitive abilities, emotional capacities, moral development, and especially the capacity to feel pain and suffer” (Shermer 263).
This is not necessarily an argument for the ethical veganism of Singer. Still, it is not far off because it advocates for an increased awareness of how our decisions may or may not harm other sentient life. Interestingly, these views are now coming from mainstream scientists like Pinker and Shermer and not just from hippy-dippy radical animal rights activists.
The moral landscape has shifted increasingly in favor of the Darwinian model over the last forty years. Former lab research assistants Shermer and Pinker each remember their experiences participating in animal experiments with genuine guilt and regret.
Here is how Pinker starts his story about working in an animal lab: “Let me tell you about the worst thing I have ever done” (Pinker 454). Shermer, likewise, recalls his work in an animal lab as “…one of the most dreadful things I ever had to do” (Shermer 276).
These two examples show just how much the ground has shifted in a very short amount of time. Many who participated in the Cartesian model look back on that time with shame and horror.
We can see this shift in thinking taking place in the general population, with meat consumption trending downward and more widespread support for legislation protecting animals from the worst abuses in factory farms and laboratories (Shermer 284-288)
This essay's purpose is not to argue that one of these paradigms will triumph anytime soon. It should be clear at this point, however, that I support a more Darwinian-friendly view of life. But for most Americans, all three will continue to play a role, though sometimes in contradictory ways. The Cartesian model has supplied modern society with cheap and abundant animal products, though at an enormous moral and environmental cost.
The truth is that the Kantian and even the Darwinian models are fed by the Cartesian, even as we support more legal protections for animals, especially pets. As of 2022, an estimated 99% of all farm animals reside in factory farms, often in deplorable conditions. In this morally compartmentalized way, one can call herself an animal lover while at the same time eating meat and dairy every day. One need only picture the average American family sitting down for a steak dinner with the family pets hovering on the margins to see how intertwined all three models are.
A growing consciousness of the similarities and continuities between all species, including man, should not downplay the continuing predominance of the Cartesian and Kantian models on the western mind. The moral dilemmas raised by the Darwinian model, compelling as they are, remain muted in a society where around 95% of the population still enthusiastically consumes animal products. Drastic changes in ethical behavior do not come easily when one must sacrifice personal pleasures for what appears to be mere abstractions.
The apparent futility of it all - "What difference will one person like me make by not eating meat? And at what social cost to my happiness? It seems like so much sacrifice for so little! Why?" - is usually enough to smother any doubts. "I could never do that!" usually is the end of it.
In this way, even a valid argument against consuming animal products is often effectively countered by habit, societal norms, economics, and safety in numbers (herd mentality). This makes the Cartesian and Kantian models formidable going forward, at least for the near future, and should temper any vegan illusions of an impending plant-based utopia.
Why? With its emphasis on ruthless efficiency at the expense of animal welfare, the Cartesian model continues to provide the animal products the market demands. As long as this demand exists, this model will play a significant role in the ethics of our food.
The adage that people want to eat sausage, not watch it made, is true here and explains how acceptable factory farming remains, at least as long as we don't know too much about it. On the other hand, there are neo-Kantian arguments that maintain humanity’s superior position in relation to animals while at the same time placing greater emphasis on minimizing the cruelty involved in the food production process.
But you cannot supply abundant and affordable animal products for an affluent and mostly urban society by treating billions of animals "humanely." The system depends on an economy of scale to keep shelves stocked and prices low, and that economy of scale takes little account of the welfare of sentient creatures. The producer and consumer thrive in a symbiotic relationship of cheap, abundant food in exchange for the public's 'hear-no-evil-see-no-evil' attitude.
However, with a modern interpretation of Darwinian ideas by animal welfare advocates, there is a growing wedge between the Kantian and Cartesian models. By using Darwinian arguments, these advocates are slowly lifting the shroud of willful ignorance surrounding the methods used to produce our animal products.
Meatless options are now abundant in grocery stores when before they were not. New products like Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger have bridged the taste gap between meat and plant-based meat substitutes. Most restaurants now have a solid selection of vegan and vegetarian options. That was not the case before. These are positive trends.
As the market shifts along with our consciousness, perhaps the horrors of factory farming will be a thing of the past one day. While there is no evidence yet of a vegan future, there is ample evidence that this new way of viewing animals, thanks to Darwin’s original ideas, is challenging us to rethink how we interact with other life and the moral implications of those interactions. If this someday eliminates unnecessary suffering among all sentient life, this will count as progress.
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