Prof Daniel Butt – Should carnivores let their children eat meat?

PTRG: 8 Feb 2018

Photo: Yuki Iwaki

We are delighted to have invited Prof Daniel Butt from Oxford University as the presenter for last week’s Political Theory Research Group seminar.  Dan presented the paper ‘Should carnivores let their children eat meat?’.

The argument and the underlying assumptions

There is a morally significant reason why a parent, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, should not feed meat to a child.  At least, there is a reason why parents in affluent societies, who have significant discretion over the choice of food, should not give meat to children.  Dan argues for this claim drawing on children’s interest in their moral integrity and parents’ fiduciary responsibility for children’s moral development.

The claim is based on three assumptions.  First, a vegetarian diet will not pose a significant threat to children’s health and bodily reproduction.  Second, at some point of moral development, a given child may choose to become an ethical vegetarian.  It is reasonably possible that a child may come to believe that eating meat is morally bad especially because eating meat entails animal suffering, treating animals in ways they should not be treated.  And third, ethical vegetarianism is harmless to others, and also can be considered reasonable by non-vegetarians.  Non-vegetarians can believe that eating meat is morally acceptable, without thinking that ethical vegetarianism is entirely unreasonable or ridiculous.  Because ethical vegetarianism is harmless and reasonable, a child who chose to become an ethical vegetarian is not involved in any moral wrongdoing.

Meat feeding v. children’s moral integrity

A child who chose to become an ethical vegetarian when he/she became able to make life judgements as a moral agent may believe that his/her life has not gone as well as it could have gone had he/she not been fed meat as a child.  Eating meat as a child before the point of moral agency does not actually undermine one’s moral character, since a child before that point is neither morally responsible nor blameworthy for choosing to eat meat.  However, having had the habit of eating meat as a child may still be a source of regret to the child.  The child may regret that he/she was implicated in what he/she now believes to be morally wrong.  So, the child has a good reason to believe that his/her moral integrity has been compromised in a way that cannot be righted now by adopting a vegetarian diet from now on.

There are two complications.

(a) Delay in action.  A child may decide to become an ethical vegetarian when he/she has become able to make life judgements as a moral agent.  But the child may not change his/her diet at the point of that decision.  In this case, there is a temporal gap between when the child decided to become an ethical vegetarian (T1) and when that child actually stopped eating meat (T2).  In this case, the child is responsible for choosing to eat meat between T1 and T2, unless the child could not have refused to eat meat in this period due to parental sanction, etc.  The parents who continued to feed meat to the child during this period are not directly responsible for the child’s action.  But they are responsible for something else.  The child can blame them for creating the situation where eating meat was his/her default dietary option, and where the child was therefore exposed to a moral risk which he/she could have avoided had eating meat not been the default option.

(b) Inability to take action.  A child may want to become an ethical vegetarian when he/she has become able to make life judgements as a moral agent (T1).  But the child may find it extremely difficult because he/she has enjoyed eating meat so much.  So, the child may keep eating meat after T1.  In this case, parents are responsible for making it difficult for children to become ethical vegetarians even if they want to.  Parents are responsible for an avoidable action (feeding meat) that is likely to create a gap between children’s sense of duty and their action.

Meat feeding v. parents’ fiduciary responsibility

Dan’s argument is not based on the assumption that eating meat is actually morally wrong.  It is based on the assumption that children may come to believe that eating meat is morally wrong.  Parents may or may not share such an ethical-vegetarian belief.  So, why is it morally wrong for parents – in particular, non-vegetarian parents who do not share that belief – to feed meat to their children?

Dan thinks that it is morally wrong for parents to feed meat to their children because feeding meat may contradict parents’ fiduciary responsibility for children’s moral development.  Parents neglect this responsibility by risking compromising children’s moral integrity.  Feeding meat to a child is one of such cases where parents let the child do what he/she may later come to believe to be wrong and thereby risk compromising his/her moral integrity.  This should be a source of regret to parents because, as explained above, from the child’s perspective, his/her life has not gone as well as it could have gone had he/she not been fed meat as a child.

A stronger claim?

Dan’s argument so far establishes that feeding meat to children compromises their moral integrity and contradicts parents’ fiduciary care responsibility for children’s moral development.  This argument grounds Dan’s claim that there is a prima facie duty on parents not to feed meat to children.  But is it possible to argue for parents’ all-things-considered duty not to do so?

Dan explains that, if we want to defend such a stronger argument, we need to consider the costs the duty in question would impose on non-vegetarian parents.  There are different kinds of cost.  For example, parents may have to pay more attention to their children’s diets; they may have to learn how to cook vegetarian dishes; they may have to spend more time on cooking because they have to cook both non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes.  They may also feel a sense of distance from their children because they are having different dishes.  They may feel upset because, when their children ask them to share the meat they are eating, they have to turn the request down.  However, Dan suggests inconclusively that such costs (may or) may not be so weighty as to outweigh the moral force of the prima facie duty in question.  Perhaps, he suggests, concern for children’s interest in their moral integrity is weightier than those costs to non-vegetarian parents.

Can vegans and fruitarians employ the same argument for their positions?

The final question Dan addresses in the paper was: Can vegans and fruitarians employ Dan’s argument to claim that there is a prima facie or even all-things-considered duty on parents not to give children any kind of animal-related food (including dairy and egg products) or any kind of food except fruit.  Dan suggests inconclusively that they cannot.  Perhaps, he suggests, costs to parents may be too considerable.  Perhaps, children may be less likely to choose to become vegans or fruitarians than to become vegetarians.  Perhaps, raising children on vegan or fruitarian diets may be not only too demanding for parents but risky for children if parents cannot get it right.  Perhaps, the scale of animal suffering in the dairy and egg industry or the scale of plant suffering in agriculture may be qualitatively different from that of animal suffering in the meat industry.  Meanwhile, Dan admits that these are not decisive arguments.

Finally…

As noted above, Dan’s argument is not based on the substantive assumption that eating meat is actually morally wrong.  Whether it is actually wrong or not, children may come to believe that it is morally wrong.  So, there is a reason for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian parents to hold the door open for future vegetarianism.  Otherwise, parents neglect their fiduciary responsibility and violate children’s interest in their moral integrity.  Finally, Dan emphasises that his argument is not ‘philosophical game-playing’.  It is supposed to be action-guiding: ‘The reasons outlined above are the reasons why I chose not [to] give meat to my own children’.

Discussion

Photo: Yuki Iwaki

The discussion covered many interesting questions including, but not limited to, the following.  Is it parents’ responsibility for ‘moral development’ or their responsibility for ‘moral integrity’ that is relevant to Dan’s argument?  Isn’t it possible to abuse one aspect of Dan’s argument for not feeding meat to argue for feeding meat?  To what extent is it parents’ responsibility not to feed meat to children, and to what extent is it children’s own responsibility not to eat meat?  Is the relationship between parents’ and children’s responsibilities a zero-sum game in which one applies whereas the other doesn’t?  Is it a thick notion of ‘moral integrity’ or mere ‘dissonance’ of some kind (e.g. moral, cognitive, or psychological) that matters in Dan’s argument?  If it is the latter that matters, then does mere dissonance provide a sufficient reason to ground parents’ moral obligation not to feed meat to children?  In practice, how can parents make the complicated ideas and arguments outlined in the paper understood to their children?

Dan’s answers to these questions, as well as his argument in the paper, were careful, direct and convincing.  The paper, when it is published, will be a meaningful, and also highly original, contribution not only to the relevant literature but also to our daily practice.

Written by Yuki Iwaki

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Daniel Butt is Associate Professor in Political Theory at the University of Oxford and Fellow and Tutor in Political Theory at Balliol College, Oxford.  He has written widely on global justice, historical wrongdoing, and environmental ethics.  He is the author of Rectifying International Injustice: Principles of Compensation and Restitution Between Nations (Oxford University Press, 2009).  His recent publication is on the ecological ethos and environmental education: ‘Law, governance, and the ecological ethos’ in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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