Vegans and vegetarians don't find themselves stranded on tropical islands very often, despite how much they are asked about it. But, what if they were and there was only a chicken or another human to eat - what might they do?
Although the above heading may sound like the title of an interesting surrealist novella, it refers to a supposed moral dilemma vegans and vegetarians are often asked.
This quagmire is often posed at the end of a conversation between a veggie and non-veggie. (N.B. for here on in I’ll refer to both vegans and vegetarians as ‘veggies’). Usually, the non-veggie, in a final attempt force the veggie to admit that animals really are morally inferior to humans, will ask: “But what would you do if you were stranded on a deserted island with only a chicken for food- wouldn’t you kill it?”
It’s a difficult question, no doubt about it, especially when we throw an extra variable into the mix: “what if on this island there was another human, besides yourself, and a chicken- which would you rather kill for food?”
There are a number of answers such a question but I will only mention two main responses veggies might give.
The animal welfarist response
The animal welfare (also known as ‘animal liberation’) position is perhaps the most popular veggie stance. Well known animal welfarists include, PETA, and the utilitarian animal ethicist, Peter Singer. ‘Welfare’ in this sense can be understood as ‘the amount of pleasure or pain’ experienced by an animal.
Welfarists argue that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by whether that action increases/decreases an animal’s welfare. For instance, in industrialized animal farming the amount of pleasure that humans gain from eating animal flesh is significantly outweighed by the pain suffered by the animals. Hence the animal welfarists’ argument that contemporary industrial animal farming methods are wrong. According this logic, the interests of particular animals can be overridden if the positive consequences outweigh the negative.
Welfarists have to estimate an animal’s capacity to experience pleasure and pain. For instance, a welfarist may argue that it is worse to capture and kill a gorilla than a salmon because the gorilla’s capacity to suffer is greater than the salmon’s. This is because the gorilla can suffer more psychologically than the salmon and can be more acutely aware that it has been captured and is in danger.
With this information in mind, a welfarist when asked, “on the deserted island, would you kill the human or the chicken for food?” would say, “the chicken”.
Welfarists would say this because the human’s capacity to experience pleasure and pain is greater than that of the chicken’s; humans can practice complex abstract thought and can suffer in more ways than the chicken. Therefore the human would not only be more frightened than the chicken, but also would be ‘losing more’ if they were to be killed because the human’s life would have the potential to include more goods than the chicken’s, were they to continue living.
Animal rights response
Another popular stance is the animal rights position. Although this is often used as a catch-all phrase for the veggie movement, it is in fact a distinct position within the wider context of that movement. This position is also known as ‘animal abolitionism’ and is advocated by the animal ethicist and philosopher of law, Gary Francione.
The animal rights position states that animals have inherent value as a result of their capacity to suffer. This value cannot be outweighed by any other value, and therefore prohibits killing or harming animals in any situation whatsoever. This inherent value is protected by a ‘right’, e.g. a right not to be killed by humans or right to a pleasant life.
So in answer to the ‘humans, chicken, island’ question, the animal rights proponent would answer that there is no good reason either way to kill and eat the chicken instead of the human, and vice versa.
If they just had to kill one of them, the choice would be completely morally arbitrary. They would argue that the pain suffered by each creature is incomparable. Animal rights proponents would say that humans cannot suffer more than chickens because suffering is itself relative to the being who is suffering. For instance, the chicken’s life is as important to the chicken as the human’s life is to the human. Therefore, to kill or harm either one is equally bad.
I have sketched the two common ways in which a veggie might answer the supposed ‘island’ dilemma. Obviously, there is a lot more that can be said but that will have to wait for another time.
Yet, the question is really beside the point regarding why veggies abstain from eating or using animal products (although it does have some theoretical merit).
Somehow a lot of people think that if a veggie says they would kill the chicken, then that reveals that killing and eating chicken in our everyday lives is ok. However this is a mistake. The question supposes there is always a life-or-death situation surrounding whether one chooses to kill chickens for food or not. In reality this is extremely far from the truth.
99.99% of all conflicts between human and animal interests are completely unnecessary and therefore easily avoidable, as non-animal food sources are widely available. In short, in our day to day existence, meat eaters are not compelled by necessity of life-or-death to eat meat.
To clarify this final point more precisely: if a veggie were to answer that they would kill the chicken, this does not mean that eating meat in real life is morally acceptable – just as if there were only one other person on the island (no chickens), you might, if pushed far enough, choose to kill that person for food but this would not mean that cannibalism is acceptable in normal, everyday life.