Is it permissible to eat meat?
In moral philosophy, it is usually said that something innocuous, such as eating french-fries, is morally permissible, and that something very harmful, such as burning children alive, is impermissible. Something is called a moral obligation when we think it is impermissible not to do it, such as for example helping a child who’s drowning in a pool. Doing what’s impermissible is considered an immoral act of commission, while failing to do one’s obligation is an immoral act of omission. But is there really a sharp, objective boundary between permissible and impermissible, obligatory and optional, commission and omission? And if there isn’t, does it mean moral relativists are right and morality is just a matter of opinion? In this article I defend the perhaps controversial view that, although morally imperfect, eating meat is neither permissible nor impermissible.
The subjective side of ethics
Logical positivism was a philosophical movement that attempted to approach philosophy as rationally as possible. Inspired by the success of the natural sciences, they concluded that philosophical claims that cannot be empirically verified are nothing but meaningless metaphysics. This was called the principle of verification, and although it has been somewhat controversial, it was extremely influential and eventually matured into the principle of falsifiability, a widely accepted idea in contemporary philosophy of science. Falsificationism argues that, in order for a claim to be considered scientific, there must be conditions that would prove it false. If there aren’t, we are talking about faith and speculation, not science.
The problem with absolute claims about moral permissibility and obligation is that they are unverifiable and therefore factually meaningless, like “the present king of France is bald” or “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. If you cannot, even in principle, verify whether an action is permissible or not, it is hard to understand what it means for something to be objectively permissible. For example, if I say that there are dragons somewhere in this galaxy, we can at least imagine in principle how we could proceed to test the truth of this statement. We could go planet by planet, looking for…