Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: V – Conciseness

V

Conciseness

To be concise means to be brief and to-the-point. To be effectively concise requires having only the necessary information structured in the shortest, clearest, and simplest way possible. If a sentence, or paragraph, or essay is concise then the reader will have a much easier time navigating and comprehending it. If the writer is concise they can fit more into their essay. The reader will also thank you for not wasting their time with unnecessary details or flourishes.

Often students are not concise, instead choosing to be wordy and discursive. The reasons for why students are not concise, or not as concise as they could have otherwise been, vary. Some (1) mistakenly think the sentence or paragraph is concise and that the expert is wrong. Other times, (2) they believe the sentence cannot be any more concise than it is presently. A student might also, (3), argue that there is such a thing as being too concise, and that being too concise is overly restrictive, resulting in a loss of meaning or detail. And, (4) understandably, often many mistake ‘philosophy’ for being a subject that requires the flowery expressions and turns of phrases comparably continental philosophers (self-help, new-age books).

Reason (4) is simply a result of undergraduate students being exposed to certain conceptions of philosophy (such as a layman understanding of philosophy), and only certain kinds (self-help, Nietzsche, Rand, De Botton, etc.). I think, in cases like this, it is just a matter of explaining to the student that academic philosophy is done quite differently. Student’s who were being vague or discursive for reason (4) often become concise because “that is just how it is done at the University”.

Reasons (1), (2), and (3), are a matter of students having to learn a craft and realise that they do not know what they are talking about. That is, the students holding to 1, 2, and 3, need to recognise the expertise of their marker, tutor, professor, etc., that when the experts tells you it is not concise, then it is not concise. With regards to (3), the student needs to recognise that being concise requires not losing necessary and valuable information. The trick this student must learn is to be concise and keep all the important information. With regards to (2), this student lacks imagination. This student needs to enumerate the different ways of expressing the same idea and, through this procedure, generate the most concise sentence, or paragraph, that they can. With regards to (1), the student lacks insight; they simply don’t realise the sentence or paragraph is not what it could have been.

You might wonder how one becomes concise. My answer is that we learn to be concise the same way we learn anything: practice. In the same way as the musician, or the artist, or the carpenter, produce great work and demonstrate excellent skill, they treat their subject as a craft. Students need to think about writing essays as practicing the craft of writing. And, in the same way the musician, or the tradesman, takes care of every detail in their work, so the student needs to treat each word as being as important as the totality of the paper it resides in.

The student needs to ask themselves constantly: “can this sentence, this paragraph, this section, this paper, this chapter, be any more concise?”, and then explore whether it can be.

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Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: IV – Clarity

IV

Clarity

Thus far, I have sketched out a design principle concerned with simplicity in essay structure and ideas. I have argued that a simple structure is easier to follow and simple ideas are easier to formulate and successfully execute. And the reason these are important is because they ultimately serve the function of an undergraduate essay. In this entry I want to focus on clarity. I first sketch out what clarity means in an essay context and then explain why such clarity is necessary for good academic writing.

In the context of a philosophy essay, clarity can refer to how quickly the meaning in a sentence (a paragraph, etc.) is comprehended by the reader. We can measure how clear or vague an essay is depending upon the accuracy and speed in which the reader comprehends the intended meaning. The faster and more accurate, the clearer the writing; the slower and more inaccurate, the vaguer. Consider the following sentence:

“The cat sat on the mat”.

What is the meaning of the sentence? I imagine a reader will think the sentence meant to describe a particular kind of animal (cat) and a particular kind of object (mat) and is describing the relationship (sitting) between the animal and object. Because the reader was able to almost immediately comprehend the meaning of the sentence, then this must mean that the sentence was clear – it’s meaning was clear. Now consider the following sentence:

“Upon the mat there was a feline that placed itself upon it”.

The meaning of this sentence is identical to the one above. Yet the mental moves it takes to decode that meaning is more than the previous. Because it takes longer, even if it still results in a correct interpretation, the sentence is less clear than the former.

I do not think the importance of clarity can be overstated. I really do think it is the writer’s duty to take the burden of work with regards to communication. After all, your reader is giving up their time (and often money) to hear what you have to say (or read what you have to write). Given that, it would behoove a writer to make their reader work harder to get the message.

But there are other reasons why, as a student, you should writer with great clarity. You need to demonstrate to the marker that you – the student – understand the material, and you cannot demonstrate an understanding if the reader cannot make sense of what has been written. If the meaning of the sentence is clear then the reader will understand you. Another reason is that it shows you that you yourself comprehend the material and ideas you have read. Student’s often think they get it but, upon asking them to explain the idea in their own words, they quickly falter. Why? Because the student has mistaken a vague notion as understanding, rather than a clear idea.

If we think of an essay as a kind of product for a consumer, then clarity is the design principle that leads to the consumer understanding the purpose of the product and how to use it. If you want your reader to grasp the ideas as quickly as possible you need to be clearer.

One might object that some ideas, problems, or whatever, are too complicated to explain clearly or the ideas in themselves are too vague, to be clarified. For example, you might have heard artists or poets talk about the ideas or themes which they are exploring through their art as being too difficult or even intractable for our common, literal, everyday and even academic talk. Thus, academic writing is incapable of truly capturing the ideas or themes that can be captured by art or more poetic writing.

There are several answers to this. The first, and most uncharitable, is that the above objection is a mark of laziness. Just because something is hard to do does not make it impossible. And considering philosophers and academics have explored such issues by way of academic writing, I do not think this objection holds much water. The second way of responding is simply agreeing, but that since the assignment demands you do it, you might as well try. But the third response is sympathetic to the objection: yes, it might be well that some topics are beyond the reach of plain, literal, academic writing – but you will not know until you try. And, like the artist, while the subject is difficult to grasp, they will try multiple times through many iterations to nail their interpretation, and to try and express that to their audience as clearly as they can.

 But I, and many, can attest that it is possible to become clearer when writing about difficult topics – it just takes a lot of time and effort.

Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: III – Simplicity in Structure

III

Simplicity in Structure

In the previous entry of this series I argued that simplicity is a crucial design principle in crafting a philosophy essay. However, simplicity can be taken in two different directions, (i) application to ideas, and (ii) application to structure. The prior entry addressed (i), and this entry will examined (ii). That is, in this entry I argue that a simple, no-frills approach to structuring an essay – which I call EOR – is in the student’s best interests.

The essay structure which I strongly suggest to students is a simple one:

  1. Introduction
  2. Explanation/explication
  3. Objection
  4. Response
  5. Conclusion

Obviously though, the length of the essay, or the level of study the essay is being written,  can result in adding extra sections. Yet these extra sections are merely repetitions of the above provided structure, and often, if not always, presented in the same order. For example, a longer research paper might be as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Explanation/explication
  3. Objection 1
  4. Response 1
  5. Objection 2
  6. Response 2
    1. Objection 2.1
    2. Response 2.1
      1. Objection 2.1.1.
      2. Response 2.1.1.
    3. Objection 2.2.
    4. Response 2.2.
  7. Conclusion

Note that even when there are extra sections, the structure is essentially the same. And what this structure offers is nothing novel nor interesting; I am simply making salient a simple structural procedure that is highly robust because it fits in with our intuitive grasp of how we manage verbal discussions. For example, consider the following dialogue between two car mechanics attempting to fix a car:

M1: I think it’s the ignition.
M2: Why?
M1: These old Volvo’s were designed with cheap material in the ignition part – I’ve seen this before. (explanation)
M2: Yeah, but that doesn’t mean this one is the same – have you checked the engine yet? (objection)
M1: Nah, yeah – engine is in pretty good nick. Oi, look – the wiring in the ignition is stuffed. (response)
M2: I’ll go get the wire out back.

As we can see from the dialogue above, the structure of our verbal discussions when attempting to resolve problems or discuss issues uses the EOR design.  That is the beautiful thing about EOR – because we deploy this structure throughout our lives, we are able to immediately grasp it, even when we don’t know we are doing it.

But there are other reasons for employing EOR, most of which turn out to be beneficial to both the writer and the reader. First, it makes the essay easy to signpost and to follow. This benefits the writer because it allows them to quickly locate sections of their paper and edit or work on them, and it benefits the reader because it makes reading the essay easier. Second, it can help the student ensure they have provided a well reasoned or argued paper. After all, they can see if they have provided an objection, or provided a response to that objection, and they can see whether they have provided adequate words to developing those sections. Third, it means that when the student is given feedback, they can follow precisely where they went wrong and what to fix.

Finally, I want to note that the structure of an essay is not, by itself, ever going to result in a high mark. Structure, like spelling and grammar, if done right will not benefit you directly, but done wrong and they will hurt your mark. Why? Because like spelling and grammar, the structure of an essay facilitates the communication of the ideas within the essay. And you, as a writer, do not want all that hard work you put into those ideas to be lost under a sea of poorly designed and obscure structure.

 

First Publication ever!

I’ve been noticeably absent from this blog primarily due to efforts placed elsewhere. That place, namely, was my thesis and several papers I managed to draw out of said thesis.

I’m happy – no, ecstatic! – to report that one of those papers was accepted for publication in UtilitasThe paper, entitled, ‘Experience Machines, Conflicting Intuitions, and the Bipartite Characterization of Well-being’, is about a series of experimental surveys that show when people are given the choice between living in reality and living in an experience machine (e.g., the matrix), opinions are divided. This division of intuitions, some argue, show that the original experience machine thought experiment by Robert Nozick, shows us nothing substantive about well-being. I suggested that the conflicting intuitions was due to mental calculations about the prudential welfare pay-offs and trade-offs of given scenarios.

Hopefully I’ll have all my PhD applications done within a week or so and I can spend a little more time getting back to finishing off some of the mini-projects I had started on this blog.

Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: II – Simplicity

II

Simplicity

Perhaps the most overused design principle is simplicity. “Keep it simple”, they say (whoever they are). But what precisely does ‘simple’ mean, and how does such a design principle help with achieving the undergraduate essay-function (UEF)? There are two ways we can cash the simplicity principle with regards to undergraduate philosophy essays.[1] First, we can apply simplicity to the idea attempting to be communicated in the essay. Second, we can apply simplicity to how we present (i.e., write) our idea.

In this entry, I want to focus on the first application of the design principle of simplicity. So what would that look like? What wouldn’t it look like? Let’s reconsider the UEF:

Undergraduate Essay-Function (UEF): Successfully communicate an idea (i.e., your position on the given essay topic) to the reader (i.e., your essay marker), such that the paper satisfies the essay topic criteria.

So, you should try and make the idea trying to be communicated as simple as possible. Simple in this context, would mean that the idea is easy to understand, or put another way, is not difficult for the reader to comprehend. Perhaps the easiest way to make your idea simple is by making it singular; only argue for one point. Nothing more, nothing less.

By making a philosophy paper only have a single purpose, or point, all resources can be dedicated to making the best possible case one can for the given idea. And, by focusing on communicating a single idea, one ensures they do the necessary work while simultaneously doing the least amount of work required. This might seem confusing (even counter-intuitive), but it comes down to basic math.

Student’s (an essay writer, really) has constraints: word-count, energy, and time. For any idea, that idea requires an explication, an objection to the idea, and then a reply to the objection. So if one has two ideas, they’ve doubled their workload. Worse still, the resources one dedicates to the ideas have been halved.

Suppose a student has 1 week to write a 800 word essay. If that student has one idea they have 1 week to think and write about it, and probably 200 words for each respective part of exploring and defending that idea. If they have two ideas, then they have 3.5 days and approximately 100 words to write about each respective part for each respective idea. Clearly, the former will write a more in-depth and interesting essay than the later because they have more space and resources to explore their idea.

Another way the idea itself can be ‘simple’ is by not overcomplicating or picking an idea that is overly problematic. A student could pick to analyse the idea of whether or not…

  • ‘transcendental philosophy can help explicate our moral sentiments with regards to the phenomenological experience of the individual who has the choice to pull the lever in the trolley problem thought experiment’.

OR they could pick to analyse the idea of whether or not,…

  • ‘letting die is morally different from killing’.

Sure, the first sounds more interesting, but imagine the amount of work you would have to do to even given a mediocre job of exploring and communicating that idea.

So, the take away is simple this: to keep the idea simple, choose a single, plain, and understandable idea.

[1] And it seems to me easy enough to reapply these ideas to essays on other subjects. But I’ve never read nor written non-philosophy essays, so I can’t comment on them directly.

Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: I – The Function of an Essay

I  

The Function of an Essay

Perhaps the most popular question I’m asked by my students is, “how do I write a good philosophy paper?” That’s an excellent question. So, in this series of posts I want to consider how design principles can help answer this question. I think by applying design principles, an undergraduate can improve their philosophical writing.

I take it that there is more than one design principle. For that reason, merely enumerating a list of principles will not do. Reason being that such a list will be arbitrary; why these particular principles and not others? So, before I outline each principle in subsequent posts, we need to think carefully about why certain principles should be considered design principles, and which ones should not. In other words, we need a theory of design.

My theory of design (for philosophy essays) is straightforward. Design principles should necessarily serve the function of philosophy essays. By ‘function’, I mean the purpose or goal of a philosophy essay (i.e., any philosophy essay). Any purported value that fulfils the function should be adopted as a design principle, and any purported value that fails to realize the function should be rejected (as a design principle). And, I assert, the function of a philosophy essay is simply this:

Essay-Function: Successfully communicate an idea to the reader.

The essay-function has slightly different applications depending upon the essayist (e.g., undergraduate, PhD candidate, professor, etc.). For the purposes of these entries, I will just consider the essay-function as it applies to undergraduates. The explication of the essay-function for undergraduates is as follows:

Undergraduate Essay-Function: Successfully communicate an idea (i.e., your position on the given essay topic) to the reader (i.e., your essay marker), such that the paper satisfies the essay topic criteria.

If an essay fails to accomplish its function, then it is, by my definition, a bad essay. So, if an undergraduate essay (i) does not engage with the essay topic, (ii) fails to explain and justify your position, and (iii) is not communicated to your marker, then that essay is suboptimal. So, how can an undergrad avoid (i), (ii), and (iii)? I shall address this question – and how design principles fit into this picture – in subsequent posts.

Action Planning and Goal Setting: III

III

 Actions must successfully lead to the goal. Since it is always unknown whether our actions will move us closer our end, we need to continually reassess both the goal and actions. But when should we reassess our aims? It seems utterly foolish to never reassess since our actions could have consistently failed to draw us any closer to our goal. Yet it seems unproductive, if not impossible, to continuously reassess our position after every action.

I think an optimal strategy for reassessment would be at milestones: points in our action plan that we judge (whether rightly or wrongly) to be strategically important for accomplishing our goal. We can call these milestones sub-goals, because they serve as short-term goals and are not ends in themselves. Sub goals contrast with our final end, that which we can call an ultimate goal, as (a) it should be an end in itself, and (b) no goal should succeed it.

Sub-goals are an important part of an action plan. A good sub-goal will have three attributes. First, a sub-goal will give the appearance of being an end in itself. That is, a sub-goal appears meaningful and does not just seem like an unnecessary grind or box to tick. Second, a sub-goal will be a strong motivation for an agent. This second attribute is generally a consequence of the first point. Third, a sub-goal should provide a clear and obvious path to the next goal (whether that goal is the next sub-goal or the ultimate goal itself).

Sub-goals should serve as necessary success points for an action plan. If you succeed on all sub-goals, one will (most likely) reach the ultimate goal. However, upon failing a sub-goal, according to the current action plan, there is no chance of arriving at the ultimate goal whatsoever. Since a sub-goal serves as a pivot point of an action plan, whether one succeeds or fails can change the course of the entire plan, or the abandoning of the ultimate goal itself.

So, the time in which we should assess our position is at the point of a sub-goal, whether we have succeeded or failing in achieving that goal.

As aforementioned, I described a sub-goal as having the appearance of being an end in itself, as opposed to an ultimate goal that actually is an end in itself. In the next post, I’m going to tease apart this difference, and explain how I conceptualize such a distinction and how distinguishing the difference between the two can help the construction of action plans themselves.

Action Planning and Goal Setting: II

II

If a constraint of goal forming is that an aim must be within our power to accomplish, then we should think seriously about what actually is within our power and what is not. Prima facie, the things that constrain what is possible for us to bring about are imagination, luck, and resources.

By imagination, I mean our ability to find action plans that will bring about our goal. Many things have been taken to be out of our grasp. Going to the moon, for example, or the idea of a wireless connection accessible anywhere on the planet might be another. Or a machine that can compute high amounts of data in every home or pocket.

Our imagination limits our ability to see how we can achieve the goal. The inputs of our imagination seem to be knowledge and creativity. Knowledge of how the world is help us figure out how unlikely a goal is to be achieved, while our creativity helps fill in gaps where knowledge ends. For example, while going to the moon might have been thought a pipedream, those with enough knowledge can gauge how difficult achieving a moon landing could be and, given the end of knowledge, creativity picks up to figure out how to bridge the gap.

By luck, I mean those things outside of our constraints. For while creativity can form a plan to chart the unknowable, it is always an uncertain hypothesis until tested. And, that uncertainty is what we intuitively call ‘luck’. Getting a computer into every home was lucky because nothing like it had been done before. We cannot account for certain variables, but only do the best we can and hope our creativity got things right.

By resources, I mean the time, energy, knowledge, creativity, money, and other things required to achieve some goal. Knowledge of our resources allows us to make better, more calculated decisions about how we ought to approach a goal. Suppose you have a goal of producing a piece of software – you have to figure out how to produce it. Do you know how to code? If so, do you have time to do it? And, if ‘no’ to either question, is the goal still achievable given those resource constraints?

I imagine the relationship between imagination, luck and resources is recursive, with the action plan needing to be updated incrementally as the plan itself is implemented. Given a stage of an action plan, new information is added, resources are used, and those uncertainties have played themselves out. But a problem remains as to when we are to update an action plan and reassess our goal. In the next entry I want to consider one model of how action plans are updated and how goal assessment fits into that picture.

Action planning and Goal Setting: I

I

Since ending my thesis, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about the decision-making process. Specifically, the condition/s needed for there to be action, and what the relationship is between those conditions. Thus far, it seems to me a necessary conditions required for action are goals. A goal, it seems to me, is a desire to bring about of some state-of-affairs at a later time (that is, a time after the present).

Goal forming has certain constraints. First, it appears that goals need to be achievable by the agent, or agents, who form them. For example, a desire to travel beyond our solar system would be better described as a hope or a dream, rather than a goal. Second, goals are future orientated projects; goals can’t be aimed at a past time or present moment. If I desired that I had eaten a salad instead of a burger, such a desire could not be described as a goal, but rather a regret. With such constraints in mind, it doesn’t even seem we can rationally conceive of forming such goals (or even maintaining them).

If the above is right, then actions require aims that are (a) future orientated and (b) are within the agents own power to bring about (i.e., a goal). And action planning is just forming a series of actions that bring about the aimed for state-of-affairs (i.e., a goal).

This means, according to my view, that actions aren’t possible unless there is some goal in mind. Goals give our actions meaning – they give us a reason to act and justify our actions not just in our own minds, but others too. Goals help us constrain the possibly infinite set of actions we could take. For example, if I form the goal to eat a salad, then (if I am to act rationally, i.e., actions that will achieve the goal) I make all non-salad eating actions non-possible. Only actions that will result in eating a salad will be open to me. And being a creature of finite resources, I’ll form an action plan that results the shortest number of actions to achieve my goal. Goals are a necessary condition for the occurrence of all actions between the present moment and all times prior to the goal.

One interesting observation in all this is the relationship between goals, action, and time. We could summarize such an observation as: to move forward, we need to plan backward. What does this mean? I have already explained how goals help direct our actions in the future (i.e., moving forward). But to know how to act requires forming a goal and then figuring out how to achieve it. To do so, it seems, requiring working out actions in reverse order; the step leading to the goal, the step before that step, etc. (i.e., plan backward).

The past, then, cannot guide our actions but only constrain possibilities. Just because in the past Jane played football does not mean she must continue to do so. However, what Jane is capable of achieving will be limited due to the large quantity of resources (e.g., time, energy, etc.) she dedicated to football. We are limited by our past but not held hostage by it.

Meat Matters

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 40 odd years, you’ll probably be familiar with Peter Singer and his work on animal equality. Roughly, Singer argues animals are, by and large, treated unfairly simply due to the species they belong to. That is, humans give greater weight to humans – and less to animals – because of an unethical (and therefore morally unjustified) bias towards their own species. He believes (whether rightly or wrongly) that our belief humans are more important than other animals is a predjudice we can call speciesism: “[…] a prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species,” (Singer 2009, p. 6).

And, Singer suggests, speciesism is not different than any kind of prejudice –ism, such as racism (the bias towards a particular race) or sexism (the bias towards a particular gender). Racism and sexism are, obviously, unjustifiable – morally or otherwise – and so too, Singer contends, is speciesism.

The argument he presents is simple and straightforward.We start with the principle of equal considerations of interests; that interests, preferences, etc. count equally, no matter how those interests (preferences, etc.) were generated. My preferences do not count more than yours – and nor do yours count more than mine. But whose preferences? Here, Singer turns to widely cited passage by Jeremy Bentham (1791): “the question is not, Can they reason? Can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

In other words, the only morally relevant input into whose preferences/interests matter, are those beings that can feel pain (or suffer). But why think this? For Singer (at least at the time of writing, I understand he has changed his mind on this in recent years, but I do not have a reference to support this claim) is that “the capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way,” (Singer 2011, p. 50).

His point here is that, the interests which are to be considered at all are those of sentient creatures – those capable of feeling pain and pleasure, as things like inanimate objects do not have preferences (nor do we feel we owe them morally) because they do not feel pain, such as rocks and stones. This is why, according to Singer, we can draw the line at sentience, as it is “the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others,” (Singer 2011, p. 50).

But if we accept this proposal, it is immediately obvious that there are other beings that are sentient, can experience pain and pleasure and, therefore, have interests and preferences. These beings are, obviously, other animals other than our own species.

And, clearly, animals have an interest in staying alive and not being placed into tight confines, force-fed gruel tortured or slaughtered. And when we measure our interests in consuming meat against those interests of being not killed or being kept in conditions tantamount to torture, it seems our interests are not as important than the animals themselves. Indeed, our preference to eat meat at all, when considering what the animal must go through, seems almost trivial.

Whether we are speciesist or not does not, I think, matter so much as whether we are, at least in some sense, permitted to consume animal flesh. And, if so, how much and how often?

The answer to the first question, I think, is yes; we are permitted to eat animals. But – and this cannot be stressed enough – the amount we consume, how often we consume it and, more importantly, how we source this food are definitely less than what the average layperson might think.

Meat is consumed often and usually for the simple fact that it tastes good. Worse, the quantity of meat consumed in one sitting is often greater than is necessary for the person who is eating. Meat does taste good – I can’t deny that. But there are clearly alternatives, that are just as delicious. I don’t think we need to take the taste good argument particularly seriously.

The problem, really, is consumption. And the reason this consumption is beyond what it ought to be, is simply for the fact that we have forgotten what role meat plays in our lives. Meat has played a significant role in the development of tradition, both social and religious, and often given a kind of reverence, or at least brought out only on the proper occasion.

However, due to the easy accessibility we have (at least in the first world) to meats of all varieties has made us forget the importance it had with the family, with the neighbourhood, and with society. But what has accessibility have to do with the importance, or lack thereof, of meat?

Meat, for much of human history, has been resource intensive: financially, time-wise, effort, etc. Meat was (and still is) expensive because it is both rare and requires significant work to rear the animals. There is the land it requires – the space it needs to graze upon – the food it eats itself – and other things that it requires to live. It therefore is a big deal to kill this animal – to take its life – as the loss of life itself is recognized as a serious moral loss, but additionally it is the final ‘cashing-out’ of resource investment.

Meat is the centre piece of any meal, and it is often hard to conceptualize a meal without it. But due to the mass production of it, the competitiveness of its pricing, and its availability, meat has lost its importance – how it brings people together on special occasions. Roger Scruton makes much the same points I have tried to raise here, and he says the following:

“The lifestyle associated with the Sunday roast involves sacrifices that those brought up on fast food are largely incapable of making – meal times, manners, dinner-table conversation, and the art of cookery itself. But all those things form part of a complex human good, and I cannot help thinking that, when added to the ecological benefits of small-scale livestock farming, they secure for us an honourable place in the scheme of things, and neutralize more effectively than the vegetarian alternative, our inherited burden of guilt,” (Scruton 2004, p. 90).

Of course, this has only made meat eating permissible under certain, particularly niche, circumstances, and Singer (and the like) can easily retort that appeals to how things are in a tradition is certainly not a good moral reason for why we ought to keep a behaviour. After all, can we not just replace meat with some sort of meat-tasting/looking alternative perform the exact same function? Surely it can, but it seems the importance of meat is the fact that it was alive and now it is not.

Indeed, if we grew meat in a laboratory instead of rearing an animal for slaughter, this ‘lab-meat’ still does not perform the function of bringing us together as meat from a once-living animal can. We recognize in the meat of a once-living animal the sacrifice that has been made, the loss of life to continue and celebrate life with friends and family, as being why meat matters.

But the way in which meat is produced on the mass-scale ought to revolt us – for it is not just ‘inhumane’, so to speak, but robs us of the kinds of sacrifices made when the animal is killed for food. We deeply care about where our food came from, how it was raised, what it was fed, because we recognise that these things inherently add value to the meat itself. And – importantly – is that we ought to.

The solution, to me at least, seems something like this. We must severely reduce the quantity of meat we consume, both in terms how often we eat it, and portion sizes when we do, as well as how the livestock was raised. Meat ought to be preserved for special occasions, for family and friends, so that we may appreciate what we have and who we have it with.

 

References

 Bentham, J. (1781). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

Scruton, R. (2004). “The Conscientious Carnivore,” in Steve Sapontzis (ed.) Food For Thought, pp. 81-91.

Singer, P. (2009). Animal Liberation.

Singer, P. (2011). Practical Ethics, 3rd edition.