A discussion on vegetarianism and ethics in the Epicurean Philosophy facebook group was initially incited by a provocative video on why we love dogs and eat pigs, which evaluates the controversy, double standards and hypocrisy of the matter. I’ve read more than once that one of the founders of the Epicurean school, the second Scholarch and Epicurus’ successor, Hermarchus of Mytilene, was vegetarian. But it has always been difficult to verify the source. Recently, we came across one indirect source in Porphyry’s On Abstinence. It cites Hermarchus’ polemical treatise Letters About Empedocles.
It turns out that the answer to our inquiry, according to Epicurean doctrine, is that the moral reasons for vegetarianism are relative to the circumstances and that they depend on advantage. If animals of a certain species are likely to become too numerous, eating them may be encouraged.
For instance, Puerto Rico in recent years has seen a proliferation of iguanas that are not native to the island but have taken over, as they have no natural predator in the island–except, perhaps, the powerful Caribbean hawk. As a result of this, one of the ways in which the locals have begun controlling the population is by doing the (previously) unthinkable: they are now adding iguana to the menu, and many people have found that they love the meat. It tastes like (as you may have guessed) chicken–that quintessentially “common” and “normal” meat. They now call it gallina de palo (“the chicken of the trees”).
The Arguments of the Epicureans, from Hermachus
Porphyry’s portion on Hermarchus begins in his paragraph 7. It begins by considering how ancient legislators declared manslaughter as unholy and punished it, and later argues that some people (only those who are unwise) need punishment in order to stop them from killing others, whereas the wise do not need to be reminded of such punishment. Later in paragraph 9, we see religion tied to this:
… The vulgar everywhere require something which may impede them from promptly performing what is not advantageous [to the community] …. For that part of the soul which is void of intellect, being variously disciplined, acquired a becoming mildness, certain taming arts having been from the first invented for the purpose of subduing the irrational impulses of desire, by those who governed the people.
By “taming arts” we may understand not only religious techniques for making individuals docile, but also a certain education, which instills presumably fear of the gods, of public shame, of being banished from the community, and of punishment.
As a continuation of a discussion against manslaughter, the morality of killing some animals is defended here for the sake of security. For instance, a community may need to slay a lion or wolves who are endangering its members.
Those who first defined what we ought to do, and what we ought not, very properly did not forbid us to kill other animals. For the advantage arising from these is effected … since it is not possible that men could be preserved, unless they endeavoured to defend those who are nurtured with themselves from the attacks of other animals.
This is consistent with the sixth Principal Doctrine, which says that anything done for the sake of security is a natural good. It is also extended to the realm of non-violence among humans. For mutual advantage and in order to secure ataraxia (a fear-less life) and to secure all the things that are necessary (access to food, trade), neighbors and strangers entered into covenants of non-harm.
Some of those, of the most elegant manners, recollecting that they abstained from slaughter because it was useful to the public safety …. for the purpose of repelling the attacks of animals of another species; but also for defence against men whose design was to act nefariously … they abstained from the slaughter of men …. in order that there might be a communion among them in things that are necessary, and that a certain utility might be afforded in each of the above-mentioned incommodities.
For the destruction of every thing noxious, and the preservation of that which is subservient to its extermination, similarly contribute to a fearless life.
Here, Hermarchus introduces his non-violent views towards members of other species. He argues that if an animal is not causing us harm or injury, it should not be killed.
Nor must it be said, that the law allows us to destroy some animals which are not corruptive of human nature, and which are not in any other way injurious to our life. For as I may say, no animal among those which the law permits us to kill is of this kind.
Of course, and consistent with Principal Doctrine 38, justice must always be relative to circumstances and these laws and categories of animals may change according to (dis)advantage, as we saw in the case of animals that overbreed and become too numerous, becoming a pest.
Since, if we suffered them to increase excessively, they would become injurious to us. But through the number of them which is now preserved, certain advantages are imparted to human life. For sheep and oxen, and every such like animal, when the number of them is moderate, are beneficial to our necessary wants; but if they become redundant in the extreme, and far exceed the number which is sufficient, they then become detrimental to our life; the latter by employing their strength, in consequence of participating of this through an innate power of nature, and the former, by consuming the nutriment which springs up from the earth for our benefit alone. Hence, through this cause, the slaughter of animals of this kind is not prohibited, in order that as many of them as are sufficient for our use, and which we may be able easily to subdue, may be left.
Three categories of animals are distinguished: the tame ones that are sometimes useful to us (therefore 1. useful tame animals and 2. useless tame animals), and 3. the savage ones that are not useful to us. Some may argue that some wild animals provide some utility, but here Hermarchus does not seem to acknowledge that anything natural and necessary can be attained from them. I can think of whale blubber, for instance, but the industry that this product spawned–and which nearly brought some species of whale to extinction–is widely considered immoral and evil today, and the products that this species offers humans can only be said to be “necessary” for certain populations of Inuits who survive through the winter thanks to it.
For it is not with horses, oxen, and sheep, and with all tame animals, as it is with lions and wolves and, in short, with all such as are called savage animals that, whether the number of them is small or great, no multitude of them can be assumed which, if left, would alleviate the necessity of our life. And on this account, indeed, we utterly destroy some of them; but of others, we take away as many as are found to be more than commensurate to our use.
The Scholarch was arguing that we are likely to want to keep some of these tame animals around (for food, clothing, transportation, etc.) but not so many that we can’t subdue them. But today, we may question whether it is fair to derive certain items of clothing and fashion from animals which can alternately be produced without causing suffering to any creature. The question of using horses rather than bikes or cars is, likewise, ridiculous. I would argue that the rise of the machines was meant to diminish the unnecessary suffering and labor of sentient beings, both human and non-human. Paragraph 12 concludes by reminding us that justice is based on advantage.
On this account, from the above-mentioned causes, it is similarly requisite to think, that what pertains to the eating of animals, was ordained by those who from the first established the laws; and that the advantageous and the disadvantageous were the causes why some animals were permitted to be eaten and others not.
So that, if Hermarchus was indeed vegetarian, or mostly vegetarian–which we do not know with certainty–he seems to have been arguing that because he did not live during a time when sheep, oxen, or other creatures were so numerous that they required laws to diminish their population in order to avoid their detriment to human populations, ergo he reasoned that this justified vegetarianism for the generation in which he lived.
Finally, the issue of animal intelligence may change this paradigm. For the time being, many countries already consider great apes as “non-human persons”, and a recent gathering of scientists in Vancouver also concluded that dolphins are “non-human persons”, mainly because it has been discovered that they have language (and social life) as complex as ours and that each dolphin answers to their own name. Several research stations are working on attempts to decipher dolphin speech, and some fishermen communities in Brasil have developed human-dolphin fishing techniques that produce mutual advantage by securing large amounts of smaller fish for the two higher species.
It’s possible that elephants, whose brains are bigger than ours, may soon join this new category of “non-human persons”, which constitutes a major paradigm shift in inter-species relations on Earth. If we are one day able to communicate with dolphins or to raise communities of great apes that use (as some individuals have) sign language to interact with us, we may reach a time in history when it is possible to have inter-species agreements and binding legal contracts. Hermarchus, in his day, considered this unthinkable but said that, if one day such a thing were possible, these contracts must be honored.
If, therefore, it was possible to make a certain compact with other animals in the same manner as with men, that we should not kill them, nor they us, and that they should not be indiscriminately destroyed by us, it would be well to extend justice as far as to this; for this extent of it would be attended with security. But since it is … impossible, that animals which are not recipients of reason should participate with us of law, on this account, utility cannot be in a greater degree procured by security from other animals, than from inanimate natures. But we can alone obtain security from the liberty which we now possess of putting them to death. And such are the arguments of the Epicureans.
But it is not only advantage, as Epicurus would have it, that explains the origins of justice when it comes to creatures that we can’t have agreements and contracts with, and in this Hermarchus departed slightly from the first Scholarch and we see the evolution of Epicurean doctrine as a result of exchanges with other schools.
The complicated discussion of animals and whatever courtesies and compassion we owe to dogs, cats, cows, and others, falls within a broader discussion of morality and where we get our morals from. It is here that the ancient Epicureans exhibited an accentuated interest in anthropology and elaborated theories of how moral instincts evolved naturally.
The Doctrine of Kinship
The Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis–which may translate as affinity, familiarity, affiliation, or endearment with those that are like us–establishes that there is a natural kinship among members of the same species, and was adapted by Hermarchus to help explain the origin of justice and homicide laws. He argues that we do not feel this kinship for animals, only for each other. Modern theories on how household pets, like dogs and cats, have evolved to trigger our evolutionary instincts to protect babies, may constitute an update to Hermarchus’ views.
In arguing that no animal which lacks logos (reason) has any share in justice, Hermarchus seeks to refute Empedocles’ view that a fellowship exists between men and irrational animals which makes it unjust to slay or sacrifice them.
As a side note, we may add context to these arguments by considering that Hermarchus was, in part, also defending the practice of animal sacrifice in order to feed his community on special occasions, as this was part of the 20th feasts and other pious and religious celebrations of the Epicureans.
Paul Waerdt, in his essay Epicurean Genealogy of Morals, argued that this kinship as a cause is subordinated to the calculation of advantage. That is: in Hermarchus, kinship does not replace advantage, but simply complements it as a source of morality and justice. His acceptance of it as a secondary cause keeps the utilitarian principle as higher priority, and is in line with the Epicurean way of reasoning, where multiple causes are acceptable as long as they do not contradict empirical evidence or each other.
In the acceptance of oikeiosis, Hermarchus introduces an innovation (see our two guidelines on innovation), even if he concedes that this oikeiosis is sometimes only experienced by those of a “finer nature”.
Theophrastus had argued that it was only just to kill naturally hostile animals because we are naturally akin to all other animals. Hermarchus, on the other hand, restricts kinship to only members of a community who contribute to its survival. This theory is very strongly vindicated, time and again, by the numerous historical and research examples mentioned in the awfully-named yet brilliant anthropology book The Lucifer Principle.
Hermarchus introduced the concept of individuals who exhibit “finer natures”, pointing the finger at the good influence on our character that we get from association with other people of good character.
Perhaps we may consider, instead, the possibility that various degrees of kinship can be recognized, and that there are many gray areas here? This may explain how some cultures–Vaishnava Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Vegans, and Jews who keep eco-kashrut–are more likely to exhibit a “finer nature” and to exhibit greater degrees of compassion for lesser sentient beings.
Hermarchus and the Epicurean Genealogy of Morals
The Scholarch discusses themes that are widely debated with great interest in the atheist community on the origins of morality as a natural phenomenon.
In Epicurean anthropology (as we see in Lucretius), the early stages of evolution of human traits is natural, and these only later give way to rationally-directed stages of development. We see this in Lucretius’ accounts of the evolution of language and friendship, for instance. Nature gave the initial incentive for morality, and later reason made nature’s insights more precise.
For instance, Hermarchus argued that ancient lawgivers conceived that homicide was not useful, had no utility or advantage. Concerning anti-homocide laws, he said they originate in the remembrance of a naturally advantageous practice of non violence, and later the taboo crystallized in the culture and mores of human groups.
The Kosher Example
The kashrut rules established in the Bible provide an insight into how, with time, rules that may have generated as a result of the study of nature, become crystallized into societal taboos that people consciously fashioned. It’s not difficult to imagine how the consumption of blood may have generated public health problems in some ancient societies. As for how ancient people decided what animals are fit to eat, this Neo-Hassidic page states:
… any animal that chews its cud can eat grasses and plants that are inedible to human beings, and any animal that has split hooves can walk (and graze) on land that is too rocky to farm with a plow. These characteristics together mean one very clear thing: the only land animals that we can eat according to the laws of kashrut are animals that do not compete with human beings for food.
Which means that the initial reasoning behind kashrut involved considerations of advantage in terms of, if we are going to consume the flesh of other animals, which are the ones that are the least likely to compete with us for food in our environment? This questions acquires greater urgency in a desert setting, where food scarcity is a frequent problem. Of course, the re-negotiation of passed-down tradition versus renewed considerations is constant, and many modern Jews are evaluating the merits of a contemporary discourse around eco-kashrut, or how the rules related to consumption can be expanded or changed to reflect ecological and labor concerns of our day.
All of the above considerations are part of our discourse on vegetarianism and treatment of animals.
The above discussion was informed, in part, by the essay “Epicurean Genealogy of Morals” by Paul A Vander Waerdt, from Duke University.