I offer sincere thanks to Andreas Matthias for his careful reading of my work, and for sharing his comments. I always welcome criticism, and I thank Matthias for inviting me to share a few thoughts in response to his comments.
First, on naturalness. Central to Matthias’s criticism is that I don’t hold ‘naturalness’ in high regard. I’m not particularly interested, for example, in what animal diets are ‘natural’, and I champion certain ‘unnatural’ food sources, such as cultivated meat. I accept that someone championing naturalness may well find lots to disagree with in Just Fodder. But the proponent of naturalness, I suggest, has their work cut out for them, ethically speaking.
Let’s say someone wants to reject plant-based diets for cats because they’re ‘unnatural’. (There might be other reasons to be worried about plant-based diets for cats – I’m only talking about their putative unnaturalness presently.) The person making this claim must explain several things. 1) What’s so natural about meat-based diets? (Would cats naturally be eating from a can? Naturally eating tuna? Indeed, would they naturally exist?) 2) What’s so unnatural about plant-based diets for cats? 3) What’s so good about ‘natural’ things anyway? (Lots of terrible things seem perfectly natural. Lots of wonderful things seem unnatural.) Crucially, they must explain 1-3 without equivocating – that is, the sense of ‘naturalness’ appealed to in each of these explanations must be the same.
Second, on the exclusion of farmed animals from the scope of the book. In the passage that Matthias quotes – in which I claim that ‘I am going to offer no space to how we should conduct relationships that should not exist at all’ – I am explaining my choice not to have a chapter on the ethics of feeding farmed animals. In short, such a chapter would not really fit into the overall structure of the book. I think Matthias is wrong to say that I ‘refus[e] to even discuss why [human meat-eating] should not exist’, but my discussion of this issue is brief. I’m aiming to explore a new set of problems (or perhaps some old problems from a new perspective). And that’s why I give little space to (for instance) the ethics of human diet.
Matthias writes that my language ‘is reminiscent of the vocabulary of activist deplatforming’. That certainly was not my intention, and I do engage, at length, with arguments in favour of animal agriculture in other work. For instance, I have just finished writing a double review of Dan Shahar’s Why It’s OK to Eat Meat and Per Bauhn’s Animal Suffering, Human Rights, and the Virtue of Justice, which will appear in the open access journal Between the Species. Meanwhile, in Food, Justice, and Animals: Feeding the World Respectfully (my 2023 book published by Oxford University Press) I defend some forms of animal agriculture myself – though not forms that this phrase typically evokes.
Third, Matthias observes that I am an activist. I don’t reject the label ‘activist’. But I consider myself an academic first, and activist second. Indeed, I believe I am an activist because I am an academic. I moved away from meat and began engaging in ‘activist’ activities because I encountered philosophical arguments that convinced me that the way we interact with animals is wrong.
And though I don’t mind Matthias calling me ‘passionate’, my interest in the ethics of feeding animals was, initially, academic (in every sense of the word). So, for example, Matthias notes that I live with dogs; but I adopted my first dog (Hollie) at the end of 2019. I published my first work on the ethics of feeding companion animals in 2015, and completed my postdoctoral project at Queen’s University (when much of Just Fodder was written) from 2016-17.
Relatedly, Matthias worries Just Fodder is ‘a pamphlet in disguise: a book that assumes a particular stance and then attempts to justify it’. I do reject this characterisation. The book assumes a particular stance insofar as it starts with certain assumptions. But then so does just about every book. If I am question-begging – i.e., assuming a conclusion to argue for it – that is indeed a problem. But I’m not clear what question I’m supposed to be begging. In writing Just Fodder, I tried hard to follow arguments where they took me, even if they took me to strange places. This, I think, is the opposite of assuming a stance and then trying to justify it. Indeed, that leads me to another of Matthias’s worries.
Fourth, on common sense. Matthias observes that some of my conclusions run contrary to common sense. This is correct. I don’t think that this is a good reason to reject them, though I accept that this is a good reason to perhaps revisit the premises and arguments that led to the conclusion. But I worry that sometimes an appeal to common sense can be an attempt to sidestep engaging with premises and arguments. Here’s what Matthias says about my argument concerning protecting garden birds from companion cats:
“Second, on a more critical note, it shows, I think, some lack of common sense. Cats must be regulated because they don’t respect the basic liberties of birds? I understand how this argument comes about, and Milburn has put a lot of effort into building it up and justifying it. Still, the conclusion seems almost comical. Birds have basic liberties that cats must be forced to respect? It is hard to take this seriously.”
But let’s imagine we were talking about something slightly different here. What if we were talking about human babies who I could protect from my (hypothetical!) aggressive dogs. I don’t think it would be hard to take seriously the claim that I should protect human babies from my aggressive dogs. If garden birds have rights just like babies – and I hold that they do – then perhaps it’s not so silly to say we should protect them from aggressive cats. Maybe I’m wrong to think that garden birds have rights – but I’m certainly not alone in thinking this, and I would suggest that it’s a reasonable premise to work from in a piece of academic philosophy.
No doubt the conversation between Matthias and I could continue, and I’d be very happy for Matthias (or others!) to respond if he (they) thought it worthwhile. I do think that Matthias and I differ quite fundamentally on our visions for the future, insofar he is (in his words) an ‘advocate for a more natural lifestyle and social organisation’, while I’m an advocate for a lifestyle and social organisation that respects animal rights. I suspect that the directions in which we respectively point are quite different. But I am glad that he and I are taking the time to explore our differences in this context. The last thing I want to do is write books that for people who already agree with everything I say. What would be the point of that?
◊ ◊ ◊
is a moral and political philosopher interested in questions about human/animal relationships, food, liberal/libertarian political theory, and applied ethics. He is a Lecturer in Political Philosophy based in the division of International Relations, Politics and History in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University, where he leads the politics, philosophy, and economics degree.
Josh Milburn on Daily Philosophy: