Ralph has a peculiar hobby. He enjoys the sounds puppies make when they are in pain. It calms him, enables him to devote himself more fully to his work, and makes him a more patient husband, father, and citizen. To this end, he hires people to go out and find stray dogs to torture and then record their sounds. He would never do so himself; he does not have the stomach for it. He is genuinely sorry the puppies have to suffer; but his happiness upon hearing these recordings is increased immeasurably; he simply can’t imagine living without them.
When challenged by a friend who argues Ralph is engaged in morally outrageous behavior, Ralph responds by saying it is really no different than what his friend — a meat-eater — does. True, Ralph does not have to have the sounds to live; he could listen to music like everyone else does. But then, his friend does not have to eat meat to survive. Ample studies suggest the claim that meat is necessary is simply untrue. We would not choose a diet that inflicts enormous pain on humans if we could avoid it; so why choose a diet that inflicts enormous pain on animals if we can avoid that as well? And there is no denying that the present system of factory farming — from which the vast majority of our meat comes — inflicts huge suffering on cattle and fowl. Understand, Ralph does not enjoy the fact that animals suffer to give him pleasure, it is the consequence of their unfortunate suffering he seeks — just as we do not enjoy the fact that animals suffer when eating meat, but we do enjoy the consequence of their suffering: namely, the delicious taste of meat. Ralph’s hobby is unnecessary, just as eating meat is unnecessary. But both are done, Ralph insists, for one central reason: they give their participants enormous pleasure.
Is Ralph right here? Or is there a substantive moral difference between what he does, and what we do when we eat meat? If so, what is this difference?