I’ve recently started listening to the Citizen Radio podcast, because it offers a perspective on American politics and general social justice issues that is both insightful and hilarious, and because my grocery store is often full of drunk undergraduates from whom I desperately need a distraction. This has lead to an interesting situation in which Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny, both vegans, aggressively criticize the practice of eating meat, eggs, and cheese through my ear-buds while I pick exactly those things off the racks of the supermarket. Needless to say, it’s got me thinking about the ethics of my dietary choices.
Currently, I’m a not-particularly-conscientious carnivore, but I try to reduce my meat intake as much as possible for environmental reasons. Believing that the environmental impact of meat is an argument for moderation of meat intake rather than total abstinence, I have tried to do this by avoiding meat on week-days, thereby treating meat more as a luxury than a staple. I regularly use dairy products in my cooking, and eat (and occasionally cook) baked goods containing eggs. I have never really thought the idea of animal rights had much merit, but that has been due more to a failure to fully consider the issue than a coherent conclusion I have reached. Citizen Radio is challenging that, so I thought I’d take some time to elaborate my thoughts on the ethics of eating meat, and announce a little experiment I plan on conducting.
Firstly, I have to concede a few points. Firstly, there seems to be no reason to suggest that complex mammals such as pigs and cattle don’t have thoughts and feelings like we do. If it is immoral to abuse a dog or a cat, then it must also be immoral to abuse a pig, since there is no good evidence that pigs experience suffering any differently than dogs, or even humans. The questioning of suffering in chickens and fish is a bit more uncertain due to the lack of a neocortex in each case, but it’s probably safe to assume that birds, at the very least, feel pain. This leads to the conclusion that factory farming as currently practised is a pretty significant moral wrong. It’s fairly common knowledge that the mass-production of meat involves the routinization of mutilation, unreasonable confinement, and inhumane slaughter of animals, and it seems clear to me that the victims of this treatment have the capacity to feel pain and suffering. If these practices are the only way for us to have cheap meat, eggs and dairy, then the inescapable ethical conclusion seems to me to be that these products should be more expensive.
Given that factory farming is wrong, then, we are left to consider alternatives, namely free range or organic meat, dairy, and eggs. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s consider a hypothetical case where farm animals are raised in humane conditions with ample space, food, and shelter, where milk and eggs are collected in a manner that allows the animal to remain as comfortable as possible, and where the animals are eventually slaughtered humanely, in a manner which kills them before they can feel any pain. I believe that in this case, it would be ethical not only to eat the eggs and milk of the animals, but also to kill them for meat.
My reasoning for this has a lot to do with how I have personally come to terms with the idea of death. I believe that the time after I have died will be no more problematic for me than the time before I was born. This implies that if my brain were to suddenly and instantly shut down, I would not actually be harmed. In such a case, I would have no knowledge of my impending demise until it had already happened, by which time there would be no more ‘me’ to lament it. Of course, friends and family would presumably mourn my passing, and this complication implies that it is virtually impossible for any human to die in a way that does not cause some kind of harm.
This may not be the case with animals, however. Animals, with the possible exception of some advanced primates that we do not generally eat, share neither our complex social bonds nor our abstract concept of death. Given that, it seems that it should be possible to kill an animal in a way that causes no real harm in a utilitarian sense. I propose three conditions under which this would be the case: The animal should not feel any pain, the animal should not be aware it is about to be killed, and the animal should not be aware of other animals around it being killed.
Given this, it is important to consider something important about the meat industry: it does not only kill animals, it also breeds them. With the negligible exception of wild game, every single land animal that is killed to satiate our demand for meat is also born as a result of that same demand. The difference between veganism and nonveganism from an animal’s perspective, then, is not one of life versus death but of a short life versus no life at all. If I were faced with this choice, and the life offered to me was one in which I would be guaranteed adequate food, space and shelter, as well as protection from predators and medical care, I think this would be a pretty easy decision: I would accept the shortened life quite happily. By extrapolation, I think I can argue that raising animals for food is ethically justified so long as the animals are treated according to a minimum standard of welfare.
I realize, however, that this could simply be an ad-hoc justification produced by a guilty carnivore. As an experiment, therefore, I’ve decided that I’m going to change my perspective by going nearly vegan for about a month. I say ‘nearly’ because I will still be eating honey (It would have to be a pretty innovative argument that makes me sympathize with an invertebrate that willingly disembowels itself), and I say ‘about’ a month, because I will have to return to meat-eating for my graduation celebrations at the end of November. In addition to helping me remove myself from my ethical prejudices, my plan to go vegan and then back again should also shed some light on the health claims of veganism, most of which I remain highly sceptical about. At the end of the month, I’ll blog about this again, and see if I still think my reasoning holds up. This will likely lead to some kind of permanent change in my diet-likely a shift to much less frequent consumption of much more ethical meat, but possibly a conversion to full-blown veganism. We’ll see how it goes.