Being an unashamed Progressive Socialist Liberal type, I have a great many like-minded friends in my social circles. Among them are a fair quantity of vegans/vegetarians who have made their dietary choice on the grounds that, as they put it, “Meat is murder.” I understand their reasoning. I simply don’t agree with it.
It would be nice if that were the end of it, and we could agree to disagree without rancor. Unfortunately, as with many choices made on moral grounds, the folks making the choice feel that they are duty-bound to evangelize. Like religious folks convinced they have a moral obligation to impose their beliefs on the rest of the world, this creates a good deal of social dissonance.
I suppose I am guilty of the same thing. I believe in social equality for assorted “minorities”, such as gays, non-whites, and atheists. (actually, non-whites are rapidly out-growing their minority status, although they still lack a proportional share of power and opportunity). I approve of imposing on others my view that, for example, a dark-skinned person should not be denied a job because the employer does not like dark-skinned people. I believe I am working for the cause of justice by insisting that all citizens conform to my sense of what justice is in this case.
No doubt the proponents of anti-abortion laws, and even anti-gay laws, feel the same way. Similarly, animal rights advocates are driven by conscience to decry the horror of killing animals for meat. There is not much difference between an anti-abortionist waving photos of dead fetuses around in an attempt to ram home their point, and animal rights advocates waving around photos of animal suffering.
For the record, I am of the opinion that if you don’t approve of abortion, don’t have one, if you don’t approve of gay marriage don’t get gay married, and if you don’t approve of eating meat, by all means go cruise the produce aisle. But in a very real way, that is just slippery slope thinking sliding down to If you don’t approve of slavery, don’t own one.
So, what is a conscientious Progressive Socialist Liberal type to do? Throw up their hands and say, “Oh, it’s all relative, and defining moral laws is futile.”? I don’t think so. I think a very sound argument can be made for the very real and substantive difference between If you don’t approve of gay marriage don’t get gay married, and if you don’t approve of slavery, don’t own one.
It has to do with suffering. At rock bottom (and with only a few aberrant exceptions) all living things share in common that they wish to avoid suffering. If there is a universally acknowledgeable evil, it is misery. The reason those photos being waved around by the antis and the advocates are effective is because they depict suffering, and we all react to that (again, with only a few aberrant exceptions). This gives us a foundation off of which to work.
There is very little evidence that gay marriage causes any suffering (putting aside the anguish of those who disapprove of it), and substantial evidence that it does a great deal of good. Slavery, on the other hand, causes an immense amount of unambiguous suffering, and very limited good. So there.
Now, to return to the issue of vegetarianism. The eating of meat, something which our species evolved to do, has undeniable benefits in terms of nutrition. The moderate consumption of cooked meat is healthy and can be quite pleasurable. However, our means of supplying meat for human (and pet) consumption is appalling. Animal rights advocates do not exaggerate the amount of suffering that goes into factory farming. A direct deduction is then made: Because animals suffer, we should not eat meat. That, I contend, is not a valid conclusion.
What we should change is the way in which we raise and harvest meat animals. Suffering should be eliminated as much as possible. An animal should be allowed to grow, flourish, experience joy, and if possible, pass on its genes before it dies. That seems fundamental. In the natural world, that is about the best a creature can expect. There is no expectation of living to a ripe old age, and most creatures can expect to be killed by another creature for food at some point. This is the bargain Nature has struck with Life, and it has worked quite well for as long as Life has been around.
If the taking of life is an issue, then harvesting carrots is as much murder as butchering chickens. What makes the life of an animal more important that the life of a plant? Perhaps because it is conscious; an animal can feel pain and a carrot does not (as far as we know). Then that is the issue, not its life. We are back to suffering. If its death is quick and painless, then killing an animal is no more immoral than picking lettuce.
It could be argued that depriving a creature of life is depriving it of experiencing happiness. But how many cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens would be born if we did not ultimately expect to eat them? Granted, we could harvest their wool, eggs, milk, and so forth without killing them. Some would still be raised and given the opportunity to experience life. But their numbers would be much fewer. Is it better never to be born at all, than to experience a short but pleasant life? Is it more moral to allow pigs to go extinct, or to revert to a feral state where wild predators will do the killing instead?
Yes, we need to change our eating habits and expectations. Meat should not be cheap and plentiful. Its price should reflect the true cost of raising it humanely. Our farming methods should be sustainable and compassionate. Refusing to buy meat and produce derived from factory farming and destructive practices can help bring about change. I support that heartily.
But I am still going to eat meat. When we hatch a brood of chickens, we are going to collect and kill the roosters and they are going into the stew pot. Prior to this, they will have grown up pecking and scratching around the yard, being chickens, enjoying a life they would not have otherwise had if we did not raise chickens. If a farmer raises up pigs or cattle, lets them muck about in the sun until they come of age, breathing and playing and eating and otherwise enjoying life, then quickly and painlessly ends their lives, I will buy the meat he offers for sale.
There. Having logically gone over my reasons, I would hope that idealistic vegetarians no longer suffer under the misapprehension that my disagreement with them is simply a matter of willful ignorance or indifference to the plight of animals. My awareness is quite adequately raised, thank you. You may fancy yourself righteously superior to me if it pleases you. In that, you have much company among the religious zealots who smugly consider themselves saved while I will burn in Hell.
As for the rest of you, who grant the same respect to me that I grant to you even though we might disagree, let’s see if we can unite our efforts in other ways to reduce the suffering of all creatures. Goodness knows there’s plenty of it out there.