In our society today the raising, and killing, of animals, to fill our appetite, is not as clean and simple as we would like to think or believe - Keith Hunt
ETHICS OF EATING ANIMALS
by Michael Pollan - from his book "Omnivore's Dilemma"
Eating meat has become morally problematic, at least for people who take the trouble to think about it. Vegetarianism is more popular than it has ever been, and animal rights, the fringiest of fringe movements until just a few years ago, is rapidly finding its way into the cultural mainstream. I'm not completely sure why this should be happening now, given that humans have been eating animals for tens of thousands of years without too much ethical heartburn. Certainly there have been dissenters over the years—Ovid, St. Francis, Tolstoy, and Gandhi come to mind. But the general consensus has always been that humans were indeed omnivores and, whatever spiritual or moral dilemmas the killing and eating of animals posed, our various cultural traditions (everything from the rituals governing slaughter to saying grace before the meal) resolved them for us well enough. For the most part our culture has been telling us for millennia that animals were both good to eat and good to think.
In recent years medical researchers have raised questions about the good to eat part, while philosophers like Singer and organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have given us new reasons to doubt meat is good to think—that is, good for our souls or our moral self-regard. Hunting is in particularly bad odor these days, even among people who still eat meat; apparently it's the fact of killing that these people most object to (as if a steak could be gotten any other way), or perhaps it's the taking pleasure in killing an animal that is the trouble. It may be that as a civilization we're groping toward a higher plane of consciousness. It may be that our moral enlightenment has advanced to the point where the practice of eating animals—like our former practices of keeping slaves or treating women as inferior beings—can now be seen for the barbarity it is, a relic of an ignorant past that very soon will fill us with shame......
Whatever the cause, the effect is an unusual amount of cultural confusion on the subject of animals. For at the same time many of us seem eager to extend the circle of our moral consideration to other species, in our factory farms we're inflicting more suffering on more animals than at any time in history. One by one science is dismantling our claims to uniqueness as a species, discovering that such things as culture, tool making, language, and even possibly self-consciousness are not, as we used to think, the exclusive properties of Homo sapiens. And yet most of the animals we eat lead lives organized very much in the spirit of Descartes, who famously claimed that animals were mere machines, incapable of thought or feeling. .....A few years ago the English writer John Berger wrote an essay called "Why Look at Animals?" in which he suggested that the loss of everyday contact between ourselves and animals—and specifically the loss of eye contact—has left us deeply confused about the terms of our relationship to other species. That eye contact, always slighdy uncanny, had brought the vivid daily reminder that animals were both crucially like and unlike us; in their eyes we glimpsed something unmistakably familiar (pain, fear, courage) but also something irretrievably other (?!). Upon this paradox people built a relationship in which they felt they could both honor and eat animals without looking away. But that accommodation has pretty much broken down; nowadays it seems we either look away or become vegetarians. For my own part, neither option seemed especially appetizing; certainly looking away was now com pletely off the table. Which might explain how it was I found myself attempting to read Peter Singer in a steakhouse.
This is not something I'd recommend if you're determined to continue eating meat. Animal Liberation, comprised of equal parts philosophical argument and journalistic description, is one of those rare books that demands you either defend the way you live or change it. Because Singer is so skilled in argument, for many readers it is easier to change. .Animal Liberation has converted coundess thousands to vegetarianism, and it didn't take me long to see why: within a few pages he had succeeded in throwing me and my meat eating, not to mention my hunting plans, on the defensive.
Singer's argument is disarmingly simple and, provided you accept its premises, difficult to refute. Take the premise of equality among people, which most of us readily accept. Yet what do we really mean by it? After all, people are not, as a matter of fact, equal at all—some are smarter than others, handsomer, more gifted, whatever. "Equality is a moral idea," Singer points out, "not an assertion of fact." The moral idea is that everyone's interests ought to receive equal consideration, regardless of "what they are like or what abilities they have." Fair enough; many philosophers have gone this far. But few have then taken the next logical step. "If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entide one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?"
This is the nub of Singer's argument, and right away, here on page six, I began scribbling objections in the margin. But humans differ from animals in morally significant ways. Yes they do, Singer readily acknowledges, which is why we shouldn't treat pigs and children alike. Equal consideration of interests is not the same as equal treatment, he points out; children have an interest in being educated, pigs in rooting around in the dirt. But where their interests are the same, the principle of equality demands they receive the same consideration. And the one all-important interest humans share with pigs, as with all sentient creatures, is an interest in avoiding pain.
Here Singer quotes a famous passage from Jeremy Bentham, the: eighteenth-century utilitarian philosopher. Bentham is writing in 1789, after the French had freed their black slaves and granted them fundamental rights, but before the British or Americans had acted. "The day may come," Bentham wrote, "when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights." Bentham then asks what characteristics entide any being to moral consideration. "Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse?" Bentham asks. "But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversational animal, than an infant."
"The question is not Can they reason? Or Can they talk? But Can they suffer?"
Bentham here is playing a powerful card philosophers call the "argument from marginal cases," or AMC for short. It goes like this: There are humans—infants, the severely retarded, the demented—whose mental function does not rise to the level of a chimpanzee. Even though these people cannot reciprocate our moral attentions (obey the golden rule, etc.) we nevertheless include them in the circle of our moral consideration. So on what basis do we exclude the chimpanzee?
Because he's a chimp, I furiously scribble in the margin, and they're human beings! For Singer that's not good enough. To exclude the chimp from moral consideration simply because he's not human is no different than excluding the slave simply because he's not white. In the same way we'd call that exclusion "racist" the animal rightist contends it is "speciesist" to discriminate against the chimpanzee solely because he's not human. But the differences between blacks and whites are trivial compared to the differences between my son and the chimp. Singer asks us to imagine a hypothetical society that discriminates on the basis of something nontrivial— intelligence, say. If that scheme offends our sense of equality, as it surely does, then why is the fact that animals lack this or that human characteristic any more just as a basis for discrimination? Either we do not owe any justice to the severely retarded, he concludes, or we do owe it to animals with higher capabilities.
This is where I put down my fork. If I believe in equality, and equality is based on interests rather than characteristics, then either I have to take the steer's interest into account or accept that I'm a speciesist.
For the time being, I decided, I'll plead guilty as charged. I finished my steak.
But Singer had planted a troubling notion, and in the days afterward it grew and grew, watered by the other animal rights thinkers I began reading: the philosophers Tom Regan and James Rachels, the legal theorist Steven M. Wise, writers like Joy Williams and Matthew Scully. I didn't think I minded being called a speciesist, but could it be, as these writers suggest, we will someday come to regard speciesism as an evil comparable to that of racism? Is it possible that history will someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans who went about their lives in the shadow of Treblinka? The South African novelist J. M. Coetzee posed precisely that question in a lecture at Princeton not long ago; he answered it in the affirmative. If the animal rightists are right, then "a crime of stupendous proportions" (in Coetzee's words) is going on all around us every day, just beneath our notice.
TO BE CONTINUED