If it bleeds, we can kill it… Ethics of Eating Meat (cc @tammois @msizer)

By and large, the ethics of eating meat doesn’t cross our minds. It usually takes a spectacular screw up – like the live export outcry last year – for the question to bubble up in public debate.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to apportion some of the blame for this apathy on animal rights activists themselves. PeTA did a spectacular job of turning the animal exploitation into a debate about sexual exploitation with their scantily clad models. When discussing animal rights with most vegans and vegetarians, it is almost as if the parties are speaking their own language. In a recent discussion with @MSizer, there was fundamental disagreement about the words in play. What does it mean to make a creature suffer? To Sizer, if you killed an animal painlessly, the animal had suffered because it couldn’t pursue its life goals. To Sizer, a humane death was impossible if not in the interests of the animal itself.

In response to the discussion, left wing pastoralist and primary producer, @tammois shifted the debate on pragmatic terms. Even if Sizer was correct, people eat meat for complex reasons and, as such, Sizer should be more concerned about engaging people in a discussion about how to eat meat ethically rather than disengaging them by asking whether eating meat is ethical at all. You can read her summary here.

@Tammois’ point is correct but it doesn’t engage with Sizer’s point. Sizer denies that any production of meat is ethical (and considers using their products to be exploitative).

I used to be a vegetarian, so I’m not unsympathetic to Sizer’s cause. There is a strong need to rationalise our intuitions about the world. The modern convenience of getting meat from the supermarket means the ordinary person is less and less likely to connect ‘meat’ with ‘animal who frolicked in the fields with enormous Disney eyes’.

But it’s not an intuition we can support consistently. We kill things all the time, directly or indirectly. In order to support the population we’ve got now, we have to farm unfarmable lands and impact ecosystems in ways we can’t possibly imagine. If we are ill, we privilege our well being over the parasites in our stomach. Our immune systems destroy all kinds of life forms. When a woman doesn’t want a pregnancy, she can terminate it even though it interferes in the child’s pursuit of life goals. Killing things is not ipso facto a moral wrong.

If you don’t share Sizer’s dictionary, there is no reasonable argument against eating meat. If an animal is killed humanely, no reasonable person would say that it suffered. We are not inflicting pain on the world. We are not sadistically carving creatures whimsically.

The previous two paragraphs create a spectrum. If killing things is not morally wrong, there appear to be times when killing things is morally wrong. More precisely, it’s the lead up to the death which pricks our moral ears.

Consider killing a person. What is it about taking a human life which makes it troublesome? Historically, we’ve attached an idea of sanctity to it. Human life is special because it is sacred. If we don’t subscribe to the religious idea of the human person, we’re in a bit of trouble with that line of thought. The best we can do is affirm a principle that we don’t interfere with a person without their consent (whatever that means) and killing somebody (ordinarily) is a breach of that principle. Some people might suggest it’s in the interest of survivors to punish murderers, but that’s a difficult line to pursue.

We don’t run into the above problem with animals. Even if we’re not killing them, we interfere with animals without their consent all the time. We move them, shelter them, feed them, sell them, breed them, &c. Sizer’s argument about interfering with liberty (and therefore making them suffer) doesn’t match what we consider to be ordinary engagement with the animal kingdom. That doesn’t necessarily mean our engagement is correct, but it is more difficult to see how we could be incorrect.

Despite that, it doesn’t seem to be open slather season. We can imagine a time when a person consents to death but the person carrying out the wish takes pleasure in making the death as painful as possible. Here, consent isn’t really the issue (though we could ask if the person consenting to death consented to an excruciating death). The issue appears to be the character of the executioner.

Most of us don’t inflict pain on sentient creatures not because we worry about the metaphysics of rights or the philosophy of consciousness, but because we don’t want to be the sort of people who are cruel and sadistic. We worry about our virtue as people, and the behaviour of the sadistic executioner troubles that sense of our collective virtue.

The above results in the position that it’s not death which should worry us, but pain. Given that we can obtain meat without inflicting barbarous torture, eating meat can be ethically fine.

(P.S. The original title of this post was going to be ‘What Would Jesus Eat?’ but I wasn’t sure I could justify kosher meat production due to my hideous and inexcusable ignorance of it)

Your knife will fall out of its sheath… A case against banning live export

Nobody could ever accuse me of writing for the sake of being popular…

I was more shocked by the response to Monday night’s episode of Four Corners than I was to the program itself.  It was revealed that abattoirs in South-east Asia engage in animal cruelty.

How could anybody be even remotely shocked by this?  Where has everybody been for the past forever and a half?  Are we only capable of considering animal rights when television and the internet shock us?  Have we become this shallow?

Further shallowness was demonstrated in its response to the problem.  Both my Facesbook and Twitter feeds were flooded with appeals to ban live exports.  For some reason, people understood the problem as ‘Australia sends live animals overseas’ rather than ‘Australia sends live animals overseas who are subsequently slaughtered inhumanely’.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are problems with our current live export regime.  The answer to these problems is to regulate the conditions of export (we have regimes for the treatment of animals in Australia which seem to end the moment you put them on a boat).

Further, while live exports to Indonesia provided $320m last year [Source], this is a tiny fraction of our export industry.  As such, we are not risking a great deal to regulate the export industry adequately.

Conversely, banning live exports results in our greater dependence on preserving meat for export, particularly through refrigeration.  Not only is it a wasteful way to transport food, it greatly increases the energy output required to transport food.

Regulating live exports means we can improve the quality of life for animals while on boats and concentrate on particular countries which don’t protect animals from inhumane treatment.  Forcing exporters to use refrigeration or other forms of preservation isn’t sustainable.

So why are so many people jumping on the ‘Ban Life Exports’ bandwagon?  Given the complexities of the problem, nuanced answers are required to unravel the tangled web of issues.

Instead, we’re overwhelmed by the slactivism so common to ‘progressives’.  It’s much easier to retweet a hastag and like a GetUp! link than it is to be thoughtful and sensible.

So instead of changing your profile picture to a bovine for six hours in order to raise awareness, why not:

a) Push for states to improve their animal protection legislation?  In rather a classic case of ‘Doctor, cure thyself!’, we’re so uptight about what Indonesia does to our animals that we forget the barbaric treatment of animals in Australia.  Also, there should be a national ban on selling non-cruelty free animal products.

b) Push for better regulation of exported livestock?  Animal rights shouldn’t end the second they’re off Australian soil.  Sure, it will push up prices slightly, but it is not a massive industry.  Given the choice between that and refrigeration, exporters will fall into line.