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)