Sunday, August 8, 2010

Moral Vegetarianism

Vegetarians buttress their view with many kinds of argument. Some claim health benefits. These I reject out of hand.

Others claim that only a vegetarian diet is consistent with a proper regard for the sustainability of our methods of food production. Meat, vegetarians say, is simply to costly to produce. I do have some respect for this argument. I don't buy it, but it's worthy of our consideration. I hope to research the issue more fully and return to it in a later post. (Here's a statement of the principle of my counter-argument: the fact that there's some good thing that only a few can enjoy does not imply that those few should give it up.)

The last sort of argument - the one that I will consider here - is purely moral. It claims that, apart from issues of health and sustainability, one ought not eat meat because it is wrong to kill an animal so that its flesh might be consumed. This argument seems ubiquitous. I can't recall the number of times I've been exhorted not to eat the flesh of a dead animal. Such language - "flesh of a dead animal" - has two points, I take it. First it's meant to disgust a reader and thus make her give up meat. Second it's meant to persuade the reader that consumption of meat is morally wrong.

The trouble with this argument is that it pits human beings against nature; if cogent, it lifts us outside the natural order and renders us profoundly unnatural. It makes us judges of nature and requires that we judge it evil. Let me explain.

(I apologize. I'll sound like an academic philosopher for a moment here. But that was how was trained. Academic philosophy does have its uses.)

If we shouldn't do something - like murder, say - that's because the thing we'll bring about if we do it is in itself bad. If I murder someone, for example, the thing I bring about - a person's unjust death - is very bad; and thus it's wrong to murder. The principle at work here is No Harm, No Foul. If the thing I do has no bad consequence, it can't be wrong. Or to turn it around, if I do something wrong, it's wrong because of the bad consequences it has.

Now consider moral vegetarianism in the light of this principle. It tells us that meat consumption is in itself wrong. But how could this be? How can we explain why it's intrinsically wrong? It could be wrong only if it brings about something bad. But would that bad thing be? Here I can think of only one answer: it's wrong to eat meat because by so doing we bring about the death of an animal, and that's a bad thing.

This last claim - the claim that an animal's death is a bad thing - has one little problem. It's obviously, blatantly false. For if it's true, nature is shot through with a great number of bad things. A troupe of lions go on a hunt. They bring down a wildebeest. Was this bad in any way? Would the world have been better had it not happened? I say no, and I'll bet my eye teeth that you will too. (Be careful here. I don't mean to say that the moral vegetarian will, or should, blame the tiger. Tigers can't choose not to kill, of course, and so can't be blamed when they do so. Indeed the concept of blame seems entirely out of place here. But I do mean to say that the moral vegetarian should say that something bad has happened here, though the tiger bears no blame for it.)

Is it really a bad thing when one animal becomes a meal for another? Is it really bad when one animal kills another so that it might "consume its dead flesh". Of course not. This is just how nature works, and unless you wish to say that nature is a bad thing, you simply cannot say that killing and eating are bad.

One last note. I don't mean to endorse the modern system of industrial agriculture. The fact that I think that there's nothing in the least intrinsically wrong about eating meat doesn't imply that I have to condone just any method of raising and killing. These are distinct issues. Don't confuse them.

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