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Sunday, May 06, 2012

Ethics of eating meat–defended

A few weeks ago, “The Ethicist” at the New York Times invited readers to make an argument for the ethics of eating meat. The winner is here, and it’s a fine essay.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/06/magazine/the-ethicist-contest-winner-give-thanks-for-meat.html?ref=magazine

It makes many points I agree with, although it doesn’t fully reflect my own views. I don’t fully buy the argument that we have an obligation to sentient beings other than our own species.

A short exposition of my own opinion, at least today.

In part, the division into sentient an non-sentient is more of a continuum than we ever thought. (see, for example, evidence that peas communicate about environmental stresses).  http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/28/if-peas-can-talk-should-we-eat-them/   So as we understand more about this, the ethical issues might mount. We have to draw the line somewhere, since we don’t photosynthesize.

A second issue is why we should care?  Sure, we should not cause unnecessary suffering for other creatures, and we should treat them with respect.  But there’s certainly nothing I know about biology that suggests species are programmed to respect other species’ right to life, right to a habitat, or any rights at all. That’s just not the natural order of things.  It may be how Disney movies are structured, with all those cute little animals getting along, but it doesn’t reflect the highly competitive species-eat-species world we actually inhabit.

I’m selfish. We should protect the habitats of scarce animals and plants because it’s in OUR best interest long-term to do so. We should restrict factory farms (such as their use of antibiotics) because it is in OUR best interest long-term to do so.  I was excited to find mussels next to the Chicago River because their return indicates we have learned to poison our environment less, which is good for OUR sake.

I’m drawing this a bit harsher than I might actually act in practice to make a point: it is easier to figure out these issues once we focus on our dignity as humans, without overcomplicating this. 

Certainly the 20th century provides abundant instances which indicate we have a horrible time even granting dignity to our fellow human beings. I suggest we draw a culinary bright line at humans.