There is a debate within the National Review regarding the ethical treatment of non-human animals. The first paper written by Scully criticizes the way we treat non-human animals, followed by a rebuttal by Cam Edwards. Take a gander at both of them.
In his essay, Edwards writes:
Scully’s moral argument against meat eating sounds great, as long as you don’t think about the mice, rabbits, squirrels, moles, groundhogs, and other creatures great and small killed by the combines in the cornfields and green spaces where our vegetables are grown. Anybody who lives in the country has seen turkey vultures circling and swooping down on the fields where the cornstalks have been reduced to stubble, or the murders of crows that gather to slowly hop and pick their way across the earth, taking sustenance in the animals killed in the raising of vegetables. There’s a hard truth in life that many of us either don’t think about or choose to ignore: We all eat to survive, and that means that something had to die in order for you to live. Chances are, even if you’re the most committed vegan you know, animals died in the making of your last, and next, meal.
Now, Edwards has a point: animals are killed by combines. And that sucks. And we should try to devise a way to fix that, but Edwards neglects a few obvious points:
- The number of animals killed by those combines are far fewer than the number of animals killed in slaughterhouses. Thus, the effect of society with a vegetarian lifestyle, though not free of unintentional death, involves far fewer deaths than those with a meat-eating lifestyle. Hence, the effect of a vegetarian lifestyle is still better, if we are at least considering the number of animals killed.
- Contrary to what is implied, we don’t use combines to kill non-human animals. These animals don’t die “in order for you to live”. Instead, those animal deaths are unintended effects of the use of combines. Yet, in the meat industry, animals are intentionally killed for the sake of their meat; and so Edwards neglects to consider intention, a significant variable in assessing moral blameworthiness, virtue and vice. Edwards cannot just look at the effect—he needs to consider whether these animals die with the intention of that end.
- We need plants for sustenance and survival, particularly if we are going to live as vegans or vegetarians. Hence, if we are to live, then some animals might be incidentally killed during the process of developing our vegetarian food. Their unintentional deaths, though unfortunate and regrettable, is a lesser evil than allowing for our demise.
For those three reasons, taken together, I think Edwards’ argument fails to problematize vegetarian diets. Of course, that’s no reason to accept vegetarianism, but we do have good reason to think that his rebuttal fails. So what about vegetarianism? Why am I a vegetarian? I’ll explain.
I readily grant that animals do not have a claim to life comparable to our own, though that does not suggest that we can kill animals willy-nilly, nor does it suggest that we can treat them however we wish. Animal lives are not purposed for whichever end we might choose. But why? Well, in virtue of their personal qualities (e.g., conscious, intelligent, intentional, social, and emotional) animals are fundamentally distinguishable from things and automata, taking a place on the hierarchy of being (scala naturae) far greater than minerals and plants, just underneath human beings. That is no small consideration, for the creator of this world, and of all that exists, and the highest good, is Himself personal. The personal is part of His perfection and glory, and He has chosen to bestow that upon animals. In this way, then, animals approximate and reflect some of the goodness and greatness of God–they carry a spark of the divine.
Thus, in having those personal qualities, animals are imparted with some objective value; and so we have an obligation, if not toward animals, then to God Himself, to treat animals with care and respect because of the kinds of things they are created to be. So here I find my duty to care and respect animals. And I presently express my duty by refusing to kill animals for the needless consumption of their flesh. Sounds reasonable, no? Perhaps. But suppose this reasoning is too God-y for your taste. That’s fine. I’ll approach this issue differently.
Ignore the question about the moral status of animals. Instead, ask yourself what sort of person do you want to be. Presumably, you want to be virtuous, and so do I. But what is it to be virtuous? It is virtuous to be compassionate, kind, respectful, thoughtful, and empathetic. But compassionate toward whom or what? Minimally, compassion is directed toward entities capable of pain and suffering, because pain and suffering suck for those who can feel it. We know that because we have also felt pain and suffering. So in being compassionate, kind, respectful and empathetic toward such entities, which surely include animals, we should avoid causing them any unnecessary suffering, harm or pain, and we should also try to save them from unnecessary suffering or duress. Likewise, in being compassionate and kind, we should, within reason and opportunity, promote their well-being, allowing for them to experience the many joys and ends in their life. Sounds fair, moderate and reasonable, right? Sure. In fact, we often behave and think that way (see here and here, for examples)
Apply this pursuit of virtue to our diet. Omnivorous diets require animals to be slaughtered, which can be a painful event often following some degree of psychological suffering such as dread. These diets also involve an animal’s loss of life (quite obviously), which therefore removes the possibility for this animal to experience any further joy or pleasure. That’s pretty crappy scenario for the animal, and we haven’t even considered the conditions upon which animals are raised and housed in farms and factories, but never mind that for now. From this, it is fair to say that, for the slaughtered animal, there was a lot of pain and suffering in its life or death; and moreover, upon its death, any future opportunity for joy and pleasure was extinguished (see here for an idea of what some animals endure for some human diets).
So knowing this, how do virtuous men behave? Do we need to kill these animals for their meat? Maybe. If a person lives deep within Inuksuk, Canada, then he might need to hunt to survive. That’s fine. I have no qualms with that. But what about in developed areas? In developed areas, we depend upon animal meat for the sustenance of some animals within our care (e.g., cats), so some animals are killed for their meat on that basis. That’s fine, too, I suppose. But what about killing animals for our sustenance or consumption? Many of us in the developed world don’t need to kill animals for our dietary needs, because some vegetarian diets are accessible and sufficient for our well-being. Yet, vegetarian diets involve far less pain and suffering of animals than omnivorous diets, and only vegetarian diets do not remove the possibility for future pleasure and joy of those animals. Hence, for many of us, a vegetarian diet is the virtuous option, because these diets are far more compassionate and kind while still meeting our needs. In contrast, keeping an omnivorous diet, when we do not need to do that, appears callous and indifferent to animal pain and suffering, a vice. Thus, for us, in the developed areas, it is good to be vegetarians. Virtue demands it.
It will do someone no good to rebut that he doesn’t directly slaughter the animals in his meat consumption, if he shops at Wal-Mart, say, for if he is purchasing animal meat, then he is directly perpetuating and cooperating with animal slaughter. It’ll also do him no good to justify any decision to keep an omnivorous lifestyle with the claim that meat is tasty and enjoyable to eat, because giving up some of what we like to eat, but do not need to eat, is a small but totally acceptable sacrifice for the virtuous life. But we often don’t want to make that sacrifice (sometimes we even lie to ourselves about the warrant for our concern. See here). And why don’t we want to make that sacrifice? Because, well, sacrifice is hard: The consumption of meat is tasty, habitual and culturally prominent. But guess what? No one said virtuous living is easy. Indeed, being good is often experienced as taxing and burdensome, right? Of course. But these experiences stem from our flaws, those characteristics that confine us to be lesser men than we can be. The task in being good men is to break free from these vices, even if it sucks, so that we have the freedom for excellence. That takes discipline. That takes sacrifice.
So in seeking to become a more virtuous person, that is, a good man, I keep a vegetarian diet. Thus, my answer is this: I now choose a vegetarian diet because I choose to live virtuously. Persons who choose otherwise, despite being in life-conditions similar to my own, choose badly. That is, they are not acquiring, developing or exercising the virtues they should; thus, they herein act as lesser men.
Readers should notice that, in this approach, I didn’t remark upon the moral status of animals or their rights, nor did I rely on any idea that presumes some positive moral status or utilitarian calculus (See here and here and here). I don’t need to do that. I’m only interested in how virtuous men (compassionate, kind, sensitive, thoughtful, etc.) behave upon unnecessary pain and suffering; and it seems proper to say that, in the pursuit of virtue, we should strive not to participate in unnecessary pain suffering and suffering, and that we should allow for animals to experience the joy and ends in their lives inasmuch as we can. In my own case, and in the cases of many other westerners, virtuous living requires vegetarianism.
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