Monday, 8 June 2009

The Ethics Of Meat-Eating

Creating a bit of an open thread (if that is possible) about whether eating meat is right or wrong. To lay out my position: I eat meat. I don't have much discrimination when it comes to meat, I will try new meats when possible. Death is a natural part of the life cycle, any animal that is born will die. Life is a struggle, one that involves mass suffering - all for the slim chance of passing on genetic material to the next generation. Livestock are fed and protected by us. Their existence is relatively suffering-free compared to if they were in the wild looking for food. They even get to pass on their genetic code, and the cost? Dinner on my table.

To me, it's important to remember that these species are protected and are in a symbiotic relationship with us. We need our livestock and produce in order to survive, and they benefit from our protection. Yes, they suffer in death - just as all life does. But in its death, it helps sustain life. Do away with this bond and there is no more protection for the sheep or pig.

But to bring this to the issue of suffering. Can we needlessly cause suffering in order to sustain ourselves? I believe that we have to, in order for us to survive there is going to be suffering on account of other life. All the forests we have to devastate in order to plant our crops, we destroy the homes and food sources of other life in order to feed ourselves. Other life will die in order for us to survive.

But does that mean we have to treat animals cruelly? I would argue not. We can treat animals humanely and still put them on a dinner plate. Giving them an open environment in which to live, ensuring they have plentiful food sources and protection from predators - and at the final stages ensuring a) a quick death and b) use of as much of the animal as possible, these are ways in order to recognise the existence of their other animals and their role in the cycle of life. It would be naive to think that we can eliminate the suffering from any process of sustaining ourselves, but to minimise the suffering is what seems the goal.

Yes we can recognise that animals suffer in the process. It comes down to this for me: if an animal walked up to your house and there it died through a pure accident, would it be ethical to eat it? If that is so, then it means that the killing component of meat-eating is the concern as opposed to the meat-eating itself. If that is the case, if we killed in a manner that is much more instant and minimised suffering, then would there be an objection from vegetarians on the notion of suffering? It's fine to point at factory farming as a great injustice, but does that decry the whole endeavour of meat eating? Should we be looking towards giving animals a more hospitable environment and a more painless death, or should the whole endeavour be discarded?

Anyway, anyone who wants to tear down the world of meat-eating, go ahead. Free for all, I'm putting my beliefs on the line.


Taylor Glen Muse said...

I agree with you. We have a responsibility to be as kind and humane as possible and to respect the circle of life and whatnot. That being said, its no more wrong for us to eat meat than it is for the lion to hunt the antelope. We are just meat eating animals.

rainbowsanddaydreams said...

This is a subject I've been thinking about a lot. In my own personal life I'd like to continue eating meat, I've tried the alternative and it did no good to my body. But at the same time I can't help but question some of the farming techniques and attitudes that seem somewhat barbaric (factory farming in particular).

If I am going to eat meat I want to acknowledge the life and death of the animal I'm eating. That's a step that's been removed now we don't prepare our own food. I've considered going back to herding and killing my own animals just so I can ensure that their lives are comfortable and I can look them in the eye at that moment of death. It's almost like I feel that if the animal is going to sacrifice it's life for my sustenance that I should be there in that moment, as traumatic as it may be.

The fact we don't do this any more is part of why there's such an abusive system in place. Like everyone realised that it was terrible, that they didn't want to see it but it was OK if someone else did the 'bad stuff' Of course, leaving that up to someone else behind closed doors just enabled them to make the system even more gruesome.

Hmmm. I doubt I made as much sense as I would have liked, but I can make the suggestion to you to check out the work of Michael Pollan (The omnivore's dilemma) and a book by Barbara Kingsolver called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that look at issues surrounding farming practice and the ethics of eating. A,V,M also looks at vegetable farming as well, and it was a pretty quick yet informative read.

(Also hai, it's Amy from BDO/SNI :D )

Marc Abian said...

It's not just suffering that's bad. It's killing. The animal wants to keep living so we interfere with that desire too.

My main reason for vegetarianism is to do with environmental impact. It's a fact that meat production requires more energy impact than crop production. The environmental impact also includes carbon emissions.

I will say that I approve some meat eating when the livestock are feed from land that cannot produce crops.
Unfortunately meat demand exceeds that which can be supplied by that livestock, so even eating that meat is currently unethical in my view.

To address one of your points

"If that is the case, if we killed in a manner that is much more instant and minimised suffering, then would there be an objection from vegetarians on the notion of suffering?"

Not from me at least. My objection to meat eating extends beyond animal suffering though.

I think this bares repeating, an am glad you wrote it...

"It would be naive to think that we can eliminate the suffering from any process of sustaining ourselves, but to minimise the suffering is what seems the goal."

Marc Abian said...

That should be, and I am glad you wrote it

Kel said...

I was watching a Dan Dennett lecture where he recommended The Omnivore's Dilemma, so I have been meaning to check it out.

I like your idea about raising your own food, we tried doing that once with rabbits. Unfortunately the first pair we had got myxomatosis and the second pair was killed by a neighbour's dog so that experiment failed.

Completely agree that consumerism removes us from the process, and combine that with the goal of maximising costs / minimising loses in a competitive environment will mean that abuses are inevitable - yet at the same time we remain largely ignorant of what goes on. I'd personally like to see a shift towards more ethical farming practices, whereby the meat is advertised in the same way that eggs are. It seems now it is a choice between meat of unspecified origins and organic products.

Kel said...

Sorry about taking so long to get back to you Marc, been taking a break from this recently and I had to go and think about things. I kind of tested a few arguments I had against a vegetarian friend as well as got into some Peter Singer, and all that did was cloud the issue.

A few things:
I actually don't see a problem in killing to eat on a few conditions. I wouldn't eat any form of simian or cetacean on the principle that they have a sufficient level of sentience. I also wouldn't eat things like dog or cat because of cultural conditioning, those aren't foods. But I wouldn't begrudge a culture that ate either.

I am aware that in our culture things aren't done as ethically as they should be, but I look on it as the same principle as why I wear shoes that are probably made in a sweatshop somewhere in Asia. I'm not afforded choice in the matter, it's either take a product of ethically-dubious origin or don't take the product at all.

I've found in myself I'm more willing to buy products like free range eggs when I have the financial means to support it. Through university when I was living off government support, I bought cheap eggs because that's all I could really afford. These days I buy free range even though it's ~2.5 times the cost for essentially the same product.

And I think that's where I currently lie, ethically. The less I need to worry about my own survival, the more I am concerned for the rights of others. If I can do more, I'm willing to be more supportive.

But I think the major question is whether one can support the system when the system promotes such abhorred behaviour? And on this note, I think grand gestures like going vegetarian are as untenable as going naked because of sweatshop labour making the clothes we wear. For people like me, I'd take the choice if it were there but I don't have the choice. Me taking a stand wouldn't do much, but me funding organisations that will take the stand I would wish to take would be a far better way to go about things.

Maybe giving money and support to organisations like the RSPCA or Humane Society is like buying carbon offsets, an alleviation of guilt that by and large doesn't do anything useful. Like voting for the Greens when an election comes around.

But I don't know. This exercise has taught me that I'm in an ethical grey area where I simply don't know enough to hold a strong position one way or the other. I'm not opposed to the principle of killing to eat, my gripe is the way it is practised. But I'm so far removed from that process that it doesn't affect my decision making.