The ethics of food-2: Religious implications

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The role of religious beliefs on the question of meat eating can take people in different directions. As far as I know, Hinduism is the only major religion that unequivocally advocates vegetarianism. Surely it is no coincidence that the tastiest vegetarian meals can be obtained in the homes or restaurants of Hindus. Hindus really know vegetables.

Buddhism seems a little more equivocal because there are many variations of that religion. While it says that individuals should not kill anything, even insects and pests, some Buddhist philosophers assert that it is acceptable to eat meat from animals that were not specifically killed for you for that purpose (Writings on an Ethical Life, Peter Singer (2000), p. 68). In other words, buying and eating a hamburger from a store is acceptable because that animal was not killed specifically to meet your needs, is now dead anyway, and your not eating the hamburger is not going to bring it back to life.

One sees how such an argument might have had some force a long time long ago when people lived close to the land and one ate the animals that lived around you. Then choosing to eat meat for a meal meant that a chicken in your vicinity received a death sentence while choosing to forego meat probably meant a direct reprieve. But we now live in an era when most of us are far removed from the animals that provide us with meat, so this type of highly nuanced prohibition does not provide any benefit for animals.

Judaism and Islam have only minor restrictions on eating meat and Christianity has none at all. The Bible says that humans are special, that god has given them dominion over all the Earth and its beings, and they thus have the right to kill and eat them. After all, god does tell Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28) And in the New Testament, the Bible says that Jesus’s disciple Peter was shown a vision of all kinds of animals and told “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” (Acts 10:13).

As a result, there is no religious prohibition in Christianity against eating meat. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan describes farmer Joel Salatin, an evangelical Christian who practices a very humane form of agriculture in which the animals are treated decently while they are alive, unlike most of what goes on in the food production process in the US. (More on Pollan’s book and Salatin later in this series.) Salatin takes great care to treat all his animals well and seems quite fond of them. And yet, when the time comes, he has no hesitation in personally killing and eating them or selling the meat. When Pollan questions him about how he can bring himself to do this, he responds: “That’s an easy one. People have a soul, animals don’t. It’s a bedrock belief of mine. Animals are not created in God’s image, so when they die, they just die.” (Pollan, p. 331)

This view that animals are inferior because they do not have a soul is just a specific form of the more general philosophical view that animals are merely machines. This may seem bizarre to us now but it was based on the highly successful mechanical view of the universe that arose in the sixteenth century and reached its zenith with Newtonian mechanics in the seventeenth century. It seemed natural to the people of that time to think of everything in mechanical terms and the more that was learned about the workings of organisms, the more that mechanical metaphors were used to describe them – “the stomach as retort, veins and arteries as hydraulic tubes, the heart as pump, the viscera and sieves, lungs as bellows, muscles and bones as a system of cords, struts and pulleys.” (God, the Devil, and Darwin, Niall Shanks (2004), p. 32). The idea of the watch (then seen as the apex of precise mechanical engineering design) as a metaphor for nature, and of god as the ultimate watchmaker/designer flowed naturally out of this way of thinking.

The philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was interested in the relationship of the mind/soul to the body and he felt that it was because humans had a soul that they were elevated from being mere machines. Because animals lack such a mind/soul they remain machines, although exceedingly complex ones that might superficially give the impression that they possess minds. But since they are nothing but sophisticated automatons, they cannot feel pain and we should have no more ethical qualms about killing them that we would have about taking apart a computer.

Nowadays the argument that nonhuman animals are merely unfeeling machines can be dismissed out of hand. Modern science has shown that their neural systems are wired similarly to ours, and that it is very likely that they experience very similar sensations to what we do. It is clear that animals can feel pain and can suffer.

But the underlying idea that humans possess some unique quality, the soul or some other thing, that obliges them to privilege their own kind but allows them to exploit other animals is still popularly held and is used to justify meat eating.

Next: What does the theory of evolution imply for meat eating?

POST SCRIPT: New South Wales?

Ever wondered how some parts of the world got their strange names? Mitchell and Webb have an idea.

The ethics of food-1: Confessions of a meat eater

I am an omnivore. I eat everything. Of course, ‘everything’ is not quite as inclusive as it sounds. Like all people, there are some foods that I dislike for their taste and there are others I avoid simply because I have not grown up with them and so they do not form a part of my usual diet. Since I am also not adventurous in terms of food, preferring to eat familiar foods over the unfamiliar, the range of things I eat is rather small. But there is nothing in the normal diet of people around the world that I could not and would not eat in principle.

In particular, I eat all kinds of meat. At the very outset, I might as well admit that I feel guilty about this aspect of my diet. The moral and ethical case for vegetarianism has for a long time seemed to me to be unassailable, and the fact that I have not adopted this diet can be put down, at least partly, to addiction to the taste of meat. Human beings have been carnivores for a long time in our evolutionary history, and our bodies seem to have evolved to both like the taste of meat and be able to absorb animal protein and make it a part of our diet.

Meat eaters who worry about this try to find ways to justify the practice. One argument for justifying meat eating is that we are who we are because we ate meat for so long in our history. Thus eating meat is an important part of our heritage as it were, and is thus ‘natural’. To abstain from eating meat is to deny our essential nature as carnivorous animals. After all, other species of animals also kill and eat other animals, so that way of life is part of nature. If eating meat is an important part of how we came to be, why should we deny that heritage?

But that evolutionary history does not justify the practice. There are many things in human evolutionary history that we share with other animals and though many animals do kill other animals and eat them, that in itself is no justification for us doing so since there is no imperative that we must take our moral cues from other species.

This is especially true now, since we know so much more about food and have available so many nonmeat alternatives to our diet that can provide us with the same nutrients that meat does. Not eating meat does not pose an insurmountable hardship for people in the developed world where a variety of food is available in abundance.

Another reason that I eat meat is sheer laziness. Being a vegetarian takes more effort than being a carnivore. The buying, preparing, and storing of vegetables, fruits, and cereals for a balanced diet that gives the same range and amount of protein as a meat-based diet takes more thought and effort. But laziness is hardly a noble reason for continuing this practice.

So vegetarians win the moral case over meat eating quite easily. The argument for veganism (avoiding even dairy products like milk and eggs and other foods that can be coaxed from animals without killing them, and avoiding the use of animal hides such as leather) seems to be more debatable. If you are not harming the animal, is there anything morally wrong with eating what it produces?

The argument can be made that even with milk and eggs we are still exploiting animals, using them for our own ends irrespective of their own needs. That is true, but one wonders how far one can take that exploitation argument. Is the use of animals for labor also a form of exploitation to be condemned? Is the keeping of animals for pets for the pleasure that gives us also exploitation?

It is sometimes argued that to be a true advocate of animal rights and avoid any form of exploitation, then one should also avoid the use of all animal products, such as wool amd leather, not use any pesticides, and not use animals and animal products even for research.

This argument is sometimes used against vegetarians and vegans, to suggest that to be fully consistent as demanded by them is to be unrealistic, that in the normal course of our lives that we cannot avoid killing animals. It is pointed out that all agriculture, especially modern large scale agriculture, cannot take place without the killing of animals, either directly because they are considered pests that destroy crops or accidentally by ploughs and combines running over small animals that happen to get in the way, or indirectly by commandeering the habitats used by them causing them to eventually die from lack of food. And what about killing vermin that cause disease?

But this is a weak argument, pitting the perfect against the good. To accuse vegetarians and vegans of hypocrisy because even they cannot completely avoid some complicity in the killing of animals is an ad hominem argument that merely seeks to avoid conceding to them the moral high ground, and serves as a device to assuage the meat-eater’s guilt and to avoid feeling morally inferior. The fact that vegetarians and vegans may not be able to live up to the extremely high standards that they themselves set does not lessen the force of their argument that eating meat seems like an avoidable wrong. It cannot be used to justify the deliberate killing of animals to satisfy our needs. Even if we cannot eliminate animal killing, at least reducing the scale of it is a good thing.

But while the case for veganism is debatable, there was no question in my mind we can all live without killing animals for meat and would probably be much healthier to boot. But while that conclusion still holds true in almost all cases, I have come across other arguments (to be discussed later in this series) that suggest that under certain very limited conditions eating meat might be morally justifiable.

POST SCRIPT: Health care in Europe

Last week, NPR ran a good series of stories comparing the health care systems in individual countries in Europe with what is offered here. It is incredible to me that Americans put up with such an awful system whose main beneficiaries are the health insurance and drug companies and select physicians.