Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Ethics of Meat

Hi guys, welcome to Orygyn!

A few years ago, there was some YouTube drama involving Onision. Onision is a very high profile YouTuber who has a reputation for being childish, egotistical, and exploiting serious illnesses for attention. He's also a very passionate vegetarian and, in the video that kicked off the drama, he looks down on meat eaters telling them that he is literally repulsed by them. This sparked a wave of fury, most notably with TJ (TheAmazingAtheist) asking his audience to buy and eat some meat product every time Onision made a video. 3 years later, this has come up again.

Personally I'm a meat eater. Even now I tend to find the majority of fruit and vegetables disgusting. It is possible that I could live off of a vegetarian or vegan diet, but I have no current burning desire to try it. Enough about me, let's look at the actual issue.

As the real emphasis is on the morality of the issue, I will only address this aspect of it here. The issue is killing an animal for food. There are many different moral aspects to such an action. You are taking an animal's life. The process of killing the animal could cause it suffering. The conditions under which some animals are bred are appalling.

Let's start with life. Personally, I don't view the "life" component of the issue to be very relevant. Life could be anything from a bacterium to a multicellular human being. We don't lament the death of viruses or of the individual cells which make up our body. A lot of us put no thought into killing insects that become enough of an immediate nuisance to us. Taking life is not something I perceive to be a problem here. What matters is the individual characteristics of the life you take.

Why do we value human life above all others? My answer would be that we are the most cognitively complex species. Note that I'm not referring to intelligence here, I'm pointing to our capacity to desire, to have ambitions, to feel emotions, and to share the complex interplay of these cognitive processes with other members of the species in a way that has no rival: language. How we treat other animals does, and should, take into account the animal's ability to feel emotion and to suffer. Dogs may not be able to say "I need this", but they can whimper, and we universally recognise this as expressing a pressing need. The lack of having this need, the suffering, is emotionally evident in the whimpering.

It has been pointed out that if the value of life is to be judged by this criteria, there are some humans which don't even measure up to the level of some animals. This, I think, is simply false. I should point out we're not talking about the unborn or terminally ill comatose for whom the issues of abortion and euthanasia make use of the exact same reasoning to justify it, we are talking simply about the severely mentally disabled. First of all, I have never heard of a disability so severe that the victim is incapable of desire, emotion and self-awareness, short of an end-of-life scenario for which many of us have already taken the view that unplugging the life support is acceptable. I'm not saying there isn't such a disease, and if presented with specific examples, I will address them, but if we don't know much about the disease, putting them in the "edible meat" category when they are physiologically human is premature and irresponsible.

TheAmazingAtheist, during the original drama 3 years ago, expressed the view that "nothing is off the menu", although cannibalism would only be acceptable on human bodies that are dead anyway, and that it is not OK to kill them for this specific purpose. I have read before that there are health risks associated with eating certain parts of the body, but I agree with TJ, and in fact held this view myself independently of him before he expressed it in his video.

My views are that if an animal lacks the cognitive capacity to desire or have ambitions, this is the essential difference. Without these, an animal is essentially a biological computer program, seeking out sustenance and responding to threats by fleeing. You are not cutting short an animal's potential to achieve something, because it has none. If it has the capacity to feel emotion, the slaughter should be as painless and humane for the animal as possible, and it should be kept in good living conditions. If it can't feel such emotion, this is less important to consider. Science is the key to unlocking the answers to all the questions we have about what animal is capable of which mental functions.

As additional justification, I look to the thoughts expressed by Mitchell & Webb in this video. As it's from British TV, it's possible that some viewers won't be able to watch it, so I'll sum it up in 1 line:

"There might be more polar bears left if more people wanted one for breakfast."

When we breed a species for meat, we keep the species alive. We ensure it doesn't become extinct. If our treatment of such species falls in line with their mental abilities, there isn't much to worry about.

Finally, vegetarians and vegans are likely to have responses to my arguments. Assuming I am unable to maintain my position after the debate is over, there is still one scenario in which there is no problem with eating meat: in the future when it is grown on a cellular level in the lab. No-one and nothing is harmed in such a scenario. At worst, some DNA will be taken from animals for the procedure. This is akin to a vaccine. The moral problems with eating meat persist only as long as we breed animals for it instead of growing the meat in the lab.


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