Saturday, December 09, 2006

Oh, take me to the slaughterhouse; I will wait there with the lambs

Long and boring warning: this one I have been wrestling with for some time, so I thought I would have it out with myself here and see if it helps to write it down (it sometimes does, I fine).

Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos' turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas,
Don't eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate, an not on your plate
Say, Yo! Turkey I'm on your side.

- Benjamin Zephaniah, first verse of Talking Turkeys!

I should start by pointing out that I honestly don’t make any judgements about the choices other people make about eating meat or not. I never have, perhaps because I am myself so ambivalent about it. However, for my own threadbare conscience, this has long been an area of conflict.

For many years I ate no mammals or birds, consumed no food or drink that contained animal derivatives and refrained from wearing or using leather, suede or sheepskin. I did eat fish though and was quite happy to drink all the alcoholic substances denied to true vegetarians on account of the isinglass. Then I changed my mind.

I felt my abstinence from meat was decadent. It made me a greater inconvenience than I already tended to be. It caused a fuss and used extra resources when someone was cooking for me as part of a group. Then there were all the little ethical objections to what food I might be offered. I knew, for example, that it is far better for the planet to eat beef bought from my local butcher than to eat tofu which has had to be flown half way round the world, having had great swathes of rainforest cleared to produce the soybean. I have a habit of picking up that sort of information and worrying about it.

Added to this was my being pale and sickly. This was a time when I was getting progressively paler and more sickly and I was forever being told that I needed to eat meat, had a responsibility to eat meat if I wanted to get better. Then I was asked to take medication where there was no alternative to gelatine capsules – I had to break the rules or suffer the physical consequences for a tiny amount of gelatine.

But a philosophy module about humans and other animals was the real killer. I realised that even people who had thought very hard about this didn’t have any better or clearer arguments than I did. Suitably flummuxed, I resumed the default position.

Naturally, having felt guilty about my not eating meat, I have felt guilty about eating meat ever since.

Of course, we are part of an ecosystem whereby our interests as individuals and as a species are necessarily in some conflict with some of the interests of other organisms. We are forced to consume other organisms, whatever happens – organic matter is all we can eat – and we are also forced to compete with other organisms for our food and our own flesh.

In some cases, it would be in our best interests to annihilate other organisms altogether: it might have been a cave-man’s dream that he should stick a spear in the last sabre-tooth tiger, although these days we’re only intent on killing off our tiniest enemies like viruses and bacteria.

Is there a difference between a sabre tooth tiger and a virus? Well, yes; the sabre-tooth tiger was capable of experiencing fear and pain, a virus is not. A fundamental of most moral codes is that fear and pain are bad things which we ought to avoid causing and prevent wherever possible.

Its death, or at least its subsequent absence also has moral consequences although being the very last one, no offspring would suffer and the effects on the ecosystem would already be inevitable.

I don't see that there is any difference in principle whether fear and pain is experienced by a human being or another animal. But... Peter Singer and others argue that the reason that human interests are generally more important than those of non-human animals rests entirely on our increased capacity to suffer. It is assumed that our capacity for fear and distress is far greater because of our imagination and reason, our capacity to anticipate pain, the strength of our relationships with one another and so on. Singer also famously argues that by this score, the other great apes have just as much or more moral claim than some humans, such as those with severe intellectual impairments.

However, this assessement depends on some sort of measure of fear and pain which could be applied to all organisms. To even imagine that such a thing is possible is simply anthropomorphism (Ping! You were waiting for that word to feature, weren't you?). We can observe behaviour and physiological phenomena which suggest there is fear and there is pain in other organisms, but we don’t have the faintest idea of what that is like.

Many plants have physical or chemical reflexes to injury or even touch. They do not have brains, so we do not entertain the idea that they feel a thing. The humble goldfish exhibits physical and chemical reflexes to injury or any startling event. The goldfish has a brain about one fourteen-thousandth of the size of the human brain and no neocortex. As a result, the scientific community cannot agree whether or not its reaction to stimuli involves can possibly be described as pain. The only reference we have to the experience of fear and pain is our own experience, our uniquely human experience and there is no way that a brain weighing less than a tenth of a gram is going to have an experience comparable to that of a massively larger brain with a completely different architecture.

Which is not to say that a tiny wee brain cannot have a negative experience. Only, any organism, from amoeba up, can have a negative experience. Oh yes, Goldfish, but this is a red herring; you ate fish, you were presumably never unhappy about gobbling a goldfish – or indeed, a red herring? What about fluffy things with big eyes?

All non-human animals have dramatically different brain architecture from our own and from one another’s. Primate and human brains, impaired or not, are quite different, let alone the brains of the sort of animals we might eat. To compare the experience of animals from two different species is a bit like comparing a digital alarm clock and a satellite navigation system – both have certain, very basic components and mechanisms in common, but they are functionally very different.

Hmm no, I don’t like this argument either. We can’t help making comparisons; we know what distress looks like and we have all seen it in non-human animals, particularly other mammals. We just have no means of establishing degrees. And indeed, the selectivity with which we can transfer our experiences onto non-human animals indicates what appalling judges of these things we must be.

This is why our species bond, our need to put people first, is a rational evaluation as well as a defining instinct. Humans are the only animals whose experiences we even begin to understand. Humans are the only ones playing by these rules; the rules of reason and arguments and concern for the welfare of others. We are a squillion times more capable of helping one another, of minimising suffering and maximising happiness within our own species. This very post would be far more usefully and effectively used to talk about human affairs, and any energy I spend worrying about animals would be better spent on concern for my fellow man.

However, fear and pain are bad things which we ought to avoid causing and prevent wherever possible. I am fairly convinced that it is possible to decapitate a chicken without the animal having much idea of what is happening and without there being significant negative consequences to its death; unless it is caring for eggs or chicks at the time.

Yet we know that chickens are not individually taken in the farmer's arms and quickly decapitated after a pleasant life pecking in the dust. Some of the chickens we eat (and whose eggs we eat) have lived and died in conditions which even the most unsympathetic assessment would consider a deeply negative experience.

Hmm, I have run out of steam on this one and I notice that you have lost consciousness. I'm still wrestling.

My vegetarian icon was George Bernard Shaw, who is hero of mine for many different reasons. But he was a veggie ("Animals are my friends ...and I don't eat my friends.") and all along doctors advised him that he was putting his health and indeed his very life in danger. Shaw lived to 94 and finally died... falling off a ladder.

The best philosopher on the subject is Mary Midgely, who at 87 is still rolling up her sleeves to take on Richard Dawkins, another philosophical hero of mine. How I would love to invite those two round for dinner (or possibly, a food fight). Shame I don't agree with either of them.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

cui bono, Goldfish, cui bono.

Who insists that foxes enjoy being hunted? Who insists that fish cannot feel pain and therefore don't mind being line-caught? That battery hens ares too stupid to understand theur own misery and therefore aren't miserable? Who argued that black people were inherently inferior to whites? Who insists that women are inherently inferior to men?

Answers: fox hunters, fishermen, battery farmers,slave traders and owners, men who have advantages they don't wish to compete for.

Whenever I hear arguments about Man being uniquely more sensitive to pain and fear than other species, and anyway being inherently superior to other species just because he is human, I look at the arguer.

It's always a human being, isn't it? We've got language, so we can argue the case against no opposition.

Two things: much of Western thought on this derives from Judaeo-Christian theology. However that theology insists in plain language that the price of being the superior species is a duty of care towards the rest of creation, and that somehow, some time, we will be answerable for our behaviour. Nowadays the first part "we are the champions!" has been preserved without any idea as to its origins, while the second part has been conveniently forgotten, lest it put some break on our relentless exploitation of the only planet we've got.

second thing: next time you hear anyone say "fish feel this" or "cats don't like that" or "cows prefer so-and-so" ask yourself whether such a statement would make sense if you replaced the other animal with the word "people". In other words, all creatures are unique beings and the only reason we assume they are clones to be evaluated and treated as mass-productions, is that we have never bothered to study them closely enough or for long enough.

The great zoologist Jane Goodall remarks that the conclusions she came to after the first ten years; intensive study, about her chimps' psychology, behaviour and social structure, all had to be revised after further study. The situation was simply far more complex and subtle than even she had realised.

The Goldfish said...

What you say is perfectly true, Charles and this is my trouble. We don't know what other animals feel, so we're in a very weak position to say whether or not and to what degree they experience fear, pain or misery. We can't very well deny it, but we can't very well assert it either.

And given that we have to eat organisms, what are the criteria for treating an organism differently from other organisms? Having a brain? Just because humans have a brain and we imagine a brain is the all-defining organ of significant experience?

Unless we assume that the lives and wellfare of all organisms are important, and that we should exercise as much respect as possible for "nature" (however we might, after examination, understand that to be) without compromising our own survival. But that position does not necessary equate with vegetarianism.

Mary said...

I always liked the "if nobody ate meat or used animal-derived products, then farmers wouldn't bother breeding and feeding and raising animals, and there wouldn't be any cows or chickens or pigs or sheep left as, by now, they aren't prepared to survive in the wild, we've bred out this that and the other survival mechanism."

But I'm not cogent enough to argue a point today, so lets just leave it at "I like steak".

Anonymous said...

I was going to contribute (with my usual inappropriate sense of punctuality) to this interesting dilemma. I failed to keep it brief though, so rather than litter your diary, I thought it better to post instead :-)