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.