This is on Vegetarianism and with all possibly preachy topics I want to preface this by saying I’m not trying to proselytize. There’s a set of moral quandaries where the current discussions have hit an impasse. Vegetarianism is one of them. Many of the people in the non-traditional side, ie. the ones arguing in favor of an ‘ethical’ decision, are arguing in a very deconstructive fashion (not all of course, but enough to be dominating the discussion). Then people who would have been moderates are forced into making a stark binary choice. It’s the same toxic bipolar situation we keep getting stuck with in politics. I’m trying to haul us out of the rut. Whether or not I have any impact is questionable.
So about eating meat.
The Strange Loop of consciousness gives a degree of nuance to this ethical question. Self reflection isn’t an on/off switch that was suddenly turned on for humans one day; it’s an analog signal with varying degrees. Here’s a rough span, starting from least conscious to most:
- basic sense perceptions of the world
- detailed faster senses
- group behaviour
- world simulation
- basic consciousness.
The important thing to remember is that those are semi-arbitrary labels like the colours of the rainbow. There’s no universal line between red and orange, there’s an infinite degree of variation between the two.
This means that there’s actually levels of consciousness. The more you understand about yourself, the more self reflection you do, the more conscious you are. This can easily sound elitist because many of us see consciousness as the end-all be-all line dividing us from animals, so seeing someone as less conscious is seeing them as non-human. There’s nothing wrong with embracing the physical aspect of our existence. Hell, I’ve thought it would be better than this excessive introspection, many times. So, no, It doesn’t make someone better. I believe that having a greater understanding of the self is important, but I don’t know this and I’m not going to impose it on others. It’s a skill I’ve decided to learn at the expense of others, which may have been better for me to develop. I don’t claim to know the correct answer here.
Our ability to make ethical decisions comes directly from our consciousness. There isn’t a simple logical answer to what we should count in our ethics but I feel confident that the capacity to suffer is paramount, which is in turn highly related to this consciousness. It’s a strong correlation, which in the interim is good enough, but by no means an absolute answer.
So we’ve got a spectrum of consciousness and we agree it’s got a correlation to suffering, which is what we’ll use to determine ethical choices. I would hesitate to make a stark contrast between levels of ethics, for example, giving ‘human’ rights to all Great Apes and no rights to everything else. We need a nuanced set of categories with blurred boundaries due to our lack of information.
Our choice of what to eat is clearly an ethical decision. Even if we argue till the ends of the earth about what is the healthiest diet, there’s still a multitude of reasonably healthy diets to choose from. Everything we eat comes from something living (since we’re not photo-synthesizers) so the decision you make will cause the death and possible suffering of life. Clearly we need to eat, so we’re forced to pick something.
Using the scale of consciousness it’s clearly acceptable to consume plants and fungus; anything without a nervous system. And again, creatures with minimal sensory abilities and zero group behaviour, like non-cephalopod mollusks, are also okay. From a nutritional and ethical point of view, that’s already enough. Additionally, ethically acquired eggs, and any other animal byproducts which can be gathered without causing suffering, would be fine. We don’t need to eat more than that and we haven’t fallen into questionable ethical territory.
We’re not perfect though. We strive for perfection but it’s a journey, and it will always be a journey. We’re only recently gotten to the point where it’s sensible to have this discussion, so of course we’ve got a ton of cultural baggage pushing us towards compromising our ethics in favour of our diets. So we continue down the line.
Now we have a territory of compromise where it’s difficult to judge one as any better than the other. Sure, some animals are smarter than others and may have a greater degree of suffering capacity, but it’s very hard to determine. There’s an upward cap on this, somewhere in the realm of dogs, pigs, crows; anything with clear intelligence and social behaviours. This is a more fuzzy line because determining those attributes in animals is tricky.
So within those limits; animals slaughtered who were able to live a reasonably full life as their biology indicates. Also animal byproducts that when acquired will cause suffering (milking is often done at the expense of the animals involved). Those two are roughly equivalent.
Last on the scale we have industrial farming. Not allowing the animal to live a life causes a much greater deal of suffering. Sadly this is how most of our meat is made. There isn’t a good ethical argument for this. It’s how our industry is able to supply so much meat at such a cheap cost. Well that and at the expense of human workers and our environment.
Beyond that we’re getting into the clearly intelligent pack animals, which again, there’s no ethical argument for slaughtering them. Same goes for primates and for humans, of all consciousness levels. This last part isn’t as much of a discussion point because our society has accepted it as unethical. Good, one step at a time.
So the tension is about the prior two; ‘ethical’ slaughter and industrial farming. There’s a nuanced discussion to be had on the former, what is necessary for it to be ethical and is slaughter of a conscious being for food ever acceptable. Leave that on the back burner. The latter, industrial farming, is unquestionably unethical. It’s driven by capitalism so short of an overhaul of our society, the best way to reduce it is within capitalism. Reduce demand. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to do this, just eat less meat and when you do (and can afford it) find more ethical farms.
Tangentially related to this, there’s an uncomfortable caveat here. A human infant or someone with severe brain damage may be at a consciousness level closer to one of the animals just mentioned. Does that mean it’s just as ethical to slaughter them for meat? Most of us have the gut reaction: “No, of course not! It doesn’t really matter, a human is a human.” And you know, I may be all for logic, but I don’t think we need to go against that response. Even without a good argument for it, this seems like a reasonable exception to a rule.
Everything is true in some sense and false in some sense.
Addendum: I intentionally used the term slaughtered, ie. the animal was killed expressly for the purpose of eating. If it has died for other reasons eating it is not moral issue, something is going to eat it. Rarely is this done though because of food safety and also just taste (at least that’s what I’ve been told).