Precious life

There are many rea­sons to not eat meat, all of which are valid in them­selves: The impact on the envi­ron­ment, a fair dis­tri­b­u­tion of food, your own health… But today I want to look at the moral prin­ci­ple: Is it bad to kill and eat an ani­mal? This will inevitably bring up some ele­ments from my pre­vi­ous post about Cows Ethics.

Killing damages the soul

It looks like every­one thinks it is bad to kill ani­mals. Years ago, Tin­ke­bell (a Dutch artist) announced that she had stran­gled her cat and made a hand­bag out of it. The coun­try explode with out­rage and indig­na­tion. Very selec­tive indig­na­tion that did not change any­thing for the 6 mil­lion minks liv­ing in the Netherlands.

Let us con­cen­trate on the fact that peo­ple usu­al­ly react with hor­ror when con­front­ed with vio­lence against ani­mals. Tol­stoy also men­tions some exam­ples in his essay “The First Step”. He vis­its a slaugh­ter­house, some­thing that car­ni­vores gen­er­al­ly do too lit­tle in my opin­ion. He talks to a num­ber of butch­ers, who admit they have com­pas­sion for the ani­mals they kill, but feel like they have no choice because they have to do their job. Tolstoy:

This is dread­ful! Not the suf­fer­ing and death of the ani­mals, but that man sup­press­es in him­self, unnec­es­sar­i­ly, the high­est spir­i­tu­al capacity—that of sym­pa­thy and pity toward liv­ing crea­tures like himself—and by vio­lat­ing his own feel­ings becomes cru­el. And how deeply seat­ed in the human heart is the injunc­tion not to take life!

Broken heartMur­der con­flicts with our moral­i­ty ‘You shall not kill.’ The Har­ry Pot­ter books describe this beau­ti­ful­ly. The evil wiz­ard Volde­mort wants to be immor­tal and there­fore has divid­ed his soul into pieces. But he could only do this by com­mit­ting a mur­der. If you kill some­one, you are dam­ag­ing your soul and you will nev­er be com­plete­ly whole. This is not so much a pun­ish­ment as a nat­ur­al consequence.

Who should we not kill?

How do we decide to which beings ‘you shall not kill’ applies? In today’s soci­ety, many peo­ple assume that moral action is con­fined to (sur­prise…) peo­ple. At least that’s my impres­sion when I walk through the super­mar­ket, or past the McDon­ald’s. But for cen­turies, phi­los­o­phy has known a move­ment that finds this an unfound­ed dis­tinc­tion. In 1789, Jere­my Ben­tham wrote a famous pas­sage about the divid­ing line between things and beings:

The day may come, when the rest of the ani­mal cre­ation may acquire those rights which nev­er could have been with­hold­en from them but by the hand of tyran­ny. The French have already dis­cov­ered that the black­ness of the skin is no rea­son why a human being should be aban­doned with­out redress to the caprice of a tormentor.

It may come one day to be rec­og­nized, that the num­ber of the legs, the vil­los­i­ty [hairi­ness, MH] of the skin, or the ter­mi­na­tion of the os sacrum [bone at base of spine, MH], are rea­sons equal­ly insuf­fi­cient for aban­don­ing a sen­si­tive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insu­per­a­ble line? Is it the fac­ul­ty of rea­son, or, per­haps, the fac­ul­ty of dis­course? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond com­par­i­son a more ratio­nal, as well as a more con­versable ani­mal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But sup­pose the case were oth­er­wise, what would it avail? the ques­tion is not, Can they rea­son? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suf­fer?

ChickenEvery crea­ture that has the abil­i­ty to suf­fer is aware that it is being killed. That is why I can cut the spinach with­out remorse, with­out even think­ing of fry­ing a nice piece of chick­en with it. Like every­one else, I try to live well, which for a Chris­t­ian means ‘Love God and love your neigh­bour as your­self’. The chick­en is my neigh­bour, so I am called to love it. Not killing some­one is a very basic form of love.

Useless suffering

Of course there are also dilem­mas in this eth­i­cal sys­tem. Imag­ine that a severe­ly weak­ened, starv­ing child would have the same chick­en as her only poten­tial source of food. If the child were to die, her dreams about the future would be cut off. The chick­en would also suf­fer if it is killed, but because she has less self-aware­ness and per­spec­tive, it is less bad to slaugh­ter the chick­en than to let the child die. You see that we make these con­sid­er­a­tions, not on the basis of species, but based on the sever­i­ty of suf­fer­ing. And that is dif­fer­ent for every per­son and every animal.

The dai­ly real­i­ty of our life in the wealthy West­ern world is much less com­pli­cat­ed. There is no need to eat ani­mals because we have so many foods to choose from. That makes the dai­ly suf­fer­ing tak­ing place in the live­stock sec­tor total­ly unnec­es­sary. In this sit­u­a­tion I think it is bad to kill an ani­mal and eat it.

What do you think? Is the hap­pi­ness or suf­fer­ing of an ani­mal rel­e­vant? I sup­pose there are meat eaters among the read­ers of this blog, and I’m curi­ous about your views on the rela­tion­ship between humans and animals.