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!
Murder 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?
Every 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.
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.
- Jeremy Bentham, 1789. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Chapter XVII.
- Leo Tolstoy, 1892. The First Step