Why walk from Omelas?

I need your help with something, beloved reader. In the spirit of open-mindedness, especially regarding passionate appeals to conscience, I’ve been listening to debates that grapple with some deeply uncomfortable claims. I couldn’t write the blogs that I do, covering the topics that I cover, without listening to the accounts of others. In doing so I’d have to allow a well-reasoned argument to both change my mind and the way I live my life. Despite regarding myself in such an agreeable way (see ‘whats your story?‘), there are certain positions I’d never expect to find convincing. But guess what; I can be wrong. And I’ve gradually found myself at the sharp end of my own moral judgement.

While my actions have been slow to catch up with this shift in reasoning, I’m now shamefully aware of my own complicit, willful, and indefensible participation in what is probably the most important ethical dilemma of our time; the everyday crime of eating meat. What makes this issue so distressing is not that it’s the worst thing going on in the world today, but that the vast majority of people still don’t realise how cruel it is, how destructive it is, or how unnecessary it is.

Nobody tries to argue for global warming – that we should be polluting the planet. Nobody believes that slavery is a good thing, that it should be perpetuated, or that it’s morally defensible. Yet people defend their right to eat meat. They fight passionately on both sides, with meat-eaters appealing to the carnivorous anatomy that humans possess, as if this proves we “should” be killing creatures for food. This ‘appeal to nature’ ignores other natural human tendencies; murder, violence, war, rape, revenge, jealousy, gender inequality, etc. Just because something is natural, and has endured throughout every culture in history, doesn’t make it right. This is a clear logical fallacy (See ‘Mulder’s mistake’).

Now that the conversion has reached me – enough to alter my beliefs – I feel compelled to further this discussion.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to claim that eating meat is immoral without attempting to back that up. All we need is an understanding of morality that everyone can agree with; That’s the aim of this blog. Those that know me, see that I still currently eat meat (This to be addressed in 2020). So before you wax tu quoque on me, know that I realise my hypocrisy. But it doesn’t make my claim wrong.

Humanity has a lot to apologize for. Our eyes have been opened to the catastrophes of deforestation, ocean dumping, hunting species to extinction, over-fishing, pollution, ozone depletion – the list goes on! Our relentless contribution to these environmental disasters is shameful and we know it, so how come intensive farming is so casually overlooked? What convinced me, finally, was not a street gathering of sanctimonious vegans screaming that eating meat was immoral. Instead, I simply had it put to me that NOT eating meat was MORE moral. That’s all it should take. Walking around punching people is more moral than walking around killing people, definitely, but not doing either of these things is better still – particularly if they are unprovoked and avoidable. The case for veganism uses the same reasoning.

To begin; What is it that makes humans superior to animals? What gives us the right to do with them as we please? Answering this question requires a definite quality, characteristic, or trait, that any life-form might possess to justify its exploitation of all others. We have to create a kingdom-wide ‘us versus them’. Now, you might say “intelligence” is the measure of our superiority. By our own reckoning, we are the smartest creatures on Earth! But then you’d have to argue that intelligence equates to morality, which I don’t think you can.

Intelligence (whatever that means) is an arbitrary divide; part of a continuous spectrum. As with hearing or running speed, intelligence has no moral worth in itself. It’s an adaptation that allowed our ancestors to survive and reproduce. If a person’s IQ was somehow an indirect measure of their morality, more intelligent humans would have greater moral worth and value than the rest. For the sake of argument, let’s say we could demonstrate, beyond our own bias metric, that intelligence was synonymous with morality; would that give the brainiest few a right to mistreat and torture others?

Whatever trait you pick, you have to ask yourself; What if a human were born without this trait? Is there a characteristic that a person might lack that would justify their captivity and murder? If not, simply belonging to the human race seems to be the only criteria for superiority. But this has no moral relevance either. In ‘Gran’s incredulity’ we saw that labeling species was as arbitrary as labeling adults and children; the distinction is useful but there is no well-defined separation between the two. What ‘species’ we belong to is as bogus a reason to mistreat other beings as race or gender are to claims of supremacy within that species!

“The question is not can they reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any suffering being?”

Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

Some might suggest that ‘sensitivity to pain’ or ‘emotional depth’ are aspects of humanity that uniquely elevate us above all other creatures. It is impossible for us to imagine what an eagle sees as it’s eyesight is far better than ours. Who knows how a dog perceives its world with such a powerful sense of smell? As various animals exist all over the world with sensory abilities far in advance of our own, why shouldn’t creatures exist whose awareness of pain is more acute or intense than ours? Nociception – the ability to detect and respond to harmful stimuli – is just another gift of the nervous system, and has been identified across the animal kingdom.

How? As animals can’t tell us what they feel, scientists have identified several key indicators of pain. These include physiological changes to bodily harm (stress hormones, elevated heart rate, dilated pupils, etc), protecting the site of a wound, rejecting a reward if it means travelling through a harmful environment, learning to avoid electrified objects, and regained performance/mobility after treatment with pain killers. Normal, highstreet brand, human painkillers work just as well on other animals.

Not only have these studies demonstrated the sensation of pain in creatures as diverse as birds, fish, crustaceans, and all forms of domestic livestock, but they leave us with no reason to suspect that humans experience the highest degree of pain in nature. A pig is just as aware as a dog, yet there would be up-raw if dogs were routinely hung upside down and bled-out. Even if animals feel less pain than we do, they still feel pain, so their suffering is still morally unjustifiable.

The same may be true of emotion. Protective parenting is part of being a mammal and any desire to care for offspring is controlled by emotions. Why would the separation of an infant from its mother be any less traumatic for a cow or a pig than for a person? The adaptive advantages of experiencing physical and emotional pain are clear – and may even have led to the emergence of moral reasoning (see ‘Said the joker to the thief’) – but if a person were born without these sensations would their abuse and exploitation be justified? If wellbeing is the ultimate goal of morality, a capacity to suffer is more directly relevant than any other factor.

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.”

– John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

John Rawls devised a famous thought experiment to help us build a better world. He asked people to imagine designing society from a place outside of reality – behind a “curtain of ignorance” as he put it. Job done, you would then born into the world you created, not knowing if you will be black or white, male or female, rich or poor. Detached from the specifics of your life, what changes would you make to civilisation? John’s point being; blind impartiality may be the only way to design a fair society (free from all the cognative biases we explored in ‘Ordell’s lil surfer gal‘).

Couldn’t the same idea be applied to all life on Earth? How might you reorganise human affairs if there was a chance you’d be born as a fish, snake, whale, cow, chicken, or human being. In fact, the odds of being incarnated as livestock overwhelm your chances of being born human! With so much suffering at stake (no pun intended) no one in their right mind would include the meat industry as it exists today. What could a meat-eater say to persuade you to incorporate any form of animal farming into your designs, if you might then be born as livestock?

Even the most inclusive and compassionate people have to admit that differences exist between races. To deny this doesn’t help anyone. Instead, the whole point of racial equality is to demonstrate that factors like skin, eyes, cultures, histories, biology, and religion are irrelevant when considering someone’s right to life and freedom. The same applies to age, gender, social class, sexuality, and species. If people don’t need to be precisely equal in every respect to deserve moral consideration or possess moral worth, why are other living creatures still exempt? As with other atrocities like trophy hunting, ivory trading, and demand for exotic pets, the meat industry would disappear if only we’d stop paying for it!

None of this suggests that killing animals isn’t more moral than killing humans for food. I can agree with this in the way that its more moral to kill a person than to torture and kill a person. Both are immoral and inexcusable, though I know which I’d prefer. Thankfully this isn’t the choice we face! If, like capacity for pain, it turns out that animals do have less moral worth than humans, that still wouldn’t mean they have NO moral worth. A human might be more valuable than a pig but not to the extent that we are justified in killing them if there are other options available!

I’ve been asked “What would you rather do; save a drowning pig or save a drowning child?” I’d save the human child, obviously. Non-vegans usually takes this as a victory without realising that the scenario doesn’t accurately reflect our situation. As the inspirational podcaster Alex O’Connor points out, it would be more realistic to ask “What would you rather do; save a drowning pig or give a child a piece of chocolate?” In this analogy saving the pig doesn’t mean you value its life over a human’s, only that you value its life over a human’s momentary sensory pleasure. Should we value a delicious treat over a sentient life when our taste buds can so easily be appeased by something else?

Sometimes killing is unavoidable. A vegan diet requires that crops be grown, which requires that forests be cut down and pest animals killed. For these reasons it’s incorrect to assume that veganism is against all animal killing. Even vegans accept that rodents get accidentally minced-up in farm machinery on occasion. Instead, it’s the unnecessary cruelty and exploitation of animals that veganism is against. If we must have a meat industry, I’d agree that it makes more sense to subject chickens to the horrific treatment than humans. Just practically speaking, humans would be aware of what was happening. This would make them very difficult to process and slaughter on large scales. But who says we NEED a meat industry? We simply do not.

What other societal considerations keep us from eating fellow humans? It may be true that a creature’s moral worth includes their value as an individual within a wider social contract. To cooperate together we have an obligation to uphold certain conventions. For example, we couldn’t justify eating sick or elderly people in part because of the emotional distress it would cause their living relatives. If animals dodge this subjective consideration it’s due to the limits of our altruism, not a moral truth. As I argued in ‘Resurrecting disbelief‘; personal beliefs are based on how easily new information fits with what is already known, not what is actually true.

Might the loss of farming jobs detracting from human wellbeing enough to justify current practices? The same could have been argued for slavery. I’m sure the 13th amendment inconvenienced a lot of people, ruining the lives of thousands of business owners. That people earn their livelihood from something is no reason not to have it abolished if it causes suffering throughout the world.

Human health and survival don’t rely on eating meat either. Vegans are not all weak, sickly people. It is quite possible to be maximally healthy on an entirely plant-based diet. Not only that but today’s agricultural industry is the no.1 contributor to climate change. If maximised human wellbeing is your primary concern, we should stop farming animals immediately! No amount of technological changes to the meat industry could improve its environmental impact as emissions come from the animals themselves! It’s a matter of biology; the conversion of energy from feed to consumable calories is desperately low for vertebrates – worst of all in mammals. Getting rid of half the human population would be nice – if a violation of the social contract argument – but should you want to help the planet without killing people, it would be better to stop eating meat than to outlaw every form of modern transportation. All vehicle emissions combined don’t come close to the greenhouses gasses produced by farming animals.

Extraordinary harm and mistreatment require extraordinary justification, yet I can’t find a shred of it. Whether we do it for health reasons, environmental reasons, ethical reasons, or because not killing creatures a moral virtue in itself, today’s city dwellers may be the only people in history privileged enough to be vegan. If any of what I’ve said is true, if killing and eating animals is immoral, going vegan in the secular west would be highly influential. That we don’t is not only a failure of our compassion but also of our moral reasoning. The minimisation of suffering and exploitation on the widest scales shouldn’t just be a logical extension of human kindness, it should be the absolute foundation of moral reasoning.

“Don’t think that i’m blind to the attraction of bacon or steak, but also don’t pretend yourself to be blind to the incalculable suffering that was necessary to get these things onto your plate. Ask yourself; is it worth it?”

– Alex O’Connor, Cosmic Skeptic

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