The Ethical Use (Consumption) of Animals
AS THE ANIMAL ACTIVIST, or “animal liberationist” as he preferred to be called, sat down across from me I could tell I was in for an enlightening interview. His intense green eyes were bright with wisdom and intelligence and his full head of brown hair belied his years. But the deep-seated wrinkles that crawled across his forehead, beneath his eyes and around his wide smile revealed the truth of his age and life experiences. His plaid shirt was neatly tucked into khaki pants and he carried a canvas messenger bag across his shoulders and a recycled thermos of tea in his hand. As he sat down across from me on the park bench with a friendly and eager smile on his face, I began our interview.
TerraLens Photography LLC: Thanks for speaking with me Phil, I appreciate it. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say on this topic as I know it is one you’re very passionate about. It’s definitely something I enjoy thinking about myself.
Phil Sophia: I’m certainly happy to be here, Haley! I never turn down an opportunity to discuss this subject. I hope that your readers will take something away from this interview and will consider how their actions impact other life forms and our planet.
TLP: Well, let me start by asking you straight up, do you eat meat?
PS: (laughs) No, I can’t say that I do. I haven’t eaten meat for about 40 years now and I’m still going strong!
TLP: That’s very impressive. I don’t know many people who can claim that statistic. So tell me, why have you adopted a vegetarian lifestyle and sustained it for so long? How did that come about?
PS: It’s not just a vegetarian lifestyle that I’ve adopted. I am also a strict vegan and I try my best to avoid purchasing other animal products or products that have been tested on animals. (Laughs) Again, there are many reason why I refrain from these sorts of things. I could be here all day. Where do I start?
TLP: You could start by explaining how you decided to give up meat in the first place. What prompted you?
PS: I became a vegetarian a long time ago. I’d say when I was 18 years old or so. I had been considering the idea for some time by that point in my life, but one event that I witnessed was too much to ignore from then on. So, I became a strict vegan. It felt like my only option really.
TLP: Can you tell us about that event and why it made you change your behavior?
PS: Sure. Well, I was an 18 year old growing up in the mid-Western United States surrounded by animal farming and agriculture. That’s all I’d ever known. Since both were part of my everyday environment, yet I didn’t play a role in either farming or agriculture, I was intellectually and emotionally removed from them both. This led to all sorts of misunderstandings about food, how it was grown, and where it came from.
When I first started thinking about the ethical implications of consuming animals, I realized that I knew nothing about the farming or agricultural practices that surrounded me. I felt I needed to know more about the meat industry specifically, where I was living. A friend of mine whose father was a cattle and chicken farmer invited me over one day to their family’s huge farm about twenty minutes from town. I had seen farms like this everyday of my life, but had never been able to go into the buildings and see how the animals were treated or talk to the people who ran them.
They didn’t deliberately mistreat their animals, but that was the result of viewing them as profitable resources that existed only for human use and consumption.
The family showed me all around the farm and explained to me how they raise the chickens and cattle (roughly and carelessly), what they are fed (a processed, grain-based diet), and which animals are selected for slaughter and when (the barely sexually mature, plump ones). Not only that, but the facilities where both cattle and chickens were kept stank like rotting flesh, feces and urine. Not exactly an appetizing smell. The animals didn’t fare much better, sporting mangey coats and feathers with visible wounds somewhere in between due to the damp, dirty living conditions. I was horrified. My friend’s family didn’t deliberately mistreat their animals, but that was the result of viewing their chicken and cattle as profitable resources that existed only for human use and consumption. To them, there was no alternative purpose of a cow or a chicken other than to provide milk, beef and eggs. I don’t need to go into all the details here, but during that visit and subsequent research on animal welfare I made up my mind to never eat meat again and to try my hardest to avoid other animals products.
TLP: Wow, I can’t image what that must have been like to see first hand. I’ve never been inside a farm like that myself. Quite an experience being there in person! I can totally understand why you would have left the farm with that resolution in your mind. However, I’m sure there are quite a few people (the farmer and his family, obviously) whom could have had the same experience and wouldn’t have chosen to give up meat like you did. In fact, I’ve talked with many people who don’t have a problem with farm animals being treated the way you’ve briefly described since they’re destined to become food. Like you said, those folks likely view them as a resource.
What I’d like to do now, is present you with some basic arguments for eating meat that I hear people make all the time - the explanations they use to justify eating meat, possibly despite seeing things like you saw at that farm. I’m interested in hearing your responses to these pro-meat arguments and whether or not you think they are morally justifiable.
PS: Sounds good to me, go right ahead.
TLP: What would you say to someone who claims that the reason they eat meat is because it tastes good?
PS: Let’s start easy why don’t we! Well, this argument is obviously very weak from an ethical point of view. It uses personal taste as a justification for eating meat. In other words, the fact that something is pleasing to my senses makes it morally justifiable. Well, let’s extend this line of reasoning to other ethical choices to test its validity. For instance, “I like the taste of human flesh”, or “I find it pleasing to kill someone, therefore it’s morally justifiable”. I don’t believe anyone would argue that personal taste in this sense morally justifies either of these desires. These are extreme examples, yes, but I think it accurately highlights the intrinsic flaw in this argument. It cannot be extended to other situations and be a moral truth.
TLP: Fair enough. I would have to agree with you there! So, what about this: humans are biologically made to eat meat. Our teeth indicate it, our shared ancestry indicates it. We evolved to be the species we are today in part, because we ate meat. If that’s true, how can eating animals be wrong?
PS: This argument uses our biology as a justification. Just because we’re biologically able to eat meat doesn’t make it morally justifiable. Biology doesn’t dictate morality. For example, it isn’t morally justifiable to beat up someone physically, emotionally or mentally or to murder someone on the basis that you’re physically able to. In the same vein, just because our ancestors ate meat (who sometimes had little else to eat, unlike us), therefore endowing us with the ability to continue eating meat, doesn’t mean that we need to or should continue eating meat.
Just because we’re physically able to eat meat doesn’t make it morally justifiable. Biology doesn’t dictate morality.
TLP: So, what about nutrition? How am I going to get all the nutrients and protein that I need if I don’t eat meat? I need meat to be healthy, don’t I?
PS: The problem with that argument is ignorance: it isn’t based in science. If so-called “nutritional benefits” are all that makes eating meat morally justifiable then someone could say, “actually, I prefer to get my nutrients and protein from human flesh”, and under this argument's logic it would have to be deemed morally justifiable. Technically, you could get the same macronutrients from human flesh, but no one is likely going to deem cannibalism morally appropriate except under the extremest of situations.
My other point is this: yes, we all need protein and other nutrients and such, but animal products are not the only place to get them. People often mistake the idea of protein coming only from meat, which is simply not true. Plants have enormous amounts of protein and we can get all the amino acids (components that make up proteins) we need from eating only plant foods. For instance, eating rice or and beans together the way that Central and South Americans have for centuries provides a “perfect protein” - meaning all 20 essential amino acids - something that meat doesn’t even provide! Now, take historically vegetarian cultures, like the Hindu, for example. Their culture and religion has revered animals for millennia and thus, many of them have followed a vegetarian diet for just as long. The fact that they have survived and continue to thrive today as healthy individuals is proof that one doesn’t need to eat meat in order to survive OR be healthy. I’m another example of that! In short, you can get all the sustenance you need from plants and be just as healthy, if not more, than someone who eats meat, so the argument from nutrition doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
TLP: Ok…Point taken. Nutrients aside, humans have a special status above other animals because nature, or God, has granted us a superior status over them: we have “dominion over” them.
PS: I disagree with that premise. If one’s assumed superiority makes something morally justifiable, then it stands that if I’m stronger or more powerful than you, I am morally justified in taking advantage of you and imposing my will over yours. I’m better than you at “X” and because of that, I’m allowed to do to you how I see fit. The moral authority in this instance is based on power or strength. It sets us up to do terrible things to both animals and people. I’m sure that if anyone gave this argument serious thought, they would see the fault immediately. Superiority of a particular trait or set of traits does not morally give someone the right to impose their power or will over another.
And here’s a point challenging our assumed “superiority”: how arrogant of us to assume that we understand the processes of nature or God? What if the existence of the universe is not about us at all! What if we are simply a byproduct of all that has happened so far in the universe? If that hypothesis is true, then we’d fill a much more modest role wouldn’t we? And we wouldn’t be able to claim hardly any superiority. We tend to speak on behalf of nature or God as if we know their intentions, but we actually haven’t a clue why the universe is set up as it is. We don’t have proof of an intention at all. And thus, we have a distorted viewpoint of ourselves and the world.
Superiority of a particular trait or set of traits does not morally give someone the right to impose their power or will over another. And what traits to consider besides?
There are endless explanations for why we may have acquired seemingly superior abilities without the intention being to cause the suffering of other animals. Plus, natural selection has endowed other animals with different superior qualities and characteristics that would make them superior to us in certain settings. Dolphins, for example, are extremely intelligent social beings like us, with a culture and language some might argue, who share our mammalian classification. However, were we to join a dolphin pod in the ocean and be expected to act according to their social rules for living, how would we measure up? We can’t hold our breath as long. We can’t swim as long. We’re clumsy in the water in comparison and would have no hope of communicating with them in their tongue, among other things. In this instance, we would be significantly inferior to dolphins. Does this give them the right to knock us around, beat us up, chase us, or eat us just because of their superiority? I don’t believe so.
TLP: Alright, I see your point. We cannot automatically assume that humans are superior to other animals on the basis of our own characteristics. But here’s this: If humans are just the same as all other animals and all other animals eat each other, then why would or should there be an exception for humans? If other life eat each other, then humans should be able to eat other life too. Right?
PS: The life eats life justification doesn’t apply to us because we are not the same as other animals. We may not be inherently better than them, but we certainly are different. One of the most unique characteristics that humans have is our ability to reason. We are the “reasoning species”. We are able to weigh the pros and cons about life and choose an appropriate decision (some of us do this better than others) (laughs). Because of this, we don’t work solely on instinct, as many other animals do. The fact that we are capable of choosing an alternative course of action makes us morally culpable.
I have to add that we don’t actually know if other animals have this reasoning ability, because we cannot experience life as they do. However, from what we know from science today, humans are unique in this respect. Humans have the ability to both act and not act, choosing between the options at hand. A tiger, as far as we know, is not going to reason between eating a deer and not eating a deer. It doesn’t really have a choice. It’s going to eat the deer first of all, because it doesn’t have the ability to reason like that and second of all, because it has to eat the deer! A tiger does not have the option of eating a vegetarian diet as humans do. So in this case, both biology and lack of reasoning ability work in the tiger’s favor, but not ours.
TLP: So, our moral culpability comes from being able to reason and chose an alternative course of action, i.e. our ability to choose not to eat meat. I’d like to end our interview today with a question about plants. Plants are alive just like animals. In order to survive, humans have to eat something that used to be alive. Why are plants a better option than animals?
We don’t work solely on instinct, as many other animals do. The fact that we are capable of choosing an alternative course of action makes us morally culpable.
PS: Great ending question! Plants are a better option than animals for many reasons ranging from environmental, economic and moral perspectives, but I can’t get into all of that here. I will say this though from a moral perspective, since that’s what we’ve been focusing on. It comes down to pain and suffering. While food animals have to endure some of the most grotesque treatments and experiences that cause immeasurable pain and suffering, there is no evidence that plants feel pain or suffer. There is no evidence that plants feel anything, like we do, from touch. Plants do not have nervous systems, which is how symptoms of pain and suffering originate.
The majority of animals that we eat however, do have nervous systems. If we’re able to understand how a human nervous system works, and we are, then we can generally assume that other nervous systems which evolved from shared ancestry and thus would be similar to ours, would act in the same way. Thus, the feeling of pain and suffering for us would most likely feel very similar to other animals with a nervous system. It comes down to picking the option that is most cautious. If some day we find out that plants can feel pain and can suffer, then we may have come back and rethink our arguments. But at the present, choosing to eat plants over animals ensures that animals who can suffer don’t.
TLP: Thank you very much, Phil! This has been an incredibly enlightening philosophical discussion about the ethical consumption of animals. I think I have learned a lot and hope my readers will too. All the best to you in your animal liberation struggles!
PS: Well, thank you Haley for giving me this opportunity to talk about this issue. I’ve enjoyed our banter! (Laughs).
Before I close, I just want to leave you all with some personal thoughts about all this:
I’ve come to realize that most people don’t think about why they eat what they do or whether eating is ethical. If you never have to pay a price for a wrongful action then there’s no incentive to change that behavior. You either don’t know that what you’re doing is considered unethical, or else you don’t care because you’re not getting caught or being punished. People who eat meat will most likely never pay a price for eating it. However, when we look back on ancient times, we see the morally reproachable things people did that would never be acceptable now (i.e. gladiator battles). During those times they were either unpunishable or not seen as morally reproachable, as meat-eating isn’t today. Someday, I believe we will look back on this period and view our consumption and use of animals for our own selfish purposes as morally unjustifiable and morally reproachable.
On a personal note, I don’t make a habit of eating meat, seafood, or milk (I do indulge in cheese and eggs from pasture-raised cows and chickens). When I first became a vegetarian as a sophomore in high school as a challenge for lent, I found that I hadn’t missed eating meat at all and in fact, actually felt better! I ended up refraining from meat-eating from that point on. What started out as a simple lent challenge to test myself turned into a deliberate and passionate choice to support my own physical health as well as animal welfare. Today, I have made a life-long dedication to vegetarianism bent on optimal health and wellbeing for myself, animals and the planet and encouraging others to consciously think about what they eat and why. Most of us should take a look at our own habits and reassess based on the information we have available.
For those of you who still don’t think that a vegetarian life is for you, I have a confession. Bacon has and always will be a huge tempter for me. I mean honestly, who is NOT tempted by bacon! I have been known, on the very rare occasion, to indulge in a piece or two of bacon. However, I convince myself that it isn’t as bad as it sounds, because while I may have an irresistible craving every once in a while, the times I choose to eat a slice are contingent upon very specific criteria: I only do so when my husband and I have purchased the bacon ourselves from an ethically humane, pasture-raised source and cooked it at home.
What this means, is that we can be confident that the pig we have just purchased lived outside with plenty of space, light, social interaction and without the questionable living conditions and diets that commercially produced pigs are victim to. This is the best option available. While I still have pangs of guilt when I indulge in that slice of bacon, I do rest easier knowing that I have at least supported the best option available and in doing so, have cast my vote for the humane(r) treatment of animals.
If you feel you cannot entirely give up meat, compromise:
1) Cut down on the amount of meat you eat to once or twice a week
2) Purchase your meat and animal products from ethical and humane sources,
In this way, you are still able to indulge when you so desire, but are not supporting the economically, environmentally and morally irresponsible industry that is the commercial meat industry. Try it out and see what you think. You just may not miss meat as much as you think. Take it from someone who has actually tried and succeeded!
NOTE: If you are interested in learning more about the ethics behind meat consumption and animal welfare, I highly recommend the following sources which I felt were particularly enlightening and helped me to develop this article:
The book, Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer.
The book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.
The TED talk "What Are Animals Thinking and Feeling" by Carl Safina.
Episode #071 on the podcast, Philosophize This! by Stephen West on iTunes.