I’ve been pondering the ethics of meat, which inevitably involves taking life (unless we’re talking lab-slime, which we’re not).
If you have read my previous blog posts, you’ll know that I think the argument for/against any diet rests on three “legs”…
- What’s good for my health?
- What’s good for the environment?
- What’s good for animals?
Note, I’ve focused the first question on the individual, because I realise that various diets suit each of us differently. Some people genuinely seem to thrive on plants alone (not many, long-term, from what I can see), whereas others are intolerant to plants’ defence mechanisms, most often grains and beans. (Yes, it seems plants don’t want to be eaten either.) It’s the responsibility of each person to figure out what diet works for YOUR body.
In this post, I want to focus on the third issue only: What’s good for animals? Can it be “good” to take another animal’s life just so we can eat? I’ll make the case for why I think it’s perfectly okay.
Let’s go right out on a limb and say that, for the purposes of this exercise, the other two factors don’t count: health and environment are not issues. If it ALL came down to just the ethical question, what do we say?
The vegan might say, “It’s never ethical to take another life,” because that’s their religious viewpoint. Okay, I respect that, although it’s extremely debatable. Let’s leave aside arguments about euthanasia of pets (because that’s mercy).
There remains the problem that modern industrial agriculture probably takes more lives of sentient animals than “good”, outdoor-reared meat. But let’s take it right down and say, what if there was no industrial agriculture, and all farming was done on a small scale without machines, pesticides, artificial fertilisers, etc.? What if our options were mixed-organic and veganic farming only? What’s more, if we could all survive on veganically-farmed produce… even then, is there still a case to kill to eat?
The Myth of Exploitation
Vegans tell me that to own or to use an animal, for any reason, is exploitation. I get the rhetoric, but I disagree. Sure — it can be exploitative — if you see an animal as nothing more than a stock unit, as raw materials. And sure, there are plenty of businesses out there that treat them in just that way, but I’m sick of seeing the actions of the lowest versions of animal “producers” being used as representative of all.
Here’s a counter-argument. Farm animals, when properly looked after, are in symbiotic relationship with human beings, not a one-way exploitative relationship. (In Nature, symbiosis is where different species coexist in a special relationship that benefits both.)
When any of us keeps a pet, they provide the pet with shelter, protection, veterinary care, a regular supply of food, companionship, and (in most cases) a quick and painless death. The pet “owner” gets a good deal and the pet gets a good deal.
I’d argue that the relationship between a good farmer and their livestock is no different. Farmers provide their animals with shelter, protection, veterinary care, a regular supply of food, companionship, and (in most cases) a quick and painless death.
Despite the rhetoric that vegans repeat to inculcate themselves and each other, farmers can love the animals that they rear and send to slaughter. I don’t care if you can’t understand it. I don’t care if it doesn’t fit into your worldview. It’s a fact, and if your worldview can’t handle that fact, it’s your worldview that’s at fault, not reality.
The Myth of Saving a Life
“There’s no way of ethically killing a sentient being that doesn’t want to die.”
This is repeated over and over. It’s part of the vegan creed. While repetition can make a statement seem more true to the person doing the repeating, it doesn’t make it any more True.
No animal wants to die. It’s very likely that no plant wants to die either.
(It’s also likely that plants are also sentient, so by eating annual plants we’re falling into unethical as defined above. That’s why there’s a more extreme version of vegetarianism: fruitarianism, where followers eat only the fruits, nuts, and seeds of perennial plants, not the whole plant.)
None of us wants to die. Of course we don’t. It’s in our DNA: to survive so we can procreate and continue our selfish genes.
Does not wanting to die make death bad? No, it makes death something we all try to avoid, which of course is ultimately futile, because every single living thing dies.
Not eating a cow/pig/fish does not mean there’s one more cow/pig/fish in the world. For every cow/pig/fish that is born, there is always exactly one death. That is the law of (capital-L) Life. There is no life without death. So if we love animals, if we want them to live, we must accept the fact of death.
If we stop breeding these animals we love — as many vegans argue is the right approach — if we let their bloodlines extinguish, then we are consigning them to (capital-D) Death. This is the great Death, the total end and absence of life. Extinction. Honestly, the thought of that scares me more than the thought of killing a pig.
So slaughter doesn’t increase death any more than not slaughtering increases life. Slaughter is simply managed death: death at a time and place that has been preordained. But it’s still exactly one death.
I care about slaughter. I care that it’s done right, minimising fear and distress and pain, and I care more about the quality of life that each animal I eat has enjoyed before their “one bad day”.
And let’s be really clear… even when an animal’s one bad day is done badly, it’s still likely preferable to the death that it would expect to suffer in the wild. Very few herd animals die of old age. What kills them? Predation (being chased, choked and torn apart), illness (which might be long and agonising), or injury (which might be long and agonising).
Every single animal dies. If doing that in a slaughterhouse or on a farm constitutes cruelty, what does that say about Nature, which is far crueller?
The Myth of Death
What’s behind the idea that by not killing, we’re somehow enhancing life? Sure, we could take away the animals, which means fewer deaths, but it also means fewer lives lived. What do vegans think they’re actually achieving in that animal-free vision?
I keep coming back to one simple answer: avoidance of personal guilt.
Vegans like to believe that by not eating animals or using animal products, they’re living lives that are guilt-free, or at least more guilt-free than the rest of us. (We’re not going to go into the death and habitat destruction caused by plant agriculture, because we’re pretending that we all have the option of getting all the food we need from our local veganic farm.)
The idea of guilt rests on the idea that killing is a bad thing per se. And that rests on the idea that death is a bad thing per se. But if death is the flip side of life, if you cannot have one without the other, what does that say about life?
Is the fear of being responsible for death so great that we would prefer to circumvent life, so we don’t have to face it?
Yes, we all fear death. Of course, that’s natural, it’s the most natural thing in the world. But that doesn’t make death evil, only scary.
Every living thing will die. And everything that dies will be reabsorbed into Nature’s wonderful, rich, cyclical system of life, death, decomposition, reconstitution.
Pippin: I didn’t think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take.
It seems to me that it is this paralysing phobia about death that must lie beneath the motivation to step off the merry-go-round.
At this point, I choose to embrace the lessons that Life is offering me. I acknowledge, respect, honour, and love the cycle of life and death. I honour and love the animals whose lives have been passed on to me. I honour and respect the worms and microbes that will one day carry my borrowed nutrients back into the wondrous cycle. I acknowledge Death for what it is: the mystical spouse of Life, terrifying, and also essential to who we are.
So, vegans, if the prospect of joining in with that mystical dance terrifies you, fine. I get it. I know it’s scary. Knock yourself out. It doesn’t change a damn thing. But don’t try to tell me that, because I do participate, that I lack empathy or compassion.
A thought experiment
Do you believe that a lion’s life is worth more, or less, than a gazelle’s? The lion is a carnivore that eats gazelles and other herbivore prey animals.
When the lion eats the gazelle, is the lion “wrong” for doing so? Would it be “better” if the lion could eat carrion, or termites, or squashes? If you believe so, or even if you think it would be preferable for a lion to have a non-meat alternative, then you have a serious problem with Nature. You’re making Nature wrong.
A vegan activist will typically respond with, “Ah yes, but the lion is an obligate carnivore. It has to eat meat to survive. It has no choice.” But that argument avoids the question. Either killing to eat is wrong in and of itself, or it isn’t.
If it’s natural and fine and not “wrong” for the lion to kill the gazelle, then you agree it is not wrong to kill to eat per se.
By extension, then, whether I eat gazelle or cabbage is morally equivalent.
To close, here's a short (under 5-minute) commentary by farmer Joel Salatin, whom I interviewed earlier in 2018: