The meaty issue of vegetarianism

It’s normal to eat meat

I was raised in a meat-loving family where vegetables and fruit were used to add more variety to the plate if the slabs of meat and complimenting starch failed to satisfy. In South Africa this isn’t uncommon and as a whole the country shares an insatiable love of meat which cuts across racial and cultural boundaries. The popularity of snacks such as biltong (a form of cured and dried meat sold in slabs or slices) attest to this.

The issue which arises is whether or not our consumption of meat, which involves the destruction of complex life in the form of animals, is ethically justifiable. For a long time the question never crossed my mind which is not surprising given two factors:

1) The social ubiquity of meat eating in the majority of the world’s countries

2) The disembodied form meat products take

The two factors form a powerful duo: Growing up in a social environment where meat is eaten normally instills a

If only people saw this every day at the supermarket.

If only people saw this every day at the supermarket.

habitual affinity to the act, just as much as growing up being taught to bath daily is considered normal. Indeed, we see this play out even in the types of meat eaten: In England the idea of eating horses is considered scandalous, yet just across the water in France it is enjoyed by many without question or conception of any immorality involved.

This habitual affinity is strengthened by how disembodied our meat products are. For the average consumer (although this is not always the case, especially in rural communities) meat appears in the form of neatly butchered pieces or at most a beautifully prepared body, deheaded and skinned. Worse still is the increasing array of frozen, convenient foods ranging from burger patties and nuggets to crumbed portions filled with all manner of sauces and flavours. Meat is thus presented as just food rather than once-living creature who, against its will, has had its life ended.

Of course we all know where meat comes from but the disembodied presentation helps prevent our moral consciences from having to actively address the ethical issue of meat consumption on a daily basis. Let us now do just that.

Logic behind not eating meat

So what persuaded me to give up meat entirely? The shortest and most direct answer lies in the form of the following argument:

1) Life, especially complex life, has a unique and intrinsic value separate from humans’ existence or use for it.

2) Where possible, we should avoid the unnecessary destruction of life.

3) Humans do not need meat to live healthy and fulfilled lives. Destruction of life in order to eat meat is therefore unnecessary and unethical.

As a close friend pointed out to me, the above argument is valid in the sense that the points flow logically from one another. It’s main point of contention lies in whether or not life has intrinsic value. Conveniently, the same friend avoided saying whether he disagreed life has any intrinsic value!

I myself believe life does have intrinsic value as the argument supposes. How could I find otherwise? Imagine if Earth had not been lucky enough to receive conditions amiable towards life? How barren and desolate would it be! To think that out of an explosion and various elements interacting, something as complex and wonderful as life occurred is amazing. We know it is possible, because life exists on Earth but we also know that it is extremely rare and we have yet to find advanced life elsewhere in the universe. We ourselves are a direct result of life evolving on this previously desolate planet. How could we deny life has value?

Sappy but true.

Sappy but true.

Counter arguments

The most common counter argument amongst the religious is that life does have value but only human life because only humans have souls. The reality, as harsh as it may seem, is that we have no basis to believe that souls exist. None at all. It is a wonderful, attractive idea but completely unfounded. Whatever life we humans have is the same life shared with all the other organisms on Earth. To say that human life is valuable but animal life is not treats human and animal life as being different when it is exactly the same.

A more reasoned argument put forth, especially by the non-religious, is that human and animal life is different because only humans have the level of intelligence capable of self-awareness. By that logic, the mentally incapacitated and retarded should be stripped of all rights and can be killed if so desired. Now that seems unconscionable but why? Humans are biologically ordinary – apes share huge amounts of their DNA with us. Stripped of our intelligence we are equal to, if not worse, than other animals. If the only basis that the retarded and mentally incapacitated continue to have rights to dignity, life etc is that they are human, then that is a simple case of discrimination akin to racism or sexism. In this case specism: Animals may be equally or more intelligent than retarded humans and biologically equal to us but for no  reason other than that we just happen humans ourselves we will only give rights to humans and not non-human animals.

It's exactly the same.

It’s exactly the same.

Just as we avoid killing the mentally incapacitated because we recognize they still have value as living, breathing creatures so too do animals deserve such rights. Intelligence itself is not sine qua non for life having value anyway: a forest needlessly destroyed is just as ethically reprehensible as killing a chicken for a tasty Sunday roast. It is also incorrect to label animals as unintelligent: Many are capable of reasoning, have the desire to live and avoid death (as instinctual as our own) and are capable of emotions we traditionally consider good such as joy, loyalty and affection. Even if they were to lack such attributes that doesn’t make them any less alive. 

Of course if meat is the only means of sustenance, say for an Eskimo in Canada, the destruction of life is necessary and ethically justifiable. For the vast, vast majority of humans this isn’t the case and eating meat is a barbarous luxury we have been socially indoctrinated to find acceptable. The moment we admit life has value, we see its unethical destruction in the form of meat eating is unjustifiable.