Monday, April 30, 2012

The Ethics of Eating Meat

By Jeremy Brunson

At the end of March through the beginning of April, The New York Times Magazine put out a call for essays of less than 600 words that were to explain the ethics underlying the use of animals for food by humans.  I sent in a submission, but it was not chosen to be among the finalists.  Viewing them, it is not difficult to understand why--I actually address the source and purpose of ethics and identify what immorality consists of, while the finalists present guilt-riddled, emotionalist autobiographies.

My essay is below.  Though I don't give explicit credit in the essay, my understanding of the role of ethics in man's life was greatly clarified and accelerated by studying and mentally "chewing" the works of Ayn Rand.  (See: "The Objectivist Ethics")

The Ethics of Eating Meat

That some species of animals live by eating other species of animals is evident to any honest person who has spent time observing nature.

Man is also a species of animal, though he is unique in the kingdom.

Like any animal, man is an autonomous organism.  As such, his fundamental goal is to maintain his own existence.  Like those animals that possess it, consciousness is his primary tool, but he is unique in that his is volitional--that is, he possesses free-will.

The manner by which man is to sustain himself does not come to him automatically (by instinct) as it does for other species. Man must discover how to achieve his survival, painstakingly and projected over the course of a life-time, by using his faculty of reason to identify the facts of reality, to evaluate them as beneficial or detrimental, and to act accordingly. Formalized, this process is the science of ethics.

From an objective morality, the notion of "inter-species justice"--that it is unjust for one species (homo sapiens in particular) to destroy another species in the kingdom--as suggested in the article announcing this competition, confuses the purpose of the virtue of justice.  An act of justice applies to a man granting sanction or condemnation for the ideas and actions of other moral actors, i.e. of other rational beings, i.e. of other men.

This is not to say, however, that man cannot be immoral when acting to consume lower, non-rational animals as food.

He could display immorality as follows:
  • Suppose the field of biology discovers evidence that meat seriously thwarts his health, or he has a known medical condition that precludes him eating meat, or he learns that a recently purchased meat product is tainted or improperly prepared--to consume meat then, he must forgo the virtue of honesty by the vice of ignoring pertinent facts.
  • Or, suppose that he steals another man's steak, or he demands that others should give him steak or subsidize his farm by force of government because he is unwilling or unable to do so on his own and, besides, he or the "public" needs it--here, he eschews the virtue of productiveness by attempting to escape that effort by violating the rights of other men through initiating force against them.
  • Or, suppose he is a farmer who feeds his livestock biologically unsuitable material, keeps them confined to disease-ridden pens, thereby committing them to endless suffering until their slaughter--in doing this, he flouts the virtue of integrity for the depravity of condemning life as such to utter misery.
  • Or, suppose that he knows of the joy and invigoration that meat consumption brings him (the sensual pleasure, the physical vitality, and the mental clarity) yet he turns away from it for precisely these reasons--doing so, he rejects the virtue of pride for the sin of sacrificing the good for being good.
(These are a meager few of infinite possibilities, of course, and each scenario mentioned above likely involves rejecting additional virtues, too.)

In short, man's primary vice is to willfully evade reality. To determine whether he acts viciously regarding meat requires a great deal of knowledge about the context of his action: his character, his tastes and why he holds them (from reason? from authority? from whim?), the extent of his knowledge, his health, his environment, etc.

Broadly speaking in summary, raising or hunting animals for the purpose of eating their flesh can be a perfectly moral activity--as moral as any other activity man might undertake in pursuit of his life, health, and happiness.
(This was originally posted at my blog.)

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