This afternoon, as I have on this day for the last several years, I drove to a small organic farm in the verdant White River Valley north of Mount Rainier and picked up the Thanksgiving turkeys that I will cook for my family tomorrow. Their lives were neither nasty nor brutish. If they were short, well, two out of three ain’t bad.
Such great concern for the welfare of food animals in life and glib indifference to the fact of their death is the target of a column by philosophy professor Gary Steiner in last Sunday’s New York Times. Steiner claims that today’s conscientious omnivores simply fail to consider whether it is wrong to kill animals for human consumption. Speaking for myself, at least, I can say that Steiner is wrong. I have not failed to consider whether killing and using animals is wrong. I simply do not grant the premise.
Steiner attributes two straw-man arguments to unapologetic omnivores, one religious, and one based on intelligence. But he fails to consider that those who don’t already share his moral intuitions require no further justification than eating and using animals and their products confers enormous utility. In favor of his moral intuitions, he offers a parable by Isaac Bashevis Singer in which the protagonist recognizes the equal dignity of a scuffling mouse. It’s not an argument. But even if entertained, it cuts the opposite direction.
If we are not on a different moral plane than animals, why should we show any greater compunction about killing animals than any other animal that derives utility from doing so? If we are no better than the lion, why should we be obliged to behave as the lamb? This is one paradox of ethical vegetarianism. Perhaps there is a sound argument that resolves it. But I have not heard it from Steiner.
In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my free-range, organic, heirloom turkeys with a clear conscience–and gravy.