• Thoughts on an Ex-Turkey

    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.

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    • As someone who has chosen a vegetarian lifestyle for ethical reasons, killing an animal has little to nothing to do with it. (After being veg for a few years, the idea of eating the flesh of a dead animal is a bit “gross” to me, but that’s not an ethical thing, nor is it the reason I went meat-free.)

      For me it’s simply a choice regarding the environmental inefficiency of meat-based diets (or at least, many meat-based diets).

    • @Mike – I don’t think the environmental efficiency argument gets much traction unless it is shown that hunger results from scarcity due to allocation of resources to raising food animals, as opposed to poverty or barriers to distribution (e.g., failed states, political corruption, war, etc.). Are you aware of any peer-reviewed research that shows resources allocated to meat production are a constraint on resources available to produce crops for human consumption, or that such resources would be repurposed to feeding the hungry if demand for meat were to decline?

    • Ian: Why does it necessarily have to directly result in poor people having more food for it to be of ethical benefit to cut down on meat intake?

      Meat protein requires significantly more resources to create than other sources of protein. (Do you want me to find sources that support that claim, or can we agree there?) The less resources we use on protein production, the more resources we have available for producing other goods and services–whether they end up going to food production or other production and whether they go to the poor or not so poor.

      For me, that’s a good enough reason to eat less (or in my case, no) meat. If that’s not a good enough reason for you, fine. My goal here isn’t to judge or to try to convince you to stop eating meat, but rather to explain that ethical reasons for vegetarianism aren’t necessarily limited to “it’s not OK to kill animals.”

    • I eat meat but in recent years have been cutting down on meat consumption – for environmental concerns. While I agree that from a utilitarian perspective the use of animals is valuable, I must say that I am somewhat uncomfortable by the notion that other creatures must die for my benefit. Of course, if everyone stopped eating meat those animals would not have been permitted to be born in the first place. The rabbit hole gets pretty deep in that direction – is not being alive preferable from these animals’ perspective than their short and (admittedly) sad existence?

      In the end, I mostly yield to my human nature and eat (as little) meat (as possible).

    • @Mike – You state: “The less resources we use on protein production, the more resources we have available for producing other goods and services . . . .” That may be generally true (you could as easily substitute “BMW’s” or “Lear Jets” for “protein” here), but it is not the foundation of an ethical argument. It is just a restatement of your own personal taste that values any other good or service more than meat. Your taste may be a perfectly valid reason for you personally not to eat meat. But it is not a reason that can persuade a person who derives sufficient utility from meat to willingly pay its cost, which ought to reflect the total value of all the resources required to produce it.
      I say “ought” because I recognize that it often doesn’t. Industrial meat production imposes significant externalities that are not reflected in the price of industrial meat. But here, the ethical and economic issue is not meat versus plant foods, but industrial farming vs. non-industrial farming. And this is an issue on which the conscientious omnivore can be as fully engaged as the ethical vegetarian. But it doesn’t do much to recommend veganism.