Author Topic: On the side of angels or devils - Opinion Piece  (Read 816 times)

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On the side of angels or devils - Opinion Piece
« Reply #1 on: July 02, 2012, 04:43:21 PM »
Is it morally wrong to eat animals? The debate is one that is ripe with contradictions and hard-fought, passionate views.

A man and his dog waited at the lights. Tall man, black Staffie, no lead. The man crouched beside the animal, one hand on its glossy flank, the other gently tickling under its collar.

Man-to-dog. The message was complex; communing, controlling, safekeeping. When the lights changed the two animals crossed together, but at the man's behest, the canine gazing up at his master with evident adoration.

Was this relationship wrong? Was it immoral? Was it different in kind from eating animals? And is that also wrong?

Well, yes, yes, no and yes, if you follow animal rights arguments to their logical conclusion.

The anti-meat arguments are a compelling mix of logic and sentiment. Thoroughly applied, however, they would end virtually all our relationships with animals. No butchers, farm animals, lab-rats, hunting or zoos, but also no police dogs, guide dogs, horse-racing, pets. The only animals left in most people's lives would be insects and bacteria.

Let me confess straight up that, as a largely unrepentant lifetime carnivore, I'm not proposing a definitive answer to the meat question. Indeed, it surprises me that most people are so comfortably ensconced as either qualmless carnivores or vociferous vegetarians, since my own attempts at understanding reveal only murk and more murk.

It's no mere dietary thing, meat. To be sure, even dietary things can induce death by overthinking, given the environmental and political football food has become. But meat goes also to history, human rights and, if you will, ontology - our place and purpose in the universe.

There are  over-simplifications on both sides. Vegos often assume their stance is supported by our latter-day understanding of humanity as embedded in (rather than master of) the animal kingdom. As though making animals kin automatically precludes our eating them (though it clearly doesn't preclude their eating us). As though cooking spag bol were the moral equivalent of feasting on granny.

Carnivores tend to argue from biological primitivism - our canine dentition, our need for iron and our urge to hunt seeming to endow meat with a natural ''rightness''.

''If we kill for food, not for sport or cruelty,'' they typically reason, ''it's natural, and therefore legitimate.''

Neither argument is exactly rigorous. On the one hand, being brothers in the animal kingdom never stopped lion eating gazelle.

On the other, while primitivism appeals to our sense of deep purpose, it ignores that the point of civilisation - the great human task - is to transcend the primitive and find our inner angels.
But illogic has never inhibited popularity. Of the two viewpoints, meat-eating is certainly more widely held, but vegetarianism has a growing moral edge. Polemics on the evils of meat range from earnest documentary such as Anna Krein's Quarterly Essay, ''Us and Them'', to novels such as Ruth Ozeki's wonderful, funny and bleak My Year of Meats, Mark Lewis's wonderfully weird film The Natural History of the Chicken, and even, arguably, Chris Noonan's Babe.

However you look at it - environmentally, financially, health-wise - meat is bad, destructive and gobsmackingly expensive. It takes more than 100,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef; 900 for a kilo of wheat. Animal protein requires eight times as much fossil fuel as plant protein and, through flatulence, releases almost half the global emissions of methane, which is more than 20 times as greenhouse-destructive as carbon dioxide.

Animal farming is also intensively polluting, producing, says the animal rights philosopher Gary Francione, 130 times the waste of the entire human population, most of it dumped straight into waterways, leading to nitrogen eutrophication.

Then there's the land question: per calorie, animals occupy 20 times as much land as plants, on top of which about 40 per cent of world grain goes to feed farm animals.

Then there's health - the cancers and miscarriages, the hormones and plastics, the pesticides, the genetic engineering (theirs), the obesity (ours). According to the RSPCA, about half of all Australian beef cattle are still injected with synthetic growth hormones.

Which is to say, if store prices reflected the true cost of meat, the already stark price differential would increase stratospherically.

Yet these arguments, however  persuasive, are still not core. They represent the practical, utilitarian wing of anti-meatism; sensible, demonstrable adages that can be at least partially satisfied by reducing (rather than ending) meat consumption.

The core vegan argument is moral. This makes it far more hardline, far harder to appease; using animals for our own ends is, simply, wrong. How does it work, this morality of meat?
Even serious animal rights philosophers - Peter Singer, Robert Garner, Gary Francione, Tom Regan - are not above emotive manipulation. In fact, they revel in it. Regan tells an especially gruesome story of Chinese restaurant patrons selecting their caged cats and dogs, and the appalling live scalding-and-skinning that follows.

Emotivism is understandable. It's an emotional subject. Our cruelties to animals are vast in scale and in their determination, duplicity and depravity. From shark fin soup (with finless sharks left to suffocate slowly, spiralling to the sea bottom) to routine chemical and cosmetic testing on the eyes of captive dogs and rabbits (detailed by Francione) and the frantic scrabbling of a thousand lobsters, as described in David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, habitual animal treatment undertaken in our name makes the notorious ABC footage of Australia's live cattle trade look like play school.

Francione and others even argue against dairy products on the grounds that cows are constantly ''raped'' and kept pregnant to sustain lactation, losing their calves moments after birth.
Yet, by themselves, these cruelties will not end meat- or cheese-eating, since most of us respond with the ''can't they just kill or milk animals humanely?'' line. No, Francione would say, they can't - not on anything like the scale or cost of demand. This industry requires animals be kept caged, drugged, beakless, clawless, enfeebled and out of sight for their entire existences.

Some Westerners have adopted the challenging position of eating only meat they have  killed. But for most of us this is practically impossible, as well as distasteful.

It might be possible - with a lot more regulation and vastly more money - to eat, infrequently, only small portions of meat that has been reared and killed decently.
Yet the core question remains: is even humane, organic meat wrong?

We know it is possible for humans to survive without meat. Certain Asian, neolithic and pantheistic cultures have done it for centuries. The Jains use no animal product; others kill and eat meat but with sacred respect.

Yet it is fair to say that human dominance over nature (the so-called Judeo-Christian view) is a core Western concept which, though it may yet precipitate our downfall, has also underpinned our success.

Many see this as sinful. They blame Descartes' view that animals lacked inherent moral status. (Anna Krien wrongly interprets the Cartesian Cogito - ''I think, therefore I am'' - as an expression of human supremacy, when its real significance was as the residual, hard-core truth after Descartes' exhaustive ''universal doubt''.)

It wasn't until the 19th century that animals began to be considered as moral entities. Jeremy Bentham is widely regarded as having founded the animal rights movement, when he  argued in 1823 that: ''The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?''

Francione's book offers an extensive catalogue of animal suffering at human hands - in farms, zoos, circuses, laboratories and puppy mills. But the entire argument rests on two principles: the Principle of Equal Consideration, and the Humane Treatment Principle.

The first requires that the life of an animal be taken as the moral equivalent of a human life. The second holds that humans should inflict suffering on animals only when necessary.

When is animal suffering necessary? Well, never, really. Francione argues that it is seldom true - even in drug-testing, which he says is  more degrading and less effective than is generally known - that our survival demands animal suffering.

It is hard to fault Francione's argument if you accept his principles. But do we accept the principles?

The Equal Consideration principle makes the other redundant, since if animals are human-equivalents, it is obvious that unnecessary suffering should be avoided (although equally obvious that we do not achieve this).

Francione and other animal-rights theorists typically use slavery as proof that neither tradition, nor culture, nor economics constitutes sufficient reason to perpetuate a wrong.

Millions of us, they argue, were fine with slavery. We made owning people possible for ourselves by believing them our moral inferiors. This is what we do with animals. That was wrong then; this is wrong now.

But this is Francione's mistake. The wrongness of owning humans does not necessarily imply the same about animals.

It all hinges on the idea of moral equality. For the slavery analogy to be valid, the Principle of Equal Consideration must be in place. We must regard animals as our moral equivalents. Do we, though? Even in our finest moments, do we really think a grasshopper weighs as much - morally - as a human?

Moreover, the slavery analogy would outlaw even pet-owning, pets being  dependent on our whims and predilections. But there are issues here, besides the frank hypocrisy with which Francione himself dedicates his book to his shaggy white dog Bonnie, who he says is ''a person, a member of the moral community'' but whose veganism is clearly his choice, not hers.

It's not simply that I can conceive of no happier creature than the brown Burmese curled up beside me right now, snoring, belly up. Undignified, yes; miserable, no.

Or even that, without pets and farming, entire species would vanish. Children would grow up knowing nothing of animal life beside the ants they must treat as equals.

It's more that, in the end, we are different. Animals clearly suffer. Some of them at least are clearly conscious, sentient, emotional. But you don't see dogs having moral qualms about chewing on a chicken leg. The mere fact that we put ourselves through this anguish sets us, I believe, apart.

We are, all of us, angel and devil. Francione's is perhaps the angel voice, and we need these voices. But we are also rampant, hunting carnivores. Devilment is part of our humanity, part of our species beauty. Our truth.

So where does it leave us? I'm going with balance, extending Michael Pollan's ''eat food, mostly plants'', with ''make meat a treat'', and holding my breath until they grow steak-and-kidney on passionfruit vines.
« Last Edit: July 02, 2012, 09:26:08 PM by WA Export News »