Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tough Questions: Is Eating Meat Immoral?

Ever since I uploaded a Penn and Teller Bullshit! episode about PETA I've been getting a swarm of comments about the morality of meat eating, what I think about it, how I justify myself etc. Not only are 500character comments very limiting, I am also getting extremely tired of repeating myself. Prompted by waking up this morning to the longest PM I've ever seen, I've decided to explain myself once and for all here. If there are follow-up questions ask them here, but please don't ask me to repeat things I have already stated.

I am using the PM in question as a model for my answer as it seems to cover the basics of coming to an opinion on the morality of the subject.  To summarize the main questions that are being asked of me here, I guess they can boil down to the following:

1. How can you justify treating animals in a way that you wouldn't treat humans, when we are all related and species barriers are just an arbitrary distinction?
2. If you don't think it is morally wrong to kill an animal, why is it not morally wrong to kill a human being?
3. If you agree that animals suffer the way humans do, how can you support an industry that thrives on this suffering?
4. Since there are mentally retarded humans that have the same IQ as a cow or a pig, and you base your "OK to kill" morality on intelligence, either it is OK to kill retarded people or it is not OK to kill pigs.

If I have misinterpreted any of these points please correct me.

OK so this is what I think about the whole thing.

First of all, all of us make the distinction between things that are OK to kill and things that are not based on "intelligence", or rather neurological complexity, at some point. We are biologically related to every living organism on Earth, including plants and bacteria. Here, we are going to draw the line at animals that possess brains and are capable of feeling pain, for the sake of argument.

Secondly, it would be an incomplete answer without pointing out that there is a biological precedent for this opinion. Of course there is a biological precedent for giving your own species more importance than any other. It is the most natural thing that exists and there is no animal that would put the survival of an animal of a different species over one of its own. The instinct becomes even stronger when it comes to family members. While mathematically it makes sense that you should kill your sister, or mother, or son to save 10 other people, there are very few people out there that would be able to make such a choice. There is also a biological precedent for eating meat, we have evolved as omnivorous animals and as such it is a normal part of our diet. However, we have developed the neurological complexity necessary to be able to override these instincts in the pursuit of logic and morality, something that we are unique in being able to do as a species. So, given that we are smart enough to be able to figure out ways to survive without meat etc, can we still morally justify our doing so?

I responded that the thing I find to be immoral is causing animals to suffer, whether it be emotional or physical suffering, both for humans and other animals. We can agree that while humans hold first prize in being able to suffer emotionally (especially since right now we're talking about farm animals, not other more intelligent ones that are not routinely killed for food), other animals have the capacity to feel pain. That should not be done in my opinion. Great, so far we agree.

The problem that follows is the anthropomorphic idea that killing a farm animal is the same as causing it pain and suffering. I understand that the US is behind when it comes to legislation with regards to minimizing animal suffering, but in the EU and especially in Italy it is much simpler to buy meat from animals that have not suffered. First of all, EU regulations state that each farm animal be killed in a swift and clean way that does not cause them pain or fear. Cows are taken to a room and killed with a swift blow to the head delivered by an air-pressure gun which gives the exact amount of force necessary to instantly kill, removing human error that might stun the animal and cause it unnecessary pain. Pigs are walked into a chamber that contains CO2, they fall asleep and die without even knowing whats going on (this happens often enough with humans that we are sure its painless, people die in their sleep without even knowing what is happening). Chickens are killed with a swift electric current delivered to the neck, stopping their heart instantly and none of that running around with a snapped neck shit. When I drive past my favorite butchers at Testa di Lepre I can see the cows roaming around huge fields, just as nature intended. Here it is really not that hard to make sure you are buying meat that has lived a normal happy life until being killed in the most humane way possible. For this reason, I do not have a problem with buying and eating this meat. Compared with how their ancestors had it as being prey animals, being chased down (extremely scary) until exhausted and then having their throat gashed (if chased by a big cat) or being disemboweled and eating while still twitching with life (if chased by wild dogs) I'd say they have a pretty sweet deal.

OK so moving on to humans. As I said I do not agree with causing pain and suffering. If you kill a human being chances are you are causing them pain and suffering. Humans know what death is, that they are going to die, and they are often terrified of the idea. Killing a person for sadistic pleasure means by definition causing them pain and that is immoral to me. Even if you sneak up on them and smack them over the head you are still causing pain and suffering to that person's friends and family, just because it is emotional suffering it is still suffering. I also don't think you should kill any animal for no reason. What if you kill a person that has no friends, no family, no acquaintances whatsoever, by sneaking up on them and smacking them over the head so they don't know whats coming, cause them no pain, just kill them. Well what fucking sense would that have??! Apart from the obvious point that you would be extremely hard pressed to find a person that fit that description, I would be also astounded and morally outraged at someone doing the exact same thing to a stray dog. What the fuck would you even do that for? Now surely there is some residual instinct of putting your own species above all others, but there is also one other thing that sets humans apart. Humans are unique in that, because of the fact that they know their life is finite, they have the capability of making choices. I don't mean the choice between turning left or right that might incidentally affect your lifespan, I mean they can make a conscious choice with what direction to bring their lives in, and even to end it if they like. Call me crazy, but I don't like the idea of robbing a person of that choice, because I wouldn't want anyone to rob me of it either. That is why I am pro-euthanasia, I feel that just because someone is not physically capable of fulfilling that choice they should not be robbed of it.

That brings us full circle to the mentally disabled. Here I find a flaw in the science of talking about people with the intelligence of pigs. First of all it is pretty much impossible to give a pig an IQ test, but even if you could I really don't think its a fair comparison. Human brains are just different from pig brains in too many ways. For example, even if a person has the "problem-solving capabilities" of a pig (only for the sake of argument at this point, I am still waiting on any citation of a mental disorder that is said to put that person's intelligence on par with a pig's), would they still have the capability of emotional suffering and distress, of forming social bonds and interacting with humans. Also there are the people around them, parents and loved ones that care for them to take into consideration. The only almost comparable situation could be someone in a vegetative or semi-vegetative state. Someone that is not capable of interacting with others, are not aware of the presence of their loved ones in a conscious way, someone with no hope of recovering the damage done to their brains. In these situations I am once again pro euthanasia if that is what the family wants.

This is my conclusion based on my moral logic. I do not think that others have to reach the same conclusion, because as I have said may times, morality is subjective. Many people morally object to my view on euthanasia, that's fine. All I ask is that your opinion be based on real facts, although I have already dealt with false facts surrounding vegetarianism here. It also irks me to be accused of having an opinion about something "just because", which I have also discussed before.

I hope I have been clear. If there is another aspect of this you want me to address, or I need to be more clear on something please let me know. Just please don't ask me to readdress something I have already stated because I wont.

Anyway, this is going to be my last post for the next four days seeing as I am taking that wonderful "immaculate conception" four day weekend and not taking my computer. If I come across one and I have something to say I might peek in before then, but if not I'll see you all on Monday


  1. First, do not test a species by intelligence, but by sentience.
    Second, aren't we animals (Technically)and by that categorization, allowed to eat other animals, as is the norm?
    Third, tigers do not eat tigers, but they eat pigs and other herbivores, hence the argument that if humans do not treat other humans in this manner, they should not treat animals poorly is a bogus concept.

    1. First there is no "test" for sentinence, it is because of this that I fell back on intelligence as an alternative (and because the person I was responding to was referring to intelligence)

      Second yes, we are animals, and yes, we are omnivorous animals. However, this was a question on morality, not nature, so you have to beware the from nature fallacy. We are animals, and many animals gang rape to procreate, but that does not mean that humans are morally "allowed" to gang rape, as is the norm.

      Third I really do not understand the argument. Tigers do not eat other tigers because it is not an evolutionarily stable strategy, this is true, but I didnt understand what you meant by the rest of the statement

  2. "For example, even if a person has the "problem-solving capabilities" of a pig, would they still have the capability of emotional suffering and distress, of forming social bonds and interacting with humans."

    ...just as pigs and cows do.

    "I understand that the US is behind when it comes to legislation with regards to minimizing animal suffering, but in the EU and especially in Italy it is much simpler to buy meat from animals that have not suffered."

    I don't know about the situation in Italy, but Germany is said to have pretty high standards when it comes to the treatment of animals, still the reality is absolutely horrific. 98% (!) of meat comes from factory faming, where animals suffer throughout their whole (extremely short) miserable life. From the remaining 2%, most animals suffer horrendously as well. Same for dairys and eggs. For a while I tried to find a way to get those products from "happy" animals, but as it turned out it was much harder than simply not consuming them at all.

    Well, from a very principal perspective, it really IS a tough question whether eating animal meat is morally acceptable. It's really hard to argue against the human "right" of eating animals in general. But in the present situation, where animals are held under terrifying conditions, the choice for me was really not a tough one.

    Anyway - interesting read nontheless, at least you seem to build a justified opinion instead of simply not caring about the subject at all, which most meat eaters sadly seem to do nowadays. :/

    1. I don't know about Germany, but in Italy there is a lot of family owned butchers who raise their own meat. For example, Castel di Guido (outside Rome) still employs actual cowboys to round up the herd in the evenings, and many places of these butchers have land on which you regurarly see the cows ambling along. While I am sure that in supermarkets the meat is mostly from factory farming, I tend not to buy meat from there, or at least if I do I'll buy meat from "Allevamento all'aperto": i.e. meat reared in the open. This is not a matter of conscience for many Italians, it is in our culture that natural meat reared in the good old fashioned way tastes better and is better for you. Where the EU regulations step in is that they have put in place the most humane way possible to actually kill the animal, which was a very important thing to address. Knowing those are in place, I lose no sleep over eating meat.

      While I can admit that many meat eaters could care less, I also find that many vegetarians don't like to think about their position either. While some will have good reasons, many just say something like "the animals are treated badly!" or "humans are not meant to eat meat!" and refuse to delve into that argument any further: whether to entertain how their opinion may change if the animals were treated well, or to accept the fact that science refutes the latter statement.

      So my question to you would be this: if you had a good source of meat, one that treated the animals very well and killed them in the most humane way possible, would you change your mind about eating meat?
      Also, do you not eat eggs or drink milk or eat cheese, since presumably 98% of the animals that produce those things are also in factory farms?

  3. You make a lot of good points in your post, and I think that diverse discussion over a morally contentious issue is important and integral to our social evolution, and influences whether or not the choices we make are based upon reason and factual evidence.

    Saying that, it does come down to what someone's personal moral orientation is. For me, I dislike the idea that another being should die for my own pleasure, especially when there are other healthy alternatives that I can get by with to fulfill my dietary needs as much as a person who eats meat could.

    That said, I believe there is a lot of hypocrisy and bullshit coming from both sides of the issue. Flawed logic and propaganda seem to permeate from both positions and that does the topic a lot of harm and leads to generalizations of character and polarization between the two standpoints.

    A lot of meat eaters refuse to put thought into it, using simplistic statements like and logic like "that's just nature", despite the fact that just because it happens in nature doesn't make it moral. We did away with social Darwinism and survival of the fittest last century, so how can you use that to explain your moral position? Secondly, mass production of meat in huge factory chains with genetic modifications to animals isn't natural at all. This lack of thought is the hallmark of someone who just doesn't want to give up their meat because it tastes nice.

    Animal rights groups, while they should be supporting the sanctity of life, sometimes think that fucking terrorism is some sort of positive solution to the problem. Some others like to pretend that animals are somehow more ethical than us, and that humans are more deserving of death than other animals. Again, a huge, dangerous and radical generalization. Animals can be plenty fucking brutal and plenty fucking unethical. There are harmless species and innocent individuals in all of nature, just because some humans kill other humans or animals doesn't make every single member of that race or species evil. Isn't that the sort of rhetoric that leads to mass murder in the first place?

    Both sides have irrational people who speak out on their opinions just to feel SUPERIOR to others, rather than to make an intellectual contribution to the subject matter. Yes, I think meat eating is a huge and immoral act and a horrible double-standard that reflects poorly on our civilization, but I don't think that justifies further death, murder and hypocrisy.

    Everyone should lose their preconceived ideas about other individuals on this topic and stop discrediting others based on stereotypes and begin to listen to ideas. We should be celebrating diversity of opinion and coming to our own rational conclusions and making ethical and moral decisions based upon these. I believe we should regulate the meat industry and one day perhaps abolish it, but don't cut off communication with someone who disagrees with you. That's a clear indication of insecurity of opinion, and insecure about your opinion being changed. We should reflect and share ideas to make our strengthen and expand our knowledge and understanding. It should be our goal to seek out new information and test our opinions, these are real issues in the world and sticking dogmatically to one position whilst shutting off everyone else only leads to further suffering and anti-intellectualism.

    Progress isn't made through hate and fear, it's through open-mindedness and the courtesy to take other people's views into account, to freely discuss issues and to measure each view's worth and merit and base your opinion upon that, not to shut off everyone else from yourself behind a secluded wall.

    1. I believe this argument has become purely emotional and full of propaganda and misinformation. Not because this is an emotional subject - which it most definitely is - but because people are scared of eachother, and refuse to accept the possibility that other people have credible things to say. Even if they don't, it's good that you took the time to hear what they had to say, and perhaps they can make a positive improvement by listening to you also. Not because you lie or emotionally blackmail them, but through reason and knowledge.

      A bit of a long winded post, and I know I have repeated myself a lot, but I hate stalemates on moral issues like this because people are so unable to see the usefulness of open discussion without negative emotions and preconceived opinions or "common knowledge".

  4. morality is a word that gets thrown around too much lately.. and as far as the if its ok to kill a pig why isnt it ok to kill a human.. I just have one thing to say about that. Do you plan on eating the human after you kill him? I raise and slaughter pigs but i EAT them. i don't just kill them and smile