So the NYT had an essay contest awhile back concerning the ethics of eating meat. The all-too-simple task was to write an essay with the godlike rhetorical aptitude to convince Peter Singer to down an In-N-Out burger on the spot. Naturally, my essay was not chosen, although looking at the “winners”, I don’t exactly feel neglected. Here’s my essay (note: this is not a sustained reflection, but more of an extemporaneous thought experiment, i.e. allow your criticisms time to cool off before rampaging):
The quandaries of meat-eating. Many have come before this question, presenting the maxims of sundry ethical theories, and failed. To recapitulate: Utilitarianism relies on an ad hoc dismissal of animal happiness, otherwise it is clear that animals outnumber humans. Natural law theories disintegrate in the face of nature, red in tooth and claw. Situationism and other consequentialist theories fail to stand up to the sheer immensity of a death-conscious ethics. The problem with these theories, I believe, is first and foremost methodological. Rather than looking to heaven’s impeccable logic or earth’s ravish efficiency for an answer, let us analyze our general habits of reasoning in this regard. We should analyze how we reason about this matter already, and avoid the temptation of a golden calf.
To begin, animal torture appears obviously wrong to our sensibilities. And yet the death of animals, in abstracto, is less of a natural evil than human death. Why is this? The differend is key to understanding the ethics of meat-eating.
First, it is clear that stepping on an ant and killing a human being are acts which feature severely different moral import. Without a doubt, ants “feel pain” in the sense of sensory reception, i.e. the instinctual tendency to experience harm as unpleasant. Humans also feel pain in this way, though I contend that this is only the minimum case in which humans experience pain. In addition, humans also have a “surplus pain” added on via a self-inscribed ability to reflect self-consciously on pain. This might be called “the horror of pain.” Animals are ignorant of this phenomenon.
So what? Well, when translated into the realm of actual consumption of (hopefully, previously) living beings, the much more ominous specter of “death” haunts our reasoning. Is our reasoning above concerning single-tiered animal pain and two-tiered human pain proportional when moved to the realm of carnivorous activity? I believe it is. Pain is clearly to be avoided, ethically-speaking. Animals avoid it via adaptive processes in the nervous system, and humans, in addition to this sensory reception, avoid pain in surplus because it is the handmaiden of death – a fact they are only aware of because of the aforementioned meta-consciousness. This latter fact, and not the unconscious adaptive mechanism as such, is what truly gives human pain its moral significance. Death retroactively imbues pain with its immanent seriousness.
Finally, what advantage does this approach give us in regard to the ethical question of meat-eating? Well, for starters, it allows us without reserve to condemn the various practices of animal torture (including, in my view, hunting among more obvious activities). If humans can directly sympathize with animal pain qua sensory reception (first-tier pain), then they should admit unequivocally to their past mistakes as a dominant species. Any human, therefore, who finds joy in inflicting pain on animals is no different than a modern sociopath (i.e., first-tier pain is equivalent between animals and humans). However, without the surplus pain added on via human self-consciousness of death and mortality, I do not see why the selective death and consumption of animals can achieve the sacred weight of human life (a move which also necessarily forbids cannibalism, thankfully). This is, therefore, a careful, responsible carnivorous activity with the foundation of philosophical resolve.