Vegans have heard ample arguments since time immemorial in favor of eating meat, such as:
- The Nutritional Case (“But but but…PROTEIN!”);
- The Financial Case (“Vegan substitutes are EXPENSIVE [and produce is BORING]!”); and
- the simultaneously most selfish and most honest of all such arguments, The Flavor Case (“Bacon, though!”).
In February of this year, though, the Sierra Club really outdid itself by attempting to present a Moral Case for Meat Eating, the crux of which is that by consuming the bodies of other animals, we humans may be reminded that we, too, are animals, and that we are part of the Circle of Life.
I can’t argue with the need for the vast majority of humans— particularly those of us living in comparably wealthy “developed” nations— to recall our oneness with nonhuman animals and the planet as a whole. As we spent more and more time within the concrete walls of buildings, our eyes glued to various gadgets, most of us don’t take the time as often as we should to connect with the life forms surrounding us, including nonhumans and plants. We New Yorkers often work hard to convince ourselves that a quick jaunt through Central Park is enough of a “nature fix” to make us feel less isolated and depressed as we return from said jaunt to our offices (or living rooms, or coffee shops, or studios…). In truth, connecting with nature should be prioritized in our daily lives at least as much as learning new skills, exercising, keeping tabs on our loved ones, and other methods we commonly use to improve upon ourselves and stay happy and healthy.
Overall, we could all stand to spend a bit more time trying to improve the lots of others, as well, whether that means feeding the hungry; sheltering the homeless; fighting for racial, sexual or gender justice; or protecting nonhuman animals. Whatever form one’s service takes, service should be as important to us as caring for ourselves and our families. Leaving empathy aside for a moment, one hand washes the other; creating a more just world for others will inherently also create a better world for us— and for our children.
That said, is consuming the flesh of animals really the best way for us to develop our appreciation for and sense of unity with them? In “Toward a Moral Case for Meat Eating,” Jason Mark argues that the suffering experienced by nonhuman animals in the course of being “sacrificed” (his term) for human food contributes to a valuable social good, and that the end, therefore, justifies the means. Because eating nonhuman animal flesh may help us “remind ourselves of our animal natures,” we needn’t feel guilty about inflicting pain on nonhumans, separating them from their families, keeping them in captivity or, indeed, even murdering them. Let us first examine whether such social good truly does result from meat eating, before exploring the larger question of whether such an end would indeed justify such horrific, unjust means.
First, consider the fact that most of us in developed countries who still eat meat purchase it from someone. Therefore, right away, the other being in the equation— the nonhuman animal— is not another animal “just like us.” They are reduced to a product. They are assigned a monetary value. This commodification reinforces, rather than blurs, the line between Us and Them: they can be bought; we cannot. Similarly, various forms of human slavery that have existed around the world throughout our sad history reinforced, rather than blurred, differences between humans. This human is for sale because they are less human than I am, less deserving of freedom or even life. I am different from them, because the power is in MY hands. This is but one form of the Oppressor/Oppressed Relationship.
Such a relationship also exists between humans who hunt their own nonhuman animal flesh and the nonhumans they murder. “Hunt-your-own-food” activists would have us believe that the relationship they perpetuate with nonhumans is that of Predator/Prey, which has a tempting back-to-nature sound to it that supports arguments like Mark’s. In true Predator/Prey Relationships, however, the predator is dependent on the prey for survival. As has been illustrated over and over again by folks such as Dr. Milton Mills, Dr. Neal Barnard and the many gifted physicians at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. (PCRM), humans have no such dependency on nonhuman animals for sustenance. We are not natural predators. So in hunting, as in purchasing flesh, the relationship formed is not Predator/Prey, but Oppressor/Oppressed.
(The mere fact that humans require weapons such as guns to eliminate “prey,” while a hyena can eliminate a wildebeest or an antelope using teeth and claws alone, further highlights this essential distinction.)
An Oppressor/Oppressed Relationship relies on the separation of each in order to continue. Once the line becomes blurred between Oppressor and Oppressed, and the Oppressor in particular begins to recognize their oneness with the Oppressed, empathy kicks into high gear. An oppressor simply cannot stomach abusing, enslaving, imprisoning or killing an oppressed being once the oppressor can see themselves within that oppressed being. Ergo, eating nonhuman animal flesh can never truly unite us with nonhumans, but rather, will only further divide us, further otherizing nonhumans in human minds and spirits.
To clarify this point, let us now turn our attention to the following question: Is the promotion of a social good amongst humans a viable excuse for the perpetuation of suffering among nonhumans? That Mark can answer, with even a modicum of certainty, yes, inherently invalidates the argument that meat consumption unites us with nonhumans. To think that a potential benefit to Us is justification for the oppression of Them highlights that we are not equals, not united, not connected to one another in this equation at all. If Mark’s conclusion were true, and eating meat somehow made us feel more connected to our fellow nonhumans, then we would not want to oppress them anymore— which means we would stop killing them, which means we would stop eating meat. The only way his logic holds is if his argument were that “Eating meat once will connect us to nonhumans in such a way that we would never want to do it again.”
Suppose that were his argument for a moment. Then the question becomes: Is the life of that one nonhuman animal, from whom that one meat dish was prepared in order to convince that one human not to eat meat anymore, ours to take? Have we the moral authority to determine that even a limited number of cows, pigs, chickens or any other creatures should die in hopes of convincing some humans never to kill them again?
Not only does Mark’s argument— that eating nonhuman animals brings us closer to them— not logically hold, as we must further separate ourselves from them in order to disregard their suffering, but also even my (painstakingly extracted) hypothetical “sub-argument”— that eating some nonhuman animals now might bring us closer to the rest of them later— is morally abhorrent. The implication that eating some nonhumans in an effort to “get over” or push past our desire to eat nonhumans regularly entirely erases the rights of the individuals in question: The members of that “some” group. It robs them of autonomy.
To suggest that killing five cows in order to save five hundred is morally acceptable is akin to suggesting that murdering one person in order to save five people is morally acceptable— a notion with which I know many humans agree when presented with the famous “Trolley Problem.”
That conundrum supposes that saving everyone is not an option. By contrast, with respect to our cow conundrum, we can choose to save both the five and the five hundred— by going vegan.