Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why I am not a vegetarian... and especially not a least for now

I know many Buddhists are vegetarians, and some Chinese, at least, expect their Buddhists to be vegetarians (or at least abstain from beef).

I am not.

This story from the NY Times should explain it... perhaps because the editors of the Op-Ed page are themselves not vegetarians. Let's go to the quotes...

[W]hen people ask [whether it is wrong to kill animals for human consumption], they almost always find a variety of resourceful answers that purport to justify the killing and consumption of animals in the name of human welfare. And even when people ask this question, they almost always find a variety of resourceful answers that purport to justify the killing and consumption of animals in the name of human welfare. Strict ethical vegans, of which I am one, are customarily excoriated for equating our society’s treatment of animals with mass murder. Can anyone seriously consider animal suffering even remotely comparable to human suffering? Those who answer with a resounding no typically argue in one of two ways.

Some suggest that human beings but not animals are made in God’s image and hence stand in much closer proximity to the divine than any non-human animal; according to this line of thought, animals were made expressly for the sake of humans and may be used without scruple to satisfy their needs and desires. There is ample support in the Bible and in the writings of Christian thinkers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas for this pointedly anthropocentric way of devaluing animals.

Others argue that the human capacity for abstract thought makes us capable of suffering that both qualitatively and quantitatively exceeds the suffering of any non-human animal. Philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, who is famous for having based moral status not on linguistic or rational capacities but rather on the capacity to suffer, argue that because animals are incapable of abstract thought, they are imprisoned in an eternal present, have no sense of the extended future and hence cannot be said to have an interest in continued existence.

The most penetrating and iconoclastic response to this sort of reasoning came from the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer in his story “The Letter Writer,” in which he called the slaughter of animals the “eternal Treblinka.”

Let's leave the absurdity of the last sentence quoted for the moment and go to the two arguments above. I tend towards the latter argument, but I would add that in the case of animals such as turkeys, (and ducks and rabbits raised for food) these animals would not have existed but for their domestication by humanity. And it is clear that we have been domesticated to these animals, and if that sounds like a whopper consider how humanity has evolved lactose intolerance.

It is true that animals - moving things, to translate the Japanese literally - do have somewhat of an awareness, although it clearly is not at the level of ours. It is also true that there are ethical and moral issues to be considered in their treatment.

Humanity must kill to eat, and we cannot, as of yet, explain why A is aware and B is not other than an observed ability to modify behavior in response to a stimulus.

We can't really tell if that which cannot be responded to in a stimulus is aware in all cases; we only recently found out about the "locked" condition where people are aware yet unable to respond to external stimuli.

Perhaps everything is aware, in which case, we're quite screwed.

I tend to think awareness is substantially more distributed than even vegans are led to believe, in which case, the fact that they can empathize with vertebrates and mollusks does them no good morally in the grand scheme of things.

That is to say, if suffering is that ubiquitous, (even if our suffering, as opposed to other animals' suffering can be narrated in terms of a past, present and future), then we might as well eat meat.

The vegan has one more problem I might want to point out: what of the non-human carnivore? Should we wipe them out because they eat other animals? We could. Heck, we're almost there with the blue-fin tuna! Then their prey would be safer. But they might over-"graze" their environment, leading to a population/environmental collapse.

Which is to say, even animal-eating humans are part of the eco-system. True, we haven't been doing it sustainably, but clearly there's a point that we could, or if we didn't there'd be another stable point of the ecosystem which might - or might not - have been reached by a calamitous destruction of human and animal life.

So, let's go slow on this stuff for now, OK?

And besides, there are cultural implications to all this. Five will get you ten a survey of the acquaintances of the author of that Times article might reveal that the author was a bit...overbearing at times on this vegan stuff.

One more thing: I generally don't make turkey at Thanksgiving; and this year I couldn't decide if it was rabbit season or duck season.

So I'll be making both.

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