How can we eat animals?

by Rob Tiller

Not eating animals is, for me, a matter of conscience.  It seems to me plain that unnecessarily killing sentient creatures for human consumption is wrong.  I’m very conscious that this is a minority view.   That’s being too kind: this is a fringy view.  I feel good — that is, both healthier and happier — about eating plants rather than animals.  But it’s not pleasant to take a stand on this that is at odds both with the majority of the community and with most of the people I care about and respect, and I would not do so if I saw a principled alternative.

Because the topic is a difficult one, I was heartened to see in today’s NY Times an opinion piece by Gary Steiner setting out the animal rights point of view._ Steiner is a professor of philosophy at Bucknell who’s written extensively on animal rights.   His basic argument is that animals possess inherent dignity, and that human desire cannot justify their slaughter.

Steiner has trouble explaining why most humans seem untroubled by this.  As he notes, the classic arguments that support treating human animals as privileged to cause unlimited suffering on other animals are embarrassingly weak.  It is difficult to square our general understanding of ourselves as beings embodying and constrained by morality with massive indifference to the pain of our fellow creatures.

Part of the answer is that the problem is at once overwhelming and easy to ignore.  According to Steiner, there are 53 billion animals slaughtered each year for human consumption, which is more than enough misery to inspire hopelessness.  There are also nested issues of economics and tradition. Humans have lots of other problems.  This week the NC press had stories about NC pork farmers going bankrupt, who were pleading for people to save them by eating more pigs.  It would be wrong to dismiss the plight of the farmers, but their voices at least get a hearing — unlike the pigs, who would undoubtedly prefer to live.  Steiner also alludes to the Thanksgiving turkeys who will be consumed this week recalling happy memories.  How could we give up such a joyful tradition?

The answer is, it isn’t really that hard, once the horror of the slaughter is brought into view.   There are many intractable problems of human society, but this one is not intractable.  It’s just difficult.