No moral escape from vegetarianism

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When I tell people I am a vegetarian, I get a myriad of responses. Most people are curious about why I decided to give up meat, some want to know how I get my protein, and some want to know how that weird Morning Star/ Boca food tastes.

When I tell people they also shouldn’t eat meat, they get downright offended. The response I get then is usually, “Who cares; they’re just animals. They wouldn’t even be alive if it wasn’t for us. They are stupid, incapable of reason, and they don’t know better. Besides, you can’t tell me it’s wrong to eat meat. That’s just your opinion.” But the morality of eating meat is not just a matter of opinion.

Before I begin, I would like to say that I understand eating meat is a huge part of American culture. Meat commercials lead you to believe that eating meat is an “American” activity. In fact, the phrase “Where’s the beef?” seems to be the embodiment of what meat means to Americans. “Where’s the beef?” translates to “Where’s the substance?” or “Where’s the important stuff?” A meal consisting of a juicy steak has traditionally been a sign of wealth and prosperity. The meat is an important economic driving force, as well. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the beef industry in 2003 was valued at $70 billion dollars. The beef industry produced 26.3 billion pounds of meat from 35.5 million cattle during that time. Many people feel the success of the beef industry has been gained unfairly on the backs of animals. The Humane Society reports on the horrid conditions under which these animals are not only kept, but also killed. These animals live under cramped conditions where they cannot move for their entire adult lives. Animals often have body parts removed without being anesthetized. Cows are sometimes skinned while they are alive and conscious.

While regulations are put in place to try to ensure a painless death for cows, those regulations do not extend to poultry, which makes up 95 percent of the animals killed for consumption in the United States. The reality of the situation is that regardless of regulations put in place to ease the torment of animals farmed for food, the guidelines are often not met.

Claiming the morality of eating meat is just a matter of opinion implies that the morality of eating meat can be determined by personal preference. However, that claim reduces the morality of meat consumption to one of a preference to red over green, or vanilla over chocolate. This claim seems as false to me as saying that gratuitous torture of babies can be wrong for you, but right for me. Killing animals for food is not a subjective matter any more than the gratuitous torture of babies is, if, as I will argue, there is no morally relevant difference between animals and babies. The state should recognize the immorality of the practice of slaughtering animals for food, and make the practice illegal.

There are two arguments that defeat the majority of the objections from meat eaters. The most popular objection from the meat eater is one that claims it is morally permissible to eat animals because they are animals. However, this objection fails. While it is true that animals are animals, nothing in that claim explains why it should be okay to consume them.

This objection is similar to a sexist argument. While the sexist might want to claim that a woman should not be entitled to equal pay because she is a woman, the sexist hasn’t said anything about her womanhood that justifies the claim. Certainly, this is why sexism is frowned upon. Simply saying that she is a woman doesn’t say anything of her ability to perform tasks. Similarly, if we cite species membership as grounds for allowing torture, we should explain why species membership is a relevant difference. Simply stating it is morally permissible to murder animals for food because they are animals is speciesist in the way that it is sexist to deny a woman a job because of her gender, or as it is ageist to deny moral rights to a child because of his or her age.

The only possible move for the meat eater is to begin citing differences between humans and animals that are morally relevant. Here, the meat eater runs into the argument from “marginal cases,” pioneered by famous ethicist Peter Singer, which states roughly this: If we want to say that only humans are entitled to equal treatment, we have to cite some property that all humans have and that no animals do. But any property that only humans have is lacking in some humans. For instance, properties like language, intelligence, and rationality are lacking in both babies and the mentally handicapped. Moreover, the more properties we cite to include marginal humans, the more animals share those properties. Emotional attachments, non-linguistic communication, a sense of the future, etc. are all properties shared by humans and (some) animals. Because of this, there is no non-speciesist way to justify treating these animals in a fashion we would not treat “marginal” humans.

Given the arguments outlined above, if the government allows marginal humans like babies and the mentally handicapped to have rights, the government should also allow animals who share morally relevant properties to have rights as well. While there are numerous objections, including appeals to financial loss, note that citing economic loss in terms of sacrificing human rights and treatment is unacceptable. To say that the country will suffer monetary loss if practices like factory farming are banned denies the moral relevance of animals, which, as mentioned above, is arbitrary and speciesist.

Jes Bohn is a senior philosophy major, and is also president of the Student Philosophy Society.