All of my life I have enjoyed eating meat. Lots of it. No one I know enjoys eating it more. Nevertheless, for nearly forty years, I have had some serious reservations about my habit and my cravings. In the late 1990s I concluded that I ought to give up meat. I was a vegetarian for nearly eight years. It was difficult. I managed to gain considerable weight during this period, having compensated for my cravings with an excess of pastas and breads. I am not going to try and convert people or make a big deal about this as a matter of conversation. I am not an evangelist by nature, and I'd make a poor example being a meat eater myself. But I believe what I'm doing is wrong.
I have argued elsewhere that the root of universal morality, the most fundamental rules of moral conduct, is the avoidance of suffering. Rationality does not require us to be moral. Immoral actions can be perfectly rational. Our conceptions of goodness are inadequate as a basis for universal rules, for everyone cannot act on these ideas all of the time and everywhere, a requirement for universality. Rationality allows for multiple, conflicting conceptions of goodness, so not every rational person can agree on them. On the other hand, it is quite irrational for one to desire or cause his own suffering without an overriding reason, and every rational person understands it. How, though, does this fact relate to morality? The way we get to a universal moral judgment is to introduce impartiality, which extends the rational prohibition of desiring or causing one's own suffering to others. I adopt impartiality because it is intuitively obvious that from the perspective of the universe my interests are not any more important than the interests of others. Thus, I maintain that impartial rationality is the basis of universal morality. Indeed, for reasons I will not belabor, here, I believe it is the only basis for universal moral rules.
It is problematical when we arbitrarily demarcate equal suffering among parties on the basis of who suffers, say, for example, distinguishing between the suffering of smart people versus stupid people, tall people versus short people, black people versus white people. In the same way, it is difficult to say that the suffering of other animals ought to be excluded from our calculations. Impartial rationality requires us not to discriminate based on who suffers. What I mean to say is that impartial rationality requires us to treat equal suffering equally, and unequal suffering in proportion to what we could will as a universal principle of action. I hold that we must extend morality to all who are capable of suffering, with consideration for the degree to which they can suffer, this latter point being largely a question of science. There is an exception to all of this, I think, namely, when we can will an action for all similar circumstances in conformance with reason, even when one could imagine oneself as the potential victim of the action.
I should like to make it clear that being moral towards others, including other species, does not mean that we ought to base our rules on mere compassion, for compassion provides an insufficient ground for morality. While desirable, even commendable, most of us are not always compassionate, and certainly not reliably enough to base morality on it. Impartial rationality requires us to apply the rules of morality, rules centering on the avoidance of suffering, without regard to our own feelings or predilections towards others, including even a lack of compassion towards them.
Anyone who is familiar with my ethical system, which I have only touched upon here, will understand how I arrived at the conclusion that we should not kill or eat animals as a matter of routine. It simply follows. This, however, does not mean I believe that we should never kill or eat animals. Animals that will do us harm should be killed when there is no reasonable alternative. Similarly, if we must kill other animals in order to eat and survive, then we should do so. However, we should do these things only when we are able to will exceptions as universal rules, given the facts at hand, and only when we can do so in conformance with reason.
The fact is that there is no necessity for a large percentage of mankind to eat meat, most particularly in the industrialized world. We have many alternatives available to us, and we are not subject to an instinct for hunting and eating in the same sense that other animals are. We are able to surmount our primordial tendencies, our predilection for meat, much as we overcome other rapacious behaviors that are more prevalent in a state of nature.
I am not suggesting that we should never use animal products, either. The skins of dead animals, for example, are utterly useless to the dead animal. What matters is under what circumstances we acquire the skin or other animal parts. I also think it is morally acceptable to take milk and eggs from well-treated cows and chickens. Liberty is not something cows and chickens understand. Their lack of understanding is partly what distinguishes a chicken's or cow's life from a human's life. Their lives are not equal to ours. Said another way, their death, or, more precisely, their loss of consciousness is not as important, for they do not have as much to lose. However, this is not to say their lives are unimportant. We should avoid taking their lives when we can. Also, as with humans, cows and chickens and a great many other organisms (though not all) can and do suffer pain, and that is what we seek to avoid or reduce, that is, unless universally prescribable exceptions for are warranted.
When I say we ought to be impartial towards suffering, this does not mean that I support bovine suffrage or other such absurdities. Nor do I mean to suggest that other animals are moral agents. Moral agency requires rationality. Being eligible for moral treatment - being a member of what I call the moral realm - merely means one can suffer or lose consciousness. I do not mean to suggest that cows are equal to people. I mean that we ought to compare the loss of their consciousness to the assumed gain (e.g., preventing a greater evil or promoting a benefit) before we act to extinguish it, and that we act only when we can will it as a universal rule for similar circumstances. Similarly, we ought to take their suffering into account and should act in a manner that would cause them to suffer only when we can accept our action as a universal rule when the relevant facts are similar.
To the extent it is possible, we must even try to imagine the suffering that our intended actions will cause the other species. To some this will sound absurd. However, our ability to empathize with the suffering of members of our own species enables us to more accurately weigh the consequences of our actions. While dealing with another species is certainly more difficult, it is not so far-fetched to suppose that those with a nervous system experience pain and disability in a manner not entirely dissimilar to the way we experience them. Perhaps this is most obvious with those species that are genetically similar to us, as in the case of the great apes. It is more problematic where the genetic differences are greater; nevertheless, it is not beyond our ability to extrapolate and imagine.
If our species survives, I am convinced that the day will come when our killing other animals for food or products will no longer be acceptable conduct. Indeed, I think it will be seen as a barbaric vestige of our past, just as we presently look upon certain habits of our ancestors. It will be many generations before this occurs, to be sure, and it is quite unlikely to take place before both poverty and illiteracy are eradicated. But I am convinced that it will be the standard of human behavior one day.
So, that is essentially why I believe eating meat is wrong, notwithstanding the fact that I do it. I am not practicing what I preach, here, and I freely admit I am a hypocrite. I am hoping that my friends and family will continue to invite me to dinner parties and such. I won't be lecturing them as I chomp down on a meaty turkey thigh. Indeed, I will try not to think about it at all. I am hopeful that future generations will be raised differently and that this habit of mine and most of humanity will pass into the dustbin of history. It would be the right thing.