The idea that eating animals is morally permissible rests on the principle that humans and non-human animals are fundamentally different. It is commonly accepted that to kill, much less eat, another human being is morally repugnant. This position is defensible from many perspectives, and I’ll explore one aspect later on. Despite this aversion to killing those of our species, the idea of killing a range of animals – excepting those we have identified as pets – for food seems to have no ill effect on the psyche. Much of the comfort of it can be attributed to distance and desensitization. Most wouldn’t even be bothered by the hanging chunks of animal body parts in a butcher shop even though the carcass of a dog or cat on the side of the road may be traumatizing. How is it that we can treat some animals with the utmost compassion while we slaughter others by the millions?
Certainly our instincts are no veritable guide for determining the way we should treat animals. We need only look at the way humans often treat each other to see that without moral guidance we are incapable of ensuring the well-being of those outside our immediate circle. We have defined moral codes that require us to treat other humans with civility even though they may be strangers. We have accepted that the differentiation of friend and stranger is not a valid reason for harming or being indifferent to the suffering of one. Is there a valid reason for our different treatment of humans and animals?
To find a verifiable difference, we must look to the deepest depths of our cells: DNA. Our genes are identifiably different from any other species. Though we share large amounts of our DNA with other species (98% with chimps, 84% with dogs, and even 14% with weeds), the structure and pattern of the human genome is unique. Though variations allow us to be unique individuals, we are all certifiably human. The instructions in our DNA lead to the formation of all our structures including the one that makes us most special, our brains.
The human brain is far larger and uses far more energy than an animal of human size should, and the number of connections in our brains is astronomical for its size. Our abilities for abstract thought and mental time travel have not been observed in any other species. The ability to grasp ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity are distinctly human. We can create entire lives within our brains, projecting our hopes, dreams, and ambitions infinitely into the future. The rest of the animal kingdom lacks access to these enlightened abilities.
One process we are particularly good at is putting things into categories. We take what we see and organize it into what is familiar and understandable. We often do this through anthropomorphism. We infer intents of non-intentional events because that is how we understand it. We give emotions and thoughts to the wind, the trees, and the waters because that is how we understand it. It doesn’t intuitively make sense for something not to have those things. We can also project these emotions onto animals. Though animals are merely responding to stimuli, we perceive their behavior as emotion. What appears to us as personality is only a scripted set of responses, developed through generations of self-preservation, in response to environmental stimuli. The idea of non-human emotion arises from our inability to understand a living being that lacks such a thing.
The processes of planning for a future, determining a fulfilling career, depicting life through art, and innovating new concepts are distinctly human. Though our modern lives have often become repetitive and sedentary, I suspect that most who live unvaried lives feel a longing for something more. Fortunately, we have the ability to change our situations. Some societies may be more conducive than others, but humans do have control of their future, and most will exercise it. By taking this power away from another human, we are committing a heinous crime. This is why subjugation, slavery, and murder cannot be morally justified.
Animals are different. They do not have this ability to design and realize a better future for themselves. They are incapable of the abstract thought required to form moral codes and improve themselves. They exist in the present moment and act according to what their instincts tell them the conditions require. They do not pursue ambitions or sacrifice in the hope of future improvement. They do not have the ability to comprehend death or the fear that comes with it. Given that they lack the capacity to assign purpose to their lives, particularly in the case of animals raised for food, their slaughter is, by definition, the realization of their life purpose.
I have been far from complete and not at all thorough in this investigation, but there aren’t many grounds left for continuing to eat meat. Personally, I’ve taken steps to remove animal products from my diet for environmental reasons. There is no debate there. On a per pound, per calorie, and per land use basis, raising livestock for food is vastly less efficient than eating a plant-based diet. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, current farming practices are simply unsustainable.
Those arguments do not require the absolute cessation of meat consumption though. Standing on a moral ground that anyone who can reasonably obtain their dietary needs without killing an animal does lead to the absolutist principle of never eating meat. On that front, I’ve almost been completely swayed, so if you can pull apart this last ethical argument, I may never be able to enjoy a real bacon-cheeseburger again.