Quite the meaty article, Rachit. Now I know what to play in RPS next time we need to settle a dispute (I like paper anyways because it’s an easy segue to a handshake).
Fair warning, my response is quite heavy, so as an appetizer, I thought I would start with a joke:
A Buddhist goes up to a hotdog stand and says, “Make me one with everything.”
Now on to the main course. First, some perspective on my current worldview: no one in my immediate family is vegetarian. I was, however, raised with a particular sensitivity and respect for the environment. Littering was considered an egregious sin. Wild animals were to be respected. If I caught a ladybug, my dad would make sure I let it go unharmed (‘because it has a family too!’). The practice of eating meat, however, was somehow immune from this – it was simply something that happened and was outside the purview of whatever moral principles my parents had in mind (note that I think this general mindset is extremely prevalent in many western families). It wasn’t until I lived with a vegetarian in my second year of university that I really began to think about the morality and ethics of meat consumption. About 6 months ago, I decided to refrain from eating mammals (or more specifically – animals that have a neocortex).
With that said, I’d like to dive right in and try to dissect your main point: the principle of non-violence. You define it as ‘a moral stance to not commit any intentional actions that hurt other sentient, living beings’. I think this is a fine sentiment, but it lacks practicality. By this I mean that it is particularly ill-suited to help you (or anyone else) make real-life decisions about purchasing and eating meat. Whether or not this principle, or any others for that matter, is axiomatic to all people (which is part of what I think you mean when you say absolute) is a different question, one that I think deserves its own dedicated entry at another time. For now, I hope we can agree that a large part of society (much larger than the set of vegetarians and vegans) would agree with the main gist of your non-violence principle – hurting animals intentionally is wrong. So why aren’t all of those people vegan? Part of the answer, to me it seems, is a disconnect between the non-violence sentiment and the physical act of purchasing and eating meat in the 21st century. I’ll try to illustrate my point by applying your principle to someone walking through the meat aisle of a typical grocery store.
Meet Jorge. He loves steak, but he loves animals too. He would never intentionally hurt another animal – unless of course he was starving or acting in self-defence. Today, Jorge is out at his local bodega grabbing some steaks to cook for his 2 year anniversary with his wife. Right as he is about to pick out a perfectly marbled cut of rib-eye, a thought occurs to him:
Am I intentionally hurting another animal? Well I’m about to eat it, but I’m certainly not intentionally hurting it. It’s been dead for days! I didn’t kill it. Someone else did. Did they hurt it? Maybe the cow had a terrible spine condition that made it painful to stand. It probably had a short life, no doubt, but certainly it was cared for by the farmers and had plenty to eat – something that many wild animals would love. Do I know this for sure? No. But is there enough doubt to put my mind at ease? Sure. The cow was most likely killed quickly and humanely and will now bring pleasure into the lives of my wife and I. What’s wrong with that?
Jorge picks up the steak and briskly walks towards the much less morally ambivalent pastry aisle.
My main point here is that plenty of people share this love and respect for animals and eat their delicious body parts all the same. The idea of farmers ‘intentionally hurting’ animals may have been quite real and tangible a few hundred years ago (when livestock farming was still one of the main occupations in a developed society), but it is a much more nebulous, theoretical concept now. To me, the phrase ‘intentionally hurting’ an animal is more likely to evoke an image of someone kicking their pet dog rather than the bloody stench of a slaughterhouse (not that I would know what that truly smells like, which also contributes to this disconnect). The intent is fundamentally difficult to attribute to yourself, and the concept of pain is also, at least in a more theoretical point of view, up for debate.
So if this principle of non-violence does not work in practice, how does one reconcile a love for puppies with the joy of a medium-rare filet mignon? For me, this comes down to a moral equality in the way we view certain species of animals.
To explain this point further, consider that one of the defining characteristics of the human race is our empathy, our ability to relate to others and see the world from different perspectives. As a society, this empathy has historically been often limited to certain subsets of the human race (re: sexism, eugenics, slavery). In many ways, the past century has seen great advances in the amount of empathy we give to certain animals (re: sport hunting, poaching, lab experiments). For now, we’ve generally focused on specific human occupations and their interactions with the animal kingdom. I think this type of growing concern can generally be extended into a moral principle that applies to not only other animals, but within the human race as well. I call it the principle of minimal suffering.
The principle of minimal suffering:
A moral stance that favours actions which minimize the suffering imposed on other conscious beings.
Why is this better than your principle of non-violence? Well, for one, I think it emphasizes the notion of conscious beings, not simply ‘animals’. It differentiates the act of killing a fruit fly and killing a cow. Of course, consciousness is not easy to define, but we can definitely attempt to look for signs that other species have neurological structures similar to our own. As far as I understand the current scientific viewpoint, consciousness comes from the neocortex, a part of the brain that developed fairly recently (in evolutionary terms). Since of all species, only mammals have a neocortex (of varying size), only they would fall under the ‘conscious beings’ label, though this may change in the future. There is tons to debate on this point, and I would concede that the devil is in the details of how you classify certain species that may be in grey areas of current understanding. Nevertheless, a more concrete definition is of more practical use than a much more broad ‘non-violence towards animals’ approach.
Second, the word ‘suffering’ is specifically chosen over the noun ‘pain’ or the verb ‘hurt’. Pain can come in all kinds of flavours, but it carries a connotation of a direct, temporary reaction, a short blip that carries no additional baggage once it is past. Suffering, on the other hand, requires a much more developed, complicated physiological response that we, as humans, can relate to and understand. Needlessly taking the life of a conscious being will induce suffering of other conscious beings and this goes against the fundamental principle. This may seem like pure semantics, but I think it’s an important distinction to make when pondering what to get at the deli aisle.
Finally, I think the principle is elegant in that it ties in nicely with our intuitions about how we treat other human beings. It is simply a matter of generalizing this to conscious beings of all types (and in turn anticipating, perhaps, the creation of artificial consciousness…).
So, fundamentally, I’m taking issue with your reasoning but I agree with your choice of rock. Maybe it’s the default position of the fist, but it’s certainly tempting to relax those fingers and let gravity take over.