As a piece of writing this is unrehearsed an unpollished, but I wanted to record some notes before Phil Walder’s second talk on meat-eating “Should Humanists Eat Animals” at Central London Humanists on Wednesday this week at Conway Hall. I didn’t see his previous talk either, but did hear some some specific points of feedback from others. (Also in recent weeks – Julian Baggini’s TLS piece and George Monbiot’s piece in the Grauniad – exchanged info with Phil. Both have of course written on meat-eating before.) So with apologies working blind as far as Phil’s actual talk is concerned herewith some thoughts:
The ethics of human power over the life and death of animals? I see this as the key issue, everything else being corollaries or practical detail.
The fact that we have evolved as omnivores as part of the animal kingdom is an attractive argument, but also being intelligent and enlightened, doesn’t mean we should eat animals if there is no reason to. The opposite holds too, the fact we are intelligent and enlightened doesn’t mean we should reject our evolutionary history either.
What counts as (killing and) eating animals is the first definitional problem. Domesticated or wild, hunted or husbanded (?) beasts or birds of any kind? Fish, caught or farmed? “Lower” forms of shellfish – where is the line drawn. What about symbotic life forms? What about animal products that don’t involve slaughter – dairy? Are eggs slaugher anyway? Funghi? But definitions can’t be the decisive the issue.
The real ethical issue is sustainability – phsyical & biological as well as psychological & morally. What are we doing to ourselves and the cosmos?
As far as the ethics of how the animals are treated in the supply chain – right up to slaughter and subsequent handling – and how we treat those we delegate to “process” the animals, from farmers to slaughter and butchery on our behalf, or ourselves if we are so inclined.
Sustainability is a matter of respect. Respect for the cosmos as well as for ourselves and our treatment of animals.
Intensive production (eg US beef or mass poultry, say) shows little respect for anything. The animals, ourselves or environmental resources. What about lower intensity production, sheep hill-farming on grouse moorland as part of wider environmental management? A lot of what we consider “natural” environment is in fact the result of thousands of years of husbandry.
Slaughtermen in intensive production may be “desensitised” even “dehumanised” in what they are doing. [A famous US documentary exposed extreme practices a couple of decades ago.] Little chance for the human to show the animals any respect. One reason why traditional cultures (eg religious ones) have taboos, mores and rituals when it comes to taking the life of animals – even if reality can still be trampled-on by supply chain economics in any culture.
I say all this as someone who eats meat and animal products, though more fish and shellfish than meat generally by choice, and generally less meat than most who do. As a result of travel and exposure to many different local cuisines we eat a wide range of non-meat and non-fish meals. And would generally target sustainable sources, though busy-life, bad-habits and blind-spots mean I/we do have specific processed food exceptions. In a sense I/we could easily be vegetarian but choose not to be.
And I say that as someone who used to be fascinated by the slaugherman at work, on both cattle and sheep, at the local butcher on my way home from school. And I recall a memorable meal of fresh fish on a mediterranean quayside, right alongside the blood-bath that was freshly landed tuna being butchered. Interesting conversation with our young school-age kids. Out of sight, out of mind, is not a healthy attitude to the real ethical issues.
In summary for me, meat-eating is OK (but not essential, obviously) provided it is sustainable at both the physical & biological environmental level and the level of psychological well-being and moral respect.
[Post Note : My actual position is that we should not give up meat eating beyond sustainability condiderations. We might one-day regret long-term evolution away from omnivorousness – we shouldn’t lose the potential as a species.]
[Post Note : No sign of the recorded talk yet, but an interesting piece from Julie Burchill.]