Most of you who know me well will have been subjected to this screed at one point or another. For the rest, welcome!
My vegetarianism has a bit of an idiosyncratic origin. I don’t especially care about animals – insofar as I can tell, from the little scientific literature I’ve taken the time to read, most of what we commonly call “animals” don’t have robust enough neurosystems to warrant the ethical stature we grant to human beings. We are finding out more about the way animals view themselves – the limited self-awareness of dogs springs to mind – but that still doesn’t really qualify. Dolphins and some chimps might, but then, most people don’t make a habit of eating apes.
Even aside from important qualitative differences in neurosystems, arguments along the lines of Peter Singer’s don’t really do a lot for me. Arguments like his – performing a calculus of frustrated as opposed to satisfied desires of morally significant beings (of which he does count the greater majority of animals, due in large part to their ability to experience pain – a decidedly problematic claim without appropriate evidence) – just doesn’t get off the ground if you’re not a utilitarian. At this point, I would count myself somewhere in the uncomfortable space between virtue ethicist and deontologist, so I’m definitely left unimpressed with some aggregate of tallies.
As a final statement on animals, though they don’t figure in my decision to pursue vegetarianism, in that way: it’s not to say that I endorse just any conduct regarding them. It’s an old idea, but one well articulated by Kant. We should have laws, and actively enforce them, regarding the welfare of animals (eg, not submitting them to the indignities of battery farming, not being able to shoot dogs in the street, and various other unpleasantries) not for their own benefit, but to decrease the risk of viciousness in the populace. It may be putting the cart before the horse, but there does seem to be a correlation between those who treat animals with disdain and those who treat humans in the same manner. It is a question of psychology as to whether the two spring from the same source, or if the first leads to the second. Barring proof of the correlation, to treat beings who certainly do experience pain, albeit in some limited manner, in an off-hand way is an undignified action for creatures like us. And that should be motivation enough to stay one’s hand.
So, if not les animaux, what then motivates me?
Humanity, of course!
Uncommonly known though it is, agriculture is a larger cause of anthropogenic climate change than all of our planes, trains, and automobiles (in that it is a much larger source of methane and nitrous oxide, the effects of which are far more potent than CO2). Climate change has the propensity to cause so much trouble for humanity in the near future that it is frankly stupid. Already, we are seeing a much higher incidence in large-scale storms and the migration of island populations to mainlands, directly in response to raising sea levels. And this isn’t anything, yet. I’ll not provide links here, but a quick search online by anyone who might disbelieve me will quickly corroborate what I say.
So, given that this is looming down upon us with such grimness, what are the choices open to us? Though I might not consider animals worthy of (full) moral consideration, I certainly do hold humans in such regard. It would be a strange calculus indeed to try and pick out just how culpable one individual might be in the changing of the climate, but, fortunately for me, that’s not the business I’m in. We more-or-less know how we are adding to the green-house effect, and, coupled with the projections regarding environmental and urban degradation, the ethical choice seems clear. It is imperative that we make some effort to curb this destructive behaviour. Now, of course, the best thing to do is radically re-orient ourselves, to switch entirely to more sustainable modes of life. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone with the gumption or even the where-withal to do that.
By comparison, it is (more) affordable to switch to a vegetarian diet, and quite easy to do. Compared with the average diet of middle-class Westerners (who are the primary culprits here), that of the vegetarian is far more healthy. There are few people who need to eat meat, and even for them, the impact that such few animals would be negligible. The main concern is that we end the aggressive use of battery farming, and the attendant production of corn to support it (itself a frightfully destructive practice).
I’ll grant you, my own choice is likely making a very small impact, but, if we are to sell this idea of “voting with one’s pocket-book” (and I am aware of the fallacy of thinking we can buy our way to equality), we do have to make some effort at it. Luckily for me, I’m both sound-of-body and wealthy enough that I can make such a change, but then, the majority of other people should be as well. This is just a small step in the effort to keep this planet habitable – and make no mistake, that is what is at stake here.
Chances are, the jig is already up, and despite whatever we can muster, we’re all going to burn anyways. Luckily for me, it’s the utilitarians who are worried about results.