Friday, 25 September 2015

The Philosophy Of Vegetarianism


Oh golly gosh, if it's true - that Jeremy Corbyn has put a vegan, Kerry McCarthy, in charge of farming and agriculture policy - you just can't write this kind of material. Well, you can, but you expect it to appear in TV comedies like The Thick Of It or Veep, not in mainstream politics.

There is a lot to like about Corbyn, but if he did appoint Kerry McCarthy to this role then either he was terribly sloppy in not knowing enough about who he is appointing, or he thinks a woman who recently asserted that "meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco with public campaigns to stop people eating it" is a good choice for being in charge of a multi-million pound industry driven by mass consumption of meat. Such an appointment is rather like putting Anjem Choudary in charge of policy for social cohesion.

Anyway, this news story gives me the chance to say something off the wall about the philosophy of vegetarianism. Some people don't eat meat because they don't like the taste of it. This part of the blog isn't addressed to them. It's addressed to those vegetarians who don't eat meat on the grounds that animals bred for mass consumption are often in conditions that appear undesirable and immoral.

I only want to play around with ideas here because I'm perfectly willing to accept that some of those mass production conditions are pretty rotten environments, and that many animals would be much better off if they were looked after better.

But there is still a philosophical question attached to this issue which is never really addressed - and that is, what is it like to be an animal bred for consumption, like, say, a chicken or a pig? The first thing to say is that no human actually knows the answer to this, and never will.

It's interesting isn't it - trying to empathise with animals - it leads to mixed results, or at the very least questionable logic. Here's an example. My wife is a vegetarian, and when I eat pork chops or bacon, she occasionally tries to justify why it is bad ethicality (always very lovingly, I should add) by saying something like "Think how awful it must be for pigs bred in large quantities in confined space for the purposes of human consumption".

I pointed out to her that the 'pathetic fallacy' (ascribing human emotions to non-human things) is sometimes likely to mislead us in the case of animal ethicality. In imagining the bad experiences of pigs in confined spaces we can't help but do so from a human perspective, knowing that we'd hate to be crammed up in fences with a lot of other pigs. But I’m not sure that says as much as some people think – after all, it’s obvious from a human perspective that being locked in a pig’s body with a human brain under even the nicest pig conditions is going to be hell for us. In other words, even if we were given the best living conditions for a pig, it would still be dreadfully unpleasant for us to be walking around all day every day in a dirty old sty eating nothing but corn, barley, oats and wheat.

So the argument for vegetarianism based on animal living conditions seems to be tenuous, as for a human the negativity of being a pig in either good pig conditions or bad pig conditions seems largely indistinguishable when juxtaposed with the pleasures of being a human mind in a human body. This really amounts to saying that being a pig or chicken or cow with a human brain would be terrible, so I refuse to eat meat.

That doesn’t mean vegetarians aren't onto something with their ethics, or that many don't have other good reasons – I’m just offering a word of caution about the pathetic fallacy, and suggesting that, actually, our interpretations of different animal environments are immensely speculative.

I think, in the end, my wife and I decided to agree on the most obvious candidate for being true - that pigs, chickens and cattle are bound to less happy crammed in confined spaces than not. After that agreement I carried on eating meat and my wife carried on being a vegetarian.

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