Saturday, April 21, 2012

Be Here Now - The Evolutionary Ethics of Slaughter

The ethics of eating meat are so unfathomably complex, so fraught with unknowable parameters - that the majority among us have retreated into a comfortable haze of collective ignorance on the matter. This need not be the case.

Fully admitting the complexity of the beast at hand, let us inspect just the fillet d’ ethique; the litmus test beyond which all other moral concerns of dietary selection are irrelevant; the issue of slaughter.

The essential and inescapable wrongness of taking an animal’s life for it’s flesh, especially in the profane name of base culinary desire, is a keystone argument against our dietary staple of interest. Animal protein proponents are quick to address the myriad web of ecological, nutritional, and even social concerns relentlessly dogging ‘the industry’. The rapid rise in the heroification of ‘happy meat’ farmers by alternative agriculture advocates, is evidence many consumers are literally hungry for ethical eats. Yet how can we possibly get passed this sin qua non moral stumbling block that meat really is murder?

Now, there are two approaches here. One can argue that it simply is wrong to take the life of another animal no matter what - that life has an inherent value regardless of what matters to “it”. Perhaps I am more farmer than philosopher, but this reeks of a little too much wavy-gravy grooviness for my liking. I am more inclined to agree with vegan animal liberationist, Peter Singer, that a utilitarian approach is in order. That, for an ethical quandary to arise, what happens to an organism must matter to that organism. It is here that Singer’s and my ethics align, and it is also here where they diverge. That we do agree on this significant point, however, would indicate that we are perhaps looking at different science to rightly determine what truly ‘matters’ to our domesticated dinners.

For it to matter to an animal that it will be slaughtered is to make the case, as a great many authors do, that the livestock “wants to live”. Singer himself, is an artful scholar of the evolutionary sciences, and it seems straightforward that in a very darwinian sense, survival for reproduction is the goaliest of goals. I submit, however, that to claim an animal “wants to live” is to make a claim of cognitive science that the data simply does not support.

Perhaps surprisingly, we can turn to a linguist for some novel insights. In Adam’s Tongue, Derek Bickerton makes a compelling argument connecting the origins of language to the hominin shift towards meat consumption. Not via the traditional reasoning that meat gave us bigger brains - but rather - that this dietary shift thrust our ancestors into a unique ecological niche - presenting novel challenges that only language could solve. We had a need - a need to recruit our clan mates across time and space to help butcher and transport the scavenged meat of paleolithic megafauna. We had to free ourselves from the here and nowness that, until this rise of language, had imprisoned all animals of even the highest cognitive ability.

What matters to animals is fear and pain; death is truly a concept beyond their temporal scope of interest. Only from this common understanding can we begin to discuss how animals are raised, and even how they are killed. We must first accept and understand that the slaughter itself, is not as innately wrong as it may emotively appear; and then work together to ensure that all creatures achieve the most fantastic of lives, and the most peaceful of deaths.

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