I don’t hate animals (from now on by ‘animals’ I mean non-human animals). I’d never describe myself as an animal lover, but I’m not at all unsympathetic to the suffering of other species. Conversely, I’ve never really questioned why I have little problem eating them. The issue only really came to mind during the Edinburgh Science Festival this year, when I heard Richard Holloway remark to Richard Dawkins in a sterile lecture theatre which they’d failed to make homely with a coffee table and a couple of armchairs, that he considered speciesism “the greatest moral crisis of our time”, following insights from humanists and animal rights activists like Peter Singer.
I’ve started to notice there are plenty of vegetarian humanists (I admit that I used to associate it with those I dismissed as hippies). Indeed many object to the label ‘humanist’ because it is exclusive of animals. If humanism is the pursuit of knowledge and morality through reason and rationality however, it seems to me it’s not the name that’s excluding the non-rational animals, it’s humanism itself. Animals can’t be humanists, whether we change the name or not.
The time when Jamie Oliver and others were trying to expose the widespread barbaric practices used in processing non-free range meat was a good time to consider the issue, even if it meant I had to endure a few hours of that horrific combination of accent, speech impediment and gross bastardization of the English language. Let me say from the outset that I don’t have a big problem with animals dying so I can have something to eat. It happens in nature, we are obviously evolved to do so, and our species wouldn’t be where it is now if it we hadn’t (I recall an Edinburgh HSS group talk on neuroscience where Roger Redondo confidently announced that vegetarians are less intelligent than meat-eaters. I’m sure he meant vegetarian species, really). And I know if a bear decided to have me for lunch, no amount of rationality would convince it otherwise. I know that’s speciesist, but for the moment it seems an acceptable position.
So the moral problem I have is not with eating meat in itself, it’s with the unethical farming practices and abhorrent cruelty shown towards some animals on their way to my plate. The moral arguments against eating meat are just as effective in favour of veganism. After all, dairy cows and egg-laying hens are still killed when they’re no longer productive. And arguably vegetarianism alone doesn’t solve the problem, since you can still buy eggs from caged hens or milk from badly treated cows. So I decided, as a compromise between my moral conscience and my lack of enthusiasm for veganism, to only eat free range meat and animal products. This is difficult considering pork, beef, milk and cheese aren’t as well labelled as eggs and chicken, so you can’t tell if they’re free range or not, but the balance of conscience and practicality works well.