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The following exchange appeared on ISCABBS (telnet:bbs.isca.uiowa.edu) in November, 1996. The Counterpoint article is my work.
Nov 1, 1996 20:01 from Buggerman
I noticed in one of the previous posts that someone commented that it is hard to justify vegetarianism for some reason or other. That seems to be kind of strange to me, it could be compared to asking someone how you can justify your belief that killing is wrong (assuming you believe that killing is wrong). I think it should be the other way around, if you believe killing is right, then you are the one who needs to do the justifying...
I don't believe meat eating is justified, ecologically, ethically, physiologically or spiritually.
It was my comment that vegetarianism seems hard to justify personally. You have a lot to say on the subject, and I will debate some of your main points below, but first I want to answer your argument that the carnivores are the only ones who have something to justify.
You are referring to the notion that an act of killing is wrong without a justification behind it. More on that below. But I am referring to the notion that a decision ought to be made on a rational basis. (In other words, I find vegetarianism hard to rationalize.) Surely if one makes a claim on rational grounds, it is appropriate to ask to defend their decision by stating the facts and logic that led to it. The decision whether to eat a herbivorous or an omnivorous diet is sometimes made rationally. Those that do (no matter which decision they make) can reasonably be asked to justify it by showing how they arrived at their conclusion. In fact, the rest of your message appears to be a defense of vegetarianism, so I am not sure you feel strongly about your introductory argument.
I find vegetarianism hard to rationalize because I don't see plants as less sacred than animals. A more mundane way to express this is that the killing and eating of animals is natural, even when humans are the ones doing it. However, more limited arguments do hold some weight with me. For example, you argue that one should not eat animals grown in confinement or on rainforest land, and I am sympathetic to this. On to . . .
Since ethics and morality could be said to be based on your spiritual beliefs, I'm going to start here.
I think the reason that meat eating is so well accepted is because of the mentality of our society, it is a socially acceptable habit, but not necessarily an ethical one. Chances are your parents ate meat, and when you were young, they put some in your mouth and it made your tummy feel good and it was never a question at that stage of whether it was right or wrong, people never questioned it and grew up accepting it as appropriate. But I think we should question it.
I want to establish at this point that the animals we kill to eat are not treated in a humane fashion while they are alive. The factory farms are designed to produce the maximum quantity of meat at the minimum cost. The way the animals are treated is not a concern to those who run these farms. The animals are kept in over-crowded conditions, disfigured, and as the animal is being led up to the slaughter witnessing the deaths of those in line in front of it, the suffering experienced by the animal may easily surpass the worst suffering humans anywhere have ever experienced and surly surpasses the suffering a mouse experiences at the paws of a cat (since the mouse lived a whole life of freedom whereas the animals on a factory farm live a whole life of cramped misery).
Most people would agree if they were to witness a day at the slaughter house that the conditions there are not something you would wish on your worst enemy. And yet it is acceptable for animals to be treated in that way. I don't know why. I have asked people who condone meat eating why it is ok to treat animals in this way, but humans, for some reason, have the "right" to be free from such suffering.
So I ask you, what is it about being human that gives us the right to be free from such suffering, a right which we deny animals everyday we eat meat. What is it about a human life that makes it worth so much compared to an animal's life which obviously is worth so little except to the end that it provides us with the flesh we crave? There must be something extremely wonderful about being a human being which entitles us to such a privelidge [sic]. Here are some of the answers I've heard:
"Human beings are more intelligent than animals and our superior intelligence gives us the right to be free from the suffering we impose on animals" So intelligence is a standard by which we rate the worth of a being... I guess that means that the lives of higher intelligence people are worth more than those of lower intelligence. So if one of two people had to die, we should choose to kill the stupider one? Would that be ethical? Would you say that Einstein's life was worth more than yours? Well, not to you it's not, similarly, your life is not worth more to a cow than the cow's life. And your meat eating habit is certainly not worth more to a cow than its life. But the cow has no choice. It's a matter of "We do because we can" not "We do because it is ethical and it is ethical because we have higher intelligence". Ok, maybe we can just call it ethical because we have the technology, we have the power and the dominance over animals to subdue them and eat them. If this were the case, then it would be ethical to abuse children, after all we have power, intelligence and dominance over them. Any child abuser could use this same argument "I do because I can and therefore it is ethical". Hmmm.... this doesn't seem right either. Here's another one I've heard: "Human beings intrinsically have more worth than animals. Merely by virtue of being born a human, gives our lives more worth than an animals therefore we have the right to be free from suffering, but animals, not having been lucky enough to be born human, do not have this right. God has ordained it this way."
I would say why stop there? why not say by virtue of being born white gives you more rights or by virtue of being born Nazi gives you rights which others don't have. That's what Hitler assumed, and he also claimed that God had ordained it that way. This argument can be used by anyone who has ever oppressed someone else and has been many times throughout history. It seems to me that meat eaters today (who believe it is morally justified) are repeating the same ethical mistakes every oppressor/dictator in history has made. "Humans have morality which animals don't have our superior morality gives us rights which other animals don't have"
This is a funny one. To claim you have morality and then turn around and use it as a justification for slaughter. If you have morality then open your eyes and see it isn't so wonderfully moral to kill things.
Your arguments seem aligned with those of Peter Singer. I have his book, Practical Ethics. He is credited with starting the animal rights movement with his book Animal Liberation. If you have not read him, I recommend Practical Ethics as a great overall discussion of ethics.
However, your point about conditions in a factory farm is just as applicable to plants. We crowd them in an unnatural way, spray them with chemicals, disfigure them (ever detasseled corn, or for that matter, pruned a plant?), and they witness the deaths of those in line behind them.
If you think that sounds ridiculous, I have to point out that it is equally ridiculous to assume that a cow or chicken led to the slaughter understands the deaths of the ones ahead in line any more than a plant does. I probably get more stress in rush hour than a cow does in the slaughter line. I am not arguing that animal factory farms are ethical, but I am arguing that the same can be said of a corn farm.
So are you going to stop eating anything you don't grow and kill yourself? Some people do.
Your argument that intelligence is irrelevant to animal rights serves to strengthen my position. Plants seem to be in the same position as primitive animals. They are vulnerable and their life is worth something to them. By your argument, they deserve the same protection as animals.
Again, I'm not arguing that it is wrong to eat plants, but is it more ethical to boil a potato than to boil an egg?
I've read people claiming that our bodies were designed to eat meat. But I don't really think that is the case. Our canines aren't all that big, not like those of a real carnivore, like a wolf or tiger.
here is a passage from a booklet by a spiritual master (Suma Ching Hai):
The structure of the human body is not suited for eating meat. This was demonstrated in an essay on comparative anatomy by Dr. G. S. Huntingen of the Colubia [sic] University. He pointed out that carnivores have short small and large intestines. Their large intestine is characteristically very straight and smooth. In contrast, vegetarian animals have both a long small intestine and a long large intestine. Because of the low fiber content and high protein density of meat, the intestines do not require a long time to absorb nutrients; thus, the intestines of canivores [sic] are shorter than those of vegetarian animals.
Our bodies are not designed. They have evolved to be omnivorous. True carnivores have difficulty eating plants and true herbivores have difficulty eating animals. We are in the evolutionary middle position. Our bodies have some characteristics of both, and we have no trouble eating just about anything. We weren't always hunters; originally we were scavengers. Some of the earliest evidence of human tools is the use of chisels to break open animal bones and feed on the nutrient rich marrow left behind by the carnivores. We sure didn't die out due to colon cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. But our health crisis is caused by bad health habits. Among them I would certainly count eating too much meat. But we get too little exercise and drink too many diuretic drinks, and that is the real real reason food putrefies [sic] in peoples' intestines, as well as why they have so many allergies, aches and pains. Chronic dehydration, lack of exercise, poor circulation lead to slow digestion, and that's the least of our problems. But strict vegetarianism won't solve anything. Instead, eat less fatty food, cut down on sugar and white flour, eat more raw fruits and vegetables, stop smoking, trade coffee and Coca-cola for water and fruit juice, and get a half an hour of exercise daily.
Putting our worlds resources towards the production of meat is environmentally taxing on our ecosystem. From the same booklet as above:
Raising animals for meat has its consequences. It leads to rain forest destruction, global heating, water pollution, water scarcity, desertification, misuse of energy resources and world hunger. The use of land, water, energy and human effort to produce meat is not an efficient way to use the earth's resources.
This is the strongest of your arguments from my point of view. We are taxing our environment beyond its capacity to recycle. So this is a strictly practical consideration. On the other hand, you argue that meat production is making people die of malnutrition. No, the real cause of malnutrition is political. If we suddenly stopped producing meat today, people would still die of hunger, and the big grain farmers would switch over to other cash crops.
Here once again, I can only quote the masters. Apart from this Master Ching Hai that I have been quoting in the above paragraphs who is a strong advocate of vegetarianism, the Buddha also promoted vegetarianism. A Hindu precept: "People can't get flesh without killing things. A person who hurts sentient beings will never be blessed by God. So, avoid taking flesh".
Here is a quote from St. Paul "It is good neither to eat flesh nor to drink wine" (Romans 14:21). One of the main commandments in christianity is "Thou shalt not kill."
People who claim that this only applies to humans are putting words in God's mouth, the commandment does not read "Thou shalt not kill humans." This is a similar central concept in buddhism too.
(Genesis 9:4) "But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof shall ye not eat"
A final quote from Master Ching Hai:
Not killing or otherwise harming other living creatures is of obvious benefit for them. Less obvious is the fact that refraining from harming others is equally advantageous for ourselves. Why? Because of the law of karma.
Master Lien Ch'ih:"Kill its body, and eat its meat. In this world there is no one more cruel, malevolent, atrocious and evil than this man. How can he ever claim that he himself has a good heart?"
Menicius:"If you see it alive, you can't bear to see it die, and if you hear it groaning, you cannot bear to eat its meat; so the real gentleman keeps far from the kitchen."
Buddha:"If there was no one eating meat, then no killing would happen. So eating meat and killing living beings are of the same sin."
Einstein:"I think the changes and purifying effects that a vegetarian diet have on a human being's disposition are quite beneficial to mankind. Therefore it is both auspicious and peaceful for people to choose vegetarianism."
They beseech the Lord with whining prayers for compassionate help or gracious mercy, yet never for a moment ever think of themselves granting mercy to the innocent creatures which are bred and slaughtered for their benefit.
Chinese Zen Master Han Shan Tzu:"Go quickly to the market to buy meat and fish and feed them to your wife and children. But why must their lives be taken to sustain yours? It's unreasonable. It will not bring you affinity with Heaven, but make you become dregs of Hell!"
Leo Tolstoy:"As long as there are slaughter houses, there will be battlefields. A vegetarian diet is the acid test of humanitarianism."
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If you are going to quote the Bible to support vegetarianism, goodness knows you should be aware that Genesis gives cattle and other animals to man to be his food. This occurs after the great flood. Man is specifically told which animals are to be used as food. In this context, when you claim that "thou shall not kill" is a commandment of vegetarianism, you are certainly guilty of revisionism.
Now I am not Buddhist, and therefore your arguments about Karma are meaningless to me, but please explain how exactly killing plants creates "minimal" karmic hindrance. Also can you please spell out the 2.5 hour ritual that every vegetarian needs to practice daily to rid themselves of this hindrance. Do you do this? And finally, can you explain why you consider the mutilation by pruning of plants to be beneficial when you use the same to condemn animal farmers? How is it ethical to force plants to grow more fruit or to reproduce asexually? Some people think it is only ethical to eat fruit which falls to the ground. Do you do this?
I look forward to your reply.
Buggerman did not reply. However, I would be very interested in hearing your comments.