Hey there. I'm new here, and I've done a lot of commenting, written a couple of silly diaries, and generally kinda eased into this whole DailyKos experience. So now I'd like to have an actual, reasonable conversation.
I'm going to talk about why I think we should all be vegetarians (and not vegans), and I'm going to try and do it in a calm, reasonable manner without resorting to cheap stunts like labeling our treatment of animals as murder, shocking you with how cruelly we treat our food, or basically getting all high-and-mighty at you.
I just want to talk, that's all.
All right, let's talk, YOU FREAKING MURDERING SONS OF--
I'm going to break this down into two distinct arguments, one based on the environement, and the other based on pure morality. In each one, I'll discuss not only the reasons that being a vegetarian is better than being omnivorous, but why I think it's better than being vegan. So if you want to read this for no reason other than to maybe hear something to shove in your haughty vegan friend's face, well, that's not really in the spirit of the discussion, but that's on your conscience.
But first, let me tell you some things I'm not going to argue.
- I'm not going to argue about your health. Health is a complicated thing, and our understanding of it changes by the day. There are health benefits to being a vegetarian, but there are also drawbacks, and exactly how much those benefits and drawbacks benefit or draw you back, individually, depends on you, the individual, and exactly what you eat and a variety of other factors. I'm not going to say "become a vegetarian for your health" when you can just say "how about I buy a nordictrac instead?"
- I'm not going to say anything about anything being "natural". I have never understood how people draw this distinction between what is "natural" and what isn't, because humans are natural, and anything humans create is no more "unnatural" than a bird's nest or a beaver's dam. We are tool users by nature, and anyone who doesn't like it probably shouldn't be discussing the matter on a synthetic global communications network. Yes, wisdom in how we affect the world around us is called for, which is one of my major arguments--but being "unnatural" in some sense that I have yet to see satisfactorily described is not a valid criticism in of itself. (Note: This means that I also reject the notion that we SHOULD eat animals because it is "natural". Nature also theoretically dictates that we kill, rape, practice incredibly unsafe sex, and die of smallpox, exposure, or starvation at age thirty, save for the fact that nature gave us a brain to learn how to tell nature to piss off every now and again.)
- I'm not going to say anything about religion. If you honestly think it's okay to kill animals 'cause God told you so, I can't argue with that, it's your belief. However, I will go ahead and assume you also believe it's okay to kill gays, blasphemers, and disobedient children because God told you so, as well.
Having said all that, let me go into my two major points.
This is the quicker of the two points, because it is simple and virtually indisputable. The fact is, being a vegetarian is better for the environment than being a meat-eater.
Land use is one of the defining issues of our times. We are nearing the limits of our capacity to produce food, we are slashing and burning rainforest to set up farms, and we are eroding the soil we use for farming.
Eating meat is a vastly less efficient way to use land than growing vegetables. When you eat a cow, you aren't just eating the cow, you are, in essence, eating whatever that that cow has ever eaten.
There was a recent study that showed that a low-fat vegetarian diet uses less than one-quarter the land that a high-meat diet does.
However, I don't believe going vegan is the way to go. While it would pay to substantially decrease the amount of our land and resources that goes to farming, if you check the link I used as reference to land-use above, you'll see that it's actually possible to use even less land by using dairy and even s very small amount of meat.
Cows can be raised on food that humans find indigestible. They can graze on low-quality land not suitable for crops, and they can turn rough vegetable matter into dairy products we can eat. As peak food becomes an issue for us, we would be foolish to turn down the possibility of using animals as a means to turn unproductive land into food.
This section is significantly longer, because I've seen it covered less in my time here. This isn't just a matter of science, it's a matter of reason and conscience, and thank you to anyone who sees me through my explanations.
The question, when we ask whether or not it is wrong to kill an animal, is "what makes it wrong to kill?" What makes another entity worthy of our moral consideration?
I'm going to assume that anyone reading this thinks it is wrong to kill people, not simply out of some societal norm, but because there is an actual right and wrong, a better and worse way for us to function. If you honestly think that killing is only wrong because mutual self-interest recommends that we don't kill, then skip right to the environment section of the program. But before you go, let me point out that if self-interest is the basis of all morality, George Bush is a saint, 'cause he is doing pretty well for himself.
What makes it wrong to kill? The human instinct is to classify. We should kill this group, but we shouldn't kill that group. It's okay to kill outside the tribe. It's okay to kill outside the nation. It's okay to kill outside the race. It's okay to kill outside the religion. Most of us, at least most of us here, have come to realize that these divisions are artificial. Membership in a group is not sufficient reason to kill or not kill.
Except for the group "humans". We are still, in our own eyes, special.
What is the defining trait of humans that makes us worthy of moral consideration? We've already dismissed the simple "humans belong to our group" argument as artificial. If simply being human makes it wrong not to kill, then liberals are on the wrong side of abortion, not to mention the Terri Schiavo case. No, we must have some quality that makes us worthy of consideration.
Thew most common answer, and the one that absolves us of guilt in the cases of abortion and Terri Schiavo, is "intelligence." Humans are smarter, more emotionally complex, and more self-aware than other animals. That's what sets us apart, and what makes it wrong for us to kill one another.
It would be ludicrous for me to deny that humans aren't special in our intelligence, but I am forced to question if we're as special as we think we are.
Chimpanzees, for example, seem to have cultures not dissimilar to our own and are also capable of altruism. Not to mention, that they have a pretty amazing head for numbers. Chimps are smart, but not only are they smart, they are emotionally and culturally complex.
Now, these are chimps. They're our closest living relatives, and we expect them to display more of our traits than other animals. But what about birds?
The captive African grey parrot Alex is one of a number of parrots and macaws now believed to have the intelligence and emotional make-up of a 3 to 4 year old child. Under the tutelage of Professor Pepperberg, he acquired a vocabulary of over 100 words. He could say the words for colors and shapes and, apparently, use them meaningfully. He has learned the labels for more than 35 different objects; he knows when to use "no," and phrases such as "come here", "I want X," and "Wanna go Y."
We are talking about animals with the intelligence and emotional complexity of a small child. And these revelations aren't only in regard to "smart" birds like parrots, we've discovered that starlings have syntax.
As I said, I cannot deny that we are special. But we are special not qualitatively but quantitatively. Intelligence and emotional complexity are scales, which have inanimate matter on one end, and the most brilliant humans on the other. It is our moral obligation to come to terms with the fact that some humans--children, the severely mentally disabled--are actually further down one or both of these scales than the brightest animals. There is overlap. A fetus is far, far dumber than a chimpanzee. A human who has suffered brain death or near-brain death is far, far less aware of their surroundings than a dolphin.
This is the point where many people, myself included, get somewhat uncomfortable. It seems wrong somehow to value an animal, no matter how intelligent, over a human, no matter how damaged or underdeveloped. But that, my friends, is a bias, not a rational response. It's a genetic predisposition we have to favor those like us, to ensure the survival of genetic information like ours.
If we buy into this idea that to be "human" is to be automatically superior, without taking intelligence and emotional awareness into consideration, we immediately run into the problem of defining what "human is". You'd be hard-pressed to find someone, outside of the fanatically religious, who'll shed tears over unused embryos created for fertility treatments. But they are 100%, unadulterated human. "Species" is a hard to define concept in the first place, and there are many problems with accepted definitions. Were the Neanderthals human? When science almost inevitably progresses to the point where babies can be genetically altered before birth, will they still be human? What about people born with genetic mutations, such as Downs' or Klinefelter's Syndromes, who are genetically different than the mainstream human population? How do we know that our definition is correct? How do we know that whatever line we draw in the sand isn't as artificial and flawed as the line that used to separate European settlers from aboriginal man in Africa, Oceania, and the Americas?
We have no rational reason to elevate all humans above all other creatures. We must, logically, view all life as existing on a spectrum. That means that while we may view killing a healthy human being as the chief and greatest wrong one can perform, we must still recognize that it is wrong, to some degree, to kill a chimpanzee, a parrot, a kitten, or a cow. It may not be as wrong as killing a person, but that doesn't make it right.
Now for my brief argument concerning why we shouldn't take this as a sign to go vegan.
You may notice that I repeatedly compared animals to children above. This is useful, in the sense that it reminds us that animals are not insensitive and unaware, but it is also misleading: an animal is not a child. It is not an innocent thing incapable of taking care of itself.
Except for the ones we've bred to be that way.
Domesticated animals are whole new species that exist because we've bred them to coexist with us. The average cow or chicken is dependent on us, and reintroducing them to the wild at this point would be both cruel to them and possibly devastating to the ecology of whatever environment they were released into. More than that, there is no reason to believe that these animals are not capable of living perfectly happy, healthy lives in the right human-created environment.
I know what some vegans and extreme animal-rights activists would say to this: penning animals up and forcing them to live a certain way, but justifying it with their happiness, is rather like rounding people into a prison camp and justifying it by giving them free HBO. It smacks of the same sentiments used to justify slavery.
Let me respond by saying: No. I'm sorry, but that's crazy.
Despite what I said above, animals are not people. I made it very clear that, while animals may be compared to embryos, children, the severely brain-damaged, etc, I never, ever said they have the capacities of a functioning adult human. They don't. They do not make fantastically rational, forward-thinking decisions outside of a very limited scope. As long as we're being respectful of them, there is no reason we can't continue to run their lives because they, and I am speaking here largely of domesticated animals, cannot effectively do so themselves.
We send children to preschool, we have the severely mentally disabled taken care of by nurses, we even keep perfectly intelligent people with mental health issues in secured facilities if we judge them to be so incapable of normal functionality that they are a danger to themselves or others. As distasteful as it sometimes is, we often act in the best interests of those we deem can't do so themselves.
We can either do so for farm animals or just kill them all. And I don't like that second option.
And if we're spending all this time and energy caring for the animals that (admittedly) we have crippled, I don't think it's unfair to use them to produce for us in return. If nothing else, it provides a valuable economic incentive for the human population to keep them around.
They are living beings who deserve respect, but they are also animals, and we shouldn't forget that we can often help them more than they can help themselves.
I've said my peace for now. My apologies to anyone put off by the length, and if I haven't added anything new to your understanding of the issue. Thanks to anyone who indulged me, and I look forward to any counter-arguments or re-enforcement of my arguments that presents itself.