Do not intentionally cause unnecessary suffering

My plan was to talk about MOOCs for a while, and to get into some of the contentious aspects of them.  But I promised I would create a blog devoted to the issue of vegetarianism, one that would provide the context for a deeper discussion of issues.  So this is that blog.  I will spout off for a bit, but the real goal is for all of us to chime in with various points and perspectives … to think together … and to see where that leaves us.

The title of this post comes from that “moral compass” I mentioned in a previous response.  As a 40 some year old guy, my wife started to question what we were eating.  Her questioning came from both a health perspective (“is this stuff good for us, or even safe to eat?”) and from a moral perspective (“do we have the right to eat animals at all?”).  At first I would say I was just going along with things, but like everyone I had heard some stories about the process of “producing meat” and what I had heard was disturbing.  But also like most people, I managed somehow to stay as ignorant as I possibly could of all that because I knew the learning more might mean I would want to quit eating meat.  But my wife’s focus on what we were eating, mixed with some timely books (especially The Philosopher and the Wolf) meant my willful ignorance had to end, and I began reading and thinking with an open mind.

And so, back to the title.  When you read this stuff you need to try to think about it somehow.  A million questions start to surface.  Do we need to eat meat?  Do animals feel any pain and suffering?  Even if they do, do we have the right to treat them like any other commodity?  Do I think they should have all human rights, or just the right to a good life?  How do I know what I think?  What metric do I use to decide what I think is right.  The title became my touchstone.  While I think there are many good reasons not to eat meat (health, ethics, the environment to name three), if you ask me why I don’t eat meat I will tell you because (a) the meat industry causes pain and suffering to animals, (b) I do not need to eat meat … and therefore I will not intentionally contribute to unnecessary pain and suffering.

However that is my personal stance.  As I try to argue this point I try to keep a few things in mind.  First, meat eating in general is different (and isn’t different) from supporting factory farms.  That is, there are the deep ethical and philosophical questions about whether it is “right” for a human to eat animal flesh, and then there is the specific process by which the vast majority of animal flesh is “produced”.  It is possible, and perhaps even reasonable, for some people to feel it is OK to eat meat, while being firmly against factory farming practices.  The two issues can … and for the sake of argument perhaps should … be separated.  However, at least in the so-called “developed nations” the two issues really are not separate at all given that more than 98% of the meat we consume comes from factory farms.

When I try to discuss this issue I try very hard to NOT play the emotion card … I feel the argument is best kept at a rational level … that information is best communicated at that level.  And yet I do feel it is necessary that anyone who argues this either agrees by fiat, or by taking the time to find out, that factory farms are absolutely horrible.  It would be quite easy to give many examples of the horrors that happen in factory farms, and I think one can easily argue that for any animal in a factory farm, the best day of their life is the day of their death.  If examples are needed, I can provide them … I have taken the time to expose myself to this information although I hated every minute of it.  If you really do not believe that factory farms are that bad, then watch what you can of Meet Your Meat on YouTube.

OK, so let me open the floor with one analysis and one deep thought …

As I read through things (and I tried to be unbiased … heck, I liked my hamburgers and chicken as much as the next guy!) I tried to create a cost/benefit analysis.  What are the reasons to eat factory farmed meat, and what are the reasons not to?  Reasons for … (1) meat tastes good, (2) we can … we have the power to do so, and perhaps most importantly (3) we have strong habits, traditions and social forces making it easy for us to eat me … it’s uncomfortable to work against these forces.  Why should we not eat factory farmed meat?  Well (1) it causes unnecessary pain and suffering on a massive scale, (2) it is detrimental to our health … except maybe for some non-toxic fish, (3) factory farming causes more harmful emissions to our environment than all forms of transportation combined, (4) because factory farms must use massive amounts of antibiotics to keep their genetically mutated and generally insane animals alive for long enough they provide the perfect breeding ground for the next supervirus.  Honestly, there are more reasons not to eat meat … but those are the four I found most compelling.

Now the philosophy.  A Philosopher named John Rawls writes a lot about social justice.  He proposed a concept he calls the “original position”.  The idea is this … let’s say you are a human about to be born into the world, but you have no idea of what gender or race or social status you’ll be, or where in the world you will be born.  However you have the power to shape the world … to distribute wealth and rights … from that original position, would you eliminate horrors like slavery, or child warriors … or any other form of living that you wouldn’t want to suddenly find yourself born into?  Mark Rowlands extended this notion to include animals … you are again in the original position but this time you only know you will be dropped onto the planet as some life form … human or animal.  Would you allow factory farms to exist knowing you might be born into one?  Just an interesting perspective to think about.

OK, this has been a little rambly, but hopefully it will serve as a good basis for discussion.  Please, come at me!  🙂  Let’s just try our best to keep our issues clear.  It’s so easy to get things confused in this debate.  But that aside, let’s enjoy thinking together.

6 Replies to “Do not intentionally cause unnecessary suffering”

  1. Hello Steve, I’m one of your students on Coursera’s Intro to Psychology.

    It was on Maddox’s website that I first saw one pro-meat argument. It wasn’t really pro-meat, it was more like fighting against the anti-meat.

    He is strong in his opinions and in the way he expresses his points of view but the point he made in one of his posts is that lots of animals are harmed or killed when harvesting grain that vegetarian people may consume:

    I’m not showing this to say that I disagree with what you posted, just to add another point of view, that, even if the source of the information is a bit extreme, could make an interesting point.

    I have a gluten free diet, so I understand what it is to have a different diet than most people (although I eat and love meat).

  2. Meet your meat! Very cruel video indeed. I’m not sure is common practice in advanced animal farms. A friend of mine that buys meat from Holland and France and sells it to restaurants in the island of Rhodes-Greece has told me that they keep very strict rules for raising the animals and that when the time of slaughter comes the animals get into an elevator one by one and each one is killed instantly withour realising what is going to happen. That happening not for the sake of the animals but for keeping the quality of the meat without toxins. Then the question also is if a new child comes to life are there equilavent nutricious substances for consuming in order to aquire optimal health while growing up? And many other questions that do not fit in a comment area. Thank you for posting this to keep us thinking for a better world!

  3. Dear Steve,
    Thanks for this thoughtful insight. I’ve been vegetarian for 25 years (my mum still thinks it is a phase) and I would like to be vegan if possible. I agree with all your points. Several of my friends have become temporary vegetarians after watching exposes on the meat industry but it doesn’t hold for them. I think there is a kind of mental trickery that allows people to eat factory farmed meat – those who don’t think we have a given right to do what we want.
    As a side line, I’m intrigued to know your opinions on animal testing in science. I understand that psychology, particularly neuroscience, is a heavy user of animal testing.

    1. Hi Soo,

      Congrats on your persistent phase of vegetarianism. As a cognitive psychologist I am amazed at the mental trickery you allude to. I firmly believe it is due primary to the power of habits and tradition … it is not unlike the long term smoker who just cannot seem to quit despite open knowledge of the horrible death that may await them. Except, of course, with meat eating a person is not only risking their own health (primary contributor to heart disease and cancer) but is also condemning manner animals to a life of horror, at least in the case of factory farmed meat. Somehow, if you are surrounded by meat eaters, and if you have deep habits around eating meat, these forces triumph over rational thought … at least that’s how I see it.

      Animal testing … I have a published paper on that … here is a draft version:

  4. How would you feel about meat from an animal that was humanely treated? It seems that your main concern is about the treatment of the animal and not necessarily the health value. I live by a man who raises cattle for meat. His cows are well cared for, pastured properly and basically well treated. However, during calving season, he will sometimes lose a calf to coyotes. He gives his best effort to avoid this occurrence. But the question this raises is What’s the difference between animals killing each other for food and humans killing animals for food if done humanely? What if you KNEW where your meat came from? In your research about did you also research the benefits of nutrients in meats and compare the two?

    1. Hi Lori, thanks for the question. Personally, I have chosen not to eat ANY meat, primarily because of health reasons, and because of a much lower level or moral concern than that I apply to the practices of factory farms. That is, yes the suffering is much less, and completely on the level of what animals do to one another, but in my eyes it still is not necessary to cause it (we just don’t need to eat meat) so why cause it? BUT BUT BUT … on the ethical (and environmental) arguments, this sort of natural farming is not so bad in my eyes, not even near the evil of factory farming (nor the environmental hazard). In fact, for us for a while, and for many others, I think eating traditionally farmed meat is a great alternative … or interim step … to vegetarianism.

      In fact, there is a form of a contracturarian argument for traditional farming. These animals would normally suffer predation and discomfort in life, and are protected from both by the farmer for most of their normal lives. That is, they generally have a relative high quality of life. In exchange, they given their life unnaturally, hopefully in a relatively humane manner. The farmer gives, and gets … the animal gets, and gives. Of course the animal doesn’t consent to this deal, and likely would not if it truly understood the premises (would you?), but at least there is a sense of give and take.

      And that what is so evil about factory farms … they are all take. The animals within them have horrible lives from the moment of birth to the blessing of their death. Their day of death is the best day of their lives. It’s all about humans taking … there is no respect for life … and it is completely and utterly unnecessary!

      So yes, traditionally farmed meat is far less objectionable, but here is the real rub. The farmer you describe is hugely in the minority. Over 98% of the meat you eat (and virtually 100% of the meat in supermarkets and restaurants are factory farmed. One must work hard to find traditionally farmed animals, and then must pay a premium (the cost meat should be if costs were artificially reduced by treating animals like we treat produce).

      By the way, I am also not totally again fishing and hunting for reasons like those applied to traditional farming … I still think all are unnecessary, that all cause suffering we need not be causing … and I personally would not engage in any of these activities anymore in my life. But the great evil is not consuming meat, it is factory farming. At least that’s my perspective.

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