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June 4, 2012: Other animals eat meat, so why shouldn't we?

Originally posted on this blog.

Detractors of vegetarianism often use the following argument: Other animals kill for food and eat meat, so why shouldn't we do the same? Isn't it only natural for us, being at the top of the food chain, to eat the meat of other animals?

This is not completely wrong, since many animals do hunt and kill each other for food. The problem with this argument, however, is that it forgets one very important fact: Unlike other animals, who kill because they are instinctually programmed to do so, we have a choice. A lion does not have the ability to go to the supermarket and buy a meat alternative. A lion does not examine the ethics behind his decision to kill and eat a gazelle. A lion would not be able to survive without meat. We, on the other hand, not only can, but should. While we should respect the instincts of other animals, we should not strive to be like them. To say "let's be like the lion", pretending like we didn't have a choice, would be a mistake. The fact that we were given this ability to choose, while other animals were not, is very important. It is what makes being human very special. In the particular case of whether or not to eat meat, our choice should be not to do so, since eating meat is ultimately a negative act which increases the killing and suffering that the world is already so full of. The better, ethical choice is not to eat meat, as this decision minimizes this killing and suffering. We have the power to make this choice. This is something that the lion, or any other animal, cannot do. While we should always be the caretakers of other animals, helping them live in their natural habitats, and according to their instinctual nature, we should not negate our own intelligence and our ability to choose, but rather use these to make positive choices that minimize the suffering of all animals.

As for the "top of the food chain" argument, its premise is ultimately flawed. It assumes that we should use our intellectual superiority to exploit animals, instead of finding ways to help them. I do not believe in this argument for the simple reason that it goes against what I just wrote in the previous paragraph. It is a justification of bad habits, an acceptance of the status quo, and a way to make bad decisions seem necessary, when they really aren't. We should be wary of any arguments which encourage us to accept that the killing of so many animals is justified. The fact that types of arguments are quite prevalent in our society only encourages people to stay on the wrong path.

When I had this discussion with a friend of mine the other day, she brought up the idea that animals can be very cruel to each other, even when they're not just hunting for food. A cat, she reminded me, will play with a dying fly or mouse for hours, causing that poor creature to suffer needlessly. I told her that it didn't really matter whether or not animals did something for food, for fun, or for whatever other instinctual reasons – the main thing is that they are instinctual beings unable to make an ethical decision. We on the other hand not only can, but should always strive to make an ethical decision, to take the high road. To reiterate the point I made in the previous paragraph – we should use our higher intelligence to improve the way we interact with other animals, to adopt an approach based on compassion, empathy, and help. It doesn't matter that a cat can seem cruel; the important thing is to keep our own cruelty in check.

Some people in society will tell you that eating meat is not unethical, but I will tell you that it is. Eating meat means being part of a system in which millions of innocent animals suffer and die, when, with the availability of more and more meat alternatives, they really don't have to. As long as we accept this as being "necessary", as long as we partake in this cyclical death machine, we are continuing along a path of causing harm. Historically speaking, progress has come as a result of examining certain instincts and deciding that they were, in fact, more harmful than helpful. From slavery, to the exploitation of various groups in society, to even our former treatment of animals we now consider our beloved pets, we have set aside a lot of negative behavior to create a better, fairer, less violent society. It's about time we started to consider the current way we mistreat other animals as unfair, and took steps to start to remedy the situation.

So let's keep things in perspective. In some ways, we are like other animals, especially in our ability to feel happiness, pain, fear, even loneliness. All animals, including ourselves, want to live. This is what we should remember when growing our compassion and empathy. In other ways, we are very different from other animals. We have the ability to choose between right and wrong, to choose an ethical path, whereas other animals have no choice but to act upon their instincts. When it comes to eating meat, we also have a choice. Even our bodies are proof of this. We are built to be omnivorous, so, unlike many animals who would die if they didn't eat meat, we can survive perfectly well without it. For Effaists like myself, the choice is clear: One should cut down or eliminate meat from one's diet. This, in light of what I just said, is the right path to take, one that says "no" to the meat industry's killing millions of animals around the world, and "yes" to progress.



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