"How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!" - Thoreau, quoted by A.C. Grayling in The Meaning of Things.I recently read an essay called "Speciesism", in which philosopher and Humanist Anthony Grayling draws parallels between the general current attitude to other species and historical attitudes to "lesser" segments of humanity - lesser races, the lesser sex, those with lesser spiritual beliefs.
We locate a difference that we find threatening, or that we despise; we thereby make the other fully Other, so that we can close the door of the moral community against him, leaving him outside where our actions cannot be judged by the same standards as apply within.I found myself connecting his arguments to my eating of meat. Every time I eat meat - a steak, a burger, a chicken wing, even a hot dog - I am participating in the death of another being.
After reading the essay, I was left with a hollow feeling of inevitability in my gut. My Humanist values draw no neat lines to box out that which is superficially different. My right to be free from torture derives from the fact that pain is an evil. Humans are not the only animals that experience pain. My right to liberty derives from the fact that I have consciousness, a will. I cannot pretend that my baby daughter has consciousness but an animal with whom I might communicate (for now) more readily - a trained pig for instance - has not.
Against this, what arguments could I muster in favour of consuming my evolutionary neighbours' flesh?
Er...it tastes good. I...um...I'm used to it.
Hoping that Deena would have some clever argument to bolster my defense, I read the essay to her. She got this hollow look of inevitability in her eyes. She mentioned a conversation we once had. We both agreed that if we had to do any killing or butchering in order to get our meat, we would choose to go without. It was hypocritical, but at the time it seemed a minor matter, not worth changing our lives over. Now, in light of Grayling's stark portrayal of the issue...
So here we are, several days and some heavy, philosophical conversations later. We are adjusting our diet to accommodate the rational consequences of our consciously-held values. We know we have the support and encouragement of our vegetarian friends.
We've gone three days now without meat. Not exactly a major achievement - we've often gone longer between meaty meals. But this isn't just three days between meals with meat. This is three days with no meat waiting at the other end.
Will this new era in our lives last? I don't know.
We are soon returning for an extended visit to our home province of Alberta, where this may be the most common bumper sticker:
Will our values manage, in the end, to trump our petty desires for tasty dishes we grew up with? I hope so, but honestly, I don't know.
Grayling closes with a characteristically powerful nugget of thought which should help our resolve:
A person's integrity is never more fully tested than when he has power over a voiceless creature.