Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why Vegetarianism is Unjustified

I used to be a believing vegetarian. Now I'm a vegetarian.

I remember the moment of my first conversion: I was sitting in my political-philosophy class last May when I realized, not that I should stop eating meat, but that I could. I felt like it was already obvious why it was wrong to eat a mammal. But once my vegetarianism became public, the pressure was on to give a precise justification. So after much tinkering, I hit upon a mantra that made it easy to explain it to other people: "it's wrong to kill animals in order to eat them." But why that was the case, I discovered, I couldn't really say. I wrote a convoluted email to my skeptical brother trying to make my ethical position consistent. I wrote an elegantly styled blog post refuting all the reasons for vegetarianism except the one I said was true.

But after nine months of my brothers' bemusement and my grandmother's despair, I realized: I have no idea why it's wrong to kill animals for food. I don't even know whether or not it's wrong at all. I don't know whether fish are in a different category from mammals, whether killing is worse than suffering, or whether it matters how an animal is slaughtered.

The problem is worse than that I haven't heard a good argument yet. In fact, I don't even know what a rational ethical argument for not eating meat would look like. (By "ethical" I do not mean "advisable" like the so-called desirists do in an intentional obfuscation. I mean "good beyond material phenomena, and for whose sake I should suppress my natural inclinations.")

If you'll bear with me for a moment, imagine coming across the following shape:



(In fact, no need to imagine, because it's right here.) You might say to yourself: "I see a left-facing angle with a teardrop attached to the upper ray and a dot on top of it." You might also say: "I like this shape, and so do my nineteen friends."

What you don't know is that it's a symbol in the Inuktitut Syllabary understood by thousands to stand for the syllable vaa. But that meaning is utterly underivable from its form: there is no hidden vaaness in a set of squiggles. It's a geometric shape with a meaning beyond geometry.

The same goes for ethics. We are concerned with a meaning that our actions carry to an observer outside the universe, who understands something by our behavior that we do not. We can only observe the technique that a butcher uses to kill and the consequences that befall him; if we try to explain that what he did was transcendentally evil using only what we can observe in the world, we're looking for something that does not—cannot—exist.

This is similar to the symbol above.

For that reason, I do not know whether or not it is transcendently bad to kill an animal. I am as ignorant of animal rights as I am of Inuktitut.

Do you claim that killing an animal inflicts unbearable pain on it? I ask: why should I care about an animal's pain? What makes it morally relevant? If I feel nothing, why should I make myself feel pity?

In other words, you might make an observation as to the mental state of a cow, but you can tell me nothing about whether that mental state is transcendentally bad. One could only understand that killing a cow was bad if one sat outside the world and understood the significance of the phenomenon. In other words, God knows and not us.

In some cases we think we know what God wants. "Thou shalt not murder" is an attempt to communicate the transcendental significance of murder to humankind. But in the case of animals, I do not know what God wants of me. Of course, I might say: It is my vivid experience that God despises slaughter. But in the realm of feeling, a feeling can be countered with another feeling, and there is no unfeeling judge to arbitrate the dispute. 

So much for ethics. I don't know whether or not it's my duty to spare a cow, and since I like steak, I might as well err on the side of eating meat. All that's left to my vegetarianism, then, is habit and pity for the afflicted piglet. On top of that, I have a vague sense that I will be held to account for inflicting death on an animal, just like I will for not finishing David Copperfield. But that's it.


P. S. Wittgenstein makes this point beautifully in the Tractatus (see §§6.41–6.422). Reading this passage removed the last strut from a bridge that was already on the point of collapsing.

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