Friday, April 25, 2008

Animal Rights & Wrongs

My sometime interest in animal rights was rekindled during a recent visit to the Butchers. My 4 year-old had been studying the pieces of meat on display and after staring at a piece of meat that has once been furry, a proud owner of two long twitchy ears, and a cute nose, he posed the first question.

We had a father-son moment as I gave him a primer on the facts of life: 'those succulent bones that you love to gnaw on in an evening were once an integral part of the shapely form of the baby-lambs you often admire'. I was flooded with guilt as he stared back in intense silence. (I was also flooded with a worry that I might scare him off meat and he would end up looking like the goodly vegetarians who have the appearance of people with a low red blood-cell count and a lack of sleep).

If I was a true & committed carnivore why did I feel guilty about it all? Part, but only part, was not wanting to spoil innocence. I fielded the, how they are killed, and why then don’t run away, type questions. But then he asked why we eat animals at all - why not just pasta, and then ‘does it hurt’ (when they are killed). I began to worry that I might be rearing an embryonic Peter Singer (Australian Ethicist and Animal rights spokesperson).

I had read his profoundly thought provoking ‘Rethinking Life & Death’ and found myself in sympathy with a lot of the thinking (fortunately, I suffer from that profoundly human condition of living comfortably in manner that runs contrary to what I rational believe).

So as I quoted Singer view of animal rights: humans have no right to inflict pain or fear on an animal that it is reasonable to assume may be capable of suffering either. This certainly gave my 4 year-old pause to think (and for that alone I am grateful).

I didn’t mention battery chickens, the sight of which would move even a sociopath. It’s a disgrace to humanity. Never eat a battery chicken or egg - there is no excuse.

‘Would the rabbit feel fear & pain?’, he posed. I fluffed and decided we would ‘Google’ how animals are slaughtered. Worryingly, it only made matters worse.

There seems to be a large gap between the theory & practise and too few to monitor the latter. The general process is stun, bleed, and slice. However up to 30% of the animals are never properly stunned, and endure the hacking while (at least to some degree) conscious.

So where does that leave me (and the young lad) with my meat eating?
Thankfully I have a ‘Jesuital’ get-out-of-jail-free card: the problem seems to be process and not principle. Its how we do it not that we do it. Improve the process and we are all okay.

There is an great animal-right challenge for carnivores. If aliens, with superior intellect, had a penchant for human meat, would we accept that they had a right to do breed corral slaughter and consume us (assuming we were not otherwise mistreated.)?

Having spent time thinking about this I finally realised that the challenge was nonsense. It implies there is some kind of universal sense of morality that was constant from the less ‘aware’ to the infinitely ‘aware’. While there may be a universal rough-guide I cannot accept there are universal moralities. Such would be meaningless when discussed by intellects on different levels. Even aligning children’s morality with our own is quite a challenge.

Consider the endless examples of people who have sacrificed themselves for the greater good. Does there ‘ultimate’ sacrifice mean that from a moral point of view survival of the species/tribe/family is more important than that of the individual? If so then surely the sacrifice of the individual cow has ensured their species survival. One might even exploit the Darwinian argument and say that the nice the cow tastes the more like his off-spring will continue to thrive. There are many bulls, still chewing the cud, who can attest to this very fact.

Lets embrace the native American approach of respecting the animal for the life it gives us. Lets improve the process but lets not pretend that eating meat is wrong.

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