Go ahead and call it "consuming flesh," if you must…
Well, I’ve had this little post by Keith Burgesss-Jackson marked to keep as new in Bloglines for one whole month, today, and so I decided it’s time to finally take a bit of a swipe at it.
Not too much of a swipe, really, because I have to say at the outset that even though I think Keith is a bit kooky on this score, I’ve yet to see him advocate any sort of coercion against those who "consume animal flesh." His approach is to attempt to persuade people to consider and adopt his values in this regard. I’ve got no argument with that. What’s more, that’s generally how the world should work when the rational values people hold come into perceived conflict with the rational values other people hold.
Do you want to show respect for your fellow man? Attempt to persuade them on some point rather than force them, or as is more common, enlisting some proxy such as the state to do it. Think about it.
I think he gets two things wrong. The first:
I believe meat-eating violates most people’s moral principles, but they conspire in various ways to keep this uncomfortable fact from themselves. Why? Because they enjoy the taste of meat. That fact—taste—drives everything.
Some people indeed either don’t care for, or are relatively indifferent to the taste of meat. I, however, am not among them. Not by a long shot. Not only that, but I like my meat anywhere from blood rare to medium rare, and even enjoy raw meat prepared in certain ways. When I lived in Japan for five years, I ate sushi several times per week. Still, nothing but nothing in the world can substitute for a thick steak, great rack of lamb, BBQ ribs, brisket or pork shoulder, or a lamb shank prepared in a tasty sauce.
Meat is satisfying to me and to lots of others on a much more profound level than taste alone. It’s a satiation that lasts for hours and is something that vegetables have never been able to come close to, for me. Saying it’s only about taste is dismissive to the extreme.
OK, the second:
Live up to your moral principles, one of which, I assume, is that it’s wrong to inflict suffering on others. This means that unless there is a good moral reason to inflict suffering, it’s wrong to do so. Your taste preferences are not moral considerations. Saying that they are, or thinking that they are, is a rationalization. And even if your taste preferences have some moral weight, it is easily outweighed by animal suffering. To see this, suppose you had a taste for human flesh. How much human suffering would that justify?
Living in accordance with one’s nature certainly has ethical considerations. We are omnivores, and in fact, it was our hominid ancestor’s inclusion of meat in their diets that evolved our brains to the size they are. We are meat eaters, by nature, and I would argue that feeling guilty about that nature is a far more important moral consideration (with its psychological implications) than is sympathy for animals killed for food.
Other than that, I’ll take more seriously the notion that these sorts of ethics apply to animals once animals begin observing a code of ethics with regard to each other and to other species.
Update: Max Goss at Right Reason also seems to find that vegetarians are far too dismissive of the pleasure meat-eaters derive. The rest of his argument is well worth the read.