17 June 2011

Roger Scruton on the Duty to Eat Meat

Roger Scruton 1 A great number of animals owe their lives to our intention to eat them. And their lives are (or can easily be made to be) comfortable and satisfying in the way that few lives led in the wild could possibly be. If we value animal life and animal comfort, therefore, we should endorse our carnivorous habits, provided it really is life, and not living death, on which those habits feed. From the point of view of religion, however, the question presents a challenge. It is asking the burger-stuffer to come clean; to show just why it is that his greed should be indulged in this way, and just where he fits into the scheme of things, that he can presume to kill again and again for the sake of a solitary pleasure that creates and sustains no moral ties. To such a question it is always possible to respond with a shrug of the shoulders. But it is a real question, one of many that people now ask, as the old forms of piety dwindle. Piety is the remedy for religious guilt, and to this emotion we are all witting or unwitting heirs. And I suspect that people become vegetarians for precisely that reason: that by doing so they overcome the residue of guilt that attaches to every form of hubris, and in particular to the hubris of human freedom.

I believe, however, that there is another remedy, and one more in keeping with the Judaeo-Christian tradition. We should not abandon our meat-eating habits, but remoralize them, by incorporating them into affectionate human relations, and using them in the true Homeric manner, as instruments of hospitality, conviviality and peace. That was the remedy practised by our parents, with their traditional ‘Sunday roast’ coming always at midday, after they had given thanks. The lifestyle associated with the Sunday roast involves sacrifices that those brought up on fast food are unused to making—mealtimes, manners, dinner-table conversation and the art of cookery itself. But all those things form part of a complex human good, and I cannot help thinking that, when added to the ecological benefits of small-scale livestock farming, they secure for us an honourable place in the scheme of things, and neutralize more effectively than the vegetarian alternative, our inherited burden of guilt.

Furthermore, I would suggest not only that it is permissible for those who care about animals to eat meat; they have a duty to do so. If meat-eating should ever become confined to those who do not care about animal suffering then compassionate farming would cease. All animals would be kept in battery conditions and the righteous vegetarians would exert no economic pressure on farmers to change their ways. Where there are conscientious carnivores, however, there is a motive to raise animals kindly. And conscientious carnivores can show their depraved contemporaries that it is possible to ease one’s conscience by spending more on one’s meat. Bit by bit the news would get around, that there is a right and a wrong way to eat; and—failing some coup d’├ętat by censorious vegetarians—the process would be set in motion, that would bring battery farming to an end. Duty requires us, therefore, to eat our friends.

(Roger Scruton, A Political Philosophy [London and New York: Continuum, 2006], 61-3 [italics in original])