28 June 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 12

Suppose you’re inclined to eat meat but wonder about the moral permissibility of doing so. You think it might be wrong, since it requires the confinement and killing of sentient beings, but then it occurs to you that your forbearance won’t make a difference. Why deprive yourself of a simple pleasure when it’s not clear that doing so will save an animal’s life? It seems pointless, fruitless, wasteful, abnegating.

If you look at it this way, you’ll probably continue to eat meat. But there’s another way to look at it. I’ve always thought of morality in terms of personal integrity—of having high standards and striving mightily to live up to them. Morality, in this view, is more a matter of what one rules out as unthinkable than of what one decides or does. Do I want to participate in an institution that uses animals as resources—that confines them, deprives them of social lives, frustrates their urges, alters their diets and bodies, and eventually kills them in the prime of their lives? It’s a matter of not getting one’s hands dirty, of not collaborating with evil. Perhaps other people can do these things, I say, but I can’t. I want no part of such a cruel institution. There will be no blood on my hands.

One view of morality sees it as a mechanism of change, with each person being a lever of the mechanism. The other sees it in terms of what sort of person one is. When you hear that billions of animals are killed every year for food, you might think, “My becoming a vegetarian won’t make a difference, so I may as well indulge my tastes.” That’s to take the first view. But why not say that what other people do is not up to you? You control your actions. Your actions reflect your moral values and what sort of person you are. Stand up for something. Say “These things go on, but they do not go on through me!” You’ll feel good about yourself; I guarantee it.

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