Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Saturday, March 06, 2010

Animal, Vegetable, Miserable

I came across this essay from November in The New York Times by Gary Steiner, John Howard Harris Professor of Philosophy at Bucknell University. It's about that so unpopular subject - how we treat/eat animals. The upside to having almost no one read my blog is that I don't have to listen to those who say it is ridiculous to worry so much about animals when there is so much human suffering in the world. But if anyone cares for an answer to this, mine is that I'm an equal opportunity worrier - I worry about all suffering.

The essay is long, so here is just the first part .....


Animal, Vegetable, Miserable
Published: November 21, 2009

LATELY more people have begun to express an interest in where the meat they eat comes from and how it was raised. Were the animals humanely treated? Did they have a good quality of life before the death that turned them into someone’s dinner?

Some of these questions, which reach a fever pitch in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, pertain to the ways in which animals are treated. (Did your turkey get to live outdoors?) Others focus on the question of how eating the animals in question will affect the consumer’s health and well-being. (Was it given hormones and antibiotics?)

None of these questions, however, make any consideration of whether it is wrong to kill animals for human consumption. And even when people ask this question, they almost always find a variety of resourceful answers that purport to justify the killing and consumption of animals in the name of human welfare. Strict ethical vegans, of which I am one, are customarily excoriated for equating our society’s treatment of animals with mass murder. Can anyone seriously consider animal suffering even remotely comparable to human suffering? Those who answer with a resounding no typically argue in one of two ways.

Some suggest that human beings but not animals are made in God’s image and hence stand in much closer proximity to the divine than any non-human animal; according to this line of thought, animals were made expressly for the sake of humans and may be used without scruple to satisfy their needs and desires. There is ample support in the Bible and in the writings of Christian thinkers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas for this pointedly anthropocentric way of devaluing animals.

Others argue that the human capacity for abstract thought makes us capable of suffering that both qualitatively and quantitatively exceeds the suffering of any non-human animal. Philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, who is famous for having based moral status not on linguistic or rational capacities but rather on the capacity to suffer, argue that because animals are incapable of abstract thought, they are imprisoned in an eternal present, have no sense of the extended future and hence cannot be said to have an interest in continued existence.

The most penetrating and iconoclastic response to this sort of reasoning came from the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer in his story “The Letter Writer,” in which he called the slaughter of animals the “eternal Treblinka.”

The story depicts an encounter between a man and a mouse. The man, Herman Gombiner, contemplates his place in the cosmic scheme of things and concludes that there is an essential connection between his own existence as “a child of God” and the “holy creature” scuffling about on the floor in front of him.

Surely, he reflects, the mouse has some capacity for thought; Gombiner even thinks that the mouse has the capacity to share love and gratitude with him. Not merely a means for the satisfaction of human desires, nor a mere nuisance to be exterminated, this tiny creature possesses the same dignity that any conscious being possesses. In the face of that inherent dignity, Gombiner concludes, the human practice of delivering animals to the table in the form of food is abhorrent and inexcusable ............



Anonymous Amy Animal said...

I don't think that people who eat meat deny that animals suffer or feel pain.

They just recognize that suffering and pain are part of life.

6:22 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

I think suffering and pain are bad and should be avoided, especially causing unnecessary suffering and pain. The pain and suffering caused by killing and eating animals usually isn't necessary. To justify it by saying pain and suffering are part of life just makes no sense to me.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Deacon Denny said...

Wow -- the fact of suffering and pain as parts of life as a justification for eating animals? I hope nobody eats me!

Good article -- I read the whole thing.

One of my sons is a vegan, and the other son was a vegetarian for several years. Planning meals when the boys are home is an art form.

I'm moving in that direction, but I'm not there yet... Giving up cheese might be difficult, though!

1:12 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Denny,

I like cheese too. I try to limit the guilt by buying dairy stuff from an organic farm (see this list) which is supposed to treat the cows better.

2:59 PM  

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