Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Six Years Ago Today

A matter of conscience

By Moristotle

[Originally published on June 20, 2011, not one word different.]

My opposition to eating animals probably doesn’t rest “on moral grounds“ but might be more appropriately termed “a matter of conscience.” Opposition on moral grounds seems to imply that I would condemn as immoral anyone who doesn’t oppose eating animals, and I don’t do that.
    Some weeks ago, a friend actually raised this point, although I didn’t realize it at the time (March 24). He commented: “Jim eats meat, Jack doesn’t. Is Jack justified in believing that he is morally superior to Jim?”
    Rather than face the issue, I danced around it: “Is that a trick question? What do you mean by ‘morally superior’?”
    I’m ready to face the question now, and answer plainly: “Jack is not justified in believing that he is morally superior to Jim.”

I think that my opposition is better termed “conscientious objection.” Moral grounds seems to imply that the grounds are ones on which most people stand, which is obviously not the case in America, where the vast majority of people are meat-eaters and don’t seem to feel guilty about it. Moral condemnation seems appropriate to majorities, or to a recognized authority, not to a small minority of wackos.
    Conscientious objectors to engaging in war opt out because of their personal beliefs; they don’t usually condemn others for not objecting. (And conscientious objectors have generally been regarded as wackos.)

Today, most people feel that slavery is morally wrong, but not that long ago most people seemed to approve of it. God even seems to have approved of it, according to the Old Testament. Those who didn’t approve of it, if they didn’t object simply because they felt themselves vulnerable to be enslaved, may have objected as a matter of conscience for other vulnerable people, having imagined how enslavement might feel and coming to empathize with them.
    It took more time for the “moral grounds” to form on which most people would stand to condemn slavery.

Similarly, we’re all against cannibalism, or the eating of other members of our own species. I think there’s a moral basis for our opposition to cannibalism in terms of what’s generally accepted.
    Back in March, I thought that the moral basis for not eating humans might also apply to not eating other animals; “the basis for condemning eating animals might be quite similar, given the fact that we and they have a common ancestor.” In other words, let’s not only refrain from eating our close relatives, let’s not eat any of our relatives.
    I thought of it as extending to cannibalism Richard Dawkins’s observation that even monotheists are atheists with respect to most gods (Zeus and the like), and atheists just add one more god to the list. We’re all a-cannibalistic with respect to eating human animals; vegetarians on moral grounds are just a-cannibalistic with respect to other animals as well.
    Apparently, I might have been trying to establish a basis for Jack to be morally superior to Jim. If so, I was wrong to do so.

At this moment in the history of the world, the fact of a common ancestor might persuade a few conscientious objectors not to eat animals, but it’s nowhere near establishing enough ground to support a majority. Besides, as my wife pointed out, animals have a common ancestor with plants also!
    I think my conscientious objection must flow from something more in the nature of a feeling than of an intellectual concept like “having a common ancestor.”
    More pertinent is the fact (now well established) that other animals are also intelligent and capable of suffering. I strongly empathize with other intelligent, suffering animals. As I’ve said elsewhere, other animals deserve to live as much as we do. At least as much, seeing as how they are the innocent victims of hunting, fishing, and factory farming, killing activities committed by human beings. My conscience asks, What gives us the right?

Copyright © 2017 by Moristotle

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