THE BLOG
12/16/2014 11:05 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

The 'Ethics' of Meat Eating

Ablestock.com via Getty Images

It's been a couple of weeks since Thanksgiving, but my loved ones are still unhappy that I had, for no obvious reason, declined to attend their Thanksgiving feasts. It wasn't the lack of vegetarian options on the dinner menu that prevented me from attending, as my hosts were kind enough to accommodate my vegetarian needs by including Tofurkey, a plant-based "turkey", in the menu just for me. Instead, it's that while I would have graciously tried to consume my food, I knew I couldn't survive the carnivorous savagery that would take place around me as everyone else dug into the Thanksgiving turkey. Turkeys, forced to live in cramped cages that are too small to even flap their wings, their toes and beaks cut off without pain killers, and killed in the most inhumane manner imaginable as a PETA investigation reveals, unfortunately have nothing to be thankful for.

While many consider how consumption of meat will consumer's health, very few actually consider how their decisions will affect the life of another sentient being, i.e., the animal to be consumed. People think they are making a well-informed choice when they avoid meats pumped full of hormones and treated with heavy antibiotics, but I question how such educated consumers could disregard the hellish conditions animals are subjected to every day in order to satisfy a momentary craving.

Many omnivores vehemently defend their choice to eat meat by asking why we should worry about animals when so many people are starving (although it does not appear to be a concern when talking about designer suits or luxury vacations). Ironically, human starvation is just another reason to reconsider raising animals for food. Every year about 760 million tons of food is fed to farm animals. Of this grossly huge quantity, only a fraction of calories is consumed as meat, while about 40 million tons of food grains can end the most extreme cases of human starvation.

While we turn a blind eye to the abuse of animals in slaughterhouses, as a society we have been very vocal in condemning those accused of animal abuse outside the slaughterhouse. The CEO of Centerplate was recently forced to resign after he was caught on video abusing a dog. Football player Michael Vick continues to be hated to this day for engaging in illegal dog fighting. The reaction to these animal abusers is understandable and laudable, but how are the 88% of us who condoned the abuse of our Thanksgiving turkeys any different?

There is no morally coherent difference between the dog who was kicked and the chicken, pig, cow or turkey that most people will eat today. How is it that Americans, so solicitous of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner?

Norm Phelps, in his book Changing the Game: Why The Battle For Animal Liberation Is So Hard And How It Can Be Won notes that our paradoxical values about killing animals for food can be explained through the principle of bounded ethicality. The principle of bounded ethicality states that when a belief conflicts with a behavior that people are motivated to maintain due to self interest, cultural norms and so forth, most individuals will find a way to convince themselves that their ethical principles do not apply to the behavior in question. Perhaps this is why stories about eating dogs and cats in China, and slaughtering dolphins in Japan, lead to overwhelming outrage in the social media, mostly in the form of comments calling "those people" barbaric by those who have no trouble endorsing the inhumane treatment of animals culturally deemed worthy of consumption.

Of course there are those meat-eaters who throw out claims similar to Anglo theologian C.S Lewis when he argues that animals are sentient but not conscious of being sentient, so torture and death do not harm them. According to this logic, it would therefore follow that it would be okay to eat newborn human babies or our pet dog, which, just as our Thanksgiving turkey, are also not conscious of being sentient.

We claim to be a civilized society that values life, freedom, compassion and justice. Let us stop our pretensions of civility by merely moving the gruesome slaughter of animals from the amphitheaters to slaughterhouses hidden from public view does not make us anymore civilized than the medieval times. It is time for us to examine our fundamental views about animal ethics, to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, "are we really less barbaric than 'those people' who kill dolphins or eat dogs?"