A Moral Justification of Meat Consumption
Humans are bound to non-human animals in the irrevocable relationship of cohabitation on this planet. We must be considerate of our non-human neighbors, respecting their space, needs, and prerogative to avoid suffering. To cohabitate in a way that protects the interests of both humans and non-human animals, we humans often strive for compassion, peace, and cooperation in our relationships with the animal kingdom. Even Immanuel Kant, who sees no moral duty of humans to non-human animals, sees a great societal value in the ethical treatment of animals (Kant, 86). Many humans do recognize a moral duty to animals and those individuals often gravitate toward vegetarian or vegan diets. This type of dedicated effort in the pursuit of a greater good is commendable. My intention is not to argue against the decency of vegan/vegetarian efforts, but instead to prove that meatless diets are not a holistic approach to improving the human to non-human animal relationship and that omnivorous diets are morally justified. Human consumption of animal flesh is morally justified because we humans are animals with the right to fulfill our biological needs and we more fully embody our intended positions on this planet when we participate in nature’s established rhythms of life and death.
Human biology is designed for an omnivorous diet. Archeological evidence demonstrates that animal flesh has been an integral part of the human diet for the entirety of our existence. Vertebrate animals lack the enzyme cellulase and are therefore dependent on their intestinal microflora to extract the nutrients from plant fibers. Even herbivorous animals do not digest cellulose; animals chew cellulose, feed it to their intestinal mircoflora, and then eat those microflora. This is how herbivorous animals obtain the necessary proteins and micronutrients despite their vegan diets. Humans lack rumen and the mircoflora capable of this gargantuan digestive task. Instead, we are equipped with the enzymes to digest animal proteins directly (pepsin, trypsin, peptidases, nuclease, nucleotidase) as well as amylase to digest non-cellulose carbohydrates. Just as it would be immoral to deny a horse of grass to graze, it is immoral to deny a human of animal protein. In our efforts to protect animal welfare, we must remember that we are animals too, worthy of that consideration to our biological needs. Peter Singer, an advocate of equal consideration of needs and interests, would have no objection to this position of respect for human needs (Singer, 96-105). It would be unequal consideration to promote the free range grazing of horses or cattle but impose a vegetarian/vegan diet on humans. To use his own term, Singer would categorize this inconsiderate, unequal treatment of humans as speciesism (Singer 96-105).
There is nothing immoral about nature’s intricate systems. Yes, nature has suffering and death rooted in its essence, but if we are to reject these aspects of nature on the basis of their immorality are we not challenging the creation of the Universe? One life exists and persists because of the death of several others. Even plants, the epitome of harmlessness, are not vegans. They rely on animal products and even the death of other organisms to obtain nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Nitrogen is applied to fields either as a synthetic blend from fossil fuels (which is ancient decayed living matter and a non-renewable resource) or from the manure of living ruminants- both animal products. Phosphorous is either mined (a non-renewable resource) and spread on cropland as part of a fertilizer or provided naturally as the bones of dead animals disintegrate into the soil. Potassium is made available to growing plants by the disintegration of animal bones, urine, manure, and some cover crops (Keith, 22). Death is entrenched in every aspect of life; there is no escape of that fact. A vegan consumes animal product and contributes to the death of living beings just as zealously as does an omnivorous human; ignorance is the only difference. Using a Singer-inspired argument of equal consideration to the needs and interests of living beings, I argue that vegans/vegetarians assault a greater number of interests than do omnivorous humans. It is undoubtedly against a plant’s interest for a human to consume its offspring (nuts, seeds, and fruits containing seeds) without returning them to the soil to grow. Instead, we entomb them in a landfill or defecate them into a sewer system. Is a meat-free diet really an exercise in equal consideration of interests? I think not. A single vegan plate of grains, fruits, and vegetables contains more deaths and ignored interests than a carnivorous plate that contains a small fraction of one life. I do not argue that it is immoral to consume plants or animals, just that the taking of life to sustain life is a necessity of nature that humans cannot avoid. We must be cognizant and respectful of the lives we take to enhance our own. It is nature’s intent, and therefore must be morally justified, for humans to consume the flesh of another living organism, be it plant or animal.
Humans have an ironic desire to act morally, but also the tendency to act as the determinants of moral. In her critique of Tom Regan, Mary Anne Warren begins to erase the “sharp line” that he creates as a distinguishing factor between organisms with inherent value and organisms without inherent value (Warren, 116-117). She calls instead for varying degrees of value in living organisms that reflect their level of mental sophistication. But is it necessary or even moral for us to struggle over what life forms deserve our respect and consideration? We are mere animals, even considering the beautiful minds with which we are gifted, we are in no position to rank other creations of God in order of inherent value. Instead, I invoke an Albert Schweitzer-inspired reverence for life approach to determine the morality of our human to non-human interactions. The moral question of non-human treatment and plant-based diets is simpler than we contrive; all forms of life deserve our consideration and respect. We should be careful and conscious in our every action to cause the least amount of harm possible and to take from nature what we need and nothing more. Our very existence causes harm and our life cannot persist without the sacrifice of other lives; this is not an argument to ruthlessly take the lives of others, but to be conscious of the demands we place on nature and to place no additional burden. In agreement with Schweitzer, I see morality in the avoidance of any unnecessary harm towards all life forms, regardless of cognitive abilities or level of sentience (Schweitzer, 170-176). Following Schweitzer’s argument, the decision to hunt a buffalo for meat that will feed many people with their biologically appropriate nutrients is a more moral consideration of life than squashing a harmless beetle that wanders into a home. Simply put, one has a natural necessity and gratitude behind the pain and suffering inflicted, the other does not. It is presumptuous to think humans can know the difference of inherent value between a buffalo and a beetle; we can only know that both carry the gift of life. The trampling to death of a beetle in the home of a human serves no purpose and is an unnecessary evil. A buffalo killed swiftly and consumed with great appreciation is a natural continuation of nature’s intended cycles.
Human consumption of animal flesh is morally justified because we humans are animals with the right to fulfill our biological needs and we more fully embody our intended positions on this planet as participant in nature’s established life-death rhythms. A human is biologically designed for an omnivorous diet, while a horse is designed for an herbivorous one; both deserve respect and consideration of their needs and interests. A vegetarian/vegan diet is a disregard for the interest of the human animal. Death and suffering are ingrained in nature and nature is ingrained us. There is no escaping the carnage; even plants participate. We lack the authority to deem nature immoral for the suffering it inflicts, just as we lack the authority to elect which life forms have inherent value and which do not. Every glimmer of life is a gift of nature that must only be taken in necessity, with great respect, and never in excess.
Ecocentric Holism as the Superior Method to Living in Harmony with Nature
It is human nature to contemplate our purpose, our place on this Earth, and our position in the greater natural community. Are we conquerors or citizens? Is Nature a commodity or an entity? What consideration do we owe the other life forms that inhabit this planet and the materials we walk upon? This essay explores environmental biocentrism, individual biocentrism, and ecocentric holism in relation to these questions, drawing upon relevant science and the philosophical works of Albert Schweitzer, Jason Kawall, Aldo Leopold, Bill Devall and George Sessions to argue that ecocentric holism is the superior approach to living in ethical harmony with nature.
Environmental biocentrism is an ethical stance that emphasizes the inherent value of all living beings. It recognizes the will-to-live, within all living organisms, as qualification for reverence. This includes plants, animals, and insects. Environmental biocentrism applies ethical consideration to all living beings, but not to the abiotic components of nature. This is an incomplete approach to environmentalism, for quality of life is fully dependent on abiotic resources such as water, minerals, air, etc. If protection of a sentient being’s will to live is of the upmost importance, abiotic factors cannot be ignored. Individualist biocentrism is the belief that “all living things, not just humans or sentient animals” have lives that are of value in their own right” (Pojman and McShane, 168). Biocentric individualism, as the term implies, focuses on the interest and well being of an individual, not to the interests of a species, or ecosystem. Again, this is a deficient approach to environmental ethics because no individual can thrive in an ecosystem whose interests are neglected. Ultimately, the interest of the individual is denied if the interest of its greater community is disregarded. Ecocentric holism considers the interest of the whole species, ecosystems, and the overarching wellbeing of nature’s biotic and abiotic systems. It aims to place the human in nature, as a community member like any other- removing the barriers society builds between man and nature.
It is unnecessary and unethical for us to struggle over what parts of nature deserve our respect and consideration. We are merely animals, fully dependent on Nature’s offerings. Even considering the beautiful minds with which we have been awarded, we are in no position to rank other creations of the universe in order of inherent value. I appreciate an Albert Schweitzer-inspired all-encompassing reverence for life approach to determine the morality of our human to non-human interactions. The question of our ethical responsibilities to nature is simpler than we contrive; all creations of Nature, biotic and abiotic, deserve the upmost consideration and respect. Aldo Leopold also ascribes to a simple directive: “A thing is right when it tend to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold, 247). We should be diligent in our every action to cause the least amount of harm possible. Our very existence causes harm and our lives cannot persist without Nature’s gifts. This is not an argument to take everything that Nature has to offer- for not all the gifts are ours. We must be conscious of the demands we place on Nature, placing no additional burden. In agreement with Schweitzer, an individual biocentrist, I see morality in the avoidance of any unwarranted harm towards all life forms, regardless of cognitive abilities or level of sentience (Schweitzer, 170-176). Expanding on Schweitzer’s position, ecocentric holism extends that consideration to include abiotic components of Nature and the greater ecosystems they construct.
An ecocentic holism perspective is not in opposition to individual biocentrism, for individual biocentrism is is embedded in a holistic ecocentric perspective. Individual biocentrism is the belief that “all living things, not just humans or sentient animals have lives that are of value in their own right” (Pojman and McShane, 168). An ecocentric holist stance includes protection of the individual’s value but recognizes the value of all the working parts of an ecosystem in a greater, collective interest. Furthermore, the ecocentric holist understands the coordinated interests of ecosystems into the chief interest of Earth. Individual biocentrism represents unawareness to the interconnectedness of the natural world. The initial suggestion that abiotic portions of Nature, such as rocks and streams, deserve our reverence may understandably sound puerile. Certainly, a pebble on the ground has no capacity for pain, feeling, or intention but it is part of Nature’s larger plan to protect the interests of life forms, ecosystems, and the planet. Let us continue with the example of rock. Displace a single rock and witness the disruption to an immeasurable number of lives. Individuals scatter in fear and stress, tunnels that represent a life’s work are destroyed, and plans are interrupted. Jason Kawall uses the example of avoiding conscious harm to an insect as an innate human behavior out of a general reverence for life, but argues that applying interests, plans, or mental states to that insect is anthropomorphizing. Kawall is unaware that every fragment of nature plays a greater than initially obvious role and entirely fails to recognize the role of abiotic factors, like rocks. After displacing that rock, an ant can no longer bring its brood up from the depths of its tunnels to warm them on the underside of a sun-warmed rock, a worm is exposed to its avian predators, a slug cannot incubate its future generation, and highly sophisticated underground tunnel networks are disrupted. These are interests and plans. On a larger scale, it is also the interest of Mother Nature to have her soil aerated by earthworms and nourished by the minerals of rock. It is not anthropomorphic to recognize and defend these interests, but just the opposite. It is seeing the world outside of the human guise, acknowledging the immaculate, intentional processes of Nature. Earthworms, ants, beetles, crickets, spiders, snakes, salamanders, and mites are just a few examples of biotic entities that rely heavily on abiotic gifts from nature: in reality, we all do. I continue with the example of rock to illustrate the role of abiotic elements in Nature’s designs. Consider the minerals that are essential to the function of every cell within a living organism. Organisms obtain minerals from their diet. If that is a diet of plant material, that plant obtained those minerals from the soil. Soil’s mineral content is the compilation of eroded rock and decayed organic matter. A carnivorous diet simply obtains the essential minerals through another organism’s tissue concentration of minerals from its herbivorous diet. Herbivorous, omnivorous, or carnivorous, the minerals that perform life-sustaining tasks in our bodies can be traced back to the rocks birthed from the Earth’s core. In the words of Aldo Leopold, “land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through circuits of soil, plants, and animals” (Leopold, 243). The majestic Mount Everest, the beautiful climbs in the Great Smokey Mountains, and pebble in your shoe all stem from Mother Nature’s fiery core with the intention of and capacity to sustain life. Such powerful interests cannot be ignored unless the interests of the Earth and all of its inhabitants are to be ignored.
An ecocentirc, holistic relationship with and treatment of the natural world can be a powerful vehicle for self-realization. Just as the pebble in your shoe holds a greater purpose than meets the eye, Mother Nature, undoubtedly, has an intention for the human that is greater than we know. Spiritual growth begins when we cease to see ourselves as isolated egos. Just as deep ecology challenges the ego to defy cultural assumptions about pebbles and insects, it challenges us to defy conventional suggestions about our purpose, our place on this Earth, and our position in the greater natural community. Attention to the cues of nature tend to bring us the answer that “one includes not only me, an individual human, but all humans, whales, grizzly bears, whole rainforest ecosystems, mountains, rivers, [and] the tiniest microbes in the soil” (Devall and Sessions, 233). This interconnectedness, oneness, imbues a great responsibility to safeguard all of the working parts of this shared experience here on Earth: the essence of ecocentric holism.