Friday, May 13, 2011

What the Live-And-Let-Live Argument for Eating Meat is Really About

Sometimes meat eaters make an argument like It’s fine if you don’t want to eat meat, but don’t be preachy about it/push your values on me/tell me what to do. I’ve often taken to parodying this line of argument with something like If you want to abstain from kicking elderly people in the shins, that’s your choice, but don’t bother me if I like to kick elderly people in the shins. I hope this parody shows the flaw of dismissing a moral argument about harm to other beings as if it is a matter of personal preference that you shouldn’t push on others.

But I think we could go further: there is a moral principle underlying the Mind-Your-Own-Business dismissal. That principle is obvious: animals are not beings worthy of moral consideration; their suffering doesn’t matter. If you accept this principle, then eating meat is a matter of personal preference, not an ethical choice. Think about it: very few people would say something like It’s fine if you don’t like child abuse, but don’t tell me not to abuse children. (I am not making a moral equivalence, but using a parallel argument for analogy). That’s because most people accept children as thinking, feeling beings, worthy of moral consideration, who should be protected from cruelty and unnecessary suffering. It’s harder to dismiss ethical consideration about behavior that causes harm with the Mind-Your-Own-Business dismissal. By using the Mind-Your-Own-Business dismissal, the meat eater is implicitly arguing that an animal’s suffering and death is not a matter of ethical concern, because nobody whose suffering matters is being harmed.

But the Mind-Your-Own-Business dismissal is annoying because it refuses to discuss this underlying principle. It refuses to engage in an ethical discussion about behavior that causes harm. It instead turns it into a Live-And-Let-Live argument. It’s not hard to make an argument like If you don’t like Diet Coke, fine, but I’m not hurting anybody else by drinking it, so leave me alone. When people engage in behaviors that don’t hurt anybody, we should live and let live. When people engage in behaviors that don’t hurt anybody but themselves, I think we probably should live and let live. But is an animal a Diet Coke?

I can summarize my (mostly vegan) vegetarian principle concisely: If I choose to eat meat, I am choosing my own pleasure over the death and suffering of an animal; given what we know about animals’ capacity to think, feel, and suffer, I do not think my pleasure is more important than an animal’s suffering and death. Those using the Mind-Your-Own-Business dismissal choose their pleasure over the animal, but refuse to engage in a discussion of what comes after the semicolon. They have a principle, but the dismissal leaves that principle implicit and often unacknowledged.

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