The recent uproar in India over cow slaughter and how Hinduism frowns upon it, has one wondering about the whole thing from a different angle – the cow’s.
India, a Hindu-majority nation, has banned cow slaughter in all but a handful of states, not because animals have rights in the eyes of God and given a choice, they might want to continue living. India jails you for killing cows and eating beef because cows are considered sacred. Their feelings have nothing whatsoever to do with it.
If it really wishes to live it’s Hindu principles, the Indian establishment should be asking itself instead – is it morally acceptable to kill animals for food?
I hasten to add that I like meat and I don’t want to give it up, so this is not a lecture on why you should be a vegetarian.
But here’s what happened to me last summer. A colleague, Marie-André and I had to be at work one Sunday, for a project that we had to be able to present, Monday. Around 3pm we were done, when Marie-André said she was going over to her parents’ at St. Bruno, a farming community on Montreal’s south shore.
She suggested I come along and check out what a typical Quebec farm looks like from up close. You know me, I couldn’t resist. Marie-André’s dad is a retired Air Force guy who rears cattle and sheep.
The farm has around a hundred cattle and fifty odd sheep and these animals are having a ball. Judging by it’s neatness, one get’s the impression that the farm really knows how to look after the animals. They are healthy and they are organic. And they should be – they are raised exclusively for meat. Marie-André’s dad went to great lengths explaining that the animals are killed very humanely, without cruelty.
“I could have fifty pounds of sirloin, chuck and ribs ready for you to pick up this fall. Pick your animal and I’ll call you when it is all shrink-wrapped and ready,” he said.
Most folks feel very strongly about animal suffering and yet we all seem to get along fine with the idea that we can kill and eat them. Looking at the cows, lazily grazing across a lush green meadow, I wondered how both the above feelings could be held within one’s conscience at the same time. And when I wonder, I Google and therefore this piece.
Sometimes seeking an answer to certain questions have a habit of broadening the issue until it becomes an unmanageable web of myriads of little but yet important angles.
Australian moral philosopher, Peter Singer, currently a professor of ‘bioethics’ in Princeton University, is also author of Animal liberation. I picked up a copy this summer but left it after fifty pages since it isn’t exactly my kind of reading. But his arguments are convincing.
The central message of the book is that even though there are far more differences, for instance between a chimpanzee and an earthworm, than there are between a chimp and a human, we humans still lump the ape and the worm together as ‘animals’ while we see ourselves as privileged – above all other species. Therefore while we don’t find it okay to kill a human, it is fine to kill another species of animal.
Singer argues that we should treat killing animals as an ethical issue because there is no ‘red line’ between humans and non-humans. He explains this by going into an analogy, substituting the word ‘species’ with the word ‘race’ – so when a white man looks at another white man and says ‘he is like me, so I’ll treat only him and folks like him as I treat my own’, it should be acceptable and appropriate, but it isn’t – it is racism.
Again, suppose we consider a really intelligent orangutan, like say, Clyde, in the 1978 Clint Eastwood movie ‘Every which way but loose’. Clyde is a trained pet who acts like he is almost human. Orangutans are known to be highly intelligent and display human-like social behavior patterns.
Now if you compare Clyde with say, a child suffering from acute Down Syndrome or a severely cognitively impaired woman stricken by Alzheimers, it is quite possible that the orangutan would trump the human in all those qualities that we pride in ourselves as setting us apart from animals. And yet we would treat that child or that woman with far more deference than we would treat Clyde.
So, do we have to lose any sleep over killing a cow to eat it’s meat? One argument is – no, humans have evolved with mouths, teeth and digestive systems that are specifically designed to eat meat and therefore we should not worry about the morality of it. But some behavioral scientists take exception to this sweeping statement on how we were designed to eat other animals. Since men have evolved to be stronger, should it then be natural for them to dominate over women?
Spreading the net wider, if one went by the ‘evolved to dominate’ assumption, then slavery was a natural instinct, wasn’t it? Of course it was. White folks were better in every way – they were stronger than the impoverished negro villagers of Africa, had better technology, better weaponry, were healthier and better educated. So, the argument that those white folks in America simply evolved to lord it over the Negros would seem quite reasonable, if one went by the evolved-to-dominate theory. But slavery is universally condemned, as it should be.
It is also not true that we need to eat meat, for our sustenance. Any nutritionist will confirm that meat consumption is not absolutely essential. Take India for instance – almost 35% of all Indians, that is around 400 million souls, are vegetarians.
Now about the morality in killing other animals – how does one justify the killing of animals, on moral grounds?
Peter Singer suggests we consider a hypothesis. He says that, for argument’s sake, let us assume that all lambs and cows are reared on farms like Marie-André’s dad’s, where animals are treated humanely, right up until the time they are slaughtered – painlessly – for food. Let us further assume that up until the last instant, the cow or lamb is unaware that it is going to be killed and is therefore it’s usual happy, normal, cud-chewing self.
So we have put aside the question of cruelty toward those animals and their suffering. In those perfect conditions, is there anything wrong with killing an animal for it’s meat? I don’t really know but the trip to Marie-André’s dad’s farm did throw up interesting arguments…….
When we had come upon him, the old man had been walking a bullock toward the tailgate of a pickup truck that had a tall rectangular wooden enclosure in the back. He had opened the gate of the pen and solemnly herded the animal forward, seeming sombre and deferential toward it. “I’ve done this a million times but it is still saddening,” he said.
“Why so? Guilt – that he has to die?” I asked.
“Guess you could call it that.”
“But wasn’t he just like one of those other faceless animals in your farm?”
He turned sharply, almost as if I had offended him by calling the beast faceless. “I know each one by name. This one is Gucci. He came to us one stormy night in 2011. He had this habit of coming up silently behind and giving you a gentle nudge and then brushing past, as if to say – It’s been a while and I’m famished. How about some chow, Tiger?” He chuckled.
He guided Gucci up a slanting platform onto the back of the pickup, stooped to arrange a bed of hay and some fodder and emerged, closing the tailgate firmly behind him. “When you live among them, feed them, look after them, it dawns on you that they all have distinct personalities,” his voice was grave, filled with emotion.
Then he said something that sounded strange but which I later realized could be absolutely true – if humans didn’t rear cows and lambs for meat, milk, leather, etc, these animals might not have existed at all. Given how fragile, harmless and vulnerable they are, they would probably have been rendered extinct by carnivorous predators long ago.
“So, maybe, we have done them a favor and they should thank us for letting them live and exist this long at least – is that what you are saying?” I was amazed at the idea.
“Why, of course. At least they have had some existence – comfortable, disease-free lives inside a farm where food is abundant and a vet comes and checks them every now and then. Isn’t it better than not having existed at all? As long as they have no inkling that they’ll be killed and so long as they are killed painlessly, I don’t see why killing them is morally wrong.” he replied.
“So, a lamb is better off living for a year and then being killed for it’s meat, than not having lived at all. Should he thank us for the opportunity?” I was incredulous and couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not.
‘Absolutely. A morally good action is one that maximizes happiness (which we do by looking after the animals’ needs while they are alive) and minimizes pain (which we ensure, by killing them painlessly).”
By this time, I was willing to take up their invitation to stay for supper, so interesting a man was Marie-André’s father.
I did stay for supper and the steak was succulent. It had been breathing just that morning. I felt a tinge of guilt eating it. Aren’t animals’ rights – the right to live and not be killed – the same as humans’ rights? Moral philosophers like Peter Singer believe that they are.
Marie-André’s father admits that each cow and lamb behaves differently, as individuals. To someone like me, visiting the farm, they might all look and behave alike but to someone who interacts with them on a daily basis, they are individually identifiable, with distinct personalities. He senses that they have the sentience – the capacity to feel. They respond when called by name and they act in a manner that clearly indicates that they have memories. At times they clearly are happy and playful, says he.
Therefore, judging by the old man’s own admission, what happens to his cows and lambs in the future matters to them and, given a choice, they would like to live as long as they possibly can.
Jeff McMahan, another moral philosopher who teaches at Oxford, has found a way to draw a line between those animals that should not be killed and those that can be killed without suffering moral injury. He says that there are living beings that are, unlike cows and lambs, unaware of their past, present and future. They do not have a narrative – like worms, for instance. Therefore, quite possibly the moral dilemma of killing a worm would be non-existent.
McMahan recommends that before we kill an animal, we need to ask ourselves ‘ how psychologically connected is it, to it’s future self? The more connected it is, the more morally unacceptable it is – to deprive the animal of that future.
Hinduism must see the killing of cows as an immoral act and not ban it simply because ‘cows are sacred’.
As for me, I have left many habits in my 60-year long sojourn on this planet. I have left smoking, drinking, womanizing, reading porn and masturbating, dreaming of Scarlett Johanssen and thinking of sex – but I haven’t yet left meat eating.
After supper, as Marie-André’s dad lead me out to my car, I decided to place an order for one of Gucci’s rumps.
I am a sucker for butts.