Unthinkable: How do you eat with a clear conscience?

This week’s philosophical topic: is meat murder, as Morrissey would have it?

Even if you don’t agree with Morrissey that meat is murder, you can’t ignore that there are ethical issues at the end of every fork. Animal cruelty is a recognised crime, but what about animal consumption?


'All sentient beings have the basic right not to be treated as the property of others.' This idea is associated with US legal scholar Gary Francione, who has stirred up fresh debate in the animal- welfare movement by arguing that the meat industry should be abolished rather than reformed. He goes beyond the stance of philosopher and vegetarian Peter Singer who proclaims that animals have "interests" that warrant recognition. Francione insists they have rights instead, and his view is supporters by Dr Roger Yates, a lecturer in sociology at UCD and a vegan for the past 34 years.

Is it legitimate, Dr Roger Yates, to extend human rights to non-humans?
"Our argument would be that it is, but also people need to realise that animal rights is a modest idea. We are only talking about a very limited amount of rights. Some people would talk about the right to life and maybe things like bodily integrity. Francione would talk about the right not to be property as the one right that is needed."

But where do you draw the line?
"Sentience [the ability to experience pleasure or pain] is the criterion that is used at the moment within animal ethics. There is another idea called 'subject of a life' [the notion that every being has a life valuable to itself], which is associated with Tom Regan. Then the question that always gets asked is: 'Who is sentient and who is not?', and Regan would say there is some line-drawing involved. But he says we should draw in pencil, because it's going to move – as our knowledge increases, different creatures will move in and out. There is lots of talk about, What about oysters? What about insects? There is a grey area, which is acknowledged within the theory."

What does Francione mean when he says animals have a right not to be property? "He's ultimately talking about power relations, in the sense that if you've got a contest between someone who is the owner of someone else, and then the other who is owned, you have an imbalance straight away. He would give the analogy of a court case: being an item of property puts you in a disadvantaged situation. So he thinks that the liberation of other animals would be greatly assisted by just that one right being recognised."

He also talks about people's 'moral schizophrenia' towards non-humanswhat does he mean? "In the animal movement, you often get this thing, 'Why do you pet one and eat the other?', and that's the idea of moral schizophrenia, the fact that we place other animals on a different moral status.

“One interesting thing for me as a sociologist is that people buy into the disconnect. In other words, they don’t tend to see the animal, they see meat. In general terms, I would say we don’t tend to think of food choice as a moral matter.”

Is there a blind spot in Ireland towards animal rights? "In terms of the practicalities of eating, it's easier to be vegan elsewhere, but we're catching up. People are not falling over either in shock or laughter any more."

Why has there been such resistance? "One of the things that people adhere to is the strength of the species barrier. I was talking at a school last week and there is still some resistance even to the idea that we are biological animals. We don't self-identify as animals.

“In my PhD, I talked about the three planks of speciesism: religion, theology and everyday social practice. That divide is definitely within philosophy, but particularly in religious writings, in the sense that there is this man in the image of God and everything else is in service.”

What is the most ethical meal you can eat? "If you think about food miles and the environmental impact, it's very difficult to actually put your finger on that. Even this idea of localism – the idea that if you buy local it's automatically more ethical – that can be called into question as well. So that question is quite a complicated one."

What's your favourite meal then? "My partner is Japanese, so one of the dishes we have is called ma po tofu, which is tofu with oriental spices. The best way to eat that is with a little bowl of rice and maybe one or two separate soups. You can find a recipe on human-nonhuman.blogspot.ie."


Question: I like 'po-ta-to', he likes 'po-tah-to', I like 'to-ma-to', he likes 'to-mah-to'; potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto, should we call the whole thing off?

Richard P Feynman replies: We should not have an argument as to the reason why we agree if we agree.

Send your intellectual dilemmas to philosophy@irishtimes.com,
Twitter: @JoeHumphreys42

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