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Ask Dr. Cobb

January 2004 Question

In your FAQ answer on Animal Rights you make the statement: "If farmers raise chickens and cows and hogs, and if they are treated well so that they can enjoy their lives, killing them for food seems to me in line with the general order of things and not to be forbidden." How does being, "... in line with the general order of things," differ from "maintaining the status quo?" Isn't that the same as saying, "that's just the way things are?"

Dr. Cobb's Response

I find this an unusually perceptive and demanding question.  One of the reasons, no doubt, is that the question of whether eating meat is ever acceptable is a troubling question to me.  But another, is that I certainly would not want to erect "being in line with the general nature of things" into a universal principle without a great deal of clarification of what it can mean.

With sufficient clarification, I think may be prepared to offer a defense. Although we certainly cannot read God's will off of the course of history, process thinkers do believe that at some deep level the order of the world reflects God's aims.  The world seems to be ordered toward the increase of variety and richness of experience rather than toward freedom from struggle and mutual destruction.  Love, cooperation, and mutual support have also been crucial to evolutionary development, but we cannot imagine this whole development apart from predation.  If today we tried to end all predation in the wild, this would mean the extinction of many species and the deterioration of many others.  It would be hard to say that killing for food is contrary to the general purposes of God.  Whitehead's well-known comment that life is robbery was not a call to stop robbing but to be reflective about the extent and limits of our robbing.  The robber requires justification.

My point in the questionable statement on which I am challenged was intended along these lines.  Some robbing on the human part, even when it entails the killing of other animals, seems to me, at least in the past, to have been justifiable.  It is true that human beings are not strictly carnivores and that, in many of the tribal communities from which we are descended, hunting contributed little to the net caloric intake.  But the cultures of many of these people were centered on hunting, and much of the development of human intelligence and even morality was probably related to this activity.  Human predation in general, for tens of thousands of years, probably had the same beneficial effects on the prey as a species as other predation has had.

One may judge that the domestication of animals changed this.  Domesticated animals are bred for docility rather than intelligence.  Herding contributes less to the quality of human life than hunting.  When herding gives way to sedentary raising of live stock, the effects on both human beings and other animals has less and less to commend it.  When factory farming becomes the rule, and consumers are acquainted only with meat sold in the grocery store rather than the animals whose miserable lives provide the meat, the problem of justification becomes still more difficult.  Given the questionable contribution of meat to human health, there is little to be said in favor of much of our contemporary consumption other than its contribution to human enjoyment.

Thus far hunger has been almost entirely the result of poverty, not of absolute shortage of food.  We are probably close to a change.  As more of the newly affluent increase their meat consumption, as fresh water supplies become scarce, and as soils continue to erode, grain globally is like to be in short supply.  It will be more profitable to feed it to animals and sell the meat than to sell it as food directly to the poor.  When this happens, already important ecological considerations will be supplemented by more immediate moral concerns.  Reasons to end, or at least greatly reduce the consumption of meat, will be strengthened.  The justification will become still weaker than it now is.

In placing the question of justification in this historical context, I trust I am making it clear that my language about being in line with the nature of things was not expressed in order to support the status quo.  For process thought things are changing.  To be in accord with the nature of things cannot mean to defend any form of behavior because it was once appropriate. 

But I recognize that, if we follow "the nature of things," as typically understood, we will be indifferent to the suffering our actions bring on others, both human beings and other animals.  There is, I think, a deeper "nature of things" that is based on God's lure.  That lure is always toward some enjoyment in the present but also to constitute oneself so as to contribute to the future, one's own, and that of others.  With other animals, the breadth of the other to be considered is usually fairly narrow.  With tribal people it rarely extends beyond the tribe or some confederation of tribes, although it may extend quite far into the future.  Among civilized people it varies greatly.  It can become extremely individualistic and its temporal span can become very brief.  On the other hand, it can extend to the whole of the Earth and even beyond.  For Whitehead morality has to do with the breadth of this concern.

The concern is in part for individuals as individuals.  Suffering is an individual matter, and the increase of suffering is an evil to be minimized.  Death is also an individual matter and an evil; although unlike some of my colleagues, I do not take it to be of the same order of importance as suffering.  When people allow their pets to have too many babies, killing the surplus painlessly, unattractive as it is, seems the best option.  Also protected pets, dying of disease, injury, or old age may suffer more than they would in the wild where they would be more quickly killed.  We often speak of putting them out of their misery.  I am one who hopes that our society will increasingly encourage doctors to work with patients to avoid lingering and painful deaths.  The killing of the human fetus, while surely an evil, seems sometimes preferable to the alternatives.

For me, breadth of concern requires primary attention to the common good.  This often requires many deaths.  A healthy ecosystem includes much killing.  A healthy world requires slowing, if not stopping and even reversing, the increase of the human population.  The efforts of the Chinese government to discourage more than one child per family appear to me admirable, although there is no doubt that the killing of fetuses, and disproportionately girl fetuses, is part of the way of achieving this goal.  I believe that far too much research goes into extending the lives of affluent people and far too little into bringing health and a decent life to the children of the global poor.  In short, I believe that improving the quality of life is more important to the common good than the extension of life.  Again, for me, death is not the primary evil.

Just as I believe we should work ultimately to reduce the human population; so I think we should be working now to reduce the number of domesticated animals, especially those raised for human food.  We should also work to insure that the quality of their lives is relatively good.  Obviously, if the demand for meat dropped precipitously, huge numbers of animals would be killed or simply left to die miserable deaths.  No one wants that.  A gradual reduction based on reducing reproduction would be far better.  The goal should be defined by the carrying capacity of the planet.  That may someday dictate that there be no animals raised for human consumption, but that does not seem today to be particularly relevant.  Animal husbandry can fit into patterns of integrated farming that are far less dependent on fossil fuels and produce food for local peoples.  That seems to me a healthy and desirable goal.  To move in that direction will require reversal of most contemporary trends.  But I believe it will be more in accord with what I had in mind by "the nature of things."

I hope the fact that I do not see the killing of animals for food as something of which it is important to rid the earth does not sound like a criticism of vegetarianism.  I see value in absolutist positions, but I also find them troubling; so I am critical of one of the reasons some people give for vegetarianism.  That is, I reject absolutist notions of the wrongness of killing.  I think a better approach is to envision the kind of world that would sustain good lives for humans and other animals.

The world I envision would be one in which the consumption of meat would be greatly reduced.  Further, since in the world in which we now actually live is one in which most of the meat we consume has been produced in cruel ways, my objection to increasing the suffering in the world counts strongly in favor of vegetarians.  The fact that I can imagine a world in which I believe I would be justified in eating a little meat does not in fact justify my current consumption of meat.  It does mean that for me the most important moral challenge with respect to domesticated animals is to change our current industrial ways of producing it.  This would lead to a dramatic rise in the price of meat and to reduced consumption..  My vegetarian friends, intentionally or not, constantly remind me of this very urgent task.

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