Yesterday, Venkat and Ranjini, my colleagues at work (who also happened to be married to each other, a fact that I learnt pretty recently even though I knew them individually for quite sometime) invited me and two other friends Nithya and Bharath over to their place for lunch. Needless to say I accepted the invitation and was hanging around their community since 9.30 in the morning (No!). They were wonderful hosts. They fed us, showed us a movie, took us to Charlotte in their car, fed us Chaat, took us back to their home, again fed us, and finally dropped us back in our homes. I had a lot of fun and reached home only past midnight. While with them, the topic of vegetarianism came up. Though there was no serious debate, there were very brief discussions on whether one eats eggs or not, whether eggs are considered vegetarian, why some people consider fish to be vegetarian etc. Moreover, since coming to the US, I have frequently been in places where the only options before me are either beef or bacon. All this reminded me of how my ideas on these questions evolved.
It is my impression that many people who are vegetarians, have not really thought out the reasons for their vegetarianism clearly. Many are vegetarians simple because they have been brought up that way, as was the case with me for a very long time. I remember once trying to argue with a friend, Deepak, on why one should not eat animals. My primary argument against eating meat was that killing animals hurts them and so should not be done. Since plants did not experience pain, it was ok to slice, boil or fry them. My reasoning was so primitive (let me add that I had just finished school then), that I had not anticipated the obvious question that follows, which my friend promptly put to me. Is it ok to eat animals that were killed after being given an anaesthesia? I did not have an answer to that, but deep inside I still felt strongly that eating animals was inexcusably wrong . I still remember feeling supremely disappointed when I learnt that my elder brother eats chicken, looking back at which I can only wonder how stupid and naive I was (I was in my teens, then).
There is also another fundamental problem. Considering that every living thing on earth is a relative of every other living thing, is it really posssibly to draw a firm line between plants and animals? Of course we do not wonder what categories brinjals and cows belong to a they are very clear examples, but there surely are grey areas .The question of eggs adds to the confusion. Let me add here that I started eating eggs recently (primarily as omelettes). Is eating eggs moral? Many argue that eating eggs is ok because chickens do not come out of them anyway as they are unfertilised (There are no roosters around in farms). Then, there are also those who argue that even consuming milk is ethically wrong because they come from animals.
The way out
With all these questions, the situation seems to be pretty messy. But all this can be cleared up, by focusing on the right things. Let me start with what I think is the crux of the whole issue. Starting from that point we can zoom out to try to answer all the questions that came up till now. The basis on which our eating decisions should rest, should be that no living organism capable of feeling suffering, should be hurt for our own pleasure or for our nutrition. I get much of what follows from Peter Singer’s ideas which I heard in some of his interviews and lectures*. I have not read his famous book Animal Liberation, I must pick it up the next time from the library. Here is one of his videos.
Let us begin with eggs. Can eggs feel pain? They clearly cannot. But that alone does not make it ethical to eat eggs. It is a common scene to see a man on his cycle carrying 5-6 chickens tied to each side of his handlebar all hanging upside down by their legs. Try imagining what would happen if you were hung that way. Also common are the rows and columns of metal cages in which chickens are packed extremely close to each other. If an egg comes from a place that treats the chickens so badly, we definitely are not doing the right thing by eating those.** That much, I assume, you will agree. Then again, eating eggs from chickens that laid those eggs happily on their own does seem to be ok. But only if we are sure that the chicken is not emotionally attached to its eggs. I know the last sentence might have sounded too silly, but my point is that, the question of eating eggs is not answered by discussing whether those eggs would have gone on to make chickens, but on how its mother was treated. Again, it is the pain and suffering caused to any animal because of our actions, that should form the basis of our decisions, and not some arbitrary idea of what is right and wrong. And that means we should also count in the possibility of the chickens’ emotional pain of seeing one of its eggs missing. But the eggs that we usually buy from supermarkets are usually from theses factory farms, and should definitely be avoided (Yes, I am morally wrong in eating eggs).
What about milk and honey? As far as milk is concerned, it is the welfare of the cows that is primary. If the cows are treated well, drinking milk that is anyway far too much for the calves, is not ethically wrong. But for most of the milk we buy, I doubt if the cows are treated well and so there is a point in what vegans say. We are indeed doing the wrong thing by consuming milk. When it comes to honey, I think it is ok. I understand that the bees lose their honey and their lives too, but I doubt if they are conscious of themselves and are capable of pain, and so I think it is ok. But, On the point of honey, I am not entirely sure if bees are incapable of pain, and so I could be wrong in saying consuming honey is ok.
Now let us come to eating animals. Since animals are obviously capable of experiencing pain (if you are not sure, try biting a dog), killing them to eat is definitely not right. What about animals that were initially made unconscious and then put to death? Again we need to see who will suffer because of our actions. In case of animals that are painlessly put to death, there are two quetsions to be considerd: One is how they were treated when alive? This is the same as the question of how the chickens which lay the eggs were treated. The second one is to consider whether it has relatives and friends that would miss losing a good friend or father or son or daughter or mother or cousin. I realise this sounds like a heavy dose of sentimentality, but that is how we really should evaluate. After all, the goal of ethics should be to ensure that we reduce the amount of suffering to all beings capable of suffering. If those animals are not that self conscious to realise the death of its relatives then it is ok, but if they can experience the emotional pain of losing a loved one, we are wrong in farming those animals for our own food. It is this argument that makes it ok to eat plants, since we think they are not self conscious, that they cannot feel pain and they cant grieve the death of a close friend who was just cut down unthinkingly.
Roadkills? Is it ok to eat an animal found naturally dead in a forest? In this case, a different question should come into play. Since we did not kill the animal, we cannot be held respondible for its relatives’ grief. But the question now is, whether those friends would have some emotional connect with the body of the dead animal. I remember reading in Jane Goodall‘s book, In the shadow of man, about a mother chimpanzee, which carries around its dead child for more than a day, even after knowing it was dead. A very touching incident, but it means that the dead animal too meant something to its parent. In such a case, for the sake of the parent we should not eat the child. Of course, very rarely do humans eat chimpanzees, but I am only trying to illustrate the point that the emotional states of friends and relatives should also be taken into account.
The last three paragraphs flow from the idea that it is the physical and emotional suffering that animals are capable of, that should guide us on what to eat and what not to. I hope I have been cogent enough for that. But let us take this argument to the next level.
Can we eat humans?
Please don’t close this window yet. I am aware that it is disgusting to think of eating other humans, but let us take our principle of minimal suffering to its logical conclusion. Can we eat humans? We cannot kill humans to eat because it causes them pain. We cannot eat naturally dead humans, as there will be relatives and friends who would undergo emotional pain because of that. But imagine a scenario, where a complete loner (let us say nobody in this world knows him) just died naturally in a forest that you were trekking. You know that nobody in the world is even aware of his existence. My point is that there is nothing ethically wrong in eating that person.
Some of these ideas (as mentioned before they are not mine), can sound a bit too superficial. I remember talking to my younger brother, Pratap, about this when he for somehow could not see how we can justify eating eggs (he said something like, what about the chicken’s right to have eggs). Of course, there are lots of arguments that have not been covered here. There is also the often made point that it is environmentally wasteful trying to get nutrition from animals, as they are one step above plants in the food chain.
I have talked about eating chimpanzees and humans. But that does not mean I do that (just in case you were wondering). I am only trying to lay out the steps to evaluate the consequences of your actions. If you find the idea of eating even eggs repulsive, then you are not bound to do that (I find the idea of eating garlic repulsive). But the point is that one should not argue whether one is an animal or a plant, to decide whether it is moral to eat it or not. Such distinctions are rather useless. Rather, one should try to find out the effects of one’s actions on the overall wellbeing of living organisms. And that is the way to eat. To live.
**As I completed this post, my elder brother told me that there are eggs sold in the United States, on which it is explicitly stated that those eggs were not from chickens held in cages. They are more expensive, than the usual ones.