What’s So Natural about Butchery?: The Artifice of Eating Animals
March 4, 2012 19 Comments
One of the most common justifications for eating animals is that it’s “natural.” It’s considered natural, in part, because animals eat animals in the wild. Why should humans, as confirmed omnivores, be exempt from this struggle for survival? If it’s natural for a lion to hunt down and kill a gazelle, why is not equally natural for a human being to hunt down and kill a gazelle?
Standard objections to this argument stress the fact that humans are the only species with a moral compass. We are the only species that can design and promote plans explicitly intended to make the world a more peaceful place. We should therefore not eat animals. Such a response seems perfectly reasonable.
The practical problem with it, though, is that defenders of the “red in tooth and claw” viewpoint use the moral distinction to make the wrong case. Instead of interpreting our moral capacity as a reason to avoid unnecessary animal suffering, they argue that it makes humans so superior to other species that we can justifiably transform them into sausage and cook them on a grill. I don’t in any way agree with this claim, but I hear it so often that I’m wondering if it might make more sense to confront the “animals do it too” argument from another perspective.
Of course, animals do a lot of things in the wild that humans have, thankfully, chosen to avoid. But what strikes me as potentially important is the way animals eat other animals in nature. Essentially, they kill them with their own claws or fangs and devour them raw. As far as I can tell, no non-human animals in any way significantly prepares the meat he kills (although I would not be surprised if insects did something insanely sophisticated). The blood and flesh are unprocessed. That’s generally how it works in nature.
For humans, however, eating animals is mediated by layer upon layer of artifice–and, I would argue, all of these layers require human inventions designed to protect us from the hard reality that we’re eating products from sentient animals. We butcher, process, and cook; sterilize, package, and ship. An array of synthetic devices never found in the nature–guns, arrows, traps, knives, ovens, stoves, etc.–make the experience of comfortable alienation possible. None of this is natural in the way that animals eating animals is natural. Not at all. If we had to obtain our animal products through the same natural mechanisms as animals in the wild do it, we’d likely end up a) eaten, b) so disgusted we could not swallow our catch, or c) sickened by zoonotic disease. It is here, I think, where the “animals do it” argument is seriously weakened.
Indeed, maybe it’s through this angle that vegans might make the case that eating for humans–and humans alone– is a choice. It’s moral choice that–no matter how assiduously we compare our experience to those of non-human animals–reflects well on humanity when we choose to leave animals out of our diet. Compassion, I would venture, is natural, too.