Today an In-N-Out Burger restaurant has opened in nearby Keizer, Oregon, sending waves of feverish delight through the taste buds of people willing to spend hours in line to buy the main food offering... dead cows.
I consider this to be morally wrong, having been a vegetarian for most of my life. So my objection isn't to In-N-Out Burger itself. What bothers me is that most Americans are so uncaring about the suffering they're producing by eating meat and fish.
Understand: there's a variety of good reasons to be vegetarian or vegan. It's a healthier way to go. It's better for the planet. But my main motivation when I became a vegetarian in college (I'm 71 now) was that I didn't want to kill conscious beings that suffer for no good reason.
If you've read this far, maybe you have at least a slight openness to that argument.
Perhaps you're an animal lover, with a dog and/or cat in your home that you are confident enjoys sensations, feelings, and such just as you do, albeit in different ways. You would feel bad if someone caused the family pet to suffer.
Well, cows have sensations and feelings also. And I'm going to present a scientist's arguments for why it is immoral to cause any living being to suffer or die without a good reason.
(Since almost everybody in the United States doesn't need meat/fish to survive, killing animals for food isn't a good reason.)
Here's quotations from the final chapter of Christof Koch's book, The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness is Widespread but Can't Be Computed. Koch is the president and chief scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, following twenty-seven years as a professor at the California Institute of Technology.
My lifelong quest is to grasp the true nature of being... I now know that I live in a universe in which the inner light of experience is far more widespread than assumed within the standard Western canon. This inner light shines in humans and in the denizens of the animal kingdom, brighter or dimmer, in proportion to the complexity of their nervous system.
Integrated information theory predicts the possibility that all cellular life feels like something. The mental and the physical are closely linked, two aspects of one underlying reality.
...I want to end this book by moving from the descriptive to the prescriptive and proscriptive, to how we should think about good and bad and to a call to action.
Most importantly, we must abandon the idea that humans are at the center of the ethical universe and that we bestow value on the rest of the natural world only insofar as it suits humanity's ends, a belief that is such a large part of Western culture and tradition. We are evolved creatures, one leaf among millions on the tree of life.
...We must cure humanity's narcissism and our deep-seated belief that animals and plants exist solely for our pleasure and benefit. We need to embrace the principle that the moral status of any subject, of any Whole, is rooted in their consciousness, not solely in their humanness.
There are three justifications for being admitted to the privileged rank of subjects. I call them the sentience, experiential, and the cognitive criteria.
Emotionally, we most easily resonate with sentience in others. We all have a strong instinctual reaction when we see a child or a dog being abused. We feel something of its pain; we empathize with it. Hence the moral intuition that any subject capable of suffering ceases to be a means to an end and becomes an end in itself.
Any creature that has the potential to feel distress has some minimal moral standing -- foremost the desire to be and the desire not to suffer.
...The experiential justification for the idea that species other than humans ought to be considered intrinsically valuable subjects is that any entity with an inner point of view is precious. Phenomenal experience is irreplaceable in a universe devoid of extrinsic purpose.
It is the only thing that really matters. For if something does not feel, it does not exist as a subject. A corpse and a zombie both exist, but not for themselves, only for others.
A third justification for this grounding is cognitive ability, having beliefs and desires, a sense of self, a sense of the future, of being able to imagine counterfactuals ("If I hadn't lost my legs, I could still climb"), the potential to be creative. To the extent that animals have such advanced cognitive abilities, they have rights.
However, I am against justifying moral standing purely on the basis of cognitive skills. First, not all humans possess such abilities -- think of babies, anencephalic children, or patients in a vegetative state or in late-stage dementia. Should they have lesser standing and fewer rights than able adults?
...Of these three justifications, sentience is in my view the most powerful one for why creatures that can suffer deserve special status. Because I can imagine myself being left alone, starved, or beaten, I feel sympathy or empathy with the other.
...The New Testament reminds us in Matthew 25: "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." The Czech writer Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being generalizes this moral stipulation to all creatures:
True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test... consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals.
The Buddhist attitude toward sentience mirrors this view. We should treat all animals as being conscious, as feeling what-it-is-like-to-be. This must inform how we behave toward our fellow travelers through this cosmos, who are defenseless before our fences, cages, blades, and bullets and our relentless drive for Lebensraum. [living space]
One day, humanity may well be judged for how we treated our relatives on the tree of life.
We should extend a universal ethical stance to all creatures, whether they speak, cry, bark, whine, howl, bellow, chirp, shriek, buzz, or are mute. For all experience life, book-ended between two eternities.