"What do you think about becoming vegetarian or vegan?" - I was asked this question recently. OK, I have a university degree in philosophy, so this should be an easy question for me; just state my opinion and provide some argumentation to back my conclusions, right? Not quite, as for me all philosophy starts with asking questions, and indeed the way I see it, questioning is the essence of philosophy. So, let's see some philosophy in action, I try to track my process of thought;
The first question is, what exactly is the question. Does it mean "What does Erkka think about Erkka possibly becoming vegetarian or vegan?". Or does it mean "What does Erkka think about someone else becoming vegetarian or vegan?" Or, maybe the question is intended to be more general, like "What does Erkka think, on theoretical level, about the moral issues of eating animals? Is it morally acceptable to kill animals for food, or not? And if yes / no, why?". Now, I'm not sure but I'm under the impression that many people think that there isn't an essential difference between these three versions of the question, as anyway one picks a diet according to a certain set of moral beliefs, and moral judgements are supposed to be universal so it doesn't make a difference if it is Erkka or someone else killing animals for food - if it is morally wrong, then it is wrong no matter who does it, yes? But, alas, I'm not quite convinced that such universal moral truths exists at all, so no doubt I will fail to answer if being asked what is my opinion on this or that universal moral judgement. (For me, it is bit like someone asked me 'what do you think, what colour of curtains do they have in their living rooms in Kepler-452b?' - obviously, my answer would plainly be 'I don't know, and at the moment I have no way of knowing.') Hehe, well, but instead of merely dodging the question with meta-philosophical evasive maneuvers, I'll go on examining it more closely.
So, the next question is, what do the terms vegetarian and vegan mean?. Again, obviously, a vegetarian is a person who doesn't eat meat. And a vegan is a person who takes it one step further, and doesn't use any product which has ingredients from killed animals. Simple as that? Well, suppose we have a family living in a besieged city in a war-zone. The family has run out of fresh food supplies, and all they have to eat is canned beans and sugar. Canned beans and sugar aren't made out of killed animals, so the family is vegetarian? Possibly also vegan, despite one of them wearing leather boots, but he originally bought those boots from a second-hand store, so that doesn't count. But sure the family would eat meat if they had access to it. So, their not eating meat because of circumstances doesn't make them vegan proper. We have to refine our definition, adding a clause that 'vegetarians and vegans have their behaviour based on moral judgements which they aim to live by.'
So, I'd guess this takes us to the moral judgements. Vegetarianism seems to be based on judgement 'it is morally wrong to kill animals for food'. And vegan says 'why limit it to food only? How is it moral to restrain from eating meat, while washing your face with a cream brutally tested on tortured animals? - it is morally wrong to utilize animals in any way, and therefore it is our moral obligation to avoid using any products which involve killing or torturing animals'. Now, of course, we could still draw further distinctions, pointing out that there might be vegetarians who don't have strict moral stances, but simply go vegetarian because they believe it to be a healthy diet. Or, there could be a vegan who goes vegan purely for tribal reasons; all of his friends are vegan, and he doesn't want to be different, so he goes vegan just to feel an accepted member of the tribe. But, somehow, I'd guess that the person who asked my thoughts on becoming vegetarian or vegan didn't have this kind of versions in mind. So let's try to stay philosophical, setting aside all the other possible variants of diet / lifestyle choices.
So far so good. Maybe we now can have our question in a distilled philosophical form: Is it morally acceptable to kill animals and to utilize them as raw materials (for food, or for other supplies of human consumption)? Since the common sense says that there are things which are morally wrong, and that any sane adult is able to tell right from wrong, so there must be some sort of philosophical clarification, a sound theory which clearly explicates what makes bad things bad and good things good, yes? For example, we could examine rights, saying that humans have a right to choose, and then the question is that to which extent the animals have a right to live, and how to balance the possible animal rights with human rights. Or, we could pick some seemingly self-evident moral principle like 'it is wrong to cause pain and suffering to others', and then it would be a question of empirical research to prove which animals are capable of experiencing pain, and then we would need some logical reasoning to determine what animals (if any) are ok to eat? Or, we could assume any supranatural deity or authority, who has given us certain rights and obligations, which serve as a basis of universal moral rules - in which case we only need to know that which transcription of the divine message is the correct one, as we have that many religious traditions each claiming to deliver the divine truth. There are probably several other ways of embarking into the moral questions of utilizing animals - but, if my personal opinion is being asked, I don't have one.
So, for a moment, let's not bother us with different theories of moral philosophy. Instead, let's use the standard tool of philosophical inquiry; the thought experiment. In our experiment, we first assume that a way or another we have concluded that it is morally wrong to kill animals. "Meat is murder!" So, next we need to examine what that means in better detail. After successfully not consuming animal-based food, I drink a glass of water. At my house the water comes from a local well, so there probably is some microbial life in the water. Some of these microbes get killed in my gut. So I have committed a murder? Or the bacteria don't count as animals, since they are not visible? Good, I go outdoors, and accidentally step over two spiders, instantly killing the one and leaving the one lethally injured. I should probably put it out of its misery, by smashing it with a hammer. One murder or two murders, or no murder? Do the spiders count? Or should we conclude that the universal moral thruth of 'it is wrong to kill an animal' only applies to animals which we can see and which are cute and resemble us? Ugly little creepers don't count? But sure, moral principles can't be based on mere likeability. So maybe we need to rephrase it so that 'since it is not possible to completely avoid killing any animal, there still is a moral obligation to avoid any foreseeable unnecessary killing of any animal'.. Which leaves us with the tricky adjective 'unnecessary'. Who gets to define what is necessary and what is not?
In case you have been wondering, we are now approaching one of the themes I had in mind when writing the story of Vince and Hule. There are several layers of metaphors in the story, so let us look at some of them. Vince believes that a car has high and low speed, and that any odd gears in between are going to mess up things. That, generally speaking, is a metaphor of human tendency to think in binary opposites; beliefs are either true or false, good or bad. And there's no question of compromising moral values. If meat is murder, it doesn't make a difference if one just reduces the consumption of meat - either you are a killer or not, right? Like, if you had a habit of killing an unknown child twice a week, and then you'd go to reduce your habit to merely killing a child once a month, it doesn't make you a better person - you are still a child-killer, and a serial killer, a terrible horrible evil person. So why would killing animals be any different? Either you violate a moral norm or not, there aren't any shades of grey in between! (please remember here I'm not quite stating my personal opinions, but just trying to follow the ordinary logic of moral reasoning, and then voice the traditional point of view.)
Well, at this point I'm starting to think that beliefs like 'meat is murder' tap on the concepts of 'impure things' and 'taboos'. Like, the idea that there are impure entities, and to stay clean one should avoid any contact with impure things, animals, deeds and persons. Sounds primitive? But to me it seems that this way of thinking is alive and well, and rather commonly found also in modern western societies. Some time ago in Finland we had the debate if gay marriage should be legal or not. One of the arguments on the 'not' side was that they felt that the value of straight marriages is somehow eroded if gays are allowed to marry. I never quite understood what is that supposed to mean, and for me the only way to make sense of the argument is this: "Gay sex is impure. If gays are allowed to marry, impurity touches the institution of marriage, thus contaminating all the existing straight marriages, too." To take the debate on that level, we should first talk about if there are such things as taboos and impurities, and if yes, are they really capable of inducing a group-wide contamination? Well but here we are not talking about gay marriages, we are talking about the morals of killing animals. And the way I see it, some vegans (I stress 'some', I'm not saying 'every', I'm not saying 'majority' nor 'many'. I'm only saying 'some') take death as a taboo, and they want to be not touched by the taboo. But, if you ask me, no matter how you try to avoid touching death, one day the death will touch you. And, if bacteria and ugly spiders are considered, you are anyway causing a mass of deaths on daily basis, there is no escaping it. Like it or not, we are all food. One day some other form of life will consume us. I mean, for me it is essentially about shades of grey - the question is not 'yes or no', but merely 'how much, how many, how often'.
Remember, we are still running our thought experiment. We still suppose that killing animals is not morally good. So far we have concluded that it is not practically possible to avoid all killing, so the question becomes gradual - a question of amount and degree. Hold on - does that, after all, mean that if I kill less animals, I become a better person? Here we are back to the oddities of primitive moral thought. Namely, what does it mean to be a better person in the moral sense of the word? As we saw in the story of Hule and Vince, claims about moral superiority / inferiority quickly lead to a heated debate. "Don't you try to judge me by your twisted moral standards, don't you try to pose yourself as morally superior to me! My moral standards are better than yours! Or at least I pack more fire-power to back my moral superiority!" Personally, I'm not so interested in anything like that. If you ask me, we could pretty much just ditch the whole idea of moral superiority / inferiority, and merely be concerned with the consequences of our actions. That's one of the key metaphors in the story of Hule and Vince - there is a practical consequence; the car breaking down, and both Hule and Vince agree that it is not a desirable outcome. But instead of seeing it as a purely practical question to be solved, Vince draws in traditions, morals, binary thinking and a handgun. That's all so very typical of human thought. (This is another layer of metaphors in the story. Vince refers to the old traditions. The belief that there are only low and high speeds was once true, it once worked well. So what Vince fails to notice is that the modern cars aren't any more like the old ones, and if he wants to drive a modern car he needs to update some elements of the tradition. Well, I think that ideas like 'moral superiority / inferiority' once helped us to organize society, back when we were tribal bands of hunter-gatherers. But if you try to stubbornly apply the primitive intuitions to the modern world, you are bound to run into problems. You either have to go back to stone-age circumstances, or you have to update your mental machinery which helps you to make sense of the world. I count moral thought as one key element that needs to be updated.)
So, for me, this is where our philosophical thought experiment takes us. My conclusion is that 'moral principles' make only limited sense, and in many cases we might be better off by just evaluating the real consequences of our choices, actions, institutions, habits and traditions. Let's elaborate further.
If it was merely a question of 'avoiding meat is good' it would say nothing of other consequences. Say, I go to a supermarket and instead of meat I pick carrots and canned beans. Where are the beans produced, were they transported from the other side of the globe to my local supermarket? In which kind of conditions were the beans produced, did they use forced labour, child slaves or something? How was the farming land, did they grow it on an illegal slash-and-burn plantation in a jungle? (I think we should avoid destroying more jungle, as a healthy biosphere is based on necessary amount of rainforest on the globe. I think global warming is a real phenomenon, what we have seen until now is just a beginning and if things keep developing this way, we will run in serious trouble in 50 years or so, and if we want to avoid that we'd better reduce our carbon emissions. Therefore buying locally produced food often is ecologically better than supporting carbon-based transport. Where did the tin of the can come from, how was it mined? And further, I do believe that no matter where you are on the globe, a worker should be paid a proper wage enough to sustain decent life - things like slavery and forced labour are bound to cause a backlash, sooner or later there will be unrest and popular uprising. To build a sustainable society we need to pay workers a decent wage, globally. Now, these are my personal opinions, plain and honest.) Then what about the carrots? Sure they are more nice than buying a piece of dead animal? Well but again, where are the carrots farmed and how? Did they use some methods which yield good harvest for five years but then lead to severe soil erosion? Believe it or not, but without a decent layer of fertile top-soil we are all doomed. If we'd go back to the traditional moral language, I'd say that causing irreversible soil erosion is a bigger sin than rearing sheep for food, especially if the animal rearing is organized in a sustainable and more or less animal-friendly way. (What are the farming methods possibly causing irreversible soil erosion, I leave that question outside of this blog entry. But, just as a side-note, I'm afraid there are other potential long-term problems hidden in some aspects of modern agro-bussiness. Seed and genome ownership, and dependency on commercially produced pesticides and fertilizers, just to name few. There are megacorporations seeking to make insanely high profits on grabbing more and more elements of global food production under their business empire. This, again, is not necessarily bad in itself, but again I'm slightly worried about the possible long-term sustainability, both socially and ecologically.)
So do we have an answer now? Erkka has no opinion on moral principles, he is primarily interested in practical consequences, each unique situation evaluated in detail. Sure, of course we can develop some general rules of thumb, instead of having to calculate the possible outcomes of each and every decision. For the sake of simplicity, let us again assume that there is something like 'undesirable ecological and social consequences'. (Yes, I know, different people might heavily disagree on what are the real consequences, and are they undesirable or not. I don't claim that my beliefs are the universal truth. But for me, it is enough to know that I'm measuring my personal choices against my personal judgement of consequences and their desirability.) So, for me the rules of thumb are something like 'locally grown is often better than long transportations', 'the less packaging materials the better', 'freshly caught local fish is often better than anything commercially produced', 'home-grown meat is often better than any product by a multinational mega-company.' And, these are the rules of thumb I apply to my own decision-making, I'm not going to evaluate any kind of moral superiority / inferiority of the choices the other people make.
Well, since the topic isn't exactly so very simple, let us again give a voice to the traditional moral thinking. I try to adopt the point of view of a hard-line meat is murder vegan, countering my own argumentation. Like this: 'Okay so you say that since we can't 100% avoid accidentally killing ugly spiders, you think it is okay to intentionally keep animals in captivity and then kill them for food? If you see it that way, where does it end? If it is okay to eat cute sheep and cows, is it also okay to eat dogs, cats, bears, dolphins, apes, gorillas, chimps, humans? - Surely you need to draw a line somewhere, and then you need some principles to back that line! So state your principles, otherwise I'll conclude that you are a filthy relativist who has no balls to condemn moral wrong-doing!'. What would Erkka say to that? Well, again, since the question is framed in the terminology of classical philosophy, let Erkka answer with another thought experiment - yes the classic tool of theoretical philosophy.
We have three people on a lifeboat, floating in the middle of ocean, with no means of contacting the civilized world for help. They have already ran out of supplies, drinking occasional raindrops they have managed to stay barely hydrated, but starvation is beginning to set it. Now, what should they do? The question arises, if they aim to maximize their chances of survival, would it be morally okay to sacrifice the weakest of them, so that the remaining two could drink his blood and eat his meat, hoping to stay alive long enough to be rescued? To kill a human for food - morally acceptable or not? Earlier Erkka said that he is not fond of strict moral principles, but favours to consider practical consequences. That sounds a lot like classical utilitarianism, which is notorious for appearing to say 'in the given conditions, it is okay to kill and consume a fellow human for food, as that leads to greater happiness to the maximum number of people. If the options are all three die or one is killed, two survives then the moral thing to do is to save the two'. Let me stress that this IS NOT the way I think - again, this is me just trying to express what classical utilitarianism is sometimes thought to mean. So, what is wrong with 'kill one, save two'? If you ask me, a lot hangs on how we see the consequences. So let's continue our (admittedly ugly) thought experiment. What would happen if the two kill the one and eat him? Now, the remaining two would know that they are capable of such things, and the question looms 'okay so which one of us is next'? Distrust would be in the air, they would both know that it is not safe to fall asleep while the other is awake, otherwise you'd just get killed and consumed for food. Are we sure that this kind of situation increases their chances of survival? Extra food for a few days (before it spoils in the heat), and a chilly atmosphere of distrust where the remaining two are likely to kill each other in the stale-mate. Now, the way I see is that to maximize their chances of survival, the best thing the three can do is to nurture their team-spirit and not to violate the unspoken trust on basic decency. While there are three of them, they can better scan the horizon for signs of distant vessels, they can take turns keeping guard, they have more hands to try to catch unlucky fish or aquatic birds coming too close, and so on. If you ask me, the foreseeable practical consequences favour the three staying together trying to keep each other alive as long as possible. (Woah, doesn't sound like a horrible lowly non-moral relativism? Yup, this is plain reasoning, which seemingly leads to rather reasonable consequences. That's the way I like to think.)
A final note: My first thought was to name this post 'trade-offs', as I thought to write about how I think there aren't purely 'good' nor purely 'evil' things, but that everything comes with pros and cons, and with every decision we have to weight trade-offs. The way I see it, there is no way to stay 'morally pure', so it is of little use to believe oneself as being morally pure, nor morally superior. Our hands are dirty, always. There are different ways of evaluating and weighing trade-offs, but that doesn't mean that each different way is equally good. There are different consequences to different lines of thinking and acting. Oh well. My neighbours decided to clear-cut a small area of forest right next to my yard. Seen from my front door, the clearing is to the south-east, which is approximately from where the sun rises in the winter. I'm not a big fan of clear-cutting forest, but this particular area is so small that I can live with it. The forest will regrow, although that will probably take longer than the rest of my lifetime. The edge of forest is now some 50 - 100 metres farther away from my yard, which also means that in the winter morning I will get more sunlight, as there aren't any more those treetops blocking the sunlight. So, their clear-cutting that particular area of forest was neither totally good nor totally bad thing. Considering the desirable and non-desirable consequences, the way I see it, the outcome is about 50/50. Something changed in my immediate physical surroundings, and I have no opinion if the change was towards better or worse. Things today are different than they were a month ago.
Ah, and in case the original question, after all, was 'What does Erkka think about someone else becoming vegetarian or vegan?' the answer is: sure, if you feel like it and consider it a good decision for you, then go for it!