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the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
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SENTIENCE AND REASON

 

O.T. FORD

 

Nothing is simple with a sense of responsibility. Only for a steward does the question of what to eat become a fundamental examination of the structure of our society and our attitude towards the world. If we discuss the abortion debate around the dinner table, it is because the topic is relevant.

There are at least three persuasive reasons not to eat meat. Of these, humanity is probably the weakest. It is true that, if we knew that the death of an animal meant the extinction of a conscious mind, we could not cause such an extinction for the purpose of eating, not when we could just as easily eat plant food. But if we assume the consciousness of all animals, we must pay even greater attention to those of our actions which inflict upon these animals not death but suffering, for suffering is usually worse. And who among us is prepared to live a life which causes not the slightest suffering to the slightest animal? Every act we make has that potential, through our impacts on the animals themselves, on their resources, on their habitats. Often we make these acts on behalf of our own survival. And sometimes we are not even thinking of ourselves, but of other humans. If we must choose to allow the suffering of a human to prevent the suffering of another animal, we should have at least as much reason to suppose the consciousness of the other animal as we do of the human. How often can that be the case?

It is probably healthier to eat plant food. But that is only in the context of the modern lifestyle. Our ancestors became larger, stronger, more robust, better able to survive, in short healthier, by eating meat. They were active enough to burn the energy before they could make much of their own fat, and they didn't live long enough to develop cardiovascular disease. It is true, as Rouſſeau points out, that eating meat is not necessary to produce muscle mass, since the muscle mass we eat was produced almost entirely by vegetarian animals. Rouſſeau was also mostly right to deduce that we are by nature vegetarians, mostly right because we are only by nature mostly vegetarian. It would then be natural to believe it healthier to follow the ways into which we evolved, which would mean that meat would be an occasional part of our diets and no more. We could eat more meat, but we would also have to emulate our predecessors in their exercise regimens, which is not likely.

The best argument from a rational standpoint is the least satisfying from a romantic standpoint. Eating plants is much more energy efficient. If we derived our energy from plants directly, rather than eating animals after they have processed the plants, the plants would go ten times farther. Or put another way, when we eat meat, we are wasting nine tenths of the available energy. In the light of conservation, vegetarianism becomes virtually an imperative. But as with all conservation mandates, it requires a change in lifestyle, and such changes come only gradually. It is better to eat less meat, or recycle at least part of the materials used, than to alter not at all. Such incremental changes do not entitle us to boast about what we are doing to preserve natural resources, but they do make the situation slightly better than it would otherwise have been. By some lights, the impact is more than slight: every meal of meat that is not eaten is ten meals of plant foods that can be eaten. We could feed more, even all, humans, while having less of an impact on the natural world. It is thus not merely about sparing nature, but about abating hunger. Truly an exercise of stewardship. If at the same time we can live healthier lives and cause the death of fewer animals (which we must at least consider may be conscious), so much the better.

The important thing is for the progressives of the world not to fall into the trap of inconsistency. Abortion rights is virtually a matter of faith among progressives. Certain degrees of animal-rights support are quite popular opposition to fur and hunting especially. Vegetarianism is less widespread, but still frequent among progressives, and there is a large overlap between humanitarian support of vegetarianism and feminist support of abortion rights. The tenets are difficult to rectify. To do so, we must ask what exactly we are trying to accomplish, what to procure and what to prevent.

If we determine that all animals are sentient, then our obligation as stewards is to treat them with the same compassion we now show to humans. We cannot allow sentient beings to be murdered; we must therefore prevent the killing of any animal by any other animal. Our stewardship of the world will extend into the wilderness as into society, with the mandate to end predation. We will provide all former carnivores with the diet most likely to be eaten by them and to serve their nutritional needs. But we will not allow them to eat other animals. If they starve, we will view that as a choice they are consciously making, to cling foolishly to tradition in the face of suffering.

If we protect the life of a newborn fawn, on the grounds of sentience, we must protect the life of a nine-month-old fetus, for all evidence will suggest that a human is mentally more advanced before birth than most animals are long after birth, and perhaps ever. We must determine at what point sentience begins, and prohibit abortion back to that point. But it is likely to be very early in pregnancy.

Few conservationists would have us micromanage wilderness to save deer from natural predation. Few feminists would have us ban abortion to save a human fetus of either gender. As a conservationist, I support the return of natural processes to preeminence in the wild; we cannot defeat nature, as history has made clear. As a feminist, I support full abortion rights; we must not compel individuals to use their bodies in a way contrary to their wishes.

But these things are possible for me because I do not believe that the consciousness of a fetus or a deer is the same as my own, and I am not prepared to extend it the same protection. Some day we may know otherwise. Until then, we can only use our best judgement.

As sentient creatures, we are afraid of suffering and jealous of our consciousness. We would avoid suffering and prolong our lives. All animals will defend their health and freedom, and we are among them. We can preserve that right to self-defense whenever possible; but we know that the health and especially the freedom of one animal may come at the expense of another. When we take sides, determine whose health and freedom to favor, our first criterion is sentience. We aim to protect those whose consciousness resembles ours, to protect ourselves and those whose similarity of experience arouses our empathy, and thus our compassion. If we are vigilant as a society against those who would cause suffering to the sentient or even deprive them of life, we relieve ourselves somewhat of the need to be perpetually vigilant for ourselves. It is a pragmatic policy, as hard as that may be to accept. If I had been murdered as an infant I could not care. If I were murdered suddenly and painlessly tomorrow I could not care. Neither of those prospects involves physical suffering or even mental anguish. It is the day-to-day fear of losing my life or being made to suffer that is anguishing, and that we most need to prevent.

The argument that murder ends the potential of life would be just as valid to suggest that every fertile female should be producing as many babies as physically possible. Those otherwise-unconceived persons are potential human lives, and who knows what great deeds they might have accomplished. If we worry about potential sentience we will devolve almost instantaneously into absurdities.

Let us be rational and realistic. We can humanely end the suffering of any animal if doing so lies in our immediate power, but we should not regulate nature. We can provide peace of mind to the sentient by preserving a state of peace among those known to be sentient, but only to lessen the burden of suspicion and the chance of unnecessary violence. We can never do right by every conscious being, even if, as stewards, we strongly wish to do so.

 

O.T. FORD

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