Moral Minority

Readers Ask Haaretz: Can I Be an Ethical Carnivore?

Also: A detailed response to one of the questions that was posed to us by Amira Hass, in a recent column

Independence Day. Dr. Melanie Joy makes the case that the justifications cited by meat eaters are often ludicrous and contradictory.
Olivier Fitoussi

If you don't know how to behave in a certain situation, if you need friendly advice but you've already driven all your sane friends away or if you've got the kind of embarrassing question that can only be asked anonymously, send a mail to: mechlak.musar@gmail.com.

Our answers will be generous and honest – but should not be seen as replacement for professional consultations. Obviously.

Dear Haaretz,

Can you name a single moral justification for eating meat, or are vegetarians and vegans truly more good than carnivores?

Yours truly,

A somewhat tormented carnivore

Dear Tormented,

This is a succinct and loaded question, and the answer to it is succinct and painful: In today’s reality, there is no moral justification whatsoever for eating meat. I’m pretty sure that vegetarians and carnivores alike agree on this, and it’s only a question of how much each one permits himself to deviate from what he knows in his heart is right. In her book “The Cow in the Room: The Psychology of Eating Meat,” Dr. Melanie Joy makes the case that the justifications cited by meat eaters are often ludicrous and contradictory. She posits that the conflict between our values and our behavior gives rise to a certain degree of moral discomfort. Your question clearly reflects this.

The British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who is regarded as the founder of utilitarianism, wrote in 1780 concerning the welfare of animals that “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?” This sentence appears in a footnote in his “Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation,” and animal rights advocates love to quote it. But it bears mentioning that the utilitarian view does not categorically rule out the eating of meat, but it examines it in terms of utilitarian and moral principles. From this perspective: Industrial breeding of animals causes the deaths of more than 75 billion animals worldwide each year, including more than 230 million in Israel, not counting fish and other marine creatures.

The manner of breeding, confinement, transport and slaughter of these animals causes them much suffering. And this suffering does not serve their interest. The amount of suffering that would be caused by the cessation of this whole process is much, much less. Therefore, it is not moral. However, according to the utilitarian outlook, if an animal is living a comfortable life and is killed in a painless manner by people who would otherwise starve to death , eating it is moral. Whether or not we agree, you and I and most people on earth today are not eating meat under such circumstances.

As to the question of whether animals are capable of suffering, the answer, as you must know, is unequivocal: Not only can they suffer, they can also love, mourn and protest injustice. In an interview with Israel’s Calcalist, the eminent animal behaviorist Frans de Waal cites numerous examples: Wolves that eat more than their fair exhibit guilty behavior and the other members of the pack won’t play with them. Rats will refuse food if they understand that other rats will suffer as a result, and fish exhibit distinctive personalities. Other studies have shown that cows can have best friends that they like to stand next to in the pasture, becoming anxious when separated. Chickens? Studies have shown that they feel fear and empathy — for example, when chicks show signs of stress, the mother hen show signs of tension, and the mother’s presence also calms the chicks. If you ask me, if the answer isn’t considered obvious by now and more animal experiments are said to be needed to prove it, then it’s the humans that have an empathy problem.

All this refers only to suffering caused to animals despite the fact that we could live quite well without eating them. For space reasons, I did not go into the vast damage that commercial animal farming has done to the planet: greenhouse gases, air and water pollution, deforestation and much more, which are also part of the moral equation. Perhaps there is at least a certain poetic justice here — global warning is the earth’s way of striking back, something most animals on industrial farms cannot do.

For all of these reasons, I do not see that there can be any moral justification for eating meat in the present circumstances. The question of what you do with that is another thing, and that is your decision, but moral justification won’t be available to you. (Alas, none of us operates totally purely and morally.) By the way, it might not surprise you to learn that back in the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham also supported equal rights for women and decriminalization of homosexuality. Women’s rights and gay rights have come a long way since then, and society’s views of both as inferior creatures have also changed to some degree. Maybe this bodes well for animals too.

Amira Hass’ ethical dilemmas

This week, our dear Amira Hass threw down the gauntlet and posed to this column some of the ethical dilemmas she must contend with in her journalistic work in the occupied territories. I wouldn’t presume to be able to advise one of the few Israeli women who dares to fight the occupation on such a relentless daily basis, but with all my affection for her I couldn’t just ignore her queries, so I will briefly address one question.

Reader Amira Hass asks: In the fenced-in entry area to the Ofer military courthouse there are about a hundred small storage lockers. The Palestinians are required to deposit their personal belongings in them. These are lockers of the type you find in museums, only in museums you get your money back, while at the Israeli military court, the coin remains inside. Just another way that we’ve come up with for collecting money from the Palestinians to cover the costs of their oppression. I usually end up parting with 5 shekels this way too, and I wonder what they will be used to buy: buttons for the uniform of a soldier who raids a house in the middle of the night and frightens the children living in it? Ink for the text on a teargas launcher, teargas that has already killed protesters? ... And the last time I was there, when I was approaching the storage locker in the fenced-in lobby, before the entrance cage, the commander in charge called out to me, in a friendly tone: “Come, you can put your phone in our lockers, inside.” In the staff room, for free. In other words, preferential treatment for the Jew. So here is my question: Is it better to enrich the occupation by five shekels, or to accept preferential treatment from it?

Amira, as you know, an Israeli citizen can hardly take a deep breath without it funding the occupation in some way. You bought bread in the grocery, you paid income tax, you took a course at the university: You funded the occupation. The rebellion could start with these 5 shekels, which certainly involve a distortion of justice of the kind often favored by the Israeli regime in the territories, but in your case, you are paying the five shekels for a much more important purpose of covering what goes on in these places, and the loss of the 5 shekels is trivial compared to the benefit gained from the media coverage.

This is all the more true because you are being offered this benefit as a Jew, as you noted. The desire to cooperate with the soldiers for the purpose of easing the suffering of Palestinians could lead to the opposite result. For example, in their fascinating article, Merav Amir and Hagar Kotef showed how the (commendable and important) activism of the women of Machsom Watch actually led to the checkpoints becoming more entrenched and fortified. Moreover, in your case, you are receiving the benefit not just as a Jew but also as a journalist, and it is my opinion that journalists should do their utmost to avoid accepting favors from and becoming overly friendly with the subjects of their coverage, especially when it comes to military people and businesspeople and politicians.

But the most important point I want to raise is this: Amira, don’t be a nave little tree-hugger in pigtails! There’s a very good chance that the commander suggested that you leave your phone with him not to do you a favor, but in order to install some kind of sophisticated surveillance and tracking device on it. Beware friendly offers from military types and keep doing your holy work.

If you don't know how to behave in a certain situation, if you need friendly advice but you've already driven all your sane friends away or if you've got the kind of embarrassing question that can only be asked anonymously, send a mail to: mechlak.musar@gmail.com.

Our answers will be generous and honest – but should not be seen as replacement for professional consultations. Obviously.