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Moral status and lunch

barely functional

Is it morally permissible to kill an animal for food?

I’m not asking about extreme situations where it’s me and a chicken alone on an island, and only one of us can survive until help arrives. I’m also not talking about encountering an animal that is already dead and considering whether or not to have a roadkill barbecue. I’m talking about everyday scenarios, where I have the choice between eating a hamburger or a bean burrito. The animals that our species eats for food are certainly not sapient, but they are almost certainly sentient—it definitely feels like something to be a pig, chicken, or cow on the way to becoming a ham, nugget or steak. Does this fact mean that we are obligated to respect their lives, and therefore not eat them? Most people to whom I ask this dismiss the concept and ask me to pass them some more beef.

Let me ask a different, easier question: Is it morally permissible to kill a human for food?

Again, I am not considering extreme or unusual situations, like a shipwrecked crew who become an island of cannibals. I am asking whether or not it is acceptable for me to keep human beings in my house, feed them for some time, and then slaughter and eat them. This is not a difficult question. Humanity is in virtually unanimous agreement that the answer is "no." (If you’re not sure, please let someone know before you get hungry.)

If, as most people would likely say, it is morally permissible to kill animals, but not humans, for food, it would then stand to reason that there is some difference between humans and animals that accounts for their different privileges. It has been the quest of many philosophers and ethicists to identify this difference for some time.

An obvious starting point is the fact that other humans are members of our species, while our livestock are not. But I would argue that this difference in anatomy or genetics doesn’t explain the different moral statuses of humans and their food. If tomorrow Earth was visited by an alien species who began farming and eating humans for food, we would likely—and understandably—protest. If species determined moral status, the aliens could dismiss our concerns: We are a different species than them, and therefore it’s morally permissible aliens to kill and eat humans. The reverse is also true—we could travel to the aliens’ planet and begin farming them and still commit no injustice. I’d imagine that most humans would not be satisfied with that reasoning.

The fact that the aliens in the last example were able to communicate with us leads us to a common second explanation. Perhaps some level of intelligence, creativity or other quality only present in human beings, and not species itself, is what puts a pig on the menu and a person off of it. For lack of a more precise term, perhaps only humans possess a “soul” that we are obligated not to harm.

I find this explanation unsatisfactory as well. This kind of moral standard is far from objective or consistent. While it’s clear that the average human is certainly more ‘soulful’ than the average animal, there’s considerable overlap. I’ve seen paintings done by Duke Lemurs that exceed my own artistic abilities, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make me okay to eat. I have a 21-month-old cousin who I don’t wish to think of as food, but it’s no stretch to say that many animals are smarter than human babies. No matter what special quality one might choose, it’s possible to find an animal that possesses it in greater amounts than a human. Attempts to save this distinction usually collapse into a species-based rule for who has moral status.

There may be other good explanations for why it’s morally permissible to eat animals, and I’d like to hear them if they are out there. For anyone who starts looking for them, remember to keep in mind that it could be the case that eating animals simply doesn’t fit within human values of compassion and nonviolence. For now, that’s what I have chosen to believe.

Eidan Jacob is a Trinity junior. His column, "barely functional" runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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