Common sense morality — or, at least our daily practice — is strongly built on the belief that there is absolutely nothing wrong with consuming animal flesh.
The belief is that, for one reason or another, we are justified in eating animal flesh. That we hold such a belief is no mystery; the fridges of major supermarkets indicate as much. The situation, however, changes when it comes to consuming human flesh.
It is not enough to base our practice on mere moral intuition or even on culture. We need to base our conduct on rational evidence. If we are led by reason, there must be evidence to justify the distinction we make between animal and human flesh.
Typically, we tend to base our decision to eat animals on religion. The line of reasoning among religious folk is often that human beings are superior to animals because they are created in the image of God. The fact of being created in the image of God is taken to be a marker of moral difference between animals and human beings. We have duties to human beings that we do not have to animals. But there are two reasons why arguments appealing to religious claims do not usually work.
First, these arguments work only for those who already believe in the existence of the specific god. The second reason, which is far more serious, involves the observation that convincing arguments tend to be grounded in evidence.
The argument that distinguishes animals from humans based on some religious claim will fail because we still need to be convinced that a god exists. It is a better strategy to appeal to controversial pieces of evidence to justify a claim that humans are superior to animals.
Given the difficulties associated with religious arguments, some may want to invoke secular arguments. One influential argument is that human beings are superior to animals based on their cognitive abilities.
It goes something like this: human beings ought not to be eaten and animals may be eaten because human beings are rational beings. As such, the life of a human being should matter more. It is less tragic to kill an animal than it is to kill a human being.
The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it implies that we are also justified to kill and eat those human beings with inferior mental abilities. If the value of a human depends on their cognitive abilities, it should follow that we are justified to kill and even eat such a person.
If this argument is true, that the value of a human life is based strictly on their abilities to self-govern, then it fails to convince. Throughout the world, we have institutions to take care of people with serious mental limitations. Although these people have mental disabilities, we believe we have a moral duty towards them.
Another influential argument is based on the fact that animals are not part of the human community. It is easier, the argument goes, to include human beings in our moral concerns than it is to include animals.
The problem with this last argument is that it is similar to the line of reasoning used in racist and sexist logic. The racist favours those belonging their race merely because it is easier to relate to them.
The mere fact that some people are different from us does not provide a strong enough moral reason to treat them differently. Similarly, the mere fact that animals are different from us is not a good enough reason to eat them. Just as the racists and misogynists are wrong to exclude others, human beings are wrong to exclude animals from their scope of moral concern.
The above analysis is beginning to suggest that we may actually not have a strong grounding on which to exclude animals from morality. It may also suggest that we have been basing morality on morally irrelevant facts such as rationality.
If the above is true, it suggests that we may have to rethink our culture of consuming animals for food. If we are not prepared to do so, we may have to accept those who cross the line and wish to include human beings on their dinner tables.
Some thinkers have suggested reasons why we should not eat animals. These point to what they think morality should really be about.
I will consider one such argument. The thinking here takes morality to mean being concerned about happiness. Happiness involves the experience of enjoyment and the absence of suffering. We tend to think that suffering is a moral evil. I am not aware of any culture that values pain or suffering for its own sake. If suffering is evil, it is evil not just for humans but also for animals.
One has to make an argument to convince us that one pain is better than another. Typically, it is the prejudice of humanity that overlooks the suffering of animals. In this reasoning, we shouldn’t be cruel to animals in any way and, therefore, we shouldn’t kill and eat animals.
One might ask whether we are justified in eating animal flesh that was not deliberately killed. We find an animal dead and we cut it up and cook it. My response is: Would we exercise this same behaviour were we to find a dead person?
If one flesh is permissible, then all flesh ought to be permissible. Cannibalism is as wrong as it is wrong to eat animal flesh.
One last concern might be that not eating animal flesh is against some of our deeply cherished cultural practices and rituals. The simple response to this cultural argument is that we need to evaluate our cultures in the light of moral reason.
If we find that our cultures are immoral, we have all the reason to abandon them and seek noble cultures that create harmony between us and the stakeholders in the natural community.
It was once part of our modern culture to sell and own slaves. It was once part of our culture to exclude women from participating in politics and in the economy. It was once part of our culture to carry women off to marriage without their consent.
The mere fact that something is part of our culture does not make it right. The point is not to reject culture but to imagine a culture that is morally sound.
Dr Motsamai Molefe is a lecturer in the philosophy department at the University of the Witwatersrand, specialising in African philosophy and ethics