17 April 2018

On walking away

I assume many readers have read or heard of Ursula Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (summary and discussion here, full text here).  The story describes a utopian city whose continuing good fortune somehow depends on keeping a single child in perpetual misery.  Most of the inhabitants accept the situation rather than give up the happiness and prosperity this bizarre bargain affords them; others, unable to stomach it but apparently powerless to change it, simply leave Omelas -- walk away.

Most present-day humans live in Omelas.  Most present-day humans eat animal flesh in various forms, a practice important enough to them that they would not consider giving it up, even though they are at least vaguely aware that the industry which supplies this food inflicts enormous suffering on countless millions of self-aware creatures.

I started "walking away" almost a decade ago, starting with renouncing pig flesh after learning that pigs are much more intelligent (and in that sense more similar to humans and more capable of suffering) than the other animals we commonly use for food in the West.  Eventually I gave up eating meat entirely, motivated less by abstract moral arguments than by simple abhorrence.  Knowing that the differences between humans and other self-aware animals are quantitative rather than qualitative, I knew that their suffering also is fundamentally similar in kind to our own.  I've seen others come to similar conclusions.  I don't know much, nor particularly care, about all the arguments over whether animals "have rights".  I simply couldn't stomach continued complicity in a practice which doesn't actually benefit us humans much and is based on the infliction of endless misery on a colossal scale.

I know very well, of course, that my own decision not to eat meat any more doesn't do any actual good; it doesn't at all reduce the suffering of a single farm animal (similarly, those who "walked away" in Le Guin's story were not actually doing the tormented child any good), and is thus morally meaningless.  I've always been contemptuous of people who, in politics, seem to value their own sense of moral purity and non-complicity more than achieving practical results -- the kind of person who refuses to vote for a not-good-enough Democrat and thus contributes to the victory of a Republican who will inflict concrete harm which could have been avoided if the Democrat had won.  I don't claim that my refusal to be complicit in animal suffering is morally superior or significant, since it does nothing concrete to relieve that suffering.  For that reason, I don't "preach" at people who continue to eat meat (not that that would do any concrete good either -- scolding almost never works and is more likely to turn people off).  I'm simply responding to my own personal revulsion.

I do think there's value in trying to spread awareness of the issue, in a strictly educational and non-preachy way, including the benefits which abandoning meat consumption would have for humans (more efficient agriculture, for example).  Vegetarianism is spreading, little by little, at least in advanced countries.  When we reach the point that animal-abusive farming actually starts to shrink in scope because of decreasing demand, that's what will constitute moral progress.


Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

The choice whether or not to eat meat is a person one. I've cut way back on my meat consumption for health reasons but I do still eat some meat.

18 April, 2018 07:26  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's hard to come by educated people on this subject, but you sound
like you know what you're talking about! Thanks

18 April, 2018 15:33  
Blogger Adam said...

I haven't eaten meat since I was about 7. While it doesn't help any living creatures, vegetarians have certainly lessened the demand for more livestock to be born, so that they could be slaughtered later.

19 April, 2018 05:57  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary: Every bit helps.

Anon: Thanks.

Adam: Well, you were about 40 years ahead of me there.

19 April, 2018 18:39  

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